Review: Michael Pollan’s “You Are What You Grow”

You’re probably fully satiated after reading so much about fat, but I think it’s important to finish this newsletter by summarizing an important article written for the New York Times by Michael Pollan, a journalist who writes about food economics and whose articles I’ve quoted before. The article, which is about the Farm Bill, is entitled “You Are what You Grow” you can find it on Pollan’s website. The Farm Bill is a piece of legislation renewed and updated every five years that authorizes the government to subsidize farmers’ crops. The beneficiaries of the subsidies are a small number of very large farms that grow primarily wheat, corn, soy, rice and cotton. These farms provide almost all of the nation’s food supply, whether in the form of processed foods that contain corn, wheat and soy as primary ingredients, or in the form of corn, wheat and soy feed given to farm animals raised for meat and dairy. Due to these subsidies, food manufacturers can sell foods containing the above–mentioned commodities, or meat that has been fed on them, at artificially low prices. Farmers who try to grow other crops such as green vegetables, root vegetables or even fruit are largely shut out, and the prices for their crops seem abnormally high. As Pollan points out in his article, a dollar spent at the supermarket can buy 875 calories of soda (essentially water and liquid corn sugar, aka high fructose corn syrup), but only 170 calories of a natural food, orange juice.

Look at the ingredients of almost any processed food and you’re likely to find wheat flour, high fructose corn syrup and soybean oil among the ingredients. There’s nothing wrong with wheat, corn and soy, but manufacturers have processed valuable nutrients and fiber out of them, so that they are low–density but high calorie. In other words, they don’t make you full, but they do make you fat. Lower–income people who can’t afford fresh fruits and vegetables often have to turn to these high–calorie processed foods whether they like it or not, which can condemn them to both obesity and diabetes. They’re stuck buying meat and milk from animals that have been fed on corn and soy instead of grass, and they are stuck with poor quality vegetable oil. Even the middle class have to seriously budget if they want to eat plenty of good quality fat and meat.

If the government were choosing to help out farmers who are trying to grow other kinds of vegetables, who are growing fruit, and who are feeding their farm animals grass, everyone would be able to afford as much healthy food as they wanted to, in a second. Other societal problems might clear up as well. The artificially low price of our major crops, particularly corn, messes with other countries’ economies when we choose to export these commodities. Part of the reason why illegal immigration is such a problem, as Pollan illustrates, is that millions of Mexican farmers have been thrown out of business and off the land due to the fact that they can’t compete with the fake low price of imported excess American crops. Nevertheless the farm bill continues to reward massive farms based on the quantity of the crops that they grow that make us sick.

Some might say that the government has no business influencing the price of crops and ultimately food in this way. At one time, when most farms were small and could go under from just one bad year, it made more sense for the government to help them out. In the 1930s, there were six million individual farms. Now only 157,000 farms account for 72% of farm sales. These massive farms continue to influence government policy so that they keep getting their subsidies. As a result, people who buy food (that is, everybody) are not getting the option of participating in a true free market. The government is interfering in a way that makes it very hard for us to influence what farmers grow by spending our money on what we want.

Consumers are not powerless, though, and have already done a lot to change things; in many cases just by avoiding foods made with corn, wheat and soy altogether because we know they’re not good for our health and not a bargain at any price. As more people stop drinking soda and eating junk food, food manufacturers will stop trying to force these crops on us. For now, do your best to support local farms, whether through a farmer’s market or CSA, and fill up on foods that are not so high in calories but are still very filling. Although the farm bill doesn’t support it, good quality food will always be more satisfying than high quantity.

