Category Archives: food

Stevia hits France but will our brains be fooled by another imitation?

The new ‘miracle’ sweetener Stevia (100% natural) has just been authorized in France, making it the first EU country to give the green light to a much-hyped product which is hoped will save the soft drink industry from falling sales and aspartame backlash. Already in use in Australia, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico, full approval in France is still dependant on a scientific opinion from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), but France has taken advantage of a window that allows individual member states to approve ingredients for a limited two-year period. So, in the coming months, it will be rolled out in drinks, desserts, yoghurts, tinned fruit, mustard and certain diet products.

Stevia sweeteners with 97 % purity rebaudioside A (Reb A) are made from a plant which originates in Latin America (but now grown in China) and are said to have a sweetening ability 300 times that of saccharose, but with no calories.
It will appear under the brand names PureVia (owned by Pepsi), Truvia (developed by Cargill and Coca Cola) and Liv.

Why do we need another sugar substitute, even one that is 100% natural and calorie-free? A new study from the Netherlands shows that the brain may in fact be able to distinguish between sugar and non-caloric sweetners. Paul Smeets, a neuroscientist at University Medical Center Utrecht, used a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain responses in people sipping two versions of orangeade, one containing sugar and one containing a mix of four artificial sweeteners: aspartame, acesulfame K, cyclamate and saccharin. The scans revealed consistent differences in how their brains responded.

According to an article in the LA Times, both sugar and the artificial sweeteners activated a brain region called the amygdala, which signals sensory pleasure. But only the sugared drink turned on a cherry-sized nugget of brain tissue in a region called the caudate. That little nugget, Smeets concluded, seemed to represent an unconscious perception of calories — assessed quite separately from the sweet taste. “We think the brain can distinguish, even if the people themselves cannot distinguish, between a caloric and a noncaloric sweet drink.”

We can only hope that it will be less toxic than aspartame. If you consume a lot of Diet Coke, or your children are addicted to ‘sugarless gum’, please check out this film, “Aspartame: Sweet Misery – A Poisoned World.” It’s quite an eye-opener.


Bees thrive in Paris – more biodiversity, fewer pesticides

Hives on the rooftop of the Grand Palais in Paris

Hives on the rooftop of the Grand Palais in Paris

Beekeeping in the city? Surprisingly, bees in Paris, and other big cities, produce two to three times more honey than their country brethren. Higher average temperatures in the city lead to an earlier flowering, which entices the worker bees to emerge earlier. City bees also produce honey with better flavour because they have access to a much greater variety of trees and flowers

In 1983 Jean Paucton installed the first hives on the rooftop of the Paris Opera, the Palais Garnier. The Palais Garnier honey, known as “Miel de Béton“, or Concrete honey, has notes of lemon and mint and can be bought at luxury stores such as Fauchon in Paris, or online. A total of some 300 hives are thought to exist in Paris.

Jean Pauctons Miel de Béton from the rooftop of the Paris Opera

Jean Paucton's "Miel de Béton" from the rooftop of the Paris Opera

The latest piece of prime Parisian real estate to offer space to beekeepers is the Grand Palais museum, which has installed its first two hives since May and plans to add three more early in 2010.

A bumper harvest of 50 kilos of honey took place on September 2, and the honey will be available for sale in autumn 2010. Nicholas Géant, beekepper of the two hives at the Grand Palais, was quoted in Le Monde recently as saying that “in the countryside, the mortality rate (for bees) is 30 to 50 percent” due to the high levels of pesticides present.

I haven’t tasted the Palais Garnier honey, but I do confess to finding it difficult to find a honey in France that tastes just right. Childhood memories of  taste-testing honey all over New Zealand seem to have left their mark and all other honeys don’t seem to measure up. Many of those honeys came from New Zealand’s unique wild flora, and have names like Tawari, Manuka, Towai and Kamahi.

