Musings from the In-Between: My Coming to Terms with the GMO Industry

by Laura Barley

Monotony. Uniformity. Cataclysmic Tragedy, Subsequent Death. As a self-identified liberal attending an institution built on the premise of promoting social welfare through nutritional outcomes, this is how Laura Barley has historically described images of technologized agriculture. Her take on GMOs now? Read on. 

As we’re all too aware, the genetic modification of food is one of the most polarizing innovations in agriculture, placing tech-absolutists against agro-ecologist hippies and scantly leaving room for anyone else in between. Quite honestly, it’s a cultural scandal and a public relations nightmare. Never before have humans been able to penetrate so deeply into the fabric of our consumption and manipulate it for our own gain. Think about it: scientists have figured out how to take splices of nanoscopic DNA from one species, most commonly Bacillus thurgensis, then coat those splices onto gold particles, and use a gene gun to blast the gene-coated particles into plant cells that will then replicate and express the desired trait(s). Kind of crazy, right? Frankly, it feels weird that we’d ever have to go to such lengths just to grow food efficiently, but I suppose I’m learning how far a psyche of reductionism can take us.

As esoterically impressive as this technology may seem, it’s been integrated into seeds sown across millions of acres of farmland in the United States and 28 countries across the world. The extent of genetically-modified corn and soybean’s success is apparent in the magnitude of its planting, but I’ve always been inclined to wonder—just because something is massively popular, does that make it inherently successful or positive? Besides concerns for biological safety, which have largely been debunked, the proliferation of genetically-modified food has elicited a persistent sense of ecological and cultural doom in the general public much more than it’s elicited any sense of technological optimism. Where exactly does this aversion stem from?

As ‘liberals’, we are inclined to believe that a sense of the common good should prevail over the interests of a small handful of individuals. Arguably, this foundation informs many of our deep suspicions of the heavily consolidated seed and agro-chemical business—that they must not care about small farmers, that they must not care about the impoverished citizens of the world, because they’re driven so singularly towards massive profits.

Through my work with Ellen Messer, the Friedman school’s impressively well-informed professor of anthropology, I’ve looked into the careers of various scientists and biotech institutions who’ve set the business of genetically engineering food into motion. And honestly, their sh*t didn’t stink as bad as I’d hoped it would. Perhaps my lips are red from the Kool-Aid I’ve just drunk, but underneath the dark, tainted veil of their corporate monikers, I can see that these people are simply scientists. Take, for instance, Beatriz Xonocostle, researching the genes involved in drought tolerance to preserve maize cultivation in an increasingly dry Mexico, or Dennis Gonsalves, the developer of Rainbow Papaya that revived the Hawaiian papaya industry after years of serious blight – are these people who I should consider ‘enemies’? These are people attempting to experiment with and innovate the most sophisticated technology possible to make growing food easier. When I get down to it, I see (mostly) earnest people doing the best they can to solve continual global problems of food insecurity and hunger quite literally from the inside out. Now, don’t get me wrong – I understand there are certainly much more vibrant ways of achieving food security that promote biodiversity and empower farmers at smaller scales. It all looks good and feels beautiful. I’ve simply begun to understand that there are tangible and highly nuanced reasons for the successes of agricultural biotechnology, and that these innovations aren’t likely to disappear anytime soon.

Conveniently, this moderation leaves me at the crossroads of empathy and apathy. In fact, nearly all of my classes at Friedman so far have. I seem to be sitting smack-dab in the middle of the ‘it’s complicated’ intersection, watching rush-hour traffic zoom around me. Given the wealth of information and perspectives lent out to me, I’m no longer afforded the luxury of advocating holistic remedies from my isolated Californian, organic-farming-community bubble. Instead, I’m left to look critically at individual successes and failures to determine exactly which agricultural circumstances merit the use of genetic technology, or any technological or political intervention at all for that matter.

My argument is this: we’ve got to understand these people and corporations both for the results they produce and the intentions they carry. It doesn’t behoove us to assume ignorance on their part; it only stunts our own understanding of the axioms on which the global food system rests upon. A crucial part of our education is to properly consider the sets of choices we will undoubtedly face in the various roles we will all play in our careers, as farmers, policymakers, advocates, consumers. The middle of the road can be an uncomfortable place to be, but I’m ready to embrace it for the responsibilities it renders.

Laura Barley is a first-year Agricultural, Food, and Environment master’s student ceaselessly curious about the complexity that global food systems has to offer. Further dialogue and questions can be asked at laurabarley88@gmail.com.

 

5 Reasons the Whole30 is Not the Anti-Diet It Claims to Be

by Hannah Meier, RD, LDN

How does the Whole30 Diet hold up from a dietitian’s perspective? Hannah Meier breaks it down.

I’m calling it: 2017 is the year of the non-diet.

As a dietitian who ardently discourages short-term dieting, I was thrilled to read many articles posted around the new year with titles like “Things to Add, Not Take Away in 2017,” and “Why I’m Resolving Not to Change This Year.” Taking a step more powerful than simply abstaining from resolution season, influencers like these authors resolved to embrace the positive, stay present, and not encourage the cycle of self-loathing that the “losing weight” resolutions tend to result in year after year.

Right alongside these posts, though, was an overwhelming amount of press exonerating the Whole30—a 30-day food and beverage “clean eating” diet.

The founders of the Whole30, however, adamantly claim it is not a diet. Even though participants are advised to “cut out all the psychologically unhealthy, hormone-unbalancing, gut-disrupting, inflammatory food groups for a full 30 days” (including legumes, dairy, all grains, sugar, MSG, and additives like carrageenan), followers are encouraged to avoid the scale and focus on learning how food makes them feel rather than how much weight they gain or lose.

