All posts by Rob Brown

How to Be Sure You’re Eating Healthy Chicken

healthiest chicken - grilled

Buying the healthiest chicken has never been harder. Many have seen horrifying images and videos of factory poultry farms where chickens live in such tight quarters that they have no room to move. Many factory hens never see natural daylight. With natural day-night cycles, egg-laying chickens and ducks lay more eggs during the summer season when daylight is longer. In the winter, they get a rest. With that in mind, factory poultry farmers artificially increase the daily light duration with lamps so their chickens will produce more eggs year-round. Instead of eating small plants and insects, factory chickens eat feed consisting of grains, including GMO corn.

Similar to cattle and fish, poultry farmers inject their birds with antibiotics to try and keep them free of disease. Despite the use of antibiotics, chickens still get sick, probably because the pesticides and herbicides that lace their feed destroy the normal bacterial flora in the chickens’ guts, leaving them with unhealthy intestinal biomes. Before the 1980s, people ate raw eggs without any fear of getting sick. Since then, though, the incidence of Salmonella infections has been on the rise. Today, signs in restaurants warn of eating eggs that aren’t cooked thoroughly for fear of Salmonella. GMO feed with glyphosate residue has been implicated in disturbing the microbiomes of poultry, killing off beneficial bacteria and leaving behind those that are less susceptible to the chemical, such as Salmonella and Clostridium. This may in part explain the increased incidence of Clostridium and Salmonella infections in cattle, poultry farms, and conventional egg production factories. However, the risk of salmonella persists in free-range and certified organic chicken populations.

If you’re truly dedicated to eating the healthiest chicken — and you have the ability to raise your own — I highly recommend it. Chickens are fun to watch, and collecting fresh eggs is a special gift each day. Otherwise, try to find a source of poultry and eggs that are not mass-produced from a factory farm. Be a savvy shopper and understand the deceptive labeling techniques used by some factory farms. Words like “all natural” mean nothing. Unfortunately, descriptions such as “free range,” “cage free,” and “naturally raised” are also misleading and don’t really mean what they sound like they mean. It is best to ignore marketing ploys. A more useful label is one that specifies “organic eggs.” In order to receive the organic label, the laying chickens aren’t fed any GMO grain and are raised on land that has been free of pesticide and fertilizer use for at least three years. “Free-range” means the chickens have the ability to go outside, but this might mean that they are predominately housed indoors with access to just a small outdoor concrete slab. Making sure that your eggs are fully cooked will help eliminate the risk of acquiring a Salmonella infection.

See all our posts on food safety here

What to Buy – And What to Avoid – When Buying Milk

healthy dairy products - cow

It’s important to know the difference between healthy dairy products and products that may have been compromised by current practices.

There are many different varieties of milk in the market. The most natural milk product is unprocessed “raw milk,” only sold in select markets. Raw milk is better tasting and teeming with its own microbiome, which has beneficial health effects, including protecting children from the development of allergies. But there is an increased risk of acquiring an infection from drinking raw milk. Most retailers sell milk which has been pasteurized or ultra-pasteurized and homogenized. Further processing creates subcategories of whole milk, including 2% milk, 1% milk, fat-free milk, lactose-free milk, and others.

Ultra-pasteurization has been around since 1993 in the US, but was used in Europe for many years before. During this process, milk is heated to 280°F with steam for two seconds and then rapidly cooled, killing virtually all of the bacteria within the milk. Most conventional milk and almost all organic milk in the US are now ultra-pasteurized. This technology increases the shelf life from one or two weeks to several months, which is efficient for a supermarket that doesn’t want to worry about its milk spoiling too fast. During ultra-pasteurization, though, some milk proteins become denatured, meaning that they lose their structure, function, and perhaps digestibility. Perhaps even more important, nutritional value is diminished for milk that has been ultra-pasteurized. Paying higher prices for organic milk that has been ultra-pasteurized may seem silly, yet these products do have fewer contaminants than their conventional alternatives.

