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Deconstructing Dinner

Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY

Nelson, BC, Canada

 

April 24, 2008

 

Title: "The Disappearance of Omega-3s"

 

Producer/Host - Jon Steinman

Transcript - Elizabeth Brost

 

Jon Steinman: And welcome to Deconstructing Dinner, a syndicated weekly one-hour radio show and Podcast produced at Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY in Nelson, British Columbia. I'm Jon Steinman.

 

On today's broadcast we dive deep into a topic that has for the past few years, been an ongoing concern among Canadians and North Americas, and that is the family of fatty acids known as Omega 3s.

 

Revelations that Omega 3s were sorely lacking in the North American diet led to a wave of reformulating of foods, to supplemented diets for egg-laying hens, it has encouraged increasing the consumption of fish, and we've been introduced to foods that previously were not recognized as being so important.

 

But like with every diet craze that hits our culinarily confused culture, has anyone really stepped back to say, wait a minute, are we really sure we know all there is to know about these newly understood omega 3s.

 

Well one author has asked that very question and shared her investigative research in a fascinating book titled The Queen of Fats - Why Omega 3s were removed from the Western Diet and What we can do to replace them.

 

The author is Susan Allport of Katonah New York, and on today's show Susan will share some vital information on how the industrialization of the food supply has led us astray from the foods we human beings really need.

 

Lending to today's topic, we'll also listen in on recordings from the 2007 CropLife Canada conference when I interviewed the President of Cargill Canada Len Penner and we'll also hear a segment from a presentation by Canola Council of Canada President - JoAnne Buth.

 

Should you miss any of today's broadcast, it will be archived on our web site at cjly.net/deconstructingdinner and posted under the April 24, 2008 broadcast.

 

It's surprisingly not very often here on Deconstructing Dinner that we dive directly into the topic of diet and nutrition. Certainly every broadcast we do produce does indeed pertain to our health, but when it comes to dietary concerns, we begin to tread on rather fragile ground, and we being the media.

 

Now I say fragile, because as is perfectly clear, we North Americans are downright confused as to what foods we should be placing into our bodies. And this confusion can certainly be found at the grocery store where the reading of labels seems to take up more time than actually eating the food being purchased.

 

But where I would suggest we see this confusion most clearly, is through the media. The media loves to report on diet and nutritional concerns, and this is no surprise, because diet and health sells. This is a topic that is one of the most important to us - that being what should we be eating for the purpose of decreasing risks of illness and disease and achieve optimal health. But of course this places the media into a vital role to ensure that the information presented to their readers, to their viewers or listeners is not misleading, is well-researched, and most importantly, will not have adverse health and or environmental impacts.

 

Well later on today's broadcast, we'll be listening to a short segment from Canada's mainstream media - the CBC and a clip that aired back in October 2007 that has the makings of achieving both, an adverse environmental impact, and even greater confusion injected into an already-confused Canadian public.

 

But stepping back and simply scanning all the media over the past few decades on what we are told we should and should not be eating, there is one certain conclusion, and that is that we North Americans, are indeed engaged in perhaps the greatest food experiment in history and we have strayed so far from who we are and where our place in nature lies, that we now are constantly at war with determining what to eat.

 

And so unlike most media coverage of the issue of diet, today's broadcast won't be suggesting what you should or should not be eating, but will instead look to capture how our lifestyles and the industrialization of our food has had devastating impacts on our health.

 

And so why choose Omega-3 fatty acids to focus on when looking to capture such an important issue. Well Author Susan Allport will share this in detail in just a moment, but first, it's important to really understand what Omega 3s are, after all, it seems as though all we North Americans really know, is that Omega 3 eggs, fish and fish oils and flax products, are all good sources, and consuming these products, we're told, reduces the risk of heart disease.

 

But most importantly, what we need to know is how Omega 3s differ from another family of fatty acids, Omega 6s. Now the simplest way to look at the role of fatty acids is like this; we all have fat in our bodies, but some of these fats are very different from one another. Some of these fats are more flexible and fluid, allowing for fast and nimble processes, others, on the other hand, are more rigid and allow for greater stability. Well it's the Omega-3s that are the longer chains and more flexible of the fats, and it's for this reason that we find them in plentiful supply in our brains, hearts and other organs. 6s on the other hand, are shorter chains of fats and are required for different purposes such as physical structure and warmth.

 

So why don't we ever hear about these omega 6s? Well Susan Allport sees this as the all-important question and what we'll learn, is that this question is key if we are to get to the bottom of heart disease and physical and emotional well-being. Susan is the author of The Queen of Fats - Why Omega 3s Were Removed from the Western Diet and What we Can Do to Replace Them. The book was published in 2006 by University of California Press. Susan spent her time researching the book as a visiting professor at Davidson College in North Carolina.

 

Susan spoke to me over the phone from her home in Katonah, New York, and I opened up our conversation by asking if the current mainstream understanding of omega 3s is correct?

 

Susan Allport: Not at all, I mean we're really looking at them as supplements rather than as vital nutrients that have in effect been removed from our diet or at least our bodies. Until we understand where they originate and why they've been removed, we're not going to be able to effectively put them back.