But our culture is still hungry for weight loss. The possibility of losing weight ahead of her sister’s wedding was “the deciding factor” for my friend Lucy (name changed for privacy), who read the entire Whole30 book cover to cover, and fought her “sugar dragon” for 30 days in adherence to the Whole30 protocol (only to eat M&M’s on day 31, she admits).

“Whole30 focuses on foods in their whole forms which is positive for people who are learning how to incorporate more unprocessed foods in their diet,” Allison Knott, registered dietitian and Friedman alum (N12) explains. “However, the elimination of certain groups of foods like beans/legumes and grains may have negative health implications if continued over the long-term.”

Diets like these trick consumers into thinking they are forming a healthier relationship with food. Though weight loss is de-emphasized, a trio of restriction, fear, and control are in the driver’s seat and could potentially steer dieters toward a downward, disordered-eating spiral.

I still think 2017 is the year of the non-diet, but before we get there we need to unmask the Whole30 and call it what it is: an unsustainable, unhealthy, fad diet.

1: It is focused on “can” and “cannot”

The Whole30 targets perfectly nutritious foods for most people (grains, beans and legumes, and dairy) as foods to avoid entirely, relegating them to the same level of value as boxed mac and cheese, frozen pizza, and Kool-Aid. And most bodies are perfectly capable of handling these foods. They provide a convenient, affordable, and satisfying means of getting calcium, vitamin D, potassium, phosphorus, and nutrient-dense protein. The Whole30 eliminates almost all the plant-based protein options for vegans and vegetarians. While the point of eliminating these foods, creators Hartwig and Hartwig explain, is to reduce inflammation and improve gut health, nowhere in the book or website do they provide scientific studies that show removing grains, beans and dairy does this for most people. But we’ll get to that later.

The Whole30 also instructs that participants not eat any added sugar or sweeteners (real or artificial), MSG (monosodium glutamate, a flavor enhancer that has been weakly linked to brain and nervous system disruption), or carrageenan (a thickener derived from seaweed and is plentiful in the world of nut milks and frozen desserts; conflicting evidence has both suggested and refuted the possibility that it is associated with cancer and inflammatory diseases), sulfites (like those in wine), or alcohol. Not even a lick, as they are very clear to explain, or you must start the entire 30-day journey from the beginning once more.

“I couldn’t go longer than 30 days without a hit of chocolate,” Lucy told me, explaining why she was dedicated to following the program exactly.

Why take issue with focusing on “good” and “bad,” “can” and “cannot” foods? As soon as a moral value is assigned, the potential for establishing a normal relationship to food and eating is disrupted. “The diet encourages following the restrictive pattern for a solid 30 days. That means if there is a single slip-up, as in you eat peanut butter (for example), then you must start over. I consider this to be a punishment which does not lend itself to developing a healthy relationship with food and may backfire, especially for individuals struggling with underlying disordered eating patterns,” Knott argues.

How will a person feel on day 31, adding brown rice alongside their salmon and spinach salad after having restricted it for a month? Likely not neutral. Restrictive dietary patterns tend to lead to overconsumption down the road, and it is not uncommon for people to fall back in to old habits, like my friend Lucy. “People often do several Whole30 repetitions to reinforce healthier eating habits,” she explained.

Knott relates the diet to other time-bound, trendy cleanses. “There’s little science to support the need for a “cleansing diet,” she says. “Unless there is a food intolerance, allergy, or other medical reason for eliminating food groups then it’s best to learn how to incorporate a balance of foods in the diet in a sustainable, individualized way.”

While no one is arguing that consuming less sugar, MSG and alcohol are unsound health goals, making the message one of hard-and-fast, black-and-white, “absolutely don’t go near or even think about touching that” is an unsustainable, unhealthy, and inflexible way to relate to food for a lifetime.

2: It requires a lot of brainpower

After eight years of existence, the Whole30 now comes with a pretty widespread social-media support system. There is plenty of research to back up social support in any major lifestyle change as a major key to success. Thanks to this, more people than ever before (like my friend Lucy, who participated alongside her engaged sister) can make it through the 30 days without “failing.”

But the Whole30 turns the concept of moderation and balance on its head. Perfection is necessary and preparation is key. Having an endless supply of chopped vegetables, stocks for soups, meat, and eggs by the pound and meals planned and prepared for the week, if not longer, is pretty much required if you don’t want to make a mistake and start over. The Whole30 discourages between-meal snacking, (why?) and cutting out sugar, grains, and dairy eliminates many grab-and-go emergency options that come in handy on busy days. So, dieters better be ready when hunger hits.

Should the average Joe looking to improve his nutrition need to scour the internet for “compliant” recipes and plan every meal of every day in advance? While the Whole30 may help those unfamiliar with cooking wholesome, unprocessed meals at home jumpstart a healthy habit, learning about cooking, especially for beginners, should be flexible. It doesn’t have to come with a rule book. In fact, I think that’s inviting entirely too much brain power that could be used in so many other unique and fulfilling ways to be spent thinking, worrying, and obsessing about food. Food is important, but it is only one facet of wellness. The Whole30 seems to brush aside the intractable and significant influence of stress in favor of a “perfect” diet, which may or may not be nutritionally adequate, anyway.

The language used by Whole30 creators to rationalize the rigidity of the diet could make anyone feel like a chastised puppy in the corner. “It’s not hard,” they say, and then proceed to compare its difficulty to losing a child or a parent. Okay, sure, compared to a major life stressor, altering one’s diet is a walk in the park. But changing habits is hard work that requires mental energy every single day. Eating, and choosing what to eat, is a constant battle for many people and it doesn’t have to be. Life is hard enough without diet rules. The last thing anyone needs is to transform a natural and fulfilling component of it (read: food) into a mental war zone with contrived rules and harsh consequences.

