Thursday, April 23, 2009

Organic vs. Conventional Produce: The Face-Off

Greetings friends,

Last week I posted little sneak peek of the differences between organic food and conventionally grown food. As the video states, a food is considered organic if it is not genetically modified and is produced without the use of pesticides, fertilizer, sewage sludge and radiation. Consequently this implies that conventional farming employs one or more of these methods. Since we are in a very real sense what we eat—what we put into our bodies is what the body has available to keep us functioning—plants, too are in a real sense what they absorb.

So what impact do conventional farming methods have on the produce we eat? Well for starters all these methods are more or less unnatural, as in they do not offer the ideal environment for the organism to develop. And without getting what they naturally need, the organisms get sick.

  • Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been engineered to either produce more, last longer, or be more resistant to pesticides. The problem is that we haven't been engineered along with them to effortlessly adapt to their changes. In some cases, crops like soybeans have been modified for greater resistance to pests by concentrating their natural poisons. So we're eating food that contains more toxins than our bodies would normally have to deal with. (Most plants have natural toxins, but in most food crops they are in such small concentrations that we can easily metabolize them.) You can take a look at my soy blog to get more details about all the cancers and problems in which soy, especially genetically modified soy, is implicated.

  • Pesticides are used in conventional farming to ensure that the least amount of the crops is eaten by bugs. This yields a greater harvest and thus more products, but the problem is that it also yields chemical residue on our dinner plates. Most pesticides are known carcinogens and are likely to cause cancer especially over years of consumption. And children are more sensitive to getting sick from them than adults.

  • Fertilizers have to be used in conventional farming methods because, unlike in traditional farming, the same plot of land gets reused year after year without giving the soil any time to recover. Traditionally farmers would rotate different crops on the same plot of land and occasionally not grow anything on there for a while. Conventional farmers don't practice crop rotation and leech all nutrients from the soil and then they add synthetic fertilizers that make the crops look nice. The problem with these nice-looking crops is that they have a fraction of the nutritional value that they would have had they been grown on soil that was still alive. Here is an interview that explains farming methods, their impact on food and consequently on the consumers.

  • Sewage sludge pretty much speaks for itself. It's crap that's being absorbed by plants and then eaten by us.

  • Radiation is my most recent and most saddening discovery. Basically to give otherwise perishable fresh fruits and vegetables a longer shelf-life, some manufacturers irradiate the produce. This kills a lot of the microorganism that would normally cause rotting. The problem is that the radiation doesn't discriminate between microorganisms that we need and those we don't. Furthermore it damages the food and creates free radicals as well as URPs—Unique Radiolytic Products. UPRs are free radicals that after being caused by radiation have combined with other chemicals, such as pesticides, and are quite unique in the damage they can do to us. I don't particularly like the way this video is presented, but it's informational and calls attention to the fact that it's not required of manufacturers to label irradiated foods. They're still allowed to call them fresh.

For a while there has been a debate raging between people who claimed that organic farming was just better for the environment than conventional farming and that it made no difference which produce people ended up eating, and people who claimed that organic food itself was better for humans than conventionally grown food. As far as I understand there are still some people out there who claim that conventionally grown food is as good for you as organic food. Well, that's been shown to be a lie. Organic produce is better for your health than the alternative. If you go into a supermarket and hold up a can of conventional black beans next to an organic one, you'll notice that the vitamin and nutrient count is higher in the organic beans. Go ahead and compare any organic and non-organic nutrition labels and see what you'll find. It's very likely that the organic food will also be higher in calories, but these aren't the empty calories that deplete your body of vitamins, enzymes and minerals as you digest them. These are the calories that will give you energy, nutrients and probably help you to stay or become lean.

A Danish study conducted in 2005 shows that rats fed organic food actually had better immune systems and were less obese than their conventionally fed counterparts. To read about that and a lot more information on organic food you can click this link and scroll down to why organic foods are better for health.

