by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Fruits-and-vegetables

Feb 6 2024

USDA’s “Specialty Crops.” Translation: Food.

The USDA has just announced Investments to Strengthen U.S. Specialty Crops Sector.

The launch of the Assisting Specialty Crop Exports (ASCE) initiative will provide $65 million for projects that will help the specialty crop sector increase global exports and expand to new markets. Additionally, today USDA is announcing $72.9 million in grant funding available to support the specialty crops industry through the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program. The Specialty Crop Block Grant Program (SCBGP) will fund innovative projects designed to bolster the competitiveness of the expanding specialty crop sector. Specialty crop exports totaled $24.6 billion in FY2023, representing 13.8 percent of total U.S. agricultural exports.

“Specialty crops” is USDA-speak for fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains—the food plants everyone, including the USDA, recommends for health.

The USDA co-sponsored Dietary Guidelines say:

A healthy dietary pattern consists of nutrient-dense forms of foods and beverages across all food groups, in recommended amounts, and within calorie limits. The core elements that make up a healthy dietary pattern include:

• Vegetables of all types—dark green; red and orange; beans, peas, and lentils; starchy; and other vegetables

• Fruits, especially whole fruit

• Grains, at least half of which are whole grain

The USDA, however, defines “Specialty” crops as

Fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture, and nursery crops (including floriculture).

It lumps edible foods, herbs, and spices together with inedible annual and perennial bedding plants, potted house plants,  cut flowers, and Christmas trees, among others.  So the new money supports export of all of them, not just food.

The money—$65 million—is hardly a rounding error compared to the billions spent on support of commodity crops like corn and soybeans.

Commodity crops go for food for animals and fuel for automobiles; only a tiny fraction goes for food for people.

Despite the Dietary Guidelines, the USDA support of food for people is minimal.  Hence, “Specialty.”

We need the USDA to refocus its priorities on food for people and environmental sustainability.

Hey—I can dream.

Jun 14 2023

RIP Aero Farms: it just went bankrupt

I, for one, am not surprised, but am also not rejoicing.  Aero Farms has just filed for bankruptcy.

I thought Aero Farms was a valiant experiment in vertical leafy green farming run by some very smart people.

Pre-pandemic, I visited their factory in Newark, New Jersey, a couple of times and fjound the place impressive in concept, size, and production.

The photo can’t show how enormous this factory is, with rows of cloth-covered trays stacked to the high ceiling.  The company planted the greens on cloth and sprayed nutrients on the roots growing through the cloth.  The greens were clean, free of pathogenic bacteria, and surprisingly tasty.  They grew several different kinds, all with distinctive flavors.  All were tested to demonstrate their excellent nutritional value.

They sold the greens to a variety of local restaurants and institutions.

But I am not surprised by their going bankrupt.

I am currently working on an updated edition of What to Eat, in which I discuss food issues, one of them vertical farming.  From my research, I can tell you:

  • The kinds of plants that can be grown in vertical farms are limited to those that need relatively low light (e.g. lettuce); even the best LED lights are not strong enough for more profitable vegetables.
  • Lettuce from California costs half as much to produce as lettuce from East Cost vertical farms.
  • The Achilles heel of indoor farming is the cost of all those lights.  Energy from the sun is free.  Electricity from the grid is anything but.
  • AeroFarms reported $35 million in losses in 2021, but predicted profitability by 2024.

Vertical farming is in trouble unless it can solve the light problem.

Was it worth a try?  That’s for you to decide.

In the meantime, Aero Farms is keeping its Danville, California plant open and remaining optimistic that it can continue to brink in venture capital.

Industry reactions to the news are also not surprising.  Those who follow vertical farming knew this was coming.

I’m truly sorry for this experiment failed.

Mar 24 2023

Weekend reading: pesticides on produce

The Environmental Working Group has just published its annual lists of Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen.

  • The Dirty Dozen—those with the highest levels of harmful pesticides:  Strawberries, spinach, kale/collards/mustard greens, peaches, pears, nectarines, apples, grapes, peppers, cherries, blueberries, green beans.
  • The Clean Fifteen—those with the lowest levels of harmful pesticides: Avocados, sweet corn, pineapple, onions,papaya, sweet peas (frozen), asparagus, honeydew melon, kiwi, cabbage, mushrooms, mangoes, sweet potatoes, watermelon, carrots

What always interests me about these lists is how nobody except the EWG wants to deal with pesticides on produce, and how much pushback the EWG gets from industry.

