Archive for the ‘Environment & science’ Category

A Walk Along A Country Lane In North Yorkshire

Tuesday, August 11th, 2015

Last night whilst Sophie was playing tennis with our son, Jamie, I went for a walk along the River Ure with our daughter, Poppy.  It was a beautiful evening with swallows and sand martins out in abundance and only a few others around.  The river flowed sedately past while a father and son fished at one of the fishing piers.  At Boroughbridge lock, a boat was passing through.  But I had forgotten forgot my camera.

So this morning after a bike ride, I retraced some of the walk.

Why?  Because it was amazing to realise within only a couple of miles of walking, we had passed almost all the main types of crops (barley, oats and wheat), as well as cows around and about.  But we never really think about it, because it’s all we’ve ever known.  Then  along the hedgerows, the elders were forming their berries and brambles were developing.

Wheat Field

Wheat Field

Close Up of Wheat

Close Up of Wheat

Barley Field In North Yorkshire

Barley Field In North Yorkshire

Close Up Of Barley

Close Up Of Barley

Field Of Oats

Field Of Oats

Close Up Of Oats

Close Up Of Oats

Potato Field With Cows in Distance

Potato Field With Cows in Distance

Elderberries Beginning To Develop

Elderberries Beginning To Develop

Declining Cork Farms – The Price of Progress?

Friday, July 24th, 2015
Cork Trees

A copse of cork trees in Alentejo

We have just returned from a fortnight in the baking heat of Alentejo.  The temperature ranged around 35oC, reaching 40oC on a couple of melting afternoons.  But the pool was our saviour.

Everywhere we looked there were cork trees, growing individually, in small groups or large plantations.  Their ancient-looking, gnarled branches seemed like witch’s fingers pointing crookedly to the blue skies.

Many of their stems were a deep red-brown colour, similar to the rusty coloured rich Alentejan soils.  This was where they have been skilfully cut to remove the corky layer of bark from their stems.  Harvesting is done every 9-10 years, so it’s roughly 1 in 9 that have this rich brown trunk.

Apparently, half of the world’s corks come from here.  It’s an industry started by Dom Pérignon, the monk Champagne maker, in the seventeenth century.  While Dom Pérignon is famed for wine-making, he also introduced the cork as the stopper of choice instead of wood.

Cork is perfect as it’s inert, sustainable and biodegradable.  It also makes a nice plup sound when pulled out.

Bark growing on cork tree

Bark growing on cork tree

Cork bark

Cork Drying In Yard

But now we replacing these with plastic stoppers or screw caps.  These are promoted because they have no different taste impact versus cork, plus for screw-caps convenience is given as a plus point.

However, I now can’t help feeling this is a mistake.

Cork is sustainable, renewable and biodegradable.  Cork supports unique ecosystems in the Alentejo, as well as supporting a rural economy.

Whereas plastic stoppers are just that plastic.  They are not “green” – neither recyclable nor sustainable nor renewable – and do not help rural economies.  Screw caps are recyclable in theory, but they certainly don’t help the Alentejo.

The consequence is that cork farms are being abandoned or cut down or not replanted after forest fires.

Progress?

I’m going to stop buying plastic tops and screw cap bottles, now.

Cork Trees in Alentejo

Cork Trees in Alentejo

Cinnamongate: is cinnamon safe to eat?

Sunday, July 19th, 2015

We regularly get asked questions about the safety of cinnamon, e.g. “is cinnamon safe to consume?” or “how much coumarin is there in Steenbergs cinnamon?”  There’s a lot of chatter about this issue in webworld and in blogs.

Cinnamon Quills_02

Cinnamon quills packed into boxes from Sri Lanka

Because of these queries, I thought it useful to investigate the situation and find out the levels of coumarin in some Steenbergs’ products.

In summary:

  • Cassia cinnamon and true cinnamon are very different spices but both are generally sold as “cinnamon”
  • Steenbergs labels and sells true cinnamon as “cinnamon” and cassia cinnamon as “cassia”
  • Cassia cinnamon contains high levels of coumarin, but true cinnamon almost no coumarin
  • Coumarin, so cassia cinnamon, should be ingested in limited amounts:

No more than 1 teaspoon of cassia cinnamon per day, based on EU recommendations for Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI) of 0.1 mg of coumarin per kg bodyweight every day

  • Cinnamon (true cinnamon) is safe to eat in terms of coumarin and your health
  • Coumarin may cause liver damage in some susceptible people, but its effects usually appear to be  reversible and so overeating of cassia for short periods does not usually appear to be a problem

If you need further information, you should consult a doctor.  I have taken the data for this blog from official Government sources and current scientific papers, so it is up-to-date as of 19 July 2015.

MORE DETAIL

What is coumarin?
Coumarin is a naturally occurring volatile oil (benzo-α-pyrone), found in many plants, e.g. cassia, cinnamon, tonka beans, vanilla and woodruff.  It gives that pleasing and heady cinnamon aroma – a direct, sweet, fresh hay character.  It was first isolated in tonka beans in the 1820s and took its name from the old botanical name for tonka – Coumarouna which in turn came from the native French Guianan name for the tonka tree, kumarú.

Where is coumarin found?  As mentioned above, it is found in various spices.  However, the most important route of intake is via cassia or cassia cinnamon and this is the cinnamon that the various studies relate to.

