The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Science

How to Win the World Espresso Brew-Off

With the World Barista Championships going down June 9-12 in Rimini, Italy, a UK scientist and a Bath barista champion believe they have concocted the formula for the perfect brew—and, potentially, victory.

In a study published in the Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry, PhD student Chris Hendon and friend Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood discovered that different mineral compositions of water can make a huge difference in coffee's taste. Different characteristics of water, like bicarbonates or magnesium levels, are more or less suited to bring out the flavors and aromas of different types of coffee beans.

“We've found that the water composition is key to the proportions of sugars, starches, bases and acids extracted from a particular roast," Hendon said.

Sorting out the right water-bean combination can be tricky, however. For example, water softeners, which leave water high in sodium, weren’t particularly good for coffee taste. They also found that hard water, generally regarded as bad for coffee, is optimal for certain types of roasts. The challenge is to know what kind of water you’re working with, and to pair it with the appropriate bean.

Of course, for everyday caffeine addicts, it’s a little hard to fathom running serious water quality tests on your tap just to bring out the flavor of a pound of Sumatra Mandheling. Even for a lot of coffee businesses, it would be difficult to pinpoint an exact flavor profile that works well with the available water—in part because minerals in water change regularly. Not to mention, would your average customer even be able to tell the difference?

“This is not for the casual person who walks into a café and drinks one cup of coffee,” says Spencer Turer, vice president of Coffee Analysts, one of the largest coffee consulting businesses in the U.S. “It’s okay for competitions, but I fail to see the practical applications of this.”

Competition is exactly where the co-authors of the paper are headed. In addition to a forthcoming book, Hendon and Colonna-Dashwood, who owns Colonna and Small’s Specialty Coffee in Bath, will demonstrate their handiwork at the barista championships. They plan to analyze the local water at the competition, and match it with the ideal roast. But winning at the barista won’t be that easy.

The competition pits 50 of the world’s top baristas from 50 different countries against each other in a no-holds-barred brew off. Each barista has to make four espresso drinks, four cappuccinos, and four signature drinks in a 15-minute “performance” set to music.

Baristas are scored on their cleanliness and technical ability, while drinks are evaluated on aspects like consistency of the crema (the light, foamy crown), taste balance, and visual presentation. Colonna-Dashwood won the UK Barista Championship in April.

The World Barista Championship is one of a series of coffee competitions produced by World Coffee Events. Others include the World Cup Tasters Championship, the World Coffee Roasting Championship, and, of course, the World Latte Art Championship.

Read More

The Really Weird Trend of Breast Milk as Energy Beverage

There are grown men who drink breast milk. For some, it’s undoubtedly a kink. But for others, it’s something else: a “God-given” performance-enhancing elixir—and believers are paying top dollar for it online. Once a fringe gym-rat movement, now athletes of various stripes are chugging the stuff in search of a high-energy protein fix.

Far away from government oversight or official scrutiny, hundreds of gallons of breast milk flow through online classifieds, according to one of the leading online facilitators, OnlytheBreast.com. The site officially caters to mothers who want to sell their “liquid gold” (their language, not ours) to other women, but about a third of the requests for milk on the site are posted by men. The demand has set off an arms race among the 10 percent of women willing to sell their milk to the other sex. One St. Louis provider catering to athletes boasts that her milk is best because she adheres to a “Paleo-style diet with added grass-fed butter,” only organic foods, and a daily regimen of supplements including charcoal and probiotics.

The “breast is best” believers drink this stuff up. They say that the milk is more nutritious than anything you can get from a cow, best for body building, the secret to fighting off disease, and a sure-fire way to boost energy levels. It’s the energy drink of the future, New York Magazine reports.

It’s too bad it’s soggy logic—on all counts, says Bo Lonnerdal, a professor of nutrition and internal medicine at University of California at Davis. “I don’t see much sense in it all,” she says. “It doesn’t provide more energy than other drinks with the same energy content.”

