“Most Importantly: They Need to Taste F%#@ing Good”

by Sam Jones

Okja is a Netflix original film that was released in June 2017 and directed by Bon Joon Ho. While some may characterize it as a dystopian sci-fi film, others recognize it as a commentary on our modern industrial food complex. Warning: spoiler alert.

Screen capture from Okja official trailer, available on Netflix.

Screen capture from Okja official trailer, available on Netflix.

The film begins in 2007 in New York City where Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) has recently taken over her father’s controversial agro-chemical company and turned it into a multi-national corporation that produces “natural, eco-friendly, and non-GMO” pork. She begins by presenting a few basic statistics to investors and reporters: the world’s population will surpass 9 billion by 2050 yet there are still millions of people going hungry around the world today. Lucy Mirando’s solution to global hunger and the growing population is to produce more food in the form of “super-pigs.”

Okja is the star super-pig of this story, but she does not much resemble the pigs we are used to. She is abnormally gargantuan and something of a mix between a dog, an elephant, and a rabbit. Her odd appearance seems to instill the sense that there is something fundamentally unnatural about her, however cute she may be. Ten years after the film’s opening scene in New York, the film brings us to the mountains of South Korea. A girl named Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) has been raising Okja for those ten years as more of a pet and a friend than as the property of an agro-chemical company. After a brief glimpse into the day-to-day adventures of Okja and Mija, the viewer is reminded that Okja’s fate will not be as rosy as her upbringing. The arrival of “the face of the Mirando Corporation,” Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal)—a wheezing, flamboyant, animal-loving, washed-up celebrity—signals the beginning of the end for Okja. She has been chosen by the Mirando Corporation as the Number One Super Pig (enormous, beautiful, and healthy) which means she must be transported back to New York City for the Super Pig Project’s inaugural celebration. The film now follows Mija, tricked into letting Johnny Wilcox take her beloved friend away, as she ventures to the United States to liberate Okja and bring her home.

While the Mirando Corporation claims that Okja and several other super-piglets were discovered on a farm in Chile, the truth is not so noble. In reality, Okja and other super-pigs like her are the result of genetic modification and breeding experiments conducted in a New Jersey lab. Sending the best-looking super-piglets to be raised by small farmers around the world turns out to be just a clever marketing scheme and cover-up. The Mirando Corporation knows that genetically modifying animals is dangerous and controversial, which is why they are being marketed as farm-raised, all-natural, GMO-free pigs.

While the film does not explicitly spell it out, it creates astoundingly familiar parallels to the reality of our current meat industry. Chickens, for example, have been bred to grow faster and larger than is biologically natural. Whereas a chicken being raised for meat forty years ago would be 4 pounds at 10 weeks old, today’s chickens reach a 5-pound market weight in half that time. It is an efficient and cost-effective method for bringing cheap, uniform food to consumers’ plates. It is arguably, however, unnatural, inhumane, and lacking in transparency.

Just as the super-pigs in Okja are genetically engineered to be abnormally large, so are today’s meat chickens (commonly called broilers). And just as the Mirando Corporation falsely markets its super-pigs as non-GMO, eco-friendly, and all-natural, the chicken industry now has labels for cage-free, free-range, antibiotic-free, and all-natural that rarely meet those standards as consumers expect. For example, cage-free hens are now able to spread their wings and move around, but studies have shown that they are not necessarily any healthier. Cage-free hens are more exposed to disease and higher ammonia levels and exhibit more aggressive behavior toward other hens. Such conditions are also more hazardous and arduous for workers who have shown greater incidence of respiratory problems. Free-range is also a misleading label. Chickens certified as free-range merely need access to the outdoors, the quality, time exposure, and size of which is not defined. A free-range chicken could therefore still spend its entire life in a warehouse, with perhaps the occasional chance to step outside onto a 10 by 10 slab of fenced-in concrete. In our current food industry, as in Okja, labels and marketing can be misleading and undermine consumer choice to the extent that what you think you are buying may be far from the truth, if not the inverse.

