Happy belated Thanksgiving. Question: did you ever wonder what stuffing actually is? Well, not only what it is, but also how it got there? And what happens as you consume it? And what it does after you eat it?
Let me tell you a smidge of the story of the most neglected ingredient of your Thanksgiving feast. Oh, and I’ll apologize in advance for making you feel even more guilty than you probably already do for so enthusiastically commemorating the most fabulously gluttonous holiday on the calendar.
Let’s start from the beginning. The primary ingredient in stuffing is generally bleached white bread. Bleached white bread flour comes from a combination of wheat, yeast, supplemental gluten, enzymes and chemical additives (typically preservatives). Some of the white wheat that constitutes the flour is produced by the $12.5-billion U.S. wheat industry. The massive mono-cultured (only wheat) fields required to fill international demand are quickly depleting soil nutrients. Wheat, thus, like other common non-legume field crops, requires fertilizer to nurture growth in nutrient-poor soils.
Excessive use of fertilizers has been a notable ecological issue, particularly due to what is called runoff. Runoff relates to the flow of fertilizers into irrigative bodies of water, which subsequently leads to unregulated algal growth. These algae, which under normal conditions are constrained by a lack of nutrients, proliferate when fed by fertilizers. While living, some algae produce toxins; upon dying, these algae remove oxygen from the water, leading to hypoxic conditions ominously deemed “dead zones.” Fish and other oxygen-dependent aquatic species cannot survive under these conditions, and die off rapidly. Since the Mississippi River runs through some of the largest wheat-producing states in the country down to the Gulf of Mexico, it is literally the case that to some degree, the Wonder Bread produced in Kansas is killing fish in Mexico. It’s possible there was Wonder Bread in your stuffing.
Anyways, for the sake of brevity let’s ignore all the other inputs (converting, mixing, packaging, transporting, storing and so on) that got the mushy brown glob onto our plates.
Now to think about how the stuffing story develops when we come in touch with it. So, down the hatch goes the stuffing. Undoubtedly, since we’ve already eaten a full meal’s worth of cheese and crackers, our bodies release the “full” signal: insulin. Insulin tells our cells that glucose (the main building block of dietary carbohydrates) levels in the blood are through the roof. Insulin then inserts glucose channels into the cells, which act like microscopic vacuum cleaners and suck up glucose from the blood.
Glucose, when inside the cell, is either stored or used to produce energy. Since we’ve been sitting on our butts for the past three hours watching the Lions win their Turkey Day game, our cells store the glucose by converting it to glycogen. This glycogen, in excess, is further transformed into triglyceride (a form of fat), which is stored in adipose tissue. Adipose tissue, in turn, is what belly fat and love handles are made of.
As an aside here: gluten, the archnemesis of yogis, juicers, soccer moms and hypochondriac dads everywhere, is actually a protein, and doesn’t contribute significantly to your adipose tissue load (read: polar bear syndrome). Michael Specter of The New Yorker wrote a brilliant piece on this. The punch line? Gluten (to most) is as dangerous as monosodium glutamate, better known as MSG, or in other words, not at all. The real enemies are the copiously added sugars, salts and preservatives in mass-produced bread.
So now that we’ve sufficiently harmed the environment and plumped ourselves, what’s next? Well, from a population health standpoint, obesity is the obvious chronic concern associated with excess consumption. Some 35 percent of U.S. adults are obese and 17 percent of U.S. children are obese. A seminal 2009 paper showed that medical costs per obese person are about $1,500 per year higher than those of a healthy person, with total excess costs in the United States derived from obesity close to $150 billion. These costs are due to a vast variety of co-morbidities — or symptoms associated with obesity — ranging in severity from high blood pressure to heart disease. As for our stuffing story, correlations between refined, mass-produced white bread and the development of obesity pervade the medical literature.
At least I apologized in advance, right? But on a serious note: these are important issues to be aware of, and they reach far beyond stuffing. At the same time, the sky is NOT falling, yet. The moral of the story is not to swear off mediocre-tasting slop. Rather, I just hope to show that it is the obligation of each of us to be educated on even the seemingly most mundane things that we come in contact with every day. Oh, and also that science can be interesting.
In any case, the holiday season is a time for food, stories and resolutions for a new year. Now you know one more story. How will you change next year?
Eli Cahan can be reached at email@example.com.