Saturday, December 31, 2011

People for the Ethical Treatment of People.

The semester has come to a close, which means (1) I am now Dr. Ethical Eats and (2) my Tuesdays no longer include amazing lectures from prominent scientists, authors, and activists. Edible Education 101 provided a great overview of food system issues, and I’m glad I got to be a part of it (you can view some of the lectures here). Although I’d seen much of the material before, there were some issues that were new to me.

In comparison to the environmental, ethical, and health effects of our food system, the welfare of farm workers had seemed, to me, a background issue. Partly, it was because there is so much overlap in the problems of environmental impact, sustainability, and animal welfare – the food system becomes a vast and compelling problem almost regardless of which issue you care about. In addition, there are straightforward ways of being part of the solution – change where you eat and what you buy. Alternative farming systems can solve all of these problems at once, and they are gaining momentum. I also naively thought that, while conditions for farm workers might not be as good as they could be, they were perhaps good enough for now while we work to improve other aspects of the food system. As demand for more ethical food increases and becomes more economically viable, advancing farm worker rights would be a natural next step.

Perhaps that is true. However, when Eric Schlosser (author of Fast Food Nation) and several members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) came to speak at Edible Education 101, I learned that farm workers are far worse off than I ever imagined and that there is no such thing as ethical food if it comes out of a system that exploits people at every turn.

Tortured tomatoes.

The town of Immokalee, Florida basically exists for one reason: to grow tomatoes. It’s not an ideal spot for growing tomatoes, and yet, almost every big chain grocery store or fast food restaurant gets their tomatoes from Immokalee. As I learned from Eric and the CIW representatives, farm workers in America are not protected by the same labor laws that apply to other employed people. Many farm workers, such as the tomato pickers in Immokalee, are not paid the minimum hourly wage as set by the federal government. Instead, they are paid corresponding to how much they pick. Technically, the price paid is supposed to be high enough that a farm worker could make at least minimum wage.

According to the CIW website, Immokalee tomato pickers make only 50 cents for every 32 pounds of tomatoes they pick. Thus, to make the minimum wage, an Immokalee worker would have to pick 2.25 tons of tomatoes in a typical 10-hour workday. That’s 4500 pounds of tomatoes in 10 hours of back-breaking outdoor labor, just to make minimum wage. It’s safe to assume, therefore, that Immokalee’s workers are not making minimum wage. In fact, the average annual salary of a tomato-picker in Immokalee is less than $9000 (Bittman, 2011).

Farm workers rarely receive benefits such as sick days or health insurance. Children as young as 12 years old can hold agricultural jobs with many fewer protections than in other industries. Also, the tomato pickers in Immokalee are not regular employees with contracts; they show up each day with no idea as to whether there will be work for them to do or the hours they are likely to be needed.

Even the protections our government does provide are often ignored, and farm owners have found many ways to exploit their workers even after they’ve left the field. In Immokalee, the workers aren’t simply impoverished. They are also routinely beaten, locked in shipping containers, forced to live in squalor, and punished or even killed if they attempt to leave. Sexual harassment and assault of female workers is also routine. Over the past 10 years, dozens of people have been convicted of slavery charges for their unlawful confinement and treatment of thousands of workers in Immokalee. You can read about specific cases here and in detail in the articles linked to at the end of this post. The CIW doesn’t use the word slavery simply to be provocative. There are slaves in Florida, and they picked pretty much every tomato you have ever purchased.

Silent screams.

Now, it’s obvious why the planet or the farm animals do not speak out against the abuses of the modern food system. But why would these people allow themselves to be exploited? Obviously, if you are being watched by armed guards while on the farm and locked in a crate the rest of the time, you aren’t going to have much opportunity to speak up. But many of the workers in Immokalee and elsewhere are simply powerless to advocate for themselves. Farm workers do not have collective bargaining rights, and most farm workers (70% of those in Immokalee) are immigrants with few resources. They often lack the skills, connections, or documentation to obtain better work. It is estimated that half of all our agricultural workers are undocumented immigrants, so speaking out against their abusers is especially risky.

Now, some of you may be wondering if we should care about illegal immigrants. Wouldn’t the problem just go away if the people who aren’t supposed to be here just went home? The answer is no. Legal immigrants and people participating in guest worker programs are just as exploited and mistreated as farm workers of questionable immigration status. As one of the CIW speakers commented, the agriculture industry is very fair – they exploit everyone equally. More importantly, breaking the law doesn’t strip you of your right not to be tortured, robbed, raped, or killed. The crime of entering our country illegally carries the penalty of potentially being forced to leave it. While I recognize that remaining hidden may expose a person to harm, it doesn’t make harm that befalls them any more legal. The situation in Immokalee and elsewhere is not a violation of immigrant rights but a violation of human rights.

But what if we did suddenly expel all undocumented workers from our borders? Would that improve conditions? Not likely. Instead, I would guess that another group of vulnerable citizens would start taking those jobs. Maybe, with a larger proportion of citizens, they could fight for slightly better conditions, but it would still be extremely difficult without collective bargaining and with the extreme pressure to produce the cheapest possible goods.

And that brings us to the heart of the matter. Farm workers are exploited not because they are immigrants but because they can be exploited. If one farmer can produce a cheaper product by exploiting his workers, the other farmers must follow suit or lose their competitive advantage. Or at least, that is the excuse given by the farmers when the Coalition of Immokalee Workers was finally able to voice their grievances. This sounds like a lame excuse, but there is at least an element of truth here. Most people choose what and where they eat based on price. Unless it is obvious why we should pay more, we don’t. This creates a race to the bottom, in which every producer and every retailer through the entire food chain must reduce costs in order to beat out the competition. Unless we enforce and enhance the laws governing farm workers, the people who produce our food will continue to be exploited in order to provide us with the cheapest possible product.

Upon hearing these excuses, the CIW did something very smart. Rather than dealing with the folks at the bottom – farmers, for example, they went to the top of the food chain. The CIW appealed to fast food restaurants and grocery chains to commit to paying more for their tomatoes and to work with the group to make sure the extra money went to workers in Immokalee. How much more did they have to pay? One penny per pound of tomatoes. That’s it. A penny. And yet, this meager increase in price translates to thousands of dollars more each year for the tomato pickers out in the fields.

Through communication, negotiation, and even some boycotting, the Coalition has now received commitments from Taco Bell, Burger King, and Whole Foods. In addition to paying slightly more for tomatoes, these companies agree to buy only those tomatoes from farms that have committed to better treatment for their workers such as providing a shaded area for breaks. It’s sort of shocking to think that is took years of hard work just to have a place to stand out of the sun for 15 minutes during a 10-hour day. It’s a victory for the workers in Immokalee, but still only a tiny step towards truly fair food.

Ethical eating in America.

Now is the point at which I’d normally tell you all the ways you can help improve the conditions of farm workers and eat truly ethical food. Sadly, despite the successes of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, exploitation is still commonplace in our agricultural system. A student in Edible Education 101 asked where she could buy produce that has been grown without such atrocities, if there was a label or certification to look for. Unfortunately, as our speakers explained, there is no such store and no such label. Even the tomatoes sold at Whole Foods, one of the companies that buys better tomatoes through the Campaign for Fair Food, are not truly ethical. The standards for human treatment are so low that it would be irresponsible to call even the CIW approved tomatoes ethical.

Small farms don’t necessarily treat their workers any better than large farms. Organic farmers have long resisted including treatment standards in the government’s organic certification. Because organic farming is more expensive, they say, it would be crippling to also pay higher wages, offer benefits, or improve working conditions. I suppose that’s why it is so much harder to motivate people to fight for higher standards of human welfare in the food system. You can’t simply buy different food or shop at a different store. So what can you do?

First, you can care. Rather than dismissing farm worker rights as I used to, you can educate yourself about the issues involved and be ready to take action when you can. Being aware of and supporting legislation concerning the rights of agricultural workers is an important way to get involved. Immigration reform is also a large factor.

You can support CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food directly by patronizing businesses that have signed their agreement. You can also take part in their letter-writing campaigns and protests of companies that stubbornly refuse to take part – companies like my old favorite, Trader Joe’s. You can find more ways to help on the CIW’s Take Action page.

Another way you can help farm workers is by buying direct from farmers. As I mentioned already, local, organic, or small doesn’t necessarily translate to better working conditions. However, if you can develop relationships with farmers, you can probably get a better idea of their perspective and treatment of their workers. Communicating with your farmer may also allow you to ask some probing questions, such as how much it would cost to improve conditions for the workers in the field. What if all it took was a dollar more for your CSA box? Would you pay it?

