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Celebrating George Crum and the birth of the potato chip

I should start today’s post with a bit of a disclaimer – while this tale is told as the truth, the exact date details are difficult to confirm. However, most references I could find stated the date as 24 August 1853, so here goes.

On the above date, Railroad magnate Commadore Cornelius Vanderbilt went dining at the Moon Lake House, a restaurant in Saratoga Springs, New York. He ordered french fries, but found the fries he received too thick, bland and soggy, so he sent them back to the kitchen. George Crum, the chef at the Moon Lake House, wasn’t impressed by what he considered to be an overly fussy customer, so he went overboard to address his concerns – he sliced the fries paper-thin, fried them to a crisp and seasoned them with a generous helping of salt. Much to his amazement, Vanderbilt loved the the crispy chips, so much so that the restaurant decided to add them as a regular menu item, under the name ‘Saratoga Chips’.

A few years later, in 1860, chef Crum opened his own restaurant, and he took pride in serving his ‘signature dish’, placing potato chips in baskets on every table.

Crispy, crunchy potato chips – not the healthiest snack around, but we cannot seem to get enough of them.
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Despite the popularity of Crum’s invention, no-one recognised it’s potential as a mass-produced, off-the-shelf snack – it remained a restaurant delicacy until 1926, when Mrs Scudder began mass-producing potato chips packaged in wax paper bags. In 1938, Herman Lay started producing Lay’s Potato Chips, the first successful national brand in the US.

The rest, as they say, is history – chips (or crisps, as the Brits like to call them) have taken over the world, with the global chip market in 2005 generating total revenues of more than US$16 billion. That’s more than a third of the total savoury snack market for the year.

Of course, being deep-fried and doused in salt, chips aren’t exactly a health snack. They have been identified as one of the leading contributors to long-term weight gain, as well as being linked to heart disease. In response to these issues, potato chips companies are investing huge amounts in research and development of new, more health-conscious products. Frito-Lay, for example, have reportedly invested more than $400 million in new product development, including techniques to reduce the salt content in Lay’s potato chips without compromising taste.

Now flavour is one thing, but did you know that the crunch produced when we bite into a chip, also plays a significant role in our perception of the snack? According to a New York Times article, a team of psychologists at Oxford University conducted an experiment where they equipped test subjects with sound-blocking headphones, and made them bite into potato chips in front of a microphone. In different test runs, using the exact same chips, the sound of the crunch was processed in different ways and passed back to the testers via the earphones. Taking their perception of the unaltered sound as the benchmark, they found that when the crunchy sound was amplified, testers considered the chips to taste fresher and crispier, while muting the crunch resulted in the same chips being rated as less crispy and stale.

Hmmm, all this talk about crunchy chips is making me hungry – I can definitely do with a bag of good old Salt & Vinegar chips right about now!

Peristaltic pumps and artificial hearts

A hearty good day to everyone, and welcome to the new week. And yes, today ‘hearty’ is indeed the operational word, as this seems to have been an important day in history as far as the heart is concerned.

The heart, symbol of life and love.
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Heart pump

Today we celebrate the birthday of Jerome Murray (20 Aug 1912 – 7 Jan 1998), an American inventor who invented the peristaltic pump that made open-heart surgery possible. The pump was unique in that it was able to pump blood without damaging the human cells, through a method of expansion and contraction that imitates the peristaltic process.

Artificial heart

Exactly 10 years after Murray’s birth, the Japanese surgeon Akutsu Tetsuzo (20 Aug 1922 – 9 Aug 2007), was born. Tetsuzo was the surgeon who built the first artificial heart that was successfully implanted into an animal. The heart that Tetsuzo developed was implanted into a dog on 12 Dec 1957, and kept the dog alive for about an hour and a half. While this may not be very long, it did open the door to further research into the domain, eventually leading to the succesful development of artificial hearts for humans.

So, even though today is not officially a heart holiday, it is clearly quite an important day in the history of the heart, and particularly the research and development of artificial technologies to support the human heart.