 

JS: Now some of the confusion that must first be clarified here is where omega 3s originate. It's become so accepted that omega 3s come from fish, flax or enriched eggs, but all of this limited knowledge, is in part a result of the media being in the dark and hence the North American public. While it is true that fish are high in omega 3s, omega 3s originate in plants, so why is it that we've become so obsessed with fish?

 

SA: All the fish in the ocean, start you know the little fish eat the algae and the big fish eat the little fish which have eaten the algae. So yes we think of fish in terms of omega 3s but fish are getting their Omega 3s in the end from algae and plankton. And one of the reasons why fish is so important, fish is indeed a very good source of Omega 3s because they live in the ocean and they need more of those more flexible fats in their tissues in order to be active in that colder environment. But they're also one of the last animals in our food supply that still eats greens or predominantly eats greens. That's another reason why they are now our source of Omega 3s. But in the past, when all our livestock used to forage for themselves and eat plenty of grasses and other greens, their tissues too were full of these Omega 3s and had many fewer of those Omega 6s.

 

JS: We'll be hearing a lot about finding balance between omega 3s and omega 6s, and I did ask Susan to first help introduce the difference between the two.

 

SA: There are really small differences in chemical structure between these two families of fats but large differences in function and large differences in where they're found. As I said, omega 3s all originate in the green leaves of plants. And the omega 6s are a fat that's much more abundant in most seeds, not all seeds fortunately, but most seeds have many more of those omega 6 fats than they do the omega 3s and that's because, as I mentioned, they're far less susceptible to going rancid, to oxidation. So they can be more safely stored in a seed, and then by plants, they're turned into, those omega 6s can be turned into omega 3s at the moment when the plants need them at the moment of germination when photosynthesis starts to begin. Animals cannot make that conversion of the 6s into the 3s. So we have to consume those in the right balance to have the right proportion in our tissues.

 

JS: As Susan indicated just earlier, our food supply and diet was once filled with omega 3s. In order to understand where these omega 3s went, Susan tracks back to some of the first studies ever done on omega 3s, because those first studies were designed to figure out how, to get rid of them.

 

SA: The scientists who discovered this, did it accidentally. I mean the people who first started working on omega 3s focused on them because they knew that omega 3s caused rancidity in foods. So it was thought to be a good idea to eliminate those omega 3s because of that. So they came at it kind of backwards and it was much much later that people realized how essential these fats are for every tissue in the body, articularly for those fast-acting tissues like the brain and they eyes and the heart.

 

JS: Now like with most diet crazes and nutritional revelations, there's always one or a few pivotal moments that reshape the North American diet. As Susan mentioned in that last clip, it was only after the food industry began removing them from foods, that omega 3s were recognized as vital to human health. And then came a pivotal moment in 1985.

 

SA: There was a big conference hosted by the National Fisheries Council and NIH and it brought people together to discuss all these important findings that having a lot of fish in your diet could protect against heart disease and inflammation. Those were the bid diseases at the time that omega 3s were being linked to. But the side effect of that conference was that people realized that the tissues of many people in western countries were completely swamped by large amounts of omega 6s in their diets. And they came thinking ok, eat more fish, but then they realized through this conference that eating fish, unless it was a huge amount, wouldn't be enough unless we were to cut back on those omega 6s. So for scientists, it was a turning point. For the public it certainly hasn't been recognized, that critical competition, even now they don't recognize that.

 

JS: Now while the knowledge that something was out of balance was identified at this conference in 1985, North Americans to this day, still appear to be in the dark when it comes to the role of omega 3s in our diet. What Susan Allport suggests is so critical to understand, is that omega 3s were once found in many foods within our diet, and adding to this lack of understanding, North Americans currently view omega 3s as a supplement instead of a necessary nutrient vital to human health.

 

SA: Well, we look at them as either we're going to take fish oil tablets or eat fish to provide ourselves with the omega 3s that we need rather than understanding that all omega 3s originate in the green leaves of plants and they accumulate in the tissues of the animal that eat the green leaves and one way we have removed them from our diet is by feeding our livestock grains instead of greens. We've changed their tissues, so we're getting less omega 3s that way, and we've also eliminated them by increasing our consumption of vegetable oils which contain much more of the second family of essential fats, omega 6s and which compete with the omega 3s such that anybody who has a diet that's extremely rich in omega 6s, their tissues are going to be relatively poor in omega 3s unless they're eating huge amounts of fish. And there aren't enough fish in the ocean to sustain that kind of diet.

 

JS: Now this is where the mainstream understanding of omega 3s seems to be so far off, and it comes back to this mention by Susan Allport that omega 3s and 6s compete with each other. So clearly, if the two are in competition, then we can't speak of omega 3s without speaking of omega 6s in the same breath. And Susan expands on where all of these Omega 6s come from, and as will become clear, the industrialization of our food supply, is the primary reason why omega 6s appear to be winning the battle.