This distinction is very important – true cinnamon (Cinnamon verum or Cinnamomum zeylanicum) contains much reduced levels of coumarin.  At Steenbergs, we only sell true cinnamon as cinnamon.  Also, we only use cinnamon as cinnamon in our blends, and if we use cassia it is labelled as cassia not cinnamon.  We do, also, sell cassia cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia, a.k.a. Cinnamomum aromaticus or Cinnamon burmanii), but always label this as cassia and never as cinnamon.

You can tell the difference quite quickly – true cinnamon is a light tan and has a subtle woody aroma like box or sandalwood, with hints of cinnamon and citrus, whereas cassia cinnamon is a darker tan and has a more direct, blunter petrochemical aroma that is strongly “cinnamony” and reminiscent of German Christmas biscuits (Spekulatius or Zimtsterne) and Danish pastries.  As an aside, we are sometimes told Steenbergs cinnamon does not taste like cinnamon, but then find there has been confusion between cassia and cinnamon, because this is the more readily-found form of the spice.

The confusion arises because cassia cinnamon is quite legitimately, also, sold as cinnamon and is the cinnamon used in baking – hence, it’s other name “baker’s cinnamon”.

From a chemical view, cassia and cinnamon are noticeably different.  True cinnamon contains eugenol and benzyl-benzoate and no (or trace) coumarin.  In contrast, cassia cinnamon contains high amounts of coumarin.  Both cassia and cinnamon contain cinnamaldehyde.

In terms of levels of coumarin in powder versus quills, cassia quills have coumarin levels 75% lower than the powder.  For true cinnamon, quills have higher coumarin levels than powder, but both are still low.

Why is coumarin a concern? In high doses, coumarin can cause liver damage in small group of sensitive individuals.  However, only some individuals are susceptible to liver issues from coumarin, and those individuals would need to exceed the TDI for more than two weeks before liver issues might arise, then if they do occur the toxicity is reversible.  Maximum daily limits of coumarin have been set in the EU.

This issue originally arose with a report on cassia cinnamon in 2006 by the Bundesinstitut für Risikobewertung (“BfR”), the scientific agency charged with providing scientific evidence for consumer health protection in Germany.  This showed that consumption of foods containing cassia cinnamon can result in the TDI of coumarin being exceeded, because of the high levels of cassia cinnamon used in some recipes.  Consequently, there has been a knock-on impact for bakers of traditional European bakery goods, e.g. cinnamon rolls (Danish pastries/kanelsnegle) and cinnamon Christmas cookies (Zimtsterne) within Europe, and people who use cinnamon to reduce their sugar intake by sprinkling it onto their cereal.

EC Regulation 1334/2008 gives the following limits for coumarin, which specifically excludes spices and mixes of spices, herbs, teas and infusions:

Table 1: Limits for coumarin in particular food categories per EC Regulation 1334/2008


Compound food in which substance is restricted

Maximum level
mg/kg

Traditional and/or seasonal bakery ware containing a reference to cinnamon in the labelling

50

Breakfast cereals including muesli

20

Fine bakery ware, with the exception of traditional and seasonal bakery ware (above)

15

Desserts

5

The best technical information available is found at the BfR’s website.  There is an excellent FAQ that covers pretty much everything you need to know: http://www.bfr.bund.de/cm/349/faq-on-coumarin-in-cinnamon-and-other-foods.pdf, and their latest opinion includes the following on consumption of spices (see http://www.bfr.bund.de/cm/349/new-insights-into-coumarin-contained-in-cinnamon.pdf dated 2012)[1]:

“For cinnamon sticks and cinnamon powder as a spice for household use, no limit values have been defined, however.  If an average coumarin content in cassia cinnamon of 3000mg per kilogram of cinnamon is assumed, the TDI value can be exceeded by consumers who eat a great deal of cassia cinnamon.  For an adult with a body weight of 60kg, the TDI value is reached, if 2g of cassia cinnamon are consumed per day.  For an infant with a body weight of 15kg, this is the case if 0.5g of cassia cinnamon are consumed per day.  Overall exposure can be increased by other sources, for example coumarin-containing cosmetics.  Consumers who frequently and regularly eat cinnamon-containing foods should be aware of this.  The BfR still recommends that cassia cinnamon is consumed in moderation.  Consumers frequently using large quantities of cinnamon as a condiment should therefore opt for the low-coumarin Ceylon cinnamon.”

How much coumarin is there in Steenbergs spice products?  We have had some of our relevant spices tested for coumarin levels by Eurofins Analtytik GmbH, using high performance liquid chromatography.  The results are shown in the table below, together with results from peer-reviewed scientific papers.

