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Posts Tagged ‘Food Politics’

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Hold on to your hats folks, this is not good news…

Monday, July 11th, 2011

Kulkarni et al., Popul Health Metr. 2011

Over the years, the life expectancy of an adult in the US has increased dramatically. It is almost a law of nature that with advances in medicine, nutrition, and public health (vaccinations, etc.) life expectancy increases over time. A decrease in life expectancy is a sign of something going seriously wrong.

The figure above is from a recently published paper titled, “Falling behind: life expectancy in US counties from 2000 to 2007 in an international context.” It shows changes in life expectancy for women from 1987 to 2007. You will note from the figure legend that the red on this map depicts counties in which the change was less than zero. That means that the life expectancy of women in those counties has decreased over the past two decades.

This comes on the heels of a report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation titled, “F as in fat: How obesity threatens America’s future.” Here are a few tidbits:

  • Colorado is the only state with an obesity rate below 20% (coming in at 19.8%)
  • A state at 19.8% obesity would have had the highest rate in 1995
  • No state has had a decline in the rate of obesity
  • Over the past 15 years, rates of obesity have doubled in seven states and rates of diabetes have doubled in 10 states

We are experiencing a crisis – and we need to make some changes. There will be no single solution, rather we will have to change our behaviors, policies, environments, practices, etc.

What are you going to change today?

“Finishing” Cattle – 3 Thoughts for the Day

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

The National Cattlemen’s (do they not recognize women ranchers yet?) Beef Association provides a fact sheet on finishing cattle on feedlots on their website. So, what is “finishing” you might ask? This is what they have to say on the matter:

“Cattle are raised on range or pasture land for most of their lives (usually 12-18 months), then transported to a feedlot for finishing. These cattle usually spend about three to six months in a feedlot, during which time they gain between 2.5 and 4 pounds per day. The cattle are fed a scientifically formulated ration that averages 70 percent to 90 percent grain. On this special diet, cattle will gain about 1 pound for every 6 pounds of feed they consume.”

So, the cattle are moved from pasture to a feedlot and are fed grain to rapidly gain weight. “Finishing,” therefore means “fattening up.”

Thought #1: Eating a bunch of grain seems like a good way to gain weight (for cows, at least, who are actually better equipped than humans to digest grains).

But, how can feeding grain to cows be more profitable than letting them eat grass?

Another quote from the fact sheet: “The abundance of feed corn in this country contributes to the economic viability of producing grain-fed cattle. In fact, it will often cost more to raise cattle on pasture because it takes longer for the animal to reach market weight. That is why grass-finished beef can be more expensive than grain-fed product.”

Thought #2: Grains result in rapid weight gain and economic subsidies keep grains cheap and plentiful (not only for cows folks).

So, does finishing cattle on grain simply result in more meat, or are there other differences between grass-fed and grain-fed beef?

To answer this question, we go to a recent scientific review (note: the entire paper is available free of charge) of the fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef. First, the abstract of the paper (emphasis added):

“Growing consumer interest in grass-fed beef products has raised a number of questions with regard to the perceived differences in nutritional quality between grass-fed and grain-fed cattle. Research spanning three decades suggests that grass-based diets can significantly improve the fatty acid (FA) composition and antioxidant content of beef, albeit with variable impacts on overall palatability. Grass-based diets have been shown to enhance total conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) (C18:2) isomers, trans vaccenic acid (TVA) (C18:1 t11), a precursor to CLA, and omega-3 (n-3) FAs on a g/g fat basis. While the overall concentration of total SFAs is not different between feeding regimens, grass-finished beef tends toward a higher proportion of cholesterol neutral stearic FA (C18:0), and less cholesterol-elevating SFAs such as myristic (C14:0) and palmitic (C16:0) FAs. Several studies suggest that grass-based diets elevate precursors for Vitamin A and E, as well as cancer fighting antioxidants such as glutathione (GT) and superoxide dismutase (SOD) activity as compared to grain-fed contemporaries. Fat conscious consumers will also prefer the overall lower fat content of a grass-fed beef product. However, consumers should be aware that the differences in FA content will also give grass-fed beef a distinct grass flavor and unique cooking qualities that should be considered when making the transition from grain-fed beef. In addition, the fat from grass-finished beef may have a yellowish appearance from the elevated carotenoid content (precursor to Vitamin A). It is also noted that grain-fed beef consumers may achieve similar intakes of both n-3 and CLA through the consumption of higher fat grain-fed portions.”

Another telling finding is the last column in Table 2 of this paper, which summarizes the differences in the omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratios across the studies reviewed.

Table_2_-_mod

Here, what you see in each case, is a significantly lower ratio (which is what you want) of omega-6 (less desirable) to omega-3 (more desirable) fatty acids when the animals are raised on a grass-based diet as compared to grain. So, it does appear that a grain-based diet makes a difference in both the quantity (i.e., greater weight) and the quality (i.e., lower quality) of beef as compared to a grass-based diet.

Thought #3: I don’t want to be “finished off,” thank you very much. So, I think I will be avoiding the grains that so rapidly pack on the pounds for our bovine friends. I also want to eat the healthiest types of meat that I can. For that, I will be choosing grass-fed beef whenever possible.

CONFLICTS OF INTEREST AND THE USDA

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

The USDA is a Department within the US government that oversees agricultural and nutrition policies and programs. Recently, the USDA released a new icon (see above) to replace the older “food pyramid.” The USDA also included several guidelines which are listed below:

Balancing Calories

  • Enjoy your food, but eat less
  • Avoid oversized portions

Foods to Increase

  • Make half your plate fruits and vegetables
  • Make at least half your grains whole grains
  • Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk

Foods to Reduce

  • Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals – and choose the foods with lower numbers
  • Drink water instead of sugary drinks

In general, there is a lot of good stuff here. We like the idea of using a plate (although the size of the plate matters) to depict appropriate serving sizes as opposed to the old pyramid. The plate is easier to understand and is likely more memorable. We also like the idea of using the majority of your plate for vegetables and protein – hard to go wrong there. We certainly agree that folks should enjoy their food – some people could use to eat less, but portion size should likely vary with your activity level. Lastly, comparing sodium in prepared foods might help people avoid overly processed and preserved foods. Avoiding sugary drinks is almost always a good idea.

However, there are also some aspects of this new guidance on which we disagree. First, there is no reason that grains should make up approximately 25% of your diet and in fact grains can be eliminated from your diet entirely. If this statement made you gasp, please bear in mind that although there are essential amino acids (building blocks of proteins) and essential fatty acids (building blocks of fats and triglycerides), there is no such thing as an essential sugar (building blocks of carbs) (“essential” here means something that you have to eat because your body cannot make it). Moreover, there is evidence that grains might actually be unhealthy by interfering with the digestion and absorption of nutrients. Second, individuals who are looking to lose weight might want to restrict their fruit and dairy consumption. A diet consisting of 25%+ of fruit and dairy can add up to a heck of a lot of sugar pretty quickly. Third, and this is a big oversight, we don’t see healthy fats explicitly included anywhere. Perhaps these are implied under protein and dairy, but we feel that healthy fats and oils from beef, lamb, salmon, butter, coconut, and olives, for example, are absolutely critical for good health and for satisfying meals. Science is finally putting to rest the notion that people get fat from eating fat (as opposed to eating excess grains and sugars). As an historical aside, it is interesting to us that the 1943 version of the food pyramid called “The Basic Seven” listed fruits and vegetables as three out of the seven groups, meats and dairy as three out of the seven groups (butter had its own group!), and bread, flour, and cereals as one-seventh of a healthy diet.

So, what has happened in the intervening years to make grains so highly recommended by the USDA? Does it have to do with USDA Agencies such as the Agricultural Marketing Service; the Farm Service Agency; and the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration being under the same roof as the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion and the Food and Nutrition Service? I don’t know, but recommending so much grain consumption does not appear to be supported by the scientific evidence. Over the next few weeks, we’ll review some of that evidence in detail. In the meantime, we propose the plate below for a modified approach to eating a healthy diet.

Myplate_-_choose_better
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