Friday, August 28, 2009

Soda Pop Stop

John Nese is the proprietor of Galcos Soda Pop Stop in LA. His father ran it as a grocery store, and when the time came for John to take charge, he decided to convert it into the ultimate soda-lovers destination. About 500 pops line the shelves, sourced lovingly by John from around the world. John has made it his mission to keep small soda-makers afloat and help them find their consumers. Galcos also acts as a distributor for restaurants and bars along the West Coast, spreading the gospel of soda made with cane sugar (no high-fructose corn syrup if John can avoid it).

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Unfortunate Sex Life of the Banana

Written by Matt Castle on 24 August 2009

The humble banana almost seems like a miracle of nature. Colourful, nutritious, and much cherished by children, monkeys and clowns, it has a favoured position in the planet’s fruitbowls. The banana is vitally important in many regions of the tropics, where different parts of the plant are used for clothing, paper and tableware, and where the fruit itself is an essential dietary staple. People across the globe appreciate the soft, nourishing flesh, the snack-sized portions, and the easy-peel covering that conveniently changes colour to indicate ripeness. Individual fruit—or fingers—sit comfortably in the human hand, readily detached from their close-packed companions. Indeed, the banana appears almost purpose-designed for efficient human consumption and distribution. It is difficult to conceive of a more fortuitous fruit.

The banana, however, is a freakish and fragile genetic mutant; one that has survived through the centuries due to the sustained application of selective breeding by diligent humans. Indeed, the “miraculous” banana is far from being a no-strings-attached gift from nature. Its cheerful appearance hides a fatal flaw— one that threatens its proud place in the grocery basket. The banana’s problem can be summed up in a single word: sex.

The banana plant is a hybrid, originating from the mismatched pairing of two South Asian wild plant species: Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana. Between these two products of nature, the former produces unpalatable fruit flesh, and the latter is far too seedy for enjoyable consumption. Nonetheless, these closely related plants occasionally cross-pollinate and spawn seedlings which grow into sterile, half-breed banana plants. Some ten thousand years ago, early human experimenters noted that some of these hybridized Musa bore unexpectedly tasty, seedless fruit in addition to an unheard-of yellowness and inexplicably amusing shape. They also proved an excellent source of carbohydrates and other important nutrients.

wild_bananaA seed-packed wild musa (banana)Despite the hybrid’s unfortunate sexual impotence, shrewd would-be agriculturalists realised that the plants could be cultivated from suckering shoots and cuttings taken from the underground stem. The genetically identical progeny produced this way remained sterile, yet the new plant could be widely propagated with human help. An intensive and prolonged process of selective breeding—aided by the variety of hybrids and occasional random genetic mutations—eventually evolved the banana into its present familiar form. Arab traders carried these new wonderfruit to Africa, and Spanish conquistadors relayed them onwards to the Americas. Thus the tasty new banana was spared from an otherwise unavoidable evolutionary dead-end.

Today, bananas and their close relatives, the starchy plantains, grow in a number of different varieties or cultivars. Among temperate palates, the most familiar is the Cavendish, a shapely and sweet-tasting dessert banana. This is the banana found in the supermarkets, splits, and milkshakes of the developed world. It is exported on an industrial scale from commercial plantations in the tropics. Every Cavendish is genetically identical, possessing the same pleasant taste (which is somewhat lacking in more subtle flavours according to banana aficionados). They also all share the same potential for yellow curvaceousness and the same susceptibility to disease.

Although there are numerous other banana and plantain varieties cultivated for local consumption in Africa and Asia, none has the same worldwide appeal as the Cavendish. While these other varieties display more genetic variability, all come from the same sterile Musa hybrids which so delighted our forebears thousands of years ago. Likewise none of them have enjoyed the benefits of the frenzied gene-shuffling facilitated by sexual congress.

