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Seven tips for enjoying holiday meals

Before you gobble down that Thanksgiving turkey and pumpkin pie, take a moment to maximize your enjoyment.

The University of California has experts on every topic imaginable, including food and the science of taste and sensory experience. Here are their pro tips on making the most of your holiday meal.

1. Slow down and pay attention

People get the most pleasure from their food when they take the time to savor it fully, said UC Davis sensory scientist Michael O'Mahony. Try having everyone at the table taste the same food and then describe all the sensations they get from it. Everyone can write them down and then share their lists with each other. The person who finds the most sensations wins.

UC pro tips you can use to enhance holiday meals.

2. Smell your food

Flavor comes from both smell and taste, but the brain makes it difficult to tell the difference. When you smell your food while eating it, the volatile molecules go up to the nose through a back passage and stimulate the smell receptors. That's one of the ways the brain knows there is food is in your mouth. But rather than triggering a smell sensation, it feels like a broadening of taste.

Here's an experiment to show how much smell contributes to flavor: Hold your nose while putting some food in your mouth. Concentrate on the taste sensations you are getting. As you swallow, release your nose and notice how the flavor expands. The experiment works best with foods that have a strong odor such as a wine, sweet fruit drinks or gravy.

“Every time you eat you experience an illusion,” O'Mahony said.

3. Add salt in a pinch

If your host happens to serve a cheap red wine that is high in tannins (bitter), here's a tip to make it taste better: Put a pinch of salt in your mouth, O'Mahony said.

“The salt suppresses the tannin,” O'Mahony said. “Taste it again and it will taste like a mature wine.”

4. Think beyond bitter, salty, sour, sweet and umami

Are there more than just five basic tastes?

“It depends what you mean by basic taste,” O'Mahony said. “No one has ever really defined it properly. So it is a bit silly to say there are five things when we haven't actually defined what we are talking about. Whatever definition we choose, we don't know how many there are. There are certainly lots of different tastes.”

Amina Harris, director of the UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center, convened a taste panel to help develop the honey flavor wheel with more than 100 flavor profiles from leather and lemon to cotton candy and even cat pee.

“In general, honey is called sweet, but it has a huge amount of flavors,” Harris said. “Cat pee,” she adds, “is real. It's very pungent.”

Tracy Kahn, a UC Agriculture and Natural Resources researcher, curates on of the world's largest collections of citrus varieties.

5. Try new things

There are more than 300 honey varieties available in the United States. Citrus has even more diversity.

Tracy Kahn curates UC Riverside's Citrus Variety Collection, one of the world's largest with more than 1,000 varieties of citrus and citrus relatives.

“We have ranges of colors, sizes and shapes,” Kahn said. “There are fruits that are red, blue, purple, orange and yellow. There are fruits as big as a person's head and as small as a green pea, and a tremendous amount of aromas.”

UC Riverside itself has developed more than 40 citrus varieties, including popular Tango mandarins, and is working to develop new varieties all the time, including ones resistant to citrus greening disease.

For young children, Kahn suggests Kishu mandarins, which are small, seedless, sweet and easy to peel.

6. Be bold

Try mixing in your time-honored traditions with something new.

Kahn suggests making an appetizer with Australian finger lime, a citrus relative that tastes like lime but looks like caviar.

“Specialty chefs are using this,” Kahn said. “You could serve it with cream cheese and smoked salmon on crackers.”

Yuzu looks like a yellow mandarin, but it's not sweet and has a strong aroma. Its acidic juice can be used in sauces such as ponzu, she said.

Kahn also likes to add citrus to water. She suggests using variegated pink-fleshed Eureka lemons, which have rinds that are green, pink and white.

“They look beautiful in water,” Kahn said.

If you're looking for an alternative adult beverage, try mead (honey wine), said Harris, whose center at the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science hosts courses in making the popular drink.

This Thanksgiving, Harris plans to make a walnut-cranberry tart with honey instead of corn syrup while her daughter will make samosas instead of mashed potatoes.

“It's fun to push the envelope,” Harris said. “Let's go play.”

7. Know your limits

The holiday spread can be filled with temptations. Enjoy, but choose wisely. Don't eat until it hurts. Remember, some of the dishes might taste even better the next day.

“There are always leftovers,” Harris said.

This story en español. 

People enjoy their food more when they savor the flavor.
Posted on Tuesday, November 22, 2016 at 9:30 AM

New life for tea in the San Joaquin Valley

Fifty-five years ago, Thomas J. Lipton Inc. funded a tea study at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Parlier, which is piquing the interest of scientists today. For 18 years, researchers pampered and coaxed 41 tea clones to determine whether tea plantations could be a lucrative alternative for San Joaquin Valley farmers.

