There is no question that most people are interested in eating healthy food and feeling well.
Since we generally know which foods are healthy, the question becomes where does our food come from, what happens to it before we eat it that can affect its quality, and what can we do to get the optimum benefit and efficacy from the foods we buy and eat.
The good old days
For a long time, before the advent of mass transportation, diets were mostly limited to foods that were produced in the local area. In addition, food preservation methods were limited or expensive, and so most foods were also eaten only when they were in season. The advantages of this kind of food supply were that, not only was the food eaten when it was fresh and at its peak food value, but the source of the food and how it was produced was easily identified.
The down side
The disadvantages of that early food supply were that only a limited variety of foods were available, and the season when fresh fruits and vegetables were obtainable could be very short, depending on the climate. While it is true that some fresh foods could be dried or preserved using salt, and some could be stored in a cool place for months, many of the perishable fruits and vegetables that we now take for granted, were either never available or only available during their local growing season.
With abundance in the food supply comes responsibility
In the developed countries of the world, there is an abundant food supply, and although this is a good thing, it also means that we have to educate ourselves about how to purchase and handle food to ensure that it continues to be healthy food.
Vote for a healthier food supply with your dollars
As food consumers, we can have an effect on the food supply. Every time we purchase an item in a grocery store, at a farmers’ market, online or anywhere else, we are casting a vote for the continued sale of that product. Conversely, every time we choose not to buy a food that is overly processed or adulterated in some way to make it less healthy we are casting a vote to eliminate that product from the food supply.
For a long time, it was very difficult to find organic foods in the grocery store. However, once consumers began voting with their food dollars by seeking out organic foods and purchasing them, even mainstream grocery stores began to include organically produced foods in their inventory, and food companies responded by producing organic versions of their products.
--Caveat for Food Supply: It would be wise to do a bit of investigating about the source of your organic foods. Make sure that they are certified organic with a label that includes the USDA seal, and not just charging more for their product in a package labeled “organic.” It isn’t difficult to find out information about the companies who produce the products you buy.
Food-borne Illness in the Food Supply
We have all experienced it, some more often than others, but it is unequivocally unpleasant. Although this description could apply to a number of things, the topic here is food-borne illness, more commonly known as food poisoning. Literally millions of people fall victim to this malady every year, with symptoms ranging from mild discomfort to death. The most vulnerable among us--the elderly, children, pregnant women and those with underlying health problems--are the most at risk from food borne illness.
How the food supply makes you sick
There are two major ways that food can poison you and make you sick. Foods contaminated with bacteria such as Salmonella, Listeria, or E-coli can wreak havoc on your digestive system. Then there are foods that contain toxins, either naturally or as a result of microbes such as Staphylococcus or Botulism. Both types of food-borne illness can cause severe illness and even death.
Please seek medical help if you experience diarrhea lasting more than three days, difficulty breathing or swallowing, bloody stools, double vision, heart palpitations or dizziness, or a fever lasting more than a day or so.
--Caveat for Food Supply: Raw eggs may be infected with salmonella bacteria. If a recipe requires whipped egg whites or other forms of raw eggs, please consider the possibility of salmonella contamination, especially if serving the dish to children, the elderly, of those with underlying health problems.
Ways to avoid food-borne illness in the food supply
Wash, Wash, Wash
-Wash hands with warm soapy water before eating
-Wash hands often during food preparation
-Wash hands after using the restroom
-Wash dishtowels and kitchen sponges often
-Wash and disinfect kitchen sink, counter tops and cutting boards often
-Wash vegetables with food grade veggie wash
Temperature, Temperature, Temperature
-Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold
-Cook meats to high enough temperature to kill pathogens
-Refrigerate foods immediately after the meal
-Don’t eat raw meat
-Keep raw foods cold until ready to use
-Thaw frozen foods in the refrigerator—not on the counter top
-Keep refrigerator temperature at less than 40° F
-Keep freezer temperature at 0° F. or lower
-Heat leftovers completely to at least 160° F
-Marinate foods in the refrigerator, rather than on the counter top
-Keep frozen foods solidly frozen
-Don’t buy frozen foods that have obviously thawed and refrozen
-Separate cutting board and utensils for meat and vegetables
-Store meat packages on lower shelves or on a plate to avoid dripping onto other foods
-Avoid dishes with raw eggs (including raw cookie dough!)
