The use of synthetic dyes in food has been a contentious issue for quite some time, bristling hairs in the political world, the food industry, and throughout the public sector. In the middle of 2010, the Center for Science in the Public Interest teamed up with UCLA doctoral candidate Sarah Kobylewski to release a review of safety-related studies performed on nine food dyes called Food Dyes – A Rainbow of Risks. While the review seemed quite comprehensive, the conclusions drawn from the data didn’t really seem to make sense. CSPI is a rather inflammatory organization, often on the extreme end of conservatism when it comes to food regulations (meaning they favor heavy regulation). Given CSPI’s history of overstatement and fear-mongering, Ms. Kobylewski’s paper read almost as if she had written the review portion and then CSPI had come along afterward and written (or rewritten) the conclusions. Because this report has gotten so much attention in the media since its release, I feel it’s important to cover some of the more questionable aspects of the paper and give my thoughts on some of the major points. A little rationality can go a long way when it comes to data interpretation. Unfortunately, Ms. Kobylewski’s paper often errs on the side of hyperbole and paranoia, much to the detriment of the public at large.
The first point that must be made is that only six of the nine dyes reviewed are used in any appreciable quantity. The other three are either defunct or used in such small quantities that their effect on humans is almost assuredly nil. Citrus Red 2 is a dye used to color the peels of some oranges. While it might raise some concern if used in processed foods or other consumed products, its presence on the peel is benign. In addition, its use is federally regulated to a maximum of 2ppm (~0.000001g/lb of fruit), which is an incredibly small amount in any sort of application. Green 3 is next on the list of irrelevant dyes. Registering in at a miniscule 0.1% of total yearly FDA-certified dye production, green 3 is very rarely used. When a green color is needed, 99% of the food industry chooses a combination of blue 1 and yellow 5. In addition, green 3 is known to be poorly absorbed, further reducing its effect on the body. Mice studies yielded no evidence against green 3 and rat studies produced quite inconclusive data at very high treatment levels (1.25-5% of the total diet as green 3!). With almost no negative data to its name, even if you are especially paranoid, green 3 is a non-factor because it is so easy to avoid. The final meaningless dye in this review is Orange B. Approved for use only in sausage casings, Orange B is no longer used and hasn’t even had a batch approved for use in over a decade.
Now onto the relevant dyes, starting with blue 1 (a.k.a Brilliant Blue). Blue 1 comprises 4.7% of the total yearly FDA-certified dye production. Part of this low percentage is derived from the fact that blue 1 is an intensely powerful colorant and is therefore generally used in minute quantities, even relative to other major dyes. No published studies on blue 1 produced usable data pointing to toxicity or carcinogenicity (cancer-causing action). A lone unpublished study (suspicious? Yes.) showed some rise in rates of kidney tumors, but a dose-response relationship could not be established, making the claim of carcinogenicity quite suspect. Two out of nine studies assessing the genotoxicity of blue 1 produced positive results in chromosomal aberration tests. However, one study was listed without a dose of the active ingredient and the other used a dose of 5mg/ml, which is literally insanely high when compared to human consumption levels.
The only interesting result regarding blue 1 comes from a single neurotoxicity study in which blue 1, in combination with L-glutamic acid, partially inhibited the development of neurites, outcroppings from neurons that are associated with neuronal and cognitive development. Studies have found significant (if sometimes loosely defined) correlations between the consumption of food dyes and hyperactivity in children. It’s possible that there is some connection there, but given the level of current evidence for causality, it’s certainly not established. So, if your child is very young (<1 year) or has a problem with hyperactivity, it may be worth the effort to avoid blue 1. Otherwise, as usual, it appears to do basically nothing.
Blue 2 is the other certified blue dye and makes up 3.7% of certified dye production. It is extremely poorly absorbed, even more so than blue 1 and green 3. Ten out of eleven studies looking at the potential genotoxicity of blue 2 found no effect. Studies investigating chronic toxicity of blue 2 found nothing conclusive to point towards a negative impact on humans. Activist groups have made loud noises over a finding in one study that showed an apparent increase in brain gliomas (a tumor that arises from glial cells). However, the data failed to show a number of characteristics that would indicate blue 2 acted as a carcinogen. In addition, when taken in context with other studies on the same type of rats, the incidence of the brain gliomas was not unusual, even in untreated populations. Despite the scientific evidence against the viability of the brain glioma data, it is still touted by opponents of food dyes as a reason to ban blue 2.
