Why Bother Eating Well?

By Joel DeVyldere

friessoda

Why eat well? I used to ask myself this question quite often when driving past a certain fast food taco shop. The food there wasterrible for my body—made of the cheapest, most grotesque ingredients and full of disgusting additives. One time it even made me sick to my stomach. And yet I kept eating it.

It’s true that eating healthy and wholesome meals is generally more expensive and usually takes more preparation time than eating junk food and takeout all the time. And who has the time (not to mention the money) for that?

I did. I found this out when one night in my late teens I got sick… and didn’t get better for months and months. The World Health Organization links poor diet and a lack of exercise to a high risk for stroke, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and some kinds of cancer (read more here). I link it to feeling sick for a very, very long time.

So what does a healthy diet do?

Professor Benjamin Caballero at Johns Hopkins University defines it for us in his online course on nutrition. A healthy diet is one that:

  • Fills the “energy needs” of our minds and bodies. Everyone knows this part deep down: eating healthy food just makes you feelbetter – more awake and more energetic. Consuming unhealthy foods and drinks, on the other hand, can make you feel bloated, tired, and unable to do well in your life activities. Wouldn’t it be nice to have enough energy, both mental and physical, to take on work or school each day?
  • Gives us enough “essential nutrients”. If you are growing, healing from an injury, or just trying to think straight at work or school, getting enough vitamins and minerals is a no-brainer.
  • Makes us less likely to contract a disease. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports that “chronic diseases are the leading causes of death and disability in the U.S.” They cite a lack of fruits and vegetables second on this list of factors that put you at risk for one.
  • “Is safe to consume.”  There are a lot of toxins in American foods – especially in the ready-made foods at the grocery store and the corner market. Being poisoned by junk food probably won’t make you too sick the first time, but, take it from me, it can cause problems if you keep consuming it over time.

In the end, eating well doesn’t just keep you from getting sick. It’s a relatively easy and potentially fun way to get the energy you need to start feeling good about life. When you consider how much better life is when you’re healthy, it just makes sense to make eating right a top priority.

Most people can agree that they should make more wholesome eating habits a bigger focus in their lives. But where can we start? It can be very difficult to figure out what exactly you’re eating in the first place. Often there are more than twenty ingredients on one package of food alone!

For starters, you can follow along with this column.  Here you’ll find fun recipes, helpful nutrition insights and ideas on how to detect food allergies. You’ll also get tips on how to shop smarter and get higher-quality food for your money, as well as updates covering the newest trends and developments in food science and health food culture. Happy eating!

The Corn Syrup Craze

By Joel DeVyldere

High-Fructose-Corn-Syrup-graphic

High-fructose corn syrup… what on earth could that be? It sounds harmless enough. Fructose is a sweetener—a simple sugar that naturally occurs in many fruits and vegetables. Corn is a vegetable that grows in the neighbors’ garden and tastes delicious with butter. So what could be so bad about something like high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)?

Plenty, if you ask many health fanatics. HFCS has a terrible reputation among health writers and healthy eaters. It has been revealed to be a chemically altered form of corn sugar that tastes extra sweet. Real and natural sugar (like “evaporated cane juice”) is all the rage at many grocery and health food stores. People will pay half again as much for a “no high-fructose corn syrup” label on their sugary foods.

Genetically Modified… and It’s Cheap!

With the U.S. agriculture subsidy system pumping limitless cheap genetically modified corn into our food system, corn syrup is now the cheapest sweetener on the market. Most juice brands and nearly all soda brands in the United States now make their drinks with high-fructose corn syrup instead of cane sugar—and use lots of it. Pepsi, Coke, and the brands they own (Dr. Pepper, Mountain Dew, Mug, Sierra Mist, Lipton, Brisk, SoBe, AMP, Gatorade, Powerade, Hi-C, Sprite, etc.) tend to sweeten exclusively with HFCS.

A backlash against the artificial sweetener HFCS has become all the rage in recent years. Major and local brands alike have marketed “all-natural” and “corn-syrup free” products alongside their chemically engineered cousins from the mainstream. In addition to soda, you can also find naturally-sweetened juices and teas in many grocery stores. Honest Tea and Honest Ade, for example, use cane sugar and fruit juice to sweeten their lines of teas and juices—all for a significantly higher price.

