Category: Food science

‘GMOs Decoded’ –Krimsky’s latest screed

‘GMOs Decoded’ –Krimsky’s latest screed

GMOs Decoded is Tufts Professor Sheldon Krimsky’s latest skeptical discussion on the virtues of plant biotechnology. Unlike his previous book, The GMO Deception, Krimsky here appears at first to take a more nuanced approach, by taking about eight of his fourteen chapters to explain the details of various biotechnology issues.

The book opens with a Foreword by nutritionist Marion Nestle, which you can read here in her column. Nestle has never been a fan of biotechnology so her comments are fairly anodyne.

Then, in the Introduction, gives away the game by noting that “there is a strong scientific consensus among elites over GMOs.” He goes on to say that “Although some scientists have declared the debate…over,” referencing Jon Entine’s Forbes article which references von Eenennaam and Young’s trillion animal feed study, This major study in the Journal of Animal Science studies feed records for over 100 billion animals fed either GE or non-GE foods, and found no unfavorable effects on the animals.

Then Krimsky notes that “other scientists declare with equal confidence that there is no scientific consensus on GMO safety.” His reference is to a paper in the trivial non-journal Environmental Sciences Europe, by prominent GMO disinformationists: Nicholas DeFarge, Michael Antoniou from Seralini’s group, and Indian pseudo-science mystic Vandana Shiva, among others. The paper presents no research but merely a report on a petition signed by “300 scientists worldwide.” (I have that list and most of the signatories are not scientists.)

The Seralini problem

Critiques of biotechnology, or colloquially “GMOs,” really was heightened by Giles-Eric Seralini’s 2012 paper in Food and Chemical Toxicology featuring tumor-laden Sprague-Dawley rats: Long-term toxicity of Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically-modified maize.” Even the title made the objective confusing.  Wayne Parrott’s criticism describes the paper’s problems clearly.

The paper had so many problems from animal husbandry to poor experimental design that protests and a re-review caused the journal to withdraw the paper. It was eventually reprinted (without review) in Environmental Sciences Europe where you can find it now.

Seralini’s group has continued to publish papers critical of biotechnology, all of questionable validity, and many very difficult to follow. His co-workers and colleagues have been publishing these papers ever since, and Brazeau has dubbed them the “Seralini pseudo-science syndicate.” And none of his lab’s papers have been replicated be others.

The footnotes

You can learn a great deal about a book’s approach by scanning the footnotes, which occupy pages 156-181 in Krimsky’s book. It doesn’t take long to discover that the footnotes are larded with 15 references to Seralini’s disinformation machine.

Charles Benbrook who was for a few years at Washington State University, but whose salary was paid by the Organic Center and has close ties anti-GMO activists, appears in 5 footnotes, and his paper (published in a predatory pay-to-play journal) claiming negative impacts of GM crops has been roundly debunked by Brookes, Carpenter and McHughen.

Jonathan Latham, publisher and author of the anti-biotech Independent Science News appears twice arguing that transgenic plants can sometimes mutate dangerously. He has been severely criticized by Katiree.

There are, however, many footnotes to well-regarded sources such as Brown and Federoff’s Mendel in the Kitchen and papers by legitimate scientists like Wayne Parrott and Alessandro Nicolia, for example.

The chapters

The book starts out soberly as an outline of various genetic breeding techniques: traditional, molecular and their differences. Chapter 4 details difficulty in producing the Flavr-Savr tomato and FrostBan  bacteria. Chapter 5 covers herbicide resistant  crops and brings up no-till farming, which can improve soil health. However, it suggests that herbicide resistant weeds may require tilling. However, this has obvious solutions in crop rotation. The chapter also brings up Benbrook’s discredited paper claiming increases in herbicide use that are significantly overstated. This chapter also brings up the IARCs discredited claim that glyphosate can cause cancer.

Chapter 6 fairly and accurately covers disease resistant crops, but in Chapter 7 covering insect resistant crops, Krimsky goes afield in his summary of Starlink Corn, spending  several pages scaring us, only to finally report that there was no evidence that Starlink corn caused any illnesses. Krimsky then cites Antoniou and Robinson from Seralini’s stable to claim GM-fed rats suffered liver and kidney damage in a 3-generation study that you can safely ignore.

Chapter 8 on GMO Risk Assessment makes claims that “scientists differ,” but suffers from a dearth of supporting footnotes on who and what these differences are. There is a lot of “some groups” but “other groups” but little supporting explanation.

Chapter 9 on Contested Viewpoints argues that trans-genes may be placed differently and could result in plants having different properties, including varying toxicity, but cites Latham twice and actual scientists in Kuiper et. al. You have to actually check the papers to see that there is little to be concerned about here. He also raises the question of whether pre-market testing is actually done, as if this is not a requirement for approval. Krimsky also gets “substantial equivalence” wrong, but Kuiper explains it clearly.

  • Substantial Equivalence is a starting point for a safety assessment
  • Make a comparison between the GM organism and its closes traditional counterpart.
  • Identify intended or unintended difference on which further safety assessment should be focused.

By contrast, Krimsky says that a transgenic crop and its conventional counterpart about which toxicology information is known are compared. “When extensively analyzed, if the transgenic crop exhibits no changes …compared to its parent strain it can be treated as substantially equivalent to that strain. After that determination is made, further safety or nutritional concerns are expected to be insignificant.”

This is just not the same idea at all!

The chapter also mentions a 13-week pilot study on the effect of Roundup on the gut microbiome of rats in a study performed by the Ramazzini institute in Italy. While they did claim to find some changes in the microbiome, the Ramazzini institute seems to have a spotty reputation, having been criticized for poor reliability in another recent study on aspartame, and in the glyphosate case, Brazeau criticizes them for finding “results that match their priors but not anyone else’s research.” (They also did a questionable report on cell phone radiation.)

Much of the rest of the chapter deals with worries that have never been found to be an actual problem.

Chapter 10 rehashes all the arguments for labeling GMOs and some of the issues various states have encountered, closing with the fact that Congress passed a “labeling law” that amounts to a QR code you can scan with your phone, and is thus pretty harmless.

