We're obese. We know it and we know about the risks of junk food, poverty and mothers' diets. But if we think organic food can cut our obesity rate, we could be swallowing a whole lot of dodgy – and costly – ideas

The headline in the New Zealand Herald's Element magazine last month certainly hit its targets: "Feeding the nation – obesity, poverty and how to get New Zealand eating its greens". But from pointing out that we are one of the world's most obese nations (30% of us classed as obese, another 34% overweight), the feature moved to junk food, poverty and onto the dangers of pesticides and the benefits of eating organic – preferably heritage – food.

'You are what you eat' seemed to be the central and overt message, and few would disagree. It was the covert messages that were more concerning.

Obesity has many causes behind the obvious ones such as what you put in your mouth and how much activity you perform.

Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor is clear in his research findings that maternal diet can have an impact on a child’s weight gain later in life. So what is eaten by the mother affects the diet tendencies of the child. These are exacerbated by the socio-economic environment in which the child is raised, and Element reported that one in four children in New Zealand lives in poverty.

What wasn’t pointed out is that in New Zealand ‘poverty’ is defined (by The Children’s Social Health Monitor) as less than 60% of the national median income; the median is the middle point in a ranking of everybody’s income from top to bottom – it is the numerical value that separates the higher half of incomes form the lower half.

This definition of poverty is not related to the necessities of life.

Junk food was identified as part of the problem because it is "often cheaper than healthy food". Research that supports the alternative view wasn't presented. It is true, however, that the fast food intake in New Zealand has escalated. A World Health Organisation study of intake between 1999 and 2008 released last week placed New Zealand fourth in increased fast food consumption, and first place in increasing Body Mass Index.

Combined with the actual data on obesity – the look isn’t pretty….

Having dealt with obesity and poverty the magazine went on to getting people to eat their greens – with an alert on pesticides, a message that organics is better and the suggestion that heritage apples have eight times more nutrients than their supermarket counterparts. ""Grow your own and if you can't grow your own then go to a farmers market and ask questions", was advocated.

Organic sounds natural and therefore good, right? In 2012 the Hartman Group reported that an ‘absence of’ residue from agricultural production techniques was the major reason for people purchasing organic food. In the same vein, a Nielsen report released in August 2010 indicated that the  biggest reason consumers gave for buying organic was that it was ‘healthier’ (76% ), followed by avoiding pesticides (53%) and ‘more nutritious’ (51%). The study concluded that consumers are driven to organic food purchases because they believe they are healthier choices; socially conscious reasons such as ‘it’s better for the environment’ and ‘the right thing to do’ are less important. Similarly in 2012 the Hartman Group reported that ‘absence of’ residue was the main reason for purchasing organic food.

The ‘healthier’ concept is hugely debated, however. Last year scientists at Stanford University released a report on the results of four decades of research involving 237 trials comparing organic and conventional foods. They concluded that fruits and vegetables labelled organic were, on average, no more nutritious than their conventional counterparts; variables such as ripeness were reported to have a greater influence on nutrient content than production method. Organic produce was not less likely to be contaminated by bacteria such as E. coli; composting animal manure, which is often associated with organic systems, increases likelihood of contamination.

Conventional fruits and vegetables did have more pesticide residues than organic produce, but the levels were almost always under the allowed safety limits. The Food Safety Authority in New Zealand (now part of the Ministry for Primary Industries) reports that New Zealand has among the lowest levels of pesticide residues in the world.

The Stanford researchers found no obvious health advantages to organic meats and though they did find that that organic chicken and pork was less likely to be contaminated by antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the overall incidence of contamination was low. In New Zealand antibiotics to promote growth are forbidden; antibiotics are used only for animal health. 

The same research reported that organic milk (which comes from cows on pasture for at least 120 days a year during which their diet is at least 30% pasture) contained more omega-3 fatty acids than conventional milk (which comes from cows in barns). In New Zealand animals have far more access to pasture than do organic cows in America, and as a consequence we have a natural advantage in omega-3s.