 

SA: Omega 6s are much more prevalent in most seeds than omega 3s so many seed oils or most seed oils have many more of these 6s than 3s. So we're talking about safflower oils, sunflower oils, corn oil, and to a lesser extent soybean oil. Canola oil happens to have a very good ratio of the two families of fats but that's another story. But those other oils are the predominant oils in our food supply and they've replaced butter and lard and other fats and not just the fats we're eating but they make up a great deal of the foods in our food supply. So that's largely where those omega 6s are coming in and if you look at any packaged foods you'll see one of those four oils in it.

 

JS: Now there were also a few other reasons why omega 6s became so prevalent in the food supply, and the reason has to do with yet another misguided belief in the role of cholesterol in our bodies. As Susan points out, it was the desire to reduce cholesterol levels that led food manufacturers to believe that vegetable oils were the perfect solution.

 

SA: Ever since the 1960s when we made the discovery that the vegetable oils didn't have any cholesterol in them and that they were full of poly-unsaturated fats. And poly unsaturated includes both of the families of the omega 3s and the omega 6s. Because vegetable oils are made out of seeds, they're much higher in those omega 6s than the 3s. So in the sixties when it was learned that poly-unsaturates actually lower some cholesterol, it lowered the cholesterol in the blood, it was thought, oh we better eat more of those poly-unsaturated fats. But lowering cholesterol is just one thing that that family of fats does. The omega 6s also increase inflammation, they do a number of other things that actually promote heart disease. So we were mistakenly thinking we knew everything we needed to know about them by just the fact that they lower serum cholesterol. But we didn't know that they had these other very very important effects.

 

JS: Yet another reason for omega 6s taking over the food supply at the expense of omega 3s, was because of an industrialized food process that we first touched on back in September 2007 here on deconstructing dinner, and that is hydrogenation. This too, as Susan points out in her book, was a critical shift that led to a rise in omega 6s and a decline in omega 3s.

 

SA: Well hydrogenation is the process of putting hydrogen atoms into all of the double bonds so that you fully saturate unsaturated fats. But partial hydrogenation selectively eliminates just those omega 3 double bonds and leaves the omega 6. And that's because as I've said before the omega 3 bonds are much more susceptible to oxidation and going rancid. So as soon as it was learned that these poly-unsaturated fats, these omega 6 fats actually lower serum cholesterol, was thought, oh what a great thing, we can increase those in our stats and we can decrease those that cause rancidity, those omega 3s. We don't know anything about them, and why not. There was no reason to save them. And that increased the amount of 6s in our food supply. Currently we're blaming trans fats for all those problems but it's very very difficult to distinguish the difference between the effects of the trans fats and the omega 6 fats. Because they sort of go together. They go hand in hand.

 

JS: And this is Deconstructing Dinner where we're listening to segments from my interview with Susan Allport - the author of The Queen of Fats - Why Omega 3s were removed from the western diet and what we can do to replace them.

 

Now one of the most recently identifiable foods that contain omega 3s are those eggs that we now see on grocery store shelves that read in larger than life letters "omega 3 eggs", which as the labels will indicate, come from chickens fed a diet high in omega 3s. But this seeming solution to the decline in the nutrient content of eggs, is actually, a response to a much bigger problem.

 

SA: In the past when chickens were our foraging for themselves, eating bugs and insects, they were accumulating a lot of omega 3s in their diet and they were funneling, concentrating those omega 3s in their eggs for the same reason that omega 3s are concentrated in the breast milk of nursing women, and that is for the brain development of the next generation. In the case of chickens, it's for of course the chicks and in the case of women it's of course for us, the children. A scientist down in Washington who went to that 1985 conference in Washington thought to herself, I wonder if eggs are now fundamentally different now that we're feeding chickens corn and other grains and they're not eating these insects and greens. And this woman, her family had a farm back in Greece. So she flew back there, she found some of these authentically free range eggs. She knew that nobody was giving these chickens a lot of corn, she boiled them for five minutes and she flew them back to NIH where she did this analysis of the eggs. And it was the first analysis comparing a free range egg to a commercial egg. And they were so dramatically different, there were ten times less omega 3s in those commercial eggs as in these free range eggs. Those free range eggs had almost as many omega 3s as a piece of fish. And when you think of how important eggs have been in human diets all round the world, you see how big of change we've made with this grain vs. green feeding.

 

JS: Now it is important to note that Susan's use of the term free-range eggs does, in this case apply to hens raised in as wild a way as a domesticated bird could be, on the other hand, the eggs we find on grocery store that are labeled as free range, are eating the exact same diet as those who spend their lives in cages. They are indeed factory farmed just like the rest of them. So don't go running out to purchase cartons labeled free-range and think that you will automatically be receiving a higher dose of omega-3s, because that's not what this particular study compared.

 

But now let's move on to meat - yet another food that has too become far more deficient in omega 3s than ever before. As Susan mentioned earlier, this deficiency is the result of North America's industrial livestock operations feeding their animals diets almost exclusively of grain and not the omega 3 grasses and greens that would otherwise produce meat high in these vital fatty acids. Back in March 2006 here on deconstructing dinner, we covered the topic of factory pork production and we met one interesting farmer who raises her pigs using biodynamic methods of agriculture where they eat forage and food scraps.  The fat of the final biodynamic product was described as buttery, whereas the fat of the factory farmed counterpart, was tough and next to inedible. Susan Allport comments on this difference

 

SA: That factory farm fat is much more saturated which means it's much harder and I've heard that before, I've actually seen the difference that these fats is that one is yellower and much lighter and not as solid as the other, and that's absolutely something that's been seen in grass fed cows vs. grain fed cows as well as pigs.

