Have you ever wondered how much of the food you eat is genetically engineered or how eating probiotics can improve your health? On March 19, the Nutritional Concerns Conference, produced by the Cornell University Cooperative Extension offices from Schenectady, Saratoga, Rensselaer and Albany counties, invites a group of experts to address those questions as well as explore other issues in nutrition and health.
The conference, in its 35th year, is open to the public as well as professionals in the nutrition, dietetic and education fields.
“It provides high-quality education to attendees and keeps them updated on hot topics in the nutrition arena,” said registered dietitian Sandra Butts of the Extension’s Schenectady County office. She is chairwoman for this year’s conference.
The keynote speaker is farmer and author Shannon Hayes, who raises grass-fed lamb, beef, pork and poultry alongside three generations at Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Schoharie County. Hayes will talk about the history of consumerism, agricultural history, the food systems in the United States and the overall health of the country.
Nutritional Concerns Conference
WHERE: Century House, 997 New Loudon Road, Latham
WHEN: 8 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. Tuesday, March 19; deadline for registration is Friday
HOW MUCH: $85, including lunch
MORE INFO: 885-8995, www.ccesaratoga.org
Reclaiming old skills
“As our food system has become more and more industrialized, the food that’s available on the supermarket shelves has become more and more nutrient-deficient,” Hayes said. As the nation industrialized, people stopped growing their own food and became dependent on industry for their food.
What Hayes has examined in some of her books, which include “Radical Homemakers” and “Long Way on a Little,” is how people are trying to regain some of the skills that were lost with industrialization and lessen their dependence on the national and global economies.
“We’re reclaiming skills from historical traditions because there’s a lot of wisdom that we’ve lost from industrialization — we’re reclaiming it but applying it in a modern situation,” Hayes said.
She says that industrialized food is going to become less and less viable due in large part to the cost of fossil fuels and climate change. “We need to figure out how to be economically independent in our region — to be well fed and have a good quality of life.”
El Paso, Texas-based registered dietitian Bridget Swinney, author of “Eating Expectantly: Practical Advice for Healthy Eating Before, During and After Pregnancy,” will be getting people to think about how to talk to mothers to improve the health of their families.
“Moms are busy,” Swinney said. “They’re on information overload. Their minds are going in a thousand different directions.”
What gets put down on the table for dinner may not be the highest priority considering everything else they have to juggle.
In her talk, “Mom Talk: How to Communicate with Moms So They Will Listen and Take Action,” Swinney will discuss how to get the attention of those busy moms via a variety of means, including different counseling styles, motivational interviewing and also short messages crafted by borrowing techniques from social media and advertising.
“Moms are the gatekeepers of the food supply in the home,” she said. “If you can get to the mom, you can change the whole family.”
Benefits of probiotics
One healthful option for a family’s diet is food that contains probiotics, and registered dietitian Eileen FitzPatrick, a faculty member of the Sage Colleges in the nutrition science department, will present the talk, “Probiotics: Beneficial Bugs for your Belly and More.”
Probiotics are bacteria that have health benefits when they’re consumed. They come from fermented products like yogurt, kefir, kimchi and soy products. Eating probiotics enhances the performance of the bacteria that live in the large intestine, decreasing the impact of disease-causing bacteria.
“I think there are a lot of autoimmune type diseases that are existent and increasing in our population, and there is some evidence to show that maintaining your gut health can decrease your likelihood of developing some of these autoimmune diseases,” FitzPatrick said.
Rounding out the program is Margaret Smith, a professor and corn breeder in the Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She will give a talk called “Who Put Those Genes in My Food? Facts and Myths About Genetically Engineered Crops.”
More than 90 percent of U.S. field corn and soybean crops, as well as a large percentage of the cotton crop, are genetically engineered varieties, Smith said.
“It’s a good thing for people to be aware that a lot of the packaged foods in the grocery stores have ingredients from crops that are genetically engineered,” Smith said. While it is good to have this awareness, Smith notes that she has seen no evidence that there are hazards to people’s health or the nutritional values of these foods.
Crops have been genetically engineered to be resistant to insects and drought, and scientists are working on nutritional modifications, including research on how crops can be produced to make oil with less saturated fats. Scientists are also researching how to grow crops to make oils with higher levels of “good cholesterol” versus “bad.” These developments are in the research stages and not in commercial production.