Organic is more than a label

Living in Paris most of the year, the only guarantee I have that a product has not been treated with pesticides is the AB (Agriculture Biologique) label, which itself is due to be watered down in 2010. But here in the rural southwest, many producers have chosen not to apply for the AB label and those who have are thinking about abandoning it because of the cost, what they refer to as the “intrusiveness” of the organic label inspectors, and, above all, the fact that they have the type of relationship with their customers which ensures trust in their devotion to adhering to organic norms of production and quality.

Stone-ground organic flour from Les Papilles Gourmandes

Stone-ground organic flour from Les Papilles Gourmandes

Last weekend I purchased a bag of flour from a vendor at a local market after asking why she chose not to label her flour organic even though she claimed that it was not treated with any pesticides. The proof was in the baking. The flour was a lovely speckled grey-brown colour. The resulting loaf was by far the most delicious I have ever attempted, with greater depth of flavour and texture than the organic flours I have so far tested from supermarkets and even organic stores. The flour is milled from wheat produced from a small five-hectare plot, and stone-ground on site. I spoke with the farmer, Bruno Clerq, who told me that he just started the business this year and is motivated by the satisfaction of seeing a product through from A-Z. Along with the wheat, he also keeps bees. The satisfaction of eating the bread and sharing it with family was immense. I returned this morning to purchase a five-kilo sack for the rest of the summer.

One of the black gascony pigs from Pierre Laugiers farm

One of the black gascony pigs from Pierre Laugier's farm

Next to the flour vendor was a breeder of a rare indigenous variety of pork, the “porc noir gascon“. These rustic black pigs are classified as “endangered-maintained” according to the 3rd edition of the World Watch List for domestic animal diversity compiled by the FAO. An indigenous breed found in the southwest of France, the adult male weighs on average 200 kg, and females 180 kg. It’s worth remembering that the report documents that each week the world loses two breeds of domestic animal diversity, so efforts such as these by local farmers are worth supporting. I tested the dry sausage and it was succulent and surprisingly low in fat, as the pigs gain weight very slowly, thereby producing a rich, dense, almost gamey meat. They currently have an AB label but plan to give it up at the end of 2009.

If you would like to see these pigs close up, the Ferme de Guillaumet is open for visits and also has rural “gites” for rental by the week.

Tuna, eco-tent living and 13 moons – summertime links

France backs international ban on bluefin tuna, from Sam Fromartz at Chews Wise. Sarkozy’s decision was announced at the Grenelle de La Mer last week. Bluefin tuna fishing in France is esssentially concentrated around the Ile d’Yeu, off the Brittany coast. WWF welcomed the decision and the U.K. followed suit with a similar commitment.

Nice eco-tourism idea from “Un lit au pré”: five sites in France currently in working farms, you are housed in luxury tents furnished with plenty of understated, crunchy eco-chic flair and wood burning stoves. Spend your days collecting freshly laid eggs and mucking in around the farm.

This year I’ve noticed that our vegetable garden is suffering from some unidentifiable ailment – the soil is more than normally heavy, clayey and generally unfriendly even though there are no new variables this year. I started asking around and a farmer we visited last week at La Rabasse D’Astarac who specializes in preserving ancient varieties of heirloom tomatoes mentioned the fact that it is a year of thirteeen moons.

A treasure trove of biodiversity at La Rabasse DAstarac: the farm boasts 60 odd varieties of heirloom tomatoes grown organically with virtually no watering

A treasure trove of biodiversity at La Rabasse D'Astarac: the farm boasts 60 odd varieties of heirloom tomatoes grown organically with virtually no watering

Thirteen moons is a reference to the natural cycle of time. For every trip the Earth makes around the sun, the moon makes thirteen trips around the Earth. Thus “13 Moons” represents the wholeness of the natural world and its seasonal rhythms.

