Category Archives: Food politics
As a trained scientist, I can’t help but get discouraged sometimes at the amount of unsubstantiated or misleading information that exists on the internet. While it can be empowering to have so many sources of information and opinion at our finger tips, it doesn’t change the fact that most of us are by nature very easily swayed by the power of anecdote.
This tendency is taken advantage of by all sorts of interests, not least by the food and health industries. Every day I read conflicting ‘evidence’ about things like grains (they are either the foundation of a healthy diet or the source of all our health ills, depending on who you ask), meat, dairy, GMO’s, and more. Recently, I’ve investigated some of the debate over soy.
Depending on the sources you choose to ‘believe’, soy is either a nutrient dense super-food or a cancer-causing poison–at least, according to the sources that garner the most attention. Just do a Google search for ‘soy health benefits and risks’ and you’ll see what I mean. It can be overwhelming! Like any issue, being an extremist is more likely to get you noticed, for better or for worse. Or get your book published. Or get you your 15 minutes of fame. That’s why I am always skeptical of completely condemning or glorifying any one food source, perspective, or idea.
As a centrist, my ideas probably aren’t that ‘sexy’. However, I think being cautious but open is much preferable to taking someone’s word because they’ve cited a few non peer-reviewed or biased studies. The underlying problem is that most readers have not been trained to differentiate between opinion and fact, or peer-reviewed versus non peer-reviewed scientific research. Even among published scientific studies, if you don’t realize whether a journal is funded (or controlled) by some corporate interest or other, versus being a more independent journal, you fail to understand the underlying biases of a piece of evidence.
While some authors and bloggers purposefully deceive their readers, I think that it’s the ones who unwittingly mislead the public that may be even more dangerous to true rational thought. I’ve read many a web page that either references faulty or non peer-reviewed studies, or fails to reference any sources at all for their information. While some viewers point out these flaws, many take these posts at face value or even claim them as gospel.
Regardless of the topic, taking the initiative to do a little of your own research (to the extent possible) and read with a dose of healthy skepticism (which is not the same thing as disbelief) will go a long way toward improving your critical thinking skills, and hopefully encourage writers to do their homework on sourcing accurate information.
So, back to soy. Not too long ago, soy was considered the staple of a modern vegan diet. Don’t eat meat? Eat tofu. Don’t drink milk? Drink soy milk. Luckily, these days most of us have a lot more options—ranging from coconut, almond, and hemp milks, to protein sources like mung beans, quinoa, and millet. Still, is soy really so bad a food choice?
In a matter of years, soy went from being touted as a miracle food to being ostracized for its hormone-wrecking, cancer-causing compounds. Are any of these supposed characteristics actually founded in scientific fact? According to Holly Wilson, MD, a doctor who practices a vegan lifestyle, the misinformation regarding soy has resulted in a number of ‘myths’ that have unnecessarily made people fearful of consuming soy products.
To Wilson, soy is a reliable source of a variety of nutrients as well as protein, and has played a healthy role in Asian diets for centuries. She attempts to debunk a number of negative perceptions about soy (with the exception of genetically modified soy, which she says to avoid as a precaution and opt for organic non-GMO instead), claiming that a lot of the ‘research’ comes from one particular organization—the Weston A. Price Foundation—that has a vested interest in protecting the rights of dairy and cattle farmers, who see the rise of soy as a threat to their business. In other words, the science against soy is biased, in Wilson’s opinion.
Her arguments are convincing, and she provides a number of peer-reviewed articles to substantiate her claims, and she writes with a clear, rationale approach. However, it’s very possible she has a personal vendetta against the Weston A. Price Foundation. Maybe the Foundation is actually doing legitimate research in the name of sustainable farming. Maybe the studies cited by Wilson as providing evidence that soy is safe were funded by corporate entities with a vested interested in soy production (which is a massive industry in the U.S.).
