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some thoughts on food, food policy, public health, and nutrition news and research...
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Organic: yay or nay?

posted Dec 7, 2010, 7:31 AM by Hildreth England   [ updated Dec 8, 2010, 9:22 AM ]

A question I'm asked a lot recently - especially as friends try to cut back on the grocery bill - is when and what to buy organic, and whether it's really 'better' for you.  Some friends who buy only organic will preach to me until they're blue in the face that it's the only way to purchase food.  That's a lot of peer pressure, folks...Is buying organic really the new way to 'keep up with the Joneses?'  Like a lot of people, I fall in with a group of people who purchase organic foods very selectively - because I frankly just don't have the ducats to buy everything organic.  And while I feel like it's an important way to use my purchasing power for good in terms of agricultural and environmental policy, I'm still on the fence about whether organic food is truly an equitable, "healthier" way to consume food.

The List to Use

I'll be honest - the research on 'how' and 'when' to select organic foods has been done, a lot, and by people who are eminently more qualified to say which products are best purchased organic.   I confess to blatantly copping to a list developed for consumers who just need the quick and easy when they're at the store.  Because - let's face it - our brains are on information overload already.   There's even an app you can download for your smartphone.   This list was developed by the ever-amazing consumer watchdog, the Environmental Working Group, who has a great way of keeping up with the food and agricultural industries and their effect on our health. The recommendations made to the right are here, in a handy wallet guide.

Is it more nutritious for me and my family?

There has also been more research on whether organic foods are 'better' for you.  The good scientific method lover that I am, this really is the information upon which I base my decisions.   So far, only two major studies have been (one in 2008, and one in 2009 done in the UK, reported in 2010) and both point out that, in terms of nutrient value and general nutrients, organic foods can't yet be claimed as being 'healthier' for you.   Some nutrients like vitamin C, iron, and phosphorus are more bioavailable in certain produce varieties, but there's still not enough evidence to say that 'organic food' is superior to conventional products in terms of nutrition.  There are a bevy of smaller studies, but so far, study design, funding, and small scale have kept the evidence pointing to 'organic is healthier' somewhat scarce and unreliable.

Other Benefits of Organic

Photo: Gene Alexander/USDA
What studies haven't yet taken into account are the other health benefits and holistically beneficial aspects of consuming organic foods.  Purchasing organic food products have other benefits besides the nutrition you get from eating them - especially in terms of the environment and its inhabitants, including their lack of pesticide use, their low-impact on the environment, their support of a more equitable agricultural trade.   The Organic Trade Association has a good run-down of where the smaller research studies stand in support of purchasing organic for these reasons - which go beyond nutritional health.  If you want even more information, check out the Organic Consumers Association.

Your Dollar, Your Health

While they're not necessarily nutritionally superior, if you've got the power to buy even just a few organic items each time you shop, I think it's a good decision.  Even though more research is needed on their specific health benefits, it's clear "organic" isn't just a food fad and that people, our planet, and our animals are better off by supporting the organics industry.  Not everyone can buy everything organic right now, some even say that it's just an elitist thing that gets in the way of the food justice I've talked about.  But even just a few organic purchases each week will eventually bring prices down, and that makes the holistic benefits of organic food fair and accessible for everyone - the people who cultivate it, farm it, distribute it, and eat it!

Do you have a Standard American Diet(ary) Attitude?

posted Sep 8, 2010, 10:36 AM by Hildreth England   [ updated Sep 15, 2010, 6:59 AM ]

I was reading an Op-Ed piece today from October of last year, and it got me thinking about why some people see food and nutrition choices as completely up to the individual who's making them. 

I see (and study) eating behavior as a combination of social determinants and individual choices, which is a reallllllly tough, chewy, hard little nugget for some friends and family of mine to swallow (oh, nutritionist puns).  Whatever food you choose to eat is one of the most independent, personal choices you can make, right?  Or is it?

Let's go one step further for a minute...could how we choose to eat be connected to the characteristics by which we, as Americans, love to define ourselves
Stay with me here...We Proud Americans are very protective of our due, our 'fair share,' and we still believe - by and large - that anything is possible for a person if they put in enough good, honest work.  It doesn't matter where we came from or who we are - each of us is ultimately individually responsible for "making it" or not.   Frederick Douglass and Benjamin Franklin helped shape this American Dream through their 'self-made man' theories. In Douglass' autobiography he states that...

Self-made men […] are the men who owe little or nothing to birth, relationship, friendly surroundings; to wealth inherited or to early approved means of education; who are what they are, without the aid of any of the favoring conditions by which other men usually rise in the world and achieve great results. (pp 549-50)

Oh....with respect, Mssr. Douglas - I disagree. I think we can connect this idea of utter self-reliance to our current problems with obesity.  No matter who or what we are, or where we come from, what we choose to eat is solely our own choice, and couldn't possibly be dictated by something beyond our ken and control, right? Things like - where we were born, how many restaurants were around our house (and sidewalks to get to them), or our education level.

