Monday, November 17, 2008

The Dangers of Farmed Fish

“Eat more fish” is the mantra that we’ve been trying to follow for the last decade or so. But what kind of fish are we eating?

I’m not asking if we are consuming flounder, salmon or tuna. I’m much more concerned with the provenance of the fish we are eating. Is it wild or farmed?

To many, the question seems innocuous or immaterial. However, I consider it tantamount to knowing if your meat and dairy products are derived from grass- or corn-fed animals and if your fruits and vegetables are grown in soil awash with pesticides and chemicals.

Fish farms have many issues (some positive, more negative) associated with them, but the major problems that should be causing alarm are disease, the threatening of wild fish populations and the lack of flavor in the final product.

I’ll quote from three articles that have recently appeared in The New York Times. I highly recommend taking the time to read them.

The disease issue was touched upon by Taras Grescoe, who described how salmon in Canadian fish farms are attracting sea lice:
"To rid salmon of the lice, fish farmers spike their feed with a strong pesticide called emamectin benzoate, which when administered to rats and dogs causes tremors, spinal deterioration and muscle atrophy. The United States Food and Drug Administration, already hard-pressed to inspect imported Asian seafood for antibiotic and fungicide residues, does not test imported salmon for emamectin benzoate. In other words, the farmed salmon in nearly every American supermarket may contain this pesticide, which on land is used to rid diseased trees of pine beetles."
The threatening of wild fish populations comes about because a large percentage of wild fish caught is used for feed for farmed fish, denying other, larger wild fish their food supply. This from an editorial last week:
"According to a new report by scientists from the University of British Columbia and financed by the Pew Institute for Ocean Science, 37 percent by weight of all the fish taken from the ocean is forage fish: small fish like sardines and menhaden. Nearly half of that is fed to farmed fish; most of the rest is fed to pigs and poultry.

The problem is that forage fish are the feedstock of marine mammals and birds and larger species of fish. In other words, farmed fish, pigs and poultry — and the humans who eat them — are competing for food directly with aquatic species that depend on those forage fish for their existence. It’s as if humans were swimming in schools in the ocean out-eating every other species."
And for the flavor issue, this from yesterday's article by Mark Bittman, a Times food writer and author of “How to Cook Everything”:
"Farm-raised tilapia . . . is less desirable to many consumers, myself included, than that nearly perfectly blank canvas called tofu. It seems unlikely that farm-raised striped bass will ever taste remotely like its fierce, graceful progenitor, or that anyone who’s had fresh Alaskan sockeye can take farmed salmon seriously."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Where to Buy Healthier Food

When I discuss the benefits of eating food devoid of hormones, antibiotics and pesticides with my clients, many often ask me where they can buy such products. A lot of people think these foods are specialty items only available at farmers markets or high-end food stores. Thankfully, this is not the case.

In the past several years, more and more conventional supermarkets are starting to provide consumers with healthier food choices. Specifically, I’m more concerned with fresh meats and dairy than packaged goods, since the packaged items have their ingredients listed. (As I detailed in my post about mayonnaise, there is a lot of unpronounceable stuff added to packaged foods, which should be avoided.)

I was in Florida last month, and, curious about the choices available, I ventured into a Publix supermarket. I was pleasantly surprised by the better options available.

In the butter section, Publix was offering the standard American brands, including Land O’Lakes ($1.05 per stick). Also available were two European butters that are better options, considering both are free of the hormones, antibiotics and pesticides found in Land O’Lakes. Kerrygold (an Irish butter) and Lurpak (Danish) were priced at $1.80 per stick and have the added benefit of being made from milk from grass-fed cows.

(Do understand, however, that information about what the cows are eating and how the butter is produced is not printed on the butter packages. A little research is necessary, so I visited the Kerrygold and Lurpak websites. Both described in detail the health benefits of their butters, plus the grazing habits of their cows. No such information could be found on the Land O’Lakes site.)

For eggs, a dozen conventional eggs cost $2. Also available were eggs from chickens that contained “no drugs, antibiotics, or animal by-products.” Trust me, you would quickly pay the extra $1 per dozen if you knew the toxicity of conventional eggs produced on commercial poultry farms.

Publix has created its own label of healthier food items, and these GreenWise products are prominently displayed. GreenWise beef, chicken and pork contain no antibiotics or hormones, unlike their conventional counterparts.

The price difference can be steep, however, especially for more expensive cuts. Cheaper alternatives, like ground beef, may be a better option if price is a concern. GreenWise ground beef was $5.49 per pound, compared to $3.99 per pound for ground beef laden with hormones, antibiotics and pesticides.

As for sausage, bacon and frankfurters, Publix offered several brands--Niman Ranch, Aidells, Maverick Ranch and Applegate Farms--that advertise their health benefits on their products’ packages. To further aid customers, Publix had placed handwritten signs (“NO NITRITE,” “NO ANTIBIOTICS,” etc.) on the shelves.

Granted, Oscar Mayer “Naturally Hardwood Smoked Bacon” was available for those wanting their bacon cured with water, salt, sugar, sodium phosphates, sodium ascorbate and sodium nitrite.

Thanks, but I’ll pass.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Our Children's Food Knowledge

As our connection to an agrarian lifestyle has waned over the past century, society as a whole has suffered in the realm of institutionalized food knowledge and the corresponding nutrition that inherently went hand-in-hand with our rural existence.

Gone are the days when children’s chores included farm work predicated on the cultivation of food, whether it was vegetables and fruits or domesticated livestock.

The state of our kids’ food experience is shockingly poor, and it will only continue to worsen if our reliance on packaged and processed foods that have little resemblance to real foods continues to proliferate.

To our youth, chicken means chicken nuggets, or maybe chicken parts packaged neatly in Styrofoam and plastic, not a real chicken, with feathers, feet and a face. If you are a parent and you are thinking, “That’s gross,” what do you think your child is going to think? Each generation can only learn what the preceding generation is able to teach it. What food knowledge will today’s kids be able to pass on to their children when they become parents?

To our youth, carrots mean “baby” carrots, which are completely devoid of any carrot flavor, come in a plastic bag and are anything but true baby carrots (photo above). These carrot bits are actually the by-product of huge, tasteless carrots that are put through a machine which breaks up the larger carrots into smaller, uniform pieces.

In reality, baby vegetables are vegetables that are simply removed from the ground or picked from the vine earlier in their development process than their adult cousins. There is no special seed or DNA for baby vegetables. For example, carrots take—on average—about 65 to 75 days from when seed is planted to become mature, adult carrots. Real baby carrots—greens included!—are simply carrots that are removed from the ground while they are still growing.

What can we do to stem the tide? The simplest thing would be to educate our children on how real food grows by taking them to a supermarket (the produce section and butcher), a farmers market or a working farm. It would be better if more of us who have a lawn or backyard allocate some of that space to growing vegetables, so our children get a first-hand appreciation of how food grows.

Before you scoff at my suggestion, think about what our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be eating if we continue down this path. Think about the myriad food allergies and ills present in today’s youth; isn’t it common sense to think these problems will continue to increase as edible food-like substances further replace real food?

Are you skeptical about the import and influence of children growing vegetables? A recent story in The New York Times detailed the travails of teenagers in Brooklyn.