Eating Liberally

Eating Liberally Blog

WEEKEND GREENMARKET BLOGGING

Gnome Chompsky went digging for delicacies at the Greenmarket and came back with baby Romanesco and a pair of Hokkaido squashes. Romanesco is a type of cauliflower or broccoli, depending on whom you ask. Either way, it’s an Italian heirloom variety, and “one of nature’s more spectacular creations,” as Elizabeth Schneider notes in Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini, adding “I find the Romanesco considerably more elegant in flavor and form than most Broccoflowers, with a delicate nuttiness and an appealing nubbly texture.”

The Hokkaido is a kind of Kabocha squash derived from the American Hubbard. Schneider raves about this Japanese-American hybrid’s “deep flavor, honeyed sweetness, and flesh so fine-grained that it can seem more custard than vegetable.” The skin is edible, and the best way to prepare them is to steam them, says Schneider. “They blaze to the color of California poppies inside and out, taste fresh and sweet, and are seamlessly creamy.”

NPR’s Weekend Edition had a story today about how vegetables may be less nutritious now than they were a few generations ago, in part because plant breeders have been more focused on market yield and appearance than nutrition—or flavor, for that matter.

Just one more reason to buy from your local farmer, who’s lovingly selected and sown the finest varieties of vegetables. Freshly harvested, they’re bound to be better for you than the industrial produce that’s grown in depleted soil and shipped cross-country. The farmers at the Greenmarket take pride in their hand-picked produce, and flavor comes first. Not how well it ships, or how long it looks good on the shelf.

The only catch is, you have to get there early, before your fellow foodies and the chefs scoop up the cream of the crop.

ECOLOGICAL AXIS OF EVIL THREATENS SEAFOOD SUPPLY

A combination of overfishing, pollution, and climate change is depleting the world’s seafood supply so rapidly that fish populations are in danger of disappearing entirely, according to a report in the journal Science. The Washington Post interviewed the scientist who spearheaded the study:

"We really see the end of the line now," said lead author Boris Worm, a marine biologist at Canada's Dalhousie University. "It's within our lifetime. Our children will see a world without seafood if we don't change things."

The 14 researchers from Canada, Panama, Sweden, Britain and the United States spent four years analyzing fish populations, catch records and ocean ecosystems to reach their conclusion. They found that by 2003 -- the last year for which data on global commercial fish catches are available -- 29 percent of all fished species had collapsed, meaning they are now at least 90 percent below their historic maximum catch levels.

The rate of population collapses has accelerated in recent years. As of 1980, just 13.5 percent of fished species had collapsed, even though fishing vessels were pursuing 1,736 fewer species then. Today, the fishing industry harvests 7,784 species commercially.

"It's like hitting the gas pedal and holding it down at a constant level," Worm said in a telephone interview. "The rate accelerates over time."

The seafood industry disputes the study’s dire warnings, insisting that seafood producers are already taking steps to reverse the trend. The National Fisheries Institute issued a statement claiming that most wild marine stocks remain sustainable. A spokeswoman for the group, Stacey Viera, predicted that farmed fish would help fill the gap between what “wild capture can provide sustainably and the growing demand for seafood.”

But several scientists challenged that prediction and questioned why humanity should pay for a resource that the ocean had long provided for free. "It's like turning on the air conditioning rather than opening the window," said Stanford University marine sciences professor Stephen R. Palumbi, one of the paper's authors.

Oregon State University marine biologist Jane Lubchenco said the study makes clear that fish stocks are in trouble, even though consumers appear to have a cornucopia of seafood choices.

"I think people don't get it," Lubchenco said. "They think, 'If there is a problem with the oceans, how come the case in my grocery store is so full?' There is a disconnect."

The possible collapse of commercial fisheries could have a serious impact on the global economy, said Gerald Leape, vice president for the advocacy group National Environmental Trust. The industry generates $80 billion a year, Leape said, and more than 200 million people depend directly or indirectly on fishing for their main source of income. Worldwide, a billion people eat seafood as their main source of animal protein.

Happily, the study did contain a glimmer of hope; in nearly 50 areas where overfishing had been restricted, populations increased by 23% within five years.

