T’is the season

With Thanksgiving behind us and Christmas ahead, it’s the time of the year when turkeys become the centerpieces on our tables.  In most people’s minds this evokes images of family gatherings, the chatter of children, the smell of roasted meat wafting through the house. But our succulent turkey roast could have some quite unexpected consequences, far beyond this season. Antibiotic resistance.

Recently a good friend of mine had to spend a month in hospital. It wouldn’t be so shocking if it hadn’t just been a simple tooth infection that landed him there – owing to an antibiotic resistant bacterium. It’s something we hear about on and off in the news. But if it happens to someone you know, the reality of it feels suddenly different. Besides being unable to work for a month, my friend had to endure continuous testing of various, increasing toxic antibiotics in the hope of finding one the infection may finally respond to; not too pleasant on the side effects. And what if there isn’t one? You probably don’t want to know the answer to that, but think pre-1940s.

So what does that have to do with our turkey roast? Unfortunately, a lot.

Many Turkeys, Creative Bacteria

In the North America, especially the U.S., livestock receive ~ 80% of the nations’ antibiotics. The drugs are administered through feed or water – usually at very low doses. But the idea behind this is not to treat sick animals, as we may think. Not at all. It’s to promote faster growth and prevent infections that tend to occur when animals are housed in crowded, unsanitary, stressful conditions. Such as large turkey farms. When exposed to low doses of antibiotics, however, bacteria are not actually killed but become quickly accustomed, and finally resistant, to the drug.

By overusing antibiotics on industrial farms on animals reared for our food consumption, that don’t actually have any infections, we are not only making them resistant though – we are actually creating new strains of bacteria, ones we cannot get rid of again. Because there is another issue many of us are not aware of. While turkey farmers only use approved antibiotics, 40% of these are not used in human medicine – yet. Which wouldn’t be a problem except for the ability of bacteria to share genetic material amongst each other. Bacteria in meat can pass on their resistance to other bacteria in a person’s digestive tract, creating new ones that are resistant to drugs that may at some point be one of few alternatives left to treat infections. Only it won’t since, unknowingly, we have already created bacteria resistant to these drugs.

What are the alternatives?

Turkey is one of the most frequently contaminated meats. According to a recent study by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health 77% of turkey samples collected from U.S. supermarkets tested positive for the MRSA bacteria Staphylococcus aureus – and 96% of those were resistant to at least one antimicrobial drug. But the problem is not just limited to turkey farming. A recent outbreak of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg has been linked to Foster Farms chicken; to date, 389 people have fallen ill from the meat since March 2013.

Unfortunately, we won’t be able to change the turkey and chicken farming industry overnight, and certainly not before this year’s holidays arrive. But over time we as consumers have to put more pressure on the industry and government to change laws and prohibit the unnecessary use of antibiotic in livestock farming to prevent indefinite hospital stays due to a simple tooth infection. Of course for that to happen the way poultry is raised has to change fundamentally first, and we have to not only reduce our own meat consumption, but also remember that these are living beings that deserve a good life and humane living conditions – just as much as any other living being does. But don’t be fooled, we aren’t there yet by far. Even on most ‘free-range’ farms, conditions are very similar, if not sometimes worse, than on ‘traditional’ poultry farms. But that’s a topic for a later post.

So this Holiday, short of preparing vegan dishes, if you want to avoid becoming the new breeding vessel for antibiotic-resistant bacteria, look out for labels like “No Antibiotics Administered” or “Raised Without Antibiotics”, especially if they are government verified as well as Animal Welfare Approved” and “Certified Humane”, which mean that antibiotics were only used to treat sick animals. But remember, “All Natural” say nothing about how an animal was raised. Of course you could also do some research on small turkey or goose farms in your area to buy your feast – or try out a European tradition like roasted fish. No matter what you end up doing though – enjoy the Holidays!

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Finally – U.S. Getting Rid of Trans Fats

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Coronary Heart Disease. Alzheimer’s. Breast Cancer. Prostate Cancer. Type 2 Diabetes. Obesity. Infertility. Depression.

