Archive for Minutiae

Minutiae, pages 320-411

I’ve now completed my reading of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In the next few days, I’ll be concluding my series of posts on the book. Meanwhile, here’s a list of the little things from the last two weeks:

  • Pollan writes, “On their appointed rounds the pigs can cover forty square miles in a day” (336). I think he means to specify a unit of distance, rather than area.
  • Pollan says of mushrooms, “It’s difficult to reconcile the extraordinary energies of these organisms with the fact that they contain relatively little of the kind of energy that scientists usually measure: calories” (377). Calories aren’t a “kind of energy.” They are a unit in which energy is measured. Calling calories a kind of energy is like saying that miles are a kind of distance. There is something of a subtlety here, though. It’s a bit misleading to say that foods “contain” energy. When we talk about foods having a certain number of calories, we’re referring to the amount of energy that becomes available to us when we eat them. If the foods were to undergo a different sequence of reactions than the ones that take place in our bodies, different amounts of energy would be released. Accordingly, Pollan’s remarks might begin to make sense if we replace “calories” by “physiologically available energy,” as the USDA calls it.
  • Pollan writes, “The fava, which is the only bean native to the Old World, is a broad, flat, bright green shelling bean that if picked young and quickly blanched has a starchy sweet taste that to me is as evocative of springtime as fresh peas or asparagus” (396). I don’t think the fava is the only bean native to the Old World. The adzuki bean seems to also have its origins in the Old World.
  • Pollan explains, “The reason I didn’t open a can of stock was because stock doesn’t come from a can; it comes from the bones of animals” (410). Of course, stock could also be made from vegetables.

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Minutiae, pages 274-319

With so much to write this week, I haven’t made it through too much of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but there are still a few little errors worth pointing out:

  • Pollan writes, “These included no animal protein, however, and I had decided that this meal should feature representatives of all three edible kingdoms: animal, vegetable, and fungi” (277). It’s not exactly clear what sense of the word “kingdom” Pollan is using here, but there are edible protists (such as the seaweed nori) and bacteria (i.e. yogurt cultures).
  • Pollan writes, “Our metabolism requires specific chemical compounds that, in nature, can be gotten only from plants (like vitamin C) and others that can be gotten only from animals (like vitamin B-12)” (289). Vitamin B12 consumed by humans is always produced by bacteria, though the only reliable food sources (aside from fortified foods) are animals having bacteria living symbiotically in their gut.
  • According to Pollan,

    Indeed, there is probably not a nutrient source on earth that is not eaten by some human somewhere — bugs, worms, dirt, fungi, lichens, seaweed, rotten fish; the roots, shoots, stems, bark, buds, flowers, seeds, and fruits of plants; every imaginable part of every imaginable animal, not to mention haggis, granola, and Chicken McNuggets. (290)

    I have to think he’s exaggerating. There are animals that are poisonous to the touch and organisms that live in places inaccessible to humans. I doubt anybody’s using these for food, but I’m willing to be proven wrong.

  • Pollan refers to “some novel mycoprotein like ‘quorn'” (295). The product in question is a registered trademark, and should be capitalized.
  • In my edition, Pollan refers to “applecart-topping nutritional swings” (299) when he means “applecart-toppling nutritional swings”, but that has been fixed in a more recent printing.
  • Pollan writes, “For although humans no longer need meat in order to survive (now that we can get our B-12 from fermented foods or supplements)” (315). Fermented foods are not a reliable source of vitamin B12.

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Minutiae, pages 209-273

I have very little to report here, but there are a couple of things. Unfortunately, I lost some notes I had been keeping and was too lazy to save, so it’s possible that I missed more than usual this week.

  • Pollan writes of Bev’s slaughterhouse, “But his artisanal enterprise was being forced to conform to a USDA regulatory system that is based on an industrial model—indeed, that was created in response to the industrial abuses Upton Sinclair chronicled in The Jungle….The specifications and costly technologies implicitly assume that the animals being processed have been living in filth and eating corn rather than grass” (250). I haven’t been able to find sources on this, but I’m having trouble making sense of this time frame. Specifically, the standards that were created as a response to The Jungle were the Meat Inspection Act of 1906. It’s my understanding that the use of corn to feed animals wasn’t common before the introduction of agricultural subsidies during the Depression. UPDATE (6/28/2010): Commenter Scu clarifies this.
  • On page 269, Pollan misspells the word “krill.”

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Minutiae, pages 159-207

I spent more time writing and researching this week than I did reading, so I don’t have a whole lot to report here. Here’s this week’s collection of little things:

  • In my copy of the book, the surnames of David Pimentel (a leading expert on energy use in food production) and Frank Perdue (founder of the chicken company Perdue Farms) are repeatedly misspelled. These have been fixed in the version on Google Books.
  • Pollan writes, “According to Cornell ecologist David [Pimentel], growing, chilling, washing, packaging, and transporting that box of organic salad to a plate on the East Coast takes more than 4,600 calories of fossil fuel energy, or 57 calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of food” (167). This bothers me for reasons similar to something I wrote about in last week’s minutiae post. I don’t think it makes sense to look at the number of calories of fossil fuel energy per calorie of food energy because people aren’t eating salad greens for the calories. It would make more sense to compare fossil fuel calories to something that better measured the salad’s perceived value to the consumer, perhaps a number of servings or the amount of some nutrient. (For all I know, salad greens may not fare much better, there.)
  • Pollan says of his meal from Whole Foods, “All but one of the vegetables I served that night bore the label of Cal-Organic Farms, which, along with Earthbound, dominates the organic produce section in the supermarket” (174). However, he later tells us that his salad greens were grown by Earthbound (183). This seems like a contradiction.

