The Trouble With Food Dogma

More and more, it seems like the food controversies I read and write about come down to dogma. What do I mean by that? When it comes to food, people—or at least the people who are vocal in the media—seem to like to get attached to an ideology. They become so convinced of its righteousness that any information that opposes it has to be wrong, in their minds. I’m certainly no exception to this phenomenon. I’ve pled guilty before to confirmation bias (tending to consume media and information that confirms what I already believe) and I stand by that. I think it’s easy for people to see things as black and white; people are uncomfortable with gray areas, especially when it comes to issues as critical as public health and environmental conservation.

It has often been the case throughout history that radical thinkers lead the way to broad-scale paradigm shifts, people who stand by their beliefs no matter what. One problem with dogmatic thinking, particularly when it comes to food, health, sustainability, and inequality, is that science doesn’t care about dogma. Science is skeptical. Science is disagreement. It’s about looking at all of the evidence available and coming to a consensus, but not necessarily a permanent one. It’s kind of a silly example, but there was a time when the brightest minds in the world believed that the earth was flat—that was their conclusion based on the best evidence available at the time. Fortunately, enough evidence accumulated that contradicted the flat-earth theory that the scientific consensus changed. Getting attached to an ideology has the potential to inhibit scientific progress because it closes your mind to new evidence that might contradict your ideology. That being said, it is never the case that one study or a handful of studies should be able to overturn a theory based on evidence from hundreds of studies. Unfortunately, the media often flips that assertion right on its head, especially when it comes to nutrition science (for more on science in the media, definitely watch this video from John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight).

I thought I would talk about a few of the clashing ideologies I often confront in my day-to-day business, and why it’s bad that we get so polarized about our food.

One that’s obviously really personal to me is veganism versus the typical omnivorous American diet. I’ve explained this many times before on my blog, but it is clear to me from the evidence I’ve encountered and the experts I trust that the most health-promoting diet is one that maximizes minimally processed plant foods and minimizes highly processed foods and animal products. I also believe that reducing consumption of animal products will be better for the environment. Transitioning to a 100% plant-based diet was the best way for me to live according to my values, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for everyone. And even if I did think that 100% plant-based was the only way to go, I don’t think spreading that message would be as effective as just encouraging any change in the right direction. Public health and environmental authorities should certainly give people information about what’s best based on all of the evidence, but an all-or-nothing mindset can be very alienating for a lot of people and not necessarily accurate. If you saw my post interviewing my friend the aspiring dairy veterinarian, she opened my mind to the idea that cows offset a lot of our own detrimental food waste by consuming parts of foods that we cannot digest and turning them into digestible food. Of course, far more animals are produced than can just live off our waste, among many other concerns I have about the scale of global animal agriculture. But there certainly is a valid argument for maintaining some degree of animal agriculture, even from a nutritional standpoint. It is disheartening to me that people think they can’t make a positive change in their eating habits just because they don’t want to be totally vegan. Yeah, I know, you could never give up x (cheeseburgers, pizza, steak, you name it), but I’m not asking you to. Try eating it less often than you do now. Try eating one more serving of vegetables per day. Even that much of a change will make a significantly positive impact on your long-term health. Veganism often equates to dogma, but the benefits of plant strong diet are based on science.

Similarly, there is a certain segment of the public that gets very dogmatic about food processing, claiming that all additives and methods of processing are harmful to health. I would never say that all forms of food processing are inherently bad, only that it happens to be the case that a lot of highly processed foods encourage overeating, are low in critical nutrients, and tend to displace more nutritious foods in one’s diet. There are certain foods whose nutrients are more bioavailable when processed, like cooking tomatoes or fermenting grains. Without modern processing and preservation methods we could not have nearly as much variety and certainty in our food supply as we do. And like I wrote about in this post, fortification certainly has its merits. I can comfortably say, though, that we’ve gone a bit overboard with certain forms of processing, like, say, adding sugar to every flipping packaged food on the shelf. People get pretty dogmatic about those additives too, all those scary sound chemicals on the ingredient lists of some packaged foods. My feeling about that is that it’s not doing anyone too much good to demonize, say, aspartame for all of our problems, because the reality is way more complex than that. Usually you have to reach much higher levels of consumption than what’s typically present in foods to show any harm in experimental settings. But I’d like to emphasize that what is evident is that a heavily whole food diet, which is universally associated with good health, mostly avoids all of the additives that are associated with risk.

Another really polarizing controversy is conventional versus organic farming. There are some organic advocates who won’t settle for anything less than a worldwide conversion to organic farming. There are also plenty of advocates that stress that chemical and genetically engineered farming is the only way to yield enough to be able to feed the world. The way I see it, again, is that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing to change for the better, and that in fact, our food system would probably work best with a combination of conventional and organic farming methods. We all have to be willing to sacrifice our ideology and be able to be critical of both methods. For that matter, the farms that fall under each broad category of “conventional” and “organic” are not homogenous. Although in general I think we would be better off if a lot more of our food was farmed organically, I’m sure there are farms that would not qualify as organic that are using much more sustainable and safe practices than some technically organic farms. And if we should be transitioning more farming to organic practices, the all-or-nothing regulatory system for organic farming is not helping matters. It takes a lot of time and resources for a conventional farm to transition to completely organic standards to be certified by the USDA, and there is no benefit or price premium for farms that are in that in between stage, so the system can act as a disincentive to make that transition.

The larger issue here may not be that people hold these dogmas and biases, but that their ideologies prevent them from engaging in dialogue with people who disagree with them. It is very often the case that the truth about what’s best for health, animal welfare, or the planet lies somewhere in between the extremes of belief that are visible in the media. It’s especially apparent to me that public health officials, sustainability advocates, farmers, and policymakers all need to communicate a lot better and be a lot more open-minded. We will have a hard time improving our food system in a sustainable way without collaboration between all stakeholders. Let’s get comfortable with disagreement, with gray areas, and with the impossibility of a magic bullet, quick fix solution to any of these incredibly complex food issues.



Tl;dr we have to start talking about poverty

As I reach the end of this semester, I’m reflecting on how my views on creating a nourishing, sustainable, and just food system have been enriched by my education inside and outside the classroom.

What has been clear to me for some time is that the food environment, as determined by industry and government, is not compatible with my vision for public health. We produce and market way too much of the wrong foods and not enough of the right ones, the cost structure constrains nutritious choices even further, and we pollute and waste far too much at all levels of food production and consumption.

All of this is still true, and demands to be addressed by the private, public, and non-profit sectors. But, lately I’ve been increasingly confronted by another major crisis that is also at the root of our public health nutrition problems. I am talking about poverty, friends.

I wrote about my Public Health Nutrition class at the beginning of the semester here. I believe I wrote in that post that I had been waiting for this class during my time as an undegrad thus far with much anticipation, mostly because its title is common to that of the particular career field I plan to enter. I expected to know already a lot of the material about the public health nutrition programs run by the government (e.g. SNAP, WIC, the school lunch program) and I did, but what was remarkable was how much the course focused on poverty as a broader issue to frame the public health issues. For example, one of our big assignments was to read and write a paper on one of four books about poverty, none of them focusing especially on nutrition. We also had a guest lecturer come in and talk to us purely about the housing crisis in town next to the university.

When you think about it, it’s easy to see how poverty and the low affordability of things like housing and health insurance are incredibly critical to understanding food insecurity and diet-related disease. But not enough people are thinking about it. Before taking this class, I recognized the connection, but still lamented the flaws of the food environment far more than the miserable extent of poverty.

One of the concepts that the poverty assignment dealt with was flexible versus inflexible expenses. For instance, every month, people have to pay the fixed amount of their rent, utilities, and other bills. Those are the inflexible expenses. They they go to buy their food, and, depending on how much money they have left over, may have to compromise on nutritious foods in order to buy whatever will satisfy them for the least money. For low-income households, government programs like SNAP fill the gap to some extent but don’t typically provide enough to reasonably afford what public health advocates would prescribe as a nutritious diet, and are really only available to the poorest of the poor.

The thing is, food justice and access is so important, and so are welfare programs when they work, but it is equally important for people to be able to rehabilitate and support themselves financially and afford all of this nutritious food to which they may or may not have convenient access, on top of their fixed expenses. If all of those things sound like different names for the same problem, it’s because they are. Too many people are living in poverty (just watch this video about the horrifying income distribution in this country) for the welfare system to sustain itself.

And another thing: everyone demands that food be really cheap, but the externalities of cheap food cost way more in the long run than investing in better quality, nutritious food to begin with (as I lamented in this post). 

The way I see it now, there are two broad, intimidating goals to strive toward in this struggle:

  • Increase the capacity of the social safety net to support people in need with resources to achieve food security
  • Reduce the need for the social safety net by improving equality of opportunity for low-income and disenfranchised populations AND mandating a living wage

I definitely do not have all the answers with regard to how to reach those goals, and really don’t know how to do it in a politically acceptable way (although I do have some thoughts which I may elaborate on in future posts, and always appreciate comments).

Tl;dr: You can’t adequately address food insecurity or the diet-related disease epidemic without addressing poverty.


A Healthy Dose of Skepticism

This week, I was extremely fortunate to meet in person with two renowned thought leaders in the field of nutrition.

One was my absolute hero, Marion Nestle, a writer, researcher, public health advocate, and the pioneer in the study of food politics (you can find my other posts about her books here and here).


The other was T. Colin Campbell, the pioneering scholar of the plant-based nutrition movement. His work on The China Study (which I wrote about here) was one of the first to link diet and health in the public mindset.


Nutrition nerd that I am, I was quite star struck by both of them. I should point out though, that Dr. Nestle is much more well-liked and respected in the nutrition science community than Dr. Campbell, and I want to explore why that is.

Dr. Campbell has come to be perceived as something of a zealot for a whole food, plant-based diet. He has condemned the dangers of animal products for decades now. He definitely takes a radical approach. I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that he sees the government’s failure to acknowledge the superiority of a whole-food plant based diet as absolutely criminal. Some scholars question whether the methodology of the research cited in The China Study is robust enough to advise everyone to adopt a fully plant-based diet. I admit I haven’t taken a close enough look to be able to comment on that, but when I read it, his evidence seemed compelling. He does come off somewhat angry in his writing, though. In person he was pretty calm, I thought. Obviously people who have an interest in selling animal products would tend to see him as an enemy. What I think is interesting is that Campbell actually grew up on a dairy farm, firmly believing in the life-giving power of a diet rich in animal protein until his own research convinced him otherwise.

Dr. Nestle, on the other hand, comes off as much more skeptical and rational. Twice this week on her blog she advised readers to take any news story that claims “everything you thought you knew about nutrition is wrong” with a grain of salt. Her writing is not angry; she lets the evidence speak for itself in a way that leaves little doubt that the food industry is responsible for much of our nutrition woes.

The thing is, to me, ultimately, the foods that Dr. Nestle defends as the most nutritious are exactly the same as those Dr. Campbell defends—whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables. Dr. Nestle definitely admits that animal products and highly processed foods can be enjoyed in moderation in a health-promoting diet, but she also argues that the evidence has long made clear that the healthiest people eat by Michael Pollan’s creed: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Both Nestle and Campbell have PhDs in nutritional biochemistry, and I believe both ground their work firmly in scientific evidence, although some people think Campbell is a biased quack. Obviously, at this point I find the evidence compelling enough for me to adopt a completely plant-based diet, but not for nutritional reasons alone, as he argues. I’m sure he is biased, but so are most of us. Dr. Nestle does give the impression of being remarkably objective. She tells it like it is, in a way that any rational person, or scientist for that matter, cannot dispute.

Perhaps many will disagree with me, but I don’t think Nestle’s and Campbell’s diet advice are different enough that they should be regarded so differently as scholars and as advocates. I think Nestle just offers the information in a way that’s much easier to swallow (no pun intended). When I met her this week, she signed my book “Do nutrition, change the world!” Challenge accepted.

A vegan and a dairy veterinarian walk into a barn

Readers, I am very excited to be bringing you this collaborative post. To give you some background, it has become more important to me lately to address my biases in dialogues surrounding food and try to be open to multiple perspectives. It occurred to me that I have been writing and preaching about what agricultural practices are better for the environment—namely, limiting animal agriculture—without ever having grown or raised anything myself, which didn’t sit well with me. And, like most of us, I tend to seek out food media with which I already agree, consciously or subconsciously. I wanted to consult someone with a different point of view, and I knew just the right person. A friend of mine from college is an aspiring dairy veterinarian, now in her first year of vet school. She’s grown up in agriculture her whole life, and worked for a long time on a dairy farm before college. She is concerned about animal welfare as much or more than any vegan I know; I was just telling her that I would never dare deny how much she cares about her cows. I had never before talked to her about my views on animal agriculture, but when I hesitantly approached her about interviewing her for my blog, I was happy to find that she was eager to share her side of the story to an unconventional audience, and she enlisted her friend, a dairy nutritionist, to bring even more expertise to the task. Their study and careers are as much based on scientific evidence as mine, which can be much more controversial than you would hope. But I am coming to believe more and more that progress in the food system will only happen if we all start listening to each other, particularly farmers and health/sustainability advocates. The answers my friend and her colleague gave to my questions were incredibly thorough, so I warn you that this post is quite a bit longer than usual. They gave me a run for my money, especially during the remarkably level-headed conversation I had with my friend afterward, which I think I will have to write a follow-up post about. I don’t think that I’ll be returning to yogurt anytime soon, but I definitely have a lot to think about, and I hope you will too.

I think many people have a perception that cows in so-called factory farms (would you call them CAFOs?) live in an overcrowded, “unnatural” living situation. In your experience, what is the usual living arrangement, so to speak, for cows on industrial dairy farms? What practices are different between grain-fed vs. grass-fed cattle? Do you think the typical set-up and diet generally promotes the health of the animals?

First, CAFO stands for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation. This just means that there are a specific number of animals on that particular site. For dairy cattle, anything with under 200 head is defined as an AFO. From 200 to 500 is a medium CAFO and above 500 is a large CAFO. These designations simply define the operation and there are slightly different regulations for each one. The regulations are in place to ensure good animal practices and proper steps taken towards being stewards for the environment. They are extensive and farmers are inspected at least yearly to ensure that they are up to code. While a consumer may think a dairy farm smells, the farmer is guaranteed to be taking care of his farm and property. Anyone who ships milk (exception here would be some Amish and Mennonite farms) are compliant with the regulations.

The typical living arrangement for most dairy farms is a large pen or dirt lot, depending on location, where the cows are free to move around, sleep, eat, drink, and socialize. Typically, two or three times a day the lactating cows are moved the milking parlor where they are milk. There is extensive research and there are very good practices in place to ensure cow comfort and promote health and production. The farmer is not alone in ensuring this. The veterinarian and nutritionist for the farm are often there to offer advice and expertise.

The difference between a grain-fed vs. grass-fed depends on the operations. Conventional dairy farms are typically fed a diet that is 50-70% forage, meaning corn silage, hay, haylage, or whatever forages are grown in the area. In California you will see more sorghum and dry hay, in Wisconsin you will see more corn silage and haylage. A grass-fed herd means the cows are free to graze in a pasture. To be labeled as organic, the cow’s diet must be 70% grazing. Grass-fed does not have a set level of grazing. Some herds may let the cows out to pasture at night in the summer to take advantage of the cooler temperatures and some may be out to pasture all day. There are advantages and disadvantages to both grain-fed and grass-fed. Most larger operations are grain-fed because the farmer is better able to control the cows’ environment to keep them all dry and comfortable. They are also able to collect the cows’ excrement better in a barn and dispose of it in a more environmentally safe method. Both set ups are safe for the cattle and promote good health. It mostly depends on location, size, climate, and management to determine the best method for each operation. Typically, contained and grain-fed leads to the best environmental stewardship and the cows are able to spend more time lying and sleeping rather than foraging for their food.

One of the reasons the industry has moved to these styles of stewardship is welfare. We have a greater ability to ensure all the animals basic needs are being met, and we have the resources to make changes as we learn more and more about the animals we love.

There is a growing movement of people concerned about the sustainability of animal agriculture, beef and dairy in particular. Do you have any concerns about sustainability in dairy and/or beef production and how do you think they can be addressed? 

Cows are the ultimate recycler. While they do drink more water and their food sources take up land and water as well, they are using grains that are not usable by humans. They can also take non-protein nitrogen and turn it into protein that we can then use. It’s pretty remarkable. They also take a lot of our byproducts and turn them into milk and beef, items we can use. In California a lot of dairies feed byproducts from almonds, carrots, citrus, soybeans and many more from all the different industries there. The waste that humans can’t use from the foods we grow can be fed to cows and they in turn give milk and meat. Cows’ milk is also the most nutrient dense liquid and compared to other nutritious drinks like soy drink, orange juice, or even wine, it has a much smaller environmental foot print. There is still ongoing research on what more farmers can do to be even more environmentally friendly. For example, some farms are recycling the cow’s manure into a dried bedding that they can use for the cows again. There is actually a lot of really cool technology and research that is in operation daily on these farms!

Could you describe what scenario or reasons would prompt a livestock vet to prescribe antibiotics? From your perspective, does the extent of antibiotic use in animal agriculture present any dangers to humans? 

In regards to antibiotics, think about when a physician prescribes you antibiotics. A pathogenic microbe has flourished in one of your body systems, to the point where you are ill. While we can do a lot to help our bodies fight off these ‘bugs’ (drink those fluids!), these illnesses can become very serious and potentially fatal, and we don’t want it to get to this point. So, once you finally feel yucky enough to go to the physician and they run their diagnostics, they prescribe you an antibiotic that’s going to kill off that bug before the illness gets serious, and so you’re not suffering for too much longer. The same principle applies to animals, and since most of my experience is with dairy cattle, I’ll put it in cow terms. Cows are prey animals, which means they are going to hide any illness or injury for as long as possible to not appear weak to observing predators. So by the time she’s showing clinical signs, she’s really feeling bad (like you finally deciding you feel crappy enough to go to a physician). This is the point where I start worrying about animal suffering. And as herd animals, cows are housed together. When you get sick, all the sudden your whole family is sick. And all the students at a school or university all manage to be sick at the same time, because we all give our bugs to each other. The same thing can happen in any barn, no matter the size. So we’re also concerned about the health and happiness of the rest of the herd. Therefore the usual course of action is to try and figure out what it is , and give our sick cow antibiotics to help her immune system fight whats making her sick and keep it from spreading. One thing to remember is that antibiotics are expensive; we just can’t afford to use them without real purpose. Not giving an animal antibiotics when she needs them is against animal welfare. Too much talk about antibiotics is occurring without thought to the impact on the animal.

There are a lot of numbers thrown around when we talk about antibiotics and antibiotic resistance. There are a few things we have to think about when we looks at these numbers.

1)         They are extrapolations. These numbers are based off of the amount of antibiotics sold. Even in human hospitals, antibiotic use is not well documented. We cannot know whats being used, human or animal, unless we’re tracking it (which is a challenge).

2)        There are WAY more animals than humans. So theres going to be more sick animals. And some of these sick animals are pretty big. Like, 1500lbs big. So that animal (your average Holstein cow) is going to need a larger dose than a 150lbs human. When you factor in the 10x difference in weight and apply it to the almost 90 million cows currently in the US, that’s a lot of animal. And that’s only cattle! This has an effect on that number of antibiotics sold.

3)         We also need to think about density. Theres a reason why hospitals are the biggest producers of antibiotic resistant bacteria; there are a lot of sick people who need antibiotics all in one place.

Antibiotic resistance will be a concern as long as antibiotics are being used ANYWHERE; that’s just how it works. Do we need to be conscientious? Absolutely. Producers are already using less antibiotics (particularly the ones that people often call ‘growth enhancing’) because of better management of our animals through agricultural research. But I don’t consider antibiotic use in animal agriculture the biggest threat to humans by way of resistance by far, despite the scary and misleading, questionably accurate numbers.

Antibiotics in animal products, I’ll cut to the chase; they aren’t there. The products of animals given antibiotics (meat, milk) cannot enter the consumer market within a certain time frame, until the antibiotics have been processed and broken down. There’s a lot that goes into these ‘withdrawal times’, so your steak does not come with a side of penicillin.(we could do a whole blog about antibiotics alone, this is me trying to condense, ha)

In your experience, how do dairy farmers dispose of the cows’ waste? Do you believe there is any room for improvement in this area? 

The excrement in collected typically. In a tie-stall it is in gutter that run out to a pit that is emptied and used as fertilizer at least once a year. In free-stalls there are a couple different ways for it to be collected but it is usually used the same way. Some farms recycle it into bedding solids. Most is used as fertilizer, recycling the nutrients back into the soil to be used by crops.

Are there any common misconceptions that you want to address that you haven’t already?

That animal agriculture is inherently cruel. One of the things we have to remember is that a suffering animal does not produce, whether its milk, meat, you name it. Therefore it is not only emotionally and ethically desirable for us to care for our animals to the best of our abilities, but economically desirable. So it isn’t profitable to be cruel, which I think is the general assumption. Happy cows means happy people means happy business which then in turn leads to the cash flow to keep those cows happy. It’s all circular.

I worry that there is a divide between health/sustainability advocates and farmers. I would think that if/when there are problems in our food system, the best solutions would come from cooperation between all stakeholders. Do you have any ideas about how we can bridge this gap? What do you think is the best way for the public to get accurate information about where their food comes from? 

Farmers are huge proponents of sustainability and health. What they are producing goes on their own dinner table.. I think one of our divides is assuming farmers aren’t concerned. We have to stop pointing fingers and spreading false information on the media. It’s almost daily that I see false information about agriculture spread on facebook. That scares me. I don’t think people outside the industry see all the work that is actively happening to improve sustainability and public health. And I don’t know how to fix it, and I think this is your million dollar question.


Why are we still talking about this?

I have to confess my frustration that the carbs-are-evil vs. fat-is-evil debate is still thriving among scientists, journalists, and the public. I just read a really long article framing scientists that have advocated limiting saturated fat as arrogant liars and those who advocated limiting sugar as scientific method crusaders. Here’s my big question:


Forgive me for suggesting this outrageous notion, but is there not the slightest possibility that saturated fat and added sugar might both be harmful in excess? This concept seems quite obvious to me, but in none of the news articles I have read on this hot-headed controversy has anyone mentioned it.

You know what doesn’t contain saturated fat OR added sugar?

Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes: all foods that, if eaten regularly, are associated with better health and reduced risk of any number of chronic diseases.

Let’s end this debate once and for all: YOU’RE BOTH RIGHT.


Permission to Stuff Your Face

If there is anyone out there who actually reads my posts regularly, I apologize for this long hiatus. I am getting over a rough case of mono, and just haven’t had the wherewithal to write for the last few weeks on top of my schoolwork and other obligations. I have to say, too, that as someone who makes my health such a priority, it has taken a toll on me to feel so out of control of my body as this virus has saddled me with one debilitating symptom after another. Fortunately, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel now, and I might even get back in the gym tomorrow!

Now, it sucks to get mono and other acute illnesses, even for just a few weeks! But a lot of my audience knows that I want to change the way people eat because it will prevent crippling and fatal chronic diseases that afflict more and more people every day.  Actually, to some extent changing the way we eat will prevent infectious disease too.

Throughout my adolescence, I have often thought of healthful eating as limiting the bad stuff. I think this is an attitude that is very common among the health-conscious. Overeating, for many of us, is associated with guilt and shame. Of course, I do feel that highly processed foods and animal products must be limited in order to promote health. As of late, though, I’m coming around to the idea that our diets would actually be more nutritious if we stopped emphasizing what to limit, and told people to eat as much as they can—of the good stuff, that is.

Over my spring break, while I was home sick, I read this great book called How Not to Die by Dr. Michael Greger. It is the most comprehensive review of the scientific evidence about food and health that I’ve come across. Greger addresses the top causes of death in the country, and the foods and behaviors that have been shown to prevent and reverse them. Wonderfully, his conclusions for most of the conditions he covers are very similar: the evidence directs us to eat as many whole plant foods as possible. There is also indication to limit animal products, added sugar, salt, and smoking, but it seems that eating plenty of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables might be more powerful at promoting health than the junk is at detracting from it.

I don’t know about you, but I find that quite liberating. And especially since I’ve become vegan, I do feel free to pile my plate so high with salad that people in the cafeteria gawk at me. I eat as much of those whole foods as I want, I maintain my weight, and I feel great (minus the mono, of course). That’s not to say that I never treat myself to something more indulgent; I definitely do! But I get my fill of fruit and veggies first. As far as I’m concerned, the best thing you can do for your long-term health (not to mention the planet) is to make your default minimally processed plant foods. So EAT UP. DIG IN.


Admitting the Virtues of Processed Food

It is not an exaggeration to say that my beliefs are challenged a greater number of times each week I am at college than throughout my entire preceding childhood and adolescence combined. It can be aggravating and tiring and confusing, but I am profoundly grateful to be fortunate enough to get the kind of education where I am constantly forced to think critically about what I hold to be true both inside and outside the classroom. I never would have started this blog had I not been open-minded to perspectives on the food system that were different from mine.

This past weekend, I was yet again confronted with a view of the food system and public health that I found troubling. This post is my way of trying to reconcile my cognitive dissonance about it, I suppose.

Sunday evening, I went to a charity gala for global public health hosted by some student groups on campus. One of the speakers is a very prominent nutrition researcher at my university. He is also a high-ranking member of a national professional organization of nutrition scientists. I knew of him because he had been a guest lecturer in a few of my classes before, but I had only experienced him teaching about nutrition on a molecular level. I was looking forward to his talk at the gala because the topic was to be about the role of the food supply in public health (a.k.a. my raison d’être).

To frame his presentation, he made a very important distinction between the philosophy of medicine and the philosophy of public health practice: while physicians promise to do no harm, public health advocates aim to minimize risk. From there, he raised a question that is extremely relevant to my interests, and that is: should we expect the food supply to prevent disease? (I bet you can guess my answer to that one.)

To attempt to answer this question, he outlined the trajectory of one of the greatest public health success stories in history—prevention of birth defects by fortifying the food supply with folate. This professor’s area of expertise is folate metabolism and its role in gene expression in healthy and disease states. He explained that there is a significant minority of the population who are extremely vulnerable to a folate deficiency in utero, and need to consume much higher levels of folate (a B vitamin) than the rest of the population in order to prevent paralyzing neural tube defects. By requiring enriched grains (found in white bread, cereal, crackers, etc.) to be fortified with folate, governments are now able to drastically reduce such horrendous outcomes.

This all sounds great, right? And it was, until he essentially said pregnant women could put their children at risk by choosing whole grains (which are not enriched with folate). Many of my readers who know how big a proponent I am of a minimally processed, whole food diet will not be surprised that I found this extremely unsettling. In my mind, I was convinced that the benefits of eating whole grains far outweigh missing out on the added folate in refined grains, especially because I was sure you could get enough folate by eating plenty of dark, leafy greens, and a variety of other whole foods.

I approached the speaker afterwards and ask him if fortification would even be necessary if society shifted away from highly processed foods to more whole foods—after all, the reason food manufacturers started adding vitamins and minerals to white flour in the first place was because of the nutrients lost during processing. To my chagrin, he insisted that for the segment of the population that is vulnerable to folate deficiency in utero, their mothers could eat spinach all day long and never absorb enough folate to prevent neural tube defects; only fortification or supplementation would be sufficient. I have no doubt he’s right; he’s one of the foremost experts on folate and health. He then expressed regret that although there are a lot of benefits to eating whole grains, whole grain flours are not traditionally fortified with folate, because it would interfere with the “natural” image (which is an entirely different conversation).

The whole experience really made me confront the idea that solving our nutritional crisis is not as simple as changing the food environment to favor whole foods. I still firmly believe, of course, that to minimize risk, especially in terms of chronic illness that develops over a lifetime, that favoring whole foods is the way to go. However, favoring whole foods does not mean eliminating processed foods. I have never tried to claim that all forms of food processing are bad. Hell, I would never be able enjoy whole grains at all if it weren’t for processing, let alone bread or pasta. Processes like canning, drying, and freezing are indispensable forms of food preservation. Cooking, grinding, and juicing can make foods more palatable and digestible and make nutrients more absorbable. Pasteurization keeps certain foods safe from contamination by pathogens. Although we should consume sweeteners and salt in moderation, I would never suggest we should get rid of these highly processed additives completely. And, as I’ve come to accept, fortification is sometimes to best way to prevent serious micronutrient deficiencies.

Obviously I did not agree with this particular researcher on everything. But he’s been studying nutrition a lot longer and more in depth than I have, and his commitment to scientific integrity was clear from our ensuing conversation. Truth be told, that’s all I could expect from someone trying to convince me of his point of view. Here’s hoping my peers and my superiors keep pushing me out of my comfort zone.