While I would love to eat everything organic, I cannot afford it because conventional farming is subsidized by the government and therefore often, though not always, cheaper. However after doing this research, I am no longer wondering how much better organic foods are for me, but I'm beginning to wonder if conventionally grown foods aren't actually flat out harmful. I don't feel that I know enough to make that claim, but the question is in the back of my mind. Meanwhile if you're not convinced by the benefits of organic foods and farming, here are 10 more reasons in favor of organic. Among them one of the best is that unlike conventional farming methods, organic farming is sustainable and conserves the environment. It is the natural way of growing food and it yields living, healthy produce. Since we are what we eat, in my opinion we should aim for healthy and alive instead of chemically contaminated and nutritionally compromised.

But this is the gist of organic versus conventional. I hope that after reading this you'll reconsider some of your shopping practices or at least be more aware of the ways seemingly fresh and good produce can impact your health. Next week I'll be talking about organic animal products and what impact the manufacturing method has on the resulting products, so make sure to tune back in.

Till then,

Health is not valued till sickness comes.”--Thomas Fuller

Friday, April 17, 2009

Organic Preview

You will quickly notice that this is not quite a full-blown post. Due to finals, the full-blown post has been postponed until further notice, ... all right, until next week when I'm done with all the major crazy deadlines and only have a course outline and a final portfolio left to handle. But despite the disappearance of my semi-free time, I didn't want to let down those of you who tuned in to learn about organic food. So for starters, here is a great and detailed video explanation of the difference between organic and conventional foods by one of my favorite nutritionists. So check it out, make sure you watch the second part, too (both of them combined are only about 15 minutes) and bring the knowledge with you next week when we will brave the front lines of organic food versus conventional food.

Till then,
remember that stress reduction is an excellent way to help yourself stay healthy. =)

Friday, April 10, 2009

Some Sweet Alternatives

Greetings everyone!

Like promised I'm back and I hope you took a look at the mini-post I put up during my time out. This blog will be finishing off the sugar debate. So far I've explained that processed sugar is essentially a drug that really shouldn't be ingested and especially not ingested in the quantities in which most of us consume it. The last statistics I found say that today the average American eats about 150 pounds of sugar a year. Historically the American diet has been becoming increasingly more sweet to the point that if you check any processed item in your house now you'll likely find sugar or high fructose corn syrup amongst its ingredients. So with all of that established, what are the sugar alternatives?

Let's look at artificial zero-calorie sweeteners. The key thing to keep in mind is that it's not really smart to replace a drug with a poison. Artificial sweeteners are called such because they don't occur in nature. They are chemicals manufactured in a laboratory and they happen to taste sweet. This isn't to say that everything that's artificially created is necessarily harmful for you, but it's a pretty good heuristic when it comes to food. The human body hasn't evolved to process large amounts of artificial chemicals. Here are a few facts on the two leading artificial sweeteners:

Aspartame (Nutrasweet & Equal)—it is a chemical that consists 90% of Phenylalanine and aspartic acid, two components that immediately enter the bloodstream and act as excitatory neuro-toxins in your brain. That is, they excite the nerve cells in your brain and get them to fire with heightened intensity. If too much of the chemical is present or if it happens too often, the nerve cells die from rapid overuse. The remaining 10% of aspartame is methanol, which is wood alcohol. While wood alcohol is a very potent poison and about 2 teaspoons of it can kill an adult, it's obviously not concentrated enough in aspartame to kill you. The interesting thing that does happen is that when your body is metabolizing methanol it turns into formaldehyde and formic acid, which are embalming fluid and ant poison respectively. In other words, to keep tissues from decomposing, doctors and/or (forensic) scientists put them into formaldehyde. On first thought it might even sound good, like hey my organs will stay fresh, but really that's not the case.

