No One Knows Exactly How Much Herbicide Is in Your Breakfast

Originally published on VICE May 11, 2016

Last week, lawyers in New York and California initiated a class-action lawsuit against Quaker Oats for selling oatmeal labeled "100% natural," even though it contains trace amounts of the not-so-natural chemical glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide known as Roundup. Labeling aside, the suit brings up an even bigger question: How freaked out should we be about chemicals in our breakfast?

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organization (WHO), declared glyphosate "a probable human carcinogen" last year, heightening consumer concern about the use of the herbicide on our foods. Glyphosate is mixed with other chemical ingredients to make Roundup (which is manufactured by the biotech company Monsanto), and is widely used on food crops to kill unwanted weeds in agricultural production; it's also frequently used in home gardens. The IARC report pointed to an increased risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in humans who are occupationally exposed to the herbicide, and noted the prevalence of rare liver and kidney tumors in animals exposed to glyphosate.

Glyphosate is the most commonly used broad-spectrum herbicide in the world. Its use rose globally from 112.6 million pounds in 1995 to 1.65 billion pounds in 2014. This spike coincides with the introduction of "Roundup Ready" GMO crops, which are genetically engineered to withstand the herbicide. In addition, even some non-GMO crops, including wheat, oats, barley, and beans, are sprayed with glyphosate in a practice called desiccation, which dries the crops and speeds ripening. This has prompted concern about increased residues—as has the fact that, in 2013, the EPA raised the allowable limit for glyphosate residue in food. This means there's a good chance glyphosate residue lurks in both GMO and non-GMO foods. (The use of glyphosate, as well as many other pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, are prohibited in organic farming, so certified-organic foods are likely free of these residues.)

Testing done on a sample of Quaker Oats Quick 1-Minute Oats at an independent lab and paid for by the Richman Law Group, which is representing plaintiffs in the new lawsuit, found levels of glyphosate at 1.18 parts per million. The EPA currently allows up to 30 parts per million in cereal grains. A spokesperson for Quaker Oats wrote in an emailed statement to VICE, "Any levels of glyphosate that may remain are trace amounts and significantly below any limits which have been set by the EPA as safe for human consumption." Echoing that sentiment, an EPA spokesperson, also in an emailed statement to VICE, wrote, "In setting tolerances for pesticide residues on various foods, 

EPA ensures that there will be a reasonable certainty of no harm to people when they consume food containing residues resulting from use of the pesticide."

In other words, both Quaker Oats and the EPA take the position that you should not worry about glyphosate residue in your oatmeal or elsewhere because the levels are below the threshold the EPA has set for "no harm."

Researchers cannot ethically test the effects of glyphosate in a randomized controlled experiment on humans, so instead they have to rely on animal studies as well as large-scale observational studies, in which they make associations (for instance, between farm workers with occupational exposure to glyphosate and increases in lymphoma). And given the findings so far, scientists who study environmental chemicals strongly disagree with the idea that low levels of glyphosate are harmless. Fourteen of these experts recently published a consensus statement expressing concern that the herbicide may be an endocrine disrupting chemical (EDC), which means it has the potential to be biologically active even in extremely low doses. (Despite this, the EPA does not consider glyphosate to be an EDC.) Thousands of separate studies on EDCs have shown that low-level exposure could have detrimental health effects—including an increased risk for certain cancers, infertility, obesity, diabetes, and developmental problems. This suggests that even trace amounts of chemicals like glyphosate found in oats or other foods could 

be carcinogenic or disruptive to other important biological functions. "Hormones themselves are active at parts per trillion and parts per billion levels [in our bodies]," John Peterson Myers, chief scientist at the research and policy nonprofit Environmental Health Sciences, told VICE. "In the real world of biology, those levels have huge effects. Hormone-disrupting chemicals can also be biologically powerful at those doses."

Studies have shown that glyphosate may interfere with fetal development and causebirth defects, and while much is still unknown, emerging work in rodent models shows that it has effects on male reproductive development. The endocrine system is exquisitely sensitive to very low dosages of EDCs, Andrea Gore, professor and Vacek Chair of pharmacology at the University of Texas, told VICE, and this is especially true when it comes to developing fetuses, infants, and children. "Small fluctuations from the norm can change developmental processes and lead to a dysfunction at the time of exposure, or sometimes, many years after exposure," she said.

Given the research on endocrine disruption, the levels allowed by the EPA are too high, and have no basis in science, Bruce Blumberg, professor of developmental and cell biology and pharmaceutical sciences at UC Irvine, told VICE. "This is a political decision rather than one based on reasonable, peer-reviewed science." Blumberg is especially concerned about desiccation, which could mean there are potentially even greater 

amounts of glyphosate residue on our foods than previously accounted for. "Glyphosate and other herbicides were never intended to be used [as desiccants], and I am truly astonished that the EPA allows it absent a showing of how much glyphosate or other herbicides are present on the final product."

