Category Archives: food

We are buying fake food at inflated prices.

This nicely written story by Lyndsey Layton appeared in the Washington Post this week. Americans have been disguising food as something more upmarket and selling it at vastly inflated prices. “Sturgeon caviar” was, in fact, Mississippi paddlefish. I bet it happens in the UK.

The expensive “sheep’s milk” cheese in a Manhattan market was really made from cow’s milk. And a jar of “Sturgeon caviar” was, in fact, Mississippi paddlefish.
Some honey makers dilute their honey with sugar beets or corn syrup, their competitors say, but still market it as 100 percent pure at a premium price.
And last year, a Fairfax man was convicted of selling 10 million pounds of cheap, frozen catfish fillets from Vietnam as much more expensive grouper, red snapper and flounder. The fish was bought by national chain retailers, wholesalers and food service companies, and ended up on dinner plates across the country.
“Food fraud” has been documented in fruit juice, olive oil, spices, vinegar, wine, spirits and maple syrup, and appears to pose a significant problem in the seafood industry. Victims range from the shopper at the local supermarket to multimillion companies, including E&J Gallo and Heinz USA.
Such deception has been happening since Roman times, but it is getting new attention as more products are imported and a tight economy heightens competition. And the U.S. food industry says federal regulators are not doing enough to combat it.
“It’s growing very rapidly, and there’s more of it than you might think,” said James Morehouse, a senior partner at A.T. Kearney Inc., which is studying the issue for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents the food and beverage industry.
John Spink, an expert on food and packaging fraud at Michigan State University, estimates that 5 to 7 percent of the U.S. food supply is affected but acknowledges the number could be greater. “We know what we seized at the border, but we have no idea what we didn’t seize,” he said.
The job of ensuring that food is accurately labeled largely rests with the Food and Drug Administration. But it has been overwhelmed in trying to prevent food contamination, and fraud has remained on a back burner.
The recent development of high-tech tools — including DNA testing — has made it easier to detect fraud that might have gone unnoticed a decade ago. DNA can be extracted from cells of fish and meat and from other foods, such as rice and even coffee. Technicians then identify the species by comparing the DNA to a database of samples.
Another tool, isotope ratio analysis, can determine subtle differences between food — whether a fish was farmed or wild, for example, or whether caviar came from Finland or a U.S. stream.
The techniques have become so accessible that two New York City high school students, working with scientists at the Rockefeller University and the American Museum of Natural History last year, discovered after analyzing DNA in 11 of 66 foods — including the sheep’s milk cheese and caviar — bought randomly at markets in Manhattan were mislabeled.
“We put so much emphasis on food and purity of ingredients and where they come from,” said Mark Stoeckle, a physician and DNA expert at Rockefeller University who advised the students. “But then there are things selling that are not what they say on the label. There’s an important issue here in terms of economics and consumer safety.”
It is not clear how many food manufacturers, importers and retailers are testing products, but large companies with valuable brands to protect have been increasingly using the new technology, said Vincent Paez, director of food safety business development at Thermo Fisher Scientific, Continue reading We are buying fake food at inflated prices.

Living without cash, out in the sticks.

This last month I have been reading Henry Thoreau’s work “Walden” which is all about jacking in the materialist rat race and going off to live next to the land in a small shack out in the woods. When I found this article in the Guardian it was almost identical – but here and now rather than 1845 (Thoreau was way ahead of his time) so here it is for an alternative Christmas story…..as I am so heartily sick of the mainstream ones!

In six years of studying economics, not once did I hear the word “ecology”. So if it hadn’t have been for the chance purchase of a video called Gandhi in the final term of my degree, I’d probably have ended up earning a fine living in a very respectable job persuading Indian farmers to go GM, or something useful like that. The little chap in the loincloth taught me one huge lesson – to be the change I wanted to see in the world. Trouble was, I had no idea back then what that change was.

After managing a couple of organic food companies made me realise that even “ethical business” would never be quite enough, an afternoon’s philosophising with a mate changed everything. We were looking at the world’s issues – environmental destruction, sweatshops, factory farms, wars over resources – and wondering which of them we should dedicate our lives to. But I realised that I was looking at the world in the same way a western medical practitioner looks at a patient, seeing symptoms and wondering how to firefight them, without any thought for their root cause. So I decided instead to become a social homeopath, a pro-activist, and to investigate the root cause of these symptoms.

