Food Label Fear Mongering and its “Toxic” Effects

by Megan Maisano

You know it’s hard out here for a processed food. These days, most consumers want to know what’s in their food and how it’s processed. While that may sound promising towards improving food choices and overall health, it also might be contributing to a culture of fear-mongering and food discrimination – none of which is helpful. This month, Megan Maisano investigates common marketing strategies employed by food manufacturers that result in unnecessary fear, doubt, and confusion in the minds of consumers.

Grocery supermarket

Source: pexels.com

Good news: over half of the U.S. population is paying attention to food labels. Bad news: it might be increasing consumer confusion and contributing to unintended health hysteria.

Whether it’s the latest Netflix documentary demonizing an entire food group, an Instagram feed promoting “clean” eating, or your mother’s cousin Carol pushing her latest detox agenda on Facebook, food fear mongering is real.

The problem is that many claims of “toxic” or “unclean” foods don’t come from health professionals or experts. On top of that, their messages are more accessible by the common consumer than, let’ say, the most recent edition of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

I’ll be the first to admit I read Michael Pollen’s Food Rules a few years ago. I loved it. It was simple, easy to understand, and seemed logical. Nutrition science, however, is not simple, not easy to understand, and evolves with advancing evidence-based research… and nutrition research is hard.

While the desire for food transparency is warranted and can lead to healthier decision-making, the marketing response by the food industry has taken advantage of consumers’ unwarranted fears. Instead of highlighting what’s good in the food we eat, product labels emphasize what’s not in our food, and it’s contributing to the chaos.

I decided to explore the research and science behind common food label claims. The results: practices that range from reasonable transparency to questionable marketing tactics that make us say C’mon Man.

 

Non-GMO Project

The Non-GMO Project, which started in two grocery stores in 2007, now has its iconic butterfly on more than 3,000 brands and 43,000 products. GMOs, or Genetically Modified Organisms, are plants, animals, microorganisms or other organisms whose DNA has been changed via genetic engineering or transgenic technology. The debate concerning GMO safety remains highly controversial. Without going into too much detail, cynics claim that GMOs have not been proven safe and that people have a right to know whether their food contains them. On the other side, folks like the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine claim GMOs have not been proven harmful to humans or the environment.

Regardless of the verdict, the Non-GMO butterfly is landing on more and more products that are naturally GMO-free, such as tomatoes, oranges, and milk. This trend leads to the misconception that tomatoes, oranges, and milk without said-butterfly DO have GMOs and are therefore less safe. This deceptive labeling practice not only hurts the consumer, but also competing brands and their farmers.

The Impact – a 2015 nonpartisan analysis reported that only 37 percent of those surveyed feel that GMOs are safe to eat and 57 percent considered them unsafe. Individuals with a higher education, on the other hand, were more likely to consider GMOs safe. Numerous studies also show that consumer knowledge of GMOs is low and that their information is mainly sourced by the media – insert cousin Carol’s shared Facebook article on GMOs’ toxic effects. The fear continues.

Paleonola grain free granola

Source: thrivemarket.com

Gluten Free and Grain Free

In his book Grain Brain, David Perlmutter writes, “Gluten sensitivity represents one of the greatest and most under-recognized health threats to humanity.” The well-known blogger, Wellness Mama, once wrote an article titled “How Grains are Killing You Slowly” (but has since changed the title). The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, on the other hand, list grains (specifically whole grains) as a part of a healthy eating pattern. How did this extreme divide on gluten and grains come about?

The 1990’s brought about increased awareness of celiac disease and the effectiveness of treatment following a gluten-free diet. This was a major win and relief for folks with gluten-related disorders. What followed was an increase in the amount of research on gluten and its potential effects on other chronic disorders – and that’s when hysteria hit. Books like Grain Brain and Wheat Belly, both which have been accused of literature cherry-picking and generalization, earned best-selling status and changed the way we looked at a baguette. This frenzy, combined with the highly popular low-carb Atkins Diet, created the recipe for a new villain – gluten and grains.

The food industry responded and so did the media. According to the research firm Packaged Facts, sales in gluten-free products came in around $973 million in 2014 and are expected to exceed $2 billion by 2019 – far exceeding what would be expected in marketing to the less than one percent of individuals with celiac disease. Oh, and these products are about 240% more expensive. Celebrity influences like Gwyneth Paltrow’s book and Miley Cyrus’ tweet, have made the gluten-free diet appear more mainstream, swaying consumer perception and decreasing the seriousness of disorders like celiac disease.

While research on non-celiac gluten sensitivity (affecting about six percent of the U.S.) is still mixed, many studies suggest that gluten may not necessarily be the underlying problem and symptoms may even be psychological. In his book, The Gluten Lie, Alan Levinovitz explains that the significant increase in negative responses to gluten may be due to a phenomenon called Mass Sociogenic Illness – where a physiological response is provoked by mass anxiety and negative expectations.

The Impact – a 2015 Hartman Group survey found that 35% of respondents adopted a gluten-free lifestyle for “no reason,” 26% followed it because they thought it was a “healthier option,” 19% followed it for “digestive health,” and only 8% followed it because of a “gluten sensitivity.”