Ironically enough, when I did a bit more perusing on this topic, I came across a post by Kristen Michaelis on her website called Food Renegade, detailing the dangers of soy. Michaelis is neither vegan nor a doctor, so she approaches this topic from a very different perspective. She advertises a way of eating that condones eating red meat and lots of fresh dairy. Her post is laid out clearly, covering a number of supposed health issues of soy—but surprise surprise, her cited evidence largely comes from one source: the Weston A. Price Foundation.
Are you starting to see how conflicted the ‘evidence’ is out there? Some of Michaelis’s links didn’t work when I tried to follow them, or were not from peer-reviewed papers, which is a bit of a caution sign for me. Still, a lot of her nutrition perspectives on the website hold weight, and I appreciate her support of local, sustainable agriculture. It may very well be true that large amounts of soy (especially GM soy) can cause problems for our bodies—but the same can likely be said for pasteurized dairy, meat, or even a number of fruits and vegetables eating in too large of quantities.
The point of this post is not to demonize one view over another, but rather to argue that we all have biases, and that we must each come to reasonable conclusions based on the information available. I’m also not going to discuss every study ever published for and against soy–there is plenty of that already in existence on the web. It’s easy to get misled by catchy headlines that scare us out of (or into) eating something OR ELSE, but the world generally doesn’t work that way. Both Michaelis and Wilson provide some valid points, but neither can provide the entire perspective.
After doing a lot of research and reading, my tentative conclusion is that moderate amounts of soy will not harm your body (assuming you are not allergic to it), and it may in fact be a valuable source of protein and certain nutrients. However, it should not be a product you rely on as a cure-all. Rotate soy products with other nutrient-rich foods, like coconut milk/oil, legumes, organic whole grains, and more importantly organic fruits and vegetables. I would also suggest opting for the least processed soy products possible, such as miso, tempeh, and tofu, rather than soy-based fake meats and cheeses, which contain a lot of fillers and other ingredients that are probably much worse than soy for our bodies. Most reasonable health practitioners seem to agree that fermented soy products are generally safe to consume, while processed foods such as those containing soy protein isolate are not recommended.
Also, definitely stick with organic soy products because over 90% of conventionally grown soybeans are genetically modified (although most of these are fed to animals, which means if you eat meat you are eating GM soy). Plus, conventionally grown soy, the second largest crop by acreage grown in the U.S. (after corn), requiring the application of millions of tons of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides each year. Much of this soy is converted into cheap oil, diesel fuel, animal feed, or used in processed foods.
Bottom line: Just as there is no short cut to long-term good health, there is no short cut to educating yourself. Sifting through information and doing background research takes time, but when your health is on the line, I would argue that it’s worth it. That’s just my opinion though—I guess each of you ultimately have to determine that for yourself!
This week I’ve been writing about my time on Catalina learning what some of the brilliant minds of today are doing to solve problems of food security for a better future.
You can read my recent posts on reducing food waste using black soldier flies and revolutionizing food production with aquaponics to learn more. Both of these processes involve a little (or a big) investment to get started, and while both will hopefully become a huge part of our future food system, there are even simpler things each of us can be doing right now to increase our food security, reduce our reliance on synthetic chemicals and the corporate food system, while also reconnecting with the environment.
I was able to reconnect with nature a bit myself while on Catalina—not just through peaceful morning walks on the high bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, or enjoying the stars in a night sky free of the Los Angeles street light pollution—but also with a special trip to Howlands Landing. Howlands is a campground on the West End of Catalina Island, and plays host to the Catalina Environmental Leadership Program (CELP).
The program teaches students of all ages, elementary school through college, about sustainability using their own organic edible garden and composting facility. Howlands is nestled in a gorgeous little hidden valley nestled between the steep hills of Catalina’s northwest corner and a rocky cove that looks out onto the sparkling ocean, teaming with coastal kelp forests and marine wildlife.
Last Thursday, as part of the USC alternative spring break program, I was able to tour the garden and even partake in some of the amazing fresh vegetables being grown there. The garden is maintained largely by groups of volunteers. The day we visited, there was a group from the University of Colorado, and another group from a midwestern university, helping staff build new garden beds, remove cactus, and plant the spring crop.
