Archive for March, 2011

Posted on March 28, 2011 - by

Serving Up Food Dyes: UK Style

In conjunction with our petition to the FDA to eliminate artificial food dyes, we’ve partnered with author Robyn O’Brien to bring you her thoughts on the harmful effects of food dyes.

Right now there is a lot of discussion around the science of food dyes. Do artificial colors contribute to hyperactivity in kids? Are food dyes responsible for ADHD? Is it the government’s job to take these dyes out of our kids’ foods or is it ours?

The fact of the matter is that you are going to get a different answer depending on who you ask. I learned this the hard way when I went to some of our leading pediatric allergists a few years ago to ask about the link between the introduction of GMOs into our food supply and the sudden epidemic we were seeing in the number of American kids with food allergies. They didn’t like the line of questioning and fired off some pretty aggressive responses. But given my background as a food industry analyst, I quickly learned that financial ties between doctors and agrichemical, food and pharmaceutical corporations can play a pretty important role in what these doctors are willing to say.

So when people get heated up around the science of food dyes, I find myself asking the same questions: Who has funded the research? Is there a financial incentive involved to protect the status quo? And are doctors that are speaking out on this issue in any way affiliated as spokespersons for either the food or pharmaceutical companies that stand to benefit from the continued use of these food dyes in foods?

Since there are usually extensive financial ties between doctors and food and pharmaceutical corporations, it is often helpful to turn to the consumer marketplace and food companies themselves for answers because money talks.

And interestingly, Kraft, Coca Cola and Wal-Mart have already removed these artificial food colors and dyes from the products that they distribute in other countries. They’ve reformulated their product lines in other countries and no longer include these food dyes, and they did it in response to consumer demand and an extraordinary study called the Southampton Study.

The Southampton Study was unusual in that it tested children on a combination of two ingredients: tartrazine (yellow #5) and sodium benzoate. The study’s designers knew that a child very rarely has occasion to ingest just a synthetic color or just a preservative; rather, a child who is gobbling up multicolored candies is probably taking in several colors and at least one preservative.

What’s amazing is that in the U.K., the federal food safety agency actually funded the Southampton Study that led to even U.S. corporations eliminating synthetic colors and sodium benzoate from their U.K. products.

And in response, a whole host of companies, including the U.K. branches of Wal-Mart, Kraft, Coca Cola and the Mars candy company (who make M&Ms), have voluntarily removed artificial colors, the preservative sodium benzoate, and even aspartame from their products. Particularly those marketed to kids.

When I first learned about this in the spring of 2007, I was stunned. Our American companies had removed these harmful ingredients from their products overseas—but not here? It was one of those stories that I went around repeating to everyone I knew.

“They’ve eliminated those additives in England,” I kept saying. “Kraft, Mars, and Wal-mart just took them out.” The companies didn’t fall apart. The world didn’t come to an end. The parents and caregivers in England weren’t condemned to a lifetime of bean sprouts and home-ground oatmeal. They just got to buy mac ‘n’ cheese and diet colas and grocery-store muffins and even Skittles without the additives that had been shown to make some kids hyper.


Posted on March 28, 2011 - by

D.I.Y. Cooking: Where to Begin and Why

Illustration: Andrew Rae / NYT

A recent New York Times Dining feature called the D.I.Y. Cooking Handbook caught my attention. “How is that different from any other cookbook?” I wondered. “Isn’t cooking in and of itself a D.I.Y. endeavor?”

Apparently not. “What follows is a D.I.Y. starter kit,” author Julia Moskin explained, “small kitchen projects that any cook can tackle.” The 13 accompanying recipes included instructions on making your own fresh cheese, maple vinegar, tomato chili jam, and cultured butter.

These are recipes not for whole dishes, but for ingredients. Most of us pick these things up in boxes or bottles at the grocery store, either too busy or too daunted, never dreaming that we might be able to produce them in our own kitchens at home. In my own case, it’s a little bit of each. Why go to the trouble of making your own butter when you can buy it with so much less effort?

Yet there is something irresistible to me about the idea of relearning the forgotten skills of cooking. Like cracking the code of a dead language or publishing something in samizdat, it feels a little subversive. Dangerous, even.