A Risk for Kidney Disease

So, we know that corn syrup-free drinks are available, but is it worth the extra money to avoid corn syrup? Well, the health craze has some scientific support. A recent study from Loyola University found a link between drinking two sodas a day and a high risk for contracting kidney disease. The study stopped short of blaming it all on HFCS, however, saying that more studies would have to be done to find whether this is the fault of HFCS, overall sugar intake, or other factors.

In truth, HFCS, which has about the same chemical composition as honey, isn’t necessarily what’s causing all of our sugar-related problems. In a recent interview with The Cleveland Pain Dealer renowned food politics writer Michael Pollan stepped back his previous statements against HFCS, saying instead “there is a problem with how much total sugar we consume.”

The real issue with HFCS, it seems, isn’t so much that this kind of sugar is so bad for you, but that now that it has become cheap and practically limitless, it can easily be slipped into everything you eat. Huffington Post has a fascinating list of items sweetened with corn syrup and its twisted chemically engineered cousin HFCS, including everything from bread to cereal to Kraft Easy Mac.

Corporate Greed and “Natural” Products

Greed is really at the heart of the corn syrup controversy. Food companies have engineered a cheap sweetener with nearly infinite supply, and now are engineering a backlash to sell even more sugary treats under the name ‘natural.’ “They started giving products made of real sugar health claims and [are] trying to make sugar look good,” says Pollan.

The take-home? Replacing the HFCS in your diet with real sugar and other natural sweeteners could help you avoid the lows of extreme sugar addiction (and the resulting diabetes) and potentially lower your risk for kidney disease. Overall, however, eating less food with simple sugars, whether natural or artificial, is the most important thing.

Additional References:

U.S. Sugar (including HFCS) Consumption Trends:

Genetically Modified Corn:

Organic Food: The Basics

By Joel DeVyldere

Organic foods have taken the U.S. by storm, leaving many of us just a bit confused about why they’re so much more expensive than the other foods we buy. And what does the word “organic” mean anyway? I did some research, and here’s a little bit of what I found:

The movement 
The organic movement, with roots in early 20th-century Britain, Germany and the States, blossomed in the 1960’s as a response to something called “industrial agriculture.” The movement never settled on a solid and scientific definition for the word “organic,” instead focusing on what may be called an “organic philosophy.”

Many people in the early stages of the organic movement at this time were concerned with not just growing, but also distributing, cooking and eating food in a wholesale counter-cultural manner. Industrial agriculture, they said, was hurting farms, farmers, eaters and the earth. At the time, this was more or less a philosophical statement, but decades later more and more studies are justifying this claim.

Industrial farming was a science involving inputs and outputs: you put in certain nutrients and you get crops; add more nutrients and the crops get bigger, which means more money. Organic farming, on the other hand, was a philosophy of human and food relations involving a whole universe of factors. Organic farmers, for instance, had to be concerned about whether their land would still be usable year by year, as they often operated on small, family-owned and run farms.

In the 1990’s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided to define the term “organic” to help people more easily tell the difference between organic and industrial foods. Their definition included some parts of the organic movement, such as no pesticides and no cannibalism (cows eating cow meat, etc.), but not other parts, such as an emphasis on local foods and the importance of raising animals outdoors with lots of space. Today, even some “organic” food is derived from animals raised in factories or vegetables imported from another country and processed in two different states before it reaches you. This market is called “industrial organic.”

“Industrial organic”
So much of what you see advertised as “organic” in the store doesn’t necessarily relate to the organic foods movement. Labels that say “USDA Organic” on them belong to a food that has been certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on a list of criteria that change from time to time. In general the label means that at least 95% of the ingredients have been grown with no synthetic pesticides or herbicides, irradiation, GMOs or sewage sludge. There’s a bit more to it, which is covered in the below graphic:

organic-food_center-for-science-in-the-public-interest

What Does Organic Mean? Source: The Center for Science in the Public Interest

Price differences

Sometimes, even if it seems better for you, it’s a tough choice to buy organic food because it costs so much more. A lot of the methods used in industrial organic farming end up costing more in the short-run than conventional methods. For example, instead of hosing down their crops with weed killers, industrial organic growers often hire workers to either pull the weeds out by hand or burn them with torches. Industrial organic farmers may also have to make or buy compost instead of just loading their land down with synthetic fertilizers.In some ways, the organic foods you can buy at the supermarket are better for the earth (they don’t poison it with pesticides), better for the animals (they don’t poison their bodies with loads of antibiotics), and better for you (they tend to have better nutrition).

