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Is organic food healthier? A new analysis adds … a question mark

produce
Jamie McCaffrey

A new paper on nutrition in organic foods just came out. It’s a meta-analysis -- which means, instead of doing any new measurement or experimentation, it’s simply combining the findings of past studies. According to the report, there are more antioxidants and carbohydrates in organic food, but less protein, pesticide residue, and less cadmium.

So what does all this mean in terms of health?

Protein and carbohydrates:

“Most people in Europe and North America are consuming adequate levels of protein, or even too much,” pointed out Charles Benbrook, one of the co-authors on the study. And the controversy rages over whether it’s good or bad to have more protein or carbs. So this result may be meaningful, but it would mean totally different things to different people.

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Cellar's market

A growing appetite for local food sends us back to our root cellars

root cellar st philips

Tucked in a grassy ridge cutting across the Small Family CSA Farm in La Farge, Wis., is a refrigerator so efficient it requires not a single watt of electricity, yet it can keep some crops chilly for months. It’s not some high-tech, Swedish-designed, solar-powered cooling unit. Just a good old-fashioned root cellar, kept cool through the summer months, and above freezing in the winter, by the soil surrounding it.

Shunning hulking and energy wasting refrigerated cold storage, Jillian and Adam Varney four years ago chose to build this two-room cellar for $10,000. Over time, like solar panels, it will pay for itself in savings – and in revenue for their small, organic farm. The hand-built produce closet, which includes a room kept extra cool with a small air-conditioner, allows them to extend their 220-member community-supported agriculture operation (CSA) into the winter months.

Root cellars are basically any storage area that operates on the earth's natural cooling, humidifying, and insulating properties. To work properly, a root cellar must stay between 32 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit and at 85 to 95 percent humidity. The cool temps slow the release of ethylene gas, halting decomposition. High humidity levels prevent evaporation loss, stopping your veggies from shriveling and withering.

Outmoded with the birth of the refrigerator and the 1950s kitchen, root cellars all but went underground, resurfacing briefly in the ’60s and with survivalists. Now, this tiny house movement for foodstuffs is experiencing a slow but certain renaissance as the local food movement gains momentum.

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for whom the label tolls

Can we have our sustainable seafood and eat it too?

fish
Tyler Parker

You know the feeling: You're standing in front of the seafood counter, running down the list of evils you might be supporting when you buy one of those gleaming filets. There’s overfishing, but also pollution from fish farming, not to mention bycatch, marine habitat destruction, illegal fishing … and that's before getting to the problem of seafood fraud, and the fact that 1 in 3 seafood samples in a massive study by Oceana was served under pseudonym.

Programs like Monterey Bay’s Seafood Watch and the Safina Center’s Seafood Guide are helpful when it comes to sorting seafood’s angels from its demons, but only if you can be sure the red snapper you’re looking at is actually red snapper (hint: It probably isn't).

Meanwhile, third-party certification outfits -- the ones that slap their seal of approval on seafood that’s harvested responsibly -- are not without their flaws. In fact, the current demand for certified “sustainable” seafood is so high that it’s driving, you guessed it, overfishing. Someone get Poseidon in here because that, my friends, is what the Greeks called a "tragic flaw."

Still, these third-party groups may offer the best hope for ocean-loving fish eaters like myself, so it’s worth paying attention to how they operate. And while these certification programs are very much a work in progress, they’re getting better.

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Food fight

Eden Foods hit by backlash for fighting Obamacare’s contraception mandate

empty Eden cans

We told you recently that Eden Foods, a widely distributed organic brand, has sued the Obama administration over the requirement that companies cover contraception as part of employee health-care plans. As word has spread, outrage has spread.

More than 112,000 people have a signed a petition organized by progressive group CREDO Action:

Tell CEO of Eden Foods, Michael Potter:

"I won’t buy Eden products until you stop playing politics with women’s health and drop your attacks on birth control coverage under the Affordable Care Act."

Some are tweeting out Eden-shaming selfies:

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Hackers hack monster burritos down to sensible size

BurritoGodzilla2
Tyler Parker | Justin Brown

“Burrito creep” is the sort of jargon you’re unlikely to hear unless you descend deep into a highly specialized world. In this case, that world is the food company Chipotle, and "burrito creep" is the term of art employees have come up with to describe a seemingly unstoppable phenomenon: No matter what they try, the burritos keep getting bigger. And the bigger they get, the larger the proportion that ends up in the trash.

Thanks to some creative thinking at the Food+Tech Connect Hack//Dining event in New York, there may be a solution to burrito creep -- one that gives eaters an incentive to control portions and cut back on the most carbon-intensive ingredients (like meat).

