Friday, December 31, 2010

Best of 2010: "Ice Cream" Trucks Leading Us Over a Cliff?

In the fall I wrote about an episode I witnessed involving three generations of one family. Is this our future?

(OCTOBER 25, 2010)

I couldn’t make this up. (Actually, I could, but I didn’t.)

This spring I wrote about an “ice cream” truck that parks in front of my apartment building. It drives me crazy to see innocent kids eating the stuff. I mutter to myself all the things I am dying to say out loud, but never do.

Another mumbling bout occurred this weekend when a family (grandfather, father, mother, two kids) was sitting on the stoop of my building. The kids were eating “strawberry” sundaes.

Just as I was thinking, “I can’t believe they are letting the kids eat that,” the grandfather (about 65) stole a spoonful from his grandson (about 5).

What followed, though, made my day.

“Do you like it?” the grandfather asked.

“Yes,” the grandson said.

“Well, it’s poison,” the grandfather said.

“Why is it poison?” the father (about 35) asked in a tone both innocent and incredulous.

“It’s all chemicals,” the grandfather said.

The father gave a blank stare.

About to enter my building, I paused. For a nanosecond I thought about saying, “He’s so right; no one should eat that,” but I didn’t.

What's sad is the realization that unless a long conversation ensued, the family's next generation won’t have a grandfather who knows that a “strawberry” sundae from an "ice cream" truck is all chemicals.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Best of 2010: Dannon's (Genius) Yogurt Deception

Unfortunately, the marketing deceptions we are subject to are ubiquitous.

Here's a post from earlier this year that got people thinking about their yogurt. (Click here to read about a much healthier and better tasting yogurt that I recently discovered.)


(MAY 3, 2010)

While it’s easy to rail against obvious junk food, I have more of a problem with seemingly healthy foodstuffs that are really masqueraded synthetic concoctions.

A prime example is Dannon’s Light & Fit blueberry yogurt. “0% FAT, 80 CALORIES” the label screams at us, roping us into purchasing a product that is a far cry from just yogurt and blueberries.

How many of us have bought this without reading its ingredients? Here's our chance:
Nonfat yogurt (cultured grade A non fat milk, modified food starch, fructose, kosher gelatin, vitamin A palmitate, vitamin D3), water, blueberry puree, fructose, contains less than 1% of modified corn starch, natural flavor, blue 1, red 40, aspartame, potassium sorbate (to maintain freshness), acesfulfame potassium, sucralose, malic acid, sodium citrate.
FYI, aspartame and sucralose are artificial, non-caloric sweeteners that you couldn’t pay me to ingest. We’ve discussed the dangers of petroleum-based artificial colorants (i.e. blue 1, red 40) many times.

(Click here to watch a short video showing how to make your own blueberry yogurt without the synthetic ingredients.)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Best of 2010: A Juiced Mark McGwire and Our Juiced Cows

Here's another one of my favorites from this year. It's an allegory of cheating and (possible) redemption.


(January 13, 2010)

So Mark McGwire finally admitted to using steroids. (Nixon resigns! Lindbergh lands in Paris!)

Now only if our cows would come clean about their continued steroid (hormone) use. However, unlike McGwire, the estimated 90 percent of American cattle which are shot up with drugs don’t voluntarily take hormones.

Yet they do, and just like McGwire (and Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa) they get really big, really fast. They also produce a lot more milk than they would without hormones. And the sooner they get to slaughter size (months ahead of their natural growth cycle), the quicker they can be processed into supermarket-ready cuts of beef.


Unfortunately, the public is getting duped, just like we were in the great home run race of 1998. Many doctors and scientists believe that the hormones are leading to early onset puberty in girls (eight years old in some cases), endocrine disruption, certain cancers and environmental issues (androgynous fish).

