Richard C. Delerins, Ph.D., Associate research scholar at the Sorbonne University - CNRS (ISCC) and director of the Food 2.0 LAB, Paris.
1Q: Your work connects the biological and social dimensions of food. Thus, you have coined the term “nutritive strategies”. How does this concept enable us to establish a dialogue between research fields such as nutrigenomics and anthropology?
2Richard C. Delerins: Traditionally, studies on the interaction of both nutrients and genes or the physiology of nutrition take place far from the social study of food habits and culinary cultures. Research questions, methods and results at the micro-scale of molecule and cell are not recognizable to research communities interested in the macro scale of human food choice and culinary traditions. But we realize everyday how genetic, nutrition and cuisine are interlinked areas of study in a wide array of disciplines, from the life sciences to the social sciences. Whether the specific issue is the genetics of crops or livestock and their biodiversity, the genetic and social causes of obesity and diabetes, or the realm of molecular gastronomy and the slow food movement, cuisine, nutrition and genetics are emerging as central scientific and social problems of our societies and lifestyles.
3My work on genetics, nutrition and culinary practices started with simple questions like: How will recent genetic findings and techniques change nutrition and cuisine? Why have humans made the food choices they have and what their culinary practices tell us about them, their history and their world outlook? How has cooking made us human? What are the challenges of 21st century cuisines? How to preserve the environment and culinary traditions, along with the simultaneously nutrigenomic and social challenges of feeding our genes and our taste buds? But to tackle those issues, I thought that the concept of cuisine as a "culinary system" was more promising than the abstract notion of "food". When you think about it: what people actually eat every day is not "food" but culinary dishes prepared from ingredients and recipes, following "scripts" deeply rooted in our social practices.
4I use the term "nutritive strategies" to articulate the relationship between physiology and food habits through a specific dimension of health (longevity, aging, beauty, strength, prevention of pathologies - obesity, type 2 diabetes). In other words, nutritive strategies are "functional diets", i.e. diets that have a potentially positive effect on health beyond basic nutrition. New findings in physiology (or genetics) may change the way we see nutrition, and as a consequence promote a specific food, eating habits, or culinary practices associated with a dimension of health. For example: the discovery of vitamins in 1911, and more specifically the role of vitamin C in human physiology, triggered a national trend towards eating oranges and grapefruits during the 1920's in the United States. Health guru Dr. John Harvey Kellogg claimed that the “arrest of growth” of bottle-fed babies could be overcome by supplementing an infant’s diet with orange juice. As early as 1918, Sunkist launched an advertising campaign based on the slogan “Drink an orange”. The idea of drinking a fruit was revolutionary and “orange juice” owes its birth to the "health benefits" attributed to vitamin C. Oranges were thus sutured to such dietary staples as milk, bacon and eggs, so that everyday consumption of citrus would become as “natural” as eating one’s daily bread. The fruit juice industry was born. More recently, the craze for "pomegranate juice" is due to its "antioxidant power" which has been associated with longevity and anti-aging virtues in human cells.
5Conversely, cuisines as culinary systems are "implicit" nutritive strategies ("functional diets"); cooking traditions and practices have also profound health outcomes on longevity, aging, emotional well-being, obesity, type 2 diabetes (even at the gene expression level ; epigenetics). Therefore, understanding the rules and principles governing a specific culinary system allows to unveil the different "nutritive strategies" at play in a given society.
6Q: How does your research address the current scientific, political and public health challenges of rising obesity rates?
7R.C.D.: My research focuses on the connections that may exist between "culinary cultures" and a specific dimension of health, such as the prevalence of obesity. Each cuisine - seen as a "culinary system" - incorporates and values foodstuffs in a unique and specific fashion. The cultural notion of taste and what I called the "order of flavors" is critical to unveil the internal logic and the principles governing a culinary culture. In French cuisine, for example, one of the principles firmly established since the end of the 17th century is that there is a strict divide between sweet and salty (savory) flavors in recipe formulation. Sweet flavors are reserved for the end of the meal, for dessert or pastry. This is not the case in most cuisines of the world where chefs are able to mix "sweet and sour" or "sweet and salty" flavors in the preparation of a dish.
