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For The Love Of Food

by | Aug 31, 2012

For The Love of Food

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

This week learn why Coca-Cola is afraid of Twitter, health isn’t the best reason to exercise, and cutting calories might prevent cancer but probably won’t extend your life.

Want to see all my favorite links? Be sure to follow me on on Delicious. I also share links on Twitter @summertomato,  Google+ and the Summer Tomato Facebook page. I’m very active on all these sites and would love to connect with you. (And yes, I took that pepper heart pic myself).

Links of the week

What inspired you this week?

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How to raise your HDL cholesterol

by | Aug 29, 2012
Olive Oil

Olive Oil

You’ve probably heard it is important to keep your cholesterol levels low, but if you want to protect yourself against heart disease you may be barking up the wrong tree.

Total cholesterol is actually a fairly poor predictor of heart disease, and LDL  “bad” cholesterol is only slightly better. Instead, the ratio of “good” HDL cholesterol to LDL is the most reliable indicator of cardiovascular health. That means higher HDL is as important (if not more so) than lower LDL for protecting against heart disease and atherosclerosis.

That’s right, you want higher HDL cholesterol.

HDL cholesterol scavenges the blood and removes dangerous cholesterol deposits from the arteries. An HDL level above 60 mg/dL is considered protective against heart disease whereas HDL below 40 mg/dL is a risk, even if your LDL is fairly low.

Last time I had my HDL tested it was above 80 mg/dL.

While drugs like statins are not very effective in raising HDL cholesterol, lifestyle modifications can raise HDL substantially.

10 Ways to raise your HDL cholesterol

  1. Exercise Exercise can substantially increase HDL cholesterol while lowering LDL cholesterol.
  2. Lose weight Weight loss is almost always accompanied by improved cholesterol numbers, including increased HDL.
  3. Don’t smoke Smoking has been shown to lower HDL while raising LDL cholesterol.
  4. Avoid trans fat Processed, trans fats simultaneously raise LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol, vastly increasing your risk of heart disease (similar to smoking). Margarin, shortening and other fake fats should always be avoided.
  5. Avoid low-fat diets Low-fat diets lower both LDL and HDL cholesterol and are not effective at reducing heart disease.
  6. Eat olive oil and avocados Monounsaturated fats such as those found in olive oil and avocados raise HDL and lower LDL.
  7. Eat fish Fish (especially fatty fish like salmon and sardines) contain omega-3 fats that raise HDL and lower LDL.
  8. Avoid refined carbohydrates Refined carbohydrates negatively impact HDL and raise LDL (bad news).
  9. Eat whole grains Whole, intact grains contain soluble fiber and niacin, both of which raise HDL and may lower LDL.
  10. Drink alcohol 1-2 drinks per day can be as effective as exercise in raising HDL levels. However too much alcohol raises risk for cancer and addiction.

For more information on cholesterol check out my video Cholesterol Explained.

Are you concerned about HDL? Is your doctor?

Originally published Sept 14, 2009.

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Better Than Pasta Subtitutes: Summer Squash Noodle Recipe and Video

by | Aug 27, 2012
Squash Pasta

Squash Pasta

Recently a reader asked:

“Any tips on pasta substitutes? (I did read your post about how whole grain/whole wheat pasta isn’t really a whole lot better than regular pasta).”

Pasta and noodles can be tricky if you’re trying to lose weight and get healthy. Though some people consider Italian pasta (made from semolina flour) to be a low glycemic index food, in my experience frequent pasta consumption will start the scale moving slowly upward.

I love pasta, but eat it sparingly.

Luckily I have found a noodle substitute that I absolutely adore, and it’s even faster than boiling water.

Although I was shocked at how delicious this turned out, I was even more amazed at how easy it was to prepare. All you need is some summer squash, a vegetable peeler and a bowl (optional). Cook the noodles by quickly sautéing them with a little olive oil and Kosher salt.

