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Quite the Catch

8 Sep

I used to love cereal and milk.

Photo: Christian Cable via Flickr

When we were little we called it cold cereal before we moved to the South and realized people just called it “cereal” as if there were no other kinds. I used to ask my mom if I could have it for dinner (she almost never said yes). I even love bran cereal.

Unfortunately, boxed cereal is really the epitome of processed food. It’s also usually full of sugar (likely listed under several different names). Those Cheerios are meant to sit on the shelf for a looooong time if need be. So, while I used to park myself at the counter and keep adding cereal to my bowl of milk until I’d solved every maze on the back of the box, I tend to avoid it now unless I feel like indulging. (Yes! I do realize how lame that sounds!)

The first thing I do when I try to give up a processed food is consider whether or not it’s worth making it myself. In the case of cereal, the ingredients for granola are pricey and I can’t figure out how to make a Wheatie.

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Don’t Get Fresh(er) With Me

25 Feb

There’s nothing quite like being reminded of why you should take your own advice more often. The advice in question (today anyway) is always read the ingredient label-even if it seems like a food that should need no additives. It’s embarrassing the amount of times I’ve grabbed something at the grocery store that looked healthy (or even the farmers’ market once) only to turn it around at home and find it containing all kinds of things that I can’t pronounce. It doesn’t take someone nearly as well versed in food politics as I’ve become to realize that crap you can’t pronounce shouldn’t be in your food.

However, I’ve noticed lately the attempts of processed food producers to make their food seem healthier have reached a newly humorous level. Case in point, I was running through Trader Joe’s the other day. We all know a quick trip to Trader Joe’s is impossible, right? Between the tiny aisles and the requisite useless parking lot… I can easily spend an eternity in Trader Joe’s just searching for produce or meat from this country (no easy task, if you’ve never looked). The employees must get sick of asking me if they can help me find something (yes, your purchasing manager, please). I grabbed some odds and ends and chips and hummus and was finally on my way.  But when I dug into the hummus at home, I truly had to laugh. You may be used to seeing random additives in your food, but are you used to now seeing them justified on the packaging? Behold:

“Cultured dextrose (for added freshness).” I’m sorry, what? I need something to “add freshness” to my hummus? As far as I know, you can’t add freshness. And check out what’s right above it: “No artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.” OK, so what is cultured dextrose if not one of the above, a natural preservative perhaps?  Looks like I’ll be making my own hummus from here on out (Do you think it will work in a blender? Chunky-style? No?).

whitneyinchicago via Flickr

Just this weekend I was walking down the cereal aisle at the grocery store and literally walked by a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch proclaiming in huge letters that General Mills cereals (like said cinnamon one) are America’s greatest source of whole grain. (Got another doozy for me? Please share in the comments and I’ll post on Twitter.) I had to scoff, um, could this be why we have such an issue with childhood obesity? What’s not funny is that most American’s don’t see the irony in that box advertisement. What they see is a trusted company (General Mills) telling them that this stuff isn’t bad for their kids. If this isn’t a call for the FDA to regulate and standardize front of box advertising then I don’t know what is. Now, I’m not saying that Cinnamon Toast Crunch should be banned (in fact, I’m not even saying that it isn’t tasty) but there’s no way it should be misleadingly marketed as health food. But it’s great PR for General Mills.

Which brings me to Walmart, and their famous negotiations with the First Lady, that led the giant to make its processed foods more healthful. Again, great PR for Walmart, but no real change for our food system.

Come on Obamas, what we need is actual food system and safety reform, not more people buying minorly less bad-for-you junk food from the biggest of big box stores. While I absolutely applaud the First Lady for taking on the issue of childhood obesity, this is no way to solve it. While planting an organic White House garden sent a very admirable message, it was certainly undermined by the fact that the President seems to be completely pushing forward a genetically modified agenda, organic be damned.

How about some fresh ideas, Washington? Or is cultured dextrose your answer?

Sounds Fishy to Me

3 Jun

At a holiday cookout this past weekend, my friend asked me if I’d like some ceviche. I looked at the pile of fresh shrimp and responded “I’m actually trying to cut down on my seafood consumption.”

