11th Annual Future of Food and Nutrition Research Conference

by Nako Kobayashi

Last month, the Friedman School hosted the 11th annual Future of Food and Nutrition Conference. Graduate students from across the country and around the world gathered to discuss their innovative research related to food and nutrition. Nako Kobayashi summarizes and offers some of her thoughts on the topics covered during the conference.

“The future of food and nutrition is now, and you are the future of food and nutrition,” said Dr. Ed Saltzman, the academic dean of the Friedman School, as he kicked off the 11th Annual Future of Food and Nutrition Conference on April 7th. Attendees from Friedman and beyond, including prospective Friedman students, gathered to learn about the innovative graduate student research from around the country and abroad. The future, Dr. Saltzman noted, is “not just based on disciplinary excellence, but [excellence] across disciplines and in teams of disciplines” that work toward “creating new paradigms.”

True to Dr. Saltzman’s insights, the conference was a great representation of the increasingly interdisciplinary and systemic nature of food and nutrition research and innovations. Seventeen student presentations were divided into six sessions: food insecurity, child health and nutrition outcomes, sustainable agriculture and dietary patterns, nutrition and health, agricultural productivity, and consumer food access and choice.

Britt Lundgren, the Director of Organic and Sustainable Agriculture at Stonyfield Farm and Friedman alum, kicked off the conference with her keynote address that emphasized the importance of food and nutrition research. “I think this represents one of the toughest sustainably issues we face,” she explained when talking about the environmental impact of food production, “because the stakes are so high. We’re talking about how we feed ourselves sustainably, how we feed future generations sustainably … which ultimately impacts quality of life.”

Climate change is not only an environmental problem, Lundgren explained, but “a public health problem first and foremost.” Changes in temperature are limiting our ability to produce crops in certain locations, and these limitations will only increase if we do not act quickly to slow the change. In addition, extreme weather events that result from the changing climate further threaten our ability to produce food. Instead of viewing agriculture as a contributor to climate change and other environmental problems, “Not only can agriculture be a part of the solution to climate change,” Lundgren explained, “but agriculture must be a part of the solution to climate change … it is possible to turn agriculture into a net sink of carbon instead of a net source.”

Norbert Wilson Friedman School Student Research Conference

Dr. Norbert Wilson from the Friedman School moderating a Q&A session with Doug Rauch from Daily Table (Source: Laura Gallagher)

A Q&A session with Doug Rauch, the Founder and President of Daily Table and former president of Trader’s Joes, continued the narrative of finding solutions in unlikely places. Rauch explained how Daily Table makes food shopping an empowering instead of demeaning experience. Daily Table is a non-profit community grocery store with two locations in Massachusetts: one in Dorchester and another in Roxbury. Wanting to help reduce the astonishing amount of food waste in our supply chains, Rauch initially sought to establish a food bank. However, he realized that a large portion of the people who could benefit from such a service may not utilize it because the food bank environment is one that perpetuates a sense of shame instead of agency and pride. “We all should feel entitled to lead healthy, happy lives,” Rauch commented.

Rauch found a solution in the retail space. Instead of handing out free food, he decided to offer food at reduced prices, so people would feel like they are getting a bargain instead of qualifying for a free handout. By avoiding the so-called “philanthropic black hole,” where people must continuously rely on outside help without being empowered to utilize their own agency, Rauch explains that Daily Table offers a “dignified shopping experience to a community that is nutritionally suffering.” In addition, Daily Table also helps support the local economy. As opposed to a farmer’s market, where a farmer comes from outside of the community, Daily Table creates jobs for local residents by hiring from within the community.

The research presented by graduate students spanned a wide range of disciplines and topics, from the relationship of mitochondrial function and intestinal barrier integrity to women’s role in the cacao value chain in Indonesia. The conference reinforced the pragmatic and innovative aims that often characterize food and nutrition research.

Student Research Conference

A graduate student explaining her research (Source: Laura Gallagher)

The presentations related research to real-world problems and solutions. Instead of investigating theories within an academic vacuum, the graduate student researchers took a wide and interdisciplinary stance. For example, one student investigated the relationship between campus food pantry use, GPA, and diet quality of University of Florida students to inform campus food policy (Jamie Paola, University of Florida), while another created a travel cost model to understand the factors that influence food pantry use (Anne Byrne, Cornell University). Theresa Lieb from the University of Oxford stepped back to look at food systems as a whole, and identified possible policy routes moving forward while arguing for a more sustainable global diet that moves away from meat and dairy consumption.

While there are certainly many problems that need addressing within our food system, the Future of Food Nutrition Conference showed that hope remains for a more sustainable and just food future. As Dr. Saltzman noted in his opening remarks, “I think that as we move forward, the future is indeed in good hands.” I am hopeful, after attending the conference, that Dr. Saltzman is right.

Nako Kobayashi is a first-year AFE student interested in food and agriculture issues. The Friedman School appealed to her as an option for pursuing graduate studies because of the programs’ emphasis on holistic, pragmatic, and viable solutions to food and nutrition issues.

 

 

What is the SirtFood Diet?

by Erin Child

The Sirtfood Diet is popular in the United Kingdom, but hasn’t caught on in the United States (yet). The diet claims to activate sirtuins, so called “skinny genes,” that work in the body to reverse the effects of aging and help the dieter lose weight. To activate sirtuins, the dieter builds their meals out of “sirtfoods,” including red wine and dark chocolate, hence the diet’s popularity. Although the diet isn’t popular on this side of the pond, NICBC student Erin Child has decided to learn more about the diet (and its founders and followers), just in case we, as nutrition professionals, start getting questions.   

