Where’d the Pseudo Science Go? A Lion Ate It.

 

So, about that lion.

For about two week all of the mommy bloggers warning you about the dangers in your pantry have been eerily quiet. Have you noticed?

Since I got a little knowledge (a “dangerous thing”) about nutrition under my belt, the increasing volume of nutritional BS flying around the Internet has been getting to me. Ignore it, you say? That’s like ignoring a brontosaurus in the ladies’ room. It’s too big and obscene and unignorable. For a couple of years food alarmists have been inescapable..but there are gone. What’s up?

We have a new target. Monsanto is so yesterday. Some dentist, bless his heart, couldn’t think of anything better to do with his money than going to a country where things really want to eat you and shooting one of them just to prove that he was much cooler than a dentist is expected to be. E Voila, no more gluten warnings. No more GMO scares. No more bemoaning food born and a total lack of chem-trail alerts. One dead (“murdered”) King of the Jungle refocused the entire Internet from the government Big Ag, Big Food conspiracy and Bees, to boot, and got everyone talking about hanging a dentist. America, you are really easily distracted.

I’ve been unusually quiet and just deleting pictures of lions..actually hundreds of copies of pictures of the same lion..from various news feeds, quietly gleeful that big cat pushed out all the bogus nutritional crap, but then I got to thinking.

It’s not like big game hunting is new, you know. Where have all the lion lovers been until now? Why have they been so silent?

Personally, I have never cottoned to the idea of big game hunting. I have no particular feeling of kinship to the animals, but I figure they’re there and I’m here and if I travel anywhere it’s going to be a place with profiteroles, strudel or Cremant rather than one with thousands of insects and things you have to get shots for before getting your visa. Given the choice of a glass of bubbly and a perfect piece of Sacchertorte or sleeping under a net and watching for dropping snakes so you can shoot something exotic, I see no contest.

It was always my arrogant opinion that most of the people I associated with agreed that big game hunting is just dumb and really not a good idea unless the game is off in the bush eating adorable babies or disrupting some human order’s place at the top of the food chain like crocodiles or rogue elephants are occasionally wont to do.

It’s not that I, being an omnivore, would be opposed to killing animals on principal. There is, as a matter of fact a family of squirrels in my back forty I’d put six inches under in a heartbeat if I were a decent shot, but I and I thought my friends have always considered big game hunting just distasteful. Now, at least, my friends seem to be more impassioned about it.

I kind of get it: Lions and tigers and elephants, oh my, are quite lovely at a distance where you can’t see their parasites and you can’t see them tearing cuter things apart for lunch, and it is admittedly hard not to anthropomorphize them. “Look at that majestic creature. What magnificent thoughts he must be having,” (how good you’d taste.) And just flying to Africa to knock one off for the rug seems a pretty useless thing to do. As I said, I thought we all agreed on the vapid futility of shooting things you don’[t intend to eat, except for a few of our duller minded and richer brethren. But why have you, friends of Cecil, been silent for the past century as big game hunting became increasingly popular and accessible only to explode in social media rage now?

It seems the big game hunter who magnanimously has eclipsed Monsanto as target of national wrath jumped the shark (another endangered species) be carrying out the sport of big game in unsportsmanlike manner. For shame. He popped the cat out of bounds and used technology, which does indeed smack of cravenness, so I get the derision and the disdain, but I’m kind of thinking there is something odd about all of this sudden national venom against a dentist doing something people have known about for years. A lot of people kill a lot of things, and nobody wants to stone them hanging by their toes in the piazza. (except PETA and Green Peace, but really…do we want to take the outside wingnuts into consideration? I mean they’d rather we all died so that the non-human animal kingdom could rule uncontested.)

So what makes the dentist different? Could it be money. We double despise people who do things we can’t afford. Damn fat cats shooting our lion. (Seriously , had you ever heard of Cecil before the dentist kerfuffle?)

One of the requirements for big game hunting is a whole lot of money. You have to fly a long way, you have to get really expensive clothes from stores like Hammacher Schlemmer and special lion guns and pay for bearers who set you up as Bwana in a five star tent, also of your purchasing. There’s the expense of mosquito nets. You have to have bearers or rent big outback Land Rovers with Rhino armor and hire guides.
Dropping a leopard is a hell of a lot more expensive than a family week at Disneyland. It’s not something most of us are probably going to consider. It is an elite sport, and I wonder if that isn’t what most of the fury is about. It’s something they do. Not us, and we hate them even without the lion, so let’s have at it.
Nobody’s producing nasty hatey memes about trout fishers or Clem whose hounds just brought home a possum for the pot. Social media isn’t hating on elk hunting. In the South shooting feral pigs is rewarded, and nary a gardener has never sent a gopher trap..unfair to say the least. I just bought an electrified tennis racket for wasps and use it with glee. Wasps are critters, too. Outrage however seems reserved for exotic game in Africa.
What we, the 99%, bring down is OK, but the expensive big game kill is anethema. Maybe this is because our venom is very unlikely to touch any of our kin? If it had been a stag downed by a hunter in Wal Mart gear (and you can be sure that Bwana Dentist really, really wishes it was) nobody would be screaming. But he’s a rich guy. So it’s a national catastrophe. Women swoon. Men growl. Green Peace is orgasmic.

Whatever the cause, for two weeks Monsanto has not surfaced, Chemtrails reporting way down, gluten forgotten, GMO’s so yesterday, and vaccination required in California. I am really , really sorry that Cecil met a despicable death, but thank God that at last something has refocused the miniscule national attention span. It has been recently said (surely with sorrow) that Cecil is detrending. I wouldn’t know because I have blocked every site with his picture. His sacrifice, however will probably be lasting. The Pseudo Science noise is unlikely to return, because we now have Donald Trump to rile our minds.

Thanks Cecil.

 

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Woo Spotting Two: Who’s selling you a line about your food?

Who’s selling you a line about your food?

Recap: There are a lot of unprincipled pseudo-scientists whose business is lying to you about food and your health for profit.

The pseudo-science they pedal is called “woo”. Woo is generally fueled by exploiting anxiety, hope and concerns about health.

“Woo” sites have much in common including ample low hanging signs of disingenuous claims. We don’t need to discuss the values of their message to recognize the genre.

Woo Spotting Rule Number Two: Any person or site Claiming to Know the Cause or Cure for Multiple Disorders is a charlatan.

Bad News charlatans warn that one thing – wheat, a herbicide, artificial sweetener, GMO corn, milk – causes a wide array of ailments.

Remember William Davis, the publisher of the Wheat Belly series? The Canadian Broadcast Company aired a fascinating study of Davis’ claims and practices  in The War on Wheat in the news program The Fifth Estate.  Davis claims that alterations in wheat during the “Green Revolution” are responsible for most of the feared diseases of our age.  In this screen shot you can see some of the ailments Davis claims are Caused by gluten.

Predatory quack William Davis.

William Davis preaches Wheat Belly. CDC: The Fifth Estate.

One food component, gluten, causes all that? Do you really think that possible. Remember the last rule? If it doesn’t make sense it’s probably bogus? Does this really make sense? .

Consider  Kevin Trudeau, the author of The Natural Cures Book  doing ten years in prison for fraud in his diet book. The book promises cures for cancer, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, chronic fatigue syndrome and every other grand 21st century affliction. Trudeau does not focus on one “natural” ingredient but provides a compendium which will save you from modern medicine.

The good news charlatans, Davis’ counterparts, claim on a myriad of web sites that a natural product like Vinegar or Garlic is a better cure than traditional medication for a catalog of ills. This is a little more sinister. People can die and have died from these claims. Steve Jobs did.

Some compounds in some foods and plants do, of course, have impact on disease or metabolic function, but legitimate research deals with these one component and one ailment at a time in disciplined detail.  Science and accurate medicine is not based on instant insight – for instance Davis’ appendicitis revelation – but on years of painstaking experiments. If you believe that the Virgin Mary appeared on a piece of toast, that’s fine, but you should not believe that a scientific truth about a dread disease would reveal itself to someone who then monetizes it.

Science is complicatedWoo is simple.  Legitimate research deals with one aspect of a food at a time, with one disease at a time. Pseudo scientists intuit panaceas.

Woo Spotting Rule Number Two:

Frauds promise easy answers and “natural’ cures for the great puzzles of medicine: Parkinson, Alzheimer’s, Diabetes, The Common Cold or Crohn Disease. They exploit the scariest and most dramatic bogey men of health to separate you from your wallet. Parkinson’s is sexier than piles of ingrown toenails.

They dish up misinformation suggesting that conditions which have puzzled legitimate science for years can be conquered with simple ingredients or their own supplements, but, Garlic does not kill cancer .Safeway does not sell Miracle cures. Juice cures cannot replace the tools standard medicine has thus far developed, as incomplete as they are. It’s sad, but it’s true. Nor will a single ingredient prevent cancer or heart disease.

