For The Love of Food

by | Jul 31, 2009
For The Love of Food

For The Love of Food

Welcome to Friday’s For The Love of Food, Summer Tomato’s weekly link roundup.

It was an exciting week here at Summer Tomato, including an enlightening interview with food critic Michael Bauer that led to Summer Tomato mentions in both the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. Wednesday was also the anniversary of my very first blog post at my old Thought for Food blog. What a difference a year can make!

If you would like to see more of my favorite articles each week or just don’t want to wait until Friday, be sure to follow me on Twitter (@summertomato) or the Summer Tomato Facebook fan page. For complete reading lists join me on the social bookmarking sites StumbleUpon and Delicious. I’m very active on all these sites and would love to connect with you there.

Submissions of your own best food and health articles for future For The Love of Food posts are also welcome, just drop me an email using the contact form. I am also accepting guest posts at Summer Tomato for any healthy eating, living and exercise tips.

For The Love of Food

What great articles did you read and write this week?

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Farmers Market Update: No Fridge

by | Jul 26, 2009
Corn

Corn

After two weeks of miserable cold and fog the sun finally came out today in San Francisco and the crowds found their way to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. It was a blast!

I faced a unique challenge while shopping this weekend. A few days ago my refrigerator died and to my dismay we cannot get anyone out to fix it until Monday. *Gasp!* That meant no greens, berries, eggs, or a bunch of other goodies I had been looking forward too. I was panicked at first, but once I started shopping I realized I would continue to eat like a queen this week as usual.

What can sit happily on the counter for a few days? Summer tomatoes, of course!!

Jalepenos

Jalepenos

Heirloom Tomatoes

Heirloom Tomatoes

But the fun doesn’t stop there. I also loaded up on peppers of all shapes and colors, sweet corn, eggplant, summer squash, carrots, potatoes, onions and more stone fruit than I’m comfortable admitting to.

Yep. Life goes on, even without a refrigerator.

I also spent some time today with the nice folks over at Bella Viva Orchards. We talked awhile about all the wonderful summer produce and discussed a number of ways to enjoy peaches, one of my favorite stone fruits. Delicious! I will post a link to the interview when it goes out in their newsletter in a couple weeks.

Radicchio

Radicchio

New Potatoes

New Potatoes

On that note, the best finds at the market right now are peaches and nectarines, pluots, melons, squash, tomatoes, peppers, herbs, greens, corn, onions, berries (there was a berry tasting event today too) and fresh beans. I was surprised today to see that grapes are also starting to appear, sweet and crisp.

Oh, and the cherry tomatoes I got are da bomb. You should get some.

What are your favorite scores from the farmers market this weekend?

Today’s goodies:

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For The Love of Food

by | Jul 24, 2009
For The Love of Food

For The Love of Food

Welcome to Friday’s For The Love of Food, Summer Tomato’s weekly link roundup.

This week I found yet another reason to eat fish for health, as well as some great discussions on the pros and cons of food industry regulation. For those of you who still don’t have a pressure cooker, Mark Bittman says you might still be able to prepare delicious bean dishes.

If you would like to see more of my favorite articles each week or just don’t want to wait until Friday, be sure to follow me on Twitter (@summertomato) or the Summer Tomato Facebook fan page. For complete reading lists join me on the social bookmarking sites StumbleUpon and Delicious. I’m very active on all these sites and would love to connect with you there.

Submissions of your own best food and health articles are also welcome, just drop me an email using the contact form. I am currently accepting guest posts at Summer Tomato for any healthy eating, living and exercise tips.

For The Love of Food

Did you write any fabulous food or health articles this week? Share your links in the comments!!

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How To Eat Healthy In Restaurants: Sit-Down Chains

by | Jul 22, 2009
by alicereneztay

by alicereneztay

Sit-down chain restaurants like the The Olive Garden and Chili’s vary in quality from very bad to mediocre to maybe-not-as-bad-as-you-might-think. But one thing we can say about them with confidence is that they are ubiquitous. Every small town and suburban neighborhood I’ve ever been to is sprinkled with sit-down mega-chain restaurants, and chances are you will find yourself in one eventually.

