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January 2017, Volume 23, Number 1

Wine, Food

Sonoma county has 60,000 acres of vineyards and 430 wineries, giving it more acres of vineyard than Napa (40,000), but fewer wineries (475). Wineries create jobs but raise concern about event centers that host weddings and concerts as well as fears of over-pumping groundwater.

Jeffry James Hill was arrested in November 2016, charged with misrepresenting grapes from elsewhere as Napa cabernet sauvignon, the variety that commands the highest prices. Hill began as an agricultural pest advisor and eventually founded the Hill Wine Company in leased facilities. He began to deceive his winery customers when expenses exceeded income.

French wine has the highest average selling price, but there has been downward pressure on French wine prices because of imports from Spain. Vintners in Languedoc-Roussillon region in the southeast protested imports of Spanish bag-in-box (BIB) wine in Fall 2016, saying that French consumers were "confused" when they bought cheaper Spanish BIB wine.

Soda Taxes. Seven US cities and counties tax sugary sodas at a penny an ounce or more, including San Francisco, Philadelphia and Cook county (Chicago). So-called Big Soda is pushing back, arguing that sugary drinks do not increase obesity and diabetes. Mexico has had taxes on sugary sodas since 2013.

Processed food firms have been very successful in persuading Americans to eat foods that include salt, sugar and fat. With local governments searching for new sources of revenue, expanding "sin taxes" from alcohol and cigarettes to sugary drinks and snacks is often justified on both public health and fiscal grounds.

PepsiCo tried to increase sales of healthy snacks and discovered that most consumers want salt, sugar and fat in their snacks. The Lay's brand of potato chips is the best seller, along with Doritos, Cheetos, and Ruffles; it is much easier to tweak Lay's than to develop a new healthy snack and win consumer approval.

There was controversy in December 2016 when a group of researchers supported by the sugar industry argued that there is little evidence that excess sugar increases the incidence of disease. Skeptics argued that sugar and food firms were following the strategy of tobacco firms by supporting "merchants of doubt" who point to other causes of disease, such as saturated fat rather than sugar. The WHO in 2015 recommended that less than 10 percent of daily calories should come from sugar.

Taube argues that sugar has "unique physiological, metabolic, and endocrinological effects" on the human body. Sugar, which has 16 calories per teaspoon, is a carbohydrate that is the source of glucose that powers cells. Insulin is a hormone that transports glucose from the bloodstream into cells and "signals the fat cells to take up fat and hold onto it."

Too much sugar leads to insulin resistance, glucose accumulates in the bloodstream, the pancreas produces more insulin, and the result is obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Taube argues that Big Sugar paid scientists to emphasize the dangers of fat, diverting attention from sugar.

Food. The National Organic Standards Board in Fall 2016 considered whether crops grown in hydroponic and aquaponic systems without dirt can be considered organic. Sales of organic foods topped $40 billion in 2015, prompting some farmers to use soil-free hydroponics to produce fast-growing lettuces and other fruits and vegetables for nearby consumers.

USDA permits crops grown without soil to be labeled organic, prompting criticism from those who grow in soil and say that soil management is integral to organic farming. Most European countries do not allow hydroponically grown produce to be labeled organic.

Sales of natural and organic foods and beverages were $41 billion in 2015, less than 10 percent of total food and beverage sales of $425 billion. There were 50,000 products in a typical grocery store in 2013, including a quarter that sold less than a unit a month.

Restaurants. The US had 638,000 restaurants in 2014, almost half operated by chains. Since then, both independent and chain restaurants closed, leaving the US with 624,000 restaurants at the end of 2016. USDA data show that grocery store food is at its cheapest relative to restaurants since 1985.

US restaurant sales are expected to exceed $780 billion in 2016, including 30 percent in fast-food restaurant sales.

More restaurants are experimenting with no-tipping policies. There are many reasons, including consumer preferences and more equity between wait and kitchen staff, who are often paid only straight wages. New York City's Union Square Hospitality Group was one of the first upscale chains to end tipping.

SNAP. The federal government spent $74 billion in 2016 to help 43 million poor US residents in 23 million households to buy food via the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; the average benefit is $256 a month. A study released in January 2017 found that the single most important purchase of poor SNAP households was soft drinks, accounting for about 10 percent of their food spending. The largest share of food spending for poor non-SNAP households was for milk.

The spending data were collected in 2011 from 26 million households, including three million SNAP households by a large grocery chain. The number one expenditure by all households was soft drinks, followed by milk, cheese, potato chips, beef, cold cereal and baked bread. In SNAP households, 40 percent of food spending was for basic items such as meat, fruits, vegetables, milk, eggs and bread, another 40 percent was for cereal, prepared foods, other dairy products, and rice and beans, and 20 percent was for sweetened beverages, desserts, salty snacks, candy and sugar.

Public health specialists urge changes to SNAP to restrict their use to purchase junk foods. The WIC and school lunch programs have nutrition guidelines that restrict how benefits can be used, but USDA says that it does not want to bar particular foods. Requests from states and cities to bar SNAP recipients from spending their benefits on sugary drinks have been denied. Instead, USDA makes SNAP benefits more valuable if they are used to buy fruits and vegetables.

Specialties. New super foods are emerging, including the leaves of the moringa tree that contain high levels of calcium, potassium and protein whether consumed fresh, dried or cooked. So-called plant waters such as coconut water are expanding to include artichoke and cactus water as alternatives to sugary sport drinks. To reduce meat consumption, some advise eating more tofu and jackfruit, which has a meaty texture and absorbs flavors when it is cooked.

Truffles grow in the roots of oak and filbert trees, and are usually found by trained dogs. Black Perigord truffles are grown on truffiĆ res or truffle farms in France, and can be worth $600 a pound or more in wintertime. The American Truffle Company, which sells trees that have been inoculated with the truffle fungus, is focusing on the Napa Valley, hoping that the prospect of $30,000 an acre from 50 pounds of Perigord truffles per acre will lead to truffle farms near vineyards.

Cuba. Cuba, a country of 11 million people, had 3.5 million foreign visitors in 2015, raising food prices and prompting the government to threaten a crackdown on middlemen. Fresh fruits and vegetables have become rare at state-run markets where prices are kept low, as fruits and vegetables are diverted to the 1,700 private restaurants serving tourists and who are willing to pay more. Usual salaries in Cuba are $25 a month.

Taubes, Gary. 2016. The Case Against Sugar. www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/213737/the-case-against-sugar-by-gary-taubes/9780307701640/