Tagfood

Review: Hurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on Purpose, by Leigh Cowart

In academic circles, we have a half-joking-but-not-really saying: “All Research Is Me-Search,” and Leigh Cowart’s new book has taken that dictum to titanic new heights and visceral, evocative depths.

Cowart is a former ballet dancer, a biologist who researched Pteronotus bats in the sweltering jungles of Costa Rica, and a self-described “high-sensation-seeking masochist.” They wrote this book to explore why they were like this, and whether their reasons matched up with those of so many other people who engage is painful activities of their own volition, whether for the pain itself, or the reward afterward. Full disclosure: Leigh is also my friend, but even if they weren’t, this book would have fascinated and engrossed me.

Hurts So Good is science journalism from a scientist-who-is-also-a-journalist, which means that the text is very careful in who and what it sources, citing its references, and indexing terms to be easily found and cross-referenced, while also bringing that data into clear, accessible focus. In that way, it has something for specialists and non-specialists, alike. But this book is also a memoir, and an interior exploration of one person’s relationship to pain, pleasure, and— not to sound too lofty about it— the whole human race.

The extraordinarily personal grounding of Hurts So Good is what allows this text to be more than merely exploitative voyeurism— though as the text describes, exploitative voyeurism might not necessarily be a deal-breaker for many of its subjects; just so long as they had control over when and how it proceeds and ends. And that is something Cowart makes sure to return to, again and again and again, turning it around to examine its nuances and infinitely fuzzy fractaled edges: The difference between pain that we instigate, pain that we can control, pain we know will end, pain that will have a reward, pain we can stop when and how we want… And pain that is enforced on us.

Cowart writes again and again that if BDSM is not consensual then it is abuse, that the forms of training done in ballet have a direct effect on disordered eating and body image issues, and that the kinds of pain which are not in our control can contribute to lasting trauma. And they also discuss how healing it can be to take back the control of pain in consensual BDSM, or the story of a ballet dancer who found themselves drawn to mixed martial arts as a way to process what was done to them in the ballet studio, and how using therapy to recognize and grapple with what has been done to us can sometimes allow us to differently understand what we want for ourselves.

There are no firm answers, in Cowart’s book. There are multiple perspectives, from neuroscientists, to the aforementioned ballerinas-turned-MMA-fighters, to ultra-marathoners, to people who compete to eat the hottest chilies in the world, to people who pierce the skin of their backs to hang suspended from hooks and bars, in public, to polar bear plungers, and more. There are overlapping feelings and descriptions in all of these people who seek to experience pain on purpose, but there is also a stunning multiplicity of backgrounds, of beliefs, of reasons to seek these avenues out, each one helping the reader to understand something more about both individual psychology and whole cultures’ relationships to pain.

Hurts So Good

[Cover image for Hurts So Good, featuring various hot peppers, handcuffs, a  sword, a whip, a snake, a hook on the end of a rope, and pointe shoes, all arranged around the words “Leigh Cowart— Hurts So Good— The Science & Culture of Pain on Purpose]

As someone who studies, among other things, the intersections of religious belief, ritual, and social life, I was absolutely fascinated by Cowart’s discussion of the role of ritual in how we experience pain and pleasure, both in the context of the preparations for dance or other sport or how competitors psych themselves up before a chili eating match or the constant call-and-response and check-in and aftercare process of a BDSM scene, but also in terms of literal religious ceremonies. Cowart discusses the flagellants of the Black Plague era, and mystics who fasted and meditated to achieve oneness with the Divine (a practice that also had clear gender-political valences, which Cowart also gets into). So one thing I’d’ve loved more of from Cowart is what other religious groups they found also use pain in a spiritual context. I know of a few, myself, including schools of Zen Buddhism, and would have loved to have them alongside Cowart’s examples, as well.

Similarly, I greatly appreciated Cowarat’s exploration of the link between the psychological, emotional, and the physical, in categorizing and inscribing pain in the bodymind. I know firsthand that graduate school and academic research is often about enduring the emotional and psychological kinds of pain, for the sake of something more coming out of it, as well as for what we believe we can achieve in that moment, and so I would have loved even a bit more in psychological and emotional veins, too.

But, of course, when writing a book, we have the time we have, and the time that Leigh Cowart took to research and write their book was well worth it.

Hurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on Purpose is an illuminating, joyous, deeply emotional examination of what makes pain what it is, what makes pain mean what means, and why. And what could be more fitting for one of the most intimate, personal, and universal experiences of the human species.

Hurts So Good is out now from Public Affairs and Hachette, and if you want more from Leigh, you can check out their appearance on NPr’s The 1a.

