Golden Rice Study Investigation Update; Next Steps for GMO Research

by Kira Wohland

Isagani Serrano/International Rice Research Institute

Isagani Serrano/International Rice Research Institute

A university investigation into the ethics of research done on beta-carotene-rich Golden Rice has concluded. The investigation was prompted by allegations that a study conducted in China by Tufts researcher Dr. Guangwen Tang and colleagues failed to follow some portions of the Institutional Review Board (IRB) protocols regarding human subjects research.

According to a spokesperson for the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA), a review of the research protocols found “insufficient evidence of appropriate reviews and approvals in China,” as well as “concerns with the informed consent process.” Importantly, investigators found no evidence to suggest that the integrity of the data collected during the Golden Rice study was in any way unsound.

The study, which aimed to test the ability of genetically engineered Golden Rice to deliver vitamin A to children, was published in August 2012 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Researchers found that a single serving of Golden Rice could provide more than 50 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin A in these children.

Vitamin A deficiency is estimated to affect nearly one in three children under the age of five worldwide. If left untreated, vitamin A deficiency can result in blindness and even death. An estimated 670,000 deaths in children can be attributed to vitamin A deficiency annually. These staggering statistics make clear the importance of finding an efficient and sustainable way to treat vitamin A deficiency. Golden Rice is one proposed method, which, if implemented on a large scale, has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives and drastically improve the health of children in poor and developing nations.

The public health implications of Golden Rice are clear, but not everyone is convinced that it should be grown and used as humanitarian tool. Some groups argue that nutrition efforts should focus on growing more foods that are naturally rich in vitamin A and beta-carotene, while others generally oppose the use of genetically engineered crops in the food supply.

Concerns are not just about Golden Rice; genetically engineered crops in general are met with much skepticism, making research difficult and sometimes impossible. The topic remains controversial despite the majority of studies demonstrating that GMOs do not pose a safety risk. Dr. Jeff Blumberg, a professor at Friedman and director of the Antioxidants Laboratory at the HNRCA notes that the development of genetically engineered crops is an iterative process: “Can you make something bad or dangerous? Of course, and then those indicating potential for an adverse reaction are dropped and R&D continues on efficacy.  I don’t think that people realize that [genetically-engineered foods] are evaluated and tested for safety”.” Just as is true of drug development and pharmaceuticals, GMOs undergo extensive testing before they are deemed safe for consumers.

In the case of the Golden Rice study, a clear distinction must be made when considering the impact of this study and the subsequent investigation. “There is a difference between whether there is a violation of a rule and whether harm was done,” Dr. Blumberg points out.

While no harm was done by researchers in the Golden Rice study, a breach of IRB guidelines did occur. According to a spokesperson for the HNRCA, this controversy led Tufts to modify its IRB protocols, particularly those dealing with research conducted outside the United States. The revised guidelines will ensure that research done in different cultural contexts is reviewed more carefully to avoid miscommunications or oversights.

Dr. Tang’s lab at the HNRCA, the Carotenoids and Health Laboratory, will close in April 2014 for reasons unrelated to the Golden Rice study.

Kira Wohland is a second year student in the dual MS/MPH program, studying biochemical and molecular nutrition and health communication. Her academic interests include child development, school nutrition, and cognition. When she isn’t at Friedman, you can find her serving guests at Lineage in Brookline, baking way too many cookies, or dominating her fantasy football league. To learn more, visit our Meet Our Writers page.

Are omega-3 fatty acids old news? By Katie Fesler

Omega-3 fatty acids have garnered a lot of positive press over the years. They’ve been said to improve diseases ranging from heart disease to rheumatoid arthritis. However, research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association has challenged the assumptions about this supposed nutrition powerhouse.

Researchers were interested in the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on heart disease related deaths, heart attacks, strokes, and sudden deaths. In this systematic review, published in September, findings from 20 randomized clinical trials evaluating omega-3 fatty-acid supplementation outcomes were pooled. Only studies with at least 1-year follow up made the cut.  They found no clear association between increased omega-3 fatty acid intake and improved outcome for heart and stroke related disease and mortality.

Source: National Pharmacy Technician Association

Source: National Pharmacy Technician Association

Does this mean you can tune out the doctor’s advice to increase cold-water fish consumption?

Maybe. However, there are probably too many questions about the results from this meta-analysis to disobey doctor’s orders just yet.

Are the study’s results true for all omega-3 fatty acids?

It is hard to say. Fatty acids are diverse; they fit into more categories than the well-known saturated, unsaturated, and trans fats. In fact, even the omega-3 fatty acid category can be broken down into smaller categories: ALA, EPA, and DHA. While they share many functions, there are small differences in how each of these omega-3 fatty acids works in the body. Therefore, it is possible that one type of omega-3 fatty acid has no effect on heart diseases and strokes, while another has a significant effect. The study did not look at each variety individually.

Would it make a difference when omega-3 fatty acid therapy began?

There have been many studies to examine the impacts of omega-3 on heart and stroke health. Each study began increasing an individual’s omega-3 fatty acid intake at different times; in some cases before onset of any health issues and, in others, immediately following a heart attack or several years after a stroke. These studies indicate that the sooner the increased consumption begins the bigger impact it has. It’s possible, however, that more decisive conclusions could have been drawn had the JAMA analysis looked at studies in which therapy began at similar stages of health or disease.

Is there a difference between omega-3 fatty acids from food and from supplements?

This certainly is a concern, and the researchers knew this. The systematic review looked at omega-3 intake from foods separately from intake from supplements. It found the same results in each group. In food or pill form, it makes no measurable difference to an individual’s risk of heart disease related deaths, heart attacks, strokes, and sudden deaths.

What about the other diseases and conditions omega-3 fatty acids may benefit?

Omega-3 fatty acids are not just associated with improved heart health. They are important to brain development and learning. There is evidence that increased consumption of these fatty acids may slow the effects of aging on the brain. There have even been studies linking omega-3 intake to reduced pain associated with diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. However, this study did not address these conditions.

Were there enough similarities in the studies to ensure valid results?

Systematic reviews are no stranger to this question.  On the one hand, they are useful for pooling results from multiple, equivalent studies. The combination creates a larger sample size, and increases the results’ reliability. However, critics frequently point out that it can be difficult to find studies that are close enough in design and execution to draw meaningful conclusions. This is certainly an area of concern for this review. In some cases, researchers were able to compensate for differences among the studies. However, not all differences can be accounted for and could have contributed to the study’s novel findings.

Questions about the health benefits of omega -3 fatty acids are not new. Countless studies have looked at their effects on heart, brain, and overall health. It may be too soon to discount them completely. However, it is important that future research look into the many concerns raised before a final verdict can be reached. In the meantime, discuss any decisions about omega-3 fatty acid supplements – as with all supplements – with your doctor.

Katie Fesler is a first-year Nutrition Communications student with a personal interest in staying heart healthy.

Meat and masculinity By Sheryl Lynn Carvajal

There are many things that come to mind when we hear the words “masculine” and “feminine.”  Different things are socially assigned to be one way or the other; magazines like Vogue and Glamour and romantic comedies (often dubbed “chick flicks”) are generally viewed as “girly.” On the other hand, contact sports and action movies are commonly perceived as “manly.”

We can now add another item to the list: food.  According to a study conducted by Hank Rothgerber of Bellarmine University in Louisville, KY, men associate eating meat with masculinity.  This study, which is published in the journal Psychology of Men and Masculinity, was among the first to delve deeper into the question of why there seem to be fewer vegetarian men than women.

