Everyone’s a food expert.
In the Information Age, there are few things more difficult than divining truth from opinion on the internet – or just as commonly and more insidiously, willful deception buoyed by companies with a vested interest in swaying your beliefs, and earning your dollars. The proliferation of accessible online nutritional data means that companies can be highly selective in what they present, and find an abundance of ‘studies’ that support their agenda.
Just try Googling food pyramid. There are as many versions of it as there are individuals and companies vying for your food and nutrition-related dollars. Often these companies masquerade as independent institutes – institutes that upon closer inspection are funded by companies with vested interests in the outcome, or whose executive body has (or will have) ties to those companies. [A separate post will cover the alarming and complex ‘revolving door’ relationship between the USDA, FDA, Monsanto, the dairy industry and other cash crops.]
From Dr. Oz to the mighty USDA itself and every author and health-related commercial business in between, everyone has a pyramid.
The worst of them are aimed at moving unhealthy product, little better than thinly veiled advertisements. Let’s take just one example. The USDA's most recent pyramid recommends 2-3 servings of dairy per day, depending on which version you read. Pasteurized dairy does provide a valuable source of calcium and is often fortified with vitamin D; however, there are many other sources of both. Moreover, current science overwhelmingly shows the link between consumption of pasteurized dairy and a host of risks and illnesses: osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, several types of cancer, diabetes, Vitamin D toxicity and so on [the second half of Week 4's blog explores raw vs. pasteurized dairy in detail}. Yet unless you prepare your own food with an eye toward vigilance, dairy is almost unavoidable and is present in an overwhelming percentage of both processed and prepared foods across the United States - ultimately because of the USDA and its pyramid. In commercial breakfast dishes, salads, sandwiches, burritos, pasta sauces and coffee - just to name a few - dairy is nearly unavoidable without a special request to 'leave it off'.
Beyond the general health risks associated with pasteurized dairy, much of what is available today contains rBGH (also known as rBST), a synthetic growth hormone created by Monsanto to increase milk production by 11-16% and approved by the FDA in 1993, in spite of the fact that independent international studies have shown that its use raises the risk of mastitis in both the cows and the humans who consume it significantly. Beyond the reach of the USDA and FDA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Israel and the European Union have banned the use of rBGH since 2000. In the Back in Washington, DC, the dairy lobby is making headway toward legislation that would make it illegal for dairy farmers to label their milk 'rBGH-free', even though producers currently do so of their own free will - whether out of health concerns or market differentiation - since doing so would suggest that rBGH was in fact harmful.
Even the best food pyramids don't fully explain the picture (though imperfect, Dr. Weil’s is a good one). For example: the nutritional difference between spinach and iceberg lettuce – both leafy greens – varies greatly per nutrient, but is on average ten-fold higher in spinach with respect to vitamin and mineral content. In other words, you’d have to eat ten heads of iceberg to glean (some of) the nutritional benefits in one serving of spinach. So telling someone to ‘eat your veg’ is frankly like telling them avoid getting hit by a truck. A good idea, surely, but success is in the details.
Moreover, even among those who eat the healthiest of foods, how is one to know if one’s diet includes, for example, enough omega-3 fatty acids, folate or iron? And how does one account for the differences in men's and women’s nutritional needs, which certainly vary? Or how should one adjust nutrient intake with regard to a specific health issue, like anemia or osteoarthritis? As good as they are for general guidance, food pyramids have limits.
In short, some pyramids are misleading and outright harmful to health, as we’ve seen. Others offer useful rules of thumb for those of us who want to avoid the pitfalls of highly processed or engineered foods, which are everywhere. But in the end, the optimal resource is one that takes into account the full spectrum and quantity of nutrients that your body needs – not just food types and numbers of servings – and uses it to determine whether you are in fact feeding your body properly.
Easier said than done.
So let’s start with what we know.
We know that we, like all living creatures, evolved over millennia alongside the rest of the planet and its food resources – in fact, because of it. We evolved to eat what grew naturally eons before we began to act on it, manipulate it, and sell it. We learned what made us stronger through trial and error, what to avoid, and we passed that knowledge on through the generations so that our progeny could flourish. In short, nature and humans are symbiotic, both biologically and evolutionarily. Our ancestral food pyramid looked something like this:
Although agriculture has been practiced for roughly 10,000 years, it is only since the Second Industrial Revolution, which began in the 1850’s, that we who live in industrialized nations began the short transformation from largely producing our own food (or buying it from someone we knew, personally) to relying fully – as we do today – on the post-industrial food production complex to fuel us. The United States has led this revolution, owing in part to a desire to stabilize crop production and related costs, which ultimately translates to what shoppers pay at the checkout. Beginning with the 1960’s, as told by Greg Crister in his wonderful book Fat Land, President Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz struck two historically consequential deals insofar as industrializing food. The first was with the Japanese, who had recently managed to create a new sugar-replacement from corn: high fructose corn syrup. This stabilized and dramatically lowered the price of sugar. The second deal was with the Malaysians, who had found a way to produce a cheap preservative and flavor-enhancer from palm trees: palm oil, which as Crister says, has a saturated fat content equal to that of 'pig lard'. Between the two, food became cheap, tasty, and longer-lived, paving the way for the fast food industry to flourish. Crister argues that the birth of that industry was a turning point in our relationship to food. Cheap, quick food led the increasing outsourcing of food preparation from our own kitchens to those of food businesses.
Beyond these two historic deals, Butz was known for his ‘get big or get out’ policies towards farming, which initiated the paradigm shift from small family-run farms to commodity mega-farming. The 'Henry Ford of crops' did for farming what the assembly line did for the auto industry. Butz incited farmers to plant corn ‘fencerow to fencerow’, and created the subsidies that moved growers away from their traditional produce toward commodity crops like corn, soy and wheat to maximize production and drive prices down. Butz, more than any other individual, is ultimately responsible for the demise of the small farm and the rise of Big Ag, the according shift from food to commodity and the resulting plunge in the price of food production, with Big Ag companies overtaking the whole business of feeding the nation.
To wit: in the 1980’s, Monsanto shifted from its historic focus on creating and selling some of the world's deadliest chemicals (Saccharin, PCBs, DDT and Agent Orange, to name just four) to re-engineering nature, and in 1994 began to sell product to farmers through its acquisition of Calgene, the first company to market a genetically modified (GM) food: the slow-to-ripen, rot-resistant Flavr Savr tomato. Since then, through a series of acquisitions and mergers, Monsanto has grown over the past 30 years into the world’s largest producer and seller of crop seeds, holding 27% of the global market. With its competitors and occasional collaborators – Dow Chemical Company, Dupont and Switzerland's Syngenta – these companies create the seeds, chemicals and processes that in turn grow the vast majority of the world’s food resources. Said another way, these companies sell the source ingredients to the world’s largest retail food production companies: General Mills, Kellog, Mars, Coca-Cola, Danone, Kraft, Nestle, PepsiCo, Unilever and Mondelez, who between them create and sell the vast majority of things we buy from the shelves of our supermarkets. The graphic below lists names of individuals who have held positions - including top leadership roles - with both Monsanto and the USDA, FDA and US Government - often multiple times.
Okay. Back to our stomachs.
Nature created synergistic relationships between that which eats and that which is eaten. Grazing animals such as cows and sheep have rumens which break down otherwise indigestible grasses. Salmon are carnivores and eat other sea creatures, such as plankton, small fish and shrimp. Chickens are foraging omnivores and eat berries, insects, worms and seeds. In addition to photosynthesis, fruit and vegetable, plants pull nutrients directly from the soil and water beneath them, osmosing whatever directly lands on, or is dissolved in, those two nutrient sources.
Nowhere in the past 2.3 billion years, when the Earth’s atmosphere shifted from a methane to oxygen base and nature as we know it began to evolve, were there plants who fed on weed killer and industrial sludge; cows and chickens who ate brewer’s spent grain, silage, and pesticides (or spent lives in an atmosphere of ammonia and fecal matter); or salmon who ate corn, soy and canola, or chicken feathers, necks and intestines.
Likewise, we did not evolve to ingest any of those byproducts either, through the source foods we eat, to say nothing about the proliferation of sugar, salt, oils and grains that we ingest daily, unlike our ancestors.
And yet here we are.
The bottom line for achieving nutritional health is that we need to return to the nutrient sources we evolved to eat, in the proportions and quality levels of pre-industrial food. Doing so takes substantial effort in today's context of fast, cheap, industrial food product, but it is readily achievable, since real foods are still widely available, close to your home, at reasonable cost, that carry a minimal industrial footprint.
The blogs that follow will begin to dissect specific food groups, nutrients, common questions and misconceptions, and provide detailed charts of nutrient values in the world’s truly healthiest, naturally occurring everyday foods.