Category Archives: Diet & Nutrition

Cool Interview with Michael Pollan

Yale e360 Magazine has a very interesting interview with author, Michael Pollan ( “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” ) on what’s wrong with environmentalism. Not surprisingly, much of the conversation surrounds food production and its environmental impacts.  I find the discussion of the energy crisis of the 1970s — and how badly we have fallen away from our practical responses to it — particularly poignant.

The Continuing Food Crisis

The 2008 Report of the Millennium Development Goals is out today. Seeing this, along with this editorial piece by The Age‘s economics editor, Tim Colebatch, drives home the key point that the world food crisis is far from over.  High food prices may drive 100 million more people into extreme poverty this year, eroding the substantial progress that has been achieved in the eradication of extreme poverty since the MDG were instituted.

34% of US Corn Harvest To Be Used for Ethanol

Despite the flooding in Iowa earlier this summer, the US is set to harvest its second largest corn crop ever.  Good news for the price of food for hungry people?  Not really, the USDA expects that 34% of the total corn crop will be used to make ethanol for biofuel. They project a price of $5-6 per bushel for the coming year, up from $4.25 for 2007/08. I can’t help but think that making fuel for SUVs out of food when there are still many poor, hungry people in the world is a bad idea.  But what do I know?

Volatile Rice Prices

There is a new Rice Outlook report from the Economic Research Service of the USDA.  I was surprised to see a forecast record harvest for the coming year, given the crazy price movements in rice this year and the dire predictions that were the rule earlier this summer.  At Costco in California, they actually rationed the 25 and 50 lb bags for a while, fearing a run on fancy rice (like Jasmine and Basmati).  I watched an irate shopper who was trying to buy 12 10 lb bags of rice get told that she couldn’t do it.  She nearly lost it. 

I plotted a couple of price quote series (for Thailand Grade B and Thailand Super A1 100% Broken).

Rice Trading Price, 2005-2008

The plot shows an astounding price increase over the beginning of 2008, nearly tripling the November 2007 price before plummeting again at the end of last month. 

It will be interesting to keep an eye on this.  As I mentioned in a previous post, nearly three billion of the world’s people rely on rice as a staple crop and most of these people are poor.  When the price of rice triples, people go hungry.  Roz Naylor has a nice video available on the Woods Institute for the Environment website explaining the food crisis of this spring and how it relates the the expansion of biofuels.

Guilty Confession

OK, I understand that agricultural diseases are devastating for both the farmers and people who rely on their produce to subsist, particularly in a world where food prices have increased dramatically in part due to agricultural losses from plant pathogens.  I just can’t help but find the names of many agricultural diseases amusing.  The one that comes immediately to mind is banana bunchy top virus, which has recently emerged in Angola.

Agricultural disease monikers seem to always be extremely descriptive.  Imagine if some human scourges followed the same convention: “black sores ringing groin disease” (plague), “lungs full of mucous” (influenza/pneumonia), “pus dripping from urethra” (gonorrhea, chlamydia).  Maybe not so amusing…

Pentailed Treeshrews Not Cheap Dates

A recent paper in PNAS documents the alcohol consumption patterns of pentailed treeshrews (Ptilocercus lowii) in Southeast Asian rainforests. These treeshrews consume fermented nectar on a daily basis from the flower buds of the bertam palm (Eugeissona tristis). The alcohol content of the fermented nectar averages 0.6% but gets as high as 3.8%. A proportionate amount of alcohol consumed by a human would be intoxicating but the treeshrews show no signs of intoxication.

Anesthetized Pentailed Treeshrew

The pentailed treeshrew resembles treeshrews that lived more than 55 million years ago and are believe to be ancestral to modern treeshrews and, more interestingly from an anthropocentric perspective, Primates. An interesting open question that remains from this work is how the treeshrews manage to not get blotto on rainforest palm wine.  

Cool paper, but I’m still struggling to parse this beauty of a sentence:

Nonetheless, alcohol intake in a living model for ancestral primates speaks against the claim that the sensitivity of basic biochemical pathways of normal learning to ingested alcohol could only evolve in the absence of dietary alcohol. 

Whatever that means…

The Mediterranean Diet and the New Food Pyramid

Nina Simonds’s website has a cool video of Walter Willett, author of the terrific book Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy, and professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.  Willett is one of the chief advocates of the Mediterranean diet, which stresses a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, grains, fish and the consumption of healthy fats.  The paradox of the Mediterranean diet is that while it is relatively high in the proportion of total calories derived from fat, the incidence of cardiovascular disease in Mediterranean countries is low relative to the United States.  A big part of this story probably lies in the types of fats consumed.  Olive oil, which is rich in LDL-reducing monounsaturated fat, is the principal cooking fat in the canonical Mediterranean diet.  This is probably not the entire story since there are, in fact, plenty of parts of the Mediterranean world where olive oil is not the primary cooking fat, but evidence nonetheless points to many health benefits of a diet where olive oil is substituted for much of the animal fat.

A diet that permits you, nay, encourages you to eat fried calamari (as long as it’s fried in canola oil) and drink red wine is all right by me!