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Monday, October 15, 2012

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Building a Better Food Label

Mark Bittman's Dream Food Label idea seems to make a lot of sense, at least for eaters. It's also fun to imagine him dreaming of food labels, tossing and turning. Here's a link to the full graphic page.



56 Comments / Post A Comment

PatatasBravas

I like the idea, and the illustrations are pretty, but this seems hard to apply consistently? Nearly as fraught with hazard as grading papers. "Look, you fucked up with grammar and spelling pretty often and that's an easy -1 point for each error, but you do have a thesis, that's something... Argument's a little weak; could choose stronger quotes from the text."

B- on essay-ness?

C+ on foodness?

I mean, who gets to decide how much environmental damage a company must generate to knock off a box or two? What if the company pollutes local watersheds but also donates generously to Riverkeeper?

stuffisthings

@PatatasBravas Well it's all dream anyway because no food lobby will allow a government regulation that explicitly says "consume less of this product." And yeah, tracking impact is incredibly difficult: I remember reading one study showing that apples imported from New Zealand to the UK had a lower carbon footprint than domestically-grown apples because UK apple farming was so much more carbon intensive that it offset the (relatively low) carbon cost of bulk ocean shipping.

"Foodness" is a very odd concept, however...

PatatasBravas

@stuffisthings I thought it was weird that freezing blueberries made them less food-ful.

(Do you remember where you found that study? I'd love to read it!)

PatatasBravas

@stuffisthings Also I am imagining various CEOs tearing their hair out yesterday at brunch. "This is an impractical solution, and yet, the colorful crayon sketches and the folksy-foodness appeal to NYT readers are turning my own children against me!"

stuffisthings

@PatatasBravas Perhaps I'm a victim of bad UK science journalism reporting because I can't find an exact citation of the study anywhere, aside from one done by an agricultural university in NZ which is maaaaybe a bit biased. This page at Allianz (?) mentions a number of studies/reports on the topic of food miles, but without links.

MilesofMountains

@stuffisthings Not quite the same, and not peer-reviewed, but a coworker did a carbon analysis comparison of a roast from a moose he killed locally and the same amount of fish captured non-locally and shipped to a grocery store in town. The fish turned out to produce far far less carbon despite the food miles because it turns out household freezers are terrible, energy-wise.

stuffisthings

@MilesofMountains I've done carbon impact analyses before -- not quite at the rigor of what a professional scientists in that field would do, to be fair -- and it's kind of amazing just how complicated it is and also how the multiplication of many small assumptions can lead to wildly different results.

For instance, in an analysis of a (fictitious) airport runway extension project, which would allow jumbo jets to land on a small tropical island, the carbon impact of the concrete in the runway was almost equal to the combined impact of the hundreds of transatlantic flights, the forest being chopped down, and the increased emissions from increased tourism...

Rock and Roll Ken Doll

@stuffisthings
It is amazing to me how extensively consumerism permeates our thinking, so much that I have only ever once heard someone suggest in personal conversation that we should reduce 'carbon footprint' by buying fewer or smaller things! As you've surely seen yourself, the suggestion is always that we should throw away the old things and replace them with new things that have pictures of leaves on them!

And of course you are right about how results can be counter-intuitive and can be flipped with near-invisible adjustments to the assumptions.

Elsajeni

@PatatasBravas Yeah, it's a cool idea but even within the four examples given it doesn't seem that consistent. I'm looking particularly at the Welfare scores of the blueberries and the cereal -- maybe it's just that he's imagining more detail than is actually described, but I feel like those don't really match up.

And if all-natural organic tomato sauce, organic frozen blueberries, and a fresh whole chicken can't get a 5/5 on Foodness, what can?

toastercat

@stuffisthings, PatatasBravas
I think I know what article you're talking about! I read Yes, We Have No Bananas in a moral development/economies class.

It shows how complicated it is to make moral judgments about local vs non-local foods on the basis of carbon impact, and the true cost of local vs imported food items. Another very interesting takeaway was that in their study, over 80% of the food miles generated were in the country of destination, with 48% on the trip from store to home--and of course instead of a ton of tomatoes in a single plane, you're suddenly chauffering 4 tomatoes direct to your door.

stuffisthings

@toastercat Thank you! That isn't the one I was talking about originally, but I have read it and it is indeed a very useful perspective. Anyway I'm not sure to what extend "food miles" is included in this concept, but a lot of the criticisms of that apply to other "simplified" systems of understanding the environmental impact of a particular food item. For instance: should we count the environmental impact of all the feed consumed by a chicken or a cow?

