Melinda Hemmelgarn, a.k.a “The Food Sleuth,” is a registered dietitian, an award-winning writer (read her work right here on Rootstock!) speaker, and nationally syndicated radio host with more than 35 years of experience in clinical, academic and public health nutrition. In 2014, Today’s Dietitian Magazine named Melinda one of the nation’s “Top 10 Dietitians Making a Difference,” and in 2015, she received the “Excellence in Hunger and Environmental Leadership” award from her peers in the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Dietitians, Melinda explains, “look at food as medicine.” However, she believes that in order to best use food as medicine, dietetics needs to move beyond the sphere of “plate to mouth” and also examine the way food is produced.
“There are not enough dietitians who are looking through the ecological lens, who are looking at the web of life and understanding that how we produce our food is extremely critical,” she says. “We [dietitians] are vulnerable, perhaps, to industrial messages about the food system.” Those messages from the industrial agriculture companies say production methods don’t need to be part of the health conversation. Melinda disagrees.
Melinda’s education is based in science, and solutions she suggests reflect that. “What if we stopped spraying atrazine? What if we stopped spraying glyphosate? What if we took out some of those offending chemicals for a while? Let’s see how public health changed, and then let’s go forward with a smarter way of farming.”
With her focus now on spreading what she calls “food system literacy,” Melinda is committed to thinking critically about what makes truly ‘good’ food—food that is socially and environmentally just, not simply nutritionally sound (although, in the end it all goes hand in hand.)
Transcript: Rootstock Radio Interview with Melinda Hemmelgarn, MS, RD
Air date: June 26, 2017
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I am so happy to be here today with my friend Melinda Hemmelgarn. Melinda is a registered dietitian, awarding-winning writer, speaker, a nationally syndicated radio host, and she has 35 years of experience in clinical, academic, and public health nutrition. Melinda, so delighted to have you on our Rootstock Radio today.
MELINDA HEMMELGARN: I’m thrilled to be with you.
TM: For those of you who don’t know Melinda, we like to say Melinda Hemmelgarn is a.k.a. the Food Sleuth, because she also has a syndicated radio show and is doing a lot of the same kinds of things that we’re trying to do. And that is, talk about our health, talk about the food system. And as a dietitian, Melinda, I think many of us, including me and our listeners, really would like to kind of de-mystify the idea of, what is a dietitian? What is a nutritionist? How do you all help us live healthier, better lives?
MH: That is a great question, and you know, I think that most people don’t have a clue as to what dietitians really do and what we study. And I think that, first and foremost, I want to say that we all got into this profession with noble intentions. We look at food as medicine, even though it was Hippocrates that first made that connection. Dietitians study this subject of how food and nutrients affect disease, we can treat disease, we can prevent chronic illness. So that’s where we’re coming from—food as medicine.
But I have to say, after being out from my college training for 35-plus years, it’s becoming more clear to me what was missing from our education. And what was missing from our education was this connection to how we produce our food. We don’t take any soil science classes, we don’t take any plant pathology classes. So it leaves us vulnerable to, perhaps, industrial messages about the food system and how maybe production doesn’t enter into the conversation—but it really needs to.
TM: You’re so reminding me of what of my favorite octogenarians, which our listeners have heard me say this before, is Joan Gussow, and her 1978 book, The Feeding Web: Issues in Nutritional Ecology. And Joan says that when she introduced that to Columbia, as a nutritionist, it was like, “No, Joan, health has nothing to do with the earth. It has to do from the plate to the stomach.” And so basically what I’m hearing is that’s still an issue in the nutritional and health world.
MH: It very much is an issue. And in fact, I was just having a conversation with some friends the other day and I said, “You know, my dream would be for the colleges of human nutrition, agriculture, and medicine to come together.” I love the concept of cross pollination. We’ve gotta study the soil, we’ve gotta study medicine—and not just Western medicine, but all approaches, holistic approaches to medicine—and certainly understanding human anatomy and physiology and how different nutrients affect our physiology, our body. So all of these things coming together in an ideal world would provide, I think, the best way to produce our food and consume it.
