The Avant Gardener

My first trek into the community garden plot Saturday was glorious! A sunny, breezy Saturday morning. I would like a week of those, please.

It’s time for this farm girl to get reacculturated into toiling in the soil. I’ve developed a bit of a complex surrounding gardening. I grew up on a farm with a sizeable garden. My experience: when you put things in the ground and they get enough water, they grow. I’m starting to wonder if that’s a simplistic perspective or if that’s the truth and I’m actually over-thinking it. Only time will tell!

I’ve waited three years for this coveted garden spot. It’s along a happenin’ bike path, near the cool community center and a block from my fave coffee shop. My plot is 15×17 and slopes downward. I’m not sure yet if I’ll construct some terraforming (my trip last fall to Peru has me intrigued on that agricultural angle) or if I’ll make some large mounds.

I used the rake I hauled over haphazardly on my bike to scrape off last year’s straw. My arsenal of gardening tools is currently non-existant, so I borrowed my plot neighbors’ shovel and  removed some wayward weeds. As my grandfather said, “A weed is anything that grows where you don’t want it to.” Among the weeds were some scallions/onions/leftovers from last year that had formed a sort of uni-union… It made me think of a rat king. It was an onion king. The onion king is dead. There are also a bed of tulips between my plot and the bike path, but they’re not doing so hot. There are no blooms and it appears they weren’t buried deep enough. Their bulbs are showing, their buds are not. I may have to dig them up.

I wheel-barrowed (it was a borrowed barrow) my straw-cetera to the community pile and hauled back a few loads of rich, dark compost. All in all, it took an hour, but then I laid back in the nearby grass and soaked in some sun. It was lovely to make light conversation with dog-walking neighbors who ambled by. One commented on the rhubarb in the neighboring plot. I didn’t even realize it was rhubarb. For farmgirl shame!

I’ve got seedlings growing under my kitchen table, which was the best spot to hang my borrowed grow lamps. Three types of tomatoes are sprouting, as are green peppers, kale,

The green beans are running the show under the table and the peas are strong understudies. There’s some rosemary and Thai basil making an entrance, but not too dramatically. I’ve got designs on some cilantro once the other guys are in the ground. Hopefully, the weather will cooperate with my plans to make that happen on Labor Day weekend, for I’m headed to Colorado for a work/backpacking trip soon after! Then I’ll construct an anti-rabbit fence and employ my gardening sidekicks to vigilantly guard the plot.

May your early gardening be as exciting as mine, and/or may you live vicariously through my gardening adventures. Here’s a little gardening soundtrack for your ears.

2014: The Year of the Label

What’s in a name? Or, more appropriately for food manufacturers, what’s on a label? In 2014, this question will be analyzed from angles we’ve yet to imagine. 

While the federal government struggles to implement the Food Safety and Modernization Act, industry groups and large food processors are taking up the mantle to define food labeling. For some large processors, the sustainable practices often associated with this type of labeling, as well as the larger consumer movement for food information, have become part of corporate strategy and reliable ingredient sourcing. Food manufacturers are wise to keep a close watch on these developing trends to best position their operations for changes in both labeling and the product content it describes.

GMOs: General Mills kicked off 2014 by slapping “Not Made With Genetically Modified Ingredients” labeling on boxes of original Cheerios. The breakfast classic’s primary ingredient, oats, made the transition simple because that crop’s never been genetically modified. But, like green grocery innovator Whole Foods’ demand that suppliers label GMO content by 2018, such moves by big players are a bellwether of what could become the norm.

Food manufacturers are keeping a hawk’s eye on GMO labeling policy. Campbell Soup Co. Vice President of Manufacturing Mark Cacciatore said in an interview in December “… we need consistency in legislation. It would be chaos for us if there were different [GMO labeling] requirements in different parts of the country.”