Lastly, we need to get the word out about the way we treat our farm workers in this country. When I found out how poorly we treat animals on factory farms, I knew I had to make a change. And now we are talking about people. People who work hard every day so we can eat. People who are, even now, being exploited and enslaved. The more aware people are, the better. You can be a part of the solution by being witness to the moral failings of our food system and speaking out against them. To get you started, here is a list of resources that I hope you will use to push our country to change, to make sure everyone who puts in a hard day’s work gets their fair share.

Articles on Immokalee:

Friday, November 25, 2011

Life, unsweetened.

A month ago, I issued a Food Day challenge – to go without added sweeteners of any kind for a whole month. Frankly, I didn’t think it would be very hard for me because I already cook most of my food and don’t add sweeteners very often. I was wrong. Three things made it difficult for me to live up to this challenge: not checking labels as avidly as I should have, an increase in stress and deadlines in my life, and the surprises and necessities of my first pregnancy. I also “cheated” a couple of times so I could take part in traditions and festivities although I tried to make the best choices I could in those situations.

Why would there be sugar in that?

I ran into my first problem on Day One of the unsweetened challenge. My husband had just bought a huge package of smoked salmon to put on salads and mix in with scrambled eggs. It’s an easy source of fat and protein, and luckily, we have access to wild Pacific varieties, which are recommended by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. Unfortunately, the particular smoked salmon we purchased had an extra ingredient: brown sugar. We weren’t going to let the fish go to waste, so I grudgingly ate the sweetened salmon throughout the week.

After the fish incident, I started looking more closely at the foods I was buying and using. I’ve been reducing my intake of sweetened products over the past year - getting rid of sweetened nut butter, fruit and nut bars, and other processed foods that were high in added sugars - so I was surprised by how many sweetened products were still lingering in my pantry. Lea and Perrin’s Worcestershire sauce, the green variety of Tabasco sauce, gluten-free granola, and my one real vice, Trader Joe’s Lentil Chips, all had added sweeteners. Now, of course, the amount of sugar from a few drops of Tabasco isn’t really a health hazard, but it is a reminder of how easy it is to consume more sugar than you realize.

When life gets in the way.

I advocate a cooking-centric, whole-foods-dominated food lifestyle. This lifestyle requires time and effort, but I’ve always claimed that planning ahead and prioritizing your nutritional needs can make this lifestyle feasible for most people. Over the past month, I have not been one of those people. I’m wrapping up my PhD, with a hard deadline for dissertation submission on Dec. 16th, we’re selling our home, and we’re planning a move across the country. The combination has put me in a major time crunch and has also cut off regular access to my kitchen. Potential buyers can come by at any time to view our home, and they expect to be greeted by a clean kitchen.

The main result of these complications was that I stopped making my own lunch. Instead, I ate out. There are incredibly few restaurant options for a person who doesn’t eat conventional meat or dairy of any kind, and tries to avoid grains, especially those containing gluten. I’ve gotten used to asking servers, cooks, and managers about the ingredients in their food. It’s a bit unnerving to realize how few people involved with getting you your food actually have any clue as to what is in it. Even basic food knowledge is often lacking; I actually argued with a waitress over whether or not butter is dairy (yes, it really is). Places like Chipotle and most casual dining restaurants make their allergy information available online or on special menus, which helps me know for sure what I’m eating. However, sugar isn’t an allergen. And, as I mentioned already, added sweeteners can be in all kinds of foods that one wouldn’t even realize.

Oh, baby.

That’s right – I’m pregnant! I’m just about four months along and feeling what is apparently very normal maternal guilt over just about everything I do. Getting proper nutrition is important for everyone, but it can be truly essential for pregnant women. With all the other stresses in my life, making sacrifices when it came to eating was a difficult choice because I knew it would affect my baby. However, as important as getting the right calories, I needed to be getting enough calories.

Back when I was eating for one, I could skimp on lunch or skip an afternoon snack if I didn’t have the best food options available. Now, however, I know the baby needs calories as much as I do. Plus, I’ve found that hunger is no longer a nagging sensation but a compulsion that must be addressed whether it is convenient or not. Given my cooking limitations, that meant eating out even when there wasn’t a great option for me. Another side effect of pregnancy is that I have to limit my intake of many types of seafood. Gone are the days of sushi and tuna salad. Seafood has often been my go-to restaurant food, but now I can only have a few servings a week.

What to eat.

The first time I walked into a restaurant after taking the unsweetened challenge, I realized that, especially with my other restrictions, asking about added sugars was just not going to work. So, I had to make some choices. First, I tried to pick foods that seemed less likely to have added sugars: salad with oil and vinegar dressing, grilled fish or shrimp (within limits), Mediterranean foods, Thai curries, Indian food, and Chipotle burrito bowls. My nutrition intake definitely suffered from eating out because I ate far fewer fresh vegetables or sautéed greens. And I’m sure there were added sugars in my food; I just can’t say how much.

It was a difficult choice: quality calories or enough calories. I compromised by eating some more marginal foods like rice, potatoes, and black beans that kept me feeling full and assured that I was getting enough calories. If I were cooking as much as I used to, I could instead eat a little more avocado, add nuts to my salad, or simply eat larger portions. Another way in which I cut corners was to eat a little more marginal meat, such as beef from cows that were grass-fed but not necessarily pastured. However, I still refused to eat any animal products that included hormones or antibiotics or were from companies that are known to use unethical practices. Again, if I were cooking all my meals, this wouldn’t be a problem.

Overall, I think this was a good experiment. I was able to eliminate added sweeteners from nearly all my breakfasts and dinners throughout the month. For dessert, I ate unsweetened applesauce with cinnamon. I snacked on fruit, nuts, or tahini sauce. I drank water, unsweetened tea, and black coffee (half –caff, no worries!). I never felt like I was making much of a sacrifice. The only hard part was making sure I had unsweetened options, which was a problem any time I ate out.

Now, I’ll admit, I wasn’t perfect. A couple of times, I ate a little dark chocolate when I really wanted it. I had sorbet at a fancy dinner with friends in celebration of my impeding graduation. And I kept with my 6-year tradition of meeting a good friend for bubble (boba) tea once a week. Last night, I finished out my month-long challenge with (gluten-free) pumpkin pie and a bit of pecan tart.

I don’t think I’ll ever go totally unsweetened. Completely eliminating a food or substance, as I have had to do with dairy, is stressful and frustrating. Plus, eliminating every drop of added sugars is not really necessary. However, I am even more aware now of where sugars may be hiding in my diet, and I notice the sweetness in my food much more because I eat so few sweet things. Over the next month, the stress in my life should start to decrease, and I’ll be able to get back to cooking. I look forward to being more in control of what I am eating, and what I am feeding that little person growing inside of me. Life will be sweet, with no sugar added.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Feeding the world, a scary proposition.

This semester, I am taking a course at UC Berkeley called Edible Education: The Rise and Future of the Food Movement – organized by Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, and Nikki Henderson (who I gushed over in a previous post). Each week, at least one speaker addresses the class of nearly 400 students and members of the general public on a topic related to food, including sustainability, world poverty and hunger, the rights of farm and food workers, and health. Although I have spent a lot of time learning about our food system, this class has helped me put things into a global context.

Hunger and poverty throughout the world are seemingly insurmountable problems that are likely to worsen as the world population grows. In fact, as of today, the population is estimated to exceed 7 billion. In 2010, there were 925 million starving people in world, so how can we possibly hope to feed everyone in the future?

I have often heard proponents of agribusiness, and especially the biotech industry, argue that feeding the world will only happen if we make agricultural technologies – such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides – more accessible and continue to develop and introduce genetically modified seeds. The idea they present is essentially this: to reduce hunger, we need to increase crop yields.

The opposing viewpoint, as presented by Raj Patel during a recent lecture, is that we already produce enough calories to feed the world. People are hungry because food is too expensive or simply inaccessible. To reduce hunger, we need to empower the poor.

So which is it? Do we have a production problem, or a distribution problem? Most importantly, how can we reduce the number of hungry people in the world?

A numbers game.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) calculates and tracks hunger statistics throughout the world. Chronic hunger and undernurishment are words the FAO uses to describe people who are consistently unable to consume their minimum caloric needs – 1800 kCal for the average person. People who live under these conditions are classified as food insecure.

Determining the number of people who are food insecure takes several steps. First, the FAO calculates the number of calories available for consumption in every country in which they can obtain data. The number of available calories includes sources, like domestic production and imports, and sinks, such as exports and the amount of calories wasted or put to uses other than human consumption. The FAO compiles statistics over a period of 1-2 years, and then converts that into the number of calories available per day. Lastly, they divide the total number of available calories by the population of the country to get the “food supply” in kilocalories per person per day.

