Do You Really Want to Eat That?
It’s official: I am now a “former Fellow.” My year at the Center for Environmental Journalism has come to an end, and my head is swimming in studies of global food. I have books piled to my knees. My laptop desktop is a platter of pdfs. In a few weeks, I’ll unleash the project that’s swallowed my brain these past few months. But let me offer an amuse-bouche before the big feast to come: a few factoids on health and safety to consider when planning your next meal:
1. Up to 38 percent of American cows have E. coli 0157:H7 at the time of slaughter. -J. Glenn Morris, director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute, University of Florida
That’s the E. coli variety that gets ample attention because it kills vulnerable populations such as the elderly and little kids. We’re actually covered in E. coli. It’s the most common bacteria in the human intestinal tract, “and it’s not doing you any harm,” Morris says. But certain types of E. coli, such as 0157:H7, produce a dangerous Shiga toxin that can lead to severe illness. Approximately 63,000 cases and 20 deaths occur each year in the United States. “The thing that’s so devastating about it is that it kills kids,” Morris says.
And it’s present in more than a third of all slaughtered cows. It’s in 40 percent of ground beef, which accounts for more than 30 percent of all E. coli disease outbreaks.
Morris says ground beef requires more careful cooking than steak. That’s because the inside of an untouched steak is sterile. Bacteria on the outside can be eliminated when the meat is seared. But a single burger can contain meat from tens of thousands of cows—all ground up, the insides and outsides all mixed together. And it only takes one bad cow to spoil the picnic. (Studies show just a few individual microscopic bacteria can cause illness.)
Sight alone is not protection enough when cooking a burger, Morris says. Depending on pigments and pH levels, meat can appear pink when it’s thoroughly cooked. It also can appear well done when in fact pathogens still live within. That’s why Morris now tests his burgers with a thermometer to ensure the meat has reached a magical, safe 160 degrees.
By the way, this is an American disease. It’s almost nonexistent in the developing world, Morris says. It loves our system of factory farms, feed lots and grinders that process 30 tons of meat at once, he says. “Nobody produces hamburgers like we do.”
2. We all know that organic foods often cost more. But the environmental and health costs of U.S. pesticide use total about $10 billion a year. -Tony Weis, author of The Global Food Economy
That’s actually an oft-cited statistic that takes into account all the economic costs of pesticide-related diseases, pesticide resistance, bee and wildlife destruction, crop loss and an array of other expenses.
Our government knows almost nothing about the health risks of some 80,000 unregulated chemicals on the market. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more than 1,055 active ingredients are mixed and matched to make thousands of legal pesticides.
We are what we eat. “The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports on 148 chemical pollutants in the blood or urine of the general U.S. population, including pesticides, flame retardants, and plastic additives,” Rebecca Gasior Altman writes in a 2008 study of household chemical exposure.
But there’s hope—even for those of us who can’t afford, or don’t have access to, or simply don’t want an all-organic diet. According to The Daily Green and the Environmental Working Group, people can dramatically reduce their pesticide exposure (up to 80 percent) by avoiding these non-organic foods: apples, bell peppers, blueberries, carrots, celery, cherries, coffee, grapes, kale, leafy greens, meat, milk, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, spinach and strawberries. These foods absorb more pesticide residues than others.
The “clean list” of foods with low pesticide residues includes asparagus, avocado, cabbage, cantaloupe, eggplant, grapefruit, honeydew, kiwi, onions, mango pineapple, sweet corn, sweet peas, sweet potato and watermelon. Buy these foods when your budget is tight or you can’t find organic.
But it’s not just food that requires caution—packaging matters, too. Recent reports show that acidic foods, such as tomatoes, leach BPA from the lining of a can; flame retardants are found in butter wrappers; and microwave popcorn bags contain perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), the stuff used in Teflon that we’ve all been warned against.
3. A 64-ounce double gulp soda contains 48 teaspoons of sugar. -Kelly Brownell, co-founder and director, The Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University
Brownell says kids get 40 percent of their daily calories from “empty” sources including soda, and only 20 percent of kids are getting the recommended fruit and vegetable servings. Their diet shows in the data: 30 percent of American kids are overweight, and one in three kids born in 2000 will develop diabetes.
4. The greatest sources of salt in the American diet are bread and pasta. -Gary Beauchamp, director, Monell Chemical Senses Center
It’s not pretzels, popcorn, chips or fries as one might suspect. It’s “things that don’t even taste salty,” Beauchamp says.
A curious thing about salt: we humans seem to possess an inexplicable need for it. Studies show that salt intake is much the same worldwide, except in places where it’s scarce. Something is driving that desire, Beauchamp suspects, because people everywhere consume more salt than the body needs.
He says salt inhibits bitter flavors, thus enhancing sweetness. Salt makes soup taste fuller, thicker, more aromatic, more flavorful. That’s our perception. It’s mouthfeel—but scientists don’t know what precisely creates it. “Salt is a magic ingredient in food,” Beauchamp says.
Unlocking that magic is key because, as we all know, too much of a good thing can bite back.
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