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?

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We had a chance to talk to executives with MUD WTR, a mushroom coffee substitute brand that broke into the market and has gained a lot of attention. They had a lot to say about ‘shrooms!

We asked their take on third-party verifications, they noted that these can be prohibitively expense to obtain. Most reputable mushroom companies, with sound sources, transparency with their growth methods, and formulations are just as good as those who jumped through hoops to get the certifications.

That said, MUD WTR is committed to transparency, even working to add a nutrient label to their packaging so consumers know just how much of each nutrient they are getting! So, if you are looking for other great mushroom brands, if you don’t see a certification, be sure to look on their sites for transparency with sourcing and growing methods.

Other experts, Paul Stamets and Steve Farrar, two trailblazing mycologists in the fascinating world of mushrooms, have left an indelible mark and played a significant role in shaping the strategies of numerous mushroom brands. Their expertise and insights have been a guiding light for brands as they develop their mushroom-based products.

While Paul Stamets and Steve Farrar may have slightly differing perspectives on certain mushroom-related matters, there’s one critical point on which they find common ground: sourcing.

Stamets and Farrar’s resounding advice is to stick with mushrooms cultivated in the United States.

This approach not only supports local agriculture, but also prioritizes safety and product quality. 

How are mushrooms grown?

Mushroom cultivation is a complex process that significantly influences their nutritional content. An intricate interplay of factors, such as the growing medium, ambient conditions, and light exposure, collectively shapes the mushrooms’ nutritional composition. Some mushroom species, such as reishi and shiitake, possess compounds with immune-enhancing attributes. Recognizing the nuances of cultivation practices empowers consumers to make informed choices about the mushrooms they consume. Debatably, the substrate in which they were grown is the most critical factor in their nutrient density.

Hence the importance of sourcing and transparency- to understand the conditions of which the mushrooms are grown. Reputable mushrooms brands will share their sourcing on their sites so you can check to make sure they are US grown.  Most brands chose to grown their mushrooms on oats, as they provide the most nutrient density to the fruiting portion of the mushroom.

Check out these brands, who either hold the third-party certifications and/or are committed to transparency around sourcing and growing:

  • OM Mushrooms: Sourced in the US, this brand also has the BRC AA Rating, a coveted food safety rating. About halfway down this page you will see the section- “Growth Medium Matters” where the brand details that these mushrooms are grown on oats!
  • Host Defense: Host Defense is founded by Paul Stamets, a renowned mycologist. They produce a variety of mushroom supplements made from organically grown mushrooms. Their commitment to quality and sustainability is notable. Check out their R&D page, which details some of the 77 studies he has co-authored and applied sciences to his formulations.
  • Four Sigmatic: Check out the video on this page– where they discuss using the fruiting body, meaning they use no mycelium or filler grains, they use third party labs to test for toxins like heavy metals and mycotoxins as I mentioned previously, which is a real concern.
  • Pure Essence Labs: While not exclusively a mushroom supplement brand, Pure Essence Labs includes mushrooms in some of their formulations, emphasizing their health benefits alongside other nutrients. They explain at the bottom of the linked page what they are grown on—rice or barley!

Knowing how much mushroom product is in each of these supplements can be a challenge. Thankfully, Pure Essence Labs provides an example to calculate the volume of mushrooms present in your supplements:

Product A: MyPure™ Cordyceps – 500 mg of cordyceps 1:1 extract

  1. Multiply the first number of the extract ratio by 10. (e.g., 1 x 10 = 10)
  2. Multiply the amounts of each extract present by the numbers derived from step one. (e.g., 500 mg x 10 = 5,000 mg)

Product B: MyPure™ Cordyceps 4X – 300 mg of cordyceps 1:1 extract and 200 mg of 10:1 extract

  1. Multiply the first number of the extract ratio by 10. (e.g., 1 x 10 = 10 and 10 x 10 = 100)
  2. Multiply the amounts of each extract present by the numbers derived from step one. (e.g., [300 mg x 10 = 3,000 mg] + [200 mg x 100 = 20,000 mg] = 23,000 mg)

By following these steps and practicing due diligence, you can make more informed decisions when choosing mushroom supplements and ensure that you’re getting authentic and high-quality ingredients.

Eat these foods to boost your mood

Why do we care about serotonin?

One in four Americans currently suffers from anxiety or depression, correlating directly to serotonin levels found in the body. Normal serotonin levels help with your emotional state and digestion, sleep, wound healing, sexual desire, and bone density. However, the most common issues with low serotonin levels are related to mental health.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter known as the “happy hormone.” It is vital in managing stress, supporting mental well-being, enhancing social interactions, promoting better sleep, and improving cognitive function and emotional resilience.

