DC Locavore, some partial notes

To be a locavore, here are some topics you’d need to research:

Why. Local food is all about sustainability. Civilizations do collapse from time to time and our is not exempt. Our food system is based on petroleum. If that supply of petroleum is interrupted, either by running out or losing a war in the middle east then Iowa and California will stop shipping food like they used to. When I was discussing this with my son, he said, “I don’t want to talk about it–this is scary.” I think that is the crux of the problem when you see people on the internet reacting violently against the local food movement.

While Iowa and California have a comparative advantage at growing animal feed and vegetables respectively– this comparative advantage is unsustainable. But the economy gives consumers only one signal for efficiency and sustainability: price. If given the choice between subscribing to a supply of food that will be initially cheap and then disappear forever and a supply of food that is expensive and last forever it would be false economy to rely on the former. The problem is that price gives us no signals on the sustainability of supply.

Rational humans do care about sustainability–in fact many of the moral arguments for saving and investment are based on sustainability arguments. Hence, it is rational to favor a sustainable food supply over a unsustainable food supply even if it is more expensive.

Geography. Measuring distance is tricky. Personally, I think anything shipped over water (such as shipping wine from Spain to DC), should be considered more local than shipping it over land (such as shipping wine from California to DC). Food on major transit routes should be considered more local than food that is local but has significant geographic barriers (such as mountains or sparse roads). At the very least, one should learn the names of the counties. Food is also normally shipped through hub and spoke shipping centers, so to ship food from say 1 block away from your grocery store to the grocery store, it will still go through a distribution center, possibly hundreds of miles away.

CSA and PYO. That means Community Supported Agriculture and Pick Your Own respectively. CSA gets the transaction costs for farmer’s market food down to an affordable amount. Some of the economies of scale lost by using a local producer are regained by increasing the transaction size. Pick Your Own shifts the labor onto the consumer to make labor intensive products like raspberries affordable.

Comparative efficiency of local goods versus distant ones. If you are living in Murmansk, Russia, growing oranges locally is just as unsustainable as shipping them from around the world. Crops that are local block busters are likely to be efficient, for example peanuts in Virginia.

Cooking. Most people cook about a dozen recipes at most, over and over and over. Changing to a diet that uses local foods means tracking down some new blockbuster recipes that use local foods.

Locally grown vs locally processed. If you are eating locally raised dairy or eggs that ate food that was shipped around the world, how local is that? Processing is where most of the value is added to the raw materials. It isn’t clear where the best place to process something is, we do know that factories are most efficient when they are very big. Since petroleum factories are not all that sustainable, we might as well process foods where ever it is most efficient and prices should accurately reflect that. If it is cheaper to ship coffee from Kenya to New York for processing then ship it to DC, then that is what we should do. Thinking about coffee processed in Virginia is asking the wrong questions. The better question is how to make coffee out of locally grown chicory and tea.

Countries, States, Counties. Hawaiian coffee is no more local than Kenyan, don’t be fooled by the fact that you live in the same country as the former. With distribution centers, food bought at stores probably is all just as local (travelled just as far), for your entire quadrant of North America.

Distant Organic vs Local Organic. Consumers have to send a signal to producers somehow. Just like I wouldn’t want to buy products made with slave labor, I don’t want to buy products that involve factory farms (hyperdense livestock feedlots), GMO (it’s about intellectual property laws more than health risks), and I do want to buy products that involve fair trade, organic production, etc.

Happy Milk

A vegetarians now has a modern challenge of finding milk and eggs that are compatible with an ethical vegetarian philosophy.  The other two common reasons for being a vegetarian– environmental and health impacts.  A vegetarian diet eschews food that requires killing for food, especially sentient beings.  If we are to be ethically consistent, then we should find out how our dairy is being produced:

From an ethical standpoint,

What happens to the excess calves?  What happens to old cows?
What is the quality of life for the cows? Are the in tiny pens or fields?

Do the cows eat their normal diet they would eat were they wild?

From an environmental stand point,

Does it require feeding large amounts of pesticide treated food to the cows?

How much pollution is created in creating and shipping milk?

And from a health standpoint,

What are the scientific facts about rBST?

