One day in my 8th grade CCD class, the teacher brought in oranges for each of us. As we cut them up, he led us on a tour through the anatomy of the orange. For a half hour, he eloquently discoursed on the inner beauty and intricacy of the orange. In his mind, the complexity and power of oranges was compelling evidence for the existence of God.
Every several months or so, scientists discover a new super diet (the 5-2! South Beach! Every-Other-Day-Fasting! Paleo!), super food (acai! quinoa! blueberry!) or super nutrient (Omega 3s! antioxidants! manganese!). Then, seemingly overnight, we see those nutrients and super-foods everywhere, in foods and pills: cereal with excess fiber and dried blueberries; chips sprinkled with antioxidants; crackers with ground up flax seeds; power bars, smoothies, nutrition shakes, and juices, all chock full of flax seeds and omega 3s; fish oil pills, beta-carotene pills; multivitamins, and so on and so forth. Scientists analyze the super foods to discover exactly what makes them so “super” and then they determine how to put those nutrients into every conceivable processed food item.
This phenomenon, of course, makes sense. We want to eat the foods we like, but we also want them to be healthy. Thus, pastries, muffins, and cookies made with blueberry flavoring and a little bit of flax seed oil so easily fit the bill. Don’t like vegetables? Just eat this multivitamin pill, and you’ll never need to eat a vegetable again. We’ve been trained to only buy the foods and vitamins that contain those super nutrients, and the food industry knows this.
One of the underlying assumptions behind this type of nutrition science is that all food can be broken down into its most basic nutrients: Blueberries contain antioxidants composed of Vitamin C and manganese; separating the nutrients and cramming them into various artificial food items, the thinking goes, can only be beneficial. Once scientists know which nutrients make blueberries (and other foods) super, they can add those nutrients into any and all other processed food items and vitamin pills.
There are, however, dangers to this line of thinking. Several months ago, studies emerged saying that daily multivitamins not only fail to ward off the heart problems, memory loss, and all other diseases they’re supposed to counteract, but that, in several instances, they actually harm the subjects who consume them. The authors behind these three separate studies urged people to stop taking multivitamins. As the news percolated through the public, it turned out that the conclusions of these studies was neither novel nor surprising to experts: in a 1994 New England Journal of Medicine study, Finnish scientists discovered that men who take daily Vitamin E vitamins were more likely to die from lung cancer or heart disease than those who took no vitamins at all. In fact, the risk of lung cancer for those vitamin takers was 46% higher.
In 1996, scientists determined that taking Vitamin A and beta-carotene supplements increased one’s risk of cancer and heart disease by 28% and 17% percent, respectively. Then, in 2004, a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that supplemental pills containing Vitamins A, C, E, and beta carotene—all of which supposedly decrease the risk of intestinal cancers—actually increased overall mortality. In 2005 and 2007, more studies found that Vitamin E pills increased the risk of heart failure and prostate cancer.
These results could appear alarming for vegetable and fruit enthusiasts, given the high vitamin content of those foods. If scientists know that vitamins aren’t good for you, why do these same scientists still promote eating fruits and vegetables crammed with vitamins as the number one way to ward off almost every disease known to man? If Vitamin C pills increase your risk of cancer, why don’t oranges, too?
These questions take us right back to my 8th grade CCD class. The orange, as my teacher told me then, is an incredibly complex and beautiful piece of nature. It’s not harmful; in fact, it’s just as healthy as everyone thinks it is. Scientists know—and all the studies agree—that oranges improve heart function, ward off blindness, macular degeneration, heart disease, and certain cancers. But no matter how hard scientists try, they may never actually understand the magical (miraculous?) powers of the orange.
Consider that in just one single, solitary orange, you have “appreciable quantities of neohesperidin,naringin (0.9–4%), rhoifolin, lonicerin, hesperidin, and other polymethoxyflavonoids (tangeretin, nobiletin, sinensetin, auranetin, rutin, etc.); vitamins (A, B1, and C); coumarins (e.g., 6,7-dimethoxycoumarin and umbelliferone); carotenoid pigments (citraurin, violaxanthin, and cryptoxanthin); pectin, citrantin; and others … the orange contains more than 90% monoterpenes (main d-limonene, also myrcene, campherr pinene, ocimene, p-cymene, etc.); small amounts of alcohols (linalool, terpinene nerol, farnesol, nerolidol, octanol, etc. usually 0.5–1% aldehydes (mainly decanal also nonanal, dodecanal, citronellal, neral acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, etc.), and ketones (carvone, α-ionone, and jasmine); free acids (octadecadienoic, pelargonic, cinnamic, acetic, etc.); about 2.4% esters (linalyl acetate, decyl pelargonate, octyl acetate, geranyl acetate, etc.); coumarins (osthole and auraptenol); and others.”
From that absurdly long, confusing list of chemicals contained within the makeup of one single orange, food scientists single out Vitamin C—and only Vitamin C—as the super-nutrient of the orange. But maybe it’s the rhoifolin, lonicern, or hesperidin. Maybe it’s all three chemicals acting in conjunction with each other. Or maybe it’s all of those chemicals acting together. Maybe it’s all of those chemicals except for the Vitamin C. We just don’t know.
But what we do know, is that the vitamin-phenomenon-disaster has shown us that food cannot be broken down into its most basic nutrients. As Michael Pollan wrote
“Most nutritional science involves studying one nutrient at a time, an approach that even nutritionists who do it will tell you is deeply flawed. ‘The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science,’ points out Marion Nestle, the New York University nutritionist, ‘is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of food, the food out of the context of diet and the diet out of the context of lifestyle .’”
And that’s simply not natural. It’s impossible to eat (let alone find) Vitamin C isolated in nature. The only way to consume Vitamin C, in nature, is through fruits and vegetables. This should suggest to us that maybe, just maybe, Vitamin C isn’t mean to be eaten in isolation, outside of its natural environment (i.e. outside of fruits and vegetables).
We don’t know why oranges are good for us. In fact, we don’t even know if vitamins are good for us, and we don’t really know if antioxidants are good for us. The only thing we completely know is that blueberries, oranges, broccoli–all vegetables and fruits, in fact–are the most powerful foods we can eat to ward off cancers and disease.
I don’t know if the power and beauty of the orange proves, as my CCD teacher believed, that there is a God. What I do think is that it’s beautiful and compelling to know the most healthful and powerful foods we can possibly eat are the very ones nature has already given us. No matter how hard we humans may try, it’s impossible to beat the power of nature’s orange.