Fresh Food Trends: Natural Trailblazers in Sustainable Eating

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Learn about four thriving food trends resulting from shifts in Americans’ thinking and our growing love for all things local.

Food experts have listed local, regional and sustainable foods among the top food trends for 2014. Consumers’ heightened environmental awareness and their love for fresh flavors are responsible. There’s even a new term, “hyperlocal,” to describe produce harvested fresh from onsite gardens at restaurants, schools, supermarkets and hospitals — all designed for sourcing tasty, nutrient-rich foods minus the fuelguzzling transportation costs. 

Adding emphasis to the need to preserve vital food sources, the United Nations has designated 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming.

Foraging

What could be more entertaining and economical than searching for and gathering wild foods in their natural habitat? From paw paws and persimmons in Missouri to palmetto berries in Florida and seaweed in California, Mother Nature provides a feast at her children’s feet. Commonly foraged foods include nuts, mushrooms, greens, herbs, fruits and even shellfish. To learn how to identify regional native wild foods and cash in on some “free” nutritious meals, foragers need to know where and when to harvest their bounty. Conservation departments and state and national parks often offer helpful field guides and recipes.

Jill Nussinow, also known as The Veggie Queen, a registered dietitian and cookbook author in Santa Rosa, California, characterizes foraging as “nature’s treasure hunt.” Nussinow says she forages for the thrill of it and because, “It puts you very much in touch with the seasons.”

On her typical foraging excursions through forests and on beaches, Nussinow notes, “You never know what you might find: mushrooms, berries, miner’s lettuce, mustard pods or sea vegetables. It’s free food, there for the picking.” However, she warns, “You have to know what you are doing. Some wild foods can be harmful.”

For example, Nussinow advises getting to know about mushrooms before venturing forth to pick them. She recommends the book Mushrooms Demystified, by David Arora, as a learning tool, and checking with local mycological associations for safe mushroom identification. She also likes the advice of “Wildman” Steve Brill, of New York City, who publishes educational articles at WildmanSteveBrill. com. “He knows more about wild foods than anyone I know,” she says.

Vermont wildcrafter Nova Kim teaches her students not only how to identify wild edibles, but also how to harvest them sustainably. It’s critical to make sure wild foods will be available for future generations.

Fermentation

Kefir, kimchi, kombucha and sauerkraut all owe their unique flavors to fermentation. Sandor Katz, author of The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes From Around the World, is a self-described “fermentation revivalist”. He explains how microorganisms, such as lactic acid bacteria that are universally present on raw vegetables and in milk, transform fresh food into preserved sustenance.

Katz recalls how his boyhood love for sour pickles grew to an “obsession with all things fermented.” An abundant garden crop of cabbage left him wondering, “What are we going to do with all that cabbage?” The answer came naturally: “Let’s make sauerkraut.” Subsequently, Katz has become an international expert on the art and science of fermentation from wine to brine and beyond, collecting recipes and wisdom from past generations (WildFermentation.com). He observes, “Every single culture enjoys fermented foods.”

Increasing respect and reverence for fermented foods and related communities of beneficial microorganisms is a new frontier in nutrition and medical sciences. For example, several researchers at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics annual meeting last fall in Houston, Texas, described the connections between the trillions of bacteria living in the human gut, known as the “microbiota”, and mental and physical health. Kelly Tappenden, Ph.D., a professor of nutrition and gastrointestinal physiology with the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, explained that gut bacteria play a variety of roles, including assisting in the digestion and absorption of nutrients; influencing gene expression; supporting the immune system; and affecting body weight and susceptibility to chronic disease.

Feed Matters

The popular adage, “We are what we eat,” applies to animals, as well. New research from Washington State University shows that organic whole milk from pasturefed cows contains 62 percent higher levels of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids compared to conventional, or non-organic, whole milk. The striking difference is accounted for by the fact that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s national organic program legally requires that organic cows have access to pasture throughout the grazing season. The more time cows spend on high-quality pasture, which includes grass, legumes and hay, the more beneficial the fats will be in their milk. On the other hand, when ruminant animals, designed to graze on pasture, are fed a steady diet of corn and soy, both their milk and meat contain less beneficial fat.

According to Captain Joseph Hibbeln, a lipid biochemist and physician at the National Institutes of Health, American diets have become deficient in omega-3 fatty acids over the past 100 years, largely because of industrial agriculture. Hibbeln believes that consuming more omega-3s may be one of the most important dietary changes Americans can make to reduce the risk of chronic diseases, improve mental health and enhance children’s brain and eye development, including boosting their IQs.

Coldwater fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines provide excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Plus, dairy and meat from animals raised on pasture can improve our intake, as well.

Faith

How might eating with the “creation” in mind influence food and agriculture trends? Barbara Ross, director of social services for Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri, believes, “People’s common denominator is that we are all part of and integral to the creation.” She considers how “Food, agriculture, environment and economy are bound together in a way that requires we think, plan and act for the dignity of each person and the common good of the human family.” Ross explains that the choices we make in these vital areas affect the richness of our soils, the purity of our air and water and the health of all living things.

Marie George, Ph.D., a professor of philosophy at St. John’s University, in Queens, New York, agrees, “The serious ecological crises we see today stem from the way we think,” and “reveal an urgent moral need for a new solidarity” to be better stewards of the Earth and its creatures. For example, George sees it as contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer; that’s why she opposes gestation crates and the push for cheap food that exploits animals and the environment in the process.

Kelly Moltzen, a registered dietitian in Bronx, New York, shares a passion for addressing food justice and sustainability from her faith-based perspective of Franciscan spirituality. She believes that, “When we connect our spirituality with the daily act of eating, we can eat in a way that leads to a right relationship with our Creator.” By bridging spirituality with nutrition and the food system, Moltzen hopes to raise awareness of how people can care for their body as a temple and live in right relationship with the Earth, which she perceives as “the larger house of God.”

Fred Bahnson, director of the Food, Faith and Religious Leadership Initiative at Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity, in Winston- Salem, North Carolina, is the author of Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith. His book takes the reader on a journey to four different faith communities—Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal and Jewish—to explore connections between spiritual nourishment and the cultivation of food. Bahnson speaks about sacred soil and the communities of mystical microorganisms that lie within and create the foundation for sustenance. He also describes the special power of communal gardens, which welcome all and provide nourishing food, yet come to satisfy more than physical hunger.

Regardless of religious denomination, Amanda Archibald, a registered dietitian in Boulder, Colorado, believes, “We are in a new era of food—one that embraces and honors food producers and food systems that respect soil, environment and humanity itself.”

Melinda Hemmelgarn, aka the “food sleuth”, is a registered dietitian and award winning writer and radio host at KOPN.org, in Columbia, MO (FoodSleuth@gmail.com). She advocates for organic farmers at Enduring-Image.blogspot.com.

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