fbpx
Connect with us

The Conversation

Fermented foods sustain both microbiomes and cultural heritage

Published

on

theconversation.com – Andrew Flachs, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Purdue University – 2024-04-17 07:19:21

Fermented foods sustain both microbiomes and cultural heritage

Each subtle cultural or personal twist to a fermented dish is felt by your body's microbial community.
microgen/iStock via Getty Images

Andrew Flachs, Purdue University and Joseph Orkin, Université de Montréal

Many people around the world make and eat fermented foods. Millions in Korea alone make kimchi. The cultural heritage of these picklers shape not only what they eat every time they crack open a jar but also something much, much smaller: their microbiomes.

On the microbial scale, we are what we eat in very real ways. Your body is teeming with trillions of microbes. These complex ecosystems exist on your skin, inside your mouth and in your gut. They are particularly influenced by your surrounding environment, especially the food you eat. Just like any other ecosystem, your gut microbiome requires diversity to be healthy.

People boil, fry, bake and season meals, transforming them through cultural ideas of “good food.” When people ferment food, they affect the microbiome of their meals directly. Fermentation offers a to learn how taste and heritage shape microbiomes: not only of culturally significant foods such as German sauerkraut, kosher pickles, Korean kimchi or Bulgarian yogurt, but of our own guts.

Advertisement
Fermentation uses microbes to transform food.

Our work as anthropologists focuses on how culture transforms food. In fact, we first sketched out our plan to link cultural values and microbiology while writing our Ph.D. dissertations at our local deli in St. Louis, Missouri. Staring down at our pickles and lox, we wondered how the salty, crispy zing of these foods represented the marriage of culture and microbiology.

Equipped with the tools of microbial genetics and cultural anthropology, we were determined to find out.

Science and art of fermentation

Fermentation is the creation of an extreme microbiological environment through salt, acid and lack of oxygen deprivation. It is both an ancient food preservation technique and a way to create distinctive tastes, smells and textures.

is highly variable and something you experience through the layers of your social experience. What may be nauseating in one context is a delicacy in another. Fermented foods are notoriously unsubtle: they bubble, they smell and they zing. Whether and how these pungent foods taste good can be a moment of group pride or a chance to heal social divides.

Advertisement

In each case, cultural notions of good food and heritage recipes combine to create a microbiome in a jar. From this perspective, sauerkraut is a particular ecosystem shaped by German food traditions, kosher dill pickles by Ashkenazi Jewish traditions, and pao cai by southwestern Chinese traditions.

Where culture and microbiology intersect

To begin to understand the effects of culinary traditions and individual creativity on microbiomes, we partnered with Sandor Katz, a fermentation practitioner based in Tennessee. Over the course of four days during one of Katz's workshops, we made, ate and shared fermented foods with nine fellow participants. Through conversations and interviews, we learned about the unique tastes and meanings we each brought to our love of fermented foods.

Those stories provided context to the 46 food samples we collected and froze to capture a snapshot of the swimming through kimchi or miso. Participants also collected stool samples each day and mailed in a sample a after the workshop, preserving a record of the gut microbial communities they created with each bite.

The fermented foods we all made were rich, complex and microbially diverse. Where many store-bought fermented foods are pasteurized to clear out all living microbes and then reinoculated with two to six specific bacterial species, our research showed that homemade ferments contain dozens of strains.

Advertisement
Close-up of a spoonful of homemade yogurt
Eating fermented foods such as yogurt shapes the form and function of your microbiome.
Basak Gurbuz Derman/Moment via Getty Images

On the microbiome level, different kinds of fermented foods will have distinct profiles. Just as forests and deserts share ecological features, sauerkrauts and kimchis look more similar to each other than yogurt to cheese.

But just as different habitats have unique combinations of plants and animals, so too did every crock and jar have its own distinct microbial world because of minor differences in preparation or ingredients. The cultural values of taste, creativity and that create a kimchi or a sauerkraut go on to distinct microbiomes on those foods and inside the people who eat them.

Through variations in recipes and cultural preferences toward an extra pinch of salt or a disdain for dill, fermentation traditions result in distinctive microbial and taste profiles that your culture trains you to identify as good or bad to eat. That is, our sauerkraut is not your sauerkraut, even if they both might be good for us.

