Friday, February 27, 2009

Food Transport: The Cold Chain

Before the advent of refrigeration and modern transportation networks, everyone ate seasonally and locally. The transcontinental shipping of fruits and vegetables didn’t exist.

Marion Nestle, in her book “What to Eat,” describes the “cold chain” that moves food across the country, especially in the winter when most of our produce is grown in California. Typically, Nestle writes, broccoli makes the following journey, lasting a week to 10 days:

“Farm, local warehouse, regional distribution center, refrigerated truck, regional distribution center at destination, another truck, local supermarket, backroom stocking area, floor, and finally, shelf.”

As I’ve previously mentioned, fruits and vegetables start to lose flavor and nutrition the instant they are removed from the ground or picked from a vine or tree.

Unfortunately, the cold chain is just one reason that supermarket produce doesn’t taste as good as food bought at a farmers market or grown at home.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

General Mills Vintage Cereal T-Shirts

The marketing influence of the big food companies is far-reaching. Surprisingly, I find myself ensnared.

You see, I have a major dilemma on my hands. General Mills is selling really cool vintage cereal t-shirts (Cheerios, Lucky Charms, Trix, etc.) for $5 each, and I want them all.

But should I sacrifice my ideals for the fashion whore that I am?

Granted, it’s not like I would ever give a cooking lesson in a Boo Berry t-shirt, but the guilt associated with contributing to the downfall of Western Civilization could prove overwhelming.

If only Barack Obama’s problems were so big . . .

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Are Vitamins Worth Taking?

Last summer I posted a blog about vitamins (I’m not a fan) and their role as nutrient supplements and replacements.

A recent New York Times article took a close look at the subject as well, questioning vitamins’ effectiveness: “In the past few years, several high-quality studies have failed to show that extra vitamins, at least in pill form, help prevent chronic disease or prolong life.”

As many experts believe, a well-balanced diet is the best prevention and medicine.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Oscar Mayer Lunchables Mini Burgers Revealed

(Second of two parts)
I opened a box of Oscar Mayer Lunchables Mini Burgers. The contents were sort of like food, but different.

The “cheese” and “burgers” didn’t feel like food. Their consistency was spongy and similar to Play-Doh. The bun was as dry as cardboard. Or was it stale? Was it ever fresh?

And as I mentioned in yesterday's post, the lunches can be eaten straight from the box, since they are “fun to eat . . . no need to heat!”

Bottom line: Oscar Mayer Lunchables Mini Burgers seemed more like a toy than a meal.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Oscar Mayer Lunchables – Marketing Overload

(First of two parts)
Walking the supermarket aisles always leads to new discoveries. This weekend I shelled out $3.49 for a box of Oscar Mayer Lunchables Mini Burgers.

My fiancé took one look at the box and said, “You’re supposed to send yo
ur kid to school with this?”

Kraft wants you to do just that, as evidenced by the slick
website it developed especially for moms. Also, you must check out the Oscar Mayer Lunchables website Kraft created for kids.

The lunches—pizzas, mini hot dogs, mini burgers, cracker stackers, chicken dunks,
etc.—come in a box with a fruit drink and candy (i.e. Skittles, Nestle Crunch, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups).

At the least, these lunches are good for kids’ motor-neuron skills and eye-hand coordination, since assembly of the main course is required. To make a pizza, one takes a pizza crust, tops it with piz
za sauce and then adds the pasteurized prepared mozzarella cheese product.

Remarkably, the lunches can be eaten straight from the box, since they are “fun to eat . . . no need to heat!”

(This reminded me of the time in second grade when Neil Schnelwar and I tried to heat his hamburger—left over from his previous night’s dinner—on the radiator in the cafeteria.)

The marketing is so misguided. On several of these lunches, a “Sensible Solution” flag is present, which alerts us that the “product met specific, better-for-you nutrition criteria.”

While repeating the words “nutrition criteria” out loud, look at the ingredients of the mini hot dog lunch. Who in their right mind could slap a Sensible Solution flag on that?

(Tomorrow: Opening the box of mini burgers)

Friday, February 20, 2009

How to Make Your Own Cereal (Muesli)

Several weeks ago, I wrote about making hot oatmeal.

Even easier is using rolled oats to make a homemade cold cereal (muesli), thereby avoiding the expensive (and usually not good for us) boxed brands.

And this doesn’t only have to be for breakfast. Try it as a snack at work or as something a little sweet at night.