I then asked my favourite vegetable guy at our local market in Mirande this morning whether he subscribed to the 13 moons theory. His lettuce was looking bedraggled and I figured he would have an opinion. He replied that the 13 moons was an excuse for people who’ve had a bad year, and that the real culprit was some kind of thermic shock which has been operative since the beginning of the year in the region with strong winds coming from both the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts which have disturbed the climatic conditions for growing. If anyone has strong opinions or background info on 13 moons, please give me a shout!

High stakes for food security at Tunis meeting

I just returned from Tunis where the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources is holding its 3rd Governing Body session. Getting funding for the Treaty and stimulating the free and unimpeded (by seed companies) flow worldwide of crop genetic resources among plant breeders and scientists is an uphill battle, which all those present at the meeting will freely acknowledge.

France and Germany have been particularly obstructionist – partly because of recession at home, partly because they prefer to act bilaterally than multilaterally. Some 120 countries ratified this treaty in 2004, but it still lacks funding for its core functions and the operational costs of the Rome-based secretariat at FAO headquarters. A key sticking point is how to budget contributions – many rich countries have earmarked funds for the Treaty under development assistance, but Jose Esquinas Alcazar points out that it’s an issue of national security.

José "Pepe" Esquinas Alcazar, father of the treaty

Food shortages equal political instability; if a crop virus wipes out the wheat harvest in Europe, plant breeders need to work quickly to come up with a new, hardier variant and be able to access plant genetic resources from all over the world to do this.

“This is money for national development, for national security. The countries need to understand this. There is some mental laziness on this subject,” he said.

Plant genetics is an obscure subject which has little public visibility but it is absolutely vital to the future of our food systems and the way we farm and eat in the future. As Pat Mooney of Canada’s ETC Group told me in the corridors, “You’re not going to have agriculture 50 years from now because of climate change unless we have exchanges of germplasm.”

Pat Mooney, the man who put the "seeds" issue on the world's political agenda

Pat Mooney, the man who put the "seeds" issue on the world's political agenda

The highlight of the conference for me was seeing Dr Melaku Worede of Ethiopia take the floor. Founder of Ethiopia’s Gene Bank – the first of its kind in Africa, he is a tireless advocate for the importance of on-farm diversity as a strategy to increase and conserve biodiversity. Dr Worede is today a frail, deeply spiritual presence with a tremendous capacity to inspire.

Here is the text of his intervention yesterday – which provoked spontaneous applause from the assembled Plenary of biocrats, plant breeders, NGO activists and crop scientists.

“I’m the international scientific advisor to the Seeds of Survival progamme of USC Canada and the founder of the Ethiopian Gene Bank, the first of its kind in Africa. At one point in my career I also chaired an FAO Commission on Plant Genetic Resources.

“Farming communities have always implemented conservation methods. Many species little known to science or industrial technology are already managed by local farmers and indigenous communities. Seed is planted in situ and is frequently exchanged. This accounts for the broad range of adaptability and plasticity in gene materials. Maintenance of diversity by small farm comunities in this way provides wide options for self reliance for food crop production and security, thereby lowering the risk of food shortage. All high-tech conservation methods depend on this.

“More than 1,400 gene banks around the world maintain ex-situ some six million samples of germplasm They distribute hundreds and thousands of germplasm collections to scientists and plant breeders. Most of these crop collections and these gene banks are however in a precarious state. One response to this has been the creation of the (Global Crop Diversity) Trust to provide sustainable funding through an endowment, which is today worth some 150 million dollars to ensure the perpetual conservation of crop germplasm around the world. I wish to congratulate the progress made by the Trust today.

“It is most crucial to place a precondition that funding to support genebanks requires linking in-situ funding conservation of cultivated crop lands and semi-wild species by small farmers and pastoralists and indignenous peoples. Otherwise Africa will suffer unparallelled food shortages and rural poverty already touching one billion people. This is especially urgent in view of the rapidly dwindling but still abundant plant genetic resources, and in view of climate change.”

Here’s a recent interview with Dr Worede from GRAIN.

