Tag Archives: nutrition

Pumpkin Time is Here!!



Happy Fall! In the US this is the time when “pumpkin flavored everything” hits the stores. The first time I heard of Pumpkin Spice Latte I did wonder “pumpkin and coffee…???” The reality is that its more about the spices associated with pumpkin: cinnamon, nutmeg etc; rather than the pumpkin itself, which brings in the pumpkin factor at this time of the year. Check out this link to know which of your favorite treats actually contain pumpkins.

Golden Rice: Why We Need It


When Golden Rice (rice enriched with Vitamin A) hit the news recently, it seemed like more of  the same: some are excited about its potential while others caution about its negative consequences. Lately, I have found myself too often reading and responding to the same arguments on this topic on Facebook and Twitter so I was intending to just watch from the sidelines the sidelines. What makes the debate on Golden Rice different, though, is that it was developed by scientists and the results of this research were handed over to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). There are no corporations involved so I wondered what  the  anti-GMO group would base their argument on this time; now that the all encompassing Monster Monsanto flag cannot be raised. Instead of  building up their case with evidence, however,  they decided to go the “shout louder” route and opted to destroy a field of trial golden rice being developed by IRRI in the Philippines.

Timely and accurate reporting ensured that we learnt that the farmers who were supposed to be protesting actually watched in dismay, while a crowd which was brought in for the purpose vandalized the field. This has provoked a strong reaction and protests from scientists the world over who came out in support of the freedom to conduct scientific research. This is, by no means, an isolated event. Incidents of vandalism of experimental work in GMOs is so rife that Switzerland recently found that about three quarters of the research budget for GMOs was actually being used for security. Those who demand the freedom to make their choices are, apparently, not too keen on freedom for others to make their own discoveries.

Then came this piece questioning the need for genetic modification of food and there were some points that really merit further discussion. First, the fortification of rice with Vitamin A  through genetic modification does work. There is a suggestion that eating more carrots or yams or distributing supplements might be just as effective in terms of health outcomes and less expensive than the money spent on GM research. Here, we need to open a little window into the world of those who would benefit most from this technology. The children suffering from Vitamin A deficiency often belong to the poorest sections of society, living in remote rural areas or urban slums. Distributing supplements to the would require the use of a public distribution system which can just as effectively used to distribute golden rice itself.

Next, why the focus on rice? In the lowest income groups, the largest portion of expenditure on food is on staples like cereal, even fruits and vegetables might be an occasional purchase. In India for example, the lower income group diet might consist of rice and lentils with chillies or onions as a side (hence the turmoil over the current rise in onion prices!). It makes sense to add the nutrient to the food group that is consumed at almost every meal and it is important to remind ourselves that in this world, far removed from our own comfortable one, there would be perhaps two meals a day (and certainly no snacks like those cute carrot sticks that are ubiquitous in schools and sand boxes here); so directing the nutrient in the most effective way is crucial. Carrots, yams or any other vegetable would be available only in season (unlike rice) and even then might not make the budget of many households; thus, they are not the best candidates for addressing the deficiency.

Of course, the best outcome would be for the diet to consist of golden rice and also carrots/yams. This brings us to another point of contention. Why frame this debate as an either/or question? There is a grave problem to be addressed here, let us bring the best combination of tools to the table to solve it. Let us celebrate Golden Rice as much as fortified pearl millet and let us do all we can to bring fresh produce to kitchens all over the world.

And then, of course, comes the question of safety. GMOs, we are cautioned, have not been proven safe for human consumption. So let us look at it one more time: the safety and benefits of genetic modification have been endorsed by many institutions so there is no credibility issue here. If one chooses to mistrust these institutions, then that is their personal choice and this should not be allowed to squander the chance to prevent blindness and death for millions of children. Again, we see the demand for freedom to choose for a certain section at odds with their acceptance of others’ right to the same.

No decision comes without a cost and opting for any course of action will involve a cost: do we allow children to to suffer now and try to find a different solution or alleviate suffering with the knowledge that we have today. (An excellent explanation of costs is here). Would we find a solution that satisfies the opponents of genetic modification? How long would this take if we started today? All this is uncertain. What is certain, however, is that we have a tool that can prevent blindness and death in children today and millions of children in need of it.