Overall, New Zealand has world leading food safety whatever the production system involved; the supermarkets have standards for what is on their shelves.

These standards involve testing organic food for residues of chemicals such as copper sulphate and lime sulphur, which are permitted in organic production systems in New Zealand to control fungi such as brown spot or mildew, and neem and pyrethrins, which are permitted in organic production systems for use against insects.

Organic production systems do not mean pesticide- or chemical-free, but the limited range of chemicals that are allowed means that control of pests is not as effective as compared with traditional systems. This is part of the reason that organic food is generally more expensive than conventionally produced food. Research by AgResearch has shown that organic sheep and beef farms tend to be operating at 60% of the production of conventional farms. Lincoln, Otago and Massey Universities have shown that organic dairy farms operate at 70-80%. Horticulture is somewhere between 0 and 100% depending on the season and pest and disease pressure.

Look at that research as a whole, and you'll see that concerns food is less nutritious than it used to be are not supported by facts.

A large study in America of analysis of nutritional changes between 1950 and 1990 of 43 fruits and vegetables concluded that any changes were more to do with modern day cultivars than production systems. This meta-analysis corrected for water content of the fruit and vegetables analysed – which is not always done. Modern day varieties have often been bred to be ‘juicy’ and for keeping quality, which improves desirability and decreases nutritional deterioration. When combined with preservation techniques, such as controlled atmosphere chilling and snap freezing, the quality of what is available has improved markedly over the years.

The covert message in Element was that modern day food is bad for you. In excess that may well be true. Research commissioned by the World Cancer Research Fund and American Institute for Cancer Research reports that food is absolutely linked with health and disease… through obesity. But it is what humans choose to put in their mouths in terms of quantity (including sugar, salt and fat), not how the food is produced on farms, that has health impacts.

And when you consider the impact of poverty on our health, consider also that articles implying more expensive organic food is better for you put further burden on stretched purses for no proven gain.

In New Zealand nutritious, healthy food is produced by farmers using modern technologies, and thanks to those technologies that food will be an smaller proportion of the household income almost every year. My next post will discuss the data.

Comments (11)

by Brent Jackson on February 11, 2014
Brent Jackson

A well written article.  Thanks a lot.

by Fentex on February 11, 2014
Fentex

I don't believe obesity has much to do with the food we eat at all given that the calories we consume hasn't increased enough to account for the increase.

I think the by far more obvious and probable cause is an increasingly lethargic lifestyle in a world we've made that removes incidental needs to exercise. Cars rather than bikes, Elevators, escalators rather than stairs, video games rather than sports, increasing urbanisation et al.

 

by Pete Sime on February 11, 2014
Pete Sime

I disagree, Fentex. At least for those who are more than 10 kg or so overweight. In January last year my BMI was in the 50s - I wasn't just a bit overweight, I was at the extreme end of the scale.

Since then I have lost 60 kg through diet and exercise and I continue to make steady progess downwards - but most of that has been done through changing my eating habits and being mindful of what I consume. You can't lose that much just through 30-60 minutes of cardio a day.

Yes, weight loss is about burning more calories than are consumed and physical activity is definitely part of the equation, but we are inundated with calorie dense foods and giving thought to what we eat is important.

As for the organic side of things, that's not so important to me. But I don't think it's irresponsible for consumers to be more thoughtful about the food they eat. Quite the opposite, actually.

by Tim Watkin on February 11, 2014
Tim Watkin

Fentex, picking up on what Pete says, I'd agree it seems likely that the food we consume matters (and not just in proportion to the exercise we do). To be contrary on lifts and cars etc, you've got people going to the gym in massive numbers, something few did two generations ago.

Jacqueline makes a pretty strong case that it's not the different kind of natural foods we eat that's the issue, be they organic or otherwise. But what about the fact (I'm assming it's a fact without any evidence!) that we simply eat less natural food full stop. I would think we eat a lot more processed, packaged and additive-based food than we used to and that's little use to us.

by Fentex on February 11, 2014
Fentex

 you've got people going to the gym in massive numbers, something few did two generations ago.