Legitimate researchers need years to determine which components of foods  impact a condition – metabolism, weight gain, tumor growth, dementia, for instance –  positively or negatively, and they never (ever) market their findings themselves. They publish them in scientific journals. Science Daily is a site where you can check for published studies. Charlatans use their observations for which they seek out corroborating anecdotes to create alarm or hope.

Scientists do research. Pseudo scientists feign enlightenment. Scientists publish peer reviewed studies in journals. Pseudo-scientists self promote.

Summary so far: If a web site or a person suggests that a food or food trait causes or a cures multiple ailments or that a food can cause or cure dramatic, feared diseases for which no trained and dedicated teams of researchers have been able to find an answer, they are predators and you are prey. They are messing with you, exploiting your fears and hopes. You have nothing to gain.

 

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Late Breaking News. Food Babe Smack Down.

Talk about Timing.

Summarizing the last post, there are people who manage to convince others that what they eat and drink is bad for them, motivating them to purchase books, supplements and a load of wrongness. The most influential of them is Vani Hari, who calls herself Food Babe, exploits her readers’ lack of scientific sophistication and bullies companies with bad science.

Hari is probably more low life cunning than smart; she lacks the foresight to check her information before launching a campaign, leading her to make pronouncements that the airlines insert nitrogen into the air and food should not contain chemicals, but she’s pretty and with a background in marketing she’s hoisted her star to celebrity status. Time Magazine counts her among the 30 most influential people in America. That’s about to change.

Food Babe has pissed off a lot of people, some who mock her with names like Food Chick and Science Chick on web sites and social media. One of them, Science Babe, a blogging chemist whose real name is Yvette D’Entremont, has had Hari in her cross hairs for some time. Yesterday she blind sided her in a Gawker article titled “The Food Babe Blogger is full of Shit”.  Ouch, Food Babe shot back with a nasty bit of Ad hominem, stating that she was “full of Love”,  but D’Entremont is “probably pro chemical..” which, considering that D’Entremont is a chemist might be the first accurate statement Food Babe has made. Science Babe won the round and possibly the war in an unfair fight, as chemist D’Entremont actually knows what she is talking about.

This is not the first time the media has focused on Food Babe. Last month the New York Times published a measured piece and NPR aired a critical segment in December, but both remained without fallout. (It seems logical that the NYT piece may have moved Gawker to ask D’Entremont for an article). D’Entremont’s hilarious rant, however, hit home.

Her dead eye accurate shots from the hip on Gawker’s more popular platform unleashed what promises an avalanche of Food Babe bashing. Goody. Science seems to  have kicked Hari smack in the Hubris.

Food Babe is full of Shit hit a chord. Popular print media began responding in a sort of Let’s Pile on Food Babe rush within twenty four hours of the article. Scores of social media pages and the Internet sites, always looking for something titillating and surely delighted by a chick fight, picked up the thread and ran with it. (Disclaimer: Food Babe is a chick. Science Babe is a whip smart, funny chemist who happens to be one and knows how to use it.)

By a couple of hours ago Cosmopolitan, Elle, Charlotte’s WBTV (Hari is a native daughter), Boing Boing, The Washington Post, Bostinno (D’Entremonte is native daughter), the Times Picayune / Nola , Vox, the NRA (rifles, not restaurant) had run with the story. Expect at least that many pick ups by tomorrow.

Science blogs are eating  it up, but they are mostly preaching to the choir. It’s the general media whose criticism of  the Food Babe enterprise promise to harm or destroy it.

There is a noticeable effect. A growing number of individual blogs like this one are picking up the story as it trickles through to them. Science Babe’s Twitter account looks like a one armed bandit spitting out quarters with several new Tweets every minute.

Score: real science: 1, charlatanry: 0.

You will be hearing a lot more about D’Entremont. She looks to be the next It Girl in the weird on-line nutrition world, there are more dragons to slay, and she waves a wicked sword / pen / keyboard. For one thing, she has a book in the works, “Science Babe’s Guide to BS Detection.

That is, in fact, what I set out to do in the current series of posts, but Science Babe will do it better.

I predict that this is the beginning of the end for Food Babe, whose disciples will support her faithfully until they have an opportunity to laugh at her and take outrage. It’s too early to say “good riddance”, but let’s hope.

As I said, talk about timing. Thanks Science Babe.

Update: Three days after Science Babe’s thrown gauntlet more official sites have reported on the argument and thus on Food Babe, and the list of independent blogs in which the conflict is mentioned has exploded. (To see some of them go to www.duckduckgo.com and type in the search criteria +”science babe” +”Food Babe”.

The most desirable outcome of Science Babe’s blog, besides her book becoming a block buster, would be for Food Babe to be so weakened that she disappears somewhat like the witch in The Wizard of Oz. This could never be achieved by logic. Logic rarely converts. But ridicule works wonders.

Suddenly (as of Today) #Foodbabefacts is trending. The additions appear to be coming at the rate of about six a second. If this is not a blip, Vani Hari, who conned thousands via social media may just have been  hoist by her own petard.

Pile on: https://twitter.com/search?f=realtime&q=%23foodbabefacts&src=typd

 

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Lies Damn Lies: The Great Food Anxiety Con

How to spot the woo pitcher wooing you.

Introduction.

Let’s hear it for Orthorexia Nervosa, the new eating disorder caused by the Internet. It’s a capital way to lose weight – even better than gluten intolerance – but it takes a lot of fun out of dinner.

food wooSufferers fear food, or rather “toxins”,  impurities and unhealthy elements contained in food. They are afraid of “chemicals”, GMO’s, Additives, of government conspiracies to allow “Big-Pharma” and “Big-Ag” to foist dangerous foods onto trusting consumers. Leary of food born poisoning and an endless catalog of dread diseases like cancer, autism and Alzheimer’s they juice, detox, restrict their diets and spend a lot of money on costly supplements, often provided by the people who warn them about the risks in their groceries.

Orthorexia is a form of Anorexia you can catch from blogs and TV. Its alternative name is Food Babe Syndrome, after Internet faux nutrition and pseudo science guru Vani Hari  who alerts her leagues of followers to the dangers lurking on their plates. Hari’s anxious fan base is so vast that her coverage has forced corporations like Subway and large breweries to change their production processes based on incorrect claims regarding their ingredients.

Her followers distrust their food and the sources providing it based on her uninformed pronouncements and scare tactics.  unnecessary angst. 

Hari, who has become so influential that she is one of the choices for Time Magazine’s Person of the year for 2015, is one of  a widening circle of food prophets and profiteers whose product is nutritional angst. Counting on confirmation bias among their followers they sell wheat belly, chemical warnings, agricultural panic and what is generally known as “woo” or food charlatanry to a frightened public through self proclaimed advocacies to “protect the consumer” from supposed lies and machinations and conspiracies of science, government and industry – the ever present them we all know is out to get us.

These “advocacies” are in reality profitable businesses which provide the speakers generous returns from books, speaking engagements, supplement sales along with the fame, all at the low cost of an internet page and a good spiel. The “advocates” are today’s equivalent of the frontier’s traveling snake oil salesman, operating in a nearly uncontrolled wild west environment of the World Wide Web. They prey on scientifically unsophisticated consumers, you and me, with a smoke and mirrors mix of  clever misrepresentation and confounding of scientific data or lack of it and plain hogwash dressed up in scientific sounding words such as “excitotoxin”, a rich command of fallacies and vague references to reports by scientists and  “medical doctors”.

It is easy to see how people come to believe their omnipresent messages. They are inescapable and broadcast by hoards of well meaning or well profiting web sites whose memes flood every social media.

The more popular they become, the more difficult it gets to find factual information about the food risks, wonder cures and all round quackery they disseminate.  Internet search algorithms favor the most visited sites, not the most accurate (although this may change soon if Google actually begins to rank sites for accuracy). 

This is partially due to the fact that legitimate scientists spend most of their time doing science, not promoting it, while the pseudo-science salespeople put all of their effort into marketing their message and themselves. 

Take the wheat belly myth, for instance. A search for William Davis’ highly profitable fiction “Wheat Belly Series” yields pages of misinformation, most by Davis himself. If you succeed in finding any scientifically accurate information on his message it will be after ten pages of links. This exceptional video by the Canadian Broadcasting Company, for instance, can only be found if you know it exists. (update: a repeated search revealed several links to critical commentary on the first Google Page. That was not the case previously, so the new Google algorithm may be in trials.)

The new age snake oil sales men and women’s endeavors find support in mainstream media.  Seeking what readers apparently want to hear or perhaps simply no longer staffed well enough to carry out good research, otherwise reputable publications broadcast unsupported claims regarding foods, additives, health claims, health warnings and holistic cures. Outlets like the Huffington Post and at times PBS have either reported their stories or have adherents on their staff, to the dismay of legitimate scientists. UPI has incorrectly reported pseudo-science as fact, and Consumer Reports has a well known pseudo-science activist on their writing staff.

