food knowledge

Food Myths and Misconceptions


Adding salt won’t make the water boil any faster.
You can take mayonnaise on a picnic.
Go ahead and swallow that gum—it doesn’t take any longer to digest than anything else you might eat.

Let’s face it, sometimes common wisdom isn’t all that wise.
We used to call them old wives’ tales but word of mouth has moved online. Blogs, tweets, like buttons, repostings—these are the new enemies of truth. They carry the misinformation to the masses, and the next thing you know you’ve got yourself a new food mythology.

Let’s separate the facts from the fiction, the science from the silliness.
We’re going to settle this once and for all.

Myth: Add salt to water to make it boil faster.
Reality: Salt actually raises the boiling point, so salted water takes longer to boil; at least it would if you added enough, and it takes a heap of salt before there’s any effect on the boiling point. Just add salt because it will make whatever you’re cooking taste better.

Myth: Sushi means raw fish.
Reality: Sushi refers to the vinegared rice. Sashimi comes closer in meaning, since the ingredients are always raw, but it’s still not accurate.

Myth: A craving is your body telling you it needs something.
Reality: Our bodies can tell us physically when we lack a certain nutrient, but specific food cravings are strictly emotional.

Myth: Alcohol burns off in cooking.
Reality: Alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, so it evaporates more quickly in cooking. But even after an hour of simmering, 25% of the alcohol remains, and 10% after two hours.

Myth: There are negative-calorie foods that use more energy to eat than what’s contained in the food itself.
Reality: The mere act of existence burns about 62 calories an hour, so in that sense, you can eat very low-cal foods and come out ahead. But chewing and digesting even a tough food like celery won’t bump up the hourly calorie burn enough to compensate for the added calories.

Myth: You can’t bring sandwiches containing mayonnaise on a picnic.
Reality: Commercial mayo has a high acid level and actually acts as a preservative for other ingredients. The turkey on a sandwich or the tuna in the tuna salad are more likely culprits when it comes to food-borne illnesses.

Myth: Slice into rare beef and you get bloody juices.
Reality: Nearly all blood is removed from meat during slaughter. Even when it’s served ‘bloody rare,’ you’re only seeing water and beef  proteins.


Myth: The avocado pit in a bowl of guacamole will keep it from turning brown.
Reality: There is no special magic to the pit. The browning is just natural oxidation from exposure to air, and the pit is big enough to block some air from reaching the dip. Try saran wrap and you’ll cover more area.

Forget the myths, legends, misconceptions, polite fictions, old school notions, and ‘wisdom’ passed from parent to child.
It’s time for the truth to go viral.


Posted in cook + dine, food knowledge | 1 Comment

Should Hot Dogs Come With Cigarette-Style Warning Labels?




The medical reform group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine likes to stir up the hot dog debate with its billboards. Every spring it brings its cancer awareness message to billboards outside of baseball stadiums, race tracks, and other hot dog-friendly venues. PCRM is on a crusade to bring cigarette-style warning labels to hot dogs.

A steady diet of hot dogs can send you to an early grave.
According to a recent study from the Harvard School of Public Health, a daily hot dog raises the risk of heart disease by 42 percent and diabetes by 19 percent. Research from the American Institute for Cancer Research found that the risk of colorectal cancer rises by 21 percent, and the Cancer Research Center at the University of Hawaii linked hot dog consumption to a 67 percent increase in the risk for pancreatic cancer. Hot dogs have also been linked with prostate cancer, ovarian cancer, and childhood leukemia. All told, a multi-nation meta-study of 450,000 participants headed by the University of Zurich concluded that the overall risk of mortality increases by 18 percent for each hot dog consumed per day.

The problem with hot dogs.
There’s plenty of salt and saturated fat in hot dogs, but it’s the nitrites that’ll kill you. And all hot dogs have them—regardless of what it says on the package.

The salty preservative that’s added to conventional hot dogs is sodium nitrite. It develops flavor, keeps the meat’s pink color, and inhibits bacterial growth. A hot dog isn’t going to taste like a hot dog without sodium nitrite. So what about the premium and organic hot dogs that are labelled ‘no-added-nitrates’ or ‘naturally cured’? Brands like Applegate and Niman Ranch get around it with a little additive sleight-of-hand plus some arcane labeling loopholes courtesy of the FDA. They pour on the celery juice, which happens to be loaded with naturally occurring nitrate, then they add a naturally-derived bacterial culture that converts the harmless nitrate into harmful nitrite.

Alas, nitrite is nitrite. It makes no difference if it’s added directly or formed later, synthetic or naturally-derived. Take any kind of nitrite, add any kind of meat and heat, and it’s going to form cancer-causing compounds. When the Journal of Food Protection looked at popular hot dog brands, it found that the natural hot dogs had anywhere from one-half to 10 times the amount of nitrite that conventional hot dogs contained.

About those warning labels
The PCRM wants graphic labeling that would make consumers think twice about what they’re eating. Other public health organizations like the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund call hot dogs “unfit for human consumption” and would like to see an outright ban. Even the USDA has been trying to rid the meat industry of nitrites since the 1970’s.

Meanwhile, the American Meat Institute, the meat industry’s oldest and largest trade association, has taken a stand against additional labeling requirements with the publication of its own sodium nitrite Fact Sheet. The AMI dismisses much of the research as “old myths” and the work of vegans and animal rights activists. It refers to sodium nitrite as “an essential public health tool,” and points to a 2005 animal study suggesting therapeutic uses for nitrites in the treatment of heart attacks, sickle cell disease, and leg vascular problems.

Most experts say that the occasional hot dog isn’t going to kill you. The choice is yours. And if there is honest and accurate labeling, you can make an informed choice.


Posted in food knowledge, food safety, health + diet | Leave a comment

Chia: So Much More Than Mr. T’s Hair



You can keep your kale, and flax, and goji berries; chia seeds are the hot new superfood.
Yes, chia, as in ch-ch-ch-Chia Pets ™, famous for stuttering infomercials that made a fad out of growing sprouts on ceramic doggies.

Chia seeds are making the leap from the healthy fringe into the mainstream.
Last year you had to look for them in health food stores. Now you’ll find them on the shelves of your local supermarket. They’re being added to frozen waffles, peanut butter, pasta, chips, and juice drinks, and companies like Dole are lacing entire product lines with chia seeds.

