Suggested move to plant-based diets risks worsening brain health nutrient deficiency

The momentum behind a move to plant-based and vegan diets for the good of the planet is commendable, but risks worsening an already low intake of an essential nutrient involved in brain health, warns a nutritionist in the online journal BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health.

To make matters worse, the UK government has failed to recommend or monitor dietary levels of this nutrient — choline — found predominantly in animal foods, says Dr Emma Derbyshire, of Nutritional Insight, a consultancy specialising in nutrition and biomedical science.

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Five ways we can feed the world in 2050

Agriculture is facing an unprecedented challenge – here are five things we need to change.

As our global population continues to rise, some estimates suggest it could reach a whopping 10 billion people by 2050. To feed that many people, we will need to produce record quantities of food.

The scale of the challenge is epic. With only 30 seasons of planting and harvest left before the population could hit that 10 billion figure, it’s clear that agriculture as we know it has to change, if we are to have any hope of feeding the planet.

Over the past six months I’ve travelled all over Europe speaking to pioneering scientists and engineers, global thought leaders, savvy retailers and of course, knowledgeable, resilient farmers, for the BBC World News and BBC Future series, Follow the Food. The aim is to examine a truck-load of issues around food supply and find some potential solutions for our future.

This much-needed transformation – of not just agriculture but our whole food supply chain – is already under way. Here are five solutions that could help us get ready to feed the 10 billion.

Creating robot farmers
Before you scream at your screen about robots taking our jobs, hear me out. Many farmers say that time in the field, sat in a tractor for hours, is not just repetitive and boring, but robs them of time they could be spending on other key jobs they need to do to manage their business.

The Small Robot Company has created three, um, small robots: Tom, Dick and Harry. Tom takes geotagged images of plants in the fiel, which are sent back for analysis. That leads to Dick venturing out to spray – with precision – individual crops, eliminating the need for blanket spraying fields, and avoiding unnecessary polluting run-off and saving resources. Harry is the planting robot, complete with a robotic drill. Together, they carry out the monotonous tasks conventionally done by a human – with greater accuracy and less waste.

Preserving precious dirt
One reason small, mobile robots could be good news for farming is that they can replace a lot of the work done by large conventional tractors. Ordinary tractors are heavy. When they roll across the field they compact the soil. That crushes the gaps inside, reducing the size of the pores that hold air and water. This compaction significantly affects the soil’s ability to hold onto water and so a crop’s ability to take that up, along with the nutrients.

Using smaller, lighter robots to do the jobs currently performed by tractors could hugely help reduce these issues. Now, a small robot can’t pull large, heavy machinery like a tiller or cultivator. But they’re not looking to simply repeat traditional farming methods.

Giving waste a second chance
One of the most shocking facts I learned is the sheer amount of good, edible food that gets wasted. According to the United Nations, “An estimated third of all food produced ends up rotting in the bins of consumers and retailers, or spoiling due to poor transportation and harvesting practices.”

One country with a big waste problem is the Netherlands – the second biggest exporter of agricultural products (by value) after the US. The sheer scale of the flow of food through the Netherlands means waste is a big issue. The Dutch government has pledged to become the first European country to halve the amount of discarded food by 2030.

There are countless brilliant ideas and initiatives hoping to help, but one approach that I thought was brilliant was using apps like “Too Good To Go”. This app enables retailers to shift food destined for the bin – but that’s still perfectly edible – to customers at a reduced cost.

Slowing the ageing process
We can’t yet turn back the clock but, at least in fruit, we can slow the dial.

The bananas I eat at home in the UK could have travelled from Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica or a field even further afield. To get to me they will have been picked green, perhaps spent 40 days on a boat, and then eventually ended up in the supermarket where, in order to be picked from the shelf, they have to be a perfect yellow, with no black spots or brown patches. That takes incredible, careful management to achieve.

If a banana ripens too early in the process, it releases ethylene gas, which triggers ripening in other bananas. It only takes one rogue ripe banana to take down 15% of a shipment. That’s a huge pile of wasted bananas.

