Go LOW for health and sustainability

by Jessica Njaa

After enduring a medical issue, Jessica Njaa became increasingly interested in researching how food affects health, and the environmental aspect of food choices. She is an Honors student at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and is currently pursuing a Bachelors of Science in Environment & Society.

sadnessMost Americans are suffering from SAD– the Standard American Diet. This diet consists of highly processed, mass-produced foods grown with unsustainable practices. Processed foods generally have lowered nutritional quality and are usually not organic. Eating such foods increases the risk of a multitude of health problems. The diet is not sustainable, with a large footprint and energy basis. We are beginning to understand as a society that we have a major impact on the environment, and are using energy and fossil fuels in an unsustainable way. So what are the solutions? We have the power to make the change by Going LOW!

What are LOW foods? LOW foods are Local, Organic, Whole, and Low on the food chain. To GoLOW is to change the diet to include eating LOW foods for health and environmental sustainability.

Why Local?

happychildrenA diet consisting of local foods is healthier and more sustainable than one that has greater food-miles. A local diet is generally healthier as it is more nutritious. Producers that sell food locally tend to harvest the food later, when it is closer to being at perfect ripeness. Studies show that tomatoes picked at full ripeness have the highest levels of carotenoids compared to those picked at other times (Erba et al., 2013; Raffo et al., 2002). In another study, peaches were found to have their best nutrients at late harvest (Remorini et al., 2008).

Less storage time means that more nutrients stay in the food. Local food has shorter travel times, and we eat it soon after harvest. This allows the most nutrients to reach us, because fresh foods tend to lose their nutritional value over time (Lee & Kader, 2000).

truecostofcontainermileLocal food is more sustainable, since less food-miles saves energy.  Because local food travels a shorter distance, it requires less energy to reach the consumer. A study shows that buying locally can also reduce greenhouse gases from food production by 4-5% (Weber & Matthews, 2008). It is best to buy local only for the food crops that are in season for your area, otherwise the energy-savings is minimal (Sim, Barry, Clift, & Cowell, 2007; Wallgren, 2006). Buying food seasonally also tends to be cheaper.

Why Organic?

pesticidesResearch consistently shows that organic is better than conventional foods for many reasons. First, organic foods have greater health benefits and fewer toxins. Organic varieties of food crops tends to have higher levels of flavonoids and other good nutrients, and lower levels of nitrates, which are harmful to health, than crops that are grown conventionally (Koh, Charoenprasert, & Mitchell, 2012; Mitchell et al., 2007; Worthington, 2004). Organic crops are also grown without the use of pesticides and artificial fertilizers. When these chemicals are applied to crops, some of the chemicals are absorbed into the food of the crop. Studies have shown that herbicides such as Roundup, which is used commonly for conventional crops, are toxic to human health, even at levels lower than what is allowed to be in the food that goes out to consumers (Gasnier et al., 2009; Richard, Moslemi, Sipahutar, Benachour, & Seralini, 2005; Vendomois, Roullier, Cellier, & Seralini, 2009). By choosing organic, you lower your chances of allowing these chemicals into your body. For example,organic dairy cows are not fed the rBGH growth hormone, thus their milk is also void of it.  Dairy cows that are raised organically tend to have cleaner living conditions, which leads to better milk quality than that of conventional cows (Ellis, 2007).

organicoilChoosing organic foods also benefits the Earth by improving sustainability of our food system. Chemicals from non-organic crops do more than negatively affect human health. Chemicals from conventional farms also affect the surrounding environment, both in the atmosphere and in streams (Battaglin, Kolpin, Scribner, Kuivila, Sanstrom, 2007; Chang, Simcik, Capel, 2011).  Despite the arguments that GM (genetically modified) crops cut the need for pesticides, studies show that GM crops have actually increased pesticide use over the years, which is another reason to choose organic, non-GMO produce (Benbrook, 2012). Once the pesticides leak into the surrounding environment, they have toxic, and sometimes fatal, affects on wildlife, reducing biodiversity and natural pest control (Geiger et al., 2010; Lushchak, Kubrak, J. Storey, K. Storey, & Lushchak, 2009; Relyea, 2005; Tsui & Chu, 2003). Organic farms create less impacts on most wildlife, and still have a negative effect on pests resulting from the increased number of the pests’ predators in the area (Bengtsson, Ahnstrom, Weibull, 2005).

