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Changes in breast milk sugars impact babies’ health and growth

When it comes to nursing moms and their babies, an elegant web of cause and effect connects climate, breast milk, gut microbes and infant health.

That web was clearly illustrated by a recently published study involving 33 women and their babies in the West African nation of The Gambia. The research team, including scientists from UC Davis and UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, found that complex breast milk sugars called oligosaccharides helped protect nursing babies from illness and also influenced the mixture of microbes in the infants' guts.

The researchers also showed that changes in food availability from season to season could affect the composition of the women's breast milk and the protective quality of the babies' gut microbiota. And those changes, in turn, impacted the health and growth of the breastfed infants.

UC research in The Gambia has revealed microbial changes in breast milk characteristics during the country's two distinct seasons - when food supplies differ significantly. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Composition of breast-milk sugars and infant health

Oligosaccharides occur abundantly as more than 200 different chemical structures in human breast milk. It's been known for some time that these complex sugars contribute to infant health by supporting the growth of beneficial bacteria in the baby's gut. And these gut bacteria have been shown to play a key role in fending off infectious illnesses.

But little has been known about how changes in the composition of the breast milk sugars might affect the health and growth of infants, especially those living in areas where infection rates are high.

To explore that relationship, the researchers monitored the composition of the oligosaccharides in the mothers' milk and examined the infants' gut microbiota at 4 weeks, 16 weeks and 20 weeks after the babies were born. Then they analyzed the data, looking for possible relationships to the health and growth of the babies and the status of their gut microbes.

They found that two of the oligosaccharides, lacto-N-fucopentaose and 3′-sialyllactose, had a direct relationship to the babies' health and growth. High levels of the former were associated with a decrease in infant illness and with improved growth, measured as height for age, while the latter proved to be a good indicator of infant growth, measured by weight per age.

“Our findings provide evidence that specific human milk oligosaccharides can alter the composition of breast milk, making it more protective against infection and allowing the infant to invest energy in growth rather than fending off disease,” said the study's corresponding author Angela Zivkovic, an assistant professor of nutrition at UC Davis.

Influence of wet and dry seasons

The researchers also were curious how seasonal shifts in food availability, which significantly impact the mothers' diets, might be reflected in breast milk composition and infant health.

The Gambia has two distinct seasons, the wet season from July to October and the dry season from November to June.

The wet season is also known as the “hungry” season because it is the time of year when food supplies tend to be depleted, infection rates rise and the farming workload is highest. In contrast, the dry, or “harvest,” season is characterized by plentiful food supplies as well as significantly higher energy stores and less illness among the local people.

The researchers found that mothers who were nursing during the wet or “hungry” season produced significantly less oligosaccharide in their milk than did those nursing during the dry season.

In examining the makeup of the babies' gut microbiota, the researchers noted that most of the bacteria belonged to the Bifidobacteria genus. They also discovered that higher levels of Dialister and Prevotella bacteria were accompanied by lower levels of infection.

In addition, higher levels of Bacteroides bacteria were present in the infants' guts that had abnormal “calprotectin” – a biomarker associated with intestinal infections.

“We are very interested in which specific dietary factors influence the oligosaccharide composition of mother's milk,” Zivkovic said. “If we can find the mechanisms that change the composition of breast milk sugars, we may have a new approach for modifying the infant microbiota and ultimately influencing the health and vigor of the nursing baby.”

The study by Zivkovic and colleagues appears online in the journal Scientific Reports. The research is part of a long-running, cross-disciplinary project at UC Davis examining milk and its role in nutrition.

Funding for the study was provided by the National Institutes of Health, UK Medical Research Council, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and Peter J. Shields Endowed Chair in Dairy Food Science at UC Davis.

Posted on Wednesday, February 8, 2017 at 8:33 AM

A super bowl of chili: Something to crow about

Life is just a bowl of…, not cherries!


Make that chicken chili.

When the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons square off at Super Bowl Sunday on Feb. 5 in Houston, odds are that feathers will fly and football fans will flock to heaping bowls of chili.