-Pay attention to your food supply
-Discard open jars of mayo after two months
-Most food-borne illnesses are NOT detectable by smell, but if it smells off, throw it out!
-Use leftovers promptly, preferably within 4-5 days
-Pay attention to “use by” dates on canned goods
-Use proper home canning methods to keep food from spoiling
Food additives in the food supply
As our food supply has become more sophisticated, the number and variety of food additives—those substances added to food in processing either by accident or by design—has increased. There is a swirl of controversy around this subject, as food scientists and health professionals consider the negative aspects of adding elements to our foods that are not there naturally.
Why add anything to the food supply
-There are a number of reasons why food producers put additives in their products.
-To preserve the food for a longer shelf life
-To enhance color
-To create texture
-To improve flavor
-To increase nutritional value
-To appeal to a niche market
-To make the food more economical
-Preservatives in the food supply
There are two types of preservatives that are added to foods to keep them from spoiling. Anti-microbial agents, such as sugar, salt and nitrites, inhibit the growth of those microbes that can cause food-borne illness. Anti-oxidants protect the food from damage due to exposure to oxygen and include sulfites, BHT and BHA. Vitamin C and Vitamin E, the anti-oxidant vitamins can also be used for this purpose.
Colors are added to foods to give them more eye-appeal. Most of us expect packaged macaroni and cheese to be orange, colas to be brown, butter-like spreads to be yellow, and raspberry gelatin to be red. None of these foods would have these colors without the presence of additives. In recent years the emphasis has been on finding natural plant sources for these color additives as opposed to their artificial cousins.
The texture of our foods may be as important to us as the color. For this reason, we find emulsifiers and thickeners in many if the foods we enjoy. These substances keep foods from separating, crystallizing or otherwise changing to a form that we might find unpalatable.
Probably the most common type of food additive is used to enhance the flavor of the food. These additives can be natural—herbs, spices, and fruit flavors—or artificial flavors that are created in a laboratory. This category also includes artificial sweeteners, which have been the subject of much debate over the past fifty years.
In addition, there is a substance called MSG (monosodium glutamate) a commonly used flavor enhancer that has created a storm of controversy that still rages.
In order to increase the nutritional value of the foods they produce, food processors will often add nutrients to their products. These include adding B vitamins and iron to cereals and grains, Vitamin A and D to dairy products, Calcium and Vitamin C to juices, and even iodine to table salt. These nutrients may be added to replace those lost during processing or to improve the quality of a food that otherwise would not have that specific nutrient.
Sometimes the addition of a particular substance to a food is purely a marketing decision. If a particular additive will help sell the product, than it will be added to the food. For instance, pomegranate juice is being promoted as a super food, and as a result you will see it added to everything from apple juice to cookies. In the same way, we found bran added to many products when fiber was the new watchword of the nutrition community. Artificial sweeteners are often used to attract those watching their weight or on a diabetic diet.
Saving money on processing the food supply
This is probably the least attractive reason why additives are used in food processing. It’s called the bottom line. If a food company can use less of expensive natural ingredients by adding flavor and color enhancers, then they will do it. In addition, if a less expensive additive can be produced to replace a more expensive one, most food companies will choose the less expensive version. One example of this kind of thinking is the ubiquitous presence of High Fructose Corn Syrup in the food supply, an inexpensive but controversial substitute for cane or beet sugar.
Regulating food additives in the food supply
The FDA has regulations regarding food additives that attempt to insure that they are used safely. They try to keep the list of allowable food additives to those that are safe, effective and listed on the package. Unfortunately, there is a real question of what constitutes “safe,” and this causes a constant clamor from those who favor a more stringent standard of safety than the one currently being applied. With the incidence of cancer on the rise, there is a real concern about a possible link between certain food additives and this disease.
