Week 14: Enzymes and Food - Foundational Health

Enzymes are substances which make life possible. They are needed for every chemical reaction that occurs in our body. When it gets to the point that you can't make certain enzymes, then your life ends.

This macabre statement is an excerpt from a long interview with Dr. Edward Howell, who is considered one of America's pioneering biochemists and nutrition researchers. While his colleagues were studying vitamins and minerals, Dr. Howell spent his 50-year career strictly researching enzymes, identifying them via analogy - as early as the 1930's - as the body's 'work force'. In his words, 'You may have all the necessary building materials and lumber [his analogy for the vitamins and minerals that his colleagues were studying], but to build a house with them you need workers.' The results of his research, much of which still frames the scientific community's understanding of enzymes today, was the field of enzyme therapy

But just what are these tiny construction workers, and why haven't we heard more about them? If they're so central to life, why isn't everyone talking about them?

First, we will look briefly at how modern medical science has judged Dr. Howell's research, before getting into 'enzyme basics', including where prevailing nutritional dogma is split over his ultimate conclusion.

Encyclopedia.com's defines enzyme therapy as 'a plan of dietary supplements of plant and animal enzymes used to facilitate the digestive process and improve the body's ability to maintain balanced metabolism.'  It goes on to say that in traditional medicine, enzyme supplements are often prescribed for patients suffering from digestion-related diseases, such as celiac disease, Gaucher's disease, diabetes and cystic fibrosis. If you have any of these, there's a good chance your doctor has prescribed supplements. However, the entry then lists twenty-seven other ailments that 'can be treated by enzyme therapy', from AIDS to obesity to colitis to cancer to hepatitis to gastritis. Beyond ailments of the digestive system, the efficacy of enzyme therapy to the other modern ailments that proliferate today - like cancer, obesity, heart disease, food allergies and autoimmune diseases - are a hotly debated topic between thoroughly western practitioners, who largely favor the drug-and-technology approach of 'evidence-based medicine', and their eastern holistic counterparts, who favor a systemic approach that includes your psychological state, millennia of pre-modern medicine, use of Nature's own resources and a dose of modern science. The only thing that these two often mutually disparaging camps can agree on is that enzymes catalyze every single one of your body's biological functions, and without them, we could not live. 

But we've entered Act IV's battle without introducing its warriors - the enzymes themselves. 

Dr. Joseph Mercola, MD is a controversial character: his website garners as many new visitors per month (nearly 2 million) as that of the National Institutes of Health. He promotes alternative medicine therapies, and has been criticized and disparaged by business, regulatory and scientific communities across the board. He and another holist, Dr. Andrew Weil - more than any other American practitioners - provide a rare and powerful counter-perspective to the entrenched promotion of 'Big Pharma', and because of that alone, their research and advice are worth considering, if we value a broad perspective with respect to achieving optimal health. On both sides, as with anything, we must always separate efficacy from marketing, because politics or not, the body doesn't care who makes money. To that end, Dr. Mercola has an excellent primer on enzymes that is worth reading in full - linked here. Toward the end of his post, he draws conclusions about enzymes and health that are debated and debatable. But the information is excellent regardless, and I'll discuss some of the salient points below.

As mentioned earlier, enzymes are central to every one of the body's processes. Enzymes are first and foremost catalysts, spurring the processes that build raw materials, circulate nutrients, remove toxins, produce energy, break down fats, regulate hormones and slow down aging. There are three types: the first two, digestive and metabolic enzymes, are produced by the body (mostly in the pancreas, but also in the mouth and small intestine) to catalyze the processes within each system. Digestive enzymes break down food into nutrients your body can use, and metabolic enzymes run your metabolism, which is to say, your entire body, since these include your circulatory, cardiac, endocrine, neurologic, renal, lymphatic, hepatic and reproductive systems, in addition to your skin, bones, joints and muscle tissue. Put simply, enzymes are the work force that allows nutrients to reach their target, and to maintain the overall functionality of your body's systems. It's appropriate to mention here that Dr. Howell's most contentious assertion is that we are born with limited enzyme potential, meaning that we 'use up' the body's enzymes, and that once they are depleted, we cease to exist, because the body cannot function. He posits, therefore, that we must be parsimonious with our use of internal enzymes by relying on external enzymes (from foods, which we will discuss in a moment) to supplement and safeguard our internal supply. The notion of limited enzyme potential has been in no way proven, and is the focus of much passion-driven online ink and scientific debate. The fact is, we don't know. Dr. Howell presents compelling arguments. If you'd like, you can read some of them here (warning: it's on a website that sells supplements). If you want to 'geek out' and read a compelling set of counter-arguments - presented by the website 'beyond vegetarianism' - you can do so here. They, like many others, refute Howell's 'limited supply' theory and assert that the body produces what we need, without limit, and irrespective of how much we supplement our diets with external enzymes, triggering the other great enzyme debate.

That would be about the third and final type: food enzymes. These are the only enzymes our body does not produce but which we receive from external sources - the foods we eat. All raw plant and animal foods contain enzymes, as we humans do, in order to grow and function. So when we eat foods, we are by default introducing enzymes into our own digestive system. 

But.

There are other factors at play. We've seen in past weeks that some 90% of the foods that make up the average American diet are processed - i.e.: altered from their raw, natural state. Enzymes, as central as they are, are extremely fragile, and as such as prone to being 'denatured' - which means inactivated, and thus useless from a biological point of view. Several things decrease or destroy enzyme content (by which we mean active enzymes) in the foods we eat, with the two prime influences being heat and age.

Heat

Food enzymes are 100% denatured at 118°F (if wet heat) or 150°F (if dry heat). This applies to all foods, since heat is heat. Take one of our favorite subjects: pasteurization. As we discussed in Week 4, the US government strongly recommends this process (states have jurisdiction over regulation) in order to kill potentially harmful pathogens - aka bacteria - notwithstanding the fact that raw milk is naturally anti-microbial. In tests like those described here, when large amounts of pathogens are added to raw milk, it has been shown to kill them on its own. Pasteurization regulation, which requires milk products to be exposed to temperatures exceeding 160°F for 15 seconds, exists - if we are honest - because of the extreme pathogen-rich environment of industrial cattle factories, called CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations), where bacterial risks to cattle and human alike are rampant. Because of the festering conditions in which CAFO's raise and process beef, cattle are administered staggering amounts - 29 million pounds in 2009 alone - of antibiotics. This is a problem for two reasons: first, antibiotics denature enzymes. Second, and even more troubling, antibiotics wreak havoc on your gut's micro-biome. Your gut, as we'll discuss more below, is comprised of 100 trillion bacteria that control both your immune system (90% of which lives in your gut) and your overall health, via the nutrients that are released there and sent to your body's organs. For that reason more than any, we recommend that if you're going to eat red meat, you do so from animals that were raised hormone- and antibiotic-free (aka organic), and grass-fed (aka pastrure-raised). Not only are enzymes preserved, and risks lower, but nutrient content is far higher.

Beyond enzymes, no less than the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) wrote a paper on CAFOs, and on page 13 they state that people who live near them - to say nothing of the cattle inside of them - are subject to high risk of respiratory irritants, chronic lung disease, chemical burns to eyes, nose, throat and skin, olfactory neuron loss, bronchitis and even death. To say it again, pasteurization does not exist because raw milk is harmful, since most - if not all - raw milk enterprises pasture their animals - meaning, they graze outside on grass, in low densities and healthy physical environments, and thus the pathogens that pasteurization is supposed to mitigate are simply not present, enough to overcome dairy's own anti-microbial defenses. The regulations simply exist to mitigate the risk of raw milk produced in CAFOs that can be easily contaminated in these horrific environments. Thus most Americans are deprived from dairy in its most nutritious form, while in Europe, one can buy it in a vending machine, underlining starkly the preposterousness of the American position. Worse still, studies show that the majority of the 65% among us who have become lactose-sensitive or intolerant - over the past 50 years alone - have become that way because by pasteurizing and homogenizing dairy, we have killed enzymes like lactase that allow us to break down milk's lactose (sugars). In fact, the non-profit Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF) conducted a survey in 2007 and found that among Michigan residents who had been diagnosed with lactose intolerance, 82% stated they could drink raw milk without a problem. Adding to the issue, the calcium in pasteurized milk is rendered insoluble by the fact that the enzyme phosphatase, which aids the absorption of calcium into our bones, is also denatured with heat. Further still, the lipase in raw milk that exists to help break down its fats is, like every other enzyme, deactivated with heat. And all this is to say nothing of pasteurization's effect on vitamin and mineral content in milk. For some reason, this article boasts that 'only' 20% of vitamins and minerals are lost through pasteurization. It goes on to add that the removal of milk's fat (i.e.: low- or no-fat) also leads to a loss of most or all of its vitamin A and D. Ah, well. We've used milk as an example of heat's impact on enzymes. The same holds true of all commonly pasteurized products: fruit juices, all dairy, vinegar, eggs, and almonds. Many of these are available in non-pasteurized versions. Needless to say, for reasons explained, we highly recommend you opt for the latter. Lastly, it is not only enzymes that suffer; vitamins A, B-complex (except B3), C, D and E are all diminished, or eliminated, by heat. 

But enough about dairy and pasteurization.

Digestive Enzymes

Digestion is initiated in the mouth, where a combination of food enzymes and salivary enzymes amylase and lipase initiate the process of digestion, on carbohydrates and fats, respectively. Once this pre-digested food enters our stomachs, hydrochloric acid catalyzes other enzymes, like pepsin, which begins the digestion of proteins. 1-2 hours later, food passes through the duodenum, which sits between our stomachs and our small intestines, where a flurry of enzymes of all types - protease (proteins), amylase (carbs) and lipase (fats) - that are produced in the pancreas mix with the digestive food slurry. The small intestine - which is alkaline - produces 90% of digestion, according to Dr. Mercola, and is where foods' 'micro-nutrients are absorbed into your bloodstream through millions of tiny villi in the wall of your gut'

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Copyright FFFL

Raw Foods

I mentioned enzymes are present only in raw foods. As we've seen, heat denatures / deactivates enzymes. This includes cooking, and is one reason some health professionals champion a raw food diet. They assert that raw foods are enzyme-rich, and consuming them decreases your body's burden to produce its own. Central to the argument is the fact that as we've seen, enzymes are used for every metabolic function in the body. When our enzymes are not being used to digest food, they are being applied toward other metabolic processes, like flushing toxins, repairing skin, bones and tissue, catalyzing the brain's activity, etc. etc. etc. Thus, as the theory goes, consuming enzymes externally, from raw foods or enzyme supplements, allows our bodies' own internal enzymes to 'build our house' and keep it clean - to borrow Dr. Howell's analogy. That is to say, the more enzymes you consume externally, the more you body's own enzymes can focus on repairing and maintaining itself, instead of digesting foods. Enzyme supplements, it should be noted, are often encapsulated in an enteric coating, which is a polymer that is immune to the stomach's acids, but releases them in the alkaline small intestine, where the majority of digestion occurs. So if you take them, make sure they are enteric-coated. Another area of concern is the universally accepted fact that enzyme production diminshes with age. This is due to the fact that the organs that produce enzymes age, the same way the rest of you does, and with it, their capacity for production. A good explanation on aging and enzyme production can be found here. Thus, as the enzymes' efficacy diminishes, a vicious cycle of aging acceleration occurs, since enzymes are key to the maintenance of our bodies' systems. If they can't do their job, the health of our systems declines, in a downward spiral. This line of thinking is consistent with the quote with which we began this post: 'when your body can no longer produce enzymes, then your life ends'. If so, then the addition of digestive enzymes gains an added importance as we age - as both a supplement and a prophylactic - as our own bodies begin to lose their ability to produce them naturally. Enzyme production peaks - and starts to diminish... at the tender age of 27.

So, science lesson aside, how do I get enzymes from foods?

Even within the world of raw foods, the amount and density of enzymes varies greatly. A good list of foods that are high in enzyme content is included here. Four of them - papayapineapplebananas and avocado - top everyone's list. Interestingly, they are also all tropical fruits. Sprouting is another food process that spurs enzyme content greatly in the host plant. We spoke briefly about sprouting in Week 12. Because of its relevance to this subject, I will re-post some of our own content here:

According to nutrition expert Dr. Mercola, young plant foods - called sprouts or shoots, and commonly referred to as 'raw' or 'living foods' - contain up to 100 times as many enzymes as adult plants, and up to 30 times the density of vitamins and essential fatty acids. Let's repeat that: up to 100 times the enzymes and 30 times the vitamins and fatty acids as the world's otherwise healthiest foods. This is why they are often referred to as miracle foods. In addition, according to Dr. Mercola, the nutrients in sprouts are often more bioavailable than those in adult plants, which means the body can more readily absorb them, instead of simply passing them through your system, unused. 

It's clear for a number of reasons that including sprouts in your diet is a good idea. From an enzyme perspective, it's hard to do better. Sprouted vegetables and grains can be found in farmer's markets around the country and in health food or health-minded groceries everywhere; and are far more varied than the alfalfa-blooming Chia Pet that may come to mind, if you're old enough to remember that fad. My own shopping cart regularly includes sprouted radish, pea shoot, broccoli, alfalfa and sunflower. Equally prevalent are sprouted mung beans, clover, wheat grass and lentils. Dr. Mercola has an excellent article on nutrient content in sprouts - and how to grow them yourself, for pennies.

Sprouted, whole-grain breads is another important source of enzymes. As we wrote in Week 8, this resource by the Whole Grains Council allows you to find whole grain breads in a searchable database, either to find good products or to see how the ones you use measure up. In general, we highly recommend replacing wheat breads (i.e.: any flour product) with their less processed counterpart. A good article by Weston A. Price on the effect of modern milling processes can be found here. In it, they discuss modern milling's destruction of a grain's most nutritious parts - the bran and the germ. This high-speed milling also heats the wheat to 400°F in the process, destroying nutrients like vitamin E. Before the advent of modern milling, bread was our most readily available source of vitamin E, according to to the article. By contrast, sprouted grains are especially valuable since beyond comprising whole grains, the act of sprouting lowers their gluten and starch content while preserving valuable enzymes and amino acids. These breads are often referred to as 'live' foods, and can be found easily in national grocery chains, in addition to specialty food shops - sometimes in the freezer section. A good resource that lists and grades sprouted grain-type breads is here

Fermented (Cultured) Foods

In a quasi-exception to the 'raw rule', enzymes are very much present in fermented (or cultured) foods. While these are often raw, they are nonetheless somewhat processed, insofar as they combine source foods to allow a natural catalytic process to induce fermentation. In fact, it is enzymes that cause fermentation, as discovered by German chemist Eduard Buechner, who in addition to being considered the founding father of biochemistry, his discoveries related to enzymes and fermentation won him a 1907 Nobel Prize. 

Fermented foods have the added benefit of being rich in probiotics - that is to say, they help regulate and normalize the micro-flora (aka 'good bacteria') among the 100 trillion (!) that inhabit your gut. It's widely believed - buoyed by strong and pervasive clinical evidence - that probiotic foods ease many of the digestive problems that so many people on enzyme-poor western diets experience. You need look no further than the yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, lassi and pickled cucumbers, beets, relishes and ginger in your supermarket - foods that were central to your grandparents' traditional diets. These fermented or 'live culture' foods are great sources of digestive enzymes, and have been intuitively used for centuries in cultures across the globe to palliate all manner of gastro-intestinal malaise. In fact, there are few traditional cultures where fermented products of some kind are not found. Commonly consumed as far back as Ancient Rome, Emperor Tiberius himself used to carry a barrel of sauerkraut with him on long voyages to the Middle East, since he (like many Romans) knew that the lactic acid it contained protected him from intestinal infections. 

Putting a modern spin on natural, historic fermented foods, now-widely available and hyper-trendy probiotics proliferate the high-end cold-pressed juice market. A daily $12 juice and $2 probiotic shot? Welcome to the world of the one percenters. But it works.

Nuts, Seeds, Grains and Legumes

Now for the bad news. Nuts, seeds and legumes are extremely important and dense sources of plant-based proteins, vitamins and minerals that are often rare in the plant world outside of these food groups. As such, we have encouraged you to include them in your diet in a number of posts. On the flip side, they also all contain significant enzyme inhibitors. As reported by FoodMatters here, enzyme inhibitors 'clog, warp or denature an active site of an enzyme' - not just those in raw foods, but those your body produces. They further explain that grains - rice, corn, bran, wheat and oats, chiefly - contain toxic phytates like phytic acid, which when present combine with calcium, zinc, magnesium, iron and copper to block their absorption, leading to serious mineral deficiencies and bone loss.

In all cases, with the exception of brown rice, soaking these foods neutralizes their enzyme inhibitors and eliminates the phytic acidAn added benefit to soaking, nuts, seeds and grains begin to germinate - that is, sprout - which carries the additional benefits we have already discussed above, increasing their density of vitamins (especially B-complex) and enzymes. Yet another added benefit to soaking is that gluten, to which so many people have a modern intolerance, is partially broken down, and thus easier to tolerate. So while we are used to soaking our oats overnight, and rinsing our rice, the practice of overnight soaking - in warm water - should be applied to the nuts and legumes (like beans) that we consume. The major difference is that in the case of nuts, grains and legumes, an acid like citrus or vinegar should be added to the soaking solution, to neutralize the phytic acid that blocks the body's absorption of minerals. A good Wikihow article on soaking is included here.

Cooking

One of the most controversial aspects of enzyme debate is what role cooked foods do and should play in your diet. It's a fact that enzymes die when heated. But there are other benefits to cooked food, in spite of nutrient density, which is often diminished with heat. Often, cooked foods are easier to digest, since heat is one way of breaking down foods' structure; in the case of bacteria and meats, it's necessary in all but the cleanest of sourcing and preparation techniques, like sushi. But there are other, non-scientific reasons to cook foods. Food, after all, is a culture; it's a social contract. Meals are planned, prepared, shared and savored with friends and family, creating common experiences and bonding us. At FFFL, we personally advocate a balance to pretty much everything, both in our attitudes and in our 'rules', which should be broken often enough not to become unbearable dogma. This includes a large dose of cooked meals - especially at dinner, which is often the most social meal of the day. The point here - always - is to make good choices in your selection and/or preparation of foods, but to eat in a way that is reasonable and realistic, because it'll be easier to maintain a diet if it is straightforward and satiates your palate. But cook healthy: use heart-healthy oils, like coconut (in high heat), olive (in medium or low/no heat), and walnut (without heat). Or use none at all, and steam vegetables, as we do near-nightly (broccoli, romanesco, cauliflower, snap or snow peas, green beans, etc...) We even steam our eggs, since learning that trick from our friends at Cook's Illustrated, here. Use oil in lieu of butter when cooking pasta or fish. Use spices liberally (with the exception of salt), which pack flavor and potent anti-oxidants, are easy to store, and are long-lived. Lastly, don't overcook your meals. Cooking animal products in particular at high heat have been shown to transform the animals' DNA into mutative carcinogenic amines and hydrocarbons, thus increasing your risk of cancer. The National Cancer Institute posted a good article on the subject, here

Packaged Foods

It should go without saying that cooked or not, packaged foods are a major no-no. We've posted in nearly every article about the extreme toll packaged foods take on your body, and so will not repeat the long list of illnesses and the disease that they promote. In Week 2, we introduced the context of Big Food; in Week 3, the modern diet and disease. In Week 7, how our food choices make us sick; in Week 8, food's relationship to a specific illness - cancer; and in Week 11 - GMOs. In all cases, packaged or processed foods are the the root cause of most modern illnesses, as we've discussed heavily. Thus unlike cooked whole foods, which - enzymes aside - can still deliver loads of nutrients, the packaged foods that comprise a staggering 90% of our collective food dollars have no place in our houses or bodies. 

One more censure: the modern food industry is driven by finance, not health; and the fact is that the two exist at opposite ends of the spectrum. Nature, on the other hand, is firmly in the camp of health, since we don't just depend on her, our 200,000-year-old biological systems (6 million, if you count our ancestors) exist because of it. 

Luckily, there is a dawning renaissance underway that is focused once again on true health, in spite of the near-monopoly of industrial farming.

Conclusions

Eat a healthy diet full of raw, unprocessed foods for a host of reasons, inclusive of their critical enzymes. Introduce foods that are enzyme-rich into your daily diet, like papaya, banana, avocado and pineapple. They're all full of key nutrients and carry health benefits beyond their enzyme potential. Buy - or make - sprouted vegetables, and make them part of your salads, snacks or garnishes. They're brimming with enzymes, which are naturally produced to protect the young plant. Replace your wheat breads with sprouted-grain breads, which are 'live' and often in the freezer section to preserve their enzymes and vitamins. Include fermented foods in your diet; they're easy to find, and are full of enzymes and enzyme-catalyzed probiotics / live cultures - delivering a boon to your guts, where the majority of digestion occurs, and where 90% of your immune system resides. Soak foods containing enzyme inhibitors: nuts, grains and legumes. And cook! But ensure you strike a dietary balance of raw and cooked foods, favoring the raw (or near-raw) and most minimally processed foods, as enzymes are delicate, prone to denaturing, and as we saw, critical to every facet of human biology. And if for some reason we need to say it again, avoid anything in a box, or with source ingredients you could neither pronounce nor point to in Nature.

Week 13: Phytonutrients - Nature's Unknown Soldiers

Look deep, deep into Nature, and you will then understand everything better.

Our favorite scientist/theoretician/paragon of genius, Albert Einstein, spent no time engaged directly in food or nutrition science, but many of his quotes belied a sensitivity toward - and appreciation for - Nature's unmatched holism. That term - holism - was coined by South African statesman and philosopher Jan Smuts, in his 1927 treatise, 'Holism and Evolution' - which he dashed out during that year's parliamentary recess. It championed a focus on systems rather than parts. The idea of studying isolated components of things has constituted the lingua franca of the scientific community since the onset of the modern scientific method - an attitude that is just now beginning to change in favor of the systemic inter-relationship of things that Smuts and Einstein saw as self-evident. The ur-example is Nature itself. It is utterly impossible to remove one element or aspect of its system without inducing a (usually harmful, often cataclysmic) domino effect, whether that element is a single food nutrient among hundreds, like the enzyme lactase in milk which, once pasteurized, is killed, severely reducing our ability to digest and absorb its lactose (more on this later); or like Yellowstone's wolves - whose 1995 re-introduction has led to the wholesale rejuvenation of not just myriad animal populations but of willow trees and rivers, not to mention everything that depends on them (more on that amazing story here).

Enter the phytonutrient - aka phytochemical.

Most of us now know that we need vitamins, minerals, fats, proteins, carbohydrates and even fiber in order to live. [If you're unclear on any of it, we welcome you to read our posts up to this point, starting with Week 1's overview.] But what nutritional science is just beginning to understand is that while these substances are indeed our bodies' fuel, it is another entire category of sub-nutrient that may be the glue that holds everything together, and catalyzes the processes that allow us to use nutrients. Like the concept of holism, a plant's phytonutrients have a large effect on the conversion, quality, quality, availability and rate at which its nutrients are absorbed by (i.e.: of value to) our bodies and brains. In fact, there are so many phytonutrients that are unknown or continually being discovered, now that the scientific community is focused on it, that no one can agree on just how many there are out there; Google it, and you'll find quotes from 4,000 to 100,000 and beyond.

So what are they? They are a meta-category of chemical compounds that plants have evolved to protect themselves from everything from insects to germs, fungi and UV radiation. We also know that plants have roughly 64 times as many phytonutrients as the animals we eat, according to nutritionfacts.org. Studies, like the 12-year study completed in 2013 by the Universidad de Barcelona and published in the Journal of Nutrition, showed that diets high in polyphenols - the largest category of phytonutrients - led to a 30% reduction in mortality in older adults. According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, those polyphenols - which were largely unknown before 1995 - strongly support the prevention of degenerative diseases, like cardiovascular disease and cancer. AJCN goes on to say that the antioxidant capacity of polyphenols dwarfs that of conventional antioxidants like Vitamin C and Vitamin E - by ten times and one hundred times, respectively. Moreover, antioxidants catalyze the conversion/production of the vitamins into forms our bodies can use, like beta-carotene in carrots into vitamin A (more on that later). 

Confused by terms like polyphenols, phytonutrients and antioxidants? We haven't yet mentioned enzymes, phytosterols, carotenoids and glucosinolates. And those are just categories. There are sub-categories, like organosulfurs, flavonoids, curcuminoids, lignans, xanthophylls and tannins (you've heard of that one - red wine!), to name just six. And then there are the chemicals themselves, which are too numerous to list.

Before you stop reading, we've gone ahead and created a graph in an attempt to demystify - both for you and for ourselves - the world of phytonutrients. This list is in no way exhaustive; it's simply meant to help you understand how the 'tree' of nutrients relates to the whole, what the categories are, what each one does - health-wise, and which (common) foods contain them.