Now that we’ve covered the blues, it’s time to take a look at our two options for red color. The first is red 3. Only making up 1.4% of total certified dye production, red 3 is by far the lesser-used red dye. Its one major place in the diet is in maraschino cherries, though it can also be found in canned fruits, candies, oral drugs, and a few other minor products. Suspicions of genotoxicity regarding red 3 were raised when a few studies found positive evidence. However, two of the four positive studies were performed on isolated yeast cells, which are hardly indicative of mammalian cells within a body. One study, using the most informative protocol of all the referenced experiments, found positive results after three hours of treatment but negative results after 24 hours. While interesting, the contradictory nature of the results makes any claims based on that data somewhat dubious. That leaves one useful positive result out of 11 reviewed studies. Hardly convincing.
In studies investigating potential toxicity of red 3, no effect was found at doses up to 4% of the total diet. However, there was significant evidence pointing towards a carcinogenic effect at the highest dose. It seems a bit ridiculous to grossly generalize results from data based on consuming 4% of the diet as dye when a human may normally consume on the order of a few milligrams per day (if even that), especially when data on lesser doses showed no effect. However, this is one of those cases where, if you are especially paranoid, red 3 is easy enough to cut out of your diet.
Red 3’s big brother is red 40. Red 40 is the most heavily-consumed dye and comprises 41.3% of yearly certified-dye production. Genotoxicity data is limited, but one study found evidence of DNA damage due to red 40 at very high doses. However, a single positive study among all the negative results provides little insight into the truth of the matter. With the data currently available, I feel that the genotoxicity of red 40 is quite inconclusive. Toxicity and carcinogenicity testing found no reliable effect. Opponents of dyes often claim that one study found that red 40 accelerated the development of a certain type of tumor in mice. However, that suspicion was preliminary and was raised in the middle of the study. By the end of the experiment, the researchers had found no acceleration of tumor appearance. In addition, a second confirmatory study was performed to assess the risk of red 40 specifically in regards to the tumor type seen in the first trial. That experiment also found no effect of red 40 on tumor generation.
Despite the non-issue of red 40 toxicity, other valid concerns over the dye exist. The first is hypersensitivity reactions seen in a very small percentage of the population. However, one’s reaction to red 40 would be apparent and for the vast majority of people will not be a concern. The most serious issue surrounding red 40, as well as the two yellow dyes to be discussed shortly, is contamination with potentially carcinogenic impurities. While the contaminants historically found in red 40 likely pose little risk to humans at the levels consumed, in recent years more and more dyes have begun to be imported from foreign producers like China. Given China’s decidedly suspect history with chemical contamination and adulteration, along with the general difficulty of producing completely contaminant-free red 40, more in-depth inspections by the FDA of imported dyes is warranted. However, that issue will be handled through policy and regulatory changes if it ever comes to pass in the future and should be of little concern to the day-to-day user.
The last two dyes discussed in the CSPI review are the yellows. Yellow 5 is the second most popular dye used in food and cosmetic products. It produces an intense neon-type yellow color and is often used in combination with red 40 or blue 1 to produce orange and purple colors. A few studies showed some evidence for concern of genotoxicity with yellow 5. However, a majority of studies showed no evidence for such effects and only one of the positive studies was performed in vivo, limiting the viability of genotoxicity claims. Studies found no evidence indicating carcinogenicity of yellow 5 even at extremely high doses.
However, one negative aspect of yellow 5 that is well-established is hypersensitivity. A small percentage of the population is allergic to the dye. Interestingly, there is a large crossover between those allergic to yellow 5 and those allergic to aspirin. If an individual reacts to one compound, they are likely to react to the other. In the end though, the vast majority of consumers are not reactive to yellow 5 at all.