Why? Because chia seeds are unbelievably good for you.
Just look at this nutritional profile:

  • A complete protein with more fiber content than bran
  • Twice the omega-3 fatty acids as salmon
  • Five times the amount of calcium in milk
  • Three times the amount of antioxidants in blueberries
  • Three times the amount of iron in spinach
  • Three times the amount of fiber in oatmeal
  • Two times the amount of potassium in a banana

Even among superfoods chia seeds are extraordinary.
Foods like pomegranates, almonds, goji berries, green tea, blueberries, and now chai seeds are considered ‘super’ because they pack a big nutrient punch in a small package. They’re dense sources of disease-fighting nutrients like antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, amino acids, and essential fatty acids, and are often thought to confer health benefits. Chia seeds are all of that plus they’re gluten-free, easy to digest, and rarely cause allergies.

Are you already thinking this is too good to be true? Hang on, there’s more.
Chia seeds can also help you lose weight. The seeds are like little sponges that sop up nine times their weight in liquid. When you eat cereal or muffins that are spiked with chia it does a bit of that inside you, so even your morning coffee can become one with a belly-filling, slow-burning ball of dietary fiber.

And the taste?
It’s fine. Really. The seeds have a tiny bit of crunch and a very subtle nutty flavor if you look hard enough for it. You’re not going to get excited about your morning chia, but it’s a perfectly neutral addition to just about anything.


Posted in food knowledge, food trends, health + diet | Leave a comment

Sweet. Sour. Salty. Bitter. Umami. Kokumi?



[image via Tiscali UK]

How many flavors can you taste?
Way back when we were taught that there were four basic flavors: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. These are the ones you can’t get by combining any others—they’re primary flavors, in the same way that red, yellow, and blue are primary colors.

A few years ago we started hearing about a mysterious 5th flavor known as umami.
Umami is described as a rich, satisfying, mouth-filling, savoriness. It’s that delicious something you enjoy when you eat umami-rich foods like aged beef, mushrooms, soy sauce, and Parmesan cheese, and that something can’t be explained by the four primary flavors.

Umami’s breakthrough came in 2000 when researchers at the University of Miami identified specific umami receptors on the tongue. That discovery put it in the same category as sweet, sour, salty, and bitter; in other words, we had a genuine, fifth primary flavor. The culinary world was rocked—it was akin to biologists suddenly discovering a third ear on the back of everyone’s head, or astronomers locating a new planet right in our solar system.

In fact, umami is nothing new—just newly embraced by western food scientists. It’s a traditional flavor enhancer for Asian cooking, where it’s concentrated in ingredients like soy sauce, dashi, bean pastes, and oyster sauce. It’s the reason that just a touch of ham can amplify the flavor of pea soup and a mere sprinkle of Parmesan does wonders for a pasta dish.

Here comes kokumi.
Just when we were getting used to the idea of umami as a 5th flavor, researchers are honing in on a candidate for flavor number 6. Sort of.
Kokumi has no taste. Some food scientists are arguing that there are distinct kokumi compounds and kokumi receptors on the tongue, which would qualify kokumi for primary flavor-hood. But unlike the other five, kokumi on its own is flavorless.

Kokumi compounds are most plentiful in onions, garlic, cheese, and yeast extract (fish sperm too, but who’s counting), and are said to multiply in the slow-cooking or aging of foods. Combine kokumi compounds with other ingredients and pow!—it’s a flavor bomb. When the tongue’s kokumi receptors are activated the kokumi alters other flavors, adding a hearty richness and roundness. It deepens the sweetness of sugar and makes savory foods taste more savory.

Kokumi has been promulgated by researchers from Ajinomoto, the same Japanese food and additives company that sold the taste world on the idea of a fifth basic taste, umami, a decade ago. There’a a healthy skepticism, particularly among scientists in the west, who question whether a flavor enhancer can be considered a true flavor. There’s also speculation that kokumi-containing foods are merely activating calcium receptors on the tongue, rather than their own distinct receptors.

Whether it’s a flavor or just a flavor-enhancer, kokumi excites food scientists, nutritionists, and food processors on both sides of the debate. It’s flavor-boosting properties could mean less added salt in salty foods, sweet foods that are lower in sugar, and richness achieved with less added fat.
Kokumi just might hold the potential for healthier diets.

Posted in food knowledge, Science/Technology | 1 Comment

Everything About Everything Bagels

[image via Chris Piascik]

[image via Chris Piascik]

The everything is not the most popular bagel.
That would be plain, closely followed by sesame. But for some, it’s the only bagel that will do. Salty, seedy, and pungent with onion and garlic, it’s the true bagel lover’s bagel.

The everything bagel also has its detractors. They complain that the everything’s yeasty, stinky goodness befouls its milder brethren in the paper sack on the way home from the bagel shop. They whine about garlic breath and the way poppy seeds tuck themselves into the spaces between their teeth.
To them I say: knock yourselves out with a blueberry bagel.

And there’s controversy.
In a promotional post for his 516Ads blog, web entrepreneur David Gussin claims to have invented the everything bagel as a teenager in the early 1980’s. Working an after school job at a Queens bagel bakery, he was inspired to reuse the tasty, toasty, seedy debris he swept out of the oven at the end of a shift. The shop’s customers went crazy for the concoction, and the rest, as he says in a New Yorker Schmear Dept. profile, is history.

Not so, says modern marketing guru Seth Godin. He claims to have originated the everything bagel at least three years earlier, back in 1977 when he was a teenaged bagel shop employee. Godin figures the oversight comes from the fact that the bagel shop of his youth was located in Buffalo—too far off the radar of the bagel elite. Despite a compelling argument from Godin (“…you add the seeds when the bagels are on the wet burlap…the burnt seeds in the oven get pretty incinerated and you wouldn’t want to use em.”) the New Yorker has yet to publish a retraction.