How to make it?
  1. Pour milk into a cereal bowl.
  2. Add a little agave nectar, maple syrup or honey, and dissolve to make sweetened milk.
  3. Add enough oats to achieve the desired consistency.
  4. Mix in (you choose) raisins or other dried fruit; walnuts or other nuts; and cinnamon.
  5. Eat and enjoy.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Find Out the Ingredients In Your Personal Care Products

I write a lot about what we put into our bodies. How about what we put on our bodies?

A great website to find out more information about the relative safety of our personal health care products is the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep cosmetic safety database.

According to the website, the goal of the database is to provide:
"[P]ractical solutions to protect yourself and your family from the health risks we all face from everyday exposures to myriad industrial chemicals.

In 2004 we launched Skin Deep, an online safety guide for cosmetics and personal care products. Our aim was to fill in where companies and the government leave off: companies are allowed to use almost any ingredient they wish, and our government doesn't require companies to test products for safety before they're sold. EWG's scientists built Skin Deep to be a one-of-a-kind resource, integrating our in-house collection of personal care product ingredient listings with more than 50 toxicity and regulatory databases."
Over 40,000 items (with more than 8,000 ingredients) are listed, including toothpastes, deodorants, lipsticks and shampoos.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Best Knives to Use for Cooking

Many clients are surprised when I show up at their homes for a cooking lesson and take out two knives, neither of which is thought of as a conventional, everyday knife.

The two knives—both serrated—are a Wusthof 8-inch bread knife and a Victorinox 4-inch paring knife. I use them for 95% of my cutting.


The primary reason is that they are always sharp. Because they are serrated, they never lose their edge and never have to be honed. I have been using both for years and they are as sharp now as they were on the day I bought them.

Dull knives are dangerous, since they can slide off what you are trying to cut, posing a great risk for a wound. People who try the serrated knives usually take to them immediately, in no small part because they feel safer using them.

The equation is pretty simple: If you are scared of using a knife, there’s a good chance you won’t cook often.

In addition to safety, there’s the issue of cost and practicality. The Victorinox paring knife can be found on-line or in restaurant supply stores for $5, and a larger serrated bread knife can be had for about $50.

Trust me, these knives are a much better investment than an expensive, sleek 18-piece knife set. If you really want (or need) the fish deboner, let me know.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Van Leeuwen Ice Cream Is Available at Whole Foods

Great news, ice cream lovers: Van Leeuwen ice cream, which I wrote about last summer, is now being sold in select Whole Foods stores in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

“We started selling there just before Christmas,” said Ben Van Leeuwen, the founder of the artisanal ice cream company. “Sales are very good for a new brand.”

All 10 flavors of Van Leeuwen’s ice cream are available in pints for $5.99. Yes, this is 33% more expensive than Haagen-Daz ($4.49 per pint). What to do? Make your portions of Van Leeuwen 33% smaller, and your cost per serving will be the same! (FYI, you so don’t need that seventh scoop.)

Van Leeuwen will add a third ice cream truck to his mobile fleet this spring, and he hopes to start selling on New York City streets—if the weather cooperates—in early April.

For those having a party, five-quart and three-gallon tubs are also available at very reasonable prices.

(There’s a rumor floating around that a certain event at the end of this month will feature milk shake shots made with Van Leeuwen coffee and mint chip ice cream.)

Monday, February 16, 2009

Verlyn Klinkenborg: "Sow Those Seeds!"

Several months ago I posted a blog advocating backyard gardens as a way to teach our children about food.

Yesterday, Verlyn Klinkenborg, a member of The New York Times Editorial Board and a brilliant writer on rural and agricultural issues, wrote a short piece adding two other reasons: fiscal and mental health.

Having grown my own vegetables for the last five years, I couldn’t agree more, especially about the psychological aspect. I feel a certain tranquility and accomplishment every time I smell the soil, sow seeds or pull a carrot from the ground.

And not paying $3 for a bunch of kale doesn't hurt either.

I’ll also add two other reasons for having a vegetable patch: flavor and nutrition. Whatever I grow (string beans, lettuces, scallions, turnips, garlic, etc.) tastes better than store-bought. Also, the moment vegetables are removed from the ground or picked from a vine, their vitamin and mineral content begins to wither. Broccoli from somewhere else is no match for broccoli from your backyard.

Yes, it’s the middle of February, but in about six weeks I’ll start sowing seeds for peas, lettuces, radishes and dark leafy greens.

