The Game of Eating – Part Three
In part one of this series, I stated that our health is directly correlated with our knowledge of good nutrition and good lifestyle choices. There is a very simple and very powerful relationship: the better one’s knowledge of health, the healthier one can be.
In part two of this three part series, I discussed one option for being healthy without acquiring specific nutritional knowledge. It’s the only option I can think of -- and it is rarely available, as I explained.
In this final article of the series I will further emphasize why we must be knowledgeable about what we eat.
The Game of Eating
There is a relationship – an interaction – between food producers and us, as food consumers. This interaction is the game of eating (and it includes grocery shopping, of course).
The nature of this relationship between food producers and food consumers is one of the inescapable reasons we have to think about what we eat -- and why we must be able to understand some of the processing that our food has received, even if we eat only “natural” foods.
In our modern society, almost every food, even natural and organic foods, are processed in some way by the application of advanced scientific knowledge. Even foods that claim to be unprocessed have been affected, either because of transportation, storage or packaging. Or it is possible that “unprocessed” foods have been impacted by issued related to the seeds or soil that we should understand. If we are purchasing commercial foods of any type, even completely natural and organic foods, we need to understand more about what the food producers could be doing to those foods. There is no healthy alternative.
I assume most of us are beyond thinking we can completely ignore the latest news coming from health scientists. We recognize the importance of eating healthy. Many of us put significant effort into selecting the healthier food items from the store shelves and the menus. So it is valid to ask why we need to do more -- or to know more.
Despite the effort put into making these healthy selections, these choices are sometimes (maybe often) based on an understanding that is no deeper than the headlines. For that reason, such effort rarely delivers much in the way of real results. Has switching to low fat foods helped our society lose significant weight? Actually, the opposite has happened. The same is true of heart disease. And look at the alarming increase in diabetes. If reading the headlines and picking foods based on all the latest buzzwords was enough, we would not be seeing the alarming increases in obesity, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and other chronic diseases. That’s evidence that we need to understand nutrition in greater detail. Now I’ll provide an argument based on the idea that if our own interests and the food producers’ interests are not exactly aligned, it is not in our best interest for the food producers to have a significant knowledge advantage over us. This holds true even if we assume that the food producer is well-intentioned. When they have significantly greater knowledge (and a profit or competitive motive), the outcome is unfavorable to us. I believe the proof of this is in the significant increases in obesity, diabetes, and many other diseases we are seeing now. For-profit food producers exist in a capitalistic system. Capitalism depends on competition. It also depends on producers and consumers interacting in an ideal manner, part of which includes both parties being well-informed. In any competitive interaction, the less knowledgeable party doesn’t fully benefit from the interaction. When we, as food consumers, lack sophisticated knowledge about what the food producers are selling us, the result is unfavorable to our health. (I will explain below why I used the term sophisticated knowledge.)
The motivations of food producers and consumers are certainly not exactly aligned. In some ways, the motivations may be similar at times. For example, both sides want a low priced, high quality product. However, definitions of quality often differ. For those of us concerned with living long healthy lives, there is a large divergence in the way we define quality. Food processors typically define quality in terms of appearance, taste and shelf life. My circle defines quality in terms of the health-promoting aspects of the food, and we prefer taste and appearance characteristics that have not been manipulated in order to hide underlying quality issues.
There are also outright conflicts of interest between those responsible for producing our food and those of us interested in better than average health and problem-free longevity. Explicitly understanding the criteria that food producers use for producing a food they view as a quality product will help us determine whether that food can meet our needs. Often, reading the food label or reading the news headlines in the health or nutrition section is not enough.
I’ll give one example of how going beyond the headlines saved my family about thirty years of consumption of an unhealthy food item. When I was in my teenage years, I advised my mother and my family not to eat margarine. At the time, in the 1970’s, margarine was advertised as the healthy choice among the various options. I disagreed that margarine was a healthy food and I told my family so. Gradually, over the last three decades, more and more scientific research has shown support for my view. (If you still think traditional high-trans-fat-margarine is a healthy food, let me know and I’ll write more on that topic in a future article. Because of the research findings, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration established a mandatory labeling requirement, beginning January 2006, that all food packages must indicate the level of trans-fats on the label. Lower is better.) I was able to offer my family this good advice two or three decades before they would otherwise have heard it because I had an interest in understanding the issue at a level beyond the headlines and the advertising. I took the time to understand issues like hydrogenation and trans isomers in fats and I found experts whom I could rely upon for answers that would stand the test of time.