Understanding Fat

1. Health Benefits of Fat

Fats are acids that are not soluble in water (hence the phrase “like oil and water” for things that do not mix well together. Oil is simply fat in liquid form). Edible fatty acids, or “fats” for short, are essential to the human diet. Examples of edible fats are animal fats from meat (lard, tallow, etc.), dairy fat (butter, cream, cheese), and vegetable fats (olive oil, sesame oil, coconut oil). People have been eating fat as long as the human race has been around, and with good reason. Fats provide long–lasting energy, because they are high in calories but are slow to digest. They contribute to the formation of cell membranes and hormones in the body. They also contain and transmit the fat–soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, and assist in mineral absorption. Without enough fat in the diet, many of us cannot properly assimilate our nutrients. This is one reason why taking vitamin and mineral supplements by themselves is not as healthy as, say, having a salad with olive oil.

Fats also provide warmth and insulation to the body and provide a layer of protection around our organs. They help us feel full so that we do not overeat. Some kinds of fats have antimicrobial properties that help strengthen the immune system. Fat also relieves stress, which is why it is thought of as a comfort food. When human beings did not have as much access to food as we do now, fat was highly prized for the heat and long–lasting energy it provided; for this reason it plays a major role in traditional diets.

It’s clear that having enough fat in our diets is extremely important. Without it, we can become weak, deficient and cold. We’re also more likely to get stressed out and anxious when something goes wrong. Without enough fat, we’ll turned to refined carbohydrates like sugar and white flour for energy, which won’t fill us up even though they are high in calories. We won’t make the most of our vitamins and minerals, which makes our immune system weaker. Unfortunately, though, many people are uncomfortable about including more fat in their diets. People stick to low–fat or reduced–fat foods as a way to lose weight, and think they’re doing something sinful when they eat a lot of cream or butter. It’s important to acknowledge that fat can be dangerous if it’s not good quality. In the following section, we’ll see how the introduction of low–quality and processed fats contributed towards giving fat a bad name.

2. History of the Fat Scare

As I said above, people have been eating fat for just about forever without getting sick. So why did studies come out in the 1940s and 1950s saying that fat made you fat and clogged your arteries? In the beginning, it was a particular kind of fat that got all the negative press: saturated fat. This is the fat that is found in animal products like meat, milk, eggs, butter and cheese. Researchers noticed a correlation between a high amount of saturated fat in the diet and heart disease and obesity. You might wonder why foods that had been widely consumed for millennia were suddenly linked to health problems, but that question did not really get asked. The studies did provide the opportunity for food companies to sell more reduced–fat products that they could specially process. The studies also created a market for an alternative to natural saturated–fat animal products: polyunsaturated vegetable oils. Cheap vegetable oils had first been sold as alternatives to butter when Crisco, the vegetable–oil shortening, was put on the market in 1911. As more people thought they should avoid butter, food manufacturers sold vast quantities of margarines, liquid vegetable oils that had been hydrogenated to make them solid at room temperature. A massive financial incentive existed for food companies to encourage people to be afraid of natural, whole animal fats and to buy their processed trans fats or low–fat alternatives instead. It was more profitable for food companies to encourage misunderstanding of the real consequences and meaning of the saturated fat studies.

There is a tendency in nutrition to pinpoint a food as good or bad, a “superfood” or a poison. In reality, what’s much more important for eating healthy is balancing your diet properly and making sure the foods you eat are of good quality. The reason why high consumption of saturated fat was linked to health problems was twofold: not only was the saturated fat of poor quality, but it wasn’t balanced enough by other foods.

Poor quality: Around the time these studies were done, animals raised for meat and milk were much less likely to be fed a healthy diet than they had been in the past. Instead of letting animals feed on grass and insects and roam on pasture, factory farmers crowded them into manufacturing plants and fed them cheap grains such as corn. Because these animals didn’t eat their vegetables, their meat and milk lacked important vitamins and minerals that would have helped us to process the saturated fat in it. More importantly, the animals didn’t have access to the omega-3 fatty acids that are in grass and insects. Omega-3 fatty acids are a kind of polyunsaturated fat that cleans out our arteries and helps our brains function (see the extensive article I wrote on them a few months agohere). If you eat the meat or dairy products of an animal fed on grass, you’ll get both saturated fat and omega-3 fat. The omega-3 fat will cancel out the artery–clogging effect of the saturated fat. In other words, it wasn’t saturated fat that was the problem; it was the absence of omega-3 fat. Unfortunately, the study did not make that clear. In conclusion, poor quality saturated fat from unhealthy animals that did not get their omega-3s will cause health problems.