(This post is part of the series How To Eat In Restaurants. Part one is Healthy Tips for Real Life (or how I learned to stop worrying and never eat fast food) and part two is Neighborhood Convenience. Get future posts by signing up for email or RSS updates–subscribing is always free of cost and spam.)

Is it possible to navigate these calorie minefields without damaging your waistline or destroying your taste buds?

As was made clear in the recent debate over The Cheesecake Factory, there is a reason restaurants like this exist. For one thing, they are reliable. Since they mass produce the same meal at thousands of locations throughout the country, the quality of the food is consistently uniform. You always know exactly what you are going to get.

Another reason large chain restaurants continue to thrive is they have mastered the art of crowd-pleasing. The menus are massive and you can find something for every taste. They are experts at combining sugar, salt and fat to trick our brains into believing we are eating perfect food. Huge servings and reasonable prices also create the appearance of great value–even if most of what is on your plate qualifies as junk food.

But these restaurants aren’t all bad. While you are unlikely to find an organic salad or quinoa pilaf, the large menu can be amenable to healthy options if you make smart choices and substitute liberally. (Just try not to think about where the food came from).

Menu Language

One of the first steps in navigating the Appleby’s menu is learning the language and knowing which code words signify unnecessary calories.

Avoid dishes that use words like:

  • Glazed
  • Crispy
  • Melted
  • Smothered
  • Breaded
  • Creamy
  • Honey-dipped
  • Crusted
  • Gooey
  • Cheesy

All these words code for either added sugar, added flour (refined carbohydrates) or extra cheese and cream. Skip these items or find an appropriate substitute (see below).

Instead, look for words that signify flavor without extra calories.

Healthy menu words are:

  • Roasted
  • Baked
  • Broiled
  • Rubbed
  • Seared
  • Grilled
  • Scented
  • Sauteed
  • Spiced
  • Seasoned

These words can steer you in the direction of healthier food, but you will quickly find the best choice is not always clear cut. Unfortunately, most entrees involve some combination of grilled, melted and glazed.

Substitute and Modify

Once you have found the most appetizing healthy-leaning dish, figure out the one or two things about it that likely add the most calories. Get around these annoyances by making use of the giant menu to get exactly what you want out of your meal. In other words, don’t be afraid to modify your order.

Menu substitutions are not appropriate in every venue (high-end dining comes to mind), but at large chain restaurants substituting is a way of life.

The number one thing you want to avoid is refined carbohydrates. Stay away from the pastas, breads, potatoes, pot pies and anything else made with flour. Also avoid breaded and battered foods that are covered in flour then deep-fried. This can get tricky, however, because sauces and dressings can be a hidden source of sugar, starch and other unnecessary calories.

With sauces, ordering them on the side and using just what you need is an easy way to cut down on calories. For salads I frequently trade in the dressing for oil and vinegar. Salad oils are healthy, but sugar and salt can be a problem in dressings.

One of my favorite tricks for restaurant salads is substituting iceberg or romaine lettuce for spring greens. I also like to swap out bacon for a boiled egg or avocado. In essence, I try to create more balanced meals by trading empty calories for nutritious foods.

Entire side dishes can also be replaced upon request. Potatoes in any form I swap for salad, vegetables or fruit. Brown rice can sometimes be ordered instead of white rice or pilaf.

Share

Even though you have found something reasonably healthy to order, portion sizes at these restaurants can still sabotage your health. Our brains are wired to eat everything we see on our plates–hunger has almost nothing to do with how much we decide to eat.

The best way to get combat restaurant portions is to decide in advance to find another use for half the food on your plate. Sharing with a friend is a great solution, particularly if the table is ordering appetizers as well. Alternatively you can take the rest of your food home and eat it later.

I usually estimate cake, ice cream and other desserts to come in around 50 calories or more per bite (take a minute and let that sink in). Do not be the one who orders dessert in these restaurants. Remember, just like in neighborhood restaurants this food is not particularly special. You can get it anywhere and it will always taste the same. Save the extra calories for meals that are truly special.