The everything is hands-down the funniest bagel.
There is so much online riffing on the boastful hyperbole of the appellation that blogging pioneer Jason Kottke hypothesized, “If I didn’t know any better, I’d have thought Twitter was built specifically for the purpose of cracking wise about the lack of everything on the everything bagel.” His blog,, rounded up some of the best:

–This “everything bagel” is great. Has onions, poppy seeds, garlic, cheese, q-tips, Greenland, fear, sandals, wolves, teapots, crunkin… @JohnMoe
–The “everything bagel” really only has like three things. Just what I want for breakfast. Lies. @missrftc 
–You might want to scale back on calling yourself an “everything bagel.” I mean, right away I can see there are no M&M’s on here. @friedmanjon 
–Flossing after an everything bagel is important b/c as the name implies, you don’t just have *something* in your teeth, you have every thing@phillygirl

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

You can make everything taste like an everything bagel with a sprinkle of Everything Bagel Spice Mix.

The home gardening adventurers at Plantgasm ask the question, “Can you grow anything from the seeds of an everything bagel? 


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Fruitarians: Can Man Live on Fruit Alone?

[Ashton Kutcher via Meme Generator]

[Ashton Kutcher via Meme Generator]

Steve Jobs was unquestionably the world’s most prominent fruitarian.
He followed an all-fruit diet for much of his life, even naming his company for the time he spent at a commune-like apple farm.
For Ashton Kutcher, who’s portraying the late Apple CEO in this spring’s jOBS bio pic, that meant adopting Steve Jobs’s fruitarian diet for one month. It was part of his Method acting preparation to get inside the mind of the man he’s portraying.
All that fruit landed Kutcher in the hospital with gastric distress and abnormal pancreatic functions, opening up the debate about the healthfulness of the diet regimen.

Fruitarianism is an extreme form of veganism.
While all vegans follow a diet without animal products, fruitarians also pass on vegetables and grains. Some fruitarians will indulge in nuts and seeds, and some use a botanical definition of fruit to include beans, peas, and legumes, but it is primarily, if not exclusively, a fruit-based diet.

This calls for a big, all-caps WHY??
Fruitarians are motivated by same ethical/environmental/health/aesthetic set of factors as other vegetarians and vegans, plus a big one that’s all their own. Many tout it as the original diet of mankind in the form of Adam and Eve, and therefore the purest and most natural. They cite Genesis 1:29:
And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.

Too much of a good thing.
Most health and nutrition experts are highly critical of fruitarianism—as they are of any diet that excludes major food groups. Fruits are packed with certain vitamins and antioxidants, but they’re almost entirely carbohydrates. An all-fruit diet can overwhelm the body with sugars while it’s deficient in essential nutrients like protein, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, and a laundry list of vitamins and minerals. Try it for more than a few weeks and you’re probably looking at aches, fatigue, and a susceptibility to infections and viruses. Stick with the diet long enough and it can lead to compromised organ functions, metabolic imbalances, anemia, and weakened bones and teeth—all symptoms of malnutrition and starvation.

It’s not a diet for the sociable.
Invitations to dinner become a thing of the past. Fruitarians are no fun to cook for. Dinner parties and barbecues are out of the question, and most restaurants are certain disaster. It’s also kills the sex drive, but fruitarians tend to be too busy to notice— they need to devote many hours of the day grazing on many pounds of fruit to take in enough calories.

In small doses
An all-fruit diet can have a healing, cleansing effect. It is de-toxifying, and practitioners speak of a pleasant mental and physical lightness. It can also be effective for weight loss. If someone is in good health and feels spiritually drawn to the fruitarian diet, a short stretch of a few weeks can be a positive experience.

Registration is now open for this summer’s Woodstock Fruit Festival, an annual, week-long fruitarian extravaganza. The festival’s press release extends an open invitation to Ashton Kutcher.



Posted in Entertainment, food knowledge, vegetarian | Leave a comment

How’d They Get So Little? The true story of baby carrots.

image via Bent Objects

image via Bent Objects


Did you ever wonder where those perfect little carrots come from?
Those marvels of the produce aisle, so uniform in shape, size, and color, like no carrot found in nature. You’ve had your suspicions; you’ve heard the rumors.
It’s all true. Carrots- yes; Babies- no.

True baby carrots are a specialty crop that’s grown to be harvested before maturity. The supermarket version is a manufactured product, more properly known as ‘baby-cuts’ instead of baby carrots.

The baby-cuts began as full-sized, fully-grown carrots that are snipped into 2-inch sections, pumped through water-filled pipes into giant whirling peelers, whittled down to lovable niblets, and bathed in a mold retardant before they’re packed in plastic bags for shipping. Organic carrot growers use a citrus-based product called Citrix, but the conventional baby-cuts in your supermarket were treated with chlorine to prolong shelf life.

Pass the bunny balls
The baby carrots we’ve come to know were invented in the late 1980′s. Supermarkets have always demanded carrots of uniform size and shape, with no lumps, bumps, spots, or twists. One California carrot farmer had grown tired of culling the imperfect and irregular carrots from his crop. Up to 70% of his harvest would end up discarded or sold at a discounted price for juice and animal feed. He started experimenting with green bean trimmers and potato peelers, dabbling first with 1-inch rounds that he marketed as ‘bunny balls’ before settling on 2-inch thumbs, and an industry was transformed. Ironically, we now pay a premium price for the former cast-offs.

The baby-cut boom has changed the way carrots are grown. The ideal carrot used to be bulky-topped and steeply tapered, grown to a standard 6½ inches for the best fit in 0ne- and two-pound plastic bags. Now growers shoot for long, narrow cylinders. The length gets them more cuts—it’s gone from the original two cuts per carrot to three and even four cuts from 8+ inch behemoths. Straight and narrow means they can be planted closer together for more yield per acre, and less is wasted when they’re carved into the baby carrot shape.

Before the advent of the baby-cut, annual carrot consumption in the U.S. was a steady 6 pounds a year per person. It started climbing in 1986 and topped 11 pounds per person by 2007. We snack on them, throw them into soups and stews, entertain with baby-cuts and dip, put them in lunch boxes, and order them at fast food restaurants. The carrot industry’s Eat’em Like Junk Food campaign has even pushed ‘scarrots’ as a dubious alternative to Halloween candy.

I know what you’re going to say.
Yes, it’s cheaper, healthier, and better for the environment to buy whole carrots from a local grower. But baby-cuts did get us to eat twice as many fresh carrots as we used to.
It’s hard to argue with that kind of success.

Posted in food business, food knowledge, snack foods | Leave a comment

It Takes 640 Cups of Water to Make 1 Cup of Coffee



imagesYour morning coffee was made with an entire bathtub full of water.
That’s what it takes—about 40 gallons of water—to grow and ship the beans for just a single 8 ounce cup, black, no sugar. That’s 640 cups of water to produce the one cup of coffee. It boggles the mind.

