On June 4, 2012, the American heart Association (AHA) announced its official endorsement of the fast-food giant Subway, making Subway the first restaurant which could sport the AHA’s Heart-Check Meal Certification Logo.
The criteria for certification include meals containing no more than 700 calories, less than three grams of total fat—no more than one gram of which can be saturated fat—and ten percent or more of the Daily Value of a select list of nutrients, like vitamins A and C.
What information and science led the AHA set these criteria? Dietary science and research are a complex issue, and the data is open to gross misinterpretation and poor analogies. What research and interpretations led the AHA researchers and writers to their assertions?
Anyone familiar with American advertising and media is aware of the dominant role health plays in the psyche of people. We are likely to find a commercial with a new diet, pill, or piece of machinery enticing some percentage of viewers to purchase a product which promises to lower cholesterol or “melt away the fat.” Products endorsed by such a large organization like the AHA might or might not have merit, but while how-to articles and books are published every day with the promise of burning fat and getting us into shape, there is still debate over how these products are approached, tested, and how to interpret the data from the various studies.
Despite the complexities of the data, some researchers make bold claims on what constitutes a healthy diet and on what we must do to create and sustain optimal living standards. Any debate which requires scientific inquiry and experimentation—particularly those with many complex and interwoven data such as health and food—contains not only the information researchers are trying to find out, but how to interpret that information. And it seems the more complex the data, the hotter the debate.
Some of the debates and topics arguments include the environmental and economic impact of food production and consumption. There are also articles dealing specifically with the issues of the complexities of data themselves, along with the correct or erroneous interpretations and inferences drawn from that data.
One might assume that, thanks to all of this new research, we could figure out the cause of our health and environmental woes. Yet, in spite of all this research, debates rage, tempers flare, and some heavily researched and regulated subjects grow worse, whether in the form of a poor environment, poor economies, or expanding waistlines.
Perhaps we are missing something in the research and complexities of our studies.
Gary Taubes, a journalist and writer, joined the dietary debate around 2002, and published his first book on the subject in 2007, Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health, in which he attempts to find the cause of obesity with a focus specifically on these complexities.
He uses the analogy of confusing cause and correlation in his 2007 article “Do We Really Know What Makes Us Healthy?” in which he shows us how the public move in droves to take some pill or some dietary change based on an authoritative studies but warns that the interpretations of the data extracted from those studies can be incredibly complex and will lead to poor interpretation, which in turn leads to poor advice and prescriptions from respected medical authorities.
Taubes mentions that in 2001, 15 million women were filling hormone-replacement therapy drugs every year—once considered a good idea according the AHA, the American College of Physicians, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. However, in 1998, a clinical trial called the Heart and Estrogen-progestin Replacement Study concluded that heart attacks increased as a result of the therapy. The study made its assessment after including the patients’ lifestyle factors rather than just plugging in the variable of taking the therapy.
Taubes details just a few reasons why even large studies can be and often are flawed, especially when we want to hear a bold assertion based on the studies. When research includes something as complex as the human body, there are so many variables that even one small variable can skew the data.
Taubes uses the “Bias of Healthy Users” as an example. What this means is that people who pay more attention to their health are more likely to do what respected authorities tell them to do when it comes to their health. When a large group of otherwise healthy people start taking a drug to increase their health and wellbeing, it could be that the results return well because such people live healthy lifestyles, not because of the drug.
Taubes also claims that the “compliance effect”—also called the adherer effect—shows that people who adhere to doctors’ orders behave differently than those who don’t; they are typically much healthier.
Kingsolver scorns the masses and authorities who claim they can circumvent millions years of evolutionary change through a few years of genetic modification. The industry of health is loaded with bumper sticker slogans and those slogans trickled into the issue of genetic engineering. She won’t even attempt to retort against such short arguments without diving into the complexities. She believes science is too complex for short ignorant arguments, particularly in a world whose evolutionary history spans 4.54 billion years. Now, thanks to mass willful ignorance, an entire nation is growing more and more ignorant to the potential long term damage tied to the issue of genetically engineered crops.
Kingsolver claims that the land and crops are insured by genetic variability, and that “genetic engineering is the antithesis of variability because it removes the wild card…” The wild card, she writes, is sex, which produces new variables of crops. She asserts that eliminating this variability is the real danger. This mystical nature of sex, which has sustained millions of years of evolution, has worked. And humans, according to Kingsolver, think they can circumvent those millions of years of evolutionary change through a few years of genetic engineering.
