Category Archives: michael pollan

The Myth of the Grass-Fed Pig

Previously in this series: Food, Inc. Part I: No Bones in the Supermarket and Food, Inc. Part II: Is the food more dangerous?

Pigs at High Farms in South Carolina, which are rotated between the field and forest and probably do eat some grass. Pigs can be grass-fed in the same way that humans can be spinach-fed. Greens can make up a small percentage of our total caloric intake, but if we tried to survive on them alone, we'd starve.

When Pigs Fly Eat Grass 

From his profile on the School of Social Work, click for page The organizers of the free showing of Food, Inc. I attended last spring invited a few speakers to lead a discussion after the film over a vegetarian dinner. One of them was Dr. Brett Seabury, an Emeritus Professor of Social Work who has decided to spend his retirement raising cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens “naturally.” He showed us some pictures of his animals, and seemed especially eager to impress upon us how grass-dependent his whole operation is. His cows and sheep eat grass (unsurprising). His chickens eat grass, although that can’t be all they eat. Chickens can only get 30-35% of their calories from grass and other forage like clover and alfalfa, according to multiple sources including food movement demi-god Joel Salatin. If Seabury isn’t feeding his chickens grain or table scraps, they must be surviving primarily on insects, grubs, and seeds.

But his pigs, Seabury seemed ashamed to admit, still survive primarily on grain-based feed. They eat grass, too, he promised, and he said he was trying to increase the amount of grass in their diets. However, he admitted that he wasn’t nearly as “advanced” as a friend of his who raises a  “special” breed of pigs entirely on grass. And if there were such a thing—a pig who could eat only grass—that would be pretty special. As I mentioned in passing in the last recipe I posted, pigs are extraordinarily efficient at producing meat in terms of speed and pounds of meat produced/pounds of feed consumed. According to Marvin Harris’s “The Abominable Pig”:

Of all domesticated mammals, pigs possess the greatest potential for swiftly and efficiently changing plants into flesh. Over its lifetime, a pig can convert 35 percent of the energy in its feed to meat compared with 13 percent for sheep and a mere 6.5 percent for cattle. A piglet can gain a pound for every three to five pounds it eats while a calf needs to eat ten pounds to gain one. A cow needs nine months to drop a single calf, and under modern conditions a calf needs another four months to reach four hundred pounds. But less than four months after insemination, a single sow can give birth to eight or more piglets, each of which after another six months can weigh over four hundred pounds.

However, as he notes later, there’s a crucial difference between the feed-to-meat alchemy performed by the pig and the kind performed by its barnyard pals:

Cattle, sheep, and goats thrive on items like grass, straw, hay, stubble, bushes, and leaves—feeds whose high cellulose content renders them unfit for human consumption even after vigorous boiling. Rather than compete with humans for food, the ruminants further enhanced agricultural productivity by providing dung for fertilizer and traction for pulling plows. And they were also a source of fiber and felt for clothing, and of leather for shoes and harnesses…. Feed [pigs] on wheat, maize, potatoes, soybeans, or anything else low in cellulose, and pigs will perform veritable miracles of transubstantiation; feed them on grass, stubble, leaves, or anything high in cellulose, and they will lose weight.

From an ad for Honeywell by The Q Group, click for full adRuminants can turn inedible vegetation into food thanks to their constant chewing (or ruminating) and their multiple stomachs, which are like a series of fermentation vats full of bacteria that help break down all those fibers and starches. Pigs just turn food into slightly-more-delicious food. And they do it at the cost of 65% of the feed’s initial caloric value, which is used to keep the pig warm and power all of its piggy activities like wallowing and rooting. To make matters worse, pigs aren’t really good for anything but producing meat. They aren’t suited for milking or shearing or pulling plows, and they don’t lay eggs. Even if it were slightly less efficient, a pig that could perform a grass-to-meat transformation would be the porcine equivalent of The Philosopher’s Stone. Or a bacon-producing version of the legendary golden egg-laying goose. 

The Ecological Argument for Vegetarianism

The pig equation (Pork calories = .35 x Pig feed calories) is essentially the basis for one of the main arguments in favor of vegetarianism. It was the reason I stopped eating meat as a teenager after absorbing the basics of High School Biology, and although I’ve never actually read Frances Moore Lappé’s classic Diet for a Small Planet, my understanding is that it’s also the basis for her argument, which has inspired countless environmentally-concerned omnivores to eliminate or at least reduce the amount of meat in their diets. In terms of sheer caloric efficiency, meat sucks.

When Lappé started doing the research for Diet at the library at UC Berkeley, she discovered that it takes 21.4 pounds of feed protein to produce 1 pound of beef protein, 8 pounds of feed to produce 1 pound of pork, 5.5: 1 for chicken, and 4.4: 1 for milk (paraphrased by Warren Belasco in his brilliant Meals to Come: The History of the Future of Food). And even if those numbers can be nudged in the right direction by more efficient production systems (like battery-cage egg-laying operations, which require less feed per egg than free range or pastured system), they’re never going to get even close to 1:1 because animals will always have to use a significant portion of the calories they eat to keep themselves alive. This was what the units on photosynthesis and respiration taught me: plants are machines for making energy and cows are machines for burning it. Eating meat seemed wasteful, short-sighted, and maybe even outright ethically wrong in light of global hunger & food shortages.

And on top of the caloric inefficiency, domesticated animals also require fresh water, another limited resource (pending affordable desalination methods), and their waste produces gasses that contribute to rising global temperatures. Large farm operations, which is where the vast majority of our meat and animal products come from, also use mechanized systems for feeding, lighting, sewage flushing, ventilation, heating and cooling, all of which generate even more carbon emissions. They also depend on fossil fuel-driven transport to move the feed, animals, and products around at various stages of growth and processing. And to add insult to injury, something like 70% of the rainforests in Latin America have been cleared to make way for pastures where animals or their feed can be raised. (Here’s typical example of this argument in Time magazine).Vegetarians have been all up in Al Gore's business for not becoming a radical vegan. Fairlie, who I discuss below, challenges the oft-cited 18% stat on animal-produced greenhouse gasses, see his book for more. Image from Allvoices.com, click for more

But as it turns out, it’s not quite that simple. (I know, shocker, right? The world isn’t as simple as I thought at 18! Who would have guessed?)

In Defense of the Pig

If the pig were really such a bad caloric bargain, it never would have made it as a domesticated animal. Pigs would have been prohibitively expensive to raise—and, indeed, in areas like the Middle East, they were. Not for all time—there’s evidence that pigs had been domesticated in the areas that are now Jordan, Israel, and Iraq sometime before the early Neolithic period. However, as the human population density increased, nomadic people settled down, forests were destroyed to make way for agriculture, and the grazing land proceeded to become desert, pigs became prohibitively expensive. Marvin Harris again:

The pig had been domesticated for one purpose only, namely to supply meat. As ecological conditions became unfavorable for pig raising, there was no alternative function which could redeem its existence. The creature became not only useless, but worse than useless—harmful, a curse to touch or merely to see—a pariah animal.

He contrasts this with the case of the cow in India, which was subject to some of the same ecological changes—deforestation, erosion, desertification—but which became more useful than ever for plowing and milk, and thus became a blessing to look at or touch, and actually too precious alive to eat. He also notes that Islam has always had a much harder time getting established anywhere the pig is a major part of the traditional diet.

Don't be sad, lil guy, it's not your fault they hate you. Image from ehow.com, click for URL The reason the pig is part of traditional diets in many other parts of the world is because in the right  ecosystem, it turns out to be pretty useful as a garbage disposal and forest scavenger. Pigs were traditionally raised on “slops” (or human food that’s been rendered unfit for human consumption) and the nuts and roots they could forage in wooded areas. Thus, rather than competing with humans for food, pigs ate things that people might technically be able to eat, but probably weren’t going to—fruit and vegetable peelings, table scraps, windfall produce, acorns, beechnuts, and truffles (which humans certainly like but have a difficult time finding on their own. Truffle-hunters still use hogs to help sniff them out and  routinely lose fingers trying to snatch them away from under their noses).