There is a growing body of research that suggests there is no evidence to support gluten-free diets for the general population and that going gluten-free may even hinder health. Nevertheless, the damage may be done.

 

usda organic label

Source: usda.gov

Going Organic

The USDA Organic label identifies a product that meets federal guidelines for farming and processing. Guidelines include soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and the use of additives. As far as organic packaged foods, 95% of the product must be organic and free of artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors.

The organic movement is a step in the right direction towards encouraging more responsible agricultural practices. However, the social impact of the organic label has created unwarranted confusion and fear in “chemically-ridden” conventional foods that aren’t free of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. The fear is hurting small farmers and our wallets.

A common source of organic fear-mongering comes from the infamous Dirty Dozen published by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). This list identifies twelve non-organic produce items that are reported to have the highest levels of pesticide residue. What the EWG fails to mention, however, is the type of pesticide and its relation to its chronic reference dose (i.e., safe maximum daily dose for life). A Journal of Toxicology study found that none of the dirty dozen products came even close to their reference dose and that EWG’s methodology lacked scientific credibility. While there is nothing wrong with being mindful of pesticide use, people should know organic farmers use pesticides too and their levels are not tested by the USDA.

From a nutrition perspective, research on organic food is mixed. Both organic and conventional practices offer nutritious produce with plenty of phytochemicals; however, organic produce may come out on top as far as levels of phosphorous, antioxidants and less pesticide residue.

From a health-outcome perspective however, there is no direct evidence that organic diets lead to improved health or lower the risk of disease and cancer. Pesticide residue risk, if a concern, can be reduced by simply washing fresh produce.

Lastly, organic farming, labeling, and products are expensive. If price is keeping consumers from purchasing organic produce and fear is keeping them from purchasing conventional produce, we have a problem.

In a country where less than twenty percent of adults eat their daily recommended fruits and vegetables, all produce should be promoted without adding unnecessary confusion or fear.

 

all natural health claim label

Source: topclassactions.com

“Natural” and “Free of …”

According to a 2014 global health survey, 43% of respondents rate “all-natural” foods very important in purchasing decisions. Therefore, having that green and neutral-colored label considerably influences consumer behavior. In regards to meat and poultry, the USDA defines “natural” as containing no artificial ingredients, added colors, and minimal processing. Unfortunately, there is no regulated definition of the use of “natural” for all other products – hence marketing exploitation and further confusion. Below are just a few assumptions that consumers make about natural products regarding what they’re free of, and whether or not that really matters:

Free of Preservatives: Preservatives in food help delay spoilage, improve quality, and decrease food waste. They decrease the risk of food-borne illness, lower oxidation in the body, and keep us from worrying about things like getting tuberculosis from our milk. Consumers often fear ingredients that have chemical-sounding names; however, lest we forget, we are made of chemical compounds!  Many preservatives are harmless and even nutritious like ascorbic acid (vitamin C), alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E), calcium propionate, niacin (vitamin B3), lysozyme, and tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ). Some other preservatives, however, may have questionable effects on health when consumed in high doses, so more research is needed on their safety.

No Antibiotics Ever: This term’s tricky. For a long time, many farmers used antibiotics not just for the treatment of ill animals but also to facilitate growth. The FDA has since banned the use for growth and animal antibiotics sales have fallen considerably. However, sick animals do need treatment and not using antibiotics to treat them would be unethical and pose a risk to food safety. So, here’s the deal to understanding the label: Farm A has a sick chicken which they treat with antibiotics. The chicken is therefore removed from the antibiotic-free group for sale (and who knows what that means). Farm B has a sick chicken which they treat with antibiotics. The chicken then goes through a withdrawal period and is tested before it can be used for processing, often with the oversight of a licensed veterinarian. Only Farm A can have the “No Antibiotics Ever” label. Is Farm A healthier than Farm B? Probably not.

No Hormones Added: Fun fact: adding hormones or steroids to poultry and pork is illegal in the U.S. Just like tomatoes with a Non-GMO label, chicken and pork products with a “No Hormones Added” label are simply playing into consumer fears.

Free of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS):  Great! But keep in mind that sugar, molasses, agave nectar, cane juice, and honey are “natural” sources of added sugars too. HFCS is essentially a mix of fructose, glucose, and water. It varies from having either 42% fructose (often found in processed food) to 55% fructose (often found in soft drinks) – not too different from sugar with a 50:50 mix or your $10 organic agave nectar.

 

chicken breast no antibiotics non gmo organic

Source: target.com

Conclusion: Fear Mongering Isn’t Helping

When it comes to promoting healthy eating behaviors, fear tactics aren’t helping and may even be harmful. Unlike tobacco or drug use, two issues where fear campaigns were successfully used to impact behavior, we need to eat to live. Instilling unnecessary anxiety about foods that are not Non-GMO, gluten-free, certified organic, or “free from” whatever may keep us from consuming a nutritious, well-balanced diet.

Unfortunately, the U.S. hasn’t learned its lesson from the anti-fat and anti-cholesterol era because we continue to look for something simple to blame for health problems, and the media and food industry continues to take advantage of that desire. Moderation just isn’t sexy.

