Question: Why are vanilla beans so expensive? Are there any health benefits? Should I store them it in the refrigerator?
Answer: Vanilla beans are cultivated from a particular type of orchid that grows primarily in Mexico. The blossoms are fertilized by hand and after about two months of curing and drying, the product is brought to market. It's a labor-intensive and costly process. Vanilla has long been touted as an aphrodisiac and said to calm anger and relieve stress, but this is largely folk myth, not science. Vanilla should never be refrigerated. When chilled it can actually develop mold spores. Best storage recommendation is to keep it in an airtight container at room temperature. Some vanilla processors suggest storing the beans in an airtight jar of sugar, but the sugar will pick up the aroma of the vanilla.
Q: I'm worried about the chopped meat I am buying from the supermarket because often the center of the meat is brown. Is the butcher just covering over old meat with fresh? Is this safe to eat?
A: The most likely explanation for the color change is that the outer surface of the meat has been exposed to oxygen. Meat is naturally a deep purple or burgundy color, but within 15 minutes of exposure to oxygen, meat will turn bright red. The plastic wrap that supermarkets use to wrap the meat is air-permeable, which allows the meat to be exposed to oxygen. But the interior of the meat may be grayish-brown due to the lack of oxygen. Apart from any other food safety concerns one might have about eating beef, the color change in this example doesn't mean it's unsafe to eat. Check the package carefully in the supermarket before you take it home. Smell the outside of the package; it should not have any odor except that of plastic. The package should be wrapped tight with no leakage, and there should be no blood in the plastic tray that contains the meat. Always check meats carefully, and if all the meat in the package is grayish brown, it may be spoiled. Don't eat it if there is an offensive odor or the meat is tacky to the touch. Ground meat should only be kept one or two days in your refrigerator before it is cooked or frozen.
Phil Lempert is the food correspondent for NBC's "Today" show. He welcomes questions about healthful food shopping but regrets that he cannot respond to every query. He can be reached by at firstname.lastname@example.org. or Before You Bite, Los Angeles Times' Health section, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012.