And its benefits don’t stop there. In bones, serotonin regulates bone density and remodeling, with high levels linked to increased bone density and a reduction in potential risk of osteoporosis, while promoting bone formation. Serotonin also plays a role in wound healing by aiding in blood clotting through platelet release and influencing immune response and tissue repair processes.

How does it actually do all of that? It plays a crucial role in the central nervous system as it acts as a neurotransmitter. It carries messages between the nerve cells in the brain and throughout the body.

Gut-brain axis support network

The gut-brain axis refers to the bidirectional communication between the gut (gastrointestinal tract) and the brain. It involves complex interactions between the central nervous system (CNS) and the enteric nervous system (ENS), which is often referred to as the “second brain” of the body due to its extensive network of neurons in the gut.

Serotonin plays a critical role in this communication system, serving as a messenger molecule that helps regulate various physiological processes and behaviors. The majority of serotonin in the body is found in the gut, serving multiple functions:

Changes in gut serotonin levels can have major impacts on many bodily functions. Having balanced serotonin levels in the gut helps normalize various gastrointestinal functions, including bowel movements and intestinal motility. Imbalances in gut serotonin levels have been linked to conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

It can also affect feelings of satiety and control eating behavior, while also playing a role in the gut’s immune response, helping regulate inflammation and immune cell activity.

The gut-brain axis is a fascinating area of research that highlights the intricate connections between various bodily systems. Serotonin’s influence on the gut and brain underscores its role as a key mediator in the body’s communication network.

Serotonin-boosting foods

Okay, so now I know it can boost not only my mood, but fortify my immune system, help me regulate my hunger, positively impact my digestion and decrease inflammation, but should I take a pill? Is there a pill?

Here at Dirt to Dinner, after much research, we have included that it is always better to seek nutrients through whole foods. Not only is the supplement industry unregulated which makes it hard to know what you are taking, but most of the time, nutrients are more bioavailable for the body to use in its whole food form.

Incorporating serotonin-boosting foods into your diet is a natural and accessible way to promote emotional and physical health and the many other benefits of serotonin.

Nutrients in foods such as complex carbohydrates, vitamin B6, omega 3s, and tryptophan all work together to do just that! For instance, a meal of salmon, quinoa, and spinach with sliced bananas for dessert will work well together to produce the serotonin you need!

Tryptophan-rich foods

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that our bodies can’t produce alone. Consuming foods high in tryptophan can increase serotonin levels in our gut and brain, as the amino acid synthesizes to become serotonin in your body.

Good news for you, most people already consume more than double the recommended amount, typically 900-1000 milligrams daily as part of their regular diets. Some tryptophan-dense foods are cod, spirulina, nuts and seeds, and legumes.

Here’s a fun fact to share…

Most people think turkey has the most tryptophan, but take a look at the chart on the left! 

Complex carbohydrates

Consuming complex carbohydrates can also boost serotonin production. These carbohydrates increase insulin levels, which aids in the absorption of amino acids, including tryptophan, into the brain. Some excellent sources of complex carbohydrates include whole grains ( like oats, quinoa, farrow, and brown rice), sweet potatoes, and legumes ( including beans, lentils, and peas).

Not sure how to tell the difference between a complex carb and a simple carb? Here’s a good trick: most whole, unprocessed foods contain complex carbs. Avoid processed foods and “white” foods, which are mostly comprised of simple carbs.

When you eat a meal rich in carbohydrates from whole grains, insulin stimulates the uptake of other amino acids into cells, leaving tryptophan with relatively fewer competitors. As a result, more tryptophan can be converted into serotonin, contributing to a more balanced and positive mood.

Complex carbohydrates provide a slow and steady release of energy compared to simple carbohydrates. This sustained energy release helps stabilize blood sugar levels, preventing rapid spikes and crashes. Fluctuations in blood sugar levels can affect mood and energy levels, and stable blood sugar can reduce emotional ups and downs.

Vitamin B6 & serotonin conversion

Vitamin B6 helps the body convert tryptophan into serotonin. Including foods high in vitamin B6 can enhance this serotonin synthesis.

Some notable sources of vitamin B6 are fish (like tuna, salmon, and trout), poultry, and bananas. B6 is critical in allowing the body to utilize serotonin to assist with our cognitive and emotional functioning.

Curious about other B6-rich foods? Print out this handy chart and stick it on your fridge!

Omega-3 fatty acids

The relationship between omega-3 fatty acids and serotonin involves multiple interconnected mechanisms that can impact mood and emotional well-being. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for brain health and function, particularly eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

These fatty acids are incorporated into cell membranes, influencing membrane fluidity and receptor activity. By regulating the cell membrane, omega 3s can enhance the function of serotonin receptors, making them more responsive to serotonin.

Studies suggest that omega-3 fatty acids, when consumed in sufficient amounts (at least 200mg a day), may contribute to maintaining healthy serotonin levels.

