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UC Food Safety

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Shopping for fruits and vegetables 'like we used to'

Shopping outdoors and having the chance to freely choose, ask questions, taste, and perhaps haggle a little are some of the reasons for immigrants from Latin America and elsewhere to find farmers markets particularly appealing. Childhood memories of going to open-air markets with their families are probably another big reason for them, but also for many older U.S. born consumers who are becoming regular customers.

Fortunately, as more non-Latinos and non-immigrants discover or re-discover the advantages of buying fresh produce grown by small farmers, we all will have more opportunities to enjoy getting our favorite fruits and vegetables "like we used to."

For my wife, Sylvia, and I is a lot more fun to buy our produce at our nearby farmers markets in Redlands and San Bernardino than shopping at the supermarket in our neighborhood. Going from stall to stall checking out what's offered is a totally different experience, and certainly more exciting. Unfortunately, these markets don't operate during the winter months, so we'll have to wait until next year.

We feel that we get more for our money at farmers markets. Eager to sell, vendors gladly greet you and talk to you as if you weren't a stranger to them. You feel invited to take a closer look at what they're selling. They try to show you that they care about you as an individual customer and want you to be happy with your purchase, just like it used to be before big supermarkets took over our food supply.

Not yet convinced? How about taking a bite of the fruit or vegetables that many vendors have always ready for you to sample? When was the last time they treated you like that at your local supermarket?

For my wife and I, that's the closest thing to going back in time when we went shopping at the produce markets of our childhoods, hers in Nicaragua, and mine in México. It's a tradition that can be traced to the Aztec's tianguis, as those ancient Mexicans called their open-air marketplaces.

Spanish conquerors were marveled at the wide and colorful array of fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs sold at the indigenous marketplaces, as described by Bernardino de Sahagún in his Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España (General History of the Things of New Spain). They found elotl (fresh corn) and teosintl (dry corn for tortillas and tamales), éxotl (green beans, also sold as dry beans)  tomatl, (tomatos) ayotl (offered as zucchini and pumpkin), aguacatl (avocado), an enormous variety of chiles (peppers), and many other foods native to pre-colonial Latin America that now help to feed the world.

With the help of UCANR's Small Farm Program and its farm advisors, California growers continue to provide us with an ever-increasing variety of fruits and vegetables that are dear to the heart of immigrants from all corners of the world. Many of these can be found at farmers markets close to you.

Granted, the produce at open-air markets may not look as gorgeously tempting as the fruits and vegetables carefully polished and arranged at grocery stores. But my wife and other farmer market regulars swear by the flavor of the goods they get from these modern day nomadic food merchants.

You may have to pay a little more than at chain supermarkets that buy huge quantities of produce at very low prices from giant farms, which may be thousands of miles away or in other countries. But by purchasing at local farmers markets we get the feeling that we are helping to keep our state's agricultural tradition alive.

Buying produce grown at local farms is definitely a way to contribute to your own community. More than often, there's no question about who wins by shopping from these markets.

At a recent visit to the downtown San Bernardino farmers market my wife intended to buy only a few serrano peppers. After paying for them, she was surprised when the vendor gave her a full bag, more than two pounds of peppers!

"What would I do with all that?" she later told me. She took it home anyway and found a recipe to make Chiles encurtidos (pickled peppers). Next time you're this lucky, look for one of the many recipes for preserving fruits and vegetables on the Internet, and tips to preserve produce at home, including a short video with the do's and don'ts to prevent food poisoning.

Like most industries, farmers markets are well aware of demographics and are usually staffed by Spanish-speaking vendors; knowledgeable of Latino immigrants' customs, it's not uncommon for them, as they hand you the goodies that you've bought, to put an extra fruit or vegetable in the bag or in your hand as a token of appreciation.

"This one's for you," they'd say with wink and a smile.

Have you gotten one of those treats lately at your local supermarket?

Shoppers at the Redlands farmers market.

Posted on Wednesday, December 8, 2010 at 9:28 AM

Eat, drink and be merry this holiday season…and pay for it later?

December is a very festive time of year. For most of us, it’s an entire month filled with holiday parties, family gatherings and other social events, typically centered around one thing - food. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of the holiday season. This is the time of year when tempting holiday treats trump our usual sensible meals, healthy habits and workout regimens. Stress can also play a prominent role during the holidays as many of us get overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of the season and forgo our normal routines. We often justify an entire month of overindulging our sweet tooth and allowing ourselves second (and third!) helpings by vowing to eat healthy and exercise it off in the New Year. What can be the harm in that?