Almond errata

I’ve found a better source of information on how much water almonds use and now have a better estimate of how much water per gram of fat and protein it takes to grow them. It’s about four times what I’d originally estimated, which makes them nowhere near as efficient as I’d originally estimated. Which makes sense — I always thought those numbers were wrong.

But even having adjusted those numbers, almonds are still slightly more efficient in terms of fat per gallon of water than cow’s milk, and use about half the amount of water per gram of protein as beef. So my original conclusion that beef is a far worse problem than almonds still stands, but I do now think almond farming is a problem.

Coconut milk appears to be a good alternative to almond milk, at least based on the So Delicious environmental footprint website. And based on the same report that I got my updated almond numbers from, hazelnuts use almost as much water, in total, as almonds, but use very little irrigated water.

Why I think the anti-almond movement is overblown: beef is the real issue

I published some research I did on the water footprint of almonds compared to other foods on Medium. I’m pretty sure I messed something up, but it’s hard not to conclude that beef, not almonds, are the real issue in California’s drought.

Update: I redid the almond numbers based on a better source, and think I underestimated the amount of water per pound of almonds by about 4x. Here’s the new version of the conclusion to this piece:

There’s a pretty strong case against beef here. While almond critics like to point out that 10 percent of California’s water goes to almond farming, they don’t tend to mention that 50 percent goes towards livestock. While there’s no silver bullet answer to the drought crisis, it seems clear that best policy interventions would be those that curb beef production.

At the personal level, unless you have some medical condition that necessitates eating lots of beef, it seems hard to justify. Just cutting beef and lamb out of your diet would be almost as good as giving up meat altogether. But, as always, consult your doctor before making any sort of dietary changes.

Based on my math, almonds aren’t as bad as dairy milk or beef, but they certainly lag behind other alternatives, such as hazelnuts (which use almost as much water, but relatively little irrigation water) and coconut milk.

Those who want to err on the side of caution, but still want plant based alternatives, might consider diversifying their sources of fat. Personally, I’ve added pumpkin seeds and Oregon hazelnuts to my snack rotation, just to mix things up a little.

Full Story: Medium: Should I Quit Eating Almonds Because of the California Drought?

Please do keep on checking my math though!

Move Over Cybercrime, Food Crime is Here

The Guardian reports:

The horsemeat scandal of 2013 proved how vulnerable our food chains are to blatant fraud perpetrated on an industrial scale. Sixteen months later, the fact that no one died or was taken seriously ill as a result of the contamination of processed beef products has seen the issue demoted as a cause for concern. But, as in China in 2008, when an industrial chemical, melamine, was added to increase the protein content of baby milk, and in the Czech Republic in 2012, when vodka was laced with methanol, it is tragically evident that food fraud can be fatal.

It is to be hoped that it will not take something catastrophic to make us pay attention to the findings of the forthcoming Elliott report (the independent inquiry set up by the government in response to the horsemeat scandal) into the integrity of our food chains. But we note that, since the scandal broke, only a couple of individuals have been charged, despite manifold evidence of fraud perpetrated by organised criminal gangs. This, it can be suggested, reflects the limited importance that law enforcement, both in the UK and further afield, attaches to food crime. Indeed, it is noticeable that there is no unit within the major police organisations, such as Acpo or the Metropolitan police, that speaks out on the issue. The National Crime Agency’s national strategic assessment of serious and organised crime threats 2014, published last Thursday, made no mention at all of food crime.

And yet the evidence of its ubiquity is there for all to see. In February, Interpol’s annual blitz against criminal networks engaged in food crime, Operation Opson III, recovered 1,200 tons of fake or substandard food and nearly 400,000 litres of counterfeit drink seized in 33 countries across Europe, the US and Asia. Reports of food crime to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) are rising sharply year on year. In April, it emerged that roughly a third of lamb takeaways sampled by local authorities’ trading standards teams contained meat other than lamb.

Full Story: The Guardian: We must be alert to the new age of food crime

(via Justin Pickard)

Meanwhile, according to The Economist, organized crime gangs are diversifying out of drugs and into new markets:

The buyers may be besotted ornithophiles, air-brained fashionistas or greedy gourmets. But the sellers are crooks, supplying a market which, according to America’s Congressional Research Service, is worth as much as $133 billion annually. Commodities such as rhino horn and caviar offer criminals two benefits rarely found together: high prices and low risk. Rhino horn can fetch up to $50,000 per kilogram, more than gold or the American street value of cocaine. Get caught bringing a kilogram of cocaine into America and you could face 40 years in prison and a $5m fine. On January 10th, by contrast, a New York court sentenced a rhino-horn trafficker to just 14 months.