The level of “woo” on the Internet and in media has exploded in the last three years. It is a serious problem, which has so far attracted very little investigation.

Most of us are not  going to develop eating disorders or buy supplements from Joseph Mercola, but we will be less secure in our food decisions, and we are more likely as citizens to call for government intervention where none is necessary or where a stand by government agencies could have negative effects on issues like genetic crop engineering or food restrictions based on misinformation presented to us as science.

In supporting or not opposing these food cult leaders, many of whom also support the even more damaging message that vaccination causes autism, we support their claims of alternate cancer cures and vaccination opposition. (Oddly, most of them oppose vaccination in addition to accepted food practices and foods. They cause harm.

That’s just wrong. No. It’s evil. Anyone who makes you anxious for eating a hot dog or a cup of cherry vanilla ice cream – Anyone who rains on  your food parade or endangers your health with profit in mind – deserves to be censured, silenced or even imprisoned. This rarely happens.

For the considerable financial rewards they reap, pseudo-science advocates” face scant accountability. Joseph Mercola  who opposes Vaccination (as does Hari) and genetically engineered crops has been censored by the FDA.    ABC’s television doctor Mehmet Oz, who perpetuates the claims of the best known charlatans was chastised in a Senate hearing by Claire McCaskill last June, and TV diet pitchman Kevin Trudeau was sentenced to ten years in prison after violating the terms two previous judicial slaps on the wrist, but for most of the players the risk benefit ration of accountability is heavily weighted to the benefit side with nearly personal risk to the bloggers or authors or messiahs from their misleading and  damaging claims.

That means we are on our own when faced with food questions. If there were no real nutritional threats like e-coli infections or the overuse of antibiotics in meat production, we could simply ignore warnings about the food we buy. That is not the case, so we need ways to determine what information presented to us is credible and what is not.

For the past weeks I have been gathering sites and “tells” which sometimes obviously, sometimes less so show what you can generally assume is woo and what sources can be trusted along with a compendium of fallacies used in the charlatan’s art. There are too many to deal with all at once, so the will be offered  in installments.

Here is a starter:

If it doesn’t make sense, it’s probably not true

Conspiracy theories.

Nearly all of the pseudo-science gurus use conspiracy theories to make their readers  insecure. By undermining trust in existing government watchdogs and scientific organizations they bind their readers to their own ends.

Take the claim that the government and industries are in cahoots to keep you in the dark about the dangers of pesticides and technologies whose end result will be to poison and kill you and make half of the children in this country autistic. (But the guru will save you).

The financial incentives of the villains, both governmental and industrial don’t add up. What would be the outcome if they succeeded.

  1. Death or disablement would remove tax payers from the nation’s income stream.
  2. The expense of caring for predictably half of the country’s children, now autistic and probably orphaned,  and their surviving but disabled parents would break the country, which would have no money anyway, because all the tax payers would be dead or poisoned.

Why would the government do this? What possible incentive could they have? This would require a whole lot of work and time with what reward? And what part of the government is involved in the conspiracy? The FDA? Congress, which can’t even agree on a budget? Are they that organized and effective? The President?

Who would profit and how? What’s in it for “them”, whoever “they” are? Big Ag would not be able to sell its products to a population it has managed to decimate.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?  Even your congressional representatives are too smart for that.

Could the FDA be messing up or not doing its job? Surely.  The Veterans Administration did for years, but malfeasance with limited returns is not very likely. Remember there are hundreds of thousands of skeptical science people around the country just waiting for the Department of Agriculture or the FDA to get anything wrong and then point it out in huge gaffaws. They don’t exactly operate in a vacuum.

As a side exercise you might want to ask yourself what Davis earns on his book empire, what Hari asks for a speaking engagement or what Mercola earns from his supplements that might motivate them to create distrust in the establishment.

The conspiracy theory just doesn’t wash. It’s purpose is to intimidate you, to make you dependent on Hari or Mercola or Mike Adams, Deepak Chopra (yes, he’s in the mix..sorry) or any of the other big lie advocates.

Follow the money. Or lack of it. That conspiracy receives a total of five woo stars, three for creativity and two for outrageous.

First rule of spotting woo: Forget your fears and ask yourself: Does this really make sense. Have fun.

More to come.

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Fear and Loathing in the Produce Isles

For several years American Consumers have been exposed to an onslaught of misleading and alarming information about the foods they eat and the plants they grow. The most common of the “pseudo-scientific” or, really, unscientific claims have ignited a passionate anti-GMO movement, whose adherents believe that crops altered by genetic engineering, either by the insertion of a gene slice from the same or another organism or the use of a protein in the organic bacterial pesticide Bacterium Thuringiensis to protect plants from predators are toxic, dangerous and will destroy the environment. The Anti-GMO faction believes that the American Government conspires with “Big Ag” and “Big Food” to poison its citizens, that genetically engineered organisms and the pesticides they are engineered to resist are carcinogens, that the pesticides used on engineered organisms are killing off bees and lepidoptera and will result in over half of US Children will be autistic by mid-century, that the policies of the companies holding patents for the seeds have caused famine in the third world and wide spread suicide among farmers ruined by corporate policy and that GMO crops will cause loss of all plant diversity.

In 2014 I chose the topic of GMO fears as the subject for a paper for the excellent McGill University course 181X, Food for Thought. It’s point was not to refute the anti GMO claims but to examine the means by which half of the “greatest country on earth” and much of Europe have come not only to accept and fear them as proven fact but to defend them tooth and nail against legitimate research. A list of sources of legitimate information, which is extremely hard to find due to the proliferation of pseudo-science on the Internet, is provided below. Here is the paper:

According to an ABC poll [1] earlier this year, 52% of Americans believe that genetically modified foods are unsafe to eat and 13% are “unsure” Two thirds of the American public fear a technology that has been proven safe to the extent that proving anything safe is possible – Genetically engineered organisms have been shown to be safe not only by extensive FDA, independent, and international research. No legitimate studies have been able to show any correlation between modified crop consumption or agriculture and harm to humans, the environment or other organisms.

The European Commission invested over 450 million Euros between the years 2001 and 2010 on research exploring potential risks of modified organisms. None were found. [2] Not one of the many governmental and private research organizations around the world which have tested genetic engineering extensively for potential hazards has yet been successful in detecting risk.

The attitudes of 52% of American consumers and activists range from mild concern to outrage and extreme fear. Activists and voters have attempted and in Hawaii briefly succeeded in passing bans on GMO crops. Over half of the American population demand that any GMO foods be labeled. This demand includes foods containing sugars – fructose and sucrose – which are chemical compounds indistinguishable from/ identical to sugars from non-GMO crops. Consumer pressure has moved corporations like General Mills to remove GMO ingredients from their foods with the ironic result that those products cannot be vitamin fortified and are thus less healthy.

Consumer ecological and world political objections range from fears that modified organisms will wipe out genetic diversity to Vandana Shiva’s claim that practices of companies like Monsanto, the producer of Roundup and patent holder for many GMO seed varieties have driven Indian peasants to commit suicide. [4].

If GMO crops have been researched and found safe by the world’s most respected organizations and promise real solutions for current and coming ecological and world nutritional challenges, how can two thirds of American consumes reject them? How does myth, ignorance and decidedly cultish belief trump empirical data in the national consciousness?

Very few people even understand what GMO means, for one thing.

What is a “GMO”.

A GMO is a Genetically Modified Organism, which leaves the unfortunate impression that there are tiny life forms or chemical bits in GMO products. BT corn and Roundup Resistant soy are GMO’s. Cattle and Pork are not GMO’s, but cattle or chicken which has been fed genetically engineered corn or soy is termed GMO by those with GMO agendas and concerns. Sugar, as explained above, is not GMO, but soft drinks, tomato sauce or baked goods containing sugar produced from genetically modified sugar beets are inappropriately classified “GMO’s”, leading to the inaccurate claim that 90% of the food sold in America is GMO.

Crops are genetically engineered for various reasons and by various methods – generally the process involves isolating a gene from a related or unrelated organism with a desired characteristic, creating a ‘vector’ of that gene, injecting the vector into a bacterium in turn is used to “infect” plant cells [3].The desired altered characteristic of the organism can be water tolerance in rice, bacterial resistance in threatened species like papayas, grapes, mangos or creating grapes resistant to the devastating bacterium xylella fastidosa. A protein from a bacterium (Bacillus Thuringiensis) is inserted into the corn genome to prevent corn borer infection. The most despised and feared GMO products are glyphosate resistant plants, also known as “Roundup Ready”. Roundup is the brand of Glyphosate produced by Monsanto.