Starbucks Will Add Calorie Information to its Menu

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It was going to happen, sooner or later. How will it feel when the calorie count for a frappuccino is posted right there on the menu board?  Summer is here and many of us will be turning to blended coffee drinks. (Some of us, let us admit, will stick with them well into pumpkin latte season!). Posting calorie counts does not necessarily change consumer habits over night. The consumer still has to able to process the information and figure out what portion of the daily calorie intake is being taken up by a drink or a baked good. Some will ignore the posting, some might opt for lower calorie options.  If the consumer is on their daily visit, they might be more concerned with the calorie value than those on an occasional visit. For me and the other Moms, catching our breath with a chat in the middle of the week before scattering off to errands and volunteering duties, the calories are usually passed over in favor of fun. How many calories are there in that mocha frap, anyway? 200. Without the whipped cream. One cannot be too cavalier, after all!

New Day, New Diet Trend


The Mediterranean Diet, long known as the “ideal” diet to follow , is problematic for those who live in countries where some ingredients, olive oil for example, are not readily available. So, researchers in Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark and Finland came up with a dietary regime based on local foods and tested the results on two groups of people: one of which was put on the local foods based diet with the added rule of no red meat  and no sugar; and another which consumed red meat and white bread as is normally done in these countries. Not surprisingly, the people in the first group showed an improved good cholesterol/bad cholesterol ratio and also changes in a marker for inflammation.

The benefits of a diet based on local food are not only financial and environmental but are also reflected in improved health outcomes as we eat the diet best suited for the conditions in which we are living. But pursuing the goal of local eating alone is not enough, even better is to eat in season. When we explore, as this chef did, what is actually growing around us, we will discover foods we did not even know existed. Case in point: I could not have identified the greens in the image above last month but have just discovered how delicious these garlic scapes can be! This is the top part of the plant, we normally use the bulb, and; here is the best part: by using every bit of the plant we reduce food waste and crucially, a waste of the water that went into growing that plant.


Bananas for Mother’s Day


Flowers are traditional, yes, but this Mother’s Day I am thinking about bananas. Specifically, the plan to grow iron fortified bananas in India.This plan, predictably, is being met with resistance in some quarters. But, first, some background: India is the world’s largest producer of  bananas and almost all of it is consumed domestically. India also has a very high incidence of anemia. The India Human Development Report 2011 noted that approximately 55-35% of women in the age group 15-49 were anemic and this number had increased  by 3% from 1998-99.  Anemia in pregnant women increases the possibility of pre-term or low birth rate babies. It also implies less than optimal development in utero which means that the physical and mental development of  a new generation is impaired and the cycle of poor health outcomes continues. We also need to consider  a new variable in all of this: climate change.  It is predicted that climate change will have critical impact on maternal and new born health from adverse environmental consequences. It would make sense, therefore, to give special attention to improving maternal health before the worst of the crisis is here.

Given this scenario it makes sense that the Indian government has approved a project for the transfer of technology from Australia to grow iron and nutrient fortified bananas. Bananas, grown locally and easily available, would be an ideal way to meet the nutrient needs of women suffering from anemia. And  where a busy mom pressed for time may not have time to prepare an iron-rich dish separately, she can always grab a banana on the go.

It has, however, been met, with resistance from groups that claim that the “indigenous biodiversity” which is supposedly sufficient for India’s nutritional needs will be “destroyed” and suspect a plot by dark forces to take over the banana domain in the country which is the biggest producer of the fruit. Well, if the indigenous bounty of nature would have been sufficient, we would not be facing these alarming  health statistics. Clearly, women’s diets still remain nutrient deficient and this needs to be addressed. The indigenous variety does not have the same iron content as the fortified one, of course, and none of these critics seem to have suggested any options for either increasing access to indigenous bananas or meeting the nutrient needs in any other way.