You can use any sauce you like. I modified the simple tomato sauce recipe from Cook’s Illustrated.

Summer Squash Pasta & Simple Tomato Sauce

Ingredients:

  • 2-4 summer squash such as zucchini
  • 1 14 oz. can diced tomatoes
  • 1 medium fresh tomato
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • ~10 leaves fresh basil
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt

First run your garlic through a garlic press and place into a small bowl or cup. Add 1 tbsp warm water to the garlic, stir and set aside.

Next drain your tomatoes and reserve the liquid. Dice your fresh tomato into half inch cubes.

Chop your basil. Leaves such as mint and basil are easiest to cut if you chiffonade them by stacking the leaves on top of each other and rolling them lengthwise like a cigarette. From there they are easy to cut into thin strips.

In a pan heat 2 tbsp of olive oil and add the garlic. Cook until fragrant but not brown, about one minute. Add the canned tomatoes and simmer until sauce starts to thicken, about 8 minutes.

While the sauce is simmering, peel squash as shown in the video. Saute the squash ribbons in olive oil on medium heat. Sprinkle with salt and sauté for no more than 2 minutes. Do not allow them to brown or soften. Noodles should be brightly colored and al dente. Remove from pan and set aside.

When sauce starts to thicken, add fresh tomatoes and basil. Add some reserved tomato liquid if it becomes too thick to work with. Cook sauce another 3 minutes or so and salt to taste.

Toss your sauce with squash noodles and serve immediately.

How else do you like to eat squash pasta?

This post and video are pretty old, but this is still one of my all-time favorite recipes. Originally published July 29, 2009.

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Farmers Market Update: Tucson

by | Aug 26, 2012
Two-Tone Crook Neck Squash

Zephyr Squash

My name is Ashley Mason, and I’m a graduate student who lived in Tucson for five years while working on my PhD. My husband Evan works in tech. We love to play scrabble, frequent farmers markets, drink wine while cooking, and eat dark chocolate while watching The Daily Show. We’ve been novice weight lifters for about four years. We are leaving our treasured Tucson to move to Palo Alto in just two weeks’ time for his work and my residency.

Farmers Market Update: Tucson

by Ashley Mason

When people hear “Tucson,” they often think, “hot, unbearable heat” and “dry, cactus-filled desert.” Indeed, these are both true, but a whole lot of wonderful produce grows here, and there is quite a bit of pasture on which to raise animals. Tucson is a relatively small town, and home to a variety of small farmers markets.

The good news is that no matter where one lives, there is a market nearby. Here, though, one has to come to market early, or risk missing some of the best picks—to other people, or to the heat, whichever arrives first. My husband and I generally like to purchase our eggs, vegetables, cheeses, beef, fruits, and bacon at the markets, so we generally cover two markets each weekend. This was our last weekend venture to these markets before our move to California.

Goat Cheeses

Goat Cheeses

The Philips Plaza Tucson farmers market, located north of Tucson proper, is a Tucson gem. One can find a variety of eggs (duck, quail, peacock, or chicken), local cheeses (especially goat cheeses), breads, and of course, fruits and vegetables. The market this August was brimming with peaches and squash. This week I hosted a brunch for several friends who love spicy food and wanted to make a quiche, so I was particularly after eggs and anything I could incorporate into the quiche or as a side.

The Fiore de Capra sells goat’s milk cheeses that are just to die for. From spreads to solid cheeses for slicing, they have quite the variety. Their cheeses are tangy and have a fabulous texture, not a bit grainy. One of the best things is that the marinades that the cheeses are packed in (olive oil and various peppers, peppercorns, etc.) makes a wonderful marinade for chicken or other vegetables long after the cheese is gone. I opted for a baked goat brie wedge and a goat cheese marinated in a mixture of olive oil and jabanero peppers. Who doesn’t want to wake up to a goat cheese quiche?

