Posts in Nutrition
Carl's Jr. Unveils Grass-Fed Burger With Side of Nudity

Originally published in The Huffington Post

According to the logic of fast food companies, caring about the province of your food or the state of your health is akin to snobbery, pretentiousness, and even being part of the "nanny-state." But fast-food marketers are also aware that the tide may be turning. Several recent McDonald's advertisements are case in point. In one new ad, the company specifically calls out "foodies" and "gastronauts," positioning its food as food for the "average Joe" and implying that "real Americans" do not and should not care about the quality of their food. But then, in a separate ad campaign, McDonald's attempts to appeal to those same "foodies" it disparages by claiming to be transparent about the ingredients in its food (if only on a very cursory level).

Now, Carl's Jr. is taking a page out this playbook but with a different tactic. Since fast food by its very nature is food that requires a certain amount of nescience -- about what it's doing to your health, about the environmental costs, about the poor treatment of millions of animals required for its products, and about the fair treatment of workers all along the food chain -- the introduction of the first "all-natural" "grass-fed" burger represents a potential shift in the fast food paradigm.

Sure, other fast food companies have made nods to "health," like in the case of McDonald's oatmeal, and the food industry has long made various health claims with "low-fat" or "no-cholesterol" on its products, but bringing a grass-fed burger to a major fast food outlet is significant. This isn't Chipotle or Shake Shack, which are branded as healthier fast food; this is Carl's Jr., a company that has never made any claims to health or sustainability.

So it's interesting to see how the company chose to introduce this burger: With Charlotte McKinney, a woman many have described as "a Kate Upton lookalike" nearly naked and strutting through a farmer's market to a chorus of ogling men. The viewer first confronts a mostly naked McKinney who basically moans, "I love going all natural. It just makes me feel better. Nothing between me and my 100 percent, all-natural juicy, grass-fed beef." This advertising tactic works to masculinize the concept of caring about the province of your food and the state of your health since the food industry has historically portrayed this concept as weak or effete.

While previous Carl's Jr. ads were equally demeaning, they were less surprising because they were hawking products that were damaging to our health and our environment as well -- they seemed perfect bedfellows. Grass-fed and all-natural, at their best imply a respect for nature, a respect for the health of our bodies and a concern about both human and animal welfare, so to see this paired with the most crass form of sexist advertising is deeply jarring. Granted, as a woman, I am not Carl Jr.'s target audience. In a statement about the new burger, Brad Haley, chief marketing officer of Carl's Jr. said, "We've seen a growing demand for 'cleaner,' more natural food, particularly among Millennials, and we're proud to be the first major fast food chain to offer an all-natural beef patty burger on our menu...Millennials include our target of 'Young Hungry Guys' and they are much more concerned about what goes into their bodies than previous generations."

But this is not the standard lean-chicken-breast-and-protein-shake variety of concern about what men put into their bodies -- (as deeply misguided on nutrition as that is) grass-fed beef, is actually a nutritionally sound and environmentally responsible approach to eating beef. It also stands for a much more humane way of raising animals for food, allowing them to graze on pasture and eat their natural diet, rather than cramming them into filthy feed lots and stuffing them with antibiotic-laced corn.

Will the food industry's attempt to capitalize on the "growing demand for cleaner more natural food" ruin the grass-fed designation, just at it did with organics in some cases? Where will all this grass-fed beef come from? It's not hard to imagine the industry tweaking the requirements for beef to be "grass-fed" in the same way that the egg industry claims "free-range" with thousands of hens housed in a crowded and filthy structure with "access" to a door that may or may not allow them to ever step foot outdoors. Is grass-fed just the next buzz word in food marketing that will quickly lose its meaning?

The fact that Carl's Jr. can even market this burger as "all-natural" is highly questionable. Beyond its grass-fed patty, the honey wheat bun contains roughly 30 ingredients including artificial flavors, hydrogenated soybean oil (trans-fat), and a bevy of other chemical flavor enhancers and preservatives. The ketchup contains high fructose corn syrup, the mayonnaise contains preservatives and flavor enhancers, and the pickle chips have more of the same. All told, you're consuming about 60 ingredients in that "all-natural" burger.

I'm left wondering if the target audience of men aged 18 to 34 will actually care about the province of their food and their health on the deeper level that the return to grass-fed beef represents. We can only hope that the Carl's Jr. ad is selling this demographic short in anticipating that the way to sell them on the importance of cleaner, fairer, more humane food is by exploiting women in sexist ads.

Bad (and Good) Eating Habits Start in the Womb

Last week my piece "Bad Eating Habits Start in the Womb" appeared in TheNew York Times and generated a lot of interest and  commentary — it was the number one most emailed story on the entire site for over a day. I find this to be an encouraging sign that people are really concerned about the food they eat, and especially about the health of their babies and children. Click here to listen to an interview I did for New Hampshire Public Radio discussing my piece. Below is a description from NHPR's website.

You may be familiar with the ordeal of introducing children to broccoli and spinach.  Two new studies suggest that finicky eaters might have picked up their discriminating habit in the womb. Forget genetics, personal responsibility, and discipline. Your taste for junk food and soda may have a lot to do with how your mother satisfied her cravings.

Kristin Wartman, is a food, politics and health journalist. She recently wrote about the new science of food choices for the New York Times.

Photo: Rafael Viana Araujo via Flickr Creative Commons

Vegan Foods, Diet Products, and Other Big Food Scams

Last week I did two interviews both relating to how the industrial food system loves to tell us how its products will help us lose weight and be healthier. Tuesday, I was on Chef Erica Wides' show Let's Get Real on the Heritage Radio Network to talk about vegan and vegetarian "foodiness" products, as she calls them. Wides defines foodiness as fake food, made to look like real food that often makes some kind of (false) health claim. When it comes to vegan and vegetarian foods, people often think they are eating better simply because they don't eat meat. The trouble is, people often resort to the packaged and processed versions of vegan or vegetarian food. As an example of how these foodiness products are worse than the read thing, take a look at the ingredients for two products we discussed on the show: Pizza-Pizza-Pizzaz

Toffutti Pizza:

WHEAT FLOUR (UNBLEACHED), CRUSHED TOMATOES, WATER, SOYBEAN OIL, SUGAR, SALT, YEAST, FOOD STARCH-MODIFIED (CORN), OREGANO, BLACK PEPPER, GARLIC. The dairy-free cheese contains the following: WATER, EXPELLER PRESSED PALM OIL, MALTODEXTRIN, NON-GMO (TOFU, SOY PROTEIN) NON-DAIRY LACTIC ACID BLEND OF NATURAL GUMS (LOCUST BEAN, GUAR, CELLULOSE, XANTHAN AND CARRAGEENAN), ORGANIC SUGAR, POTATO FLAKES, VEGETABLE MONO AND DIGLYCERIDES, SALT.

Veja-Links:

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00941_2898924704Click here to listen to the full half hour episode.

On Friday I went on Huff Post Live for a segment called "Myths and Facts about Weight Loss." I am sometimes reluctant to do these types of interviews because the focus on weight loss and obesity is a bit misguided. I think we need to focus on the consolidation of the food supply and the way in which the industrial food system is at the root of our collective health and weight problems. Which is why I always emphasize that the solution to weight loss is to eliminate industrial foods from your diet as much as possible. This perspective shifts the blame from the people stuck in an industrial food paradigm to the horribly skewed food system pumping out terrible products. The best way to do this is to emphasize the important of eating real, whole foods. So, what are real, whole foods?

  • Fresh vegetables and fruits (preferably organically grown)
  • Fresh meats like beef, poultry, pork (preferably pasture-raised, if possible)
  • Dairy products like milk, yogurt, cheese, butter (preferably from grass-fed animals)
  • Beans and legumes
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Whole grains
  • Herbs and spices
  • Plenty of filtered water

What's the rest of what you see on grocery store shelves, in fast-food restaurants, and on TV? Packaged and processed foods. If you eliminate these foods from your diet, I guarantee you will lose weight. But even more importantly, you are refusing to participate in an industrial food system that has proven to make people sick, devastate the environment, and exploit people, animals, and natural resources. Once you commit to taking a stand against that, the weight loss seems like an added bonus. For more, you can watch the whole interview here and the two minute version here.

FDA: Working Hard to Protect Industry
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The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) made two moves in recent days that seemingly address consumer concerns on some hot button issues. First, it banned the use of bisphenol A (BPA) based epoxy resins in coatings for baby formula packaging. Second, it proposed a limit on how much arsenic is allowed in apple juice. Looking more closely at these decisions, however, it seems that FDA is really more interested in appeasing industry, than doing its duty to protect the public.

So what action is the FDA really taking? Due to intense consumer demand, manufacturers of infant formula packaging have already stopped using BPA. And, based on the new standard for arsenic levels, 95 percent of companies that make apple juice are already in compliance.

The FDA’s BPA ban is actually an abandonment petition coming from industry stating that it is now illegal to use BPA for those specific products—but it does not say anything about the safety of BPA.

“It is a ban but it’s a ban that was initiated by the industry,” Dr. Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumer’s Union, said in a recent telephone interview. “They have not taken action on the safety of BPA even though they have been pressured to. But when industry comes in and says, ‘This is no longer being sold,’ that’s an easy out for them because if industry didn’t agree and FDA tried to ban it or take action, maybe the industry would go after them.”

The FDA made a similar move last year when it banned BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups when nearly all U.S. manufacturers had already stopped using BPA for those products. The move was mainly said to be about “boosting consumer’s confidence.”

Both the FDA and the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group, have said that the BPA ban is in response to marketplace demands, not due to safety concerns regarding the ubiquitous substance.

And there are an abundance of safety concerns regarding BPA as well as increased public awareness about the potential dangers of BPA. The American Chemistry Council has repeatedly dismissed the hundreds of peer-reviewed studies that link BPA to a wide range of health concerns including various types of cancer, impaired immune function, early onset of puberty, obesity, diabetes, and hyperactivity.

In addition, a recent study published this June in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives changes our understanding of how BPA is absorbed by the body. Researchers found that BPA is absorbed under the tongue and goes directly to the bloodstream, resulting in a much higher exposure to the chemical.

Of further concern is the fact that without clear government regulations, manufacturers can replace BPA with other chemicals that may be just as harmful. (I wrote about this in a previous article for Civil Eats).

“Anything that substitutes for BPA should have to go through a screen for hormonal activity,” Hansen said. “There is a report that looks at 16 different replacements for BPA and I would suspect all of these have the same hormonal activity.”

Hansen was more optimistic about the FDA’s new federal limits on arsenic in apple juice. The new regulation says that apple juice containing more than 10 parts per billion could be removed from the market and companies could face legal action. But the FDA stressed that most companies on the market are already below that threshold.

Much of the concern around apple juice stems from a Consumer Reports finding published last year in which researchers tested 28 different apple juices bought from stores in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. Five samples of apple juice tested and four of grape juice had total arsenic levels exceeding the 10 parts per billion federal limit for bottled and drinking water, according to the report.

Consumer Reports also found high levels of lead in apple juice and grape juice as a result of insecticide use. The report also brought to light the fact that for the past decade, most concentrate has come from China (PDF) and concerns have been raised about the possible continuing use of arsenical pesticides there.

Hansen said the new limit is important because, for the first time, it puts a federal limit on the amount of arsenic in a juice product. But the limits don’t address the arsenic found in grape juice, nor the levels of lead in any juice products. “Yes, that is problematic,” Hansen said. “It’s good that they’ve done it for apple juice but they should be doing it in other juices as well. We found [arsenic] in grape juice and FDA’s own data has found it can show up in pear juice as well.”