The argument about the ecological wastefulness of meat is based on the idea that animals are eating food that humans could and would otherwise eat, but that’s a relatively recent development. This is essentially the argument Simon Fairlie makes in his recent book Meat: A Benign Extravagance, as paraphrased by George Monbiot:

Instead of citing a simple conversion rate of feed into meat, we should be comparing the amount of land required to grow meat with the land needed to grow plant products of the same nutritional value to humans. The results are radically different.

If pigs are fed on residues and waste, and cattle on straw, stovers and grass from fallows and rangelands – food for which humans don’t compete – meat becomes a very efficient means of food production. Even though it is tilted by the profligate use of grain in rich countries, the global average conversion ratio of useful plant food to useful meat is not the 5:1 or 10:1 cited by almost everyone, but less than 2:1. If we stopped feeding edible grain to animals, we could still produce around half the current global meat supply with no loss to human nutrition: in fact it’s a significant net gain.

Fairlie’s no fan of industrial agriculture, and he doesn’t think that it’s sustainable for people to continue eating as much meat as they do now, on average, in wealthy countries. Instead, he supports what he calls “permaculture” meat, or meat produced from biomass that is basically “free” in a system dedicated to the production of of vegetable food. Grass-fed ruminants are major part of that, but as he suggests, grass is not the only essentially-free source of animal feed. The key to sustainable pig production is to let them eat garbage. Marketing folks, get to work on this: how do you make “Garbage-fed Pork” as appealing as “Grass-fed Beef”?

This entry got a little long so I’m splitting it in two…more soon on why people like Professor Seabury get it wrong and the growing epidemic of Cornphobia.

Price, Sacrifice, and the Food Movement’s “Virtue” Problem

I'm not elitist, I just think you should reconsider whether your cell phones or Nike shoes or whatever it is you fat fucks spend your money on is really more important than eating heirloom beets. I just want you to make what I believe would be the more satisfying choice for you. Because I am the authority on what you find satisfying.

Urging others to eat better (and thus more expensive) food is not
elitist,
[Alice Waters] said. It is simply a matter of quality versus quantity
and encouraging healthier, more satisfying choices. “Make a sacrifice
on the cellphone or the third pair of Nike shoes,”
she said.

The Price Paradox

One of the most frequent critiques of what has been called the “food revolution” and especially its de facto spokespeople, Alice Waters & Michael Pollan, is that the kind of food they want people to eat—fresh, organic, free-range, grass-fed, local, slow, “healthy” etc.—is generally more expensive than the alternatives: processed, conventional, caged, corn-fed, industrially-farmed, fast, “junk” food. For example, in an interview with DCist to promote his newest book, Anthony Bourdain said:

I’ll tell you. Alice Waters annoys the living shit out of me. We’re all in the middle of a recession, like we’re all going to start buying expensive organic food and running to the green market. (interview with the DCIst)

Pollan and Waters have responded to this critique numerous times, and their standard defense goes something like this:

Pollan, nomming something virtuous, I'd wagerWell, $4 for a single peach or $8 for a dozen eggs isn’t really that expensive. The real problem is that government  subsidies have made junk food artificially cheap and confused us about the real price of food. Many people have discretionary income that should be spent on more expensive food that’s better for their health, the environment, animal welfare, etc. If consumers demand it, producers will find a way to provide it.

Michael Pollan, demonstrating his undeniable talent for reducing complicated issues to pithy sayings, has summarized this in his rule: “Pay more, eat less.” In essence, they suggest that good food should cost more. But then, on the other hand, they argue:

Local, organic, [yadda yadda] food is so self-evidently superior that the primary reason most people continue to choose crappy, industrially-produced fast food that destroys their health and the environment is because it’s just so much cheaper. Many people don’t have discretionary income, and therefore something needs to be done on a structural level—possibly an entire overhaul of the agricultural subsidy system—to make “real” food affordable enough for everyone. In other words, good food should cost less.

These aren’t wholly incompatible, and indeed, I suspect that many proponents of the “food revolution” support both: people who can should be willing to pay more for fresh, local, organic food now. At the same time, we should collectively pursue policies that make that kind of food cheaper until everyone can buy it.

But what if the problem isn’t cost?

As James Williams points out in a recent article in The Atlantic, “Should We Really Pay $4 for a Peach?”, what he calls “healthy food” like apples, dry beans, carrots, and celery have declined in price right along with cookies, ice cream, and potato chips over the last two and half decades. According to the Economic Research Service of the USDA, from 1980 to 2006—precisely the period when many people claim that fast food overtook our national diet and made us into the fattest people on the planet—food declined in price across the board, and crucially, “the price of a healthy diet has not changed relative to an unhealthy diet.” As Williams says:

Evidently, consumers have chosen to take advantage of the declining prices for the cookies rather than the apples, thereby undermining the claim that we choose cheap unhealthy food because it’s cheap. As it turns out, we also choose it because we appear to like it better than cheap healthy food.

I take issue with the rhetorical move of collapsing American consumers—a diverse lot—into a single “we,” but even if what he says isn’t true for everyone, it must be true for a lot of people. I suspect that many proponents of food reform don’t want to believe that’s really the reason people continue eating “bad” industrially-processed junk because they have the special conviction of born-again religious zealots. Being converts themselves, many of them believe that all the unconverted masses need is to be enlightened the same way they were. They assume that once other people are “educated” about how superior organic, local, yadda yadda food is, they too will see the light.

But what if that’s not true? What if most people will remain skeptical about the supposed superiority of natural, organic, local, etc. food (often with good reason) or, more often, be simply indifferent to claims about its superiority, no matter how cheap and accessible it is? What if buying organic food really won’t be more satisfying to many people than a third pair of Nikes? (And could Waters have chosen a more racist or classist example of conspicuous consumption? Seriously, why not a flat-screen television or granite countertops?)

When Price IS King

from Sociological Images, click for link There’s an important caveat about the price issue that Williams left out: calorie for calorie, soda, candy, chips, and fast foods made with cheap meat, soybean oil, and white flour are significantly cheaper than apples and dried beans. For the roughly one in five Americans who lacked the money to buy the food they needed at some point in the last year, or the more than 49 million Americans categorized as “food insecure,” price may still be the dominant factor guiding their food choices.

I don’t think most food insecure people necessarily stand around in grocery store aisles looking at nutritional labels and crunching the numbers to figure out what will give them the highest caloric bang for their buck, the way Adam Drewnowski did. However, many of them probably stick to cheap, processed combinations of corn, wheat, and soy because they know they can afford enough of that to get by on, and because it tastes good to them.

In the somewhat-dated account of urban poverty There Are No Children Here, Alex Kotlowitz describes the monthly shopping ritual of a single mother on food stamps. She goes to the office where she gets her food stamps, and then goes directly to the store where she buys the same array of canned, boxed, bagged, and frozen foods every month. She has it down to a science. She knows exactly how many loaves of white bread, boxes of macaroni and cheese, cans of soup, pounds of ground beef and bologna, and bricks of generic American cheese it takes to to feed her family for a month on her government-allotted budget.

However, as those damned hipsters on food stamps have demonstrated, even people of limited means can produce the kinds of meals Alice Waters might smile upon. So why don’t they?

The Elision of Virtue and Sacrifice

As much as its proponents like to portray eating local, organic, yadda yadda food as a purely joyful and delicious celebration, there’s basically no getting around the fact that it takes a lot more work to turn fresh produce into a meal than it does to go through a drive-thru or microwave something frozen. I suspect that even most of the “food revolution” faithful rely on prepared foods and cheap take-out now and then, even if it’s more likely to be from Trader Joe’s or a local organic pizzeria instead of Walmart or Little Caesar’s. The problem is not that the ingredients of a home-cooked meal, like $1.29/lb broccoli, are so much more expensive than dollar menu meals at McDonald’s, which is what Food, Inc. implies. The problem is that broccoli isn’t a ready-made meal.

My friend Patti made a similar point on her blog recently, noting that the recent initiatives to get fresh food into Detroit smack of race/class privilege. As a friend of hers said:

If he has $3 left til payday and payday is two days away, he’s going to the Golden Arches.  There’s no denying that you can get a meal for $3 versus some tomatoes and a banana.

Eating “right” according to the the (shifting and frequently conflicted) priorities of the “food revolution” requires effort and sacrifice—perhaps not a sacrifice of objective deliciousness for people who’d rather have a bowl of homemade chili than a burger any day of the week, but a sacrifice of familiar tastes and habits and the instant gratifications of foods composed primarily of sugar, starch, fat, and salt.

