Food Bytes: Aug 26 - Aug 31

Food Bytes is a weekly blog post of “nibbles” of information on all things food and nutrition science, policy and culture.

Have you ever wondered which cuisine the world craves? Turns out, Italy. Yeah, no shit Sherlock. Italy is the largest exporter of their cuisine followed by Japan, Turkey and Mexico — Órale! Who is the largest importer, meaning, their food just sucks? You guessed it Sherlock. America. F!@#%* yah! China and Brazil don’t seem so keen on their local cuisine either. They follow the U.S. on importing other country cuisines. Funny. Brazil’s food based dietary guideline boasts harnessing its local cuisine. We guess people just don’t read those pesky guidelines…

Dari Mozaffarian and Dan Glickman wrote a timely op-ed piece in the New York Times that diets are now the number one risk factor killing Americans, costing the U.S. health care system billions each year. They provide a range of solutions and signify that governments and food and beverage industries need to be held accountable. While unhealthy diets continue to kill so many, politicians completely ignore the issue. As America moves towards what will be a contentious, decisive election year, they suggest that “every candidate should have a food platform, and every [presidential] debate should explore these positions.” Not sure this rhetoric will be high on the Trump “make American great again, for real this time” re-election campaign because the “Potus” just ain’t really that into food. Unless you consider consuming fast food a gourmand type diet.

Another op-ed piece in the New York Times by Catherine Kling urges that producers who cause “nutrient pollution,” in the form of nitrogen and phosphorus coming from agriculture fertilizer and manure run-off, should be required to pay for the cleanup. She suggests that state government regulations should be enforced to ensure that farmers reduce nutrient pollution. Wonder how livestock ranchers feel about that? Gee, take a guess.

IFAD and Bioversity just put out a great guideline on supporting nutrition-sensitive neglected and underutilized species (NUS) and wild edibles (check out Figure 2 particularly). The guideline is led by the great Stefano Padulosi at Bioversity who has some deep experience working on NUS value chains in many parts of the world. He is also the “Rocket Man.” What are NUS you ask? Here is how they define it in the guideline:

Many are the synonyms which have been used since the mid-1980s to refer to NUS, including minor, under-used, under-exploited, under-developed, orphan, promising, lost, alternative, traditional, niche crops, crops of the future, future smart food. In reality, all these terms are often context-specific and loaded with heavy cultural meanings and not easily understood in the same way by everybody. The term “Neglected and Underutilized Species” might not be the ideal expression and may not be appealing to people.

There is so much focus these days on diet and the food system footprints on climate change. It is seriously having its moment. But in the back of our mind’s eye, we hark back to an article published in 2017 in Environmental Research Letters, that indicated that largest impact an individual can make to reduce their greenhouse gas footprint is to have one less child. Check out this graphic to the right. Powerful. This action is followed by living car free. Diet is further down the list of impacts. Food for thought…

Interestingly, they didn’t model reducing food waste by individuals. The World Resources Institute (WRI) has just released a global action agenda on reducing food loss and waste by 2030. It is a really practical guide to setting targets, honing in on who should take action and what scalable interventions are available. Everything WRI puts out is pretty stellar and this is another data rich, practical guide to tackle one of the most important issues of the food system.

What if all Americans ate less meat? Not necessarily eliminating meat completely, but just much less? By the way, American are already slowly and steadily decreasing their beef consumption since the 1980s. In the Nature journal Scientific Reports, scientists tested this idea. By replacing 25% meat with plant alternatives dominated (strangely) by soy, green pepper, squash, buckwheat, and asparagus, Americans can eliminate pastureland use while saving 35–50% of their diet related needs for cropland and 330 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year, but increase their diet related irrigation needs by 15%.

These advertisements on the left for PETA Vegan guides are all over DC (note the elephant in the background just to remind you that yes, DC is the capitol of the U.S. and the district lives and breathes politics. You can’t get away from it. It will smother, suffocate and slowly destroy you). Where were we? Oh yeah. We picked up the guide and thumbed through it. Some of the recipes didn’t look so tantalizing, and much of what was recommended wasn’t all that healthy. There were lots of photos of faux meat mimicking fried chicken fingers, hotdogs, and meatballs doused in sticky sauce, as well as lots of cakes. Is it possible to promote sustainable, healthy, and animal cruelty free vegan diets for those who choose to go that route PETA? That can’t be too hard can it? While it was an A for effort, maybe version 2 of the guide will feature more healthy foods and less overly processed, junk food.

In other news, with Uber Eats and other gig economy food deliveries on the rise, so is the toll on the drivers delivering food. They are risking their lives in places like South Africa. Tragic. And just to deliver the ultimate convenience to our dinner table.

Venezuela. Talk about a free fall into despair and chaos. Because of the turmoil, food security and the deeper issues of consistent insecurity have taken a big hit. Venezuelans lost an average of twenty-four pounds in body weight. Nine out of ten live in poverty. Roughly one in ten have left the country.

A paper just published in the Lancet hits right at the heart of the trade war between the U.S. and China. The authors feel that it is time to reshape trade policies towards those that favor sustainable food and nutrition systems. They argue there are three starting points for public health actors to take up this agenda.

  1. Recognize the fundamental and front-line nature of trade policy as both a barrier and potential catalyst for health.

  2. Engage more effectively and with the right stakeholders to push for policy space within trade and investment agreements.

  3. Reach beyond trade to promote a development discourse that makes explicit the nutrition imperative — nutrition is crucial to achieving most of the Sustainable Development Goals.

The Food Archive holds a special place in its heart for special focus issues that scientific journals put out. That is, when journals hone in on a hot topic and publish a complementary set of articles on the topic to show different facets and perspectives on the topic.

Here are some recent highlights:

In the last food bytes post, the hard to watch unfold Brazilian Amazon fires were highlighted. This piece highlights that forest fires are happening all over the world, many in biodiverse hotspots, making climate change all that much worse. Very sad not only for forests but for those who live among and depend on them. The map on the right shows fires over the last year. Look at southwest Africa and Southern Africa. Look at Madagascar (think lemurs…) and Southeast Asia. Wah!!

One place prone to massive forest fires (the 2018 fires were the most devastating in the state’s history) is California but every day it finds a way to rub its beauty in our face. Geez, okay Cali, you win.

Speaking of California, and to keep the whole Woodstock vibe going, let’s just end with a little Joni Mitchell, because she sings about omelets and stews and well, because this has to be one of the best albums ever recorded. Click below to hear her beautiful song, California.

Oh the rogue, the red red rogue
He cooked good omelets and stews
And I might have stayed on with him there
But my heart cried out for you, California
Oh California, I'm coming home
Oh make me feel good rock'n roll band
I'm your biggest fan

California, I'm coming home

— Joni Mitchell

 

 

Food Bytes: July 21 - Aug 25

Food Bytes is a weekly blog post of “nibbles” of information on all things food and nutrition science, policy and culture.

Took a bit longer to get up the next Food Bytes entry due to summer holidays. So here it goes.

Summer is going out with a roar. The Inter-Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produced their outstanding report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems. Lots of media coverage followed. Diet recommendations were made (reducing beef, taking on a more flexitarian diet etc). If we want to live in this changed climate, we need to adapt. The saber-toothed tiger had a less flexitarian diet and we know what happened to them…

Speaking of adapting, scientists found a “stature gene” among Central African hunter gatherers, also known as pygmies. This short gene gave them an advantage in Africa’s hot, humid rainforests. I was really hoping this gene hopped across the Atlantic to Italians, or even more so, short Italian American women living in DC to help explain my enduring squat-ness, but alas, no such luck. While on the topic of luck, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, you should also stay away from cereal that has corn as the main ingredient if you want to have an environmentally friendly diet. So better forget about your Froot Loops and Trix and reach instead for your Lucky Charms.

Farmgate value of global vegetable production by income groups of countries, average 2012–2013, current US dollars (Source: Schreinemachers et al 2019 GFS Journal)

Let’s continue with the climate onslaught shall we? This article talks about the beginning of the end of the livestock industry. But is that really so? Don’t underestimate the chicken man. And do you know how much of a carbon footprint you consume with your diet? BBC provides a calculator - do the math and you will quickly be blanketed in a quilt of guilt. It ain’t just beef that you gotta worry about…

Sam Myers of Harvard published a great piece in the WaPo on how increased CO2 in the atmosphere will “zap” nutrients from key crops. He argues that 175 million people could become zinc-deficient, 122 million would not be able to get protein, and 0.5 billion would have iron-deficiency-related disease. So now we need to worry not only about getting enough food to feed 10 billion, but the quality of those foods in fulfilling our nutrient needs. And the declines in nutritional quality are happening in real time. A study examining 43 “garden” crops in the U.S. found declines of 6 nutrients - protein, calcium, iron, phosphorous, riboflavin and vitamin C - since 1950. The food supply already can’t keep up. Mario Herrero and colleagues found that our current food supply does not produce enough fruits and vegetables, and in the course of the next 30 years, that supply will worsen. If everyone were to follow the WHO recommendation of 400 g/person/day of fruits and vegetables, 1.9 billion people would not have the access to these foods – the food supply just cannot keep up.