Dairy cattle in the US are raised differently from beef cattle. Dairy cattle can be injected with a synthetic form of growth hormone called recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBGH), developed by Monsanto, which stimulates cattle, goats, and sheep to produce more milk. Milk produced by cows treated with rBGH is associated with increased levels of the hormone insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1). The American Cancer Society has questioned whether or not there is a link between IGF-1 and cancer. To date, no direct link has been defined, but many countries, including the EU, have banned the use of rBGH. Due to a backlash from the public on this technology, there has been a drop-off of its use over the years — a boon for the marketplace in terms of the availability of healthy dairy products, but other problems remain.

Milk production in the US is also associated with markedly elevated levels of estrogen and progesterone, the female sex hormones. This may be related to the practice of artificially inseminating cattle while they are still producing milk from their previous pregnancies, which increases milk production. This practice occurs on conventional as well as organic farms. Many scientists have questioned whether or not the development of human cancers, such as breast, ovarian, and uterine cancer, is associated with the elevated female sex hormone levels in commercial milk. Statistical analysis has also shown that men who drink whole milk increase their risk of developing and dying from prostate cancer.

As a result of excessive milk production stimulated by rBGH administered from 60 to 305 days during the lactation period, cattle suffered a 25% increase in udder infections, known as mastitis, during this treatment period. This painful condition can release pus and bacteria into the milk. If the milk is subsequently pasteurized, ultra-pasteurized, and homogenized, any potential pathogens in the milk are killed. However, the cattle raised in conventional farms are given antibiotics to treat mastitis. In addition, most dairy cattle are prophylactically injected with antibiotics each year to prevent them from getting the condition. Residue of the circulating antibiotics in the cow’s blood can then be secreted into the milk. As a result, some milk contains traces of antibiotics, some of which, the FDA recently discovered, have not even been approved for use in dairy cattle.

Dairy products made from conventional milk, such as butter, cheese, sour cream, whipped cream, half-and-half, and heavy cream, are all made from the same dairy farms that inject their cattle with antibiotics, and yes, antibiotics have also been found in these foods — making it difficult to be sure about what constitutes healthy dairy products. Organic milk producers are forbidden to treat mastitis with antibiotics, and therefore take greater care to ensure their animals are living in clean quarters and have healthy immune systems. Given the status of the US dairy market, I opt to feed my family organic dairy products, but sparingly.

See all our posts on food safety here.

Eat Fish? Read This Before You Buy Dinner

safe fish to eat

Fish and seafood are an excellent source of protein and nutrition, but it can be hard to know the safe fish to eat, as the world’s oceans have become polluted with materials ranging from plastics to hard metals. Mercury is the third most toxic naturally occurring substance in the world, behind lead and arsenic. Methyl mercury is the most toxic contaminant in the world’s fish. Coal-fired power plants, which emit particulates into the air, including mercury, have rained toxins upon the world’s oceans, elevating mercury levels in the fish that live there. Thankfully, these plants are slowly either being phased out or retrofitted with scrubbers that remove dangerous contaminants before exhaust is emitted into the air.

I taught my children about the mercury in fish early in their lives. During a beach vacation one summer, my family and some friends were waiting on a dock to embark on an evening cruise boat so we could enjoy the sunset on the water. Fishermen had come in from a day at sea and were busy cleaning their catch. My children were fascinated as a man cut the head off of a beautiful yellowfin tuna and gutted it. I watched from afar, letting them both have a bit of independence on their vacation. After a few minutes though, my seven-year-old son screamed out, “Eww! I can see the mercury!” The fisherman looked at my child and then at me with horror and said, “There’s no mercury in this fish!” Afterward, he muttered some words about how the world was being ruined by environmentalists and the like. I corrected my son and told him that he was not “seeing” the mercury, but that it was still in there.

How can I know the safe fish to eat?

Mercury bioaccumulates. Therefore, in general, the larger the fish, the greater the concentration of mercury and the more you eat of them, the more that will accumulate in your body. Small fish haven’t had enough time to accumulate as much of the toxin. Keep in mind that no amount of mercury is good for you. Mercury is a neurotoxin and can cause all kinds of problems in adults, including nervousness, muscle twitching, tremors, decreased cognition, and muscle atrophy. Mercury can affect a child’s development and can cause fetal anomalies in pregnant women. For this reason, children and pregnant women should be especially careful not to eat too much fish. The EPA set up guidelines based on body weight, designating the maximum mercury intake per day to be 0.1 micrograms per kilogram (2.2 pounds) per day. That equates to 7 micrograms per day, or 49 micrograms a week for a 70-kilogram (154-pound) person.

