Category Archives: Nutrition

Something Old, Something New….

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It was an unexpected delight to read this piece on the Moringa plant! Unexpected because I have grown wary of the term “superfood”, but I was curious: what is this moringa? The delight was at discovering that the spotlight was on a favorite vegetable from my childhood, known to us as “drumsticks”.

The spotlight on the Moringa tree is welcome as it thrives under very hot and dry conditions which bodes well for its cultivation in times of climate uncertainty and water scarcity. And that is just the start, because here is what we learn about the Moringa:” it produces edible leaves that are unusually rich in protein, iron, calcium, nine essential amino acids, and Vitamins A, B, and C. Its seedpods, which are as thick as the meaty part of a drumstick and about a foot long, are also high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Jed Fahey, a biochemist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who has collaborated with Olson on Moringa research for more than a decade, has found that the tree’s leaves and pods have strong anti-inflammatory and anti-diabetic properties, and may also contain enzymes that protect against cancer. Mature Moringa seeds can be pressed for vegetable oil, and the seed cake that is left over can be used to purify drinking water. (It contains a protein that makes bacteria glom together and die.) When dried, crushed seeds can also serve as a good fertilizer.”

As I read this, I can almost taste the steaming bowl of stems cooked in lentils from all those years ago, for once, “superfood” might just be an accurate description!

If one front in the effort to combat the impact of climate change on food production involves taking a second look at resources that have been neglected in the past, another strategy is to use technology to bring to farmers the information and data they need to make optimal decisions. An interesting read on how this is working in Africa is here.

Combating global hunger in a climate uncertain time will require all the tools we have, taking another look at old ones and trying out some shiny new ones as well.

(Image courtesy of zirconicusso at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Growing Food In A Dryer, Hotter Future

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Yesterday I got a pleasant surprise when WordPress notified me that I had 500 posts. It seems like a long time ago that I started this blog, a journey prompted by the food safety scares of 2008: e coli in lettuce and tomatoes.  And while some of today’s stories are similar, I do see many hopeful notes of progress. One area in which encouraging news is growing is the issue of food production in a time of climate disruption. How will we grow rice in drought like conditions? The solution could be “Sahbhagi Dhan”.  Research is ongoing on how plants “remember drought”, or how they are equipped to deal with total water deprivation: efforts that could create varieties of alfalfa, sorghum, corn and soy beans that will flourish and nurture us in a very different environment.

And sometimes the research yields not only good results for nutrition but is also a treat for the eyes, like this lavender lime, full of beneficial bioflavonoids , that will add a lovely burst of color to our plates!

(Image Courtesy: “Agriculture Rice Green Field and Blue Sky Background” by blackzheep, freedigitalphotos.net)

Will Humans Let Science Save the Banana?

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The answer, it seems, is at best a weak “maybe”. Still it was heartening to see an article in the media that was nuanced enough to acknowledge the public’s unfounded wariness of biotechnology with the pragmatic acknowledgement that in this instance, genetic modification is the strongest option in the tool box.  The piece also explores the reasons why relying on banana biodiversity alone cannot suffice. This is really the middle ground that we should be focusing on, instead of the yelling-across-lines-in-sand  type of communication which characterizes most food debates. The problems are real and the solutions will be a combination of various options and  rejecting some options out of baseless fear is not an optimum step. Some solutions and even, improvements, have been suggested, the hope is that they will not be blocked.

(Image Courtesy: bplanet at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Experimenting With School Lunch

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The school lunch is in turmoil: efforts to ensure that students get nutritious food that will keep them healthy have run up against problems. Sometimes, schools do not have the resources to provide all the recommended elements of a healthy lunch, sometimes parents object to what they perceive as an imposition by the government on their child’s diet, and sometimes the children reject the new menu. Still, it is good to know that the efforts to make sure kids eat properly continues. In Washington DC, a chef and a dietician collaborated to offer new choices to the students in a local school. Instead of the usual carrot sticks, children were presented with three differently prepared options and the Asian style version won the day and will form a part of the school menu. This experiment gives an interesting insight: today kids, specially in an area as diverse as Washington DC are exposed to a variety of cuisines, what they eat at home might be quite different from the food served at their friend’s home and also differ from what is offered at school. Where possible, substituting the somewhat sad looking boiled sides with more flavorful options might mean that less food is thrown out. of course, a major stumbling block remains: school kitchens are often equipped with only heating and freezing appliances, so the possibility of actually cooking food is limited.

When we hear demands for changes or objections to the new rules, we must remember that these need to be looked at in the context of the troubling problem of childhood hunger. In many households, children are going to bed hungry and rely on school meals for a significant source of nutrition. All too often, we read about children who have to go hungry when snow days are called. In such cases, the school lunch is not so much a matter of taste or liking but one of making sure children do not go hungry.