I can’t wait.

Friday, February 13, 2009

How to Roast Beets & Other Vegetables

I’m a big fan of free cooking. By “free” I mean the simple roasting of foods in the oven, with a minimal amount of fuss and effort. I cook vegetables this way all the time.

Most of the roasting time is unattended, as the heat of the oven does the work for you. Cooking times vary depending on the vegetable, but, for example, figure about 8-10 minutes for scallions, 15-20 minutes for portobello mushrooms and 45-60 minutes for beets.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Jane Brody - "America's Diet: Too Sweet by the Spoonful"

A friend of mine is a squash pro who runs a daily junior program. Occasionally, when he is out of town, I fill in for him.

Each class averages about six kids, and more than half bring a snack and/or drink. There have been four classes this week, and I’ve seen plenty of Gatorade, Snapple, VitaminWater, granola bars, chips and cookies. There’s been one bottle of water. (The kids who don’t bring anything generally drink from the water fountain.)

Can someone explain to me the need for all the sugar?

Coincidentally, there was a great article (Jane Brody's Personal Health column) in this week’s Science Times explaining the different kinds of sugars and the detrimental effects of sweetened drinks and foods. It is truly worth the five minutes needed to read it.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Do You Know What's In Your Toothpaste?

Pursuant to last week's four-part series on artificial colors, it’s important to realize that these petroleum-based dyes not only appear in food, but are also used in many health care products.

Have you read the ingredients in your toothpaste lately? You may be a little surprised. Chances are that it contains one or two artificial colors. Just because a product is sold in a store—or handed out at a dentist’s office—shouldn't mean a free pass.

(Saccharin is also present, but that’s a completely different issue. As in, “Why are you selling toothpaste with an artificial sweetener? Doesn’t that defeat the whole purpose?”)

The other day I
walked into two pharmacies and counted 24 different types of Colgate toothpaste. Varieties ranged from Total Whitening (Paste and Gel) to Sparkling White (Caribbean Cool and CinnaMint) to MaxFresh with Minibreath Strips (Kiss Me Mint, Cool Mint and Clean Mint) to Whitening Oxygen Bubbles (Brisk Mint Paste and Frosty Mint Striped Gel).

Perhaps even more frightening than the contrived names is the fact that 21 of the 24 contained artifici
al colors. Do we really need Red 40 in our toothpaste?

A better
option is toothpaste without synthetic additives. Tom’s of Maine is probably the best-known brand. (Despite being bought by Colgate in 2006, Tom’s has remained true to its principles.)

Tom’s toothpastes don’t have the fake sweetness of the major brands and don’t contain “sorbitol, water, hydrated silica, PEG-12, sodium lauryl sulfate, flavor, cellulose gum, tetrasodium pyrophosphate, sodium saccharin, cocamidopropyl betaine, mica, titanium dioxide, FD & C blue no. 1.”

(Are you asking yourself yet, "I'm brushing my teeth with what?")

It usually takes a week or two to adjust to Tom’s lack of sweetness. But stick with it; your body will reward you for decreasing its toxicity.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

I Ate a Whole Pig at Daisy May's BBQ

WHO: Me and a dozen friends.

WHAT: Big Pig Gig, featuring the eating of a whole 40-pound, 6-month-old pig, smoked for half a day.

WHEN: 7:00 p.m., Sunday, February 8, 2009.

WHERE: Daisy May’s BBQ, 46th St. & 11th Ave., Manhattan.

WHY: Because I’ve been threatening to do this for two years, the pig was free of hormones and antibiotics, and a dozen other guys had to do what I wanted.

VERDICT: It was delicious. The pig was one of the most succulent foods I’ve ever eaten. Four of us were like pigs in #&@% (pun intended) and probably ate more than the other nine combined. There are a couple pounds in my refrigerator if anyone is interested.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Food Allergies: Coincidence or Toxic Overload?

There was an interesting article last week in The New York Times about the misdiagnosis of food allergies, especially in children.

As we are all aware, there has been an explosion in food allergies recently. According to the article, over “11 million Americans, including 3 million children, are estimated to have food allergies, most commonly to milk, eggs, peanuts and soy. The prevalence among children has risen 18 percent in the past decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

Not mentioned in the article is a pressing question: Why have human beings, after thousands of years on the planet, suddenly developed allergies to certain foods?

When I was growing up in the late-70's and early-80's, one kid in my town was allergic to peanuts. Now, you cannot bring peanut butter sandwiches into school. I am neither an allergist nor immunologist, but I find it hard to believe this is just coincidence.