TM: Well, you know, one of the things that I’m a little bit confused about when I study and look at dietitians and nutritionists, is that it seems like there’s lots of different organizations. Isn’t there like one big dietitians’ organization? And then there’s another one called HEN, and isn’t there another called SNE? So are there a variety of different organizations where dietitians come together and learn from each other?
MH: There are, and the main one is the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, formerly known as the American Dietetic Association—they changed their name. There is the Society for Nutrition Education [and Behavior], which focuses on nutrition educators, largely. And within the academy there are multiple practice groups.
So there are 75,000 registered dietitians out in the world. We don’t all practice the art of nutrition and health the same way—just as there are doctors who don’t practice the art of medicine in the same way.
TM: You know, it’s always kind of bothered me that doctors only have to take one nutrition class.
MH: If that.
TM: Are dietitians, and certainly in the groups that you’re with, do you find yourselves working with doctors? How are they approaching—given that they don’t have any nutrition background or classes even—the idea of prevention versus after you’re already sick?
MH: Yeah, our medical system has a lot to be desired. Most dietitians in our training—and I should let our listeners know that dietitians take a four-year study undergraduate, and then complete a dietetic internship, which is usually within a year’s time. And then we have to take a national exam, and then we have to have continuing education hours, 75 credits over five years’ time. So we have to have continued education in the field. And now there will be a new requirement for dietitians: we’ll also have to have a master’s degree in human nutrition or a related field.
So our training is rigorous. And most of us, in our training, have to do some sort of hospital work. And I actually recommend dietitians not to avoid that, because in a hospital is where I think we get some of our best education, because we see firsthand the ravages of poor diet, the ravages of poverty. And we can see, really, where we have to put our efforts, not only clinically but from a policy perspective. Improving the foods in a hospital, for example, is the first step. So having this clinical experience allows us to communicate with the doctors and other medical staff firsthand. We have to chart a medical record; it’s a legal document. We have to work as a team with other health-care providers to make sure the patient gets the best possible care. So that’s what happens on a clinical setting.
In rural communities, it may just be one doctor many, many miles away from where the person lives. The patient may never get the benefits of seeing a registered dietitian. There’s also the issue with health insurance—what is health insurance going to cover? Maybe the health care provider will provide a referral to a dietitian, and if so, will the insurance cover that consultation? Usually it’s not until the patient is far gone, so there isn’t a lot of health insurance coverage for preventive health care. It’s insane.
TM: I’m actually taken, when you said “insane,” with the fact that there’s really only 75,000 registered dietitians. I would think there would be many, many more than that, that it would be a lucrative career. Do you think that there’s enough dietitians out there for the 300 million people that we have?
MH: There are not enough registered dietitians who are looking through the same lens as Joan Gussow. There are not enough dietitians who are looking through the ecological lens, who are looking at the web of life and understanding that how we produce our food is extremely critical. You mentioned the “plate” aspect, and I think for too long dietitians have been focused on the “the plate to the person,” as opposed to, how did that food get on my plate? How was it produced—under what conditions? Who produced it? What were their lives like? Because we are all connected in this web of life. And it’s really the reason why I have become such an advocate for agroecological farming methods.
Jacques Cousteau’s daughter spoke at an American Public Health Association meeting years ago where she said, “What we do to the environment, we do to ourselves, even if we don’t know it yet.” And what we do to the environment is so influenced by how we produce our food. Water is our number one nutrient. Something we take for granted—you know, we turn on the tap—but there are so many contaminants. How did they get there? Industrial and agricultural pollutants.
