We’ve seen it played a dozen times on the evening news. A wrongly accused man stands on the steps of the courthouse trying his best to forgive the jury, the judge, and a throng of lawyers who persecuted and imprisoned him for a brutal crime he did not commit. A search for his DNA, collected at the crime scene, in a genetics database maintained by the Department of Justice shows that the crime scene DNA does not match his. Instead, the DNA evidence implicates an inmate doing time in another state for a parole violation. Confronted with the DNA evidence, the parole violator confesses to the cold case murder, setting an innocent man free.
DNA-based appeals and related genetic evidence in general have revolutionized our legal system. More accurate than eyewitness testimony or the very cool fiber, fingerprint, and blood-splatter analyses depicted on CSI: Miami, DNA evidence provides conclusive proof of who was at a crime scene or somewhere else, miles away. Also because of this science, we will not have to build more tombs to unknown soldiers, wonder who our father may be, or guess about our susceptibility to some genetic disease.
DNA analysis works because each individual’s DNA is unique. More interestingly, our DNA carries the vestiges of evolutionary changes as varied as hair color, stature, and gut physiology. As geneticist Sean Carroll points out, “DNA contains, therefore, the ultimate forensic record of evolution.”
But this is the rub. Jurors and judges use DNA evidence to determine guilt or innocence, and in some cases, life or death, of thousands of citizens—all of which is universally supported by public opinion and considered sound science. But this same population— about half of us—doubts or outright denies the reality of evolutionary biology, indicating we are far more comfortable with DNA’s applications than with its implications. It’s this irony of public perception and understanding, coupled with the restaurant industry’s near total disregard for any honest responsibility for the health of the nation, which drives us at NAKEDpizza on our quest for a new forward.
The idea that evolution is the basis of human biology and helps explain why we are vulnerable to disease is scarcely mentioned in modern medicine and nutrition. If evolutionary biology were a more important part of modern medicine, common medical problems such as cough, nausea, vomiting, low-grade fever, fatigue, and anxiety would be correctly viewed not as problems to be eliminated, but rather as the body’s attempts to remedy a problem. A truly informed perspective would consider that if fever, cough, and diarrhea are effective defenses against disease, couldn’t blocking these defenses make people sicker? But where’s the money in that.
Much mainstream nutrition advice comes from nutrition and dietary experts who are card-carrying members of the The American Dietetic Association (ADA), the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals. From the ADA website,
ADA is committed to improving the nation’s health and advancing the profession of dietetics through research, education and advocacy.
This is a massive organization that publishes a number of journals and newsletters and convenes professional, food, and nutrition expos each year to publicize marching orders for its 70,000 plus members—a.k.a. Registered Dietitians. To say this group has an impact on the nutrition and dietary strategies of Americans would be an understatement. The ADA also does an excellent job of providing its members with tools, especially “timely, science-based food and nutrition information you can trust.” One way they do this is through Position Papers that “explain the Association’s stance on issues that affect the nutritional status of the public.”
These position papers address the ADA’s take on things like vegetarian diets, nutrition and aging, fiber intake, obesity and weight prevention, vitamin requirements, and so on. In all, there are about 39 position papers. A quick search for the words “evolution” and “evolutionary biology” in the body of the text in all 39 position papers yields “0” hits. While there are definitely some nutrition experts who consider their clients and customers as mammals with an evolutionary past, the business or industry of dietary advice does not see things quite the same way.
The same vision persists within the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services—the keepers of the U.S Food Pyramid. In a press release distributed last October, the government announced they had selected “13 nationally recognized experts to serve on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. The Committee members are made up of prominent medical and scientific researchers from universities and scientific institutions across America that are leaders in their field.” Interestingly, not a single evolutionary biologist or anyone with any training or publishing record in the principles of evolutionary sciences are among the 13 experts who are going to tell us what to eat—and why. They were, however, able to squeeze in a couple of experts to help us with behavioral changes.
It is this lack of evolutionary perspective that allows the ADA and other groups to embrace a vegetarian diet as “appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.” While people choose vegetarian diets for a number of reasons—for moral grounds, for example—we should take the time to realize that the recommendations and validations of such a diet ignore the fact that meat played a significant role in human evolution and thus genetically shaped our physiology. The evidence for meat consumption is overwhelming in the archaeological record and is recorded in the chemistry of our ancestors’ bones and teeth, dating back to the dawn of humanity.
We are not closing our eyes to the potential health benefits of a meatless diet, nor to the moral, social, and environmental issues that shape one’s food choices; our logic also applies to dietary regimes that dismiss plants—for example, the Atkins Diet. Throughout human evolution, our nutritional landscape included large amounts of consumed plants. Period.
It is along the continuum of these two dietary extremes—all plants versus only a few—that most of us find no evolutionary foundations for either extreme to dictate our current nutritional needs.
When we started NAKEDpizza in late 2006, it was called World’s Healthiest Pizza, but not because we were pizza fanatics, and not because we had a burning desire to be in the quick service restaurant sector. Rather, we saw the pizza industry as an opportunity to 1) make an unhealthy and popular fast food healthier and more nutritious in a truly meaningful way; 2) make a better tasting pizza and; 3) demonstrate that a tastier and healthier pizza was a viable business concept. More importantly, by combining biological and nutritional science to create a new kind of pizza, and by considering the social and environmental dimensions of business, we could demonstrate a new conceptual framework that had the potential to create a way forward for the fast food industry.
As an industry, fast food is punctuated by a history of successes and achievement, but also plagued by paradoxes, shortcomings, and challenges that require increasing acts of marketing desperation. These desperate acts often result in short-cuts and compromises that have, and will continue to, undermine the health of the very customers the industry depends on. We are fast approaching the day when the current, dominant business model in the fast food industry of “you give me money, I give you taco” will be replaced by one of equity and the realization that the business of food is interlinked with social, cultural, environmental, political, and economic disciplines.
Most of all, the business of food should be in principle and practice a biological, environmental, and social science undertaking. It is simply too important to be less. With per capita spending on healthcare in this country already the highest in the world (more than $7,000 per person), we need a new strategy. This new, broad, integrated structure brings recent advances and progressive work into the realm of fast food by providing an opportunity for honest impact and renewal. This plan is appropriate for the twenty-first century.
At NAKEDpizza we are truly concerned with personal and population health, and also with the health of the living world of which we are a part. In part 2 of Pizza evolutus, we will lay out for you how we created the world’s healthiest pizza within this conceptual framework.