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Food scientist debunks ‘myths’ about a crisis in U.S. food production

February 6th, 2011 Posted in Arts and Life

By Heidi Hansen

LOGAN—Feeding 3.1 million people from backyard gardens just isn’t possible, said a leading food and nutrition expert who visited USU to rebut claims made in the controversial 2009 documentary film Food, Inc.

In a presentation titled “Feeding a Nation: Reality vs. Fallacy,” Roger Clemens, president-elect of the Institute of Food Technologists and chief scientific officer at E.T. Horn Co., a raw materials and chemicals company based in southern California, debunked what he called myths about the food industry and offered advice for healthy eating.

“A lot of what we hear [about food] is based on emotion,” Clemens said to a crowd of about 50 people, “but I want to look at the evidence.”

USU Professor Donald McMahon, head of the nutrition, dietetics and food sciences department and director of the Western Dairy Center, arranged the event as a way for students to learn more about the Institute of Food Technologists, which is a professional organization they can join.

“These are issues that need to be discussed in a public arena,” McMahon said. “How do you efficiently feed people? We are still in the process of learning all that foods can do.”

Clemens, who also teaches at the University of Southern California, discounted the controversies over food safety raised in the movie Food, Inc. “I’d rather feed the world and focus on politics later,” he said.

During the discussion, students raised questions about American domination of the agriculture market, and genetically modified food practices. Though these are valid issues, Clemens said, his expertise is in food science, not public policy.

“Today is a new environment with new challenges,” he said. “One of those challenges is the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act.  It brings new authority and a new day to the food industry.”

Clemens said that, with the passage of this bill, food prices are expected to rise, but the safety and quality of food will also rise. Currently there are not enough inspectors at the federal Food and Drug Administration to provide close oversight of many food industries, he said, but the bill will mandate regular inspections of food producers.

In recent years, Americans have been sickened by ecoli outbreaks, and last Fall hundreds of thousands of eggs were recalled after violations were discovered at DeCoster Farms, one of the nation’s largest egg producers.

Clemens also said that when the FDA’s budget is increased, students can expect to see more jobs available in both food inspection and safety and in food biotechnology.

“We need to get rid of politics in the food industry,” Clemens said, “and focus on technology and what we can do with it.”

A main theme in the film Food, Inc. concerns the practices used on factory farms. Food, Inc. claims that most of the 10 billion animals raised and slaughtered annually for U.S. food consumption live under inhumane conditions. The documentary featured graphic footage of suffering animals in slaughterhouses and chicken coops.

Clemens had little to say on this subject. When asked if Americans should be worried about slaughterhouses, he replied that the film showed only worse-case scenarios, which he said are the exception, not the rule.

“There are those [producers] that follow regulation and those that don’t,” Clemens said. “Currently there are not enough personnel to enforce the regulations on everyone.”

Clemens also commented on issues of food additives and genetically altered food. “Isn’t it interesting that we accept change in technology in every area of our life except food?” he said.

In Food, Inc. viewers are encouraged to purchase organic foods grown within 100 miles of their home as a way to eat more nutritiously, support the local economy, reduce pollution and transportation costs, and avoid the harmful side effects of pesticides used in most traditional farming.

Clemens argues that purchasing organic foods is pointless and not cost-effective for the consumer. He says that the vitamin difference between organic food and regular or genetically modified food is either insignificant or non-existent.

He also claimed that organic food is simply grown with different kinds of pesticides. These pesticides are approved by the FDA as “natural,” but are generally just as potent as other pesticides, he said. He added that there is no clear regulatory definition of “natural.”

Clemens, who was responsible for the safety portion of the FDA dietary guidelines, also wanted to discuss suggestions from Food, Inc. that people should grow and share food from their own gardens as a viable way to feed the nation.

He said its fine for gardeners to feed their own families, but the absence of regulation becomes problematic when they begin selling their food to others. There is no way to know if the food was grown safely, Clemens said.

“Nothing is absolutely safe,” Clemens said, “but we can try to make it better.” He said that biotechnology has the potential to drastically change human diets, making them more efficient and nutritious.

He concluded that consumers shouldn’t be afraid of genetically modified foods, which are already consumed in heavy amounts in the U.S., because studies have shown no harmful effects from them.

Food, Inc. also makes a connection between high-fructose corn syrup and obesity in America. But Clemens said there is no evidence of cause-and-effect. The only thing to blame for obesity is lack of exercise combined with high caloric intake, he said, adding that high-fructose corn syrup is no different from any other sugar.

“It’s all mind games,” Clemens said, about arguments against high-fructose corn syrup. “It used to be that we didn’t want sucrose, but now sucrose is okay.”

Clemens also talked about the idea that all saturated fatty acids and trans-fats contribute to heart disease. He says this is not so, as each compound acts differently. For example, he said that steric acid, which is a saturated fat, acts neutrally in the body and can be used in baked goods to replace trans-fats, making them healthier.

He also commented on sodium chloride—or salt. “It’s actually an essential nutrient,” he said. “When it comes to salt it’s all about balance, moderation and variety.”

Clemens said that when talking about dietary guidelines it’s important to send a positive message instead of handing out a list of things people shouldn’t eat.

McMahon agreed, saying that “policies are pushed based on emotion, but it makes diets worse when we tell people to avoid certain foods.”

So what’s on Clemens’ own grocery list?

“I don’t avoid anything at the store,” he said. “I’m not trying to get organic food, though.”

He said that he’s a frugal shopper and tries to shop consistent with the dietary guidelines, which for him means eating fish, lots of fruits and veggies, and drinking non-fat milk.


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