If it isn’t organic, skip the whole grain

When I was growing up, my mother had to bake her own bread because whole grain bread was not available. So I grew up with the sturdy conviction that any bread which was brown and grainy was more healthful than white bread. As I moved to organic food in recent years, I discovered that while whole grain bread contains more vitamins, minerals and fibre, the big downside is that whole grains also contain a lot more pesticides than white bread made from refined and bleached white flour. In fact, in France, non-organic wheat is not only sprayed up to nine times during the growing period, it is also treated with chemicals during storage. Pesticide residues tend to accumulate in the husk, which accounts for the fact that a wholewheat flour which is not organic has a heavier pesticide content than a white flour

So although I live in France, where the prospect of wonderful bread is alive on every street corner, purchasing grainy, organic breads on a daily basis actually represents more of a challenge.

For residents of rural areas, it actually makes more sense to bake your own bread – hence the big jump in sales of bread machines in recent years. Organic flours are available at the organic cooperatives and most big supermarket brands have rolled out their own versions over the past 18 months or so. Conservation times are shorter: conventional flour lasts nine months and organic flour six.

In Paris, my favourite supplier of organic whole-grain bread is Véronique Mauclerc, 11 rue Poncelet, 75017 (closed Monday). Her bread is outstanding from every point of view; there are over 60 varieties using every cereal imaginable; all are organic except for her baguette, the flour is stone-milled by George Trottin in the Sarthe.

Véronique Maclercs wood-fired oven, one of the four such ovens left in Paris

Véronique Maclerc's wood-fired oven, one of the four such ovens left in Paris

Otherwise, there are the often iffy and brick-like loaves for sale at my local biocoop, Moisan (a chain with bakeries all over Paris; their bread is often okay but it is rarely oven-fresh), Eric Kayser (over-marketed, over-salty and over-priced) and the grandaddy of all the above, the venerable Poilane.

For home bakers looking for high-quality organic flours, there’s another issue which continues to plague the chat forums and blogs in France: the fact that there isn’t enough supply of organic wheat to meet demand in France, so that much of what you purchase is actually sourced all over Eastern Europe. This raises the question of whether the organic agriculture norms are the same in all countries.

Furthermore, pro-GM flacks and lobbyists will sometimes lurk on these fora in the guise of “farmers” to push their narrative that organic food and feed is more heavily contaminated with mycotoxins than conventional and genetically modified foods, on grounds that organic production does not use chemical fungicides, and are hence more likely to be infected.

Mycotoxins are toxic metabolites produced by fungi. Mycotoxin poisoning has been known since the beginning of agriculture and has taken a large toll on humans and farm animals consuming contaminated crops. It is is a worldwide problem associated with maize, rice, tree nuts and peanuts along with fresh fruits and vegetables.

But the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) states that, “studies have not shown that consuming organic products leads to a greater risk of mycotoxin contamination.”

Highest-risk fruit and vegetables for pesticide contamination

March 20-30 marked the 4th annual edition of “Semaine Sans Pesticides – a kind of national awareness week to remind people of the seriousness of the issue in France. Just as the market stalls fill up with tempting displays of strawberries and aspargus, it’s worth remembering that France is the world’s third biggest user of pesticides, and the number one in Europe, with a staggering 76,000 tons sprayed in 2008.

According to the latest figures, 7.2 percent of fruit and vegetables in France contain pesticide residues which are over the maximum authorized limits fixed by the European Commission. High-risk vegetables are peppers, chilies, tomatoes, lettuce, leeks and spinach. Among fruits – 8.5 percent have over the limit concentrations of pesticides – the ones to avoid are strawberries, mandarins and grapes.

“The longer the storage time is, the more the contaminated products migrate from the skin to the fruit,” François Veillerette, president of the anti-pesticide NGO MDRGF, told Le Monde in an article last week. Apples, for instance, can be contaminated up to 5 mm under the skin.

Useful tips for minimizing your pesticide exposure include steaming instead of boiling vegetables; also, it’s best to discard the core and external leaves of lettuce and cabbage

via Le Monde