Chapter 11 deals with the 2016 National Academies Study on Genetically Engineered Crops. Krimsky admits that the evidence of the report reinforces the fact that GM crops are safe to eat and do not pose any risks. However he carefully picks advantageous quotes to suggest that biotechnology does not improve yields. One would wonder why famers are then willing to pay more for them. If you read through the report or its summary you will find a number of carefully written conclusions suggesting that it is mostly difficult to measure the effects of yield because it is difficult to find identical cropland to compare GM and non-GM crops, and whether the GM and non-GM varieties were true isolines to be comparable. The report also discusses the strategy for preventing evolution of herbicide reisistant weeds and Bt resistant insects.

In fact, the report suggests that in the U.S. and in China, insect-pest populations “are reduced regionally and that this benefits both adopters and nonadopters of Bt crops.” And it is important to note that Bt brinjal (eggplant, or aubergine) has significantly improved farmers’ lives in both Bangladesh and India.

Krimsky also spends 3 pages defending Seralini’s disgraced paper, claiming that was “not a carcinogenicity study” to defend the small number of rats used. In fact, critics have said that Seralini’s paper had no particular objective in advance and he let the S-D rats grow until they naturally developed tumors and published their pictures.

Finally, Krimsky attacks the integrity of the NASEM panel itself, pointing to a reference that claims 6 out of 20 members had conflicting financial interests. Of course that paper is by Krimksy himself.

Chapter 12 discusses the development of Golden Rice, which the author calls a “promise unfulfilled.” It has now been approved by the US FDA, however.

Chapter 13 discusses conflict among scientists regarding GMOs as if it actually existed. The overwhelming worldwide consensus, including every major national scientific association, is that GM crops pose no harm. He mentions “uncertain risks,” and the “GMO divide” which he himself has tried to manufacture. He recycles the canard that “farmers do no own their own seeds” as if hybrid seeds had never before existed, and of course mentions international crackpot Vandana Shiva who questions  patenting living organisms. Oh, and don’t forget “corporate hegemonic control.”

Chapter 14 presents Krimsky’s completely expected, but erroneous summation. He attacks the values of science and “trans-scientific concepts,” (whatever they are!). He suggests that “it’s an evolving story in India,” despite the overwhelming success of Bt brinjal, and questions whether yields actually improve. Of course he trots out Robin Mesnage, one of Seralini’s henchmen to argue that corn (maize) sprayed with Roundup produces different metabolites, and claims farmers have untold economic losses because of unexpected GM contamination.

Conclusion

Krimsky starts out soberly enough trying to explain the various techniques that have been developed and some of their successes. But he can’t help himself, and by Chapter 5 he is back beating the same poor old horse, and gradually slipping more misinformation into each succeeding chapter. Nothing really new here, unfortunately.

 

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Sheldon Krimsky publishes more anti-GMO malarkey

Sheldon Krimsky publishes more anti-GMO malarkey

This 2015 review is being republished in advance of my forthcoming review of Krimsky’s latest book.

Sheldon Krimsky, Professor of Humanities & Social Sciences at Tufts University has published another in a series of articles and books attacking the safety of genetically modified plants (GMOs). Professor Krimsky’s appointment is in the Department of Urban & Environmental Policy & Planning, but he holds and adjunct appointment in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine. Krimsky holds a masters in physics, but his PhD is in philosophy. Thus, many of his arguments have already been rejected by biologists.

Last year Krimsky published The GMO Deception at Skyhorse publishing (who also published RFK jr’s anti-vax book). While the book’s anti-science point of view is obvious from the title, it received a devastating review at Biofortified , who pointed that the book is nothing but a repackaging of old, discredited articles from GeneWatch archives. That site is hosted by the Council of Responsible Genetics, where Krimsky is the chairman.

Getting to Krimsky’s latest publication “An Illusory Consensus behind GMO Health Assessment,” it too brings up a number of discredited articles and workers.

The thesis of Krimsky’s article is that there is not a scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs, because he has uncovered about 26 articles attacking them. Krimsky’s paper is published in the journal Science, Technology and Human Values, where Krimsky is on the editorial board.

In discussing articles on biotechnology, it is useful to remember  The Seralini Rule, published in the Skeptico blog, which states that

If you favorably cite the 2012 Séralini rats fed on Roundup ready maize study, you just lost the argument.

That Skeptico article summarizes all the problems with that discredited and withdrawn paper, noting that if you cite this paper as serious science you haven’t taken the trouble to consider all of its scientific weaknesses.

Unfortunately, Professor Krimsky’s paper fails this test, citing 5 papers by this discredited scientist.

Krimsky’s  article is divided into three parts. In the first part, he summarizes eight recent review articles on GMOs finding some very critical and some much less critical. We read several of the more critical ones to see if we could understand his point.

He first cites “Genetically Modified Foods and Social Concerns,” by Maghari and Ardekani, published in the Iranian journal Avicenna Journal of Medical Biotechnology. This paper is basically a summary of potential concerns, none of which are supported by actual science. Suggesting that transgenic DNA might break up and reintegrate into the genome (which has never been observed), he cites two non-peer-reviewed reports by Mae Wan Ho, who has been criticized for embracing pseudoscience. Even more risible is Maghari’s assertion that GMOs may be responsible for “food-borne diseases” such as the “epidemic of Morgellon’s disease in the U.S.” In fact, Morgellon’s disease is a delusion that one’s skin is crawling when no cause can be found, and is considered a psychiatric ailment, not one caused by diet.

The second paper we read from his list was a literature review by Domingo and Bordonaba, which also violates the Seralini rule, and asserts without proof that studies showing the safety of GMOs have been performed by biotechnology companies. This is in fact contrary to the findings of Biofortified’s GENERA database of papers, which found that more than half of the studies were performed by independent researchers.

The third paper he cites, by Dona and Arvanitouannis also violates the Seralini rule, and completely misstates the doctrine of “substantial equivalence.” The correct statement of this principle is that if a GM and a conventional crop have similar origins, then their “substantial equivalence” can be the starting point for testing of the GM version to see if it has different properties that might make it dangerous to the consumer. It does not mean that no further testing is required. It also erroneously suggests that the Cauliflower Mosaic Virus, which is found on all cauliflower, is dangerous if used in biotechnology. This is, of course, rubbish, since we eat it every day on most brassicae.