 

JS: So what does this marked difference in the quality of the fat mean for our own health?

 

SA: Well when you think that you need the more flexible fats in your tissues in order to have optimal thinking, optimal sight, optimal heartbeat, you can imagine that having those harder, less flexible fats is going to add up over time.

 

JS: Now of course the reason why omega 3s are such a hot topic, is because of the said impacts that these fatty acids have on human health. But what becomes clear upon reading Susan's book The Queen of Fats, is that the mainstream confidence that omega 3s are now understood, is instead, missing out on a key piece of the puzzle and that is, again, the necessary balance between the 3s and the 6s.

 

SA: The number of diseases linked to this imbalance grows almost every day. And that's because these fats are found in every membrane and every cell and every tissue in our bodies. So their found in particularly high concentrations in the brain, in the heart, in sperm. So that's where deficiencies in them show up first. But in fact, they're now being linked to metabolic syndrome, to Alzheimer's but of course that's mental, to cancers, to osteoporosis, to just numerous diseases, Crohn's disease, all kinds of inflammatory diseases. So this is much more important than even our hearts which is hugely important and then even our brains.

 

JS: Now just imagine, imagine for the past few decades we've been increasingly fostering a food supply that has been reducing the necessary fatty acids that our brains require to function. Could this then be the cause of attention deficit disorder, could this be the cause of grogginess and not having the drive to engage in energetic activities, could this be the reason why television is so soothing because it requires very little use of our brains, and could this be the reason why some of us, are becoming more forgetful as we age.

 

and could this be the reason why some of us are becoming more forgetful as we age.

 

SA: Well nerve transmission is an extremely rapid activity and it shoots out ions through the axon and channels have to open and close very very quickly in order for us to be able to process information and act on that information. The omega 3s in those membranes of the neurons allows the transmission to happen at the rate that it does because they are flexible because a good concentration of omega 3s in those neurons allow those channels to open and close at the speed they need to do. People have made all kinds of analogies for what it's like for there to be optimal amounts of omega 3s in membranes. Some people have called them ice breakers, you know the ice breakers, the ships that go up in the arctic and chop up the ice so that boat traffic can move through. Omega 3s have been called molecular springs because they allow all the proteins that are imbedded in them to move around more readily. Another way to think about it is the difference between doing jumping jacks in the water, a heavier medium than in the air. It's that much more difficult.

 

JS: And this is Deconstructing Dinner, a syndicated weekly one-hour radio show and Podcast produced at Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY, in Nelson, British Columbia. I'm Jon Steinman. If you miss any of today's show it will be archived on our web site at cjly.net/deconstructingdinner.

 

Today's broadcast is titled The Disappearance of Omega 3s. We've been listening to segments from my interview with Susan Allport the author of the fascinating book The Queen of Fats - Why Omega 3s Were Removed from the Western Diet and What We Can Do to Replace Them.

 

There is one place in the world where the ideas presented in Susan's book The Queen of Fats seem to be confirming these very ideas - these ideas that salvation from heart disease and poor brain and visual function is not just about eating omega 3s, but finding a balance between 3s and 6s. And that place is Israel, and what's happening there, Susan refers to, as the Israeli paradox.

 

SA: The Israeli paradox is that the Israelis eat a lot more fish than Americans, they eat a lot more fruits and vegetables and a lot less saturated fat and yet their instance of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity is greater than even the Americans. And when Israel was in its early stages as a nation, they were trying to everything right nutritionally. And the information at the time, the best information that they had was that these polyunsaturated fats were a much better fat to eat than butter and lard. They were also less expensive. And their nation uses much more of that polyunsaturated omega 6 fat than any other country in the world. And I and other people believe that is the reason for that Israeli paradox.

 

JS: And so while the writing is on the wall in places like Israel, it appears our collective ignorance continues to march forward. Here in Canada, the seeming confidence exuded by Health Canada that concerns over trans fats are now under control, does not seem so promising when we bring omega 3s into the discussion. And Susan explains the links between the two.

 

SA: The process of making trans fats is the process that specifically eliminates omega 3s. So are our problems caused by the presence of the trans fats or the absence of omega 3s? And we need to have that answer in order to have the best alternative to the trans fats because currently people are looking at higher omega 6 oils as an alternative to trans fats and that could make our problems even worse. We would be jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

 

JS: Susan Allport is referring to crops like canola whereby the industry has begun to respond to trans fats concerns by introducing new genetically engineered varieties with reduced trans fats. As Susan stresses, by doing so, this has resulted in selecting varieties that have higher omega 6 fats than before. This message of this direction was delivered to Canada's most influential agribusinesses at the 2007 CropLife Canada conference in Saskatoon which I attended. It was there that Canola Council of Canada President JoAnne Buth promoted these new varieties as the answer to trans fats. It now appears that this seeming positive step, is instead, a dangerous one, especially when canola oils are being added to foods with rapidly increasing frequency. Here's JoAnne Buth speaking in September 2007.