Whether it’s the latest one-dimensional diet, a food blogger’s recent witch hunt, or a misleading food label in an earthy color tone, fear-induced messages are not helping. They are harming consumer knowledge, self-efficacy, health, and ultimate trust in food industry and nutrition science. It’s time to stop the food fear mongering and encourage the good in foods that will lead to our “natural” wellbeing.

 

Megan Maisano is a second year NICBC student and an RD-to-be. She has a Wheat Belly and a Grain Brain, but is doing okay. She’s got no beef with Non-GMO, Gluten-free, or Organic products, only their use in scare-tactics that aren’t based in science.

What is the SirtFood Diet?

by Erin Child

The Sirtfood Diet is popular in the United Kingdom, but hasn’t caught on in the United States (yet). The diet claims to activate sirtuins, so called “skinny genes,” that work in the body to reverse the effects of aging and help the dieter lose weight. To activate sirtuins, the dieter builds their meals out of “sirtfoods,” including red wine and dark chocolate, hence the diet’s popularity. Although the diet isn’t popular on this side of the pond, NICBC student Erin Child has decided to learn more about the diet (and its founders and followers), just in case we, as nutrition professionals, start getting questions.   

The Sirtfood Diet first came to my attention at a Sprout pitch meeting last semester. “Has anyone heard of the Sirtfood Diet?” someone asked. The room answered with a resounding, “No.” The idea of exploring a new diet that none of us at Friedman had heard of piqued my interest, and finally, a semester later, I started googling. As I researched, the main questions that I wanted answered were: Who started the diet? Who follows it? What is a sirtfood? What is the guiding science behind the diet? What does the diet entail? Here’s what I found.

The People behind the Sirtfood Diet

A few years ago, The Sirtfood Diet was popularized in the United Kingdom by Aidan Goggins and Glen Matten. Both men have their MS in Nutrition Medicine, and both seem to be health influencers with some celebrity status. Per their Instagram, Goggins is an athletic trainer, and Matten works with celebrities and makes media appearances. (Not being familiar with how famous they might be, I will not draw any comparisons with any infamous health celebrities in the United States.) In early 2017, Goggins and Matten published The Sirtfood Diet, an international bestseller, and based on the book’s cover, following the diet allows you to “eat your way to rapid weight loss and a longer life by triggering the magical powers of the Sirtfood Diet.” Magic, really?

Who follows the Sirtfood Diet?

The Sirtfood Diet rose in popularity after both Adele and Pippa Middleton (sister of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge) endorsed the diet for their own weight loss. In early 2017 alongside the publication of the book, the Sirtfood Diet saw a lot of publicity across magazines, TV shows, and social media. Despite the coverage, the diet hasn’t captured a large audience in the States. The official @thesirtfooddiet Instagram has almost 14,000 followers, but most posts get only a couple of hundred likes. (Nonetheless, the diet is apparently becoming very popular in Italy.) It’s unclear why the Sirtfood Diet is not that popular here, but perhaps we will see an uptick in the coming months or year(s).

How does this diet work, and what on earth is a Sirtfood?

Sirtfoods are foods that are high in resveratrol and polyphenols, plant-based chemicals that are supposed to “switch on” sirtuin proteins in the body. According to The Sirtfood Diet, eating a diet high in sirtfoods is supposed to create a physiological reaction similar to fasting, in which the body will start to breakdown fat stores for fuel. The book states that sirtuins “are master metabolic regulators that control our ability to burn fat and stay healthy.” If the dieter follows a diet high in sirtfoods, they will activate the sirtuins and lose weight, and possibly live longer. Based on statements from the BBC and Good Housekeeping, the most common sirtfoods in the diet are red wine, dark chocolate (85% or more), kale, arugula, parsley, blueberries, citrus, apples, buckwheat, capers, olive oil, turmeric, and green tea.

It’s unclear from my research if the dieter can only eat sirtfoods or just eat a diet high in sirtfoods. The difference between these options would be a very restrictive diet versus a diet high in plant-based foods, which could be a positive thing. However, and this is a big however, the diet begins with caloric restriction: In the first three days the dieter consumes only 1000 calories per day, largely consisting of the sirtfood “green juice,” made up of apples, celery, kale, arugula, ginger, parsley, lemon, and matcha (green tea powder). Then the dieter can eat up to 1500 calories per day for the next four days. The extra 500 calories may seem better, but a 1500 calorie diet is still insufficient for most active adults. The diet plan claims that users can lose up to seven pounds in seven days. After that, the dieter follows a “maintenance phase” for two weeks, but it’s unclear what caloric parameters are required. Looking at the meals suggested for the diet, some sound quite delicious: “Asian shrimp stir-fry with buckwheat noodles” and “Miso-marinated baked cod with stir-fry greens and sesame.” Ideally, after this introductory period, the dieter will continue to follow a diet rich in sirtfoods to continue weight loss and live a long and healthy life. Because that’s how all diets work, right?

The Science behind Sirtuins

After reading about the supposed way that the diet works, I wanted to learn more about the actual science behind sirtuins. Sirtuins (SIR1-SIR7) are a class of enzymatic proteins that are thought to be involved in immunity, metabolism and longevity. To call them “skinny-genes” is misleading and fails to capture our evolving understanding of their role in the body. From animal studies, a 2010 paper found that SIRT1 is involved with the physiologic response to diet restriction. A more recent 2017 research paper, published in Biogerontology, indicated that there was some research supporting the connection between sirtuins and longevity, but the research was conducted in yeast and animal models. This paper specifically considered circumin, present in turmeric, as a possible activator of sirtuins, but the connection was still unclear. This same 2017 paper also stated that the “search for an activator of sirtuins is one of the most extensive and robust topic [sic] of research.” This statement clearly outlines what is most often the case in “science-backed” diets. There is research out there, but it is still on-going and not conclusive enough to point to one diet being the be-all/end-all solution for weight loss and longevity. In my research, I did not find any studies that clearly linked specific foods to upregulating sirtuins in the body.

The Takeaway

From the information available on the Sirtfood Diet, it comes across as the Mediterranean diet on steroids. In my book, any diet that focuses on restriction instead of moderation is cause for concern. If someone in your life expresses interest in the Sirtfood Diet, encourage their interest in a more plant-based diet by steering them towards the Mediterranean diet or the “everything in moderation” approach. As nutrition students, it’s important to be up on the current diet trends so we can pull what elements are positive from the diet (if any) and keep the conversation going. Knowing more about what diets are trending allows us to do more.  For now, I am still relieved that the Sirtfood Diet has not become popular in the United States, and hope it stays that way.

Erin Child is a second-semester NICBC student in the dual MS-DPD program and the social media editor for The Sprout. Erin is fascinated by the science (or lack thereof) behind fad diets, so if there’s a new trendy diet you want to learn more about—let her know. In the meantime, she will be coordinating logistics for the Student Research Conference. She looks forward to seeing you there on April 7!

Friedman Hosts the 2018 Global Food+ Symposium

by Sam Jones

The second annual Global Food+ Symposium was hosted at Tufts University’s Friedman School this year. Innovative research being conducted at Tufts, MIT, Boston University, and Harvard University in the realm of the global food system was presented in speed-dating style, with each speaker giving only a seven-minute talk. Only some of the takeaways are reported here; the entire event can be viewed online.

February 16, 2018 marked the second annual Global Food+ Symposium, hosted by Tufts University at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. This year, 23 researchers from Boston University, MIT, Harvard, and Tufts shared the findings of their work in seven-minute presentations on topics ranging from microbiology to nutrition to theology. I attended the conference in its entirety from 12:30 to 4:30 on a Friday afternoon because I wanted to learn about what other researching in our consortium of schools are investigating to gain insight into what the non-Friedman community has to say about the global food system.

Throughout the afternoon, speakers presented fascinating research that touched every corner of the food system. Several presenters from Harvard and MIT discussed how water affects our food system, covering everything from breeding crops to use less water, to developing more adaptable water conserving technologies, and the ramifications of developing a water market in which price reflects scarcity. These speakers together illustrated that whether in the Zambezi River Basin or in Melbourne, Australia, water use and availability affects our food system, but there are steps we can take right now to plan for uncertainty in the face of climate change.

Nutrition was, of course, the subject of several of the presentations. Tufts professor Will Masters discussed his findings on the nutritional quality of baby food. Spoiler alert: the global baby food supply is not actually that nutritious. Alison Brown, a post-doctoral fellow at Tufts presented the research from her dissertation comparing the diet quality and risk of hypertension in foreign-born non-Hispanic blacks to those of U.S.-born blacks. Her findings suggest that the former are better-off than the latter. While useful for developing culturally-appropriate nutrition strategies, it does not delve into the root causes of these differences. A more causal-based study would be useful if the intention were to narrow the gap in diet quality and health between these groups.

Most of the presenters at the symposium used or researched cutting-edge technology to answer some of the most vexing problems in our global food system. Karthish Manthiram from MIT, for example, presented his research on how electricity derived from solar panels can be used to create fertilizer. His research found that by using electric voltage in place of high temperatures, a low-footprint nitrogen fertilizer can be created and used by small-scale farmers in even the remotest parts of Africa.

Angela Rigden, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University, presented exciting research derived from new satellite data. These data showed that vapor pressure and root zone soil moisture actually explain significantly more variability in crop yields than does temperature alone. Both Jenny Aker from Tufts and Alicia Harley from Harvard separately explored the effects of having access to technology for poor farmers in Africa and India, respectively. They found that even where a technology exists, the targeted problems may not be solved in exactly the way they were intended. For example, Alicia Harley’s research found that poorer rice farmers were not adopting a system of rice intensification (SRI) that used less water because such a practice required control over one’s water source—a luxury most poor farmers do not have. As Jenny Aker put it, one specific technology is “not going to be a silver bullet.”

Water, technology, health, and sustainability were the overarching themes that wove the presentations together. But one researcher stood alone both in his discipline and in his ability to wow an audience of entirely dissimilar mindsets. Dan McKanan, a senior lecturer in Divinity at Harvard University, revealed that the foundations of organic agriculture, organic certification, WWOOFing, biodynamic agriculture, community supported agriculture, and the environmentalist movement all sprung out of a religion called Anthroposophy. In his words, this was a religion that acted as an antidote to the ideological monoculture system—an antidote to the “monocultures of the mind.”

