This blog was written in a paid partnership with the American Frozen Food Institute. However, the opinions expressed represent my personal views on food safety, nutrition and healthy eating.
Before the proverbial ink was dry on my listeria and lettuce blog, yet another scary headline emerged that appeared to question the safety of eating frozen produce. I am beginning to think there is a conspiracy in the media to discourage people from eating fruits and vegetables. And as a registered dietitian this is disappointing as my colleagues and I are doing everything we can to encourage folks to eat more produce. That’s because only one in 10 people in the U.S. consumes the recommended daily servings of fruits and veggies. Packed with nutrition, I promote all forms of fruits and vegetables to make it easy for people to eat more: fresh, frozen, canned, dried and juice.
First, let me share all the reasons I love frozen fruit.
Frozen food manufacturers are very diligent in making sure fruit is safely processed and packaged to prevent foodborne illnesses. Frozen fruit is thoroughly cleaned, washed and flash frozen within hours of being harvested. Once frozen, no bacteria can grow but, contrary to popular belief, freezing does not kill bacteria or viruses. That’s why so much care is taken to clean the fruit well before it is frozen, just like we wash fresh fruit at home that is purchased at a supermarket or farmers’ market.
So back to the scary headlines. Last week the Washington Post reported on a new U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) program that is testing frozen berries for hepatitis A virus and norovirus. According to the FDA website, in 2019 and 2020, the agency will collect and test samples of U.S. grown and imported frozen packaged strawberries, raspberries and blackberries from processors, distribution centers, warehouses and supermarkets. If they find hepatitis A virus or norovirus, FDA will notify and work with the company to take action to protect the public health, such as issuing public warnings or instituting a product recall. (1) The Post article stated that since the inspections began in May, FDA has recalled one brand of a frozen blackberry product and one of a blended berry product that were found to contain parts of the hepatitis A virus. While the FDA advised consumers not to eat and to throw away the specific berry products identified, they noted that no cases of hepatitis A had been linked to them. (2)
Why would berries contain viruses or bacteria? They may become contaminated if handled by an infected worker who does not wash his or her hands properly or if the berries are exposed to a contaminated surface or agricultural water. As I mentioned earlier, bacteria, viruses and microorganisms can survive at low temperatures, including freezing. That’s why the industry is so diligent in its food safety practices.
Foodborne illness is a serious issue so we are very fortunate in the U.S. to have government agencies like the FDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) who are vigilant in setting standards and monitoring the safety of our food so that we have the safest food supply in the world.
The Post article also quotes Dr. Donald W. Schaffner a food science professor at Rutgers University who states that FDA tests for the DNA of the two viruses and the recall do not mean the berries contained the whole, live hepatitis A virus that causes illness. He goes on to say that he is not changing his berry eating habits as a result of this report because they are “safe, healthy foods” and “We want people to eat more fruit and vegetables.”
And the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics agrees. An article on their website by registered dietitian nutritionist Esther Ellis says, "Frozen foods are an affordable way to get your daily dose of fruits and vegetables. In fact, families who incorporate frozen foods into their normal routine may have better diet quality.”
Those who follow my blog and social media know I’m passionate about promoting fact-based food and nutrition information to help people “eat beyond the headlines” and enjoy a variety of nutrient-rich foods. Most of the time those scary headlines are a result of a study misrepresented and sensationalized in the media or an activist group with an agenda fostering fear about perfectly safe foods or ingredients. But the headlines that appeared in the news this past week evoke fear of food for a different reason and that’s food safety.
The latest headlines are a result of a Consumer Reports investigation of 284 samples of bagged and loose lettuce and other leafy greens from supermarkets that found six (2%) contained listeria. Listeria monocytogenes is a bacteria that causes the foodborne illness listeriosis especially in high-income, industrialized countries. It is widespread in the environment. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), compared to other foodborne illnesses, listeriosis is rare but very serious. Healthy children and adults occasionally get listeriosis, but seldom become seriously ill. People with weakened immune systems, pregnant women and the elderly, however, are at greater risk of a more severe form of listeriosis. (1) The report quotes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) medical officer, Karen Wong, M.D., as saying, “It is rare for healthy adults to get sick with listeria infection.”
SPOILER ALERT: This report does NOT advise people to stop eating lettuce and leafy greens. Nor does the report mean that leafy greens are riskier than any other foods – despite the scary headline. In fact, the report notes that listeria is usually associated with deli meats, hot dogs, soft cheeses and sprouts. They also state that the “study represents a snapshot of the market and was not large enough to draw conclusions about the safety of specific brands or retailers.” Keep reading for more context.
Food Safety Facts
Listeria is commonly found in many food items, not just leafy greens. If you check the FDA’s website you will see that several were involved in recent recalls due the detection of listeria. These included egg, tuna and lobster products in addition to other vegetables like squash and cauliflower.
We are fortunate in the U.S. to have the safest food supply in the world. Our government and its agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have regulations and programs that ensure those who grow, process and distribute our food are following high standards of safety and sanitation. There are other voluntary organizations that set additional standards and conduct testing of foods and farms to further ensure safety. But no system is perfect and at times we do have outbreaks that compromise the safety of a food for a short period of time. But, again, the government and its departments are quick to evaluate the situation and make sure the offending products are removed from our food supply until the problem is resolved.