In checking these papers, we quickly wander down a “rabbit hole” of papers referring to other papers and to each other, but all seeming to cite the same erroneous information. After citing some inconclusive studies, Krimsky quotes the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, which is listed on QuackWatch, and is not recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties. It has been criticized by Science Based Medicine, and is considered a dubious certifying board.

Arpad Pusztai and Giles-Eric Seralini

In the second part of his paper Krimsky focuses on the poorly regarded work of Pusztai and of Seralini, carefully omitting some of the more damning details about their work.

Pusztai was asked to evaluate some experimental genetically modified potatoes, and reported that they damaged the stomach lining of rats. After an investigation by his employer, the Rowett Institute, found that his data did not support his conclusions, he was fired. However, Krimsky does not note what Chassy and Tribe have pointed out: the potatoes Pusztai used were an experimental and unapproved variety, and that the rats were fed uncooked potatoes, which are always harmful to rats. Moreover, two expert panels concluded that no scientific conclusions could be drawn from his work. Pusztai has become an anti-GMO activist, travelling the world giving scary talks, but has not carried out any further science.

Professor Giles-Eric Seralini has published a number of papers critical of GMOs, and their confusing style and lack of rigor have been criticized long before his rat tumor paper. However, when Seralini published his 2012 paper, scientists immediately began criticizing its small sample size, lack of double blinding, animal mistreatment, and unsupported conclusions: Sprague-Dawley rats develop tumors anyway, which is why they are suitable for 90 day experiments but not 2-year experiments.

Krimsky notes that Seralini revealed his association with CRIIGEN, a French anti-GMO organization he headed, but did not mention that Seralini’s work was sponsored by Carrefour grocery chain and the Auchan retail group who wanted to promote their new line of organic (non-GMO) products.

When many, many scientists protested to Food and Chemical Toxicology that this paper did not represent good science, the journal editor, A. Wallace Hayes, convened a new group of referees to review the paper. After nearly a year, the review panel concluded that the paper should be withdrawn because of its scientific flaws, and it was. Krimsky fails to mention the panel, but suggests the editor did this unilaterally.

Krimsky also cites an article which suggests that a “new assistant editor” joined the board of Food and Chemical Toxicology who had previously worked for Monsanto. This old conspiracy theory is easily laid to rest: biologist Richard Goodman worked for Monsanto from 1997-2004 and then joined the faculty of the University of Nebraska, long before Seralini’s paper came to light. He was an assistant editor during the Seralini controversy, but Hayes specifically excluded him from the review panel at Seralini’s request.

Author’s Conclusions

Professor Krimsky’s conclusions rely on the fact that he claims to have found 26 animal studies that found “adverse effects or uncertainties of GMOs fed to animals.” We didn’t read all of them, but we have already read some which are discredited and/or published in very low-level journals.

  1. Ewen and Pusztai, “Effects of Diets Containing Genetically Modified Potatoes,’ Discussed above.
  2. Ermakova, “Genetically Modified Soy Leads to the Decrease of Weight and High Mortality of Rat Pups.” Not published in any journal.
  3. Seralini, Cellier and Vendomois, “New Analysis of Rate Feeding Study with GM Maize Reveals Signs of Hyporenal Toxicity.’ The EFSA has debunked this paper.
  4. Aris and LeBlanc, “Maternal and Fetal Exposure to Pesticdes Associated tp GM Foods in Eastern Township of Quebec, CA.” Critiqued by Anastasia Bodnar.
  5. Carman, Vlieger,Ver Steeg, Sneller, Robinson al., A Long-Term Toxicology Study on Pigs Fed a Combined GMO Soy and Maize Diet.” Published on a non-peer-reviewed journal. Bozianu’s work rebutted this paper. Rebutted by Mark Lynas  and  by David Gorski.
  6. Seralini al. “Long Term Toxicity of a Roundup herbicide…” Discussed above, and debunked by Skeptico and by Wayne Parrott.
  7. De Vendomois, Spiroux and Seralini, “A Comparison of the Effects of Three GM Corn Varieties on Mammalian Health” Reviewed and debunked here.

 

Conclusions

Professor Krimsky has recycled old, discredited papers and arguments as if they were new to try to imply that there is a serious doubt about the safety of GM crops. He neglects the thousands of papers that make up the scientific consensus over the few weak ones he has dredged up to make his point. And Professor van Eenennaam’s billion animal study simply closes the door on this discussion.

German chocolate cake you’ll love

German chocolate cake you’ll love

This fairly easy recipe is a simplification of the one on the Bakers German Chocolate bar. We show you a few shortcuts. Some people make this light cake and just decorate it with the coconut-pecan topping. We do that but ice the sides with chocolate buttercream icing to hold it all together.

  • 4 egg whites
  • 4 oz German Sweet Chocolate
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 cup (2 sticks, 8 oz) softened unsalted butter
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 280 g cake flour (2 ½ cups sifted)
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 3 lined 8” cake pans
  1. Preheat the oven to 350˚ F
  2. Beat the egg whites in your mixer until stiff. Remove to another bowl until needed.

3. Cream the butter and sugar in an electric mixer

4. Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating after each addition.

5. Put the chocolate in a bowl with the water and heat in a microwave for about 90 seconds until melted. Stir until uniform.

6. Add the vanilla to the sugar-butter mixture and beat in the chocolate.

7. You don’t really need to sift and measure the flour, as we described in this article. One cup of sifted cake flour weights 112g, so just weigh 280 grams (which is 2 1/2  cups sifted) into a bowl and add the soda and salt. Stir briefly to mix.

8. Add the flour mixture alternately with the buttermilk.

9. Fold in the egg whites by mixing in ¼ of them and then folding the rest in using a rubber spatula, dipping a turning the blade to mix in the whites without deflating them.

10. Line the 3 cake pans with parchment using the technique we described here. Butter the pans and the parchment.

11. You now need to separate the batter into 3 equal parts. We do this by weight. The stand mixer bowl and contents weighed 3606g, and we know the empty bowl weights 1014g, so the contents weighed 1578g. Thus, we need to put 526g of batter in each of the 3 cake pans. We put each cake pan on the scale, press the tare button to zero it, and add 526g of batter. The third pan is always a little short because some batter sticks to the sides and to the spatula. So we steal a little from each of the other two pans to make them about even. It is still easier than eyeballing it!