IFIC, the International Food Information Council (an industry front group), criticizes the EWG for promoting “organic produce as being safer and healthier than conventional produce.”  It says (my paraphrase except for direct quotes):

  1. You don’t need to avoid any kind of produce.
  2. Regulators ensure all foods are safe.
  3. Regulators inspect and monitor all foods.
  4. Residues are on all foods but “they are not to be feared.”
  5. “Giving elite status to organic produce is detrimental to people’s health.”
  6. Everybody agrees people need to eat more produce.
  7. “Shelf-stable foods, organic or conventional, present relatiable and healthy foods for all of us.”

My translation: Don’t bother with organics, ultra-processed foods are fine.

The Alliance for Food and Farming (a produce industry trade group) says:

Despite peer reviewed research showing it is scientifically unsupportable and negatively impacts consumers, the so-called “dirty dozen” list will be released soon  This list was developed to invoke misplaced safety fears about fruits and vegetables – the food group we are encouraged to eat more of every day to improve physical and mental health, prevent illness and increase lifespan.

This group says the “Dirty Dozen” recommendations are “unsupportable” and “negatively impact consumers and produce consumption.”

It says,

  • Just wash it! According to the FDA, washing produce under running tap water can reduce and often eliminate pesticide residues, if they are present at all.
  • A farmer’s first consumer is their own family so food safety is always their priority.

Comment: We use a lot of pesticides, more than 400 in the US alone, and more than 2.5 million metric tons annualy, worldwide.

We can debate the degree of harm caused to individuals, especially children, but there is no question they are bad for soil and the environment, and I’ve never heard anything suggesting they are good for us.

We would be better off eating fewer of them and producing food in ways that use less of them.

If EWG pushing farming in that direction, it needs it.

Choose organics as a means to encourage more sustainable production practices (vote with your fork).

Advocate for policies to reduce pesticide use (vote with your vote).

And thank EWG for holding industry’s feet to the fire.


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May 5 2022

Former President Trump feared death by tomatoes: testimony

My son-in-law, Michael Suenkel, sent me a link to this video clip from Rachel Maddow, with a note:

This is from  Rachel Maddow last night.  Trump on fruits and vegetables.  Either hilarious, terrifying, or deeply embarrassing depending on whether you’re a half full or half empty person, I suppose.  Start at 4:35.

I went right to 4:35.

And then I saw Emily Heil’s account of this incident in the Washington Post: Trump’s killer tomatoes and the history of food as protest projectileShe summarizes the former President’s testimony:

Trump, we learned on Wednesday, actually feared for his life at the other end of a major food group, or at least claimed to…Death by fruit? “I think that they have to be aggressive in stopping that from happening,” Trump said, in a deposition whose transcript was reported this week, about the approach his security detail took in 2015 to threats that protesters at a 2015 campaign rally might launch a vegetal attack. “Because if that happens, you can be killed if that happens. … To stop somebody from throwing pineapples, tomatoes, bananas, stuff like that, yeah, it’s dangerous stuff.”

Heil, clearly a serious scholar, goes deeper.  Not only are tomatoes thrown at politicians, but also other foods: eggs, pies, milkshakes, spaghetti.

Pies?  I was there!  I was in the audience at the National Nutrition Summit in Washington, DC, when a protester threw a pie at USDA Secretary Dan Glickman.  You can see this for yourself in this short clip introduced by Jon Stewart.  Here’s a screenshot.

Glickman ducked and avoided the worst of it.  He discussed the incident in a 2021 Tweet.

Scholars: I see a doctoral dissertation in food projectiles.  Get to work!

Jun 1 2021

Industry-funded study of the week: Mushrooms!

Method:  The investigators obtained data on the nutrient content of 84 grams of mushrooms and looked to see how consuming them might change typical dietary intake patterns.

Conclusion: “Addition of mushrooms to USDA Food Patterns increased several micronutrients including shortfall nutrients (such as potassium, vitamin D and choline), and had a minimal or no impact on overall calories, sodium or saturated fat.”

Funding: “The study and the writing of the manuscript were supported by the Mushroom Council.”

Conflict of interest : “SA as Principal of NutriScience LLC performs nutrition science consulting for various food and beverage companies and related entities; and VLF as Senior Vice President of Nutrition Impact, LLC performs consulting and database analyses for various food and beverage companies and related entities.”

Comment: As I keep saying, all fruits and vegetables have nutritional value.  Some have more of one nutrient than another.  A good dietary strategy is to vary them to meet needs for the nutrients they contain.   The only scientific purpose of this study is to demonstrate that mushrooms have nutrients.  I could have told them that.

