This essay has moved to FAFDL.org. Apologies for the inconvenience.
Measured against the Dietary Guidelines recommendations, two recent ERS studies find that consumers are underspending on vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and low-fat dairy and overspending on refined grains, fats, sweets, and convenience foods in the grocery store. Food choices when eating away from home are even more of a nutritional concern. Policies that promote healthy foods and make them easier to identify on store shelves and in restaurants may expand both demand for and supply of healthy food options.
This put me in mind of a number of recent articles and a debate from last year.
Most recently NPR did a piece on how NAFTA impacted American’s eating habits.
Walk through the produce section of your supermarket and you’ll see things you’d never have seen years ago — like fresh raspberries or green beans in the dead of winter. Much of that produce comes from Mexico, and it’s the result of the North American Free Trade Agreement — NAFTA — which took effect 20 years ago this month.
. . . Of course, for consumers fully committed to buying local, that also means buying only what’s in season.
“I don’t have much fruit in the winter — bluntly,” says Joan Gussow, a nutritionist and author who has been the “matriarch of the eat-locally-think-globally food movement.”
Gussow eats mostly dried fruit in winter and whatever vegetables grow near her home in New York’s Hudson Valley. By selling fruits and vegetables bred to travel long distances, she says, NAFTA has helped train people to value convenience over flavor.
“It’s meant that people don’t know anything about where their food comes from, and they don’t know anything about seasons,” Gussow says. “And so they really have settled — as they have with tomatoes — for something that is really like a giant orange golf ball.”
Jaime Chamberlain disagrees. He says the produce industry has made great strides in packaging and shipping more flavorful fruits and vegetables from Mexico. Don’t knock availability — celebrate it, he says.
“We should be teaching our children that nowadays, you’re able to enjoy strawberries even though you’re in the dead of winter in January,” he says.
I have loads of respect for Joan Dye Gussow (and her books on my bookshelves), but given the gap between what we should be eating and what we are eating it’s hard for me to be too critical of anything that makes fresh produce more available and more affordable.
One weaknesses I see in food movement (everywhere, really) is the tendency of people to universalize their own strengths, values, temperament, experience, etc. It’s nice that Joan Gussow can put gardening and cooking at the center of her priorities. That isn’t so easy for others.
In theory, farmers should be poster children for the locavore movement. They have fridges and fields (or home gardens, in the case of some larger farms) stuffed with gorgeous produce. But such proximity to local food does not automatically translate to the plate. The evidence is perhaps most extreme in California’s Central Valley, where a startling 80 percent of farm laborers – many of whom are recent immigrants living in low-income communities – are obese. But the disconnect impacts farmers of all kinds.
. . . Rachel Kaplan, 35, of Powisset Farm, a CSA farm in Massachusetts, shares a similar sentiment. “At the height of the season, it is a feat in and of itself to sustain the energy to work let alone come home and start preparing food.” Even more to the point, she adds: “A lot of the times cooking comes at the expense of sleep.”
Nick Hagen, 28, a fifth-generation farmer at Hagen Farm in North Dakota, says eating in the fields also poses logistical challenges. “Throughout our wheat or sugar beet harvests, there is no time to stop for lunch. I typically have one hand on the tractor’s steering wheel all day, and fish around in my lunch box with the other.” Hagen ends up eating a lot of one-palm foods like peeled hardboiled eggs and plain beans packaged in a container he can “hold and almost drink.” Apples are in; oranges, which need to be peeled, are out. “I can occasionally manage a banana,” he said.
Hagen, who has a gluten intolerance that forces him to be creative about his in-field meals, manages to eat fairly healthily, if not excitingly. But for many farmers, this lack of time translates into less-than-ideal food choices. “You see a lot of running to the gas station for chips, soda and coffee, which helps farmers stay awake during the crazy hours,” Hagen says.
