Special to GNH Blog – GMOs: Genetically Modified Organisms

This is a Special to the GNH Blog written by Lisa Halliwell, GNH Blogger/ Community Journalist and local dietitian.

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Today I’m switching up my usual food conversation and focusing on a huge change that is occurring in the way we conventionally grow foods. Since the beginning of the agricultural revolution humans have only been able to manipulate plants by selectively picking and breeding the best crops. This is a slow process but eventually farmers can produce the crops that they desire. However, there has recently been a revolution in the way plants can be adapted and “improved” at an increasing speed. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are a hot topic these days and there seems to be a lot of contention between both sides of this issue. On the one side, pro-GMO groups claim that GMOs are the answer to world hunger. However, the flip side argues that there may be long-term health and environmental impacts by growing and consuming GMO-containing crops. So when the facts are laid on the table, is the hesitation justified?

Let’s start off by defining genetically modified organisms. GMOs are plants or animals whose genetic material has been artificially altered. The original goal for creating GMOs was to solve hunger issues around the world by creating insect-resistant crops in order to increase yields and decrease cost. Additionally, GMOs have the capacity to address nutritional deficiencies in developing countries. For example: what if we could produce draught-resistant crops that would allow production of life-saving foods in developing countries? Or what if we could grow produce that would resist bruising or delay ripening until it reached its destination on the other side of the world? Sounds great, doesn’t it? But what’s the catch? The fact is that GMOs have not been around long enough to complete long-term studies and thus, we don’t know the long-term consequences of growing and eating GMO products.

In 1994 the FDA approved the first GMO crop, Flavr Savr Tomato. Since then GMOs have made their way into many products. In fact, 90% or more of soy, corn, sugar beets, and rapeseed are made from GMOs in the United States and Canada. What you might not realize is that avoiding these crops is very difficult if you purchase processed and ready-made products. These products contain ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, soy lecithin, and soy isolate, which are ultimately made from these modified crops. In fact, most animal feed contains GMOs, so if you’re purchasing poultry and meat that doesn’t specify how the animals were raised, then in theory you’re also consuming GMOs through their diet.

One big problem in the United States and Canada is that GMO-containing foods do not have to be labeled as such. In most developed countries, these products have to be identified for the consumer. In fact in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, GMOs have been banned until further studies have been conducted. As far as I’m concerned, GMOs have a long way to go before they’re on my list of approved food products. I’m all for supporting a product that helps developing communities access food and nutrients that they would otherwise not be able to grow. However, establishing safe and environmentally-friendly solutions takes time and the necessary studies have to be conducted.

Keep in mind that with everything I discuss, it’s up to you to decide what you are going to feed yourself and your family. The difficulty with GMOs is they are often hidden in products. The only way to be certain that you are not eating a GMO-containing product is to buy certified organic products and of course this is expensive and limiting. You may want to consider avoiding ready-made products that likely contain the crops mentioned above that most often contain GMOs; this will at least eliminate some of your exposure. You could also consider starting your own garden and ask your local garden store if their plants and seeds are GMO-free. This is also in line with the same message I regularly try to get across, which is to make your own food from whole ingredients so you know exactly what’s going into your body. If anything, I hope that this dialogue opens your eyes to the industrialized world that we live in and helps you make informed decisions, whatever those decisions may be.

Sincerely,

Lisa


Special to GNH Blog – Organic Food: Does It Live Up To The Hype?

This is a Special to the GNH Blog written by Lisa Halliwell, GNH Blogger/ Community Journalist and local dietitian.

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The road to understanding how our food system works is long and hard. At the end of the Second World War, the world saw an opportunity to help everyday families spend less time in the kitchen and more time at work; we rapidly turned something as simple as food into a massively complex and profitable business. Before industrialized farming there was no need to label foods as “organic” because this was really the only way to practice farming. However, with the incoming of industrialized farming, there also came the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, growth hormones, antibiotics, and eventually genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Once this happened, not only did consumers have to worry about what ingredients were in their processed foods but they also had to be concerned with how their food was grown.