Imbalanced diet: The studies done on people eating a diet high in saturated fat didn’t take into account what other foods they ate. In the 40s and 50s, it wasn’t uncommon for a family to eat a lot of meat but few vegetables, except perhaps peas and potatoes. Vegetables are very important for balancing our fat intake; they provide water, fiber and nutrients. We should be eating at least as much vegetable food by volume as we eat animal food. If you’re not eating your vegetables, too much fat will be a problem. Again, it’s not a single nutrient in isolation that’s good or bad, but what you eat with it. Instead of continuing to avoid vegetables and then also avoiding saturated fat, people should eat plenty of both.

What we’re finding out now is that the reason why heart disease and obesity haven’t decreased is because the processed foods that replaced saturated fat—sugar and hydrogenated vegetable oils (aka trans fats)—are much worse. To understand why, we’ll need to move on to the final two sections of the article, where we talk about the science and chemistry of fats, and the quality of fat.

3. Fat Chemistry

There are three different kinds of fat molecules: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. Polyunsaturated fat can be further divided into other fatty acids, including omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. The names are completely unintelligible because they connote characteristics on the molecular level. Fats are chains of carbon atoms whose bonds are completely or partially filled by hydrogen atoms. Saturated fats are called that because they have their bonds completely filled, which makes them very stable and unlikely to undergo any chemical reactions. Because they are stable, they pack together well and so are solid at room temperature. Monounsaturated fats are missing two hydrogen atoms, so they are less stable and liquid at room temperature, but solid in the refrigerator. Polyunsaturated fats are the least stable and should be kept away from heat and light so that they don’t undergo a chemical reaction such as oxidation, which makes them rancid.

The fat that we eat and that exists in our bodies is in the form of triglycerides. A triglyceride is three of these fatty–acid chains attached to a glycerol molecule. We can raise our triglyceride levels by eating more fat but also by eating sugars (carbohydrates) which the liver turns into triglycerides if we do not use them for energy. This is the body’s way of storing calories in case we need them later. Extremely high levels of triglycerides in the blood have been clearly linked to heart disease, but it’s very hard to build those high levels by eating fat. Fat is so filling that there’s only so much we can eat at one sitting. Sugar, on the other hand, is not very filling but still very high in calories. Since we’re unlikely to be able to use all those calories, the leftover sugar will be converted into excess triglycerides, which will then just accumulate. The number one thing you can do to reduce your risk of heart disease is to reduce consumption of refined sugar.

Given that eating high–quality fat is not going to result in dangerously high levels of triglycerides, and that it has so many health benefits, how do we incorporate it into our diets? We need a balance of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats (omega-3 and omega-6). Most foods contain a combination of each, but a predomination of one. For example, butter is about 70% saturated fat, while the rest is unsaturated. Sesame oil is about 40% monounsaturated and 40% polyunsaturated. Below is a breakdown of which edible fats fall into which categories:

Saturated fat: Foods with a high amount of this extremely stable fat are dairy products (butter, milk, yogurt, cream, cheese) animal fats like beef, pork and chicken fat (tallow, lard and schmaltz), and tropical fats like palm oil and coconut oil. Butter, animal fats, and tropical fats are the ones that you should use when you are cooking with high heat, whether stir–frying, deep–frying, or sautéing for long periods of time. Once softened a little, they are excellent for spreading on bread or other grains and grain products.