One of the critical causes of those symptoms is the fact we no longer have to see the direct repercussions our purchases have on the people, environment and animals they affect. The degrees of separation between the consumer and the consumed have increased so much that we’re completely unaware of the levels of destruction and suffering embodied in the stuff we buy. The tool that has enabled this separation is money.

If we grew our own food, we wouldn’t waste a third of it as we do today. If we made our own tables and chairs, we wouldn’t throw them out the moment we changed the interior decor. If we had to clean our own drinking water, we probably wouldn’t contaminate it.

So to be the change I wanted to see in the world, it unfortunately meant I was going to have to give up cash, which I initially decided to do for a year. I got myself a caravan, parked it up on an organic farm where I was volunteering and kitted it out to be off-grid. Cooking would now be outside – rain or shine – on a rocket stove; mobile and laptop would be run off solar; I’d use wood I either coppiced or scavenged to heat my humble abode, and a compost loo for humanure.

Food was the next essential. There are four legs to the food-for-free table: foraging wild food, growing your own, bartering, and using waste grub, of which there is loads. On my first day, I fed 150 people a three-course meal with waste and foraged food. Most of the year, though, I ate my own crops.

To get around, I had a bike and trailer, and the 34-mile commute to the city doubled up as my gym subscription. For loo roll I’d relieve the local newsagents of its papers (I once wiped my arse with a story about myself); it’s not double-quilted, but I quickly got used to it. For toothpaste I used washed-up cuttlefish bone with wild fennel seeds, an oddity for a vegan.

What have I learned? That friendship, not money, is real security. That most western poverty is of the spiritual kind. That independence is really interdependence. And that if you don’t own a plasma screen TV, people think you’re an extremist.

People often ask me what I miss about my old world of lucre and business. Stress. Traffic jams. Bank statements. Utility bills.

Well, there was the odd pint of organic ale with my mates down the local.

• Mark Boyle is the founder of The Freeconomy Community. In a subsequent blog he responds to the comments below.

Poisoned by one of our pies? Your fault for bad cooking

In this “can’t cook” society – can it be right that food manufacturers are relying on the fact that consumers have to get foods to the right temperatures to kill the bugs inherent in their products? This article in the New York Times shows that 27,000 people in the States were affected by salmonella in just one incidence this year. Nine died. Me, I make my own pies.

The frozen pot pies that sickened an estimated 15,000 people with salmonella in 2007 left federal inspectors mystified. At first they suspected the turkey. Then they considered the peas, carrots and potatoes.

The pie maker, ConAgra Foods, began spot-checking the vegetables for pathogens, but could not find the culprit. It also tried cooking the vegetables at high temperatures, a strategy the industry calls a “kill step,” to wipe out any lingering microbes. But the vegetables turned to mush in the process.

So ConAgra — which sold more than 100 million pot pies last year under its popular Banquet label — decided to make the consumer responsible for the kill step. The “food safety” instructions and four-step diagram on the 69-cent pies offer this guidance: “Internal temperature needs to reach 165° F as measured by a food thermometer in several spots.”

Increasingly, the corporations that supply Americans with processed foods are unable to guarantee the safety of their ingredients. In this case, ConAgra could not pinpoint which of the more than 25 ingredients in its pies was carrying salmonella. Other companies do not even know who is supplying their ingredients, let alone if those suppliers are screening the items for microbes and other potential dangers, interviews and documents show.

Yet the supply chain for ingredients in processed foods — from flavorings to flour to fruits and vegetables — is becoming more complex and global as the drive to keep food costs down intensifies. As a result, almost every element, not just red meat and poultry, is now a potential carrier of pathogens, government and industry officials concede.

In addition to ConAgra, other food giants like Nestlé and the Blackstone Group, a New York firm that acquired the Swanson and Hungry-Man brands two years ago, concede that they cannot ensure the safety of items — from frozen vegetables to pizzas — and that they are shifting the burden to the consumer. General Mills, which recalled about five million frozen pizzas in 2007 after an E. coli outbreak, now advises consumers to avoid microwaves and cook only with conventional ovens. ConAgra has also added food safety instructions to its other frozen meals, including the Healthy Choice brand.

Peanuts were considered unlikely culprits for pathogens until earlier this year when a processing plant in Georgia was blamed for salmonella poisoning that is estimated to have killed nine people and sickened 27,000. Now, white pepper is being blamed for dozens of salmonella illnesses on the West Coast, where a widening recall includes other spices and six tons of frozen egg rolls.

The problem is particularly acute with frozen foods, in which unwitting consumers who buy these products for their convenience mistakenly think that their cooking is a matter of taste and not safety.

