I’m staring at a circular chart, with what looks like seven slices of pastel-coloured pie encircling a merry family of four marching toward me. “For health,” the copy reads, “eat some food from each group…every day!” And then my favourite part, a note to self-regulate: “In addition to the Basic 7, eat any other foods you want.”
The chart is from 1943 and was developed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to promote seven food groups that experts at the time felt Americans should consume to get their recommended nutrients. During the depression era in the US, undernutrition was a big concern. Four decades later, the concern would morph to that of obesity, propelled by highly processed foods and the overuse of sugary sweeteners. The ‘Basic 7’ chart is easy to read and, in theory, easy to practice – eat green vegetables, fruits in various colors, cheese, milk, eggs and bread. Oh yeah, and eat butter.
Since the USDA’s original version of its nutrition guidelines in 1916, it has morphed six times, alongside advancements in nutrition research, from the pie chart, to the ubiquitous food pyramid, to the current dinner plate model – each time aiming to serve as a tool for nutrition education and behaviour change. Despite revisions to aesthetic, the basic recommendations haven’t changed much. Today, the USDA recommends that foods from five basic categories fill your plate at each meal: fruit, vegetable, grain, protein and dairy.
Globally, undernutrition and obesity remain co-existing issues, typically with one being a more primary concern than the other depending on where in the world you live (though many countries with the former issue are too quickly finding they now have the latter). According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), more than 100 countries worldwide have developed food-based dietary guidelines to quell these problems. Each country’s guidelines are adapted to nutrition situation, food availability, culinary cultures and eating habits. Ever morphing, and with room for improvement, dietary guidelines will most likely remain a tool that is here to stay.
As a nod to what seems to be the beginning of an era of holistic dietary guidelines, we wanted to create a food pyramid of our own, revolving around the women and men who feed us. I asked some farmers and producers from the above five basic food groups to introduce us to the food they grow or make – in all their nutritious glory – and to present the case for why we should eat it. Some farmers delve into the history of their product and the practices they use. Most serve up their favourite ways to prepare the foods they so intimately know. And I think some may even use butter.
Vegetables and fruits
“Fruits are a simple and easy addition to any meal, and can be harmoniously matched to the seasons. Apples and pears overwinter well for pairings with walnuts, goat cheese, and arugula. By the time the first field greens are being cut, strawberries are ripening – packed with antioxidants and vitamin C.
Speaking with my customers at the farmers’ market, it seems that people love to heat up their fruits and vegetables for desserts but never consider the other savoury applications! In chilly winter months, roasted hard squash and winter vegetables make for great hearty side dishes. Adding cubes of apples and pears to that roast can enhance and elevate potatoes, squash, parsnips and carrots. In the summertime, throwing halved peaches on the grill at a cookout will tempt taste buds and turn heads. Thinly sliced apples in grilled cheese sandwiches will add counterpoint and crunch for kids and adults alike. Roasting grapes make a great flavour enhancing accompaniment to fish dinners.” – Ben Wenk, seventh generation fruit farmer at Three Springs Fruit Farm
“The average produce at the supermarket travels 2,415 kilometers (1,500 miles). Locally grown, organic vegetables have delicious, picked-at-the-peak-of-ripeness flavour and nutrition. Just hours off the vine, local organic produce is vibrant with health and vitality. Shopping at a local farmers’ market or joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programme gives you the opportunity to know the farmers that grow your food, the land that it is grown on, and how these things are all interconnected with your local weather, environment and community. The connection between healthy land and healthy people is reflected in the growing practices at our farm, and it is the message we want to pass on to our community. The food we grow is the cornerstone of our diet (every farmer’s health plan). We prepare our meals in ways that enhance the flavour of the vegetable – nothing fancy. In my opinion, every good meal starts with some sautéed garlic and onions.” – Tricia Borneman, Co-owner, Blooming Glen Farm
“Meat raised under inhumane and confinement conditions is of poor nutritional quality (has less protein and more of the “bad” Omega 6 fats than free-range), is likely to contain carcinogens (like arsenic), and contributes to environmental factors that make all of us unhealthy (like the growth of antibiotic-resistant superbugs).