What the innovative research presented at the Global Food+ Symposium made me realize is that there probably will never be a “silver bullet” that can solve the issues of water scarcity, food insecurity, malnutrition, or climate change. But the research that is being done in these interdisciplinary and diverse fields is worth pursuing, whether it aims to solve a big problem in a small place or a small problem on a global scale.

Sam Jones is a first-year AFE student with a passion for sharing others’ stories. She is currently an intern at Culture Magazine nd hopes to pursue a career in sustainable agricultural development and food journalism.

Game Changer: How Cellular Agriculture is Poised to Revolutionize Dairy and Meat

by Kathleen Nay

We already know that conventionally-produced animal products are problematic—animal agriculture is land, water, and energy intensive, and potentially harmful to human health and animal welfare. For most people though, meat and dairy are also delicious. What if there was a cleaner, greener way of producing our favorite animal-derived foods? Turns out, the science already exists.

Henry Ford With 1921 Model T. (Image source: Ford Motor Company / Wikimedia)

Henry Ford With 1921 Model T. (Image source: Ford Motor Company / Wikimedia)

Nearly a century ago, Henry Ford had a vision. What he’s best known for is a vision of the modern automobile: a future where humans on four-wheeled machines hurtle through space at 60 miles per hour. But while that particular vision revolutionized the world as we know it today, Ford also dreamed of another future—one that minimized the role of animals in agriculture.

In 1921, Ford told the New York Tribune, “The cow is the crudest machine in the world. Our laboratories have already demonstrated that cow’s milk can be done away with and the concentration of the elements of milk can be manufactured into scientific food by machines far cleaner than cows and not subject to tuberculosis,” (a pathogen transmitted through raw milk, and a major public health concern at the time).

What Ford envisioned was probably similar to the soy and nut milks we’re familiar with today. He also happened to be a big proponent of the soybean as a meat substitute: in 1939, he caused a kerfuffle among American butchers when he predicted that soy-based foods would entirely replace our need to raise cows at all. His predictions were likely in the service of his goal to decentralize car manufacturing and put farmers to work in factories instead of in barns. In that sense, his prediction was right. The mechanical revolution of the 1920’s fueled migration from fields into cities, where factory work was more promising than life on the farm that was increasingly reliant on mechanical efficiency.

Fast-forward ninety-seven years, and advances in food technology are inching us ever closer to realizing Henry Ford’s wildest cow-less dreams. Enter Tufts University alum, Ryan Pandya. Three years ago, I wrote about Muufri, the company Ryan cofounded with Perumal Gandhi. Together, they’re using what’s called “cellular agriculture” to commercialize the first animal-free dairy milk. Cellular ag is the production of animal products like meat, milk, eggs, and leather from cell cultures, rather than a farm. In other words, their product is not one of the many plant-based milks that are already on the market today, but real dairy proteins—namely, casein and whey—that are grown using yeast cells specially engineered to produce them using fermentation. Essentially, Ryan and Perumal are building milk protein by protein, without all the expenses, energy, water, land, or emissions associated with growing, feeding and housing cattle.

Image source: Perfect Day via Food Navigator

Image source: Perfect Day via Food Navigator USA

Much has changed for the company in the last three years. For starters, Muufri has undergone rebranding as Perfect Day. Ryan says that the new name more accurately reflects their forward-looking philosophy. Muufri (“moo-free”) felt limiting; they wanted to focus on what they are bringing to food, not what they’re leaving out of it. They came across a 2001 study by two psychologists which demonstrated that certain songs, when played for Holstein herds, increase milk yields. Lou Reed’s 1972 track “Perfect Day” was one such milk-maximizing song. “As a company on a mission to make cows, people, and the planet happier,” reads Perfect Day’s FAQ page, “it seemed like a perfect fit.”

Over the last few years Perfect Day has expanded their target market, graduating from products confined to the refrigerated dairy section to… well, the whole supermarket. “Fundamentally, milk proteins add functionality or nutrition to products in every part of the grocery store,” Ryan told me. Dairy is found in products you may not expect, from soups and tomato sauces, to dressings, condiments and baked goods. “If you can name a part of the grocery store, I can find you a product where dairy is involved.” Although they still plan to produce some fresh dairy products, from a business perspective, Ryan sees a much larger market for Perfect Day’s milk proteins that would extend their reach beyond the fresh dairy case. Since their process omits lactose, even those who suffer from lactose intolerance would be able to enjoy dairy-containing products without compromising digestive comfort.

Food manufacturers that use dairy in their products are watching Perfect Day with interest. They’re used to using milk proteins with a specific ratio of components, but it’s cost-prohibitive to separate and isolate the proteins they need for specific functions in their foods. Since Perfect Day has the advantage of making these proteins individually, saving food manufacturers the added cost and effort of breaking down whole, unprocessed milk into its component parts, the company is able to tap into a much broader functionality.