Scientists of the time predicted a potential $25,000 economic value of future California tea plantings. Today, tea is a $3.8 billion business in the U.S. and UC Davis recently launched a Global Tea Initiative. Kearney submitted its yellowed research reports, correspondence and newspaper clippings about the long-ago tea research to the initiative's collection of research, teaching and outreach spanning agriculture, social sciences, health, culture and economics of all things tea.

A syrphid fly hovers over a blossom on a tea plant at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center.

That got the attention of UC Davis chemistry professor Jacquelyn Gervay-Hague, who is studying microbes in the soil where tea is grown and their potential impact on the health attributes of tea.

“I believe there is a microbial exchange that ends up in the cup,” she said.

When the Kearney tea research program was scrapped in 1981, a prescient researcher had a handful of the best tea clones planted in the landscape around buildings at Kearney, where they stand today as fall-blooming non-descript shrubs.

Hague, who with her students frequently travels overseas to sample soil on tea plantations, learned of the plants at Kearney and recognized the opportunity to conduct studies in California.

“It's really remarkable,” she said.

Jeff Dahlberg, left, and Jacquelyn Gervay-Hague stand in front of nine tea plants in a landscape border at Kearney.

Kearney director Jeff Dahlberg believes the renewed interest in the center's tea, growing awareness about the healthful properties of tea, and increasing enthusiasm for artisanal tea and locally grown food could turn tea into a lucrative specialty crop for small-scale San Joaquin Valley farmers.

“This may be something like blueberries,” he said. “Twenty years ago, people thought they couldn't be grown in California. But with research conducted here at Kearney, there is now a thriving blueberry industry in the San Joaquin Valley and on the coast.”

It was the same intention that prompted Dahlberg's predecessors to support the tea studies in the 1960s and 70s.

At that time, 41 clones were propagated in a lathe house at Kearney, and later planted in a half-acre field plot. In 1967, UC Cooperative Extension agronomy researcher Karl H. Ingebretsen told a newspaper reporter that the plants came from clones that survived a similar USDA trial in the 1880s.

A 1964 news clipping about the tea project at Kearney.

“Most of the imported plants were taken from some growing in South Carolina, where the Lipton company found them 10 years ago growing wild,” Ingebretsen said in 1967.

The Kearney superintendent at that time, Frank Coddington, said the scientists hoped successful experimentation would lead to varieties of tea suitable for mechanical harvest and the production of instant tea, a product that in those days was becoming more and more popular.

The tea clones at Kearney grew well and appeared healthy, the reports said. Tea plants tolerated California's dry climate and stood the heat when irrigated properly. Five of the 41 clones were reported to show “real promise,” but when the tea project was terminated in 1981, only a few plants representing two of the clones were saved as landscape shrubs. Nine plants now grow on the west side of a corrugated tin warehouse, and four in the shade of knobby flowering pear trees just south of the original building at the site.

Tea shrubs that are more than 35 years old grow next to a building at Kearney.

Gervay-Hague plans to build on the results from early Kearney research with 21st Century agricultural production tools.

“I won't repeat the work done in the 60s, but they didn't know about the microbiome or genetics back then,” she said. “UC Davis has 3D imaging capability, which I want to use to watch the plants change. I would like to do DNA testing.”

The UC Davis chemist is applying for grants to build a repository of plants that may become the foundation of commercial tea gardens in California.

This story en español

Posted on Friday, November 18, 2016 at 8:24 AM

The power of listening: Working for positive change in SNAP-Ed communities

Change takes time. There are frequently obstacles. But when it occurs, it can be satisfying.

This year, over 1,000 participant quotes from adults in the UC CalFresh Nutrition Education Program chart a course for change. In the food eaten, beverages consumed, or daily exercises undertaken, participants describe a desire to take a new approach, or be more conscious of the little daily decisions that can make all the difference in health.

In 2015, UC CalFresh programs were delivered in 891 sites. The majority of sites were education-oriented, with 78 percent being either public schools, preschools, adult education, or Head Start programs. 

A UC CalFresh educator teaches young mothers strategies for preparing nutritious meals.

“This class changed eating habits for my family and friends." - Eating Smart Being Active class, Fresno County

“This class was very informative and it gave me tips and ideas on how to stay healthy, how to be active with our children and also great recipes! I enjoyed the class and will use their tips and ideas when thinking about my diet.” - Eating Smart Being Active class, Fresno County

Special events reinforce school nutrition lessons.

