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    Happy 2019! It's a new year--time for a restorative. Me? Bok choy broth with tofu for lunch. The purple tinge is not your hangover talking to you--I added purple and gold "black" carrots to the bowl and it got a little Rose Parade on me.

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    Copyright 2008-2019Slow Food Fast. All writing and images on this blog unless otherwise attributed or set in quotes are the sole property of Slow Food Fast. Please contact DebbieN via the comments form for permissions before reprinting or reproducing any of the material on this blog.

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The new MyPlate icon–fantastic or plastic?

Everyone in the food press seems to be weighing in on the new replacement for the much-cursed USDA Food Pyramid in all (both?) its glorious confusion and obfuscation of real nutritional goals that might have (and should have) undermined the beef, corn, pork, corn, sugar, corn, and soy industries if they’d ever been presented honestly.

So where does that leave us? With ears of fresh corn that are more than 50 cents apiece in Los Angeles supermarkets, and the new…

USDA MyPlate logo

Already, the USDA’s MyPlate web site is in a certain amount of branding trouble (and of course, that’s what counts most in America): the Texas DMV had already bagged “MyPlates.com” for its vanity license plate division (highly unappetizing), and Livestrong.com already has its own well-established “MyPlate” food calculator and fan base. And those items come up first on Google searches. As in, the whole first page or more. The government site ranks way down the list and had to water down the impact of its original name choice with “choose” just to get a URL. Can it elbow out the competition just by bolding the “MyPlate” part?

What really counts are the food and nutrition opinion maker comments, though. And a lot of those are detracting in a nitpicking way that I think kind of misses the point.

The first thing they all have to say is that the plate looks dumbed down. Forgive me, but wasn’t the Food Pyramid’s unreadable and unusable design a large part of the problem? The MyPlate icon is simpler and more direct, and it names real food groups, not “Big Mac” or, on the haute side of things, any of Ferran Adrià’s foams. No wonder foodies and populists alike are wondering what it has to do with them.

A small sampling of the main arguments:

MyPlate: The Food Pyramid for dummies? (LA Times): Dr. Andrew Weil and others discuss what’s still wrong with the new icon. Weil says “fruits” could still include fruit juice, which is usually a useless sugar bomb in comparison with whole fruit, and he worries that the protein section, which comes with a guideline to eat 8 oz. of fish per week, might encourage unthinking people to increase their mercury intake since swordfish is on the guideline menu, as are some of the generally overfished popular species of fish. Weil’s not wrong about the fruit juice vs. actual fruit, but his hand-wringing about fish is really geared for well-off readers who can afford to eat much of it. All the fishes he names are Continue reading

Why All the Mealy Peaches?

A lot of recent visitors to this site have come in desperate need of ways to redeem the disappointing peaches that are all you can find in the supermarkets these days. Even in peach season. The best I can tell them is that you can microwave the fruit with a little sugar and lemon juice to bring back some of the flavor, but of course it’ll be cooked, not raw. For a couple of suggestions on how to do it and what to use it for, see my original post.

I decided to take this topic up again because the idea of microwave peach jam as your only option is probably not what most of you were hoping for. Me either, frankly. I want great, aromatic, incredibly juicy height-of-season peaches, and I want to be able to eat them with no further ado. Cooking them runs a distant second as far as I’m concerned (though the jam and compote weren’t bad, to tell you the truth–and I just made another batch in about 5 minutes yesterday with some much better peaches from my father-in-law’s backyard trees).

But back to the more usual reality for a moment:

I really don’t think you can get a crummy, mealy unripenable peach to be juicy and fabulous and still raw by nuking it–though I might be wrong; I haven’t tried the lower-power settings or “defrost” yet, and I haven’t tried a shorter time than 3-5 minutes. If you’re determined to try one of these, at least take the poisonous pit out first–you really don’t want to risk infusing the flesh (the peach’s or your own!) with cyanide.

But all that begs the real question–

Why all these @#$*Q#R&*@F….etc. etc…. mealy peaches at the height of summer in the first place?

OK, I know that’s not a dignified way to phrase it, but it calms me down without actually specifying swear words for a situation that clearly deserves it. (And I do have some decent enough swear words beginning with “R” and “F”, but “Q” is going to be a challenge. I’ll have to work on it–get out the Scrabble Cussword Dictionary; it’s probably going to be something in Latin.)

The reason I get so upset about this is I remember looking forward to peaches every summer as a kid–you couldn’t get them in winter (for that matter, it’s debatable that what you get in winter now actually qualifies as peaches). They were so good, so reliably good when they did arrive that my mother once assured my younger brother, who was little enough at the time to worry about the fuzzy peel, that they tasted “like heaven”. She was right. You wouldn’t hear angels or anything insipid like that when you bit into one. You’d get a stream of juice down your chin and flavor so intense you wanted to take it somewhere private to eat so you wouldn’t embarrass yourself.