Before we can get into the pros and cons of choosing organically produced foods, we first have to understand what organic means. Organic is defined by the farming practice by which foods are produced. Organic foods are grown without man-made pesticides or fertilizers, growth hormones, antibiotics, or GMOs. Animals that are raised organically are also fed exclusively organic feed. Every country has its own specific guidelines on organic labeling. In Canada, the federal government created The Canada Organic Regime in 2009 to implement regulations on organic agriculture within the country. Among many parameters on farming practices, a product that bears the certified organic logo must also contain at least 95% organic ingredients. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is responsible for monitoring and enforcing these regulations. Unfortunately the certification itself is quite expensive which prohibits some smaller farms from attaining the documents. I’ll speak more to this later on in the post.

Is organic more nutritious? There is not enough scientific evidence to suggest that eating organic is more nutritious than eating their non-organic equivalents. Although there are some studies that show slightly higher amounts of certain micronutrients in specific fruits and vegetables, there isn’t reason to believe that these higher levels improve overall nutrition and health. There are so many different factors that affect the nutritional content of foods, including soil quality, climate, harvest technique and timing, processing, travel time, and storage. All of these factors play a role in the nutrition profile of fruits and vegetables, which ultimately makes it difficult to conduct these studies.

What about pesticides? When it comes to pesticides, organic foods might have lower levels of pesticide residue on the final products. Pesticide use in non-organic farming is strictly regulated and upper limits are set at safe levels to reduce harm whether you are eating organic foods or not. Regardless of the farming practice, all your fruits and veggies should be washed under cold running water before eating or cooking to remove any residue.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) created a list called The Dirty Dozen that specifies fruits and vegetables with the highest amount of pesticide residue. Generally speaking, these fruits and veggies have thinner skins and outer layers that are edible, which makes them more susceptible to having higher pesticide residue. The EWG also put together a list of fruits and vegetables with the least amount of residue found on final produce grown with non-organic practices. This list is called The Clean Fifteen.

 

Why would you choose to farm or buy organic? The goal of organic practices is to protect the environment by minimizing damage to the surrounding plants, animals, soil, and air, as well as to promote health for farm animals and consumers. Farmers are able to meet these values by practicing crop rotation and avoiding the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, hormones, or antibiotics. Organic principles also strive to maintain biodiversity of plants and allow animals the freedom to behave naturally. For the larger part of history, these goals have been the norm, not the exception, albeit likely because we previously didn’t have the technology to industrially produce food.

Is organic equivalent to sustainable agriculture? Generally speaking, organic farming usually means sustainable practices. However, it is important to understand the differences between the two because organic farming can be done unsustainably and as previously mentioned, sustainable farming can be done without being certified as organic. The major difference is that organic is a certification a farmer or company can obtain, whereas sustainable agriculture is more of a philosophy. As consumers have become more aware of food production practices in the last decade, the demand for organic products has been on the rise. Not surprisingly, large food corporations have jumped on the organic bandwagon and are now making a large profit under their organic brand names. Even large grocery stores are creating their own organic brands to get in on the profits. Unfortunately this means that the reliability of organic standards is starting to disappear. Large companies are cutting corners and meeting minimum standards to slash production costs and lower selling prices enough to attract consumers but also to cut out small farmers from the business. Moreover, sustainable agriculture ensures that goods are sold as close to the farm as possible in order to reduce their carbon footprint. Unfortunately, organic regulations don’t limit food mileage, so large companies are producing organic foods that must travel thousands of miles to be sold in grocery stores around the country.

I know it seems like I’m giving industrialized organic farming two thumbs down, but I have to admit that it’s not all bad news. These large corporations are bringing awareness to the negative impacts that pesticides and synthetic fertilizers have on the environment, as well as the negative impacts that growth hormones, antibiotics, and GMOs have on humans and livestock. Just keep in mind that even though a product is certified organic, it does not mean that it is healthy for you. There are plenty of organic cookies, granola bars and cold cereals out there, among other processed foods, which are just as nutritionally empty as their non-organic equivalents.