 

JoAnn Buth: . . . produced by Dow and Cargill and now produces with the partnership that Cargill has with Bayer as well. They are available today. That's one of our key messages that you've seen in the municipalities across north America they're looking at bringing the trans fat bans. One of the messages is that canola is the solution. We have the solution for you right now in terms of the food service industry. Because of the profile it extends the fry life and the shelf life and improves nutritional value because you can use this without hydrogenation so it is really the solution for the replacement for hydrogenated soy. And we've seen quite a bit of uptake this year. It's really exciting because we've had the high-oleics and the specialties around for a few years and it's always well how large is this industry going to grow, how is it going to be used? And obviously there's tremendous interest in it and when you see announcements from these countries saying that they're going to switch to canola oil as their solution for trans fat it's quite remarkable. I especially loved it when the Olive Garden said that they were going to use canola oil.

 

JS: And that was JoAnne Buth - the President of the Canola Council of Canada speaking at the 2007 CropLife Canada conference in Saskatoon. I did send this clip to author Susan Allport to get her take on such an announcement.

 

SA: There's room in the food supply for that high oleic canola oil. But it's not going to provide us with the kind of omega 3s we needed. You can have it, it's on par with soybean oil. It's useful, and small amounts of it aren't going to do any harm, but if that's going to be your primary fat you're not going to have a good enough omega 3 omega 6 ratio. It's certainly an improvement over sunflower and safflower oil but it doesn't lead to long term health.

 

JS: Clearly, we humans are confused. Science tells us one thing one day, and then another the next, but similar to the title of a recent broadcast of Deconstructing Dinner, can we maybe solve this confusion by looking to nature as our guide.

 

There was one discovery in particular upon speaking with Susan Allport that I consider to be the most fascinating information I took out of my exposure to her book The Queen of Fats.

 

There has been quite a lot of mention on previous broadcasts of Deconstructing Dinner how disconnected we as humans have become from the natural world of which, we are inherently a part. And indeed, almost every broadcast in one way or another either implicitly or explicitly shows this to be true, but it is the role of omega 3s and omega 6s in our diet that is hands-down, one of the most telling examples of how interconnected we are to this earth, and how disconnected we've become. As Susan explained to me, if we were to look back to pre- agricultural times when hunting and gathering was the means to acquire food, we would find that the cycles of the seasons, of plant growth and when foods were available, was and is very much in line with our own physical needs.

 

In the spring time, for example, we are met with an abundance of greens - greens of course contain high levels of those long-chain fatty acids - the omega-3s - perfect for the energy that must now be placed into hunting and gathering food for the next winter. Spring is also the time when animals reproduce, and dare I say, that this too, requires those omega 3s for all that physical reproductive activity. Come autumn, the foods that become available to us then, as winter approaches, are seeds, which again are high in omega 6s - those shorter chain and stiffer fatty acids for as Susan refers to it, hunkering down.

 

SA: So I don't think that anybody could conceive of the fact that there are these two families of essential fats, that they compete with each other, and that they are in fact markers of the changing seasons. And they enable the animals that consume the two families in different proportions to prepare for the future, for periods of activity and reproduction when greens are abundant and the periods of hunkering down and survival when the fats from seeds are much more prevalent. It's such a neat story. We never knew that fats could be so interesting or so important. So I don't think people went into this research thinking that they were refining our knowledge of what was the best human diet. I think that you always sort of think that you know all that there is to know at any given point, you know you just go in as all the people who have been recommending diets for us in the past 50, 60 years have thought they've known at each point all that's required. But things keep turning up. And this is one of the most interesting things.

 

 

JS: Certainly a convincing story to justify the importance of eating seasonally instead of eating the same foods year-round as we now do in our Western culture, and clearly, looking at our food this way produces some pretty solid confirmation that nature can indeed act as a guide as to what, when and even how we should be eating.

 

But as it appears, the mainstream media has not done their homework as well as Susan Allport did in researching and preparing her book The Queen of Fats. One telling example of this was after searching through a database of almost all Canadian print media between 1985 and today. In searching for the word Omega-3, I came across 7,104 results where omega 3s were mentioned in an article. In searching Omega-6s, the results will now likely not surprise you, as only 826 articles appeared in Canadian media. Clearly, the imbalances of fatty acids in our diet, is not so different from the imbalances of these fatty acids in Canadian media.

 

Now how the media chooses to present the role of omega 3s to the public can have significant environmental, health and social impacts (good or bad). In October 2007, I was shocked to view a short segment that aired on CBC Television's flagship newscast - The National. For any of our international listeners, the CBC is one of Canada's major media networks and the National, one of Canada's most watched newscasts.

 

CBC-The National-Fish:

Peter Mansbridge: Fishy advice. We've all been told how much fish we eat. So why are pregnant women now being told to eat as much fish as they want?