3: It is elitist

When was the last time you overheard a stranger complain about healthy eating being expensive? Most likely, the protester was envisioning a diet akin to the Whole30. Grass-fed beef, free-range chicken, clarified butter, organic produce…no dry staples like beans, rice or peanut butter. Healthy eating does not exist on a pedestal. It does not have to be expensive, but it certainly can be depending on where you choose to (or can) shop. Let’s set a few things straight: You don’t need grass-fed gelatin powder in your smoothies to be healthy. You don’t need organic coconut oil to be healthy. You don’t need exotic fruits and free-range eggs to be healthy. Maybe these foods mean more than just nutrition, signifying important changes to be made within our food system. But it terms of nutrition, sometimes the best a person can do for himself and his family is buy conventional produce, whole grains in bulk, and Perdue chicken breast on sale because otherwise they would be running to the drive thru or microwaving a packet of ramen noodles for dinner. A diet like the Whole30, which emphasizes foods of the “highest quality,” does nothing more than shame and isolate those who can’t sustain the standard it imposes, further cementing their belief that healthy eating is unattainable.

4: It is socially isolating

Imagine with me: I am participating in the Whole30 and doing great for the first week eating fully compliant meals. Then comes the weekend, and “oh no” it’s a football weekend and all I want to do is relax with my friends like I love to do. For me, that typically involves a beer or two, shared appetizers (even some carrots and celery!) and lots of laughs. The Whole30 creators would likely laugh in my face and tell me to suck it up for my own good and just munch on the veggies and maybe some meatballs. (“But are those grass-fed and did you use jarred sauce to make them? I bet there’s a gram of sugar hiding in there somewhere.”)

But it is just a month—certainly anyone can abstain from these type of events for a mere 30 days (remember, “it’s not hard”)—but then what? Do you just return to your normal patterns? Or do you, more likely, go back to them feeling so cheated from a month of restraint that you drink and eat so much more than you might have if you’d maintained a sense of moderation?

Of course, there are people comfortable with declining the food-centric aspect of social life, for whom turning down a glass of wine with cheese in favor of seltzer and crudités is no big deal. And perhaps our social events have become a bit too food centric, anyway. Either way, using food rules to isolate one’s self from friends and family sounds an awful lot like the pathway to an eating disorder, and the sense of deprivation most people likely feel in these situations can snowball into chronic stress that overshadows any short-term, nutrition-related “win.”

Although, maybe we should get all our friends to drink seltzer water and eat crudités at football games.

5: It is not scientifically sound

Most of The Whole30’s success has come from word of mouth, stories, and endorsements from those who successfully made it through the program and felt “better” afterwards. The website, dismayingly, does not house a single citation or study referenced in creation of the diet.

It’s important to note that the Whole30 did not exist 20 years ago. The Whole30 is not a pattern of eating that is replicated in any society on earth, and it doesn’t seem to be based off any research suggesting that it is indeed a superior choice. At the end of the day, this is a business, created by Sports Nutritionists (a credential anyone can get by taking an online test, regardless of one’s background in nutrition—which neither of them has) part of the multi-billion-dollar diet industry. Pinpointing three major food groups as causing inflammation and hormonal imbalance is quite an extreme statement to make without any research to back it up.

What does the science actually show? Knott, who counsels clients in her Tennessee-based private practice reminds us that, “consuming a plant-based diet, including grains and beans/legumes, is known to contribute to a lower risk for chronic disease like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Grains and beans/legumes are a source of fiber, protein, and B vitamins such as folate. They’re also a source of phytochemicals which may play a role in cancer prevention.”

The Whole30 proposes eliminating grains because they contain phytates, plant chemicals that reduce the absorbability of nutrients like magnesium and zinc in our bodies. While it’s true that both grains and legumes contain phytates, so do certain nuts and some vegetables allowed on the diet, like almonds. It is possible to reduce the amount of phytates in an eaten food by soaking, sprouting, or fermenting grains and legumes, but research from within the last 20 years suggests that phytates may actually play a key role as antioxidants. In a diverse and balanced diet, phytates in foods like grains and legumes do not present a major micronutrient threat. Further, new findings from Tufts scientists provide more evidence that whole grains in particular improve immune and inflammatory markers related to the microbiome.

Legumes in the Whole30 are eliminated because some of their carbohydrates aren’t as well-digested and absorbed in the small intestine. Some people are highly sensitive to these types of carbohydrates, and may experience severe digestive irritation like excessive gas, bloating, constipation, etc. Strategies such as the FODMAP approach are used with these folks under professional supervision to ensure they continue to get high-quality, well-tolerated fiber in their diets, and only eliminate those foods which cause distress. For others, elimination of these types of carbohydrates is unsound. Undigested fibers like those in legumes are also known as prebiotics, and help to feed the healthy bacteria in our gut. Eliminating this beneficial food group to improve gut health goes directly against the growing base of scientific evidence surrounding the microbiota.

Dairy, for those without an allergy or intolerance, has been shown to provide many benefits when incorporated into a balanced and varied diet, including weight stabilization and blood sugar control. The diet also fails to recognize the important health benefits associated with fermented dairy products like yogurt.

In terms of the diet’s long-term sustainability, Knott adds, “There’s plenty of research to support that restrictive diets fail. Many who adopt this way of eating will likely lose weight only to see it return after the diet ends.”

Let’s not forget its few redeeming qualities

For everything wrong with the Whole30, there are a few aspects of the diet that should stick. The concept of getting more in touch with food beyond a label, reducing added sugars, and alcohol is a good one and something that everyone should be encouraged to do. Focusing on cooking more from scratch, relying less on processed foods, and learning about how food influences your mood and energy levels are habits everyone should work to incorporate into a healthy life.