8In that sense, the adoption of new foodstuffs by a society or a culture is in large part determined by the rules or the "grammar" of each culinary system. This is why, for example, the "sweet potato" never found its way into the repertoire of French cuisine while potatoes became a French staple - even if both tuberous crop arrived in Europe at the same time in the 18th century. The health benefits and the economic value of the "sweet potato" was not enough to overrule the "negative" value of its sweetness in the French culinary system. Even today it's not easy to find sweet potatoes or yams on the shelves of a French supermarket, while they are on display in every grocery in other European countries and the United States.
9The strict division between sweet and salty flavors in French cuisine has deep and actual health consequences. Let me give you two examples. In 2011, I conducted a research on soda consumption in Europe; from the beginning of the study there was a puzzling question: how come has France, by far, the lowest rate of soda consumption per capita in Europe? In 2002, the average soft drink consumption per capita in France was 37 liters per year; it was 126 liters in Ireland, 102 in Belgium, 96 in England, and 216 in the United States. In 2010, the French consumption of sodas was on the rise, but still very low. As a matter of fact, obesity levels in France are some of the lowest in the OECD but have increased steadily over the past decade. What explains the "French soda paradox"? Is it that the French have a particular dislike for sodas?
10The answer is hidden in the "grammar" and norms of the French culinary system: 1) first, the separation between sweet and salty flavors does not "allow" to drink a glass of soda along with a main dish precisely because sodas are associated with sweetness. In France, one doesn't drink a cola with "Bœuf bourguignon" or "Pot au feu". It would spoil the taste ! In culinary terms, you can see sodas as "liquid candies" ; 2) second, in France meal times are strictly (almost religiously) observed ; the national time-use surveys of France and the UK show that on any given day at 12:30 pm, 54 % of the French are eating; a similar peak occurs in the UK, but only 17 % are eating (Saint Pol, 2006). In France, food energy intake occurs mostly during meals, and as a consequence, there are very few "entry points" for soda consumption in the French culinary culture. Thus, once one starts factoring in such considerations, one better understands why soda consumption in France remains at a low.
11But this approach also helps to pinpoint the "soft points" in a given culinary system. For example, in France, one point of entry for sodas during the course of a day is the "goûter": it's a snack that French kids have around 4 o'clock after school; because "goûter" is not a true meal (and is not codified as such), sodas and fruit juices can "sneak in". It's the reason why in 2015, the French parliament passed a bill to ban free-refill of sugary drinks ("soda fountain") in and around schools to combat and prevent childhood obesity. The ban includes beverages containing sweeteners which, I quote: "contribute to the development and maintenance of an appetite for sweet taste". The law states: "Whether they are paid for or not, self-service fountains dispensing drinks with added sugars or artificial sweeteners are banned in all public places or those which are open to the public."
12The second example connects epigenetics, culinary culture, well-being, and health. A recent study conducted at UCLA and the University of North Carolina examined how positive psychology and well-being affects human-gene expression (Fredrickson B. L. et al., 2013). Researchers found that different types of happiness have different effects on the human genome. The study distinguishes two types of well-being: "eudaimonic well-being", the kind of happiness that comes from having a deep sense of purpose and meaning in life ; and "hedonic well-being", happiness that comes from consummatory self-gratification. People with high levels of eudaimonic well-being showed very favorable gene-expression profiles in their immune cells. They have low levels of inflammatory gene expression and strong expression of antiviral and antibody genes. However, people who had relatively high levels of hedonic well-being show just the opposite. What this study tells us is that "doing good" (sharing, giving, helping) and "feeling good" have very different effects on our gene expression and health.
13In terms of eating habits and behaviors, "eudaimonic eating" would mean eating with other people, breaking bread, sharing a meal at the dinner table with family and friends. A sense of togetherness also called "commensality" which means: eating at the same table (mensa) with other people. The terms company and companion literally mean "one who breaks bread with another" from the Latin com- ‘together with’ + panis ‘bread’. Thus, "hedonic eating" would be eating alone, being self-indulgent, consuming foods that are emotionally rewarding or appeasing. This is close to the definition of what Americans called "comfort food": a dish which provides a nostalgic sentimental feeling often associated with the security of childhood. Comfort foods are consumed to relieve negative psychological effects or increase positive feelings. In the United States for example, "Chicken soup" or "Mac and cheese" are iconic comfort foods (Dallman M. F. et al., 2003).
