Comfort like cold porridge

I go a lot by taste. It has usually been a fair guide to what I’m eating, but in this era of plant-based meat, I’m no longer as sure. I’m certainly in favour of diminishing my ecological footprint, and a career as a Vegan is not really in the cards, I’m afraid, but lately I’ve been wondering how much I can trust the advertised contents -even when they’re listed on the label.

To start with, I’m not always familiar with some of the ingredients -or, for that matter, their possible health effects. It’s all very reassuring to see them listed, but I’m not sure how that helps the average person decide whether or not the product is safe for them, especially long-term. Most of us, I suspect, confine our reading to things like the caloric content, and maybe the amount of salt. I doubt that even the health-conscious delve much deeper than, say, the amount of fibre or perhaps whether or not it is gluten-free. The rest is largely a meaningless blur; we assume that the rest of the ingredients have passed some careful scrutiny by the health authorities and are deemed safe.

In fact, I suppose the fact that they are listed as present on the label means we can trust both their safety as well as their presence. Short of operating our own food analysis lab, the only other option is to try our luck with another product whose ingredients we find more reassuringly recognizable. Of course, the elephant in the room -or the jar- is the ability to trust whatever is listed. That may be a mistake.

And yet, perhaps I was already suspicious after reading a novel years ago during my impressionable university days. As with many of the books I’ve read, I’ve retained only interesting fragments that often had little to do with the main theme, but I do remember (I think) a scene in the 1906 novel by Upton Sinclair –The Jungle- that dealt with unsanitary practices in the meat packing plants in Chicago at the time. One of the workers fell into a vat of sausage meat and the because accident was purposely ignored, his body (I assume) was ground into somebody’s sausage. Not only did that have quite an effect on me reading about it some 60 years later, but it must also have shocked the public at the time, and led to greater regulation of the industry and the passing of a Meat Inspection Act.

But that was long ago, and I imagine most of us assume that things have improved steadily since then. Indeed they have, but human nature being what it is, there are always loopholes; there are always lapses in regulatory scrutiny.

I am an obsessive examiner of food labels, and have come to avoid most products that don’t display them. Of course, there are exceptions, where I have to trust the shop from which I buy them. Meat and fish, for example -only the store knows their source and whether they have good reason to believe what they have been told by the original seller.

You have to trust somebody, naturally, but what about the source the store itself relies on? How thoroughly do they investigate their providers? How vigilant should I be? How vigilant can I be?

I happened upon an article by John G. Keogh who is a researcher in Food Chain Transparency at the University of Reading.

‘The globalization of the food chain has resulted in increased complexity and diminished transparency and trust into how and where our foods are grown, harvested, processed and by whom.’ And he suggests that this very complexity has allowed people to exploit the system. Unless the food is locally sourced, there is seldom the ability for the retailer to have personal knowledge of the origin of their groceries.

Indeed, ‘Before modern supermarkets, a local village or town grocery store stocked up to 300 items grown or processed within a 240-kilometre (150-mile) radius. In comparison, our post-modern supermarkets carry an average of 33,000 items that travel 2,400 kilometres or more.’ So, perhaps as a result, the ‘Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) suggests food fraud affects 10 per cent of commercially sold food. Various academic and industry sources suggest that globally, food fraud ranges from US$10 billion to $49 billion… If you add the sales of fake wines and alcohol, adulterated honey and spices, mislabelled fish and false claims of organic products, wild-caught fish or grain-fed meat, the numbers, and risks, increase significantly.’

Canada, as with most other developed nations, seems to be aware of the risks and has duly enacted regulations in an attempt to curb abuse, but the problem -not unique to Canada, of course- is in the enforcement. Apart from the vigilance required, it is hugely expensive, and the government has turned to genomics and DNA to detect some of the animal product deceptions. For example, there have been ‘a number of research papers uncovering food fraud and revealing the mislabelling of fish species in Canadian restaurants and grocery stores.’ And there was a paper ‘entitled “Re-visiting the occurrence of undeclared species in sausage products sold in Canada” as a followup to a previous study that showed a 20 per cent mislabelling rate for sausage… sampled from grocery stores across Canada [and] contained meats that weren’t on the label. The followup indicated 14 per cent of the 100 sausages tested still contained meat DNA that was undeclared on the label.’

