Tuesday, August 30, 2011

What is ancestral health?

The vegetarian movement is gaining speed. Walking into the local Whole Foods Market this summer, I noticed a large banner hanging inside the entrance that recommended a “plant-based diet.” A New Yorker interview with co-CEO, John Mackey, suggests that the vegan at the head of the company would like to lead Whole Foods shoppers away from the meat counter. One of my food heroes, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who once killed a chicken on live television, has recently declared himself a mostly-vegetarian.

My own dietary practice is guided by a belief that people have always eaten meat. While I share a concern for animal welfare, I believe the ethical answer must include satisfaction of our animal needs. A fear of meat suits the industrial food complex, frankly: it’s cheaper for them, and has a higher profit margin, to sell you an overprocessed “burger” out of the freezer case than to make truly healthy meat—properly raised, humanely slaughtered, and untainted—available to everyone. The industry moves slowly, so while they’re turning their barge around, they have some cash crops to unload on the consuming public. I’m even cynical about the health news cycle. They all chant in chorus, from fad to fad: first fat was bad for us, then carbs, and now protein. Eventually, they’ll have to cycle back around again, or there will be nothing left to eat.

The plant-based approach has a challenger in the ancestral health movement. “Ancestral health” is an umbrella for practices that attempt to closely emulate the way people ate and moved a long time ago, with the aim of curing or preventing diseases of civilization. Although there are varying interpretations, the general assumption within the ancestral health movement is that for most of our history as a species, people ate a diet that met our nutritional needs quite well, and that diet has never come in a box or a can, had a nutrition facts label, been manufactured, or been entirely devoid of animal products. Where those in the ancestral health movement begin to disagree with one another is on the matter of how long it’s been since we ate the right diet for human health.

According to those who advocate the “Paleo diet,” our ideal diet is the one we evolved to eat, fifty thousand years ago. People who follow it vary in the strictness of their interpretation, generally deferring to Dr. Loren Cordain’s book (and blog), "The Paleo Diet," as the first and most orthodox guide. Internet discussion tends to concentrate on certain pet topics: what kind of exercise people regularly got in the Paleolithic, and whether some agricultural food or another is permissible on the diet, are common subjects. Paleo is popular with the CrossFit crowd. My other friends, the ones who shop at Walmart and BJ’s, and even the ones who shop at Whole Foods, have mainly never heard of the Paleo diet. I start by explaining the basics of the Paleo diet. You can eat meat, fruit, and vegetables (but no nightshades), and nuts. No dairy, grains, beans or lentils, on the assumption that before agriculture was invented, ten thousand years ago, no one ate dairy and wild grains were too small and sparse to be a significant food source.

After the Paleolithic era came the Neolithic, with its revolution of human innovation: farming was the first of these technologies, and its benefits gave us more leisure, food security, and hence, more people, to invent even more things, including ways to feed even more people.

Haven’t we managed to find any healthy ways to eat in the last ten thousand years? Dr. Weston A. Price was a dentist who traveled around the world, looking at people’s teeth. He found some commonalities among the many different indigenous people who still ate pre-industrial diets in the early twentieth century. They had terrific teeth, for starters. They also lacked certain malformations that we think of as perfectly normal today: narrow faces, overbites, crowded teeth, wisdom teeth that have no room in which to erupt. In some of these cultures people traditionally ate only dairy, or had very little meat, or ate a lot of seafood. All of the people in the cultures Dr. Price found ate animal products, some nearly exclusively. They all had cultured foods in their diets, and ate at least some of their foods raw (including raw animal products). Those who ate grains and legumes soaked, sprouted, and fermented these foods before eating them.

It would appear that, for at least some people who are gluten or lactose intolerant, some of the staples of agricultural diet are undigestible. Even greater numbers of people suffer ill health from eating sugar, factory-farmed meat and dairy, and refined flour. Both the Weston A. Price people and the Paleo people believe that industrial foods are bad for your health. They disagree on whether to accept the compromise we made ten thousand years ago.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Nutritionism: a fabrication of the Industrial Age

When Spaniards brought maize to the Old World, they failed to import the traditional wisdom for processing the corn to make the niacin bioavailable. Wherever corn consumption spread in Europe, a disease called pellagra became endemic. Hundreds of years later, when the cause of the condition was proven by Western science, instead of using the ancient method of nixtamalization to process corn meal, niacin was added.

The way nutrients were first discovered was through industrial food. White rice, flour, and sugar started off as luxury goods. They were “refined” in both senses of the word: undesirable matter was discarded, and the resulting product was smoother and more appealing. At first only the rich could afford them, but as demand grew for the refined foods, scale of production increased and prices dropped. When these industrial foods were produced on a large enough scale that everyone could afford them, they became so cheap that they became staples of the very poor. And that is when we started to see how poor these new foods really were, because people who lived on them developed diseases of malnutrition.

