News and notes about food in the middle of a pandemic

It’s time to catch up on some tidbits on food in the news from our so-called broken food system to foods we should eat and those we should avoid during a pandemic to why the stress we feel these days is more due to our diet than to the virus itself and other notable sentiments. Welcome to my quarterly fifth-Tuesday report!

Our broken food system? Long before the pandemic hit, the new food movement declared that the American food system is broken and needs to be torn down and rebuilt. Rachel Laudan is reframing the debate on the food system by arguing that there is no single food system. She searches out the origin of the term and declares that the distribution of our food is rooted in capitalism and thus unlikely to disappear in the USA anytime soon. Like her, I am on the side of improving the systems we have in place rather than starting over from scratch.

some remaining blackberries, blueberries with a yellow, red, and orange bell peppers
Berries and peppers to strengthen my immune system.

Selecting the foods we should and should not be eating during the pandemic. The number of stories telling us what we should or shouldn’t be eating seems to have increased during the pandemic. First we should be eating foods to bolster our immune system, and that gets us to superfoods. Well, I am doing well on my orange juice, blueberries, broccoli, tomatoes, chocolate, and red bell peppers. I am also eating salmon, although I am not sure if it is wild. Does my immune system really care? I am not consuming green tea, ginseng, miso or raw honey. On balance, I am probably doing reasonably well, but can I re-invigorate a 70-year-old body that has lost immunity with age? Or are am I just cramming for finals?

packaged loaf of gluten-free bread
Since gluten-free bread is ultra-processed, will consuming it degrade my immunity system?

Of course we are to avoid ultra-processed foods such as “hot dogs, candy, soft drinks, breakfast cereals, chicken nuggets and chips.” Well I haven’t had any chicken nuggets or any fast food for that matter since I started sheltering in place in mid-March. As far as the others—guilty as charged. My soft drinks are sugar free, but that doesn’t seem to matter. I also eat other ultra-processed foods such as gluten-free breads, lactose-free ice cream, and plant-based meats. Will consuming ultra-processed foods wipe out any benefit I get from those superfoods? I hope not. At least I have one thing going for me is that I don’t have to worry about a cytokine storm where the immune system becomes so effective it attacks our own bodies. I guess we should not overdo the superfood thing.

Healthy food can overcome our depression and anxiety over pandemic—really? Could it be possible that our depression and anxiety are misdirected? Could we really just get over it by improving our diet? Are we depressed or anxious based on fears that we or someone in our family could contract the disease or that we recently lost our job and will not be able to pay our bills? Somehow I doubt that eating more fresh fruits and vegetables or more comfort foods is going to magically cure clinical depression or anxiety.

The internet is telling stressed out parents who have been working from home while helping their children with their homework that they must prepare all the family’s meals at home. It is OK to splurge however by baking three-ingredient cookies, but don’t succumb to frying up plant-based burgers as they exceed the five ingredient threshold for acceptable foods to feed our families. I have no problem with feeding the occasional cookie to a child, but in what universe is a sugar-filled, home-baked product considered healthy and a meat substitute as a source of protein unhealthy?

Speaking of comfort foods there is an Ode to Mac and Cheese that has been recently published. As much as I defend processed products, I have been partial to a recipe my wife and I have prepared at home with extra cheese. Alas, my mac and cheese days are behind me as I am gluten free, and most GF pastas just don’t cut it. BTW, in southern cafeterias, mac and cheese qualifies as a vegetable, but be careful of the pumpkin pie as it probably is sweet potato pie instead! Trust me, they are not the same!

Is obesity a vulnerability in the development of CoVID-19? Seems like many of our ills in society today are blamed on obesity. Is it that easy or is obesity just a convenient excuse to continue to fat shame? At least one columnist suggests that it may be a racial issue. She claims that the relationship between obesity and CoVID-19, while seen here is not observed in the UK. Just a caution that correlation does not equal causation. Boris Johnson seems to have the right idea on obesity as he is set to put the nation on a diet to defeat obesity by avoiding processed foods and relying on fresh fruits and vegetables. Such an approach hasn’t worked out well elsewhere. Will he be able to make it work in the  midst of a pandemic?

Changes coming to grocery stores that may become permanent include more contactless checkout and bagging, more inventory by robots, elimination of most if not all self-service stations for nuts, cereals etc., and fewer shelves with wider aisles as home delivery increases. It is still a little early to tell which trends will stick and which will not, but businesses are likely to embrace any innovation that allows replacement of workers by machines. BTW, Big Food is now exploring direct online sales to consumers, more to explore consumer attitudes than to make money. One of the advantages cited is that it eliminates the middleman, but a disadvantage is the transportation costs. Oh, that dastardly middleman! But, is the company actually delivering the food directly to the consumer or paying a delivery company? And, are any other operations such as ordering being outsourced? To me, anyone in the chain not directly on the manufacturing company’s direct payroll is a middleman, and there are good business reasons to use them.

ICYMI, trans fats from partially hydrogenated oils are no longer in processed foods. I have seen a few articles recently warning us about trans fats in processed foods, including one that has described the good news that people in Western nations show a lowering of cholesterol levels. First, the bad trans mentioned in Sean O’Keefe’s guest post are no longer found in processed foods because the FDA effectively discontinued the use of partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) as additives in processed foods as of June 18, 2018. Second, the decrease in cholesterol observed in the study was NOT associated with this removal of PHOs as the data collected in the study ran from 1980 to 2018. Will the removal of this class of additives result in a dramatic decrease in heart disease across the country as has been predicted? We will have to wait and see. In the meantime, treat any recent articles warning about trans fats in processed foods as outdated.

BTW, my physician of five years just left his practice without any explanation. I recently met with my new doctor, and he lectured me about trans fatty acids in canola oil. I tried to explain that FDA essentially banned the use of PHOs, and he countered with the argument about below 0.5 grams, trans fats do not need to be declared. If they are not coming from PHOs, then where are they coming from? I am supposed to consume saturated fat and olive oil to help raise my slightly low LDLs.

And finally, the battle between those pushing plant-based meat and those opposing it continues. For a more in-depth look that explores the broad range of perspectives on the issue see the article that appeared in Forbes last year on the matter.

Next week: Food 5.0: How We Feed the Future

2 thoughts on “News and notes about food in the middle of a pandemic

  1. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the news of the breakage of the American food system has been greatly exaggerated. Stay tuned as this month will be devoted to the theme of the American food system.

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  2. What day did our food system break? I must have missed it. I have not noticed reports of widespread starvation in our alert media. Is UGA teaching courses on ultraprocessing? Is processing defined as breaking our food system? Last night our senior citizens dining room served Mexicorn — seemed to contain a host of different rice, corn, beans and red stuff – plus rice plus beef burrito — seems to me the burrito had more ingredients than I could count. Broken ?

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