Fish that contain the highest levels of mercury include tilefish, shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and some types of tuna, including bigeye and ahi. Apologies to my fellow sushi lovers—these types of fish have been documented to contain over 100 micrograms of mercury in 4 ounces and should be avoided.

A middle tier of fish that contains between 40 and 80 micrograms of mercury per 4 ounces of cooked fish includes bluefin tuna and albacore tuna, canned white tuna (other than light tuna), yellowfin tuna, marlin, skipjack tuna, and lobster.

Lower levels of mercury have been found in salmon, light tuna (canned), pollock, tilapia, catfish, trout, and cod. Calamari (squid), clams, oysters, and shrimp also fall into this category. These species contain fewer than 40 micrograms of mercury per 4 ounces.

Research has been performed weighing the risk of mercury toxicity with the benefits of eating micronutrients and omega-3 fatty acids from fish, and the EPA-FDA recommendations for 2017 are for women and children to eat two to three servings of fish per week—one serving from the middle tier and the remaining serving(s) from the lowest tier. Children under 10 should eat no more than three ounces of fish per week if the type of fish being eaten contains mercury. If you aren’t sure how much this is, buy a small food scale. You’ll be surprised at how little that actually is.

The Natural Resources Defense Council website (www.nrdc.org) lists types of fish and rates each variety by its level of typical mercury contamination. Familiarize yourself with this list and refer to it for the safe fish to eat while you are shopping or eating out. Another great resource for safe fish to eat is www.SeafoodWatch.org. The easiest way to approach buying fish is to do some homework before going to the store. Pick out your favorite types of fish and figure out using a calculator what amount of fish you and your family can safely eat in a meal. Remember that the weights are based on the weight of the fish after it is cooked, so take that into consideration before your purchase.

The mercury levels listed are based on wild-caught fish. Farm-raised fish have a more controlled diet, and may therefore contain lower amounts of mercury than wild-caught fish. But these fish are typically raised in sectioned-off areas of offshore seawater, where they are potentially exposed to sources of pollution run-off from the land, including PCBs and dioxins. This is important to consider since dioxins are very difficult to get rid of once they are in your body—their half-life in the human body has been measured to be 7.1 years! The most common varieties of fish now raised in farms include salmon, tilapia, sea bass, catfish, and cod. Farm-raised fish are fed feed, commonly including grains such as GMO corn and soy, which, as previously mentioned, may contain traces of pesticides and herbicides. Farm-raised fish are also commonly fed antibiotics to keep diseases and pests under control. With the exception of methyl mercury, most toxins are stored in the skin and fat, so it is best to trim off the fat and skin before eating any fish.

The living conditions of farm-raised fish differ among countries and even between locations within a given country. It is not possible to generalize about the kinds of contaminants or the concentration level of contaminants in a given species of fish. I try to stay away from farm-raised fish, even though they are much lower in price.

Mussels have been shown to accumulate high levels of butyltin compounds, a chemical used in plastics and boat maintenance products. Unfortunately, this problem isn’t going away anytime soon as these compounds don’t degrade quickly and have been found in mussels even five years after bans on the chemicals have gone into effect in some countries. Butyltin is an endocrine disruptor and a toxin that can impair the immune and central nervous systems. For this reason, it is best to limit your consumption of mussels.

Shrimp

Aside from fish, shrimp is the most commonly eaten seafood in the US. Would you believe that only 2% of the shrimp imported into this country is inspected by US regulatory agencies? Most shrimp is farm-raised and, like other types of fish, can be contaminated with a myriad of heavy metals and chemicals, including pesticides, dioxins and PCBs. Shrimp contaminated with antibiotics banned in the US, such as chloramphenicol and nitrofuran, a known carcinogen, arise on occasion. Curiously, there are no research articles proving or disproving the safety of shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico after the notorious Gulf oil spill and subsequent spraying of over a million gallons of Corexit, a toxic oil dispersant. For this reason, I opt for fish from other locales. It’s harder to find wild-caught shrimp in the grocery store, but it can always be ordered online.