While Okja may seem like a strange sci-fi adventure movie, the underlying premise of animals bred for captivity, slaughter, and mass consumption is an emotional commentary on the food system we have created. But more than that, Okja is at its heart a film about humaneness. It finally asks us the impertinent questions that other films and books have until now failed to convincingly answer: Why are we treating animals this way? How have we become so blind to the irony of simultaneously loving and eating animals? Are we already living in a dystopian reality?

Nearing the film’s conclusion, one line stood out as the most disheartening of all. When the truth comes out about the Super Pig Project, and Lucy Mirando is exposed to the world, her advisors wonder whether customers will knowingly buy the meat their company has spent a decade producing. To quell all concerns, Lucy’s sister Nancy (also played by Tilda Swinton) responds: “If it’s cheap, they’ll eat it.”

And that is the saddest truth about the industrial food complex. If food is cheap, people will continue to eat it. And this pattern should not be viewed as a fault of the frugal consumer. Our system has been designed to provide the illusion of choice while in reality providing only one choice: the cheap choice. Any number of documentaries can be made or investigative books written on the inside truth of slaughterhouses and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). But the cost of producing that meat has yet to appear on the price tag of the finished product. And until it does—until the suffering, wastefulness, pollution, and myriad other negative externalities are included in the cost of buying it—people will continue eating it. That is what the super-pigs in Okja and the animals currently raised in CAFOs around the world amount to: a slab of meat in a plastic package for you and me to snack on, whether to satisfy a craving or distract us from boredom.

While producing super pigs to solve world hunger was the initial premise of the Mirando Corporation’s intention, it is not addressed at any other point in the film. In reality, meat is likely not feeding the hungriest people. If the goal of producing more, cheaper, faster-growing meat was to end world hunger, the model would fail even if the super pigs weren’t genetically modified, raised in confinement, and slaughtered on an assembly line. Meat is in truth a mere indulgence that is neither nutritionally necessary nor environmentally or economically sustainable. But it is cheap, so we will keep eating it despite these external costs. And the slaughter will continue because at the end of the day, as Nancy Mirando tells us in the film, meat is a commodity produced by an industry run by “hardworking business people who do deals. And these are the deals [they] do.”

Sam Jones is a first-year AFE student with an interest in sustainable agricultural development. She considers herself a “situational vegetarian” and claims to have a larger dessert stomach than the average human being. She is looking forward to knitting, reading, watching movies, baking, and snowshoeing over winter break.

Bringing Everyone to the Table: Accommodating Special Diets During the Holidays

by Kathleen Nay

Thanksgiving is over and the leftovers are dwindling, but there is more holiday eating and meal prep on the horizon. As food and nutrition professionals, we understand that emotions can run high when it comes to sharing meals, traditions, and dietary restrictions with a crowd. So what can a holiday meal that balances a variety of special diets look like?

In my family, every shared meal requires some logistical acrobatics. We have vegetarians, vegans, people with nut allergies, and people with Celiac disease. Some of the dietary restrictions are self-imposed—my husband and I choose not to consume meat, and he prefers to extend that choice to eliminating all animal products, including eggs and dairy. (Me? Well… I enjoy cheese and sour cream, and the occasional fried egg.) But the dietary restrictions of others in our family are not by choice. My brother has a severe tree nut allergy; my mother in law has Celiac disease and must be careful to avoid even a crumb of gluten. Most in our extended families also abstain from alcohol. Needless to say, communal meals can be a challenge.

This year our guests included some friends from undergrad, one friend's dad and cousin, and my husband's parents. We tried to make our meal both vegan-friendly and gluten-free where possible. Photo: Kathleen Nay

This year our guests included some friends from undergrad, one friend’s dad and cousin, and my husband’s parents. We tried to make our meal both vegan-friendly and gluten-free where possible. Photo: Kathleen Nay

Last November, the New York Times published an article about the ways in which special diets can heighten tensions at the holidays. The article focuses its attention on teenagers and children who use dietary restrictions to exert their budding independence. While I think it misses its mark in this regard—there are plenty of adults, young and old, who have legitimate reasons for their specific dietary needs—this doesn’t change the fact that tensions often run hot around holiday food traditions, regardless of the reasoning.