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You can also direct download a larger copy of the chart here

In it, we've focused on the antioxidant category - at center image in dark blue, and expanded it below, in green, purple and orange. Antioxidants are both the most largest and most important phytochemical class with regard to physical health. The other four categories (flanking the antioxidants), while extremely important, are relatively simple to explain, in brief: 

  • Enzymes serve to break down foods into nutrients, thereby improving our absorption of them. Nutritional scientists refer to enzymes as pre-digestive, because they begin to dissolve foods before the saliva in our mouths - produced by chewing - begins its own process as foods pass through on their way to our digestive tracts. As mentioned earlier, pasteurization deactivates all enzymes. This begins at 120F and is absolute at 160F - the legally required temperature by the Food and Drug Administration. Pasteurization - regulated since the 1950's, is why 65% of the population is suddenly lactose intolerant, according to Dr. Mercola, because the heating process kills the enzyme lactase in milk (and every other enzyme), whose job is to aid in the digestion of the nutrient lactose. Studies have shown lactose-intolerant people who consume raw milk products - as we reported in the second half of Week 4's post - can tolerate them without adverse effect.) A good article on why enzymes are important can be found here. It's also worth mentioning here that pasteurization has additional negative impact on the nutrient most people drink milk for in the first place: its calcium. Pasteurization renders insoluble the vast majority of the calcium milk contains. Meaning, the calcium in pasteurized milk passes through you, unabsorbed. This is a good example of what we mean when we talk about the interaction between nutrients, and the need for understanding foods holistically before we begin selectively re-engineering them.
  • Natural Acids are what gives foods their distinctive (and often strong) flavor, like the citric acid in lemons. Many are termed 'wholesome', and while they offer no direct health benefit, they are harmless; others are considered 'unwholesome', like the oxalic acid in dark, leafy greens. Overwhelmingly, the body can handle and dispose of them harmlessly. Occasionally, people do have sensitivity, such as those with kidney or gallbladder problems, in which case foods with 'unwholesome' acids should be limited. More info on Natural Acids can be found here.
  • Phytosterols inhibit the absorption of cholesterol. Thus people with diets high in phytosterols experienced lowered LDL (aka 'bad' cholesterol) levels, thereby reducing their risk of cardiovascular disease. A great overview on phytosterols can be read here. Phytosterols are predominantly found in wheat germ and vegetable oils.
  • Non-digestible Carbohydrates is a fancy term for what we call fiber. They are the 'insoluble' fibers of vegetables and fruit that give them shape - their structure, simply put. When ingested, these non-nutritive fibers pass through the body unabsorbed, while the vitamins, minerals, fats, proteins and phytonutrients they carry are absorbed. The major benefit of 'getting fiber in your diet' - by which we mean these non-digestive carbohydrates - is that they improve digestion and 'regularity' - and provide the added benefit of whisking along ingested toxins, thereby minimizing their contact with, and absorption by, the body. In addition, these 'prebiotic' foods play a role in gut health, lower body weight and lower cardiovascular disease. More on NDCs here.

Which brings us to the main category of this post - the buzziest of buzz words today: antioxidants. We reviewed these in brief in our last post, insofar as dark, leafy greens are one of the greatest sources for these - and many other - nutrients. As we mentioned then, the blogger Sophia Breene said beautifully in this article that antioxidants are not so much a substance as a behavior. As the name suggests, they reduce oxidation - called oxidative stress - of the various molecules inside your body. This is important because rampant oxidative stress creates 'free radicals' - those unstable cells that cause damage to you on a cellular level: your DNA, your proteins and your lipids. [We explained the molecular basis of free radical creation in our last post here.] As we said then, these free radicals are thought to be major contributors to a raft of modern disease, including cancerAlzheimer'sheart disease, stroke, Parkinson's, fibromyalgia, diabetes, agingcognitive declinemacular degeneration and ALS. Because of this, antioxidant phytochemicals - the largest and most important group, and one that only over the past 20 years has begun to be studied by scientists in earnest - are getting a lot of attention. So let's examine them.

As we mentioned, our graphic is incomplete. There are many major groups of phytochemicals, a (reasonably) full listing of which can be found here. We have chosen to include 3 of those in our chart, because they comprise the area of greatest study, and therefore nutritional value to you, through the food choices you make, insofar as looking to benefit from what the international nutritional science community has discovered. These include Glucosinolates, Polyphenols, and Carotenoids. Chemicals in all three categories provide significant antioxidant benefits. We will look here at what makes each group unique.

  • Glucosinolates: these sulfur-based compounds occur in two groups: organosulfurs and indoles. The former is found mostly in the alluvium family (onions, garlic, leeks, chives...) while the latter is found in brassicae (aka cruciferous vegetables) like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, arugula, bok choy, cauliflower and others. All of these vegetables... well... stink. That's the glucosinolates. What they do is directly inhibit cancer cell growth, as well as directly kill cancer cells, by forcing their apoptosis. You see, all cells are programmed to die (apoptosis); cancer cells are great at avoiding that (i.e.: staying alive). Glucosinolates suppress carcinogenesis (the creation of cancer cells) 'in vivo' - meaning in live subjects - and have been shown to induce apoptosis (normal cell death) in cancer cells 'in vitro' - meaning in laboratories. I've include just one study - from 2003 by the NCBI - here. The research paper goes on to conclude that 'Brassica vegetables can exert a profound effect on the balance of colorectal cell proliferation and death in an animal model of colorectal neoplasia [aka uncontrolled growth of tumors or lesions]'. A diet, therefore, that includes daily intake of glucosinates like those listed above, has been shown in study after study to have an anti-carcinogenic effect on your body, to say nothing of the density of vitamins, minerals and other antioxidants they contain.
  • Carotenoids: these are what gives fruits and vegetables their orange, red or yellow color, as in papaya, carrots and mangoes, which are high in alpha-carotene; or, in the case of some vegetables, the green in chlorophyll may visually mask underlying carotenoids, such as in kale, spinach and chard, which are high in beta-carotene. There are two types of carotenoids: carotenes, like the alpha- and beta- ones mentioned; and xanthophylls, which are found predominantly in marine life, like shrimp, lobster, crabs and salmon, but are also present in red/yellow/orange vegetables and fruits. Xanthophlls include lutein, zeaxanthin, both of which are found in high quantity in the eye's macula. All carotenoids contribute to skin and eye health, while beta-carotene in particular has been associated with lower risk of macular degeneration, glaucoma, formation of cataracts, macular edema and other eye diseases. As far as xanthophylls go, this article by Dr. Mercola focuses on astaxanthin, which gives salmon its pink color. Dr. Mercola calls this 'the most powerful antioxidant' when it comes to free radical scavenging, 65 times more powerful than vitamin C, 54 times more than beta-carotene, and 14 times more than vitamin E. He especially advises older people to consume salmon (to which I'll add the qualifiers wild and Alaskan, for their low mercury and high omega-3 fatty acids...) because the elderly are at greatly increased risk of eye diseases. 
  • Polyphenols: I've saved this category for last, because it's the largest, with over 8,000 compounds, and the most complex. its six sub-classes - flavonoids (the largest, by far), lignans, isoflavones, curcuminoids, stillbenoids and tannins - all exhibit antioxidant qualities, but what each group does for human health is quite distinct. Our chart begins to break down the key benefits and foods each group confers. But perhaps THE key benefit is that high-polyphenolic foods are strongly anti-inflammatory as well as being anti-oxidative. As we've discussed in several posts, chronic inflammation is an environment of ill-health in which the body is in a constant state of aroused defense, using up nutrients and immune functions in an attempt to restore balance. Stress and lack of exercise are part of the cause; but diet is a major contributor, as well. Chronic inflammation has been directly linked to many cancers, Alzheimer's and heart disease. it is also considered largely a modern, diet-induced condition, because processed foods comprise 67% of our dietary calories, according to AJCN, and 90% of our food dollars, according to Eric Schlosser. Polyphenols - and more than any other group, the flavonoids - promote an anti-inflammatory response when ingested in sufficient quantity and variety, by 'blocking the messaging molecules that promote inflammation'. On the flip side, a reduction in the intake of inflammatory foods - processed anything, pasteurized dairy and red meat - aids the body in returning to a state of repose, i.e.: non-inflammation. Thus you should both increase your consumption of anti-inflammatory foods and decrease your consumption of inflammatory foods.