Diseases of malnutrition don't always have very obvious signs, so it took a while for scientists to piece together the clues. When people living on white rice developed a range of symptoms, including difficulty walking, sufferers called it “beriberi.” The condition was cured with thiamin, which is found in rice bran, but which is removed from white rice. White rice was adopted by industry because it stores for longer periods than brown rice, so instead of switching people back to brown rice, with its shorter shelf life and lower profit margin (corporations make money by "adding value," i.e. processing, to raw ingredients), they solved the problem more cheaply and profitably ("Now with thiamin!") by fortifying white rice with thiamin.

And so it went, learning from one mistake after another, and then finally through concentrated study, what parts make up food, their functions in the body, what in food can be dangerous, and how much and what kinds are needed for health. "Nutritionism" is the belief that our need for food can be deconstructed into a finite number of irreducible and replicable substances called “nutrients,” which may be assembled in any order convenient for manufacture. For many years now, ready-to-eat breakfast cereals have been supplemented with vitamins and minerals, justified by the tenets of nutritionism. The additives in Captain Crunch are typical: niacinamide, reduced iron, zinc oxide, thiamin mononitrate, pyridoxine hydrochloride, riboflavin and folic acid. Many are in forms chemically distinct from the forms found in food, and in some cases, we even know that the body doesn’t use the synthetic, supplementary nutrient in the same way as when these nutrients are found in our food.

Under nutritionism, any compound in a food can be isolated, separated, and either concentrated as a nutrient (i.e. soy protein isolate) or discarded as undesirable (i.e. fat-free milk). Which nutrients we value, and which we abhor, change like trends in politics and skirt lengths. Fiber wasn't valued by those who refined rice, considering it an inefficiency in getting enough energy in one's diet, but today it's added to foods as a supplement. In the 1980s, everyone feared fat and dieters ate big plates of pasta and baked potatoes. Since then, the tide has completely turned on carbohydrates, while we retain fear of both fat and calories. It creates anxiety around food to be afraid of most macronutrients, a fear that industry nurtures and is glad to assuage with their highly processed offerings.

The ultimate faith act in nutritionism is to attempt to live on nothing but industrial meal replacement. But to do so would be folly: the evidence suggests that industrial food is causing a whole new set of diseases today, from diabetes to cancer. The pace of change in our diets has grown exponentially: so quickly that we can’t even reliably look to our oldest living relatives for a model of a sustainable diet. Nutritionism sells peace of mind, with their certainty that science has just unlocked the nutrient you need to add to your shopping cart.

We won’t find the answers to our health care crisis in the industrial model, because the machines of capitalism don't back up: they can only plow forward, doing what machines do, which is make more products to sell. Just as industry's answer to beriberi is fortified, sugar-sweetened, chemically preserved grain flour, they have an answer equally appetizing and easy to manufacture for heart disease, breast cancer, or diabetes. They'll even sell you food for obesity. As Michael Pollan points out in his famous essay, “Unhappy Meals,” the fact that an industrial food product has a label and makes health claims should make it suspect. It's a product first, not a food.

What we know about nutrition may be wrong, and is certainly incomplete. However, we know a great deal about food.

So: Eat food.
The rest is commentary.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

You can't manufacture food security

This has been a good time to talk shit about the food industry. In California recently, raw milk sellers were arrested: it reminded me of when the medical marijuana dispensaries there were raided by the feds, as a battleground in the war of states’ rights. At the same time that fresh milk and dried herbs were being seized and destroyed, food-manufacturing giant Cargill was regularly selling meat that the USDA knew contained salmonella. No one died or even allegedly got sick from drinking raw milk from the California suppliers, but as one blogger astutely noted, if they had, it would have been easier to trace the bad milk back to its source. Cargill, on the other hand, is so big that they deal with other giant suppliers. Back in 2007, one of their beef suppliers sold them beef adulterated with E.coli strain 0157:H7. Right after the 2011 turkey recall, it was announced that Cargill is suing that supplier.

The USDA doesn’t consider salmonella a contaminant and only considers one strain of E. coli—the antibiotic resistant strain called 0157:H7—to be an “adulterant,” even though any strain of E. coli in your food can make you wicked sick. The difference in the worrying strain with all the extra numbers is that we don’t have a good treatment for this new strain, yet. This is the danger of the arms race against bugs: we come up with a spray or a pill that kills a bug that plagues us. We start using it all over everything, like people washing their hands with antibiotic goo that they keep in their handbags and on wall dispensers. Since there’s no where else for the germs to go—some of them need us as hosts, or to breed—the bugs evolve to resist our efforts. The game has just stepped up a notch. We see it as the problem of resistance against common sprays like Roundup, and germs that sicken humans and livestock, like E. coli and salmonella.