This study is about marketing, not science.  It was conducted by a firm that specializes in industry-funded studies useful for marketing purposes.

Jul 23 2020

What’s in those USDA boxes?

RC Rybnikar sends these photos (thanks!) of examples from USDA’s Farmers to Families program.  The label.

What’s inside:

Looks good to me.

And now the USDA is expanding its list of commodities in the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP).

Additional details:

Here’s what’s been added:

alfalfa sprouts, anise, arugula, basil, bean sprouts, beets, blackberries, Brussels sprouts, celeriac (celery root), chives, cilantro, coconuts, collard greens, dandelion greens, greens (others not listed separately), guava, kale greens, lettuce – including Boston, green leaf, Lolla Rossa, oak leaf green, oak leaf red and red leaf – marjoram, mint, mustard, okra, oregano, parsnips, passion fruit, peas (green), pineapple, pistachios, radicchio, rosemary, sage, savory, sorrel, fresh sugarcane, Swiss chard, thyme and turnip top greens.

Here’s what’s been expanded: apples, blueberries, garlic, potatoes, raspberries, tangerines and taro (Why?  Because USDA found these commodities had a 5 percent or greater price decline between mid-January and mid-April as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic).

Let’s hope this helps small- and medium-size producers of these foods, and the foods get to people who need them.

Dec 2 2019

Industry-funded scientific argument of the week: do blueberries prevent dementia?

I have posted several studies funded by blueberry trade associations over the years, including my all-time favorite, the one about prevention of erectile dysfunction.  Yes!

Can we please use some common sense here?  I love blueberries, grow and harvest them on my Manhattan terrace, and eat them whenever I can—but not because I think there is the remotest chance that they alone will keep me from dementia.

But scientists are seriously debating whether blueberries do or do not improve cognitive function in the elderly.

Study #1: Hein S, Whyte AR, Wood E, Rodriguez-Mateos A, Williams CM. Systematic review of the effects of blueberry on cognitive performance as we age. Journal of Gerontology: Series A. 2019;74(7):984-95

Conclusion: “Findings from these studies indicate that cognitive benefits may be found for delayed memory and executive function in children and for delayed memory, executive function, and psychomotor function in older healthy and MCI [mild cognitive impairment] adults”.

Funder: “This work was supported by an unrestricted grant from the Wild Blueberry Association of North America.”

The Debate:

Study #2:  The effect of blueberry interventions on cognitive performance and mood: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials.

Conclusion: “Based on the current evidence, blueberries may improve some measures of cognitive performance.”

Funding: The article, still in press, states that the authors declare no competing interests but provides no information about study funding.

The debate: 

My Comment: Of course blueberries are healthy and wouldn’t it be wonderful if all you had to do to prevent dementia was to eat some every day.  Skeptic that I am, I am happy to see widespread agreement that these studies do not constitute conclusive evidence.  Of course eating blueberries (or any other fruit) is healthy; eating fruits and vegetables is healthy.   This kind of research is about getting you to eat more blueberries, rather than any other kind of berry or fruit.


Mar 28 2019

Environmental Working Group: Pesticides in Produce

I am often asked about pesticides on fruits and vegetables, how serious a problem they are, and how to avoid them.  I don’t know how harmful they are; the research is too hard to do definitively.  But I generally favor the Precautionary Principle: while the science is pending, avoid them as much as you can.  Here’s how.

The Environmental Working Group has released its annual lists of the most and least pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables.


  1. Strawberries
  2. Spinach
  3. Kale
  4. Nectarines
  5. Apples
  6. Grapes
  7. Peaches
  8. Cherries
  9. Pears
  10. Tomatoes
  11. Celery
  12. Potatoes

The report emphasizes:

  • More than 90 percent of samples of strawberries, apples, cherries, spinach, nectarines, and kale tested positive for residues of two or more pesticides.
  • Multiple samples of kale showed 18 different pesticides.
  • Kale and spinach samples had, on average, 1.1 to 1.8 times as much pesticide residue by weight than any other crop.


  1. Avocados
  2. Sweet corn
  3. Pineapples
  4. Frozen sweet peas
  5. Onions
  6. Papayas
  7. Eggplants
  8. Asparagus
  9. Kiwis
  10. Cabbages
  11. Cauliflower
  12. Cantaloupes
  13. Broccoli
  14. Mushrooms
  15. Honeydew melons

See the full list of fruits and vegetables.This results may sound cute, but this report comes with impressive supporting material: