Top 10 Most Underrated Health Foods

by | Mar 5, 2014

Photo by Michael Hodge

We already know that food manufacturers and the media tend to exaggerate the benefits of popular health foods, but what about all the wonderfully healthy foods they ignore?

It’s time to shine the spotlight on 10 of my favorite healthy foods that never get the attention they deserve.
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For the Love of Food

by | Feb 7, 2014
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 (also includes links from last week when I was stuck on a wifi-less flight) shivering is the new running, cheap food is elitist, and one daily soda raises heart risk even if you aren’t overweight.

Want to see all my favorite links? (There’s lots more). 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).
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For The Love of Food

by | Jun 21, 2013
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 salt gets way too much attention, age and fertility aren’t as linked as you think, and how to interpret pork labels.

Want to see all my favorite links? (There’s lots more). 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).

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For the Love of Food

by | May 31, 2013
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 a cardiologist calls Foodist “groundbreaking,” why our veggies are less nutritious than they used to be, and debunking the blood type diet.

Want to see all my favorite links? (There’s lots more). 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).

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Is Organic Food Really The Same As Conventional?

by | Sep 5, 2012

Organic Golden Beets

On Monday a study from scientists at Stanford made headlines by concluding that there isn’t much health value in choosing organic food over conventional food. The headline didn’t surprise me in the least, I’ve seen similar ones at least a dozen times before, but there is still so much confusion among the general public around this topic that it’s worth revisiting in the wake of this new data.

Despite what organic zealots are telling you, this wasn’t a bad study. It was a meta-analysis that examined a number of relevant health measures comparing organic versus conventionally grown foods over the last several decades. They excluded processed foods from their analysis (this is a good thing), and looked at nutrient levels as well as pesticide contamination and antibiotic resistance in both produce and animal products. They were also careful about which organic standards were included in the study. Though the analysis has plenty of limitations (all meta-analyses do), their statistics were sound and the researchers were honest about their findings. What’s really annoying is how their results were interpreted by the media.

One problem is that the word “organic” is a huge umbrella that includes sustainable, biodynamic farming practices as well as huge-scale industrial operations that barely squeeze under the “certified organic” labeling standards. As a result there is a tremendous amount of heterogeneity (a scientific word for a wide range of differences) between the organic foods being tested, as well as the types of studies that are performed. As a result, it is difficult to measure consistent differences (aka statistical significance) between organic and conventional foods in this kind of study. Unfortunately, this doesn’t do much to further our understanding of how growing practices affect health.

The huge variance among farming practices that fit under the organic umbrella is not trivial. By far the largest segment of organic products on the market could be considered industrial organic, and the farms are closer to traditional industrial farms than most of us realize. Large organic farms are typically monoculture fields just like large conventional farms, though more crop rotation is required. Industrial organic poultry and beef farms also look oddly similar to conventional industrial feedlots, even if the animals are eating organic feed. In fact, both organic and conventional industrial farms are often owned by the same mega-corporations, and share the same bottom line of profit. There’s no reason to suspect that these industrial organic foods would be markedly more nutritious than conventionally grown foods.

In contrast, smaller biodynamic farms have extensive practices designed to build soil, improve robustness of crops and ensure bio and nutrient diversity. Instead of monocultures, these farms grow huge arrays of different vegetables and fruits. If a biodynamic farm raises animals they are given their natural, preferred diet of grass (for cows) or bugs and seeds (for birds). The animals are treated well and fed well, and are healthier as a result. If you want to learn more about the differences between conventional agriculture, big organic agriculture and biodynamic farming I highly recommend Michael Pollan’s excellent book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Joel Salatin’s latest book, Folks, This Ain’t Normal.

Interestingly, despite the wide range in the quality of foods that qualify as organic, the Stanford study did find some significant differences. Organic produce contained significantly more phenols, the cancer fighting chemicals found in red wine, green tea, chocolate and many fruits and vegetables. However, this finding was glossed over in favor of the non-significant differences found between vitamin C, betacarotene and vitamin E levels in organic versus conventional foods.

It is reasonable to hypothesize that organic agriculture (at least in some cases) would be more nutritious because the soil standards for organics are much higher than for the depleted, synthetically fertilized conventional fields. Soil quality and weather (the raw ingredients) are by far the biggest factors in the nutrient levels of produce, with freshness and storage methods being next in line. Indeed, organic agriculture typically has more minerals and the Stanford team confirmed they contain significantly more phosphorus. But there is so much variety among plants, and from season to season, that you shouldn’t necessarily expect large, consistent differences in the levels of common vitamins like C and E from genetically identical plants.

That the Stanford team found measurable differences in total phenol content is pretty impressive. There are dozens of phenolic compounds that could benefit health in different and subtle ways. Nutrition science still can’t explain the benefits of all these nutrients, but having more of them certainly seems like a good thing.