Thre are very few GMO crop varieties in production. The only commercially produced crops are corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, squash, and papaya. A newly developed Potato strain has just been released for planting, as well, and a recently announced strain of browning resistant apples is expected to be available for sale in about two years. No distribution company at this stage. however, would be prepared to bring arugula or melons with altered genes to the market. None the less, customers demand that oatmeal be labeled for genetically altered strains and ask at farmers’ markets is the strawberries are GMO free.

Many countries in Europe have bowed to public pressure and have blocked planting of some of these crops. Note that these decisions were made to comply with public sentiment and not scientific data.

We are romantics and we tend to be luddites.
Or perhaps we are simply hopelessly nostalgic. When Alice Waters stood on the steps of San Francisco City Hall and smiled benevolently over the hundreds of volunteers who had fought tooth and nail to have a spot getting their hands dirty in the Garden For America, an entire nation went out and bought potting soil, throwback overalls and canning jars. America now pickles, cans and puts up wearing designer overalls. Chemistry, physics and big industry – big food, big ag, big resale, big chemistry – has no place in the romantic imagination of people who envision their carrots dug one at a time from a halcyon garden.

When Friederich Wohler first managed to synthesize urea from organic compounds (not from pee) in the 19th century, thus paving the way for synthetic adrenaline and many other chemicals the scientific community was outraged at the suggestion that living juices should not contain “vital essences”. Today the “vital force theory” still exists. [3] If God had intended us to fly, he would have given us wings. Our religious roots offer world views based on belief rather than knowledge – sects like Rosicrucians and Christian Scientists reject proven medical treatment in favor of faith. We have snake dancers.

We are lazy thinkers. We want simple answers to complex questions. We perceive, partially due to more and more alarming media coverage, that many frightening diseases have exploded into the population during the same period that GMO crops were being first developed then introduced, so we want to believe that doing away with the science will reduce the incidence of cancer, autism and many others. We would rather believe charismatic speakers or writers than deal with analytical reality, which requires curiosity and some effort. In matters GMO I have heard the arguments, “You may have some facts, but I have to go with my heart” (as in Jonestown or anti vaccination?) and, “It’s best not to fool with mother nature,”, that maternal giver of polio, athletes foot, hemorrhoids, tsunamis and locust swarms. By all means. Trust Mom.

Most of us understand little or no science and are not interested in finding out: We are not a stupid country, but neither are we as a whole well educated. According to New York Magazine writer Jim Holt less than 10% of Americans are scientifically literate. [5] Radical anti GMO activists make fruitful use of this. I once heard an anti-GMO speaker shout to a crowd: “ I want you to ask every waiter in every restaurant, to ask every butcher, every grocer, ‘Is this MUTANT food.” And the crowd roared agreement. The crowd did not know the meaning of “mutant”. As a people we Americans lack both the vocabulary and the critical skills to distinguish between truth and rhetoric.

Americans are not critically trained: We like to believe: We are seduced by sensationalist media and the false prophets, snake oil salesmen, charlatans and quacks. If enough celebrities speak to an issue, we generally believe them. We lack the tools to determine the accuracy of studies and scientific predictions.

The GMO panic began with a 1999 publication in the Lancet by S.W. Ewen and Arpad of the Rowett Research Institute Pusztai stating that rats fed on GM potatoes suffered intestinal damage[6] [11], followed by the publication of a study by Gilles-Éric Séralini[8] stating that rats fed GMO corn suffered alarming rates of cancer. Although the first study was retracted and the research money returned by Rowett and the second ingloriously withdrawn (it has since been republished to provide the text), the anxiety they created remains in a bizarre Internet version of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. – the more legitimate science tries to explain how facts worth, the more traction those dealing with angst and hyperbole attain. Anit GMO writers base many of their arguments on “Scientists have proven”, or “A published scientific article proves,” using these studies. They are convincing. Vani Hari actually persuaded the government of famine struck Zambia to reject shipments of life saving food on Hari’s advice. [16]

We are swamped by misinformation: Not only does passionate and irrational GMO opposition linger despite the efforts of concerned scientists to educate the public, but fanned by a celebrity created by the GMO debate it has all but overtaken the Internet and media. The anti-science community is now a profitable and well connected industry. One of the country’s impressive quacks, Dr. Joseph Mercola, has since taken up the anti GMO cause. Mercola [8] who is one of the forces behind the anti-vaccination campaign and who has been censured by the FDA [9] for other dangerous claims and practices is a frequent guest of Dr Oz, a highly vocal GMO opponent. (Oz has begun to distance himself from GMO opposition since the end of February 2014, but it is unclear where he stands at this time.)

Misinformation is an industry: Mercola is a relatively small fry compared to Vedana Shiva, a heroin of the Earth Justice movement, who has been honored for her work. It was Shiva who claimed that hundreds of Indians had committed suicide because they could no longer afford seed, among other things. She has recently been much in the news in a bust up with New Yorker science writer Michael Specter, who challenged the accuracy of her statements. [10] Shiva published a venomous ad homonym response, to which Specter’s editor, David Remnick, replied with violent logic.[17]

Slow Food: The most illustrious name to ascend the soap box is probably Alice Waters: It’s a very big important thing. We are talking about the seeds that gives us life. To imagine a company that wants to buy those seeds, patent those seeds, alter those seeds and and sell them back to us, it’s criminal.” [12] Waters, the poster child for the Slow Food Movement, follows founder and leader Carlo Petrini’s doctrine, and foodies follow Alice.

The disciples: Their followers blog, and blogs become memes. Organic Consumers’ blog tells you ten ways (they say) GMO will kill you. [13] Taking things one step further “Food Babe” has set the Internet afire with claims that “wheat belly”, since the question of gluten sensitivity has been laid to rest, is caused by glyphosate sprayed on wheat – even though the wheat is not GMO. [14]. There are so many of these blogs that finding reliable and fact based information has become extremely difficult.

Innumerable irresponsible sites like Realfarmacy.com, which hosts pieces by Mercola, offer a potpourri of faux science, alarmism and sensational misinformation, which is spread as memes via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Social networking has given false prophets a platform and leant quackery wings.

The established media repeats and thus affirms the claims: From lone prophets to the respected media: As the sheer volume of Anti-GMO sites and followers makes data harder and harder to find, legitimate organizations like NPR and Consumer Digest miss on fact checking and support the myth rather than the data. The UPI mistakenly picked up and broadcast vaccination opponent Stephanie Seneff’s claim that glyphosate (Roundup) would make half of all babies autistic stating that “MIT Scientist Claims..” , news outlets reprint the allegations,  and it’s a wrap. The entire country believes false statements, since they come from trusted sources.

Universities legitimize the myths: The interaction of popular intellectual media and Universities have given Anti GMO authors and journalists like Michael Polan and Mark Bittman a legitimizing forum for thee philosophies in which they Believe. Marion Nestle of NYU, Bittman and Polan, who heads the Department of Journalism at Berkeley have all spoken against Genetically engineered crops. [17] University of California Berkely is currently offering a course in Food policy, Edible Education 101 [18] .
Stephanie Senneff presents herself and is presented by the media and Anti-GMO activists as an “MIT scientist,”  which makes here the defacto voice of MIT.

What’s in it for the writers, for the bloggers and the followers? Follow the money: Grants, speakers’ fees, web sites selling cures. Ads on blogs. Vedana Shiva demands $40,000 per speaking engagement. She appears to live well. [16] Mercola pushes miracle cures. Oz has his media empire. As for the new girl on the block, Stepehanie Seneff, whose prediction that glyphosate, the herbicide used in some GMO plantings would cause half the country to be autistic: speakers fees and possibly the gratification of being celebrated as the voice of MIT on issues biochemical. (Seneff is a computer science professor, not a microbiologist).
Further down the disinformation chain there is social cohesion. Belief and belonging foster identity. Once believers join the march they are members of a community which tolerates no contradiction.

What about the politics? A tricky part about the public consensus of democracy is that people believe that everything is democratic, including science. It is not. Science is evidence based, or to use a nice word, “empirical”. Daniel Moynihan’s :”You are entitled to your own opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.”  is poorly understood. Equipped with fear and a surplus of bad information a growing number of not only Americans but Europeans have begun to demand either that GMO foods be labeled or be forbidden altogether. The Council of Europe in a bow to public opinion granted member nations the right to ban import of GMO crops, and some  have. The California County of Sonoma and Kauai in Hawaii voted on outright bans on GMO growing. The Sonoma proposition lost, but Hawaii’s passed. It has since been overturned. Politics overrules science, and by doing so negates science.

Readers’ Digest Version: A small number of blogging public activists used a discredited study to promote an anti-science / pseudo-science agenda. Their misinformation is picked up and promoted first by media figures and food celebrities then by legitimate media sources, leading an unquestioning and scientifically poorly educated public to fear food created by genetic engineering. Activists who profit from the GMO hysteria use this fear to demand cessation of genetically engineered farming and failing that to demand labelling of all products containing any substances derived from genetically engineered crops. A bad study leads to national hysteria.

