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Buzzworthy: A new blog series on edible insects, agricultural development and food security

Buzzworthy logoHave you heard the buzz about entomophagy, the practice of eating insects? It’s more common than you might think. Two billion people around the world consume insects as a regular part of their diet. Beetle larvae, caterpillars, grasshoppers, crickets, termites and stink bugs are particularly popular as edibles.

Insects are considered delicacies in some communities and provide an important nutritional boost to undernourished people in others. Rearing or harvesting insects requires very little feed, land and water compared with raising conventional livestock like cows and chickens, which is part of why insects are trending in conversations about sustainable food systems. In the years ahead, insects have great potential to fill an ever-growing need for protein, fatty acids and key minerals in the diets of both humans and livestock.

In this blog series, I will explore the relevance of entomophagy to global food security. I will address questions such as:

  • Who is eating insects? Where and why?
  • How nutritious are insects, and how might they contribute to sustainable diets?
  • What are some examples of insect-based livelihoods in developing countries?
  • Why should agricultural development practitioners care about edible insects, and what actions should we take?

For a quick introduction to entomophagy and its role in agricultural development, check out this six-minute lightning talk:

 

If you are up for a longer read, I highly recommend FAO’s 2013 report, “Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security”. This report examines and summarizes the available research on entomophagy. It interweaves case studies, personal examples, caveats, and knowledge gaps to make the case for further attention to edible insects in a global food security context.

What questions do you have about edible insects? Share them in the comments below, or email me, and I will do my best to answer your questions in future blog posts!

This blog post was cross-posted from Agrilinks.

Oysters: An ethical choice

Photo of OystersAwhile back, Slate published a great article on why vegans should eat oysters. The author writes, “Oysters may be animals, but even the strictest ethicist should feel comfortable eating them by the boatload.”

From my observations, the main reasons that vegans choose not to eat animal products are: 1) animal products are implicated in the greatest portion of the environmental destruction linked with food production; 2) many animals suffer when they are raised and killed for food; and 3) there are clear health reasons to limit meat and dairy. Oysters, savvy bivalves that they are, stand firm against these three points.

First, oysters are good for the environment. They are listed as a “Best Choice” on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch list. Most oysters are farmed, but unlike other farmed seafood, they require very few inputs. In fact, they can improve their local ecosystems by filtering the water. I used to think that oysters could actually break down or sequester chemical pollutants, but their main effect is to remove algae, sediment, and excess nutrients, which improves water clarity and the conditions for other organisms to thrive. They also build reef structures that provide habitat for other tiny organisms.

Second, oysters feel about as much pain as plants do. They have no central nervous system, and there is no evidence to suggest they suffer any more pain than, say, a portobello. Humans have labeled them animals within our classification system, but they clearly belong in a different category from creatures with brains.

Lastly, oysters are a good source of of zinc, iron, calcium, selenium, and Vitamin B12 – nutrients that are abundant in certain animal products but that vegans might have a harder time obtaining. I’d argue that a few oysters are a better choice than a multivitamin, considering that vitamin and mineral supplement pills may be ineffective or even harmful.

Writing this post definitely has me craving a half-dozen oysters on the half shell!

Soup-er Simple: My top 6 soup spices

I reached a point last year where my spice cabinet was overflowing with bottles and packets, and I knew I had to pare down. So I asked myself, what spices do I really use and love? When making soups (my specialty) I rely almost entirely on the following set of dried herbs and spices. I would recommend this set to any home cook who is building out – or paring down – their spice cabinet.

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Five-spice powder – This is my mainstay for winter soups, especially anything based around sweet potatoes, squash, beef, or lamb. The blend of cinnamon, fennel seed, cloves, star anise, and white pepper imparts a rich, earthy sweetness to the soup. Be judicious with this powder – a little goes a long way.

Curry powder – A boring soup can be turned into a delightful curried concoction in a flash with the addition of a good curry powder. Different curry powders have different blends of ingredients and different spiciness levels, so you may need to try a few to find your favorite. Add a few tablespoons to the pot along with any vegetables you are simmering, a minute or two before adding in the soup liquid (stock, water, etc.) so the powder can “toast” and develop its flavor.

Cayenne pepper – A tiny shake of cayenne adds kick to all types of soups and enhances the natural flavor of the ingredients. Adding heat is also a great way to reduce sodium in your soups – believe me, you won’t miss the salt if your tongue is tantalized by capsaicin!

Thyme – Thyme lends brightness and grassiness to lighter summer soups. Add a few generous shakes of the dried spice, or throw in several whole sprigs of fresh thyme (and remove the stems later).

Bay Leaves – A single bay leaf lends aroma and depth to an entire pot of soup or stew. I throw one in to almost every soup I make! Toss it in at the beginning, once you add the liquid – it should simmer the whole time the pot is cooking. Pick it out before consuming.

Turmeric – It took me awhile to develop a taste for the flavor of turmeric on its own, but it’s really, really healthy, and easily disguised in hearty soups. Thus, turmeric is on the list mainly for health reasons! Add extra to curried soups, or toss some in with a beef stew, minestrone, or chili.

Honorable mentions: Salt & Pepper – Obviously salt is a requirement to bring out the flavor of the soup ingredients. But don’t overdo it, and remember that stocks, broths, and canned goods (tomatoes, beans, etc.) often already have a lot of sodium included. Black pepper, if used, should be freshly ground on top of the individual bowl, since it’s flavor gets lost when you stir it into the large cooking pot.

Do you agree with my list? What spices are your mainstays for soups and stews?

“Picky eater” can become a self-fulfilling prophecy

Picky Eater

I frequently see articles and blog posts around the web espousing various tips and tricks to get your kids to eat healthy foods. Although I don’t have kids yet, I’ve certainly put some thought into how I plan to manage my eventual children’s diets. But I’m sure when the time comes, I’ll struggle to get my kids to eat their vegetables. What if I get the dreaded “picky eater”??

Perhaps the key is to do away with the concept of a “picky eater” altogether. I recently read this article on Huffington Post titled “6 Tips to Start Your Kids Off Eating Right”, which suggests a more relaxed approach to raising healthy kids. I’d recommend reading the whole post, but here’s the gist:

  • The term “picky eater” can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If you frequently label your child this way, he or she will make it part of his or her identity. “When a kid hears that they’re a picky eater, it validates for them that shunning certain foods is a part of who they are.”
  • “Hiding” healthy foods isn’t such a good idea.  (For example, concealing cauliflower in a macaroni & cheese dish.*) Your kids will catch on, and will become suspicious of food more generally. That’s definitely not a good thing!
  • Model healthy eating for your kids.  Even if they don’t like asparagus at first, if they see you eating it frequently, they might try it the 20th time. In fact, research shows that it can take 10-20 exposures for a child to begin liking a new food.
  • Your kids won’t starve.  Your job is to provide them lots of healthy options, but they get to choose whether and how much they eat. Never force your child to eat something – that will only create negative emotions around that particular food.

I’ll remember these tips when the time comes, and will be sure never to label my child a “picky eater”!

Do you have any strategies to encourage your kids to eat something other than goldfish crackers? If so, please share!

*Making cauliflower mac & cheese is a great idea – but no need to keep the ingredients a secret!

How to decrystallize honey: Just add heat (gently)!

Have you ever purchased a fresh jar of honey, and then discovered a few weeks later that it has entered a solid state? Don’t fret – the crystallization is normal, and the honey is still perfectly good. In fact, crystallized honey can be an ingredient of its own, making an excellent spread for toast, rub for chicken, or addition to a cheese plate. If you drop a chunk into your tea or any warm dish, it will dissolve in seconds.

But if you’re like me, and you prefer your honey in its drizzly, viscous form for everyday use, then use this easy fix to soften it up. The key is to add some gentle heat, so that the sugary crystals re-dissolve into a supersaturated solution. Although this can be done in the microwave, I prefer to heat honey lightly on the stove. Too much heat will destroy the fragile aromatic molecules that make good honey so delicious.

I recently bought a glass jar of raw lavender flower honey, which was already 90% crystallized on the store shelf. After a couple of weeks, it looked like this:

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Time to decrystallize!

First, I brought a pot of water to a very light boil. Then I turned off the heat and set the jar of honey in the pot, swirling the jar around in the warm water every few minutes.