While none of Moskin’s recipes require canning, curing meat, or foraging for wild food, these are logical next steps for the D.I.Y. cooking enthusiast. And that’s when the whiff of danger associated with producing your own ingredients takes on a more menacing character. Because most of us did not learn at our mother’s knee how to judge whether a pickle jar has sealed properly or what sorts of mold are safe to scrape off pancetta, we fear that we will not be able to tell if something goes wrong. Movies like Into the Wild, where (spoiler alert!) a seasoned woodsman eats poisonous wild potato seeds and dies of starvation, don’t inspire confidence either.

Moskin recognizes this fear of the unknown, and the article’s illustration acknowledges it tacitly too: a placid-faced figurine chops recognizable ingredients on an invisible countertop, reminiscent of instructional drawings on exercise machines. The message is clear: there’s no need to fear because you’ll be guided through every step of the process.

While I don’t pine nostalgically for a return to the days when my ancestors on the Minnesota prairie worked from dawn to dusk just to feed themselves and their sixteen children (I’m not exaggerating), I do envy their skills, if only because there’s something uniquely satisfying about producing nourishment with your own two hands. What’s more, I envy the way kitchen wisdom was passed down then— face to face, spoon to spoon.

So after I’ve made enough batches of kimchee and crème fraîche to feel confident that my experiments in D.I.Y. cooking aren’t going to kill anyone, I’m resolving to teach someone else. The Internet is a wonderful tool, but it’s no substitute for a watchful eye and someone to lick the bowl with.


Posted on March 25, 2011 - by

A FRESH Voice: Introducing Jenny Holm

Photo: M. Holm

The FRESH team keeps growing, and we’re happy to introduce you to Jenny Holm, a new writer for our blog. Here are some of her thoughts on food and food systems – take it away, Jenny!

I’m often asked how I “got into food,” and the truth is I’m not really sure. I wasn’t aware that I thought more about it than other people until a friend commented on the way I pored over the snack table at a high school New Year’s Eve party: “It’s like you’re choosing an engagement ring instead of a carrot stick.”

And in a way, perhaps, I was. Much like a husband, my trifold passion–for writing, sustainable food systems, and gastronomic adventure–has taken me places I never imagined I’d go. Somewhere between a short-lived stint as a chef in my college’s student cafe, an internship at a food magazine where I shared my desk with 68 jars of unique honeys and was once sent home with a crocodile steak in my purse, and WWOOFing on a permaculture-based farm in Vermont last summer, I fell hard.

After college in my native Minnesota, I spent a joyful year eating my way through southwestern Russia, where I learned how to make tea from fermented mushrooms, what sausage made from nutria (a type of swamp rat with orange fangs) tastes like, and a whole lot about borscht.

It wasn’t until I moved to Washington, DC for a job and got involved with the local Slow Food chapter that I started to delve deeper into the economic, environmental, and public health consequences of the way our current food system is structured. I’ve been here since 2009, minus the semester I recently spent in the Republic of Georgia teaching English to schoolkids, making wine, and picking tangerines. If you’re interested in reading more about any of these experiences, check out my personal blog Gusto: Eating with Pleasure.

I’m looking forward to sharing explorations of our evolving food system through the FRESH blog, and hope to learn from you, as well. Leave your thoughts and suggestions in the comments section, or feel free to e-mail me any time at


Posted on March 15, 2011 - by

Perennial Plate

The Perennial Plate Episode 52: Real Food Road Trip from Daniel Klein on Vimeo.

What do spear fishing, a picnic operetta, and an epic road trip have in common? These are all topics covered by The Perennial Plate, a video series by Daniel Klein devoted to local and sustainable food. From its beginnings as a small Minnesota-based series, the show has developed a national following and received accolades from thousands of fans.

Recently, Klein announced that The Perennial Plate would be hitting the road, with plans for a cross country series beginning this spring! We’ve given him an opportunity to introduce his project to you here, and hope that you will follow his adventures as he travels around the country. In addition, if you happen to live along his travel route and have a sustainable food story to tell, you can submit your idea to Perennial Plate.