There are, however, a few bright points. The media seems to be picking up on a nascent “Science is Cool” sentiment. Oz appears to have changed his opinion, Celebrity Scientist Neil DeGrasse Tyson has come out against pseudo scientists with his usual short tempered accuracy, and hysteria usually dies down at some point. And then there are a few very sane and very clear and unbiased voices.

Nathanael Johnson, a refreshingly unbiased agriculture writer for the ecology site, www.gryst.com, has written a series on the truth and myths of GMO’s. He has a few more ideas as to the cause of the roots of genetic hysteria. For one thing, says Johnson, the company associated with GMO crops and Roundup is Monsanto, the company responsible for and still closely associated with Agent Orange, which, in turn, is emotionally linked to Roundup. “For most people, I suspect, GMOs are a metaphor — a stand-in for of all that is vaguely frightening in our food system. People attach their mistrust of agribusiness and fear of the unknown to this metaphor.”

Bibliography and Footnotes.

1) Gary Langer. Skepticism of Genetically Modified Foods. ABC Poll. June 19/?. http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=97567Poll: Skepticism of Genetically Modified Foods 2) A Decade of EU Funded GMO research 2. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, decade of EU Funded Research, ISBN 978-92-79-16344-9 / doi 10.2777/97784 3) Ronald, Pamela C; R.W. Adamchak, Tomorrow’s Table. Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food. 5) JIM HOLT, Madness About a Method. New York Times Magazine December 11, 2005 6) David H. Freedman Scientific American The Truth About Genetically Modified Food Aug 20,2013. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-truth-about-genetically-modified-food/?page=1 7) Worstall, Forbes. 11/30/2013 That Appalling Seralini GMO Cancer Paper Has Been Withdrawn 8) Joseph Mercola’s Blog: http://gmo.mercola.com/ 9) Quack Watch.Com – http://www.quackwatch.com/11Ind/mercola.html 10)Michael Specter, Seeds of Doubt. Annals of Science August 25, 2014 Issue http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/08/25/seeds-of-doubt

11) Mischa Popoff & Patrick Moore & Robert Wager, Organics versus GMO: Why the debate? October 15, 2013, Genetic Literacy Project http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2013/10/15/organics-versus-gmo-why-the-debate/ 12) Alice Waters Discusses Food, Community, and GMOs November 14, 2012 Yoli’s Green Living. http://yolisgreenliving.com/2012/11/alice-waters-discusses-food-community-gmos/ [13] Alexis Baden-Mayer & Ronnie Cummins, Ten ways GMO foods are killing you – And the Planet Organic Consumers Association, February 1, 2012 http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_24800.cfm 14) The Healthy Home Economist. http://www.thehealthyhomeeconomist.com/real-reason-for-toxic-wheat-its-not-gluten/
15) Carlo Petrini. Ten Reasons to Say No GMOS Italy – March 5, 2015 – Carlo Petrini http://www.slowfood.com/international/food-for-thought/focus/71683/ten-reasons-to-say-no-gmos/q=25F06E 16) Keith Kloor, The Rich Allure of a Peasant Champion. Discover Magazine. October 23, 2014 3:29 pm 17) David Remnick, New Yorker editor David Remnick responds to Vandana Shiva criticism of Michael Specter’s profile The Genetic Literacy Project. September 2, 2014 http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2014/09/02/new-yorker-editor-david-remnick-responds-to-vandana-shiva-criticism-of-michael-specters-profile/ 18) Nathaneal Johnson, Panic-Free-GMO’s. Grist.com July 8, 2013 continuing.

16) BBC: Zambia rejects GMO food aid. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/2371675.stm

17) Marion Nestle, Mark Bittman and Michael Polan
Rebuttal to Mark Bittman on GMO’s

Mark Bittman gets the science wrong (again) on Roundup – New York Food | Examiner.com

http://www.forbes.com/sites/jonentine/2014/01/06/agent-orange-gmo-after-usda-backs-24-d-seeds-michael-pollan-marion-nestle-lead-activist-hype-of-discredited-link/

18) The UC Berkely course Edible Education 101. http://edibleschoolyard.org/ee101

Further reading:

http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2013/10/15/organics-versus-gmo-why-the-debate/

http://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2013/11/30/that-appalling-seralini-gmo-cancer-paper-has-been-withdrawn/

Nathanael Johnson, Gryst. http://grist.org/food/rat-retraction-reaction-journal-pulls-its-gmos-cause-rat-tumors-study/ GMO mythbuster.

http://grist.org/food/gmo-labeling-trick-or-treat/

Nathanael Johnson’s Panic-Free-GMO series in Gryst.com beginning 8 Jul 2013 http://grist.org/series/panic-free-gmos/

(this post is about 07 Adverse Food Reactions / Food Production Stories)

Scienced Based Medicine: http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org

International Scientific Organizations and State and international health organizations stating that GMO’s cause no risk. http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/GLP-Science-and-GMOs.pdf

The New York Times on Vani Hari, the most prolific of the anti GMO food bloggers and vaccination deniers: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/15/style/taking-on-the-food-industry-one-blog-post-at-a-time.html?_r=0

 

 

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In the Land of the Blind….

Getting Food Smart, II

The Harvard Course I took provided me with terrific and occasionally but not often useful insights on modernist cuisine. It made me poorer, as I ended up buying myself a graduation gift – a $200 Anova  immersion circulator followed by the online digital copy of Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist cuisine at a for students only reduced price of about sixty bucks.

While the Anova is enormously entertaining and really offers a new dimension to cooking – and I will eventually figure out how to get 64 degree eggs to come out without a mantle of snot and be able to shell them, I swear – the book is not better than the $2500 tome, except that it takes up less shelf space. Joy of cooking still does it for most things.

Having not only somehow passed the Harvard course, I continued on with a course on world nutrition and nutritional science offered by McGill University in Canada – specifically offered by three to my mind very handsome professors backed up by a bevy of delightful assistants, and I managed to pick up some interesting information which seriously contradicts common beliefs.

This has become an issue. I think I mentioned that. The problem is that knowing something – actually knowing just about anything about food, agriculture and nutrition these days sets you apart from the crowd, or at least my crowd.

People are distressingly misinformed about so many things they proclaim loudly. That would be, for instance, the value of organic food or local food (silly idea) or Genetic Engineering. Anecdotally (the courses have me hooked on empirically tested statements, which I can’t provide, since I don’t have grant money to do legitimate research) the vast majority of people I know believe passionately that GMO crops are dangerous, and a great number of them neither know what crops those would be (few) or really what GMO is. This is very handy for them, as it sets them in concord with all their friends.

Until the shoddy research revealing the damages of gluten to people who are not celiac, any gathering of women I participated in would contain a fair group of “gluten intolerant” individuals attempting to convert the rest of us to a gluten free lifestyle which would cure out wheat belly and brain fog. Actually they still do, even though the existence of non-celiac gluten intolerance has been roundly disproved and the original “study” shamed and withdrawn. I demurred at one and nobody talked to me the rest of the evening. (I had just undergone testing for Celiac and was delighted not to be a sufferer. They were delighted with their common affliction, it seemed.)

Facts, schmacts. Belief is what counts.

I have issues with belief which far transcend a firm grasp of evolution (the mechanism for creationist beliefs and GMO damage or anti vaccination beliefs is exactly the same). Easily swayed by alarmists, too many of my otherwise smart friends join the avalanche of misinformation and spread the alarm.

Let’s get to belief later. For the moment let’s talk about me, and if you haven’t removed yourself from the subscription list, you. What I/we have found out since being empowered with actual empirical data is that it sets one unpleasantly apart. Facts can outrage and insult. There is no way to say “No, not really,” to a friend who parrots the latest Luddite meme and still remain friends. The relation turns frosty, and you won’t be invited to their next grass fed Bar B Que.

I got kicked out of Slow Food for stating a truth, although nothing as upsetting as a rejection of locavorism.I kept to myself. (What? No bananas? Get real.)  At least I think that’s why. In an early leader meeting I contradicted Marion Nestle’s assertion that the problem with Food in the United States (“our culture”) is that it is too cheap.

Excuse me, Ms Nestle – but have you tried to buy pot roast recently? Alice Waters was there, as was her old college roommate sitting next to me, who profited from the relation and slow food by eventually becoming Prince Charles’ PR person – I think he had an organic food line or cookies or something like that. As for wardrobe, Waters does not dumpster dive and the roommate was wearing what looked to me like Farogamo sandals with a pretty nifty pedicure, so deducting that nobody there had ever experienced the privilege of poverty and perspective it provides I decided unwisely to enlighten the Slow Food nobles. That was kind of like inviting the SS to a Seder. I had, and I told them that I had shopped in places where I was the only one not on food stamps and watched grandmothers with four kids in tow load up carts with cocktail wieners, which were on special for fifty cents a can, then not have enough food stamps to pay for them.

