God Help Me, I’ve Joined a Co-Op

A loaf of sprouted bread. Via Wikimedia.

A loaf of sprouted bread. Via Wikimedia.

I capitulated to friends and followed them into joining a food co-op. It’s a members-only collaborative grocery store that is governed, operated, and patronized by the people who join it, with everyone participating in some way, typically volunteering a few hours of labor each month—stocking groceries, working the checkout registers, cleaning, doing clerical jobs, etc. It has a mission to operate on behalf of its members, with extremely low mark-ups on almost all the products sold there, and with the aim of essentially breaking even, income-wise, as its members are basically just collectively buying in bulk. (This is not to say that the foods it sells are striking a blow against corporate greed: the products there, like all stores, come from capitalist businesses that have a profit motive.) The fruits and veggies and things are all top notch, it carries national brands and health food offerings with some more gourmet products; everything is really affordable. I enjoy it, but the place is rife with woo.

Much of the pseudoscience will be familiar to just about everyone, and many of the topics have been covered on the Skeptoid Podcast, The Feeding Tube, inFact, and on the Skeptoid Blog: vitamin megadoses, the natural fallacy, organic food bunkum, biodynamic farming, the trumpeted absence of GMOs, ancient wisdom, homeopathy, and on and on it goes. A lot of this stuff is mere marketing and doesn’t matter; people don’t need to eat or avoid organic foods or ancient grains or much else for sale there. Some of it is dangerous: overdosing on vitamins can be harmful, and many of the supplements on the shelves are irresponsibly zealous with their health claims. But a lot of it points to a fundamental lack of scientific thinking and the poverty of science education. The people I work and shop with are selective about what parts of science they accept, such as global warming, and what parts they discard, such as agriculture and nutrition. And really that’s no different from most everyone else on the planet—including me, by the way.

Tonight, while packing loaves of frozen “Ezekiel Bread” into a freezer, I started wondering about a particular food claim right there on the bag I was staring at. The bread is produced by Food For Life, which is vaguely religious and is big enough that its products are distributed internationally. Ezekiel bread takes its name from a Bible verse, Ezekiel 4:9, which instructs the reader to put various grains and beans into a storage jar and make bread from them. So, do with biblical nutrition what you will; the company interprets this as a command to make bread using sprouted grains: wheat, spelt, lentils, barley, millet, and soybeans (not enumerated in the verse and not available to ancient Hebrews like those who wrote the Book of Ezekiel). They’re baked into a dense, fibrous loaf, which is tasty and hearty.

But I wondered if there were any actual health or nutrition benefits.

Sprouts are a kind of health-food staple, and for good reasons: they’re delicious and easy to produce. Germinating seeds breaks down some complex compounds into simpler ones that the growing plant can quickly use to develop, such as converting starches into sugars. A lot of complicated changes happen as a seed becomes a plant, and although the digestive availability of some nutrients might be greater in sprouts, that’s typically relative and they’re still pretty paltry compared to a cooked meal. And they can be loaded with certain other naturally occurring chemicals that diminish when cooking. Many seeds and sprouts can be high in lectins, which are protective proteins that some plants use to defend against pests and even digestion, so that they’re more likely to survive and germinate. They can provoke an immune response, too, potentially making people who eat them ill. Sprouting them can reduce lectins, but cooking them really knocks them out. (Incidentally, some beans, such as red kidney beans, are so high in lectins that they can only be eaten cooked, not sprouted.) There’s a longer laundry list of other naturally occurring chemicals in raw sprouts that can affect people. Nathanael Johnson, in his book All Natural: Skeptic’s Quest for Health and Happiness in an Age of Ecological Anxiety (2013), runs down his own experience overdosing on plants’ defensive compounds and becoming malnourished during what could be described as his youthful flirtation with orthorexia.

So there’s interesting things that happen in sprouts, but there doesn’t seem to be much a lot that changes them, nutritionally, from regular grains. Comparing nutrition labels between Ezekiel bread and a common brand of whole wheat bread, Oroweat, the differences in every metric are negligible. Oroweat has the same amount of protein, more vitamins, identical fiber, and the same zero grams of trans fat. While sprouting may change the makeup of the seed at the molecular level, the contribution of those changes to the overall makeup of the bread is essentially zero.