Accidental Additives in the food supply
Not all foreign substances get into our foods by intentional methods. Sometimes it is the method of producing and processing the food that introduces the substance and sometimes it is the form of packaging or storage. An example of this type of additive is the dioxins in food packages that may contaminate the food, especially if it is stored for a while. Hormones and anti-biotics given to animals, can find their way into the meat and dairy products we consume. These are “additives” that are not listed on the label, and yet may have an impact on your health.
Pesticides, as the name suggests, are substances that are used to limit the damage to crops caused by pests, including insects, weeds, fungi. The idea of a pesticide is to kill the pest without harming the crop or the humans that eat the crop. Unfortunately, it is often a difficult task to find a chemical lethal to pests, but safe for humans, both on the food itself and in the groundwater.
There are, according to some, advantages to using pesticides. The most obvious benefit is that if pests can be controlled more produce will reach maturity and thus the marketplace and be available to more people.
In addition, the produce will probably be more attractive to consumers, with fewer blemishes and defects. There is also less chance of contracting diseases transmitted by insects, if the insects are destroyed before the food reaches the consumer. Finally, if a producer can get a higher crop yield per acre of land, he will be able to charge less for his products, even considering the cost of the pesticides.
There are some disadvantages to the use of pesticides and this is where the controversy arises. Since pesticides are lethal to pests, they are often at least somewhat harmful to humans. The residue left after the pests are destroyed may remain on the produce all the way from the field to the dinner plate. In addition, some residue may be washed into the soil and groundwater, killing beneficial organisms in the soil and contaminating the water supply.
Another concern is that pesticides will be concentrated in the meat and dairy products of animals that are fed crops containing the residue. Finally, there may be health risks for the workers in the fields who have a daily exposure to these chemicals.
There are regulations in place in the U.S. to monitor both the safety of pesticides and the amount of pesticide residue that is allowable in the food supply. This applies both to the domestic food supply and to some but not all of the fresh produce imported from other countries.
The U.S. FDA has established tolerances for pesticides in humans and even banned certain chemicals as being too harmful for use on food products. Inspections are done to try to keep the risk from pesticides to a minimum and the U.S. food supply safe.
Many consumers still concerned
However, even with the best of intentions, there are still concerns by consumers that they are eating too many pesticides and that it may have an adverse effect on their health. It should be noted that, as with any potential toxic effect of food, the main threat is to children and the elderly, and those with underlying health issues.
Genetically Modified Products in the food supply
Genetically modified foods are those foods that have been altered at the genetic level in order to produce a form that has some new function or trait that food producers find desirable.
These modified foods may come from two categories.
Selective breeding occurs when genes from two varieties of the same species are combined to produce a third variety with the favored characteristics. This practice has been carried on for thousands of years to produce new versions of crops with higher yields and hardier plants, and livestock that provides more meat.
Genetic Engineering is a newer way to modify foods and involves the transfer of a single gene between two varieties of the same species or between two different species to produce a plant or animal that has characteristics that are more desirable to food producers. These transferred genes may come from plants, animals—including humans—bacteria, insects, or even viruses.
Another form of genetic engineering is cloning, where an animal is created through laboratory methods rather than by breeding two animals. At this time, in the U.S., cloned animals are not allowed to be marketed as food, but their offspring may be sent to market with no distinction from their conventionally produced cousins. The FDA does not consider meat from animal produced by cloning to be any different from naturally produced meat.
There are a number of reasons why food producers have introduced genetically modified foods into our food supply.
-Higher yield due to genetically engineered resistance to crop destruction by disease, pests and bad weather;
-Longer shelf life for foods that would normally spoil, but can be engineered to replace the genes that contribute to shorter shelf life;
-Higher profits for food producers since higher yields and longer shelf life mean more money and less waste;
-Improved nutrition since foods can be genetically altered to contain higher nutrient content;
-Feeding the hungry is more likely with higher yields and improved nutrition;
-Foods can be used for delivery of drugs when genetically modified to contain a certain drug for a specific population.