Lame, I know, but the seafood that I’m most fond of aren’t exactly the most sustainable options. Shrimp can be problematic. US farmed shrimp is preferable to foreign, but one still has to be careful. According to Seafood Watch, the US actually only produces less than 1% of the shrimp eaten by Americans (maybe less soon considering the Gulf oil disaster?). Shrimp farms can possess the same problems as fish farms. Wild fish is needed to feed the shrimp. The vast majority of shrimp farms release polluted effluent into the environment. But wild caught shrimp comes with its own problem, bycatch. Bycatch refers to the animals caught in fishing equipment along with the intended catch. Bycatch is thrown back overboard, dead or dying. With shrimp, bycatch includes seahorses and sea turtles. Ouch. I’ll pass on the ceviche.

But more than shrimp, I like albacore tuna.

Mom's tuna casserole, can I really live without it?

I have yet to see canned tuna that is MSC certified. I have no idea if my tuna is longline-caught. Longline-caught tuna is more mature and contains more mercury than tuna caught by trolling or tuna that is pole caught. Bycatch is also a problem with tuna, and can include sea turtles, seabirds and sharks. That seems like a lot of carnage for my tuna salad, I have to admit.

Worse (much worse) than albacore though, is bluefin. Management of bluefin fishing has proved completely ineffective worldwide. Bycatch is again a problem and is unregulated. The bluefin tuna industry is actually contributing to the decline of endangered animals caught along with the tuna — which is itself an endangered species. The word “overfished” doesn’t begin to describe bluefin; Seafood Watch reports that the Atlantic population of bluefin has declined by nearly 90% since the 1970s. At present, Mitsubishi is being accused of hoarding thousands of tons of bluefin and freezing it. When the stock crashes, as it is expected to, imagine the profits to Mitsubishi. Until very recently, you could buy bluefin tuna-flavored Whiskas cat food. Yes, really. Where is the disconnect? Endangered animals in your pet food? I’d like to echo a question posed by Greenpeace: You wouldn’t eat a tiger, so why would you eat an endangered bluefin tuna?

So I’ve been considering a new challenge. First there was vegan month, then cake week(s) (boy, those were tough) and now, perhaps, there should be a month without seafood.

While my month of veganism gave me a huge appreciation of how difficult it can be to not eat animal products when you like the way they taste (yes, I have heard tell of some people who don’t like the way meat tastes), it didn’t ultimately change my diet. I try to limit my animal foods to ones that were produced humanely and sustainably, but I did that prior to giving veganism a try. And sometimes I really want that burger, regardless of whether or not it was made with free-range beef. A diet free of animal products just couldn’t stick with me. But a diet without seafood? Maybe.

The restrictions of a vegan diet are pretty clear. Sustainable food terminology can be confusing, but even a working flexitarian like myself can navigate the labels at Whole Foods or talk with the farmers at the market. I know to look for pastured, organic, local meat. Sustainable seafood is hardly cut and dry. You may know not to eat bluefin, but do you also know not to eat toro, giant tuna, kuromaguro and horse mackerel? Because they all mean one thing — bluefin tuna.

Roll Out

7 May

I have a confession to make. I’m not a sushi fan.

Yea, I said it. I realize this is one likely reason I am single in Los Angeles (really, you don’t wanna see me with chopsticks).

This is how I roll...

I unfortunately can’t blame my Central Floridian suburban upbringing for this deficiency (though I can for most other things). My high school friends frequently dragged me out to sushi places-even ones we had to drive an hour to get to, only to sigh as they watched me order the veggie roll. Something about raw fish just doesn’t appeal to me. So I tend to limit my sushi roll consumption to the need-a-fast-dinner-from-Von’s moments of my life.

Now, however lacking in sushi knowledge that I am, I’m well aware that sushi from a grocery store obviously isn’t any good. But I know a lot of you eat it for lunch, whether you are willing to admit it or not. I’m interested to know how many of you have read the ingredients. High fructose corn syrup is listed not once but three times on my Von’s California roll. Call me crazy, but I don’t think high fructose corn syrup belongs in there once, let alone several times.

Let me paint a picture for you. Have any of you read “Garlic and Sapphires” by Ruth Reichl? Imagine me as the reluctant friend getting dragged out to the real sushi joint. I haven’t got a clue. So I go with the only acceptable way to turn down a sushi date in L.A.

“Oh no, most sushi is really not sustainable.”

Then I sound educated, edgy and committed to a cause, instead of inept at navigating the menu.

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Travel Writing

31 Mar

Complementary beverage service only gets you so far. I’ve just walked my suitcase about a mile through the terminals of the Atlanta airport en route to Florida. My gate may be the furthest possible from the food court and there’s no going back now; the shoulder strap on my bag has broken, I’ve lost my boarding pass and, as such, am now crunched for time. Luckily, something catches my eye from a newstand.

