Organic food – what we know so far (The last posting of four about food)

Modern, high-intensity farming is charged with causing food to lose some of its goodness.  Could organic food offer an alternative?

This is a controversial question. Antioxidant levels are higher in organically grown plants, according to a meta-analysis of existing studies published last year. However, in 2012 researchers at Stanford University in California found no strong evidence that organic foods are more nutritious.

“In general, for minerals, the differences [between organic and inorganic] are pretty small,” says biochemist Donald Davis. One reason for the nutrient declines seen in some of today’s vegetables is down to breeding – making broccoli heads larger, for example – and organic growers tend to plant the same varieties as non-organic growers, he says.

Another complication is that it is difficult to make a direct comparison of organic and non-organic crops. “You have to take enough samples to grow on a very controlled patch, and expose them to exactly the same treatment,” says Paul Finglas of the UK’s Institute of Food Research in Norwich. “There may well be some evidence that some organic foods are different – such as in vitamin C – but it’s not going to make a big nutritional impact.”

Things look better for organic milk. Recent UK and US studies found that organic milk from cows reared outdoors had higher amounts of antioxidants and omega-3s. The difference is down to diet. “Cattle on organic farms are provided much more access to pasture and fed a much higher proportion of forage-based feeds,” says Charles Benbrook, who showed in 2013 that organic milk produced in the US contains a healthier ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids than non-organic milk. “Grass and legume forages are the building blocks for omega-3 fatty acids, while corn – which plays an important role on conventional farms – is the basis for omega-6.”

One area of concern is the low intake of omega-3s. These essential fatty acids, particularly long-chain omega-3s found in oily fish and shellfish, are vital for growth and development. The average intake among adults in the US and UK falls far short of the recommended amount, largely due to the fact that many people eat little or no seafood. “Omega-3 is probably one nutrient that [Western] people have a deficiency in – at least, they’re not at the optimum level,” says Eric Decker, a food scientist at the University of Massachusetts.  Meanwhile, people are consuming more omega-6 acids, found in vegetable oils. These are important too, but in excess amounts they can trigger the body’s inflammatory response.

What’s worrying some is that changes in farming methods are making some foods lower in omega-3s and higher in omega-6s. This has been shown most clearly in fish. Half of all fish consumed globally now come from aquaculture, and farmed fish have a different nutritional profile to wild-caught varieties. Wild salmon, for example, is an excellent source of omega-3s, because it feeds on smaller fish that have eaten omega-3 rich algae. But farmed fish are increasingly fed vegetable oil, boosting their omega-6 levels.

Last year, a study of salmon sold in the UK found that farmed salmon had twice the amount of fat as wild salmon, a lower proportion of omega-3s and significantly more omega-6 fatty acids – although the authors stress that farmed salmon is still a good source of omega-3s. Similar trends have been seen in organic and non-organic milk and beef , though these contain far less omega-3 than fish.

Fortification is one way to tackle this problem – hence the array of omega-3 enriched products, such as juice and yogurt, now on the market.  (adapted from an original article by Chloe Lambert in the New Scientist).

We are living through a major tipping point

I would like to interrupt the posts on food with a thought that occurred to me yesterday morning.

I believe that the effects of the Trump corporatist/oligarchic coup will guarantee that, far from “making America great again”, America is now signalling by the recent election that it is past its zenith and is heading downwards as the sole world super-power, shedding its moral influence and  respect.  China is set to take its place and is playing a clever game to that effect  all over the world, while America writhes in a mixture of agony on the one hand and indifference and lack of knowledge and accurate information on the other.

It is 2017.  It is exactly one hundred years since the United States intervened in the Great War and effectively supplanted Great Britain as the dominant world power (yes, it took 50 years or more for the British to accept it, and some Brexiters still haven’t).  Go back yet another 100 years and the defeats of Napoleon at Trafalgar and Waterloo in 1815 was the final coup de grace that cemented the world power of Britain, based on its naval power, fueled in turn by the industrial revolution that had began around 40 or so years before.  And in 1714, the Treaty of Rastatt concluded the War of the Spanish Succession, which left the Hapsburgs (and the Holy Roman Empire) at the zenith of their territory and power in Europe.

