For The Love Of Food

by | Apr 20, 2012

For The Love of Food

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

This week, the risk of storing food in plastic, everything you’ve ever wanted to fight about regarding meat production and consumption, and how an herbal remedy is causing cancer in Taiwan.

Want to see all my favorite links? Be sure to follow me on on Digg. 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.

Links of the week

What inspired you this week?

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Is Coconut Palm Sugar A Healthy Sugar Substitute?

by | Mar 12, 2012

Photo by Robyn’s Nest

Artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes can be very appealing to people looking to cut their calories or control blood sugar, and I get a lot of questions about them. Generally I don’t recommend processed or sweetened foods and encourage people to break free from regular sugar consumption, but I recently discovered coconut palm sugar and decided to look into it.

Coconut palm sugar has garnered attention as being a low-carb sugar substitute that is more nutritious than typical granulated sugar. Because of its complex flavor it is also gaining a reputation in foodie communities, with establishments like the popular Samovar Tea Lounge in San Francisco switching 100% of its sweeteners over to coconut palm sugar.

Pure coconut palm sugar is a natural product made from the nectar of the coconut palm tree. There are several different varieties of palm (Palmyra, date, etc.), and “coconut palm” specifically refers to the coco nucifera plant.

Most of the “palm sugar” commonly sold in Asian markets is not pure coconut palm sugar but is blended with other fillers such as white cane sugar. Pure certified organic coconut palm sugar is sold under the brand name Sweet Tree in the US, and can be found at some natural food stores.

The information in this article applies only to 100% pure coconut palm sugar. Check your labels carefully.

Pure coconut palm sugar reportedly has a naturally low glycemic index (GI)–a measure of how food impacts blood sugar–which has led some people to claim that it is a valuable sugar substitute for people with diabetes or those looking to control blood sugar (the low-carb camp). Indeed, a lower GI may be a good indication that a food is safer for diabetics, though it is not a guarantee.

When I first saw that coconut palm sugar has a low GI I figured it would be composed largely of fructose, similar to the popular sweetener agave nectar (and high-fructose corn syrup). Fructose does not impact blood sugar because it is transported directly to the liver and converted to fat. For an explanation of this mechanism, check out Dr. Lustig’s video on the dangers of fructose.

I was surprised to find, however, that coconut palm sugar is reportedly very low in fructose, and its main sugar component is sucrose (aka table sugar). What confuses me is that the GI of coconut palm sugar is supposed to be 35, while the GI of sucrose is 64. Something doesn’t add up.

I could only find a summary of how GI was measured and not the published study itself. Also, this information was only available on the website of a company that sells coconut palm sugar. This doesn’t mean the number is inaccurate, but it is a little suspicious and I’d like to see the study repeated by another credible source or two before taking it as fact.

(UPDATE: At one time I found reports of newer tests that found discrepancies with the reported GI of Sweet Tree products, but the page has since been taken down)

The number of calories in coconut palm sugar is almost identical to the number in regular table sugar and its closer relative, brown sugar. But coconut palm sugar is notably higher in various micronutrients, probably because it is less processed than industrial sugars.

But does anyone really eat sugar for health benefits?

There are a number of good reasons to consider using coconut palm sugar as a substitute for white or brown sugar in your kitchen. For me the most obvious benefit is that it tastes amazing, similar to brown sugar but with a rich complexity I’ve never tasted in industrial sugars.

Overall coconut palm sugar is a tastier and possibly healthier substitute for granulated or brown sugar. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a health food, or even low-carb just yet.

Substitute coconut palm sugar for traditional sugar at a 1:1 ratio in normal cooking and baking.

Have you tried coconut palm sugar? What do you think?

Originally published March 10, 2010.

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5 Tips For Buying The Freshest & Most Sustainable Salmon

by | Jun 13, 2011
Wild Alaskan Salmon

Wild Alaskan Salmon

Natalie Mann is the founder of Ambrolio Foods, a website dedicated to delicious and healthy foods. A nutritionist with a degree from Cornell University, Natalie has spent decades working in the food industry. As a parent with two sons, she also has firsthand experience with finicky eaters, dairy allergies, and gluten intolerance.

5 Tips for Buying the Freshest & Most Sustainable Salmon

by Natalie Mann

Buying salmon used to be easy.

Fresh-fished salmon was abundant, prices were reasonable, and warnings about overfishing, water pollution, and PCBs weren’t making headlines.

