Community Food

Science on Your Plate

Last Thursday I attended an event sponsored by the Manitoba Canola Growers, Entitled “Does Science Belong on My Plate?” The evening featured presentations from Dr. Nancy Ames, a research scientist from Agriculture and Agri-foods Canada, and Dr. Kevin Folta from the Horticulural Sciences Department at the University of Florida.

soluble-and-non-soluble-fibre, learning the science

Capsules with soluble and non-soluble fibre

While two hours of lectures may not be everyone’s idea of a good evening, it did include tasting. First there was a cookie during the lecture and then after the lecture we got to sample a variety of science inspired dishes created by the students of the Louis Riel Arts & Technology Centre under the direction of Chef Jeremy Bender.
Given the nature of the evening, the title of “Does Science Belong on My Plate?” was more of a rhetorical question. Dr. Ames presentation, which led off the evening, too us through processing and all the way it benefits foods, and the consumer. Along the way, she gave us visual demonstrations of what gluten is as well as demonstrations of soluble and non-soluble fibre. In the picture of the two fibres below, you can see that the soluble fibre is closer to a gel, while the non-soluble fibre is held in solution.

One interesting point she made in relationship to gluten is that it is found in almost all grains. When she was later asked if gluten is so ubiquitous why is there a sudden increase in so much gluten-intolerance, she cited a couple of possible reasons. Firstly that the testing is better. Secondly, that many products contain gluten extracts that may be the actual source of the allergic reaction as opposed to straight gluten itself.
Another aspect of Dr. Ames talk that caught my attention is the way in which processing can actually add nutritional value to a food. The cookie that I mentioned early uses oatmeal with a very high DHA value, an omega-three fatty acid. This one average sized cookie has as much DHA in it as an entire salmon.
While Dr. Ames presented a lot of good information, I found that there was more there than I was able to process.

Super cookie.
Super cookie.

Science and Transgenic Technology:

If you’ve never heard of Transgenic technology, don’t be surprised. Transgenic technology is the technical term for what is most commonly heard as Genetically Modified Organisms or GMO. Dr. Folta defined Transgenic technology as: a precise extension of conventional plant breeding.
I don’t know all the arguments in favour of Transgenic technology, nor do I know all the pieces from those who are opposed to it. So, I’m simply going to put out a few of things that came up in the lecture that I found interesting. You can draw your own conclusions from this information.
The first thing that struck me is that there are only 8 food crops that qualify as using transgenic technology. In 17 years there has been no case of illness or death that can be linked to transgenic technology. The essential argument in favour of Transgenic technology is that we are make small, specific changes to plants as opposed to traditional breeding which makes large numbers of changes in the hope that a better plant will emerge.
As I said, I’m not familiar with all the arguments surrounding Transgenics, but one thing I did appreciate about Dr. Folta’s presentation is that he didn’t present it as the cure-all for all the food woes of our world. In particular, both somewhat in the lecture and afterwards when I had a few moments to chat with him, he acknowledged that our eating habits were definitely going to need to change if we want to solve problems of hunger and health.
On the positive side of Transgenics, is the ability to perhaps, turn off single genes within plants that can prevent blight and disease. One of the interesting things that Dr. Folta said in relationship to this was how organic farms use copper to treat Strawberry plants and protect them. Given the scarcity of copper perhaps a genetic change could be used to make Strawberry plants hardier, more disease resistant and in much less need of copper, and reduce copper theft.
One of the possibilites Dr. Folta raised was science being able to produce the sensation without the substance, for lack of better term. For example, a slice of bacon that has all the flavour with little or any of the fat, nitrates, etc. Of course, how this would affect the social aspect of eating remains to be seen. The loss of food as a source of social interaction is something that Dining with Donald would find very disappointing.
One thing I’m not quite convinced of is the idea that science will be able to come up with the necessary answers. For example, in cases where mono-culture crops have destroyed watersheds, will science be able to come up with a solution to prevent that from happening or will it be able to create a scenario where such trends are reversed? One can study the history of the Green Revolution to help understand this a little more.
Also, what kind of controls are there are the kinds of science that get funded? This is one area that makes a good case for better funding for science and technology at a national level. The science of cereal may be neutral, but it Kellogg’s wants to fund it to produce a cereal that has even more addictive qualities than it already has. Yes, I’m suggesting that the sugar in a lot of cereals is addictive.
On the whole, I thought the evening was well presented. I still have problems with the idea that science sees itself above the fray. Yet, there is the possibility that making better use of science at our tables could play a significant role in meeting our future food needs.

By Donald McKenzie

Anglican priest, and food blogger. This blog is focused on Food. It will feature reviews of places to eat books, and the odd recipe. I also write about what it means to gather together around food.