Archive for the ‘Environment & science’ Category

A bit about Turmeric…

Saturday, August 12th, 2017

Turmeric RootSteenbergs Organic Fairtrade Turmeric comes from an organic and Fairtrade co-operative in the Kandy region of Sri Lanka. Turmeric originates from a root, known as the rhizome, Curcuma longa; it looks similar to ginger and galangal. To create turmeric powder, the turmeric rhizomes are lifted, boiled for one hour to fix the colours, dried for 10-15 days then cleaned (called polishing) before being crushed and ground.

The colour of turmeric comes from its natural curcumin colouration, although it’s commonly a bright yellow, it can also be more orange-yellow and almost brown.  Fairtrade turmeric has a distinct earthy aroma and a pleasing, sharp, bitter, spicy and lingering depth of flavour.

Turmeric has been widely used in Asia and India for centuries in cooking, and also as traditional medicines. Now, we are all beginning to understand its health benefits in a bit more detail.  As turmeric has been used as a traditional medicine, this implies that it may have health benefits, therefore here at Steenbergs we have done some googling and found that Curcumin doesn’t just give turmeric its vibrant yellow colour.

It is also the primary biologically active component of turmeric, as it has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Due to this there is high interest in curcumin as a lead molecule in anti-inflammatory drug development strategies, as curcumin has potential to alleviate and prevent multiple disease conditions, such as cancer, Alzheimer disease, heart disease and arthritis.

Over the last 25 years, curcumin has been extensively evaluated for its health promoting properties. Preclinical investigations provide substantial and compelling support for curcumin’s antioxidant, immunomodulatory, and anti-inflammatory properties; clinical studies are less numerous but are growing in number. For example, a head to head study carried out by W.C. Roberts found that daily ingestion of the turmeric component, curcumin can improve endothelial function just as well as up to one hour of aerobic exercise a day can! However, it was found, to get the best improvement in endothelial function a combination of both daily aerobic exercise and curcumin consumption are needed. Large clinical studies are needed to confirm the benefits of curcumin, current ongoing clinical studies should provide further insights in the future.

A problem with curcumin is that the liver sees it as being toxic, and therefore curcumin gets digested very quickly, giving it a low bioavailability. However, it has been found that when curcumin is consumed with pepper this can increase the bioavailability of curcumin. This is due to peppers active component, piperine. Piperine is an inhibitor of drug metabolism and therefore, prevents the liver breaking down curcumin. This leads to an increase curcumin in the blood, causing increased bioavailability. Therefore, consuming curcumin with pepper may enhance the potential benefits of curcumin.

A great way to try it is in a turmeric latte.

Reference: 

Singletary,K.,(2010) Turmeric: An Overview of Potential Health Benefits. Nutrition Today, 45(5), 216-225.

https://www.jenreviews.com/pepper/ – has a great article on the health benefits of pepper including 15 different pepper recipes

 Nutritional Values for Steenbergs Organic Turmeric Powder:

Values per 100g

Energy- 341kcal; 1449kj

Protein – 8.5g

Carbohydrates- 75.2g

Fat-0.7g

Values per 2.5g

Energy- 9kcal; 36kj

Protein – 0.2g

Carbohydrates- 1.9g

Fat- 0.0g

 Try turmeric now! 

What’s Going On With Vanilla?

Monday, July 24th, 2017
Fille Vanille

Vanilla Beans Being Processed In Madagascar

Having built a decent line in Fairtrade organic vanilla, we recently have had to stop selling it to trade because of supply issues.  At the same time, we’ve been asked by many new customers for vanilla or Fairtrade vanilla.  Everyone’s scrabbling around for a very limited supply of real vanilla, and also wanting a cheaper price where there’s none to be had – the market really has no supply and the prices are over £500/kg if you can find it.

But why is Steenbergs only selling it retail and not to wholesale customers?

In short, it’s because we’ve made almost nothing on vanilla over the last few years, vainly hoping that supply and pricing issues would ease through time.  However, because of recent cyclones and changes to vanilla processing in Madagascar, prices have remained too high for us to finance anymore.  So when we were asked to commit £250,000 for what used to cost £50,000, we politely decided now was the time to stop selling vanilla on a general scale.

