Less tasty -- and not as good for you

Industrially grown produce shows long-term nutritional decline

Talk to old-timers, and they'll often tell you that the tomatoes you find in supermarket produce sections don't taste anything like the ones they had in their childhoods in the '30s and '40s. Turns out, they're probably not as nutritious, either. In an article [PDF] published in the February 2009 issue of the HortScience Review, University of Texas researcher Donald R. Davis compiles evidence that points to declines in nutrition in vegetables and (to a lesser extent) fruits over the past few decades. For example: [T]hree recent studies of historical food composition data found apparent median declines of 5% to 40% or more in some minerals in groups of vegetables and perhaps fruits; one study also evaluated vitamins and protein with similar results. He points to another study in which researchers planted low- and high-yielding varieties of broccoli and grain side-by-side. The high-yielding varieties showed less protein and minerals. The principle seems to be that when plants are nudged to produce as much as possible -- whether through lots of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides or through selective breeding -- they deliver fewer nutrients. It evidently isn't just the flavor that's become diluted in those bland supermarket tomatoes. This is a fascinating insight. We should reflect that for at least 50 years, the best-funded agricultural researchers are the ones work to maximize yield -- that is, gross output per acre. Even now, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is expending hundreds of millions of dollars in an effort to increase yields in Africa. Rather than isolate and fetishize yield, perhaps ag researchers should learn to take a whole-systems approach: study how communities can develop robust food systems that build healthy soil and produce nutritious food. (It should also be noted that last year the Organic Center compiled peer-reviewed studies finding that organically grown produce tends to deliver significantly higher nutrient levels than conventional.)

This week in Seattle

Foodie photogs, rainforest adventures, and more

Every week, we compile a guide to the greenest goings-on in our hometown. We send it by email -- sign up here! -- and now it's available in Gristmill. (Not in Seattle? Not a problem -- we've got the inside scoop for you out-of-towners, too.) ----- Combo meal: Elliott Bay Books is serving up a double helping of foodie goodness this Saturday with farmers, chefs, authors, and photographers sharing appetizers and stories from the books Chefs on the Farm and Edges of Bounty. Eat up!Not in Seattle? Not a problem: Head to your local bookstore to grab your own copy of Chefs on the Farm: Recipes and Inspiration from the Quillisascut Farm School of the Domestic Arts or Edges of Bounty: Adventures in the Edible Valley. Or get some advice from Umbra on how to eat local in winter. Come to bear: Award-winning author Ian McAllister has spent years observing and photographing wildlife in Canada's threatened Great Bear Rainforest. He shares his adventures and breathtaking images Thursday at REI.Not in Seattle? Not a problem: Check out McAllister's book The Last Wild Wolves: Ghosts of the Rain Forest or flip through a photo slideshow.

Sticky situation

Salmonella-linked Ga. peanut-butter plant had dismal sanitary record

Is it just me, or has our food-safety system lapsed into a state of decadence that might have made Caligula blush? In the past few days, I've learned that the FDA ignored clear evidence that mercury was entering the food supply through high-fructose corn syrup; and that the FDA and USDA continue to ignore the increasingly obvious threat of antibiotic-resistant pathogens in industrial pork. Now I hear mind-numbing news about the Peanut Corporation of America, whose Georgia plant is evidently the source of the salmonella outbreak that has sickened five hundred people, killing seven, nationwide. Given the breadth of the outbreak and the sheer number of products infected, the company must have owned a mammoth  share of the industrial peanut-butter market; its tainted paste has shown up in everything from health-food store staples like Clif Bars to supermarket fodder like Famous Amos cookies. According to a recent New York Times report, sanitary conditions at the Georgia plant have for years approached the tragi-comic. And despite a steady stream of reproaches from Georgia health officials, the company was allowed to continue churning out peanut butter for the nation's food factories until the salmonella disaster struck. Here's a summary of the company's rap sheet:

'New seeds ... and fertilizer'

The Gates Foundation's techy vision for African ag

In his first annual letter on the doings at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Bill Gates devotes a page to his foundation's efforts to boost agriculture in Africa. Like the software wizard he once was, Gates identifies a problem and conjures up a solution. The problem is that African food production has stagnated while population has grown; the solution is to develop "new seeds" and make available "other inputs like fertilizer" so that farmers can "increase ... output significantly." That, in a nutshell, is what happened in the U.S., Western Europe, and to a lesser extent India over the past half-century with the rise of industrial agriculture. Gates wants to repackage it for Africa, in what he calls a "new Green Revolution." The document never considers the complex history of agriculture in Africa; nor does it mull the social and ecological effects of industrial-style agriculture in the West and India. Are we still so enamored of our food system that we feel compelled to export it to Africa? A more robust vision for that continent's food future is laid out by the United Nation's Conference on Trade and Development and U.N. Environmental Program. Called "Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa" [PDF], the report emerged in 2008 with the support of more than a dozen civil-society organizations throughout Africa. The report concludes that organic and near-organic agriculture is ideally suited for millions of marginalized smallholder farmers in Africa -- and build food security and soil fertility in unison. The model of development that Gates favors -- essentially moving in the direction of nearly post-agricultural Western societies -- may be a relic of an era of cheap fossil energy and low awareness of ecological costs. Other ways of progress exist -- and I wish our most influential and best-funded foundation would explore them.