As registered dietitians, my colleagues and I are concerned that most folks in our country are not eating enough fruits and vegetables. In fact, only 1 in 10 people consume the recommended amount of produce each day. A just-published study in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition reviewed nearly 100 studies that looked at the effects of fruits and vegetables on a variety of diseases. Their findings: eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day can drastically reduce the risk of heart disease, protect us from certain forms of cancer and promote eye and bone health, among other benefits. (2)
So anything that prevents people from eating fruits and vegetables is a concern for me, whether it’s from scary headlines that promote misinformation or real food safety issues. Putting these headlines in perspective is among the roles I play as a nutrition communications specialist. To this end, I have partnered with two organizations to further my efforts. First, I’m one of 16 volunteer Fruit and Vegetable Ambassadors in Action selected by the Produce for Better Health Foundation. Our role is to encourage increased intake of fruits and vegetables, not only for their many health benefits but also because they help you look good, feel good and have more energy. I am also a consultant with the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA), to help spread the word about the safety and nutritional value of leafy greens. LGMA is a program that verifies compliance with the food safety practices of leafy green growers through mandatory government audits.
Putting it in Perspective
How often does food contaminated with listeria actually result in an illness? The number of foodborne illnesses is extremely small compared to the vast amount of food eaten in the U.S. And when it comes to leafy greens, the chance of becoming ill is much, much less than the risk of dying in a plane crash or being struck by lightning. Yet 1 in 4 people die of heart disease every year in the U.S. (3) And that is a statistic we know can be dramatically improved by eating more fruits and vegetables, including leafy greens like lettuce and spinach.
Consumer Reports focused only on lettuce and leafy greens in this new report. Because leafy greens are packed and most often eaten raw, it is not overly surprising that that 2% of the samples tested contained listeria. They did not test other food products or even fresh vegetables to see if they had a similar small number with listeria. And they did not find other bacteria that cause foodborne illness, such as salmonella and E. coli in these 284 samples.
In reality, Consumer Reports’ findings are in line with previous ones conducted by U.S. government agencies. A study published in 2017 found listeria monocytogenes in just over one percent of 1,700 raw cut vegetable samples tested from 2010-2013 by USDA and FDA scientists. And this is similar to previously published research, which the fresh produce industry relies on to stay informed and in front of food safety concerns that could affect consumers.
The Bottom Line
This report does NOT mean leafy greens are riskier than any other foods. And, in my professional opinion, greens deliver much greater health benefits than health risks. I am not, however, suggesting that we should ignore health warnings related to foodborne illness. We certainly should, especially when a government agency issues a recall or consumer advisory, which they have not done so far in this case..
People in vulnerable groups – those with weakened immune systems, the elderly and pregnant women - may want to take additional precautions such as these mentioned in the Consumer Reports article:
Fortunately leafy greens like kale and spinach are delicious and just as nutritious when they are cooked as when eaten raw.
The CDC also provides additional suggestions for preventing illness from listeria due to other foods on their website.
A dietitian friend recently told me a story about one of her nutrition counseling clients. When discussing fruits and vegetables, he told her he only ate organic produce. When she asked why, he replied, “Honestly, I just don’t want to have to wash my produce.” He thought the only reason to wash fruits and vegetables was to remove pesticide residues and he assumed that organic would have none.
Much of the fear of pesticide residues on non-organic produce is driven by the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) annual Dirty Dozen list. This list garners headlines like, “Kale Is One of the Dirtiest Vegetables” and “Are You Eating Pesticide-Laden Produce?” It is a thinly veiled attempt to scare hard-working, cash strapped Americans away from buying conventional fruits and vegetables and instead choosing higher-priced, organic produce. Taking a closer look beyond the sensational headlines, there are a few things you need to keep in mind.
First, the main reason to wash fruits and vegetables is to get rid of dirt and bacteria. Produce is grown in fields with soil. Also, just think of the number of hands that have touched your produce from the time it leaves the field until it gets into your kitchen. From farmworkers to produce packers to supermarket employees to other customers, many bacteria laden hands have landed on your fruits and veggies.
Second, pesticide residues on conventionally grown produce are tested annually by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), with the results published in their Pesticide Data Program Annual Summary. In the most recent 2017 report, USDA found that over 99% of the samples tested had residues well below the tolerances established by the Environmental Protection Agency and, of these, 53% had no detectable pesticide residue at all.
And third, contrary to popular belief, organic farmers do use pesticides. Many are natural pesticides (but still kill bugs and weeds) like sulfur, bicarbonate, copper and vinegar but also include synthetic pesticides approved for organic use. While organic produce is not regularly tested for pesticide residues, in 2010 the National Organic Program worked with the USDA to evaluate pesticide residues on 571 domestic and foreign fruit and vegetable samples bearing the USDA organic seal. The report revealed that 96% of the samples tested met the USDA organic regulations, with 57% showing no detectable residues and 39% with residues less than 5% of the EPA allowable level.
The fact is you have nothing to fear from eating any type of produce. All pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables, whether organically or conventionally grown, are extremely low and well below any level that could put you at risk. The December 2018 news release from the USDA for their most recent report was headlined, “USDA Releases 2017 Annual Pesticide Data Program Summary, U.S. Food Supply is Among the Safest in the World.”