And one of my favorite references that never gets enough press is the President’s Cancer Panel Report that talked about, from an environmental perspective, how do we prevent cancer? We all should be focused on prevention, in my humble opinion. And so when we look at what the tenets of that report were, what are the recommendations? Without using the “O” word, they’re basically recommending agroecological or organic farming methods. They say choose foods that are not sprayed with pesticides or herbicides. Choose foods that do not come from animals treated with antibiotics or hormones. Choose foods where the source of that food is not coming from the soil that’s been treated with chemical fertilizers, because all of those things contribute to ill health.
TM: You know, you have 75,000 registered dietitians; you have lots of, probably thousands of just nutritionists; and then you have so many people in the health industry. You have food technologists who do recipes for big CPG companies. And then you take a look at our health epidemics, and I don’t know of any other time where we have kind of manmade epidemics like obesity, diabetes, and then what they call the big three A’s: autism, which is becoming an epidemic that’s terrifying; allergies; and then asthma.
MH: Yes, asthma, correct.
TM: And I’ve asked many of those in the health business and actually even food technologists, what are you doing to acknowledge and fight these epidemics? Because aren’t we the cause of them? What’s going wrong here?
MH: You know, we spend a lot of time… If you look a lot of the health recommendations that come out of, say, the American Heart Association or the Cancer Association, many of the societies that look at the some of the major chronic diseases affecting Americans, they will look at diet and exercise—period. There is not enough emphasis on the environment. And I think that is the huge elephant in the room because it also… You know, we have politics and money that enter into our health decisions, and it’s very unfortunate, just as I think we need to get money out of government, we need to get money out of… Well, we need independent funding sources for our health research, because anytime there’s a profit motive, it influences the research. And it has influenced the dietary recommendations that we give.
There was a wonderful research study, and I can’t remember now who did it, but it was an overview of how industry funding affects messaging. So if, for example, the soft drink industry was funding a study on obesity, the conclusions were like, you know, soda isn’t a problem. But if it was an independent study, the results were much different. The results were, we really shouldn’t be drinking soda. This is a food that doesn’t fit. And the kinds of messages that dietitians have been taught with an industry push. So this idea of all foods fit, when really there are some foods that harmful to the environment, they’re harmful to us, they don’t fit into a health-promoting way of eating.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio, I’m Theresa Marquez and I’m here today with Melinda Hemmelgarn who is a registered dietitian, a food advocate, a radio host, and a trusted consumer educator. Today we are talking about dietitians.
My mom—and I graduated from high school in 1964, but when I grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, my mom didn’t allow us to have soda except maybe once or twice a year, and so that was kind of a big no-no. What happened? How is it my mother knew that we shouldn’t have sodas but now we have parents who are allowing their kids three 20-ounce sodas with high fructose corn syrup a day?
MH: Yeah, well, there’s marketing and money. And that was an angle that I took in my career. When I first started out, my master’s thesis was on the development of childhood obesity. That was in 1987. So from 1987 throughout my career—and my career was a mix of working in clinical settings, working in public health, working in Extension—I spent a lot of my time focusing on preventing childhood obesity.
And it wasn’t until I went to my first conference on media, and media’s influence, and it was Steven Gortmaker at Harvard University who really piqued my interest in this idea that if, no matter what your age, the more time you spend with television, the fatter you’re going to be. And it piqued my interest and I thought, why is that? And it’s beyond being sedentary, because you can be sedentary reading a book and that doesn’t lead to the same kind of obesity problem as sitting behind a television screen. And it’s because of this incredibly effective marketing. And that’s really where my career went, in looking at, how are we influenced by media messages? Not just for food, but also agriculture. How is it that farmers are convinced to use chemicals in their food production that hurt them and their families, hurt soil microorganisms, and ultimately leave residues on our food that hurt the end eater? How does that happen?
TM: It’s media, but it’s also… I think I’m going to go back to something you said, and that is, it’s these profit motives. When the industry funds research, it impacts the results.
