Do the Benefits of Organic Food Justify the Increased Cost?

Do the Benefits of Organic Food Justify the Increased Cost? By Emeran Mayer, MD and E. Dylan Mayer A key component of industrial agriculture has been the increasing use of chemicals to maximize the output of inexpensive food products. No matter if the goal is to increase the yield of vegetables for human consumption, or the feed for cows and pigs, it comes down to the extensive use of chemical fertilizers and increasing amounts of pesticides and herbicides in order to increase the yield and to fight the diseases and pests that these conventionally grown plants are more prone to. Even though this approach is often heralded as a key to the successful feeding of a rapidly growing world population, the collateral damage on the health of the soil, on the plants growing on this soil and ultimately on our health has generally been minimized or ignored. Organic farming has long been promoted as a healthier alternative. Rather than breaking the natural cycle that exists between the soil, its microbes, plant health and pest resistance, organic farming aims to nurture and enhance these interactions. According to the USDA: “In organic production, overall system health is emphasized, and the interaction of management practices is the primary concern. Organic producers implement a wide range of strategies to develop and maintain biological diversity and replenish soil fertility” (USDA, 2007).1 Despite the theoretical and intuitive superiority of the organic approach, not only for our health, but for the health of farmworkers, the soil and the environment, there has been a long-standing debate on whether organic foods are healthier or more nutritious compared to conventional foods. A controversial 2012 publication2 from Stanford University reporting results of an analysis of more than 200 existing studies (a so called meta analysis) reported found “little evidence of health benefits from organic foods”. The heavily criticized (New York Times, Los Angeles Times) study reported that there are no consistent differences in vitamin content between organic and conventional food, along with no differences in protein or fat content between organic and conventional milk. The issue with the Stanford study is that it very narrowly defined “nutritious” as containing more vitamins. It failed to mention differences in the levels of other nutrients and beneficial molecules like polyphenols, as well as pesticide contamination. It is worth noting that Cargill, the largest privately owned company in the US trading in agricultural commodities provided…

Plant-Based Milk Alternatives – Which One to Choose?

Plant-Based Milk Alternatives – Which One to Choose? By Emeran Mayer, MD and Juliette Frank Over the past few years the milk section at grocery stores has seen a dramatic change. Now, alongside the dairy milk there are countless options of non-dairy milk alternatives to put in your coffee or cereal. The two main reasons for this recent shift from dairy milk to plant-based alternatives are environmental impact and nutrition. With climate change quickly becoming an urgent issue that cannot be ignored, the environmental impacts of the dairy industry are being taken into consideration by consumers. The U.S. dairy industry is highly subsidized, bringing up questions about the long standing USDA dietary recommendations of milk consumption. When choosing the kind of milk to buy there are several factors to consider: Which option is the healthiest? Which one comes with the least environmental impacts? Looking solely at environmental impact, non-dairy milks are definitely the more sustainably friendly choice in comparison to dairy milk. The director of health campaigns at the Natural Resources Defense Council, explains that no plant-based milk is equal to the water usage of dairy milk. Water is used in every step of the dairy production process: to hydrate cows, clean facilities, and for feed. When comparing the environmental impacts of all milk options there are many factors to consider: water usage, greenhouse gas emissions, land use, transportation, and how and where crops are grown and processed. One of the most popular non-dairy milk options is almond milk. Out of all the plant-based options, almonds require the most amount of water to produce. About 90% of almonds are grown in California where water is scarce, creating more of an environmental stressor. Even so, the production of dairy milk still has more than four times the global warming potential than almond milk. From a nutrition perspective, almond milk is low in calories, fat, and protein making it a healthy option. For people with nut allergies, soy milk is a better option although there are some environmental concerns to be aware of. Soybeans are grown using monoculture, which drives deforestation due to the harmful effects on the soil and climate. From a nutrition standpoint, soy milk’s protein level is comparable to that of dairy milk and it is usually less processed than other non-dairy options. Another alternative, oat milk, has blown up in popularity in the past few months. Because of…

Health Benefits of Red Meat: How Much Can We Trust Food Recommendations in Medical Literature?

Health Benefits of Red Meat: How Much Can We Trust Food Recommendations in Medical Literature? By Emeran Mayer, MD and Juliette Frank The correlation between the consumption of red meat and an increased risk of chronic diseases has long been known throughout the world of public health and nutrition. For years nutrition scientists have been urging the public to reduce their intake of red and processed meat because of the harmful effects of saturated fat and cholesterol it contains. In November 2019 a study was published by editor Dr. Christine Laine in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Bradley C. Johnston, the lead researcher, found results that contradict all past nutritional advice to limit intake of red and processed meat. About a month after the paper was published the journal published a correction that Johnston received funding from Texas A&M AgriLife Research on saturated and polyunsaturated fats. The funding was within the 36 month reporting period where disclosure is required. Immediately after it was published, the article was met with uproar from organizations such as the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society claiming that the contradicting results in this study would taint public trust in scientific research. The chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Frank Hu published an article countering the results of Johnston’s study criticizing the type of analysis the researchers used. Hu was shocked when he found out Johnston was also the leader of an industry-funded article discrediting international health guidelines advising people to eat less sugar using the same tool GRADE which is designed to look at clinical health trials, not dietary studies. This study was funded by the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), a group founded by a top Coca-Cola executive who has previously been accused of undermining nutrition advice to advance corporate interests. The obesity rate in the United States has skyrocketed in the past decade along with an increase in type 2 diabetes and chronic diseases. This is largely due to the excessive consumption of red meat, animal-fat ingredients, and processed foods that make up the Western diet. There are countless evidence-based dietary recommendations that support eating a plant-based diet with minimal processed food to fight diseases and avoid premature death. Plant-based foods contain most of the dietary fiber and are the primary source of antioxidants, vitamins, and polyphenols needed to sustain a healthy and…