The bottom line is that we should be eating fruits and veggies at every meal, whether they are organically produced or otherwise. Unfortunately our reality is that certified organic products are more expensive and many people are not in the position to buy entirely organic or even to buy organic at all. There are however some ways to start heading in the right direction. Choosing locally produced food allows you the opportunity to meet the farmer. Many small farms practice organic techniques that are sustainable. This means that you are likely getting the benefits of organic practices, as well as eating in season. A few great ways to connect with your local farmers are through farmers markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) programs. We know that foods are nutritionally superior when they are in season and when they don’t have to travel far from the farm to get to your plate. By buying local and in season, you can usually get a better price at the time of purchase. Having a freezer is a great way to store fruits and veggies in the high season so that you have a good supply throughout the winter months. No matter how you choose to feed yourselves, it’s important that you understand which farming practices are out there so that you can use your food dollars wisely to better nourish your body and to support practices that you believe in.

Sincerely,

Lisa


Special to GNH Blog – Decoding The Nutrition Label

This is a Special to the GNH Blog written by Lisa Halliwell, GNH Blogger/ Community Journalist and local dietitian.

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Ideally, I would like this post to be a two-second read – don’t eat prepackaged foods! This way, you wouldn’t need to learn how to read nutrition labels. Unfortunately, this isn’t our reality. As much as I would like everyone (including myself) to make all of their foods from scratch, we know that’s not possible in this day and age. Besides the fact that it takes TIME to prepare the staples in our diets, it also requires skill. Over the last few years I have learned to make foods like yogurt, chicken broth, and bread, so I don’t have to rely on their commercially made counterparts. However, there are still foods that I buy premade, and will likely continue to purchase in the foreseeable future. For this reason, we need to understand what nutrition labels are and how to read them.

Nutrition labels are legally required to be on most packaged items in Canada and must appear in a specified format. You won’t find labels on fresh fruits and veggies, raw meat and poultry (unless it’s ground), raw fish and seafood, foods prepared/processed at a store (e.g. bakery items, salads), foods with only a few ingredients (e.g. tea, coffee, spices), and alcoholic beverages. It’s important to understand a few basic concepts about label reading so that you can a) have a good idea of what kinds and quantities of nutrients are found in different products, and b) compare different brands of the same product to make the most informed purchase. Label reading becomes more important when health problems require you to keep tabs on specific nutrients.

Look at the serving size: The serving size is probably the most important component to check for on a nutrition label. This indicates the volume of food on which the nutrient table is based. Realistically think about how much you will actually eat at one sitting and compare it to the serving size; if the answer is double, then you have to double all of the quantities of the nutrients listed below. Companies don’t have to adhere to a standard serving size, so a loaf of bread can be labeled per 1 slice or 2 slices. Remember that the so-called “junk foods” tend to have smaller serving sizes than are normally consumed, so you will likely have to double or even triple the nutrition information listed to get an accurate idea of what you are eating.

Calories: The first section of the label contains the amount of calories per serving size. People tend to get caught up in the calories because the school of thought is that calories in must equal calories out in order to maintain weight. However, it is not that simple. Calorie counting can help with weight goals, but it is really the quality of the calories that counts. Your body requires essential nutrients that are used for repair, maintenance and growth, and that can only be done if you feed your self with nutrient rich foods. By eating a food of equal calories but devoid of nutrients, you’re doing your body a disservice and likely will not meet or maintain your health goals.

Nutrient breakdown: Thirteen core nutrients must be represented on the label in terms of grams and percent daily value. The nutrients listed include fat (saturated, trans, cholesterol), sodium, carbohydrate (fibre, sugars), protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. Other nutrients can be added on the label, but they are optional according to government regulations. The grams indicate the actual weight of the nutrient in the product, per serving size. This can be hard to put into context if you are new at reading labels, but it does give you a platform to compare products to each other. The percent daily value is based on a 2000-calorie diet of an “average” adult. It tells us how much of the recommended daily intake is provided in a serving of a certain product. For example, if a product contains 75 mg of sodium per ¾ cup serving, you will be consuming 3% of the required sodium needed for an average adult in one day. Although the theory behind this calculation is logical, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for the majority of the population. Caloric requirements change depending on age, gender, physical activity, health issues, health goals, and much more. A good rule of thumb to follow is that 5% of the daily value is a small amount of a nutrient, and 15% is a large amount. For some nutrients, like fibre and calcium, we want a higher quantity in our packaged items, whereas we are looking for a lower number when it comes to trans-fats. Comparison-shopping allows us to choose the healthier option, even though it still might not be the ideal choice.