Many quotes express thanks for a program that offers evidence-based curricula to help improve food resource management – budgeting for healthy food while on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP - formerly food stamps) or offer recipes that are tasty on a limited budget. Some quotes reflect on what was learned, and how to continue making decisions that “stay the course” in healthy food selection and preparation. And then, there are those that thank dedicated educators, such as this one:

“My first time here at the nutrition class was April 21. All of the information taught by Julie was important and I learned about eating better, making simple quick healthy meals. My granddaughter walked into the class for the last 10 minutes. She tasted some of the meal and she said, 'Yum -- very good. Grandma can we take some home.' I told her we had the recipe and she asked to go buy the ingredients and make some at home because it was very good and she wanted to eat more. She helped me buy ingredients and helped me prepare the meal. She ate 2 bowls …She wants to try other healthy meals. Thank you for providing this nutrition program to share with us!” - Plan Shop Save and Cook class, Kings County

Occasionally, there are inspirational stories that touch our hearts and make us re-dedicate ourselves each day to our work:

“My son is a kindergartener. He is also autistic with many sensory issues! He only eats certain things (like chips, pop tarts, canned soup and raviolis). The UC CalFresh educator, Mrs. Carter, came in to do a nutrition taste test with the students today and, to my surprise, my son ate edamame willingly. He said it was awesome! For me, this is a big milestone! It could be the start of trying new foods! I love this program… It's great for all kids!” - Healthy Happy Me class, Placer County

Moving from individual education to policy, systems and environmental change agents

In the past few years, UC CalFresh has increasingly worked on developing programs that have policy, systems and environmental change approaches. However, the stories told by participants illustrate the importance of building our programs from a foundation of direct education.

In this effort, UC CalFresh uses a “school as the hub” model in communities. Schools are seen as pivotal arenas for nutrition education that can also influence broader policy, systems, and environmental change. Through classroom nutrition education with students, and after-school programs for their families, schools generate the potential to reach different age groups in the community effectively.

School gardens foster community learning.

A school is a powerful environment for learning, growth and community engagement - from school gardens to work with food service directors creating nutritious meals and enhancing the cafeteria environment, to playground activities with stenciling and murals reflecting healthy choices. Opportunities abound to generate change in perspectives on food choices, physical activity, and healthy living.

Assisting communities to build capacity for sustainable change

As we work with communities to build capacity in the areas described above, over time, a transition has the opportunity to take effect whereby local leaders - principals, teachers, parents, grandparents and students - motivated by the desire to embrace long-lasting healthy changes in their family and community - act as role models and change agents. This fundamental shift moves institutional initiative and strategies into “community-based systems change.” And the seeds of this change began with a lesson, a child, a parent, an educator … a simple quote.


Stencil Road at Oakdale Heights Elementary in Butte County.


This story en español.

Posted on Tuesday, November 15, 2016 at 10:52 AM

Expanding pomegranate production

John Chater remembers the day vividly. He was about two years old. His grandfather gave him a dark, purplish pomegranate. Happily, he opened it and starting eating.

He quickly realized his mistake. He was wearing his new light brown suede shoes. The pomegranate juice quickly found the shoes, leaving a permanent scar.

“That was my first experience, that I remember, with pomegranates, and it involved getting in trouble,” Chater said. “Because it was so delicious, I didn't realize it would stain.”

More than 30 years later, Chater is a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Riverside, with a focus on pomegranate research and a 2016 University of California Global Food Initiative student fellow. He is building on the work of his grandfather, S. John Chater, who was a maintenance worker at hospital but developed a cult following among rare fruit growers in California for developing new varieties of pomegranates.

Doctoral student John Chater is following the footsteps of his grandfather in developing new pomegranate varieties.

The younger Chater, working with varieties selected from the National Clonal Germplasm Repository in Winters, including several developed by his grandfather (who died in 2002), is working to better understand the commercial potential of these varieties.

Currently, 90 to 95 percent of pomegranates are one variety: Wonderful, Chater said. (In addition, California grows more than 95 percent of pomegranates in the United States, he said.)

Working under Don Merhaut, UC Cooperative Extension specialist for ornamental and floriculture crops at UC Riverside, Chater has set up pomegranate variety trials in Riverside and Camarillo.

Pomegranate arils come in a rainbow of colors.

They have planted 12 pomegranate varieties, 15 trees per variety, to evaluate their establishment, precocity (flowering and fruiting), usefulness to growers and desirability to consumers.

Of the 12 varieties, 10 are edible (Parfianka, Desertnyi, Wonderful, Ambrosia, Eversweet, Haku Botan, Green Globe, Golden Globe, Phoenicia and Lofani) and two are ornamental (Ki Zakuro and Nochi Shibori). The ornamental varieties, whose flowers look like carnations, could be of interest to the floriculture industry, Chater said.