A further step
Although selective breeding has been going on for many years, the introduction of genetically engineered foods and cloning has added a whole new dimension to the issue of genetically modified foods. It is one thing to transfer genes within a species, but the genetic transfer between species has given rise to a heated controversy that ranges from the ethical considerations, to environmental concerns to its long-term impact on health.
Questions asked by opponents of genetic engineering.
-Should we play God by interfering with the natural creation and, if we do, what will be the consequences?
-If human genes are inserted in another species as part of genetic engineering, when does that species become human?
-What will happen to our delicately balanced ecosystem when these genetically altered organisms, which have no natural place, become part of it?
-Will viruses and bacteria that are created for genetic engineering purposes, mutate and create a dangerous health risk or be used to produce biological weapons?
-Will there be other unintended consequences of genetic engineering such as the creation of new allergens or environmental toxins?
-What is the long-term effect on our health of consuming genetically modified foods, and are we willing to be the guinea pigs?
-When pesticides and herbicides become part of a plant through genetic engineering, does that mean we will be consuming more of them, rather than having the opportunity to wash them off?
-Should we use genetic engineering to produce a longer shelf life for fresh produce when it will still lose nutritional value even though it looks fresh?
-By the time we know some of the effects of genetic engineering, will it be too late to rein it in, since it will be so widespread and integrated into the food supply?
The other side
Proponents of genetic engineering do not view these issues as problems, and generally believe that the benefits far outweigh what they consider the minimal or non-existent risks. In addition, they often characterize opponents of genetic engineering as elitists who have never experienced the hunger and disease that abound in less developed parts of the world, and which genetically modified foods may well address.
Still, most people have an unfavorable view of genetically modified foods, particularly those that have been genetically engineered or cloned. When asked, most would prefer that all genetically engineered foods be labeled as such.
Most foods that have been genetically modified, either by selective breeding, genetic engineering or cloning, are not identified in the U.S. food supply, since the FDA does not consider them to be different from their original source. On the other hand, if a food has been substantially changed, such as in nutrient content or by the addition of a potential allergen, then the FDA requires that it be labeled accordingly.
What can you do to avoid GM foods?
Of course, it is almost impossible for the average consumer to avoid all foods that have been modified through selective breeding, since it has been going on for a very long time. However, if you wish to consume a minimum of GM foods, and particularly genetically engineered foods, here are some tips:
-Buy organic. Foods that are labeled as 100% organic may not be produced using genetically modified organisms. Don’t be fooled by products made with some organic ingredients, since they could also have some genetically modified ingredients.
-Buy locally from sources you know. The farmers’ market is a great place to buy foods that have been grown locally. Talk to the vendors about their growing practices. Sign up for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) with a local farm, where you can share in the crops, which are often produced organically with non-GMO seed.
-Grow some of your own food. Even a container garden on your patio will decrease the amount of GM food that you are consuming. There are even some suburbanites that are keeping a few chickens to meet their need for fresh, organic eggs and poultry.
-Buy foods from companies that label their products as Non-GMO. Labeling is voluntary, so any company that is willing to label their food is a better bet. The health foods section of your local grocery store will generally have brands such as Amy’s, Organic Valley, Stonyfield Farm, Eden, Bob’s Red Mill, Health Valley Organic, Cascadian Farms, Hain, Muir Glen Organic.
-Limit consumption of corn products, since it is the most ubiquitous GM ingredient in foods. Products, besides corn itself, that are made from corn include, corn syrup and other corn sweeteners such as fructose and cornstarch—often listed as “starch” or modified food starch on food labels.