Last year, 26 states introduced GMO labeling legislation, sparking several highly publicized and narrowly defeated votes. Only two states succeeded: Maine and Connecticut passed GMO labeling laws that go into effect only if four other large states also implement labeling laws. Several states are already proposing laws regarding GMO agriculture and foods this year.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) is pitching a federal GMO policy that would make the labeling voluntary, preempt state laws on GMO labels and shift much of the responsibility of OKing GMO foods to the Food and Drug Administration.

Natural: In the same proposal, the GMA wants the FDA to define the term “natural” and preempt states from defining the word. The FDA admits “natural” is difficult to define. It hasn’t objected to foods labeled “natural” if they’re free of added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances. But that’s advice, not law. In the last year, well-known manufacturers including Pepperidge Farms, Naked Juice, Ben & Jerry’s and Frito-Lay dropped the word from their labeling and marketing as suspect ingredients were called into question amid a flurry of class-action suits. 

Sustainable: McDonald’s recently vowed to source only “verified sustainable beef” for its burgers by 2016. This year, the fast food giant said it aspires to support development of global principles and criteria for that beef. “Sustainable,” like “natural” is another labeling term that lacks uniform definition.

Nutrition Labeling: Facts Up Front, the front-of-package nutrition labeling initiative spearheaded by the GMA and Food Marketing Institute in 2011, is expected to unleash a $50 million ad campaign. Supporters including General Mills, Kraft and Mondelez International will likely fund their own promotion of the labeling. The GMA said as many as 80 percent of products from participating manufacturers will display Facts Up Front by the end of 2014.

Food Date Labels: In its campaign against food waste, the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) has honed in on food date labels printed on packaging. Often interpreted by consumers and retailers as expiration dates, the council and some manufacturers say this date instead indicates peak freshness. As the date comes and goes, confused consumers toss the food out due to safety concerns. This could add up to hundreds of dollars’ worth of annual waste for American households. The NRDC calls for a simpler date labeling system for food. Though the FDA and USDA regulate food label dating, they don’t define the date terms, leaving it up to states. Lack of an industry-wide definition equals more food in dumpsters, according to the NRDC. 

Food labeling is the industry topic to watch in 2014. Food Manufacturing will keep you posted with daily news, articles and blogs at

This article originally appeared in Food Manufacturing’s January/February 2014 print issue.

Food is Going to Pot

Edibles, special brownies or adult cookies. Call the THC-infused foods now legally on the market in Colorado and Washington what you will. The regional legalization of recreational marijuana opens a door for niche food manufacturers, though some consumers are finding it hard to swallow.

ABC News said the products are flying off of the shelves to the point that retailers are imposing purchase limits. In fact, one edibles company is investing in a new 30,000-square-foot manufacturing facility and warehouse to meet demand. Like wine tours and cheese tastings, THC-infused edibles offer an intriguing new educational experience for foodies in locales where it’s legal. Twenty states and the District of Columbia allow medical cannabis use. Given the current tide of decriminalization and palliative legalization, the edibles market is buzzworthy indeed.

The Washington Post reports the push toward legalized and taxed marijuana has roots in states’ financial desperation. The paper publication also posits that forays into natural health cures and citizen skepticism about government regulation (and perhaps hilariously kitschy propaganda) are cultivating consumer interest in cannabis. Edibles offer an alternative for those who’d rather not smoke. Hemp, the male cannabis plant, is also gaining more acceptance as an extremely renewable source of fiber for cloth and paper.

But this is America, so naysayers killing the vibe are definitely in supply.

Recently, The New York Times ran a column penned by a mother whose 21-year-old son unknowingly ate a roommate’s THC-infused chocolate bar. The man ended up in the hospital, yet sustained no lasting injuries. But don’t blame the manufacturer. He ate a “4:20 Bar” wrapped in a very explicit label detailing its THC content and the recommended serving size. It’s unfortunate that he had a bad experience, but he’s an adult. And an allergic reaction to peanuts would cause more lasting harm.

Won’t someone think of the children?