TM: And so we’re able to, what I call, do the ostrich thing and get our heads in the sand, because the USDA and the research that’s being funded by the companies who have profit motives are basically saying, “Oh, there’s no risk.” So they have this risk assessment versus precautionary principle point of view. Melinda, what do you think about that risk assessment approach?
MH: I think that you brought up a really important concept: the precautionary principle. That basically says that even if we don’t have all of the science in—because you always hear from the industry that might be the polluting industry, for example; or the climate change deniers, they’ll say, “Well, we need more science.” How much more science do we really need if there is a red flag, a precautionary flag that says, “Ooh, I’ve got some evidence here that this could be causing a problem.” We might need to do more research, absolutely—more research is always good. But if there is reason for concern, let’s heed those warnings and let’s take precaution and say, let’s eliminate or let’s avoid something that could be causing harm to our children in particular. They’re our future. If it could be causing harm to our environment, it’s going to cause harm to us.
So the Science and Environmental Health Network, that has that great precautionary principle statement, and I love reading through it as a friendly reminder about what precaution really means and what we can do as citizens to step up to the plate and say, you know what? There’s a problem in my local community. I want to step in and say let’s not bring soda into the schools. Let’s serve organic food because we think there could be a risk here.
And I also want to mention that in dietetics, one of the things that we do is we do elimination diets. So if someone comes in with an ailment and we think that it might be diet-related, we take things out of the diet and we say, “Well, how are you feeling? Let’s try a two week trial of not having this particular possibly offending substance in your diet—let’s see how you’re doing.”
I think we should do the same thing with our environment. Something is going on. We’ve got kids with higher rates of all those things you mentioned—allergies, ADHD, autism, asthma. What if we stopped spraying atrazine? What if we stopped spraying glyphosate? What if we took out some of those offending chemicals for a while? Let’s see how public health changed. And then let’s go forward with a smarter way of farming.
TM: Good advice, Melinda. The reason that I was so wanting to talk with you about just the whole area of dietitians and nutritionists and the people who we’re looking to for advice, the doctors and so on, is because I had read something that alarmed me, and that was a group of dietitians supporting biotech and pesticide spraying. I wonder, do they think that we have a broken food system or not? And this notion that the 2016 word of the year is “post-truth,” and I’m going to try and say what I think it means: it means that there are people’s opinions who, when spoken through the right people, like dietitians, all of a sudden things that aren’t true become true. And this is what I’m afraid is happening when dietitians speak up and say that this kind of agricultural technology is safe. And I wondered if you had thought much about post-truth?
MH: Oh my gosh, in fact I was in Los Angeles a couple of months ago and I was speaking to a group of dietitians about just this. And one of the questions I asked was, (a) we got into this profession with noble intentions, it is a public-health-protecting profession, but we don’t study agriculture. So when very nice people from Monsanto come to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and they tell us that their methods will help feed the world, you know, it’s a very fear-based message, really, when you think about it. It’s like, oh my gosh, we’ve got this growing population, we’ve got hungry people—what are we going to do? “We’ve got the answers for you.” And if we’re not trained in agriculture to know differently or to understand different methods of food production, we become vulnerable to those messages.
And it is very unfortunate, because part of our academy’s professional ethics is to protect environmental, economic, and social avenues—really to look at that sustainable component of our food system and to make all of our decisions with considerations of the environment, economic, and social implications. So that’s part of our responsibility. Part of our ethics, our ethical statement, is to consider the health, safety, and welfare of the public at all times. I just don’t think we have received enough training to truly understand the full impact of the way we grow our food. And the influence of very nice people on us, who are telling us that we need genetic modification, genetic engineering—they never tell us, of course, that genetically engineered crops, or genetically engineered by and large to withstand the spraying of herbicides, and an increasing number of herbicides, I might add—that’s never in the discussion. It’s always “Feed the world, produce more.” But when you look at the science, we see that the yield is not increasing because of genetic engineering. The yield is increasing because of good old plant-breeding methods that we’ve had throughout the generations.