For the food revolution faithful, that sense of sacrifice isn’t a deterrent, but actually seems to be central to their perception that eating local, organic, etc. food is morally superior. I first started thinking about this at a roundtable on “Food Politics, Sustainability and Citizenship” at the 2008 Annual Meeting of the American Studies Association. The panelists acknowledged that local, organic, and/or “natural” foods were not always objectively superior in the ways people want to think they are—they often require more energy to produce and transport even if they have a much shorter distance to travel, there’s no consensus on whether or not they’re healthier than the conventional, processed alternatives, and they are often labor-intensive and rely on child labor, unpaid interns, and the willingness of farmers to self-exploit. In short, they admitted that “bad” industrial food is often more sustainable, just as healthy, and possibly sometimes more ethical. But they all insisted that regardless of its real impact, what was more important was that consumers of local and organic foods were “trying.” And they all emphasized the importance of narratives—the stories we tell ourselves about why we do what we do, which is one realm where “natural,” local, etc. food has the indisputable upper hand. Their recommendation for the “food revolution” was to focus on fostering those narratives and encouraging people to keep trying, as if the intentions and the effort involved in eating “better”—futile or not—were more important than the actual carbon footprint or nutritional ramifications of the behavior.

And that seems to me like a serious confusion of intention and effect. If the ideal that you’re pursuing is sustainability—a slippery term to be sure, but for the moment, let’s just say it means a practice that could be continued indefinitely without making the environment inhospitable for human life—and you’re advocating a new practice in service of that goal, but it turns out to be worse for the environment than your previous course of action, I don’t think you should just shrug and say, “well, at least our hearts are in the right place” and continue with the new, worse practice. However, that’s exactly what the food revolution faithful do all the time. No matter how many studies show that food miles are far less important than efficiencies of scale and growing things in optimal climates, or that organic food is no healthier than conventional, or that people can’t tell the difference in blind taste tests, they’ll either say “that’s not the point” or insist that you must be wrong. The practice precedes the evidence, but they seize on any evidence that justifies it after already deciding on the course of action and systematically ignore any evidence to the contrary.

All of which suggests that eating “better” isn’t driven by evidence-based beliefs about what’s really healthier, more sustainable, more humane, or even better-tasting—which are often conflicting ideals anyhow. The main appeal of natural, organic, local, yadda yadda food is a deep, often inchoate, feeling that it’s superior, which precedes and trumps reason or any objective weighing of the evidence. I think what reinforces that feeling of superiority most is the experience of sacrifice, which channels good old-fashioned Protestant Work Ethic values like the satisfactions of hard work and delaying immediate gratification. The relationship between virtue and self-sacrifice actually long predates Protestantism—in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that people achieve eudemonia, which essentially means “self-actualization” or a virtuous happiness, through hard work and mastering their bodily desires (usually by denying them). The underlying belief seems almost instinctual—it is good to work hard and resist immediate pleasures. And we might like to think that what makes the hard work and sacrifice good is some long-term goal or “greater good” they’re done in service of, but that’s not necessary to produce the sensation of virtue.

Ergo, making a special trip to the farmer’s market during the few hours per week it’s open must be a good thing to do simply because it’s so much less convenient than shopping at a grocery store that’s open all the time. And turning a box of locally-grown produce you might be totally unfamiliar with into edible foods and acceptable meals must be better—morally, if not nutritionally—than microwaving a Lean Cuisine. And spending more money on something labeled “natural” or “environmentally friendly” must be better. People don’t even need to know what for to reap the psychic rewards. Things that are difficult, inconvenient, or require sacrifices just feel virtuous.

"If you care, buy our environment-friendly disposable baking cups. Buy those other disposable baking cups if you're some asshole who doesn't give a shit." From www.passiveagressivenotes.com

The Limits to the Virtuous Appeal

The problem for the “food revolution” is that the virtuous effort and sacrifice in service of questionable returns doesn’t appeal to everyone. Some people feel like they do enough hard work and make enough sacrifices in other areas of their life that they don’t need the extra moral boost of buying morally-superior food. And I suspect it’s no coincidence that the people who are most likely to make buying “superior” food a priority and get satisfaction from that are people who identify as “middle class” and often express a lot of guilt about how much they (and “their society”) consume in general—i.e. the politically left-leaning, (sub)urban elite. (The politically right-leaning elite might consume just as much or more, they just don’t feel as guilty about it.)

Many working-class people might technically have the time and money to eat the kind of food Alice Waters and Michael Pollan prescribe, but they don’t want to. They’re not looking to put a lot of effort into and make a lot of sacrifices for their diet. There’s no incentive.

It reminds me of Barbara Ehrenreich’s epiphany about smoking in Nickel & Dimed:

Because work is what you do for others; smoking is what you do for yourself. I don’t know how the antismoking crusaders have never grasped the element of defiant self-nurturance that makes the habit so enduring to its victims.

As she discovers, the real reason so many working class people smoke isn’t because of some rational calculation—like the fact that they might not get as many breaks if they don’t—just like the real reason more people don’t buy “healthy” food isn’t (mostly) because of the price. Smoking and familiar, convenient, “junk” foods appeal to working-class people for exactly the same reason they don’t appeal to the left-leaning, progressive, urban and suburban middle-class. They like them because they’re “bad,” because they’re self-indulgent, because they don’t do anything for anyone else—not the environment, not the animals, not third-world coffee-growers, not even their own health. For a lot of people, the narrative of virtuous effort and self-sacrifice isn’t just irrelevant, it’s an active deterrent.

Change I Can Believe In 

I see nothing elitist about campaigning for greater availability of fresh, local food in low-income neighborhoods, public schools, and prisons. But when you start telling people what you think they ought to be willing to give up in order to make what you’ve decided will be “more satisfying choices” for them, I think you’ve gone too far. I really like—but don’t totally believe—the concession Michael Pollan made in the WSJ interview:

To eat well takes a little bit more time and effort and money. But so does reading well; so does watching television well. Doing anything with attention to quality takes effort. It’s either rewarding to you or it’s not. It happens to be very rewarding to me. But I understand people who can’t be bothered, and they’re going to eat with less care.

He claims to understand why some people can’t be bothered, and even equates it with hobbies like reading and watching television—but his entire oeuvre is devoted to to making the opposite claim. For example, in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he says:

“Eating is an agricultural act,” as Wendell Berry famously said. It is also an ecological act, and a political act, too. Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world—and what is to become of it. To eat with a fuller consciousness of all that is at stake might sound like a burden, but in practice few things in life can afford quite as much satisfaction. By comparison, the pleasures of eating industrially, which is to say eating in ignorance, are fleeting. (p. 11)

That doesn’t sound like the opinion of someone who thinks choosing junk food over fresh, local, organic food is an innocent predilection, like preferring trashy pulp fiction to James Joyce or watching reality television instead of Mad Men. The moral stakes in our steaks—a pun I’m stealing from Warren Belasco—are higher.

Even if the stakes of our food choices are higher (which is debatable), that doesn’t mean that it’s okay for food revolutionaries to try to push their priorities on anyone else, least of all the working class or disproportionately black urban poor. If they really want more people to make the choice to eat what they think is “better” food (and I think that should be based on evidence about the actual impact and not just intentions), they’re going to have to work on making healthy, sustainable, humane, etc. foods answer the masses’ needs and desires. They’re not going to get anywhere by declaring the masses ignorant for wanting cheap, convenient, reliable, good-tasting food or trying to convince them that what they should want is expensive, inconvenient, unfamiliar, less immediately palate-pleasing food.

I’m not actually sure it’s possible to create a food system that would satisfy both the desires of the “food revolution” and the needs of the working class, but if it is, it will require letting go of the narratives about sacrifice and virtue. As long as eating “better” is constructed as dependent on hard work and self-sacrifice, the “food revolution” is going to continue to appeal primarily to the left-leaning elite and efforts to get other people to join them will be—rightly—portrayed as “elitist.” And until that changes, natural, local, sustainable foods will continue to serve primarily as markers of belonging to the progressive, urban, coastal elite rather than the seeds of any real “revolution.”