Organic Foods in the food supply
Recently, there has be an upsurge of interest in organic foods. These are foods that have been produced without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, preservatives or other chemical additives. This definition includes both plant products and products from animals who are raised without the use of hormones, antibiotics and who consume organic feed. In addition, foods that have been genetically modified, irradiated or fertilized with sewer sludge cannot be labeled organic.
There are a number of reasons why people choose to pay more money for organically produced products.
(1) Health – If the products are produced without pesticides or other chemical additives, you are less likely to find chemical residue on and within the food itself. Since many of these pesticides are toxins, the idea is you are consuming fewer toxins for your body to have to address. There is some controversy about whether organically grown foods have more nutrient value, although some research has shown an increase in phytonutrients level in organic foods. However, the absence of chemicals seems to be enough to motivate some to buy organic, even without the added incentive of better nutrition.
(2) Environment – Then there are those who buy organic because of their concern for the environment. Pesticides and other chemicals used in food production can harm the soil, pollute the water and have a devastating effect on the ecology of the planet. Having said that, there are those who feel that the advantages of chemicals in food production—higher yield to feed more people, elimination of potentially devastating pests--outweigh the disadvantages
(3) Animal cruelty – Organic methods of producing animal foods, by their very nature are kinder to the animals involved. For instance, if you can’t use antibiotics to keep an animal healthy, you must rely on fresh air, regular exercise, good quality food, etc. to keep the animals from getting sick. Our food supply today, often relies on denying these things to the animal in order to produce more food at a faster, more efficient rate. There are those who will buy organic foods for this reason alone.
(4) Worker safety – Those whom we rely on to produce and harvest our crops, do so at some risk to themselves from the pesticides that are used. Continuous exposure to these chemicals may have long-term effects on their health. Organically grown foods do not present this same type of risk and this is an incentive for some people to buy organic.
MY TWO CENTS about the Food Supply
I buy organic for all the reasons mentioned, and I find that organic foods generally have more flavor. There is no comparison between organic eggs and those from egg factories, as far as taste, not to mention the cruel and unhealthy conditions of the chickens in those factories. Organic fruits and vegetables also seem to have better flavor. I love to buy organic sweet potatoes. There is nothing like them for flavor, color and overall goodness.
If you can only afford to buy some organic foods, concentrate on the animal products, such as meat, dairy and eggs, since non-organic animal products may contain 5-20 times more pesticide residue than non-organic vegetables and fruits.
A reminder also that the toxins are concentrated in the fat and organs of the animal, so if you can’t buy organic, trim visible fat and choose leaner, low-fat or fat-free animal products. Another suggestion is to find organic foods locally at a Farmers’ Market, coop or produce stands.
There are some guidelines in place governing what qualifies a food to be labeled organic.
In the case of plant products, such as fruits, vegetables and grains, organic means that they have been grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, or other synthetic chemicals.
Whether animal foods, such as meat, eggs and dairy products can be considered organic is defined by the grazing conditions of the livestock, the absence of antibiotics and hormones, and the use of organic feed.
As mentioned above, in order to be labeled organic, the foods may not be genetically modified, irradiated or fertilized with sewer sludge.
Packaged foods that have passed the certification by the USDA for organic content, will display a green and white seal on their labels as an assurance to customers that they have met the government requirement for organic foods. Make sure you notice the difference between “100% organic” foods and ones with some organic ingredients.
--Caveat for Food Supply: Although we generally rely on the government to protect our food supply, there are powerful food lobbies that have huge vested interests in the rules governing the food supply. Consumers should follow the news and be aware of changes in regulations, including a relaxation of standards that may affect the foods we eat.
In response to the interest in organic foods, tests have been done to determine which fruits and vegetables are more likely to contain pesticide residue and those that are less likely to be contaminated. Although it’s probably always good to buy organic if you can, knowing which foods are more likely to have the most pesticide residue can help you use your food dollars wisely
Most likely contaminated - Buy these organic.
-Hot and Sweet Peppers
Less likely to be contaminated - Don't need to buy these organic
Sweet peas (frozen)
Sweet corn (frozen)