Still lack of pesticides, not better nutrition, is the most commonly cited reason for buying organic over conventional foods. Pesticides are designed to kill things, and have been shown repeatedly to be dangerous for farm workers and other wildlife. They also accumulate more in the bodies of people who eat conventional produce compared to those who eat organic, and susceptible populations such as children, pregnant and nursing women, and the elderly are at particular risk. The Stanford study confirms organic agriculture has substantially fewer pesticide contaminations, but for some reason this finding was also glossed over since the conventional produce levels “didn’t exceed maximum allowed limits.” Logically, however, if limiting pesticide exposure is important to you (as it should be) organic produce is the better option.

The animal studies were even more encouraging. Small but significant improvements in fatty acid profiles were found for organic milk and chickens, which contained more healthy omega-3 fatty acids. More importantly, antibiotic resistant bacteria, the kind that are becoming more common (and deadly) in our own hospitals, were 33% more likely to be found on conventional meat products than on organic meat. Antibiotic resistant bacteria being created on industrial farms is one of the scariest threats to human health in modern history, and any measures that limit their proliferation should be seriously considered.

From this study it seems reasonable to conclude that organics, even industrial organics, are superior to conventional foods in some ways. Organic farms cannot use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, sewage sludge (yes, human sewage is used on conventional food), irradiation or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and must help maintain or improve soil quality. These practices are much better for the environment, significantly limit the amount of pesticides you are exposed to, reduce the proliferation of dangerous pathogens and may be more nutritious.

Organic agriculture certainly sounds like it has some advantages over conventional ag to me.

Do you buy organic? Why?

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Book Review: Folks, This Ain’t Normal

by | Dec 19, 2011

Joel Salatin is one of the most interesting people I have ever met. Self-described as a “Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic-farmer,” you’re probably more familiar with him as the “beyond organic” owner of Polyface Farm featured in Michael Pollan’s landmark book The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the documentary Food, Inc. (note: if you haven’t read/watched those do so immediately).

I sat down with Joel recently to talk about his latest book, Folks, This Ain’t Normal. On the outside, Joel does not appear abnormal in the least. He was well dressed, well spoken, extremely polite and fiercely intelligent—a gentleman in every way. But once you get him talking you quickly see that his ideas make him an anomaly in modern society, not because they are far-fetched, but because they come from so many different sides of the political and societal spectrums. People are rarely this thoughtful and well-rounded, and after finishing the book this is the point I keep coming back to.

You are almost certain to disagree with some of Joel’s ideas. Folks, This Ain’t Normal runs the gamut in controversial topics. He touches on politics, religion, the environment (including global warming), sustainable agriculture, big business, peak oil, taxes, protectionism, meat eating, government regulation, women’s role in farming (he told me to my face he’s “sexist”) and likely a few more subjects that will get your blood boiling. But this is not your usual liberal-conservative political banter.

Joel is a thinker, and just a few pages into the book it is clear that he has a more intimate understanding of these topics than most experts and advocates could even dream of. Folks, This Ain’t Normal is by far the best ecology lesson I’ve ever had, and I try to be a responsible person and keep up on sustainable food issues. While most people discuss this subject academically, Joel actually knows how an ecosystem works, because he works with one every day back at Polyface Farm. For example, despite the cries of some environmentalists to do away with cows and replace them with tofu (aka soy beans), Joel explains in detail why a tillage-based crop like soy depletes soil, while a grass-based system of herbivore feeding builds and protects soil, and is necessary for environmental sustainability.

Food politics is another topic where Joel’s position runs flatly against conventional wisdom. Most of us in the food movement agree that Monsanto is the devil, and Joel is no different. But while most foodists lean liberal and think more regulation is the answer, Joel explains why those very regulations are what protect the big companies and put small farms like his out of business (exactly what Monsanto wants). So contrary to what you might guess, his position on this topic is strictly laissez faire.

As mentioned above, there’s almost certainly something that Joel writes that will offend you. (Yes, he takes more than a few shots at urban farmers market goers with award winning poodles—Joel, in my defense I at least use my fancy kitchen and make my own sauerkraut). But I’ll argue that this is precisely why you should read the book. When crafted by a thoughtful, intelligent person, opposing viewpoints are among the most valuable thing in a thinking person’s arsenal. Even if he doesn’t convince you to change your opinion, at least it forces you to question your beliefs, think a little harder and refine your position. There are no worthwhile topics that don’t have valuable insights from both sides of the fence. Thinking is good for you, and it is something that is sadly laking in our current political environment.

In this spirit, the types of people who would certainly benefit from reading Folks, This Ain’t Normal include: vegetarians, carnivores, environmentalists, McDonald’s patrons, farmers market shoppers, Chipotle patrons, Tea Partiers, liberals, Christians, scientists, atheists, politicians, big farmers, small farmers, city folks, country folks, the 99% and the 1%. In short, everyone who eats.