But a recent article in the Global Food Security Journal argues that vegetables hold a lot of economic power. Yeah sure. That is, if we can produce them. And then people want to eat them. They suggest that governments will need to increase their investment in farm productivity including improved varieties, alternatives to chemical pesticides, and the use of protected cultivation. There is also a need for better post-harvest storage of veggies, food safety and market opportunities. To tap the nutritional power of vegetables, consumers need to know how vegetables contribute to health, be able to afford them, or be able to grow them themselves. God speed to those New Yorkers living in 300 square feet of space with no windows and definitely, no outdoor space.

The recent paper by Eker and colleagues, published in Nature Sustainability, adds to the sustainable diet literature and evidence base, examining how consumer diet shifts can contribute to mitigation of climate change. Utilizing scenario assessments, the authors model the impacts of different compositional and behavioral dietary shifts among the global population on environmental footprints. Compositional dietary shifts included average meat consumption, flexitarian (more plant-based), vegetarian, and vegan dietary patterns. As other studies have shown, changes in diet composition towards more plant-based diets, have implications on the environment. However, more significant shifts, by a large swatch of the world’s population, towards vegetarianism would need to occur to see impacts on greenhouse gases and other environmental measures (such as land use). The paper is unique in that it models the behavioral dietary shifts among consumers and their impacts. The authors found that younger populations (ages 15-45) respond to social norm behaviors, that is, as the world moves towards more vegetarian type diets, the change towards those diets is more rapid.

They argue that the values a society holds among peer groups can outweigh the influence of scientific facts. This was evident in that behavior shifts in response to health or climate risks were not as significant as motivators of behavior change. Secondary education attainment (a predominant proportion of the world’s population) and self efficacy and identity among women were also important motivators of dietary behavioral change. This study argues that for us, as individuals to make an impact on the environment through our diets, significant shifts need to be made by a large segment of the world’s population. These shifts require a movement towards a vegetarian type diet to reap both environmental and health benefits. Much of this change would happen through peer influence (think social media), through women’s agency, and through those with a secondary school education. The change, would need to happen on a grand, transformative level as called for by the EAT-Lancet Commission report in early January 2019.

Fires in the Brazilian Amazon. Source: NYTIMES

Foreign Policy well articulates the findings from the EAT Lancet and the IPCC report here and argue that the global food crisis is here. Now. Live. I also was on the Bloomberg Daybreak America’s show to discuss the impacts of the food system and diets on climate change. Check out the show here (segment starts at 1:22:50). Scientists have been forecasting their warnings for 40 years - they were right and no one listened. Maybe people (and governments) will start paying more attention and take some serious action. The NOAA show that July 2019 was the hottest month on record since they started recording temperatures. Speaking of heat, the Brazilian amazon fires are getting lots of attention right now. The NY Times shows a time scale of problem. It should be noted that these human induced fires are mainly done to prepare agriculture lands. And they occur every year, around the same time in the Amazon. The article makes three points on why these fires are different. (1) There were 35 percent more fires so far this year than in the average of the last eight years. (2) There has been a rise in deforestation in recent years, after a long period of decline. (3) While a large majority of the fires were on land that had already been cleared of forests many others are burning with particular intensity that are “deforestation fires.”

While we are discussing trees, it seems a banana fungus, known as “Fusarium wilt tropical race 4 (TR4)” has been devastating plantations in Asia and now the Americas. It is supposedly impossible to eradicate and can live in soil for 30 years. The economic upheaval cannot be overstated. Speaking of loss, a study out of Santa Clara University found that one-third of edible produce (like tomatoes, sweet corn, artichokes, watermelon, cabbage, strawberries and kale) remains unharvested in the fields. Reasons? Field/harvest stability, weather, pests and plant diseases, labor availability, market prices, and buyer specifications for how produce should look and feel like.

By the time we got to Woodstock…

I just can’t keep up with all the latest food trends. Did you know McDonalds has jumped on the podcast bandwagon? Yeehaw. Virtual restaurants are on the rise, meaning that they are digital-only establishments that don’t need a dining room or waiters. They rely on people ordering their food from apps. But kickin it back to ol’ school, this article gives ode to the Waffle House, started in 1955 in Avondale Estates Georgia. You just can’t replicate that with an app. Oh, how I reminisce of those bygone days. Can you believe Woodstock happened 50 years ago? I just bought this book: Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat by Jonathan Kauffman. Bring on the tempeh. Seems all things hippie are back in style. Keep an eye out for a blog dedicated to 1968-1969 and how it influenced our food ways.

Delving further back into history, the New York Times has an excellent piece on the “barbaric history of sugar” that fueled slavery in the United States. By the mid-19th century, the U.S. had 125,000 slaves working on sugar plantations! Fast forward to today, we are now trying to figure out how to reduce, remove or tax this “white gold” in the food supply. Forty countries and 7 cities have a sugar tax. The Economist highlights a study showing how to optimize sugar taxes without regressive effects. They suggest that: “In the real world, if taxes in one place get too high shoppers will arbitrage the rules by traveling to buy soft drinks elsewhere. Taking this into account they reckon that the optimal rate for cities is 0.5 cents, although a more efficient system would be a state or national tax to control America’s sugar rush.”

Impact of climate change on crops, water and income in Timor-Leste. Source: Bonis-Profumo et al 2019.

Here is just a few cool papers, reports and books that came out in the last few weeks:

  • Association Between Plant-Based Dietary Patterns and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. There is a strong inverse dose response association between plant-based diets and risk of type 2 diabetes This association was strengthened when healthy plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts.

  • Soft condensed matter physics of foods and macronutrients. This article discusses the importance of physics in understanding the texture, taste, and composition of foods. It is an atom-colliding article of food science and matter physics. Get your genius on.

  • Ravaged landscapes and climate vulnerability: The challenge in achieving food security and nutrition in post-conflict Timor-Leste. This article focuses on the fascinating Timor-Leste - an agrarian society that won independence in 2002 and is struggling to achieve food security and reduce undernutrition as the country modernizes. The economy depends on fossil fuel revenues and oil reserves are dwindling. A review of climate, agricultural, and nutrition data reveals high weather vulnerability, low agricultural productivity, and slow dietary and nutritional progress. But solutions exist. Agricultural sector actions can make important contributions to poverty reduction, food security, dietary diversity, micronutrient sufficiency, and overall nutrition. Agriculture can be made to be more nutrition- and gender-sensitive with a focus on mixed farming systems, biodiversity, climate-smart practices, and access to inputs, training, and technologies for farmers to enable sustainable and healthy rural livelihoods. Ultimately, productivity levels must improve to support the availability of sufficient and nutritious foods.

  • Gene-environment interplay: what do our genes say about dietary choices? Those of us who work in public health often forget about epigenetics and the way our genes play out in our diets and health status. The authors say: Diet is not just dictated by guidelines and individual choices, but also by availability and accessibility. Therefore, future studies that investigate the relationship of gene expression and a healthy diet in individuals exposed to a similar environmental milieu—for example, in accessibility, inducements, and the socioeconomic construct—are needed to understand the gene–environment interplay at the community level. These results can leverage genetic expression analyses to provide early biological footprints of an unhealthy diet environment, in order to facilitate the investigation of social factors that influence prevalences and outcomes of disease processes, such as food deserts and food swamps.”

  • Trends and Correlates of Overweight among Pre-School Age Children, Adolescent Girls, and Adult Women in South Asia: An Analysis of Data from Twelve National Surveys in Six Countries over Twenty Years. The researchers found that overweight children had significantly higher odds of having an overweight mother and were more likely to come from wealthier households, live in urban areas, and have more education.

