The right stuff

Photo by Sarah Whiting

Photo by Sarah Whiting

In recent years, natural foods, health foods and organic foods have cropped up everywhere food is sold: not just at farmers’ markets and food co-ops, but in chain supermarkets and independent grocers, too. Since 1990, under federal law, nutritional information appears on everything from a candy bar to frozen peas to a box of steaks. The Twin Cities boasts a dozen food co-ops; Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) is gaining ground; and Minneapolis has almost tripled its number of farmers’ markets in the past couple of growing seasons.

So with all this going on, how come the fruits and veggies our parents ate growing up were more nutritious than the ones that will likely be on our dinner table tonight?

A 2005 analysis in Food Technology magazine compared data from 1950 and 1999 on the nutrient content of 43 fruit and vegetable crops. The results? Six out of 13 nutrients-protein, iron, calcium, phosphorous, riboflavin and ascorbic acid (a precursor of Vitamin C)-had declined in these crops over that time period, by up to 38 percent.

What happened? In a nutshell, the push for higher yields per acre and cheaper food. Irrigation and fertilization mean more pounds per acre, but often sacrifice nutrients per pound produced.

This makes it tougher to eat right, as do time pressures that make fast food and highly processed packaged food tempting, said licensed nutritionist Maureen Nagle.

“With parents working, kids on different activity schedules-it can be tough for families to come together for healthy meals,” she noted.

What healthful eating isn’t
“Dieting and healthy eating are not the same,” Nagle said, citing what she called a common misperception peddled to women. If she could advise women to make only one change, it would be “throw away any low-fat, low-cal diet products in your cupboards or fridge.”

Such products add more sugar and chemicals to make up for missing flavor from fat. Not only does this cause weight gain in the long run by stimulating more fat storage, Nagle said; such highly processed foods drive up blood sugar and insulin production, “which creates a cascade of hormone imbalance throughout the body.”

This imbalance can manifest as PMS, heavy menstrual bleeding, postpartum depression and hot flashes-among the reasons nutrition is, in Nagle’s view, absolutely a women’s issue.

Nagle said research has shown that keeping insulin levels down lowers the risk of breast cancer, and increases survival for those who have it. In addition, she believes nutrition has much to do with the higher rate of depression among women than men.

Low-fat diet foods aimed at women, she said, are “depleting their brain chemistry over time,” fostering anxiety and depression.

Rather than cut fat, women should add healthy fat-such as nuts and olive oil-to their diets. “Our brains are mostly fat,” Nagle noted, “and eating healthy fat is like giving our body a cellular oil change.”

Making changes
Sue Gambill-Read, 47, of St. Louis Park, has battled both depression and poor eating habits. During her 20s she haunted fast-food windows and was “the microwave queen,” she recalled. When her now-spouse entered her life, she gained still more weight because he enjoyed cooking big meals.

“The turnaround didn’t come until our daughter came home,” Gambill-Read said. They adopted their child from India, and “for a while it was all about pizza, American cheese, peanut butter and jelly.”

“Then I got into Indian cooking, because it was becoming foreign food to our daughter and I didn’t want her to lose that connection,” she continued. Now, the family eats a vegetarian, lentil-based Indian diet at home-and the benefits have been manifold. “Cooking from scratch is the least expensive way to eat, the most healthful, and the most satisfying physically and spiritually,” Gambill-Read said. “It infuses meaning into my daily drudge, helps me fight depression, keeps us healthier and more culturally aware, saves us money, and lets us help a small business by shopping at the Indian grocer.”

What does organic mean, anyway?

It refers not to the food itself, but to how it is produced. Under USDA standards, organic crops may not be genetically engineered, irradiated, or fertilized with sewage sludge. Also, farmland used to grow organic crops may not be treated with synthetic pesticides and herbicides for at least three years before harvest.

The case for organic
If growing conditions are more or less equal, several studies suggest organic foods have the nutritional edge.

In 2001, Dr. Virginia Worthington published an oft-referenced review of 41 studies comparing organic and conventional fruits, vegetables and grains. She found that levels of Vitamin C, as well as minerals such as iron, magnesium and phosphorous, were much higher in organic fruits and vegetables-by up to 30 percent.

Has the case been made that organic foods are more healthful? Despite a plethora of studies, controversy remains. “I am of two minds” on the issue, said Betty Orchard, M.A, L.D., R.D, of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Food Science and Nutrition.

The research of one of her colleagues found that “nutrient-wise, there is no significant difference” between organic and conventional, she said. But while the nutrient advantage is “iffy,” she continued, organic methods are clearly more “friendly to the earth” than mass farms. On the other hand, Orchard noted, “for families with budget issues, organic food is quite a bit more expensive.”

Advocacy groups and PR agencies have weighed in on the debate, and milk is the flashpoint of the latest food fight.

Milk is the fastest-growing segment of the organic market, thanks largely to new mothers wanting to start their kids off right. Organic milk sales are growing by more than 20 percent yearly, while overall milk consumption is decreasing by about 8 percent. In response, the Center for Global Food Issues (CGFI) has launched a campaign called “Milk is Milk,” aiming at what it calls false and misleading organic milk labeling and marketing. Critics note that CGFI is a project of the right-wing think-tank, the Hudson Institute, funded by many of the corporations that bankroll the conservative movement.

