Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Why Backyard Tomatoes Taste So Terrific

Photo Credit: nowviskie via flickr and Creative Commons license.

by A.K. Streeter, Portland, Oregon

The moment has arrived. The tomatoes are ripe, and so the question is not "What's For Dinner?" but "What Are We Having With The Tomato Salad Tonight?" Maybe we'll get sick of tomatoes drizzled with good oil, balsamic vinegar, and shake of salt and pepper, but it hasn't happened yet. Since we eat so many tomatoes, there's quite a lot of tomato talk, and the current questions on our minds are, why are heirloom tomatoes called that, and why do they taste so good? LA's Farmscape garden-planting service takes an attempt at an answer.

Farmscape has the enviable mission of bring Victory gardening firmly back in to the mainstream. A staple of WWII households, Victory gardens were basic backyard fruit and vegetable gardens that supplemented families' food and reduced their dependency on mass-produced agriculture during war time. Amazingly, according to Farmscape, during that time 20 million backyard gardeners grew 40 percent of the nation's food.

To demonstrate how good-tasting backyard garden produce can be, last week Farmscape ran its own test of tomatoes. Using a refractometer, Farmscape tested tomatoes' Brix score, a measurement of the sugar content of fruits and vegetables. (Brix is used in commercial fruit juice, wine making and other industries to compare sugar contents between batches.)

Farmscape chose nine tomato varieties that were grown in organic Farmscape "home" garden plots and another nine heirloom tomatoes from LA-area farmers' markets and local grocery stores.

"Gardening in your own backyard produces just as good or better quality fruits and vegetables than what you may buy in the store." - Farmscape CEO Jesse DuBois.

The tomatoes grown in Farmscape plots at homes in the LA area scored between 5.0 and 9.0 on the Brix scale. Farmers' market tomatoes scored a 4.3 on average, while local grocery store tomatoes scored 4.0. None of the purchased tomatoes, Farmscape said, scored above 5.0.

The higher Brix score (and sugar content) of the home-grown tomatoes is one reason why they taste so good. Some, though not all, sources also say that higher Brix scores mean better quality, as a high Brix score indicates higher mineral density in a plant than a lower Brix score.

The other part of the terrific-tasting backyard tomatoes is their varieties, and well, their perishable nature. An heirloom tomato is any of the many thousands of different types of tomatoes that is open pollinated - i.e. not a hybrid. Because there are so many, many varieties (and many of these non-hybrids lack disease resistance bred into hybrids) they are all lumped together under the marketing term "heirloom."

Heirlooms are good precisely because they haven't been standardized and aren't a part of the $5 billion annual tomato market. According to author Barry Estabrook, tomato fields are sprayed with more than 100 different herbicides and pesticides, and the fruit is picked unripe and then coaxed to redness with gas.

Modern plant breeding has tripled yields, according to Estabrook's book Tomatoland, but produces fruits with a fraction of the calcium, Vitamin A, and Vitamin C, and has fourteen tiimes as much sodium as the tomatoes of decades ago.

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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Replacing Red Meat Serving with Nuts Reduces Diabetes Risk

by Sara Novak, Columbia, SC

We know eating lower on the food chain, meaning choosing plant-based foods, is easier on the planet. Animal husbandry on the factory farm level uses an abundance of natural resources in production, burps out loads of pollutants, and is needlessly inhumane. But a new Harvard study takes it a step further. According to a new study, published in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition, red meat consumption is linked to Type 2 diabetes. Even after an adjustment for age, BMI, dietary, and lifestyle risks, red meat consumption was positively associated with an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes. This was particularly true of processed red meat consumption.

Processed red meats are among the worst for your body and the planet. This is especially true of the factory farmed, conventional varieties. But the addition of energy draining production does even more to increase your impact. Processed and unprocessed red meats are also associated with a host of ailments including heart disease, certain types of cancer, and the latest of the big three: Type 2 diabetes.

This study is one of the most comprehensive of its kind, following 37,083 men in the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study (1986-2006), 79,570 women in the Nurses' Health Study I (1980-2008), and 87,504 women in the Nurses' Health Study II (1991-2005), according to the study.

According to the New York Times Health blog:

Over all, the authors found that eating a daily serving of unprocessed red meat, equivalent to a 100-gram cut of steak, roughly the size of a deck of playing cards, was enough to raise the risk of Type 2 diabetes by 19 percent. Eating just 50 grams a day of processed meat -- one hot dog or sausage, for example, or a little more than two strips of bacon -- increased the risk 51 percent.

Additionally, The New York Times reports that the study took it a step further:

The researchers calculated the benefits of replacing one serving of meat with nuts and found it resulted in a 21 percent lower risk of Type 2 diabetes.

Yogurt and whole grains were also associated with a decreased risk, though buying organic yogurt is crucial to avoiding hormones and antibiotics.

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Friday, August 12, 2011

Risks of Eating Raw Sprouts

OTTAWA. Ontario August 12, 2011 - Health Canada is reminding Canadians that raw or undercooked sprouts shouldn't be eaten by children, older adults, pregnant women or those with weakened immune systems.

Sprouts, such as alfalfa and mung beans, are a popular choice for Canadians as a low-calorie, healthy ingredient for many meals. Onion, radish, mustard and broccoli sprouts, which are not to be confused with the actual plant or vegetable, are also common options.

These foods, however, may carry harmful bacteria such as Salmonella and E. coli, which can lead to serious illness.

Fresh produce can sometimes be contaminated with harmful bacteria while in the field or during storage or handling. This is particularly a concern with sprouts. Many outbreaks of Salmonella and E. coli infections have been linked to contaminated sprouts. In Canada, between 1995 and 2011, about 1,000 cases of sprout-borne illness were reported in eight outbreaks from five provinces. The largest outbreak in Canada was in the fall of 2005, when more than 648 cases of Salmonella were reported in Ontario.

Children, older adults, pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems are particularly vulnerable to these bacteria and shouldn't eat any raw sprouts at all. They should also avoid eating cooked sprouts unless they can be sure the sprouts have been thoroughly cooked.

Healthy adults who choose to eat sprouts should take precautions to reduce their risk of exposure to sprout-borne bacteria. When purchasing sprouts, always select crisp ones that have been refrigerated at or below 4°C (40°F) and avoid those that appear dark or smell musty. Always use tongs, a glove or place a bag over your hand to place the sprouts into a plastic bag. If possible, when eating in a restaurant, always make sure that the sprouts are thoroughly cooked.

Symptoms from Salmonella usually occur 6 to 72 hours after eating contaminated food while symptoms from E. coli can occur within one to 10 days. Symptoms can include nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, fever and stomach cramps. People who experience these symptoms should contact a doctor immediately. In extreme cases, E. coli can lead to acute kidney failure or even death.

Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency continue to work with producers to develop and implement best practices that will reduce the chances of sprouts becoming contaminated. Health Canada's Policy on Managing Health Risks Associated with the Consumption of Sprouted Seeds and Beans was released with this in mind.

More information, including Health Canada's policy on sprouts, can be found on Health Canada's Sprouts Information Page

For more information on sprouts and food safety, please visit:

Government of Canada's Tip Sheet on Sprouts

Health Canada's It's Your Health article on Risks Associated with Sprouts

Health Canada's information on Safe Handling of Fruits and Vegetables

Government of Canada's Food Safety Portal

Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education's Be Food Safe Canada Campaign