Spare a thought for your heart – it’s an amazing organ, and everyone who can live out their lives with their own, healthy hearts should count themselves really lucky. If something does go wrong, however, at least it’s good to know that there are clever people like Jerome Murray and Akutsu Tetsuzo in the world, who consider it their lives’ task to develop the incredible technologies that help keep us ticking along.

Keeping yourself in shape on Book Lover’s Day

A few days ago I wrote a bit of an ode to the paperback book. Today, however, we turn our focus from the book itself to those who lovingly cherish all things book-ish – it’s Book Lover’s Day.

The day is, confusingly, also celebrated in early November, but perhaps it’s not that strange – as any true book-lover will tell you, we’ll happily celebrate our love of books every day of the year!

A good book and some quiet time – what more can one ask for?
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Whether you love reading, collecting, or simply handling books, this day is for you. Maybe you’ve grudgingly given in to the pressure of the e-book wave, but you’ll know that nothing matches the pure joy of smelling a new, freshly opened book, discovering a well-worn copy of a special book in a second-hand book-dealer, or simply leaning back and enjoying a lazy day with a relaxing read in hand.

And how great is it to discover a wonderful new author you never knew before?

Considering some of the incredible books that have appeared so far this year, there’s certainly no reasons for complaint from the book-lovers among us. Except perhaps a lack of time, or budget, to get around to all the great reads out there.

If you thought reading is only good for the mind, here’s another titbit to further convince you of the advantages of ‘book loverism’: it turns out that readers may be less obese than non-readers! In an article by Fred C. Pampel in the Sociology of Health and Illness journal, entitled “Does reading keep you thin? Leisure activities, cultural tastes, and body weight in comparative perspective”, it is stated that “While sedentary leisure-time activities such as reading, going to movies, attending cultural events, going to sporting events, watching TV, listening to music, and socialising with friends would seem to contribute to excess weight, a perspective focusing on socioeconomic status (SES) differences in cultural tastes suggests the opposite, that some sedentary activities are associated with lower rather than higher body weight.” One of the findings in the article is that people who spend more time reading and generally participating in intellectual activities, and less time shopping and watching TV, have a lower body weight than their peers.

OK, maybe suggesting reading books will help keep you in shape is a bit of a stretch, but if it can help turn one more soul out there on to the joys of reading, why not?

So what books are you enjoying at the moment?

Give your feet some breathing space on Wiggle Your Toes Day

Are you wearing shoes all day? Forced to tuck your feet into constricting footgear for the sake of societal acceptance?

Well then today is the day to take a stand – kick off those shoes, kick back, and spend some quality time pampering your poor, abused feet – it’s Wiggle Your Toes Day. You can do yourself a huge favour by making a habit of going shoe-less on a more regular basis. It can make a world of difference to your health and general well-being.

Kick back, spread your toes and flex your feet – it’s good for you.
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In a study by Phil Hoffman published in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, the feet of barefooted and shoe-wearing cultures are compared, highlighting the severe injustices our feet are subjected to.

Genetically, the feet of shoe-wearing people are no different from those of barefooted cultures – we have not yet evolved to having shoe-shaped feet, and up to shoe-wearing age we’re all, pardon the pun, on pretty much equal footing. At this point, however, things take a serious turn for the worse for the shoe-wearers, as we start forcing our feet into shoes that are shaped to conform to some weird societal concept of beauty, rather than footgear that fit the natural form of the foot.

From years of constrictive shoe-wearing, the shape of the feet of shoe-wearing adults diverge completely from adults barefooted cultures. In barefooted people, feet tend to widen towards the toes, and the toes themselves are comfortably spread, with the big toe in particular being separated from it’s neighbour by a considerable interval. This helps with balance and flexibility. Shoe-wearing, however, constricts the spread of the front-foot, and in particular crowds the toes. This results in a narrower, more pointed foot-shape, with the toes close together and often even overlapping their neighbours.