12. Bake the cake in the pans for 30-35 minutes, until the cake starts to pull away from the edge, and a toothpick comes out clean.

3 baked

13. Let the cakes cool on a cooling rack, and then take the cakes out of the pans and let them cool completely.

Cake Filling

  • 8 oz evaporated milk (This is 1 1/3 6 oz cans)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 beaten egg yolks
  • ½ cup butter (1 stick) cut up
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 1/3 cup sweetened, shredded coconut
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  1. Combine the evaporated milk, sugar, egg yolks, butter and vanilla in a saucepan. Cook and stir over medium heat until thickened. Stir constantly to avoid burning.
  2. Allow the liquid to come to a slow boil but keep stirring to avoid sticking.
  3. Remove from heat and add the coconut and pecans.
  4. Chill in the refrigerator until cool enough to spread.

Buttercream frosting

  • 2 lb confectioners sugar
  • 2 sticks (8 oz) butter, cut up
  • ¼ cup milk (approximately)
  • 3 oz baking chocolate
  1. Combine the sugar and butter in a food processor and pulse until mixed.
  2. Add the milk until spreadable
  3. Melt the chocolate in the microwave for about 1.5 minutes at 50% power. Stir until uniform and then add to the buttercream mixture and pulse until uniform. This will make more frosting than you need, but you will use about ¾ of it.

Assembling the cake

It is easiest to ice the cake on a little rotating cake platform, but if you do, be sure to start with a cake cardboard under cake, as the layers are delicate and won’t pick up easily to move to a cake cover later.

  1. Place one solid layer on the bottom and carefully ice it with the filling. If the filling is too cold to spread, warm it for 15 sec on the microwave.
  2. Place a second layer on top and ice it either with the chocolate buttercream frosting or with the filling. You will have plenty of both. Place the third layer on top and ice the top with the filling.
  3. If any of the sides protrude, trim them off so the sides are relatively uniform. Ice the sides with the chocolate buttercream, using a spatula dipped in milk to smooth the outside of the cake. Let it dry for half an hour before serving.

sliced

 

 

A quick way to line cake pans

A quick way to line cake pans

Most cake recipes suggest you line the bottom of your cake pans with waxed paper (old school) or baking parchment (new school). Well tracing and cutting out those circles for 2 or 3 cake pans is a lot of trouble. Here’s an easier way.

pan and parchment

Cut a square of baking parchment, a bit bigger than you cake pan. For 8” cakes, cut a 9” or 10”  square. It doesn’t have to be very accurate or even square: a rectangle will do just fine. We’ll cut off the excess as we go along.

Fold the square diagonally so that the left edge meets the top edge.  This establishes that square. Any left on the bottom will be cut off.

Fold that triangle in half down the middle.

Then, keep folding down the middle until you have a little pointed triangle.

Lay that triangle on the bottom of the cake pan with the point at the center, and cut off the triangle at the edge of the pan.

Then, unfold it. It should be a circle that will just fit in your cake pan. If it is a little big, just refold it and cut off a little more.

lined pan

Then, butter the pan, lay the liner inside, and butter it, too.  That’s really easy. I did all 3 cake pans in about a minute! See the top picture for all three!

Delicious southern buttermilk biscuits

Delicious southern buttermilk biscuits

Our recipe for biscuits is really very simple, with flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, unsalted butter and buttermilk. And it took a leap into high quality when we decided to fold and roll the biscuit dough, like you do when making croissants. Otherwise, it is much like hundreds of other recipes.

If you add salt, why do you use unsalted butter? Because unsalted butter has much less water in it than salted butter and works much better for pastry.

There have been a spate of articles in the past few months about why Northerners can’t make biscuits as good as Southerners do (and here we mean the Southern and Northern United States.)  See also “Why Most of America is Terrible at Making Biscuits.

flour-bleached-self-risingOne such article “Here’s why Southern Biscuits are Better” explains that southern cooks use a soft wheat flour like White Lily which has a much lower protein (and gluten) content, about 8-9 %, while an all purpose flour like King Arthur can be 11.7%. King Arthur All Purpose flour is close to bread flour which is 12.7%, while White Lily has the texture of cake flour, which is 6.9% to 7.1% for various brands.

 

 

Well, the authors of the two articles above point out that Southern biscuit makers use the low protein White Lily Flour, which is only available in the southern U.S., despite being distributed by Smuckers. You can, of course, buy it on line for a premium price and we did, to see what the difference really is.

[If you want to create a substitute for White Lily flour, you can mix ½ cake flour (7%) with ½ Gold Medal All Purpose (10.5%), which gives you a flour that is 8.75 % protein.]

Our Northern Recipe

We made our biscuits using our normal recipe:

  • 2 cups flour
  • 3 tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • ½ tsp salt
  • Unsalted butter, 1/3 cup or 2/3 stick or 76 g
  • About 1 cup of buttermilk

In our recipe, we mix all the dry ingredients, and then cut in the butter using a pastry blender (or two forks).  Then, we add the buttermilk and mix it in with a fork and roll out the dough. We recently found that we had a pastry marble, which helps keep the butter cold, and we rolled out the dough on the marble. Then, and this is significant, we folded the dough into thirds and rolled it out again. We repeated that twice more, thus making more buttery layers within the biscuits. The resulting biscuits are excellent.

Southern Biscuits

White Lily Flour is commonly sold as Self-Rising, which means that every cup of flour has 1 ½ tsp baking powder and ½ tsp salt already added. White Lily is also bleached, which weakens the gluten a bit more, so this could also change the biscuit characteristics. (You can buy the non-leavened version as well.)

The recipes we looked at simply vary in the quantity of flour and shortenings. This one is pretty typical.

  • 2 ½ cups self-rising flour
  • 4 oz (1 stick) unsalted butter, frozen
  • 1 cup chilled buttermilk.

The one difference is that the butter is frozen and you shred it in a box grater or a food processor. We found that it took so much kinetic energy to shred the butter in the box grater, that the it began to soften, so we switched to the food processor instead.

foldedAs before, we mixed the butter in with the pastry blender and added the buttermilk. One cup is a bit stingy, and we added a bit more buttermilk to make a workable dough. We rolled out the dough as before, (on our pastry marble) and folded it into thirds and rolled it out 3 times as before. Some recipe writers claim that you should cut out the biscuits without twisting your biscuit cutter, so we did that too for both batches. This may be just an old custom without a lot of science behind it, though.