Fiore de Capra Cheeses

Fiore de Capra Cheeses

The Village Bakehouse is a famous-to-Tucson local bakery that specializes in breads. At this booth if you ask for olive bread, whichever baker is working will likely ask you what type of olives you prefer. They also make excellent pecan rolls. My husband has a soft spot for these, so we picked one up.

Pastries

Pastries

Maria of Durazo’s Poco Loco Specialty Salsas has something for everyone. Our favorite? Her chunky pico de gallo, made with home-roasted local chiles. Although one might think of tomatoes as the primary ingredient here, Maria focuses heavily on the natural oils in the chiles when she describes each of her offerings. She also makes wonderful fruit salsas with peaches and mangos. Evan actually plops this salsa in the pan with his eggs every morning, and the smell of roasted green chiles floods our apartment.

Maria

Maria

Right by Durazo’s is Tortilla Arevalo, which sells mesquite flour tortillas, corn tortillas, tamales, and homemade chips deep fried in olive oil. These are a real treat.

Arevalo

Arevalo

Grammy’s Garden, located in Wilcox Arizona, always has wonderful produce. The sweet potatoes are awesome, especially when roasted with a mixture of coconut oil, paprika, and cinnamon. They also grow a variety of tomatoes and other well-known vegetable varieties. I picked up a few sweet potatoes and started dreaming up a curried sweet potato hash side dish.

Grammys Garden

Grammy's Garden

These cherry tomatoes were delicious—flavorful, sweet, and perfect for roasting or simply eating drizzled with balsamic and olive oil. We decided these would make a lovely roasted tomato side dish. We picked up a couple of pints of cherry tomatoes.

Tomatoes

Tomatoes

George and his grandmother oversee the production of a variety of pickled and preserved vegetables, as well as jams and jellies.

Grammys Jars

Grammys Jars

My husband and I normally buy a lot of yellow squash, and frequently make Darya’s “pasta” recipe by using a peeler to create large fettuccine noodles, but this week we held out for some different squashes that are not as frequently available. Larry’s Veggies is an excellent place for all things squash. They always have a variety of shapes, colors, and sizes of squash, and this week I was in the mood for something different.

Larry's Summer Squash

Larry's Summer Squash

Crook-neck squash and large summer squashes are excellent both cooked and raw. The smaller crook neck squashes are actually on the sweet side this year, and when sliced, make excellent “chips” for salsa or guacamole dipping. We like to thinly slice the larger squash and layer the slices with goat cheese and homemade marinara sauce, and bake it into a sort of “lasagna.”

Two-Tone Squash

Two-Tone Squash

Larry’s also has eggs from their small flock of chickens, and the yolks are almost the color of a florida navel orange. I picked up a variety of squashes and the last dozen of eggs, along with a hefty bag of baby lettuces and a couple cloves of garlic.

Larry's Veggies

Larry's Veggies

I’d already gotten cherry tomatoes, but these looked good too!

Garlic and Cherry Tomatoes

Garlic and Cherry Tomatoes

We picked up several squash from Leo Big D Farms. The purple okra looked beautiful, too.

Leo Big D

Leo Big D

Wilcox peaches, which are actually cling peaches, are a must if you can find them in August in Tucson. They are the most delicious peaches I’ve ever had. They are small, but the flavor is intense. Delicious (and a sticky mess) in the car on the way home, but also when sliced and mixed with fresh blueberries. I purchased a few pounds from Grammy’s Farm. We cite these peaches for our complete disinterest in store-bought peaches.

Peaches

Peaches

It would not be a Tucson market without some chili offerings. These jalapeños were on the cusp of becoming the hottest that they ever will. A lone jalapeño was the first to start to turn color. We chose a very small one to mince for the quiche.

Jalapeno

Jalapeno

Since we knew we would need a good deal of eggs, and had some hopes for bacon and homemade beef breakfast sausage, we had also driven 10 minutes north to the Oro Valley farmers market the previous day (Saturday), just outside of Tucson city limits, to get some eggs and meats.