When you say water conservation, most people think of low-flow shower heads and turning off the taps while they brush their teeth. But all the water you see going down the drain is a mere drop in the bucket compared to what we can’t see in our food. Household uses make up just 5% of the water we consume, while the food and drinks on our tables soak up 75% of the total. In fact an entire day’s worth of washing, brushing, and flushing doesn’t add up to the water contained in a single chicken drumstick.

A cup of coffee, a chicken leg; that’s just the beginning. Here are the water totals embedded in some of the foods that get you through your day:

Breakfast: orange juice, two eggs, and toast– 127 gallons
The juice of two oranges = 26 gallons (more if it’s commercially-processed juice)
Two eggs = 46 gallons
Two slices of bread, two teaspoons of butter = 55 gallons (butter’s a killer at around 50 gallons per tablespoon)

Lunch: grilled chicken breast sandwich, little bag of chips, iced tea with lemon and sugar– 209 gallons
chicken breast, bun, lettuce, condiments= 149 gallons (make it a cheeseburger and you’re looking at 673 gallons)
chips = 50 gallons
iced tea= 14 gallons (better than a 16 ounce Coke at 66 gallons)

You’ll think twice about an afternoon snack when you realize that a single serving of peanut M&M’s requires an eye-popping 500 gallons of water in its production and transport.

Dinner: steak, corn on the cob with butter, salad with avocado, red wine– 891 gallons
6 ounces of beef =  700 gallons (if only we ate more goat; the water used to produce 6 ounces of beef would get you 6 pounds of goat meat!) 
1 ear of corn plus 1 teaspoon of butter =  54 gallons 
lettuce, ½ tomato, ¼ avocado, vinaigrette dressing =  117 gallons (it’s mostly the water-intensive olive oil in the dressing)
2 glasses of California wine = 80 gallons

Add in another coffee, maybe some ice cream or a handful of cookies before bed, and over the course of a single day the water contained in a typical American diet will fill and refill that bathtub 38 times.


Generally speaking, plant-based foods are produced with less water than animal products because meat and dairy items are embedded with the water of all the grains that were used as feed. Grass-fed and foraging animals are vastly more efficient and sustainable than water-guzzling, industrially-raised, grain-fed varieties, but pound for pound, animal products have a larger water footprint than crop products. The same is true when we look at the water usage per calorie or protein contained in the food product.

Where the food comes from also matters. India’s tea industry relies on irrigation while Sri Lanka’s tea plants are fed by abundant monsoon rains. Israel grows especially thirsty crops in the desert but does so with reclaimed seawater and the world’s most efficient irrigation. Still, when you realize it takes nearly 30 gallons of water to make a single chocolate Hershey’s Kiss, the fact that cocoa beans grow in rain-fed tropics is less compelling.

Here in the U.S. where fresh water is so plentiful and well-managed, we tend to overlook just how precious and valuable it is. Water is a scarce resource in many parts of the world, and as our food system grows ever more globalized, water shortages elsewhere become our food security problem. Add in the uncertainty of a future marked by global climate changes, and it’s a good bet that water will become an increasingly important component in both domestic and global affairs.


Know your water footprint. National Geographic has an online calculator that tallies your personal usage based on home, garden, diet, and energy practices.

At Water you can explore a water footprint database of 132 countries. Yes, we Americans are the water hogs of the planet.

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What Goes With What? The Do-Re-Mi of Food Pairing


cupcakes via Enjoy! Bespoke Events


It’s true that there’s no accounting for taste, but some foods just seem to go together.

It’s like that with music. There are notes that sound good together and other combinations that make you cringe. And we know that it’s based in science. The vibrations of sound in the air create sound waves, and when the math and physics of different waves are a good fit, you’ve got music.

We all know foods that go together better than others. Bacon with cheese, pickles with deli meats, sushi with ginger, tomatoes with basil—they seem to create their own harmonies. And just like music, there’s math and science behind the fit of flavors.

The science of food pairing
Scientific flavor analysis has only been with us for a few years. It’s based on the molecular analysis of ingredients that identifies the odor and flavor compounds. Ingredients are sliced and diced with liquid and gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, and then an algorithm is applied to the compounds to come up with a unique flavor profile for each food. Compatible pairings happen when ingredients share enough compounds.

The molecular basis of pairings takes chefs away from recipes, intuition, and tradition to inspire the new and innovative dishes that you find on the menus of cutting-edge restaurants. Some of the new combinations that have worked their way into modernist cooking are chocolate and pink peppercorn, cauliflower and cocoa, and salmon with licorice. Some are better left in the laboratory like liver paired with jasmine and chocolate with smoked fish. And it’s said that caviar is molecular perfection with white chocolate, but I’ll just take it on faith.

There are clearly limits to molecular pairing.
That’s because we experience food in ways that transcend flavor. Preferences are also shaped by a dish’s appearance and texture, and the eater’s individual taste thresholds, culture, memories, traditions, and even inbuilt defense mechanisms that guided prehistoric eaters away from poisonous foods. The most complex genetic map in the entire human body is the one that controls the olfactory bulb that processes information sent to the brain about the food that we eat. Taste is far too complicated to boil down to a single, molecular rule of thumb.

Food, like music, can thrive on contrast as much as harmony. 
In music it’s called dissonance; the jangle of tones that deviates from neat sound waves to create harmonic tension. It can sound harsh and unstable but dissonance has also given us Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, the Beatles’ Strawberry Fields Forever, and pretty much every movie soundtrack worth its salt. In food a kind of dissonance is found in East Asian cuisines that are based on contrasting tastes combined in a balancing act of sweet and sour, hot and cooling. Garlic with sesame oil, shrimp with ginger —these are food pairings that are completely incompatible on a molecular level, but without them there’d be no Pad Thai, Vietnamese spring rolls, or Japanese gyoza.

Don’t just guess:
has more than 1,000 pairing trees. These are interactive visualizations that give you all the possible combinations you can make with a chosen ingredient. Your selection is placed at the center and you can see all the molecularly compatible matches grouped on the branches around it. The closer to the center, the better the pairing.

