August 9, 2012

What the heck are we eating?

Sharing a meal and conversation about our food system is powerful!

The One Hundred Meals project is an effort by two food activists to foster civil, constructive conversations with all sides of agriculture by sitting down to meals with people—building community at America’s table.

Meal One taught me first off that we have built a wonderful mousetrap.

Natasha Godard was watching the formation of our new project and when she read my post about research confusion and saw our list of intended meals, she thought we might like to talk with her because she is a scientific-thinking person with a biology degree. Hoping we could get some clarification about how scientists think, how they’re funded and how to choose trustworthy science from someone who’s actually done scientific research, we of course invited ourselves to dinner!

Hailing from New Mexico, she and her husband Bill served huevos rancheros—a tortilla topped with refried black beans, then a delicious layer of carne adovada and topped with a fried egg. Natasha bought pork shoulder from Rob over at the Butcher + Larder, which means it was from Slagel Family Farm and slowly simmered it in red chili sauce. (Here’s her recipe.)

And because Ellen has a ready supply of “city eggs” to take as hostess gifts wherever she goes, the eggs we enjoyed were from our own birds! All that plus a delicious homebrew made for a fantastic meal that was thoughtfully sourced and prepared from scratch. For me, that alone is a powerful thing to sit down to with new friends. Add intense conversation delving into food and the science of food and you have a great learning experience as well.

Our city eggs!

So what the heck did I learn?

I read a lot about food and some of the apparent problems with our food system. Over time, my brain has decided that because it’s difficult to sort out what’s good, nutritious and safe from what’s not, I need some simple mechanism. For me and Ellen, that mechanism is to rely on finding foods that seem “natural” and “caveman-like.”

Simpler, whole foods that are grown fairly close to the way they’d grow in nature makes sense to us. Complicated, processed foods do not. Our friend Seedling Pete is an example of someone who offers a value-added, processed food product—apple cider. When you read the ingredient list though, it says: apples. Yes, it has a short shelf life, but it is food I can understand. Simple.

So inherently I count GMOs in the “complicated” and “unnatural” category.

But I learned, from this scientific mind and eater I trust and respect that casting all GMOs in the same light may not be fair. There can be good science that leads to healthy GMO plants that we may want to consider eating after all—as Natasha puts it, she’s not inherently suspicious of GMOs. She trusts the process but doesn’t always trust the intent of companies putting the science to work.

Im beginning to realize that I may not be able to discount all “science-y” food just because it is lab-derived. I am not sure of this yet, but Natasha is asking me to consider it in a compelling way. Perhaps some GM crops like nutrient-enhanced golden rice are okay but others may not be. In any case, it’s now important to me to understand the GMO process better and consider whether it’s fair to apply such a broad, dismissive brush stroke to them all.

The topic of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) came up too and we were shocked to learn that Natasha has no objection to drinking milk from cows given the growth hormone. Shocked! She had reasons:

  • She’s given to understand that growth hormones are species-specific, her scientific mind tells her it’s not going to impact her…or even impact kids. She thinks the early puberty happening these days is likely caused by various endocrine disruptors, including bisphenal-A (BPA) in cash register receipts, baby bottles and canned goods but possibly also by childhood obesity itself.
  • She also understands, scientifically, that rBGH does not necessarily enter the cow’s milk.

All that said, she and Bill drink Kilgus milk which is rBGH-free. Why? Tastes great! And because they have environmental concerns and concerns for animal welfare that they feel Kilgus addresses.

Kilgus dairy tour

I admit I have not read a lot about rBGH so I am ill-prepared to debate it with her. Again, our food system is so incredibly complex that I apply my “close to nature” filter on milk. Cows should eat grass and produce milk. Anything else is too much science for me. Yes, it may be safe, but I don’t always have time to read every white paper out there, so as a consumer, I choose simple.

Which brings us generally speaking around to research, the topic we most hoped to cover with Natasha:

If you happen to be a crazy food person who wants to know more about what you’re eating, how do you suss out which research is trustworthy?

Is land-grant university research trustworthy even with all the recent reports showing how much of that research is funded by big ag businesses? Can we trust research from Pew? Who is Pew anyway? What can we trust?

Natasha was pretty clear in her response to these questions. First off, scientists inherently try to be objective. Secondly, it’s incumbent on anyone who’s interested that one read from a lot of sources. In particular, Natasha stresses that peer-reviewed journal articles are going to be the most fact-based source of information. Use these to form your own synthesis of the preponderance of evidence. In her own words:

That said, these articles are written for other experts, not laymen. This is why we all (myself included for many fields, ag being one of them) end up needing someone to “translate” it for us. Unfortunately, “translation” potentially comes, intentionally or otherwise, with bias.

This is why I say, don’t just pick one source and stick with it. It’s vital to read multiple sources, especially once you’re into magazines, blogs and what have you, because of that potential for bias.

Please note, though, “bias” doesn’t in this case mean, “having an active agenda.” It simply refers to the honest fact that we all have our lenses through which we view the world, and that will always influence our interpretation of what we read. Going to multiple “interpretive” sources will help a person understand the facts of a study better, and allow them to make their own judgment calls. Hopefully, recognizing their own bias.

And lastly Natasha would caution, there are researchers who publish results that are not in the interest of their funding sources—it does happen.

Here’s an example: Dr. Richard Dick at Ohio State University, a land-grant school, used soybean check-off funding (check-off funds are monies set aside by soybean farmers as a group to fund research and marketing) to research the negative effects of glyphosate (herbicide) on soil health.

As for Pew, she is still forming her own opinion of them so she had little to say. We are too and we’ll be working to learn more!

Meal One did two things:

1. It gave Ellen and me a new lens with which to look at scientific literature. We’re not experts now, but we’re better than we used to be!

2. I was touched to learn also that the meal impacted Natasha and Bill too. In an email afterwards Natasha wrote:

Interestingly, our conversation and my noticing this [rBGH/rBST labels] on our milk has inspired several conversations between Bill and me about labeling. And we’re both curiously noticing them a lot. For example, we noticed last night at Target that Dean’s milk proudly displays that they also do not use rBST on the label. The potential results of labeling, either required or otherwise, has been a topic of endless fascination in this household. So I must thank you two for bringing it out for us. It’s been a truly interesting set of discussions.

Proof that One Hundred Meals will be a rewarding process for everyone at the table—both because we all got to eat huevos rancheros and because we’re all now thinking outside of our previous mindsets!

Editor: Lynn Hasselberger

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