Source: Sodahead.com

Source: Sodahead.com

In Rothgerber’s two-part study, he asked 125 undergraduate males and females about their meat-eating habits, and 89 students about their justification for eating meat.  Results showed that the males had more direct rationalization for meat consumption; one student said that animals “just taste too good not to eat them.”  Some also said that humans were just meant to eat meat, and that that is why we are here on earth. In an interview with NBC News, Rothgerber said, “There is a group of manly men who swear off what they call chick food, and they seek a Double Whopper to declare their manhood.”

The female participants had a different perspective on the matter.  More females followed vegetarian diets, and they had more indirect and apologetic motives for their lower meat consumption.  Many cited the notion of poor treatment of animals in food production, and did not believe that femininity and masculinity play a role in eating behaviors.

Source: Harlow Star

Source: Harlow Star

Interestingly, the participants’ responses were not directly influenced by health concerns.  The males said that they eat meat because they view it as masculine, yet there was little discussion of their views on the health implications from their chosen diet.  Similarly, the females did not state that they adopted vegetarian diets because of the benefits of eating non-meat food sources and consuming less red meat.  It is interesting to see what may drive males and females to behave differently, especially in their eating habits.

However, there were some limitations in this study design.  There were only 125 participants, and they were all from the same undergraduate university, therefore this was not a representative sample.  There are several other reasons why people decide whether or not to adopt vegetarian diets, such as cultural or religious considerations.  Rothgerber could have also been biased in his study design; in the same NBC News interview mentioned earlier, he discusses the harmful effects of farm animal production on the environment, as well as on the body.

Regardless of the intentions of this study, as a member of the Friedman School of Nutrition, it has become increasingly evident to me just how powerful food can be.  We celebrate holidays that are centered around it.  It brings families and communities together.  Food even has an affect on our psychological well-being.  So next time you are around a man that is insistent on operating his grill and consuming copious amounts of meat while refusing to eat a salad, you now know that there may be some forces of nature or nurture behind it.

Sher Carvajal is a first year Nutrition Communication student who enjoyed the Florida sunshine a little too much over Christmas break before coming back to cold and snowy Boston.  She loved seeing friends and family and hopes everyone had an amazing New Years! J

Can Processed Food Be Good For You- A Debate on Whole vs. Processed Foods

By Sarah Gold

The whole-foods movement is moving full speed ahead. According to a recent International Food Information Council (IFIC) survey, 43% of Americans have negative perceptions of processed foods and only 61% of consumers believe there is a benefit to modern food processing. Many dietitians, health professionals, and scientists have been pushing whole foods for years, instructing consumers that processed food = bad and whole foods = good.  Americans are told to shop the perimeter of the grocery store, but is it really possible to do so and get all of the nutrients one needs? Are all processed foods created equal? Can we lump everything that doesn’t come straight from the ground, a tree, or bush into one category?

Last week, I attended the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ (AND) — formerly known as the American Dietetic Association– Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo (FNCE) and sat in on a discussion about the role of processed foods in Americans’ diets. As a whole-foods advocate, the debate certainly gave me something to think about.

What is a processed food?

Here is a simple definition: processing is any deliberate change that occurs to a food before consumption. The challenge with this definition is that it encompasses any level of processing from pasteurization, freezing, and canning to creating an entire meal from a mixture of lab-created ingredients. In reality, there is a continuum of processed foods, which is an important distinction to make.

In an attempt to unbundle all processed foods, the International Food Information Council (IFIC) recently developed a scale defining different levels of processing. Researchers then applied data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) to understand which types of processed foods Americans are eating and what nutrients they derive from these foods.

IFIC defines 5 levels of processing:

  1. Minimally processed: bagged salads, roasted nuts, milk, chicken and beef
  2. Foods processed for preservation and freshness: canned tuna, frozen fruits, milk, and 100% juice
  3. Combined foods: tomato sauce, spice mixes, and dressings
  4. Ready-to-eat  (RTE) foods: cereal, flavored oatmeal, nut butters, cheese, carbonated beverages, granola, lunchmeats, candy, and bread
  5. Foods packaged to stay fresh: prepared deli foods, and frozen meals

What nutrients do processed foods contribute to the American Diet?

Though consumers have negative perceptions of processed foods, they still eat an abundance of them.  Why the disconnect?

“This is a very confusing aspect of the debate,” says Victor Fulgoni III, PhD of Nutrition impact and speaker at the FNCE session.  “Some of the discontent is fueled by some that want only local and fresh foods to be consumed. While this is a very laudable goal it is just not possible for most of Americans for either time or economic constraints,” adds Fulgoni.

Sadly, only about 300 calories per day come from minimally processed foods in the American diet, according to the data presented by Fulgoni at FNCE. Not surprisingly ready-to-eat (RTE) foods make up the largest portion of calories consumed (about 600 calories) and the top RTE foods consumed include soda, candy, potato chips, and juice drinks. This did not include food eaten at restaurants.

Processed foods contribute more dietary saturated fat, sugar, and sodium than minimally processed foods. However, they also provide the largest source of fiber, B vitamins, folate, iron, and potassium for many Americans. According to the study, most American’s would not meet the daily recommendations for essential vitamins and minerals without processed foods.

Do processed foods have a place in the Americans diet?

“How many of you have gone out to a wheat field, picked a grain of wheat and eaten it?” Fulgoni asked at the discussion. Though extreme, this question is a reminder that food processing is a necessary step to make foods accessible, palatable, and convenient.

Derek Yach, Senior Vice President of Global Health Policy at PepsiCo and former Executive Director of Noncommunicible Diseases and Mental Health at the World Health Organization, recently published an article in the Huffington Post on food access and availability. He noted that if everyone followed the dietary guidelines and filled half their plate with fresh fruits and vegetables, there wouldn’t be enough produce to go around. To address poor nutrition he suggests that food manufacturers focus on “incorporating whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds into food products and maintaining their nutritional value during manufacturing, packaging, and distribution.”

It’s unrealistic to think that everyone in America can eat fresh and local food year round. In many parts of the country, the dead of winter means canned tomatoes and frozen vegetables, which are processed foods. Foods like canned tuna and beans; some cereals; whole-wheat pasta and tomato sauce; and nut butters are nutritious options for many people looking for convenience.

The challenge lies in shifting the public’s choices of processed foods, particularly in the RTE category.  Nutrition and agriculture professionals need to find innovative ways to educate consumers about which processed foods to choose. Fulgoni suggests a need to, “develop a way to operatialize the term nutrient density, especially for foods that contain both nutrients to encourage and nutrients to limit.” It’s unrealistic to eliminate all processed foods from most people’s diets, but encouraging consumers to choose the granola bar over the candy bar can be feasible.

Another solution is to improve accessibility of healthier processed foods, particularly in places where whole foods are not readily available. This is already happening.  Elementary schools are replacing chips and candy in the vending machines with trail mix and granola. And if elementary schools can do it, shouldn’t the only school of nutrition in the country provide granola bars and yogurt instead of 600-calorie muffins and ramen noodles? Food companies are prioritizing the “closer-to-the-whole” movement and are developing products based on whole ingredients. Healthful RTE foods exist.

It’s also important to find a better balance between the nutrients to encourage and the nutrients to reduce. As food and beverage companies prioritize health and wellness, nutrition professionals should encourage them to develop new foods that are lower in sodium, sugar, and saturated fat but also include the vitamins and minerals we need. A reduced fat twinkie fortified with fiber and vitamins is not the answer. But, demonizing all processed foods is also not productive.  Instead, finding new ways to process foods such as whole grains into more convenient, shelf-stable, and accessible forms, while retaining nutritional value is a better use of our time.