Starting as a small Minnesota-based series, The Perennial Plate has grown into a nationally watched show with over 12,000 weekly views, and the series is syndicated on Huffington Post, Grist, Cooking Up A Story and Serious Eats. Each week Daniel Klein (former Chef: Bouchon (Thomas Keller), Fat Duck (Heston Blumenthal), Craft (Tom Collichio)) covers topics as diverse as Squirrel hunting, community gardens, wild winter teas and harvesting road kill. With 52 Episodes under its belt, all taking place in Minnesota (and a few in Wisconsin), the show is a unique accomplishment in bringing Minnesota culinary, agricultural and outdoorsmanship to viewers around the country.

Building off the first season’s success, the obvious next step is to move beyond Minnesota to the great stories around the country. For this six month journey, Daniel Klein and his cameraman (and vegetarian) Mirra Fine, will be continuing their ambitious weekly video format from state to state. They will be farming, hunting, cooking and eating with food heroes from Minnesota to Louisiana, Oregon, New York and Maine. The “Good Food” road trip will begin on May 9th, but not before collecting a big bag of morels for the journey.

Daniel Klein
The Perennial Plate

Good luck to Klein on his travels; we’ll be eagerly following from our armchairs!


Posted on March 11, 2011 - by

Is There a Global Food Shortage?

Hungry children in Africa. Bare grocery shelves in the Soviet Union. Long queues at Depression-era soup kitchens. Access to food is a necessity for everyone, but plenty of people have gone hungry in the past, and more will go home hungry tonight. Which begs the question, do we need to produce more food to feed the planet?

The obvious answer is yes, we do. There are over 6 billion people living on Earth today, and by 2050, the population is slated to increase to 9 billion, the equivalent of two additional Indias (Economist). Ever since Thomas Malthus made dire predictions of global poverty as a consequence of population growth, we have been struggling to find ways to increase food supply and keep up with the booming number of mouths.

To that end, modern governments have mostly employed technological advances to produce more food, including the planting of hybrid and high-yield seeds, the expansion of irrigation, and the intensive use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. In developed countries, the proportion of people who make their livelihoods as farmers has plummeted, and we now spend only a sliver of our incomes on food. The average U.S. household spent 9.5% of income on food in 2009, compared to 23.4% in 1929 (ERS/USDA). By those measures, the Green Revolution has been a smashing success.

Unfortunately, these industrialized farming practices come at a high environmental and social toll. So ultimately, we will have to use less intensive agricultural methods, if we don’t want to run the planet’s resources into the ground. Does this mean we are doomed to hunger in the future?

Wait a minute though, having food shortages around the globe does not necessarily mean we aren’t producing enough food. Today, over a billion people are malnourished and hungry, while another billion are overweight or obese. Currently, we are producing enough calories for every man, woman and child to have 2,700 calories a day, an amount that is considered more than sufficient to satiate daily energy needs (FAO). The problem is unequal distribution—how do we get calories away from the people who don’t need them to the people who do?

What about all the food we grow that gets converted to animal feed? Corn and other grains are grown for livestock production, and the energy input to protein output conversion ratio is steep. For every pound of chicken you eat, four pounds of feed is required. And chicken is considered the most energy-efficient meat produced—the ratio of grain required to produce beef is an astounding 54:1! “If all the grain currently fed to livestock in the United States were consumed directly by people, the number of people who could be fed would be nearly 800 million,” David Pimentel, professor of ecology at Cornell University (Cornell Science News).

All right, half of America’s grain production is destined for factory farm feed bins, but what about the rest? Well, much of the rest of the grain will be turned into biofuels. Following ethanol-friendly policies enacted by the Bush administration, the production of ethanol produced from grains has climbed steadily. In 2009, 26% of US grain production was fed to cars, not people (Earth Policy Institute).

Then there’s all the food we produce that is thrown out or otherwise wasted. Americans throw out about 14% of the food they purchase, food that could have fed another person, symbolizing money that could have been spent on other goods (EPA).

Distribution and access, meat and changing patterns of consumption, biofuels, and wasted food—these are all issues that must be tackled to feed the planet. We can no longer focus on heedless food production without understanding the underlying factors that cause food shortages.

Stay tuned for in-depth looks at each of these factors.

Drop me a line at


Posted on March 9, 2011 - by

Not a Hippie Pipe Dream: UN Says Eco-Farming Can Feed the World

Whenever I talk about how damaging conventional farming is to our society and planet, eventually some naysayer raises his hand and asks, “Yeah but, how do you know that reverting to traditional and organic farming methods is going to produce enough food? Aren’t we regressing backwards from the technological progress we’ve made? It’s just not practical to go back to the old days—stop being a Luddite.”