Though the article itself was published over a year ago, the comments section is still active—and telling. There is much hand-wringing, with recent comments ranging from, “Why make Grandma cry? Eat it and say thank you!” to “Welcoming people into your home involves actually being welcoming. When I invite people over I always ask about food restrictions…” to “Sounds awfully complicated to be required to chart everyone’s restrictions.”

So how do you plan a holiday meal that is inclusive of every eater’s needs? In our household, we’ve figured out a few strategies that work for us and our loved ones.

Be up front about your needs, and ask guests if they have special diets.
When sending out invitations for the holiday gatherings, we tell guests up front that we’re a vegan/vegetarian household. Giving people forewarning about the foods you personally cannot eat gives them a chance to plan accordingly, and saves you both from embarrassment at the dinner table. Likewise, as you plan your meal, ask your guests for advice about any foods they avoid and alternatives they prefer. This will give them some assurance that there will be something they can eat.

Barring any severe allergies, invite guests to bring what they like (even if you might not eat it yourself).
Although we’re vegetarian, turkey has been served at our table! A benefit of hosting potluck-style meals is that everyone gets to bring at least one dish they know they’ll be able to eat. When we’ve hosted holiday meals in the past, we usually make most of the dishes, but include a list of suggested sides that people might bring to complement the meal. At Thanksgivings past, I’ve always told guests that they should feel free to bring a turkey if they’d like to have it (because I know that most people are thinking, what’s Thanksgiving without turkey?) One year, a friend felt up to the challenge of roasting his own bird, so he brought it to share with our other omnivore guests. (Our cat was also very happy to have real meat scraps thrown her way.) Not only does this make guests feel more welcome in our home, it also gives people the space to cook what they’d like.

Emma wonders hopefully whether anyone brought turkey this year. Sadly, no one did. Photo: Anna van Ornam

Emma wonders hopefully whether anyone brought turkey this year. Sadly, no one did. Photo: Anna van Ornam

Make sure to include at least a few dishes that everyone can eat (and be clear about which dishes have hidden ingredients someone may wish to avoid).
Remember that not everyone will necessarily eat everything—and that’s okay. At our recent holiday gathering, everything was vegetarian, but not everything was vegan or gluten free. There were “meatballs” made from quinoa and black beans—gluten-free, but not vegan. However, we also had Portobello mushroom patties on our table—both vegan and gluten-free! If there are dishes that are not made from scratch, be sure to read labels for hidden ingredients.

A sampling of what was on our table this year. Photo: Kathleen Nay

A sampling of what was on our Thanksgiving table this year. Photo: Kathleen Nay

If you can use a substitute, do.
Not every recipe lends itself to being easily converted to a nut, gluten, or dairy-free dish. But try to make simple swaps. Toss veggies in olive oil instead of butter to go dairy-free. Use vegetable stock instead of chicken or beef stock to make a dish vegetarian. Consider using a plant-based milk like nut, seed or soy instead of cow’s milk. Use gluten-free cornstarch to thicken the gravy. Try crushed ginger snaps to make a gluten-free crust for your pumpkin pie.

Leave the toppings on the side.
We have a recipe for lemon green beans that we absolutely love. The toasted pistachios sprinkled on top gives them just the right nutty flavor and crunch. But when my nut-allergic brother visits? Leaving the pistachios in a dish on the side is an easy fix.

Don’t question what is or isn’t on a guest or family member’s plate.
Whatever people chose to eat or not eat while at your house—just don’t worry about it, and don’t be offended! A friend of mine in recovery from anorexia recently reminded folks on her Facebook page to be sensitive to friends and family who suffer from eating disorders, which might not be outwardly obvious. She advised that comments about weight, talk about having to diet or exercise to work off your holiday meal(s), and general comments about not “needing” to have seconds or dessert can be triggering for folks with eating disorders. What a person decides to put on or leave off their plate is their choice. If a guest isn’t into a particular dish you’ve made, just remember that whatever their reason, it probably isn’t about you.

