"Food Sleuth" Melinda Hemmelgarn (Part 1)
We can’t believe it took so long for us to get our good friend, Melinda Hemmelgarn, onto Rootstock Radio! Melinda is a registered dietitian and “investigative nutritionist,” and she hosts a public radio show called “Food Sleuth Radio” that has been on the air since 2009. She’s also an award-winning writer (she writes for Rootstock, too) and serves on the boards of directors for multiple non-profit organizations.
In this interview, we speak with Melinda about organic nutrition, current research, the scary ways in which food is being marketed to us, and a beautiful project that she does with her photographer husband, Dan, called F.A.R.M.
We had so much to talk about with her that we had to split this show into two parts! Click here to hear part 2 of our chat with Food Sleuth Melinda Hemmelgarn.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, listeners, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. It is my privilege today to be speaking with a good friend, Melinda Hemmelgarn, who is a registered dietician, investigative nutritionist, and one of most favorite things, I think, that she does that I enjoy so much is a radio show called Food Sleuth, and is one of the most dedicated food activists I think I’ve ever met. Really a privilege to be speaking with you today, Melinda.
MELINDA HEMMELGARN: Well, the privilege is all mine, thank you.
TM: And you know, Melinda, I always tease people when they say, “Oh yeah, Food Sleuth, Melinda Hemmelgarn. Is she a radical dietician?” And I wonder what you think when you hear yourself described as that.
MH: Well it’s so interesting that you use that word radical because, of course, I love language. And my friend who is an organic farmer in Michigan, Diana Dyer, she always says that the root meaning of the word radical is indeed “getting to the root.” And I think that that is our responsibility, for those of us who work in health care, is to go farther up the river to find the root of our problems, rather than throwing Band-Aids on them for a quick fix.
TM: Well, I should probably be asking you, are you basically then saying that the dietetic world is all about Band-Aids? Or are there parts of the dietician’s world that really do deal with real solutions to real health problems?
MH: You know, I think that all of us found our profession because we were in love, or we fell in love with this relationship of how food could protect our health and prevent chronic illness, even cure illnesses. But what we’re not taught in school are these relationships with how our food is produced. And I think that’s changing slowly.
But I think that we just haven’t had the right education. And I was very lucky to do a Food and Society Policy Fellowship, which really opened my eyes beyond my dietetic education training to help me see what was going on, on the ground, meeting with farmers and understanding those connections between food, health, and agriculture.
TM: Well you have been doing a fantastic job of doing that, Melinda. I know how much you understand the relationship between how people eat and the food lifestyle and the power of the media and the public discourse on this—or lack of it. I see that you were a former Food and Society Policy fellow, that you actually are a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists, the Union of Concerned Scientists Science Network, Slow Food USA, and you’re a regular writer for Acres USA, for those of you out there who want to be reading some of Melinda’s wonderful writing as well as plugging into her radio show, Food Sleuth. Melinda, where can people hear Food Sleuth?
MH: Well, Food Sleuth is syndicated through Pacifica and Public Radio Exchange. So for communities that have radio stations, community radio stations, that are members of Pacifica already, they can download the show for free through the Pacifica audio port. And for stations that are not Pacifica members, they can download it through Public Radio Exchange. So we have about 20 stations nationally that download it now. And we’re really very honored to go into more communities nationwide.
TM: So that’s very exciting to hear really good interviews around what’s really going on with food from a very unique perspective on Food Sleuth. I know that media literacy is one of your favorite topics and that, in fact, you created and directed the Nutrition Communications Center at the University of Missouri. Are you teaching there now?
MH: No, I am no longer affiliated with the University of Missouri; in fact, I officially retired just a few weeks ago. I decided I probably wasn’t going to go back to a university setting because I really enjoyed working independently.
But I’ll tell you how I got interested in media literacy. And I think many dieticians have spent a good part of their career looking at this troubling childhood obesity problem. And so for the bulk of my career, I too was trying to find what were the secrets behind this troubling epidemic. And I knew that it was beyond diet and exercise, and I wanted to see what was the power of media in influencing our food choices. And as it turns out, media is extremely powerful. It both reflects and creates culture. So we found, for example, in research with kids, that they would say their favorite food was pizza but their favorite restaurant was McDonald’s. And they could hum the McDonald’s jingle when they were just two years old. So we knew that media was indeed influencing their food preferences and choices and there’s lots of research to support that now.
But I wanted to expand that and look at agricultural messages as well and to develop some critical thinking questions about the media messages that we see. You know, the media tells us that many of the pesticides that are used to grow our food are necessary to feed the world and that they’re safe, but when you look at the science, it really doesn’t support those messages. So what we want to do is hear from farmers, for example, what is their experience in using these chemicals? Have they been harmed? What are the cancer rates in some of these rural farming communities? How do organic farmers do it? Can they indeed feed the world? And you find out, yeah, they’ve got abundant agriculture through the organic farming system.