Fermented food as cultural medicine

Microbially rich fermented foods can influence the composition of your gut microbiome. Because your tastes and recipes are culturally informed, those preferences can have a meaningful effect on your gut microbiome. You can eat these foods in ways that introduce microbial diversity, potentially probiotic microbes that offer benefits to human health such as killing off bacteria that make you ill, improving your cardiovascular or restoring a healthy gut microbiome after you take antibiotics.

Person passing a dish of kimchi to another person across a table of food
Making and sharing fermented foods can bring people together.
Kilito Chan/Moment via Getty Images

Fermentation is an ancient craft, and like all crafts it requires patience, creativity and practice. Cloudy brine is a signal of tasty pickled cucumbers, but it can be a problem for lox. When fermented foods smell rotten, taste too soft or turn red, that can be a sign of contamination by harmful bacteria or molds.

Fermenting foods at home might seem daunting when food is something that from the store with a regulatory guarantee. People hoping to take a more active role in creating their food or embracing their own culture's traditional foods need only time, and salt to make simple fermented foods. As friends share sourdough starters, yogurt cultures and kombucha mothers, they forge social connections.

Advertisement

Through a unique combination of culture and microbiology, heritage food traditions can support microbial diversity in your gut. These cultural practices provide environments for the yeasts, bacteria and local fruits and grains that in turn sustain heritage foods and flavors.The Conversation

Andrew Flachs, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Purdue University and Joseph Orkin, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Université de Montréal

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation

US participation in space has benefits at home and abroad − reaping them all will require collaboration

Published

on

theconversation.com – Cheyenne Black, Graduate Research Assistant in the Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis, University of Oklahoma – 2024-05-22 07:24:32

“Cosmic cliffs” in the Carina nebula, captured by the James Webb Space Telescope.

NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

Cheyenne Black, University of Oklahoma

When people think about what we get from the U.S. space program, it may be along the lines of NASA technology spin-offs such as freeze-dried food and emergency space blankets.

Advertisement

But space activities do much more that on Earth. Research in space helps scientists study our environment, develop new technologies, create , grow the and foster international collaboration.

Of course, with reports of Russia developing an anti-satellite nuclear weapon, members of Congress and the media have focused their attention on space defense and military readiness.

This is critical, but there are still many other benefits to reap from space. Getting the most out of U.S. space involvement will require collaborating across various social, environmental, commercial, governmental, international and technological backgrounds.

As a space policy scholar focused on private-public partnerships, networks and coalitions, I've seen that policymakers can get the most out of U.S. space endeavors if they invite a wide array of experts into policy discussions.

Advertisement

Benefits on Earth

NASA satellites play a crucial role in documenting changes in global temperatures, sea-level rise, arctic ice extent and air quality. Satellites have also been collecting data for almost 50 years to monitor water use, crop health and crop production. These long-term observations researchers track environmental changes across the globe.

Space research provides a wide array of technologies in addition to rockets and Moon landers. Cellphone cameras, CAT scanners, the computer mouse, laptops, wireless headsets and water purification systems are just a few public goods NASA has generated.

These spin-off technologies come from NASA's partnerships with private firms, which subsequently make scientific discoveries widely available and accessible.

Growing the space economy

Experts predict that the space sector will continue driving the development of nonspace industries. Agriculture, energy, mining, transportation and pharmaceuticals are just some of the sectors that benefit through spin-off technologies and space-based research.

Advertisement

For example, scientists can conduct experiments on the International Space Station using the microgravity of space to study the chemistry of drugs, improve medications and test cancer treatments.

More and individuals than ever share a vested interest in the space sector's . Experts anticipate the global space economy – the resources used in space for activities – and research and will continue to grow to a market of US$1.4 trillion by 2030.

Commercialization policies opened U.S. space activities to the private sector. This has led to partnerships with companies, such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and others, that are growing the space economy.

These companies have increasingly launched rockets and deployed satellites in recent years. This has increased the need for workers, both in manufacturing positions and specialized STEM roles. Additionally, private companies and universities are partnering to develop various technologies, such as landing systems for a U.S. return to the Moon.

Advertisement

A cylindrical rocket emitting a plume of flame launches upwards in a haze of smoke.

SpaceX's Starship rocket launched in March 2024. More commercial companies, like SpaceX, have partnered with NASA in recent years.

