As I sit in my comfortable home, it is difficult to write a blog on food while war rages on in Ukraine. The brutality of the fighting and the flight of refugees flicker across my screen. Food and water shortages along with mounting death tolls capture my attention. Concerns about what we eat seem trivial. How little I knew about Ukraine! Chernobyl and The Fiddler on the Roof are part of Ukrainian not Russian cultural experience. My heart goes out to the brave soldiers in Ukraine fighting to keep their country. Let’s start with the effects of the war on world food trade.
War in Ukraine affects world food supply in many ways. Ukraine and Russia are major exporters of sunflower oil, wheat, and corn. Poorer nations depend on the countries at war for these staples. Global trade brings down food prices. Wars disturb trade, disrupt supply chains, and lead to price increases. It is not only this year that we will see shortages. If farmers don’t plant crops this year, next year’s shipments will disappear. Sanctions are hitting Russia and Belarus hard. Loss of fertilizer exports from them will lower crop yields around the world. The poorest people in all nations will suffer the most. As food prices rise so do hunger and starvation. During WWII, more people around the world died of starvation than died of military action. In Ukraine keeping food processing plants going is critical in feeding its population. As I write this message, people in Mariupol are surviving with little food, water, medicine, and other necessities.
Closer to home, the loss of grains, cooking oil and fertilizer from the region may have as big an impact on our economy as the loss of Russian oil. Not only does it affect the cost of these ingredients. It also impacts the cost of processed products containing these ingredients. Then there is barley, a key ingredient in making beer! Is global trade of food and other commodities the problem? Do we need to grow more of our own food? In times of war, food sovereignty makes sense. In times of peace, not so much.
Confusion over processed food continues. In spite of my New Year’s resolution, the flame of ultra-processing draws me to any article on the topic. A series of “synchronous focus groups were conducted online” embracing a wide range of food professionals from public-health nutritionists to food scientists. How do food professionals view processed foods relative to views of the general public(1)? What disagreements arise between the participants? Can we come to a consensus position or is that even important? By these disagreements how do we communicate knowledge to the public? Are our pronouncements useful to the public? Or are we making their understanding of the issues worse? Is there room for uncertainty in our communications? Or do we need to enunciate key concepts in clear, straightforward language?
Some key conclusions of the study suggest that
- public squabbling over food issues erodes public confidence in science,
- a need to “find a balance, or manage the tradeoffs, between food security, nutrition, and sustainability” of processed foods in the diet,
- there is no consensus on the effect of the “degree of processing” on the healthiness of foods,
- such discussions must not interfere with development of appropriate public health measures, and
- confusion by food professionals makes it difficult for the public to take our advice.
The article concludes that “Participants identified a need for further interdisciplinary dialogue, including public engagement, to break down the observed issues, and work towards a mutual understanding and develop clear communication messages.” One of the main goals for the blog is to foster communication across food professions.
Doubt this conclusion? See how two sisters and their parents dealt with a conflict over the healthiness of processed foods. Which sister was right?
This just in. A comprehensive review article (2) concludes that “Our meta-analysis that not all ultra-processed foods are harmful, and current classification/terminology should be revised as it can be misleading & cause confusion for the public.” Once again, we have so much chatter about the topic and so little fruitful discussion. Read my latest commentary on ultra-processed foods which will appear soon in Food Technology.
Understanding obesity is not as simple as it appears. For one thing it is easy to mix up the macro (forest) and micro (trees) effects. Healthy diets and obesity represent the forest; food marketing represents a tree. The study in PLOS Medicine (3) found that an advertising ban on junk food slowed the increase in sales. It did not show any effect on obesity. Only a systematic, coordinated effort that fells many trees will make an impact. Earlier this month I described health differences in the American and Italian populations. Enter Sweden with a comparable obesity rate (21%) and a lower life expectancy (83.3) than Italy. Are ultra-processed foods to blame? Maybe not. UPF consumption in Italy is 13% of daily calories, for Sweden it is 42%, and the USA comes in at 61%. Correlation is not causation. The case against UPFs on health rests on correlation studies. Is something else going on here?
