On Dicing Vegetables

April 9, 2013

On Dicing Vegetables.

Numbers by the color: new approaches to nutrition labeling

August 12, 2011

Samples of winning labels designed by Renee Walker. (Image: walkawayrene.com)

Food labels are designed to convey a great deal of information. Not only do they tell us what the product, ideally, looks like but they’re designed, too, to tell us how much we’re buying, what’s contained inside, and to promise our lives will be somehow enhanced with the purchase of that canister of Pringles. What they don’t tell us, of course, is of what the food inside is actually comprised.

Nutrition labeling has garnered more and more attention over the past few years as consumers have begun to take a greater interest in the foods they eat. Granted, much of that new-found interest stems from the dismayingly high numbers of food recalls but, hey, interest is interest. Interestingly enough, that desire to know often turns out to be on a direct collision course with what food producers actually want to tell you.

Last month, Good magazine, Designmatters, and News21, announced the winner of a contest to design a more informative, user-friendly nutrition label. The winner, San Francisco-based designer Renee Walker, devised a dramatically simple, easy-to-comprehend label that with little more than a glance, can provide shoppers with a pretty accurate idea as to what happens to be in that package of tortillas or macaroni and cheese.

Using color codes – blue for dairy, for example, green for plants, red for fruit, different shades of gray for various additives – Walker devised a label that tells you almost at a glance how much of that mac and cheese is comprised of grains or cheese or additives. As it stands now, while labels do tell you what’s inside your grape jelly, they don’t reveal the ratio of grapes to sugar.

Further information reveals the recommended daily allowance for the product’s various nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, fats, and sodium. They’re there in big black block letters, easy to read, easy to understand. Will this label ever see the grocery shelves? No.

But that wasn’t really the point.

“[T]he point of the contest wasn’t to concoct the perfect label,” observed the web site Fast Co.Design. “It was to show that, with a little creativity, the existing model can be vastly improved upon to help consumers make smarter, healthier decisions.”

That Burger’s Gonna Cost You

August 10, 2011

Feeling a little sticker-shock after eating at your favorite restaurant lately? Following nearly half-a-century of record low prices, Americans are experiencing something folks in much of the rest of the world have been enduring for the past couple of years: rising food costs.

Now 3 to 4 percent tastier.

That burger and shake is gonna cost you more from here on out.

While food-service industry watchers have been warning about this for some time, the United States Department of Agriculture pretty much confirmed that last month with its food price outlook for 2011 and 2012. Food purchased in restaurants, according to the Consumer Price Index, is expected to rise 3 to 4-percent over the year while groceries purchased for consumption at home are expected to rise between 3.5 and 4.5-percent over the same period.

Take the cost of pork, for example. According to the USDA, pork prices are 8.5-percent higher than they were last year at this time. Dairy is more than 7-percent higher than this time last year, and produce is rising, as well. An interesting side note: beef prices are falling as I write this because cattle-ranchers throughout much of the U.S. are being forced to sell off their herds because of drought conditions across the country. That temporary reduction in consumer prices won’t last for long, though.

While a number of causes might come into play here, one in particular is hitting the restaurant industry particularly hard: its own success. A growing middle class around the world, coupled with a growing demand for convenience and restaurant foods, is putting a serious crimp in the world’s supply of commodity foods. Over the past decade, many American quick-service companies – they prefer “quick service” to “fast food” – have begun expanding overseas to fill the demand of newly emerging markets in places like China and India.

We haven’t seen much impact from that until now. Even as commodity prices were increasing, and exports of American-produced commodities to foreign markets increased, decreasing the availability of those commodities here in the U.S., restaurateurs were reluctant to raise prices in the midst of a worsening economy. Consequently, many chains began offering specials to keep their cash-strapped customers coming in but that could only go on for so long.

“The shifting reality is one the nation’s quick-service restaurants can no longer overlook,” noted trade journal QSR Magazine in its August issue. “Some may alter prices; some may explore more sustainable, savvy buying programs; and others may simply hope the world’s supply-and-demand scale finds its equilibrium.”

That may take a while. Earlier this year, marketing research firm Blue Shift predicted a full 5-percent increase in menu prices before 2011 is finished but noted, too, that price increases probably won’t contribute much at all to overall profitability. While prices may rise as restaurants try to recoup their costs, overall profitability may fall, Blue Shift said, by as much as 10 or 11-percent.

GM Beets Under the Gun

January 12, 2010

Could a federal judge in San Francisco who has already found the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) lacking when it comes to making sure genetically modified sugar beets are safe end up blocking planting of Roundup Ready sugar beets this spring? From Food Safety News.

How Many Calories in Fecal Bacteria?

January 8, 2010

Well, ick. Tom Laskawy, a media and tech guy who blogs for Grist.com and at his own site, Beyond Green Blog, pulled up a study indicating high levels of coliform  bacteria in – wait for it – soda fountains. Soda fountains. The study, conducted by microbiologists at Hollins University, also found E. coli and other bugs.

