supplemental health

my local natural foods grocery store has been sneaking these natural health and nutrition glossies into my grocery bags, which appear to be advertisements for the dietary supplements industry, stamped with the name of my local grocery at the top (i've seen the same ones at other stores, with that shop's logo instead). clearly there's a whole side of natural living that i've never really explored, as i tend to overlook the supplement aisles when i'm doing the grocery shopping.

in fact, i've never given supplements and multi-vitamins much thought, mostly because i aim to meet my nutritional needs through diet, even if that means eating more fruits and vegetables, and foods rich in iron and calcium and whatever else i need. i eat best when i make a conscious effort to incorporate a panoply of nutrient-rich foods into my everyday meals -- unfamiliar vegetables, more leafy greens, new and interesting whole grains like Bhutanese red rice or quinoa -- so i'd rather focus on eating a healthy, nutritious diet than load up on supplemental pills and powders.

still, i can see the appeal in wanting to ensure getting sufficient vitamins or minerals in my diet especially those like Vitamins E, D and B12, which i may not consume enough in the course of my plant-based diet. and it probably is beneficial for me to eat more yogurt with live active cultures, and garlic and red wine -- but the medical benefits of many supplements remain unclear, especially since they aren't regulated by the FDA and therefore aren't required to stand up to any kind of medical testing (not that the FDA has inspired my confidence in the pharmaceutical industry, either).

but what bothers me about these faux nutrition rags is how they emphasize taking a supplement or vitamin as a quick-fix for a variety of ailments and conditions -- from herb extracts for migraine pain to managing holiday stress with fish oil or consuming more probiotics. the sense i get from the medical community is that supplements are most beneficial for people whose health is compromised in some way, and require the additional nutrition to address dietary problems or restricted activities. but like many industries, i imagine the natural health business can't make sufficient profit targeting people who actually need to incorporate supplements into their diets. all of which leaves me feeling suspicious about these slick broadsides in which it's difficult to distinguish the articles from the ads (for an example, check out Natural Living, which is about what I have in mind).

so am i alone in my suspicions, and do most of you who consume a healthy, plant-based, organic or natural diet also include supplements and extracts? which ones do you use and why? i'm curious to hear about other people's views and experiences with dietary and health supplements.


dangerous food

Check out this interview in Salon.com with Michael Pollan on how poor practices in agribusiness contribute to contamination and food safety issues, such as Listeria, E. coli and salmonella:

What's wrong with our food? E. coli at Taco Bell, Listeria in our Thanksgiving turkey, a report of unprecedented contamination in our chicken. Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," explains why.


sympathy for the veal industry

WBUR Boston produced an interesting short piece on free range veal this week, covering a business venture in New England that helps small farms become profitable by raising free-range, pastured meats.

Of course it's nice to hear about local Boston restaurants buying the naturally-raised veal, and hearing from customers who have been avoiding conventionally farmed veal. But apparently, the veal industry is getting nervous at this potential competition. A spokesperson for the American Veal Association claims that people might get confused as to what actually constitutes "veal" (apparently, veal specifically refers to the male calves of dairy cows fed a milk diet), and wants the USDA to label only the conventional product as "veal."

On further investigation, it turns out that the AVA actually has a website devoted to putting a positive spin on veal farming, a practice which has attracted special vehemence from animal rights activists. I know veal was the first food I ever stopped eating for ethical reasons, and I'm pretty sure I'm not the only person those campaigns reached. The industry's propaganda arm, The Veal Farm, appears devoted to dispelling the dark image veal has acquired over the years. The faq assures consumers that veal calves are fed a nutritionally balanced diet, live in well-lighted barns, and are actually separated from one another to promote their health.

Still, there are some notable gaps in this rosy portrait -- calves spend their short lives indoors, separated from their mothers (so the cows can get back to pumping out milk) and stand in slotted stalls, crapping themselves. The faq notes that calves are only given "'therapeutic' doses of antibiotics (levels high enough to treat illness)" when necessary, but remains mum on whether or not they are also given low-level doses as a matter of course. Both the Veal Farm website and the AVA's official one primarily emphasize the scientific healthiness of the animals, the quality of veal as a food product, and of course, how to best make money as a veal producer.