The Sirtfood Diet first came to my attention at a Sprout pitch meeting last semester. “Has anyone heard of the Sirtfood Diet?” someone asked. The room answered with a resounding, “No.” The idea of exploring a new diet that none of us at Friedman had heard of piqued my interest, and finally, a semester later, I started googling. As I researched, the main questions that I wanted answered were: Who started the diet? Who follows it? What is a sirtfood? What is the guiding science behind the diet? What does the diet entail? Here’s what I found.

The People behind the Sirtfood Diet

A few years ago, The Sirtfood Diet was popularized in the United Kingdom by Aidan Goggins and Glen Matten. Both men have their MS in Nutrition Medicine, and both seem to be health influencers with some celebrity status. Per their Instagram, Goggins is an athletic trainer, and Matten works with celebrities and makes media appearances. (Not being familiar with how famous they might be, I will not draw any comparisons with any infamous health celebrities in the United States.) In early 2017, Goggins and Matten published The Sirtfood Diet, an international bestseller, and based on the book’s cover, following the diet allows you to “eat your way to rapid weight loss and a longer life by triggering the magical powers of the Sirtfood Diet.” Magic, really?

Who follows the Sirtfood Diet?

The Sirtfood Diet rose in popularity after both Adele and Pippa Middleton (sister of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge) endorsed the diet for their own weight loss. In early 2017 alongside the publication of the book, the Sirtfood Diet saw a lot of publicity across magazines, TV shows, and social media. Despite the coverage, the diet hasn’t captured a large audience in the States. The official @thesirtfooddiet Instagram has almost 14,000 followers, but most posts get only a couple of hundred likes. (Nonetheless, the diet is apparently becoming very popular in Italy.) It’s unclear why the Sirtfood Diet is not that popular here, but perhaps we will see an uptick in the coming months or year(s).

How does this diet work, and what on earth is a Sirtfood?

Sirtfoods are foods that are high in resveratrol and polyphenols, plant-based chemicals that are supposed to “switch on” sirtuin proteins in the body. According to The Sirtfood Diet, eating a diet high in sirtfoods is supposed to create a physiological reaction similar to fasting, in which the body will start to breakdown fat stores for fuel. The book states that sirtuins “are master metabolic regulators that control our ability to burn fat and stay healthy.” If the dieter follows a diet high in sirtfoods, they will activate the sirtuins and lose weight, and possibly live longer. Based on statements from the BBC and Good Housekeeping, the most common sirtfoods in the diet are red wine, dark chocolate (85% or more), kale, arugula, parsley, blueberries, citrus, apples, buckwheat, capers, olive oil, turmeric, and green tea.

It’s unclear from my research if the dieter can only eat sirtfoods or just eat a diet high in sirtfoods. The difference between these options would be a very restrictive diet versus a diet high in plant-based foods, which could be a positive thing. However, and this is a big however, the diet begins with caloric restriction: In the first three days the dieter consumes only 1000 calories per day, largely consisting of the sirtfood “green juice,” made up of apples, celery, kale, arugula, ginger, parsley, lemon, and matcha (green tea powder). Then the dieter can eat up to 1500 calories per day for the next four days. The extra 500 calories may seem better, but a 1500 calorie diet is still insufficient for most active adults. The diet plan claims that users can lose up to seven pounds in seven days. After that, the dieter follows a “maintenance phase” for two weeks, but it’s unclear what caloric parameters are required. Looking at the meals suggested for the diet, some sound quite delicious: “Asian shrimp stir-fry with buckwheat noodles” and “Miso-marinated baked cod with stir-fry greens and sesame.” Ideally, after this introductory period, the dieter will continue to follow a diet rich in sirtfoods to continue weight loss and live a long and healthy life. Because that’s how all diets work, right?

The Science behind Sirtuins

After reading about the supposed way that the diet works, I wanted to learn more about the actual science behind sirtuins. Sirtuins (SIR1-SIR7) are a class of enzymatic proteins that are thought to be involved in immunity, metabolism and longevity. To call them “skinny-genes” is misleading and fails to capture our evolving understanding of their role in the body. From animal studies, a 2010 paper found that SIRT1 is involved with the physiologic response to diet restriction. A more recent 2017 research paper, published in Biogerontology, indicated that there was some research supporting the connection between sirtuins and longevity, but the research was conducted in yeast and animal models. This paper specifically considered circumin, present in turmeric, as a possible activator of sirtuins, but the connection was still unclear. This same 2017 paper also stated that the “search for an activator of sirtuins is one of the most extensive and robust topic [sic] of research.” This statement clearly outlines what is most often the case in “science-backed” diets. There is research out there, but it is still on-going and not conclusive enough to point to one diet being the be-all/end-all solution for weight loss and longevity. In my research, I did not find any studies that clearly linked specific foods to upregulating sirtuins in the body.

The Takeaway

From the information available on the Sirtfood Diet, it comes across as the Mediterranean diet on steroids. In my book, any diet that focuses on restriction instead of moderation is cause for concern. If someone in your life expresses interest in the Sirtfood Diet, encourage their interest in a more plant-based diet by steering them towards the Mediterranean diet or the “everything in moderation” approach. As nutrition students, it’s important to be up on the current diet trends so we can pull what elements are positive from the diet (if any) and keep the conversation going. Knowing more about what diets are trending allows us to do more.  For now, I am still relieved that the Sirtfood Diet has not become popular in the United States, and hope it stays that way.

Erin Child is a second-semester NICBC student in the dual MS-DPD program and the social media editor for The Sprout. Erin is fascinated by the science (or lack thereof) behind fad diets, so if there’s a new trendy diet you want to learn more about—let her know. In the meantime, she will be coordinating logistics for the Student Research Conference. She looks forward to seeing you there on April 7!