14Within this framework, one can see how eating habits, culinary cultures and health outcomes are intertwined: from table to gene expression. Eating "Mac and cheese" alone watching TV series versus sharing a good table with dear friends may generate the same high level of positive emotion. However, our genomes are responding very differently: similar levels of positive emotion may lead to opposite levels of inflammatory gene expression; somehow our genome "enjoys" more sharing a meal with friends than eating alone! "Apparently, concludes Dr. Cole who conducted the study, the human genome is much more sensitive to different ways of achieving happiness than are (our) conscious minds." The kind of wisdom that French Renaissance philosopher Montaigne uses to convey in his own words: "one must be careful not so much as what one eats but as with whom one eats... There is no dish so sweet to me, and no sauce so appetizing as the pleasure derived from good company."(Montaigne, 1588 : 13).
15Q: Recently, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and venture capital funds have massively invested in Food tech companies. What does that say about the future of food?
16R.C.D.: Food tech, novel food products and disruptive food apps are Silicon Valley's latest target. As Andrew Zimmern, chef and American TV food personality, puts it : « The big investment frontier is now food, and what’s going on out there is revolutionizing what we eat, how we eat and how it gets to us ». In the last three years, Silicon Valley venture capital firms and tech moguls like Sergey Brin of Google and Bill Gates of Microsoft have poured money into Food tech startups. As of February 2015, the top 120 food tech startups received 5.2 billion dollars in seed funding and later stage investments.
17Last October, I was in San Francisco for the first global Food tech reunion: "Bon Appétech", a conference to connect food innovators, food and beverages producers, chefs, entrepreneurs, investors, farmers, and technologists to explore novel ideas and innovative products that "improve the food experience". I met and interviewed different players from the Food tech world as part of my ethnographic research for a book that I am working on, called Food 2.0: How Silicon Valley and California invent tomorrow's foods and cuisine. What struck me is the fact that Food tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists alike tend to see food and food consumption as an engineering problem that can be solved with the "right algorithm". A view that Marc Andreessen, Netscape founder and Silicon Valley guru investor, summarizes in his famous quote: "Software is eating the world". From that perspective, the future of food is about efficiency, quantification, big data and "optimization". This is why dieting is such a prime target in the "food apps" world: Meal Snap for example allows your iPhone camera to scan bar codes and price-shop goods. It computes the calories on your plate as well! Calorie Count (tag line "There's strength in numbers") is another "app" that provides nutritional information on 250,000 food items with the support from a community of 6 million members, all in search of a "healthier lifestyle"...
18But to me, Silicon Valley's vision for the future of food is better embodied by Hampton Creek; a company founded in December 2011 to create new foods from plants, starting with a "vegetable egg". Firm founder Josh Tetrick's idea was to find a set of plants (cereals, grains, pulses) that, when mixed together in the right way, replicate the taste, nutritional values and cooking properties of an egg: "Eggs are functionally incredible, says Tetrick, they do everything from hold oil and water in mayo to making the muffin rise "; "I started to think : what if we can find plants that can do this? We have about 12 plants pre-selected, including a pea already widely grown in Canada. There’s also a bean in South Asia that is incredible in scrambled eggs." To achieve this goal, Hampton Creek hired data scientists to scan billions of proteins from hundreds of thousands of plants to learn what could form the equivalent (the "facsimile") of a chicken egg.
- 1 "From Big Data to Big Bets on Food Science", Wired, April 21, 2015 : [http://www.wired.com/2015/04/ (...)