Posted in cook + dine, food knowledge, Science/Technology | Leave a comment

SPAM vs. Spam



image via Happy Trails Computer Club

image via Happy Trails Computer Club



What’s in a name?
SPAM: a gelatinous block of porky luncheon meat.
Spam: a steady e-mail assault of erectile dysfunction ads, entreaties from Nigerian princes, and replica watch offers.
It’s hard to imagine a brand surviving this kind of association, but Hormel SPAM is doing just fine, thank you very much, not just surviving but thriving.

Hormel can get awfully touchy about the name.
It’s been a sore subject since the mid 1990’s when they watched their once-proud brand become synonymous with a detestable digital menace, and were powerless to stop it. Over the years they’ve repeatedly singled out technology companies with ‘spam’ in their company names and sued them for trademark infringement. After a decade of legal debate, the judges of the Trademark Board ruled against Hormel, asserting that the brand wasn’t truly damaged because no one confuses the internet applications with a canned meat product.

In 2001 their worst fears were realized.
A Hormel spokesman explained the company’s struggle with a statement on their website: “We are trying to avoid the day when the consuming public asks, ‘why would Hormel foods name its product after junk e-mail?’” Indeed, ‘spam’ has become ubiquitous throughout the world to describe the flood of unsolicited e-mail and in 2001 the term entered the Oxford English Dictionary not as a luncheon meat but as “The practice of sending irrelevant, inappropriate, or unsolicited postings or e-mails over the Internet, esp. indiscriminately and in very large numbers.”

But for all of Hormel’s anguish, SPAM remains unmarred by the negative association.
Born in the Great Depression, SPAM is an emblematic food in America’s hard-times pantry—so much so that it’s been suggested that the Federal Reserve Bank should track SPAM sales as an economic benchmark. We’ve turned to it again in the recent downturn. Hormel has seen steadily rising sales and profits for the past four years.

In 2012 SPAM makes peace with the internet.
Looking to grow its online presence, this year SPAM redesigned its website, added a YouTube channel, and stepped up its customer engagement through Twitter and Facebook. The brand also introduced its first-ever spokescharacter, Sir Can-A-Lot, a little tin can of a knight who’s on a crusade to rescue your meals by infusing them with some pink processed meat. This year, SPAM’s U.S. consumption reached an all-time high of more than 120 million cans.


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Why is Mint the Flavor of Oral Hygiene?

Mint Splash • Cool Peppermint • Vanilla Mint • Wintergreen Ice • Extreme Herbal Mint • Clear Mint • Minty Fresh • Citrus Clean Mint • Green Tea Mint • Pure Peppermint Fresh • Super Action Mint • Lasting Mint

Crest toothpaste flavor lineup

Why Mint?
The Spanish are partial to anise-flavored toothpaste, Koreans flavor theirs with charcoal and bamboo salt, Indian toothpaste tastes like root beer from the addition of sarsaparilla root, and Russians prefer something called ‘Forest Balsam’ flavored with bark and pine needles. You can find mint-flavored toothpaste all around the globe, but its absolute domination is unique to the American market.

There are plenty of other flavors that freshen breath. You just need something with an astringent that shrinks bacteria combined with a pleasant scent. Oral hygiene was a homemade affair until the twentieth century, and people rinsed with vinegar or lemon juice, chewed aromatic seeds like fennel and cloves, and chewed on herbs and spices like parsley and spearmint.

Mint is a sweet smelling astringent that brings a little something extra.
Astringents tend to have a bite to them that can feel like a burn to your mouth, but mint makes the mouth feel cold. It’s just an illusion; the temperature inside your mouth doesn’t really change, but the natural menthol in mint activates temperature sensing cells that send out false signals. They fool your brain, and you sense a coolness that isn’t really there. It’s that sensation, more than the taste, that makes your mouth feel clean and fresh.

Availability tipped the scale in mint’s favor.
Runner-up cinnamon, the second most popular toothpaste flavoring, is a costly import from Asia. Mint, though not a native plant, was a well-established crop by the 1900’s, mostly in the Pacific Northwest and the regions around the Great Lakes. It was little-used as a culinary herb but had a multitude of medicinal uses, and mint oil was a valuable export. Cheap and readily available, mint insinuated itself into fledgling manufacturing, flavoring Colgate, the world’s first mass-produced jarred toothpaste in the 1870’s (collapsible paste tubes didn’t appear for another 20 years).

Today you can find novelty toothpaste flavored with everything from bacon to birthday cake, but mint still rules. See which brand tastes best in the Chow Supertaster’s Mint Toothpaste Flavor Showdown.


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Everyone in America Eats the Exact Same Turkey

image via Gerry Broome/AP


I don’t need to tell you.
By now, we’re all pretty well acquainted with the miserable conditions and often inhumane treatment that produce the bulked-up shrink-wrapped birds found in supermarket cases. But did you know that they’re basically all the same turkey?

A year’s production: 275,000,000 broad-breasted whites and only 30,000 heritage birds.
Virtually every turkey raised in the U.S. comes from a single genetic line. Even most free-range farmed turkeys have been raised from poults purchased from large-scale breeders working from that line. The broad-breasted white is a genetically-engineered hybrid developed in the 1970’s; ‘broad-breasted’ because breast meat sells; ‘white’ because the little feathers missed in plucking won’t show.

The broad-breasted white was engineered to convert the minimum amount of feed into the maximum amount of white breast meat in the shortest possible amount of time. And what a triumph it is! A factory-farmed turkey is ready for market in as little as twelve weeks (versus around 30 weeks for heritage breeds) and about 70% of its weight is breast.

A lot of turkey parts have to fall by the wayside to get that much breast meat.
Mass market turkeys have scrawny legs and tiny little skeletons. Their body cavities are so small that their organs are too crowded to reach full functionality. They are too frail and front-heavy to walk, roost, fly, or mate. There’s little chance of any muscle development, which is all the better to support the singular goal of breast production.

The broad-breasted white turkey is not a robust bird.
Their oversized breasts constrict their lungs so that they are constantly starved for oxygen. They develop the cardiovascular diseases that seem to find the overweight and sedentary members of every species. Even if they’re not headed to slaughter, the ‘natural’ life-span of these turkeys is only a year or two, versus the eight to twelve year life expectancy of heritage breeds.

There’s nothing robust about their flavor either. All that white meat is flabby; the protein level is low, the taste is mild, and the texture is soft. Gaminess and chew have been bred out, and while broad-breasted whites are higher in fat than other breeds, there’s none of the richness.

