The Actual Cost of a Burger

The announcements of the recent Academy Award nominations remind me to talk again about Food, Inc., a 2010 Academy-award nominee for Best Documentary, and winner of many other awards and nominations besides. Billed as a “civilized horror movie for the socially conscious, the nutritionally curious and the hungry” as well as “an unflattering look inside America’s corporate controlled food industry,” it minces no words. Just 94 minutes long, I urge you to make time to watch it. Continue reading


The Trans Fat Ban

This past summer, some 50 years after concerns were first raised about a possible link between trans fats and heart attacks, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled that partially hydrogenated oils, the primary dietary source of trans fats in processed food items, are no longer “generally recognized as safe” in human food. Processed food manufacturers will have three years to reformulate their products or request an exemption. This action is expected to prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks a year. Multiply that by 50 years. Continue reading


The Message

Today I’d like to speak about something that has been on my mind all week, and that something is “the message.”

As we all know, over the past 100 years the processed food industry has developed ever more sophisticated strategies for influencing the public to purchase an ever-growing proportion of processed edibles to replace real food.  And the industry has been so successful in this endeavor, if you want to call it that, that ⅔ of Americans are now overweight, and 50 percent are expected to carry a diagnosis of diabetes by age 65. Continue reading


Are You Kidding Me?

Is it me or is it April first? Processed food-like items seem like they’re getting stranger and stranger. I have to assume that the recipe down below seemed like a more-or-less reasonable recipe to somebody at some point, but the attempts of the processed-edibles industry to keep people eating nonsense seem to be getting desperate. Continue reading


On #Commodity and #Terroir

Today we’re going to talk about commodities. What is a commodity? When goods and services are traded on the grand scale for other goods and services, they become “commodities.” One characteristic of a commodity is that its price is determined not by quality, but by demand. The greater the demand, the greater the market. That’s what determines whether an item is a commodity. Continue reading


Let’s Start at the Very Beginning

Wherever I go, people always want to talk with me about the blog.  Lately, I’ve heard a lot of this: “I went to your website and saw a lot of interesting stories, but I didn’t know which ones to read first.  Where should I start?  What is the first thing you would want me to understand?”

There are two things I want everyone to understand. First, that there’s a big difference between real food and manufactured calories. And second, manufactured calories cause all kinds of serious medical problems. Like diabetes and obesity, for starters.

So today we’re going on a field trip.  We’re going to step out the back door, and find a field of wheat.  Then we’re going to pick a single grain, and take a careful look at it.  What do we see?  The grain contains 1) a bran fiber coat, 2) an endosperm, composed primarily of starch, and 3) the wheat germ, where the nutritious oils are.  Strip away the bran coat and wheat germ, like humans learned to do a couple hundred years ago, and all you have left is a pellet of white starch (also known as white flour).  Are you with me?

Now, if you could look at that pellet of white starch (or flour) under a microscope, you would see a long, simple chain of sugar molecules in a row.  It turns out that our bodies are so good at breaking the links between those sugar molecules that when you eat white flour, your blood sugar rises as fast as, if not faster than, when you eat sugar, like from a sugar bowl.  How do I know?  Well, one way I know is from my diabetic patients who check their blood sugars after they eat.  White flour and sugar spike blood sugars like crazy.

White flour and sugar are called “refined carbohydrates.”  “Refined” was picked by marketing folks to get customers thinking that whole grain flour was coarse, or unrefined.  For the most part, refined carbohydrates are not found in nature.  We make them that way.  In nature, carbohydrates are almost always found attached to fiber.  Think about dates and beets, for example.  Both of these are used by industry as raw material for refining sugar.  But in their original state, they are so rich in fiber that they get to be superfoods.

Okay, now what happens?  When you eat, your gut breaks down food into sugar, and it gets absorbed into your bloodstream.  If the food is easily broken down (like white flour and sugar), it gets absorbed quickly and your blood sugar rises rapidly.  If the food is broken down slowly (like produce, nuts, whole grains, beans, eggs, meats), it gets absorbed slowly and blood sugars remain more or less stable.

After the broken-down food crosses the walls of your gut and enters your bloodstream, your body releases insulin to catch the incoming sugar and escort it to the cells of your body.  The insulin comes from your pancreas.

Now, here comes THE MOST IMPORTANT PART of this discussion:  The faster you absorb the sugar, the more insulin you need to release to catch all the sugar and take it where it has to go.  The more slowly you absorb the sugar, the less insulin it takes to deal with the incoming sugar.

How does this work?  Like a valet service.  Let’s say you were invited to a huge party, and the invitation said it started at 7 p.m.  Now let’s say that at exactly 7 p.m., 1000 cars show up at the party center.  If this happens, there had better be a lot of valet staff there to park all those cars.