Food, Inc. Part I: No Bones in the Supermarket

the hopeful-looking sky is dawning behind the u.s. capitol building? really?

I procrastinated mightily about seeing Food, Inc., the 2009 Academy Award-nominated documentary by Robert Kenner. I expected it to be, at best, a rehash of Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food and The Future of Food and King Corn and Food Fight. And I’m like a part-time, self-hating member of the choir that all those books and films are preaching to: I am part of the flock of the food reform faithful, but instead of inspiring me to sing Hallelujah, most of the preaching about it just makes me sort of itchy. Still, I felt like I should see the film, especially after it was nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar, and a couple of weeks ago, a golden opportunity presented itself in the form of a free showing at the UM School of Social Work followed by a panel discussion and (vegetarian) dinner.

First, two caveats: 1) it’s probably impossible to tackle the industrial food production and distribution systems in with 100% accuracy or examine the all the relevant causes and consequences of both those systems and the many proposals for reform in a 90-min documentary and 2) lots of people are praising Food, Inc. for raising awareness or calling attention to the problems in the food industry, and to whatever extent that it has done that, I applaud it.

But that doesn’t excuse the un-attributed voice-overs, the slew of un-cited and un-interrogated “facts,” the manipulative soundtrack choices, or the excess of dopey graphics. The list of suggestions at the end of the film for viewers who have been convinced that Something Needs To Be Done drives me so Bats it’s going to have to be a separate entry (I know I keep starting series I can never finish…there’s always too much to say, too little time to say it). But of course, it’s not at all surprising that I’d take issue with the “solution” when I disagree so profoundly with the way they’ve framed and portrayed the “problem.”

The Claim: In the meat aisle, there are no bones anymore

Well, for one, that’s demonstrably false.

 the wings, whole chickens and turkeys, ribs, many of the lamb and pork chops, and some cuts of beef also contain bones. the ascendance of the skinless, boneless chicken breast has everything to do with fat-phobia and convenience, not moral qualms inspired by bones. image from http://www.kosherclub.com/item.asp?itemid=87&catid=9 many grocery stores actually sell bones without meat, often packaged as "soup bones" which are usually super cheap; the smoked neck bones are excellent in chili

Moreover, the principle the documentary seems to be getting at—that Americans only eat the way they do because they are systematically and deliberately distanced from the reality of food production, and particularly the treatment of the animals they eat—is highly questionable. Pollan makes the same claim in Omnivore’s:

Sometimes I think that all it would take to clarify our feelings about eating meat, and in the process begin to redeem animal agriculture, would be to simply pass a law requiring all the sheet-metal walls of all the CAFOs, and even the concrete walls of the slaughterhouses, to be replaced with glass. If there’s any new right we need to establish, maybe this is the one: the right, I mean, to look.

It may actually be Pollan’s voice that tells you there are no bones in supermarkets. Throughout the film, and particularly at critical framing moments (i.e., the opening sequence, the introduction and conclusion of each segment), Food, Inc., uses the voices of select interviewees as voiceovers without making it clear who’s speaking. That effectively turns them into omniscient narrators and denies the audience the opportunity to consider their credentials and biases and evaluate their pronouncements accordingly.

Pollan runs with this idea of “the glass abattoir,” turning a vague speculation about the importance of looking into one of the central battle cries of the “food revolution.” But the assumption that looking would necessarily change the system is based on the same error many religious evangelists make—the assumption that if someone disagrees with you, it’s not because your belief is silly or lacks firm grounding in observable facts, but because they simply haven’t been enlightened. Pollan et al posit that if people really had to reckon with the fact that their food came from creatures who experience pain and misery as a result of industrial-scale agriculture, they would stop eating meat or at least seriously re-consider whether their personal enjoyment of meat outweighs the moral costs. Factor in the social and environmental and nutritional costs, and no ethical person would ever eat industrially-produced bacon again, right?

Of course that, too, is demonstrably false. There are plenty of farmers and slaughterhouse workers, people who’ve read Fast Food Nation and seen videos of downer cattle and the killing floor, and lots of other people who have reckoned or may be engaged in a long, personal process of reckoning with the complicated ethics of animal agriculture who continue to eat industrially-produced meat. And unless you’re willing to declare them all ethically bankrupt or eternally damned food sinners, you have to accept the possibility that they may have valid reasons for doing so—even if you disagree with those reasons.

Some people see CAFOs and corn subsidies as the means of producing highly desirable animal protein with minimal labor and space and perhaps some unfortunate side effects that we can try to deal with without dismantling the whole system. Others see even Polyface Farms, which both Omnivore’s and Food, Inc. portray as a sort of livestock paradise, as another Treblinka.

Looking, or simply becoming aware of how food is produced doesn’t guarantee any particular response, and it’s extraordinarily patronizing to assume that people who disagree with you are simply ignorant. 

Okay, in an attempt to keep these entries shorter and more digestible, I’ll end there. Still to come in this series—an examination of the documentary’s claims that “the food has become much more dangerous,” that $1.29 broccoli is too expensive, and that fast food is cheaper than cooking. Also, a glorious example of the unintended consequences of corn-phobia, or The Myth of the Grass-Fed Pig, courtesy of Emeritus Professor of Social Work Brett Seabury, who was one of the speaker/moderators in the conversation after the film showing. And of course, why the suggestions at the end of the film make me crazy.

Don’t Drink the Agave-Sweetened Kool-Aid Part I: “Natural” my foot

UGH the subtitle. I really want Ms. Catalano to show me exactly where in "nature" she gets her agave nectar. Also, I find the use of "ultimate" to mean "exemplary" or "best" instead of "final" or "last" grating, but that's a petty battle against usage change that "Ultimate Frisbee" has clearly already won. Still, I like to think of it as "Frisbee for the End Days" Just as "wholesome" as any other hydrolyzed, refined sweetener. If you've been snarky about the Corn Refiners' Assn's recent "Sweet Surprise" marketing campaign, but have a bottle that looks like this in your cupboard, I have some delicious all-natural snake oil to sell you, good sir or madam.

This entry was nearly titled “Things That Might Not Kill You In Moderation But Certainly Won’t Make You Any Healthier Vol. I,” or “Hydrolyzed, Refined Sweeteners Masquerading as ‘Natural,’ Whole Foods,” but those seemed a little unwieldy. They do, however, capture the essence of the argument: agave is nutritionally no better than most other refined sweeteners, including high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). If anything, it’s probably worse because it contains more fructose than table sugar or HFCS. It’s also no more or less “natural” than HFCS—it’s actually produced in a remarkably similar process that was first used on the fibrous pulp of the agave in the 1990s. While, as its proponents claim, the higher proportion of fructose has enabled people to call it a “low glycemic index sweetener,” sometimes alleged to be safer for diabetics and recommended by weight-loss programs like Weight Watchers, recent research suggests that large amounts of fructose aren’t healthy for anyone, diabetic or otherwise.

I mentioned agave nectar in passing in the HFCS post, but there’s enough conflicting information about it to merit its own post(s). A lot of the misinformation comes from agavevangelists, who can sometimes get a little sanctimonious about their avoidance of the demon HFCS and preference for “natural” sweeteners. Even this Vegfamily article that concludes “the physiological effects of all [caloric] sweeteners are similar” nonetheless claims:

Given the choice between sugar, HFCS, and agave nectar, I’ll stick with organically-grown, unbleached cane sugar (evaporated cane juice) and organic raw agave nectar that are free of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical bleaching agents; not genetically engineered; and still retains some nutrients, as well as being vegan. Since HFCS is not available in organic form and is highly processed, I would never use it.

But agave nectar is just as processed as HFCS.

HFCS and Agave Nectar: One of These Things is Not Almost Exactly Like The Other

1910 magazine advertisement from http://goldcountrygirls.blogspot.com/2009/10/then-and-now-49-karo-syrup.html Like most starches, corn starch consists of large glucose polymers—70-80% the branched, non-water soluble amylopectin and 20-30% linear, soluble amylose. Normal or non-HFCS corn syrup, like Karo, is produced by breaking those polymers down into their constituent glucose molecules using acids, enzymes, and/or heat. For the history buffs: the acid hydrolysis of starch was first discovered because of the 1806 British blockade of the French West Indies. Napoleon I offered a cash reward for anyone who could come up with a replacement for cane sugar, and a Russian chemist named Konstantin Kirchhof found he could produce a sweet syrup from potato starch by adding sulfuric acid. The same process was first applied to corn in the mid-1860s, and gained popularity in the U.S. during the sugar shortages of WWI (source: The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America).

