Tag Archives: nutrition

Research: cheaper food means less nutrients

A few weeks ago, I shared a study that found nutrients in the U.S. food supply are declining. Which could explain why millions of Americans, who prefer to be thin, are overeating to get more nutrients.

Another study found that industrial farming techniques – including the use of petroleum-based fertilizer – reduces nutrient levels in food, while dramatically increasing yields. This means we have abundant cheap food with lowered nutrient levels:

This article summarizes three kinds of evidence pointing toward declines during the last 50 to 100 years in the concentration of some nutrients in vegetables and perhaps also in fruits. It has been noted since the 1940s that yield increases produced by fertilization, irrigation, and other environmental means tend to decrease the concentrations of minerals in plants.

Jarrell and Beverly (1981) reviewed the evidence for this well-known “dilution effect.” Although their review has been cited over 180 times (60 times from 2000 on), few mentions of the dilution effect contain a reference, suggesting that the effect is widely regarded as common knowledge.

Common among scientists perhaps, but the public is unaware. When I share this among friends and readers there is a strong disbelief, with the most common response being - food is cheaper. Yes it is, because it has been hollowed out like a pumpkin and there’s nothing left on the inside.

And that makes it a struggle to get the message out. How do I explain the dilution effect to a public obsessed with everything but this – from diet programs to food labels to coupon cutting that encourages cheaper food?

 

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Research: nutrient levels in U.S. food supply are dropping

I’ve written a lot about the benefits of shopping entirely at farmers markets, the difference between organic/GMO/seasonal, and how food is more important than working out. These topics have interested many people with many asking for more data.

Here is one piece, possibly the most important in explaining our obesity epidemic. The findings reveal farming practices and seed choice that have led to lower quality food. Compared on a nutrient-nutrient basis it can be a 1/3 drop in nutrient level for some foods.

This means that the typical person will need to eat 3x as much to obtain the proper nutrients. If true, that would provide the ideal explanation for our overweight problems. It’s not so much our sedentary lifestyle or even our poor choices in food, but our simple desire to get the nutrients our bodies need.

The report is worth a read and I will be sharing several more like it over the coming days.

 

 “Nutrient levels in U.S. food supply eroded by pursuit of high yields” 

Full Report (pdf)

2-page Newsletter Summary (pdf)

“High yields and jumbo produce deliver more water, starch, and sugar per serving, but less vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.”

4-page Research Summary (pdf)

“Farmers have doubled or tripled the yield of most major grains, fruits and vegetables over the last half-century. They have done so by capitalizing on the work of plant scientists, crop breeders and companies manufacturing a wide range of inputs—from fertilizer to water, pesticides, sophisticated machinery and diesel fuel.

But American agriculture’s single-minded focus on increasing yields over the last half-century created a blind spot where incremental erosion in the nutritional quality of our food has occurred.  This erosion, modest in some crops but significant in others for some nutrients, has gone largely unnoticed by scientists, farmers, government and consumers.”

 

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Is it possible to only shop at farmers markets?

With so many benefits to shopping at farmers markets, is it possible skip supermarkets altogether and only shop at farmers markets?

It is, and I have been doing so for 3 years. I remember thinking that I couldn’t possibly find everything I needed. Maybe one meal’s worth, but all three? everyday?

Yep, it’s possible and the benefits are extraordinary. I spend less money, eat much better, my health is actually improving (I’m losing the fat!), and I have become part of a community. I know my bread-lady, meat-man, old-school Italian (he says to me: “hello-uh big-uh boy”), the avocado savant, and even a Mexican cactus farmer.

The variety of foods at the farmers market is quite deep, so deep that it will take you months to explore all of them. There is no lack of possibilities for feeding yourself. This makes three meals a day easy. The only snag is that while you know how to make Mac n’ Cheese, you probably don’t know what to do with Chard. There is a learning curve but most people seem to enjoy that part of it.

Next, is cost. If you compare, item to item, the food at the farmers market is more expensive than the supermarkets. But, if you compare value (i.e. nutrition) then the farmers market is an extreme bargain.

The easiest way to explain this is think of foods considered to be of very little nutritional value, like popcorn. You can eat a whole jumbo popcorn and still feel hungry. Popcorn is food and a vegetable but it doesn’t contain enough of the vitamins and essential nutrients our bodies need. Yet, it is extremely cheap to buy at the supermarket. Think of farmers markets as the exact opposite. The foods sold there are designed to be jam-packed with vitamins and essential nutrients. So much so, that you get full really quickly. I often find myself eating half of what I used, sometimes one-fourth.

When you’re buying half as much as you used to, or even one-fourth, the amount you spend drops pretty fast. This is hardest part for folks to understand. Always at the farmers market I see people shocked at the prices and I just want to stop them and say “it’s quality not quantity.”