While inorganic and organic arsenic are both found in these juices, it was originally thought that inorganic arsenic was of greatest concern, since it is a known carcinogen. According to the FDA, inorganic arsenic has also been associated with skin lesions, developmental effects, cardiovascular disease, neurotoxicity and diabetes.

Organic arsenic was once thought to pass through the body more quickly and not cause harm. However, the FDA now states that organic arsenic may cause harm as well. “Some organic forms can be even more toxic than the inorganic,” Hansen explained.

The arsenic found in apple juice is largely the result of years of arsenical insecticides being applied to apple orchards, Hansen said.  He added that the science on arsenic is evolving so that scientists now believe it is far more toxic than was previously thought.

Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, wanted a limit as low as three parts per billion, but the FDA is putting that limit at 10 parts per billion, a threshold that the vast majority of manufacturers already meet.

According to an Associated Press article, “All of the experts—including the government and the consumer advocates—agree that drinking small amounts of apple juice isn’t harmful. The concern involves the effects of drinking large amounts of juice over long periods of time.” But for the public, that language is vague—especially for an overburdened consumer scanning labels and reading ingredients for products on grocery store shelves.

Furthermore, a new study found that the combined effect of estrogen and arsenic significantly increases the risk of prostate cancer. BPA is one of the many endocrine disrupting chemicals in our food supply that has an estrogen-like effect in the body. Therefore, it is possible, that within that plastic bottle of apple juice is a potent concoction of chemicals that may lead to prostate and other forms of cancer.

Ultimately, the public is left with many questions regarding the safety of foods, beverages, and packaging—all of which the FDA is supposed to screen. According to the FDA’s Web site, its designated role is “protecting the public health by assuring the safety, effectiveness, quality…of most of our nation’s food supply…”

What will it take for the FDA to do its job and protect the American people? So far it seems that public and consumer pressure haven’t been enough. The FDA has yet to respond to the two million comments on the petition to stop the approval of genetically engineered salmon or the one million comments on labeling genetically modified foods.

As is the case with the latest BPA ban and proposed limits to arsenic in apple juice, the public is left with no clear answers and no real assurance that the agency has its best interest in mind.

Photo: baby drinking formula, by Shutterstock

This article also appeared on Civil Eats

All Calories Are Not the Same -- WATCH: TED Talk

[ted id=1774] In this compelling TED talk, Dr. Peter Attia says that insulin resistance and diabetes cause obesity — not the other way around as the conventional wisdom holds. More importantly, he says it's the refined grains, starches, and sugars in our diets that cause insulin resistance in the first place. Meaning, it's not how much we eat but what we eat -- more proof for the argument that all calories are not the same, contrary to what the food industry wants us to believe. It won't be long before Big Food will have to acknowledge the science and take responsibility for its poor quality food products, rather than insisting that all calories are the same and scolding Americans to simply "eat less and exercise more." Dr. Attia says that obesity is really just a proxy for the underlying illness that is insulin resistance. He says that by blaming the obese, we are blaming the victims in a food system gone awry. Our processed food supply — which is heavily reliant on refined grains and sugars — is the real culprit here.

Radio Interview: Big Food and Nutrition Education

Tuesday night I went on Let's Get Real on the Heritage Radio Network to discuss my latest article on Civil Eats about the corporate sponsorship of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Listen in for the entertaining conversation I had with Chef Erica Wides. Click here to tune in.

Dieticians are in bed with Foodiness, Incorporated! Erica Wides is once again joined in the studio by nutrition expert Kristin Wartman to talk about her recent article in Civil Eats about big food's influence on The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Hear how companies like Coca-Cola and General Mills fund nutrition studies on sugar and processed food. Doesn't that just seem like a conflict of interest? Kristin spoke with a dietician employed by Sodexo off the record; hear how a food professional deals with the contradictions of health and "foodiness." Later, Erica challenges Kristin to a game of foodiness truth-or-dare!

New Report: Big Food Co-Opts Nutrition Group's Message

Image If there is one topic that Americans are generally confused about it’s nutrition. Although the word simply means the materials necessary in the form of food to support life, our cultural understanding of it has shifted dramatically—with various industries co-opting the word and changing its meaning. Michael Pollan calls this “nutritionism” in his book In Defense of Food. “No idea could be more sympathetic to manufacturers of processed foods,” he writes. “Nutritionism supplies the ultimate justification for processing food by implying that with a judicious application of food science, fake foods can be made even more nutritious than the real thing.”

Convincing people of the healthfulness of these new foods—processed foods that have been refined, stripped, and altered, with synthetic vitamins, added whole grains, or antioxidants put back in—requires experts to help convey this message. In addition to the billions of dollars spent on advertising directly for food products, Big Food companies also recruit America’s nutrition professionals to spread their gospel. This is the topic of public health lawyer, Michele Simon’s new report which details “the food industry’s deep infiltration of the nation’s top nutrition organization.” Simon is referring to The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals. All Registered Dietitians (RDs) must follow a curriculum designed by AND, they are then credentialed by AND, and all continuing education for RDs must be approved by AND.

According to AND’s website, its current corporate sponsors include: Abbot Nutrition, Aramark, Coca-Cola, The Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition, National Dairy Council, General Mills, Kellogg’s, PepsiCo, and Unilever. In response to Simon’s report, Ryan O’Malley, media relations manager for AND wrote in an email, “In its relations with corporate organizations, the Academy is mindful of the need to avoid a perception of conflict of interest and to act at all times in ways that will only enhance the credibility and professional recognition of the Academy and its members.”

In Simon’s report (the New York Times broke the story yesterday) she describes a first person account of her attendance at AND’s Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo (FNCE). “Junk food expo is really the best descriptor. As you walk in, all you can see are the massive booths of companies like Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo,” she writes. She describes booth after booth of industry created nutrition information, without even a hint of impartiality.

“The food companies are being very strategic,” Simon told me in an interview. “They know that RDs are the vehicles through which information is carried to the consumers, so they want to make sure that their message gets out loud and clear to these professionals.”

Simon writes of her visit to the McDonald’s booth where smoothies and oatmeal were on offer during the morning hours of the conference. “To visit the McDonald’s booth, you’d think the fast food giant only sold oatmeal and smoothies,” she writes. “I asked a few RDs why they were there and they said they were hungry. Fair enough, but it was clear that McDonald’s had succeeded in positioning itself as a purveyor of healthy food while feeding RDs breakfast.”

Simon points out that food companies are normalizing their products at these conferences. “The message is: It’s perfectly fine to promote processed food as your everyday diet, as long as it has whole grains sprinkled on it or has fewer calories.”

It’s no surprise then that Americans are confused about nutrition and have trouble discerning which foods are actually healthful. “If you look at what comes out of that trade group for generalized nutrition messages, it is not: Don’t eat junk food, don’t eat soda,” Simon said. “It’s these namby-pamby messages that are not getting us anywhere, like ‘everything in moderation,’ ‘no such thing as a good food, or a bad food’ all these clichés come from the spokespeople and the official positions of that trade group—it absolutely keeps America confused.”

Andy Bellatti, RD, agrees and says that he is appalled by the choice of industry sponsorships that AND has chosen to align itself with. “I think it does a huge disservice to the field and the credential,” he said in a phone interview. “I think these kinds of partnerships drag the credential through the mud because they make the entire profession seem like it’s at the mercy of these food companies.”

One typically encounters RDs in a hospital or doctor’s office and are therefore considered the most legitimate and qualified bearers of nutrition information. “It’s very troublesome when you have the food industry co-opting health professionals and that’s exactly what’s happening,” Bellatti said. “Who creates the curriculum for RDs? AND does, and no matter what college you go to, if you want to be an RD, it’s an AND curriculum.”

Bellatti went on to describe his experiences at FNCE, where he says, the industry is presenting biased studies about their products as the hard, indisputable science. “It’s extremely problematic because you have industry presenting science,” he told me. “And many RDs are a very captive audience—not everybody is going into it with a critical mind. If a doctor or another RD is presenting, obviously on industry payroll, a lot of RDs go back to their practice and they just repeat what they’ve heard.”

Bellatti said he saw this happen at a session given by Coca-Cola at FNCE. “RDs will attend a session by Coca-Cola and come away saying that, actually, the research shows that artificial sweeteners are completely safe,” he said. “And the RDs were completely satisfied with that presentation—that is very troubling.”

Aaron Flores, an RD who works in Los Angeles remembers a similar experience. “One specific education program that I went to a few years ago was a talk on artificial sweeteners sponsored by Diet Coke,” he wrote to me in an email. “The message was that artificial sweeteners are safe—but there is a lot of conflicting research out there. I would have preferred to hear a more balanced presentation, but of course that would not happen at a presentation paid for by Diet Coke.”

Various RDs told me what’s often perceived to be conventional wisdom regarding healthy foods is actually the industry speaking through nutrition professionals, which makes its way into the popular culture. For example, despite the fact that studies show consuming diet soda leads to increased waist circumference in humans and that aspartame raises the fasting levels of blood sugar in mice, potentially leading to weight gain and diabetes, the conventional wisdom claims that diet sodas are a good weight loss strategy.

RDs range in their position on the corporate sponsorship of AND. Indeed, Simon reports mixed responses at the conference but she did find it troubling that the majority of RDs surveyed supported corporate sponsors. “An overwhelming majority [of RDs] found the National Dairy Council, Kellogg, General Mills, and the maker of Splenda acceptable… it’s a sign of how well these companies have succeeded in becoming a normal part of the American food experience.”

Digna Cassens, MHA, RD, a practicing dietitian for 50 years, said AND’s corporate sponsors present a “huge conflict.” “But unfortunately no on really wants to speak out,” she said in an interview. “It’s sounds disloyal—so speaking badly about my professional organization, which has given me the opportunity to practice professionally for 50 years, I find it disloyal.”

Bellatti completely disagreed with this sentiment. He said he always voices his concerns at the end of sessions at FNCE conferences. “In every single case, I had RDs approach me and say they support me but were afraid to speak up,” he said. “But voicing a concern is not violating anything. I have heard people say they are afraid of having their credential taken away, but I don’t see that actually happening.”

Further complicating the matter is the fact that many RDs are actually employed by large food service companies like Sodexo or Aramark, which often have contracts with hospitals and typically employ all the RDs on staff. According to Sodexo’s website, it is the nation’s largest corporate employer of registered dietitians.

One RD employed by Sodexo as the clinical manager of a major academic hospital refused to speak on the record. I asked her if it was difficult to convey the nutrition information she wanted to given that her employer makes many unhealthful foods, which comprise the fare in the hospital. She was hesitant to answer but seemed to acknowledge the conflict by saying, “All of our nutrition materials and guidelines come from the Academy [AND].”

Bellatti said in addition to hiring RDs, Sodexo also has a dietetic internship. “That is a major conflict because it’s very hard for an RD to improve food offerings if they are employed by the very company that is putting out unhealthy food choices.”

Some RDs have chosen not to renew their membership to AND based on its corporate sponsors. “As a former member of AND, I feel that by accepting money from corporate sponsors like Coke, PepsiCo, Hershey’s, General Mills, etc., we compromise our credibility as a professional organization,” Flores, the RD in Los Angeles said. “So I decided that I would vote with my wallet and I did not renew my membership.”

Americans are bombarded with claims about nutrition and healthy eating for food and beverage products but many of these messages are exactly what Pollan describes as nutritionism. “The food industry does a great job of keeping consumers confused about nutrition,” Simon told me. “Most Americans don’t realize the extent to which the nutrition advice they hear is influenced by these powerful economic interests. If people can’t even trust the advice coming from nutrition professionals, who can they trust?”