Many—myself included—believe that the proliferation of food allergies has been caused by the increased presence of hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, synthetic dyes, additives and other toxins in our food, water and air.

In his book, “The Hundred-Year Lie,” Randall Fitzgerald offers a theory of toxicity that, from a common sense point of view, makes complete sense.

Everyone has a personal toxicity level, based on several factors (diet, exercise, environment, immune system, etc.). When our bodies are overwhelmed and can’t eliminate toxins properly, we get sick. The resulting illnesses and diseases (i.e. food allergies) now manifesting themselves are a by-product of our increasingly toxic world.

Friday, February 6, 2009

A Doctor's Thoughts About Synthetic Dyes

(Fourth of four parts)
Synthetic, petroleum-based colorants are everywhere, a fact that irks Dr. Scott Bienenfeld, an addiction psychiatrist in New York City and the Medical Director for the New York Center for Living, a program for adolescents battling drug, alcohol and other problems.

“They are in everything—food, drugs, cosmetics,” Bienenfeld said. “It’s disconcerting as a physician, parent and consumer.”

As a consumer, Bienenfeld sees how difficult it is to avoid the synthetic dyes.

“Once you realize that you have an allergy to an artificial color,” he said, “it requires a full-scale lifestyle change to avoid it.”

As a parent, Bienenfeld is taking steps to protect his children. His family no longer uses commercial toothpastes, having switched to Tom’s of Maine. (I will discuss toothpastes in greater detail next week.)

As a doctor, Bienenfeld is disturbed that the colorants appear in “over-the-counter medications, prescription medications, cough medicines, everything.”

He told a story of spending more than an hour trying to locate a drug devoid of synthetic dyes that he could prescribe to a patient.

“Anecdotally, people report that when they go on a restrictive diet, their problems go away,” Bienenfeld said.

However, Bienenfeld would like to see more studies done on larger test groups, in the hopes of filling in the gaps of our knowledge.

“We just don’t have a good clinical understanding of the long-term effects of these additives,” he said. “There is a very big discrepancy between the number of people who complain about additives causing allergic-type reactions and the number of studies done to investigate it.”

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The American Response to The McCann Study

(Third of four parts)
In June 2008, the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the FDA to ban several petroleum-based artificial colorings in an attempt to align American policy with British guidelines.

The FDA has not taken any action on the petition, and American M&M’s continue to be colored with Blue 1, Blue 2, Yellow 5, Yellow 6 and Red 40. British M&M’s, on the other hand, use natural colorants (i.e. carotenes) and synthetic dyes not deemed dangerous.

Curious about the discrepancy, I called Mars, the maker of M&M’s. After five minutes of obfuscation, Colleen (the Customer Care Representative) finally read me the following statement:

"[Britain] seems to have a much higher concern about food colors than do other countries around the world. In each country in which we make and sell our products, safety and quality are our primary concerns. We meet or exceed safety and quality guidelines in each country in which we sell our products and the guidelines can vary around the world as can consumer interest and reaction.

"Mars U.S. closely monitors new research and relies on the FDA for guidance on the use of food colors and other ingredients. We also put a toll free number on every package that we sell. This, along with consumer research, allows us to stay close to the consumer and understand their needs and wants. Colors are labeled on all of our products so that consumers can make an informed decision.

"At this time, we have no plans to change our recipes in the U.S."
The bottom line is the bottom line. Artificial colors are cheaper to use than natural ones, and until the food companies feel political pressure to change—as was the case in Britain—they won’t budge an inch.

Instead, they’ll resort—as Mars did—to hollow statements about how some people are allergic to natural colors and that real colors are not as widely available as artificial ones.

Don’t believe their hype, take your health into your own hands and opt for products without the petroleum-based synthetic dyes. You and your family will be better for it.

(Tomorrow: An American doctor’s view on food colorings)

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The British Response to The McCann Study

(Second of four parts)
In Britain, the public response to the McCann Study (released in September 2007) was loud and clear. Consumers did not approve of the petroleum-based artificial colors, and their voices were heard.

The Food Standards Agency (the British equivalent of the FDA) called on food companies to voluntarily remove—by the end of 2009—the six synthetic dyes (three yellow and three red) and the preservative sodium benzoate that the McCann Study linked to “increased hyperactivity” among 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children. Many manufacturers have already complied.