 

Good evening. Well what's a mother to make of this? Today a group of top scientists made a major announcement in the United States telling pregnant and breastfeeding women to eat more fish. Lots more. Any kind at all. Of course that flies in the face of all the warnings you've heard telling women to go easy when it comes to fish because of mercury. So, who to believe? Our health reporter, Maureen Taylor wades into the controversy tonight.

 

Maureen Taylor: Like most women, Girgot Birak(sp?) tried to eat well when she was expecting. In fact she ate only one piece of fish during her entire pregnancy.

 

I wasn't sure what would be good and what would be bad and you don't want to take the risk when you're pregnant.

 

MT: But today a prominent group of maternal nutrition experts in the US said that the real risk for pregnant women is that they're not eating enough fish.

 

I understand the confusion women face when confronted by this issue, the issue of how much fish is save to eat in pregnancy.

 

MT: No wonder women are confused. Just last winter Health Canada told pregnant women to limit their intake of large fish like fresh or frozen tuna or shark to just two servings a month. The concern is mercury which is toxic to the brain at high levels.

 

There is evidence that the mercury content of fish is potentially damaging to the fetus however the mercury content of fish varies dramatically with the type of fish.

 

The concern about consuming mercury in fish products is unfounded. To date there's not a single case of fetal toxicity linked directly to fish intake.

 

MT: Dismayed at surveys that show many pregnant women have stopped eating fish altogether, 14 obstetrical and nutrition experts reviewed the science. They found selenium in fish protects against a buildup of mercury and fish is the best source of omega 3 fatty acids so important they say to the brains of infants and adults. There's even growing evidence that fish can reduce the risk of post partum depression, premature delivery, and that the children of fish eating mothers are smarter.

 

The fetal brain develops throughout pregnancy and probably also through much of the first year of life. So providing the adequate nutrients for appropriate brain development is critical.

 

MT: Birak isn't sure how to react to the shifting science.

 

It's completely different. It kind of throws you off in terms of what's okay and what's not.

 

MT: The US group says pregnant women and nursing mothers need to be eating at least two to three servings of fish a week, any fish. Health Canada says for now it's sticking with its current recommendations. Peter?

 

PM: Alright, well what about the rest of us, Maureen? Should we worry about mercury in fish?

 

MT: Health Canada says not if we want to eat two to three servings of fish a week, in fact, we should eat that much. In fact it's only pregnant women and young children who need to worry about eating certain types of fish. And the omega 3 fatty acids, there's growing evidence that they're very protective for us. They're mostly found in the oily fishes, the sardines and the salmons. And they're protective against heart disease and maybe even cancer and memory loss. Peter?

 

Thanks Maureen. Our health reporter Maureen Taylor, here in Toronto.

 

JS: And that was a clip of CBC Television's - the National - and a segment that aired in October 2007.

 

What is most troubling with the segment, is that the angle that the segment took, was to explain how confused new and expecting mothers are with respect to omega 3s. Now that we've learned how this issue runs so much deeper, that segment instead created even more confusion for Canadians. I did send a copy of this segment to author Susan Allport, and she responds.

 

SA: I felt terribly for these people who are between a rock and a hard place with regard to eating fish. They want to do the best thing for themselves and their offspring, the women do, but they're just totally confused. And we're also between a rock and a hard place with regard to the sustainability of getting all our omega 3s from fish. If the entire world was to follow the recommendations to eat fish twice a week, there wouldn't be a fish left in the ocean for anybody to eat. We really have to understand how this deficiency arose and why fish are now our last source of omega 3s to be able to fix this problem in a way that's actually sustainable, that will actually work for large numbers of people.

 

JS: And this is Deconstructing Dinner. Adding to the confusion that is coming out of the media, we can also look to that supposed pinnacle of healthy eating which here in Canada is known as Canada's Food Guide to Health Eating put out by Health Canada, while in the United States, it's known as The Food Pyramid put out by the US Department of Agriculture (the USDA). Both guides are quite similar, and I asked Susan to comment on whether this information presented to the public is doing anything to address the role of fatty acids in the diet.

 

SA: The USDA guidelines do not differentiate between the effects of the two families of essential fats. And they're not at all concerned with having the American public reduce their intake of those omega 6 fats. And the key point is that these two fats compete with each other for the same enzymes that elongate them and that place them in the membranes such that if we're eating large amounts of those 6s, we're not going to be getting enough of the 3s in our tissues and that is a piece of advice that is nowhere in the USDA guidelines.

 

JS: And that was Susan Allport. Susan is the author of The Queen of Fats - Why Omega 3s Were Removed From the Western Diet and What We Can Do to Replace Them. The book was published by University of California Press and Susan spoke to me from her home in Katonah, New York.

 

In the last segment of today's broadcast we'll continue on this same topic but revisit the 2007 CropLife Canada conference which I attended in Saskatoon. One interview in particular that I conducted at that conference and that has not yet received much exposure here on the show, was with the President of Cargill Canada - Len Penner. Cargill is one of the largest agricultural companies in the world and received special attention back in February 2007 as part of our Agri-Business Exposed series. This is a company that easily remains behind the scenes of the food system because they can. The company is one of the largest privately-owned companies in the world, and therefore, is not required to be out in the public eye as much as a publicly traded one.