Conclusion

Deciphering the language of hidden calories is the first step to surviving a meal at sit-down chain restaurants. Take advantage of the mega menus to find healthy alternatives for the worst calorie sinks in your order. To cancel the colossal portions of less-than-special food, recruit a friend to share or have another plan to prevent overeating–you really won’t be missing anything.

How do you handle sit-down chain restaurants?

Read more How To Eat In Restaurants:

  1. Healthy Tips for Real Life
  2. Neighborhood Convenience
  3. Sit-Down Chains
  4. Healthy Advice From SF Food Critic Michael Bauer
  5. The Truly Special Occasions
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Calorie Restriction and Quality of Life

by | Jul 20, 2009
Jeff Miller/University of Wisconsin Madison

Jeff Miller/University of Wisconsin Madison

Last week The New York Times published a story on the life prolonging effects of a low calorie diet in primates. The study in question found that like other organisms (from yeast to worms to mice), rhesus monkeys that eat 30% fewer calories age more slowly and develop fewer diseases than animals on a traditional diet. Those of us who follow the scientific literature on nutrition and aging are not surprised by this at all.

A few days after the story was published The Times published an op-ed questioning the value of the research. Roger Cohen argues that Canto, the healthier monkey, has suffered tremendously as a result of his restricted diet. He contends that it is far better to be fat and happy (and dead?) than thin and miserable.

To me it seems questionable why Cohen believes Canto is unhappy. If he is making his judgment solely on the image above, I must respectfully disagree with his assessment. To me both monkeys appear relatively miserable.

However, Cohen brings up a crucial question about diet and health. How far are we willing to go–how much are we willing to change our diets–in order to extend our lives?

Quality of life is a very important question.

To me one of the most interesting things about calorie restriction is that life extension is only one of many health benefits. Calorie restriction literally slows down the aging process. As a result the animals subject to a limited diet are able to maintain a high level of physical activity into old age. They are also relatively free of age-related diseases including cancer, heart disease, diabetes and neurodegenerative diseases.

Extended life would arguably not be as desirable if these diseases maintained the same progression as they do in those with normal diets. But freedom from these diseases and preserved physical and mental capacities may indeed be worth some dietary alteration.

The next question is how must the diet be changed?

In the monkey experiment, the calorie-restricted group received 30% fewer calories than the control monkeys, who were allowed to eat what they wanted. It is still unknown if a 30% reduction in calories will extend human life in a similar manner, but short-term experiments have indicated that at least some benefits are immediately apparent when calories are limited, such as lower triglycerides, body fat and blood pressure.

Interestingly, however, there may be alternatives to a strict low calorie diet. Cynthia Kenyon, a scientist at UCSF, was the first to show that the key to the life extending properties of calorie restriction is the insulin signaling pathway. A decrease in insulin signaling slows the aging process and extends life.

In the laboratory, organisms like worms, mice and monkeys always receive a uniform diet that has a consistent effect on insulin signaling. But humans do not eat lab food (at least not usually).

Extensive research over the past several decades has made it clear that different foods impact insulin signaling differently in humans. For example, refined carbohydrates have a large, rapid impact on blood sugar, insulin secretion and insulin signaling. By contrast, fat, protein and fiber have next to zero impact on blood sugar and subsequent insulin signaling.

The implication of the diverse human diet is that we are able to alter insulin levels and signaling in our bodies without undergoing severe calorie restriction. Whether or not a diet that promotes less insulin signaling can slow aging in humans is still unknown, but there are many other benefits associated with a diet that lacks refined carbohydrates.

Insulin signaling is not only tied to the aging process, it is also the primary cause of metabolic syndrome–high triglycerides, insulin resistance, hyperinsulinemia, abdominal obesity, low HDL cholesterol and high blood pressure–as well as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

A diet that improves these symptoms may or may not slow the aging process directly, but it can certainly promotes a higher quality of life by lowering the risk of many debilitating and life threatening diseases.

Going to farmers markets and eating delicious meals isn’t so bad either.

What are your thoughts on health, diet and quality of life?