CELP also exposes younger children to gardening and teaches them about compost and permaculture. In fact, every group that visits Howlands participates in hands-on activities in the garden. Our group helped pour the morning’s breakfast leftovers into the compost bin and stir it together with carbon-rich cardboard. Liz, our amazing tour guide for the day, explained how Howlands Camp composts all of its own vegetarian food waste (meat and dairy are transported to another facility on the island to be processed since these products can be more difficult to compost in a sanitary, non-smelly way). She showed us the worm composting bins as well, where worms break down food waste and create a nutrient dense compost tea that can be used as concentrated fertilizer.
The camp actively promotes conscientious eating, offering at least one meatless meal each day. Camp visitors learn about and participate in composting, recycling, planting, and harvesting of the organic produce grown in the teaching garden. Most of the plants are watered using water-efficient drip irrigation, and plants are chosen based on their appropriateness for the dry Mediterranean climate of the island.
The day we visited, Liz guided our students through the garden while they snipped fresh herbs, kale, chard, lemon, and more. Bees buzzed lazily passed us as we strolled along the pleasant garden paths attracted by purple sage and other bright flowers. Dozens of tiny succulents and seedlings dangled from little hanging glazed pots. Fruit trees and native Malva Rosa provided sprinklings of shade. It was entirely pleasant and relaxing, yet full of energy from bursting new growth and volunteers bustling around the garden beds.
After our garden tour and ‘harvesting’ session was complete, Liz helped the students chop the greens and massage the kale (yep, that’s a thing), dressing the mix with olive oil and vinegar. The best part of our homemade snack was the loaf of rosemary bread that had been freshly baked in a solar oven right in the garden! Nothing hits the spot more than fresh warm bread and crisp salad after a morning working in the garden. The leafy greens were bursting with flavor, and the lemon wedges we finished the meal off with were sweet and juicy enough to eat on their own.
Liz finished off our tour with a discussion about organic versus ‘conventional’ agriculture. The CELP program teaches children about the dirty dozen (the fruits and vegetables with the highest recorded pesticide contents) and how to reduce their exposure to these toxins. CELP also teaches about the benefits of organic gardening and permaculture. I was truly impressed with CELP’s hands-on style, their beautiful grounds, and the extent of their sustainable practices. I hope that they can continue to serve as a successful model for many other teaching facilities looking to reduce their ecological footprint. And that they keep baking that amazing bread!
I bet you never thought goldfish could be the missing link to sustainable food production. Well, you better take a second look at these humble little guys, because if you’ve ever wanted to grow your own food—without a lot of space, soil, or chemical fertilizers—then a goldfish just might be your new best friend (along with several million bacterial ‘acquaintances’). This is the beauty of aquaponics.
First things first: aquaponics is NOT hydroponics. Hydroponics, while very efficient at growing plants without soil, relies on a sterile environment and a lot of energy input and external regulation, especially in the form of synthetic chemical fertilizers that are usually made from petroleum. Therefore, most hydroponic endeavors, while innovative, are resource intensive and not sustainable. Aquaponics, on the other hand, mimics natural biological systems to create a thriving ecosystem that eliminates the need for synthetic fertilizers, while still maximizing efficiency of plant growth. You don’t need any soil, and you need very little space. It all comes back to the fish and the bacteria. While backyard aquaponics systems typically use feeder fish like goldfish, commercial systems tend to use marketable fish like Tilapia, which they can harvest and sell along with their food crops, resulting in an even more lucrative, yet still sustainable, food production system.
The basics of an aquaponics system go like this: 1) the fish create waste that bacteria in the water consume, which releases valuable nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus; 2) this nutrient rich water is ‘fed’ to plant roots to nourish the plants and help them grow; 3) by removing these nutrients from the water, the plants have ‘purified’ the water which is then re-circulated back to the fish. The water is naturally purified, and the plants are naturally fed, in this fairly closed system. The bacteria do the essential dirty work in between. The only input needed is fish food, which you typically have to buy. However, even this part of the system may soon become completely sustainable, because biologists Ken Nielson and Radu Popa of River Road Research are developing fish feed as one by-product of their black soldier fly project (discussed in my last post).