Milk has always been a tricky product to get from cow to table without bacterial contamination: who performs best– organic, small, medium or large dairies?

Existing Movements
Organic:  This means the cow ate organic food.  The could could have been raised in inhumane conditions or fed grain, which isn’t what makes for healthy happy cows.

rBST Free: This is a very limited filter and means that the cow didn’t get hormones to increase milk production.
Local:  Food shouldn’t be shipped from far away. Often local also means “small farms” and “traditional farming methods” as opposed to factory farming, but not necessarily.

Vegan: This is something of an animal liberation ideology– that animals shouldn’t be part of the human economy.

Family Owned Farm: May mean that the farm is able to take in consideration non-market criteria in choice about production, where as a share holder owned farm is likely to choose inhumane farming techniques as long as it cuts costs, raises output more than any expected losses in sales from customer outrage.
Grass Fed.  Cows don’t like eating grain. It’s bad for their health and makes them get fat rapidly.
The Future
Certified Humane. This program looks new. At the store I’ve only seen certified humane eggs, nothing for milk yet.

Wine According to MS Excel

A bottle of wine has 750 mL.  In medical studies, a drink equals 4 ounces of wine or 1/2 measuring cup or 118 milliliters, so there are a bit over 6 drinks in a bottle of wine.  This works out to being just about the number of days a bottle of wine is supposed to last unrefrigerated.

This probably could be further complicated by the fact that different wines have different amounts of alcohol in them.

Wine: Australian Pinot Noir

This has already been written about elsewhere and elsewhere.

The first glasses were better than the last.  It takes me about two or so weeks to finish a bottle of wine.  I got this one from my family in Ohio.

Pros
It did taste like red wine.
It uses a fake cork.

Cons
It didn’t taste like tempranillo, not that I expected it to. 

I recommend this wine with spicy vegetarian hot wings.

In comparison to the $20 Bordeaux I took to the book club, this wine had some weird chemicals in it, where the Bordeaux didn’t.

Advice to me.
I wine needs to be good enough to incite me to drink a glass a day or it will get too old like this one.  The wisdom of the crowds says wine lasts only about a week after it is open, maybe less. Some common rules of thumb for open wine: 2 days, 7 days unrefrigerated.  30 days refrigerated.  Longer for white.  Don’t forget you’ll need to warm up a red wine before drinking it.

The Coffee Maker: A Critique

My Krupp’s espresso coffee maker has been working for about 15 years.  After ragnarök, all that will be left in my apartment will be cockroaches drinking coffee from my Krupp’s espresso machine.

Electricity. Someone somewhere did a review of environmentally friendly coffee machines.  Outside of the cold coffee and cold coffee devices, coffee machines mostly use the same amount of energy– they all need to boil water.  Coffee machines do fail in the area of knowing when to turn themselves off.  A coffee machine should know it should be off in five minutes no matter what, preferably off as soon as the water reservoir is empty and certainly not be allowed to be on all night.  A coffee machine should not let itself be turned on without any water at all in the reservoir.  Both of these catastrophic wastes of electricity have happened to me before with this machine.

And my drip coffee machines at the office that has a hot plate could use some intelligence, too.  They should be off when the coffee pot is empty and no hot plate should keep coffee warm more than one or two hours.  In the future, I prognosticate, coffee machines without the sensors and programmable controllers will become false economy. 

Coffee Waste.  The energy savings from cleverly designed water boilers is nothing compared to the amount of energy the entire economy saves by reducing the amount of wasted coffee.  Getting the ratios of coffee to water should be something that happens by default, not something that happens after reading the instructions.  For example, a 10 cup pot coffee usually comes with a bag of coffee that recommends x scoops per y cups of coffee.  Again, leaving out the programmable controls and sensors, we tend to waste coffee by making too much, making coffee too weak and pitching it, making too strong coffee, diluting it and having to reheat it again.

Cardamom.  Another thing, my coffee machine can’t deal with ground cardamom mixed with the grounds. Some of the best coffee to be had is ground coffee with ground cardamom pods.  The cardamom jams the metal bin’s holes and causes steam to start escaping from the wrong end of the espresso machine. This also has the interesting implication that cardamom coffee can turn my espresso machine into a water pressure bomb, if I can tighten the lid tight enough.