There’s still time to stop a catastrophic collapse of the world’s fish population, if we act now. We could start by convincing the countries that spend $20 billion a year to subsidize harmful fishing practices that they’ll be looking at more than one kind of net loss if they don’t knock it off.

KOMBUCHA: WONDER DRINK OR FIZZY SNAKE OIL?

“Have you tried these Kombucha tea drinks?” e-mailed my friend Anne the other day. “I have been reading about their supposed health benefits online…some flavors are rather odd-tasting, and they all smell strange, but they are strangely addictive.”

That night, as I was savoring the best veggie burger I have ever had at Laurent Tourondel’s brand new BLT Burger joint, my friend Tracy asked, “Have you tried those Kombucha teas?”

Kombucha is in the zeitgeist, evidently; Google employees reportedly consume 100 cups a day of this peculiar fermented brew, and System of a Down refers to it in the song “Sugar.”

I have tried Kombucha, and I like the way it tastes; it’s got a weird, slightly tart taste and a subtle, almost imperceptible fizz unlike any other drink I’ve ever had. And it’s said to be the antidote for just about anything that ails you.

But what is it, exactly?

“It is primarily a fibrous cellulose spongy membrane that is formed by the various Kombucha bacteria and yeast cells that live in the liquid sugary tea,” according to the website kombucha-america.com. “By drinking Kombucha Tea daily you may help prevent your body tissues from absorbing all the toxins and poisons found in our industrial environment that may be making you ill.”

Kombucha-america.com sells the Kombucha culture you need to brew your own Kombucha tea, if you’d like to try what sounds like a slightly bizarre science project:

This 2000 year old tea is made using an extraordinary mushroom* that is placed into a batch of regular sugary tea. The tea then begins to ferment and in about 7 days it is ready to drink. During that same 7 day period a second mushroom grows within the tea, this new mushroom is used to make your next batch of tea. Each time you make a batch of tea a new mushroom is produced. Because of this quick reproductive cycle of the Kombucha you can make an endless supply of this incredible tea for free!”

The Kombucha culture is not actually a mushroom, but something called a tea pseudo lichen. And, thankfully, you don’t need to grow your own; there are several brands of bottled Kombucha on the market. It’s a pricey beverage, as you might expect from something so labor intensive. But given the laundry list of modern ills it supposedly combats, maybe it’s worth it.

A brand of Kombucha called Synergy, which comes in a 16 oz. bottle for $4.99, claims that “Kombucha supports digestion, metabolism, immune system, appetite control, weight control, liver function, body alkalinity, anti-aging, cell integrity, healthy skin & hair.”

The label also explains that Synergy was founded by G.T. Dave in 1995 “after his mother’s success drinking it during her battle with breast cancer.”

Elsewhere on the label, in tiny print, it says “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”

Another brand, Kombucha Wonder Drink, comes in an 8.5 ounce bottle for $2.99, and calls itself a “sparkling Himalayan tonic.” Its health claims are couched in fairy tale language:

For thousands of years millions have relied on this exhilarating tonic to promote wellness. Discovered in the Himalayas, Kombucha spread across Eurasia and is now revered on every continent. Some legends claimed it was the fountain of youth, while others told of its energy-enhancing properties on the battlefield. Known to be high in anti-oxidants, immune system enhancers and natural detoxifiers, this crisp, effervescent wonder drink confers its health-giving benefits on all who drink it. Discover new serenity, endurance and clarity. Share it. True believers drink daily.

Should beverage companies be allowed to tout their tonics as a cure-all without having to back up their claims with scientific studies? The market for this kind of “functional food,” which claims to offer some kind of benefit beyond your basic vitamins and nutrients, is exploding. Sales are expected to reach some $50 million in the next four years.

But whether these products actually have the power to enhance our physical and mental well-being hasn’t been proven, which is why the Center for Science and the Public Interest calls some of these products “21st Century quackery,” and has been leaning on the FDA for years to crack down on these kinds of unproven claims.