The grassfed beef from Sombrero Butte Beef company is unbelievable. Laurie, the ranch owner, and her husband, raise the cattle and slaughter approximately two per month. For over a year, Laurie set aside tenderloin roasts for me, and we used them at our wedding this past June in Chicago. The TSA at the airport got to know me as “the beef lady” as I carted frozen beef to Chicago four times over the course of the year! Laurie also occasionally has local bacon—a real treat. We picked up a couple pounds of ground beef to make into beef sausage patties, along with a couple pounds of bacon. Earlier in the week, I’d gotten some spices from Penzeys that I use to make “sausage.”

Laurie

Laurie

This family runs the Rancho Chico Eggs, which specializes in a variety of eggs, from chicken eggs to peacock eggs. The couple who run this booth are engineers who also have a knack for raising chickens and other birds, and bring their five children with them every week.

Rancho Chico

Rancho Chico

The children are often over by Laurie’s beef stand, snacking on whatever she’s cooked up to sample, but always come back to greet customers. I average two hugs per visit from the little girls. We picked up a dozen chicken eggs here.

Rancho kids

Rancho kids

In total, we had wonderful ingredients for the brunch. We made a goat cheese quiche with baby greens and pico de gallo, curried sweet potato hash, bacon, grass-fed beef sausages, roasted cherry tomatoes with balsamic vinegar, and sliced peaches. Everything was a hit, not a leftover in sight! Later that week, we made the above-mentioned “lasagna,” also delicious.

The Loot

The Loot

Purchases:

  • 2 pounds grass fed ground beef from Sombrero Butte Beef Company
  • 2 pounds local bacon from Sombrero Butte Beef Company
  • 3 pounds Wilcox (cling) peaches from Grammy’s Garden
  • 1 pint mild pico de gallo salsa from Durazo’s Poco Loco Specialty Salsas
  • 1 spaghetti squash from Sleeping Frogs Farms
  • 1 bag mixed lettuces from Larry’s Veggies
  • 1 tiny jalapeno from Leo Big D Farms
  • 1 dozen eggs from Larry’s Veggies
  • 1 dozen eggs from Rancho Chico Eggs
  • 1 package goat cheese marinated in jabanero peppers and olive oil
  • 1 baked goat cheese brie wedge from Fiore de Capra cheeses
  • 3 large sweet potatoes from Grammy’s Garden
  • Several two-tone squash from Leo Big D Farms
  • Several summer squash from Larry’s Veggies
  • 2 pints cherry tomatoes from Grammy’s Garden
  • 1 pecan roll from The Village Bakehouse (didn’t make it home! Devoured in the car.)

What was at your farmers market this week?

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For The Love Of Food

by | Aug 24, 2012

For The Love of Food

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

This week learn why banning healthy food is a good idea, industrial chicken will kill us all, and cows are being fed candy instead of corn.

Want to see all my favorite links? Be sure to follow me on on Delicious. I also share links on Twitter @summertomato,  Google+ and the Summer Tomato Facebook page. I’m very active on all these sites and would love to connect with you. (And yes, I took that pepper heart pic myself).

Links of the week

What inspired you this week?

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10 Reasons To Never Eat Free Food

by | Aug 22, 2012
By D Sharon Pruitt

By D Sharon Pruitt

Most people’s eyes light up if free food is mentioned. But using “free” as an excuse to eat junk food is nothing to be proud of.

We get excited by the concept of free food because at first glance it seems like a great value. But cheap, mass-produced food isn’t worth much in health, taste or even satisfaction.

Thus one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my 12 years of higher education is:

Just because it’s free doesn’t mean you have to eat it.

Occasionally someone will offer you high-quality food at no cost, but these chances are few and far between. More often you will find yourself wading through a sea of donuts, pizza, cookies and other junk food.

Your best bet is skipping the empty calories all together when attending meetings, seminars and other public events.