Not only are our shoes the wrong shape, but they are also often too small, even for our already squashed feet. And if that’s not enough, there’s high-heeled shoes – fashion accessories that force the foot into an even more unnatural position, forcing the wearer to stand largely on the front-foot, which as a result has to bear more that it’s proportionate share of the body-weight. This leads to a shortening of the calf muscles to such an extent that many middle aged women cannot dorso-flex the foot to a right angle without bending their knees to relax the calf muscles.

So compared to the healthy, stable, wide, flexible and strong feet of barefooted people, the shoe-wearing cultures have given themselves deformed, pointy, inflexible, weakened, calloused, smelly feet and deformed muscles. Not too clever for a so-called advanced culture, are we?

And given that our feet play such a critical role in our overall health and well-being, is it any wonder that we suffer from so many ailments?  Crazy stuff indeed.

So, why don’t you do yourself a favour – kick off your shoes and wiggle your toes. And do this as often as you can. Even if your physical environment makes it difficult to go barefoot, at least opt for some non-constrictive sandals (or jandals, as we call them here in New Zealand), or even some loose-fitting sneakers.

Do this regularly, and your body will love you for it!

Celebrating the Invention of Margarine

Way back in 1869, French chemist Hippolyte Mege-Mouries entered a contest held by Emperor Napoleon III, who offered a prize to anyone who could come up with an satisfactory substitute for butter, for use by the French armed forces. Mege-Mouries won, and patented his butter-replacement on 15 July 1869.

Mege-Mouries called his invention oleomargarine – the name that, after shortening, became the trade name ‘margarine’. (In some places it is still colloquially called ‘oleo’.) He set up a manufacturing operation for his margarine, but it did not prove successful, so he eventually sold his patent in 1871 to Jurgens, a Dutch company that became part of Unilever.

Vegan delight – a dollop of margarine melting into a hot, fresh potato.
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From early in its history, margarine (typically composed of vegetable oils) faced fierce rivalry from the dairy industry, who was concerned about the impact it would have on butter sales. In its basic form, margarine is a pearly white colour, so noting this could be a point of differentiation between margarine and butter, the dairy industry lobbied legislators to restrict the addition of artificial colouring agents in margarine. Long-standing legislative bans on added colour were put in place in the US, Canada and Australasia, with Australia and some US states only starting to allow coloured margarine by the mid 1960s and Canada hanging on to their colour restrictions until as late as 1995 (Ontario) and 2008 (Quebec). Canada clearly did not take kindly to margarine – it was completely banned there until 1948.

Even today, although butter and margarine no longer have to look different, the battle between the two camps rage as fiercely as ever. While there is general consensus that a low-fat polyunsaturated margarine is much less harmful to your heart (it doesn’t contain the cholesterol abundant in butter), the butter lobby is quick to point out that margarine is not a “natural food” and that its artificial colourants have been linked to cancer. From an environmental point of view, the margarine-manufacturing and packaging processes are said to be more intensive and thus less desirable. Then there is the moral and ethical debate, with veganism promoting plant-based margarine over animal-based butter.

Opting for butter or margarine remains a personal decision, based on taste, health, morals and cost. But with health, moral and cost arguments leaning strongly towards the margarine camp, it is no surprise that, worldwide, margarine is definitely the spread of choice, outselling butter by significant margins.

Bean me up, Scotty! It’s Independence from Meat Day.

Not only is July 4th Independence Day in the US, it is also Independence from Meat Day. This day, originally created by the Vegetarian Awareness Network in Tennessee, has grown beyond its original US-only focus to being an international day for celebrating a meat-free diet and lifestyle.

Vegetables – they taste so good, ’cause they look so good!
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Arguments for and against eating meat has raged for years, and while there has been many scientific studies published on the health benefits of a meat-free diet, many of these are inconclusive, given the huge variability on human diets both with and without meat. Also, many of the health risks posed by processed meat, for example, has more to do with the chemicals and fats introduced as part of the processing, than it has with the meat itself.

Much stronger arguments are made on moral grounds against the slaughter of animals for human consumption, and many great thinkers have made succinct arguments for a meat-free diet. In the words of outspoken vegetarian George Bernard Shaw, “Animals are my friends… and I don’t eat my friends.”