See all our posts on food safety here

How to Make Healthy Choices When Buying Meat

meat safety - steak

Understanding meat safety is a key element in ensuring your family’s health. Before the industrialization of food, cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats were pastured and slaughtered for their meat once they were physically mature, except in the case of veal and lamb. The amount of time needed for an animal to grow to sufficient size was dictated by the quality of the pasture, the weather, and the genetics of the breed.

The industrialization of meat brought us images of horrific living standards and inhumane slaughtering processes in factory farms. Instead of grazing on grasses, these cattle may be tied to posts in feed lots where they are fed grain, such as GMO corn.

In the US and in many other countries, hormones are administered to the livestock to make the animals grow faster. Many steroid hormone drugs, including natural estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and their synthetic versions have been approved by the FDA for use in beef cattle and sheep. The EU has not given approval to these same drugs. The FDA has not approved steroid hormones for growth purposes in dairy cattle, veal calves, pigs, or poultry.

Animals in factory farms are commonly injected with antibiotics to help protect them from the increased risk of illness that comes from their dirty, confined living quarters and their unnatural food source. The FDA has approved prophylactic antibiotic use for animals until slaughter. It was only until recently that the FDA allowed the administration of arsenic to cattle—after detecting arsenic in meat, the FDA finally removed it from the list of acceptable treatments in 2015. The widespread use of antibiotics has come under more scrutiny as superbugs, resistant to antibiotics, are becoming more and more common.

In addition to antibiotics and an unnatural diet, factory-farmed meat can also be altered by the animals’ stress levels. Stress causes the excessive production of cortisol, which leads to biochemical changes in an animal’s cells. Meat from a stressed animal will have a different color, tenderness, and perishability than the meat from a non-stressed animal.

Meat safety is understood in different ways around the world. In a spiritual sense, when eating, one consumes a physical form with an underlying frequency and energy. Eating the meat of a healthy, vibrant animal may impart a greater sense of well-being to us than eating the meat from an animal that has been chained to a feed lot, living a life of constant stress. Respect for an animal’s “energy” permeates many cultures around the world. I wonder if the energy within the meat might be even more important for our health and well-being than the biochemical makeup of the meat.

For optimal meat safety, if you choose to eat beef, lamb, pork, and veal, it is best to eat organic varieties, or in the case of beef, grass-fed beef. A label from the American Grassfed Association will reliably indicate that you are purchasing grass-fed beef that has not been fed corn. Depending on where you live, local farmers may pasture their cattle without injecting them with steroids or antibiotics. You can have a quarter or side of beef sectioned into various cuts, and many packages of ground beef as well. This is not only economical, but you know that you are eating the meat from one cow.

See all our posts on food safety here

Why You Want to Scrub the Wax Off Your Fruit (Even If It’s “Food Safe”)

After the application of dye, fruit may be coated in a fine layer of wax or paraffin so that it won’t decay as quickly on the store shelf. There are many types of wax that are considered food grade and safe to eat. Conventional produce manufacturers apply petroleum-based wax to the fruit while organic suppliers apply beeswax or other natural waxes such as carnauba wax or shellac. Regardless of which type of wax is applied, pesticide residues can adhere to the wax layer. Read More

Understanding Artificial Food Dyes — And How to Avoid Them

artificial food dyes in citrus

Artificial food dyes are everywhere — and best avoided.