Vegetarianism: Animal Welfare and Happy Meat

[This post was inspired by someone mad at Katzen, a cookbook author, who used to be vegetarian but switched to eating Organic Meat, aka happy meat.]

There are three main arguments in favor of a vegetarian diet. Two arguments for vegetarianism and veganism are unrelated to animal welfare: environmental concerns and health.

The third is mighty complex. Killing sentient beings is unethical. But so is cruelty and inhumanity, if only for the brutal state of mind it evokes in those who practice it.

On an ethical basis, vegetarianism rules out food derived from killing animals. This leaves edge cases such as insects, animals that die of old age or other natural causes, and products that don’t require the immediate death of an animal, such as honey, milk, eggs.

Except for Jains who favor not killing anything, insects are little sympathy, especially termites, mosquitos, flies, and other pests. Viruses, yeast and bacteria, likewise, are generally considered insentient, and fair game for breakfast.

Milk on the other hand, has evolved into factory farming. The cattle industry in the US is not like the one in India, where cows are sacred and generally not killed at all. The economics of milk encourage farmers to be inhumane to the cows and to kill the extra calves. An ethical vegetarian can’t leave these issues alone.

The story is similar for chickens. In egg production, old chickens, roosters are extra and will likely be killed, again, economics encourages farmers to overcrowd chickens and raise them in appalling food factory conditions.

There is also a few more edge cases relevant for vegans. The farming of nuts, a vegetarian and vegan staple, usually involves shooting, trapping and killing squirrels, chipmunks. O-L-P vegetarians who do mind killing highly evolved an intelligent mammals, but don’t mind eating fish, also have to remember that net caught fish often entails the death of bycatch, which can include dolphins, porpoises, turtles and other marine life at least as evolved an sentient as their landbased counterparts.

What can be done?

Organic Milk and Eggs. The Organic label doesn’t necessarily require humane farming, but often as a side effect, organic milk comes from cows raised in more humane conditions, where they are more likely to be in a field instead of a factory.

Organic Meat.

If anything, the state of farm animal welfare has gone backwards in the last 200 years. The pragmatic vegetarian should be encouraging their non-vegetarian friends to switch to fish, beef, chicken, and pork that puts animal welfare and the environment first. No one is served by the hog farms that turn entire counties into stinking cess pools, no one is served by gratuitous cruelty to animals, slow & painful deaths, no one is served by fishing stocks until the fisheries collapse. Vegetarians, who are often the most interested party in animal welfare, need to be engaged in the discussion on happy meat and not attack it as a rationalization for back sliding vegetarians or as a sign of insincerity.

If vegetarians exit the discussion on happy meat, the condition of farm animals will continue to deteriorate, even if vegetarian movement in the US could double or triple in size, which is rather unlikely.

Can’t we all get along?

Vegans, I supposes, could and maybe do begrudge the vegetarians their milk, eggs and honey. However, vegetarians begrudging the omnivores organic or happy meat helps factory farmers much more than the vegetarian movement. Without a happy meat movement, there is no economic pressure on the farm industry do do anything but to make the extraction of calories from animals more cost effective, regardless to pain, cruelty and inhumanity.

to be continued….

Diet for a Small Mind

Dietary advice is a mixture of fad diets, science, tradition and market driven commerce. Fortunately, Matthew Martin, middle class non-professional nutritionist is here to sort things out for everyone. Sit back and let me over simplify things for you.

Eating too many calories will make you fat. What “too many” means depends on how much you exercise. Now how do you need to modify your life style and diet so you don’t have an uncontrollable urge to eat too many calories? Jury is out on that one.

Eating too few calories will make you lose weight. This is usually not a problem, but studies of large populations show that taller heavier people do better than shorter skinnier people.

There is an optimal weight. Add the two facts above and we find out there is an optimal weight to height ratio, which works out to be a BMI in the low 20s.

Losing Weight. Diet will keep you from gaining weight further, but exercise is what gets rid of the excess weight you have now. Keep in mind that once weight is put on, it goes away slow, maybe 2 pound a week at best. Also, people tend to overestimate the impact of exercise–the human is a very fuel efficient machine.