This post appeared on Civil Eats and the Huffington Post

Radio Show: Let's Get Real - Omega 3's Come From Fish, Not Cookies

splash3.1 Listen to my guest appearance on the radio show, Let's Get Real on the Heritage Radio Network. Chef Erica Wides and I talk about a favorite creation by the food industry, "functional foods."

Here's how the show's producer describes it:

Today's Let's Get Real is all about fake food nutrition- stuff like enhanced peanut butter & low-fat dairy. Well, Erica Wides is here to tell you that these products are not food! Joining Erica in the studio is nutrition educator, Kristin Wartman, and she's on the show to debunk the mythology of foodiness nutrition. Learn about the differences between Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids, and why skim milk cannot be considered a whole food. Hear about some food products that are some of the biggest culprits of false foodiness nutrition!

Click below for the archived show:

http://www.heritageradionetwork.com/episodes/3443-Let-s-Get-Real-Episode-53-Omega-3-s-Come-From-Fish-Not-Cookies
Jane Brody Gets It (Really) Wrong "Debunking" Health Myths
Beef and chicken log glued together with transglutaminase (meat glue.)

Jane Brody, a long-time health columnist for The New York Times, has undoubtedly written great columns over the years, but her most recent one, published on December 31, 2012, was not one of them. In fact, this column, which claims to debunk health myths, is one of the most misinformed columns on health, nutrition and the environment to be published recently in the Times, filled with factual errors as well as outdated nutrition information. The piece warrants a detailed rebuttal, because so many people turn to the Times and to Brody for health advice and this time she was way off the mark. The impetus for the piece, Brody says, is that we should, “start the new year on scientifically sound footing by addressing some nutritional falsehoods that circulate widely in cyberspace, locker rooms, supermarkets and health food stores.” This made it all more the disturbing to read a list of health myths she’s allegedly debunking. Instead, Brody reinforces some old myths and creates some new ones along the way.

A few sentences into the piece she writes, “when did ‘chemical’ become a dirty word?” quoting Joe Schwarcz, director of the Office for Science and Society at McGill University in Montreal. This should immediately raise a red flag to anyone familiar with this common refrain touted by spokespeople for Big Ag and Big Food. Sure, chemicals are everywhere, and are the basis of even the most pure and natural food, but when most people refer to chemicals in their food it usually means they are concerned with synthetic chemicals in the form of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers, or as highly processed ingredients that end up in food products. Brody goes on to say that Schwarcz is “one of Canada’s brightest scientific minds.”

It turns out, Schwarcz heads the research office at McGill that is officially listed as a resource institution affiliated with The Council for Biotechnology. This group, according to its website, “communicates science-based information about the benefits and safety of agricultural biotechnology and its contributions to a sustainable food chain. Its members are the leading agricultural biotechnology companies.” Which biotech companies? Monsanto, BASF, Bayer, Dow, DuPont, and Syngenta, among others, all of which are responsible for the development and sale of the aforementioned synthetic chemicals that many Americans are trying to avoid in their diets. Despite this fact, Brody urges her readers to use Schwarcz’s tips and “make wiser choices about what does, and does not, pass your lips in 2013.”

So what are Schwarcz’s and Brody’s tips? She begins her “debunking” with cured meats, claiming that organic or not, cured meats should be avoided. But cured meats, sourced sustainably and preferably locally, can certainly be part of healthy diet — they are a traditional food that humans have been eating for thousands of years. Prior to refrigeration, we cured meats to keep them from spoiling. Modern cured meats have been vilified for containing nitrosamines, which have produced mutations in cells cultured in the laboratory and cancer in animals treated with very high doses.

While I agree that the nitrosamines (also called nitrates or nitrites) present may cause problems when consumed in very high amounts, Brody writes them off for another reason: Their high saturated fat and salt content. But, as I’ve written before, fatty meats from pastured, organically raised animals are not a health hazard. In fact, it appears that fat from these animals has beneficial and health promoting effects. Further, the scientific data does not support the claim that saturated fat is harmful to our health. (For more on fat see this article I wrote, or read this article by Gary Taubes.)

As for the issue of salt: There is no doubt that a diet high in processed foods throws our sodium and potassium balance out of whack, but eating salty foods is not necessarily bad, especially if you also eat plenty of vegetables and other foods high in potassium. The research on eating a low-salt diet, which has also become dietary dogma much like the low-fat campaign, also appears to be based on little real science. (For more on salt, see my article, or read this article from Gary Taubes.)

Brody then moves on to meat glue. You may remember this scandal last year; there was concern that lesser cuts of meat were being glued together with this substance and unsuspecting consumers were eating it. Aside from the questionable practice of misrepresenting the quality of the meat being sold, this presents a food safety issue since various cuts of meat can be glued together affecting how the meat cooks and whether or not bacteria on the glued surfaces of the meat is killed during cooking.

Meat glue is an enzyme called transglutaminase. The company that produces transglutaminase, Ajinomoto, also produces aspartame and MSG. In spite of its being sold for human consumption, there isn’t much research on tranglutaminase so we don’t really know its effects. However, Brody implies its safety since the famous chef Wylie Dufresne uses it in his cooking. She then goes on to say that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies it as generally recognized as safe (GRAS), “and there is no reason to think otherwise.”

But getting something listed as GRAS is hardly a rigorous scientific process. For another piece, I interviewed Dr. Michael Hansen, senior scientist at the Consumers Union who told me that he had little faith in the GRAS designation since makers of products can voluntarily register their own product as GRAS and the FDA will often approve them without any real oversight or safety testing.

Next up, trans fats. I thought most health practitioners, writers, and scientists all agreed that trans fats are bad for us and should not be used for cooking or added to processed foods. But not so for Schwarcz and Brody. Brody mentions conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is a naturally occurring trans fat that is present in grass-fed milk and meat in relatively high amounts. It is in fact, very healthful and has been shown to help in burning fat and building muscle. Brody gets this right, but then says that certain trans fats can be “legally, and healthfully added to dairy products, meal-replacement bars, soy milk and fruit juice.

To be clear: You cannot eat an extracted or synthetic element of a whole food and expect to get the same health benefit as you would from eating the food itself. Vitamins, minerals, fats, and all nutrients exist within the matrix of a food; there are synergistic factors involved when eating a whole food that cannot be replicated in a lab. This is always true, which is why “functional foods” are nothing more than a marketing scheme (see Pepsi with added fiber or orange juice with omega-3 fatty acids.).

And then, perhaps the worst offense of all, Brody defends genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on the basis of their potential health benefits, while also minimizing the importance of growing foods organically. She writes, “Organic producers disavow genetic modification, which can be used to improve a crop’s nutritional content, enhance resistance to pests and diminish its need for water.” This reads like a press release written by Monsanto and ignores all the evidence that shows GMO crops are actually causing super pests, super weeds, and increasing the need for pesticides — hardly a recipe for better nutrition and health. Brody in a reference to the infamous Stanford study (Stanford, it turns out, has funding ties to the agricultural giant Cargill) says that while organic foods are not likely to be more nutritious, they are kinder to the environment. This begs the question: When will we stop separating human health from the health of our environment?

Finally, Brody jumps on another topic that I thought most health advocates also agreed upon: The problems with farmed salmon. It’s hard to tell exactly what Brody thinks about it, she seems to defend it while also pointing out some of its flaws. She writes, “There may be legitimate concerns about possible pollutants in farmed salmon.” May be? Possible pollutants? The Environmental Working Group found that farmed salmon is contaminated with five times the amount of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs) than its wild counterpart and contains more than 100 other pollutants and pesticides. The report by EWG states that “frequent farmed salmon eaters may exceed government health limits for these pollutants, which are linked to immune system damage, fetal brain damage, and cancer.”

The National Academy of Sciences recommends that the government focus on reducing exposures of PCBs for girls and young women in the years well before pregnancy, since some PCBs are linked to brain damage and immune deficiencies for exposures in utero and in early childhood. I’d say these are some “legitimate concerns.” Farmed salmon is also highly problematic for the health of our oceans. Farmed salmon are raised in highly concentrated pens, much like a factory feedlot for beef, pork, or poultry. Feed waste in these pens contains pesticides and antibiotics as well as fish excrement which amass on the ocean floor. It is then swept out into the ocean by currents and creates destructive plankton blooms and destroys shellfish and other sea life.

Color options for dying farmed salmon

Brody goes on to say that the dye used to color farmed salmon pink is a “nonissue.” I wouldn’t call it that — some fish farmers use astaxanthin, a pigment and antioxidant that is found naturally in algae, as Brody points out — but others use an artificial, petrochemical-based dye. The dye fed to farmed salmon is only a nonissue since there is simply no good reason to eat farmed salmon in the first place. Plus, farmed salmon would be a dull grey color if it weren’t for the dye — anytime you have to dye a food to make it look appetizing, you shouldn’t be eating it.

Brody ends on a strong note, however, with her advice to eat nuts since they are “heart-healthy.” This is correct but it’s not because the fat in them is unsaturated, which she says —it’s because they are an unadulterated, whole food. It’s a shame that she didn’t apply this common sense knowledge to the rest of her column.

With all the nutrition misinformation out there, one would expect Jane Brody and The New York Times to be more careful about relying on an “expert source” with ties to the biggest agricultural and food companies in the world to debunk health myths. These corporations have a vested interest in keeping the public confused about what constitutes a healthy diet because their products do not meet any kind of criteria for human health or the health of our environment. Only a misinformed and confused public will continue to buy and consume foods that are sabotaging their health and the health of the planet — unfortunately, Brody’s latest column only adds to this disturbing trend.

Radio Interview: New Thinking On Weight Control

My latest radio interview with Dr. Robert Zieve on Healthy Medicine Radio. We discuss deceptive marketing by Big Food corporations, how a 'calorie isn't a calorie' and how obesity could be caused by malnutrition.

Healthy Medicine #143: New Thinking on Weight Control

Dr Zieve talks with author Kristin Wartman about how much obesity could be caused by malnutrition and her article "The Obesity Paradox."

http://healthymedicine.org/html/popups/hmr1-143.html

Organic Agriculture: Fifty (Plus) Shades of Gray

"All natural." "Farm-fresh." "Cage-free." Thanks to phrases such as these, consumer confusion is common when it comes to understanding and buying food. The battle raging in California over the labeling of genetically modified foods illustrates just how much labels do indeed matter -- to consumers as well as to corporations. The recent paper by Stanford researchers claims that organically grown foods are no better for our health than conventionally grown foods, further complicating the debate over which labels can and cannot be trusted. Headlines about the report seek to simplify: A New York Times headline read, "Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce;" CBS News claimed, "Organic food hardly healthier, study suggests."

Others have already pointed out that organic food is about more than just nutrition, but it's worth mentioning that there are many compelling reasons to buy organic that go beyond one's personal health, including:

• minimizing pollution, • reducing harm to farm workers and • reducing the public health risk posed by antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Further, the study did note one major personal health reason for supporting organic: limiting one's ingestion of pesticides. But the paper's key finding -- at least, as reported by the mainstream media -- is that organic foods do not contain significantly higher levels of nutrients than conventional foods, and that's what made the headlines.

While the analysis by the Stanford researchers seems fairly conclusive, the implications of its findings are actually extremely narrow given the infinite variety in agricultural practices. The range of products produced under an organic label range from those produced on an "industrial-organic" scale to those produced by small and mid-scale farmers who go well beyond the USDA's standards with their methods.

