Marion Nestle has written a fascinating 611-page book, What to Eat. It focuses on helping us unravel the complicated information that we receive regarding our food choices. Especially within the last twenty years or so, due to the huge increase in the number of food products produced and available in most supermarkets, it is much more difficult to choose what is truly healthy and valuable food for you and/or your family. There are currently about 320,000 total food and beverage products of which each supermarket carries 30,000 to 40,000. You need to know an amazing lot of information about our food system and nutrition to make intelligent choices, but most of this information is far from obvious. It is not supposed to be obvious. Supermarkets have one primary goal and that is to make as much profit as possible. Unfortunately, the foods that sell best and bring in the most profit are not necessarily the most healthy and nutritious ones so here lies the conflict between health and business and the root of your problem making good food choices.
You need to know an amazing lot of information about our food system and nutrition to make intelligent choices, but most of this information is far from obvious. It is not supposed to be obvious. Supermarkets have one primary goal and that is to make as much profit as possible. Unfortunately, the foods that sell best and bring in the most profit are not necessarily the most healthy and nutritious ones . . .
In America and throughout the world today, people are finding it harder not to overeat. Just about everywhere food is sold is set up to make us eat more, not less. What industry benefits if you eat more healthy food? It's hard to think of any (except organic producers). What industry benefits from public confusion about nutrition and health? Here the list is very long and includes food, restaurant, fast-food, diet, health club, drug, and health care industries, among many others.
The pressure to eat more comes from normal business practice. The dark secret of American agriculture is that there is too much food available3,900 calories per day per personwhile the normal adult needs only half that much and children need much less. Another practice to increase consumption of food is the standard layout of most supermarkets. The essential dairy and meat sections are deliberately placed in back to encourage all consumers to pass through long aisles in the center of the store which contain many processed, high-profit, but unhealthy food items for likely pick-up.
The Meat Section
Americans are meat eaters and the amount of meat consumed in the US is growing every year. Annually, the US has 100 million cattle and slaughters 35 million of them each year. But beef is nothing compared to chicken. 8 billion chickens are slaughtered annually to produce 43 billion pounds of breasts, buffalo wings, and/or Chicken McNuggets. 96 million pigs are slaughtered, and a few million calves (for veal) and lambs.
We don't seem to object to fewer companies controlling and monopolizing our meat production and marketing. We allow Tyson foods to control one fourth of the entire US market for chicken, beef, and pork, and we don't object when only four meat processing firms slaughter 80 percent of all beef and 50 percent of the hogs.
Our choice whether or not to eat meat is cleverly influenced by the neat plastic-wrapped refrigerated meats in the grocery store which hide the crowded, hot and smelly feed lots, confinement barns, and slaughterhouses from which they come.
Our choice whether or not to eat meat is cleverly influenced by the neat plastic-wrapped refrigerated meats in the grocery store which hide the crowded, hot and smelly feed lots, confinement barns, and slaughterhouses from which they come. If consumers thought too much about what was involved in raising and producing their meat, they might not buy it.
The meat industry has been trying to increase US consumption of meat. It has been increasing, but the mixture of meat has been changing. We used to eat mainly pork, but beef beat pork in the 1950s, and chicken beat beef in the 1980s. Today the per capita amount of meat available for consumption in the US is about 102 pounds of chicken, 98 pounds of beef, 67 pounds of pork,17 pounds of turkey, and 2 or 3 pounds of lamb and veal.
Meat: Political Influences
Why meat might increase heart disease or cancer is largely a matter of conjecture. Scientists began to link red meat with cancer in the 1970s, but even after several decades of research, they cannot say whether the culprit is fat, saturated fat, protein, carcinogens caused from cooking the meat at high temperatures, or something else. By the late 1990s, the best experts could say was that red meat "probably" caused cancer. This is why the American Cancer Society advises that if you eat red meat, you can lower your cancer risk by selecting leaner cuts, eating smaller portions, or eating chicken, fish, or beans as a healthier alternative. However, the US government minimizes or obscures health concerns about eating meat for political reasons.
Politics enters into the governmental handling of meat safety issues. The government does not have in place a national system for tracking episodes of food poisoning. To fill this gap the consumer advocacy group Center for Science and the Public Interest (CSPI) does its best to track outbreaks caused by one food or another.