To understand the threat to biodiversity, I started researching banana cultivation and found that this is done by planting stem cuttings, so the possibility of threat to the native species is hard to discern. The other fear that this will result in “monocultures” is not a significant one because the most widely eaten banana on the planet is already the Cavendish, the kind familiar to us from grocery stores. In addition , some local varieties are grown in several countries but one variety of banana seems to be dominant already. The technique to fortify bananas already exists and we can speculate that the time taken to bring the fruit to the market would not be that long, so that some improvement in health outcomes might be expected despite the expected adverse impact of climate change in the coming years.

Along with the adoption of fortified bananas,efforts should also be made to revive indigenous iron rich crops which have been overshadowed in recent years.This is not an either/or situation, we can and should take advantage of all the solutions available to us. Certainly we need to protect biodiversity but we cannot overlook the health of mothers and children which will determine how strong our next generation will be. An interesting example in this regard is that of Uganda: faced with banana wilt which was destroying crops and could have resulted in the abandoning of banana cultivation, scientists have developed a variety with a sweet pepper gene which stays can combat banana wilt. Better a GM banana than none at all in a country which prides itself on its banana tradition.

Just like biotechnology, the celebration of Mother’s Day in India in recent years is sometimes criticized  as a western import, alien to indigenous traditions. So it is fitting that my wish for all the moms on this Mother’s Day is that India does grow fortified bananas and we have healthier moms and babies in the future.

Why Should We Cook?


Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”  was one of the first non-policy books on food that I found totally absorbing. It showed me food in a totally new light, never again would I look at corn the same way! So I look forward to reading his new book “Cooked” which is  being released today. While the reviews at the New York Times,  Washington Post or on NPR are generally warm, I am curious about some of the points that came up. I am a strong advocate for cooking at home. It is the healthier and cheaper option. But Mr. Pollan’s belief that people don’t cook because they are doing other things like surfing the Internet or watching TV  is not a view I share. The pre-dinner hour is usually the craziest in a household with homework, piano lessons, soccer practice all converging and squeezing out cooking time.  It is rarely a time to watch TV or surf the web, there are other factors at work here: lack of time, knowledge of basic cooking skills come to mind.

More concerning for me was his nostalgic call for a return to the “communal fire”. He posted this quote on Twitter: “The microwave is as anti-social as the cook fire is communal.”  Food prepared  in the microwave qualifies as “food” solely on technical points, I agree, but the communal fire is not the answer. There are many places in the world where even today, food is cooked over fire ( a real fire not the stove top familiar to us). This requires the women and young girls to walk miles in search of firewood, carry it back on their heads and then labor over starting and maintaining the fire to cook on, all the while inhaling huge amounts of smoke that is toxic for them and , indeed, for the entire household. So, for these women, an option to that fire is very welcome.

Mr. Pollan also makes the point that women left the kitchen to participate in the outer world but did not success in bringing men into the kitchen, other than in the form of the men who head the processed food companies. Well, if there is a movement on the part of men to occupy the kitchen, it has not hit my part of the world yet. The grim reality of home cooking is that it takes a whole lot of time: time to clean and prepare fresh produce/meat for cooking, the actual cooking time and then cleaning up afterwords and it is going to take more than one person to do all this so it requires a time commitment from everybody. And while watching amazing dishes come together on TV is mesmerizing, packing lunches and making dinner everyday is , to be honest, fairly tedious.Once we acknowledge this and also the fact that however boring and time consuming it may be, cooking at home is essential for a healthy society and for building family bonds we will be closer to working out a life pattern that works for everyone and still lets us eat home cooked food.

What We Expect From Fast Food


A recent road trip brought up for me the fraught issue of the cost of food. Traveling with kids (who for some reason seem to be ravenous  on the road although they have to be coaxed to finish up at home!) means that at least some of the meals have to come from fast food outlets as the process isquicker, cheaper and gives rise to less controversy and negotiation. Still, when you get home and do the bills, the amount spent on food is a big part of the trip expenses.

So I was intrigued to read Mark Bittman’s take on the possibility of healthy and edible fast food and was mostly in agreement but for two points. The first is cost:   if we define a fast food meal (as the article does) at about $10 for a wrap/taco/sandwich and shake, that works out to an average of $40 per family for just one meal of the day (and ravenous kids eat frequently!). I fully support paying  fair wages to farm workers and a fair price for food grown with good farm practices but do look for good prices which won’t bust the budget. How do we reconcile these two variables?