All in all aspartame has not a shred of a redeeming quality, but it's unfortunately in over 6000 products world-wide. To my greatest dismay it's in my flipping gum! Granted only a tiny percentage, but still. I'd like to chew aspartame-free gum, but none is available in any store I've ever looked into. So if any of you know a brand that I wouldn't have to order online, and is aspartame-free let me know. If you're wondering how come aspartame got into the human food-supply despite its toxicity, the story is a book-length scandal and involves lots of money and the over-riding of 6 separate scientific recommendations to not manufacture aspartame. To give the FDA some credit though, they did deny aspartame approval until the new commissioner overruled the final review panel, ... and then he quit to go to work for the aspartame manufacturer. I'm not kidding. On to the next one.

Sucralose (Splenda)—Like aspartame, sucralose is also an artificial chemical that tastes sweet. It was discovered on accident by two researchers trying to develop a new pesticide. Sucralose is a chlorocarbon which essentially means it's related to DDT and other poisons. It contains chlorine which is a known carcinogen. However, to keep the chlorine from breaking free in your body, the manufacturers use a load of other chemicals, including methanol and formaldehyde to produce sucralose. Whether or not that's actually working seems to still be unclear because sucralose hasn't been around long enough to determine any long-term risk of cancers. To be fair it is widely regarded as safer than aspartame. To be realistic, that's like saying insecticides are less harmful than rat poison. Although the jury is still out on the extent of the damages sucralose can cause, here is the sucralose toxicity information center. If you want to know more, here is a pretty good article.

I could go on and on and talk about other artificial sweeteners, like Sweet 'n Low, which is the chemical known as saccharine. The story is the same though. It's bad for you. It's been shown to cause cancer in test animals. You get the drift, ... eating artificial chemicals isn't good for your health.

Aside from being carcinogenic poisons, artificial sweeteners have another interesting side effect when it comes to diet soda. Namely studies show that drinking diet soda increases your chances for obesity. Ironically it seems that the artificial sugar makes your brain think that you're eating sugar so it decreases your blood sugar and makes you hungry. People who drink a diet soda before a meal have been shown to eat more calories during the meal than a non-diet soda drinking control group.

But enough about artificial sweeteners. Let's look at natural zero-calorie sweeteners. The by far best zero-calorie natural sugar substitute I've come across is derived from the stevia plant. It's a plant native to South America and it is about 300 times sweeter than sugar. A major advantage that it has over all artificial sweeteners, other than not being a compound that doesn't appear in nature, is that it's been in use for over 200 years. It doesn't mess with your blood sugar, and it's not cancerous. There is a ton of politics involved in this, but luckily it's been gaining a foothold on the American market to the point that in the upcoming years Coca Cola will launch a line of Sprite that's been sweetened with a stevia plant extract.

There are several different stevia plant products commercially available:

There's the brandname Stevia. I've never tried it nor have I ever seen it at a store, but it's available in liquid forms with tons of different flavors, so that's a plus. You can check it out here.

There is the brandname Purevia. I actually did try this and it's available at your average supermarket. It's in powder form and resembles finely granulated table sugar. I wasn't too fond of its taste though. It's hard to explain, but it tasted somewhat like the root of a plant. It was sweet, but weird. That's just my assessment though and if you'd like to, check it out here and try it for yourself.

Then there is brandname Truvia. I tried this one, too and got hooked on it. It's also available at average supermarkets. They say that they use the sweetest part of the stevia plant, called rebina, to make this sweetener and I think that's what made the difference for me. Truvia has the consistency of regular table sugar and you can check it out here. My testimonial is two thumbs up. I've been baking with it, putting it in my tea and oatmeal and it's never disappointed me. It's also the cheapest of the non-carcinogenic alternatives. Here in Boston it's about $3.49 for 40 packets that can last me 1-2 weeks depending on how much baking I do.

To be fair I am wondering whether natural zero-calorie sweeteners also have the brain-tricking effect that promotes hunger, but I haven't been able to find anything that indicates that so far. If you do find sources which deal with that aspect, please let me know. I'm curious.

All right, on to the caloric sugar substitutes.

The two major healthy ones that I stumbled upon are raw honey and agave nectar.