Federal regulators have pushed companies to beef up their cooking instructions with the detailed “food safety” guides. But the response has been varied, as a review of packaging showed. Some manufacturers fail to list explicit instructions; others include abbreviated guidelines on the side of their boxes in tiny print. A Hungry-Man pot pie asks consumers to ensure that the pie reaches a temperature that is 11 degrees short of the government-established threshold for killing pathogens. Questioned about the discrepancy, Blackstone acknowledged it was using an older industry standard that it would rectify when it printed new cartons.

Government food safety officials also point to efforts by the Partnership for Food Safety Education, a nonprofit group founded by the Clinton administration. But the partnership consists of a two-person staff and an annual budget of $300,000. Its director, Shelley Feist, said she has wanted to start a campaign to advise consumers about frozen foods, but lacks the money.

Estimating the risk to consumers is difficult. The industry says that it is acting with an abundance of caution, and that big outbreaks of food-borne illness are rare. At the same time, a vast majority of the estimated 76 million cases of food-borne illness every year go unreported or are not traced to the source.

Home Cooking

Some food safety experts say they do not think the solution should rest with the consumer. Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said companies like ConAgra were asking too much. “I do not believe that it is fair to put this responsibility on the back of the consumer, when there is substantial confusion about what it means to prepare that product,” Dr. Osterholm said.

And the ingredient chain for frozen and other processed foods is poised to get more convoluted, industry insiders say. While the global market for ingredients is projected to reach $34 billion next year, the pressure to keep food prices down in a recession is forcing food companies to look for ways to cut costs.

Man sprays his own toxic waste over food in shops

This story is from this week’s  Birmingham Post. I had driven past the Air Balloon pub near Cheltenham just yesterday where this chap did some of  his dirty work. I had to think why this story had caught my attention. Something about the way cats and dogs behave….something about a personal statement about our society….I don’t know. Nowt as strange as folk as the people in Yorkshire say.

An unemployed chemist was jailed for nine years today for contaminating food and wine by spraying his own urine and faeces in supermarkets in Gloucestershire.

Algerian Sahnoun Daifallah also sprayed the slurry over children’s books and in a pub as he carried out his foul campaign by concealing a 1.5 litre weed killer container in a lap top bag modified to allow the nozzle to poke out. And it was revealed that he intended to bring his campaign to Birmingham.

Daifallah, 42, was last month found guilty of four counts of contaminating goods at Tesco, Morrisons, Waterstones bookstore and a pub in Gloucestershire on May 14 and 16 last year.  The incidents caused £700,000 of damage to products and in lost businesses when the stores had to close.

When police searched his house they found stockpiles of the mixture and plans to spread the muck in other cities including Bristol and Birmingham.

Daifallah, who had fantasies about biological weapons to cause public alarm, was also found guilty of having an offensive weapon, namely a catapult with marbles.

Judge Carol Hagen said security agencies had labelled Daifallah, who has a degree in industrial chemistry, a very high risk to public safety. She sentenced him on Tuesday at Bristol Crown Court to concurrent sentences of three years, five years and two of nine years for the contamination offences and 12 months for possession of a weapon.

She told him that during the seven day trial, in which he had represented himself, she found him to be “arrogant and inflexible” in his thinking.
She added that she had wanted to jail him indefinitely but the law would not allow her to.

“Your actions showed a callous disregard for public safety and you caused considerable alarm and anxiety,” she said. “You caused substantial police and forensic involvement given that the nature of the substances were not known.”

Proceedings to deport him have begun.

Daifallah first visited the Air Balloon Pub near Cheltenham at 12.45pm on May 14 where police were called after he made offensive comments to a barmaid.

When officers arrived Daifallah was no longer there but he had left a trail of stench behind him which was his ‘calling card’.

He then moved on to Waterstones bookstore in Cirencester where he sprayed the brown substance all over a toilet in the coffee shop.

Staff noticed the smell but it was not until after he had left that they discovered a 20 metre area of 38 shelves, from the classics to the children’s section, had been doused in the foul substance.

In total 706 books were contaminated, most of them in the children’s section.

Two days later at 11am Daifallah visited the Tesco store in Quedgley where a shopper saw him reach into his bag and produce a jet of brown fluid over the frozen chips.

He then moved on to the wine section where a member of staff saw a fine vapour come out of his bag and on to the wine, leaving the brown substance over the shelves.

Daifallah then drove four miles to the Morrisons store in Abbeydale where an employee in the wine section noticed him acting strangely and gagged at the overpowering stench.

