Tag Archives: Science

TEXT MSSG: “Your milk is starting to spoil. Dump & replace it.”

trinity materials scientists

Jonathan Coleman (center) and materials science team members at Trinity College, Dublin. (Photo: Trinity)

 

Imagine getting a text on your phone advising you that the milk carton in your fridge is almost empty (so it’s time to order, or pick up, a new one!), or that the milk in that carton is starting to spoil. It is extremely likely that will not only be possible, but be happening before you’ve experienced too many more birthdays.

A team of materials scientists at Trinity College in Dublin have figured out how to make that happen; They just need more time to work out some critical details, Smithsonian.com reported this week. Citing a more technical report published this month in the journal Science, Smithsonian noted that the key is a first-ever 2-D transistor made of a form of graphite – a natural material “that’s dug out of the ground,” said as leader Jonathan Coleman put it. The honeycomb lattice of carbon they’re working with is has a depth of one atom, making it suitable for an “unimaginable” range of potential uses, Coleman said.

One would be that milk carton label. Others could – and likely will – include supermarket price labels that update themselves, wine bottle labels that can warn you when the bottles (and thus the wine) are being stored in too warm a location.

Perhaps best of all, the new 2-D printed electronics are cheaper than current versions, and they don’t have the same performance limitations having to do with stability and energy conversion.

If you can print electronics very cheaply, you can imagine things that are almost unimaginable,” Coleman said.

Consumers Want ‘Clean’ Food Labels; Now Professionals’ Tool Helps Them Define What Is, Isn’t, ‘Clean’

 

Every so often (every fifteen minutes or so, it sometimes seems!), a new food-related ‘buzz word’ catches the ear of consumers – sometimes almost at the same time it attracts the attention of food industry professionals. Not long ago, the ‘new’ word, or phrase, was ‘clean labels‘ – meaning, among other things, labels free of multi-syllable, unpronounceable words naming ingredients no one without a science degree can understand.

Consumers want ‘clean’ labels – and the products behind them to be healthier, less likely to initiate or compound health issues, than too many existing products are, or appear to be.

Complex additives are put into food products for an assortment of reasons, including flavor enhancement (salt and other spices being good examples), an ability to hold various ingredients in a liquid, semi-liquid or solid formula (emulsifiers and stabilizers), and shelf life-extending (salt again, as well as other things). Some of these reasons have seemed to make sense to product producers, but increasingly, they make less if any sense to consumers. That, and the fact that consumers are increasingly demanding healthier, ‘greener’ foods, are leading causes of the clean label movement.

The tool at https://gocleanlabel.com/about/ was created by a professional for professionals, but consumers, too, can use it to learn more about the clean label movement and, more specifically, to answer questions they have about specific ingredients. Questions such as ‘what is this’ and ‘what is it meant to do’. You also can use it to identify still-being-used materials that are, or aren’t, ‘clean’.

Both food processors and retailers are making strong steps to ensure fewer potentially harmful (or simply unnecessary) chemicals are added to foodstuffs. Undoubtedly, there are people who feel the industry isn’t moving fast enough – people who would, in effect, throw the baby out with the bathwater: Good chems out with not-so-good (or absolutely bad!) ones.

Ultimately, members of the consuming public need to take a greater interest in educating themselves about food additives, and learn how to make reasoned decisions about what they’re OK with putting in their bodies, and what they’re not.

I am working on a feature (for fooddive.com) about the new nutrition label that has been developed by the FDA. It is tentatively scheduled to become mandatory on a majority of food products (all except those produced in relatively small volumes) in 2018. But there’s already some push-back from at least one organization, and you can expect more push-back as a result of what we can only imagine will be dramatic, drastic changes of direction by the incoming presidential administration.

The thrust of my piece concerns the fact that changes to the nutrition label, while very much a separate issue from the overall additives one, reflect the fact that both industry, which had a hand in shaping the proposed label, and government are struggling – and that is not too strong a word – to deal with increasing scientific knowledge about foods and with changing consumer expectations.

As a courtesy to the readers of this blog, I will post a short note when my fooddive.com feature on that topic is published. (FYI, I write regularly on ingredients for fooddive.com. And as I’ve done for most of the past 40 years, I also regularly scan food trade publications – and now, web sites, too – around the world for both industry trends and consumer attitude shifts for this blog, which originated in the mid 1970’s as a column for trade publications in the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.)

