Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

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The End of the World?

American science journalist and author Michael...

American science journalist and author Michael Pollan, speaking at a Yale University “Masters Tea” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is an interesting article on changes that have occurred in the last century in food production and its impact on the environment.  Michael Pollan is an excellent and prolific food writer.  His latest two books are:

Cooked: A National History of Transformation (2013)

The Pollan Family Table: The Very Best Recipes and Kitchen Wisdom for Delicious Family Meals. (2014)


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What the Heck is the Microbiome?

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Much attention has been spent lately describing the health contributions of the microbiome defined as non-human cells that outnumber human cells and consists of our microbe residents in the human gut, skin, eyes and nasal passages. These bacterial cells collectively can weigh as much as six pounds.

Another term for the microbiome is the microbiota.  The composition of the microbiota plays an important role during pregnancy and in early life and may affect our metabolic and immune functions later in life. The gut microbiota helps our digestive system efficiency, improves nutrient availability and absorption, and limits the presence of pathogens through competition for nutrients and space.

From the moment of birth, the newborn is exposed to microorganisms obtained from the birth canal of the mother or by exposure to the mother’s skin during a C-section delivery. This colonization is influenced by many factors such as genetics, breast-feeding or formula feeding and weaning to solid food as well as the presence of antibiotic therapy. It is thought that by 2 years of age, the young infant will have established its own stable microbiota. Recently stress and the mother’s diet during late pregnancy may play a role in this initial colonization of the young child.

The function of the immune system  both before and after birth can be altered by gene expression and epigenetic mechanisms via the presence of the microbiome.   See a previous post on epigenetics HERE.  The environment may or may not help to develop this system properly. The so-called hygiene hypothesis may contribute to the current rise in the prevalence of immune disorders later in life that include allergies, obesity, and diabetes. This hypothesis simply states that often young children are not exposed adequately to environmental contaminants or infectious agents and do not build up the proper immune responses to the antigens they will inevitably meet later in life. In other words, their environment is “too clean.” currently aided by the overuse of antiseptic soaps and disinfectants.

From studies, it was shown that differences in the gut microbiome during the first year of life may later lead to the onset of obesity. In one study, the numbers of Bifidobacterium species (considered beneficial) were higher and the numbers of Staphylococcus aureus (potentially pathogenic) were lower in children who maintained a normal weight than in children who became overweight at 4 years of age suggesting this pattern may be protective against obesity. In other studies, it was observed that there is a link between the composition of the microbiome during pregnancy and body weight. More specifically, the presence of Staphylococcus and E. coli numbers were higher in women with excessive weight gain during pregnancy. Fecal transplant of an obese microbiome to germ-free mice resulted in a greater increase in total body fat than did colonization with a “lean microbiome” suggesting that the change in the intestinal microbiome environment can promote obesity and other metabolic diseases later in life.

How can we control the content of the microbiome? Guess what – eating more fruits and vegetables have a prebiotic effect on the microbiome. Prebiotics are nondigestible carbohydrates that reach the colon intact and are known to help the growth and activity of healthy (friendly) bacteria in the gut like Bifidobacterium species.

Increase your intake of unpasteurized fermented foods like fermented dairy products such as yogurt or kefir that contain probiotics. Probiotics are defined as live microbes that offer a health benefit to humans. Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus species are the most common bacteria groups used.

Probiotics are found in foods such as yogurt, while prebiotics are found in whole grains, bananas, onions, garlic, honey and artichoke. In addition, probiotics and prebiotics are added to some foods and available as dietary supplements. When we combine a probiotic and a prebiotic, they are called synbiotics.

Use more herbs such as garlic and leeks which contain the prebiotic inulin. Inulin is  a fermentable carbohydrate that is found in some fiber or protein bars. Inulin can cause digestive trouble or aggravate irritable bowel syndrome for some people as there is a threshold of tolerance for their intake. Look on ingredient labels for inulin or chickory root extract. See a previous post on FODMAPS HERE.

The study of the microbiome continues to fascinate scientists and its presence may be more involved in our health than previously thought.  But the research is still in its infancy and caution should be stressed so that people do not rush to buy probiotics or attempt self-treatment.  The transplants are experimental and should only be performed by professionals.  A limited number of studies have shown it to be an effective treatment for patients suffering from Clostridium difficile infection (CDI). CDI is a serious and difficult to treat infection causing inflammation of the lining of the abdomen; it is mostly found in  hospitalized elderly patients after excessive use of antibiotics but can affect an estimated 3% of healthy people.

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The Petri Dish Platter – Lab-Grown Meat?

Eating meat is expensive – not only in dollars spent, but at a tremendous cost to the environment in greenhouse gas emissions, among other insults . Greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide which trap solar energy and warm the earth’s surface. First, some statistics:

  • Producing a half-pound hamburger releases as much greenhouse gas into the atmosphere as driving a typical gas-powered passenger vehicle for 37 miles.  Producing a half-pound of potatoes is equivalent to only 0.10 mile.
  • It takes 14 trillion gallons of irrigation water to produce feed for U.S. livestock.