Many reasons have been given for why the pricing is so high.  But it really is a simple economic matter of supply and demand – bad weather and poor processing practices have materially reduced the quantity of vanilla from the world’s largest producer (Madagascar) without any material reduction in demand.

It’s become a real issue in the industry, meaning that very little is available in the market.  And with retailers unwilling to move prices, it became a mug’s game to continue subsidising the prices.

But the real story is more nuanced and has its root cause in the introduction of free markets into the vanilla sector in the 1990s, and the rise of neoliberalisim and the Washington Consensus.  It has taken 20 years to unravel but the end result will be increased poverty within Madagascar, as well as fewer natural vanilla ice cream products on the shelves of high street retailers.

For those interested in the longer view, here’s my timeline:

Where The Story Begins: 1995 – 2000

Vanilla Planters Walking Along Track

Vanilla Planters Walking Along Track

The seeds of the vanilla story can be found in 1995.  Before then, the vanilla market was a fixed monopoly – the Madagascan Government controlled quality, harvesting and pricing, which it negotiated with the major exporters and producers each year in Paris.  This ensured vanilla beans were harvested at strict times, were processed at Government curing centres and that prices were kept in a tight $70 – $90/kg.

But the rise of neoliberal economics and the Washington Consensus put paid to this,  Following advice from the EU and the World Bank, Madagascar dropped the carefully controlled, planned vanilla economy and let rip with free market economics.  Immediately, the price of vanilla plunged.  Next, the EU unravelled the state-controlled curing system and encouraged farmers to cure their own beans to earn more cash for themselves.  While prices continued to remain low, quality also suffered.

Allied to this, Madagascan politics were tricky to say the least, with the Madagascan Government suffering many years of weak government, governance and political instability.

The Start Of Fairtrade Vanilla: 2005 – 2013

When we started out in 2004, there had been three years of failed crops in Madagascar, which supplies around 85% of global supply.  The price of vanilla rocketed to a high of $600 (2005).  Small-scale farmers around the world wanted to cash in and took out bank loans to plant vanilla vines – vanilla really is a real small-scale artisan crop.

But by 2006, the Madagascan crop had succeeded, together with additional supply from new regions, and the price imploded, crashing to $50 (2005/6), then further down to $25 (2006-8).  Financial disaster ensued for the many farmers that had borrowed against the higher prices.

In stepped Fairtrade.  This was a classic Fairtrade scenario – to protect relatively unsophisticated farmers, who grow cash crops in the Global South for the Global North, from the harshest impacts of free markets, and the effects of global commodity and financial markets.  Fairtrade vanilla supply chains were developed in Madagascar and India.

The Vanilla Tightens: 2013 – 2017

However, the story did not end there.

In 2013/4, real vanilla began to increase in popularity as a premium addition to many products, with consumer interest in purity – organicFairtradeGMO-free becoming important.  With increased demand, prices for vanilla began to move from $20/kg to $55-65/kg.  At the same time, farmers started storing their vanilla in vacuum packs.  After several poor harvests, prices rocket to $80/kg from $30/kg for green beans by the end of the year, with cured vanilla at $240/kg.

In 2017, when the market was expecting a better harvest, disaster struck with the devastating cyclone – Enawo – bringing winds of up to 270 km/hour.  It began on 7 March striking land between Antalaha and Sambava, then forked to Maroansetra and Mananara, before crossing the centre of Madagascar and leaving on the south of the island on 10 March.  It destroyed about 20% of vanilla plants in Madagascar, hitting the north-east and east coast of Madagascar the hardest.  Antalaha was affected the most, with 90% of the town, its infrastructure and crops destroyed.  Enawo’s impact has been that all the expected uplift in supply was decimated, so the harvest is expected to remain at 2016 levels at about 12,000 tonnes, equivalent to 1,400 tonnes of exportable vanilla beans (i.e. 8kg of green vanilla for 1kg cured vanilla) – this is insufficient for global demand.

The organic market is even tighter.  Effectively, there is no free stock in the supply chain, with speculators buying up anything they can find, drip feeding them into the market at very high prices.  Cured organic vanilla is at $545/kg and we expect it to be at these levels for at least another 18 months and there to be no meaningful reduction in prices until 2019-20.