The second issue is that of our expectations from fast food . What proportion of our meals do we actually eat at such places? If it is an occasional meal, on a journey or for a treat (“I cleaned my room, can we get donuts?”), or the house is getting a makeover and we can’t cook tonight, my expectations would be moderate. Yes, it should not be greasy and disgusting and tasteless but fresh-from-the-fields-the-way-Mom-made-it is not really essential.

Let us not delude ourselves: it is possible to maintain the highest quality levels only in our own kitchens when we source and handle the ingredients ourselves. So if the food meets basic health standards, the workers have been fairly treated and it comes out fast, the pricing should position it where it is an option available to all. Demanding the highest quality ingredients and standard of cooking will push prices too high and make it unaffordable and inconvenient. After all, when we opt for fast food, it is the “fast” rather than the “food” which is the key factor in our decision-making process.

What’s in a Potato?


Have you ever asked yourself that question? We see different kinds of potatoes at the store or farmers’ markets: brown, red, gold, fingerlings, purple but that is just a surface difference, right? Actually there is much more to it than that and I learnt about it from this delightful post  at The Botanist in the Kitchen, on  making potato and leek soup. I loved the way an everyday ingredient was explained in a scientific way so that we see it with fresh eyes…and can also choose the right potato for soup next time!

The Inconvenient Dinner


A fascinating study out today compares the dinner time habits of American and Italian families and finds that a lot depends on what  “dinner at home” actually means. Is everybody at the table or are one or more of the kids lounging on the couch watching TV and eating dinner there? Is everyone eating the same meal? This leads to an interesting discovery about grocery shopping. American homes, equipped with bigger (and sometimes multiple ) refrigerators are loaded with packaged food which often come in single serve packages. So a family can sit around the table, each with their own choice of microwaved meal; while Italians who, with smaller refrigerators will shop more frequently , prepare one meal to be shared by the family.

It has been argued that  the American dinner experience is a consequence of the pace of life. Packaged dinners are more convenient to prepare because they take less time. The study finds, however, that they reduce preparation time by only 10-12 minutes. Although I am no fan of packaged dinners (I was conferred the title of “meanest Mom ever” for refusing to buy something called “Kids Cuisine” from the freezer section, apparently all the rage in the kindergarten demographic), I have to add that this does not seem to take into account the cleaning time involved with preparing meals from scratch which would involve even more time in the kitchen.  But the real surprise here was that only 22% of dinners are actually prepared from fresh or raw ingredients without any processed or packaged ingredients.  I can understand using frozen or canned vegetables, or a base for sauces but seriously, how hard is it to use all of this to prepare a pasta dish while the chicken gets done in the oven?

How can we do this better?  Perhaps we could follow the rule that eating is an activity for a certain time and place, that means an end to never ending single serve snacks that ruin dinner, and it also means eating at the table with everyone or not at all. Everybody helps to prepare dinner, if the adult cuts the vegetables  the older kids get to clean them, early graders can lay and clear the table, and everyone tries to appreciate and value the effort put in by the  cook. It’s not that hard at all, we should give it a try.

How Coke Makes Orange Juice


Is anyone surprised by the news that Coca Cola’s Simply Orange product is somewhat different from slicing an orange and squeezing it? It seems that Coca Cola uses an algorithm (apparently also used by Delta to balance its books!) to prepare the juice, blending different batches to ensure uniformity of taste. The whole process is described as efficient and of course, for the consumer, very convenient.

Why is this story deemed unusual? Was anyone really expecting that what comes out of the carton is not subject to any processing at all? That is only possible if we prepare the juice ourselves by simply slicing and squeezing. This is the lack of clarity on the consumption side that I find mystifying. If we want convenience from a carton and we want it to be at a low price, then we will get processed juice. It is not exactly the same that we would get at home where the fresh burst of citrus flavor hits you as lift the glass to drink, but that would take some planning to ensure we have oranges to hand and a few more seconds to prepare than it takes to open a carton. We make our choice: time or convenience, both together are not possible and demanding that is unrealistic.

This much I can say, once you start with freshly squeezes juice, you will not want to pick up that carton! For this who have never tried it, this is how easy it is:squeezer