Knott agrees, adding, “I do like that the diet emphasizes the importance of not weighing yourself. We know that weight is a minor piece to the puzzle and other metrics are more appropriate for measuring health such as fitness, lean muscle mass, and biometric screenings.”

Improving the nutritional quality of your diet should not eliminate whole food groups like dairy, grains, and legumes. It should not have a time stamp on its end date, and rather, should be a lifelong journey focusing on flexibility, moderation, and balance. Lower your intake of processed foods, sugars, and alcohol and increase the variety of whole foods. Et voilà! A healthy diet that won’t yell at you for screwing up.

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Thanks to Allison Knott MS, RDN, LDN for contributing expertise. Knott is a private practice dietitian and owner of ANEWtrition, LLC based in Tennessee. She graduated from the Nutrition Communications program at Friedman in 2012.

 

Hannah Meier is a second-year, part-time Nutrition Interventions, Communication & Behavior Change student and registered dietitian interested in learning more about non-diet approaches to wellness. She aspires to make proper nutrition a simple, accessible and fulfilling part of life for people in all walks of life. You can find her on Instagram documenting food, fitness and fun @abalancepaceRD, as well as on her (budding) blog of the same title: http://www.abalancedpace.wordpress.com

The Dr. Oz Effect

by Julia Sementelli

With the beginning of the new year inevitably comes an onslaught of promotions and advertisements for miracle diets, detoxes, and supplements that vow to help you shed pounds, live longer, etc. And when you think of diets and supplements, most likely two words come to mind: “Dr. Oz.”  He is a doctor, but he is also a registered dietitian’s worst nightmare. While dietitians are out there teaching patients and clients that weight loss cannot be healthfully achieved in a pill or in a 2 week “cleanse,” Dr. Oz is preaching the opposite. Read on for the inside scoop of how Dr. Oz further complicates the already messy, ever-changing world of nutrition and health, including an interview with the man himself.

A recent client of mine, Mark (name changed for privacy), eats a fairly healthy diet: Greek yogurt and berries for breakfast, a salad with lean protein for lunch, and something from the Whole Foods salad bar for dinner (he doesn’t like to cook).  He says that his major downfalls are cookies and beer. Mark’s goal is to lose 30 pounds and improve his overall health given his family history of heart disease. “Give me a meal plan and I will follow it,” says Mark. I can work with that. He is actually a dietitian’s dream—someone who already doesn’t mind eating well and is motivated to lose weight. I thought his meal plan would be a breeze, until he said “Oh—I should tell you about my supplements.” I had expected a multivitamin and some daily vitamin D, but my hopes were dashed as Mark rattled off more than 15 supplements that he is currently taking, only one of them being a multivitamin. Among these supplements were resveratrol, an antioxidant found in red grape skins that he claims sheds years off of your life, and Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA), which apparently melts body fat. When I asked Mark where he learned about all of these supplements, he said “Dr. Oz.”

No two words can send angry chills up a dietitian’s spine quicker than Dr. Oz. While I am a fairly green registered dietitian, I have interacted with enough patients to see firsthand the power of Dr. Oz. Dr. Mehmet Oz started out as the resident expert on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” for five years before he was given his own spotlight, “The Dr. Oz Show.” He holds three degrees: a B.S. in biology from Harvard and an M.D. and M.B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. He is vice-chairman of the department of surgery at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York. He is also likeable. Consequently, he has become one of the most trusted doctors in the world and yet he uses words like “magical” and “miraculous” to promote supplements that promise to burn fat or prevent cancer. However, what the public may not understand is that a pill is not a miracle cure for anything. According to Stephanie Clarke, registered dietitian and co-owner of C&J Nutrition in New York City: “Most MDs get very little (or zero) nutrition education and background—so it’s a frustrating when they dole out nutrition advice or research without enough details or without thinking about how their messages will be interpreted by the public and related to real life eating.” But Americans continue to believe in the power of nutritional supplements recommended by a doctor that (most likely) has had minimal nutrition education and, more surprisingly, continue to buy them.  In fact, Americans spent more than $21 billion on vitamins and herbal supplements in 2015.  According to analyses, just the mention of a product on the Dr. Oz Show causes a surge in sales.

This phenomenon has been coined as “The Dr. Oz Effect.” Combine charismatic with a few letters after his name and you have someone who is more believable than the thousands of nutrition professionals that use science, not pseudoscience, to back up their recommendations. Even my own father, who has type 2 diabetes, an affinity for soy sauce (read: sodium), and meets my attempts to improve his diet with stubbornness, listens to Dr. Oz. Meanwhile, I have gone through four years of undergraduate education in nutrition, applying for competitive dietetic internships (50% acceptance rate), a one year unpaid dietetic internship, studying for and passing a comprehensive exam, and an additional two years of graduate work to get to where I am. And yet I still don’t have the influence that Dr. Oz does to change my father’s food behaviors.

As a dietitian, I strongly believe in balance. It is my goal to reduce the all-or-nothing thinking that surrounds eating and exercise. The media and people like Dr. Oz perpetuate this mindset, capitalizing on the public’s obsession with weight loss and diets by highlighting drastic regimens and alleged cure-all supplements. Diets do not work because they typically deprive a person of entire food groups, fats or carbohydrates, for example, and eventually the individual gives in and eats those food groups in excess since they have been denying themselves of them for so long.