All chili aficionados have their favorite recipes, but white chili proved to be the winning alternative to red chili at the annual Solano County 4-H Chili Cookoff, held Jan. 14 in the Community Presbyterian Church in Vallejo.

The winning team, the Lil' Peppers from the Pleasants Valley 4-H Club, Vacaville. From left are Maleah and Elijah Desmarais and Jessie Means. At far right is their advisor, Marlene Means. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

The Lil' Peppers — three members of the Pleasants Valley 4-H Club, Vacaville — took home top honors with their “White Chili with Avocado Cream.” It was like putting a feather in the caps of chefs Jessie Means and Elijah Desmarais and his sister Maleah Desmarais. Advised by their cooking leader Marlene Means, they made the dish at home, delivered it to the cook-off in a crockpot, and answered a series of questions from four-judge panel.

They based their entry on a Cooking Light magazine recipe, but added agave to suit their tastes (they acknowledged they're not partial to one ingredient, serrano chile). They also substituted a can of white beans for a 15-ounce can of unsalted chickpeas (garbanzo beans).

The cook-off, which drew a total of five teams, was part of the Solano County 4-H Project Skills Day, an opportunity for youths to showcase what they've learned in their projects and to hone their display and presentation skills. The day ended with the cook-off.

4-H'ers from the Pleasants Valley 4-H Club, Vacaville, await the judges. From left are Brayden Gish, Justin Means, Maya Prunty and Shayley Gish. They made a recipe reportedly favored by "The Duke": John Wayne. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

“The Chili Cook-Off continues to be a big draw at Project Skills Day,” said Solano County 4-H program representative Valerie Williams. “Through their participation, 4-H team members develop life skills like organization, decision-making and communication. Not to be overlooked, team members gain practical knowledge about kitchen safety, food safety, food preparation and nutrition, while developing their chili recipes.” 

The chili judges — John Vasquez Jr. of Vacaville and Skip Thomson of Dixon, both members of the Solano County Board of Supervisors; and fellow chili enthusiasts Robert Reed of Benicia and Will Cant of Vallejo — said they enjoyed all the dishes, but especially the chicken chili. They went for seconds.

“It was really good,” said Vasquez, a veteran cook-off judge, praising the intermingling of the flavors and the competence of the chefs.

Coordinator Connie Reid of the Sherwood Forrest Club in Vallejo escorted the judges to each team's table, where the 4-H'ers introduced themselves and talked about their chili, the ingredients, the preparation and the outcome.

The Chili Girls of the Sherwood Forest 4-H Club, Vallejo, dressed as penguins, await the judges. From left are Julietta Wynholds, Selah Deuz, Celeste Harrison and Hanna Stephens. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

The Lil' Peppers' project all started with Jessie Means wanting to participate in the cook-off. She asked her mother and 4-H cooking project leader, Marlene Means, to help, and then Jessie recruited Elijah and Maleah Desmarais.

What to prepare? At most cook-offs, teams make red chili. The Lil Peppers decided on white chili, made with chicken and pork instead of beef.

For the cook-off, they donned blue aprons appliquéd with chili peppers, made by Jessie. They kept the decorations simple: a black tablecloth graced with a few chili peppers.

It was a great learning experience, Marlene Means said.

“The team learned to read and follow the recipe," she said. "They did have a few teary moments — cutting the onions. They were careful working with the peppers.  All three worked very hard.”

When the 4-H'ers tasted their finished product, they decided it was "a little too spicy!” So they added a tablespoon of agave.

Evaluator John Vasquez Jr., (right foreground) talks to the Lil' Peppers. From left are Elijah and Maleah Desmarais, and Jessie Means. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

The end result: the team loved it, the judges loved it, and so did the crowd that grouped around their entry for samples.

“There were many repeat tasters,” Marlene Means said.

All three members of the Pleasants Valley 4-H Club are enrolled in cooking projects, but also a variety of other projects. Jessie, the club's historian, is enrolled in swine, rabbits, horse, sewing, food preservation, cooking, outdoor cooking, indoor mini gardens, baking and bread making, and dog care and training. Maleah is enrolled in fine art, outdoor cooking, rabbits, and cooking projects, while Elijah's projects are poultry, outdoor cooking and rabbits.