The FAO then tries to estimate the number of calories that the population needs, which is based on the proportion of men versus women and the age breakdown of the population. According to the USDA, men aged 19-30 need at least 2400 calories per day. Women of the same age require at least 1800. Children under 3 require only about 1000 calories per day. Based on the population statistics, the FAO calculates a number of calories needed for everyone in the country to get the food they need.

The last step is to estimate the amount of food that actually makes it into the mouths of the people. First, the FAO assumes that caloric intake within a country follows a log-normal distribution. A log-normal distribution looks a bit like the profile of a baseball cap. It implies that most of the population consumes a range of calories corresponding to the width of the cap, but there are still some people in the bill who consume a lot more than average. There can also be a small tail at the low end, which would indicate that a small portion of the population get many fewer calories than average. A log-normal distribution can come in different proportions. To tailor the distribution to a given country, the FAO uses information provided in household surveys to determine the width and location of the distribution’s peak and the extent of the tails.

By comparing the available calories with the calories required to feed the population and the way in which food is distributed in a country, the FAO finally arrives at an estimate of the number of people who are food insecure. The FAO hunger map is shown below; there is also a nifty interactive version on their hunger website.

The map is interesting (and depressing), but what does it really tell us about the reasons for hunger? The FAO makes informed assumptions about distribution, but how can we know for sure the effect of distribution? To get around these issues, I decided to look up the statistics for only the first two steps of the FAO’s process: the available calories in a country and the calorie requirements based on the population statistics.

Food for thought.

Below is a table I created using FAO data that is available from a searchable database called FAOSTAT. I have listed statistics for the 10 countries with the highest percentages of undernourished people as a percent of the population. I then show the same statistics for the Unites States and some groups of countries: the FAO’s group of least developed countries, South-east Asia, Europe, and the world.

I included some extra information because I thought it was interesting, but the most relevant columns are the average caloric requirement, which has been weighted by the age and sex distribution of the given population, and the food supply. A country that literally does not have enough calories for all of its citizens to consume their minimum requirement would be one in which the food supply is smaller than the average caloric requirement. Of the 10 countries with the highest percentage of hunger, only two actually have too few calories: Eritrea and Burundi, each by less than 100 calories. In Mozambique, in which 39% of the population suffers from a chronic lack of calories, there are over 2000 calories available each day, compared to a requirement of only 1800.

The bottom line is this: there is enough food in all of these countries for just about everyone to get the calories they need. However, even if the FAO’s assumptions about distribution are not completely accurate, there certainly are starving people in these countries.

How can there be more calories than the population needs and still be starving people? In more economic terms, how can there be too much supply and unmet demand? What is happening to the extra calories?

We are the 99%.

The FAO suggests that inequality and food insecurity rise together. That would suggest that richer people either eat more calories than they really need (because they can afford to) or are able to control the calories in some other way. Perhaps poor people also have a harder time getting food because of transportation issues. Certainly, the political stability within a country has some bearing on food access as well. As the FAO points out, violent conflict can reduce or cut off the food supply to some people. Even economic interventions aimed at helping developing countries have been criticized, by Raj Patel and others, when it comes to food markets (read more here or here). I’m not well-versed enough in economics and global trade to really assess these arguments. However, one thing is clear to me. We cannot solve world hunger by simply increasing crop yields.

It’s one thing to say that the world produces enough calories to feed everyone. But even in the countries with the highest rates of undernurishment, there are enough calories to feed nearly everyone. As the population grows, perhaps we really will need to increase production to make sure everyone can eat, but I doubt it will matter much unless people can access those calories. Otherwise, the only number that changes is the number of available calories, not the number of hungry people. And that’s a scary thought.

Monday, October 24, 2011

A food day throw-down.

Today is Food Day – an event put together by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. According to the website, Food Day is about six principles:

1. Reduce diet-related disease by promoting safe, healthy foods
2. Support sustainable farms and limit subsidies to big agribusiness
3. Expand access to food and alleviate hunger
4. Protect the environment and animals by reforming factory farms
5. Promote health by curbing junk-food marketing to kids
6. Support fair conditions for food and farm workers.

This is a great list that encompasses all my reasons for changing my eating habits and fighting for food system reform. You can follow the links on the site to get more information about the problems and proposed solutions in each area. While you can get a good overview of the food system from this site, I found that a lot of the material glossed over the details and made assertions that I’m not sure would hold up to scrutiny.

My biggest disagreements with the Food Day message are in regards to what they consider safe, healthy food – especially their promotion of whole grains. I’ve talked about these issues in detail in a previous post, so I won’t belabor the points. Promoting fresh fruits and vegetables, supporting sustainable farming practices, and reforming the food system are all extremely important, so I’m glad the Food Day folks are working to get the message out. Instead of arguing over the details, I’d like to issue a Food Day challenge that I think really will promote better health and environmental sustainability.

Life, unsweetened.

My challenge is to go unsweetened – period. For the next 30 days, I will not eat anything with added sweetener of any kind. That includes sugar, high fructose corn syrup, honey, evaporated cane juice, agave nectar, fruit juice, etc. It also includes non-caloric/artificial sweeteners like Stevia. Luckily, fruit contains no added sweetener, so I can have as much as I want!

Why go unsweetened?

We consume more sugar than we ever have in all of human history. As I reported in a previous post about sugar, the average American consumes 440 calories each day in the form of caloric sweeteners. The average teen in America consumes 72 grams of sugar a day. Overconsumption of sugar, especially in the form of fructose, can reduce the body’s sensitivity to insulin leading to Type 2 diabetes, obesity, and even liver failure.

Another benefit of avoiding added sweetener is that it forces you to read labels and know what is in your food. You may be surprised by how many foods contain sweeteners, including things like bread and tomato sauce. Fat free products are notoriously bad about substituting sugar for fat. Avoiding added sweetener will likely mean buying more whole foods, like fresh produce and meat, and staying away from processed food. It will also mean a little more preparation and time in the kitchen. But trust me, cooking is fun!

The reason sweeteners are in so many things is twofold. First, we are hard-wired to crave sweets because they exist so rarely in nature. Making food sweeter will generally keep people coming back for more. The other reason for all the added sweetness is that corn sweeteners are really, really cheap. Farm subsidies promote resource-intensive monoculture cropping systems that damage the environment but are very good at producing vast quantities of industrial-grade grains. Corn produced in this manner is processed into many kinds of food additives including sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup. By eliminating added sugars and sweeteners from your diet, you are saying no to these damaging farming practices.

But I just can’t live without my…

Of course, we all have sweet things that we love so much, they don’t seem worth going without. It’s only for one month, though. And you may find that, after a month without added sugars dominating your palette, sweet things may lose some of their appeal. Still don’t think you could go without? Make yourself a deal. If you love ice cream, buy a pint and make it last the whole month.

Still don’t think you could take the challenge? Flip it around. Pick the one sweetened thing you consume the most - soda, diet soda, donuts, whatever - and eliminate that for one month.

Take the challenge!

Food Day is a chance for all of us to rethink our food choices. Whether you do it for your health, the environment, or just to try something new, going unsweetened is a great way to spend a month. So, leave a comment and commit to a month without sweets!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Three cheers for salad!

Given that I avoid meat in restaurants and have made a commitment to eating at least 8 cups of veggies a day, you might be surprised to know that I hate salad bar restaurants. Or at least, I used to. Generally, I have found these places overpriced and more focused on pizza and pasta options than on actual salads. Recently, however, a friend dragged me to Fresh Choice, an all-you-can-eat salad bar restaurant.

Although they do serve soups, pasta, pizza, and other non-salad options, the actual salad bar is pretty extensive. And, more strikingly, they make an effort to offer local and organic produce. The labeling system is also quite impressive. Every house-made salad, like the Sesame Kale Toss offered for fall, includes a list of ingredients and icons for every common allergy, as do all the salad dressings and soups. It was easy to deduce the vegan items, vegetarian items that were still dairy free, and the gluten-free offerings. In total, they have labels for foods containing eggs, sesame seeds, sulfites, milk, honey, shellfish, pork, fish, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, and wheat.

At the start of the Fresh Choice salad bar, there is a sign stating what percentage of the day’s produce is locally-grown. I recognized a lot of produce that I’ve been seeing at the farm stand. After all, that’s what grows here! Because of their commitment to local produce, the Fresh Choice menu changes with the seasons. As a child, I remember the excitement when peaches were finally in season, or cherries, or pumpkins. And now, as an adult, I know that eating seasonally is also better for the environment and provides access to cheaper, fresher food.

