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Science in your shopping cart
Have you ever wondered where all the food at the grocery store comes from? Who grows the vegetables and bakes the bread? How does it get to the store? And how do we know that it’s nutritious and safe to eat? Science can help us answer these questions—and a lot more. Each year, the laboratories and greenhouses of the Agricultural Research Service release new and improved products and food. Next time you see a shopping cart, take a look inside. You’ll probably find that science has improved many of the foods you eat every day. Here are some examples:
The average American eats more than 19 pounds of apples every year, but we’re not the only people who like them. Thanks to ARS quality-control research, American apples are popular all over the world. Our scientists have worked on bashless bagging to prevent bruising, and controlled-atmosphere storage methods to help apples stay crisp for as long as nine months. That means the apples stay fresh throughout the year.
Many breakfast cereals and breads are made with wheat. Across the country, ARS scientists are working to improve the grain grown in the United States. By working with wheat genes, they’ve been able to develop new wheat varieties that can resist diseases and pests like the Hessian fly and the cereal leaf beetle.
Everyone knows that witches are supposed to travel on broomsticks, but did you know that witches’ broom is also the name of an important cacao tree disease? Along with frosty pod and black pod, this is one of the most serious diseases facing the chocolate industry. ARS scientists are developing cacao trees that can resist these diseases. That’s good news for chocolate lovers everywhere!
Mosquitoes are a real pain—as are biting flies, ticks, and chiggers. We ward all of them off with DEET, a strong repellent that ARS discovered years ago.
Catfish might not be the prettiest fish on Earth, but they sure are tasty. ARS has helped scale up fish farming by breeding fish for disease resistance and finding better feeds. And catfish aren’t the only ones to benefit. ARS researchers are conducting similar research for trout and other fish raised in ponds across the United States.
When frozen foods first hit the market, they weren’t immediately popular. Many people complained that the foods had a funny flavor, texture, or color. Others worried about processing and storage: Were frozen foods still nutritious? Were they safe from bacteria and other food pathogens? ARS scientists addressed these problems with the Time-Temperature Tolerance Project. From their research, they came up with nine principles for freezing vegetables, which frozen food producers still use today.
Many people have trouble digesting lactose. If you’re one of them, you probably know about lactose-free dairy products. But did you know that ARS researchers helped develop them? The trick is to change a bacterium that occurs naturally in milk. Once changed, it produces an enzyme that breaks down the milk’s lactose, making it easier to digest.
There was a time when a good melon was hard to find. Watermelons were tasty and nutritious, but wouldn’t keep for long and were almost impossible to ship from one place to another. So if you couldn’t grow the melons in your backyard, you were out of luck. In the 1940s, a USDA plant breeder in Charleston, South Carolina, set out to change that. The result was a new melon called the Charleston Gray. The Charleston Gray was sort of long and had a hard rind, so it was easy to stack and ship. It could be grown in different climates, it resisted several serious diseases and it tasted terrific. Most watermelons grown today have a little Charleston Gray in their background.
Think newspaper has nothing to do with soybeans? Think again! The ink is made with soy oil. Soybeans are everywhere—if you know where to look for them. They’re used in soy milk, which is in turn used in infant formulas. And then there’s soy yogurt, soyburgers and soy sausage. Soy oil is the most widely used edible oil in the United States. And it’s hard to find a chocolate treat that doesn’t have soy lecithin. Between 1980 and 1994 alone, ARS scientists released 66 varieties and 280 breeding lines, so there are a lot of soybean varieties in the United States that have been affected by our research.
Peaches grow best in warm climates, right? Not necessarily. ARS researchers have developed varieties of peaches that grow well in northern states, where the weather is cooler. This gives fruit farmers more options when deciding what to plant. Plus, it increases the growing season because summer comes a little later to the northern states. ARS researchers have also developed breeding lines that can resist common diseases. Breeding lines are plants with desirable genetic characteristics that can be used to breed new plant varieties. The researchers have also developed a kind of beneficial bacteria that prevents brown rot on fruit.
Like your food spicy? Well, you’re in luck because ARS has good news for salsa fans. We’ve bred a new hot pepper that’s 20 times hotter than a typical cayenne pepper. It’s very adaptable, so it can be grown just about anywhere in the United States. We’ve also bred ornamental peppers that can add brilliant color to your garden.
Years ago, ARS scientists combined starch with a synthetic chemical, creating a product so thirsty, it could absorb 2,000 times its own weight in water. We call it SuperSlurper. SuperSlurper is used in fuel filters, baby powders, and batteries. Similar compounds are used in disposable diapers.
Cold cuts can make delicious sandwiches, and they don’t have to be salty. ARS researchers found that a lot of processed meats could be made with 20 to 25 percent less salt without increasing the danger of spoilage. Salt can prevent the growth of microorganisms that cause spoilage, but even more important than salt is proper refrigeration. One good way to protect food from pathogens is to heat it up. But heat can change the flavor and texture of your food. So our scientists have developed several techniques to reduce the number of microorganisms on, and in, processed meats and other food—without heating it up.
This garden vegetable has Halloween spirit
By Rosalie Marion Bliss
Agricultural Research Service
A small vegetable that looks like a pumpkin may soon appear in a garden near you. The vegetable is a type of pepper that is called “Lil’ Pumpkin.” It’s very special because it has orange, pumpkin-like fruit.
You might think that all vegetables are grown to provide food to eat. But some vegetables are grown mainly for the lively color and holiday spirit that they bring to gardens. These are called “ornamentals.” Just like ornaments decorate a Christmas tree, these pretty peppers decorate a garden.
The peppers were bred by Agricultural Research Service scientists John Stommel and Robert Griesbach. Stommel is with the agency’s Genetic Improvement of Fruits and Vegetables Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland. Griesbach is a former researcher with the ARS Floral and Nursery Plants Research Unit in Beltsville.
Another pepper the scientists developed is called “Pepper Jack.” Because Pepper Jack has orange and black cone-shaped fruit, it might remind you of the popular Halloween treat “candy corn.”
Stommel says that vegetable crops such as peppers were first widely grown in Europe in the 15th century. At that time, people liked these crops more because they looked pretty than because they provided food.
Back then, when a gardener grew plants for decoration and plants for food, the garden was called a “potager.” An example of this is the large gardens on the lawns of castles and very large homes where kings and queens lived.
One of those large royal homes was the French king’s palace at Versailles during the 1600s. The palace is still there today, and people from all over the world still go there to visit and see the gardens.
Today, Stommel says using vegetables as decorations in gardens has become popular again.
So you might be wondering, if these peppers are for decorations, can people eat them? Yes, but the fruit from both of these peppers is very pungent (kind of like onions!). Chefs might use them to add a spicy flavor when making meals.
These pretty peppers can be grown in containers and also in garden beds. They grow best with plenty of light and warm temperatures, Stommel says.