Finally, there is the concern over contamination, similar to that raised with red 40. The contaminant of major concern in the CSPI report, and the one that is continually mentioned throughout the text, is benzidine. However, when consulting the original studies used by CSPI to bolster their claims of apparently widespread benzidine contamination in yellow dyes, the data does not appear to support their arguments. The two studies were performed in the early to mid 1990s and examined the amount of free and bound benzidine found in samples of certified yellow 5 and yellow 6. The FDA only tests for free benzidine and CSPI claims that bound benzidine is also dangerous because it is liberated to its free form in the human gut. A number of holes in CSPI’s statements become apparent after reading the original documents. First, the theory that bound benzidine is freed during digestion is simply postulated by the authors and not supported by any data, whatsoever. Second, 90% of the lots found to be contaminated with benzidine from both studies combined came from a single producer. So, in essence the study didn’t uncover a widespread contamination problem, but a localized issue with one company.
Last but not least in our review is yellow 6, the “oranger” cousin of yellow 5. In genotoxicity trials, yellow 6 was seen to produce no effect in 8 out of ten experiments. In addition, the only in vivo study found no effect. Therefore, the evidence for genotoxicity in the case of yellow 6 is quite suspect. The only evidence for carcinogenicity of yellow 6 comes from a single study on rats. However, the FDA reviewed the study and found that the data lacked a number of important features that would indicate that yellow 6 was acting as a carcinogen. Given the lack of other studies pointing to yellow 6 as a carcinogen, the data supporting an argument against the dye is extremely weak.
Yellow 6 shares the same valid concerns over hypersensitivity and contamination that pertain to yellow 5. Reactions to the dye are extremely rare and shouldn’t affect its use in the food industry considering labeling requirements and openness of ingredient information. Contamination is a potential (but not current) problem that can easily be fixed through more stringent tests by the FDA. Especially considering the growth in dye importation, increased ingredient security is a priority worth pursuing.
Dyes play an important role in the food industry. The argument that natural colorants could simply be substituted for the synthetics isn’t a feasible option for many companies considering consumer demand for low food prices. In addition, some natural colorants produce similar hypersensitivity reactions to those rarely seen with synthetics. Importation of dyes is a valid concern and should be addressed by the FDA through enhanced certification testing. The truth about food dyes is that there is little reason for concern. The amount of dye we consume on a regular basis is incredibly small and, even considering the gigantic doses seen in many animal studies, the risks posed by these dyes are largely negligible. CSPI is an organization that has a history of overstatement, hyperbole, and fear-mongering. The information they put out is at the very least misleading and is most definitely untrustworthy. Too much of anything is a bad idea and the same is true for dyes. There’s no reason to be especially fearful of dyes and avoid them altogether, but consuming enormous amounts of color every day is also likely not the best plan. Moderation is key in most issues related to the intersection of food and human health. The subject of dyes is just another perfect example.
These days, it’s pretty much common knowledge that calcium helps to build strong bones and prevents osteoporosis as we age. There’s been tons of media put out to educate the public on the need for proper calcium consumption. There are innumerable calcium supplements available on the market today, ranging from pills to drinks to chocolate flavored chews. However, calcium is not the only player in the bone health game. Vitamin D has been shown to exhibit a major influence on the regulation of bone mass and unfortunately it has not gained the same notoriety as calcium. It’s been estimated that approximately 40% of the adult population over the age of 50 may be deficient in vitamin D. Often the problem goes untreated because it causes few symptoms that would be noticed on a daily basis. It’s time to learn about vitamin D and how to best ensure the health of your bones.
Vitamin D is produced naturally by the body in response to skin exposure to UVB sunlight, the highest energy ultraviolet radiation the passes through the ozone barrier in any substantial amount. However, there are a number of reasons why endogenous (within the body itself) production of vitamin D often does not satisfy the body’s need. First, vitamin D production in response to sunlight declines with age. Ironically, older people also tend to suffer some of the harshest consequences for vitamin D deficiency. Also, sunscreen and avoidance of sun exposure has become more popular due to growing concerns over skin cancer and other forms of damage. A sunscreen of SPF 8 cuts down on the production of vitamin D by about 95%. Many sunscreens are SPF 30 and above, which stop almost 100% of vitamin D generation.