In addition to the extensive salad bar, some of my favorite Fresh Choice offerings were the baked yams, the broccoli obsession salad, and the spicy curry lentil soup. The only thing they are missing is avocado! After my awesome meal, I had to wonder whether all salad bar restaurants are as progressive as Fresh Choice. So, I checked out the websites for Sweet Tomatoes and Souper Salad.

Sweet Tomatoes lists items that are vegetarian (or not) and gluten-free foods. According to a review on GlutenFreeAZ, however, Sweet Tomatoes does not label the foods within the store. Rather, they have a binder with nutritional information that customers can browse before eating. Sweet Tomatoes also makes a big deal about being a sustainable business. In fact, they have received a Green Restaurant Association Certification. Having never heard of this program, I decided to investigate. According to the press release on the Sweet Tomatoes blog, they received a two-star certification, which is based on seven areas including sustainable food.

Two stars is the lowest certification level, and to achieve that, a restaurant has to be awarded at least 10 points in six of the categories plus an additional 40 points from any or all categories. Even a 4-star certification requires a minimum of only 10 points in the sustainable food category. The points are assigned by calculating the percentage of food costs that meet certain criteria. Buying certified organic food or sustainable seafood is worth 40 points; if a restaurant spent 100% of its food budget on organic food, it would get 40 points. A small number of points are also available for purchasing grass-fed, cage-free, or hormone and antibiotic-free animal products. Vegetarian and vegan fare are rewarded with 30 and 45 points, respectively. Buying regionally can get another 20 points, while buying within 100 miles of the restaurant is worth 40 points. So, if a restaurant served 100% organic vegan food sourced from within 100 miles, it would receive 130 points. Recall that certification requires only 10.

I couldn’t find a break-down of Sweet Tomatoes’ points, but without any mention of commitment to local organic food, on their website I’m not convinced that they are doing anything special in terms of sustainable food. It’s great that they are making a commitment to reduce water usage and waste – some of the other categories within the certification, but I wouldn’t get too excited about their food.

As for Souper Salad, the salad toppings listed on their menu are rather meager. There is no mention of local or organic produce; their cheddar cheese even says it is imitation cheese. They do have icons for vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free items, and the folks at GlutenFreeAZ were pleased with their experience at Souper Salad. So perhaps this is a good option for people with food allergies, but it doesn’t offer much beyond that.

All in all, it seems that Fresh Choice is doing something novel by really committing to nutritious, environmentally-friendly food. Their practice of listing ingredients and their extensive suite of allergy icons puts the customer in control. Of course, you can still eat badly at Fresh Choice. I saw several people skipping the salad bar all together in favor of pizza, and I saw one kid with only noodles. You can also eat a healthy and wholesome meal, though, and that’s not so easy to do at most restaurants. Next time I have to chose a place to eat, I’m glad to know there is a fresh, and progressive, choice.

Friday, September 30, 2011

John Durant: Zoos and the importance of natural habitats.

Most of the time, a talk about zoos is going to focus either on the plight of captive animals or how we human animals are trapped in societal zoos. Either way, they are generally pretty depressing. But John Durant is not most people; he's a self-proclaimed modern caveman and a somewhat reluctant champion of the caveman lifestyle, despite his appearance on The Colbert Report.

John's talk at the Ancestral Health Symposium began with the history of zoos and with the story of Jumbo, one of the most famous circus elephants ever. And yes, this part was a bit depressing. The first zoos treated animals like statues, separating them into stark, cement cages and removing them completely from the natural world. The animals did not thrive. Zoos became more sophisticated over time, but the priorities of the zoo designers were off. Habitats incorporated more elements of nature, but they were designed to be visually appealing to people rather than animals. As John put it, the purpose of zoos has changed from status symbols to entertainment to education to, finally, conservation. We have now learned that the key to keeping zoo animals healthy is to replicate as much of their natural environment as possible. The present state of zoos and attitudes toward zoo design follow this paradigm. For example, the depth of water features in penguin habitats are now determined based on the diving behavior of penguins observed in the wild. Studies of wild animals also inform the diets of animals in captivity.

It seems obvious, doesn't it? Any given species, from lions to turtles, evolved in a specific region under specific conditions. Each species found its own way to adapt to its environment and create a niche that would allow it to survive. Hence, animals have the best chance to live and reproduce in those natural environments to which they adapted throughout time. Even human animals.

We, too, perform best under the conditions to which our bodies and minds adapted over the whole of human history. To be clear, John is not advocating that we all go back to living in caves. There are quite a number of novel aspects of our habitat that are positive (flush toilets and antibiotics are two that come to mind). Rather, the idea is the same as with zoos – to the extent possible, replicate your natural environment to enable yourself to reach your full potential. John elaborated on this idea in our interview. Even in a modern world, we can get back in touch with our past by taking walks, eating a prehistoric diet, and sleeping in a dark quiet place, undisturbed by modern “advances” such as alarm clocks, nightlights, honking horns, or that red indicator light on the fire alarm. Visiting zoos, John pointed out, is a great way for us to reconnect with animals and nature in a way that is reminiscent of our paleolithic past. When it comes to exercise, be outside whenever possible. Preferably barefoot.

Barefoot? Yes, John is a big supporter of the barefoot and minimalist shoe movement. In fact, at the interview, he was wearing what looked like a flat piece of wood with a rope cord woven through it, wrapping around his toe and ankle. My flip flops would look like orthopedic support shoes next to these things. As John explained, our feet are designed for walking and running. Up until the very recent invention of shoes, our feet got us everywhere we needed to go, without arch support or motion control or custom orthotics. Our feet are incredibly sophisticated and instantly responsive. They are already the best running shoes we could ever have.

I think what makes people like John Durant is that he is genuine and humble. He lives like a caveman because it makes him healthy and happy, not so he can be famous or rich or sell you something. John practices what he preaches, and I think he's a lot more interested in living than preaching. Despite having been interviewed by Stephen Colbert, John actually seemed nervous to speak with me and worried about how he would do in the interview. John, if you are reading this, it was a pleasure.

But what does all this teach me about ethical eating? When I started this journey, I was most focused on the corn industry, especially the ways in which it contributes to environmental damage and the link between cheap corn feed and the development of confined animal feeding operations. CAFOs do a great deal of environmental damage in their own right. Plus, the animal waste has proven harmful to people in neighboring communities. And, for me, the absolutely appalling conditions these animals have to endure make any food produced in this way totally unpalatable.

As I have learned more about the important links between health and ancestral diets – both for humans and animals – our system looks more and more broken. Grain subsidies (corn, wheat, and soy) make novel, refined foods the cheapest and most abundant calories on the market. Combined with refined sugars, these foods appear to the be basis for Western diseases like diabetes, heart disease, obesity, cancer, Alzheimer's, and many autoimmune disorders. We are sick, and the animals we eat are sick.

I consider an ethical food system to be one that provides healthy food over many generations. To achieve this, we must reject diets based on refined grains, added sugars, and meat from unhealthy animals. One of the things I learned from John is that both animals and humans achieve healthfulness in the same way - by embracing our nature. We depend on animals as a food source; for us to be healthy, we need to keep them healthy too.

Below, you can watch John's interview and follow along with his slides. Eventually, the slides will be embedded, and I'll provide an updated link.

"Wild animals, zoos, and you: The influence of habitat on health" by John Durant

You can also listen to John's answers to my questions in this video (which may also be updated soon):

John Durant Interview at #AHS11 from Ancestry on Vimeo.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Savory summer stew.

Eating seasonally means getting fresh fruits and vegetables that are easily grown within your local food landscape. That means fewer resources are needed to grow the food and, because it's local, you can get it fresher and with far fewer food miles. In the SF Bay Area, we are in the midst of nightshade season. My CSA box was chock full of them: tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers. Nightshades have a “shady” reputation because they contain substances that can be inflammatory or even toxic. If you find that you are sensitive to nightshades, then it's best to avoid them as much as possible. I find that, especially if they are well-cooked, nightshades are delicious and totally edible foods!

With all the farm fresh nightshades around, I was inspired to pull together a dish that would use eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers. Ratatouille came to mind immediately, but I am neither French nor a culinary genius. So I will say that this stew is merely inspired by ratatouille. It is also delicious and nutritious!

Prep time: 15 - 25 minutes depending on chopping efficiency
Cook time: 25 minutes

  • 4 medium tomatoes (I used 2 huge heirlooms)
  • 3-4 medium zucchini
  • 2-3 bell peppers (I used 1 green bell pepper and 2 gypsy peppers)
  • 1 large eggplant
  • 2T olive oil
  • Basil, oregano, and thyme (to taste)
  • Black pepper (to taste)
  • Garlic powder or fresh diced garlic (to taste)
1. Cut the eggplant into quarters (or a few more pieces). Remove the skin. Place pieces into a colander and rub with sea salt.