Friedman Hosts the 2018 Global Food+ Symposium

by Sam Jones

The second annual Global Food+ Symposium was hosted at Tufts University’s Friedman School this year. Innovative research being conducted at Tufts, MIT, Boston University, and Harvard University in the realm of the global food system was presented in speed-dating style, with each speaker giving only a seven-minute talk. Only some of the takeaways are reported here; the entire event can be viewed online.

February 16, 2018 marked the second annual Global Food+ Symposium, hosted by Tufts University at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. This year, 23 researchers from Boston University, MIT, Harvard, and Tufts shared the findings of their work in seven-minute presentations on topics ranging from microbiology to nutrition to theology. I attended the conference in its entirety from 12:30 to 4:30 on a Friday afternoon because I wanted to learn about what other researching in our consortium of schools are investigating to gain insight into what the non-Friedman community has to say about the global food system.

Throughout the afternoon, speakers presented fascinating research that touched every corner of the food system. Several presenters from Harvard and MIT discussed how water affects our food system, covering everything from breeding crops to use less water, to developing more adaptable water conserving technologies, and the ramifications of developing a water market in which price reflects scarcity. These speakers together illustrated that whether in the Zambezi River Basin or in Melbourne, Australia, water use and availability affects our food system, but there are steps we can take right now to plan for uncertainty in the face of climate change.

Nutrition was, of course, the subject of several of the presentations. Tufts professor Will Masters discussed his findings on the nutritional quality of baby food. Spoiler alert: the global baby food supply is not actually that nutritious. Alison Brown, a post-doctoral fellow at Tufts presented the research from her dissertation comparing the diet quality and risk of hypertension in foreign-born non-Hispanic blacks to those of U.S.-born blacks. Her findings suggest that the former are better-off than the latter. While useful for developing culturally-appropriate nutrition strategies, it does not delve into the root causes of these differences. A more causal-based study would be useful if the intention were to narrow the gap in diet quality and health between these groups.

Most of the presenters at the symposium used or researched cutting-edge technology to answer some of the most vexing problems in our global food system. Karthish Manthiram from MIT, for example, presented his research on how electricity derived from solar panels can be used to create fertilizer. His research found that by using electric voltage in place of high temperatures, a low-footprint nitrogen fertilizer can be created and used by small-scale farmers in even the remotest parts of Africa.

Angela Rigden, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University, presented exciting research derived from new satellite data. These data showed that vapor pressure and root zone soil moisture actually explain significantly more variability in crop yields than does temperature alone. Both Jenny Aker from Tufts and Alicia Harley from Harvard separately explored the effects of having access to technology for poor farmers in Africa and India, respectively. They found that even where a technology exists, the targeted problems may not be solved in exactly the way they were intended. For example, Alicia Harley’s research found that poorer rice farmers were not adopting a system of rice intensification (SRI) that used less water because such a practice required control over one’s water source—a luxury most poor farmers do not have. As Jenny Aker put it, one specific technology is “not going to be a silver bullet.”

Water, technology, health, and sustainability were the overarching themes that wove the presentations together. But one researcher stood alone both in his discipline and in his ability to wow an audience of entirely dissimilar mindsets. Dan McKanan, a senior lecturer in Divinity at Harvard University, revealed that the foundations of organic agriculture, organic certification, WWOOFing, biodynamic agriculture, community supported agriculture, and the environmentalist movement all sprung out of a religion called Anthroposophy. In his words, this was a religion that acted as an antidote to the ideological monoculture system—an antidote to the “monocultures of the mind.”

What the innovative research presented at the Global Food+ Symposium made me realize is that there probably will never be a “silver bullet” that can solve the issues of water scarcity, food insecurity, malnutrition, or climate change. But the research that is being done in these interdisciplinary and diverse fields is worth pursuing, whether it aims to solve a big problem in a small place or a small problem on a global scale.

Sam Jones is a first-year AFE student with a passion for sharing others’ stories. She is currently an intern at Culture Magazine nd hopes to pursue a career in sustainable agricultural development and food journalism.

Branchfood Holds First in 4-Part Panel Series on Technological Innovation in Food and Farming

by Laura Barley

On February 22, Branchfood hosted the first panel in a four-part series entitled The Future of Food, exploring innovation in agriculture, food products, nutrition, and retail. Second-year AFE student Laura Barley attended The Future of Agriculture panel, and reports on the exciting developments on the industry’s horizon. Don’t miss the rest of the series! (Details below.)

As part of its mission to connect food innovators from the local to the global, last Thursday February 22 Branchfood debuted the first in a four-part series of panels devoted to the future of food systems. The Future of Agriculture convened four ambitious leaders for a discussion on the role of data and technological innovation in agriculture, and how they can contribute to the greater vision of global sustainability.

The panel, moderated by the charismatic captain of the Entrepreneur Agrarian Fund, Aaron Niederhelman, focused heavily on one recurring theme: digital disruption. And for a field so central to the health of the planet, this kind of disruption may just be the type of makeover that agriculture needs to account for its externalities.

Water scarcity, greenhouse gas emissions, and chemical run-off continue to plague large-scale agriculture all over the world, so the implicit question underlying the panel remains: in a world where machines can now compile and analyze massive amounts of data, how can we teach sophisticated machines to solve agriculture’s most complex problems?

Lauren Moores, Vijay Somandepalli, Lawrence Wang, and Brett Brohl discuss their work in agriculture tech and data science. Aaron Niederhelman moderates. (Image source: Author)

Lauren Moores, Vijay Somandepalli, Lawrence Wang, and Brett Brohl discuss their work in agriculture tech and data science. Aaron Niederhelman moderates. (Image source: Author)

For Vijay Somandepalli, co-founder and Chief Technology Officer at American Robotics, the answer lies in automation, though developing this technology hasn’t always been as straightforward as it seems. “Lots of drones work, but almost none of them are actually used,” Vijay admitted.