Mr. Cow, will you please come clean? If you do, I promise to vote for you for the Animal Hall of Fame.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Best of 2010: Super Bowl Commercial You Didn't See

One of my personal favorites from 2010:

(February 10, 2010)

Unfortunately, this 30-second spot didn't air, as the product’s marketing budget was several hundred thousand dollars short of what was needed to buy time during Sunday’s big game.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Best of 2010: Revisiting a Quick and Easy Soup

This week I’ll be reposting blogs from 2010 that my clients thought informative and helpful in their quest to shop and eat better.

(January 11, 2010)

Here’s a recipe for a hearty winter meal that further debunks the myth that cooking is difficult and expensive. The following made about eight portions and cost $9. (Had I not used mostly organic ingredients, it would have totaled $5.) Prep time was 10 minutes and cooking time (mostly unattended) was roughly an hour.


I chopped two onions, two garlic cloves, two carrots, four stalks of celery and four small potatoes and sautéed them in olive oil in a soup pot over medium-high heat for eight minutes (until the onions were soft).

I then added a 28-ounce can of whole peeled tomatoes and enough water (about 20 ounces) to cover the vegetables. I adde
d a bay leaf and some peppercorns, brought the mixture to a boil, returned it to a simmer, covered the pot and let the soup simmer until the potatoes and carrots just softened (about 45 minutes).

I turned off the heat and added a can of chickpeas and some leftover kidney beans I had, plus some chopped parsley. I let the soup sit covered for about 15 minutes, and then added unrefined sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste.

After ladling a portion into a bowl, I grated some Parmigiano-Reggiano over the soup.

Feel free to use an
y vegetables you like or have in your refrigerator. For more substance, add cooked whole wheat pasta, cooked whole grains or chunks of whole grain bread to your bowl of soup.

You do not need to be a chef, grandmother or have slept in a Holiday Inn Express to be able to make this. The flavor, nutrition and sense of accomplishment will be much better than anything from a can.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Three Great Last-Minute Gifts

In a pickle? One of these may help:

“How to Cook Everything” by Mark Bittman (cookbook) – Literally, how to cook everything. I use it often for new ideas and the occasional refresher.

Saveur (magazine) – Very good writing, photos and recipes; there’s an emphasis on foreign foods and destinations.

Cook’s Illustrated (magazine) – Dedicated to creating the perfect recipe; it’s very technical, but straightforward. Also, product reviews.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Refresher: How to Sauté

Sautéing is a quick and easy cooking technique. Successfully browning the food item translates into superior flavor.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Food Safety Modernization Act to Become Law (Finally)

After more twists and turns than a Himalayan hiking trail, the Food Safety Modernization Act has been passed by both houses of Congress and will be signed into law by President Obama when it arrives on his desk.

Just last week the bill was thought to be dead because of a procedural error and the lame-duck nature of the concluding Congressional session. However, life support worked and we have the first significant change to food safety policy in 70 years. Wall Street Journal article

See below for various news outlets’ coverage of the bill’s passage. I will be adding links (from across the political spectrum) as I find them.

New York Times article
Washington Post editorial
Food Safety News article
Wall Street Journal article

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Hello, Winter: Sunny Skies, Sunflowers and Bees

To mark the first day of winter and the shortest day (read: sunlight) of the year, here’s a video that will hopefully brighten the day, pay homage to Mother Nature and help us think warm thoughts:

Monday, December 20, 2010

WikiLeaks Exposes Government's GM Agenda

Some of the cables released by WikiLeaks have to do with the government’s attempts at pushing genetically modified (GM) crops on other countries.

One cable from 2007 (released yesterday) highlights a former U.S. ambassador’s views on what can be done to counter the strong anti-GM sentiment of France.
Mission Paris recommends that the US [Government] reinforce our negotiating position with the [European Union] on agricultural biotechnology by publishing a retaliation list when the extend "Reasonable Time Period" expires. In our view, Europe is moving backwards not forwards on this issue with France playing a leading role, along with Austria, Italy and even the Commission. In France, the "Grenelle" environment process is being implemented to circumvent science-based decisions in favor of an assessment of the "common interest." Combined with the precautionary principle, this is a precedent with implications far beyond [Monsanto]-810 BT corn cultivation. Moving to retaliation will make clear that the current path has real costs to EU interests and could help strengthen European pro-biotech voices. In fact, the pro-biotech side in France -- including within the farm union -- have told us retaliation is the only way to begin to begin to turn this issue in France.
Translation? The U.S. Ambassador to France wants the United States to put political pressure on France to start growing the genetically modified crops (products of American companies such as Monsanto) that Frace and most of the European Union have been vehemently opposed to.