AP Photo/Eric Gay

Communities that host space industry centers have seen economic and educational benefits. For example, Huntsville, Alabama, home of the Marshall Space Flight Center and the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, has attracted an educated workforce with one of the highest rates of engineers per capita. Almost half of residents over the age of 25 in Huntsville have a bachelor's degree or higher.

An aerial view of three buildings.

The Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

NASA

This rate starkly contrasts with the national average, where 37% have at least a bachelor's degree, and the state's 27% average. Additionally, Huntsville's annual median household income is $8,000 higher than the Alabama average.

Advertisement

Since 1982, Huntsville has also hosted over 750,000 students at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center space camp. This camp educates students about science, technology, engineering and leadership to prepare them for a potential future STEM career.

International collaboration

Space also provides an opportunity for the U.S. to collaborate with other countries.

For example, the U.S. works jointly with Italy to observe the impacts of air quality on human . The James Webb Space Telescope, a result of partnerships between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, allows scientists to peer into previously unobserved parts of the cosmos. International collaboration has also established the Artemis Accords, a set of principles agreed to by 40 countries for peaceful, sustainable and transparent cooperation in space.

Getting the most out of space

Right now, U.S. space policymaking occurs at the federal and international level. And while people outside of the government can act as witnesses during congressional hearings or through advocacy groups, that involvement may not be enough to represent the wide spectrum of viewpoints and interests in space policy.

Advertisement

There are a few ways policymakers can receive input from different stakeholders. These might include inviting more experts from various policy to provide recommendations in congressional hearings, collaborating with advocacy coalitions to create sustainable policies, strengthening and expanding private-public partnerships, and setting a space agenda that emphasizes research and development.The Conversation

Cheyenne Black, Graduate Research Assistant in the Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis, University of Oklahoma

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Continue Reading

The Conversation

TikTok law threatening a ban if the app isn’t sold raises First Amendment concerns

Published

on

theconversation.com – Anupam Chander, Professor of and Technology, Georgetown – 2024-05-21 07:25:32

TikTok users worry about losing their social platform, but First Amendment rights are on the line, too.

AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey

Anupam Chander, Georgetown University and Gautam Hans, Cornell University

TikTok, the short- company with Chinese roots, did the most American thing possible on May 7, 2024: It sued the U.S. government, in the person of Attorney General Merrick Garland, in federal court. The suit claims the federal law that took effect on April 24, 2024, banning TikTok unless it sells itself violates the U.S. Constitution.

Advertisement

The law names TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance Ltd., specifically. It also applies to other applications and websites reaching more than a million monthly users that allow people to share information and that have ownership of 20% or more from China, Russia, Iran or North Korea. If the president determines that such applications or websites “present a significant threat to the national security,” then those apps and websites, too, must either be sold or banned from the U.S.

TikTok's suit says that the law violates the First Amendment by failing to evidence of the national security threat posed by the app and for failing to seek a less restrictive remedy. Despite legislators' claims to the contrary, the law forcing the divestiture of TikTok – the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act – implicates First Amendment interests. In our view, it does so in ways that ripple beyond this specific case.

As a company incorporated in the United States that provides an online publishing platform, TikTok has a right protected by the First Amendment to select what messages – in this case, user – it chooses to publish.

A ban appears to us, scholars who study law and technology, to be a massive prior restraint, which is generally barred by U.S. courts. Prior restraint is action by the to prevent speech, typically some form of publication, before it occurs.

Advertisement

The First Amendment limits what the government can do to censor speech.

Speech in the crosshairs

The law's backers say that it is not a ban – all TikTok has to do is sell itself. These supporters describe the bill as a divestiture, a purely economic regulation that they say should insulate it from First Amendment challenge. After the sale, users could happily keep on using TikTok, not caring who owns the company. But the law seems to us an attempt to control speech by mandating a change in ownership.

Changing the speech content on the app is the express goal of some of the law's backers. The principal author of the bill, former U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher, who stepped down from office in April to join a venture capital firm partly backed by Microsoft, explained to The New York Times that he was principally concerned about the potential for the Chinese Communist Party to spread propaganda on the app. The Times and The Wall Street Journal have reported that passed this bill in part because of unsubstantiated accusations that TikTok was unfairly promoting one side in the Israel-Hamas war.