So as consumers and as citizens, I think, embracing this model of media literacy and, I like to say, we’re going to expand that to food system literacy, where we simply ask critical questions to find good food, like where does my food come from? Who produced it? Under what conditions was my food grown or produced? What’s in or on my food or not? And what are the unintended consequences of my food and farming choices?
TM: And we all know, as we’re seeing all these epidemics in the public right now, that the result is actually not a very healthy American society right now. In fact, alarmingly high in diabetes, high in obesity, cancer continuing to grow—isn’t it like one out of every three people? And just more and more problems. Like, for example, and certainly one that I wanted to ask you about a little bit, would be this Asperger’s, autism, ADHD, just so many things that you can’t classify them in the big three of obesity, diabetes, and cancer, but still hugely alarming.
You know, it’s so exciting that the Food Sleuth is this concept of really taking your beliefs in media literacy and turning them into action that really shows, Melinda, that you walk your talk and try to use the media to help people understand the impacts of food and agriculture on human health and health of the environment. And I’ve been so delighted at the excellent interviews that you do, and I just wondered if you would mind if we could talk about a few of them.
MH: Oh, absolutely. And if I might just go back and mention one thing that you brought up, and that is these increases in illnesses that we see. And you mentioned one in three with diabetes. And it’s even worse for people of color, where it’s one in two children that we can anticipate developing diabetes if we don’t change something about our food system beyond this idea of personal choice. It’s how we produce our food.
And I do also want to say that it’s very difficult to find smoking guns, because what’s happened is that we really do live in this soup of toxic chemicals. In fact, if you look at some of the data on fetal origins of adult diseases, we find that there are over two hundred chemicals in women’s cord blood. So how on earth can we expect to have healthy children if we are having these chemicals coursing through our blood? And I know that Phil Landrigan, who has just done a lot of research looking at what kinds of chemicals can cause illness, chronic illness later on, he’s come up with a list of about ten different chemicals, including pesticides, that can lead a woman to have a greater risk of having a child with autism. And by the way, it’s now one in sixty-eight kids. So we need to be paying attention to, certainly, how we grow and produce our food.
Okay, so now let me answer your question. So what are some of the wonderful people that I’ve brought on the air? So there are three women in particular who come to mind. Unfortunately, Theo Colborn is no longer with us, but she is the mother, really, of endocrine disruption. And years ago, I was driving through Colorado, and I called her up—I gave her a cold call. I just said, “I’m here in town, I’m here in Paonia, Colorado, I’ve followed your work for years. Can I meet with you?” And she said yes. So I went to her house and we spoke for hours about endocrine disruption. I wanted—
TM: Can I just interrupt you right here, just for a second? Because I think some of our listeners might have never heard of endocrine disruption. Theo wrote her excellent, most wonderful book in, I think, 1997 or something like that. It was 1990s, wasn’t it? And then it was just so new. But can you, in just a nutshell, maybe help our listeners understand what is endocrine disruption?
MH: Absolutely, and thank you for bringing me back down. I swim in these words and sometimes I have to step back and say, “Okay, wait.” Endocrine disruptors simply are compounds that interrupt the processes or the way our normal hormones function. So that’s it: they disrupt our hormone systems. And our hormones really drive a lot of processes or a lot of biological processes in our bodies. So think about all the ways we have hormones operating in our systems. And these endocrine disruptors, a lot of which are certainly pesticides, can influence things like fertility, breast and prostate cancers—those are considered to be endocrine system cancers. So you can see that our hormones are very powerful in protecting our health and creating the next generation.
TM: So, now that we know endocrine disruption, I guess we can now talk a little bit more about Theo Colborn, who I’m thrilled to hear about the way this happened. You were in Colorado, you called her, she agreed, and you got to talk to her for hours.
MH: Yeah, in fact I have a picture of her: we’re standing together holding Rachel Carson’s book, because we both recognized that we have to protect the environment if we want to protect future generations. And I was most interested in glyphosate, actually, when I met with her, and I wanted to know whether or not she thought it was an endocrine disruptor, which she did. She has a wonderful website where people can go to get more information. Of course, fracking chemicals are endocrine disruptors as well. And if you just simply go to TEDX—it’s “The Endocrine Disruption Exchange”—you can go and find out more about how these chemicals work in the body and how to avoid them.
TM: So is this—did I hear “Ted X”?
MH: Yeah, it’s The Endocrine Disruption Exchange.
MH: Yes, I know–it’s confusing with the TED Talks, because the TED Talks have TEDx also. But yes, The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, if you just Google that.
