Amy Fleming recently penned a great piece for The Guardian that provides a healthy dose of skepticism and science to counteract those over-hyped claims you’ve heard about blueberries, açaí, yuzu, or whatever the latest life-saving fruit is. She begins:
In the early 1990s, a cookbook called Superfoods appeared in the bookshops. It was co-written by the alternative medicine practitioner, Michael Van Straten, who is one of a handful of people said to have coined what has become one of the most spuriously bandied-about marketing terms of our times.
The book revealed Straten’s “four-star superfoods”, which “supply the vital bricks that build your body’s resistance to stress, disease and infection”. The list held few surprises, consisting of, you know, stuff that’s good for you: common fruit and veg, whole grains, nuts. Foods we’re especially keen on eating in January, as an antidote to Christmas excesses. Wouldn’t these foods be more accurately described as simply “food” (as opposed to junk food)? Nevertheless, the notion of superfoods was, and still is appealing. Except this century, the term is now used to assign near-magical powers to overpriced, exotic foodstuffs. It’s promotional potency went into turbo boost when the theories about antioxidants – probably the most successful “the science bit” spiel of all time – hit the public consciousness. Ever since, food sellers have clambered to keep “discovering” novel, unparalleled sources of “extraordinary nutrients”.
Fleming goes on to debunk the superiority of these foods that, while healthful, won’t keep you out of the grave. As she concludes, “the key advice remains the same: eat a varied diet including plenty of colourful vegetables and whole grains.” Amen to that. Check out her full post here.
Over the weekend, a friend [thanks, L!] offered me a prune. I can honestly say that I don’t remember ever having eaten one previously, so I decided to give it a try. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it either, which is about par for the course when it comes to my reactions to most dried fruit. We somehow got to talking about how in the world prune juice gets made. After all, since a prune is a dried plum, can there actually be much juice left to squeeze from it? Not really, it turns out.
Prune juice prepared from California dried prunes has been produced commercially since 1934 and consumed in substantial quantities in the United States (Woodroof, 1974). Currently, it is not a popular beverage outside of the United States…. [Does he mean to suggest that it’s actually a “popular” beverage here?]
Prune juice differs from other fruit beverages in that it is a water extract of dried fruit, rather than squeezing of fresh produce (Loh, 1980).
Essentially, the dried plums are rehydrated/cooked with boiling water. As Somogyi explains, “from the disintegrated fruit, the juice is separated, either by pressing the pulp in a hydraulic press or by high-speed centrifugation…. The extract is then clarified [through settling, siphoning, or filtering]…. The resulting extract … is collected in surge tanks and concentrated by heat….”
The FDA specifies what can legally constitute prune juice. In part, the rules note that “Canned prune juice is the food prepared from a water extract of dried prunes and contains not less than 18.5 percent by weight of water-soluble solids extracted from dried prunes.” The USDA similarly details [PDF] the “salient characterstics” of “juice, prune, canned,” specifying that “the canned prune juice shall be prepared from a water extract from properly dried, matured, sound, wholesome, whole prunes” and that “flavoring ingredients such as lemon juice, lime juice and citric acid, or combination of either one may be added. The canned prune juice may also contain honey and be fortified with ascorbic acid.” Why the so-called flavoring ingredients? In the November 1948 issue of California Agriculture, famed California food scientist W. V. Cruess notes [PDF] that “The addition of about 0.2% of citric acid greatly improved the juice, for most of those who tasted the juices.”
Reportedly, the expense of producing the dried fruit extract is high enough that “there is an economic incentive for adulteration of prune juice with less expensive fruit juices, fruit juice concentrates, and/or sugar syrups” by less-than-scrupulous producers; as a result, in the 1990s researchers in the Department of Pomology at UC-Davis devised chemical analyses “for establishing the authenticity of prune juice.” [PDF]
Alas, the popularity of prune juice as a natural remedy for constipation eventually led to a negative view of prunes among much of the American populace. As a result, the California Dried Plum Board (CDPB) explains that
In 2000, the Food and Drug Administration granted the California Prune Board permission to use “dried plums” as an alternative name to prunes. Why the name change? Because 90% of consumers told us that they’d be more likely to enjoy the fruit if it were called a dried plum instead of a prune.
