Natural Products Expo West 2011, Part 1: Big Issues

What recession? If the gigantic Natural Products Expo West 2011, held last weekend in Anaheim, Calif., is any indication, things just might be looking up. The expo was even bigger than last year’s record-breaking event. All things organic, natural, sustainable and GMO-free converged on the convention center in a vast trade show of more than 3,500 exhibits and 58,000 attendees.

I spent two days trolling the show floor–at times feeling like a hardworking little sustainable salmon swimming upstream against the tide of people. Of course, I tasted all manner of goodies, but amid the fair-trade quinoa-laced chocolate, myriad coconut-based products and artisanal cheeses, these are two major themes that touched just about everything at the expo:

Say No to GMOs!

GMOs have made headlines in the last few months, as the USDA continues to deregulate genetically engineered crops. That has the organics industry mad as hell and looking for ways to mobilized consumers to demand better regulations and labeling.  The GMO debate was a hot topic everywhere, from the expo floor to overflowing educational sessions. The Non-GMO Project, the third-party certifier of GMO-free products, had a major presence with a big booth and its seal prominently displayed by hundreds of exhibitors.

“At the end of the day, it’s about freedom of choice and taking back our country,” Stonyfield Farms CEO Gary Hirshberg told the audience at an educational session. “This isn’t just about organics vs. GEs. We have a lot more allies in this than we thought.” To be successful, the fight against GMOs has to include the entire range of opponents, from those who support organics to conventional farmers who don’t use GMOs to others who object to messing with nature’s work.

We’ll have more details on what was said about GMO’s at the expo in a future post, including some grass-roots solutions from Europe that may make a difference here.

Origins Count

Some foods have always been about origin–gourmet chocolate and coffee are just two examples. Now producers and manufacturers of all kinds of other commodities are looking for ways to share the story behind a product; telling consumers where it comes from, who produces it and under what conditions. Why? We want to know that food was sustainably produced and safe.

Earthbound Farms’ large booth displayed photos and info about their “Meet Our Farmers” program. Petaluma Poultry, makers of Rosie Organic and Rocky the Range free-range chicken, debuted its Trace Our Tracks program that allows shoppers to enter a label code at (or scan it with a free iPhone app) to follow their chicken back to the farm.

This kind of information is smart to share with consumers, especially those with concerns about sustainability and/or food safety. It also helps justify the price for a premium product. One example is Wild Planet’s Wild Albacore tuna, which costs about $5 for a 5-ounce can. It’s sustainably caught by troll or pole, and each fish is individually selected. Wild Planet uses only smaller troll- or pole-caught, 9- to 25-pound tuna, which means this albacore is low in mercury. Then it’s cooked in the can with no added water or oil, so it’s very high in omega-3 fatty acids. This makes for a delicious canned tuna you’d want to highlight in a recipe that really spotlights its vivid flavor, like our Sustainable Tuna Caponata, below, or Trennette Pasta with Tuna, Lemon, Capers and Spinach.

Of course, there’s also the taste-of-the-place appeal. Organic Valley’s Pasture Butter, which is produced in small batches from May to September using the milk of pasture-grazed cows, is rich in vegetal flavor.

And what about all the other treats I sampled? We’ll have a followup post that spotlights some of the best items I found, including ancient-grain cookies, a vegan cheese even I can love and a new type of sugar I can’t wait to try.

Sustainable Tuna Caponata

This is based on a Ligurian-style caponata, with tuna as the main ingredient so the a taste of a premium sustainable canned fish like Wild Planet’s Wild Albacore really shines. Think of it as a mayo-free tuna salad. It’s meant to be made ahead to give the flavors time to develop, so mix it up tonight to enjoy for lunch tomorrow. It’s a winner spooned onto crostini or multigrain crackers, or tucked into pita bread.

2 (2-by-4-inch) whole wheat crackers (such as Al-Mok)
1 (5-ounce) can sustainably caught albacore tuna (such as Wild Planet)
1/2 cup chopped green olives
1 tablespoon capers, rinsed
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar, or more to taste
Sea salt, to taste
Finely chopped flat-leaf parsley (optional)

Soak the crackers in water for 15-20 minutes until soft; drain thoroughly.

