Drs. W. vs. Dr. Pepper for World Environment Day

06/12/2015 01:44 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2016
RomoloTavani via Getty Images

Last week, I attended the annual International Conference on Culinary Arts and Sciences in Montclair, N.J. Occurring for the first time in the United States, the conference was a dazzling mix of medical, dietetic, culinary, and industry professionals.

I had lunch with an oncologist from Sudan and a government official from Tanzania. I attended talks featuring research from Portugal, France, Brazil, and the United Kingdom. I spoke with a chef from Australia, and with students and researchers from around the U.S.

High points of the conference included plenaries by Catherine Woteki, Ph.D. (Chief Scientist and Undersecretary for Research, Education, and Economics at the USDA), and Brian Wansink, Ph.D. (famed expert in consumer behavior).

  • Dr. Woteki discussed the food-related issues that keep her up at night, including emerging and existing threats to One Health (see Chapter 30), particularly the problem of antibiotic resistance and various assaults on the world's food-crop pollinators (e.g., bees, bats, and butterflies). She also discussed the huge global problem of food waste (30-40 percent of all food production), a topic of much focus in various sessions at the conference.

  • Dr. Wansink also touched on food waste, and discussed small measures that individuals, schools, and businesses can take to nudge consumer behavior to reduce such waste with dramatic results. He also discussed minor environmental modifications to improve healthy eating -- unconsciously -- for children and adults. I decided to buy his book, Slim By Design, after his talk and can recommend it enthusiastically here based on just the infographics alone.

Low points of the conference were initiatives focused on the selling of food products without concern for planetary, population, or personal health considerations.

  • One disappointing initiative was an international partnership supposedly designed to encourage "vegetable" consumption. In fact, most of the work focused on getting children and older adults to eat sweet corn specifically, for the simple reason that sweet corn was the product the sponsoring industry ultimately wanted to sell. Beyond the issue of whether corn is even a vegetable, corn is already over-grown -- used in feed (for livestock), fuel (for machinery), and fiber (for building materials) -- and is not a food that people necessarily should be eating more of (especially as compared to arguably-healthier vegetables like cruciferous and green-leafy varieties, for instance). We don't need to be incentivizing more mega monocultures like maize; we should be encouraging greater plant diversity for personal and planetary health. People already eat plenty of corn, albeit mostly in the form of refined starches and sugars derived from the kernels and injected into highly processed products like sugar-sweetened beverages

  • Regarding sugar-sweetened beverages, I had a discussion with a senior food technologist at a flavor company at the conference and he revealed to me that his latest project was to produce for a client baked beans that tasted like Dr. Pepper. Only a food scientist could take healthy whole foods like beans and convert them into an artificially flavored sugary concoction of compromised nutritional merit -- one that includes ingredients of industrial processing with all their environmental consequences.

June 5, 2015, was World Environment Day, the United Nations' day for encouraging worldwide awareness and action for the environment. As we think about the health of our planet, and how its health relates back to our own wellbeing, we should look to the wisdom of the Dr. Wotekis and Dr. Wansinks of the world, and relegate Dr. Pepper (and the corn products that make it, and the sugary baked beans flavored like it) to an embarrassing, shameful, and misguided past that we can hopefully evolve beyond.