And according to University of California Berkeley Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Dr. Bruce Ames, 99.99% of the pesticides we eat are naturally present in plants to ward off insects and other predators. That means only 0.01% of ingested pesticides are synthetic.
So how does the Environmental Working Group come up with the data in its report that leads consumers to assume their produce is laden with pesticide residues? Believe it or not, they use the data in the USDA report mentioned above! Unfortunately, they misrepresent the data. How? They rank the fruits and vegetables in order of the pesticide residues found, from the highest to lowest amounts. Then they label the top twelve as “The Dirty Dozen.” But, as I explained earlier, the residue levels are extremely low and 99% of the samples tested fell well below the tolerance levels and 53% had no detectable pesticide residues. And not one but two PhD toxicologists have debunked the methodology used by the EWG to create this list in their research article in the Journal of Toxicology.
To put the EWG’s method into perspective, consider this comparison to National Merit Scholars. Most of us know these are very smart high school students who scored highly on the qualifying PSAT/NMSQT exam. So, imagine taking the list of National Merit Scholars for this year and ranking them according to their exam scores from highest to lowest and then taking the bottom twelve and calling them “The Dumbest Dozen.”
If you look deep into the EWG website you’ll find this disclaimer hidden in the Q&A section, “The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure. Eating conventionally grown produce is far better than skipping fruits and vegetables.” Of course, this statement never makes it into the articles with the sensational headlines. The EWG is not a research or academic institution with independent scientists. It is an activist group with some funding from the organic industry. In a survey of the scientist members of the Society of Toxicology, 79% say EWG overstates the health risk of chemicals.
Want to find out how many servings of a particular fruit or vegetable you could eat and still not have any adverse effects from pesticide residues? Check out the Pesticide Residue Calculator on the Safe Fruits and Veggies website. It turns out an adult woman would have to eat 13,204 servings of blueberries or 4,159 servings of conventional lettuce or 3,344 servings of organic lettuce in one day without any effect, even if these had the highest pesticide residues level ever recorded by USDA for blueberries or lettuce. For more information about fruits and vegetables and delicious ways to enjoy them, check out the Produce for Better Health Have A Plant website.
Over 90% of people in the U.S. don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables so we should not be doing anything to discourage folks from enjoying any type of produce they like to eat, whether it is conventional, organic, fresh, frozen, canned, dried or juice. They all count toward your daily recommended fruit and veggie intake, are nutrient-rich and make you look and feel good. So, relax and enjoy the taste and fun of filling half your plate with fruits and vegetables.
When I was growing up canned foods were a staple in our kitchen pantry and our meals. From canned green beans and corn as a dinner side dish to salads with canned peach or pear halves topped with a scoop of cottage cheese or canned asparagus and tomato aspic on a lettuce leaf topped with a dollop of Miracle Whip, canned foods were an essential part of my life. And the can-filled meals continued with my mom’s Friday dinner rotation featuring tuna noodle casserole created with canned tuna, cream of mushroom soup and peas and her spaghetti and lasagna with canned tomatoes as a key ingredient. Back then, canned foods were normal, not berated or relegated to second-class status as they are frequently characterized today. It’s sad because canned foods boast an array of benefits that often go unrecognized. So what better time to extol the virtues of canned foods than February, National Canned Food Month.
Canned foods can…
Boost nutrition: Packed within five hours of harvest, canned fruits and vegetables are at their peak of ripeness, flavor and nutrient content. Without any oxygen in the can, their abundant supply of vitamins and minerals are locked in at their original amounts until they are opened and eaten. Studies actually show that canned foods provide as much – and sometimes even more - nutritional value as fresh ones do. This makes sense when you consider that it often takes over three weeks for fresh produce to get from the farm to the supermarket while canned and frozen ones are packed within hours of picking. Research further documents that people who eat more canned food consume more nutrient-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, dairy and other protein foods compared to infrequent canned food users. They also have a higher intake of 17 essential nutrients including the shortfall nutrients identified in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans — potassium, calcium and fiber.
Save money: Canned foods are a bargain both nutritionally and for your wallet! According to a 2014 study published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, USDA Economic Research Service data revealed that canned vegetables may provide a cost savings of up to 20% over fresh and have a longer shelf life.
Make meals in minutes: Already cooked, canned foods help you create meals in a flash. Canned fruits, veggies, beans and meat can serve as an ingredient in salads, sandwiches, soups, stews and casseroles. Canned vegetables are a great side, canned beans a savory main dish and canned fruit an easy dessert alone or added to yogurt or ice cream. The Cans Get You Cooking website boasts an assortment of recipes and videos to get you started. In addition, the Canned Food Alliance has recipes and an Essential Kitchen Toolkit to help you organize and stock your kitchen and plan and prepare meals.
Reduce food waste: Half of all fresh produce in the U.S. is thrown away. Produce is lost in fields, warehouses, packaging, supermarkets, restaurants and at home. In fact, most Americans throw away about 15 - 20% of the fresh fruits and vegetables they purchase every year. Foods in landfills produce methane, a greenhouse gas associated with climate change. On the other hand, the peels, cores and other inedible parts of fruits and vegetables removed during the canning process are re-used as feed for farm animals or composted. Very little is wasted. Canned foods are non-perishable and have a long shelf-life, at least two years from the date of purchase when stored in moderate temperatures of 75° F. or less. That further decreases food waste. And the cans themselves can be recycled, also lessening environmental impact.