I bought some fish the other day from a store I have come to trust. Of course the fact that it had a 25% off in a red sticker on the wrapper should have alerted something in my hindbrain, but I suppose I was in a hurry and thought it would make a delicious dinner. It purported to be steelhead -one of my favourites- but after I had prepared and barbecued it using a recipe I resort to for special occasions, it tasted suspiciously like Pink salmon. I loved it, though, so I wasn’t so much disappointed as surprised. So, even if it was mislabelled, I could think of no reason to complain to the store.

I still don’t buy sausages, though.

Food for Thought

There’s something encouraging about the fact that we are not simply our genes. We’ve moved on -evolved, I guess. They are still the recipes, the instructions, but as every chef knows, you don’t always have to include all of the ingredients to get a good result. Genes are perhaps more akin to a first draft for a project. Suggestions. Options. They are, in effect, travel guides -road maps- that tell you what you could do and how you might go about doing it, but although the tickets are bought, you don’t have to get on the bus. Who we are –what we are- is not as pre-ordained as we previously thought. Just because there is a light switch on the wall, doesn’t mean it has to be turned on unless it’s needed. There is a mechanism, as Wikipedia puts it, for ‘cellular and physiological phenotypic trait variations that are caused by external or environmental factors that switch genes on and off and affect how cells read genes instead of being caused by changes in the DNA sequence.It is called epigenetics.

Genetic evolution usually takes a long time –often a very long time- and circumstances can arise that were not originally anticipated. But there are several mechanisms to silence or inhibit those genes from carrying out their initial instructions and these allow extra opportunities for an organism to survive and adapt to circumstances perhaps not present during its initial evolution. Unfortunately, it can be a two-way street…

Food, food, glorious food -well that’s how I remember the words anyway (apologies to Flanders and Swann). It’s something that is often as pleasant in retrospect as it’s anticipation is in prospect. Something that transcends the here and now. Like culture, it involves feelings and judgments. It is a part of the fabric of our realities, part of the habits that are difficult to change without conscious effort and strong motivation. We wear our preferences as uniforms -identities. Food is not simply what we consume -it reflects a train of thought. There are allegiances, unspoken loyalties that pass from generation to generation. And it is often how others see us -evaluate us. To change or vary, risks awkward questions at the very least. So it’s fascinating to reflect on the importance of food in defining not only who and what we are, but also on it’s influence on what we might become. And what our children might become as a result…

It is not a trifling matter. Food has always had a central role in culture and what a mother eats in her pregnancy has long inspired myths about the child she will deliver. Famines have been instructive: in more recent times, the Dutch Famine of 1944 during World War ll led to intrauterine growth restriction and subsequent chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease later in the offspring’s life.

A similar twist on the importance of prenatal nutrition was highlighted in an article in BBC News:  ‘.A team from Britain’s Medical Research Council, which has been collecting data on births, marriages and deaths in Keneba since the 1940s, discovered some years ago that in this part of The Gambia when you are conceived makes a huge difference to your chances of dying prematurely.’

This seemingly bizarre finding is corroborated in animal experiments in which, ‘it is possible to make the genes in an embryo more active, or turn them off entirely, simply by varying their mother’s diet.’ And indeed, as the author explains, ‘the studies done in The Gambia certainly provide compelling evidence that these so-called “epigenetic changes” may also happen in humans in response to a change in diet. That if, during very early development, a mother eats a diet rich in leafy green vegetables, then this will change forever just how active some of her child’s genes are.’

There are other epigenetic ramifications that are also important: this ‘happens through a process called methylation and researchers in The Gambia have recently shown that babies conceived in the wet season have very different levels of activity of a particular gene that’s important for regulating the immune system. As Matt Silver, part of the MRC team, says: “Variation in methylation state in this gene could affect your ability to fight viral infections and it may also affect your chances of survival from cancers such as leukaemia and lung cancer.”