The food industry, investors, even the government—according to Ryan, they “get” it. Perfect Day is well on its way toward establishing GRAS (“Generally Recognized As Safe”) designation through the FDA. In fact, the regulatory process for the product is relatively straightforward—Perfect Day’s milk proteins are created in much the same way as many other products we use every day. All kinds of flavor and fragrance additives are made using fermentation processes. Look at the label of almost any cheese made in the US and you’re likely to find a reference to “non-animal rennet” or “microbial enzymes.” Rennet, a key ingredient in cheese, used to be obtained from slaughtered calves, but is now more commonly made using fermentation. Perfect Day’s process is similar, and the tech it uses is by no means new—it’s the application that’s novel. “Although we’ve had the technology for about 40 years, Perfect Day is first company to really care about it and talk about it,” says Ryan.

New Harvest Cultured Tissue Fellow Natalie Rubio. (Image source: Natalie Rubio)

New Harvest Cultured Tissue Fellow Natalie Rubio. (Image source: Natalie Rubio)

Milk isn’t the only cellular ag product on the horizon. Although we’re a little further away from commercializing cultured meat, one Tufts University PhD student is advancing the research that may one day make it possible to buy a piece of steak that was never attached to a cow. Natalie Rubio got her start in cellular ag first as a volunteer with New Harvest—the institute that gave Perfect Day its initial seed money—and later as an intern during the early days of Perfect Day (when the nascent company was still known as Muufri, in 2014). Since then, New Harvest has launched a research fellowship, naming Natalie as the first New Harvest Cultured Tissue Fellow.

Natalie says that even as an intern at Perfect Day, she knew she wanted to work on meat. “The biotech industry has been using cells to produce proteins [for various products] for many years,” she tells me. “The idea of using whole cell cultures themselves as a product is more novel. We can use the tissue engineering techniques to create meat from cell cultures without involving livestock, besides donor animals for the initial biopsy.”

She explains that there are three main focus areas in the emerging field of cultured tissue research. The first area aims to develop new, animal-free sources of growth media used to feed the cells. When tissue cells are growing, they basically float in a liquid mixture of sugar water, some proteins, and a substance called fetal bovine serum. While the base formulation of sugar water, vitamins and minerals is animal free, the bovine serum supplement is a byproduct of the meat industry. It makes for a great environment for growing tissue cultures, but since the goal of this field of research is to avoid using animals, scientists are searching for substances to use in place of fetal bovine serum.

Another focus of this work, says Natalie, is obtaining and tinkering with new cell lines. The initial cells are biopsied from domestic species like turkey, bovine, fish, or any other species of interest. Stem cells, which are capable of prolific growth and differentiation, are isolated and extracted for use in tissue cultures. Scientists are then able to tell the stem cells how to behave and what to become; in the case of cultured meat, they become muscle, but scientists can also direct stem cells to become tissues with other properties, like fat.

The focus of Natalie’s research is scaffolding. “Think of the scaffold as everything besides the cells themselves,” she tells me. “In our bodies, we have muscle cells, but that’s not all that our muscle is. It’s also surrounded by this matrix of proteins, primarily collagen, that make up muscle. I’m trying to emulate these other substances by using animal free materials.” Her work overlaps with the engineering of human skeletal muscle tissues that are already used routinely in regenerative medicine. Someday in the not-too-distant future, we could grill animal-free steaks with the same fibrous, muscle-y appearance and texture that we expect from meat.

Lest the idea of lab-grown meat or milk stoke anyone’s fears of genetic modification, Natalie sets the record straight: these products do not contain GM ingredients. She explains that tissue culturing does not involve manipulating any genes. She describes the cells they use in her field as “proliferative,” meaning they are naturally inclined to grow and multiply according to the instructions encoded in their DNA—no gene tinkering required. And while Perfect Day’s process does involve genetically modifying yeast cells to make milk proteins, the GM yeast is carefully filtered out of the milk before being added to any food products. This process of altering yeast’s genetic code to make proteins is exactly the same way vegetarian rennet, vanilla, insulin, and many other everyday products are made. (New Harvest’s FAQ goes into further detail about the role of GMO in cellular agriculture, as well as other common questions that come up around this emerging industry.)

Natalie Rubio conducts her research at the David Kaplan lab at Tufts University. (Image source: Natalie Rubio)

Natalie Rubio conducts her research at the Kaplan Laboratory at the Department of Biomedical Engineering, on Tufts University’s Medford campus. (Image source: Natalie Rubio)

Cellular agriculture is not so much a new technology as it is a new application for the technology we’ve long used in medicine and pharmaceuticals. It seeks to avoid some of the ongoing problems we have with animal agriculture. For example, producing meat and milk in sterile environments reduces the risk of contamination from pathogens. (Remember Ford’s concern about tuberculosis?) The ability to scale up these processes could also have positive implications for agricultural land use in the U.S. Imagine converting some of the 170 million acres currently planted with corn and soy into specialty crops, expanding our ability to produce and harvest solar energy, or reaping the ecological benefits of putting more land into conservation—all while reducing the emissions associated with animal agriculture.

While Henry Ford may have envisioned a world devoid of cattle, Ryan Pandya, for his part, is quick to assure me that the goal of cellular agriculture is not to upend the dairy or meat industries. “Demand is increasing for animal products all over the world—such a demand that the world’s farmers can’t keep up. I hope we can create a complementary supply chain that will take some of that pressure off.” He sees a future where, instead of abolishing animal products entirely, consumers are willing to pay a premium for products that have the traditional touch of animal farming.