Canned foods are not….
Highly processed: Canned foods are actually very minimally processed. After food is packed into sealed, airtight cans, heat is applied to kill microorganisms. Then the cans are heated under steam pressure at 240-250° F. for the minimum time it takes to ensure they are sterile but still retain optimum flavor and nutrition. No preservatives are added or necessary. So canned foods frequently sport some of the “cleanest” labels around. A quick look in my pantry reveals salsa style canned tomatoes with tomatoes, tomato puree, jalapeno peppers, Anaheim peppers, salt, dehydrated onion, citric acid, spices, acetic acid (vinegar), dehydrated garlic, calcium chloride; and canned pears with pears, water, pear juice from concentrate and canned Alaskan salmon with pink salmon and salt.
High in salt and sugar: Only 11% of sodium in the diet comes from vegetables, including canned forms. And just 2% of added sugar in the diet comes from fruits and vegetables, including canned ones. For those who need to reduce salt, low sodium and salt-free canned foods are readily available. Research has demonstrated that simply draining and rinsing regular canned vegetables can reduce sodium by 41% while draining alone lowers it by 36%. Less canned fruit is now packed in heavy syrup as compared to light syrup, 100% juice and no-added sugar varieties.
Lower quality than fresh: Some have the mistaken belief that canned foods are the “seconds” or lower grade than those that are sent to the fresh market. I was on a canned fruit and vegetable harvest tour in September 2017 and learned this is not true at all. The peach orchard and tomato farm we visited were grown exclusively for the cannery down the road. We literally followed the freshly-harvested produce down the road to the canning facility and watched as it was unloaded and transported through the canning process. As I mentioned earlier, these canned fruits and veggies go from field to can in less than five hours.
Unsafe due to protective linings: Can linings actually ensure the safety, quality and nutritional value of the food inside. Years of testing is conducted prior to approval of any coatings used in can linings. One coating, bisphenol A (BPA) has come under fire in recent years as a result of preliminary studies written about in the popular media. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration along with safety agencies around the globe continue to affirm its safety based on a vast body of research. FDA states on its website, “People are exposed to low levels of BPA because, like many packaging components, very small amounts of BPA may migrate from the food packaging into foods or beverages. Studies pursued by FDA's National Center for Toxicological Research have found no effects of BPA from low-dose exposure.” But due to consumer concerns about BPA many companies are using or transitioning to new can coatings without BPA.
Putting it all together
Canned foods can go back in your shopping cart and pantry and on your menu and plate. They’re nutritious, delicious, safe, convenient, non-perishable and economical. So next time you’re in the supermarket, take a stroll down the canned food aisles and stock up on some of the 1500 varieties of always-in-season, canned foods available year-round.
I’m not a beer drinker. But if I was, the Super Bowl commercial that would have tempted me to try their brand was definitely Stella Artois. At an upscale restaurant, waiters collide and drop trays as Carrie Bradshaw and The Dude forgo their traditional Cosmopolitan and White Russian for a Stella or “Stella Ar-toes” as The Dude called it. During the scene where a glass of Stella is drawn from the tap and the head leveled off with a knife, I could almost taste and smell the beer.
Fast forward to another beer commercial, this time from Bud Light. Instead of touting their product for its taste, quality and fun they chose to resort to the newest marketing tool of the food and beverage industry, fear. In a medieval scene, Bud Light brewers mistakenly receive a barrel of corn syrup for their beer. So they harness up their horses to pull the corn syrup barrel first to Miller Lite brewers, who say they’ve already received their corn syrup delivery, and then to the Coors Light brewery that is happy to claim it. The last line of the ad assures us that Bud Lite is “brewed with no corn syrup.”
Does this really make any difference? Let’s review “Beermaking 101.”
The beer brewing process starts with grains, usually barley but also rye, corn, oats or wheat. What these all have in common is they are primarily composed of starch, a complex carbohydrate. Starch is made up of hundreds of glucose (a simple sugar) molecules bound together. After being heated and dried, the grains are immersed in hot water where the enzymes in the grains release the glucose from the starch and create a sugar syrup, which is the basic ingredient for making beer. Whether its barley syrup, rye syrup, corn syrup, oat syrup or wheat syrup, chemically it’s all the same – glucose (sugar) mixed with water. The body cannot tell the difference between glucose from any food or beverage source. It is identical. The only difference is each grain imparts a different flavor to the beer.
So why does the Bud Light commercial portray beer made with corn syrup in a negative light? It is most likely to play on consumers’ misplaced fears about high fructose corn syrup and/or GMO corn. As I mentioned earlier, corn syrup used in making beer is 100% glucose. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a product created from corn syrup by converting some of the glucose into fructose so that it has about 50% each, the same as white sugar and honey. Created in the 1970’s, it replaced sugar as an ingredient in many foods and beverages because its sweetness was nearly identical to sugar but it was easier to use, more stable and functioned better in products.