Ninety beverages of three types (sugar sodas, diet sodas and water) were obtained from 20 self-service and 10 personnel-dispensed soda fountains, analyzed for microbial contamination, and evaluated with respect to U.S. drinking water regulations. A follow-up study compared the concentration and composition of microbial populations in 27 beverages collected from 9 soda fountain machines in the morning as well as in the afternoon.

The critters were also found in the machines’ ice although levels never exceed drinking water standards. Do bacteria add calories to the diet soda?

Sometimes food is … well, just food.

January 8, 2010

Russ Parsons, food editor at Los Angeles Times, has issued a smart, balanced call for reason in the snipefest that more-often-than-not characterizes the debates over food sustainability.

Food is not just a culinary abstraction. No matter how much you and I might appreciate the amazing bounty produced by talented, quality-driven farmers, we also have to acknowledge that sometimes food is . . . well, just food. So when we start dreaming about how to make our epicurean utopia, we also have to keep in mind that our first obligation is to make sure that healthful, fresh food remains plentiful and inexpensive enough that anyone can afford it.

Parsons‘ commentary provides an insightful, if uncomfortable, gaze in the mirror. Read it.

Pombo Seeks a Comeback: Nobody Wants Him

January 7, 2010

Richard Pombo: apparently not wanted by Republicans, either.

Like an invasive weed that simply won’t go away, former Republican California representative Richard Pombo has announced he is running again for a seat in Congress, only this time he’s going after a seat in a different district. The former Congressman lost his seat to Democratic challenger Jerry McNerney in 2007, after representing California’s 11th Congressional district for 14 years.

Pombo is probably best known for his efforts to gut the Endangered Species Act, his ties to Jack Abramoff, and his penchant for nepotism. Beside the fact that few people in his old district seem to want him back, there’s already opposition to him in the district he’s targeted: the 19th congressional district presently held by Rep. George Radanovich who is retiring to spend time more time with his ailing wife. Hounded by ethics problems already, Pombo doesn’t even have the support of the incumbent, who has thrown his endorsement to state Sen. Jeff Denham.

Farmers are Earning Less for Their Efforts

January 7, 2010

Food prices are going down and farmers are getting less and less of the profits from their efforts. That’s the story in a piece that appeared in Brownfield Ag News yesterday.

[American Farm Bureau Federation] says Americans today spend just under 10 percent of their disposable annual income for food, the lowest average of any country in the world. Meanwhile, the farmer’s share of that food dollar continues to decline from roughly 33 percent in the mid-1970’s to 19 percent today. In other words, of the $42.90 spent on the Market Basket items, the farmer gets $8.15.

Considering the source, the AFBF, it’s even more interesting. While farmers continue to struggle with increasing costs and lower returns, the very organization that supposedly speaks for them continues to ally itself with organizations that do more and more to reduce farmer’s independence.

Founded in 1919 by farmers, the organization’s original purpose was to “to make the business of farming more profitable, and the community a better place to live.” From the outside, it’s hard to believe that’s the organization’s focus anymore. Entrenched with companies such as Monsanto and pursuing political policies that do more to benefit corporate interests, Farm Bureau policies do more to increase the distance between farm and fork, thereby ensuring farmers receive less and less of the profits.

“Again this quarter and compared to one year ago, Farm Bureau volunteer shoppers found that the foods that declined the most in average retail price are among the least-processed items in our marketbasket,” Farm Bureau economist Stefphanie Gambrell said in a release from the organization.

That’s a highly suspicious statement, although not hard to believe. Given that fewer parties are involved in the production, distribution, and sales of less-processed foods, and given the increase in fuel prices and production costs, it makes sense that the least processed foods cost less. What the Farm Bureau doesn’t comment on is from which foods farmers’ profits derive. The AFBF also notes that the decline in farmers’ earnings really began in the mid-1970s, a time when fuel costs began to rise dramatically. Even more notable is the increase in Americans’ appetites for heavily processed convenience foods, a trend that returns few earnings to the people who produce the raw ingredients and more and more to those who take the food farther and farther from its origins.

Fast Food Taxes Gaining in Popularity

January 6, 2010

Legislators see it as a potential revenue stream while advocates for healthier diets see it as a way to curb the public’s consumption of junk food. We’re talking, of course, about taxing fast food and junk food. Taiwan has begun investigating whether it will pursue just such a policy. Now, Romania is looking at doing the same thing. Pentru sanatatea dumneavoastra!

School Lunches Under Increasing Scrutiny

January 6, 2010

When the food kids find at fast food joints turns out to be safer and – arguably – healthier than the stuff they’re served in school cafeterias, there’s a problem.

Photo: Jared Richardson, Stock.xchng

A good chili-cheese dog is a noble thing; it may not be the best option for school lunches, however.

School lunches have been coming under increasing scrutiny the past couple of years; momentum for change is coming even faster. While parents put more pressure on school officials to change their menus to healthier options, those officials are forced to contend with shrinking budgets that prevent them from offering the better foods parents for which parents are clamoring.

With only about a dollar budgeted per student, food choices are limited. Many schools don’t even bother to prepare lunches anymore, preferring the cheaper alternative of contracting out their lunch programs to companies whose primary concern is how to make a buck rather than providing healthy meals. Of course, not only parents are raising their voices: students are getting involved, too.