In 2011, all that has changed.

More than half of the salmon purchased in the United States comes from fish raised in man-made farms. Prices are much higher, and sustainability and safety are pressing concerns.

To lend insight into your next salmon purchase, here’s a quick guide for buying the freshest and most sustainable salmon possible.

5 Tips For Buying The Best Salmon

1. Fresh fish, including salmon, should NOT smell.

If the fish counter and surrounding area smells ‘fishy,’ walk away and don’t make a purchase.

If you don’t detect any odors at the counter, but your salmon smells fishy when you open the package at home, return it.

2. Fresh salmon should glisten, not look dull.

Salmon should look bright and shiny. Its flesh should be firm, clean, and evenly colored. Natural white marbling on the fish is an indicator of good omega-3 fatty acids. (See photo)

3. Wild Alaskan salmon is the most eco-friendly.

Many resources, including the Environmental Defense Fund, cite wild Alaskan salmon as the most sustainable choice. Fresh, frozen at sea, and canned salmon from Alaska are all good options.

4. Fresh, wild Alaskan salmon is a seasonal item.

In Alaska, the salmon fishing season starts in May and ends by late-October. Outside of this time you will only find good smoked or canned salmon.

5. Farmed Atlantic salmon should be avoided.

Farmed salmon are raised in large, densely packed pens that pollute surrounding waters with waste and chemicals. In addition, farmed salmon are more prone to illness in crowded net-pens, and antibiotics are often used to treat disease.

Farmed salmon have elevated levels of PCBs. The Environmental Defense Fund has issued a warning to limit the consumption of Atlantic salmon. This warning pertains to everyone, but is particularly important for young children. See the EDF site for specific details.

Conclusions

  • In 2011, our salmon choices impact our oceans as well as our bodies.
  • At the seafood counter, ask questions. Farmed or wild? Previously frozen? How fresh – delivered when?
  • At restaurants, ask if the salmon is delivered daily and whether it’s wild or farmed.

What do you consider when buying salmon?

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Fishing For Answers: How To Choose Fish and Seafood

by | Dec 8, 2010

By sektordua

By sektordua

“This is a request for a Summer Tomato series on fish, and seafood in general. This topic is even more difficult to navigate than organic vs. non-organic and it would be great to learn about it in detail.”

I don’t think there is anything more complicated in the food world than fish and seafood. There are so many life or death issues it’s enough to make you want to close your eyes, plug your ears and live out the rest of your life in a cave on Mars.

But this isn’t really one of those issues we can ignore.

Fish and Your Health

There’s no denying it, fish is good for you.

The latest data I’ve read suggests that vegetarians have more cancer than fish eaters, though both have less cancer than meat eaters. There are also well-documented and significant heart and brain benefits associated with seafood consumption.

Omega-3 fatty acids are usually given the credit for the heart-healthy benefits of fish. The most beneficial omega-3 fatty acid, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), as well as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are only found in seafood. Vegetarian forms of omega-3s including α-Linolenic acid (ALA) can be converted to EPA and DHA in the body, but the conversion rate is very low and likely insufficient.

Personally I think healthy eating is a lot more difficult if you do not eat fish. (Please direct mild-tempered disagreements to the comments below). Yes, you can be healthy if you are vegetarian or vegan, but it is much more work in my opinion.

The fish and health issue seems to be even more important (and more complicated) for pregnant women. Children of mothers who eat less seafood during pregnancy score lower on cognitive tests than those whose mothers ate the most fish. But at the same time, mercury contamination is a serious concern for pregnant women that requires special attention. Mercury is toxic to neurodevelopment and can injure a developing fetus.

Mercury contamination has in fact become so common that regular, non-pregnant consumers also need to be concerned. Recent testing in New York City revealed that most of the top sushi restaurants serve fish that exceeds the FDA safety recommendations for mercury.

Another health and fish issue is polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). These things are all sorts of bad for you. I’ve written extensively on mercury and PCB contamination in fish over at Synapse.

For more on omega-3s, mercury, PCBs and the whole mess, Marion Nestle’s What To Eat is a good resource.

For health, the basic guidelines I follow include:

  • Eat fish 2-3 times per week.
  • Avoid large fish that accumulate mercury like tuna, shark and swordfish.
  • Avoid farmed fish that contain PCBs.
  • Seek fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines.
  • Avoid fresh water fish caught by friends. Lakes and rivers are almost all contaminated with high mercury levels.
  • Enjoy vegetarian omega-3 fatty acid sources such as walnuts, flax and soy.