10 reasons to never eat free food

  1. It’s cheap. You might think that free food is a bargain, but if you think about what you’re really getting it won’t seem like such a good deal. Cheap food means low-quality, mass-produced calories made from industrial processes. That’s the stuff we want to avoid.
  2. It’s flavorless. The right combinations of sugar, fat and salt, pretty easily deceive your brain, as these ingredients strongly activate your neural reward pathways. But if you try and focus on the true flavor of food and eat mindfully, you’ll learn to taste the difference between real food and the flavorlessness industrial stuff.
  3. It’s bad for you. Processed foods are responsible for almost all “diseases of civilization” such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. When you wolf down a few of those Costco brownie bites at happy hour, you are directly contributing to your likelihood of developing these chronic diseases. Is that value?
  4. You aren’t saving money. You may tell yourself that this free meal will keep you from eating later, but there’s a good chance you will eat again anyway. Processed foods do not satisfy you, but actually stimulate your appetite and strengthen future cravings. Also, if you factor in your future health care costs, what you save by eating that $2 slice of free pizza starts to seem rather trivial.
  5. You’ll feel gross later. Junk food makes you feel bad, both physically and mentally. If someone offered you a free headache, would you take it?
  6. It screws up your metabolism. Highly refined foods can induce insulin resistance over the next few hours, making your next meal more fattening. If you make a habit of eating cheap abundant food, this condition can become chronic and develop into type 2 diabetes. What a bargain!
  7. You’ll gain weight. With insulin resistance comes weight gain, and with time you will gain more weight eating fewer calories. Unfortunately, people aren’t often giving away free plus-sized jeans.
  8. You’re eating empty calories. When you submit to eating cheap food, you are also choosing not to eat nutritious food. Choosing a diet rich in vitamins and other essential nutrients is necessary for reducing risk for sickness and disease. Foods typically offered as free don’t even fulfill our most basic nutritional (or emotional) needs.
  9. You don’t need it. Chances are you get plenty of calories in your typical day. So why do we feel like we need to eat junk food just because it is free? Healthy food does not have to be very expensive.
  10. It isn’t worth it. The truth is free junk food isn’t really free. Even if processed foods don’t cost you money, they still cost you your health, happiness and sense of well-being. You can do better.

Why do you eat free food? Originally published September 21, 2009.

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Back To School: Healthy Packed Lunch Ideas

by | Aug 20, 2012
by Savannah Grandfather

by Savannah Grandfather

“Over the summer, my family has adopted some new eating habits.  We are avoiding processed foods and sugar.  Trying for a lot more whole foods and I wanted to see if you have some ideas for school lunches.  The new school year is coming up and I don’t want to fall into old habits with sugary yogurts, chips and cookies.”

Habits are the essence of healthstyle. Good ones can make health and weight loss easy, bad ones can derail your most sincere dieting attempts. While habits are hard to break, once they’re formed they’re easy to keep around.

But here’s the thing about building habits:

If the healthy choices aren’t as easy and appetizing as the unhealthy ones, you probably aren’t going to stick with them.

So whatever you try, make sure it’s something you’re willing to continue doing for the entire year.

Though I do not have children and have not spent much time with them, I have been a student for the past 26 years and know a few things about toting lunch around. If you do have kids, feel free to chime in.

Healthy School Lunch Ideas

Fruits and vegetables. Make these as easy and fun to eat as possible. If your kids are resistant to fresh produce, my recommendation is to have them participate in the buying process. Make your weekly farmers market trip a family outing and explain to kids what it means for something to be in season. Show them how sweet and flavorful foods can taste when they’re at their peak and let them pick their favorites. Eating a carrot is much more satisfying when you’ve picked it out yourself. Pro tip: This trick works on adults too.

Here are some ideas for produce that can be cut, bagged and stored until lunch time: carrots, celery, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, sweet red pepper, sugar snap peas, apples, blueberries, grapes and melon.