 Sarah is a second year student completing a dual degree in Nutrition Communication and the Didactic Program in Dietetics. When not writing for school, the Sprout, or her internship, Sarah enjoys running, teaching spin, and testing out new recipes to share with friends and family! Read more from Sarah at her personal blog: www.foodandfitnessfriend.com

How High Fructose Corn Syrup Became Obesity’s Fall Guy

by Meghan Johnson

The correlation between the rise in consumption of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and the rise in obesity rates in the United States has often been misinterpreted to mean that high fructose corn syrup is uniquely causing obesity.  While it’s tempting to want to blame America’s weight problem on a single ingredient (especially when it has no real nutritional value), we must look to science before we can make such accusations.

What is high fructose corn syrup?

HFCS is a chemically altered sweetener that has become increasingly popular in the US over the past 40 years. The sweetener is used in place of other sugars due to its ability to make high fiber foods more palatable, inhibit microbial spoilage by reducing water activity, and extend shelf life through moisture control. Its manufacturers claim foods taste fresher because HFCS protects the firm texture of canned fruits and reduces freezer burn in frozen fruits.  Because of its preservation characteristics, HFCS is commonly found in processed foods such as bread, cereal, granola bars, lunchmeat, yogurt, and condiments as well as soda.

Does HFCS encourage weight gain more than other added sugars?

The main case against the sweetener is that its sugar composition affects the body differently than natural sugars from cane, beets or honey. Compositionally, HFCS is nearly identical to table sugar (sucrose), which is made up of equal parts fructose and glucose molecules. Glucose is one of the simplest forms of sugar and is a component of all dietary sugars. Fructose is also a simple sugar, found in fruits and honey.

Advocates for HFCS argue that both sugar and HFCS are metabolized the same way in the body, and therefore one is no more harmful than the other. Those on the other side of the argument insist that HFCS is metabolically different than sugar and causes excess fat storage, leading to obesity.

What does Science say?

There is some scientific evidence supporting the idea that glucose and fructose (especially the kind found in HFCS) are metabolized differently . However, the studies were conducted on lab animals and can’t be generalized to humans.

Most notably, Princeton scientist Bart Hoebel’s study found differences in the uptake pathways (the way the fructose molecules are absorbed.) Without glucose regulation, the fructose molecule can be absorbed into the body’s cells and cause unlimited energy production. Excess energy, or calories, is stored as adipose tissue, or fat. Another difference was identified in the sugars’ stopping molecules. In glucose metabolism, stopping molecules halt further energy production when enough energy has been made.  Hoebel’s work suggests that the stopping molecules are not activated for the fructose molecule found in HFCS.  Once again, these results were only seen in rats.

The other side of Science

Dr. John White is a leading researcher cited on the Corn Refiner’s Association website (the main agency advocating for the continued use of HFCS and makers of the “Sweet Surprise” commercials).  Dr. White finds three main problems with the current studies trying to link HFCS to obesity in humans. They include:

1. The studies were conducted using rats. Rats are not humans and you cannot draw conclusions from findings that have not been proven to hold true with humans. Our metabolic pathways are fundamentally different.

2. The level of fructose given to the rats far exceeds what any typical human would consume. When fructose is given without glucose, it behaves differently and humans never consume those quantities of straight fructose. Hoebel allowed his rats unlimited consumption of the sweetener so that the rats were getting about 3,000 calories per day of straight fructose (when translated to humans).

3. Sucrose was only used as a control in some of the study’s arms. The study’s findings are not valid if the same controls were not used across all arms of the study.

Lastly, the case for HFCS’s link to obesity violates one of the foundational concepts of science; that correlation does not equal causation. Just because two things are moving together, increasing or decreasing at the same rate over time, we cannot make assumptions that one thing is causing the change in the other.

There is little evidence to show that high-fructose corn syrup is, uniquely, causing Americans to become fat. Metabolically, HFCS does not really appear to be very different from other added sugars. According to Dr. White, “All of these caloric sweeteners contain fructose in about a 1:1 ratio, and what would surprise people is that once these sweeteners reach the blood stream, they are all equivalent. If you substitute one for another, you get metabolic equivalence. They deliver the same sugars to the blood streams in the same concentrations.”

What does this mean for me?

The important take-away is that eating any sugar or nutrient in excess will lead to weight gain. Dr. White said, “The only link between HFCS and obesity is that if you overeat HFCS, just like any nutritional component, you stand the chance of gaining weight. Added sugars will contribute to obesity if they’re over consumed.” The connection between HFCS and weight gain is simply that Americans are eating more across all categories, including added sugars, and that more and more products are popping up with added sugars in them to lengthen shelf life or enhance taste.

To avoid consuming HFCS until more conclusive evidence is found, consume minimally or unprocessed foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains (watch out for breads!), and plenty of lean protein such as legumes, eggs or lean animal protein. HFCS has already been removed from many products to meet consumer demand but if you’re unsure if what you’re eating contains the sweetener, just flip over the box and check the ingredient label.

Meghan Johnson is a first-year FPAN student with a specialization in Health & Nutrition Communication. She relocated to Boston from Washington DC and is doing her best to acclimate to the lingo, the bitter winds, and clam chowder.

The New American Farming Movement, and Why It’s Here to Stay

by Marisol Pierce-Quinonez and Jeff Hake

The burgeoning new farming movement in the US is characterized by a bevy of young farmers, craftspeople, homesteaders and combinations thereof.  It has been labeled by some as a trendy flash in the pan, little more than a path for hipsters that “don’t know what to do with their lives.” Critics declare that the frivolity of youth combined with twentysomethings’ inability to grow up makes for a horrible match with the laborious commitment required of farmers.  Indeed, it is fair to wonder if the current farming fixation will die out in a year or two in favor of the Next Big Thing, given that these sort of movements have a reputation for dissolving.  While it is difficult to imagine the movement’s heightened level of media attention as a permanent feature, an analysis of historical ebbs and flows can reveal to us what will happen to the current wave of food and farming fanaticism.  By this measure, your CSA next door is likely there to stay.

An agrarian spirit comes and goes

America has a strong agrarian tradition with roots in the principles of its founding fathers.  Thomas Jefferson, a farmer himself, famously believed that a nation of self-sufficient small farmers was the purest route to a functioning democracy.  This belief was carried out in future American policies through the Homestead Act, a law that granted 160 acres to individuals willing to farm it, and the Morrill Act, a law that established public funding for agricultural research.  Early agricultural policy was aimed at developing farms’ production power, but as the economic might of the manufacturing industry began to eclipse agriculture in the late 19th century, policy aimed at agricultural development lost popularity and the number of farmers began to drop.

The number of farmers and farmworkers in the US has continued to drop over the course of the 20th century, from 41% in 1900 to under 2% by 2007.  Meanwhile, farmers’ average age has risen close to that of retirement, with the fastest growing age group being those 65 and older. However, periodic surges have occurred that have thrown the curve and brought agriculture and gardening back into the public consciousness.

One of these periods was during the early 20th century, when World Wars I and II called for contributions from all Americans, including those on the homefront. World War I saw the cautious birth of the War Gardens movement, and the successful implementation of these gardens of service lead to a national-scale revival of the movement just 12 days after America entered the Second World War in 1941. Rebranded as Victory Gardens, these plots and small farms grew about 40% of the vegetable needs of the US in 1944. However, this massive effort was a patriotic response to crisis, and with the end of the war, the gardens became unanchored and slowly declined. Although a few Victory Gardens remain today (including one here in Boston), the post-war economic and technological boom increased the industrialization of agriculture and America no longer needed an army of patriotic farmers and gardeners.

In the late 1960s and 70s, farming again took the role of cause as many young people dropped out of mainstream society to join farming communes and intentional communities. The idea of forsaking society in favor of a simpler life was not a new idea[i], but in this instance fuel shortages, continuing wars, the corporatization of the American way of life, and a general dissatisfaction with the options available in cities and suburbs pushed young people to the countryside to pick up a pitchfork. Communes attempted to be self-sustaining and to live off the grid.  However, when interpersonal relationships soured or convictions faltered, the communities often failed. Several of these attempts live on today[ii] but still more hippie farmers left their attempts at utopian ideals and reengaged with mainstream society.

Critics of the modern farming movement often point to the dissolution of hippie homesteading and the disappearance of victory gardens as evidence that the modern iteration of back-to-the-landism is fleeting.  However, there are a few marked contrasts that distinguish the today’s movement beyond a mere reaction to crisis. Instead, it has strived to learn from the missteps of the past and now bases itself on the principles of sustainability. This is understood as the triple-bottom line of “people, profits and planet”. A sustainable world means one should not only look out for the health and well-being of ourselves and our environment, but that one should strive to make a living at it at the same time.

Transforming economy…

Much of the new farmer movement has intended to create profitable farms. Mission-driven farms have sprung up as a part of the modern movement as well, but even many of these are focused on education of the public or of those who wish to become farmers (the Friedman School’s own New Entry Sustainable Farming Project is a perfect example of this). Farming has become an option for young people who are interested in becoming stewards of the land while also earning a living.

It should not be surprising that people are attempting to build a career in farming:  present economic conditions are ugly and show little sign of recovery. The national unemployment rate rose as high as 10.6% in January 2010 and is currently hovering at 9.5%.  The unemployment rate for youth aged 16 to 19 is even worse, at 23.9% as of February. In the past a decent education offered a clear path to career success, but GOOD Magazine published a report last fall detailing the plight of well-educated young Americans who are finding that Master and Doctoral degrees are sometimes little more than a Ponzi scheme of escalating investment.[iii]

 

By choosing both pitchfork and spreadsheet as their tools, young farmers are finding that they can not only fend for themselves, if modestly, but that their actions can have a transformative effect on the local economy. Two of the most common marketing outlets for small-scale farmers today are farmers’ markets and community-support agriculture harvest share programs (CSAs). The number of markets in the US has steadily risen from 1,755 in 1994 to over 6,100 last year, and there are now over 4,200 CSA farms in the US. These outlets for selling farm fresh and sustainably grown foods allow communities to keep dollars circulating internally. In addition, the raw product of these farms feeds into the work of neighboring artisans and processors, who add value to products and create diverse, complete and independent local economies. And beyond what could be viewed as tenuous or small-scale relationships, organizations like Red Tomato and the Real Food Challenge are working with the growing network of small- and mid-scale farms to optimize distribution networks and to incite institutions like schools and hospitals to source food from local growers and processors.

 

…and transforming agricultural practice…

 

Of course, today’s young farmers recognize that earning a living and supporting local economies is an important goal, but environmental concerns still enter in to daily farm operations. We are now at a critical point that some describe as “peak everything”, where the resource drivers of the global economy are approaching their finite capacities. Modern industrial agriculture is powered by and structured around cheap supplies of oil, phosphorus, nitrogen and water. The underlying objective of most new farmers in the US today is to maximize productivity of limited acreage while reducing the amount of inputs, such as fertilizers and fuel for machinery, brought onto the farm.

 

This calls for a spirit of innovation that has become ample reason for both the interest in farming among young people and why it will sustain itself. For educated and underprivileged young Americans alike, what jobs that are available to them often lack creative and intellectual outlet and the rewards for creativity are few or unseen. Agriculture, while rife with failures and hard times, also offers visible, palatable returns to intellectual input. Craftsmanship and decades of experience and knowledge are also required on conventional farms, but among the new generation of farms and farmers, knowledge can be considered the single most important input[iv]. The returns to this input are both visceral and esoteric, as a farmer gets to see the literal fruits of his labor feeding hungry people. And this may be the most fundamental reason why more young people are embracing agrarianism: pride in work. Today’s new generation of farmers embraces this pride as readily as the previous one. More than that, they are quietly leading the way to a healthier, stronger and more prosperous global food system.

 

…to transform how the world is fed?

Beyond creating gainful and rewarding employment, the new agricultural movement has an important mission, and in this it perhaps cannot afford to fail. Faced with depleted non-renewable resources, hunger, economic failure, and wildly unstable political regimes, the leadership of the next generation of farmers is vital. In practice, of course, much is yet to be done to assure their ascension.  Tom Philpott notes that the revival of the mid-sized farm is required in order for the impact of sustainable agriculture to be felt on a meaningful scale, and, while the importance and needs of young farmers are beginning to be recognized by US federal policy, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack acknowledges that “we need to be even more creative than we’ve been to create strategies so that young people can access operations of all sizes.”Among these strategies would likely be a restructuring of farm subsidy programs, as Mark Bittman and others have suggested, and changing how the less-endowed gain access to prime farmland.

 

It’s true that the new farming movement has a superficial likeness to other resurgences of interest in farming and gardening over the past century. However, the world, and the agriculture that feeds it, is at a crossroads. Finding no jobs awaiting them and little value in the status quo that continues to push the globe down a path of imminent disaster, the youngest working generation of Americans are looking to agriculture as both an outlet for their energy and intelligence and as a vital part of the solution to the problems around them. As these problems continue to mount, the young farmers of today may be viewed not as starry-eyed ideologues who will grow up soon enough, but instead as farmer-citizens, leaders for a sustainable future.


[i] Communes have existed in this country for centuries.  For instance, a notable uptick occurred in the late 19th century in response to industrialization after the American Civil War and the town of Hopedale, MA was originally founded on Christian and socialist ideologies in 1842), but the burgeoning back-to-the-land movement inspired the creation of rural utopian communities all across the country.

[ii] Maine provides excellent examples of sustained agrarian lifestyles. In 1952, after 20 years of homesteading in the Green Mountains of Vermont, Helen and Scott Nearing, a collective bedrock of the back-to-the-land movement, moved to Harborside, Maine and established what would become The Good Life Center. In 1968, Eliot Coleman, purchased 60 acres from the Nearings and set out to be an organic farmer. Today, he and his wife, Barbara Damrosch, run a highly successful year-round organic farm on the naturally rocky shallow soils of coastal Maine. Coleman’s example and his seminal writings, Four Season Harvest and The New Organic Grower, have become an inspiration to a nation of market farmers. In addition, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association was founded in 1971 and is the “largest and oldest state organic organization in the country”. It currently provides support and services to a quickly growing amount of organic farmers and other farmers who wish to incorporate organic practices throughout the state. Farmers elsewhere in the country, like Fred Kirschenmann in North Dakota and Joel Salatin in Virginia, show by example and by education how sustainable and organic practices can be applied on a large scale and at a profit.

[iii] A recent New York Times op-ed sagely warns of the many dangers of a neglected class of young, educated Americans, equating it to similar conditions in the now-revolting countries of North Africa and the Middle East.

[iv] A report recently published by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food describes this new breed of agriculture as “knowledge-based”, which enables it to be passed from farmer to farmer without need for farm-level transportation or regular capital investment. However, the report also has a more important point: this new breed of agriculture, given many names but here called “agroecology”, can in fact grow enough nutritious food to feed the world into the foreseeable future, and even produce higher yields than conventional agriculture.