Which brings us to protein. Fans of human breast milk point to its supposedly superior whey-to-casein ratio of 60-to-40, compared to nearly the inverse 20-to-80 of cow’s milk. But a liter of breast milk has only one-third the total protein of cow’s milk. And it contains nearly twice as much lactose sugar, making it sweeter than cow’s milk and a poor choice for those who are lactose intolerant. Then there’s breast milk’s fat content, which varies widely based on the donor’s diet.

More souring is that the heralded bioactive components within breast milk are unlikely to make it through your stomach—precisely because adult men aren’t at all like children. “We highly likely would break down bioactive components like lactoferrin and immunoglobulins long before they could have any potential function,” Lonnerdal says.

It’s just wrongheaded to think that what works for baby boys and girls will be best for grown men, says Katie Hinde, assistant professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, who tracks advances in milk research on her “Mammals suck… Milk” blog. 

“Breast milk is nature’s magical elixir for those particular infants at a particular time, but the benefits for adults are less clear. There’s still too little we know about what it does even in infants,” she says.

Then why all the fanfare? Adherents are committing a naturalistic fallacy, says Sarah Tishkoff, a professor of genetics and biology at the University of Pennsylvania who studies the evolution of lactose tolerance. They believe that people evolved to drink breast milk, not cow’s milk. They’re wrong. “No humans have evolved to drink breast milk after weaning,” Tishkoff says. Most human populations whose ancestors practiced dairy farming have actually adapted to drinking cow’s milk.

But would it really hurt to give breast milk a try? That’s not a good idea, particularly if it is purchased online versus milked from a willing wife or girlfriend. “The biggest issue is that breast milk can contain live viruses and bacteria,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Sharon Donovan, former president of the American Society for Nutrition and a professor at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

When moms donate to a hospital milk bank, they are screened before being approved, Donovan explains. But men buying from strangers could result in transmission of diseases including HIV, syphilis, or hepatitis. Most milk bought online also comes contaminated with pathogenic bacteria, as Dr. Sheela Gerahrty’s lab at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center reported last year. Granted, OnlyTheBreast.com has explicit instructions about home pasteurization.

Plus, there’s the issue of cost—at $2.50 to $4.00 per ounce, a gallon of breast milk is priced at $320 to $512, versus just $4 a gallon of cow’s milk, Donovan says. And what really sucks?  There’s a chance you might not even get what you’re paying for. Because it’s sold by volume without any oversight, the milk could be cut with water or cow’s milk, Hinde warns. These aren’t problems you find with hospital milk bank donations where no monetary gain is involved.

Getting beyond the ick factor, athletes commanding high prices for breast milk could inadvertently encourage disadvantaged women to sell their milk instead of feeding their own infants. It may also discourage women from donating to milk banks, which are crucial for supporting the needs of premature infants.

The “invisible breasts of the free market” selling their products online comes with lots of questions, Hinde says.

If you’re still convinced that breast milk is best, take heart: cows may soon be genetically modified to produce human milk, The Telegraph reports.

Read More

Why Obama's New Regs Scare Big Coal

The Obama Administration just revealed its much-anticipated plan to regulate carbon emissions from power plants. The collective goal of the regulations, which each state will set its own course toward meeting, is to reduce carbon emissions by 25 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and 30 percent below those levels by 2030.

In terms of Obama's Presidential legacy, it's a big, audacious goal. If the regulations withstand the lawsuits that are sure to come, this will also be a major win for clean air and environmental health—especially for communities surrounding presently coal-powered plants. Will it, alone, reverse or even stop climate change? Not a chance. Regardless, it is a crux move and it will have ripple effects.

Climate and Coal—Can They Get Along?

Topping the to-do list, in terms of avoiding catastrophe, is to keep the Earth from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius. Some studies show we are on track for a 4-degree rise. Carbon-based energy (across sectors) is the main driver of climate change (the negative effects of which we are already feeling) and so it would follow that reducing carbon emissions is the strongest tool for avoiding calamity.