All the cook-off teams delighted in creating their own costumes. The Chili Girls of Sherwood Forest 4-H Club, Vallejo, dressed as penguins. Two Harry Potter fans from the Tremont 4-H Club, Dixon, opted for "tie attire." Another team from the Pleasants Valley 4-H Club, Vacaville, donned sunglasses; they were just chillin' when they served a chili reportedly favored by "The Duke" (John Wayne). Another group from Dixon, the Mean Green Chili Cooking Machine of the Dixon Ridge 4-H Club, came as themselves, in 4-H attire.  Their chili lived up to their name; it was the hottest and was quite delicious, the judges agreed.

Chili Cook-Off Cooordinator Connie Reed (far left) of the Sherwood Forest 4-H Club, Vallejo, tests the temperature of the chili. From left are the Mean Green Chili Cooking Machines of the Dixon Ridge 4-H Club: Maritiza Partida Cisneros, Rudy Cisneros Radillo and Miguel Partida Cisneros. At far right is evaluator Solano County Supervisor John Vasquez Jr. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

The members of the other teams:

  • The Chili Girls from the Sherwood Forest 4-H Club, Vallejo: Selah Deuz, Celeste Harrison, Hanna Stephens and Julietta Wynholds
  • Harry Potter and the Order of Chili, Tremont 4-H Club, Dixon: Isabel Martinez and Trinity Roach
  • Just Chillin', Pleasants Valley 4-H Club, Vacaville: Braydon Gish, Shayley Gish, Justin Means and Maya Prunty
  • Mean Green Chili Cooking Machines, Dixon Ridge 4-H Club, Dixon: Maritiza Partida Cisneros, Miguel Partida Cisneros and Rudy Cisneros Radillo

Here's the winning recipe that the Lil' Peppers prepared:

White Chili with Avocado Cream

1 serrano chile (this is hot and can be omitted, the 4-H'ers agreed)
1 jalapeño pepper
1 medium onion, peeled and halved
Cooking spray
4 cups unsalted chicken stock, divided
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1-1/2 teaspoons adobo sauce
1 chipotle chile, canned in adobo sauce
2 (15-ounce) cans unsalted cannellini beans, rinsed, drained, and divided
5 -1/2 teaspoons olive oil
5 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried oregano
3/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1 pound ground pork
2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized pieces, browned
3 cups fresh white corn kernels
1 (15-ounce) can unsalted chickpeas (garbanzo beans), rinsed and drained (the 4-H'ers substituted 1 can of white beans)
1 cup half-and-half
3/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro, divided
1/3 cup plus 1-1/2 teaspoons fresh lime juice, divided
2-3/8 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
1 medium ripe peeled avocado
1/3 cup light sour cream
3/4 cup diced tomatillo
1 tablespoon agave or honey


  1. Preheat broiler to high.
  2. Arrange first 3 ingredients on a foil-lined baking sheet. Coat with cooking spray. Place pan on middle oven rack; broil 15 minutes or until charred on all sides, turning occasionally. Wrap peppers in foil; let stand 5 minutes. Peel peppers; discard peels, stems, and seeds. Combine peppers, onion, 1/2 cup stock, flour, adobo sauce, chipotle, and 1 can cannellini beans in a blender; process until smooth.
  3. Heat a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add oil to pan; swirl to coat. Add garlic to pan; sauté 30 seconds. Add cumin, oregano, and coriander to pan; sauté 30 seconds. Add pork; cook 4 minutes, stirring to crumble. Stir in onion mixture and remaining 3-1/2 cups stock. Bring to a boil; reduce heat, and simmer 20 minutes, stirring frequently.
  4. Add chicken to pan; cook 5 minutes. Stir in remaining can of cannellini beans, corn, and white beans; cook 7 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low. Stir in half-and-half, 1/2 cup cilantro, and 1/3 cup juice; cook 3 minutes. Stir in 2-1/4 teaspoons salt.
  5. Place avocado in a small bowl; mash with the back of a fork. Stir in sour cream, remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons juice, and remaining 1/8 teaspoon salt. Serve chili with remaining 1/4 cup cilantro, avocado cream, and tomatillo.

