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Calculated risk on the plate

How can we know how our dietary choices affect our health and the environment? A short guide for the smart diner

By Mia Falah, Angle, Science and Environment News Agency

What in the end should we eat? Photo: Open Grid Scheduler – Grid Engine, Flickr.
What in the end should we eat? Photo: Open Grid Scheduler – Grid Engine, Flickr.

We are all exposed daily to a lot of diverse information in the various media regarding food and health. This information includes many (and sometimes contradictory) nutritional recommendations, dieticians who explain the positive or negative effects of different diets, articles that review studies that support eating certain products and abstaining from others, and a host of other information concerning our food.

The problem is that exposure to information in the field usually confuses more than it helps form an opinion. The data in the articles often contradict each other, and those who want to maintain a healthy lifestyle and maintain a proper diet - one that is healthy and optimal for both them and the environment - often find it difficult to put the data in order and understand what they should ultimately eat.

Dr. Hagit Ulanovski, expert in health and environmental risk management and chairman The forum for sustainable nutrition in Israel, will speak on September 19 at Talkhouse Tel Aviv in the evening called "How to eat the world and leave it whole" on the topic of personal risk management in our food consumption and try to make some order for us in this culinary mess. She will answer questions such as how can we avoid dangerous bacteria - like salmonella, for example - in our food products? Is organic food really healthier - for us and for the environment? And above all, how do you deal with the abundance of information and choose who to listen to - and who not?

on salmonella and other bacteria

One of the topics that has spent a lot of time in the headlines in recent months is the finding of the salmonella bacteria in seemingly innocent food products, such as cornflakes and mass-produced tahini. "The problem is not necessarily the fact that the salmonella is inside the cornflakes - which is a dry product, so the bacteria is less able to thrive in it and is not really dangerous for humans," says Ulanovski. "The issue in this case is the very concealment from the consumer. Unilever - a large global corporation that prides itself on transparency, that leads processes for public participation and addresses the issue of sustainability - hid the event for more than a month. Such a thing creates a crisis of trust between the public and the food producers: if they hid this, what else are they hiding? How can we know what else might be hiding in our food, and if we don't know - how are we supposed to be careful? And how can we trust the regulator - the Ministry of Health in this case - to protect us?"

According to Ulanovsky, the real fear of bacteria in food lies in animal food products, especially chicken and eggs, which may contain bacteria such as salmonella, listeria, and campylobacter - all of which are dangerous and may even be fatal (especially for at-risk populations such as children, the elderly, and pregnant women), if they are consumed without thorough cooking . "In other countries, such as Canada, for example, the chicken and eggs cost much more - because in recent years they have done an almost complete cleaning of these bacteria, and since then every product is inspected and tested before it reaches the consumer," says Ulanovski. "In the USA they did not do such a cleaning, but the American Ministry of Health requires a prominent warning to be placed on every package of eggs and chicken - like on a pack of cigarettes - that they must be thoroughly cooked. In Israel they do neither this nor that, and it is dangerous. Although the Listeria bacterium is not fatal to a healthy adult - the most that can happen to him is diarrhea and abdominal pain - but dozens of pregnant women in Israel lose their fetuses because of it, because Listeria can cause miscarriage. Unfortunately, and even if The information about the problems exists and is available, after all, the Ministry of Health is not doing enough to bring the information to public attention.'

The solution to this problem, according to Ulanovsky, is first of all to reduce the consumption of chicken and eggs. And if they are consumed, it is important to make sure that they are well cooked. In addition, it is important to make sure that the raw meat does not come into contact with other food products, and make sure to clean the work surface after you finish handling it. "It is also important to separate the cutting boards, and designate a separate board for meat and chicken, this is to avoid transferring bacteria to the vegetables; Be sure to clear the counter of other food products, and thoroughly wash the faucet handle and the sink after finishing the work,' adds Ulanovsky.

Organic food: the hidden rabbi about the healthy

Another area that receives ambivalent attention in the media is the subject of organic agriculture, with its proponents claiming that food that is not sprayed with synthetic substances is healthier for the body and the environment. But even here there is more than one approach to the subject, and different studies that present opposite findings, according to the worldview of the researchers (who look for what they want under the flashlight and thus find what they wanted to prove). According to Ulanovsky, in the field of organic crops and the pesticides allowed for their use, there is much that is hidden over the visible - therefore it is not at all certain that there is an advantage in eating them. Furthermore, she says, they may even be harmful, this is because unlike synthetic pesticides - whose safety is carefully tested when it comes to non-organic crops, and there is monitoring for residues of the substances in the marketed produce - in the organic crops marketed, the residues of the "natural" pesticides are allowed for use, are not tested at all".

In the field of organic crops and the pesticides allowed for their use, there is much that is hidden over the visible. Photo: Alexandra Guerson, Flickr.
In the field of organic crops and the pesticides allowed for their use, there is much that is hidden over the visible. Photo: Alexandra Guerson, Flickr.

