Even for consumers who know better, highly processed and adulterated grain can be challenging to avoid. Cereal and milk is the number one breakfast served at many schools. LAUSD offers a range of breakfast choices each day, but cereal and milk remains the most popular option, with many kids skipping the milk and opting to eat the cereal as a snack. The same holds true for other school breakfast initiatives, such as Breakfast after the Bell.
Last month I spoke at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology conference on work/life balance, addressing the rather ambitious topic of “How to Feed Ourselves, Improve How We Burn Fat for Fuel, and Save the Planet.” A young women in the audience asked the last question of the day, “How do you do it?”
I completely misinterpreted the question. I proceeded to describe how I work with clients, only to wake up the next morning with a sinking feeling, that instinctive sense that I had blown it. I missed the opportunity to answer a rather courageous question. We are all confronted by the challenge of feeding ourselves while saving the planet. Today I’m taking another stab at the answer.
FEEDING OURSELVES, SAVING THE PLANET
My objectives were clearly laid out. I intended to help the attendees learn how to integrate an approach to food, one that encourages the body to burn fat for fuel, improve metabolic health, as well as contribute to the health of the planet.
The task is daunting for most. How can one possibly manage to eat well, enhance energy metabolism, and do right by the planet all while navigating the blitz of everyday life? The simple answer, not easily.
Feeding ourselves remains one of the most complex behaviors we endeavor. Planning, purchasing, and preparing good food takes time and skill. Eating well requires willingness and readiness. How many of us successfully master the task on a daily basis? When you are stumbling, how do you even begin?
HOW TO DO IT
I’ve crafted and honed my eating skills for decades. A colorful personal journey coupled with my education, ongoing research, and extensive experience allows me to help others in a way that would have helped a younger me. Most of the problem lies in unrealistic expectations.
We live in a culture that fails to value the time and energy required to eat well while expecting everyone to enjoy good health. As a society we struggle to align our needs and desires with the health of the planet. No wonder so many consumers are looking for answers. What we purchase and what we eat challenges each of us to do the right thing every day, many times a day. Here’s a few ideas to get started.
- Reset your expectations. There is no way to do it all. If you have more time than money, purchase and prepare your own food. If you have more money than time, use convenience as needed and warranted. If you have too little of both, consider merging efforts to prepare food with friends, colleagues, or family. Tapping into community allows eating better to be more than an exercise in feeding.
- Eat a balance of food that works for you and make sure enough protein is on the plate. Feeling satisfied after a meal allows you to focus on every other task of the day. Struggling to get satisfied or resisting the urge to eat when you think you are already “eating enough” but still feel hungry is counterproductive and exhausting.
- Honor your hunger and satiety. Ideally we eat when we are hungry and stop when our hunger is gone. Unfortunately, in times of stress we produce hormones that completely steamroll the subtle cues of hunger and satiety, making it practically impossible to determine how much is enough. Practice what works to ground yourself through the day, even if the effort is as simple as consciously breathing more slowly and deeply.
- Use physical movement to improve your metabolism, and specifically how your body burns both fat and glucose for fuel. When you are able to burn more fat for fuel, you probably won’t crave sugar and carbohydrates the same way.
- Determine what’s worth it. Better food costs more, but better food often tastes better and nourishes us more completely. More importantly, better food means minimizing exposure to problematic chemicals used in agriculture and food processing. Vote with your food dollars and choose organic produce and grains when you can. Opt for grass fed butter and other dairy products. Choose grass fed meats as well as pastured eggs and poultry.
- If your budget is straining, check out EWG’s website to find out which crops use the most pesticides. Preferentially choose organic for the Dirty Dozen and don’t sweat it for the Clean Fifteen.
PUNT IF NEEDED
A major thrust in the market embraces better convenience food. Today consumers find more whole food, more organic and non-GMO ingredients, as well as more sustainable and local sources. Options include prepared foods or just prepared ingredients, along with meal replacement shakes and smoothies. Sources tell me that even at Whole Foods Markets consumers purchase more roasted chicken than raw.
When it all gets to be too much, let someone else do the shopping, cooking, or both. A wide range of resources are at the ready and you’re not the only one looking for a quick out. One critical caveat here–remember that what someone else prepares for you may not match your nutritional needs regardless how “healthy” the food or ingredients.
