Category Archives: Food

What Makes a Fruit or Vegetable Good?

ridiculous potato

Produce has a short shelf life, and much of it is wasted because there is no good way to store it (or because it gets to your fridge, but you don’t use it in time). “Shelf appeal” is a major consideration for sellers of produce, pushed partly by consumers, too, and as a result countless tons of fruits and vegetables never make it to supermarkets just because they’re, well, ugly. This is bad for human nutrition, a waste of environmental and farming resources, and tough for the slim-margin grocery business, too. Enter Intermarché:

Intermarché – a big supermarket chain in France – decided it was time to save an endangered species from the rubbish bin; ugly duckling fruit and veg. In the UK a whopping 40% of greens don’t reach our shelves simply for being a bit unfortunate looking and globally we waste $750 billion worth of food each year. Ouch.

Patrice de Villiers took beautiful, glowing pictures of the fruit and veg for the campaign, giving them their moment to shine centre stage. Ad agency Marcel also made a funny jaunty promo video; it’s like The X-Factor of the produce world and we’re all cheering for the ones with the sob story. French shoppers were offered their lumpy cucumbers and mutant carrots 30% cheaper than their perfect siblings, and chose price over prettiness – making the experiment a roaring success. They even had a second chance as soups and juices too. A true tale of the triumph of the underdog. —Great ad campaign encourages customers to buy oddly shaped fruit

Tesco and Waitrose, in the UK, also offer ugly produce at a discount, and there’s a German campaign, as well. European food sellers are finding a good business case for rescuing these ugly ducklings, and consumers are starting to see the appeal. After all, once they go into a soup, salad, or smoothie, who cares how pretty they were?

Image: Intermarché campaign, photo from a series by Patricie de Villiers

UPDATE: A friend in the US writes to say that farmer’s markets sellers sometimes offer ugly or “stew-ready” produce at a discount. It’s worth asking!

Are Energy Bars for Women Different?


Men don’t need to avoid “women’s” bars. Some of these bars do emphasize nutrients that “women need,” like folic acid, but while women can often use a boost of some of these ingredients, men can use them, too. The biggest difference between bars targeted at men and women is that women’s bars tend to be a touch smaller — as are women’s average calorie requirements.

Energy bars marketed to women often just sound more delicious. They are somewhat more likely to offer more flavors, to name flavors after baked goods, and to emphasize special ingredient categories like vegan, all-natural, and gluten-free. As these products have become mainstream, changes like this have helped their makers build a market beyond the adventure athlete by making flavors and textures appealing to the people who do the majority of the household shopping.

Energy bars run the gamut from pretty good quick hits of nutrition to basically treats, but they’re a fruit-and-nut treat rather than a cake-or-cookie treat. (So-called “protein bars” tend to have more protein, of course, and still have the carbs, so they contain more calories overall.)

If you’re tempted by chips or donuts during the day, it may help to have a couple of energy bars at your desk or in your backpack. (If your office stocks a snack cabinet with chips and cookies, suggest they carry nutrition bars, too — some good options are Kind, Luna, Builder, and Lara bars.) They are a handy, easy-to-eat option for long walks or day trips. Most are about 180 to 300 calories, and most offer a fairly modest serving of protein (6 to 10 grams) and a touch of fiber (about what you’d get from a piece of whole fruit). They are better for you than an actual candy bar, but I wouldn’t use them as meal replacements.

So what if all we have are my girlfriend’s women’s bars? Are they safe? Oh, you know they’re safe to eat. Worst-case scenario, you might want to eat two of them, because they’re small, but ask permission first. When it comes to wonderful combinations of nuts and dried fruit pressed into bars that taste like pie, your girlfriend might not feel like sharing.

Image: Cartoon by William Haefeli, in the New Yorker

How a Bean Becomes a Fart

You may be trying to improve the “health quotient” of what you eat by adding vegetables and beans, and if you’ve done this abruptly, you’ve probably noticed some effects. Musical-fruit effects, no less.

In this charming animation, Giant Ant studio presents an infographic from Men’s Health: How a Bean Becomes a Fart. Don’t let this scare you away from adding these nutritious, fiber-rich foods to your diet, though. For one thing, it’s normal for us to produce gas over the course of the day. Still, it can be awkward or uncomfortable. Make changes gradually, try to keep an eye out for the effects (some foods may affect you more than others), and, hey, there’s always Beano.