I can understand the industry's jitters over the promotion of humanely raised veal, especially given the bad rap of their own product. But it sounds like they'd rather blame the small farms that have opted for sustainable methods, rather than consider why some consumers might prefer the free-range version. Maybe it's time for the veal industry to reconsider its approach to meat production, rather than run to the USDA for protection.


tainted spinach not organic

this tidbit got a bit buried when i mentioned it a few posts back, but apparently the bagged spinach contaminated with e. coli was not organic at all, and has so far been traced solely to conventional spinach. perhaps CNN was just confused when they included photos of Earthbound Organics spinach on the article i linked to, given that it was the same company's conventional line, Natural Selections, responsible for the outbreak.

one company, different but related products, understandable enough... but it strikes me as somewhat irresponsible, given the differences in farming methods for organics (even those produced at a large scale in a plant, as they are at Earthbound Organics) versus conventional produce. seems to me that a reader not paying close attention might mistakenly assume that organic spinach was the culprit, and infer some extra danger from organic products, when by and large, conventional food tends to cause far more health problems.


seasonal food and cooking tips for the harvest

seasonal food tips: grapes are coming into season in California, as are apples. and of course, it's coming up on squash season in new england.

cooking tip: in one of my favorite, recently acquired cookbooks, Sonoma county chef Michael Chiarello recommends making polenta with milk and a dash of nutmeg (from the Tra Vigne Cookbook). i finally cheated on Marcella Hazan's insistence that polenta cook for 40 minutes, stirring rapidly most of the time, and let it go for more like 20-30 minutes, using 1 cup of coursely ground corn meal to 3 cups liquid (i used 1 cup of raw skim milk and 2 cups water). more milk would probably make it even creamier. it came out a little thicker for eating soft, but was still delicious with crumbled blue cheese, and it fried up perfectly in the pan, cut into either triangular cutlets or narrow, crispy polenta fingers.

sustainability vs. availability

having lived in places like San Francisco and Cambridge, Mass., i guess i've gotten a bit spoiled by the easy, affordable availability of fresh, organic produce. in Cambridge, there was a weekly seasonal farmer's market right in Central Sq., with stalls from both certified organic farms, and farms using organic and sustainable practices, but not yet certified (or uncertified due to the high costs of the recent FDA organic guidelines). there were also multiple local grocery stores and CSAs offering organic produce at more reasonable prices than the upmarket chains like Whole Foods.

so i guess i forget sometimes that the rest of the country isn't entirely up to speed with this plan -- even supposedly progressive, metropolitan areas like Chicago and L.A. all the news hype about fresh fruits and vegetables just seems undercut by the reality of what food is available to whom. i've temporarily moved down to Long Beach, CA, just south of LA, and stopped in at Wild Oats to stock up on some bulk goods and local produce. the prices make Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco look reasonable -- a worker-owned cooperative that has a local reputation for being on the pricey side, despite a great selection of actual local, sustainable products. and of course, of the organic fruits and vegetables available at Wild Oats, only a minority were actually local (those these were brightly marked and proudly displayed, as if a few local products makes you a sustainable grocer).

unfortunately, most of us in the States appear to be presented with a few non-options when it comes to sustainable food. we can buy overpriced, industrial organic products from large plants in central California (like Earthbound Organics, whose conventional line of spinach, Natural Selections, has drawn national attention for an ongoing spate of e. coli outbreaks), or we can save money but sacrifice flavor and nutrition with the rather wan selection available at most conventional supermarkets. not really an appetizing situation at all.

CSAs and farmer's markets probably offer the best solution where available -- but even farmer's markets may not offer organic food. i'll be checking out Long Beach's downtown farmer's market this afternoon, but from the roster of farms on their website, it's not clear if any use organic or sustainable practices.


more evidence on the food industry's contribution to obesity rates

A recent study in Nature highlights the dangers of trans fats, found in processed and fast foods:

The fatter fat: Fast-food ingredient may pump up your paunch by Helen Pearson

The study suggests that not only are trans fats worse for your health than other fatty acids, but can lead to greater weight gain and pre-diabetic conditions -- even at the same amount of calories. Of course, it's no surprise that processed foods are bad for you, but this research further implicates the entire US food industry in the rising rates of obesity and type II diabetes. Between trans fats and corn syrup, it seems clear that much of what passes for food in most American supermarkets needs to be reexamined -- and rejected in favor of fresh produce, whole grains, and other minimally processed ingredients.


seasonal fruit -- hurry to the farmer's market!

happily, summer fruits are finally starting to come into season. after a few long months of little but citrus and some aging apples on the shelf, fresh strawberries, cherries, plums and nectarines have emerged at my local markets. last month's strawberry crop assured me a weekly pint of sweet, robustly flavored berries for under $3, and delicate, honey-flavored melons.

over the last two weekends, the cherries have been perfect, round and plump with a nice full flavor, especially the mottled yellow and red Rainiers. the organic ones don't hold up long in the fridge, though, so they need to be eaten quickly! i also found hardy, sweet pluots (plum/apricot blends) and ripe nectarines.

late spring greens have also been a treat -- fresh sorrel makes a wonderfully bright tasting and slightly sour soup, and young collards steam easily and take well to be lightly sauteed afterward. i find serving hearty greens with just a warm bean salad (white beans or cranberry beans and a little olive oil) and some good bread makes a light but satisfying meal.


the wonders of farro: chard and white bean soup with farro and spring vegetables

I think farro is my new favorite whole grain. I tried it this past winter at Café La Haye in Sonoma, served underneath quail with a port jus. it's tender and mild but not too bland, with a very satisfying, round texture -- and it works wonderfully in soup. this week, I made a chard and white bean soup with farro and spring vegetables -- sort of a mashup of different Italian soup recipes.

I used:
  • 1 scant tbsp extra virgin olive oil (I like Olio Beato, an organic oil from Italy)
  • 1 spring onion, diced fine
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 medium stalks celery, diced
  • 1/2 cup diced purple turnip
  • 1 cup fresh green beans, trimmed and cut into 1-2 in. pieces
  • 2 cups cannellini beans (either cooked or canned)
  • 4 cups broth
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 bunch green or red chard, rinsed and chopped (you can add the stalks in separately if you like -- toss them in with the green beans)
  • 1 cup uncooked farro
  • fresh fennel tops (chop up the feathery bits)
  • 1 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
  • dried thyme (to taste)
  • salt and pepper (to taste)
  • parmesan or grada padano (freshly grated)
I cooked the farro separately for about 10 minutes in a pot of boiling water, then set it aside. Meanwhile, I sauteed the onions and garlic in the olive oil, then added the celery and turnips. When these softened, I added in the 4 cups of stock (homemade vegetable stock, but bouillion or chicken stock would work as well), brought the soup to a boil, and turned it down to simmer. Then I threw in the green beans and let them cook a few minutes, then added the additional water, returned the pot to a boil, and stirred in the chard.

Once the chard turned a bright green and became tender, I added in the cooked farro and beans, and simmered for a few more minutes to make sure the farro were tender and the beans warmed through. I also added the fennel, parsley and thyme, and lastly salt and fresh grated pepper to taste.

Serve with grated parmesan or grada padano, and a little olive oil. Or toast a few chunks of bread with parmesan or oil and serve the soup over the croutons.

toxins in breast milk

Another reason to eat a plant-based, organic diet -- according to this article from the Chronicle last week, human breast milk has increasingly high rates of industrial and organic pollutants -- perchlorate, lead, plasticizers, dioxins, PCBs and similarly scary (and carcinogenic) things. This appears especially true for women in the industrialized world, and regulating or banning these substances is the best way to reduce our exposure to them. But according to the article:
Lifestyle choices do make a big difference in body burdens -- longtime vegans are least exposed to many of these chemicals, and reducing household dust, eating organic and using nontoxic cleaning and body-care products can reduce the levels of all kinds of chemicals in the body. But it's the entire lifetime exposure that counts.


welcome to fresh eggs!

Fresh eggs is a communal blog devoted to sustainable food -- organic and biodynamic farming, traditional and vegetarian cooking, farmer's markets and community supported agriculture, local food, raw food, slow food, and the many other ways people are challenging conventional, centralized agribusiness.