In another example, experimenting with the school lunch not only helps to achieve the goal of keeping children from going hungry but it also addresses the problem of malnutrition. In India, a government sponsored program provides freshly cooked meals to children in an area with high rates of anemia. The program serves the dual purpose of bringing  the children in to school with the promise of a meal and getting them an education; and by incorporating iron fortified rice in the meal, the widespread problem of anemia is also being tackled.

The shape that a lunch program takes would seem to rest in the context of its use, we can use it to address big challenges. That is an important lesson to remember when we start to get disappointed because the lunch plate does not look exactly as we might want.

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

Recipe for a National Food Policy

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 Recently, The Washington Post featured a piece calling for a national food policy. It started off with the statement that food impacts every sector of the economy and the lives of every person in the country and therefore it is essential that it be regulated by a national policy. The first idea we can agree with, regarding the second though, many may have reservations. The writers then go on to assert that the food system has caused “incalculable” harm to the health of people and the environment, and such harm would warrant waging a war in response, if it were the act of a foreign power. Yes, there us much that needs a strong effort: from the obesity crisis to hunger in our communities; fair working conditions for farm workers to the challenge of growing food while facing climate disruption but we could surely agree on ways to find solutions in a productive way without call to hostilities.
And exactly how would the national food policy tackle the situation (first step, of course, would be to nominate a Food Czar!)? The recommended objectives are:

  • to assure access to healthful food for all: no disagreement there although how the access would be ensured remains to be determined
  • support public health and environmental objectives: ditto
  • climate resilience: how? not discussed. Would the application of biotechnology be considered an option, for example?
  • care for livestock: agreed
  • “our food supply is free of toxic bacteria, chemicals and drugs” ,which looks very much like “organic or nothing”
  • “Food marketing sets children up for healthy lifestyles by instilling in them a habit of eating real food”: some confusion here, children acquire eating habits in the context of home and family. As a parent, I cannot imagine letting a corporation teach my children what to eat, that is my responsibility and most parents would agree.
  • Production and marketing are transparent and the food industry pays a fair wage: while laudable, this refers to the food processing stage, what about farmers and farm workers?
  • To increase carbon sequestration on farmland and reduce the food system’s carbon footprint: what changes or innovations this might require in agriculture are not discussed.

The first thing that stands out is the consumer centric nature of the demands.  It makes demands about how workers should be paid, livestock should be cared for and how agriculture should respond to climate change. What, one wonders, would those who grow food actually think about this? How would they define a food policy?

And there we come to a core question: what is a “food policy” anyway? The piece states that “an agriculture policy is not the same as a food policy” but then neither is a food consumption policy a true food policy. If we want to chart out the path ahead for the food system, we need to take into account both the growers and the consumers of food, and reconcile these interests instead of pitting them against each other. A long argument is made on how and why the government needs to put a policy in place but it mainly comes down to dismantling the “agricultural-industrial” complex. That is a good objective but that alone cannot fix the food system.

No industry can flourish if there is no demand for their products and that demand comes from the consumers. If there is a demand for mashed potatoes in a box, then that is what we will find on the shelves. Of course we should be boiling and mashing our own potatoes, but for that, deep rooted lifestyle changes are required, changes which cannot simply be mandated by policy, and changes which, if we are honest, we are rather reluctant to make. Getting back from work only to have to ferry the kids to classes and practice games or even to have to go to a second job to make ends meet leaves little time for cooking. We need a discussion and changes in why we are living this way and how we can make changes. You can mandate whatever food policy you like but the basic question is how do I find the time to cook? And I say this from the experience of someone who does cook everyday. It is hard, and it is exhausting, it is nothing like the cooking shows on TV, that is for sure. So blaming the food industry for all our problems is  not sufficient for change.

This gap in perceptions was highlighted at another event convened by the New York Times to discuss the future of food which initially had no farmer or rancher involved in the discussions! Once this was rectified, a participating farmer was able to urge the panelists, to involve farmers in the discussion on food, a sad disconnect! But it was encouraging to learn that there was at least an awareness of the need to work together. The food movement  seems to have fallen into an us vs the food companies pattern, but in reality any successful food movement would need to include everyone: those who grow, process and sell, and consume food. Yes, food impacts everyone and everything and it is precisely for that reason that there are no easy answers here, the solutions are complex and everyone has to make an effort.

Finally, a national food policy will find it increasingly constrained by outside factors. Climate disruption is impacting agriculture everywhere and lack of food is expected to spark social unrest and large scale migration of people from affected areas. The struggle for resources could lead to actual wars, not just ones that can be debated in newspaper columns. An effective food policy will build a path forward which is able to respond to climate change and achieve goals of conservation and food production for the planet’s inhabitants at the same time. So it might be tempting to reach for avocados for that healthy lunch salad but it is also important to remember that it embodies a cost in terms of depleting water resources in another country that has to be accounted for as we set policy goals.

