Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Cholesterol, schmolesterol—eggs are good for you

August 20, 2008

Yes, eggs have cholesterol in them. But scientists now say that they also have something that blocks the absorption of that cholesterol. Since I’m writing about French toast this week in Blue Kitchen, it seemed like a good time to update this post I did about a year ago.

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The people over at the American Egg Board need to get on the stick. Studies showed that wine in moderate amounts is good for you, especially red wine. Bingo. That story is everywhere. Winemakers are even trying to get legislation passed to tout the health benefits on labels.

Ditto chocolate, especially dark chocolate. Not only does it deliver antioxidants, which are good for your heart and arteries. Most of the fats in dark chocolate are the good kind like those found in olive oil, and even the bad ones appear to have a neutral effect on cholesterol. The chocolate marketing machine went to work and now, show of hands, who out there doesn’t know—at least on some level—that eating chocolate is actually good for you?

Well, back in 2001, nutrition researchers at Kansas State University published the first evidence that, even though eggs contain considerable amounts of cholesterol, the lecithin in eggs prevents the absorption of cholesterol from eggs and other sources too.

In 2004, a University of Connecticut report went further, stating that eating eggs is not related to body cholesterol levels or cardiovascular problems and recommending that “people with normal cholesterol levels and no family history of cardiovascular diseases should not worry about eating one or two eggs a day.”

How many of you knew that? Yeah, I thought so. The American Egg Board [still touting their innocuous “incredible edible egg” line, but only supporting it with the most timid, tepid information on their website] has been asleep at the wheel for seven years. There’s not word one about the cholesterol-blocking power of eggs. And all that while, we’ve all been quaking needlessly in our egg-white-omelet-eating boots.

To recap: Eggs good, not bad. Low in fat and calories, very high in quality protein. And most important, studies show that the lecithin in eggs actually prevents the absorption of cholesterol—not only from eggs, but from other sources.

So go eat some eggs. Have some dark chocolate. Wash it all down with some red wine. Just do it all in moderation—Oscar Wilde would have wanted it that way.

Heart health, safe tomatoes and a broth shortcut

June 18, 2008

Mice get all the breaks. Scientists have been testing the benefits of red wine on them. Again.

In this latest study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, results indicate that “the chemical resveratrol, commonly found in red wine, can help keep heart tissues young and delay aging—and at levels lower than previously expected.” In fact, researchers “believe that a glass of red wine a day might provide all the resveratrol the heart needs.”

Delaying the effects of aging on the heart is huge; the aging process itself apparently causes more health issues than age-related diseases. In tests on middle-aged mice [did that phrase make you smile too?], the hearts of the mice on resveratrol stayed stronger and the tissue maintained its health longer.

Resveratrol has been known for some time to offer significant health benefits, but previous studies involved levels of resveratrol found in hundreds of bottles of wine. If this latest study is correct, one or two glasses of red wine a day could actually prevent changes in heart cells that lead to aging.

Red wine-based pharmaceuticals are suddenly becoming big business, as heavy hitters like GlaxoSmithKline aim to cash in on these findings with resveratrol supplements. They’re already commercially available. Personally, it sounds like an answer for which there was no question, to quote a former boss. I mean, a nice glass of Cabernet versus a pill? No contest, as far as I can see.

Tomatoes and salmonella scare update

Last week I wrote about an outbreak of Salmonella serotype Saintpaul linked to consumption of certain kinds of raw tomatoes in the United States. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration [FDA] has not yet pinpointed the source for the tainted tomatoes, but they have cleared the tomato crops in 39 states and the District of Columbia as well as Baja California [Mexico], Belgium, Canada, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Israel, Netherlands and Puerto Rico. To see if your state’s tomatoes are safe to eat and for the latest updates on the outbreak, visit the FDA’s website.

Better Than Bouillon: Good broth, good and fast

Yeah, broth or stock made from scratch is best. No argument here. But often, we don’t have time to make it. And just as often, it’s playing a supporting role in a dish and, quite frankly, the time and effort to produce a cup or less of homemade broth just isn’t worth the payoff, at least not in my kitchen.