How Many Doctors Kept Away?


This year, the Journal of the American Medical Association had some fun for April Fool’s with “Association Between Apple Consumption and Physician Visits.”

It turns out that apples don’t keep doctors away, but they do seem to cut down on trips to the pharmacist! This isn’t the first study to suggest that fiber-rich foods promote health — the effect is strong enough to justify some programs where physicians actually write prescriptions for fruits and vegetables.

JAMA is normally published on Tuesday, so its April Fool’s claim is a bit of a stretch, but the British Medical Journal routinely has some fun in its December issue, with lighthearted studies similar to this one, essays from physicians sharing funny personal stories, and some frank parody. BMJ has even addressed the apples issue, comparing them (favorably) to statins in reducing mortality. (Could oranges be next?) Maybe JAMA will keep it up!

Image: Cartoonist B. Kliban had an optimistic view of the efficacy of apples.

Fast Food Versus Commercial Sports Foods


Lou Schuler walks us through a sexy new study in “Why You Shouldn’t Eat a Big Mac After Today’s Workout.” The study compared commercial recovery foods, like Gatorade and PowerBars, to a rather paltry-sounding spread from McDonald’s (including small fries, and not claiming any syrup for the hotcakes). They structured the combinations of foods to offer roughly the same overall calories and proportions of major nutrients (carbohydrate, fat, and protein). And they worked their study participants pretty hard on some bike rides.

Remember the summer Olympics when everyone was flipping out about how Michael Phelps ate 12,000 calories a day? First, it was probably more like 8,000, but that’s still an immense amount of food, and that’s pretty much the story for people who do hard exercise, and hour after hour of it. You can eat a very virtuous and nourishing basic thousand calories or two, and after that, you just need plenty of protein and calories to keep you going. So at the end of a 50-mile bike ride, sure, feel free to stop at McDonald’s — just don’t scrimp on fiber- and vitamin-rich foods the rest of the day. Schuler’s advice is directed mainly at people who are not exercising the way these subjects were — that is, almost all of us!

But another part of this story is that sports-formulated foods are not magical, and, as Schuler points out, they are usually less convenient.

“The same results would be likely if you provided food items from Whole Foods or any farmer’s market. What we hope to get across is that recovery nutrition need not be overly complicated, and can include many diverse and unexpected macronutrient choices.” —study author Brent Ruby, PhD

The take-away from all this is the same as the take-away for products like Gatorade in the first place: you can certainly use these products in a heavy workout schedule, but in general these options are no better than food you (thoughtfully) prepare for yourself, and commercial options generally make it a lot easier to take in far more calories than you need.

What Makes Food Delicious?

Analysis of flavors in a recipe

Fat. Sugar. Salt. But what if you’re trying to improve the nutritional value of your food and want to get away from those appetite-whetting ingredients? One of the best ways to make food delicious without undermining its nutritional value (or encouraging overeating) is spices. And few (possibly no) traditions have as sophisticated a spice palate as India.

Indian food is celebrated around the world. Its remarkable appeal has been extolled for centuries and deeply analyzed recently at the Indian Institute for Technology in Jodhpur. Their conclusion was, generally, that Indian foods tend to combine contrasting flavors to establish their overall taste (whereas other cuisines tend to blend “positive” flavor combinations, with more overlap). Scientific American lets you explore some of these flavor relationships in a lively infographic.

Whoa. Complicated. What does this mean for me?

There are a few staple dishes that are easy to prepare in batches and portion out for bring-from-home lunches and easy-prep healthful dinners. They generally involve simply prepared vegetables, beans, or grains like couscous, and chicken. It’s a running joke among athletes that chicken gets particularly dull, and spices are an easy way to … spice all this food up. This could be as simple as marinating your chicken breasts in your favorite salad dressing, and once that’s predictable, too, there’s a big world of Indian spices out there that can give your food a new lease on delicious. Indian cuisine is vast and varied, but just beginning with a few of the basic flavor combinations can give you a nice introduction to what makes it so good. (Real Simple also offers a starter checklist for basic Indian flavors.)

Illustration of a computation from research at the Indian Institute for Technology in Jodhpur, discussed at the Washington Post.