Bryan Austin, 53 of Dover Farm in Massachusetts, agrees. “Our bodies need energy and modern foods like potato chips (fat), coffee (caffeine) and cakes (glucose) give instant energy,” he says. “Last year, I ate store muffins for breakfast, drank three cups of coffee a day and always had some candy as a snack – awful!” Bryn Bird, 29, a second-generation farmer at Bird’s Haven Farms in Ohio, says, “The summer is the most unhealthy time for most of the farmers I am social with,” she said. “My family lives on pizza all summer.”
So much for the virtues of growing your own food. Farmers working long, frantic hours can’t find the time to cook, never mind such foodie pastimes as pickling and canning. How can we expect our high achieving professional friends or two job juggling low income friends to find the time to do well planned grocery shopping, to cook, to do dishes, clean the kitchen and manage the composting produce in their crisper drawers?
I love cooking. I get great pleasure from it. I love teaching people to cook. I happen to have an amateur interest in nutrition. But I can’t and don’t expect my priorities and pleasures to be universal. I certainly don’t expect anyone to extrapolate public health policy from the idiosyncrasies of my priorities and pleasures.
That’s why last summer’s essay by David Freedman “How Junk Food Can End Obesity” was such a missed opportunity. The piece inspired a ton of conversation, almost none of it was particularly productive.
The problems with Freedman’s piece were legion.
The linkbait headline inspired a counter headline, “Bunk About Junk Food“, from David Katz MD that implied that he had a major bone to pick. He didn’t. Swapping the phrase “Convenience Food” for “Junk Food” would have likely settled the matter for Katz. Freedman has an anachronistic fear of fat that completely sidetracked Tom Philpott’s critique. Meanwhile, Philpott’s agreement with the central premise was buried at the end and only briefly mentioned. Freedman took his contrarianism to absurd levels. He claimed that Pollanites are hurting Big Food’s efforts to market better options by not pitching in and BUYING those products. He set up a ridiculous straw man by conflating Pollanism with the most brain dead, consumerist products sold by Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. That inspired a well deserved, but counter productive backlash.
Stripped down to it’s essentials, Freedman’s case is hard to argue against. Katz characterizes Freedman’s hypothesis this way: “We can improve diet and health using the very foods we already know and love.” I would put it another. Do you believe that lowering the sugar, refined carbs, while increasing the fiber and nutrients by significant levels in convenience and fast foods could move the needle on health outcomes for Americans? This is the essence of what makes a successful public health intervention. Small, impactful, widely adopted changes. Emphasis on widely adopted.
Here is Katz:
We can, indeed, have better chips. We can have better cookies, crackers, cereals, and pasta sauces. If they are only a tiny bit better, it won’t matter much. But if they are meaningfully better, the net effect across the expanse of food choices we make can add up to something very meaningful indeed — including, as noted, a much reduced risk for obesity, chronic disease, or premature death. This, I think, is what Mr. Freedman meant to say.
This is where I see a beautiful opportunity in the place of potentially ugly and unproductive discord. We will always eat. Unlike tobacco companies, which can disappear entirely, food companies of one kind or another are here to stay. And so they will either be part of the solution, or part of the problem.
Mr. Freedman is saying — and I agree — that they can be part of the solution by providing us better choices. But for that to matter, they will need to be truly better choices — not another bait-and-fake. We’ve had more than enough of products that boast of some nutritional virtue on the front, while revealing the far homelier whole truth only in fine print.
Here is Philpott:
I don’t object to a kinder, gentler form of corporate fast food—I would applaud the the industry if it made a serious push to ditch its old “supersize” profit model and promote less caloric foods.
But Philpott can’t help but continue:
But the fact remains that highly processed diets have a history of ruining people’s health, and “real food” diets have the opposite track record. They may yet prove to be the best strategy we have for addressing our mounting diet-related health troubles. And hey, real food can be pretty convenient, too—check out Bittman’s old Minimalist column. And fast food itself has a history that long predates its takeover by corporations.
I don’t disagree with this so much as groan at the predictability of the sentiment and its irrelevance for people who don’t need more recipes. They need better frozen dinners, grab and go meals and better burgers.