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

Is Your Dinner Home Cooked?

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An article in Slate magazine argues that cooking dinner at home is a glorified ideal which actually results in nothing but drudgery for the one who prepares the meal, most often the woman in the household. The article references a study from researchers at North Carolina State University which argues that the benefits of a home cooked dinner, often cited by well known food writers such as Michael Pollan,  might be overestimated.

Predictably, this lead to much debate and dissent. A response  by  Joel Salatin that there should be any reaction other than reverence for the ritual of the dinner cooked at home. He exhorts us to stop the soccer run, ditch the TV shows, “get out of the car and get in the kitchen”. This is directed mostly again at Mom who picks up chicken nuggets on the way to practice rather than taking advantage of the slow cooker, the refrigerator and today’s “techno enabled kitchens” to cook the family a healthy meal. There is a mention, at the end of the piece, of men who are part of the problem as they spend their weekends rider a mower on an “ecological dead zone” aka the suburban lawn instead of growing a vegetable garden to feed their families.

The first step in making sense of this would be to ask the question: what, exactly, is a home cooked meal? Does heating up frozen dinners at home qualify? A family sitting and eating together at a table,  each with their own frozen choice perhaps,  is certainly a component of the dinner-at-home scenario.  Does it matter of the meal was actually cooked at home from scratch? It is important to think about this because the problem with the idea of the home cooked dinner is really twofold: the problem of time and the problem of choice.  Cooking a meal from start to finish: including cleaning and cutting vegetables and meat, actual cooking time, serving and cleaning up afterwards is an enormous time sink. In the real world we are all dealing with several chores and errands plus working at earning a living and there is never enough time so those frozen dinners or pasta in the box becomes an important resource.  This option also allows each member of the family to pick the option they want. Nothing is more energy sapping than cooking and serving up a nutritious dinner and have kids (and adults!) say they do not like it or want to eat it.

The frozen scenario is not really the one that  the pro-cooked-dinner writers favors. They paint a picture of Mom coming out of the kitchen with heaping bowls of  steaming hot food , fresh from the kitchen.  This picture has really no basis in reality. In every society at every time of human life, those who were financially able to, employed cooks and maids to cook and serve food, this was not just for royalty or the very rich but even true for middle class families.

Today, no one has a cook other than the 1% . So, it is mostly up to Mom to come home from work, tidy up the house, take care of errands, laundry, help with homework and cook dinner. Many mothers would prefer to heat up the frozen meal and use the extra few precious minutes to be with their children. Are these parents unaware of the results of the trade-off? No, they are simply trying to make sense of the options in our increasingly hectic and complicated lives. It is not easy to ditch soccer and ballet if every other parent around you is fixated on the “best activities” to put on the college applications of their kid who is , at the moment, just learning to tie his shoe laces.

It takes  organizing to plan meals for a family for a whole week, to shop accordingly and have the meals appear on time. Let us start by acknowledging that. When was the last time someone said of their spouse, with pride, that they cooked dinner at home every day? Did we as adults recognize that while today’s meal may not crack our top ten, it does represent a whole hour of labor and caring from someone? And do we encourage our children to recognize this as well? It is not simply about who makes dinner but the true value we assign to this task.

 

 

A Reason to Love Okra

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When I first moved to the US, I was surprised by the prevailing wariness toward okra that I saw on the cooking shows. I always loved okra, or ladyfingers as they are known in India (part of the British legacy). It was one of the delights of summer, cut fine and crisped up with sprinkle of turmeric and salt or in a variety of other recipes brimming with flavor. And then I realized that okra (I finally got used to calling it that) was mostly eaten in stew form and realized that the American and Indian okra experience were fundamentally different.

For me, okra cooked and served as almost a stir fry without any sauce (or gravy, as it is sometimes called in India) is the most alluring option. The main difficulty in cooking okra is the slime that suddenly oozes out during cooking , catching the novice cook by surprise and leaving them bogged down with a goopy mess instead of the crisp, green slices of flavor that was their goal. I found the easiest way to deal with this is to cook rapidly on fairly high heat. If the recipe calls for cooking slowly on medium or low heat, then I turn to the trick recommended by grandmothers; add some acid, slices of tomatoes will usually make the slime disappear.

And, why, you are thinking, do I need to learn slime slaying techniques anyway? Well, it turns out that a study in China found that okra may be helpful in treating Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Rats who received the okra supplement had lower glucose and insulin levels and their triglyceride levels were also lower than the rats which did not consume okra. More than enough reason to try out some new okra recipes!