On the good food/bad food front, vegetables might not be as healthy as we think. A UK study (4) found that vegetable eaters were healthier than the general population. End of story? Maybe not. Raw vegetable consumption made an impact. Cooked vegetables did not. When screening out for gender, education, income, and physical activity, the relationships narrowed. Vegetables did not appear to have a health halo after all. And now we find that almonds may not be any healthier than fries! What? Researchers supplied two groups with portions of equal calories of the two foods for 30 days. Eating plain fries led to lower weight change than almonds and seasoned fries. Acute glucose and insulin response were higher in fry eaters than almond eaters.
Once again, we focus on trees without understanding the forest. Americans have problems with food, obesity, and chronic diseases. How much of that is due to diets and specific foods we eat? And how much is due to other causes? We also must not look on individual studies that support our narrow point of view (more trees). Let’s broaden our horizons as we look across the forest for more meaningful solutions.
But wait there is more! One of the big criticisms of processed foods is that many are inflammatory. Anyone over the age of 65 knows about the pain of inflammation. We experience it as arthritis, depression, diabetes, and various aches and pains associated with aging. A major cause of inflammation we learn is diet. There are specific diets to reduce the ravages of inflammation. Sugar and any food with sugar in it is suspect. Now we have research which questions the whole concept of sugar as an inflammatory agent.
Also, don’t set the oven at temperatures above 300ºF when cooking. Any higher temperatures induce AGEs (Advanced Glycation End products), aka glycotoxins. Too many of these natural chemicals speed up the aging process and lead to chronic diseases. Are those of us who cook at 350 ºF and roast our veggies at higher temps doomed to a premature death? So suggests a recent story on the net. Any cooked or toasted food that browns contains lots of AGEs and poses a danger. In food science classes we call this set of chemical reactions as Maillard browning. It may not be time to fret yet. We may be able to mitigate these problems by eating a purple superfruit. Introducing a GMO tomato stuffed with blueberry polyphenols about about to hit the market soon in a food boutique around the corner. Critical thinking skills may come in handy as we scan the net!
Next week: Tradeoffs: Health, Disease and Processed Foods
(1) Sadler, C.R., T. Grassby, K. Hart, M.M. Raats, M. Sokolovic, L. Timotijevic, 2022. “Even we are confused”: a thematic analysis of professionals’ perceptions of processed foods and challenges for communication. Frontiers in Nutrition https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2022.826162
(2) Tanieri, P.E., F. Wehrli, Z.M.R. Diaz, O.A. Itodo, D. Salvador, H. Raesisi-Dehkordi, L. Bally, B. Miller, J.C. Kiefte-de Jong, J.L. Carmelli, A. Bano, M. Gilsic, T. Muka, 2022. Association between ultra-processed food intake and all-cause mortality: A systematic review and meta-analysis. American Journal of Epidemiology, https://doi.org/10.1093/aje/kwac039
(3) Yau, A., N. Berger, C. Law, L. Cornelsen, R. Greener, J. Adams, E.J. Boyland, T. Burgoine, F. de Vocht, M. Egan, V. Er, A.A. Lake, K. Lock, O. Mylton, M. Petticrew, C. Thompson, M. White, S. Cummins, 2022. Changes in household food and drink purchases following restriction on the advertisement of high fat, salt, and sugar products across the Transport for London network: A controlled interrupted time series analysis. PLOS Medicine https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1003915
(4) Feng, Q., J.H. Kim, W. Omiyale, J. Besevic, M. Conroy, M. May, Z. Yang, S.Y. Wong, K. K. Tsoi, N. Allen, B. Lacey, 2022. Frontiers | Raw and Cooked Vegetable Consumption and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease: A Study of 400,000 Adults in UK Biobank | Nutrition (frontiersin.org)