Farm Bill Remains on Life Support

As former Yankee catcher Yogi Berra is supposed to have said,

“It’s like déjà vu all over again.”

 

Inside the Farm Bill

What is the Farm Bill anyway? It’s a massive piece of legislation – 942 pages in one version before Congress, compared with about 1,200 pages in the average Bible. To many, it’s not blasphemy to think of the Farm Bill as the Bible for American agriculture.

The 2018 Farm bill contained 12 separate titles, including commodity support programs, crop insurance, conservation, trade, bioenergy, research, forestry, rural development, credit, nutrition and more. It provides the basic “rules of the road” for our entire food system.

The Farm Bill provides everyone, from farmers to consumers, with the guidance they need to make intelligent decisions about how we produce and consume our food and maintain a vibrant farming sector and thriving rural communities.

Historically, Congress has approved 18 separate farm bills since the 1930s, usually one every five years or so.

That’s no small feat legislatively.

But by combining farm support measures with nutrition programs – notably the old “Food Stamp” program, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”) – rural and urban legislators have been able to come together to produce a much too complex and far-reaching piece of legislation.

The process consistently has produced farm policies and programs that have fed the nation.

And much of the rest of the world.

Political Pushback 

Three of the past four Farm Bills have required one-year extensions, including the extension passed last November. Despite ambitious efforts by both House and Senate legislators, a fresh Farm Bill still hasn’t passed Congress. In fact, it’s so far from the final passage that many worry that yet another one-year extension is almost inevitable.

With a crowded legislative agenda on Capitol Hill, a looming presidential election, and continuing political divisions still in play, hope for passage seems to be waning with each passing week. The ostensible reasons for the delay are familiar.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle point to a long list of philosophic and practical differences, most seeming to boil down to matters of how to divide the funds in a bill estimated by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to cost an estimated $1.4 trillion over the coming decade.

Some of the key issues under debate include:

Allocating funds provided by the Inflation Reduction Act

President Biden’s Act of 2022 added $19.5 billion to existing conservation programs for “climate-smart mitigation practices” that contribute to carbon sequestration and reduction of greenhouse gases.

  • Some legislators favor moving those funds into the Farm Bill spending and expanding eligibility for producers.
  • GOP senators point out that about half of ‘traditional’ farm conservation activities currently are excluded from the IRA and want to use more of the IRA monies to support those activities.
  • Environmental groups and their political supporters want to make sure any funding shift does not weaken the federal commitment to addressing climate issues or in any way contribute to a shift in overall funding away from these environmental goals.

Increases in reference prices

Basically, a means of raising support payments to food producers in the face of inflation-driven costs increases and historically weak commodity prices.

  • Critics of the increases worry that the money for such added Farm Bill expenses would come from savings achieved by reductions in SNAP costs.
  • SNAP supporters question why farmers’ economic needs are more important than feeding hungry people.

Changes in SNAP payments and program eligibility

The CBO estimates that revised calculations and refinements to its eligibility standards would save as much as $30 billion over ten years.

  • Nutritional program costs represent nearly 82 percent of all Farm Bill spending – a share that has been steadily increasing over recent years.
  • Critics wonder what the SNAP program has to do with producing food. They think this should be a separate bill instead of hidden in payment to producers.
  • Budget hawks seek ways of controlling the costs – or at least temper the rate of growth in nutrition spending.

The central issue is how to spend the available money. In highly simplified terms:

One camp argues for using the available pot of money on a wider range of traditional farm and rural community support policies and programsand

the other wants to preserve the Biden focus on policies and programs aimed at facilitating the movement of the farm and food community to more “green” practices – and equally important, protection of the people served by the SNAP program.

The Path to Passage

Part of the delay is procedural. Passing a Farm Bill is a complicated series of actions: developing and approving a bill by committees, passage by the House and Senate, reconciling differences through a House-Senate conference, and submission to the President for signature. It may not sound all that difficult, but it is.

Note that the House and Senate Agriculture Committees have spent almost an entire year listening to and engaging farmers, farm and commodity groups, consumers, health and nutrition experts, academics, local authorities and many others in discussions about farm policies and programs. Legislation of nearly 1,000 pages reflecting all these interests takes time to develop.

Maybe more importantly, the calendar is not the Farm Bill’s friend. The legislative time available for action is limited, and competition for floor time is intense. The House of Representatives averages about 151 days in session each year, and the Senate 168 days. Election years—especially presidential election years—usually provide members with extended time to campaign. This year is no different.

In the final six months of 2024, the U.S. Senate is tentatively scheduled to be in session for 53 days. In the House, it’s 42 days. “Tentative” schedules are just that, and they may be subject to change. Lame-duck sessions also are possible. But whatever decisions might be made for keeping Congress at work, the calendar – and history – don’t suggest a rosy outlook for Farm Bill resolution in 2024.

Opposing Points of View

Beyond the realities of the calendar, simple politics is part of the delay in resolving the fundamental issues.

First, the farm bill process has succeeded for almost a century because of the willingness of all parties involved to come to agreement, if not total consensus. Compromise on any issue has proved elusive to this Congress, obviously. But old Farm Bill hands also point out that this time around, as much as 70 percent of Congress has never been through a Farm Bill process.

One in four U.S. senators has been in office for six or fewer years.  In the House, it’s 45 percent – almost half. There’s less experience with – or appreciation for – the importance of finding agreement on something as essential as the food security of the populace. Some members simply don’t have the background to see the Farm Bill as anything but yet another football to be kicked around the political playing field.

Xylitol & Heart Attacks: Should You Worry?

A recent study led by Cleveland Clinic analyzed over 4,000 individuals across multiple clinical sites. Data was collected over several years. The study ultimately found there was an association between blood levels of xylitol and an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

However, the study did not address food intake by participant, so it cannot be determined if the xylitol levels were based on dietary exposure or endogenously-produced xylitol. Ultimately, the study was not comprehensive at evaluating the long-term effects of xylitol when consumed in moderate amounts.

Since the publishing of the study, many consumers have mistakenly lumped all sugar-free sweeteners together, deducing that all sweeteners should avoided for fear of  heart attack or stroke.

This is a concern as consumers are searching for a sweetener that meets their needs. According to Mintel, “There is an opportunity to help consumers feel informed and in control when making their sugar and sweetener choices.”  Hearing about the downside of an unproven study does not help.

So let’s focus on what we do know about xylitol…

What is xylitol?

Xylitol is a sugar alcohol used as a sweetener in various food and dental care products. It is popular because it has fewer calories than sugar and is known for not causing tooth decay. It is also found in fruit, vegetables, and berries.

Xylitol differs from other sugar alcohols in several key ways, making it unique and beneficial for specific uses. Unlike many sugar alcohols, xylitol has a sweetness comparable to sugar but with significantly fewer calories, making it a popular sugar substitute. It is particularly noted for its dental health benefits; xylitol helps prevent tooth decay by inhibiting the growth of Streptococcus mutans, the bacteria primarily responsible for cavities.

Additionally, xylitol has a lower glycemic index than other sugar alcohols, which means it has a minimal impact on blood sugar levels, making it a suitable sweetener for diabetics and those managing blood glucose levels.

While other sugar alcohols can cause digestive discomfort in large quantities, xylitol is generally better tolerated, though it can still cause issues for some individuals if consumed in excess. Overall, xylitol’s unique properties make it a versatile and advantageous sugar alcohol for both health and culinary purposes.

Products commonly containing xylitol:

  • Gum: brands like Orbit, Trident, and Eclipse
  • Sugar-free candy and mints: Brands like Werthers, Ice Breakers, and Spry
  • Sugar-free or low-sugar baked goods
  • Dental products, like toothpaste and mouthwash
  • Over-the-counter medications and chewable vitamins
  • Low-calorie foods and beverages, like gelatin desserts, condiments, and cereals

Cardiovascular implications

The researchers found a correlation between higher levels of xylitol in the bloodstream and an elevated incidence of these serious cardiovascular health issues outlined below. The study authors hypothesized that xylitol might influence cardiovascular health through mechanisms that are not yet fully understood, warranting further investigation.

Blood clotting

One possible explanation, according to the results, is that xylitol could affect platelet function, which plays a crucial role in blood clotting. Altered platelet activity might increase the likelihood of clot formation, leading to heart attacks or strokes.

Metabolic pathways

Xylitol is also metabolized differently from regular sugar, and this unique metabolic pathway might impact lipid levels, inflammation, and other factors involved in cardiovascular health.

Impact on blood vessels

There is also speculation based the study that xylitol could influence the health of blood vessels, potentially contributing to atherosclerosis (the buildup of fats, cholesterol, and other substances in and on the artery walls). Again, more research is needed here as to the exact levels that can cause these impacts, and over what span of time.

 

Xylitol’s other health effects

Dental benefits

 

Cavity prevention: Xylitol is well-documented for its role in preventing tooth decay. It inhibits the growth of Streptococcus mutans, the bacteria primarily responsible for cavities, by reducing their ability to stick to teeth and produce acid.

Saliva production: Xylitol stimulates saliva production, which helps in neutralizing acids and repairing tooth enamel.

 

Glycemic control

 

Lower glycemic index: Xylitol has a low glycemic index, making it a popular sugar substitute for people with diabetes. It does not cause significant spikes in blood glucose or insulin levels, which is beneficial for blood sugar management.

Weight management: Due to its lower calorie content compared to regular sugar, xylitol can be useful in weight management and reducing overall calorie intake.

 

Digestive issues

 

Laxative effect: At high doses, xylitol can cause digestive discomfort, including bloating, gas, and diarrhea. This is because it is partially absorbed in the small intestine, and the unabsorbed portion is fermented by bacteria in the large intestine, producing gas. Eating more than 30-40 grams of Xylitol is harmful.

Tolerance levels: Individual tolerance to xylitol varies, and some people may experience gastrointestinal issues even at lower doses.

Allergic reactions: While rare, some individuals may have allergic reactions to xylitol, manifesting as rashes, itching, or gastrointestinal distress.

 

Debunking misconceptions

A common misconception is that all sugar-free options are inherently bad for health. This is not true. Sugar-free products are often great low-calorie options for those looking to lose or maintain weight; they also can serve as insulin stabilizers.

However, be aware of how much of these substitutes you consume and their potential long-term health effects over time. There is currently no limitation nor recommendation on the amount of xylitol that is considered safe for consumption.

Balancing benefits and risks

While it offers significant advantages for dental health and blood sugar control, the recently published study needs to be investigated more thoroughly to determine if there is a real risk. So, what can we do?

Moderation is key

While the study does not specifically support moderation, and does not detail how much we should eat, we do know that any sugar can have adverse effects if eaten in too great a quantity causing inflammation, digestive issues, obesity, metabolic disorders, and so on. Remember for regular sugar, the recommended maximum daily intake should not exceed 9 teaspoons for men and 6 teaspoons for women.

Stay informed

Keep up-to-date with new research on sugar substitutes and their health effects. As more studies are conducted, guidelines on safe consumption levels may evolve.

Have a colorful and varied diet

Eating fruits, vegetables, and protein instead of excess sugar is crucial for maintaining a healthy and balanced diet. Fruits and vegetables are rich in essential vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and dietary fiber, all of which are vital for overall health.

These nutrients help to boost the immune system, reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer, and improve digestive health. Additionally, fruits and vegetables are a great low in calorie option and high in water content, which can aid in weight management and promote a feeling of fullness.

Protein, on the other hand, provides the essential amino acids necessary for building and repairing tissues, supporting immune function, and maintaining muscle mass.

Consuming adequate protein is important for metabolic health, as it helps regulate appetite and stabilize blood sugar levels. Unlike sugary foods, which can lead to spikes in blood sugar and contribute to weight gain and metabolic disorders, protein-rich foods promote satiety and sustained energy levels.

Use common sense

But don’t fret. You certainly are not going to have adverse effects from chewing gum or brushing your teeth given how little xylitol is in these products. Now, eating 5 sugar-free processed muffins daily for an extended period of time might not be the best idea…but that’s for several reasons. Focus on nutrient dense whole fruits, vegetables and proteins!

Digging Deeper: Pasteurization

milk being poured into a glass

In the past, some of us drank fresh, raw milk every day. But these days, several factors make raw milk an untenable option, including dairy industry consolidation, food safety concerns, and longer transportation times.

Since milk needs to be packaged and delivered to a grocery store or corner market, it may take several days before it hits your glass. For milk to safely survive the journey from cow to carton, it gets pasteurized, a process that keeps milk safe and lasting longer in your refrigerator.

Pasteurization is the process of heating a substance to kill pathogens, such as listeria, E. coli, salmonella, and the highly-pathogenic avian flu.

Dairy producers pasteurize milk to make it safe for consumers, as well as maintaining its safety during transport and extended storage times. If you drink raw milk straight from a cow, without treating it, you put yourself at great risk.

Some believe this process makes milk harder to digest and is an unnecessary procedure that denies our bodies of nutrients destroyed in the processing. Let’s take a look at this first.

Does Pasteurization Make Milk Harder to Digest?

Many proponents of raw milk products believe that pasteurized milk causes gut inflammation from not properly breaking down these denatured protein compounds.

Scientifically, the heat treatment disrupts the hydrogen bonds in a protein molecule and causes the bonds to be “disrupted.” For reference, when you cook an egg, the proteins also denature.

So, while heating raw milk can cause denaturation of protein, this has only proven to potentially affect immunocompromised patients.

Additionally, how your body digests denatured protein depends entirely on the amount of heat exposure the proteins have had. Typical pasteurization methods generate very few denatured proteins.

Let’s take a closer look at the most common ways to pasteurize milk and milk products.

Pasteurization Methods

Ultra-pasteurization

Also known as flash pasteurization, this method heats up the milk to 280 degrees for 4-5 seconds. Because the temperature of the milk exceeds 150 degrees, it is possible for the proteins to “denature,” or change from their original structure. Essentially, the heat can cause the protein compounds to break down. It is also argued that this process kills off some of the good bacteria present in raw milk.

High-temperature pasteurization

This is the most commonly used pasteurization technique. This process heats up milk to 161 degrees for 15 seconds.

Like flash pasteurization, some of the micro-life present in raw milk will be killed off through HT pasteurization. Additionally, the proteins in HT-treated milk may experience some denaturation. Heat treatment aside, milk remains a nutrient dense food.