Stuck with the clunky, inefficient cloning of asexual reproduction, the sterile banana is at a serious disadvantage in the never-ending biological arms race between plant and pest. Indeed, it is a well-established fact that bananas are particularly prone to crop-consuming insects and diseases. A severe outbreak of banana disease could easily spread through the genetically uniform plantations, devastating economies and depriving our fruitbowls. Varieties grown for local consumption would also suffer, potentially causing mass starvation in tropical regions.

banana_bagBanana bunches in protective isolation.This scenario may seem preposterous, but researchers all over the world are earnestly exploring the possibility. The custodians of the beloved banana are all too aware of the potential for a banana apocalypse— because it has already happened in the fruit’s past. And the next time could be much worse.

Until the middle of the twentieth century, most bananas on sale in the developed world belonged to the Gros Michel cultivar. These bananas were sweet and tasty and didn’t spoil too quickly, making them eminently suitable for commercial export. Old-timers contend that in flavour and convenience, the Gros Michel outshone even the current top-banana, the Cavendish. Yet from the early twentieth century, large plantations of ‘Big Mike’ proved increasingly fertile ground for a fungal leaf affliction known as Panama disease. Affected crops would soon deteriorate into rotting piles of unprofitable vegetation. As the century progressed, commercial growers found themselves in a desperate race against time, making doomed attempts to establish new plantations in disease-free areas of rainforest before the fungus arrived.

In the 1950s the Vietnamese Cavendish came to the rescue. Banana companies delayed switching from Big Mike for as long as possible due to the necessary changes in growing, storage, and ripening infrastructure, and many producers teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. As Big Mike started pushing up daisies, banana plantations frantically reconfigured, and by the mid 1960s the changeover was largely complete. The distinct—and now extinct—taste of Big Mike was quickly lost to the fickle public memory. Cavendish was king.

It has done a sterling job in the intervening years, yet now the Cavendish is starting to struggle in its own contest against contagion. In the 1970s a disease named Black Sigatoka was beaten back with enthusiastic applications of pesticide, but more recently a new strain of the original bane of the banana has threatened the plantations. Since 1992 a vigorous, pesticide-tolerant strain of Panama disease has been wiping out bananas—including previously resistant crops of Cavendish—in Southeast Asia. It has yet to reach the large commercial plantations in Latin America, but most banana-watchers believe that this is only a matter of time.

navel_orangeA navel orange and its underdeveloped siamese twinOpinions differ on how long the Cavendish can survive the new onslaught, and on the best way to tackle the threat. This time, unfortunately, there is no obvious back-up variety waiting in the wings. So far, banana science has provided scant few approaches for improving disease resistance. One method involves the traditional techniques of selective breeding: although banana plants are clones, very occasionally they can be persuaded to produce seeds through a painstaking process of hand pollination. Only one fruit in three hundred will produce a seed, and of these seeds only one in three will have the correct chromosomal configuration to allow germination. The seeds are laboriously extracted by straining tons of mashed fruit through fine meshes. Research stations in commercial banana growing countries, such as Honduras, engage large squads of banana sex workers for such tasks, and to screen the new plant varieties for favourable characteristics.

Another fruit subject to such human-assisted reproduction is the ubiquitous navel orange. It, too, was the result of a serendipitous mutation, this one from an orange tree in Brazil in the mid-1800s. Each orange on this particular tree was found to have a tiny, underdeveloped twin sharing its skin, causing a navel-like formation opposite the stem. These strange siamese citruses were much sweeter than the fruit of their parent trees, and delightfully seedless. Since the new tree was unable to reproduce naturally, caretakers amputated some of its limbs and grafted them onto other citrus trees to produce more of the desirable fruit. Even today navel oranges are produced through such botanical surgery, and all of the navel oranges everywhere are direct descendants—essentially genetic clones—of those from that original tree.

