Food labels have long had to list all ingredients on the Nutrition Facts Panel. This is great, if you can interpret the many additives found in most processed foods (which now total over 3000!). Consider, for example, titanium dioxide (used as a coloring agent), butylated hydroxytoluene (used as an antioxidant), or propylene glycol alginate (used as a food thickener or stabilizer). Scary, huh? But at least these products are listed on the label, by law. What about foods that have been altered at the genetic level (called genetically modified organisms [GMOs])? Do they require special labeling? Do you think they should, and if so, why?
First, let’s take a look at the science and rational behind the genetic manipulation of agriculturally important organisms. GMOs are plants or animals that have been genetically modified to contain DNA from microorganisms, such as bacteria of viruses, or other plants or animals. These experimental combinations of genetic material could not have been otherwise produced naturally. Almost all GMOs have been engineered to withstand herbicides or to produce insecticides. The idea is that if the plant produces a protein that allows it to withstand a particular herbicide (e.g. Roundup), then the farmer just sprays the whole field and everything dies except the engineered crop plant. Although the scientists and the companies they work for have declared GMOs to be safe for human consumption, there are others that disagree (see, for example, NON GMO Project).
It turns out that there is no current U.S. law requiring the labeling of foods which are derived from GMOs. This goes against current policy in many countries worldwide, including some countries of the European Union, Japan and New Zealand, which restrict or ban the production and sale of foods derived from GMOs (Examiner GMOs). If you, however, agree that genetically modified foods should be labeled, you are not alone. In fact, the state of Vermont has recently passed a law requiring all foods made from GMOs (VT Approves GMO Labeling). Three counties in California (Medocino, Trinity and Marin) have also successfully banned genetically modified crops. Other potential bans are in the works in several states, including Connecticut and Maine. However, many U.S. states and countries worldwide have embraced the use of GMOs products in foods.
Obviously there exists a controversy regarding the safety of foods derived from GMOs for human consumption. Since all the world’s countries have very smart people living there and working in government and the sciences, why is there such inconsistency in policy? It seems the differences in policy go beyond human intelligence and are based more upon human emotion than upon proven scientific facts. Some argue that GMOs could contain new toxins, have different nutrient content or lead to the development of new food allergies. Others express concern about the emergence of herbicide-resistant ‘super weeds’ and insecticide-resistant ‘super bugs’. These are noteworthy concerns, but so far, these fears have not been backed up by scientific study. Only time will tell. In the meantime, will you choose GMO-free foods?
Many of us probably know that eating a very-high-fat diet will not only make us gain weight, but it will also increase our risk of heart disease. But surprisingly, there are 2 disparate population groups that, notably, consume very high quantities of dietary fats, yet have a very low incidence of cardiovascular disease, polar bears and traditional Alaskan Eskimos. How is that possible? Does it have to do with the types of fats they eat, or to specific physiological adaptations? The answer is yes, to both of these questions.
A recent study published in the highly touted scientific journal Cell (Polar Bear Study), showed that polar bears and brown bears diverged in evolutionary history less than 500,000 years ago. This is a surprisingly short time, in evolutionary terms. During this time, polar bears moved north, subsisted on a blubber-rich diet of primarily marine mammals and fish, and became profoundly obese. Interestingly though, these bears do not develop fatty deposits in blood vessels (atherosclerotic plaques) or suffer from cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) that afflict most humans with diets rich in fat. How can that be? The answer to this seemingly paradoxical question was revealed by the gene studies in this publication, and was discussed recently in Science Daily (Researcher Interviews). The researchers found that polar bears had evolved several gene variants that helped them adapt to the high-fat diet. These variants were in genes which related to fatty acid metabolism and cardiovascular function. The researchers concluded that this study may provide insight into how to protect humans from the ill effects of consuming too much dietary fat.
The second group mentioned above, arctic Eskimos called the Intuits, also eat high-fat diets and have traditionally had very low incidence of CVD. This has been referred to as the ‘Intuit Paradox’ (Discover Magazine). The Intuits historically ate a high-fat diet consisting of seal and walrus meat and other blubbery marine mammals. Although we don’t know about specific gene variants in this population relating to heart disease, we do know that the composition of fat they consumed is very different from fat consumed today by most Americans. The Intuit diet was traditionally high in mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids (and protective omega-3 fatty acids), and low in saturated and trans fats. This seems rather unexpected since most of us know that animal fats are high in saturated fat. It had to do with the source of the fats. It turns out the wild-animal fats are different (less saturated fat; higher in monounsaturated fats, like in olive oil) from farm-animal fats and processed fats (which also contain damaging trans fats). Moreover, cold water fishes and marine animal fats are particularly rich in polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids.