Low-temperature pasteurization

LT heats raw milk to 145 degrees for 30 minutes before chilling it rapidly. Like HT and ultra pasteurization, this process can also kill off some of the probiotics present in raw milk. But, it is argued that LT pasteurization helps maintain milk’s protein quality.

While this process does not “denature” proteins, it can cause protein aggregation, whereby the compounds accumulate and clump together, making the proteins harder to digest. These proteins are harder to digest than its denatured counterpart, making consumption especially challenging for immune compromised or extremely allergic individuals.

Raw or unpasteurized

These products have not been heat-treated and are at much greater risk of carrying harmful pathogens. They also have a significantly shorter shelf life, which contributes to food waste if not consumed within a few days of its production.

Even more options

While heat-treating raw milk will destroy some of its beneficial properties, it’s a high price to pay if it’s contaminated with dangerous pathogens. If you still want to enjoy raw milk for its nutrients, consider purchasing products from dairy companies that add active cultures and probiotics that were affected during heat processing.

One such company taking proactive steps to protect your digestive system is Fairlife. Fairlife milk is flash pasteurized and then ultra-filtered to concentrate the protein content, sterilize the milk, and remove lactose – or milk sugars –  from the final product.

This way, those who suffer from lactose intolerance and/or have a hard time digesting denatured milk proteins can enjoy this dairy product with minimal to no effects.

What about cheeses?

Cheese is another important food when it comes to pasteurization. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration mandates that any cheese produced from raw milk must be held or aged for 60 days and kept consistently at 35-degrees Fahrenheit before it can be sold commercially. This helps ensure that foodborne pathogens are no longer present in the food, as they cannot survive in an environment after 60 days.

Additionally, treating the cheese with salt and curing the rind can also protect from potentially dangerous bacteria, viruses and molds. Like milk, pasteurized cheese can be treated at either a high temperature (174 degrees for roughly 20 seconds) or low temperature (149 degrees for 30-40 seconds).

When you think of pasteurization, you undoubtedly think of milk! However, many other foods that are heat treated, as well. Almonds, sauerkraut, and some kinds of vinegar are pasteurized to sanitize the food and kill harmful bacteria. The pasteurization process keeps consumers safe, so before you dismiss a pasteurized product, also consider what it may be protecting you from.

Are artificial sweeteners bad for us?

examples of alternative sweeteners

You have many choices to satisfy your sweet tooth besides sugar. In fact, almost half of us use sugar alternatives, with 43% turning to sugar substitutes to curb their sugar consumption.

Among sugar substitutes, artificial sweeteners such as Splenda, Equal, and Sweet’N Low are 2023’s most popular choices, with natural alternatives, like Stevia in the Raw and other stevia products, gaining in market share.

Despite our persistent beliefs about how unhealthy these sweeteners are for us, all artificial and natural sweeteners on the market in the U.S. and Europe are Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS) by the FDA and tested thoroughly by the European Food Safety Authority and the WHO.

Because of the meticulous analysis conducted by such governmental organizations as the FDA, WHO and the European Union, we as consumers can feel confident that these sweeteners have undergone substantial scrutiny before consumption of these products is permitted.

Don’t sweeteners make us sick?

Artificial sweeteners, Splenda, Equal and Sweet’N Low, have a very storied past with the public, with about 40% of us believing sweeteners are generally unhealthy and also that some sweeteners are worse than others. These beliefs are a contributing factor to the recent decline in sales of artificial sweeteners and its associated products, like diet sodas.

Saccharin, the first artificial sweetener on the market, came under scrutiny in the 1970s because of a well-known lab test among rats that resulted in an increased incidence of bladder cancer. However, the results were later dismissed as it was found that saccharin has an entirely different effect on human bladders.

Aspartame continues to have its share of the spotlight with similar cancer concerns, mostly of the brain, but in 2006 the National Cancer Institute conducted a 5-year study of data from almost 500,000 individuals and found that higher levels of aspartame were not associated with elevated risk for brain cancer.

“Although there has been a lot of negative press about artificial sweeteners, there is no evidence that artificial sweeteners cause cancer in humans.”

– Christine Zoumas, MS, RD, Program Director at University of California, San Diego, Moores Cancer Center

The agony and the irony

Surprisingly, some of these artificial, no-calorie sweeteners we use to lose or manage our weight are making us bigger, depending on the amount and duration we use them.

There is a tremendous amount of controversy on how these artificial sweeteners contribute to obesity. It is debated within the scientific community whether regular, long term consumption of artificial sweeteners leads to long-term health benefits or weight loss.

In fact, quite the opposite can be true: a 2017 meta-analysis reported in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that the consumption of sugar substitutes was associated with increases in weight and waist circumference, and a higher incidence of obesity, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular events.

“Based on all of the research done so far, there is no clear evidence for a benefit, but there is evidence of potential harm from the long term consumption of artificial sweeteners.

 

-Dr. Meghan Azad, PhD, University of Manitoba

So if sweeteners have zero calories, how in the world is this happening? There may be three reasons for the expanding waistlines and associated illnesses…

Sweetness begets more sweetness

Dr. David Ludwig, an obesity and weight-loss specialist at Harvard-affiliated Boston Children’s Hospital, hypothesizes that those who use artificial sweeteners may end up replacing the lost calories with less nutritious and calorie-dense options, like cake or pizza, thinking that they can “spend” their otherwise consumed 300 calories if they drank two regular sodas.

Another consideration is that hyper-sweetened substances may alter the way we taste our food. Since sucralose is 600 times sweeter than sugar, our brains become more accustomed to this level of sweetness and eventually we find more natural but lesser sweet things, like fruits, less desirable. And vegetables? Forget it!

Lastly, these artificial sweeteners allow the consumer to disassociate sweet with caloric, which can be dangerous as eating sugar and sugar-like substances signal our brain to consume more sugar, thus initiating a vicious cycle. You can blame that on our primate ancestors, as sugar was a scarce commodity way back when!

Other controversies

While the research has not been peer-reviewed or widely accepted by the scientific community, there are several separate research trials of Splenda, Equal, and Sweet’N Low that have shown causal relationships between artificial sweeteners and negative gut microbiome health, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease.

One study conducted by a team of Israeli scientists in 2014 found that artificial sweeteners, such as sucralose, aspartame and saccharin, significantly altered the intestinal bacteria of mice that, in turn, negatively affected their metabolisms, leading to obesity, diabetes, and other related diseases. (If you are unfamiliar with the gut microbiome, also known as our “second brain”, be sure to read our post on gut microbiota.)

Regarding the link of artificial sweeteners to Alzheimer’s disease and stroke, the American Heart Association reported that daily consumption of diet sodas may substantially increase the risk of these diseases. However, it is important to keep in mind that this finding may be a correlation and not causation— meaning that those who drink diet sodas regularly may be in poorer health than those who don’t drink them due to overall poor diet and lack of exercise.

Do diet drinks count?

Some of us may not think we regularly use artificial sweeteners, but don’t discount all those diet drinks and zero-calorie flavored waters!

According to a 2016 study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, nearly half of adults and a quarter of children in the U.S. consume artificial sweeteners—and the majority do so on a daily basis, with diet drinks making up the bulk of the intake.

Both the American Heart Association and the American Diabetic Association jointly agree that people should use artificial sweeteners cautiously.

Other options are also being added to the grocery store shelves, such as xylitol and stevia-sweetened sodas and drinks.

Because of its taste and its natural origin, stevia sweetened sodas, drinks, and food items are gaining in popularity.

From just 2014 to 2017, the market value of stevia has grown 71% to $578 million from $338 million.

Here’s a list of the most popular diet drinks in the market today and their associated sweeteners:

Splenda (sucralose)

Splenda is an artificial sweetener that is made of sucralose, a synthetically derived compound from sucrose – or table sugar. Sucralose is extremely sweet – it’s about 600 times sweeter than table sugar and three times sweeter than Equal.

Sucralose in your body: Because your body has no use for it, approximately 85% of sucralose does not get digested or absorbed, thus leaving your body unchanged. Most of what remains gets absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract and then leaves the system as urine, but about 5% of the remaining sucralose will metabolize in the body.

Limitation on consumption: As per FDA guidelines, acceptable daily intake of sucralose is 5 milligrams per kilograms of body weight per day. So if you weigh 150 lbs., it is safe for you to consume upwards of 340mg of sucralose per day, which equates to 28 Splenda packets or 9 cans of diet soda. That should leave PLENTY of room for even the sweetest of sweet-tooths! 

Equal (aspartame)

Equal, or aspartame, is made from aspartic acid and phenylalanine, two amino acids that when combined in a specific structure, yield a very sweet substance that’s 200 times sweeter than table sugar.

Aspartame in your body: Unlike sucralose and saccharine, aspartame is fully absorbed in the body given its composition of amino acids, which your intestinal tract breaks down into digestive enzymes the same way it would after consuming common protein sources, such as meats, fish, eggs and dairy. Aspartame does not enter your blood stream. 

Limitation on consumption: The acceptable daily intake of aspartame as determined by the FDA is 50 milligrams per kilograms of body weight per day. So if you weigh 150 lbs., it is safe for you to consume upwards of 3,400mg of aspartame per day. This equates to 18 cans of diet soda or almost 100 blue packets…per day! Keep in mind that your body creates trace amounts of methanol when breaking down aspartame. Though small amounts are not considered toxic and are actually naturally-occurring, larger amounts can lead to headaches, weakness, dizziness and nausea.

Aspartame and health conditions: A very important note about aspartame is that it is not to be consumed by those who suffer from phenylketonuria, a condition in which a person cannot metabolize phenylalanine into tyrosine. Thankfully, in the U.S. and most countries, detection of this condition occurs in the newborn screening panel.

Sweet’N Low (saccharin)

Sweet’n Low is an artificial sweetener made of saccharin, or benzoic sulfimide, which is a synthesized compound of methyl anthranilate, sodium nitrite, hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, chlorine, and ammonia. This yields a very sugary substance that’s 300-400 times sweeter than sucrose. 

Saccharin in your body: Similar to sucralose, saccharin is also not largely stored in the body.

Limitation on consumption: As per FDA guidelines, the acceptable daily intake of saccharin as determined by the FDA is 15 milligrams per kilograms of body weight per day. So if you weigh 150 lbs., it is safe for you to consume upwards of 1,000mg of saccharin per day, which equates to 28 pink packets or 16 cans of Tab (if you’re able to locate the cult fave!)

Stevia

Stevia is an all-natural sweetener that comes from a shrub called stevia rebaudiana and is primarily grown in South America and Asia. Today, 80% of all stevia comes from China, where they practice strict farming guidelines. These compounds are so sweet that it is actually 200-300 times sweeter than sugar.

Stevia in your body: Stevia has been studied and confirmed that it does not change your glycemic index or glycemic load. Research shows that it is metabolized by the liver, then passes through the body and does not accumulate anywhere.

Limitation on consumption: As per FDA guidelines, the acceptable daily intake of stevia is 4 milligrams per kilograms of body weight per day. So if you weigh 150 lbs., it is safe for you to consume up to 40 packets of stevia per day – every day.

A more “natural” artificial sweetener? There has been some conversation about stevia being considered a natural sweetener. Because there is no real definition of ‘natural’ (read our post investigating the ‘natural’ label here), the word is not meaningful. However, it is not synthetically made like other alternative sweeteners; therefore it is referred to as a ‘natural-origin’ sweetener.

Can we “hack” our gut health?

Hack Your Health: The Secrets of Your Gut, a documentary featured on Netflix, highlights the microbiome, the community of bacteria living inside our bodies, as a crucial player in gut health.

Each person’s microbiome is unique, much like fingerprints. The microbiome consists of approximately 100 trillion microbes, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi, that reside primarily in the intestines. These microbes help break down food, support the immune system, and communicate via the vagus nerve that connects our gut to our brain.

Hack Your Health follows the journey of four individuals, each with distinct gut health challenges. The variability in characters shows the complex nature of the gut and all that it impacts:

Michelin-starred pastry chef Maya learns that her anorexia and restrictive diet have severely impacted her gut health, necessitating a more balanced dietary approach to improve her well-being.

 

Daniell, the psychology student, discovers that her severe digestive issues and restrictive diet are linked to her gut microbiome, highlighting the need for personalized dietary adjustments.

 

Kimmie, labeled morbidly obese, finds that her lack of gut bacteria diversity affects her ability to feel full and lose weight, leading to tailored dietary recommendations to enhance her microbial diversity.

 

Competitive hot dog-eater Kobayashi realizes that his extreme eating habits have disrupted his hunger signals and gut health, prompting concerns about long-term damage and the need for a healthier lifestyle.

What the Documentary Gets Right and Wrong

The documentary is commendable for its scientific accuracy and approachable presentation of complex topics. It avoids the trap of pseudoscience by not offering overly simplistic solutions to complex problems. Instead, it emphasizes that gut health solutions are highly individualized, depending on one’s unique microbiome composition.

The documentary also accurately portrays the emerging science of the gut-brain axis, illustrating how the gut communicates with the brain and influences various bodily functions.

While the documentary is informative, it sometimes glosses over the intricate details of scientific studies, opting for a more infotainment approach. This style might leave viewers wanting a deeper dive into the science behind the microbiome and its broader implications.

Additionally, the documentary faced criticism for promoting untested claims about autism and gut health, which led to backlash from autism advocacy groups.

Scientific Insights & Treatments

To address their gut issues, Maya, Daniell, Kimmie, and Kobayashi send fecal samples for analysis. The results help tailor diets that could improve their microbiome diversity and overall health. One innovative treatment discussed is the “fecal microbiome transplant,” where healthy bacteria from a donor’s stool are transferred to the recipient’s gut.

This procedure has shown promise in treating conditions like Clostridium difficile infections and is being explored for other applications. But more underscore the new ways of diagnostics, such as as fecal sampling for additional information outside of just bloodwork.

What Does the Science Say About Our Gut?

Gut-Brain Axis

The gut-brain axis refers to the bidirectional communication between the gut and the brain. This connection influences various bodily functions, including mood, stress responses, and even cognitive functions.

For instance, the gut produces neurotransmitters such as serotonin, which is crucial for mood regulation. Dysbiosis, an imbalance in gut bacteria, has been linked to mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.