(Nutritional Information. Amount per serving: Calories 380; fat 18.6 grams; saturated fat 6 grams; monofat 8.3 g; polyfat 1.9 g; protein 30 g; carbohydrate 24 g; fiber 6 g; cholesterol 85 mg; iron 2 mg; sodium 592 mg; and calcium 86 mg)

Solano County, said 4-H Program Representative Valerie Williams, has nearly 500 4-H members enrolled in a total of 11 clubs:

  • Dixon: Dixon Ridge 4-H, Maine Prairie 4-H, Roving Clovers 4-H and Tremont 4-H
  • Vacaville: Elmira 4-H, Pleasants Valley 4-H and Vaca Valley 4-H
  • Fairfield-Suisun: Westwind 4-H and Suisun Valley 4-H
  • Rio Vista: Rio Vista 4-H
  • Vallejo-Benicia: Sherwood Forest 4-H

The Solano County 4-H Youth Development Program, part of the UC Cooperative Extension Program of the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR),  follows the motto, “Making the best better.” 4-H, which stands for head, heart, health and hands, is open to youths ages 5 to 19.  In age-appropriate projects, they learn skills through hands-on learning in projects ranging from arts and crafts, computers and leadership to dog care, poultry, rabbits and woodworking. They develop skills they would otherwise not attain at home or in public or private schools, said Williams, who may be reached at for further information on the program.


Isabel Martinez (left) and Trinity Roach of the Tremont 4-H Club watch as judges sample their chili. From left are Robert Reed of Benicia, Will Cant of Vallejo, and Solano County Board of Supervisor Skip Thomson of Dixon. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
The scenario: crockpot of chili, gloved hands, spoons, and a judge's clipboard. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Posted on Monday, January 30, 2017 at 11:38 AM

Pecan pie: A holiday tradition and a treat

Fresh pecans — good for snacking and good for making a pie. (Photo: Kathy Keatley Garvey)
“Ahh, nuts!”

This time of year, you're probably thinking “Ahh, pecans!”

And particularly, “Ahh, pecan pie!”

We do love our pecans. The U.S. produces 80 to 95 percent of the world's pecans, and most are grown in Georgia, according to the UC Davis Fruit and Nut Research and Information Center (FNRIC).  In 2014, the U.S. produced 133,165 tons of pecans (in-shell) valued at more than $400 million. Of that, California contributed 2,500 tons, valued at a little more than $10 million, or less than 2 percent.

“Although pecan trees have existed in California for more than a century, the first commercial orchard in California was established in the mid-1970s in the Clovis area," FNRIC relates on its website. “Since then, pecan production has spread throughout the Central Valley, but it is not nearly as widely cultivated as other nut crops (almond, pistachio and walnut) in California." The nuts thrive on long, hot summers for proper maturation.

The pecan (Carya illinoinensis), native to Mexico and the southcentral and southeastern regions of the United States, is a member of the Juglandaceae family, which includes hickory and walnut. "Remains of pecans were found in archaeological excavations in Texas with human artifacts dating back to 6100 B.C.," according to the Nutcracker Museum. "The pecan, which is native only to North America, was found in or near river beds, and was a staple in the diets of both the natives and the early settlers."

“What's great about pecans is that they are delicious!” says Amy Block Joy, emeritus UC Cooperative Extension specialist, who, true to her name, finds "joy" in pecans. “They are one of my favorite nuts.”

“Pecans are an excellent source of vitamin E and other antioxidants, fiber, some B-vitamins and are also good sources of potassium, copper, iron, manganese and zinc,” says Joy, who holds a doctorate in nutritional sciences from UC Berkeley. “They are a rich source of oleic acid, a mono-saturated fatty acid.  Pecans do not contain any cholesterol.”