To counter the trend, he and his team have developed the first fully-automated field drone, which independently collects and analyzes crop field data from launch to landing. From his point of view, automation is one step closer to ensuring that the benefits of drone technology are actually implemented—if farmers don’t have to manually monitor their field data, they and their workers can spend their time on tasks better suited to human hands. Given the continued trend toward farm consolidation, where the average size of an American farm is 234 acres and half are more than 1,100 acres, this can translate into an incredible amount of saved time and energy.

Essentially, automation has the potential to become the hallmark of precision agriculture, where farmers can build trust in technology to deliver the efficiency gains they need to remain profitable. This vision for technology was echoed by the other panelists, each of whom has the power to influence agricultural production trends on a global scale.

Lawrence Wang, Digitalization and Analytics Strategy Lead at Cargill, spoke to the promising commitment that the multi-national agribusiness company has made towards technological innovation and sustainability. Cargill has partnered with Ecolab and Techstars to create a Farm to Fork Accelerator, an entrepreneurship program dedicated to bringing some of the leading ideas in food safety, manufacturing, and food waste to fruition.

Brett Brohl, Managing Director of the Techstars accelerator program, contends that “The timing is right—there’s a bunch of venture capital moving into food innovation in the last several years.” For a behemoth processing and manufacturing corporation like Cargill, which largely contributes to the nine billion animals slaughtered in the US each year, re-shaping conventional systems of meat production could have widespread implications. Concepts like traceability and transparency have become increasingly popular among consumers, and in an attempt to gauge consumer interest and trust, Cargill has even started to trace each Thanksgiving turkey all the way back to the start of its supply chain.

But for Lauren Moores, VP of Data Strategy and Data Sciences at Indigo Agriculture, data amounts to more than the results it produces. She believes that data analysis is fundamentally a storytelling challenge, and in her line of work, that challenge means simplifying the vast complexity of the plant-soil microbiome. As a prominent Boston startup, Indigo works to tap the potential of the microbes that have evolved in conjunction with plants over time, ultimately to produce a seed coating that maximizes plant health and productivity. The universe of the microbiome is still so elusive, and the microbial cocktail of Indigo’s seed coatings is complex enough to warrant selection by machine learning just to refine the tens of thousands of possible strains available.

Lauren also acknowledges that “farmers know their land better than anyone,” and that Indigo’s role is to develop data to help them cultivate their land more sustainably. The standing paradigm of the microbiome, which Indigo is actively researching, suggests that the biology of bacteria and fungi can enhance crop water and nutrient uptake, so that excessive irrigation and synthetic nutrients won’t need to be applied as frequently.

Interestingly, Vijay’s drone technology aims to reduce the need for agricultural inputs from a slightly different angle—drone imagery can pinpoint nutrient deficiency and other crop ailments at a much higher resolution than even the farmer’s own eye. Where a farmer used to apply chemicals to a whole field just to cover their bases, they can now apply them only to the specific areas in need.

This is the story of technological efficiency—and optimism—that these innovators are trying to write. Collectively our minds are capable of pioneering solutions to the problems of our past’s conventions, and agriculture isn’t the only sector that could use a technological re-vamp. To bring awareness to innovation materializing throughout the whole food system, Branchfood is hosting three further panels on the Future of Food Products, the Future of Nutrition, and the Future of Grocery respectively on March 22, April 26, and May 24. The panels will continue to bring visionary food minds together, to share and inspire how our collective food story will evolve.

Correction, March 7, 2018: This article has been updated to clarify that Indigo Agriculture uses data about plant-soil microbiomes to develop seed treatments that enhance plant health and productivity. –Editors

Laura Barley is a second-year Agriculture, Food, and Environment master’s student ceaselessly curious about the complexity that global food systems has to offer. She’s always happy to indulge conversation at laurabarley88@gmail.com.

Game Changer: How Cellular Agriculture is Poised to Revolutionize Dairy and Meat

by Kathleen Nay

We already know that conventionally-produced animal products are problematic—animal agriculture is land, water, and energy intensive, and potentially harmful to human health and animal welfare. For most people though, meat and dairy are also delicious. What if there was a cleaner, greener way of producing our favorite animal-derived foods? Turns out, the science already exists.

Henry Ford With 1921 Model T. (Image source: Ford Motor Company / Wikimedia)

Henry Ford With 1921 Model T. (Image source: Ford Motor Company / Wikimedia)

Nearly a century ago, Henry Ford had a vision. What he’s best known for is a vision of the modern automobile: a future where humans on four-wheeled machines hurtle through space at 60 miles per hour. But while that particular vision revolutionized the world as we know it today, Ford also dreamed of another future—one that minimized the role of animals in agriculture.

In 1921, Ford told the New York Tribune, “The cow is the crudest machine in the world. Our laboratories have already demonstrated that cow’s milk can be done away with and the concentration of the elements of milk can be manufactured into scientific food by machines far cleaner than cows and not subject to tuberculosis,” (a pathogen transmitted through raw milk, and a major public health concern at the time).

What Ford envisioned was probably similar to the soy and nut milks we’re familiar with today. He also happened to be a big proponent of the soybean as a meat substitute: in 1939, he caused a kerfuffle among American butchers when he predicted that soy-based foods would entirely replace our need to raise cows at all. His predictions were likely in the service of his goal to decentralize car manufacturing and put farmers to work in factories instead of in barns. In that sense, his prediction was right. The mechanical revolution of the 1920’s fueled migration from fields into cities, where factory work was more promising than life on the farm that was increasingly reliant on mechanical efficiency.

