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California's superfoods—and the farmers who grow them

Jan./Feb. 2010 California Country magazine

Superfoods provide health benefits beyond meeting basic nutritional needs.


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At last count, Clare Hasler had given more than 500 presentations in 18 countries, all on a single subject: superfoods. She is considered an international authority on the topic, and the reputation she began building in the early 1990s at the University of Illinois continues to gain momentum at the University of California, Davis, where she serves as executive director of the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science.


Clare Hasler is an expert on superfoods—foods that are regarded as especially beneficial because of their health-protecting qualities.

"Functional foods is a very hot topic," said Hasler, using the term academics tend to prefer. "I don't think anybody thought this field would have taken off like it has."

That's true whether you're in a university laboratory or filling your cart at the grocery store.

"Health awareness is at an all-time high," Hasler said. "We now firmly realize that you are what you eat and that your diet can profoundly affect your health."

Superfoods, she points out, can make the most impact on health. But what exactly is a superfood?

"These are foods that have health benefits that go beyond basic nutrition," Hasler explains. "So in addition to meeting basic nutritional needs—like calories or vitamins or protein—they also provide specific health benefits that may reduce the risk of chronic disease such as heart disease or cancer."

Living in one of the world's most productive agricultural regions gives Hasler a birds-eye view of all the foods that provide this health boost. After all, farmers and ranchers in California produce more than 400 different commodities, each with its own nutritional merits. But, when pressed, Hasler narrowed down the choices to create her own top-10 list of California superfoods: almonds, salmon, whole grains, spinach, mushrooms, broccoli, yogurt, tomatoes, olive oil and blueberries.

"I picked those foods that I think are good tasting and also have unique benefits that you don't find in other foods," she said, in describing her choices.

A broader message, Hasler added, is that we as Americans don't eat enough fiber and plant-based foods.

"I would encourage people to get more fruits and vegetables and whole grains into their diet," she said. "Make small changes and make them gradually.

"These diseases that we're talking about—heart disease, diabetes, cancer, stroke, osteoporosis—all have a pretty strong link to diet and lifestyle. My personal feeling is, the more you can do to prevent these diseases, the better."

Meet the farmers

Olive oil

Dewey Lucero, Tehama County,
Lucero Olive Oil

"We're fourth-generation olive growers here in Corning," said Dewey Lucero, whose family owns Lucero Olive Oil. "Many of our groves are more than 100 years old and were planted by my great-grandfather."

Although the family has produced table olives for generations, in recent years they've moved more heavily into olive oil production—earning high marks for flavor and quality at many prestigious competitions, including "best of show" at America's Best Food Show and the Los Angeles International Olive Oil Competition.

With more than a dozen olive oil products—oil from fruity ascolano olives to robust manzanillo olives to lemon crushed oil—Lucero said the family is always adding new products. However, the goal remains the same: outstanding taste, quality and nutritional value.

"We pick and crush the same day to ensure freshness," he said. "It's not unusual for me to fill a bottle right from the press and take it home. We don't use margarine or other vegetable oils at our house."

Lucero noted that there's a lot of planting for olive oil going on in Northern California.

"We have great climate and great trees," he said. "Our olive oils, like our wines, are some of the best in the world."

Blueberries

Sorensen family, Fresno County,
Triple Delight Blueberries

Meet a family that delights in touting the benefits of blueberries to consumers up and down the state: the owners of Triple Delight Blueberries.

Farming for five generations now, Mark Sorensen and his family had previously concentrated just on their main crop, which was raisins. A few years ago, however, they decided to try their luck with one of California's emerging crops: plump, juicy blueberries.

Relatively new to the state, blueberries were first planted commercially in the San Joaquin Valley in the late 1990s but have since exploded in popularity.

Today the Triple Delight farm near Fresno has more than 15 acres of blueberries, a crop that the whole family can be involved in growing and selling—including Mark and Kim Sorensen and daughters Elizabeth, Olivia and Johannah. Needless to say, the three girls provided the inspiration for the farm's unique name.

"We really wanted to reflect our three daughters," Kim Sorensen said. "We asked family and friends what we should name our farm and Triple Delight just kind of stuck."

Video: Watch the story, Feelin' blue never tasted so good for one family farm

Tomatoes

Tom Jopson, Sutter County,
Jopson Family Garden

Tom Jopson loves tomatoes.