Rock and Roll Ken Doll

@stuffisthings
For instance: should we count the environmental impact of all the feed consumed by a chicken or a cow?

Under all logic, yes. But that leads to a result uncomfortable to most consumers and unacceptable to the American Meat Institute.

stuffisthings

@Rock and Roll Ken Doll But she would count the food eaten by the farmer who grew the feed?? NEVER ENDING MEAT SPIRAL!

Rock and Roll Ken Doll

@stuffisthings
Haha yes, well, I suppose I did say above that these things are complicated, but it seems obvious to me that anyone acting in good faith can't ignore the various nasty results of the choice to raise plants for conversion into animal flesh, versus consuming the plants more directly. The choice to eat beans over beef clearly trumps wherever the beans or beef came from.

stavros

valuable information.@m

stuffisthings

Do tomato varieties domesticated over tens of thousands years count as "genetically modified organisms"?

PatatasBravas

@stuffisthings Have you read Pollan's The Botany of Desire?

Maybe the tomatoes have genetically modified us back!

stuffisthings

@PatatasBravas Soylent green gets a 5/5 on Peopleness.

Emby

@stuffisthings Shhhh you'll scare the anti-GMies with your science!

stuffisthings

@Emby If only they knew my shameful secret: I am the hybrid spawn of two different sets of human DNA! I won't go into details about the process of how this came about, but suffice to say it's pretty disgusting.

realizedniche

@stuffisthings Nope - artificial selection of domesticated crops works with the natural variation present in the gene pool of the crop (or any mutations that arise), and the method of selecting for certain traits is to breed particular parent plants together. GMOs add traits not naturally present - herbicide resistance or whatever -, sometimes coming from another species, and are either physically blasted in the plant's genome or inserted using a bacterium. (Teaching a class on food now, so that's why I sound like your teacher.)

stuffisthings

@realizedniche If the end result is "a different genome" what are the implications of it having resulted from one process or another? I mean, presumably our amoebic ancestors did not possess the genes for noses or liking Mad Men... (genuinely curious by the way, I never really got the reasoning behind anti-GMO sentiment aside from "it's not NATURAL")

Plus, when it comes to artificial selection vs. genetic engineering and their ability to produce horrific, unnatural outcomes, I have two words for you: "pug dog"

DullHypothesis

@realizedniche Scientifically speaking, there is little difference between the genetic modification that occurs in eukaryote cells on a daily basis on behalf of viral vectors that occur in nature (viruses are constantly putting genes into our cells to propagate themselves, they do not have their own replication mechanisms), and the method scientists use to insert specific genes they desire into a eukaryote cell.

And to clarify, you cannot use bacteria to insert genes into eukaryote cells (as far as I know, especially on a mass scale.) I think you are confusing the creation and uptake of plasmids into bacterium with insertion into eukaryotes. Bacteria can naturally take up plasmids and have extra-chromosomal gene transcription, but it is extremely rare in eukaryotes, only occuring in rare forms of fungi if I recall my biochem correctly. (It's been a few years!)

Honestly, I think you're entirely confusing the creation of transgenic prokaryote cells and transgenic eukaryote cells. Which are insanely different. You cannot "bombard" eukaryote cells with genes to make them express that gene, because eukaryote cells do not have the mechanisms to take up and replicate outside DNA, due to the difference in prokaryote and eukaryote transcription mechanisms, unless the gene is inserted into that cell's sequence by specific protein complexes found pretty much exclusively in viral cells.

(Also keep in mind that there are exceptions to all of this, depending on what eukaryote cell your talking about, but this is massive transgenic experiments occurring in relatively complex organisms (plants) not rare strains of yeast meant for research purposes.)

I've edited this like eight times, but if this is what you're telling your students, you are lying to your students, which is part of why people are so afraid of GMO, there are massive amounts of misinformation out there published by people who don't understand the basic mechanisms of things as basic as gene transcription. There's a reason most of the GMO fear mongers are not biochemists or agricultural scientists. (God bless my agricultural college education.) PLEASE READ MORE ABOUT THIS.

DullHypothesis

@stuffisthings Viral vectors, which is what scientists utilize to add genes into eukaryotic genomes, are a huge, HUGE aspect of evolution that we are just now starting to realize! It's a really interesting topic if you need something to wikispiral. (I also suggest/don't suggest wikispiraling prion disease because that shit is interesting/shit your pants scary.)

