A large source of fear stems from a lack of understanding, and a lot of people are afraid of genetically modified food. Simply injecting the word “genetic” into anything conjures up images of any number of horrific scenarios created by modern pop culture that portray an apocalyptic world created by evil scientists who went too far “playing god.” Look up any random poll online on the subject and you’ll see the majority of the public are against genetically modified food. Personally, I feel that fear is unjustified. However, I don’t have a background in this subject and I don’t exactly know the reasons people have behind the fear of genetically modified food besides the unreasonable “scientists shouldn’t be tampering with our food” argument. So I decided to start my first blog post off looking further into this topic because I find the controversy compelling. There’s a lot of ground to cover on the subject but I try to go over all the points that I feel are important, especially when it comes to dispelling all the misconceptions.
How we got here and a brief biology lesson
Imagine you’re a farmer 300 years ago who discovered wild strawberries and began planting them on your farm. After growing several generations of strawberries you notice that some are bigger and sweeter than others. You isolate these from the other strawberries and grow them on a separate piece of land; eventually you have a whole patch of strawberries that are bigger and sweeter than the typical wild strawberry. That’s because some very small random mutation arose, probably from a simple error in DNA replication that was never corrected, and maybe it was due to a change in one or two nucleotide base pairs. And those strawberries that you decided to isolate originally produced generations of offspring that were also bigger and sweeter than the wild variety of strawberry because they contained the mutation that confers those traits.
That’s a simplified and probably unrealistic example of selective breeding. In the real world we can look at corn and how it has evolved to become the corn (or maize) that we have today. Its inception probably represents one of humanity’s biggest agricultural feats. As ubiquitous as corn is, it may be hard to believe that it cannot reproduce on its own without human intervention: in other words wild corn doesn’t exist. The husk covers an ear of corn so tightly that if an ear falls to the ground, the kernels cannot escape the husk. Even if the kernels were not covered in a husk, ultimately nothing would grow into maturity because the kernels are located too close together on the cob. In order to grow, corn requires a certain amount of distance between seeds in the ground. That’s why you see planted corn in neatly arranged rows and precise spacing in fields. So it happened completely through human intervention that corn evolved from a type of grass native to Mexico and Central America called teosinte (pictured on the right). Scientists think that it took over 10,000 years for teosinte to become modern corn, and they also believe that a change in as little as 5 genes is responsible.
In a very crude sense, that was an early form of genetic engineering. Today, we can use science to take away the random element and turn on/off genes with desirable traits. Instead of selective breeding, this process is called genetic engineering. We can take that concept even further and in a literal sense, “cut and paste” genes from foreign organisms and put them into other plants and animals.
So, for example, we can take a gene from a strain of bacteria that confers resistance to cold, and put that gene in a plant like corn so that it can survive frosts that might otherwise devastate a supply of crops for an entire year.
That doesn’t mean that we would be introducing bacteria into the food supply, it’s the gene and the protein that gene produces.
All living organisms, be it plant, animal or bacteria, abide by the same basic fundamental rules: DNA functions as a code, clusters of DNA that code for something specific is called a gene and the purpose of genes is to produce a protein (actually it codes for a complementary sequence of RNA, which codes for protein but that’s beyond the scope of this discussion and I’ll keep it simple). Proteins are basic molecular units that perform specific functions within a cell (ie formation of a structural component, communication within/outside of the cell, stress responders, etc).
Further, DNA is made of basic units called nucleotide bases. There are only four of them and the same four exists in every living thing on earth: guanine, adenine, cytosine and thymine. Proteins are composed of basic units called amino acids and there are 20 of them that are coded for by DNA. Actually, not every organism can make all 20, some have to be obtained from the diet by consuming organisms that can make them…to complicate things a bit further, there are technically more than 20 amino acids due to modifications an amino acid can undergo.
So when you consume the corn we made using bacterial DNA in the previous example, your body doesn’t discriminate by saying “oh wait, we’re not supposed to be eating this, there’s bacterial DNA and protein in this.” Instead, the message would be more like “here’s DNA and protein,” or more simply “FUEL!!!” Your digestive tract is going to break down the DNA to its base nucleotides so that your body can use those nucleotide bases to renew the DNA in your ever-regenerating cells. Similarly, the protein will be broken down to amino acids and used to make protein or be converted into glucose and fat. Of course, there are proteins made in nature that are poisonous to humans, or hard to digest due to sequences of amino acids that are difficult for our enzymes to break down or contain a sequence that triggers an allergic or immunological response. Obviously, we want to avoid using those in our genetically modified crops. No biotechnology company would sign up to knowingly produce something like this…even if they were an unethical company, it would be a terrible business strategy.
How genetically modified crops are made
In a discussion like this I think it’s important to explain how we can make GM plants because the more we understand something, the less there is to fear. One of the most common ways of introducing a gene from one organism to a plant is by using a vector (a vehicle for delivering the gene) called a plasmid. A plasmid is a small circular piece of DNA found in bacteria that functions separately from the bacterial chromosome (main part of the bacterial DNA). Bacteria use plasmids as way of transferring certain traits between other bacteria, especially traits that are favorable to survival such as antibiotic resistance. Plasmids are ideal for genetic manipulation because they contain a small number of nucleotide base pairs and they can be inserted into non-bacterial cells and function independently of the host chromosomes.
The most commonly used plasmid for genetic engineering in plants is called a Ti plasmid, produced in a bacterium called Agrobacterium tumefaciens. In the wild, Agrobacterium can infect plant cells with the Ti plasmid, which acts as a sort of retrovirus in plants. A section of the plasmid DNA called T-DNA integrates into the plant DNA and produces a series of proteins that cause tumors in the plant. For obvious reasons the part that causes disease in the plants is removed, rendering it safe for genetic manipulation. Scientists can then use what’s called a restriction enzyme, usually isolated from E.coli or other bacteria, that cuts specific sequences of DNA and combine it with a suspension containing the Ti plasmid. Meanwhile, separately repeating a similar process with the foreign DNA containing the gene that you want expressed in the plant. Combine these two solutions with another enzyme called DNA ligase, which “stitches” the DNA back together, resulting in the Ti plasmid containing the foreign gene of interest within the T-DNA. Then, the plasmids can be reintroduced into Agrobacterium that will be used to infect cultured plant cells with T-DNA. This is now called a transgene, a gene transferred from one organism to another. The Infected cultured cells can then be selected and used to generate a new plant containing the inserted gene. I summarized this process in the figure on the right.
Enter GM crops
In 1996 the first commercialized GM crops were grown in 6 countries and 19 more joined that list by 2008. According to a 2013 report by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) 94% of the cotton, 93% of the soybeans, 88% of the corn, 93% of the canola, and 97% of the sugar beets produced in the US are GM crops.[1, 2] Other GM products we grow are alfafa, sugarcane, papaya and more recently squash. Most of those crops only make their way into our diet by way of the oils produced from cotton, corn and canola. Additionally, nearly all soy products now come from GM soybeans. Because of all the oils, corn, and soy made from GM crops, estimates ranging from 40-70% of the processed food that you buy contain products of transgenes. Sugar beets are refined into sugar and contain very little, if any, of the actual GM product and DNA. Papaya is one of the few examples of a whole GM food that you’ll find on store shelves. Produced in the United States, papaya is grown in Hawaii and has been genetically engineered to resist the papaya ringspot virus, which nearly wiped out the fruit in the 1980’s. There are other government approved GM crops that exist with tomatoes, potatoes, and rice but they aren’t commercially available. The vast majority of GM crops in the US are used as animal feed and do not actually make it into your food directly.
It would be really difficult to do a controlled human study with GM food due to many confounding factors. You can potentially use prospective and retrospective studies but those are not very reliable because they are prone to bias and error. It’s not always ideal to look at animal studies, but that’s the best we can do in this situation. As it happens, there may be hundreds of such studies that have been undertaken in order to assess the safety of GM foods since the early 1990’s. I haven’t found anything to suggest that commercial GM food is unsafe for human consumption in any way. In fact, GM foods have been assessed to be nutritionally equivalent to their non-GM counterpart. One of the more recently published reviews examined 12 long term rodent studies (from 90 days to 2 years) and 12 multigenerational studies (2 to 5 generations) involving GM maize, potato, soybean, and/or rice. All 24 of these studies found no negative impact on the health of these animals. That review was funded by scientific and academic institutions, not biotechnology companies, and appears to have no obvious conflict of interest.
The Pusztai Affair
As I alluded to earlier, GM food does have the potential to be dangerous. However, a GM food that creates adverse health effects in animals simply does not make it past the experimental phase and will not be available for human consumption. Many drugs never make it past the experimental phase, and yet modern medicine has been a boon to humanity. We just have to trust peer reviewed science to catch anything that might be dangerous.
In the GM food debate there is an unfortunate, textbook example where the peer review system was not used. The result was a PR nightmare and solidified opinions of GM food that still linger in society. It comes from a study performed by Dr. Árpád Pusztai, a Hungarian-born biochemist who worked in Scotland. In 1998 Pusztai made an announcement in an interview on a TV program that aired in the UK declaring that his experiments found that rats fed GM potatoes had abnormal growth in their stomach linings, stunted organ growth, and repressed immune systems. Various media outlets ran with the story praising Pusztai while condemning GM food and calling for stricter regulations.