Both supermarkets were cordoned off and shoppers were locked in for safety reasons while the source of the contaminant was traced. The stores were closed for two days for cleaning and shoppers reported skin rashes and nausea.

Police officers called by staff at Tesco identified Daifallah on CCTV and arrived at his home in Bibury Road, Gloucester, while he was still spraying in Morrisons.

On searching the flat they found several bottles of the noxious mixture and several plastic sachets containing excrement marked with the names of cities on them.

They also found messages scrawled over the walls referring to biological weapons, smuggling uranium into Britain and micro-organisms being spread.

One of the messages said: “The ants get out to every direction to get food, then they bring it back to Tesco and Asda. If you poison those then you kill the ants.”

A map of Gloucester with ‘Contaminated 83% Ammonia’ written on it was also found in his bedroom.

His house was sealed off for two weeks while forensic scientists worked out what was in the packages.

Daifallah was questioned by police about another four incidents in February last year when brown liquid was sprayed at four pubs in Stroud.

If you want to lose weight, just hang out in a cold room.

Today’s story is about fat that eats fat. Scientists thought this brown fat, or so it is called, disappeared from our bodies after childhood…………but no, according to the New York Times. What’s it got to do with cold and shivering? Read on…

Illustration showing where brown fat deposits appear in babies.

For more than 30 years, scientists have been intrigued by brown fat, a cell that acts like a furnace, consuming calories and generating heat. Rodents, unable to shiver to keep warm, use brown fat instead. So do human infants, who also are unable to shiver their muscles to stay warm. But it was generally believed that humans lose brown fat after infancy, no longer needing it once the shivering response kicks in.
That belief, three groups of researchers report, is wrong.
Their papers, appearing Thursday in The New England Journal of Medicine, indicate that nearly every adult has little blobs of brown fat that can burn huge numbers of calories when activated by the cold, like sitting in a chilly room that is between 61 and 66 degrees.
Thinner people appeared to have more brown fat than heavier people, younger people more than older people; people with higher metabolic rates had more than those whose metabolisms were more sluggish, and women had more than men. People taking beta blockers for high blood pressure or other medical indications had less brown fat.
“The thing about this brown fat is that it takes a very small amount to burn a lot of energy,” said Dr. C. Ronald Kahn, head of the section on obesity and hormone action at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston.
The fat really is brown, researchers say, because it is filled with mitochondria, cells’ tiny energy factories. Mitochondria contain iron, giving the tissue a reddish brown color.
The hope is that scientists may find safe ways to turn peoples’ brown fat on, allowing them to lose weight by burning more calories. But researchers caution that while mice lose weight if they activate brown fat, it is not clear that people would shed pounds — they might unwittingly eat more, for example. The data on global patterns of obesity are not good enough to say whether living in a cold climate makes people thinner.
The best evidence for the effects of brown fat is from earlier studies in mice, said Leslie P. Kozak, a professor of molecular genetics at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center of Louisiana State University.
Recently, Dr. Kozak put mice predisposed to obesity in a cold room, 41 degrees, for a week. The animals activated their brown fat. As a result, they lost 14 percent of their weight, which constituted 47 percent of their body fat, while eating a high-fat diet with two and a half times more calories than they had consumed at room temperature. “That’s just by going out in the cold, without any drug treatment,” Dr. Kozak said. But, he cautioned, mice, small animals with a comparatively huge surface area, are easily chilled. “Put the mouse in the cold,” he added, “and it becomes a heat producing machine.”
Jan Nedergaard of the University of Stockholm did the opposite of Dr. Kozak. He and Barbara Cannon, also at the University of Stockholm, studied mice that were genetically engineered so their brown fat could not burn calories. The animals became fat.
“Until very recently, we would have said that it is doubtful that differences in brown fat really could contribute to obesity,” Dr. Nedergaard said. Now, he said he had changed his mind, at least for mice.
The key to finding brown fat in humans was PET scans, which pinpoint areas where cells are actively burning glucose. Because brown fat rapidly burns glucose to produce heat, it lights up in the scans. In two of the three studies, investigators also studied samples of brown fat that were removed from a few subjects, confirming that the cells had a protein, UCP-1, that is unique to brown fat.
Brown fat in adult humans was in an unexpected place. Infants have it mostly as a sheet of cells covering their backs. Rodents have it mostly between their shoulder blades, just down from the neck. But in adult humans, it showed up in the upper back, on the side of the neck, in the dip between the collarbone and shoulder, and along the spine.
That may be one reason it was missed for so long, Dr. Kahn said.
“There was an interest in looking at humans 20 or 25 years ago with different scanning techniques, but people were always looking between the shoulder blades,” he said. And since there is so little brown fat — just a few grams of tissue — it can be hard to find, Dr. Kahn added.
His study, one of the three published Thursday, involved 1,972 people who had had PET scans for a variety of reasons. The scans showed brown fat in 7.5 percent of the women and 3 percent of the men — an underestimate, Dr. Kahn says, because the people had not deliberately activated brown fat by getting cold.
Dr. Kahn and his colleagues also examined biopsy samples taken from the necks of two patients. They concluded that what looked like brown fat in their scans was indeed brown fat.
A second study, led by Wouter D. van Marken Lichtenbelt of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, involved 24 healthy young men. Ten were lean, the rest overweight or obese.
The scans showed no brown fat when the men had been in a room that was a comfortable temperature. But after they were in a chilly room for two hours, scans showed brown fat in all but one, an obese man.
A third study, led by Dr. Sven Enerbäck of the University of Goteborg in Sweden, involved five healthy adults. Each had two PET scans — one after being in a room at a comfortable temperature, the other after being in a chilly room for two hours. The investigators saw brown fat in their chilled subjects. Three participants allowed the researchers to remove some white fat and some brown fat to demonstrate that what looked like brown fat in the scans really was that elusive substance.
The studies, investigators say, should stimulate research on safe ways to activate brown fat. It is known to be activated not only by cold but also by catecholamines, hormones that are part of the fight or flight response. That is why beta blockers, which block catecholamines, can suppress brown fat activation.
Epinephrine, or adrenaline, and ephedra, a herbal supplement containing epinephrine, can stimulate brown fat, said Dr. Rudolph Leibel, co-director of the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center at the Columbia University Medical Center. But, he added, the drugs have too many side effects to be used for weight loss. While caffeine can boost ephedra’s effects, Dr. Leibel said, it is easy to eat your way out of a brown fat effect.
Brown fat, he said, “fits the fantasy — I eat what I want and burn it off.”
That, however, is still a fantasy, Dr. Leibel added.
If a drug that stimulates brown fat could be developed, said Dr. Claude Bouchard of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, it would be the first obesity drug to affect energy expenditure rather than appetite.
Then there is the notion of simply hanging out in a cold room.
“We’re thinking of opening a frosty spa,” Dr. Kozak joked.

