Tag Archives: nutrition

The organic food debate: “Interpret with caution”

One of the things that I both love and detest about modern news in the U.S. is its proclivity for sensationalism. Television weather forecasters can make the most moderate summer day weather (“Well, Bay Area, it’s another slightly overcast day in the mid-70s, so grab your jacket and head outside!”) seem absolutely thrilling. And if Lindsay Lohan wasn’t exciting enough when she was partying around the clock – now she’s sober! What a thrill.

But when it comes to reporting the major findings of scientific studies, particularly those with direct implications for consumer health and safety, I have a problem with journalist sensationalism. Several weeks ago, researchers from Stanford University published an exhaustive, investigative meta-analysis of other researchers’ explorations of the nutrition and safety differences between organic and conventional foods, including produce, grains, dairy, and meat. (Find the article here.)

By the time those findings hit the U.S. news media sensationalist hurricane, however, suddenly newscasters and internet journalists alike had spun the results into edge-of-your-seat terror. “Organic foods are not healthier, as consumers continue to pay top dollar!” The moment I heard that teaser blare from the TV (conveniently, just before the commercial break, followed by “stay tuned!”), I pulled out my laptop and typed “Stanford organic food healthier” into Google scholar. When the commercial break was over, I was already well into the results section of the paper.

Problematic prions and the history of Mad Cow Disease

Well, folks, it has happened again. A dairy cow from California was recently diagnosed with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as “mad cow disease.” The cow was already at a rendering plant when the diagnosis was made and, apparently, was never headed toward our food supply. The last confirmed BSE infection in US beef was in 2006, and in total, only four cows have ever tested positive in our country’s entire beef industry. Meanwhile, in just a handful of decades, over a hundred people in the UK have gone “mad” and ultimately died from consuming BSE-tainted beef. In addition, over four million head of cattle have been culled in the UK in an effort to eradicate the problem.

The history of spongiform encephalopathy, however, begins long before the relatively recent BSE crisis — and its victims have included everything from human cannibals to farmed mink. Yet, rarely does science news cover spongiform encephalopathy beyond the context of the grilled burger patty. Burgers are indeed delicious (I prefer mine with BBQ sauce and cheddar cheese), but trust me, the history of spongiform encephalopathy as a disease is way more interesting than this one dairy cow might lead you to believe.

Circa 1920, two German doctors, Hans Gerhard Creutzfeldt and Alfons Maria Jakob, each individually identified the symptoms of spongiform encephalopathy in humans. Hence, the pathology was named Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) in their honor. The patients that the doctors studied, however, did not develop their diseases as a result of eating tainted beef. Rather, these patients “spontaneously” developed the condition as the result of a rare (and natural!) genetic anomale.

A plea for clarity in FDA labeling

Recently, I found myself staring at the ingredients list on the back of a pint of chocolate ice cream: milk, cream, sugar, egg yolk, and cocoa powder. Rarely do we see such short ingredient lists on manufactured foods, yet this ice cream, by Haagen-Dazs and aptly named five, is absolutely delicious. In fact, the ice cream’s ingredients list is used as an advertisement itself, incorporated onto the front in a cute little “front-of-package label.”

Misleading labels

In the case of five, the ingredients listed on the front of the ice cream pint also match those listed on the back. But many other food products use their front-of-package labels to mislead customers. For example, when brightly packaged frosted cereals for children place labels that say “less sugar” on their boxes, one ought to think — less than what? Well they don’t say, and that’s the point. In recent years, companies who target children with misleading front-of-package labeling practices have come under heavy FDA scrutiny.

A few simple tricks for healthier eating

Confession: Today I ate three cookies. Not because I particularly wanted them, but because they were there. I could be a case study for Brian Wansink’s book “Mindless Eating: Why we eat more than we should.” Wansink was one of the invited speakers at SPSP 2012 and he and his colleagues, such as David Just, apply psychology and behavioral economics to food marketing. They use experiments to answer questions such as, “Why do we eat more than we should?” and “How do we get kids to pick healthier food in the school cafeteria?”

Here are a few of their scientifically-backed tips for making healthier food choices. Many of these tips have been put in place in lunchrooms as part of their “SmarterLunchrooms Initiative,” but I think they can also be adapted for use at home, particularly if you are struggling with a child who has very particular food preferences.