TM: And of course, I want to also make sure that our readers know that this woman, Theo Colborn, who Melinda and I are huge fans of and who passed just a few years ago, wrote a wonderful book called Our Stolen Future, in which she introduces this discovery that she made. But Melinda, I’d love for you to just give us a couple of great nuggets about Theo that you learned on that day in Colorado.
MH: Well, we were sitting together, and she mentioned the fact that the endocrine disruptors in our environment are leading us to have a population of people that don’t feel empathy. And, I mean, just sit with that comment for a moment. Endocrine disruptors are creating a population of people who don’t feel empathy. And I think that if I could change the world in one way, it would be to create more empathy, more compassion for our fellow human beings. And the fact that these endocrine disruptors can affect our brain functioning as well as our reproductive systems, it makes me even more enthusiastic about removing these compounds from our environment.
TM: And that is truly something that is chilling. Had you thought about that before you talked to Theo?
MH: No, it was new information to me, which is what made it so shocking. And if you go to her website—actually if you go to endocrinedisruption.org, you’ve got the TEDX, which is founded by Dr. Theo Colborn, and it’s this international nonprofit organization that is really dedicated to compiling and disseminating the scientific evidence about these health and environmental problems that are linked to these low-level exposures to chemicals. And I want to emphasize that: low-level exposures.
So often, dieticians are taught, largely by big food industries, that, oh, just a little bit of residue isn’t going to hurt. It’s in low amounts—you know, parts per million, parts per trillion. But make no mistake: parts-per-million and parts-per-trillion levels of contaminants affect our bodies. And so that’s the level at which we have drugs in our system. So we have to think that these small amounts can have far-reaching consequences.
TM: Yeah, I heard that the reason why these small amounts have such a strong impact—and certainly you, as a dietician, probably can speak more eloquently than I can about this—is because that’s what hormones are.
TM: Hormones are very, very parts-per-billion. You don’t need a lot of hormones. They set up patterns and they do it in very, very small amounts. And that, in fact, there’s a new phrase that I’ve heard too, called hormone mimicry.
MH: Yeah, exactly, exactly. So you might have an endocrine disruptor that looks just like the hormone estrogen and it functions in the body like the hormone estrogen. And so they’re very powerful compounds. In fact, I think one of the things that I like so much about Theo Colborn’s website is she has different sections of how these disruptors work, but to understand that there are these critical periods of development where exposure to these compounds can make especially, or make a greater impact. They can have special harm.
This is one of the reasons why I always recommend that pregnant women consume organic food. Because when our children are developing in utero, that’s a very vulnerable time; also during childhood and during periods of puberty. So when cells are rapidly developing and doubling, that’s when they’re more susceptible to harm, these harmful compounds.
So what we want to do is make sure that our most vulnerable citizens—pregnant women, lactating women, infants and children—are protected from these compounds. Hence my advocacy for organic food and farming.
TM: Well, you sure have been a terrific advocate for organic food and farming. And it’s really very, I guess it would be, reassuring to me that you are on the board of Beyond Pesticides. I think you just recently joined that, didn’t you, Melinda?
MH: I did.
TH: Yeah, and then on the Organic Farming Research Foundation.
MH: And the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service Board. And I have to say that I always like to tell people that my greatest teachers when I got done with school—of course, we continue to learn from each other—but some of my greatest teachers have been the patients that I saw in the hospital, as well as organic farmers, who are true systems thinkers. And they are keen observers, and that’s really the sign of a smart scientist who can look at their environment, note small changes, and ask why are these changes occurring. So these are systems thinkers, and they’re brilliant people who produce our food organically.
TM: We are speaking with my favorite dietician, Melinda Hemmelgarn, who has a most wonderful little radio show called the Food Sleuth and is what you might call an investigative nutritionist. Could I ask you about one other women who I bet—
MH: You can ask me anything.
TM: Well, as you know, I’m a big fan of Theo Colborn, and I also feel so angry that her book just did not become the second Silent Spring; I think it should have been. But there’s another woman, I think, that you’ve interviewed that I’m very, very in admiration of, but also who’s written several books and seems to be a true change maker, is Sandra Steingraber. And earlier you mentioned fracking, for example. That’s been a gigantic issue for Sandra, as well as cancer, because she’s a cancer survivor, I should say. So what was that like, interviewing Sandra Steingraber? What did you learn from her?
MH: What I learned from Sandra Steingraber is that she has a wonderful way of delivering information. I think, and you’ve probably discovered this too in doing radio interviews, is that the more we do these radio interviews, the more careful listeners we become. Right? That’s part of the beauty of audio. It’s intimate and it’s careful listening.
And Sandra Steingraber, what she told me was that once you learn this information, you can’t unlearn it. So people, I find a lot of times they don’t maybe want to have these discussions, or, you know, it’s like too much bad news, right? But the truth of the matter is I think we have a responsibility to our environment and future generations to understand what’s going on and to pay attention and to participate in a democracy.
