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Missed Opportunity For Fresh Produce: NFL’s Tony Gonzalez Eats Frozen Instead

When our copy of The Wall Street Journal arrived with a prominent headline on the front page of the “Weekend Journal” section entitled The 247-lb.Vegan* and illustrated by a handsome photo of Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez, we thought we had found a story that would surely be an enthusiastic endorsement of the fresh produce industry. With its sub-head saying, “NFL star Tony Gonzalez is out to answer a question: Can a football player live mainly on plants?” we thought we’d see great examples of his fresh produce diet. Even the little asterisk at the end of the headline, pointing to a tiny caveat that Gonzales eats a little bit of salmon, didn’t lessen our enthusiasm.

Yet reading the whole story, and especially watching the accompanying video, made us think the story was rife with lessons for the fresh produce trade.

First of all, the headline was a little deceptive:

Mr. Gonzalez joined a handful of elite athletes who have put the vegan diet to the test, either for their health or because they oppose using animals as food. But he was the first pro-football superstar to try. And the first to fail.

Mr. Gonzalez had never heard of the vegan diet when he boarded a flight from New York to Los Angeles last spring, about a month before preseason training. His seatmate turned down most of the food offered in first class, and Mr. Gonzalez finally asked why. The man told Mr. Gonzalez about “The China Study,” a 2006 book by Cornell professor and nutrition researcher T. Colin Campbell that claims people who eat mostly plants have fewer deadly diseases than those who eat mostly animals. The evidence was drawn from diet surveys and blood samples of 6,500 men and women from across China.

Mr. Gonzalez was intrigued. Earlier in the year, a bout with Bell’s Palsy, a temporary facial paralysis, had focused his attention on health. He bought the book, and after reading the first 40 pages, he says he was convinced animal foods led to chronic illness. He was an unlikely convert. Mr. Gonzalez, who grew up in Southern California, says cheeseburgers were his favorite food. But he quit them, substituting fruits, nuts and vegetables. At restaurants, he ordered pasta with tomato sauce.

Three weeks later, he walked into the weight room at the Chiefs’ training facility and got a shock. The 100-pound dumbbells he used to easily throw around felt like lead weights. “I was scared out of my mind,” he says. Standing on the scale, he learned he’d lost 10 pounds.

Mr. Gonzalez considered scrapping the diet altogether and returning to the Chiefs’ standard gut-busting menu. First, though, he called Mr. Campbell, who put him in touch with Jon Hinds, himself a vegan and the former strength coach for the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team. Mr. Hinds suggested plant foods with more protein.

The Chiefs’ team nutritionist, Mitzi Dulan, a former vegetarian athlete, did not believe that was enough. With the team’s prospects and Mr. Gonzalez’s legacy at stake, she persuaded the tight end to incorporate small amounts of meat into his plant diet. Just no beef, pork or shellfish, he said; only a few servings of fish and chicken a week.

The article doesn’t actually give enough information about the exact diet Tony Gonzalez is consuming to know how close he is to a vegan diet, but if he is consuming chicken and fish, he is not even vegetarian much less vegan — so why an editor at The Wall Street Journal selected that headline can only be guessed at. Basically, while a true vegetarian doesn’t eat any animal, a true vegan not only doesn’t eat animal but also doesn’t eat any animal byproduct such as eggs or dairy products.

The Wall Street Journal online offered a nice sidebar on training tips if one is going to follow a vegan diet — the comeuppance being that one can get adequate calories, adequate B vitamins, adequate iron and adequate electrolytes on a vegan diet — but it probably won’t happen automatically. One has to really consult with a nutritionist and plan meals to make it work.

There is also an illustration called “Dueling Menus”, which is supposed to contrast Tony Gonzalez’s typical menu with a typical “training table” menu. But without actually tracking what people eat and how much of it they eat, one has to take these types of comparisons with a grain of salt.

Regardless of the details, though, we still thought the piece would constitute a big win for the fresh produce industry. After all, this is a professional football player reducing meat consumption and upping produce and grains. Then we watched the video The Wall Street Journal produced of Tony Gonzalez making his high protein vegan shake. Take a look at the video below:

It is annoying that the moderator calls Tony Gonzalez a vegan, which as we noted above, he is not and, in fact, without looking at the protein powder he uses we can’t even be certain that this drink is vegan, as many protein powders are derived from egg whites, a high quality protein that is not permissible on a vegan diet.

Yet we found the video intriguing on three counts:

First, the casualness with which “pop-science” gets thrown around even by someone like Tony Gonzalez, who has apparently tried to study the subject, knew he was going to be quoted on the subject and, certainly, could get information from the NFL which has every interest in seeing its players eat well, is simply shocking.

For example, any benefits in health and longevity that may come from increasing one’s antioxidant intake is quite uncertain. Oxidation is a natural process, and one eats antioxidants as a natural part of a diet diverse in foods. That special efforts to eat anti-oxidant rich foods will help people in some way is, at best, a theory.

As the International Food Information council puts it:

Although recent research has attempted to establish a causal link between indicators of oxidative stress and chronic disease, none has yet been validated.

Whatever the benefits of antioxidants in general, the evidence that eating acai berry from Brazil is especially useful in promoting human health and longevity is so slight that believing it is better described as superstition than nutrition science. Actually what it really amounts to is being a sucker for people wanting to sell stuff. Google the word acai and you get thousands of websites that want you to buy acai in various forms.

Even when the nutrition information Tony Gonzalez gives is accurate, it is not clear the meaning or importance of the fact. For example, yes, strawberries ounce for ounce have more vitamin C than oranges. We keep that intriguing fact at hand in case we should ever play Jeopardy. But it has no impact on diet for most people. People need vitamin C; if you don’t get enough of it you might get scurvy. Once a person has adequate vitamin C, though, there is no known advantage to having more.

Second, the shake he was preparing is rich in calories. Although he points out that he didn’t add any sweetener and that everything is “natural from fruit,” it is not really clear that that is a distinction that makes any difference. A calorie is a calorie, and that drink he is preparing is pretty calorie-intense. He is in the NFL and needs the calories — not many people do.

Third, the video points out the big problem that the fresh produce industry is going to have. Here is a guy really working to increase his produce consumption; he has no practical limits on expense, yet aside from one leftover banana and some baby carrots — every produce item in the drink is frozen: Spinach, blueberries, cherries, strawberries, raspberries, boysenberries, assorted tropical fruits, including pineapples and mango — are all frozen. The produce department item that will get a boost from this video: The Sambazon juice.

We have written here and here about the challenge the produce industry is facing from frozen and canned product.

The industry has hung its entire marketing hat on the nutritional message, but the instrument of the trade’s effort is the Produce for Better Health Foundation, which promotes frozen, canned and juice — along with fresh.

The fresh industry needs a marketing tool that is dedicated to promoting fresh. What are we going to say to Tony Gonzalez to explain why his produce-rich shake should be made with fresh ingredients? And what organization, precisely, will say it for us?

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