Category Archives: food

“Impossible” Food

Within the last few months advertising for “impossible food” has ramped up. Actually, Impossible Foods Inc. is a California company – where else – which is focusing on producing veggie burgers. Some companies have been around for years and others are now jumping into the market. Why?

Beef, along with other animal sources of meat constitute an excellent source of protein. Americans eat an average of about 250 pounds of animal protein, including fish and shellfish, annually. There are alternative sources of protein such as a diet that balances beans and grains, but strict vegetarian diets must have an additional source for Vitamin B12.

The easy and tasty nutrition of meat, especially beef, does come at a cost. Much of the arable land in the United States is dedicated to the production of feed for the animals we eat and animals are not very efficient in turning the calories they eat into the protein we desire.

Energy inputs to raise animals come in the form of the energy needed to produce crops for animal food, mainly for fuel and fertilizer. Beef, the one we eat the most of is at the head of the inefficiency lists. It takes 33 units of energy to produce one unit of beef. Pork is better at 11 units in per unit out. Chicken is even better at 5 in to 1 out.

So where is all that wasted energy going? It is complex but boils down to two main factors, digestive inefficiency and basal metabolism, essentially heat production. The consequences of this waste is significant. As mentioned, land use is dominated production of animal feed. The CO2 released from fossil fuel use contributes to global warming. Much of the Methane released which also contributes to global warming comes from agriculture.

Animal wastes, feces and urine, can be a significant issue as we have recently seen in the fight over the hog factory operation in Mt Judea. A combination of public and private money, amounting to millions of dollars will be spent to close the farm and prevent further damage to the Buffalo National River.

Phosphorous and Nitrogen applied to crops as fertilizer runs off and ends up in the ocean. There is currently a several thousand square mile area at the mouth of the Mississippi River that is called a dead zone. Nutrient overload here ironically prevents virtually anything from growing.

All the issues of land use, global warming, and nutrient pollution would greatly benefit from the adoption of a vegetarian diet. Land use could shrink by a factor of ten if we ate beans and grains rather than feeding them to livestock. Similarly, agriculturally driven production of green house gasses and nutrient pollution would be reduced.

Now back to the impossible foods. Vegetable-based burgers and such have been around for sale at the grocer’s for years and in few restaurants but seldom before in fast food chains. Now you can get an impossible whopper. The faux meat patty is made from soy protein with numerous amendments to simulate a real burger.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

Processed Food

Today we think of processed foods as a relatively recent innovation with rather negative connotations, think chicken nuggets, Cheetos and diet sodas. However, the reality is that humans have been processing foods long before we settled into agricultural societies.

The first obvious innovation was the use of fire to cook. It takes less work and provides more calories to eat cooked food such as meat and root vegetables. Some authors have suggested that use of fire to prepare food was integral to human development, allowing for enlarged brains, and resulting in the more gracile facial characteristics of smaller jaws and teeth.

The time line for the adoption of the use of fire to prepare foods ranges from suggestions that H. erectus used fire 1.8 million years ago. Others suggest that the real control of fire and frequent use of fire in food preparation dates roughly to the time of a later relative H. neaderthalensis, about 400,000 years ago. Others say it is as recent as 20,000 years ago. Which ever time line you choose, processing food with fire began long before what we describe as civilization, the transition from isolated hunter gather groups to larger agrarian societies.

Agriculture was the great transition to move towards larger social groups, but there is evidence that making bread preceded active cultivation of grain crops. Wild grains are nutritious but difficult to consume without processing. By grinding grains to produce a flour, and then baking that into bread provided a relatively calorie dense, environmentally stable and easily transportable food. As we became more dependent on bread, cultivation became necessary and drove the transition towards agricultural.

The shift to agriculture produced new demands. Crops are seasonal but but our diets are daily, hence the need for storage at least on an annual cycle. The next technical advance was quite likely the invention of beer. Traces of a residue from beer on pottery have been found dating back to over 7,000 years ago.

During the Middle Ages much of Europe was probably mildly drunk – men, women and children alike. Hygiene not being the strong suit at the time, water sources were invariable polluted with human wastes. To brew beer however required boiling the wort, a mixture of malted barley and water. This produced a potable beverage with considerable nutrition to boot. Later hops were found to improve the flavor, and increase the storage life, making beer all the more valuable.

Europe, especially northern Europe saw the evolution of lactose tolerance in adults. Milk is an extremely nutritious source of protein and fat and therefore a complement to bread and beer. But milk doesn’t store well. Cheese on the other hand has a considerable shelf life, months to years. Cheese was first made by storing mike in natural container, a stomach removed from a ruminant. A substance know as rennet present in the lining of the stomach caused the milk to clabber. Add various bacteria to produce lactic acid for increased digestibility and you have a flavorful, stable, fat and protein laden foodstuff.

A diet of “processed food” – Cheese Whiz on a cracker washed down with a beer – is a truly ancient meal. With the macronutrients protein, fat and carbohydrate, and the micronutrients both fat and water soluble vitamins, it’s all there. Bon appetit.