  • Modernization of African Food Retailing and (Un)healthy Food Consumption. In Zambia, two-thirds of the households use modern and traditional retailers simultaneously, but richer households are more likely than poorer ones to use supermarkets and hypermarkets. Use of modern retailers is positively associated with higher consumption of ultra-processed foods, after also controlling for income and other socioeconomic factors. However, the use of traditional stores and kiosks is also positively associated with the consumption of ultra-processed foods, suggesting that modern retailers are not the only drivers of dietary transitions. Interesting!

  • The SDG of zero hunger 75 years on: Turning full circle on agriculture and nutrition. In this paper, Derek Byerlee and I look back to the pioneering 1943 UN Conference on Food and Agriculture in Hot Springs, Virginia where the first international commitment to ending hunger was made. Despite these good intentions, however, the agricultural and nutrition communities largely went their separate ways for the next 50 years. Following through on the conference’s balanced approach of “more and better food” would have resulted in better nutrition for all. Today, the SDGs have once again put nutrition and agriculture together at center stage. Despite some important gaps in knowledge, financing, and implementation capacity, we are finally in a better position to shape food systems in a way that ends hunger and all forms of malnutrition.

  • Technical Brief: Economic Evaluations of Multi-sectoral Actions for Health and Nutrition. This is a fantastic brief by the AHN Academy. This is a fantastic brief by the AHN Academy to “created to advance knowledge and scientific understanding among the global research community of economic evaluation methods and metrics related to costs and benefits of agriculture, food and livelihood strategies for nutrition and health.” They examine different types of economic evaluations and move towards standardizing a set of metrics to economically assess nutrition.

  • The Political Economy of Food. Jody Harris and colleagues at IDS just published this IDS Bulletin that examines the issues of power across food systems. It looks at the various active players, relationships, activities, and institutions that play a major role in shaping food systems and power inequities. This was a much needed publication and I plan to use it in my class on food policy.

Su-su-summertime sadness

Summer is coming to an end and Lana Del Ray’s song, su-su-summertime, summertime sadness keeps running through my head. Not sure if I am sad it is coming to an end, or sad that it wasn’t the summer I dreamed it would be. But is it ever? Summer always starts with such high hopes. The stretched-out days, sun-drenched bronzed skin, quality time with nature whether it be in water or atop mountains, relaxing nights in the backyard, vacations, beaches. A time when the livin’ is easy. When “laziness finds respectability.” As Charles Bowden said, “summertime is always the best of what might be.”

Summer conjures up inspiration. Just think of the vast number of songs that have eloquently articulated that summertime feeling. Sly and the Family Stone, War, Bananarama, the Isley Brothers, Childish Gambino, the Motels, Seals and Crofts, Don Henley, Death Cab for Cutie, Lana Del Ray, The Lovin’ Spoonful, to name a few.

The posted playlist is just a sampling of “summer” songs. I purposely chose songs that had “summer” in the title, but clearly there are so many songs about summer, the anticipation of it, or the experience of it. Think Alice Cooper’s “Schools out for Summer”, The Go Gos “Vacation”, The Ramones “Rockaway Beach”, and anything by the Beach Boys…

Remember when square Sandy and T-bird Danny reminisce about their summer affair “summer lovin’ had me a blast, summer lovin’ happened so fast” in Grease? Oh the fleeting moments of young, summer romance…We’ve all been there.

But my favorite summer (sad) song has to be from Jonathan Richman of the Modern Lovers.

That summer feeling
When there's things to do not because you gotta
When you run for love not because you oughtta
When you trust your friends with no reason not ta (nada)
The joy I name shall not be tamed
And that summer feeling is gonna haunt you
One day in your life.

My summers always haunt me. The could’ves, the should’ves, the would’ves. I could have done more with my summer, or I could have done less. I should have done what the Italians do and take a whole month off to celebrate Ferragosto. I would have gone to the beach this summer and worked on my tan but alas, I don’t want to look like Keith Richards, an old leather shoe with lips.

So what the hell does this post have to do with food you may be asking yourself? Indulge me for just a few minutes more.

When I got to thinking about writing a post about summer and what it means for all things food, it got me thinking about seasons. The beginning of one season, ends another season. I feel that years go by faster when a place experiences four seasons - winter, spring, summer and fall. It can be refreshing - shedding skin, birth and death, light and dark. Winter is often associated with death, old age, pain, loneliness, despair or an end. Yikes. Spring is almost always associated with rebirth, renewal, hope. Summer, well, we have already expunged that season enough, but it does symbolize fullness, joy, and dare I say, freedom. August, often means bounty, change, maturity and maybe some anticipation of decay...

Lynch’s annoying twitter feed

When you live in a place like Arizona or California in the US, or in the southern tropics, you have sort of two seasons - hot and less hot, wet and dry. Back in 2009, David Lynch would annoyingly remind us on a daily basis of the wonderful, consistent, balmy weather in Los Angeles. And he wasn’t fibbing. Way to rub salt in the wounds of us New Yorkers struggling to stay alive amidst the bleak snow-covered streets and dead plantation.

The Earth’s tilt toward the sun and its trips around the sun dictates the cycle of seasons. The longest and shortest day of the year occur when Earth's axis is either closest or farthest from the sun also known as the summer and winter solstices.

Equinoxes are another significant day during Earth's journey around the Sun. On these days, the planet's axis is pointed parallel to the Sun, rather than toward or away from it. The spring, or vernal, equinox for the northern hemisphere takes place on the same day as the south's autumnal equinox and vice versa.

Seasons are so critical for food. Seasons bring different harvests of food that contribute to the diversity and quality of our diets. There are many studies out here looking at the seasonal affects associated with access to and availability of foods. Studies in Ghana, Bangladesh, and Malawi show that seasonality is a key element to food availability in many low-income countries, what is often called “local seasonality.” Seasonality impacts food access often through food prices of even the most basic staple foods. In many high-income countries, people don’t even think about seasons. You can get anything you want, any time of the year, what is called “global seasonality.” Blackberries in January, apples in June, corn in April. All completely off-season from when they could actually be harvested in the United States. Thank you global trade (take note Potus). We have become completely disconnected from the agrarian calendar. But more on that in a minute.

Jenny MacDiarmid, a fantastic researcher in Scotland, asked whether eating seasonal foods contributes to a more sustainable diet. One could argue that demanding global seasonality in a diet would provide nutritional benefits by increasing diversity of the diets, particularly perishable foods, but it could have high environmental costs. MacDiarmid argues that greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE) of globally seasonal food are not necessarily higher than food produced locally as it depends more on the production system used than transportation. She wrote: “Adopting a global seasonality approach to food supplies may not have major consequences for GHGE but to meet demands it could create greater water stress in already water scarce countries. A similar argument could be made against increasing the global supply of fresh food year-round because of the increased land it will require, which will have knock-on effects for loss of environmental biodiversity.”

Nigerian crop calendar

The agrarian or farm calendar is essentially the same as the crop calendar which is a time tool on when to plant, sow, and harvest local crops based in specific agro-ecological zones or landscapes. FAO has a bunch of examples based on crop or country. Here is an example of Nigeria. Yams looks like a solid bet for year-round food. This calendar shows maize across a few countries. It shows how diverse the planting and harvesting seasons are across the world, with some places getting in two harvests of corn per year.

Harvest calendar of the United States

It was always thought that the United States school year calendar was based on the agrarian calendar. The idea is to keep kids at home during the summer months (June through August), the most active time to plant and harvest. I even thought that was true. Turns out, it is not. Rural and urban schools had different calendars but summer was just a logical time for teachers and students to take breaks. According to this Washington Post article, “In the early 1800s, agrarian communities generally operated public schools for a winter and a summer term of two to three months each. The spring and fall, labor-intensive times for farming, featured no school. During the summer — no less important an agricultural season — older children were typically absent from school, since families counted on their labor.” Interesting. The myth of the United States education system still rooted in ancient agrarian times is a myth after all.

And if one were to look at the seasonal calendar of the United States, it would be near impossible to line that up with the current school year calendar of the country. The sheer diversity in temperatures, what is grown, where, and when, would put a child in each region of the country in a different academic calendar year, were it to be dependent on our farm systems. The harvest calendar of the United States based on temperature is shown on the right.

Seasonality also brings challenges associated with malnutrition. Due to seasonal variability of food production, dietary intake, food security and morbidity in the developing world, many children suffer from impaired growth or acute malnutrition issues. Seasonal malnutrition is often tied to disease burden brought on by seasons - rainy seasons bring about diarrhea incidence as one example. Stephen Devereux and colleagues published a PLoS paper about seasonal hunger and showed the patterns linking severe acute malnutrition and malaria during the rainy season in Niger.

