Archive for May, 2009

Eat Food

Posted in Health, Marketing on May 29, 2009 by Powered By Produce

It sounds easy, right? But, it’s increasingly harder as our grocery stores continue to fill up with edible-food-like-substances. We are continually drawn in by the “no trans fat margarine” and the “low fat, omega fortified cheese,” but it’s a pretty good rule of thumb that products with health claims on the packaging indicate that it’s not real food. All of these food-like-creations just cause confusion about one of the most basic fundamentals of life: what to eat. (PS – No other animal needs professional help to decide what to eat!)

Between the nutritionists, food manufacturers, food marketers, and even journalists, there are a lot of people who have a lot to gain from the latest health craze (just think of all the buzz around carbs, trans fats, omega 3’s, antioxidants). In fact, it’s an industry that thrives not only on change, but also on consumer confusion.

Ironically, the professionalization of nutritionism didn’t make us healthier, it made us significantly unhealthier and significantly fatter. In fact, 4 of the top 10 causes of death in the US are chronic diseases that are linked to diet: coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and cancer. (These diseases remain rare in areas where people don’t eat the way we do.)

Due to food industrialization, instead of fresh fruits & vegetables, westerners are consuming highly processed substances, refined grains, chemicals used to raise plants & animals (who are raised in huge monocultures), an abundance of cheap sugar & fat calories, and all on a base of 3 staple crops: corn, wheat, and soy.

Human populations have thrived on a variety of diets: high fat, low fat, high carb, all meat, all plant, so we know that the human animal can adapt to different diets, but the western diet is not one of them. Yet, instead of returning to the basics (real food), we continue to tinker with the processed stuff by lowering the fat, raising the fiber, adding omega-3’s, removing saturated fats, etc, etc, etc.

In the 1960’s, the height of food industrialization, it was nearly impossible to buy vegetable or meat without chemicals, but today we have a choice. And, this choice has real consequences to our health, to our environment, and to our animals. (It just so happens that the best ethical and environmental choices are also the best for our health.) The more eaters who vote with their fork for real food, the more commonplace it will become. So, eat food!
Breakfast: Peaches & cream oatmeal
Lunch: Tomato soup, crackers, and sliced cucumber
Dinner: Veggie burger (from the frozen aisle) and salad


Downed Cows

Posted in Animal Welfare, Health on May 27, 2009 by Powered By Produce

In February 2008, the USDA ordered the largest beef recall in US history – 143 million pounds of beef. The recall came 3 weeks after the Humane Society exposed the cattle abuse at a plant that supplies meat to 36 states and over 100,000 schools. Unfortunately, the recall included beef dated back to February 2006, so most had already been consumed. But, why would eating abused beef even effect our health?

Because the most common form of cattle abuse is forcing “downed” cows to stand for slaughter. It is against USDA regulations to slaughter an animal that can not stand on its own because the inability of the animal to stand indicates an unhealthy animal and downer animals have a higher likelihood of E. coli and Mad Cow Disease. But the slaughterhouses do not want to lose money on these sick animals, so they kick them, ram them with forklifts, jab them in the eyes, and shock them with electric prods, to try to force them to stand.

The exposed incident in February of 2008, unfortunately, is representative of a rampant practice in the industry. Not only is this routine cruel, but it is also dangerous to our health. As the meat industry has consolidated, larger plants process more animals than ever before. Plus, old dairy cattle (used for ground beef) are more prone to disease, and one sick cow can contaminate thousands of pounds of hamburger. A contamination in a single plant can effect consumers all across the country.

As the number of contamination outbreaks has increased, our animal health and food safety inspection system has declined. In a nutshell, there are not enough inspectors, and the inspectors are not equipped with adequate detection technology. The USDA has a lack of protection for whistleblower inspectors and slaughterhouse employees, and even has a history of disciplining whistleblowers. And, perhaps most detrimental to our health, the USDA relies on the meat processors, instead of federal inspectors, to control the sampling of meat products to detect contamination.
Breakfast: none
Lunch: Panini with mushrooms, spinach, tomato, onion, and hummus
Dinner: Veggie dogs (leftovers from Memorial Day weekend BBQs)
PS – Love this!