I'm thankful for friends who let us try out sometimes-unusual recipes on them! Photo: Kathleen Nay

I’m thankful for friends who let us try out sometimes-unusual recipes on them! Photo: Kathleen Nay

Finally, share your recipes!
We’ve hosted lots of friends and family at our place over the years. Most of our friends don’t typically eat strict vegan diets, but thankfully all of them have been willing to try our sometimes-weird recipes. (Not a holiday food, but jackfruit carnitas, anyone?) Sometimes they’ll even ask how we make a particular dish. I believe that good food is meant to be shared, and I’m always happy to do so if it means making future meals together a little more inclusive.

Kathleen Nay is a third-year AFE/UEP dual degree student who’s been vegetarian for nearly eight years (though she admits to the occasional sneaky turkey sandwich). Her cat Emma, seeing her humans eat only vegetables, thinks human food is utterly bland and will stick to her kibble, thank-you-very-much.

It’s Time We Rethink Food Rescue

by Eliot Martin

“Food rescue” seems to be a hot topic these days. Picking up wasted food from supermarkets and delivering it to low income communities has been extolled as a way to reduce waste and provide nourishment to those in need. This editorial explores why a more nuanced approach to food recovery is warranted to achieve the outcomes we want.

Palettes full of donated bakery items in the Des Moines Area Religious Council (DMARC) warehouse

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the aisles upon aisles of processed foods in a typical American supermarket. Go to one end of the store and you’ll likely find a bounty of produce, and on the other, a cornucopia of baked goods. The store is packed well beyond what can be sold in a timeframe that meets brand quality standards.

An abundant supply of whatever the consumer may want or need is now not only expected, but a marketing necessity in supermarkets. This culture of abundance is wasteful.

What happens to all the food that isn’t purchased within its shelf life? Who is paying for all the waste?

The simple answer to these questions is that, in many cases, the food is simply discarded. We all share the same burden of this waste, in the form of higher food costs passed onto consumers and in the form of greater ecological footprints tied to the food we consume—or in this case, the food we don’t consume. According to USDA estimates, 10% of the entire US food supply, or about $54 billion is wasted at the retail level alone.

In recent years, food justice and environmental advocates have shed new light on the waste accumulated by our industrialized food system, and have raised awareness about the potential nutritional value of the food being discarded. This has led to the proliferation of so-called “food rescue” efforts, to claim what would-be food waste as donations to address food security. We must stop to think, however, about whether these well-meaning initiatives to recover and redistribute discarded food really hit the mark.

This past summer, I had the opportunity to work with the Des Moines Area Religious Council (DMARC) Food Pantry Network in Des Moines, Iowa. The non-profit organization does tremendous work to ensure residents of the Des Moines area are food secure. They deliver thousands of pounds of produce and other food items, with nutrition conscious intentions, to hundreds of families every week—all with just a handful of employees. Part of the food distributed is picked up or dropped off from local supermarkets with which DMARC has partnered. However, to avoid deterring donations and help eliminate food waste, the organization has adopted a policy of accepting all food donations and distributes food free of cost to those who opt to receive it. Similar policies are espoused by organizations from Feeding America to community level activist groups.

At first glance, it may seem like a win-win. But with a closer look, the policy warrants a much more critical evaluation. Although hundreds of pounds of nutritious produce are picked up from retailers and delivered to pantries weekly, the vast majority of food items recovered and distributed are highly processed junk foods, and sugar and fat laden baked goods.

When considering the countless man-hours and hundreds of food miles that go into even small-scale food recovery, the policy begins to sound less efficient. Another question is raised: Where is all this processed food is going?

Research from Iowa State University suggests that the population served by DMARC food pantries has a much higher prevalence of diabetes and heart disease than the general population. Research across the U.S. suggests that for most demographics, obesity rates are at least as high among individuals of lower socioeconomic status. The nutritional challenges facing food pantry beneficiaries are less about having enough calories, but having the right nutrients. DMARC’s work making it easier for low income families to have access to unhealthful foods by refusing to turn down those donations, in effect, may contribute to a public health epidemic of chronic disease morbidity.