The demonization of food, another spawn of the media, is the belief that particular foods are good or bad. It has resulted in mass confusion and further damage to peoples’ relationship with food. One of the most infuriating examples of this demonization is fruit. Yes, fruit. “I heard that the sugar in fruit is bad for you” or “I was told not to eat pineapple because it is high in sugar” are actual quotes that I have heard from clients. And not surprisingly, both clients attributed their beliefs to Dr. Oz. After some research, I discovered that, lo and behold, Dr. Oz did a segment titled “Can the Sugar in Fruit Make You Fat?” that most likely influenced these beliefs. Aside from vegetables, fruit is one of the most wholesome food groups, packed with fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Yet fruit cannot even avoid falling victim to the war on food. Conundrums like this exist for nearly every food: eggs, fish, coffee, potatoes…the list goes on. The only way to try to reverse the damage is to tell people that no food is off limits and remind them that there is no replacement for good eating and regular exercise. The only way that I have seen weight loss occur is with gradual and sustainable changes over time. And anyone that promises anything different is lying or worse, using pseudoscience to make outrageous claims.

Pseudoscience, the basis upon which Dr. Oz has constructed his lucrative empire, involves exaggerated and often contradictory claims that are not supported by reputable research. The media is also a culprit of using pseudoscience, composing articles and news stories from press releases of studies with small sample sizes or that use mice as their subjects. Just because it is effective or safe for mice, does not mean it will be safe for humans. Many writers for tabloids and mainstream magazines are stretched for time and are more concerned with quantity rather than quality given that their main goal is to make headlines that sell papers and magazines. Unfortunately, such writers and apparent health experts like Dr. Oz produce the majority of what the general public sees and uses to shape its food choices. However, according to a study published in the BMJ in 2014: “Consumers should be skeptical about any recommendations provided on television medical talk shows, as details are limited and only a third to one half of recommendations are based on believable or somewhat believable evidence.” That’s right—more than half of what Dr. Oz claims on his show regarding nutrition is not based on science. While the show has seen a dip in ratings, currently 1.8 million still tune into the Dr. Oz Show and are consequently exposed to information that is incorrect 50-67% of the time according to the 2014 study in the BMJ.

Dr. Oz has been criticized by a slew of medical professionals for his scam marketing, most notably in 2015 when ten physicians wrote a letter to the dean of health sciences at Columbia University requesting that Dr. Oz be removed as a faculty member due to his “egregious lack of integrity” on his TV show. Dr. Oz defends what he tells the public by claiming that “it’s not a medical show,” despite the fact that the show is titled The Dr. Oz show. Dr. Oz says that freedom of speech gives him the right to say what he wants to. But it is difficult to respect this freedom when he is a faculty member at a prestigious university that makes false claims on TV.

I reached out to the Dr. Oz team and received a response from Oz himself. When asked where he finds his nutrition information he said, “We obtain nutrition information from a wide variety of sources. We rely heavily on literature published in scientific journals as well as textbooks. In addition we consult a wide variety of experts including medical doctors and nutritionists. Our research staff is made up of myself a physician trained in preventive medicine as well as 3 medical students who take a year off to work with us. We evaluate all of the content on our show to ensure that viewers are getting accurate information. One of our researchers this year has a master’s degree in nutrition as well.” I am not sure which scientific journals Dr. Oz and his team are using, but when I researched “curcumin” and “oil of oregano,” two of the supplements that Dr. Oz has promoted on his show and that Mark, my client, is currently taking, the conclusion was that “the existing scientific evidence is insufficient to recommend their safe use.” In our interview, Dr. Oz said: “We also reach out to the Friedman school when we have difficult questions. I spent a day up at the school this summer meeting with a number of your faculty. Most recently I have spoken to an expert about fiber fortified foods and to your Dean about the current opinions on dietary fats.” He included a note that says that he and his team welcome interns to join them every month from September to June and students from Friedman are welcome to apply. *Insert eye roll*

When I asked about Dr. Oz and his team’s stance on nutritional supplements, he replied: “In general we believe that many have a place in people’s life to enhance nutrition. We always love to see more and better studies conducted on the utility of supplements in promoting health.” This is a nice response but when I begrudgingly watched a clip from the Dr. Oz show in which he says that Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) can help to burn body fat, even without diet and exercise, I realized that what he says and what he does do not match. And aside from empty promises and putting people at risk with questionable pills, he is encouraging people to waste their money. This is what I told Mark in an effort curb his daily supplement cocktail. If the risk of taking his favorite “fat-melting” supplement won’t stop him, maybe the opportunity to save money will.

Dr. Oz is frustrating for many reasons, but for nutrition professionals it is the fact he uses his credentials as a physician to get away with promoting pseudoscience. Being a dietitian no longer involves simply telling people what to eat. It is trying to untangle the web of misinformation surrounding nutrition that clients have woven over the course of their lives and re-teach them what a healthy relationship with food should look like. While turning to supplements can seem like an easy fix, science shows that eating a diet based on whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and healthy fats, is the ideal diet. Science does not show that a pill is the secret to losing those last five pounds that keep hanging on. If scientists really found a cure for obesity, we would not be hearing about it at 4pm on a Tuesday afternoon. And unfortunately, the supplement industry is not going anywhere. The FDA and FTC regulate the supplement industry, but not very well. So it is up to trained and licensed nutritional professionals (i.e. registered dietitians) to educate the public about the dangers of supplements and listening to people who are simply “health experts.”

Julia Sementelli is a second-year Nutrition Communication & Behavior Change student and Boston-based registered dietitian who works in a local hospital and also counsels private clients.  You can find her on Instagram (@julia.the.rd.eats- Follow her!) where she strives to intercept confusing nutrition messages from self-proclaimed health experts with expert nutrition advice and tips (as well as some beautiful food photos if she does say so herself!).

 

 

Book Review – You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice

by Danièle Todorov

We pick from a dozen entrée options, a couple hundred Netflix movies, or thousands of grocery store products by referencing our intuitive tastes. Or so we think. Tom Vanderbilt delves into the near-irrationality of our preferences in You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice.