The good news is that choices for store-bought stock have gone way beyond the soup can and the bouillon cube. Reduced fat and reduced sodium options abound. And at Trader Joe’s [as well as other places], you can even buy organic chicken stock made from free range chickens. One of our favorite “stock options” is the Superior Touch line of Better Than Bouillon bases. They now offer an amazing 18 varieties in all, but what first caught our attention is the mushroom base. We first discovered it at Fairway Market in New York. And we loved it so much, we pestered the Chicago chain Treasure Island to add it to the varieties they already carried.

What makes Better Than Bouillon bases, well, better is that the main ingredient in whatever variety you choose is the name on the label: Beef, chicken, mushroom, lobster… not salt. That said, they do pack plenty of sodium too, so it’s good to taste whatever you’re adding it to before adding more salt. But by way of contrast, bouillon cubes can deliver anywhere from 38 to a whopping 56 percent of your DVA for sodium in a single one-cup serving! Superior Touch does offer reduced sodium versions of their beef, chicken and vegetable bases too.

And you can’t beat them for convenience or value. A single teaspoon makes a cup of broth; an 8-ounce jar makes 38 cups of broth. And it keeps in the fridge for up to 18 months, ready to grab at a moment’s notice when you need a little liquid for a dish. The mushroom base remains our favorite, but we also keep chicken and vegetable on hand. If your local store doesn’t carry Better Than Bouillon, you can order it at Amazon.com or direct from Superior Touch.

Small Bites: Drinks, a cool tool and a sharp blog

May 21, 2008

Worst drink on the planet?

According to Men’s Health magazine, it’s the Heath Shake, part of Baskin-Robbins’ Candy Bar Madness promotion. The Baskin-Robbins website describes it tantalizingly thus: “Toffee and coffee have never been better! This blend of Heath and Jamoca ice creams, chopped Heath Bar pieces and caramel, are layered on top of caramel, then topped with whipped cream and chopped Heath Bar pieces.”

Their nutritional chart on the site tells a different story, though. The medium-sized 1,420-calorie drink [more than 2/3 of your daily calories needs, by the way] delivers 103% of your Daily Value for total fat and a whopping 200% for saturated fat. If that’s not enough of a fat bomb for you, they have a large size that packs an amazing 2,300 calories!

And the best drink? White tea is the new black.

Black tea is by far the most popular tea in the world. I’m a big fan of black tea myself, but lately green tea has been getting loads of press for its antioxidants. We all know by now that antioxidants fight cancer, reduce the risk of strokes, heart diseases and diabetes and generally slow the aging process.

Well, it turns out that white tea not only outperforms black tea when it comes to antioxidants—it blows the doors off everybody’s darling green tea in this regard too, delivering three times the antioxidants found in green tea. What’s more, According to ScienceDaily, white tea outstrips green in fighting germs, including Staphylococcus infections, Streptococcus infections and pneumonia. And studies by Oregon State University show that consumption of white tea can fight colon cancer, actually reducing tumors.

Is there anything white tea can’t do? Well, it doesn’t have the satisfyingly robust, slightly bitter taste of black tea. On the other hand, its somewhat subtler taste doesn’t carry any of the grassy aftertaste of green tea. And as an added bonus, its pale gold color is far less likely to stain than black tea. For everything you’d ever want to know about white tea, visit White Tea Central.

This cool kitchen tool can really take the heat.

Heat resistant, nonstick silicone has been showing up all over kitchens these days. And one of the best uses we’ve seen of it is these handy Cuisipro Silicone Locking Tongs.

They’re made with commercial-quality stainless steel, and the nonstick silicone ends are heat-resistant to 575°F [300°C]. Pull on the hanging hoop and you lock them closed for easy storage in a drawer. Pop the hoop against your hip or the counter and you can open them with one hand—a useful feature in a busy kitchen.

But what really makes these tongs for me are the silicone tips. You can flip chops or chicken breasts or whatever in a hot nonstick pan without fear of scratching. You can grab green beans or asparagus spears or other cooked vegetables without bruising them. And best of all, as far as I’m concerned, they’re ideal for handling cooked pasta. You get a sure grip without breakage, and the pasta can’t get stuck in them the way they can with open metal tongs [am I the only person bugged by this?].

Cuisipro Silicone Locking Tongs come in a dazzling array of sizes and colors. Whichever you choose, they’ll make life in the kitchen just a little bit easier.

A sharp new blog. Seriously.

The first rule of blogging if you want to build a loyal readership of more than just friends and family is to specialize. Your readers need to know that each time they visit, they’ll find something on a topic that interests them. Well, I recently heard from a blogger named Ken who has carved out quite a specific niche for himself.

The blog is called Only Knives. You’ll find plenty of useful information about kitchen knives—including this exhaustive article called The Best Kitchen Knives For Any Budget. You’ll also find posts about hunting knives, survival knives [did anyone else shudder just then?] and even swords!

Besides thorough, helpful product information, you’ll find plenty of articles on the industry and history of knives and blades. Like this post on The Rise and Fall of The Great Kitchen Knife-Makers. So if you’re in the market for new kitchen knives, check out Ken’s blog. And if you’re in the market for a survival knife, I’d just as soon not know about it.

Beyond organic: Biodynamic wines

April 29, 2008

When we were in California last November, we visited the Bonny Doon Vineyard in California’s Central Coast region. I later wrote about its quirky owner Randall Grahm leading the way in introducing biodynamic growing practices in producing his wines.

The biodynamic movement is growing in the industry, slowly but surely. Wineries are finding that they’re not only able to have a smaller negative impact on the environment, but they’re actually producing better wines and improving their own working environment at the same time.

As this Wine Spectator video shows, biodynamics is more than just replacing pesticides and chemical fertilizers with organic alternatives—it’s about achieving biodiversity and a natural balance.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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A museum! At night! With wine! We are so there.

April 2, 2008

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There’s a lively, happy holiday song that office supplies company Staples hilariously appropriates for its back-to-school sale TV commercial every year. Parents gleefully shop for school supplies as their kids look glumly on; meanwhile, Andy Williams cheerfully sings to us that “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

That’s how we feel about Members Night at the Field Museum.

For starters, the Field is one of our favorite museums, chock full of fascinating things that teach us about both the natural world and the many and varied cultures humankind has created over the millennia. Anytime you get mummies and dinosaurs—including Sue, the largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton in the world—in the same place, you’re off to an interesting start. But there are also cases of butterflies, a Pawnee Earth Lodge, Aztec and Incan treasures, fossil plants… and room after room after room of amazing natural life played out in taxidermy dioramas. Like the imposing grouping of water buffaloes above. Equal parts awe-inspiring and slightly surreal, these displays give most of us the most intimate view we will ever have of the creatures that share the planet with us. The museum not only wows you with its amazing collection, it goes to great lengths to tell you why it all matters.

Just as important as the exhibits—arguably even more so—is the work the staff does in the field. At any given moment, the museum has teams of scientists and anthropologists all over the planet, not only collecting and cataloging, but furthering science with their research both on expeditions and back at the museum. And on any given Members Night, you get to talk to some of these people.

We begin every Members Night visit the same way. We head for the Great Hall, get wristbanded for alcohol consumption, buy our drink tickets and grab a glass of wine. As cool as just being at the museum is for us, being there after hours with a drink in hand ramps it all up considerably. We have to be careful, though. At a similar event at the Shedd Aquarium once, instead of marveling at the beauty and diversity of the sea creatures on display, Marion just found herself wondering how each might taste.

time-flies.jpgWine in hand, we immediately head behind the scenes. Members Night is like an all access pass to a rock show, only for science geeks. All those places usually marked No Admittance? You’re admitted. You get to wander the halls, peer into offices, see what scientists put up on their walls and doors—there were fewer Far Side cartoons this year than in previous visits. You get to see where work gets done, exhibits get planned, where at least some of the museum’s vast collection of study specimens is stored. While the museum’s exhibition space is vast, high-ceilinged and continuously being updated, behind the scenes is a fascinating rabbit’s warren of utilitarian, dark corridors with pipes and wiring snaking overhead. Dark wood doors with frosted glass windows open onto cluttered offices and brightly lit laboratories.

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Coolest of all, though, is you get to meet the people who work in this fascinating environment. And rather than being irritated about having to work extra hours on these two nights every year, they are genuinely delighted to be surrounded by people interested in what they do. Asking someone a question is like flipping an on switch. Fascinating information just starts pouring out.

On our most recent Members Night visit last week:

Marion and her sister Lena learned that ancient textiles are often repaired with one of three grades of Japanese paper made from mulberry bark, extremely strong, but so light and thin it “feels almost like nothing,” as Marion said.

dodo.jpgI learned that, unlike humans, all birds have circular disklike bones in the backs of their eyes, and that, like humans, they have kneecaps. I learned this from a scientist seated next to the case of live dermisted flesh-eating beetles that clean study skeletons for the museum. She was carefully tweezing little bits of gristle and flesh they’d missed on tiny bird skeletons as we talked; Members Night is not for the squeamish.

We spoke with a zoologist whose current project is photographing minute flies that live on bats. The flies are so specialized that each species of fly lives not only on one particular species of bat, but only on one specific part of that bat. Around the neck, for instance, or under the wing [which Marion kept calling the armpit, and the zoologist kept gently correcting her]. As a bit of trivia, this is interesting enough. But it is anything but trivial; it is yet one more bit of evidence that every environmental choice we make affects many, many more fellow inhabitants of this planet than we can begin to imagine.

One might think this event would be about as well attended as a Friends of Sylvia Plath poetry reading. Well, one would be wrong. It is packed both nights every year. And not just by the pocket protector crowd—it is about as diverse an audience as you’ll find anywhere, by any measure you choose. Of course, if you’re still reading this, chances are I’ve stirred your inner geek too. Maybe we’ll see you there next year. Marion’s already trying to work out a way for us to get in both nights next time.

You are what you eat, especially if you eat fish.

March 5, 2008

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Let me start by saying we’re not a bunch of geeks. No pocket protectors or thick-rimmed eyeglasses repaired with tape here. But we do geek out about a lot of things. By that, I mean we get excited by a wide range of things—sometimes inordinately so—many arcane and esoteric. And we drill deep.

WTF? Random food for thought is a veritable catalog of many of my geek outs: Art, urban living, photography, the written word… pretty much anything that catches my magpie eye. Where else have you read about Samuel Pepys’ diary, for instance?

One of Marion’s geek out indulgences is buying the Tuesday New York Times every single Tuesday for the Science Times section. She always finds something interesting in it. On February 19, it was this: An article by Natalie Angier entitled “What People Owe Fish: A Lot.” Angier catalogs exactly what a lot means. And even better, she does it with witty writing, something we both geek out over. The first paragraph of this passage is a perfect example:

You like having a big, centralized brain encased in a protective bony skull, with all the sensory organs conveniently attached? Fish invented the head.

You like having pairs of those sense organs, two eyes for binocular vision, two ears to localize sounds and twinned nostrils so you can follow your nose to freshly baked bread or the nape of a lover’s irresistibly immunocompatible neck? Fish were the first to wear their senses in sets.

They premiered the pairing of appendages, too, through fins on either side of the body that would someday flesh out into biceps, triceps, rotating wrists and opposable thumbs.

Or how about that animated mouth of yours, with its hinged and muscular jaws; its enameled, innervated teeth; and a tongue that dares to taste a peach or, if it must, get up and give a speech? Fish founded the whole modern buss we now ride.

inner-fish.jpgAngier’s source for this startling information? A fascinating new book by Neil Shubin, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago and the Field Museum—Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body.