But things have changed. My post on microwaving unripenable peaches came out last summer, when I bought what turned out to be mealy peaches so many times in a row I started wondering if it was just me or were the peaches really a lot worse than I remembered in childhood. Maybe it was just a one-year blip, a bad crop, some kind of exception in the history of peach-harvesting.

Turns out, probably not. Crummy peaches are back in stock this year–judging from the visitors’ log, my experience, pretty much everyone’s. Even here in California where they do grow peaches.

So blithely scouting the web for answers I come up with two possibles:

Either all the good peaches are being shipped overseas for astronomical prices and our supermarkets are buying the good-looking but deceptive dregs and we’re allowing it by not returning the unacceptable goods and demanding refunds

OR

All the big supermarket chains are buying imported peaches from South America and the combination of long distance storage requirements and import quarantine protocols is ruining the peaches’ ability to ripen.

Of the two, I think the idea that all our domestic peach growers are sending their entire stock of acceptably good produce overseas is unlikely. We do export some fruit but the countries that were likeliest to buy from us ten years ago (Japan and Russia come to mind) have fallen on harder times and there’s more competition from sources that are geographically closer.

On the other hand, there’s a good bit of evidence to suggest the supermarket chains have been cheaping out by importing most of their summer fruit from Argentina and Chile even when it’s summer here–and winter down there. The stores have gotten used to importing all kinds of stone fruits from Chile when it’s winter here, and they may have decided to issue longer term contracts with their distributors. It’s probably cheaper than domestic fruit even after transportation and quarantine.

And that brings us to the main find: Continue reading

The Meaning of “Tasty”

One very strange description crops up in nearly every expert’s take on processed food and the way it’s overtaken fresh and whole foods in the American diet. Everyone from food industry veteran Hank Cardello (see the Stuffed book review) to NYU nutrition professor Marion Nestle in What to Eat talks about fast food and junk food as “tasty”. David Kessler goes even further: in The End of Overeating, he adds “irresistible,” which he says is the problem he faced most of his life.

Moreover, “tasty” has become the important word in processed food advertising. Driving home from the post office today I even saw it on a billboard for Vitaminwater10, with the tagline:  “10 CALORIES. 4 NEW FLAVORS. TASTIER THAN EVER.”

Tasty. It’s the word of champions, the key, the adword to beat.

And for the life of me, I’m not sure why. Because the words I would have chosen for most of it include stodgy, greasy, cardboardy, screamingly salty, day-glo ™ orange, and “a lot like airplane food, only on the ground.” Am I the only one?

But “tasty”–specifically that word–is clearly the accepted description, even among these food experts, and that points to a host of disturbing assumptions. Either they mean they find processed food tasty or they mean they think everyone else finds it tasty and irresistible–even if there’s something better to eat. That’s kind of defeatist, isn’t it? If everyone “knows” fast food is tastier than fresh produce, what hope is there for mainstream Americans to eat healthier than they do today?

What do they actually mean by “tasty” in the case of processed food? They don’t mean fresh, as in fresh produce. They don’t mean tangy, as in yogurt or a tangerine, or sharp as in horseradish or cheddar. Certainly not aromatic, like dill or fennel or rosemary or sage. Or rich and funky and thought-provoking, like aged camembert or shiitakes or asparagus or toasted sesame oil. And they don’t mean complex and savory and surprising, as in a palak paneer punctuated by smoky black cardamom pods, Armenian string cheese with nigella seed, or a long-cooked carbonnade or daube of beef with some cloves thrown in on a whim.

They can’t possibly, honestly, mean “these fresh hazelnuts are so sweet you’ll plotz” or “one bite and you’d better take this nectarine somewhere private.”

Most of the food experts who’ve posited that processed food is “tasty” in their books and articles are older than I am by about 10 years, old enough to remember eating late-July nectarines that devastatingly fragrant, backyard tomatoes earthily ripe and pungent, foods utterly unlike what’s available even in the produce section of most chain supermarkets today.

So I can’t help thinking that their casual use of the word “tasty” reflects and even perpetuates the hopelessly tattered, stunted and inexperienced taste imagination of the masses of people who don’t cook for themselves anymore and have given over completely to packaged food, with its excesses of salt and its bland, stale cardboardy background flavor. The ugly assumption they’ve bought into is that people who eat mostly processed food can’t change, won’t change, and most importantly, wouldn’t like fresh food if they tasted it.

Can the surge of food blogs with their encouragement to try something new, visit local farmers’ markets, maybe even take a share in a community garden plot, change this trend? I hope so, even though I know the open air markets are not often very available in poor neighborhoods and they tend to be as expensive as supermarkets. But when they are made available in urban areas, all kinds of people from the neighborhood suddenly come flocking to them, Continue reading

Smart Choices Checkmarks–Corrupt Before They Ever Hit the Cereal Box?

