Can food waste improve health?
For years, food producers stripped ingredients of nutrients in order to make food cheaper. What they didn’t realize, however, was that they had also stripped away our ability to fight disease.
Study after study shows that the number of people suffering from diet-related diseases and allergies has grown significantly in recent years. Research continues to suggest that eating organic foods, minimally processed by the food industry, is the best prevention. But, as many know all too well, maintaining an all-organic diet is expensive.
But there is an alternative.
The challenge has always been that reducing the cost of food often means stripping it of key nutrients, as primary ingredients are replaced with cheaper filler (mostly from corn). In many cases, food producers are actually stripping away and discarding things that are valuable for our health.
What if we can put back the discarded nutrients and normalize our health without expensive organic options? But which nutrients make the biggest difference for our bodies?
Scientists from UC Davis decided to study breast milk as the ultimate, complete source of nutrition for humans, and compare it to the meals on our plates.
They learned that the third most abundant nutrient in breast milk is not even digestible by babies. They simply cannot process it.
The question then became, why would such a perfect meal, designed and perfected through millions of years of evolution, include so much of such a useless ingredient?
To find the answer, they compared the levels of disease and mortality experienced by infants fed breast milk, with those fed milk substitutes. The children fed milk substitutes experienced significantly higher rates of disease and mortality. When they analyzed the babies’ waste, they discovered that the diversity and volume of bacteria were different. They concluded that this unabsorbed ingredient was food not for the baby, but for its gut bacteria. These bacteria, known as the microbiome, act as a second immune system against diet-related diseases.
What is the name of this key nutrient? Oligosaccharides. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but what’s more important than how it’s pronounced, is what they do to protect us.
Unfortunately, for many years, neither the food industry nor scientists understood their benefits. They just knew they were indigestible and, because of that, didn't consider them an essential component. As a result, they were among the components stripped from food in efforts to cut costs. But, with the good bacteria that make up our microbiome left without their own food, our bodies became far more vulnerable to diet-related diseases and allergies.
Now that scientists have discovered the existence and importance of oligosaccharides, the most important question is how do we reintroduce them back into our bodies?
Should we ask nutritionists to produce new vitamins? Perhaps. But before we ask that of vitamin makers, who have a tendency to produce their own waste, we would be better off finding natural solutions that don’t waste more food and nutrients.
The good news is that oligosaccharides are a component of fiber found in certain plant tissues. We can get fiber from vegetables, fruits with peels, whole grain products and many other sources.
One thing that is important to remember: the food industry cut prices (and nutrients) not only to be more competitive; they also did it to fight hunger by extending the calorie supply. Fighting hunger will only get more challenging. We anticipate an extra 1.5 billion people on the planet by 2050. We cannot simply say, “let’s grow and produce more food.”
Land is limited, as is water, energy, and other essential resources required for farming. We cannot endlessly increase the strain we put on the planet. A better way forward is to think about how to get the most out of the nutrients that already exist in plants, but end up discarded and wasted by the food industry.
But are you ready to be a part of the solution?