The other source of vitamin D is through the diet. In 1923, a biochemist named Harry Steenbock discovered that irradiating many foods with ultraviolet light increased their levels of vitamin D. By the 1930’s, governments began to fortify milk with vitamin D in an attempt to eradicate rickets in children, caused by vitamin D deficiency. However, milk is pretty much the only major food with added vitamin D. Even other dairy products like yogurt and cheese are often left unfortified. Adding to the problem is the fact that these days many people no longer drink milk. Besides milk, eggs, fatty fish, beef liver, and mushrooms naturally supply vitamin D. Vitamin D supplements are also widely available in both health food stores and groceries.
Whether produced internally or consumed, vitamin D undergoes a number of conversion steps before becoming fully active in the body. First it is transported to the liver where it is hydroxylated (gets an oxygen and a hydrogen atom added to it) and then stored until it is needed. Under conditions of low calcium, the vitamin D is transported through the blood stream to the kidneys where it is again hydroxylated to form calcitriol, the final active form of vitamin D. Calcitriol then binds to a receptor in the nuclei of certain cells, causing the cells to increase their production of transport proteins that help absorb calcium from food through the intestinal wall. As you can see, vitamin D serves as the body’s messenger, carrying the news of low calcium levels to the cells capable of fixing the problem. Without adequate vitamin D levels, this signaling pathway can’t function properly, the cells never get the message, and as a result calcium is poorly absorbed.
Generally, a good goal is to consume 1,000 IU of vitamin D per day good goal for people aged 19-50, while 1,200 IU per day is appropriate for people over 50. As with all vitamins and especially the fat soluble bunch (vitamins A, E, D, and K), be sure to count all of your vitamin D sources in order to maintain a healthy intake level without going overboard. Vitamin D toxicity is rare, but somewhere between 2,000-10,000 IU/day for adults and around 1,000 IU/day for children, over a period of about six months, can cause serious problems. So make sure to reach your goal, but also be aware of your total vitamin D intake. Vitamin D can be the difference between strong bones and debilitating injury. Set yourself up for a lifetime of health, mobility, and vigorous activity with proper levels of vitamin D and calcium!
The debate over the consumption of raw dairy products has raged for years. Proponents of raw dairy consumption say that the pasteurization and homogenization processes that modern dairy products undergo destroy beneficial nutrients and make the product less digestible due to the degradation of enzymes present in raw milk. Opponents of the raw dairy industry claim that the risk to public health from the consumption of raw diary products is too great to justify its legalization on a large-scale.
In most states, it’s possible to procure raw milk through legal channels. A few states provide for legal retail sale of raw milk. Other states allow the sale of raw milk only direct from the farm. Some states have taken policy steps to allow the use of cow-share programs in which a consumer buys “shares” of a dairy cow or herd and are thereby legally entitled to the milk from the animals. There are also states that have no official laws on cow-share programs but generally allow them. Finally, a few states allow raw milk to be sold as pet food and not for human consumption. However, it’s not uncommon to find milk bought as pet food ending up on the breakfast table.
It’s true that the heating that occurs during pasteurization degrades some compounds found in raw milk. Vitamin C and enzymes like lipase and amylase can be destroyed. Calcium is made somewhat harder to absorb. Immunoglobulins (also known as antibodies) present in raw milk are also sensitive to heat. However, it’s been shown that they are not degraded as severely as the raw milk party would have us believe. 59-76% of immunoglobulin activity was retained following pasteurization, while homogenization, skimming, and standardization of the milk to 1-2% fat had no effect at all. However, it’s worth noting that UHT (ultra high temperature) processing does effectively degrade immunoglobulin activity. UHT processing is far more common in Europe and South America than it is in the US, though a number of US organic milk producers utilize UHT instead of pasteurization. To be sure, always read the packaging! UHT processed milk can generally (but not always) be identified by its storage in a room temperature environment. Most dairy products that require refrigeration are pasteurized, not UHT processed.