Well yes, I think this supports my theory. People missing routine exercisei n their life need purposefully seek it out.

...we simply eat less natural food full stop. I would think we eat a lot more processed, packaged and additive-based food than we used to and that's little use to us.

I am deeply sceptical of this sort of thinking. The arbitrary distinction between 'natural' and 'processed' doesn't seem to have much justification to it.

I can accept an argument that people eat more food purchased in packets form supermarkets than they used to - I know I grew up mostly fed by my parents garden but do not grow anything but a few herbs myself (I've only recently learnt what meat costs having taken up a hobby of trying to cook the perfect steak) but I see no reason to think this causes obesity except in that it illustrates a time poor life without exercise like gardening in it.

I think people stop by a fast food outlet and buy high fat, high protein food and slouch on a couch at home eating it more often than they used to, but I still think the important parts of that will be driving through to get the food and slouching in front of a TV.

by Tim Watkin on February 11, 2014
Tim Watkin

On what basis do you think that the slouching and driving are more important than the food? Do you have any evidence?

And you call the argument arbitrary without saying why. An increased consumption of processed sugars, salts and fats and food that has been broken down and reconstituted surely, logically means a less healthy diet than that food from your parents' garden, doesn't it? And I agree that the gym memberships point to a lack of everyday exercise. But the point is that it is a replacement, it is being done, so that suggests a lack of exercise isn't the killer punch.

by Fentex on February 12, 2014
Fentex

On what basis do you think that the slouching and driving are more important than the food? Do you have any evidence?

The reduction in calorie intake over time. In the 1970's caloric intake was higher on average than it is today in wealthy nations that have since seen a trend in growing weight. The U.S CDC records that average caloric intake across the U.S has not increased in ten years, yet incidence of obesity has.

An increased consumption of processed sugars, salts and fats and food that has been broken down and reconstituted surely, logically means a less healthy diet than that food from your parents' garden, doesn't it?

I don't see why. What matters is the absolute amounts of what you eat. Being processed or not is beside the point - n grams of x remains n grams of x where x is something your body may convert to fat or not. It doesn't matter if I eat x amount from a bag of chips or two servings of potatoes at home, it's still x.

What matters is if the total x is more than I burn.

If I eat the same size helpings at all times, and I switch from food that has a certain density of x to a food with a higher density then yes, the density of x would matter. But why should I think that is happening?

by Fentex on February 13, 2014
Fentex

And I add my personal experience - I'm a middle aged man who has put on a bit of a belly, and I know exactly why.

I don't eat more than I used to, but due to having destroyed my knees I exercise a great deal less, and drive without any of the cycling I once did thus I'm now ten kilos heavier than I was when playing football.

When Morton Spurlock made 'SuperSize Me' some viewers felt uneasy at his claims and attempted to replicate them reportedly without success, Soso Whaley in particular demonstrated how with the same diet one could live healthily if only one exercised.

I feel I consistently see it demonstrated that exercise is the deciding factor in weight control.

by Fentex on February 13, 2014
Fentex

Which, by the way, is no claim that fast food is healthy. The amount and variety of nutrients consumed undoubtably effects health and as I type this is occurs to me that an unhealthy person who's missing out on some vitamins might feel lethargic to the point of avoiding exercise.

I offer no opinion on the quality of various fast foods for sustaining a person indefinitely, just that I believe obesity in particular is about exercise.