Vaitla B, Devereux S, Swan SH (2009) Seasonal Hunger: A Neglected Problem with Proven Solutions. PLoS Med 6(6): e1000101. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000101

Interestingly, when one searches for reviews in PubMed on seasonality and stunting (54 articles) or wasting (4) or undernutrition (220), very little emerges with most articles involving Vitamin D specifically. It shows how little the nutrition community pays to seasonality - which impacts interpretations of research findings of timed surveys and interactions with disease burden, programming and policy interventions. Andy Prentice has been studying seasonality for a good long time in The Gambia, and he wrote a paper back in 1994 on the topic. Crazy. Action Against Hunger wrote about it as a “missing link” a few years ago, arguing that seasonality rarely get attention by governments.

But how are seasons changing with climate change and what will this mean for malnutrition and our food security? A lot. We wrote about the seasonal affects on malnutrition in the context of near-term weather events, like El Nino and La Nina in the Global Nutrition Report in 2015 with Madeleine Thomson of Wellcome Trust. The report (check out chapter 6), articulates that for the poorest groups, the seasonal cycles of food availability, infection, and time use remain a significant challenge to nutrition security and provide a stark indicator of the vulnerability of populations to climate risk. The figure below shows how stunting varies by month of birth for Indian children under the age of three.

Stunting variation in India based on season (Global Nutrition Report 2015)

We also wrote about the impacts of seasonality in the context of climate change on the entirety of the food system. Forecasts of the future climate— whether short-term seasonal anomalies or long-term climate change scenarios—may also impact production and consumption patterns, price hikes of food staples, and social stability. And with climate change, the length and intensity of our seasons are getting harder to predict and harder to control. Farmers are challenged and will continue to be challenged.

Seasons. They are essential for the foods we grow, the diets we consume and our overall wellbeing. Seasons fill in the gaps and pauses that the world makes. But they are shifting, shaping and changing. Much of that due to the anthropocene.

My favorite season? You guessed it. Summer. But that summer feeling haunts me. As much as I want to hold onto it and its cumulative memories, it is gone as soon as it arrives. Although I tend to get sad when summer ends, I am glad when it comes around with each passing year.

Food Bytes: July 8 - July 20

Food Bytes is a weekly blog post of “nibbles” of information on all things food and nutrition science, policy and culture.

Food environments seem to be on the tip of the tongue for everyone these days. Food environments are the “collective physical, economic, policy and sociocultural surroundings, opportunities and conditions that influence people’s food choices and nutritional status.” Or to put it more simply, it is the place where consumers go to buy or order food - a market, a restaurant, a cafeteria.

The UN Standing Committee on Nutrition, also known as UNSCN, has just published a collection of papers on the food environment. It splits up the food environment into two entry points - the food supply shaping these environments and the consumer demand side - and what it would take to make change, also known as the enabling environment. The publication is chock-full of case studies from all over the world. I like the ones on Mexico, the private sector last mile, the flathead reservation, cash transfers, and the digital influence.

Food Environment Framework showing supply and demand. Source: Marshall et al 2019 UNSCN report

In South Africa’s Soweto hood, women struggle to be healthy. Food environments are pretty dismal (fries, fries and more fries), and exercising outside can be dangerous. It is not just about supply and demand of healthy foods, which the UNSCN publication focused on, but the whole built environment, the way women are treated in our society and urban safety. At the same time, its seems many South Africans are taking food security into their own hands. One study found that 2.2 million households have recently constructed food gardens at their homes in order to avert food insecurity.

While we are on the lovely UN, the UN Committee on Food Security is rolling out a series of regional consultations on what is known as the Voluntary Guidelines on Food Systems and Nutrition. This stems from the High Level Panel of Experts on Nutrition and Food Systems report which called for these guidelines to be developed by governments collectively and collaboratively. These voluntary guidelines are meant to create a global norm of reference in the governance of food systems and nutrition/diets. The guidelines outline principles and practices that governments can refer to when making laws and administering food systems. These guidelines should be seen as an internationally negotiated soft law or a set of guidelines in which all governments have reached a common ground. So, they can be important, and quite powerful. Anyone can comment on the zero draft - far from its final - here. The regional consultations started in Africa, Ethiopia. Then, Asia, Bangkok. Then Central and South America, Panama, North Africa, Egypt, Europe, Budapest and last but not least, North America. I had the pleasure of being at the Ethiopia meeting and it was quite fantastic to have so many African countries in one room talking about African food systems. Amazing stuff.

Source and Copyright: Johnny Miller, NYT 2019

Speaking of Africa, the diversity of cuisines and culture is what makes the continent so amazing. Take Nigeria. Reading Yewande Komolafe’s recipes made me want to jump on a plane to Lagos and eat my way through it.

But it is not always a rosy picture for Africa. The continent is still struggling with food insecurity, while at the same time, obesity is creeping up, up and up. The FAO State of Food Insecurity (SOFI) 2019 report just came out, two months early. It was reasoned that it came out to line up with the High Level Political Forum. Yeah sure. I think it was timed to be released right before the Director General, José Graziano da Silva stepped down to celebrate his 8 years as the leader of FAO. However, the report is nothing to celebrate. I digress…The major findings of the SOFI were the following:

  • More than a quarter of the world’s population now struggles to eat safe, nutritious and sufficient food.

  • Hunger is on the rise in most of Africa, in parts of the Middle East and in Latin America and the Caribbean. The situation is most alarming in Africa, where since 2015 undernourishment has steadily increased in almost all subregions. In Asia, undernourishment has been decreasing in most regions, reaching 11.4 percent in 2017. In Latin America and the Caribbean, rates of undernourishment have increased in recent years, largely as a consequence of the situation in South America.

  • Economic shocks are contributing to prolonging and worsening the severity of food crises caused primarily by conflict and climate shocks.

  • No region is exempt from the rising trends of overweight and “obesity rates are higher in those countries where moderate food insecurity is also higher.”

We see this in the United States too. I just wrote a piece for Bloomberg Opinion (I didn’t choose the photo.) showing that food insecure adults in the U.S. are 32% more likely than others to be obese — especially if they are women. Poverty and unemployment have driven the dual rise in food insecurity and obesity since the 1960s, especially in rural America. But many city dwellers subsisting with inadequate social services and support structures are also susceptible. Every time I write a piece in Bloomberg Opinion, I always get lots of interesting email comments. For this piece, most commenters feel that if you are fat, it is your fault. If healthy foods are available, affordable and easy to access, “these people” will always make the wrong choice. My reaction? WOW. It is so hard to eat healthy in our perverse food environments. Blaming and shaming is not going to make things better. But it seems, consumers are catching on in the U.S. - diet quality is improving.

But what does the latest evidence suggest for those who are overweight and want to lose weight? I will soon dedicate a longer blog to this issue because the literature is confusing. Is it a keto diet? Is it intermittent fasting? Is it low-carb? Is it putting a teaspoon of oil in your coffee every morning? New evidence suggests that cutting 300 calories per day, from any food, can lead to substantial weight loss in adults (7.5 kilos over two years) compared to the control group. Tamar Haspel of the Washington Post, argues that eating ultra-processed foods comes down to increased calorie consumption. We consume more of those foods, and they are calorically dense. She wrote:

“In a nutshell: The root of obesity is palatability and calorie density, combined with ubiquity and convenience. Satiety hormones and other metabolic machinations have much less to do with it. We’re responding to cues from without, not from within. One new study doesn’t prove it, of course, but it’s the hypothesis that best fits the preponderance of the evidence.”

I really appreciate this article that “Being Fat is Not a Moral Failure.” Damn straight. This Scientific American article argues “Individual behavior change is ineffective in the face of social and structural barriers that constrain individual choice. These barriers are uniquely relevant among racial and ethnic minorities and impoverished adults who are more likely to be obese.”

A bunch of scientific papers and media articles came out this week on diets, nutrition, and food systems. Here are some highlights.

Kathmandu food stall - healthy and unhealthy foods. Source and Copyright: Jess Fanzo

  • “Ultra-processed” foods or what I call, junk food, are in the news again. This article outlines four dangers with food reformulation - redesigning an existing processed food product with the objective of making it healthier. This article argues that reformulation just tinkers around the edges, and isn’t really fixing the root problems of the food system, and what the authors say is food and beverage industries.

  • Case in point? Nearly 10,000 cases of heart disease and stroke and 1,500 cases of cancer could have been avoided in England if the government had not switched to a voluntary deal (as opposed to mandatory) with the food industry to cut salt in food. England is doing so much good stuff in the food space right now, but man, there are potential setbacks with Brexit and political shifts. This BMJ post by Annie Purdie and colleagues is concerned about Boris Johnson’s recent decision to look at “sin taxes” and creating a nanny state. The authors argue that the public health community needs to “move beyond debating the cost-effectiveness of interventions, and engage with the underlying political nature of the issue.” We need to pay more attention to the language (sin, nanny, liberties etc) used to highlight the problem and the proposed solutions like taxes on soda and regulating the levels of salt and sugar in foods. As Bob Marley sang, “don’t let ‘em fool ya.”

  • There is more and more coming out that nutritional sciences is “broken.” In this article, they use the “eggs are again bad for you” study that came out in JAMA. Waah. Is it? I disagree! Of course, when we focus on specific foods and nutrients, the data is not clear, but dietary patterns show basically the same thing. Give it a rest dudes.

  • While these researchers argue that more evidence is needed, they did find that snack foods and sugar‐sweetened beverages are providing a substantial proportion of energy intakes (ranges from 13 to 38%!) among children below 2 years of age in Latin American and South‐east Asian low and middle income countries.

  • A study in the capitol of Nepal, Kathmandu, showed just that consumption of unhealthy snack foods and beverages contributed 47% of total energy intake among the wealthiest consumers, compared with 5% among the poorest. This pattern of junk food consumption among young children was associated with inadequate micronutrient intakes. The reason that mom’s give these foods to their children? Convenience - they are easy to prepare and easy to feed. Makes sense. Looks like even among very poor countries, we are seeing the nutrition transition play out in real time. Ever try making dal bhat from scratch? Not easy and incredibly time consuming…

  • I love that the Lancet is calling on oral health researchers to review the evidence and conflicts of interest of the impacts of what we eat on our dental health and the caries that come with sugar consumption. The lead scientist argues, and this goes back to the infant studies: “A particular concern is the high levels of sugar in processed commercial baby foods and drinks which encourage babies and toddlers to develop a preference for sweetness in early life. We need tighter regulation and legislation to restrict the marketing and promotion of sugary foods and drinks if we are to tackle the root causes of oral conditions.”

  • New microbiome research shows that a specialized food made up of chickpeas, soy, peanuts, bananas and a blend of oils and micronutrients substantially boost microbiome health in severely malnourished children. Yummy.

  • Do cookbooks need nutrition labels? Great question but sort of takes the fun out of cookbooks no?

Some things have improved for food security and nutrition. Source: Byerlee and Fanzo, 2019 GFS Journal

Derek Byerlee and I wrote a piece looking back 75 years on commitment to hunger when the first international commitment to ending hunger was made at the UN Conference on Food and Agriculture, at Hot Springs, Virginia, USA in 1943. That conference set the goal of ‘freedom from want of food, suitable and adequate for the health and strength of all peoples’ that should be achieved ‘in all lands within the shortest possible time’ (US Department of State, 1943). It is sobering and shameful that 75 years after this clarion call, as well as the dozens of similar global declarations since 1943 for ending hunger, some 800 million persons are estimated to be undernourished and over 2 billion adults and children suffer from other forms of malnutrition be it obesity or micronutrient deficiencies. We remind readers of the significance of the Hot Springs conference and briefly trace the long road that has led us back to the original vision of ending hunger that recognized the several dimensions of nutrition, from undernourishment to micronutrient deficiencies. While there has been progress, this reflection over 75 years helps appreciate the fact that today for the first time, the links of agriculture, health and nutrition outlined in 1943 are again at center stage in the global hunger challenge as embraced in SDG2. Accordingly, SDG2 offers a better foundation for accelerating progress in reducing malnutrition in its several dimensions, although we recognize major gaps in knowledge, financing, and implementation capacity for realizing SDG2 targets.

Someone else is realizing the importance of agriculture. It seems Bill Gates has woken up to the fact that the CGIAR exists. His article is titled “You’ve probably never heard of CGIAR, but they are essential to feeding our future.” Hate to spoil it Billie Boy, but we have heard of the CGIAR…and I don’t confuse it with the word “cigar,” cigarillos, ciggies, or ziggie stardust.

Country ratios of fruit and vegetable availability to WHO age-specific recommendations. Source: Mason-D’Croz et al 2019

Country ratios of fruit and vegetable availability to WHO age-specific recommendations. Source: Mason-D’Croz et al 2019

On the environmental and climate change front, lots going on. The World Resources Institute released a mother of a report - 564 pages - on Creating A Sustainable Food Future. You may have seen the abbreviated version released 6 months ago. But this one goes into great detail a 22-item “menu” which is divided into five “courses” that together could close the food, land and greenhouse gas gaps: (1) reduce growth in demand for food and agricultural products; (2) increase food production without expanding agricultural land; (3) protect and restore natural ecosystems; (4) increase fish supply (through improved wild fisheries management and aquaculture); and (5) reduce GHG emissions from agricultural production. Richard Waite and Janet Ranganathan are seriously my heroes in creating these action oriented solutions. Well done.

Following on the heals of that report, two Lancet Planetary Health papers came out. One paper shows that even under optimistic socioeconomic scenarios future supply of fruits and vegetables, central components of a healthy diet, will be insufficient to achieve recommended levels in many countries. Consequently, systematic public policy targeting the constraints to producing and consuming fruits and vegetables will be needed. The second paper shows climate change and increased atmospheric CO2 will impact the availability of protein, zinc and iron availability. The many countries that currently have high levels of nutrient deficiency would continue to be disproportionately affected.

This expose by the Guardian shows that Brazil’s huge beef sector, and the appetite for beef, continues to threaten health of world’s largest rainforest, the Amazon. This is just downright sad.

And while those of us in nutrition don’t really get to the larger social determinants of food insecurity and malnutrition, it is important to do so. This article in NPR’s Goats and Soda delve into the practice of trading sex for fish in Lake Chilwa in Malawi. This is driven by poverty and food insecurity and the impacts are catastrophic in this southern African country - HIV, violence and stigma - for these women.


Food Bytes: July 1 - July 7

Food Bytes is a weekly blog post of “nibbles” of information on all things food and nutrition science, policy and culture.

Ever wonder why the nutrition community doesn’t play nice with each other? I do. Phil Baker at Deakin University just published an interesting, but heady, paper trying to understand nutrition action networks and what it would take to make them more effective in garnering political commitment towards ending malnutrition. Just take a look at the figure below looking at the context in which nutrition sits. Talk about complex! They argue for four things to improve political commitment to nutrition:

Complex contexts for the nutrition world

  1. Coordinating bodies that are better at advocating resources can of course, get more money and strengthen the networks in which they work.

  2. Coordinating and governance bodies need to be more inclusive and transparent in their decision making.

  3. Civil society should work to influence decision makers. Helps when transparency is in place.

  4. Finances matter and create powerful incentives for us to play in the sandbox together.

I may have gotten all this wrong, but like I said, the paper is intense, but super important to better understand why nutrition hasn’t seen massive progress like other sectors. I really do think that the grand nutrition architecture has some serious issues around coordination, cooperation, and reality checks it needs to come to grips with. Not Phil’s words, but mine…For another blog post!

Of course, the nutrition community doesn’t just struggle with political commitment. It also struggles with delivering key interventions to those populations most in need. A recent study by Stuart Gillespie and colleagues looked at 24 different nutrition interventions to see if their coverage is measured and tracked in major health surveys done at the national level. These interventions are things like vitamin A and iron supplementation, growth monitoring, and infant feeding counseling. Basically the answer is no. The coverage of these interventions are not collected and not in any standard way across countries. The paper presented a few case studies including India. The figure on the right shows the scatter of data collection of key nutrition actions (counseling, growth monitoring and food supplements) typically not included in the core national health surveys. The bars show the national coverage of data and the dots are the states of India. Another paper published in PLoS medicine looked not only at whether or not a health intervention coverage was captured in surveys, but looked at need, use, and quality of those interventions. It would be great to see these authors do a follow up looking at those three measures to assess effective coverage of nutrition indicators.

And while we are ripping on the functionality of nutritionists and their work, let’s discuss the indecisiveness of the science they dabble in. The Atlantic published a piece on why nutritional sciences is so confusing for consumers. There have been a lot of articles on this recently, and I think it started with Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food a decade ago. The Atlantic argue that doing the science is very hard - figuring out what people eat and the consequences of those eating patterns - is not so straight forward and as the article highlighted “inexact.” But the evidence over decades has accumulated and most nutritionists agree largely on what is considered a healthy diet and the healthful habits that people should take on. But that is sort of boring isn’t it. The article also highlights the emerging role of the microbiome. But more on that later.