- Don’t want to plan menus? The USDA My Plate offers suggestions or google for any one of many menu planning apps. Just remember that the tricky part is matching a meal plan with your personal preferences and metabolic needs.
- Hate grocery shopping? Enterprising companies do it for you. Blue Apron offers conventional meals made with whole foods, Sun Basket offer meals planned with organic and non GMO ingredients, while The Purple Carrot offers vegan options.
- Only interested in eating? A range of food delivery services offer everything from restaurant fare to home cooked meals, from paleo to vegan– and everything in between.
FOOD’S RIGHTFUL PLACE
As you attempt to find food’s rightful place in your life, be kind and gentle with yourself. This journey is a process of learning what works and what doesn’t. What is worth it, and what isn’t. Figure out how food can work for you, not the other way around.
Lastly, if you struggle to get a foothold, seek support. Effective nutrition counseling bridges that nasty gap between knowledge and behavior.
In 1958 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) passed the Safe Food and Drug Act. The act specifically detailed a list of food additives that the government scientists determined could be ‘generally regarded as safe’ (GRAS). Today research assaults the thinking of those innocent times, framing the scientists and regulators as either clueless, evil, or rather naive.
THE STORY WITH TRANS FATS
At the time the FDA grandfathered in partially hydrogenated fats (also known as trans fats) with GRAS status since little data showed harm and they had been around since the early 1900’s–what one researched called “a really long time.” No one seemed to distinguish that “little evidence of harm” didn’t mean evidence of no harm.
Currently FDA charts a course for these fats to lose their GRAS status, but not quite yet. First they are gathering public comments.
FDA is well aware of the harmful effects of trans fats, having proposed labeling of trans fats in 1999 and finally mandating labeling in 2006. Is it any wonder that health professionals and the public alike question FDA’s alliances?
MORE QUESTIONABLE ADDITIVES: EMULSIFIERS
As science advances, researchers are sounding the alarm regarding several other additives in food, especially as consumers purchase more highly processed food according to a 2012 NPR report.
A recent study claims two commonly used emulsifiers in food, polysorbate 80 and carboxymethylcellulose may interfere with gut health. In essence, when fed to mice in amounts approximating human consumption, the emulsifiers “changed the species composition of the gut microbiota and did so in a manner that made it more pro-inflammatory.”
Emulsifiers basically keep components in a sauce or food from separating over time. You can tell when an emulsifier breaks down. The oil and water components of mayonnaise, salad dressings, pudding and sauces separate. It’s no surprise that food producers use emulsifiers in a variety of processed foods, and when Americans consume more highly processed and pre-prepared food they consume more emulsifiers.
The researchers from Georgia Tech suggest that the emulsifiers promote the development of inflammatory bowel disease and metabolic syndrome. These conditions are increasingly linked to poor metabolic health, obesity, diabetes and many gastro-intestinal diseases on the rise today.
The emulsifiers are thought to influence microbiota exhibiting an enhanced capacity to digest and infiltrate the dense mucus layer that lines the intestine which is normally largely devoid of bacteria. A compromised intestinal barrier results. Today the researchers are investigating other emulsifiers and directly looking at their impact in humans.
ANOTHER ADDITIVE IN QUESTION
Last year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) turned the spotlight on propyl paraben in its Dirty Dozen Guide To Food Additives because the federal Food and Drug Administration listed its use in food as “Generally Recognized As Safe.” EWG specifically notes evidence that propyl paraben disrupts the endocrine system, and that the FDA has failed to take action to eliminate its use in food or reassess its safety.
Propyl paraben alters hormone signaling and gene expression, and consumers are exposed to propyl paraben in a variety of cosmetic, baby and food products. The researchers conclude that although the parabens enjoy GRAS designation based on a 1972 decision by the FDA (FDA 2013). Maybe FDA should reconsider that standing. In 2006 regulators removed propyl paraben from the list of food additives authorized for use in the European Union.
HOW CAN CONSUMERS TAKE ACTION?
The FDA struggles meet the needs of consumers as many of their actions defer to the interests of business. I lost my trust in the capacity for the FDA, USDA, and EPA–our nation’s primary regulatory agencies impacting the food supply and environment–years ago.