Another concern is that Roundup is actually a mixture of glyphosate and other potentially harmful chemicals—a combination that has never been tested. Tests are performed on glyphosate alone, a fact several scientists VICE spoke to pointed to as being a major and often overlooked concern.

"The actual product used is a mixture of chemicals, combined to increase the effectiveness of the active ingredient," Myers said. "The actual product mixture is never tested in regulatory testing. Never—even though that is what people are exposed to."

The widespread use of Roundup means there are potentially many food products—some carrying an "all-natural" label on their packaging—that also contain glyphosate residue. But consumers would have no way of knowing: Despite having a set limit for the herbicide residue in food, and despite the fact that it was introduced to our food system in 1974, the FDA has never monitored levels of glyphosate in food. 

But in February of this year, the agency announced that it would begin monitoring levels in soybeans, corn, milk, and eggs. Notably absent from this list is the food in question in the lawsuit: oats. The FDA would not provide any further information about this when contacted by VICE, but a spokesperson said the agency has recently developed "streamlined methods for testing glyphosate."

There doesn't seem to be any disagreement about the presence of glyphosate in our oatmeal; Quaker Oats and the EPA admit it's there. It's likely in myriad other food products as well. And that's the deeper relevance of this lawsuit: It points to the fact that so much is unknown or undisclosed about what actually ends up in our food. Where regulatory agencies have dragged their feet, and where food manufacturers continue to make dubious claims on labels, consumers are taking matters into their own hands with class-action lawsuits—Kim Richman of Richman Law group, for instance, has also filed class action lawsuits in regard to the presence of trans fats and GMOs in foods.

R. Thomas Zoeller, a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts who studies endocrine disruptors, said that there are several examples of how the government has failed to protect the consumer when it comes to environmental chemical exposure. He points to flame retardants and chemicals called PCBs. "We now know we exposed pregnant women and kids to these chemicals, which affected brain development—we 

have heard this story over and over again," Zoeller told VICE. "The government is using a strategy that hasn't protected people."

Everyone can agree that more research in this area is necessary; the EPA is currently reviewing last year's IARC findings. The real question is, will glyphosate prove to be another notorious environmental chemical that we'll later learn harms human health? And if that's even a possibility, how shall we hedge our bets in the meantime?

 

We’re About to Start Seeing More Early Deaths from Diabetes

Hip-hop pioneer Phife Dawg died this week at the age of 45, from complications of diabetes. His early death is a harbinger of tragedies to come.

Photo by Rodrigo Vaz via Getty

A Tribe Called Quest's Malik Taylor, aka Phife Dawg, died on Wednesday at age 45 from complications of diabetes. Phife was known for being a pioneer of hip-hop, and, to a much lesser extent, as having a sweet tooth. (A few bars into the 1991 track "Buggin Out," he notes, I drink a lot of soda so they call me Dr. Pepper.) Taylor was diagnosed with the disease in 1991, at the age of 20.

A 20-year-old diagnosed with diabetes was once exceedingly rare—the disease was called "adult-onset" diabetes for a reason. But increasingly children and young adults are being diagnosed in alarming numbers. The rise was noted with concern back in 2000, when the American Diabetes Association published a consensus statement on the subject. A 2014 study found that the prevalence of type 2 diabetes among ten to 19-year-olds rose 30 percent between 2001 and 2009. By 2012, fully one half of the entire US adult population had either diabetes or pre-diabetes.

There's a common perception that people who have diabetes can just take meds and live a normal life. A growing industry normalizes the disease with lotions, supplements, medications, magazines, and food and drinks that cater to a diabetic population. But as Taylor's death illustrates, diabetes is not something to take lightly, and this is especially true for those diagnosed young, since living with the disease for longer can lead to worse outcomes. Complications include blindness, end-stage kidney failure, stroke, and numbness in the extremities—which means wounds go unnoticed, get infected, and can result in amputations. Taylor was so sick that in 2008 he required a kidney transplant from his wife, Deisha Taylor.

Read the full article

No, Bacon Won't Kill You

Published on The Huffington Post

The hysteria surrounding the headlines last week declaring bacon a carcinogen -- comparing its consumption to the risks of smoking cigarettes -- has calmed down a bit. And that's good because the media hype with headlines like, "Processed Meats Rank Alongside Smoking as Cancer Causes -- WHO" is largely just that, hype. While the World Health Organization (WHO) did issue a report that says processed meats, including bacon, sausages, and ham are among the most carcinogenic foods, several key factors have been left out of the conversation. And the lack of nuance in covering this report is emblematic of the broader problems with much nutrition and health reporting: A study is issued with a sensational finding and it gets repeated ad nauseam until the dietary findings are considered fact and become part of the conventional wisdom on food and health.

So here are some important factors to consider. First, it is not the meat itself -- unprocessed pork or beef, for example -- but the way meats are processed or cooked that causes certain carcinogenic compounds to form. These are called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and according to the National Cancer Center, they are "formed when muscle meat, including beef, pork, fish, or poultry, is cooked using high-temperature methods, such as pan frying or grilling directly over an open flame."

Indeed, the way food is processed and cooked is critical. When it comes to cooking meat, cooking it slowly at lower temperatures -- less than 300 degrees -- results in fewer cancer-causing compounds. Furthermore, salt-curing, smoking, and other traditional forms of preserving meat have been in existence for thousands of years in populations with extremely low rates of cancer. On the other hand, much of our modern processed meats are produced industrially and contain a slurry of chemicals and additives. This is surely a recipe for health risk.

The findings from the WHO report are based on a review of the existing literature by 22 scientists from 10 countries, which is to say that none of this is exactly breaking news; we have long known that charring meat and some forms of processing meat result in carcinogenic compounds.

What's more, carcinogenic compounds are formed in a variety of foods. A seemingly innocuous piece of dark toast could contain another carcinogenic compound called acrylamide that is formed when carbohydrates and proteins are cooked together at high temperatures -- which is also the case with French fries, potato chips, and many other fried foods.

The intricate nature of nutrition science is often sacrificed in the service of providing clear, simple answers. But nutrition is incredibly complex. This is in part because once foods and their various compounds enter our bodies, there is a tremendous amount of change and variation. In the case of PAHs and HCAs, studies show that when you combine meats with the compounds found in many other foods, you reduce the amount of PAHs and HCAs drastically.

A 2014 study found that when you marinate pork chops in dark beer before grilling, the carcinogenic compounds were reduced by 50 percent. Researchers believe the antioxidants in the beer help to slow down the formation of PAHs, which are aided by free radicals in the body. Another study found that beef patties cooked with rosemary extract formed far fewer HCAs -- the higher the concentration of rosemary, the greater the reduction -- in some cases by over 90 percent. Scientists attribute this to the specific antioxidants in rosemary: rosmarinic acid, carnosol and carnosic acid. And in another study, researchers found that when an oil marinade containing garlic, onion and lemon was put on beef patties, the levels of HCAs decreased by 70 percent when the beef was fried. Other reports have shown that natural antioxidants from spices, fruits, chocolate, and tea can also inhibit the formation of carcinogenic compounds.

Cabbage, often served with meat in the form of sauerkraut and coleslaw, is full of cancer protective properties. Cabbage is especially rich in vitamin C, potassium, calcium, and magnesium, and has the powerful anticancer compounds known as glucosinolates. These compounds -- also found in mustard and horseradish -- work to increase antioxidant defense mechanisms and help the body detoxify harmful chemicals.

Traditional cuisines from around the world always feature some combination of spices, herbs, and vegetable dishes to accompany meat, poultry, and fish. These combinations are likely the result of nutritional wisdom passed down through the generations -- and they are also based on what tastes good -- an important reminder that taste corresponds to nutrition. We do a disservice to our understanding of food and health when we demonize particular foods and study them in isolation, separating them from our diets as a whole.

Unless you eat bacon by itself for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the hype about bacon killing you is largely unfounded. Of more worthy concern are the thousands upon thousands of chemical additives that lace our highly processed food supply. Eat bacon, but eat it without the chemical additives and preservatives. If you can find organic, even better. And most importantly, eat bacon and other meats with a variety of whole foods, especially vegetables, fruits, herbs, and spices -- and maybe wash them all down with a dark beer too.

Kristin LawlessComment
Fighting West Nile Shouldn't Mean Poisoning People
 Justin Sullivan/Getty

Justin Sullivan/Getty

Originally published in Newsweek

On September 21, at around 9 p.m., Keegan Stephan was biking home through the Sunnyside neighborhood of Queens, New York, when he decided to stop at a Mexican food truck to grab a quick dinner. As he waited in line with about five other customers, a police car crept by, warning pedestrians through a loudspeaker to get indoors immediately because pesticides for West Nile virus control were being administered. A truck trailed behind the police, spraying a fine mist into the air.