Well, according to research published in the August issue of Nutrition & Metabolism, we could see the ill effects of our short-term holiday indiscretions for years to come. The researchers had 18 subjects increase their calorie intake by 70 percent over a 4-week period of time and limit their physical activity to less than 5,000 steps per day. Does this sound like the all-too-familiar Thanksgiving through New Year's free-for-all to you? Not surprisingly, the subjects gained, on average, 14 pounds during this short-term intervention period. Six-months later, most of them lost weight.  The startling results were discovered, however, at the one-year and 2 ½-year follow-ups. The intervention participants had increased body weight and fat mass compared to their baseline measurements. More telling is the fact that the control group – the participants who didn’t go on the four-week eating binge at the beginning of the study - did not experience any weight gain after 2 ½ years. The researchers have left us wondering whether over-eating in the short-term can have lasting effects on our waistlines for years to come.

Clearly, more research is necessary in this area, but before you go spending the entire month of December throwing sensible eating habits and physical activity to the wind, you might want to think twice!      

Tips to stay healthy during the holiday season:
Don’t give yourself a “pass” for the month of December. It’s important to keep portion sizes in check and to limit foods that are high in added fat, sugar and salt. It’s also important to maintain your regular physical activity routine. If you’ve been meaning to incorporate more physical activity into your daily routine, no need to wait until Jan. 1 to start. Now is as good a time as ever to get moving. Exercise can help alleviate some of the added stress brought on by the holidays and boost your holiday cheer through the exercise-induced endorphins.

The USDA offers a number of healthy recipes and tips on the SNAP-ED Connection website to help get you through this merry season unscathed by traditional holiday fare.

Do you live in the LA area? Join LA County Cooperative Extension on Friday, Dec. 10 to get great tips on how to have a healthy holiday season. The general public is invited to attend and will learn about healthier options to traditional holiday recipes, ways to stay active during the holiday season, and how to make healthy choices during a time when many of our budgets are stretched to the limit.

For more information about this event, please contact Los Angeles County Nutrition, Family & Consumer Sciences Advisor Brenda Roche at (323-260-3299) or visit our website calendar for more information.

Don't over induldge, even during the holidays.
Don't over induldge, even during the holidays.

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Posted on Monday, December 6, 2010 at 6:35 AM
  • Author: Brenda Roche

How authentic is your pomegranate juice?

You pick up a bottle of pomegranate juice because you’ve learned that, although it costs more than most juices, it is replete with antioxidants that bring health benefits. But wait: Is the juice you’ve purchased really pomegranate juice? Or is the product label you have carefully read promising more than it delivers?

UC Riverside chemistry professor Cynthia Larive is determined to find out. She is playing detective by applying chemical tests to juice products sold as pomegranate juice or pomegranate juice blends in order to authenticate their contents.

“We are measuring levels of unique compounds in pomegranate juice and are able to use this ‘molecular fingerprint’ to discriminate against adulterated juice products,” says Larive, whose research on pomegranate juice is being funded by a nearly $50,000 one-year grant from Pom Wonderful, a company that grows and markets pomegranates and pomegranate-based products.

In the lab, Larive and her graduate student Daniel Orr are measuring levels of biochemicals in juices, such as amino acids, organic acids, sugars, pomegranate pigment compounds and health-producing antioxidant molecules that are unique to pomegranate juice.

“We have received a collection of pomegranate samples from around the world, as well as commercial juices such as beet, grape, apple and pear – to name just a few,” Larive says. “We’re looking at whether or not our molecular fingerprint method can be used to identify products claiming to contain pomegranate juice when they don’t, and products claiming to be pomegranate juice when they are not.”

Larive plans to publish her results soon in a peer-reviewed journal.  For the complete news release about the research, see the UC Riverside media website.

Cynthia Larive and Daniel Orr examine pomegranate juice.
Cynthia Larive and Daniel Orr examine pomegranate juice.

Posted on Wednesday, December 1, 2010 at 9:38 AM

Putting pesticide residues in perspective

A child could eat more than 11,000 servings of lettuce in one day without any ill effect from pesticide residues, even if the lettuce has the highest pesticide residue recorded for lettuce by the USDA. That is just one fact shared on a new pesticide residue calculator produced by the Alliance for Food and Farming, a non-profit organization that provides a voice for farmers to communicate their commitment to food safety and care for the land.

UC Riverside toxicologist Robert Krieger analyzed data from USDA's Pesticide Data Program to create the online tool. The calculator allows users to select a consumer (man, woman, teen or child) and then choose from 14 types of fruits and vegetables. The tool then calculates the number of servings that consumer could eat in a day and still not see any effect from pesticide residues.

For example, a woman could eat 836 servings of cherries, 219 servings of blueberries, or 2,332 servings of kale in one day without any effect even if the produce had the highest pesticide residue recorded by USDA.

Earlier this year, the Environmental Working Group released a shopper's guide that lists produce it calls the "dirty dozen" and the "clean 15." The working group suggested that the shopper's guide could help consumers determine which fruits and vegetables have the most pesticide residues and so are the most important to buy organic.

However, an expert panel convened by the Alliance for Food and Farming determined such lists are misleading to consumers, a detriment to public health because they discourage produce consumption, and they lack scientific evidence that the pesticide levels found on fruits and vegetables pose any risk. UC Davis nutrition professor Carl Keen was a member of the expert panel.

"There is vast and overwhelming scientific evidence which shows the health benefits of eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables,” Keen said. "Just about everyone agrees that consumers should be eating more fruits and vegetables for good health."

Keen said that even some of the groups that publish these so-called 'dirty' lists tell consumers that the benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh any small risks from pesticide residues.

"So please enjoy the abundance of choices and eat more fruits and vegetables," Keen said.

An online calculator helps consumers understand pesticide residue risks.
An online calculator helps consumers understand pesticide residue risks.

Posted on Monday, November 29, 2010 at 7:29 AM

Holiday food safety

Why is there a turkey in the garage?!  If you’ve ever found yourself asking any variant of this question, trust us - you’re going to want to read on.

As the holiday season approaches, we begin to think about spending time with our families, enjoying one another’s company over the many feasts that accompany special days. While we may set aside mindful eating during the holiday season, we should not set aside food safety.

In many families, once the holiday meal is served it may sit on the table for 2-3 hours while people come and go, “picking” from the various serving dishes. The most creative food safety flub goes to a family member who thaws her holiday turkey in her garage. Her justification of this practice?  “I haven’t hurt anyone yet!” 

With respect for time-honored traditions, might we suggest that this festive time of giving and sharing SHOULD NOT include sharing foodborne illness by forgetting food safety measures? In many California counties, we may still have some heat lingering late into the November month. How much harm can the garage thawing method, or “GTM” if you will, really have? After all, we will be cooking it appropriately right? Wrong!

A few turkey thawing tips:

  • If thawing your turkey in the refrigerator; plan for 24 hours per 4-5 pounds of turkey.

  • Place the turkey into a container to avoid contaminating other foods.

  • If thawing your turkey in cold water; plan for 30 minutes per 1 pound of turkey. Remember to change the water every 30 minutes.

  • If thawing your turkey in the microwave; follow the manufacturer guidelines.

  • A turkey thawed in cold water or in the microwave must be cooked immediately.

(Photo: USDA)

Cooking your turkey properly ensures that all harmful bacteria have been destroyed.

Cooking time ranges from 2¾ hours to 5¼ hours depending on size and whether the turkey is stuffed. To check the temperature of a properly cooked turkey, one should insert the thermometer into the innermost part of the thigh and wing as well as the thickest part of the breast; proper temperature should read 165 degrees. Once all parts have reached this minimum temperature, it is safe to eat, even if parts should remain pink. Stuffing should read 165 degrees when properly cooked as well.

Here are a few tips to keep your foods safe when storing leftovers:

  • Cut turkey or other meats into smaller pieces. Store stuffing separately.
  • Divide large quantities of food items into smaller portions before storing.
  • Store different food items separately.
  • Turkey that is stored in the refrigerator can be held for 3-4 days; reheat to 165 degrees.
  • Frozen turkey can be stored for 2-6 months; reheat to 165 degrees.

Enjoy your holiday feast and be sure to keep your foods safe!

These tips and more can be found at

Blog contributors: Connie Schneider, Ph.D., R.D., Laurin Herrera, CSUF Dietetic Intern, & Shelby MacNab, Nutrition Program Manager

Posted on Wednesday, November 24, 2010 at 7:45 AM

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