For a more detailed explanation of the above cable, click here for a summary from the Des Moines Register.

In addition, click here to read the Rodale News coverage of other GM-related leaks.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Have You Read The Des Moines Register Lately?

The more our food supply (and the politics behind it) makes the news, the better. The more we hear about issues such as genetically modified crops, pesticides and antibiotics and hormones administered to our livestock, the more we will wonder what the hell is going on and, hopefully, demand answers.

Knowledge is power.

Here’s a news item dealing with genetically modified crops that won’t make the evening news or the front page of any newspaper, yet affects us all greatly. Instead, it is a blog post by Des Moines Register agricultural reporter Philip Brasher. Shouldn’t we all know what the government, large corporations and non-profits are up to?
The Obama administration is considering geographic limits on where biotech alfalfa can be grown, a restriction that would represent a shift in the government’s policy toward genetically engineered crops.

Farmers who grow conventional or organic alfalfa went to court to block sales of Monsanto Co.’s biotech alfalfa because of concerns that it would contaminate seed supplies.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who has been criticized by anti-biotech activists who claim he’s too close to Monsanto and other biotech companies, says his department needs to start taking into consideration the impact that genetically engineered crops can have on non-biotech farmers. Both the biotech and non-biotech sectors need to “thrive together,” he said.
Click here to read the rest of Brasher's post.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

How to (Effortlessly) Make a Healthy, Quick Meal

As I tell my students all the time, one doesn’t have to make Julia Child’s coq au vin or boeuf bourguignon to eat well at home. Instead, constructing a delicious, nutritious and quick lunch or dinner can be as easy as putting a small amount of different foods on a plate.

Like most days, my lunch yesterday (photo, above), followed this form, using both foods I had already cooked and others I simply washed and/or cut. You do not have to work at home to make this lunch; with minimal planning, the same meal can be eaten at the office, on a park bench or on an airplane.

Starting at the top of the plate and moving clockwise, let’s again debunk the myth that eating well is difficult and expensive. Lunch, bursting with nutrients and flavor but free of pesticides, took five minutes to prepare and probably cost less than $3.
  • Mizuna greens from Nevia No (torn and rinsed)
  • Raw milk cheese from Bobolink Dairy (cut)
  • Lentils and brown rice (leftover from a previous dinner)
  • Wild Planet sardines (taken from a can)
  • Half of a Japanese sweet potato from Nevia No (previously cooked)
  • Turnip from Nevia No (washed and cut)
  • Butternut squash from Nevia No (previously cooked)
  • Whole grain bread from Bobolink (cut)
  • In ramekin: sauerkraut from Eden Foods (spooned from jar)
  • Dessert (not shown): small piece of Green & Black's 85% chocolate
Remember, the possibilities are endless for other foods that can be used: avocado, carrots, leftover beef or chicken, quinoa, etc.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

EPA Says Saccharin Safe; How About Synergistic Effects?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), according to a news release I received from the agency yesterday, “has removed saccharin, a common artificial sweetener, and its salts from the agency’s list of hazardous substances. Saccharin is no longer considered a potential hazard to human health.”

But that doesn’t mean I’ll be pouring a packet of Sweet'N Low into lemonade, eating low-calorie cookies or using commercial toothpastes anytime soon.

I spent some time yesterday researching saccharin’s history and the reasons behind its previous listing as a possible carcinogen. Like almost everything else in dispute these days, there are at least three sides to the argument, with all sides providing different studies and theories to support their points of view.