Macro Nutrients.

The jury is out on the optimal mix of fat, protein and carbohydrates in the diet. If the life extension research is true for humans (as it is true for mice), then the mere act of eat any calorie tends to wear out the body. On the other hand, eating extremely low calorie life extending diets means your body switches to a low temperature, low activity metabolism that wouldn’t make life much fun.

The key finding in current macronutrient research is that the mix of macronutrients you eat affect the ‘mode of metabolism’ you body is in. It appears depending on the food we are eating, we switch to fat burning mode, fat accumulation mode, starvation mode, etc. The macronutrient mix also affects how powerful our desire to eat will be. Furthermore, the predominant macronutrient we eat will put different strains on different systems. Low fat diets stress out the pancreas, high fat diets stress out the arteries, high protein diets put stress on the kidneys. Something is going to break- no one know if we are better off wrecking our pancreas in the effort to live longer or if it is better to wreck our arteries to live longer.

Protein is extremely good if you are doing any activities that require it, such as being pregnant or weight lifting. Extremely high protein diets mean your body has to take extra steps to turn that excess protein into fuel. So there is an optimum amount of protein to eat.

Fats can be ordered from bad to very bad. This is not very useful advice, especially now that carbohydrates are getting a bad reputation. If we don’t eat fat, carbohydrates and only an optimal amount of protein, we don’t get enough calories. What gives? Well, at best the macronutrient research can tell us what types of fat and carbohydrates we should try to eliminate all together, and which we should disproportionately favor.

Dietary cholesterol is either bad or neutral, so on average animal fats aren’t helping any.

Saturated fats (those solid at room temperature) are bad, but not deadly bad. On the other hand transfats, fats that are made solid by bubbling hydrogen through them are poison.

Low saturated vegetable oils are not as bad as the other fats. That said, be less bad than the other doesn’t mean they are good, like I said, the jury is out on that.

Transfats are poison. ’nuff said. Don’t even eat trace amounts of transfats if you can help it.

Carbohydrates can be ordered from bad to very bad. Refine starch and sugars are bad. Whole grains are not as bad. Fructose and the other simple sugars are not as bad as sucrose, but being not as a bad as sucrose doesn’t mean it’s good. In fact, gratuitous simple sugars in the diet appear to be wrecking our pancreases.

Animals. Jury is out on the effect of eating animals, milk and eggs. Vegetarians typically do a better job of controlling weight, which is supposed to be good for preventing or deferring degenerative disease. Also, just like diets that target one macronutrient over another, a vegetarian diet has powerful incentives involved. Many vegetarians stick to their diet because they have strong political, environmental and ethical reasons for sticking to their diet. Compare this to a low fat or low carb diet, where there is no similar consequences to abandoning the diet.

Diverse Diet. Eating a little bit of everything is a good idea.

Vitamins. Not getting enough is catastrophic. Getting extra vitamins appears to be a wash–no dramatic benefit or harm. Consider vitamins to be an insurance policy against accidentally eating an undiversified diet.

Single factors. No single behavioral or nutrition factor explains health or lack of it. We know that dropping transfats and dietary cholesterol is good, but other factors– like how many well-patient visits you make to your doctor might out weight all those factors. Also, focusing on easy to measure single factors, like oat-bran, grams of carbohydrates will distract us from possibly more important things, like exercise, smoking, alcohol, risky behaviors and many other issues whose presence can swamp the effect of a single factor behavior like eating more oat bran.

Appropriate skepticism. Be skeptical of brand new claims. Back in the day when bleeding was the state of the art treatment for microbial diseases, people would have been better of with no medical care at all, but if people had rejected all medical care would have been worse off, as even medieval medicine sometimes helped!

We are in a new age where things are more complicated. The low fat and the low carb diets are probably both right and probably both wrong depending on how future research pans out. There is a correlation between certain components of fats, such as transfats and certain types of cholesterol and heart disease. Similarly, there is a correlation between carbs and diabetes. And both carbs and fats have calories which are correlated to weight which is correlated to diseases. Holding an idea as tentatively true and acting on it is difficult, but we have no other choice if we are to progress in a scientific manner.

