Saturday, August 25, 2007

Organically Speaking

I discovered an organic grocery store here. If there was one in Oklahoma City, it was nowhere near where I lived.

I don't know that, as a whole, people are better off eating organic foods. The research on it is mixed. But with the large variation in our DNA, I am sure that there are some people who benefit from it. I have decided to try it out.

I have read studies that link poverty with bad health due to a bad diet; and some attribute it to federal policies toward food production.

Why do low-income people tend to exhibit more diet-related health problems? Adam Drewnowski, professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington, posits a simple answer: people are gaining weight and getting sick because unhealthy food is cheaper than healthy food -- thanks in large part to federal policies.


According to Drewnowski and his student Pablo Monsivais, cheap and abundant additives such as HFCS allow manufacturers to sweeten food liberally without adding much to their production costs. For people on a tight budget, these additives can also make cheap food the most efficient way to get calories.

To illustrate his point, Drewnowski distinguishes between "energy-dense" and "nutrient-dense" foods. For energy-dense, think of a package of Ding Dongs -- 360 calories, 19 grams of fat, and a liberal dose of high-fructose corn syrup. For nutrient-dense, think of a three-ounce chunk of wild salmon, delivering high-quality protein and essential fatty acids, among other nutrients, in a 185-calorie package. The former will run you about a buck at any convenience store, bodega, or supermarket in the country. For the latter, prepare to sidle up to a pristine Whole Foods fish counter and shell out about $5.

From a short-term economic viewpoint, the Ding Dongs present a better deal: 360 calories per dollar, and no need for the time or skill to cook. "If you're on a limited income trying to feed a family, in a sense you're behaving rationally by choosing heavily sweetened and fat-laden foods," Drewnowski says.

The price gap between these two categories is growing. Drewnowski and Monsivais show that the overall cost of food consumed at home, when adjusted for inflation, has been essentially unchanged since 1980. But over the same time, the price of soft drinks plunged 30 percent, and the price of candy and other sweets fell 20 percent. Meanwhile, the price of fresh fruits and vegetables rose 50 percent.

"Energy-dense foods ... are the cheapest option for the consumer," Drewnowski says. "As long as the healthier lean meats, fish, and fresh produce are more expensive, obesity will continue to be a problem for the working poor."

Organic foods are definitely more expensive, but I am going to start trying them to see if it has any long-term health benefits.

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