A hovering disgrace
In much of his short article, Armstrong discussed the conclusions of a meeting of the Royal Horticultural Society, addressed by all sorts of people and ranging from a director of an experimental station specializing in glasshouse (greenhouse) culture, to growers, suppliers, retailers, chefs, and other interested people.
The Chef of the Café Royal explained the attractions of vegetable foods and the great opportunities they offer to an aspiring cook. Lady Muriel Beckwith deplored the English neglect of vegetables. “Unfortunately” adds Armstrong, “the disgrace of ill-cooked greens has always hovered over us.” A grower commented that, “Seedsmen, in their attempts to improve yields, seem to have cultivated out the special character from much of our garden produce.” For example, the giant leeks carried about the country to various Horticultural Shows, might well serve as door posts—they are of doubtful value as food.
Recognized criteria of quality
“At present we have no recognized criteria of quality, apart from palatability,” writes Armstrong. “Maybe the conditions which give palate quality are not those of maximum food value. Maximum flavor often means a minimum of production.” So true.
Recognized criteria of quality are central to any discussion of the benefits of food. Today we may possess more clearly recognizable criteria, but they all depend on lengthy laboratory procedures. How does that help you decide whether the supermarket orange you are tempted to buy has 180mg of vitamin C per 100g, the usual figure for freshly cut oranges, or absolutely no vitamin C whatever for fruits stored for a few weeks or months.
Housewives are long used to consult special vitamin-cum-mineral books about the nutrient contents of foods. For a while it had become automatic. When calculating the calories of a meal or a dish, one tried to make certain that it also had its appropriate vitamins and minerals, the predecessors of today’s RDAs. The problem is that all these well-meaning manuals are based on the values of fresh products, or alternatively of some statistical averages. But the foods you are most likely to buy, will be neither one nor the other. So what recognizable criteria of quality can you use, to distinguish fresh food from chaff?
A difficult and vexing problem
The question goes to the heart of the problem a person buying food has to face. It is a difficult and vexing problem for a nutritionist, because the question is bound to crop up if not everyday, certainly on many occasions. It also goes beyond vegetables and fruits and encompasses the whole food market. Therefore, it is best to tread carefully, first to ensure that there is no misunderstanding, and second to safeguard against stepping on protruding toes, directly connected to some very powerful lungs and vocal chords.
Generally vegetables under appropriate conditions of temperature and humidity can be kept looking fresh for 2-3 weeks. But that does not mean they are fresh. They just look the part. And this applies only to non-genetically modified vegetables. Therefore, buying in a supermarket where vegetable foods are kept in cold storage, necessarily means giving up your right to know how fresh the food is. If you buy vegetables in greengrocer shops or street markets, you may have a better chance to assess quality by closely examining for crispness to the touch, color to the eye, and on occasion smell.
Fruits can generally be kept longer than vegetables, but not in every case. Some fruit ripens gradually long after it has been cut, like bananas for example. Apples and oranges can be kept looking fresh for months through appropriate refrigeration. And there are clearly no objective tests of quality readily available to the buyer. What do you do in this case, in order to ensure quality?
Plant foods in season
There is only one solution, unfortunately. And that is buying vegetables and fruits only in season. Then you may be fairly certain that what you buy is reasonably fresh if it looks the part.
While on the subject, one may also discuss other foods, namely fish and meat. Fresh whole fish may be examined in three ways. The eye must look lively, not dull. The gills must be deep red, but not brownish red. And the flesh must quickly spring back when pressed by the finger. Fillets of fish are more difficult to assess, and here your nose may be of some help.
Since you often have to buy fish and meat frozen, however, the main problem is to know that the items you buy have not been defrosted and refrozen. For here there are serious risks of poisoning, not from micro-organisms that sneaked in from outside since such foods are usually sealed in plastic wrappers, but from the micro-organisms of the food itself and the toxins released upon decay.
Without a trace
Some years ago a movement started to oblige food producers to include in sealed packages of frozen food, small letters or other distinctive signs made out of ice. The rationale was that if the food was defrosted and refrozen, these letters or signs shown also on the wrappers to alert consumers, would necessarily disappear. Thus the customer was bound to know that the food had been defrosted. It is a simple, intelligent and certainly inexpensive way of ensuring the quality of frozen foods reaching the consumer. The movement fizzled out without a trace. I don’t know what happened. Do you per chance?