Sunday, May 11, 2008

Dan Barber vs Harold McGee Throwdown

Two notable food experts express widely divergent opinions on the nutritional benefits of organic and conventionally produced produce and meat. In the same week and in the same newspaper. What's an eater to think? For the little that it is worth I, personally don't give kadota fig which, if any, is more nutritious. I will always pick the food that is the best looking and tasting, and to hell with nutrition.

Dan Barber:

"Organic fruits and vegetables contain 40 percent more nutrients than their chemical-fed counterparts. And animals raised on pasture provide us with meat and dairy products containing more beta carotene and at least three times as much C.L.A. (conjugated linoleic acid, shown in animal studies to reduce the risk of cancer) than those raised on grain."
Change We Can Stomach - New York Times

Harold McGee:
"conventional produce appears to contain consistently higher levels of protein and beta carotene."

"There are plenty of good reasons to eat organic produce and yak cheese and grass-fed beef. In the end, neither exaggerated virtues nor skeptical grains of salt will make them any more delicious. Forget the fatty acids. I just want to get a taste of that wild Himalayan milk."

Let's Take a Closer Look at That Study on Yak Cheese NYT


fiat lux said...

I'll pass on the yak milk, but other than that I'm with McGee.

Ulla said...

I find Dan Barber a bit pretentious. It is like he INVENTED farming. People have been farming for thousands have years. The American method of beef production where we finish it with corn is not a sinister plot made up by corporate ag business but was done because of our environment. Grasslands out west dry out in the summer and then the young steers were moved by cowboys into feedlots were they were "finished" off by corn---which is an indigenousness crop to the Americas that does very well here. Corn finished beef is delicious. Grass fed beef tastes different, it is not as smooth and the fat is a bit intense not as smooth as the grass fed counter part. My father is a grass fed farmer, I love the process but do not think the process can feed millions like the traditional American method. I have heard that organic farming is harder on the earth because the tilling is more intense. I feel like a bit of moderation would be good, less chemicals but not totally organic.

Linda said...

Based on the research by Michael Pollan in "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and based on the knowledge of my local Scottish Highland Beef farmer, cows do not digest corn well at all, nor were they meant to. Nowadays, in those "western" feedlots, those cows are given nothing but corn! Corn is a native crop but NOT in the midwest where all our feedlots are located, where, by the way, buffalo used to roam until our economic greed led to their demise.

As for organic farming being harder on the earth, long term scientific studies demonstrate that in fact the opposite is the case.

Finally, when it comes to McGee, mass produced fruits and vegetables may contain similar amounts of nutrition, but he omits the vast amounts of chemicals also consumed on such produce, which has been documented as being in increasing proportions in the human body by the Environmental Working Group and other scientific watchdog entities.

I agree that taste is important, but the corporate ag business has not been kind to the earth, to sustainability, to indigenous peoples, nor to the American public who trust the FDA as it slowly loses more and more control due to lack of funding, the appointment of people who are friends not experts, and a budget that decreases proportionately to corporate profits.

Ulla said...

I respectfully disagree. Most cows start their lives on grass and are fed corn later. Talking about feed lot methods is a scare tactic---we have been using feed lots since the Chicago slaughtering houses started in earnest. I think that Californian cows are treated terribly. OUr government actually lets ranchers graze grass on public land. My father has highland cows and is crossing them with angus, Hereford cattle among others. Highland cows grow very slow which makes them ideal for grass farming. I agree that cows and sheep do better on grass but my father can not feed millions of people. Feeding people is a good thing. The American mid west is the most fertile tract of earth ON earth. And America alone provides 60 percent of the world's food aid because of our superior land and agricultural methods. I think I am a glass half full person, but I have a higher life expectancy then my grand mother and great grandmother. Dan Barber's restaurant is in my neighborhood and his entrees run around 35 dollars. It might be sustainable but I think only corporate hounds can afford to go there. Oh well, it is a complicated thing, but Dan Barber is not feeding the masses. Farming is about creating food for people. People seem to be horrified by agricultural technology but it makes us all live longer. Back in Iceland when everything was "organic" and they did not use nitrates to preserve meats people would die of stomach cancer at 40 because meat was preserved by smoking it. Stomach cancer is not nice way to go.

redman said...

my understanding is that cows cannot digest corn without aid of chemicals or additives that ease digestion; also my understanding that we only introduced cows to corn in the last hundred years or so.

I agree that a cook's perspective should be that the produce that tastes and looks the best should be most important

environmental reasons for organic produce should be a political/environmental issue, not a culinary one

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I buy the argument that feedlots are needed to fight starvation. The 99-cent hamburger is not fending off world hunger. Generally speaking the wealthier a country becomes, the more meat it consumes. If cheap meat were the cure for hunger, this would not be the case.