Table 2: Coumarin content of cassia cinnamon, true cinnamon and spice blends


Name

Other names

Origin

Coumarin
mg kg-1

Coumarin
%

Cassia Baker’s cinnamon Vietnam

 2 900

0.3 

Cassia [2] Baker’s cinnamon, Chinese cinnamon, bastard cinnamon

4 167

0.4

Cassia [3] Indonesia, Vietnam

3 856

0.4

Cassia [4] Indonesia, Vietnam

2 239

0.2

Cassia [5] China, Indonesia, Vietnam

3 016

0.3

Cassia [6]

3 250

0.3

Cassia [7] Indonesia

4 020

0.4

Cinnamon True cinnamon Sri Lanka

 31

– 

Cinnamon [2] True cinnamon, Ceylon cinnamon Sri Lanka

68

Cinnamon [3] Sri Lanka

nd

Cinnamon [4] Sri Lanka

25

Cinnamon [5] Sri Lanka

nd

Cinnamon [6]

44

Cinnamon [7] Sri Lanka

64

Mixed spice   UK

 670

 0.1

Fairtrade mixed spice   UK

 22

 –

Pumpkin pie   UK

 22

 –

Tonka beans   Brazil

 52 000

 5.2

In conclusion, cassia cinnamon has coumarin levels of 2239 – 4167 mg kg-1, almost 100 times greater than levels in true cinnamon with the range of 0 – 68 mg kg-1.  Steenbergs spice mixes have low coumarin levels at 22 – 670 mg kg-1.  where one of the blends included about one-quarter cassia cinnamon.  In contrast, tonka beans have very high levels of coumarin of 52000 mg kg-1.

What does this mean in relation to safety to eat?  The BfR has issued guidance on the TDI that a person can eat daily over a lifetime without appreciable health risk and this includes those sensitive to liver damage from coumarin[1].  The TDI is 0.1 mg of coumarin per kg bodyweight every day.  An adult of 60-70 kg (9½-11 stone) can, therefore, eat 6-7 mg of coumarin per day safely for the rest of their life.  Further, for a 20-30 kg (3-5 stone) child, the limit is 2-3 mg coumarin.  The European Food Safety Authority has calculated the same levels [8].  Even if this value is exceeded for a short while, this does not appear to pose any health risks per BfR and EFSA.

Translating this into teaspoons, an adult should not consume more than ½-1 teaspoon of cassia cinnamon a day and a child no more than ¼-½ teaspoon of cassia a day.

Another way of thinking about it is that an adult can eat 68-120g of cassia cinnamon biscuits a day (10-24 biscuits) and children 17-30g of cassia cinnamon biscuits a day (4-6 biscuits)[1][5].  For cinnamon Danishes or buns, this is roughly 4 for adults and 1 for children per day.

These levels are relevant through time, so a child who eats his/her coumarin limit twice in a week only reaches 29% of his/her TDI (assuming no other cassia cinnamon is ingested).

In contrast, an adult can consume 55-104 teaspoons of true cinnamon and children 24-45 teaspoons.  Therefore, the levels of consumption for true cinnamon are effectively unlimited in terms of coumarin.

What can bakers do about this?  Ideally, you should get your cassia’s coumarin content tested and determine the final coumarin content of your bakery products.  Also, whenever food authorities have tested for coumarin, quite a number of products seem to exceed the legal limits – probably because people are unaware of the regulations.

However, we have created a practical guide as below.  If we assume the safe limits for coumarin consumption are those listed in the EC Regulation EC 1334/2008, then maximum levels for use of cassia and true cinnamon can be calculated and practical limits determined for bakers and other manufacturers.

Table 3: Practical guide for maximum levels of cassia cinnamon or true cinnamon to meet EC regulations on coumarin for specific food categories


Food category

Max level of coumarin
mg/kg

Max level of cassia(i)
mg/kg

Approximate teaspoons of cassia per kg(ii)

Max level of true cinnamon(i)
mg/kg

Approximate tsp cinnamon per kg(ii)

Traditional and/or seasonal bakery

50

7.9

797.4

399

Breakfast cereals

20

3.2

1

319.0

159

Fine bakery ware

15

2.4

¾

239.2

120

Desserts

5

0.8

¼

79.7

40

Notes:
(i) Maximum levels have been determined as the average coumarin content plus 2.58 x standard deviation; this means maximum amounts will not exceed coumarin content in 99% of cases.
(ii) Based on level teaspoons for cassia of 2.8g and cinnamon 2.0g.

References

[1] BfR (2012), New insights into coumarin contained in cinnamon, BfR opinion No. 036/2012, 27 September 2012, Berlin, Germany (Accessed 12/5/2015)
[2] BfR (2006) Consumers, who eat a lot of cinnamon, currently have an overly high exposure to coumarin, BfR Health Assessment No. 043/2006, 16 June 2006, Berlin, Germany (Accessed 12/5/2015)
[3] Blahová, J., Svobodová, Z. (2012) Assessment of coumarin levels in ground cinnamon available in the Czech retail market, The Scientific World Journal, 2012: 2863851, 4 pp, Available online at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3385612/ (Accessed 12/5/2015)
[4] Lungarini, S., Aurelia, F., Coni , E. (2008) Coumarin and cinnamaldehyde in cinnamon marketed in Italy: A natural chemical hazard? Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A, Volume 25, Issue 11, 31 October 2008, 1297-1305, Available online but not free (Accessed 12/5/2015)
[5] Sproll, C., Ruge, W., Andlauer, C., Godelmann, R., Lachenmeier, D. W. (2008) HPLC analysis and safety assessment of coumarin in foods, Food Chemistry 109, 462-469, 27 December 2007 (Accessed 12/5/2015)
[6] VKM (2010) Risk assessment of courmarin intake in the Norwegian population – opinion of the panel on food additives, flavourings, processing aids, materials in contact with food and cosmetics of the Norwegian scientific committee for food safety (Rep. No. 09/405-2 final), Norwegian Scientific Committee for Food Safety, 12 October 2010, Oslo, Norway, Available online at http://www.vkm.no/dav/271c242c20.pdf (Accessed 12/5/2015)
[7] Woehrlin, F., Fry, H., Abraham, K., Preiss-Weigert, A. (2010) Quantification of flavoring constituents in cinnamon: high variation of coumarin in cassia cark from the German retail market and in authentic samples from Indonesia, Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry, 2010, 58 (19), pp 10568–10575, Available online (but not free) at http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/jf102112p (Accessed 12/5/2015)
[8} efsa (2008) Coumarin in flavourings and other food ingredients with flavouring properties, Scientific Opinion of the Panel on Food Additives, Flavourings, Processing Aids and Materials in Contact with Food (AFC), The EFSA Journal (2008) 793, 1-15, 8 July 2008, Available online at http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/scdocs/doc/793.pdf (Accessed 12/5/2015)

What is Steenbergs’ carbon footprint?

Friday, June 5th, 2015

We seek to offset our carbon footprint so it is pretty small.

For 2014, Steenbergs has purchased carbon offsets for 72 tonnes of carbon dioxide (i), up from 17 tonnes in 2013.  This has increased, because we are now retiring even more of the greenhouse gases from our business.  This is in addition to using solar energy for 45% of our electricity usage and recycling as much of our waste as possible.

In previous footprints, we included direct greenhouse gases from energy consumed and business travel, together with those from the transport of goods to and from Steenbergs (ii).  In effect, this is the climate change impact resulting from what we do.

We actually reduced this direct carbon footprint by 25% between 2013 and 2014, down from 17 to 13 tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2014.

However, in looking more closely at our products’ lifecycle from farm-to-landfill, we were excluding virtual carbon embedded within our packaging and ingredients.  So that’s the greenhouse gases arising from farming and the manufacture of glass jars, steel lids and tins, together with impacts resulting from the disposal or recycling of packaging by our customers.  But this embedded carbon (or traded carbon) should be brought into consideration, or an oil trader becomes very green when you ignore the oil (iii).

This would be fine if our suppliers offset their climate costs, but they don’t.

82% of the carbon footprint in Steenbergs’ products is indirect:

Breakdown of carbon impact from Steenbergs in 2014

Breakdown of carbon impact from Steenbergs in 2014

42 tonnes of carbon dioxide relates to packaging, compared to the 13 tonnes from our business.

As for farming, we had naively assumed that its carbon costs are analogous to the carbon captured in the plants themselves.  Mike Berners-Lee in How bad are bananas? gives zero as the carbon footprint of an apple plucked from a tree in your garden.

Initial research gives the impact may be 0.87 kg CO2 per kg of spices; this compares to 12kg and 19 kg CO2 per kg of beef and lamb.  Farming might add another 17 tonnes carbon dioxide (iv).  Because this relates to what we sell, we will need to dig deeper.

But using this, Steenbergs’ total footprint over the lifecycle of its products is 72 tonnes carbon dioxide every year, or 6 families’ worth of carbon.  This has been offset through ClimateCare, which neatly uses projects such as its LifeStraw project that combine Steenbergs’ concern for water with issues of climate change.

Putting this into context, spices and herbs contribute a tiny proportion of the carbon footprint of a meal.

For example, the spices in rogan josh are 0.1% of the total footprint versus 89% for the lamb, or 0.5% in tandoori chicken compared to 85% for the poultry.  The herbs in spaghetti bolognaise are less than 0.01% of its total carbon footprint.  And last month we calculated the carbon footprints of your cup of tea, coffee and hot chocolate.

Notes

(i)    For ease, carbon dioxide is lazily used for carbon dioxide equivalent, so it includes carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide gases.

(ii)   Steenbergs direct carbon footprint includes: electricity, business travel, water supply and sewerage, trade waste and recycled waste.  Steenbergs indirect carbon footprint comprises: freight for raw materials and packaging into Steenbergs and distribution of packed goods to our trade and consumer customers.

(iii)  See: Roger Harrabin (2015) CO2 cuts claims challenged by experts, BBC News, 19 March 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-31952888; or John Barrett , Glen Peters , Thomas Wiedmann , Kate Scott , Manfred Lenzen , Katy Roelich & Corinne Le Quéré (2013) Consumption-based GHG emission accounting: a UK case study, Climate Policy, 13:4, 451-470, DOI: 10.1080/14693062.2013.788858

(iv)   I am unclear whether these figures are for the lifecycle of spices and/or include carbon captured in the plants themselves.  47.5% of carbon is locked in plant material, equivalent to 1.7kg CO2 per kilo.  So I am confused…

What’s the carbon footprint of your cuppa?

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015

It depends is perhaps the best answer.

It depends on what you drink and also on how you treat changes in land use.

For tea, the carbon footprint is 87 g CO2 for a mug of Steenbergs black tea taken with milk.

This includes the carbon footprint of brewed tea is 48 g CO2 for black tea, plus also probably for white, green and herbal teas.  But to this, we need to add another 39 g CO2 for any milk added, if (as most Brits do) your tea is made with milk.

If you use teabags, an extra 4 g CO2 is added, or 5% to the carbon footprint.

