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Your Early Ancestors Ate Insects, And So Can You

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Fried Instinct Food in Hand

For most people, the thought of eating bugs is as vomit-inducing as thoughts get, but a new study shows that insects were the food choice for our earliest ancestors and can still be eaten and digested by almost all existing primates, including humans.

The prevailing wisdom for the longest time has been that mammals didn’t produce an enzyme that could break down the exoskeletons of insects and, as a result, couldn’t effectively digest the little critters, but scientists at Rutgers University and Kent State University have proven that isn’t necessarily true.

Published in Molecular Biology and Evolution and led by Mareike Janiak, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology, the study examined 34 primate in search for genomes for CHIA, a gene necessary to break down the hard outer covering of insects called chitin . The researchers found that while most living primates have only one copy of the CHIA gene, our early primates ancestors had a minimum of three working copies, leading them to conclude that insects were an important source of food for early humans.

Primates like the tarsier, which eats more insects than any other primates and only exists on islands in Southeast Asia, have five copies of the gene because it was duplicated specifically in this lineage. It’s yet another case of use it or lose it, with Janiak pointing out:

“As some primates evolved to be larger and more active during the day than at night, their diets shifted a bit to other foods like fruits and leaves. Insects became less important and their digestive enzymes changed, but most living primates still have at least one working CHIA gene.”

There is still debate in the scientific community on how effectively humans can digest an insect’s exoskeleton, though cooking makes them much easier to chew and digest. Some studies have found that human stomach enzymes can digest the harder-shell outer covering of the insect, while other researchers say they cannot find any supporting evidence.

Fried Grasshopper Salad

Fried Grasshopper Salad

This might be because of the human subjects used in most studies on the matter, which Janiak noted have exclusively involved Western culture participants and not people from various cultures that actually eat insects regularly. In fact, according to the United Nations, insects make up part of the traditional diet of 2 billion people around the world, and 1,900 species are considered both edible and a highly nutritious food source, boasting healthy fats, protein, fiber, vitamins and essential minerals.

While the consumption of insects is common in Asia, Africa and other parts of the world, most Western consumers aren’t keen on eating whole, freeze-dried, fried or even processed insects, with a Dutch study in 2017 finding a presumption that cattle who had eaten insects could have meat that’s tougher to prepare, not as safe and not as flavorful.

We don’t expect this study to change the minds of squeamish eaters, but the fact that insects are loaded with nutrients, are available in great numbers, and don’t need many resources to produce (e.g. they have a far smaller environmental footprint than beef or chicken) may make them be best food source to accommodate the world’s rapidly growing population, which is expected to increase by 2 billion people over the next 30 years.

Despite their numerous nutritional advantages, insects have a tough road to becoming a culturally acceptable food choice, especially in the West. Whether ground into an unrecognizable powder or served whole, there is just something about them that many people can’t find palatable, no matter how much scientists insist that they are a healthy food choice.

Oh, what will we eat when the world actually does come to an end? What indeed…

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Diet & Health

Here’s What The Future Of Food Could Look Like

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Food Sensor Chip on Teeth

Devices like tooth sensors that measure sugar and alcohol intake, as well as monitor other health qualities, could revolutionize the food industry as we know it.

From new technologies detecting specific ingredients and allergens in food to the expansion of cell-cultured meat, the list of emerging technologies that help consumers understand what they are eating grows by the day.

According Max Elder, a researcher at the Institute for the Future’s Food Futures Lab, “the future is already here, and it’s about time the food industry faced it head first.

Elder believes that for Consumer packaged goods companies to prepare for new challenges, they will need to “work backwards” to come up with strategies for creating the industry they want.

Computer Circuit Chip Apple Fruit

The Future Of Food Technology

Too many of today’s packaged foods are filled with empty calories, and people are no longer able to rely on their five senses to get accurate information about what they’re eating. Products labels have traditionally been relied upon to provide said information, but they could be misleading and are often difficult to understand.

In fact, a 2018 study by the Center for Food Integrity also found that only 33% of survey respondents “strongly agree” that they are confident in the safety of the food they consume. Such a high level of distrust has prompted the development of a new suite of technologies that help consumers make better-informed decisions about their food, “radical” technologies that Elder says will likely be widespread over the next decade.

Examples of such devices include an ingestible sensor being by Carnegie Mellon University that monitors gastrointestinal health and a tiny tooth sensor from Tufts University that can measure glucose, sugar and alcohol intake.

But before sensors in guts or on teeth become ubiquitous, Elder said they will likely be situated outside the body. Chinese search engine company Baidu, for instance, has developed smart chopsticks that can detect the freshness of cooking oil.

Those suffering from celiac disease will find Nima especially useful. Nima is a small portable machine that uses a sensor to test for trace amounts of gluten when crumbs are placed into it, and the namesake company behind its creation is developing variants of the technology for other allergens, including peanuts and shellfish.

While the food knowledge consumer can gain from such new technology could pose a challenge to food companies, but it is also an opportunity for brands to get more information on what eaters want and tailor their products, services and communication accordingly.

Slab of red meat

More Sustainable, Humane Meat

We can’t talk about the future of food without mention of the lab-grown meat industry, which has the potential to expand despite regulatory setbacks.

There has been a rapidly growing movement towards and major investment in exploring more cellular food systems, and while it’s too early to know if cultured meat is as healthy or nutritious as conventionally-produced meat, the segment could potentially be a major part of the food of the future.