(I think it is somewhat rare to find an expert who truly understands good nutrition and who also is highly educated in modern science. Fortunately, it is becoming less rare today than it was a couple decades ago.)
I’m not suggesting that each of us needs to become a biochemist in order to make good nutrition choices – not at all! However, I do think we need to educate ourselves enough to distinguish between good advice and bad advice. Don’t listen to just any old “expert” whose latest article grabs the headlines. And don’t just listen to the advertisements – they almost never tell the whole truth. As my margarine example hopefully illustrates, it is not impossible, nor even beyond the skills of a teenager, to hone in on good nutritional knowledge long before the general public recognizes it. Primarily, it just requires some motivation. When one recognizes that being healthy depends on gaining knowledge of nutrition, then that recognition also becomes a source of motivation.
I already illustrated that it is possible to get a head start of many decades. Those decades might be the difference between good health and a chronic disease for you or a family member. In fact, I believe it is possible, simply by educating yourself, to get a head start of more than a lifetime. What I mean is that if you search, you can find information right now that will benefit your health and increase your chances of enjoying a long and problem-free life; and if you don’t search for it, this knowledge will possibly not make it into general acceptance within your lifetime. (I plan to blog about some valid health topics that may not attain wide-spread acceptance within our lifetimes because they are based on very subtle knowledge from the physical sciences. Consider that it took serious discussion of free radicals about 50 or 60 years to reach the main stream simply because of the fact that the knowledge advanced at the time it was first proposed.) Therefore, you can positively influence the health you enjoy for the rest of your life by becoming knowledgeable about nutrition now. Don’t wait on “the experts,” via the general media, to tell you what to eat. And don’t let yourself be at a significant knowledge disadvantage to those who supply your food.
Food producers who supply our foods have used very advanced scientific knowledge and techniques in the process of bringing those foods to our table. Foods that seem natural are often far from being free of advanced scientific manipulation. I’m not saying that scientific manipulation is inherently bad. I’m just pointing out that it is usually a fact of life in regard to the foods we eat. If the foods have been altered by highly trained chemists and engineers, then we have to raise our knowledge so we can understand more about what they are doing to our foods. Because food producers employ sophisticated knowledge, the rules of the game of eating, which we cannot avoid while living in modern society, demand that our knowledge also be sophisticated.
Let me give an example. The following list represents criteria that would commonly be used by a food producer when preparing a product you will eat. Note that nutritional requirements is not the highest priority item on the list. And even if it was, the food producer’s definition of the proper nutritional requirements is often completely inadequate.
- Product flavor
- Product texture
- Product appearance
- Shelf life of the product
- Availability of the ingredients
- Nutritional requirements
Setting aside the degree to which our definition of nutritional requirements potentially differs from the food producers, the important thing to consider is the list of criteria themselves and the resources employed to implement those criteria.
Typically, a team of scientists goes about creating the food product to meet the criteria laid out by the company they work for. These scientists may include chemists, food engineers, logistical engineers and others. It is a routine matter to utilize techniques such as nuclear magnetic resonance, high-performance liquid chromatography and many other advanced analytical techniques to achieve a certain taste, texture, appearance or shelf life of a food. Please don’t think this is an exaggeration of the technology that goes into producing common, even natural, foods. Any food engineers reading this know I have not even scratched the surface. The criteria and the process I’m describing are commonly applied to foods as simple as potato chips or vegetable oils, and in various ways they impact completely natural and organic foods.
Let’s look at one example of the way a natural, organic food could be affected. Many grocery stores are selling organic cow’s milk today. This seems like a natural food (it is certainly not a man-made food). It is also available as certified organic. However, it has been pasteurized. At one time in the past, pasteurization was done at temperatures low enough that many experts felt the pasteurized milk was still “alive”. Today, a much quicker, much higher temperature process is used. Most experts I know agree that the process results in a much less healthy milk product (but shelf life is greater). Homogenization is another example of processing that is often done on natural, organic milk. Homogenization is a controversial issue if you dig into it. (I should note that I have choices ranging from raw, unpasteurized, non-homogenized whole milk from healthy, well-cared-for cows grazed on grass in a family farm which is not organically certified to ultra-pasteurized, homogenized, skimmed milk from cows fed mostly silage and raised on a larger commercial dairy – but which is certified organic. If I simply follow the latest buzz words, I will end up with the wrong milk!) While on the topic of dairy, I’ll end my examples by mentioning that “natural” organic butter is quite often produced by an extrusion process rather than by churning. There is a difference. I think you understand that we cannot turn off our critical thinking process simply because the food is labeled “natural and organic”. Virtually no foods escape the processing I’m referring to because everything is touched by sophisticated knowledge in our advanced society – advanced knowledge is necessary for competitive survival of businesses – and individuals.