2. Chop the zucchini into bite-sized pieces. Slice the peppers into strips. Coarsely chop the tomatoes preserving the drippings.

3. Rinse the salt off of the eggplant and pat the pieces dry. Chop the eggplant into bite-sized pieces.

4. In a large (non-stick) skillet, heat the olive oil on medium-high. If you are using fresh garlic, saute it for a few minutes. Add the eggplant, stirring enough that the oil coats the eggplant. The eggplant will soak up the oil pretty quickly, but as long as you use a non-stick pan, it should cook just fine. Cover the pan and allow the eggplant to cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

5. Add the other vegetables and spices. I used about half a teaspoon each of garlic, basil, oregano, and thyme. Mix well. Cover and cook for an additional 15 minutes on medium-low or until the eggplant is mushy and the peppers have softened.

6. Enjoy!

Acknowledgements: This recipe was informed by a great blog post by Therese and a recipe from

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The chocolate dilemma.

As I've reduced my consumption of processed foods, one thing I've missed is a sweet treat after dinner. I found that dark chocolate (dairy and gluten free!) is a good option for satisfying my sweet tooth. Sometimes I eat it a chunk all on it's own. Other times I melt it over fresh fruit. Delish!

Recently, I was picking up some groceries from Trader Joe's and decided to check out their chocolate selection. I found a bar that was organic and fair trade, had few additives, and did not list any dairy ingredients or include dairy in the food allergy list. However, it was lacking the symbols that Trader Joe's uses to identify vegan foods. I'm not vegan, of course, but given how sensitive my body is to dairy, it is comforting to see the symbol. Many other chocolate bars at Trader Joe's do bear this symbol.

Naturally, this led me to ponder why this particular chocolate bar was not vegan. I actually brought the bar to the Trader Joe's service desk to inquire further. The man behind the counter (for the life of me, I can't remember his name, so I will refer to him as Joe) was nice enough to look up the chocolate on the master list of food allergies. Sure enough, my organic chocolate bar did not make the cut. Joe offered to look into the matter and call me with an answer.

Imagine my surprise when, the very next day, Joe called me and explained that the organic evaporated cane juice used to sweeten the chocolate was the culprit. Apparently, it is processed using bone char so it cannot be considered vegan or vegetarian. I thanked Joe for his information, and spent the rest of the day trying to figure out what the heck bone char is!

I had a hard time finding well cited information, but it seems that bone char is a type of charcoal filter made of processed animal bones. It is often used for refining sugar cane in order to lighten its color and remove impurities. Evaporated cane juice is the product of this refinement followed by the evaporation of some of the liquid. Many websites stated that evaporated cane juice is never processed with bone char, nor can bone char be used in any organic products. This, of course, conflicts with my experience with Trader Joe's.

I called TJs back to double check. The chocolate bar is only 95% organic, so some conventional ingredients are used. However, the evaporated cane juice is listed in the ingredients as organic. Upon further inspection, I found that bone char is approved as a fertilizer in organic farming, but I could not confirm (or refute) the use of bone char in organic sugar or organic cane juice refinement.

This whole investigation shows quite clearly that anytime you eat processed food, you are taking a risk. It is pretty much impossible to know what exactly is in your food and where it came from. It also highlights how difficult it can be to separate oneself from the industrial food system. It's easy to avoid a big industrial steak or to buy veggie broth rather than chicken broth. But if you really want to eliminate mysterious additives or industrial animal products, you just have to buy food raw and prepare it yourself.

So, what to do about the chocolate... Well, first I will send an email to Trader Joe's and see if I can find out which company makes the organic evaporated cane juice used in their products. Hopefully, I can then figure out if bone char really is used in the processing, and how it can still be considered organic. In the meantime, though, I will probably buy the chocolate. The fact that it is 95% organic means that the 95% of the ingredients were grown in a less environmentally-damaging way. It's also fair trade and contains few additives. It may use bones from animals that were raised in a CAFO, but let's be honest – it isn't the refinement of evaporated cane juice that drives the industrial food system. The proliferation of cheap feed calories and our expectation of unlimited access to cheap meat drive the system. My chocolate consumption (or lack thereof) will not have an impact. It's much more important to avoid industrial meat and processed foods. And besides, every “diet” needs a touch of sweetness. And this dairy-free, gluten-free, organic, fair trade, dark chocolate bar sounds like the best option. Mmm, bone char.

Here are a couple of the links I found regarding bone char:

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Get Real! A chance for real progress.

According to the chart below (from the USDA), 64% of the calories in the average American's diet comes in the form of flour & cereal grains, added fats & oils, and caloric sweeteners. That means nearly two-thirds of the average person's calories provide no nutrition that isn't added through fortification. Eating fresh fruits and vegetables could easily provide the fiber and nutrients added to cereal and other grain products; the sweetened beverages and vegetable oils are basically useless. This statistic highlights just how far our population is from a diet composed of real foods: minimally processed, nutrient-dense foods such as vegetables, fruit, nuts, legumes, and quality meat and seafood.

Part of the problem is that processed foods are cheap compared to whole, fresh foods because the ingredients are heavily subsidized. Unfortunately, the process by which we grow corn, wheat, and soy (and thus produce things like high fructose corn syrup and soybean oil) is highly unsustainable. Rampant water usage, dependence on fossil fuels to keep the machinery going, pesticide runoff contaminating water supplies, soil erosion and nutrient depletion, and loss of biodiversity all damage the environment in which we live. The uniformity of our cropping systems leaves us vulnerable to disease or pests, which could lead to a serious food crisis.

A whole market has been created to capitalize on our surplus of these cheap raw materials. High fructose corn syrup is in almost every processed product in the grocery store because it's a cheap sweetener; humans are hard-wired to crave sweet foods, so you are more likely to buy more bread (for example) if it's sweeter. The beef industry can produce vast quantities of cheap meat because it can fatten the cows on grains. Of course, to do this requires that the animals be confined in huge feeding operations and dosed with antibiotics because grains actually make cows sick. The animal waste from these CAFOs contaminates ground water, contributes heavily to greenhouse gas emissions, and is absolutely disgusting to be around. The abundant use of antibiotics is leading to resistant strains of viruses as these “super bugs” adapt. Factory farms rely on cheap grains to make cheap meat, which means that neither of these foods are sustainable in the long-term.

The Paleo community advocates a real food diet with some specific restrictions: no grains, no vegetable oils, no added sugars. Instead, people are encouraged to eat vegetables, pastured meats and eggs, seafood, nuts and nut butters, and some fruit. Legumes are a grey area, as is pastured dairy – people are advised to experiment with these foods to determine whether or not they can be tolerated. This isn't a temporary diet with pre-made bars and shakes you can get from the grocery store. You can't be convenience store Paleo; this is a lifestyle change. Many of the people I talked with at the Ancestral Health Symposium prepare most of their own food including snacks like jerky and trail mix. Many of them garden, can, and preserve food. And everyone I spoke to emphasized the need for carefully-sourced animal products. After all, these are people who are convinced that eating ancestrally is the key to optimal health – and that's true for animals as well as people.

These folks sound a lot like me. I may eat less meat and more lentils, but we all consider the current food system unsustainable and unhealthy. We all eat real food.

One of the reasons I was so excited for the AHS was the opportunity to speak with other real foodies about the challenges we face in reforming the food system – making it more sustainable, accessible, healthful, and secure. Strangely, I heard more about troubles with vegetarians than with grain subsidies. Why vegetarians? The Paleo community advocates an evolutionary approach to diet and health in which animal products play a significant role. Vegetarians, on the other hand, do not eat meat and often exclude seafood as well; vegans avoid all animal products including eggs, dairy, and even honey. The question of whether or not eating meat is ethical, sustainable, or even healthy has apparently caused quite a bit of friction between the two groups.

I think this argument is a big waste of time and a major missed opportunity for positive change. A real food vegetarian - one who focuses on fresh fruits and vegetables, adds nuts and nut butters, eats pastured eggs, and avoids processed crap - is eating a diet much closer to Paleo than the majority of Americans. More importantly, the policy changes that would help make a produce-dominated diet cheaper and more accessible than a grain-based diet (including grain-fed animal products) would benefit a real food vegetarian as much as someone on a Paleo diet. We should be allies in this fight against unhealthy processed food and polluting CAFOs that cause a great deal of animal suffering.

Of course, not every vegetarian or vegan eats real food. Many of them survive on cereal and pasta and drink soda. Just like most Americans who also eat meat. Whether you make Rice-a-roni with conventional ground beef or crumbled veggie burger, you are not eating a nutritionally-dense, healthy meal. The healthfulness of a fast-food cheeseburger, fries, and soda does not hinge on the all-beef patty. To put it simply, meat is not the central issue in terms of health.

When it comes to the environment, conventional meat (especially red meat) really is the worst thing you can eat. Meat production doesn't have to be that way though. Pasture-raised meat from integrated farms can actually be good for the environment. And, as I've said already, grain agriculture does a lot of damage all on its own. Creating a food system that is sustainable over the long-term does not hinge solely on meat but rather on producing and eating real food.

If you agree that (1) eating real food is the key to good health and (2) promoting a real food lifestyle is an important step in achieving a just and sustainable food system, then you are part of the real food movement, and I am here to recruit you. Eco-vegetarian, sustaileo, or whatever – you can be on my team any day.

So what do we need to do? Back in January, I attempted to map out issues relevant to sustainable food systems. Many of them are particularly relevant to the real food movement. They are:

1. Reforming farm subsidies.

This one should come as no surprise given my above rant about industrial agriculture. Subsidies that encourage farmers to grow as much corn, wheat, and soy as they possibly can has left us with vast monocultures, environmental damage, really poor farmers (seriously), and a surplus of junk calories that make us sick. It is also the foundation for the grain-feeding, CAFO system that contributes even more to our environmental problems and is really just cruel. Our food system will have to change eventually as the resources on which they rely become more scarce, but minimizing the pain of transitioning away from this system is an important challenge.

What we likely need is a transition subsidy program, similar to the tobacco buy-out, in which farmers can still collect payments without actually growing corn, wheat, or soy. After a prescribed amount of time (the tobacco buy-out lasted 10 years), all subsidies would end. Some farmers would stick with grains, but many others would switch to other types of foods because they can actually make more money. We could even go a step further and attempt to incentivize switching to integrated farming systems or offer additional programs to help farmers go in that direction. I know my libertarian readers won't like that idea as much (yes, I'm recruiting real food libertarians too!), but it's going to take some work to get the land back into growing shape, and we need at least some of the farmers to choose to stick around.

2. Enabling small farmers.

The food industry – from growers through to retailers, in both conventional and organic markets – has become increasingly concentrated (read more here). A few large companies control the vast majority of market share. These companies have the ability to affect legislation, either to stop new regulations that would dip into profits or to direct regulations to stifle small businesses that would compete for market share.

A recent example was the Food Safety Modernization Act, a bill to overhaul food handling regulations to help prevent the spread of food-borne illnesses. In its original form, the bill would have applied the same regulations to all farms regardless of size. Small-scale farmers and their advocates were against the bill because it would effectively put them out of business. Also, many regulations that seemed totally reasonable for a large-scale operation just didn't make sense for a small family farm. The big companies were quite happy with the bill until an amendment was proposed – the Tester-Hagen amendment – which excepted small farms that sold their goods locally and directly to consumers. With Big Food now against the bill, it nearly died. However, enough people expressed their support for the bill, in the form of calls and letters, that it eventually passed.

Fighting for small-scale/family farms is important. They provide food, yes, but they also provide a choice. You can actually go to a small farm and witness their growing practices and how they treat their animals. And with enough small farms, you can actually choose based on your own values. All the rules of economics, of market pressure and voting with your dollar, can work in this system because you have access to the information that would enable you to make a decision and (ideally) a variety of options that allows you to choose exactly what you want. If you want a polyculture farm that grows seasonal varieties and incorporates animals such that they can express their natural behaviors, you can go find that farm – IF we protect them.

3. Improving school lunches.

School lunches in the Unites States are generally awful. French fries count as vegetables, and foods like pizza, burgers, and chicken fingers are common offerings. These foods are heavily processed, provide little nutritional value, and do nothing to educate children as to where food comes from or that nutrition is important. However, there are now programs across the country connecting schools with local farms that can provide fresh produce for school lunches. In many schools with Farm to School programs, involvement with the farms goes beyond a well-stocked salad bar. The farm relationship is used as a teaching tool – a way to expose kids to food systems, nutrition, and even biology and ecology. Some schools even create their own gardens and can literally see the fruits of their labors served up in the cafeteria. Children today (and really all people) are bombarded by messages that they should eat things that taste good, that healthy food does not taste good, and that all calories are the same. A slice of pizza, with some potato chips and a soda, includes all the food groups and is so constantly available that it must be okay to eat, right? Wrong. We need to fight against these messages by connecting kids with the land, their food, and their bodies.

4. Making real food more accessible to the poor.

Nearly 1 in 4 Americans are helped by the government's Nutrition Assistance Program, which includes food stamps and WIC. That's a LOT of people. Allowing these benefits to be used at Farmers Markets gives people access to fresh produce that will help them lead healthier lives – a benefit to both our citizens and our future tax dollars. Both the WIC program and the benefit program for seniors now offer vouchers in addition to the regular benefit that can only be redeemed for fresh fruit, vegetables, or herbs at participating farmers markets. However, the federal benefit is capped at $30 per person per year. My husband and I spend that much at our local farm stand each week! State programs can build on the federal benefit, and many states now have programs that double federal benefits for produce and programs to get EBT card readers installed at more farmers markets. Strengthening these programs will help people get the nutrition they need, develop better health habits that they can use even after they have stopped relying on food stamps, and contributes to local economies.

There are already many organizations working on all of these issues. Until I can create a Real Food Political Action Committee for you all to join, the following organizations are good places to get involved. You can also go back to my Food Sustain-o-sphere post for more links in other areas.

National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition
NCAT Sustainable Agriculture Project
Understanding the Farm Bill: A Citizen's Guide to a Better Food System
Community Alliance for Family Farmers
USDA Farm to School Program
National Farm to School Network
The Edible Schoolyard Project

Of course, there are still going to be disagreements between those in the vegetarian camp and those who call themselves Paleo. The question of what constitutes a healthy diet is an important one that we should continue to research. In the meantime, though, we should not let our differences keep us from real progress. There are many ways in which we could improve our food system and deliver more real food to the public for the benefit of us all; the above are only a few of the issues ripe for collaboration. We may not all agree that Meatless Monday is a good idea, but we can probably all endorse Sodaless Saturday! So I say to you, Real Foodies, Unite!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

AHS 2011 Photojournal.

They say a word is worth one millipicture (or something like that). Here's my 2.5 day symposium experience in pictures.

We kicked things off with a Paleo BBQ at event co-organizer Aaron Blaisdell's house. People kicked off their shoes - literally, there were at least 50 pairs of Vibram FiveFingers on the porch! Christian manned the grill, cooking up grass-fed steaks, wild boar bacon, and a whole salmon.

Early the next morning, it was off to the symposium where I met many Paleo celebrities. People were so friendly and gracious. Amazing!

Mark Sisson and I chatted about my interest in sustainability; he coined the phrase Sustaileo, which I will totally use in the future! My conversation with Robb Wolf started with "Hey, you know you ruined my life..." Seriously, once you read his book, you just can't keep doing the same wrong things you have always done! I met Denise at the welcome reception. She was the first person I actually recognized, and she was kind enough to help me put faces to the names I'd been hearing. Thanks, Denise!

Most of the interview team had never done interviews before. The first day had its ups and downs, but we eventually got into the swing of things. We managed to have at least one interviewer at every talk and interview all but five speakers. And it only took 16 hour days to accomplish!

We really could not have pulled this all off without the dedicated team of volunteers. These guys showed up early to set up, made sure the video cameras and audio support were going strong, and stuck around to clean up at the end of each day. Even though the interview team was technically also made up of volunteers, I felt like I really relied on everyone. I especially want to thank Tony for letting me rest on his shoulder - I really needed a nap!

This was a terrific experience, and I met so many great people. And remember, just say no to gluten!

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Woodstock of Evolutionary Medicine (Part One): 72 hours of awesome.

This past weekend, I spent three days on and around the campus of UCLA for the first (but hopefully not last) Ancestral Health Symposium – a gathering of researchers, teachers, bloggers, and enthusiasts who take an evolutionary biology approach to understanding the impact of nutrition and lifestyle on human health. Over 50 speakers presented talks and posters on topics such as the optimal human diet, fitness from an evolutionary stand-point, how to evaluate scientific “discoveries” presented in the media, the impact of a produce-based diet versus a grain-based diet, and specific biochemical pathways of disease.

I was lucky enough to attend the symposium as part of the interview team. Our dedicated journalists and camera crew managed to interview almost every speaker! It was a grueling few days – we started work at 7am and didn't head to dinner until 9pm – but every minute was worth it! In the coming weeks, all of the presentations will be posted online along with our interviews. I'll be sure to link to them as they become available. In the meantime, I'll give you an overview of what I learned at the symposium (this post) and the amazing presenters I was lucky enough to interview as part of a continuing series.