At one end of this scale are companies like Horizon Organic, which sells USDA-certified organic milk. Horizon is owned by Dean Foods, the sixth largest food company in North America. Large food corporations of this scale wield immense power to influence organic standards. Walmart, which sells the Horizon brand and is the largest retailer of organic milk in the country, has been involved in multiple lawsuits over the use of the word organic on various product labels and in the case of Horizon's organic milk, whistleblowers found it was actually being produced in large-scale factory farms without adhering to organic standards, like access to pasture. Instead, the Cornucopia Institute found that Dean Foods was confining as many as 10,000 cows to large buildings and feedlots and operating "phony 'organic' feedlot operations."

On the other end of the scale are small-scale, grass-based farms -- some certified organic and some not. In a recent report put out by Compassion in World Farming vast differences in nutrient value were found in animals raised in "higher-welfare" settings (on pasture, with space to graze and forage for their natural grass diets) versus those raised in intensive confined, "lower-welfare" settings (in confined feedlots, eating diets designed to pack on weight as fast as possible, including grain and daily doses of non-therapeutic antibiotics). One key finding was that the proportion of omega-3 fatty acids in milk from pasture-based systems was between 53 and 184 percent higher than the milk from animals raised in confined, intensive settings. The report also found higher amounts of vitamin E and beta-carotene in milk from pasture-based systems versus conventional ones.

In terms of organic versus non-organic meat, the Stanford paper says that there is no difference in nutrition between the two. Again, research has shown that there are significant differences when it comes to pasture-raised meats. A report put out by Animal Welfare Approved states that ruminants raised on pasture alone have milk and meat that contains three to five times the amount of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Various studies have shown that CLA is protective against cancer, can lower levels of LDL cholesterol, prevents atherosclerosis and reduces blood pressure. The Compassion in World Farming report found that pasture-raised beef has a higher proportion of omega-3 fatty acids and a more favorable (lower) ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids compared with intensively-raised beef. The report also states that pasture-raised beef contains more vitamin E and beta-carotene than conventionally produced beef.

Just as the quality of animal products depends largely on what the animals were fed, the nutrition content of vegetables is dependent on the quality of the soil in which they were grown. Vegetables grown in mineral-rich, healthy soil (that hasn't been depleted by chemical fertilizers, lack of biodiversity and little to no crop rotation) have been found to be far more nutritious than vegetables grown on monocropped, intensive farms. Various studies have shown that the nutrient density of vegetables, including many crucial vitamins and antioxidants, have dramatically decreased over the years with soil depletion due to industrial farming methods. Again, the Stanford paper does not discern between vegetables grown on an industrial-organic scale versus those grown on biodiverse, multi-crop farms.

Eric Herm, an author and cotton farmer in Ackerly, Tex. explained how significant he believes the difference is between produce grown on the industrial organic scale versus produce grown on biodiverse farms. "What I've seen over the years, is that crop rotation is not only the key to healthy soil, it is vital in the long term health of all living creatures. There is far more microbial activity, plants are healthier and more resistant to disease, drought and insect damage," he wrote in an email. "The soil feeds the plants that feeds us. Sick or weak soil will grow weaker plants with less fruit and vitality. The healthier the soil, the more vitality within the plant and the fruit it produces, therefore giving us more vitality. It's common sense really. Organic monocropping will not have the long-term benefits of a diverse farming operation."

Farmer Kira Kinney of Evolutionary Organics farm, a multi-crop farm in New Paltz, N.Y. agrees. "I definitely think there is a difference in what I grow compared with industrial organic. To me these two things are nothing alike. There is no holistic approach to industrial organic -- it is all about yield, yield, yield," she wrote in an email. "They do whatever it takes to get the most out of any given crop. Large scale organic is much the same as conventional agriculture in that it is all numbers -- get the most yield in the fewest days."

Given the wide-range in practices that can be lumped under the term "organic" and the fact that the bulk of organic foods bought and sold in America come from systems that are more accurately described as "industrial organic" the true impact of the Stanford findings becomes less apparent.

Recent events in California's fight over the labeling of genetically modified foods would indicate that the companies that sell industrially-produced organics do not necessarily support the ideals their customers do: the largest organic food brands in the country, including Kashi, Cascadian Farm and Horizon Organic have joined the anti-labeling effort, contributing millions of dollars to defeat the ballot initiative, Proposition 37. The parent companies to these organic brands are Kellogg Company, General Mills and Dean Foods, respectively.

"It's ironic this [Stanford] study is coming out of California, where food companies have spent more than $25 million this year trying to battle Prop 37 and prevent the labeling of GMOs in the state of California," Herm wrote.

Labels do matter -- and what the Stanford analysis brings to the fore is the need for deeper, more comprehensive studies on the infinite shades of gray when it comes to agricultural practices. Are we satisfied to continue lumping foods under two simplistic categories -- organic or conventional? With Big Food corporations now heavily invested in organic foods, what does the organic label actually mean? As producers, consumers and advocates this paper should push us to have conversations that are not so black and white.

Originally published on Ecocentric

Sunny Side-Up: In Defense of Eggs

Also published in The Atlantic

What is the most heart-healthy diet? The answer to this much-debated question just became more controversial after a study in the forthcoming issue of Atherosclerosis reported that egg yolks are nearly as bad for your arteries as cigarette smoke. After years relegated to the do-not-eat list for fear of cholesterol-raising effects, the humble egg was finally making its way back into mainstream acceptance as a heart-healthy food full of healthy fats and protein. But it appears this latest study may indeed send us back to the days of egg-white omelets and Egg Beaters.

The study's authors surveyed more than 1,200 men and women, with an average age of 61.5, who were attending vascular prevention clinics. The author's claim that regular consumption of egg yolks is about two-thirds as bad as smoking when it comes to increased build-up of carotid plaque, a risk factor for stroke and heart attack.

But many believe there are issues with this study's methodology as well as the way the authors drew their conclusion. First, the study was based on recall questionnaires, which are notoriously unreliable. More importantly, the authors singled out one food from the patients' diets and determined this caused the trend towards atherosclerosis. They could have picked another food at random -- say the toast eaten with the eggs -- and drawn an associative relationship between toast and atherosclerosis.

"I think it's dangerous to look at just one food and deduce that the trend you see is caused by that food," MIT researcher and senior scientist Stephanie Seneff wrote to me in an email regarding the study.

Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, also wrote to me in an email, "[The study] did not measure or control other aspects of diet such as intakes of meats, fruits, or vegetables and did not control for lifestyle factors such as physical inactivity. The data could be useful for generating some hypotheses, but it is difficult to draw any causal conclusions."

Despite these flaws, the damage to the reputation of egg yolks may already be done. "It's very worrisome that these authors of the egg-yolk-is-bad article have managed to come up with a fairly simple and relatively compelling story which will scare a lot of people away from eating egg yolks," Seneff said.

The study has potentially serious consequences for people trying to improve their health and reduce their risk of stroke and heart disease -- and that's because most people should be eating more eggs, and particularly the yolks, not fewer. That's what Seneff told me in a recent phone interview. She and her team at MIT are working on some compelling new research about the role of dietary fat and cholesterol and our health. Her research is so counter to the current dietary dogma that it sounds shocking at first: Seneff believes that Americans are actually suffering from a cholesterol deficiency rather than excess. She's concerned that studies like these only serve to confuse the public more about the role of dietary cholesterol. Seneff believes that cholesterol has been wrongly vilified and in fact, foods that contain high amounts of cholesterol -- like egg yolks and other animal proteins -- are key to improving heart health, maintaining a healthy weight, and staving off many diet-related diseases.

Of course, not everyone agrees. There are conflicting studies to show that dietary cholesterol both does and does not affect our blood levels of cholesterol. "Much of the cholesterol in the blood is produced endogenously," Hu wrote. "However, dietary factors (fats and cholesterol) can influence serum cholesterol levels." An article about eggs on the Harvard School of Public Health's website reads, "While it's true that egg yolks have a lot of cholesterol -- and so may weakly affect blood cholesterol levels -- eggs also contain nutrients that may help lower the risk for heart disease, including protein, vitamins B12 and D, riboflavin, and folate."

The picture becomes even more complicated because elevated cholesterol levels do not necessarily mean one is at greater risk for a heart attack. More than 60 percent of all heart attacks occur in people with normal cholesterol levels and the majority of people with high cholesterol never suffer heart attacks. Many studies now show that high LDL (the so-called "bad cholesterol") and heart disease are not linked. In 2005, the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons reported that as many as half of the people who have heart disease have normal or desirable levels of LDL. Also in 2005, researchers found that older men and women with high LDL live longer.

Dr. J. David Spence, the first author of the egg yolk study and professor of neurology and clinical pharmacology at Western University, told me in an interview that serum cholesterol is "not the be all, end all of vascular risk." He's more concerned about what happens to our cholesterol levels after we consume cholesterol-containing foods, rather than our fasting cholesterol levels, which is what's checked at the doctor's office. "Egg yolks only raise fasting cholesterol by about ten percent," he said. "But four hours after you eat a high cholesterol meal you get inflammation in the arteries, there's increased oxidative stress, the increase in oxidized LDL cholesterol--which is the most harmful form or cholesterol -- is almost 40 percent, and you have impairment of the function of the artery lining."

Spence is concerned that people do not know just how much cholesterol is in one egg yolk. "For people who are at high risk for heart attacks and strokes the recommended amount of cholesterol is below 200 mg a day and one large egg yolk has 210 mg of cholesterol--there is more cholesterol in one egg yolk than the total recommended daily intake of cholesterol," he said. "To put that in perspective, one egg yolk has more cholesterol than a Hardee's Monster Thickburger which contains 12 ounces of beef, three slices of cheese, and four slices of bacon. I know the burger is worse than the egg because it also has saturated fat but the cholesterol per se is harmful and in fact, cholesterol is permissive of the harmful effects of saturated fats."

As such, Spence recommends switching to egg whites or to egg-substitutes and eating a diet that is low in animal fats and low in cholesterol. "I tell my patients to learn how to make a nice tasty omelet or frittata with egg whites, or--what I like even better--is a carton of scrambled eggs with no cholesterol. They're called Egg Beaters, or Better-n-Eggs," Spence said.

Better-n-Eggs is an egg substitute product that contains 98 percent egg whites and includes these additional ingredients: corn oil, water, natural flavors, sodium hexametaphosphate, guar gum, xanthan gum, color (includes beta carotene).

Is Spence concerned about the various additives and the processing that goes into these types of products? "No. I'm more concerned about the cholesterol in eggs."

It's worth pointing out that many of the nutrients found in eggs are found in the yolk. Among many other nutrients, egg yolk contains lecithin, which helps the body digest fat and metabolize cholesterol; betaine and choline which lower homocysteine levels; glutathione, which helps fight cancer and prevents oxidation of LDL; lutein and zeaxanthin, which have been shown to prevent colon cancer; and biotin, a B vitamin crucial for healthy hair, skin, and nerves.

I asked Spence what he thought about the various nutrients found in egg yolks -- if we eliminate eggs from our diets won't we be missing out on these nutrients? "Oh come on," he said. "You can get those nutrients a lot safer if you eat them in other foods that aren't loaded with cholesterol. There are no nutrients in the egg yolk that you need."

The MIT researcher Stephanie Seneff would beg to differ. In fact, research she is currently working on shows that one crucial nutrient -- sulfur, which egg yolks contain in very high amounts -- may be the underlying deficiency to our collective problems with cholesterol and heart disease. "The key to everything may just be sulfur," Seneff says.