As I said above, in the game of nutrition, the level of knowledge the players have has been elevated dramatically in our lifetimes. For people who choose to remain ignorant of nutrition, the price will often be paid with our most precious asset – our health.
When I speak about selecting foods based on knowledge, one objection I often hear is that some people prefer to rely on instinct to select what their body needs. Often, when we simply select the foods we want to eat based on our natural instincts and our body’s sense of what it needs, our instincts are up against the team of scientists employed by the food producer. Our instincts rely upon taste, texture and appearance. All these factors have been manipulated using the most advanced techniques of modern science (and business). This is true not only of processed foods, but also of natural foods. I can walk through a health food grocery and quickly fill an entire shopping cart with foods that have been manipulated exactly as I am describing here. And to a surprising extent, our fresh produce is manipulated like this. If you take solace in organic foods, you are still not able to avoid the fact that food producers are manipulating the taste and appearance of the food you eat. (My intent in this article is not to go into details about all the ways advanced technology is applied to seemingly natural foods. I simply want to emphasize that the food industry has a knowledge advantage on the consumer.)
The take-away from this is that we have to be more knowledgeable about what we are eating because virtually all the food commercially available to us has already been manipulated by a team of scientists using a set of criteria that are not our own. We cannot ignore science when we eat because science has already been used on our food. We have to use (and boost) our knowledge in order to eat well.
I’ll make this a bit more concrete with an illustration of margarine again. Now that it is generally accepted that high-trans-fat-margarine is not healthy, food producers have introduced reduced-trans or trans-free margarine. The products are touted as healthier, of course. If one only understands nutritional issues at the news headline level, one might start eating trans-free margarine thinking this is a good, healthy choice. And it might sound simple. One’s thinking might go like this: What else is there to know? Trans fats are bad, so I’ll eat products with reduced trans fats. It’s simple and I don’t need to know anything else.
However, in order to make a really informed decision, we need to understand that trans-free or reduced-trans margarine is not the result of removing the unhealthy components from a good food while keeping the healthy aspects intact. It’s not that simple.
Trans fat margarine is produced by reacting the unsaturated fatty acids in a vegetable oil with hydrogen gas in the presence of a nickel catalyst under a process that qualified for a patent many years ago. Of course, you won’t find any analysis of nickel content on the food label of margarine. One mainstream scientific paper I read said that complete removal of the catalyst from hydrogenated oil is never possible. You may not have read about the health implications of the catalysts in hydrogenated oils yet. This isn’t surprising given that trans fats were not in the mainstream news until nearly a century after they were introduced into our food. (Procter & Gamble Company of USA acquired the patent rights for hydrogenation in 1909 and started to produce Crisco shortening from cottonseed oil in 1911.)
Now that trans fats are in the news, food engineers are working on producing reduced trans products. One way to do this is by using an alternative catalyst. These alternatives include platinum, palladium, or copper. We should be informed about the effect of these new catalysts. That’s one reason it is not good enough to simply read the headlines about trans fats and go out and start buying reduced trans fat margarine. There is a new ingredient (the catalyst) in the food and it isn’t listed on the label and the effect of its presence in the food has not been tested.
Another way to reduce trans fats is to use interesterification. (The root word of interesterification is ester. An ester is a chemical formed by reaction of an alcohol and an acid.) Interesterification can produce a trans-free shortening or margarine. In this process, two oils are reacted under special conditions to exchange their fatty acids. Interesterification is done by either a chemical or enzymatic method. At this point, I may not have discussed all the facts on trans-free fats produced by interesterification, but just knowing a little about the process should make it clear to us that the trans-free fats produced by this process need further evaluation before we should be willing to consume them. You can see that trans-free margarine is not simply a product that has had a bad ingredient removed from it. It is a new product, produced with novel scientific techniques. We may not fully understand the subtle effects of consuming reduced trans or trans-free margarine for many decades. However, we must understand that producers of trans-free products are utilizing some pretty sophisticated knowledge in making those products and we should strive to have our own sophisticated understanding of those products before we consume them. This dynamic is the game of eating.