With our forward contracts delivered and at these high prices, vanilla pods and vanilla extract has now become uneconomic and high risk.  Therefore, in May 2017, Steenbergs decided to reduce its position in the market and only fulfil internet orders, removing itself from the wholesale market.  Basically, the risks in the market became too great for a small business like Steenbergs.

Downside Risks – Disaster Looms in 2020?

It is our opinion that disaster looms ahead for vanilla with a market crash self-evident.

On the one hand, high prices are great news for farmers.  However, the short-term masks significant downside risks in the not too distant future:

  • Demand is contracting with end-users reformulating and/or switching to artificial alternatives.  Industrial vanillin is suitable for many applications where a velvety richness is needed, without any complexity of aroma or taste – e.g. for cheaper chocolate or soft drinks.  In the period 2000 – 2005, about one-quarter of demand fell away, although some returned more recently with demand for pure vanilla.
  • Supply is increasing with vanilla vines being replanted at a rate of 25%.  Vanilla orchids flower 3 – 4 years after being planted, with vanilla pods being harvested for the first time several months later.  This replanting will return production to higher levels than prior to 2010.

The convergence of reduced demand and increased supply will at some point cause prices to crash – perhaps in 2020.  When that happens, it will unfortunately be the small-scale farmers that suffer – as always.

Cinnamon – Can Science Show Differences In Taste Between Cassia And Cinnamon

Friday, June 23rd, 2017

In 2015, we did a study of the coumarin level in cinnamon, cassia and tonka beans.  Following on from that, I decided to get the “active” volatile oils analysed in a few types of cinnamon.  In the past, we have done more general tests and found cinnamon with 40 – 100mg/kg of volatile oils, including: styrene, pinene, benzaldehyde, o-cymene, linalool, linalylanthranilate, capaene, caryaphyllene and g-caryaphyllene.

I was interested in whether you could see a discernible pattern in the spectrum of flavour chemicals that corresponded back to the aromas and tastes that I experienced in the different types of cinnamon when I tested them for quality.

In short, the answer was yes there is a real difference.

Not only are the levels of coumarin much higher in cassia and Indian cinnamon, but the cinnamon aldehyde in cassia is almost double that in true cinnamon.  This is perhaps why cassia seems to have a blunter and more aggressive cinnamon taste that is loved by bakers.

There are clear levels of eugenol in true cinnamon and lower amounts in cassia and Indian cinnamon; this imparts a clove taste to true cinnamon.  In contrast, cassia and Indian cinnamon has a more eucalypt that is refreshingly aromatic.

I also found it interesting that there was limonene in true cinnamon, because I have always felt there was a citrus aroma and taste to true cinnamon.  And true cinnamon has high levels of linalool that has a floral spiciness and the piney woodiness of cymenes.

The science seems to vindicate the description I use in the Steenbergs’ website for cinnamon:

“Cinnamon powder has a complex and fragrant citrus flavour that is full of exotic sweetness.  Cinnamon’s perfumed aroma is unique but has hints of clove, nutmeg and sandalwood.”

Results from Analysis of Volatile Oils in Different Types of Cinnamon

 

Product name Cassia Indian cinnamon True cinnamon True cinnamon
Botanical name Cinnamomum cassia Cinnamomum bejolghota Cinnamomum zeylanicum (C. verum) Cinnamomum zeylanicum (C. verum)
Origin Indonesia India Sri Lanka Madagascar
Units mg/kg mg/kg mg/kg mg/kg
alpha-Terpineol 94 46 56 25
Benzaldehyde 37 59 61 23
Caryophyllene 146 26 292 153
Cinnamon aldehyde 23,775 7,166 13,929 13,391
Coumarin 191 295 <5 Trace
Eucalyptol 39 89 <5 <5
Eugenol 96 <5 330 188
Limonene Trace Trace 5 <5
Linalool 14 Trace 115 35
para-Cymen Trace Trace 33 7

Chemical Analysis of Steenbergs Organic Rose Water

Thursday, September 8th, 2016

We are often asked quite detailed technical questions about Steenbergs’ organic rose water.  In particular:

  • What type of water is used? Tap water
  • Is the water distilled water? Yes
  • Does the water contain pesticides or heavy metals? No
Steenbergs Organic Rose Water

Steenbergs Organic Rose Water

Firstly, the rose water is organic and distilled from organic rose petals picked and processed in the Rose Valley of Bulgaria.  It is certified as organic by Ceres, a German certification agency.  So it is grown and processed in an organic way, however that (as many customers keep telling me) does not preclude contamination from other surrounding farmland, so see below.