For each of the experts featured in Tom Vanderbilt’s You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice, the most baffling phrase in common language is “it’s an acquired taste.” Countless questions spring from that one little word “acquired.” The driving forces behind taste are chaotic and seemingly lawless, continuously evolving with age and context. When did my revulsion for olives and anchovies morph into a pseudo-sophisticated appreciation? Where did the change begin, in the reward center of the brain or in the nervous network of the gut? Was the desire to eat those abhorred foods social, visceral, or pretentious? All of us working in nutrition hold some ideas about the origin and evolution of taste and may subscribe to a single explanation. So brace yourselves. You May Also Like is packed with evidence for a dozen conflicting theories. Ironically, Vanderbilt states “what is taste, really, but a kind of cognitive mechanism for managing sensory overload?”

As a freelance journalist in design, science, and technology, Tom Vanderbilt draws expertise from a similarly diverse cast of researchers in You May Also Like, from the flavor chemists at McCormick pimping our snacks, to the mathematicians at Netflix keeping us hooked. Vanderbilt’s research is extensive and holistic. Interestingly, the same set of human behaviors are at play in almost every field. I found his discussions of Facebook likes and music preference to be equally as informative for nutrition as the chapter on food choice. While this diversity keeps the book engaging and fresh (a nod to our constant novelty seeking), space constraints often keep Vanderbilt from providing satisfying explanations. You May Also Like serves better as an introduction for readers interested in interdisciplinary behavioral research than an in-depth resource.

You May Also Like offers a condensed snapshot of our current understanding of taste and leaves readers questioning and obsessed with its core ideas. After reading this book, I am certain about only two things. First, I will never use the phrases “acquired taste” or “I’ll have what she’s having” without hearing the gears turn in my subconscious. Second, ask any of the book’s featured experts—honestly—why we like what we like, and you’ll receive an answer with a slightly embarrassed shrug.

Danièle Todorov is a first-year Nutritional Epidemiology student who should not be trusted with matters of taste, given how much she enjoyed The Museum of Bad Art in Somerville.

Dear Millennials: The Movement Is What We Make It

by Kathleen Nay

Millennials get a bad rap, even when it comes to their choices around food. Is this negativity really deserved?

Generalizations. We all use them. They’re mental shortcuts that help us quickly assess and understand the world around us. Though some generalizations are not wholly unfounded, Millennials have a set of unfortunate ones attached to their generation: lazy, pleasure seeking, narcissistic, and entitled.

Well, full disclosure: I am a Millennial, and I take issue with such generalizations.

Which is why I had to shake my head in shame when one of our own published an article on Medium.com last month accusing Millennials of “faking the food movement”. The gist of Eve Turow Paul’s commentary relied on society’s assumption that Millennials are essentially self-serving. She questioned whether we’ve actually championed a “food movement” or whether we’ve been faking it all along for the sake of social currency, or as a coping mechanism against our smartphone-tethered existences.

Have we been faking it? Maybe I’m biased by the Millennials around me – I do attend the Friedman School after all – but in my view, something brought of each of us here, and I’m not convinced that our reasons are entirely self-serving. Though it sounds idealistic and perhaps naïve, I tend to think that most grad students at the Friedman School are as interested in getting a job and making a living as we are in changing the world. We are here because we see needs that are directly linked to an inequitable food system, and we are seeking ways to marry our idealism with our pragmatism.

In response to Turow Paul, I decided to survey fellow Millennials, to find out what we think about “the food movement” generally, and what issues we think drive it. My study was by no means rigorous or scientific; it was, like most things Millennials do, informally orchestrated via social media. Nevertheless, I learned some surprising things about what my peers think about food, and the movement that does or does not surround it.

Of my 45 anonymous respondents, 33 fell under the objective definition of a Millennial, or individuals born roughly between 1985 and 2004 (interestingly, only 25 of those 33 respondents self-identified as Millennials). Of those, 39% were not Friedman-affiliated. The top five food-related issues that rose to the surface of my survey included the need to improve health outcomes (61% among Millennial respondents), climate change and sustainability (61%), hunger and food access (52%), food waste (42%), and humane treatment of animals (36%). This illustrates a sharp contrast to Turow Paul’s observations that we are more interested in sharing new cookie flavors than in the reasons that food deserts exist or why American children are going to school hungry. My results show that Millennials care about food as more than just a source of comfort, and the issues are encompassed by a whole spectrum of societal concerns.

Turow Paul laments the dearth of Millennials who take a stand on SNAP or food deserts, farm subsidies, or pesticide runoff. She seems to think that most of us only care about food insofar as it benefits us as individual eaters, rather than as a collective of informed laborers and consumers. But this is a shortsighted understanding of Millennials, many of whom have plenty to say about the inequality of access, labor rights, and subsidy distribution.

By generalizing all of us, she discounts the work of 20- and 30-somethings like:

  • Lauren Abda, who hosts Branchfood’s Community Tables, monthly meet ups designed to connect young food system innovators.
  • Ross Richmond who, through Food For Free, partners with dining halls at Tufts and Harvard Universities to redistribute donated hot-bar food to Somerville elementary students and homeless families facing food insecurity, all while diverting 1.8 million pounds of food from landfills.
  • Ryan Pandya, a bioengineer and co-founder of Muufri, a company developing the world’s first cow-free milk in an effort to improve animal welfare and environmental sustainability.
  • Jason Carter, a young farmer with a mind for conservation farming, who has preserved the natural landscape of his New England farm by choosing to raise a breed of pigs that is well-suited for foraging and thriving in forested spaces.
  • Andrea Talhami, a young professional with DC Central Kitchen, a nonprofit that reduces community hunger using recovered leftover food, and helps reintegrate formerly incarcerated adults by providing culinary career skills training.

