Mark Bittman takes a new track

For years Mark Bittman has been teaching everyday Americans how to cook.  I was a smidge concerned when he wrote that the Minimalist column was ending.  But given his recent book Food Matters (which I highlighted in a previous post), I wasn’t too worried.

Last week he wrote A Food Manifesto for the Future in the New York Times. He covers everything I believe is important to our pursuit of healthier eating as individuals and as a population.  I certainly could not have conveyed it any better.  Please read every word.

He summarizes by saying:

I’ll expand on these issues (and more) in the future, but the essential message is this: food and everything surrounding it is a crucial matter of personal and public health, of national and global security. At stake is not only the health of humans but that of the earth.

I can’t wait to see what he’ll say next.

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Top Stories

The Atlantic wrote an article about the top 10 food stories of 2010.  It covers a wide range of topics, but food safety is a prominent issue.  I found the links to articles about Jack DeCoster shocking, but not surprising.  Foraging is also becoming popular.  It’s like having nature do the gardening for you.  I would love to try foraging, but I need to find an expert to show me the ropes first.  (And I’ve heard foragers are notoriously protective of their ‘spots.’)

And my favorite quote from an article on cleaning up Chesapeake Bay pollution.

“…it is unfair to expect New York to dedicate taxpayer dollars, staff, and other…resources to reduce [pollution] to the bay when New York reaps no benefit from the bay.”  It’s hard to tell in written form, but do I detect major whining?  Is it unfair that we get to eat food from places we don’t live?

Not to paint New York in negativity only, Governer Paterson of NY is passing an executive order to increase the amount of local food the state purchases.  “…where feasible and without increased cost or burden, state-supported institutions must increase the proportion of their total food purchases composed of locally grown food.”  Cost is the driving factor in so many decisions.  I can’t help but wonder if they spent more on local food even when there was a slight increase in cost, they might find that they save money in other areas.  And what about all the benefits that can’t be listed on a balance sheet?  Still, it’s a great step forward.

To combat childhood obesity, San Francisco has effectively banned the Happy Meal.  The city’s Board unanimously passed the “Healthy Foods Initiative Ordinance,” placing nutritional requirements on meals that come with toys.

“The intent of this Ordinance is to improve the health of children and adolescents in San Francisco by setting healthy nutritional standards for children’s meals sold at restaurants accompanied by toys or other incentive items.  These standards will support families seeking health eating choices for their children by permitting restaurants to offer toys and other incentive items only in conjunction with foods meeting specified nutritional criteria.”

Since “San Franciscans consumer over one-third of their food…at fast food and pizza restaurants,” this would likely have a significant positive impact if: 1) people that were buying Happy Meals continue to do so, and 2) the imposed guidelines actually translate into healthier food.  Having spent a year in the Bay area, I confess I was tempted to consume all my meals at restaurants, but nary a McDonald’s meal entered my mind.  Haven’t corporations become adept at finding a way around rules?  Perhaps parents will now buy two Happy Meals for their children because of the calorie cap?   And customers must now salt their own fries?  Critics claim that it should be up to the parents to guide their children’s food choices.  An occasional fast food meal (toy or no toy) does not negate a healthy diet.  At the same time, consumers are constantly bombarded with advertising convincing children and their parents to choose fast food.

Nourishing Thoughts has a post about the inherent flaw of having companies self-police their advertising.  It’s also a great resource for raising healthy kids.

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I’m Just a Bill

Remember that old Schoolhouse Rock video about bills becoming laws?

Two bills were passed recently that will likely mean progess for the health of our food system and children.

On December 2nd, the House passed the Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill.  The $4.5 billion budget allocates $40 million for a new Farm to School program.  Read the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s article about the bill.  Interestingly, the bill passed unanimously in the Senate, but only passed 264 to 157 in the House.

A highly anticipated and debated bill was passed by the Senate on November 30th, the Food Safety Modernization Act. Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan advocated for the bill in a New York Times article.

The bill would, for the first time, give the F.D.A., which oversees 80 percent of the nation’s food, the authority to test widely for dangerous pathogens and to recall contaminated food. The agency would finally have the resources and authority to prevent food safety problems, rather than respond only after people have become ill. The bill would also require more frequent inspections of large-scale, high-risk food-production plants.

Another informative article (Schoolhouse Rock for adults – minus the interesting cartoon) by the NASC explains some of the hold up in getting the bill to President Obama, but the passage of S.510 will mean safer food for Americans by giving the FDA more control.  Acoording to the article, “The bill…marks the most sweeping overhaul of food safety regulations in nearly a century.”

