Archive | May, 2012

Concerned about Pesticides?

This week I was at City Market thoroughly enjoying a delicious deli sandwich that I had saved $1 on (thanks to Campus Special coupon book) when I saw a mother and her baby enter the cafe. Before they sat down at the table across from me, the mother turned to the wall behind her where framed pictures of different farms, workers, volunteers, fruits and vegetables hung nicely in black frames. I quickly noticed that the mom was in one of the photos, and she wanted to show her baby!

20120318-223132.jpgAfter pointing herself out to the baby, she sat down and started to breast feed. Maybe it’s just me, but I thought it was a pretty cool chain of events: the mom worked on a farm, helped produce food that she likely consumed, and now here’s this baby being nourished by the same body that consumed the food in the picture. This got me thinking about just how sensitive the bodies of these tiny creatures must be to different foods and substances on their food.

Earlier in the week, I read an article for class on pesticide toxicity. The article mentioned Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children, a report issued by the National Academy of Sciences in 1993 documenting that  “infants and children differ both qualitatively and quantitatively from adults in their exposure to pesticide residues in foods” and that some children exceeded safe levels of pesticides in their diets.

The NAS report led rise to the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 which requires the EPA to set health-based standards for pesticides in foods, while requiring additional protection for children, infants and other vulnerable people.  In spite of this legislation however, researchers from Emory University in Atlanta reported that young children continue to be exposed to pesticides primarily through their diets. Furthermore, the Environmental Working Group (EWG)  points out three epidemiological studies published in Environmental Health Perspectives in April 2011 that show a clear link between a mother’s exposure to pesticides (specifically, organophosphates) during pregnancy and deficits to children’s learning and memory that persist through the ages of 6 to 9.

Meanwhile, agribusiness and pesticide companies are working to weaken protections in the Food Quality Protection Act, and in some cases have already succeeded. Furthermore, industry refuses to conduct developmental neurotoxicity studies, claiming it’s too expensive and difficult, yet they deny any study linking pesticide residue from diet and to human health risks. Really?

So, why should you be concerned about pesticides? For starters, U.S. and international governmental agencies, in addition to a host of researchers and doctors worldwide, acknowledge that pesticides are linked to several health problems including:

  • brain and nervous system toxicity
  • cancer
  • hormone disruption
  • skin, eye and lung irritation

Therefore, why take the risk if you don’t have to? Take steps to protect yourself and loved ones by using tools such as EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to determine which produce is most important to  buy organic.

FN 2/13


On Risk

Last week after observing I helped myself to a plate of food from the hot bar of the co-op. At 4:36am the next morning I woke up with a terrible headache, intense abdominal cramps, nausea and the chills. I ran to the bathroom and proceeded to get sick for the next 5 hours.Later that night I did a little research to find that I was 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) who gets sick each year from foodborne illnesses. According the Center for Disease Control (CDC), each year roughly 128,000 people are hospitalized and 3,000 people die of foodborne diseases.

A couple days later at the co-op I found myself steer clear of the hot bar and the surrounding vicinity. When I thought of ‘hot bar’ and ‘co-op’ two things came to mind: yuck and stay away. I began to wonder why I had such a strong visceral reaction. How were issues of food safety being played out in a larger context?  How do corporations, the government and other consumers deal with issues of food safety? It seemed that everytime I was around or thought about food for the next week, risk was somehow involved.

In ‘Food, publics, science’ Gwendolyn Blue explains that the 1990s marked a turning point in the ways in which food is talked about. Where it used to be talked about in terms of nutrition and access, public attention now focuses increasingly on issues of risk, including infectious microbes, chemical toxins, new technologies, and emergent zoonotic diseases. In fact, Blue says

food as a site in which risk is negotiated

This accurately describes how I feel about the hot bar at the co-op. A site in which risk must be negotiated. In the days that followed being sick, the more I realized that it’s not just after getting food poisoning that I have to contend with risk; it’s all the time. It’s everywhere. It’s on the health labels we see in products, the advertising campaigns adopted by corporations to capitalize on our fears of food safety, literally anything relating to food and public safety likely has someone involved aiming to reduce the perception of risk.

This is fascinating. It means that whether or not I like it or even realize it, my actions as a food consumer  make me involved in forms of political engagement (Blue, 153). I am bound up in the larger context of consumer politics of food related issues just as we all are. All in all, after doing my own research on the topic of risk, I’ve realized that there’s no avoiding it, for it’s everywhere, but we can participate by voting on foods that we find safe with our dollar.