NutraSweet Not So Sweet

Posted in Health on May 21, 2009 by Powered By Produce

The FDA has approved the use of 5 artificial sweeteners, but none is as controversial as the approval of aspartame, more commonly known as NutraSweet or Equal. NutraSweet is in all diet sodas, diet drinks (including diet juices and Crystal Light), and most diet foods. Equal is the sweetener in the blue packet.

There are countless books, articles, web sites, and documentaries on the reasons why aspartame should not be consumed. Some site medical studies while others base their claims on industry-related conspiracies. Either way, I certainly don’t want to be involved with this stuff!

Medical Studies
The strongest case against aspartame is the evidence linking it to brain tumors. There is overwhelming evidence that aspartame causes brain tumors in animals (from rats to monkeys), and many scientists believe it is linked to the growing number of brain tumors today.

There is additional evidence that these symptoms can be related to aspartame: headache, dizziness, change in mood, vomiting or nausea, abdominal pain and cramps, change in vision, diarrhea, seizures/convulsions, memory loss, and fatigue.

Along with these symptoms, links to aspartame are made for fibromyyalgia, spasms, shooting pains, numbness in your legs, cramps, tinnitus, joint pain, unexplainable depression, anxiety attacks, slurred speech, blurred vision, multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus, and various cancers.

Industry Conspiracies
With very strong medical evidence indicating the dangers of aspartame, how the heck did it ever get approved by the FDA? Well, this gets long and complicated, so I’ll try to break it down as simply as possible.

Basically, what happened was, back in 1965, someone from the pharmaceutical company GD Searle was working on an ulcer drug when he spilled some on his hand and licked it off, discovering it was sweet.

In 1970, one of the first tests was conducted on aspartame. It was a 52 week study on 7 monkeys. Five of them had seizures and one died of cardiac arrest. Also in 1970, a study showed that oral intake of aspartic acid (an ingredient of aspartame) could cause brain tumors in mice. In 1971, Searle re-created the mice/brain tumor study arriving the same results themselves. Yet, knowing these results, in 1973 Searle applied to the FDA to use NutraSweet as a food-additive sweetener.

Of all the initial studies on the safety of aspartame, about half of them were funded by NutraSweet-related funds (soda companies, diet food companies, etc) and the other half were independently funded (medical researchers, universities, etc). One hundred percent of the industry-funded research attested to aspartame’s safety, whereas 92% of the independently funded research identified a problem. However, Searle only presented the favorable findings to the FDA and gained approval for the limited use of aspartame in dry foods in 1974.

Shortly after this, reports and studies surfaced that linked aspartame to brain tumors and petitions against aspartame were filed. The FDA hired an independent research group to review the Searle studies, but required Searle to pay for this group. So, here is an independent group that makes money by being hired to do studies – why would it be critical of a potential new customer?

The safety controversy continued and in 1977 the FDA recommended, to US attorney Samuel Skinner, that a grand jury investigate Searle for fraud and deletion, manipulation, & falsification of records. Suddenly, Samuel Skinner began employment discussions with Searle’s law firm.

The US justice department urged Samuel Skinner to proceed with the grand jury, pointing out that the statute of limitations would soon expire. Samuel Skinner withdrew from the Searle case, took a position with Searle’s law firm, and US assistant attorney William Conlon was assigned to the investigation. William Conlon let the statute of limitations expire on the case and 15 months later was also hired by Searle’s law firm.

The common denominator for all of this as money. Searle allegedly promised high paying jobs to FDA employees who approved aspartame. Eight of the key FDA decision makers in the approval process for aspartame ended up working for NutraSweet-using companies (soft drinks, etc).

In 1980, the FDA’s Public Board of Inquiry voted unanimously to reject the use of aspartame until further studies were conducted on its safety.

The day after Ronald Reagan was sworn into office (1981), he eliminated the power of the current FDA Commissioner and one month later, appointed a new FDA Commissioner, Arthur Hull Hayes. The fast action on Reagan’s part is assumed to be linked to the fact that Donald Rumsfeld was the president of GD Searle at the time.

In 1981, Searle re-applied for the approval of aspartame. Three of the five FDA scientists on the approval board advised against the approval of aspartame, but the new FDA Commissioner, Arthur Hull Hayes, assigned one more panel member to the case, causing a 3-3 split on the decision. Then Arthur Hull Hayes himself overruled the Public Board of Inquiry and approved aspartame for use.