 

We baked both biscuits for 10 minutes at 450˚ F. The White Lily ones were a bit taller since there was more flour in the dough recipe and thus the dough was a bit thicker when rolled out on the marble. So we baked these Southern biscuits a bit longer until they began to brown.

both baked

How are the biscuits different?

The King Arthur biscuits are a little darker and the White Lily a little lighter, because the White Lily flour is bleached. But the taste and texture of the two are very similar. Since we had to cook the taller White Lily biscuits a bit longer, the bottoms were a bit thicker and crunchier than those from King Arthur flour. However, see below on this point.

both split

The crumb and texture of the two biscuits are very similar and both quite tasty. (See the picture at the top of the article, as well.) We just didn’t find much difference. The secret seems to be the layers of butter from folding and rolling, and both biscuits have that nice buttery flavor.

crisco butterWe also tried making the White Lily biscuits using the recipe on the flour package, which commenters on the existing recipes said worked perfectly. It differs only in that the butter is replaced by Crisco. The biscuits are very pretty,  but pretty tasteless. The recipe suggests that you brush the biscuits with melted butter as shown. It doesn’t improve them much.

2 cups white lilyTo reduce the number of biscuits to the number we could roll out, we made the recipe again using just 2 cups of White Lily flour and 2/3 stick of shredded frozen butter. These were very good, but, frankly, no better than the King Arthur flour recipe.

cold butterFinally, we made the White Lily biscuits using cold, but not frozen butter, much as we made the King Arthur biscuits. These biscuits were not as tall or “layery.” Apparently the lower gluten flour affects this layering and you need frozen butter to achieve this effect with White Lily.

Our conclusion is, if you live in the South where you can buy White Lily Flour for about $2.50 for 5 pounds, go for it. But in the rest of the country, use All Purpose Flour and unsalted butter, and you will be very happy with the results.

both with eggs

 

 

Sous-vide cooking with our new Anova Cooker

Sous-vide cooking with our new Anova Cooker

Sous-vide cooking amounts to putting your food in a sealed plastic bag and immersing it in a temperature controlled water bath for an hour or so. Until recently, sous-vide cookers had cost several hundred dollars, but the latest models are about $100 and suitable for Christmas presents. Our new Anova Nano Precision cooker is just such a device, and we report here on our first experiences with it.

The essence of sous-vide cookery is immersing your food (meat, fish or some vegetables)  in a water bath at just the temperature you want the food to reach. For example, if you want a steak to have an internal temperature of 130˚ F, you put your steak in a vacuum sealed bag in a temperature-controlled water bath at 130˚ F for about an hour. The entire steak will have an internal temperature of 130˚ rather than just the middle. You finish the steak with a quick browning in a pan to give you the outer crust you’d expect.

The Anova cooker is a well-made, compact appliance that you clamp to the side of any fairly deep pot. It comes with minimal documentation (a tiny 5-page leaflet) directing you to download the Anova app for your smart phone.

This app immediately connects to the Anova via Bluetooth, allowing you to manage the settings from your phone. Use of the app is not entirely transparent: you would think that you could adjust the temperature and time from the app, bit you can actually only select times and temperatures associated with various recipes within the app: Beef Poultry, Eggs, Fish and seafood, Lamb, Port and Vegetables (Carrots and Corn only).

Steak

We bought some on-sale prime sirloin steak for our first experiment, placing the seasoned steak into a gallon zip lock bag with some seasonings.

We set the Anova for 130˚ using the app. This took a little fiddling, as it was not obvious at first ow to switch from Rare to Medium Rare. You just swipe right to move to the next temperature setting, but there was no indication on the screen that it was swipe-able. You should bring the water to temperature before putting the meat in. Since you can get tap water at 130˚, this is not too difficult. For high temperatures, you need to use your stove to heat the water, as the Anova takes quite a while to get to higher temperatures.

You slowly lower the bag into the water, letting the water pressure force out the air, and then seal the bag. It should sink in the water if you got most of the air out. We started the cooker, and an hour later had cooked, steak but with a gray exterior. We browned it in a cast-iron pan and then served it.  It was as good as the steak, which in this case was modest, but the cooker worked like a charm.

Chicken Breasts

We also followed the recipe provided with the cooker for chicken breasts.

Nearly all of these are by noted food writer Kenji Lopez-Alt. In those case, we put each of two breast halves in a separate 1 quart zip lock bag with a little oil and a sprig of rosemary and cooked them at 150˚ F for one hour. Then, we browned the chicken skin on a fry pan and deboned the breast easily. We sliced each breast up for serving and ate it with gusto. The breast was perfectly cooked and juicy, unlike nearly all other chicken breast recipes and an simple evening meal. It was great.

sliced

Carrots

carrot bag

To cook carrots, you cut them into 1-2 inch pieces, bag them and add a bit of sugar and butter, and seal them for immersion. We simply were not able to get all the air out of the bag because of the irregularity of the carrot pieces. We tried weight the bag by clamping a spoon to it, but the bag leaked and the carrots were not fully cooked. You also have to raise the water bath to 183˚ and this is beat done on the stove. You probably need to invest in a vacuum sealer to do carrots, but since we have a number of recipes for carrots already, this is not that urgent.

It’s not clear how often we’ll use our cooker, but it is very easy to use with the smartphone app and the results are really impressive. We have it in our stove drawer now for easy access.

Why homeopathy is hokum

Why homeopathy is hokum

There are lots of faux drugs on the shelves of many shameless drugstore chains that are labeled “homeopathic.” These are useless nostrums marketed to the gullible.  Usually they are labelled as something like “200C.” This is not a temperature, but the number of dilutions of the original substance.

The completely unsubstantiated hypothesis behind homeopathy is that “like cures like,” and that a very small diluted amount of some “natural substances,” such as plant extracts can stimulate the body to repair itself. There is no evidence that this 18th century idea actually works.