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Farmers Market Update: Charentais Melons

by | Jul 19, 2009
Charentais Melons

Charentais Melons

I did not buy much today at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market because I will be out of town for much of the week. One thing I did get though is one of these small, fragrant charentais melons from The Peach Farm.

If you have never had a charentais I highly recommend you try one this summer. Their scent is intoxicating, like a mix of cataloup and passion fruit. At first taste they seem to resemble a cantaloup, but you quickly notice that their flavor is much more complex and floral than any cataloup you’ve ever had.

Charentais melons are one of my favorite summer treats.

What are you loving at the farmers market right now? Do you have a favorite pluot or berry that you wait for all summer? Use the comments as an open thread to share your summer fruit secrets.

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For The Love of Food

by | Jul 17, 2009
For The Love of Food

For The Love of Food

Welcome to Friday’s For The Love of Food, Summer Tomato’s weekly link roundup.

I had to make some tough cuts this week because there was so much good reading. I even doubled up once (shhhh, don’t tell). Featured, of course, are the two appearances Summer Tomato made on other blogs this week, including the coveted #1 spot on Chef2video’s Top 10 Thoughtful Food Blogs. Anyone interested in Twitter should definitely check out the crash course I wrote for Food Bloggers Unite! Seriously though, every single one of these stories are worth reading.

If you would like to see more of my favorite articles each week or just don’t want to wait until Friday, be sure to follow me on Twitter (@summertomato) or the Summer Tomato Facebook fan page. For complete reading lists join me on the social bookmarking sites StumbleUpon and Delicious. I’m very active on all these sites and would love to connect with you there.

Submissions of your own best food and health articles are also welcome, just drop me an email using the contact form. I am currently accepting guest posts at Summer Tomato for any healthy eating, living and exercise tips.

For The Love of Food

What did you find this week?

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Fish Eaters and Vegetarians Have Less Cancer

by | Jul 15, 2009
Collards, Carrots and Lentils

Collards, Carrots and Lentils

There is much debate among nutrition scientists over whether meat eating is healthy. On one side there are the hardcore low-fat vegetarian advocates like Dr. Colin Campbell, author of The China Study, who believe all animal fat and protein is dangerous. On the other side are those who point to refined carbohydrates as the biggest threat to public health, citing studies that suggest meat alone is harmless or even helpful (for more information read Good Calories, Bad Calories, by Gary Taubes).

I tend to agree somewhat with both.

For heart disease, the evidence certainly seems to indicate that refined carbohydrates are the worst culprit. Though health advocates once pointed to saturated fat as the cause, this suggestion has not stood up to rigorous scientific testing. In fact, dietary fat (particularly from plants) seems to be protective against heart disease.

Refined carbohydrates are also the cause of type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome (a combination of insulin resistance, high blood pressure, heart disease and obesity), which is arguably the biggest health threat of our time.

For these reasons and many others, I avoid refined sugar and flour as much as possible in my daily life.

Heart disease and metabolic syndrome are not the only diseases that concern me, however. Cancer is another modern ailment that has been linked to diets high in both carbohydrates and meat. Though the studies are not perfectly consistent in showing harm or no harm regarding meat consumption and cancer, rarely does anything suggest meat eating is actually beneficial (though studies are almost always confounded because meat eaters also tend to eat the most sugar and refined grains).

Fish is another story entirely. Although fish is technically a meat, its properties are very different from land animals. For one thing, fish eating has consistently proven beneficial in scientific studies of heart disease and metabolic syndrome. It also seems to play a role in protecting the brain against degenerative diseases.

I am an avid fish eater and try to include seafood in my diet several times per week.

Until now, however, I have not read much about the role of fish in cancer. A new meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Cancer (part of the Nature publishing group) suggests that vegetarians have significantly less cancer than meat eaters, and that cancer rates are even lower in fish eaters.

The researchers analyzed data from two British studies of vegetarians from the early 80s and early 90s that includes over 60,000 individuals, mostly women but some men. The participants were followed until the end of 2006.