Sulfur is a mineral found in several foods, including vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, garlic, and kale. It is also found in very large amounts in animal proteins -- one of the best-known sources is egg yolk. When sulfur combines with four oxygen molecules, it becomes sulfate. Sulfate is combined with cholesterol to produce cholesterol sulfate in large amounts when our skin is exposed to sunlight as well. Sulfation is important to enable cholesterol transport to all the tissues.

The research Seneff and her team are working on is a complete reevaluation of our understanding of cholesterol and its role. It's a fairly complex biological process but put simply, Seneff believes that the build up doctors find in arteries is "cholesterol trapped in the wrong place," or cholesterol trapped in the plaque. The reason it's trapped in the plaque is because the LDL is damaged from excess sugar in the blood. As a result of our highly processed, starchy, sugary diets, many Americans have excess blood sugar. Once the sugar has damaged the LDL it cannot go back to the liver where the cholesterol would be processed and recycled back into the body. The plaque then builds up in the arteries, where it "waits for the opportunity to become cholesterol sulfate, which all of the body's systems need," Seneff says. "The bottleneck is the sulfate. Cholesterol needs sulfate to be mobile. The damage then is a consequence of lack of cholesterol and lack of sulfate."

This may be why a much larger study in The Journal of the American Medical Association found "no overall significant association between egg consumption and heart disease." In fact, the study of 118,000 people found that those who ate five or six eggs per week had significantly lower mean serum cholesterol levels than those who ate one egg per week. Plus, the daily nutrient intake of people who ate eggs was much higher than the non-egg eaters.

In the public imagination, cholesterol is the villain whose only function is to clog up arteries. "This is the complete wrong picture," Seneff says. "It's very easy to imagine plaque build up -- but it's not the correct picture. Cholesterol is vital -- it is a precious substance in our bodies. Cholesterol is to animals what chlorophyll is to plants."

Are we to increase our consumption of egg yolks as Seneff suggests or completely eliminate them as Spence advises? What we need are clear guidelines, not influenced by industry, that present a straightforward approach to weight loss and a healthy body. The simplest answer currently available is to eliminate processed foods from our diets -- the saturation of processed foods into our diets tracks most closely with the rise in obesity and diet-related disease in this country. So when presented with confusing dietary advice or questions while food shopping ask yourself this simple question: What's my least processed option? Take that one.

A Calorie, Is A Calorie, Is A Calorie, Or is it?

Recently, I wrote here on Civil Eats that it may not be long before the food industry will be proven wrong about their two favorite messages: All calories are created equal, and it’s all about personal responsibility. Well, it appears that science may be one step closer to proving at least half of that equation wrong and that in fact; all calories are not created equal. The latest study, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) this week, found that when it came to weight loss and maintaining weight loss, those who ate a low carbohydrate, high fat diet kept more weight off than those who were on either a low glycemic diet or a low fat, high carbohydrate diet.

While all participants in the study ate the same number of calories, the types consumed varied. The low fat diet contained 60 percent carbohydrates, 20 percent protein, and 20 percent fat. The low glycemic diet contained 40 percent carbs, 40 percent fat, and 20 percent protein (with a focus on minimally processed foods). The low carb diet had 10 percent of calories from carbs, 60 percent from fat, and 30 percent from protein.

Compared to those on the low fat diet, those following the low carb diet burned 350 calories more per day and those on the low glycemic diet burned 150 calories more per day.

The most compelling part of this study is that it calls into question the long-held belief in the scientific and medical communities that all calories are created equal. This is a message the food industry has also seized on since it means they can continue to pump out ultra processed nutritionally void foods and tell Americans to “eat them in moderation.” If all calories are created equal, the food industry says, then there are no bad foods.

But this message doesn’t just come from the food industry, Marion Nestle, a long-time critic of Big Food, has spoken about calories in a similar way. She wrote on her blog that the JAMA study was too small (it had 21 participants) and that more research was needed outside of a controlled setting. She’s quoted in USA Today saying:

Longer studies conducted among people in their own environments, not with such controlled meals, have shown “little difference in weight loss and maintenance between one kind of diet and another.” More research is needed to show that interesting results like these are applicable in real life, she says. “In the meantime, if you want to lose weight, eat less.”

I disagree. As a nutrition educator, I think that telling people to “eat less” is largely ineffective and continues to place the burden on the consumer as part of the personal responsibility credo. On the other hand, telling people to eliminate processed, refined carbohydrates and sugars, while eating plenty of high quality fats, proteins, and vegetables seems to be a more workable solution to stimulating weight loss. Part of the reason this may be so effective is because simple carbohydrates and sugars actually stimulate appetite and cravings, while fats, proteins, and complex carbohydrates like vegetables, beans, and legumes satiate and stabilize blood sugar.

A recent report put out by the World Public Health Nutrition Association found that processing does matter, noting that ultra processed foods are “habit-forming and some would say often at least quasi-addictive. They do displace healthy meals, dishes and foods and thus are liable to cause obesity or else at least mild malnutrition.”

The addictive factor of these foods is highly problematic and there’s evidence to suggest that eating sugar makes you crave and consume more sugar starting with our experiences as babies and even in utero (see a recent article on Gilt Taste for more on this).

And according to Robert Lustig, a professor of clinical pediatrics at UC San Francisco, a low carb diet or a low glycemic diet is what helps keep our insulin levels low, he believes that elevated insulin levels are at the root of obesity. “To borrow a phrase from Bill Clinton: It’s the insulin, stupid. The reason any diet will work is because it lowers insulin. And a diet that doesn’t, like the traditional low-fat diet, won’t work,” he said in a recent Los Angeles Times article.

Anecdotally, I’ve noticed that once my clients cut sugar and simple carbohydrates from their diets their cravings for these kinds of foods quickly dissipate. It’s only observational, but I see it repeatedly and so do other nutritionists and doctors I know.

Over online at The New York Times, Mark Bittman wrote about the JAMA study with a conclusive evaluation, “The message is pretty simple: unprocessed foods give you a better chance of idealizing your weight—and your health. Because all calories are not created equal.”

But there’s still no consensus among doctors, nutritionists, researchers, or writers.

The implications for coming to a scientific consensus about whether or not types of calories do matter cannot be understated since it could effect regulation for Big Food as well as the dietary recommendations from the government which translates to (among other things) what children eat in school every day. Right now, MyPlate recommends that Americans eat an average of 6.3 servings of grains a day. Even the American Diabetes Association recommends a high carbohydrate and low fat diet. But if the results from this latest study are accurate, all of these recommendations may ultimately prove harmful. Acknowledging that all calories are not created equal and that ultra processed foods are detrimental to everyone would go a long way in changing our crash course with diet related disease and death.

The Obesity Paradox: Overfed But Undernourished

There was a time when corpulence was a sign of wealth and luxury. But in modern day Western countries, quite the opposite is true. In fact, a recent study found that fully one third of homeless people living in Boston are obese. “This study suggests that obesity may be the new malnutrition of the homeless in the United States,” wrote the researchers, led by Harvard Medical School student Katherine Koh, whose study is forthcoming in the  Journal of Urban Health.

And it’s not just the U.S. that is reporting these kinds of findings, a New Zealand study of preschoolers found that 82 percent did not get enough dietary fiber and 68 percent did not have enough long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are found in fish and nuts. Despite these nutritional deficiencies, the researchers also found that fully one-third of preschoolers are overweight or obese.

These findings highlight an interesting contradiction—obesity correlates with malnourishment. Research indicates that lack of proper nutrition—even when people over consume calories—is at the root of obesity. Part of the reason this seems contradictory is because nutrition science has long held that all calories are created equal and that with the right amount of caloric intake, it would be difficult to also be malnourished. Coincidentally, this is also what the food industry would have us believe. In a recent interview in USAToday, Katie Bayne, president and general manager at Coca-Cola said in response to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed ban on large size sugary drinks, “A calorie is a calorie. What our drinks offer is hydration. That’s essential to the human body. We offer great taste and benefits whether it’s an uplift or carbohydrates or energy. We don’t believe in empty calories. We believe in hydration.”

I asked senior research scientist at MIT and author of several papers on the subject, Stephanie Seneff, for a response to Bayne’s comments. “I hate this calorie is a calorie message,” Seneff said in a telephone interview. “It’s completely wrong. When you eat a high carbohydrate diet, especially a processed foods diet, you’re getting way too much fuel compared to all those other things you need. And this imbalance is what leads to the obesity profile.”

For comparison’s sake, eight ounces of milk provides about 150 calories, along with calcium, magnesium, vitamins A and D, protein, fatty acids, and many other nutrients (largely dependent on what the cows ate and the quality of the milk with organic and grass-fed being the most nutritious). An eight-ounce can of Coke with 100 calories provides virtually no nutrients (the label reads: Not a significant source of fat calories, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron) but it does contain 27 grams of sugar in the form of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

Seneff said that she blames the soda industry in particular because this is where children are consuming large amounts of sugar. “If we did just one simple thing and had school children switch from drinking Coke to drinking whole milk this would have a huge difference,” she said.

Unfortunately, this will never be simple in part because the American Beverage Association lobbies hard to prevent any type of regulation for soda or for marketing it to children. In addition, the USDA’s MyPlate recommends low-fat and fat-free milks, which is what’s served in school cafeterias across the country. Seneff emphasized the importance of whole milk versus low-fat and fat-free milk because she believes the emphasis on low-fat foods in the American diet is largely responsible for our obesity epidemic, among other illnesses. “Children in particular need the fat desperately to develop their brains,” she said. “And this is why we have ADHD and autism. I think these problems are very much a consequence of our obsession with a low fat diet.”

But it’s not just brains that suffer as a result of our low fat diet, Seneff says, and she is not the first to attribute our low fat diet to our increasing obesity rates. The science writer Gary Taubes has been saying so for over a decade. The stigma against fats, particularly saturated fats appears to be waning (I wrote about this last year here on Civil Eats).

Seneff believes the major factors contributing to obesity are a deficiency in consuming fats, particularly animal fats and all of the nutrients that come with those fats; our overly-processed food diet (and specifically our consumption of HFCS); and our lack of exposure to sunlight. What’s more, according to her research, all three of these components amount to the perfect storm of metabolic dysfunction.

Carbohydrates and sugars in our diets compound the problem of our cell’s inability to digest and regulate the amount of sugar in our blood. “The key problem is the highly processed foods Americans eat, which have enormous amounts of carbohydrates, and carbohydrates that are already partially digested so that they move into the blood very quickly as sugar,”  Seneff said.

Seneff is working on a new theory that isolates one nutrient deficiency in particular that manifests as a result of the Standard American Diet. “In my studies, sulfate deficiency is everywhere,” she said. She believes this is at the root of many modern diseases as well as obesity. Where is sulfur found? In foods that are also high in cholesterol, like animal proteins and fish. Certain vegetables, like broccoli, cauliflower, garlic, and onions are also high in sulfate but as Seneff points out, these are often deficient in sulfate and other nutrients as a result of poor soil management and degradation of soil quality.

Finally, Seneff is concerned with our lack of exposure to sunlight, which coincidentally also produces cholesterol sulfate in our bodies. “It’s specifically a deficiency in sunlight exposure to the skin, which is much more than just taking a vitamin D supplement,” she said. “Cholesterol sulfate and vitamin D sulfate are both synthesized in the skin in exposure to sunlight, which is a wonderful way to deliver sulfate and cholesterol to all the tissues. Really, most Americans suffer from a cholesterol deficiency problem rather than a cholesterol excess problem but it’s demonized everywhere and it’s the exact wrong message.”