The first problem with this story stems from the fact that Pusztai made this announcement on public television before his research was complete. The result were not even published at the time, meaning it was never peer reviewed and was not properly criticized by experts in the field; this is a big no no in science. Scientists are expected to submit their results for publishing, where they will be peer reviewed anonymously by other scientists in the field to make sure the experiment uses sound science and comes to a reasonable conclusion based on the data. After the interview aired, Pusztai’s work was reviewed by 6 anonymous, independent scientists who declared the work to be flawed. They found that his data did not support the conclusions, that there were actually no significant differences between GM and non-GM fed rats, the diets were deficient in protein, and some groups of rats were fed raw potatoes which are known to be toxic to rats. Additionally, the protein made by the GM-potatoes produced a type of lectin that is fatal to insects and triggers an immunological response in mammals. The interest in lectins at the time was due to their potential to act as a pesticide. The potatoes were made specifically for research to see how the animals responded to the lectin and they were never meant for commercialization. Although, Pusztai contends the potatoes would have been approved to be eaten as food regardless of the conclusion of his research. It’s hard for me to envision a scenario where a company would give the green light for those potatoes to be used commercially, as I talked about previously, it just does not make good business sense.
Keep in mind, this happened during a pivotal time, 2 years after GM seeds became available for sale. So the public was still very wary of the change as they are with anything involving genetics. When in vitro fertilization (IVF) first began to be utilized, people criticized it by saying it was unnatural and “test tube babies” would be stigmatized in society. Opinions from the catholic church aside, it is now a widely accepted method of conception for couples who could not otherwise conceive and those test tube babies grow up like any other person. But where would this technology be if scientists were publicly making unsubstantiated claims about the safety of IVF during those pivotal moments in time?
Pusztai represents an important case because the anti-GM people still use his original claims as part of their argument on the safety of GM food. One of the things Pusztai wanted was to require longer feeding trials in testing GM crops before getting approval for human consumption, which is a valid concern since evaluation of GM food safety currently only requires 90 day feeding trials. I also think there has to be some merit to cases like this that do highlight the potential of GM foods to do harm. Then again, if you engineer a crop to produce a protein known to illicit a toxic response in humans what can you expect?
I’d like to end this section by saying that Pusztai was a well respected scientist with over 300 published papers, not a crack pot with an agenda. It’s easy to get excited about the results of a study and he may have believed in his convictions at the time. I think he just slipped up and was forced into a position of defending himself, then fortifying himself in that position. Unfortunately, it cost him his job and reputation.
Dispelling the GM food misconceptions
The anti-GM people also rail against crops that produce Cry proteins. It’s a toxin, so it has to be dangerous, right? The protein comes from a strain of bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis (or BT), which produce these crystal proteins (Cry for short) called endotoxins that kill certain insects. It causes the mid-gut of insects to rupture by changing the alkalinity, leaving them unable to eat and dying after a few days. Our body chemistry is different, so it doesn’t have the same effect on us. The bacteria have been used for almost 100 years as a natural insecticide and more recently have introduced Bt cry genes into corn, cotton and rice. The organic and anti-GM groups argue that the endotoxins produced by these GM crops are dangerous to humans and other animals, despite all the evidence that says Cry proteins target only specific sets of insects and is safe in mammals.[5-9] The studies I cited are just a few I found with a quick search in pubmed. And the USDA found a reduction in synthetic pesticide use and environmental runoff over a 4 year period in Bt-cotton. Doesn’t the organic movement strive to reduce pesticide use?
They will also say that food allergies have increased due to GM food, specifically citing that allergies to soy have more than doubled over the last decade. So, how does it explain the rise in allergies to other food in recent years? The fact is peanut and other tree nut allergies have tripled in the last decade, and gluten allergies have doubled.[10, 11] The top 8 food allergens come from milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, soybeans, and wheat. Soy is the only GM product on that list.
It may be interesting to note that food allergies are only on the rise in developed countries, while the use of GM food is on the rise in third world countries. There are other, more plausible theories about the cause of food allergies, but my favorites are vitamin D deficiencies, changes in friendly gut bacteria, and obesity…all first world problems.
New research suggests that vitamin D plays a role in food sensitization, and we tend to get less sunlight in the developed world, so vitamin D deficiency has become more prevalent and is increasingly being associated with a number of health problems. We also tend to medicate more often and with more exposure to antibiotics and microbial products we’re killing beneficial bacteria that reside in our gut. These bacteria perform critical functions that aid in digestion and immunity. More attention is being given to a possible link between our gut flora and allergies. Obesity can also influence the amount of gut bacteria as well as increase sensitization to food.
No discussion about GM crops would be complete if I didn’t talk about Monsanto. Monsanto is a multi-billion dollar company that owns patents on 90% of the GM crops that are sold. Yes, you can actually own a patent on a genetic modification. The owner of such a patent is the only entity who can produce and sell the seeds. Additionally, if you plant GM seeds you are obligated to pay royalties to the company who made the seeds. Monsanto also owns the commercial herbicide (weed killer) called Roundup, and one of their trademark patents is on genetically modified “Roudup Ready” seeds that make the plants resistant to the herbicide.
One of the reasons Monsanto is criticized is because of their ruthless business tactics. It’s said that Monsanto will sue farmers who are unknowingly growing their GM crops and not paying royalties to the company. There’s an article on NPR that I found here stating that there’s only been one documented case of this, that there may have been misleading information regarding that particular farmer’s use of the seed, and that Monsanto will actually pay farmers to remove the GM crops if any are found to be growing on their land unknowingly. Yet, there are plenty of people in the comments section of that article pointing out other cases where Monsanto has done this. I would not know how to verify this, the legal system is beyond my scope and I’d prefer to focus on the science. It wouldn’t change my opinion of GM crops. Should we ban a technology because we don’t like how a company is using it? I don’t think so. My feeling is any multi-billion dollar company that basically holds a monopoly is going to be ruthless in their tactics and come under scrutiny from the public. That’s how businesses like Walmart become so successful. If anything, it highlights a greater need for tighter regulation over GM patents and how these companies operate.
So instead of looking at the company’s business tactics, I’d rather return focus on the science with Monsanto’s herbicide, Roundup. Roundup’s active ingredient is a compound called glyphosate. Glyphosate works to kill plants by inhibiting a plant specific enzyme called 5-enolpyruvyl shikimate-3-phosphate synthetase, which is a key enzyme used in plants to make aromatic amino acids. Animals lack this particular enzyme and obtain aromatic amino acids from consuming plants. So glyphosate should be relatively non-toxic to humans and animals. Many of the studies out there regarding glyphosate have been funded by Monsanto, clearly a conflict of interest, making it difficult to parse through all the information out there. I found a couple reviews that cover hundreds of studies that have been done, one of them unfortunately was funded by Monsanto, regardless, these studies assert that there’s been no link to cancer or genotoxicity in humans, even at exposures far above the EPA limit.[13, 14]
Yet there was a recent study that reported glyphosate acted on estrogen receptors in a particular breast cancer cell line and promoting cell proliferation. In direct contrast to this study, another study published around the same time period found that glyphosate actually inhibited cell growth in 8 cancer cell lines while having no effect in normal cell lines.
What this actually means is that we don’t really know what’s going on, only that these scientists were able to generate the observed effects in cell lines that are already cancerous. Still, people will still interpret this as “glyphosate causes cancer.” I’ve already read articles that want to associate Roundup with the recent rise in breast cancer. But anything observed in cell culture should be taken with a grain of salt, because cell culture alone can’t mimic the complex interactions associated with the body and especially the tumor microenvironment in cancer, which we’re only beginning to understand. Oftentimes an effect is observed in cells and not reproducible in animal models or humans. We’ve been able to cure cancer in cell culture for years, but then are continually unsuccessful when moving those experiments to mice or humans. Basically, the information learned in those studies need to be adapted to animal experiments to see if we observe the same effects before we can say glyphosate causes or kills cancer.
Moving on, Roundup also contains a surfactant called MON 0818 that helps to penetrate the leaves of plants and has been found to be toxic to frogs, fish and other invertebrates. Although in the study involving frogs, it seems the levels that produce a toxic effect would require direct application of Roundup to water, which is illegal, and it’s estimated that bioavailability of residual Roundup in the field and water run off would be quite low and well under the limits of toxicity to aquatic life. This wasn’t the only study that realized the surfactants in Roundup could be problematic; others are suggesting that other adjuvants in the Roundup formulation could be toxic as well.
Organics dirty secret
The toxicity of Roundup should not overshadow the fact that conventional and organic farming already uses pesticides and herbicides aggressively. The organic farming methods only allow organic pesticides, meaning only chemicals that are “naturally” occurring but, just because a pesticide is labeled as organic doesn’t make it safe. For example, rotenone, a commonly used organic pesticide, is a known mitochondrial inhibitor and may cause neurological and immune problems but only at high exposures. Fortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a real basis for organic food being safer than conventionally grown food, both contain what are generally regarded as safe levels of pesticide residues, although, organic food may contain slightly less pesticide residues. However, organic food may have a higher prevalence of bacteria because the food is not allowed to undergo irradiation like conventional food. I’m not aware of any studies that prove or disprove this though.
Based on this information I wouldn’t necessarily say organic is a better alternative. Conventional farming methods, Roundup, GM food, etc, are under much more scrutiny than organic. As such, there are many more studies centered on those issues than there are in the organic industry. If anything the lack of studies on organic food should make you feel safer buying non-organic. Both sides are billion dollar industries and have a lot at stake, despite what organic products would have you believe.