BUT, your friends could have had an open house.  They could have said to show up any time between 3 p.m. and 9 p.m.  At the end of the day, the party center would still have parked 1000 cars.  But they would not have needed to hire nearly as many valet staff to do it.  Right?

So now imagine that the cars are the sugar, and the valet staff are the insulin.  If the sugar shows up all at once, you need a lot of insulin to deal with it.  If the sugar drips in bit by bit, you don’t need to release nearly as much insulin.

Which nutrients do we absorb slowly?  Fiber, protein and oil.  Like whole grains, dates, and beets.  Not to mention peanuts, eggs, beans, veggies, and the like.  Which ones do we absorb quickly?  Refined carbs: Cake. Sugar. Breakfast cereal. Doughnuts. Bagels. Cookies.  Is it starting to make sense?  If not, ask me questions!!

Next week:  Why it’s important to use less insulin.


The Cost of Your Burger and Fries

I  had intended to write about crackers this week, but crackers will wait while I share the news that Food, Inc., an Academy-award nominee for Best Documentary, will be available on line, for free, now through April 29th only, at Food, Inc.  Billed by Variety as a “civilized horror movie for the socially conscious, the nutritionally curious and the hungry,” I urge you to find 94 minutes this week to watch it.

This news about Food, Inc. comes at a good time for “Your Health is on Your Plate,” because it was just last week that a reader named Julia commented on the higher cost of meat from pastured and grass-fed chickens relative to lower-priced, mass-produced meats.  She expressed the concerns of many when she said that it’s a difficult choice to make when you are purchasing and cooking for a large family.  But is it really true that mass-produced meat is cheaper?  It is not.  Food, Inc. explains why.

The money that we remove from our wallets turns out to be just one small part of the total cost of mass-produced, manufactured food products.  The actual costs, a great deal higher, are transferred to three other sectors: health, the environment, and society as a whole.  As a physician with a background in environmental studies, I stand at the crossroads where the three arenas intersect, and I state with authority that the costs are unacceptable and unsustainable.  Health effects are reflected in the absolutely unbelievable rates of obesity and diabetes, and the skyrocketing medical costs of caring for those with these diseases.  Environmental effects are made visible in the rivers of animal waste spewing from feedlots.  And the parallel between the inhumane treatment of animals that become our food and the workers (without whom these artificially suppressed prices are not possible) who process that food is not coincidental.

In Food, Inc., I heard a family choose dollar-menu sandwiches, fries, and shakes over fresh produce, all while spending $70/month on the father’s diabetes medication.  I saw photographs of feed lots filled with thousands of animals knee deep in their own excrement.  I learned that the number of slaughter houses in the United States has dropped from several thousand to just 13 over the past several decades, effectively concentrating and destabilizing the meat processing industry.  I was introduced to a woman who has campaigned, so far unsuccessfully, for safer cattle feeding and butchering practices ever since her 2-year-old son contracted hemorrhagic colitis that was caused by the E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria in the burger he ate 10 days before he died.  Feeding animals a grain-based diet, which they did not evolve to eat, increases the risk of illness to both the animals and the people who consume them.

Eating well doesn’t have to be expensive.  Eating meat every day is expensive, but eating different things, such as lentils, chickpeas, salads, whole grains (especially when purchased in bulk), and greens, is not.  A few years ago, one of my patients, a janitor in a local high school, dropped 50 pounds and half of his medications over the course of a year or so.  “How did you do it?,” I asked.  “Beans and greens,” he said with a grin as he pounded on his chest and then opened both arms wide.  “It’s the secret to my success.”

Jamie Oliver, the cook who transformed England’s school lunch program, has now decided to tackle Huntington, WV, with the highest rates of obesity in the nation.  His goal is to teach families to prepare meals in their own homes by using real ingredients in place of pre-processed, manufactured products.  I’ve been watching episodes of “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” as he wins over school cafeteria workers, a local disc jockey, and the many obese residents of a town filled with optimistic families.  Jamie Oliver understands that teaching people to enjoy and cherish their food is key to teaching them to prepare it.  And learning to prepare one’s own meals with fresh ingredients is the crucial first step to preventing obesity and diabetes.

Simple-food guru Alice Waters says that good food is a good investment. “You either pay up front, or you pay out back…in your health and your way of life and the health of the planet…”  Jamie Oliver says that Alice Waters’s books “…bring her recipes to everyone.  There’s nothing elitist about that.”  For more on affordability, check out Dawn Viola’s post at Wicked Good Dinner, voted one of the 10 best food blogs of 2009.

In the current environment, a burger has become a better buy than a bunch of broccoli.  Chips are cheaper than carrots.  Easy down-payment, lifetime to pay.  It reminds me of subprime, variable-rate mortgages.  The actual price is untenable, unthinkable, and, actually, unaffordable.

According to Michael Pollan, this is precisely why change is required at the policy level.  The “Farm Bill,” ignored for decades by most of us who assumed that it was irrelevant to those who don’t farm, is actually the heart of the American food system, and we will become more familiar with its content as we begin to make the standard American diet our own business.

Here’s more good news:  We remain complicit only as long as we continue to purchase cheaply manufactured calories.  The fact is, our purchasing power is substantial.  We vote each and every time we open our wallets.  So let’s get out there and vote.


Beverages to Spike Your Blood Sugar

Many people wrote to me about my recent post on soda and juice, so I thought it would be worth talking about the various kinds of drinks that are marketed to us right here in Ohio, the middle of America.  Remember my vignette about the diabetic character on TV?  Suddenly the character begins to act a little strangely, but she’s not too confused to murmur to her friend, “Help me check my blood sugar.  I think it’s too low.”   Sure enough. Now everyone on the set starts to run. What are they getting?  Something with loads of sugar, something she will absorb very quickly.  Like orange juice.  Or a fruit drink, or maybe a coke.

So…sweet beverages like juices and sodas (many with 12 teaspoons of sugar per can) are good choices if you want to spike your blood sugar.  None for me, thanks.

I decided to visit the “beverage center” at our local Walmart to see what’s in stock.  I especially wanted to look at the names of some of these beverages.  My hypothesis, borne out of experiences with margarine and breakfast cereals, is that the more manufactured the product type, the more creative the brand names.  

Here’s what I found in the beverage aisles:  Excluding carbonated drinks entirely, there was Sunny D, Powerade, Gatorade (11 flavors), Juicy Juice, Country Time, Tahitian Treat, Hawaiian Punch (many flavors), “Propel vitamin enhanced water beverage mix” (raspberry lemonade naturally and artificially flavored, and berry naturally flavored), and “Dasani Natural Lemon Flavored Water Beverage.”  V8 Splash (not the well known V8 tomato juice) was available in mango peach, fruit medley, berry blend, and tropical blend, which also has a “diet” version.

Caffeinated or coffee-flavored beverages included Red Bull energy drink (original and sugar free), Monster (regular, mega and lo-carb), Starbucks Frappucino coffee drink in 3 flavors (coffee, mocha, vanilla), and Starbucks doubleshot espresso & cream premium coffee drink (regular and light).

Country Time Lemonade Drink Mix gets consumed in quantity around these parts, so I thought I’d check it out online. According to the official website, Country Time’s name is “reminiscent of a time when it was easier to get good old-fashioned lemonade.”  The powdered mix was first marketed in 1975 by a TV character named “Grandpa.”  Cans and bottles hit the market in 1982.  Then came Pink Lemonade (1995), Iced Tea with Lemon (2003), Strawberry Lemonade (2004), and Country Time Light Lemonade (2005).  The Strawberry Lemonade is “the perfect blend of two favorite flavors:  sweet, sun-ripened strawberries and the classic taste of lemonade.”  Or, you could buy strawberries and lemons, and mix them with sugar and water.

In addition to V8 and V8Splash, V8 makes a fruit juice product called “V8 Vfusion.”  No matter which V8 Vfusion you buy, the first ingredient is sweet potato juice.  The flavors at Walmart included acai-mixed berry, strawberry-banana, pomegranate-blueberry, goji-raspberry,and passionfruit-tangerine.  The acai was listed 6th, the strawberry 7th, and the banana 8th in the list of ingredients.  You’re not really eating tangerines, passionfruit or berries; you’re just eating the names.  You’re not even eating sweet potatoes.  And you’re paying a price that is much higher than the one marked on the bottle.

Among the powdered mixes, Crystal Light took the cake.  The juxtaposition of the words “natural,” “flavor,” and “artificial” was curious.  I didn’t even know about Crystal Light live active (with 3g of fiber), Crystal Light energy, Crystal Light focus, or Crystal Light sunrise prior to my Walmart excursion. Wouldn’t it be better just to get some sleep and exercise?

I also found Crystal Light natural lemonade flavor, natural pink lemonade flavor, peach artificial flavor, raspberry lemonade flavor, white grape artificial flavor, crystal light red tea, crystal light white tea and, believe it or not, “crystal light green tea natural honeylemon flavor with other natural flavor.” You can’t get a whole lot more creative than that.  The word “natural,” which appears twice, describes not the product itself, but its flavor.  It surely took a lot of work to figure out how to make those eleven words sound so natural.

So what else is there to drink?  If you don’t care for a glass of cool water, right from the tap, or a glass of milk, or unsweetened iced tea, then try this recipe:  Dissolve ¼ c. sugar with ¼ c. water in a saucepan over low heat.  Set aside.  Mix 2 cups of water and 1 + 1/2 c. lemon juice (fresh squeezed if you’d like) together in a large pitcher filled halfway with ice while you allow the syrup to cool.  Stir the syrup into the contents of the pitcher. Add lemon slices, strawberry slices or mint leaves, slightly bruised, to garnish.  Serves 4-6.  To your good health!