 

Now it's for this reason that my interview with Len Penner was a rare opportunitiy, as it's known that Cargill is a company that has long hidden itself from the media spotlight. Prior to our two-part series on the company here on Deconstructing Dinner, the only person to have ever done any in-depth research into the company was Brewster Kneen who authored the book - Invisible Giant. And indeed, this company is huge. In Canada, they are the largest producer of beef - controlling 50% of the market, they are a major supplier of egg ingredients to the food processing sector. Cargill is one of Canada's major grain traders in soy, wheat and canola. In the US, they are one of a handful of the countries corn traders and process a significant amount of the high-fructose corn syrup that we consumer here in Canada. Long story short, this is a huge company that supplies most of the major food manufacturers, and restaurants, including of course, McDonald's.

 

Now in light of what we now know about Omega 3s and 6s, here is a company that plays a major role in supplying the very culprits of this imbalance of fatty acids in our diet. Their beef, eggs, soy, corn, canola and wheat make their way into almost the entire Canadian food supply. And so, needless to say, hearing the President of Cargill Canada speak about nutrition to a room filled with Canada's most influential agribusinesses, piqued my interest.

 

Len Penner: Governments around the world have officially declared the biggest health problem facing the public is obesity. As a result we have food producers and consumers demanding products that taste just as good as they did before, but now have to be healthy and nutritious as well. Not only is this challenge but it may be one of our opportunities as an industry. There's an article in Wellness Foods in June of 2004 that reported on the results of a survey where consumers were asked the definition of healthy snacks or healthy foods, but it was focused on healthy snacks. The top three answers were healthy snacks were ones that had low fat, were all natural, and had low cholesterol. So it's starting to give us, and we can expand on that, but it gives you a snapshot of how the world is changing, how the view of consumers is changing. How do we adapt to that changing environment. So I'd say rather than being frustrated by an ever-changing consumer mindset, we must welcome and embrace the opportunity it presents. Capture more value from the ingredients and products that we produce together. Now that's an easy statement but it's not an easy task. The risk involved in working with some end use manufacturers, where they take literally years to reformulate a food product with new products that we can bring on, sometimes ends up in that product being shelved for another idea that comes along. But this is about customer response and how we react and how we partner with those people as they go down this particular path.

 

JS: And Len Penner's comments were actually echoed by Author Susan Allport in that indeed, the food industry can maneuver itself pretty quickly to respond to consumer demands, however, there's no denying that such moves clearly come at a heavy price, and for anyone who caught our two-part expose on Unilever and Margarine, well you know how aggressive the vegetable oil industry has been in pushing their products into the North American food supply regardless of consumer demands. Most importantly on that broadcast was the misleading web site for Unilever's American division of I Can't Believe It's Not Butter, which did a pretty good job at suggesting that their trans fat filled products were instead, and as indicated by a misplaced logo, said to be "trans fat free".

 

And so following his presentation, I spoke one-on-one with Cargill Canada President Len Penner to hear what he thinks of the decline in the nutrient content of the North American food supply. Not surprisingly, Penner suggests that no matter what the consumer wants, the industry will be able to genetically modify a plant to satisfy this new demand.

 

JS: Looking at one of your comments regarding trying to satisfy this obesity epidemic and creating healthier food for the Canadian population, one thing I was talking with Ernie about was this author Thomas Pollack who wrote this book called The End of Food. He was with the University of Regina. What he did is he looked back at these Health Canada statistics, agriculture/agrifood statistics, USDA statistics and looked at the nutritional composition of food over the past 50 or 60 years and what he found was startling statistics which have shown that really the nutritional composition of food has declined since this new form of agriculture has taken over in the past 50 or 60 years and this is information that came out to the public back in 2005. There's a Globe and Mail writer, I think Andre Picard started writing about this and I'm wondering first off if you know about this and how the nutritional composition of food has declined in the past 50 or 60 years and how you see the industry potentially responding to that.

 

LP: No, I'm not aware of the article or the book or any abstracts or books that might be written on that particular topic, but I'm not surprised to hear that the nutritional value has changed. The reason that is that consumer demands have changed clearly in the last 30 years. Just the concept of the fast food piece, table ready kind of an approach where you just have to heat and run, those kinds of approaches require, as the food manufacturer moves to meeting that consumer need could easily change the composition, if you will, or the nutritional value. Even consumer tastes will drive that, because you know I think the piece that food manufacturers move towards is, they're going to pick up their signals right from the consumer. So I'm not sure that it's anything that agriculture has done different to change the nutritional value, although it'd be interesting to understand the article, but if I would take a kernel of wheat, or a kernel of corn, or a granule of canola seed, I'm not sure the nutritional value in those pieces has changed dramatically.

 

JS: Looking at actual USDA statistics and this is from researchers from Washington State, they looked at 63 spring wheat cultivars growing between 1842 and 2003 and they found an 11% decline in iron, 16% decline in copper, 25% in zinc and a 50% in selenium. In the case of potatoes some of the agriculture/agrifood statistics have shown a 50% decline in vitamin C almost a 100% decline in vitamin A.