In most cases, organic food production also requires less energy use than that of conventional, especially for animal products (Gronroos, Seppala, Voutilainen, Seuri, Kokkalainen, 2006).

Why Whole?

happyvegiesProcessed foods lose many of the nutrients found in their whole counterparts, especially if that processing involves any kind of heat applied to the food, including frying and canning (Hoffmann-Ribani, Huber, & Rodriguez, 2009; Jastrebova, Witthoft, Grahn, Svensson, & Jagerstad, 2003; Lee & Kader, 2000; Prochaska, Nguyen, Donat, & Piekutoski, 2000; Sahlin, Savage, & Lister, 2004; Somsub, Kongkachuichai, Sungpuag, & Charoensiri, 2008). Processed foods also generally have unhealthy ingredients added to them, either intentionally for flavor enhancement or preservation, or unintentionally just by the way the food is processed. Monosodium glutamate (MSG), a common flavor enhancer, was found to cause obesity, diabetes, and liver damage in mice (Nakanishi et al., 2008). High-fructose corn syrup, a sweetener added to most processed foods, contributes to obesity and many other health problems such as liver disease and kidney damage (Bocarsly, Powell, Avena, Hoebel, 2010; L. Ferder, M. Ferder, Inserra, 2012). Other additives, such as dyes, BHA, and BHT, also have proven to be toxic to the human body (Kahl & Kappus, 1993; Sasaki et al., 2002). Heat processing of foods creates within them a carcinogen called Acrylamide, and when consumed, most of it is absorbed by the body and can increase cancer risk (Dybing & Sanner, 2003; Tarek, Rydberg, Karlsson, Eriksson, & Tornqvist, 2002; U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2002-2006).

Processing foods also requires extra, unnecessary energy usage before consuming the food. When food is eaten in its natural state, there is no need for any more energy to be put into that food.

Why Low?

prosperousgardensLow foods are low on the food chain, thus consisting of either plants or low trophic level seafood. Low foods benefit health in two ways–plant-based foods are healthier than animal products, and accumulate less environmental toxins. A diet consisting mainly of plant-based foods is healthier than one that has many animal products. Research consistently shows that diets with high amounts of fruits and vegetables have lower risk of cancer and other health problems, and can even help in treating existing conditions (Barnard et al., 2006; Leitzmann, 2005; Potter, 1997). Similarly, diets low in red meat specifically have lower risk of cancer (Norat, Lukanova, Ferrari, & Riboli, 2002). Diets lower on the food chain also have a lower risk of problems from biomagnification of pesticides, and mercury in the case of seafood (Ahmad, Salem, & Estaitieh, 2010; Campbell et al., 2005; Darko & Acquaah, 2007; Gray, 2002; Zhou et al., 2012). Low food diets are also better for the environment, as they need less energy and material to produce and consume. Multiple studies show that livestock production, and thus a non-vegetarian diet, require substantially more land area, water, energy, and fertilizer than plant-based crops (Marlow et al., 2009; McMichael, Powles, Butler, & Uauy, 2007; D. Pimentel & M. Pimientel, 2003). Thus it is more environmentally friendly to be vegetarian, or at least have a diet consisting of mainly plant-based foods. Of the animal products, poultry, eggs, and fish contribute to fewer greenhouse emissions than do red meat and dairy products (Carlsson-Kanyama & Gonzales, 2009; Weber & Matthews, 2008).

