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UC Food Safety

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Master Gardeners develop garden at Veterans' Home

Beautiful gardens are brimming with color and life at the Veterans’ Home in Ventura. These gardens have been planned, planted and cared for by a group of Ventura County UCCE Master Gardeners and many people in the community.

Flowers and ornamental trees provide color and shade. Raised garden beds are filled with a wide assortment of vegetables to enhance nutrition and dinner salads of residents. An orchard of donated fruit trees has taken root on the west side of the building. Garden lectures provide enrichment for the mind.

An additional vegetable garden and succulent garden are planned.

Started shortly after the home opened, the gardens and the activity they generate provide much joy and nutrition to the Veterans’ who reside at the home. To learn more, or if interested in becoming involved, contact Master Gardener Barbara Hill.

Posted on Thursday, March 31, 2011 at 12:04 PM
  • Author: Chris M. Webb

Healthful and mindful eating

The low cost of food in the United States is one of the factors contributing to food gluttony and weight problems. On average, Americans spend less than 10 percent of their disposable income on food — 5.5 percent on food “at home” (grocery stores, retail outlets), and 3.9 percent on food “away from home” (USDA data, 2009).

Compare what Americans spend with other countries (household final consumption expenditures; USDA data, 2007)

United States 5.7%
United Kingdom 8.6%
Germany 11.4%
France 13.7%
Argentina 20.2%
Mexico 24.2%
Russia 28.7%
India 32.4%
China 34.9%
Jordan 40.9%
Pakistan 45.7%
Azerbaijan 50.4%

While food sustains life, it also provides emotional comfort. But many people (for many reasons) overindulge. As a society, we tend to be mindless eaters, not mindful eaters. We eat on the run, in the car, at the desk, and from shrink-wrapped frozen containers that have been microwaved. Many people no longer cook, or they consider putting the “shrink-wrapped frozen container" in the microwave as cooking.

A little more connection with our food, whether we prepare it ourselves, or not, can help us to slow down, eat proper portions, and make better food choices. For those who don’t know much about cooking, it’s not difficult to make simple and healthful meals. Grab a cookbook from the library, or take a cooking class in your community. Healthful recipes can also be found online:

  • Davis Farmers Market recipes (note: the author is on the market board as a consumer representative)
  • National Institutes of Health recipes
  • Mayo Clinic recipes

Eating healthfully is a skill we all can master, regardless of our budgets, hectic schedules, or cooking prowess. And eating healthfully doesn’t mean depriving ourselves of delicious food or occasional splurges.

National Nutrition Month is just ending, and I spent some time writing and collecting adages that remind us to eat healthfully and mindfully. Here are ten (of many) maxims that I like. Perhaps you have some to add to the list.

  1. If it isn’t really good or healthful, don’t bother eating it.
  2. If you are not hungry enough to eat an apple, you are not hungry. (thank you Michael Pollan and the NY Times)
  3. Choose appropriate portions. (guide 1 and guide 2)
  4. Put the fork down and take some breaths between each bite.
  5. Do not put food in your mouth when there is food in your mouth.
  6. Avoid eating in the car or in front of the television.
  7. Learn to prepare three dishes well. (simple is fine)
  8. Visit your farmers market or produce stand regularly. Ask questions. Try something new.
  9. It’s better to pay the grocer than the doctor. (M. Pollan again)
  10. Thank the person who grew the food. Thank the person who prepared the food. Be thankful you have food.

It’s never too late for any of us to make one or two small changes that will get us started on a more healthful diet. Blissful eating!

Posted on Tuesday, March 29, 2011 at 9:00 AM

Not so sweet: Sugar's dark side

America is paying the price for its growing sweet tooth.

Just look at the rising rates of diabetes and obesity, said speakers at a March 17 symposium, “Sugar Highs and Lows: Dietary Sugars, the Brain, and Metabolic Outcomes,” at UC Davis.

The symposium focused on sugar consumption and its impact on health. The event was sponsored by the Center for Obesity Assessment, Study and Treatment (COAST) at UC San Francisco, the UC Office of the President, UC Berkeley and UC Davis.

UCSF pediatric endocrinologist and COAST researcher Robert Lustig and UC Davis molecular biologist Kimber Stanhope discussed the downsides of a type of sugar called fructose.

“The government pays twice for obesity: first for the corn subsidy (to make high-fructose corn syrup), and then for emergency room heart attacks and health care,” Lustig said.

It’s not just sugar being scrutinized, but also sugar substitutes. Carolyn de la Peña, UC Davis professor of American studies and author of “Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda,” traced the history of artificial sweeteners. The substitutes are so much sweeter than sugar that they have led to the “incredible sweetening of the American palate,” she said.

For more details on sugar’s impact on health and suggested interventions, view symposium coverage at

Posted on Thursday, March 24, 2011 at 8:08 AM

Microgreens are houseplants you can eat

Another way to engage the family in sustainable living and healthy eating is by starting a table-top farm at home. Growing sprouts has been popular for decades. Today, microgreens are the new hot topic.