In 1983, the FDA approved the use of aspartame in carbonated beverages. Under charges of improprieties, Hayes left the FDA and was hired as a consultant for $1000 a day by Searle’s PR firm.

Further controversy ensued when Searle made a “business deal” with a member of the UK’s equivalent of the FDA. This individual single-handedly approved the use of aspartame in the UK, inciting debate, but the decision was not revoked. There were no studies done in the UK. Approval in the US and UK ok-ed the use of aspartame for the rest of the world.

And that’s the story, folks!

For more information, visit:
Breakfast: Microwavable breakfast wrap, from the frozen aisle, filled with tofu scramble, fakin bacon, and vegan cheese. And it doesn’t taste like cardboard, I swear!
Lunch: Cheese enchiladas at Anita’s New Mexico Style Mexican Restaurant
Dinner: Asian peanut-ginger noodles, ready-made from Trader Joe’s

Tweet Me!

Posted in Miscellaneous on May 18, 2009 by Powered By Produce

It was suggested by multiple people that I post my blog updates to twitter for easier following. I’ve never tweeted before, but I’m going to try it out. All you twitterers can subscribe to me here:

Also, I keep getting asked, “If you don’t eat meat, then what do you eat?” Well, I eat EVERYTHING ELSE! Our culture teaches us that meat must be the main dish at every meal, so it is hard for us to even conceive of an alternative. There are many other cultures around the world that eat heavily vegetarian diets and they seem to find plenty of options. To help give us Americans some ideas for meatless meals, I will begin to list what I ate (or plan to eat) that day at the bottom of each post. Just don’t judge me for not eating breakfast.
Breakfast: A few pieces of cantaloupe
Lunch: Leftover gnocchi (it’s like pasta, but made from potato) from Maggiano’smmm.
Dinner: Tacos made with either black beans or meatless crumbles (found in your frozen aisle), topped with all the fixin’s (lettuce, tomato, onion, cilantro, salsa verde, cheese). Lucky for me, I have some authentic hand-made tortillas from San Antonio (HEB Central Market) stockpiled in my freezer 🙂

Buzz Words

Posted in Free Range, Organic on May 16, 2009 by Powered By Produce

It is difficult to reject industrialized farming practices when we don’t understand what we’re buying. The educated consumer can put their money where their values lie.

Organic – Certainly this is the biggest buzz word in the supermarket today, yet most people don’t even know what it means. Most basically, ‘organic’ means that fruits & veggies were grown without pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation, and that meat, dairy, and eggs are from animals that were not given antibiotics, growth hormones, or “animal protein products.”

However, not all organics are created equal. The USDA (who wants their farmers to profit) has 3 official categories of ‘organic’:

100% Organic – All ingredients were raised/harvested in a fully organic way

Organic – Made with at least 95% organic ingredients

Made With Organic Ingredients – Made with at least 70% organic ingredients and restrictions on the remaining 30%, including no genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

It is important to realize that ‘organic’ does NOT indicate grass-fed or free-range. Organic meat, eggs, and dairy sold at large-scale suppliers (like Whole Foods, Harris Teeter, HEB, etc) are most often fed a diet of organic corn and raised in CAFO-like conditions (many animals crammed into a small space, etc).

At the beginning of the organic movement, organic was hyped as better for the environment, however this is now hotly debated. Most research suggests that organic agriculture has marginally lower carbon emissions than conventional methods, but the results depend on the crop, the soils, and the skill of the farmer.

The quality of organic foods over conventional foods is another debated issue. Some studies have shown that organic foods contain higher levels of vitamins and nutrients, but there are also claims that this is not true.

Grass-Fed – This one, at its basics, is fairly self-explanatory: the animal is fed grass, not corn. Because the animal is eating what it was designed to eat, the meat and dairy products produced from grass-fed animals is healthier for you. There is no debate about this. It has less total fat, less saturated fat, less cholesterol, and fewer calories. It is richer in antioxidants including vitamin E, beta-carotene, and vitamin C, and richer in healthy fats including omega-3 fatty acids.