During the period from WWII to the early 1960s, Americans began eating a lot more meat, but their rate of heart attacks began to increase as well. Much of the heart attacks came from the higher cholesterol from animal fats. By 1961 the American Heart Association was advising doctors to tell their patients to eat much less saturated fat and its sources, meat prominently among them. However, the US government didn't say anything about meat and heart disease until 1977 when the Senate Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs (chaired by George McGovern, D. South Dakota) issued a report "Dietary Goals for the United States" in which it stated "reduce consumption of meat." This raised immediate and vehement objections from the beef industry. Since then, under pressure from beef industry lobby groups, the statement "eat less meat" has been changed to "choose lean meats" or the even more obscure "limit use of animal fats."
Politics enters into the governmental handling of meat safety issues. The government does not have in place a national system for tracking episodes of food poisoning. To fill this gap the consumer advocacy group Center for Science and the Public Interest (CSPI) does its best to track outbreaks caused by one food or another. Since 1990, CSPI has counted over 900 outbreaks affecting 30,000 or so people who had inadvertently eaten beef, pork, or poultry contaminated with dangerous bacteria.
Organic vs Natural Meat
Mad Cow Disease or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) is caused by an infectious agent, which is spread by consuming infected brain tissue from the same or other animal species. However, no known replication of BSE has occurred by feeding the purified, deformed prion protein at the concentrations, which would have initiated the epidemic. The past and current principle applied by the animal industry was grow them fast, fatten them fast, and sell them fast. The BSE epidemic has proved that the system was gravely flawed. There is a crying need for a new approach to animal husbandry-where the health of both humans and animals is given priority. With rising obesity and mental ill health creating alarms in the USA and across Europe, the high calorie, high fat product of beef, pig, sheep, and poultry is no longer an option. (See "Mad Cow Disease (BSE): Nutritional Susceptibility or Infectious Causes," NOHA NEWS, Spring 2004).
To reduce the risk of mad cow disease as close to zero as possible, organic meat offers the best choice. The rules for organic meat production forbid feeding animal by-products to other animals. They also forbid the use of antibiotics or hormones and require animals and birds to be raised under much more humane "natural" conditions than commercial feedlots.
Trying to find any meats in supermarkets which is labeled "organic" is very difficult. Many markets have a meat section that is labeled "natural." These "natural" meat sections often claim it is:
Supermarket meat managers with these "natural" sections already believed their meat was organic. To understand why Certified Organic meats are so scarce and why most meat managers believe their meat is organic, we have to examine some aspects of the USDA history.
Because the USDA is such a large, complex bureaucracy, it had two totally separate sections develop the certified organic standards for fruits and vegetables in one case, and for all meats on the other. These differences became apparent after Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. During the next twelve years (1990 to 2002) the USDA branch dealing with fruits and vegetables allowed producers who did not use pesticides or chemical fertilizers to market their products as organic. But the USDA branch dealing with meat and poultry, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), followed a very different course. This section of the USDA had a long and deep history of entrenchment with the industries it regulated. The FSIS listened very carefully to the industry lobbyists. Meat industry officials were afraid to label any meat as organic. They were afraid that all the other meats without the organic label would be viewed by potential customers as not safe or unhealthy. They convinced the FSIS (and therefore also the USDA) that no meat should get the "organic" label.
. . . the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), followed a very different course. This section of the USDA had a long and deep history of entrenchment with the industries it regulated. The FSIS listened very carefully to the industry lobbyists. Meat industry officials were afraid to label any meat as organic.
In 1999, realizing that organic standards were inevitably on the way, the USDA began to allow meat producers to use "organic" on their packages. However, by that time the producers of "natural" meats knew that their customers virtually equated "natural" to "organic."
The differences in both the means of production and the prices charged for organic meats explain why the difference between "natural" and organic matters. Organic meats may be less that one percent of all organic product sales, but they are increasing rapidly. Organic meat sales in 2003 totaled $75 million which was double the sales in 2002. Analysts expect the sales of organic meat and poultry to increase by 30 percent or more a year through 2008.