Other concerns about GM food
There are other legitimate concerns over GM crops. One of them is the possibility of herbicide resistant genes passing on to wild plant life creating resilient, difficult to tame “super weeds.” It’s also inevitable that Bt-protein resistant insects will evolve. There are farming methods in place, however, that should prevent this from happening. Scientists are already working on other methods to deal with the eventual resistance.
Finally, there’s the issue of GM food labeling. Currently half of the United States may be calling for mandatory laws requiring all food that has genetically modified material to be labeled as such. I don’t feel the average consumer is educated enough to make an informed decision on the issue. When you slap a special GM label on food, it implies that the food is different than other food and may pose some inherent risk. It will also cost millions of dollars just to enforce the law and the costs will be passed on to consumers. Ultimately, it’s going to cost farmers as well if consumers choose to purchase non-GM food and biotech companies decide to move business elsewhere.
The future of GM food and concluding thoughts
In the same 2013 ISAAA brief I cited earlier, on page 288, they note an overall global reduction in the use of pesticides, decreased use of fossil fuels and CO2 emissions due to farming methods that require little to no ploughing/tilling thanks to GM crops, and conservation of soil and water due to herbicide resistant crops. In 2013 up to 18 million farmers benefited economically and reduced exposure to insecticides from GM crops, 90% of which were from developing countries and resource poor.  There are currently 1.5 billion hectares of land worldwide suitable for growing crops. GM crops allows us to increase yields on the land we currently have available. This means less destruction of land and deforestation, while having the ability to feed more people worldwide. It’s unlikely that neither conventional nor organic farming methods will have the ability to sustain the world’s population in the years to come and instead will require a combination of these methods with biotechnology to reduce pesticide/herbicide use, environmental impact and increase food yields.
Currently the commercially available GM crops are mostly engineered for disease, weather, pest and herbicide resistance. Rice has been developed to enhance the vitamin A content, called Golden Rice. Vitamin A deficient children develop blindness and other eye sight disorders and are 23% more likely to die of the measles, diarrhea, or malaria. Yet countries and movements such as Green Peace are seeking to ban golden rice because it’s a genetically modified food. Much of the developing world depends on rice and are also suffering from micronutrient deficiencies because they don’t have access to a more diverse diet. Iron deficiency, for example, affects 2 billion people and can cause mental retardation, decreased immune function and increased mortality of mother and child at birth. Strategies to fortify the micronutrient value of rice and other grains are also being looked at.
In addition to enhancing the nutritional value of food, scientists are looking at increasing the biomass of food which would further improve crop yields, the creation of edible vaccines and removal of allergens from food such as soybeans.
GM food has a long way to go with all the resistance it has received. Opponents of the new technology have good intentions but I believe they are misguided, and the amount of fear mongering and misinformation that is so prevalent in the media is certainly fueling their fire. In my opinion, it is downright unethical to not pursue the biotechnology options that we have available to us to feed a starving population.
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#1 by Lage on April 4, 2014 - 5:38 PM
“No biotechnology company would sign up to knowingly produce something like this…even if they were an unethical company, it would be a terrible business strategy.”
While you’ve raised several good points in this article (including the lack of justification for fearing products based on nothing but demonized “buzzwords”), I disagree with you here. There are many examples of products that are knowingly bad for human use, and short-term profit has been enough of an incentive for investors and corporations to proceed (as long as they are able to make a reasonable amount of money in the short-term). It is true that in the long term, these choices made by investors and corporations have negative consequences, but that hasn’t stopped numerous companies from producing harmful junk food, harmful pharmaceuticals, etc. The safety of genetically modified organisms are no exception to this short-term profit-induced precedent. Furthermore, companies with vested interests can create a profit feedback loop whereby the problems caused by one company’s product(s) can be corrected by another company’s product(s). For example, if dangerous junk foods, or food additives cause health problems, other potentially interconnected companies can produce the medication to try and correct the health problems. So in some cases, there is actually a greater incentive to knowingly produce harmful products, so that multiple product lines can be sold for profit based on the short-sighted demand of the under-informed consumer. To give another example, tobacco companies (like Philip Morris) create cigarettes which knowingly produce health problems, and then they also make nicotine patches and/or gum designed for users to quit smoking. This is perhaps a bad business model in some circumstances, unless that company knows that the health concerns of tobacco usage are now public knowledge (which they are) and also want to provide a replacement product to keep that smoker buying their products rather than going to other companies for stop-smoking aids.
“According to a 2013 report by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) 94% of the cotton, 93% of the soybeans, 88% of the corn, 93% of the canola, and 97% of the sugar beets produced in the US are GM crops.”
This doesn’t surprise me, especially given large corporations’ (like Monsanto) vested interest in those crops and getting those crops in as many foods as possible (again for profit incentives, rather than for providing a good, healthy, and sustainable product). By making those foods GM crops, they are able to make more profit due to more yield per acre and per growing season. It is no coincidence that these foods with the highest GM rates are also those that we find in almost every processed food product on the market. They are cheap, relatively nutritionless foods that these companies can markup considerably, and the consumer will pay their prices because most consumers are looking at the cost per calorie rather than its markup, its sustainability, or its nutritive value.
“The vast majority of GM crops in the US are used as animal feed and do not actually make it into your food directly.”
While that may be true, corn is a notable exception when it is processed into high fructose corn syrup. This is present in most processed foods, thus GM crops are present in most process foods. Since some people eat mostly processed foods, those people have GM products in most of their food.
“I haven’t found anything to suggest that commercial GM food is unsafe for human consumption in any way. In fact, GM foods have been assessed to be nutritionally equivalent to their non-GM counterpart.”
There is also a large conflict of interest between the FDA which regulates these studies and various Big Agricultural companies in terms of who funds those studies, and particular cases when we find out that the chairman of an FDA review board has connections to these Big Agricultural companies. What this means for consumers is that the lack of evidence for harmful effects of GMO products or the presence of evidence for benefits from GMO products (or any product from large corporations) should be taken with a grain of salt. It doesn’t mean that all of these studies are dishonest, for that would be a drastic exaggeration, but it does mean that the results aren’t free from the threats of conflicts of interest between the FDA and Big Ag.
“However, a GM food that creates adverse health effects in animals simply does not make it past the experimental phase and will not be available for human consumption.”
It depends on what you mean by “adverse health effects”, for that is a loaded term that means a lot of things to different people.
“Many drugs never make it past the experimental phase, and yet modern medicine has been a boon to humanity. ”
Yet modern medicine has also produced large amounts of health problems and served as band-aid approaches to cover up the underlying causes of many illnesses and diseases. I think it is more accurate to say that modern medicine has been a boon as well as a detriment to humanity, depending on the pharmaceuticals under consideration.
“We just have to trust peer reviewed science to catch anything that might be dangerous.”
We definitely are placing a lot of trust in these studies now, but as I said earlier, there are many justifiable reasons not to trust them because of conflicts of interest as well as a lack of knowledge of many “sleeper” or long-term side effects. This is why we see many television commercials for law firms asking “Did you take this drug? If so, you may be entitled to compensation…” These are drugs that were approved by the FDA and later were found to be harmful (or they were initially found to be harmful, but these side-effects were kept covered up). In the grander scheme of things, I agree with you in that we likely have no choice but to put at least SOME trust in these studies (at least if we expect to use the products). Having consumers increase their awareness of who is creating these products, and how, and what motivations those companies have to do so, is in my opinion one of the best options moving forward. Blind faith in esotericism is never good, whether it is scientific or religious. Thus people need to ask lots of questions, challenge authority, search for an agenda, etc.
“Monsanto is a multi-billion dollar company that owns patents on 90% of the GM crops that are sold. Yes, you can actually own a patent on a genetic modification.”
This is another reason why many people are against GMO products. Even if the products were proven to be 100% safe, there are motivations with certain consumers (myself included) to avoid patronizing these corporations simply because they don’t like their business practices (whether it relates to farmers, sustainability, or for other reasons).
“Fortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a real basis for organic food being safer than conventionally grown food, both contain what are generally regarded as safe levels of pesticide residues, although, organic food may contain slightly less pesticide residues.”
Actually with certified organic foods, there are also many artificial additives that aren’t allowed in those foods (although Big Ag including companies like Monsanto are trying to reduce these regulations), and this does support the case for safer food (at least in this respect alone). Also less pesticide residues (which you mentioned) also makes for safer food on average. In the grander scheme of things, what organic offers that is more important than anything else is higher sustainability. When it comes down to it, organic farming leads to higher water retention in soil making it more suitable for areas that experience periodic droughts (thus requiring less fresh water which is a precious commodity indeed). Organic farming also tends to have higher nutritive value in the foods produced than conventionally farmed food (even if there has been no considerable difference found between GMO foods and non-GMO foods).
“If anything the lack of studies on organic food should make you feel safer buying non-organic.”
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, but I do agree with you that more studies should be undertaken for organic products. One of the reasons that there are less studies performed for organic, is that there are less companies producing and less consumers consuming those products. If the demand and consumption goes up, there will be more money from those particular corporations to fund studies related to the products. There is a bit of a feedback loop and correlation between how much money is in an industry and how much money goes towards studies related to that industry.
“Both sides are billion dollar industries and have a lot at stake, despite what organic products would have you believe.”
I believe that you are absolutely correct on this one. Follow the money. If both industries stand to make a considerable profit, then the consumer needs to take either companies suggestions with a grain of salt.