However, ‘grass-fed’ does NOT indicate ‘organic’. These animals could still be treated with antibiotics, hormones, or may be eating grass treated with pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. At local farmers’ markets, this is generally not the case, but at grocery stores, check for both ‘grass-fed’ and ‘organic’ labels just to be sure. The USDA is currently working on official regulations for ‘grass-fed’ product labeling.

Vegetarian-fed – Indicates that the animal was not fed rendered “animal protein products.” This does NOT indicate ‘organic’ nor ‘grass-fed’.

Natural – One of the biggest marketing ploys out there. Many people associate ‘natural’ with ‘organic’ or ‘grass-fed’. Don’t fall for it! Most ‘natural’ products do not contain synthetic ingredients, but there are no regulations on what can be labeled ‘natural,’ they’re just trying to leech on to the organic movement by confusing consumers.

Free Range/Cage-Free – Another deceiving term. Do not be fooled into thinking these animals live on an open field. The USDA does not have any regulations on ‘free range’ labeling, except with regards to poultry. The official USDA regulations on ‘free range’ poultry state that the chickens must have “access to the outdoors” to be labeled free range. Unfortunately, this leads to farmers having a small door in their chicken coop, that they admit is kept closed for the beginning of the chicken’s life and only opened after the chickens are used to being crammed in the hen house, so they don’t even try to go outside once it’s opened. And this is labeled ‘free-range.’ Similarly, ‘cage-free’ may indicate a lack of wire mesh, but the animals are still crammed far too many to a coop.

For beef, pork, and other non-poultry, there is absolutely no criteria, and the USDA relies “upon producer testimonials to support the accuracy of these claims.” Uh, right. Once again, claims of free-range and cage-free are much more believable at a local farmer’s market, than in the grocery store.

Buyers beware.

Feeding Our Food (Part 2)

Posted in Animal Welfare, Health on May 15, 2009 by Powered By Produce

Let me just remind you where we left off: discussing the meal that is served up in CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations), where most of our farm animals are raised.

That meal, in case you’ve forgotten, consists of corn, soy, antibiotics, hormones, meat from other animals (including diseased animals), bits of feathers, hair, skin, hooves, blood, manure, chicken litter, and plastic.

I discussed corn and soy in the previous post. Now on to the rest.

Meat from same and other species, diseased animals, feathers, hair, skin, hooves, and blood
Another way to fatten the animals as quickly as possible is to add so-called “protein suppliments” their feed, which comes in the form of “animal protein products.” This is another ingenious way for CAFOs to cut their costs: feed the carcasses of slaughtered animals back to the feeding animals. I am not making this up people.

The spread of Mad Cow Disease was a direct result of this practice. The US government has since put restrictions on the parts of cattle that can be fed back to cattle. Cows can no longer be fed cow brains, spinal cords and other central nervous system tissues, but they can still be fed cow blood and other cow parts. Plus, cows can be fed rendered pigs, chickens, and turkeys that have been fed cow brains, spinal cords, and nervous systems.

In addition to inducing cannibalism, animal feed can also legally contain road kill, dead horses, and euthanized cats and dogs. Seriously, I am not making this up.

There are plenty of resources on this subject. Here is one:

Manure and Other Animal Waste
It is common practice to add cattle manure, swine waste, and poultry litter to the feed as additional “animal protein products.” Not only can this waste contain antibiotics and hormones that were fed to the animals, but it can also come from animals that ate rendered cow parts, and then be fed to cows, possibly enabling the spread of Mad Cow Disease. The litter served up as food is allowed to contain contain dirt, rocks, sand, wood, and other such contaminants. Another link, just in case you still don’t believe me:

Many animals need roughage to move food through their digestive systems, but since they are not receiving the necessary fiber from their corn-based diet, CAFOs use plastic pellets to simulate plant-based roughage.

Antibiotics and Hormones
Antibiotics and hormones are used to speed the fattening of the animals and to combat the health effects of a corn based diet and of very cramped, unsanitary conditions (where diseases thrive and spread quickly). Traces of these drugs can be found in the meat humans consume. And not only that, but traces of these drugs can also be found in vegetables that are fertilized with manure from drugged animals. And on top of that, human water sources have been contaminated with these drugs due to feedlot water runoff. Some of the antibiotics commonly used to control parasites and promote growth contain arsenic, a known human carcenogen.

