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Annemarie Colbin, Ph.D.

Annemarie Colbin, Ph.D.

For several days I have been hearing lots of commentary about an article written in Time Magazine by Dr Mehmet Oz, who I’ve known for many years.  He seems to say that choosing organically grown foods is elitist because it costs more than conventional, and he seems to assume that in a choice between more expensive foods and cheaper ones most people will choose the less pricey kind.

When I started out noticing food and its effect on health, I didn’t care how much it cost. Even when I was flat broke, I spent the money on organic and health-supportive foods.  I couldn’t have justified giving my children harmful, pesticide-laden foods because they were “cheaper.”  I would imagine there are still people out there like me, who go for good quality regardless of price.

Dr Oz does not seem to think so. He says “a lot of the foods we ate in childhood can be good for you and good to eat” – IF (note the caveat) you know how to shop.  Of course, the food that he and others of his age ate in childhood was better, less contaminated, less industrialized.

It’s true that in many neighborhoods it’s hard to find fresh produce, whole grain bread, and the like.  But why should we settle?  Why not educate people to demand fresh food from the corner bodega?  They’ll stock it if we demand it and buy it.

Dr. Oz considers frozen and canned food equivalent to fresh.  Hm.  Years ago journalist Suzanne Hamlin of the New York Times wrote about someone who was eating only frozen and canned foods, and the health problems this person encountered.  I couldn’t find the article, but I remember it was dire – also, that it disappeared quickly from the archives, for obvious reasons.  Who wants to know that such common food could kill you and, what’s more, that it could cause memory loss and mental confusion.  Frozen meats may be OK – frozen vegetables maybe not.

Go on, Dr. Oz. Try a week eating only canned and frozen vegetables. I bet not even you would be willing to do that. As a “food lover,” he ignores the subtler aspects of food: “Nutritionally, an egg is an egg. Cage free is kinder but much pricier.”   Perhaps, but it also tastes very different.  Commercial eggs taste sulfuric and, if you happen to pass some wind (forgive the indelicate reference) it smells really bad. And if you burp – forget it.  You stink yourself up.  For that reason, I only buy organic or free range eggs. They taste much better. And your whole body smells normal.

Dr. Oz points out that free-range chickens and pasture-fed meats are also kept free of hormones and antibiotics. If that is important to you and you have the money to spend, he suggests, by all means opt for pricier organic meats.  Otherwise, obviously, you’re stuck eating all those hormones and antibiotics.  Considering antibiotics are given to cattle so as to fatten them up, we need to ask what these elements contribute to the epidemic of obesity everyone is wailing about.  I wonder. The heaviest people, young and old, are the ones who eat these “cheapest” foods.  Well, as has often been said, you get what you pay for.

In Dr. Oz’s article, canned foods are considered “winners.” He considers canned salmon equivalent to fish fresh out of the water.  But that is not all that counts.  I will never order a dish in a restaurant that gives me a slab of canned salmon instead of fresh, would you? I find they taste very different, although they may have the same amount of protein. Well, if I’m in a bunker, war is coming, and there is no other food, OK, it will keep me alive, thank you very much.

I appreciate the fact that the risk of famine has pretty much disappeared from our world – but we are left with a completely different problem: How to choose foods that are good for us?   That is just as important as choosing foods that will keep us alive.  The two are not equivalent, as a heart surgeon would know.

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Our founder and CEO, Annemarie Colbin, Ph.D., is committed to making Natural Gourmet a more sustainable enterprise.  Here she shares the latest developments in our ongoing greening efforts . . .

Annemarie Colbin, Ph.D.

For the past three years, we have made a concerted effort to “green” NGI.  First, we hired a consultant, Victoria Kaufman, for advice as to what to do.  Our initial effort was to separate the garbage into recyclables and food refuse for composting.  Our long-time waste management company had a system in place for that, including sending food refuse to a farmer upstate who, coincidentally, is someone I know!  We also separated our used vegetable oil and sent that for recycling somewhere else.

The composting truck picking up NGI's contribution

Then we recycled all our paper waste, including cardboard and printed paper.  We also switched to mostly CFL (compact fluorescent lighting) in the kitchens, which uses 2/3 less power than conventional incandescent bulbs.