And nuts are good for you, she said, noting that a study published recently in the journal BMC Medicine reported that having a daily amount (at least 20 grams) of nuts "cut people's risk of coronary heart disease by nearly 30 percent, their risk of cancer by 15 percent, and their risk of premature death by 22 percent.” 

Meanwhile, all over the country — especially the South — pecan pie is synonymous with the holidays. It's an iconic Southern cuisine, a 19th century invention, that probably originated in the 1800s. Harper's Bazaar published the first known pecan pie recipe in 1886. Today, cooks clamor to make it their own — adding everything from bourbon to rum to chocolate to orange zest.

My late mother, born and reared on a Texas ranch where pecan trees flourished, treasured the pecan pie. She always pronounced it “Peh-CAHN” (never PEE-can) and prefaced it with "rich." Not “rich,” as in wealthy, but rich as in “don't-eat-too-much-of-this-or-you-will-engage-in-a-hate-relationship-with-your-scales.” If you're thin and have to "stand up twice to make a shadow," as the Southern saying goes, then no worries!

Did you know that pecan pie is the state dessert of both Texas and Oklahoma? And that the pecan is the "state nut" of Alabama and Arkansas? In Tennessee, it's known as the "state health nut."  That's because it is!

In the Garvey household, our favorite pecan pie recipe is loaded with nuts — two cups. That's 66 pecans per cup or a total of 132 pecans, says nutritionist Amy Block Joy, who knows how to put the "nuts" in nutrition. We know how to put the  pie in the pantry, and then to the holiday table.

Garvey's Unforgettable Southern Delight Pecan Pie
Makes 9-inch pie

3 eggs, large
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 cup dark corn syrup, Karo
3/4 cup loosely packed brown sugar (don't press down)
1 tablespoon of white sugar
1 to 2 tablespoons of good quality dark rum (we used Myer's original dark Jamaican rum)
1/4 cup butter, melted
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups toasted pecans, halves only
One 9-inch unbaked pie crust (recipe below)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread pecans on baking sheet and toast at 350 degrees for 6 to 10 minutes. Set aside. In medium bowl, beat eggs with a fork or wire whisk. Add cornstarch and mix until blended.

Add corn syrup, sugar, rum, butter and vanilla. Stir in toasted pecans. Pour mixture into pie crust. Cover outer crust with loosely placed, crimped aluminum foil to prevent excess browning.

Bake at 350 degrees for about 50 minutes. At 40 minutes, remove aluminum foil from outer crust and cook for another 10 minutes, or until knife inserted in center comes out clean. The center should be slightly firm to the touch but a bit jiggly.

Place pie on wire rack and let cool at room temperature for two hours before serving.

Crust for 9-inch pie:
1-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick or ½ cup of cold unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1/4 cup ice water, plus an additional tablespoon if needed

In a medium bowl, combine flour, salt and sugar. Cut butter into flour mixture until it resembles coarse crumbs. Gradually sprinkle the water over the dry mixture, stirring until dough comes together enough to form a ball. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour. Roll the dough out into a 12- to 13-inch circle. Place in pie plate and let it overhang 1/2-inch. Crimp the crust.

Pecan Pie is a Southern favorite. The ingredients in this one, "Garvey's Unforgettable Southern Delight Pecan Pie," include two cups of pecans and two tablespoons of rum. (Photo: Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Posted on Tuesday, December 20, 2016 at 1:26 PM

Youth speak, we listen: Youth voices in urban agriculture and building the UC connection

For many youth in California, agriculture is becoming part of their urban experience. Urban farms, edible parks, and garden education programs are thriving in cities across the state. These places grow food, teach youth job skills, create community green space, and help build food security.

Steven Palomares is one of those youth. As an intern at WOW Farm in 2016, Steven grew and harvested produce, delivered it to local restaurants, and participated in a weekly business management class. 

"I like to think of this garden as very important to the community,” said Steven. “Since most of [Oakland] is low income neighborhoods, this farm provides access to fresh organic produce. It also teaches the youth a set of job skills they can apply to other jobs, and teaches them a bit more about nutrition.”