Secondly, on the water itself, the water used is standard potable water, i.e. it’s not borehole water or the like, but a “tap water” and this meets EU government guidelines on drinking water.

However, in the process, the water is distilled through a double water-vapour distillation process – the first is a standard distillation through a still, and the second runs the distillate a second time but this time through a cohabation column.  So in answer to the question, the water in the rose water is distilled.

This second distillation concentrates the flavour by roughly ten times, and is called “cohabation” – the rose oil tends to float on the top of the distillate so this second distillation dissolves more of this floral flavour into Steenbergs rose water.  For reference: 1.4kg of fresh rose petals yields 1kg of rose water.

Thirdly, as for the possibility for contamination of the water, our most recent tests of the organic rose water are as below and they contain no pesticides, agrochemicals and the levels of heavy metals are well within guidelines:

  Steenbergs Organic Rose Water UK Drinking Water Standards What standard used?
Pesticides Not detected 0.5 µg/l EU Directive 98/83/EC
Agrochemicals:
  Nitrates 0.4 mg/l 50 mg/l EU Directive 98/83/EC
  Nitrites <0.01 mg/l 0.50 mg/l EU Directive 98/83/EC
Plant treatments:
  Chlorates <2 µg/l <10 µg/l EU Recommendation 2015/682
  Perchlorates <0.5 µg/l <10 µg/l EU Recommendation 2015/682
Metals/heavy metals:
  Aluminium <2 µg/l <200 µg/l UK National Requirements
  Arsenic 1.40 µg/l <10 µg/l EU Directive 98/83/EC
  Cadmium 0.01 µg/l <5 µg/l EU Directive 98/83/EC
  Copper 0.09 mg/l <2 mg/l EU Directive 98/83/EC
  Iron 37.06 µg/l <200 µg/l UK National Requirements
  Lead 5.62 µg/l <10 µg/l EU Directive 98/83/EC
  Manganese 4.46 µg/l <50 µg/l UK National Requirements
  Molybdenum <0.03 µg/l No standard
  Nickel 4.05 µg/l <20 µg/l EU Directive 98/83/EC
  Selenium 0.48 µg/l <10 µg/l EU Directive 98/83/EC
  Zinc 191.14 µg/l No standard*

*there is a complex proposed standard that proposes 10.9 bioavailable plus Ambient Background Concentration (μg/l) dissolved that I really don’t understand, while Australia and Canada have limits of 3 – 5 mg/l (5000 µg/l).

North Yorkshire Nature Notes – May 2016

Wednesday, June 1st, 2016

 

Flowering hawthorn and cow parsley on the verges by Upper Dunsforth

Flowering hawthorn and cow parsley on the verges by Upper Dunsforth

Spring sprung really late this year.  Today’s another bitterly cold day – overcast with a biting wind.

The wisteria in our garden never really came out, so even by the second May bank holiday, only a few fronds were dangling down.  A real disappointment – normally there’s a full wall of deep purple and a deep buzz from the insects busily hunting out nectar along its length.  But this year, nothing much before the leaves came out.  It’s a good test of the year, because usually the wisteria is at its peak or just over for the Aldborough May Day on the first weekend of May, but it was not even out then.

It is more a sign of a long winter than an especially cold one, but it dragged on without particularly ever warming up.

The swallows were, also, late, and I bet they dream of Southern African skies.  Only four were here by early May, but now the skies are full of their diving and darting.  They also have a joyful, insistent chatter as they sit on the TV aerial gossiping away.  The best time to see them is in the evening circling above the house or over the village green.  In amongst them, there are swifts scything their way through the sky.  It is the swallows that I really love, my favourite of our migrating birds.