The Indisputable Benefits of Largely Plant-based Diets

The Indisputable Benefits of Largely Plant-based Diets By Emeran A. Mayer, MD [caption id="attachment_2785" align="alignleft" width="531"] Photo: Loreto di Cesare[/caption]In a recent US News and World Report on the Healthiest Diets, the Mediterranean diet was selected from 41 competitors as the 2019's best overall diet. It is important to point out that it is the traditional version of Mediterranean diet that stands out in its health-promoting effects. Many changes to this dietary pattern have occurred since it first captured the attention of diet experts in the 1960s, in particular an increase in portion sizes, red meat and animal fat ingredients, and in processed foods. Many areas of Italy do not adhere to the original formulation, with the Parma region being a good example where the famous ham and cheese are synonymous with the region. These changes in the Mediterranean diet in Italy over the last 50 years are reflected in the increase in obesity, type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome, with Italian children now having one of the highest obesity rates in the Western world While the choice of the traditional Mediterranean diet as the best overall diet is not surprising to many people following evidence-based dietary recommendations, the report was interesting in terms of the runner ups in the ranking, such as the DASH, MIND, Ornish, Flexitarian and Nordic diets: All these study-supported, health-promoting and disease-fighting diets require the use of minimally processed foods and focus on plant-based products, such as fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Also, these diets do not require the complete elimination of occasional consumption of animal products, or of indulgences like chocolate, or small deserts, making it easier to adhere to them. What is the magic behind the health-promoting effects of these diets? Plant-based foods are the primary source of dietary fiber, which amongst other benefits assures a healthy and diverse gut microbiome, in particular if the source of the different types of fiber is a high variety of plants and vegetables. Plant- based foods are also the primary source for vitamins, antioxidants and polyphenols, the latter coming primarily from dark colored berries, olive oil, coffee, dark chocolate, spices and red wine. The latest research has shown that only a small fraction of these large plant-derived molecules can be absorbed in the small intestine as antioxidants, while the great majority serve as substrate the gut microbiota, so called prebiotics. Once they…

Microbes Adapt to Their New Environment Along with Their Immigrant Hosts

Microbes Adapt to Their New Environment Along with Their Immigrant Hosts By Emeran A. Mayer, MD A recent article published by Dan Knights’ group at the University of Minnesota and reported in the journal Cell reports that gut microbial composition and diversity changed within months in immigrants from rural Asian environments to the US. The authors’ key findings were: Immigration to the US from rural regions in Asia is associated with loss of gut microbial species, diversity and loss of bacterial enzymes associated with plant fiber degradation Bacteroides strains displaced fiber-digesting Prevotella strains according to time spent in the USA Loss of diversity increased with obesity and was compounded across generations “People began to lose their native microbes almost immediately after arriving in the U.S.,” Knights said when interviewed by The Washington Post. “The loss of diversity was quite pronounced: Just coming to the USA, just living in the USA, was associated with a loss of about 15 percent of microbiome diversity.” Interestingly, the children of immigrants had another 5 to 10 percent loss of diversity. Knights and his colleagues examined the relative abundance and diversity of gut microbes and their gene content in stool samples from more than 500 immigrant women from rural areas in Asia, the Hmong and Karen people. To get a snapshot before and after arrival in the US, researchers also took microbiome samples from 19 Karen women before their departure and after their arrival. The scientists compared all of these microbiomes with those of 36 European Americans born in the United States. The dominant species in the gut of immigrants changed from strains of a group of bacteria called Prevotella to a group called Bacteroides. The genus Prevotella belongs to the taxa Bacteroidites which together with the taxa Firmicutes makes up the majority of gut microbes in the human GI tract. Similar differences in gut microbial taxa between the remnants of hunter gatherer populations in Africa (Hadza) and South America (Yanomami), and populations living in industrialized countries, in particular in North America, Europe and Australia have previously been described (Smits et al. Science 357, 2017; De Filippo, PNAS 2010). Industrialized populations have microbiotas that are dominated by Bacterioidites, whereas traditional populations across the African, Asian, and South American continents, which include a range of lifestyles from rural agriculturalists to hunter gatherers, have microbiotas that are in part distinguished by their abundances of Prevotella taxa, just…