In fairness, these individuals have not expressly identified themselves as Millennials, but if one operates on basic generational assumptions, then the public perception is that they are Millennials whether they choose to be or not. Millennials are driving change, in creative and innovative ways. The movement may not be cohesive, but that doesn’t mean the work is not effective.

Turow Paul is a Millennial with a platform to Millennials. She is in the position to raise a critical mass of interest in food issues that matter beyond the hipster vegan beet burger, but uses her position instead to denigrate the apparent absence of a movement. What she should be doing: calling attention to Millennial-driven projects that are improving social and environmental outcomes within the food industry. She may not be wrong that “slacktivisim” is a real phenomenon among many Millennials. But we’re not a monolith; we’re as diverse as the needs we see.

I am somewhat comforted by the fact that not all of Turow Paul’s work makes light of the food movement or oversimplifies our generation. In an interview she gave with The Atlantic last year, she makes clear that she doesn’t actually see Millennials as monolithic. She also publicly acknowledges that Millennials also experience food insecurity, and in her Medium article, she wins back points by suggesting concrete ways in which Millennials can demand change from lawmakers.

But for all her complaints that food is simply a solace for those of us who “can’t find a job, are freaked about climate change and don’t trust Congress,” Turow Paul fails to see what is actually quite clear to those of us who hope to meaningfully contribute to a smart and equitable food system: that food is our solution. We obsess over food production and waste precisely because we are freaked about climate change. We can’t find jobs that fall in line with our values, so we’re creating them. We don’t trust Congress, but we’re finding grassroots ways to make change on our own. Our choices about food – about how, where, and by whom it is produced – are how we will wield our power.

We’re not finished. We have a long way to go. As we’re just beginning to come into our own, dear Millennials: this is our moment. If we are what we eat, then let’s show the haters what we’re made of.

Kathleen Nay is a first-year AFE/UEP Millennial. She thanks Meaghan Reardon (BMN ’16) and Krissy Scommegna (AFE ’17) for helping with survey development and general brainstorming for this article.

Lessons From the Anti-Fat Movement: Why Waging a War Against Sugar is Not the Answer

by Micaela Young

Blaming sugar for the obesity epidemic is tempting, but making it a target of public and policy concern may create unwarranted fear and an increased demand for sugar-free and sugar substitute products, steering us down an all too familiar—and perhaps even unhealthier—road.

Sugar Frankenstein JPG

It wasn’t too long ago that industry grabbed onto another contentious nutrition target during the anti-fat movement, profiting largely from a new host of fat-free and reduced-fat products, many of them packed with refined carbohydrates and sugar. In the 1980s, medical and nutrition science had not advanced enough to know that the link between total dietary fat and heart disease was far from clear. The first edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans in 1980 demonized fat and, as a consequence, sparked a wave of food industry innovation that grew to replace unwanted fats with refined carbohydrates and sugar. A probable catalyst for the U.S. obesity epidemic, this industry reformulation is a potential promoter of heart disease and diabetes, as suggested by several well-designed studies examining the consequences of a low-fat, highly-refined carbohydrate diet published over the last six years from top-tier journals: including the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Annals of Internal Medicine and Current Atherosclerosis Reports.

Earlier on, however, nutrition scientists had an inkling that not all dietary fat was created equal. Specifically, replacing trans fats and saturated fats with monounsatured and polyunsatured fats was more effective at reducing the risk of heart disease than reducing overall fat intake, as revealed in a 1997 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. While there will always be debate and uncertainty, the health benefits of consuming certain dietary fats have gained a positive view in the scientific community, as reflected in the new 2015 Dietary Guidelines.

While this shift in thinking may be viewed as a gross misconception by the science community—having such a negative impact on public health—what is important to remember is that science is a dynamic, ever-revolving door. New evidence can change scientific thinking rapidly, calling important “facts” into question, but public opinion and consumer purchasing habits are much harder to change.

Today, history may be repeating itself, with a plethora of anti-sugar campaigns and policy movements following the flood of new research linking sugar consumption to obesity, diabetes prevalence, and heart disease. It turns out that sugar is a tricky beast to target, so public health advocates have gone after sugar-sweetened beverages. This is not a fool’s errand, however, because drinking your sugar seems to pile on the pounds, according to a randomized trial from the New England Journal of Medicine and a meta-analysis from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. In addition, added sugars are now thought to contribute to chronic disease risk and increased mortality, according to a 2015 study co-authored by Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. Researchers estimated that sugar-sweetened beverages were responsible for 6,450 deaths from cancer, 45,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease, and 133,000 deaths from diabetes world-wide.

The public has caught on to this buzz around the negative effects of sugar consumption, and following suit are the usual suspects: the food industry (the wide-eyed consumer will notice new sugar-free and granulated sugar substitutes creeping onto grocery store shelves) and nutrition propaganda (anyone care to join me on Food Babe’s 7-day sugar detox?).

Policy makers have even jumped on the anti-sugar bandwagon, including former Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg, who in 2012 fought to ban the sale of sweetened drinks of more than 16 ounces. While Bloomberg’s proposal ended in a court decision denying his ban from going into effect, these types of efforts still continue.

Even though the concerns over added sugar consumption are warranted given current scientific consensus, the ambiguity around what these types of prohibitions on added sugars will do come from many factions: anti-hunger groups, scientists, and the soda-guzzling consumer who fears for his rights. One scientist against the banning and taxing of foods with high amounts of added sugars is Brian Wansink, the director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, because he fears the unintended consequences. His reasons are just; in 2006, his lab conducted a study that linked low-fat labeled foods to misconceptions about the healthfulness of the products. On average, participants underestimated the calories in “low-fat” M&Ms and other foods by almost 50%, and, surprisingly, overweight individuals ate 60 more calories than normal-weight participants when presented with low-fat labeled foods.