The first thing you will notice when you switch to humanely raised, organic, ‘clean’ meat is that the price point is higher. Depending on what type of meat you are switching from and what kinds of cuts you buy, it can be anywhere from 20% to 500% more expensive. To address this, experiment with off-cuts (as opposed to premium centre cuts, like steaks) which are both lower in price and more sustainable from the perspective of whole animal utilisation.
The second thing you will notice when you switch to good meat is that it performs differently when you’re cooking it – the bacon loses less water, the beef and chicken cooks quicker, but the pork chops can take longer to cook. So, just be prepared to pay attention as you cook and realise that some of your recipes might need a tweak or two.
The third thing you’ll notice is that everything is a heck of a lot more delicious!” – Anya Fernald, CEO, Belcampo Inc
“Fish that is caught using sustainable methods, which include ‘static gear’ or nets that don’t move, have less impact on the sea bed than a piece of fishing gear that is trawled across the sea floor, or line-caught with a rod and line – and it tastes better too! Perhaps this is nature’s way of rewarding us for treating it with the respect it is due. Invariably, bottom-trawl caught fish has been bruised or damaged in the net, and because of the longer trips, can be five days old or more before it’s even landed. Fish from fishermen like Chris Bean in Cornwall arrives still in rigor mortis, with gleaming eyes, red gills, slime on its scales and with the sweet smell of the sea, no hint of fishiness. And though we can’t see it, the nutritional content is better intact, too.
But it’s not just the fishermen who play a role in sustainability, we assume a role, too, and need to be more adventurous in cooking up dishes made with generally under-used parts of fish. We inflict a huge amount of waste on nature in our desire to eat only selective parts of a beast – the fillet for example. The UK wastes perfectly edible parts of a fish such as its liver or its head, and on top of that, we waste entire species like horse mackerel or dogfish. In Japan, of course, none of this would go to the bin; it would be positively relished. Some of the more esoteric dishes we have on our menu include the prawn heads and monkfish liver, as well as dog fish masquerading as eel. These under utilised parts often contain far more of the vitamins, minerals and essential oils than the filets, from the omega 3 oils in the salmon skin to the minerals and vitamins in the prawn heads and monkfish liver.” – Caroline Bennet, Founder, Moshi Moshi
“Nuts and nut butters are a great way to incorporate plant-based protein, vitamin E, fibre, folate and more nutrients into your daily diet. Look for all-natural nut butter varieties that include other nutritional punches, like the anti-inflammatory properties found in 100% maple syrup, cayenne pepper, and the vitamins and minerals in local honey.
One of my favourite nut butter pairings are our ‘Hot or Not’ Peanut butter on toast with sliced granny smith apple and a drizzle of local honey. Another favorite is Maple Walnut Butter swirled into a bowl of hot oatmeal.” – Megan Gibson, Founder, PB & Jams
“If you’re someone who is concerned with what they put into their body, then you should be equally as concerned with what you eat is eating, too. Much like humans, chickens are what they eat, and the nutritional content of eggs is heavily influenced by their producer’s diet. Unlike factory farm chickens, our hens are allowed to roam freely around our backyard and simply be chickens. They can binge eat on as many centipedes in the garden, guzzle down water from the coy pond and forage for the luscious alfalfa they walk on. We do give them a healthy dose of grains and kitchen scraps as a supplement to their ‘backyard’ diet.