Another New York Times article stated that “. . .  like flavored cigarettes or wine coolers, critics say, edible marijuana offers a dangerously easy on-ramp for younger users.” Yet Boone’s Farm and Mike’s Hard Lemonade are perfectly legal. That’s where adult supervision comes in. The article follows that, “Marijuana, even if consumed by children in high doses, poses few of the grave dangers of overdosing on alcohol or drinking household chemicals.” In environments with young children, it’s common sense to hide the edibles, just like responsibly stashing liquor and Draino out of their reach. Accordingly, manufacturers have a responsibility to label their products accordingly and to refrain from advertising that would attract children.

Foods containing THC shouldn’t be any more maligned than alcoholic beverages.

Countless booze-soaked foods are on the market. My dad likes to hand out Grand Marnier chocolates at Christmas. A local bar dispenses amazing vodka-soaked gummy bears. A former coworker bestowed Old Kentucky Bourbon Chocolates upon the office folk around Derby time. I’m sure we’ve all had a few too many Jell-O shots once or twice.  It’s a personal and parental responsibility to police what’s being munched on.

On a recent trip to Peru, I drank copious cups of coca tea to calm altitude sickness. Without coca candy, I couldn’t have made it through the four-day Inca Trail hike, including a 13,775-foot peak. Coca, the plant whose leaves are used to create the addictive drug cocaine, has been used harmlessly for centuries in high-altitude parts of Peru. Shops in the country sell candy and cookies infused with the leaf’s active ingredient. Sure, if you consume too much, you’re bound to have an unfavorable reaction. But that’s a personal choice. If a consumer has nausea, a headache or would rather not drink but still itches for some stress relief, edibles are an accessible answer where legally allowed.

Some edibles producers load more than average food manufacturing technology into their production processes. These aren’t your garden-variety Phish concert brownies.

Dixie Elixirs and Edibles, the previously mentioned expanding edibles manufacturer, extracts cannabis oil with CO2 and concentrates it. The company conducts lab tests on the extracts and products at three stages in the manufacturing process to ensure proper dosage. Getting legitimate processors involved in manufacturing this kind of food is much safer for consumers than the randomly produced varieties available at festivals probably near you. Technology in edibles production also opens a door for food manufacturing equipment makers who are willing to cater to the budding market.

Adding to the viability of edibles manufacturing is the Obama administration’s recently issued guidelines for banks working with legitimate marijuana enterprises. Meant to instill confidence in doing this previously illicit business, banks say the guidelines aren’t sufficient and the government seems to be blowing smoke. However, several similar small edicts add up to eventual major policy shifts.

It’s not a business model for everyone, particularly those outside of states that currently allow cannabis sales, but THC-infused edibles is a niche market with high profit potential.

Food Additives Go Au Natural

A quick Google search of “food additives” yields first-page results including the terms “avoid,” “scariest,” “evil” and “sketchy.” The court of public opinion has handed down a verdict that food manufacturers would be wise to heed. By popular demand, the natural additives are coming.

Shorter, simpler and therefore “cleaner” food labels are in high demand by health-conscious consumers. Manufacturers face a reformulation challenge: consistently adapt the product to the previous version’s flavor, color, mouthfeel and shelf stability. Some large food manufacturers are complying piecemeal with natural additive demand while attempting to maintain the quality of their products.

Kraft Foods is on a natural-additive tear. Last October, Kraft vowed to cut artificial dyes from three varieties of mac and cheese that come in kid-friendly pasta shapes. In February, the company pledged to remove artificial preservatives from its most popular varieties of Singles cheese slices by replacing sorbic acid with natamycin. This naturally occurring anti-fungal agent, produced by bacteria during fermentation, is commonly found in soil.  What’s so bad about sorbic acid? It’s just not “natural.”

“Natural” lacks legal definition, but has generally agreed-upon parameters. The FDA washes its hands of total authority, admitting that “[b]ecause of inherent limitations of science, FDA can never be absolutely [emphasis theirs] certain of the absence of any risk from the use of any substance.” Hence consumer demand for natural food additives.