This compares with 129 g CO2 for a coffee.  About 60% of this comes from the coffee itself and the remainder from the milk.  For milkier coffees like a cappuccino or latte, the carbon footprint is much larger at 222 g CO2 and 318 g CO2, because more milk is used.

Hot chocolate have the biggest footprint with its major cost again the milk.  If you include land use changes for the cocoa, this becomes even larger with the cost of the mix doubling to 43 g CO2 per mug from 21 g CO2.

Carbon in hot beverages

Carbon footprint of hot drinks

What does this tell us?

We can all reduce our carbon footprints by drinking less milk.  We can have lighter teas drunk without milk, and cut back on large lattes and hot chocolates. White and green teas, Darjeeling or China teas and herbal infusions are other tasty possibilities.

Then, drink loose leaf infusions rather than teabags as this extra packaging ups your CO2.

Notes

Carbon dioxide is lazily used here to mean carbon dioxide equivalent, i.e. it includes carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide gases.

These are comparable to figures in Mike Berners-Lee’s book “How bad are bananas?: tea with milk 71 g CO2, tea without milk 21 g CO2, milky coffee 71 g CO2, cappuccino 235 g CO2 and a large latte 340 g CO2.  His book did not have figures for hot chocolate, or at least I couldn’t find any.

How much water is needed for a mug of coffee or tea?

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

The simple answer is not much – about 225ml.

But look deeper and we need to consider the rainwater needed to grow the coffee beans and tea leaves, plus the water used to process these and make any packaging.

Over the last few years, we have been looking at the environmental costs within Steenbergs products.  We have looked at our carbon footprint, possible pollution from cleaning chemicals and our recycling rates.

Our main finding has been that over the lifecycle of Steenbergs’ products the biggest environmental burden by far is the virtual water (i) to grow Steenbergs’ herbs, spices and teas and which is then transferred when these move from India or Sri Lanka to the UK.

In money terms, the environmental costs of water usage are 2½ times larger than our carbon footprint.  It’s about 138 million litres, roughly 55 Olympic swimming pools.

Furthermore, this virtual water dwarfs the actual water used to make a mug of coffee or tea – the 225ml we glibly used for our initial answer.

The virtual water in a mug of coffee or tea is 635 times and 151 times the actual water used to make your drink.

So 143 litres of virtual water are needed to grow your morning coffee, but only 0.2 litre of water is needed to make it.  In contrast, the virtual water for tea is 34 litres, one quarter of the water consumed in a coffee.

If you include the virtual water in milk, this bumps up the figures to a hefty 169 litres of water needed for a mug of coffee and 60 litres for a mug of tea.

For a hot chocolate, it’s even higher.  415 litres of water, mainly rainwater, are needed for each hot chocolate.  That’s a whopping 2048 times more water than your mug holds.

For cappuccinos and lattes, more coffee is used in making the espresso and quite a lot of milk is then added.  This ups the virtual water content to 340 litres for a cappuccino and 381 litres of your latte.

So next time you have a drink, pause for a moment to think about the massive amounts of rainwater that were needed for your small cuppa.

Graph that shows breakdown of water between blue and virtual water in hot beverages

Breakdown of total water in hot beverages

Notes:

(i) Virtual water is “the volume of water that is required to produce the product.”

(ii) Water footprint calculations:

water table

(iii) In our calculations, we have drawn heavily on the pioneering work of Chapagain and Hoekstra of the University of Twente (Netherlands):

Chapagain, A.K., Hoekstra, A.Y. (2004) Water footprints of nations, Volume 2: appendices, UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education, Research Report Series No. 16, November 2004

Chapagain, A.K., Hoekstra, A.Y. (2007) The water footprint of coffee and tea consumption in the Netherlands, Ecological Economics, 66: 109-118

Jefferies, D., Muñoz, I., Hodges, J., King, V. J., Aldaya, M., Ercin, A. E., Milà i Canals, L., Hoekstra, A. Y. (2012) Water footprint and life cycle assessment as approaches to asses potential impacts of products on water consumption.  Key learning points from pilot studies on tea and margarine, Journal of Cleaner Production, 33: 155-166

Time Please

Saturday, December 31st, 2011

For those who have suffered my thoughts on time before, you will know that time is something that concerns my little brain. In fact, what exactly time is has concerned much brainer people than me. And perhaps reconciling time with the two main paradigms in theoretical physics is key, for in the Einsteinean world time merges into space-time and is relative and has no standalone life, while in the standard model of the quantum world, time is fundamental to the theory. So in one, there is no “real” time while in the other there is. This anomaly needs mediating.

Anyway, what I have been pondering on for some months this year is a thought experiment: take an electron now, then consider where it is in the future, but also where it was in the past.

Now, in the quantum world, we do not know where that electron is in the future. In fact, it is everywhere in the universe, but that smearing of the electron throughout the universe collapses down to a point roughly where it was now at that point a nanosecond in the future. That is pretty much understood since Bohr proposed it in the early 20th century and then others like Heisenberg, for example, expanded these ideas further with his uncertainty principle and Feynman later with his diagrams. However much we do not like it, this idea works and has been tested by loads of scientists and shown to work.

But what perplexed me more was no-one ever mentions the past. If we take that electron and move backwards in time, do we know where it was?