When confronted with our increasingly abundant and adulterated food supply, I have a simple recommendation for most of my clients. Eat close to the earth. Purchase mostly whole fresh food, and take time to prepare meals from scratch. If you’re not a cook or just want a night off, purchase foods from suppliers who are cooking with ingredients you would find in your own kitchen. Sometimes that will mean enjoying prepared food from trusted purveyors at a farmer’s market, your neighborhood grocery, or a favorite restaurant.
The Georgia Tech researchers suggest that current means of testing and approving food additives may not be adequate to prevent use of chemicals that promote diseases driven by low-grade inflammation and/or which will cause disease primarily in susceptible hosts. With the advent of mapping our microbiome, my sense is that we need to revisit everything. I can’t help but wonder, what else is the FDA missing?
In February of this year The New York Times exposed what most of us food shoppers already suspect. Gluten free foods have flooded the marketplace with sales approaching $10.5 billion a year in 2013, and projected to reach 15 billion a year by 2015. A Mayo clinic survey estimates that up to 1.8 million Americans claim to have celiac disease. These individuals truly need to avoid all sources of gluten. Another 18 million Americans consider themselves “gluten sensitive”, and avoid gluten containing foods at varying levels of vigilance. Some gluten avoiders choose a “paleo” type diet, eating mostly protein and produce. Marketing researchers tally an increasing number of consumers voluntarily avoiding gluten at the supermarket for a variety of reasons, even without really knowing what gluten is. What is up?
In May of 2013, I puzzled over my own bizarre reaction to eating bread and other gluten containing foods. By September I wondered about others ways gluten may be increasing in the food supply and addressed the increasing content of protein in wheat. By February of this year, I took a hard look at the increasing incidence of food allergies and sensitivities. I blogged about a rash of changes in the food supply that could be playing a role, including the increasing use of pesticides and other endocrine disruptors. Today glyphosate, along with other inert ingredients in Monsanto’s Roundup, garners more and more attention.
Currently glyphosate ranks as the number one herbicide used in the US, primarily due to the advent of genetically modified seed engineered to be “Roundup resistant”” (RR). In a 2012 publication Charles Benbrook of Washington State University addresses the impact of genetically engineered (GE) crops on pesticide use in the United States. As of 2011 RR seeds were planted in an estimated 96% of the cropland growing soybeans, 72% of corn, and 96% of cotton.
The promise of glyphosate resistant crops was to decrease dependence on pesticides, and yet use continues to escalate. Weeds grow increasingly resistant and conventional farmers now apply more pesticide more often in attempt to suppress the problem for all crops. In addition, before 2006 glyphosate could not be sprayed directed onto actively growing crops from non GE seeds. GE wheat is not available commercially in the US, so residues in foods made with wheat were rare. That is not true today.
In a fairly controversial paper, Stephanie Seneff and colleague Anthony Samsel assert, “The Western diet is a delivery system for toxic chemicals used in industrial agriculture…Pesticide residues like glyphosate contaminate the entire diet.” Sometime around 2006 farmers markedly expanded the use glyphosate as a harvest aid for wheat and barley in the US. The practice in the UK dates back to 1980. Farmers spray glyphosate onto crops close to harvest in order to speed up the drying process. Proponents argue that the practice reduces risk of fungus and shortens time to harvest. In the UK, the authors of the information sheet point out that glyphosate residues are below targets. Yet the same sheet fails to point out that both the European Union and UK have been repeatedly asked to raise the maximal glyphosate levels allowed. In his paper, Charles Benbrook notes that the highest levels of glyphosate is found in grain and sugar crops.
Some scientists link pesticides to environmental impact and greater risk to public health. In Seneff’s paper, she fingers conditions that range from leaky gut and celiac disase to problems with mineral transport and deficiencies, as well as interference with the synthesis of tryptophan and tyrosine. These two amino acids function as precursors for serotonin and dopamine respectively, and influence conditions ranging from appetite regulation to mental health. The question remains, “Has spraying glyphosate just before harvest increased residues in food past a tipping point?”
Seneff and Samsel report that the US represents 25% of the total world market of herbicide usage, with glyphosate the most utilized herbicide since 2001. USDA’s most recent usage data shows a doubling of use of the herbicide from 2001 to 2007. More current usage data remains unavailable, reportedly due to budget cuts. So what does that mean for us? I’m not sure, but there is plenty of research to be done.
