Here’s the latest: diet advice isn’t all that new

September 22, 2011

“Americans eat too much fat and sweets and do not get enough exercise.”

That’s the conclusion reached by the nation’s leading nutrition scientist – but it wasn’t made last week, last month or even last year. While the observation looks like it could have come straight from one of today’s many health-focused magazines and websites, it was actually made by W.O. Atwater in the 1890s, according to an exhibit called “What’s Cooking Uncle Sam?” at the National Archives in Washington D.C.

While perusing the exhibit, which traces the government’s role in food production and consumption, it struck me that we’re still dealing with many of the same issues that our ancestors faced over the course of the last century. The displays chronicle efforts to improve food safety, advice for quick and nutritious meals and campaigns encouraging more production of certain foods to overcome short-term supply shortages.

I was particularly fascinated by Atwater’s pioneering research on nutrition issues, especially considering the federal government’s renewed interest in the topic. He developed methods to quantify the energy value (calories) in different types of food, and also studied the amount of calories burned in different activities such as reading, ironing and riding a stationary bicycle.

A guide produced in the 1920s listed 100-calorie portions of various types of food, ranging from meat and potatoes to candy and sugar. I guess those 100-calorie snack packs that have popped up on grocery store shelves that past few years weren’t such an original concept after all.

Some of the displays also made me chuckle – like a poster advertising “Vitamin Donuts” that was sent for approval to the government’s food administration during World War II. I’m sure they would have been a hit with my kids, but common sense tells you that even donuts fortified with thiamine aren’t the foundation for a healthy diet.

In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, exhibition curator Alice Kamps said the displays provide insight into the evolution of our understanding of nutrition and the ways it has shaped the foods we eat over time.

“As science revealed new insights about the nutritional value of different foods, our approach to food became more scientific,” she said. “With the benefit of hindsight, we can see where particular ideas about nutrition were overblown or simply inaccurate. We might consider this before we make drastic changes in our diet based on the latest scientific discoveries.”

For me, it became apparent that America’s quest for a balanced diet has been going on for more than a century. While recommendations may change over time, the best advice today really isn’t any different now than it was before Henry Ford produced the first Model T or we spent our evenings camped out in front of the TV or surfing the internet –eat less junk food and exercise more. I’m sure Mr. Atwater would agree.

Written by Tom Block
Tom is news coordinator for the Iowa Farm Bureau.

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‘Contagion’ Movie Makes the Case for Modern Livestock Farming

September 14, 2011

I saw the movie, “Contagion,” this weekend with my daughter. I have to say, it’s a good flick, good actors, fast-paced and slickly shot. Without realizing it, the film makers may have inadvertently endorsed America’s modern hog farms. For one thing, raising hogs indoors protects them from disease-carrying wildlife, the very kind that caused the cross-species viral contamination featured in the movie.

(Spoiler alert!)

In “Contagion”, Gwyneth Paltrow (‘Patient Zero’) inadvertently acquires a deadly (spreads by touch) viral infection in Hong Kong by shaking the unwashed hands of a chef (note to all movie-goers: always wash hands before eating). She didn’t realize this chef had just prepared a dish from a hog that was exposed to a sick bat. This pig was apparently raised in an open-air pen, where a sick bat flew overhead, then dropped a piece of fruit it just grabbed from a banana tree. Pigs, true to nature, eat anything. And so the story goes…

But, what I find interesting is that the Humane Society of United States’ Wayne Pacelle is claiming “Contagion” actually makes a case for raising animals in the very conditions that put them at risk for contracting contagions from other species ( I’m wondering if he saw the same movie.

I grew up on a Century farm in Iowa and have many fond memories. But, after seeing “Contagion,” I think Hollywood’s screenwriters could use a little ‘chore time’ on an actual, working farm to gain some perspective.

I saw birds, wild cats, stray dogs, raccoons and mice scrambling through our hog feedlot and roaming in the moonlight across our cattle pastures. I remember the year wild dogs got our rooster (so much for my dad’s egg-laying chicken farm idea), the year rabid skunks got into the hog lot (28 shots in the stomach for us, but the hogs were vaccinated, of course), and the daily roaming of a horde of much-loved, but unvaccinated feral cats.

Things were different back then. Today, it’s not just rabies vaccinations (three shots!) that have improved, so has hog farming (,AAAACMzGNIE~,z-fiweksx8NKGXiTGxVmXug1yWfMOUJx&bclid=69776058001&bctid=918490352001). Farmers who choose to raise their hogs in modern livestock barns say doing so protects them from exposure to wildlife, harsh weather and viruses that can be carried by any stranger who happens to wander onto the farm.

It’s a choice. Responsible farmers across Iowa work hard to give them to you. There are many options for raising animals, both indoors and out. But clearly, progress in American agriculture (versus overseas?) keeps our animals safer, our food safer and our families safer from the kind of Hollywood hysteria portrayed in “Contagion,” and the kind of ‘one size fits all’ food production model Pacelle and the HSUS hype machine condones.

Written by Laurie Johns
Laurie Johns is Public Relations Manager for the Iowa Farm Bureau.

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Loess Hill farms band together after floods

September 1, 2011

It’s been a tough summer for the folks who live along the Missouri River in western Iowa. Residents in Missouri Valley, a small town just north of Council Bluffs, rushed in June to stack sandbags around homes and businesses to protect against the Missouri River flooding, which was expected to leave downtown under 4 feet of water.

Fortunately, the worst of the flooding bypassed the town, and the sandbags are now gone. But the effort shows how rural Iowans will go out of their way to help friends and neighbors in need.

That same sense of community exists among farmers in western Iowa’s Loess Hills and across the state, says Andrew Pittz, a young farmer from Missouri Valley.

Andrew and his parents, Vaughn and Cindy Pittz, grow aronia berries, a native Iowa fruit, on their scenic farm near Missouri Valley.

Their Loess Hills neighborhood is also home to a lavender farm, an apple orchard, an artisan goat cheese farm, plus some of the best row-crop ground in the world. And these farmers are all working together to grow the local community.

“Iowa has a great history of agriculture. We’re really proud that Iowa produces more soybeans than all of Canada, (and) we are competitive in corn production and output with the whole country of China,” Andrew says. “The aronia berry is just another chapter in Iowa’s agriculture history.”

Andrew says his family decided to raise aronia berries because they were a good fit for their farm, which is adjacent to the Sawmill Hollow Wildlife Area in the Loess Hills.

Aronia berries, which are native to Iowa, perform well in the state’s variable climate and have very few pest problems, so they are easier to grow organically. The berries, which are high in antioxidants, have gained a following among consumers and health professionals.

The Pittzes have partnered with several conventional corn and soybean farmers in Iowa, who are growing aronia berries on a few acres of land as a way to diversify their farm income.

“We get along great with our farmers and our neighbors who are conventional farmers or organic. They support us, and we support them. We’re in this agriculture ‘thing’ together,” he says.

In addition, the Pittzes and their neighbors are helping to create agritourism opportunities through the Living Loess Tour, a monthly open house hosted by local artisans and specialty farms. (Visit for more information.)

By working together, these diverse farms are bringing busloads of tourists, and their dollars, to an area that needs an economic boost after the Missouri River flooding.

Written by Teresa Bjork
Teresa is a features Writer for the Iowa Farm Bureau.

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