What can you do to Go LOW?

knowledgeNow you know why it’s good to Go LOW, so here’s how. You want to aim for a diet consisting of foods that are:

    • Local and in season
    • Organic
    • In their most natural and unprocessed state
    • Mostly plant-based

And if you choose to eat animal products, stick mainly to:

    • Poultry
    • Eggs
    • Low trophic-level seafood, such as salmon
Learn More

Search online to find out more. Here are just a few resources:

Editor’s note: the information booklet that this post evolved out of is available as a PDF with references here. 

  • Jan Steinman

    I’m surprised that the “Organic” section only had a fleeting mention of something I feel is very important: if you buy organic, you should not be getting genetically modified food.

    This is important on many levels. Even if you buy the FDA’s “substantial equivalence” line, GMO food remains licensed food, nourishing an already overbearing industrial food system, more than it nourishes those who eat it. Farmers are encouraged to “rat” on each other, and GM pollen respects no property line. The most common means of genetic modification is rather haphazard, inserting genes of interest in random locations. We now know that “epigenetic” information — that “junk DNA” that comes between genes and which does not code for protein production — serves functions that we are still discovering, but random gene insertions damage epigenetic DNA in ways that may not show up until much later.

    If you cannot afford to eat organic, you should at least avoid products containing non-organic corn, soy, and beet sugar, as these three crops are essentially all genetically modified.

    We are all unwilling participants in a huge science experiment. But you can “opt out” by buying organic.

    • Good points. Increasingly, food production and consumption becomes a game of dodgeball, with choices narrowing, and priorities changing according to perceived risk, with blind spots that we ignore. Which foods are prioritized as the most dangerous, and what is your framework for your beliefs and your science? Much of the science is skewed, and traditions shifted by high tech food production. We need to discuss the what is best for the land, the dangers, and our relative risk as a whole framework. And we need to redefine “invasive.” As we attempt to reengineer nature, and lay waste to the land, invasive will become the new norm. We’re going to need to let it happen and self-organize, and take advantage of it. Nice job, Jessica, in sketching this framework in 1400 words. :-}

  • cognizantfox

    Good article! Perhaps additional animal products could include wild game and freshwater fish too. In fact, some invasive species that should be removed from the landscape are also edible.

  • Kyle Lotfi

    “Low foods are low on the food chain, thus consisting of either plants or
    low trophic level seafood. Low foods benefit health in two
    ways–plant-based foods are healthier than animal products, and
    accumulate less environmental toxins.”

    “Similarly, diets low in red meat specifically have lower risk of cancer
    (Norat, Lukanova, Ferrari, & Riboli, 2002). Diets lower on the food
    chain also have a lower risk of problems from biomagnification of
    pesticides, and mercury in the case of seafood”

    Is it not true that bio-accumulation of toxins is a problem with animal products produced through the current food system? In other words, just as sick animals raised in factory farms accumulate toxins and increase cancer risk, healthy animals raised in good conditions are biomagnifiers of good nutrition. This point receives little attention, and the discussion about food consumption always seems to revolve around reducing harm, rather than recognizing that under the right circumstances, our food production systems can exist in symbiosis with the rest of the ecosystem. Ever see an animal carcass that’s been had by coyotes? They go for the liver, brain, kidneys, etc, – all very nutrient dense parts of the animal, and generally leave the muscle tissue for last. Mammalian biology is sufficiently uniform that what causes cancer in one species causes cancer in other mammals. So what do these coyotes, and other predators know, that many people seem to have forgotten?

    The alternative view to what I’m saying is that the consumption of animal products has always brought with it an increased risk of cancer. Is that really plausible? Good article on the whole, but I had to raise these points.

    • Hi, Kyle, good questions and certainly something that deserves good research. There are a number of issues here, and our perspective depends on how we view or frame our world. People interested in energetics consider the energy basis, and those concerned about pollutants discuss magnification. Those concerned about spirituality promote veganism, while sometimes ignoring other aspects. Even the “organic” approach has a number of different meanings depending on the definition and laws surrounding the word these days. It’s a complex topic in a complex world, and the best thing that people can do is know how their food came to be and where it came from.