As we begin our discussion on organic foods, we will address the reasons why so many consumers are willing to pay a premium for these foods. One of the main reasons is that organic foods are thought by consumers to be healthier than conventional foods. We will review the actual data on this question, but regardless, this perception certainly exists.
It’s interesting that by attaching an “organic” label to a food, it suddenly becomes healthy. Cookies, cake, ice cream, candy bars, potato chips – you name it, there is bound to be an organic version.
From the “you can’t make this up” file, there is even organic cigarettes. Indeed, according to this article published last September, in the tobacco-growing state of Virginia, tobacco has become the main organic commodity produced in that state. There are now more farms and more sales in Virginia for tobacco than poultry or milk.
Now I know organic versions of wine and beer are available, but as I was writing this I thought what could possibly be next. Organic marijuana, perhaps? Sure enough, it’s available in Colorado, Washington and other states where marijuana is legal.
And I thought organic chocolate cake was a bit over-the-top!
One third of Americans are now obese and another third are overweight. Diabetes rates are not far behind. Childhood obesity and diabetes, almost unheard of 50 years ago, have reached alarming levels.
There is a lot of blame to go around – from fast food restaurants to school lunch and other government programs that encourage unhealthy diets. Of course, the packaged foods industry has also received a lot of the blame.
Soda pop producers have been especially singled out by many nutritionists and public health professionals for their role in promoting obesogenic diets. I will be discussing this more on Wednesday, but most of you already know how pervasive pop consumption is in the U.S. and how many calories we consume as sports drinks, soda pop, and other sugary beverages. Even with consumers cutting back on their pop consumption, each one of us still drinks, on average, more than 35 gallons per year.
Last year, a major controversy on this very topic occurred after the prestigious journal JAMA Internal Medicine published an study critical of the sugar industry. Specifically, that revealed how the sugar industry promoted research in the 1960s and 1970s that advanced the argument that fat and cholesterol were the real dangers in our food and to our health. Sugar consumption was down-played. This sales pitch was evidently very successful, and this position (fat bad) became dogma for the next 40 years (see also this New York Times article).
Indeed, the researchers that led these early studies were themselves well-known and from prestigious institutions (from Harvard, no less). That they were paid by the industry without disclosing this information was, according to New York University nutritionist, Marion Nestle, an “appalling” conflict of interest. In her JAMA commentary, she notes that the sugar/pop industry continues to have a “cozy relationship” with obesity scientists and that such relationships bias the research in this important public heath field.
This issue is not going away, and the soda pop tax issue remains front and center.
Obesity is not the only so-called life-style disease, but it certainly is the poster child for such diseases. That’s because nearly every other life-style disease, from type 2 diabetes to heart disease, hypertension, and cancer, are all related to an obesogenic life-style.
To remind you, life-style diseases are those caused by daily habits and our regular routine. The main contributing factors are poor diet, lack of exercise, and general physical inactivity. Even posture (i.e., sitting at your desk at work and your couch at home) and poor sleep habits are part of the syndrome.
This means that successful solutions to the obesity problem will not likely be based only on dietary changes. Rather, we (meaning future food scientists as well as public health experts) will need to be broad-thinking and creative in order to change entire life-styles.
It may be naïve to suggest that building more sidewalks, bike trails, and public swimming pools and playgrounds have a role in the obesity issue, but that is exactly the discussion we need to have. Likewise, incentives for grocery stores to open locations in cities and to ensure public safety in those area should also be on the table. The school lunch and food stamp programs need to be re-configured in a major way.
That these cost money is not really the question. After all, the cost of the obesity epidemic is about $300 billion. We all pay for this cost (even healthy people) in the form of insurance premiums, loss of productivity, and medical bills. The bottom line is that prevention is almost always cheaper than the alternative.
Every year, obesity data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control are presented as a report called the “State of Obesity”. The 2017 report was released last week. The news is mostly bad.
For example, more than one-third (nearly 38%) of U.S. adults are now considered obese. For women it’s even worse (40%).
The rates also vary considerably state-to-state, with Colorado the lowest (22%) and West Virginia the highest (38%). Indeed, of the top ten heaviest states, 8 are in the South. Nebraska, if you are interested, ranks in the middle.
As we will discuss in class, obesity is correlated with other health conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Childhood obesity is especially alarming. That’s why this is the most serious public health problem in the U.S.
We can argue all day about whether or not food scientists have contributed to this problem. However, we can also consider ways that food scientists might contribute solutions to this problem. This is also why we will devote several lectures to this topic.
Why we eat what we eat – this has been the question we’ve been discussing the past several lectures. As we’ve learned, there are complex cultural, social, psychological, personal, and biological components to this seemingly simple question. The next topic is no less complicated – why, as a society, do we eat so much that nearly 70% of our population is overweight or obese?
As we address this important question, we will re-visit many of the issues raised in this first section. For example, does the pervasive advertising of junk food affect our eating habits? Does our family environment have an effect? What role does personal choice have?
Despite the role of biology in determining what we eat, our eating habits are profoundly influenced by food trends. Thus, try as many of us do to avoid being just another “follower”, we often make food choices based on fads, fashion, and what everyone else is eating. As food writer David Sax suggested, while “we do have a choice about what we put in our mouths, the reality is that our appetite is collective”.
There is clearly some truth (maybe a lot) in this. Consider all of the foods we probably did not grow up eating, but which so many of us now eat routinely – sushi (at least 5 sushi restaurants in Lincoln), kombucha tea, and of course upscale coffee drinks are everywhere.
In the past few lectures, we’ve discussed cultural and social attitudes that influence what we eat. Another factor that has a profound influence on eating behavior, but is less obvious perhaps, is technology.
I was thinking about this the other day while ordering restaurant food from my computer. Who, after all, hasn’t ordered food from a smart phone app or tablet? What is interesting, however, is that the technology changes not only how we order, but what and how much we order. Researchers have shown, for example, that ordering food on-line can lead to larger orders, and importantly, more calories per meal. Why do you think this is the case?
As noted in class, eating habits are profoundly influenced by social situations. Nonetheless, many of these social influences fly under the radar, and we don’t realize that what we eat is affected by social circumstances. For example, we’ve all been out with friends to a nice restaurant, and when the dessert cart arrives, we look around to see who is indulging. Indeed, that’s one reason why the social phenomenon of “sharing” is so common at dessert time.
There is also an eating phenomenon called “modeling”. Again, this is very common, but we usually aren’t aware of it. It occurs when you decide what (or how much) you will eat based on someone else’s eating choices. The “model” can be your dining companion, but can also be a stranger at another table.
When you were younger, your parents or older siblings were probably your primary food models. However, according to the research, college students are likely to choose peers as models. The peer factor is one of the main reasons for why college students change their eating behavior once they arrive on campus. So long meatloaf, hello sushi!