Some heavy metal with that sweet roll?

The FDA sat on evidence of mercury-tainted high-fructose corn syrup

High-fructose corn syrup rose from obscurity to ubiquity starting in the late 1970s, borne up by an informal public-private partnership between grain-processing giant Archer Daniels Midland and the federal government. For me, HFCS is at best a highly processed, lavishly subsidized, calorie-heavy, nutritional vacuum. I recently visited a public high school in Boone, N.C. The main hall literally hummed with machines peddling variations on Coca-Cola's formula for success: fizzy water with artificial flavor, artificial color, added caffeine, and a jolt of HFCS. Other machines displayed snack "foods" tarted up with HFCS. Why are we feeding our kids this crap, again? Now comes news that makes even an HFCS cynic like me do a spit-take over my home-brewed morning coffee. Turns out that HFCS is commonly tainted with mercury -- a highly toxic substance -- according to a peer-reviewed report published by Environmental Health (abstract here; PDF of the must-read full text here.) The Environmental Health study draws on samples of high-fructose corn syrup taken straight from the factory. But no one drinks the stuff straight. What about, say, cookies sweetened with HFCS? The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy plucked HFCS-containing products from supermarket shelves and tested them for mercury. The result? Overall, we found detectable mercury in 17 of 55 samples, or around 31 percent Traces of mercury turned up in name-brand products from makers including Quaker, Hunt's, Manwich, Hershey's, Smucker's, Kraft, Nutri-Grain, and Yoplait. That a ubiquitous industrial-food ingredient such as HFCS should be tainted by mercury is bad enough. But it gets worse. The FDA has apparently known about this since 2005 -- and done nothing to publicize it or change it.

Not so smooth

Tainted peanut butter and our troubled food system

An email from a PR person recently hit my inbox claiming that by high-school graduation, the average American has consumed 1,500 peanut butter sandwiches. I certainly did my bit to hold up the average; to this day I revere the unctuous paste of crushed, roasted peanuts. Now, of course, comes news that a large producer of this protein-packed national treat (widely reviled, for reasons I can't fathom, by people in other nations) has been sending out product that's tainted by a particularly nasty strain of salmonella. The New York Times' Kim Severson has a good piece on how the suspect peanut butter moved through the industrial food system, working its way into products as diverse as Clif Bars and Famous Amos Cookies. News accounts don't typically mention that good old peanut butter has been tainted for a while now -- by sweeteners and dodgy industrial products. Look at Jif (not implicated in the salmonella outbreak), which is owned by Smuckers, which also owns Crisco, Pillsbury, and Hungry Jack. Merely roasting peanuts and pureeing them with a little salt isn't enough for the makers of Jif peanut butter. Its ingredients include: roasted peanuts and sugar, plus "2 PERCENT OR LESS OF: MOLASSES, PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED VEGETABLE OIL (SOYBEAN), FULLY HYDROGENATED VEGETABLE OILS (RAPESEED AND SOYBEAN), MONO- AND DIGLYCERIDES AND SALT." Yuck. Come to think of it, the PR person whose email got me thinking about this issue was actually peddling a smart solution: a high-powerd kitchen contraption that allows you to make your own peanut butter (among many other things). As our famously fragmented food-oversight system continues to fail and our industrial-food purveyors continue to pump unnecessary crap into our food, do-it-yourself solutions make more and more sense.

Ruminations on the Obama era, with a side of spicy peanut sauce

A time for reflection (about food, of course). Photo: Caroline Härdter Even those of us in the hectic world of restaurants must occasionally take a break, and so it is that Inauguration Day found me …

This week in Seattle

Sustainable coffee, contaminants in the Columbia, and more

Every week, we compile a guide to the greenest goings-on in our hometown. We send it by email -- sign up here! -- and now it's available in Gristmill. (Not in Seattle? Not a problem -- we've got the inside scoop for you out-of-towners, too.) ----- A stimulating exhibitYou may have asked your barista for a half-caf soy latte with sugar-free vanilla syrup, but according to a new exhibit at the Burke Museum, you've really got the whole world in your cup. Opening this weekend, Coffee: The World in Your Cup examines the environmental and social implications of the coffee industry through a variety of media including photographs, live plants, videos, in-gallery tastings, and a wall-to-wall display of coffee bags from local roasters. On Saturday, sip coffee from local roasters while hearing from caffeine-bean experts. Return Sunday for formal coffee cuppings that will teach you how to appreciate the variety of flavors and aromas in each mug. Plan it: The Burke Museum is open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Special events Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 24-25, begin at 10 a.m. and continue throughout the day. See schedule for details.Map it: The Burke Museum, 17th Ave. N.E. and N.E. 45th St., Seattle, Wash.Not in Seattle? Not a problem: Though it's at the Burke until June 7, this is a traveling exhibit that could be hitting a cultural museum near you. Until then, read up on which fair-trade, organic, shade-grown Central American coffee got highest praise from Grist Food Editor Tom Philpott. Read on for more Seattle news ...

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