There have been a few recent papers looking at the impact of interventions to improve food environments. One was a systematic review and meta-analysis on sugar‐sweetened beverage - SSB - taxes and their impact on beverage purchases and dietary intake. A suite of different taxes were examined mainly in Europe and US cities. What the researchers found was that a 10% SSB tax was associated with an average decline in beverage purchases and dietary intake of 10% in 6 jurisdictions. This tax was associated with a 2% increase in total untaxed beverage consumption (e.g. water) but this was not significant. Another study looked at the anticipated impacts of implementing a 2016 Chilean Law of Food Labeling and Advertising mandating front‐of‐package (FOP) warning label for products high in sodium, total sugars, saturated fats, and/or total energy. Researchers photographed packaged food and beverage products from six different supermarkets in Santiago, Chile before the law went into effect. They found that basically very little reformulation by industry occurred before the law went into action and <2% of products would have avoided at least one warning label with reformulation. A similar study looked at the food supply ahead of the law implementation and found similar issues.

While we are on the topic of FOPs, a really interesting study looked at how realistic would it be to mandate these types of labels in the U.S. The study found that: “Certain interpretive FOP labels which provide factual information with colors or designs to assist consumers interpret the information could similarly withstand First Amendment scrutiny, but questions remain regarding whether certain colors or shapes would qualify as controversial and not constitutional. Labels that provide no nutrient information and only an image or icon to characterize the entire product would not likely withstand First Amendment scrutiny.” Wow. Interesting. Gotta love the ol’ US of A’s constitution.

The U.S. is not always the asshole in the room. Well, maybe we are. Let’s talk USAID. For those of you who are not familiar with them, they are the United States Agency for International Development and self describe as “the world's premier international development agency and a catalytic actor driving development results.” Okay…they are also the agency driving around in white trucks all over Africa and Asia with the cringe-worthy signage “From the American People.” Awkward. USAID has done some not so good things in international development but it has done some good things too, dammit. They have been committed to nutrition. The Official Development Assistance (ODA) numbers that are reported in the Global Nutrition Report each year demonstrate their financial commitment. They have supported many programs at a significant scale in low- and middle-income countries. Some impactful, some, not so much. I am really screwing myself over here to ensure I never get USAID money aren’t I. Anyways, they just published the history of USAID in nutrition. It is a nice story. Check it out.

Speaking of food environments and obesity, with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, I did a one-minute video on why is obesity such an issue globally and the importance of food systems in solving, not just contributing to the issue. If your attention span lasts the whole one minute, you can find out my favorite food. It involves a food rich in zinc!

It’s not just food systems that need to improve if we want to make a dent in the obesity pandemic, it is what is inside our bodies as well. The microbiome is the next frontier for science and its role and relationship with obesity is a complex Game of Thrones TV series - it is going to take some time to dig into the history, to understand the future and who really rules us. Some researchers argue that our microbiota is associated with the propensity of being overweight. Others argue that diet is a big driver of the biome composition and species richness, maybe more so than the biological state of nutritional status - i.e. overweight and underweight. But unraveling this game requires us to be brave, yonder north of the wall, and live in peace with the Wildlings. And John Snow. Rrrrrrr.

And as always, I throw in something just to scare the hell out of any of you who are still living in la la land thinking the world is just bliss. Check out this paper. The title reads: "Global warming has increased global economic inequality.” Boom. Do I need to say more? Now you can go back to your mind-numbing regular programming.

Just so you don’t think I am a vindictive person, I leave you with Google’s Stories of Yoga. For any of you yogi gurus out there, this is everything you want and need to know about yoga, its history, its practice and its inspiration. See? I can be nice. NAMASTE!

Food Bytes: May 26 - June 2

Food Bytes is a weekly blog post of “nibbles” of information on all things food and nutrition science, policy and culture.

Loved this NYT article about Africa’s millennials who are making their way back to farming. “We are making farming sexy.” Hallelujah. Welcome you “agripreneurs.” Make Africa the world’s breadbasket.

Speaking of leading newspapers, if you live in L.A., the city of angels, you will like the new Food section of the LA Times. It is more about where to eat and cook and less about politics and there is a paywall. While LA is having a renaissance on all things food creation, Gotham city is shutting many of its old school diner doors. “A luxury rental tower called the Frontier stands on the site of the old Frontier Diner in Murray Hill.” The New York we all loved died long ago…

Addicted to the joe? Here is everything you ever wanted to know about coffee and its expansion from Africa to the Americas.

Policy does matter. Did you doubt that? Bloomberg Philanthropy highlights the new Task Force on Fiscal Policy for Health – co-chaired by Mike Bloomberg and economist Larry Summers – to address the growing health and economic burden of noncommunicable diseases with fiscal policy tools that are currently underutilized by governments and their leaders. Lots o’ case studies including good stuff on sugar tax.

We know America is struggling. The Brookings Institution has published an interactive exploration of how she is doing. The Hamilton Project’s Vitality Index is a measure of a place’s economic and social wellbeing. It combines a county’s median household income, poverty rate, unemployment rate, prime-age employment rate, life expectancy, and housing vacancy rate. What does this have to do with food? Well, everything. Check it out.

Vitality Index of America. The bluer, the better.

The last food bytes posting highlighted the research on processed foods, and impacts on weight gain. This thoughtful NPR piece talks about how hard it is to move away from processed foods, even when Americans are cooking more. Sarah Bowen and colleagues discuss the barriers: cost, time, and culinary resources. It just ain’t that easy to cook wholesome, from scratch meals day after day. You just can’t beat convenience sometimes. As the authors say: “… inequality is baked into our food system.” And ain’t that the truth.

Our favorite Tamar Haspel over at the WashPo is keeping it real. Now she is delving deep on the plant based burgers which seem to be all the rave. There are two - The Beyond Burger (peas) and Impossible Burger (soy). She takes both to task on environmental impacts, nutrition impacts and cost. And then there is steak. Will we ever replace it or our craving for it?

CSIS’s Take As Directed has a great podcast with Chris Murray at IHME on global diets and risk of disease. He discussed this paper that was highlighted previously on Food Bytes. “Diets account for more deaths [cardiovascular and cancers] than any other risk factor.” He argues the medical community is surprised and skeptical of this message. Interesting!

The Economist breaks down taxes on sugary drinks. Mexico was the trendsetter and now, 40 countries and seven American cities have started to tax sugary drinks. They argue that those that are not in favor of the tax argue that taxes are a “fun-killer, souring people’s pleasure” and can be regressive, because poorer people spend a bigger share of their incomes on soft drinks. But if demand is sensitive to increased prices, then a tax will change behavior, in a positive direction. Let’s see how it all plays out. The bigger question is, will taxes make a dent in the obesity pandemic. Hard to tell.

For any of you who collect and analyze child growth data (also known as anthropometry) in the field, the WHO has finally released a technical report that defines basic criteria and standards for sampling, training and standardization of anthropometrists, data collection, supervision, for data management including quality assessment and analysis, interpretation and reporting of anthropometric data. FINALLY. This is LONG overdue. Well done WHO. 

And last but not least, GAIN has started a new site called Nutrition Connect. Its purpose is to mobilize knowledge, share experiences, and stimulate dialogue on public private engagements (PPE - not be confused with PPP!) for nutrition. Links can also be found in the Food Archive’s Resources page.

Food Bytes: May 6 - May 25

Food Bytes is a weekly blog post of “nibbles” of information on all things food and nutrition science, policy and culture.

The Annual Reviews have just released a special issue on the Future of Food. Presents 20 articles on "Research & efforts to ensure a safe, nutritious, & affordable global food supply, while preserving biodiversity & minimizing environmental damage." Keen to read these by some stellar scientists!

Processed food is having its moment. New research shows that those who eat ultra-processed foods gain more weight than those who ate whole or minimally processed foods. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health, tested this using the randomized, controlled trial approach. Study participants on the ultra-processed diet ate an average of 508 calories more per day and ended up gaining an average of 2 pounds over a two-week period. People on the unprocessed diet ended up losing about 2 pounds on average over a two-week period. Fantastic food writer Bee Wilson has a new book entitled: The Way We Eat Now: How the Food Revolution Has Transformed Our Lives, Our Bodies, and Our World. She writes about how these processed foods, ala junk food, has taken over traditional diets everywhere in the world, and is having impacts on health, at a very alarming pace.