Lastly, I’ll say that due to a lack of knowledge of the potentially negative long-term ecological or health effects caused by GMO products, consumers have an evolutionarily ingrained intuitive psychology about foods that have had an evolutionary precedent — where the natural selection or artificial selection methods employed in our past food production have a precedent (much more the case with natural selection as opposed to artificial selection). If nature’s trial and error process produced foods that we know are safe because of their extremely long precedent, our innate aversion to potentially dangerous foods (mostly “engineered” foods that have little or no precedent in our diet) is hardly surprising. There is a risk with GMO that is unprecedented. Never has there been any animal that consciously changed the genes of their food (until now). This lack of precedent doesn’t mean that genetically engineered food is bad — in fact, it may be a part of our cultural evolution that actually saves our species one day (or it may irreparably destroy the environment for our species and/or many others). As I’ve mentioned in one of my previous posts relating to what I call “engineered selection” (http://lagevondissen.wordpress.com/2013/07/10/technology-evolution-and-the-fate-of-mankind/), genetic engineering may be what we need to survive. However, we need to use this technology with incredible caution and reservation or it may be our undoing.
I loved the topic of your post and thought that you raised a lot of valid points, even if I didn’t agree with all of them. Dialogue, debate, and open communication are what matters most. That’s why I like writing personally, because it opens the doors to discussing such fascinating topics as we trek through the “strikes” and “gutters” of the human condition.
#2 by Jesse Thornton on April 4, 2014 - 7:42 PM
First off, I appreciate the feedback and I agree that these discussions are important and all viewpoints should be considered…which is part of the reason I started blogging!
Looking back now, you’re right that I should not have made such a blanket statement implying that a business would not intentionally harm their customers. I personally believe that it still applies in this context, but as you said there are companies like Phillip Morris. However, I can’t say that I buy into the idea that companies produce junk food in order to drive up business for the pharmaceutical companies, or that food additives and processed foods are causing health problems..mostly because I don’t think there’s anything inherently bad with those things. Studies claiming otherwise are probably looking at observational data based on questionnaires and wrongly trying to make authoritative conclusions based on that. These studies also rarely take into account socioeconomic factors that are likely just as harmful, if not more harmful to health. Correlation does not equal causation.
I have a recent example in mind, only because I became aware of it a few days ago. A new study that claims eating meat and dairy is just as harmful to your health as smoking (http://www.cbsnews.com/news/meat-dairy-may-be-as-detrimental-to-your-health-as-smoking-cigarettes/). But if you look at the actual study they initially found no correlation between mortality and diet in the population, and were only able to draw a conclusion about dietary factors when looking at a subgroup of the population. That’s not the headline though. It’s like they had a conclusion in mind and only pulled out data that fit that conclusion.
Unfortunately, you are right about the conflicts of interest found in peer reviewed research, but all things considered the peer reviewed system is the best system we have for evaluating scientific ideas and I trust it to get it right most of the time. When I cite articles I try to avoid the ones that present obvious conflicts of interest and when I do use them, I point that out as I have here. Failing that, we can only look deeper into the studies themselves and draw our conclusions, such as the dairy and meat example above…and maybe those researchers were depending on positive results to continue to receive funding, that’s another motivation that should be considered when looking at these things. Luckily we do have the ability to challenge studies that are fatally flawed, retractions happen all the time.
I’ll briefly address your points on organic because I actually plan on doing a separate article on conventional vs organic in the future. From the reading that I’ve done, there are only a few studies that claim a higher nutritive value in organic food over conventional and usually its marginal. But the quality of those studies are questionable as well because, as I understand it, they don’t always take into account factors that can influence the data such as growing location, ripeness at time of harvest, etc. I admittedly don’t know enough about the farming methods to evaluate the sustainability of organic vs conventional. The organic people say that organic farming methods are the way to go forward, while the conventional people tell us their way is more sustainable.
Logic tells me that GMO’s can solve problems that both methods present and there’s no reason we can’t combine methods to increase crop yields, preserve soil, increase nutritional value, etc…as I believe I pointed out in the original post. That also falls in line with the ideas presented in your article. More of us are living and living longer, so we need to find ways to squeeze the most resources out of what we have available on this planet. Genetic engineering can provide solutions on multiple fronts.
We do need to exercise caution going forward and more rigorous testing should be implemented, as long as it doesn’t reach a point where its prohibitive to advancement in times when we are in dire need of it.
#3 by LageLage on April 4, 2014 - 9:02 PM
” I personally believe that it still applies in this context, but as you said there are companies like Phillip Morris.”
Monsanto is also an organization that could very well put out a harmful product as long as they made enough money in the short term before suspending the product. Short-term profit incentives often cause wealthy corporations to make very unethical decisions, provided the potential litigation costs estimated do not exceed the short-term profit.
“However, I can’t say that I buy into the idea that companies produce junk food in order to drive up business for the pharmaceutical companies,”
I’m not saying that there is strong evidence to support this, but it is a rationale that some companies have taken advantage of in the past, as when the member of a board in one company is also the member of the board in another. That has happened many times and supports this concern anyway. However junk food DOES drive up business for the pharmaceutical companies, even if there is no underlying agenda to do so from those individual companies. Any companies (or investors) that take advantage of this relationship create a profit incentive to have both companies continue to do what they do.
“or that food additives and processed foods are causing health problems..mostly because I don’t think there’s anything inherently bad with those things.”
In general, it is always more likely that non-naturally occurring compounds (or unnatural concentrations of any compound) are going to be more harmful to the recipient than whole, natural, unadulterated foods. Our bodies have evolved to eat and assimilate certain foods, and anything that deviates from that diet precedent is likely to cause problems.
“Studies claiming otherwise are probably looking at observational data based on questionnaires and wrongly trying to make authoritative conclusions based on that. Correlation does not equal causation.”
There are studies out there that imply that, on average, additives and preservatives have either neutral to negative health consequences. The most important thing to remember in these cases is that in general it is better to avoid ingesting unnatural foods.
“Unfortunately, you are right about the conflicts of interest found in peer reviewed research, but all things considered the peer reviewed system is the best system we have for evaluating scientific ideas and I trust it to get it right most of the time.”
I tend to trust it often as well, but I always look for hidden motivations in those funding and managing the studies.
“From the reading that I’ve done, there are only a few studies that claim a higher nutritive value in organic food over conventional and usually its marginal. But the quality of those studies are questionable as well because, as I understand it, they don’t always take into account factors that can influence the data such as growing location, ripeness at time of harvest, etc.”
Yes, I agree that there are a lot of compounding factors that complicate the interpretation of results in these studies. In general however, I’ve read that organic farming practices (more specifically pastoral organic as opposed to industrial organic) end up having higher nutrient content because above and beyond better water retention in the soil, organic fertilizers also tend to help the soil retain various vitamins and minerals thus increasing their availability to the plants growing in that soil. Please note that conventional crops that are also GMO are not included in this comparison.
“I admittedly don’t know enough about the farming methods to evaluate the sustainability of organic vs conventional. The organic people say that organic farming methods are the way to go forward, while the conventional people tell us their way is more sustainable. ”
I believe the biggest source of confusion is the interpretation of “sustainable” and what the primary goals of food production are. In the case of organic farming practices, they are going to be more likely to keep the top soil from eroding vs. conventional farming. However, conventional farming generally allows the farmer to grow more food per acre, thus feeding more people with less land. The biggest problem is that conventional farming relies heavily on petro-chemical fertilizers which are a non-renewable resource sourced from fossil fuels. Pastoral organic farming practices on the other hand, do not rely on a sinking bed of fossil fuels. As for the amount of land used for farming, the amount of land used is not as important as the long term trend of the soil quality and use of non-renewable resources. In order to support the entire world with organic farming, people have to start eating a lot less red meat and replace that fat/protein source with more fish, poultry, dairy, and eggs. This issue has so many facets, I could go off into tangents indefinitely. The bottom line for me anyway, is that organic farming practices have been shown to be best overall for sustainability.
“Logic tells me that GMO’s can solve problems that both methods present and there’s no reason we can’t combine methods to increase crop yields, preserve soil, increase nutritional value, etc…as I believe I pointed out in the original post. That also falls in line with the ideas presented in your article. ”
I completely agree. GMO has the potential to solve many or all of these problems. However due to our lack of knowledge of the ecosystem (and our body chemistry) and the complex relationships that we know so little about, GMO is a lot more risky, and should be handled extremely responsibly and cautiously.
“More of us are living and living longer, so we need to find ways to squeeze the most resources out of what we have available on this planet. Genetic engineering can provide solutions on multiple fronts.”
This is part of the problem. In my opinion, we need to decrease our population so that many of these problems exponentially decrease in magnitude, and my hope is that one goal reached with genetic engineering is to keep our population in check (how we accomplish this is another matter entirely). Having more than enough resources to go around (due to less demand/population) makes me feel a lot better about our future than if we’re forced to “Squeeze the most resources out of what we have available”. Having to squeeze out every last drop means that we aren’t giving ourselves any breathing space to accommodate unknown variables that might pinch us in the future. It is much more responsible to address the root causes of unsustainability and prioritize them (population reduction is probably the largest goal needed, followed by decreasing individual consumption/waste/pollution, etc. via the reform of farming practices).