RK Fire

@DullHypothesis: Shit. I've read this three times and I think I kind of understand what you wrote. I guess I need to spend sometime brushing up on my bio 101 understanding of genetics.

DullHypothesis

@RK Fire It could also be that I have a hard time explaining this in basic terms. I jumped straight from high school biology to working in a biochem lab, so my education on these topics was at work. (Many, many painful months of feeling like the biggest idiot on the planet.) I definitely struggle to explain things to others when I learned them by doing instead of in a classroom setting.

plonk

@DullHypothesis you can use bacteria to modify eukaryotic cells! Agrobacterium tumefaciens is one of the most commonly used organisms for inserting foreign genes into plants. it transfers a plasmid, so it's not really modifying the plant's genome in the sense of its chromosomes, but it's definitely a bacterium being used to transfer new genes to a eukaryote.

RK Fire

@DullHypothesis That could very well be, but I honestly do suspect that it's more likely due to the fact that it's been nearly 10 years since my last biology class, and since then my studies have been focused mostly on urban planning, social geography, and other urban policy wonkiness. ;) I was really pushed towards going into the sciences or medical fields all through K-12 and I was pretty good at them, so it is still a little disconcerting to realize that I am rusty and am not entirely up to date. Basically, my comment was more of one about my own ignorance than any slam at your writing. :D

realizedniche

@DullHypothesis Oh jeez, a good lesson in dashing off a quick comment on the interweb! Yes, my explanations were way over-simplified. I was mostly pointing out why a distinction is made - how the person whose job it is to check that GMO box on the label, for example, would be making that decision based on our current use of the term. Didn't mean to make my explanation seem loaded - indeed, similar things happen in natural systems all the time. Genetic engineers take advantage of Agrobacterium's ability to, yes, transfer DNA from its plasmid to the genome of a plant cell, causing crown gall... or with some modification to that plasmid, transferring some other nifty piece of genetic material. This bacterium is used for genetic engineering in several commonly modified plants, though a viral vector would be used for an animal cell. I agree it's interesting and the distinction is fluid, but GMO does mean something different from artificial selection.

plonk

@plonk (doh, and i made a hasty mistake also--genes from the agrobacterium plasmid DO end up in the plant genome, as realizedniche says above. whee!)

realizedniche

@stuffisthings OK, natural is a loaded term in this issue so I guess I should have used unmodified instead. There's not necessarily a difference... as is pointed out in comments below, genetic engineering is basically just taking advantage of this gene transfer process that happens nat... er.. in unmodified systems all the time. Personally, it is not the fear of the "foreign" genes themselves but the economic issues that concern me about GMOs - they can potentially add really useful traits to crops - they may be key to improving nutrition of crops in places where that is a matter of life and death, for example - BUT the development of certain GMO crops can create a system in which the only way to grow a profitable yield is to purchase seed from the company that developed the GMO seed.

straw hat

@realizedniche Also if I remember my genetics class correctly, a "gene gun" (shooting tiny metal particles coated in DNA in cells inPetri dishes) is an actual and I think common method of introducing DNA into plant cell nuclei. Most cells are destroyed in the process, but some aren't and eventually integrate the new DNA.
Which I think is very cool. But I'm a nerd.

stuffisthings

@realizedniche That's the one actually legit critique I've heard, but it seems like consumer labeling and blanket bans are the most roundabout possible way to address that issue. It would be like if instead of banning a dangerous cancer-causing pesticide we just labeled food "This food made with dangerous cancer-causing pesticide!" I mean for one thing, the political effort required to get companies to accept having that written on their packaging would probably be greater than the effort of just banning the pesticide.

Also I think it's important for people in the know to make a very clear and hard distinction between Real Science concerns and Pseudo Science concerns. Like, France is all up in arms about GMOs, but meanwhile half the land in Guadeloupe and Martinique is practically unusable because of kepone contamination. Next time the French government wants to ban some horrible dangerous pesticide, companies are going to be all, "Oh, this is like the time you said GMOs were bad, who cares?"

realizedniche

@straw hat Yes! That's what I referred to as blasting the sequences into the plant. A sophisticated tool that relies on blunt force and good luck... it IS cool that sometimes it actually works!

realizedniche

@stuffisthings I definitely agree with you! This issue is complicated. Genetic modification isn't clearly harmful to health in the way a cancer-causing pesticide is but could potentially be harmful - to ecosystems and the biodiversity of agricultural crops at least - if applied carelessly. Maybe the first step towards attempting to have a sophisticated conversation about it is labeling, so people have a sense what modified foods they're already eating. All the things suggested for this label are like that. On the one hand I think, good lord, there are so many subtleties, how can they be reduced to a few boxes which let consumers feel like they're making a righteous but largely uninformed decision? But on the other hand... right now it's hard to find that information at all.