Incidence of malignant tumors was compiled for all the subjects and the relative risks were calculated. Vegetarians and fish eaters had significantly lower risk for stomach cancer, ovarian cancer, lymphatic and bone marrow cancers, and bladder cancer. Vegetarians had a higher risk of cervical cancer than meat eaters. Fish eaters had a lower risk of prostate cancer than meat eaters.

Overall vegetarians had 8% fewer cancers than meat eaters and fish eaters had 20% fewer.

Interestingly, no difference was found in breast cancer or colorectal cancer incidence, which have both been tied to meat consumption. The authors speculate that this study could be lacking in statistical power to observe a difference. However, the current data is inconsistent and no conclusions can be drawn.

While the results of this study are very compelling, there are several caveats that must be addressed. First, the number of cancers at individual sites were relatively few, meaning that findings may be exaggerated or due to chance. For me the most convincing numbers are of the overall cancer rates (the largest numbers and strongest statistics), but this leaves many questions about the causes of the different cancers.

Another issue is that vegetarians and fish eaters in the study tended to be younger and get more exercise than the meat eaters, so there may be important confounding factors that could influence the results. Likewise, studies that rely on self-reported dietary patterns have well-documented flaws (basically everyone believes they eat healthier than they really do).

It is not clear what is causing the differences in cancer incidence among vegetarians, fish eaters and meat eaters. Vegetables and fruits have been suspected of actively protecting against cancers, but so far the mechanisms are only speculative and not concrete. Recent studies have suggested vitamin D can be protective against certain cancers. Since some fish can be very high in vitamin D, this may explain some of the benefit seen in fish eaters.

The higher incidence of cervical cancer among vegetarians is also compelling and warrants further research.

Despite the flaws in this study it is mostly consistent with other research suggesting that an optimal diet is primarily fresh, unprocessed plants, some fish and little meat.

Moderation is usually the best policy.

What is your take on this study? How do you feel about health vs the ethics of fish consumption?

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How To Eat Healthy In Restaurants: Neighborhood Convenience

by | Jul 13, 2009
Neighborhood Restaurants

Neighborhood Restaurants

I spent a lot of time last week bashing fast food and all other convenience foods in general. And I stand by every word of it. But today I would like to clarify that I have nothing against quick, affordable restaurants. By this I mean your local taco joint or phở spot, which can be the perfect place for a quick bite before the game or to meet up with friends.

(This post is part of the series How To Eat In Restaurants. Part one is Healthy Tips for Real Life (or how I learned to stop worrying and never eat fast food). Get future posts by signing up for email or RSS updates–subscribing is always free of cost and spam.)

The distinction between convenient, local mom-and-pop restaurants and multinational fast food chains is huge. For one thing, smaller operations have better access to fresh food and are more likely to use real ingredients. For this reason, the food can taste a hundred times better than anything you could find at Burger King. Of course the food is not guaranteed to be good, but it is certainly possible.

For me, the biggest difference between places like this and fast food is that what you get is actually tasty. A BigMac doesn’t tempt me in the slightest, but a carne asada burrito is pretty hard to resist. These burritos can be large enough to feed a small village for a week though, so how do we know where to draw the line?

I never let food rules interfere with my ability to have a good time (okay, I do occasionally), but there are a few things I try to keep in mind when I’m going to one of my favorite local restaurants to make sure too much damage isn’t done.