Monounsaturated fat: These are the fats that are liquid at room temperature but will sometimes solidify in the fridge. They include olive oil, avocado oil, and the oil from nuts such as almonds, pecans, cashews, macadamia nuts, and peanuts. These fats are a little lighter and less filling than the saturated fats. You can do some light cooking with olive oil or peanut oil, but monounsaturated fats are best eaten raw, whether you’re eating nuts or olives, olive oil dressing, or nut butters.

Polyunsaturated fat: These are the least stable of the fats; not only are they liquid at room temperature, but even in the refrigerator. Polyunsaturated fats include omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are found either in green plant foods or in animals that have eaten a lot of green plants, whether from sea or land. Fish oil and cod liver oil is very high in omega-3s because fish feed on algae and plankton. Eggs, butter, meat and cheese from grass–fed animals also has plenty of omega-3 and omega-6 fat. Omega-6 fat can also be found in seeds such as sunflower seeds and flax seeds, soybeans, corn, pumpkin seeds, pine nuts, pistachios, and sesame seeds. In most cases, plant foods will have equal amounts of omega-3 and omega-6. Avoid purchasing polyunsaturated omega-6 oils such as soybean oil, walnut oil, sunflower oil, canola oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil and safflower oil. Stick to just eating walnuts, corn, soybeans, sunflower seeds, and the like.

To be healthy, we need to eat some of all of these fats. Right now, saturated fat is recovering from a bad reputation, monounsaturated fat like olive oil is thought to be pretty good, omega-3 fatty acids are considered a miracle food, and omega-6s are just starting to get hated on. We already saw that the case against saturated fat was flawed. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids actually must be eaten in a 1:1 ratio for good health; the former is only thought of as better because we weren’t eating it at all, and we were eating too much omega-6. The reality is that all these fats are good; just eat some of each on a day–to–day basis. They balance each other within your system and are all needed for optimum health.

By itself, though, balance is not all you need to have a healthy fat intake. The final subject we need to take up is fat quality. Balancing the different kinds of fats in your diet is no good if the fats are rancid or toxic. Just as you wouldn’t buy wilted or rotten fruits and vegetables at the store, you must avoid low quality fat.

4. Fat Quality

Most of us don’t eat fat straight from the source; we go to the store and buy butter or olive oil or bacon or canola oil. Even if these foods are healthy in the ideal, natural state, how do we know if the specific fatty foods we buy are good for us? To answer this question it will be helpful to break down the different kinds of fat once again.

Saturated fat: Since this kind of fat mostly comes from animals, the key question is whether the animals were healthy. As we’ve already discussed, if an animal is grass–fed, its meat and milk will contain both saturated fat and omega-3 fat in a healthy ratio. Organic meat and milk is important as well because often toxins from pesticides and artificial fertilizers in the animals’ feed will be stored by their bodies in fat cells. The best quality saturated fat comes from an animal that’s been feed on organic grass and had room to move around.

Dairy products such as milk, cheese and butter should also come from a cow or goat that’s been able to feed on organic feed and grass and roam freely. Most dairy products are homogenized, which is a process that breaks up fat molecules so that they don’t collect together at the surface. Homogenization turns fat from a very healthy macronutrient into a dangerous one. See my milk article for a more detailed explanation. Pasteurization also kills bacteria and enzymes in dairy products that make it easier for us to digest fat. In addition to looking for non–homogenized milk, try also to find cheese made from raw milk, and butter that has had a bacteria culture added back into it. The nice thing about these better quality dairy products is that there really isn’t any limit on how much you can eat; just continue until you feel full. At the very least, avoid any dairy products or ice cream that are reduced fat; instead, have the whole–fat kind, but consume less.