Another study highlighted the impacts of poor diets on health. An estimated 80,110 new cancer cases among adults 20 and older in the United States in 2015 were attributable to eating a poor diet. Other research supports this claim. The study found that decreasing dietary fat and eating more fruits and vegetables may lower a woman’s risk of dying of breast cancer. They tracked 48,835 women ages 50 to 79 without breast cancer since the 1990s.

The way we eat is changing. There is a fantastic piece by the Guardian looking at how more and more people are eating alone, and it has quite dramatic changes on the way we eat, what we eat and why we eat. Netflix is involved in this equation…

Let’s discuss individual foods. Are you obsessed with vanilla? Check this out. Like citrus? You may be disappointed after reading this. With 70% of America consuming bananas, they can’t be that bad right? Think again. Do you dig on swine? This may scare you.

Some places, as we know still are food insecure in the world. The UN FAO reports 815 million people go to bed hungry. Venezuela, sadly is not immune, and is really in a free fall. NYT is reporting that “Butchers have stopped selling meat cuts in favor of offal, fat shavings and cow hooves, the only animal protein many of their customers can afford.” Terrible times for the country. Let’s hope things turn around soon.

On the polar opposite, but strangely, very much on the same side of the coin, it always thought that urbanization is driving the obesity pandemic. A very impactful Nature study has shown that 55% of the global rise in mean body mass index since the mid-1980s—and more than 80% in low- and middle-income regions—was due to increases in body mass index in rural areas. The team of scientists argue that: “There is an urgent need for an integrated approach to rural nutrition that enhances financial and physical access to healthy foods, to avoid replacing the rural undernutrition disadvantage in poor countries with a more general malnutrition disadvantage that entails excessive consumption of low-quality calories.”

The difference between rural and urban mean body mass index in women. Figure A is 1985. Figure B is 2017.

Nature is on a role. They also just published a really important paper nothing related to food, but on HIV. The researchers used a high spatial resolution across the continent to look at HIV prevalence sub-nationally. They already published a similar study examining undernutrition. They show that the epidemic is very unevenly spread. Of the 25 million HIV-positive people in sub-Saharan Africa, one third live in very small, highly concentrated pockets. The remaining two-thirds are spread out more broadly. This work will help hone in on the hotspots and where attention should be drawn to continue progress on halting the spread of HIV.

As for furthering education and building capacity, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine is starting a new Center on Climate Change & Planetary Health and the University of Washington has a new degree program on Food Systems, Nutrition and Health. Google them if you are interested in these new academic programs!

The Sustainable Development Solutions Network is hosting a 3-day webinar on Nutrition-sensitive agriculture. Sign up! We have three stellar speakers who will be talking about:

  • Smallholder production and Dietary Diversity

  • Market Challenges and Solutions to Nutritious Food Access

  • Women’s Empowerment for Better Nutrition

And on a personal note, I was sad to hear about the passing of Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina. He has some famous stories, including How to Write About Africa. But his most defining moment has been his coming out as a gay man, in a letter to his mum, raising awareness and rights of LGBTQIA throughout the continent.

Why Hunger Amidst Plenty?

I had the pleasure of doing a keynote talk at the “Ending Global Hunger Conference” at the Center for Global Food Security of Purdue University . My talk was entitled “Why Hunger Amidst Plenty?” My slides are here.

The punchline of the talk was this: We are living in a complex world made up of multiple burdens of malnutrition. While the obstacles to address the burden are daunting for citizens, there are tools to solve it. We just need political will, global cooperation, and immediate action.

Screen Shot 2019-04-13 at 2.52.50 PM.png

The malnutrition burden is massive. But the story is mixed - there is the good, the bad, and the ugly. Let’s start with the good. Stunting is coming down - in some places quite fast - like Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Nepal. Also, the risk of dying from a famine has become much, much smaller than at any time in history. Then there is the bad. For the third year in a row, there has been a rise in world hunger. The absolute number of undernourished people has increased to nearly 821 million in 2017, from around 804 million in 2016. These are levels from almost a decade ago. Further, “hidden” hunger remains significant but is shrouded in mystery. We don’t know the state of micronutrient deficiencies, particularly among the nutritionally vulnerable populations, such as children under five years of age, women and adolescent girls. And now the ugly. Overweight and obesity is rising everywhere and among every stage of life. No country has stopped the trends we are witnessing.

The question remains why?

  • Why do we still have hunger & undernutrition?

  • Why are we not seeing improvements? And in some cases reversals of progress?

  • How did we get to this place of paradox: hunger & obesity?

  • What can we do about it?

Screen Shot 2019-04-13 at 2.53.16 PM.png

I argue that hunger is still rampant because of poverty, conflict change, conflict, poor infrastructure, unstable markets, food loss and waste, and periods of seasonal hunger in rural places.

But how did we get to this place of paradox? That is complex but in a nutshell, our lives and lifestyles are transforming as are our diets and food systems. Many in the world are now consuming sub-optimal diets, exercising less and hence are more sedentary, and these contribute to the risk of disease and death. At the same time, healthy diets are not accessible to all.

As a result, many people are now affected by both food insecurity and obesity at the same time.  Food-insecure populations, really no matter where they live, are subject to the same, but unique influences in trying to consume a healthful diet:

  • Limited resources and lack of access to healthy, affordable foods

  • Cycles of food deprivation and overeating

  • High levels of stress, anxiety and depression

  • Limited access to health care

  • Fewer opportunities for physical activity

  • Greater exposure to marketing of obesity-promoting products

The question remains, what to do? There is no one simple measure that can successfully shift the burden at the national or global scale. Rather, a constellation of different approaches and strategies, operating across scales and supply chains, and targeted at different people and organizations will be required. I argue for 10 actions:

Screen Shot 2019-04-13 at 2.53.37 PM.png
  1. Care. We need governments, industry and citizens to care about their diets and their nutrition, climate change and food systems.

  2. Push for countries to develop a food systems policy. No country has implemented a full range of updated, comprehensive, and evidence informed strategies to encourage a healthier and more equitable food system.

  3. Consider the situation a “Syndemic” and take on triple duty actions.

  4. Consider options for keeping the food system within environmental limits. Dietary, technological change on farms, and reductions in food loss and waste are critical to reduce environmental impacts of our food system on the planet.

  5. Don’t forget about who will continue to feed the world. As Ruth DeFries eloquently wrote: “Now we are transforming from farmers to urbanites. Our newest experiment-to feed massive numbers of people from the work of a few-is just beginning. The outcome is yet to be seen.” Who will feed us when the average age of the world’s farmer is 60?

  6. Invest in small and medium holder farmers. Smallholder farmers have more diversified landscapes, making important contributions to the overall dietary diversity for the world’s population. 53-81% of micronutrients in the food supply are produced by small and medium farms. These farms make up 84% of all farms and 33% of the land areas globally and are more predominant in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

  7. Maximize net increases of nutrition along value chains. Identify points in the chain that can be “leveraged for change.” Leverage points can cause nutrients to be lost or exit the value chain as well as enhance the nutritional value of select nutrient-rich foods.

  8. Engage and empower women in on- and off-farm opportunities. Women need social capital including information and access to new technologies and farming practices and tapping into social networks that may assist in times of hardship. Women need access to credit with greater ability to invest in infrastructure and to smooth consumption or production shocks. And last, we need to improve their human human capital and agency - give them opportunities for education, and increase their ability to get health and nutrition services.

  9. Help consumers navigate this complex web. Give them the information and knowledge the make healthy choices. Make them affordable, accessible and culturally appropriate. But consumers are super, duper confused

  10. Dig deeper. We must address the underlying social determinants that impact malnutrition. Every country is impacted by poverty but its determinants may be different, or the same…

Food Bytes: Weekly Nibbles from Mar 4 - 24

Food Bytes is a weekly blog post of “nibbles” of information on all things food and nutrition science, policy and culture.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs released their annual report. This year focuses on water: From Scarcity to Security: Managing Water for a Nutritious Food Future. There are lots of nuggets on the links of water to food and nutrition. Definitely worth a read.

IFPRI has also launched a new book: Agriculture for improved nutrition: Seizing the momentum. I contributed a chapter on biodiversity and its importance for food and nutrition security.

I always like what Bee Wilson writes. She recently wrote a great piece in the Guardian on how modern food is killing us. The grape story is an interesting analogy of how our food system has changed.