19In a recent interview for Wired magazine, Dan Zigmond, current strategic advisor at Hampton Creek and former Lead Data scientist at Google and YouTube, communicates his expectations: "Thanks to many of the same software tools and techniques I had access to at Google, we can model the creation of new foods. By expanding this catalog of proteins and folding in data describing how some of them interact, we can predict how others will interact, identify combinations likely to produce enjoyable foods, and pinpoint what will produce the right tastes, textures, and colors... Others have worked for years to create new foods from plants. But with help from the data, we aim to do this in a far more exhaustive way, examining every viable protein combination on Earth"1. A warm "Welcome to the Food Cyberspace" which sounds like a remote echo to Steward Brand's Whole Earth network and its flavors of digital utopianism (Turner, 2006.); a world where one can make food like computer: "personal".
20What is also novel about Hampton Creek is that the company sits at the intersection of machine learning, big data, plant biochemistry, product innovation and food branding, thanks to a proprietary algorithm, the liaison (thickening agent) of their "secret sauce". Hampton Creek's first product launch in September 2013 was an eggless Mayonnaise sauce called "Just Mayo" and promoted as "outrageously delicious, better for your body, for your wallet, and for the planet”. In October 2014, Unilever filed a lawsuit against Hampton Creek for false advertising arguing that Just Mayo cannot be marketed as "Mayonnaise" because it does not meet the definition of the product specified by the FDA which requires that a Mayonnaise contains at least 65% vegetable oil and one egg yolk as ingredients.
21The FDA sent Hampton Creek a formal warning that Just Mayo's labeling was misleading due to the product not meeting the standards for "Mayonnaise", and because the wording on the packaging and promotional materials contained an "implied health claim that these products can reduce the risk of heart disease due to the absence of cholesterol", which cannot be included as it contains too much fat to be promoted with such statements. In December 2015, the FDA informed American consumers that issues have been resolved as Hampton Creek modified its product labeling: Just Mayo will now emphasize the word “just”— not as in “only” but as in “justice, fairness”. The new labeling states: "Just Mayo: What is Just? /just/ - adjective, guided by reason, justice and fairness". Interestingly enough, Just Mayo one of the very first "foodstuff 2.0" owes its place in the Mayonnaise world (subsequently in culinary practices) to the polysemy of the word "just" in the English language. One can wonder if that was part of the algorithm that designed Just Mayo?
22Q: Would you say that we are witnessing the emergence of a new food system? If so, what do you think will be the role of the consumer?
23R.C.D.: It's a broad question! The short answer is yes - today, we see bits and pieces of a new puzzle (that is the "food system") yet to be assembled. One facet that I am working on, is the consumer's standpoint and the fact that food is more and more perceived as information. Today in the United States, more than 60% of the 15-35 year category use the Internet to buy groceries and to find, book and review restaurants. For the first time, teens (particularly high income ones) spent more on food and events than they did on clothing. There are roughly 80 million "Millennials" in America and half of them identify themselves as "foodies". The way they eat and what they eat is critical to their lifestyle; and as consumers, their food choices must be aligned with their personal beliefs. It is no surprise that food ethics, environment and health are now central in our hyper-connected societies which value and promote both "self-consciousness" and the place of the body.
24Happiness, deliciousness and cleanliness are central concepts of this "new food discourse". Health and beauty follow. And themes such as "animal well-being" and vegetarianism have become mainstream and now part of the conversation about the future of food. Some "want to take animals out of the (food) equation" like Josh Tetrick, the CEO of Hampton Creek, who thinks that "the food industry is begging for innovation" but "where animals are involved - it is a broken industry". The garden of Eden is vegan. Adam and Eve lived on fruits. In the Old Testament, the meat diet enters after the Fall and ends with salvation. The prophet Isaiah imagines the New Jerusalem as vegetarian : " The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them"(Isaiah, 11 : 6-9). Man can look a calf in the eye with a clean conscience. In that sense, Hieronymus Bosch's painting The Garden of Earthly Delights (ca.1490) would be a good depiction of this future of food: a paradise where socially engaged beautiful human bodies play joyfully together along with wild and domesticated animals, where delicious oversized fruits, hybrid vegetables and wonderful foodstuffs are produced in abundance, and where clean water runs from a fountain of youth for the delight, beauty and health of mankind on Earth.