Though he doesn’t call for such fundamental genetic modifications of the food we eat, Robert Paarlberg claims in his 2010 article “Attention Whole Food Shoppers” that the drive for more organic foods is a roadblock on the path to solving world hunger. Paarlberg draws on many issues attached to the production and distribution of food. His article touches into the economic and environmental realms as well, though he doesn’t specifically mention the element of complexity, itself. His main concern is feeding the hungry, and that the drive for more organic and “greener” farm products is a roadblock on the path to solving world hunger—that output by volume should be our goal if we are to feed the world’s starving.
Paarlberg labels the demand for organic foods as “trendy” (later, he claims the Green Revolution was going strong thirty years ago and still is today) and that demand for such foods is a problem of the “pampered West.” According to him, most of the benefits of organic are a myth. One such erroneous assertion, he claims, is that industrial foods are less safe. He argues that modern industrial food packaging and refrigeration have significantly decreased illness and diseases such as E-coli contamination. He does admit that industrial foods might be unhealthy—an indirect recognition that this is a large, complex issue—but his point is that the food is safer and thus can be packaged and shipped in larger quantities more efficiently while maintaining high sanitation standards.
Much of Paarlberg’s concern lies in Africa’s hunger problem. He claims that we can do for Africa what we did for India. India’s poverty rate has dropped from 60 percent to 27 percent, and as of 1975 India was no longer dependant on such foreign aid (thanks to U.S. assistance). He argues that India would not have been able to rise from such poverty without this aid.
Another point of Paarlberg’s emphasis is the environmental impact of organic food production. He agrees that industrial production of foods isn’t necessarily the most environmentally friendly method, specifically citing the excess nitrogen fertilizer creating a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico as an example. Yet, according to Paarlberg, such examples don’t necessarily mean organic farming is the solution. He claims that the consequences could even be worse if we stopped using synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. Why? Because, according to Paarlberg, a switch to 100 percent organic farming would require five times the cattle to provide fertilizer and that much of the continental U.S. would have to convert to farmland, resulting in mass deforestation.
One large element missing from Paarlberg’s choices is that he doesn’t bother tackling complex economic issues surrounding his recommendations such as subjective value, investment and savings, or the notion that it should be the consumer’s choice whether or not they eat organic or conventionally grown food. These are complex issues in their own right, no less when combining them with food, health, and world hunger. However, he wasn’t necessarily concentrated on the economics, but attempting to solve the problem of world hunger.
100% organic might or might not be environmentally friendly when compared to conventionally grown food, but there is a tradeoff, writer Mark Sisson would claim, as he did in his article “Is Organic a Scam?” In a 2012 study by the Annals of Internal Medicine, the conclusion states that “organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.” Sisson denies the assertion, claiming that conventionally grown food might not necessarily have deleterious health effects on adults—at least not significant effects—but that it can have cause harmful effects on children, babies, fetuses, or embryos. This is yet another example of a study missing a variable—one small element in a complex issue which can skew our interpretation of the data. Sisson does note that none of these studies establish that organic or conventional is a cause of anything. But bold conclusions like the one from the Annals of Internal Medicine can rarely establish causation where so many variables involved.
Writer Nicolette Hahn Niman points out a few of these complexities and variables in her article “The Carnivore’s Dilemma”. She specifically challenges not only the environmentalists, but also the vegans and vegetarians who claim meat production is the major contributor to global warming. She acknowledges that meat production does contribute to global warming, but with a major caveat: the way in which these animals are raised, fed, and carried through the processing stages of meat production are a significant factor in their contribution to global warming. She even argues in her article that some vegetarians contribute more the global warming than their fellow meat eaters: “It could be, in fact, that a conscientious meat eater may have a more environmentally friendly diet than your average vegetarian.”
Niman accuses the anti-omnivore’s conclusions as simplistic, then provides examples of how traditional ranchers, like her, limit their emissions of each of the three gasses—carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxides—contributing to global warming, such as feeding the animals grass instead of fertilized crops, raising them in open pastures, and buying and selling meat locally. She argues that carbon dioxide emissions are reduced, since less farm equipment, power, and transportation are used. She also claims methane gas is reduced because manure on traditional farms is deposited back into pastures. And she writes that three-quarters of the world’s nitrous oxide emissions come from manmade fertilizers, so consumers can reduce their emissions by buying meat where farmers didn’t use them.
Another element of the complexities of how food makes it from the farm or forest to our stomachs is the bureaucracy and politics of food and agriculture. In the 2003 essay “Everything I want to Do is Illegal”, Joel Salatin rejects the notion that any bureaucratic agency can understand or oversee farming operations if for no other reason than their complexities. Salatin is upset enough that he is forced to adhere to innumerable laws and codes from agriculture to zoning and everything in between. He complains that this fragmentation of the entire agricultural process has separated of the consumer—specifically kids who want to learn how to farm—from the farm, disconnecting the people from their food. The farm is now “a production unit for commodities—nothing more and nothing less.”