Yet, as Ezra Klein wrote on Vox, political will today to fight climate change is actually weaker now than in 2008, when presidential candidate John McCain proposed an economic tool for reducing carbon emissions (cap-and-trade) that was "far more aggressive than the power-plant rules the Obama administration is announcing today."

Plus, China assumed America's long-held title of world's largest polluter back in 2007.

On the other hand, our move to cap carbon emissions—as well as China's efforts to do the same—should lend momentum toward making binding international treaty agreements, focused on global emissions reductions.

"Internationally, it's incredibly important that the U.S. take explicit steps to limit emissions," says K.C. Golden, senior policy advisor for Climate Solutions, a clean-energy advocacy group. "That is what the rest of the world needs to hear."

He also notes that some states, including those in the Pacific Northwest where Climate Solutions is based, will not only meet, but far exceed, the new emissions goals, to be enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency.

"Nowhere does this [new ruling] stretch the bounds of what is possible or economically feasible" in terms of cutting U.S. carbon emissions, he says, "but it's a big signal from the world's biggest historic carbon emitter."

The (Energy) Hunger Games

Despite China's efforts to cap carbon emissions, Asia's booming economies and population growth mean the region will remain a major consumer of fossil fuels in the coming decades. Meanwhile, the U.S. energy sector, which is already increasingly reliant on natural gas, is going to have to significantly reduce its use of coal to meet the EPA's carbon limits. All of this means coal companies are eager to find new customers in Asia.

More specifically, coal producers in the Powder River Basin, a massive, shallow coal seam that spans from eastern Wyoming to southern Montana, are interested in selling more coal to Asia. To do that, however, they need transport the coal to ships, via ports they're pushing to have built along the Pacific Northwest Coast.

This would mean an influx of port jobs, but also a significant spike in already-busy railroad traffic between the Powder River Basin and three proposed ports (two in Washington and one in Oregon). Fears of a major train derailment, especially as these massive coal-laden locomotives stream along the Columbia River, and concerns over spikes in particulate air pollution from coal dust, have led to a strong opposition movement against the ports.

Opponents argue that a coal spill along the Columbia River or in the coastal waters could create an ecological nightmare, erasing economic benefits from the ports through losses to fisheries and the region's recreation economy.

Protect Our Winters, which is working to advance clean energy policy in the U.S., just released a Kickstarter-backed documentary, called Momenta, about the proposed ports. Narrated by mountaineer Conrad Anker, the film includes interviews with activist Bill McKibben, public health experts, and community stakeholders along the rail's path.

But won't Obama's decision to limit power plant emissions, and thereby put the hurt on the domestic coal industry, only lead to greater pressure to get those ports built?

Eric de Place, policy director of the Sightline Institute, an energy think tank focused on the Pacific Northwest, says Obama's move is very likely to increase the pressure on those ports, which will need a green light from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as well as state and local regulatory bodies before they're built. But he does not think that pressure will lead to regulatory bodies being any more likely to green-light the ports.

In fact, he thinks that even if the ports pass environmental muster, the overall economic health of the coal industry could be a turn-off to regulators. "I think they will be less likely to allow them, because I think there is good reason to have existential concern about these [coal] company's longevity," he says. "If I am a regulator, and I look at the coal companies' [health], their ability to get financing has gotten tougher now. If you think of it in terms of that, they are less likely to get permits," he says.

Predictably, the coal industry is unhappy with the new regulation framework, and says it will only lead to higher energy bills for Americans.

I reached out to SSA Marine, the terminal operator that wants to build one of the three proposed ports, the Gateway Pacific Terminal on Washington's far-north coast (near Bellingham), to ask if the Administration's move to cut coal use in U.S. will impact the port's prospects. The company declined to comment.