No, it isn’t more news on the Sandra Bullock scandal and yes, it looks better than  a $15 wilted salad in a plastic box. It’s a big bag full of milk chocolate malted milk balls. I curse myself for not bringing my own food. But it’s too late. There’s chocolate, I’m hungry, done.

But get ready, the bag actually read, “Natural snacks that fuel active lifestyles and give you energy any time of the day!” The words “Eat right!” were also present. For a second, I thought the bag was advising me to buy something else.

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A Second Helping

12 Mar

The angry mob

Yesterday I wrote about the makers of The Cove catching high-end Santa Monica sushi joint, The Hump, serving endangered Sei whale meat to customers. (There is now an apology finally posted on their website.) Many of you responded and let me know that a protest was called for this morning. I joined about 100 other protesters at the Hump. Responding as only Santa Monica ocean and animal lovers can, we succeeded in keeping The Hump from opening this morning.

There was a varied crowd; Pelican Rescue Team, Sea Sheppard, PETA and Heal the Bay all made a showing. Some of the makers of The Cove were also present. I saw some great signs-everything from Sei what?! to Free Willy. One woman actually put the restaurant owner’s name and work number on a sign. Another woman brought her dog wearing a sign reading shame on you and circled the parking lot with the protesters.

One of the most interesting points made over the bullhorn today was that whale watching could easily bring in more money than “whale killing.” To that effect, below are two YouTube videos of my own whale watching trip this summer. It was definitely something I will remember forever. Plus, you can check out my mad shakey-cam skills.

The local media (and even broadcasters from Japan) covered the protest extensively. Stay tuned for what ultimately happens to the now infamous Hump.

When the Good Guys Win

11 Mar

I love it when the good guys win in a movie.

Months ago, arrangements were made, through my good friend Rosie who writes Project E(art)h, for the film makers of the documentary “The Cove,” to make a visit to my office. The Cove chronicles (with hidden cameras) the annual dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan. The conversation focused around their movie, which just won an Academy Award for Best Documentary. Watch the trailer here.  Animal Planet has plans to base a series around the film.

“The Cove” just won an Oscar

It’s hard for me to imagine growing up not loving whales and dolphins and wanting to protect them. As a kid, I personally fantasized about seeing dolphins every time I went surfing. We had them on our t-shirts, our board shorts, our notebooks. I finally got the chance to go whale watching for the first time this year in Santa Barbara with the American Cetacean Society. We saw humpbacks and blues and I heard the voice of Scotty from “Star Trek; The Voyage Home” in my head: “Admiral! There be whales here!”

dolphin pod sand castle photo: Heal the Bay

Are you wondering where this all fits in with sustainable food in L.A.? Well, here you go:

The filmmakers from The Cove ran a sting operation right here in Santa Monica at a very high end sushi spot, The Hump. Apparently, The Hump has actually been serving whale meat to diners. Two undercover eaters went to the restaurant and stuck some of the accused meat in a Ziplock baggy and sent it off to be studied by Scott Baker,the associate director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University. DNA testing revealed that the meat came from the endangered Sei whale. More undercover eaters were employed and also served whale. It was discovered that the meat may have actually been coming from a Mercedes parked behind The Hump.

Federal officials searched the restaurant Friday and a $20,000 fine may be coming. But wait, there’s more. Heal the Bay president Mark Gold spoke up to the Santa Monica City Council. You can read all about it in his blog, Spouting Off.  Here is an excerpt:

Santa Monica City Attorney Marsha Moutrie responded that her office will investigate the illegality of The Hump’s actions at a restaurant located on city property at the airport.The standard lease clause allows the city to terminate a lease in the event that the owners commit a crime, Moutrie said. Also, the city can revoke a business license for illegal activity. Moutrie promised to come back to the city council with the results of the office investigation by the next council meeting in two weeks.

The restaurant may be levied a much higher fine. But there’s even more to this food fight. You may know Mark Gold’s famous brother, Pulitzer Prize winning food writer, Jonathan Gold. What does he think of The Hump? According to Mark, he calls it “gimmicky and weird…Restaurants resort to gimmicks generally because their chefs just aren’t very good.”

Savor that, Hump.

Good Guys, do a victory lap.

If you’d like to learn more about sustainable seafood, visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch.