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Nature’s Octane

February 7, 2010

Have you ever heard someone refer a person as “in tune with nature?”  It makes me wonder how any living thing possible becomes “out of tune” with nature.  After all, as the word implies, it’s the natural state of being.  Still, much like cars, we often find ourselves in need of a tune-up from time to time.

With modern vehicles, the days of the driveway mechanic are coming to an end.  There was a time when weekends were full of fathers and sons tinkering with the family auto on a Saturday afternoon.  Cars, back then, needed frequent tune-ups to operate efficiently.  It seemed with each oil change, something else needed adjusting.  Today, technological improvements mean our cars require much less work to operate efficiently.  Moreover, the car engine of today looks more like something from a science fiction movie than the powerhouse of a muscle car from the 50s and 60s.

While it is easy to see technology improved automobile engines, technology has created problems in other areas of our lives, food for instance.  Our own creativity has created a situation that inhibits our ability to live in-tune with nature.  Whether you believe God created mankind or that we simply evolved, one thing it true either way – our bodies are engines that use food as a fuel source.  Like cars, the quality of fuel directly affects the performance of our engine.  For the most part, an automobile engine serves a single function, to create useable power.  Its fuel is specific to that single task.  The human engine is more complex and delivers a wide range of functions, requiring a complex fuel source.

The chemical formula for isooctane, the benchmark gasoline is measured by, is (CH3)3CCH2CH(CH3)2.  Knowing this is of little use to the average human, nor is knowing that C6H12O6 is a component of high-fructose corn syrup and that you should have no more than forty grams a day.  What is useful is the index system that measures isooctane; drivers know, early on, they need to use 87 octane for most  cars.  While we really don’t know what the 87 stands for, it is a number we can easily find and associate with the proper operation of our cars.

Every time we fuel our cars, we see the “Minimum Octane Rating” sticker on the pump; it is how we know which fuel to select.  Basically, you select (or should) the fuel your car is designed to use.  Higher performing engines need the higher octane fuels.  While a normal engine will not improve its performance selecting a higher grade fuel, a high performance engine will degrade efficiency selecting a fuel below its designed rating.  We need to do the same thing with the foods we eat.  We need to take in foods our bodies process efficiently if we want to keep our engines tuned.

The food science industry produces products, like high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) that meet the desire of food produces for low-cost ingredients.  While their products allow producers to keep food costs lower, they are not the types of fuel our bodies use efficiently.  In fairness to food producers, there are other reasons to use HFCS besides cost; it mixes easier than sugar for one.  Advocates   for each side argue the merits, for and against, the use of HFCS and other products like it.  The argument is technical and boring and leaves your head swimming in confusion.  In the end, it is not a necessary argument in the first place.

Rather than worry with the exact amounts of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and such, a particular food contains, it would better serve us to have a simple index number to judge a meal’s relative value, much like the octane system for gasoline.  A scale with a 0 to 100 index will work, with 0 akin to eating weapons-grade uranium and 100 eating manna from heaven.  Of course, the quantity of food each individual eats is determined by the level of activity.

Setting up a rating system for food will be complicated; it was for octane for sure.  In the end the octane rating system provides us with something we easily use in our daily lives.  Setting a system of grading meals will give the same sort of result – we will understand the value of the fuel we consume.  We can then match the fuel to the particular style of life we live and stay in-tune with nature’s plan.

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