Another serious issue is that these antibiotics are always added to the feed and water. This practice of “nontherapeutic use of antibiotics” speeds up the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Antibiotic resistance is a public health problem that costs the US economy billions of dollars each year.

What You Can Do
As an informed consumer, you have the power to express your disdain in these practices. Remember, your money talks! Some options:

– Try plant based alternatives (veggie burgers, etc)

– Choose grass fed beef, pork, poultry, eggs, and dairy

– Look for “vegetarian fed” labels (no rendered animal parts were fed back to these animals)

– Purchase certified organic products

– Buy meat, eggs, and dairy products from local farmers’ markets (these are not products of CAFOs)

NOTE: There is a difference between “organic”, “grass-fed”, “vegetarian-fed”, and “local” – will discuss each of these soon!

Feeding Our Food (Part 1)

Posted in Animal Welfare, Health on May 13, 2009 by Powered By Produce

When we think of farm animals, we picture cows eating grass on the pasture, pigs rolling in mud troughs, and chickens pecking at the ground for grubs. Unfortunately, this is nowhere near reality. In fact, most of our farm animals are not raised on farms at all. Instead, they are raised in Confined Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, which are essentially just huge meat factories. This may be hard to believe, but in the US, only four companies produce 81% of cows, 73% of sheep, 57% of pigs and 50% of chickens!

Just like any other factory, the goal of these CAFOs is to reduce costs and increase profits. There are many ways they do this, including using the cheapest feed possible, and fattening the animals for slaughter as quickly as possible.

Therefore, the meals served up in the CAFOs are the cheapest, most fattening dish available: a mixture of corn, soy, antibiotics, hormones, meat from other animals (including diseased animals), bits of feathers, hair, skin, hooves, blood, manure, chicken litter, and plastic. By now you probably think I’m exaggerating, but I assure you I am not. All of these are legal feedlot ingredients, demonstrating that our system has lost sight of the appropriate way to raise livestock.

In order to keep this post from turning into a novel, I’ll address the base of the feedlot meal, the corn and soy, in this post, then will follow up on the other appetizing ingredients in the next post.

Corn and Soy
Because of a series of events (including government farm subsidies, which will be discussed in a later post), corn and soy became incredibly cheap and therefore became the base of CAFO feed. Livestock consumes 60% of the corn and 47% of the soy produced in the US.

Just like humans, animals are healthiest when they eat the correct diet. That diet is not corn. Let’s just take cows as an example (similar principle for pigs, chicken, turkeys, etc): Cows are ruminants, which is a type of animal with a digestive system designed to process grass. Ruminants have four-chambered stomachs and digest their food by eating it, then regurgitating it, and eating it again. The regurgitated, re-eaten food is processed in the section of the stomach called the ‘rumen‘.

When a cow eats corn, or anything else its digestive tract is not designed to handle, it creates digestive problems. A low fiber (all corn, no grass) diet causes fermentation acids to accumulate in the rumen and this acid buildup causes ulcers, which can also lead to infections and abscesses in the liver (not to mention excessive indigestion and drooling/frothing).

Additionally, grains accumulate in the cow’s intestines, because they are not digested properly, and cause growth of E. coli in the digestive tract (you know that stuff that can kill you if you don’t cook your hamburger well enough), as well as an overgrowth of a bacteria that causes “Sudden Death Syndrome” in feedlot cattle.

But instead of switching the cows back to a diet of grass (which would raise costs), CAFOs just pump the feed full of antibiotics to try to lessen the effects of the corn diet, which further alters the natural internals of the cow’s digestive system.

Not only is corn a cheap meal, but it is also a fattening one because of the way it is digested and fermented in a cow’s digestive system. Prior to CAFOs, steers were 4-5 years old at slaughter. Today, they are 14-16 months. You can’t take a beef calf from a birth weight of 80 pounds to slaughter weight of 1,200 pounds in a little more than a year on grass. It takes enormous quantities of corn, protein (feeding animals to animals), and growth hormones.

A corn based diet is not just unhealthy for the cows, but it is also unhealthy for the humans eating those cows. Besides the significant increase in E. coli, corn fed cows develop a marbled flesh, which is saturated fat woven into their muscles. And because the USDA is out to protect the farmers (not the consumers), their beef grading system is set up to reward this intra-muscular fat marbling with a “Grade A” stamp.