My reason for avoiding saccharin, though, is based on the belief that we should be avoiding the intake of synthetic chemicals whenever possible, as we know next to nothing about the synergistic effects of these chemicals.

Last week, I attended a conference (“Exploring the Environmental Causes of Autism and Learning Disabilities”) presented by The Mount Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center. According to Dr. Philip Landrigan, the center’s director, there are over 80,000 synthetic chemicals registered for commercial use with the EPA.

While 200 of these are already known to be neurotoxic in humans, even more alarming is that the overwhelming majority of the 80,000 have never been tested in humans. Further, these tests are done using just individual chemicals; the synergistic effects of these compounds have never been addressed.

So, even if saccharin is completely safe when tested on its own, how is it reacting in our bodies when it comes into contact with the hundreds of other synthetic chemicals we are exposed to daily? I’ll use organic cane sugar and not take that chance.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Precautionary Principle and Policy Differences

The European Union operates under the precautionary principle, which assigns the burden of proving that something is not harmful to those responsible for that something (when concrete scientific evidence about that something does not exist).

In the United States, the opposite holds true. Often, manufacturers are self-policing (the pharmaceutical companies are the most obvious example) and the burden of proof rests with the public or advocacy groups to show that something is harmful.

The results are gaping policy differences. For example, the
European Union just banned the use of bisphenol-A (BPA) in baby bottles (starting in June 2011), while in the United States, the American Chemistry Council, the lobbying arm for several chemical behemoths, prevented the inclusion of a similar ban in the Food Safety Modernization Bill that is on the verge of becoming law.

Unfortunately for Americans and our health, similar policy discrepancies exist in regard to hormones and antibiotics administered to livestock, genetically modified crops and petroleum-based artificial colorants.

Friday, December 10, 2010

FDA Food Safety Act Update; Jackpot for Lobbyists

Despite some procedural hiccups last week, it looks like the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act will soon become law.

According to an article yesterday in the Food Safety News:
Food safety legislation inched forward Wednesday as the House passed the Senate version of the bill as part of a larger resolution to fund the federal government for the next several months.

The bill, which passed the House 212-206 with 35 Democrats joining Republicans to vote "no," must now be re-approved by the Senate. Though the upper chamber approved virtually the same measure last week, the bill was voided because it inadvertently contained a fee provision that is technically unconstitutional--Article 1 says revenue-raising provisions must originate in the House.

The Senate is expected to vote on the food safety bill and continuing resolution in the next few days.
The bill, which will hopefully result in a safer food supply, won’t just benefit consumers. According to an article in The Washington Post, lobbyists hit it big:
At least 221 organizations hired 77 lobbying shops to quibble over details in the Food and Drug Administration Food Safety Modernization Act since it was introduced . . . [T]he Grocery Manufacturers Association, the National Restaurant Association, the Natural Products Association, Abbott Laboratories and Anheuser-Busch . . . retained multiple [lobbying] firms to represent their interests.
These lobbyists charged individual clients hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

Personally, I think professional lobbying should be illegal. I know I sound like a greenhorn, but it doesn’t seem just that the multinationals’ billions and inside connections allow them better access to government than my twenties and e-mails. Isn't that why we vote?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Log Cabin "All Natural Syrup" in Jugs Hoodwinks Consumers

Here's additional evidence that the marketing ploys employed by the processed foodstuffs companies work.

Log Cabin recently released an “all natural syrup” that comes in a jug resembling an authentic maple syrup jug (photo, right). The product, though, is not real maple syrup.

Instead, its ingredients are “syrup (brown rice, sugar, maple [4%]), water, natural flavor, xanthan gum (natural thickener), caramel color,
citric acid.” Technically, it is all natural—dog doody is all natural as well—but the labeling and packaging also make it mighty deceiving.

How do I know?

One of my clients just bought this Log Cabin product to improve on the Aunt Jemima syrup her family was previously consuming. Her reason was straightforward and typical.

“It was in the jug and it said ‘All Natural,’” she said.