What some scientists in Norwich, UK, are doing is editing the genome of the bananas – modifying specific letters in their DNA – so that they produce far less ethylene. This could lead to less wastage en route and extend the banana’s shelf life in the supermarket. In some parts of the world, this could translate into real supply chains. But in other places, such as the EU, gene-edited crops are very tightly regulated with a lengthy approval process.

Making smarter choices
Spending time with farmers, producers, retailers and consumers, I quickly saw how our current ways of growing, processing and selling food just aren’t scalable or sustainable.

The only way we can feed 10 billion people by 2050 is if the farming and food industries become much more sustainable. And that requires changes to the whole model of growing, processing, transporting, storing and selling. It means a lot of businesses and governments need to take action. But so too do we all.

Whether that’s going to the market and choosing the most “ugly” veg for dinner, encouraging supermarkets to change their labelling to show us the carbon or water footprint of our food (so you can choose an avocado that’s used less of our rapidly depleting fresh water supply to grow), or using new tech to avoid waste, there’s so much we can be doing to value our food and value its producers.

Building a world fed by sustainable agriculture is a daunting task. But farmers, scientists, engineers, retailers, business leaders and governments are all coming together to ensure we have enough food in the future. And I will certainly be thinking about what changes I can make on an individual level to join the effort.

Greg Foot is a presenter of the BBC World News TV series Follow the Food. These are Greg Foot’s personal views and reflections.

This article is part of a new multimedia series, Follow the Food by BBC Future in collaboration with BBC World News. Follow the Food investigates how agriculture is responding to the profound challenges of climate change, environmental degradation and a growing global population.

Follow the Food traces emerging answers to these problems – both high-tech and low-tech, local and global – from farmers, growers and researchers across six continents.

So, What’s The Deal With Sugar-Free Candy? Is It Healthy?

You know that sugar-packed chocolate bars = not-so-great for you. So…sugar-free candies must be better, right? Yeah, about that…

“Sugar-free candy is still candy,” says Alyssa Lavy, RD. While it may not pack the same sugar count as the conventionally sweetened alternative, it’s still lacking in the nutrition department…not to mention loaded with plenty of other things that aren’t necessarily better for you.

But! Both regular and sugar-free candy can fit into a balanced diet, she says. You’ve just gotta know your facts:

What’s the difference between the way sugar-free candy and regular candy are sweetened?

“Sugar-free candy can be sweetened with a variety of sugar alternatives,” Lavy explains. She’s talking artificial sweeteners, such as saccharin, aspartame, and sucralose; sugar alcohols, such as erythritol, mannitol, xylitol, and sorbitol; or food additives, such as maltodextrin.

So far, these substitutes haven’t been proven to be any healthier than traditional sugar. In fact, some of them, including artificial sweeteners, have been associated with potentially altering the gut microbiome—or the collection of organisms in your digestive tract that protect the body against viruses and disease, says Lavy.

Other sugar stand-ins, sugar alcohols in particular, can cause gas, bloating, diarrhea in some people, says Lavy.

So…you still have to read the nutrition facts—even if a candy’s sugar-free.
You want to look specifically at what sugar-free candy is packing in order to compensate for the lack of sugar, what the recommended portion size is, and the amount of calories, saturated fats, and carbs.

“’Sugar-free’ does not necessarily mean ‘carbohydrate-free,’” says Lavy. That’s because some alternatives to the sweet stuff, like sugar alcohols and maltodextrin, are still carbs—and even if they’re not completely absorbed by your body, you’ll still take in some of them (especially key to note if you’re diabetic and you need to monitor your blood-sugar levels).

And of course, calories and fat are still calories and fat. A lot of sugar-free candies have similar numbers to regular candies in those departments. Plus, Lavy says a lot of people give themselves permission to down the whole bag of sugar-free candies in one sitting because they think they’re better for you. Which…sorry, but no. Moderation is still important.

That said…if you’re going to help yourself to a few pieces of sugar-free candy (and def feel free!), just know that you’ll want to factor those carbs, grams of fat, and calories into your recommended daily intake.