An egg a day keeps the doctor away, or so we say in our household. Eggs are a nutrient power house and a daily staple in our diet. Our favourite way to cook our backyard eggs is a good ol’ fashion soft-boiling with a sprinkle of sea salt. When cooked correctly, this is the best way to taste the true flavours of your hen’s bounty. A close second and go-to dinner is a simple ‘kitchen sink frittata’, which is exactly how it sounds. Any vegetables we have on hand are mixed with eggs and milk, poured into the cast-iron skillet (with a healthy dose of cheese) and broiled for a quick week-night dinner (or breakfast or lunch for that matter). When in doubt, always ‘put an egg on it.’” – Stephanie Reusch, Co-owner, Reusch Creek Farm
“Pasta is the ideal vehicle for good and clean grains on the table. Organic whole grains are the perfect ally to a balanced diet. They are nutritious and delicious with important roles in how energy is distributed throughout the day. Pasta can be a canvas for seasonal vegetables and beans, creating the most nutritionally balanced dishes. A dish of pasta e fagioli (pasta and beans) delivers almost 100% of recommended daily nutrients.
A serving of pasta provides complex carbohydrates that are essential to allow a steady release of energy throughout the day. Whole grains, by adding fibres, increase the value of these complex carbohydrates by slowing their absorption = lowering the glycemic index of pasta (making it suitable even to individuals with metabolic diseases like diabetes). My dad is diabetic (type 2) and he eats pasta every day, but only 80g (1/6 lb). I believe most ‘ignorance’ around pasta is based on the wrong size of portions. Glycemic index is a finicky matter though; overcooking pasta will increase the glycemic index almost to the levels of simple carbs.
Heritage grains such as spelt and kamut might be even better than durum wheat, nutritionally speaking, as they have not been grown commercially in an extensive way, and so haven’t seen the natural genetic selection of modern varieties
When it comes to gluten, wheat like Kamut, that is patented and its identity is genetically preserved, are around 30% richer in protein than regular wheat but are better tolerated by individuals with mild intolerances. Gluten intolerances are not related 1:1 with protein content.
There are different kinds of wheat used in pasta: When it comes to durum wheat, look for the real deal, hard wheat. Baia uses around 65-70” semolina extraction rate. Whole wheat contains more fibres, is rich in iron/zinc, and has a bitter, brambly, nutty flavor. Spelt is high in fibres, and vitamins (iron, zinc, selenium, and manganese), and is nutty and wholesome in flavour. Whole spelt is the highest in fibre and packs a punch with a deep nutty flavor. Kamut is a heritage, virtuous grain, the most nutritious when it comes to micronutrients and protein. It’s also right in fatty acids, and is considered a high energy grain.” – Dario Barbone, Co-founder, Baia Pasta
“The best milk and dairy products will come from small, or at least smallish, family dairy farms, who milk modest yielding regionally and locally adapted breeds of dairy cows, whose milk comes mainly from grazed grass and conserved forage (hay or silage). The size of the herd should be limited by the ability of the animals to walk to grazing pastures and back twice a day during the season, which probably means a maximum of between 300 or 400 cows. This is important, because more and more dairy herds, including dare I say it some of the best known producers of cheese, are permanently housing their cows, which in my opinion is not acceptable in terms of respecting the natural behaviour of the animals, however luxurious the building they are in.
The crucial thing is to know your food by knowing your farmer and the story behind their production system, not easy in today’s globalised, homogenised food world, but definitely possible if you make a bit of effort.” – Patrick Holden, dairy farmer and Chief Executive of Sustainable Food Trust
Healthy fats and oils
“The olive is a very tasty fruit, yielding ideal oil which has been used for centuries for seasoning food, strengthening the body, healing wounds and illuminating the night. There are more than 140 varieties of cultivated olives, many of them ancient, and each one with a unique taste personality. The olive oil should always be extra virgin and of premium quality, which is known to maintain a high degree of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory substances. It should be consumed raw on a daily basis, as part of a healthy and sustainable diet. It is fine to cook with olive oil, but it should be heated slowly.” – Pavlos Georgiadis, Founder, Convivium Slow Food Thrace
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