Thursday, January 21, 2010

Only Planters, or: Michael Pollan and "Edible foodlike substances"

I have obviously deleted some crucial piece of code that allows me to use paragraphs. Sorry about the idiotic set out. I really do know what a paragraph looks like.  I really do admire Michael Pollan. I count The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defence of Food as some of my favourite, most life-changing books, and I love that he has managed to get issues of food quality, consumption and security firmly in the mainstream, middle-class eye. I love his pithy and simple mantra “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” Although I obviously favour an eensy-weensy amendment which involves the subtraction of ‘mostly’ and the addition of ‘only’, in fact it’s this inclusionary approach which has allowed his message to be understood, accepted and adopted by a far wider range of people than just us Only Planters. 
In the NY Times, Mr Pollan once wrote a little blog entry asking for people’s food rules. They ranged from the popular “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise” to the amusing “Don’t eat anything bigger than your head”.
He has no released a little pocket sized book called “Food Rules – An Eater’s Manual” which presents 64 rules which elucidate “Eat food. Mostly Plants. Not too much.” A couple of rules are applicable only to the Mostly Planters, but the vast majority are applicable to everyone.
   A couple of sparkly highlights (Mr Pollan’s highlights are here):  
  • Avoid products that make health claims. Fruit’n’veg rarely need to, or have the resources to, make claims about their benefit to your heart/blood pressure/cholesterol. “Don’t take the silence of the yams as a sign they have nothing valuable to say about your health”. Oh guffaw, Michael!
  • Only eat foods that will eventually rot.
  • Eat only foods that have been cooked by humans. And the related: Don’t ingest foods made in places where everyone is required to wear a surgical cap.
  • If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t. (One for the Only Planters!)
  • It’s not food if it’s called the same name in every language. Think Big Mac, Cheetos or Pringles. (But don’t think quinoa or hummus).
  • Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the colour of the (Ed:soy)milk.
  • Eat all the junk you want as long as you cook it yourself.
  • Pay more, eat less.
  • Eat when you’re hungry, not when you’re bored. Food is a costly antidepressant.
  • Spend as much time enjoying the meal as it took to prepare it.
  • Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does, and also: It’s not food if it arrived through your car window.
I find some sensible rules hard to follow. I eat when bored, and always have. I have told almost everyone I know that the day I found out that BBQ Shapes were vegan was the best day of my life. I don’t feel satiated unless I’ve had some simple carbs. And I just like big portions and am grumpy if I’m not full.     
But I don’t get food though my car window, or buy much food from the centre of the supermarket. I cook and I use ingredients with one leg (like a mushroom, as opposed to two like a chook or four like a lamb). I have few processed foods around, and they’re not used all that often. And I would wager that 95% of what I eat is food, not an “edible food-like substance”.   
If I had to come up with a few rules of my own (food-related rather than vegan, in which case I’d simply say “How could you kill and eat a living thing that feels happiness, fear and pain?”), I think I’d begin with:      
  • Don’t eat anything that requires packaging, unless it’s for sanitary or storage reasons (seriously, cous cous needs packaging and I don’t want anyone else’s grubby hands on my bread slices).
  • Flourescence is not found in nature’s larder.
  • If it has a made-up name, it’s a made-up food. Coco Pops, Froot Loops, luncheon meat, and (shudder) BBQ Shapes are not real things. Pasta is thing. Peanut butter is a description. Vegemite is an exception.
  • If the packaged, easy convenient version costs five times as much as the basic staple, it’s a rip off. Uncle Ben’s Rice is not rice.
  • Young children should be encouraged to enjoy cooking and eating and be allowed to express preferences, but there is a reason that an 8 year old is not allowed to drive a car. Neither should they be allowed to dictate the contents of the shopping trolley.
  • It is parents’ responsibility to provide their children with a wide range of healthy foods. Your child’s refusal to eat is a separate issue. Seitahn has an excellent, rhyming rule about how many mouthfuls her kids must try before they’re allowed to say they don’t like it which I can’t remember but which I hope she’ll repeat.
What are your rules? What would you say?   

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A little bit about the current state of food law in Victoria, or: I just don't geddit.

Clearly the lack of readily available dairy-free chocolate at the Paris end of Collins Street has made me a leeeedle bit cuh-raaaaayzy. 

I've done some digging, using the host of I-used-to-be-a-lawyer-and-I'm-very-nosy-and-pissed-off skills at my command, and here is my potted summary of the current state of food labelling laws in Victoria in relation to 'may contain traces of' (incidentally, the most recent changes to Victoria's Food Act have to do with the reclassificaiton of food selling outlets. I couldn't find any recent changes which mentioned trace elements. If there are, please feel free to direct me to them). 

And so, an act in ten parts:

  1. The principal State Act that controls the sale of food in Victoria is the Food Act 1984 (the Act). Quite funnily, the Act is noted on the DHS website as being "the applicable legislation for ensuring the wholesomeness and purity and standards for food sold in Victoria." Oh giggling! 
  2. The Act is also the means through which the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code is applied as the law in Victoria (the Code).
  3. The Code's website contains the following statement in relation to 'may contain traces of':  
    "You’ll notice some labels say ‘may contain’ certain allergens, for example ‘may contain nuts. This is put on by the manufacturer who may be concerned that, while nuts aren’t added to the food, traces may be present due, for example, the product having been made on the same equipment as products containing nuts. Allergy consumer support groups are working with the food industry to make these labels more helpful to allergy sufferers."

  4. Under Chapter 1 - General Food Standards, Part 1.2- Labelling and Other Information Requirements, the Code has a number of provisions relevant to us.  They are: Standards 1.2.3: Mandatory Warning and Advisory Statements and Declarations, and Standard 1.2.4: Labelling of Ingredients. What does each Standard say that is relevant to us?
  5. Standard 1.2.3: Mandatory Warning and Advisory Statements and Declarations says that certain substances must be declared on labelling where the substance is present in food as an ingredient, an ingredient of a compound ingredient, a food additive or component of a food additive, or as a processing aid or component of a processing aid.  (In case you're wondering, wine doesn't declare the use of milk solids or isinglass used as a processing aid as it is not longer present in the food). 
  6. So what is the definition of 'ingredient'? Standard 1.2.4: Labelling of Ingredients provides the definition used in the Code and therefore also in the Act. It is: "ingredient means any substance, including a food additive, used in the preparation, manufacture or handling of a food".
  7. So at this point a person might, quite cleverly, conclude that this all hangs on the definition of ingredient, and that seeing as milk in the formerly dairy-free dark chocolate at Haigh's is not a food additive, or used in the preparation, manufacture or handling of the chocolate, it is therefore not an ingredient. 
  8. But then! You may encoutner Standard 1.4.2: Maximum Residue Limits. You might open the attachments. And unless you are a biochemist familiar with residues named SUM OF AVERMECTIN B1A, AVERMECTIN B1B AND (Z)-8,9 AVERMECTIN B1A, AND (Z)-8,9 AVERMECTIN B1B and ACIBENZOLAR-S-METHYL AND ALL METABOLITES CONTAINING THE BENZO[1,2,3]THIADIAZOLE-7-CARBOXYL MOIETY HYDROLYSED TO BENZO[1,2,3]THIADIAZOLE-7-CARBOXYLIC ACID,
  9. But it remains: subject to the caveat that some of those hoxy-poxy-di-deca-coagulate-thingummywhatsits might indicate a certain trace level of milkiness, milk is not an ingredient in the formerly dairy-free dark chocolate at Haigh's. It does not meet the definition. And what's more, there has been no recent change that I can see to Victoria's food safety laws. Indeed, the Act nominates the Code as being of binding force in Victoria, and the Code notes that allergy groups and manufacturers are currently working together to address the trace element issue. It does not say that too much residue is classed as an ingredient. It does not suggest that the way to address the possibility of too much residue in a product is to simply pop it in the ingredients list. It does not suggest that manufacturers urgently need to change their labelling.

  10. And if I'm wrong, which I might be; or if this is a contentious matter, which it is; or if I was just a little bit tired and woozy when I wrote this, which I am; or if this, like almost every legal matter, has more than one way of viewing both problem and solution - then why don't we know about it? Why is it so hard to figure this out? Perhaps a friendly biochemist, food technician or food safety lawyer might wish to swing by here to enlighten us. I'm sure we'd all welcome the opportunity to learn more, and I would certainly welcome the possibilty that I might get my dark peppermint frogs back.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Haigh's chocolates - now with added (non-existent) milk, or: My Friday arvo chocolate fix is over.

Some time ago Pip alerted us all to a change in the ingredients of Green & Black's chocolate. G&B had begun to list whole milk powder as an actual ingredient in their previously-dairy free dark chocolate, because, according to them  
"A recent audit revealed that traces of milk residues can still be found on manufacturing equipment despite intensive cleaning"
"... there is actually no change to the risk to allergy-sufferers as the recipes and ingredients that go into the making of the bars have not changed. What we are now clearly stating on pack is that we cannot guarantee the absence of milk. It is almost certainly going to be present – albeit at a low level". 

 It was all very confusing, and I stand by what I wrote on Pip's blog at the time:
I think that G&B are confusing problem and solution here. If the problem is that very low level residue remains, this may need to be indicated on the packet. However, to include milk powder as an ingredient clearly indicates that the milk powder is used in significant quantities to actually produce the chocolate, rater than potentially being present due to cross-contamination.

Use in production is very very different to the presence of allergens remaining on the production line. A statement to the effect of there being a measurable residue in the region of x in the product would be more accurate and would probably allow people allergic to milk to make a more informed choice - and for vegans to happily buy the product. I now won't.

And now there's more. on a recent Friday afternoon expedition to buy some Haigh's chocolate frogs (ok, a whole bag of choclate liqorice balls, even though it sounds like a song the Chef would sing), I found out that Haigh's is now also listing milk products as an ingredient on all of its dark chocolate, even though previously some lines were dairy-free. A staff member told me this was purely for legal reasons and that there was no change at all to the actual ingredients. She also confirmed that this change occurred without even information being passed on to staff - she only realised because as a non-dairy-eater herself, she noticed the inclusion on the packet. 
This really annoys me. I understand the reasons for including allergen information on packets, as anyone who knows a peanut-allergic child will attest. But to include an allergen as an ingredient is schtoopid. A person who is so highly sensitive to a certain ingredient that they will react to a trace element would't be stupid enough to take a punt on a product that 'may contain traces of' despite the clear warning.

Here's what I wrote to Haigh's. I am so grr-arr about this. I have bolded the points that I think are particularly salient, although I didn't do shouty-boldness to Haigh's.

Dear Haighs, 

As a vegan I have long appreciated the range of dairy-free dark chocolates available in your stores. A small dark peppermint frog was often the highlight of my Friday. 

I was surprised and very disappointed to discover that you are now listing milk products as an ingredient in all your dark chocolate. A staff member told me that there had been no change to the ingredients used, but that concerns about food allergies had led you to make this change. 

I was surprised because there was no signage or information available to let customers know about this change. And I was disappointed because I consider this change to be illogical. 

My understanding of the term 'may contain traces of' is that even after commercial levels of cleaning of shared food manufacturing equipment, some residual chemical traces of an ingredient may remain. In some cases this will test above a specified detectable level.

It is of course important to place warnings on food labels so that people with food intolerances, sensitivities or allergies can take appropriate action. This is what the phrase 'may contain traces of' is intended to do. 

If a person is so highly allergic to any ingredient - dairy, gluten, soy, nuts or any thing else - that the mere presence of a residual chemical trace will adversely affect them, then the warning that a product may contain traces of that ingredient is more than sufficient to let them know not to consume it. It tells them that exactly the level of allergen that can affect them may be present in their food. It is completely accurate and clear. 