FN 3/12

Food Without Thought

The other day I was in produce section of the co-op and noticed a beautiful blood orange that had recently been cut in half. “Let me know if you’d like to try some. Just had one and it was delicious.” I turned around to find a friendly employee smiling while unpacking bananas. Without thinking, I responded, “Sure, i’d love to!” The slice of orange was delicious, and I ended up buying some. As I proceeded to the bulk section, I found myself ruminating over my instantaneous response to the employee’s offer. I glanced down at the oranges in my basket and realized I had just fallen for a subtle marketing gimmick. By offering samples, City Market can get customers to eat more of what they sell. Similar marketing methods are employed everywhere; it seems anything food related is set up to encourage us to eat more, not less. Why? Turns out that there’s too much available food in the U.S. today. In Why Calories Count, Marion Nestle explains that rates of obesity sharply increased in the 1980’s as the result of changes in agricultural and economic polities that promoted greater food production. The result? The number of calories available in the U.S. food supply rose from 3,200 per capita per day in 1980 to 3,900 in 1990. The average adult needs only needs half of that amount, and kids much less (Nestle, 2012). With the proliferation of cheap, convenient foods in our society there’s no denying that the norms surrounding eating have shifted. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, today half the typical family’s food budget is for foods prepared and eaten outside of the home. I suddenly recalled all the times I’d mindlessly sampled food at the grocery store, eaten because food was in front of me, grabbed food on the go for convenience sake, or conversely, grabbed more food than I need just because it was available. The fact is, companies make money when we eat more, not less. It’s vital that we not let increasingly subtle marketing methods employed by food companies slip past our consciousness and into our bellies. We live in a society where 60% of adults are considered overweight and 1/3 obese. More than ever, we must critically think about our food choices and recognize that companies benefit from us getting larger. Ultimately, it is our choice whether or not we want to bear the brunt of overabundance within the food system.


A wordcloud is an online tool that creates a virtual “cloud” of the most frequently used words from a piece of writing. You interpret it by looking at the patterns and representations of the words in the cloud to help one gauge an understanding of the prominent themes or topics discussed in the writing.

Some of the prominent themes in my wordcloud are “eat”, “food”, “health”, “community” and “people”. When you take a deeper look at how these words are illustrated in the cloud, one begins to see a complex web of connections. This represents my understanding of the relationship between food, health and media. Smaller words that are still dominant themes include “women”, “cooking”, “industry”, “products”, “organic”, “consumption”, “system” and “meat”. These represent noteworthy connections that I made to the overarching theme of food health and media. For example, “meat” is an appropriate size in my wordcloud as one of the topics I found myself revisiting on the blog is the relationship between meat consumption and gender performance and potential implications this has for food consumption and health practices. Check out this post to learn more.

My wordcloud also serves as an account as to how my understanding of the relationship between food, health and media has changed. I’ve learned to think more critically about food and health information, how it is communicated and the way this may impact behavior. I learned to utilize an interdisciplinary approach to enhance my understanding of the relationships between various fields of study. For example, the fact that “meat” and “women” are themes on my wordcloud reflects an ability to synthesize information on a variety of topics (primarily, women’s and gender studies, food, health and the environment) and apply it to my context. Through conducting participatory observations, engaging in readings, participating in discussions and conducting additional research on topics of interest, i’ve developed stronger media literacy skills which has allowed me to form my own opinions and thus, bring perspectives such as women’s and gender studies into the conversation of food, health and media.

Learning about strategic media planning played a significant role in the evolution of my blog as well. Reading about agenda setting and framing theories and how they affect the food and health coverage in the media shifted my expectations of media coverage on food and health issues. A solid grasp of these theories in relation to my context are evident in Partnerships between Food Industry and Health Groups. In this post, I highlight a study that reviewed 206 articles addressing the health effects of different beverages. Researchers found that the likelihood of a conclusion favorable to the industry was 4-fold to 8-fold higher if the study received full rather than no industry funding. Ultimately, this changed how I view partnerships between various stakeholders involved in food and public health issues such as obesity.

Food Without Thought also indicates a continually evolving understanding of these relationships for it demonstrates an ability to recognize my own assumptions and challenge them. This is one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned from my time spent observing, reading, and blogging. Challenging my own assumptions has allowed me to wrangle over my thoughts until I narrow them down and eventually figure out where my opinion lies on a certain issues.

Finally, Food as Medicine details my growth from learning about Grosses’ deficit model which explains how individuals are often portrayed as ignorant compared to expert systems of knowledge. According to the deficit model, the public is represented as needing someone to “help” them, hence experts with scientific degrees and a public that relies on experts to “save” them. This allowed me recognize my own bias toward expert systems of knowledge. I realized that as a result of this I often undervalued other forms of knowledge. In order to challenge my assumption/bias, I attempted to adopt an interactional framework in my participatory observations. I began talking to employees in various departments of the co-op and getting to know regular customers. While I still referred back to expert systems of knowledge in my posts, I also started including the everyday people that I talked to. Thus, I learned to value both expert and lay systems of knowledge. This is reflected in my wordcloud with words such as “knowledge” and “public”.

WP 5/8

Partnerships between Food Industry and Health Groups

The other day I learned that in 1984, Kellogg arranged with the National Cancer Institute to endorse a health claim for All-Bran cereal. Within 6 months, All-Bran’s market share increased by 47% (Nestle & Ludwig, 2010). Prior to 1984, there had been no endorsement of health claims on behalf of health groups. Ever since, the use of health claims on products has proliferated (in part) because it sells.  Today, partnerships between food industry and health groups have grown in number and scale. Not only do we see the visible affects (health claims on food labels, sponsorships at sporting events, etc.) but we also see the food industry’s impact on the conduct of research and thus, public health policy.

