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Killer Kale?

First published on on December 3, 2009, by Suzanne DeJohn

You know how it is when you read something that makes you say, "Huh?" As I was reading last Sunday's newspaper, a headline in the USA Weekend Magazinecaught my eye: "EatSmart: Some Foods Can Sicken You." The short article continues with "the top ten riskiest foods." And what do you think tops the list? Hostess Twinkies? Big Macs? Cheez Whiz? No. The top item on the list is Leafy Greens. Forgive me for getting all Andy Rooney on you, but seriously, leafy greens? 

More and more the media feed us snippets of bizarre information gleaned from this or that latest research report. In this instance, the accompanying text starts out, "Every year, 76 million Americans get sick from eating contaminated food" and goes on describe a new report by the Food and Drug Administration listing the "top 10 riskiest foods that account for nearly 40% of outbreaks since 1990." In addition to leafy greens, the list includes potatoes, tomatoes, and berries. Sure, the last few years have seen food poisoning outbreaks traced to spinach, as well as peanuts, ground beef, poultry, and other common foods. Alerts, outbreaks, and recalls make news headlines -- and rightly so, if the information alerts consumers to avoid certain brands packed on certain dates and thus prevents further problems. But in the context of a Sunday newspaper magazine section, does putting Leafy Greens at the top of a risky food list serve the public good -- or any purpose at all? There's no imminent threat, it's just a statistic that might be useful to agribusinesses and food processors, but in a consumer publication it's just sensationalism.

I can imagine people reading the list and shying away from fresh, nutritious foods like greens and berries and turning to processed foods, thinking they're safer. But seriously, is snacking on a frozen McNugget dipped in Cheez Whiz really better for your health than enjoying a fresh tomato or handful of berries? In the grand scheme of things, how many more people are affected by diseases associated with sugary, high-fat foods, or artificially sweetened, colored, and flavored foods? I can't help but think that if more people ate leafy greens, potatoes, tomatoes, and berries instead of fast food or pretty much anything within 20 feet of the checkout aisle at the supermarket, the overall health of our population would increase. Dramatically.

Interestingly, poultry didn't make the top ten list of riskiest foods. Yet just last week,Consumer Reports reported that two-thirds of the raw chicken they tested, purchased at supermarkets in 22 different states, harbored salmonella and/or campylobacter, the most common bacteria associated with food-borne illness. Yes, that's two thirds! So you can pretty much assume that the chicken you buy is contaminated. How is it that we consumers have been conditioned to treat raw chicken like poison, and we're OK with that? (Sanitize your hands after touching it! Don't let it come into contact with any other foods! Use a separate cutting board!) And yet leafy greens are listed as the "riskiest" food. 

I, for one, will continue to eat leafy greens with abandon. They aren't just good for you, they're great for you. Take kale: It has lots of Vitamins A, C and K, folate, potassium, magnesium, iron, lutein, calcium, folic acid, vitamin B6, manganese, and potassium, and it's also high in fiber. Some consider it to be the most nutritious food on the planet. So much for "killer kale!"


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