The Processed Food and Bacteria Problem

This week as part of the food series I would like to discuss an interview with Michael Pollan, food journalist and author of Cooked and The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Moises Velasquez-Manoff, author of An Epidemic of Absence that I heard on the radio. The podcast is available here so after I have wet your proverbial appetites you can go and listen to it.

The interviewees discuss how processed food is effecting our health, and why. As I noted in a previous post in this series, the money is in the processing, not the actual foodstuffs themselves. According to the price of a bushel of corn ($6) a large box of corn flakes holds about 7c (US) of corn, the rest is processing, packaging and transport.

This unfortunately means that the more processing involved, the more profit can be made. Today I bought a loaf of bread, and on the wrapper is written “No high fructose corn syrup”. Now if you look through the ingredients in your kitchen you will find this product in almost everything, but why? Bread is a simple thing to make, flour, water, yeast and salt. But my bread has 25 ingredient on the label, including a few that are difficult to define (dough conditioner for example) although not the dreaded high fructose corn stuff.

It is made with enriched flour, and enriched flour is exemplary of the food industry’s approach. White flour is so highly refined that it has lost much of its nutritional value, but instead of refining it less and eating it brown, we choose to add (in this case) 6 different substances to give it back some of the nutrition that has been removed during the refining process.

It’s great bread too, if you leave it in the original bag it will last for weeks, I only bought it yesterday although it was baked on 17th December but is still remarkably fresh. And this is the processing problem, it has to last, be easily stored, and not taste like it was cooked a month ago, so all of this stuff is added and others taken away.

Processed Food

Processed Food

One of the things that producers aim for is to get rid of all bacteria, as bacteria leads to age, so industrial products are sanitized as much as possible. They contain very little fiber because fiber is difficult to store and freeze, and they are made in layers of sugar and fat so that they leave a craving, so you eat more processed bread that home made bread because you continue to crave it (it’s a chemical thing, not greed).

Now the food industry produces all of this fine ready to eat fodder so that we don’t have to slave over a hot oven all day. In the US, food preparation time is down by 40% since the late 60’s so we have had more time to go to work, drive home, play space invaders and Tetris and watch our VHS tapes turn into DVD, and streaming.

This has also led to changes in how we eat. Today we have TV dinners, ready served in a heat proof disposable tray, and here in the USA 20% of all food is consumed in the car.

All of this has had an effect upon the human body in terms of bacteria. Humans have lots of bacteria living inside them (more bacteria than human cells), but these processed foods are killing of this good bacteria. The foods have very little fiber, and this is bacteria’s favourite feast. Even eating just one fast food meal has an immediate effect upon the bacteria in the stomach and intestines, they get inflamed and stop working properly. Studies have found that overweight people have inflamed bacteria, although it is unproven if this is as a result of being overweight or has worked towards making them overweight, but there seems to be a link.

It could be that this is more of a problem that sugar and fat content. Incredibly enough though these problems can be overcome quite easily, a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice with each meal dramatically improves the situation and helps the bacteria fight the onslaught.

Some think that endlessly feeding antibiotics to animals that go into the food chain for consumption may also have an effect as residue can also kill the bacteria, but that is another story.

One very interesting find is reported in the interview. People living in industrial sanitized countries are suffering ever more frequently with immune deficiency problems, and one reason might be this lack of bacteria. In a study that took place between Finland and Russia, ethnically similar peoples suffer different rates of immune deficiency depending on their upbringing. Those living in poorer conditions suffer less from these problems, as do people living on farms in less hygienic conditions in industrialized countries, and children who go to day care fare better in the long run too.

It also turns out that human breast milk contains a lot of this bacteria, and this is the major contributor to building up immunity that is missing in formula milk.

On a personal note as father of 2 small boys I would like to add that last year several articles appeared about a doctor who claims that easting nose mucus (snot, boogers) may actually help introduce pathogens into the child’s immune system that will strengthen their body’s natural germ defense, although this has not been proven.

Have a listen to the podcast and check out the books on Amazon. Oh and eat some yoghurt and pickles.

Technology in Food Production

Over the coming weeks I am going to write a series of posts about technology and food production. Food is a topic that I have been interested in from a sociological perspective for several years, and I have a few topics that I would like to address, from GM, to regulation, sustainability and organic alternatives.

Technology plays a huge part in food production. If we just think about GM products, transport issues, industrial farming techniques and globalization in generic terms, it becomes immediately apparent that this sector is the largest in the world. According to these statistics agriculture accounts for between 14 and 24% of all global emissions of CO2, and 19 to 29% of total greenhouse pollutant emissions. An interesting point here is that in the so-called developed countries post-farm emissions are very high, so in the UK for example 50% of these emissions are produced after the food has left the farm, presumably through processing and transport techniques.

But it seems to me that processing is where the money is. According to Forbes, Pepsi for example made almost $45 billion in 2009 and Nestle’ made $110 billion, and these profits only refer to US sales. This year the sector is one of the very few that is still growing.