Comparison of Conventional, "Natural," and Organic Meats
|Animals can be fed only Certified Organic feed||No||No||Yes|
|Feed grains can be grown using chemical pesticides and fertilizers, can be genetically engineered, irradiated, or fertilized with sewage sludge||Yes||Yes||No|
|Animals can be treated with antibiotics or hormones||Yes||Yes*||No|
|Animals can be fed by products of other animals||Yes||Yes*||No|
|Animals may be routinely confined||Yes||Yes*||No|
|Animals must be treated in ways that reduce stress||No||No*||Yes|
|Animals must have access to outdoors, exercise areas, sunlight||No||No*||Yes|
|Cattle must have access to pasture (grass fed" or "grass finished")||No||No*||Yes|
|Farms must be inspected for compliance by a qualified person certified by a federal or state agency||No||No
(although some have their own inspectors)
* Unless otherwise stated on the product or in its advertising
The best evidence that Organic Standards really do mean somethingand are not easy to achievecomes from the unrelenting efforts to weaken them.
The "Grass-fed" alternative sounds bucolic, but you really don't know what it means because even the organic standards are ambiguousthey simply require the cattle to have access to the outdoors, sunlight, exercise, and pasture. The animals simply have to be allowed out (but do not have to be out, and can be fed corn and soybeans most of the time, so long as it is organic). When meat is advertised as "grass-fed," the labels never have to say how long the animals are allowed to graze, or how much of their diet comes from the grass. Both grass feeding and finishing are open to interpretation, and neither is subject to inspection.
Fish: The Methylmercury Dilemma
The basic dilemma regarding all fish to be eaten is this: fish has great nutritional value, particularly for their content of omega-3 fats, but all seafood is contaminated with methylmercury, a toxic substance that is bad for any developing fetusespecially during early pregnancy. In 1994 the FDA issued its first "advisory" about methylmercury in seafood. There are two basic types of tuna: (1) albacore which is more expensive and has less methylmercury than shark or swordfish, but three times more than the "chunk light," and (2) the "chunk light" tuna which is cheaper and is usually canned. Under pressure from the tuna industry, the FDA totally omitted albacore tuna from their 1994 methylmercury advisory.
There are two basic types of tuna: (1) albacore which is more expensive and has less methylmercury than shark or swordfish, but three times more than the "chunk light," and (2) the "chunk light" tuna which is cheaper and is usually canned. Under pressure from the tuna industry, the FDA totally omitted albacore tuna from their 1994 methylmercury advisory.
Methylmercury causes the most harm during fetal development, so the greatest risk is to children born to women who eat a lot of seafood during pregnancy. According to the National Research Council, this potential harm to children is so great that it might increase:
. . . the number of children who have to struggle to keep up in school and who might require remedial classes or special education. Because of the beneficial effects of fish consumption, the long-term goal has to be a reduction of the concentration of [methylmercury] in fish rather than the replacement of fish in the diet by other foods.
Over the years since 1994, the FDA advisory on seafood to pregnant women has changed:
Government Advice to Pregnant Women (and Women Who Might Become Pregnant) About Methylmercury in Commercial Fish
|ADVISORY||FISH HIGH IN METHYL-MERCURY||ADVISABLE TO EAT||ALBACORE TUNA||OTHER FISH|
|FDA, 1994||Shark, Swordfish||Once a month||No Limits||No Limits|
|FDA, 2001||Shark, Swordfish, King Mackerel, Tilefish||Never||No Limits||Twice a week (12 ounce total)|
|FDA and EPA, 2004||Shark, Swordfish, King Mackerel, Tilefish||Never||Once a week (6 ounces)||Twice a week (12 ounces of which 6 can be albacore tuna)|
As you can see, even in the 2004 advisory, the FDA said nothing specifically about methylmercury in albacore tuna which is eaten much more frequently than shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish. Nobody took much notice of these seafood advisories except the public interest watchdog group the Environmental Working Group (EWG). According to the EWG, the FDA's weak advice "fails to meet standards for accuracy and scientific integrity" and, if followed, would "increase the number of women of childbearing age with unsafe levels of methylmercury in their blood." When the FDA refused to issue a more restrictive advisory, the EWG filed a Freedom of Information request and found out that the FDA had originally planned to issue advisories on tuna steaks and canned tuna, but dropped them after meeting with representatives from the tuna industry.
The most sensible, practical and long-term solution to the methylmercury problem is dealing with the cause and not to letting the methylmercury get into the fish in the first place. Why isn't this done? As always, politics are keeping any practical solution away. Methylmercury gets into all our waterways and fish from volcanoes and from coal-fired power plants. Due to the lobbying power of the coal and utility industries, President George W. Bush wants the EPA to treat the mercury pollution from coal power plants as "non-hazardous." Whenever the EPA rules stated something like "mercury poses confirmed hazards to public health," the White House changed it to something like "emissions of mercury warrant investigation."