A naturally raised, free range broad-breasted white turkey can be a vast improvement over a factory farmed specimen. It has a foraged diet and develops muscle mass that contribute to superior flavor. But for a turkey that tastes like a turkey should taste, you’ll have to seek out a heritage breed. ‘Heritage’ is not a federally-regulated term, and it’s an over-used marketing buzzword, but a true heritage turkey is one of the ten specific breeds that were raised in the U.S. prior to the 1950’s when the poultry industry began to genetically engineer turkeys on the way to developing the broad-breasted white.

Don’t eat a Thanksgiving turkey that tastes like every turkey in America.
You can order a heritage breed turkey online at Heritage Foods USA and D’Artagnan. On the east coast, Mary’s Turkeys can direct you to local markets that carry their birds. Local Harvest and the The US Ark of Taste at Slow Food USA both maintain national directories of heritage turkey farms, markets, and breeders.



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The 10 Most Hated Foods (and why we hate them)


It’s not true that everything’s better with bacon.
There are foods that we simply loathe.

Some tastes are hardwired at birth for our protection and survival. We like sweet and dislike bitter— sugar means energy and bitterness can be a warning sign of toxicity. Savoriness signals protein, and an appealing saltiness helps our bodies get necessary sodium. Your genetic makeup plays a role in taste: everyone perceives flavors a little differently, with different levels of intensity.

That’s the nature; then there’s the nurture.
Context and experience influence how we taste by shaping how we feel about what we eat. Our perceptions and biases are influenced by sociological and cultural factors like ethnicity and economics, and there are also the psychological associations we make with foods that are based in our personal histories and memories of meals gone by.

Flavors can be polarizing, like blue cheese and black coffee—they are as beloved by some as much as they are detested by others. There are foods like spinach and brussels sprouts that elicit a child’s knee-jerk response, and many will carry it into adulthood. And then there are foods that are just plain difficult, like organ meats and odd sea creatures. It’s not that the taste is so objectionable, but the texture, aroma, or even the mere thought of these foods can cause queasiness in a wide swath of eaters. The Journal of Psychology surveyed more than 75,000 participants to come up with a list of the most hated foods in America, and they found that polarizing tastes, childhood prejudices, and the odd, nasty bits are all represented.

Disgusting or delicious? These are the 10 most hated foods (in order of revulsion):

                • Liver
                • Lima beans
                • Mayonnaise
                • Mushrooms
                • Eggs
                • Okra
                • Beets
                • Brussels Sprouts
                • Tuna
                • Gelatin


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Horse Meat Comes Off the Menu at NYC Restaurant

image via


I’m so hungry I could eat a…

Horse meat is off the menu at New York’s M. Wells Dinette. The restaurant’s celebrated French-Canadian chef-owner scuttled plans to serve horse meat tartare in response to outrage from animal rights advocates and concern about legal and health ramifications.

Last year Congress lifted a ban on slaughtering horses for human consumption. Until the ban went into effect just five years earlier the U.S. was one of the world’s largest horse meat producers, mostly shipping it to overseas markets, and had been for more than a century. But we’ve never been much for eating it.

Horse meat has long been taboo in the U.S., mostly for sentimental reasons.
It’s like the pets-or-food problem we have with rabbit; we don’t want to eat potential companions. There have been two notable exceptions in horse meat history: a widely mocked government promotion as a beef substitute when meat rations became scarce during World War II (earning Truman the nickname ‘Horse Meat Harry’); and the chicken-fried horse meat cutlets served at the Harvard Faculty Club until 1985.

Animal protection groups pressed Congress for the 2007 ban, but animal welfare was also one of the reasons for the ban to be lifted. Incidents of horse neglect, mistreatment, and abandonment had soared in the following years—animal welfare organizations have reported as much as a 60% spike—with most blaming the recession, since the proper maintenance of a horse is such a huge expense.

Even so, a horse slaughterhouse is a tough sell, and not just to New Yorkers. A new slaughterhouse has yet to open since Congress cleared the way; one application was withdrawn when a Missouri community protested, another is languishing in New Mexico with strong opposition from legislators; and in New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie signed a bill that bans not just slaughterhouses, but even the transport of slaughterhouse-bound horses on his state’s roads.

Even with its new legal status, there is virtually no U.S. market for human consumption of horse meat. Horse meat is not kosher, questionably halal, and it’s forbidden by some Christian sects going back to the 8th Century when the Pope declaimed it as a “filthy and abominable” pagan custom. Its cause isn’t helped by the lack of a culinary cognate—meat from a pig is called pork, from a cow it’s called beef or veal, but meat from a horse is horse meat (although the practice of horse-eating is called hippophagy).

In case you’re curious, horse meat is said to taste similar to beef only sweeter and gamier with a mineral finish.

You might be surprised to learn that beyond horse meat, you can legally buy everything from camel to yak to zebra. Read all about it in Gigabiting’s How to Cook a Lion.

Posted in cook + dine, food knowledge, food policy | 2 Comments

Got Alt-Milk?

Calvin and Hobbes via United Feature Syndicate


Got milk?
Gotten milk recently? It’s no easy feat.
The dairy case used to hold a couple of cow’s milks with varying fat contents. Then soy milk appeared as a non-dairy alternative. Now we have a slew of non-dairy and non-soy milk alternatives crowding the case, made from nut varieties, grains, and even law-skirting hemp seeds.

Why all the milk alternatives?
We know that a cow’s life on a dairy farm is hardly the bucolic idyll of our imaginations. Supporters of animal rights and those looking to avoid growth hormones and antibiotics have already moved on from large-scale, conventional milk producers. Then there are vegans, the allergic and lactose intolerant, and other dieters looking to reduce fat and cholesterol.

The first stop for most was soy milk, but there is growing awareness that soy is a high spray, intensively farmed, rain forest-depleting crop, and most of the soy grown in the U.S. is genetically-modified. There are also concerns that soy protein can interfere with your body’s ability to absorb potassium, and it may be linked to breast cancer.
Now what are we supposed to put on our cereal?

Rice milk is often the alt-milk gateway because it tastes closest to cow’s milk, but sweeter. It’s low in fat but high in carbohydrates (rice, y’know) and thin as water so it’s not the most pleasing replacement for your usual splash of half-and-half in your morning coffee, but it can hold a decent cappuccino foam.