HFCS is produced by converting the glucose into fructose using an enzyme technology developed in Japan in the 1960s (detailed here). The resulting syrup, which contains up to 90% fructose, is then typically mixed with corn-based glucose syrup to produce HFCS-55 (the kind used in soft drinks, which has 55% fructose/45% glucose) or HFCS-45 (the kind used in baked goods, which has 45% fructose/55% glucose). Some people, like Cynthia commenting on Daily Candor, have suggested that the fructose and glucose in HFCS are absorbed into the bloodstream faster because they’re “free" instead of bound the way they are in the disacccharide sucrose, which is broken into glucose and fructose by the enzyme sucrase. Theoretically plausible, but apparently not true:

Sucrose is hydrolysed by brush-border sucrase into glucose and fructose.
The rate of absorption is identical, regardless of whether the sugar is presented to the mucosa as the disaccharide or the component monosaccharides (Gray & Ingelfinger, I 966, cited by H. B. McMichael in “Intestinal absorption of carbohydrates in man”).

I'm going to start refering to packaging like this as granola-washingJust like HFCS, agave nectar is produced by breaking down a plant-based polymer into its constituent sugars. In the case of agave, the relevant molecule is inulin, a fiber composed mostly of fructose units with a terminal glucose. Just like with corn and potato starch, there are different methods of hydrolyzing the sugars in inulin.  Blue Agave Nectar uses a thermic process. Madhava uses an enzyme process, just like HFCS.

Agavevangelists like to claim that agave nectar is a traditional sweetener used by native peoples, which appeals to the popular notion that the foodways of the past were generally healthier (e.g. Michael Pollan’s advice not to eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food). Some, like Lynn Stephens of Shake Off the Sugar, merely note that the agave plant itself “has long been cultivated in hilly, semi-arid soils of Mexico.” That’s true, although it’s about as relevant as the long history of corn cultivation. Others claim that agave nectar itself has an ancient history. Flickr user Health Guy says of agave nectar: “It is 1-1/4 times sweeter than sugar, so you need less, and it has been consumed by ancient civilizations for over 5,000 years.”

Wrong. According to the website for Madhava Honey:

Agave nectar is a newly created sweetener, having been developed during the 1990’s. Originally, the blue agave variety was used. This is the same plant used in the manufacture of tequila. During the late 90’s, a shortage of blue agave resulted in huge increases in cost and a sweetener based on this plant became uneconomical. Further research was done and a method using wild agave was developed. Overcoming the language barrier between the Indians able to supply the nectar from the wild agave on their land and the Spanish speaking local manufacturer was the key that finally unlocked a supply of raw material and has led to our bringing this wonderful new product to market.

Still doing some native-washing (wild agave harvested by Indians who don’t speak Spanish—can’t you just feel the virtue?), but here’s what happens to the agave sap after harvesting, as described in the abstract of the 1998 patent issued for the production of fructose syrup from the agave plant:

A pulp of milled agave plant heads are liquified during centrifugation and a polyfructose solution is removed and then concentrated to produce a polyfructose concentrate. Small particulates are removed by centrifugation and/or filtration and colloids are removed using termic coagulation techniques to produce a partially purified polyfructose extract substantially free of suspended solids. The polyfructose extract is treated with activated charcoal and cationic and anionic resins to produce a demineralized, partially hydrolyzed polyfructose extract. This partially hydrolyzed polyfructose extract is then hydrolyzed with inulin enzymes to produce a hydrolyzed fructose extract. Concentration of the fructose extract yields a fructose syrup. (via Patentstorm)

Probably the healthiest sweetener pictured here and the one most shoppers in the market for a "natural sweetener" would be least likely to purchaseIt’s true that the corn used in HFCS is less likely than agave to be organically-grown, but you can get organic-certified corn syrup from the same manufacturer as the blue agave nectar pictured above and nutritionally, the main difference between that, the HFCS used in most processed foods, and agave nectar is the ratio of glucose: fructose. The regular corn syrup is 100% glucose, HFCS is usually 55/45 glucose/fructose, and agave nectar 56-90% fructose, depending on the plant and the process.

I’ve already talked a little about fructose vs. glucose here and here, but more coming soon in Agave-rant Part II concerning:

1) whether the fructose in agave is somehow better than, or indeed, different in any way from the fructose in HFCS

2) whether the fact that it’s sweeter than sugar makes it a lower-calorie alternative to sugar

3) whether its “low glycemic index” rating makes less likely to produce insulin resistance than table sugar and

4) whether it’s safer for diabetics

All of which people have claimed. I won’t keep you in suspense, especially given how long it may take me to put all of that together. The short answers are:

1) not in any nutritionally meaningful way

2) perhaps very slightly, but a <10 calorie/serving difference likely doesn’t make up for the increased risk of fatty liver syndrome and insulin resistance

3) no, it’s actually more likely to produce insulin resistance and

4) in miniscule amounts, perhaps, but recent trials involving diabetics and agave nectar were halted because of severe side effects.

Against the Soda Tax

awesome depth of field courtesy of Stephane Pompougnac http://www.flickr.com/photos/vox_efx/3063389109/

Although many states already tax soda (usually a fraction of a penny per ounce), a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine on the potential benefits of a $0.01 per ounce tax on "soft drinks, energy drinks, sports beverages, and many juices and ice teas" has re-ignited the debate about whether or not we need a national soda tax. Back in July, Obama said a sin tax on soda was "an idea we should be exploring" in an interview with Men’s Health although in the recent panic about industry profits and personal liberties, the White House has been quick to note that they haven’t yet and have no plans to propose anything like it. 

Most people probably already know how the two sides shake out: promoters argue that soda makes people fat (which allegedly makes people sick and thus incurs social costs) so the tax would have the dual benefit of reducing the costs associated with obesity and generating money that would help cover health care costs (or balance state budgets). Opponents argue that soda isn’t morally distinct from many other elective behaviors that sometimes (but not always) contribute to disease and health care costs, and as soda consumption is inversely correlated with income, taxing it would disproportionately burden those least able to pay.

All of those are actually pretty complicated claims, some of which I’ll try to unpack below the jump but here’s the short version: even promoters admit that the tax isn’t likely to meaningfully reduce obesity or the diseases associated with it (note: not caused by it, as there’s still no reliable evidence that fatness causes any disease besides osteoarthritis, and anyone who wants to hear more about that should consult Paul CamposThe Obesity Myth, J. Eric Oliver’s Fat Politics, Glen Gaesser’s Big Fat Lies, and/or Michael Gard and Jan Wright’s The Obesity Epidemic). That means the only real argument in favor of the tax is that it would raise money. But everyone agrees that it would be a regressive tax. So unless you think that collective costs like state budget deficits and health care reform should be disproportionately shouldered by the poorest citizens, there is no good reason to support the soda tax (and this goes double for ill-considered suggestions that we just axe corn subsidies instead—also after the jump).

1. Even advocates claim the tax would only lower demand modestly. According to a study that hasn’t been published yet (referenced in the New England Journal of Medicine article) the price elasticity of soda is –0.8 to 1.0, meaning if the price of soda is increased by 10%, consumption should decrease by 8-10%. The $0.01 per ounce tax would actually increase the cost of a 20 oz soda about 20% (unless you’re buying it at a sporting event), so presumably it should decrease consumption by up to 20%. I’m a little skeptical about that, and am looking forward to seeing how they determined its price elasticity, but I sort of doubt that soda is "unit elastic" meaning the percent change in demand will always be approximately equal to the percent change in price. Unit elasticity usually relies on the assumption that a good is readily replaceable—perhaps they assumed that tap water serves all the same dietary, social, and psychological functions as soda? Or that regular soda drinkers will switch to diet if there’s a $0.15 to $0.20 incentive? Nonetheless, their simultaneous insistence that this tax would address state budget problems or fund health care in any meaningful way is predicated on the fact that it’s not likely to decrease demand significantly. Most soda consumers will be more than willing to pay another dime per can of soda.