Is this all coincidence, or is one hundred years the “time limit of dominance” for a great power to stay dominant?  Is there something spooky about the second decade of a century?  Probably not – it could all be coincidence – the similarities don’t go back very far.  But it does seem that, after about one hundred years a super-power loses its sense of direction.  Maybe it’s because the elite has cornered the market in money?  Maybe the people are fed up with the wars and the taxation necessary to be top dog and start asking  “what is the point?”  Or the military has become unable to win any more and has lost credibility (read the Boer War and Iraq).   Or the country has grown lazy and corrupt, educational standards are declining  and the nation has forgotten what made it great?  Or all of the above.

Anyway, we are living through the pivot point where the United States is most likely to decline, however much it spends on futile military escapades.

How have modern farming methods affected the nutrients in common foods? (Third posting of four)

Beef

Beef from cattle reared outdoors on grass is less fatty and contains more omega-3 fatty acids than cattle reared indoors and fed mainly grain. However, consumers preferred the taste of latter, according to a 2014 study.

Pasta

Today’s pasta might be less nutritious thanks to modern, fast-growing wheat varieties introduced in the 1960s. Levels of zinc, iron and magnesium remained constant in wheat grain from 1865 to the mid-1960s, then decreased significantly as yields shot up.

Carrots

Carrots from the 1940s contained less than half the vitamin A levels of carrots grown in the US 50 years later. The reason? A preference for more orangey carrots. The colour comes mainly from the pigment beta-carotene, which the body can use to make vitamin A.

Milk

Milk from cows reared the old-fashioned way – mainly feeding on grass outdoors – has a better nutritional profile of proteins, fatty acids and antioxidants than milk from cows reared indoors and fed intensively.

Spinach

Spinach is a good source of iron, but its iron content was once thought to be 10 times higher. That was the result of a historical error that may have been perpetuated by the spinach-derived superpowers of the cartoon character Popeye. There is no clear data about whether the iron content of spinach is changing due to modern agriculture.

However, fluorescent lighting in supermarkets can be beneficial to spinach . A 2010 study found that spinach leaves stored in simulated retail conditions had higher levels of vitamins C, E, K and folic acid. After nine days of continuous light exposure, folic acid increased between 84 and 100 per cent. In spinach stored in darkness, nutrient levels stayed the same or fell.

Eggs

Eggs have been the subject of health scares over cholesterol, but now they are promoted as a health food. A 2012 study found that UK eggs are getting more nutritious, with lower fat and cholesterol compared to eggs from 1989 – probably because of smaller yolk sizes. They also contained more selenium and vitamin D than in the past, thanks to improved hen feed.

Tomatoes

Supermarket tomatoes are often labelled as “vine-ripened”, but that doesn’t always mean what you hope. It may be ripened on the vine but the vine may not have been attached to the plant. However,  the downsides of early picking are small and an unavoidable consequence of consumer demand. If you pick a tomato grown at home it tastes fabulous because it’s absolutely ready to eat. “But there’s no way you could do that at a commercial level because of the bruising that would occur if ripe fruits were transported through a typical supply chain. There has to be a compromise somewhere.

Frozen fruit and veg

They may not be fashionable, but frozen fruit and vegetables are often nutritionally better than fresh, experts say. Frozen veg is extremely good in terms of nutritional value because it really has been in suspended animation from the point of harvest. You can leave it on the plant longer, so it’s at a better ripening stage when it’s picked.

Peas

Can lose half of their vitamin C in the first 48 hours after harvesting, but if frozen within 2 hours of picking they retain it. Frozen peas are much more nutritious than peas you buy ready to shell. Furthermore,  frozen foods often have fewer additive, freezing being a preservative.