 

Mari is a third year AFE/UEP student who frequently avoids her work by drawing pictures.  She also blogs about the intersection of food systems and city living at www.projectstofinish.com

Jeff Hake is in his last semester of the Agriculture, Food and the Environment program at the Friedman School, so long as everything goes according to plan. He really likes tea, breakfast and farms, and spends a lot of time thinking about each of those things everyday. He also blogs at gardenglow.tumblr.com

Name That Belt – The South Labeled the “Diabetes Belt”

by Allison Knott

The Southern U.S. and Appalachian regions have received disappointing news in the past month.  The area was deemed the most physically inactive in the United States, and then given a new label: the “diabetes belt.”  The diabetes belt is similar in geographic area to the stroke belt – a label to define an area of the country with a high rate of stroke mortality.

The 2007-2008 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey (BRFSS), released from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, revealed that the Southern region of the United States is the most physically inactive.  Approximately 29 percent of individuals in this region report no physical activity on a regular basis, outside of what he/she receives at their job.  This is four percentage points higher than the United States average of 25 percent.  The states with the highest rates of inactivity are: Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma.

The same CDC survey also points to a diabetes belt throughout the southern portion of the United States.  Similar to the stroke belt, the diabetes belt consists of multiple states with higher than average rates of diabetes.  However, there are some discrepancies: West Virginia is within the diabetes belt, but not the stroke belt and Indiana is in the diabetes belt, but not the stroke belt.  The states defining the diabetes belt are: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia.  The diabetes belt includes 644 counties, each with a higher prevalence of diabetes than the rest of the country, 11.4% and 8.5% respectively.  The physically inactive states overlap with the states in the diabetes belt.  And portions of the diabetes belt overlap with the stroke belt.  Longstanding research indicates that physical inactivity plays an important role in obesity and that obesity is a risk factor for diabetes and stroke.  It makes sense to see that the most physically inactive states would also have a higher prevalence of diabetes and stroke.  Other factors contributing to the increased prevalence include ethnicity, with a higher population of African Americans in the Southern states, as well as an older population.

Many factors play a role in this complex issue.  One is the structure of cities and towns throughout the Southern and Appalachian regions.  As someone who grew up in a small town in Eastern Tennessee, I know all too well the challenges of getting enough physical activity while going about daily living.  Evaluating walk scores of various locations in the South using a website, www.walkscore.com, reveals that the majority of Southern cities and towns do not fare well.  The Walk Score website uses an algorithm to calculate the score based on the ease of living a “car-lite” lifestyle.  It takes into account the distance to amenities according to the address inputted in the website.  You can find more information on the algorithm here.  For comparison, Boston receives a walk score of 97 out of 100 with an average of 82.  My hometown, Cleveland, Tennessee, receives a walk score of 77 out of 100 with an average of 42.

Although the walk-ability of the town is just one factor in the myriad of contributing factors, one thing is sure, the Southern states are suffering from higher rates of obesity, diabetes, stroke and physical inactivity.  Sara Folta, a Friedman professor who works in the John Hancock Research Center on Physical Activity, Nutrition, and Obesity Prevention, conducts most of her research for the Strong Women-Healthy Hearts program.  The pilot work for the Strong Women-Healthy Hearts program was conducted in Arkansas, which is on the border of the diabetes belt.  She says Arkansas women face many challenges to eating healthy and getting enough physical activity.  When asked about foods available, Sara reports:

“Healthy foods are fairly readily available, even in very rural communities, but they are completely overshadowed by all the other stuff.  There is a strong culture around food and expectations around social events that make it difficult, even if someone is highly motivated, to make healthier choices.”

The physical activity component is also difficult for many individuals living in the Southern and Appalachian regions.  Through the Strong Women-Healthy Hearts research, Sara says:

“It’s a similar situation with physical activity.  The opportunities are there, but the challenges are enormous.  The women in Arkansas told me that you have to be very motivated, because you have to either wake up very early to get out for a walk before the heat and mosquitoes take over, or else you have to actively seek out a comfortable indoor place.  So, the two main problems seem to be the overall structure of the communities and the prevailing social norms and culture.  Both very much work against the type of lifestyle that would help to prevent diabetes.”

The researchers summarizing the CDC survey in the most recent American Journal of Preventive Medicine recommend “culturally appropriate interventions aimed at decreasing obesity and sedentary lifestyle” in the counties defining the diabetes belt.  What works in Boston will probably not work in Tennessee.  The authors also recommend changes on a policy level and hope that by defining the diabetes belt by counties, the policies will reflect the specific needs within each county.  The authors do cite limitations with the study such as recall and social desirability bias due to the limitations of the CDC Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.  They also indicate a limitation on making causal inferences because the BRFSS is a cross-sectional survey.

Policy changes, social construct adjustments and improving modifiable lifestyle factors are important in improving the overall health status of the Southern United States.  My hope is with renewed attention to this problem through news stories and research, the South will begin to work towards the much needed changes in the near future.

Allison Knott has been a registered dietitian since 2008 and was previously employed in a hospital in Georgia.  She is currently pursuing a master of science in Nutrition Communication.  Her passion is to communicate accurate and sound nutrition information to the general public. She also blogs at choiceshabitslifestyle.com.

DNA’s Role in Aerobic Exercise Capacity

by Sarah Gold

As a student at the Friedman School, I’m surrounded by marathon runners, triathletes, fitness instructors, and other exercise fanatics. Of course, we are all concerned about health and fitness; we’re studying nutrition! But how is it that so many of us are such serious, often competitive, athletes? Sometimes it seems like it’s just in our blood. Or maybe it’s in our DNA?

A recent study, conducted as part of the HERITAGE Family cohort study, shows evidence that genetics may play a role in the ability to increase overall physical fitness level. The HERITAGE Family Study, founded in 1992, was developed to look at the role of DNA in cardiovascular and metabolic responses to aerobic training as well as the effects of regular exercise on risk factors for cardiovascular disease and diabetes. To date, over 120 articles have been published from this study. The latest paper discussed the relationship between specific genes and the ability to increase physical fitness level over a 5-month period, as measured by maximal oxygen capacity, or VO2 max.

473 individuals from 99 all-white families completed a 20-week cycling program; all were considered healthy, but sedentary prior to the study. The participants rode the bike 3 times per week for increasing time intervals, reaching specific heart-rate goals each ride. VO2 max measurements were taken at baseline and at the end of the 20-week program.

After the intervention, participants saw a wide range of aerobic fitness improvement, none of which correlated with age, sex, body mass index, or perceived commitment. The researchers did, however, find a relationship between the presence of specific single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs (pronounced ‘snips’ in the molecular biology world), and physical fitness level. SNPs, which are tiny segments of DNA, can vary among individuals. This variation allows researchers to identify an interaction between certain SNPs and physical activity level. In fact, the researchers identified 21 SNPs that accounted for about 50% of the variance in training ability. SNPs have been tied to susceptibility to disease in previous research; however, this was the first study to test the relationship between them and exercise ability.

Study results showed that those possessing 19 of the 21 SNPs, or specific DNA variations, led to a 3-fold improvement of VO2 max when compared to those who carried 9 or fewer of the SNPs.  Interestingly, one of the SNPs, which was said to account for 6% of the variation alone, is located on a gene that has previously been tied to lipid metabolism. It is hypothesized that this association may be responsible for the difference in exercise ability. This study was replicated in 247 HERITAGE Family Blacks from 105 families and results, while positive, were not quite as strong and fewer of the SNPs appeared to be involved in the process.