2. Although sugary drinks have probably contributed to the relatively small average weight gain over the past few decades, no one really thinks soda alone is what’s making people fat. Even for people who might reduce their soda consumption as the result of a sin tax, The New England Journal of Medicine estimates (conservatively by their own admission) that people would probably compensate for an average of 25% of the lost calories by eating or drinking more of something else. If people rely on soda as a source of a "sugar buzz" or have what might be called an "addiction" to sugar, it seems likely that they would compensate with other sugars. Some might substitute with diet soda, but it’s worth noting that longitudinal studies suggest that people who drink diet sodas actually have a greater chance of being obese than people who drink regular sodas. The causal arrow is almost certainly obesity—>drinking diet soda and not the other way around, but if drinkers of diet soda are more likely to become obese than drinkers of regular soda, that certainly challenges the notion that soda is a necessary cause of obesity. The relationship certainly isn’t as linear as the relationship between cigarettes and smoking, which it’s often compared to. And proposed "twinkie taxes" that would levy other calorie-dense, low-satiety and vitamin-poor foods haven’t gained any political traction because just like soda, it’s possible to consume things like frappucinos, Doritos, Wonderbread, instant ramen, or "fast food" remain non-obese. Plus, unlike soda, each of those does contain nutrients generally recognized as desirable. Despite all the cultural stigma and personal shame associated with some "sinful" foods, the healthfulness and morality of most things we eat and drink turns out to be a little too tricky to legislate.

3. The idea that this tax would be limited to "sugary" drinks is almost certainly not going to work in practice. Restaurants and gas stations aren’t going to start charging a different price for their diet soda and unsweetened iced tea than they do for their regular soda and sweetened iced tea, especially when they have self-service soda fountains. While there’s actually nothing more objectionable about taxing unsweetened iced tea or diet soda than regular soda (less, probably, if the former are more likely to be consumed by wealthier people), there’s a good reason the supporters of the tax aren’t calling for it: there’s no moral defense of a tax on soda water or unsweetened iced tea. No one thinks plain soda water makes people fat or causes disease (okay, I’m sure someone somewhere does, but they probably also think crystals heal people and agave nectar is "natural" and microwaves communicate your private personal information to the aliens who abducted Kennedy). 

Some people, even those who are opposed to the tax like Katherine Mangu-Ward of Reason.com, have suggested that we could just eliminate corn subsidies instead. Mangu-Ward notes that the projected annual revenues from the soda tax are, coincidentally, just about equal to the subsidies we pay to corn farmers. Joe Weisenthal makes a similar suggestion over at The Business Insider.

The first problem with this idea is that, as I’ve mentioned before, the farm cost of the corn in soda is only 1.6% of the price. Less than 2 pennies of a $1.20 bottle of soda go to the farmers who grow the corn that becomes high fructose corn syrup. Even if the elimination of the subsidies doubled the price of HFCS, the cost of soda would only go up a cent or two.

The second problem is that not all subsidized corn becomes HFCS. Less than 12%, according to the National Corn Growers Association. Most of it, as anyone who’s seen King Corn or read Michael Pollan knows, is used to feed livestock (how much exactly is a little unclear; I’ve seen a number of claims that eighty percent of all corn grown in the U.S. is consumed by domestic and overseas livestock, poultry, and fish production, but those may be outdated because of the rise of ethanol. Still, the most recent stats I could find on the NCGA website claim that 42 percent of U.S.-grown corn is fed to domestic livestock. The upshot: a substantially larger part of corn subsidies go towards feedlot beef than soda).

Rather than having a comparable effect as taxing soda, Mangu-Ward’s plan is far more akin to a tax on feedlot beef. And that, more even than the power of corn growers, is what would make it politically impossible. Weisenthal mysteriously suggests that it would be politically easier to eliminate "any subsidies that go towards high-fructose corn syrup," as if the industry behind the most-produced crop in the country and all the industries that rely on it have less clout than the "soda industry."

For the record, I’m not opposed to higher beef prices on any moral or economic  or even nutritional grounds. I’m not convinced that corn-fed beef is a necessary part of a healthy diet (although nor am I convinced that it’s necessarily unhealthy either, as the effects of dietary saturated fat and cholesterol seem highly dependent on what else you eat them with), and I suspect that the mass production of cheap meat might contribute to a number of environmental and social ills. I am all for reforming the seemingly-outdated system of agricultural subsidies that encourages certain kinds of farming and discourages other ones, but honestly, I don’t know exactly what that reformed system should look like. And I doubt Mangu-Ward or Weisenthal do either. I suspect that simply eliminating subsidies for the commodity grown in the largest quantities is not the best way. And in any case, it wouldn’t increase the cost of soda, fund health care, or fix state budget crises. As ever, not all simple answers are best.

Things that won’t kill you Vol. 2: Fruit juice

This may seem like a strange thing to argue about, because the popular consensus still seems to be that juice is healthy. Jamba Juice markets itself as "the category-defining leader in healthy blended beverages, juices, and good-for-you snacks." They even use Jamba as an adjective to mean the opposite of high fructose corn syrup and trans-fats (adding those things to juice ""just wouldn’t be Jamba"), which again, constructs the brand as healthy vs. the demon poisons that make people fat. Even if it’s foolish to go looking for truths in advertising, I don’t think Jamba Juice’s branding generally occurs to people as a massive irony or lie. Advocates of banning or restricting soda vending machines in schools often claim that the soda should be replaced with 100% fruit juice with no added sugars, and for many people, a glass of orange juice still represents "part of a nutritious breakfast" strongly with desirable nutrients like Vitamin C.

The Case Against Juice

But a number of health trends have begun cast suspicion on juice, especially the (impartial and incomplete) shift from primarily low-fat to primarily low-calorie and low-carb dieting in mainstream weight-loss culture, and the growing concern about the role sugars (especially fructose) play in personal and national obesity.

On the low-calorie front, people who believe that losing weight or maintaining a healthy weight is all about the basic algebra of calories-in vs. calories-out often end up axing all caloric beverages from their diets because they have a bad satiety-to-calorie ratio—I mean, obviously, right? Fruit juice is just fruit with some or all of the filling fiber removed. If the goal is maximum satiety on minimum calories, you’re better off eating whole fruit and drinking water or artificially sweetened beverages.

On the low-carb front, people who believe that what’s important is not how many calories you eat but what kind are also going to see juice (and sometimes most fruits and vegetables as well) as "unhealthy." It does seem to be true that diets high in carbohydrates drive up insulin levels, slowing metabolism and encouraging the body to store fat. And the overwhelming majority of the calories in most fruit juices are in the form of carbohydrates. Some green vegetable juices have protein content approaching 50% of the carbohydrate content, but that just makes it 75% bad rather than 100% bad, at least as true carbophobes are concerned.

And finally, there are some non-carbophobes who might avoid juice because they’re wary of sugar qua sugar, rather than sugar qua carbohydrate. The carbohydrates in fruit juice primarily take the form of fructose—wikipedia has a handy chart of the kinds of sugars in common plant foods. It doesn’t seem like there’s a true consensus yet about whether or not fructose is especially bad—despite recent studies linking fructose to obesity, even within the medical community, some people still advocate fructose as a "low glycemic" sugar that’s better for diabetics. It basically all comes down to whether you think the fact that fructose is digested in the liver and doesn’t trigger insulin production is a good thing or a bad thing. To link it to other sugar purveyors: pro-agave nectar people should also think that fruit juice is healthy and people who think hfcs is bad because they think it’s "high fructose" compared to other sugars are, well, a) wrong, but b) should also be advocating hfcs-sweetened sodas over fruit juices, which are even richer in sugar.

Personally, I think the evidence that fructose in large amounts causes equivalent blood sugar spikes to other sugar, increased "bad" cholesterol and triglycerides and signs of insulin resistance compared to glucose, and can cause non-alcoholic fatty liver disease consumed in vast quantities suggests that it is certainly no better and possibly much worse for human health than glucose or sucrose. But "worse for human health" is relative, not absolute, and depends a lot on amount, kind, and context. 

What is health?