Another widely disseminated message from the food industry—it’s all about personal responsibility— appears rather faulty when we look at the findings from the study of obese preschoolers. Taylor, the lead researcher in the study, said that regulation had to be part of the answer. “There hasn’t been a massive decrease in the willpower of two year olds,” she said in a recent article. Instead, as the studies have found, it is about the poor quality of highly processed foods.

The study of the homeless in Boston confirms the fact that one can be food insecure while consuming an abundance of calories that lead to obesity. In fact, the term food insecure was coined to indicate that many people now experience access to plenty of calories but a dearth in real nutrition.

If these two studies and Seneff’s new research are any indication, it may not be long before the food industry will be proven wrong: All calories are not created equal, nor is it all about personal responsibility. Until then, pressuring Big Food to properly regulate and label foods might be the only way to curb our nation’s addiction to cheap, nutritionally void products. But time is of the essence—by current estimates one in three Americans will be diabetic by 2050 if things don’t drastically change.

What Really Makes Us Fat?

A version of this post first appeared in The Atlantic

 

Conventional wisdom says that weight gain or loss is based on the energy balance model of "calories in, calories out," which is often reduced to the simple refrain, "eat less, and exercise more." But new research reveals a far more complex equation that appears to rest on several other important factors affecting weight gain. Researchers in a relatively new field are looking at the role of industrial chemicals and non-caloric aspects of foods -- called obesogens -- in weight gain. Scientists conducting this research believe that these substances that are now prevalent in our food supply may be altering the way our bodies store fat and regulate our metabolism. But not everyone agrees. Many scientists, nutritionists, and doctors are still firm believers in the energy balance model. A debate has ensued, leaving a rather unclear picture as to what's really at work behind our nation's spike in obesity.

Bruce Blumberg, professor of developmental and cell biology and pharmaceutical sciences at the University of California, Irvine, who coined the term "obesogen," studies the effect that organotins -- a class of persistent organic pollutants that are widely used in the manufacture of polyvinylchloride plastics, as fungicides and pesticides on crops, as slimicides in industrial water systems, as wood preservatives, and as marine antifouling agents -- have on the body's metabolism. Organotins, which he considers to be obesogens, "change how your body responds to calories," he says. "So the ones we study, tributyltin and triphenyltin, actually cause exposed animals to have more and bigger fat cells. The animals that we treat with these chemicals don't eat a different diet than the ones who don't get fat. They eat the same diet -- we're not challenging them with a high-fat or a high-carbohydrate diet. They're eating normal food, and they're getting fatter."

A widely reported study that came out in January in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN) would seem to dispute this finding: it confirms the belief in the energy balance model, and has been cited as proof by many researchers working in the field. I asked an author of the study, Dr. George Bray, professor of medicine at Louisiana State University, about the myriad of additives and industrial ingredients in our food that were not accounted for in this study. "It doesn't make any difference," he said in a telephone interview. "Calories count. If you can show me that it doesn't work, I'd love to see it. Or anybody else who says it doesn't -- there ain't no data the other way around."

The participants in the AJCN study were given low, normal, and high amounts of protein and 1,000 more calories than needed. The study does not take into account the content and form of calories, how they were processed, or with what additives or industrial chemicals.

Bray doesn't believe that additives or how foods are processed or produced will ultimately affect the outcome of studies. In fact, he completed research in 2007 that he refers to as his "Big Mac study," which fed participants three meals a day for three days giving one group fast-food items like Big Macs and the other group foods made "from scratch." Bray says the results showed that the type of food made no difference: "At least in an acute study measuring glucose tolerance, insulin, and things -- they don't make any difference. Now, if you fed them over a longer time period, it's clearly going to be the quantity that matters, largely."

One study conducted at Princeton University indicates that types of calories do matter. Researchers found that rats drinking high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) gained significantly more weight than rats drinking sugar water, even though the amount of calories consumed was the same. The rats drinking HFCS also exhibited signs of metabolic syndrome, including abnormal weight gain, especially visceral fat around the belly, and significant increases in circulating triglycerides.

Miriam Bocarsly, the lead author of the Princeton study and a Ph.D. candidate there, said in a phone interview: "The question of calories in, calories out is a very good one and is highly debated in the field. You have traditional nutritionists who say 'energy in energy out,' but we have this result and at this point all we can really say is that this is what is happening in the rat model. Something is obviously different between HFCS and table sugar, and the next question is, What is that difference?"

Blumberg says that fructose itself is an obesogen. "Crystalline fructose doesn't exist in nature, we're making that," he says. "Fructose is not a food. People think fructose comes from fruit but it doesn't. The fructose that we eat is synthesized. Yes, it's derived from food. But cyanide is derived from food, too. Would you call it a food?"

Robert H. Lustig, a pediatric neuroendocrinologist and a professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, also believes that fructose is an obesogen. "I personally do lump fructose in with [obesogens]," he told me in an email. "There are those who don't, because fructose is a nutrient, and they want to think of an obesogen as a foreign chemical. But because fructose tricks the brain into eating more in a free-range situation, it has some properties consistent with an obesogen."

Lustig is another researcher and doctor who finds fault in the calories in, calories out model. "I don't believe in the energy balance model, which is calorie-centric," he says. "I believe in the fat deposition model, which is insulin-centric. The reason is that by altering insulin dynamics, you can alter both caloric consumption and physical activity behavior. This has been my research for the past 16 years." What Lustig means is that by increasing circulating insulin -- often as a result of consuming too much fructose -- people become hungrier and more fatigued, which results in overeating and little motivation to exercise.

Another possible obesogen that has made headlines recently is bisphenol-A (BPA), which is found in an overwhelming number of food items and packaging material. Frederick S. vom Saal, curators' professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, receives funding the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences for his research on BPA. "We do animal experiments with chemicals like BPA, and we dramatically alter the way fat is regulated in those animals," vom Saal said in a phone interview. "And they're not changing their food intake."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that "nearly all" Americans tested have BPA in their urine, "which indicates widespread exposure to BPA in the U.S. population." The American Chemistry Council has called for a ban on BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups (which California and several other states have already done), and some food manufacturers are already moving away from using BPA in their packaging. On Monday, Campbell's Soup announced it will stop using BPA in the lining of its cans. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is scheduled to decide by the end of March whether to ban the chemical's use in all food and beverage packaging.

Vom Saal believes that BPA is only the most prominent example of many substances in our food supply and environment that functions as an obesogen. "If people really want to solve the obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease epidemics," he says, "it isn't a wise thing to be ignoring any contributor to this. And we're not obese just because of HFCS, or because of BPA. I also know that nicotine and PCBs and other chemicals are implicated in diabetes and metabolic disease as well."

The energy balance model diverts responsibility back to the consumer because conventional wisdom says the spike in obesity is the result of people consuming more foods than ever before.

Lustig echoes vom Saal's belief that a wide range of substances in our food supply and our environment are likely leading to obesity and metabolic disease based on hosts of studies of various substances. These include soy-based infant formula, phthalates (used in many plastics), PCBs (found in coolant and electrical equipment), DDE (a type of pesticide), fungicides, and atrazine (a common pesticide).

If the obesogen theory comes to be accepted and casts doubt on the energy balance model, the food industry will be in trouble. It would be harder to keep promoting diet and "health" foods that may be low in calories but that also contain an array of substances that may actually prove to contribute to weight gain.

The emphasis that industry places on personal choice puts the onus back on the individual and leaves the consumer with tough decisions to make about industrial food products and additives. The food industry does not disclose what kinds of potential obesogens, like certain organotins or BPA, are in its products, because these substances are not required to be listed on labels and are difficult for the FDA to regulate. With an emerging debate in the scientific community and an absence of information on labels, consumers are left making their best guess on the safety and health of foods.

"People say to me all the time, 'What do I do?'" vom Saal says. "And the answer is, there's not much we can do, because industry has no legal mandate to tell you, and so they refuse to tell you the way they're using these chemicals. How do you avoid something you are blind to?"

The energy balance model also diverts responsibility back to the consumer because conventional wisdom says that the spike in obesity and diet-related disease is the result of people consuming more foods than ever before. But a review of the literature in The Obesity Epidemic: Science, Morality, and Ideology by Michael Gard and Jan Wright asserts that there is no evidence that food intake levels have increased in industrialized countries, or that activity levels have declined. According to Gard and Wright, some studies even suggest a reduction in energy intake over the past several decades.

Julie Guthman, a professor of community studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, points out in her new book, Weighing In, that the amount of calories consumed across racial lines and income levels varies little, according to a study by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This is despite the fact that obesity and overweight do vary across racial lines and income levels: Poorer people tend to be more obese, and African Americans and Latinos have higher rates of obesity than do whites. This means there must be some other mechanism, Guthman says, besides excess calories, in the varying levels of obesity. In her book, she refers to the possible role of environmental factors like exposure to obesogens and other toxins, stress, and non-nutritional aspects of food.

Guthman would like to see stronger regulation on the part of the government, and a discussion that focuses more on how food is produced and not just on how much is eaten. "I think people would like to say that weight loss is simple and that it's all about changing personal behavior," Guthman says. "So there's an emphasis on trying to make people have better lifestyles or on changing the built environment."

This seems to fit with Marion Nestle's approach to educating people on weight loss. Nestle is the co-author of a new book on the subject, Why Calories Count. "BPA, PCBs, and other such contaminating chemicals can't possibly be good for health," she said in an email. "But it's really hard to prove that they cause demonstrable harm. They might have something to do with obesity -- I suppose it's not impossible -- but why invoke complicated explanations when the evidence for calories is so strong? Let's say obesogens affect a body weight regulatory factor, which they very well might do. But so what? Weight is regulated by more than a hundred biological factors, and these are redundant, which means that if something goes wrong with one of them the others fill in the deficit."

The "so what," Guthman says, is that "We really don't understand the science enough, and there's new evidence in the science that completely re-shifts how we think about these things."

According to Blumberg, the food industry would like to discredit emerging research on obesogens. "What industry typically does is fund studies that produce the opposite conclusions, thereby shedding doubt on the science," he says. "If you take BPA as an example, the vast majority of studies performed by independent government and academic scientists show that it has numerous deleterious effects on health. In contrast, not a single industry-funded or -conducted study has found any hazard associated with BPA."

Can we afford to continue to frame the discussion simply in terms of calories in and calories out? Or by looking only at conventional categories like fat, protein, and carbohydrates and diary, meat, grains, and vegetables? Given the proliferation of industrial pollutants and the ultra-processing of foods in our current food systems, it seems that we can't.

“What new scientific paradigms like this do is shake up the existing science,” Guthman says. “People are resistant to it because so much is embedded in the old paradigm — once you open that up, the science is open to all sorts of other claims.”

Paula Deen: From Big Food to Big Pharma

Paula Deen’s public admission that she has Type 2 diabetes and her follow-up announcement that she is also a paid spokesperson for the pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk, and its diabetes drug, Victoza, has sparked an interesting debate about the deeper issues surrounding our food system—especially the impact it has on the many people diagnosed with diabetes. And according to Deen’s comments on the Today show, she implies to her millions of fans, that the primary ways to deal with this largely diet-related disease are through personal responsibility and pharmaceuticals.

Indeed, when Al Roker, asks her if she is going to change the way she eats and the foods she cooks, Deen says, “Honey, I’m your cook, I’m not your doctor. You are going to have to be responsible for yourself.” Evading the question, Deen puts the onus back on the individual to decide what foods to eat or not, despite the fact that she promotes unhealthful and processed foods on TV. The one comment she does make about food choice is “moderation,” one of the most meaningless and confusing bits of nutrition advice. In fact, this is what the industry giants often use as their defense for harmful, unhealthful foods.