That is especially true when it comes to our health. When you put less food in your body, you lose weight. When you put higher quality food in your body, your health improves. Oh, and higher quality food tastes better too. I could talk for hours about the impact this has on how I look, but suffice it to say, I’m in the best shape of my life.

Depending on the size of your local farmers market, there are some things you won’t be able to find. Coffee is the most obvious one, so is chocolate and tea. For specialty items like these I shop at my local health store. They tend to stock higher quality, more nutritious products (though nowhere near the quality at the farmers market).

Lastly, is the winter stores. There are still plenty of things to buy during the winter, even in especially cold regions. In fact, a large part of French and German cooking is about cooking things sold only in the winter (French Onion Soup, mmm!). But, sometimes you just want a tasty watermelon or juicy pear in January. This is easily solved by creating your winter stores. Buy your favorites at the farmers market when they are going out of season and on sale for steep discounts. Cut them up into squares, freeze them, and don’t let anyone touch until the depths of winter.

These are the important things to know when making the switch to an all farmers market diet. Everything else you can learn at the market, from buyers and farmers. You can ask them anything, about quality or how to cook, and they will answer. That’s why they sell at the market and not the supermarket. They’re part of the rising sub-culture dedicated to ideal health and amazing food. Go ahead, make the switch and see what happens!

 

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Frozen Yogurt: how healthy is it?

The frozen yogurt craze is upon us and competing with all those cupcake shops (see Paris Hilton). While most stores are serving up liquid sugar a few of them are differentiating by promoting their health value. Things like calcium, vitamin C, and the chemistry sounding ‘live and active cultures’, also known as probiotic.

“At Red Mango, we know a healthy lifestyle and a healthy diet go hand in hand. That’s why we’re proud to tell you about all the good things we’re made of. Starting with the most important part of any self-respecting yogurt: live and active cultures.”

While I do enjoy Red Mango as my favorite yogurt joint, I couldn’t take their bold claim on face value. A little research reveals a strange list of health benefits. Here is what the live and active cultures may help:

  • Treat diarrhea
  • Prevent and treat vaginal yeast infections and urinary tract infections
  • Treat irritable bowel syndrome
  • Reduce bladder cancer recurrence
  • Speed treatment of certain intestinal infections
  • Prevent and treat eczema in children
  • Prevent or reduce the severity of colds and flu

Much of this is based on a growing number of studies that support these claims, though, there are many more that prove nothing. I was also surprised by the amount of studies trying to prove basic things like, can bacteria survive the stomach.

When it comes to the more important health claims like:

  • Lowering cholesterol
  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Preventing cavities
  • Strengthening the immune system

The evidence is much more sparse. This New York Times has an article looking into the health claims of probiotics and WebMD has one discussing a lawsuit involving false health claims by Dannon.

It is interesting to note that all yogurt has live and active cultures at some point. Most are killed in the creation of the consumer product, either through warming or just plain not caring if they survive. The companies making the claim about live and active are the ones pioneering methods that allow them to survive freezing, shipping, and all that.

Next, is the nutritional elements of FroYo, which include varying amounts of:

  • Protein
  • Fat
  • Calcium
  • Riboflavin
  • Vitamins C, B6, &  B12

The amount of each depends on the original quality of the milk used and the amount of sugar added. Per serving, frozen yogurt contains as much sugar, or more, as a can of soda. You can bet that a lot of the health benefits are wiped away with too much sugar, though I was not able to find a study proving that.

Sugar loaded frozen yogurt

Here is the nutritional information for the original flavor from my two favorite companies, RedMango and PinkBerry:

Click to view full size.

Conclusion, if you take away the spoonfuls of sugar then frozen yogurt appears to confer several benefits. This includes a grouping of vitamins and calcium, both of which are often lacking in our diet. The extra intestinal benefits also show promise, especially if you are having trouble staying regular.

The quality of the ingredients is the dark horse. It is easy to compare general research studies and nutritional information, but without knowing a company’s commitment to quality we are rolling the dice. The profit margins in this business are tough and many companies may be buying the cheapest milk they can find and then adding in sugar to cover the difference.

So far RedMango is the only company marketing themselves with a claim in this general direction, “all natural”, but that is still a far cry from local, humane, and antibiotic-free.

In the end, it may just be best to make your own frozen yogurt with quality ingredients and an ice cream maker, like the picture below.

[photos: pressroom-paris hilton // boingr-swirl // thebittenword.com-strawberry]

Go local: an explanation of foodsheds

With all this talk about eating local and counting miles I thought it would be good to explain what it really means. The foundation for local eating starts with a foodshed.

Foodshed: a region or area from which a population draws its food.

The typical limit on these regions is 100 miles. Draw a 100-mile circle around where you live and that is your foodshed.

In economic terms this is ideal distance a farmer, or her goods, can travel to reach a market. That way it arrives on your plate as fresh, ripe, and nutritious as it can be.