At first, I decided that the inherent uncertainty worked both ways, so we could only be certain of a point in time now, but, because we had not measured (or observed) the electron in the nanosecond beforehand or a minute or year previous, then its past would also be uncertain and it would exist throughout the universe. So in this concept, the present is a unique point in time with uncertain existence on either side, and you can only be certain about that which you have measured and so brought into existence.

But I am not so sure now and think this idea is wrong. I now believe that the past is very different from the future.

Even if we have not measured or observed a particle in the past, its position/existence/velocity etc are effectively known (or at least knowable) and so the past is not uncertain in a theoretical sense, even if we do not actually have the evidence or answers or data measured.

But so what?

Well, it would mean that the past is fundamentally different from the future. For example, in the past, the world would be deterministic, so a particle has definite momentum and position at any point in time. In this classical Newtonian world, cause leads to effect. In other words, this is the world and universe of our experience, and does fit with our understanding of how the world seems to us to work. However, the future is more mysterious and a particle does not exist until it is measured, while between measurements such a particle does not exist anywhere specific but everywhere in the universe. This world is one of probabilities and possibilities, where cause does not lead necessarily to effect but to a whole array of different probabilities of outcomes.

So when it is said that an electron is a wave or a particle, is the difference in result how you are measuring it, i.e. when you are measuring in time rather than what you are observing? This is close to the Copenhagen Interpretation which effectively said energy quanta were a particle or wave, but not both, and what it was depends on how you set up your experiment. However, it gives no interpretation of why the how of setting up an experiment changes the answer. My suggestion is that it depends on what time-frame you are looking at.

As I have argued before scientists are very focused on “what” they are looking at and “how” they are observing, but perhaps not “when” they are looking at, yet Einstein was very interested in what time really is. For me, the present is a strange chimeral zone that is not quite the past nor the same as the future and is full of kooky mystery, and this is the strangeness that quantum physicists are looking at.

What Is Not?

Saturday, December 31st, 2011

E = mc2 (and so m=E/c2) is the iconic scientific equation. But what happens if you put E = 0, or m = 0, into the equations. In the first, the answer becomes E = 0 and also in the second m = 0. In other words, if there is no mass, there is no energy and vice versa. We are bounded by this idea that matter and mass are just parts of the same thing.

However, is this everything? I wonder whether the equation explains reality and so is complete, or rather whether it indicates the edges of our perception and so what can be observed, experimented on and experienced. It precludes objects that are mass without energy or energy without mass, things that are not both particle and wave. But why cannot there be particles that are particles but not waves, and waves that are just that: waves? The retort is simply that is the way it is, so shut up, deal with it and calculate, because it works. It does actually work.

But still I wonder whether this equation only explains what we can see, and whether there is more out there that we cannot? Are we created to experience only those things with wave-particle duality and mass-energy equivalence, and to be incapable of experiencing those things that are simply not paired up? In physics, for some bizarre reason, everything seems to need a pair, or a partner. But even if this reality is correct, it only explains the 20% (or less) that we can see and observe, but ignores the balance that we cannot see: the dark side, which just like the dark ages of medieval history means the stuff we do not comprehend because we do not have the data.

Perhaps we must accept that our universe is a limited and bounded experience that can only be perceived as things defined by the equations of theoretical physics. However, this feels just so limiting. I cannot believe that more is not possible, and that there is not a reality that exists without us, some equations and maths.

So ask what and where is the energy and matter we cannot define, i.e. dark energy and dark matter? Why can a wave and a particle not separate themselves?  Why cannot there be energy-less matter and vice versa? Why cannot two bodies of mass interact with each other faster than the speed of light? Why don’t planets and stars influence us on earth in real-time instantaneously rather than in astronomical time? And so on…

The Better Supermarket Beefs In The UK – More Thoughts On Burger Making

Friday, July 22nd, 2011

For the supermarkets, I have reviewed their offerings (see below) and made an initial selection of meats, going for beef from Booths, Sainsbury’sTesco and Waitrose

Next, we needed to make some burgers from these suppliers, so I chose the following: from Booths, chuck and rib eye steaks; from Sainsbury’s, rib eye steak and braising steak; from Tesco, rib eye steak and casserole steak; and from Waitrose, rib eye steak and braising steak.  To these, I then made simple burgers following my core recipe from my blog earlier in July 2011 without the onions to let the meat speak for itself.  The meats were ground through a 4½mm mincer and shaped using the Italian burger press from Weschenfelder. 

Tasting Beefburgers Made From Supermarkets' Steak

Tasting Beefburgers Made From Supermarkets' Steak

They were lightly fried in deodourised sunflower oil then tasted with fork & knife rather than in bread rolls.  We tasted them en famille so the results are across ages and sexes and the ranking was Booths and Waitrose first equal then Sainbsury’s and last Tesco.  However, it is important to state that Booths, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose were clearly good with Tesco’s quality lagging a long way behind.

As for Booth’s and Waitrose, the differences were that Booths had the best general flavour and mouthfeel, while Waitrose had a deeper, richer flavour.  I reckon this was because the Waitrose meat was hung for longer and so had more beefiness coming through whereas for Booth’s I was able to get exactly the cuts that I desired, so perhaps the ideal is as I argued in my previous blogs for a 1:1 mix of chuck and rib eye that has been matured for 21 – 28 days rather than a relatively quick 14 days as was the case for Booths.