But furor ensued in the 2000’s when some scientists suggested that the increase in HFCS intake might be the reason obesity in the U.S. was on the rise. There is no scientific evidence to support this and numerous studies have found no difference in the body’s use of sugar vs. HFCS nor any increased risk of negative health effects. And according to two different government surveys the intake of all sugars, including HFCS, has gone down since 1999 while obesity has continued to rise.
In addition, GMO corn is safe. There is no difference in nutrition, health or safety between GMO and non-GMO corn. GMOs are not “in your food.” Agricultural biotechnology, commonly called GMO, is a method of growing crops like organic or conventional farming. A single genetic trait from another plant is inserted in the DNA of the crop seed so it can resist a certain insect or weed killer, tolerate drought so it can grow with less water or increase the amount of a vitamin or other nutrient in a food. And if there is any slight genetic difference in the corn itself, it would not show up in corn syrup. That’s because DNA is always combined with protein and there is no protein in corn syrup. It is 100% carbohydrate in the form of sugar.
So what’s the bottom line when it comes to choosing beer? Make your decision as you would with any food or beverage on taste, cost, quality and enjoyment. Or support your local brewery like Coors if you live in Colorado or Shiner if you’re in Texas. Don’t base it on negative marketing and misleading claims of fear.
A new report surfaced last week in a noted British medical journal, The Lancet, that recommends a near-vegan eating style as a way to promote greater sustainability of the food system, lessen the environmental impact of animal agriculture and improve health of the world’s population. Of course, this is the same journal that published a notorious study – later debunked and retracted – suggesting a link between the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine and autism, which ignited the current anti-vaccination movement.
Created by the EAT-Lancet Commission, a collaboration between the EAT Forum (founded through the Stordalen Foundation), the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Wellcome Trust, the investigation and report were funded by EAT and the Wellcome Trust. The founder and chair of the Stordalen Foundation is a billionaire Norwegian physician who is a vegan. The co-chair of the EAT-Lancet Commission and lead author of the report is a Harvard professor well-known for his strong stance against meat in the diet. But he’s not a fan of potatoes, either. Wait, aren’t they plants?
Reading beyond the headlines hailing this report, is it really advisable for everyone to adopt a near-vegan eating pattern? Before we call on governments and health agencies around the world to endorse such a radical change in traditional food production and consumption, we need to explore the societal, environmental and nutritional implications of doing so.
Is a near-vegan diet more sustainable?
As technology has transformed our world over the past century, people have become more concerned about its impact on the environment. Like most other industries, agriculture has embraced technology to help farmers produce food more efficiently. And this is a good thing when you consider that 40% of the labor force in the U.S. was engaged in farming 100 years ago while only 2% is today. That means farmers must produce more food for a population that has tripled from 104.5 million in 1919 to 326.8 million today while the amount of farm land and water has remained the same or been reduced. And they have been very successful in doing that.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. agriculture accounts for around 9% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions compared to 28% for electricity, 28% for transportation and 22% for industry. And a 2017 study revealed that removing all animals from the food supply and replacing all of those calories with plant crops would only reduce total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2.6%.
Farmers from all sectors of the industry are working toward sustainability in their practices to protect and enhance the land and conserve water and other resources so their farms can continue to produce food for future generations. And equally important, creating a sustainable farm allows them to make a living so they can stay in business so we’ll all have food to eat.
U.S. cattle ranchers are producing the same amount of beef today as they were 40 years ago with one-third fewer cattle. Likewise, through improved cow breeding and feeding, dairy farmers produce milk today with 90% less land and 65% less water than in the mid-20th century, resulting in a 63% smaller carbon footprint. In 1950, there were 25 million dairy cows but only 9 million today while milk production has increased by 60%.
And in the egg industry, innovations in nutrition and breeding since 1960 have increased egg production by 27% while decreasing daily hen feed by 26%, water use per dozen eggs produced by 32% and hen death by 57% while lowering greenhouse gas emissions by 63%.
Finally, half of all fertilizers used in the U.S. to grow fruit, vegetables and grains are organic fertilizers made from livestock manure. Eliminating animal agriculture would mean replacing them with chemical fertilizers that are very energy intensive to produce.
Will a near-vegan diet feed the world?
In the U.S. only 1 in 10 adults currently eats the minimum number of fruits or vegetables recommended in federal dietary guidelines according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study. Dietitians are continually challenged to help people find ways to enjoy eating more of these nutrient-rich foods.
Will eliminating most of the meat, eggs and dairy foods from the food supply force folks to eat more of these wholesome plant foods? The even bigger question: is there enough land to grow the amount of produce and grains we would need to replace the calories and other nutrients provided by animal foods? Will eliminating livestock grazing free up more land to produce more food for people to eat?
According to the World Bank, 37.2% of the world's total land area is considered agricultural but only 10.9% is arable or capable for growing crops like fruits, vegetables and grains. That’s less than a third of the total agricultural land. The other 70% of agricultural land is marginal and not suitable for growing crops due to lack of water and/or poor soil quality. It is only good for grazing ruminant animals that can digest grass - goats, sheep and cows. In addition, 85% of cattle feed is not digestible by humans like grass, wheat and oat straw, sugar cane tops and corn silage (husks, leaves and stems). Thus, these ruminant animals convert food with poor-quality protein from plants inedible for humans into high-quality protein food with a variety of nutrients not always plentiful in plant-based foods.