I mentioned this episode to Tony Van Glad, who sells his maple syrup (photo, below) at a local farmers’ market. He knew about the product, as the New York State Maple Producers Association (he sits on its Board of Directors) sent a letter of complaint in September to the New York
State Department of Agriculture and Markets questioning Log Cabin’s labeling and packaging.

“It misleads th
e consumer into thinking they are buying real maple syrup,” Van Glad said.

Van Glad said the letter, which was also sent to local and state elected officials, further questioned why the Log Cabin product was shelved in such close proximity to real maple syrup. Its cheaper price
could additionally sway purchasing decisions.

The Maple Producers Association recently heard back from the state, which said it is looking into the issue. I know a consumer who will provide expert testimony if asked.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Like Strawberries? Help Fight Methyl Iodide in California

The conventional strawberry, already one of the most risky fruits or vegetables to eat, is on the verge of becoming even more dangerous, thanks to a recent ruling by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation.

According to a news release from Californians for Pesticide Reform, Pesticide Watch and Pesticide Action Network (PAN):
"Ignoring the assessments of top US scientists and its own Scientific Review Committee, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) announced its approval today for use of methyl iodide, a potent carcinogen and water contaminant, in the state’s strawberry fields."
Considering that 90 percent of the strawberries in this country are grown in California and many people cannot afford organic strawberries, we should all be concerned.

How did this happen?

According to a blog post by Kathryn Gilje, PAN’s Executive Director, blame can be placed on:
"[T]he intense lobbying effort waged by Arysta LifeScience, [the] largest private pesticide company in the world, who hired a Kentucky-based PR firm to create a '[California] grassroots campaign' . . . Bluntly put: chemical company interests trumped the science and the concerns of Californians. Now we've all got an incredibly potent, new carcinogen to deal with while Arysta heads home to its headquarters and makes money off its sales."
New York and Washington have previously rejected methyl iodide on the state level. Thankfully, the Environmental Protection Agency, according to the press release, “will open a public comment period on the pesticide’s approval due to the ‘complexity of the issues raised and the public interest in methyl iodide.’”

Don’t think our voices are heard in the current stagnant political climate? Click here to quickly send a form letter to California Governor-Elect Jerry Brown letting him know we oppose the use of methyl iodide on California’s strawberries.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Search for Flavor in Our Modern Food Supply

I’m convinced, unfortunately, that most of our industrially-produced food doesn’t have much flavor. Unhealthy soil, long shipping distances and genetic modification have led to almost blanket blandness.

At the farmers’ market this weekend I heard a shopper ask a farmer what she should add to the butternut squash she was buying. The farmer and several of her regular customers were at a loss, knowing that all of the farmer’s food is of such superior flavor that it is delicious on its own.

But the shopper needed an answer, so I responded. (Shocker.)

“It doesn’t need anything,” I said. “This is real food with flavor. It doesn’t need teriyaki sauce, Worcestershire sauce or anything.”

The farmer laughed, as did some of the regulars. The shopper, though, may or may not have understood how lucky she was to have found food grown in healthy soil without the use of chemical sprays. I bought one of those butternut squashes as well, which I baked plain. It was bursting with flavor; adding even the smallest amount of any seasoning would have been criminal.

I see a similar theme in my cooking lessons. We’ll make simple dishes using quality grass-fed beef, pastured chicken, wild fish and vegetables. Despite the limited use of only basic seasonings (unrefined sea salt, fresh ground pepper, fresh lemon juice), the reaction is often “This is the best chicken I’ve ever eaten” or "Wait, we only used salt and pepper on this skirt steak?".

But we have far from reinvented cooking; the quality ingredients are the key to the heightened flavor.

Friday, December 3, 2010

A Busy Week in Washington for Food Politics

This week was Food Week in Washington.

Unfortunately, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which enjoyed bipartisan (!) support when the Senate passed its version of the bill on Tuesday, may be in serious jeopardy because of a constitutional error.

