Sunday, January 9, 2011

Follow the flavor to healthier food

Krista Tippett, my favorite radio host and producer, composes a weekly public radio program about the spiritual life, broadly defined, and since spiritual matters infuse every aspect of daily living, she occasionally hosts a show about food. Near the end of 2010, she did a program with executive chef and restauranteur Dan Barber (shown right) called "Driven by Flavor," which was broadcast live from the Spirit and Place Festival in Indianapolis.

His over-arching belief is that taking pleasure in flavorful food naturally guides us to healthier eating. I found several tidbits from the program particularly intriguing. While I haven't been eating many winter greens lately, that doesn't mean I haven't been getting my vegetables: root vegetables, that is. Barber shared some fascinating research on how the sweetness of a root like a carrot is actually tied to its nutrient density. Listen to the one-hour program and you'll hear him describe how a carrot, locally grown in the fields surrounding his Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant just upstate from New York City, had a sugar reading that was literally "off the charts," while a supposedly good quality carrot bought at a Whole Foods store didn't even register. Wow. Can there really be that much difference in the nutritional content of something grown in your backyard or local community garden versus what is available down the street on the grocery store shelf? And what does it mean for our health as a society if there is?

He also points out that the intense bursts of cold that shorten the growing season in places like upstate New York (and in Colorado) results in the sweetest, most nutritious root vegetables. With that in mind, he expresses little sympathy for those who feel they just don't have the resources to cook or garden. (As a friend told me last week as we left the YMCA, her new year's resolution is "no excuses.")

Although vegetarianism is seen by many as a superior ethical or moral dietary choice, Barber says he prefers "listening to the ecology" and "not imposing a cuisine on the landscape." While vegetarianism may make sense in a few places with a copious variety of year-round produce, he says most of the country produces abundant forage best utilized and converted to human food via livestock. Respecting that reality is what he calls "being grounded in the proper agriculture."

Finally, he concludes with another fascinating morsel: he is working with a research doctor to study and identify foods that actually have the power to shrink cancer tumors. (They'll also explore whether how these foods are produced changes their efficacy.) In the future, it might become possible to "eat well and starve cancer," as a new kind of treatment that combines the latest research with down-to-earth wisdom.

You can listen to the show on-line but Krista Tippett's webpage on the program also has some fun resources to sort through, including an earlier program featuring Barbara Kingsolver, author of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life and reactions from listeners that seem to indicate the beginnings of "eat local" fatigue. Lives are busy, the world is vast, and some worry that in advancing food culture and quality we may go too far in diminishing a trend toward specialization that allows people to focus on what they love and do best. Krista Tippett is devoted to promoting healthy, respectful, thoughtful dialogue between dissenting viewpoints, and her piece offers great food-for-thought as a new year in our "food life" begins.