Drain the tuna. If it’s packed in water, discard the water. If it’s packed in oil, reserve the oil to use in this recipe. Place the tuna in a small bowl, breaking it up with a fork. Add soaked crackers, olives and capers. Gently fold in oil, vinegar and salt to taste. Chill at least 1 hour and up to overnight. Serve sprinkled with parsley, if you like.

Serves 2

Adapted from La Cucina: The Regional Cooking of Italy (Rizzoli).

Celebrate World Oceans Day

Nowadays, all eyes are on the Gulf of Mexico as the BP disaster unfolds day after day. But tomorrow’s World Oceans Day isn’t about lamenting what’s been done; it’s about celebrating what we still have, deepening our connection to it and making strides to protect it for the future.

The United Nations designated June 8th as World Oceans Day in 2008 as a way to raise international awareness for the world’s water. Each year, organizations and individuals plan events and initiatives to help people learn about and take action to preserve our oceans and the ecosystems they encompass.

For our part here at NOURISH Evolution, we have a week full of goodies for you. To start, look out for our 7 Super Sustainable Seafood Picks on Tuesday (click here for last year’s … all still solid choices). We compile our lists by cross-referencing numerous sources to find fish that are sustainably sound and safe for us to eat. Then we add in a third factor … whether or not it’s easy to evaluate at the fish counter.

It may seem a dire time for the world’s oceans. But simple steps like talking to your fishmonger, learning more about the issues and buying only sustainable seafood will take us a long way towards a healthier future.

7 Super Sustainable Seafood Picks – 2009

A while ago, I was hired by a company to do extensive research about the sustainable seafood situation and boil it down into an executive summary so they could choose which tack made sense for them to take. During the course of my research I leaned heavily on the outstanding resources available—Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, Environmental Defense Fund’s Seafood Selector and Blue Ocean Institute’s Seafood Search are three of my favorites—to help us choose fish that are both sustainably sound and safe for us to eat. But as I waded through reports and cross-referenced lists, I felt the need for another variable to make it all more usable for the consumer:

Ease of understanding.

sustainable-seafood-picks-2009If a fish is green across the board, terrific. But if a particular species is green, yellow and red depending on where it’s caught and how it’s caught, then it was docked points in my own ranking system for being hard to grasp. As grateful as I am for the seafood guides out there, I wanted a short list of fish I could memorize** that would both widen my horizons (no more defaulting to the one or two that were top of mind) and provide a safety net, so to speak, so I could choose wisely even if I was caught without my pocket guide (or, God forbid, my iPhone). And I imagined a lot of people would feel the same way.

So here, unveiled for our Contributor Jacqueline Church’s Teach a Man to Fish blog event, are my Seven Super Sustainable Seafood Picks*:

  • Mussels, Oysters and Clams – Mollusks are terrific sustainable seafood picks and a prime example of healthy aquaculture. Because they filter particulate matter from the water in order to feed, these bivalves actually leave the area cleaner than before they were there.
  • Barramundi – A common fish in Australia, barramundi is now being farmed sustainably both here in the US and in Southeast Asia. Since they are a fast-growing fish, they’re a great choice for aquaculture.
  • Wild-caught Alaskan Salmon – As I wrote about in Go Wild, Alaskan Salmon is the poster child of sustainable fishery management (the system within which fish are caught, processed and sold). Although not all salmon is sustainable, there is a clear-cut delineation between what is and what’s not: avoid anything labeled Atlantic salmon or farmed salmon.
  • Arctic Char – Arctic char is actually a member of the salmon family. In the US and other parts of the world, it’s being raised in sustainable environments. I find it makes a great everyday alternative to salmon.
  • Sardines – Sardines are fast-growing, low-on-the-food-chain fish that are most commonly known in the US as coming from cans or jars. And while minced sardines are delicious to stir into sauces and dressings for added depth of flavor, fresh sardines are becoming more abundant at the market now too.  Try them marinated in olive oil, garlic, oregano and lemon and seared in a skillet or on the grill.
  • Farmed Striped Bass – Both farmed and wild striped bass are friendly to the environment, but the wild population can be high in contaminants so it’s best to stick to farmed as a rule. That said, striped bass is a great pick when you’re looking for a fish to roast whole (much more eco-friendly than, for instance, red snapper).
  • Squid – Squid, also known as calamari, is a fast-growing species caught with methods that don’t damage the surrounding habitat. It’s available frozen year-round and makes an excellent substitution for shrimp in salads and stir-fries. Although if you can find it fresh, buy it; it’s both economical and irresistibly tender.