“We do need to exercise caution going forward and more rigorous testing should be implemented, as long as it doesn’t reach a point where its prohibitive to advancement in times when we are in dire need of it.”
I agree that we need more testing for sure. We should be careful with the concept of what is “prohibitive to advancement”. We need to better define what we mean by “advancement” and where we draw the line for “adequate testing”. It’s far too easy to lose sight of the consequences when trying to reach certain goals (when those goals may be unattainable without our knowing it).
#4 by Jesse Thornton on April 4, 2014 - 11:17 PM
Monsanto still has to get FDA, USDA and/or EPA approval and demonstrate safety on any new products that may pose a danger to human health if those products contain an insecticide, toxin, etc such as Bt proteins or if they contain a protein that significantly differs from what that plant produces in its natural state. However, I realize that argument doesn’t hold much weight if you believe in collusion between Monsanto and regulating entities. I’m not saying the potential for abuse isn’t there or hasn’t existed historically but Monsanto can sell products that have been proven to be safe and be insanely profitable. I don’t think they need to sell something dangerous and I don’t see the incentive.
And I think our exposure to food additives is so minimal that I’m not worried about it. We’re living longer than ever with the food we have and virtually anything can be harmful in abundance.
Its hard to avoid those “unnatural” items in our diet anyway. Anything labeled as “organic” must consist of 95% organically produced ingredients while 5% can contain conventional or synthetic components. “Made with organic ingredients” labels require only 70% of the product to be organic. “Certified” on a label doesn’t really mean anything. “100% organic” on a label is the closest you’ll come to getting a completely natural product, but even then organic processing aids are allowable.
So my point is, eat what you like, choose whatever looks the most appealing and don’t worry about it, unless you’re eating spoonfuls of pure BHT. Most of our diseases are either genetic or exist because of old age, but I think we like to attribute the cause to something we’re doing as humans. It feels more avoidable, possibly controllable.
How would you suggest we keep the population in check? I’m not sure what could be done about that, short of strictly enforcing a worldwide limit on the number of children people could have which would be nearly impossible to enforce. While reducing the population would certainly solve a lot of problems, I don’t think its realistic and probably unethical.
#5 by Lage on April 5, 2014 - 10:24 AM
“Monsanto still has to get FDA, USDA and/or EPA approval and demonstrate safety on any new products that may pose a danger to human health if those products contain an insecticide, toxin, etc such as Bt proteins or if they contain a protein that significantly differs from what that plant produces in its natural state. However, I realize that argument doesn’t hold much weight if you believe in collusion between Monsanto and regulating entities.”
Since I do believe in collusion between Monsanto and regulating entities and/or inadequate regulation standards from said regulating entities, whatever approval they are required to get by law doesn’t guarantee a safe product.
“I’m not saying the potential for abuse isn’t there or hasn’t existed historically but Monsanto can sell products that have been proven to be safe and be insanely profitable. I don’t think they need to sell something dangerous and I don’t see the incentive.”
Yes Monsanto CAN sell products that have been proven to be safe, but the proof that lies out there certainly isn’t conclusive proof. I don’t think that they NEED to sell something dangerous, but it doesn’t mean that they won’t. As for the incentive, I already mentioned it — profit! Short term profit incentives have already been shown to be effective enough for companies to sell unsafe products. Monsanto is no exception to the incentives of short-term profit, especially if they’ve invested a lot of capital in a particular product and it later turns out to be problematic. To prevent lost investment, many companies will push a product that is unsafe simply because the investment in said product is worth protecting. That’s all I’m saying. It doesn’t mean that companies will always do it, or that the incentives are equally strong across the board with all unsafe products — far from it. The incentives do exist from time to time though, and without being an insider in the company, I can’t know for sure either way.
“And I think our exposure to food additives is so minimal that I’m not worried about it. We’re living longer than ever with the food we have and virtually anything can be harmful in abundance.”
Food additives/preservatives are in most processed foods that people buy, and there is no way to know what a safe level is, since sleeper effects or physiological effects that don’t manifest themselves quickly enough or in a way that we can currently detect prevents us from knowing that safe level. As for living longer, most of that is because of clean water and sanitation improvements and has little to do with our food supply. If anything, agriculture in general has been a detriment to our health since we’ve evolved to be hunter gatherers more than agrarians forced into more monocultural diets. Additionally, we have more health problems due to diet than we’ve seen in decades (e.g. diabetes, obesity, and heart disease — largely caused from Big Ag and their push of unhealthy grains and high corn syrup and high carb levels in diets). I agree with you that anything at all can be harmful in abundance (even water). Obviously those things that we’ve evolved to ingest we can take in the relatively highest levels compared to those things that we haven’t evolved to ingest.
“Most of our diseases are either genetic or exist because of old age, but I think we like to attribute the cause to something we’re doing as humans.”
While most of the diseases that exist MAY exist because of old age (although I’ve never actually quantified this so I’ll take your word for it for the purposes of this discussion), the most prominent disease that affects the most people in the U.S. anyway is heart disease, followed by diabetes and these is caused from dietary factors, not old age.
“How would you suggest we keep the population in check? I’m not sure what could be done about that, short of strictly enforcing a worldwide limit on the number of children people could have which would be nearly impossible to enforce.”
Modify our conscious control over reproductive choices and/or by inhibiting or reducing sexual drive to more manageable levels (although certainly not zero to prevent extinction), or similar strategies. The other options are simply convincing the public to increase their use of birth control and think more critically about their family planning decisions. Many people simply want to “be fruitful and multiply” and pay no attention to the long-term consequences of their actions. Providing more information related to those consequences in order for would-be parents to make more informed choices will certainly be a major factor in this population check strategy.
“While reducing the population would certainly solve a lot of problems, I don’t think its realistic and probably unethical.”
I think that what is “realistic” largely depends on the collective goals of the people involved. If people could be convinced of the world-wide benefits of simply having less children (including a better quality of life for each child that they do have in a less populated world), they would be more inclined to do so. In a world with increasing global communication and education on these matters, this isn’t impossible by any means — although it certainly isn’t going to happen overnight. As for “unethical”, we could argue that anything is unethical for a number of reasons. One could argue that allowing people to have as many children as they want regardless of the long-term consequences for those children, the entire human race, and/or the entire environment, is unethical. There is nothing objectively unethical in my opinion. It’s all subjective and in the eye of the beholder and depends on what goals and motivations have the highest priority and thus what defines our ethics. This is why it is important to discuss these issues so we can figure out what the majority of people really want. If it turns out that most people in the world don’t care about long-term sustainability, then those that disagree need to raise their efforts to convince them otherwise (for the sake of the planet and many species including our own). It is certainly not a black and white issue, so there are a lot of different perspectives on the issue that all deserve consideration. Population goals, if met or improve, will definitely help to make many other goals realizable and it will simplify the whole process. Genetic engineering (even if it involves neurologically changing some instinctual motivations that are no longer compatible with our current state of cultural evolution). It is a dense topic indeed with many possible solutions.
#6 by Lage on April 5, 2014 - 10:29 AM
I made a few typos there so you’ll have to excuse me. I didn’t get enough sleep last night… 😛
#7 by Jesse Thornton on April 5, 2014 - 1:58 PM
I’m just going to respond to a couple things you mentioned because we’re starting to get off topic and the tangents could be endless and the discussion starts becoming circular…
First, I wasn’t implying that our food is making us live longer, only that its not exactly hurting us and shouldn’t be anyway near the top of our list of worries. You’re right about sanitation and water being the prime factors in allowing us to live longer.
Secondly…and this could lead to another one of those long tangents and I would prefer to talk more about it in a separate article where I can get all the facts and numbers together….but the only disease that is really connected to diet is type 2 diabetes, however even that link is questionable. And this really goes against conventional wisdom but heart disease MAY be linked to obesity. The majority of cases are genetic and will never be solved by dietary changes, instead requiring drugs for treatment. The other major source of heart problems comes from smoking.
Further, I don’t view food or Big Agri agendas as the cause of obesity. We can eat grains and sugars and fast food, while still being healthy. We need to look at the reasons why people over eat and stop demonizing food. Stress, depression, social pressures, the economy are all larger factors than the food options we have available.
Overall, how happy do you think we are we as a nation compared to other first world nations? (Assuming you’re from the US like me). I’m willing to bet that the happiest people, and not necessarily the wealthiest, are least likely to be obese and not because they can afford better meal options than McDonald’s.
#8 by Lage on April 5, 2014 - 2:28 PM
“….but the only disease that is really connected to diet is type 2 diabetes, however even that link is questionable.”
I’m going to have to disagree with you here. Heart disease is absolutely connected to diet, otherwise we wouldn’t have seen a surge of the disease in the last 50 years during a time when we started eating less healthy animal fats and started eating more grains, sugars, and vegetable oils. Heart disease definitely has genetic risk factors, just as obesity has genetic links. To say that these illnesses are not caused by diet simply because they have a genetic component is erroneous.
“And this really goes against conventional wisdom but heart disease MAY be linked to obesity. The majority of cases are genetic and will never be solved by dietary changes, instead requiring drugs for treatment. The other major source of heart problems comes from smoking.”
Heart disease is linked to obesity, because the over-intake of foods, especially the higher intake of inflammatory sugars and wheat products exacerbates the disease by causing more fibrous sticky arterial walls, etc. Drugs mostly help mask symptoms (including statins like Lipitor) where it isn’t the high cholesterol that is the problem so much as the chronic inflammation that causes that cholesterol to be problematic. It is a complex issue physiologically speaking. As for the link between heart disease and smoking, a lot of those results are a mistaken “correlation implies causation” interpretation, where in reality smokers’ diets are markedly different from non-smokers and so the results of many of those studies are ambiguous.