Fast-forward ninety-seven years, and advances in food technology are inching us ever closer to realizing Henry Ford’s wildest cow-less dreams. Enter Tufts University alum, Ryan Pandya. Three years ago, I wrote about Muufri, the company Ryan cofounded with Perumal Gandhi. Together, they’re using what’s called “cellular agriculture” to commercialize the first animal-free dairy milk. Cellular ag is the production of animal products like meat, milk, eggs, and leather from cell cultures, rather than a farm. In other words, their product is not one of the many plant-based milks that are already on the market today, but real dairy proteins—namely, casein and whey—that are grown using yeast cells specially engineered to produce them using fermentation. Essentially, Ryan and Perumal are building milk protein by protein, without all the expenses, energy, water, land, or emissions associated with growing, feeding and housing cattle.

Image source: Perfect Day via Food Navigator

Image source: Perfect Day via Food Navigator USA

Much has changed for the company in the last three years. For starters, Muufri has undergone rebranding as Perfect Day. Ryan says that the new name more accurately reflects their forward-looking philosophy. Muufri (“moo-free”) felt limiting; they wanted to focus on what they are bringing to food, not what they’re leaving out of it. They came across a 2001 study by two psychologists which demonstrated that certain songs, when played for Holstein herds, increase milk yields. Lou Reed’s 1972 track “Perfect Day” was one such milk-maximizing song. “As a company on a mission to make cows, people, and the planet happier,” reads Perfect Day’s FAQ page, “it seemed like a perfect fit.”

Over the last few years Perfect Day has expanded their target market, graduating from products confined to the refrigerated dairy section to… well, the whole supermarket. “Fundamentally, milk proteins add functionality or nutrition to products in every part of the grocery store,” Ryan told me. Dairy is found in products you may not expect, from soups and tomato sauces, to dressings, condiments and baked goods. “If you can name a part of the grocery store, I can find you a product where dairy is involved.” Although they still plan to produce some fresh dairy products, from a business perspective, Ryan sees a much larger market for Perfect Day’s milk proteins that would extend their reach beyond the fresh dairy case. Since their process omits lactose, even those who suffer from lactose intolerance would be able to enjoy dairy-containing products without compromising digestive comfort.

Food manufacturers that use dairy in their products are watching Perfect Day with interest. They’re used to using milk proteins with a specific ratio of components, but it’s cost-prohibitive to separate and isolate the proteins they need for specific functions in their foods. Since Perfect Day has the advantage of making these proteins individually, saving food manufacturers the added cost and effort of breaking down whole, unprocessed milk into its component parts, the company is able to tap into a much broader functionality.

The food industry, investors, even the government—according to Ryan, they “get” it. Perfect Day is well on its way toward establishing GRAS (“Generally Recognized As Safe”) designation through the FDA. In fact, the regulatory process for the product is relatively straightforward—Perfect Day’s milk proteins are created in much the same way as many other products we use every day. All kinds of flavor and fragrance additives are made using fermentation processes. Look at the label of almost any cheese made in the US and you’re likely to find a reference to “non-animal rennet” or “microbial enzymes.” Rennet, a key ingredient in cheese, used to be obtained from slaughtered calves, but is now more commonly made using fermentation. Perfect Day’s process is similar, and the tech it uses is by no means new—it’s the application that’s novel. “Although we’ve had the technology for about 40 years, Perfect Day is first company to really care about it and talk about it,” says Ryan.

New Harvest Cultured Tissue Fellow Natalie Rubio. (Image source: Natalie Rubio)

New Harvest Cultured Tissue Fellow Natalie Rubio. (Image source: Natalie Rubio)

Milk isn’t the only cellular ag product on the horizon. Although we’re a little further away from commercializing cultured meat, one Tufts University PhD student is advancing the research that may one day make it possible to buy a piece of steak that was never attached to a cow. Natalie Rubio got her start in cellular ag first as a volunteer with New Harvest—the institute that gave Perfect Day its initial seed money—and later as an intern during the early days of Perfect Day (when the nascent company was still known as Muufri, in 2014). Since then, New Harvest has launched a research fellowship, naming Natalie as the first New Harvest Cultured Tissue Fellow.

Natalie says that even as an intern at Perfect Day, she knew she wanted to work on meat. “The biotech industry has been using cells to produce proteins [for various products] for many years,” she tells me. “The idea of using whole cell cultures themselves as a product is more novel. We can use the tissue engineering techniques to create meat from cell cultures without involving livestock, besides donor animals for the initial biopsy.”

She explains that there are three main focus areas in the emerging field of cultured tissue research. The first area aims to develop new, animal-free sources of growth media used to feed the cells. When tissue cells are growing, they basically float in a liquid mixture of sugar water, some proteins, and a substance called fetal bovine serum. While the base formulation of sugar water, vitamins and minerals is animal free, the bovine serum supplement is a byproduct of the meat industry. It makes for a great environment for growing tissue cultures, but since the goal of this field of research is to avoid using animals, scientists are searching for substances to use in place of fetal bovine serum.

Another focus of this work, says Natalie, is obtaining and tinkering with new cell lines. The initial cells are biopsied from domestic species like turkey, bovine, fish, or any other species of interest. Stem cells, which are capable of prolific growth and differentiation, are isolated and extracted for use in tissue cultures. Scientists are then able to tell the stem cells how to behave and what to become; in the case of cultured meat, they become muscle, but scientists can also direct stem cells to become tissues with other properties, like fat.

The focus of Natalie’s research is scaffolding. “Think of the scaffold as everything besides the cells themselves,” she tells me. “In our bodies, we have muscle cells, but that’s not all that our muscle is. It’s also surrounded by this matrix of proteins, primarily collagen, that make up muscle. I’m trying to emulate these other substances by using animal free materials.” Her work overlaps with the engineering of human skeletal muscle tissues that are already used routinely in regenerative medicine. Someday in the not-too-distant future, we could grill animal-free steaks with the same fibrous, muscle-y appearance and texture that we expect from meat.

Lest the idea of lab-grown meat or milk stoke anyone’s fears of genetic modification, Natalie sets the record straight: these products do not contain GM ingredients. She explains that tissue culturing does not involve manipulating any genes. She describes the cells they use in her field as “proliferative,” meaning they are naturally inclined to grow and multiply according to the instructions encoded in their DNA—no gene tinkering required. And while Perfect Day’s process does involve genetically modifying yeast cells to make milk proteins, the GM yeast is carefully filtered out of the milk before being added to any food products. This process of altering yeast’s genetic code to make proteins is exactly the same way vegetarian rennet, vanilla, insulin, and many other everyday products are made. (New Harvest’s FAQ goes into further detail about the role of GMO in cellular agriculture, as well as other common questions that come up around this emerging industry.)

Natalie Rubio conducts her research at the David Kaplan lab at Tufts University. (Image source: Natalie Rubio)

Natalie Rubio conducts her research at the Kaplan Laboratory at the Department of Biomedical Engineering, on Tufts University’s Medford campus. (Image source: Natalie Rubio)

Cellular agriculture is not so much a new technology as it is a new application for the technology we’ve long used in medicine and pharmaceuticals. It seeks to avoid some of the ongoing problems we have with animal agriculture. For example, producing meat and milk in sterile environments reduces the risk of contamination from pathogens. (Remember Ford’s concern about tuberculosis?) The ability to scale up these processes could also have positive implications for agricultural land use in the U.S. Imagine converting some of the 170 million acres currently planted with corn and soy into specialty crops, expanding our ability to produce and harvest solar energy, or reaping the ecological benefits of putting more land into conservation—all while reducing the emissions associated with animal agriculture.

While Henry Ford may have envisioned a world devoid of cattle, Ryan Pandya, for his part, is quick to assure me that the goal of cellular agriculture is not to upend the dairy or meat industries. “Demand is increasing for animal products all over the world—such a demand that the world’s farmers can’t keep up. I hope we can create a complementary supply chain that will take some of that pressure off.” He sees a future where, instead of abolishing animal products entirely, consumers are willing to pay a premium for products that have the traditional touch of animal farming.

It’s a future that’s increasingly easy to imagine.

Kathleen Nay is a third-year dual degree student in the Agriculture, Food & Environment and Urban & Environmental Policy & Planning programs and a co-editor of The Friedman Sprout.

To Meat, or Not to Meat? (Is That Really the Question?)

by Kathleen Nay

After eight years of keeping a vegetarian diet, I’m compelled to ask myself: why am I still a vegetarian? And more intriguingly, why are my former-vegan and -vegetarian friends not?

Photo: Pexels.com

Photo: Pexels.com

Eight years ago, transitioning to a vegetarian diet was my New Year’s resolution. I’d just finished reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals about the dark side of animal agriculture, and I’d been with my partner—a lifelong vegetarian—for three years. At that point making the swap seemed inevitable, and I’ve pretty much been vegetarian ever since.

It wasn’t a difficult transition. My dad had become vegetarian when I was a pre-teen, and we never had much meat in the house to begin with. Meat was a “special occasion” food, or something I’d order at a restaurant, but rarely prepared at home. For me, the choice was convenient and socially acceptable. I felt convinced that a vegetarian diet was best for the planet, and it neatly sidestepped the complex feelings I had around causing harm to sentient animals and the workers who kill and process them.

But I’ve never lost that particular craving for meat that substitutes just don’t quite satisfy. Some people seem to get over this; my dad, for example, always said that he eventually stopped craving it, and no longer enjoys the taste or texture. Not so for me. If we’re operating on strict definitions of vegetarianism, then I’m technically not one—I sample a bit of turkey at the requisite holiday gatherings, and occasionally give in to a craving for a roast beef sandwich when I need a quick lunch away from home. I try not to hold myself to such high definitional standards, however, and usually identify as a plant-based eater. If I’m honest with myself, I’ve fleetingly thought about abandoning my vegetarianism, though I know that if I were to return to eating meat, I would struggle with the dissonance between my values—the social and environmental benefits of a low-impact diet—and my tastes.

I certainly wouldn’t be the first to experience such turmoil over my diet. I know several individuals who just couldn’t make a plant-based diet stick, and Internet listicles abound with people sharing how they lost their “veginity.” Reportedly, even celebrities once famed for being vegan—Bill Clinton, Anne Hathaway, Natalie Portman, and others—have ended their exclusive plant-food affairs.

So I got curious. Why do so many people, once persuaded to give up meat, transition back to it? How do those reasons compare with their motivations for avoiding animal products in the first place? Do they experience guilt or social pressures around their dietary choices, and why?

Much research has been done on factors that predict the likelihood of someone converting to a vegan or vegetarian diet. For example, being female, having greater educational achievement, and higher IQ scores in childhood have each been linked with greater likelihood of becoming vegan or vegetarian as an adult. Some research has linked feminism with vegetarianism. Other work has demonstrated that people who are oriented toward social dominance—that is, those who believe that hierarchical systems should be maintained, a personality trait that predicts social and political attitudes—are actually less likely to become vegan or vegetarian, and are also likely to view vegetarianism as a social threat.