As for the Cavendish, its last best hope may lie in genetic modification (GM). The University of Leuven in Belgium is a world centre in banana research due to its colonial connections with Africa. Belgian banana scientists have become skilled in using DNA-transfer to introduce disease-resistance genes directly into the plant’s genome. These less labour-intensive methods promise a way to develop stronger, fitter, happier and more productive bananas.

fruity_flash“Fruity Flash” by José Mª Andrés Martín. Prints available.In 2007, Ugandan field trials of the first Leuven uber-banana were announced, although public distaste of the idea of GM foods may impede its long term success. And in Honduras, researchers have developed a banana cultivar named ‘Goldfinger’ through traditional selective breeding methods. Although it has enjoyed some public acceptance in Australia, it suffers from the drawbacks of a distinctly different, non-Cavendish flavour, and a longer maturation time. If nothing else, these advances offer hope that science will one day overcome the unfortunate sexual inadequacies of the banana. Let us hope so, otherwise the resulting bananageddon will ensure that the Cavendish goes the way of Big Mike, and future generations of fruit lovers will have to find some other curved yellow food to complement their ice cream.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Get-Slim Food List

15 Foods To Help You Lose
WebMD Feature from "Good Housekeeping" MagazineBy Denise Foley
Want To Curb Your Appetite And Stop Sugar Cravings? Then Put These On Your Grocery List.
Thirty billion a year -- that's about how much Americans spend on slim-down products, many of which don't even work. A better way to get real weight-loss results? Go grocery shopping. New research points to more than a dozen foods, from beans to beef, that can help you fight hunger, kick your candy addiction, boost your metabolism-and ultimately shed pounds. And some of these superfoods deliver health bonuses too.
1. Eggs. Skip the bagel this morning. Eggs, which are full of protein, will help you feel fuller longer-a lot longer. A multicenter study of 30 overweight or obese women found that those who ate two scrambled eggs (with two slices of toast and a reduced-calorie fruit spread) consumed less for the next 36 hours than women who had a bagel breakfast of equal calories. Other research has shown that protein may also prevent spikes in blood sugar, which can lead to food cravings.
2. Beans. You've probably never heard of cholecystokinin, but it's one of your best weight-loss pals. This digestive hormone is a natural appetite suppressant. So how do you get more cholecystokinin? One way, report researchers at the University of California at Davis, is by eating beans: A study of eight men found that their levels of the hormone (which may work by keeping food in your stomach longer) were twice as high after a meal containing beans than after a low-fiber meal containing rice and dry milk. There's also some evidence that beans keep blood sugar on an even keel, so you can stave off hunger longer. Heart-health bonus: High-fiber beans can lower your cholesterol.
3. Salad. Do you tend to stuff yourself at meals? Control that calorie intake by starting with a large salad (but hold the creamy dressing). In a study of 42 women at Penn State University, those who ate a big, low-cal salad consumed 12 percent less pasta afterward-even though they were offered as much as they wanted. The secret, say researchers, is the sheer volume of a salad, which makes you feel too full to pig out. Health bonus: A study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that people who ate one salad a day with dressing had higher levels of vitamins C and E, folic acid, lycopene, and carotenoids-all disease fighters-than those who didn't add salad to their daily menu.
4. Green tea. The slimming ingredient isn't caffeine. Antioxidants called catechins are what help speed metabolism and fat burning. In a recent Japanese study, 35 men who drank a bottle of oolong tea mixed with green tea catechins lost weight, boosted their metabolism, and had a significant drop in their body mass index. Health bonus: The participants also lowered their (bad) LDL cholesterol.