Grow Your Own
David Rosenstein of EVOFarm, based in Santa Monica, explained the biological processes behind aquaponics in a lecture as part of the Future of Food program I attended on Catalina Island this past week. David, an unimposing young entrepreneur with a passion for sustainable food, founded EVOFarm as a way to fight back against our current chemical laden, diesel powered, polluted and corrupt industrial-agricultural complex.
Through years of tinkering and tireless perfection, David and his team have created aquaponics systems that successfully provide abundant harvests at all scales, from small backyard units for families, to larger scale systems for schools and for commercial sale of crops. Using aquaponics, you can harvest crops (like lettuces, kale, tomatoes, chard, spring onions, etc.) up to ten times per year, and produce anywhere from six to thirty times the amount of food per acre that you could reasonably harvest from a soil based system. Revolutionary! David estimates that the dollar value of this food per acre is over 1 million dollars, which would be unheard of in a soil system.
The yields from aquaponics aren’t just remarkably higher, but they are created without the use of harmful synthetic fertilizers, are very water efficient (water is continually recycled in the system, with minimal evaporation), can exceed organic standards, taste amazing, and result in local food security. You could literally have an aquaponics system in every backyard, as well as larger community-run systems. This would help reduce the number of ‘food miles’ of the fresh fruits and vegetables that we eat, lowering our impact on climate change as well as our reliance on industrial agriculture. Plus, it’s a fun hobby!
Rome wasn’t built in a day…but this aquaponics system was!
It’s actually super easy to build your own aquaponics system—and that’s just what we did (well, I mainly watched the students build it while I tagged along to take pictures). David, along with USC graduate student Ryan Lesniewski, showed us that with a few basic materials and a small investment, you can have your system up and running in a day, and be ready to plant all the crazy heirloom seeds you want by the end of the week.
After you get water into the system, you add some compost tea (aka liquid worm poo) to help grow the beneficial bacteria, which sets the biological basis for the system. Then you can add your fish, place your plants on top, and watch nature take its course. You need to monitor the water level and quality fairly regularly, but other than that the system is very low maintenance day-to-day (though if you like tinkering, there are myriad variables you can mess around with, like nutrient sources, quantities, water flow rates, etc.).
In fact, Ryan has been experimenting with these types of variables as part of his PhD research, which is focused on the development of aquaponics. He has become a self-made expert in a novel field where there aren’t really any experts yet. By growing seedlings in his closet and building aquaponics test systems on his tiny downtown L.A. balcony, Ryan has already learned a lot about the ins and outs of growing plants sans soil, knowledge that he is applying to the larger-scale systems he experiments with out on Catalina.
Meanwhile, David has been designing eye-pleasing backyard vertical aquaponics systems for local distribution, perfectly sized for backyard patios and balconies. His real dream, though, is to establish large-scale aquaponics farms to grow food for commercial sale, and revolutionize (there’s that word again!) the agricultural industry.
If you have a passion for growing (or eating) healthy, fresh, mouth-wateringly good food, than you have a vested interest in the growth of aquaponics. I know that I’m a convert, and can’t wait to help out with future projects like these that engage people in growing their own food to save money and build food security—and hopefully have fun!
What if we could produce most of the food we eat right in our backyards, without using any chemicals or soil, and without producing any waste to go to the landfill? Wouldn’t that be amazing? Sounds like some idealistic Ecotopia scenario, but guess what? It is 100% possible!
That’s the groundbreaking fact I learned this week after attending a five-day program on Catalina Island focused on the Future of Food. Topics ranged from food waste and biological farming to backyard aquaponics and sustainable fisheries. One of the very first ideas presented by guest speakers was so jaw-droppingly revolutionary that it has the potential to change our entire food AND energy systems!
