Scientific Foundations of Nutrition
General Education Requirement
Life Sciences (LS)
Nutrition Perspectives Project
The documentary I chose to watch is Food, Inc. directed by Robert Kenner. I had taken political science and environmental ethics courses in past semesters, so of the choices in the list this one interested me the most because of its focus on ethical and political issues. I recall this documentary was considered very influential when it first came out over a decade ago but never actually saw it until now. I’m glad I did because I learned quite a few things I didn’t know.
Kenner doesn’t have much of a background in nutrition, but some of the people he interviewed for the documentary do. One name that stood out to me was Michael Pollan, who authored An Animal's Place, one of the essays I read in the environmental ethics course. Pollan has researched and written extensively about our relationship with food, with regard to both ethical and nutritional concerns. Two of his most notable books are The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto.
Another was Joel Salatin, who I again remember from Pollan’s essay in my environmental ethics course. While I don’t agree with him on much of anything politically, I do like the more ethical and organic approach to farming he practices on his Polyface Farm. Like Pollan he has written multiple books on the topic of food and argues that becoming a vegetarian isn’t necessary from both a nutritional and ethical perspective, but rather that modern factory farming practices are the problem.
Because the documentary touched on so many issues, I’m unable to summarize them all. But here are the two that stood out to me the most.
Widespread use of GMO crops takes power away from farmers and gives it to large corporations. At the time the documentary was produced, 90 percent of soy products on the market originated from genetically modified organism (GMO) soy seeds. Thanks to extensive government lobbying and even a Supreme Court justice (Clarence Thomas) who also happens to be a former Monsanto attorney, the U.S. government gave Monsanto the power to patent their GMO seeds. With this power, the company can force farmers to buy their seeds every year, instead of collecting and using the seeds from the previous year. If the farmers do use those seeds, even if it’s completely by accident (such as seeds from a neighboring field with GMO crops blowing onto theirs), they may face the possibility of an expensive lawsuit for violating Monsanto’s intellectual property. Unlike a large corporation, farmers and seed harvesters don’t have the resources to defend themselves, and when the alternative is financial ruin they basically have no choice but to comply.
Government corn subsidies and lack of oversight have increased food born illnesses. Corn is subsidized by the government, allowing it to be sold at below the cost of production. This cheap corn has been utilized as feed in beef operations by large-scale factory farms, and eliminating the need for a pasture enabled them to pack the cows tightly together, often in piles of their own feces. These conditions increased the presence of E. Coli bacteria in the meat, and the documentary noted several mass recalls that had occurred as a result of food born illnesses, as well as the tragic death of two-year-old Kevin Kowalcyk in 2001 after he ate a hamburger containing E. Coli bacteria. Furthermore, at the time the documentary was produced, the USDA was conducting fewer safety inspections, and didn’t have the authority to shut down a plant that repeatedly produced tainted meat. A proposed piece of legislation referred to as Kevin’s Law was offered as a solution to these issues, but hadn’t left the committee stage to come up for a vote.
The documentary was produced in 2008. While most of the documentary is still relevant today, a few things have changed. One is that organic and non-GMO foods have continued to grow in popularity as predicted, and are no longer as novel as they once were, although they still tend to carry a higher price tag (Patton et al, 2020). Another is the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011, which gives the FDA some of the powers originally proposed for the USDA in Kevin’s Law (Kowalcyk, 2011).
Several of the topics covered by the documentary were also addressed in the textbook. The first is the issue of food born illness. In chapter 17, E. coli is said to cause an estimated 100,000 illnesses per year in the United States. It’s likely the ground beef in Kevin Kowalcyk’s hamburger was undercooked, as thoroughly cooking the beef should destroy the bacteria.
The second is the topic of organic foods. According to the textbook, organic foods do not tend to differ in nutritional content from traditional foods. However, as the documentary showed, there are non-nutritional reasons to purchase organic foods. Sustainable agriculture is defined in the textbook as an agriculture system that provides a secure living for farm families, maintains the natural environment, and encourages ethical treatment of both animals and workers. Purchasing organic foods helps encourage sustainable agriculture.
The third is the widespread use of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as an artificial sweetener found in a variety of different products due to its being cheap to produce from government subsidized corn. Chapter 4 states that an average American consumes 60 pounds of HFCS per year, although there have been mixed findings regarding the adverse health effects of HFCS.
What I Learned
I learned about Monsanto and the non-GMO food movement many years ago but didn’t know the alarming extent to which Monsanto is able to harass farmers and exert control over our food supply. This new information has pushed me more in the non-GMO and organic direction for my own food choices, as I do think it’s worth encouraging sustainable agriculture and supporting farmers who don’t use GMO seeds.
List of Consulted Works
Collene, A., Smith, A., & Spees, C. (2018). Contemporary nutrition: A functional approach (5th ed.). McGraw-Hill Education.