So what foods are high in polyphenols? It would be as knee-jerk as it is somewhat accurate to say 'all plant foods', since the production of poly-phenolic compounds is a byproduct of plants' efforts to protect themselves from both the ultraviolet component of the sun that feeds them and the predators that try to consume them. Thus a comprehensive discussion about foods and polyphenols is nearly impossible, and totally impractical. What we can do is focus on foods we typically consume, or can/should consume, and the polyphenols that make them valuable.

Flavonoids - the biggest polyphenol category, with over 6,000 compounds - are found in a giant cross-section of foods that by any other measurement have little to do with one another, from dark blue and purple foods, like beets, blueberries, purple carrots/corn, red berries, to white foods like bananas, celery, onions and quinoa; to green foods like parsley, turnip greens, lettuces and cabbage; and the list goes on.

Tea

The single largest source of flavonoid intake among Americans is via brewed black tea, according to both World's Healthiest Foods and the USDA's own research. If you do the math based on the USDA's numbers, (predominantly black) tea comprises 75% of all flavonoid intake among Americans. Tea's key flavonoids are called catechins, which are by far of greatest nutritional value in (high-quality) Japanese matcha. Matcha sellers will tell you that their product has shown to have 137x the EGCG (epigallocatechin) content (EGCG is considered the key health-promoting flavonoid in tea) as that of regular green tea. That comparison came from the University of Colorado, comparing matcha to Starbucks' Tazo tea; The reality is that matcha has approximately three times the EGCG content of regular green tea. Black tea, and every other source of catechins, drops off precipitously from there. According to UC Davis' research, 'regular' green tea has on average 5x the EGCG content of black tea, 4x the epicatechin content, and 2x the catechin content - all 3 flavonoids that create its value. So drink green tea in place of black tea, and seek out high-quality matcha if you can afford it; quality matcha is expensive, though it carries many other health benefits, as we reviewed at the very bottom of last week's post. A word of caution: like anything, the quality of matcha varies greatly. That shot in your Starbucks latte may come from a cheap producer in China, and as such the health boost you seek from it may not bear out. This web link provides some good rules of thumb when choosing matcha. 

Spices

But when it comes to antioxidant and poly-phenolic food, tea in general ranks far lower than many other foods, and as such should only be thought of as part of a healthy diet. The European Journal of Clinical Nutrition (EJCN) lists here the 100 foods highest in polyphenols. Tea of any kind hovers around the #50 mark. The same chart also lists, by number, the foods highest in antioxidant activity. Interestingly, dried spices - led by the #1 antioxidant and #1 poly-phenolic food - cloves - are major contributors to both. In fact, cloves, peppermint, star anise, oregano, celery seed, sage, rosemary, spearmint and thyme all make the top 15 polyphenols on their list, in order. We, as do many health experts, encourage the use of spices in your meal preparation, from oregano in your pasta sauce to cinnamon on your morning blueberries, to curries in your cooked vegetable dishes. Last week we shared a quirky video by Dr. Michael Greger - a bit of a media star insofar as antioxidant health. We'll include it again here, because he shows how easy it is to up your antioxidant content with things you already eat. As the world's greatest antioxidant, cloves can be added to soups, teas, ciders or desserts; while the world's greatest anti-inflammatory, turmeric, can easily be incorporated into a variety of cooked meals. We often think of dried foods as being less 'live' or 'fresh', and therefore of lesser value. But teas and spices - essentially desiccated and often pulverized plants - often offer concentrated forms of these key nutrients. In fact, table 5 on the USDA's flavonoid intake chart here shows that dried parsley contains sixty times the density of flavones over raw parsley. So spice it up!

Berries

That's not to ignore fresh produce. Five berries - chokeberries, elderberries, 2 types of blueberry and black currants - all make EJCN's 'top 20' polyphenolic foods list. Unlike the catechins in brewed tea, flavonoids are especially delicate with regard to heat, and thus should be consumed raw, according to WHFoods. Blueberries are the largest source of anthocyanins (the blue- and purple-granting flavonoid in berries, purple carrots and purple corn, to name three) consumed by the American public. Blueberries are of particular interest not just because people already consume them, or because they're readily available everywhere, but because beyond the anthocyanins, blueberries contain fifteen distinct antioxidant phytonutrients, making them a 'whole body' antioxidant. WHFoods goes into detail here about blueberries benefit to your cardiovascular system, cognition, blood sugar, eyes, and of course, cancer. NCBI conducted a study testing the effect freezing berries (raspberries, in this case) has on their antioxidant phytochemicals. This is important, because frozen berries, which are cheaper and widely available in supermarket freezers, are often picked at peak harvest, then flash frozen, while fresh berries are often picked pre-peak, to improve their resistance to being pulverized in the long journey from field to supermarket. NCBI found that freezing had no effect on the overall antioxidant capacity of fruits. Buying frozen fruit has the added benefit of longevity. Fresh berries must be consumed within days of purchase before becoming mealy; whereas frozen fruit is easy enough to throw into smoothies - something I do daily. In either form, berries are a great form of antioxidant, along with other vitamins, a few minerals, and dietary fiber. Trailing the 'super-berries' but also making the top 50 on EJCN's list were plums, cherries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries (the lowest fruit in sugar), prunes, black grapes and apples - in that order.

Other polyphenols worth mention? The sub-classes lignans and isoflavones both affect our hormonal health systems. Lignans, which are nearly unique to flaxseeds, help regulate hormone levels, having been shown to help menopausal symptoms in women. For men, they have been shown to lower DHT levels, improving prostate health. 

Isoflavones, soy, phytoestrogen and endochrine disruption

This is a MAJOR area of concern. The polyphenol category of isoflavones is most readily found, and concentrated, in soybeans, which have been touted by pseudo-studies to hinder cancer cell growth by mimicking estrogen, reputedly lowering risk of breast cancer in women and again improving prostate health for men. This is due to the very real fact that they are phytoestrogens - i.e. plant-based estrogens, which also makes them endochrine disruptors. Endochrine disruptors are chemicals that, at certain doses, interfere with the hormone (endochrine) systems of animals and humans. This is of great concern because of the ever-increasing production of soy products in the US.

Soy production is second only to corn in the United States, comprising 8% of all US farmland - or 3 billion bushels - which is 35% of all worldwide production. Soy is consumed in many forms: infant formula; dairy alternatives like soy milk, soy spreads and soy creamers; tofu; soy protein isolate (in 'health' and 'workout' drinks, energy bars and cereals); and fresh, in soybean form (edamame). There is so much soy being farmed, that - like corn - the industrial agro-giants are scrambling to 'add value' to foods by including cheap, plentiful soy. Today, 31% of Americans consume soy products once or more per week - which is a 50% increase over just five years ago. For all the documented benefits of plant protein over that from animals, which bears out in the research, increasing research into the area seems to point out a wide disparity on the purportedly beneficial link between soy intake to breast cancer. The benefit seems to differ widely according to race, with largely no benefit among studies of Caucasians, and much more consistent benefits reported in studies of Asians, who have been consuming soy for 5,000 years. NCBI goes into depth on global studies here, under bullet point 5. Worse still, as an endochrine disruptor, scientists frankly have no idea - and wildly conflicting research results - as to what the increased consumption of soy will do to our hormone (endochrine) systems. Over 35% of bottle-fed newborns receive some of their protein from soy, according to a cautionary Men's Health article here. In doses we have yet to identify, soy consumption has the ability to disrupt our hormonal balance. Just look to retired US Army Intelligence officer James Price, who upon drinking a whopping 3 quarts of soy milk a day, developed breasts, experienced major hair loss, reduced sexual desire (and abilities) and mood swings. And while James' intake is admittedly far higher than normal, he eats other foods, whereas newborns - whose futures have yet to be studied, given the relative novelty of soy today - consume 100% of their nutrients via formula. Scientists are concerned that they don't know what long-term effects on hormonal (reproductive) systems soy-rearing will have on them. At the root of the issue is the fact that we don't know the acceptable level of phytoestrogen in our diets that will not trigger endochrine havoc. What we do know is that the FDA is to 'thank' for the uptick in soy consmption, which increased dramatically when they approved a health claim linking soy consumption to a reduction in heart disease. You can see the data here

In the end, as with everything, it is a matter of threshold. We are not telling you to avoid soy. It's somewhat impractical anyhow, given its market saturation. We are cautioning against jumping on the band wagon of the latest trend, where soy is thought of as a simple switch from cow's milk. We question the value of both, and caution you to consume either in small amounts, for reasons we've explored in depth with respect to dairy, and now discussed here insofar as soy is concerned.

So what to take away from all this?

Phytonutrients abound in the plant kingdom - 64 times as common as in the animal kingdom. Phytonutrients are an invaluable source of antioxidants, which keep your cells, DNA, lipids and proteins healthy and on track. They kill cancer cells, and prevent the formation of new ones. They confer all manner of health benefits, from skin health to eye health to cardiovascular support to nutrient absorption (bio-availability) to the people who consume them. And the sheer number of phytonutrients - likely over 100,000, with more being discovered every day - makes it important to consume a broad variety of fruits and vegetables in order to capture as wide a cross-section of benefit as is practical. 'Eat your colors', as the adage goes. Phytonutrients are the reason that statement (intuitively) exists, because they are the chemicals that create the color in our foods. Humans are complex systems that science is just beginning to understand. We evolved from and with Nature, because of it, and if Nature couldn't provide us with adequate nutrition to flourish for the millennia we have roamed the Earth before taking agricultural root just 10,000 years ago, we would simply not exist.

I created this website because we no longer produce our own foods, and now rely on companies with shareholders, profit-centered motivation, sophisticated marketing budgets and back-pocket politicians who create legal policy around issues of food production and consumption. In this context, most of us really don't understand food anymore, or exert much control over our intake of it, in the face of the ubiquity of unhealthy choices. It is therefore extremely important that we understand the nutritional profile of whole, plant-based foods as best as we can - foods that feed from the same root nutrients that we do, against the context of manufactured, industrial food-like products that isolate components of foods, alter and recombine them radically, and tell us they are as healthy as - or healthier than - the things that Nature grows. If there's a take-away from this week's post, it is that Nature - of which we are a constituent part - is holistic, while science and commerce are decidedly compartmentalized. And we are gambling with our own - and our families' - health.

So drink green tea - matcha if you can afford it; eat your colors - the whole rainbow of fruits and vegetables; include spices in your food preparation - they're cheap, long-lasting and phytonutrient-dense; base your diet on plant-based foods (that said, eat wild Alaskan salmon at least once weekly); avoid packaged foods that take a Frankensteinian approach to nutrition; avoid over-relying on any one category of food, since doing so can throw your system's balance off - like that of soy; and follow the sun, like the plants - not the balance sheet, like the industry.

Week 4: Food Words - Science or Snake Oil?

What's in a name?

Aside from being one of Shakespeare's most famous lines, it's also one of the most vexing questions for a modern eater who is looking beyond the price tag for food that best supports their family's health.

Let's start with eggs. Farm fresh. All Natural. Cage-Free. Free-range. Vegetarian Diet. No antibiotics/hormones. Omega-3 enriched. Organic. Pasture-Raised. All of these terms can be found on egg cartons, alongside friendly fonts, colorful logos, photographs of hens on lawns and even 'personal letters' written by farm owners, folded and inserted into the carton, like a message in a bottle. The underlying message: We're family farmers. You can trust us. 

So which words matter, and which have been devised simply to move product?

The truth is likely murkier than you think, so the first order of business is to help parse words dreamt up in a boardroom from those that are legally regulated. The fact is that in all cases, regulation is minimal. As a result, a large contingent of poultry farmers who practice a holistic, pre-industrial approach to their craft have established their own grass-roots terms to distinguish the trade's highest quality product - to the benefit of health-minded eaters - at least for the time being. More on that shortly.

Let's start with a statistic. According to the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply, 95% of all eggs sold in the US are from chickens raised in so-called battery cages that provide 67 square inches of floor space per bird - roughly the size of an iPad. In their lives, these chickens never see sunlight; will never walk or spread their wings; are fed a mixture of cornmeal and animal byproducts (the heads, intestines, gizzards and feet of of other chickens) and live in 'houses' numbering tens of thousands of birds, amid the roar of giant fans whose job is to minimize the overwhelming stench of ammonia and feces. Unlike their cage-free friends, chickens that cannot move do not need to be de-beaked, since they can't reach around to attack one another. Thus, according to Janice Swanson, an animal scientist at Michigan State University, 'only' 5% of egg-laying hens die prematurely in battery cages, versus 11% in cage-free environments.

Let's visit the life of the typical US commercial chicken. Those raised as meat are commonly referred to as broilers, portending their end state. PETA cites a 2006 Consumer Reports study in which an overwhelming majority - 83% - of grocery store broilers tested positive for salmonella, campylobacter or both - which is not surprising, given their living conditions. This is in spite of the fact that each broiler is given ungodly amounts of antibiotics during its short 5-7 week life in an attempt to minimize risk of dying from the diseases caused by their 'living' conditions before reaching optimal slaughter weight. Each 5 1/2 lb. broiler is administered four times the dose that is typically given to a 150 lb. human or a 1,200 lb. steer. The comparison is staggering, and the high percentage of bacteria-infected grocery chickens is yet more troubling. Egg-laying hens don't fare much better. On average, the comparatively longer-lived laying hens spend a year in similar conditions to broilers, unable to move, before being slaughtered and fed to other hens. From a human health standpoint, we needn't worry about males: they neither lay eggs nor become food. Thus the 250 million that are born each year to hens are thrown upon hatching into large grinders called macerators and thus efficiently culled, alongside slow-hatching or defective eggs of either sex.

The conditions listed above, and the bacterial risks passed from chicken to meat or chicken to egg - and from them to us - makes sourcing this food and understanding the different labels they wear all the more pressing. Let's start with eggs.

Farm FreshPaul Shapiro, Vice President of Farm Animal Protection at the Humane Society, says "It literally means nothing." Ditto All Natural, which he says is ironic, "because conventional chickens live in the least natural conditions imaginable."

Cage Free and Free Range. The first of these two designations mandates removal of the battery cages and doubles the space available per hen - to that of a large laptop. This gives hens just enough room to stand, move, spread wings and peck at each other, which accounts for the 6% increase in deaths of cage-free hens when measured against caged birds. The conditions within the thousands-strong hen houses are no different from conventional ones: full of disease, ammonia, feces, feathers, dust and dead birds. The term Free Range is, in practice, no different. It is not regulated by the US Government for egg-laying hens, apart from the need to provide them with access to the outdoors. According to Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute, the vast majority of hens never go outside, because of the wind tunnel effect at the hen doors caused by the industrial fans we have already discussed.

Eggs from hens fed a Vegetarian Diet are fed corn - often fortified with amino acids. Given that chickens are natural omnivores, getting much of their nutrition from worms and insects in addition to grasses and seeds in the wild, the term is perplexing, and doesn't provide the optimal diet for hen or egg. Omega-3 enriched eggs are from hens whose corn feed generally includes a flaxseed supplement, since flaxseeds are Nature's single best source of these important anti-inflammatory nutrients, or krill oil. This provides dietary advantages to us, since a chicken's feed does influence the nutrient composition of its eggs, the benefits of which we reap when we eat them. However, let's keep in mind that 95% of hens whose eggs carry these labels alone live in the conditions described above. Thus, to our minds, without additional classifications like organic or pasture-raised (see below), it's a small leap to say that we should be concerned about how the rampant disease, ammonia-laden atmosphere, industrial feed and antibiotics affects the eggs that we consume, and in turn our own health, omega-3's or otherwise.

Up to this point, no term we've looked at establishes a healthy living environment for hens, a healthy diet for their eggs, and therefore optimal nutrition for us.

Which brings us to the first term that carries a legal definition - OrganicOrganic is regulated by the USDA and requires hens to receive organic feed - itself free of synthetic pesticides, receive no hormones and receive no antibiotics. This implies - although not legally mandated - that their living conditions that are less prone to rampant bacterial infection that would require antibiotics. In practice, Kastel says, organic hens are subject to similarly crowded densities, since farmers are free to determine their own practices, as long as they comply with these three criteria. Thus, while certainly better from a chemical standpoint, organic poultry farming is a bit of a Wild West, in terms of health, organic is an important term but on its own is no guarantee of a quality product.