* The criteria for being one of the Seven Super Sustainable Seafood Picks: raised or caught in a manner healthy for the environment; safe and good for us to eat; easy to understand as a consumer

** Note that this list is not static; fishery situations change over time, and so does the status of whether a fish is safe or sustainable or easy to understand. So what you see here now may be different than what you see a year from now. Check back from time to time for an update.

Barramundi with Shallots and Chile

Barramundi’s meaty yet flaky texture makes it a good pair for dishes with an Asian flair. Like this one, with caramelized shallots and chile and a savory splash of fish sauce. You can find barramundi at many fish counters these days, or in the frozen section of several supermarkets.


2 tablespoons peanut oil
1/2 cup thinly sliced shallots
2 jalapenos, thinly sliced
2 8-10 ounce barramundi fillets
2 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons fish sauce

Heat peanut oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Saute shallots and jalapenos for 2-3 minutes, until just amber.

Add fish to the pan and sear on one side for 3 minutes.

Flip the fish carefully with a spatula. Sprinkle sugar and fish sauce over top and cook another 3 minutes, shaking pan occasionally.

Serves 4

Start a Conversation About Seafood

Sometimes, at seafood sustainability conferences, talk can get circular. Buyers from big chains speak about wanting to change but needing demand from the market to do so. Scientists and chefs talk about sustainable fish that most of us can’t find. So how are we individuals supposed to create a demand for something not on the shelves? When I posed this question in back in May at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s annual Cooking for Solutions Conference, the answer from both sides was unanimous and surprisingly simple: just ask.

start-a-conversation-about-seafoodWhile it’s easy to feel that we alone have no say in what’s available at the fish counter, that’s just not so. When it comes to voicing a desire for more eco-friendly alternatives, now more than ever companies are likely to listen. Here are a few tips to jump-start the conversation:

Know what you want and why. Take shrimp, for example. Rather than asking for “sustainable shrimp” and leaving it to the fishmonger to decide the details, take a moment to browse Seafood Watch before you go (or do it at the store on your iPhone). In about 30 seconds, you’ll see that all imported shrimp are ranked “avoid”and that all US shrimp, whether farmed or wild-caught, are rated “best choice” or “good alternatives”. You could certainly dig deeper to find out why, but just knowing ahead of time what to buy and what to avoid is a great start.

Be bold in both your questions and your answers. So let’s say that you’ve asked for domestic shrimp and the guy behind the counter answers with, “These are from Thailand, I think, or maybe Vietnam. They’re on sale. It’s a great deal.” Hmm. Not exactly on the same page. Now here is where you can clarify exactly what you’re looking for and why. It may sound pushy, but it’s perfectly acceptable to say something like, “You know, Seafood Watch didn’t rate imported shrimp very high on the sustainability scale, which is why I was looking to buy domestic. Do you think you could get me some?” Regardless of whether or not he (or his manager) will actually put in an order, he now knows that the shrimp he’s selling isn’t super eco-friendly and that at least one of his customers would prefer a more sustainable choice.

Be open to hearing and sharing new ideas. Once you’ve established a rapport with your fishmonger, you can start to take it further. If you learn about a fish you hadn’t heard of before but want to try, challenge your purveyor to find it for you. And if he knows you’re interested in sustainable seafood, he might just pick up the mantle and start seeking new sources himself.

The truth is, change is often spurred within the context of a relationship and moving the needle on sustainable seafood is no exception. You don’t have to be a chef or a big corporate buyer to have an impact; all you have to do is ask.

This week, start a conversation with your fishmonger and see where it leads the both of you.

Go for Alaskan Wild Salmon!