(By the way, between them, this blog and my other one, YouSayWHAT.info, have been read in no fewer than 80 countries in the last year!)

Seaweed-based stabilizer/emulsifier Banned for Organic Foods in U.S.

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It’s called carrageenan, and if you closely read content labels, you’ll notice it’s in a lot of things – as a thickener, an emulsifier (to help hold other ingredients in the appropriate mix), and as a stabilizer. It’s also said to increase shelf life – a feature of questionable value, given that food processors often are best-guessing the long-term viability of their products when they put ‘best by’ or ‘use by’ dates on them.

(I still have a too-large bottle of dry curry that is in the neighborhood of 20 [or more!] years old. While it no doubt is not as potent as it once was, it’s still a viable product in my kitchen – able to contribute both flavor and heat to dishes without resulting in, as an un-viable spice might, stomach distress or worse.)

The U.S.D.A.’s National Organics Standards Board (NOSB) ruled last week that, as of 2018, carrageenan will no longer be allowed in products labeled as ‘organic’.

Does that mean carrageenan is ‘dangerous’, or that it potentially poses some kind of threat to consumers? Not necessarily. For all intents and purposes, that ruling simply acknowledges that, because it is exposed, during processing, to chemicals that fall outside the definition of ‘organic’. Carrageenan will continue to be used as a product-building aid in processed foods not, as no ‘processed food’ could be, described as ‘organic’.

Carrageenan is derived from a type of seaweed harvested primarily in the Philippines, Indonesia and East Africa. During commercial processing, it is exposed to assorted chemicals so it ends up as a fine powder, in no way resembling seaweed one might encounter ‘in the wild’.

CivilEats.com has a highly informative article on carrageenan here.

I can’t help but wonder what what kind of ‘organic’ product would need a stabilizer or an emulsifier. So I also can’t help but wonder why the U.S.D.A.’s National Organics Standards Board agonized – as they apparently did, not over just months, but years – as to whether carrageenan should in any way be associated with something said to be ‘organic’.

I don’t, as my wife would say, git it.

Organics now represent in the neighborhood of 11% of all produce sold (at retail) in the U.S. And organics’ share-of-market is growing – just as, hardly coincidentally, processed foods sales are slipping down an icy slope. The reason is simple: Not just Millennials, but older generations, too, are fed up with ingredients labels full of ‘stuff’ they can’t even pronounce and have no clue what it is or why it’s there. A sizable number of them have taken stands against the likes of Red No. 40, Yellow No. 5 and Blue No. 1 – synthetic colorings used to make food look better. They have, so far as we know, no effect on taste, but opposers of them contend they might affect us in some other, nefarious way.

(A quick aside: Why, pray tell, do forty or more shades of red exist, as food colorings? Or five or more shades of yellow? And not one of them a pastel!)

It is truly frightening to think of the tens of bunches of money being wasted on [1] developing all those odd colors and their counterparts in other food ingredients and [2] investigating and regulating same. Part of the problem is, of course, we have more people than viable jobs.

When I lived in England, from 1971-76, in the first of the offices I worked (for a year), every so often – I think it was weekly, but perhaps it was bi-weekly – an employee of a contractor came in and wiped down all the telephone handsets, probably aided by something less potent than the sprays restaurant servers use on tables between guests. On the first such visit I witnessed, I was astonished, and I was astonished again every time I saw this ritual repeated. It seemed perfectly pointless, and a waste of my employer’s money, to engage someone to provide this ‘service’.

Yet here we are in 2016, when a significant majority of U.S. supermarkets have a sanitary lotion dispenser available just inside the door – so no one should have to (heaven forbid!) touch a cart handle they haven’t subjected to a sanitary wipe-down after wiping down their own hands! (What have the most obsessed of those shoppers been doing/touching before entering their local food dispenser’s shop?)

It’s partly because some shoppers/consumers do think that way that the NOSB has banned carrageenan from ‘organics’. That seaweed—sourced ingredient probably poses no harm to humans, but better safe than sorry, right?

Litigation lawyers would, of course, disagree.

Organics Now Close to 11% of All U.S.-sold Produce

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You needn’t have been paying a lot of attention to notice, over the past few years, more and more of the offerings in food store produce sections are organic products. Everything from apples to strawberries is increasingly being raised in ways not depending on pesticides, or artificial fertilizers, or other means at odds with nature’s own way of producing things from the ground, trees, and bushes.