"I can eat tomatoes three times a day. My favorite way is right off the vine, dead ripe and sloppy," said Jopson, a fourth-generation California farmer who owns Jopson Family Garden with his brother, Dave.

"But bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches are right up there, too," he added with a chuckle and then rattled off a list of favorite tomato-companion ingredients—basil, bacon, olive oil, garlic, just tomatoes tossed with herbs. "I've got to stop talking. I'm just making myself hungry."

The Jopson family produces fresh market tomatoes in Rio Oso, a small Sacramento Valley farming community in Sutter County. About 20 years ago the brothers switched from growing rice to producing fresh market tomatoes hydroponically in greenhouses. That means, come rain or shine, Jopson can deliver a steady supply of high-quality, vine-ripened tomatoes.

Speaking about the next crop to be planted, Jopson smiled and said, "I'll have my iPod tuned to country and western hits and I'll be watching for that perfect fresh tomato."

Video: Watch the story, Vegetable and herb form a perfect pair

Spinach

Cathy and Tony Alameda, San Benito County,
Topflavor Farms

In the picturesque San Juan Valley of San Benito County, Tony and Cathy Alameda grow baby and traditional, or bunch, spinach. They sell the lush, nutrition-packed crop to local packers and shippers, who in turn sell it to many of the nation's well-known supermarket chains.

"As a farmer, you have to be consistent and have the crop come off in a timely fashion," said Tony Alameda, a partner in Topflavor Farms with his father and two brothers. "Anybody can grow a crop, but we have to grow the crop and bring it off in the correct time frames. It is all about execution."

Topflavor Farms grows more than 6,000 acres of vegetables each year throughout California and Arizona. Spinach comprises about 20 percent of the company's production.

When it comes to preparing spinach, Alameda admits that he handles the outdoor duties while his wife handles indoor duties, including the cooking.

"The great thing about spinach is you can add it to almost anything, whether it's pasta, a salad or a soup. It's just so versatile," said Cathy Alameda, who grew up on an artichoke farm in Castroville. "We have such a wide variety of foods to choose from in the grocery store. It's sad that people don't always hone in on spinach. For me, it's a no-brainer."

California's top 10 superfoods

Supercharge your diet by eating more California-grown superfoods! That's the advice of internationally renowned expert Clare Hasler. Here are some of their health benefits, plus serving tips and fun facts.

Almonds

Health bonus: Ounce for ounce, almonds are one of the most nutrient-rich tree nuts on Earth. Their vitamin E content is particularly noteworthy. "Most people don't get enough of this essential vitamin, but just a handful of almonds meets basically half of your daily requirement," Hasler said. Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant, which helps keep your cells healthy.

How to eat: Grab a handful for a snack, use to create your own trail mix, add to your cereal, whirl into a smoothie or sprinkle on a salad. For best nutrition, choose almonds that are unsalted, with the skins on.

Fun fact: The world is nuts about California almonds! The state's 6,000 almond farmers produce more than three-quarters of the world's crop.

Salmon

Health bonus: "Salmon is a really rich source of a 'good' fat called omega-3 fatty acids," Hasler said. Omega-3s are thought to have heart-protective and disease-fighting benefits, and may even help ease depression. The American Heart Association recommends eating salmon or other fatty fish (mackerel, cod, tuna, sardines) twice a week.

How to eat: The key is to avoid overcooking. Salmon is done when it reaches an internal temp of 150 degrees and is opaque throughout.

Fun fact: Commercial harvest of California's chinook salmon began in the early 1850s, when 100-pounders were netted from the Sacramento River to feed hungry gold miners.

Whole grains

Health bonus: "Whole grains have been associated in countless studies with reducing the risk of heart disease and cancer and reducing blood glucose levels, which contributes to diabetes," Hasler said. Whole grains are also good for weight management because they help stave off hunger.

How to eat: Whole grains include wheat, corn, rice, oats, barley, quinoa, sorghum, spelt and rye. Warm up with a bowl of barley soup, snack on whole grain crackers dipped in hummus or stir up some quinoa for a quick side dish.

Fun fact: Not all wheat is created equal. Durum wheat, a California specialty, makes great pasta while hard red winter wheat from the Midwest is more suitable for bread.