Immune System

Approximately 70% of the immune system is located in the gut. The gut microbiome plays a pivotal role in training the immune system to differentiate between harmful pathogens and harmless antigens. A healthy microbiome can prevent autoimmune diseases by maintaining a balanced immune response.

Metabolism & Weight Management

Gut bacteria are involved in the metabolism of food and the extraction of nutrients. They influence how we store fat, regulate glucose levels, and feel hunger or satiety. Dysbiosis can lead to metabolic disorders such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. Studies have shown that individuals with a diverse microbiome are more likely to maintain a healthy weight.

Inflammation & Chronic Diseases

A balanced microbiome helps control inflammation by producing anti-inflammatory compounds. Chronic inflammation is a risk factor for several diseases, including heart disease, cancer, and inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD). Dysbiosis is linked to increased intestinal permeability (leaky gut), which allows toxins to enter the bloodstream and trigger inflammation.

Digestive Health

The microbiome aids in digesting complex carbohydrates and fibers that the body cannot break down on its own. This process produces short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which nourish the gut lining, reduce inflammation, and support overall digestive health. Conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and Crohn’s disease are associated with imbalances in the gut microbiome.

Key Takeaways for Consumers

While this documentary is not pseudoscience, it still lacks a bit of scientific depth. But here are some sound takeaways rooted in science from key points in the documentary:

Gut Diversity is Key

A diverse microbiome is crucial for good health. Each person’s microbiome is unique, and having a variety of bacteria can enhance resilience against diseases. Consuming a wide range of foods, especially plant-based ones, can help foster this diversity.

Plants provide different types of fibers, polyphenols, and other bioactive compounds that serve as substrates for various microbial species in the gut, promoting microbial diversity. A diverse diet boosts the production of short-chain fatty acids, such as butyrate, which play a crucial role in maintaining gut barrier integrity, reducing inflammation, and supporting immune function.

Individualized Solutions

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to gut health. Personalized approaches based on microbiome analysis can provide better health outcomes. For instance, Kimmie’s gut analysis revealed a lack of bacteria that help her feel full, leading to personalized dietary recommendations to increase her microbial diversity.

Similarly, Daniell’s restrictive diet was tailored to her specific gut needs. Understanding the unique composition of your microbiome can help in identifying the specific foods and treatments that are most beneficial for you.

Innovative Treatments

Treatments like fecal microbiome transplants (FMT) show promise but should be approached with caution and professional guidance. FMT involves transferring bacteria from a healthy donor’s stool to the recipient’s gut, aiming to restore a balanced microbiome.

This procedure has been effective in treating recurrent Clostridium difficile infections and is being investigated for other conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease. However, it carries risks, including the potential transfer of harmful pathogens, and should only be done under medical supervision.

Fiber is Essential

Eating more plants and fibers is universally recommended for maintaining a healthy gut. Fiber acts as a prebiotic, feeding the beneficial bacteria in the gut and promoting their growth. High-fiber foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains can help maintain a healthy gut microbiome.

The fiber in these foods is fermented by gut bacteria, producing short-chain fatty acids that support gut health and overall well-being. Increasing fiber intake can also improve digestion, reduce inflammation, and enhance immune function.

Hack Your Health: The Secrets of Your Gut is a compelling watch for anyone interested in the emerging science of gut health. While it may not delve as deeply into hard science as some might prefer, it offers valuable insights and practical advice in an engaging and accessible manner.

Grocery Shopping Made Simple

This method, developed by Will Coleman, not only simplifies the shopping process but ensures that consumers maintain a balanced diet rich in essential nutrients. This approach aligns well with the Dirt to Dinner philosophy, emphasizing wallet-friendly trends, beneficial for health, and helpful in making informed, healthful, consumer decisions.

According to the International Food Information Council’s 2023 Food & Health Survey, 76% of Americans say price is highly impactful on their food purchasing decision, and nine out of 10 Americans have noticed an increase in the overall cost of food and beverages.

 

Besides cost being a driver of purchases, taste still ranks number one and healthfulness is important for 62% of Americans.

Shopping Method Countdown

The 6-to-1 grocery shopping method is a strategic approach to grocery shopping that encourages shoppers to purchase items across six distinct categories for every one discretionary item: 6 vegetables, 5 fruits, 4 proteins, 3 starches, 2 spreads and 1 treat.

The focus is on filling the cart with essentials that ensure a well-rounded ratio of nutrients, thereby simplifying decision-making.

So let’s start from the top…

Six Vegetables

Choose six vegetables to put in your cart!

The recommended daily intake of vegetables can vary based on factors like age, sex, and level of physical activity, but a general guideline from health authorities such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) suggests that adults consume between 2 to 3 cups of vegetables per day. This is part of their broader recommendation for a healthy eating pattern.

For instance, specific guidelines suggest:

  • Women aged 19 to 50 years should aim for at least 2.5 cups of vegetables daily.
  • Men in the same age range should target at least 3 cups daily.
  • Older adults or those less physically active might need slightly less.

These servings should include a variety of vegetables from different subgroups, including dark green, red and orange, legumes (beans and peas), starchy, and other vegetables, to ensure a diverse intake of nutrients.

Here are some of our favorite nutrient-dense options that are tasty in all sorts of recipes:

Download printable here.

Health Benefits

Vegetables are critical for preventing chronic diseases thanks to their high nutrient density. For example, high intakes of leafy greens like spinach are associated with a lower risk of diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cognitive decline due to their rich content in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.

Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower are linked to a decreased risk of cancer, particularly colorectal cancer, through mechanisms involving the regulation of enzymes and inhibition of tumor growth. Much like the healthy plate suggests, vegetables should be your largest daily food group ratio.

Five Fruits

Choose five of your favorite fruits! Aim to add about 1.5 to 2 cups of vibrant, delicious fruits to your daily diet.

Whether you’re filling your basket with tangy oranges, crisp apples, or exotic mangoes, each fruit offers a unique burst of flavor and essential nutrients. By hitting these fruity targets, you’re not just satisfying your sweet tooth—you’re fueling your body in the most delicious way possible!

Download printable here.

Health Benefits

Fruits are a powerhouse of antioxidants, vitamins, and fiber which help reduce the risk of developing various diseases. Consuming a variety of fruits is associated with a reduced risk of chronic conditions such as heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Berries, for example, have high levels of flavonoids, which have been shown to enhance brain health and prevent age-related memory loss. This should make up a similar portion of your plate to protein.

Four Proteins

Adults should aim for a range of protein sources to meet their daily needs, typically about 5 to 6.5 ounces depending on your age, sex, and activity level. From the lean cuts of meat in the butcher section to the versatile beans and lentils in the dry goods, protein is your body’s building block.

Why not grab some salmon for those omega 3s, or perhaps some chicken for a lean, mean dinner option? Don’t forget plant-based stars like tofu and tempeh, which can be fantastic in stir-fries or salads.

Download printable here.

Health Benefits

Protein is essential for muscle repair, immune function, and overall growth and development. Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon, are linked to reduced inflammation and lower risks of heart disease.

Plant-based proteins such as lentils and black beans offer cardiovascular benefits and are associated with lower cholesterol levels and improved gut health.

Three Starches

Depending on your overall dietary needs, aim to incorporate about 5 to 8 ounces of starches into your daily meals. Explore the world of whole grains like quinoa, barley, and whole wheat bread that keep you feeling full and energized. Or indulge in the hearty comfort of potatoes and sweet potatoes, perfect for roasting, mashing, or baking.

And don’t overlook the pasta and rice – versatile staples that can be the foundation of countless delicious dishes. Tip: When you are in the store, avoid all white starches as possible; seek brown options—they are likely more balanced and lower in sugar!

Download printable here.

Health Benefits

Starches are a key source of energy and play a crucial role in maintaining blood sugar levels. Whole grains like quinoa and oats are linked to reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer due to their high fiber content which aids in digestion and promotes satiety.

Two Sauces or Spreads

Download printable here.

Health Benefits: Sauces and spreads can enhance the flavor of meals while contributing to nutrient intake. For example, olive oil in pesto is rich in monounsaturated fats, which are beneficial for heart health and may reduce the risk of heart disease.

One Fun Treat

While generally limited in nutrients, allowing for occasional treats like dark chocolate can aid in sticking to a healthy eating plan by reducing feelings of deprivation. Dark chocolate is known for its cardiovascular benefits due to its high flavonoid content.

Here are a few treat examples and nutrients:

  • Square of dark chocolate: Flavonoids, iron, magnesium
  • Pack of sugar-free gummy bears: Sugars, small amounts of juice (if used)
  • A small serving of corn chips: Sodium, calories

By organizing shopping into six straightforward categories, Coleman’s method helps individuals make healthier food choices, reduce food waste, and save money—all of which are essential for maintaining a balanced diet and lifestyle in today’s fast-paced world. The method not only supports physical health by ensuring a nutritious diet but also promotes mental well-being by simplifying decision-making and reducing the stress associated with meal preparation.

Does my produce have pesticide residues?

In the realm of healthy eating, fruits and vegetables reign supreme. However, alongside their abundant vitamins, minerals, and other micronutrients, we’re bombarded with a reminder of a less savory and potentially harmful aspect: the presence of pesticide residues on our produce.

A Brief History of Pesticides & the EPA

But first, let’s get one thing straight: pesticides have a very necessary place in our global food system. Without products like insecticides, fungicides and other pesticide types, all crops would be prone to rot, leading to famine, disease, global hunger…just to name a few. If we suddenly nixed all pesticides, our current situation with egregious food waste in this country would seem inconsequential.

However, too much of a seemingly good thing always has unintended consequences. In the 1940s, the advent of powerful broad-spectrum pesticides, like DDT, gave farmers an effective, long-lasting tool to protect their animals and crops from insects. Furthermore, these powerful tools also helped combat malaria, typhus, and other insect-born human diseases.

But then its surge in application came at a cost.

By the ‘60s, word got out that excessive use of DDT posed unacceptable acute and long-term health risks to humans, including seizures, birth defects, and cancer, as well as damaging wildlife and the environment. In response to the outcry, the U.S. government took swift action and created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect human health and the environment from toxic chemicals, including now-prohibited pesticides like DDT, aldrin, and hexachlorobenzene (HCB).

Pesticide Reporting

Now, in conjunction with the USDA, various crops are monitored annually for pesticide residues with the annual Pesticide Data Program (PDP).

This year’s report is based on data from the 2022/23 season and includes multiple samples from over 20 fresh crops, like green beans, potatoes, and blueberries. Popular crops not tested this particular season, like apples, oranges, and avocadoes, will be included in the next rotation of tested crops.

The USDA then reports its findings in a comprehensive summary released on the PDP website. Once released to the public, consumer information agencies like Consumer Reports and the Environmental Working Group reinterpret the USDA’s findings to create these derivative reports, like the notorious “Dirty Dozen” list.

When you use the massive PDP database to start weaving information together across various crops over a multitude of years, you often find a conflicting story. Suddenly, these reports stating that you’re ingesting endocrine-disrupting and cancer-causing nerve agents feel sensational, at best, against the opposing PDP data that show a downward trend year-over-year in highly toxic pesticides.

Non-governmental or non-academic, consumer-centric reports can generate fear and deceive us into believing that ingesting any fresh fruit or vegetable is detrimental to our overall health, or that organic produce is free from all pesticides.

Despite the many claims in these consumer reports, available evidence suggests that the low levels of pesticide residues typically found on produce are unlikely to make most people sick or cause cancer.

Focusing on Facts

With that stated, we can’t ignore some of the pesticide residue data these reports found. Specifically, reports from the PDP and Consumer Reports shared the below facts based on information from the PDP database when the USDA’s initiative began in 1994:

The good news:

  • 99% of the samples tested in this year’s report had residues below the EPA’s legal limits (or “tolerances”)
  • 28% didn’t have any detectible pesticide residues

  • Despite growing fears about the long-term effects of Roundup, or glyphosate, the controversial herbicide was only detected on crops largely intended for animal feed – soybean grain and corn grain
  • The World Health Organization (WHO), and its Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR) committee, have found that pesticide residues in food are unlikely to cause cancer in people through dietary exposure:

“JMPR’s risk assessment found that based on the weight-of-evidence approach, these compounds are unlikely to cause cancer in people via dietary exposure. This means it is possible to establish safe exposure levels – acceptable daily intakes (ADI) – for consumers.”

The bad news:

  • Green beans had numerous residues exceeding current tolerance levels
    • The USDA found 16 unique pesticides on these samples, some of which the EPA canceled use or banned over a decade ago, like methamidophos
  • Of all produce exceeding EPA tolerances, 66% were from imported crops
    • Crop samples from Mexico reported the highest residue levels, including green bean samples with multiple residues exceeding EPA tolerances
    • Largely imported crops include blueberries, grapes, tomatoes and watermelon (rind removed).

An Optimistic Outlook

Though some of these findings sound concerning, we found plenty of information that shows the needle moving in the right direction.

Here are some of the highlights we found in these reports over the last few years, plus some information gathered from conducting our own research in the PDP database and other farming resources:

Lower toxicity

  • D2D analysis shows top residues found across most fresh produce crops are less toxic than previously reported years, as indicated by WHOs pesticide toxicity classifications
    • Lesser toxic fungicides include boscalid, azoxystrobin, and fluopyram; insecticides bifenthrin and imidacloprid

Increased localization

  • The USDA’s most considerable residue risks stem from just a few pesticides concentrated in specific foods grown on a small fraction of U.S. farmland
    • CR’s food safety expert, James E. Rogers, emphasizes that this concentrated risk makes it easier to identify problems and develop targeted solutions.

Better technology

  • Farmers and food producers continue to implement improved pest management practices, including advanced technologies
    • Precision ag systems in the field
      • AgZen’s patented pesticide droplet optimizer
      • FruitScout’s crop load manager platform
      • John Deere’s comprehensive machinery and production management tools
    • Scientific applications for crop management

What can we do right now?

It’s more like what you can’t do.

It feels counterintuitive, but don’t eat fewer fruits and vegetables because of pesticide concerns. The health benefits of eating lots of produce far outweigh the potential risks from these residues.

There’s no doubt about it: produce is loaded with vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients necessary for a healthy body and well-functioning brain.

If anything, we all should eat more produce.