Personal responsibility and consumer choice are solutions heralded by conservatives and liberals alike—the idea being that ultimately good health comes down to what we choose to buy and eat. But it’s not that simple.

There are three main issues when it comes to the myth of personal responsibility about food choice and they get at the root of our nation’s health crisis: The public’s confusion about nutrition; the lack of time and knowledge about real home cooking; and the promotion of quick fixes like drugs, diet foods, and fads in lieu of addressing underlying causes. The Paula Deen diabetes story manages to hit on every single one of these issues.

Americans suffer from nutrition confusion, thanks to an array of conflicting and often inaccurate public health messages, misleading labels and claims on packaging, and a lack of nutrition knowledge by many doctors, dietitians, and other health care providers.

Deen’s cooking, and now her public diabetes announcement, only adds to this confusion. During the Today show interview she repeatedly mentions the amount of fat in her recipes, as do many in the media reporting on the story. “For 10 years, wielding slabs of cream cheese and mounds of mayonnaise,” a New York Times article begins, “Paula Deen has become television’s self-crowned queen of Southern cuisine.”

But real, unprocessed cream cheese and mayonnaise are not the problem. The issue that mainstream media has largely overlooked is that Deen uses the processed, packaged versions of these foods, which are full of chemicals, additives and trans-fats. Actual home cooking would require whipping these foods up herself in her kitchen using real ingredients. And that is the real story behind Deen’s diabetes diagnosis: Her health problems are largely due to her reliance on packaged, processed foods that are the foundation for many of her recipes.

Even though her cooking show is called Paula’s Home Cooking, there’s a lot going on in her kitchen that is as far removed from home cooking as you can get. Many of her recipes include “ingredients” like Krispy Kreme doughnuts, biscuit mixes, cans of mushroom soup, and sour-cream-and-onion flavored potato chips. This is processed food cooking, not home cooking.

Heaping the blame on all the “fat” she cooks with only serves to confuse the public further. A New York Daily News article also cites fat as one of the main culprits in Deen’s cooking and her diet. But the most recent research indicates that when it comes to diabetes, fat is not the problem. The problem foods are sugar, refined white flour, chemical additives, artificial sweeteners and flavors, trans-fats, and the various other chemicals and additives found in the processed foods that abound in Deen’s recipes.

Now Deen is pushing the idea that taking medicine is the real solution to diabetes. On the Today show, she says, “Here’s what I want to get across to people, I want them to first start by going to their doctor and asking to be tested for diabetes. Get on a program that works for you. I’m amazed at the people out there that are aware they’re diabetic but they’re not taking their medicine.”

According to Deen, the reason she waited three years to go public with her diagnosis was because she didn’t have anything to give her fans. “I could have walked out and said, ‘Hey ya’ll, I have been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.’ I had nothing to give to my fellow friends out there. I wanted to bring something to the table when I came forward.” So what is she bringing to the table? A sales pitch for a diabetes drug that costs $500 per month and has some seriously troubling side effects, including thyroid cancer, as Tom Philpott reports.

Just think of the kind of influence she could have wielded had she come out with a new cooking show that focused on using fresh, real food ingredients that cut way back on sugar and refined carbohydrates. In fact, if she had done so and eaten this way for the past three years she might have reversed her own diabetes diagnosis, which is entirely possible given the right diet.

But instead, Deen is getting paid to leave that task to a drug company. This isn’t her first corporate sponsorship (here she peddles Smithfield ham) and I doubt it will be her last. Diabetic and diet foods can’t be far behind in products she’ll attach to her name.

Alas, we can’t fairly discuss personal responsibility without taking into account the under-regulated advertising industry that pushes cheap, convenient, and processed foods on an overworked and cash-strapped population. Add to this the diminishing knowledge on how to shop for, cook, and prepare foods from scratch and we have a serious problem.

As Deen now joins the 25.8 million other Americans suffering with diabetes, she “brings to the table” the ideas of moderation, personal responsibility, and the drug Victoza as the solutions. She could do so much more with all the power she wields.

Anthony Bourdain put it squarely when he said of Deen, “If I were on at seven at night and loved by millions of people at every age, I would think twice before telling an already obese nation that it’s OK to eat food that is killing us.” And this was before her diabetes announcement. Bourdain has also said that Deen is the “worst, most dangerous person to America.” He might have a point.

Pizza is a Vegetable? Congress Defies Logic, Betrays Our Children
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If there were any lingering doubts as to whom our elected representatives really work for, they were put to rest Tuesday when Congress announced that frozen pizza was a vegetable. The United States Congress voted to rebuke new USDA guidelines for school lunches that would have increased the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables in school cafeterias and instead declared that the tomato paste on frozen pizza qualified it as a vegetable. For this we can thank large food companies -- in this case ConAgra and Schwan -- which pressured Congress to comply with their financial interests. It simply doesn't suit the makers of frozen pizza, chicken nuggets and tater tots for schools to offer real food in the form of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Many conservative lawmakers are also insisting that the federal government shouldn't tell people what to eat. This is the same argument Sarah Palin used against Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign to the rallying cry, "nanny-state."

But the government clearly does not control the food Americans eat. Corporations do. In this case ConAgra and Schwan are quite literally determining what the vast majority of our school children will be fed in school cafeterias: A veritable chemical concoction made to look like pizza. These are the ingredients for the "traditional 4x6 school pizza" made by ConAgra:

CRUST: (Enriched wheat flour (bleached wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), water, soybean oil, dextrose, baking powder (sodium bicarbonate, sodium aluminum sulfate, cornstarch, monocalcium phosphate, calcium sulfate), yeasts (yeast, starch, sorbitan monostearate, ascorbic acid), salt, dough conditioners (wheat flour, salt, soy oil, L-cysteine, ascorbic acid, fungal enzyme), wheat gluten, soy flour).SAUCE: (water, tomato paste (31 percent NTSS), pizza seasoning (salt, sugar, spices, dehydrated onion, guar and xanthan gum, garlic powder, potassium sorbate, citric acid, tricalcium phophate and soybean oil (prevent caking)), modified food starch). SHREDDED MOZZARELLA

CHEESE: (Pasteurized part skim milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes). SHREDDED MOZZARELLA

CHEESE SUBSTITUTE: (Water, oil (soybean oil, partially hydrogenated soybean oil with citric acid), casein, milk protein concentrate, modified food starch, contains 2 percent or less of the following: sodium aluminum phosphate, salt, lactic acid, mozzarella cheese type flavor (cheese (milk, culture, rennet, salt), milk solids, disodium phosphate), disodium phosphate, sorbic acid, nutrient blend (magnesium oxide, zinc oxide, calcium pantothenate, riboflavin and vitamin B-12), vitamin A palmitate).

It's not even pizza, much less a vegetable. (And if you think that's bad take a look at the ingredients for the "Pepperoni, Reduced Fat Pizza").

This vote by Congress makes it abundantly clear who calls the shots when it comes to feeding our nation's children. According to The New York Times food companies have spent $5.6 million lobbying against these new rules.

Meanwhile, writer Ed Bruske brings up an important, related point on The Slow Cook. He writes:

[This] also provides a vivid illustration of what happens when you go after the foods kids most love in the lunch line. Pizza is the all-time favorite school lunch food, followed by potatoes in all their guises. Essentially, the proposed new guidelines would sharply cut back on foods kids really like, and replace them with things they hate: vegetables, beans and whole grains. Turns out there are huge amounts of money at stake behind the foods beloved by the 32 million children who participate in the national school lunch program. Frozen food companies are protecting their share the best way they know how: using their clout with their local congressman.

He goes on:

Other efforts to mess with pizza also have failed. In Berkeley, for instance, elementary school children get a rectangular pizza made with a locally-produced whole wheat crust. Middle schoolers, however, insist on a round pizza, which has to be sourced through a wholesale food distributor ... As I've learned sitting in on meals at my daughter's school the past two years here in the District of Columbia, children will go to great lengths to avoid the foods adults consider "healthy." Vegetables, beans and whole grains -- they typically get dumped in the trash. Kids will spend inordinate time picking the spinach out of fresh-cooked lasagna, for instance, before wolfing down the pasta.

So, the real question is, why do children want pizza, potatoes and pasta while vehemently eschewing green vegetables, beans and whole grains? This hasn't always been the case. Keep in mind that industrial food as it exists today has only been around for roughly 60 years. Much of what we take as the truth about what kinds of food kids love and hate is largely dictated by the food industry itself. The idea that kids won't eat vegetables is a construct invented by the food industry and reinforced by well-meaning parents, school lunch programs and government officials.

Herein lies the brilliance of the food industry -- not only has it created a myriad of products but it also created the idea that children want industrial food products above all else. While most Americans have bought into this notion, it's simply not true. Children 100 years ago couldn't have possibly eaten the industrial foods they are eating today. But listening to parents and children now, you'd be convinced that they will only eat industrial foods. Bruske writes that the middle schoolers in Berkeley "insist" on round industrial pizza.

How was this notion started? The food industry literally shapes and changes the palates of our children. Constantly eating sugary, salty and fatty food products adjusts taste preference to the point that simple, real foods taste bland and unappealing. While the food industry insists that it only advertises to children "to influence brand preference," a study published in the journal Appetite found that the food industry works to, "fundamentally change children's taste palates to increase their liking of highly processed and less nutritious foods."

This makes it all the more outrageous that Congress won't stand up to Big Food to say it will not allow financial interests to trump the health and well-being of America's children. With one out of five four-year-olds now obese, the health of our nation's children is in such a sorry state that the food movement may have some unlikely allies on this front. According to the Associated Press, a group of retired generals criticized the move by Congress, calling the decision a national security issue since obesity has become the leading medical disqualifier for military service. Amy Dawson Taggart, the director of the group called Mission: Readiness said in a letter to members of Congress before the final plan was released, "We are outraged that Congress is seriously considering language that would effectively categorize pizza as a vegetable in the school lunch program."

But this is what Congress has done. It has let the American people down and failed to protect our children. As Michele Simon astutely points out, "Congress has hijacked the USDA regulatory process to do the food industry's bidding." How much longer will we allow Big Food and our government to propagate lies about food and compromise the health of our nation's children for their financial and political gain? Please join the movement and attend Occupy Big Food's rally this Saturday from 1 to 3 in Zuccotti Park.

The Truth About Turkey

How much do you know about your Thanksgiving turkey? If you buy your turkey from a typical grocery store–and most Americans do–you might not realize that the approximately 46 million turkeys consumed every year come from a factory farm. But if Thanksgiving is truly about offering gratitude for what we have, it seems fitting to also be grateful to the turkey that many of us will eat for dinner. We ought to think about how that turkey lived before ending up on our tables. With that in mind, let’s first take a look at the life of a turkey in an industrial farm.

Turkeys on factory farms are hatched in incubators mostly on large farms in the Midwest or the South. A few days after hatching, turkeys have their upper beaks snipped off. Once the beak is removed, the turkey can no longer pick and choose what it wants to eat. In their natural environment, turkeys are omnivores. But in a factory farm, turkeys are fed a steady diet of corn-based grain feed laced with antibiotics.

Industrially produced turkeys spend their first three weeks of life crammed into a brooder with hundreds of other birds. In the fourth week, turkey chicks are moved from the brooder to a giant window-less room with 10,000 other turkeys where bright lights shine 24 hours a day. With the lights constantly blaring, natural sleeping, eating, and fertility patterns are completely disrupted and the turkeys are, for the most part, kept awake and eating non-stop. Turkeys have an instinct to roost, or to clutch something when they sleep, but on the floor of a crowded room there is no such opportunity. If this is starting to sound like torture to you, you’re on the mark.