Plant Breeders Release First ‘Open Source Seeds’

NPR reports:

A group of scientists and food activists is launching a campaign Thursday to change the rules that govern seeds. They’re releasing 29 new varieties of crops under a new “open source pledge” that’s intended to safeguard the ability of farmers, gardeners and plant breeders to share those seeds freely. […]

These days, seeds are intellectual property. Some are patented as inventions. You need permission from the patent holder to use them, and you’re not supposed to harvest seeds for replanting the next year.

Even university breeders operate under these rules. When Goldwin creates a new variety of onions, carrots or table beets, a technology-transfer arm of the university licenses it to seed companies.

Full Story: NPR: Plant Breeders Release First ‘Open Source Seeds’

As the article notes, seed companies also often sell hybrid seeds, which don’t produce identical offspring — think of it as a biological “DRM” system for seeds. It’s sad that “open source” isn’t the norm in agriculture.

An Open Source Kit for Growing Edible Insects

silkworm-burgers-660x495

My latest for Wired:

The world’s population is expected to grow from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050, according to a World Resources Institute report published last year, and that means we’ll need to increase food production about 60 percent in the coming decades — a task made all the more difficult by expected shortages in water, fuel, fertilizer, and arable land. One solution could be entomophagy. Last year, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations suggested that insects could be an increasingly important and sustainable food source in the future, and Imrie-Situnayake agrees. Insects are high in protein. They require little space to raise. And they don’t produce much methane or other greenhouse gases.

Two million people around the world already eat insects on a regular basis, and many consider them a delicacy. But here in the West, the situation is very different. Entomophagy is largely taboo, and our culture just isn’t geared towards finding and raising insects for food. That’s why Imrie-Situnayake and Tiny Farms have created what they call Open Bug Farm — a high-tech kit for raising your own edible insects. They’re trying to hack the Western agriculture world, and in true hacker fashion, they plan on open sourcing the kit’s basic design, so that anyone can build their own for free.

Full Story: Wired: Out in the Open: Raise Your Own Edible Insects With This Free Kit

A Liberal’s Defense of GMOs

This is about where I’m at on GMOs:

Let me get a few things out of the way.

I’m a crazy fucking hippie. I go to Burning Man every year. I teach yoga. I live in a co-op. For the past two years I’ve been delivering organic vegetables for a local delivery service. I’ve been eating vegetarian for years, and vegan for the past four months.

I’m also fascinated by genetics. I read every book that comes my way on evolutionary theory, population genetics, and mapping the genome. I took several classes on the subject at the University of Pennsylvania. All told, I have a pretty solid understanding of how genes work.

And ultimately, I’m just not that scared of GMOs.

Now don’t get me wrong. I understand where my liberal friends are coming from. I share the same desire for a safe and healthy food supply. There’s a LOT that disturbs me about the state of food production and distribution in America.

I think Monsanto is evil, that patenting seeds and suing farmers is unethical, and that some GMO crops (like Roundup Ready Soybeans) lend themselves to irresponsible herbicide and pesticide use and cross-contamination.

But I’m also not going to let my anti-corporate sentiments get in the way of a diverse and promising field of research.

When genetic engineering is used to decrease pesticide use, to add nutrients to crops in malnourished countries, and otherwise improve the quality of our food products, then it’s a valuable tool that can contribute to a safe and healthy food supply.

Full Story: A Liberal’s Defense of GMOs

Nutritional Scientists’ Opinion of Soylent is “Overwhelmingly Negative”

When I wrote about Soylent and Silicon Valley’s quest to reinvent food for TechCrunch I checked with a registered dietician from the Oregon Health and Science University about stuff. She was pretty down on it. So was the dietician consulted by Business Insider. And now io9’s Lauren Davis has talked to three more experts:

We reached out to a handful of nutritional scientists to get their opinions on the product, and they were generally surprised that anyone would want to replace their food with a single mixture. Their opinions of Soylent were overwhelmingly negative. Steve Collins, founder and chairman of Valid Nutrition, a company that manufactures Ready to Use Foods for the prevention and treatment of malnutrition, said, speaking through a colleague, that, except in exceptional circumstances, he felt that trying to replace a diverse diet with a single product was misguided. Susan Roberts, Professor at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, likened Soylent to already available nutritional shakes. While there might be some benefit to Soylent’s low saturated fat content, she said, there are certain risks inherent in a non-food diet. “[T]here are so many unknown chemicals in fruits and vegetables that they will not be able to duplicate in a formula exactly,” she said in an email. She says that, if Soylent is formulated properly, a person could certainly live on it, but she doubts they would experience optimal health. She fears that in the long-term, a food-free diet could open a person up to chronic health issues.

Tracy Anthony, Associate Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Rutgers University, speaking to us in an email, criticized the formula specifically.

Full Story: Could Soylent really replace all of the food in your diet?