Homemade granola. Store bought granola is usually more like dessert than a healthy snack, but you can make your own with less sugar and it is still delicious. Don’t worry about using butter if it is called for, especially for growing children. Granola can be made in big batches, is easy to store, easy to transport and is based on intact grains that are both healthy and satisfying. Put a serving into a small zip bag and enjoy.

Hummus. Hummus is a Mediterranean dip made from chickpeas that is delicious and easy to make. A small tupper of hummus is a perfect accompaniment to cut up vegetables, whole grain breads and crackers. It is also convenient because it can be made in huge batches and frozen in smaller containers. Here is my favorite homemade hummus recipe.

Cheese. In reasonable quantities cheese can be a satisfying snack. Some wonderful artisan cheeses can even be bought for reasonable prices. American cheddar is a perfect example. Just stay away from the really processed stuff at the grocery store–check the ingredients label and avoid long, scientific sounding words.

Peanut butter. Like hummus, peanut (or any nut) butter can be a wonderful dip for fruits and veggies. I know that many parents these days are hysterical about nuts, but if the idea doesn’t bother you too much it can be a very healthy snack.

The consistency of natural nut butters can take some getting used to, but I strongly recommend these over the homogenized processed kinds. Natural nut butters that have no added sugar, no added trans fat, are full of healthy fats (this is good) and must be stored in the refrigerator (real foods don’t have preservatives). If you’re new to nut butters, almond butter is a great place to start.

Trail mix. Similar to nut butters trail mix can be scary for parents worried about nut allergies, but if your child can tolerate nuts then trail mix is a fun and nutritious snack. Try different combinations of nuts and dried fruits. I’ve recently discovered the amazing dried Bing cherries at my favorite farmers market. For a special treat you can add a few small chocolate chunks, which is a better indulgence than cookies or chips.

Sandwiches. I’m not a big fan of bread (even “whole grain” bread), but sandwiches are a reasonable option on occasion. When choosing bread, look for artisan brands with few ingredients and no preservatives. This kind of bread is often found in paper bags and costs less than the fake-healthy soft stuff in plastic. You can cut up loaves and store bread in zipper bags in the freezer. To thaw, heat for a few minutes at 325 F or move to the refrigerator the night before.

Healthy sandwich choices include: hummus, avocado, peanut/almond butter, soft fruit, canned Alaskan salmon, cheese, roasted chicken or turkey, egg salad, mixed veggies, etc. Try not to choose deli meats as your standard choice, since they are highly processed and have been tied to all sorts of health problems. Likewise, limit canned tuna to once per month (especially for children) because of the high mercury content. Mercury can damage developing nervous systems and has been tied to lower IQ scores.

Popcorn. For a crunchy, salty alternative to chips you can try popcorn. Though the instant kind can be hit or miss in terms of health, natural popcorn is relatively healthy and can be very easy to make. Explore different spices and flavor toppings such as cheese, cinnamon, cumin, black pepper, garlic salt and other spices. You can make this a weekend project and let the kids choose their own flavors, store it in air-tight containers and use it during the week.

Please share your favorite tips in the comments

Updated August 22, 2011.

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For The Love Of Food

by | Aug 17, 2012

For The Love of Food

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

This week learn why a knife can help you eat less, eggs aren’t really as bad as smoking, and how to tell real from fake olive oil.

Want to see all my favorite links? Be sure to follow me on on Delicious. I also share links on Twitter @summertomato,  Google+ and the Summer Tomato Facebook page. I’m very active on all these sites and would love to connect with you. (And yes, I took that pepper heart pic myself).

Links of the week

What inspired you this week?

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Gone Bananas? Why I Don’t Eat America’s Favorite Fruit

by | Aug 15, 2012

Photo by Crystl

No, I don’t eat bananas. Not really anyway.