As an aside, we also taste tested Sainsbury’s versus Waitrose dry aged sirloin and the Sainsbury’s beef was a clear winner, so it is not a case of Booths & Waitrose being clear winners across the board nor was the older beef the better as Sainsbury’s was 21 day and Waitrose 28 day aged.

Review of supermarket beef

At Asda, the choice of beef was from British or Irish meat with most coming from Ireland.  Mince was Irish beef and £6.08 for 1kg (in 500g amounts) or 2 for £5, braising steak was £8.75/kg and rump steak £7.00/kg (currently down from £11.48/kg) and from Ireland.  In ribeye steak there was the biggest choice – organic (£16.99/kg), Irish 14 day matured (£14.49/kg), British (£15.00/kg) or Yorkshire Dales steak (£21.94/kg).  Overall, I was impressed that they had Yorkshire sourced beef and some organic, but too much was from Ireland rather than Britain and very little provenance was given.

At Booths, they have a good minced steak at £4.00 for 700g which is very good value compared to Morrisons in spite of Morrisons claiming to be the value store and Booths having the reputation for being expensive.  They have a much smaller selection than the big highstreet multiples but the quality is much better, and I went for a mix of traditional chuck steak (£8.00/kg) and rib eye steak (£20.00/kg) with marbling a little light at around 10%, but I compensated with some beef fat that I took off another sirloin steak.  The beef at the butcher’s counter is hung for 21 days, but the instore staff did not know whether the steaks in the chillers were the same age, but presumed they could be.  If you go to one of their stores, try and get their 28 days National Trust beef, which often comes from Fountains Abbey for the Ripon store – it is just amazing kit and the best beef in any supermarket but that is for another blog.

At Morrisons, you can get either minced beef or steak, where I suggest that minced steak at £5.56/kg for 720g is a good bet or for the Butcher’s Mince at £6.99/kg.  Alternatively, you could buy from the Family Butcher rib eye steak (£14.49/kg) and braising steak (£7.99/kg) then cube them both up and grind them at home.  We tried their The Best Scotch Beef Quarter Pounder Burgers and they were tough, rubbery and full of gristle, plus lots of liquid came out during the cooking process, which left me feeling mighty suspicious.  Anyway one of the key reasons to make you own burgers is to look at the ingredients: beef (86%), breadcrumbs, beef fat, roasted onions, seasoning, then the horrors of sodium metabisulphite (horrible stuff!), sodium ascorbate and trisodium citrate.  Note that all supermarkets use heavy preservatives as they need to maximise the length in store to minimise wastage, so all superamrkets use these nasty chemicals.

For Sainsbury’s, there was beef mince (£4.40/kg), braising steak (£8.75/kg), Taste the Difference rump steak (£13.99/kg), sirloin (standard = £19.99/kg; 21 day dry aged Taste the Difference = £21.99/kg), rib eye steak in various guises – scotch beef (£16.30/kg); North Highland rib eye (£20.40/kg) and 21 day dry aged Taste the Difference (£23.99/kg).

At Tesco, there was steak mince (£5.74/kg) or organic beef mince (£5.75/kg)casserole steak from Britain or Ireland (£8.00/kg or £9.00/kg at the butcher’s counter even though it looked the same style of beef), rump steak (£11.79/kg for standard and £13.49/kg for Tesco Finest), sirloin (standard = £15.97/kg; Tesco Finest = £15.99/kg; organic sirloin £17.99/kg), rib eye steak in various guises – standard beef (£14.49/kg)Tesco Finest (£13.00/kg – should be £15.99/kg per www.tesco.com but was mispriced in store at £13.00/kg so I got a bargain) and organic rib eye (£16.00/kg).

At Waitrose, there was beef mince from Aberdeen Angus cattle in 10% fat and 20% fat forms, with the 20% being £6.58/kg and the most appropriate for making burgers; there is a beef mince that is organic at £13.16/kg for their Duchy Original brand.  There is an organic rump steak from Duchy Originals (£16.49/kg) and sirloin (£21.99/kg).  Non-organic beefs are Hereford diced braising steak (£10.47/kg), 14 days aged sirloin (£23.99/kg) and rib eye steak (£26.99/kg),  plus 28 day dry aged Aberdeen Angus beef from the butcher’s counter – sirloin (£25.99/kg) and rib eye steak (£26.99/kg).  The butcher at the counter in Harrogate was really helpful and the best of all the supermarkets for knowledge and courtesy.

I make no warranties or claims on pricing or availability in store.  They are provided as guides, but as I visited the supermarkets at different times and in different places, these could have gone up or down or done some somersaults while some products may even have been delisted.  Booths prices at 28/6/2011; Morrisons prices at 26/6/2011; on 1 July 2011, I got prices for Asda, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose.  I went to Harrogate for Asda, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose; Ripon for Booths; Morrisons in Boroughbridge; and Tesco in Thirsk.

Weird Science As Explained To Emmy The Dog

Sunday, March 27th, 2011

I have been reading “How to Teach Quantum Physics to your Dog” by Chad Orzel, because I love reading about quantum physics, relativity and the creation of universe, partly as I am a geek and also as I do not understand what is going on at all and reckon that sooner or later I will get there and I will have a Eureka moment.  This book is really quite light hearted, yet tackles many of the core underlying themes in modern physics, e.g. wave particle duality, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Schrödinger’s Cat and the Quantum-Zeno Effect.  It is built off the back of his amazing blog – http://scienceblogs.com/principles/.