In other ways, though, industrial organic foods are just another marketing ploy by the same huge companies that make conventional foods. Organic foods tend to take up the same amount of gasoline or diesel to grow, process and ship and they don’t usually come from a family farm. Maybe, after all, there is a lot more to be said for the organic foods movement than there is for a label that says “certified organic.”

Is It Safe to Eat Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)?

By Joel DeVyldere

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are plants or animals that have had their DNA spliced with the genetic code from another plant or animal. Genetically modified foods are meals or snacks made with GMOs. They arrived on the scene in the United States around 1996.

Zucchini squash in the U.S. may be a GMO
Zucchini squash, photo copyright Jeremy Keith

Genetically Modified Foods in the U.S.

According to the Institute for Responsible Technology, the U.S. mainly grows just a few kinds of GMOs that are approved as “safe to eat” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

  • Sugar beets: 95% GMO* (about 55% of the sugar produced in the U.S. is from sugar beets [source])
  • Soybeans: 94% GMO
  • Canola: 90% GMO
  • Cotton: 90% GMO (seeds used in cottonseed oil)
  • Corn: 88% GMO
  • Hawaiian papaya: more than 50% GMO
  • Zucchini and yellow squash: over 24,000 acres GMO

* Percentages above show what percent of this crop in the U.S. is Genetically Modified.

That’s not a lot of kinds of food. In the United States, however, corn, soybeans, and canola are some of the major building blocks from which food scientists construct many processed foods. In fact, the Center for Food Safety says GMOs are in about 70% of processed foods sold in the U.S. (source). It’s sometimes hard to document exactly which ones they are, though, because foods containing GMOs are not labeled in the U.S.

Almost 50 countries including Australia, Japan, and the countries of the European Union require labels on GMOs. Many of these countries also have bans or restrictions of the production, import, or sale of GMOs in food (source).

Food Sprayed with Weed Killer

GMO corn, soybeans, and sugar beets in the United States are engineered to be resistant to a weed killer called Round Up. The weed killer is then sprayed on the GMO crops while they grow to keep the weeds down. Even though right now this practice is approved by the U.S. government, a lot of people have reservations about eating food sprayed with weed killer.

Most Corn in the U.S. is GMO
88% of corn in the U.S. is genetically modified, photo copyright USDAgov

GMOs Linked to Health Problems, Cancer

Many scientists think GMOs may be unsafe too. Thirty peer-reviewed animal studies found that GMO foods caused problems in the liver, kidneys, and blood, along with the development of abnormal immune responses and reproductive abnormalities in the animals that ate them.

More importantly, a lifetime study of rats in last month’s Food and Toxicology suggested a new side effect of GMO foods—cancer. The rats that consumed GMO foods from the Monsanto Corporation along with the herbicide normally sprayed on them (Round Up) developed large tumors in various places in their bodies.

This sounds very alarming. How could 70% of our processed food be linked to cancer and other diseases without us knowing about it?

Rats develop much faster than humans, and GMOs have not been around long enough for us to see the lifetime effects on human beings… yet. So far, this one study is the only peer-reviewed study that has run long enough to test if GMOs and Round Up cause cancer when eaten.

Most sugar beets in the U.S. are genetically modified
95% of sugar beets in the U.S. are genetically modified, photo copyright USDAgov

Steps You Can Take…

More conclusive studies need to be done before we can say whether GMO foods are safe for human consumption. In the meantime, however, you may want to start protecting yourself from the risks of eating GMOs, to avoid the risk of cancer and other diseases. Here’s what you can do:

  • Buy organic at the supermarket
    If the food you’re buying has a USDA organic label, it is legally required to have 95% organic ingredients. You can find more info on the National Organic Program website. While GMOs officially cannot be marketed as USDA organic, there is no system in place to test for GMO contamination in already certified foods.

P.S. Still curious about GMOs? Check this informative article in the Huffington Post.

Most soybeans in the U.S. are genetically modified
94% of soybeans in the U.S. are genetically modified, photo copyright USDAgov

A Day At The Market

By Joel DeVyldere

A blast of color marks early autumn at the Lane County Farmers Market, where hundreds of people are loading up their bags with all colors of healthy produce and prepared foods.