According to the Field Museum, in 2006, a discovery by Dr. Shubin and his colleagues made headlines around the world. It was a fossil called Tiktaalik roseae, a “missing link” between fish and land animals. On expedition in Arctic Canada, they unearthed the 375-million-year-old fossil fish “whose fins contained the same structure found today in the limbs of all walking animals! Tiktaalik represented one of the earliest ancestors of creatures that left the sea to live on land.”

Our inner fish extends beyond physicality too. Angier cites other researchers who point out that fish have some of the most complex social systems known; they help each other and exhibit cooperation and forms of reciprocity. In fact, as her article reports, “In laboratory experiments, the researchers have shown that when subordinate [fish] are temporarily prevented from performing their duties, the fish compensate at the first chance by ostentatiously redoubling displays of helpful behaviors.”

Okay, I geek out as much as the next guy—and perhaps more than some. But doesn’t it seem that the researchers who devised these experiments maybe crossed some sort of line? I hope they’re already married. Let’s say you meet someone in a bar and the conversation turns to what you do for a living. You start talking about experimenting with fish subs and you are so not going home with a phone number.

You are here. And here. And here.

January 9, 2008

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More than 30 museums and institutions in Chicago have been participating in a Festival of Maps this fall and winter. We’ve only scratched the surface, but have seen some amazing treasures. At the Newberry Library’s Mapping Manifest Destiny: Chicago and the American West exhibit, a map drawn by George Washington during the French and Indian War. William Clark’s map of “part of the continent of North America,” drawn during his exploration of the Louisiana Purchase with Meriwether Lewis. At the Field Museum of Natural History’s Maps: Finding Our Place in the World exhibit, Charles Lindbergh’s flight map for his historic New York/Paris flight in 1927. Two maps drawn by Leonardo da Vinci and loaned to the Field by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. And a tattered roadmap of the U.S. that lovingly traced a family’s impressively extensive road trips in the pre-superhighways 1930s, covering much of the country, from Florida to Washington state and stretching even into Canada.

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Many of the maps on display throughout the city are beautiful works of art in their own right, or significant pieces of history. Just as often, they represent major breakthroughs in our understanding of our planet, and the civilizations and cultures that have inhabited it. A painstaking map of the ocean floor made in the 1950s from sonar readings proved for astonished scientists that the earth’s crust was made up of separate moveable plates. Also at the Field, a map on a video screen depicted the American Civil War in four minutes, with each second representing a week. The map showed the gains and losses of territory, with many areas changing hands more than once as battles raged. All the while, a counter in one corner served as a grim reminder of the human cost, more than 1.3 million soldiers dead at the war’s end.

But it’s not all history. A number of interactive exhibits show how GPS and other technologies are remapping the art and science of mapmaking. And why, even with all this technology, there is still a need for human eyes at ground level.

Some exhibits have already closed, and some will end soon. Others will continue into the spring. For more information, check out the appropriately map-based Festival of Maps website.

The scary majesty of California’s Redwoods

November 14, 2007

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Why is it that the very things that frighten us also intrigue us so? I am more than a little claustrophobic, so of course touring the insanely cramped quarters of the captured German U-boat at the Museum of Science and Industry here in Chicago filled me with morbid fascination. Younger daughter Laurel’s longtime borderline obsession with dinosaurs began when, as a three-year-old, a life-sized animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex scared the bejesus out of her at the St. Louis Science Center. She immediately insisted on being taken to the library to get books on dinosaurs. Knowledge is indeed power.

And when we began planning our trip down California’s coast, I insisted on seeing redwood trees. Not that I’m afraid of trees. I just have a healthy respect for heights, shall we say, especially when no intervening railings or other barriers are involved. The Signature Lounge on the 96th floor of the Hancock Center is one of my favorite places to take out-of-town guests—I can press against the windows to stare fearlessly straight down the building’s side, putting my complete faith in a sheet of plate glass. But without any such protections, I tend to agree with George S. Kaufman: “I like terra firma; the more firma, the less terra.”