I don’t take omega-3 supplements, but it is an alternative if you do not eat enough fish. Be sure to get supplements derived from marine sources (and don’t take them before interacting with other humans–icky burps).

All that, and we haven’t even touched on the environmental sustainability issues yet.

*deep breath*

*exhale*

Ok.

Fish and the Environment

I’m going to start with the disclaimer that I am NOT EVEN ALMOST an expert in this stuff. I read about it sometimes and keep up with the basics, but environmental issues aren’t my expertise.

That being said, it is not clear that anyone understands the true damage that the fishing industry is doing to either the environment or the future of the fishing industry. The outlook is not good, but it does seem that there are a few groups that are aware of the problems and taking actions to improve the situation.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium, the group I trust most in these matters, recently issued The State of Seafood Report if you’d like to read more.

New York Times food writer and author of Fish: The Complete Guide To Buying and Cooking, Mark Bittman, chimed in on the issue a few months ago in an article explaining the nearly impossible task of choosing fish these days.

To make matters worse, a new report suggests that many eco-friendly fish labels aren’t exactly accurate.

It’s difficult to say how to handle seafood sustainability and I certainly do not have all the answers, but I’ll tell you what I do.

Things I consider when buying and eating fish for sustainability:

  • Buy from trusted sources. Since I personally cannot keep up on all the fish sustainability issues, I am sure to shop at places that do. Most small, high-end seafood vendors in San Francisco do a good job of at least telling you where their fish comes from, and will often include sustainability labels.
  • Shop at Whole Foods. Though they aren’t perfect, Whole Foods does a great job of labeling the origin of their animal products. This is leaps and bounds over most grocery stores.
  • Eat wild Alaskan salmon. The Alaskan fishing regulations are mostly sustainable. I’ve heard this challenged, but Alaskan is still superior to Atlantic or farmed salmon. Did you know that all farmed salmon is dyed pink? Eeeew.
  • Eat sardines. These little guys are sustainable, healthy and delicious. I prefer fresh sardines, but I even enjoy the boneless skinless sardines from cans. Pair with dry-as-a-bone white wine. Yum yum.
  • Never, ever eat bluefin tuna. These magnificent animals are on the verge of extinction. Don’t do it!
  • Eat fish at responsible restaurants. In SF, many of the high-end restaurants proudly label the origin of their fish on the menu. This is not always true, however, especially in Japanese restaurants. Nobu in Manhattan is still serving bluefin tuna.
  • Never shop at Asian fish markets. Cheap fish = bad news. Sorry. I know a lot of people rely on these, but personally I do not trust them. Many of the fish sold at these stores are shipped in from China (if they deny it they are likely lying to you). Remember when China was putting poison in baby formula? Don’t assume the fish from there is either safe or sustainable.
  • Avoid tuna. Do you still order maguro (tuna) at sushi restaurants? How boring and unethical. Try getting something that you’ve never heard of that may be less likely to be over-fished. And don’t be afraid to ask where it came from.
  • Ask the Monterey Bay Aquarium. When in doubt, visit their Super Green List for the best seafood choices at the moment.

Shellfish

Interestingly, shellfish are common on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s best choices list. The reason for this is that many kinds of shellfish can be farmed sustainably with very little environmental impact. This is good news, but doesn’t make shellfish a perfect choice.

Oysters, scallops and shrimp are still among the most common sources of food poisoning in the U.S. every year. Oysters alone are responsible for 15 deaths annually. That means your sources for these items are just as important as they are for any other fish, but mostly for your own protection.

The biggest issue is usually refrigeration (but it is not always), so your best bet is to go with trusted sources that are not likely to skimp on costs and resources. Better yet, buy them live and prepare them yourself.

Taste and Other Adventures

As important as all these issues are, the dominant thought in the back of my mind is always: I love seafood, can I have some?

And yes, sometimes this thought wins out over health, environment and sustainability. But I really do try to do the right thing as often as possible, because I want to continue enjoying seafood for many, many more years.

It is not uncommon to hear these days that we could lose our fishing industries within my lifetime, and no one wants that.

No matter how much we want to deny these issues, they effect us all. Even vegetarians have an interest in preserving the oceans and wild fish populations, since entire ecosystems are dependent upon them.