Will a near-vegan diet adequately nourish the world?
I love fruits, veggies and grains. I eat a lot of them. But I also enjoy eating meat, dairy and eggs. I have friends who are vegans and vegetarians and I respect their right to choose that eating pattern and they respect mine to include animal foods in my diet. A vegan diet can be nutritionally adequate and promote health just like those including animal foods. Having said that, it is more challenging to meet these nutrient needs but it can be done with careful planning and some supplementation of vitamins only found in animal foods. The bigger question is whether we can nourish an entire population (country, continent or world) with only plant foods.
The previously mentioned 2017 study compared the current U.S. food production system to a modeled one where animal agriculture and animal-derived foods are eliminated. The plant-only agriculture system produced 23% more food but met fewer of the essential nutrient requirements for people in the U.S. The plant-only diets projected more nutrient deficiencies, a need to consume a greater amount of food and more calories. Researchers concluded that removing animal foods from the U.S. food supply resulted in diets that did not support people’s nutritional needs without nutrient supplementation.
Animal foods like meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy provide high-quality protein with all the essential amino acids in amounts necessary for building and maintaining all body tissues. In addition, each of these foods supplies additional nutrients that are not always present in significant amounts in plant-based foods.
On the other hand, fruits and vegetables contribute nutrients like vitamins A and C, folic acid, potassium, fiber and phytonutrients that are not provided by or are present in smaller amounts in animal foods. And grains are a source of fiber, several B vitamins along with iron, magnesium, and selenium.
That’s why a diet with a variety of foods from all groups helps ensure an adequate intake of all nutrients. Leaving out one or more groups makes it more difficult. For example, you would have to eat 1.25 cups cooked spinach (50 calories) or 3.75 oranges (335 calories) to get the same amount of calcium in a cup of 1% low-fat milk (100 calories). And it takes 3 cups of cooked quinoa (660 calories) or 1.7 cups of black beans (385 calories) to obtain the protein in 3 ounces of lean cooked beef (156 calories). In addition, some vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds contain oxalate and phytates that can bind minerals like calcium, iron and zinc and keep them from being absorbed. On the other hand, the lactose and vitamin D in milk enhance the absorption of calcium.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate, the graphic representation of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, is a plant-based eating pattern with three-quarters of the plate comprising fruits, vegetables and grains. Including animal foods in the diet can help boost intake of plant foods. One way to encourage people to eat more plant foods is to pair fruits, vegetables and grains with meat, eggs and dairy: yogurt and fruit, cheese and bread, beef/pork/chicken in a vegetable stir-fry with rice, a fish taco in a whole grain tortilla with chopped tomato and bell pepper or an omelet layered with vegetables and cheese.
Putting it all together
Sustainability is essential to protecting the environment and feeding and nourishing the world. In the U.S. farmers and ranchers have worked diligently to become more efficient in producing more food with fewer resources. This has significantly reduced the impact on land, water and chemical use. Unfortunately some other countries, especially developing ones, have not been as successful or even have the ability to harness technology to improve productivity. Rather than radical changes to the world’s food system, a better solution would be to direct resources to helping farmers throughout the world to work more efficiently and sustainably.
Because sustainability is also about sustaining health through sufficient food that delivers adequate nutrition as well as sustaining farmers’ abilities to maintain financial security in order to continue producing enough food, it cannot simply be viewed through the narrow lens of environmental impact. Food and meals are an integral part of our lives. People choose foods for many reasons, not just for nutrition and health but also for taste, cost, availability and cultural, religious and family traditions. Dietitians play a critical role in helping people adopt eating habits that not only ensure health but also accommodate these other factors. Finding appealing ways for individuals to consume more plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and legumes can boost nutrition and still be compatible with eating appropriate amounts of animal foods to obtain essential nutrients. Creating this balance will have long-term influences on enjoyment of eating, nutritional adequacy, health status and the environment of our planet.
The latest food-shaming headlines attack a vegetable! Yes, it’s the poor potato, the latest poster child for a “bad” food. No less than a Harvard professor declared potatoes “starch bombs” in a recent New York Times article that also claimed potatoes’ “high glycemic index” is linked to heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
While the study cited in the story is actually about the relationship between fried potatoes and health, the story itself seems to be more of an all-out assault on potatoes in general. As my stock-in-trade is “Eating Beyond the Headlines,” let’s take a closer look at the claims in this article and the real facts and science related to potatoes and their place on your plate.
Claim #1: Potatoes rank near the bottom of healthful vegetables.
This first claim continues with, “and lack the compounds and nutrients found in green leafy vegetables.” While it’s true that potatoes and other white vegetables don’t contain the beta-carotene plentiful in deep orange and dark green ones, that doesn’t mean potatoes don't deliver valuable nutrients. A small baked potato with the skin contains a mere 130 calories and 3.6 grams protein along with 22% of the daily recommendation for potassium, 19% for vitamin C, 13% for fiber, 10% for magnesium and 9% each for folic acid and niacin.
To further validate potatoes’ nutritional contributions, a 2012 Purdue University roundtable session, “White Vegetables: A Forgotten Source of Nutrients” brought together researchers and scientific experts who provided substantial evidence that eating white vegetables, such as potatoes, can increase shortfall nutrients, especially fiber, potassium and magnesium, as well as help increase overall vegetable consumption in the U.S.
