2010.11.17 New Red Menace coming to produce section near you

Written by David Green.

By RICH FOLEY

As if there weren’t enough foods of dubious appeal on supermarket shelves already, a Florida produce company is introducing red celery to the market in time for your December holiday dinners. Forgive me if I don’t see that as wonderful news.

Grower Dan Duda told the Associated Press that “It’s bright, it’s red, it’s different, it’s unique.” I guess those are supposed to be the benefits. Duda added that it has the same taste and crunch as regular green celery. See, I knew there had to be a downside.

Yes, it’s true I’m not a celery fan. The AP article says the average American ate just over six pounds of fresh celery last year, compared to eight pounds of fresh carrots. In my case, that was more like 14 pounds of carrots and zero celery. In dollars, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said last year’s celery crop totaled just under two billion pounds, with a total value of $364.5 million dollars. That comes to less than nineteen cents per pound. Even at that level, it’s overpriced.

Actually, I’m quite sure I consumed a small amount of celery mixed into a salad here and there, but by itself? I don’t think so. I have some cauliflower in my refrigerator right now, and, unlike at least one former president, I actually like broccoli. But to me, eating fresh celery isn’t that much different than biting into a carpenter’s pencil, except the pencil probably contains more fiber.

Yes, I know you can spread peanut butter on celery, or dunk it in dip, but why waste it on celery when there are so many other tastier vegetables to choose from, many of which don’t need peanut butter or dip added as an enticement to choke them down?

A person quoted in the article who oversees school meal programs in Minnesota said the celery would be a “perfect fit” for her cafeterias because “We do eat with our eyes.” So she thinks children will eat red celery just because it’s red? I wonder how popular beets and radishes are at her schools?

Duda’s company raises produce on 39,000 acres in Florida, Georgia, California, Arizona, and get this, Michigan. That probably means those areas will be among the first to see red celery at the store. Hurry, it may not be too late to move to Ohio.

This isn’t the first time somebody has tried to change a food’s color to make it more popular. Back in 2002, I wrote about USDA efforts to perfect a nutrient dense purple potato, with vitamin levels on a par with spinach. Ever actually see one? I didn’t think so.

At the same time, researchers in England were working on perfecting a new variety of peas, still green, but the size of a golf ball. The thinking was that children could eat them with their hands instead of needing utensils.

Most likely, the big peas, the perfect size to fill in as a miniature dodge ball, would have started food fights in every cafeteria in which they were served. But, like the purple potatoes, I never saw giant peas actually make it to store shelves, either.

I don’t think changing a product’s color is a short cut to popularity. Remember Pepsi Blue? Or green-colored 7up? How about when Heinz made green and purple colored ketchups? Failures, each and every one.

If you really want children to make healthy choices, the incentive may already be out there. I’m sure you’ve heard about the city commissioners in San Francisco wanting to ban toys from kids meals at fast food restaurants, as they think toys cause children to make poor choices, nutritionwise. Instead of taking away the toy rewards now being offered, why not just require bigger, better toys for more nutritious options?

When a child chooses milk instead of soda, they get, say, a DVD of their choice. Pick apple slices instead of french fries and get a video game. Choose celery instead of a hamburger and get...how about...oh, let’s be serious. I don’t think there’s a bribe big enough to get most kids to pick celery over a burger and I don’t care what color the celery is. And don’t suggest ants on a log, either. I’ll take my raisins in my cereal and my peanut butter on rye bread, thank you very much.

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