Food For Life claims that its bread is “rich in protein, vitamins, minerals and natural fiber with no added fat.” The same is true for the whole wheat competitor. Food for Life also describes that “We discovered when these six grains and legumes are sprouted and combined, an amazing thing happens. A complete protein is created that closely parallels the protein found in milk and eggs.” (Oroweat doesn’t give a lofty description of its amino acid profile.) How exactly their product resembles the protein in milk and eggs is unclear. Even less so, why the protein of milk and eggs should be so desirable. This kind of metaphor for the protein in its food should be approached warily: Food For Life attributes at least some of its dietary information to the Price-Pottenger Foundation, a nonprofit that believes that people need to eat more animal fats (e.g. milk, eggs, and meat) and that modern agriculture is making food less nutritious. Price-Pottenger’s ideology doesn’t have a scientific basis, and their assertions are basically all sourced with other Price-Pottenger talking points.

Food for Life is essentially as benevolent as Monsanto or YUM! Brand Foods or any other company: it’s an international company that’s trying to make money. Furthermore, it has a sales pitch that lines up with two widely supported faith ideologies: the benefit of consuming animal products made using “traditional” farming techniques, and religion. These aren’t based in evidence, they’re based in belief. If you want a tasty, seed-y bread, Food for Life is pretty good. If you want nutritious bread, you can choose that or any other brand. Trust me, I know: I love sandwiches and toast.

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25 Responses to God Help Me, I’ve Joined a Co-Op

  1. David Parker says:

    I share your impression of co-ops. Our local one began when a bunch of “alternative lifestyle” folks got together to buy grain in bulk. I think it’s a good idea to cut out needless middle men, but the enterprise has been steeped in woo throughout its history–and all the sometimes conflicting ideologies to go with it. Although every chain drug store sells homeopathic crap, as well, at least in those places, the GMO issue is irrelevant.

  2. Generally I am comfortable with what you say, but sprouted seeds contain a reasonable amount of vitamin C, which is effectively absent from dry grain. In fact, if old-time sailing ships had used seeds (including grain) freshly sprouted on board, as a significant fraction of their rations, they could have banished scurvy.

    But no one listened to me in those days…

    • John Denys says:

      Sprouts could not have been stored because they are necessarily moist.

      • Al Stoops says:

        The sprouts would not be stored. The seeds would be stored as unsprouted seeds, and would be moistened and sprouted as needed, and eaten fresh.

    • Torchwood says:

      Limes have more Vit C and can be stored much longer than sprouts. I’m pretty sure that when sprouts get a white fuzzy coat that you shouldn’t eat them. Same thing with bread. However, I’m not sure that there is a superior understanding of nutrition now, when this year red meat is evil and eggs are perfect, and last year eggs were deadly and red meat is perfect, and in between chicken is the food of the gods and sugar in any form will kill you.

      What I *do* know is that cage free/free range chickens make better and tastier eggs and the shell doesn’t stick to the egg when boiled.

      A happy critter makes a better product.

      • David Parker says:

        The taste of an egg and the color of its yolk are products of the chicken’s diet, not its living conditions. How fresh an egg is determines whether its shell will stick after it is boiled. You may have been duped by the tenets of organic dogma!

  3. Lulu3601 says:

    I generally buy products because I like them. I dismiss all advertising claims as so much hogwash. I get Ezekiel bread because I like the way it tastes and because it contains no preservatives. Other breads don’t taste as good to me. I don”t pay any attention to the woo. I’d say use the co-op to save money and forget about the specious food claims. Buy what you like and forget the marketing gimmicks. Even your local grocery probably stocks Ezekiel bread and other products with specious claims. You speak of striking a blow at corporate greed. That would take a whole lot more than a food co-op. Don’t expect so much from it. That it saves you money is about all you can reasonably expect. If you want to fight corporate greed it will take a lot more time and energy than joining a co-op. Understand the limitations of what you do and don’t expect magic. Corporate greed is a completely different ball game than saving money. Do things for the right reasons.

    • Jon H. says:

      Your statement about preservatives is woo.

      • Lulu3601 says:

        If you are saying Ezekiel Bread has preservatives, please provide evidence. The ingredients list shows none and that information is controlled by the FDA. If a product contins preservatives they are required to list them.