In addition, several British supermarkets (i.e. Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Sainsbury’s) had already begun removing—to varying degrees—some or all synthetic dyes and additives from their house brands.

According to Sainsbury’s website, “In June 2007 we successfully re-launched our complete range of over 120 own-brand soft drinks. This marked the completion of our work to remove unnecessary artificial additives from all of our food and drink. The re-launched range has no artificial colours or flavourings and no benzoate preservatives or artificial sweeteners (except sucralose).”

More widespread, the European Parliament passed legislation in July 2008 that requires warning labels on foods that contain the six synthetic dyes. The label reads: “May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” (Manufacturers have eighteen months to comply.)

Many food companies have replaced the synthetic colorants with natural alternatives. Eye-opening is the fact that several American companies will sell a product in Britain with natural dyes, but offer it in the United States with artificial colors.

For example, Kellogg’s American Nutri-Grain Cereal Bars contain Red 40 and Blue 1, while the British versions use beet root juice, annatto and paprika extract. A McDonald’s strawberry sundae in the United States is colored with Red 40; in Britain, real strawberries do the job.

(Tomorrow: The response in the United States)

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Artificial Colors, The McCann Study & The Feingold Association

(First of four parts)   
The use of artificial colorings in food has proliferated dramatically in recent decades. The FDA estimates that consumption in the United States has increased five-fold in the past 30 years. 

These synthetic dyes—made from petroleum!—run rampant in our food supply and are certified by the FDA. But many studies show that the FD&C (allowed to be used in food, drugs and cosmetics) colors Red 3, Red 40, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Blue 1, Blue 2 and Green 3 are detrimental to our well-being. 

Yet, these additives (used to improve and brighten the appearance of foodstuffs) continue to be found in products both obvious (Gatorade, Skittles, Froot Loops, Colored Goldfish) and surprising (Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain Cereal Bars, Dannon Light & Fit Nonfat Yogurt, Hellman’s Honey Mustard and Milk-Bone Flavored Dog Snacks). 

The latest study to sound alarms was conducted at the University of Southampton in England and published in The Lancet medical journal in September 2007. The McCann Study researchers “undertook a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled, crossover trial to test whether intake of artificial food colour and additives (AFCA) affected childhood behaviour.” 

The researchers’ conclusion: “Artificial colours or a sodium benzoate preservative (or both) in the diet result in increased hyperactivity in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the general population.” 

“The McCann Study used a modest amount of food additives, particularly the petroleum-based dyes,” said Jane Hersey, the National Director of The Feingold Association, a non-profit organization which raises awareness of the potential role of foods and synthetic additives in behavioral, learning and health problems. 

 “The researchers found that these additives triggered symptoms of ADHD [Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder] in the general population, not just in children who had been identified as ADHD.” 

The study caused an uproar in Britain and, to a lesser extent, throughout Europe.

 (Tomorrow: The British response to The McCann Study)

Monday, February 2, 2009

Betty Crocker Bac-Os: No Animals Harmed

The winner of this week’s Why Does This Product Exist Award is Betty Crocker Bac-Os.

There are two reasons why these bacon-flavored chips won. First, the label pronounces that Bac-Os have no saturated fat and no cholesterol. I thought this a little strange, since animal meat has both. But then it became clear. On the back label it is written that the product “contains no meat or animal fat.”

Bac-Os are actually a highly-processed amalgamation of mostly soybeans (in several guises), salt and red 40. No doubt the FDA approves.

The second reason is a little more personal: I overdosed on Bac-Os when I was eight. I’m not joking. I consumed almost a whole bottle (afterschool boredom?) and felt like I was going to die. And—over thirty years later—I still have such a vivid recollection of how I felt in the aftermath of my binge that the thought of it still causes discomfort.

Instead of calling Betty Crocker, I called my mother.

“Ma, what were you thinking when you bought that stuff?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I thought it would add a little flavor to salads. And it was easy, because I was working full-time.”

Yes, even my mother was on the dark side at one point. Thankfully, she stopped buying processed foodstuffs, mostly because she listened to Carlton Fredericks, the host of a radio program about nutrition and health.

“He used to talk about bad fats, bad colorings and lots of salt put into certain foods,” my mom said. “So I stopped buying them.”

Instead, my mom would cook for several hours on Sundays. It’s easier than you think to fry some nitrite- and nitrate-free bacon, crumble it and store it in a plastic container.

Yes, cooking takes some time, but you and your family will be healthier for it.