I was hushed up, and eventually drummed out of the corps. I assume the “food is only too cheap if you have a lot of money” snipe was the cause, but occasional comments about other SF dogma surely did not help, There were, of course, the usual dirty non-profit politics, and I once asked Waters at a screening of Deborah Koons Garcia’s anti big-ag film (the future of food, I think) for advice on setting up a garden for John O’Connell High School. She was neither pleased nor helpful. (“Do what I did. Raise a lot of money”) but I think speaking out about something I knew from reality which contradicted something they believed in the abstract was the main cause. People in general and ideologues in particular hate having their dogma kicked in the tires.

With the insights McGill and curiosity have provided me about so many of the nutritional sacred cows I now find myself in quandary – If the truth insults your friends but your friends’ fixed beliefs are distressing to you, do you a) hold your peace and decide it doesn’t matter (diplomacy – more or less what I have aspired to up till now) or b) simply state the fact and hope not to start an argument, knowing that it won’t have much impact.

The keep your peace solution would seem to have the least damage, but there is the “To thine own self be true, “ theory and the feeling that truth is indeed worth something.

My father had a saying: In the land of the blind the one eyed man had better damned well keep his stupid mouth shut. It’s served me well when I’ve had the self-discipline to apply it, but I think that has to stop now. Not at cocktail parties, where you really can change the subject to the weather or the Giants (well, you probably could. I know nothing about the Giants) but here.

It’s a little too self-important to quote Edmund Burke in this context: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” as I doubt that anything I say will have any measurable effect on the prevalence of evil, but I have a friend with stage four colon cancer who is forgoing traditional therapy for an outrageous expensive juice treatment, because it is natural. The good news about this is that about 65% of stage 4 colon cancer sufferers survive with or without further treatment, so we hope he is not one of the remaining 35%, but he is following a “natural is good” philosophy preached by some of the same people who oppose vaccination and all progress including genetic engineering. And it’s too late to do or say anything, but I think if somewhere he had stumbled upon something that said, “warning..there are quacks about and they are maybe crazy and maybe greedy, and maybe both, and they will let you endanger your life for a little money,” or just, “high colonics don’t cure cancer,” he might have lost is hair by now and have a 17% higher chance of the cancer not recurring.

So, I think, the time to be a diplomat, or a wuss, has ended. Here, for instance.

I wrote a paper on the mass hysteria opposing genetic modification, which I was not going to publish. I changed my mind. Watch for it soon. If it insults you, then I suggest you take the time and effort to do a little independent research beyond the constant stream of Monsanto-hate that flows through your social media portals. You’ll be surprised what you learn.

I apologize to all of you who will be offended, but thank you Senator Moynahan: “You are entitled to your own opinion, not your own facts. “ Facts rule from now on.

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Food Smarts – The Getting of Culinary and Nutritional Wisdom

And why I have been mostly silent.

There have been only rare additions to Culinary Promiscuity in the last year, and I have an excuse. I took a kind of sabbatical for the getting of knowledge.

It’s Harvard’s fault. Somehow news of Science and Cooking,   an online  Harvard course in food science  held by food eminences like Harold McGee  , David Arnold , Joan Rocca, Ferran Adria, Jose Andres, and Nathan Myhrvold  – the list is impressive – in collaboration with Harvard’s Department of Physics found my inbox.

Gee, I thought, How difficult can this be? After all I have a BA in Chemistry with plenty of physics and biology, and I work near if not quite in the food industry, so piece of cake, right? And I signed right up.

As it turned very difficult. I had forgotten nearly everything I  had learned in college. I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought about food science, and a lot of  the things I thought I  knew were wrong.

The course turned out to be extremely demanding and absolutely fascinating, covering both the theory of food in general and molecular practices in particular and the practice by some of the world’s most respected chefs. I had to relearn concepts at which I once excelled and grapple with facts I had never known. I got to watch Bill Yosses make an exquisite “glass” apple after Harvard explained how sugar bonds, Joan Roca build a little tower of super cooled ice and Myhrvold create his version of the perfect steak using frozen nitrogen. In sweats. Fabulous.

As a final assignment I designed and carried out an experiment on sous vide tuna which took me on a long and complicated web crawl seeking out facts on rigor mortis in fish and fish amino acids. The teaching assistants liked it. Exhilarating success.

As I nurtured my inner geek I learned that for me facts, the empirically provable truth is the antidote to the floods of quackery, nutritional misconceptions, food fads, the Food Network, $400 prix fixe dinners and the foolish adulation of the latest cuisine presented through spin rather than substance abounding in our matrix. I now “get” molecular cuisine. It’s not a game. It really is a science. I don’t really love it or want to subsidize the enormously high staffing cost needed to prepare it for dinner, but the premises are fascinating.

Of course Science & Cooking ate my life – sorry, I can’t go out, I have homework due – but it was worth it. I even passed it – pretty well, as a matter of fact.

While Science and Cooking  is no longer available as a free MOOC, the course  is still archived and can be accessed through the edx.org site. If not, the units – usually lasting a few minutes to half an hour, are available on YouTube . You don’t have to deal with the physics and chemistry if that’s not your strength. The culinary segments put anything the Food Network has to offer to shame.

Edx.org (and other MOOC sites) offer courses beyond food physics and celebrity Chefs, food, nutrition, eating being so much more than chemistry: . There are moral, agricultural, political, financial, nutritional aspects to food. Food nourishes and it kills. Every civilized country has a department or agency of food safety like the FDA. The entirety of life – human survival -comes down to a couple of inches of dirt, enough water and a little sunshine. Failing any one of those three elements armies slaughter each other, famine turns civilization into Barbary. Famished citizens die of hunger in the street, vomiting the grass they ate to stave off hunger pains. All these subjects are covered.

Mcgill University is currently holding a course on nutrition covering aspects from micro nutrients to food safety alarms to world hunger  covering a great deal of what the Harvard course did not, although they share a few Venn intersections. I am taking it. It’s not nearly as sexy but a lot easier than the Harvard course. I find it comforting to have what I have long suspected about food alarms  and claims to be true. The course tackles along with misconceptions about vitamin supplements (“America has the most expensive urine in the world”), agricultural practices and food poisoning. It tackles additives and pesticide use – more on that soon – old wive’s tales and modern myths.

Coursera, an alternative MOOC site has a wide array of courses on food. The site will hold a course in Science and Gastronomy through the Hong Kong Institute of Science and Technology, one in Sustainability of Food systems by the University of Minnesota, The Nordic Diet by the University of Copenhagen (biochemistry suggested), The Meat We Eat by the University of Florida.

I haven’t tried the Coursera courses yet, but the site is better than Edx, as it offers an option to sign up to be informed of courses in planning, so that you can sign up when they go live. These non profit organizations also offer a broad spectrum of non food related courses. Coursera hosts beginning Chinese, Edx beginning coding and Greek mythology. The selection is vast. “MOOC”, by the way, stands for Massive Open Online Course.” All MOOC’s are free, unless they are being taken for credit. The hosts are some of the world’s finest Universities. You can in every course aim for a certificate or simply audit, cherry picking the parts that interest you. If you cannot finish one in time to get certified  you can go back to the archived course and finish that at your leisure. The getting of wisdom was never so cheap or so easy.

What a deal!

I encourage you to  join me at the nerd table, where we can laugh at the cool kids table emoting over the current culinary myths and scares. We could hang out together with our slide rules sticking out of our pocket protectors. The kind of knowledge offered by these MOOC’s may not be power, but it’s certainly reassuring.

There are also plenty of brick and Mortar opportunities to  learn about food, too.  I just learned this  – The University of the Pacific San Francisco plans to offer a Masters of Arts program in Food in San Francisco under culinary anthropologist Ken Alba .

UCLA offers Science and Food   to it’s students with online segments. You can subscribe to their email list. There is, of course,  the School in Bra, Italy,  Being attached to and founded in cooperation with Slow Food, however, there will be some level of ideology served  up with the math. For those really hard core good geeks out there, Universities like UC Davis have internationally recognized food science programs. I wish I had known all this earlier, but still, I’ve got McGill and Harvard. My date for tonight is Dr Ariel Fenster, Joe Schwarz or David Harpp. I think we’re going to talk discuss food cults.

 

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Food Fight TV – behind the scenes.

OMG. What a coincidence.  It’s Amazing. Two days after I post my VIP (who would have thunk it?) invitation to pay for the privilege of working as an extra on yet another televised kitchen-schlacht with celebrity chefs, tension and bad music, Chris Cosentino’s MAD Symposium presentation  goes viral. Cosentino recounts food show abuse and exploitation of chef- gladiators and the  judges who kick them off their island. It’s pretty grim. It includes endoscopic images of Cosentino’s tortured stomach. That’s ironic considering he launched the American fascination with offal, nose to tail, snout to ass cuisine.