However, the research into factors predicting lapses from vegetarianism is scant, though there are some studies beginning to appear in the literature. One very recent study by Hodson and Earle (2017) looked at whether ideology plays a role in returning to meat consumption. They found that political conservatism tends to predict lapses from vegetarian/vegan diets, particularly among eaters for whom reasons of justice (animal welfare, environmental concerns) are weakest, and for those who do not have strong social support for their dietary choices.

I wondered what I would find if I surveyed my networks. I created a survey of 25 questions for former vegetarians and vegans about why they went vegetarian in the first place; how long they adhered to a vegetarian diet; and what caused them to revert back to eating animal products. In comparison to Hodson and Earle’s work, my investigation is perhaps less academically rigorous and more qualitative in nature, but still valuable for understanding former vegetarians’ dietary motivations.

Through conversations around Friedman I’ve gathered that there are a fair number of us who once identified as vegetarian and no longer do. But I didn’t limit my query to Friedman students or alumni. A large number of people in my life are or once were vegetarian for religious purposes. Having been raised Seventh-Day Adventist, a Protestant Christian denomination whose adherents are well known for abstaining from meat, alcohol and cigarettes, it was once more common for me to meet lifelong vegetarians than to meet someone who regularly consumed meat. As I’m still well connected with this community, my survey skewed slightly toward former vegetarians who were raised with dietary restrictions and/or people who adhered to a vegetarian diet because of religious affiliation.

About 200 former vegetarians and vegans responded to my survey. Most respondents—around 77%—were female, while 18% and 4% identified as male and nonbinary, respectively (this is in keeping with considerable research finding that women are more likely to adhere to a vegetarian diet than men). Respondents’ ages ranged from 20 to 63 years, with the median age being 33. People reported having followed a vegetarian diet for an average of 9.2 years, though actual duration ranged widely, from 6 months to 39 years. Overwhelmingly (85%) respondents specified that they had followed a vegetarian diet, as opposed to being vegan, pescatarian, or fluctuating between the three. (For simplicity, I use the word vegetarian in the rest of this article to encompass all of these terms together.)

Age at conversion to vegetarian/vegan diet

Age at conversion to vegetarian/vegan diet.

Age at conversion back to meat-inclusive diet.

Age at conversion back to meat-inclusive diet.

The largest groups of respondents said they became vegetarian during their teens (45%) and twenties (25%). Respondents also reported transitioning back to eating meat during their twenties (56%) and thirties (22%), potentially suggesting that your parents were right—going vegan in your teens was just a phase. This tracks with ongoing research into the development of the adolescent brain. In a recent episode of the podcast The Gist, journalist Dina Temple-Raston explains that the insular cortex, the area of our brains responsible for causing us to feel empathy, is on hyper alert during adolescence. In her interview with host Mike Pesca, she surmises that “this may explain why you want to save the mountain gorillas when you’re 16, or why you become a vegan.” (Catch Temple-Raston’s Gist interview here.)

Indeed, the most salient reason people gave for rejecting meat in the first place was out of concern for “animal welfare” (20% of received responses). The other most common motivators cited were “health” (17%) and “environment” (16%). That last one especially resonates with me; the enormous environmental footprint of animal agriculture compared to crops is what finally convinced me to give up meat.

But then we get to the crux of my question: what was it that ultimately persuaded my respondents to resume eating animals? Here’s where the data started to get interesting.

The top three reasons respondents provided for why they returned to consuming animal products were “personal taste preferences” (21%), “health” (20%), and “convenience” (16%). Interestingly, health was a significant motivator for transition both toward and away from vegetarianism.

Motivations for converting to vegetarian/vegan diet.

Motivations for converting to vegetarian/vegan diet.

Motivations for converting back to meat-inclusive diet.

Motivations for converting back to meat-inclusive diet.

That health showed up as a primary motivator in both places was really curious to me. I wanted to dig in there, so I filtered out all the responses from individuals who said that health motivated them to both adopt a vegetarian diet and to abandon it. Samples of their comments are reproduced in the tables at right.

Pro-vegetarian/vegan health motivators.


*A common response I received was that a vegan/vegetarian diet was used to hide or aid an eating disorder. In the words of one respondent: “I said I loved animals too much to eat them but I was also really excited about the opportunity to be able to decline to eat in front of other people with a legit excuse.” Fortunately, this respondent later said that they got therapy and learned coping mechanisms as they gradually reintroduced meat to their diet. However, it would be remiss not to acknowledge that the sudden elimination of entire food groups or adoption of dogmatic dietary practices can be red flags for disordered eating. For a brief exploration of this darker side of vegetarianism, read this Psychology Today article by Hal Herzog, Ph.D.

Pro-meat health motivators.

Above: pro-vegetarian/vegan health motivators vs. pro-meat health motivators.

Other questions that yielded interesting results were about convenience and perceived social/cultural pressures to eat meat. Aside from health concerns, frequently given reasons for reverting to omnivore diets included living or traveling abroad (also “living in the South” and living among First Nations peoples in northern British Columbia); not having the time or patience to prepare vegetarian meals; lack of available options on college campuses or at restaurants; causing conflict with loved ones (family members, partners); not wanting to inconvenience hosts or seem rude/ungrateful; unwillingness to “be constantly reading labels, turning down meal invites from friends”; the financial cost of keeping a vegetarian diet; employment (“I now work in a job where we encourage row crop producers to integrate livestock to regenerate soil health…” “I work in a restaurant”); and peer pressure (“Many of my friends ate meat,” “It was culturally weird among my friends… to not eat meat,” “social pressure around parenting”).