Steven Palomeres, former intern at WOW farms in West Oakland shares his experience in urban farming

Many youth echo Steven's sentiment, finding skills, purpose, community, and good food at the sites they are a part of.

The UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (UC SAREP) and UC Cooperative Extension Los Angeles County have been working together to better understand the ways the University of California can support urban agriculture through the lens of youth participants.

These two videos, funded by the UC Global Food Initiative, are part of an ongoing effort to build strong connections between the University of California and urban agriculture programs. They highlight the community-based work of these programs and show some of the challenges they face.

In this video, Bay Area youth share their experience at urban agriculture programs, and program manager share their goals and challenges.

In this video, youth give us a tour of Southern California urban agriculture programs, their visions, and needs.

Currently, UC Cooperative Extension has two advisors dedicated to working with urban agriculture. Rob Bennaton works as an urban agriculture advisor in the Bay Area, and Rachel Surls works with urban farms as Los Angeles County's sustainable food systems advisor. UCCE hosts a growing website of resources for urban farmers, urban agriculture advocates, and policy makers.

"Our hope is that, by listening to people working in urban agriculture and building partnerships with them, we can find long term, meaningful ways to support their work,” said Gail Feenstra, deputy director of UC SAREP. “They share so many of the same goals as the UC — they're really focused on developing leaders who will make our cities healthy, prosperous places to live."

Steven Palomares may just be one of those leaders. In fall of 2015, Steven began his freshman year at UC Davis majoring in biological sciences and political science, interested in pursuing work that integrates science and policy. Also on his mind: someday Steven wants a home garden growing all the necessary produce for salsa and guacamole.

Posted on Tuesday, December 13, 2016 at 10:36 AM

Organic produce growers sought for research study

UC researchers seek organic growers of tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, carrots, radishes or cucumbers.
University of California scientists are seeking certified organic growers to participate in a multistate soil and food-safety study. The researchers are gathering data to develop national guidelines and best practices for using raw manure to improve soil health while minimizing food-safety risks in organically grown crops such as leafy greens, tomatoes and root vegetables.

“The goal of our study is to provide organic farmers with science-based strategies that effectively limit food-safety risks when using raw manure-based soil amendments,” said Alda Pires, UC Cooperative Extension urban agriculture and food safety specialist in the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis.

To study the survival of pathogens in soil and soil health, UC scientists are recruiting California growers who use raw or untreated manure in organically grown crop fields.

To ensure food safety, scientists are studying the best practices for applying raw livestock manure as fertilizer for organically grown produce.
In return for their participation, growers will receive free test results for their farm, farm-specific feedback to help minimize contamination of fresh produce, $700 when the two-year study is completed and a summary of the overall study.

Pires is leading the project in California with Michele Jay-Russell, a veterinary research microbiologist and manager at the Western Center for Food Safety at UC Davis.

The researchers will visit participating farms eight times over the 2017-2018 growing season.

“We will collect produce, water, soil and manure samples,” said Jay-Russell. “All of the samples will be tested for bacterial indicators such as nonpathogenic E. coli and pathogens. We will ask the farmers to complete a short survey. The study is voluntary and all locations and names will be kept confidential.”

Eligible California farms must be certified as organic by the National Organic Program or California Certified Organic Farmers and fertilize with raw manure or untreated manure from dairy cattle, horses or poultry. The farms can grow any of the following produce: lettuce, spinach, carrots, radishes, tomatoes or cucumbers.

For more information or to enroll in the project, please contact Pires at (530) 754-9855 or, or Jay-Russell at (530) 219-4628 or

This study is being conducted in other states by the University of Minnesota, University of Maine, USDA Agricultural Research Service's Beltsville Agricultural Center, USDA Economic Research Service's Resource and Rural Economics Division, Cornell University and The Organic Center. The project is funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture Organic Research and Extension Initiative grant.


Posted on Tuesday, December 13, 2016 at 10:05 AM

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