An intriguing graph in another paper by Seneff and Samsel shows parallel increases in gluten intolerance and glyphosate usage suggesting correlation. Their proposals generate considerable disdain from other scientists. This is familiar territory. I remember the same dismissive tone when decades ago I suggested the outrageous notion that insulin resistance caused weight gain, not just the other way around. I’ve learned to stay open minded.
Only additional research will tell us if there are legs to the numerous ways Seneff and Samsel propose glyphosate (and more critically Roundup) may be impacting our health and the environment. At this juncture correlation cannot prove causation. The assertions made in these two papers should sound a clarion call to researchers in a wide range of disciplines. While many scientists discredit Seneff and Samsel’s paper, there is no doubt that gastrointestinal distress, autism, mental health and other conditions theoretically linked to glyphosate are on the rise. People are doing what they can to feel better.
I personally have made an extra effort to eat only organic grains along with grass fed animal products and mostly organic produce for a variety of reasons. Interestingly I only experience gastric pain, tightness in my esophagus, or noxious burping when I eat non-organic grain products.
In the end it probably doesn’t matter what some scientist insists. I will continue to eat in a way that improves or maintains my quality of life. For the many consumers choosing to eat less gluten–and even for the countless eaters avoiding grains for any number of reasons–we are already conducting our own experiment. Maybe we should start collecting the data.
Ask my husband. It takes a lot to get me to the movies, especially on a Friday night after a grueling work week. But Fed Up is a compelling story, and I already know many of the key players. I’m familiar with David Lustig’s research, read blogs by Mark Hyman and Marion Nestle, devour books by Robert Lustig and Gary Taubes, and exchange enough ideas with Michael Pollan to be acknowledged in one of his books. I wanted to know what they said, as well as how it was said. For the first time ever I was motivated to see a film the first day of release, and I was rewarded for the effort.
GETTING IT RIGHT: A CALORIE IS NOT A CALORIE
I live and breathe the world of metabolic health for children as well as clients at every age. Fed Up’s creative team mostly gets it right. They pointedly shred the notion that a calorie is a calorie, a ridiculous idea that pretends that the body responds to 500 calories of sugar in the same way it responds to 500 calories of whole food. They poke holes in the assumption that exercise can trump whatever the food supply offers (It’s actually the other way around. Excessive food or the wrong kind of food can readily trump the many benefits of physical activity.) In essence, they expose the obscene adulteration of our food supply, especially over the last 30 years, thanks to the sometimes dubious scientific feats of food technology and the relentless drive for profits from food manufacturers.
The film makers showcase the daunting overexposure of sugar and refined starch (with and without the fat) EVERYWHERE. These women deftly address the impossible world of managing food choices while everyone is feeding the kids mostly cheap and adulterated food, including places kids should be safe like schools, the YMCA, and after school sports programs. I loved that one of the featured families included all their kids, not just their overweight son, and exposed the risk of eating poorly for even “normal weight” children. Fed Up rightly acknowledges that parents can’t do this alone, and touched on a deeper truth. Parents often can’t help their kids because they struggle to manage choices for themselves.
USDA food policy and the role of school food service exposes the meager budgets that schools work with. It is nearly impossible to buy adequate fresh fruit and vegetables, good quality protein, and healthy fats on pennies a day. Even when schools attempt to provide more fresh fruits and vegetables, food waste becomes an even bigger problem. Kids throw out what they don’t want to eat.
Marion Nestle deftly points to the absurdity of one government agency charged with both promoting more food production and tackling the obesity epidemic linked to over-consumption of the resulting abundance. Experts now consider obesity an economic issue, and manufacturers produce the cheapest food in the house from subsidized crops. I agree with Gary Taubes. In effect, the government subsidizes obesity.
Money distorts more than the cost of food. Research funded by food manufacturers and special interests continues to confound the scientific arena. I am appalled at the willingness of some “experts” to take on untenable positions regarding sugar and soda in the diet. And yet I am not necessarily against working on behalf of industry. I am a consultant for a McDonald’s owner operators in Southern California (MOASC). How is that OK?
As a consultant to MOASC, I am acutely aware of the slippery slope. For instance, McDonald’s sells a lot of soda. I cringe every time I see the large tanks of coke syrup in the back of the house. But I also know that 70% of soda is consumed at home. That means even more soda is purchased at local supermarkets, convenience stores, liquor stores and the like. My guess is that McDonald’s and every other food venue is not in a position to change the soda game without serious damage to their business. So while I bristle at the sales of soda, I choose to focus on the areas I can make an impact, knowing that every step forward is better than the status quo.
The increasing availability and intake of sugar is a task for government intervention, especially since it’s government policies that distort the cost of soda in the first place. As long as corn is subsidized, sodas will be cheap and sugar will be abundant the the food supply. The government could stop the subsidies and allow all of us to pay the true cost of production. If that is unlikely, consumers will need to continue flexing their muscle and stop buying sodas, as well as all the other products that needlessly add sugar in the mix. As producer Laurie David reminded the audience Friday night, we get to vote with our dollars.
ISSUES LEFT ON THE TABLE
Documentaries like Fed Up are doing the work of hard hitting investigative journalists of years past. Consumers deserve to know how the food industry high jacked the food supply, but they also deserve to consider issues that were not addressed in the film. Here’s my list:
- Despite a more insightful discussion of the issues, Fed Up continues to reinforce the belief that weight is the most critical factor at hand, when it would have been seamless to help viewers shift focus to metabolic health. Weight is a lousy litmus test of health, and the documentary didn’t do enough to dispel myths regarding the number on the scale, ideal body weight, BMI and other false gods. It’s actually easier to discuss healthy eating with parents when you don’t have to debate whether a chubby child is healthy. We need less shame and more promotion of health at every size.
- The diet industry is taken to task, but there is no mention of how the medical world has distorted the issues regarding metabolic health. Most doctors, nurses, and even dietitians continue to count calories and focus on the number on the scale.
We need to pay more attention to body composition and true bio markers of metabolic health.
- Why is fast food readily scorched throughout the documentary, but little attention to the calorie intake and portion distortion of sit down restaurants? Ironically most sit down establishments offer larger portions, sell soda with endless refills, and over feed consumers with sugar, refined starch. and sugar as well. It just costs more.
- When reports of escalating child obesity hit the press, most sit down restaurants offered the same food in “kid’s meals” as fast food establishments. Ironically fast food led the way to offering more fruit, vegetables, and milk at no extra charge. Why no acknowledgement that these institutions can be a force for good? I also believe that kids food should look like what all of us eat, but I think kid’s meals have a place. I don’t know many parents who want to pay $12-20 a meal for their 5 year old, so let restaurants feed them smaller portions of the good stuff at a reduced price.
- The fast food environment has changed. Fast food establishments offer more fresh fruit, more vegetables, more whole grains, even organic eggs, grass fed meat and wild caught salmon. Not one example was discussed in the documentary. Are the salient issues really about where you eat? I think the problem is what you eat when you get there.
- I have clients that tell me that they don’t eat fast food, yet still suffer from diabetes, hypertension, and dyslipidemia. Some struggle with their weight, and others don’t. How is it that consumers continue to think that as long as they don’t eat fast food they are doing ok? Could it be that popular yet less than accurate sound bites regarding fast food is partly to blame?
- I like that Fed Up poked at the sacred cows of sports and outside activities, common intruders to the family meal. The thornier issues of excessively long work days, multiple jobs, and too long commutes, didn’t get the air time they deserve. No one mentions the fact that some people don’t have a kitchen, and others don’t want to cook.
- Despite my previous point, I appreciate Fed Up’s emphasis on cooking and family dinners. I prepare almost every meal from scratch at least 5-6 nights a week and know exactly what it takes to pull it off. Basically as a society we do not value the time, energy or skill that it takes to purchase and prepare food day in and day out. Fed Up compares the cost of a home cooked meal with a take out meal in the documentary. The home cooked meal costs less, but this is only true if you give no value to time. In my own experiment, a home cooked meal only cost less when my time was free. As soon as I “paid” myself minimum wage to shop, cook and clean up, the take out meal cost less.
THERE IS MORE TO TALK ABOUT
Fed Up shines a spotlight on food factors contributing to child obesity. But since the project’s inception, there has been much more attention to the role of mother’s diet and metabolic health before and during pregnancy. We are probably not going to move the needle by only addressing what a kid eats after birth. In addition, other factors such as the role of endocrine disruptors and other chemical agents are beginning to be questioned. Even lab rats are fatter today, making it fairly obvious that we don’t yet understand everything that contributes to our current metabolic challenges.
Changing how food is processed is just one piece of the problem. We need to also address how food is grown. Fed Up contributes significantly to the discussion regarding food, kids, and health, there is just much more to be discussed. I gave my business card to Stephanie Soechtig as we left the theater. Let’s see if I get a chance.
Bonnie Modugno, MS, RD enjoys a private practice as a nutrition consultant and works with children and adolescents as well as adults. She writes and speaks extensively about food, nutrition, and metabolic health. Read her blog or follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Linked In.
How much does it cost to buy organic food? It is easy enough to compare a conventional product to an organically grown product. That side by side comparison confirms what most of us already know. Organic food is more expensive–but only if we choose to ignore all the indirect costs of conventional farming like the destruction of soil ecology, bee colony collapse disorder, polluted waterways and dead zones in the oceans. Oh, and the fact that our cheap food supply is mostly a subsidized food supply. We do pay more–with our taxes. I am already convinced that bio-dynamic agriculture and the spirit of organically grown food is our future, but the actual cost of organic food compared to subsidized products keeps many customers away. So how much more are we talking about?
In my work as an expert witness for a child support case I was recently asked to assess the cost of feeding two children with a twist– the mom says she buys only organic foods. The USDA publishes annual estimates of food costs to feed children and families. These plans allows for four different income levels from the thrifty food plan to moderate and liberal plans. But there is nothing said about the costs of buying groceries that are grown organically, locally and more sustainably. How much more does that cost?
COMPARING APPLES TO ORANGES
I started my research at a local Ralph’s supermarket–one of many regional markets positioning themselves as a low price leader. I priced a sample of foods from six different food categories that are set up by the USDA: meat and beans, milk and dairy products, fruits, vegetables, grains, and a mix of other foods including fats and sugar. I then stopped by my local Whole Food’s Market and priced the same foods, just different sources.
The idea was to establish a baseline using a local market and then compare costs for conventionally grown items at Whole Foods and then make the big leap and compare the cost of organics. At Whole Foods I couldn’t find a conventionally grown apple or potato to price (see * in the list) These items were not included in the final analysis.
I basically asked myself two questions. First, how much more expensive it is to purchase organic food purchased at Whole Foods compared to conventionally grown food at Whole Foods? The numbers covered a huge range, from a modest 22% more in cost to a ridiculous 290% more. Still, this comparison is not quite fair. Maybe that high priced organic pasta at $6.99 a pound is phenomenal and can’t be compared to the $2.19 per pound version.
Then I tallied the difference between costs for organic food at Whole Food’s to conventional food at Ralph’s. Since so few organic products were available at Ralph’s–this difference is what most consumers face if they are thinking of taking the organic plunge. Check out the table to see how prices line up.
THE COST OF FOOD–PART 1
|FOOD ITEMS||Ralph’sConventional||Whole Food’s Conventional||Whole Food’s Organics|
|Whole wheat bread (22 oz)||$ 2.74||$ 3.73||$ 4.99|
|Oat “O” cereal (12 oz)||2.30||2.81||3.42|
|Brown Rice (16 oz)||1.59||1.49||2.69|
|Oatmeal (24 oz)||2.92||3.29||3.99|
|Pasta (16 oz)||1.99||2.19||6.35|
|VEGETABLE (per pound)|
|FRUIT (per pound)|
|Whole Milk — 1/2 gal||2.59||1.99||5.79|
|Fruit flavored yogurt (6 oz)||.59||.89||1.19|
|Mozarella stick cheese (6 oz)||2.80||3.99||6.99|
|MEAT AND BEANS|
|Lean ground beef (lb)||3.99||5.99||9.99|
|Skinless, boneless, chicken breast (per pound)||6.99||7.99||9.99|
|Fresh salmon (per pound)||9.99||13.99||18.99|
|Canned black beans (per pound)||1.49||.89||1.39|
|Eggs (1 dozen)||2.49||3.39||5.29|
|TOTAL COST||$ 72.61||$ 82.14||$ 130.49|
|% DIFFERENCE||+ 13%||+ 80%|
Food costs assessed on September
CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS
So how do the numbers stand? It is clearly cheaper to shop for food at a supermarket that markets itself as a “low cost leader”. Whole Food’s demands a premium for its conventional products, but in this sample it is a modest 13% premium. At Whole Foods, I would like to think I am buying product from farmers and manufacturers that are better stewards of the land, but unfortunately the question is outside the scope of this study.