Monounsaturated/Polyunsaturated Fat: Because these kinds of fats are less stable, they are more sensitive to heat and light. The first priority is to try and find vegetable oils that are made from organically grown vegetables. But also important is to buy oils that are carefully preserved on their way to the store. When unsaturated fats are exposed to light and other sources of heat, the heat will catalyze a chemical reaction in which the fat molecules react with the air and become oxidized. This is also known as rancidification. Rancid fats are very bad for us because they contain free radicals. Free radicals are molecules that contain extra oxygen. Once they are in our system, free radicals attack and break down the cells of our own body as a way to become neutralized. Symptoms of consuming foods with many free radicals include poor skin (wrinkles, age spots), a weakened immune system, and stagnant/damaged cells that can turn cancerous.

Almost all the commercial vegetable oils you can consume, whether they’re sold in clear plastic or glass jars at the store, or listed among the ingredients on a packaged, processed food, are probably already partly rancid and contain many free radicals. Serious oxidation can occur just from jars sitting on the shelf under fluorescent light all day. But most of it happens during processing. Almost all oil manufacturers extract vegetable oil from seeds by crushing the seeds while simultaneously heating them. The heat, light and oxygen that the oil is exposed to all contribute to its oxidation. Chemical solvents are also used to separate oil from seed pulp, traces of which still remain in the final product. Natural preservatives in the oil that prevent rancidity, such as vitamin E and other antioxidants, are also destroyed during processing.

It is possible, although perhaps not as efficient, to cold–press seeds as a method of extraction. Cold–pressed or expeller–pressed oil will contain far fewer free radicals, and will also contain natural antioxidants that neutralize free radicals. It is also possible to process oils without using a chemical solvent. These oils are called “unrefined” oils and contain a slight residue that signifies the presence of vitamins and other nutrients. Unrefined, cold–pressed vegetable oils sold in opaque jars are, like cultured, grass–fed butter, healthy fats that you can eat to your heart’s content (literally).

Trans fat: It’s worth it to devote special attention to the one kind of fat we consume which doesn’t occur in nature. Trans–fatty acids are those created when polyunsaturated vegetable oils (usually soybean oil, already rancid from its own extraction process) are mixed with a metal catalyst, usually nickel oxide, and put in a hot, high–pressure reactor with hydrogen gas. A forced chemical reaction occurs between the liquid oil and the hydrogen gas to create hydrogenated vegetable oil, which is solid at room temperature. The newly created trans fat molecule is indigestible and toxic to the human body, but our body will try to assimilate it anyway, upon which it interferes with normal cell metabolism, leading to overall physical dysfunction that includes a weakened immune system, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, birth defects, sterility, difficulty in lactation, sexual dysfunction and cancer. It’s obvious that there is no such thing as good quality trans fat, ever. Trans fat is found in most processed, packaged foods (just look for fully or partially hydrogenated ___ oil among the ingredients), and in most fried foods that you get at restaurants.

Our government has made it legal for food companies that make products with trans fat to list “0 grams trans fat” on the nutrition facts label when the serving size is small enough to contain less than 0.5 grams of trans fat. However, if you eat multiple servings, those grams will definitely pile up. In other words, you can’t trust the nutrition facts; look at the ingredients for hydrogenated oil.

5. Conclusion

Fat is an essential part of every person’s diet. How much of it you eat on a daily basis is something that you can let your body’s natural wisdom dictate; you don’t always have to consult an expert. As I’ve said before, eating too much is rarely a problem when it comes to something as filling as fat. Consuming fat only becomes a health risk when we’re eating poor quality fat, or if we’re not balancing our fat intake with other healthy foods such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains and beans. Eating some of each of the different kinds of fat is important as well (saturated, monounsaturated, omega-3 and omega-6). Avoid polyunsaturated fats that are rancid or hydrogenated (trans fats), and try to cut down on saturated fats that are from grain–fed animals. When push comes to shove, though, always choose a saturated fat like butter over a hydrogenated vegetable oil, regardless of quality, and remember to eat plenty of highly nutritious, antioxidant–laden fruits and vegetables no matter what you do. Not only will you be healthier after adding more good–quality fat into your diet, you’ll probably be a lot happier too!