I’m not crazy about television culinary competitions. The concept of chefs as competitors rings false, the voice overs are unnerving, and then there’s the music. If I were one of them and they played that the tracks during my prep, my final dish would be friend producer’s heart and liver with onions with a side of sound engineer’s ears. I wouldn’t hold out watching people I respect forced to down bowls of hot chile peppers. Side by side demonstrations – fine. White coated frenzy: disturbing, so I may be a bit biased, but it I do believe everything he says.

Cosentino is  not the only one to report odd practices on gladiator cooking shows. Here’s what I’ve been told by other chefs who have participated in one show or the other.

  •  Reality schmeality – much is staged, and real kitchens don’t work that way. There’s nothing exciting about chopping vegetables in a real kitchen. The gold standard is order, not adrenaline. The gold ring of reality TV is drama, not food. Gladiators vs lions. Bread and games.
  • Compensation is poor.  The lure is fame, possible money, exposure to people who will either eat at the restaurant and come there. That works for some. Not for others.
  • The contracts are restrictive and demanding. The producers  have attorneys and the contestants generally don’t.
  • The game is rigged. The winner is frequently per-determined according to my chef friends. They set the users up to fail by artificially creating insurmountable stress situations: shortening their prep time,  the food basket or the backup staff at the last minute.  When you see a chef blow  his top on a food show, it’s because he’s been set up to fail.
  • Contestants, even the losers, are committed to appear where and when the production desires for a long time following the show, which makes finding a regular job a challenge.

After a half year flirt with the show Restaurant Headhunter and a few dealings with production companies looking for talent, I have a few insights to add.

The producers and their minions don’t seem to know or care much about real kitchen reality. The only information on potential candidates they request is a head shot and a screen test. Whether they can cook is immaterial. .

They don’t seem to have the money you would think they do. I thought Hollywood was awash with the stuff. Apparently not. Maybe it’s all come up to Silicon valley to fund sharing sites. Pointing  out that I find talent for a living and thus would charge for the service generally results in stunned silence of stammering. I suspect the minions who call are unpaid star struck interns, but this being the age of the fourteen year CEO, who knows.

The Rival VIP invite to participate as an unpaid – nay paying – extra in a show with “celebrity” chefs (they asked a few candidates of mine who are definitely not celebrity, just chefs) through a Kickstarter campaign would suggest that Valley new billionaires are not throwing wads of cash at start up food shows.

Perhaps there have been too many. Perhaps the shows are going too far afield from the first one, Japan’s “Iron Chef”.  Too many games, too much circus, too little substance. But then, Iron Chef was created by the people who make Toyota. We make Chevy’s.

Never having been a fan of extreme competition I find the entire chef as gladiator / food as blood sport bizarre for a world where teamwork and camradery have long been the norm and respect the gold standard, but then the food component is has become another  vehicle for suspense and team partisanship: Who finds the treasure first, which sexy girl gets to bed the millionaire or which millionaire gets to bed the sexy girl, who stays on the island.  Chefs are glamorous, even the homely ones are gorgeous in white and everyone eats. Obviously “Top Chef” draws better than “Star Plumber” or “Celebrity  Mortician.

One of the strange impacts of the celebrity cooking contests was a rash of young people taking out large loans for cooking school with the intent of becoming TV chefs. Maybe that’s why nobody can find good cooks these days. I’m thinking, though, I think that things are changing.

Chefs I recently approached for a show I was asked to staff flatly refused.. They tell me they’ve been “warned”.. When I was considering Restaurant Headhunter, experienced food media people warned me: They don’t care about you. They will try to make you look bad, to trip you up. They will try to make the people you get involved look bad. Your reputation can’t  use that. Eventually the producers reached out to me again and asked me to provide candidates and a restaurant as a favor, as the more media appropriate “Head Hunter” they hired hired knew nobody in California and didn’t know how to recruit them.  Guess the answer.

And there is Jon Favreau’s non reality but very real movie, “Chef The Movie” , released earlier this year, which portrays the work of a chef as chef.  Favreau’s characters are so realistic, that’s I’d send them out to kitchen jobs in a heartbeat. I know the model for his first employer. I know his sous. I’ve met him a dozen times. Favreau’s knife work is as dramatic an act as I have ever seen. Without music. The passion monologue to his son – This is what I do, this is my passion – is inspiring. The movie, aside from the tiniest pinch of fantasy or two, is really reality restaurant media.

I have no doubt Favreau’s movie has made an impact. For the past decade or so I have had many, many aspiring culinary stars asking me what my media connections are. “I don’t want to work in a kitchen. I want to be on Television and have my own show.” . For the past six months, however,  I’ve had requests for information on owning a food truck. My friend Micah Martello went that route, and he tells me he hasn’t looked back.

Obviously food trucks are not the essence of cooking, but cooks are being inspired to work in kitchens,  rather than on stages. Media is always going to be part of any chef’s life, but the kind of dysfunctional circus my chef friends and Chris Cosentino describe is at least  being put in perspective.

As  Bud the Pieman says, “Make Pie, not War.” I like that.

Chris Cosentino suggests he’s worried about his future. I am not. He’s smarter than the people who used him and he’s got more class. As for the autism issue, join the club. At least half of kitchen people are autistic. In the right setting it’s a gift. Good luck to him, but he probably doesn’t need it.


 

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The Most Amazing Kickstarter Celebrity Chef Restaurant Campaign and TV Battle. Ever. O.M.G.

How not to raise money for a new restaurant, but it will probably be successful anyway

I have just been solicited to donate to a new restaurant opening TV competition by someone named Jason Akel. He asserts it will be the most amazing culinary experience I have ever had. Rather than comment on the mail, concept etc here – and the entire entrepreneur via Kickstarter is rife for discussion – He wants me to yelp and facebook it. I’ll do him one better. Here approach and response. Hate it? comment.

Dear Jo Lynne,

Would you buy a ticket to a live, interactive competitive cooking show where two top chefs create a dinner that you get to taste and judge? If yes, you can buy advance tickets to that exact experience at a new restaurant called RIVAL, coming to San Francisco next year:

WATCH THIS VIDEO

This will be the most amazing, ultimate “foodie” event that will surpass any dining experience you have ever had in the past. So step aside “Iron Chef” and let Rival take center stage.

We’re raising money on Kickstarter, and your ticket will help us open with lots of sparkle. We’re on a roll; in fact, we were just honored with as a Kickstarter Staff Pick! I invite you to help build and be a part of this revolutionary concept. I really hope to see your name on our roster of supporters. Thanks, Jo Lynne!

1. Visit www.rivalshow.com
…watch the short video

2. Select reward level
$199+ for tickets

3. Then tell friends on Facebook and Twitter about the show

response

Dear Jason Akel (Or Stephen Walker, whose name is at the bottom.)

1) Who are you?

2) In answer to your question, nothing.

3) I staff restaurants. I don’t invest in them, certainly not for food. The last time I helped a chef with his dream it took me seven years to get the money back and somehow I ended up with a huge grill on my deck, which he won’t take back. I did have a bunch of chefs over for a great kid on it, though, so maybe that was good. Still, aside from the grill the investment carried no interest. I don’t think this would pay me interest either.

4) Define “celebrity”. I take it to mean there are simply too many credulous groupies with time on their hands following sensational but mediocre food media. I mean, if celebrity chefs in New York are now charging $100 for brunch and there’s waiting list, you’ve got a demographic with a yen for buck nekkid emperors, Or no? The guys I work with get flat feet and back aches and put their pants on one leg at a time. The media feeds off them, but they would I think never consider themselves celebrities, although some are. “Celebrity” is a tool and a myth for foodies. We do not be foodies. At some point the touching of robes and kissing of rings becomes tedious, anyway.

5) Easy on the superlatives—most amazing etc. Ever? Do you know how old I am? There’s a hell of experience in my “ever”. There is a finite resource and stuff like this depletes it. I have decades of eating behind me, some of which with a lot of money, and trust me, this can’t top them. The most amazing was probably a Slow Food Leaders’ event with Italy’s top chefs between the ruins of Pompei, but there was that thing on the alp, too. Never mind. You are surely too young.

6) I was with Gary Danko’s team at the opening of Rocco DiSpirito’s restaurant for the kickoff of the show “The Restaurant” Apart from a very entertaining discussion about how to keep your white laundry from getting colored by a stray washcloth or socks (Color Catchers) with Gail Gand, Rick Tramonto, Susan Spicer, Gary and I can’t remember who, it was a disaster. The food was memorable in a bad way, even if Rocco’s mother made it, and I nearly got myself in a position to be sued by some kid who asked about a local crack head celebrity, which I answered with some comment about back under the rock where he belonged until some idiot with o.p.m bailed him out (which happened). When I got back to the table Tramonto noted that the guy was wearing a wire and I spent the rest of the season watching every God Awful episode of the show with my attorney’s address next to my chair. Fortunately I have neither sufficient T or A to be put on TV, but I swore never to watch a food show again. I accidentally clicked on one recently, and they have got even worse, if possible.