Sadly, Freedman’s contrarianism meant that much was written about what he got wrong. People barely touched on what he got right. Instead of extending the conversation he was trying to start, it became all about the fights he had picked. Unsurprisingly, when Mark Bittman came back with approving reports of new and improved fast food, he didn’t catch nearly as much grief. Part of that was being a member of the tribe in good standing, but good manners help.
Where to go with the problem Freedman poses? Let’s come back to the chart that we started with. Aside from our out of control sugar consumption, the biggest problems the chart shows are how few vegetables we are eating, followed by the sugar we are over eating.
Convenience and fast foods are a less than ideal vehicle for increasing vegetable consumption. Frozen dinners aren’t so hard, but the central issue is grab and go foods. What I would love to see are whole grain, veggie packed ploughman’s pies; chickpea flour, veggie samosas; multigrain grilled vegetable burritos; and footlong grilled veggie sandwiches on hearty rolls. It’s not that hard to pile vegetables on a whole grain pizza and garnish it with a healthy dusting of chopped herbs and arugula. Meanwhile Bittman has pointed the way towards a pretty damn good black bean burger that sneaks some mushrooms into the mix.
TIME: Does Organic Food Turn You into a Jerk? (Short answer: yes)
The Atlantic: Does Organic Food Make You a Judgmental Jerk? Maybe
Jezebel: Study Suggests that Eating Organic Foods Contributes to Moral Depravity
Pacific Standard: Get Stressed, Stop Organics, Become A Better Person
I somehow missed it in May when it made the rounds, but the TIME piece came up in a Facebook conversation the other day, just after I had written about bad health reporting and chicken nuggets. So I was primed. Just seeing the headline I knew. I knew. I knew it was going to be another article with a linkbait headline and an over interpreted the study. That turned out to be the best case scenario.
My two questions when reading an article like this are:
“Did the study even demonstrate what the journalist says it says?”
“Did the study even test it’s own hypothesis in any meaningful way?” (hint: the answer is almost always in the controls)
You can take a guess what happened.
And a new study shows that organic foodies’ humane regard for the well-being of animals makes some people rather snobbish. The report, published last week in the Journal of Social Psychological & Personality Science, notes that exposure to organic foods can “harshen moral judgments.” Which, to us, sounds like a nice way of saying that organic-food seekers are arrogant.
. . . Eskine and his team showed research subjects photographs of food, ranging from überorganic fruits and vegetables to fattening brownies and baked goods. He then gauged the primed eaters’ moral fiber with stories that warranted judgment, like one about a lawyer who lurks in an ER to try to persuade patients to sue for their injuries.
Reacting to the events on a numbered scale, the organic-food participants were more judgmental than those in the comfort-food category. They were also more reluctant when asked to volunteer time to help strangers, the study found, offering only 13 minutes vs. the brownie eaters’ 24 minutes. It’s like the group had already fulfilled its moral-justice quota by buying organic, so it felt all right slacking off in other ethics-based situations. Eskine labeled it “moral licensing.”
The writer, Nick Carbone has told us that people who seek organic food are arrogant and snobbish. Is that what the study he has described shows? No. It shows that anybody, not just organic shoppers can become more judgmental and stingy when exposed to pictures of organic food. It shows that it is the exposure to images of food that triggers this, not “organic foodies’ humane regard for the well-being of animals.”
This would be an interesting observation, if it had been demonstrated in the literature that organic shoppers were in fact more judgmental and stingier. It would provide a clue as to causality. But the entire underlying premise is never addressed. It’s not like there is no literature on the subject. Or that you can’t find any research to support the premise. No one even tried. Not even the authors of the paper.
The paper references the literature on how different foods can effect people’s moral bearings. But it does not look at the literature on the moral or ethical attitudes of organic consumers in order to establish the premise that organic consumers are be more judgmental and stingy. The hypothesis they are testing is that exposure to images of organic food could influence people’s levels of empathy. Do they even succeed at that? I would say, No.
First let’s look at what the study did.