Send in the Flies
This innovative idea that is about to blow your mind is the brainchild of two established biology professors: Ken Nielson (of USC) and Radu Popa. These inspiring individuals may have invented a way to solve two of society’s biggest problems: eliminating large-scale food waste and providing abundant renewable energy to the masses. It sounds unbelievable, but their system is beautiful in its (relative) simplicity—and it all relies on insects. Black soldier flies, to be exact.
Ken calls his project the Black Soldier Fly alternative, or BSFA for short. He and Radu have developed a process in which they can convert nearly all food waste (whether from your home kitchen or an industrial food producer) to a rich insect feed for the black soldier fly larva. The feed is created using Bokashi fermentation, where a combination of aerobic and anaerobic bacteria break down the waste and release valuable nutrients in the process—not so unlike the methods used to produce fermented vegetables and drinks, like that fancy Kombucha you picked up from Whole Foods. As a result, valuable nutrients from the waste like calcium, nitrogen, and phosphorus are made available for re-use.
Just think about that for a second. Eliminating all food waste. Currently, Americans throw away about 40% of the food we buy each year, most of which ends up in local landfills, rotting and releasing greenhouse gases like methane. It costs the city of Los Angeles alone $64 million dollars a year in tipping fees to dump the 1.3 million tons of food waste Angelenos produce. Of course, reducing how much we throw out in the first place would be the best approach, but changing individual and industrial behavior will not happen overnight, so in the meantime we need to find better ways to eliminate this waste. Composting helps, but can only accommodate about 10-15% of total food waste, meaning the rest still gets thrown out. All of that food waste could instead be converted to insect feed and actually result in a net financial gain. Here’s how:
The nutrient-rich liquid that results from fermentation is fed to the fast growing soldier fly larvae. A portion of these larvae will be harvested as animal feed for chickens and other livestock, reducing the need to rely on fishmeal, soybean oil, and other unsustainable feed sources. The larvae waste (i.e. poop) can also be used as a rich fertilizer for plants and crops (or aquaponics systems, which I’ll discuss in my next post). But the truly miraculous aspect of this endeavor comes from something else the larvae produce: melanin.
That’s right, melanin—the stuff that regulates our skin and hair color, as well as the coloration of animals, such as the spots on a squid. It turns out that melanin is a powerful electricity conductor, making it a perfect substance to use in rechargeable batteries. Yet you’ve probably never seen a melanin battery in your local store. Why? Normally, melanin is very expensive to produce, much too costly to support a lucrative battery industry. That is, it was too expensive. Ken and Radu have discovered that black solider fly larvae produce relatively large quantities of melanin in their bodies, which can be extracted for human use, including for batteries. Melanin batteries would be completely organic, non-toxic, and biodegradable. No more reliance on precious metals and harmful battery acids.
When Ken first described this to his audience in the lecture hall on Catalina, the concept didn’t seem to sink in. So he repeated his conclusion: Through the BSFA process, we can eliminate food waste, produce rich animal feed and fertilizer, and most importantly, create a renewable source of melanin to produce completely biodegradable batteries. An entirely closed-loop system! Melanin batteries could be used effectively to store energy produced by renewable sources such as wind and solar—energy sources that are difficult to store with current battery technology.
Even the adult black soldier flies provide financial value to the system. Once they reproduce and lay eggs, they die. Their exoskeletons are high in chitin, a polymer with numerous commercial uses including wastewater treatment, bandages, a binder for dyes, fabrics, and adhesives, and more.
Ken and Radu have established a private venture, partnered with a company called River Road Research, to continue to tweak and expand this system—which Ken wryly describes as the first example of insect domestication—and are hoping to soon trial it on a massive scale by working with food producers and cities in the near future. Their hope is to turn food waste into a lucrative commodity that ultimately benefits cities, agricultural production, livestock production, and the renewable energy sector.
In my next post I’ll discuss the concept of aquaponics, another sustainable approach to food production and waste elimination that is set to change the way we think about food. We humans may have a fighting chance thanks to some brave and cunning individuals!