And yes, while some pesticides can negatively affect health and the environment, the levels found on most produce are extremely low and not linked to adverse health effects.

If we follow the food-prep tips below, the surface residues will be largely eliminated, allowing us to enjoy our fresh foods without fear.

  • Wash fruits and veggies under running water for 15 to 20 seconds.
    • For those especially concerned about residues, consider one of the following methods:
      • Soak your fresh produce in a bath for a few minutes with 5 parts water and 1 part vinegar, then rinse; or
      • Soak your produce in a solution of one teaspoon of baking soda per two cups of cold water for 10-15 minutes, then rinse
  • Peel and trim produce when possible
  • Eat a variety of produce from different sources to reduce exposure to a single pesticide or environmental contaminant
    • If you can only tolerate certain produce items, consider purchasing the following alternatives:
      • Selecting the organic counterpart, which the PDP reports to have fewer residues despite having the same nutrient density as conventional
      • Frozen produce has already been through rigorous cleaning and processing, further reducing residues than its fresh counterparts
  • Try to stick with produce farmed in the U.S.

The key is moderation and making informed choices, not eliminating nutrient-rich produce from your diet due to pesticide fears.

Is Whole-Fat Dairy Healthy?

Current consumer attitudes toward milk and dairy products are increasingly influenced by health concerns, environmental considerations, and the rise of plant-based alternatives. Many consumers have moved toward low-fat dairy options or non-dairy substitutes, perceiving them as healthier choices due to longstanding recommendations to limit saturated fat intake.

Findings from the latest dairy study highlight the potential cardiometabolic benefits of full-fat dairy. By presenting evidence that full-fat dairy may not only be harmless but potentially beneficial, these insights could encourage consumers to reconsider their choices in the dairy aisle.

This shift could lead to a renewed interest in whole-milk products and fermented dairy, balancing the dietary landscape with a broader acceptance of various dairy fat contents based on individual health benefits rather than a one-size-fits-all dietary guideline.

The comprehensive review, “Whole-Milk Dairy Foods and Cardiometabolic Health: Dairy Fat and Beyond,” authored by Avinash Pokala and colleagues , challenges longstanding beliefs about the relationship between full-fat dairy consumption and cardiometabolic health.

Historically, full-fat dairy products, which are high in saturated fats, have been thought to contribute to cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. This study scrutinizes this hypothesis by reviewing recent evidence from observational studies and randomized controlled trials.

Scope and Key Findings

The review critically examines extensive research to assess the impact of full-fat dairy products on health. It categorizes the evidence based on the type of dairy product (fermented vs. non-fermented) and explores the role of specific components like milk polar lipids. The study also considers how the dairy food matrix—comprising fats, proteins, and bioactive molecules—interacts to influence health outcomes.

Cardiometabolic Activities of Dairy Fat

Contrary to previous guidelines that recommend limiting full-fat dairy, the study finds that dairy fat intake has a neutral to beneficial effect on cardiometabolic health. It references several large-scale studies and meta-analyses which suggest that full-fat dairy consumption does not increase the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and may, in fact, offer protective benefits against metabolic syndrome (MetS) and diabetes.

Positive Effects of Fermented Dairy Products

Fermented products like yogurt and cheese consistently show beneficial effects in improving lipid profiles and potentially lowering CVD risk. For example, a meta-analysis cited in the review demonstrates that yogurt consumption is associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, attributing these effects to the fermentation process which may enhance the bioavailability of bioactive peptides and other nutrients.

Role of Milk Polar Lipids

Milk polar lipids, concentrated in the milk fat globule membrane, are shown to improve blood lipid profiles and contribute to cardiovascular health. The study discusses evidence from controlled trials where milk polar lipids were found to regulate lipid absorption, reduce inflammation, and improve gut health, thereby offering a mechanistic explanation for the cardioprotective effects of full-fat dairy.

Reevaluation of Dietary Recommendations 

The review strongly advocates for updated dietary guidelines that reflect the complexity of dairy foods and their varied impacts on health. It suggests that the current recommendations may oversimplify the effects of fats found in dairy products and do not account for the protective components like polar lipids and probiotics found in fermented dairy.

Several previous studies align with these findings, supporting the beneficial effects of full-fat dairy on cardiometabolic health. For instance, the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology study found that higher dairy fat intake was associated with lower risk of diabetes and high blood pressure.

Additionally, a systematic review and meta-analysis published in the European Journal of Nutrition concluded that dairy consumption, irrespective of fat content, was linked to reduced risks of metabolic syndrome, hypertension, diabetes, and obesity. These studies collectively challenge the traditional views on dairy fat and support a more differentiated understanding of its impact on health.

Implications at the Grocery Store

The review encourages consumers not to avoid full-fat dairy categorically. Instead, it suggests evaluating the overall nutritional content and considering personal health needs. For instance, individuals without a high risk of cardiovascular issues might benefit from including full-fat dairy in their diet.

Additionally, consumers should note the specific benefits of fermented dairy products. These products not only aid in digestion due to their probiotic content but also provide enhanced cardiometabolic benefits. This study underscores the importance of personalized dietary choices that consider the nutritional benefits of dairy products in the context of an overall diet and individual health profiles.

Dairy Considerations beyond Diet

Outside of the obvious health take aways for consumers based on the new information in this study, consumers are increasingly making their dietary choices based on both nutrition and environmental considerations.

The dairy industry has the potential to contribute positively to environmental sustainability through various innovative practices and technologies. Here are some ways the industry can help the environment:

Sustainable Farming Practices

By adopting more sustainable farming practices, such as managed grazing, the dairy industry can enhance soil health, increase carbon sequestration, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Managed grazing involves rotating dairy cattle through pasture lands, which can help maintain soil fertility and reduce erosion.

Renewable Energy

Dairy farms can utilize manure as a resource by converting it into biogas through anaerobic digestion. This process not only reduces methane emissions—a potent greenhouse gas—but also produces renewable energy that can power the farm and potentially supply electricity to local communities.

Efficient Use of Resources

Implementing precision agriculture techniques can help dairy farmers use water, feed, and energy more efficiently. Precision feeding programs optimize the amount of feed for cattle, reducing waste and minimizing the environmental impact of feed production.

Waste Recycling

By improving waste recycling processes, dairy farms can turn by-products like manure and wastewater into valuable resources such as organic fertilizers and irrigation water, thereby reducing dependency on chemical fertilizers and promoting water conservation.

Packaging Innovations

The dairy industry can also make a significant environmental impact by innovating in packaging solutions. Developing biodegradable or recyclable packaging can reduce waste and the carbon footprint associated with traditional plastic packaging.

Collaboration & Certification

Engaging in partnerships with environmental organizations can help dairy farms implement best practices and become certified in sustainable agricultural methods. Certifications can serve as a signal to consumers who are concerned about the environmental impact of their purchases.

Educating Consumers 

The industry has a role in educating consumers about the importance of sustainable dairy production and the environmental benefits of supporting local and sustainably produced dairy products.

By focusing on these areas, the dairy industry can transform from being part of the environmental problem to an active part of the solution, contributing to a more sustainable agricultural sector and helping mitigate the impact of climate change.

Brewing Longevity: Coffee’s Health Benefits

Coffee gives us a great morning boost – and it is not just the caffeine! A recent study published in Nature Metabolism brings to light the significant role of trigonelline, a naturally occurring compound in coffee, in enhancing muscle health and function, particularly against the backdrop of aging.

Trigonelline is an alkaloid that serves as a precursor to NAD+. This molecule is crucial for energy production in cells, particularly within mitochondria — the powerhouses of cells.

New Research on Trigonelline

As we age, our mitochondria’s efficiency in energy production wanes, partly due to declining NAD+ levels. This decline is linked to several age-related conditions, including sarcopenia, which is characterized by the loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength.

Think of trigonelline in the body like a key that unlocks the energy production factory in muscle cells. Just as a key starts a car and revs the engine, trigonelline helps turn on the mitochondria, boosting energy output and enhancing muscle function, especially as we age. This ensures the body’s engines run smoothly and efficiently.

These effects were observed across various species, including humans, where higher blood levels of trigonelline were positively correlated with better muscle strength and function.

 

Conversely, lower levels were associated with sarcopenia, or muscle loss.

The implications of these findings are vast.

For one, it suggests that daily consumption of coffee, a rich source of trigonelline, could offer a simple, natural way to support muscle health and mitigate some aspects of aging.

The study, however, does not specify the exact amount of coffee required to achieve these benefits, as trigonelline content can vary widely among different coffee types and preparations.

Generally, a moderate intake of black coffee (approximately 3-4 cups per day) is considered beneficial for most people, but individual responses can vary.

Debunking Myths

But what about coffee’s negative effects? Does the trigonelline make up enough for them?

First, let’s dispel some of these outdated coffee myths:

   Coffee causes dehydration

  • While caffeine has a mild diuretic effect, the fluid content in coffee helps to maintain hydration levels. Studies suggest that for regular coffee drinkers, this diuretic effect is minimal.

   It causes heart disease

  • Numerous studies have shown that moderate coffee consumption does not increase the risk of heart disease. In fact, some research indicates that it may have protective effects against certain cardiovascular issues.

   It’s addictive

  • While caffeine can be mildly habit-forming, it does not stimulate the brain’s reward circuitry in the same way as addictive drugs. Most people can manage or reduce coffee consumption without the severe withdrawal symptoms associated with true addiction.

   It stunts growth

  • Scientific evidence does not support the idea that coffee consumption affects growth. This myth may have originated from the misconception that coffee causes osteoporosis, which it does not when consumed in moderation.

⊗   It causes cancer

  • In 2016, the World Health Organization moved coffee off its “possible carcinogen” list, acknowledging the lack of evidence that coffee causes cancer. Some studies suggest that coffee may even reduce the risk of certain types of cancer.

Coffee Health Facts

And there are plenty of other reasons to enjoy your cup of joe, in addition to minimizing muscle loss.

♥   Antioxidants

  • In addition to trigonelline, coffee is rich in powerful antioxidants, like chlorogenic acid and caffeine, which can neutralize harmful free radicals. This antioxidant activity is linked to a reduced risk of diseases such as heart disease and certain cancers.

♥   Caffeine

  • As the most well-known active ingredient in coffee, caffeine has been studied extensively. It’s known to enhance brain function, improve mood, and boost metabolism. A study published in “The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition” suggests that caffeine can increase metabolic rate by up to 11% and enhance physical performance.

♥   Chlorogenic Acid

  • This is another significant component, believed to help lower blood sugar levels and potentially reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. A study in “The Journal of Nutrition” found that chlorogenic acid might improve glucose metabolism, which is crucial for managing diabetes.

♥    Magnesium & B Vitamins

  • Coffee contains essential nutrients, including magnesium and B vitamins, which play crucial roles in numerous bodily functions, including energy metabolism and DNA repair.

It’s also worth noting that while coffee’s potential health benefits are promising, it’s important to consume it in moderation and be mindful of individual tolerance levels. Additionally, the healthiest way to enjoy coffee is black, or with minimal added sugar, to avoid counteracting its benefits with unnecessary calories.

This study, a collaboration among international researchers, underscores the potential of dietary interventions to improve health outcomes, especially in aging populations. It opens doors to further research on trigonelline’s role in human health and its potential in dietary supplements or as part of a broader strategy to combat age-related muscle decline.

Reputable Sources for Food Info

How do these myths and truths come to exist in people’s minds? It is all about the source.

In the landscape of nutrition and health information, the importance of consulting reputable sources cannot be overstated.

These sources, like Dirt to Dinner, are grounded in scientific research and peer-reviewed studies, and offer reliable and evidence-based insights, ensuring the advice you follow is beneficial for your health. They help sift through myriad information available, distinguishing between evidence-based facts and unfounded claims to help eliminate unfounded myths such as these.

This careful approach to gathering information is essential for making informed decisions about your diet and health, contributing to a well-rounded understanding of nutrition’s role in overall well-being and helping to navigate through common myths and misconceptions.

Navigating Nutrition, Health & Wellness Trends

Healthy Aging: Embracing Quality Life Years

The quest for healthy aging transcends the mere desire to extend life; it’s about enriching those additional years with vibrant health. The report underscores the significance of nurturing heart health, managing weight effectively, and maintaining hormonal balance.

For heart health, it champions the consumption of omega-3 fatty acid-rich foods like salmon, flaxseeds, and walnuts. The report also recommends whole grains and leafy greens to regulate blood pressure.

Weight management strategies include a balanced diet of lean proteins, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats, highlighting foods such as quinoa, lean chicken, avocados, and legumes to preserve muscle mass and metabolism.

To support hormone health, incorporating phytoestrogen-rich foods like soy products, along with antioxidants from berries and nuts, is advised for hormonal balance and endocrine system support.

The Evolution of Clean Labels: Seeking Simplicity & Transparency

Today’s consumers crave simplicity and transparency in their food choices, a shift evident in the rise of minimally processed foods. This trend towards clean labels reflects a growing skepticism towards overly processed foods and complex ingredients. The advice here is clear: seek out products with short lists of whole, recognizable ingredients (click here for what we mean by this!), and exercise caution around items with  artificial preservatives, colors, and flavors.

It is not that those ingredients are bad for you, but you want to look for foods that have more healthy nutritious ingredients that add value to your body. The report also points to a burgeoning interest in traditional and artisanal food-making processes, which promise less processed and more nutrient-dense food options. Our tip: Shop the perimeter of the store and avoid added sugars in processed food choices! As Mintel reports:

“Go back to the basics to help consumers age and live well by keeping hearts healthy, supporting weight management and improving muscle mass.”

Purposeful Processing: Marrying Innovation with Nutrition

Purposeful processing emerges as a strategic approach for brands to align products with health and wellness objectives without compromising on flavor or quality.

Techniques like fermentation, which boosts gut health, and cold-pressing, preserving nutritional integrity, are highlighted.

Consumers are encouraged to explore products leveraging these innovations, as they tend to offer superior nutritional profiles.

Adding in more plants to your diet,  (but don’t forget the benefits of dairy and meat in moderation), the report advises looking for products that highlight the natural benefits and flavors of plantsover those laden with additives to mimic animal products.

When looking for animal products, seek quality fish, meat and poultry.

