Quinoa may deliver a complete protein—all of the amino acids you require—in a compact package, but rice and beans together actually do better. And like goji berries, blueberries and strawberries are packed with phytochemicals. The only problem is that lacking an exotic back story, food marketers can’t wring as exorbitant a markup from these staples: The domestic blueberry, for example, is periodically (and justifiably) marketed as a superfood, and in 2012, products featuring blueberries as a primary ingredient saw their sales nearly quadruple. But they only raked in $3.5 million—less than 2 percent of açaí-based product sales.
Tom Philpott, “Are Quinoa, Chia Seeds, and other ‘Superfoods’ a Scam?” (from Mother Jones)
Also worth highlighting is this section:
“Worse than superfoods’ origin myths, though, are their effects on the people in their native regions. In 2009, at the height of the açaí berry hype, Bloomberg News reported that the fruit’s wholesale price had jumped 60-fold since the early 2000s, pricing the Amazonian villagers who rely on it out of the market. In the Andes, where quinoa has been cultivated since the time of the Incas, price spikes have turned a one-time staple into a luxury, and quinoa monocrops are crowding out the more sustainable traditional methods.” (emphasis mine)
So not only are the markets for “superfoods” putting the foods out of reach of the people who relied on them as a dietary staple, but there are foods easily accessible to us that deliver all the nutrition at a fraction of the cost, both to our grocery bill and to the social/environmental toll.
Kathryn’s currently reading Dan Barber’s The Third Plate – and occasionally shares sections or insights from it with me (first up she shared Dan Barber’s problematic relationship with women – managing to erase women entirely from a meeting, but skipping over that for the moment…). And it broadly turns out tat the whole way we produce food is basically wrong.
I mean, we’ve known this for ages – with our attempt to eat local and grow our own (badly). We’ve gone from supermarket lots of precooked stuff -> supermarket individual item based cooking -> shopping on the high street individual item -> roughly local & in season veg bought from specific greengrocer.
And actually, the reason we switched from the supermarket to the high street was price. It was cheaper to go to the greengrocer, and we felt better about ourselves doing it. We have a good relationship with our greengrocer, cheesemonger, and even to some extent the wholefoods store (they’ve not got the greatest manner with customers).
But a side effect of that has been that we’ve become much more aware of where stuff is from. In the supermarket you’re disconnected from the foods. They’re often in packages, wrapped in plastic and you kind of poke at them through the box or bag to try and work out what sort of state they’re in.
Our local green grocer occasionally has prepack stuff, beans particularly which are almost invariably from Kenya or some such ridiculous place. But almost everything else is at worst European, and at best within Bristol. Most weeks you could shop-and-eat healthily without leaving the confines of the city, buying solely organic produce.
And just occasionally they carry heritage varieties. Mainly what we grow are heritage varieties. The odd F1 creeps in, when we spot something randomly interesting, but for the most part we’re fans of the veg of the 18 and 1900s. This stuff all tastes INSANE. Seriously, the tomatoes are amazing, the potatoes are incredible. It’s like someone’s turned the flavour up to, well, I’d say 11, but it’s more like 30.
(Incidentally, we get our seeds from The Real Seed Company and Thomas Etty Esq, in the main. Everyone, and I mean literally everyone we’ve given seed to has been amazed by the quality of the veg produced and how healthy the plants grown from seed are from these companies. Our lack of success is entirely due to our lackadaisical approach to gardening which mostly amounts to: we planted the seeds it should do the rest).
Anyhow, this is all by-the-by; what inspired me to comment was a chunk she read me last night about southern grains. I had no idea that the South of the USA used to be insanely productive with an enormous number of different grains and beans and such, and that they led cooking and also essentially developed a means of taking tired, exhausted soil and turning it into soil that produces phenomenal quality veg. We’d (unsuccessfully, once) tried the Three Sisters method for growing corn/beans/squash, but I’d not realised it was just a tiny part of an enormous system of crop rotation. And that the fundamentals of how we think about growing food are wrong.
We shouldn’t be growing these one-crop fields. We should be growing multi-crop fields. These crops should support one-another. And I’ve had multiple discussions over the past few years about modern grain differing from our parents and grandparents and great-grandparent’s grain. Basically, why the nutritional value of our food has dropped and dropped. And it turns out that we’re selecting for the wrong things.
We’re selecting crops that grow well, that produce lots, that produce long-lasting shelf-stable produce and that are fundamentally completely reliable. We’re not selecting for flavours or nutritional content. Proper, real milled wheat? It should be stored in the fridge/freezer, because the natural oils in it make it go rancid quickly otherwise.
The whole thing has been a slow succession of joining the dots. It’s amazing how slow on the uptake I have been. You can’t just do one bit; if you want decent production and healthy plants, you need to listen to not the books that we’ve got that talk about laying everything out nicely into rows and then smothering them all with all the fertiliser you can lay your hands on, but instead the wisdom of family members who say ‘plant A with B with C and swap them with X, Y and Z, then with Q, S and T’. Proper mixed crop rotation, and the nice old gardening books that say…
The bugger of this is that food produced this way is much, much more expensive. It’s labour intensive because you can’t easily mechanise it. Although given the massive levels of unemployment at the moment, perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.