Food Democracy is circulating a petition to the Obama transition team to appoint a USDA Secretary who cares about sustainability (what a concept!). Click on the link to join the movement! If you want to read more about this, see Nicholas Kristof’s column linked to my post on December 10 and Michael Pollan’s magazine piece linked to the one on October 12.
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Here is Bill Moyer’s recent interview with Michael Pollan, talking about what the new president can and cannot do for American agriculture. Worth a look.
12/11 update: Take a look at today’s New York Times where Nicholas Kristof enthusiastically supports the idea that Obama should appoint a “Secretary of Food.”
Investigators at the University of Hawaii have just analyzed nearly 500 samples of fast food for their content of stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen. These are not radioactive but do indicate whether a plant conducts its photosynthesis through what is called a C3 or C4 metabolic pathway. Corn is a C4 crop. The analysis shows that virtually all of the meat came from animals raised on corn. The potatoes were typically fried in corn oil. Corn, say the investigators, is the basis of fast food. And virtually all fast food is raised or prepared the same way.
Didn’t we know that? Yes, but the technology used in these experiments is clever. Michael Pollan discussed this kind of chemical evidence in Omnivore’s Dilemma. Although I do not think it was his intention, many readers came away with the idea that corn is poison. It isn’t. Corn is a perfectly reasonable food, especially when mixed with soybeans, and the mix works fine for fattening up cattle. From the standpoint of nutrition and the environment, feeding cattle on grass would be ideal, but it may not always be practical. That’s why some forward thinking cattle producers are raising their animals on grass for as long as they can, and then doing a quick finish with corn and soybeans.
A more important issue may be corn subsidies. Cheap feed promotes industrial meat production, with all of its environmental and health implications. CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), as the Pew Commission said earlier this year, have truly dreadful effects on the environments of the communities in which they operate, are not healthy for animals, and overuse antibiotics, which affects human health. Corn subsidies make CAFOs possible.
We can argue about how much corn is OK, but I can’t think of any reason to exclude it from the diets of animals or humans. Corn is a good source of calories and is about 10% protein. Its oil is relatively unsaturated. And high fructose corn sweeteners are an almost one-for-one substitute for sucrose. For humans in particular, fresh sweet corn in mid-summer is surely one of the great wonders of the universe. As with so much else in nutrition, some corn is OK, but a lot may not be.
It’s a good one, with terrific articles by Michael Pollan on farm policy for the next administration, David Rieff on what to do about agriculture in Africa, and Mark Bittman on why food should be taken seriously. Read, think, and enjoy!
P.S. And for fun, check out Safire on the meaning of “locavore” and “functional food.”
Alexandra Lewin, a doctoral student at Cornell, is working with Corporations and Health Watch in Washington, DC, which “tracks the effects of corporate practices on public health.” Her latest contribution is an analysis of the effects of higher food prices on school lunch programs. Given the impossibly small amount of money schools have to work with, they will surely, she says, “find it ever more difficult to say no to an easy source of revenue: soda, cookies, and other junk food. Here we go again.”
On the other hand, Dan Barber, the fabulous chef of Blue Hill in Manhattan and Stone Barns, writes in the New York Times that higher food prices now “could lead to better food for the entire world.” Market forces, he says may well force more attention to the benefits of small farms “bringing harvests that are more healthful, sustainable and, yes, even more flavorful.” This, of course, is what Michael Pollan and Alice Waters were quoted as saying a month or so ago. I hope they are right.
I wouldn’t even ask such a silly question if the American Journal of Preventive Medicine wasn’t going to publish a paper arguing just this point. Along with one of the editors of that journal, I wrote an editorial commenting on the paper, to which its authors added a rebuttal to our editorial. The authors argue that the government has no business issuing advice based on weak evidence. I would agree except that evidence will never be as good as we wish it would be because research on human nutrition is really, really hard to do. And when it comes to diet, dietary guidelines are not exactly radical; the basic advice hasn’t changed in 50 years. I summarize it like this: “eat less, move more, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, and don’t eat too much junk food.” Michael Pollan gets it down to 7 words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” The Dietary Guidelines published in 2005 may take 70 pages, but in general, they say pretty much the same thing.
A reader, “rj,” sends a link to an article in Men’s Health (“What if bad fat isn’t so bad”), and asks about: “The supposed inconclusive evidence for sat fat being the culprit in atherosclerosis. Personally, I couldn’t find any credentials of the author but nevertheless would be much interested in your thoughts on the matter.”
My thoughts: As I keep saying, nutrition science is complicated and this article, by an excellent science journalist, is the latest in a series by excellent science journalists (see, for example, the recent books by Gary Taubes and Michael Pollan) to point out the inconsistencies in data on saturated fat and heart disease risk. Let me make several quick points: (1) All fats–no exceptions–are mixtures of saturated, unsaturated, and polyunsaturated fatty acids (2) Saturated fats occur in greater proportions in animal fats–meat and dairy foods, (3) Some epidemiologic evidence–but not all–suggests that people who eat a lot of meat and dairy foods have a higher risk of heart disease than people who eat a lot of fruit and vegetables (this is correlation, not causation), (4) The same clinical studies that show how trans fats do bad things to blood cholesterol levels also show that saturated fat does too, although not as much (But: people take in a lot more saturated fat than trans fat), and (5) Saturated fat is a single nutrient and the studies reviewed and discussed by the journalists take saturated fat out of its dietary context.
Out-of-context studies of single nutrients are exceedingly difficult to interpret. At the moment, today’s dietary (not single nutrient) advice is the same as it has been for the last fifty years. As I put it in What to Eat, “Eat less, move more, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, and don’t eat too much junk food.” Michael Pollan gives exactly the same advice: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Do this, and you really don’t need to give a thought to single nutrients.
Does this help at all? Thanks for asking.