Vegetarianism: My advice for new vegetarians

Get enough calories, especially if one decides go go vegan. Ounce for ounce, vegetarian and vegan fare has fewer calories. This good if one is trying to lose weight, otherwise not. Iceburg salads don’t count as a substantial vegetarian meal.

Fake meat and fake milk are optional. The quality–in terms of taste–of fake foods is hit or miss. I suspect many people are discourage from becoming vegetarian because they figure they’ll have to eat fake meat to make up for the absence of real meat. Tofu is highly overrated in this regard. I find it easier to cook with seitan instead. The best ‘fake’ foods are homemade recipes which don’t try very hard to replicate the real thing, but do try to be good to eat.

Getting enough protein can be done by accident, but getting lots of vegetarian protein takes planning, say for pregnant women or weightlifters. Ounce for ounce, vegetarian and vegan fare really does have less protein. Somewhere in this blog I have a post about strategies for eating lots of vegetarian protein, but I’m too lazy to look & link it.

Beware of dietary perfectionism and isolationism. Having a strategy for staying socially engaged with the non-vegetarian world is probably as important as learning the new recipes. Flexitarianism, a word I’ve just invented maybe, is eating vegan when it is convenient to do so, vegetarian when being vegan is to difficult, and eating low on the hierarchy of sentient beings when it isn’t possible to be a vegetarian. Being flexible may sound unprincipled, but making no effort what so ever to consider the impact of diet one’s health and the surrounding world is doubly unprincipled.

[this started out as a comment on another blog that got too long]

Traderspoint Creamery Yogurt Bottles: Removing the label

The Traderspoint Creamery yogurt comes in a bottle sturdy enough to use in third world housing.  Since I’ve paid to have these heavy bottles shipped to my grocery store, I would like to get some additional use out of them.  However, the label glue is not removable.

The Clean Washington Center has a page on the challenges of washing bottles and removing their labels. Pressure applied (sticky) labels are cheaper than glued on labels, but make it impossible to get the gunk of the bottle.

Right now, the only solution I can see is either using some powerful solvent, fire,  thermonuclear charge or applying a new paper sticker over the glue, since water and soap sure aren’t going to get the glue off.

Health– What was noticeable

Exercise.  The bodily aches and pains stopped after I started going to the gym and resume if I slack off.

Eliminating transfats.  I can tell when I’ve been eating a lot of transfats– a week of restaurant food and I feel worse.  I think the low-fat fad, the raw vegan fad both are popular because they make people feel better due to the absence of transfats, the fat & cooking issues are red herrings.

High protein meals. The science doesn’t support the popular idea that you will die on a low protein diet or get sick on an animal protein free diet.  That said, I’m noticeably more satiated after a meal of seitan (concentrated wheat protein) than other meals of a similar volume and quantity of calories.

Sugar. Too much sugar and I can tell–I’ll feel noticeably worse.  Research on the web says I can eat 40grams of sugar a day before I’ll start running the risk of breaking my pancreas.  One can of cola means the rest of my food for the day would have to be sugar free.

Caffeine. NPR said more than a cup before noon and you’ll disrupt the sleep.  They’re right.

Flossing. Flossing works.  I just wish it wasn’t so unpleasant to do in the first place.

What wasn’t noticeable

I’m not saying that the following are ineffective or unhealthy, I’m saying they are not noticeable.  While vaccines are not noticeable, it would be foolhardy to not get vaccinated.

Vegetarianism. No noticeable effect. It’s good for the environment, cheaper, probably reduces risk of degenerative diseases in the long run, or at the very least, it means you will be more likely to die of one disease rather than another.  No one lives forever, after all.

Vitamins. No noticeable effect. I take them anyhow, albeit irregularly.

Brushing.  The benefits of brushing are probably visible to dentists, but are invisible to me, except for about 10 minutes after brushing.

I guess the pattern is somewhat clear.  Preventative health care has no immediate noticeable benefits.  One engages in preventative health care as a intellectual activity of weighing risks and benefits too far in the future for one’s dinosaur brain to react to.

Evolutionary biologist say that high IQ humans are no more reproductively successful than low IQ humans, so if there is to be any future evolution towards more intelligent humans, it will be on account of preventive health care.