Is the poor nutritional quality of certain produce really the issue?

foodscience

I listen to a lot of podcasts.  Since moving to Egypt I find that they’ve become a replacement for having the television on in the background while you’re doing something else.  I also love that I can listen via my iPod while commuting to work or while working out.

Recently I was listening to one of my favourite podcasts, Freakonomics, at the gym and topic was discussed that got me pretty fired up.  It took a fair amount of self-control to avoid looking like a lunatic and stop myself from shouting out counterpoints to several the statements being made.

The podcast episode in question was titled Food + Science = Victory!, The purpose of the episode was to talk with people who are using science to challenge commonly held beliefs about food.  When I saw the title I thought it would be right up my alley, and for the most part I suppose it was, I just disagreed with some of the messaging provided by one of the guests, Jo Robinson, an investigative journalist who has written a book called Eating on the Wild Side.

Robinson is an advocate for getting back to the pre-industrial age in terms of the foods we eat.  She argues that the modernization of the food supply in the United States has resulted in homogeneous products of low nutritional quality, and when it comes to produce, low antioxidant content.

Here are a few of the statements she made that I took issue with:

  • On the preference of Americans to choose iceberg lettuce over all others because of its mild taste – “Overwhelmingly, people in this country eat iceberg lettuce…. Iceberg lettuce has fewer nutrients than any other lettuce in the store. In fact, veterinarians don’t even recommend it as rabbit food because there’s not enough nutrients to support the health of rabbits.”
  • On the change of food quality since the rise of agriculture “…it was so very clear that over time we have greatly diminished the nutrient content of our animal products and everything that we grow. For example, the antioxidant content of wild plants varies to 2-400x greater than the domesticated counterparts that we eat today.”
  • On the dangers of Golden Delicious apples1 – “…men who were eating the Golden Delicious apple (one per day) had higher levels of triglycerides, which are an independent predictor of heart disease, and the worst kind of cholesterol…..the problem with this particular variety of apple , it’s very high in fruit sugars, and it’s lower in antioxidants than many other varieties.”
  • On whether eating all fruits and vegetables are good for you – “…that’s certainly not true. Because the fruits and vegetables that most people pick in this country are extremely low in antioxidants.”
  • On the virtues of wild berries – “There’s really nothing better for our health than wild berries. Wild berries tend to have from 2-10x more health-enhancing phytonutrients than our domesticated varieties.”
  • On how soon you eat your produce after buying – “…you need to eat them the day you buy them or the next day, ideally….And if you do that, you may get two, three, five, ten times more antioxidant than if you push them to the back of the refrigerator and remember or find them a week or two later.”

Let me be clear that I’m not necessarily even disputing the specific claims she’s made here (although I’m a bit skeptical of her application of the Golden Delicious apple data, as well as the degree to which nutrients degrade over time).  Antioxidants are good.  The overall nutritional quality of the American diet is poor.  Iceburg lettuce doesn’t have as many nutrients as darker leafy greens.  Wild berries are a great source of antioxidants.  This is all true.

My issue has more to do with a message she is conveying (ie. Americans are unhealthy because they’re choosing varieties of produce the are poor nutritional quality).  The problem isn’t whether or not Americans aren’t eating quality produce.  It’s whether they’re eating enough produce PERIOD!  It reminded me of a comment I heard from a co-worker years ago who said his wife didn’t eat carrots because they were too high in sugar.  The reason that we have such high rates of certain chronic diseases is NOT because people are choosing iceberg lettuce over red leaf.  It’s because of the unprecedented availability of cheap, delicious calories.

I think that Robinson’s line of thinking creates the exact type of conditions we see too much of today.  People have a tremendous amount of anxiety when it comes to food and the choices they make.  They get so focused on nutrients that they forget to look at the big picture.  As a dietitian I’d much rather have people focus on preparing as many meals as they can using whole, unprocessed or minimally processed ingredients.  In the grand scheme of things worrying about whether you’re choosing the right version of a berry just shouldn’t be that high on your priority list.

__________________________

References

  1. Vafa et al. Effects of Apple Consumption on Lipid Profile of Hyperlipidemic and Overweight Men Int J Prev Med. 2011 Apr-Jun; 2(2): 94–100.
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