The fact of the matter is that, despite evolving as omnivores, the human mouth and gut is such that we don’t need meat in our diets. Our bodies can extract the necessary nutrients from a plant-based diet, as long as you take care to provide your body with good alternative sources of the proteins and other nutrients typically found in a meat-diet. Growing children require more protein in their diet than adults, so vegetarian children need to make extra sure they get all the required nutrients in sufficient doses.

Vegetarian or not – it can’t hurt enjoying a meat-free day every so often. So give it a go – celebrate your Independence from Meat, wherever you are.

Feast on some cherries on International Fruit Day

July 1st is International Fruit Day. It also appears to be International Joke Day, but that’s another story for another time…

From a bit of online research, I’ve discovered that there is a specific fruit assigned to each year, a Fruit of the Year, if you will. 2009 was the year of the apple, in 2010 it was the pineapple’s turn, last year was mango’s chance to shine, and this year we celebrate the cherry – a favourite for deserts, yoghurt, cakes, sweets and shakes, but also wonderful eaten by itself.

The cherry, almost too good to be true – beautiful, tasty and good for you!
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In mythology, cherries can symbolize fertility, merrymaking, and festivity. In Japan, where cherry blossoms are the national flower, cherries represent beauty, courtesy, and modesty. The ancient Chinese regarded the fruit as a symbol of immortality.

In addition to being blessed with gorgeous looks, cherries are also something of a health marvel, packing a mighty punch for such a small fruit. They are an abundant source of anthocyanin (the red pigment in berries), an antioxidant which has been shown to reduce pain and inflammation, and is also said to aid in the reduction of heart disease and cancer. Anthocyanin has also been found to benefit the brain, improving one’s memory abilities. Cherries furthermore contain melatonin, an antioxidant known to regulate heart rhythms and the body’s sleep patterns. A veritable vitamin bomb, cherries are also rich in Vitamins A, C, E, potassium, magnesium, and iron.

Go on and feast on some cherries – they’re good for you, and that’s no joke…

Celebration of the Senses Day – taste, smell, hear, see, touch (and more)

Today is Celebration of the Senses Day – a day to remind yourself of your body’s amazing sensory abilities.

Given that, at any moment in time, we are bombarded by such a diverse combination of sensory experiences, our appreciation of the individual senses can become somewhat muddled. Our taste experience is affected by the smell, texture and temperature of our food. Similarly, our hearing is said to decrease after overeating, and our sight is affected by noises around us. Sight can also be hampered after eating fatty foods.

On Celebration of the Senses Day, how about conducting a couple of in-house experiments to give your senses a shake up?  Have a blindfolded smell-a-thon of items in the fridge. Listen to a piece of music in a pitch dark room. While you’re at it, dance around in the dark! Mix up your food experience by mashing, freezing or colouring different foods to create new and surprising sensory variations. Look at things around you through a looking glass. In short, utilise your senses to experience the world anew.

Here’s another interesting snippet – if a sad, depressed person tells you their world is dull and grey, and flowers have lost their smell, they’re not just speaking metaphorically. Research shows that sensory perception can actually be diminished in depressed individuals.

So focussing on a renewed appreciation of your senses can actually even help you to get out of that emotional rut you’re in.

Focusing on your sensory experiences can help make you a happier person.
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Five senses? Try ten!
The categorisation of our five primary senses (sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch) is attributed to Aristotle. While this categorisation is still valid, humans have a number of additional ‘sensory abilities’ not covered by the above. These secondary senses include:

  • Sense of balance and acceleration – the ability to sense body movement, direction and acceleration, and to maintain balance and equilibrium.
  • Temperature sense – the ability to sense heat and the absence of heat (cold).
  • Kinesthetic sense – the ability of the brain to be aware of the relative positions of various parts of the body without sensing these via the ‘normal’ senses (like being able to touch your nose with your finger, with your eyes closed).
  • Sense of Pain – the sense of pain was previously believed to be an overloading of pressure receptors, but it has since been identified as a distinct phenomenon that intertwines with the other senses, including touch.
  • Sense of Time – the ability to perceive the passage of time, both short passages as well as longer time cycles.
    (Source: Wikipedia)

Cool, isn’t it?  Even more senses to experiment with on Celebration of the Senses Day… Have fun!