"The Ministry of Agriculture periodically publishes and updates the list of substances allowed for use in organic pesticides," Ulanovsky adds, "even though these substances are natural, most of them consist of hundreds or thousands of chemical substances, and we are not sufficiently familiar with them and their negative effects on health, and we do not know exactly when they break up This is in contrast to the synthetic pesticides, where we now know how to check exactly how much of their residue is in the vegetable and at what rate the substance breaks down and the vegetable is considered safe to eat. We do not have any such data on the organic materials.

"For example, pyrethrin is an extract of the chrysanthemum flower that is used as an approved pesticide in organic agriculture. The substance is used as an ingredient in at least 10 organic pesticides that are approved for use in Israel, but the fact that it is organic does not mean that it is not toxic. In many studies done, it was found that the substance is toxic to a similar degree to the synthetic preparation (called pyrethroid), And both, to a similar extent, are not only insecticidal but also toxic to fish and amphibians, as well to humans", says Ulanovsky. "Various extracts of neem oil, azadirachtin, which are ingredients in dozens of pesticides, are also very toxic to insects (including those that help agriculture and ecosystems, and studies in rats and mice have shown toxicity that causes problems Fertility is difficult (although reversible, after the detoxification). As for harm to humans, the subject is still controversial, but there is much that is hidden over the visible and I cannot say that the substance is safe for human consumption. Beyond the fact that these are mixtures of hundreds or thousands of ingredients - some of them are unknown and unknown at all, the main problem with 'natural' pesticides is that the plant extracts that make them up vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, depending on the source of the plant material, and it is not possible to investigate and verify the relative safety or toxicity of each Preparation and preparation".

"The organic produce is only checked for residues of prohibited pesticides (the synthetic substances), and not for residues of natural pesticides, because they start from a point of assumption that because it is natural - it is fine," Olanovsky adds. "This is not necessarily true: cyanide, for example, is found in small amounts in fruits with seeds - such as almonds - and is a completely natural substance, yet a small amount of it is enough to kill an adult person. We don't have any information about how much natural pesticide residue is allowed on the plate of someone who eats organic food, so it's not wise to say it's healthier or better for the environment. We don't know enough about the effect of these toxins on wildlife, or what happens when they seep into the water sources we drink. It also does not mean that it is necessarily dangerous, but simply that today the correct tests are not being done to determine this.'

Smart eaters

The question that comes up again and again for all of us every time we come across new nutritional research is how can we know who is right, what is true and who should we listen to, in light of so much conflicting information? And what can we do to know that we are driving wisely and doing the best - both for our bodies and for the environment.

"The most important thing is to exercise judgment. For example, don't fall into the traps of titles like 'natural' or 'ecological'. The consumer should understand that what drives the food companies is first of all sales - and this is the main interest that drives them and their marketing lines, so it's worth taking these statements with a limited guarantee," says Ulanovsky. "When a company declares that a product is healthy and without preservatives, for example, you have to think about what other things did go into it to give it a long shelf life. The same from an environmental point of view: the greenwash phenomenon is becoming more common as environmental awareness increases. What does it actually mean when someone claims that their product is 'green'? I always ask myself what things went into the product to replace the ingredients that are considered 'harmful', and who said that they are necessarily better.

"One of the simplest things the consumer can do is to reduce the consumption of processed food, and try to eat as much 'clean' food as possible - whole grains, vegetables, legumes. Less 'products' and more food. The less substances that went into what we put in our mouths and it went through as few processes as possible from its original form - so there are also fewer things we don't know about it.'

Even when it comes to pesticides (or "preparations against insects and aphids", as they are called in the organic market) in vegetables and fruits, there is something to be done to try to reduce exposure to dangerous substances. Ulanovsky's main recommendation is to diversify - that is, to consume a large variety of different vegetables and fruits. "When you eat one vegetable all the time, you are constantly exposed to the same pesticide," says Ulanovsky. "When diversified, prolonged exposure to the substance is prevented. Another thing you should do is buy seasonal fruits and vegetables. A vegetable grown out of season requires much more environmental resources: water, space, energy for heating or cooling, and also pesticides - because it is more vulnerable to pests when it is not grown in season.'

The thread that connects the various connections between food, health and the environment that Ulanovski investigates is the need for each and every one of us to "manage risks" when it comes to the food we consume. "Before entering into the personal choices of each consumer, which are based on countless different factors and circumstances, we need to know how our choices in the field of food affect health, the society we live in, and our environment," she says. "This is the real definition of a smart consumer, not the one that checks how many pennies he saved on this or that product."

One response

  1. Excellent article, but when referring to plant names it should be noted:
    Because: "pyrethrin is an extract of the chrysanthemum flower" There are about 200 species in the chrysanthemum genus
    Only one of them which is known as pyrathrum and in Hebrew ben-khartzeh-katan is used for the production of pyrethrin,
    Other species of the chrysanthemum are used as proven ("grandmother") medicines...
    There are also a number of species of Izaderka, when the neem tree is "Indian Izaderka"
    Extraction of its leaves, fruits or stem bark are known as "universal" remedies
    So much so that in its natural growing areas it is known as the "forty medicine tree",
    The reference to "organic food" shows a (disturbing?) truth,
    So is the reference to the "intoxication",
    In both cases, the consumer does not have accurate information...

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