7) I have occasionally been asked to staff television shows, generally by people who believe that I would do it for the connections – that is without charging them. I asked one once what they were willing to pay for the service, and they were flabbergasted Obviously these sweet, bright young things don’t have irksome issues like Rent and Groceries to deal with but live off the energy promoted by celebrity. Good for them. I need a roof and calories. I thus am not fond of or much involved with the buzz of food TV. . I don’t think I like these people, so I wouldn’t give them money.

8) I recently was asked to find a great chef to hook up with a chicken bus which would be shipped from field to field and talk about things that come from dirt. Jeremiah Tower may still be talking to them, but the person who was handling the connection would not talk to me (this was for money) and just emailed me that all she wanted were the head shots. No more food TV. Not even watching. Celebrity Chefs.

9) Say “please”. I wouldn’t tweet or FB you anyway, since that’s reserved for my business needs (actually I will in a way) or Tweet this to all my friends. One envisions Colonel Klink punctuating his order to share with all my friends with a snappy one armed salute. “ Vee know how to make you Tveet.”

10) The concept as food as battle rather than as civilization is one of the great cultural oxymorons of the 21st Century. I never watched dog fights and I don’t even like dogs all that much. I love my chefs. Why would I want to watch them turn the usual comradery and kitchen love into a tension filled food fight? Make kale salad in a mason jar, not war.

12) It is neither illegal nor immoral to take money from stupid or silly people. Frankly, I probably would have married PT Barnum if the timing had been right and he’d asked. I wish you all the luck with your venture.

Best wishes

Jo Lynne Lockley

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“Amazing” meals. Foodie, get the to a thesaurus

“The food, opined Ted”, “was amazing.” Actually he said something more like the FOOD was AmAAAAYYYZZING.”   Ted had laid down about half again a minimum wage employee’s weekly salary for the meal. You can do that a lot these days. As a matter of fact, it’s getting a lot harder to pay only a couple of hours’ wages for a blue plate special.

You would think that given the price, Ted would have expected a meal as refined and delicious, sexy and beautiful as if it came from the hand of a tweezer wielding deity.

Last year dinner at Benu in fact did amaze me: The final bill came to $400. Even mellowed by a spectacular wine flight I was floored (It  had something to do with the extra price for the dried abalone, which we hadn’t quite checked. ) The magnificent, artfully prepared, once in a lifetime food, however,  pretty much met my expectations. It delighted, it tantalized, it was downright spiritual bliss, but it was not a surprise. I expect mind altering flavors when I put that kind of weight on my plastic. So should you.

A 22 year old aspiring gourmet on Check Please just pronounced a meal at a Castro street bistro, “Amaaaayyyyzzing” as well.  He had garlic shrimp and some nice Spanish short ribs and good wine. Truth: The meal looked really nice, and I have put the place on my short list. Even so, this kid seemed pretty easy to surprise, but then, he’s got a lot of time to calibrate his reaction levels.

As a matter of fact, everyone I know describes whatever they eat – cheese, a candy bar, a chicken fried steak or dinner at Saizon, Parallel 37 or Benu  – as amazing. Considering the fact that most of the people I hear this from work in the food industry, it’s really surprising how little it takes to dramatically whelm them.

Amazing is the new must own food vocabulary accessory, the absolute superlative of approval.  Sometime when we weren’t looking it rolled right over awesome (which actually described sensory experiences beyond the pale quite passably) and left “perfect” a speck in the rear view mirror.  As in “How was the sandwich?” “Perfect” has become, “How is your sandwich?” “Amazing.”

The rise of everything food being “amaaayyyyyyzing in the Bay Area is pretty amazing in its own right, as we here are all about cool, laid back, not showing our weak emotional culinary underbellies, but we go into paroxysms over sandwiches.  And Toast. Isn’t “amazing toast” an oxymoron?  When did we arrive at the point where a sandwich, or for that matter a five course tasting meal astounds us and we all melt effusively over our collective stunned shock and awe over mayonnaise?

The OED defines amazing thus:

adjective

  • causing great surprise or wonder; astonishing:an amazing number of people registered it is amazing how short memories are
  • informal very impressive; excellent:she makes the most amazing cakes

Granted it’s common usage is simply approval of whatever, but basically “amazing” means “surprising”, as in, oh, I wasn’t expecting that to be good. (So you go to a place where dinner costs half an economy ticket to Paris without expectations?) How thoroughly perverse.

It is of course possible be that the techie diaspora has provided San Francisco with a sizable population of nutritionally immature and unsophisticated but moneyed people for whom a basic kale salad is epiphanic and life changing after years of Jolt and Pizza, but even forty somethings  who have time to tiddle with stuff that doesn’t come out of the box pronounce themselves in the thrall of surprise at goat cheese ice cream. And friends in Paris use it.

I don’t know about you, but it’s getting to me – the universal wide eyed wonder at the most recent amuse bouche – kind of like being hit repeatedly an a vaccination site or trying to sleep in a room with a dripping faucet.

Pronouncing a meal amazing sets off a superlative oneupmanship over amazing flan and amazing espresso, which after due magnification wanders onto Yelp! or Open Table reviews, where everything is either amazing or the worst meal ever. And the funny thing is that once something is pronounced amazing, you really don’t have any sense that it is particularly good, as the word has been beaten into hyperbolic mush with  a brick bat and thus has become as potent as your grampa after two bottles of the good stuff.

Foodie America needs a thesaurus. Phenomenal food deserves just a little thought in its description. I’m here to help.  There’s an app for that, and even if you don’t remember all of the vocabulary you crammed for your S.A.T’s (or you managed to escape them),  you can have a thoroughly adequate supply of still functional superlatives at your fingertips..eh, smart phone in a snap for just $0.99.

In case you want an instant fix, here are some of their suggestions from http://www.Thesaurus.com

astonishing, awesome , beautiful  , breathtaking,  fearsome  , formidable  , imposing  , impressive  , magnificent  , overwhelming  , stunning  , daunting  , exalted  , fearful  , frantic  , grand  , hairy  , majestic  , mean  , mind-blowing  , moving  , nervous  , real gone  , something else  , striking  , stupefying  , comforting , good , nice , pleasing , wonderful , fascinating , incredible , marvelous , prodigious ,  , stunning , surprising , unbelievable , wonderful , bang-up , capital , champion , excellent , fine , first-rate , fly , top , whiz-bang , wonderful , fantastic , supernatural , uncanny , unearthly , fantastic , wonderful, excellent, a-1 , awesome , best , best ever , delicious , far out , first-class , first-rate , great , like wow , marvelous , out of sight , out of this world , sensational , superb , unreal , awesome , breathtaking , fantastic , incredible , outrageous , phenomenal , remarkable , spectacular , superb , terrific .

How was your dinner at Fogard’s Kale Gastrorestaurnt? It was..oh wait a moment [tap tap tap] ..ah, flabbergastingly delectable.

Too tame? Knock it up a notch. Bleeping epiphanic.

Superlatives are manifest. In case that doesn’t do it, here are a few of mine:

Fabulous (so Roselyn Russel campy, as in “Oh, Dahling. The trout fondue with caviar foam was ahbsolutely mahvelous!”), exquisite, mind blowing, sock knocking off, gobsmackingly good, or reach back to the roaring twenties (always fun) with  “The cat’s pajamas”, “The bee’s knees”.  One of the finest meals I have had in a long time…the options are endless.

“How was your meal at Tres Luces?” “Oh, DUDE! It was the bleeping cat’s pajamas.”

Of course you can get really creative and avoid “It is/was” altogether as in “I loved every tantalizing bite.” “ It was like “Angels made love on my tongue”. The latter is courtesy of Ray Mazotti, one of the greatest eaters I have known, and even though Stanley Eichelbaum once noted, probably in a pique of envy for the wild turn of phrase that wasn’t his, “I don’t fancy dead people fornicating in the back of my mouth,” I find it gets cheap points now and then.  Alternatively,  just lapse into Harry meets Sally rapture, groan and rub your stomach.

This will all be on the test, so here’s a little homework for review:

The raclette at Hansi’s Chinese Fusion Matterhorn Café was absolutely ___________. ( You probably want to  avoid “hairy”)

Magdelena said that ________________________ Chef Bernie’s crouton salad.

We really loved the ______________ doughnuts at Fred’s Croissant and Fill Dirt corner.

 

See. It’s easy.

 

Stand apart from the crowd and give the food that has made you happy the honor it deserves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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