However, Salatin shows some optimism. He warns that society can only tolerate so much bureaucratic strangling, but when the government grip is too tight, the system fails, and we will see where regulating every inch and act of agriculture takes us. When this happens, he claims, he can once again produce and distribute food with the stewardship of an experienced farmer who understands the intricacies and connectedness of the animals and his farm. When innumerable data are involved in running something as small as a farm, Salatin claims that only the stewardship of an experienced farmer can do it efficiently and successfully, and that bureaucrats sitting behind desks with little inclination of the complexities of agriculture should have little or no say in what happens on his farm.
The public might want some element of bureaucracy involved in the oversight of how food is produced, but Alice Waters proposed a solution to our food and agricultural woes in her 2009 article “A Healthy Constitution”. “Edible education is a radical yet common-sense approach to teaching that integrates classroom instruction, school lunch, cooking and gardening into the studies of math, science, history and reading,” Waters wrote. Her idea is to educate students on the importance of healthy eating while teaching them how to integrate a healthy growing, cooking, and cleaning lifestyle—the theory and practice of cultivating and preparing food.
Her claim is that teaching students to take responsibility for what they put in their bodies is a social responsibility, and that doing a better job of educating students on how and why taking control of what we put in our bodies will make for a healthier and more attentive classroom. She is asserting that students should have a hand in the process of what they will put into their bodies. This alone could spark conversations among young people and can encourage healthy self-experimentation—more eyes on the variables—with diet and nutrition and show kids how to properly nourish their bodies. This is what she means by teaching kids gardening, cooking, and nutrition “democratically” in public schools.
Wendell Berry takes one of Waters’s ideas a step further in “The Pleasures of Eating”—an excerpt from his 1990 book What Are People For? Berry argues that eating is part of the process of agriculture. He asserts that the mode of the common food consumer as one of ignorance—the consumer usually has little or no idea where the food came from, how it ended up in their shopping cart, and might not necessarily know what it is. We used to have more hands in the entire process of our food from its birth to its death—from planting to eating. We planted the seed, tended and nourished it during the entire cultivation process, reaped the harvest, then prepared the food like artists rather than ignorant, hungry beasts.
Berry complains that, to most consumers, the food birthplace is on a grocery store shelf, neatly packaged and usually ready to eat after a few minutes in the oven or microwave if not right out of the box. He also deplores the modern food industry, claiming that food industrialists want consumers to remain ignorant of the modern agricultural process: “The ideal industrial food consumer would be strapped to a table with a tube running from the food factory directly into his or her stomach.” Who could complain of the variables of food production then, but the most conscientious of consumers?
Berry does offer solutions for this dietary predicament. First, he urges that the individual must be more conscious of the business of food, and that each person should have some participation in each phase of the food production process. He is particularly fond of learning of the life history of food species, claiming that if we understand the history and the complexities of food and the process by which it goes from the farm to our mouths, we will appreciate and respect the entire process of agriculture, including the eating itself. To gain the full pleasure of eating, he suggests we gain an understanding of our dependence on the life forms that are part of the agricultural process.
Among the complex issues of food, I have reviewed a tiny fraction of the literature available and dissected in the context of the environmental, economic, health, and even the psychological and perceptive complexities surrounding agricultural and food research. Whether or not all of the writers recognized it, they were attempting to boil an incredibly complex issue into a few bullets or pages to attempt to get an audience to take action on their words, many of which only deal with one or two of the many elements of food and agriculture.
What I think each writer and researcher must do in their research and interpretation is maintain an intense awareness and attention to these complexities, and that their assertions and interpretations can be a step in the right direction at best, and horribly misinterpreted and therefore incorrect at worst, taking the masses who follow their advice with them. When billions of dollars and man-hours are poured into all this painful research, it’s easy to see why a writer might ignore his or her opponents or immediately deny their valid arguments. While many scientists do carry out their research with such open-mindedness as to understand that their research might one day be debunked, many ideas remain unchecked and closed to critical thought or scrutiny. When the data and the interpretations of the data don’t add up, a reexamination of the data is necessary.
Of course, it is impossible to cover every minute detail of every economic, environmental, and dietary complexity as it relates to our bodies, our wallets and our environment. But writers can and should take caution in their research when making their claims. While some writers might have done well to recognize this inherent flaw in all research before carrying out their writing, this is often the exception rather than the norm. But if one researcher or writer conducts their study in such an open-minded manner, not only will they be more open to new and improved data, but that demeanor influences an entire spectrum of researchers and debates, disarming the callous and narrow-minded methods which is the unconscious mode of so much research.