In contrast to the relatively mild (and often quite overstated) negative effects of pasteurization on the nutrients in milk, the risks and consequences of raw dairy consumption can be quite severe. In 2010 alone, there have been at least ten outbreaks stemming from the consumption of raw dairy products. At least 105 people have been sickened so far from bacteria including E. coli O157:H7, Campylobacter jejuni, Listeria monocytogenes, Staphylococcus aureus, Salmonella, and Brucella, as well as a parasite called Cryptosporidium parvum. Clearly, there is a reason why almost universal pasteurization of dairy products was established decades ago through governmental regulation. In 1938, milk caused 25% of all food- and water-related sicknesses. In 1993, that number was 1%. The evidence for the positive impact of dairy pasteurization on public health is undeniable.
When choosing dairy products, always be sure to consume those that have been properly treated through pasteurization, HTST, or UHT processing. Whatever modest nutrient degradation is produced through the heat treatment of dairy products, it’s more than worth avoiding food-borne illness. Remember that vitamins and minerals can be had easily in the form of cheap, widely available supplements. Err on the side of caution and buy properly treated dairy products for the sake of your family’s health as well as your own.
Fish and other seafood are often fantastic sources of nutrition. Many species are high in protein and some even supply relatively high concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids. Unfortunately, our oceans and fisheries are facing a global crisis that may prevent future generations from enjoying and benefiting from fish and seafood. Overfishing and poor fisheries management practices are destroying fish populations and severely polluting waterways. If we continue on our current path, many of our favorite seafood items will simply become unavailable. As a consumer you can make a difference with your purchasing choices in the grocery store and the restaurant. Choosing the right marine foods will not only directly help maintain current populations by may also impact the practices of fishers and aquaculturists (fish farmers) for the better.
Overfishing is a somewhat complicated subject, owing to the complexity of interactions between different species within an ecosystem, various influences on population growth rates, and the different types of fishing and methods of aquaculture. However, there are some clear principles that are important and easily understood, even by those not in the fishing industry. The first is that every species matters. Some may question the importance to an ecosystem of halibut or flounder, for example. The truth is that the homeostasis of energy flows through an ecosystem is finely balanced through predation, breeding, disease, adaptation, and other factors. When a particular species is removed from an environment or even significantly reduced in number, it can no longer fulfill its natural role in the system. The result can be an explosion in the population size of other organisms that compete for resources with or who usually serve as food for the endangered species. That imbalance may then affect other species of both plants and animals that live within the same system. To maintain biodiversity and a stable ocean environment, it is imperative that we prevent overfishing of all species.
It’s also important to understand why some species are more susceptible to overfishing than others. Fish that live in deep, cold waters like orange roughy generally have slower metabolisms, mature later in life, and breed less frequently than those that live in shallower, warmer waters. Fishing methods like deep-sea trawling are especially harmful to these sensitive species because they can be extremely efficient at catching these deep dwellers and are able to operate for long periods of time. As a community’s breeding population is fished out, the ability of the group to replenish itself naturally decreases. At a certain point, the spawning rate sinks low enough that the population as a whole begins to decrease.
While aquaculture at first appears to be a fantastic alternative to open water fishing, it is not without its drawbacks. Because fish farms house large numbers of fish in small areas, they can produce waste water with extremely high concentrations of nutrients and bacteria. When these products are released into the surrounding waters, they can negatively affect native species and produce algal blooms, throwing the local ecosystem far out of balance. In addition, when the algal blooms eventually die off, their decomposition can deplete the water’s oxygen level.
Aquaculture has also been responsible for the introduction of invasive species into the local environment. The newcomers can sometimes outcompete native species for food and other resources, decimating the native populations. Finally, foreign organisms may carry parasites or diseases to which native organisms have no defense. The Japanese oyster drill is an example of a detrimental piggy-backer, coming to North America in the early 20th century within shipments of Pacific oysters.