What about nutrition claims? Nutrition claims are regulated statements that provide some insight into what nutrients are provided in a product. Nutrition claims are optional for food companies to display, but are regularly used more as a marketing ploy to attract consumers than to help consumers choose healthier options. Nutrition claims include “low fat,” “sodium-free,” “source of fibre,” and “gluten-free.” We must be critical when we read these statements. A corn tortilla package might read “gluten-free” but we have to remember that corn never contained gluten in the first place! This is just a marketing technique to encourage people to choose the “healthy” food option based on trending diets, even though gluten-free is not necessarily the healthier choice.

Understanding nutrition labels has become a necessity in the 21st century. We have to understand that food companies use the cheapest raw ingredients possible to make products that are still attractive and tasty to the consumer. This means that tons of sugar, salt, fat, and preservatives are added to foods that normally wouldn’t require such ingredients. As I continue to reinforce, you’re better off reading the ingredient list in packaged items. As a rule of thumb, limit the amount of ingredients that you can’t pronounce – they’re likely foods that can’t be found in any household pantry around the world and therefore shouldn’t be regularly consumed. We have to stop being passive consumers and start making informed choices about our health and our food system.

Sincerely,

Lisa


Welcome to the New GNH Community Advisory Board Chair, James Kim!

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by Scott Douglas Jacobsen.

Gordon Neighbourhood House (GNH) is thrilled to welcome the new Chair of GNH Community Advisory Board, James Kim! As part of the annual election for positions on the board of GNH, James will fill the position. The previous chair, Matt Schroeter, stepped down from the role to contribute to GNH in different ways. We appreciate the service of Matt and James.

James has been profiled in a previous GNH Blog post about the branding of the GNH, What’s in a Brand? Community Journalist Gavin Reid Explores the Gordon Neighbourhood House Rebranding Process. At the time, James said, “It is important to create a good first impression. A brand reflects personality and helps make it recognizable in different environments.”

James notes that the huge increase in visitors to GNH since 2012. James is curious about the world and the local, and wider, Vancouver culture as well, especially related to food. He likes to eat. He likes to cook. He likes to share meals. A perfect fit for the GNH community!

He has been associated with GNH for some time as the Communications Consultant (since November, 2012). Even before GNH, he knew Paul Taylor. He heard about the GNH when Paul became the executive director. “Gordon Neighbourhood House was also a good place for me insofar as the catchment area, which is the Downtown Peninsula,” James said, “I’ve been living here for the last 12 years. That worked out for me.”

For the role as the chair, James will be involved in meetings, fundraising efforts, meeting with the city, signing various documents for grants, and so on. “With certain types of grants, for example, there is a request that along with the executive director or staff at Gordon Neighbourhood House there is an indication of endorsement from the advisory board,” James said, “Usually, that would be the chair signing.”

James wants the board to be as inclusive and representative of the community members that GNH is integrated into as much as possible. He wants the conversation of poverty reduction and food security between the community, the city, and the province to continue. James stated that GNH is an important part of that movement to “try and make the world a better place.”

“It has to do with trying to keep the conversation going with a poverty reduction strategy, food security…for everyone from elders to students,” James said, “As part of that strategic goal I think GNH is doing a great job of speaking to the right people and hopefully making a bit of an impact.”

He described the community, and the energy that “informs and influences the GNH,” as his favourite part of the neighbourhood house community. That is, GNH is a community hub or a “home away from home.” James has been touched most by attending some of the volunteer events.

When his parents came to Canada in the late 1960s, they did not have jobs. They weren’t quite food insecure but options were limited. There was less of a Korean-Canadian community compared to today. And there was no such as a neighbourhood house such as GNH and its outreach programs. GNH is good because it can bring people in.

“When I sit down with people, in some cases, I feel like it is revisiting an opportunity when we were young, or my parents were young,” James said, “I feel it is an amazing thing that we are able to do this, to be frank, with the limited resources that we have at neighbourhood houses.”

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Gordon Neighbourhood House Community Journalist/Blogger. He founded In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing.