Dark Matter: reflections on Day 2 of a food innovation event | Sumfood

Posted in Consumer, Food Systems, Food Technology, Pescatarian on May 07, 2019

Dark matter – that stuff of sci-fi movies and doomsday cults has a place in the food system, who knew? Starting with a bit of a definition – according to the font of all knowledge, Wikipedia, dark matter is a “hypothetical form of matter that is thought to account for approximately 85% of the matter in the universe and about a quarter of its total energy density”. Phew, that’s a lot of matter.

Does it matter?

But, does it matter with food (excuse that dreadful pun). According to Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, the scientist behind the Barabasi Lab at Northeastern Laboratory in Boston, where networks of all shapes and sizes are studied, it offers considerable opportunity for addressing food related illness (and, conversely, our ability to let our bodies be healed by good food). Of course, it is not simply a matter of a universal ‘good diet’ or eliminating certain foods. It turns out that our responses to food are in part dictated by our genes (thanks Mum) but only to the extent of around 10-20%.

More than red blobs on a map

Barabasi’s presentation was fascinating: posting a map of the US, peppered with red blobs signifying the incidence of coronary heart disease, he went on to explain that the US shares (more or less) a common genetic background (although it would be easy to suggest that US politicians are a different species altogether) but that coronary heart disease was not equally distributed (it is assumed that the statistics controlled for demographic and other contributing variables). The difference was quantified thus: there was a 5-fold difference in chronic heath disease death rates across the US counties, furthermore, there was a vastly different incidence of heart disease among Japanese living in the US versus those living in Japan. So, what could explain this difference? The obvious answer (given this is a food conference) is … food.

We don’t understand food

Ask any chef and they will claim that they know food, ask a nutritionist and you will get a similar answer, but, the reality (according to Barabasi) is that we are only just scratching the surface of understanding how our bodies process and interact with food. In fact, we only track 0.5% of nutrients – more specifically: there are over 28,000 chemical components in food, but we only have knowledge on around 150 nutrients.

Food as an intervention for health outcomes is a growth area and our relationship with food seems to be similar to our relationship with something in the Oort Cloud except that, unlike a hypothetical place where comets are generated, we can see, feel and taste our food. Meaning that as far as dark matter goes, we have the ability to shed light onto the unknown far more easily, if we are motivated to do so. A final example of the gap in our knowledge – there are over 2000 compounds in basil – but only 146 are quantified.

Earth’s final frontier

While space may be ‘the’ final frontier, the oceans are considered earth’s final frontier, which provides a great segue-way into the presentation by Andrew Sharpless from Oceana. Sharpless presented case, after case, after case, of instances where fish stocks had been depleted to the point of catastrophe, only to be rescued by the implementation of policy that has had a profound, positive impact on the amount of available biomass. Sharpless’ argument was compelling – a billion more people could be fed each day from a rebuilt ocean system. What would it take? There were only three actions required: 1) reduce overfishing; 2) curb pollution and 3) improve transparency. Sharpless did not get a standing ovation for his presentation but he should have.

Day two is not yet done and there will be another opportunity to dive into earth’s final frontier later today, but it would seem that conservation and food production can co-exist, as long as there is the correct management and philosophy underpinning it. More later.

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