The Scientists vs. Starbucks

Zack Denfeld, Catherine Kramer en Yashas Shetty

Project: The Edible Time Machine
Genomics Centre: Netherlands Consortium for Healthy Ageing
March 2012

If corporations are people, can they be asked to go on a diet in the name of scientific research?

In our first blog post we talked about the constraints of forecasting the future, especially the highly skewed view of the future one gets when focusing on technological change. For our second post we want to begin by talking about some of the constraints scientists face when it comes time to designing public health interventions.

The Netherlands Consortium for Healthy Aging is currently starting a research project called Growing Old Together. In addition to the wider aim of establishing guidelines for healthy aging, this research is largely about 2 things -

  1. The ongoing studying of long lived individuals.
  2. Conducting a dietary intervention that involves a reduction in calories and an increase in exercise.

One of our Dutch colleagues recently returned from an academic conference in the U.S. and was horrified at the size of the coffee drinks served at corporate chain stores. To an American like myself, seeing already-obese adults consuming a Starbucks Trenta-sized drink is not a surprise. However, our Dutch colleague was horrified at what she described as “calorie bombs” filled with sugar, and then with whipped cream and sprinkles on top. Her current research on the positive health benefits of caloric reduction and exercise seemed to be clogging up right before her eyes.

Starbucks Trenta
Starbucks Trenta

This points to a larger systemic problem. If the issue at hand is to encourage improved eating habits and create a healthy aging population, population-wide problems (such as trends in XL portion sizes) should be addressed considering some core issues:
There is an extremely well-funded and extremely creative international cabal bent on convincing humans to consume more, and to consume food in ways that would likely reduce their lifespan. How can a scientist effectively intervene in the industrial-entertainment-culinary complex? Most of the leverage points to intervene in the system are off-limits to scientists.

So, how effective can scientists be in trying to get people to eat more thoughtfully and exercise when there are huge corporate advertising and marketing budgets being spent to get people to do the exact opposite – seducing consumers with calorie bombs conveniently packaged to stash in the cupholder of cars? Depending on which Starbucks product a consumer orders in the 31 oz. “Trenta” at Starbucks the drink could contain anywhere from 90 – 900 calories.

This is not to pick on Starbucks in particular. Within the calorie economy there are many actors involved: genes, humans, gut bacteria, corporations, chemicals, advertisements, food packaging, etc.

Imagine if scientists could ask a corporation to go on a restricted calorie diet, and then measure the public health benefits. Under U.S. law corporations are considered people. Scientists can’t force people to be subjects, but we wonder what would happen if our colleagues were allowed to identify some willing corporations as subjects. Would intervening with corporate-persons have a more profound impact that intervening with human-persons? If so, what is holding us back in attempting this? In other words, is there a meaningful way for scientists to explicitly reign in the excesses of corporations, especially if it is the most obvious and effective solution?

We are not sure we have an answer, but our scientific colleagues hope that the artwork we create has the secondary benefit of promoting better habits in young and middle aged eaters. It may or it may not. Successful art is rarely so didactic, or have such a direct effect on the world. Otherwise it is considered propaganda or non-art. Now that we have discussed some of the constraints of the practice we will move on to some of the constraints in the practice of art, and how we might overcome them.

Beans vs. Bugs
As Genomic Gastronomers even we are not immune to the insect bug that seems to be sweeping the food design world. It seems as if every 2 weeks there is a new front page article about the merits of eating insects, and its importance in creating a sustainable food system. And there are a number of Dutch scientists working on the science and policy of Entomophagy. For artists, in order to get work they are often asked/expected to make work that is sensational, novel and anomalous. Eating insects ticks each of these boxes, whereas creating artwork about the lowly bean is probably a recipe for exclusion in the image-conscious world of contemporary art. Bugs it is!….

However, the more we read about the history and proposed future of EATING INSECTS the more we wondered how much of this whole thing was hope and how much was hype. The discussions surrounding the benefits of consuming insects are most often purely focused on their efficiency in providing protein, as a way of substituting meat. However, when comparing a grasshopper to a steak, immediate questions of taste and preference arise. If the honest concern is the human need for protein, why aren’t nutrient rich pulses ( brought in to the discussion as a legitimate solution for the human need for protein in the diet?

The following list highlights the amount of protein per 100g in various ingredients:

  • 28.2g Caterpillar
  • 19.8g Giant Water Beetle
  • 27.4g Beef (Lean Ground)
  • 39.6g Soybeans Mature Seeds Dry Roasted
  • 15.6g Lupins Mature Seeds Cooked Boiled Without Salt

In this scenario, dry roasted soybeans are by far the clear winner. However, insects are sensational, and beans are boring. Beans just don’t have a very good reputation in the west. Within Dutch culture, one of our collaborators shared the following story:

Bartje “I don’t pray for brown beans!”

There is a very famous Dutch book, originating from 1935, written by a man named Anne de Vries, titled ‘Bartje’. It is situated in Drenthe, a rural and forest-rich province in the northern part of the Netherlands. Bartje is one of the sons in a very child-rich poor family. Because the family was very poor, they ate beans very often. Notwithstanding the fact that he was always hungry, he really hated beans. Once he was so furious about the fact that he had to eat it while his mother promised him a left-over piece of yesterdays meal, that he screamed – during the prayer before dinner – “I don’t pray for brown beans!”, making his father and mother furious of course, and they banned him out of the house for quite some time. Click here for a video about Bartje.

Chart about bean consumption
Chart about bean consumption

Perhaps, rather than getting people to accept insects into their diet, it is time to give beans a make-over in the Netherlands! Guessing by the image, Bartje’s bean dish isn’t prepared in a particularly appetizing way. However, with the right preparation and spices – a diverse array of delicious treats can be made. Perhaps it’s time the west learnt a thing or two about cooking from India, where pulses, combined with sesame seeds and rice, play an integral role in daily cooking offering a wide variety of tasty dishes. Healthy ageing researchers share a long-term view with the Center for Genomic Gastronomy, and one realizes that the political ecology of the planet is radically shifting in the next century. It may not be Dutch scientists creating Entomophagy programs for the global south, but India creating Complete Protein programs for a poorer Western Europe. Now THAT might get people’s attention.

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