Introducing the virtual personal trainer

This article ran in the G2 section of the Guardian yesterday – nicely put put together by writer Alok Jha, who had to  wear a wrist band that records walking and exercising movements in order to link up with a computer based personal training system.

Like so many who have gone before me in the fight against flab, I am engaged in an unending war with my body. I don’t mind exercise – I jog, cross-train and swim – but I do love food. Children learn early that when your stomach is full it is a good idea to stop. It is a skill I have yet to develop.

These two sides – the exercise and the eating – are finely balanced. For months at a time, exercise will prevail, but it takes only one missed gym session for the discipline to fall apart.

Enter MiLife, a web-based system that claims to be the world’s first “personalised online coaching system”. As I am never going to get an actual personal trainer (why pay for someone in a tracksuit to shout at you?), I thought a virtual one could keep an eye on my progress and shame me into action.

The system comes with a wristband that records all the movements you make in a day and, when connected to a computer via bluetooth, uploads this data to a personal profile on the MiLife website. Every week, you track your performance with a plethora of bar charts and line graphs and the MiLife software advises you on how to get the best out of your exercise.

To start, you tell MiLife what your goals are. Perhaps you want to raise your activity levels or lose some weight? The website’s virtual trainer will come back with a personalised plan, broken down into daily targets. As you progress, the software automatically adapts the plan during a weekly coaching session to take into account the exercises you seem to be good at and those you’re not.

I chose to give myself both exercise and weight targets, but rapidly regretted the latter. Weight control involves recording a daily food diary, an activity as tedious and irritating as filing tax returns. Every day. I tried, I really did. MiLife even allows you to use your mobile phone to text in how many calories you eat but, seriously, how do you know exactly how many are in a salmon mousse? I gave up after just a few weeks of semi-completed diaries and, during my weekly online coaching sessions, the software duly reminded me of my laziness.