Our Operations Manager, Mark Mace, has been working diligently in other ways to make us as green as possible.  He also organized and oversees the following:

  • Switching 75% of our cleaning products to biodegradable products.
  • Reducing paper and plastic product use and only purchasing those that will biodegrade, as opposed to the kind that just sit in a landfill for years.
  • When feasible, purchasing food products in bulk packaging, to reduce landfill waste.
  • Making every effort to purchase animal products raised in a sustainable manner as they are available on the market, e.g., organic, free-range chickens and eggs, grass-fed organic beef, and organic dairy.  All our grains and beans are, of course, organically grown, and as much of our produce as possible.
  • Designing and ordering reusable cloth shopping bags printed with our logo, URL, and street address, to eliminate the thousands of plastic shopping bags we accumulated in our shopping trips to local food stores for specialty items. One cloth bag will last almost two years, thereby eliminating hundreds of bags over its lifetime.

Sometimes, to fulfill our curriculum, we must occasionally use foods out of season and not locally grown.  As our mission is to teach cooking, we need to cover all techniques.  That, we feel, is our main goal.  Fortunately, as the food industry is getting smarter about organics (when they don’t try to undermine it), it is becoming easier to obtain such foods as time goes on.

In August 2010, we took over the other half of the third floor, so that we now have two whole floors. The architects that worked with us, Ageloff & Associates, are LEED-certified, very attentive to our needs, and careful about sustainability.  We are in a building constructed in early the 1900s, so there were challenges.  We were fortunate that the contractors who did our renovation, DiSalvo Contracting, worked with surprising speed and completed the work in less than three weeks, then handled all the leftover details well and promptly.

Our renovations had many aspects that are sustainable, including:

Rest assured we will continue to pay attention to sustainability and keep doing everything possible to keep our carbon footprint as light as possible.

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Wandering about the office a few days ago, I found something useful atop the water cooler: a little business card from the World Society for the Protection of Animals.  The card advertises the WSPA website, promoting ethical treatment of animals and identifying “humane” treatment through meaningful food labeling.  The labels in question apply to dairy, poultry of various varieties, beef, bison, rabbit, lamb, and pork.

Part of NGI’s mission is to teach health-supportive cooking – and we recognize for some people that means eating meat, poultry, or fish.  While our professional and public classes emphasize and showcase mostly plant-based cuisine, high-quality animal protein is occasionally prepared.  Part of what we deem “quality” at the school includes the most humane treatment possible for the animals in question.  That treatment includes, among other things, meaningful access to pasture or outdoors, space to engage in natural behaviors, humane slaughter, and a clean living environment.

We have a sizable contingent of committed vegan and vegetarian students at the school for whom humane treatment would mean not raising animals for slaughter or consumption.  Eating animals, however, has and will endure as a way of life.  In this context, humane labels are a meaningful step toward bettering the lives of animals raised for slaughter.  So too is an examination of the quantity of meat and poultry we produce and consume in the US.  Check out the WSPA website’s article, “Consider Reducing Meat in Your Diet,” for some disturbing statistics.

The site provides a search engine for locating animal-friendly foods at local stores and restaurants as well as free consumer guide downloads and pocket guides.  Most importantly, it clarifies the meanings of various “humane” food labels.  Not all so-called humane food labels represent the highest standard of treatment.  The USDA definition of “free range,” for example, is vague enough to allow industrial producers to continue many of the most inhumane, sometimes brutal practices.  The highest labeling standards, according to the site, are “Certified Humane,” “American Humane Certified,” and “Animal Welfare Approved.”

There’s also a useful Glossary of Terms, which explains the particulars of the more inhumane practices associated with commercial meat and poultry production.  In short, I think this site performs a much-needed service: educating the consumer to make better – in this case, most humane – choices.

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Fresh: A Film About the Food Revolution

Fresh: A Film About the Food Revolution

On Monday night, a roomful of Chef’s Training Program students got together with Chef Instructor Rich LaMarita towork with some of their favorite things: fresh, local, seasonal and organic ingredients.

