In search of health food

by Quinn O'Neill

Foie grasI’m getting fed up with all the potentially disease-causing crap in my food. Every day there are new reports in the media linking various food additives, components, and contaminants to diseases. The list is of suspects is long: acrylamide, arsenic, aspartame, bisphenol A, carrageenan, pesticides, artifical dyes, and high-fructose corn syrup, just to name a few. There are even naturally occurring compounds that may have cancer causing potential. Basil, for example, contains a number of alkenyl compounds, like estragole and isoeugenol, that appear to have carcinogenic effects in animals.

To be clear, I’m not saying that each or any of these compounds is necessarily harmful. Certainly, most of the media reports are sensational and unreliable. If you go straight to the scientific literature to do your own investigation, you’ll generally find this: some papers will claim that the substance is perfectly safe and some will suggest that it may cause a variety of undesirable health effects. Many of the papers suggesting safety will have been done by industry-funded researchers and there’ll probably be a few reviews that purport to consider all of the studies and conclude with a statement like this: “When all the research on aspartame, including evaluations in both the premarketing and postmarketing periods, is examined as a whole, it is clear that aspartame is safe, and there are no unresolved questions regarding its safety under conditions of intended use.”

Well, I think there are still a few unresolved questions, like can the NutraSweet company be trusted to evaluate the safety of a substance that makes them megabucks? And can we trust our regulating agencies to look out for us while they employ people with ties to industry? I’d say no and no to those questions, and maybe I’m a bit neurotic, but if there’s any doubt about the safety of a particular substance I’d rather not eat it. The most obvious alternative would be to buy organic, but this is a pricey option and there may be residues of potentially harmful pesticides, like copper sulfate, in organic food too.

I would personally welcome the development of some kind of guaranteed-not-to-make-you-sick food. Something without acrylamide, carrageenan, aspartame, carcinogenic alkenylbenzenes, dimethylcrapylpoisonide, or any other form of known or suspected, added or naturally-occurring carcinogen. The food should be nutritionally complete, properly balanced with respect to carbohydrates, protein and fat, vegan, non-allergenic, environmentally friendly, and have a low glycemic index. Also, because I’m lazy, it should require minimal preparation, and come packaged in something environmentally friendly and free of BHT, phthalates and BPA.

Most importantly, I'd like the product to be well tested – first in animal studies and then in human randomized controlled trials and cohort studies that can continue into the long term. Individual ingredients may have different effects when consumed alone than they would in combination, so it’s not enough to test the components individually. Even the packaging should be accounted for. Popcorn, for example, might be a healthy snack when prepared with an air popper, but not so healthy when it comes in a microwavable bag laced with PFOA, the non-stick pan chemical. We’d need to test the final packaged product.

Another unrealistic but essential criterion for my proposed health food is that it be produced on a not-for-profit basis. Where there is money to be made, maximizing profit tends to become the primary objective and secondary goals may take a back seat. Consumer demand for safe and healthy food isn’t enough, since consumers only need to believe that something is safe in order to buy it and marketing is a deceptive and effective tool. In the creation of this food product, the health of the consumer cannot be compromised for the sake of profit and the incentive to do so would need to be removed.

As you may have inferred, I’m not much of a “foodie”. I eat primarily for survival and in the midst of thesis writing, exam weeks, or just-plain-busy periods, I’ve been known to live off of rice crispies or granola bars for weeks at a time. I’m the sort of person who would be content to consume a scoop of feed a few times a day. I realize that not everyone is like me; however, I don’t think this is problematic. The proposed nutritionally complete food could come in a variety of forms and flavors – perhaps as a shake, as a dry food to be eaten like popcorn or pretzels, or maybe as an energy bar. Variety would accommodate different preferences and needs. Perhaps a shake would be nice for breakfast and a bar easier for those on the go.

This sort of diet would never satisfy the foodie, but it might be welcome as an occasional meal replacement when short on time. Variable appeal might also generate useful study cohorts of never users, occasional users, and exclusive users, facilitating epidemiological studies on its safety and health effects.

Means this is all pretty unrealistic anyway, I’ll add that the product should be manufactured in developed countries by people who are paid a decent wage, so that even the manufacturing process would promote health indirectly. This undoubtedly sounds completely unfeasible – I’ve already mentioned that it should be a not-for-profit undertaking and now I’m suggesting that we pay Americans a sensible wage to make it. However, if properly tested and confirmed as a health-promoting product, sold at an affordable price, and marketed effectively to maximize its consumption, it could reduce the social burden of diseases like obesity, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Perhaps it would be cost effective.

Of course, this is all just a fanciful imagining and I'll probably settle for arsenic-laced rice with pesticide-tainted veggies for dinner tonight. Many people's dinners will be far less healthy than mine. The unfortunate reality is that our food is largely produced with the aim of maximizing profit rather than optimizing the health of consumers. This explains why supermarket shelves are stocked with items like hot dogs and soft drinks. And why we eat stuff like this:

My idea of an ideal food might differ markedly from yours, but I think there’s an interesting question to be considered here. If optimizing health were the primary objective of US food producers, how different would the average American diet be?

photo credit: cyclonebill