What’s all of the food fuss about? I trace the current wave of the new American food consciousness to Michael Pollan. The author, in his 2008 New York Times Best Seller “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” postulated that it’s healthiest to abstain from eating foods and ingredients your grandmother wouldn’t recognize. Pollan refers to highly manufactured foods as “food-like substances.” Cue the rush to all things natural in order to promote health in an era riddled with obesity and chronic disease.

As international trade erases borders, consumers are increasingly turning to foods whose sources and ingredients are more transparent. People who spend their days inundated by technology are finding comfort in simple, classic foods and home cooking. But most food purists simply can’t spend all of their extra hours in a flour-dusted apron. The next-best alternative? Eat processed foods that contain as few ingredients as possible, preferably natural. That’s where manufacturers come in.

Consumers want transparency and choice. If they can afford it, they’ll avoid health risks. In the information age, consumer sentiment is forcing the government’s hand.

For instance, the FDA is currently investigating caramel coloring in soft drinks and other foods after Consumer Reports tested them for chemical 4-methylimidazole (4-Mel), an impurity formed at low levels in some caramel coloring during manufacturing. The FDA hasn’t established a maximum 4-Mel level, though Consumer Reports urged the agency to set one.

When it comes to additives, the FDA is charged with finding reasonable certainty of no harm to consumers when used as suggested. Note that recently banned trans fats were considered innovative when Proctor & Gamble began selling “crystallized cottonseed oil,” branded as Crisco, in 1911. They were effectively banned mere months ago. Wary consumers might be ahead of their time.

Manufacturers’ investigations into more natural ingredients encourages a shift in the additive market. Packaged Facts has acknowledged slack and falling demand in several artificial food additive categories, and forecasts that R&D within the natural additives industry will lead to development of new natural additives and colorings. This transition to natural ingredients will be easier for large manufacturers whose economies of scale afford them more flexibility, but eventually small manufacturers are likely to go with the natural additive flow.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2014 print issue of Food Manufacturing.

Antibiotics and Pigs’ Blood: You Are What What You Eat Eats

Despite the title, I’m not blogging after too many drinks or while performing some satanic ritual. What I mean to say is: If you are what you eat, then you are also what your food gets its nourishment from. Two recent cases might quell your appetite.

Case One: Antibiotics in animal feed. The FDA announced last week that 25 pharmaceutical companies would voluntarily phase out antibiotics used in feed to promoting animal growth. The drugs were initially meant to eliminate illnesses in animals, as they are in humans. But in the in the 1970s, scientists noticed antibiotics made for bigger livestock. Heavier animals fetch higher prices at market, so antibiotics became a common animal-feed additive. Then, as exposure to those antibiotics worked through the food chain, humans started to show more tolerance to antibiotics used to treat illnesses. It seemed that pathogens in human bodies were reacting to the antibiotics introduced in animal bodies. The CDC called for a change in antibiotic practices last year, attributing 23,000 deaths annually toinfections resistant to antibiotics.

According to consumer group The Organic Center, “Statistics released by FDA show that animal production uses over 29 million pounds of antibiotics annually. If everyone chose just one organic product out of every 10 they purchased, we could eliminate over 2.5 million pounds of unnecessary antibiotic use each year. That could go a long way in reducing the development of antibiotic resistance.”


The FDA is taking heed and hopefully we’ll have those pathogens under control soon. In the meantime, some companies, like Chick-Fil-A, are switching to meat from antibiotic-free animals to appease the concerned public.

That’s a start on antibiotics, as The New York Times editorial board encourages, but jury is still out on this next issue.

Case Two: Porcine Blood.

The Wall Street Journal reports that porcine plasma, a powder made from pigs’ blood and mixed into animal feed, may be spreading the Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea (PED) virus. It’s what’s for dinner! A reduced U.S. pork herd could lead to higher costs for manufacturers of pork foods like lunchmeat and, everyone’s favorite, bacon. Retailers and consumers are likely to feel a hog shortage in their wallet too. The spread of PED also makes U.S. pork exports less appealing to trading partners.