The FDA has scheduled a public hearing on December 5th to address the question of whether functional foods should be more strictly regulated. Given the FDA’s recent history of approving drugs that have turned out to have serious and even fatal side effects, I can’t say that the FDA’s seal of approval would mean a whole lot to me.

I’m willing to take a chance on Kombucha because I like the way it tastes; if it’s even half as good for you as it claims, that would be a bonus. I just wish it wasn’t so expensive. I guess I’ll have to order that Kombucha starter kit.

A FARMER IN THE MALL? A HOG FARM NEXT DOOR? IT’S UP TO VOTERS

If you think Industrial Organic’s an oxymoron, wait till you hear about Sustainable Sprawl. Meet Measure J, an initiative on the ballot in San Luis Obispo County, California.

Measure J is a proposal from farmer-turned-developer Ernie Dalidio to turn the 131-acre farm where his father and grandfather once grew row crops into a 530,000 square foot retail development featuring a shopping center, plus a hotel, business park, sports fields and 60 units of housing. Oh, and a 13-acre organic farm and butterfly preserve tacked on to show voters that big box stores and small scale farming can happily co-exist.

Dalidio once grew snow peas and bell peppers himself, but skyrocketing property values have brought development that “has made farming our land unrealistic,” he says. It’s a dilemma faced by farmers all over the country: they can’t eke out a living from the land, but they can make a killing by developing it.

He’s been trying to develop Dalidio Ranch for years, but voters rejected a previous project that the city had approved, so Dalidio’s trying again, this time giving the proposal a “green” patina and putting it on the ballot as a “citizen’s initiative,” which allows him to sidestep an environmental review, public hearings, and other traditional county procedures.

But Dalidio’s project is small potatoes compared to another developer’s stealth ballot initiatives. New York real estate tycoon Howie Rich has used front groups to secretly fund ballot proposals in Arizona, California, Idaho and Washington, according to this scary diary from davej over at Daily Kos entitled “A Hog Farm Next Door to Your House:”

There is a law on the ballot in four states that says if I want to open a hog farm or a chemical plant next door to your house and you don't want me to do that, then YOU have to PAY ME not to -- you have to pay me ALL THE MONEY I MIGHT HAVE MADE. I am not kidding. This new law says that if you want to stop a corporation from dumping toxic waste into the river from which you get your drinking water, or stop them from venting dangerous chemicals into the air, then YOU have to PAY that company not to...

…Along with EVERYTHING else going on in this election, the far right has managed to get stealth "takings" initiatives on the ballot in four states. In California it is Proposition 90. In Washington it is Initiative 933. In Idaho it is Proposition 2. In Arizona it is Proposition 207.

This is a "private property" and "takings" amendment disguised as a limit to "eminent domain." This means that it is supposed to be about keeping the government from seizing property so it can be used by commercial interests. But what this really does is prevent the states from ANY regulation of property, including ANY environmental regulations, ANY zoning laws, etc.

Developers often dress up their projects as “smart growth” that benefits the whole community. But how many big box stores does one town need? And why allow agribusiness to build massive hog farms that force nearby residents to stay indoors to avoid the stench?

The San Luis Obispo Tribune endorses the Dalidio Ranch project as smart growth. “Sustainable growth is an oxymoron,” declares From The Wilderness, a website dedicated to the issue of “peak oil.”

Small family farms are getting swallowed up by sprawl. The number of farms in the U.S. has plummeted to fewer than 2 million farms, down from about 6.5 million in 1920.

At the other end of the spectrum are the industrial hog farms, with their massive lagoons of “slurry,” the pig waste that ferments and releases noxious toxins into the air.

On November 7th, voters in California, Arizona, Idaho, and Washington will have the opportunity to weigh in on whether they want these kinds of developments in their communities. Judging by the usual low voter turnout, most people won’t bother to go to the polls, because they think politics doesn’t really affect their day-to-day lives.

To which I say, wake up and smell the slurry!

JERK O' LANTERN

The truth won't be squashed.

MAHER MOCKS OUR TOLERANCE FOR TOXINS

When China’s environmental regulations eclipse our own, you’ve gotta wonder.