So, now that you’ve heard all of the doom and gloom, what can you do to help? Fortunately, the answer is easy. Choose fish and seafood products made from species farmed or fished using sustainable practices. There are a number of resources available to help you get on the right track. One of the best is the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Pocket Guides website
. They have downloadable references that help you choose sustainable fish species specific to each region of the US. Another excellent resource is the Marine Conservation Society’s (MCS) fish purchasing guide
. It even breaks down which fish are best to buy by month. Finally, look for sustainability ratings for seafood products in supermarkets. More and more suppliers are packaging their fish with color-coded labels indicating a level of sustainability certified by independent organizations like MCS. They are an easy way to quickly assess what you’re buying and to help make more informed decisions. Choose the right seafood products and benefit from their excellent nutritional properties while helping to save fish populations from collapse. Do your part and we will all be better off in the long run!
Exercise and nutrition are indispensible in the maintenance of long-term health as well as the development of winning athletes. Two of the most misunderstood areas of exercise planning are frequency and volume. In other words, how often should you exercise and how much work should you perform during each session? Unfortunately for many people, without proper regulation of both of these aspects of your training program, your results likely will be less than optimal. The good news is that proper frequency and volume are easy to implement within your program and that you can soon be reaping the results! This article covers mostly strength training programs, but the principles of proper frequency and volume apply to cardio, also.
Exercise frequency is defined as the number of training sessions you perform over a certain amount of time. For convenience purposes, training schedules usually are planned to repeat on a weekly basis. But, there’s no reason why a schedule can’t be designed around a monthly or even longer duration cycle. The proper frequency for you in a particular training program depends upon two major factors: your ability to recover from intense training and the way that you choose to divide your exercises. For example, assume you find, as many people do, that you progress most efficiently in strength and muscle size by working each major muscle group or movement once a week. There are myriad ways to divide that work. One option is to perform a whole body workout once per week. You could alternatively split upper and lower body exercises into two separate days. You could also do a “push, pull, squat” type of division in which you work all of your pushing movements on one day, your pulling movements on another, and your squatting or lower body movements on a third. There are others, but those three can be effective for a large percentage of the population.
If, on the other hand, you find that you recover faster than most (or are a rank beginner) and progress better working each muscle group or movement twice per week, then your split needs to be changed to fit your needs. Since you do NOT want to be in the gym six days per week, a “push, pull, squat” split working each twice a week is not going to work. However, you could reasonably perform an upper/lower split twice per week for four total training sessions. You could also choose to execute two full body workouts per week, instead. As you can see, your recovery ability has a say in the way that you divide your work, but you also need to keep your total number of work days per week under control. Personally, I find that two to four training sessions per week is best for most people, assuming that each session is intense and focused.
Now that you have your training frequency worked out, you need to decide on the volume of work that you will do during each session. Exercise volume can have a number of definitions, but the one that I find to be most useful for general application is: Volume = Repetitions x Sets x Exercises. What that means is that the total training volume is found by multiplying the approximate number of repetitions per set (you may miss a few in there when things get tough, but that’s ok) by the number of sets per exercise and multiplying that product by the total number of exercises you plan to perform. It’s worth noting that the first one or two warm-up sets of each exercise are not counted towards the total. Count only sets that make you work at least moderately hard.
For example, if I were doing a “push, pull, squat” split and I was planning my pushing day, I might set this schedule as such (not including warm-ups):
Barbell Bench Press 3 (sets) x 8 (reps)
Dumbbell Overhead Press 4x5
Rear Deltoid Raise 3x10
Triceps Pushdown 3x8
My total volume would be calculated by multiplying 7.75 (average number of reps) by 3.25 (average number of sets) by 4 (number of exercises). The total is just over 100. While this number means little on its own, over time you will compare volumes used in different programs and find a range that allows you to progress most efficiently. In fact, various areas of your body may require distinct amounts of volume due to variances in muscle fiber type distribution and other physiological factors.