As many commercially grown apples and other fruits are picked before they ripen and achieve optimal color, fruits are commonly dyed to make them more appealing. In many instances, there is no way to tell if a fruit has been subject to artificial food dyes, although I do remember years back occasionally biting into apples and noticing red streaks extending into the pulp from the skin, an obvious indication of dye. Read More

Why Going Organic With Root Vegetables Matters

organic root vegetables

If you have been around a while, you may remember going to the market and seeing “eyes” in the potatoes that would sprout if the potatoes were left on the shelf for too long. For many years now, root vegetables such as onions, potatoes, and carrots have been sprayed during growth with an herbicide that functions as an anti-sprouting chemical, preventing the vegetable from continuing its life cycle after harvest. The chemical, typically chlorpropham or maleic hydrazide, prevents cellular division. Yes, this chemical can affect human cellular division, too. And residues of this chemical have been found on potato samples and even in potato chips! Japan and the EU have placed strict limitations on the usage of anti-sprouting chemicals, but there are no regulations for their usage in the US. For this reason, it is best to buy organic root vegetables. Read More

Everything You Need to Know About Pesticide in Your Produce

pesticides in produce - carrots, beans and cucumbers

Pesticides in produce is one of the most important problems faced by consumers today.

Perhaps the section of the supermarket that has gotten the most attention from food activists in recent years is the first section you typically walk into, the produce section. One of the biggest concerns in eating fruits and vegetables from a “conventional” market is the residue of pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides applied during the growing process. Stabilizers and other processing techniques designed to improve shelf life and product appeal are also suspect.

Anyone who has tried to grow an organic garden or orchard will agree that fighting off Mother Nature’s creatures is a full-time task that can be daunting. Considering the ubiquitous presence of insects, weeds, and fungal diseases, it is no wonder that commercial growers have relied on pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides in order to help produce healthy and sizable harvests. Without these chemical products, there would be a lot less fruit and vegetables for us all to eat.

There are hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of different types of chemicals on the market to help growers produce bountiful harvests. Some chemicals are considered organic, and others conventional, or nonorganic. Organic sprays are considered more ecologically responsible and safe, but both of these types of sprays need to be removed from the food before it is eaten. If the skin on the fruit’s surface is porous, the chemicals will be absorbed into the cuticle. For this reason, I prefer organic fruits and vegetables. Pesticide residues will adhere the most to fruits and vegetables that contain a soft skin or waxy surface and should be removed with the aid of a fruit and vegetable spray wash, as many pesticides are not water soluble. Peeling the fruit will remove the greatest amount of pesticide residue, and avoid some of the hazards of pesticides in produce.

There is a helpful resource produced by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit environmental research organization, that categorizes produce into the varieties that contain the most and least pesticide residue during a given year. In 2017, the foods that contained the greatest number of pesticides in the highest concentration, also known as the “dirty dozen,” included:

Apples
Peaches
Nectarines
Strawberries
Grapes
Celery
Spinach
Sweet bell peppers
Cherries
Tomatoes
Pears
Potatoes

The EWG found that nonorganic leafy greens, including kale, lettuce, and collard greens, as well as hot peppers, were frequently contaminated with insecticides toxic to the human nervous system and that only organic versions should be eaten.

In 2017, the foods that contained the least amount of pesticide residue included:

Onions
Avocado
Sweet corn
Grapefruit
Pineapple
Mango
Honeydew
Broccoli
Frozen sweet peas
Kiwi
Eggplant
Sweet potato
Cabbage
Papaya
Cantaloupe
Cauliflower

There have been many scientific studies linking pesticide exposure to all kinds of health problems, including hormonal and reproductive problems as well as many different kinds of cancer, particularly in children. Several long-term observational studies have indicated that organophosphate insecticides may impair children’s brain development. In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a report specifying that children have a “unique susceptibility to the toxic effects of pesticide residue.” Pesticides in produce — and elsewhere — are damaging to our health and care should be taken to avoid inadvertently ingesting them.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) present a unique problem in that the pesticides and herbicides in these vegetables cannot always be washed off. GMOs are typically grown in herbicide-laden soil, and may have their DNA engineered to produce their own pesticides, thereby killing any insects that try and eat them. Unfortunately for us, the same corn kernel or soy bean that we eat contains the pesticide internally, which cannot be washed off. These herbicide-containing and pesticide- producing plants, when eaten, may have negative health effects that we do not completely understand. There is concern that our microbiome can be severely damaged by ingesting pesticides. This may be causing a significant increase in digestive disorders, including obesity and diabetes.