Sixty-two Loyola University undergraduates (37 females, 25 males) participated in the present experiment for course credit and were randomly assigned to one of three food conditions (organic, comfort, control) in a between-subjects design. Told that they were
participating in two unrelated studies (a consumer research survey about food desirability and a separate moral judgment task), participants were first given a packet containing four counterbalanced pictures of food items from one of the following categories: organic foods with organic food labels (apple, spinach, tomato, carrot), comfort foods (ice cream, cookie, chocolate, brownie), or control foods (oatmeal, rice, mustard, beans). Participants also rated each food item on a 7-point scale (1 = not at all desirable to 7 = very desirable) to help
corroborate the cover story as well as provide information about their personal food preferences.
. . . Participants next received a packet containing six counterbalanced moral transgressions describing second cousins engaging in consensual incest, a man eating his already-dead dog, a congressman accepting bribes, a lawyer prowling hospitals for victims, a person shoplifting, and a student stealing library books. Each moral judgment was indicated on a 7-point scale (1= not at all morally wrong to 7 = very morally wrong). As with previous research (Eskine et al., 2011), all judgments were averaged into a single score.
After next answering demographic questions, participants were told “that another professor from another department is also conducting research and really needs volunteers.” They were informed that they would not receive course credit or compensation for their help and were asked to indicate how many minutes (out of 30) they would be willing to volunteer.”
“On a scale of 1 to 7, the organic people were like 5.5 while the controls were about a 5 and the comfort food people were like a 4.89.” The organic people also only offered to volunteer for a mere 13 minutes, as compared with the control group’s 19-minute offer and the happy comfort-food group’s 24-minute commitment.
Before we move on to why they fail to test their hypothesis, I want to highlight a missed opportunity in their use of the data. If they really wanted to show something about organic consumers specifically and not just Loyola undergrads in general, they would have calculated the correlation between the strength of subjects’ preference for organic foods and and their response to the moral challenges. That might have told us something about organic consumers’ moral orientations. But they didn’t and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, since there were no controls in this experiment to begin with.
Wait, what about the control group of oatmeal, rice, mustard and beans? Those were meant as a control in a comparison to organic fruits and vegetable vs. non-organic desserts. That would be fine if there was one variable of moral superiority, organic versus non-organic, but there are two, the other being fruits and vegetables versus desserts. As the test was designed, we have no way of knowing whether it is was the moral halo of fruits and vegetable or the moral halo of organic that produced the result. And as anyone who has ever shopped at Trader Joe’s can tell you, produce isn’t the only type of organic food. There are plenty of organic desserts and snacks. In fact, organic junk food is a bigger segment of the organic market than produce.
If it had those proper controls, we could compare the difference in response between an organic carrot and a conventional carrot. We could compare the difference between organic oatmeal and conventional apple. But as designed, we can’t compare anything meaningful.
The correct comparison would have been organic produce vs. conventional produce, organic neutral foods vs. conventional neutral foods and organic desserts vs. conventional desserts. If those had been the categories, if they had calculated the correlation of preference for organic with moral response and the study group had been larger than 62 students it might have told us something interesting but it didn’t.
The study took about five minutes to read and about 8 seconds to see the flaws. The fact that these poorly designed, under powered studies are reported on at all drives me crazy. It’s even more infuriating that they are misrepresented instead of debunked. The fact that they absolutely litter the health sections of reputable publications is all the more maddening because interesting and significant papers are routinely ignored.
But before we let organic consumers off the hook too fast, note that the first commenter on the TIME version of the story went out of her way to make Eskine’s point.
To label people that eat organic food as “Jerks” is completely ridiculous. I am a proud supporter of organic food and will be till the day that i die. Calling someone a jerk because they eat organic food is childish. There is one thing that this article did get right about the organic community. We do congratulate ourselves for our moral and environmental decisions, because we are doing the right thing. Choosing all organic foods shows that you care about your health and the environment.
You can’t make this stuff up.