Prenatal influences are far greater than we had ever suspected; we were naïve indeed to feel that the importance of diet was primarily to provide nutrients for the developing fetus -ingredients for the recipe. We were too narrow in our conceptions. Too dull, maybe. There is so much about the world –about ourselves- that we are only beginning to understand. We truly live in exciting times… and yet it has always been exciting times for those interested enough to open their eyes hasn’t it? We’ve always lived at the edge of some river or other. It merely takes someone curious enough to travel down it. As Shakespeare said: We know what we are, but know not what we may be.


Diet in Pregnancy

There was a time when the prevailing dietary wisdom was simple: food contained calories, weight was a function of caloric imbalance. If you used less calories than you took in you gained weight, and vice versa. It was intuitively appealing and it still is; anybody with even an elementary grasp of mathematics understands. But it is becoming increasingly apparent that all calories are not equal. Health uses a different equation than hunger. So should the pregnant woman.

Of course, this comes as no surprise: it has long been apparent that a diet of potato chips and cola does not often foster a healthy newborn. Unfortunately, it has been far too easy to attribute more of the blame to other competing lifestyle factors. And it has always been difficult to separate the effects of smoking, diet, illicit drug use, alcohol, obesity and a myriad other lifestyle factors that have to be teased, strand by strand, out of the morass. They all contribute in their own ways, of course, and yet I sometimes think that we treat food choice as merely a weight regulating phenomenon -caloric intake once again.

But amongst a host of other similar investigations that seem to be appearing recently, the British Medical Journal published a review of over 66,000 women from the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study linking dietary choices to -in this study- premature delivery. Preterm delivery is responsible for a large proportion newborn infant deaths, not to mention health problems both long and short-term. It is a significant problem that has multiple causes to be sure, but diet is one that may be more easily amenable to manipulation.

The original article was enlightening, albeit a little dense, so I will refer to the brief summary of the parameters of the study from the Huffington Post:

The researchers classified the women’s diets as “prudent,” “traditional” or “Western.” A prudent diet consisted of raw and cooked vegetables, salad, fruit and berries, nuts, vegetable oils, whole grain cereals, poultry and water to drink. A “traditional” diet, by contrast, was mainly composed of boiled potatoes, fish, gravy, margarine, rice pudding, low-fat milk and cooked vegetables. Lastly, a “Western” diet contained a lot of salty snacks, chocolate and sweets, cakes, French fries, white bread, ketchup, sugar sweetened drinks, processed meat products, and pasta.

Anyway, guess which diet was the healthiest? When asked in this rather black and white format, the correct answer is easier to see than in the supermarket or fast-food outlet where cost is often the biggest determinant of choice.

One has to be careful not to attribute cause to something that may be only an associative phenomenon, however. Maybe women who make unhealthy choices can only afford a certain diet -are only exposed to certain ways of eating. Maybe they have other characteristics that might lead to premature delivery. Why one makes certain dietary decisions is often -if not usually- an indication of the river in which the individual is already swimming. And it would be naïve to assume that merely changing what she eats will solve the other health and lifestyle issues that may affect the foetus developing inside her. But pregnancy is a time when most women are motivated and open to suggestions that might help their babies. It is an opportunity that should not be wasted: education has ripples that extend far beyond the health clinic.

It seems to me that food choice is one of those things that can be taught without seeming to impose a moral -or social- structure to the lesson. Wise but economic choices can be outlined and promulgated without seeming to judge other decisions she may have made. It is a confidence building manoeuver which suggests that, however small they might seem, there are things she can do that might have long term benefits for her unborn child. And if this develops rapport and trust, it may help her to make other more difficult choices.

In the health care field, we are not wardens: we carry very few weapons; we depend more on persuasion than force. We are merely guides, educators, comforters, and encouragers. It is not the stick that persuades, but the smile, the attempts to understand her situation, the willingness to listen without undue prejudice, offering suggestions where possible, or expectant patience until a better opportunity arises. This more patient approach does not abrogate the authority inherent in the more traditional antenatal healthcare system -or discourage trying to correct and modify other detrimental behaviours in the pregnancy; it merely acknowledges the necessity of a firm bridge and an open gate to gain access to the other side.

So many factors play a role in prematurity, and correcting just one of them is not likely to be a panacea. But it is a start. A wedge. A present, perhaps, to the next generation.