The GMO story began with the creation of a chemical called glyphosate by Stafford Chemical in 1960. This chemical was created to bind with metals and was used as a descaling agent to clean industrial pipes of mineral deposits. The chemical company Monsanto purchased the chemical in 1969 and re-patented it as a nonselective herbicide. Thus, Roundup was born. Any homeowner or lawn maintenance worker will tell you that it is a lot easier to spray a chemical such as Roundup on a plant to kill it than it is to manually remove the plant with its roots.

Monsanto subsequently spent many years in the field of biotechnology, creating seeds that could grow in the presence of glyphosate. The idea was that it would be convenient for growers (and hugely profitable for Monsanto) to kill all the weeds in a field with Roundup and then grow a crop on the treated soil without the need for weeding during the growing season. In 1996, Monsanto created soybean seeds and corn seeds that could do just that, known as Roundup-ready soybeans and Roundup- ready corn. Farmers could spray their fields with Roundup and then plant the Roundup-ready seeds for a productive and reliable harvest. This technology was incredibly successful. By 2014, most soy and corn grown around the country was genetically modified. In 2016, according to the USDA, 92% of corn and 94% of soybean crops planted in the US were genetically modified. Since the advent of Roundup-ready soy and Roundup-ready corn, Monsanto and other companies such as Dow and Dupont have created further GMO varieties, including sugar beets, canola, squash, and Hawaiian papaya. GMO varieties of wheat have also been the subject of experimentation, along with many other types of vegetables.

Unfortunately, as research has slowly accumulated, we are discovering that this biotechnology is not without significant health costs to all who eat these foods, including our cattle, chickens, and pigs, as well as our dogs and cats. Although the USDA declared GMO foods to be substantially equivalent to their non-GMO counterparts, the nutritional value of GMO foods is not equal to non-GMO food. This is at least in part due to the chelating properties of glyphosate. Glyphosate has been found to cause mineral depletion in the GMO soybeans and in other GMO plants.

Furthermore, GMO plants grown in soil treated with glyphosate absorb the chemical, depositing it in the plant’s cells. This means that there are traces of glyphosate in the soybeans and corn kernels used to feed our livestock and to produce processed foods—in other words, in the entire industrial food supply.

Glyphosate is an herbicide and has been found to be an effective antibiotic. In fact, in 2010, Monsanto received a patent for Roundup to be considered an antibiotic at concentrations as low as 1-2 mg per kg of body weight. But scientists have shown that glyphosate disrupts the microbiome. Eating foods laced with Roundup therefore can affect our digestion by killing off intestinal bacteria that produce nutrients and vitamins but also by binding to nutrients, making them unusable.

Damaging the microbiome does more to your health than affect your digestion or cause some diarrhea. A damaged microbiome has been associated with a hypersensitive immune system, resulting in asthma and increased allergies. The conclusion of some researchers is that celiac disease, also known as sprue, has little to do with gluten sensitivity, but more to do with a glyphosate-damaged microbiome. Know anyone with celiac disease? Twenty years ago, it was extremely rare. Today, it is unfortunately very common.

Perhaps one of the most concerning properties of glyphosate is that it does not get expelled with stool. After eating a vegetable or other food that contains glyphosate, some glyphosate will be absorbed by the intestine, where it can damage the intestinal lining. Glyphosate has been found in human urine and has been shown to bioaccumulate in the kidneys, liver, spleen, and muscles in animals. Once absorbed, glyphosate has been shown to disrupt the endocrine system. It has also been shown to induce breast cancer growth. Studies have shown that higher levels of glyphosate residue have been found in the urine of chronically ill people. In fact, the EPA website states that people drinking water containing more than 0.7 ppm of glyphosate may develop kidney problems and infertility.

Although the EPA acknowledges glyphosate as a food contaminant and has established legal residue limits, the FDA has been criticized for failing to disclose that they don’t test food for residues from glyphosate and many other commonly used pesticides. In addition, maximum residue levels (MRLs) have increased considerably over the years in the US and in other countries utilizing GMO technology in order to accommodate the new reality that glyphosate residue is ubiquitous within the food supply.

Some researchers have concluded that the widespread usage of herbicides and pesticides in produce has caused epidemics of inflammatory and degenerative diseases, as well as all kinds of cancer, autism, and obesity, which have developed over the past twenty years. Although many types of environmental toxins have been on the rise, the manipulation of our food supply has most likely had profound effects on society’s overall health.