There are two robin pairs in our garden.  Sometimes you see the red-breasted males scampering across the lawn, glaring at each other facing themselves down.  While I read my book in the back yard, one male robin watches me, challenging me as the intruder into his space.

By late May, North Yorkshire’s hedgerows are covered in the snow blossoms of flowering hawthorn, with road verges covered in the whites of cow parsley, sweet cicely and nettle flowers.  Buttercups brighten some verges in cloaks of yellow.  By Ornhams Hall, a neglected copse with a liberal smattering of rubbish has the unmistakable sweet aroma of crow garlic.

On the corner with the old Great North Road going towards Marton-cum-Grafton, there is a verge that’s coloured by bluebells and celandine.  I always ponder whether they were planted by a farmer’s wife to brighten up the boring verge or are a relic of an old copse that has given way to fields.  They’re much more natural looking than the ubiquitous splashes of daffodils on verges and roundabouts across the vale.

Springtime Reaches Aldborough

Sunday, April 10th, 2016
Dere Street, now Boroughbridge Road, With A Really Wide Verge

Boroughbridge Road Near Marton-cum-Grafton

10th April: today was the first day that really felt like spring in Aldborough – bright blue sky, no wind and a little warmth that seems to have enlivened everyone.

When I went out for my Sunday cycle and run, there were definitely more people out compared to the much poorer showing for most of the winter months.  Fellow cyclists, walkers, runners and cars – even about thirty cars squashed in the lane between Upper and Lower Dunsforth from the Yorkshire Searchers, a metal detecting club.

Birds seen: black birds, crows, dunnocks, linnets, magpie, sparrows (we’ve several living in our roof), woodpigeon, wrens  and the canary-yellow of a yellowhammer; no birds of prey, but have seen recently: kestrels, a red kite and a barn owl that tracked down the road by the hedgerow until it spotted and swooped onto a mouse or shrew, then flew off.  Sometimes, there are buzzards and a sparrowhawk.  Later, Sophie and I walked in the sunshine on the levées by the Ure, carpeted in golden flowers of lesser celandine and dandelion, and watched sand martins pirouetting in the sky above the river-bank by Ellenthorpe Hall.

Flood Defences By Ellenthorpe Hall

Celandine Flowers By River Ure By Aldborough

Spring must be here, finally; next, there will be swallows, but not yet.

Everywhere, you see rabbits nibbling at the grass verges or darting across country lanes.  A few weeks ago, a roe deer scampered out from copse between the A1M and the old Great North Road (now the A168), and sometimes there’s a flash of russet as a weasel scampers from one side of the road to the other.

With the lack of wind and because it was early, the soundscape was wonderful – the birdsong joyous along the hedgerows – with only the faintest hint of cars passing.  Even the long train of Yorkshire Searchers were quiet as they were stationery at the time.  A natural chorus of: chit-it chit-it, klep-toowit, oow-oooh, tiddle-iddle-lu-wi, trrrrrrrr, and who cooks for-you ohA lapwing heard, not seen, on Lower Dunsforth Common.

At the end of the day, May Day dancers practising on the Green.

Update on 17th April: I saw a couple of pioneer swallows whilst out cycling today.  The rest should come in the next few weeks.

Is there aluminium in bicarbonate of soda?

Friday, December 25th, 2015

Fairly frequently, we are asked “is Steenbergs bicarbonate of soda aluminium free?”

In short, yes it is aluminium-free, as well as gluten-free, and Steenbergs organic baking powder is vegan and phosphate-free, while the non-organic baking powder is vegan with corn flour and free of added aluminium.

It’s a weird one this, because bicarbonate of soda is aluminium free and always has been.  But a whole lot of discussion seems to have arisen around finding aluminium free baking sodas, and describing the sins of those products that don’t state whether they are aluminium free.

To an extent, people are correct to have concerns, because aluminium is suggested as being linked to neurological disorders because it is a neurotoxin. But initial data that had suggested links to Alzheimer’s have not been proven and the Alzheimer’s Society states “importantly, there is no evidence to suggest that aluminium exposure increases your risk of dementia”.  The best information I could find on aluminium from food and other consumer products is the FAQ at the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR).