It’s a future that’s increasingly easy to imagine.

Kathleen Nay is a third-year dual degree student in the Agriculture, Food & Environment and Urban & Environmental Policy & Planning programs and a co-editor of The Friedman Sprout.

Gut Microbiota and the Developing Child

by Ayten Salahi

Undernutrition poses a formidable threat to the health and life trajectory of children around the world. A new study examines the role of gut microbiota in modulating nutritional status and early life development, and sheds light on bacterial transplants as a potential new method to tackle this longstanding challenge.

The human gut microbiome is the bacterial ecosystem that lives predominantly in the digestive tract and plays a significant role in our immune response, neurological networks, and both our mental and physical development throughout life. The delicate balance of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ gut bacteria – or gut maturity – partially determines a developing child’s ability to absorb critical nutrients through food. Without that ability during early life, or without medical interventions to restore that ability, children are likely to manifest long-term health consequences associated with childhood undernourishment, including physical stunting, immune dysfunction, and neurodevelopmental issues. Childhood undernourishment has also been linked to permanent impairments to health and human capital, that impact both extant and future generations.

The ‘solution’ to childhood undernutrition is multivariate. As scientific understanding of microbiota continues to evolve, researchers and healthcare practitioners have begun to shift their focus towards examining how the microenvironments of our gut bacteria impact our macroenvironments, and whether these microenvironments could signal potential new treatment targets to alleviate the global burden of childhood undernutrition.

Bacterial transplants have been identified as one potential treatment. A study from Blanton et al. examined whether developmental outcomes could be inherited through microbiota – specifically, through fecal transplants. They tested what would happen if germ-free mice were transplanted with the gut bacteria of both ‘healthy’ and  ‘severely stunted’ infants and children, all of which were fed a traditional Malawian diet of cornmeal, peanuts, and kidney beans. The results showed that when germ-free mice were transplanted with fecal transplants from severely undernourished children, the mice manifested stunted growth, impaired bone morphology, and metabolic abnormalities in the muscle, liver, brain, and immune system. This study therefore suggests that gut bacteria play a role in the transference of developmental outcomes.

Findings from the same study also suggest that microbiota transplants from healthy donors could potentially prevent growth impairments and undernourished health outcomes in recipient animals, depending on the age of the donor and the type of bacteria. When researchers co-housed mice that had just received microbiota from either 6-month-old healthy donors or severely undernourished donors, microbiota from the healthy donor group overpowered and displaced the microbiota from the undernourished donor group, and prevented developmental impairments in both groups.  More research is needed to confer these findings in humans, but the results of this study present the interesting possibility that gut immaturity can be prevented and repaired through transplantation of microbiota from healthy donors. Future research must also be conducted to examine whether bacterial transplants play a role in preventing long-term mental, physical, and socioeconomic consequences of early life undernourishment, or constitute any reduction to the global burden of childhood undernutrition.

Study of microbiota in the developing child offers a compelling new lens with which to examine health inequity at the microscopic scale, with macroscopic implications for therapeutic interventions in community health. Adequate nutrition is the cornerstone of human development, and a growing body of evidence suggests that gut microbiota play an important role in promoting early life nutritional status. The potential therapeutic use of bacterial transplants could have significant implications for global nutrition programs seeking to identify new levers to improve childhood nutrition, particularly in resource-poor settings. However, gut microbiota therapeutics constitute only a small and largely theoretical part of the much bigger and more complex picture that is global nutrition. Pervasive issues around sanitation, hygiene practices, and access to potable water and nutritious food continue to constitute some of the greatest challenges to global health worldwide.

Ayten Salahi is a first-year FPAN MS and RD candidate, and is dedicated to the future of policy, programming, and clinical practice in sustainable diets. Ayten came to Friedman after working as a molecular and clinical researcher in neuropharmacology and diabetes management for nearly 8 years.

NewTrition Welcome Back 2017

by Kenny Westerman, Katherine Rancano, Jessica Ellis and Jennifer Huang

NewTrition_logo

NewTrition uses a platform of TED-style talks to generate excitement and discussion about the field of nutrition both within and outside of the Friedman community. Previously, NewTrition has invited students, professors and external speakers to deliver short presentations on topics that interest them (which are not necessarily related to their coursework or research!) Check out this vimeo to get a better idea.

If you are interested in helping us organize these events this year, giving a talk yourself, or nominating someone else who you think would be a great speaker, please email tuftsnewtrition@gmail.com! Also, feel free to contact Kenny, Katherine, Jessie, or Jennifer with any questions.

Contact:

Revival of the Student Research Conference

by Jennifer Huang

The 10th Future of Food and Nutrition Graduate Student Research Conference, known fondly within the Friedman community as the SRC, took place on April 7th and 8th. Jennifer Huang gives us a photo-filled recap of this student-led event, where she—and all who attended—were blown away by the amazing capabilities of student presenters and the Friedmanites who worked tirelessly since last November on planning this event.