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After about fifteen minutes, the jar looked like this:

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…I should have used a taller pot! To get the honey at the top, I re-boiled the water, let it cool a little bit, and laid the jar in the pot at an angle. I rotated and shook the jar every few minutes. Soon, the whole thing was liquified:

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Voilà – Pretty simple!

A few weeks later, the very bottom of my jar has started to re-crystallize. It’s a very gradual process, so I am guessing I won’t need to re-heat the jar again before I use up the honey.

A few notes:

  • The stovetop method only works for honey in glass jars. The plastic bears just can’t handle the heat.
  • Be careful when you remove the jar from the pot – glass can get very hot! Use a glove or potholder if you’re uncertain.

 

Cinnamon Overload!

Thanksgiving-to-Christmas is the season of cinnamon. Over the holidays, I found myself eating the delicious spice in copious amounts, both as an ingredient in my own cooking and as an addition to seemingly every holiday treat that I was offered. Cinnamon was sprinkled in or on my oatmeal, pancakes, smoothies, sweet potatoes, squash dishes, soups, chili, desserts, mulled wine, and coffee. So I asked myself, is it possible to go overboard with cinnamon consumption?

According to the European Union, the answer is YES. But, it depends on which type of cinnamon you’re talking about. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Cinnamon, as we know it in the U.S., may be derived from the bark of one of four species of Cinnamomum (a genus of tree). One of those four – Cinnamomum verum – is “true cinnamon.” The other three are referred to as “cassia.” The visual difference is pretty obvious in stick form (see image below). This blog post contains a nice explanation of the differences.
  • In the United States, we primarily consume cassia. We prefer the stronger flavor. No rule requires it to be labeled separately, so the cinnamon you pick up in the grocery store is in all likelihood the cassia variety – even the fancy-looking Korintje cinnamon I just purchased from Whole Foods.
  • Cassia cinnamon has a high coumarin content, while true cinnamon does not. Coumarin is moderately toxic to the human liver. Most people are not at risk from the amount they consume, but a small number of highly sensitive individuals, and children who eat lots of cinnamon in kid-friendly products, may be at risk for liver damage.

  • The U.S. FDA prohibits coumarin from being added to foods, but does not regulate cassia cinnamon usage in the food industry.
  • The European Union however, has set a guideline for maximum coumarin content in baked goods of 50 mg/kg of dough in seasonal foods, and 15 mg/kg in everyday items.

Cinnamon was in the news recently because the Danish cinnamon roll – which usually contains copious amounts of cinnamon (exceeding EU’s allowed amount of coumarin) – was at risk of being banned near the holidays. The head of the Danish Baker’s Association dramatically lamented “the end of the cinnamon roll as we know it.” Here are a couple of articles on the matter:

What do I make of all this? I don’t think the average American needs to worry about coumarin poisoning from cinnamon, unless they are eating at Cinnabon daily. However, this information serves as another reminder to consume everything in moderation – as delicious as cinnamon is, it may not be wise to consume it in the amounts we do during the holidays. I am also wary of the use of high doses as a supplement. Cinnamon is linked with numerous health claims – anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties; ability to lower blood sugar and cholesterol; etc. – but solid research seems minimal. It would be prudent to ensure supplement capsules contain “true cinnamon” and to keep cassia consumption at moderate levels.

Personally, I’m going to keep my cinnamon consumption to less than a teaspoon a day – just a couple of shakes will do! How much cinnamon do you typically consume?

Antibiotics in animal agriculture – what’s the latest?

Back in my days working with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), I was highly tuned in to the issue of antibiotic use in animal agriculture. In short, the majority of antibiotics produced in the United States are used for livestock, and not just as a treatment for sick animals, but as a low-dose feed additive to help them gain weight. In 2007, I helped organize two Hill briefings on the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), which sought to ban non-therapeutic use of medically important antibiotics in raising animals for food. PAMTA was reintroduced by Louise Slaughter (the resident microbiologist in Congress) in May 2013 and holds the support of over 450 organizations, including the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, and the National Academy of Sciences. Basically, everyone in the medical field agrees that antibiotic resistance is a major public health issue and that overuse of key antibiotics in livestock contributes to a loss of effectiveness for human use.

I haven’t kept very close track of the issue in recent years, but I was happy to see it gaining traction in the latter half of 2013. Even moreso, I was thrilled that my friend and Tufts Friedman School classmate Dawn Undurraga had the opportunity to appear in an “Animal Antibiotic Debate” on the daytime talk show The Doctors. Dawn also co-authored an Environmental Working Group report titled Superbugs Invade American Supermarkets, which demonstrates unsettling levels of antibiotic-resistance bacteria in supermarket meat.

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While watching the video of this debate, I was surprised to hear Dawn’s opponent, Dr. Scott Hurd, say that the “growth promotion” use of antibiotics on the farm will “soon disappear.” That would certainly be a good thing – except that his statement was most likely based on the voluntary industry guidance that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released on December 11, covering the use of antibiotics in livestock feed and water. The guidance document asks pharmaceutical companies to remove growth promotion indications – such as “increased rate of weight gain” or “improved feed efficiency” – as allowable uses on the labels of animal drugs. However, it also contains this disclaimer up front:

FDA’s guidance documents, including this guidance, do not establish legally enforceable responsibilities. Instead, guidances describe the FDA’s current thinking on a topic and should be viewed only as recommendations, unless specific regulatory or statutory requirements are cited.

In other words, the livestock and pharmaceutical industries have no legal incentive to comply (although many companies have already indicated that they will take the voluntary measures). Some groups are worried that FDA’s guidance document will ultimately make the situation worse, as it will serve as a diversion from PAMTA and other legal action on the issue. It may also encourage a shift in the way antibiotic use is tracked – low-dose feed additives previously used for growth promotion might get reported as being used for illness prevention instead. I am doubtful that FDA’s guidance will result in a significant decrease in antibiotic use on livestock farms. Industry doesn’t seem worried about this guidance, but I believe that we would see vast industry push-back if a binding law was passed to truly limit low-dose antibiotics in animal feed/water.

Antibiotic resistance is very scary and needs to be addressed head-on. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released a report in September that clearly implicated animal antibiotic use as a main driver in the spread of resistance. See this infographic from the report:

CDC couldn’t put it more plainly: Antibiotics should only be used to treat infections. Constant, low-dose administration for growth promotion or disease prevention in animals needs to cease. How will the stakeholders proceed in 2014?

Further reading:

Soup-er Simple: Smooth curried broccoli-cauliflower soup

My very favorite thing to whip up in the kitchen is a soothing pot of soup.  Soup is a great culinary canvas for people with any level of skill in the kitchen, from teens just learning to cook from scratch to professional chefs that want to impress their customers. Best of all, soups and stews provide a large amount of satisfying food without crazy amounts of effort or money. Once you master the basic rules of soup, it’s easy to create your own concoctions from whatever ingredients in your fridge are calling out to be used.

I value simplicity, and am guessing that my readers do, too. Hence, I am starting up a series of posts on my blog titled “Soup-er Simple” (pun-tacular!). I’ll post some basic tips for readers who are interested in becoming soup aficionados, and easy recipes for those who just want a quick meal idea. My goal is to create and post recipes that are very much no-fuss – not too many ingredients, no precise measurements, minimal clean-up, etc.

First up – a recipe that I came up with last weekend when I was in need of a quick, filling, and healthy lunch. I had a bag of cut broccoli and cauliflower florets that I did not feel like steaming. So I made them into an incredibly simple soup! An immersion blender makes this one extra easy.

Smooth curried broccoli-cauliflower soup

Vegetarian, vegan, dairy-free, gluten-free. Recipe makes about 4 servings; just double it for more!

Ingredients
1 small or medium onion, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
1 bag of pre-washed broccoli and cauliflower
1 small potato, chopped/diced
handful of cashews (raw or roasted)
curry powder
olive oil (~2 tbsp)
salt

Cook time: 20 minutes

In a large stainless steel soup pot, sautee the onion and carrot with some olive oil and a solid pinch of salt until tender. Add about 1 tablespoon of curry powder and stir for about 30 seconds until it’s “toasted.” Next, toss in the chopped potato, broccoli/cauliflower florets, and cashews. Add water until the ingredients are just covered. Bring the pot to a boil, then cover and simmer for 10-15 minutes, until all ingredients are tender. Use an immersion blender or regular blender to blend the soup to a moderately smooth consistency. Add salt, pepper, and additional curry powder to taste.

This makes a great lunch or appetizer for a dinner party!

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