It’s not that I don’t like the taste, I actually really enjoy them (particularly with ice cream). Nor do I actively avoid bananas—I’d eat homemade banana cream pie any day of the week, and in Thailand I noshed on the small red finger bananas sold at the local markets. But I don’t buy bananas in the US, and given a choice I’d almost always opt for something else.

While this probably sounds strange to some of you, if you stop and think about the way I live and shop it’s easy to see how this idiosyncratic habit evolved.

I do the majority of my grocery shopping (~80%) at the farmers market, and as you might expect bananas aren’t common in San Francisco. The one or two brick and mortar stores I shop at for the rest of my food here in the city are nothing like your typical supermarkets. Like the farmers market these stores carry local, seasonal food almost exclusively (did I mention I love San Francisco?), and if they carry bananas I’ve never noticed them.

So the main reason I don’t buy bananas is logistical: they don’t exist here.

Honestly for me that’s enough of a reason to focus on the rest of the produce the season has to offer—there’s always more beautiful fruit than I could possibly eat (even in the winter), why do I need bananas too? But when you pause and reflect on why this makes me strange, you start to realize that there are deeper issues with our most popular fruit that make them less than an ideal snack.

The vast majority of bananas sold in the US are grown in Latin Amercia by a handful of countries including Panama, Honduras and Costa Rica. In these places bananas are grown year round, are harvested while unripe, then shipped in special refrigerated compartments until they reach their destination weeks later. The fruit is then exposed to ethylene gas which causes it to ripen and turn their characteristic bright yellow (a different shade than their natural dull yellow when tree-ripened).

Though not genetically modified (yet), all commercial bananas are genetically identical clones grown in monocultures. While this makes the product extremely consistent, it also leaves it vulnerable to disease since cross-breeding cannot confer any protective benefit. Before 1960, the most prevalent commercial banana variety was ‘Gros Michel.’ However, these bananas were wiped out by the fungal Panama disease, forcing farmers to adopt a new variety.

Now all commercial bananas are the Cavendish variety, which was chosen for shelf life and shipping rather than flavor. Cavendish bananas are not immune to infection, however. An extremely virulent strain of Panama disease known as TR4 has threatened Cavendish bananas in Southeast Asia and Australia, and scientists believe TR4 will likely reach Latin American banana plantations soon. There is no variety currently considered a viable replacement for Cavendish, and bananas may be gone from supermarket shelves in our lifetimes. As I hinted above, companies are working to genetically modify the bananas to be resistant to TR4.

Even worse than monoculture ag destroying a commodity that millions of people depend on for their livelihoods, the large banana companies in Latin America (Dole and Chiquita) have a history of mind-boggling corruption. The term “banana republic” describes corrupt countries where the political system favors large agriculture corporations over public welfare. I had trouble finding information on the current state of the banana business and its politics, but there is little indication that things have improved.

But what about nutrition? Am I missing out? Bananas are famously high in potassium, but so are all the green leafy vegetables that make up a huge portion of my diet. Commercial bananas are indeed a good source of several nutrients, however they are also one of the most calorie dense fruits due to their high sugar content. There’s nothing in bananas that you can’t get from other foods, and lower calorie fruits may be a better choice if you eat them often or are watching your weight.

Despite these concerns, there are plenty of valid reasons to continue eating bananas. Just don’t let anyone call you crazy if you choose to skip them.

What are your thoughts on bananas? B-A-N-A-N-A-S!

Originally published August 1, 2011.

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Truth and Marketing: Why Sliced Bread Was Never A Great Invention

by | Aug 13, 2012
sliced bread

Photo by mattburns.co.uk

Food marketers have been at it for nearly a century. They’re saving us time, making it ever easier for us to consume their products, and all they ask in return is to charge us a little extra for the “convenience.” Bless their hearts.

When pressed, most of us will acknowledge that the top priority of food marketers is not to make our lives easier or tastier, but to get us to eat (and spend) more. What’s truly remarkable is that despite knowing this, we still parrot and defend their ideas as ardently as if we’d thought of them ourselves.