 

LP: So how important is wheat in supplying iron and selenium and some of these other pieces to our diet or vitamin C? Is wheat the primary source of vitamin C in the diet? These are questions that I have no answer to but I would still say that as the cultivars may have changed, are those significant changes that you report? Do they, did we get most of our source of iron from wheat? And so I don't know the answer to that, but that would be a great piece to go in a little bit further to say how has it changed. Now having said that, this is part of where I would say if consumers would see more value in higher iron in wheat. When you heard that first speaker, Juan, that turned around and said there's a lot of possibilities in the bio economy that we have today. The industry can figure out how to get much more iron in wheat, but they need the signal. Right? So what's the value of having much more zinc or much more iron in that kernel of wheat, and if there's value, then the industry will figure out how to deliver that piece.

 

JS: I think one of the barriers to the industry responding to consumer demands is that typically the consumer demands are fueled by the industry. Now it may not be a company like Cargill who's more the purchaser of agricultural commodities, but your clients through marketing certainly have a very huge impact on consumer perception and what they want. And in the case of fast food, this is very heavily marketed to people. In a sense, it is the industry, it seems that is pushing the consumer demand and then the consumer demand is further fueling the industry and it almost seems that unless the industry is going to start fueling consumer demand in a different way, to more nutritious foods, then this cycle may just continue. Would you agree?

 

LP: So you're asking which comes first, the chicken or the egg.

 

JS: Well it seems in both cases, the demand is actually starting at least from one point. The consumer, actually their perception is developed through what they hear. Consumers aren't scientists, they're not researchers, they know what they're told. And typically the main forms of information are coming through media. And so they hear that this food is good for you. They hear that this is the new diet, we see these diets, these fads that come in and they go and there's almost no stopping the changing consumer diet. But most of it is fueled by industry.

 

LP: You make a bold statement that this is all fueled by industry, and great perception. But I would say at this point, I'm not aware, I would not have enough knowledge to even make a comment on whether industry has driven consumer demand. Knowing myself as a consumer, I'm not driven to eat what I eat because of what the industry tells me is good, and so I don't fit the mold of what you describe. So I can only speak for myself.

 

JS: And this is Deconstructing Dinner, and that was a segment from my interview with Cargill Canada President Len Penner - recorded at the 2007 CropLife Canada conference in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

 

Now when questioned as to who is responsible for the state of the food supply, Penner clearly seems to speak the Cargill ethic, which is that the company is in business to "provide solutions" to consumer demands. Such a suggestion seems rather questionable when taking a look at Cargill's recent ad campaign appearing in major American publications. These ads will be linked to from the Deconstructing Dinner web site.

 

And so I would like to read one of these ads to you, so we, as the public, can see what happens when we demand healthier food. So here's the ad: "If you're a baking company, how do you add interest and excitement to products that have been around a long time? One bakery wanted to market a healthier bread. They turned to Cargill for help and our food experts offered a carefully-crafted recipe mix that combined good taste and texture with soy protein-allowing them to make the claim they wanted." After I read this ad, I did come up with a more appropriate tagline for the company's advertising, "if you want your label to make your food appear healthy, just contact us, we'll add some industrially concocted version of soy, and your label will look healthy, and your customers won't be the wiser. Cargill, provides solutions."

 

Now when I questioned Len Penner on the decline in the mineral and nutrient content of wheat, he questioned the information because as he put it, we don't know how important wheat is in supplying these minerals. Well it appears a little bit of common sense may help in this case, in that wheat is the second most cultivated crop in the world - clearly a major staple food and therefore a major source for any minerals and nutrients. As the Washington State University study discovered, wheat cultivars since the 19th century have lost significant levels of iron, selenium, copper and zinc. Selenium deficiencies can lead to premature aging, growth retardation, higher risk of cancer and heart disease, poor fertility. Iron deficiencies can lead to anemia, constipation, brittle or spoon-shaped nails, tiredness, apathy, reduced brain function, headache. Zinc deficiencies can lead to retarded growth, poor wound healing, poor sense of taste or smell, frequent infections, stretch marks, poor fertility.

 

So perhaps the message will one day reach Cargill that the industrial diet is determining the health of people. Perhaps this message will reach the company when people around the world become malnourished and hungry, or when North Americans find themselves suffering from increasing rates of diabetes, heart disease and cancers, and when Western governments find themselves unable to afford to maintain a healthy healthcare system.

 

Oh, but wait. All of that's already happened.

 

Ending Theme Music

 

That was this week's edition of Deconstructing Dinner, produced and recorded at Nelson, British Columbia's Kootenay Co-op Radio. I've been your host Jon Steinman. I thank my technical assistant John Ryan

 

The theme music for Deconstructing Dinner is courtesy of Nelson-area resident Adham Shaikh.

 

This radio program is provided free of charge to campus/community radio stations across the country, and relies on the financial support from you the listener.

 

Support for the program can be donated through our web site at cjly.net/deconstructingdinner or by dialing 250-352-9600


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