The researchers want consumers to be able to go to supermarket, and, like apples and citrus, be able to buy different varieties of pomegranates that vary in sweetness, seed hardness and color. (The varieties Chater is studying range in color from green to yellow to pink to orange to red to nearly purple.)

Different varieties of pomegranates vary in sweetness, seed hardness and color.

Chater set up the trials in Riverside and Camarillo to evaluate the difference between the cooler coastal climate and the warmer inland climate.

The prevailing thought is that more acidic varieties do better in inland conditions because the high summer temperatures reduce the acidity before the fruit is picked in the fall.

For example, a variety such as Wonderful, which is high in acidity, is grown commercially in the Central Valley. But, Eversweet, which has a lower acidity, does well on the coast.

Related to color, some researchers believe that pomegranates color up because of cool night time temperatures. Therefore, trees planted on the coast tend to color up faster.

All that said, it is believed no one has done a comprehensive study, such as the experimentally-designed one Chater has set up, in the United States. It will allow him to study the interplay of variables including size, color, sweetness, acidity, antioxidant activities and seed hardness in different climate conditions.

This story en español.

View a video featuring John Chater and his pomegranate research below:

Posted on Tuesday, November 8, 2016 at 8:42 AM

Partnering for a safe and strong summer

School is back in session and students across the nation are busy in the classroom and cafeteria learning and eating. But what happens to students in the summer months when school is out? Research suggests a summer learning achievement gap occurs between children from low income communities and their higher income peers when school is out. Even more, summer has been called “the hungriest time of the year” for low-income children who rely on school meals to get enough food during the school year. 

Nutrition Educators lead physical activity games at summer food sites

In response to the summer hunger problem, the USDA created the Summer Food Service Program to give schools, agencies, non-profits, etc., the funding to be able to offer free meals to children 18 years and younger at approved low-income sites. Still, as of summer 2015, the summer meal program remained underutilized when compared to the number of low-income children accessing school meals during the regular school year.


Physical activity is fun!


To offer excellent programming and increase participation in the summer food program, partnering agencies in Santa Maria worked to provide physical activity, nutrition education and other summer enrichment programming at local city parks in conjunction with the Summer Food Service Program. The Safe and Strong All Summer Long program was coordinated through the Santa Maria City Recreation and Parks to provide free, drop-in recreation opportunities from 11a.m. to 2 p.m. in parks throughout the city all summer. Meals were brought to the parks and served for one hour by the local food bank and Community Action Commission staff and volunteers.


Nutrition lesson and Rethink Your Drink with families

SNAP-Ed funded agencies have been encouraged to partner with Summer Food Service Programs, though the logistics of working with different agencies and providing education programs in non-traditional settings isn't always easy or clear. During summer 2016, UC CalFresh Nutrition Educators in Santa Barbara County partnered with the Safe and Strong All Summer Long food program to provide staff training and support for family enrichment and physical activities. UC CalFresh staff kicked off the partnership by leading a one-day CATCH (Coordinated Approach to Child Health) Physical Activity training for over 20 Recreation & Parks staff. CATCH focuses on inclusive physical education that keeps youth engaged and active. After the training and throughout the summer, UC staff participated weekly at two park summer meal sites encouraging youth and their families to get physically active, drink water and eat healthy. UC staff continued to provide guidance and training on-site to Recreation & Parks staff on how to engage a variety of youth of all ages in fun physical activities.


CATCH training with Recreation & Parks staff

Several other partner agencies also provided engaging programming to parents while the youth were eating their lunches. The local hospital and County Public Health Department conducted food demonstrations and distributed healthy recipe food samples to parents at sites throughout the city.

In a focus group conducted in June 2016 with parents from the local school district, parents commented that they would like more information and ideas about how and where to do physical activities as a family. Participants commented that they appreciated that their children were learning how to be physically active at school, but it would be helpful to have information on how to involve the whole family: parents, siblings and all of the family so they could get exercise and enjoy their time together.

By providing free drop-in programming at local parks, in conjunction with free meals for youth, the Safe and Strong All Summer Long partnership was able to provide access to safe spaces for families to come together during the summer to be physically active and reduce food insecurity.

UC CalFresh Nutrition Educator Miguel Dia, commented that the best part of the summer partnership was “engaging the youth in a variety of different games and seeing all the different age groups participating. By the end of the summer, the older youth were actually teaching the younger youth how to do the CATCH activities.”

Posted on Tuesday, October 25, 2016 at 11:13 AM

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