Imagine if the government told Jeff Bezos that he had to sell The Washington Post because it was worried that he might push a particular agenda using his control of the newspaper. Or to use a digital analogy, what if the government told Elon Musk that he had to sell X, formerly Twitter, because it didn't like his content moderation of legal speech? Those scenarios clearly have a connection to First Amendment protections.

Ownership matters

Transferring TikTok's ownership from one company to another matters greatly for the purposes of First Amendment analysis.

Advertisement

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan observed during oral arguments in a case unrelated to TikTok's ownership that ownership can make a difference in an app. She noted that the sale of Twitter to Elon Musk changed the character of the app. Kagan said, “Twitter users one day woke up and found themselves to be X users and the content rules had changed and their feeds changed, and all of a sudden they were getting a different online newspaper, so to speak, in a metaphorical sense every morning.”

Indeed, The Washington Post found a rightward tilt after Twitter changed hands.

By forcing the sale of TikTok to an entity without ties to the Chinese Communist Party, Congress' intent with the law is to change the nature of the platform. That kind of government action implicates the core concerns that the First Amendment was designed to protect against: government interference in the speech of private parties.

U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, co-sponsor of the House bill on TikTok, pointed to another instance where the U.S. government ordered a Chinese company to sell a U.S. app. In 2019, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States ordered the new Chinese owners of Grindr to sell the dating app, which the Chinese owners did the year. In that case, the foreign owners could not assert First Amendment rights in the United States, given that they were outside the U.S., and thus no court considered this issue.

Advertisement

TikTok is First Amendment protection against the law forcing its sale or ban.

National security claims

The government hasn't disclosed to the public the national security concerns cited in the TikTok law. While such concerns, if accurate, might warrant some kind of intervention, some Americans are likely to decline to take claims of national security urgency on good faith. To address skepticism of secret government power, particularly when it involves speech rights, the government arguably needs to present its claims.

U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Marsha Blackburn, both of whom supported the TikTok law and have seen the government's secret evidence, called for the declassification of that information. We believe that's a vital step for the public to properly consider the government's claim that a ban is warranted in this instance. In any case, the courts will ultimately weigh the secret evidence in determining whether the government's national security concerns justified this intrusion upon speech.

What seems likely to happen, absent judicial invalidation or legislative repeal of the law, is a world in which TikTok cannot effectively operate in the United States in a year's time, with mobile app stores unable to push out updates to the software and Oracle Corp. unable to continue hosting the app and its U.S. user data on its servers. TikTok could go dark on Jan. 19, 2025, in the United States.The Conversation

Anupam Chander, Professor of Law and Technology, Georgetown University and Gautam Hans, Associate Clinical Professor of Law, Cornell University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Advertisement
Continue Reading

The Conversation

AI chatbots are intruding into online communities where people are trying to connect with other humans

Published

on

theconversation.com – Casey Fiesler, Associate Professor of Information Science, of Colorado Boulder – 2024-05-20 07:27:05
AI chatbots are butting into human spaces.
gmast3r/iStock via Getty Images

Casey Fiesler, University of Colorado Boulder

A parent asked a question in a private Facebook group in April 2024: Does anyone with a child who is both gifted and disabled have any experience with New York City ? The parent received a seemingly helpful answer that laid out some characteristics of a specific school, beginning with the context that “I have a child who is also 2e,” meaning twice exceptional.

On a Facebook group for swapping unwanted items near Boston, a user looking for specific items received an offer of a “gently used” Canon camera and an “almost-new portable conditioning unit that I never ended up using.”

Both of these responses were lies. That child does not exist and neither do the camera or air conditioner. The answers came from an artificial intelligence chatbot.

Advertisement

According to a Meta help page, Meta AI will respond to a post in a group if someone explicitly tags it or if someone “asks a question in a post and no one responds within an hour.” The feature is not yet available in all regions or for all groups, according to the page. For groups where it is available, “admins can turn it off and back on at any time.”

Meta AI has also been integrated into search features on Facebook and Instagram, and users cannot turn it off.

As a researcher who studies both online communities and AI ethics, I find the idea of uninvited chatbots answering questions in Facebook groups to be dystopian for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that online communities are for people.

Human connections

In 1993, Howard Rheingold published the book “The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier” about the WELL, an early and culturally significant online community. The first chapter opens with a parenting question: What to do about a “blood-bloated thing sucking on our baby's scalp.”