William Neumann of the New York Times takes a hard look at “Smart Choices”, the new food industry-sponsored common nutrition labeling program, which makes its debut in supermarket packaged food aisles. The coveted green checkmark comes with a hefty license fee–toward the $100,000 mark per item–for food companies that want to qualify, but apparently qualifying is a little easier than you might expect. The new program, headed by a nutritionist with impressive enough credentials,  has awarded healthy choice status to heavily sugared cereals like Froot Loops because, as she explains, they’re a better breakfast choice than, say, doughnuts. For sure.

How could any reputable nutritionist blurt something like that out to a New York Times reporter? Does she really use doughnuts as a benchmark for comparison when the question is “what should I feed my kid for breakfast?”

More to the point, how could items like Froot Loops end up qualifying as a smart choice? Apparently, the FDA is wondering the same thing.

Take a look at the Smart Choices program nutrition criteria. Under the program, a given processed food product qualifies as a “smart choice” if:

1. Its nutrition stats fall within consensus-defined limits for carbs, added sugars, fats, cholesterol, and sodium. But the criteria are not particularly consistent about whether these nutrition stats count for a single serving or a meal, or perhaps multiple servings throughout the day, and the upper limits shift between categories of foods. And some of the criteria have been muted, dropped, or subordinated according to the preferences of food industry members over the protests of the nutrition scientists.

2. It contains at least one positive nutrient from an industry-accepted list of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and protein. The positive nutrient can be an additive, and it can be added to an otherwise nutritionally useless food product.

3. Alternatively to the positive nutrient criterion, the product can contain or represent some aspect of the category “food groups to encourage”: fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low fat or non-fat milk. How much of any of these ingredients must be present, what their original source is, and whether the final food product retains any reasonable or comparable amount of the nutrition found in an unprocessed fruit, vegetable, grain, or dairy item which it claims to include are all a bit vague. Processed cheese is technically considered dairy, for example, even though it may contain mostly vegetable oils, starches, and emulsifiers, not milk.

Not all food categories seem to require both nutrient-of-concern limits and positive characteristics.

Finally, the instructions to companies wishing to qualify a given food product state: “Qualifying your products for the Smart Choices Program is quick and simple. Product review is typically completed in 24 – 48 hours.”

Pretty much says it all. And doesn’t really support the “science-based, consistent, reliable” claims the program presents to consumers and the media.

For further mirth and bemusement, check out Marion Nestle’s account of her discussions with Neumann and with the Kellogg’s VP for global nutrition on her blog.

Brand Me! Or, How to Commercialize Cabbage

Earlier this year I made a joke about the marketing campaign for fresh bulk vegetables, along the lines of “Red Cabbage. It’s What’s For Salad.” I was thinking how nice it would be if people could be motivated to buy ordinary fresh bulk vegetables–no brand names, no packages–every week as a matter of habit the way they did 30 years ago, instead of the way they now fill their carts with brightly colored boxes of processed stuff. I thought it would probably take a satirical approach like the Ad Council’s Got Milk? public service ad campaign.

Clearly I wasn’t thinking hard enough about the real issue driving the relentless replacement of food with boxes. As with the Internet, it’s branding. And not surprisingly, there’s an awful lot of spam out there (hints of The Viking Song in the background…and a word of caution: as with many Monty Python sketches, this one contains more than a few off-color lines and screeching in addition to the main ingredient.)

The packaged food industry is way ahead of me and has been for years. They’ve figured out how to put brand names on cabbage or broccoli or carrots so they can charge more for it–several times more per pound. And they’re doing enormously well with this ploy.

Ordinary shoppers — your neighbors, your co-workers, your mom, and you too, I bet— have in the past week or so bought a little packaged bag of pre-washed spinach, Euro Salad Mix, baby-cut carrots, or broccoli and cauliflower florets. To save time, you tell yourself. Because it’s more gourmet, perhaps. And you’re getting your vegetables in, you think. But it becomes a habit, and a needlessly expensive one.

This kind of thinking about vegetables is becoming dangerously ingrained among American shoppers. People think they’re eating healthy without the fuss, but then they complain how expensive vegetables are. And no wonder, if they shop like this.

Because the few vegetables you get in the precut packs in pristine plastic bags are less than a pound. 12 oz. is typical for broccoli and cauliflower florets, 5-6 oz. for pre-washed mixed lettuces. Prices are at least $2.00 per bag, and often on up to $3.50 or more. Yes, Virginia, that’s anything between $3 and $9/lb for the “convenience” of just opening a bag.

I bring this up here because packaged, pre-shredded cabbage, an 8-oz. bag no less, was listed, actually listed, as a key ingredient in a recent (and no I didn’t really mean to be picking on them again so soon) Bon Appetit feature recipe online. One for “Fishcakes and Coleslaw”. It was part of a slideshow series illustrating “gourmet cooking on a budget”, glossy photos with convincing price tags included–but this one recipe cost $14 for four servings!

Continue reading

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