Here's a list of the people I interviewed:
I also had the pleasure of meeting some of the big names in the Paleo diet community including Robb Wolf, Gary Taubes, Denise Minger, Mark Sisson, Tom Naughton, and co-organizer Adam Blaidsdell. What a welcoming and inspiring community!

The original human diet.

Before I get into all the information presented at the symposium, let me give you a brief overview of human health and how it has changed with time. I promise to provide more details and references when I get to the specific presenters, especially when I discuss doctor and medical researcher Staffan Lindeberg and anthropologist Mark Nathan Cohen. You can also read about their findings in the following places:
Agriculture is a relatively recent human invention. Before that, we were hunter-gatherers (HGs) who survived on a diet of mainly animal proteins and fats, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. The average life span of HGs (i.e. life expectancy) was only about 30 years, but that was mainly due to infant mortality, lack of modern medicine to treat infections and injuries, and a rather high likelihood of being eaten by a lion. Hunter-gatherer communities had many elderly people, and their skeletal remains indicate a lack of many diseases we attribute to old age in our modern society. Studies of the few remaining primitive communities have also shown a lack of the so-called “diseases of civilization” including diabetes and obesity, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, stroke, dementia and Alzheimer's, cancer, osteoporosis, and auto-immune disease. Within a primitive tribe in Papua New Guinea – the Kitavans – about 6% of the population is over age 65. These people are very healthy and those who survive to age 45 have similar life expectancy to people in modern societies.

Our ancestors were much healthier during their hunter-gatherer years than after making the switch to a grain-based agricultural diet. Post the advent of agriculture, humans lost several inches in height and began developing these new diseases that had not been present in their ancestors. Disease and death were not only due to the change in diet but also the changes in lifestyle. Agriculture required communities to settle, leading to higher population density and more communicable disease, and the potential for conquest. Life expectancy actually went down post-agriculture. In the 1800's, for example, the life expectancy in Ireland dropped to only about 20 years and was even lower for certain societal classes. Only in recent decades has life expectancy increased, mainly due to medical advances and a safer environment, and we have finally returned to our pre-agriculture size.

Understanding why agriculture led to poorer health outcomes than the hunter-gatherer lifestyle is the main goal of the ancestral health community. Of the many presentations and conversations I was involved in throughout the symposium, there were several points of agreement within the community.

What I learned on my summer vacation.

1. A modern day, grain-based, processed food diet is a major contributing factor in most of the diseases we attribute to old age or random chance, including (but not limited to) dementia and Alzheimer's, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, arthritis and other inflammation, cancer, osteoporosis, PCOS, IBS and other digestive problems, and auto-immune disorders like multiple sclerosis, Celiac disease, lupus, and fibromyalgia. Of course, diet is the main contributing factor to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and other metabolic disorders. These diseases do not appear in modern day hunter-gatherer tribes, and to the extent that they can be diagnosed from skeletal remains, there is no evidence that our pre-agricultural ancestors suffered from any of these diseases.

2. A diet that includes only whole foods – vegetables, fruit, pasture-raised meat and eggs, seafood, and nuts – is the diet to which humans are best adapted. The optimal human diet does NOT include gluten (a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye), added sugars, vegetable oils (especially corn and soybean) and most dairy products. Beans, peanuts, and lentils should be minimized or avoided due to these plants' natural defenses against being eaten. Whether or not you eat meat, a grain-based diet is bad for you and for the environment.

3. Getting fat is not caused by eating fat. Breaking the body's natural processes for controlling appetite, absorbing nutrients, and storing/accessing energy in the form of fat is what causes people to gain weight and struggle to lose weight. Therefore, regulating your insulin response is a key factor in overall health and wellness.

4. The specific break-down of foods and macronutrients that lead to optimal health may depend on your heritage and current state of health. For example, someone who's ancestors hail from Sub-Saharan Africa may be better adapted to certain foods than the descendants of, say, Scandinavians. Also, a person with metabolic syndrome – obesity or Type 2 diabetes – may require a stricter diet in order to restore insulin sensitivity.

5. Whole grains are NOT healthy. There are no nutrients you can get from grains that you cannot get from vegetables or fruit, and gluten is toxic to humans.

6. Sugar used to be a scarce and precious commodity; now it is prolific. Whether in the form of high fructose corn syrup, table sugar, agave nectar, honey, refined grains, or alcohol, sugar is a dangerous substance that must not be over-consumed. Always eat your sugars with fiber, such as in the form of fruit. Do not eat fake sugars. Do not drink sugar.

7. If you have unexplained digestive problems (e.g. bloating, constipation, diarrhea, or heart burn), skin problems including acne or rosacea, auto-immune disorders, metabolic syndrome, or unexplained pain or stiffness, you should seriously consider changing your diet. Meeting with a holistic medical practitioner, especially one who specializes in nutrition and health, may help you with your recovery.

8. Ancestral health is a useful approach to studying human health and wellness. However, “because cavemen did it” should not be the only metric by which we determine the impact of any particular behavior. Scientific investigation into why certain ancestral behaviors were more beneficial than modern ones is essential to improving human health.

9. Lifestyle behaviors such as sleep, stress, and movement are important contributing factors in human health and well-being.

10. Poor people, especially those relying on food stamps, WIC, or other government services are ill-served by the USDA's nutritional advice to eat whole grains and low-fat meat and dairy. Also, adhering to a healthy ancestral diet may be out of reach for many people, due to cost, time to buy and prepare foods, limited access to unprocessed whole foods, and lack of nutritional and/or culinary knowledge.

Beyond these main conclusions, there are several issues still being debated within the ancestral health community such as:

  • How much protein/meat/starch/fruit should people eat? Is there one set of guidelines that will work for everyone, or do people need to experiment to find an optimal diet?
  • Conventional, low-fat dairy has been linked to auto-immune disorders and other health problems. Is raw/whole/pasture-raised/fermented dairy equally harmful?
  • What are the key studies that need to be done to advance our understanding of nutrition, lifestyle, and human health?
There was a ton of information packed into only two days of talks, but there were a few topics that were absent or seemed under-developed. The only specific food I didn't hear much about was soy. Fermented soy was briefly mentioned as having positive health benefits, and soybean oil was definitely labeled as bad. Corn and soybeans dominate the vast monocrop industrial farms that demand scarce resources and pollute the environment, so there are solid ethical reasons for avoiding these products. However, I would have liked to hear more about the health impacts of different soy products such as edamame or tofu versus soy milk or soy lecithin.

The majority of the symposium focused on why/how certain behaviors contribute to better or poorer health and how to implement positive practices into modern life. Other than additional research, I didn't come away with a strong sense of what needs to be done to disseminate this information and help more people modify their diets and lifestyles. How can the ancestral health community connect with members of other communities (e.g. sustainable agriculture, global food and poverty, or policy advocacy groups) to achieve common goals such as moving away from grain-based agriculture or revising nutritional standards? What policy changes should the community be advocating for, and how do we mobilize people to make these changes?

If the goal is a healthy human population, in which an ancestral diet is widely accessible and sustainable, what are the steps needed to achieve that goal? If we prioritized polycultures, how many people could we feed a Paleo diet? Given that this is a blog about sustainable food systems, this last point is the one I want to focus on in the future. Although produce plays a big role in ancestral diets, most Paleo diet cookbooks and blogs advocate getting the majority of your calories from animal products. Of course, this has implications for sustainability because the volume of meat that can be produced in a sustainable and ethical manner may be limited. However, author and presenter Don Matesz suggested that humans may not need to eat quite as much meat as some Paleo proponents advocate and, furthermore, he thinks too much meat can also lead to health problems. I'll go into more detail later, but I was very encouraged by my discussions with Don. A diet in which meat and seafood are consumed only on a weekly basis rather than every day or at every meal may still be healthy insofar as you can get enough iron and B12 eating this way. Getting enough protein may require more eggs, seafood, or meat especially since beans and lentils can cause digestive problems and should be consumed only in moderation if at all. Even nuts and nut butters should probably be limited to a few servings per day. A low-meat diet with perhaps more ethical eggs and seafood, supplemented with some lentils and nuts, sounds like the best option for me.

If you are interested in learning more about a Paleo/ancestral diet, be sure to check back for more posts in this series and links to the presentation/interview videos. Also, check out the following websites:
For more on why sugar is especially bad for humans, watch Sugar: The Bitter Truth, by medical researcher and symposium presenter Robert Lustig.