Advertisement

Rheingold received an answer from someone with firsthand knowledge of dealing with ticks and had resolved the problem before receiving a callback from the pediatrician's office. Of this experience, he wrote, “What amazed me wasn't just the speed with which we obtained precisely the information we needed to know, right when we needed to know it. It was also the immense inner sense of security that comes with discovering that real people – most of them , some of them nurses, , and midwives – are available, around the clock, if you need them.”

This “real people” aspect of online communities continues to be critical today. Imagine why you might pose a question to a Facebook group rather than a search engine: because you want an answer from someone with real, lived experience or you want the human response that your question might elicit – sympathy, outrage, commiseration – or both.

Decades of research suggests that the human component of online communities is what makes them so valuable for both information-seeking and social . For example, fathers who might otherwise feel uncomfortable asking for parenting advice have found a haven in private online spaces just for dads. LGBTQ+ youth often join online communities to safely find critical resources while reducing feelings of isolation. Mental support forums provide young people with belonging and validation in addition to advice and social support.

Online communities are well-documented places of support for LGBTQ+ people.

In addition to similar findings in my own lab related to LGBTQ+ participants in online communities, as well as Black Twitter, two more recent studies, not yet peer-reviewed, have emphasized the importance of the human aspects of information-seeking in online communities.

Advertisement

One, led by PhD student Blakeley Payne, focuses on fat people's experiences online. Many of our participants found a lifeline in access to an audience and community with similar experiences as they sought and shared information about topics such as navigating hostile systems, finding clothing and dealing with cultural biases and stereotypes.

Another, led by Ph.D student Faye Kollig, found that people who share content online about their chronic illnesses are motivated by the sense of community that comes with shared experiences, as well as the humanizing aspects of connecting with others to both seek and provide support and information.

Faux people

The most important benefits of these online spaces as described by our participants could be drastically undermined by responses coming from chatbots instead of people.

As a type 1 diabetic, I follow a number of related Facebook groups that are frequented by many parents newly navigating the challenges of caring for a young child with diabetes. Questions are frequent: “What does this mean?” “How should I handle this?” “What are your experiences with this?” Answers come from firsthand experience, but they also typically come with compassion: “This is hard.” “You're doing your best.” And of course: “We've all been there.”

Advertisement

A response from a chatbot claiming to speak from the lived experience of caring for a diabetic child, offering empathy, would not only be inappropriate, but it would be borderline cruel.

However, it makes complete sense that these are the types of responses that a chatbot would offer. Large language models, simplistically, function more similarly to autocomplete than they do to search engines. For a model trained on the millions and millions of posts and comments in Facebook groups, the “autocomplete” answer to a question in a support community is definitely one that invokes personal experience and offers empathy – just as the “autocomplete” answer in a Buy Nothing Facebook group might be to offer someone a gently used camera.

Meta has rolled out an AI assistant across its social media and messaging apps.

Keeping chatbots in their lanes

This isn't to suggest that chatbots aren't useful for anything – they may even be quite useful in some online communities, in some contexts. The problem is that in the midst of the current generative AI rush, there is a tendency to think that chatbots can and should do everything.

There are plenty of downsides to using large language models as information retrieval systems, and these downsides point to inappropriate contexts for their use. One downside is when incorrect information could be dangerous: an eating disorder helpline or legal advice for small businesses, for example.

Advertisement

Research is pointing to important considerations in how and when to design and deploy chatbots. For example, one recently published paper at a large human-computer interaction conference found that though LGBTQ+ individuals lacking social support were sometimes turning to chatbots for help with mental health needs, those chatbots frequently fell short in grasping the nuance of LGBTQ+-specific challenges.

Another found that though a group of autistic participants found value in interacting with a chatbot for social communication advice, that chatbot was also dispensing questionable advice. And yet another found that though a chatbot was helpful as a preconsultation tool in a health context, sometimes found expressions of empathy to be insincere or offensive.

Responsible AI and deployment means not only auditing for issues such as bias and misinformation, but also taking the time to understand in which contexts AI is appropriate and desirable for the humans who will be interacting with them. Right now, many companies are wielding generative AI as a hammer, and as a result, everything looks like a nail.

Many contexts, such as online support communities, are best left to humans.The Conversation

Casey Fiesler, Associate Professor of Information Science, University of Colorado Boulder

Advertisement

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Continue Reading

News from the South

Trending