Extraordinary health claims about Farmers’ Market foods

Image credit: B Tal

Near my house in Winnipeg, there’s a summertime Farmer’s Market that I used to go to every weekend to buy fresh local fruits, vegetables and honey. I grew up in rural farming communities and come from a long line of farmers, so I like supporting the little guys who still run family farms and sell their own product. Many people who buy there have the same logic – Manitoba is still a small province and a lot of us are only a generation or two removed from the farms. However, after two summers spending my Saturday mornings there, I’ve noticed there is also a growing population that shop there for “natural” products. Of course, like any market, the Farmer’s Market has responded to the demand by upping the supply.

There’s the bison meat sellers, who sell bison as “healthy meat.” This claim is somewhat dubious, as what they really mean is healthier than beef. A lean 85 g (3 oz) bison steak will give you only 7% of your daily intake of fat, but about half of that is saturated fat, and it also contains 25% of your daily intake of cholesterol. How does the beef steak compare? For the same portion, it’s 8% of your daily intake of fat, but there is actually less saturated fat, and it has the same amount of cholesterol. If you’re counting calories, you’re looking at 145 kcal for the bison versus 158 kcal for the beef. It’s better, though marginally. By contrast, a chicken breast(also 85 grams) is 142 kcal, 5% of your daily fat intake, with a third of the saturated fat of the other two, and slightly less (24% of daily intake) cholesterol. So, healthy? Well, all things in moderation, but if you insist on eating a lot of meat, chicken is a better choice.

Then there’s the raw food people, who insist that eating only raw grains is better because your body doesn’t use up as many enzymes to digest raw food. This is not how digestion works. Most of your food digestion is mechanical (chewing, rolling around in the stomach, being kneaded by the intestines) and chemical (saliva, stomach acid, bile, pancreatic secretions). Enzymes do help too. If you’ve ever taken a saltine cracker and stuck it on your tongue without chewing, part of the process at work is salivary enzymes breaking down the starches. Anyone who is lactose intolerant can tell you what happens when you body doesn’t produce the enzymes to breakdown milk sugars. However, for the vast majority of people, “lack of enzymes” is simply not a problem. Our bodies evolved to be incredibly efficient at taking up nutrients from food, hence the current issues with obesity. There is no reason to believe that simply by eating eating food, normal, healthy people could become digestive enzyme deficient.

It’s also important to note that the definition of an enzyme: a protein that catalyses a reaction without participating it. In other words, an enzyme doesn’t get used up during the reaction. Even if enzyme deficiency were a problem, there’s no reason to suspect that it could cause health effects like diabetes, allergies, and premature aging. Talk to the lactose intolerant and you’ll find that their symptoms are more along the lines of diarrhea, bloating and abdominal pain. And even if enzyme deficiency were a problem, and even if there was some mechanism linking digestive enzymes and allergies, there’s no reason to believe that raw foods would consume less enzymes. If anything, raw foods are much more difficult to digest, and therefore the enzymes would be working figuratively harder. This is not to say that there isn’t benefit to consuming some raw foods, like fruits and vegetables. They’re a low-calorie source of dietary fibre, which can improve blood sugar control in diabetics and reduce cholesterol. They’re also a good source of various vitamins. However, it’s important to remember that raw foods haven’t been “sterilized” by cooking and so can carry disease, like the outbreak in Germany this past summer from bean sprouts, or spinach in North America a few years ago. Steaming your vegetables reduces that risk without losing any of the nutritional benefits, so again, raw food comes up short.

What type of food you’re eating matters too – raw honey is still going to be really bad for you if you’re diabetic, for example, because simple sugar is still simple sugar, whether insects make it or we do. So, the raw food seller gets a thumbs down from me, especially since they sell fresh cinnamon buns right next to the dehydrated hemp bars. It’s like having a cupcake shop next to a Weight Watchers. I mean, seriously, that’s just cruel.

16 Responses to “Extraordinary health claims about Farmers’ Market foods”

  1. Lindsey says:

    Thanks for the great article. I recently went to the farmers’ market in Edmonton, and experienced much the same. My favourite claim: honey is “god’s natural sweetner.” I did wonder how other sources of sugar, like sugar cane, missed the cut on that one.

  2. Composer99 says:

    I think there is one very solid claim to be made in favour of local farmer’s markets: the shorter transportation chain means that the food is, on average, fresher and better tasting than what you will generally find in the supermarket.

    My wife & I recently had a similar experience with the family-run butcher near our house (which we finally visited recently despite being in the neighbourhood for over a year): the steaks & bacon she bought the other day were probably the best I’ve ever eaten (while admitting this is N=1 anecdote, I defy anyone to buy NoName bacon and the stuff the butcher sold and proclaim the former superior).

    Really, when you have freshness/flavour on your side, who needs dubious health claims? Turning perfectly good food into a component of nutritional quackery is hardly a positive.

    • I totally agree! Surprisingly, I also found that the produce is mostly less expensive that at any of the local supermarkets. Why wouldn’t you want cheaper (your results may vary), fresher, more nutrient dense food (soil beats hydroponics), all while supporting local family-run businesses?

      • Etcetera says:

        That’s odd. The vast majority of produce at farmers’ markets in Edmonton is generally twice what you would pay at a supermarket.

      • It depends a lot o on the season and the vendor – we typically go to the same few vendors because their prices are the most reasonable. That being said, yes, typically locally grown produce is more expensive than the grocery store stuff.

    • Gem Newman says:

      My wife and I got to our local farmers’ market whenever we can. Everything else aside, it’s a fun experience. The dubious claims always make me grin, however.

    • Keith Duhaime says:

      I find this remark really odd with respect to the steaks. The last thing I want is a ‘fresh’ steak. If I can get them aged 21 days or more, then I love them. I used to be able to get beef that had been hung for 35 days when I lived in Montreal. Talk about, tenderness, flavour, and melt in your mouth goodness!

  3. Pepijn says:

    Nobody has mentioned my favourite reason for buying locally produced food yet: the shorter transportation chain doesn’t just mean that the food is more fresh, it also means that less energy has been used and environmental pollution produced transporting it!

    These chains can be enormously long for supermarket food, it can even be coming from a different continent, or even more bizarrely: locally produced, then shipped to another continent, and then back again! It is therefore much more environmentally friendly, especially if it is also organically produced.

    • Keith Duhaime says:

      Actually, it is not necessarily true that reduced transportation of local food means less energy has been used. In many cases it is actually the reverse. The only time you can make that assumption is if the production environment and system is the same in both cases. Unfortunately, that is often not the case, and in a number of instances, the foods produced and transported over long distances are produced in a much more energy efficient manner than the same produce locally. Likewise, organically produced foods are not necessarily any more environmentally friendly than foods produced with non-organic methods.

  4. Jaik says:

    Thank you SO much for posting this Richelle! I live in Portland, Oregon and the amount of alternative clinics and non-sense diets that advertise around here is staggering.

    Question: Can you recommend blogs/book/resources about dietary skepticism? I certainly find enough people debunking alt. medicine, but there seems to be a lack of strong, evidence-based resources debunking raw diets, anti-anti-biotics, the “superiority” of a vegan diet in terms of health, etc.

    Thanks in advance!

    • Jalk, I wish I had a book to recommend to you! Over coffee one day at the lab we sat around talking about writing a cookbook just like this – full of actual scientific data about the stuff in the recipes and debunking the bad information!

      Sadly, I’ve not seen anything of the sort. All of the commercial books I’ve perused about diet have trademarkable “plans” that don’t necessarily conform to the best evidence. If someone else has some recommendations, I’d love to read them as well. In the meantime, I’ll do my best to write articles on these topics for you!

  5. Kai says:

    I love my local farmers’ markets here in Québec for making it possible to eat almost entirely within the 100-mile rule (more or less) during harvest season.

    That “using up enzymes” claim is a new one to me – the one I’ve usually heard from raw foodies is that the not cooking food means you don’t lose the *food’s* enzymes(!) I’m not usually popular for pointing out that any enzymes in food (usually plants, since meat-eating raw foodies are pretty rare, no pun intended) exist for the *plant’s* metabolic benefit, not ours, and are only nutritionally significant to the extent that they are proteins and thus a minor source of them. (The papain in papayas and the bromelain in pineapples are rare exceptions, as they do have digestive properties – i.e., they can help break down proteins, hence the use of papain in meat tenderizer. But for some people there are also adverse health effects from their ingestion.)

    I guess not many people take high school biology anymore.

  6. Tony Ingram says:

    Richelle, about your paragraph about the bison meat:
    Your argument is predicated on the assumption that cholesterol and saturated fats are bad for you. I believe it’s not that simple.

    Otherwise, I agree with your sentiment regarding foodies.

  7. David says:

    Your reasons for frequenting Farmers Markets are still valid. And the small local farmers do need your support. Just stay away from the dubious products. If people don’t buy those products their purveyors will disappear.

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  • Richelle McCullough

    Richelle is a second-year medical student living in Calgary, but hails originally from Winnipeg. An outspoken advocate for lifestyle interventions within the scope of science-based medicine, Richelle’s favourite topic is to debunk complementary and alternative medicine. She is frequently trolled by geocentrists at her personal blog, Subspecies, and despite the distance, remains active with the Winnipeg Skeptics.