And so, from Sandra Steingraber’s perspective, I remember hearing her speak, and she had a jar of breast milk and she passed it around and she shared how many different chemicals were in it. But she makes the link, of course, between different farm chemicals, like atrazine that’s used extensively on corn and sugar cane, and how those endocrine disruptors might be linked to different kinds of cancers. Also, that she was a bladder cancer survivor. And it’s interesting, she grew up in a small town in Illinois where her mother, and I believe other relatives in her family—I’m not sure if it was her mother, but other members of her family had also developed bladder cancer. And the doctor said, “Oh yeah, it’s genetic.” And Sandra Steingraber corrected him and said, “But I was adopted.” Which points the finger to the environment in which we all live.
And one of the books that I absolutely cherish of Sandra Steingraber’s, and of course she’s been an author of many books, but Living Downstream—this idea that we all live downstream. And she also made another comment: she said, “I’m a mom, I’m not a HEPA filter.” We can only do so much when it comes to food choices. We have to have policies in place that protect our environment, because everything we do to the environment, we do to ourselves.
TM: Well, bravo, Sandra, and what a tremendous activist she’s been. Did she have something to do with the fact that New York State banned fracking?
MH: Well, Sandra Steingraber, as you know, she’s got a wonderful blog, and she wrote about her experiences. She has been writing about her experiences protesting fracking. And this has become her main issue, her one focus at the time.
And she was arrested for protesting fracking, and she wrote a wonderful blog about her experience in jail, of course, sharing the stories the other women that where in prison with her and what that was like, which opens up a whole other can of worms. But I encourage people to get a copy of Living Downstream just to help understand how we all do live downstream and why it’s so important to pay attention to what happens upstream.
TM: I’m so glad that you’re sharing this with us, Melinda, because I actually read Living Downstream too and was deeply moved by it, an excellent book. And she’s written several books. I can see that these two women were probably pretty exciting and also very informative people to really learn a lot from.
MH: Oh, absolutely. And if I may share one other interview that I found to be extremely important, and that was Joan Gussow. Joan is considered to be the matriarch of the sustainable food movement. Certainly, nutritional ecology was her area of focus and is her area of focus still. And she spoke about how we need to continue to be the sand in the gears. It is not okay to look away from some of these problems that are going to haunt our children’s futures. We need to step up and speak the truth and share interviews, like what you do with Rootstock Radio and what I’m doing with Food Sleuth Radio. It’s helping to disseminate and amplify voices of people who understand the science and who can share their piece of understanding so that we can put all these puzzle pieces together at the end of the day.
TM: Well, you know, I am a huge fan of Joan as well, so thank you so much for bringing her up. Her beautiful book, The Feeding Web: Lessons in Nutritional Ecology, she coined that term, nutritional ecology, and was almost considered heretic in the dietetic community because they only wanted to talk about food from the fork to the mouth, and she said, “No, we need to talk about food from the dirt, or the soil, to the mouth.”
MH: That’s right.
TM: And I am just so grateful to her for that perspective. And I think Joan is like in her mid-eighties now, isn’t she? And she’s still full off—excuse my French—piss and vinegar.
MH: Absolutely, and I think that she is an inspiration, certainly for me and hopefully for other women, to see how the beauty of aging is that we get to reflect on history and we get to connect more dots the older we get and we expand our network. And so I am grateful for every day that I get older, because it means that I’ve met more people and I can fold their wisdom into my understanding of the world.
And so yes, Joan is still going strong. And I hope that everyone listening uses these people as role models to see themselves also never stopping, continuing to strive and learn and be a productive member of society.
TM: Well, now I’m leading up to the question that I’m so eager to talk with you about, my dear friend Melinda, a former woman food activist. What do you think? Do you think that women have a special role, a unique role, in helping bridge the gap between what food wisdom is and actually eating?
MH: Yeah, you know, I think that there are wonderful men and women in this movement. What makes women unique is that we carry our children. We provide children their first environment. And so I think that perhaps, from that perspective, we should be paying very close attention to protecting these future generations. If we don’t have healthy children, we have nothing. And that was actually a statement that was made by Lou Guillette, also a great hero who has since passed.
But I think that men and women both have a very important voice in compassion from different perspectives. It just so happens that women in particular bear the children. And of course, in the Native American cultures, women are seen as protectors of the water, water being our number one most vital nutrient. So I think that women have a unique perspective, but we have to work together, again, to protect future generations. That’s really what it’s all about: protecting our environment and making sure that our children have a healthy environment that they’ll inherit.
TM: You have just heard part one of an interview with dietician Melinda Hemmelgarn. Please tune in next week and hear part two of this wonderful conversation with Melinda.