Do you really believe Krispy Kreme makes the best doughnuts, Ben & Jerry’s makes the best ice cream or life is impossibly difficult without pre-sliced bread? My guess is you probably do, or at least did at some point.

But the reality is none of these things are true, and that we think they are is just a sign of brilliant marketing.

Food isn’t like other products. There are people who buy every single gadget that Apple creates, and if Apple started making twice as many products per year those people would still buy them all. But humans can only eat so much food, which makes it difficult for food companies to expand their market and be competitive.

Enter “added value.”

Sliced bread, instant oatmeal and single serving Go-gurt are all examples of foods designed to be easier to eat. And companies correctly assume that we are happy to pay more for the free time these conveniences allot us.

But does this freedom really make our lives better?

I would never argue that time doesn’t have value. Though I think there is a strong case for slowing down and taking time to eat mindfully, I certainly see the appeal of fast and portable food. As a PhD student, writer and website owner I know what it means to be busy.

But convenience is not the only thing you get when marketers sell you on their products. You also eat more, and you eat worse.

Because sliced bread is easier to eat, people tend to eat more of it, along with whatever they choose to put on top. Additionally, since real bread quickly becomes stale when cut into smaller pieces food companies have had to find new (non-ecofriendly) packaging and add preservatives, dough conditioners and other chemicals to keep breads soft.

The ingredient list on a loaf of Wonder Bread is truly remarkable:

Wheat Flour, Water, High Fructose Corn Syrup or Sugar, Yeast, Contains 2% or Less of: Ferrous Sulfate (Iron), B Vitamins (Niacin, Thiamine Mononitrate (B1), Riboflavin (B2), Folic Acid), Barley Malt, Soybean Oil, Salt, Calcium Carbonate (Ingredient in Excess of Amount Present in Regular Enriched White Bread), Wheat Gluten, Dough Conditioners (Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Mono and Diglycerides, Calcium Dioxide, Datem and/or Azodicarbonamide) Vitamin D3. Calcium Sulfate, Vinegar, Yeast Nutrients (Monocalcium Phosphate, Dicalcium Phosphate, Ammonium Sulfate, Ammonium Phosphate and/or Ammonium Chloride) Cornstarch, Wheat Starch, Soy Flour, Whey, Calcium Propionate (to Retain Freshness), Soy Lecithin.

In contrast the bread I buy at Acme, my local bakery, is made of flour, water, yeast and salt. Special loaves may contain olives or herbs, but you get the general idea.

I have to cut it myself and it doesn’t last long if I leave it on the counter (it freezes absolutely beautifully), but the bread at Acme is also some of the best tasting bread I’ve had in my life.

Are you shocked that my Acme loaf costs around $2, while Wonder Bread costs close to $4?

I don’t eat much bread, because it is not particularly healthy. But I enjoy burgers, pizza, sandwiches, naan and other traditional foods way too much to cut it out completely. Reasonable quantities of bread can easily be incorporated into a healthy diet, particularly if you exercise regularly. But bread is not health food and eating as little as you’re comfortable with is generally a good idea.

We do not need unhealthy foods to be more convenient or less expensive. And if you’re going to put health aside and eat them anyway they should also taste absolutely amazing, not good or even pretty good.

Does pre-sliced bread really make the cut? I don’t think so.

Sliced bread was never a great invention, it was great marketing. “The best thing since sliced bread” was derived from an ad campaign claiming it’s invention was “the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped.”

The phrase may be perfect for describing brilliant marketing (“The best added value campaign since sliced bread”) but do we really need to continue propagating the message that low-quality convenience food is the best invention of the past 100 years?

If we want a true benchmark for greatness, maybe we should change it to “the greatest thing since the iPhone.”

Just for fun, here’s a video of Seth Godin’s TED talk about marketing and the sliced bread campaign.

How great is your bread?

Originally published September 1, 2010.

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