I was more successful with the wristband, which I wore obsessively. MiLife breaks down activity into low, medium and high. Shuffling around my flat was low activity, a brisk walk counted as medium-to-high and a jog or even the odd dash for a bus would rack up minutes in the high-activity section. Like anyone given a target, I did everything I could to get the daily totals up: I walked into work more often, went walkabout at lunchtimes, and avoided buses for all short journeys.

All the information about my activity was recorded with no need for my intervention, and it was useful: days when I took the bus home, for example, instead of walking, appeared as conspicuous gaps among the skyscrapers of activity in the days where I had been more diligent. I could monitor my minutes of high activity from jogging or cross-training to ensure that I kept up the levels suggested by the software. All of this was motivational, too – I was surprised how far I would go to get a perfect set of bar charts.

If you choose, MiLife will email or text to get you exercising, and chide you if you miss too many sessions. The virtual trainer is powered by something called the “Idapt engine”, a computer model that MiLife says is the result of five years of research collating data from hundreds of people to tease out successful strategies to, for example, lose weight or keep motivated to exercise. During the first few weeks of use, this builds up a profile of the kinds of exercise that seem to work for you. By matching this to the profiles it stores, it can suggest exercises or ways to break consistent bad habits. I was advised, for example, to try an exercise bike and do more gentle jogging, but the longer you use the programme the better the suggestions should be.

In a randomised controlled trial of 77 people over nine weeks, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research in 2007, those using the MiLife system ended up doing, on average, two hours more physical activity a week than the control group. This is a good result, but bear in mind that these were probably active volunteers, so likely to be motivated to exercise.

There are niggling problems with the system: the website is slow, badly designed and frustrating to use. As a Mac user, I found the software a small nightmare to set up and the system lost two weeks of my weight and activity data. That meant my programme was all but shot to pieces because the software assumed I had been lying down for a fortnight.

I didn’t manage to make MiLife record my activities for long enough to complete a 12-week programme but, on the evidence I do have, my feelings are mixed. Just knowing that all your movements are being recorded is surprisingly rewarding and motivational. Small bits of low-level exercise can add up, and visualising all the jogging and cycling with the bar charts every day was (when I was wearing my geek hat) addictive.

The weight-loss part of the MiLife programme was defeated by my lack of willpower. But the exercise plan definitely recorded an increase in my activity in the weeks that I used the system. Whether that was entirely due to MiLife, I’m not so sure – most of the increase came in the low-level exercise – the jogging or other aerobic exercise I would have done anyway.

So a partial success for me, but is it worth the £99 it costs for the basic equipment and a year’s subscription to the website? It might not be as expensive as a personal trainer, but if MiLife is hoping people will put their hands in their tracksuit pockets, the technology needs to be more impressive.

• For more information, see milife.com

• This article was amended on Wednesday 14 January 2009. Milife, a computer based personal training system, costs £99 for a year’s website subscription and all the basic equipment, not £200, as we said above. This has been corrected.

This surgeon will nip off your love handles and use them to power his vehicle

I heard about this just before Christmas Eve and thought it was a joke, then found the story on Forbes.com – about the US surgeon (Mr Bittner) who used the fat he sucked from patients to power his vehicle – and his girlfriend’s SUV too. The writer has tagged his story “biofuels.” Only in America.

Liposuctioning unwanted blubber out of pampered Los Angelenos may not seem like a dream job, but it has its perks. Free fuel is one of them. For a time, Beverly Hills doctor Craig Alan Bittner turned the fat he removed from patients into biodiesel that fueled his Ford SUV and his girlfriend’s Lincoln Navigator. Love handles can power a car? Frighteningly, yes. Fat – whether animal or vegetable – contains triglycerides that can be extracted and turned into diesel. Poultry companies such as Tyson are looking into powering their trucks on chicken schmaltz, and biofuel start-ups such as Nova Biosource are mixing beef tallow and pig lard with more palatable sources such as soybean oil. Mike Shook of Agri Process Innovations, a builder of biodiesel plants, says this year’s batch of U.S. biodiesel was likely more than half animal-derived since the price of soybeans soared.A gallon of grease will get you about a gallon of fuel, and drivers can get about the same amount of mileage from fat fuel as they do from regular diesel, according to Jenna Higgins of the National Biodiesel Board. Animal fats need to undergo an additional step to get rid of free fatty acids not present in vegetable oils, but otherwise, there’s no difference, she says.Greenies like the fact that waste, such as coffee grounds and french-fry grease, can be turned into power. “The vast majority of my patients request that I use their fat for fuel–and I have more fat than I can use,” Bittner wrote on lipodiesel.com. “Not only do they get to lose their love handles or chubby belly but they get to take part in saving the Earth.” Bittner’s lipodiesel Web site is no longer online.Using fat to fuel cars might be environmentally friendly, but it’s definitely illegal in California to use human medical waste to power vehicles, and Bittner is being investigated by the state’s public health department.