It has been argued by food rescue proponents that policies to accept and distribute all food waste promotes choice among low income consumers, that beneficiaries are able to have more of the food they want and need at a lower cost. Taking insight from the field of behavioral economics, we must consider that circumstance influences the food decisions we make. By the same principles that food companies use in marketing, merely making junk food more accessible is likely to cause greater consumption than would otherwise be desired. Furthermore, any food provided by food pantries is likely to empower consumer choice because it effectively increases disposable income.

Maybe the real question we should be asking is: what is the true cost of all those shelves full of impeccable looking food? Perhaps we can decide instead that the more just, economical, and sustainable option is to rethink the amount of waste created in the first place. Solutions to food waste must be economical and incorporate nutritional needs to be sustainable. We should first find ways to reduce the presence of saturated fat, sugar, and salt laden foods on grocery store shelves. Perhaps “junk” food and foods with low nutritional density should remain junk when pulled from shelves. Instead of dumping these surplus products on food pantries to serve to at-risk populations, resources could better be used elsewhere. Perhaps these efforts could go into developing markets for wasted produce or towards behavior change interventions that increase consumption of nutrient dense foods and reduce risk of further burdens on public health.

The Des Moines Area Religious Council’s (DMARC) Summer Free Produce Stand—Des Moines, Iowa

 

Eliot Martin is an MS candidate in the Food Policy and Applied Nutrition program at the Tufts University Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. He is passionate about exploring the intersection between behavioral decision making and its policy implications globally. Even outside of his work and studies, he finds that much of his life revolves around food and travel. Eliot can be contacted at eliot.martin@tufts.edu or on LinkedIn at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/eliot-martin-food-behavior/

Nutrition in a Nutshell: Lessons Learned as a Dietetic Intern

by Katelyn Castro

I was one of those few teenagers who knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up. Now, after four years of college and two years of graduate school combined with a dietetic internship, a career as a registered dietitian is not far out of reach. While my passion for nutrition has never dwindled over these last six years, my approach nutrition has changed significantly.

Nutrition tips on the sidebar of Self magazine, an over-simplified nutrition lesson in a health class in middle school, and a quick nutrition lecture from my pediatrician, summed up my understanding of nutrition before entering college. Now­—six years of coursework and 2000+ hours of dietetic rotations later—I not only know the nitty-gritty details of nutrition science, but I also have learned some larger truths about nutrition that are not always talked about.

Beyond what you may read as you thumb through your social media feed, or even what you may learn from an introductory nutrition textbook, here are some of the lessons that I have acquired about nutrition along the way:

1- Nutrition is an evolving science.

First, let’s be clear that nutrition is a science that relies on concepts from biology, chemistry, anatomy, physiology, and epidemiology to study how nutrients impact health and disease outcomes. Understanding how diabetes alters carbohydrate metabolism allows people with diabetes to live without fear of dying from diabetic ketoacidosis or seizures due to unsafe blood glucose levels. Understanding how ulcerative colitis impacts mineral absorption and increases protein losses helps those with the condition manage nutrient deficiencies with adequate nutrition supplementation. These are only a few examples of the many ways our knowledge of nutrition science makes it possible to improve individuals’ health outcomes.

However, the more I learn about nutrition, the more I realize that the research still holds many unanswered questions. For example, previous nutrition guidelines, like when to introduce hypoallergenic food to children, are being disproven and questioned by more recent studies. On the other hand, research on the gut microbiota is just beginning to uncover how one’s diet interacts with their gut microbiota through hormonal and neural signaling. Staying up-to-date on the latest research and analyzing study results with a critical eye has been crucial as new scientific discoveries challenge our understanding of nutrition and physiology.

Who would have thought a career in nutrition would require so much detective work?

 2- Food is medicine, but it can’t cure everything.

The fact that half of the leading causes of death in the U.S. can be influenced by diet and physical activity highlights the importance of nutrition for long-term health. Using medical nutrition therapy for patients with variety of health problems, ranging from cancer and cardiovascular disease to cystic fibrosis and end-stage renal disease, has also allowed me to see nutrition powerfully impact the management and treatment of many health conditions. High cholesterol? Avoid trans fat and limit saturated fat in foods. Type 2 diabetes? Adjust the timing and type of carbohydrates eaten.

