Nutrition news

Aggie’s food moon shot

I didn’t understand it right away. I had spoken to Aggies, including Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp, who cited studies on health care costs and the nutritional value of the food Americans eat. They seemed excited about a new institute that has something to do with agriculture. I’m not a foodie, and the nutritional guidelines seem so malleable that I usually brush them off. Moreover, it was not surprising that a school whose “A” stood for agriculture would set up an agricultural program. I haven’t seen the news.

But then Patrick Stover, the program director, said something about changing the purpose of food.

It’s true. Change the purpose of food.

For the past twelve millennia or so, since humans developed agriculture, the goal of food systems has been to limit hunger, Stover explained. Well, yes, I thought. It seems obvious. A bit like saying that the purpose of roads is transportation. If it were otherwise, it would be news. But the newly launched Institute for Health Advancement through Agriculture (IHA) aims to change that. Stover and his team want to change humanity’s relationship to food.

That’s when I realized the Aggies were having a moon shot.

What we have all realized in recent years, even those of us who don’t count calories, is that for most developed countries the presence of food is almost as much of a threat to our health as its absence. .

Nearly half of all American adults have some type of cardiovascular disease, according to the American Heart Association. Nothing, not even COVID-19, kills Americans anymore. More than 70% of American adults are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 34 million Americans have diabetes. Six out of 10 suffer from a chronic health problem. And diet-related cardiometabolic diseases cost US$50.4 billion a year.

Stover’s team says it’s time for humanity to take the next evolutionary step, creating food systems that don’t just feed us, but help keep us healthy and, by extension, to reduce health care costs.

“Now agriculture is expected to support human health, reduce rates of chronic disease, do it in a way that’s environmentally friendly, do it in a way that supports the profitability of producers so we don’t continue to lose valuable land,” Stover says.

This does not mean that hunger is no longer a problem. According to an IHA fact sheet, 1 in 8 Americans faced food insecurity before the pandemic. Now, high unemployment rates caused by the coronavirus are expected to leave an additional 18 million American children food insecure. So humanity’s new relationship with food is no less than filling stomachs, but it should be more.

Stover is a big win. He came to College Station from Cornell University in 2018. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences. Since 2015, he’s been co-editor of the Annual Review of Nutrition, which, if you’re unfamiliar because you, like me, would rather read literally anything else, is a peer-reviewed journal leading reader in his field.

Stover told me that the IHA will be a “transformative-like institute” because it will be the first research institution to combine the latest advances in agriculture, nutrition, and behavioral health. These disciplines have largely operated independently of each other, Stover explained. The way they will work at the IHA is less compartmentalised. They even get catchy and updated names.

Precision feeding

Not just nutrition, IHA will promote “precision nutrition” which takes into account the differences between different populations and how their bodies process food differently. Katherine Hancock, director of communications for Texas A&M AgriLife, explained that nutrition is a relatively young field compared to chemistry, biology or other sciences. As the discipline evolves, it becomes more nuanced. That’s why, Hancock noted, the nutritional guidelines seem so fluid.

Those of us who are old enough to remember the four basic food groups have long understood that meat and bread are not necessary at every meal. And while we all want Buddy the Elf to be right, his four food groups (candy, candy cane, candy corn, and syrup) aren’t healthy either. In 1992 the USDA changed its guidelines from a square to a pyramid, which later became “My Pyramid” in 2005, and “My Plate” in 2011.

Stover was more direct. He pointed out that “flip-flops” in nutrition advice in the past had undermined confidence in those recommendations. Hence people like me disconnecting them.

“Eggs are good for you today. They’re bad for you tomorrow. They’re good for you the next day,” he said. “What we need to do to really engender public trust is to have a science very solid that people actually believe what the researchers are telling them.”

Hancock said precision nutrition is “the study of nutrition based on individual differences in response to diets and their impact on health due to genetics, epigenetics, age, sex , disease status, sleep patterns and other factors”. Rather than a food pyramid for all eaters, the result here is more likely to be an algorithm or wearable technology that adjusts dietary recommendations based on these complex factors.