If you look at vegetables though they make less money. Dole is the largest producer of fruits and vegetables in the world, but in the same year made only $6.8 billion, leading me to conclude that the profit is in the processing and not in the actual foodstuffs themselves.

And this leads on to the question of what goes into these products. The answer is, largely, genetically modified (GM) organisms.

Genetic Modification

Genetic Modification

Yes if we look at the statistics that the US Department of Agriculture publish, we find the following:

93% of soybeans grown in the USA are GM

90% of all corn produced in the US is GM

95% of US sugar beat is GM

40% of all cropland in the US is used for Monsanto (the largest GM seed producer) production

40% of all global GM crops are produced in the US

35% of all the corn grown in the world is GM

81% of all the soybeans grown in the world are GM

I take some of my information from here, the Organic Consumers Association website and the rest from US government sources.

So as you can see it is big business. It is estimated that 70% of all the foods in our supermarkets contains GM organisms. 16.5 million people work in the industry in the US and it accounts for more than 10% of GDP.

And it is not just plants, there is a request for FDA approval for GM salmon. It grows at twice the speed of regular salmon.

The GM salmon, produced by AquaBounty Technologies contains a gene from a Chinook salmon that produces a growth hormone, and a genetic “on-switch” from an ocean pout (an eel-like fish) that keeps the growth hormone pumping out year round. The company state that GM salmon will consume 25 percent less feed, half of which can be plant protein.

Oh and in the US none of this is labeled, although currently 64 other countries do require labeling.

GM organisms have been found in many countries that do not allow their production however, Mexico comes to mind as the closest example to the USA. Seeds have blown across the borders from the US, over the mountains, across the seas, possibly even from Brazil and Argentina and landed and grown. Not to mention imports of contaminated produce. Read the scientific report here.

Corn is socially extremely important in Mexico, its cultivation all started there, and this contamination has caused some serious soul searching. In a related issue GM companies are currently trying to get permission for huge plantations in Mexico, as this Reuters article explains. We await the court’s decision.

For now I stop here, I think that is enough food for thought for this week (groan). Next week I shall delve once more into the murky waters of the global food industry however, and who knows what we might find. Comments please below.

Ideas on how to promote a startup on a budget

Successful startups have some things in common and top notch marketing is one of them. You might have come up with the greatest idea in the world or built the coolest application, but if other people don’t know about it, your idea or product isn’t worth much. Many young entrepreneurs get so sucked into the creation of the product, that they treat marketing as an afterthought. But as I said before, if users don’t know about a product they won’t be using it.

The immense popularity of the internet has leveled the playing fields, so someone with a small budget working from a garage can compete with big companies as long as they have a cool idea. In fact they might have a better chance in some niches because people have started to distrust companies. Below are few ways you can promote your startup – specifically tech startups.

Social Media

The starting point is creating a Facebook page and a Twitter account. Both are free to start and you have the potential to tap into millions of users. You can get the ball rolling by asking your friends to like and share the page.Business Networking in the 21st Century

Social networks are a good place to share your ideas and plans and get some feedback on them. Every little things count to successfully promote your product. If you have a product that is catering to a specific niche, then try joining a similar niche social network as well.

Contacting Leading Blogs and Getting Press Coverage

Once you come up with a working solution you can contact leading industry blogs to cover your product. Most major technology blogs like TechCrunch and Mashable have separate application forms for startups, so if you are confident about your product you can submit to them.

EDITOR NOTE: I must have misread, I couldn’t see Technology Bloggers among those ‘major technology blogs’! 😉 One day… – note by Christopher

Not only will you get massive exposure you will be able to get funding as well. Even if you don’t get published in major publications there are many other websites that promote startups and you can find many of them by doing a simple Google search.

Attending Conferences

Attending conferences and your local tech gatherings is another great way to spread the word about your product. Attending major conferences helps you network with people and pitch your product to industry leaders.

Local gathering are important because in most of these you will be able to present your product to an audience using a projector, which is far more effective than reading an article about your product. You will also get instant feedback on how you can improve your product as well.

Search Engine Optimization

Another promotion stream that is ignored by most startups is search engine optimization. Although most people in the technology field know about SEO, few actually try to leverage its power. This is especially useful if you are a global product catering to a non tech crowd. They won’t be reading Mashable and attending tech conferences, so the most probable way they will find your product is via search engines.

Even if you are catering to a tech crowd search engine optimization is a must. The long term benefits of SEO are immense. Although it is advisable to outsource your SEO work, if you have lots of content produced through your blog and website, it is better to hire your own SEO engineer. Be careful though, as black-hat SEO can be very damaging to a site, so if you do outsource, make sure it is to someone trustworthy.

Mentioned above are some major things you can do to promote your tech startup. Always remember that more people know about your product the better. The bigger your customer base, the likelihood is, the more money you will make/people you will help!