5. Pears. They're now recognized as having more fiber, thanks to a corrected calculation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. At six grams (formerly four grams) per medium-size pear, they're great at filling you up. Apples come in second, with about three grams per medium-size fruit. Both contain pectin fiber, which decreases blood-sugar levels, helping you avoid between-meal snacking. This may explain why, in a Brazilian study that lasted 12 weeks, overweight women who ate three small pears or apples a day lost more weight than women on the same diet who ate three oat cookies daily instead of the fruit.
6. Soup. A cup of chicken soup is as appetite blunting as a piece of chicken: That was the finding of a Purdue University study with 18 women and 13 men. Why? Researchers speculate that even the simplest soup satisfies hunger because your brain perceives it as filling.
7. Lean beef. It's what's for dinner-or should be, if you're trying to shed pounds. The amino acid leucine, which is abundant in proteins like meat and fish as well as in dairy products, can help you pare down while maintaining calorie-burning muscle. That's what it did for 24 overweight middle-aged women in a study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Eating anywhere from nine to 10 ounces of beef a day on a roughly 1,700-calorie diet helped the women lose more weight, more fat, and less muscle mass than a control group consuming the same number of calories, but less protein. The beef eaters also had fewer hunger pangs.
8. Olive oil. Fight off middle-age pounds with extra virgin olive oil. A monounsaturated fat, it'll help you burn calories. In an Australian study, 12 postmenopausal women (ages 57 to 73) were given a breakfast cereal dressed either with a mixture of cream and skim milk or half an ounce of olive oil and skim milk. The women who ate the oil-laced muesli boosted their metabolism. Don't want to add olive oil to your oatmeal? That's OK-it works just as well in salad dressings, as a bread dip, or for sautéing.
9. Grapefruit. It's back! A 2006 study of 91 obese people conducted at the Nutrition and Metabolic Research Center at Scripps Clinic found that eating half a grapefruit before each meal or drinking a serving of the juice three times a day helped people drop more than three pounds over 12 weeks. The fruit's phytochemicals reduce insulin levels, a process that may force your body to convert calories into energy rather than flab.
10. Cinnamon. Sprinkle it on microwave oatmeal or whole-grain toast to help cure those mid-afternoon sugar slumps. Research from the U.S.
Department of Agriculture found that a little cinnamon can help control post-meal insulin spikes, which make you feel hungry. Health bonus: One USDA study showed that just a quarter teaspoon of cinnamon a day lowered the blood sugar, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels in people with type 2 diabetes.
11. Vinegar. It's a great filler-upper. In a Swedish study, researchers found that people who ate bread dipped in vinegar felt fuller than those who had their slices plain. The probable reason: Acetic acid in the vinegar may slow the passage of food from the stomach into the small intestine, so your tummy stays full longer. Vinegar can also short-circuit the swift blood-sugar rise that occurs after you eat refined carbs such as white bread, cookies, and crackers.
12. Tofu. It seems too light to be filling, but a study at Louisiana State University showed that tofu does the job. Researchers tested it against chicken as a pre-meal appetizer for 42 overweight women-and the participants who had tofu ate less food during the meal. The secret: Tofu is an appetite-quashing protein.
13. Nuts. Yes, they are fattening: A handful of peanuts is about 165 calories. But research shows that people who snack on nuts tend to be slimmer than those who don't. A study from Purdue University found that when a group of 15 normal-weight people added about 500 calories worth of peanuts to their regular diet, they consumed less at subsequent meals. The participants also revved up their resting metabolism by 11 percent, which means they burned more calories even when relaxing. Health bonus: Walnuts contain omega-3 fatty acids. And researchers at Loma Linda University recently found that eating 10 to 20 whole pecans daily can reduce heart disease risks.
14. High-fiber cereal. Studies show that you can curb your appetite by eating a bowl for breakfast. But how well does it really work? Researchers at the VA Medical Center and the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis tested the theory against the ultimate diet challenge: the buffet table. They gave 14 volunteers one of five cereals before sending them out to the smorgasbord. Those who'd had the highest-fiber cereal ate less than those who didn't have as much fiber in the morning. Try General Mills Fiber One (14 grams per serving) or Kellogg's All Bran With Extra Fiber (13 grams per serving).
15. Hot red pepper. Eating a bowl of spicy chili regularly can help you lose weight. In a Japanese study, 13 women who ate breakfast foods with red pepper (think southwestern omelet) ate less than they normally did at lunch. The magic ingredient may be capsaicin, which helps suppress appetite.

Saturday, August 8, 2009