While making simple changes to eating habits can improve lab values and overall health, nutrition is often only one component of treatment accompanied by medication, surgery, therapy, sleep, and/or stress management. Interacting with patients of all ages and health problems, and working with health professionals from a range of disciplines has forced me to step out of my nutrition bubble and take a more comprehensive approach to patient care: Improving quality of life and overall health and wellbeing is always going to be more important than striving for a perfect nutrition plan.

3- Nutrition is political and nutrition messages can be misleading.

Back when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics was one of many health organizations sponsored by Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, I realized how much influence large food industries have on food advertising, marketing, and lobbying. With known health consequences of drinking too many sugary beverages, the concept of health organizations being sponsored by soda companies was perplexing to me. Learning more about the black box process of developing the government dietary guidelines has also made me more cognizant of government-related conflicts of interest with industries that can color the way nutrition recommendations are presented to the public.

Industry-funded nutrition research raises another issue with nutrition messaging. For example, only recently a study revealed that the sugar industry’s funded research 50 years ago downplayed the risks of sugar, influencing the debate over the relative risks of sugar in the years following. Unfortunately, industry-sponsored nutrition research continues to bias study results, highlighting positive outcomes, leaving out negative ones, or simply using poor study designs.  While sponsorships from big companies can provide a generous source of funding for research, as both a nutrition professional and a consumer, I’ve learned to take a closer look at the motives and potential bias of any industry-funded nutrition information.           

4- Nutrition is not as glamorous as it sounds, but it’s always exciting.

When the media is flooded with nutrition tips for healthy skin, food for a healthy gut, or nutrients to boost mood, the topic of nutrition can seem light and fluffy. With new diets and “superfoods” taking the spotlight in health magazines and websites, it’s easy to think of nutrition as nothing more than a trend.

However, any nutrition student or dietitian will prove you otherwise. In the words of one of my preceptors, “my job [as a dietitian nutritionist] is not as glamorous and sexy as it sounds.” Throughout my dietetic rotations, my conversations with patients and clients have gone into much more depth than just aesthetics and trendy nutrition topics. If I’m working with a patient with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, bowel movements (a.k.a poop) may dominate the conversation. If I’m counseling someone who has been yo-yo dieting, I may be crushing their expectations of fad diets while encouraging more realistic, sustainable healthy goals. If I’m speaking with a group of teenagers with eating disorders, I may not talk about nutrition at all and focus more on challenging unhealthy thoughts and behaviors about food. It is these conversations, discussing what really matters when it comes to food, nutrition, and overall health that make a career in nutrition ever-changing and always exciting.

Katelyn Castro is a second-year student graduating this May from the DI/MS Nutrition program at the Friedman School. She hopes to take advantage of her experiences at Tufts to make positive impact on individuals’ health and wellbeing through community nutrition outreach. You can follow on her journey as she blogs on all things relating to food and nutrition at nutritionservedsimply.com.

 

 

Finding Common Ground for Nutrition in a World of Alternative Facts

by Rachel Baer

Rachel Baer tackles the implications of the “post-truth” culture for the nutrition profession and poses 3 questions to consider about our response to the unending barrage of nutrition-related “alternative facts.”

As a registered dietitian, I can tell you this: Nutrition professionals know a thing or two about alternative facts. We spend our careers with textbooks and scientific journals in hand, waiting for the next misinformed food fad to go viral. We fight to defend the facts because we have always believed that if we could show people what is true, we could convince them that we have the best answers for their nutrition-related questions. But the concept of truth is losing popularity.

The Oxford English Dictionary declared the term “post-truth” to be the 2016 word-of-the-year. Post-truth is defined as “related to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Let that sink in for a moment: emotional appeals are more influential than objective facts. While this concept is alarming on many levels, I am particularly concerned about its implications for health professionals who rely on scientific truths as the basis of their credibility.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand the frustration people feel as they watch seemingly contradictory nutrition headlines emerge at the very hint of new research findings. One day people are told to limit egg consumption to 3 yolks per week, the next, the one-yolk-per-day allowance is back. However, as nutrition professionals, we have a certain appreciation for the fact that science is ever-evolving. We hold our recommendations lightly because we believe in a scientific community that is always growing, and that new discoveries only sharpen our understanding of nutrition and physiology. The public, on the other hand, does not always share this appreciation.