Our final term - Pastured (or Pasture-Raised) - comes closest to what we all imagine when we think of eating eggs (or for that matter, hens): chickens exhibiting natural characteristics, in a natural environment and density, eating what they evolved to eat. Nicknamed beyond organicthis is a purely grass-roots term and carries no regulation, though it is endorsed by the American Pastured Poultry Producers' Association (APPPA). The term was championed by 'star' farmer Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms who is heavily featured in Michael Pollan's seminal book, The Omnivore's Dilemma. Since then, it has been adopted broadly by other farmers hoping to emulate pre-industrial practices: by rotating crops and livestock across poly-cultured landscapes in a symbiotic relationship of 'eat, clear, fertilize, grow'. A phenomenal resource exists here - courtesy of the Cornucopia Institute, in which egg producers across the country have been rated on a number of practices and given a star - or egg - rating. You can find out exactly what your favorite egg producers are doing at the farm, and find out whose eggs carry the least risk and greatest benefit to your health - to say nothing of humane treatment of the animals.

The bottom line: if you can afford them, seek out and buy pastured eggs. They're tastier than conventional eggs (we've done our own side by side taste tests), their yolks more colorful, and their nutrient and micro-nutrient levels higher. In fact, according to this study, pastured eggs trounce conventional eggs with 1/3 less cholesterol, 1/4 less saturated fat, 2/3 more vitamin A, two times more omega-3 fatty acids, three times more vitamin E and seven times more beta-carotene. For the cost of a single Starbucks latte, you can eat good eggs for a week. So drink water. Skip the overpriced brew. And eat good eggs. 

No fat, low fat, full fat... raw fat? 

It won't become a new Dr. Seuss book anytime soon, but it's a good starting point to explore these terms from the standpoint of marketing and successful infiltration into the American diet. We've already seen in Week 3 that fats are essential to your health, and that without an adequate intake of both saturated and unsaturated fats we would (or do) suffer from significant health problems.

In 1976, Senator George McGovern called a hearing to 'raise awareness to the links between diet and disease'. Two of the luminaries he summoned - a longevity guru and a Harvard Professor - suggested that lowering intake of dietary fat could reverse heart disease. The latter claimed in their 1977 'McGovern Report' that ever-increasing amounts of Americans were gorging on fat-rich, cholesterol-rich and sugar-rich meals, thereby increasing their waistlines. These observations posted a direct threat to the egg, dairy, sugar and beef associations, which for the first time banded together and rejected the findings, demanding a rewrite. The US Government caved to the pressures, removing the words 'reduced intake' from the report's recommendations. Instead, they advised Americans to buy more food that was lower in fat. Two things resulted: first, the creation of an entirely new market: the low-fat, fat-free and other variants of existing food product that drove sales up; and second, the widespread substitution of fats by the now fat-averse American consumers with carbohydrates, which were lower in calories and still provided us with fuel. Gary Taubes, author of Why We Get Fatsays, "In retrospect, it's kind of amazing, but this was the thinking at the time."

Food companies began researching ways to remove saturated fats - which are solid at room temperature - from their products. They turned to unsaturated fats from vegetable oils, but these weren't solid and didn't provide the same mouthfeel or taste, so the process of hydrogenation was applied in order to (semi-) solidify them as suitable alternatives for the processing of food product. Thus trans-fats were born. Trans-fats, as we now know, raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower the HDL (good). They're found in baked goods, fried foods, most snack foods, margarine and commercial dough. But since trans-fats still don't adequately substitute the mouthfeel of animal fats on their own, large amounts of sugar and salt are often added to trans-fats foods to augment their taste. The combination of these - and their market saturation in the United States and abroad - is perhaps the single greatest cause of the increase in obesity rates and epidemic chronic illness we face.

The reality of saturated fat is much more nuanced. Often, they are present in animal-based foods that contain other important nutrient sources like vitamins B12 and D, choline, protein and calcium. Thus, the avoidance of saturated fats in non-engineered foods robs your body of important nutrients.

Take milk. For a period of over fifteen years at the dawn of the 20th Century, no less than the co-founder of the Mayo Foundation (the future Mayo Clinic) - Dr. J.R. Crewe, M.D. - regularly prescribed raw milk (AKA unpasteurized) as a cure for a host of conditions, from cancer to weight loss to allergies to kidney disease to many, many more. He noted in a 1929 article how diseases that had no similarity improved rapidly on raw milk. His patients loved it because it worked and obviated the need for drugs and other medical procedures. Eventually, he stopped treating patients with it, because his colleagues were overwhelmingly in favor of 'modernizing' our approach to health. In his own words, "The chief fault of the treatment is that it is too simple... and it does not appeal to the modern medical man."

A word on raw milk. Almost all commercially available milk today is pasteurized to remove risk of harmful bacteria like E. Coli, lysteria and salmonella. Raw milk is illegal to sell across state lines, and each state sets its own rules for intra-state sale, both in retail stores and on farms, listed here. Raw milk is what was being prescribed by Dr. Crewe, from cows that fed on pasture before the invention of pesticides.  According to Dr. Mercola in a great web entry on the subject, several studies show that the consumption of raw full-fat milk may reduce your risk of heart disease, diabetes, bowel and colon cancer and may help prevent weight gain - a claim that comes up time and again with regard to unsaturated fats, since fats feed metabolic processes and muscle production. He goes on to say that saturated fats are the preferred fuel for your heart, and that different acids contained in full-fat, raw milk lower one's overall cholesterol, are anti-viral, anti-fungal and anti-plaque, and prevent some cancers. Lastly, raw milk is high in omega-3 and low in omega-6 fatty acids, helping to restore your body's balance of these essential nutrients. A good resource for finding raw milk is here.

Pasteurization, on the other hand, requires that raw milk heated (161°F) for at least 15 seconds to neutralize its bacteria. Beyond its bacteria, heat 'impairs the biological value of the food, destroys enzymes, diminishes vitamins, denatures fragile milk proteins, destroys vitamin B12 and vitamin B6, kills beneficial bacteria, and actually promotes pathogens,' according to Dr. Mercola. In his opinion, there is no reason to consume pasteurized dairy, ever. Beyond destroying many of milk's vitamins and our ability to absorb the few that remain, pasteurization deactivates enzymes that assist in the absorption of calcium in your bones as well as those that help you to digest it (aka tolerance). These enzymes break down above 120°F and are almost fully inactive at 150°F. To wit: lactose intolerance, which affects about 65% of us, may well disappear in those who consume raw dairy products in place of pasteurized ones, according to Dr. Mercola. 

Read this article for a 1938 British piece on the subject - before industrial farming existed.

With all of the foregoing said, there is an equally vociferous lobby on the side of pasteurization that includes no less than the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC), as well as popular food sites such as chef Marcus Samuelsson's Food Republic, which aggressively promotes pasteurization in this web article. The chief argument is one of safety from bacterial infection. Like any form of artificial processing, heat treatment kills those bacteria. What we also know is that while some bacteria are harmful, many others are helpful or invaluable, such as lactobacillus and acidophilus, to name just two. These are commonly added to yogurt and kefir, or found naturally in fermented foods like kimchi and pickles, and produce 'good' micro-flora in your gut. According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition here, these bacteria 'show promising health benefits for certain gastrointestinal conditions, including lactose intolerance, constipation, diarrheal diseases, colon cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, heliobacter pylori infection, and allergies.' These bacteria are also completely absent in pasteurized milk, though plentiful in raw milk. Mark McAfee, CEO of Organic Pastures Dairy and internationally recognized expert on raw milk production and safety, has continued to petition the CDC to recognize both raw milk's safety and nutritional superiority, which he and others believe is highly vested in the protection of CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations - AKA industrial milk production farms). Raw milk producers often pasture their cows (you know this by the label grass-fed), adopt stricter safety standards than CAFOs and product both healthier animals and milk. The CDC's (and FDA's) chief concerns derive from industrial farming practices, which lead to diseased animals, which may in turn produce contaminated milk. Says McAfee in a 2012 letter to the CDC:

"As a grade A producer of retailed-approved raw milk in California, I find your raw milk page filled with highly erroneous and very misleading information... In California, we have legal retail-approved raw milk in 400 stores consumed by 75,000 consumers each week. This retail legal raw milk is tested and state inspected and far exceeds pasteurized milk product standards without any heat or processing.

It is clean raw milk from a single source dairy. There have been no deaths from raw milk in California in 37 years. Two years ago, I submitted a FOIA request to the CDC to request data on the two deaths that the CDC database claims were from raw milk. The data I received back from the CDC showed that in fact there had been no death from raw milk at all.

The two deaths had been from illegal Mexican bath tub cheese and not raw milk from any place in America. Why does the CDC persist in publishing this erroneous information? ...The last people to die from milk died from pasteurized milk at Whittier farms in 2007, not from raw milk."

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Wherever the truth lies, research, empirical evidence and nutritional chemistry all favor the healthfulness of raw milk, but that milk also carries risks, since as with all raw foods, its 'prime' consumption period is highly limited. In short, it spoils, and must be consumed in an unspoiled state. Raw milk is also extremely hard to find in some states, though easier in others - as it is in Europe, where it is legal across the European Union and even sold in vending machines.

Leaving the debate aside for a moment, let's examine the sub-category of whole vs. low-fat or non-fat, which is unsurprisingly related. All three products are in abundance in the typical American supermarket. Time Magazine published an article this past March that largely echoes an overwhelming number of scientific studies and related articles: that full-fat dairy is in fact better for you than low-fat or lack thereof. A key reason, which should sound familiar by this point: dairy's fatty acids play a [positive] role in hormone regulation and metabolism, which govern how much fat your body stores. Studies have shown that the fewer fats we eat, the more carbohydrates we consume to make up for it. This is consistent with a 50-year trend toward eating more carbohydrates in place of fats (remember Senator McGovern?). When that happens, insulin levels rise. Insulin regulates nutrient partitioning, telling nutrients where to go. Lowering insulin levels allows your body to access fat stores and use them up as energy. 

Our recommendation for dairy: include raw milk/cheese products in your diet if you can find them from a clean, reputable source in lieu of pasteurized, and use them dligently, as you would with other highly perishable foods - like fish. If you cannot or prefer not to 'eat raw', opt for full-fat, organic, grass-fed (pastured) dairy, since low-fat or non-fat anything strips these dietary sources and our bodies of key nutrients.

If there is a consistency to food's story here, it is a simple one: the more that scientists alter a food source - whether an animal's natural habitat (in the case of hens) or its byproduct's chemical make-up (in the case of milk) - the more we are upending that which millions of years of natural selection kept in balance and deemed successful, allowing both consumer and consumed to thrive in a closed loop. In no way does this suggest that farming per se - the practice of creating favorable growing environments to maximize yield - is bad. In harnessing nature, agriculture has broadened the human diet and allowed both our number and our longevity to increase. But when a food is consistently exposed to controlled chemicals, an unnatural habitat and/or compositional manipulation, we are the ones left paying the price for the experiment - an experiment designed to drive business profits, our waistlines and our medical expenses ever upward.

Week 1: Nutrients A to Z - An Introduction

We are what we eat.

There are no truer words to describe our relationship with food. Our bodies contain 14 vitamins, 7 macro-minerals and 9 micro- (or trace) minerals, as well as a number of carbohydrates (fiber, starch and sugar) amino acids (proteins) and fatty acids (saturated and unsaturated). 

The body needs every one of these nutrients to function, and as it uses each up, needs to replace it in order to support the body's living tissue - brain and body alike - as follows:

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As soon as we eat something, the body begins to break it down so that it can use its nutrients. This is called metabolism: a series of chemical reactions that transform food into components that can be used for the body's basic processes. Proteins, carbohydrates and fats move along intersecting sets of metabolic pathways that are unique to each major nutrient. Fundamentally - if all three nutrients are abundant in the diet - carbohydrates and fats will be used primarily for energy while proteins provide the raw materials for making hormones, muscle and other essential biological equipment.

Some nutrients - like carbohydrates - are used very quickly, and must be replenished accordingly. Others - like fats - can be stored by the body for later use. Fats that aren't used right away are packaged in bundles called triglycerides and stored in fat cells, which, according to Dr. Erika Gebel, PhD, have unlimited capacity. 

Vitamins fall into two basic categories: fat-soluble (vitamins A, D, E and K) and water-soluble (all B-complex vitamins, C and folate). Fat-soluble vitamins are stored in chylomicrons (fat globules), and what is not used is stored in the body's tissue, where it tends to remain. For example: in northern climates, adequate summer exposure to sun allows the body to create and store enough fat-soluble Vitamin D - used for bone health - to get you through the sun-starved winter months. Water-soluble vitamins, on the other hand, travel freely through the body and are absorbed by various tissue for immediate use. Excess amounts of these are usually excreted by the kidneys, in the form of urine. Accordingly, water-soluble vitamins - like Vitamin C - must be replenished more frequently - almost daily. Thus, from a dietary focus, we need to consume adequate fat-soluble vitamins over the long term, but replenish water-soluble vitamins continually.

Like vitamins, minerals fall into two basic categories: macro-minerals (calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium potassium, chloride and sulfur) and micro-minerals (iron, manganese, copper, iodine, zinc, cobalt, molybendum, selenium and bromine). Macro-minerals are thus named because the body needs them in larger doses than it does micro- (or trace) minerals. Food sources of these nutrients are as varied as the jobs they perform in keeping the body's bones, blood, organs and systems functioning properly. As with vitamins, the best way to ensure adequate intake of each is to adopt a very varied diet of both plant-based and animal-based foods, as some nutrients are almost exclusively found in one or the other. There is a reason we are called omnivores: it is not simply because we enjoy the act of eating food from both groups; it is because our bodies need them in order to function as we evolved to.

As we'd expect, the inadequate intake of any of these - or in the case of nutrients that the body stores, an excess - prevents the body's 'machinery' from functioning optimally. The result - very slowly or very quickly, but invariably - is illness. Moreover, there are several factors we need to consider with respect to foods: nutrient quantity (which generally declines over time, diminshes with an increase in factory processing, and is affected by preparation choices at home); nutrient quality (nutrients in fortified foods and supplements - while better than none - are not nearly as effective as those in real foods); and nutrient bio-availability (the absorption of which can either be enhanced or hindered based on the combination of the foods we eat - not just whether or not you ingested it.)

It may sound obvious, but the best source of these nutrients is food - real food, as found in Nature. We evolved because of it and with it; our genes have adapted - and continue to adapt - to use it; medically, we are uncovering bits and pieces about how it works and what it does to us; and we are just beginning to understand that the interactions between nutrients are far more complex and co-dependent than we previously understood. We also know that the human body has not evolved beyond needing any of its developmental nutrients - despite what food engineers, the multi-national agribusinesses that employ them and the shareholders who demand profit above all - would have you believe. We in 2015 are the product of a 50-year trend away from traditional modes of eating and a sprint toward consolidation and homogenization of nutrient sources, which poses a direct conflict with the body's evolutionary need for broad variety of real, high-quality foods. The good news is that nutritional science is catching up with food engineering, as is the consumer's awareness of our need for real food. Luckily, there are still myriad sources of quality produce containing everything your body needs, available at a market near you.

So what are these magical nutrients? What does each one do in detail? What happens to me if one is missing? How fast does the body consume each one, and how fast do I need to replenish it? How much of each do I need? What are the best food sources for each, and which do I avoid? What if I have a special condition or a particular sensitivity? How do I parse marketing-speak from truth amid a glut of information in books, ads and the internet?

In short, what do I need to know to eat well

These are the questions that this website proposes to answer over the next 52 weeks. Each week we will post another piece to the puzzle. In a year's time, we intend to have created a complete guide to nutrition: what you need and where to source it in the 'real world' where time, funds and access are sometimes limited. Finally, how to begin effecting change immediately.

Central to the health challenge is a daunting Goliath nicknamed Big Ag  - the agricultural monopolies whose practice of producing 'food-like substances' is anything but nourishing or varied, consisting primarily of infinite forms of the same basic cash crops that dominate the farming landscape and your supermarket: corn, soybeans and wheat. Generating over $110 Billion per year in cash sales in the United States alone, these three crops, like their parent companies, monopolize the shelves, from the obvious snack and packaged foods to the less obvious fruit and vegetables coatings - the latter made invariably from a corn starch derivative. With massive advertising budgets and even greater influence on Capitol Hill (the subject of a future blog), Big Ag have thoroughly saturated the consumer market. Their success has grown exponentially alongside an alarming human trend toward lower expenditure in both food dollars and time spent creating meals. Worst of all, Big Ag's food-like products are by most scientific accounts directly responsible for a dramatic increase the incidence of many, if not most, of modern society's chronic diseases, from cancers to diabetes to heart disease to cardiovascular disease to osteoporosis and beyond. According to a phenomenal paper published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, more than 280,000 people die directly from obesity each year in the United States alone; 38.5% of all US deaths are due to cardiovascular disease; and fully one-third of all US cancer deaths are due to nutritional factors.

If this sounds scary, it is. It's also the reason we have created this site. 

There are solutions. 

So here we go...