The Fish Farming Dilemma
Since more people are demanding at least two "healthy" meals of fish a week, to meet this demand and to provide more fish at a higher profit, more fish is being commercially raised on farms instead of being caught from our dwindling supplies in the ocean. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in fish cause a similar problem as the methylmercury. Fish raised commercially on farms and fed meal and fish oils have more PCBs than those caught wild in the ocean. You can avoid methylmercury by not eating large sharks or swordfish, but all fish of any size have PCBs. PCBs are not good for you. At high levels they can cause problems with skin, reproduction, development, and behavior.
Salmon farming is so controversial that it causes its own opposition groups. One, the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform runs a "Farmed and Dangerous" campaign to discourage people from purchasing farm raised salmon.
In the wild, the newly hatched salmon start out eating small vegetation, then eat tiny crustaceans (krill). Many salmon continue eating krill throughout their life, but others start eating smaller then larger fish. In captivity at fish farms, however, all the fish eat the equivalent of dog food, first in smaller then larger pellets of fish meal and fish oil, wheat (as a binder) and vitamins, minerals, and these other ingredients: (1) meat-and-bone leftovers from cows, pigs, and other animals (those same animal by-products which are excluded from organic and "natural" beef to avoid mad cow disease), and (2) a lot of the feathers from the billions of chickens that get slaughtered each year.
In captivity at fish farm, however, all the fish eat the equivalent of dog food, first in smaller then larger pellets of fish meal and fish oil, wheat (as a binder) and vitamins, minerals, and these other ingredients: (1) meat-and-bone leftovers from cows, pigs, and other animals (those same animal by-products which are excluded from organic and "natural" beef to avoid mad cow disease), and (2) a lot of the feathers from the billions of chickens that get slaughtered each year.
The fish meal and fish oil are responsible for the problem of higher PCBs in farm raised fish. Carnivorous fish do not grow quickly enough in captivity without fish fat and protein in their diet. To make the fish meal and fish oil, "industrial" forage fish that are seldom on your dinner table - menhaden, anchovies, mackerel, and the like - are ground up for fish farm pellets. Many farmed fish have to eat four to five pounds to gain a single pound themselves. Others, like farmed tuna, have to eat at least twice that much! This feeding system for farm raised fish is not only very wasteful, but it causes all farmed fish to have higher PCB levels than wild ocean-caught fish.
The government and the sugar industry have gone to extensive lengths to hide from the public the word or ingredient "sugar" with all the non-nutritious calories, diabetes, and other evils associated with it. Marion Nestle received a lengthy letter from a law firm representing the Sugar Association in Washington DC after she stated that "soft drinks contain sugar." Any nutrition or biochemistry book will define "sugar" as any one of many "caloric sweeteners" (because they contain calories).
The industry has been trying desperately to make sugars look healthy. If you start thinking of a soft drink as a dessert, you will probably soon object to soda vending machines in schools which allow children to drink them all day long.
The number of caloric sweeteners ("sugars") in the US has been increasing steadily. For an example, see the table below:
Caloric Sweeteners in the US Food Supply (Pounds per Capita), 1980 to 2004
|Total caloric sweeteners||120||142|
|Refined sugar (sucrose)||84||61|
|High Fructose Corn Syrup||35||78|
|Others (honey, maple syrup, etc.)||1||1.4|
Source: USDA at www.ers.usda.gov/briefing/sugar/Data/Table50.xls
Unfortunately, neither the government, its regulatory agencies (FDA, EPA etc.), nor most of the food industries or stores have your health and best interest in mind when they do issue warnings, recommendations, or labels on most food products. The government is clearly in the pocket of the food industries and their main goal is to maximize their immediate profits, not the health and well being of the public.
. . . whenever possible, buy wild caught fish instead of farm raised, and . . . buy organic meat and produce instead of "natural" or conventional.
The responsibility is with you. Several basic guidelines will serve you well: (1) buy food fresh - the less processing the better, (2) in most big supermarkets, avoid all those sweet, tempting, (non-nutritious but high profit) items on the shelves in those long aisles in the center on your way to the meat and dairy sections at the back, (3) whenever possible, buy wild caught fish instead of farm raised, and (4) whenever possible, buy organic meat and produce instead of "natural" or conventional. The higher prices will more than pay you back in the long term with a longer, healthier, and happier life.
* Based on facts from What to Eat by Marion Nestle, Copyright © 2006 by Marion Nestle.