See all our posts on food safety here

Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Digesting Food

how food is digested

Ever wonder how food is digested?

We eat it every day, but you may not have asked your why your body actually needs food. Yes, food can taste good, especially processed foods that have been designed to tweak your salt and sweet taste buds. (Do you think the flavor “salted caramel” is an accident?) But food has much more importance to us than the sensual pleasure of taste.

The food industry developed to feed people who were unable to grow their own food. As populations grew and more people moved to cities, the need to feed larger numbers of people increased. With increasing competition, food companies began to develop strategies to gain market share. Markets and supermarkets opened, providing all the food that had previously been purchased from individual vendors like the milkman, the farmer’s market, the butcher, etc. The results of this evolution are delicious, visually appealing food products that last a very long time on store shelves. The industrialization and “perfection” of whole foods like fruits and vegetables has also occurred over time. The oversized, perfectly shaped, shiny bright apple is by human design, not by natural selection.

But as biological organisms who developed in a natural world, our digestive systems are adapted to eat foods in their natural state or processed through heat or fermentation, not by industrial chemistry. Organs such as the pancreas have evolved to produce specific proteins called enzymes, which are secreted into the intestine to help us digest the food we eat. Chemically altered food may or may not be able to be digested by this set of enzymes and instead may be evacuated partially digested or undigested. Synthetic chemicals can create havoc on the beneficial bacteria lining the system. In addition, depending on the integrity of the cells lining the tract, some of these manmade molecules may be absorbed into the bloodstream.

How Food Is Digested: The Anatomy/Physiology

The system responsible for how food is digested is called the digestive system. The digestive system typically begins as food enters a long tube at an orifice in your face called a mouth. From there, food passes through many compartments, including the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine. Waste material typically exits your body through the anus. Surgical techniques can alter this arrangement at any step along the way. The digestive tract is not pretty, but its basic function isn’t too complicated to understand.

In your mouth, the mechanical process of chewing grinds and macerates food into smaller bits. While chewing, food is moistened with saliva, which not only softens the food, but also begins the digestion of starches. Your tongue, given the presence of numerous taste buds all along its surface, is able to provide sensation to your brain about the quality of the food in your mouth before you swallow it. Is it sweet? Sour? Salty? Bitter? A combination of these?

Once swallowed, the food travels through the esophagus and into the stomach, where it usually sits for several hours while it contracts and churns, mixing with acid and enzymes to begin the digestion of proteins. A muscular ring, called a sphincter, which separates the top of the stomach from the esophagus, is normally tightly closed during this process to prevent refluxing of the acids and food material back into the esophagus.

Once the food is sufficiently mashed up, the chyme, as it is now referred to, passes out of the stomach, a bit at a time, and into the first portion of the small intestine, called the duodenum. As this happens, two different fluids, bile and pancreatic juice, empty into the duodenum through a duct. Both fluids mix with the chyme to help further digest it. Bile emulsifies fats, breaking them down into their components, fatty acids and glycerol. The pancreatic enzymes work on breaking down proteins, fats, and starches into their building-block components. Lactase, the enzyme able to break down the milk protein lactose, is one of the pancreatic enzymes released.

The resulting mixture passes through many feet of small intestine, which provides plenty of time and surface area for the food materials to break down into their molecular components. Once these molecules are small enough, the resulting peptides (or amino acids), sugars, and fatty acids are able to pass through the lining of the small intestine and into a bloodstream that leads directly to the liver.

The liver is a very complex organ with hundreds of functions, but you can think of it as a gatekeeper that regulates the amounts of sugar, fat, and protein that are allowed to pass into the bloodstream. From the components it receives from the small intestine, the liver assembles various proteins, fats, and cholesterol. Along with the pancreas, the liver is also involved with carbohydrate metabolism, or the storage and release of sugars into the bloodstream. The liver also very importantly acts as a toxin waste dump for those materials that pass through the lining of our intestines but aren’t supposed to gain access to the rest of our body. We can survive without portions of the liver, but our bodies cannot survive without some functioning liver tissue.