Which foods are excellent sources of omega 3s? At the top of the list are fatty fish (tuna, salmon, trout, herring, anchovies), chia seeds, and flaxseeds.

What else can we do?

Want to boost the effects of these foods? Get good sleep. Serotonin is the first step in melatonin production, a hormone we produce that regulates sleep-wake cycles. Ensuring you are making enough serotonin can support healthy sleep patterns and improve sleep quality, leading to better overall health and productivity.

Are You Deficient in Key Nutrients?

We have all heard the term ‘eat a balanced diet’. But what does that mean? And, honestly, why should we do it? Finding the ‘right’ foods can be complicated and time-consuming. Is it really worth it?

The answer is ‘Yes!’. Otherwise, your body can be subject to all kinds of complications and diseases. Particular attention should be paid to fruits and vegetables.

Epidemiological and clinical studies have consistently demonstrated the numerous health benefits associated with eating fruits and vegetables, each day. And be sure to get your daily recommended fiber.

Calcium Deficiency

Calcium is essential for maintaining strong bones and teeth, regulating muscle function, and supporting nerve transmission. Unfortunately, 70% of Americans fail to meet their recommended daily intake of calcium, which can lead to increased risk of osteoporosis and fractures. Symptoms of calcium deficiency include muscle cramps, weakened bones, and dental problems.

To combat calcium deficiency, include calcium-rich foods in your diet. Dairy products such as milk, cheese, and yogurt are excellent sources. For individuals who are lactose intolerant or follow a vegan diet, calcium-fortified plant-based milk, tofu, leafy greens (like kale and collard greens), and almonds can provide adequate calcium intake. Aim for 1,000-1,200 mg of calcium per day, depending on your age and gender.

Vitamin D Deficiency

Even after all the conversations about the importance of vitamin D to fight Covid, half of the U.S. population has a deficiency, especially among those who live in locations with limited sun exposure and northern latitudes.. Vitamin D is essential for maintaining healthy bones, regulating the immune system, and supporting overall well-being.

Symptoms of vitamin D deficiency include fatigue, muscle weakness, bone pain, cancer, bone fractures, and a weakened immune system.

To combat a vitamin D deficiency, the best thing to do is to get out in the sun without sunscreen for about 10-15 minutes a day. For best sunlight, make sure your shadow is shorter than your body. If sun is not available, then incorporate vitamin D-rich foods into your diet.

Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines are excellent sources. Additionally, fortified dairy products, egg yolks, and mushrooms exposed to sunlight are also good dietary sources. Aim for 600-800 IU of vitamin D per day to meet your body’s needs.

Vitamin C Deficiency

Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that supports immune function, collagen synthesis, and iron absorption. Although severe vitamin C deficiency (also known as scurvy) is rare in America, mild deficiencies are still prevalent, with 43% of U.S. adults and 19% of children deficient.

Symptoms of vitamin C deficiency include fatigue, poor wound healing, and susceptibility to infections.

To combat vitamin C deficiency, incorporate vitamin C-rich foods into your diet. Citrus fruits (such as oranges and grapefruits), strawberries, kiwi, bell peppers, and broccoli are excellent sources of vitamin C. Aim for 75 and 90 mg of vitamin C per day for women and men, respectively.

Iron Deficiency

Iron is vital for the production of red blood cells and the transportation of oxygen throughout the body. Iron deficiency, also known as anemia, is a common nutrient deficiency, with 17% of premenopausal women and 10% of children in the U.S. . Symptoms of iron deficiency include fatigue, weakness, pale skin, and difficulty concentrating.

To combat iron deficiency, include iron-rich foods in your diet. Animal sources such as red meat, poultry, and seafood are excellent sources of heme iron, which is the most absorbable type of iron. Plant-based sources of iron include legumes, tofu, spinach, and fortified cereals.

Pairing iron-rich foods with foods high in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits or bell peppers, can enhance iron absorption. Aim for 18 mg of iron per day for women and 8 mg per day for men.

Creating a Balanced Diet to Combat Nutrient Deficiencies

Now that we have discussed the top five nutrient deficiencies in America, let’s explore how to create a balanced diet that can help combat these deficiencies. The table below provides a breakdown of the recommended daily intake of each nutrient and the corresponding foods to include in your diet.

We went straight to Dr. Michael Greger’s book, How Not to Die. He has a ‘daily dozen’ list of foods to put on your meal plan every day. He even has an app so you can check them off.

See his list below for more ways to get all those nutrients into your diet:

Small changes make a big impact

By incorporating these practical tips, you’ll find it easier and more enjoyable to meet your daily recommended intake of fruits and vegetables while ensuring you’re getting adequate fiber and protein as well. Remember to consult with a healthcare professional or registered dietitian for personalized guidance based on your specific nutritional needs.