This got me thinking: given today’s obesity epidemic, how responsible are partnerships between food industry groups and health groups? Through reading and conducting online research I found these partnerships to be irresponsible. Specifically, I found these financial ties compromise the public credibility of health organizations and groups (Nestle, Ludwig, 2008).

The first partnership I examined was between PepsiCo and the YMCA. In the article Can the Food Industry Play a constructive Role in the Obesity Epidemic? Nestle and Ludwig describe how PepsiCo donated $11.6 million over 5 years to the YMCA to support an annual community day “to celebrate healthy living, encourage kids and families to get excited about physical fun and activity and .. engage kids in play to be healthy.” Nestle and Ludwig (2010) point out that focus on physical activity, characteristically without consummate attention to diet quality, appears disingenuous. In an article titled YMCA received PepsiCo Grant Mica Wilson from Healthier Lifestyles Marketing, PepsiCo was quoted saying “PepsiCo and the YMCA have a shared commitment to find better ways to help Americans lead healthier lifestyles.” If PepsiCo were truly committed to “helping Americans lead healthier lifestyles”, don’t you think they would consider making their actual product healthier?

An even more alarming situation is revealed when we consider the influence the food industry has on the conduct of research and the development of public health policy. In a study titled Relationship between Funding Source and Conclusion among Nutrition-Related Scientific Articles, researchers reviewed 206 scientific articles published over a 5-year period, all of which addressed the health effects of milk, fruit juices, and soft drinks. They found that the likelihood of a conclusion favorable to the industry was 4-fold to 8-fold higher if the study received full rather than no industry funding, raising the possibility of systematic bias (Nestle and Ludwig, 2008).

Both of the above partnerships have serious implications for public health. They are irresponsible when considering addressing the obesity epedemic for they undermine the credibility of health groups and organizations and their ability to seriously address public health concerns. It is vital that we not leave it up to the food industry, whose main purpose is to create a profit, to address public health issues. As Nestle and Ludwig point out, “appropriate checks and balances are needed to align the financial interests of the food industry with the goals of the public health”. As consumers, we must vote with our fork and think critically as to whether or not we want to support or buy into the health claims on labels and other types of partnerships between industry and health groups. If we sense something isn’t right, it’s important to raise attention to the issue, talk about it with friends and family and demand strong public health policies from our elected officials.

WP 4/27

Meat consumption and successful masculine performance

The other day I saw a young couple in their mid-20’s sit down at a table in the cafe of the co-op. I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation, “You need to eat more!” a guy proclaimed in a demanding, half-joking way. He glanced down at the girls plate and smiled.  She smiled back and while I couldn’t hear her response her tone sounded sarcastic. I leaned to my left to glance over at her plate; she had a salad stacked high with a variety of veggies, and a serving of vegetarian chili on the side. The guy didn’t have that much more food on his plate, however the food he did have was heavier and richer, and he was eating meat.

This was interesting to me because I had read an article titled ‘Metrosexuality Can Stuff It: Beef Consumption as (Heteromasculine) Fortification’ literally the day prior. In the article, the author points to social scientific research on food consumption that reveals that meat consumption plays a significant role in successful masculine performance.

I thought about the look on the guys face when he said “you need to eat more!” Did he really want her to eat more? According to Burke, where it may seem ‘‘un-ladylike’’ to eat much, consuming large quantities of food seems expected from men. In western culture, consuming animal flesh, especially beef, has a long association with traditional masculinity (Burke, 261). Furthermore, research indicates that men’s eating goes largely unnoticed, whereas women often feel the social norms for proper consumption weighing down upon them (Saukko; Scott;Spitzack). Thus, it’s easy for males to tell females to eat more for that’s how they’ve been conditioned to think. Perhaps the girls sarcastic response and the fact that she seemed to take the guys comment lightly, is an indication that she’s disregarding the guys comment for she recognizes that the social norms surrounding food are different for for women and men. I don’t mean to speculate, or overanalyze this small interaction, but there’s something to be said about the expected norms surrounding eating for women. It seems every magazine, TV show, and other media outlet is screaming ladies, eat less!

The problem I have with the social logic behind presenting meat as a masculine food of choice, is that it assumes that by consuming meat men gain strength, whereas vegetables and other non-meat products provide nothing to the body in the way of substance (Burke). This is deceiving and troublesome for several reasons. One reason being, women are healthier than men and thus outlive them. We’re a strong and resilient bunch, in part because of the food choices that we make.

Burke’s article continues to explain the history behind this social logic: the cultural tradition of saving meat for men grows from beliefs about meat’s effect on the body as emboldening and empowering. Associations between men and meat seen in social behavior research and cultural critiques solidify underlying notions that men naturally hold strength and power, while women merely stand by watching.

What do you think, is this perspective insightful? Does it offer you a more critical eye as to why you might make some of the food choices you do? At the end of the day, I find it fascinating to consider how all of this is a social construction, yet the extent to which it impacts our lives (and in many cases our health) is immense.

FN 3/5