Rock and Roll Ken Doll

Query whether these three things should be ranked equally, too. Would you accept a less healthy diet if it meant that you weren't subjecting feeling beings to horrific lives?

TARDIStime

@Rock and Roll Ken Doll
A diet without meat or animal products does not necessarily have to be "less healthy". When you manage your plant proteins in the right combinations, you can create the complete proteins that meats provide and if you eat a wider range of grains/veges, you can still get all the nutrients you would have had otherwise.
It is more work and would require a big change in lifestyle, but loads of people do it (some successfully, some unsuccessfully because they haven't educated/ been able to educate themselves about nutrition).

Rock and Roll Ken Doll

@TARDIStime
Sorry to be a tad obscure, I assure you we are very much in agreement. I choose a plant-based diet, and it is clear to me that this choice has health benefits, but my point is that I would choose it even if it had deleterious health consequences, because I have to do what I can to avoid participation in animal agriculture and the consequent suffering.

julia

I like this idea, but the welfare score seems to put the onus on the consumer (who may not have a real choice about how much $ to spend on food) rather than on government & companies to improve their practices. Yes, we vote with our dollars, but only if it's an important enough factor to trump other factors, like cost. Which is a privileged place to be.

stuffisthings

@julia The revised design includes a score for "GUILTINESS: how guilty should you feel about buying this, even though you have a master's degree, and why didn't you study dentistry like your mom always said so you could actually afford the free-range chicken, you asshole?" Fortunately it also includes a recommended wine pairing (red or white and number of bottles/boxes) to help you reconcile your intellectual decision to live with Privilege Awareness pulsating through your every tiniest decision like a self-imposed migrane with the basic human desire to be able buy a fucking pack of potato chips without thinking about the Middle Passage or whatever. So in the end it all kind of works out, and also an apple is cheaper than a Snicker's bar, so nyah.

meetapossum

@julia I wish I could "like" this a thousand times.

julia

@stuffisthings I agree with the goal of giving consumers a quick reference to encourage healthier *for their bodies* food choices - stoplight colors is a great idea. I don't agree with essentially modifying/changing that goal by adding a classist guilt trip.

MilesofMountains

@julia Well, as someone who prefers not to eat poorly-treated animals, I'd appreciate something like that. Maybe it shouldn't count for the "should you eat this?" rating the way nutrition does, but since labels like "free range" are practically meaningless, it'd be nice to have some actual information on these things.

dracula's ghost

I like "foodness." that is a cool concept.

MmeLibrarian

@dracula's ghost So do I. Mostly because I think Go-Gurt should be nuked from orbit.

z(oo)mm

I also like the idea an the whole, but in terms of welfare, I don't agree that paying Chilean workers a dollar a day for the blueberries merits the same welfare score as the cereal factory where workers are fulltime with benefits. Also, might as well post the Restuarnat Opportunity Center's Guide: A Consumer Guide on the Working Conditions of American Restaurants http://rocunited.org/dinersguide/

Rock and Roll Ken Doll

@z(oo)mm
Do you work for ROC? Which city? ROC is amazing!

Also, sorry to be dense, but which of the two should be scored higher in your view? I'm curious about your thinking!

z(oo)mm

@Rock and Roll Ken Doll They are awesome! I don't work for ROC. I used to work for a food/retail workers union and now I work for a public-sector union. I don't think it's actually bc I've worked for unions that I think that workers' rights should be scored higher than animal rights or other things; it's because I want to work for workers' rights that I work for unions.
I think in terms of welfare, the cereal should rank higher than the organic blueberries processed by underpaid workers. Maybe environment should be a separate score.

apples and oranges

@z(oo)mm I would agree on splitting up welfare of workers, welfare of animals (if it's an animal product), and environmental impact... those three are tied together, sure, but aren't the same thing.

sally118

We should be well informed about the food we're eating. I completely agree with this. The food industry is going through some major changes right now, I hope some of these changes are good changes. I did some research about yogurt business opportunities and I realized how important it is to stay informed in this industry.

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