The way homeopaths work is that they select some substance or substances they believe might be helpful and dilute them with shaking, which they call potentization. The word has no actual meaning. Then after many dilutions and shakings, they sell some to you for treatment.

Well now, how much is “some”?

Let’s assume that table salt is a substance that can be used for treatment. It has a molecular weight of (23 + 35.5) of 58.5. We know, from the work of Loschmidt and Avogadro that if you weigh out the molecular weight of any substance in grams (in this case 58.5 g) it contains one  mole of particles, or 6.02 x 1023 molecules.

1 mole saltSo let’s dissolve that mole of salt on one liter of water. Now we have a one molar solution containing those 1023 molecules.  And now, lets dilute 10 ml of that liter by 100, to again make one liter.  This new liter will have 1/100 as many molecules in it, or 1021 molecules.

Well the “C” in that “200C” designation means that has been diluted by 100. And the 200 means that this has been repeated 200 times!

So lets see what happens after each dilution:

  1. 1021 molecules
  2. 1019 molecules
  3. 1017 molecules

…..

  1. 105 molecules
  2. 103 molecules
  3. 101 molecules

 

After 11 dilutions, you have only 10 molecules of salt left in your solution.  What happens when you dilute it 100:1 another time? If you take 100 10 ml samples of that last liter, 10 of them could have one molecule of salt!

And after that, the chances of there being even one molecule of our “medicine” are vanishingly small. All of the salt (or any other substance) is lost in the dilution process! There isn’t any left after 12 or so dilutions. And by 200 there is absolutely no chance you’ll encounter even one molecule!  It’s gone down the drain, just as the entire homeopathic hypothesis has. There are no active ingredients at all!

Taking homeopathic preparations can act as a placebo, or if they dilute the substance in alcohol instead of water, a quick drunk, but there just can’t be any benefits in the absence of any medicine.

Unfortunately homeopathic preparations are poorly regulated, and some dangerous substances may remain in significant quantities. In some cases, heavy metals have been found.

513minrbq9l._ac_us436_fmwebp_ql65_Studies of the famous quack medicine oscillococcimnum have shown no significant effect. And studies of some 68 treatments have found that they have no effect either.

These are quack medicines that improve the bottom line of unethical pharmacies, but can’t do you any good. Any they may do some harm.

Sifting and measuring flour

Sifting and measuring flour

If you look at nearly any baking recipe, you will see something like “sift together the dry ingredients,” usually flour, baking powder and maybe sure and salt. Why do they do that? Well, because someone clear back to Fanny Merritt Farmer, in her Boston Cooking School Cookbook (you can read a digital copy here) said to. Flour in 1896 was probably much lumpier than today, and she said to sift all ingredients before measuring them.

Nowadays, flour isn’t usually very lumpy and we usually use it right out of the bag.

But we thought we’d try sifting some paprika into flour to see how well it mixes. This is about 1.5 Tb of paprika in 2 cups of flour.

 

 
 

As can see, it doesn’t really mix all that well. In fact, you could do better just using a wire whisk. But, if you are making a batter for baking, the mixing of the dry ingredients with the liquid will distribute them just as well.

Now about that cup

A measuring cup measures 8 fluid ounces: it is really for measuring liquids like milk or water. Flour, not being a liquid can be a little variable about how much fits in a cup. Fanny Farmer said you should scoop out the flour and level off the cup with a knife, and that works for 1 cup of flour. But for 2 ½ cups of flour, it gets messier and it soon becomes easier to weigh out the flour. We have an inexpensive kitchen scale, Ozeri kitchen scale (it cost $15.95), we keep right with our bowls and dishes, and can easily weigh anything we want.  If you don’t have one, ask someone to give it to you for Christmas.

So how do you weigh out flour? We found that 1 cup of King Arthur All Purpose Flour weighs 142 g (see above). We use grams because then there aren’t any pesky decimal pl aces to confuse you.

weighing



But what about sifted flour? The only thing sifting commercial flours does is to aerate them a bit so a cup of sifted flour weighs less. Sifted King Arthur flour weighs 126 grams, or about 8% less.

Cake Flour

Cake flour is made from a mixture of lower protein wheats that will give a light and tender crumb in cakes. According to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, all purpose flour has about 11-12% protein (mostly gluten) and cake flour about 7-8% protein. And U.S. cake flour is bleached as well, which causes “the starch granules to absorb water and swell more readily in high sugar batters.” Need less to say, cake flours weigh less per cup:

 All purposeCake flour
Scooped142 g120 g
Sifted126 g112 g

These weights are useful when you need some off amount of flour. For example, my waffle recipe requires 2 ¼ cups of sifted cake flour. It’s easiest to just quickly weigh about (2.25 x 112g) or 252g in a dish and mix it into the waffle batter. I keep this table posted inside my cupboard door, and write the weights into any recipes I use frequently.

So, get your scale out and you can do your baking quickly without getting a lot of measuring cups dirty. Happy holiday baking!

Tony Buettner pitches the Blue Zone Project in Wilton

Tony Buettner pitches the Blue Zone Project in Wilton

Tony Buettner, who identified himself as the Senior Vice President of the Blue Zones Project gave a polished pitch and review of the Blue Zones Project. Buettner is the brother of Dan Buettner whose book(s) on five pockets of centenarians around the world and their habits and diet was a best seller. (There is third Buettner brother involved as well.)

He started out by asking if every adult in the room had walked to school as a child, and most had. However, when he asked if their children did, almost no one raised their hand. This may sound damning, but is really rather naïve. Wilton has essentially zero sidewalks outside the downtown area, and no real way to maintain such sidewalks even if they could be built. This is common in New England because of the rocky terrain and old property lines and roadways. He might have looked around the town a bit before starting his canned pitch.

Buettner reviewed some of the remote civilizations where there are more than a usual number of long-lived people, including quite a number of centenarians, and followed that up with Dan’s conclusions that there are nine factors involved in extending your lifespan, (and living happily as the members of these civilizations) in Sardinia (Italy), Okinawa (Japan), Nicoya (Cosa Rica), Ikaria (Greece) and the Adventists of Loma Linda, CA.  He named and trademarked these nine factors as the “Power of Nine,” even though some of them are pretty common and obvious, such as “eat more vegetables.”