Aging Populations: Forward-Thinking Nutrition

An aging population necessitates a proactive stance on nutrition. For the aging demographic, it calls for nutritious, accessible, and easy-to-prepare food options to meet older adults’ unique needs. Suggestions include focusing on foods that support cognitive health, bone density, and hydration, such as fatty fish, calcium and vitamin D-fortified dairy, and easily consumable fruits like berries and melons.

“According to the United Nations, one in six people (1.4 billion people) will be aged 60 or older by 2030.

While seniors are a diverse group with diverse needs, protein and hydration are two important areas to focus innovation on.”

Key Takeaways for Consumers: Navigating the Nutrition and Wellness Landscape

  • Prioritize Holistic Health: Embrace a diverse diet that bolsters heart, weight, and hormone health with a focus on nutrient-dense foods. Moderation and variation is key!
  • Embrace Transparency: Opt for products with straightforward labelling (see our label guide here!) and appreciate the value of traditional food processing methods.
  • Explore Innovation: Remain open to trying products that incorporate purposeful processing technologies to boost nutritional value without sacrificing taste. Embrace new technologies in the food space, they may just benefit you from a nutrition standpoint and a sustainability standpoint!

This analysis of the Mintel report provides an educational guide for consumers aiming to make informed decisions about their health and nutrition amidst changing global food trends. The key is to remain curious, adaptable, and informed, paving the way for a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle. But how do we know where to get our nutrition research?

Other Considerations

In addition to the insights provided, Mintel mentions that it’s crucial to consider the impact of digital technology and social media on consumer health choices and perceptions.

The rise of health and wellness apps, online communities, and influencer-led health trends significantly influence dietary decisions, often blurring the lines between scientifically backed advice and anecdotal evidence. Understanding how to critically evaluate these sources of information and discern credible advice from mere fads is essential for consumers aiming to make informed health decisions. [HP1]

Furthermore, the role of mental health in overall wellness, emphasizing the importance of a balanced approach that nurtures both the mind and body, remains a critical area for exploration. The Mintel report focuses on the physical aspects of health, but the psychological impacts of diet, including how food choices can affect our mood and stress levels, are equally crucial. Incorporating foods known to support mental health, such as those rich in omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, and probiotics, can be another actionable step for consumers.

To avoid falling for societal misconceptions about health and nutrition, consumers can take several proactive steps:

  • Critical Evaluation: Learn to critically evaluate health and nutrition information, checking the credibility of sources and the evidence behind claims. Are studies peer reviewed? Is the website selling their product which supports their analysis? Who is funding the study? Does it come from a reputable university or research engine? Is it an EDU or ORG website? This skepticism can help navigate through marketing hype and focus on scientifically backed advice.
  • Personalization: Recognize that dietary needs are highly individual. What works for one person may not work for another due to differences in metabolism, lifestyle, and health conditions. Consulting with healthcare providers or dietitians can help tailor dietary choices to individual needs.
  • Long-term Perspective: Adopt a long-term perspective on health and nutrition, focusing on sustainable changes rather than quick fixes (aka no fad dieting!). Slow and steady often wins the race when it comes to lasting health improvements.

By adopting these practices, consumers can navigate the forest of nutrition and wellness with confidence, making informed decisions that support their health and well-being in a balanced and sustainable way.

Can Fast Food be Sustainable?

Chipotle’s ambitious initiative to embrace and invest in the future of food through its $100 million Cultivate Next venture fund demonstrates a forward-thinking approach to the customer experience and increases access to real food.

“Our decision to double our commitment to our Cultivate Next venture fund is a clear indicator that we are investing in the right companies that we can learn from and utilize to improve the human experience of our restaurant teams, farmers, and suppliers,” said Curt Garner, Chief Customer and Technology Officer, Chipotle. Garner continues:

“The parallel growth of Chipotle and our partners will continue to further our mission to Cultivate a Better World by increasing access to real food.”

Technologies in play

The significant investments in the fund include Hyphen. The Hyphen robot represents a joint venture between Chipotle and Hyphen, aiming to revolutionize how Chipotle prepares its bowls and salads. These menu items, which form a large chunk of Chipotle’s online orders, are assembled with the help of an automated system that accurately dispenses ingredients into dishes as they move along a lower conveyor belt.

This innovative approach is designed to boost order preparation speed and precision, freeing staff members to dedicate more time to customer interactions and other essential duties. Currently under evaluation, this technological enhancement seeks to refine Chipotle’s digital service capabilities and elevate the overall dining experience for its customers.

Another fund component is an investment in GreenField Robotics, which is revolutionizing farming practices with its innovative approach to regenerative agriculture. The company leverages artificial intelligence, robotics, and sophisticated sensors, to deploy autonomous robots that manage weeds in crop fields without harmful chemicals.

These robots are designed to operate day and night, navigating between rows of crops to target and remove weeds precisely, thus significantly reducing the reliance on traditional herbicides. This method supports the health of the soil and the ecosystem and presents a sustainable and cost-effective alternative to conventional farming methods.

Nitricity is another component of the innovation investment. Nitricity is a company that produces nitrogen fertilizers through a sustainable and innovative process. This process involves creating “artificial lightning” to break down nitrogen from the air, which is then combined with rainwater to form nitrate, a natural fertilizer. This method is inspired by the natural process where lightning breaks atmospheric nitrogen into nitrates that nourish the soil.

Nitricity’s approach aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with traditional nitrogen fertilizer production methods, such as the Haber-Bosch process, which is energy-intensive and relies heavily on fossil fuels. The investment aligns with Chipotle’s sustainability goals and commitment to enhancing food integrity throughout its supply chain.

By incorporating Nitricity’s climate-smart fertilizer into its agricultural practices, Chipotle aims to support more sustainable and environmentally friendly farming practices.

The Meati Foods investment enhances Chipotle’s menu with sustainable plant-based protein options that are aligned with its Food with Integrity standards. Using a fermentation-based process, Meati develops alternative proteins derived from mushroom roots, specifically mycelium. This method results in products that mimic chicken and steak in texture, flavor, high protein, high fiber, and no cholesterol.

Cultivated indoors, Meati Foods ensures its products are grown clean and free from common agricultural contaminants. Through the “Eat Meati” brand, the company is committed to offering nutritious, whole-food options that are environmentally friendly.

Zero Acre Farms is a food company focused on healthy, sustainable oils and fats that is on a mission to end the food industry’s dependence on vegetable oils. The company has introduced a new category of healthy oils and fats made by fermentation that are more environmentally friendly. Chipotle is in the early trials of testing Zero Acre Farms at its Cultivate Center test kitchen in Irvine, California.

Industry Players Invest in Fast Food’s Future

Several other fast-food companies invest significantly in food innovations, leveraging technology to address global challenges such as food security, affordability, and safety. These companies are exploring various technologies, including artificial intelligence, robotics, sustainable packaging, plant-based alternatives, and blockchain for supply chain transparency.

Here’s a list of notable players alongside Chipotle that are actively investing in the future of food:

  • McDonald’s is incorporating AI learning into its operations, making strides in the alternative packaging space, providing plant-based options, and investing in improved supply chain technologies—all ways that they are investing in and prioritizing health and sustainability.
  • KFC is experimenting with 3D bioprinting technology to create lab-grown chicken nuggets to offer more sustainable and ethical meat options.
  • Domino’s Pizza uses drones and autonomous vehicles to reduce delivery times and costs.
  • Burger King focuses on sustainability through initiatives like reducing greenhouse gas emissions and offering plant-based burger options like the Impossible Whopper, made from soy leghemoglobin, the same ingredient in the Impossible Burger, to cater to a broader range of dietary preferences.
  • Starbucks invests in sustainable practices, including efforts to reduce waste and water use. It is also exploring plant-based menu items to provide more environmentally friendly and healthier options.
  • Wendy’s utilizes food safety and quality assurance technology, implementing advanced tracking and monitoring systems in its supply chain.
  • Taco Bell is innovating its menu to include vegetarian and low-impact food options, aiming to make the fast-food industry more inclusive and sustainable.

Impact of Innovations on Food System

Why should we care about the investments these companies are making? The impact spreads far beyond the decision of “what’s for lunch today” and will untimely touch our children’s and their children’s lives.

Food Security: Innovations, especially in plant-based proteins and lab-grown meats, can significantly contribute to food security by providing alternative sources of nutrition, ensuring a stable food supply in the face of growing global demand and environmental challenges.

Affordability: Automation and AI in food preparation and delivery can lower operational costs, potentially making food more affordable for consumers. These companies can offer competitive pricing while maintaining quality by optimizing supply chains and reducing waste through better inventory management.

Safety: Technological advancements such as blockchain for transparent supply chains and AI for monitoring food quality can enhance food safety. These technologies allow for better tracking of ingredients from farm to table, ensuring that food meets health standards and reducing the risk of contamination and foodborne illnesses.

Answering a Call-to-Action by Consumers

These investments also answer a call from consumers, who, in recent years, have put the majority of the onus on food companies to lead the way for positive change. Today’s consumers are increasingly conscious of their food choices’ health, environmental, and social impacts. This heightened awareness drives demand for healthier, more sustainable, affordable food options. Consequently, consumers rely on food companies to make significant investments and changes to meet these expectations.

Consumers are seeking convenient, nutritious options tailored to various dietary needs, such as low-calorie, low-fat, plant-based, and allergen-free options. They expect food companies to innovate to reduce the use of artificial ingredients, preservatives, and high sugars and fats without compromising taste or affordability.

There’s also a growing demand for food produced in an environmentally friendly and ethically responsible manner. Consumers are looking for companies that invest in sustainable agriculture practices, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, minimize water usage, and ensure animal welfare. They are also increasingly interested in local sourcing and reducing food miles. Moreover, sustainable packaging solutions to reduce plastic waste are critical to consumer choices.

While consumers strongly desire healthier and more sustainable food options, they also demand affordability. The challenge for food companies is to balance the cost of implementing innovative and sustainable practices with the need to keep prices accessible to a broad audience. This requires efficient production and distribution practices and, sometimes, rethinking entire supply chains to maintain competitive pricing.

To build and maintain consumer trust, food companies must be transparent about their practices, including sourcing, ingredient lists, nutritional information, and environmental impacts. Technology, such as blockchain, often facilitates this transparency by tracing the journey of food from farm to table, assuring consumers of the quality and safety of their food.

In response to these consumer expectations, food companies increasingly invest in research and development to create new products that meet these criteria. Companies like Chipotle are adopting innovative technologies to improve food production efficiency, exploring alternative ingredients to make their products healthier and more sustainable, and reevaluating their supply chains to increase transparency and reduce environmental impact.

These investments are not only a response to consumer demand but also an acknowledgment of food companies’ role in addressing global challenges like climate change, health issues, and food security. By aligning their strategies with consumer expectations, food companies can ensure long-term viability and contribute to a more sustainable and healthy food system.

Why are foods with sugar & fat so irresistible?

You know those moments when you’re faced with a gooey chocolate chip cookie or a crispy slice of bacon, and it feels like your brain is staging a full-blown rebellion against your dieting efforts? Well, it turns out there’s some fascinating science behind why these irresistible foods have a hypnotic hold over us.

Picture your brain as a bustling city with a network of roads. Now, imagine the flow of traffic on these roads is the signals sent by your gut, specifically, the vagus nerve. This nerve is like the messenger between your tummy and your brain, and its job is to tell your brain what’s going on in your belly.

For the longest time, scientists were like detectives trying to crack the case of why we’re so drawn to unhealthy foods. They were on a mission to discover the secret behind our food cravings. But the real puzzle was this: why do our brains go crazy over fats and sugars, especially when they team up in delightful duos like donuts or cookies?

What does new research reveal?

In the February 2024 issue of the Monell Chemical Senses Center‘s Cell Metabolism Journal, a team of scientists unraveled this culinary enigma. They discovered that it all starts in our gut, not in our taste buds.

You see, there are dedicated pathways in our vagus nerve for various things, including a pathway for fats and another for sugars, that act like separate lanes on that culinary highway we talked about. When you munch on something fatty, the fat pathway lights up like a neon sign in Las Vegas, and when you indulge in something sweet, the sugar pathway does a little happy dance.

Now, here’s where it gets even more interesting. Imagine these pathways as two separate party invitations: one for fats and another for sugars. When you’re at a party, you’re having fun, right? Well, our brain is no different. It enjoys these food parties, too. But here’s the kicker – when you combine fats and sugars, it’s like sending out a double invitation to the brain’s ultimate party central.

These two pathways join forces, and your brain responds with a surge of dopamine, the pleasure chemical, making you want more of that irresistible combo.

So, what does all of this mean for your eating habits? Well, your brain can be secretly wired to seek out these high-fat, high-sugar combos, even when you’re consciously trying stay away from these foods.

 

It’s like your gut has a sneaky food agenda, and it’s operating undercover.

But don’t despair! There’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon. The scientists behind this discovery believe that understanding this gut-brain connection could lead to some pretty cool strategies and treatments. By tinkering with these pathways, we might have a shot at making healthier food choices, even in the face of those devilishly tempting treats.

So, the next time you find yourself eyeing that mouthwatering chocolate cake, remember: it’s not just about will power; it’s a brain party happening on a microscopic level. And while the battle between your taste buds and your brain rages on, science is on the case, working to help you make healthier choices without sacrificing all the delicious fun.

Issues with overindulging

Overindulging in foods rich in sugar and unhealthy fats can have serious health consequences. One of the most immediate risks is weight gain, as these foods are often calorie-dense.

Weight gain can contribute to obesity, a significant risk factor for various health problems such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers.

Liver health can be compromised by high sugar intake, particularly fructose found in common sweeteners like table sugar and high fructose corn syrup. This can lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), which may progress to more severe liver problems.

Mental health can also be impacted, as sugar and fat-rich diets can cause mood swings, irritability, and even symptoms of depression.

Inflammation is another concern associated with these diets, contributing to conditions like arthritis, autoimmune diseases, and a heightened risk of certain cancers.

Dental health is affected by excess sugar consumption, as it provides a breeding ground for bacteria in the mouth that produce acids, leading to tooth decay and gum disease.

Additionally, excessive sugar intake can disrupt the balance of gut bacteria, potentially leading to digestive problems.

