06 June 2008

United States Department of Agriculture

The mission of the US Department of Agriculture is to "provide leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources and related issues". Or in translation, act as a regulatory agency for farming and agriculture, promote American foodstuff, and administer some natural resources. Wait, slow down! Act as a regulator but also a salesman? Seems like the Executive and the Legislative have cozied up and formed the USDA. Checks and balances? Meh.

Let's have a look at nutritional recommendations here in the US of A. But before doing so, write one sentence which describes a healthy lifestyle. Don't read on, engage yourself.

Eat healthy and exercise
. Good start. We'll be focusing on the first element today. To me, eating healthy is pretty much self evident and for most others despite a bit of arguing will grudgingly admit that a bowl of oatmeal is healthier for them than a bowl of frosted flakes fortified with 16 vitamins and minerals. Eating healthy need not be a science but is generally an exercise in common sense. I have a 95-5 rule which is that top performance is based 95 percent on simply doing the work or obvious right thing, and 5 percent is based on technology. Be it running fast or eating healthy, 95 percent of performance will be based on common sense of training regularly or eating those plants and whole grains. The extra five percent of performance boost will come from fancy running shoes or omega three doping. Concern yourself with the honest work before moving into the technology sphere. To answer how to eat healthy, two recent books sum up the answer in the following ways:

1. Marion Nestle in the acclaimed What to Eat says, "Eat less, move more, eat lots of fruits and vegetables."
2. Michael Pollen simply says, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

Thats 95 percent of the answer. Are you even halfway there? How about eating those veggies rather than prepackaged foods with claims of cholesterol free, no trans fat and all natural. The fact of the matter is that there is not a vegetable out there which could not tout those three claims: cholesterol is only found in animal products, trans fat in hydrogenated oils (don't occur in nature), and veggies are natural.

What if the USDA decided to rewrite their dietary guidelines along the lines of the above recommendations and then spell it out in more detail saying, eat meat no more than three times/week, reduce consumption of processed foods, don't eat fast food, limit intake of sweets, etc. Hard to argue with that sage advice. Yet that advice is not what we are told by the department which is supposed to protect us. Why? Its that conflict of interest. The USDA being tasked with selling (promoting) what farmers in the US produce aren't selling meat very well if they recommend reducing intake.

Have a look at the US Dietary Guidelines for sugar (from M. Nestle):
1980 avoid too much sugar
1985 avoid too much sugar
1990 use sugars only in moderation
1995 choose a diet with moderation in sugars
2000 choose beverages and foods to moderate your intake of sugars
2005 choose and prepare foods and beverages with little added sugars or caloric sweeteners, such as amounts suggested by the USDA Food Guide and the DASH [dietary approaches to stop hypertension] eating plan.

There you see very well the transition from protect the people to confuse the people

With priorities such that business interest trump facile consumer maxims, foods do not label how they are unhealthy just how they are healthy. Take a packaged freezer meal: Low in saturated fat, cholesterol free, with 12 vitamins and minerals, all natural, chickens fed vegetarian diet. Sounds healthy. Though how about the possibility to have these labels: High in sodium (50% of RDA), Low in hearth healthy fiber (contains only 2% or your RDA) or we could make these unselling points even more obvious: Unhealthy amounts of sodium and fiber, eat this food in moderation.

With a department that does not clearly spell out dietary guidelines, food producers have much leeway to bill junk food as health food. Sodium is one food additive which escapes scrutiny. As such, processed food is nearly always high in sodium, with little alternatives for the concerned individual. Take my low-sodium lunch of organic carrot soup (from scratch, purposely devoid of added salt) and two quesadillas made from salt free tortillas, a handful of mixed nuts and a glass of organic milk. Like that frozen meal, it sounds healthy. Not so fast though. Carrots have salt in them naturally. My large bowl of carrot soup naturally had 11% of my sodium intake. The quesadillas had 15% of my salt from the cheese and an additional 10% from the hot sauce put inside. Add a handful of mixed nuts (9%) a glass of milk (5%) and all of a sudden I just consumed 1250 mg of sodium, fully half of my recommended daily allowance.

Perhaps I need to try harder to avoid salt. Wait I have. Low salt bread is virtually non-existant. I have found only one option in three grocery stores and it is wacky bread made without flour. Low salt cheese? Good luck. Low salt hot sauce? Doesn't exist. Hotter hot sauce using less of it? Not the same flavor. But that's not all. I've gone further. I bake my own low-salt bread now. I make salsa from scratch. I use my creative and culinary abilities to do better.

But anyways, this entry is not about me but about the USDA. The take-home point is conflict of interest. Perhaps we could strengthen the Government Accountability Office. Or separate the operating units (parts of USDA, e.g. Food and Nutrition Service, Forestry Service, etc), such that each had more autonomy to pursue its mission.

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