World Blood Donor Day

With today being World Blood Donor Day, I thought what better way to gather info for my blog than to immerse myself in the experience, and register to donate on the day.  So I duly pre-registered, filled in some forms, and my booking for this morning was made.

Arriving at the blood bank, more forms had to be filled in, and having never donated blood in New Zealand before, I was quite surprised at some of the rules for eligibility to become a blood donor.

Most of the limitations (never give blood if you or your sexual partner(s) are HIV+, if you carry the Hepatitis B or C virus, if you’re on drugs, etc) seemed pretty sensible, as were the limitations placed on sexually promiscuous individuals.  The geographic limitations, however, were more of an eye-opener, and this is where my good intentions sadly got derailed. It turns out that anyone who had previously lived in a region considered to be high-risk for HIV infection, were excluded from donating for 5 years.  Excluded regions include the entire sub-Saharan Africa, large parts of Asia, as well as specific South American regions.

This exclusion is irrespective of sexual history, previous HIV test results, or any other ‘proof’ of not being HIV+.  So, given my South African heritage I was greeted with a friendly but firm “No thank you”, putting a premature end to my intentions of becoming a blood donor in my adopted country. I can appreciate the logic of geographic exclusion, but cannot help finding it sad that, despite being married and faithful to my wife for many years, and having ‘passed’ a number of insurance and emigration-related HIV tests in the past, I am still considered to be a higher risk than someone earning a living as a prostitute in New Zealand (who only has to wait 1 year before being accepted as a donor).

What makes this experience more ironic, is that the international launch of World Blood Donor Day took place on 14 June 2004 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

You can become a life-saving superhero, irrespective of your blood type.
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Oh well… So unfortunately I cannot yet share with you any first hand donor experiences.  What I can do, however, is to share some interesting facts and figures about blood and blood donation:

  • When “donating blood”, you can actually donate a number of different transfusable blood products – red blood cells, platelets, or plasma.
  • When donating a pint of “whole blood”, two to three of the above products can be produced from the donation, hence a single whole blood donation can save the lives of up to three people.
  • If you donate only specific blood components – red cells, plasma or platelets – the process is called apheresis.  A single apheresis donation can produce one transfusable dose of platelets.
  • Of the blood products that can be donated, only plasma has a reasonably long shelf life – it can be frozen for up to two years and blood products made from plasma (e.g. cryoprecipitate) can be stored for up to two years.
  • Red blood cells must be transfused within 35 days from collection, while platelets have an even shorter shelf life – it has to be transfused within 5 days.  As a result of this, there is a continuous need for fresh blood.
  • Healthy bone marrow is continuously working to produce new red blood cells, platelets and plasma in the body.  Blood lost during a donation is replenished by the body over time – the fluids of the donated blood is replaced in just 24 hours. The red blood cells take a bit longer, and will be replaced within about 8 weeks. Typically a healthy donor can donate every three months.
  • In New Zealand, the treatment of cancer requires the biggest percentage of all donated blood products (22%), while blood needed to treat accident victims make up 18%. Mothers and babies receive about 7% of the blood supply.

The bottom line is that blood is always desperately needed, and it really is one of the easier ways of doing something truly amazing for your fellow man.

World No Tobacco Day

The aim of World No Tobacco Day is to encourage 24 hours of abstinence from tobacco use internationally. This day also draws attention to the detrimental health effects and widespread damage caused by the consumption of tobacco, which currently plays a role in more than 5 million deaths worldwide each year.

World No Tobacco Day, and what it aims to achieve, resonates with me at a particularly personal level, having lost a father on this day 12 years ago to cancer most likely related to a lifetime of smoking.

The theme of this year’s World No Tobacco Day is “Tobacco industry interference”. The campaign is focused on the need to highlight and fight the tobacco industry’s continued attempts to undermine global efforts to control the use of tobacco.
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