Volume also is useful when assessed on a weekly and even monthly basis. My total volume per week will help me relate how I feel and how I am progressing overall to the amount of total work I perform. The stress put on the body when training intensely is not localized to the muscle group being worked; it is systemic. It affects immune function, energy levels, and other “whole body” metrics. Overtraining is a state, induced by putting out too much work for too long a time. It exhibits symptoms including a lack of training progress, disinterest in exercise, excessive fatigue, poor mood, and lowered resistance to disease. Avoidance of overtraining is essential to maintain consistent, long-term improvement. Keeping track of your total exercise volume over periods like weeks and months can help you adjust your training plan to prevent overtraining and maximize your progress.
As an example, if I completed a 16 week training plan and found that during the cycle I felt more and more run down and less interested in training as it went on, it is plausible that the volume and/or frequency was too high. When designing the next training schedule, I will calculate the total volume of work and make sure that it is less than that of the previous, non-optimal cycle. Through this process of analysis and revision, I will eventually find a balance of volume and frequency that allows me the best progress and prevents problems with overtraining.
Volume and frequency are integral parameters to any strength training program. Getting them right can be the key to optimizing your results. Too much volume or frequency will prevent the body from recovering properly from one session to the next and can negatively impact not only strength and muscle gains, but also immunity, mood, and overall wellbeing. Pay attention to your body and use that feedback to help pinpoint the amount of training that works best with your particular physiology!
Consuming an optimal amount of protein to support efficient body composition management and sports performance is often difficult without the use of animal products, particularly flesh. However, over the last two decades, meat has come under scrutiny both in research and the popular media for its role in the development of chronic diseases and the fact that the meat industry is rife with cases of animal cruelty. The truth of the matter is that humans are specifically adapted in many ways to consume meat and it should be a part of almost all healthy diets. Therefore, it’s important to understand both the benefits and detriments to the body, the planet, and society that come from regularly consuming various meat products.
The first stop on our carnivorous journey is poultry, including chicken, turkey, and duck. Nutritionally, poultry can be a fantastic source of lean protein. Chicken and turkey breasts are classics in the world of fat loss and muscle building for a reason. In addition to protein, the dark meat of poultry is a good source of fat soluble vitamins as well as some minerals including selenium and zinc. In 2007, the US per capita yearly consumption of poultry products was about 75 pounds!
However, eating poultry can have a downside. While the use of hormones in poultry has been banned for decades (that’s right, nobody uses them!), antibiotics are still used in the industry to prevent the outbreak of disease amongst animals, especially in large-scale facilities where birds live in very close quarters. It has been shown in a few cases that widespread antibiotic use in animals can help bring about resistant strains of bacteria. However, the incidence of such adaptations is low and it has been argued that the benefits to human health (assuming our current rate of poultry consumption) of including antibiotics in chicken feed may outweigh the potential risks of bacterial resistance to the drugs.
The ecological implications of large-scale poultry farming represent another issue worth considering when consuming avian products. Runoff from poultry farms can contain high levels of nitrogen, leading to algal blooms that can devastate waterway ecosystems. Waters contaminated with waste products can also harbor infectious bacteria that originate in farm animals. Also, high nitrate concentrations in drinking water, known to come from poultry farm runoff, can also increase the risk of methemoglobinemia in infants.
Finally, some people raise ethical or moral arguments against large-scale poultry farming practices. In many commercial facilities, birds are kept in very small cages and live in high densities. While this kind of production is necessary for the low prices that we demand for our food at our current level of consumption, many people see it as cruel and inhumane. While the solutions for many problems with large-scale poultry farming may be found in smaller facilities with more natural living conditions and nutrition standards, there is the trade-off of price. You will pay more for birds grown in less cost-efficient environments.
Next, let’s address pork. Pig meat can range widely in fat content, much like beef. When used properly, pork products can serve as excellent lean protein sources and can produce great results in a fat loss or muscle building program. As with poultry, however, there can be detriments to pork consumption. From a nutritional standpoint, high fat pork products are very common in both restaurant and home cooked meals. The classic American breakfast often includes pork sausage or bacon slices. Neither of these foods can be recommended as a healthy source of protein, to say the least. In addition, many pork products are highly processed or cured. Processed and nitrate-cured meats have been implicated in higher risks of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. As with all sources of meat, the less processed the better.