Go outside of this limit and there is an increasing reliance on fossil fuels and a decreasing quality of the food.

For those concerned about pollution, global warming, or oil-addiction these “food miles” are a cause for concern. Farmers face similar concerns, albeit from the other side, with a rising cost of gas and oil-based fertilizers that narrow their profits.

Still for others the “go local” movement represents a desire to get the very best food they can find, and that is the fundamental reason for foodsheds.

I’ve tried to document what happens to our health with the advent of low quality foodour acceptance of it, and the difference in nutritional content.

These rings of farmland surrounding our communities represent the ideal of sustainable living. Where the countryside is not poverty-stricken, but instead a vibrant economic sector known as much for its wineries and ‘farm-days’ as it is for fresh meat, vegetables, fruits, and nuts.

Even more these areas are often recession proof as evidenced by their continual rapid growth during the past half-decade.

It is for all these reasons that the locavore movement is popular and gaining momentum, there is something in it for everyone. Even the beefiest of meat eaters.

For further reference I’ve pulled together several maps of America’s foodsheds. Take a look.

san francisco california foodshed map 100 mile local locavore
Click for a larger image.

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I Too Was Raised On Processed Foods…

The following is a response to an email asking me about food, health, and nutrition.  The initial email is included at bottom and the person’s name has been excised.

—-

Hey #### – thanks for reaching out to me.

I too was raised on processed foods and so a lot of this was new to me as well. The best piece of advice I can give you is to give it some time. I have helped a lot of people make the change and they are always shocked and surprised by where this path takes them.

For instance, the food sold in supermarkets is the worst kind you can buy. The only thing worse than them is something like hot dogs from 7-Eleven, but in terms of nutritional value they’re not much worse. This includes the produce as well.

There are a whole lot of reasons why this is true like they have a monopoly on the food supply and a need to make profits, so quality is forgotten in favor of quantity. Thankfully the folks behind our food system are rallying together. There is a resurgence in quality seeds, quality farming, and improving distribution systems to get us this food.

The difference between a quality food product and a supermarket one is dramatic. This study which delves deeply into the details found a 1:3 difference. Meaning that a high-quality seed can be 3x more nutritional than a low-quality seed.

Personally, I find it greater than that. The food that I buy is so high quality that I eat very little and have so much more energy. I would say it’s more like a 1:6 or something. I often joke that I buy so little food nowadays that I often splurge on things just because.

This quality food has yet to break into the supermarkets, not even Whole Foods is carrying it yet. We are still stuck in the race to offer the cheapest food we can, though some stores are focusing on improving quality. Which means the only “safe” place to find quality is at farmers markets or food co-operatives.

I can say that I shop twice a week at a farmers market and never shop at supermarkets (tho I do occasionally buy beans/rice from the open bulk bins at Whole Foods). It does take some time to learn a whole new set of routines but that is the ideal if you want to really improve your health, here is why.

The food industry spends a lot of money trying to include nutritional information about food. The trouble is that no two apples are alike. One picked when ripe will be much different than one picked weeks after that. To account for this they just make it up (i.e. educated guesses). More and more studies are coming out showing just how wrong these nutrition labels are. Here is one that shows how vitamins are more marketing than science.

The truth about nutrition is different than what most people think. Every food item has a ton of vitamins/minerals/carbs/fat/etc. For example, Broccoli contains varying amounts of the following:

Protein, Vitamin E, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Pantothenic Acid, Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Phosphorus and Selenium, Dietary Fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, Vitamin B6, Folate, Potassium and Manganese.

The question is how much of each does it have. Well, for plant based foods (vegetables, fruits, nuts) that depends on the starting seed (high, low quality stock) how it is grown (to produce maximum nutrition or to be picked quickly) and when/how it is harvested (at peak times or a few days/weeks early).

With all this variability in farming a single item of broccoli could either contain all you need or nothing at all. This holds true for every single food item out there.

So back to the beginning. Supermarkets sell the lowest quality food they can find (to offer the lowest prices). Farmers markets offer the highest quality they can find (often at higher prices).

The question then for most people is what happens if they switch from low quality to high quality food? Will they spend more or eat less? Are supermarkets just too convenient or is my health worth the trip to a farmers markets?

Steve

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Hi Steve,
You commented on a post here back in April

The 10 Cheapest, Healthiest Foods Money Can Buy

I’m new to healthy eating and haven’t really got a clue what I’m doing, I’ve been pretty much raised on processed foods but have recently decided to learn to cook and educate myself about nutrition. Though I’m in the early stages of transforming my diet and way of life I’ve noticed that a lot of foods that are purportedly healthy, turn out to be not so great. I want to gather as much info on nutrition as possible in order to make the right dietary choices so any info you could send my way would be greatly, greatly appreciated. You also mentioned studies into supermarket food quality which I would be very interested in reading. Thanks for your time Steve, hope you can help.

Kindest regards,
#####

[photo: denn]