It’s World Oceans Day today. And while there are so very many things I could mention on the subject of the oceans–the overfishing of numerous species, the questionable impact of open water fish-farming, and the emerging international standards and certifications to name a few–I’ve decided to stay simple and give you one (really tasty) thing you can do this week to make the oceans a healthier place: Cook up some Alaskan wild salmon.


The fact that sustainable seafood is a subject fraught with complexities was driven home recently by an e-mail I received from an organization I admire about a new sustainable seafood guide they were publishing. Fantastic, I thought, I’ll reference it in today’s nibble. But then I saw that one of the tips was “buy wild.” And while wild-caught fish is sometimes a smart choice, there are enough times when it’s not to make me wary about giving the statement an unqualified thumbs-up. (Yes, I did contact them and yes, they were glad I did.)

But there is one case in which “buy wild” is always a sustainable choice, and a green-rated one at that. Alaskan wild salmon. Thanks to an ingenious web of science and tradition, policy and community, regulation and enforcement that ultimately protects both indigenous fish populations and the communities who depend upon them for a living, no species of Alaskan salmon (which, as with all seafood from Alaska, is always wild) is overfished. That’s a big deal when you consider that nearly three-fourths of the wild fish stocks in the world are “fully exploited or overexploited,” according to the United Nations. Alaska is, quite simply, the gold standard when it comes to sustainably managing wild-caught fish.

I could go into the technical details on why, but then I’d be using terms like Total Allowable Catch, escapement and rationalization and would have to include a glossary that would scroll down to your knees. In the end, it comes down to people recognizing that we humans, the environment and what eventually becomes our food are all intertwined and taking action–to the point of including sustainable fisheries language into their constitution back in 1959–to protect the system as a whole.

So cook up some Alaskan wild salmon this week and celebrate fishing done right.

Eat an Omnivore

nton-small-iconIt can be confusing trying to eat with an “eco-clean” conscious. Organic or local? Free-range or all-natural? Farmed fish or wild fish? Each of these questions is a bit like French grammar; sure you can put “rules” to them, but those rules will invariably be followed by a litany of exceptions.

What I hope to do with the “nibbles to noodle” that focus on eco-friendly eating is to dice the larger issues into bite-sized bits for you to ingest into your awareness. That way, you can be confident you’re making smart choices when facing the fish counter, the meat counter, the produce section. This week, we’ll look at a sigle facet of one subject: farmed fish.

Not all fish are created equal when it comes to being a good candidate for aquaculture (the fancy name for raising fish in a controlled environment). Carnivores like tuna and salmon are poor choices by their very nature; it takes up to 25 pounds of wild fish to produce 1 pound of farmed tuna and up to 8 pounds to produce 1 pound of salmon. Because of the high quantity and population density inherent in fish farms, this can put a strain on wild stocks and increase the risk of toxic build-up. Conversely, herbivores and omnivores like tilapia, catfish and arctic char have a much smaller footprint (or should I say fin-print?) on wild waters, making them better choices for farming.

So this week, feast on some omnivorous fish like catfish and see how simple–and delicious–sustainable can be.

* One note: be sure to choose domestically farmed fish. As of now, overall aquaculture practices in other countries are poorly regulated from both health and environmental standpoints.

Classic Blackened Catfish

This dish brings back memories of my college days in New Orleans when I used to make it at least once a week. Little did I know then that I was making a sustainable pick! I’ll warn you from experience; your fire alarm will probably go off, so have a towel handy to fan the smoke away.


4 (6-ounce) catfish fillets
2 tablespoons Cajun Spice Mix (see recipe below)
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 tablespoon butter
8 lemon wedges

Rub each side of fillets with Cajun Spice Mix. Heat oil and butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add fillets and cook for 3-4 minutes on each side or until fish flakes easily with a fork.

Serve with lemon wedges.

Serves 4

Cajun Spice Mix

Leftover spice mix can be stored in a sealed jar for up to three months.

3 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons ground red pepper
2 tablespoons dried thyme
2 tablespoons dried oregano
2 tablespoons onion powder
2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 tablespoon sugar

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl.

Makes 1 cup