He suggested that their success in longevity is 80% environment and life-style and only 20% genetic. This is somewhat in conflict with their science advisor Stuart Jay Olshansky, who believes genetics is far more important than that. However, this was a marketing pitch, not a scientific one as we discovered when one of his slide misspelled “Chi-squared” as “Khi square.”

bitter-gourd-2He also suggested that bitter melon, favored by the Okinawans, “kills cancer.” This is utter nonsense, as no human experiments have been performed to validate this folk remedy. And he refers to the Ikarian wine as having 4 times the polyphenols of other red wines. But, unfortunately, there is no scientific evidence that such antioxidants have any health-giving properties. That is mostly a marketing myth.

He also brought up their oft-repeated story about Stamatis Moriatis,  a Greek man from Ikaria who while working in the U.S. “developed terminal lung cancer,” and went back to Ikaria to die, but lived another 30 years, allegedly because of the healthy climate and lifestyle of his home island. Neither his story nor any of the articles I have found provide any validation for this medical fairy tale: no doctors in either the U.S. or Greece are cited. While Buettner, asserted that this story has been validated and published in the New York Times, he is actually referring to a magazine article written by his brother Dan, which contains no references of any kind.

In pitching the services the Blue Zones Project can provide to our town, Buettner continually mentioned “evidence based” and “science backed.” However, at no time did he give examples of such evidence or science. OK, neither Buettner is a scientist. But in describing their work in demonstration city Albert Lea, MN, he talked about replacing candy and junk foods in the supermarket checkout area with 43 “superfoods.” Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a “superfood.”

Switching to some of their current projects, he mentioned the Beach Cities project in California, made up of Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach. He claimed great success, with a 50% reduction of childhood obesity. This would be an amazing accomplishment, but if you go and read about the project, this effort was a years-long project by the Beach Cities Health District starting in 2006. According to Eric Garner, Communications Director of the BCHD, childhood obesity has fallen by 68% since that time.  This is indeed a major accomplishment, but the Blue Zones Project came much later, (2010-11) and only added the Walking Schoolbus to the obesity project. I would call this intentionally misleading, to say the least.

When I got to ask some questions, (awkwardly, I’ll admit) I wanted to know why this work had never been published or subjected to peer review, and whether this wasn’t just correlation without causation. Buettner’s rather arrogant answer was that they had been featured on 3 magazine covers and been asked to present at the Davos Economic Forum, and they didn’t need to deal with causation, (which he clearly didn’t understand).

I also mentioned Professor Stuart Jay Olshansky’s objection:

He exaggerates the importance of diet as genetics is critical in these folks, and I was not happy early on that they were selling items from the various locations as longevity boosters, which supposedly they stopped doing…

He immediately interrupted to me to assert that the BZP has never sold anything. This is patently untrue: here is a link to their “store,”   where they sell turmeric from Okinawa, bean soup with beans from almost very Blue Zone region, and even cases of Blue Zones Water. They also have offered “Longevity Tea,” and Caracolillo Coffee from the Nicoyan region, but these are sold out.

He was not interested in discussing the criticism in Eric Carter’s paper, which I enumerated in my previous article, and quickly moved to shut me down.

I found Buettner’s attitude and mendacity very troubling and am not enthusiastic about our working with this group.

What is the Blue Zones Project?

What is the Blue Zones Project?

I first heard about the Blue Zones project when I learned that some “moms” (their term) in Wilton were suggesting that we become a Blue Zones town, and I started to read up on it.

The term “blue zone” was coined by Belgian demographer Michel Poulain when studying the characteristics of centenarians in Sardinia, where he and his coworkers realized there was an unusual cluster of very old people in this region, and they drew a circle around the cluster using a blue marker. Imagine the controversy if he had used a red marker!

bluezonesSoon journalist Dan Buettner had jumped into this study, travelling to this and several other regions to report on the clusters of centenarians in and discuss common characteristics among them. This led to an article he wrote for National Geographic and to a 2008 book, revised in 2012: Blue Zones, 9 lessons fir living longer from people who lived the longest. Note that while Buettner is a very polished writer, he is not a scientist and has no scientific training nor an advanced research degree.  He could just as well have interviewed centenarians near where he lives, and this might had been equally interesting, and would have eliminated some of the cultural differences among the groups he wrote about.

He boiled down his findings to nine basic points (trademarked as The Power of Nine), some obvious and some rather unusual, but never tested his findings using any sort of control groups. Boiled down, these are

  • Move naturally (avoid mechanical aids)
  • Find a sense of purpose
  • Find time to relax and downshift
  • Eat until “80% full,” exclaiming Hara bachi bu, (or maybe Hakuna matata, or perhaps Ai ai Cthulu!)
  • Eat more vegetables
  • Drink wine at 5
  • Belong to a religious group
  • Put your family first
  • Choose a support social circle.

Being a scientist myself, I was surprised to discover that Buettner never published any of his findings in actual peer-reviewed scientific journals, but only in his popular book and magazine articles, so his conclusions have never been subjected to scientific scrutiny or peer review. Instead, Buettner formed a Blue Zones organization to try out his recommendations in a few communities. He then licensed the Blue Zones brand to Healthways of Tennessee who is involved in promoting these findings as a commercial enterprise.

texasFurther, Buettner seems to have committed correlation without causation. Or as one of my colleagues called it, the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy, where the target shooter shoots bullets at the side of a barn, and then draws a target around the bullet holes! To put it more clearly, he has not proven that any of these common findings cause longevity. He has not set up any kind of control group or test to prove their efficacy.

Academics respond

I contacted a couple of researchers who have written scientific articles about centenarians, and both responded to me.

Professor Jeremy Yorgason at Brigham Young University said, in part,

“…My understanding is that the “Blue Zones” work is aimed at replicating diet and other trends found in such areas. I agree with the principles put forth by those that encourage blue zone trends among seniors, however I’m not a fan of the commercialism they have introduced. Nutritious diet, exercise, and genetics will all influence our longevity. Environment likely also plays a role. People have some control over some of these factors, and I encourage us to do what we can to live healthy into our later years.  I hope this helps.”