According to a 2013 report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the livestock business accounts for about 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions originating from human activity. This is even larger than the global transportation contribution. It is projected that worldwide meat consumption will grow by 73% between 2010 and 2050,  mainly in Asia primarily due to higher incomes. Eating beef can result in a higher carbon footprint than eating pork, chicken or fish.

Can we grow edible meat without having to raise or slaughter animals and/or harm the environment?  There is growing interest in this process that would provide protein-rich food no matter what  climate or environmental factors exist and we don’t have to kill any living creatures.

About 30% of the earth’s ice-free land is used for grazing livestock and growing animal feed. Growing meat in a lab would free up much of that land for new forests that can help pull carbon dioxide out of the air. Meat would not have to shipped around the globe if production centers were closer to the consumer.

So far, only small amounts of meat as thin strips have been produced in a lab. When the layer gets more than a few cell layers thick cells begin to die off. They need a constant supply of nutrients delivered by the blood in the body along with waste removal. Researchers are trying to develop an in vitro system that works as well. We need to also develop an efficient system to make the muscle cells “bulk” up as they do in the body with exercise. The hurdles are technological, not scientific. Further progress has been slow because only private funding has been available.

There are social acceptance barriers as well. There is the “yuk” factor and some people find it morally repugnant in that they think it is disgusting or that contamination may result. Some people think that killing living animals is also repugnant, e.g. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Some people relate lab grown meat to genetically modified foods (which they are not) and the negative perceptions of factory farming (which it is not). In fact, the process would eliminate the need somewhat for both of these processes. As far as contamination problems – we currently are faced with bacterial contamination of livestock produced meat and have to deal with outbreaks of bird flu and rarely mad cow disease.  Our meat is often contaminated with antibiotics that contribute to bacterial antibiotic resistance.

What about the taste? Some point out that flavor in chicken nuggets and sausages are artificially produced with salt and all kinds of additives are added for flavor. A publicity stunt has already been tested in 2013 when a food scientist produced a cultured patty. The tasters reported it was bland but not disgusting and the lack of fat was very noticeable.

I do not doubt that eventually the hurdles will be overcome but not any time soon will we see it in our supermarkets. More than likely, thin strips of lab-grown meat will make its first appearance in a highly processed product such as sausage or ground beef – not as a steak. And even then, consumer acceptance is the key for its success.


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Trans Fat and Memory?


Fda (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The FDA has recently given food producers three years to completely remove trans fats from their products.  Labeling has helped a great deal, but 15% of what was once used still lurks in some products (see list in article).  In the meantime, look for partially hydrogenated oils on ingredient lists – that is the only way to tell if they are there at all.



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Political Pseudoscience?


English: Animation of U.S. Obesity Trends by S...

English: Animation of U.S. Obesity Trends by State 1985–2008. (%of people with BMI >30) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Who is deciding nutrition policy? Is there a new scientific method that only politicians practice?  It appears that U.S. politics has now invaded nutrition science – if it continues, say goodbye to the possibility of  healthy diets in the United States and the continuance of the standard American diet (SAD).  Read more HERE. and HERE.


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Food, Health and the Environment

For an excellent summary article of how the food supply and production in the U.S. affects our health and environment, CLICK HERE.

In light of this, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has brought attention to the  fact that the U.S. government (aka politicians) are acting like “experts” and may try to change the recommendations put forth by the 2015 Dietary Guideline committee due to a potential lobbying effort by the meat industry.

If this is true, do we want politicians deciding what is a healthy diet?  I think not!  How can they meddle in food policies when it often appears they do not even read the bills they vote on?   We shall see what happens later this year when the Guidelines are scheduled to officially be released.  Visit the CSPI press release HERE.




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More Food Fraud?

English: An interior view of the Burns meat pa...

English: An interior view of the Burns meat packing plant in the early 1900s (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As our food supply is becoming more globalized, we are more at the mercy of food adulteration.  More attention was made of adulterated food in the famous book by Upton Sinclair, The Jungle.  A series of magazine articles  told of the activities of the meat-packing industry  followed by Sinclair’s book which  led to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act in 1905 and the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906.  Previous to this event, many young men had died during the Spanish- American War in 1898 from eating bad food in the form of canned meat they called “embalmed beef”.  The food corporations of the time had pawned off rotten meat to the army that they could not sell elsewhere.  Americans became aware from Sinclair’s book that described “meat packing plants where animal blood flowed in rivers; food and humans were covered with flies; workers fell into vats and were processed as lard; rat feces, rat poison, and dead rats ended up as sausage along with rusty, filthy water from garbage cans; and chemicals made rotten, contaminated meat odorless and healthy looking”  (Linda Civitello, Cuisine and Culture: The History of Food and People, page 279).

The situation is certainly improved from those days, but food adulteration still exists in many forms. It is often important to look at the country of origin on many food items in our supermarkets.  For example, canned mushrooms from the U.S. are hard to find.  From product labels, I have noticed  that they come from China or the Netherlands lately.  That does not mean they are bad, but we should all be more aware of where our food originally comes from and make our own choices of whether to buy them or not.



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