25Meanwhile, the future of food is more and more driven by consumers' ethical values and their wallets. Regarding animal well-being, the current "foie gras wars" is a good example of the forces at play in the transformation of the food system. Foie gras has been a celebrated delicacy in French cuisine since the 17th century. Recently, it has become a very controversial topic: activists and political organizations focused on "animal rights" and animal well-being stigmatize foie gras producers, chefs, and consumers for promoting animal cruelty due to foie gras production methods. Short videos and pictures taken in French farms that show ducks in individual cages (called "épinettes") being mecanically force-fed using a pneumatic pump raised public awareness in many European countries and the United States.
26In France, foie gras is a national pride and considered as an "intangible cultural heritage". In 2006, the French parliament officially declared foie gras as "French gastronomic and cultural heritage" ("patrimoine gastronomique et culturel français"), a provision set in the French Rural Code. In a preamble to the law, it is stated that congressmen consider this provision as "our defense strategy of French foie gras production on the national and European Union level". A declaration of war to "Anti-Foie gras" advocacy groups and activists. In 2006, Chicago was the first American city to ban foie gras through legislative means based on moral arguments about animal welfare. Countries like Israel, Poland, Italy, the UK and the state of California (2012) banned foie gras. The French legislation protecting foie gras is described as “gastro-nationalism".
27Consumers, advocacy groups, chefs, the food-processing industry, and traditional farmers have conflicting interests. In parallel, the culinary world tends to equate better animal treatment with better flavor. A free-range chicken from the Gers tastes more "chickeny" than those of big bland supermarket chickens who never had a chance to enjoy daylight. Animal welfare certification and labels flourish in the United States and Europe to ensure the humane treatment of farm animals. Welcome to free range "happy hens" and "pastured chickens"! For geese and foie gras amateurs, the solution may come from Edouardo Sousa, a Spanish farmer from Extremadura, who invented a method to make "ethical foie gras" without force-feeding. Sousa's commitment to ethical farming has been rewarded with both the organic label and the quality seal of Spain's National Association of Ethical Food Producers (ANPAE), guaranteeing the producer's commitment to conservation and animal welfare.
28Q: In your recent article published in the French newspaper Libération (October, 2015), you compare today's exploration and mapping of the microbial world to the 18th century scientific expeditions around the globe lead by major European powers in search for new medicinal and edible plants. Do you think that the discovery of new "good" bacteria, yeasts, or molds will change our food world and our eating habits?
29R.C.D.: The article you mentioned is entitled "Microbes and Bacteria. The Culinary Revolution 2.0". I wrote this piece after seeing an ad on a billboard in Los Angeles for a new beverage, advertised as the drink of the future: "Soylent". As a matter of fact, last June, Rob Rhinehart, 26, software engineer and founder of the startup company Soylent, has been nominated by Inc. Magazine in their 2015 "best and brightest young entrepreneurs" list. Since 2013, his company markets Soylent, a beverage in the form of a powder to be mixed with water, and intended to be a "meal replacement" which would save time and money we spend on meals. When a student at Georgia Tech, Rhinehart began to consider food as an engineering problem, and he used to say: “You need amino acids and lipids, not milk itself”; “You need carbohydrates, not bread”...
30For Rhinehart, food is an inefficient way of getting what we need to survive. "Soylent" evokes the 1973 science-fiction film “Soylent Green”, starring Charlton Heston. The movie is set in a dystopian future where agriculture has almost disappeared and most people live on mysterious wafers (synthetic tablets) called Soylent Green manufactured by a multinational company. A world where eating is about energy intake and "food is fuel": an aseptic world without geography – lifeless.
31On the contrary, the history of food - at least since the Neolithic - is the story of life through the domestication of animals, plants, and yeasts (leavens). Over time, our culinary systems have incorporated the mysterious forces at work in fermentation. It was thought that leaven, once mixed with other (food) substances of a different nature, had the power to convert this substance into its own nature. Fermentation was a mystery, and seen as such by the Church : a particular form of "transubstantiation" similar to the change from bread and wine to body and blood of Christ, by God's power, in the Eucharist. St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1190) the German Benedictine abbess and scholar describes conception by means of the analogy of milk curdling into cheese; in the making of the embryo, semen was acting just as rennet acts upon milk coagulation.