On Monday, the institute will announce that it is hiring Regan Bailey, a nutritional epidemiologist and professor at Purdue University, to lead this part of the IHA.

“We have generalized recommendations,” Stover said. “We need science to end the controversy that baffles the public.”

Healthy lifestyle

Of course, there’s a big difference between knowing what food is healthy and choosing to eat it. The second pillar of the IHA is related to behavioral and community health. To lead the charge, Stover enlisted his former Cornell colleague Rebecca Seguin-Fowler. Her third from the institute will be based in Plano, where she will study programs that break down barriers to healthy eating. Her work may include cooking classes, community-supported agriculture programs, or product prescriptions, which are referrals by healthcare providers to organizations that can provide fresh produce without fats, sugars, or salt. added.

Hungry for a North Texas angle and a photo somewhere like a community garden, I asked if I could visit the Healthy Living hub. But the whole IHA initiative is so new that there’s almost nothing on the ground or inside to visit.

A reactive agriculture

The last pole involves farming and animal husbandry techniques that promote better health and sustainability. This is where the institute intersects with Stover’s experience.

In the 1990s, Stover contributed to groundbreaking research that linked folate deficiencies in pregnant women to birth defects, specifically spina bifida. Scientists have found that increased levels of folic acid in the diet of pregnant women reduced births affected by spina bifida. Following this discovery, the FDA enacted a folic acid fortified foods policy that has likely saved the country billions of dollars in health care costs and, more importantly, helped thousands of babies. in good health.

Stover said diet-related chronic diseases cost the United States between $1 trillion and $4 trillion a year, depending on how they’re estimated.

His connection to better agriculture goes back even further than his professional career.

“I grew up in a family of eight children. We grew all our own food,” he said.

Stover, 57, grew up on five acres in Pennsylvania. His father, a World War II veteran, owned a printing business. During the war, Stover told me, his mother planted a victory garden, like many of her neighbors. The Victory Gardens were a social campaign to support the war effort by reducing pressure on the national food supply. People were encouraged to grow their own food as much as possible. When the war ended, Stover said, her parents tended the garden.

“I’m very interested in not taking a pharmaceutical approach to a problem that’s really rooted in agriculture,” he said. “We need a diversified farming system. We need productive agriculture to meet everyone’s needs. But we need more local agriculture to build resilience and build local connections. We have that in Texas. We have vertical farming, indoor farming, community gardens. Everything is important.

Evidence in the pudding

It was John Sharp who first alerted me to the food system moonshine in College Station. The TAMU chancellor, former Texas comptroller, legislator and railroad commissioner had a more political angle on the work facing the IHA. He said confusion surrounding dietary guidelines in the past was not just because nutrition is a young science. Some of the studies that advanced new guidelines were funded by industry players, he said. In contrast, the IHA is entirely dependent on government funding: $21 million per year from the USDA and an additional $9 million per year from the Texas Legislature for the next biennium.

“It’s government money or it’s nothing,” Sharp said. “Completely unbiased.”

With Texas A&M’s connections to agricultural extension services and other resources throughout the state, Stover said it was the perfect fit for this type of initiative.

“Very few institutions in the world could do that,” he said. “We have the capacity. We are one of the biggest universities. We are one of the most comprehensive agricultural programs. We therefore have expertise across the entire agricultural value chain.

For a non-Aggie perspective, I called Paul M. Coates, assistant professor in the Indiana University School of Public Health and president of the American Society for Nutrition. He said it’s no exaggeration to call the IHA a moonshot.

“It’s as ambitious as it gets,” he said.

Coates pointed out that the federal government recently launched its own precision nutrition research program. He called the two initiatives “congruent” and said their greatest value lies in interdisciplinary cooperation.

“What I’ve seen happen since Dr. Stover came to Texas A&M is coordination of thinking and resources at a pretty high level,” Coates said. “This is an expensive item. Things are really crystallizing like never before.

So will Texas A&M change the way the human race relates to food?

“If it works, yes,” Coates said. “The proof will be in the pudding.”

Or, perhaps, in responsibly sourced and precisely nutritious tapioca.

Ryan Sanders is a columnist and member of the editorial board of the Dallas Morning News.