On the ecological side of things, pig farms produce similar water pollution problems to poultry farms. Bacteria and nutrients in farm waste leech into the waterways, at times spreading infectious disease and causing ecosystem imbalances. In addition, large hog farms often produce hydrogen sulfide gas, which can cause ill effects in humans. In high concentrations, exposure to the gas has killed farm workers. Some studies have also shown detrimental effects of hog farm air pollution on those living in close proximity to the farm.
As with poultry, some large-scale hog farms also utilize production practices that many see as inhumane. Hogs are often kept in confined spaces, especially when giving birth and nursing. While this separation is necessary to prevent the mother from accidentally rolling onto her babies, it is thought to be distressing to the animals. Also, disease is easily spread due to the crowded living condition of a hog pen. Salmonella, gastrointestinal infections, and viruses like porcine parvo can run rampant through a herd. Not all farms are horrible torture factories, to be sure. There are good and bad farms and farmers, like in every industry. But it’s important to understand what can happen on the unfortunate end of things.
Finally, it’s what’s for dinner. Beef, like pork and many other quadrupedal land-dwellers, contains meat that varies widely in its fat content. Eye of round, for example, is exceedingly lean, comparable even to chicken. On the other hand, ground beef can be comprised of over 18% fat by weight! In addition, the last decade has seen an explosion of grass-fed and free range cattle farms. The meat from these cows has been shown to have a higher concentration of healthy fats, including omega-3 fatty acids, as a result of their more natural diet. While these high end meats may not be a possibility for everyone (or even many people), it’s important to choose your beef source and cut wisely in order to fit it properly into your healthy nutrition plan.
While beef can be a beneficial part of your diet, its production strains the environment. There are the familiar problems with farm runoff getting into waterways, carrying along with it bacteria like E. coli, as well as chemicals like ammonia, oil and grease. In addition, cows produce methane, a greenhouse gas that is 20 times more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. In the US alone, cattle produce 5.5 million metric tons of methane per year, accounting for 20% of our country’s methane emissions. Globally, ruminant livestock release over 80 million metric tons of methane annually, which is 28% of the global total produced from man-made activity.
Whatever meat product you consume, some basic guidelines can be applied to choose the healthiest meat and process it to maximize benefits and minimize risk. First, choose generally lean meats and put in the minimal effort to trim off visible excess fat from the cut. Fish, of course, is the exception to this rule. Fatty, deep water fish are fantastic sources of omega-3 fatty acids and should be consumed regularly. When cooking meat, keep in mind that carcinogens are formed when flesh is cooked at high temperatures. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and hetercyclic amines (HCAs) are the two major culprits. To help prevent the formation of these compounds, cook meat in a moist environment like a stew or stir-fry and cook at an appropriate temperature. Keep in mind that fat from meat can cause flare-ups on grills and barbeques that can char meat and produce carcinogens. Leaner cuts will tend to flare less. Finally, make sure your meat is cooked to a proper temperature to prevent food-borne illness. Poultry should reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit, ground beef and pork 160 degrees, 150 degrees for pork roasts, and 145 degrees for beef roasts. It’s definitely a case of better safe than sorry when it comes to food bugs.
The lesson here is to take some time to learn about what you are consuming. Personally, I am a big meat eater. I utilize protein heavily in my nutrition plan as a tool to optimize my body composition and sports performance. I understand the global consequences of my diet, but my health (and admitted self-interest) overcomes my ecological considerations on this issue. I contribute to resource-sparing in other ways, like saving on energy and water, but food is where I draw the line. Everyone has their own cost-benefit analysis to do when it comes to the foods they eat, both nutritionally and in terms of ecological and societal impact. Where you draw the line is up to you, but my goal is to help you make a more informed decision. When you do eat meat, source it wisely, choose the right cut, and always prepare it in the safest manner you can. Meat is a beneficial and tasty part of a normal human diet, so use it safely and intelligently to reap its benefits while minimizing its risks to both body and planet.