by Steve F on February 23, 2014
Steve F

When reflecting on topics such as this I like to keep it simple. It help to focus the mind on what is relevant. I look at the whole human weight gain conundrum analogous to a bank account. It's about money in and money out. The money in is the calorific value of your input. Like, what goes in your mouth. The money out is the burning up of the input. When one exceeds the other the the bank balance changes. So with that in mind I start to think about the money out. It takes a certain number of calories a day just to stay alive. Keep the heart beating, the lungs breathing. Just lying in bed all day burns calories. Once you stand up muscles need to tension and maintain balance. More calories. Start to move, accelerate the muscle movement, more calories. Which is why stop start is better than constant movement. So all this moving around eats up the money. Then I turn to money in. It's pretty basic really. Win the lotto and you're really going to have to work at it to keep the bank balance in the red. Stuff calories into your mouth, they're not going to just fall on the floor, you need to burn them off. So two things affect this. Portion size and food type. In my books, keep the portions small and the calorific value balanced. I'll tell you about an interesting experiment I did a few years ago. It was sitting in the autumn sun sipping a beer alongside the lake on the edge of Zurich. The garden bar was crowded. It was late afternoon, the weather balmy, and the city was winding down for the day. On the lake size of the cafe garden was a promenade and along it strolled to whole cross section of Zurich. Young, old, the smart, the grunge, the serious, the happy go lucky. Mothers with strollers, grandmas with Zimmer frames. They were all there. I counted the number of people that passed within a minute. Sixty. I did again a few minutes later and a few minutes later again. Sixty. So I ordered another beer and watched. For one hour. Thats  sixty times sixty, or three thousand six hundred Zurichites or Zurichians or whatever you call a group of them. I reckon thats a fair sample of the inhabitants of Zurich. But what struck me was a total absence of obesity. Not a fat one amongst them. Why? There didn't appear to be any gyms around the city. There probably were but I never saw anyone out jogging. Quite a lot more smoke but that can't be the reason. The bank analogy seems a bit incongruous for Switzerland. Their coffers are full. But that is what it's about. Swiss people eat small portions. The calorific value of their food varieties is well balanced. They move about constantly. Walk, ride bikes, climb stairs, climb hills and keep everything in balance.  

by Steve F on February 23, 2014
Steve F

When reflecting on topics such as this I like to keep it simple. It help to focus the mind on what is relevant. I look at the whole human weight gain conundrum analogous to a bank account. It's about money in and money out. The money in is the calorific value of your input. Like, what goes in your mouth. The money out is the burning up of the input. When one exceeds the other the the bank balance changes. So with that in mind I start to think about the money out. It takes a certain number of calories a day just to stay alive. Keep the heart beating, the lungs breathing. Just lying in bed all day burns calories. Once you stand up muscles need to tension and maintain balance. More calories. Start to move, accelerate the muscle movement, more calories. Which is why stop start is better than constant movement. So all this moving around eats up the money. Then I turn to money in. It's pretty basic really. Win the lotto and you're really going to have to work at it to keep the bank balance in the red. Stuff calories into your mouth, they're not going to just fall on the floor, you need to burn them off. So two things affect this. Portion size and food type. In my books, keep the portions small and the calorific value balanced.

 I'll tell you about an interesting experiment I did a few years ago. It was sitting in the autumn sun sipping a beer alongside the lake on the edge of Zurich. The garden bar was crowded. It was late afternoon, the weather balmy, and the city was winding down for the day. On the lake size of the cafe garden was a promenade and along it strolled to whole cross section of Zurich. Young, old, the smart, the grunge, the serious, the happy go lucky. Mothers with strollers, grandmas with Zimmer frames. They were all there. I counted the number of people that passed within a minute. Sixty. I did again a few minutes later and a few minutes later again. Sixty. So I ordered another beer and watched. For one hour. Thats  sixty times sixty, or three thousand six hundred Zurichites or Zurichians or whatever you call a group of them. I reckon thats a fair sample of the inhabitants of Zurich. But what struck me was a total absence of obesity. Not a fat one amongst them. Why? There didn't appear to be any gyms around the city. There probably were but I never saw anyone out jogging. Quite a lot more smoke but that can't be the reason. The bank analogy seems a bit incongruous for Switzerland. Their coffers are full. But that is what it's about. Swiss people eat small portions. The calorific value of their food varieties is well balanced. They move about constantly. Walk, ride bikes, climb stairs, climb hills and keep everything in balance.  

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