Tips to combat The Urge

While the scientific discoveries about our brain’s response to fats and sugars are fascinating, you don’t have to surrender to your cravings. Here are some practical tips to help you combat the effects of these food temptations:

Be Mindful of Portions

  • Instead of completely avoiding your favorite treats, practice portion control. Enjoy a small piece of that chocolate or a single bite of your favorite high-fat snack. Savor the flavor without going overboard.

Diversify Your Diet

  • Make sure your meals are balanced and include a variety of foods. Incorporate plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats into your daily meals. This can help reduce the intensity of your cravings for high-fat, high-sugar items.

Stay Hydrated

  • Sometimes, thirst can be mistaken for hunger. Before reaching for that sugary or fatty snack, have a glass of water. Staying hydrated can help reduce cravings.

Plan Your Indulgences

  • Designate specific times or days when you’ll allow yourself to enjoy your favorite treats. Knowing that you have a treat coming up can make it easier to resist spontaneous cravings.

Keep Temptations Out of Sight

  • If you have a weakness for certain foods, try not to keep them readily accessible at home or in your workspace. Out of sight, out of mind!

Get Moving

  • Exercise can boost your mood and reduce cravings. So, when you’re hit with a craving, take a brisk walk or do a quick workout to distract your mind.

Mindful Eating

  • Pay attention to what you’re eating and savor every bite. Eating mindfully can help you enjoy your meals more fully and prevent overindulgence.

Healthy Alternatives

  • Seek out healthier alternatives to satisfy your cravings. For example, if you’re craving something sweet, opt for fresh fruit or a small piece of dark chocolate. If you’re craving something savory, try air-popped popcorn instead of chips.

Seek Support

  • If you find it challenging to control your cravings, consider seeking support from a registered dietitian, therapist, or support group. They can provide strategies and encouragement tailored to your specific needs.

Remember, you’re not alone in facing these cravings, and it’s entirely possible to make healthier choices without depriving yourself completely. By incorporating these tips and staying mindful of your eating habits, you can combat the effects of the brain’s love for fats and sugars while still enjoying the pleasures of good food. It’s all about finding that tasty balance!

Could Ozempic Ignite Food’s Healthier Future?

Today, the weight loss drugs highlight a consumer movement against processed and ultra-processed foods. These foods have added ingredients such as sugar, salt, unhealthy fats, and artificial colors that provide no nutritional value…except great taste.

Eaten as an indulgence, they are not terrible. But, unfortunately, many people indulge in these treats as a dietary staple.

The Search for Nutrition

Consumers today are looking for nutritious foods. Foods that not only treat existing diseases but prevent ones from appearing. Foods that help you manage your health and help you age gracefully, with ‘food as medicine’  the sought-after goal.

Innova Market Insights identified nutritional value and balanced nutrition, along with naturalness are important for consumers.

Ingredients containing protein, Omega-3, fiber, vitamins, prebiotics, probiotics, and even esoteric mushrooms such as ashwagandha and lion’s mane are high in demand. Mintel also identified a changing attitude toward extending life in good health.

How GLP-1 Drugs Affect Our Diet

Further fueling demand for a healthier, more nutritious diet are among those taking a new class of prescription drugs: GLP-1 agonists. These medications, like Ozempic and Wegovy, help lower blood sugar levels and promote weight loss.

Morgan Stanley’s research survey of 300 patients taking a GLP-1 agonist found that these drugs reduced their daily appetite by 20-30 percent. They lost their appetite for candy, sugary drinks, and baked goods, creating room for adding healthy foods to their diet.

Especially as those on the GLP-1 drugs are not that hungry and might not meet the full 2,000-calorie minimal daily requirement, it is essential that what they do eat in a day provides their full complement of minerals and vitamins.

As the obesity epidemic continues to rise, so will the associated health issues such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, and fatty liver disease.

Today, about 69 percent, or 178 million adults, are either overweight or obese. Adult obesity is at 42.4 percent and is expected to climb to 50 percent in just six years.

GLP-1 drugs seem to hold the answer to obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Morgan Stanley estimated that 7 percent of the U.S. population will be take GLP-1 medications by 2035. This equates to a potential $44 billion market by 2030.

Will Food Sales Decline? 

Grocers and consumer products companies worry about the future if more and more people are cutting 20-30% of their calories out of their diet.

In the fall of 2023, Walmart announced that it had seen a slight drop in food demand due to appetite-suppressing medications. It might be too soon to tell given that there is such a small percentage of the population on these weight loss programs, but as the numbers increase, how will CPG companies prepare?

However, CPG companies and grocers can benefit from this trend; consumers don’t have to be hurt by purchasing less food. Of course, if everyone ate more fruits and vegetables and fewer cookies, then obesity would not be an issue.

At D2D, we have written about changing one’s diet, but it is hard. What you eat is what you crave. Can anything be done to meet our nutritional needs while sating our  tastebuds?

How about a Healthy Oreo?

There are over 14 unique Oreos to choose from, with ‘Double Stuff’ being our favorite, mostly because it is reminiscent of our childhood.

But sadly, there is no benefit to eating these every day. Despite their great taste, they have no nutritional value, 12 grams of sugar, and 150 calories for just two cookies. They would be considered an indulgence and not a ‘food’.

What if the Oreo had the same basic ingredients but with added health benefits?

What if the creamy filling included Omega 3s for heart health, and fiber in the cookie for lowering cholesterol, aiding gut health, and reducing the risk of heart disease? Some vitamins like D3 could be added as an extra immune benefit. Instead of sugar, there could be stevia to keep the taste.

The mouthfeel and taste that any saturated fat provides could be replaced by an alternative fat from a plant oil called Epogee.

To be fair, in 2021, Mondelez did try to launch the Oreo Zero in China. Instead of sugar, they used sucrose and glucose, which gave a different taste from the original Oreo. They chose China because those consumers like less sugar in their snacks. Needless to say, it was not a success. Some of you readers might remember the backlash against the ‘New Coke’ in 1985. A change in the 99-year formula was a complete flop because Coca-Cola lovers liked the ‘Real Thing’.

How can CPG Companies Benefit? 

But are CPG companies ready to make such big changes? Already, many are starting to address their concerns about the potential for declining food consumption.

According to Food Dive, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have introduced small cans in response to consumers cutting back on sugar. Also, snack companies have created 100-calorie small snacks. Some have reduced salt and others have reformulated their products for added nutrition. But is it the right answer?

CPG companies have a range of opportunities to create healthier products. These changes can have meaningful impacts on consumer health.

How can the pharmaceutical industry influence the snack industry?

Healthier Product Formulations:

  • CPG companies can reformulate existing snacks to align with healthier profiles. For instance, reducing added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium content.
  • Whole grains, fiber, and protein can be added in to create more satisfying and nutritious snacks.
  • CPG companies can focus on nutrient-dense options that provide sustained energy.

Functional Ingredients:

  • Incorporating functional ingredients like prebiotics, probiotics, Omega-3, turmeric, and additional antioxidants can enhance the nutritional value of snacks.
  • GLP-1 users may want to seek snacks that support gut health and overall well-being.

Portion Control and Mindful Snacking:

  • Ozempic’s appetite-suppressing effects may encourage consumers to eat smaller portions.
  • CPG companies can develop snack packs with smaller, healthier portions, promoting mindful eating.
  • GLP-1’s impact on cravings could lead to decreased consumption of empty-calorie snacks (e.g., sugary treats).

Marketing Strategies:

  • Highlighting diabetes-friendly, weight-conscious, or blood sugar-friendly snacks can resonate with GLP-1 users.
  • Transparent labeling and clear health benefits can attract health-conscious consumers.

Collaboration with Healthcare Professionals:

  • CPG companies can collaborate with healthcare providers to educate consumers about healthier snack choices.
  • Ozempic users may appreciate guidance on suitable snacks to complement their treatment.

Are we what we eat? A Netflix film thinks so…

Netflix’s “You Are What You Eat: A Twin Experiment,” directed by the acclaimed Louie Psihoyos, presents a look at the effects of diet on health through the unique lens of an 8-week ‘controlled’ study by Stanford University. The documentary series, released in January 2024, unfolds the intriguing findings from an experiment involving 22 sets of genetically identical twins.

The overarching message of the series is that ‘meat is bad for you, and plants are good for you’, as is seemingly made evident by Dr. Christopher D. Gardner, Ph.D., the study’s author and principal investigator. However, a closer examination of the study uncovers limitations and concerns.

The study’s premise was straightforward: each twin was assigned a different diet—one vegan, one omnivore—both seemingly balanced and nutritious. Initially, the twins received pre-prepared meals to ensure dietary adherence, followed by a transition to self-prepared meals for practical application. Commentators then chime in to provide additional insights based on their expertise, including NYC Mayor Eric Adams, Senator Cory Booker, Dr. Michael Greger, and Marion Nestle.

Considering Overall Health

We agree that a diet rich in fresh produce and limited in red meat is certainly the way to go!

But before you jump into all vegan diet, consider some of the drawbacks and how to manage them.  This film entices you to become a vegan because the twin that eliminated meat showed significant outcomes: a 10% to 15% decrease in LDL cholesterol, a 25% reduction in insulin levels, and a 3% weight loss—all achieved through whole, plant-based foods without any animal products. Conversely, those on the omnivore diet showed no significant health benefits.

While the vegan group experienced positive changes in their LDL cholesterol (the bad one) and weight loss, they also had negative changes in HDL cholesterol (the good one) and triglycerides (bad fat).  High triglycerides may contribute to the hardening of the arteries or thickening of the artery wall, therefore, contributing to heart disease.

Furthermore, the oversight of potential risks associated with Vitamin B12 deficiency in the documentary is a significant concern. Vegetarians need to take a B12 supplement to make sure they have enough of this crucial nutrient for their overall health, particularly for the proper functioning of our nervous system and the production of red blood cells.

Additionally, the documentary‘s observation that the weight loss in the vegan group primarily consisted of muscle loss raises concerns about the impact of unbalanced weight loss strategies.

Losing muscle mass during weight loss is generally undesirable because muscle tissue plays a crucial role in metabolism, physical strength, and overall well-being.

Muscles help burn calories and support daily activities, and their loss can lead to a decrease in metabolic rate, making it harder to maintain a healthy weight.

Another noteworthy concern is its feasibility as a long-term diet. Most participants in this study reported lower dietary satisfaction with a vegan diet suggests that long-term adherence to such a diet may be challenging for many individuals. This aspect challenges the feasibility and practicality of adopting a vegan lifestyle for a substantial portion of the population.

If you’re interested in adopting a better way of eating that eschews the potential bias, the study’s limitations, potential deficiency risks, and the challenges associated with long-term dietary adherence, consider The Mediterranean Diet. This tried and true eating style has the most peer-reviewed research showing its positive effects towards living a long and healthful life.

And should you want your diet to factor in particular health concerns, consider researching epigenetics. This is the study of how your behaviors and your environment can cause changes in how your body reads your DNA.

Ideological Issues

There are plenty of healthy vegans, so that is not the issue.  It seems as though those affiliated with the documentary is using diet to make a political stance on meat.

This becomes evident when we consider the affiliations of Dr. Gardner one of the study authors, who is connected to Beyond Meat, a prominent producer of plant-based meat alternatives. While financial conflicts of interest were disclosed in the study, there is also a strong conviction in promoting a plant-based diet.

The film also focuses on animal welfare concerns associated with meat production but fails to address issues related to growing our food.  Every single bite we take has its own, including labor issues, pesticide concerns, and water usage, to name a few.

By solely emphasizing animal rights, the documentary neglects broader ethical and environmental considerations in our food system that span to crops and plant-based diet foodstuffs as well.  This documentary falls into the same category as so many others.

Not The First…and Certainly Not The Last

Consumers are often drawn to exciting and visually compelling documentaries about food, especially when they promise groundbreaking revelations about nutrition and health.

These documentaries can be engaging, emotionally charged, and persuasive, making them highly effective in shaping public opinion. However, it’s important for consumers to recognize that these films are often crafted with a specific agenda or perspective in mind and overlook some core components.

While documentaries can provide valuable insights into various aspects of our food system, they should not be the sole source of information when it comes to making important dietary decisions. Here’s why consumers should exercise caution and seek factual resources for nutrition information:

To make informed decisions about nutrition, consumers should seek out a variety of reputable, evidence-based resources. These can include peer-reviewed scientific journals, registered dietitians or nutritionists, government health agencies, and academic institutions specializing in nutrition and health research.

By consulting a range of sources and critically evaluating information, consumers can make dietary choices that are based on a well-rounded understanding of nutrition rather than being swayed solely by the excitement of a compelling documentary.

Can We Eat to Improve the Climate?

Growing, harvesting, processing, and transporting our food takes about 17% of all the fossil fuel used in the United States. With the ambitious goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2050, consumers are searching for foods that require fewer fossil fuels. Is this realistic?

Quantifying Energy Used for Food

We recently read How the World Really Works, the most recent book by Vaclav Smil, a distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba. Smil has published 47 books and more than 500 papers on the research in energy environmental and population change, food production, history of technical innovation, risk assessment, and public policy. Bill Gates considers him one of his favorite authors.

In his latest book, Professor Smil explored the improvements the world has made since the early 1800s. He explains “In two centuries the human labor to produce a kilogram of American wheat was reduced from 10 minutes to less than two seconds.” He also talks about the importance of fossil fuels and the world could not provide enough food to feed all of us without them.

Smil also delves into food production and its associated energy use. In fact, he had the patience to calculate how much energy it takes to make a loaf of sourdough bread, raise a chicken, grow a tomato, and eat seafood. He averaged out an itemized estimate using production numbers around the globe.

This sounds like a painstakingly long and detailed effort, with considerations for crop and livestock cultivation; facilities management; processing, production and packaging; and all distribution required along the way. But the results were interesting and surprising!

Bread’s Energy Journey 

Sourdough bread is a staple around the world.

The energy it takes to plant, grow, and harvest wheat is crucial in its production. After the wheat is harvested, it is trucked or goes by rail to the mill to be made into flour.

The initial stages of sourdough preparation require the activation and maintenance of the starter culture, which demands consistent temperature control.

Additionally, mixing, kneading, baking and the use of ovens and other kitchen appliances all contribute to energy consumption.

The energy required throughout this journey for a 2.2 pound loaf of sourdough bread is just about 8 ounces of diesel fuel.