Anyone so highly sensitive as to be impacted by a trace amount would surely take the warning that trace amounts may be present as reason enough to avoid that food. It is illogical to assume that people who are sensitive to trace amounts need to be told that there is far, far more than just a trace amount in their food before they will respond to the warning.

For people with lower level sensitivities, who are not likely to be affected by residual chemical traces, the warning would be moot. But for people like me, who avoid dairy for ethical and health reasons, the presence of milk products in the ingredient list - even if the ingredient is in fact not used - entirely rules out that product.

As an ex-plaintiff lawyer practicing in injury law, I am fully aware of the need for food companies to disclose potential allergens not only for the safety of consumers but also for the protection of the company. Green & Black's have already done the same thing. However, what I find most disappointing is that although this change appears to be motivated by a desire to be extra cautious in food labelling, in fact, in pursuit of increased disclosure, you have misled customers as to the real ingredients of your products. 

I can no longer eat any Haigh's products.  I cannot choose to eat anything that lists dairy products as an ingredient, nor will I have any way of knowing if you ever actually do start using milk in the formerly dairy-free dark chocolates. I am concerned that no public notice was made available about your change of policy - which I confirmed with a staff member - and I am extremely disappointed that Haigh's has chosen to list a non-ingredient as an ingredient in many of its products when an accurate, precise and clear warning label was already present. 

Yours faithfully, 
Miss T

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Candle re-lit, or: the next stage in our campaign to end Same-Same Cookering

Is anyone else having problems with the new Blogger settings? Photos are very strange to upload and I can't seem to position them properly. Spaces are also weird and hard to control. 

I have previously waxed lyrical about the joys of Candle 79, the organic vegan haute cuisine restaurant in New York that Buzz and I eatered at twice, and fell desperately in love with.  We didn't get a chance to visit its younger, chilled out sister, Candle Cafe, so I was thrilled when Miss T Junior (with connivance from the tricksy Buzz) gave me the Candle Cafe cookbook for Christmas. She had helpfully tagged the recipes she wanted to me cook for her first.

It's a plain-paged cookbook with only one section of photographs, but with over 150 recipes there will be enough to keep us going for a while. As part of the T-House's campaign to rid itself of same-same cookering, we chose Tex-Mex Tostadas with Coriander Tofu Sour Cream as our first attempt. 

The Coriander (Cilantro if you're from Noo Yawk) Tofu Sour Cream was a doddle to make. We skipped the optional agar agar and didn't bother to blanch the tofu first, and then whizzed tofu, lemon and lime juice, olive oil, sunflower oil, coriander, sea salt, cayenne pepper and minced garlic. It turned out to be one of those strange concotions that changes as you taste it more. At first try, this was seriously awesome, but it went downhill from there until it just tasted a bit wrong. Not sour creamy, not tofuey, and not like dip. Next time I would just use Tofutti Sour Cream (or even the Better Than Cream Cheese) instead of tofu and skip the oil. However, Buzz really liked this one so it's probably worth a go.

The tostadas fared better, although not until I discovered we have a faulty timer buzzer on our new oven, which failed to go off and resulted in cindery-burnt tortillas. In a fit of annoyance I had to go and buy more. 

The recipe was reasonably involved.  Firstly, it called for seitan to be  charcoale grilled  and then shredded in a food processor. This we replaced with diced fried tofu.


The fried tofu, onion, garlic, oregano, thyme, salt and kaffir lime leaf mixture.

Secondly, it called for the sauteeing of various ingredients (including kombu, which we immediately struck off), to which the charcoal shredded seitan should then be added. We did this, but next time would combine these two steps. We also subbed kaffir lime leaves for Pico De Gallo.

The recipe also wanted refried pinto beans. Nothing doing. After purchasing an imported can of pinto beans at vast expense, all they got was a quick heat through and a mashing. 

My little salad with the yellow tomatoes.

Finally, I chose to make a little salad with cos lettuce, cucumber and yellow Roma tomatoes, as I couldn't really see enough greenery on my plate. 

The three main ingrdients for layering on the tortillas.

Having finally secured some baked but not burnt tortillas, we spread them with the bean mixture, topped it with the tofu mixture and some salad, and then dolloped some tofu sour cream on top.

All combined, it was an enjoyable, varied and filling meal. Next time I'd definitely make things simpler, which is more in line with how I imagine something simple like toasted tortilla wraps to be (which is essentially what this is). Nonetheless, it was a definite success in the campaign to end same-same cookery. Same-same cookery is marked by the regular appearance of the same type of meal, along with the regular appearance of the same ingredients. This was something entirely different to what we'd usually make (our burrito attempts to date have been fairly pitiful) and actually tasting like something different too.

We're looking forward to trying more recipes from the Candle Cafe cookbook; we just might try some where we don't have to sub quite so many ingredients and skip quite so many steps.

End KeepCup Prejudice Now, Snobaristas! or, Keep On Keeping Up, KeepCup!

Lisa Dempster has written an excellent article on I eat I drink I work exploring the intricacies of the coffee surcharge, from decaf to mocha to - the main interest of this writer - soy milk. I have always hated but accepted with grumpy surliness the soy surcharge imposed by almost every coffee shop, but Lisa's interviews with various coffee vendors has shown that soy really does cost extra, and despite the call that the extra cost should be averaged out over all beverages, the imperative of the business owner to, you know, make a proft from their business makes an end to the soycharge (ha!) unlikely.

But what really grabbed me was a comment on Lisa's blog that some Melbourne coffee shops have taken to placing a surcharge on, or even refusing to use, KeepCups.

I love KeepCups. They're well designed, they're environmentally loving, they're cute, they'r easy to clean, and they have really caught on with consumers. And what's more, they save the vendor money in not using a disposable cup and not costing them washing up resources. Big shout out here to my regular coffee vendors, Espresso Depot at 1 Collins Street, who after noticing my KeepCup got really excited and started selling the cups themselves. 

I was outraged to hear that some businesses aren't behind the BYO cup surge sweeping the city. But I was even more shocked to experience not hours later my own instance of KeepCup Prejudice!

I went to a team meeting at - name and shame! - City Wine Bar on Spring Street. I asked for my coffee to be put in my KeepCup so I could take it away in case I didn't finish it. I can only surmise that the City Wine Bar's cultivated European atmosphere would be offended by the interloping plastic of my KeepCup, as I was told that store policy was to not allow KeepCups on the table - but they would do takeaways. Quelle bloody horreur!

I kept my KeepCup on the table throughout the meeting - empty, but who was to know? - for over an hour. No staff member asked me to put it away. No uber-too-cool-for-school trendoids fainted. No coiffeured besuited ladies sniffed. No one spat. And then I left, having bought nothing, to go and get my coffee on my way back to the office from the place I like best.

In Grade 4 my teacher banned the phrase "I don't get it" from his classroom. But I don't. There's nothing particularly nice about 100-washes old glass tumblers (and if you Snobaristas think that my coffee will just taste better in one, then leave that to me to decide). There's certainly nothing nice about single use cardboard cups. If you want to impose an aesthetic standard, then start with banning skinny jeans that reveal circumcision status and faux-Rihanna mohawks.

So get on board. Bringing your own cup is sensible, less costly to the vendor, promoting environmentally sustainable choices, and just doing your bit. 

*Disclaimer: I have two KeepCups (Small: white with chocolate trim, light mushroom lid and matt chocolate plug. Medium: white with light green trim, dark mushroom lid and chocolate plug). My sister has two (One medium like mine. One medium: white with fuschia trim, chocolate lid and aqua plug). Buzz has one (Medium: black with chocolate trim, black lid, chocolate plug). Toby has Darth Vader (Black. Just black). Lots of people have them. Speed up.