  4. Chris Harding says:

    I had a workmate who bragged about a grower’s cooperative she was involved with. She told me how they all grow their own organic food, take it to their market and sell it to clients who come from all over the state to buy their produce. Her main claim was that they have little, or no impact on the environment because it is all home grown without chemicals. When I questioned whether the impact of over a hundred private vehicles driving the produce to market in the back of pickups and taking it away in the boots of cars would have to be greater than one B-double truck driving to a major retailer, she refused to discuss anymore with someone she saw as a non-believer; especially one who didn’t share her scientific view of homeopathy.

  5. Mr SJ says:

    “I enjoy it, but the place is rife with woo.”

    Please explain. I try to stay current with urban hipster slang, but I do not know what this means.

    • David Parker says:

      Ah, it’s skeptic slang. It’s shortened from “Woo-woo.” I’m pretty sure it stems from the theremin (instrument used for the old Star Trek theme) music played as background for ghost movies to help with the spooky feeling. It is onomatopoetic… I don’t know if James Randi coined it, but he certainly used the term a lot! The term is appropriately pejorative when applied to the supernatural, psuedo-scientific, etc. Heh-heh, where have you been for the last ten or fifteen years?

      • Pat Berry says:

        No theremins were used in the Star Trek theme music. You’re confusing it with low-budget science fiction movies from the ’50s and early ’60s, which did use the theremin. Star Trek’s theme was performed by an orchestra, and the melody features either an organ or a soprano vocalist, depending on which season you’re watching.

        • David Parker says:

          I think you are right, so I looked up the Wiki article… Sure enough, it says the instrument was the organ for the original 60s’ series theme, re-mixed to emphasize that instead of the vocal of the first couple episodes. But never say die! The article reveals “The 2003 release Magical Moods of the Theremin, by lounge act Project: Pimento, includes the theme performed with lyrics, and a theremin. (The title theme recordings for the TV series are often erroneously believed to feature a theremin.)”
          3 1950/51 space themed movies, “Rocketship X-M, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing (From Another World)”

    • Yes, as Parker says, below, imagine someone making a high-pitched ghostly sound like “Woooooooooo!”

      I’m a bit curious as to the actual origin of the phrase to mean “un-scientific claims” but I’d guess it started appearing 8-10 years ago. I don’t remember seeing it in the folklore or urban legends sites when I started following them 15 or so years ago.

      • ScepticalScotty says:

        Really only works Jim if you say “woooooo” and do jazz hands at the same time. 🙂

        • LULU3601 says:

          It doesn’t mean only “unscientific claims” but supernatural, other-worldly, ethereal, mystical ones. People have believed in such things since the dawn of man. It certainly started before man understood science. Stories, radio and television broadcasts and movies have added to the phenomenon in more recent years.

  6. Lulu3601 says:

    Woo Woo has a connotation of approval. It’s what some men say when they see a sexy woman. Plain old woo has come to mean “ideas considered irrational or based on extremely flimsy evidence or that appeal to mysterious occult forces or powers.”

    Both terms are still used, but the singular woo seems to be winning for flimsy claims, IMO.

  7. JIMJFOX says:

    “It’s what some men say when they see a sexy woman” .

    I say nothing. Just gobsmacked. Almost makes me want to believe there IS a God.
    Really, I should know better at 70 years of age… :-))

  8. Richard1941 says:

    As a member of a co-op, the only say you have in its operation is a single vote among thousands when the board is elected. Some co-ops, like the Auto Club of Southern California, allow no outside candidates for the board and dispense with elections under all but the most extreme situations.

    So, the solution for you is obvious: according to free market capitalism, if there is a product at the co-op that you object to, DON’T BUY IT! If enough people agree with you, they won’t sell any, and they will be forced to discontinue it.

    Your criticism of homeopathy is ill-advised. There is at least one human ailment that can be reversed by sufficient homeopathic remedy, according to all scientific best medical practice, although such treatment may not be economically efficient. (Moderate dehydration)

  9. Chris Harding says:

    I’d like to know how moderate dehydration is achieved by drinking water.

  10. richard1941 says:

    Does the co-op offer tantric yogurt?

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