I just can’t help myself, but the EAT Lancet continues to get press. This article hones in on how it spurred a global debate. Great. It did its job. Keep debating! The Guardian is going a bit nuts on the diet side. They also published a recent piece on “peak beef.” And the Hopkins HUB, published an article on proteins of the future where they warn us to “get ready for a menu of lab-grown steaks, "bleeding" plant burgers, and cricket smoothies!”

Speaking of animal source foods, eggs seem to be bad for us once again. The nutrition science field is just one big teeter totter. This JAMA study shows that eggs increase cholesterol and cardiovascular mortality.

If Africa doesn’t have it tough enough these days, my heart goes out to Mozambique with the cyclone devastation, the armyworm seems to be eating its way across the continent destroying staple crops like maize. Let’s hope R & D can be ramped up quickly with solutions.

I am a closet Chipotle lover and Tamar Haspel outlines the woes the chain has been dealing with.

Two other interesting papers came out last week. One is unpacking stunting - faltering of linear growth in children. The other is a paper in the journal I edit, Global Food Security, on the use and interpretation of dietary diversity indicators in nutrition-sensitive agriculture literature.

In the world of food ethics, with colleagues at Hopkins and Columbia University, we published two papers. The first is in the Oxford Handbook of Public Health Ethics. The chapter focuses on three key ethical challenges in the nutrition public health sphere: the prioritization of key actions to address the multiple burdens of malnutrition, intergenerational justice issues of nutrition-impacted epigenetics, and the consequences of people’s diet choices, not only for humanity but also for the planet. In the second paper, we unpack the meaning of nutrition and demonstrate that a standalone right to adequate nutrition does indeed exist in international human rights law as a sum of other rights. This right to nutrition is, essentially, the sum of the human rights to food, health, education, water and sanitation, a healthy environment, information, political participation, and social security, along with rights ensuring adequate protection of and nondiscrimination against specific groups, such as women, children, and indigenous peoples.


Nutrition and Agriculture Research: Some Thoughts

I recently was asked to provide some commentary at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) at the ARENA-II (Advancing Research on Nutrition and Agriculture) project policy seminar. I thought I would post my speaking notes on what I think is a really fascinating set of research findings stemming from the project. The seminar presented new research on food markets and nutrition including cross-country studies of the costs of nutritious foods and nutritious diets as a whole, and case studies of fish, dairy, and poultry products. The event can be watched here.

Screen Shot 2019-03-21 at 10.15.14 AM.png

ARENA is trying to understand markets in low-income contexts. Markets play a key role in delivering food and nutrition, even for poor and remote rural households. But nutrient-rich foods, especially animal-sourced foods, are very expensive in poor countries, suggesting that markets for perishable but nutritious foods are not functioning well. Both scientific research and real-world programs have largely focused on farm-level interventions to diversify household production and consumption, not recognizing the important role of market purchases.

The major findings coming out of ARENA:

1. Nutritious foods are typically very expensive sources of calories in low income countries, although there are exceptions.

2. Consumption patterns are strongly associated with prices - price variations explains a LOT of the gap between low and high consumers.

3. Indirect evidence that non-price factors (also implicit price factors) matter a lot: e.g. refrigeration and water quality.

4. No single solution for improving affordability or increasing consumption:

  • Eggs: domestic productivity is key, often improving feed sectors (maize, soybean, fishmeal).

  • Dairy: production in some countries, but trade in others. Markets work incredibly badly in rural areas.

  • Fish: cheap and nutritious but under-appreciated by consumers.

  • Domestic and international value chains very important, but also important to think about industrial policy: e.g. How do we create a viable modern dairy industry that delivers affordable safe milk to both rural and urban consumers?

My talking points:

Diets are significant risk factors of morbidity, disability and mortality

The Global Burden of Disease based out of the University of Washington in Seattle has recently assessed the burden of malnutrition in all its forms for the Syndemic commission report in the Lancet. Globally and in the lower income countries, malnutrition in all its forms (shown as the contributions of undernutrition, high. body-mass index, and dietary risks) contributes as much disease burden as high blood pressure, tobacco, high fasting blood glucose and water, sanitation and hygiene combined. For countries with a low Socio-demographic Index, undernutrition incurs a much higher burden both in absolute terms and relative to the other leading contributors. The recognition that undernutrition and obesity are both due to poor diet quality and a low variety of healthy foods is a more helpful perspective to resolve nutrition problems collectively.

Our knowledge of diets is still a black box

Understanding what people are eating is important to shape food system and nutrition policies, including dietary guidelines. However, determining what people are eating, remains somewhat of a black box. We don’t know key questions such as, what are people actually eating? Where do they get their food from and how much do they pay, or are willing to pay for food? What influences their dietary choices? Does health or even the environment factor into their decision making? Data on diets and their sourcing and costs are developing with better use of metrics and surveys that feed into larger databases. We are learning more and more with each passing year. We still have significant gaps in low-income settings on many of these questions.

Diets are inequitable

We are really living in a time of haves and have nots. Globally, there is a significant debate going on about the impacts of animal source foods (mainly large ruminants) on climate change, the environment and on human health. Clearly, this debate sits with high-income countries and those countries which produce and consume vast quantities of meat that do not align with the sustainable development goals. However, we know that the production and consumption practices of some, will impact the many living in low-income countries who do not have the resources to adapt and change rapidly and are limited in their options. The inequities are staggering - the rural, the poor, the geographically isolated struggle to get enough animal source foods that are important, particularly for young children who are growing and developing and need nutrient-rich foods high in iron, zinc, protein, D, B12 etc. The ARENA study advances are understanding of the challenges that rural populations face in getting access to these critical foods – eggs, dairy and fish, rich in important nutrients and other health promoting properties – through both informal and formal markets. While the evidence is growing on the impacts of on-farm production to dietary diversity of households, we know rural peoples, smallholder farming families and day labor workers are net buyers of food and they need market that work.

 My questions

I know the ARENA is meant to of course shed and shine a light but it is also meant to set out a research and policy agenda. Here are some of my questions that I was left wondering about for future research:

  • Infrastructure is so important. Not just roads but technology and innovation along supply chains. What would be the role of the private sector or PPPs to accelerate action and get over the barriers to access?

  • We cannot think about commodities as stand alone. They interact (the ARENA shows how important feed sectors (maize, soybean, fishmeal) are critical for the growth of animal source foods). How do we grapple this with land use changes?

  • The enabling environment is key. What should policies focus on? Subsidies? Trade?

  • Changing food environments or markets. How shall we measure changes and rapid shifts that we are seeing in many rural places, with the encroachment and influence of urban hubs? I would be keen to see how processed, packaged foods are changing the diets and market landscape in rural places.

  • Many consumers all over the world are driven by the same issues - price, convenience, taste. Other factors matter too like reliability and safety. How do we get consumers to care more about nutrition or is that completely unrealistic? What are the trade-offs?

  • Eggs: Can these rural areas shift from scavenging systems to intensive systems? How realistic is that? How much does that cost? Is there infrastructure and investment to do this? There is new evidence showing eggs increase cholesterol and heart disease risk - once again, eggs are deemed to not be god for us. Should we be worried about future burdens if we are promoting these foods to children to improve nutrition?

  • Dairy: Lactose intolerance. The expression of lactase which digests lactose from milk in humans is generally lost after weaning, but selected mutations influencing the promoter of the lactase gene have spread into the human populations. This is considered a classical example of gene-culture co-evolution, and several studies suggested that the lactase gene has been under strong directional evolutionary selective pressure in the past 5000 to 10,000 years. These data indicate that a combination of socio-economic, ethnic and evolutionary factors converged to shape the genetic structure of lactase persistence in East African populations. A Lancet systematic review study in 2017 showed that lactose malabsorption is widespread in most of the world, with wide variation between different regions and an overall frequency of around two-thirds of the world's population. 63% (54–72) in sub-Saharan Africa. Lactose malabsorption was also widespread in Africa. including northern Africa (53–84%) and sub-Saharan Africa (77–100%), with the exception of Niger (13%), Kenya (39%), Sudan (55%), and Tanzania (45%) - pastoralist populations. I am keen to learn more about this?

  • Fish: What would be the strategies to improve the status of fish among consumers as they get wealthier? What role does aquaculture play in these areas and ensuring feed is affordable and more sustainable? What about alternative feeds?

  • Are there gender links to any of these commodities as they become commercialized and how does that change household intake of these foods?

  • How do we ensure these rural places thrive? Someone needs to feed this growing urban population. Who will it be and how if rural places struggle to feed themselves?