Spinach

Health bonus: No wonder Popeye received superhuman strength after eating spinach. It's a nutritional powerhouse! "But one thing about spinach that stands out is its high lutein content," Hasler said. Among its other roles, this antioxidant protects against eye diseases such as age-related macular degeneration and cataracts. "It's sort of like sunglasses for your retinas."

How to eat: Spinach salad is a classic. Also use in sandwiches in place of lettuce, steam for a side dish, stir into soups or add layers of steamed spinach to your favorite lasagna recipe.

Fun fact: This versatile veggie takes only 39 to 48 days to grow to the harvest stage, depending on weather and variety. California is the nation's No. 1 spinach producer.

Mushrooms

Health bonus: Americans aren't getting enough of the so-called sunshine vitamin. Mushroom farmers are out to change that. "Recent research has shown that mushrooms that are briefly exposed to ultraviolet light have a very high amount of vitamin D," Hasler said. Check product packaging. This essential vitamin is best known for helping keep bones strong, but may also play an important role in immune function and cancer prevention.

How to eat: "I love mushrooms, particularly wild mushrooms, sautéed in olive oil," Hasler said.

Fun fact: Mushrooms, the plant of immortality? That's what ancient Egyptians believed, according to the hieroglyphics of 4,600 years ago.

Yogurt

Health bonus: Make sure you're getting the most from your yogurt by looking for brands with the "Live & Active Cultures" seal. This means it contains the "good" bacteria that strengthen your digestive system and overall immunity—especially important if you're taking antibiotics. Yogurt is also rich in calcium and protein.

How to eat: Some brands contain too much sugar or lots of additives. "For a healthy snack, I suggest buying plain yogurt without added sugar. Give it a flavor boost with fresh fruits, like blueberries," Hasler recommends.

Fun fact: Yogurt can be made from the milk of many animals, but cow's milk is most commonly used.

Olive oil

Health bonus: Olive oil contains the monounsaturated fat oleic acid, a "good" fat that can lower your risk of heart disease. Hasler suggests choosing extra virgin oil for the most health benefits. Not sure which one to buy? Look for those certified by the California Olive Oil Council: www.cooc.com.

How to eat: One of the simplest pleasures is eating great bread dipped in great olive oil! From there, use your imagination: Drizzle on tomatoes, bake in cakes or use for marinades. Also excellent for sautéing.

Fun fact: California farmers grow 100-plus varieties of olives for olive oil. From light and peppery to intensely fruity, the spectrum of flavors is virtually limitless. Visit an olive oil tasting room or tasting bar near you!

Broccoli

Health bonus: "You know that pungent aroma that you smell when broccoli starts to go a little bit bad? That's sulforaphane, a cancer-preventive phytochemical shown to reduce cancer in laboratory and animal studies," Hasler said. "I think it's really important to get broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower and brussels sprouts into your diet several times a week."

How to eat: Broccoli loves lemon, whether it's a spritz of the juice or a creamy, lemon-scented sauce.

Fun fact: Broccoli wasn't widely known in the U.S. before the 1920s, when Italian immigrants in California began growing it commercially.

Recipe: Andy Boy Broccoli Lemon Fettuccini.

Tomatoes

Health bonus: The same pigment that gives tomatoes their appealing color also appears to help lower the risk of certain types of cancer, especially prostate, lung and stomach. The red wonder is called lycopene and, according to Hasler, "if you're not consuming tomatoes, you're probably not getting enough of this very potent antioxidant."

How to eat: To get the most benefit from lycopene, eat cooked or processed tomato products like ketchup and pasta sauce. These products are made from processing tomatoes, nearly all of which are grown in California.

Fun fact: Like fresh tomatoes? They don't like refrigeration! Instead, store them stem-side up at 50 to 65 degrees.

Blueberries

Health bonus: "It's good to eat your colors, and berries provide a lot of color," said Hasler, adding that blueberries are a personal favorite. Blueberries top the list of antioxidant-rich fruits and may help prevent age-related diseases, including Alzheimer's and some forms of cancer. They also contain fiber and vitamin C.

How to eat: Great from morning (on cereal) to night (cooked in a sauce for grilled meats). To keep blueberries from sinking to the bottom of baked goods, toss them in flour before folding into the batter.

Fun fact: Blueberries are one of the few truly blue foods on Earth. Legend has it that Native Americans gave blueberries to the Pilgrims, helping them make it through their first winter.


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