As a result of these unhealthy and crowded living conditions, farmers must feed the turkeys a constant supply of antibiotics. Pesticides are also widely used to inhibit the spread of disease. Antibiotics are also known to promote weight gain in farm animals and this connection is being made in humans now as well. In an effort to maximize the more profitable white breast meat, farmers have genetically selected and bred the white broad breasted turkey, which become so top heavy that they can no longer stand or reproduce and as a result, all industrial turkeys are created by artificial insemination. Turkeys are then brought to slaughter, often in a brutal way.

If that wasn’t enough to make you reconsider your Butterball, there’s more. Thanksgiving is also a time when we honor the abundance of the harvest represented by the bounty on our tables. But supporting a Big Turkey farm (or any factory farm) contributes to the devastation of our natural environment and imperils the safety of our food supply.

According to the USDA, factory-farmed animals in the U.S. produce 61 million tons of waste each year–130 times the volume of human waste. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that hog, chicken, and cattle waste has polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states and contaminated groundwater in 17 states. Polluted runoff from factory farms and other industrial farms is the biggest water pollution problem in the U.S., according to the EPA.

Human health is impacted in other ways by factory farming. Just this past August, Cargill announced a recall of 185,000 pounds of ground turkey due to Salmonella contamination. With recalls and food-borne illnesses on the rise as a result of conditions in factory farms, it seems wise to avoid these foods for that reason alone.

Factory farmed meat is also implicated in long-term health consequences. Resistance to antibiotics is now a growing concern among many in the medical field and it is largely due to the 29 million pounds administered to factory-raised animals every year. As it stands today, one out of six cases of Campylobacter infection, the most common cause of bacterial food poisoning, is resistant to the antibiotic most used to treat it. And nearly all strains of Staphylococcal infections have become resistant to penicillin, while many are developing resistance to newer drugs as well. Indeed, 80 percent of all antibiotics used in this country are used on factory-farmed animals according to an FDA report.

And finally, there is the nitty-gritty of nutritional value in these factory-farmed foods. Studies show that pastured-based meat and dairy are far more nutritious than their conventional counterparts. They are richer in antioxidants; including vitamins E, beta-carotene, and vitamin C and contain far more Omega-3 fatty acids. Turkeys that are raised on grass and allowed to roam around and practice normal turkey behavior are healthier, safer to eat, good for the environment, and get to live a happy life. Our best option is to eat high quality meat and a lot less of it.

So in the spirit of Thanksgiving, let’s be grateful to the turkey that we’re eating and opt out of supporting a system of abuse and environmental destruction. Eat a pasture-raised turkey or make a vegetarian alternative for this year’s Thanksgiving feast.

Eat Wild is a valuable resource for pasture-raised meat and animal products. Brooklyn Based also lists pasture-raised turkeys available for sale in New York City. Slow Food USA has information and resources for heritage breed turkeys. Meatless Monday offers 10 tips for cooking a meatless Thanksgiving.

A petition has been created by Occupy Big Food to tell Butterball—the number one producer of turkeys in America—that Americans are no longer going to purchase turkeys that are inhumanely treated, or support a factory-farm system that creates dire environmental and health consequences. Please go to Occupy Big Food for more information and sign the petition here.

Heritage Radio Network Interview: Nutrition, Food, and Occupy Wall Street

Erin Fairbanks of the Farm Report interviewed me last Thursday on Heritage Radio Network. We talked about nutrition, food, and the corporate control of the food supply. Here's the link to the full interview and the write up the station wrote: The Farm Report - Episode 98 - Nutrition with Kristin Wartman

Certified Holistic Nutritionist Kristin Wartman joins the Farm Report with Erin Fairbanks today to bust some food myths and expose some of the evils of big industry agriculture and food. Find out what makes a healthy diet and hear about some of the common mistakes people make in trying to get healthy. Hear why Kristin thinks food and democracy go hand in hand and why all concerned foodies should be occupying Wall Street and making their voice heard!

Not your grandma's milk

Milk is truly one of the oldest, simplest whole foods - and we certainly drink a lot of it. According to the USDA, Americans consumed an average of 1.8 cups of dairy per person, per day in 2005. But is the milk Americans are drinking today the same milk our ancestors drank thousands of years ago? Is it even the same milk our great-grandparents were drinking a hundred years ago? By and large, the answer is no.

Like many other modern foods, most of the milk sold today has been altered, stripped, and reconstituted. Once minimally processed, milk now undergoes a complicated and energy-intensive process before it ends up bottled and shipped to grocery store shelves. There are so many additives and processes involved that buying a gallon of milk or a cup of yogurt at your grocery store essentially guarantees that you'll get a mixture of substances from all over the country -- and possibly the world.  But that's not where it ends; milk by-products also now appear in a wide variety of other processed foods.

Lloyd Metzger, director of the Midwest Dairy Foods Research Center and Alfred Chair of the Dairy Department at South Dakota State, outlined the process: Milk is received at the processing facilities and is tested for off-flavors and antibiotics. Several tanker trunks worth (from multiple different farms) get combined and placed in holding silos. Then the milk goes through a cream separator to create two products: cream and skim milk. At this point, various percentages of cream are added back into the skim milk in order to create whole and low fat milk. Milk is then homogenized, which is the process of passing it at high speeds through very small holes to create a uniform texture and prevent the cream from separating and rising to the top. It's then pasteurized, or heated to at least 145 degrees. In some states, non-fat milk solids are added to the milk in order to thicken it and give it a better mouth feel. Then synthetic vitamins A and D are added.

When all is said and done, the product is a far cry from the milk that actually comes out of a cow. And, depending on whom you ask, each step along the way might carry its own risks.

Homogenization

"Homogenization is not good," says John Bunting, a dairy farmer who researches and writes about dairy for The Milkweed. "The milk is pumped under high pressure which smashes the milk molecules so hard. Homogenization splits and exposes the molecules." The hard science goes like this: A raw milk molecule is surrounded by a membrane, which protects it from oxygen. Homogenization decreases the average diameter of each fat globule and significantly increases the surface area. Because there's now not enough membrane to cover all of this new surface area, the molecules are easily exposed to oxygen, and the fats  become oxidized.

Milk solids

Critics believe that milk solids, which are sometimes added back into the milk, contain oxidized, or damaged, forms of fat and cholesterol. Nonfat milk solids are created through a process of evaporation and high heat drying which removes the moisture from skim milk. Exposure to high heat and oxygen causes fats to oxidize. And oxidized cholesterol has been shown in numerous studies to lead to atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, and to raise LDL, aka "bad" cholesterol. One study from 2004 found that oxidized dietary fats are a "major cause" in the development of atherosclerosis.

This phenomenon worries Nina Planck, author of Real Food. "This damaged cholesterol is much different than what I call "fresh cholesterol," which is found in egg yolks, whole milk, and butter," she said. "We know that fresh cholesterol has one main effect and that is to raise HDL [or ‘good' cholesterol]. On the other hand, oxidized cholesterol raises LDL."

What's more, Planck says that the law does not require manufacturers to tell consumers when milk solids are in food or milk. "It's a [potential] scandal because it's unlabeled," she says. Michael Pollan writes about this as well in In Defense of Food: "In the case of low-fat or skim milk, that usually means adding powdered milk. But powdered milk contains oxidized cholesterol which scientists believe is much worse for your arteries than ordinary cholesterol."

In California, where the industry reports the ingredients on its website, all industrially produced milk contains nonfat milk solids. Even "whole milk" is a product of reconstitution; it contains at least 3.5 percent milk fat and 8.7 percent nonfat milk solids. This is also true for (industrially produced) organic milk.

Nonfat milk solids are also found in low-fat and fat-free yogurt and cheese, infant formula, baked goods, cocoa mix, and candy bars.

Are these milk solids really as big of a problem as Planck and others in her camp believe them to be?  Lloyd Metzger is doubtful. He says there's virtually no fat left in the milk to oxidize. Bunting agrees, "If it's skim milk, there might be small amounts -- but that's not a real concern. If you're worried about oxidized fat, it's homogenization that is the real culprit."

Has Bunting seen evidence of the health impacts associated with oxidized fats in milk? "No," he says. "But who's going to fund it? The USDA is the largest funder of dairy research in this country and they're not going to fund a study they don't want to hear about."

Regardless, says Plank, "[Industrial] milk is transformed by heat. Why would you consume an adulterated product?"

Milk protein concentrates

Yet another product that ends up in industrial dairy products is milk protein concentrates. MPCs, as they're called, are made by ultra-filtration -- milk is forced through a membrane to remove some of the lactose. MPCs have less carbohydrates and more protein than other milk solids and are often used in protein bars and drinks as well as in some processed cheeses, according to Metzger. Nonfat milk solids are approved for food use but MPCs are not considered GRAS, or generally regarded as safe by the FDA.

"MPCs have undergone a change," says Bunting. "They cannot be reconstituted into anything called milk." He suspects that the protein in MPCs is not as digestible as that in milk, but it has never been tested. He says Kraft, in particular, uses a lot of MPCs.

Lorraine Lewandrowski, a fourth-generation dairy farmer in Newport, N.Y., is also concerned about MPCs. "MPCs are derived from milk, but they're not really milk," she said. "There have been a lot of complaints by farmers concerned about MPCs being added to cheese to boost production." She says that typically around 10 pounds of milk yields one pound of cheese. MPCs -- many of which come from overseas -- can increase yields considerably.

Planck is troubled that most MPCs are being imported from countries such as New Zealand, Mexico, and China. "We cannot trust foreign governments with the safety of these ingredients," she says. According to Metzger, MPCs must appear in ingredient lists, but the country of origin doesn't have to be labeled.

An alternative

Milk doesn't have to contain nonfat milk solids, MPCs, or any other additives. Mark McAfee, founder of Organic Pastures, offers an alternative in California. "What is in our bottle comes straight from grass-fed, pasture-grazed cows. All we do is chill it and test it," he said.

In the New York region, where the sale of raw milk is illegal, small dairies leave their milk unhomogenized and pasteurize it at low temperatures to avoid damaging the milk molecules. Unfortunately, most Americans don't have access to real milk from a local dairy farmer whose operations are transparent. "The real issue is trust," Bunting said. "If people could buy from someone they trusted, we wouldn't even need pasteurization. It extends shelf life, but it's not a safer product."

Even when milk is produced regionally, farmers still encounter processing hurdles. Lewandrowski raises 60 cows on pasture and knows them each by name. But since she can't afford her own bottling facility, her grass-fed milk gets mixed with that from farms across the region (many of them large-scale dairies that feed their cattle grain and keep them in confinement) and gets shipped off for use in a myriad of dairy products. "People tell me I should bottle my own milk," she says. "But I don't have the $50,000 it would cost."

Meanwhile, industrial milk production is being shaped to increase profits in counter-intuitive ways. "Americans are drinking more skim milk, while they're consuming more milk fat, in the form of ice cream and half and half," says Bunting. In some areas, he points out, school districts have banned whole milk and are serving students skim milk."Part of the idea is to take that fat and use it somewhere else more profitable," he says.

McAfee agrees, "They have butchered milk into its parts and now make more money because of the low fat craze."

So how can Americans gain access to real, unadulterated milk? This would require a re-localization of dairy production, which would mean more dairy farmers. "Look," Bunting says, "if you don't want industrial processes, then we need more people producing food." Of course, in order to make that work, we'll also need a much more robust support system for dairy farmers, and a larger base of consumers willing to pay more for milk produced on a smaller scale.

This piece was also published on Grist.org