Almond milk is low in fat and high in protein. It’s creamy and slightly sweet with slightly bitter undertones. It foams impressively, although in an off-white shade, and makes a good dairy substitute for cooking and baking. It’s dairy-free, but commercially produced almond milk isn’t always soy-free.

Hazelnut milk is light in consistency but has a rich flavor, a powerful nutty fragrance, and just a tiny touch of sweetness. The hazelnutty taste is boosted when it’s made from roasted nuts, rather than the more common raw nuts. Not everyone is a fan of the hazelnut taste, but if you are it’s a good choice in sweet coffee drinks and desserts. If you’re not, have it warmed—hazelnut milk holds a credible foam for espresso drinks and the flavor dissipates in the heat.

The coconut milk you find in half gallon cartons is not the same as the unctuous cooking ingredient that comes in a can. It’s also not the same beverage as coconut water. It falls somewhere between the two when it comes to fat content, sweetness, and creaminess; this means it’s still pretty sweet, fatty, and lush. It tastes undeniably of coconut, so use it where you want the flavor. It’s perfect for non-dairy smoothies and creamy desserts, and has the virtue of being made from just one ingredient: coconut.

I’ll warn you that oat milk is a bit thick. It doesn’t go down like porridge, but it’s not what you would call light and refreshing. Oat milk is not the best option for coffee, but it’s great on cereal and in baking where the grainy flavor is welcome. It’s low in fat, when compared with nut or dairy-based milks, and actually has more calcium than cow’s milk. It also avoids the natural sweetness of most of the dairy substitutes, making it a good option for savory dishes like mashed potatoes.

Hemp milk is made from the same seeds as pot plants. It’s not legally grown in most parts of the U.S., so most is brought over the border from Canada. It will not have you playing Pink Floyd and eating vast quantities of pizza—the hemp used in milk is bred and processed to contain almost no THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. The milk is, shall we say, an acquired taste—off white, slightly chalky, with tart, grassy notes. It’s as high in fat as cow’s milk, but the good kind, with lots of healthy Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. It holds a respectable foam for cappuccino.

If you’re new to the alt milks category, you need to know a few general rules that always apply to the milk alternatives:

  • they’re always more palatable when served chilled, especially if you’re drinking them straight-up
  • shake them up; they all separate like crazy
  • read the labels— the ingredients aren’t always organic, and they can even contain dairy in the form of casein and other milk-derived additives
  • you don’t want to dive headfirst into hemp or oat milk; ease into the category by trying some of the flavored milk varieties or maybe a nice almond milk ice cream


Posted in food knowledge, health + diet, vegetarian/vegan | 3 Comments

Crazy But True: The Fruit Cocktail Tree

image via Funny Farm


The rumors of the hoax have been greatly exaggerated.

There’s been a lot of chatter about a fruit tree.
An Australian nursery has been making a big splash on food and gardening sites with its trees that are said to bear six or so different fruit. The Fruit Salad Tree Company sells a peach-apricot-plum-nectarine tree, a lemon-orange-lime-tangerine-grapefruit-mandarin-pomelo tree, and apple and pear trees that grow red-green-yellow varieties all in one.
Not everyone is buying it.

Crop circles, the Jackalope, and now the fruit cocktail tree?
It sounds like the stuff of fairy tales; a mythical tree from which you can pluck a whole fruit basket of varieties. But it’s the real deal, and it’s actually nothing new.

Fruit cocktail trees have been around even longer than canned fruit cocktail.
They’re not hybrids or genetically modified, but are created by grafting—attaching the fruit-bearing branches of one tree onto the roots and trunk of another. It’s a simple technique that’s been around for centuries; Aristotle wrote of it in ancient Greece, and even the apostle Paul talks about grafting olive trees in the King James Bible. And I do mean simple: cut the branch from one tree and jam it into a hole you made in the other. If the central tissues make good contact, they’ll fuse together into a single, growing organism.

Grafting is also incredibly common.
Nearly every California lemon is grown on an orange tree base, and in Florida most oranges are grown on lemon trees. Most apples come from grafts, and it’s standard practice for grape growers. Kids everywhere grow pomato plants for their school science fairs, grafting potatoes and tomatoes into a single plant that grows tomatoes above ground and potatoes below.

It’s old, it’s common, so why all the skepticism?
A few years ago, there was a well-known hoax involving a 94-year old Welshman and his 30-year old backyard apple tree. The tree was quite a media sensation when it began producing plums and blackberries, drawing horticulturalists and journalists from across Britain. Alas, it was a fake, although the owner claimed to have had no part in it. Gardeners everywhere felt burned, and it seems they have long memories.

The Australian nursery doesn’t send its trees to the U.S., but there are plenty of domestic growers who will ship you a fruit cocktail tree, including Calloway’sHouse of WesleyCitrus Splitzer, and And if you’re still skeptical, you can check the integrity of the grower through The Garden Watchdog.


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Foods That Make You Pretty

image via Real Moms, Real Views


There is no magic potion to stop the clock. No instant beauty in a jar.
But there are foods you can eat that can help. They can be just as effective as any anti-aging–ultra-hydrating–cell-regenerating–alpha hydroxy–retinoid cream, and you’ll shell out a lot less in the produce section than you would at the cosmetics counter.

Whiter teeth
Scrub your teeth with raw celery, carrots, green beans, and cauliflower. Each contains cellulose which acts as an abrasive to polish the tooth surface and remove stains and bacteria.

A healthy tan
Shiitake mushrooms are high in minerals like copper that boost the production of melanin, the pigment that darkens your skin in the sun.

A blackhead-free nose
The zinc in sunflower seeds helps clear oil-clogged pores where blackheads grow.

Clear eyes
Spinach is rich in the carotenoids that keep the whites of your eyes looking bright.

Soft skin
Switch out some of your olive oil with newly-fashionable, vitamin E-rich grapeseed oil.

Reduce puffiness
Counter dark circles and puffy bags under the eyes by seasoning dishes with parsley, sage, and oregano instead of bloat-inducing salt.

Clear skin
Purple cabbage is high in sulfur and iodine—much more than green varieties—and helps rid your body of the toxins that contribute to acne.
If you have dry patches, add swiss chard to your diet for its natural retinol, a key ingredient in pharmaceutical compounds for psoriasis.

Thick, shiny hair
The iron and sulfur in eggs can help prevent hair loss and soften and smooth your hair.

Fight broken blood vessels
Pomegranate juice helps stop the formation of spider veins by strengthening the walls of blood vessels.

Give your skin a healthy golden glow with orange foods: cantaloupe, apricots, sweet potatoes, and carrots are all loaded with plant-based pigments that can tint the skin.

We can’t stop the clock, but a healthy, plant-rich diet will radiate a youthful glow from every pore.


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Hot Tea on a Hot Day: Friend or Foe?


It’s hot out there. How about a nice cold drink?
You hear the clink of ice cubes in a tall glass, see the beads of sweat condensing on the outside, and you just know you’re in for some serious refreshment.

So why does the rest of the world drink hot tea in hot weather?
Can a couple of billion subcontinental residents be wrong?

There’s lot of scientific pontification about neural thermoregulation and TRPV1 receptors in the tongue, but basically the science behind the hot tea theory is that it raises your body’s temperature which naturally makes you perspire, and that helps cool you off.

For hot tea to work as advertised, the cooling power of sweat would have to exceed the heating power of the tea. The reality is that neither is having all that much of an effect. Our bodies are really good at maintaining our core temperature, and a single glass of anything isn’t likely to be sufficient to alter it. What a hot drink can do is warm the tissues it travels past on its way to your stomach—too small and fleeting to heat your core but enough to make you feel warm and flushed. Definitely not the effect you were hoping for.

Trust your intuition.
You wouldn’t turn up the heat in your house on a hot day. That would make you sweat too, but you wouldn’t feel any cooler.


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The Sports Drink Industry has a Nice Bridge in Brooklyn to Sell You


Is Gatorade just, as the British press put it, lolly water?

Every 8-year old with a soccer ball knows that you have to stay hydrated.
They hear it from parents and gym teachers, coaches and pediatricians. They’re taught to start drinking in advance of exercise and to continue to drink at regular intervals to replace the fluids they sweat out.

This drinking dogma is not common sense.
Until the 1970’s everyone—even elite athletes—was taught to let thirst be their guide. Our bodies come equipped with an efficient homeostatic mechanism that regulates and balances hydration all on its own and uses thirst as a signal to drink.
The new-fangled concept of scientific hydration– it’s something we were taught by the sports drink industry.

Have we been sold a bill of goods?
The BBC just aired a new investigative documentary contending that the sports drink industry essentially invented the entire field of the science of dehydration. Through scientific sponsorships and grants, the industry has influenced four decades of academia, medicine, athletics, and even public health policy all in the interest of marketing a product based on a dubious health claim.

Early on, the sports drink industry set up its own research arms like Scientists in Sport and the Gatorade Sports Science Institute. The industry funds groups like the 35,000 member US National Athletic Trainers’ Association and the 45,000 member American College of Sports Medicine, and underwrites countless professional and consumer publications by and for its members. Even the nutrition guidelines for the Olympics were written in conjunction with Powerade, while Gatorade advocates had financial ties and prominent editorial roles in the drafting of guidelines for the U.S. military, which just so happens to be Gatorade’s number one customer.

The BBC production suggests that hydration science is a bunch of hooey, and the claim is backed by a scathing series of studies published this month in the British Medical Journal. The BMJ report pokes holes in decades of findings from beverage industry groups. It assessed decades-worth of hydration research supporting 431 product claims and advertisements; 97.3% were found to be invalid, tainted by flawed methodology and researcher bias.

A tiny benefit for a tiny minority
The BMJ reports that it’s only at the very extreme end of the sports spectrum where workouts are at their longest and most intense that performance may benefit from sports drinks. When the limits of endurance are stretched and performance is measured in millimeters and microseconds, the smallest incremental boost to energy and fluid replacement can make a difference.

For the rest of us, it’s about as effective as lolly water.


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Fast Food Workers Tell Us: These are the Menu Items You Don’t Want to Eat

image via


A Reddit user posed the question:

What is the one menu option at your employment that you would recommend people never eat?

In the first 24 hours, more than 6,000 restaurant workers responded.
They warned us of vegetarian items that aren’t, and tell us why we don’t want the ‘steakhouse-style’ burger for dinner. They told us about bug-infested soda nozzles, ice machine slime, and instructed us on why you never want to order a milk shake on a Saturday. It’s a roundup of food safety lapses, dietary lies, and Jungle-like tales of the food service underbelly worthy of Upton Sinclair.

Grilled Chicken
If you think you’re saving on calories and fat, think again. Those who work the grills talk of slathering chicken breasts in so much liquified margarine to keep them moist and prevent sticking that burgers and fried chicken can actually be healthier options.

Tuna and Chicken Salad
Restaurant workers report sightings of mayonnaise that spends the whole day at room temperature, and unsold chicken nuggets that are stripped of breading and re-purposed in salads.

Fountain Drinks
Soda nozzles and ice dispensers are seldom cleaned until they’re clogged—with bugs, hair, congealed soda syrups, algae—and anything else that might have accumulated or fallen in. The flipside is no better— a recently cleaned soda machine can have so much of the cleaning solution lingering in its reservoir that it dispenses a dose of anti-bacterial chemicals with the first few batches of servings.

Saturday’s Shakes
An ice cream-less mix frozen in an automated shake machine hardly qualifies as a treat any day of the week. But at some fast food outlets, the employees say that they are instructed to save all the spills and runoff that accumulate in the machine’s well, collect it for the week, and then load it back into the shake machine for a second Saturday go-round.
Why Saturday? Because it’s the health inspector’s day off.

Self-Serve Communal Condiments
You really don’t want to know.

‘Steakhouse-Style’ Burgers
A lot of the fast food chains recently added upgraded hamburgers to their menus. Often made with a higher grade of beef and fancy toppings, they command a premium price, and most outlets sell very few until dinner time. Which means, we are told, that the ‘steakhouse’ burgers from the lunch shift can have a six-hour session under warming lights to become the ‘steakhouse’ burgers of the dinner shift.

These are the eyewitnesses.
These are the people who flip the burgers, scoop the fries, and refill the straw dispensers.
And these are the foods that they won’t touch.


Posted in fast food, food knowledge, food safety | 1 Comment
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