By this way of thinking, new studies on the genetic and biochemical determinants of obesity would also be circumspect.  So would enormous quantities of data that suggest that eating behavior really is an aggregate of dozens of other factors.

Art by Paul Robinson
  Thinking about food choices in this very American way - that it's solely one individual's responsibility to eat 'right' - might very well be one of the culprits for all those nasty diet-related diseases we're facing.   It also seems that this Standard American Diet(ary) Attitude could be preventing us from helping our fellow countrymen who truly need it.  Especially those who are accused of not eating healthy because they simply "don't try hard enough" or, in the case of children - whose parents simply aren't making the "right" choices for them.   We need to help each other with our food choices, folks - everybody's gotta pitch in to bring healthy food back to all the tables in America...not just the ones who 'deserve' it.
Go forth and absolutely be a good, honest, self-reliant American - but be careful not to think like one about food!

Defining "Processed" Foods

posted Aug 21, 2010, 8:06 PM by Hildreth England   [ updated Apr 16, 2012, 4:46 PM ]

Photo by Scott Bauer/ARS

Photo by Scott Bauer/ARS

Photo WSU

Fish Processor
Photo by Hannes Grobe

Photo Alpha 2009

"Oh, um....I don't eat processed foods."


Basically every item of food that we put in our mouths go through some processing before we eat it.  It’s a product of our society’s industrial bent.  I’ve heard a lot of people claiming to avoid ’processed’ foods to improve their health.  Since there are so many definitions, I thought I’d add my own interpretation to the mix.  I agree that removing highly processed foods from your diet improves health and gets you closer to the source of your body’s fuel.  It improves your nutrition environment, and it will inevitably make you think more about what you eat. 

But there's some important benefits to be had from, say, Vitamin D and Calcium added to your milk.  Or adding some acetic acid (that's vinegar) to your grab-n-go chickpea salad from Wheatsville.  And that, folks, is definitely processing!

These definitions certainly aren’t fool proof, but they’ve served me well and I like to offer it as a guide to my clients. 

“Whole Foods” (not the store)

Unprocessed (whole) foods are items which look like they do in nature: oranges, apples, celery, eggs, fruits, meats (after removing skin/bones).  You can usually tell if it’s a whole food by asking the question: “is this man-made, or fresh from a tree, bush, picked from the ground, fished from the water, gathered from the animal without significant alteration?”   Sticking to whole foods in your diet reduces the intake of food science ‘gunk,’ and avoids eating what a lot of people -including me- call “pfoods.”


“Processed Foods”

Processed foods are foods that are not whole foods, and go through any kind of processing for convenience, shelf life, and/or taste or replication of a whole food (i.e. meat-free bacon).  Processed foods generally fall into these categories:

“Minimally Processed”

You can recognize these by a short, clear ingredients list. For example,  peanut butter made with JUST peanuts and salt. If a food can be recreated “from scratch” in the kitchen with supplies from a grocery store, I think it’s minimally processed. If you’ve got the time/energy and gumption to make these foods yourself - go nuts!  Otherwise, these are a fact of life, but better for you than ‘highly processed’ foods.  Some examples:

  • Juices, oils: if no salts or sugar added or reconstitution is done, minimally processed.
  • Dried fruits, nuts, and cured meats: if single ingredients with no preservatives (unrecognizable ingredients) added, minimally processed.
  • Flash-frozen seafood, fruits, and vegetables: minimally processed, next to fresh (and in some cases, actually healthier - i.e. peas).
  • Pasta & Grains: the grain often has its husks and bran removed, then it's bleached & milled, fortified, reconstituted, extruded, then dried (and packaged). It’s definitely processed, but look for 1-2 ingredients only (wheat, salt).
  • Cheese: If cheese has a very limited ingredient list (i.e. cheese: milk, rennet, salt, and a mold), it’s minimally processed.
  • Milk (animal): Ingredients  will simply be milk and water, and will be homogenized and pasteurized for safety and taste.  Often fortified with Calcium and Vitamin D.  As long as it is without antibiotics or growth hormone added, I consider it minimally processed.