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Minutiae, pages 85-158

Here’s another weekly list of things so minor that you probably don’t care about them unless you happen to be editing a new edition of The Omnivore’s Dilemma for Pollan’s publisher. I’ll have at least one more substantial post to write on these pages, too, but that’s going to take a bit more work.

  • Pollan writes, “Corn syrup (which is mostly glucose or dextrose—the terms are interchangeable) became the first cheap domestic substitute for cane sugar” (88). It’s not quite correct to say that the terms glucose and dextrose are interchangeable. Dextrose is the most common form of glucose.
  • Pollan explains the concept of natural flavorings: “‘Natural raspberry flavor’ doesn’t mean the flavor came from a raspberry; it may well have been derived from corn, just not from something synthetic” (98). I didn’t really like this because what does it mean to come from “something synthetic”? If you trace any ingredient far enough back, you’ll necessarily find materials that were found in nature (at least if you’re willing to consider oil natural in the sense that humans didn’t make it). So what exactly do to something before we have to consider it synthetic?  For purposes of food labels, here’s how the FDA defines a natural flavor :

    The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.

    Rather than by defining natural as the absence of “synthetic” materials, the FDA defines it in terms of a few starting materials and processes that can be used.

  • I found the following seemingly innocent paragraph to be slightly irksome:

    Since 1985, an American’s annual consumption of HFCS [high-fructose corn syrup] has gone from forty-five pounds to sixty-six pounds. You might think that this growth would have been offset by a decline in sugar consumption, since HFCS often replaces sugar, but that didn’t happen: During the same period our consumption of refined sugar actually went up by five pounds. What this means is that we’re eating and drinking all that high-fructose corn syrup on top of the sugars we were already consuming. In fact, since 1985 our consumption of all added sugars—cane, beet, HFCS, glucose, honey, maple syrup, whatever—has climbed from 128 pounds to 158 pounds per person. (104)

    My objection is a subtle point relating to the way the sweeteners are measured. Pollan tells us that our total consumption of added sugars has increased by 30 pounds. It’s not exactly clear what this means. Is Pollan talking about the weight of sugar in added sweeteners or the total weight of the sweeteners? The difference is particularly significant because we’re considering both solid and liquid sweeteners. For example, 128 pounds of cane sugar actually contains more sugar than 158 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup (which is twenty-four percent water by weight). The meaningful number to consider would be the amouont of sugar in added sweeteners, and one might guess that this is what Pollan is using when he refers to “our consumption of all added sugars.” However, in the first sentence I’ve quoted, he refers to the weight of HFCS (and not of sugar in HFCS), which makes me think he’s referring to the latter. I think the point he’s trying to make here is probably a valid one, but I wish he’d express it more precisely (or at least offer a citation so that the interested reader can figure out what’s going on).

  • Pollan reports some results from a study:

    A recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition compared the “energy cost” of different foods in the supermarket. The researchers found that a dollar could buy 1,200 calories of potato chips and cookies; spent on a whole food like carrots, the same dollar buys only 250 calories. (107)

    This strikes me as a misleading comparison because the chosen whole food, carrots, is not energy dense and is thus typically not consumed for the calories. When people eat carrots, it’s rarely for the calories. You have to eat a lot of carrots to get a good number of calories, and that’s a fact that has nothing to do with price. Offhand, I can think of at least one whole food, sunflower seeds, which provide calories about as cheaply as potato chips or cookies. I’ll usually buy organic sunflower seeds for $2.39 per pound. Sunflower seeds contain 584 calories per hundred grams, which comes out to 1109 calories per dollar. That number would be larger if the sunflower seeds, like the junk food, were not organic.

  • Pollan tells us, “What it has done, of course, is to sell an awful lot of chicken for companies like Tyson, which invented the nugget—at McDonald’s behest—in 1983″ (114). In fact, the nugget was invented in the 1950s, well before McDonald’s introduced the McNugget.
  • Pollan writes, “I figure my 4-ounce burger, for instance, represents nearly 2 pounds of corn (based on a cow’s feed conversion rate of 7 pounds of corn for every 1 pound of gain, half of which is edible meat)” (115). Based on these numbers, I calculate that the quarter-pound burger represents 3.5 pounds of corn.
  • Pollan writes, “A 32-ounce soda contains 86 grams of high-fructose corn syrup (as does a double-thick shake), which can be refined from a third of a pound of corn; so our 3 drinks used another 1 pound” (115). According to the nutritional information, 86 grams is the mass of sugars in the soda. The mass of high-fructose corn syrup, which includes some water mass, is surely higher.
  • Pollan writes, “If you walk five blocks north from the Whole Foods in Berkeley along Telegraph Avenue and then turn right at Dwight Street, you’ll soon come to a trash-strewn patch of grass and trees dotted with the tattered camps of a few dozen homeless people” (140). The road on which you would need to turn right is more correctly referred to as Dwight Way.

Since the book lacks citations, it would be too time-consuming for me to check facts in a way that was at all comprehensive. If you think I’ve missed something, please share it in the comments.

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