Hooked on chillis – our heat-seeking nation.

I’m a fan of spicy food – I found this story in the Economist this week which told me not only why I love chilli – but how our whole nation is relentlessly seeking an ever hotter chili experience. And no, it doesn’t strip out the lining of your stomach like your mum says.

TASTELESS, colourless, odourless and painful, pure capsaicin is a curious substance. It does no lasting damage, but the body’s natural response to even a modest dose (such as that found in a chili pepper) is self-defence: sweat pours, the pulse quickens, the tongue flinches, tears may roll. But then something else kicks in: pain relief. The bloodstream floods with endorphins—the closest thing to morphine that the body produces. The result is a high. And the more capsaicin you ingest, the bigger and better it gets.Which is why the diet in the rich world is heating up. Hot chilies, once the preserve of aficionados with exotic tastes for cuisine from places such as India, Thailand or Mexico, are now a staple ingredient in everything from ready meals to cocktails.

One reason is that globalisation has raised the rich world’s tolerance to capsaicin. What may seem unbearably hot to those reared on the bland diets of Europe or the Anglosphere half a century ago is just a pleasantly spicy dish to their children and grandchildren, whose student years were spent scoffing cheap curries or nacho chips with salsa. Recipes in the past used to call for a cautious pinch of cayenne pepper. For today’s guzzlers, even standard-strength Tabasco sauce, the world’s best-selling chili-based condiment, may be too mild. The Louisiana-based firm now produces an extra-hot version, based on habanero peppers, the fieriest of the commonly-consumed chilies.

But for the real “heat geeks”, even that is too tame. Tesco, Britain’s biggest supermarket chain, recently added a new pepper to its vegetable shelves: the Dorset naga. Inhaling its vapour makes your nose tingle. Touching it is painful; cooks are advised to wear gloves. It is the only food product that Tesco will not sell to children. By the standards of other chilies, it is astronomically hot. On the commonly used Scoville scale (based on dilution in sugar syrup to the point that the capsaicin becomes no longer noticeable to the taster) it rates 1.6m units, close to the 2m score of pepper spray used in riot control. The pepper that previously counted as the world’s hottest, the Bhut Jolokia grown by the Chile Pepper Institute at the New Mexico State University, scored just over 1m. That in turn displaced a chili grown by the Indian Defence Research Laboratory in Tezpur, which scored a mere 855,000. The hottest habanero chilies score a wimpy 577,000.

The naga, originally from Bangladesh, was developed commercially by Michael Michaud, who runs a specialist online chili supply firm in south-western Britain. Having spotted it in an ethnic-food shop in the coastal town of Bournemouth, he bred a dependable and much hotter strain and had it tested. “I sent the powder to a couple of labs. They didn’t believe the reading. They thought they had made a mistake,” he recalls. Jonathan Corbett, the buyer who handles (cautiously) specialist chilies for Tesco says that the naga makes a standard hot curry “taste like a bowl of breakfast cereal”.

The naga has been a runaway success. In 2007, a Tesco outlet in Newcastle in northern England was supplied with 400 packs for a pilot period that was intended to last a month. The entire stock sold out on the first morning. According to AC Nielsen, a market-research firm, demand for hot chilies across all British retailers rose by 18% in the last year. At Tesco, the growth has been 29%. Demand for the naga has been so high that it has been forced to sell unripe green ones, intended for sale early next year. Tesco’s supplier is Britain’s biggest chili farmer, Filippo Salvatore. Based near Biggleswade, he is also a leading light in the Bedford Sicilian Association. He is hurrying to grow more.

Tesco is one of the world’s largest retailers, with outlets in both continental Europe and North America. But Mr Corbett says that his colleagues have no plans to stock the naga elsewhere, for example in the firm’s Fresh & Easy chain in America. “Tastes in the UK are hotter,” he says. That may be true, though the chili-eating milieu is certainly bigger in America, where the calendar is dotted with events such as the rumbustious Fiery Foods and Barbeque Show (in Albuquerque) and the more academic 19th International Pepper Conference (which took place in September in Atlantic City, concluding with a barbecue).