What Joel wants us to understand is that it isn’t him who is historically abnormal. What’s not normal is having no idea where food and water come from, nor how to keep them healthy and safe. In other words, it is the rest of us who have lost the basic life skills necessary for survival. This, he argues, is what isn’t normal.

Grade: A

Note: The audio version of the book is particularly wonderful, since Joel reads it himself.

What’s your normal?


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For The Love Of Food

by | Sep 16, 2011

For The Love of Food

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

Great reading this week, including an excellent piece by Michael Pollan about an unlikely ally in the political food fight, as well as Harvard’s answer to the USDA My Plate and a new website to help you find farm fresh produce in your area.

Want to see all my favorite links? Be sure to follow me on on Digg. I also share links on Twitter (@summertomato) and the Summer Tomato Facebook fan page. I’m very active on all these sites and would love to connect with you.

Links of the week

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For The Love Of Food

by | Oct 8, 2010

For The Love of Food

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

Michael Pollan thinks food community is essential, organic eggs aren’t all they’re cracked up to be and UCSF scientists help the military figure out what’s killing bees. I also found a cool mythbuster about the best way to clean your produce.

I read many more wonderful articles than I post here each week. If you’d like to see more 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 a complete reading list join me on Digg. I’m very active on all these sites and would love to connect with you.

Links of the week

What inspired you this week?

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For The Love Of Food

by | Aug 6, 2010

For The Love of Food

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

New evidence that the Atkins diet may be depriving people of nutrients? You bet! There were also a few interesting articles this week about food ideology and the antagonistic tone that frequently comes up in discussions about health, food safety and politics. And Francis Lam’s greatest tomato pasta on earth article totally blew my mind (in a good way).

I read many more wonderful articles than I post here each week. If you’d like to see more 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 a complete reading list join me on the new Digg or StumbleUpon. I’m very active on all these sites and would love to connect with you.

Links of the week

  • Is Your Diet Depriving You of Nutrients? <<A new study suggests that Atkins dieters may be lacking in nutrients that are usually found in starchy foods. Dieters on the Zone diet (which is more balanced) fared the best, nutrient wise. (Low Carb Diets Blog)
  • Does high-fructose corn syrup cause cancer? <<Does it matter? Great analysis about how the facts are often beside the point when food and health get discussed in the media. (Salon)
  • “Can’t we all just get along” – It does not seem so. <<BS of the week. Along the same lines as the previous article, Bill Marler brings up the antagonistic tone that often comes up in public food dialogue, which is neither pleasant nor productive. And that sucks. Intelligent discussions don’t seem to be forthcoming these days. That’s why I’m so grateful for the wonderful conversations we have here at Summer Tomato. (Marler Blog)
  • A Dozen Eggs for $8? Michael Pollan Explains the Math of Buying Local <<Great interview with Michael Pollan about why Bay Area residents have embraced his eating philosophy. (Wall Street Journal)
  • Chili Peppers May Come With Blood Pressure Benefits <<Cartoons with red faces and exploding heads may give you the wrong idea. It appears chili peppers actually lower blood pressure in the long term. (ScienceDaily)
  • Is MSG Unhealthy? <<People sometimes ask why I don’t talk about MSG more on this blog. The truth is that the data doesn’t condemn it as much as people seem to believe. I don’t reject any food without strong science to back it up. Dr. Weil concurs. (Dr. Weil’s blog)
  • For blood pressure, can you be fit but fat? <<New research suggests body weight is a risk factor for high blood pressure independent of physical fitness levels. Best to keep both under control. (Medline)
  • Why did Whole Foods tart up my organic peanut butter? <<I agree with Tom Philpott on this one, but I still think it’s funny to get so riled up over “peanut butter.” (Grist)
  • Chioggia beets and farro salad <<Psssst. I shared one of my favorite recipe outlines over at my personal blog this week. It is super easy, and there are a zillion possible variations you can do. Beets not required. (daryapino)
  • The greatest five-minute tomato pasta on earth <<I almost choked to death when I read this, because Francis Lam had almost the exact same tomato experience I had. Then he turned it into a recipe. (Salon)

What inspired you this week?

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For The Love Of Food

by | May 28, 2010

For The Love of Food

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

I’m thrilled to announce this week the launch of an amazing project. 55 Knives is a new e-book just launched by my friend Nick at the wonderful Macheesmo blog. The 55 Knives project is a joint effort of 55 top food bloggers offering personal stories paired with hand-selected recipes. I contributed a chapter, as did many of my favorite food bloggers including Local Lemons, The Bitten Word and Chez Us. I’ve read through it and highly recommend it. 55 Knives is offered at a discounted price of $14 until next Thursday.

If you read one food article this week, make it Michael Pollan’s new piece in the New York Review of Books. I also really enjoyed the article about how health food labels are complete BS.

I read many more wonderful articles than I post here each week. If you’d like to see more 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. (Note: If you want a follow back on Twitter introduce yourself with an @ message).

Links of the week

What inspired you this week?

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