Cheap berries – their true cost

Screen shot 2015-02-20 at 3.27.26 PMAs fearful consumers rush to their freezers and toss out their bags of frozen berries in the wake of the current hepatitis A scare, it’s high time to take a good look at why these berries, dubbed ‘superfoods’ have become so popular and why such importation is problematic beyond the threat of hepatitis A.

Just call them the “blue dynamos,” writes Angela Haupt. ‘Blueberries’, she argues are packed with manganese, an energy-boosting mineral and vitamin K, which helps build bones. Haupt quotes research which suggests that a blueberry-rich diet improves motor skills and helps fight diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. The worried-well can scarcely resist getting their hands on their daily dose of these powerfully marketed commodities. In fact this summer, supermarkets have been using berries as a draw card into the fruit and vegetable section and industry leaders say demand is outstripping supply. But does the hype stand up to scrutiny?

Madonna loves coconut water, Michelle Obama rates sweet potatoes, and Gwyneth Paltrow can’t get enough of quinoa, writes Her research into the superiority or otherwise of ‘superfoods’ has led her to Susan Jebb, new professor of diet and population health at the University of Oxford, who asserts: “Evidence that any one food has specific effects on long-term health is lacking and usually more to do with PR and celebrity endorsement than scientific evidence of the kind that would be required if a drug was to make such claims. She claims that superfoods aren’t unhealthy and are good to eat but they rarely live up to the hype. Doctor and science journalist Michael Mosley, thinks that  blackberries and blueberries are good for the brain, but he agrees that many superfoods are generally overrated. “The most important thing is a rainbow diet, lots of different colours on your plate so you are getting lots of different phytonutrients, he says. Also berries aren’t unique in containing high levels of beneficial phytonutrients. Other foods including berries, fruits, vegetables, and even black tea contain generous amounts of antioxidants, including vitamins and polyphenols.

Screen shot 2015-02-20 at 3.17.44 PMWhen seeking good nutrition it’s important that food should be as fresh as possible, since the vitamin and mineral content tends to fall with storage. The answer is fresh local food-fruit and vegetables preferably grown in our local areas from organic seed. The other good piece of advice is to eat seasonal produce. When the berries are in season eat them and enjoy them. There are many other beautiful fruits in winter such as oranges and apples and a huge array of vegetables packed full of phytonutrients. We really don’t need to have mangoes and watermelon and berries all year round.

Screen shot 2015-02-20 at 3.15.56 PMWe now know that a growing number of people have been diagnosed with hepatitis A after eating frozen berries imported from China. Latest reports are that thirteen people in Victoria, Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia have become ill. As hepatitis A is transmitted by the “faecal-oral” route, this means either that people have handled the berries with contaminated hands transmitting the virus, or the contamination may have occurred because the water used in the processing may have been contaminated with sewage.

This unfortunate episode highlights the absurdity of buying berries from China when we grow them in Australia. Australia recently became a net importer of processed food, this being aided by the high Australian dollar, high domestic overheads and wage costs.

Then there’s the food miles such imported food must travel. According to the food miles calculator the berries from China to Australia have travelled 5599 miles (9008km) as the crow flies. And there’s very little chance of this situation changing with the Australian government signing an increasing number of free trade agreements and with the potential for more food contamination. It is ironic that these unfortunate people seeking to eat healthy foods have become ill with hepatitis.

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