Prune juice didn’t get rechristened, though. As a story from ABC News explained back in 2000, “Prune juice will still be prune juice, however. Dried fruit juice would be a contradiction in terms, the industry was told by the Food and Drug Administration.” Ya think?
It’s the time of year when mules start showing up at grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and produce stands. Not actual mules, nor the refreshing Moscow Mule popularized by Oprah Winfrey*. No, I’m talking about seedless watermelons. Ever wonder how a plant with no seeds came to be? Or where those hard black seeds went? Well, the seeds got stopped before they could start, thanks to a little chemical intervention and some careful breeding.
As this “Ask a Scientist!” post from Cornell University explains,
Producing a seedless watermelon involves three steps. First, a plant is treated with colchicine, a substance that allows chromosomes to duplicate, but prevents the copies from being distributed properly to dividing cells. As a result, a plant with four sets of chromosomes is created, a “tetraploid.” In the second step, a tetraploid plant is crossed with a [regular] diploid to produce offspring that are … triploid, with three sets. They get half the number of chromosomes from each parent. Finally, the triploid seeds are grown into plants.
The triploid abnormality means that the watermelons can’t reproduce, so their seeds never mature and develop the hard black exterior like a diploid watermelon. As NPR’s Andrea Seabrook says in this piece, “it’s the watermelon version of a mule…. It can’t reproduce but it exists.”
For all the details, including why you still need diploid watermelon plants around for seedless triploids to bear fruit, check out the NPR story (audio or transcript) or the Cornell post. And if, like me, you find the average watermelon to be less flavorful than you’d like, keep an eye out for varieties like the wonderful Yellow Doll.
* If you haven’t yet learned the best way to squeeze a lime when there’s no juicer on hand, check out this video of Oprah in Yosemite making Moscow Mules with Gayle for their campsite neighbors. Honestly, J swears by her technique! (You can skip to minute mark 1:20 if you don’t want to first watch her comically try to figure out how to open a bottle of ginger beer.)
The Conscientious Omnivore is away. This is an encore presentation of a post that originally appeared in slightly edited form on July 26, 2012.
Thanks to Civil Eats, I recently learned about efforts to return to production a delicious but fragile strawberry. Arielle Golden reports,
Five years ago, Slow Foods’ “Most Endangered Foods” list included the Marshall Strawberry. The fruit, known as the finest eating strawberry in America by the James Beard Foundation, is a deep, dark, red, with an exceptionally bold flavor. After World War II, the Marshall was devastated by viruses and has been left out of conventional supermarket supply chains due to its soil specifications and the delicate handling it requires.
The fruit is so soft, in fact, that it leaves a trail of juice when harvested and moved from the fields. This makes the Marshall difficult to ship and store, but oh-so-good to eat. But Indiana-based artist Leah Gauthier does not believe that the absence of the Marshall in grocery stores means we can’t enjoy it, and her strawberry project introduces a new philosophy of produce distribution.
[Gauthier’s] series of works started with a nectarine in Spain: “I bit into a nectarine and it was like a religious experience. I thought, why do they have such great produce over there, and why is what I buy in the grocery store completely tasteless? It set a quest in my mind, to figure out why this was so. I did a lot of research; I found out about industrial agriculture and monocultures and food traveling 5,000 miles from farm to market. This is why it’s tasteless.” So she came back and started planting hardy heirloom fruits and vegetables from seed, not just for her own gustatorial pleasure, but also to be more self-sufficient.
Unlike sweet cherries, America’s tart cherries are too fragile to ship very far, so most people never get to taste a fresh one.They’re typically frozen, then baked into that iconic American dessert, the cherry pie — and cherry pies aren’t as popular as they used to be.
Yet the humble sour cherry is experiencing an unlikely renaissance — and the best may be yet to come….
[L]ast year was a disaster, perhaps the worst in memory. An early spring caused the trees to blossom, and then, on March 23, a blast of cold air arrived.
Mike Van Agtmael, a cherry farmer in the town of Hart, stayed up all night, watching the thermometer. “It got to about 3:30 a.m., and the temperature started dropping. It didn’t matter what we did, it just kept dropping and dropping,” he says.
The blossoms froze. The crop was ruined.
Now, there’s a reason why all those trees bloomed and froze in unison. The vast majority of tart cherry trees in the U.S. are genetically identical.
But they don’t have to be. And this is where we get to the second part of the tart cherry renaissance.
Lizette Alvarez recently reported how a disease afflicting citrus trees around the world is threatening the Florida orange juice industry. She describes in The New York Times that
Although the disease, citrus greening, was first spotted in Florida in 2005, this year’s losses from it are by far the most extensive. While the bacteria, which causes fruit to turn bitter and drop from the trees when still unripe, affects all citrus fruits, it has been most devastating to oranges, the largest crop. So many have been affected that the United States Department of Agriculture has downgraded its crop estimates five months in a row, an extraordinary move, analysts said….
The disease, which can lie dormant for two to five years, is spread by an insect no larger than the head of a pin, the Asian citrus psyllid. It snacks on citrus trees, depositing bacteria that gradually starves trees of nutrients. Psyllids fly from tree to tree, leaving a trail of infection.
Concerted efforts by growers and millions of dollars spent on research to fight the disease have so far failed, growers and scientists said. The situation was worsened this season by an unusual weather pattern, including a dry winter, growers said.
Find the entirety of Alvarez’s informative piece here. For more, see the USDA’s Save Our Citrus website along with TexasCitrusGreening.org. Also, check out this Naples News column from University of Florida extension agent Doug Caldwell. He writes,
Since 2006, citrus greening has cost Florida’s economy an estimated $3.63 billion in lost revenues and 6,611 jobs by reducing orange juice production, according to a new study from the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
It affects fruit ripening, lowers fruit production and ruins the taste of the affected fruit on any given tree.
Professor Phil Stansly, UF/IFAS, Immokalee Research Center, said that most affected fruits drop, and what is left looks and tastes normal. The symptoms are difficult to distinguish from several other diseases and nutrient deficiencies.
Growers, governments, and companies in the orange juice business (like Coca-Cola, which owns the Simply and Minute Maid brands) across the country are desperately searching for a solution. In the meantime, Caldwell writes that “The citrus grove management strategy for citrus greening disease is a two-pronged attack: First, control the vector and second, reduce stress factors, such as poor nutrition and drought.” Alvarez notes that “Baby citrus trees must now be raised in greenhouses before they can be transplanted. And most growers douse their groves with a more powerful cocktail of nutrients and spray insecticide more frequently, which has helped slow the disease’s progress.”
Caldwell has some treatment suggestions for the homeowner with citrus trees in the yard, but concludes with these thoughts:
Because I won’t make the nutrient and insect control [i.e., pesticide] applications, to achieve my dream of fresh honeybell orange juice from the backyard, I may need to look at my citrus trees as short-timers, maybe only lasting seven to eight years. I might replant a new citrus tree every five to 10 years to replace the declining trees.
We should plant other fruit that will grow in our unique subtropical climate, whether it is low-chill peaches or plums or papayas for that breakfast smoothie. See more about alternative fruit choices at trec.ifas.ufl.edu/fruitscapes.
Mother Jones recently ran a fantastic piece by Rowan Jacobsen. (Thanks for the tip, R!) Under the headline “Why Your Supermarket Only Sells 5 Kinds of Apples: And one man’s quest to bring hundreds more back,” Jacobsen examines the loss of countless American apple varieties:
In the mid-1800s, there were thousands of unique varieties of apples in the United States, some of the most astounding diversity ever developed in a food crop. Then industrial agriculture crushed that world. The apple industry settled on a handful of varieties to promote worldwide, and the rest were forgotten. They became commercially extinct—but not quite biologically extinct.
Even when abandoned, an apple tree can live more than 200 years, and, like the Giving Tree in Shel Silverstein’s book, it will wait patiently for the boy to return. There is a bent old Black Oxford tree in Hallowell, Maine, that is approximately two centuries old and still gives a crop of midnight-purple apples each fall. In places like northern New England, the Appalachian Mountains, and Johnny Appleseed’s beloved Ohio River Valley—agricultural byways that have escaped the bulldozer—these centenarians hang on, flickering on the edge of existence, their identity often a mystery to the present homeowners. And John Bunker is determined to save as many as he can before they, and he, are gone.
The article is a great read and will inspire you to seek out new apple varieties. Check it out here, along with an accompanying post from editor Sarah Zhang on an amazing pair of books from more than a century ago (and available for free online) titled The Apples of New York.