The cost issue
Milk is among the more dramatic examples of the price gap between organic and conventional. We did some comparison shopping at a large Twin Cities grocery store and found that a half gallon of Organic Valley milk was priced at $5.19, while a half gallon of Kemps 1% milk cost $1.99. Additional comparisons included:

• Strawberries: organic $4.79/lb; regular $3.29/lb
• Oats: Nature’s Best Organic Rolled Oats (16 oz): $1.99; Cub Old-Fashioned Oats (18 oz): $1.64
• Bananas: 79¢/lb, organic; 49¢ lb, regular
• Honeycrisp Apples: $3.29/lb organic; $2.49/lb regular
• Fresh Mushrooms (8 oz): $2.99 organic; $1.59 regular
• Amy’s organic frozen enchilada (cheese or black bean): $3.79
• Healthy Choice frozen enchilada (chicken): four for $8.88 (on sale)

“It does cost a bit more,” admitted Lou Anne Koerschner of Mahtomedi, who estimated her family’s weekly food budget went up about $30 after switching to natural and organic food. “The way I look at it [is], I donate money to causes that are important to me. This is another form of donation-it just isn’t tax deductible!” She added that her family now generates much less trash, thus reducing their garbage bill by using a smaller receptacle.

Eating right “is a little more expensive, but it’s one of the most important investments you can make,” said nutritionist Nagle. “As they say, you can pay now or you can pay later.”

If the thought of higher medical bills isn’t motivating enough, we can consider that time is money too. Before hitting the drive-through window, note how much time the Center for Science in the Public Interest says it takes an average-size woman to work off these fast foods:

• Quarter-Pounder with Cheese Extra Value Meal(1,550 calories) = running more than two hours
• Cheese fries with ranch dressing (3,010 calories) = nearly 11 hours of brisk walking
• A 20-ounce Coke = nearly an hour of biking

What’s a woman to do?
Switching to healthy food didn’t change everything on Koerschner’s grocery list. “We still haven’t found an acceptable substitute for banana bread Eggos, ramen noodles, Nestle’s Toll House morsels,” she allowed. “And I still feed the dog Cheez-Whiz in his Kong toy.”

Maureen Nagle keeps her recommendations to clients realistic. You’ll be healthier “even if you can only do two things: drink more purified water and eat more often during the day,” she said. She urges eating every three or four hours, rather than, say, two big meals a day.

Nagle and the U’s Orchard both stressed that vitamins are supplements, not substitutes, for healthy eating, though anyone can benefit from a good multivitamin. “Where we get into trouble is thinking we can pop some pills and go on our merry way, making poor food choices,” Orchard noted. Along with multivitamins, Orchard said that women especially might consider calcium supplements to protect bone density.

If she had to choose one among the hundreds of products lining the walls at health-food stores, Nagle said probiotics are “the No. 1 most important supplement anyone can take.” She called it “a good bacteria” that aids the digestive system, so we can break down our food and absorb nutrients properly.

Thinking outside the box
Making a change “has to be a family issue,” Orchard emphasized. Families should be intentional about how they spend their time and energy, asking, “Can we adjust our activity schedule to free up even one or two nights to cook and eat at home?”

“It doesn’t even have to be scratch cooking,” she added. “There are plenty of healthy semi-prepared meals you can put together quickly with a little advance planning.”

Sometimes, it helps to think outside the (cereal) box and try something that might seem bizarre. If someone simply can’t eat three or four times a day, “I’ve suggested they eat a bowl of chili or beef stew for breakfast instead of cereal, because it’s more balanced,” said Nagle.

“I want women to start thinking differently [about food],” Nagle concluded, “even if they’re not yet ready to make changes.”

Koerschner seconds the notion. Healthful eating “isn’t an all or nothing thing. It’s a journey, and every little action helps,” she said. “Just trying it has made me and my whole family more mindful of where our food comes from, and the impact our choices can have beyond filling our stomachs for our next meal.”

The 10 most important foods to buy organic
1. Baby food: Federal pesticides standards provide too little health protection for infants.
2. Strawberries: A 1993 study found supermarket strawberries the most heavily contaminated fruit or vegetable in the U.S.
3. Rice: Water-soluble herbicides and insecticides have contaminated groundwater near many rice fields.
4. Oats: This is a crop-rotation grain used to maintain soil health and break pest cycles.
5. Milk: Dairy companies inject cows with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH).
6. Bell peppers: They’re prone to pesticides and neurotoxin residues.
7. Bananas: Toxic pesticides are common.
8. Green beans: More than 60 pesticides are used on green beans.
9. Peaches: They contain above-average rates of illegal pesticide violations.
10. Apples: Three dozen different pesticides have been found on U.S apples.
Source: Mothers and Others for a Livable Planet

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Worth reading: 

Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Polen and What to Eat by Marion Nestle