According to an article in Food Safety News:
[T]he Senate made a potentially critical error by including a provision that would allow the FDA to impose fees on importers, and on companies whose food is recalled because of contamination.

Article 1, Section 7 of the U.S. Constitution says all revenue-raising measures must originate in the House. This error will almost certainly mean that the legislation will have to be reconsidered in the Senate, a major setback considering the precious floor time it could take to jump though the necessary procedural hoops: namely circumventing Sen. Tom Coburn's (R-OK) filibuster threat.
There was good news yesterday, though, as the House passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which will translate into better school lunches for our children.

The bill, sure to be signed into law by President Obama, is far from perfect, but the move away from processed, nutrient-poor foods is a major step in the right direction.

To read more about the child nutrition bill, click here.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Plugrá Butter: European-Style, But Not European

An expensive-sounding pedigree doesn’t necessarily mean a food product isn’t subject to the ills plaguing so much of our food supply.

A perfect example is Plugrá butter, which has a reputation as a high-end butter favored by many professional chefs. According to the Plugrá website:

Some of the most impressive culinary masters insist on using Plugrá® European-Style Butter to ensure superior results in every masterpiece. Slow-churned for less moisture with the optimal 82% butterfat, Plugrá is the secret to richer, creamier sauces, flakier pastries, higher cakes, sizzling sautés, and flavorful presentation.
That all may be true, but tell us more about the cows supplying the milk used to make Plugrá. Here’s the e-mail response I received after calling Plugrá’s makers:
Dear Rob,

Thank you for contacting Dairy Farmers of America regarding Keller's Creamery and Plugrá butter.
Keller's Creamery, a division of Dairy Farmers of America, Inc. is a member owned cooperative of more than 10,000 dairy farmers in 48 states. Currently, the milk and cream used to make our butter does not come solely from dairy farmers who certify that their cows are not being treated with rbST or artificial growth hormones.


Consumer Affairs

Dairy Farmers of America
In addition, the butter is not organic, so it’s almost certain that the cows’ feed contains genetically modified crops.

So, while Plugrá may be “European-Style” in its taste and fat content, it is far from European. The European Union bans the use of hormones and antibiotics in livestock and the growing of genetically modified crops.

My favorite butters are Smjör (Iceland), Anchor (New Zealand) and Kerrygold (Ireland).

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Senate Passes Food Safety Modernization Act

The Senate passed its version of the Food Safety Modernization Act yesterday, meaning the bill is a step closer to becoming law. The act now goes back to the House, which already passed its own version (with important differences) of the bill. However, because of the current lame duck nature of Congress and the inherent time restraints, the usual bill reformulation may not be possible.

Therefore, the House may just accept the Senate’s version (which it rarely does), avoiding the time-consuming procedures that could cause the death of the bill. If the House quickly passes the Senate’s version, it will go to President Obama, who has said he will sign it into law.

That’s actually the easy part.

I’m still trying to figure which details are good or bad. The big food producers were originally all for the bill, which is obviously worrisome for anyone concerned with the industrialized and impersonal nature of our food supply. But once Senator Jon Tester’s (D-MT) amendment giving protections to small farmers and food producers was added, several industry trade groups opposed the bill. Unfortunately, the House's version doesn't include these protections, but does include funding for many more inspections.

The talk radio mistruths that morphed into accepted belief didn't help. And then both political extremes started spewing tales of an FDA-Fascist conspiracy of Orwellian proportions . . .

Bottom line? We should all grow our own vegetables, keep two or three chickens, have a milking cow, plus fish and hunt.

You want to be really confused? The photo I included of dead chickens doesn't really belong here since the FDA, the subject of this bill, does not have oversight of chickens. That's the USDA's job. But the FDA regulates eggs, so maybe the photo is OK.

Click below for the respective news organizations’ coverage of the Senate’s passing of the act. However, the best summary of where we now stand (and a great lesson in how our legislature works) can be found at Food Safety News. And for the contents of both bills, click here.

New York Times
Wall Street Journal
Washington Post
Des Moines Register