So while Chad was banging on about Heisenberg, he wrote:

“You can make the momentum change smaller by increasing the wavelength of the light (decreasing the momentum that the photon has available to give to the electron), but when you increase the wavelength, you decrease the resolution of the microscope, and lose information about the position.  If you want to know the position well, you need to use light with a short wavelength, which has a lot of momentum, and changes the electron’s momentum by a large amount.  You can’t determine the position precisely without losing information about the momentum, and vice versa.” [p48 from Chad Orzel’s book]

It was then that I had one of those small moments of understanding where I felt that physics teachers have been deliberately misleading me, obfuscating and confusing me and making it all seem harder than it really is: wave-particle duality does not mean that light, matter etc is two things at once, which is how they explain it.  Rather this idea of duality is simply artifice to explain light’s properties mathematically and physically, i.e. a model to explain the behaviour of things in the universe.  Light is light, matter is matter, the lamp post outside my window is a real physical object and the sycamore on the green lives and so on.  However, the physics and so maths needed to explain the properties of these objects and how electrons and light work needs more than one theme to get it all sorted out.  So measurable stuff comprises a physical form (the particle bit) and energy (the wave bit), and we need both bits to sense things.  By the way, both of these are relative to other things, so it is really relative physicality and relative energy, hence I cannot feel something that is too small for me to sense.

This raises an interesting thought, being what happens if you have energyless particles and particleless energy.  Now modern physics says that even the lowest energy particles have velocity and so you cannot get a no-energy state.  But what if you can decouple energy and physicality?  If you could get these “things”, then you would not be able to measure them and so they become voids or “dark”.  Is this what dark energy and dark matter are? Formless energy and energyless form.  Humanity is not coded to be able to sense these, or even really to understand such things.  But what happens if that is what these missing bits are, i.e. 23% for dark matter and a whopping 72% for dark energy of mass-density of universe? Could you actually measure them rather than infer them – the only way to measure these two missing parts of the universe would be to give them back what they have lost, i.e. give energy to dark matter and form to dark energy, but would that actually be possible, or even for that matter a good thing.

Thinking about it why shouldn’t there be energy without a physical side and matter without an energy side.  Yes that’s not what we see/measure, but these are things you cannot measure or see, so why not?  In fact, it makes physical things more unique and basically says that there is something special about “normal” matter and energy as these are things where matter and energy are linked together rather than separated.  It is quite easy to envisage energy without shape as that is simply energy, i.e. just a wave and no particle bit, however how do you have matter that you cannot see as wouldn’t we just bump into it as we try and measure things.  Perhaps dark matter is shape than has folded in on itself until it is so infinitesimally small that you just cannot measure it and that there is something about adding energy that enables pre-matter to unfold and become detectable.  But now I am really lost in my own explanation.

Another thing that Chad Orzel writes about is why quantum mechanics does not work in the real world very often and that systems collapse into old-fashioned Newtonian mechanics.  This is one of the reasons most of us simple punters find quantum physics so complex as it does not marry up with our experience of the physical world, even if the maths works and so has allowed loads of new discoveries.  The theories, or philosophies, as to how the quantum world collapses when things are measured/observed includes theories like the Copenhagen Interpretation, Everett’s Many Worlds Ideas and Feynman’s Shut Up and Calculate Concept [actually not Feynman but David Mermin, but he’s way less iconic].

I feel all these are too complex and perhaps too overthought and overwrought, i.e. everyone is simply trying to hard.  I think it is really just a matter of scale, so quantum theory works fine at a small level where there are very few components to a system.  However, as you scale up, you just need a new way of looking at things.  Nothing has changed with quantum physics as it still works at a micro level, but it just does not work on larger scales.  Different things need different ways of looking at it.

However, should you still want a mechanism for why it changes, here goes.  Everything can be described by a wave pattern using Schrödinger’s rules.  These are all different shapes and sizes, but everything big and everything small has a wave that describes them.  At a small scale where there are not many things about and the gaps between everything are relatively large, these waves have the space to take shape and grow to their full size, hence the properties of that wave become paramount in their behaviour.  So at this small scale and with little noise from other stuff kicking about, quantum physics and all those ideas work.  However, as you scale up, other waves start getting in the way, interfering with each other, changing the shapes of the waves, filling up the space with other waves and so preventing them fully expressing themselves.  In effect, quantum waves interfere with other quantum waves and they reduce their influence on their behaviour, so their impacts are nullified.  This means mathematically, there will be a point at which simply adding together quantum waves will cancel their individual effects and there will be no more measurable individual quantum effects anymore and classical mechanics takes centre stage.  I call this idea entanglement.

Size matters.  QED.

By the way, this means there are no parallel universes going on right now, ones where I am rich and famous or am the world’s greatest painter, and much of science fiction is well science fiction.  Sorry about that.

But it does mean that the sycamore tree on the green can exist even if no-one ever has observed it or a falling tree actually fall if not observed, because as all the individual waves of each particle entangle and interfere with each other they create existence, fixing things into space and time.  This philosophy and physics problem can be seen in works by George Berkeley or in physics forums, where a load of strange and complex answers are given.  Pragmatism should always rule over philosophy, as many things just are without being measured or proved; whether you can explain it is a different matter, but that does not stop it being so.