32It's no surprise that during the Middle Ages, most of the cheeses were "invented" under the control of the Church by monks secluded in their abbeys ; it's the case of French cheeses like Pont-l’Evêque, Saint Marcellin, Sassenage, Munster, Port Salut... the list goes on. Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg, brilliantly showed in his book The Cheese and the worms, how in the 16th century, the Catholic Church and the Inquisition ferociously controlled and suppressed folk heretic beliefs and narratives associated with creation, "spontaneous generation" and cheesemaking. In the late 19th century, French biologist Louis Pasteur dusted off those old theological beliefs: lactic fermentation is caused by living micro-organisms. Our culinary cultures and foodstuffs are deeply characterized by all sorts of microbes, yeasts, and "good bacteria": bread, cheese, wine, beer, dosa, kimchi, miso, idli, busa, kombucha ... are literally the milestones of our food geographies.
- 2 http://www.micropia.nl/en/
- 3 "How microbes train our immune system", Nature, 21 September 2011.
33Today, genomics and bioinformatics are changing the Pasteurian cartography; new mappings of the "microbial world" are emerging from surprising habitats and landscapes, such as oil fields, ice caps, and deep sea zones. In September 2014, the first microbial zoo ("Micropia") opened its doors in Amsterdam2 : Farewell lions, giraffes, and elephants! Welcome bacteria, fungi, viruses, micro-algae, aspergillus! We can now explore the life of microbes inside our human bodies to understand how they interact with us. Nearly 9 out of 10 cells in our body are microbial cells. They live in us, they form complex ecosystems, they are involved in protein and vitamin synthesis, and "friendly" microbes train our immune system3. Every day, three pounds of microbes contribute to our digestion and health.
- 4 http://www.earthmicrobiome.org/
34Rob Knight is one of the pioneers in the exploration of the new microbial territories. In his lab in La Jolla (University of California, San Diego) he receives samples of microbes from all over the world: from Archaea found on marine sediments at the bottom of the Pacific, to microbes inhabiting an owl nest in Alaska. The genomes of those "microbial communities" across the globe are sequenced and analyzed as part of a larger scientific endeavor named the "Earth Microbiome Project"4. A "global Gene Atlas" is in progress. New landscapes and new microbial maps of the Earth are drawn; they also serve another research project called the "Human Food Project". The purpose is to understand the co-evolution between men and microbes from a food and nutrition perspective: "good bacteria", "bad microbes" which ones are useful to our health and eating habits? Mapping the microbial diversity of the American Gut is one of the first goals of the Project.
35The "Earth Microbiome Project" is also a global "bio-prospecting" venture, in many ways comparable to the 18th century scientific expeditions around the globe lead by European powers and naturalists in search for new medicinal and edible plants. Stakes were high, both scientific and commercial. Competition amongst Europeans was fierce. In 1753, French naturalist Pierre Poivre stole nutmeg and clove from the Dutch and started their cultivation in his garden in the Mascarene Islands. New plants, spices and foodstuffs were discovered, new trade routes were opened, and new eating habits appeared. At the same period, food utopias emerged such as the "breadfruit", briefly seen as a possible new staple (daily bread) and whole meal replacement which would have saved Europe and the world from hunger.
36Today, the microbial exploration of the world is also a scientific and commercial enterprise. And this story began in Paris in the 1900's when Ilya Mechnikov (1845-1916), a Russian zoologist at the Pasteur Institute studied bacteria from curdling milk ("probiotics") which he thought may contribute to our health and longevity - notably Lactobacilicus bulgaricus, a bacteria found in Bulgarian yogurts. In 1908, Mechnikov was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine. Few years later, Isaac Carasso, inspired by Mechnikov's work on immunology, gut bacteria, and health, founded a small company in Barcelona and later in France, importing "bacterial cultures" from Bulgaria to produce and market yogurts under his company named "Danone".
37The new genetic mappings of "microbial territories", especially our gut microbiome open our culinary imagination and creation. For example: today Californian microbiologists and flavor experts are "inventing" new cheeses from fermented almond milk, while Korean farmers improve soil condition and crop health with Indigenous Microorganism (IMO) – microorganisms that survived and adapted to that local place for generations. The "Food 2.0" revolution is in the making. More than ever, "food is information".