Crude for Chickens

Raising chickens involves a fascinating blend of traditional agricultural practices and modern energy considerations.

To maximize production, it is critical to maintain a suitable environment for the birds. They must be fed the right mixture of grains, minerals, and vitamins.

The utilization of electricity for consistent temperature control, ventilation, and lighting, especially in large-scale operations, underscores the intrinsic relationship between energy usage and the well-being of the birds.

Once the chicken is fully grown the birds are transported to the processing facility which turns them into breasts, thighs, and other cuts for the grocery store.

The entire energy for 2.2 pounds of processed chicken is about 11 ounces of diesel.

Holy Tomato!

Tomatoes can require many factors and sources of energy, depending on whether they are grown indoors or out.

Photosynthesis uses the sun’s energy to grow tomatoes outdoors for over eight months. Yet for the 35% of global tomatoes grown indoors, the energy inputs are significantly more because of the substantial energy required to provide heat, light, and nutrients, not to mention the energy needed to make the greenhouse itself.

But even tomatoes grown outdoors require crude oil to make the plastic clips, wedges, sheets, and gutter arrangements for successfully growing a tomato crop.

The energy utilized in production encompasses diverse inputs, from solar energy and traditional machinery to electricity and embodied energy, making its energy calculation highly complex.

The answer for this beloved fruit is not simple, but Smil calculated that, growing 2.2 pounds of tomatoes uses about 21.9 fluid ounces of diesel fuel, on average.

Fuel for Farmed Salmon 

On average, the energy consumption for seafood production is relatively high.

It takes approximately 23.6 ounces of diesel per 2.2 pound serving, just slightly more than the energy needed for tomatoes.

For example, salmon, a popular seafood choice, is predominantly farmed, which involves significant energy expenditure for fish feed production, transportation to farms, and ultimately to consumers.

Unless sourced locally from specific regions like Chile, Norway, Scotland, or Western Canada, considerable energy is expended in the entire process from farm to table.

Of course, one can imagine the amount of fuel used to catch, freeze, and transport wild-caught fish. Professor Smil suggests that opting for sardines, which are rich in omega-3s and have lower environmental impacts, can be a more sustainable choice.

Is Energy Estimation Possible?

We were shocked when we found out that raising 2.2 pounds of chicken required just a third of the energy needed to cultivate the same weight of tomatoes. This proves that our food system is much more complicated than it appears.

We wrote about climate conscious eating and pointed out that it is not just about the energy used, we have to also consider water.  To grow just one ounce of nuts takes anywhere from 3.2 gallons to a whopping 28.7 gallons for almonds.

Farming takes multiple kinds of energy. Human energy – plain old hard work and effort.  Solar energy – sunlight for photosynthesis.  Wind – for pollination.  And just as important, fossil fuel energy, including diesel and gasoline for farm machinery, plant equipment, and transportation.

Used appropriately, energy increases productivity and distribution across our food system, therefore increasing profitability for farmers. Without that energy, the whole system collapses.

End of story, turn out the lights, dinner is over.

“Our food is partly made not just of oil, but also of coal that was used to produce the coke required for smelting the iron needed for field, transportation, and food processing machinery; of natural gas that serves as both feedstock and fuel for the synthesis of nitrogenous fertilizers; and of the electricity generated by the combustion of fossil fuels that is indispensable for crop processing, taking care of animals, and food and feed storage and preparation.”

– Prof. Vaclav Smil

The complexities of our food system are vast. As we push our cart through the grocery aisle, how do we really know whether the food we eat is farmed sustainably and uses energy and water responsibly? Are you curious?

  1. Would you pay more to know exactly how much energy and water was used to make the food you are eating?
  2. Would you like to see it on a label?
  3. Would it affect your food choice?

Can dairy & meat help fight cancer?

Dietary nutrients play a crucial role in providing your body with energy, building blocks, and regulatory molecules. How all these nutrients work together is not always clearly understood; however, this recent research from the University of Chicago and Emory University shows a nutrient found in meat can help your immune system fight cancer.

What is TVA?

TVA, or trans-vaccenic acid, is a long-chain fatty acid found in meat and dairy from grazing animals, like cows and sheep. Published in the journal Nature, the research focused on the impact of TVA on CD8+ T cells, a critical component of the immune system responsible for infiltrating tumors and destroying cancer cells.

The study found that higher levels of TVA in the blood correlated with a better response to immunotherapy treatments, suggesting TVA’s potential as a nutritional supplement in cancer therapy.

Dr. Jing Chen, the study’s senior author, emphasized the importance of understanding how nutrients and metabolites from food influence health and disease. Chen’s lab and postdoctoral fellows Hao Fan and Siyuan Xia assembled a library of 235 bioactive molecules derived from food and screened them for their ability to activate anti-tumor immunity in CD8+ T cells.

This is when researchers discovered something pretty interesting about the natural fat called TVA, found in beef, dairy, and even human breast milk. Notably, our bodies don’t make it, but when we consume it, most of it sticks around in our bloodstream. This fat seems to have a knack for switching off a specific part in our cells that is usually turned on by other fats we get from our diet. When TVA flips this switch, it sets off a chain reaction that helps our body cells grow and stay alive.

What’s really exciting is that when scientists gave mice a special diet with extra TVA, their tumors grew much slower, and their immune systems got better at invading and attacking these tumors. This could be great news for cancer treatments. In fact, in early tests with people who were getting advanced cancer therapy, those with more TVA in their blood seemed to respond better to the treatment.

This could mean that TVA might one day be used to help our immune system fight cancer more effectively, although there’s still a lot to learn.

What we do know is that this research could change the way we think about certain fats in our diets and their role in keeping us healthy.

Key Findings on TVA

Boosting Cancer Treatment with TVA:

  • People with higher levels of TVA in their blood responded better to a type of cancer treatment called immunotherapy, suggesting that TVA might be applicable in helping cancer treatments work better.

Activating Important Immune Cells:

  • The researchers looked at many different molecules from food to see which could help the immune system fight cancer. They found that TVA is good at activating a specific type of immune cell called CD8+ T cells. These cells are essential because they help hunt down and destroy cancer cells.

Reducing Tumor Growth in Mice:

  • In experiments with mice, the ones that ate food with more TVA had smaller and slower-growing tumors, especially for melanoma and colon cancer. This shows that TVA might help slow down or reduce the growth of some types of cancer.

How TVA Works at the Molecular Level:

  • The study used advanced scientific methods to figure out exactly how TVA works. They discovered that TVA turns off a certain receptor on the cell surface, which is usually activated by other types of fatty acids from the gut. By doing this, TVA starts a chain reaction in the cells that’s important for cell growth and survival.

Making Immune Cells More Effective:

  • TVA changes the way genes work in CD8+ T cells, making these cells better at getting into tumors and fighting them. In experiments, when this specific receptor was removed from these cells, they weren’t as good at fighting tumors anymore, which shows how important TVA’s role is.

Real-World Evidence from Cancer Patients:

  • When they looked at blood samples from people getting a type of cancer treatment called CAR-T therapy for lymphoma, they found that those with higher levels of TVA responded better to the treatment. Also, in lab tests, TVA helped make a cancer drug more effective at killing leukemia cells.

Sources of TVA

The findings from the University of Chicago study on TVA and its impact on the immune response to cancer offer intriguing insights into the complex relationship between diet and health. However, translating these findings into practical lifestyle and dietary changes requires careful consideration.

TVA has some potentially substantial health benefits, suggesting that specific components of these foods could have beneficial health properties, which challenges the blanket notion that all aspects of dairy and meat are detrimental to health.

Despite its potential benefits, it’s crucial to remember that the study does not endorse excessive consumption of red meat and dairy. Most dietary guidelines advocate for a balanced diet that includes a variety of food sources. If you’re considering increasing your intake of dairy and meat to incorporate more TVA, it should be done in moderation and as part of a balanced diet.

Applying These Findings

The study contributes in a meaningful way to the evolving understanding of meat and dairy in our diet. While overconsumption, particularly of processed meats and high-fat dairy products, has been linked to various health issues, this research indicates that certain components of meat and dairy can have meaningful health benefits. It underscores the need for a nuanced view of these food groups, focusing on quality, quantity, and the overall dietary pattern.

A well-rounded diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats is still the cornerstone of good nutrition. The potential benefits of one specific nutrient, like TVA, don’t negate the importance of a diversified diet. There are bioactive compounds in many fruits, vegetables, and legumes that are important for your health.

The study hints at the possibility of plant-derived fatty acids having similar beneficial effects. Those following a vegetarian or more plant-based diet might look into research on plant-based fatty acids and their impact on health—keeping in mind the bioavailability of fatty acids in plants vs. animal proteins.

And for those with specific health concerns, such as high cholesterol or heart disease, consulting with a healthcare provider or a registered dietitian before making significant dietary changes is advisable.

How to live to 100…and beyond

The concept and research surrounding Blue Zones originated years ago from the work of Dan Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow and explorer, along with a team of demographers and researchers. The journey to identify and understand these unique areas began with a demographic and geographic study of regions with unusually high numbers of centenarians and low rates of chronic diseases.

Origins of these Demographic Studies

The concept can be traced back to the early 2000s when demographers Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain identified a region in Sardinia, Italy with an unusually high number of people living to 100 and beyond, called centenarians. They marked these areas with blue ink on a map, which led to the term “Blue Zone.” Dan Buettner, in collaboration with National Geographic and with funding from the National Institute on Aging, took the concept further. He assembled a team of scientists and researchers identify other areas in the world with similar characteristics.

Through this extensive fieldwork, data analysis, and interviews, Buettner and his team identified additional regions that met their criteria for longevity hotspots. These included Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, California; Nicoya, Costa Rica; and Ikaria, Greece in addition to the initial region in Sardinia. The team focused on areas with high longevity rates, low incidence of heart disease and other chronic illnesses, and a high proportion of healthy elderly individuals.

Buettner’s work and the concept of Blue Zones were popularized through a National Geographic cover story in 2005 titled “Secrets of a Long Life.” He went on to author several books on the topic, including “The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest,” where he detailed the lifestyles, diets, and practices of people living in these zones.

As you can imagine given this intriguing research, Blue Zones sparked a significant interest in longevity studies. Buettner and his team continued their work, turning the focus towards applying the lessons from Blue Zones to communities and cities around the world.

Key Contributions and Impact

The research in the documentary highlighted the importance of lifestyle factors, such as diet, physical activity, social engagement, and stress management, in promoting longevity and reducing the risk of chronic diseases. Buettner and his organization have worked on initiatives to help transform cities and communities in the United States, applying principles from the Blue Zones to improve public health and wellness.

The research on Blue Zones represents a groundbreaking approach to understanding longevity, emphasizing the role of environmental and lifestyle factors in shaping health outcomes. As we often write and research about here at Dirt to Dinner, it is about both mind and body health.

How can I live to be a Centenarian?

These centenarians didn’t just start these habits at age 80, this lifestyle has been an integral part of their entire life. Improving our health now in all these aspects of daily living will affect our health as we age.

Dietary Practices: Foundation of Health and Longevity

  • A diverse range of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, forms the bedrock of daily nutrition
  • Meat is consumed in significantly smaller quantities, often as a small side or a special occasion dish, rather than a daily staple
  • Emphasis is placed on eating foods that are local and seasonal, thus ensuring that meals are fresh and nutrient-rich
  • Concepts like “Hara Hachi Bu” in Okinawa, advocates for eating until one is 80% full, exemplify mindfulness in eating habits

Seamless Integration of Physical Activity

  • Unlike the structured exercise routines common in many cultures, physical activity in Blue Zones is seamlessly woven into daily life and includes walking, gardening, and performing household and occupational tasks that require physical exertion
  • These activities are adaptable and can be sustained throughout life, suitable for a wide range of ages and physical capabilities

Work-Life and Family Balance: A Harmonious Blend

  • There is a cultural disposition towards maintaining a healthy balance between work, family, and leisure, contributing to overall well-being
  • Strong familial ties and active participation in community life centers around multi-generational living and community-centric lifestyles
  • These cultures place a lower emphasis on work-related stress and prioritize leisure and rest, including practices like napping and socializing

Reduced Dependence on Technology and Digital Media

  • Populations in Blue Zone areas prefer real-world interactions
  • Residents talk to each other in person, thus fosters deeper personal connections and community involvement

The Vital Role of Social Networks and Community

  • Strong social ties, encompassing family, friends, and broader community networks provide both emotional support and practical assistance
  • Regular social events, be it communal meals, religious ceremonies, or local festivities, are central to maintaining and strengthening community bonds
  • The depth and quality of these social connections play a significant role in emotional well-being, fostering a sense of belonging, happiness, and security

How to Start Today

The examination of Blue Zones in the recent documentary offers profound insights into the symbiotic relationship between lifestyle, environment, diet, physical activity, and social connections in fostering longevity.

By understanding and integrating these principles, individuals, and communities worldwide can adopt practices that not only extend lifespan, but also significantly enhance the quality of life during those years.

Achieving this delicate balance can seem overwhelming and near impossible. Take it in chunks. Work on one or two things at a time.

  • Get your diet in a good place and work on adopting a Mediterranean-type diet.
  • Follow that up with good physical activity but allow yourself time for rest and recharging with loved ones.
  • Work-life balance in our modern culture is always a struggle, something that many of the Blue Zones don’t face to the same degree as those in metro areas, for example, or those who have demanding roles; just be cognizant of where you spend your mental energy.
  • Do you control your use of technology? Reduce your phone and social media use. Call up or visit with a friend or family member rather than texting them.  Even Instagram and Facebook are not really warm connection points. They take you out of the present, and can often cause unneeded stress.

How Beliefs Affect Our Nutrition

There is a fascinating interplay between the power of belief and its profound impact on our corporeal health and nutrition. From the intriguing ability of belief to shape our perception of food to its remarkable sway over our hormonal responses, the connections between what we think, what we eat, and how it affects our bodies are powerful.

“What is becoming more and more clear is that expectations and predictions have a very strong influence on basic experiences, on how we feel and what we perceive. Doing anything that you believe will help you feel better will probably help you feel better.

– Dr. Leonie Koban, Ph.D., Neuroscience and Affective Sciences, Lyon Neuroscience Research Center

What is the Belief Effect?

The Belief Effect occurs when patients’ expectations and beliefs play a substantial role in determining their health outcomes. It mimics the brain’s capacity to produce real physiological responses in the absence of any active treatment or intervention.

Faith and attitudes can influence the release of neurotransmitters, hormones, and immune system responses, all of which can affect the body’s functioning.

Scientific Evidence

Numerous studies have detailed the intricate relationship between belief, nutrition, and health, shedding light on how our cognitive processes can significantly impact our well-being. How else does the Belief Effect play a pivotal role in shaping our nutritional choices and health outcomes?

How Your Beliefs Shape Nutritional Health

The Ghrelin Response

In a study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, researchers examined the influence of expectation on ghrelin, the hunger hormone.

Participants were given identical milkshakes, but they were told that one was a “decadent indulgence” and the other a “sensible, low-calorie choice.”

Remarkably, those who believed they were consuming the indulgent shake showed a more significant increase in ghrelin levels or an increase in the feeling of hunger or being unsatisfied with the meal, even though both shakes had the same nutritional content, those who had the “sensishake” felt less hungry, or had a lower ghrelin level.

The Flavor Perception

A study published in Appetite investigated the relationship between beliefs about food healthiness and taste perception. Participants were presented with identical food items but were led to believe that one was healthier than the other.

The results showed that individuals who believed the food was healthier rated it as more flavorful, demonstrating the influence of belief on taste perception. The person’s belief or how she/he interprets (inter-presents or internally represents) directly governs the biological response or behavior.

Another remarkable study involved a woman who suffered from split personalities. At her baseline personality, her blood glucose levels were normal. However, the moment she believed she was diabetic, her entire physiology changed to become that of a diabetic, including elevated blood glucose levels.

Diet & Nutrition

Belief in the effectiveness of a specific diet can have a profound impact on dietary adherence and outcomes. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) explored the influence of belief on weight loss.

Participants who had strong beliefs in the efficacy of a particular diet were more likely to adhere to it and achieve better weight loss results compared to those with less conviction. (This is one I personally need to subscribe to—I typically last about a week on a new dietary regimen before getting off track.)

The belief effect extends to nutrient absorption, as well. Studies have shown that believing you are consuming a nutrient-rich meal can enhance your body’s ability to absorb those nutrients. Your faith in the nutritional value of a meal can impact how efficiently your body extracts vitamins and minerals.

Metabolic Response

Our metabolic response to various foods can be influenced by our beliefs in their healthiness. A study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine investigated the effect of belief on post-meal metabolic markers. Participants who believed they were consuming a healthy meal exhibited more favorable metabolic responses, including improved insulin sensitivity, compared to those who believed the meal was unhealthy. Incredible what the mind can do!

There’s also a dedicated podcast on the connections between neuroscience and human behavior: The Huberman Lab podcast, hosted by neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman, explores topics related to the impact of beliefs on health.

In a recent episode, Dr. Huberman emphasized the vital importance of understanding how belief affects our overall well-being. In this episode on mindset and health, Dr. Huberman explores the impact of diet, is actually a combined product of what you are doing, what you are thinking about, your stress, your anxiety—the interconnectedness of your mental and physical self.

Belief Effect Extends Far beyond Nutrition

Let’s briefly examine just some of the ways the Belief Effect impacts overall health.

Pain Management: Studies have shown that individuals who believe they are taking a potent pain reliever but are actually ingesting a placebo often experience reduced pain perception. This demonstrates the brain’s ability to release endorphins and modulate pain signals based on belief alone.

Mental Health: Faith in the effectiveness of psychotherapy or medication can significantly improve mental health outcomes. Positive expectations can lead to reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Immune Function: Belief can influence immune responses, affecting the body’s ability to fight off infections and diseases. Optimistic beliefs and positive attitudes have been linked to improved immune function.

Cardiovascular Health: Belief in the benefits of lifestyle changes, such as exercise and dietary improvements, can lead to better cardiovascular outcomes, including lowered blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

These studies provide robust evidence supporting the notion that belief can significantly influence nutrition and health outcomes. Recognizing the power of belief in shaping our dietary choices and metabolic responses underscores the importance of a holistic approach to health that includes both physical and psychological factors.

Tiny plastics pose huge problems

Small pieces of plastic, now termed microplastics have infiltrated all ecosystems, posing a severe threat to wildlife…and now us. New research has shown that microplastics — especially its microscopic offspring, nanoplastics — might accumulate within our bodies, too.

Microscopic Fibers with Massive Implications

Microplastic particles measure less than 5mm in size, or smaller than the width of a pencil eraser.

How do these plastics find their way inside us? I’ve never been caught in a hailstorm of plastic beads (and you probably haven’t either). Unfortunately, what we’re talking about here is something smaller…way smaller.

We’re talking about nanoplastics. Fibers that are smaller than 1 micrometer (1 μm), or the length of a tiny bacterium, or 1/50 the width of a strand of human hair. 

Despite its seemingly inconsequential size, nanoplastics pose significant risks.

These barely detectable yet ever-present fibers can pass through biological barriers, like blood and organ lining and, over time, accumulate within the body.

Where Do The Fibers Come From?

Microplastics, including nanoplastics, are ubiquitous because they’re durable and resist decomposition. They are primarily generated through the breakdown of oversized plastic items and fabrics, microbeads in personal care products, and a host of other industrial processes.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) held a seminar based on reporting from the government of Sweden that found synthetic textiles as the single greatest contributor to engineered microplastics in the ocean, accounting for 35% of total microplastic volume

Polyester, nylon, and acrylic – common fabrics used to make 60% of the world’s clothes — are all considered synthetic.

Unfortunately, our typical shopping habits are mostly to blame here, with synthetic fabrics and toiletries making up almost 40% of the total microplastic volume.

These plastic-based fibers shed microplastics every step along the way, from its production, to wearing and laundering, and even during its eventual disposal, mostly in landfills. In fact, a 2016 study found that each laundering of a fleece jacket releases an average of 1.7 grams of microfibers, which can end up in the ocean. Nylon, polyester and acrylic clothes all shed microfibers when washed.

Tires are next in line as significant sources of microplastics, followed by city dust. While you’ll find a greater concentration of microplastics around densely populated areas with heavy traffic, industrial activity, and busy commerce, these tiny particulates are adept at world travel.

In fact, scientists recorded 365 microplastic particles per square meter falling daily from the sky in the remote Pyrenees Mountains in southern France.

The Path from Environment to Food

One of the most alarming aspects of microplastic contamination is its presence in what we eat. Microplastics have been found in a wide range of whole foods, including seafood, fruits, vegetables, honey, and bottled drinking water.

Microplastic entry into our food system mostly happens through these channels:

  • Ingestion by animals and seafood that we eventually eat (“trophic transfer”)
  • Soil and plants absorbing degraded fibers from synthetic mulches and films (plastic bags, for example)
  • Airborne fibers that, once settled, are ingested or absorbed by trophic transfer
  • Food processing and packaging along all points, from the industrial food and drink facilities, to chopping on our polyethylene cutting boards at home

Health Risks from Ingesting Plastics

Several studies have pointed out the adverse effects in various parts of our bodies, including:

“Our research shows that we are ingesting microplastics at the levels consistent with harmful effects on cells, which are in many cases the initiating event for health effects.”

–        Evangelos Danopoulos, Hull York Medical School, U.K.

Microplastic Release using Microwaves

A recent and particularly frightening study from University of Nebraska demonstrates microwaving’s effect on plastics, compounding concerns found in previous studies.

The issue comes down to the structure of plastic during production. Simply put, particles look and behave like cooked spaghetti. You know how cooked spaghetti clumps together when cooling down, but then starts releasing strands when reheated? Those little spaghetti-like plastic structures are released into our foods when plastic gets hot in the same way.

But what about plastic containers that read “microwave-safe”? Perhaps they’re not so safe after all. This study found that heat from the microwave can cause plastic containers to break down, releasing small plastic particles into the food or beverage being heated. And not just a few particles: some containers could release as many as 4 million microplastic and 2 billion nanoplastic particles from only one square centimeter of plastic area within three minutes of microwave heating.

But it doesn’t stop at microwaves:

  • Cooking food in plastic containers or using plastic utensils in hot foods can also release microplastics and nanoplastics
  • Refrigeration and room-temperature storage for over six months can also release millions to billions of microplastics and nanoplastics
  • Polyethylene food pouches commonly used for kids’ applesauce, yogurts, and smoothies, released more particles than polypropylene plastics, often used for refrigerated storage containers and restaurant take-out orders

Separately, the researchers also found that microplastics released from plastic containers caused the death of 77% of human embryonic kidney cells. However, more research needs to be done on this to be conclusive, as this was a first-time in-vitro (i.e. test tube) study.

What Can We Do?

Yes, this information is scary, but don’t fear…we have an incredible food system providing us all with fresh and affordable food choices every day. And plastics do have their place in this system: they reduce food waste by keeping items fresher longer, avoiding cross contamination, and keeping food prices low.

The most important thing you can do to help offset plastics’ negative effects? Plain and simple: eat a balanced diet. Consuming a variety of fresh produce, lean proteins, and healthy fats is the most efficient way to promote healthy digestion, flush toxins from organs, boost cellular activity, and initiate an effective immune response. And, coincidentally, fresher food choices usually have less plastic packaging than their shelf-stable counterparts. 

And here are some other things to implement into your daily life.

  • Avoid microwaving plastic by using microwave-safe glass or ceramic containers instead
  • Consider a time-restricted eating schedule that provides your body with a daily rest from digestion so your organs can operate better and with less inflammation
  • Eat foods high in antioxidants, chlorella, and selenium. These nutrients bind to toxins for removal from your digestive system.
  • Limit premade meals packaged with plastic and that require heating in their container(microwave foods in glass containers instead of plastic ones)
  • Curb consumption of bivalves like oysters, clams, and mussels. When eating these shellfish, you also consume their digestive systems, which harbor more plastics than foods from anywhere else.
  • Reduce plastic use by selecting safer materials, like glass or stainless steel
  • Bring a reusable cup when going to the coffee shop, the gym, work, etc.
  • Filter your tap water to reduce your exposure to microplastics. And don’t drink water from plastic water bottles
  • Reduce canned food purchases since they have thin plastic linings and hold food for extended periods of time

The Ins & Outs of Mushroom Products

Mushrooms have been enjoyed for ages, not just because they’re delicious, but also for their amazing health perks! Recent studies have shown that mushrooms are packed with essential vitamins, minerals, fiber, and special compounds that are great for your overall health.

As people become more curious about these advantages, mushroom supplements have popped up as a handy way to tap into their potential, making it easier to reap the benefits without relying solely on eating them.

Nutritional Benefits of Mushrooms

We at Dirt to Dinner have tried a variety of mushroom powders and supplements. We love sources that have proven cognitive and immune benefits but we always want to know that our sources are the best.

Mushrooms are a natural source of essential nutrients such as B vitamins (riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid), minerals (potassium, copper, selenium), and dietary fiber. They also contain unique bioactive compounds such as flavonoids, β-glucans, ergosterol (a precursor of vitamin D), and various polyphenols. These compounds have been linked to immune system modulation, antioxidant activity, and potential anti-inflammatory effects.

Mushroom varieties like Shiitake (Lentinula edodes) and Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) have been extensively studied for their health-promoting properties. Shiitake, for instance, contains lentinan, a polysaccharide with immunomodulatory effects. Reishi mushrooms are known for their triterpenoids, which exhibit potential antitumor and anti-inflammatory activities.

Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus) is another medicinal mushroom with a unique appearance, resembling cascading white icicles. Beyond its culinary uses, Lion’s Mane has gained attention for its potential health benefits, particularly in the realm of cognitive health and neurological well-being. It contains bioactive compounds, including erinacines and hericenones, that have shown neuroprotective effects and the ability to support brain health.

Lions Mane can also stimulate Nerve Growth Factor (NGF), which contributes to nerve cell maintenance and repair. It can help form new neurons, combat cognitive decline, and enhance memory and attention—truly incredible cognitive benefits!

Mushroom Supplements & Benefits

Back in February of this year, market reports had some exciting news. The global functional mushroom market, which covers everything from mushroom-based foods and drinks to supplements, was valued at a whopping $50.3 billion! And guess what? It’s still on the rise!

Now, let’s talk about the real heroes here – mushroom supplements. They’re all the rage! There are lots of brands out there crafting these powerhouse formulations, making it super easy to bring the magic of mushrooms into your daily routine. They come in all sorts of forms like powders, extracts, capsules, and tinctures. It’s like a mushroom smorgasbord. 

These supplement folks make a big deal about specific compounds like β-glucans, polysaccharides, or triterpenoids because they’re like the secret sauce behind the potential health perks. But here’s the real question: how can we be sure we’re getting a top-notch product? Is it just about the formulation or are there other considerations?

Here are some key factors to consider when assessing supplement quality and ensuring the authenticity:

Ingredient Transparency:

  • Reputable manufacturers should clearly list the mushroom species used and the active compounds present in their products. Generic terms like “mushroom extract” or “mushroom blend” without specifying the species should be approached with caution.
  • Each mushroom species has a scientific name that consists of two parts: the genus and the species. For example, Lion’s Mane’s scientific name is Hericium erinaceus. Verify that the scientific names of the mushrooms are provided on the label to ensure accurate identification.
  • Country origin should also be listed on their label, as some regions are known for producing high-quality mushrooms due to optimal growing conditions and cultivation practices- those include Japan, the U.S., Canada, Korea, Netherlands, Poland, and Germany.

Testing for Active Compounds:

  • High-quality, reputable supplements undergo testing to verify the presence and concentration of specific bioactive compounds, such as beta-glucans or triterpenoids, which contribute to the mushroom’s health benefits.
  • The label should indicate the concentration or standardized amount of these compounds. Avoid anything with “proprietary blends” as they may hide specific ingredients.

Third-Party Verification:

  • There are three main third-party verifiers,  The United States Pharmacopeia (USP), The National Sanitation Foundation (NSF), and ConsumerLab. Be sure to research the brand to ensure it has obtained certifications from one of these independent organizations that ensure potency, authenticity and quality.
  • If you’re still uncertain about a product’s authenticity, consider consulting healthcare professionals or experts who specialize in herbal or nutritional supplements. They can provide guidance based on their expertise and knowledge.

What do the Experts Say?