The point of these hackathons is to bring clever people together and set them loose on bite-sized food and sustainability problems. “The problems in the food industry are complex, and they aren’t going to be solved in a weekend,” said Danielle Gould, founder of Food+Tech Connect. “The point is to get new ideas into circulation, new people working on this, and to do rapid prototyping -- to actually make a real product in a weekend.”

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Oh, heck yes: Check out these farm tools for women

female-farmer.jpg
Shutterstock

When it comes to products designed for women, the field is full of bubblegum-colored toolkits and dainty pens. "Shrink it and pink it" tends to be the default philosophy of the men wearing ties (presumably uttered as they do Mel Gibson impressions around the boardroom table).

So what happens when the product designers have no Y chromosomes and don gender-neutral polar fleeces instead of suits?

You get Green Heron Tools and a batch of farming and gardening tools that are actually useful for women. Ann Adams and Liz Brensinger founded the business after farming for 20 years and noticing the tools didn't quite work for their bodies. Deborah Huso interviewed the pair over at Modern Farmer:

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Chinese company creamed for GMO corn thievery

thief
iStock

The FBI has captured members of a super-secret Chinese spy ring whose arsenal included false identities, corporate fronts, Cold War anti-surveillance techniques, Subway napkins and, perhaps most cruelly, Orville Redenbacher microwave popcorn boxes. What were they after? Diplomatic communiques? Launch commands? Plans for the Death Star? No.

They were after corn.

And to think they used his own popcorn boxes to smuggle corn out of the country. Poor Orville’s bowtie must be spinning in his grave (assuming he was buried with a novelty spinning bowtie and a robust power supply).

Edvard Pettersson at Bloomberg has cob-bled together the whole seedy tale:

Three years ago, a security guard working for seed company Pioneer Hi-Bred came across something unusual on a road in Iowa: Just off the pavement, a man was on his knees, digging in a field.

Challenged by the guard, Mo Hailong claimed to be an employee of the University of Iowa who was traveling to a nearby conference. He jumped back in his car and sped away.

U.S. authorities would later accuse Mo, and five other Chinese nationals, of stealing corn seeds and attempting to smuggle them back to China.

A seventh defendant, Mo Yun, was arrested and charged Wednesday with stealing trade secrets for her husband's seed company -- the Beijing Dabeinong Technology Group Company.

The details of the case, laid out by prosecutors, underscore the difficulty of safeguarding U.S. intellectual property, and the determination of some foreign rivals to acquire technology by illicit means.

The Chinese company is accused of stealing trade secrets worth an estimated $30-40 million, so you can understand why the feds were all ears. The arrests include that of company president Mo Hailong, better known as the Jason Bourne of Corn. If there’s a kernel of truth to the allegations, he could face up to 10 years in prison and a $5 million fine.

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Dumpster divine

At Chez Dumpster, every misshapen veggie gets its due

Screen Shot 2014-07-10 at 12.00.38 PM
Josh Treuhaft, Salvage Supperclub

An obscene amount of the food we grow gets thrown away. Some of it has to do with tough logistical issues (e.g., how do you make it feasible for a farmer to salvage those overripe plums?).

But a lot of our food is wasted because, to put it bluntly, we are ignorant and prejudiced. It's produce profiling: If the fruit or vegetable doesn't fit the established norm, it freaks us out, even when it's every bit as healthy and delicious on the inside.

These prejudices -- like most prejudices -- are deep, visceral, and totally irrational (experimental psychologist Paul Rozin has done really interesting work on this). So how do you work around them?

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This weed is taking over the planet. On the upside, it’s delicious

A field dominated by palmer amaranth, or pigweed
Delaware Agriculture

Palmer amaranth: It's a fast-growing, tractor-busting, herbicide-defying weed. When you read about it in the news these days it sounds like the epitome of evil. But when I first heard of it, I did a double take because amaranth is also a food grain used historically throughout the Americas, by the Hopi in the north all the way down to the Inca in the south. Back in 1977, an article in Science called amaranth "the crop of the future." These days, you can find it on health-store shelves in breads and bars and cereals. OK, so those are different species …

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Marginalia

The 15 things I underlined in Dan Barber’s smart new book

danbarber

Dan Barber’s book The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food is full of great stories, larger-than-life characters, and descriptions that made me hungry. But if you strip away all that, what remains is a collection of delightful facts and ideas. These are the things that made me scribble stars in the margin:

1. Child “rearing begins, not at birth, or even conception, but one hundred years before the child is born.” That’s how long it takes to build the environment and community that child will live in.

2. "If you don't count corn sweeteners, we eat more wheat than every other cereal combined."

3. In the 1800s, the East Coast was America's breadbasket. "Gristmills dotted the countryside -- one for every seven hundred Americans in 1840."

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