Things to remember when eating at neighborhood restaurants

  • Don’t go nuts By its very nature this food is not particularly special. Sure it can be delicious, but we have just defined it as being convenient and affordable, so the fact is you can get it whenever you want. Show a little restraint with your eating and don’t act as if this is your last meal on earth. If it’s that good you can come back and have it again next week.
  • Ordering is half the battle The first minefield you encounter in these places is the menu. In my experience neighborhood restaurants tend to have expansive menus with a zillion options. In many of these places, most of the stuff on the menu tastes pretty good so ordering something a little smaller or a bit healthier is not a big sacrifice. A good decision can save you hundreds of calories and an hour on the treadmill. Keep that in mind when perusing your choices.
  • Seek out extra vegetables Personally I just don’t feel right without having something green on my plate, and I always try to make sure there is a pile of at least something healthy. At some of my favorite Mexican places this can sometimes just mean a side of guacamole, but at least I know I’m doing something good for me. The nice thing about vegetables (and healthy fats) is they contribute to your feeling full and can help your self-control when attempting the next point….
  • Watch the carbs Carbs are usually the biggest problem at places like this. Most small restaurants assume that Americans are expecting giant portions and so they fulfill that expectation by piling on cheap and unimpressive refined grains. Rice, noodles, bread and chips are the biggest offenders. I avoid these by either ordering something vegetable or meat based, asking for substitutions or just not eating this portion of my meal.
  • Remember to substitute I don’t know why this is so easy to forget, but try to remember! Substitutions and special requests can mean the difference between a healthy meal and an “oops” meal. Swap out fries for a salad, lose your white rice for brown (or beans or vegetables) and trade in iceberg lettuce for the spring greens. People often look at my plate with envy when we’ve ordered the same thing but mine shows up filled with vibrant salad instead of a pile of soggy potatoes. Don’t be the one who thinks, “I should have thought of that.”
  • Learn to share Like the idea of having a salad but want to try a couple fries too? How about make a deal with your dining partner to share the two, so you can each enjoy a little salad and a few fries. Another easy way to cut down on calories is to share an appetizer and entrée between two people. This is always more than enough food for me and friend and allows for a small indulgence without completely throwing your health out the window.
  • Don’t clean your plate Again, no matter how it tastes this food is not particularly special. Do not feel obligated to eat it all at one sitting. You can take the rest home or just leave it for the wait staff to haul away. It’s cheap, remember? Eat slow, drink your water, eat what you like and then stop. I know this is different from everything we’ve been taught about the value of food, but your health is far more important than 25 cents worth of rice. It can be a little easier if you take your leftovers to go and offer them to a homeless person. I do this all the time and they seem to really appreciate it.

What are your healthy tips for eating in neighborhood restaurants?

Read more How To Eat In Restaurants:

  1. Healthy Tips for Real Life
  2. Neighborhood Convenience
  3. Sit-Down Chains
  4. Healthy Advice From SF Food Critic Michael Bauer
  5. The Truly Special Occasions
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Farmers Market Update: Summer In San Francisco

by | Jul 11, 2009
Summer Beans

Summer Beans

Summertime in San Francisco is characterized by amazing food and horrible weather. By that definition, today was certainly summer: cold, gloomy and delicious!

The best tasting foods at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market now are things I associate with summertime. Lettuce greens and herbs are absolutely spectacular. Stone fruits are to die for. Tomatoes are sweet and flavorful in every color, size and shape you could imagine. Potatoes are sweet, creamy and firm. Life is good.

Santa Rosa Plums

Santa Rosa Plums

Summer in San Francisco

Summer in San Francisco

Produce I associate with later in the season is also beginning to appear. Peppers become more interesting, diverse and fragrant by the week, as do the melons. Figs of all varietals are sweet and sticky. Some of the blackberries I saw today were the size of ping pong balls!

Summer Potatoes

Summer Potatoes

Chilies and Peppers

Chilies and Peppers

One of the most interesting items I purchased this week was a bunch of chocolate mint from Marin Roots Farm. It actually smells like an After Eight, and I can’t wait to figure out what to do with it. I imagine it would pair nicely with berries. Any other suggestions?

In case you are curious about how I am handling the new bag policy at the market, I’m pretty happy with the way it is working out. I bought a bunch of bags from the CUESA booth the first day for $5 and I still haven’t gone through the whole thing. Many of the vendors provide bags for free, either paper or biodegradable plastic. Others charge $0.25 for a bioderadable bag–that’s when I bust out my secret stash.

BYOB

BYOB

Peaches

Peaches

For me the biggest bag annoyance I’m facing right now is getting all my beautiful stone fruits and tomatoes home in one piece, since they tend to get mangled in my bag with all the other veggies in there. I am experimenting with different solutions and will let you know when I get it worked out.

Check out my video if you want to see everything I brought home (except the figs, I ate those right away). I also spill the beans on my absolute favorite summer squash. It takes about 2.5 minutes.

Today’s Purchases:

What did you find at your farmers market this week?

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