Just reading this list elicits a feeling of dread, especially considering that all of these illnesses are rampant in our society. And looking at statistics our fight against them more often than not feels equivalent to Sisyphus perpetually trying to keep his stone from rolling downhill.  Last month marked a step in the right direction.

After more than a decade of study and deliberation, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has finally proposed a ban of trans fats, following the example of countries like Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland amongst others. It’s been a long and exhausting debate I followed closely during my seven years in New York. But although many people probably heard of them, equally as many have probably forgotten by now why it is so important to ban trans fats. It’s no surprise really – the debate was endless and lost the attention of the media years ago.

What’s the problem?

So what are trans fats, in lay man’s terms, and why are they a cause or risk for all those diseases listed on top? Trans fats are a type of unsaturated fat that exists naturally in extremely small amounts in animal fats such as meats or dairy. But all fats are not equal. Generally they contain long hydrocarbon chains, in which each carbon molecule can be orientated one of two ways around the bond that connects them with each other: cis, on the same side of a bond connecting the carbons, or trans, on opposite sides of that bond. Most fatty acids in the vegetable and animal kingdoms generally have cis orientations.  However, in 1910 a German chemist found that he could artificially generate trans fats by adding hydrogen to cooking oil which would turned the liquid into a semi-solid, such as margarine or shortening.

So why was this so revolutionary? It turned out that using solid partially hydrogenated fats gave products a longer shelf life than butter would, while keeping the same texture and flavor of a product. Many products containing trans fats didn’t need to be refrigerated. In addition, it was cheap to produce. Really, it was a by-product (or contaminant) of a chemical reaction. And thus the age of processed food had begun.

Where Trans Fats Hide

Trans fats are definitely edible. In fact they are lurking in many a product we all have the occasional craving for. Think Doritos, fast food, baked goods you’re your local super market, bread stick, crackers but also instant noodles, coffee creamers, pancake mix, frozen ready-to-use pastry, frozen meals – and the list goes on. Tasty, mostly, and convenient. But here’s the caveat. What’s convenient (well, and good for the food industry) is not necessarily a good thing per se.

The Price of Convenience

Due to lack of research, scientists believed for decades that trans fats were actually a healthier alternative to so-called ‘natural’ products, which contain more saturated fat and a higher fat content overall. Turns out, this was wrong. Compared to saturated fats in animal foods, trans fats have been linked with a 2.5- to 10-fold higher risk of heart disease and increased bad (LDL) cholesterol levels, a 73% greater risk of female infertility, a potential 75% greater risk for breast cancer, and depression. There is also numerous evidence that trans fat increases the risk of type 2 diabetes and triggers inflammation in the body, a contributor to many chronic diseases. By banning trans fats the FDA estimates 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths could be prevented each year in the U.S. alone.

Avoiding Trans Fats

So what to do if you live in a country that has no ban but only limits trans fats in processed foods? Personally, I go with the easiest way, at least if you like cooking: home-prepared foods. I agree, I may not be the best example as I even make home-made snacks and pastry dough, but let me tell you, even if you live a busy life as most of us do, it is manageable. Time management is the key and it is well worth it. Not only will you end up with better tasting food but you will decrease the overall burden of your daily exposure to risky ingredients that can impact your future health. Just because one can’t see or feel it now doesn’t mean disease may not strike one day. It’s an accumulative effect.

But if time is not on your side in your daily life, than a good way to start is by avoiding foods that list partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, hydrogenated oil or shortening. Many, but not all, food companies have reformulated their products to remove trans fats so it’s important to always read the label.

As a scientist I am glad that effective research has finally led to a proposed ban of trans fats in the U.S. It highlights how important and instrumental research is to keeping our society healthy. But the changes are happening too slowly. For its results to be effective, to prevent disease, and cut down on highly lamented spiraling health costs, findings need to be implemented faster than they have been up to now. That‘s the only way to keep the stone from rolling further and further, faster and faster – until its momentum becomes unstoppable.