Raw honey, unlike processed honey, is a living and breathing food with great immune benefits. Because it hasn't been heated it still retains enzymes that help your body recover from stomach ulcers, sore throats or other infections. Furthermore unprocessed, raw honey retains its complex chemical structure which means that your body will actually have to digest it and that it won't go straight into your bloodstream and give you a sugar-high and then a crash. It's incredibly sweet which means you won't need much of it to sweeten your tea or whatever else you need sweetened, so the caloric intake won't be immense.

Agave nectar also has immune benefits similar to honey in that it can soothe inflammation and kill bacteria. Apparently the Aztecs used it on wounds to prevent and/or reverse bacterial infection. It's a viscous liquid that, has a low glycemic index, even slightly lower than raw honey, and won't spike your blood sugar.

There of course are other good and other bad sugar substitutes I didn't mention here, but I hope that the ones I did cover give you a good overview and a decent range of options for curbing or eliminating your refined sugar consumption.

Next week I'll be talking about organic food. Like what's the difference between organic versus conventionally grown food? Is it really better for you? Or is it better for the environment? Or both? And why is it more expensive? So tune in next Friday for that post, but meanwhile if you choose the raw honey or agave nectar go for the organic ones. =)

Till then,

"So many people spend their health gaining wealth, and then have to spend their wealth to regain their health."--A.J. Reb Materi

Sunday, April 5, 2009

To be or not to be addicted

I know I said I won't post until next week, and this isn't a post, but it was compelling enough to write about immediately.

So as I said, my little sister was visiting me and she expressed interest in becoming healthier because her physical activity has decreased dramatically now that she's no longer swimming regularly like she did when she was on the swim team. We determined her metabolic type (surprise, surprise we have the same type) and I put her through the motions of eating every 3-4 hours, keeping her metabolism up, eating the proper balance of macronutrients, etc. etc. And then, on Friday, I took her to town to see my school and friends and right about 6 pm, she became absolutely lethargic and tired while I was feeling like I could run a marathon. But looking at her, a 16-year-old on vacation with plenty of sleep, yet her eyelids were closing—it made me sad. I remembered that I too used to experience that late afternoon crash, which is right between lunch and dinner for us. The thing was that my sister didn't have any processed sugar while she was here, but like I used to be and like millions of people are, she is addicted to sugar. Sugar addiction is when you body learns to function with the incredibly sugar load you put into it through snacks, so that when you don't provide the sugar, your blood glucose drops and you become lethargic.

When it was happening to me, I'd just run across the street and buy my favorite chewy chocolate chip cookies. Heck, I didn't even have to wait to feel the fatigue. I was in tune with the first signs of sugar cravings. In my previous blog I said sugar is a drug. Today I watched a video that I had to share. It's about sugar withdrawal and what to do about it. But the quote that got me the most is that “if sugar were to be put on the market for the fist time today, the FDA would likely not approve it.” That made my day. Speaking of day, it's beautiful outside, so I'm off for a walk. Watch this video and pass it on. And have fun making educated, aware choices.

I'll be back next Friday.

Till then,

“One should eat to live, not live to eat.” --Moliere

"I don't want anything else in life. But you are forcing me to look at wealth and at horizons I have never known. Now that I have seen them, and now that I see how immense my possibilities are, I'm going to feel worse than I did before you arrived. Because I know the things I should be able to accomplish, and I don't want to do so."--Paulo Coelho from The Alchemist

This is just to clear up misunderstandings (thanks for the heads up, Britt). I don't want people to stop using sugar. I want them to make educated decisions, even if that decision is to eat fast-food every day. Unless you're practically my family, I don't care what you're doing with your body, and even if I care, I won't expect change. I know probably better than most that you can't change people. They'll change when a myriad of semi-idiosyncratic factors lines up for them. But what I sure as heck can do is spread information, so that when eventually someone gets sick of being lethargic, addicted and on the verge of developing life-threatening illnesses, they'll remember the video and blog and have an idea about where to start with the change.