“Further, I don’t view food or Big Agri agendas as the cause of obesity. We can eat grains and sugars and fast food, while still being healthy. ”
I do see them as a part of the problem. They clearly want people to eat more food, because it allows them to make more profit. Studies have also shown that carbohydrate intake increases Leptin levels and subsequently increases hunger (specifically hunger for more carbohydrates) thus leading to a feedback loop where Big Ag pushing higher amounts of carbohydrates on the public will lead to more demand for grains and thus more profit. While people can eat grains, sugars, and fast food in small to moderate amounts, the more people ingest (specifically wheat, sugar, vegetable oils, and fried food) the worse their health will be. People can still be “fit” and eat many of those foods if they don’t eat too much, but they can’t be as healthy on that diet.
“We need to look at the reasons why people over eat and stop demonizing food. Stress, depression, social pressures, the economy are all larger factors than the food options we have available.”
I agree with you here. The largest problem when it comes to obesity is caloric intake. However as I mentioned earlier, eating certain foods with higher glycemic indices, or those that increase hunger levels will exacerbate the onset of obesity and the resulting diseases that ensue. You are also right that stress, depression, and other social factors are important when it comes to many of these bad lifestyle habits/diets. Also, we’ve evolved to eat many carbs and calories when they are available (for survival reasons that promote fat storage for lean times), and with grocery stores and restaurants at our disposal, our primal urges have become incompatible with these cultural inventions and so we need to control food supplies, advertisements, and portion sizes and promote foods that increase satiety with less calories in order to combat these biological-cultural incompatibilities.
“Overall, how happy do you think we are we as a nation compared to other first world nations? (Assuming you’re from the US like me). I’m willing to bet that the happiest people, and not necessarily the wealthiest, are least likely to be obese and not because they can afford better meal options than McDonald’s.”
I agree with you here. Those that are happiest will eat less due to there being less depression-induced consumption. However, regardless of happiness, the foods that are available (i.e. those that better promote obesity vs. those that do not) make a difference when all else is equal.
#9 by krishnakant on April 21, 2014 - 10:15 AM
very good & interesting
#10 by Esther on April 22, 2014 - 5:24 AM
Interesting tangential discussion here about obesity/heart disease. Personally, I disagree that there is a clear causal link between the change in our diets over the past 50 years and the rise in heart disease. Just because there is a correlation between the two, doesn’t mean that one causes the other. The other thing that’s changed over the past 50 years is our level of activity – people now have a much more sedentary lifestyle, with more people driving (rather than walking), working in offices (rather than outdoors or in manufacturing industries), sitting in front of the TV/computers (rather than going outside to play with their kids) etc. It is potentially the lack of exercise that causes obesity and associated illnesses, rather than the food that we eat. In other words, if we still maintained our active lifestyles from 50 years ago, we could continue to eat what we eat now, without an impact on our health. Worth bearing in mind?
#11 by Lage on April 22, 2014 - 9:32 AM
“Personally, I disagree that there is a clear causal link between the change in our diets over the past 50 years and the rise in heart disease.”
The evidence speaks for itself. It has been shown that many vegetable oils, many types of grains (mostly wheat), and excess sugar cause increased inflammation in the body (including the arteries) and sticky fibrous damage to the arteries, thus severely contributing to heart disease. Our intake of vegetable oils, many types of grains, and sugar have all increased markedly over the last 50 years. Sedentary lifestyle, while it contributes to these illnesses, is not the primary cause of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease (although it is a significant factor). To make one point, I’ll mention that obesity is one of the largest risk factors for heart disease, and ultimately, the primary cause of obesity is from excess caloric intake (thus it can be largely if not completely avoided by sedentary people eating less calories) and it is amplified by poor nutrition — as processed carbohydrates tend to have a higher glycemic index (leading to insulin spikes, diabetes, and fat retention), less nutritive foods fail to supply the body with vitamins required for proper metabolism, decreasing the intake of saturated fats and cholesterol tend to decrease testosterone in the body thus further reaking havoc on one’s metabolism and depressing the immune system, higher carbohydrate diets tend to increase Leptin levels thus increasing hunger (making overindulgence more likely), and high Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratios (found in vegetable oils) causes weaker cell wall integrity leading to many physical ailments including heart issues, etc. The foods that are known to contribute to these problems have increased in the average American diet over the last 50 years (look at the per capita consumption of sugar or vegetable oils over the last 50 years and you’ll see this), as have the incidence of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. While the correlation is outstanding, the causal link is supported as well. There are definitely causal factors linked between diet and heart disease, although diet isn’t the only factor. As you said, sedentary lifestyle contributes as well (which I completely agree with), but it isn’t a matter of “one or the other” — rather it’s BOTH diet and sedentary lifestyle.
“In other words, if we still maintained our active lifestyles from 50 years ago, we could continue to eat what we eat now, without an impact on our health. Worth bearing in mind?”
Absolutely not! While it is true that more active lifestyles will improve fitness (as well as health to some degree), diet is more important than fitness when it comes to overall health. The diet is what supplies our bodies with the proper balance of vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients — important bodily needs that increased activity can’t provide. Now diet and activity both work hand in hand in achieving health, in the sense that a fit body on an ideal diet will have a higher metabolism, will be able to better assimilate those nutrients and will be healthier overall due to a better balance of hormone levels, among other reasons. However, diet is still the number one priority because it provides the basic building blocks for repairing the body, and maintaining health. If you replaced a healthy diet and relatively sedentary lifestyle with a poor nutrient deficient diet complemented with increased physical activity — you may have a person that is fitter (in the short term), but their health will decline over time as any doctor will tell you, and their body will not be able to handle the increased activity for long without an adequate/increased supply of the proper nutrients from a better diet. So it is clear that increased activity for the sedentary will improve their health to some degree, but their diet is the most important factor. As the old adage goes, “You are what you eat!” So “eat well” and you will “be well”…
My two cents,
#12 by Jesse Thornton on April 22, 2014 - 11:32 AM
The link between diet and heart disease may not be as clear as you think. The thought for years has been that saturated fats increase the incidence of heart disease because it causes an increase in cholesterol. However, this link has only been found in short term studies and the association is weak, long term studies do not show an association between saturated fat intake and blood cholesterol levels. (source: http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.com/2011/01/does-dietary-saturated-fat-increase.html). In fact, a diet high in cholesterol may not raise cholesterol levels but only slightly. The ratio of HDL and LDL cholesterol remains unchanged in the long term and so does the risk of heart disease. (source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19852882). When the body has a lower intake of cholesterol, it makes more. When there is more cholesterol intake, it makes less, and our bodies actually don’t absorb much from our diet anyway.
My own cholesterol and blood pressure levels run high and there’s nothing dietarily I can do about it. My diet is “good.” I’m young, I’m a healthy weight, and I get way more than the recommended amount of exercise per week. I have other health problems but they are completely unrelated to my heart. All I can do is take a pill to correct the problem.
There is a link between omega-3 intake and decreased cancer risk but no link to heart disease that I am aware of, and I don’t even know how solid the evidence between omega-3’s and inflammation are as omega-3’s tend to work by illiciting a response by the immune system. There are cultures with high omega-6 and virtually no omega-3 intake that function just fine. And I don’t understand how the ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 has an effect on cell wall integrity as you say. If anything, I would think both would decrease stearic hindrance between fat molecules in the cell wall leading to a potentially compromised cell wall. Again, I don’t know but I’m only guessing.
I don’t know anything about Leptins, so I can’t comment on that. I will research this topic at a later point so I can learn about them.
There is a link between diet and inflammation, although I’m not entirely clear on what it is and that is too large of a topic to research here.
However, I will argue the point that processed foods are lacking in nutritional value, as there are studies that show different methods of preparation have different effects on nutrients but it doesn’t exactly deplete them of nutritional content (source: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/jf072304b). I don’t think we’re necessarily deficient in vitamins and minerals which is evident by studies showing mixed results in the supposed need for multivitamins and other supplements, also by all the food that is “fortified with such and such vitamin/mineral”. Even our water has added ions and minerals.
I would like to get into our diets of the past, as Esther implied how much better were our diets 50 years ago? Grandma’s home cooking was loaded with saturated fats and cholesterol, not healthy at all when compared to what we think constitutes a good diet. How does our diet compare to the average European diet? How much exercise do we American’s get compared to the average European? Going back to a point I made in a previous comment, how much do socioeconomic factors and stress have in obesity rates? The issue is very complex and I think there many factors at play here that we tend to ignore.
#13 by Lage on April 22, 2014 - 5:38 PM
I believe that you were writing this response to me? It read “in response to Jess Thornton”, but I assume it was a response to me so I’ll continue…
“The link between diet and heart disease may not be as clear as you think.”
It is pretty clear. There are many factors that contribute to heart disease including diet, exercise, and genetics. The link between heart disease and these factors is quite clear, although we are continuing to gain important information with regard to the interaction between these factors. All of those factors however (diet included) have been quite clearly linked to heart disease, even if we still have a lot more to learn about it.
“The thought for years has been that saturated fats increase the incidence of heart disease because it causes an increase in cholesterol. However, this link has only been found in short term studies and the association is weak, long term studies do not show an association between saturated fat intake and blood cholesterol levels.”