From moons to moos.

[Note: This is a reposting with minor alterations of my intro piece for The Naked Bear Blog, a blog put together by my students at Berkeley last spring, explaining how and why I got started in sustainable food systems. The student blog is not currently active, but there are some terrific and inspiring articles that you should check out!]

As a graduate student in planetary science – I study moons of Jupiter – I often feel out of place in undergraduate courses on sustainable agriculture or food journalism. On the first day of class, when we go around the room and students announce that they are majoring in resource management or environmental policy, I wonder if I really have anything to offer. I assume they are wondering if I got lost on my way to a seminar. The truth is, though, regardless of our backgrounds, we can all contribute to a sustainable future by simply being more aware of what we eat.

Sustainability most often refers to maintaining the complex natural systems that provide us with fresh air, clean water, and a wondrous habitat in which to live. Sustainable food systems also address the impact of food production on the well-being of humans and animals. It is the intersection of these three areas: environment, human health, and animal welfare, that compels me to act. Our food system has consequences that are both long-term (what does this do to the planet) and short-term (how can we keep our 10-year-olds from becoming obese) and at both the smallest scale of community – our bodies, our families – and the global community as well.

“Be the change you want to see in the world” ~Ghandi

My first decision, upon learning about where our food actually comes from and all of the ramifications of that system, was to turn in disgust and walk in the opposite direction from industrial, conventional food. I completely stopped eating conventional meat and eggs; I haven’t purchased eggs from a grocery store in over a year. I also switched to organic produce, ideally locally-grown, which I purchase from various farmers markets and through a farm CSA. The transition was easier than I thought it would be. It’s amazing how much less appetizing a cheeseburger looks when I can envision the cow from whence it came living in its own muck, unable to move because it is so confined, and being pumped full of antibiotics to keep it from dying because it’s forced to eat corn that its body cannot process. And it doesn’t stop with the patty. I can almost see the corn sweeteners in the bun that will cause an insulin spike in my blood and the pesticides used to grow the vegetables draining into the local water supply. This is the story behind nearly every cheeseburger served in a restaurant or fast food joint in the United States, every burger grilled on the fourth of July using the cheap ground beef and hamburger buns sold in nearly every grocery store.

“Knowledge that acts is infinitely more useful than knowledge that sits idle” ~Kahlil Gabrin

In making this transition, I noticed that I wasn’t hearing a lot about these issues from my friends and colleagues. There were lots of Facebook rants about the Tea Party and American Idol and poor grammar, but I realized that the food issues I was learning about were simply absent from the discussion. Changing my own diet was a certainty, but I can’t change the system by myself. To spread the word, I started blogging - to not only inform people of the issues with food, but also to give them an example of how a more sustainable food lifestyle can work. I want to show people that even a busy graduate student can afford, in both time and money, to make better choices. I went a step further by contributing to the Naked Bear sustainable food magazine put together by Berkeley students in 2009 (bears are their mascot). Later, I co-taught a course on food systems and social media, which resulted in the terrific articles featured on The Naked Bear Blog. My goal is to continue to disseminate information about both the problems and solutions within our food system and to teach others to do the same. I hope you will find this blog a useful tool and that you will pass along the information you learn here. There is a sustainable food system out there, and every decision we make can be a step toward that future.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Nunchucks of the kitchen ninja.

Cooking is an integral part of an ethical food lifestyle. Only by cooking your own meals can you control what nutrients make it into your body and what kind of food system you are supporting. If you are like me, though, you grew up with a limited repertoire. Back in college, I could make a mean mac and cheese. You know, from the box… I also microwaved a killer lasagna!

Cooking “real food” was intimidating, so I started slowly. Once a week, my best friend would bring her laundry to my house (I owned a washer AND a dryer – no quarters needed!), and we would cook dinner together, chat, and watch Frasier. We stuck with pretty simple foods, sometimes from a box, but at least it got us into the kitchen.

I’ve come a long way since those days. Now cooking is a hobby of mine. My husband and I have had some of our best conversations over a cutting board and a glass of wine. Because we are often experimenting with new foods – strange CSA vegetables and different cuts of meat – we put more time into picking recipes and preparing our food with care. It makes cooking and eating more of an experience rather than a chore.

One thing I have learned over the years is that having the right equipment makes all the difference. Cooking is a lot more fun when you have everything you need in front of you! What exactly is the right equipment? Well, I’m so glad you asked. Below you will find a list of my top ten kitchen essentials.

1. Cutting boards

A healthy diet is heavy on the vegetables, and that means a lot of chopping. Multiple, quality cutting boards are essential. I use a cutting board every day whether for slicing fruit with breakfast, an avocado on my lunch salad, or veggies for dinner. Even though I make an effort to rinse and reuse them, having a few boards on hand makes life a lot easier.

2. A really good knife

Of course, you can’t chop veggies (or anything else) without a knife. I was shocked at how much faster and easier chopping was once I bought a high quality knife. I prefer a Santoku, but my husband prefers a chef’s knife. If it’s sharp and well-made, the decision comes down to personal preference. But trust me, you will never regret buying a good knife!

3. Salad spinner or colander

Leafy greens – like chard, kale, and spinach – provide tons of nutrients despite having very few calories. I try to eat about 8 cups of greens every day. My salad spinner is essential for creating fresh salads and preparing my latest addiction: sautéed greens with mushrooms and lentils. Even if I’m not spinning anything, the slotted bowl makes a great colander that I use while cleaning veggies. I also have a fine-mesh colander for rinsing beans, lentils, and berries.

4. Mixing bowls with lids

Mixing bowls are always useful for, well, mixing things. I also use mine for storing veggies. I try to clean and chop all my veggies for the week at once so I can easily throw together a salad or whip up a quick veggie side dish. My lunch salads are divided into two storage bowls: one with lettuce and one with toppings. That way, if I run out of lettuce, I can still use the toppings in an omelet. Or if one ingredient goes bad, I can still use the rest. Long-lasting salad veggies I often use are broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, celery, squash, salad turnips, and radishes. I tend to avoid bell peppers, mushrooms, and cucumbers because they get sticky rather quickly. I often add avocado in the morning as I am packing up my salad to take to work. It only takes a minute or two since I always have a cutting board ready!

5. Skillet (with lid)

I seriously could not live without my skillet. It’s huge, non-stick, and has a lid. I use it to make chili, stew, sautéed veggies, pan-fried fish, stir-fry, scrambled eggs, breakfast potatoes, and more. Technically it can go in the dishwasher, but it cleans up so easily, there’s really no need!

6. Jelly-roll/baking pan

There are lots of names for a flat, rectangular, baking sheet with raised edges. Ours is apparently called a jelly-roll pan. Great for baking fish, roasting root vegetables, and making chard chips – we must use this thing at least once a week. Rather than lining it with aluminum foil or applying cooking spray, we use a Silpat baking mat. Nothing sticks to it. Seriously… nothing. You have to wash it by hand, but it’s really useful if you cook a lot of things in the oven.

7. Tongs, a really good spatula, a slotted pasta spoon, and a meat thermometer

Yah, I know – I actually listed four things there, but they are all “utensils”. Unexpectedly, tongs have become our go-to kitchen tool. They are great for turning things over, doling out salad, and can be used to grab your partner’s nose when he or she really deserves it! We use spatulas and slotted spoons with almost every meal, and the meat thermometer is essential for cooking meat perfectly.

8. Measuring cups and spoons

These are pretty self-explanatory. Most recipes require measuring ingredients, and you will also need to know how much you are eating if you want to track nutrients or calories. One word of advice: buy metal measuring spoons. Our first set was plastic, and the numbers rubbed off over time.

9. Olive oil

We use this healthy oil in virtually all our cooking. I even use a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar as salad dressing.

10. Spices

Food is never boring when you have lots of spices! The ones I use the most (though not all together) are: fresh cracked pepper, paprika, chipotle chili powder, garlic (powder or fresh), cumin, and an Italian blend. We also have several Mrs. Dash blends. The same kind of fish can be a totally different experience depending on how it is seasoned!

Well, there you have it – 10 essential items for a home kitchen. With practice, patience, and these 10 tools, anyone can cook! I have compiled everything but the oil and spices into an Amazon Wishlist: Ethical Eats' Kitchen Essentials. I wanted to make a ListMania List, but there were some technical difficulties. So… be aware that you can’t buy these products directly from the Wishlist, or you will be buying them for me! Just follow the links to place an order. Whenever possible, I attempted to find exactly the same product that I own, so I could be sure I’m directing you to tools I know. Even so, I claim no responsibility for the quality of the particular item you receive should you place an order. Got all that? Good, now get cooking!