Among the latest growers to announce a big organics push is potato and onion provider Potandon Produce, based in Idaho Falls ID. The company this week announced it is now offering organically grown red and yellow potatoes from fields in North Dakota.

Ralph Schwartz, the company’s vice president of sales, said that these are the first organic potatoes to be grown commercially in North Dakota, and plans already are underway to increase acreage next year in anticipation of growing consumer demand.

Fresh produce has always been and will continue to be the gateway for organics,” he said in a company release. “We’ve watched as organic products, especially produce items, have shifted from being a lifestyle choice for a small share of consumers to [being] mainstream for a majority of Americans.”

China Aiming to Develop ‘Spaced-Out’ Varietal Wines

China is aiming to produce some really spacey wines – vin via vines nurtured to fruition, or at least into new wine varietals, in their country’s newest space lab, labeled Tiangong-2. The aim is to see which, if any, varietals of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinot noir might be able to produce new and plentiful generations of wine in some of the toughest-to-grow-wine-in territories on earth – including the sun-scorched Gobi desert, the high-altitude foothills of the Tibetan plateau, and the rocky slopes of Ningxia Province.

Decanter-China, a bilingual website about the local wine industry, reported recently that,

“Chinese scientists hope that growing the vines in space for a short time will trigger mutations that may make the plants more suitable for the harsh climate in some of the China’s emerging vineyard regions.

In particular, scientists want to see whether genetic mutations in space make the vines more resistant to cold, drought and some viruses.

Chinese growers in some areas, such as Ningxia, have to bury their vines in winter to protect them from freezing temperatures.

The vines came from a nursery based in Ningxia’s Helan Mountain East region, one of China’s most renowned quality wine regions, reported Ningxia local media.

The nursery is owned by the Chenggong Group, which has been importing vines from France’s Mercier Group since 2013.

In October, China will send two male astronauts to Tiangong-2 via the Shenzhou 11 spaceflight to perform research for 30 days, according to China National Space Administration.

When the vines return to earth, they will be compared to a control group in  the Ningxia nursery.

The Guardian reported that an oenologist named Li Hua visited a valley in the foothills of the Tibetan plateau. The area was better known for its panda population, but Li realized that the area’s high altitude, many hours of sunshine, sandy soil and low precipitation also offered ideal conditions for growing grapes.

Freezing temperatures and unfavourable soil are among the most serious challenges facing wine producers in places such as Ningxia, an impoverished region at the heart of China’s nascent wine industry with punishing -25C (-13F)winters.

Decanter said researchers hoped exposure to “space radiation” might trigger genetic changes in the vines that would help them “evolve new resistance to coldness, drought and viruses”.

The website said the vines were sourced from a nursery near Ningxia’s Helan mountain, a region local politicians tout as China’s Bordeaux.

After returning to earth the samples will undergo tests and be compared to other vines in order to find the most “suitable mutation”.

China’s rapid economic rise has transformed it not only intothe world’s number two economy but also one of its top wine producers.

The Asian giant now consumes more red wine than any other country and has more vineyards than France. Estates are popping up from the frosty northeastern province of Liaoning to the scorching deserts of Xinjiang.

“The best Chinese wine I’ve ever tasted in my life is produced just outside of Beijing,” Fongyee Walker, a China-based wine specialist, said in a recent interview. “Beautiful wine… Blind tasting you wouldn’t even know they were Chinese.”

Walker, the director of Beijing’s Dragon Phoenix Wine Consulting, said that for wine drinking to really take off inChina it needed to lose its aura of pomposity.

“I grew up eating Chinese food and I grew up drinking wine and I came here and was like: ‘Why does no-one just drink wine with jaozi [dumplings]?’” said Walker, who recently became mainland China’s first Master of Wine.

“So much of it is that myth of: ‘You have to be dressed up and you have to use a corkscrew and you have to do this and you have to do that,’” she added. “And I said, ‘Look, you can drink your wine from a beer glass and you can eat it with zhajiangmian [noodles] on the street corner.’ It’s a liquid for goodness sake! Get over it.”

On top of their wine-related research, Xinhua, Beijing’s official news wire, said astronauts would use the Tiangong space lab to “carry out key experiments related to in-orbit equipment repairs, aerospace medicine, space physics and biology, such as quantum key distribution, atomic space clocks and solar storm research”.