Professor Stuart Jay Olshansky at the University of Illinois, Chicago, said:

“I reviewed their proposal for National Geographic when it was first thought of, and I rejected the Blue Zone idea because Dan was not going to verify the ages of the alleged centenarians — he didn’t know this was important. So, he connected with someone who can do this reliably. That part of the science is now sound. He exaggerates the importance of diet as genetics is critical in these folks, and I was not happy early on that they were selling items from the various locations as longevity boosters, which supposedly they stopped doing.  However, there are also some strong elements to what they do.  I think there’s little doubt that pockets of exceptional longevity exist. Does that help?”

 

Professor Eric D. Carter

Perhaps the most wide-ranging criticism of the project came from Professor Eric Carter of Macalester College, published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, titled Making Blue Zones: Neoliberalism and nudges in public health promotion.

Carter notes that the Blue Zones Project (BZP) is a “place-based, community centered and commercial health promotion enterprise, and that it advocates a kind of “deep neoliberalism—neoliberal govermentality.” In social science jargon, “neoliberalism” refers to programs where the individual has to take responsibility for his own health, rather than being provided by a government entity. He calls this “libertarian paternalism” whose purpose is to “nudge” people towards healthy behaviors.

In fact, the BZP is “thoroughly desocialized” and more or less ignores health problems associated with poverty, unemployment, race, ethnicity, education or other social determinants. He cautions about the role of “lifestyle” or “wellness” industry professionals in framing the discussion about healthy places.

Carter notes that some of Buettner’s points, such as “sense of purpose” and “belong to a faith-based community” are unlikely to be cited by health professionals, and while Buettner claims that these can add up to 7 years to your life expectancy, this individualizes findings that are aggregate and probabilistic in nature.

Further, I suggest that the idea that communing with an imaginary Sky-Daddy having an effect on health is probably much too narrow. You might achieve the same group comfort from singing in a community chorus or playing Bingo weekly.

albert leasThe original demonstration community, Albert Lea, MN adopted Buettner’s recommendations for a 10 month trial run, building more sidewalks (but only in the downtown area) and residents agreed to “deconvenience” their lives, walking more and putting aside snowblowers for snow shovels, a recommendation that cardiologists might dispute. At the end of this period using an on-line “Vitality Calculator,” they claimed residents had added 3.1 years to their life expectancy. However, their simple diet and exercise questions have not actually been validated.

And, the BZP has almost nothing to say about the health care sector: doctors, clinics, and hospitals. It concentrates on health-promotion and lifestyle management. Not having medical buy-in to this project seems short-sighted.

NasBeachSmIt also has nothing to say about diseases, other than making the preposterous claim that one Greek man living in the U.S., Stamatis Moriatis, had developed “terminal lung cancer,” but on return to his home in Ikaria, the disease eventually vanished, as if the healthy village lifestyle somehow cured his cancer. Spontaneous remission in cancers do happen, but outlandish claims like this one border on magical thinking. Buettner has spread articles about Moriatis all over the Internet, but that does not make them true. And he presents no medical evidence.

The Iowa Project

Carter notes that the BZP cooperated with Iowa Governor Terry Branstad to set up four demonstration sites, and after a competition among Iowa cities, four northern locations were chosen: Cedar Falls, Waterloo, Mason City (home of The Music Man’s con game) and Spencer. Financing for these 4 projects was provided by Iowa’s Wellmark Blue Cross, who paid Healthways $25 million for the five year demonstration. This also means that all Iowans did not have equal access to the potential benefits: another trait of such neoliberal projects.

In Iowa’s case, Branstad wanted to use the BZP to avoid expanding Medicaid for the Affordable Care Act, giving the BZP a political tinge as well.

Iowa outcomes

Recently, we learned that Cedar Rapids and Marion, IA were dropping the Blue Zones project. At the end of the demonstration period, towns had to pay to continue, and

“Cost was a factor as we would have to pay to continue to use the brand and tap into their Blue Zones network,” said Geoff Fruin, Iowa City manager.”

Cedar Rapids was selected as a Blue Zones demonstration site in 2013 and certified in 2016.

Cedar Rapids contributed up to $25,000 a year matched by $30,000 over three years from Linn County, and about $50,000 total in private contributions to pay for four full time staff members and office space, said Assistant City Manager Sandi Fowler.

She said the fee to renew with Blue Zones is considered proprietary information, and therefore was confidential.

Discussion

The BZP, according to Carter, is classic neoliberal governmentality: a commercial venture with a public-private partnership that asks people to take responsibility for and govern themselves. Such a system can only work in a homogeneous community and has no remedy for “persistent structural causes of health inequality.”

The BZP requires community buy-in to such things as “walkability and bike-ability,” that may require substantial investment to achieve. Wilton is a rural New England community, and outside of the diminutive downtown area of a couple of dozen stores, there are basically no sidewalks or bike paths. The town is built on rocky hills, and such construction could run into millions of dollars. It is instructive to note that most of the demonstration communities are in the Midwest, where there are few hills, while towns like Wilton are nearly all hills, making walkability and bike-ability that much harder to achieve.

Much of what BZP proposes amounts to changes in eating habits, which they then proudly trumpet in aggregate weight loss statistics. This is essentially a diet, and research has continually shown that diets do not work. People tend to regress to the mean about the time the demonstration period ends.

Further, the BZP has frequently suggested things like small bowls as glasses in restaurants to keep people from overeating. Unfortunately this is all based on Brian Wansink’s work at Cornell, nearly all of which has been retracted and Wansink dismissed from Cornell for essentially faking his data!

Improving physical activity and eating more vegetables are laudable goals and based on solid science, but Buettner’s insistence on including religion and “sense of purpose” are not. While there is no question that the Wilton organizers have their hearts in the right place,  the BZP is not a science project, but a profit-making entity who plays its cards rather close to the vest. If they were a non-profit, I might consider their proposal, but a profit-making business who won’t disclose their fees does not impress me.

It probably is one we should not get involved in.

Fort Worth

We just learned that in Fort Worth , the project has had little success. After 2 years, reported BMIs are still rising, and given Texan’s steak and pick-up truck habits, this will probably take a very long time. Meanwhile the original Blue Zones are fading away, and demographer Michel Poulain has noted that the eating habits of Okinawa are much like anywhere else, and the obesity much the same. Similar findings are reported for Ikaria.

Oh, and to top it all off, it’s recommend by Doctor Oz!