That evening’s specials included a screening of Fresh and the preparation of a delicious tasting menu. Other than an errant onion and a shallot or two, more than 90% of the ingredients that we worked with were organic and from the Greenmarket. Here’s what we made for our Farm to Table feast:

Braised Baby Carrots with Balsamic Glaze & Pine Nuts

Grilled Oyster Mushrooms

Pan Seared Shiitake and Ginger with Hazelnut Dust

Wilted Russian Kale with Garlic

Sauteed Broccoli Rabe with Golden Raisins

Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Thyme and Honey

White Wine Braised Leeks with Shallots

Korean Black Radish Slaw with Honey

Curried Lentils with Spinach

Summer Farro Salad

Mixed Baby Greens

Indian Style Spiced Popcorn

With ingredients this “fresh,” we kept the preparation simple.  Chef Rich read through the menu, called out the preparation for each dish, the students paired up to cook and we were eating dinner within an hour.

Chef Rich Anticipating a Great Local, Seasonal and Organic Meal

Chef Rich Anticipating a Great Local, Seasonal and Organic Feast

Fresh is a film that celebrates the farmers who are transforming our food system.  The film was fantastic and re-acquainted us with the movers and shakers of our Food Revolution, including Michael Pollan, Will Allen and Joel Salatin, as well as a few new voices, each sharing their unique insights.

At the film’s end, we were all re-committed to sourcing organic ingredients from local sources.  After all, with a meal like that, the proof was in the pudding.

Chef's Training Program Students Raise a Toast to the Meal

Chef's Training Program Students Raise a Toast to the Food


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Organic food at Natural Gourmet Institute

A glimpse at organics in the walk-in

For some time, I’ve been curious just how “green” Natural Gourmet is.  I’m not the only one; students ask me all the time about our greening efforts.  I decided to ask Mark Mace, our Director of Operations, how we stack up.  Mark cautioned me that “green” is a marketing term for “promoting the idea of doing less harm to the environment and fostering environmental sustainability.”  That sounded suitably “marketspeak” to my ears.  Still, as Mark outlined our ongoing effort to improve waste reduction, increase energy efficiency, and reduce our carbon footprint, I must say I was impressed.

A random box of produce - 70-90% organic (maybe 100%!)

“Over the past 16 months,” Mark says, “NGI has been moving in a direction to be as green as possible in the ways we conduct business and to purchase sustainable or local products, whenever possible.”  The goal, in other words, is to align NGI’s environmental practices with our overall philosophy.

The proof! A copy of one of last week's invoices

When it comes to waste management, NGI is definitely a team player.  Students on a daily basis separate our food waste for composting, and our waste management company separates out our recyclable plastic, glass, and metal from the remaining trash.  We’re also recycling office paper, cooking oil (30 gallons a month), and cardboard (approximately 3500 pounds a year).

When the Stewarding Department goes shopping, they’re now bringing NGI’s cloth totes along, reducing our consumption of plastic bags by 95% (Mark estimates roughly 2100 bags a year).  50% of our paper products are biodegradable, and 75% of our cleaning products are green-certified.

We are transitioning to our lighting to compact fluorescent, our heating and cooling systems have been updated with more energy-efficient thermostats, and the school has switched from disposable to rechargeable batteries (700 batteries a year).

Throughout the school we’re preserving water and improving its quality by using restrictive flow nozzles and double-filtering it at the tap.  No bottled water needed!  Our foodstuffs are organic whenever possible – 95% of our dry goods and 75%-90% of our produce (depending on season).  While we make the effort to purchase local and regional whenever possible, Mark points out that  “unlike a restaurant, which can design its menu to take advantage of seasonal availability, a cooking school’s purchasing requirements has to follow curriculum needs.   Often times we have to buy non-local products out of season to meet these demands.”

“For us,” Mark says, “it’s more of an evolutionary process.  There are definite limitations to what we can do and how far we can take it.   We don’t own the building we operate in. This limits our overall ability to enact a comprehensive energy plan, but does not limit our ability to implement changes in those areas where we can make a big difference.”  Mark’s plans for the school’s future include double-paned windows to improve energy costs, greatly reducing paper use (in line with other schools’ efforts), continuing to purchase more energy-efficient equipment, and using only biodegradable cleaners.

Here are some green and sustainable resources that Mark recommends:

Purchasing sustainable seafood

NYC Seafood purveyor

Japanese Artisanal Macrobiotic Products

Vanilla Extract and more

Many good products

Sustainably Farmed Chocolate

Mendocino Sea Vegetables

Information on how to Green your Restaurant

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