I’d heard that American cars aren’t fuel-efficient enough to sell to China, but I hadn’t realized that the rest of the world is literally leaving us in a cloud of toxic dust when it comes to regulating consumer products.

Bill Maher brought up the topic on his show last Friday, observing that China now produces plywood for the U.S. market that contains too much formaldehyde to be legally sold in China or the European Union. Maher took a stab at FDA and EPA complacency by displaying an array of not-so-good-for-you goodies: Lead’n’Shoulders, Ricin Roni, Coca-e-Coli, Salmo-nilla Wafers, Asbest-O’s, and Oil of L.A.

The L.A. Times article that inspired his mocking mock-ups was, alas, not so funny:

As the European Union and other nations have tightened their environmental standards, mostly in the last two years, manufacturers — here and around the world — are selling goods to American consumers that fail to meet other nations' stringent laws for toxic chemicals.

Wood, toys, electronics, pesticides and cosmetics are among U.S. products that contain substances that are banned or restricted elsewhere, particularly in Europe and Japan, because they may raise the risk of cancer, alter hormones or cause reproductive or neurological damage.

Michael Wilson, a professor at UC Berkeley's Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, said the United States is becoming a "dumping ground" for consumer goods that are unwanted and illegal in much of the world. Wilson warned earlier this year in a report commissioned by the California Legislature that "the United States has fallen behind globally in the move toward cleaner technologies."

The European Union, driven by consumers' concerns, has banned or heavily restricted hundreds of toxic substances in recent years, invoking its "precautionary principle," which is codified into law and prescribes that protective steps should be taken when there is scientific evidence of risks to public health or the environment.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies have relied on voluntary steps from industries rather than regulations, saying the threats posed by low levels of chemicals are too uncertain to eliminate products valuable to consumers or businesses.

Where’s Dick Cheney’s 1 percent doctrine when we need it? According to Ron Suskind, Cheney reportedly stated after 9/11 that ''if there was even a 1 percent chance of terrorists getting a weapon of mass destruction -- and there has been a small probability of such an occurrence for some time -- the United States must now act as if it were a certainty.''

“We’re making America safer” is the Bush administration’s mantra, and mere suspicion was reason enough to act, when the perceived menace was an oil-rich country ruled by a tyrant. We’ve sacrificed billions of dollars and thousands of lives to combat a supposed threat that turned out to be phony.

But isn’t letting corporations sell unsuspecting Americans consumer goods the rest of the world rejects as too toxic another kind of chemical warfare? If you think this administration is serious about keeping Americans safe, I’ve got some formaldehyde-filled plywood I’d like to sell you. It off-gasses 30 times more formaldehyde than legally permitted in Europe or China, but the Chinese are happy to manufacture it just for us so we can buy it at Home Depot.

WEEKEND GREENMARKET BLOGGING

Buddha meditates on the makings of a perfect stir-fry: bell peppers, broccoli, shitake and oyster mushrooms, and yard-long beans, a close cousin to black-eyed peas. Yard-long beans are, despite their name, best eaten when they’re about a foot long; they stay nice and crisp cooked up in the wok. Throw in some ginger, garlic, and sesame oil, serve on a bed of brown Basmati rice, and Buddha will soon be serenely salivating.

GLORIFYING GLUTTONY

America has the dubious distinction of having the cheapest food and the highest health care costs of any industrialized nation. Cause and effect? Consider Denny’s current ad campaign for its “Extreme Grand Slam Breakfast:”

“Denny’s works for me because they don’t make me choose between bacon or sausage,” says Mr. Regular Guy as two cute animated flying pigs hover over him, clutching strips of sausage and bacon in their little cloven hooves.

“See, unlike my wife, Denny’s believes that I deserve bacon and sausage. Oh, and then, all these wonderful people, they come by and they refill my coffee…I may never go home.”

The voiceover announces, “When you have Denny’s new Extreme Grand Slam Breakfast, you’ll want to stay awhile. More bacon, more sausage, two eggs, a stack of pancakes…”

Yes, for only $5.99, you get 1270 calories, 77 grams of fat, 495 milligrams of cholesterol, and 2510 milligrams of sodium.