You can never have too much of a good thing, right? Except when you can. And when it comes to sugar, too much, however ‘sweet’ it may seem at the time, can literally kill you—this according to a new scientific study linking added sugar intake to higher incidence of cardiovascular disease mortality.
Most people these days are aware of the links between high sugar intake and diabetes, and that added sugar equates to empty calories that lead to weight gain. This recent study, however, found that Americans who consume at least 25% of their daily calories from sugar are almost three times as likely to die of heart disease than those that consumed less than 10%. The study used data collected from over 30,000 adults over 15 years.
25% calories from sugar may sound like a lot—and it is—but a significant number of people consume about this much sugar daily. In fact, 70% of adults monitored in the study consumed over 10% (the World Health Organization’s recommended limit) of calories from sugar daily, increasing their risk of heart disease and other health issues. According to the study’s authors, it didn’t matter what kind of sugar was consumed—be it corn syrup, cane sugar, fruit juice concentrate, etc.—too much is too much.
It’s actually frighteningly easy to over-consume sugar, especially if you eat out frequently or consume a lot of pre-packaged and processed foods (even if they are organic). It’s not just the dubious loads of sugar in sodas and candies that are to blame. Sugar is added to nearly every packaged food, from salad dressings and marinades to breads, yogurt, and soymilk, so it’s easy for those calories to add up without you realizing it.
Sucker Punch to the Food Industry—but will it help?
As more and more research is published about the negative health impacts of added sugar, Michelle Obama is stepping up with her campaign to promote healthier eating. To this end, the Obama administration is proposing a food label overhaul. If they get their way, the food industry would have to update portion sizes on their labels to more realistic portions, increase the font size of total calories, include total grams of added sugar, and change how they represent various vitamins and minerals.
I believe Michelle Obama’s heart is in the right place, I really do. But the fundamental problem with our food system is NOT food labels. I can’t fathom how increasing the font size of a calorie count is really going to create a shock wave of change in how people eat. Perhaps it’s a start…or maybe just a distraction from the bigger problems we choose to ignore, because they would require much greater effort.
The only way to cultivate a healthier lifestyle is to know and care about the actual ingredients in your food, not just how many calories are in a serving size. I have never counted calories in my life—I feel like it’s a waste of my time. As long as I’m consuming mainly whole, nutritious foods, I know I am eating healthy. Calorie counts can’t tell you the quality of your food. Not all calories are created equal: 100 calories of Oreos is not the same as 100 calories of almonds or 100 calories of strawberries.
Individuals who don’t have a good grasp on nutrition tend to rely on calorie counts as if it were a religion, and end up making poor health choices as a result. Substituting sugar for artificial sweeteners, for example, may be even more detrimental than the sugar itself.
What we should really be encouraging people to do is buy less processed food in the first place. That means buying the foods that DON’T have labels (or don’t need them), because they don’t have a multitude of ingredients in them. Fresh organic fruits and vegetables. Nuts and legumes. Whole grains. Natural herbs and spices. None of these products have any added sugars, or preservatives, or fillers.
While I think that changing the food label to display an ‘added sugar’ content is a positive move, fear it will just motivate the food industry to get more creative in how they design and market their products. Maybe this is too pessimistic of me. Maybe this will actually force food companies to reduce their reliance on cheap added sugars and create healthier products—even if they are processed. And I definitely have no sympathy for the cost these new policies may incur on the food industry, considering how many billions of dollars they earn at the expense of people’s health and wellbeing each year.
But there are always unintended consequences. In 2006, when the FDA began making food companies list trans fats on their labels, most companies decided to replace trans fats with cheap substitutes. The most commonly used replacement fat is now palm oil, the demand for which is now so high that it is resulting in massive destruction of rainforests worldwide so palm plantations can be planted in their place.
What I do hope for is that at the very least these changes continue to make consumers more aware of what they are purchasing and eating, so that demand continues to increase for healthier, more sustainable choices. Perhaps these small steps forward in food labeling will pave the way to eventually label GMOs in the U.S. (most European countries and Australia already do this) and create more transparency in the long chain from food producer to consumer. That would be “sweet”.