I’m generally convinced by the argument made by people like Gary Taubes that a diet composed of almost-exclusively proteins and fats might better represent the pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer diet (as would cyclical feast and famine) and prevent carbohydrate-induced insulin resistance and fat storage. Jared Diamond makes some of the same points in Guns, Germs, and Steel. But the benefits of agriculture ultimately outweighed the costs—both for the species as a whole and measured by individual health metrics. In the immediate aftermath of the transition to agriculture, lifespans and average height decreased, but after a few thousand years, people depending on rice, corn, and wheat began to get healthier again

Does that mean carbohydrates are a healthier basis for a diet than proteins and fats? No. But it does mean that people can (and do) live very long lives uninterrupted by diet-based disease during which they are strong and energetic enough to physically do anything they want to do while eating a diet consisting substantially of carbohydrates. And I think that’s not a bad working definition of "healthy."

It seems to me that the debate comes down to a difference between ideas about nutritional "health" based on what might be theoretically optimal (for a very limited set of criteria), ideas about health based on potential pathology, and ideas about health based on actual health outcomes

Fear of juice is based on the first two—the idea that either people should eat as few carbohydrates as possible in pursuit of some sort of optimal diet, or that the fructose in juice will cause fatness (an aesthetic problem, not a medical problem) or disease and eventually death. Based on actual health outcomes, I think it would be almost impossible to make a case for the claim that drinking fruit juice—occasionally or regularly—is categorically unhealthy or the direct cause of disease or death.

In fact, things like fruit juice and hamburgers and Doritos, which can each be constructed as "unhealthy" are hard to entirely rule out of a "healthy diet." Even proponents of a soda tax generally agree that the only reason soda is a reasonable target is because it has no identified nutrients (what would happen if they fortified them, I wonder?).

The nutrient-density of juice is the primary reason for the long tradition of juice being regarded as a health food. If your concern is about essential vitamins and minerals (like many older models of nutrition, which people like Marion Nestle stand by) or consuming carbohydrates for fuel, which many physically active people still do, it’s hard to argue with the healthfulness of juice. I agree with Michael Pollan’s claim that popular beliefs about health often fall prey to "nutritionism," or the attempt to reduce food and nutrition to scientifically-identified nutrients and vitamins. At the same time, I don’t think you have to be brainwashed by the continued prevalence of nutritionism to believe there’s good evidence that many of the nutrients that scientists have identified are actually valuable or promote health and well-being (even if they’re not the only valuable aspects of food).

All juices are not created equal

The person who requested this entry was concerned specifically about fresh juices being portrayed as unhealthy, because they seem to have been smeared by concerns about packaged juices being just other source of dietary sugar.

While not all fruits lend themselves as readily to the production of refined sugars as sugar beets, some like apples, pears, and grapes can be turned into a nutrient-poor sweetener without most of the fruits’ color, flavor, or minerals and many fruit juices marketed as 100% natural fruit juices, like Juicy Juice, are sweetened with fruit juice that’s basically been turned into a sugar syrup. The nutritional distinction between those drinks and hfcs-sweetened soda is probably negligible regardless of whether your primary concern is calories, carbohydrates, sugar, or vitamins.

But the reason packaged juices often combined with fruit-based sugar is that many fruit juices aren’t actually that sweet on their own, or their sweetness is offset by the intensity of the flavor, as anyone who’s ever tried 100% cranberry or concord grape or cherry or blueberry juice knows. The fresh juices you can get at juice bars or make at home are calorie-dense, but they’re also extraordinarily nutrient dense and not likely to be consumed in quantity or alongside meals. They’re more often enjoyed on their own, like a snack, particularly after a workout—basically just like fruit. When you leave in some of the pulp, it becomes even less nutritionally distinct from fruit, and when you include vegetable juices or the juices of things like wheatgrass and ginger which are difficult or unpleasant to eat raw, you may be enjoying something that could, by some criteria, be healthier than a piece of fresh fruit.

Some juices even have pretty well-established medicinal uses. Cranberry juice, for example, can help prevent and cure urinary tract infections (that study notes the existence of "diet" cranberry juice, which I’d never heard of, but now that I have I wonder why there aren’t more "diet" juices sweetened with artificial sweeteners rather than pear or grape juice-sugar. Not that those would necessarily be "healthy" by everyone’s standards, especially given the links between saccharin and cancer and suspicions about the healthfulness of aspartame and sucralose…)

Ultimately, while I don’t think even the occasional hfcs-sweetened Capri Sun is incompatible with a "healthy" diet and life, I think it’s unreasonable to conflate fresh juice without added sweeteners with juices sweetened with refined juice-sugar. I guess people trying to eat an "optimal" diet a la Gary Taubes should avoid all juices, fresh or no, but I don’t envy them their carbohydrate-less life, nor am I convinced that the total deprivation of many foods that have aesthetic, gustatory, social and/or cultural value is necessarily "healthy" or "optimal" either. For the vast majority of people who think fruit and vegetables are part of a healthy diet, fruit juice and especially fresh fruit juice should also pass muster as a "healthy" choice especially when consumed in moderation, which I suspect fresh fruit juices usually are.

Battle Tomato Course 2/5: Crab salad napoleons and a green salad with roasted tomato vinaigrette and fried tomato skins

and because we are nothing if not classy in kitchen stadium canada, it's paired with labatt blue light. in a can.

Finally getting back around to the epic battle of tomato before tomato season is over for another year. After I scrapped the idea of doing BLT sliders for my lunch plate because I didn’t want to over-use bacon, I decided to try something that would use the slices of tomato as a structuring agent rather than bread.

Although "napoleon" used to refer exclusively to a dessert composed of layers of puff pastry and pastry cream (or whipped cream), it’s being used now to refer to anything with repetitive layers of differing textures—i.e. more layers than a "sandwich" and more differentiated than layers of gelatin or lasagna. From what I can tell from watching competitive cooking on television (and not as a substitute for cooking either—I so wish the Balzer data Pollan was ranting about in the NYT a few weeks ago had accounted for traditional indicators of social class and suspect that many people watching food television are actually cooking but that’s a topic for another post), napoleons usually have at least three layers of whatever’s playing the roll of the puff pastry and at least two layers of semi-solid filling.

The layers were already a given. For the filling, I decided on a mayonnaise-based crab salad because I knew I had seen crab-stuffed tomatoes on menus and tomatoes love mayonnaise almost as much as they love salt. And indeed, I thought the combination worked really well. I’ll definitely make the salad again, perhaps to use as a sandwich or wrap filling when tomatoes are out of season. Recipes and instructions for making fried tomato skins after the jump, now that jumps are working. Yay for jumps.

Recipe: Crab salad napoleons, adapted from allrecipes.com

(for 6 servings, but easily scaled)

  • 6 medium-to-large tomatoes
  • 1 lb crab—lump or canned, or a surimi product (like imitation krab)
  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 2 shallots diced
  • 1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
  • 1/2 cup diced celery
  • 2 T. sour cream
  • 2-3 T. chopped fresh dill
  • 1 t. Old Bay seasoning
  • 2-3 hard boiled eggs, chopped
  • salt and pepper to taste

Core the tomatoes and cut each one into four slices horizontally.

Drain crab and check for cartilage and shell fragments. Combine with remaining ingredients.

Spread a few tablespoons of salad between the layers of tomato and garnish with a sprig of dill.

I served the napoleons with a side salad of fresh greens tossed with a roasted tomato vinaigrette that I can eat by the spoonful I love it so much, goat cheese, diced kalmata olives, and fried tomato skins.

The fried tomato skins were a sort of experiment. I knew I was going to blanch and skin the tomatoes for my soup course and decided that rather than throw them out, I should try to do something with them. Points for creative use of ingredient and all that. So I tossed them in some flour seasoned with salt and pepper and then fried them until golden brown in some hot olive oil, and gave them another sprinkle of salt just after frying. Tomato skins don’t have a ton of flavor, but it’s hard to go wrong with fried flour and salt—they were a hit. I would do it again if I ever, ever bothered to blanche and peel tomatoes when I cook at home. 

The easiest way to get nice big pieces of tomato skins is to cut an "x" on the bottom of your tomatoes before blanching them in boiling water for about 1 min. Transfer them to a bowl of ice water, and then you should be able to remove each tomato skin in four big pieces.