In 2014, Wansink’s lab conducted a similar study on the implications of a soda tax after noticing more sugar-free foods on the market, and an increased effort to ban or tax sugar-sweetened beverages in certain locales. The results concluded consumers often made unhealthy substitutions for sodas. The main replacement? Beer and other high-calorie drinks. Not exactly the swap public health advocates were hoping for.

It is evident that something must be done to ease this public health concern, but the solution that will yield its intended results has not yet become apparent. The food industry uses current nutrition science to bring patchwork, processed foods to life, which can work monstrously against public health efforts. The important thing to remember is that, as stated in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines key recommendations, a healthy eating pattern limits added sugars (sorry, palm sugar) to 10% of calories per day—not including sugars from whole foods and fruits.

“It is clear that many Americans are consuming far too much sugar,” said Jeanne Goldberg, PhD, professor of nutrition and director of the graduate program in Nutrition Communication at the Friedman School. “But the best way to figure out if you are one of these people is to take a moment to figure out just how much you are getting, from your first bowl of frosted covered cereal in the morning to your last cup of tea. If this is over 12 teaspoons (about 50 grams) of added sugar—including the sugar in your frosted cupcake, not the sugar in your sugar snap peas—then you may need to cut back.”

Therefore, before we grab our torches and pitchforks and march toward Sugar’s house, let’s take a step back and think about the long-term implications of our well-intended actions. We would not want to steer the public towards an unhealthier eating pattern that, for example, includes more processed “sugar-free” foods with even more refined carbohydrates…

Micaela Young, CPT is a first year nutrition communication and behavior change student focusing in Agriculture, Food and Environment. She would trade you frosted cupcakes and breakfast cereal for chips and salsa any day.

Stop with the Clickbait, You So-Called Muckrakers

by Matthew Moore

Mother Jones has done it again. The news organization took an informative and well-researched nutrition-based article and buried its message with a sensationalist, clickbait-style social media post more effective at ruffling feathers than fostering dialogue. Last month, Kiera Butler examined the hype surrounding bone broth, and it was tweeted from the official Mother Jones account imploring people to “Stop drinking bone broth, you stupid yuppies.”

It’s no question that the claims made about bone broth are sketchy at best as The Sprout covered earlier this year. I was amused when I saw that Osteobroth was an exhibitor at this year’s Philadelphia Marathon (tip: broth is a vile post-marathon beverage). However, the Mother Jones tweet is more likely to make bone broth advocates defensive and agitated instead of curious about learning the facts behind it.

If you think the tweet sounds familiar, you’re not wrong. Last July, Tom Philpott’s critique of almond milk was published under the headline “Lay Off the Almond Milk, You Ignorant Hipsters.” While he later revealed that his editors came up with the headline, he admitted they did so with the intent of maximizing web traffic.

Not only did he agree to the headline, it succeeded. Readers rushed to defend almond milk, disassociate themselves from the “hipster” label, and rebuke the implication they were ignorant. Such inflammatory language overshadowed Philpott’s legitimate points.

The unfortunate part of all this is that Butler and Philpott are excellent writers, but these recent tweets and headlines distract from the facts about highly questionable food trends. The public relies on nutrition communicators to offer educational, constructive discourse on nutrition and the national food system. Mother Jones is failing both the public and its writers.

To be clear, Mother Jones is an extremely important journalistic presence. It was responsible for capturing Mitt Romney’s infamous “47%” video that impacted the 2012 presidential election. It offers a critical progressive voice in a field being overtaken by incendiary soundbites from the likes of CNN and Fox News. It prides itself on its muckraking journalism, so why is it giving into the trend of BuzzFeed-worthy headlines?

Potentially more concerning is this phenomenon creeping into more mainstream media outlets that reach more readers curious about nutrition. In her August “Unearthed” column, Tamar Haspel struck readers’ nerves with her piece “Why salad is so overrated” in which she claimed “it occupies precious crop acreage, requires fossil fuels to be shipped, refrigerated, around the world, and adds nothing but crunch to the plate.”

The headline is certainly provocative and elicited strong responses in both support and opposition from outlets including Salon, Slate, The Guardian, and Vice. Two days later, Philpott chimed in with an article headlined “Salad Seems Really Virtuous, Right? It’s Not.” and further stoked the flames. Unfortunately the resulting “salad war” did not spawn much constructive dialogue about the food system.

According to The Washington Post, Haspel’s column is supposed “to cut through divisive food-policy debates and illuminate the facts and the middle ground.” Haspel usually tackles hot-button topics like GMOs, corn, and soda taxes, and typically distills the science and rhetoric on both sides into an objective, easy-to-understand format for her readers. She gave two excellent talks last year at Friedman: one in Tim Griffin’s Fundamentals of U.S. Agriculture class and another as part of the weekly seminar series.

However, a statement such as “skip the salad” in her August column does not come across as middle ground. Instead, it is a gross oversimplification and alarming argument to make in the midst of the oft-discussed obesity crisis. In fact, many common salad ingredients are listed on ChooseMyPlate.gov as vegetables that Americans should be eating every day. In essence, her declaration to “skip the salad” can be interpreted as being in conflict with recommendations based on the established Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Butler, Philpott, and Haspel are respected journalists covering topics related to nutrition and the food system. If possible, they should do more to prevent social media, headlines, or their own personal biases to distract from legitimate content. This is also something we strive for at The Sprout and would love to discuss further with readers about how we can continue to improve and contribute to the nutrition communication space.

Matt Moore is a second-year AFE student who is sad the CHIKARA finale won’t be available on iPPV this year. He was a Mother Jones subscriber until it didn’t fit his AmeriCorps or grad school budget.