We can’t actually sterilize the planet against bugs we don’t like. I have the normal revulsion against icky things, including bugs, that lots of my peers do, with what we consider the privileges that protected us against a certain amount of suffering: we drank and bathed in clean water, and if we picked up parasites, our parents had us quickly deloused, dewormed, or otherwise dosed. The world is and contains within it robust, complicated systems that include these bugs. It’s part of the big plan of life that we will get diseases and sometimes die of them. It’s why I say it’s good that we want to reduce suffering, but we can’t imagine that there will be a world without disease or death. Our lives depend on the deaths of others, and even on our own deaths, and on the lives of those that depend on our deaths. Not just bacteria need us dead: our children need us to clear out to make room for them and our descendants.

I think my society’s attitudes toward life and death are at the root of our unhealthy food systems. It’s why we have no problem seeing everything we do as progress, and that more of the same will solve the problems that remain in the world. It doesn’t see our resources and how we prioritize them, or conceive of our problems and set about solving them, as being directed by any values. The only thing we seem to value is money, because it’s the one thing we consistently measure, and we translate every other cost—health care, environmental cleanup—into dollars in order to compare them.

I think people are very uncomfortable with choosing answers outside the mainstream. Usually, it’s a winning strategy to go with the herd. But sometimes the herd is wrong: sometimes the leaders have other agendas and priorities. Local councils representing the interests of a group of food producers are made up of people: they have families who eat their products, too. But the business interests of a farmer are much like yours: money’s tight, and you want a sure thing if you can get it. You don’t take risks you don’t understand. You grow what you have a buyer for. And so your interests become aligned with your employer, or with whoever’s buying your product and therefore calls the shots. A farmer who wants to be big and successful will embrace the model that the infrastructure already supports: cash crops, grown by conventional methods because that’s what the big buyers buy and what the loan officers at the bank want to hear, too. It makes cash sense to do this, and it makes the same kind of sense on up the line.

Put yourself in the mindset of the CEO of a corporation, beholden to make his stockholders money every quarter. The USDA thinks that it’s taking care of eaters because it’s taking care of farmers, because the farmers are convinced that their needs are as capitalists, and not as people who eat food. What’s for sale has nothing at all to do with what’s good to eat. It has to do with supply chains and the security of huge scale and inertia.

But you, cooking for you and your family and friends, do not make food decisions like Cargill. You can change how you eat today. Can you imagine how long it would take for all of those supply chains to change? We see how it changes when something ripples down from Washington DC. It can happen from a more local change, as when California or Massachusetts or New York leads the way by creating some local law: no saturated fats, or San Francisco causing the Happy Meal to sprout half a conventional apple. McDonald’s wants to be the same everywhere it goes, so even if you’re in Dubuque, you’ll get half an apple, too. Whole Foods Market is a national chain, and if you go in there looking for local flavor you’re going to be disappointed. You can start shopping at your farmer’s market, or the co-op, or an independent grocer. Making this change will have rippling effects on your life, too. You’ll cook more. You’ll learn about foods you hadn’t considered eating before, and ways to buy it you didn’t imagine, either. You can learn how to find your own, personal food security.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

What is sustainability?

It sounds so simple, and the good news is, it is. Like art, sustainability resists definition and yet, to the person who knows and cares about it, given an unobstructed view, it’s obvious what is, and what isn’t. In other words, “I don’t know sustainability, but I know it when I see it” may represent our best effort to define and control sustainability.

That’s not just me: that’s the experts. Frederick Kaufman, at a TEDx conference in Manhattan on food, is a consultant to those who would commodify sustainability, and he says that when industry tries to measure sustainability, all they’re really tracking are costs. Those sustainability measures on fish at Whole Foods Market, or on bottles of detergent, are a marketing tool. Like the “nutrition facts” label, “sustainability” labels are the facts that food industry have agreed to present on their labels.

Even our recent hypervigilance about common food allergens is brought to you by the same government that does not require disclosure of GMO products. The government is not looking out for you, or for starving people halfway around the world. At best, they’re trying to reduce health care costs. If we had single-payer health care, our government would finally be incentivized to fix the systems that feed most people in America.

A recent effect of the lobbying efforts of food manufacturers and retailers, is the promotion of some of the most odious chains as saviors in the food desert. It’s popular to all pile on to Walmart, which deserves every kick to the groin and kidneys it gets, but let’s not overlook the other chains the Obamas are praising. I don’t think there’s food for me in a Walmart, or a Walgreens, and they don’t think there’s food for me at the local, independent grocer. Walgreens is a pharmacy, not a grocery store, and Walmart is a discount department store. Their expansion into food does not in any way reflect connections to foodways that I value. Its “foodways” are traveled by 18-wheelers, and come from manufacturers, not farms.