According to Paul Shapiro Author of Clean Meat and former vice president for The Humane Society of the United States, clean meat is better for the environment than raising and slaughtering animals, whether conventional, grass-fed or free-range. Instead pouring tons of resources into raising an entire animal that won’t be eaten in its entirety — horns, eyeballs, hooves, brains, etc. all go to waste — growing meat in a lab only results in the parts and calories consumers need.

The lab-grown meat industry is still in its infancy and the market is small, meaning cell-cultured meat commands a price premium over conventional meat. However, if the industry can eventually achieve price parity, the only issue it will have to contend with is how comfortable consumers are with eating meat produced in a lab.

Traditional Farming

Meeting Environmental Values

There has been a growing demand for transparency in the food industry, and many consumers desire to know what is in their food and actively look for ecolabels that align to their values (Fair Trade, Non-GMO, etc.). An increasing number of individuals are also reading the label to look for names they recognize and trust before they make a purchase.

That’s to say companies will have to cater to consumer’s environmental values more so than ever but must do so with caution. Not fully understanding the environmental impact of new types of food production could lead to some companies making claims they may not be able to hold up.

Like everything in life, the food industry is undergoing a transformation, and most certainly for the better. The future looks promising for the health- and environmentally-conscious consumer.

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Food Research

Over 4 In 10 Americans Open To Trying Cannabis-Enhanced Foods

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Cannabis Edibles Foods

More than 40 percent of North American consumers are willing to try foods made with cannabis recreationally if available.

A survey of 1,000 Americans and 1,000 Canadians carried out by global management consulting firm A.T. Kearney highlights the growing interest in cannabis-infused food and drinks.

In the survey, participants were asked which cannabis-containing products they or someone they know have tried in areas including food, smoking, vaping and beverages. Approximately 58% said yes for food, 12% for alcohol and 10% for nonalcoholic drinks such as juice, water, tea or coffee.

The results were echoed by an earlier study by Dalhousie University, which found that 46 per cent of Canadians said they would try cannabis-infused food products if they became available on the market. A 2017 Gallup poll showed that 64 per cent of Americans support legalization.

Over 85 percent of those surveyed said they would have an improved or neutral perception of their favorite brand if it were to launch a product containing cannabis, indicating that companies introducing products with cannabis ingredients would see an improvement in public perception.

Randy Burt, a partner in A.T. Kearney’s consumer and retail practice, stated:

“The survey clearly demonstrates the viability of the market for cannabis across multiple consumer segments – CPGs and retailers focused on health and wellness, snacking, functional food and beverage, and beverage alcohol need to have a perspective on how they will approach the cannabis opportunity.”

Interestingly, consumers expressed more willingness to try candy, chocolate snacks and packaged foods than non-alcoholic or alcoholic drinks; yet, it’s the beverage sector, especially beer, that has been the most aggressive in investing and preparing for a cannabis future.

Concerns over more consumers turning to marijuana instead alcohol for relaxation is perhaps the driving force behind the push.

Canada legalized marijuana on October 17, 2018, while ten U.S. states have legalized the psychoactive drug for recreational use.

Judging by current trends, America might be at the tipping point on legalizing cannabis at the federal level, which could open up additional markets for marijuana-related products.

Like it or not, the future looks bright for the cannabis industry.

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Diet & Health

Science Has Found The Best Way To Wash Pesticides Off Apples

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Apple on tree

Polishing an apple with your shirt might get rid of some dust and dirt, but removing the pesticides will require a little more work.

New research has found that washing apples with baking soda, the common yet miraculous household product, could be all you need to eliminate most of the residues on the surface of apples and other fruits.

Pesticides have long been used to increase crop yield, but rising concerns over their adverse effect on human health has many people talking. While the exact effects depend on the type of pesticides and the amount eaten, the World Health Organization says that certain pesticides could harm the developing nervous systems of fetuses and children.

A growing number of people have opted for organic food as way of avoiding the chemicals, but organic food usually command a price premium and there is no guarantee that pesticides were used. In fact, the organic, naturally-occurring pesticides that some organic farms use aren’t necessarily safer.

Washing has been and remains the standard practice used by both consumers and the food industry to remove pesticides, but some of the plant-protecting compounds that get absorbed by the skin of fruits and vegetables might be more resilient to current cleaning methods. To find the best method, Lili He, Assistant Professor at the ‎University of Massachusetts Amherst, and colleagues conducted a study in which they applied two common pesticides — the fungicide thiabendazole, which past research has shown can penetrate apple peels, and the insecticide phosmet — to organic Gala apples and then washed apples with three different liquids: tap water, a 1 percent baking soda/water solution, and a U.S.-EPA-approved commercial bleach solution often used on produce.

The baking soda solution proved the most effective at removing pesticides, eliminating 80 percent of the thiabendazole and 96 percent of the phosmet, respectively, after 12 and 15 minutes of the fruits being soaked. Plain tap water and the bleach solution were far less effective.

The different percentages are likely due to thiabendezole’s greater absorption into the apple. Mapping images showed that thiabendazole had penetrated up to 80 micrometers deep into the apples, while phosmet was detected at a depth of only 20 micrometers.

So, there you have it, if washing is your preferred method of removing pesticides off your fruits and vegetables, using a baking soda solution is the way to go. If all other options are to be considered, then peeling your produce is probably your best bet.

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