Does this mean that if you find yourself struggling to increase your endurance level, you are lacking these specific SNPs? Not necessarily. These results are preliminary and further, larger studies are necessary to apply these findings to the general public. Additionally, as shown with the comparison of the Caucasian and Black participants, ethnicity likely plays a role in the process.

This is a big step in understanding the interplay between genetics and physical activity levels. However, it’s unclear what we can do with this information at the moment. I will say, though, this is certainly not an excuse for those who find exercise difficult to sit on the couch. Even if you’re not significantly increasing your aerobic capacity, exercise still provides several important health benefits.

Sarah Gold is a first year Nutrition Communication student and is also part of dual program with Simmons to pursue her Dietetic Internship. A born New Yorker, but Cali girl at heart, you can find Sarah on the ski slopes, on a bike, or in the kitchen testing out new recipes.

Meat or Chicken? The Nutrition Behind Meals Served 30,000ft Above Ground

by Hassan Dashti

While traveling over spring break, I realized passengers get to make very few choices; their seats are assigned, their TV entertainment movie list is set, and the time permitted to move about the cabin is limited. But on some short-haul and most long-haul flights, every passenger faces a critical question which demands an immediate response: what to eat?

The concept of in-flight means was developed in 1936 by United Airlines. Since then, all airlines began providing food to their passengers to keep up with the competition. A few years ago, however, as a result of rising fuel costs, many airlines began eliminating certain foods or meals altogether. For instance, peanuts were no longer given out on most short-haul United Airlines flights. This small change helped the airline company save millions of dollars without upping their seat prices.

Other airlines still rely on good, gourmet (do you really think it’s gourmet?) food to attract customers. British Airways, for example, serves a complete afternoon tea to their first class passengers prepared by London’s premier Dorchestor Hotel. US based airlines including Delta decided to provide gourmet sandwiches prepared by celebrity chef Todd English.

I decided to take a closer look at the nutrition content of the common foods offered and I found that they share several characteristics: they are high in salt, high in saturated fat, low in vitamins and minerals and contain no nutrition information on them whatsoever, even the packaged ones!

Studies have found that white noise due to flying decreases the sensitivity of taste buds. So instead, airlines increase the salt and sugar in order bring out more flavor in their food. Since little information is published on the exact caloric content of these inflight meals, I was not able to identify exactly how much more salt is added. Although extra salt from one meall isn’t the end of the world, it is important for individuals on strict diets to be aware of this.

Since many inflight meals are stored for a long period of time, many vitamins are lost from the meals, especially vitamins C and B12. So even the fruit salads that are presumably high in vitamins and minerals might lose their nutritional benefit due to prolonged storing. In order to cope with this, many airlines are now providing fresh fruits and vegetables instead.

The FDA has warned various airlines on the seriousness of over-salted foods and is requiring airlines to list calorie content on nutrition labels on in-flight meals soon. In the meantime, there are numerous ways to cope with this. Many airlines offer alternative meals, including low-sodium and Kosher, which many people agree are just tastier since they are usually prepared by restaurants, in smaller quantities. These alternative meals tend to be safer options. Another way to go about it is to purchase food from the airport.

With that said, even though it seems like airlines are providing the passengers with a choice- meat or chicken, pasta or fish- the airlines are only providing the passengers with the option of consuming unhealthy, high salt, high fat meals. Now think back to last week, what did you have as your in-flight meal?

Hassan Dashti is a first-year student in the Biochemical and Molecular Nutrition program from Kuwait, and is the current editor-in-chief of the Friedman Sprout. Hassan is currently engaged in nutrigenomics research at the HNRCA, trying to identify genes that affect saturated fat metabolism in human. He is interested in collecting foods from all over the world, and in restocking his pantry.

The Death and Life of Great American Agriculture

by Mari Pierce-Quinonez

As the obesity epidemic rages and the gap between local haute cuisine and SNAP* supported meals widens, many are turning to urban agriculture as a means to rectify some of the wrongs in our food system.  Advocates credit urban agriculture with reducing food miles, improving food deserts, promoting green jobs, and revitalizing vacant land. However, urban agriculture programs are expensive to operate and the overall contribution to the domestic food supply remains small.  If healthy, local foods are the ultimate goal, one might argue that funds devoted to urban agriculture programs are better spent elsewhere.  However, revered urban theorist Jane Jacobs would probably argue exactly the opposite: to fix the food system, agriculture must start in the cities.

Jane Jacobs is best known for her avid support of mixed-use urban neighborhoods, masterfully explicated in her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  She also published an almost equally important work entitled The Economy of Cities in 1968.  This book describes her thoughts on how new jobs are created and makes a bold hypothesis: the types of employment that we usually consider rural, including agriculture, originated in cities.  The first chapter is filled with anecdotes about agricultural development within cities and villages, and correctly supposes that, “to our descendents, it may seem almost incredible that the ‘country industry’ of slaughtering and packing meat for city consumers… was formerly city work – as strange as it seems to us that growing alfalfa was once city work.”

New kinds of employment have been invented and reinvented for decades.  Heavy industries and office work alike begin in cities because they provide an amazing assortment of ideas and the capital to turn those ideas in to employment.  Eventually jobs moves out to rural areas where land is cheaper and employees are willing to work for less money.  In some cities like Detroit and Cleveland, the mass exodus to the suburbs has contributed to the decline of the city-center, leaving vast tracts of vacant land.  Enter urban agriculture.  Urban agriculture is a new type of employment for these cities in decline, and has the potential to improve their economic fortunes and provide a substantial amount of fresh, local produce to city residents.

Although there is not currently enough produce coming from urban agriculture to get anywhere close to feeding the American population, there are many potential benefits in relocating agriculture to urban areas.   Cities are nexuses of information and ideas.  When faced with the space limitations imposed by a dense urban fabric, innovations abound to encourage technologically advanced high-yielding techniques.  Hydroponic rooftop gardens (nutrient solutions washed over plant roots without soil), aquaponics (hydroponics combined with aquaculture), window farms (crowd-sourced indoor growing project) and high-density vertical growing systems (stacked planters can grow 8 times more plants than traditional farmland) are all techniques that have been created as a response to cramped urban conditions.  Preliminary yield reports on these techniques are promising. Even more exciting, however, is that these techniques are geared towards nutrient-dense fruits, vegetables and fish rather than energy-dense commodities.

As with other types of employment, urban agriculture will probably not stay urban forever.  Once the technology is optimized for yield and profit it will likely follow its forbears and move back to rural areas on the urban periphery.  If American agriculture adopts the technologies currently fomenting in cities en masse, the amount of fresh, local produce available on city shelves will dramatically increase. An array of fruits, vegetables and fish would be available at an affordable price, and America’s small farms will have new tools available to help them turn a profit.  Obesity crisis averted, regional economies enhanced, communities revitalized. Were she still alive today, Jane Jacobs would be proud.

* Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

Mari is a third year AFE/UEP student who frequently avoids her work by drawing pictures.  She also blogs about the intersection of food systems and city living at www.projectstofinish.com

Alcohol for your bones, and how to make a toast in Dutch

by Marina Komarovsky

“Za zdorovye!“ (Russian) “¡Salud!” (Spanish) “Gezondheid!” (Dutch) In a number of languages, the appropriate exclamation for clinking glasses during a toast translates literally as “To health!” During the conversation that ensues over drinks, a popular topic, speaking of health, is: Does moderate drinking confer a benefit? We have been hearing a lot about cardiovascular health benefits, but another important relationship under investigation is alcohol and bone health. Both men and women hit their peak bone mass (and probably their peak alcohol intake) during their twenties, so there is no better time to think about how we can keep our bones strong for the long term.

Why would alcohol be good for bone health in the first place? You have probably already heard about resveratrol in red wine, but this is just one of many polyphenolic compounds found in alcoholic beverages. Others include flavonols, flavanols, prenylflavonoids, anthocyanins, proanthocyanidins, hydroxycinnamic acids, and EGCG; some are found in wine, some in beer. Certain polyphenols may bind to estrogen receptor genes, which leads to increased estrogen action, which in turn inhibits bone breakdown. Others also decrease the production of TNF-α and IL-6, cytokines that promote bone breakdown. Beer in particular contains high concentrations of the silicon mineral, which is beneficial for bone and other connective tissue growth.

How do these biological effects play out at the population level? There have been a number of studies around the world showing associations between moderate alcohol intake and bone health.  In Korea, where the rice liquor soju plays an essential role in business meetings, a large epidemiologic study found that men who drank between one and five small cups of soju per day were half as likely to be classified as having reduced bone strength than those who did not drink at all. But that risk was increased for men who drank more than eight cups. In Australia, famous for its Shiraz, researchers measured bone density in elderly men and women. They followed up two and a half years later, to find that men who drank alcohol in general – and red wine in particular – experienced less age-associated bone loss over that period. In Spain, where it’s common to sip from a bottle of a regional beer over a long lunch, women who drank beer had higher bone density.

Research with several large U.S. based cohorts like the Cardiovascular Health Study (in four communities around the U.S.) and the Framingham Osteoporosis Study (local in Massachusetts) has also yielded analyses of the relationship between alcohol and bone health. Cardiovascular Health Study participants who drank up to 14 drinks per week were 22% less likely to experience hip fractures over a 12-year period.  Researchers at our very own Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging worked with Framingham cohort data. Comparing moderate drinkers to nondrinkers, they found that men who had one or two drinks per day had higher bone density, but having more than two reversed this relationship. For women, more than two drinks – especially two glasses of wine – were beneficial in the postmenopausal group only. Because estrogen has a role in inhibiting the breakdown of bone, the sharp drop which occurs after menopause takes a toll on bone. It’s possible that the protective effect of alcohol kicks in at this time, a welcome finding given concerns about osteoporosis after menopause.

These studies have primarily focused on the relationship between alcohol and bone density or fractures. However, the prerequisite of breaking a bone is falling, and intoxication may increase those chances. In an experiment, elderly participants were given alcoholic drinks and had to walk on a treadmill while researchers placed obstacles in front of them. After only two drinks, participants failed to step over the obstacles on the treadmill at twice their baseline rate. A muscular reaction test showed that response times for the biceps femoris – the muscle helps us to change our gait to step over something or to recover from a stumble – were also delayed after two drinks. Moderate intake does not reduce bone density, but it may increase the rate of falling, and hence the possibility of breaking a bone.

Meanwhile high alcohol intake does act via the endocrine system to reduce bone formation. A large international analysis combined a total of nearly 17 thousand participants from three major cohorts in Australia (Shiraz country), Canada (the place to enjoy Labatt’s and Molson beers during hockey games), and the Netherlands (home of well-known Heineken and the exotic-sounding brandewijn, kandeel, and Kraamanijs liquors) – all with strong traditions of social drinking. Results showed that among both men and women, drinking three to four beers per day significantly increased the risk for osteoporotic fractures. As with anything, moderation is key.

The international perspective in this research is significant for several reasons. First, because different populations have different genetic pools, biological reactions to any nutrient intake are not identical, and it’s important to learn whether associations are consistent across groups. Another point is that when it comes to bone health in particular, it all relates back to calcium. In the digestive tract, calcium absorption is dependent on vitamin D, whose availability is in turn dependent on sunlight. Sunlight exposure varies with geography, another reason to look at populations worldwide. A third concept is that, just like every country has its own exclamation for a toast and its own favorite libation, every country also has a unique drinking culture. “It’s not just the [amount of] alcohol. It’s all a matter of culture, it’s all a matter of pattern, a matter of moderation and habit,” expresses Dr. Katherine Tucker, Chair of the Department of Health Sciences at Northeastern University and investigator on the HNRCA study with the Framingham Osteoporosis cohort. Many factors are involved in the relationship between alcohol and bone health, but across the globe, studies are showing that one or two drinks per day may not be a bad thing.

Marina Komarovsky is a Friedman alumna (’11) with MS-Nutritional Epidemiology/MPH-Health Communication degrees from Tufts. Her goal in writing is to relate study findings from researchers who are into nutritional biochemistry and statistics to those who are not into those things at all. She currently works as a research coordinator at Northeastern University.

HNRCA Series: A Berry Important, Well-Kept Secret…

by Hassan Dashti

Berries are really, really good for you, but that isn’t my secret because you probably already know this. These fruits are loaded with vitamins and minerals and have exceptional antioxidant qualities, at an expensive price. Unfortunately, berries haven’t always been popular. The emergence of Pinkberry (recently opened in Boston on Newbury Street), a premium frozen yogurt franchise, has improved the popularity and availability of the lesser-known berries, such as raspberries, blueberries and blackberries.

Dr. Barbara Shukitt-Hale of the HNRCA is currently studying the effect of berries on aging and cognition in rats. These behavioral studies indicated that the consumption of berries, including strawberries and blackberries, improved neuronal function and delayed age-related deficits in learning and memory. Although these results are astounding and highly praised by nutritionists, I was more interested in how exactly the lab measured neuronal function, memory, and cognition in rats?

Numerous nutrition studies base their conclusions on anthropometric measurements. However there is no direct way to measure cognition. Scientists rely on specific protocols to estimate cognition in animals like rats. Two of these methods are Radial arm maze and the Morris water maze.

The Radial arm maze has the ability to measure a rat’s short-term memory. The maze has a central platform with different spokes radiating out from a central core. A single food pellet is placed at the end of each arm, while the rat is placed in the central platform. To measure short-term memory, the scientists examine how often a rat visits each arm as they search for food. A rat with a good short-term memory is able to memorize which arm he has already visited and thus avoids going down the same arm twice.

In the Morris water maze, the rat is placed in a large round tub of opaque water, with small hidden platforms under the water’s surface. Rats hate being in water so once placed inside the tub, the rat will move around the pool in desperate search for the hidden platform. To estimate memory and cognition, the scientists examine how long it takes the rat to find the platform, and whether they would be able to find it quicker in a subsequent trial.

Using these two tests, Dr. Shukitt-Hale and her colleagues were able to make several observations and dietary recommendations regarding berries. Her studies showed that rats on a high blueberry diet were able to make fewer mistakes, suggesting the role of blueberries in improving cognition. However, when the strawberry diet was studied, it actually took the rats a longer time to find the platform in the Morris water maze. According to Dr. Shukitt-Hale, this suggests that strawberries and blueberries work in different areas of the brain.

By varying the amount of blueberries and other berries in the rat’s diets, scientists could get an idea of how much of a certain food is needed to have an effect on cognition and memory. However, Dr. Shukitt-Hale also stated that “too much of a good thing might not be a good thing!” This was clearly seen in a similar study conducted with walnuts. A diet with 6% walnuts turned out to improve memory in rats, while rats on a 9% walnut diet actually had reduced cognition! So even though some berries may have excellent benefits for human, there is always a limit to how much one should consume.

Going back to my title, the secret I wanted to share is not that berries are good for you, but that a lot of what we know about food and diet comes from studies conducted on animals. A lot of these results do not necessarily replicate in humans, possibly leading to different recommendations. While animal studies could suggest important and significant correlations, we require further verification of these results in humans prior to committing to a conclusion and a dietary recommendation. As a result, the field of nutrition science is always evolving, leading to newer and exciting results that affect the way we eat.

Hassan Dashti is a first-year student in the Biochemical and Molecular Nutrition program from Kuwait, and is the current editor-in-chief of the Friedman Sprout. Hassan is currently engaged in nutrigenomics research at the HNRCA, trying to identify genes that affect saturated fat metabolism in human. He is interested in collecting foods from all over the world, and in restocking his pantry.

The Breakfast Debate: Does Skipping Breakfast Actually Lead to a Reduction in Total Calorie Intake?

by Sarah Gold

Cereal companies tout the importance of breakfast to weight loss. Many dieters are told to eat a big breakfast to reduce hunger the rest of the day. Yet, others think skipping breakfast is the key to success. Are these breakfast skippers on to something?

A recent study published in the Nutrition Journal, found that eating a larger breakfast leads to a higher overall calorie intake. German researches analyzed dietary records from 280 obese subjects and 100 normal weight subjects. The study found that regardless of calories eaten at breakfast, lunch and dinner calories remained the same. However, larger breakfasts did lead to less mid-morning snacking.

Does this mean you should stop eating breakfast? Not necessarily. After reading the study more carefully, it was clear that the foods that led to increased calorie intake were high in fat, sugar, and calories overall. For example, cake, cheese, sausage, marmalade, and butter were some of the biggest breakfast calorie contributors on days when total calorie intake was high. Certainly eating 500-600 calories of sausage, cakes, butter, and marmalade could lead to greater total calorie intake. Not only are they high in calories, because they are largely comprised of sugars and refined carbohydrates, but these types of foods will not keep you fuller any longer than if you ate 300-400 calories of a fiber and protein filled meal. Foods high in fiber and protein are digested more slowly than foods like cakes and marmalades, keeping that hunger feeling at bay.

The breakfast debate has been at the center of the weight loss conversation for several years now.  Many observational studies have shown a link between not eating breakfast and increased incidence of obesity. The hypothesis is that skipping breakfast leads to increased hunger later in the day and ravenous, uninhibited eating, and ultimately to a higher risk of overweight or obesity. This new study was one of the first to show that regardless of Body Mass Index (BMI), eating more at breakfast resulted in a greater total daily energy intake.

When trying to lose weight, breakfast may play an important role in satiety. Dr. Susan Roberts, PhD, Director of the Energy Metabolism Lab at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging and author of the “i” diet, encourages her clients to spread their calories throughout the day to keep from getting too hungry. She recommends eating 25% of your daily calorie intake at breakfast. And what does she recommend for those who don’t like to eat breakfast? Try it out! Many dieters find themselves hungry more often and learn to love breakfast.

Choosing whether or not to eat breakfast is not just about weight management; breakfast is important for brain function as well. The brain needs energy to run effectively and eating breakfast contributes to its ability to function properly. Several studies have shown a positive relationship between eating breakfast and improved memory, cognition, and performance in school children.

When it comes to weight loss, the breakfast debate still continues.  If you’re not a “wake up and eat breakfast” person but find yourself starving at 10am and eating anything in sight, it might be worth trying to add breakfast to your day, even if it’s an hour or two after you wake up. Breakfast should be well balanced, just like every other meal of the day. And remember, skipping meals is never a good strategy for weight loss because you’ll likely end up starving and eating more than you would have if you didn’t skip the meal.

Sarah Gold is a first year Nutrition Communication student and is also part of dual program with Simmons to pursue her Dietetic Internship. A born New Yorker, but Cali girl at heart, you can find Sarah on the ski slopes, on a bike, or in the kitchen testing out new recipes.

Are We on the Road to Hypervitaminosis?

by Hassan Dashti

The turn of the century came with many changes in the way we obtain our nutrients, and perhaps the most noticeable changes is the introduction of newer vitamin and mineral supplemented beverages like Gatorade, Vitamin Water®, and Diet Coke Plus®. With each serving of these drinks comes a large percentage of essential nutrients which generally have low intakes in the United States and around the world, including vitamins A and B, and minerals such as zinc and magnesium. These drinks not only promise refreshing taste, but also essential nutrients that are critical for proper development and survival. For example, Diet Coke Plus® provides 15% of a person’s RDI for niacin, vitamins B6, and B12, and 10% for zinc and magnesium in each eight-ounce serving. On the other hand, different flavors of Vitamin Water ® provide different vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin B and potassium in the fruit punch flavor, and eight key nutrients including vitamin A and zinc in the lemonade flavor.

Hypervitaminosis is a condition of high storage levels of vitamins in the body. Having extremely high levels of certain vitamins can lead to toxic symptoms, such as acute effects like hair loss, nausea and vomiting, or more serious effects including birth defects, liver problems and reduction in bone mineral density. Hypervitminosis is more common among fat-soluble vitamins which are stored in adipose tissue, such as vitamin A, vitamin K and vitamin D. Death by hypervitaminosis is rare and very unlikely, however. An average of one death per year in the United States has been directly attributed to hypervitaminosis.

Nutritionists and dietitians emphasize the importance of adequate vitamin and mineral intake for proper development and disease prevention. The consumption of fruits and vegetables, which used to be the only means of obtaining these nutrients, is now being replaced by dietary supplements and these vitamin-enriched beverages. So, are all these different sources essentially the same? Do they all provide us with the same nutrients our body demands?

The answer to this question will tell us if we could or couldn’t replace our fruits and vegetables with drinks like Diet Coke Plus®. If the vitamin B6 we get from cauliflower is the same as the vitamin B6 we get from Diet Coke Plus®, then we should be OK with this substitution. Not only that, but we should also start providing a can of Diet Coke Plus®, which costs under a dolor, and these other beverages to people deficient in certain vitamins and minerals.

You are all thinking by now that this sounds absurd! Unfortunately, this is exactly how companies are now promoting their products. They are offering their drinks, which everyone loves and affords, with the additional benefit of providing these essential nutrients. People will consume these beverages excessively now that they know that to a certain degree these beverages are “healthy” by providing essential nutrients our bodies need and that lack in their diet. So it becomes important to find out where the downfalls are.

We, as students of nutrition, all know that fruits and vegetables are the best sources of vitamins and minerals. But, how do we convince the rest of the people that beverages like Diet Coke Plus® are really not that great? Well, it turns out that the main difference between fruits and vegetables and supplements and enriched beverages is that these supplements and supplemented beverages have overwhelmingly high concentrations of vitamins and minerals, mostly in excess of the RDI . Consuming excessive amounts of these supplements and supplemented beverages could lead to toxicities. Previous cases of hypervitaminosis were always associated with cases of supplementation, and not fruits and vegetables intake. In addition, it is critical to consider the amount of vitamins and minerals in supplements and beverages prior to consuming them, as well as considering other nutrients within these supplemented beverages. In addition to containing 100% of your vitamin RDI, Vitamin Water ® also includes significant amounts of sugars which could promotes obesity, diabetes and other health problems.

These two key issues are valid to reject the claim that fruits and vegetables have benefits equivalent to supplements and supplemented beverages. And as students of nutrition, it is our job to advocate the importance of fruits and vegetables as the primary sources of fruits and vegetables in order to avoid the road to hypervitaminosis and obesity.

Hassan Dashti is a student in the Biochemical and Molecular Nutrition program. He is an international student from Kuwait, and completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Even since he started learning about nutrition science at Penn, he has been excited by the research taking place in this field.

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