Microgreens are larger than sprouts, but smaller than baby salad greens. They are found in trendy restaurants and gourmet grocery stores, but can easily be grown anywhere with sufficient light, says Marin County UC Master Gardener Dot Zanotti Ingels. Harvested at about two inches tall, they add texture and flavor to salads and sandwiches, can be mixed into dips, used as a garnish and sprinkled on top of pizza.

“Children like microgreens because they are fast growing with quick rewards,” she said. “Nutritionally, microgreens are loaded with vitamins, minerals, enzymes and phytonutrients.”

To grow microgreens, all you need are containers, soil, seeds and water.

“I like to use attractive containers or small pots to keep my growing area fun to look at, but containers could be recycled plastic food trays or a wide, shallow flower pot,” Ingels said.

She suggests the following steps:

  • Fill the container with moistened fresh potting mix or seed starting mix to one-inch of the top. Another option is using soilless germinating media, such as a growing mat, peat, vermiculite, perlite or coconut fiber.
  • Sprinkle seeds evenly to cover one-third to one-half of the soil or growing media surface (buying bulk seeds online will save money).
  • Top the seeds with a thin layer of soil and tamp down lightly.
  • Water with a spray bottle, keeping the soil as moist as a wrung-out sponge.
  • Start with or without a clear cover; once seeds have germinated, keep the container open.
  • Harvest when the first true leaves appear by snipping with sharp kitchen shears. Seedling to harvest varies from 7 to 21 days.

Chia, cress, mustard greens, radish and arugula are just a few of the varieties used to grow microgreens. Pam Geisel, the academic coordinator of the UC Master Gardener program, suggests trying borage, basil, cilantro and other leafy herbs. A good plant to try first is broccoli, since it tends to be reliable in germination and a strong sprout in the first crucial days.

To ensure success and food safety, Geisel recommends microgreen growers compost the old soil or growing medium and start over new with each planting.

“When reusing soils, there can be a problem with damping off and other organisms, such as salmonella,” Geisel said. Damping off is the term used for fungus-caused ailments that kill seeds or seedlings. “Microgreens don’t have a lot of roots so the soil or mats have to be watered often but not kept soggy wet. I would not use the greens if there is any sign of mold or decay.”

Posted on Tuesday, March 22, 2011 at 7:29 AM

Researchers from Spain and U.S. discover 'seedless' cherimoya gene

Thanks to researchers in the United States and Spain, it may not be long before you find yourself packing a cherimoya, rather than an apple or banana, in your kids’ lunchboxes.

The researchers recently combined their expertise in an effort to show how to develop a seedless version of the Cherimoya – which Mark Twain called "the most delicious fruit known to man."

The cherimoya, also known as the custard apple, and the closely related sugar apple and soursop, all are known for having big, awkward seeds.  New seedless versions of these tasty fruits would undoubtedly be much more appealing to consumers.

"This could be the next banana — it would make it a lot more popular," said Charles Gasser, a professor of molecular and cellular biology at UC Davis.

He noted that, although all commercial banana varieties are seedless, bananas in their natural state have up to a hundred seeds.

The cherimoya project began in Spain, where researchers José Hormaza, Maria Herrero and graduate student Jorge Lora at the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas labs in Malaga and Zaragoza, Spain, were studying the seedless variety of sugar apple. When they looked closely at the fruit, they noticed that the ovules, which would normally form seeds, lacked an outer coat.

They looked similar to the ovules of a mutant of the lab plant Arabidopsis that was discovered by Gasser's lab at UC Davis in the late 1990s. In Arabidopsis, the defective plants do not make seeds or fruit. But the mutant sugar apple produces full-sized fruit with white, soft flesh without the large, hard seeds.

The Spanish team contacted Gasser, and Lora came to UC Davis from Malaga to work on the project in Gasser's lab. He discovered that the same gene was responsible for uncoated ovules in both the Arabidopsis and sugar apple mutants.

"This is the first characterization of a gene for seedlessness in any crop plant," Gasser said.

Although there are seedless varieties of other commercial fruit crops in the grocery story, those are usually achieved by selective breeding. And – since the plants have no seeds – they are reproduced using plant cuttings or other methods of vegetative propagation.

Gasser is hopeful that discovery of this new gene could open the way to produce seedless varieties in sugar apple, cherimoya and perhaps other fruit crops.

In addition to its implication for commercial crops, the team’s research also sheds light on the evolution of flowering plants, Gasser said. Cherimoya and sugar apple belong to the magnolid family of plants, which branched off from the other flowering plants quite early in their evolution.

"It's a link all the way back to the beginning of the angiosperms," Gasser said, referring to the large group of plants and trees characterized by having flowers and seeds.

The researchers published a paper on describing their work in the March 14 issue of the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Their research was funded by grants from the Spanish government, the European Union and the U.S. National Science Foundation.


Posted on Thursday, March 17, 2011 at 8:41 AM

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