Wholesome Foods and Wholesome Morals? Organic Foods Reduce Prosocial Behavior and Harshen Moral Judgments | Kendall J. Eskine | 2013
Final draft [pdf]
Organic purchasing motivations and attitudes: are they ethical? | M.G. McEachern, P. McClean | 2002
The relationship between high-fat dairy consumption and obesity, cardiovascular, and metabolic disease | M Kratz, T Baars, S Guyenet
An overview of the last 10 years of genetically engineered crop safety research | A Nicolia, A Manzo, F Veronesi, D Rosellini | 2103
MOON FARMS TO BANISH STARVATION
James Nevin Miller | Mechanix Illustrated | May 1954 | Amanda Uren | Retronaut
THE SELL BY DATES ON YOUR GROCERIES ARE WORTHLESS. HERE’S WHY
Brad Plumer | Wonkblog | The Washington Post
And, the report argues, those labels may be leading Americans to throw out tons and tons of perfectly good food each year — one reason why the United States rubbishes about 40 percent of the food it produces, or $165 billion in wasted food each year.
GHOST FOOD: A CONCEPTUAL TASTE OF THE FUTURE OF FOOD
Delana | Web Urbanist
GhostFood, a “participatory performance” from Miriam Simun and Miriam Songster (yup, a double-Miriam team) is meant to simulate the experience of eating foods that could soon be extinct. A 3D printed headpiece attaches to a visitor’s face just like glasses and replicates the olfactory profile of certain foods. A substitute edible substance with a texture identical to the “ghost food” is provided. The scent and texture combined trick the mind into believing that the actual food is being consumed.
ROOFTOP FARMING IS GETTING OF THE GROUND
Eliza Barclay | Salt | NPR
The green-roof movement has slowly been gaining momentum in recent years, and some cities have made them central to their sustainability plans. The city of Chicago, for instance, that 359 roofs are now partially or fully covered with vegetation, which provides all kinds of environmental benefits — from reducing the buildings’ energy costs to cleaning the air to mitigating the
Late this summer, Chicago turned a green roof into its first major rooftop farm. At 20,000 square feet, it’s the largest soil-based rooftop farm in the Midwest, according to the Chicago Botanic Garden, which maintains the farm through its program.
HOW EATING DOG BECAME BIG BUSINESS IN VIETNAM
Kate Hodal | The Guardian
Nguyen Tien Tung is just the sort of man you’d expect to run a Hanoi slaughterhouse: wiry, frenetic and filthy, his white T-shirt collaged with bloodstains, his jean shorts loose around taut, scratched-up legs, his feet squelching in plastic sandals. Hunched over his metal stall, between two hanging carcasses and an oversized tobacco pipe, the 42-year-old is surveying his killing station – an open-air concrete patio leading on to a busy road lined with industrial supply shops.
Two skinless carcasses, glistening pure white in the hot morning sun, are being rinsed down by one of Nguyen’s cousins. Just two steps away are holding pens containing five dogs each, all roughly the same size, some still sporting collars. Nguyen reaches into one cage and caresses the dog closest to the door. As it starts wagging its tail, he grabs a heavy metal pipe, hits the dog across the head, then, laughing loudly, slams the cage door closed.
Here comes the news that Burger King has engineered a lower fat, lower calorie fry. I don’t really care and five will get you ten that whatever they did will make french fries even more fattening and unhealthy . But what got my goat in the article was this:
Roughly a decade ago, McDonald’s began using a soy-corn blend of fats instead of beef tallow to cook its fries in an effort to reduce the trans fats that contribute to higher cholesterol.
What actually happened was this:
At the behest of the Center for Science in the Public Interest that delicious, wholesome (relatively wholesome) beef tallow was replaced with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. That campaign started in 1984 and was victorious in 1990 when the chains abandoned tallow in favor of trans fat laden partially hydrogenated oil.
NPR’s Dan Charles:
But did you know that in the 1980s, health activists actually promoted oils containing trans fats? They considered such oils a healthy alternative to the saturated fats found in palm oil, coconut oil, or beef fat. In 1986, for instance, the (CSPI), described Burger King’s switch to partially hydrogenated oils as “a great boon to Americans’ arteries.”
It wasn’t until 1993, after stampeding the fast food industry into greatly multiplying the nation’s consumption of what may be the single most deadly ingredient in our food supply, the CSPI reversed course and began campaigning against trans fats.