This is one place where we all need to do our part and be conscientious consumers.

Please share your thoughts, this stuff is complicated!

Originally published November 4, 2009.

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6 Reasons To Eat More Sardines

by | Apr 28, 2010
sardines

Photo by rockyeda

I’m happy to introduce my friend and fellow sardine lover, Benjy Weinberger. Neither of us were particularly happy about the recent news of the last US sardine cannery closing, so I invited Benjy here to defend the honor of one of my favorite sea creatures.

Benjy Weinberger has been eating food for over 30 years, and has held strong opinions for almost as long.

Read his personal blog: http://jamknife.blogspot.com/
Follow him on Twitter: @benjyw

Yes, We Can! Why We Should Be Eating More Sardines

The whole street rumbles and groans and screams and rattles while the silver rivers of fish pour in out of the boats and the boats rise higher and higher until they are empty. The canneries rumble and rattle and squeak until the last fish is cleaned and cut and cooked and canned.
- John Steinbeck, Cannery Row

A few days ago we were told the last sardine cannery in the US closed its doors for good. A symbol, so the story goes, of how far sardines–once a staple of working-class pantries across the nation–have fallen out of favor with the American palate.

But if you get past the bad “last sardine factory canned” puns, this narrative starts to seem, ahem, fishy. Because, in fact, the sardine is like Bad Company, alive, well and making a comeback.

Fresh sardines are showing up on menus in restaurants from San Francisco to New York. Your local supermarket still offers plenty of canned sardine choices, albeit imported. In Monterey, California, where Steinbeck romanticized the sardine industry in Cannery Row, a group of self-styled “Sardinistas” is working to return the sardine to its rightful place in the American diet. Meanwhile, nearby, small-scale gourmet canning operations have resumed. So it seems the supposed death of the sardine industry has been exaggerated.

So what are sardines, exactly? The term means slightly different things in different countries, but in the US it denotes any of several species of small, oily, silvery fish related to herring.

What all types of sardine have in common is that we should be eating a lot more of them.

6 Reasons To Eat More Sardines

1. They’re good for you.

Sardines pack an awesome nutritional punch. A single serving has around 23 grams of protein and is loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, iron and potassium, and only 200 calories. And even with canned sardines, all this goodness comes with only around 400 mg of sodium, which is relatively little for a canned product. Plus, they’re often packed in olive oil, itself an important component of a healthy diet.

2. They aren’t bad for you.

Sardines are low on the oceanic food chain, and therefore contain low amounts of mercury, PCBs and the other toxins that accumulate in longer-living marine predators such as salmon and tuna. This makes them a particularly good choice for children and pregnant women.

3. They’re sustainably fished.

Monterey Bay Aquarium’s SeafoodWATCH rates sardines as a “Best Choice”. Sardine stocks are, once again, abundant, healthy and are now well-managed.

4. They’re affordable.

Prices per oz. of canned sardines are on a par with canned tuna, poultry, ground beef and other supermarket protein sources. Prices of fresh sardines vary with availability, but they are usually among the less expensive fresh fish on display.

5. They taste like fish.

In a supermarket landscape dominated by bland, artificially dyed salmon fillets, pale tuna steaks, frozen fish sticks, artificial crab meat and other attempts to sell seafood as generic chicken-like protein slabs to people who aren’t sure if they actually like it, sardines stand out. You simply can’t ignore the fact that they are, well, fish. They look like fish, being too small to fillet or grind up. They smell like fish. They are oily. They have heads and tails, scales and bones. And they taste fishy.

This is, as most people who genuinely enjoy food know, a good thing.

6. They’re delicious.

This is ultimately the most important point in favor of consuming more sardines: they are a pleasure to eat. Simple, easy to prepare and downright delicious.

If you get your hands on some fresh sardines, they feature in fabulous recipes originating from all over the Mediterranean basin. But sardines are so simple and basic, you really don’t need a recipe to get the best out of them. Just scale and gut them, brush them lightly with olive oil and coarse sea salt, or whatever marinade you make up, grill them for around 5 minutes per side, until the skin is crispy, and serve them up with a drizzle of lemon juice and your favorite fresh herbs.

And if you can’t be fussed to cook, there are few pleasures greater than mashing canned sardines, bones and all, onto buttered toast, or perhaps over a slice of camembert.

The sardine is dead. Long live the sardine!

What are your favorite sardine recipes?

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