Every Saturday spring through fall, the market spans three square blocks of downtown Eugene. Here you’ll find local farmers selling their produce, local musicians making sweet autumn music, and local artisans hawking their handmade clothing and crafts. Check out a few of the sights to be seen:

Certified organic produce from Grateful Harvest Farm
Certified organic produce from Grateful Harvest Farm, photo copyright Jonathan Lange

Saturday at Lane County Farmers Market
The market is a major downtown destination on Saturdays. Not just restricted to buying and selling, these blocks often function as a meet-up location and a place to just kick back and listen to some free live music. photo copyright Jonathan Lange

Farmer Paul Toups by pickup truck
Local farmer Paul Toups sells corn and pumpkins to a steady stream of loyal customers. Paul has been selling at the Lane County Farmers Market for 33 years.
photo copyright Jonathan Lange

Farmer Bob Skinner of Alsea Acre Goat Farm
Bob Skinner sells cheese uniquely made at Alsea Acre Goat Farm. Bob’s cousin Nancy heads up a small crew that cares for the goats and makes the cheese.
photo copyright Jonathan Lange

Rainbow chard at Farmers Market
A booth at the market selling rainbow chard. Chard is a cousin of the beet often grown for its broad and tasty leaves. It is sometimes used as an alternative to lettuce and spinach. photo copyright Jonathan Lange

As you can see, there’s a lot going on. Here are a couple of tips to make the most out of your Saturday Market experience:

Slow down

A lot of farmers are more than willing to talk about their farms and all the creative methods they have used to stay in the business. You might make friends.

Shop around

Some of the produce sold here is really expensive and some is much less expensive. Check around for good prices, and make sure you ask for a taste test if you’re buying a lot of something.

If you have a SNAP card, bring it

Lane County Farmer’s Market now accepts SNAP cards (formerly called food stamps). Use your card to pick up something really healthy to bring home. WIC vouchers are also accepted at many of the booths.

Drink the lemonade

Saturday Market is about more than just groceries. Be sure you make the rounds and meet local authors, musicians, craftsmen, and prepared food vendors. I can tell you from personal experience that the berry lemonade is a worthwhile buy.

Not in Eugene?

Check out these lists with details of other farmers markets in
United States
Farmers Markets (you can search by your zip code)

California
Certified Farmers Markets

Oregon Farmers’ Markets
Washington Farmers Markets

Lane County Farmer’s Market

April through December:

Saturdays
8th and Oak (Downtown)
9:00 am to 3:00 pm

Tuesdays
8th and Oak (Downtown)
10:00 am to 3:00 pm

Thursdays
28th & Hilyard Street (next to the Amazon Community Center)
2:00 pm to 6:00 pm

For details on January through March Farmers Market dates and for the special Holiday Market at the Fairgrounds in November and December check the Lane County Farmers Market website.

Local Foods: More Than Trendy Shopping

By Joel DeVyldere

There’s a trend in the U.S. right now of people buying locally grown and processed foods. The local foods movement encompasses everything from the hyper-expensive suburban markets selling bread from downtown bakeries to the side-of-the-road fruit stand hawking fruits grown, picked, and packaged in the fields behind them.

But what, exactly, is “local” food? Well, it’s complicated. The advocacy site sustainabletable.org says “Local is shorthand for an idea that doesn’t have a firm definition.” This is largely because it has been developed in so many locations by so many different people, groups, and corporations (see Sustainable Table’s FAQ sheet on local foods).

Local produce at Farmers Market, photo copyright Jonathan Lange

I find a good definition for local foods is “any food grown, produced, or raised within 100 miles of the place sold.” When grocery shopping, there are lots of reasons to buy local: it’s good for small-time farmers, good for the local economy, and can but does not always lead to lower carbon emissions (more about local foods and carbon emissions here).

On top of all that, there is evidence that local fruits and vegetables are also better for your health. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, local foods tend to have better nutritional value than foods shipped from far away. Here are a couple of the reasons cited:

  • Vegetables picked and immediately consumed keep more of their vitamins and minerals.
  • Local, and especially local small-time organic farmers tend to use methods—like organic composting and crop rotation—that make more nutritious produce to start with.
  • Large scale food importers tend to use mechanical picking methods and transport. This increases the chances that your produce will be bruised or broken which affects its nutritional value.

(You can read the full Harvard article here.)

P.S. For more on the benefits of local foods, check out nutrition.gov’s Top 10 Reasons to Shop at a Farmer’s Market.

Local foods at a grocery store, photo copyright Jonathan Lange