At that point, I reiterate that modern industrialized agriculture may appear to generate greater yields, but this comes at a high cost, requiring far more fertilizer and pesticide inputs than traditional forms of agriculture that respect the diversity and balance of nature. Still, not everyone is swayed by these arguments. And well, frankly, I’m not out to convince everyone.

The thing is, not nearly enough research has been done on this question, at least not with studies that haven’t been sponsored by interest groups. There is room to argue that corporate partnerships at our nation’s universities have not only stymied research on eco-friendly farming practices, but have in fact encouraged the development of corporate-friendly genetically-engineered organisms and proprietary agricultural products.

The good news: yesterday, the United Nations released a report on small-scale and agroecological farming, written by Olivier De Schutter, the Special Rapporteur on the right to food appointed by the UN Human Rights Council. He is an investigator who is independent from any government or organization.

In no uncertain terms, De Schutter states, “Today’s scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production where the hungry live—especially in unfavorable environments…Conventional farming relies on expensive inputs, fuels climate change and is not resilient to climatic shocks. It simply is not the best choice anymore today.” (UN News Release)

This change in focus is crucial for feeding the estimated 9 billion people that will populate the planet by 2050. Rather than relying on distant industrial inputs, agroecological farming relies on local resources, additional labor, and traditional knowledge for crop rotation and pest control techniques. In addition, De Schutter takes a nuanced approach to crop breeding techniques, noting that genetically-modified seeds concentrate power in the hands of seed companies, but marker-assisted selection and participatory plant breeding “use the strength of modern science, while at the same time putting farmers in the driver’s seat.” (AlterNet)

How do we get our governments and farmers to make the switch to sustainable forms of agriculture? It will certainly be difficult to achieve, particularly when our current model diverts nearly 90% of the corn crop to animal feed or ethanol (Bittman). We need to have Congressional consensus that this issue must be addressed right now. And that will only happen if voices are demanding change, insisting that we break away from a path that leads to self-destruction.

So, did you talk about sustainable farming today?

Drop me a line at


Posted on March 7, 2011 - by

Good Food Around the World: Bosnia

This week, FRESH will be screened at the EKO OKO Environmental Film Festival in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Let’s take a peek at food culture there. Idemo!

Bosnia sits in the intersection of Eastern and Western food cultures, and draws inspiration from the cuisines of the Mediterranean, Middle East, and after many years of Austrian rule, Central Europe. Thus, you can find everything from Bečka Šnicla (wiener schnitzel) to dolma (grape leaves stuffed with rice) to pistachio-studded halva.

Meat dishes usually involve beef, lamb and veal, often from local farms. However, pork is more difficult to find. A large portion of the population is Muslim, and the rest of the country is comprised of Serbian Christians and Croatian Catholics. Although Muslims do not make up a majority, the influence of their dietary habits is far-reaching. That means you may also have a hard time finding beer and other alcoholic beverages.

One local specialty is ćevapi, considered a national dish in Bosnia. Minced beef or lamb is seasoned with Hungarian paprika, shaped into small sausages, grilled and served with pita bread and onions. Other popular dishes include burek (flaky pastry dough filled with cheese, meat or vegetables) and sarma (stuffed cabbage rolls).

If you are visiting over the summer, don’t forget to pick up fresh figs! Locals and tourists alike dig into these pink-fleshed gems of honeyed nuttiness. And if you give in to gluttony, there is no need to hide your shame with a fig leaf.

Sarajevo, capital city of Bosnia and victim of the longest siege in modern warfare, has blossomed in the intervening years. The city has always been known for its plentiful water fountains, which quench thirst and supply safe, clean water for free. Visitors are invariably drawn to Baščaršija, nicknamed “Pigeon Square” for the semi-permanent avian presence, where a Moorish fountain stands out from the surrounding buildings, with its elegant teal dome and latticed sides.

Turned off by the piles of pigeon poop at Baščaršija? Dodge the trams, cross the street and head towards the taxi stand to the other fountain, which is outfitted with benches and is blessedly feather-free. Take a few minutes to sit down and chat with a local, as you wash your figs from the tap and soak in the sun.