As far as I can tell, the story started in America when Bob’s Red Mill Baking Soda began to market a mined bicarbonate of soda as being aluminium free (they don’t do this anymore and only show “aluminium-free” on their baking powder).  So a myth arose that anything that did not state “aluminium-free” on the label must de facto contain aluminium.  In fact, bicarbonate of soda simply does not contain aluminium, whether mined or chemically synthesised, and so long as it is 100% pure bicarbonate of soda never has done.

I hope that clarifies things.

Where it seems the concern arose was in a misunderstanding – baking powders can sometimes include aluminium-based chemicals, but these are different from baking soda (American term used specifically), i.e. baking soda was mistaken for baking powder.  So customers should look out for aluminium-free baking powder, but this never seems to be question that’s asked online.

We do test Steenbergs bicarbonate of soda and Steenbergs baking powder for presence of aluminium using laboratories.  And we, also, test within Steenbergs for gluten, even if we don’t make any declarations on this.  Both the bicarbonate of soda and baking powder came up negative for gluten (not detected at 5ppm, i.e. less than 5mg/kg) when I tested the current batches for this blog.

However, sometimes small amounts of aluminium seem to get into baking powder.  This must come in with the cornflour or other carrier in the baking powder because no aluminium chemicals have been used in the products – I have checked a few products out there and small amounts seem to sneak in (ranging up to 100ppm), plus I have spoken with manufacturers and they say the same.  (Note: some “aluminium free” baking powders state “no added aluminium” or that no sodium aluminium sulphate is included in the mix which arguably is different; in general there is no defined level for which something is “aluminium free”).

So neither Steenbergs baking powder nor bicarbonate of soda (a.k.a. baking soda) contain added aluminium and gluten and are vegan, plus our organic baking powder is, also, vegan, phosphate-free, GMO free, organic.

Audio Interview from CareerFarm: Building an organic spice business committed to fairtrade and the environment with Axel Steenberg

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

I recently did this phone interview with Jane Barrett of The Career Farm, which can be found at Jane’s Blog or listen below:

Autumnal Colours In North Yorkshire

Sunday, September 13th, 2015

I have always liked autumn.  The weather is cooler than summer, or at least in theory – this year’s been a washout.

But I also like harvest time and autumnal colours.  The corn is in from most fields around us, the apples are turning a russet colour and the elderberries are a deep black, hanging heavy in the hedgerows, having given us heady elder flowers at mid summer.  Brambles all dark and healthy.

Then in the garden, there is the late yellows of rudbeckia and the purples of sea hollies.

Elder berries ripening on elder hedgerow

Elder berries ripening on elder hedgerow

Apple ripening in our garden

Apple ripening in our garden

Autumnal yellows of rudbeckia petals

Autumnal yellows of rudbeckia petals

Purple colours of sea holly

Purple colours of sea holly

A Walk Along A Country Lane In North Yorkshire

Tuesday, August 11th, 2015

Last night whilst Sophie was playing tennis with our son, Jamie, I went for a walk along the River Ure with our daughter, Poppy.  It was a beautiful evening with swallows and sand martins out in abundance and only a few others around.  The river flowed sedately past while a father and son fished at one of the fishing piers.  At Boroughbridge lock, a boat was passing through.  But I had forgotten forgot my camera.

So this morning after a bike ride, I retraced some of the walk.

Why?  Because it was amazing to realise within only a couple of miles of walking, we had passed almost all the main types of crops (barley, oats and wheat), as well as cows around and about.  But we never really think about it, because it’s all we’ve ever known.  Then  along the hedgerows, the elders were forming their berries and brambles were developing.

Wheat Field

Wheat Field

Close Up of Wheat

Close Up of Wheat

Barley Field In North Yorkshire

Barley Field In North Yorkshire

Close Up Of Barley

Close Up Of Barley

Field Of Oats

Field Of Oats

Close Up Of Oats

Close Up Of Oats

Potato Field With Cows in Distance

Potato Field With Cows in Distance

Elderberries Beginning To Develop

Elderberries Beginning To Develop