The Commodity Compromise

In life, one always has to choose between quantity and quality. If your goal is to obtain an item of the highest possible quality, then it doesn’t matter how much you get. Like a sample of uranium. When it’s quality you’re after, it doesn’t matter whether you end up with a microgram or a kilogram. The issue of its purity is not negotiable, so the amount is secondary. But when it’s quantity you seek, it doesn’t matter whether the end result is purity or perfidy, perfect or problematic. Continue reading

Chocolate Mousse

What follows is a true story. It really happened, and you can draw your own conclusions.

Just over 13 years ago, on a snowy evening in January 2003, my daughter and I went out and brought home the sweetest, gentlest, 8-week-old Labrador Retriever puppy. She was a chocolate lab, and so we named her Mousse. Mousse played ball; Mousse cuddled with the children; Mousse helped me weed the garden; Mousse stole food from the kitchen table when she thought no one was looking; Mousse hung out with the chickens and enjoyed visiting with our friends and neighbors, both human and canine. Mousse became family, and all was well. Continue reading

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

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.