Sanet Post, David Leonard,
Re: Gussow on Nutrition/Food Systems
December 9, 1996
Joan Gussow also wrote another excellent article, "Are we really fixing up the food supply?", in the Nov. '93 issue of the J. of the Am. Dietetic Assoc. in which she states that nutrition educators seem to have forsaken their responsibility to promote healthy eating through the use of minimally processed, "whole" foods based on traditional ethnic, plant-centered eating patterns such as the Asian and Mediterrean pyramids developed by the Harvard School of Public Health, Cornell, and the Oldways Preservation Trust & Exchange Trust. Instead, most have sold out to the food industry's profit-motivated version of healthy eating: a drastically redesigned (and highly value-added) food supply based increasingly on "techno-foods" that have nutrients and ingredients subtracted (fat, calories) and/or added (vitamins/mineral fortification well beyond recognized needs, non-nutritive sweeteners, fiber-fortified breakfast cereals) in an attempt to redress food processing's nutritional damage.
Too often, however, good nutrition suffers from this high tech approach, as when sugar-laden, fiber-depleted breakfast cereals can be labelled "nutritious" after adding a penny's worth of vitamins and minerals, or when non-fat cookies and ice-cream are promoted as "healthy" because they have zero fat. Another result is high prices and exorbitant profit margins (in '93, the actual food value per $1 of cost for highly processed foods was just 8 cents). Even more worrisome is the fact that the array and balance of the numerous nutrients and phytochemicals found in "whole" foods is far more sophisticated than our ability to recreate this marvelous blend through designer foods.
In my view, the food industry, itself, bears much responsibility for today's unhealthy eating habits which it now attempts to redress with techno-foods (there's little profit in promoting "whole", natural foods on a macro scale). Indeed, food processing adds fat (usually unhealthy hydrogenated oils), sugar, and salt to many products and often markedly reduces the fiber, vitamin, and mineral content of most grain products (fortification with 3 B vitamins and iron doesn't come close to replacing these micronutrient losses).
It seems that organic agriculture is taking too narrow a view of its role and overall benefits in focusing mainly on its environmental advantages and the provision of pesticide-free food. Pesticide contamination has far less to do with our deplorably high rate of cancer and other chronic degenerative diseases than the negative dietary factors of our modern food supply like 1) Excessive cholesterol, harmful fats (saturated and trans), sugar, and salt; 2) Lack of fiber and certain vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals; 3) Deficiencies and imbalances in essential fatty acids. (NOTE: In no way do I mean to minimize the importance of the pesticide issue).
The fact that the USDA managed to get its plant-centered Food Pyramid Guide approved over the intense opposition of the food industry and certain commodity groups is certainly good news (despite some its nutritional flaws). In fact, even school lunch programs will have to abide by the new Dietary Guidelines by early 1997, entailing some major modifications. It seems like this is an ideal time for the organic agriculture movement to broaden its appeal by getting involved in nutrition education and putting it back on the right track by promoting minimally processed, whole foods through the various plant-centered dietary pyramids, especially those based on healthy, traditional ethnic eating models. Given the tremendous impact that food has on health, it's surprising how little communication there appears to be between those who know *what* to eat (nutritionists) and those who know how to grow it sustainably. It's time to start fixing up our food supply the right way.
David Leonard, Consultant in agro-nutrition
Tel. 520-318-4799, Fax 520-318-4809