Read More

Apple Takes a Bite Out of Fitness and Wellness

Everything you ever wanted to know about your health and fitness is coming soon to an iPhone near you. Or, more specifically, to an app named Health that runs on Apple’s new mobile operating system, iOS 8. 

That’s today’s big news out of San Francisco, where Apple announced its foray into health and fitness tracking at the company’s annual World Wide Developer’s Conference.

As TechCrunch explains, Healthkit is “the company’s first real big foray into health and fitness tracking, and Health [is] an app for viewing all that info…the new Health app will combine data from various different health and fitness devices and apps, and make them accessible all in one place.” For example, the app will combine sleep, nutrition, activity, weight, and heart-rate data in tabs on a single screen. 

With Healthkit, Apple is not only getting into the fitness-tracking game, it’s also making a push to modernize and mobilize healthcare. As Engadget reports,

Mayo Clinic, a Minnesota non-profit, is already working with Apple on making the software work best for both doctors and patients. In the examples shown today at Apple's WWDC event in San Francisco, Health advised patients of wellness plans set by their doctors and enabled a futuristic approach to healthcare; where doctors and patients interact constantly, in real-time, at very least on a data level.

Apple isn’t the first company to try to consolidate personal health and fitness info in one place. Microsoft launched web-based HealthVault in 2007, and Google followed with Google Health in 2008. HealthVault still exists, though Microsoft has refused to comment on the number of active users. Google shuttered its service in 2012, citing a lack of participation. As former manager of Google Health, Adam Bosworth, told the New York Times, “the service could not overcome the obstacle of requiring people to laboriously put in their own data.” 

That’s where Apple Health is likely to succeed while these early services did not. It seems Apple’s app will do all of the work of integrating records and information from fitness-tracking devices, like Apple’s rumored iWatch, as well as doctors. That may make it an easy technology to adopt.

Tech insiders believe the highly-anticipated iWatch itself—a “smartwatch/wearable of some form directly from Apple”—could someday have self-monitoring capabilities beyond those of the popular FitBit or similar wristbands. Think: hydration, oxygen saturation, and blood sugar tracking. Apple hired several health and fitness experts in the past year, fueling those rumors, though the company has yet to make any official iWatch announcements.

A patent Apple filed in 2009 suggests wearables aren’t the only devices that will track health data. Future iPhones may have leads embedded in them that allow the phone itself to track cardiac data, giving users easy access to heart info as well.

For now, we know the Health app is coming. Amid the rest of the rumors, one thing is certain: this year is shaping up to be a big one for health and fitness.

Read More

Free Newsletters

Dispatch This week's featured articles, reviews, and videos. Sent twice weekly.
News From the Field The most important breaking news from around the Web. Sent daily.
Outside GOOur hottest adventure-travel tips and trips. Sent occasionally.
Outside Partners Outside-approved deals and special offers from select partners. Sent occasionally.

Subscribe
to Outside
Save Over
70%

Magazine Cover

iPad Outside+ App Access Now Included!

Categories

Authors

Advertisement

$ad.smallDesc

$ad.smallDesc

$ad.smallDesc

Previous Posts

2014

2013

2012

Blog Roll

Current Issue Outside Magazine

Subscribe and get a great deal! Two free Buyer's Guides plus a free GoLite Sport Bottle. Monthly delivery of Outside—your ultimate resource for today's active lifestyle. All that and big savings!

Free Newsletters

Dispatch This week's featured articles, reviews, and videos. Sent twice weekly.
News From the Field The most important breaking news from around the Web. Sent daily.
Gear of the Day The latest products, reviews, and editors' picks. Coming soon.
Outside Partners Outside-approved deals and special offers from select partners. Sent occasionally.

Ask a Question

Our gear experts await your outdoor-gear-related questions. Go ahead, ask them anything.

* We might edit your question for length or clarity. If it's not about gear, we'll just ignore it.