I couldn’t agree with you more. I am an advocate for consuming MORE saturated fat and cholesterol for the very reason that these have been falsely demonized as dangerous to one’s health. On the contrary, people have been eating lots of saturated fat and cholesterol ontogenically from the time they were babies, and phylogenically from the time we were early hunter gatherers. The main foods linked to heart disease have been found to be certain vegetable oils, wheat and some other grains, and excessive sugar consumption. Once the arterial walls are inflamed or sticky, then cholesterol in the blood can become an agent to clog arteries for example. Unfortunately, people have been demonizing the cholesterol rather than the other inflammatory foods that made the arterial walls inflamed and sticky. So people have been wrongly told to take statins (or reduce dietary cholesterol) to reduce their blood cholesterol rather than reduce the grains, sugar, and vegetable oils that make that cholesterol a problem. In short, statins and dietary cholesterol reduction have become a band-aid approach to allow people to live with inflammation and sticky arteries. The better approach would be to reduce the inflammatory foods, and then not worry about blood cholesterol so it can remain in your blood in order to do its job.
” When the body has a lower intake of cholesterol, it makes more. When there is more cholesterol intake, it makes less, and our bodies actually don’t absorb much from our diet anyway.”
My point exactly. The body needs cholesterol in the blood and this homeostatic regulation proves it. Our body needs to be able to live with and work with this cholesterol, which means that reducing inflammation and stickiness in the arteries is key to preventing any cholesterol from becoming an agent for arterial blockage. This means reducing inflammatory foods.
“My own cholesterol and blood pressure levels run high and there’s nothing dietarily I can do about it. ”
There’s likely nothing wrong with having “high” cholesterol, as long as your inflammation levels are low. This inflammation can be reduced by other dietary measures unrelated to cholesterol as I have mentioned earlier.
“My diet is “good.” ”
Without seeing your dietary plan, I can’t comment on that claim. I’d have to see how many inflammatory foods you are eating; how many vegetable oils, sugars, trans fats, etc.
“All I can do is take a pill to correct the problem.”
If you are taking a pill simply to reduce your blood cholesterol levels (and you’ve had an inflammation test that came back with good results), you are most likely wasting your money (despite what your doctor may say — a doctor who may be pressured into dispensing pharmaceuticals to his patients). Cholesterol-reducing statins comprise an over $25 Billion industry after all.
“There is a link between omega-3 intake and decreased cancer risk but no link to heart disease that I am aware of, and I don’t even know how solid the evidence between omega-3′s and inflammation are as omega-3′s tend to work by illiciting a response by the immune system. ”
There is indeed a link between higher omega-3 intake and reduced heart disease risk because Omega-3’s have been found to reduce inflammation. Reduced inflammation means healthier arteries and blood vessels, less clotting, less cracking, etc. They also reduce the growth rate of plaques in the arteries, reduce blood pressure, and heart rate. Studies have shown that omega-3 reduces serum C-reactive protein, a general indicator of inflammation. For some studies on Omega-3 intake and reduced inflammation, check out a few sources:
European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2009, Vol. 63, pp. 1154-1156
May 14, 2012 online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
For a source that mentions how elevated levels of C-reactive protein (inflammation marker) indicates an increased risk of heart disease, check out:
New England Journal of Medicine (2004, Vol. 351, pp. 2599-2610)
“And I don’t understand how the ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 has an effect on cell wall integrity as you say. ”
Both of these essential fatty acids end up being incorporated into the cellular membranes of our cells. Too many of these unstable PUFAs incorporated into the cellular membrane make the cell membrane more prone to externally induced oxidative damage. Omega-3’s free in the bloodstream specifically help to reduce oxidative damage through other interactions, so if the cellular membrane becomes increasingly constituted by PUFAs (even if this includes Omega-3’s), having a higher Omega-3 ratio in the diet (while keeping the total amount of PUFAs constant) will reduce the vulnerability of the cell membrane by reducing oxidative damage. If Omega-6’s are higher in the ratio, then they will displace the presence of Omega-3’s in the bloodstream.
For a study with information on increasing Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratio and reducing heart disease:
Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2005 Dec;1055:179-92
“However, I will argue the point that processed foods are lacking in nutritional value, as there are studies that show different methods of preparation have different effects on nutrients but it doesn’t exactly deplete them of nutritional content”
Processed foods tend to be lacking in nutritional value for several reasons. If they are fortified with vitamins, the vitamins added are often not as easily absorbed/assimilated by the body as they would be if those vitamins were naturally present with other synergistic substances in the food. If they aren’t fortified, then they are often lacking many essential vitamins and minerals altogether either because they don’t have many high vitamin ingredients and/or because those vitamins have lost potency by being stored for extended periods of time on the shelf. The studies that make claims about nutritional content with regard to “methods of preparation” often have little to do with the vitamins and minerals present in PROCESSED foods and more to do with how they are cooked (by “processed”, I am typically referring to foods that have been significantly altered from the state that they were in when removed from the ground/plant/tree/animal).
” I don’t think we’re necessarily deficient in vitamins and minerals which is evident by studies showing mixed results in the supposed need for multivitamins and other supplements, also by all the food that is “fortified with such and such vitamin/mineral”. Even our water has added ions and minerals.”
We’re not “necessarily” deficient in vitamins (although I’m not exactly sure what you mean by this), but diets that are lacking in whole vitamin-rich foods are deficient in vitamins. More processed foods and more empty carbohydrates in our typical diets are the main culprit here. People that are getting these vitamins from their food DON’T need multi-vitamins or other supplements because they are getting everything from their diet. Those that are eating poor diets and have a lack of fresh fruits, vegetables, and animal fats often require this supplementation as various health problems ensue.
“I would like to get into our diets of the past, as Esther implied how much better were our diets 50 years ago? Grandma’s home cooking was loaded with saturated fats and cholesterol, not healthy at all when compared to what we think constitutes a good diet. ”
These saturated fats and cholesterol from “Grandma’s home cooking” are good for us, as more and more studies are showing. It’s the margarine, soybean oil, and other replacements to Grandma’s naturally occurring fats that have escalated many health problems. Grandma knew what she was doin’! I make sure that my diet is full of fruits, vegetables, fatty meats (grass fed beef, pork, fish, etc.), 100% grass fed whole milk and butter (although milk isn’t compatible with everyone due to the lactose intolerance as this was very recently added to our diet several thousand years ago), etc. I try to reduce my intake of grains, vegetable oils, and sugar. As a result, over the last decade, my health has drastically improved, my asthma has improved, my inflammation has decreased, my immune system has improved, my strength has increased, etc. Basically eating more whole unadulterated foods was my easiest rule of thumb to make smart dietary choices. Eat what our ancestors ate (including what Grandma ate!). My grandmother ate lard, butter, and fatty meats all the time, and she lived to be 96 years old with very good heart health.
“How does our diet compare to the average European diet?”
I’ve read that our diet tends to be higher in calories and larger portion sizes. Beyond that, it’s harder for me to quantify the macro-nutrient profiles of those several dozen countries.
“Going back to a point I made in a previous comment, how much do socioeconomic factors and stress have in obesity rates? The issue is very complex and I think there many factors at play here that we tend to ignore.”
I agree that these other factors are worthy of our attention. There are feedback loops between stress and eating (and other “escapes”) and these can reinforce each other. Socioeconomic factors definitely play a role in obesity rates in terms of the varying ability to have a sedentary lifestyle, access to certain foods, etc.
#14 by Jesse Thornton on April 22, 2014 - 7:28 PM
Sorry, I’m a bit sleep deprived and trying to form coherent thoughts. But…yes I was replying to you and for some reason I read into your response wrongly thinking you had said something about saturated fat and cholesterol in association with increased risk of heart disease.
On some of the points you’ve made:
I’m just not convinced that we can say lowering our ratio of omega 6 to omega 3’s will prevent heart disease. A review published recently looking at 23 studies covering a sample size of a little over 500,000 people found no statistically significant link between omega 3, omega 6, and ALA intake and heart disease (http://www.crd.york.ac.uk/crdweb/ShowRecord.asp?LinkFrom=OAI&ID=12014019479#.U1bsu_ldWUQ). Although having been exposed to the research at my University that shows the anti-cancer benefits, I certainly don’t think its a bad idea to have your ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 intake be closer to 1.
If our hearts were healthier in the early 1900’s do you think our omega 6 to omega 3 intake was 1:1 or even 4:1? If so where was the omega 3’s coming from? Grass fed animals provide very little in the way omega 3 content and the most abundant sources we have are somewhat exotic to our natural resources. I don’t think we were consuming a lot of fish and we certainly didn’t incorporate flax seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds and the like into our diet.
And I think our tolerance to grains vary and the association people have made with grains and disease/inflammation is overstated. The French consume a lot of bread and thus a lot of grains and carbohydrates as well, obesity rates are on the rise, and yet they have a lower incidence of heart disease.
Anyway, glad to hear you’ve become healthier as a result of changing your diet. I’ve made similar changes to my diet and feel much better as well. But I still indulge from time to time because I enjoy all types of food knowing that moderation and variety is key. More to that, I don’t stress over how processed my food is or what kind of garden my vegetables came from because I feel those points aren’t worth my consideration provided I’m getting a fair amount of vegetables and fruit and my net caloric intake is fine. I’m a big proponent of choice though and I think more people would have success in dieting or lifestyle changes knowing they don’t necessarily have to take choice out of the equation. It’s difficult when we’re being bombarded with so many conflicting messages on what works and what doesn’t.