Kenner, R. (Director). (2008). Food, Inc. [Film]. Magnolia Pictures.
Kowalcyk, B. (2011, Jan. 6). Food Safety Law Makes History. Retrieved from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/food-safety-bill-history_b_805283
Patton, L., & Rembert, E. (2020, July 15). Americans Use Pandemic to Get In Shape With More Organic Food. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-07-15/americans-use-pandemic-to-get-in-shape-with-more-organic-food
Pollan, M. (2002, Nov. 10). An Animal's Place. Retrieved from https://michaelpollan.com/articles-archive/an-animals-place/
1. Demonstrate knowledge of human nutritional needs and the role of nutrition in improving individual health and the societal economic impact of food choices.
Most Americans consume too much saturated fat through cheap fast food, and not enough fruits and vegetables. Those with the financial resources to do so should vote with their wallets by instead buying whole, organic, and ethically-sourced foods, particularly plant-based foods.
2. Relate technological advancements in medicine and food production to the advancement of the science of human nutrition.
Calcium supplements were created because it was discovered that as people age, their ability to absorb calcium decreases, putting them at risk for osteoporosis. Many older people fall short of the recommended calcium intake.
3. Explain the impact that the food industry has on human food choices and the subsequent relationship to health and disease at the individual, societal, and environmental level.
At the individual level, undocumented workers are being subjected to dangerous conditions at meat packing plants. At the societal level, widespread availability of cheap fast food around the country has contributed to an obesity epidemic. At the environmental level, factory farms are a major source of waste products.
4. Provide examples of past and present nutrient and diet trends in modern society and the positive and/or negative implications on human health and the earth’s resources.
In the past, most cows, chickens, and pigs were raised on free-range organic farms. The success of fast food brought the need to streamline production and the birth of the modern factory farm. This food was cheap, and people started eating more of it, causing a rise in obesity. Factory farms unfortunately have a negative impact on the environment as well, as the animals consume massive amounts of corn-based feed transported from other areas, and produce waste products.
5. Provide examples of positive and negative interactions of humankind with microorganisms regarding sickness, health and food production.
The large intestine contains over 500 different species of bacteria, many of which are actually beneficial and break down some of the remaining food products to be absorbed. However, as in the case of two-year-old Kevin Kowalcyk’s tragic death from E. coli, other species of microorganisms can be introduced during food production and cause illness or death.
6. Address diet and nutrient issues and concerns for weight control, disease prevention, physical activity, food availability, and biotechnology.
For weight control, it’s necessarily to monitor your intake of fat, particularly saturated and trans fats. For disease prevention, deficiencies of essential nutrients should be avoided, and food should be stored, cleaned, and cooked properly to avoid food borne illness. For physical exercise, carbohydrate and fat intakes are most important. Widespread fast food availability and “food deserts” have contributed to nationwide obesity, and advances in biotechnology have increased the use of pesticides.
Make connections between what you studied in this nutrition course with what you’ve learned in other courses at SLCC or before. Make specific references to your work in this class and in the other courses. How did what you learn in the other courses enhance what you learned in nutrition, and vice versa?
Before taking this course, I’d previously taken indoor cycling to satisfy the Lifelong Wellness requirement. Chapter 14 had some useful information regarding the nutritional demands of exercise, and what caused my muscles to fatigue during the more intensive exercise during that class. It turns out that protein intake isn’t nearly as important as carbohydrate and fat intake for exercise, which is something I hadn’t known before. Now I know to emphasize good plant sources of carbohydrates and unsaturated fats in my diet.
Reflect on how you thought about nutrition before you took this course and how you think about it now that the course is over. Have any of your assumptions or understandings changed? Why? What assignments/activities/readings were influential in this process? How will you approach (course topic) differently in the future?
I’m not someone who is overweight so my food choices weren’t too much of a concern to me. I didn’t used to pay attention to Nutrition Facts labels or wonder about the nutritional content of the foods I ate. All I knew was to stay away from junk food and fast food.
This course was an eye-opener. What shocked me the most is just how many nutrients the body actually requires to function, and that a severe deficiency in any one of them could lead to physical and mental health problems. Furthermore, many people, myself included, do have dietary deficiencies in more than one essential nutrient. The Dietary Analysis project showed I was deficient in Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Magnesium, Potassium, and Zinc and also fell short on the MyPlate recommended fruit and vegetable intake.
I’m now more aware of what I’m eating, particularly the amount of plant-based foods in my diet, and am placing an emphasis on whole grains over processed grains. Additionally, I find myself checking the Nutrition Facts labels on foods now. While I don’t think it’s possible to meet 100% of the requirements 100% of the time, I do plan to use this awareness to attain a healthier diet.