Here’s The Harvard School of Public Health on the dangers posed by trans fats:
Today we know that eating trans fats increases levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL, “bad” cholesterol), especially the small, dense LDL particles that may be more damaging to arteries. It lowers levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) particles, which scour blood vessels for bad cholesterol and truck it to the liver for disposal. It also promotes inflammation, an overactivity of the immune system that has been implicated in heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other chronic conditions. Eating trans fat also reduces the normal healthy responsiveness of endothelial cells, the cells that line all of our blood vessels. In animal studies, eating trans fat also promotes obesity and resistance to insulin, the precursor to diabetes.
This multiple-pronged attack on blood vessels translates into heart disease and death. An analysis of the health effects of industrial trans fats conducted by researchers with the Harvard School of Public Health Department of Nutrition indicates that eliminating trans fats from the U.S. food supply could prevent up to 1 in 5 heart attacks and related deaths. That would mean a quarter of a million fewer heart attacks and related deaths each year in the United States alone.
Michael Jacobsen’s obsession with saturated fat caused the organization to tout the benefits of partially hydrogenated oils well after their dangers had been established. This didn’t stop them from changing course when the dangers of trans fats had been exposed without apology or acknowledgement. The history of trying to engineer low fat, low calorie foods that make us fatter and sicker is a long one, but CSPI has been there every step of the way. The trans fat french fry debacle was just the pinnacle of their blundering.
Mary Enig at The Weston Price Foundation traces the twists and turns of CSPI’s position on saturated fats and partially hydrogenated oils:
By 1988, the adverse effects of trans fats were well known. The article points out that stearic acid has no effect on blood cholesterol levels, yet CSPI continued to accuse beef tallow, which is rich in stearic acid, of “raising cholesterol and increasing the risk of heart disease.” As for the tropical oils, they do not need to be hydrogenated!
Blume was at it again in March 1988 with another article, “The Truth About Trans .” “Hydrogenated oils aren’t guilty as charged. . . . All told, the charges against trans fat just don’t stand up. And by extension, hydrogenated oils seem relatively innocent.. . . . As for processed foods, you’re better off choosing products made with hydrogenated soybean, corn, or cottonseed oil. . . ” This article was widely disseminated; Michael Jacobson provided it as a handout to members of the Maryland Legislature during hearings when the University of Maryland group tried to introduce labeling of trans fatty acids in the State.
But by 1990, CSPI could no longer defend the indefensible. In October of that year, Bonnie Liebman, CSPI Director of Nutrition, published an article “Trans in Trouble” which referred to recent studies by Dutch scientists showing that trans fats raised cholesterol. “That’s not to say trans fatty acids are artery-cloggers,” she wrote, “. . . the fats in our foods may affect cholesterol differently than those used in the Dutch experiment. . . . The Bottom Line. . . Trans, shmans. You should eat less fat. . . Don’t switch back to butter. . . use a soft tub diet margarine. . . . ”
. . . The revisionism began in December 1992 when Ms. Liebman wrote: “We’ve been crying ‘foul’ for some time now, as the margarine industry has tried to convince people that eating margarine was as good for their hearts as aerobic exercise. . . . And we warned folks several years ago that trans fatty acids could be a problem. . . . That’s especially true now that we know that trans fatty acids are harmful, but we don’t know how much trans are in different foods.” Of course, CSPI had issued no such warning, but had been defending trans fats for more than five years. And there’s no apology for falsely demonizing traditional fats. “Don’t switch back from margarine to butter,” wrote Ms. Liebman, “. . . try diet or whipped margarine. . . use a liquid margarine.”
In November 1993, Bonnie Liebman coauthored an article with Margo Wootan called “The Great Trans Wreck,” which would have been in preparation well before Michael Jacobson’s infamous press conference, in which they asked, “Why do companies love hydrogenated fat if it’s so unhealthy? . . . . despite the claims on many packages, most companies switched not to vegetable oil, but to vegetable shortening. And that created a problem.”
You can read the whole sorry tale of hubris and revisionism at the Weston Price Foundation. The fruits of that revisionism can be seen in the statement above from The New York Times.