This year the SRC had its first-ever Poster Slam, where presenters competed against one another to win the prize for the best three-minute talk about their research. A total of 13 presenters from various institutions participated at this Friday evening event where an anomaly at Friedman occurred: Free beer and wine! (And delicious veggies, of course). Some presenters transformed their talks into an entertaining rap or poem, while others presented theirs straight. Topics ranged from food insecurity during and after climate shocks, celebrity marketing to global food supply and demand. Overall, there was just the right amount of (wine-fueled) nerdiness!

On Saturday, Helena Bottemiller Evich, Senior Food and Agriculture Reporter at POLITICO, gave the keynote lecture. While Helena anticipates fewer advancements in agriculture and nutrition policy during the Trump presidency than during the Obama administration, she holds a bit of hope after browsing Ivanka Trump’s Instagram, finding pictures of healthy food and farming. Maybe having Ivanka as an adviser isn’t a terrible thing after all, she mused. Helena also noted that advocates for the National School Lunch Program and other nutrition programs seem to agree as they have already begun to target lobbying efforts in Ivanka’s direction. In addition to Ivanka, Helena also mentioned other key players to follow for agriculture and nutrition issues, such as Chairmen Roberts in the US Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry and Chairmen Conaway in the US House Committee on Agriculture.

Helena recounted how she got out of her urban “bubble” before the election and spoke to farmers around the country. As a result, she was one of the few in Washington, D.C. who correctly predicted Trump presidency. She ended her talk by encouraging us all to branch out of our personal networks and engage with others of different mindsets.

Helena Bottemiller Evich gave her keynote speech. Photo: Jeroen Eyckmans.

Helena Bottemiller Evich gave her keynote speech. Photo: Jeroen Eyckmans.

The panel discussion in the afternoon continued the conversation about the future of food and nutrition, and was equally inspiring. The panelists came from various sectors, including Dr. Julian Agyeman, a professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University, Dr. Richard Black, Principal at Quadrant D Consulting who recently served as the VP of Global R&D Nutrition Sciences PepsiCo, Ms. Anne McHugh, the Director of Chronic Disease Prevention and Control Division at the Boston Public Health Commission, and Ms. Sylvia Rowe, President of SR Strategy. Our very own Dr. Parke Wilde moderated the panel.

When discussing the role of scientific evidence across sectors, Ms. Rowe clearly summarized the current social climate when she said, “There is not going to be science for the sake of science anymore, [as] public faith in science is questioned.” On the topic of private and public partnerships, there was consensus among the panelists that it will be critical to “find the synergy of goals,” as stated by Ms. McHugh.

The panel ended on a lighthearted note when a student asked a hypothetical question: Without time and monetary constraints, what questions (not necessarily about food) would the panelists want to ask and solve? The answers ranged from establishing public-private partnerships to combatting obesity, nudging behavioral changes for healthier lifestyle, discovering the role of microbiome in health and disease, to promoting public acceptance of diversity by understanding our personal genomics. Their diverse responses suggest the richness of this multidisciplinary discussion.

Panel discussion on the role of scientific evidence across sectors. Photo: Jeroen Eyckmans.

Panel discussion on the role of scientific evidence across sectors. Photo: Jeroen Eyckmans.

 

Of all the wonderful SRC activities, I personally enjoyed interacting with student presenters the most during the Saturday presentation sessions and poster session. I learned about my fellow classmates’ research, such as alfatoxin exposure in pregnant Nepalese and the minimum grocery delivery order requirement for elderly SNAP participants. I also met people from other institutions who are working on topics I have been learning about in class. When I chatted with an Emory student about her qualitative evaluation of food and nutrition security knowledge and practices in Guatemala and Honduras, I drew my learning from Dr. Jennifer Coates’ NUTR217: Monitoring and Evaluation. When a University of Delaware student presented his regional field experiment on nontraditional irrigation water, I saw how the concepts I have learned in Dr. Sean Cash’s NUTR341: Economics of Agriculture and the Environment are applied. I am excited to cross paths with those students again when we are professionals.

Faculty and student presenters at the poster session. Photo: Jeroen Eyckmans.

Faculty and student presenters at the poster session. Photo: Jeroen Eyckmans.

 

The 10th Future of Food and Nutrition Conference ended with a delightful networking reception at Trade, where conference presenters and participants continued their conversations and deepened their connections with mouthwatering appetizers and refreshing drinks.

Networking reception. Photo: Jeroen Eyckmans.

Networking reception. Photo: Jeroen Eyckmans.

The learning and the personal connections that this year’s SRC has facilitated for meand for all who attendedare invaluable. The coming together of creative and ingenious students from around the country who are working to make our food and nutrition future better is truly an event you need to see to believe. I am grateful for the SRC team, particularly the SRC chairs, Dianna Bartone and Delphine Van Roosebeke, for leading this wonderful event. I am already looking forward to the 11th Future of Food and Nutrition SRC!

The hardworking team of Friedmanites who made the 10th SRC possible! Photo: Jeroen Eyckmans.

The hardworking team of Friedmanites who made the 10th SRC possible! Photo: Jeroen Eyckmans. 

 

Jennifer Huang is a first-year Food Policy and Applied Nutrition MS student and a registered dietitian. She is interested in econometrics, agricultural trade, and food safety.