Food is inherently controversial. People disagree over everything from what is healthy to what is tasty. And with controversy comes misinformation so we're tackling some very common misconceptions about current food issues.
Misconception #1: There are antibiotics in your food.
With roughly 80% of antibiotics sold in the US going to the food industry, the role of livestock production in the antibiotic resistance crisis is hugely important. However, it’s not antibiotics in our meat, milk and eggs that we should be worried about. It’s worse than that. Negligible amounts of antibiotics may make it onto your plate, but the antibiotic-resistant bacteria cultivated by sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics administered to livestock survive at a much higher rate. This bacteria is being consumed by people and then multiplying to the point where antibiotics may be ineffective when they become ill. Consider that about 23,000 people in the US will die this year from infections of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The issue is more urgent than we think.
Misconception #2: Growth hormone use
I frequently hear people say “chicken” and “growth hormones” in the same sentence and I have to resist my inflated sense of duty to correct them and to silently remind myself that this person might not really care whether their chicken was treated with hormones. The fact is that hormone use is prevalent among beef and dairy cattle, but it is illegal to treat poultry or swine with hormones, and has been so for decades. The almost mutant appearance of many chickens compared to their 20th-century ancestors is attributable to extreme breeding protocols.
Misconception #3: Organic is pesticide-free.
USDA Organic means a few basic things: produced without GMOs, antibiotics, hormones, or certain pesticides/herbicides/fertilizer. You heard right: pesticide use is allowed in organic agriculture; it’s just that the list of organic-approved pesticides is shorter than the list of approved pesticides for conventional (non-organic) agriculture. The main criteria for organic-approved pesticides (or other soil amendments like fertilizer) are that they are naturally derived and do not persist in the environment for too long. They still kill pests and they still may be toxic to your health. That is not to undermine the importance of organic agriculture. Keep in mind that pesticides and soil amendments are not inherently bad. Try growing vegetables in your yard without adding anything to the soil, then imagine doing that for a living.
Misconception #4: "Vegetarian-fed" is best.
You typically see the phrase “vegetarian-fed” on poultry, eggs and pork as if it’s an indicator of high quality, but it’s just the opposite. Like humans, birds and pigs are omnivores, meaning that in nature they would seek out plant- and animal-based sources of food for good health. “Vegetarian-fed” meat became desirable because of the mad cow scare as a way to assure people that the animals were not eating their own kind. Vegetarian-fed chicken is definitely preferable to chicken that was fed feather meal (which is a common practice), but it’s not the best option if you want optimal nutrition from your food. (If you're wondering, the best option is chickens and pigs that supplement their feed with critters and plants from the pasture.)
Misconception #5: There’s no sense in spending more on a gallon of grass-fed anything.
Look at a gallon of conventional (grain-fed) milk and a gallon of grass-fed milk, and they might appear to have the same nutritional profile, but that's misleading. This misconception is partially perpetuated by the simplistic nutrition facts label and is enjoyed by industrial livestock farmers. Here’s some of what the nutrition facts label ignore:
• Omega-3's: the grass-fed milk has the ideal balance of omega-3's and omega-6's (1:1), while the grain-fed milk ratio is about 1:6. Such an imbalance of omega-3's to omega-6's in the human body can lead to, among other things, cancer and cardiovascular disease.
• Other healthy fats: grass-fed milk has five times more cancer-fighting conjugated linoleic acid than the conventional
• Essential vitamins: concentrations of vitamins A (crucial for healthy skin, teeth, bones and eyesight) and K2 (important for moving calcium to the right parts of your body) are significantly higher for grass-fed foods.
• Stress hormones (produced during the trauma of transport and slaughter) and antibiotic-resistant bacteria: both of these are likely contents of industrially produced animal products and have a negative impact on your health. Fortunately, they are generally absent from pasture-based production operations, where sustainability and animal welfare come first.
All things considered, is the conventional milk really the best value?
Squashing misinformation is paramount if we want to improve the food system effectively. If we're going to be on the same team, we have to be on the same page.