Tag 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)

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What Is Important In Iowa? Food!

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With so much political noise coming from Iowa in the last few days, one curious bit of news went almost unnoticed: a Chinese citizen pleaded guilty to the charge of stealing corn seeds on behalf of a biotech company in Beijing. Why would corn seeds be of such interest to China?  The answer came from an article shared on Twitter.  This piece on the battle between China and the US to control the global food supply was a revelation.

It provides details of how the theft was uncovered and the offenders caught and also reveals what motivated this act :” Despite its remarkable landmass, China simply can’t grow enough food to feed itself, particularly now that the country’s burgeoning middle class has acquired an appetite for meat. (Most corn in China is used as feed for livestock.) Water shortages and lack of arable terrain have forced their government to buy between two and five million metric tons of American corn annually, approximately 94 percent of all corn imported into China each year.”  In its efforts to throw off their dependence on US food production, China is pursuing a plan to grow more at home, and a crucial tool in this effort is high yielding seeds, hence the interest in insect resistant bt corn.

Further, while the theft was set up by a Chinese company, it seems to have the tacit approval of the Chinese government. The matter was treated by the FBI as one of national security: “The federal government, thereby, has implicitly acknowledged that it considers agricultural products both an asset and a weapon in a long-range geopolitical chess match with China, a resource of near-military value and importance, one that must be protected by all available means. By that logic, those Chinese nationals stealing corn are spies, no different—and, indeed, perhaps more important—than those who swipe plans for a new weapons system.”

The place of corn as a weapon in international political strategy is not new, as we learn from the narrative; the development of hybrid seeds to maximize output was part of the strategy to outperform the collective farms of Russia and China. In a time of growing population and climate uncertainty impacting food production, the use of agricultural biotechnology to ensure food security remains crucial.

If international policy matters seem somewhat removed from our daily reality, there is another aspect which is easier to recognize: who is working in the fields to grow all this corn (among other crops)? It is usually an immigrant farm worker, perhaps living here without legal papers, filling in the vacuum of labor created by an ageing farming population and urban migration of young people. They are a crucial part of food production but how does the system treat them? Can we demand a just food system yet ignore farm workers? For while the candidates may talk about sending people back and local residents might resent the influence of a very different culture in their midst; they are both constrained by the need for labor to grow the crops which fill plates at home and in the world.

Food is not just about what we eat, it shapes the world in ways that might not always be evident. There are often no simple and easy solutions. All the more reason why we need to debate the issues with patience and honesty.

(Image Courtesy: “Fresh Corn Cobs” by foto76 at freedigitalphotos.net)

Discussing The Food System: Beyond GMOs

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Lately it seems like every discussion in the food world  centers around GMOs/organic/local. It is all about what we see on the plate and getting caught up in it, I realized I was no longer paying attention to the journey of food from the fields to the fork as is the stated goal of my blog.

That got me thinking about the people who make this food journey possible: farmers and farm workers.  And around the globe, it would seem, crises are everywhere: in Mexico, farm workers are striking and stopping work to demand better wages and conditions; in Bangladesh farmers specially from minority groups are being forcibly dispossessed of their land, an issue which resonates next door in India as well; a theme that is echoed in Egypt. And in a closing of the circle, Chipotle says it is paying close attention to its customers and banning GMOs, but perhaps need to better care of their workers who bring the food to our plates.

(Image Courtesy: noppasinw at FreeDigitalPgotos.net)

The Tower of Label: What We Do Know

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This is a somewhat delayed post, and I almost did not write it, but then it sort of kept going around in my mind and I just had to put it down. It all started when I realized that it was the middle of December and my to do list to prepare for the holiday season was untouched. And though the chilly days were calling out for soup, the only thing that was likely to be simmering in my home, given the mountain of unfinished tasks, was me. So I ventured into the soup aisle to pick up a few options for back up.

Since I usually do not buy soup I was again amazed at the variety of options, somewhat overwhelming, really! Within moments, though, this became a real time experiment to see how much information is already on the cartons or cans and how much of it is accurate or, useful.I see so much about the labeling debate on social media, here was the opportunity to see it in action. Consider the first example, in the image above: it said, “natural” which, while vaguely comforting , does not give any real information at all. Although, some consumers might confuse this with “organic” or “sustainable” though there is no evidence that it si either of those things.

In the second category were the soups which came with volumes of information:

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“New”, “No GMO” (so, conventionally grown corn but not organic I suppose), “No MSG”, “All Natural” “Low in fat and calories” and “No Cholesterol”, that is quite a lot to, well, process! Pressed for time, surrounded by kids asking for treats, not many of the shoppers around me were actually reading the carton at all. “What soup do you want?” they would ask and into the cart would go the choices that were voiced. The one criterion that they did stop to consider? the price. “Let’s get one of those, they are on sale” was frequently heard. This was interesting to me and bore out what many believe: the push for labeling is less about information and more about marketing. Just as labeling spiked the prices of  GMO related products in Europe,  forcing them off the supermarket shelves, the same would be seen in the US were mandatory labeling to be introduced, and this would give a huge advantage to other players in the market notably the organic producers.

I was pleasantly surprised by the third category, the cartons with minimal information:

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“Gourmet Bisques” is all it said and named the soup. Just for that it did get my vote and, subsequently, came out at the top of the taste test of all the soups I got that day. When I ask around, most people say they pick the flavors they like and keep in mind the price, that is all. Of course, there are those who will not buy anything but organic ( and those soups were in the organic aisle, easily sorted for their convenience). Since that label already exists, it is hard to understand why another label needs to be added.

But, of course, one must consider the pro-label point of view. And that is where this piece  is so insightful. The writer believes in the “right to know” and sets out to research whether costs would really go up in a prohibitive way if labeling was mandatory. A survey of work in this area does support the position that costs would rise: to the farmer,  the state and of course, the consumer. Added to the dollars and cents price, there would be a larger price to pay. If rising costs lead to the substitution of GMO ingredients with non-GMO ones, there would be a decline in the research and development of GMO technology and this is crucial. GMO technology is not simply about yield or profits, it also offers the ability, for instance, to combat malnutrition by fortifying foods that people eat daily with essential nutrients. The most famous example of this is Golden Rice which can be used to prevent deaths from Vitamin A deficiency. Equally crucial is the potential of biotechnology in developing drought resistant or flood and salinity tolerant varieties of crops which would be able to combat the challenges of a changing climate. The choice of GMO  crops also has other environmental consequences which are often overlooked, discussed here.

Ultimately, the writer decides that the right to know, while important, has to be considered in conjunction with the realization that while some have the luxury of choice, for others, even the right to eat is an uncertain one. A show I was watching recently had the now familiar scene, where the server recites the provenance if each item in the menu to the diner. After describing in glowing terms the grass fed beef, the carrots and broccoli from the local farm “only x miles from here”, when the server kept it short with the “fresh asparagus”, the irritable diner snapped back “That’s it? You expect me to eat my dinner without any clue about the early life and upbringing of the asparagus?” Our world includes this diner and also the one who will go to bed hungry with no asparagus at all, and our policies need to work for both of them.

What if we were provided information like this: “This crop was grown using biotechnology which meant that less cropland was required to grow it and some land could be left for conservation. It  requires less pesticide use making it gentle on our planet and on our farm workers. This is a variety that was developed to grow with less water so we could conserve our shrinking water reserves. It is fortified with a nutrient that will prevent a common deficiency and ensure better health for children.”Now, that is a label which would have my support.

Taking Up a New Food Tradition: “Hoppin John” on New Year’s Day

 

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Though I have lived in the US for  a while now, I just learned about the tradition of eating “Hoppin John” on New Year’s day. The first description I read of it involved black-eyed peas, pork, rice and some greens. The black-eyed peas represent coins and the wish for prosperity, the greens of course represent cash. This immediately reminded me of a favorite recipe from India  and I thought I would use it. And so our first meal of the year was this bowl of golden goodness, glowing with turmeric and a little chilli powder, with a sprinkling of cilantro standing in for the greens. To me, this represents the best of all possible worlds, memories of the infusing the adventure of the present.

Further reading brought interesting facts to light: the original dish used red cow peas not the black-eyed peas used today; the rice used was  Carolina Gold and the story of how this variety disappeared from the market is a fascinating story: the soft lowlands on which Carolina Gold rice was cultivated were unsuitable for the use of machinery and there was not enough labor for the intense work required, a hurricane added a further blow. So rice production shifted to other states and other varieties. But a resurgence of this variety was brought about from grains obtained from a seed bank and a small number of farmers are growing it. (One wonders though how the issue  of labor/mechanization was resolved, material for another post perhaps!)

As I write this, I discovered yet another Indian take on black-eyed peas, this time with curry leaves, which I love, and coconut, looks like day two of the new year may also involve black-eyed peas…

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)

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!