Materials that are not able to pass through the wall of the small intestine collect in the large intestine, also referred to as the colon. The large intestine has three main functions. One is to act like a sponge and absorb excess water so we don’t dehydrate. When the colon is irritated and not functioning properly, it doesn’t absorb as it should and we can end up with diarrhea. Billions of bacteria also live in the large intestine, making it a very important part of the microbiome (the individual collection of bacteria that lines our guts, airways, and skin). These bacteria consume the food residue that passes by, and in exchange provide us with important minerals and vitamins including vitamin K and biotin. The third important function of the colon is to absorb these vitamins, which are important for good health. The colon creates a solid material from the undigested remainder, referred to as stool, which passes into the rectum, where it is stored in preparation for evacuation through the anus.

In short, the answer to the question of how food is digested is this: Our digestive systems, by utilizing chemical and mechanical processes, enable our bodies to break down foods into their components, absorb the nutrients, and expel the waste. Nutrients from the food we eat are absorbed through the small intestine, and the large intestine absorbs water, along with the vitamins and minerals released by bacteria.

Our bodies are composed of trillions of cells which are continually performing their daily functions: making proteins, reproducing, and dying. Nutrients, including fatty acids, cholesterol, amino acids/peptides, sugars, vitamins, and minerals, are needed to create more DNA and the material to build more cells. Without the influx of nutrients, our cells cannot function or reproduce and will eventually die. With prolonged starvation, organs fail and eventually, the whole body will die. Dietary sugars, fats, and proteins are all important foodstuffs we need for normal metabolism.

See all our posts on food safety here

Indoor Air Toxins 101: The Benefits of Aromatherapy

benefits of aromatherapy

Aromatherapy is not used to hide unpleasant odors. Rather, it is a form of alternative medicine that uses plant extracts and aromatic plant oils to alter one’s mood and improve cognitive, psychological, and physical well-being. Among the other benefits of aromatherapy, it allows the body’s immune system to strengthen and improves one’s ability to heal. Aromatherapy has become a large field of study, with the goal of creating balance of the body, mind, and spirit.

Many companies capitalizing on the “fad” of aromatherapy have created synthetic fragrances and infused their oils and candles with them, instead of using genuine plant material. Chemists may tell you that the active ingredient in the synthetic variety is the same as in the plant extract, but those who use these products will tell you that the physiological effects are not the same. Not only are the benefits of the aromatherapy reportedly lost in synthetic production, the synthetic varieties generate VOCs, which can degrade air quality instead of enhancing it!

Medical research on the benefits of aromatherapy is limited, but growing. These products are not regulated by the FDA, so if you decide to try out aromatherapy for your home, make sure you purchase genuine plant extract materials and essential oils. Aromatherapy oils can be placed on dryer balls, placed into diffusers, mixed with beeswax in candles, or dripped onto potpourri.

The Lampe Berger is a unique form of diffuser which has been around since 1898, when it was first created by a Parisian pharmacist named Maurice Berger. According to its manufacturer’s website, this diffuser was initially conceived as a way to limit the spread of sepsis within hospitals by purifying the air. These products are not used in hospitals anymore but are mainly used in businesses and in homes, where they rid a room of undesirable odors and produce a subtle relaxing fragrance. I have enjoyed using a Lampe Berger for many years. Different fragrances can be used to create different moods in different rooms. These diffusers have not been found to produce benzene, styrene, naphthalene, formaldehyde, or acetaldehyde. They do produce some ozone, but at safe levels.

I’d recommend investigating the benefits of aromatherapy. Choose an appealing fragrance and pick a method of dispersion. Try it and see how you feel with its use. With clean, optimized air, your home will truly become a refuge, a place to relax.

See all the posts in this series on airborne toxins in your home:
Indoor Air Toxins 101: The Basics of Indoor Pollution
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding How We Breathe
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding Indoor Air Pollution
Indoor Air Toxins 101: The Dangers of Candles
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Reducing Indoor Black Soot
Indoor Air Toxins 101: VOCs, Asbestos and Lead
Indoor Air Toxins 101: Understanding Mold & Health