So understanding how we’re manipulated by industrial method, and understanding their end point—while their message sounds good, “Oh yes, we want to feed the world,” at the end of day what they really have to do, corporations have to provide growth or profits for their shareholders. That’s not what dietitians have to do. We don’t have profits to protect for a corporation. Our mission with our profession is to protect public health and to reduce chronic and heal diseases through food and nutrient manipulation.
TM: I guess the big question I have that I’d love for us to just dive into just a little bit is, you’re a person out there like me, and you have some health problems, and you’re trying to figure out a good way to deal with your health problems, and then you start looking up on Google and so on, and you start reading lots of different dietitians and what they’re saying to do, and so on. I mean, how, as just Mr. and Mrs. Public, can we figure out who we should be listening to about what? How do we, the public, try and sort through all of this conflicting information that we’re getting now?
MH: It is so hard. It is so hard to navigate the media. And it’s one of the reasons why I focused my work now and moving forward on this idea of food system literacy, which is just a fancy way of saying, how do we think critically to find what I call truly good food? And by good food, I mean socially and environmentally just food that protects our health, but not just our health but the people who are producing it, our water sheds, you know, thinking of generations far beyond our own. For myself, I recommend organic food because it gives the best guarantee that we’ve got. Do we have to stay vigilant and protect the integrity of organic food? Absolutely, we saw that horrific article in the Washington Post which really harmed, I think, a lot of consumers’ understanding. So we have to help people understand what that label really means, and it’s the best we’ve got. I recommend it.
And I think it’s also important to question messages like… I was so saddened to see that the FDA, our government should be for the people, by the people, right, in a democracy? Our FDA is going to be doing an education campaign promoting genetically modified foods. We have to think critically about every genetic modification. What are the alternatives? Another great question. Do we need this? Who is it going to profit? And to question the source and how that got to be promoted.
TM: You know, just to kind of leave on an upbeat note, Melinda, I’m always struck with, you know, when we have kind of like these tough interviews where we’re kind of moaning and groaning about, ugh, what are we going to do about post-truth and this revolving door and this research that’s set up for profit, not for honesty. And the flip side of that is this Good Food Movement that we see growing, and with so much spirit and so much fun, the proliferation of CSAs and farmer’s markets and so on. So the things that we’re seeing right now, we still do have choices out there, and the great thing about all these choices is they’re fun.
MH: Oh, it’s so much fun. You know why? Because it builds around the things that we all crave. We crave the taste of good food. We crave community. And so by coming together and cooking together and tasting what truly good food has to offer, we build communities, and that’s really at the heart of democracy.
TM: And with that Melinda, I want to thank you so much for spending time with me and enlightening us on the whole area of nutrition and dietitians. And all these issues that we are kind of struggling with makes for some tough moments but also for a rich and meaningful life when we choose to not deny the things that are around us.
MH: Well, thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to speak with you, because these issues are so critical for the earth and for future generations.
TM: And for our listeners, I just want to remind you that Melinda is also Food Sleuth and has this nationally syndicated radio show. She has a blog, food-sleuth.blogspot.com. Any other web or social media links that you’d like to share with us?
MH: Well, I have to say that I am terribly negligent about that blog post. I would refer them to the Rootstock blog, where I contribute every other month, and I put a lot of heart and soul into that blog that I write for Rootstock. And also Public Radio Exchange (prx.org), which is where people can go online and they can listen to any number of archived programs that talk about, in-depth 30-minute interviews, where we’re talking about things like water quality and how we raise our meat, the quality of milk, everything from… I connect the dots between food health and agriculture to find food truth. That is my mission.
TM: Go, Melinda! And you’re doing a terrific job of it. I’m looking forward to your next blog post for Rootstock and that’s Rootstock.coop, for those of you who’d like to see that. And looking always forward to all the writing that you do, Melinda, it’s so enlightening.
MH: Thank you for you all of the work that you support as well.
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