So often I have wondered why the government has not seemed to care about the many problems with our food system.  I am encouraged that we are actually on the road to progress.

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True Food is a true treasure

True Food: 8 Simple steps to a Healthier You by Bond, Breyer and Gordon is a one stop guide for conscientious consumers.

The eight chapters address many of the topics I cover on this blog — eat local, eat a variety of foods, aim for organic, eat lower on the food chain, eat fresh food, eat whole foods, stock your pantry, and green your kitchen.  The book is full of sidebar tips, recipes, and quotes from other leaders in the field.  I especially appreciated the detailed descriptions of the lesser known grains, herbs and vegetables available in the States, and even a primer on finding whole foods in grocery stores.  It’s filled with a whole spectrum of useful nuggets such as how to repel large pests from your yard, recipes for natural cleaners, and making sense of what food labels actually mean.   If you need another reason to buy organic, consider this:

“Organic fruits and vegetables contain only about a third as much pesticide residue as conventionally grown food…Why does organic food contain any such residue?  From past soil contamination or drift from conventional farms.  Where there is pesticide spray, there is drift: Less than 0.1 percent of pesticide applied to crops reaches the target pest.  The rest goes into the air, rivers, and living organisms.”

By purchasing organic, we are preventing other crops from contamination.

Another thought-provoking point is that “[m]ost agricultural plant breeding programs in the United States emphasize yield, uniformity, market acceptability, pest resistance, and transportability – not nutritional quality.  In fact, breeding plants for the characteristics desirable for industrial production and marketing often lowers the plants’ nutritional values.”  When we are shopping in the produce section, we are usually looking for health, and have not taken any of the seller’s requirements into consideration.  By choosing most conventionally grown produce, our choices have already been narrowed to inferior products.  The desire for nutritional superiority, as well as the markedly smaller chance of contamination are compelling reasons to shop at stores that carry local produce from small farmers.   Lest we give local the overriding high road, the book excerpts an article by Dan Barber from the New York Times.  “The five-acre monoculture of tomato plants next door might be local, but it’s really no different from the 200-acre one across the country: Both have sacrificed the ecological insurance that comes with biodiversity.”  The book recommends Seed Savers Exchange (which I mentioned in an earlier post) and Bountiful Gardens as sources for heirloom seeds, in addition to instruction on saving your own seeds.

Speaking of seeds, here is their recipe for Pumpkin Seed Pesto in case any of you have copious amounts of them left over from carving pumpkins…

Pumpkin Seed Pesto

½ C pumpkin seeds, hulled and roasted, plus more for garnish

2 T grated Parmesan cheese or roasted cashews

1 garlic clove

1 ½ C (total) parsley, basil, cilantro, or other herbs

2 t lemon juice

1/3 C extra-virgin oline oil or pumpkin seed oil

Salt and pepper to taste

1.     Place pumpkin seeds, cheese or cashews, and garlic in a food processor with the metal blade.  Process until mixture is ground, about 30 seconds.

2.     2. Add herbs and lemon juice.  Pulse, and slowly add olive oil until the mixture is finely chopped and olive oil is just blended in.  Taste and season.

When you get a chance to read this book, I’d love to know what you gained from it.   For those of you who can’t wait, there’s a trailer on Amazon for it, or this article by Annie Bond.

I also found this informative, though unrelated, True Food site.

Happy Reading!

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Smart Choices – for terrible terrible people?

As a country we have become so confused about what to eat that we need expert guidance to steer us to the right choices.  Unfortunately, some “experts” seem even more ignorant than the average US consumer.  If you are counting on the Smart Choices label to help you, your chances of being healthy are sadly slim.  Some highlights from a New York Times article by William Neuman:

“Eileen T. Kennedy, president of the Smart Choices board and the dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, said the program’s criteria were based on government dietary guidelines and widely accepted nutritional standards.

She said the program was also influenced by research into consumer behavior. That research showed that, while shoppers wanted more information, they did not want to hear negative messages or feel their choices were being dictated to them.

The [Smart Choices] checkmark means the food item is a ‘better for you’ product, as opposed to having an x on it saying ‘Don’t eat this,’ ” Dr. Kennedy said. “Consumers are smart enough to deduce that if it doesn’t have the checkmark, by implication it’s not a ‘better for you’ product. They want to have a choice. They don’t want to be told ‘You must do this.’ ”

Are we smart enough?  I wonder if avocados and whole grains in the bulk section come with the Smart Choices label?  Yet Froot Loops meets these ‘widely accepted nutritional standards.’

Kennedy claimed that “Froot Loops was better than other things parents could choose for their children.

“You’re rushing around, you’re trying to think about healthy eating for your kids and you have a choice between a doughnut and a cereal,” Dr. Kennedy said, evoking a hypothetical parent in the supermarket. “So Froot Loops is a better choice.”

So, if you want to pick a “less-bad” choice, look for the Smart Choices label.   If you want healthy food – avoid the label.

“Froot Loops is an excellent source of many essential vitamins and minerals and it is also a good source of fiber with only 12 grams of sugar,” said Celeste A. Clark, senior vice president of global nutrition for Kellogg’s, which makes Froot Loops. “You cannot judge the nutritional merits of a food product based on one ingredient.”

Should we judge foods based on nutrients that are not inherently in the food?  The ‘merits’ of Froot Loops do not come from the food ingredients used to make the cereal, but rather the sludge of added vitamins and minerals.  Might it make sense to get our B vitamins and iron from actual foods?

As Michael Jacobson points out, “You could start out with some sawdust, add calcium or Vitamin A and meet the criteria.”

“The object of this is to make highly processed foods appear as healthful as unprocessed foods, which they are not,” said Marion Nestle.”

In an article titled “Smart Choice Foods: Dumb As They Look?,” Rebecca Ruiz writes:

Richard Kahn, Ph.D, a panel participant… said the guidelines were designed to help people who are currently making “terrible, terrible choices” with their diets.

Kahn, who was formerly the chief scientific and medical officer for the American Diabetic Association, said it seemed unrealistic to point consumers toward less-processed foods like fruits and vegetables because the intended audience of the Smart Choices program comprises those who might be choosing between a sugary cereal and a doughnut.

Perhaps the label should come with a footnote saying, “intended for people who make terrible, terrible food choices.”  Then we would know if we would benefit from the label or not.

I think the main problem is this was funded by food companies.  Am I the only one who would find the justification for ‘smart choices’ comical, if it weren’t for the fact that people looking for guidance would actually be swayed by this nonsense?

It appears that the program has been ‘voluntarily halted.’  But if I saw a product with the logo on it, I would take it as a good bet that the item is a junk choice.

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Fast Food Photos

Ever wondered what mechanically separated chicken is?  I naively thought it was: chicken, separated by a machine (picture a juicy glistening roasted chicken, with robot arms skillfully picking the meat off the bone).  Obviously my innocent brain could not be farther from the truth.  If someone were to identify the picture below, I would expect answers like: strawberry soft serve ice cream, or salt water taffy.  Maybe even a foam noodle before it’s been hardened.

According to Early Onset of Night blogger,

Basically, the entire chicken is smashed and pressed through a sieve—bones, eyes, guts, and all. it comes out looking like this.

There’s more: because it’s crawling with bacteria, it will be washed with ammonia, soaked in it, actually. Then, because it tastes gross, it will be reflavored artificially. Then, because it is weirdly pink, it will be dyed with artificial color.

Perhaps a burger and fries would be the better choice next time you’re stuck on the road?

Sally Davies has been taking pictures of a McDonald’s Happy Meal sitting on her counter for six months.  The beef and bread have yet to grow mold!  Somehow I don’t think whatever is in a Happy Meal is the way to preserve our health – or happiness.

If knowing about the conditions that these animals were raised in wasn’t enough to sway me, thanks to these photos I’ve been forever cured from fast food.  Now I just need to convince the rest of the family.

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Baby Steps

Sometimes I get overwhelmed by all the topics I want to write about on this blog — which means I put it off and put it off.  It’s similar to making positive changes in our lifestyle.  Too many good choices can be the enemy of action.  So, I will try to take baby steps and start sharing my thoughts with you on a regular basis again, as I also encourage you to find one baby step you could implement today.

My latest baby step that I am proud of is Charlie’s Soap.  We used go through a big jug of laundry detergent every few weeks (family of 5, including smelly boys who do sports, equals a lot of laundry).  A friend recommended Charlie’s Soap to me last year based on it’s economic and ecological friendliness.  It is made from biodegradable detergents and washing soda and doesn’t have any dyes or perfumes.  I tried the 2 pound bag and was happy with the results.  So this time I purchased the 5 gallon bucket, which is supposed to wash 1280 loads.  I saw it for as low as $90 on Amazon right now (including shipping from Green Cupboards), which is considerably less than what I paid.  That’s about 7 cents a load!  The biggest benefit?  It’s delivered right to your door.  (Am I the only one who dislikes lugging the big jugs home from the store?)  And, I keep thinking about how much packaging I am saving from being produced and recycled.  Almost makes me want to go start a load of laundry right now…

In any case, thanks for tuning back in.  I’ll write more soon.

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