Claim #2: Potatoes are “starch bombs.”
Starch, the main source of carbohydrate in our diets, is composed of hundreds of glucose molecules. Therefore, it’s known as “complex” carbohydrate as compared to sugars, which are “simple” carbohydrate. Glucose, a simple carbohydrate or sugar, is the body’s primary fuel source. Without it our bodies couldn't function!
There’s really nothing bad about starch. If fact, some of the starch in potatoes is not even digested - resistant starch. “Resistant starch acts as a prebiotic or food for the gut bacteria (probiotic)," explains registered dietitian nutritionist, Angela Lemond, owner of Lemond Nutrition in Plano, Texas. "Potatoes become even more of a resistant starch when they are cooked and then cooled down. Either let them cool before eating or refrigerate them and cut them cool into a salad.” At a time when many folks are concerned about gut health and getting more prebiotics and probiotics to enhance their intestinal microbiome, potatoes offer a natural way to do that without expensive supplements.
Claim #3: Potatoes have a high glycemic index, linked to higher risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
According to Melissa Joy Dobbins, a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified diabetes educator in the Chicago area, it's not the glycemic index of individual foods that matters, but the glycemic load of the entire meal. "Most people don’t eat a potato by itself but instead as part of a mixed meal with other foods, likely including some protein and fat. Therefore, the glycemic load of the meal counteracts the glycemic index of individual foods," she says.
More evidence to dispute this claim is documented in a 2016 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Researchers reviewed 13 studies investigating the role of potatoes in obesity, diabetes and heart disease and concluded that they did not provide strong evidence of an association between intake of potatoes and risks of these conditions.
Claim #4: “Two-thirds of the 115.6 pounds of white potatoes Americans eat in a year are in the form of French fries, potato chips and other frozen or processed potato products according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”
When you break it down it’s not as bad as it might sound. Dividing 115.6 pounds by 365 days a year equals just 5 ounces of potato per day or the size of the small potato mentioned above.
Furthermore, 2009–2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data confirmed that white potatoes provide only 4% and French-fries just 2% of an American’s total calories intake.
The survey also revealed that Americans average a mere 1.5% of their daily calories from French fries or 31 calories for a typical 2,080 calories/day. And just one in 8 males and one in 10 females consumes French fries on any given day. Even for those with the highest French fry intake (90th percentile of consumption or higher), men ate 134 calories and women 118 calories/day, the equivalent of half a small serving of fast-food fries.
The Bottom Line
A single ingredient, food or meal is not responsible for weight gain, nutrition status or health. The total diet over time is what matters. Singling out one food and blaming it for chronic disease or obesity is not only wrong but is counterproductive to encouraging healthful eating habits. Potatoes have long been a popular staple food in the American diet and deliver taste, nutrition and health benefits at an affordable price.
As most of you know, misleading headlines about food and nutrition are a huge concern of mine, thus the brand of my business and blog, “Eating Beyond the Headlines.” A recent set of headlines drew my ire even though they weren’t related to my usual stock-in-trade of refuting fear and misinformation about foods, ingredients and modern agriculture. Instead it was an article about a study that evaluated the effect of diet and lifestyle changes in people at risk for type 2 diabetes.
I first came across the headline in my Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics SmartBrief email that arrives daily in my email box filled with headlines and brief summaries of food and nutrition stories in the popular press. Imagine my surprise when I read “Diabetes risk reduction not tied to lifestyle advice, study shows.” Hmmm. I learned and have always promoted diet, exercise and lifestyle as key components in preventing and managing type 2 diabetes.
Clicking the link to navigate to the news story, I find a different headline, “Lifestyle advice alone fails to reduce type 2 diabetes risk.” The key word here is "alone." That's not reflected in the SmartBrief email headline. Reading the article, it states, "Participants attended four 2.5-hour group education sessions at 2, 6, 12 and 24 months after baseline. Sessions covered general information about diabetes and diabetes risk/prevention, nutrition and dietary recommendations, advice on moderate physical activity, and information on physical activity opportunities." And just 50% attended at least 3 of the sessions. So we might conclude that it wasn't the lifestyle interventions that failed, but the subjects’ failure to use them.
Next I downloaded the original journal article, “Basic lifestyle advice to individuals at high risk of type 2 diabetes: a 2-year population-based diabetes prevention study,” published in BMJ Open Diabetes Research & Care. Note that this title is not at all negative about the role of diet and lifestyle in type 2 diabetes as the previous ones. In the conclusions the authors state, "In summary, the substantial 2-year diabetes incidence, the consistent increases in glycemia and BMI, the relatively low participation, and the low proportion achieving substantial weight reduction indicate that our low-grade intervention with basic lifestyle advice did not have clinically meaningful effect on diabetes prevention overall or in subgroups by age, sex, education level, depressive symptoms, BMI, physical activity, or family history of diabetes." Key terms to note are "low participation," "low proportion achieving weight loss" and “low-grade intervention with basic lifestyle advice.”
