What has changed? That was the piercing question from a group of preschool parents I spoke with last month. Each had their own reason for showing up: picky eaters, kids with allergies and/or food sensitivities, and a host of other food issues. Our current food supply is different today, even if all the changes don’t necessarily link directly to food sensitivity issues. The scope of change ranges far and wide, so my intent is to give you a sense of the landscape– then look to links for a more involved discussions on different topics.
Conventional industrial farming gained headway in the post war era when chemicals used in war were re-purposed as fertilizer for our crops. Nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus exploded last year in that fertilizer warehouse in Texas for a reason. The use of artificial fertilizer opened the door to mono-crop farming and need for pest management: more pesticides, fungicides, insecticides. These substances are toxic agents, harming the target organisms and all other living creatures as well. Many agents are known endocrine disruptors. (see below)
2. Genetic Engineering of Organisms and Food
Proponents of GMO science like to say man has been genetically engineering plants forever. Not like this. Breeding different gene attributes into a plant in a very different process than introducing genetic material from one species into another that would never have crossed in nature. In addition the mechanism is messy, with disrupted DNA sequences and no precision in the process. Since being introduced in the 1990′s, limited testing on GMO foods means we are living experiments in this technology, especially as a full 90% of all corn products and 80% of all soybeans grown in the US are grown from GMO seed. While some GE efforts have worthwhile goals (ie; erradicating blindness in African children), we have much to be concerned about with this technology.
- Cows graze on grass, chickens peck at larva, pigs eat everything, but most animal protein we buy at the grocery store comes from animals not fed their natural diet. Corn, soy and even stale bakery products are fed to conventional livestock destined for our dinner plate. Organic meat can be produced from animals eating organic soy and corn. The result? More omega 6 fatty acids and less omega three fatty acids in these animals products–a pattern often linked to greater inflammation.
- The practice of using sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics in animal feed allows animals more efficient growth, but is mired in controversy. Animals eating excessive grain suffer impaired immune systems and are treated with more antibiotics. Antibiotic resistant bacteria present a risk to all living organisms. Over 80% of all antibiotic use is funneled to farm animals. Many question how antibiotics impact our own gut microbiota and immune system.
- Hormone therapy increases weight gain in beef cattle and milk production in diary cows, but not without controversy. While the FDA and industry advocates speak to the safety of these practices, there is little mention of any downside. These agents enter and contaminant the water supply. That effects us all.
4. Food processing and food additives
- Americans buy more processed food and less whole foods today. We eat out more. We rely on someone else to determine what is in the food we eat. Food companies will always be in the business of making a profit, so it works for them to use the cheapest ingredients possible. Subsidized crops lead to overuse of soybean oil (high in omega 6), high fructose corn syrup, wheat, gluten and other agents in our food supply.Americans eat a lot of sugar and refined starch, and so do our kids.
While parents are concerned about their kids, the opportunities to indulge in the processed stuff are endless. Too often sweets and treats fill in as reward, bribe, or other behavior modification tool. Even educated and discerning parents get tripped up. A wide variety of organic sweets and treats are equally refined and processed.
5. Greater body burden of industrial chemicals
Industry intentionally and unintentionally spews tens of thousands of chemicals into our environment each year. We measure and track less than 200 of them. While some agents may benign, others are known as persistent organic pollutants or endocrine disruptors. Ninety-five percent of what bio-accumulates in our bodies (known as our “body burden”) enters via the food supply. These agents are known to compromise glucose tolerance, thyroid function, and metabolism. They are linked to diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
At the end of the day, it is clear that our food is grown differently, our food supply is produced differently, we buy different foods, and we eat differently. The real challenge is figuring out if and how these differences contribute to greater food sensitivities, food allergies and food issues in children. We don’t have all the information we need, but I think it is still possible to make a few recommendations.
1. Purchase mostly whole foods that are raised in a sustainable manner.
2. Purchase animal products from animals allowed to eat their natural diet.
3. Choose organic if you desire to avoid genetically engineered foods and minimize exposure to pesticides and other endocrine disruptors.
These changes challenge the family budget, time, and energy, so make choices that make sense for you. There is a lot of ground to cover. Be sure to celebrate every step forward.