In the age of information, consumers can find out almost anything about their food. And they care about what what they eat eats. Consumers are also becoming more interested in how their food lived and even died. Animal rights groups are pushing for better treatment of hogs during gestation and chickens during slaughter.

Where do you stand on the use of antibiotics and animal rights in food production?

This blog was originally posted on on April 3, 2014.

Butter Tales and Saturated Fat Stories

My father, Lynn Henschen, center front, has been proudly eating butter for 56 years. He's pictured here on his family farm in Central Illinois circa 1960 with my grandfather LaVerne, left, Uncle Terry, right, and great grandfather Albert, center back.

My father, Lynn Henschen, center front, has been proudly eating butter for 56 years. He’s pictured here on his family farm in Central Illinois circa 1960 with my grandfather LaVerne, left, Uncle Terry, right, and great grandfather Albert, center back.

I never thought I’d say this, but my dad was right all along.

For the last 15 years or so, my brothers, sister and I (and probably my mom) have been somewhat cruelly teasing my father about his love for dairy, particularly butter. There must be butter in the house at all times. Sour cream and milk are similar staples. A temporary dairy shortage in the kitchen is a veritable natural disaster. Of course, those foods are a way of life for a man who grew up on a second-generation dairy farm. In my youth, each trip to a restaurant (likely a steakhouse) meant Dad was ordering a T-bone and baked potato with extra sour cream and butter.

Delicious? Of course. Healthy? Hardly. Or so we thought. A recently published meta-analysis of health studies shows that saturated fats don’t have the deleterious effects on heart health that were preached for decades. While more research into the matter is necessary, these findings shut the refrigerator door on a dry slice of food history.

At the same time, recent data shows a 25 percent jump consumption of butter in the last decade, bringing it to a 40-year high. Part of that equation is a shift away from trans fats. The consumer trend of preferring less-processed counterparts is undeniable. If there’s one things Americans do well, it’s get on a dietary bandwagonwhole hog.

As far back as I can recall, the nutritional intelligentsia has cycled through crazes that demonize a single food or macronutrient: fat, calories, carbohydrates. But my father, the cattle farmer, Mr. Meat, Milk and Potatoes, stood firm.

According to New York Time food writer Mark Bittman, data show that sugar and ultra-processed foods are the “real villains in our diet.” Given the knee-jerk reversal of opinion on saturated fat, one could choose to take that information with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, ‘less processed=better for you’ is a growing consumer perception. This brings food manufacturers to a fork in the road. One path is to find ways to reduce the processing their wares undergo. The other is to continue in the same direction and see where they end up.

A move toward less-processed food puts many manufacturers in a pickle. But solutions may be simpler than they appear from the outset. There’s a burgeoning science in reformulating foods for shorter shelf-lives and using alternative sweeteners and additives. The move toward less-processed foods isn’t upsetting the applecart; it’s an evolution. One that a growing number of consumers are willing to pay for at the checkout.

When I was a teenager following ‘90s food trends (Surge and Lunchables, anyone?), my father harped on me for refusing to consume any sliver of fat I found in the steaks and roasts abundant in the family’s meal rotation. “That’s the best part,” he’d say. “Your body needs fat to live.” It was true, but teenage-me didn’t want to hear it. I ate as little fat as possible, as did most health-minded folks at the time.

This week, for the first time in years, I brought butter home from the grocery store. Three pounds of it. Now, note that two of those were unsalted and ended up in a cake and icing. The other pound was for personal consumption — over an extended period of time, mind you. I’m not even a quarter of the way through the first stick. But butter is back in my life.

So, along with butter, I’m eating crow. To my dad, the dairy freedom fighter: You were right. The science is in. You can have your cake and eat it too.

This was originally posted on on Feb. 28, 2014.