See, unlike his wife, Denny’s doesn’t really care if Mr. Regular Guy pigs out and eats himself sick. They’re in business to make money. And one of the best ways to do that, evidently, is to cater to the notion that we deserve to eat lots of cheap, fatty foods.

What we really need to do, as Michael Pollan points out, is “spend more, eat less.” Buy better quality food, and consume smaller portions. But we’re “as addicted to cheap food as we are to cheap oil.” Can we wean ourselves off either one?

I SAY SYNTHETIC; YOU SAY ORGANIC?

More than half the apples sold in the U.S. have been treated with a synthetic gas called Smart Fresh, the NY Times reported yesterday. Smart Fresh, manufactured by a company called AgroFresh, keeps apples crisp up to three times longer by blocking ethylene, the hormone that makes apples ripen.

SmartFresh is a huge boon to apple growers, costing only a penny per pound of apples and proving more effective at preserving freshness than other techniques such as controlled atmosphere storage, where oxygen is reduced and carbon dioxide levels are raised to slow ripening.

“…the treatment is most likely harmless to humans, according to pesticide experts,” reports the NY Times. In fact, the article notes, “As a side benefit it often replaces diphenylamine, a moderately toxic chemical approved for controlling scald, a postharvest disorder.”

Well, that’s progress, I guess. SmartFresh is being used on some fruits in other countries, including Korea, Chile, South Africa and France. It’s probably perfectly safe.

The thing is, though, that consumers who’d rather not buy a chemically treated apple have no way of knowing whether an apple’s been treated with SmartFresh. Even worse, AgroFresh officials told the NY Times “they may apply to the National Organic Standards Board to allow SmartFresh fruit to be labeled organic.”

As if that’s not baffling enough, consider this story from Newsday:

“It's not deceptive for a supermarket to sell expired baby food, spermicide and sunblock, as long as the products' packages show the expiration date, a state appeals court ruled yesterday in a decision concerning the Plainview ShopRite supermarket.

The Nassau Office of Consumer Affairs had taken ShopRite to court four years ago, after investigators found that 144 items on the supermarket's shelves were expired. But both trial and appellate courts found that, while the county has the right to fine the market for selling expired goods, it can't go after them for using "deceptive business practices," a tactic that would have made it easier for the county to keep supermarkets in check.”

I guess the logic here is that ShopRite wasn’t trying to trick unwitting shoppers into buying expired goods; rather, the supermarket simply wanted to offer consumers the option of buying a product that’s old and outdated for the same price as a fresh product.

Isn’t freedom of choice a fine thing?

LEAFY GREENS GOOD FOR GRAY MATTER

An apple a day may keep the doctor away, but apparently it’s vegetables that keep senility at bay:

Eating two or more servings of vegetables a day may slow a person's mental decline by about 40 percent compared with a person who consumes few vegetables, according to a new study.

The research in almost 2,000 Chicago-area men and women doesn't prove that vegetables reduce mental decline, but it adds to mounting evidence pointing in that direction. The findings also echo previous research in women only.

The slowdown in the rate of cognitive decline experienced by people who ate 2.8 or more servings of vegetables a day is "equivalent to about five years of younger age" compared with people who ate less than one vegetable serving per day, said lead author Martha Clare Morris, a researcher at the Rush Institute for Healthy Aging at Chicago's Rush University Medical Center.

The study, which was funded by the National Institute on Aging, also examined the effects of fruit consumption on cognitive decline but found no similar benefit. This may be because most fruits generally contain less vitamin E, an antioxidant believed to help repair damaged cells.

Vegetables high in vitamin E, such as spinach, kale and collards, seemed most beneficial. Morris noted that when raw leafy greens are consumed in a salad with healthy fats such as olive oil, the fats help the body better absorb vitamin E and other antioxidants.

But what about all those berries bursting with antioxidants? Unfortunately, too few people in the study consumed berries regularly enough to weigh their effect, although studies in animals suggest that berries do protect memory in aging animals.

So no need to give up your acai/pomegranate/blueberry smoothies, but it might be a good time to forget about boycotting spinach. Just be sure to buy local; it’s a no-brainer.