Recipe: Roasted tomato vinaigrette, from Erik Markoff

  • 8 roma tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup champagne or white wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup + 1 T. olive oil
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley
  • salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400 F. Halve the tomatoes and place them on a foil-lined baking sheet. Pour about 1 T. olive oil over them and toss gently to coat, sprinkle with salt and pepper and roast for 40 minutes.

Puree roasted tomatoes with remaining ingredients in a food processor or blender until smooth and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Things that won’t kill you Vol. 1: High-fructose corn syrup

Confession: I not only avoided high-fructose corn syrup (hfcs) until about a year ago, I was actually skittish about fresh corn for a while after my first encounter with Michael Pollan in The New York Times Magazine (or it might have been this article). I stopped eating corn tortillas and frozen corn kernels and felt vaguely panicky about the possibility that I was consuming hfcs in condiments and sandwich bread when I ate out, even if it would have only been tiny amounts.

Now that I’m over it, I sometimes have a hard time remembering what was so scary about the idea that there was corn in everything I was eating, an idea that was obviously ludicrous anyway because I was a vegetarian who mostly ate food prepared at home from whole, fresh, non-corn ingredients. But looking back at the articles linked above, they are pretty ominous. Even though Pollan notes that a corn-based diet has been the norm in Mexico for centuries without any apparent ill effects, and the story he tells about the "cornification" of the American diet is too complex to be a nefarious plot designed to kill us all, it’s clear that he thinks the amount of corn Americans eat on average is a Bad Thing. Sure, it may rely on innocent accidents of nature, like the uniquely efficient way corn fixes carbon during photosynthesis and and the great distance corn pollen has to travel to reach the style, but it’s also reliant on much more insidious developments: synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, an arcane federal farm subsidy systems that turned corn into "a welfare queen," agribusiness giants with seed patents on genetically-modified strains, giant livestock feeding operations that use antibiotics to keep cows alive because eating corn makes them sick, and food manufacturers who profit from getting people to buy cheap food in ever-increasing quantities. Eating corn in any form may seem like a way of giving in to all of that or even supporting it.

So although I did a fair bit of eye-rolling when I read about people avoiding sweet corn at their farmer’s markets this summer or feeling "corn guilt" when they eat popcorn, it’s worth remembering that I was one of them not so long ago.

HFCS paranoia is not primarily an issue of ethical consumption

It’s not that many of those concerns are invalid—it’s true that most corn relies on a lot of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, that much of it is grown using genetically modified seeds with patents held by huge corporations that have been known to sue farmers when corn with their patented genes end up in their fields, that cows fed diets of corn get sick and are more susceptible to diseases like e coli that can threaten humans. But it’s also far from clear that refusing to eat ketchup containing high fructose corn syrup is an effective means of changing any of that or even primarily motivated by the desire to change those things.

Although people like Pollan have made a big deal about corn sweeteners being artificially cheap due to farm subsidies, the actual farm cost of hfcs in the food products we buy is so minimal that even if subsidies were eliminated entirely, it might not affect portion sizes or consumer demand at all. Even in soft drinks, which are by far the most demonized hfcs delivery system, hfcs represents just 3.5% of the total cost of manufacturing. The corn content, the only part actually affected by farm subsidies, is only 1.6 percent of the price (based on US Department of Commerce data). A comparison between the U.S., Australia, the UK, and France, all of which have different sugar policies but similar consumer prices, show no pattern in the relationships between how cheap sugar is, how much of it people eat, or how fat on average they are (which most people wrongly assume is a reliable measure of health outcomes, but I’ll tackle some other time).

Pollan’s formal case against hfcs relies primarily on arguments about price and prevalence, but that doesn’t really explain the kind of paranoia his books and articles have helped inspire about eating corn and/or hfcs. Not buying and eating something because it’s too cheap just isn’t the kind of consumer behavior that spreads the way hfcs-phobia has. Nor is this some sort of mass avoidance of all added or refined sugars, or brands like Snapple and Pepsi wouldn’t be running huge campaigns to advertise soft drinks containing only "natural sugar."

Instead, people have latched on to the implication, which isn’t supported by any data I can find, that hfcs is nutritionally worse than other sugars. The hfcs paranoia isn’t caused by the idea that hfcs might be unwisely or unfairly subsidized or that pesticides used to produce corn are poisoning waterways or anything related to feeding corn to cows. The fear is that hfcs might be some kind of demon poison that makes people fat.

The confusing part: "high fructose" isn’t actually high fructose

The idea that hfcs is worse than other sugars seems to be primarily reinforced by research about how fructose is metabolized. Just last April, an article about a study comparing drinks sweetened with fructose and  glucose in the New York Times began:

Some research has suggested that consumption of high-fructose corn syrup, used as a sweetener in a wide variety of foods, may increase the risk of obesity and heart disease. Now, a controlled and randomized study has found that drinks sweetened with fructose led to higher blood levels of L.D.L, or "bad" cholesterol, and triglycerides in overweight test subjects, while drinks sweetened with another sugar, glucose, did not.

Things like this get reported all the time. However, the very last sentence of the article quotes another biochemist:

The study did not test high-fructose corn syrup, he said, and judgments should not be made about it from the findings.

Not that that stopped the author from leading with the useless, ambiguous claim about a supposed link between hfcs and obesity, but surely this deserves a little more attention: yes, fructose alone seems to cause more insulin resistance and weight gain in both rats and people than glucose alone. But high fructose corn syrup is only "high fructose" relative to normal corn syrup, which is 100% glucose.

The kind of hfcs used in most food processing, including soft drinks, is hfcs-55, which is approximately 55% fructose and 45% glucose, or almost identical to sucrose, which is about 50/50. Another kind, hfcs-42, is used in the manufacture of some baked goods, and if fructose is really worse, that would make that kind of hfcs healthier than cane sugar. Indeed, studies comparing the consumption of hfcs to sucrose have shown no differences in metabolic responses (or energy or macronutrient intake) at all.

The argument that hfcs is somehow responsible for the obesity epidemic relies entirely on correlations between the rise of hfcs in food manufacturing in the 1980s and the rise in national rates of overweight/obesity (and the exponential rise in concern about fatness). Pollan’s case against hfcs amounts to a gut suspicion that:

It’s probably no coincidence that the wholesale switch to corn sweeteners in the 1980’s marks the beginning of the epidemic of obesity and Type 2 diabetes in this country.

Of course, this fails to account for the simultaneous increases in obesity in many other countries, perhaps most notably Australia, where obesity rates rival or even exceed those in the U.S., but sugar is the primary sweetener. It’s not that he’s totally wrong; it does seem probable that U.S. farm subsidies and the cheap price of highly-palatable, nutrient-poor, calorie-rich, primarily carbohydrate-based foods is one factor driving the relatively small increases in the average American’s weight since the 1970s. And the history of corn cultivation and agricultural policy has something to do with that. But there’s no reason to think that hfcs is uniquely responsible for the "obesity epidemic." After all, if it weren’t for subsidies and tariffs that keep the price of sugar artificially inflated, which are the result of a different set of biological, historical, and political contingencies, it would be just as cheap. 

Ultimately, hfcs is just another source of sugar, nutritionally no different from cane sugar, and way better than agave nectar if you’re concerned about fructose. It might be slightly worse than things like honey (esp. raw) and maple syrup (esp. grade B or lower) if you’re interested in vitamins and minerals. (This is all assuming the hfcs in question contains mercury, but that’s sort of another story altogether).

That doesn’t mean hfcs is  "natural," a word which has virtually no meaning when it comes to food labeling anyhow, but then, if "natural" is the alternative to "processed," no sweeteners are. Agave nectar must be filtered, hydrolyzed, re-filtered, and concentrated before it can be used as a sweetener. Refined cane sugar is purified with phosphoric acid and calcium hydroxide, and sometimes whitened using bone char which is why some vegetarians and vegans refuse to eat it.

The upshot is there’s no reason to believe that hfcs is any worse for you than sugar or much worse for you than any other sweeteners, and there’s certainly no reason to believe that a little bit here and there in a favorite condiment or even the occasional soda is going to hurt you.

Later in this series: I’ve gotten a request to weigh in on fruit juice, and will try to do that soon. And someday I’ll get around to msg, as promised before.