The other industrial food megolith the mainstream health press wanted us all to cheer along with was McDonald’s, for it’s inclusion of apples in Happy Meals. To say I’m cynical about McDonald’s is putting things mildly. It’s becoming more well known that apples are one of the very highest sources of pesticide and other toxic substances in our conventionally grown fresh produce, so taking all things into consideration, the health claims of apple slices over French fries are slim. Obviously, McDonald’s has been working hard to reform its image, but its food remains industrial. The company has tremendous buying power, and can command any change in their chain they want. If it was a good business move for them, McDonald’s would start selling us grass-fed beef. But they don’t sell premium, and expectations have been set by the marketplace for conventionally raised, grain-fed beef. McDonald’s sells the minimum that people who eat drive-thru will accept.

I don’t agree that conventionally produced food is good enough for anyone to accept on a regular basis. Some foods have less poison in them than others, but it all grows from depleted soil. The USDA can tell you that all apples, or all potatoes, are essentially alike, but they don’t keep statistics on organically grown produce. Why not? Because then people would clamor for them? It suits large industry to keep people responding just as slowly as they do to new health concerns in society.

The small farms and stores that were driven out by big business, and which are not even marked on food maps because they are small, are flexible and highly responsive. I can walk into the stores (or up to the folding tables in the farmer’s market) where I regularly shop, and talk directly to someone who can make the changes I suggest, and answer my questions. Wouldn’t you rather have a relationship like that with the person who sells you your food, than to have no idea where it comes from and, when you have feedback, have to deal with someone with no power, working in the lowest rung of a corporate hierarchy? Walmarts in every town, and the destruction that has caused to small towns, is what America has bought for our narrow, short-term focus on “everyday low savings.” We didn't value the small business as much as saving a few dollars each week. Few tried to calculate the real cost of doing business that way.

Kaufman says that when industry measures sustainability, it is actually measuring inputs and outputs that can all be described by their costs in money. He says that whoever can answer the question of how to measure sustainability will be answering an important one. So this is how we fix the problem. You make all dollars sustainable dollars by making it so industry has to follow rules—laws that government makes to protect the environment and people—so that they are sustainable. So they don’t abuse workers or animals, or pollute. That’s how we do things in a democracy: you don’t leave it up to industry to decide to do the right thing, any more than you leave it to plantation owners to abandon the practice of slavery. If something is wrong, it’s wrong even before it becomes untenable. Haven’t you heard that corporations are sociopathic? Did you know that if you act like a corporation and aren’t already a sociopath, it’ll just make you unhappy?

If you believe in fundamental consumerism, everything is truly worth what it costs. Similar belief systems allow people to accept “nutritionism,” the belief that a multivitamin truly contains all they need to stay healthy, or that following government dietary guidelines will offer protection against disease.

Government agencies say that GMOs pose no danger. Experts say that we can’t prove a threat. Why is it so easy for me to identify the threats of GMOs, if there are none that are provable? Are they even studying the right things? The arguments of GMO apologists are that its a utopian fantasy that we can feed the growing world population without using genetically modified organisms. The so-called utopians want scalable solutions; the futurists see only top-down solutions. But top-down thinking is what allows us to clear cut forests, strip mine mountaintops, build nuclear power plants and fertilizer manufacturing facilities. The Dot Earth piece is saying that since big governments see no harm, there isn’t any, and anyone who says so is alarmist.

This is bullshit. First of all, the reason people starve has nothing to do with the fact that there’s no fancy, delicate GMO rice rich in beta carotene, with a “suicide gene” that prevents saving seeds to sow the next year.
"Unless I'm missing something," wrote Michael Pollan in The New York Times Magazine, "the aim of this audacious new advertising campaign is to impale people like me—well-off first-worlders dubious about genetically engineered food—on the horns of a moral dilemma... If we don't get over our queasiness about eating genetically modified food, kids in the third world will go blind. [Source: HuffPost]

If we’re actually concerned about human suffering, the answer is the same as it has always been: value feeding people over money. There's enough food now, and people go hungry because they can't buy food, not because it doesn't exist. The whole point of civilization is to work collectively to help the whole world, not to enrich a few people who manage to turn the workings of the world into a series of gambles. Monsanto has spent more money trying to convince us to let them go about their business, making money, than it has actually feeding anyone. The root cause of hunger and malnutrition, now and always, is greed.
Conventional farming is not sustainable. GMOs, which require their patent holders and technology to reproduce, are even less sustainable, and will contribute to hunger, not eradicate it. Anyone who cares about food, or people, or suffering, can see that. What do we want to sustain: business interests or the interests of people?