Finally, I asked respondents about whether they felt any guilt around eating animal products since resuming the inclusion of meat in their diets. Responses were about evenly split (48% Yes; 52% No). As expected, the majority of people mentioned feeling guilt over concerns about animal cruelty and environmental impact. Other common reasons included embarrassment for not sticking with what they felt was a positive lifestyle choice, unawareness of the meat’s origins, and contradicting their cultural upbringing or religious beliefs about the uncleanliness of certain meats. When asked how they alleviated their guilt or dealt with cognitive dissonance around choices to eat meat, most respondents said that they try to minimize or moderate their meat intake; attempt to source meat locally/ethically; look for alternate ways to reduce their carbon footprint; acknowledge the animal’s life; rationalize that meat is a necessary inclusion for their personal health; try not to think about it; or simply accept their guilt.

 

Having grown up a mostly-vegetarian Seventh-Day Adventist, and having later developed a more personal, moralized dietary identity, has caused me to reflect on my own cognitive dissonance when I sneak a turkey sandwich. What does my dietary identity even mean? Upon reflection, it actually means quite little in my case; as I admitted earlier, my interpretation of a vegetarian diet is increasingly more relaxed than the term might imply to others. But the distinction between calling myself plant-based as opposed to strictly vegetarian is relatively small—a difference of one or two meals per month, at most. Somehow, to say my diet is “plant-based” makes me feel as though I can hold on to my social/environmental values while giving myself wiggle-room to accommodate the irresistible pull of sensory memory and cultural pressure—in case I get caught with said turkey sandwich.

We adhere to dietary labels and self-imposed restrictions in order to project something about our selves and our values to the world. And yet, some 84% of vegetarians and vegans eventually return to eating meat. If my survey shows me anything, it’s that people’s reasons are vast, varied… and not altogether unreasonable. Now that we’re already a month into our 2018 New Year’s resolutions, I say it’s time to adopt another goal: to start being a little more forgiving of other people’s dietary choices—and our own.

Kathleen Nay is a third-year AFE/UEP dual degree student and co-editor of The Friedman Sprout. For being a vegetarian, she spends an unreasonable amount of time thinking about meat.

Gut Microbiota and the Developing Child

by Ayten Salahi

Undernutrition poses a formidable threat to the health and life trajectory of children around the world. A new study examines the role of gut microbiota in modulating nutritional status and early life development, and sheds light on bacterial transplants as a potential new method to tackle this longstanding challenge.

The human gut microbiome is the bacterial ecosystem that lives predominantly in the digestive tract and plays a significant role in our immune response, neurological networks, and both our mental and physical development throughout life. The delicate balance of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ gut bacteria – or gut maturity – partially determines a developing child’s ability to absorb critical nutrients through food. Without that ability during early life, or without medical interventions to restore that ability, children are likely to manifest long-term health consequences associated with childhood undernourishment, including physical stunting, immune dysfunction, and neurodevelopmental issues. Childhood undernourishment has also been linked to permanent impairments to health and human capital, that impact both extant and future generations.

The ‘solution’ to childhood undernutrition is multivariate. As scientific understanding of microbiota continues to evolve, researchers and healthcare practitioners have begun to shift their focus towards examining how the microenvironments of our gut bacteria impact our macroenvironments, and whether these microenvironments could signal potential new treatment targets to alleviate the global burden of childhood undernutrition.

Bacterial transplants have been identified as one potential treatment. A study from Blanton et al. examined whether developmental outcomes could be inherited through microbiota – specifically, through fecal transplants. They tested what would happen if germ-free mice were transplanted with the gut bacteria of both ‘healthy’ and  ‘severely stunted’ infants and children, all of which were fed a traditional Malawian diet of cornmeal, peanuts, and kidney beans. The results showed that when germ-free mice were transplanted with fecal transplants from severely undernourished children, the mice manifested stunted growth, impaired bone morphology, and metabolic abnormalities in the muscle, liver, brain, and immune system. This study therefore suggests that gut bacteria play a role in the transference of developmental outcomes.

Findings from the same study also suggest that microbiota transplants from healthy donors could potentially prevent growth impairments and undernourished health outcomes in recipient animals, depending on the age of the donor and the type of bacteria. When researchers co-housed mice that had just received microbiota from either 6-month-old healthy donors or severely undernourished donors, microbiota from the healthy donor group overpowered and displaced the microbiota from the undernourished donor group, and prevented developmental impairments in both groups.  More research is needed to confer these findings in humans, but the results of this study present the interesting possibility that gut immaturity can be prevented and repaired through transplantation of microbiota from healthy donors. Future research must also be conducted to examine whether bacterial transplants play a role in preventing long-term mental, physical, and socioeconomic consequences of early life undernourishment, or constitute any reduction to the global burden of childhood undernutrition.

Study of microbiota in the developing child offers a compelling new lens with which to examine health inequity at the microscopic scale, with macroscopic implications for therapeutic interventions in community health. Adequate nutrition is the cornerstone of human development, and a growing body of evidence suggests that gut microbiota play an important role in promoting early life nutritional status. The potential therapeutic use of bacterial transplants could have significant implications for global nutrition programs seeking to identify new levers to improve childhood nutrition, particularly in resource-poor settings. However, gut microbiota therapeutics constitute only a small and largely theoretical part of the much bigger and more complex picture that is global nutrition. Pervasive issues around sanitation, hygiene practices, and access to potable water and nutritious food continue to constitute some of the greatest challenges to global health worldwide.

Ayten Salahi is a first-year FPAN MS and RD candidate, and is dedicated to the future of policy, programming, and clinical practice in sustainable diets. Ayten came to Friedman after working as a molecular and clinical researcher in neuropharmacology and diabetes management for nearly 8 years.