The Soylent company has now released an ingredient list and it’s much more “food like” than creator Rob Rhinehart had implied previously:

-Maltodextrin (carbs)
-Oat Powder (carbs, fiber, protein, fat)
-Whey Isolate (protein)
-Grapeseed Oil (fat)
-Potassium Gluconate
-Salt (sodium)
-Magnesium Gluconate
-Monosodium Phosphate
-Calcium Carbonate
-Methylsulfonylmethane (Sulfur)
-Creatine
-Powdered Soy Lecithin
-Choline Bitartrate
-Ferrous Gluconate (Iron)

Humans Are Really Just Biomechanical Suit-Cities For Bacteria

Archigram's Walking City

“The City Is A Battlesuit For Surviving The Future” Matt Jones wrote in 2009, referencing Archigram‘s Walking City. As I’ve noted before we fill that same role for bacteria.

Food guru Michael Pollan has picked up on the “we’re more bacteria than human” meme and written an long, impressive New York Times article about it. He doesn’t go so far as to bring up the theory that oil is actually the excrement of bacteria that live beneath the earth’s crust, not the decomposed organic matter from the surface, as suggested by Thomas Gold (and apparently some unnamed Russians). If Gould is right then humans are not just city-suits for bacteria, but also a waste disposal system for bacteria. This idea led Reza Negarestani to obliquely postulate that global warming will actually function to make the surface of the earth hot enough for those particular bacteria to live on the surface of the earth as well. Which means we’re doing, like, triple duty for our bacterial masters.

No, Pollan doesn’t go into any of that weird shit. He’s more practical, writing instead about the role that bacteria has in our health. For example, obesity, heart disease and other health issues may depend on what kind of gut bacteria we’re carrying around. This may pose some more challenges for Soylent, the food substitute, because it turns out there’s stuff in food that we don’t digest but feeds our bacteria.

Of course this reminds me of the 90s gene craze (“the obesity gene,” the “addiction gene,” the “wearing white socks with dress shoes gene”) and the 00s neuroanatomy craze. The upside is that a bacteria-focused model of health is less fatalistic than the genetic or neuroanatomical models — you can change your bacteria, you can’t change your genes. But there’s plenty of room for woo and quackery and unfulfilled promises. That’s not lost on bacteria researchers. Pollan writes:

My first reaction to learning all this was to want to do something about it immediately, something to nurture the health of my microbiome. But most of the scientists I interviewed were reluctant to make practical recommendations; it’s too soon, they told me, we don’t know enough yet. Some of this hesitance reflects an understandable abundance of caution. The microbiome researchers don’t want to make the mistake of overpromising, as the genome researchers did. They are also concerned about feeding a gigantic bloom of prebiotic and probiotic quackery and rightly so: probiotics are already being hyped as the new panacea, even though it isn’t at all clear what these supposedly beneficial bacteria do for us or how they do what they do. There is some research suggesting that some probiotics may be effective in a number of ways: modulating the immune system; reducing allergic response; shortening the length and severity of colds in children; relieving diarrhea and irritable bowel symptoms; and improving the function of the epithelium. The problem is that, because the probiotic marketplace is largely unregulated, it’s impossible to know what, if anything, you’re getting when you buy a “probiotic” product. One study tested 14 commercial probiotics and found that only one contained the exact species stated on the label.

That didn’t stop Pollan from seeking out a little bit of practical advise, which mostly consists of: eat a variety of fiber sources, don’t load up too much on processed foods, relax a little about hygiene and eat pre-biotics like kimchi, sauerkraut and yogurt. Your bacterial masters will thank you for it.

Full Story: New York Times Magazine: Some of My Best Friends Are Germs

Silicon Valley Tries To Reinvent Food — Literally

soylent

I interviewed Soylent creator Rob Rhinehart for my latest TechCrunch column:

Fake meats have been around for years, but a new crop of Bay Area startups backed by tech investors think they can make meat substitutes good enough to compete with the real deal. Beyond Meat — backed by Twitter founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone via their company Obvious Corp — created an eerily accurate chicken substitute, for example.

But the most ambitious project is Rob Rhinehart‘s cheekily named “Soylent,” an attempt to replace food entirely with a liquid shake that has all the protein, fat, carbohydrates and micronutrients you need. The only ingredients recognizable as food are salt and olive oil. He claims to have lived exclusively on the stuff for a month. He says he has started eating real food again, but two months later he still gets 92 percent of his meals from Soylent.

Rhinehart makes an unlikely food scientist. He’s an engineer fresh off a stint at a Y Combinator-backed networking startup called Level RF that never exited stealth mode. He says he doesn’t have a background in chemistry. “Formally no more than an undergraduate level, but I am a huge proponent of self-study, online courses, and textbooks,” he says.

Full Story: TechCrunch: Silicon Valley And The Reinvention Of Food

Previously: The Food Free Diet

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