"Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” -Hippocrates
Collectively as a society, recent times have witnessed an all-time exigency as it relates to our food consumption. As increases in obesity and weight-related diseases continue to skyrocket, we are becoming sicker by the generation. Currently in the US, more than one-third (34.9% or 78.6 million) of adults are obese; with estimated annual medical costs of obesity-related illnesses exceeding $190 billion (Cawley & Meyerhoefer, 2012; Ogden et. al, 2014). Almost overnight this trend has gone from bad to worse.
To glean answers, one must look no further than the current unsavory conditions of our food production systems; from the widespread usage of antibiotics and hormones in meat processing, to the use of herbicides and insecticides in the care of agriculture, to the proliferation of processed, energy-dense foods in supermarkets and retail stores, our once plentiful food supply has become our biggest detriment in terms of overall health. In addition, as modern food systems become more corporatized and less and less people are able to afford healthy options, the problem is only expected to exacerbate.
More importantly, as we continue to learn more about the complex connection between food and disease, new research has uncovered a number of other potential underlying factors connected to poor diet. In particular, one area that has garnered attention lately (predominately within the realm of the alternative medicine community) is the connection between unhealthy eating habits and depression/anxiety. Generally speaking, most people do not associate our worsening food supply with the growing number of mental health diagnoses and psychotropic drug prescriptions being written annually. Particularly in the overmedicated climate that we now live in, prescription medications for patients have become so normalized that we view them as the end-all-be-all for treating symptoms, to the point where we avoid asking pertinent questions such as: their true legitimacy, why they have become so prevalent, and if any alternatives exist. For the majority of society, this correlation is merely coincidental.
However, if we blindly adopt this way of thinking, we are left with a litany of questions. For one, how and why have we become so over-medicated in recent times? If we look back in history only 65 years, the first anti-depressants were not discovered until 1952, and the term “major depressive disorder” was not coined until the mid-1970s (Ramanchandraih et al., 2011). Yet if we fast forward to 2015, almost 1 in 10 Americans are currently taking an antidepressant, with usage rates among teens and adults showing increases by almost 400% between 1988-1994 and 2005-2008 (Pratt et al., 2011). So what happened over that short time period? Have we all of a sudden become more genetically pre-disposed to bouts with depression? Who is to blame for this sudden rise?
Bearing these questions in mind, in today’s post I take an in-depth look at how depression and other anxiety-related diseases have sparked the prescription drug revolution, and look for answers. More specifically, I offer my critique on how depression and anxiety have been constructed through dominant cultural frameworks, as well as examine the relationship that exists between diet and depression-related symptoms. To begin, I examine the dominant western medicine approach as it relates to depression.
[Re]Examining Dominant Ideologies of Depression
In today’s society, depression has become one of the biggest social problems facing us. Nowadays, it is almost impossible to not know someone who is affected by depression or currently taking medication for it. According to the CDC (2012), depression affects over 8% of the US population annually. And the problem is only expected to get worse. As noted by the Reddy (2010), depression is estimated to be the second leading cause of disability worldwide by 2020. As a society, we have become obsessed with the concept of depression, garnering interest whenever our favorite celebrity or athlete is admitted to rehab for depression-like symptoms. To fully understand the cultural impact of depression, look no further than the commercials you see on daytime television, where advertisements for antidepressant drugs have become so commonplace that they are now weaved into the fabric of popular culture. Today everything from golf tournaments, to magazine covers, to various radio shows and podcasts are all sponsored by antidepressant drug companies.
However, while we have cultivated this hyper-awareness towards depression, we never fully investigate why it has become so normalized within society. We never look to understand how we have become so overmedicated and reliant on prescription medications in such as short time. Our approach has always been to adopt western medicine ideology when it comes to issues pertaining to health as an end-all-be-all solution. However, if we are to truly gain insight and properly critique this approach, we first have to take a closer look at how depression has been framed by western medicine over the years.
Western Medicine Approach to Treating/Understanding Depression
For decades, the dominant ideology behind interpreting and diagnosing depression has always been that it was caused by an imbalance of chemicals in the brain (mainly serotonin and norepinephrine). Since the early stages of research, the majority of medical literature examining depression has defined it as a physical disease, one that is located at the biological level, and one that is highly contingent on an individual’s genetic pre-disposition. This theory, informally referenced as the “chemical imbalance” theory, has always asserted that it was supported by “science” and could be proven true through randomized clinical trials. Over the years, as more information became available about how to treat depression, the “chemical imbalance” theory gained traction both within the medical community and mainstream society as a viable explanation for the depression phenomena.
Stemming from this, the past 50 years have witnessed an influx in the number of those diagnosed with depression and anxiety, so much so that an entire industry has been created around our need to diagnose and treat depression. Indeed, as the numbers indicate, our society is becoming more and more medicated, with mood-altering drugs being given out by doctors in record numbers. According to the US Department of Health and Mental Services (2013), “in 2014, expenditures on mental health and substance abuse treatment from all public and private sources exceeded $239 billion, up from $42 billion in 1986 and $121 billion in 2003.” The pharmaceutical industry, in particular, has grown tremendously since the introduction of anti-depressants into the marketplace, as sales of antidepressant drugs now exceed $12 billion annually (Wedge, 2012).
This thriving contemporary market, which has been fueled predominately by direct-to-consumer ad campaigns, has worked to glamorize and normalize the use of prescription medication, and allowed pharmaceutical companies to work in concert with promotion to doctors. The rationale for this sudden influx of diagnoses is based on the claim that anti-depressants (particularly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs) lessen symptoms of depression by restoring serotonin deficiencies in the body (Donohue & Berndt, 2004). As noted by Kresser (2014), “serotonin is widely endorsed as the way to achieve just about every personality trait that is desirable, including self-confidence, creativity, emotional resilience, success, achievement, sociability and high energy.” Over time, these western medicine ideals have become so deeply embedded in our collective consciousness that we have been conditioned to correlate high serotonin levels with good health, to the point where we have become obsessed with the need to “boost serotonin levels.” Benefitting from this, Big Pharma has been able to implement an entire framework around this assumed serotonin deficiency and the “chemical imbalance” theory.
However, while the CI theory has become well established across a number of platforms as a viable explanation for depression, there is a growing amount of research that suggests otherwise. In fact, there are a number of recent studies that argue depression is not a “disease” in itself, so to speak, but rather a “symptom” of a larger issue: that issue being chronic systemic inflammation.
The Link between Depression and Systemic Inflammation
Although we normally don’t define it as such, depression on a base level is an inflammatory condition (this is why all antidepressant drugs are also anti-inflammatory). Dating back to the early 1990s, the link between depression and inflammation was first revealed when scientists made the correlation between patients diagnosed with severe depression and increased blood concentrations of inflammatory biomarkers (Maes, 1995). This foundational study, written by Smith (1991), found that depression is associated with an “acute-phase response,” and that pro-inflammatory cytokines are responsible for this acute-phase reaction which cause various clinical aspects of depression, including drops in sleep and energy, decreased neurotransmitter function and disturbed serotonin metabolism.
Since then, numerous researchers have provided evidence linking the symptoms of depression with inflammation. Scholars such as Dantzer et al., (2008) found that “major depressive disorders” are more prevalent in patients afflicted with conditions that lead to chronic inflammation (such as cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis) than in the general population” (p.4). Pasco et al. (2010) noted similarly that higher levels of systemic inflammation are associated with an increased risk of major depressive disorder. Along these lines, Licinio & Wong (1999) found that pro-inflammatory cytokines associated with depression can manifest in the body from a number of factors, including: stress, sleep, body weight, body temperature and food intake. Conversely, Hannested et al. (2011) found that remission of clinical depression is accompanied by a normalization of inflammatory biomarkers.
Simply put, inflammation is a nasty condition that is no bueno! In fact, many researchers such as Kresser (2014) believe that inflammation is at the root of nearly all modern disease, including diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disease, allergies, asthma, and arthritis. Various studies have supported these claims, indicating just how devastating inflammation can be on the body. So if we are to believe that depression and inflammation are closely connected, then the question we need to be asking is why are we so chronically inflamed? The answer is obviously multi-faceted and hinges upon a number of factors. The simple answer is that our modern Standard American Diet (SAD) and sedentary lifestyle promote a pro-inflammatory environment, but the complex answer is more involved than that.
In an attempt to glean insights, Berk et al. (2013) conducted a comprehensive analysis exploring the role of inflammation and oxidative stress as possible mediators of known environmental risk factors in depression, and found a number of factors which appear to increase the risk for its development, those of which include: “psychosocial stressors, poor diet, physical inactivity, obesity, smoking, altered gut permeability, dental caries, sleep and vitamin D deficiency” (p.1). However, among all of these factors, the majority of research studies have indicated that poor and inadequate diet is the biggest variable in promoting long-term inflammation. This evidence is supported by a recent study by Jacka et al. (2010) which found that a “traditional” dietary pattern characterized by vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, and whole grains is associated with lower odds for major depression, dysthymia and anxiety disorders; while a “western” diet of processed or fried foods, refined grains, sugary products, and beer is associated with higher incidences of these conditions.
Now that we have a better understanding of the root causes of inflammation, we must investigate the role that diet plays in the equation. To do this, we will examine some of the top food-related causes of systemic inflammation.
The Connection between Diet and Systemic Inflammation
Current research examining the relationship between diet and inflammation is robust. The emerging role of chronic inflammation in the major diseases of today’s society has stimulated inquiry into the role that dietary intake and nutrition play in the dynamic. And while research has attributed chronic inflammation to a number of lifestyle factors, the consensus among health and nutrition professionals posits the role of diet as near the top of the list. Therefore, to gain a better awareness of how our food choices wreak havoc on our body, we will break down some of the top food-related causes of inflammation.
In terms of the most widespread cause for inflammation across populations, this is probably the biggest offender. If we understand how the body metabolizes fatty acids, it is easy to see how our modern diet has become a breeding ground for chronic inflammation. When it comes to fatty acids, omega-6 is pro-inflammatory, while omega-3 is neutral. Research has shown that diets rich in omega-6s will promote chronic inflammation (which can lead to heart disease, cancers, arthritis, etc.), while diets rich in omega-3 will reduce inflammation. In essence, omega-3s have the same effect on the body as OTC and prescription NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory) (i.e. aspirin, ibuprofen), although they occur naturally without any of the side effects.
Indeed, research has made the connection between a decreased omega-6/3 ratio and a decrease in chronic diseases. However, in our modern diets, problems such as poor meat quality, over-consumption of fast foods and processed foods and vegetable oils do not allow our bodies to get enough essential fatty acids, while offering an abundance of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids (Whole 9, 2014). As noted by Eaton & Konner (2004), today’s industrialized societies are characterized by 1) an increase in energy intake and decrease in energy expenditure; 2) an increase in saturated fat, omega-6 fatty acids and trans fatty acids, and a decrease in omega-3 fatty acid intake; 3) a decrease in complex carbohydrates and fiber; 4) an increase in cereal grains and a decrease in fruits and vegetables; and 5) a decrease in protein, antioxidants and calcium intake. For long term health, it is essential to maintain healthy omega-6/3 ratios, and many recent research studies reflect this. For example, Smith et al. (2006) found that decreasing omega-6/3 ratios by replacing corn oil with olive oil lead to a 70% decrease in total mortality. *For a more in-depth look at this topic, read my post on omega 3-s, which you can access here.
In addition to omega-6/3 ratios, another root cause for systemic inflammation is food intolerances. Particularly in the highly processed, inhumanely raised, genetically modified food landscape that we now live in, food intolerances have become more problematic than ever before. This is due in part to the increased contamination and infiltration of allergens in our food supply, the most common offenders being: soy, wheat, dairy, corn and gluten. These 5 substances have permeated our food systems and become commonplace in virtually all of our grocery products. For proof of this, just look in your kitchen cupboard, and I guarantee you that 99% of the products in there contain at least one or more of these substances.
The main issue with these substances is that a large portion of the population does not possess the enzymes capable of breaking them down properly. We see this commonly in things such as the breakdown of proteins found in grains (gluten and gliadin), the protein and sugar found in dairy (casein and lactose) and the saponins found in beans/legumes. As noted by Caan (2012), when these undigested particles cross through our intestine into our bloodstream, our body treats it like a foreign invader and sends an immune response, and this response causes inflammation. Because the majority of food now contains these substances, it is safe to say that most people are battling with some manifestation of inflammation.
There are a number of research studies that support the underlying role of food intolerances as a cause for both depression itself and chronic inflammation. For example, Carta et al. (2002) found that adults affected by celiac disease (gluten intolerance) tend to show a higher prevalence of panic disorder and major depressive disorder than those unaffected by the condition. In a similar study, Arigo (2011) found that women with celiac disease face a higher risk for depression that the general population. Moreover, these findings correlate with the recent rise in depression diagnoses, as celiac disease is 4 times more common now than 60 years ago (Mercola, 2012). *For more on food intolerances, read my post on the 5 most common, which you can access here.
Genetically Modified/Engineered Foods (GMO’s)
Along with omega-6/3 ratios and food intolerances, GMO foods are another cause for concern when it comes to chronic inflammation. When we think of the main causes of inflammation, we typically do not associate it with genetically modified crops and seeds; and this is not by accident. Overarching, the biotech industry has been able to craft a sophisticated control system that largely prevents independent research of their products. We know so little about GM foods that it has been a challenge to attach any negative side effects to them, so much so that most of the studies to date have been done on animals. However, the findings from the studies that have been done were not good, linking GM foods to metabolic damage, kidney/liver failure and inflammation. The seminal research study in this area, conducted by Carman et al. (2013) found that pigs fed GM crops had higher rates of severe stomach inflammation that the control group. Overall, inflammation levels were 2.6 times higher in GM-fed pigs than those fed a non-GM diet. In a similar study, GM peas generated an allergic-type inflammatory response when fed to mice (Smith, 2007).
While current research on GM foods and crops is spotty at best, the reason that this is on the list is because of how much of our food is now genetically modified. According to the Non-GMO Project (2015), in North America over 80% of food now contains GMO ingredients. Among this, 93% of U.S. corn, 94% of soybeans and 96% of cotton (cottonseed oil) is genetically modified. Moreover, recent legislation has been passed laws allowing for more GM patents to be approved for farmers. So if any of these preliminary studies are applicable to humans, we are looking at big trouble in the future. *To learn more about GMO’s in our food supply, read my separate post on the topic, which you can view here.
Indigestion (Mineral Deficiency)
Along with out of whack omega-6/3 ratios, indigestion/mineral deficiencies are probably next in line as the biggest culprits when it comes to promoting systemic inflammation. And the reason for this… our modern SAD and lifestyle. In our existing daily lives, things like increased antibiotic and antibacterial medication use, heavy metals (i.e. mercury, lead, arsenic, nickel), chemo/radiotherapy, and even artificial food coloring have all contributed to the destruction of our natural gut bacteria. Resulting from this, most people become unable to digest their food properly. Consequently, indigestion ensues which creates a vicious cycle in the body, one in which we simultaneously become starved for nutrients, while at the same time overfed due to “empty” calories (J. Tavasolian, personal communication May 18, 2015). Because we are unable to digest our food, we become mineral deficient causing our body to go into survival mode, thus promoting a pro-inflammatory environment.
Correlating with this, current research has found that dietary intake or blood levels of individual micronutrients to be inversely associated with certain biomarkers of inflammation (LPI, 2015). When it comes to mineral deficiencies, magnesium is the most common by Americans. Current research suggests that up to 80% of Americans are not getting enough magnesium and may be deficient (Mercola, 2015). Ingesting enough magnesium is essential to our health because it is found in more than 300 different enzymes in the body and plays a role in the body's detoxification processes (Mercola, 2015). Comparably, various studies have illustrated the role that magnesium supplementation can have on reducing systemic inflammation. For example, in a study on middle-aged women, Moslehi et al. (2012) found that magnesium supplementation had a significant inverse correlation with inflammatory biomarkers. In addition to magnesium deficiency, certain vitamin deficiencies have also been shown to positively affect inflammatory responses. In a study by Friso et al. (2001), researchers found that low vitamin B levels was associated with higher levels of inflammatory biomarkers. Similarly, a study by Woolf & Manore (2008) found that low circulating levels of vitamin B6 is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and rheumatoid arthritis, both inflammatory conditions.
I hope that this post was able to inspire dialogue and promote critical thinking as it relates to comprehending and shaping our own individual health narratives. Ever since I started writing this blog, my main motivation has always been to push back against many of our commonly held beliefs and assumptions about health and related policy and see things for what they are. Employing my background in communication studies, I have always been fascinated by the ways in which dominant ideologies and beliefs pervade mainstream consciousness and work to normalize the status quo. Particularly in the health field, issues of power and influence are prevalent across most dominant healthcare frameworks. The majority of public policy and healthcare initiatives are highly determined by entities such as Big Pharma and associated lobbying groups, meaning that when it comes to our individual health, there is a conflict of interest on the part of big business. Thus, as a result, we have to take back health in our own hands. We can no longer trust the word of the government, regulatory agencies and advocacy groups when it comes to our vested health interests.
As it relates to our prescription epidemic, I think if we are honest about the landscape of our collective health, it is easy to see the connection between our increasingly unhealthy diets and the overabundance of prescription drugs being handed out. The “chemical imbalance” discourse promoted by dominant power structures have allowed us to overlook the role that we play in determining our own health outcomes, in doing so stripping us of individual agency. By characterizing symptoms like depression as a “physical” disease that takes place at the biological level, it becomes identified as something that we have no control over, thus rendering us powerless and dependant on antidepressants as the only viable solution.
However, if we are ever to truly get a handle on this epidemic, it has to start with us. We have to start being accountable for our own individual food and lifestyle choices, and not allow Big Pharma to determine our health landscape. Because if we leave it up to them, they want things to remain just the way they are.
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In today’s post, I tackle a topic which I think many of us can relate to: how to eat healthy on a limited budget. Particularly in the economic times of today, spending the money that it takes to eat right has become increasingly more challenging. As unemployment rates continue to rise and people struggle to make ends meet, many families are no longer able to afford healthy food. In addition, the corporatization of our modern food systems have turned food commerce into commodifiable big business, in doing so re-contextualizing the accessibility of “healthy food” into one of exclusivity and privilege.
No longer the cottage industry it once was, the modern food business is now a multi-billion dollar entity. Long gone are the days of being able to walk to your local farmer and get quality, organic produce for pennies on the dollar; or getting milk delivered to your doorstep from the neighborhood milkman that is from hormone-free, grass-fed cows. Nowadays to gain access to such fare, you damn near have to pull a 6-figure income. In our current economic climate, healthy food is no longer an assured staple to all members of society, instead functioning as somewhat of a status symbol for affluence. Collectively as a culture, accessibility to quality and nutritious food has become synonymous with the marker of the “good life.” Specialty food stores like Whole Foods and Sprouts continue to gain popularity in upscale marketplaces as a niche and esoteric commodity, similar to high end designer fashion stores and car dealerships. In today’s society, the reusable cloth Whole Foods bag has replaced the expensive handbag as a way to illustrate your wealth.
But what about those families that are unable to shop at these places or do not have access to healthy, affordable food? Because good food is so expensive, so few are actually able to afford eating right, resulting in the rise in food associated illnesses nationally. As the statistics show, every year the number of obesity and weight-related diseases continue to grow in this country; and a large reason stems from poor and inadequate diet. And in a lot of these cases, the issue is not one of a lack of effort, but lack of necessary resources. In my personal experiences observing as a nutrition and fitness coach, the reasons that I have heard for people unable to lose weight and eat healthier have run the gamut. From a lack of time, to various injuries, to sickness, there always seems to be something; although the majority of the time the issue is never one of commitment, but rather a lack of funds. And while I noticed this predominately with the younger generation, it was not exclusive to this group, as anyone can be affected by economic hardships at some point. Because let’s be real, at the end of the day, life happens… A husband loses his job, a family member becomes sick and is unable to generate income, an unexpected circumstance arises, the list can go on forever.
More importantly, when economic tumult arises, typically the first thing that people neglect is their individual health (i.e. fitness, nutrition). This becomes problematic because when they eat unhealthily and do not exercise, cortisol levels in the body rise, creating systemic inflammation thus making them more stressed out and susceptible to disease and sickness. In the long run, they end paying for it on the back end due to increases in health care/medical costs, lower quality of life, etc. However, by simply making health and nutrition a priority, one does not have to go bankrupt to eat a nutritionally sound diet. In fact, it can be done relatively easy, it just takes some planning and a working knowledge of what to look for.
So with all of that being said, in today’s post I offer a number of different strategies and approaches to eat healthy on a limited income. Drawing from my personal experiences, interviews with other trainers, and researching a number of stores and markets, I have compiled a list that can function as a plan of attack. However, as you take these strategies into consideration, it is important to understand that it may not be possible to purchase everything top dollar (i.e. grass-fed, organic, free-range, etc.). What I am simply doing here is offering the best alternatives for the price to help make the healthiest decisions possible.
*As a ballpark figure, the strategies below are based on a budget I had in my head of $40 or less per person per week in the household.
Food prep is a must: Regardless of individual income or budget, when it comes to eating healthy, food prep is a must. However, it is ESPECIALLY important if you are doing so on a limited budget. Don’t think you are going to be able to eat out every meal and make it work. If you try to subsist on McDonald’s for breakfast, Subway for lunch and Chick-Fil-A for dinner, most likely you will run out of money before the 2nd day. Conversely, buying two-dozen eggs, a pound of blueberries and four avocados will only run you about $12 at Costco (and will last you more than a week’s worth of breakfasts). Along with being more economically efficient, food prep ensures that you get high quality food with every meal and takes the guesswork out of making the right choices, particularly in the face of social pressure.
Personally, when it comes to food prep, I am a huge advocate of buying in bulk: 1. because you can get a lot more for the price and 2. you have the option of storing the unused portion. Places like Costco, Sam’s Club and Food 4 Less carry a lot of high quality meats and veggies, as well as a considerable amount of organic products for relatively cheap. For example, on a $40 budget you can get a 7 lb bag of chicken thighs for around $15, a 3 lb bag of broccoli florets for about $4, and a 25 lb bag of organic brown rice for about $16 (Costco, 2015), saving you leftover money for gas or whatever else you need.
Overarching, the main complaint when it comes to food prep is that it is boring and time consuming…GET OVER IT. The same way that working out is hard and challenging, it still has to be done. Get up an extra hour early or go to bed an extra hour later and prepare your meals for the next day. Really, it is not as bad as it seems. In fact, once you get into a habit of doing it, it becomes routine. The problem is just getting started. So go to Wal-Mart, get your new Tupperware, get your meals in order and get started!
Buy fattier cuts of meat: I know when we typically think of what it means to eat healthy, we have been programmed to envision boneless chicken breasts along with 95% lean ground beef and turkey cuts. However, if you plan to make it on $40/week, get that thinking out of your head (in fact, you should get that thinking out of your head anyway). With 1 lb. of lean chicken breast costing around $6 and extra lean beef around $7-8/lb., buying a week’s worth would take up most of your budget by itself. Instead, use your budget to your advantage. For example, opt for fattier cuts of meat. Things like chicken thighs, “bone-in” meats, and cheaper cuts of red meat and organ meats are all relatively cheap and provide a better nutrient profile than the traditional leaner meats. Also, look for fattier cuts of fish and seafood, as they provide more of the beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than leaner fish.
As current research has illustrated, fat is not the devil that it has been marketed as over the past couple of decades, rather quite the opposite. Additional fat in the diet has been shown to increase weight loss, improve body composition and increase testosterone production in men (Bornstein, 2014). Just be sure that your additional fat consumption comes from “healthy” monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats such as avocados and nuts.
When possible, always buy in bulk: When you are shopping on a budget, whenever possible always try to buy in bulk. Not only does buying in bulk save time and money in the long run, but you have the option of storing/freezing the unused portions, giving you much more than your weekly allowance of food. Another benefit of bulk shopping is that you can find exclusive, high end foods at a fraction of the retail cost. Particularly when it comes to organic produce, most typical warehouse food stores have secured flat-rate deals with their purveyors, allowing them to offer organic products in bulk to their customers at a much cheaper rate than the traditional boutique and mom and pop food outlets. If you are willing to do your research and compare prices, you can come up on some pretty nice discounts at these stores. However, you have to pay attention because certain products have better values than others. Particularly in terms of health food products, things like olive/coconut oil, peanut butter, eggs, meats, frozen fruit and veggies you can get at over 1/2 off of the prices at supermarkets. But other products, such as pre-packaged meats and certain dairy products are not as cost friendly.
Only buy whole foods/refrain from processed foods and snacks: All things considered, when it comes to food shopping, unprocessed foods are typically cheaper and more nutritious than processed foods. Namely because the majority of whole foods come with minimal packaging and marketing frills, so you do not have to pay extra for the added manufacturing costs. More importantly, they also give you complete control of the ingredients. So what do I mean by “whole foods?” Essentially a good rule of thumb to abide by is if the ingredient list is larger than one, you probably do not want to purchase it. An added benefit of this form of shopping is that you do not have to obsess over nutrition labels and package contents (because whole foods typically do not have packaging or a label at all for that matter). An easy way to get more whole foods in your diet is to opt for fruits and veggies for snacks instead of “health bars” and other processed snack foods. Particularly if you buy in-season produce, you can save a good amount of money every week on this alone.
Only drink water (and tea): To get the most out of your food budget plan, try to only purchase food products. Especially if you are working on a budget of $40 or less, spending $4 on a 12-pack of coke or even a couple of dollars on fruit juice will put you in the red quick. Don’t pay for your hydration! By buying juices and soda, not only will you be less satiated, but it is easy to over-do it when consuming them because we typically do not see them as calorically-dense as food products. However, by simply firing all liquid calories out of your diet, you can drastically improve your waistline.
And this is particularly true when it comes to “healthy drinks” (i.e. 100% fruit juice, Jamba Juice etc.). For a lot of people, the common theme is “if I buy 100% juice, it is the same as eating the actual fruit,” while in actuality could not be further from the truth. This is because when fruit is made into juice, it is stripped of all of its fiber, the micronutrient responsible for slowing down digestion. Consequently, the sugar from the fruit goes directly into the bloodstream, offering a surge of energy followed by a glucose crash and inflammation response. Long term, this can lead to type-2 diabetes and other related dietary related illnesses. Furthermore, when it comes to fruit juice consumption, most people drastically underestimate the amount of sugar that they are ingesting. For example, an 8 oz. glass of orange juice contains over 24 grams of sugar, with high fructose corn syrup constituting over half of the sugar content (Walker et al., 2014).
In addition to saving money, drinking more water is one of the best you can preserve your health. Water not only helps with hydration, but also helps energize muscles, improves complexion, maintains your inner eco-system and balance of fluids as well as kidney and bowel function (WebMD, 2008). Moreover, if you do not get enough water, you actually end up spending more on food. This is because when you are dehydrated, your body goes into starvation mode, sending signals to your brain to eat more, when in actuality you just need more water. So start drinking more of it!
Be choosy on the organic products that you purchase: While in a perfect world it would be ideal to buy everything organic, this isn’t a perfect world (after all, we only have $40 for food). Organic meats and produce are typically $2-3 more expensive than their conventionally grown and fed counterparts. According to Sisson (2007), if you must buy organic, animal products like meat and cheese are your best bet. With produce, you typically have more room to mix and match organic and conventional food. As noted by Poliquin (2013), the priority when choosing produce is to search for local, ripe, and seasonal first, adding organic to that list when possible. To help with your decision making, the Environmental Working Group compiled 2 lists pertaining to pesticide levels in crops: The Dirty Dozen, which are the foods most contaminated by pesticides, and “The Clean Fifteen,” which are the least sprayed foods (EWG, 2015).
Limit your meals to the rule of “3”: In an effort to keep things relatively cheap and easy, limit your meals to 3 basic elements: a protein, a fat, and a vegetable. The main building blocks of the Paleolithic diet, this blueprint is calorically dense enough to keep you full, while at the same time simple enough to where you can experiment with different combinations and ingredients. Along with saving you money, this strategy will ensure you are getting your healthy fats, complete proteins and low carbohydrate intake, all while promoting a favorable blood sugar response.
An example of what these meals would look like:
- Avocado oil, eggs, mushrooms/ tomatoes
- Olive oil, beef, broccoli & red/green bell peppers
- Lettuce wrap burgers, egg, avocado/ tomatoes,
- Chicken stir fry, veggies, olive oil
Go to the farmer’s market at the end of the day: If you have access to a local farmer’s market, go about an hour or so before closing to secure the best deals. This is because most of the vendors are looking to get rid of their allotted consignment at all costs, and are more willing to work a bargain with you. Sometimes, farmers discount their produce as much as 20% by the end of the day just to get it sold so they don’t have to take it back to the farm (Nourished Kitchen, 2012). Granted the majority of the best stuff goes first and will already be picked over by the time that you get there, but you can still get some quality produce that will be much cheaper and more nutritious than anything that you can find at the supermarket.
Eat less total calories: It sounds simple, but by limiting your overall calories you save money in the long run. One of the advantages of being on a budget is that you cannot afford to be gluttonous. As long as you are making the right decisions, you can afford to reduce overall calorie intake and not wreak havoc on your metabolism or blood sugar response. This is because by cutting out all processed and sugary foods, your body is not affected by chronic inflammation and you maintain satiation on lower total calorie intake. By simply reducing your daily caloric totals by 250-350, you can save on average about $15-20 a day (T. Scott, personal communication May 7, 2015).
Make eating healthy an experience: As idealistic and hippy as it sounds, try to make eating an experience. Instead of being disappointed by having X amount of dollars to spend on food every week, find a way to be inspired and get excited about the opportunity to experiment with creative and new ways of eating. As the saying goes, “necessity breeds change,” so embrace the chance to try new things. Step out of your comfort zone and try out different ethnic and cultural foods, rare herbs/spices and diverse cuts of meat. Your taste buds will thank you! More importantly, when you make the switch to a more healthy diet, you gain a renewed vigor and zest for life because your body is now properly optimized. Along with increased energy and mental clarity, you become more in-tune with your body; almost assuming a holistic existence by being able to better identify your body’s internal communication signals and are less inclined to be influenced by external stimuli. For some, eating can become a meditative experience. So while you may be burdened with the adverse circumstance of a low budget, use it as a way to re-assess your relationship to eating and the values that you put on food.
I hope that some of these different strategies and approaches were helpful. When it comes to eating healthy, it really is much easier than people make it out to be. Although it can be difficult in the oversaturated and overmediated world that we live to fall prey to false or misleading information regarding nutrition, by adhering to a basic nutrition plan and a "simple is better" mantra, it is relatively easy to eat right even on a limited income. I think that the main problem comes from the emotional connection that we have to food. If we look back to ancient times, food was simply a way to fuel the body. The cavemen, for instance, did not care how something taste, only that it filled them up and fueled their body. In our contemporary society, we have to change our paradigm of thought to view food as fuel for the body, not as therapy or a way to make us feel better. By doing this, not only will we be healthier but also save a ton of money on the processing costs of food. Granted this is made much more difficult by the billions of dollars spent annually on food marketing, it is important to remember that at the end of the day, you have total control over what you put in your mouth. By simply having the awareness and motivation to eat healthy, it can be achieved even on a relatively on low income.
As a society, recent times have not been kind to our collective waistlines. In terms of overall health, we have reached an all-time high in the number of those affected by obesity and diet-related diseases. Currently in the US, 2 out of 3 adults and 1 out of 3 children are overweight or obese (Flegal et al., 2012). From an economic standpoint, we spend annually in upwards of $190 billion treating obesity-related health conditions (Cawley & Meyerhoefer, 2012). Research has shown that obesity rates have more than doubled in adults and children since the 1970s (Ogden et al., 2014). And the problem is expected to only get worse. According to the American Heart Association (2013), if current trends continue, total healthcare costs attributable to obesity could reach $861 to $957 billion by 2030, which would account for 16% to 18% of US health expenditures.
For health experts and policy makers, the million dollar question asks how do we quell this madness? While a number of factors have been addressed as potential causes, there is one main culprit that has single-handedly contributed to the ever-present bulge in our waistlines: SUGAR. As it relates to nutrition, sugar is one of the leading causes of our current obesity epidemic in the US and its namesake has become ubiquitous with poor health. According to the USDA, the average American consumes between 150 to 175 pounds of refined sugar in a year, and those numbers continue to grow annually (Haley & Suarez, 2012).
Along with increased consumption, research has found that sugar is responsible for a litany of health problems. For example, Kotronen & Yki-Järvinen (2008) found that excess sugar consumption can lead to a condition called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which is directly linked to incidences of obesity and diabetes. Another study by Yang et al. (2014) found that diets high in sugar can increase risk of cardiovascular disease even if you are not overweight. Sugar has even been linked to certain cancers (Boyd, 2003; Slattery et al, 1997). Bottom line: the stuff is TOXIC!
Fair enough. Then if sugar is so bad for us, we can just make a concerted effort to eliminate it from our diet, right? Well, it is not that simple. To begin, the stuff is in EVERYTHING! Essentially everything that you buy at the store that is not in its natural form will contain some semblance of processed sugar. Even foods which contain naturally occurring sugar in them, such as fruits, can be bad for us if eaten in abundance. More confusing is the fact that food marketing companies are damn good at hiding sugar in nutrition labeling. It has gotten to the point where you almost need a nutrition degree to go shopping, as even the savviest of health consumers can have a hard time identifying sugar content in products. Thus, in an attempt to bring light into the situation, this blog post will look at everything sugar-related; first identifying what it is, how it functions in our body and how food manufacturers sneak it into products through clever marketing.
What is Sugar?
When we think of sugar, the first thing that usually comes to mind is basic table sugar (sucrose); however there exist many different types of sugars, all of which have different effects on our body. Simply speaking, if the suffix ends with ‘ose,’ it is some form of sugar. From a chemical standpoint, there are two main types of sugars: monosaccharides and disaccharides. Monosaccharides (mono=1), which are also known as “simple” sugars, are the basic unit of carbohydrates. By “simple,” this refers to the fact that they do not require digestion by the body, in turn going directly into the bloodstream to increase blood sugar and provide immediate energy (WH Foods, n.d.). Disaccharides (di=2), which are also known as “complex” sugars, consist of two monosaccharide molecules joined together. By “complex,” this refers to the fact that they require some digestion by the body to be broken down into single sugar units (WH Foods, n.d.). The 3 most common monosaccharides are: glucose (i.e. glycogen), fructose (i.e. fruit sugars) and galactose (i.e. mammal’s milk). Essentially all carbohydrates are created by linking together some form of these 3 “simple” sugar molecules. The 3 most common disaccharides are: sucrose (glucose + fructose; i.e. beet sugar), lactose (glucose+ galactose; i.e. dairy products) and maltose (glucose + glucose; i.e. malt sugar).
In addition to these 2 main types, larger carbohydrate molecules formed from sugars (which include fiber and starches) are known as oligosaccharides and polysaccharides. An oligosaccharide is comprised of 3 to 10 monosaccharide molecules joined together, while a polysaccharide is comprised of many monosaccharide molecules joined together, ranging anywhere from the 100s to 1000s (Walstra et al, 2008). These 2 categories represent some of the more complex carbohydrates such as yams, potatoes and carrots. In terms of overall health, they typically require more digestion to be broken down by the body and elicit a more favorable blood sugar response in comparison to simple sugars.
What are “Good vs. “Bad” Sugars?
When it comes to sugar consumption, it is important to remember that not all sugars are created equal. Our body processes certain sugars differently than others, deeming some essential to our health, and others deleterious (trying to delineate which are which can be confusing). One place where we see this confusion is in determining good vs. bad “simple” sugars. As noted by Busch (n.d.), “all bad sugar is simple sugar, but not all simple sugar is bad. It depends on the source.” For instance, glucose, which is a considered a “simple” sugar, is an important nutrient in our bodies and is healthy as long as it is consumed in moderation (Kresser, 2010). Our blood sugar is made up of glucose, and glycogen (the molecule that stores energy in your muscles and liver) is composed of long chains of glucose (Daniels, n.d.). On the other hand, fructose, another “simple” sugar, which is found predominately in fruits, is another story.
Unlike glucose, which is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream and taken up by the cells, fructose is sent directly to the liver where it is converted to fat (Kresser, 2010). In addition to being linked directly to diabetes and obesity, excess fructose consumption has been shown to elicit a bevy of negative health outcomes, which include: kidney disease, high blood pressure and the damaging of DNA (Gaby, 2005). Moreover, fructose is also the main ingredient in high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a toxic additive which has shown to be one of the leading causes of metabolic disease in this country (Flavin, 2008). According to Hyman (2014), the average American increased their consumption of HFCS (mostly from sugar sweetened drinks and processed food) from zero to over 60 pounds per person per year; at a time in which obesity rates have more than tripled and diabetes incidence has increased more than seven fold. Perhaps not the sole cause, but experts have made correlations between the two.
In general, the more complex oligosaccharides and polysaccharides are viewed as superior sugars. For example, starch, which consists of long chains of glucose, requires heavy digestion by the body, providing a longer, more sustained source of energy (Worden, 2011). Also, because it does not go directly to the bloodstream, there is not the subsequent blood sugar spike which can lead to systemic inflammation and other health issues. Furthermore, there are some sugars that are not digested by the body at all. In point of fact, certain polysaccharides, such as dietary fiber and resistant starch (i.e. green bananas) are bonded in a way that the body cannot break them down. Instead, they are able to filter through the small intestine into the large intestine completely intact. This ability to move through the system to the large intestine helps speed the transit times of wastes excreted from your body, and because of this, fiber helps to support health by reducing constipation and promoting the excretion of toxins and wastes (WH Foods, n.d.).
While we can wax poetic about the biochemistry of sugar all day, the bottom line when it comes to sugar and our health revolves around two main concepts: insulin sensitivity and blood sugar regulation.
Generally speaking, when we consume sugar, our body has two ways of dealing with it: a) burn it as energy, and b) convert it and store it as fat. Depending on individual genetics, some of us are more adept at converting sugar into energy, while others will more likely store it as fat. Essentially, this equates to those with fast metabolisms versus slow ones.
Once sugar enters the bloodstream, the pancreas will detect it and release a hormone called insulin (Kamb, 2014). Insulin allows the body to regulate the level of sugar in the blood. Through a causal relationship, the more sugar that enters the bloodstream, the more insulin will be released. The main goal of insulin is to help take sugar out of the blood and drive it into the liver and muscles where it can be used for energy. Depending on a number of factors, including: type of carbohydrate (simple v. complex), metabolism rate, body fat percentage and glycogen levels in the body, the sugar can either be used as energy or stored as fat. This is where “insulin sensitivity” comes into play.
According to Diabetes.co.uk (2014), insulin sensitivity describes “how sensitive the body is to insulin.” In much the same way that we are able to build up a tolerance to alcohol or caffeine and become less sensitive to their effects, that same principle applies to carb and sugar intake. The more we eat sugar (particularly simple sugars), we become less sensitive to insulin and require more amounts to keep our blood sugar stable. In terms of glucose intake, our body has a limited capacity to store it as glycogen, with the remainder of it being stored as fat. For those with high insulin sensitivity, they are able to eat carbs without a large rise in insulin. Conversely, for those with low insulin sensitivity, they are forced to release more and more insulin in order to keep the blood sugar stable. If this persists for long periods of time, the pancreas will eventually stop producing insulin altogether, resulting in type 2 diabetes. Although there is more than just the risk of diabetes, as insulin resistance carries a multitude of other health concerns, including: thyroid issues, increase in risk of certain cancers as well as increased difficulty in shedding body fat.
However, with all of this being said, there are a number of ways to improve insulin resistance and increase sensitivity. Arguably the biggest way (and it is no secret) is through exercise. According to Sisson (2007), exercise has a major impact on improving insulin sensitivity because muscles burn your stored glycogen as fuel during and after your workout. “Muscles that have been exercised desperately want that glucose inside and will “up regulate” insulin receptors to speed the process.” In terms of a ‘bang for your buck’ protocol, research has shown that a combination of resistance training mixed with high intensity interval training (or HIIT) has been shown to offer the best benefits as it relates to insulin sensitivity (Little & Francois, 2014). This is mainly due to the metabolic benefits from the weight training and the glycogen depletion from the HIIT. Other ways to improve sensitivity include: get more sleep, drink green tea, fast regularly and keep a low body fat percentage (English, 2013).
Blood Sugar Regulation
As we become more familiar with the complexities associated with sugar, it is easy to see how it can cause so much confusion and demoralization when it comes to eating healthy. In general, I think that most people are indeed cognizant of their food choices and make conscious efforts to reduce sugar intake in their diets. We have all heard the sermons: “They check food labels, don’t eat “sweets,” never eat out, but still gain weight!” And for the majority of these people, they are doing almost everything right, but it is the devil in the details that gets them in trouble. I say this because I feel that overarching, when it comes to regulating sugar intake, the most common response from people is to simply eat less of it or remove it from the diet altogether. While this is a good start, it is only ½ of the battle. Taking insulin sensitivity into account, it is not enough to simply remove sugar from our diet; we have to control blood sugar regulation through the manipulation of our food choices and nutrient timing. This is why when we shop, it is not helpful to search for foods with labels that “look” sugar-friendly; such as “made with whole grains,” 100% juice” and “made with real sugar,” as they can be extremely confusing and actually can work to hinder our progress. Here’s why…
To begin, when carbohydrates (particularly simple sugars) are found in whole food, they are also infused with a number of vitamins, minerals and fiber. In these foods, the presence of fiber helps with digestion because it slows down the absorption of sugar, which mitigates the impact of our blood sugar response. Essentially, any natural sugar found in whole food is considered good sugar. However, anytime you add sugar to food during processing or remove the fiber content (i.e. fruit juice), this is considered bad sugar and increases risk of weight gain and obesity-related diseases. This includes the fancy sugars too, such as “organic cane juice,” “agave” or whatever other bullshit that food marketing companies like to slap on labels.
Also, it is important to understand that not all carbohydrates are created equal. For example, a 50g carb serving from a sweet potato will have dramatically different effects on the body than a 50g carb serving of Oreo cookies. With the sweet potato, you will get sustained energy levels and a better hormone response. Conversely, with the Oreo cookies, you will get that sudden spike of insulin followed by the crash, along with other long term effects such as systemic inflammation. Along these same lines, a 50g serving of vegetables will respond different to our body than 50g of “whole wheat.” For example, the glycemic index of carrots has a net load of 35, while whole wheat bread is 71 (Harvard Health, 2015). This is why I am personally not a fan of macronutrient and calorie counting when it comes to longevity and sustainable health choices. For me, the bottom line comes down to food choices. Put simply, if we are able to maintain a sustained blood sugar response throughout the day, our bodies will be better optimized not only physically, but mentally as well.
Additionally, in terms of blood sugar regulation, it is important to consider the timing of sugar uptake. For example, post-workout is the best time ingest simple sugars because they will be shuttled directly into the bloodstream as opposed to being stored as fat. Also, numerous research has shown that back-loading carbohydrates by slowly introducing them throughout will deem a more favorable blood sugar response. In addition to improved mental clarity, increased energy and better appetite control throughout the day, this method has also been shown to positively affect the neurotransmitters dopamine and acetylcholine (Poliquin, 2013).
Food Marketing of Sugar Products: Understanding Ambiguity in Labeling
As our modern food systems become more and more corporatized, food manufacturers are doing what they can to maximize profits. Stemming from this, the business of food marketing has flourished into a billion dollar industry all its own. The influence of food marketing on our purchasing habits is remarkable, as proof by a 2008 study by the Food Marketing Institute, which found that US companies spent a total $715.5 billion in marketing costs. Nowadays, because there is so much at stake in terms of revenue, food marketing has turned into the Wild West as it is impossible to know who to trust. Labeling continues to get more nuanced than ever, as companies try to bait us into purchasing their products. One area where this ambiguity persists is in the labeling of sugar.
When it comes to sugar, food companies love to add it to products; a) because it is extremely cheap to manufacture; and b) it improves the overall taste and marketability of the product. Therefore, for these companies, it is beneficial for them to add as much sugar as possible in their products to maximize revenue. Consequently, companies have started to disguise the sugar in their foods, so you can’t tell how much you are actually consuming.
According to the FDA (2013), food companies are required by law to list their most prominent ingredients first. However, through strategic food marketing, companies often add numerous different types of sugar into their products; and through ambiguous labeling companies can change their names so that sugar is spread across the ingredient list, showing up further down on the label. In fact, this has become so commonplace that companies have come up with 100s of different names for sugar. Here are a handful of them…
For a more complete list, Prevention magazine has a good piece on the different names that are associated with sugar (you can check it out here). Definitely worth checking out…
What do you think? All of this sugar talk is making me hungry. But in all seriousness, sugar is really no joke! It has taken over our modern food system and is showing no signs of letting up. Making things worse is the fact that there is so much strategic confusion out there on the part of these food companies that even someone with the best intentions can still be doomed to fail. And for those that could really care less, it is just a matter of time before they are struck with serious health complications.
And what I find most troubling is the fact that as a society we are not willing to deal with the problem head on. Instead on looking to troubleshoot our obesity problem and living in a preventative state, we always seem to be in a reactive state. For example, as opposed to keeping it real when it comes to our health (i.e. exercising more, researching how to eat better, pushing for legislative measures, etc.) we are ok with going to the doctor, taking a number of meds (blood pressure, insulin, etc.) and going on living our unsustainable lifestyles. Collectively, we have to be more serious and aggressive when it comes to our health. Because at the end of the day, everything will come down to us. If we are unwilling to step up to the plate and demand infrastructural change in terms of more stringent processing guidelines, clearer labeling methods, improved access to healthy options, etc., I guarantee you that these big-business food giants will not do it on our behalf!
So how do we go about shifting this paradigm? For me, the bottom line will always come down to awareness. You really have to think for yourself when it comes to your health and nutrition. We cannot take what food companies tell us (or even the government, for that matter) when it comes to our food at face value, because their vested interest is revenue, not our individual health.
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Historically in the United States, disparities in health across populations have been well documented. Research has shown that certain groups suffer disproportionately from auto-immune and other infectious diseases, such as diabetes, asthma, cancer and cardiovascular disease. The causes of these disparities are wide-ranging and involve a number of variables, including: accessibility of health care, environmental threats (i.e. air pollution), increased risk of disease from occupational exposure as well as underlying genetic, ethnic and familial factors (NIH, 2014). While it would be unfair to try and tackle a topic this big in a single blog post, I do want to shine some light on the subject because I feel that it can present opportunities to engage in dialogue. On a personal level, I am extremely passionate about the issue of health disparities and plan on studying it moving forward. In this post, I take a critical look at health disparities in the US, identifying issues of access, infrastructure, and cultural barriers.
What are Health Disparities?
According to Braveman et al. (2004), health disparities are defined as, “a difference in which disadvantaged social groups such as the poor, racial/ethnic minorities, women and other groups who have persistently experienced social disadvantage or discrimination systematically experience worse health or greater health risks than more advantaged social groups.” Although disparities in health have existed for centuries in this country, they have received increased attention as a legitimate crisis over the past couple of decades. In terms of percentages, while these problems affect people of all walks of life, they are particularly prevalent among racial and ethnic minorities. Indeed, compelling evidence indicates that race and ethnicity correlate with persistent, and often increasing, health disparities among U.S. populations (OMHD, 2007). Evidence of disparities in the U.S. are most pronounced among the African-American and Hispanic communities, respectively, with growing numbers within the American Indian community. Studies have shown that these groups are more likely to live in poverty, have lower levels of education, work in jobs with higher rates of occupational hazards and have a lower median income than Whites and Asians (Mead et al., 2008). These groups are also more susceptible to chronic health conditions.
To begin, these groups are overrepresented among the numbers of uninsured, with Hispanics, for example, representing 13% of the population, but 25% of those without health insurance (U.S. Census, 2013). As noted by Betancourt et al. (2008), “Lack of insurance takes a significant toll on these [minority] populations, with health effects including less access to preventive care than among people with insurance, high rates of emergency department use and avoidable hospitalizations, later-stage diagnosis of cancer, and the inability to obtain prescription medications” (p. 294). Coinciding with this, the difference in disease and illness between minority populations and Whites continues to grow. For example, a 2010 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that adult obesity rates for African-Americans are higher than those for Whites in nearly every state in the nation, with 37% of men and 50% of women, respectively, suffering from obesity (Flegal et al., 2010). In the same study, evidence found that Hispanic women contract cervical cancer at twice the rate of White women. As it relates to diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, African-Americans were shown to possess the highest rates of all populations, with 15% of Blacks nationwide affected by diabetes compared with 8% for Whites (Mainous et al., 2004).
And the problem is only getting worse, as disparities in health and quality of care are not getting smaller. So how do we go about finding solutions? The problem is obviously extremely complex and hinges upon a number of important factors. To start, we have to take a critical look at some of the root causes.
How Disparities are Reinforced through Dominant Discourse
More so now than ever, the issue of health disparities in the United States remains a hot button topic among government policymakers and the mainstream public alike – and with good reason. In 2009, health disparities cost the U.S. economy $82.2 billion in direct health care spending and lost productivity (NUL, 2012). African Americans bore the majority of that cost with $54.9 billion, followed by Hispanics with $22 billion (NUL, 2012). Coinciding with this, the minority population is only expected to grow, with estimates of more than 40% of the U.S. population by 2035 and 47% by 2050. Thus addressing their health needs has become an increasingly visible public policy goal (Brach & Fraserirector, 2000). More importantly, as the gap between the haves and have-nots continues to widen each year, so does the hierarchy in health across populations. In an attempt to alleviate the problem, government involvement and spending on health-related research has increased. In 2012, the US spent $119 billion on health research, which equaled more than double the totals from the previous decade (Chakma et al., 2014). The health crisis has become so significant that political leaders often hinge entire campaigns on their policies towards health (i.e. Obamacare).
Nevertheless, this increased attention among policymakers has resulted in little to no consensus on what can be done and should be done to reduce these disparities, as the issue continues to be a pressing concern for society as a whole. Even more troubling is the fact that the leading health indicators have demonstrated little improvement in disparities over the past decade. In charting government progress, a recent study by the US Department of Health and Human Services found “less than adequate progress toward eliminating health disparities for the majority of objectives among segments of the U.S. population, defined by race/ethnicity, sex, education, income, geographic location, and disability status” (p. 2). Similarly, recent analyses of progress on Healthy People 2020 objectives found that “significant racial and ethnic health disparities continue to permeate the major dimensions of health care, the health care workforce, population health, and data collection and research” (HHS,2011). And while the increase in governmental spending and awareness is acknowledgeable, there remain many underlying frameworks which allow an existing status quo to persist. Examples of this are wide-ranging and include everything from exclusionary issues to concerns with zoning and access.
Infrastructural Concerns: Federal Food Subsidy Programs
In terms of nutritional disparities, one area where inequities become reinforced is through some of our federal food subsidy programs. A pertinent example of this is the availability of organic and local foods for low income families. For instance, the federal supplemental nutrition program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) is a program which provides subsidies for low-income families to purchase nutritious food. The USDA (2014) describes the program as “providing supplemental foods designed to safeguard the health of low-income women, infants, and children up to age 5 who are at nutrition risk by providing nutritious foods to supplement diets, information on healthy eating, and referrals to health care.” The federal program, which is overrepresented by racial and ethnic minorities (the African-American and Hispanic demographic combined participation in the program is 58%) establishes minimum nutritional guidelines for states to follow, and individual states then determine specifically what is excluded (Doherty, 2006). The acceptable foods include items such as: juice, cereal, eggs, cheese, milk, peanut butter, beans, infant formula, tuna, and carrots. The problem with many of these state-run programs is that they completely exclude organic foods from being purchased. In fact, there are currently 31 states that explicitly say no to all organic foods, with 13 states (including California) that exclude certain foods (such as eggs and milk).
Similarly, the current WIC framework enforces many of the same restrictions as it pertains to farmer’s markets, as only about 58% of states currently participate in the WIC Farmer’s Market Nutrition Program (FMNP), and only 21 states currently authorize farmers to accept WIC cash value vouchers (USDA, 2014). Although it is not only the WIC program that has implemented these restrictions, as the current federal EBT and food stamp program also have very limited participation in farmer’s markets, mainly due to cost considerations and lack of technical infrastructure (Doherty, 2006).
This is not say that these programs are not effective or do not provide great benefit to those that need it, but without the option of being able to purchase organic or locally grown food, lower income families are forced to comply to a list of products laden with pesticides, unknown growth hormones, added sugars, artificial sweeteners, and GMO-ingredients, further contributing to the proliferation of health disparities nationally. In addition, on a broader scale, the food processing methods by which these products are made are unsustainable for future generations.
Accessibility Concerns: Food Insecurity
Another pressing concern in the incidence of health disparities nationally is the issue of food insecurity and availability. According to Andersen (1990), food insecurity refers to the “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” Also referred to as “food deserts” by academics, policy makers and community groups alike, many lower income and underserved communities in the U.S. (particularly populated urban areas) do not have access to an affordable and healthy diet (Cummins & Macintyre, 2006).
The primary concern with food deserts is that members of these communities (which are predominately comprised of racial/ethnic minorities) do not have access to supermarkets, grocery stores, or other retailers that offer foods needed for a healthy diet (i.e., fresh fruit, veggies, whole grains, dairy. etc.), or do not have adequate transportation to get there. Instead, residents of these areas become reliant on small grocery stores or convenience stores which offer more limited varieties and carry fewer fruits and veggies (USDA, 2009). More importantly, the foods that are carried by these smaller retailers often have higher sugar and sodium content, not to mention highly processed and genetically modified. The end result is that these communities suffer from an inadequate diet, thus reinforcing the prevalence of disparities, particularly among minority groups.
Indeed, interest in the relationship of food access to diet and health is rooted in an extensive body of literature that shows disparities in many health outcomes across race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status (Institute of Medicine, 2003; National Research Council, 2004; USDA, 2009). Along these lines, research has shown that limited access to nutritious food and relatively easier access to less nutritious food may be linked to poor diets and, ultimately, to obesity and diet-related diseases. For example, a study by Larson et al. (2009) found that better access to a supermarket is associated with reduced risk of obesity and better access to convenience stores is associated with increased risk of obesity. Similarly, a study by Currie et al. (2009) found a connection between school-level obesity rates among 9th graders in California and relative distance between the school and fast food and full-service restaurants.
In examining the larger implications of food deserts, while perhaps the largest contributor is disparity in socio-economic status, a closer analysis uncovers bigger concerns of power and privilege. More specifically in terms of zoning and regulation, dominant health discourses allow inequalities to persist by maintaining control of the geographical spaces of food system infrastructures. As these spaces are strategically placed, and tend to cater to a specific consumer base, dominant frameworks become reflected not only by the people who frequent them, but also along the lines of the cultural codings that are performed within these spaces.
Exclusionary Concerns: Disparities in Healthcare
Collectively, as we continue to gain understanding into the root causes of health disparities, we recognize just how complex of an issue it is. The problem is indeed multi-factorial, and solutions must be adopted both at the federal and local levels. However, one area where I think we drop the ball as a society is dismissing disparities in health as simply a socio-economic problem. Particularly as it relates to health care, while it is commonly believed that health disparities occur simply because of a lack of health insurance and access to health care, disparities in quality of care for those with access to the healthcare system are equally troubling. In fact, there is a growing amount of research that shows evidence of racial/ethnic disparities in quality of care for those with access to health care. A recent Institute of Medicine report titled Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Health Care found over 175 studies illustrating racial and ethnic health disparities in the diagnosis and treatment of various conditions, even when analyses were controlled for socioeconomic status, insurance status, site of care, stage of disease, comorbidity, and age, among other causes (IOM, 2002; Betancourt et al., 2003). This issue has required researchers to seek out other potential factors, and one area of inquiry that has gained a good amount of attention recently is the role that the patient-practitioner relationship plays in reinforcing health disparities.
Particularly as it relates to intercultural health, as the U.S. continues to grow in terms of diversity, there continue to be an increase in patients with a wide range of perspectives regarding health, often influenced by their social or cultural backgrounds (Betancourt et al., 2005). According to a number of studies, one particular area in the context of healthcare; patient-practitioner communication; has been hypothesized as a mechanism for racial/ethnic health disparities. There is a good amount of research on this topic alone. In fact, a large majority of research in the health communication field is dedicated specifically to the study of “cultural competency” within healthcare contexts. As it relates to the connection between culture and health, numerous studies have shown that disparities can manifest themselves in many different ways.
One instance where this plays out is in the power dynamics that exist between healthcare provider and patient. For example, in many health care settings, clinicians may intentionally or unintentionally reflect and reinforce dominant societal messages regarding value, self-reliance, competence, and deservingness (Roter, 2000). In addition, as noted by van Ryn & Fu (2003), providers may unknowingly communicate lower expectations for patients in disadvantaged social positions (i.e. race/ethnicity, income, education, class, etc.) than for their more advantaged counterparts. This is problematic because not only can it influence patients’ expectations for the future, but also the extent to which they expect to gain the resources and help that they need.
Similarly along these lines, there is the issue of language barriers. For instance, patients with certain ethnic backgrounds may present their symptoms differently from the way they are presented in medical textbooks (Betancourt et al., 2005). In many instances, these patients may have limited English proficiency, different pathways for seeking care, and unfamiliar beliefs that influence whether or not they adhere to provider recommendations (Berger, 1998). Consequently, as issues of access continue to persist, this remains a major problem in our national healthcare system. According to a study by Bailey (2009), health care providers nationally cite language difficulties and inadequate funding of language services to be major barriers to access to health care for limited English proficiency individuals and a serious threat to the quality of care they receive. As it relates to overall quality of care, research has shown that patient-practitioner communication is linked to patient satisfaction and adherence to medical instructions and health outcomes (Stewart et al., 1999). Accordingly, if socio-cultural differences are not addressed, poorer health outcomes will continue to persist.
The overall purpose of this post was to inspire dialogue as it relates to understanding disparities. I understand how important delving into a topic like this is and do not go into it lightly. While the issue is extremely complex and there are many sides to which people’s opinions may fall, I think that it is always important to get topics like these on the table. For me personally, I have found that writing on issues such as these to be very eye-opening, in that it has allowed me to be made aware of my space as it relates to privilege, access etc. By striving for this sense of self-awareness, it has allowed me to better understand the implications of my voice, actions and ideas.
In terms of the issue itself, where do we start? I think to begin we have to cultivate this sense of awareness not only as it relates to ourselves, but also how it relates to our understanding of dominant health frameworks. While on the surface, many of these issues appear benign and unassuming; it is important to remember that it is these very nuances that underpin the existence and propagation of disparities. On a broader level, collectively we have to continue to push for systemic change, as the elimination of health disparities would benefit all members of society, not only from an ethical and moral standpoint, but economically as well. In a 2009 report from the Urban Institute, research found that by simply addressing racial and ethnic health disparities, overall national health care costs could be reduced by nearly $24 billion per year, including $15.6 billion in the Medicare program alone (Waidmann, 2009). Definitely some food for thought!
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In today’s post, I take an in-depth look at the topic of omega-3 fatty acids to gain a better understanding of their purpose and their role in human health. With the recent rise in the amount of cardiovascular and auto-immune diseases in this country, we have reached an exigency in terms of our overall well-being. Statistics show that over 50 million Americans suffer from some type of autoimmune disease, with annual health care costs exceeding $100 billion (AARDA, 2014). And while experts point to a number of potential causes, there is a good amount of research that specifically connects these increases with a rise in the omega-6/3 ratios of our modern diet. Coinciding with this, the popularity of omega-3 supplements and discourse has seen a rapid increase both within mainstream culture and health-savvy circles. In fact, a 2009 Nielsen report found that sales of omega-3 products showed a 42% growth from previous years (Nielsen, 2010). Nowadays, it has become damn near impossible to go to the grocery store or vitamin store without seeing some sort of fish oil or flaxseed promotion. Especially during this time in the new year, as people try their best to turn over a new leaf in terms of losing weight and eating healthy, will flock to the store to buy their daily multi’s and fish oil. But while we have been programmed to buy these products, I think many of us are still in the dark as far as understanding their true usefulness. So my goal in writing this post is to create awareness and bring a bigger picture perspective as it relates to our dietary choices. Let’s get it crackin…
What are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Simply speaking, omega-3s are a type of fat that are found in foods. From a chemical standpoint, omega-3 fats are defined as polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) because they have more than one unsaturated carbon bond in the molecule, also known as a double bond (poly=multiple). There are 2 main types of PUFAs: omega-3s and omega-6s. These fats are considered “essential fatty acids” (EFA’s) because as mammals we cannot produce them and must get them from diet and supplements (Simopoulos, 1991). While omega-6s are inherently bad for us, omega-3s have been shown to elicit many health benefits. In human physiology, there are 2 different types of omega-3 fatty acids: ALA (alpha-linoleic acid), and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid)/ DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). ALA is comprised of short chain fatty acids, and found predominately in plant sources, including: the green leaves of plants, grass, flaxseed, and a number of plant-based oils (i.e. canola, soy). EPA/DHA are comprised of long chain fatty acids, and are found in the fatty layers of cold-water fish and shellfish, marine algae, meat, eggs and various dairy products (Whole 9, 2014).
While both types are essential to human health, ALA omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to have less potent anti-inflammatory benefits than EPA and DHA. In addition, research has also found that while the human body can convert ALA to EPA and DHA, the conversion is extremely limited, with less than 5% of ALA getting converted to EPA, and less than 0.5% of ALA converted to DHA, making EPA and DHA a superior source of omega-3 (Kresser, 2011). The way the conversion works in the human body is ALA from plants is converted by animals or fish to EPA and DHA. The ALA itself is not actually anti-inflammatory, as fish (and to a much lesser degree, land animals) do the metabolic work to convert the plant-based ALA into concentrated EPA and DHA (Whole 9, 2014). This is why it is so important to get our omega-3s from sources like fish and seafood, and explains why most vegans have low omega-3 intakes and blood levels.
Why are Omega-3s Important in Our Diets?
In recent times, health discourse pertaining to omega-3s has gained a good amount of mainstream attention. The combination of nutrition experts’ collective “thumbs up” regarding the purported heart and cardiovascular benefits, along with a rise in our society’s interest in health have all of us running to the nearest Costco or Vitamin Shoppe to pick up our monthly supply of fish oil. Indeed, recent trends have marked an increase in the amount of omega-3 supplement products (fish oil, krill oil, flaxseed, etc.) in the marketplace. However, this influx raises the larger question of why is there a sudden need for more omega-3 supplementation in our diet? What has changed that we cannot get enough omega-3 from food alone? To get a better understanding, we have to look back and consult our past.
If we trace our history back 200 years ago to before the industrial revolution, our diet was much different. Back then there were no processed foods and things were eaten in their natural state. On top of that, the foods that we consumed were also eating what they were designed to eat. Farmers did not have to delineate grass-fed beef, pastured eggs and wild caught fish from conventional farming methods because that’s all that was around; and as a result foods had a larger abundance of omega-3 fatty acids. Unfortunately, as time has gone on we have not followed the same dietary blueprint. Due to things like poor meat quality, over-consumption of fast foods, processed foods and vegetable oils, most of our modern diets are lacking in these essential fatty acids (and overly rich in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids) (Whole 9, 2014). As noted by Eaton & Konner (2004), today’s industrialized societies are characterized by 1) an increase in energy intake and decrease in energy expenditure; 2) an increase in saturated fat, omega-6 fatty acids and trans fatty acids, and a decrease in omega-3 fatty acid intake; 3) a decrease in complex carbohydrates and fiber; 4) an increase in cereal grains and a decrease in fruits and vegetables; and 5) a decrease in protein, antioxidants and calcium intake.
In terms of omega-3 consumption, anthropological research has found that our hunter gatherer ancestors consumed omega-6 and omega-3 fats in a ratio of roughly 1:1 (Kresser, 2011). It also indicates that both ancient and modern-hunter gatherers were free of the modern inflammatory diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease which are the leading causes of death today (Simopoulos, 2008). In today’s Western diets, omega-6/3 ratios are way out of whack, skyrocketing up to 25:1 in some cases. According to Kresser (2011), this change is due predominately to both the advent of the modern vegetable oil industry and the increased use of cereal grains as feed for domestic livestock (which in turn altered the fatty acid profile of meat that we consumed).
The reason why these ratios are problematic is that they increase the amount of systemic inflammation in the body. In humans, omega-6 is pro-inflammatory, while omega-3 is neutral. Diets that are rich in omega-6s will promote chronic inflammation (which can lead to heart disease, cancers, arthritis, etc.), while diets rich in omega-3 will reduce inflammation. Essentially omega-3s have the same effect on the body as OTC and prescription NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory) (i.e. aspirin, ibuprofen), although they occur naturally without any of the side effects. Indeed, research has made the connection between a decreased omega-6/3 ratio and a decrease in chronic diseases. Among others, a study by Smith et al. (2006) found that decreasing omega-6/3 ratios by replacing corn oil with olive oil lead to a 70% decrease in total mortality.
Health Benefits of Omega-3s
Along with functioning as a natural anti-inflammatory, there is good evidence that points to a number of other health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. For example, the American Heart Association found evidence from randomized control trials that omega-3 fatty acids have beneficial effects on cardiovascular disease (Kris-Etherton et al., 2002). In addition, omega-3s, particularly EPA and DHA, have shown to lower the levels of bad cholesterol (LDL) and increase good cholesterol (HDL). Similar research suggests that EPA and DHA from supplements of food sources can reduce triglyceride levels (NIH, 2014).
In addition to heart health benefits, omega-3 supplementation has recently been popularized as a weight loss aid. Researchers in South Australia found that taking a daily dose of omega-3 enriched fish oil combined with regular exercise provides significantly greater benefits in the fight against obesity than exercise or fish oil alone (UNISA, 2009).The study found that omega-3 fats in fish oil have the ability to switch on enzymes specifically involved in oxidizing or burning of fat, but they need to be fueled by exercise to increase the metabolic rate in order to lower body fat.
Omega-3s also have the potential to help with anxiety and depression. A study by Calabrese et al (1999) found that fish oil could aid in mood stabilization and the treatment of bipolar disorders. Comparably, a study by Nemetz et al. (2002) noted significantly lower levels of omega-3s in the red blood cell membranes of patients with depression. In this same vein, research conducted on prisoners found that those who had been convicted of violent crimes had lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids than ordinary, healthy subjects, and researchers attributed this to omega-3's ability to foster the growth of neurons in the brain's frontal cortex, the bit of gray matter that controls impulsive behavior (Mihm, 2006).
Furthermore, studies have shown that regular consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3s can boost your immune system to help fight off common diseases like colds, coughs and the flu. A 2013 study in the Journal of Leukocyte Biology found that DHA-rich fish oil enhances white blood cell activity in mice (FASEB, 2013). Other potential benefits to omega-3s are wide-ranging, and include: high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, schizophrenia, ADHD, acne, asthma as well as some cancers.
Dietary Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
In view of the amount of pro-inflammatory omega-6s that have infiltrated our modern diet, luckily there are a number of dietary sources where we can get quality omega-3s, particularly EPA and DHA. Along with supplements, there are a number of foods that provide great sources. For the majority of people that keep their diet in check, getting omega-3s in the diet is not actually that big of a challenge. I think the bigger concern for most of us is limiting the amount of omega-6s we consume and keeping that ratio as close to 1:1 as possible. In terms of a daily recommended allowance, there is no standard recommendation for how many omega-3s we need, however suggestions range from 500 to 1,000 milligrams (mg) daily (WebMD, 2014).
Some good sources of foods containing omega-3s include: grass-fed beef, wild rice, walnuts, flaxseed, wild-caught fish and seafood and pasture raised eggs. To give a context, you can find more than 500 mg in a can of tuna or a few ounces of salmon. Also check food labels because some fortified foods offer 100 mg or more (but be careful because many packaged foods are highly processed, resulting in the omega-3 content being neutralized). As far as supplements, there are a number of products currently on the market, including: fish oil, krill oil, calamari oil, flaxseed oil and kiwifruit seed oil. Just remember, as mentioned earlier, omega-3s obtained from meat and dairy sources are superior to plant sources. Particularly as it relates to EPA and DHA, it’s best to look for omega-3 sources that are meat (or seafood) based.
Ambiguity in Omega-3 Food Labeling Claims/ FDA Ruling
As the popularity of omega-3 products continues to grow, they are becoming more sought after in the marketplace. As consumers continue to make a conscious effort to include omega-3s in their diet, they are actively seeking and willing to spend more on these products. However, as demand increases, so does competition among food companies to get our discretionary dollars. In an attempt to entice us to buy their products, food companies come up with clever ways to market the purported health benefits of their foods. Particularly in terms of labeling, claims of omega-3 content and benefits in products can be highly ambiguous and misleading. In fact, many of the foods making claims have little or no omega-3s, and reading labels can become dicey when trying to figure out how much or which omega-3 fat the foods contain. For proof of this, look no further than your local grocery store, where nowadays everything from bread to mayonnaise to eggs make claims of quality omega-3 content. Because of this, institutions such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) demand consumers to adopt a critical eye and be wary of these claims. They point to a number of examples in which the labels were misleading:
In addition, there is the issue of fortified foods. To begin, the majority of fortified foods, such as bread and cereal are infused with ALA, which as mentioned earlier does not offer the same heart health benefits as EPA and DHA. Also, because they are packaged, they are highly processed and contain high amounts of omega-6 to begin with, so any fortified omega-3 is negligible. It has gotten to the point where you almost need a nutrition degree to go shopping!
But luckily for us, the FDA has stepped in enforced guidelines in terms of omega-3 content regulation. Their “final rule” prohibits certain nutrient content claims for foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids ALA, EPA and DHA. According to the FDA (2014), the final rule prohibits statements on the labels of food products, including dietary supplements, that claim the products are “high in” DHA or EPA, and synonyms such as “rich in” and “excellent source of.” The final rule similarly prohibits some such claims for ALA. Under the Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act, nutrient content claims such as “high in” are allowed only for nutrients for which a reference level to which the claim refers has been set. While the FDA does not have currently established nutrient levels that can serve as the basis for nutrient content claims for DHA, EPA, or ALA, they allow authoritative statements published by certain types of scientific bodies, such as the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies (IOM). This “final rule” for foods and supplements takes effect January 1, 2016, and food companies will be given up to a year to update all applicable labels.
Wow, I know that was a lot! How do you think I felt writing it all? All joking aside, I think this topic is extremely relevant today and important to talk about. Especially now, with the rise in nutrition-related diseases and illnesses, there is a lot to uncover as a consumer. What’s scarier is if you look at the way the modern food industry is set up, unless you are making an extremely diligent effort to keep your omega 6/3 ratios in check, it’s almost impossible to do so. On top of that, the conflicts of interest that persist between our health and big business have us set up to fail. With everything ranging from corporate giant’s emphasis on cheaper farming methods to the multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry, our ratios are more out of whack than ever before.
So what can we do? I think collectively we have to be more aggressive in terms of researching our own health. We have to assume the worst when it comes to what we are being told by big pharma and the government, and find out things for ourselves. I think a good start would be to eat foods in their natural state. The closer to nature our food is grown and prepared, the less inflammatory it will be on our system. In terms of supplementation, there really is no magic number when it comes to omega-3s because everyone’s body and diet is different. However, based on my personal research and experiences, I always say it’s never a bad idea to supplement with fish oil. A good rule of thumb is to take up to 3000mg per day until you have established balanced ratios in your body. But what is important to note here is when we talk about mg, we are not looking for absolute totals, we are looking for the total sum of EPA/DHA. So for example, if you buy a fish oil supp with 400mg of EPA and 300mg of DHA, the net total will be 700mg, not what it says on the bottle.
I hope this post fostered some new insights and takeaways! Feel free to leave a comment or hit me up on Facebook. Let’s start the dialogue!
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In modern culture, the term “GMO” has reached almost a trendy status both among health-conscious circles and the general public alike. As health and fitness have become more mainstream, people are beginning to take more of an aggressive approach to their health and pay more attention into what they put into their body. Coinciding with this, there has been a recent influx in the number of grassroots movements (i.e. Non-GMO Project, Buy Local) and social media advocacy campaigns to fight GMO in our food supply, which has contributed to an increased awareness. In fact, according to a report from the Natural Marketing Institute (2014), consumer awareness of the term “genetically modified organisms” has increased from 42% in 2012 to 54% in 2013, while awareness of the term “genetically modified food” increased from 61% in 2012 to 69% in 2013. Consequently, in response to this wave of awareness, we are seeing an increase in the number of GMO-free and non-GMO products being introduced in the marketplace. According to the same NMI (2014) report, the number of new GMO-free products in the market grew 145%, from 551 in 2012 to 1350 in 2013.
However, while awareness continues to grow, the percentage of GMO strains in our food supply continues to go unchecked. Indeed, while we continue to see an increase in the amount of activism and advocacy against genetically-engineered foods, the federal government has largely given GMO food companies a pass in terms of regulation. As it stands today, there is no federal requirement for labeling food that contains GM ingredients. But is it all bad? As consumers, we tend to view this “GMO trend” almost unanimously in a bad light. Along with the strong undercurrent of the unknown when it comes to the scope of GMO’s, the overall lack of studies regarding long-term health effects has inspired fear in all of us. In an attempt to quell some of the uncertainty and ambiguity, I scanned numerous scholarly journals and research databases to produce a review of existing GMO literature in hopes of gleaning insights. Here is what I found…
What are GMOs?
According to the World Health Organization (2014), genetically modified organisms (or GMOs) are defined as, “organisms (i.e. plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.” The technology, which is also referred to as “gene technology,” “modern biotechnology,” and “genetic engineering” among others, allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, and also between nonrelated species (WHO, 2014).The use of this technology allows farmers to enhance desired traits in their crops, such as improved nutritional content and an increased resistance to herbicides. In the past, this enhancement has traditionally been undertaken through breeding; however, while conventional plant breeding methods are very time consuming and are often not very accurate, genetic engineering can create plants with the exact desired trait very rapidly and with great accuracy (Whitman, 2000).
A Brief History
While discourse pertaining to GMOs has become commonplace in our contemporary lexicon, it can be easy to forget that as a technology, it is relatively new. While the genetic manipulation of foods can be traced back thousands of years, the modern phenomenon of GMOs and transgenic plants stems back only about 40 years to the very beginnings of recombinant (man-made) DNA research (rDNA), where it was discovered in 1973 by Dr. Herbert Boyer at Stanford University; although momentum really began in the 1980s, when scientists discovered that DNA could be transferred from one organism to another. In 1982, the FDA approved the first GMO, an artificial form of insulin called Humulin, made from gene-splicing techniques. The following year in 1983, scientists created the first transgenic plant, a tobacco plant that was resistant to antibiotics. The following decade in 1994 marked the first GMO product to hit grocery store shelves: the Flavr Savr, a GMO tomato that possessed a longer shelf life than conventional tomatoes (Bruening & Lyons, 2000). The following year in 1995, biotech company Monsanto introduced herbicide-resistant crop seeds known as “Roundup Ready.” Fast-forward only 4 years to 1999, and over 100 million acres worldwide are planted with genetically engineered seeds (Woosley, 2013). In 2003, GMO-resistant insects began to appear, when a moth is found eating GMO cotton crops in the southern US, forcing farmers to double up on their amount of pesticide use (Storer et al., 2003). And 3 years ago in 2011, doctors discover bt toxins (a naturally occurring bacterium that produces crystal proteins that are lethal to insect larvae) in the blood of pregnant women, showing evidence that the toxin can be passed to human fetuses (Aris & LeBlanc, 2011).
Why are GMOs being used?
As it stands today, the utilization of biotechnology in agriculture remains a highly polarizing and divisive issue among the general public. While we tend to only hear about the negative aspects, there are a number of supporters who propagate the potential benefits, and there is a good amount of scholarship on this topic alone. In addressing the purported benefits, scholars such as Bakshi (2003) argue that biotechnology is crucial “to resolving the problems of food availability, poverty reduction, malnutrition and environmental conservation in the developing world, as it does not benefit just the farmers who grow crops, but also the consumers who eat genetically modified food” (p. 211). Young (1999) notes similarly that foods produced through the use of biotechnology are more nutritious, stable in storage, and promote better health in humans in both industrialized and developing nations. Along these lines, Nap et al. (2003) found that genetically modified crops have the fastest adoption rate of any new technology in global agriculture simply because farmers benefit directly from higher yields and lowered production costs.
For the consumer, arguably the greatest benefit of GMO crop production is its potential to contribute to a more adequate and better quality food supply. By genetically engineering food to contain additional vitamins and minerals, nutrient deficiencies can be mitigated, in turn helping to reduce health disparities. For example, in many third world countries, blindness due to vitamin A deficiency is a major problem. In fact, every year approximately 350,000 people go blind due to lack of food (Nash, 2000). To help combat this, Beyer et al (2002) were able to create a strain of “golden” rice which contained large amounts of beta-carotene (vitamin A), and through the use of non-profits and charity organizations were able to offer the modified rice to any developing country that requested it. Pro- GMO advocates argue that a similar paradigm on a larger scale could benefit millions of others in terms of solving the issue of food insecurity and malnutrition.
Other proponents of biotechnology in agriculture point to its ability to accelerate the efficiency and extent of crop improvement by the transfer of genes giving resistance to pests, diseases, herbicides and environmental stress (Nap et al, 2003). Historically, agriculture has suffered from disease and pest infestation since its inception, causing large losses in food production. As Whitman (2000) notes, these losses can be staggering, resulting in devastating financial loss for farmers and starvation in developing countries. And while the majority of consumers are against the spraying of pesticides because of their inherent health risks and run-off potential, by engineering transgenic, pest-protected crops, farmers can eliminate the use of chemical pesticides, and in turn, reduce overhead costs.
In addition to creating herb/pesticide resistant crops, the use of genetic engineering can also aid in allowing crops to withstand environmental factors, such as drought and poor soil conditions (Bakshi, 2003). As our population continues to rise and more and more farming land is becoming occupied, farmers are being forced to grow crops in areas previously deemed unsuitable for agriculture. However, by being able to alter the genetic makeup of plants to withstand long periods of drought, extreme climate change and/ or high salinity content in the soil, farmers are now able to grow crops virtually everywhere.
What are some of the risks?
Despite the numerous potential benefits to be had from genetically modified crops into the food supply, there are a number of concerns about potential risks associated with this new agricultural technology, specifically in terms of environmental and food safety. These concerns have become so great that some experts question whether or not the movement can remain sustainable at this level. Among these concerns, arguably the biggest one stems from the potential health risks associated with GM crop production, as there remains a collective uneasiness in terms of lasting implications.
To begin, there is a large amount of unpredictability when it comes to genetic engineering. According to Conner & Jacobs (1999), scientists hold serious concern about the after effects of GM crops, particularly as it relates to the altering of our gene expression. As noted by Sayanova et al. (1997), genetically engineered foods may lead to disruption of metabolism in unpredictable ways, including the development of new toxic compounds in the body or an increase in already existing ones. When genes are inserted at random in the DNA, their location can influence their function, as well as the function of natural genes, and “insertion mutations” can scramble, delete or relocate the genetic code near the insertion site (IRT, 2014). Even worse, scientists estimate that GM crops are capable of creating 100s or 1000s of these “mutations” throughout the genome, and due to the overall lack of published studies, scientists are mostly unaware to the extent of their effects. In a nutshell, that means that this technology has the ability to literally re-write our genetic code!
Alongside the unpredictability concerns of GM crops, research has found that foods that have been genetically modified pose numerous threats of auto-immune diseases. For example, scientists have found foods that have been genetically altered through the addition of a gene can sometimes have an increase in anti-nutrients (natural or synthetic compounds that hinder the absorption of minerals). These compounds, which include phytoestrogens, phytic acid and glucinins, have been shown to cause infertility problems in sheep and cattle (Liener, 1994). This is particularly troubling when you consider that almost 90% of corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. are altered in this way. The most common example of this “gene addition” is the Monsanto-created genetically engineered crop plants that are resistant to herbicides. Also referred to as “Roundup Ready” crops, these plants allow farmers to spray insecticides and not have it affect the crops. Research has found that the widely available Roundup Ready soybean indeed may display an increase in anti-nutrients (Padgette et al. 1996; ctd. in Dona & Arvanitoyannis, 2009).
In addition to the “Roundup Ready” crops, the FDA approved Monsanto bovine growth hormone (rBGH), which is injected into dairy cows to force them to produce more milk also poses health concerns in the form of increased cancer risk. Scientists have noted that significantly higher levels (400-500 percent or more) of a potent chemical hormone, Insulin-Like Growth Factor (igf-1), in the milk and dairy products of rBGH injected cows, could pose serious hazards such as human breast, prostate, and colon cancer (Cummins, 2013). Indeed, numerous research studies have shown that people with elevated igf-1 levels are much more susceptible to cancer.
Furthermore, in terms of our health, there is threat of gene transfer to non-target species. Among experts, there is a major concern of crops that have been genetically modified to resist herbicides cross-breeding with weeds and resulting in the transfer of the herbicide-resistant gene from crops to weeds. Known as “superweeds,” this spawning has had a detrimental effect on farming techniques, forcing farmers to use more potent herbicides to fight off the infestation (and obviously having grave implications on our health). The most well known of the superweeds, “pigweed,” has recently plagued a good portion of the crops in the southern US, including 100,000 acres in Georgia alone (Caulcutt, 2009). Although this problem is not just regional, as new reincarnations like horseweed and Johnsongrass are on the rise all across the US. And on top of that, the herbicide in question is Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” crop seeds, which amount to 90% of the soybeans and 80% of the corn grown across the U.S. According to Kilman (2010), some 40% of U.S. land planted to corn and soybeans is likely to harbor at least some Roundup-resistant superweeds by the middle of this decade.
Alongside these, other concerns of genetically modified foods point to: socio-ecological impacts, an increased antibiotic resistance in humans, increased pesticide residues, damage to beneficial insects and soil fertility, infant mortality and a change in the earth’s natural biodiversity.
As the GMO trend continues to gain steam and infiltrate mainstream culture, there remains a growing amount of criticism about the reliability of its current framework. Critiques are wide-ranging, and include everything from ethical and moral issues, to ownership and patent issues, to the overall lack of published literature and studies on the topic. Among these critiques, arguably the loudest one stems from ambiguity pertaining to the regulation of GMO labeling. As it stands today, the FDA does not require food companies to label foods that are genetically modified. Their current policy is governed by the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act which is only concerned with food additives, not whole foods or food products that are considered “GRAS” – generally recognized as safe (Whitman, 2000). Essentially, food products only require labeling if there is a nutritional or food safety property that is different from what consumers would expect of that particular food (Byrne et al, 2014).
For example, if a genetically modified food has a certain protein that may be an allergen and is not typically present (such as a peanut protein in a soybean), then it must be labeled. Otherwise, the FDA does not find genetic engineering to have “systematic” differences in nutrient breakdown and health concerns in comparison to traditional breeding methods, and is therefore not required to be labeled under US food safety laws (FDA, 1992). The current policy allows for companies to voluntarily submit information about their products, but it is not required and not federally regulated. While there are a number of third party verification programs that denote GMO-free products (such as the Non-GMO Project and CNG Certification, which I examine deeper in my previous post), currently the only way to ensure that your food is certified non-GMO is to buy products labeled “USDA Organic.”
Another widespread critique of the GMO trend points to the overall lack of scientific research dedicated to studies of safety. It has now been almost exactly 20 years since the introduction of genetically modified foods and there still exist only a handful of studies. In fact, according to Domingo (2007), no peer-reviewed publications of clinical studies on the human health effects of GM food exist, and even animal studies are few and far between. Up until this point, the main approach by the agricultural industry has been to use comparisons between GM crops and non-GM crops. When a lab determines that a GM crop is not significantly different than its non-GM counterpart, they are regarded as “substantially equivalent,” and therefore regarded as just as safe as the non-GM version (Pusztai, 2009).
For major food corporations, this creates a loophole that allows for GM crops to become patented without animal testing. However, the term “substantially equivalent” is not clearly defined by law and is not regulated by the FDA (Millstone et al, 1999). This is significant when you consider the typical amount of testing and lab studies that are mandatory when any new drug is approved by the FDA. As Dona & Arvanitoyannis (2009) argue, “the absence of adequate safety studies and the lack of evidence that GM food is unsafe cannot be interpreted as proof that it is safe” (p. 164). Unless these policies are changed, this lack of published studies will allow the influx of foods with GMO strains to continue to infiltrate our food supply, as well as keep us in the dark in regard to their true implications on our health.
Along with the overall lack of literature, there is the issue of conflict of interest between big business agriculture and the overall health and wellbeing of our population. Particularly in biotech research and development, genetically modified crops are almost exclusively the product of private industry. As argued by Pinstrup-Andersen & Schioler (2001), this is in part due to the fact that new technologies are more expensive than existing ones, and the biotech industry was able to gather the necessary funds to develop these technologies long before public awareness of GM crops could lead to publicly generated funding for GM crop development. Consequently, because this is a bottom line business, the large corporations that dominate the industry become driven by profits and not concerned with investing in expensive research and regulatory costs to produce crops that must be heavily subsidized for poor farmers to afford. As noted by Conway (1998), the main goal of private research is on capital-intensive farming, as research to feed the poor is less attractive because it involves long lead times, risks of unpredictable agricultural conditions, and beneficiaries with no ability to pay. As a result, we are left with a hegemonic hierarchy in terms of food commerce, further distancing us from the idealistic narrative of GM foods original purpose: their ability to increase the food supply and feed the poor.
Moreover, further critiques and issues of the GMO trend arise with the definition and treatment of intellectual property. As noted by Wu & Butz (2004), intellectual property issues are central to the progress of the GMO movement “because whereas science and technology move forward through the sharing of ideas and resources, intellectual property ambiguities and restrictions can often limit the valuable diffusion of science and technology” (p. 46). The issue of who “owns” a particular event (i.e. the successful transformation) of a GM crop and who can develop it further has become so economically important and controversial that there are now a number of cases involving this issue being litigated (Woodward, 2003). As noted by Cayford (2004), there are many that consider this issue of intellectual property to be one of the most important obstacles to the development and adoption of GM crops in the developing world.
The purpose of this post was to offer insight from a scientific perspective and bring an overall awareness to the topic of GMO foods. Lately we have heard so much about GMOs in the mainstream media and popular culture, but I think as a whole we are still in the dark about a lot of this stuff. What scares me as a consumer is the power that these corporations have, not only from an economic standpoint, but also in terms of the scope of their technology. It makes me wonder what’s next. Will it only be a matter of time before this technology spills into other aspects of life? More importantly, what concerns me is the overall lack of research that is being done. To me, it almost seems intentional and comes off as having a “back-alley” vibe to it, like these corporations are trying to pull the wool over our eyes. I think if we are ever going to get a handle on this as a society, it is important to continue to push for activism and support non-GMO movements such as the Non-GMO Project and Think Global Act Local, because at the end of the day, we as the consumer control the marketplace. If we decide to not purchase foods that are GMO, they will ultimately fail. However, that is assuming that litigation will eventually get passed where labeling becomes mandatory and we can identify what is GMO!
In the meantime, if you are curious about the amount of GMO foods in your diet, check out the website Care2.com’s list of the top 20 “Frankenfoods” to avoid.
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In today’s post, I take a critical approach in examining certain food labels to determine the legitimacy and truthfulness of their purported claims. As a society, recent times have witnessed a paradigm shift in the infrastructure of our domestic food system. No longer the cottage industry it once was back in the day, the food business has catapulted into one of the most powerful institutions worldwide. With revenue streams totaling $377 billion in 2013, food commerce has taken over as an industry giant as it consistently ranks in the top-5 nationally. And a large reason for this booming enterprise is the masterful marketing of food products. Major food corporations spend millions upon millions annually for market researchers to come up with the next popular food buzz word. Just to give you an idea of the influence that food marketing has on our purchasing habits, according to a 2013 Nielsen survey, the food industry sold almost $41 billion worth of food last year labeled with the word "natural," which is essentially just an overly vague term that has no federal regulation by the USDA.
Nowadays because there is so much at stake in terms of dollars, food marketing and labeling has materialized into the Wild West. It has become impossible to know who to trust, as labeling has become more nuanced than ever. In an attempt to help with some of the confusion, I take a critical eye to 5 different food labels: the American Heart Association heart check label, the “Look for Whole Grains” stamp, the “Farm Fresh” label, the “Certified Naturally Grown” label and the “Non-GMO Project Verified” label, to understand what they mean and examine the justification of their claims. My goal in doing this post is to generate awareness. As it stands, I think this topic is more relevant now than ever before. With a growing population that is becoming more and more health conscious, these labels are still tricky as hell to read and if you don’t know what you are looking for, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. So let’s get it crackin…
American Heart Association Heart-Check Label
Universally known and recognized as the preeminent authority when it comes to our overall health, the American Heart Association heart check label has become synonymous with healthiness. The label is seen on a litany of grocery store products and is designed to help consumers make healthier food choices. In terms of legitimacy, I think this and the USDA Organic label are found to be the most recognized by society for their label standards. And I would tend to agree. After reviewing their certification guidelines on the AHA website, the program utilizes 6 stringent categories of certification with each having a different set of nutrition requirements. The program also utilizes independent third-party lab testing and most of its nutrient requirements are per FDA/USDA RACC. Additionally, all approved products must meet federal requirements for making a coronary heart disease claim (AHA, 2014). Overall, they set a pretty high bar for their products.
My Critique with this Label
In terms of its ambiguity, I think that this label is pretty legitimate as far as its health claims, but my main critique is that it does not regulate where products come from. By this I mean there is no regulation as it relates to farming methods, manufacturing protocols, etc. This can become problematic because ingredients and nutrient values on packaging can be misleading. A prime example I can point to here is the ambiguity we see in fortified food products, an area which is not currently regulated by the AHA. According to the European Food Information Council (2014), fortified foods are defined as, “foods or food products to which extra nutrients have been added.” In accordance with the FDA (2014), the addition of a nutrient to a food may be appropriate “if it corrects a dietary insufficiency, restores the level of the nutrient lost during processing or storing, helps balance vitamin, mineral and protein content or is used to replace a traditional food (i.e., meal replacements).”
For you the consumer, this causes problems because it allows for manufacturers to produce foods lacking in nutritional value to add nutrients (such as fiber, calcium, etc.) to bring their dietary profile up to par and fit AHA guidelines. This is problematic for 2 reasons: 1) because these vitamins aren’t in their natural form, they are processed differently by your body, and 2) nowadays essentially everything in a grocery store can be fortified and “made” healthy. We especially see this in things like sugary cereals and “healthy” energy bars. More troubling is the fact that research has found certain populations, especially children, are at risk of getting too much supplementation from eating fortified foods (EWG, 2014). I bring this up because a good amount of the certified foods on the AHA approved list are indeed fortified. And many of the products, such as some juices and snack products, would most likely not make the cut if they weren’t.
In addition to fortified foods, another reason why the regulation of farming methods is so significant is because the overall nutritional value of foods can be greatly affected by it. For example, when it comes to fish and seafood, there is a wide margin in nutrition between farmed-raised versus wild-caught, particularly in omega-3 and monounsaturated fats. Additionally, because farm-raised fish do not have access to a wild diet, they are fed pellets of chicken feces, corn meal, soy, genetically modified canola oil and other fish containing concentrations of toxins, which obviously has a detrimental effect to our health (Pure Zing, 2013). This also pertains to beef products, where grass-fed beef is shown to have higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), less total fat, more omega-3 fats and more antioxidants in comparison to grain-fed beef.
However, with all of this being said, I still think that the AHA label holds weight as something you should pay attention to. Just be careful and be sure to read all of the listed ingredients on anything that you buy with it.
“Look For Whole Grains” Stamp
The “Look for Whole Grains” stamp is a label that has become increasingly more popular in supermarkets and health food stores over the past decade. This label is predominately found on mostly grain products, including: bread, pasta, cereal, etc. and its purpose is to delineate products that are whole grain (meaning that they have all parts of the grain, including the bran and germ). The program was instituted by the Whole Grains Council, and consists of 2 labels, 1) the 100% Stamp – which assures you that a food contains a full serving or more of whole grain in each labeled serving and that ALL the grain is whole grain, and 2) the basic Whole Grain Stamp – which appears on products containing at least half a serving of whole grain per labeled serving. The “Look for Whole Grains” stamp has garnered widespread usage, as of October 2014, the label is on over 10,000 products in over 42 countries.
My Critique with this Label
As far as the label itself, the language is pretty straightforward in that it is not misleading. Overall, it serves its purpose by informing the amount of whole grains in a particular product. However, where I think we tend to miss the boat as a consumer is by associating the whole grains label with the overall healthiness of the product. We think that just because a product is listed as whole grain, it must be good for us. However, research shows that may not necessarily be the case. For example, Mozaffarian et al. (2013) conducted an interpretive analysis on products containing the “Look for Whole Grains” label, and found that while WG-stamped products in fact contained higher fiber and lower trans-fat totals, they were also higher in sugars and calories when compared to products without the stamp.
However, I think that the larger problem with the regulating of “whole grains” in our food products is that there are no federal guidelines. As it stands, there is no single standard for defining a product “whole grain,” as the “Look for Whole Grains” Stamp is a third-party verification agency and not federally regulated. As a result, you can walk into your local Ralph’s and find a box of Lucky Charm’s with the “Look for Whole Grains” logo proudly affixed on the right hand corner. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather get my fiber from sweet potatoes and broccoli, not ‘me’ Lucky Charms.
Additionally, there is a lot of ambiguity in how manufacturers label wheat. From the standard whole wheat classification, you have your multigrain, 7 grain, stoneground, semolina, durum wheat, and enriched flour just to name a few. Technically, some of these are considered “whole” and some aren’t (to decipher would take an entire separate blog post). Furthermore, unless you are buying organic, you can go ahead and assume that you are eating GMO grains. That is why personally I choose to refrain from wheat and grains altogether to prevent this madness! But if you must consume grains, opt for the sprouted variety that you can find at most health food stores and always go organic. You can use the “Look for Whole Grains” stamp as a guide, but be sure to check food labels for other possible ingredients.
The Farm Fresh Label (or its many variations) is a label that is seen predominately on egg products and is meant to delineate the freshness of a particular product. The label has gained popularity as of late due to the success of farmer’s markets and the local food movement. A lot of people connect local farming with the term “farm fresh” and thus look for it at the supermarket. Due to this, food manufacturers try to slap the term on as many products as possible in an attempt to generate hype and boost purported health benefits.
My Critique with this Label
EVERYTHING. Of all of the labels on this list, the “farm fresh” label is definitely the most ambiguous. All this label really means is that the eggs were “freshly picked” after the hen lays the egg. Although “freshly picked” is highly ambiguous as well, as there is no regulation on how soon the farmer has to pick them (how fresh is fresh?). And even then, although the eggs are technically fresh when they are hatched, unless you are buying local, they most likely have been sitting in crates for days on end and shipped all over the country. However, the more pressing concern is that the label means absolutely nothing as it pertains to the welfare of the animal (in fact, most of the chickens that lay farm fresh eggs are raised inhumanely). These inhumane conditions include ones where hens are raised in battery cages and confined in extremely small spaces where they are unable to spread their wings (according to the Humane Society, each caged laying hen is afforded only 67 square inches of cage space—less space than a single sheet of letter-sized paper on which to live her entire life). On top of that, because these eggs are not considered organic, hens are fed GMO-based chicken feed. Definitely not very appetizing… And definitely not “farm fresh.”
Essentially, this label is just a clever marketing term by companies to get you to buy their product. So you can feel free to disregard this label at the supermarket, because it means nothing.
Certified Naturally Grown Label
The Certified Naturally Grown label has come into popularity recently in many specialty health food stores and local food operations as a marker for quality organic foods. As the increased public awareness and interest in organic production methods continues to skyrocket, this label is increasingly being sought after by the health-savvy consumer looking to make healthier and more ethical food choices. The label is commonly found on many meat, fruit and vegetable products. According to Greener Choices (2014), the Certified Naturally Grown label means that “the farm where the food is grown uses the same farming methods as certified organic farms, but is not independently verified by a USDA-accredited certification agency and not subject to the legal enforcement of the USDA.”
The reason this certification came to fruition was out of a response to the costly and often politicized nature of the USDA Organic certification process. There were many farmers who did not want to or could not afford to participate in the USDA certification program, and wanted an alternative certification system that was cheaper and had fewer requirements. Essentially, the CNG program was designed for small farmers, such as distributors for farmer’s markets, roadside stands and community supported agriculture projects to be able to attain organic certification of their products. As it has garnered momentum, it has come to be recognized as the grassroots alternative to the USDA system. However, the main difference here is that instead of annual inspections by a USDA accredited certifying agency, they police themselves, with CNG farms being inspected by other CNG farms.
While not USDA approved, the label is actually pretty significant in that there are clearly defined standards and procedures that have to be followed. Along with their precise certification guidelines, CNG farms are lauded for their transparency, collaboration and community involvement, as all participating farms completed applications and scorecards are available online to the public, and any prospective farms interested in becoming CNG certified can download registration information off of their website (CNG, 2014). In addition, all CNG farms are subject to random inspection (CNG, 2014).
My Critique with this Label
Overarching, I really don't have a whole lot of criticism with this label. As far as ambiguity, this label is definitely one of the more valid ones. The main critique that I have noted with CNG farms and their labeling program is that they pose the risk of a conflict of interest. Due to the framework of the CNG certification system, which relies heavily on peer-reviewed inspections, there remains the possibility of unethical favors and benefits being exchanged or cutting corners by participating farms. Although with that being said, the CNG program does try to mitigate this by not allowing farmers to “trade” inspections – meaning that a farmer cannot inspect the farm of the individual who inspected his/her farm, however because the program is reliant on a trust system, the possibility remains.
Another common critique of the Certified Naturally Grown label is that it is not federally regulated. The program merely acts as a third-party verification agency, and although this may be unsettling for some consumers, the research that I have done has uncovered overwhelmingly positive reviews of the program. Therefore, as it pertains to food labels, CNG appears to be one of the more sought after right behind the USDA Organic label. This label is definitely worth paying attention to!
Non-GMO Project Verified Label
The “Non-GMO Project Verified” seal is one of the newer labels to come on the food marketing scene. The Non-GMO Project began in 2005 out of a movement in Berkeley, CA, where consumers began to question the amount of GMO in their products. The program initially materialized out of the “People Want to Know Campaign,” a letter-writing initiative which rallied over 161 grocery stores to protest current legislation. Fast forward to today, and what once began as a grassroots movement has become the authority in the testing of GMO foods. The label has become common in stores and markets, as it is affixed to a bevy of items, ranging from vitamins and supplements, to packaged/frozen goods, to pet products. The label is sought after by consumers looking to make verified Non-GMO choices.
The label has importance for us because, as it stands today, federal law does not require manufacturers to disclose the amount of GMO in their products. As a non-profit, the Non-GMO Project is currently North America’s only third party verification and labeling for non-GMO food and products. And on the whole, the project has had quite an impact on the marketplace. According to the project website, there are currently over 20,000 Non-GMO Project Verified products from 2,200 brands, representing well over $7 billion in annual sales.
My Critique with this Label:
All things considered, I definitely respect the guidelines and standards of this label. There are clearly defined protocols that each product must go through, and because the project is non-profit, there is not a conflict of interest with big business. However, there are still inconsistencies, as ambiguities remain. To begin, there is vagueness as to what constitutes GMO-free. According to the Non-GMO Project website, “GMO free” and similar claims are not legally or scientifically defensible due to limitations of testing methodology. Therefore, the Non-GMO Project’s verification seal is not a “GMO free” claim, it is what they consider verification for products made according to best practices for GMO avoidance. While they do maintain an "Action Threshold" of 0.9%, (where any product containing more than 0.9% GMO must be labeled), monitoring is done independently as there is no federal guidelines.
Among industry circles, the main critique points to logistical issues (not so much as it relates to this label per-se, but more about the larger movement). From a broad perspective, there is a growing consensus of people who find the growing “GMO-Free” trend to have serious implications for both the manufacturer and consumer. For major food companies, transitioning to GMO-free products requires a complete change to their infrastructure, resulting in higher costs and logistical issues in securing enough non-GMO sources. Particularly as it relates to traditionally heavy sprayed crops, such as soy and corn, securing non-GMO varietals is a challenge because the majority of these crops in the U.S. have some level on contamination in them. In fact, according to a Reuters (2014) report, more than 90% of the corn and soybeans that are grown in the U.S. are GMO strains. This has turned the non-GMO commodity supply chain into a big business of its own. Almost definitely, this will have a trickle-down effect on us the consumer, as companies will be forced to raise food prices to offset the production costs.
However, as it relates to the label, I think that the costs justify the action. Right now the Non-GMO Project is really all we have to help fight against the production of genetically engineered foods. In addition, their sound certification guidelines and track record as a trustworthy source make this label one to pick up whenever possible.
I know what you’re thinking: buying food shouldn’t be this damn difficult! And I agree, but unfortunately that is the reality that we now live in. What sucks is that things are only getting worse. With the current farming landscape in this country, experts are predicting an even bigger increase in GMO contaminated products as we move ahead. However, it is important to remember that you hold all of the power in what you choose to buy. By being a more educated buyer, you can make better informed decisions about the food you purchase.
Overarching, as a consumer, you must always be looking to exercise your agency to help combat these unsavory conditions. As bad as things have gotten, it’s now on us now to take action. Along with doing your part individually, look to start up some local CSAs in your community, work with your local legislation to bring more Farmer’s markets and local food to your neighborhood, or even grow your own food!! Because as it stands now, the food industry has no plans of slowing down, and they definitely don’t have our best interest at hand.
Cage-Free vs. Battery-Cage Eggs : The Humane Society of the United States. (2009, September 1). Retrieved December 12, 2014, from http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/confinement_farm/facts/cage-free_vs_battery-cage.html
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Gillam, C. (2014, February 18). U.S. food companies find going 'non-GMO' no easy feat. Retrieved December 11, 2014, from http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/02/18/us-usa-food-gmo-analysis-SBREA1H1G420140218
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How Much is Too Much? (2014). Retrieved December 12, 2014, from http://www.ewg.org/research/how-much-is-too-much
Mozaffarian, R., Lee, R., Kennedy, M., Ludwig, D., Mozaffarian, D., & Gortmaker, S. (2013). Identifying whole grain foods: A comparison of different approaches for selecting more healthful whole grain products. Public Health Nutrition, 2255-2264.
Seven Reasons to Avoid Farm Raised Salmon. (2013, January 1). Retrieved December 12, 2014, from
The Non-GMO Project. (n.d.). Retrieved December 14, 2014, from http://www.nongmoproject.org/
The Whole Grains Council. (2014). Retrieved December 14, 2014, from http://wholegrainscouncil.org/
Recently alternative food networks have garnered recognition within the mainstream media and the political sphere as a pioneering social movement, in doing so contributing to the paradigm shift in our collective views of food. The mobilizing efforts of AFNs have become widespread, as it has become impossible nowadays to go shopping, check Twitter, go on Facebook, or watch TV without seeing some type of rhetoric advocating locally-grown, organic, and/or sustainable food methods. Initially originating from the organic food movement that began over 50 years ago, the main purpose of AFNs has been centered on looking for alternatives to our conventional food system, one which has been chastised for its use of unethical, unsustainable and mass-produced food production methods. In addition, documentaries such as Food Inc. and In Organic We Trust have helped to catapult AFNs into mainstream consciousness and popular culture.
But are AFNs everything that they are cracked up to be? There is a growing consensus of people who question their legitimacy and whether or not a model of its kind can flourish on a large scale. Scholarly critiques point to issues of power and privilege, ambiguity in policy, economic considerations among others. In hopes of contributing to the conversation, I take an in-depth approach in examining these institutions to identify how they can be improved. Let’s check it out…
What are Alternative Food Networks?
Feenstra (2002) identifies alternative food networks as, “A collaborative effort to build more locally based, self reliant food economies – one in which sustainable food production, processing, distribution and consumption is integrated to enhance the economic, environmental and social health of a particular place.” Overarching, AFNs represent a paradigm shift in food production, from that of conventional methods (which employ a large-scale distribution model and increase distance between producer and consumer, to an alternative method, that of which is geographically localized and promotes close proximity between producer and consumer. In popular discourse, AFNs take on many different aliases, being referred to as: local food movement, Alternative Agrifood Movement (AAM), organic food movement, among others. These various designations manifest themselves in the form of farmer’s markets, community supported agriculture programs (CSA’s) and a number of other sustainable agricultural practices.
While AFNs have gained traction recently as a noteworthy cause, they have been around for decades. In fact, the seeds of AFNs trace back all the way to 1933 with the enactment of the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), an amendment which would set the stage for today’s agricultural subsidies and farmer support systems (Dimitri, Effland, & Conklin, 2005). Initially implemented to protect family farms from economic collapse during the Great Depression, these government subsidy programs slowly gained control over time with the help of the USDA (Rausser, 1992). Along with providing a safety net for local farmers, the AAA allowed “commodity crops,” such as corn, wheat and soybeans to be bought at subsidized rates and used as primary ingredients in a number of cheaper, “value-added” food products. This framework would ultimately set the stage for the “commodity crop” market, which was marked by an overabundance in production of wheat, corn, soy, etc. products.
Throughout the late 1970s and 80s, narrow profit margins forced many food and farm businesses to adhere to the “commodity crop” ideology and scale up production to survive. In addition, there was an emphasis placed on the consolidation of farms to increase efficiency, which would lead to the creation of large food corporations, and essentially kill off the local farming market, making it almost impossible for these businesses to stay afloat.
Moving into the turn of the century, the idea of local food was non-existent at worst, a fledgling niche market at best, as food that had traditionally come from regional markets was now being outsourced where labor cost was cheaper. However, as small farms tried to stay in business, they began selling directly to customers and specialty retailers, hoping to forego the production costs of a middleman (Stevenson et al., 2011). These survival strategies, along with a growing consumer interest in the ethics of food production has prompted a resurgence in the local food market. Today, AFNs are a booming trend and continue to grow at a rapid pace. According to the Agricultural Marketing Service (2013), farmer’s markets have grown in size from 1,755 markets in 1994 to 8,144 in 2013, and community supported agriculture (CSAs) have grown from only 2 in 1985 to over 3,000 in 2009.
The Benefits of Alternative Food Networks
Unless you have been living under a rock for the past 20 years, you probably have heard in some context or another the purported benefits of AFNs and locally-grown food. Recently, AFNs have engendered a mainstream following from a growing population of people who are excited about the notion of “ethical eating.” Ask any self-proclaimed “locavore,” and they will jump at the chance to tell you the benefits of AFNs. The goals of these networks are wide-ranging, and include: improved access by community members to a fresher, more nutritious diet; better marketing practices that create more direct links between farmers and consumers; improved working/living conditions for farm and other food system labor and improved food and agricultural policies that promote local food production, processing and consumption (Feenstra, 2002).
In addition, many argue that these institutions help to build community and participatory democracy, and serve as sites of contestation against a globalized food system (Kloppenberg, Henrickson, and Stevenson, 1996). By allowing the local consumer to choose where he/she buys their food and where it comes from, AFNs generate resistive agency pathways for local communities by challenging the traditions and ideals of big-business agriculture. Due to the sheer number of individuals involved with the movement, AFNs are considered one of the larger social justice movements in the modern era. Additionally, as it relates to community involvement, AFNs are celebrated for their ability to promote dialogue and community interaction through the dissemination of health information and related discourse.
In terms of economic impact, research has found that food (typically fruits and vegetables) produced and consumed locally creates more economic activity in an area than does a comparable food produced and imported from a non-local source (CEFS, 2013). In addition, for local communities, an often overlooked benefit of AFNs is the role they play in propagating an entrepreneurial culture. Along with contributing to the local economy, AFNs can offer youth a place to find meaningful work without leaving the community (CEFS, 2013).
A Critical Analysis of Alternative Food Networks
Over the past 20 years, AFNs have gone from a diminutive, counter-culture fad to a legitimate threat to our corporatized modern food system. Through their ability to mobilize resources and garner support, AFNs have helped to usher in a new consciousness in how we regard food as a resource. However, while AFNs have proven their potential to offer new and promising alternatives to our food crisis, there are many ideological issues that they do not address. For one, their claim as a true “participatory democracy” and equal access institution is problematic in many ways.
For example, AFNs are commonly praised for their ability to offer quality, nutritious food to all members in a community, regardless of gender, class or socio-cultural background. By providing directly to consumers, farmers and growers can cut production costs and make food more readily available and affordable. This rhetoric is discursively constructed and reinforced through idealistic portrayals of nature and agriculture. Essentially, AFNs are depicted as “food utopias,” a place where the ethical and social issues of our everyday culture are kept out and everyone comes together through the common theme of good food. However, by adopting this romanticized view of agriculture and the food production process, AFNs simultaneously work to re-write the narrative of our country's agricultural past; a past which has been predicated historically upon, among others: disparities in access, poor/unfair labor conditions, and gendered/racial discrimination. This “revisionist history” allows those harsh conditions to be appropriated and transformed into commodities (local food), which allows them to be more palatable and accepted within the mainstream.
Furthermore, while AFNs have traditionally been praised for their ethical and moral stances towards equality, a closer examination finds that they remain highly politicized institutions and carry many of the same cultural values and patterns as other social realms of society. Particularly as it relates to issues of access and privilege, AFNs unintentionally reinforce dominant ideologies through hegemonic discourse. Allen et. al (2003) note similarly the lack of attention that has been given to questions of power and privilege in the contemporary US alternative food movement. Speaking from a base level, AFNs are typically available to those consumers who have the agency to access them. Along these lines, Guthman (2008) notes that AFNs have tended to cater to relatively well-off consumers, in part because organic food has been positioned as a niche product, and in part because many of the spaces of alternative food practice have been designed and located to secure market opportunities and decent prices for farmers. Guthman (2003) also notes that while organic food used to be a form of counter-culture cuisine, it has now been relegated to “yuppie chow.” While eating local has in fact become somewhat of a novelty among upper class circles, the more important implication is that the spatiality of these institutions allows for an embedded elitist ideology to persist, in doing so limiting agency to lower income and marginalized communities and further contradicting the ideal of equal access.
Another problematic with the discursive construction of AFNs “food utopia” framework is that it fails to account for the larger issue of health disparities. Because AFNs are commonly recognized for their ability to provide all members of a community a place at the proverbial table, any issues pertaining to health and nutrition are pushed aside and located at the individual level. Along this scope, any interventions to improve diets and related health outcomes have largely targeted individual knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors (Huang & Glass, 2008). However, by focusing exclusively on the individual without addressing larger systemic issues, AFNs reinforce hegemony through their suggestion of a bootstrap mentality. As Neff et. al (2009) note, “Health disparities go deeper than individual choice, nutrition, or price. They reach outwards to community factors like access and deeper to broad social, economic, and political forces that impact food supply, nutrient quality, and affordability” (p. 283).
A further issue with the current framework of AFNs is their ambiguous use of the term “local” when referring to local food. Currently there is no generally accepted definition of “local” food. According to the USDA (2011), although “local” has a geographic connotation, there is no consensus on a definition in terms of the distance between production and consumption. Definitions related to geographic distance between production and sales vary by regions, companies, consumers, and local food markets. For the casual local food enthusiast, this is simply a case of semantics. But for the majority of “locavores” who support local food campaigns such as “Buy Local” and “Think Globally act Locally” (which go by the mantra that buying local food supports particular communities and economies, which in turn maintain certain lifestyles and cultural values) (Doherty, 2006), the term “local” becomes significant as distance takes great meaning. The question then becomes: how local is local enough? Since the term gets socially constructed, it takes on a plethora of other socio-economic questions, such as: determining who holds the power to interpret its meaning, zoning issues, etc. By definition, the term “local” is exclusionary, and it is this exclusivity that is the essence of AFN’s critique.
The purpose of this post was to provide a context into the local food and alternative food network phenomenon and hopefully foster a dialogue and promote critical thinking. While there are no short term solutions, by simply creating a conversation we can begin to get the ball rolling. As it stands, AFNs are a much better alternative for sustainability than that of our current food system, but they are still extremely flawed. The bottom line is that we live in a capitalistic society and money will always talk. While I think that the focus of AFNs are in the right place, implementation will always be a challenge because of the corporatization of our modern food systems. Any legitimate solutions will have to take place at the structural level. Unless we can change the infrastructure to de-emphasize competition among businesses, this problem will always exist (it will just manifest itself in different ways). However in the meantime, that doesn’t change the fact that the cost of organic food is extremely overpriced. Especially considering only 80 years ago there was no such thing as “organic,” there was just food. Now because there is so much poorly manufactured food out there, we have to delineate the good stuff with an organic label, in turn charging way more than necessary. It’s like the bottled water phenomenon. Back in the day, there was just water. It didn’t have to be treated, it didn’t have to be filtered, it was just water! But now because water is so contaminated, we have to bottle the good stuff and sell it way overpriced too. It’s a vicious cycle.
What do you think? How we fix this food crisis? More importantly, how can we eat more healthily, sustainably, and ethically without making six figures a year?
Allen, P., Fitzsimmons, M., Goodman, M., & Warner, K. (2003). Shifting plates in the agrifood landscape: the tectonics of alternative agrifood initiatives in California. Journal of rural studies, 19(1), 61-75.
Dimitri, C., Effland, A. B., & Conklin, N. C. (2005). The 20th century transformation of US agriculture and farm policy.
Dunning, R. (2013). Research-Based Support and Extension Outreach for Local Food Systems. Retrieved December 6, 2014, from http://www.cefs.ncsu.edu/
Feenstra, G. (2002). Creating space for sustainable food systems: Lessons from the field. Agriculture and Human Values, 19(2), 99-106.
Doherty, K. E. (2006). Mediating the Critiques of the Alternative Agrifood Movement: Growing Power in Milwaukee (Doctoral dissertation, The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee).
Guthman, J. (2008). Bringing good food to others: investigating the subjects of alternative food practice. cultural geographies, 15(4), 431-447.
Huang, T. T. K., & Glass, T. A. (2008). Transforming research strategies for understanding and preventing obesity. Jama, 300(15), 1811-1813.
Martinez, S. (2010). Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues. Retrieved December 6, 2014, from http://ers.usda.gov/
Neff, R. A., Palmer, A. M., McKenzie, S. E., & Lawrence, R. S. (2009). Food systems and public health disparities. Journal of hunger & environmental nutrition, 4(3-4), 282-314.
Rausser, G. C. (1992). Predatory versus productive government: The case of U.S. agricultural policies. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 6(3), 133-157.
Stevenson, G. W., Clancy, K., King, R., Lev, L., Ostrom, M., & Smith, S. (2011). Midscale food value chains: An introduction. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 1(4), 27–34.
In recent years, the strategic marketing of food labels has become popular within the food and health industries. With the current unsavory conditions of food production worldwide; from usage of antibiotics and hormones in meat processing to the use of herbicides and insecticides in the care of agriculture, consumers are looking more and more to food labeling to provide a roadmap of what is healthy. Food companies know this and use labels as a way to appeal to a growing consumer base that is becoming more and more health-conscious. Although food labels help to guide decision making, there is often vagueness in terms of deciphering usefulness and meaning of what the labels actually stand for. Through the use of environmental communication, these labels help frame messages and entice customers into buying products. An example where this is prevalent is in the aesthetic appeal of labels.
Environmental aesthetics are used heavily in food labels as a way to appeal to consumers. Some of the ways they do this are: 1.engagement – food labels engage the consumer by creating sensuous involvement through perception. An example of this would be making the label feel like a participatory experience, in that by choosing more sustainable and healthier options, the consumer feels that they are actively helping the conditions of livestock and agriculture as well as improving both the environment and their health (i.e. by choosing organic, I am “doing my part” 2. interconnectedness – labels help consumers feel interconnected to nature and the environment by helping them feel a part of the production process, not separate from it 3. Appealing to the sublime response – Food labels are designed to elicit a response and emotional reaction. By choosing foods that are healthier and better for the environment, consumers feel stronger emotionally and hold a connection with the environment (you tend to see this a lot in the specific color schemes and design elements that these labels employ).
These are just some of the ways that food labels create ambiguous messages. By using a critical lens, I want to examine the ambiguity and confusion associated with some of today’s trendiest food labels as far as their true usefulness as a label and contribution to our health. Below I will look at the labels: organic, all-natural, grass fed, cage free/free range, and hormone free.
One food label that has become popular as of late and almost a buzzword within the food and health industry is the term “organic.” According to Allen and Albala (2011), organic refers to, “food produced without using the conventional inputs of modern industrial agriculture; pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, irradiation, or additives” (p, 865). For this reason, organic food is generally safer to eat than conventionally produced food. In the food industry, the term has become almost synonymous with good health, and because of this companies are trying any way possible to slap the term on as many products as possible to justify a raise in prices (organic products are typically more expensive because of increased production costs). Just the other day I walked into Costco, and in the front of the store right as you walk in they have a whole section dedicated to organic products.
However, just because a product is labeled organic does not guarantee it is 100% organic. There are three major organic certification labels in the United States: 1. 100% organic – made entirely with organic ingredients (USDA label) 2. Organic – made with at least 95% organic ingredients (USDA label) 3. “Made with organic ingredients” – made with at least 70% organic ingredients (no USDA label). Food products that are made with less than 70% percent organic ingredients cannot be advertised as organic, but can list specific organic ingredients. There is much debate over the nutritional content of organic foods. While the USDA states that there is inconclusive evidence that food grown via organic farming techniques has superior nutrition content than that of conventional farming techniques (Lester, 296), independent research shows different. In the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Virginia Worthington conducted a quantitative analysis comparing the nutrient content of organic versus conventional crops. Her results found, “organic crops contained significantly more vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus and significantly less nitrates than conventional crops. There were also better quality and higher content of nutritionally significant minerals with lower amounts of some heavy metals in organic crops compared to conventional ones” ( Worthington, 2001, p. 161).
Another food label that has become buzz-worthy within the food and health industries is the term “all-natural.” The term applies by and large to foods that are minimally processed and free of synthetic preservatives, artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors and other artificial additives; such as growth hormones, antibiotics, hydrogenated oils, stabilizers and emulsifiers (FMI). In addition, foods labeled all-natural are required by the USDA to explain what natural ingredients were used. Along with “organic,” food companies also use this term to try to market to health-conscious consumers.
The problem with the term is that there is a lot of vagueness in terms of what constitutes as “all-natural,” as its definition takes on different connotations within different contexts. For example, when looking at all-natural meats, specifically beef and fish, companies will often advertise: “no nitrates or nitrites used.” These are chemical compounds used to enhance color and preserve the meat (Shirley, 1975, p. 790). In small quantities, consumption of these are not harmful to human health, therefore, in this case, “all-natural” is not necessarily all that important. On the other hand, when looking at all-natural peanut butter, the term refers to no added hydrogenated oil or trans fat. In peanut butter containing these additives, there is an increase in cholesterol and risk of heart disease, thus “all-natural” in this instance takes on significant meaning. Essentially, depending on the product, all-natural can be meaningful or not. Unlike the term “organic” that deals with the farming techniques of food and is regulated by the government, there is not a true standard of what “all-natural” entails. The fact that all food is processed in some way, either chemically or by temperature, there will always be a sense of ambiguity in determining what kinds of foods are “all-natural” (Welch and Mitchell, 2000, p.4).
A food label that has gained popularity lately not necessarily among the general public, but more among health-conscious circles is the term “grass fed.” According to McCluskey et al. (2006), “grass fed refers to beef from cattle that have been fed only on grasses rather than fed in a feedlot” (p. 2). According to the USDA, for cattle to be considered grass fed, their diet must be derived solely from forage consisting of grass (annual and perennial), forbs (e.g., legumes, brassica), browse, or cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state (USDA, 2007). This must be the feed source for the lifetime of the cattle, with the only exception being milk consumed prior to weaning (USDA, 2007).
The distinction of this label is actually one of the more significant ones as far as the nutrition values it carries versus that of its grain-fed counterpart. To begin with, grass fed beef is much lower in fat than grain-fed beef. In addition, the fat that it does carry is compromised of mostly healthier fats. There is a higher ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in grass fed beef. In humans, if omega-6 fats to omega-3 fats exceed 4:1, health issues can arise, like inflammation which can lead to heart disease. This is important because grain fed beef can have ratios that are over 20:1, while grass fed beef is usually around 3:1. In addition, grass fed beef contains CLA, or conjugated linoleic acid, which is also a healthy fat that helps with things like insulin regulation, better immune system health, and the prevention of cancer. CLA also is ideal for body composition because it promotes fat loss and helps to maintain muscle tissue. Grass fed beef has four times the CLA content than grain fed beef.
Grass-fed beef is tricky because there are a ton of third party companies that have a seal or logo for grass-fed that is not government regulated. In order to guarantee that your beef is certified grass-fed, it must be stamped with the "USDA Process Verified" logo.
Of the labels mentioned above, one of the more ambiguous ones would definitely have to be the cage-free and free range labels that apply predominately to eggs. Cage-free refers to eggs that have been laid by hens that were not kept in cages, although there is no regulation of care beyond that. Free range refers to eggs that have been laid by hens that have been allowed access to the outside, however there is not a specified time for how long they are allowed access outside.
These labels have garnered immense interest within health-conscious circles, and are essential to food advertisers. This is because eggs labeled cage-free or free range are able to sell for $2-3 more in stores than regular eggs. With all of the hype surrounding cage free and free range eggs, there has been extensive research done to analyze the nutrition content of them; and there is no proven evidence that suggests that those eggs have any more nutrition content than conventionally grown eggs. Also, while the term “free range” is recognized by the USDA, “cage-free” is a commercial conception and has no association with the USDA.
If you are want to buy the most nutritious eggs on the market, the main labels you should look for are omega-3 eggs and USDA organic eggs.
Alongside the cage-free label, arguably the most ambiguous of the food labels listed above is the term hormone-free. The term refers to any pork, red meat, or poultry products that have not been administered any type of hormones (USDA, 2011). Food companies use this label as way to market more humanely raised products. However, according to the USDA, the administration of hormones are not allowed in the raising of hogs or poultry (USDA, 2011). Subsequently the phrase “no-hormones added” can only be used in those products if it also states “federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.” In essence, unless the label is referring to red meat, it is considered meaningless.
However, eating red meat that has been administered hormones will have a negative impact on your health. Some of these impacts include early puberty in girls and an increase in prostate and breast cancers in men and women. To be safe, it is a good idea to buy organic when purchasing red meat whenever possible.
In looking at the bigger implications of misleading food labeling, it is problematic not only because it deludes consumers, but it also has a negative impact on the environment. Food labeling carries a large influence in the purchasing habits of consumers, and major food corporations take advantage of that through strategic marketing tactics. However, in looking at the bigger picture, these corporations have an opportunity to make considerable contributions in terms of alleviating environmental issues through the responsible labeling of products. If corporations dedicated their focus on environmental awareness and truthfully educating consumers instead of looking to maximize profits by “greenwashing” consumers into believing their products are eco-friendly and more sustainable, there could be legitimate headway made towards preservation of the planet.
Food Marketing Institute. (n.d.). Natural and organic food.
McCluskey, J., Wahl, T., Li, Q., and Wandschneider, P. (2005). U.S. grass-fed beef: marketing
health benefits, Journal of Food Distribution Research, 36(3), 1-8.
Shirley, R. (1975). Nutritional and physiological effects of nitrates, nitrites, and nitrosamines,
Bioscience, 25(12), 789-794. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1297222
United States Department of Agriculture. (2011). Food labeling fact sheet: meat and poultry
United States Department of Agriculture. (2011). Food labeling fact sheet: meat and poultry
United States Department of Agriculture. (2007). Grass fed marketing claim standards.
Welch, R. and Mitchell, P. (2000). Food processing: a century of change, British Medical Bulletin, 56(1), 1-17. Retrieved from http://bmb.oxfordjournals.org/content/56/1/1.2.full.pdf
Worthington, V. (2001). Nutritional quality of organic versus conventional fruits, vegetables, and grains, Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 7(2), 161-173. doi:
What exactly does it mean to eat healthy? This is the million dollar question that everyone wants to know. Eating healthy seems so simple, but with so much conflicting information out there, it is damn near impossible to know exactly whose word to trust. Making things more confusing is the fact that the experts can’t even come to a consensus on healthy eating habits.
While it would be impossible to try and unpack an issue this complex in a single blog post, I want to examine one particular aspect of this dynamic in hopes of bringing a hint of clarity and simplicity in our quest for making healthier choices.
More specifically, I want to examine what I consider the 5 most common food allergens: soy, wheat, dairy, corn, gluten and their impact on our health.
Over the past 50 years, these 5 substances have infiltrated our food systems and have become commonplace in virtually all of our grocery products. Just look in your kitchen cupboard, and I guarantee you that 99% of the products in there contain at least one or more of these substances. At first glance, these substances do not appear dangerous to our health. In fact, many people would argue that much of these ingredients are essential to maintain a complete diet (i.e. dairy for calcium, grains for fiber). And I see their line of thinking! Look no further than the original FDA food pyramid, and these ingredients are found in a good portion of their recommended food choices. On top of that, savvy marketing strategies, such as ambiguity in nutritional discourse (i.e. food labels, “greenwashing") and the influence of big business have given food manufacturers carte blanche to add these substances in all of our food. But why are they so bad? If they are FDA approved, they couldn’t be harmful to us, right? Well, back in the day (say 50-60 years ago), they weren’t as bad. In 1960, if you were eating corn or soy, you most likely were eating it in its natural state. However, with the advent of genetic engineering and the expanse of food giants like Monsanto, these substances are now highly processed and made extremely cheap, no longer resembling their natural state. As a result, we have reached epidemic status in terms of increases in health-related problems. Below, I tried to break down each of these substances and uncover why they are so bad for us.
To begin with, the majority of soy produced in the US is genetically modified, and this results in an increased risk in certain cancers. Processed soybeans contain isoflavones, i.e. phytoestrogens, and recent research has found that phytoestrogens can contribute to the growth of tumors in the breast and uterus. Another problem with soy is that it increases toxic load. Soybeans are among the most heavily sprayed crops, resulting in their high pesticide content increasing the body’s toxic load. In addition, the processing of soy crops produces a high aluminum content, which can damage kidneys and the CNS. Other research has linked the consumption of soy to instances of hypothyroidism, ADD and cardiovascular stress (Poliquin, 2012). If you must consume soy, choose for an organic variety when possible.
Out of all of the allergens on this list, dairy is the most disputed in terms of effects to our health. Both due to the lack of conclusive research concerning dairy’s bad rap along with the perceived health benefits make dairy highly polarizing. But the main reason dairy is on this list is because the majority of the population has problems digesting it. As it stands, humans are the only animal that drinks the milk of another species. Speaking from semantics, the biological purpose of a cow’s milk is to feed a growing baby calf, and humans aren’t calves and don’t need to grow. Back before agriculture, humans only drank mother’s milk as infants and didn’t drink milk as an adult. Consequently they did not experience some of the GI stress and gut irritation that is so common today. People that have problems digesting dairy is usually the result of two main culprits: 1) lactose intolerance, which occurs when people stop making lactase, the digestive enzyme located along the small intestinal wall that breaks lactose into glucose and galactose for easy digestion, and 2) dairy protein (casein) intolerance, which can manifest itself in different ways. According to research, about 75% of the world’s population has some type of dairy intolerance. If you choose to consume dairy, raw, organic and high-fat is going to be your best option.
Wow, there are so many issues when it comes to corn I don’t know where to begin. Well, for starters, many people consider corn to be a vegetable... it's not, it is a grain, and actually a very unhealthy grain. According to Sisson (2014), corn is one of the most sugary, starchy, empty grains there is. And that is just in its natural form! Since the corporatizing of the modern food industry, the majority of corn in the US is genetically modified to become more resistant to pesticides, and this process has virtually stripped its nutritional value. Because it is made so cheap, corn is the #1 ingredient in most processed and fried foods. In addition, corn contains high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids, which can lead to inflammation and auto-immune diseases (Sisson, 2014). Particularly in cooking oils, such as corn and vegetable oil, where they are highly processed and no longer resemble their natural state. And the worst offender is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is much sweeter than sugar and much worse for your health. Also because it is so cheap to make, HFCS is in virtually all sweetened drinks (i.e. Gatorade, sodas, sweetened iced teas, etc.). If possible steer clear of this stuff at all costs. Or at least buy it organic locally or from a farmer’s market so that you have some idea where it came from.
Note: If you are interested in learning more about the impact of corn on our health and the environment, watch the documentary King Corn.
As it pertains to our health, wheat and gluten bring about another flashpoint for debate. Many people subscribe to the notion that only those with celiac disease should refrain from gluten, but research is showing that it is probably a good idea for everyone to abstain from it. In fact, while only 1-2% of the population is affected by celiac disease, the percentage of those diagnosed with gluten sensitivity or intolerance has jumped to over 35%. From a nutritional standpoint, the argument has always been that wheat and grains contain vitamins and minerals that cannot be had from any other source. However, recent research has shown there is nothing that is had from foods containing gluten that can’t be had easily from gluten-free foods. There are much better sources of protein, fiber, vitamin B, iron, etc., than wheat and gluten-containing foods (Poliquin, 2012). Personally, I am a big fan of gluten and grain-free diets because they drastically improve body composition. Particularly as it relates to blood sugar regulation, the insulin spike that comes with grain-based diets makes lean gains more difficult to achieve. By simply removing all grains and oats and replacing them with fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, energy levels become more stable and body fat usually drops. However, if you must consume wheat/gluten, opt for the sprouted variety that are available at most food stores, and always go organic!
BOTTOM LINE…. While there is no way to completely avoid these substances, by simply being aware, you make better food choices. A good rule of thumb is to eat food in its natural state. That means only buying fresh produce, freshly cut meats, and no packaged foods. Essentially if the ingredients listed on a package are more than one, you probably want to put it back. And ALWAYS check food labels.
Catassi, C., Kryszak, D., et al. Natural History of Celiac Disease Autoimmunity in a USA Cohort Followed Since 1974. Annals of Medicine. 2010. 42(7), 50-38
Fasano, A., Berti, I., et al. Prevalence of Celiac Disease in At-Risk ad No-At-Risk Groups in the U.S. archives of Internal Medicine. 2003. 163(3), 286-292.
Poliquin - Healthy. Lean. Strong. (2012). Retrieved November 30, 2014 from
Poliquin - Healthy. Lean. Strong. (2013). Retrieved November 28, 2014 from
Sisson, Mark. Corn Is Not a Vegetable. (2014). Retrieved November 30, 2014 from http://www.marksdailyapple.com/corn-is-not-a-vegetable/#axzz3KVu2WQCU