#15 by Lage on April 22, 2014 - 11:53 PM
“I’m just not convinced that we can say lowering our ratio of omega 6 to omega 3′s will prevent heart disease.”
I never said it would prevent it. I merely stated that the evidence suggests that it will lower your risk.
“A review published recently looking at 23 studies covering a sample size of a little over 500,000 people found no statistically significant link between omega 3, omega 6, and ALA intake and heart disease”
Unfortunately that meta-study was less reliable because it relied heavily on self-reported data. After all, they do stipulate: “The observational nature of much of the evidence suggests that caution is needed in interpreting the results, and the authors’ conclusions may be too strong and may not reflect the advice of some guidelines.”
The 530,525 participants were from cohort studies, with only a minority fraction of these (less than 50%) being of high quality. As indicated, there was “potential for bias due to patient selection and self-reporting of diet.” Also, the RR of the Omega-3 fatty acid correlation was 0.93 which I would argue is not insignificant, especially given that the confidence interval was 0.84 to 1.02 (thus the majority of the interval being within the positive correlation for Omega-3 benefits). While I don’t necessarily trust the reliability of this meta-study, there was a reduction of heart disease shown from Omega-3’s nevertheless (which is all I argued). Also, the study mentions “The results were presented for a number of sub-types of fatty acid; most were not statistically significant, but high levels of the subtypes of omega-3 were associated with a reduction in disease.”
Finally, as it clearly states at the end of the study: “Although the size of the review is in its favour, the limitations suggest that caution is required in interpreting the results, particularly where they CONFLICT WITH EXISTING RESEARCH. The authors’ conclusions may therefore be too strong, and may not represent the advice given in some cardiovascular guidelines.”
These results do conflict with existing research, and thus while the study carries some weight, my claims are supported by that existing research — much of which is not based on cohort studies that rely on self-reported data.
“If our hearts were healthier in the early 1900′s do you think our omega 6 to omega 3 intake was 1:1 or even 4:1?”
Not necessarily. However, if people were consuming more animal fats (saturated fats) and less vegetable oils, it wouldn’t matter if their omega ratios were equal to ours, for that saturated fat would be displacing the omegas and would provide a benefit in itself. Now, I believe that on top of higher saturated fat intake and lower vegetable oil intake, the omega ratios were better as well. Currently, the ratio in an average American diet is around 16:1. The amount of processed vegetable oils has increased dramatically in the last 100 years, and studies have shown that omega-6 fatty acids have increased in body fat stores by around 200% in the last 50 years. So whatever the ratio was back in the early 1900’s, the evidence suggests that it was significantly less.
“If so where was the omega 3′s coming from? Grass fed animals provide very little in the way omega 3 content and the most abundant sources we have are somewhat exotic to our natural resources.”
Large amounts of omega-3’s aren’t needed to increase the ratio of omega-3’s to omega-6’s. Rather a DECREASE in omega-6’s is all that is needed, which is explained by the decreased consumption of vegetable oils such as soybean oil which contains high omega-6 levels. That said, omega-3 levels were probably also higher. As for food sources, grass fed animals actually provide a GOOD source of omega-3’s (88.5 mg in just one serving of grass fed beef). Also grass fed beef has an increased omega-3 to omega-6 ratio which furthers my point as it was consumed heavily in the first half of the 1900’s. It wasn’t until they started feeding cattle grain that the omega ratios worsened, which didn’t become mainstream until — you guessed it — the latter half of the 1900’s. Butter and milk from grass fed cows also contain omega-3’s, although relatively low amounts. Kidney beans are another great source enjoyed in the early 1900’s with 300 mg of Omega-3’s in just one serving. People also ate fish back in the early 1900’s which we know is also high in omega-3’s. Cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and winter squash are some other omega-3 rich foods available in the early 1900’s. So plenty of foods were available with high omega-3 content, and as I mentioned before, as long as omega-6s are reduced in the ratio, the consumption of an adequate amount of omega-3s can be more attainable.
“And I think our tolerance to grains vary and the association people have made with grains and disease/inflammation is overstated. ”
I agree that our tolerance to grains vary. As for inflammation, grains such as corn are probably the worst (yes, corn is a vegetable, a fruit, AND a grain), due to their exceptionally high omega-6 content. As for wheat, when refined, studies have shown it to increase inflammation. With modern wheat, the levels of Amylopectin-A cause the food to break down into sugar more quickly causing blood sugar levels to rise, and high blood sugar levels increase inflammation. If nothing else, many grains have high glycemic loads and turning into sugar with little or no fiber to buffer such a load to the bloodstream will increase inflammation.
“Anyway, glad to hear you’ve become healthier as a result of changing your diet. I’ve made similar changes to my diet and feel much better as well. But I still indulge from time to time because I enjoy all types of food knowing that moderation and variety is key.”
Thank you! Likewise, I’m glad to hear your dietary changes have been serving you well. I indulge from time to time as well, and moderation is the best advice if a person has no certainty in the benefits of one choice over another. Also, scientific opinions change as more data is accumulated, so moderation is a wise choice overall in light of the “instability” of certain scientific claims.
“More to that, I don’t stress over how processed my food is or what kind of garden my vegetables came from because I feel those points aren’t worth my consideration provided I’m getting a fair amount of vegetables and fruit and my net caloric intake is fine.”
Personally, I do care about those kinds of things because I value sustainability in farming practices, and try to make the extra effort to get the health benefits from more traditional diets (i.e. diets closer to what our pre-agrarian ancestors ate, or at the very least, what our “pre-processing” agrarians ate). I agree however, that simply focusing on getting a fair amount of fruits and vegetables while watching the caloric intake goes a long way toward reaching or maintaining admirable health goals.
“I’m a big proponent of choice though and I think more people would have success in dieting or lifestyle changes knowing they don’t necessarily have to take choice out of the equation.”
I agree with you here. Giving people more choices will help them stick to dietary changes because the variety helps keep people motivated.
“It’s difficult when we’re being bombarded with so many conflicting messages on what works and what doesn’t.”
Very true indeed. The first step is getting more people interested in being better informed on these topics, so that they can investigate some of these findings for themselves and make more responsible decisions. Now determining which sources are the most reliable for this information is a bit trickier. I have the atypical privilege of being able to access academic journals and articles for many of these studies, but most people don’t. Most are forced to look at mass-media sources which are often nothing more than marketing or hype in disguise — telling these people what they should and shouldn’t do. Hopefully over time living in our information age, we will be able to sift through the BS more easily and trust the data more and more…
#16 by Jesse Thornton on April 23, 2014 - 10:13 AM
Overall I think we agree more than disagree, at least when it comes down to the basics. Just not as much for the overall conclusions and that’s okay, getting all perspectives out there is the important thing. It’s tough when it comes to these issues because there are so many confounding factors and it gets even trickier when looking at the experiments. Cell culture experiments often produce observable results that aren’t reproducible in humans or animals because they can’t replicate the complex interplay between the tissue microenvironment and the rest of the organism plus the outside environment. That doesn’t stop people from running with those reports and repeating the results as if they’re gospel…I just recently saw another “we’ve cured cancer article,” yes we have…in cell culture and it’s been done before. We’ve done it in mice too, but that doesn’t mean we have a cure that will work for us. Animal experiments just don’t translate to humans enough. And when we do observe humans, often the best evidence we have to draw from comes from population studies that involve surveys which are very prone to bias and confounding factors. Controlled double blind placebo studies that look at objective data are really the best and most trust worthy type of experiments we can do involving people, unfortunately that is also difficult, if not impossible to do in many situations.
But as you say, access is important and hopefully the publishing world starts moving toward more open access which seems to be happening. The language used in science is another barrier for the public though, even if we could drum up interest in these subjects and offer better access. I personally hate the language used in scientific journals and find it to be boring, redundant and just unnecessary. Nobody talks in real life the way these papers are written and I think you can “dumb” it down using more common language without dumbing down the content. I’m not much better though because I fall for a lot of the same traps in terms of the language I use when talking about science, but I am making an effort to be a more effective communicator through this blog as I continue to expand my own knowledge, and one of my goals is to be able to translate the research into something more accessible. Mass media, again as you’ve implied, does a horrendous job but I do think they will become less relevant as time goes on and more people communicate and share the real science.
#17 by Lage on April 24, 2014 - 11:00 AM
“The language used in science is another barrier for the public though, even if we could drum up interest in these subjects and offer better access. ”
I agree. There is definitely an esoteric barrier between these fields and the general public, whether it is the nomenclature used or the fundamental concepts and mechanisms which the layman just can’t relate to. Thus, many people have been forced into a position of “faith” when it comes to these subjects, as they put their trust in the scientific community (or more specifically, put their trust in the public voices that relay some interpretation or spin of the experimental findings). Better access is definitely key, and a greater emphasis in the sciences for children in school will help to reduce or eliminate the esoteric barriers throughout life — even if they never become “experts” in the fields. Greater emphases in science has already taken off in schools, so hopefully we can maintain that momentum.
“…but I am making an effort to be a more effective communicator through this blog as I continue to expand my own knowledge, and one of my goals is to be able to translate the research into something more accessible.”
Definitely a good goal to strive for. Keep it up Jesse! 🙂
Peace and love,