Friday, January 28, 2022
Jan. 28, 2022

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More weird facts about your food


Last week, I wrote about some fun, weird facts gleaned from Matt Siegel’s new book, “The Secret History of Food.”

But that was just the tip of the iceberg (lettuce). The book has so many fun, weird facts about food that I feel compelled to share a few more.

Such as this one: When they are in outer space, astronauts tend to crave spicy food. Part of their longing may be due to the effects of microgravity; very low gravity causes the tongue and nasal passages to swell, meaning a lot of the food does not get to taste receptors on the tongue — and as a result, the astronauts may seek out stronger flavors.

But part of the reason, Siegel hypothesizes, is that spicy foods can also help, in a small way, take the astronauts out of the monotony of their routines and cramped surroundings.

Or there is this juicy fact: In World War II, some soldiers used Spam to lubricate their guns or waterproof their boots. Others in the U.S. Army Air Forces used the tin cans as an emergency patch to fix holes in plane wings.

Containers for food, it turns out, have been used in battle going back all the way to the Stone Age.

I am speaking here about beehives. Our earliest ancestors covered beehives in mud and threw them into enemy caves. Romans put them into catapults and hurled them at their foes.

And before there were cannonballs, sailors would throw beehives on other ships’ decks. The word “bombard” even comes from the Ancient Greek word “bombos,” which means “bee.”

These days, of course, people are more interested in the honey than the hives. Honey is so popular that a whole industry has sprung to fraudulently source it.

The United States increased the tariff on Chinese honey in 2001. Ever since then, Chinese honey producers have been shipping their product to other countries in order to illegally hide their true source. It is estimated that nearly 100 million pounds of honey each year, or about one-sixth of all the honey sold in this country, is in violation of the law.

Meanwhile, even domestic honey is frequently mislabeled. The problem is that bees fly wherever they want, and while the producer may assume the bees are spending all of their time among orange blossoms, only scientific analysis such as DNA tests can confirm how much of the nectar actually came from clover, or even poison ivy.

Sometimes, honey on the shelves isn’t even honey at all. It’s just corn syrup with yellow food coloring.

Fortunately, the book has some happier news involving vanilla.

Vanilla grows only within about 1,700 miles of the equator, and the flowers bloom for only a few hours. The two types of bees known to pollinate them are nearly extinct, so vanilla in the wild has only about a 1 percent chance of being pollinated.

But in 1841, a 12-year-old slave named Edmond Albius figured out how to pollinate vanilla by hand, which is why we have vanilla today. Albius was freed seven years later, when France outlawed slavery, but was imprisoned again five years later for stealing jewelry.

Albius regained his freedom once more when his former owner asked for clemency for him, citing his irreplaceable contribution to the vanilla industry.

Siegel devotes an entire chapter to breakfast cereal, which leads us to a couple of tasty nuggets: As of 2014, cereal marketed for adults was, on average, 18 percent sugar by weight; cereal marketed for children was, on average, 34 percent sugar by weight.

The worst offender, apparently, was Kellogg’s Honey Smacks, which was more than 55 percent sugar by weight. Kellogg’s has since changed the recipe, so the cereal is now a mere 50 percent sugar.

That doesn’t sound healthy, especially for a product — cereal — that was created to promote good health. Grape Nuts, for instance, was originally promoted as a “scientific health food” that would help cure malaria, heart disease and appendicitis.

I want to conclude with a notion that is less a weird fact than a philosophy, as devised by the Greek sage Epicurus.

Epicurus preferred bland food to dishes that were highly flavored, because he thought that true pleasure could be found in an absence of pain. Simple foods ended the pain of hunger, while luxurious foods made the rest of the world seem bland in comparison.

The concept intrigues me, but I don’t think I agree with it. If the food is good enough, who cares if the rest of the world is bland?