Bread

Humans have been making bread for 10,000 years, but the way we do it has changed dramatically in the last half-century. In 1961, a new method of mass-producing bread was devised at the Chorleywood laboratories, just north of London. It used extra yeasts, additives called processing aids and machinery to slash fermentation times, so a loaf could be made in just a few hours. Around 80 per cent of bread consumed in the UK is now made this way, and the Chorleywood process is used to some extent in many other countries.

But there are concerns that such methods have altered the digestibility of bread, and this may explain why many people with irritable bowel syndrome name bread as a trigger. For a significant subset of those with IBS, the condition is thought to be linked to gut bacteria reacting to fermentable foods, causing bloating.

Last year, Jeremy Sanderson at King’s College London and colleagues compared the effects of fast and slow-fermented breads on gut microbiota from donors with IBS and those free from it. They found that sourdough bread – which is left to rise for several hours using its natural yeasts – produced “significantly lower cumulative gas” in the IBS donors’ microbiota than fast-fermented bread. The theory is that if bread is left to ferment for longer, its carbohydrates will reach the gut in a predigested state and gut bacteria won’t react so much. “If you under-ferment bread and add a lot of yeast, it’s hardly surprising this will set up problems for people who have a problem with fermentation in their gut,” says Sanderson.

Slow-fermented breads may benefit other groups too: sourdough produces a lower glucose response in the body than other breads. What’s not yet clear is whether eating slow-fermented breads would lead to a general improvement in the gut flora of healthy people. “That’s difficult, but it’s a reasonable hypothesis,” says Sanderson. “After all, bread-making probably evolved to match what the gut could cope with.”  (Excerpted from an article the New Scientist by Chloe Lambert)

Is modern food processing and storage bad for us? (second posting of four)

Fruit and vegetables in supermarkets might look shiny and fresh, but often they were picked several days earlier. Some nutrients, particularly vitamin C and folic acid, begin to oxidise as soon as picking happens, but manufacturers use chilling and packaging techniques to minimise the resulting losses. “Lots of these reactions are driven by enzymes, and if you want to slow an enzyme reaction right down you chill it. However, if you are choosing between organic leeks from a distant country or locally grown,  go for the fruit and vegetables grown locally and subject to the  shortest possible supply chain.    As if to illustrate this, a 2003 study evaluated the nutritional content of broccoli kept in conditions that simulated commercial transport and distribution: film-wrapped and stored for seven days at 1 °C, followed by three days at 15 °C to replicate a retail environment. By the end, the broccoli had lost between 71 and 80 per cent of its glucosinolates – sulphur-containing compounds shown to have cancer-fighting properties – and around 60 per cent of its flavonoid antioxidants.

Many kinds of mass-produced fruit and veg – most famously tomatoes – are picked unripe so that they bruise less easily during transit. They are then sprayed with ethylene to ripen them. Some studies suggest that tomatoes harvested early have lower antioxidant activity and less flavour. If a fruit is left on a plant until the end of its life cycle, it’s able to recycle all the energy from the plant.  If you pick it early you truncate that process and get less sugars into the fruit, which are needed to bind the nutrients.

Similarly, processing has become a maligned word in the context of food, but there are some cases where it enhances a food’s health benefits. In fact, you arguably get more benefits from processed tomatoes, such as in purees, sauces or ready chopped in cans, than fresh.

Processed tomatoes tend to be harvested at a riper stage. In addition, lycopene – a compound tomatoes are rich in, and which has been shown to protect against cancer – is much more readily absorbed by humans from tomato paste than fresh tomatoes. “The more processed a tomato is, the more lycopene is available,” says Collins. “Processed tomatoes are often very concentrated, so you’re actually getting a greater quantity than you would use if you made your own sauce.” However, she adds that the heating used in processing destroys vitamin C.

Although salad leaves that have been picked and stored for several days before being eaten are a bit less nutritious than a freshly harvested lettuce, chilling and using packaging to reduce oxygen exposure may slow the nutrient loss. And any loss of nutrients must be weighed against the fact that these products may encourage people to eat better overall.

The bottom line is that although aspects of today’s food production, processing and storage might make what we eat a bit less nutritious, they are also making foods more available – and this is far more important. The majority of us consume far less fruit and vegetables than we ought to. We eat too much fat, sugar and salt and not enough oily fish.

The most important thing you can do is eat more fruits, vegetables and wholegrains, and cut down on highly refined, human-made foods, vegetable oils and added sugars. If you’re worrying about nutrient losses from cooking or whether your food is straight from the farm – those differences are minor compared to the differences you’d get from eating unprocessed foods.

Is our food less nutricious? (First posting of four)

Have modern intensive farming methods – many of which solved malnutrition problems when they were first introduced –  affected the mineral and vitamin content of what we eat?

In 2011, Donald Davis, a now-retired biochemist at the University of Texas, compared the nutrients in US crops from 1950 and 2009, and found notable declines in five nutrients in various fruits, including tomatoes, eggplants and squash. For example, there was a 43 per cent drop in iron and a 12 per cent decline in calcium. This was in line with his 1999 study – mainly of vegetables – which found a 15 per cent drop in vitamin C and a 38 per cent fall in vitamin B2.

Fruit and vegetables grown in the UK have shown similar depletions. A 1997 comparison of data from the 1930s and 1980s found that calcium in fresh vegetables appeared to drop by 19 per cent, and iron by 22 per cent. A reanalysis of the data in 2005 concluded that 1980s vegetables had less copper, magnesium and sodium, and fruit less copper, iron and potassium. The introduction of semi-dwarf, higher-yielding varieties of wheat in the green revolution of the 1960s means that modern crops contain lower levels of iron and zinc than old-fashioned varieties.

Davis and others blame agricultural practices that emphasise quantity over quality. High-yielding crops produce more food, more rapidly, but they can’t make or absorb nutrients at the same pace, so the nutrition is diluted. “It’s like taking a glass of orange juice and adding an equal amount of water to it. If you do that, the concentration of nutrients that was in the original juice is dropped by half,” says Davis.

Other scientists say that, although some nutrients are declining, the losses aren’t significant enough to warrant  health concerns.  Over the last century, lifespans have become longer, people are bigger and stronger, and a lot of that has to do with the food supply being better.  There is a also problem with comparing cultivars being grown in the 1930s with often quite different strains of plant grown today, the year and the date of harvest.   Methods of measuring nutrition have also changed.

The fact seems to be that differences in nutrient levels are relatively small. Most of us get enough iron, magnesium, and calcium. (adapted from an article in New Scientist by Chloe Lambert).

The problem may become worse with climate change.  Last year, researchers at Harvard University warned that crops grown in the future will have significantly less zinc and iron, owing  to rising levels of carbon dioxide.  The team grew 41 different types of grains and legumes, including wheat, rice, maize, soybeans and field peas, under CO2 levels crops are likely to experience 40 to 60 years from now. They found that under these conditions, wheat had 9 per cent less zinc, 5 per cent less iron and 6 per cent less protein than a crop grown at today’s CO2 levels. Zinc and iron – but not protein – were also lower in legumes grown under elevated CO2. ( There will be three more postings on this important topic, if  access to the internet, interrupted four times during the last few days, allows).

Musings on the Netherlands and Turkey

On Wednesday 15th March, the Netherlands will hold a general election. In the American and British popular imaginations, the Netherlands is a socially progressive nation with a well-functioning democracy, and a high trust in its institutions. Relatively speaking, that perception is largely correct. But the Dutch increasingly believe their values are under threat, not from domestic affairs or even the EU, but from the Islamic world.

Despite its reputation for ethnic homogeneity, the Netherlands is home to a sizeable Turkish minority. Many are Turkish citizens who are entitled to vote in the upcoming Turkish constitutional referendum, which will give the President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, considerably more power, reducing Parliament to a mere scrutiny body. Turkey would effectively become like Russia: an authoritarian executive presidency. The Kemalist traditions of secularism and the separation of powers would be consigned to the history books. Following the failed coup to oust him, Erdogan is understandably nervous. But his style of rule is increasingly dictatorial. Human rights abuses are becoming more common, freedom of speech is in decline, and anti-Western and pro-Russian sentiments are on the rise.

Erdogan enjoys considerable support in Turkey, but due to a lack of accurate polling, no one is sure how the referendum will go. So to ensure the maximum possible support, the government has sent ministers to Turkish diasporas living in Europe. In France, authorities allowed campaign events to go ahead. But in most other countries, most notably the Netherlands, ministers have been prevented from holding rallies. European authorities have cited security concerns, arguing that that bringing in foreign political divisions would be dangerous. Turkish politics is very passionate, so campaigns are likely to result in violence. There’s also the question of whether its appropriate to hold domestic political events abroad. It would be a bit like Benjamin Netanyahu going to America to tell American Israelis to vote for him, only that Erdogan’s ideology is even more extreme that the Israeli right.

In response to the Dutch ban on Turkish political campaigning, Erdogan has labelled Mark Rutte (the Dutch PM) and his government ‘Nazis’ and ‘fascists.’ The governing party in Turkey, the AKP, believes Europe is gripped by endemic Islamophobia, and that this is yet another attempt to restrict the rights of Muslims to their free speech. In particular, many Turks believe Rutte has enforced the ban because of the upcoming Dutch elections, in which Rutte’s liberal VVD party is only narrowly ahead of the anti-Islam PVV. This is despite the fact that the ban is supported across the political spectrum.

There are two worrying trends here. The first is the increasingly reactionary, paranoid and conspiratorial nature of Turkish political dialogue. The Dutch are well within their rights to regulate foreign political campaigning in their own country. No one is preventing  the Turkish Dutch from voting, nor from receiving information about the referendum. All responsible authorities must judge whether an event poses a high security risk, and have the right to cancel such events if they have reason to believe they will. The somewhat violent nature of Turkish protests against the ban, both in Turkey and the Netherlands, shows that the Dutch’s fears may not be unfounded. To suggest that this constitutes fascistic behaviour is hyperbolic and delusional.

The second is the fragile nature of liberalism in the Netherlands. The Dutch, for the most part, are an open and welcoming people. Turkish immigrants solve the labour shortage that exists in the Netherlands’ high-wage, low unemployment economy. They help mitigate the effects of an ageing population. Many Dutch welcome the country’s increasing multiculturalism. But there’s a perfectly legitimate concern about the Turkish’s social and political views. Its clear that a considerable proportion of Turks support the AKP’s increasingly socially conservative and theocratic politics. I personally have a friend of mine who is Turkish, and despite being very culturally Western, supports Erdogan fervently.

The Turkish-Dutch clash must be contextualised in the broader rift between Europe’s increasingly secular and liberal white supermajority, and its growing Muslim population, which is overwhelmingly religious and socially conservative. Many second and third generation Muslims feel disillusioned with the godless hedonism that permeates the country they grew up in. In the most extreme of cases, they become radicalised. But in most instances, they simply feel apathetic and angry. Its important to mention that this disillusionment is not  entirely irrational. Muslims in Europe are much poorer than the general population, and are less likely to be employed. To varying degrees, they also face both institutional and casual discrimination. Western society, with its relentless focus on material wellbeing and instant self-gratification, is far from perfect. Liberals have too often sung the praises of multiculturalism and tolerance, while failing to economically empower the immigrants they purport to love.

However, the problems associated with Islam that the Netherlands faces, does not warrant the support of Geert Wilders and his PVV. Wilders is ideologically opposed to freedom of religion for Muslims. He believes in a complete ban on the burqa, a ban on all mosques, and a ban on the Qur’an. He doesn’t believe Islam can be practised peacefully, instead preferring to compare the Qur’an to Mein Kampf. In the unlikely event of a PVV-led government, Wilders’ policies would only make problems worse. Muslims would quite rightly take to the streets in protest. The Netherlands would lose its reputation as a strong liberal democracy, perhaps forever. I’m not knowledgable enough of Dutch politics to make a firm endorsement, but I would tentatively suggest that Dutch Epicureans vote for the incumbent VVD, simply as a tactical measure to keep out the PVV. Rutte is far from perfect, particularly his stance on the Zwarte Pete controversy, but the Dutch economy is relatively stable and the country remains most socially liberal than most. The authoritarianism, nationalism and populism of the Turkish government must not incline us to respond in kind.

Ayn Rand and President Trump

I don’t know whether this is generally known, but Trump, who inherited a lot of his money, is a fan of the writer Ayn Rand, the author of “Atlas Shrugged” and chief publicist of “objectivism” and libertarianism. He is surrounding himself with other admirers of the notion that there are makers and takers, and that the takers are parasites who get in the way of morally superior innovators.  Worse than that, the latter actually have to pay tax to support the takers (horrors!).   Rand’s attitude was that government is evil and deliberately puts obstacles in the way of those accumulating wealth.  “Man exists for his own sake. The pursuit of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose, not of the happiness of anyone else.  He shouldn’t make sacrifices for others”.
Trump, as is well known now, believes that “winning” is all and that the means justify the ends.  The ends are wealth and power. Women are simply adornments; the poor are “losers”.  ” Be a killer”, Fred Trump (father) reputedly told his son,”then you are a king”.
Among the disciples of this moral-free, inhuman and distasteful philosophy that treats people as commodities are Bannon, of course, Rex Tillerson, new Secretary of State, and Mike Pompeo, head of the CIA.  There are others as well in the threatening new government.  Andrew Pudzer, Secretary of Labor (who opposes the minimum wage and wants to automate fast food) was another admirer, now, blessedly, turned down by Congress.
Not only is libertarianism and objectivism anathema to normal decent people, but Ayn Rand claimed to have taken the bit about happiness being man’s highest moral purpose straight from the writings from Epicurus.  She might well have, but she took it totally out of context. Epicurus would never have recognised this as a humane, thoughtful, approach to human relationships; on the contrary, his approach was that friendship and getting on well with people created happiness – unless you are autistic (which I agree you can’t help) you get no joy out of using and exploiting people and treating them like money machines.  “Objectivism” and libertarianism have nothing to do with Epicureanism and never did.  It’s all part of the “fake news” ethos of the alt-right.

Let us all thank messy eaters

Researchers at the Arizona State University Institute of Human Origins have found that our species’ first ancestors began to climb down from trees to retrieve snacks they had dropped. Anatomical evidence from the 6-million-year-old fossilized remains of Sahelanthropus peinaó—which was unearthed earlier this year in South Africa and is now believed to be the last common ancestor shared by chimpanzees and modern humans—suggests that the animal frequently descended from the jungle canopy to retrieve food that fell from its hands owing to inattention, overeager eating, or a loosening grasp as it dozed off after a meal.

According to the researchers, everything humans have accomplished as a species—from “colonizing every corner of the planet, to building the Colosseum, to walking on the surface of the moon”—can be traced back to that first human forebear “sweating and breathing heavily as it struggled down a tree trunk” to recover a snack .

At some point in the Miocene epoch, one of the hominids realized that if it wished to continue snacking, it would have to come down from the tree, wander out onto the savanna, pick the morsel up, and put it back in its mouth. This was the impetus for several other key adaptations, including the increased brain size and cognitive capabilities that are the hallmarks of Homo sapiens. They began gradually developing the ability to form abstract thoughts—including planning, problem-solving, projecting into the future, and evaluating alternative options—as they grasped the notion that if they did not retrieve the food they would go hungry. Moreover, complex human emotions, from regret to longing to a desire for remediation, are also said to have begun emerging as humans began to reflect on the meals they dropped.

Speech arose from the grumbling about having to climb down the tree. The hominids’ final shift to becoming an exclusively ground-dwelling species is said to have occurred roughly 5 million years ago when, having finished the snacks they had retrieved, they looked at the trees, realized what a hassle it would be to climb all the way back up there, and opted instead to take a nap on the ground.

Does all this really matter? Not really, but it takes your mind for a moment off the world political situation!  That’s what Epicurus would have advised us to do – if possible.