For connoisseurs though, the macho hullabaloo about ever-hotter chilies is distasteful, even vulgar: rather like rating wine only according to its alcohol content. Steve Waters, who runs the South Devon Chili Farm, says even the idea that the spectrum runs on a simple one-dimensional axis between “hot” and “mild” is misleading. He prefers the more complex Mexican matrix, which categorises chilies both by heat, and whether they are fresh, dried, pickled, or smoked. Any of these can produce big changes in flavour: he highlights the Aji (pronounced ah-hee), a Peruvian chili, which “ripens to bright yellow, with a strong lemony taste when fresh, very zesty. When dried it picks up a banana flavour.”

From this point of view, the most interesting trend is not in ever-higher doses of capsaicin for the maniac market, but in the presence of chili in a range of foodstuffs that previous generations would have regarded as preposterous candidates for hotting up. Chili-flavoured chocolate, for example, has gone from being a novelty item to a popular mainstream product. Mr Waters sells “hot apple chili jelly” as a condiment for meat, and chili-infused olive oil.

Adrenalin plus natural opiates form an unbeatable combination

The reason may be that capsaicin excites the trigeminal nerve, increasing the body’s receptiveness to the flavour of other foods. That is not just good news for gourmets. It is a useful feature in poor countries where the diet might otherwise be unbearably bland and stodgy. In a study in 1992 by the CSIRO’s Sensory Research Centre, scientists looked at the effect of capsaicin on the response to solutions containing either sugar or salt. The sample was 35 people who all ate spicy food regularly but not exclusively. Even a small quantity of capsaicin increased the perceived intensity of the solutions ingested. Among other things, that may give a scientific explanation for the habit, not formally researched, of snorting the “pink fix” (a mixture of cocaine and chili powder).

A chili-eating habit may develop to a startling degree (your author guzzled a packet of nagas while writing this article, and puts Tabasco in his coffee). But indulging in capsaicin does not quite meet the formal medical definitions of addiction. It is at most a craving, not a physical necessity. It does not cause loss of control when taken to excess, or illness in those deprived of it: heavy users may develop remarkable degrees of tolerance, but they do not require regular doses simply in order to feel normal. The preference does not wear off: ex-smokers, by contrast, may gag at the taste of a cigarette. And the effect on the brain is different: with nicotine, the more you smoke, the more you want.

Indeed, capsaicin has useful medical effects. By disabling a part of the nervous system called “transient receptor potential vanilloid 1” it can stop the body registering the pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis, for example. It can also be used to help patients with multiple sclerosis, amputees, and people undergoing chemotherapy. With rather less scientific evidence, a capsaicin product is marketed as an alternative to Botox, a wrinkle-smoothing cosmetic treatment.

But does it do any harm? The use of pepper spray as a weapon, and chili powder as a means of torture, suggests that it must. Certainly capsaicin can be painful, causing stress: in itself a potential health risk. A big dose incapacitates. But as far as permanent physical damage is concerned, the evidence is negligible to non-existent.

That seems to contradict common sense, which suggests that hot food causes an upset stomach—or what medical specialists call “gastric mucosal injury”. A study in 1987 on the effects of ordinary pepper produced some signs of gastric exfoliation (stripping away the stomach lining) and some bleeding—though the effects were less than those produced by aspirin. An alarming-sounding experiment a year later involved volunteers being fed minced jalapeño peppers through a tube, directly into the stomach. The results, observed by an endoscope (a camera on a tube) revealed no damage to the mucous membrane. Against that is a study of heavy chili-eaters in Mexico City, who appeared to have higher stomach cancer rates than a control group. But the rate of illness had no correlation with the frequency of chilies eaten, leading to speculation that other factors may be at work.

Humans are the only mammals to eat chilies. Other species apparently reckon that nasty tastes are a powerful evolutionary signal that something may be poisonous. Paul Rosin, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who is one of the world’s best-known authorities on the effects of capsaicin, has had no success in persuading rats to eat chilies, and very limited success with dogs and chimpanzees: the handful of cases where these animals did eat chilies seemed to be because of their strong relationships with human handlers.

That offers a clue to the way in which mankind comes to develop a chili habit. In the same way as young people may come to like alcohol, tobacco and coffee (all of which initially taste nasty, but deliver a pleasurable chemical kick), chili-eating normally starts off as a social habit, bolstered by what Mr Rozin calls “benign masochism”: doing something painful and seemingly dangerous, in the knowledge that it won’t do any permanent harm. The adrenalin kick plus the natural opiates form an unbeatable combination for thrill-seekers. Just don’t get it in your eyes.