I haven’t worked in clinical dietetics or medical nutrition therapy for years but even I know that a “low-grade intervention with basic lifestyle advice” is not the ideal way to treat patients with or at risk for type 2 diabetes. So I went to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics position paper, “The Role of Medical Nutrition Therapy and Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs) in the Prevention and Treatment of Prediabetes and Type 2 Diabetes.” This paper documents the effectiveness of medical nutrition therapy (MNT) provided by RDNs for the management of diabetes, advising that individuals with prediabetes or type 2 diabetes should be referred to an RDN for individualized MNT upon diagnosis and at regular intervals throughout life as part of their treatment regimen.
Specific evidence cited includes:
According to registered dietitian nutritionist, Melissa Joy Dobbins, also a certified diabetes educator and spokesperson for the American Association of Diabetes Educators, “Nutrition counseling for diabetes is more than just giving someone information or 'lifestyle advice.' It takes time. While group classes can provide an overview, meeting with a registered dietitian nutritionist is more likely to be effective because of the individualized plan that is created together between the patient and dietitian. And research shows that more than 10 hours of diabetes self-management education and support is necessary to achieve benefits that have major impact.”
The bottom line: when you read a headline in the popular press that tells you nutrition therapy is not effective or a food or ingredient is bad for you, don’t accept it as fact without further investigation. Contact a registered dietitian nutritionist or check the website of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for more information. And please, please do not tweet or post the story to social media without getting the facts.
In May, I began consulting with the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement to help spread the word about the safety and nutritional value of leafy greens. I was not compensated for writing this blog and the information is based on facts from a variety of sources.
As a registered dietitian nutritionist working as a communications consultant to the food, nutrition and agriculture industries, I address misinformation and sensational headlines about food and nutrition on a daily basis. I try to reassure people that it’s safe to eat foods and ingredients like red meat, eggs, wheat, potatoes and sugar for which there is no scientific evidence of harm when eaten in moderation as part of a balanced meal pattern. But sometimes scary headlines can take a real food concern and create more fear than is warranted. So how do we know when the fear is real and when it’s not? The recent romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak is a perfect example.
TRACKING THE SOURCE
On April 13, officials confirmed that the lettuce contaminated with E. coli came from the Yuma, Arizona area. Agencies like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration sprang into action to make sure the affected lettuce was removed from the food supply. Supermarkets and restaurants were alerted to stop selling and serving lettuce from Yuma and consumers were advised to throw out any romaine in their refrigerators if they could not identify where it was grown. Obviously, caution about eating romaine was essential.
If you read past the scary headlines, government officials were clearly limiting the alert to romaine produced only in the Yuma region. Meanwhile, leafy green industry groups were updating consumers that romaine currently being sold in stores and restaurants was from California, not Arizona. Both were advising consumers not to eat romaine unless they could confirm it wasn’t grown in Yuma.
On April 29, I ate lunch with my mother in the dining room of her independent living retirement community here in Dallas. As we filled our plates at the salad table, one resident remarked, “I will be so glad when we have romaine again. I am so tired of pale lettuce.” More than two weeks after stores and restaurants were advised to pull romaine from the Yuma area, fear continued to reign about any romaine lettuce. Granted, as we age our body's immune system is less effective and the elderly are more susceptible to foodborne illness. So I can give my mom’s place a pass for their extreme caution, even though there was virtually no chance any tainted romaine was still in the food supply.
On May 16, the CDC said the last shipments of romaine lettuce from the Yuma growing region were harvested on April 16, the harvest season was over and it was unlikely any romaine lettuce from the Yuma growing region was still available in stores or restaurants due to its 21-day shelf life. Yet when I had lunch with my mom again on May 27, romaine lettuce was still not being served. And as of June 22, she reported, “we probably won't ever have it again.”
We are fortunate in the U.S. to have the safest food supply in the world. However, an occasional outbreak of foodborne illness does occur but this is by far the exception and not the rule. Along with USDA and FDA regulations for farming and food processing, additional safety nets are in place to further assure safety and decrease health risk, like the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA). This past March I attended the Produce for Better Health Foundation conference in Scottsdale, Arizona where I met an LGMA representative and learned about their safety program to help ensure leafy greens produced in our country are safe to eat. The majority of leafy greens in the U.S. are grown and harvested under the LGMA initiative to minimize food safety risks on the farm.
Every day, over 130 million servings of leafy greens are safely produced under this mandatory government food safety program. It verifies farming practices using government audits and requires that members be in 100% compliance at all times. They must create a written food safety plan, test irrigation water and monitor worker practices, like proper handwashing. In fact, many major restaurant and supermarket chains require the LGMA certification for leafy greens they purchase.
After this outbreak, the produce industry created a special task force to examine how romaine came to be the source of illnesses. No one wants these kinds of tragic outbreaks to occur – least of all leafy greens farmers. The leafy greens community is committed to producing a safe product and we need to trust they will continue to improve on their already excellent safety record.
As a registered dietitian nutritionist, leafy greens are my go-to vegetable. I enjoy them every day and recommend them to others. They are nutrient-rich, boasting vitamins A and K, folate, potassium, iron, calcium and fiber while low in fat and calories. So be assured that romaine is a nutritious choice and safe to go back on your plate.
For more information and tips and videos on how to keep your greens safe in your home: http://safeleafygreens.com
Photo credit: pixabay.com