The more significant cost difference is trying to jump from the conventional aisles of Ralph’s Supermarket to buying preferentially organic products from Whole Foods. The different tallies a whopping 80% increase in these sample products. Incredibly this cost comparison doesn’t tell the whole story. In a future blog I’ll share additional data suggesting that the true cost of feeding children organic foods could actually tally up to 300% more. How can this be? Stay tuned for part II.
Gluten is certainly getting more than it’s share of fame these days, with a sharp increase in the number of people claiming sensitivity to the protein found in wheat and other grains. True believers claim cutting out wheat (and more specifically gluten) is responsible for everything from losing belly fat to quieting a full range of gastrointestinal distress. The FDA finally established standards for labeling products “gluten free” while sales continue to explode. Comics are enjoying all the commotion, especially as consumers become increasingly more paranoid about their food. Scientists claim it can’t be the wheat, but I am not so sure.
I already blame the USDA farm policy for distorting the cost of food, a prime factor contributing to economic based obesity. Calorie for calorie, the cheapest food in our current food supply is refined starch, sugar, and fat. No surprise that these are the exact food ingredients that make it easy for too many people to preferentially store fat instead of burning it for fuel. Wheat subsidies are second only to feed grains in the current USDA budget. I am increasingly worried that our distorted and adulterated food supply is driving increasing food intolerance, allergies, and other disease.
THE DOSE MAKES THE POISON
Food sensitivities are mostly dose related, and Americans consume a very high dose of wheat. Many products are produced from wheat and other grains that contain gluten. Breads, crackers, pasta, pastries and other desserts are often wheat based. Wheat flour and other derivatives are used to make sauces, marinades, salad dressings and other seasonings. Wheat is our food staple and Americans have celebrated the bread basket for decades.
I appreciate that a food scientist at the USDA may say, it’s not the wheat. He may be too close to the chemistry to pull back and think about the food supply. Cultivars continue to be produced that yield a higher protein content because those grains demand a higher price on the commodity market. There are no commercially available GMO grains, but plant breeders have been successful deriving a higher protein content by more traditional methods. In addition, conventional farming adds plenty of NPK fertilizers to their depleted fields. All that extra nitrogen contributes to a higher protein yield, too.
ADDED GLUTEN EVERYWHERE
USDA actively promotes efforts to “maximize wheat utilization, with one document I found dating back to 1969. Food technologists (and the corporations that employ them) will continue to take advantage of the unique properties of wheat protein for one basic reason. It’s cheap. USDA farm policy continues to subsidize wheat, creating an incentive for food processors and manufacturers everywhere opportunistically use them and save a few pennies. The USDA reports that 300 pounds of gluten is extracted from 2 billion tons of wheat each year and used as a additive in everything from food coatings and films to animal feed.
HAS FOOD TECHNOLOGY REACHED A TIPPING POINT?
I figured out that I don’t handle excessive carbohydrate in my diet years ago. Even though I don’t tolerate much carbohydrate in my diet, I know I metabolize most beans, legumes, tubers and some grains better than others. It is only wheat based products that cause my esophagus to swell and my chest to hurt–but not every product. I recently started experimenting with baking gluten free products myself, like the biscuits I made just yesterday morning. Ok texture, but taste and fragrance less inviting. My son said his biscuit smelled like cornmeal crusted fried trout. I could almost smell it, too. Still, not a bad product and I bet it is absolutely delicious for many who doesn’t tolerate gluten at all.
Comics and trolls can make all the fun they want of what they see as a rich person’s manufactured epidemic–but the joke may be on them. Dose always makes the poison. Food technology wields a double edge sword. All the inventive ways food manufacturers have figured out to maximize wheat utilization may be have reached a tipping point. I wonder if gluten intolerance is a manufactured epidemic of food technology’s own making.