I'm also pretty sure that the reason why life expectancy is longer now than it was a century ago is not due to industrial ag, but rather to advances in medical knowledge. The current generation of children in the US is also the first to have a *shorter* life expectancy than their parents. This is due to the well-documented problem of obesity among American kids, which most would argue is a consequence of the freely available cheap, non-nutritious foods with which industrial ag floods the consumer markets.

Lastly, while the point is well-taken that organics are not (and probably cannot) feed the masses, I think the reason Dan Barber charges $35 for an entree is because he is Dan Barber. Similarly, I'm sure that Eric Ripert, Daniel Boulud, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten would charge $150 for their prix-fixe regardless of whether they were cooking with organic or conventional produce.

Ulla said...

Life expectancy is longer now because we have more to eat and we have safe preservatives for our food, and we have the benefit of modern agriculture. Starvation is still an issue in this world. America, like I said, gives more then half of the world's food aid. It comes in the form of rice, CORN and flour. This is because of our agricultural technology. Agricultural methods bring us all up. In places were smart agricultural methods were absent the earth was ruined. Haiti comes to mind ---where the land was so stripped that it is no longer able to give its in habitants food. I agree with what you say, but Dan Barber's methods do not feed the masses. Regardless of whether it warms the heart and makes his customers feel like they are doing good. "Feedlots" might horrify you but the beef from it tastes great, better then a fallen cow that has been milked for ten years. I never said that feedlots fend off starvation but the amount of grain we grow in the mid-west does. That is how this country became the super power it is---it was all buttressed by the "bread basket." My point was to demonstrate WHY the feedlot method was introduced in America. Because the grassland out west gets dried out and we have land that is exceptionally good for growing corn. Maybe we should start to reevaluate how we create meat, but it best to be more sage about the whole thing.

Chefs in New York use local ingredients and many of them keep my father's friend's farms a float. My father raised thousands of rabbits when I was little for restaurants in NYC and also locally. Chefs are great for farmers. And Farmers are great for chefs. I think the ingredients at all the top chefs restaurants you mentioned use top quality ingredients that are not aimed for the masses. My point is not to discredit Dan Barber or Alice Walters but to say that we need a balanced approach to the debate. The way we make food now is garish yes, but ethically treated food that is organic is not the answer(in my opinion). I would rather buy non-GM, no roundup food that uses moderate amounts of chemical fertilizer and pesticides.

Chef Andrew Little said...

The reason Dan Barber charges $35 for a plate of food is because he is USING EXPENSIVE RAW MATERIALS!!! JGV, Ripert, Keller, they charge what they have to charge to recoup the expense of acquiring the best products. I use Highland beef at my restaurant. It's expensive because it takes longer to raise than traditional cattle. You folks have to understand that the big chefs will not cook with anything less than perfection. That costs money. They don't charge what they charge because of their name. They charge what they charge because their restaurants will only use the best. Quality, quality, quality.

No, Dan Barber and Alice Waters will not feed the masses with their ideas. I don't think anyone is expecting them to. What they will do is open up a discussion so that the general public will start to think about their food/where their food comes from and make decisions based on those thoughts.

Ulla said...

Goodness, I almost regret calling Dan Barber pretentious. I think feeding the masses is the point. I am a farmer first and a amateur chef second. There has to be a balanced approach to the debate. I have heard Dan Barber talk on the subject and he thinks that industrialized farming is to blame for our modern ills. This is too extreme of a view IMO. But frankly I applaud his article----our farm subsidies are bad, and they hurt farmers in the north east which are more sustainable by virtue of the fact that we do not need to irrigate or feed our cows and sheep corn because we have great grassland throughout the summer. We have chefs like Barber to thank for people wanting to buy beef from local farms. So there is my apology.

Linda said...

I also respectfully disagree. Besides Michael Pollan we have a century of investigative reporters/writers that have written about the unsanitary, bad working conditions, and dangers inherent with anybody working with feedlots and mass meat factories. Secondly, the American mid west is not the most fertile land on earth: why, IGN, did we have the great "dust bowl" and subsequent depression that found thousands of out-of-work farmers moving from the midwest to land west of the Rockies, like Idaho and Washington, for example. California also, although their very fertile Central Valley now registers rocket fuel in all produce since that is what's in the irrigation system. Also, I have a best friend, right here in north Idaho, who raises Scottish Highland beef, grass feeds them through the summer, supplements his grain with local products, and gives them only a first cutting of alfafa, no hormones, no antibiotics. No, he doesn't sell commercially but through word-of-mouth, so all local residents can afford it. Ditto for our local hereford, angus, buffalo, and yak farms. As for Dan Barber, we don't have restaurants like that around here and I wouldn't pay that much money anyway for a meal for which I can buy the products, prepare, and eat locally. And that's one of the reasons that I support local, sustainable farming and eating.