“Highly Processed”

These are man-made foods with 2 or more ingredients that are not “from scratch” ingredients (like synthetic preservatives, sweeteners, bulking agents, food coloring) Some of those highly processed foods might surprise you, because they’re often touted as ‘healthy’ alternatives.  Some examples:

  • Most “Low-fat”, “low-sugar” foods with added HFCS, thickeners, oils
  • Canned ‘meals’, canned meats
  • Most crackers, cereals, chips, baked goods that include lots of fillers
  • Meat or fish imitation or substitutes (including soy products)
  • Nut or soy milks
  • Boxed, pre-prepared, freeze-dried or frozen ‘meals’ (tuna helper, rice mixes, macaroni and cheese, frozen dinners)
  • The Obvious Un-recognizables: chicken nuggets, Velveeta, Soda and energy drinks, Twinkies, etc.

The most important skill to have when making food choices is to learn how to read the ingredients and nutrition facts label on your foods - if you can’t pronounce an ingredient or don’t recognize it, it’s probably just not necessary (or all that good) for your body.

In summary - the more whole foods you’re able to add to your diet (preferably sourced from local farmers, by sustainable means), the more good you’ll do for everyone involved in your nutrition environment - most importantly, YOU!

Food Justice

posted Aug 15, 2010, 8:19 PM by Hildreth England   [ updated Apr 16, 2012, 4:46 PM ]

I'm contemplating whether to attend the Community Food Security Coalition's annual conference in the great gumbo that is New Orleans in October.  It's a fantastic networking opportunity for anyone interested in the idea of healthy, affordable food and sustainable, local food systems.  It's also making me dig deeper into the growing world of "food justice."  Ever heard of it?

Food justice, as I understand it, is based on the premise that nutritious, healthy, sustainable, and regionally-produced food is an inalienable right of all people, regardless of where they live, and part and parcel of an individual's right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  It's an interdisciplinary concept that involves people and organizations working in social and economic justice, anti-hunger, environmental, community development, sustainable agriculture, and community gardening.  It's also at the core of some of problems I think we're facing in the food and nutrition fields right now...Why is it so difficult for the most vulnerable among us in society to be able to eat what's best for them?

As we continue to study and trace diet-related chronic diseases (like heart disease, obesity, stroke, hypertension, and diabetes) to their origins, you'll often find poverty as the root.  Poverty is independent risk factor for disease, and it  has huge bearing on your nutrition environment. A person's nutrition environment is anything and everything that affects how and why you choose to eat what you do.  It includes your ease of access to full-scale grocery stores, the media & marketing that targets you, your built environment, and your education (or lack thereof).

If we were to start to look at healthy food as a right that should be defended and supported by our entire society - as the attendees of this conference and many others are starting to do - how would that change the way *you* eat?

How would it change the way you view (or, like we are all prone to do - judge) how other people choose to eat?

CDC, "Preventing Chronic Disease", October 2007

Don't Be Afraid of Science!

posted Aug 7, 2010, 1:21 PM by Hildreth England   [ updated Oct 8, 2010, 12:52 PM ]

If you paid attention to your high school biology and chemistry teachers, you may remember a little thing called the "scientific method."  It's this long, drawn-out process that supports (or doesn't) a hypothesis on how something happens (or doesn't), and lets someone else replicate your experiment and get the same data. If your science fair project rigorously adhered to the scientific method, and said that dogs really do like peanut butter more than cats, someone else using the same methods should be able to make that conclusion, too.

There's not a lot of wiggle room with the scientific method - either an hypothesis is supported, or not.   It's an art form when done correctly, and the data is powerful.  It's how, as a society, we've generally come to accept scientific principles like gravity, the speed of light, our DNA, and why Mr. Roger's really is the best neighbor, ever.

Surprisingly over the past 20 years, we seem more prone to denying important scientific data. In fact, it seems the general public, for better or worse, has grown skeptical of what scientists discover over and over (and over) via experimental studies done using the scientific method...particularly in research done in food and nutrition.  Despite measurable, observed, unbiased data that's replicable and carefully obtained, lots of people seem to be okay with saying, "Nah...thanks but no thanks.  Don't believe it.  I'll just stick to what I know."

While there *are* all sorts of contextual factors that can affect human efforts to increase our knowledge (namely money and power), by and large the scientific method does an excellent job of weeding those variables out.  If it becomes apparent that the results of an experiment are tainted by intentional misconduct, they get thrown out!  The scientists loses face, the publishing journal loses money, and the shareholders/supporters of the experiment withdraw support.

So why are we still afraid of science?

I've always been a fan of TED talks...and this one is no exception:
Any 'tried and true' method deserves some healthy skepticism - that's what drives its progress.  But throwing out the methods altogether for no apparent reason is scary.  Throwing out the scientific method in favor of superstition and unfounded gut instincts is ever scarier - that's when we re-enter the dark ages.

When it comes to food and nutrition, the public deserves sound science.  Like I said, research funded by Nestle or Coca-Cola definitely deserves a raised eyebrow, but shouldn't be thrown out altogether....

Fuel forward and look ahead!

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