Confusion over wavering nutrition claims is exacerbated by the inundation of un-credentialed, unschooled voices clamoring for attention in popular media. Social media has provided a proverbial soapbox for anyone with a passionate message to share, regardless of qualifications. Simultaneously, dietitians tend to hold back on making bold retorts, often waiting for consensus to catch up with the fads so that our recommendations are supported with the latest research. This seeming imbalance of voices alongside the emergence of the post-truth culture only perpetuates the proliferation of unfounded claims, or “alternative facts,” as they have become popularly known.

I have no easy answers for this predicament, but here are 3 questions that we could benefit from exploring as nutrition professionals:

1. How do we remain experts while also being compelling?

Dietitians have long been referred to as the “food police.” While I resent this reputation, it highlights a worthy question: Do nutrition professionals present information in a way that is relatable, realistic, and winsome to the people whose respect we want to gain?

We can no longer depend solely on the letters after our names to gain an audience with the public, particularly when we are pitted against wayward blog and media influencers using sensationalized language to win over vast groups of people who blindly follow their passionate advice. The internet is full of examples of people preferring to follow the advice of a persuasive friend or influencer over the advice of a knowing professional. While this situation is endlessly frustrating to those of us who see through their hyperbolic messages, is there anything we can learn from these blog/media personalities that may help us reach the audience they seem to have hooked? How do we successfully build rapport with the public while maintaining good science?

2. How do we talk about fundamentals in a world that wants controversy?

Let’s face it. Fundamentals don’t make great headlines. For decades, consensus research has revealed that a diet full of minimally-processed fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts/seeds, lean proteins, and healthy fats is unequivocally and unanimously the best diet for human health. Yet, people still search elsewhere looking for the latest and greatest weight-loss, risk-reducing, and health-enhancing diets. Could it be that balance is more challenging than we thought? Perhaps avoiding certain food groups or food ingredients altogether is easier than the amorphous concept of moderation? Our greatest challenge is not getting more people to consume health information, it is finding new and compelling ways to deliver the information we’ve known for decades, and this is no small task.

3. How do we overcome differences within the nutrition profession to present a united front to people lost in the sea of alternative facts?

In 2014, David Katz and Walter Willet co-chaired a conference sponsored by the non-profit Oldways*, titled “Finding Common Ground.” Oldways and the co-chairs assembled what they referred to as “the dream team of nutrition experts,” including Friedman’s own, Dariush Mozaffarian, as well as Dean Ornish, creator of the Ornish Diet; David Jenkins, founder of the glycemic index; Boyd Eaton, originator of the Paleolithic diet; Collin Campbell, author of The China Study; and a myriad of others. Known most commonly for their differences, this group of scientists gathered together for the sole purpose of coming to a consensus on the basic tenants of a healthy diet. In the end, the group agreed on 11 common denominators of the widely differing philosophies they espouse. The topics ranged from fruit and vegetable consumption, to sustainability, to food literacy.

Following the conference, David Katz published an article in Forbes where he said “…it is the controversies at the edge of what we know that interest experts most, but ask [experts] about the fundamentals, and the vast expanse of common ground is suddenly revealed.” The Common Ground committee’s decision to gather around a table, invite open dialogue, and pursue unity is something we could all learn a lesson from. Alternative facts will always provide fodder for hucksters and peddlers of over-simplified nutrition information, but the scientific community has a vast body of research that unites us. As nutrition professionals, we cannot forget that our voices will always be more powerful together than they ever will apart.

Rachel Baer is a registered dietitian and a first-year in the NICBC program at Friedman. Her favorite foods are Brussels sprouts and brownies, and she loves nothing more than cooking great meals and gathering people around a table.

*Editor’s Note, 5/1/17  2:09 PM: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled the name of the organization, “OldWays.” The correct spelling is Oldways, and the change has been made above.

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.