A (clean) apple a day

Honey Crisp (and... Sweet Tango!)

Honey Crisp (and... Sweet Tango!)

Kitchen Bliss shares recipes with short preambles, as well as longer reflective blog posts like this. I maintain a list of ideas I plan to blog about, then run afoul of plans when I experience convergences that become irresistible diversions. So it was with CBC’s recent re-run of “New Green Giants” (originally aired in 2013). It forced me to re-visit my thoughts and habits on food choices – including the world of “organics”. 

Warning: this blog post is filled with questions, reflections and dilemmas – and no definitive answers or personal advice. Comments are welcome if you wish to clarify, correct or enhance this content.

I do not routinely purchase organic foods partly because it is my understanding that there is not (yet) enough regulation or rigour attached to the use of the term. Yes it is also more costly, but perhaps worth it if there was a clearer guarantee re what I’d be purchasing – the CFIA’s label “certified organic” is aiming for that standard. The documentary turned up the heat a bit on my inner debate – organics – yes or no? And what does “organic” actually mean?

Here's the Wikipedia definition - “organic farming in general features cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers are not allowed, although certain approved pesticides may be used. In general, organic foods are also not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents, or synthetic food additives”. In brief – chemical free food, produced in a manner that nourishes and sustains Mother Nature.

At one point, the documentary refers to the “Dirty Dozen” – a list of foods that have the highest levels of pesticides. I’ll pause here while you click on the link and look at the list. (See also.) A fruit that always makes the “dirty” list is one that I eat every day – because there does seem to be some truth to the maxim that “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” – sort of. A 2015 Harvard study found that “evidence does not support that an apple a day keeps the doctor away; however, the small fraction of US adults who eat an apple a day do appear to use fewer prescription medications.”

My favourite apple is Honey Crisp and whether buying them at the market or the grocery store I close my eyes when paying because they are so expensive. Relatively speaking, they are a newer strain of apple linked to research at the University of Minnesota which copyrighted the name in 2007. The high price is linked to the mismatch between popularity and availability. The race is on to grow more of these pricey apples - even Nova Scotia is busy replacing older Macintosh trees with Honey Crisp. 

So how can I ensure that my favourite, healthy and expensive apple is not "dirty" - is free from chemicals, pesticides and other nasty stuff? To be safe, I have to clean it myself – and the solution involves water – running water

The goal is to optimally remove pesticides and chemicals – but let’s not forget about all the surfaces it might have come into contact with, as well as all the hands that touched that apple before I bought it. (Remember those scares when grocery produce was handled by an employee with Hepatitis A?) So, add germs, bacteria and nasty organisms to the list of what needs to be removed. A water bath or soak may only re-distribute all the nastiness – hence it has to be running water. So, I am trying to “be good” – I am eating healthy food and cleaning it – at the cost of seeing that valuable commodity called water go down the drain – and my water bill go up, because - don’t forget - this does not apply only to apples. Look back at the list – there’s celery, lettuce, sweet peppers and more… 

Is running water enough? The team at ATK’s Cook’s Illustrated did the test for us (removing pesticides and bacteria), and concluded that superior results were attained when fruits / vegetables were first sprayed with a vinegar solution.

If memorizing the Dirty Dozen is not enough, I am left wondering if the Clean 15 is really clean. Clean from pesticides, maybe… but I recall a warning some years ago about melons transmitting e-coli and salmonella. Seems this is more likely with imported melons, and since the organisms are on the exterior, we are advised to wash them before cutting. Symptoms from related illnesses may not appear until up to 72 hours later – so how do we identify culprits?

Perplexing? Troubling?

My aim here is not to be alarmist – I am simply reflecting back the information that pops up in everyday media. I have not (yet) developed food phobias, but sorting it all out makes my brain hurt and this does not even address the conflicting research results linked to the goodness or badness of chocolate or caffeine or red wine. What seems clear is the need to clean certain fruits and vegetables in order to avoid ingesting toxic chemicals. Clean is good, right?

Or maybe “clean” can also be bad!? We are now being routinely reminded that we may have “overdone clean”; that there seems to be a link between asthma / allergies and our little antibacterial worlds; that dirt is good. 

Dirt, as in soil - rich in good bacteria, microbes and organisms. Our use of words complicates things. There does seem to be an imperative to “clean” the Dirty Dozen foods contaminated with toxins. But “dirt” is good when it refers to soil that is rich with beneficial organisms and microbes. And bacteria is not always bad.

We are now hearing a lot about:

  • Microbiomes. “Microbes are not only around us, they live on and in us. Although some cause maladies ranging from food poisoning to smallpox, there are many we couldn't live without. Beneficial microbes break down food and produce vitamins in our guts. They coat our skin, protecting us from attacks by harmful microbes. Outside our bodies, they decompose organic waste, fix nitrogen and produce half the world's oxygen.” [Source: Suzuki]
  • Gut microbiomes. Scientists refer to the microbial communities on and in our bodies as "microbiomes". Every one of us hosts as many as 100 trillion microbes — our guts alone are home to 500 to 1,000 different bacteria species! And those gut microbiomes are being linked to more and more wellness topics - such as inflammation, obesity. Check out The Nature of Things' "It Takes Guts".
  • Farm Effect. How kids living on farms have lower incidences of allergic sensitization. See also - The Allergy Fix.
  • Dirt. That we should get outside and get dirty – and while we’re at it we need to pay attention to the soil crisis - the danger of it becoming seriously diminished by mid-century.

Crikey! When and why did growing, eating and digesting food become so complicated?

All in all, this has not been an upbeat blog entry. Maybe I'll think about it tomorrow, but “facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” (Huxley). My brain-hurting struggle with all this information may in part be due to the fact that I am not a science major. I have nonetheless aimed at reading and referring to reliable sources. 

I ponder as I reach for today’s apple. I still become easily excited about food and have noticed that “Honey Crisp 2.0” is in the works – it will arrive under the name(s) Sweet Tango and Cosmic Crisp

Footnote – I just got my hands on my first Sweet Tango. “Tango”… step, step, step, long pause – kind of describes the dance of trying to figure all this out.

Every blog post links to a recipe and this one calls for a healthy apple recipe – click here for easy Apple Clusters!

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