So when I read Richard Preston’s amazing article “Climbing the Redwoods” in the New Yorker a couple of years ago, I was hooked. He talks about unclipping himself from the main rope to climb the rest of the way to the top of a tree named Adventure by the scientist who first scaled it, some three hundred and sixty feet in the air: “There is something unnerving about leaving the main rope behind and going into free motion in the crown of a redwood tree. The main climbing rope is a lifeline that connects a climber to the ground, and it is the escape route out of the tree.” And climbing down, he rappels the last 250 feet to the ground, swinging far out from the tree trunk and opening “the brake on the descender full wide.”

Not that I wanted to climb a redwood, mind you. But I wanted to see these giants—Sequoias or California Redwoods. To touch one and stare up the side of it, watching it disappear into branches and sky.

steinbeck.jpgMy fascination with redwoods isn’t all fear-based, of course. I think it began with seeing photos of a footpath or possibly a road carved through the base of one giant in a textbook or an ancient National Geographic as a kid. Just imagining something that massive, that majestic, that old—some of the largest are perhaps 2,000 to 3,000 years old or older—stirred my young soul and made the far west feel like a magical place. Later, reading John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in Search of America, one of the moments that stuck with me more than just about any other was his dog Charley’s encounter with a Giant Sequoia.

Preston’s own fascination with redwoods is more than climbing. In “Climbing the Redwoods,” he tells of the amazing ecosystem in the canopy of the California Redwoods. A dazzling array of animals and plants live there—masses of hanging fern gardens weighing tons after a rain, salamanders that never leave the treetops for their entire lives, thickets of huckleberry bushes… even other non-redwood trees.

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In the end, we failed to find true giant redwoods this trip. That could have something to do with accidentally finding the Bonny Doon Vineyard tasting room along the way. But the ones we did find were still beautiful and haunting and impressive. And yes, I did touch them and stare up their glorious sides.

Freezer burn of mammoth proportions

September 19, 2007

mammoth.jpgWhen I first saw this Columbian mammoth skeleton [Mammuthus columbi] at the Page Museum in Los Angeles, my first thought was not, “Hmmmm, I wonder how mammoth meat would taste.” My first thought was more along the lines of whether or not I could outrun one if the situation ever presented itself.

Granted, unlike the sabertoothed cats found in this museum [perhaps more famously known as the La Brea Tar Pits], mammoths were herbivores. Still, they’re distant ancestors of modern-day elephants, also herbivores, who are famously known for being territorial, irritable creatures who will quite suddenly and unpredictably stomp measly little humans to death. And they’re big. Really, really big.

reader_cover.jpgSo, no, my first thought was not how I might prepare a mammoth steak. Apparently, though, that thought has crossed the minds of more adventurous souls, even before the advent of The Flintstones. In the September 14 issue of the Chicago Reader, Cecil Adams tackled this very topic in his always illuminating, always amusing column, The Straight Dope.

As its motto says, The Straight Dope has been “Fighting Ignorance Since 1973 [It’s taking longer than we thought].” Every week in the Reader and other publications—and now online—Adams and his crack research team cover a new arcane question from a reader. And they cover it remarkably thoroughly in the far less than 1,000 words of space the column is allotted.

The question in question had to do with a story about members of The Explorers Club thawing out, cooking and eating a prehistoric woolly mammoth [a hairier, slightly smaller cousin of the 13-foot tall Columbian mammoth]. The reader wanted to know if this group or anyone else in modern times had actually done so. The full—and fully entertaining—answer is here.

The short answer is yes, though not as often as many people have bragged. Typical, right? Regarding how it actually tasted, contrary to some highly suspect reports by the aforementioned braggarts, the answer is pretty bad. A Russian zoologist Adams cited tried a bite and said, “it was awful. It tasted like meat left too long in a freezer.” Yeah, about 10,000 years too long.

Adams summarizes beautifully thus: “Let’s keep it simple: frozen meat from tundra = specimen; frozen meat from freezer = dinner. Study the mammoths and eat the burgers, and anyone who craves that great prehistoric taste can wash ’em down with Tab.”