So this then leaves us with 3 options if we choose to consume lots of dietary fats and still want to be healthy: 1) hope that we rapidly evolve like the polar bears; 2) consume more fat from wild-caught animals; or 3) focus on fats derived from plant foods like seeds, nuts and whole grains. What will your choice be?
Words. They’re pretty nice, wouldn’t you agree? They allow us to talk, read, and articulate our thoughts. Without them we wouldn’t be able to communicate very effectively (can you imagine a world of grunters?). Nor would we be able understand things to quite the same degree. And we certainly wouldn’t be able to debate the finer details of various topics near and dear to our hearts like, say, baseball, dark chocolate, or the environment.
Given the power and utility of words, they are the primary focus a new program called the Lexicon of Sustainability. “Lexicon” is a fancy word for “language”. And “sustainability” is, well, a fancy word that many people banter about, but don’t truly understand or embrace. The Lexicon of Sustainability is based on a simple premise: people can’t be expected to live more sustainable lives if they don’t even know the most basic terms and principles that define sustainability.
For instance, what are food miles? What is the difference between annual vs. perennial plants? Organic vs. conventional food? Grass-fed vs. grain-fed meat? What is food sovereignty? Or biodiversity? For most people, these topics aren’t even a consideration because they don’t even know the words for them exist. In the meantime, the health of our bodies and our planet hangs in the balance. The hope of the Lexicon of Sustainability project is that as more people become aware of these issues, the more progress we’ll make towards achieving a socially, economically, and ecologically sustainable future.
Food for thought
Take a moment to look at the following samples of educational art pieces produced by The Lexicon of Sustainability. There are many, many more posted on their website, as well as videos produced in cooperation with PBS.org. Have you ever thought about these words and concepts before? If yes, thank you (please pass them on). If not, perhaps it’s because you never had the opportunity to learn them before. Check out The Lexicon of Sustainability website for more words and information.
You have probably heard that we all should eat more fish and seafood, right? What you probably haven’t heard as much about is how the source and the type of fish you eat can influence not only nutrient intake levels but also the levels of certain contaminants you consume. This is a particular concern as some fish contain antibiotics, pesticides, or other chemicals, including mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins. For some individuals, for example pregnant women, this is an issue of real importance as these substances can cause harm to the developing fetus.
Despite these potential risks, it is generally accepted in the nutrition community that fish is a healthy dietary choice and regular consumption can have a positive impact on overall health. For example, the American Heart Association recommends eating fatty fish at least two times a week (AHA Omega-3 FAs), and diets such as the Mediterranean and DASH diet also promote fish consumption. Certain fish (e.g. salmon) contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids which have anti-inflammatory properties, and may decrease risk of heart arrhythmias and blood clotting, and thus be protective against heart disease. Fish is also high in protein yet low in saturated fats.
This then leaves us in a quandary. How are we to eat more fish and other seafood, yet avoid exposing ourselves to dangerous environmental contaminants? The answer lies in the type of fish we consume, whether it was farm raised or caught in the wild and the frequency with which we consume the fish. Let’s look at species first. Contaminants are most likely to be present in older, larger predatory fish, such as shark, swordfish, king Mackerel and tilefish (Mayo Clinic Fish Info). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) thus recommends that young children and pregnant and lactating women avoid eating these fish. It is also important to keep in mind, that not all fish and other seafood are high in omega-3 fatty acids. Some however, contain significant levels of omega-3 fatty acids and also have lower levels of environmental contaminants. These include salmon, canned light tuna, shrimp, pollock and catfish, which then are the best choice for consumers.
Two other issues to consider are the source of the fish and whether taking fish oil supplements is a good alternative. As you may or may not know, many fish such as tilapia are raised in “fish farms”. These aquaculture facilities raise large numbers of fish in relatively tight quarters. This leads to an increase in the risk for infection and other illnesses; antibiotics are thus routinely used in this setting. It is also important to consider whether the fish was imported into the U.S. from another country, as the inspection process may not be so robust. Moreover, there is some evidence that the nutrient content of wild caught fish is higher, but the price may also be higher. And lastly, there is emerging evidence in the nutritional sciences world that fish oil supplements do NOT provide the same health benefits that regular consumption of certain fish.
In summary, eating fish is good for us, but we have to be educated to realize the greatest health benefits. This general rationale also applies to many other aspects of healthy eating, such as choosing fruits and vegetables with the lowest levels of contaminating pesticides. So, learn, procure, cook and enjoy!
(written with the creative assistance of Avery Bramnik and Nicole Solomon, both University of Florida undergraduate students)