Local governments are supposed to give residents ample warning that pesticides will be sprayed in their area. A spokesman from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene tells Newsweek, “Our team does not spray in the presence of residents.” Yet as his food was being prepared, Stephan watched a thick cloud of pesticides waft up and then land on him and his fellow customers. “They sprayed people and food in the open air,” he says. “They literally gave us seconds to go anywhere because the truck was right behind the cop car.”

West Nile is usually transmitted to humans when an infected mosquito bites them. In rare cases, it can lead to serious neurological illnesses, such as encephalitis. However, according to the Mayo Clinic, fewer than 1 percent of people who are infected become severely ill. About 70 to 80 percent of people infected will never display symptoms, and many others experience only mild flu-like symptoms. In addition, the average person’s risk of contracting West Nile is extremely low; even in areas where the virus is present, only a very small number of mosquitoes carry the virus. In 2015 (as of September 29), there have been just 17 reported cases of West Nile in the state of New York and one death out of a population of about 20 million people. Nationally, there have been 1,028 cases and 54 deaths out of more than 320 million people. 

Sprayings, on the other hand, are very common; the NYC health department sprayed neighborhoods across the city 22 times from June through September this year, and New York is just one of many places in the U.S. where pesticides are sprayed widely. Across the country, from counties all over California to Chicago and Dallas, communities and residential areas are being sprayed with an array of pesticides for mosquito control. Read more...

Kristin LawlessComment
Why Food Belongs in Our Discussions of Race

This article first appeared on Civil Eats

In the wake of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of Michael Brown, the Baltimore uprising after the death of Freddie Gray, and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, much has been written about the nature of poverty and violence in American cities. But one aspect that is chronically underreported is the lack of access to healthy foods in many of those same communities. Indeed, the reliance on a highly processed food supply is causing disease, suffering, and eventual death, especially to those in the poorest of neighborhoods.

A report released this June by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future found that one in four Baltimore residents lives in an under-resourced area or "food desert" (a term that some food activists reject). This is not unusual or unique to Baltimore, but is the standard in urban centers throughout the country. Only eight percent of Black Americans live in a community with one or more grocery stores, compared to 31 percent of white Americans.

And while food is by no means at the center of the Black Lives Matter movement, it could emerge as an important corollary issue in the months and years to come.

"The fact is, I can't get an organic apple for 10 miles," said Ron Finley, known as the "gangsta gardener," who lives in South Central, Los Angeles. "Why is it like that? Why don't certain companies do business in these so-called communities? 'Oh there's no money,' they say--there's money. If there's no money than why are there drugstores here? Why are the dialysis centers here? Why are there fast food restaurants? What there is, is disregard for these places."

The disregard that Finley speaks of has vast implications for the health of people living in areas with little access to healthy, whole foods. Meaning that a significant threat to Black lives comes from our food supply itself--from the glut of fast food and other highly processed food options and the virtually unregulated chemical additives that lace these foods.

The rates of diet-related disease break down dramatically along racial lines. African Americans get sick at younger ages, have more severe illnesses, and die sooner than white Americans. The American Journal of Public Health found that Blacks scored almost 50 percent higher than whites on a measurement called Allostatic Load, the 10 biomarkers of aging and stress. While there are clearly multiple factors at work, diet plays a significant role in these findings.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of obesity for African Americans is 51 percent higher than for white Americans and one in two African Americans born in the year 2000 is expected to develop type 2 diabetes. Compared with white adults, the risk of diabetes is 77 percent higher among blacks. The rates of death from heart disease and stroke are almost twice as high among African Americans.

Just as our economy has become starkly stratified with wealth concentrated at the top, it is increasing clear that we live in a two-tiered food system in which the wealthy tend to eat well and are rewarded with better health, while the poor tend to eat low-quality diets, causing their health to suffer. A report released last year by the Harvard School of Public Health found that while diet quality improved among people of high socioeconomic status, it deteriorated among those at the other end of the spectrum, and the gap doubled between 2000 and 2010. African Americans experience the highest rate of poverty in the U.S.--25.8 percent, compared to 11.6 percent of whites. And 45.8 percent of young Black children live in poverty compared with 14.5 percent of white children.

Dr. Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham, Sr., President of the Matthew A. Henson Neighborhood Association in Baltimore said he sees this in his community. "Stop allowing there to be two Baltimores," he wrote in an email. "Have the Health Department and our elected officials place more funding and more emphasis on poorer, neglected, communities...."

The solution to food inequality has traditionally been framed as a problem of access and education: Bring healthy foods into under-served communities and educate those living there on healthy eating, the argument goes. But just as getting oneself out of poverty is far more complicated than working hard and getting an education, maintaining a healthy body by "choosing" to eat well is far more complex than making simple decisions about what to eat in our current food landscape.

In both cases, the ideology of "personal responsibility" is invoked, which fails to address deeper, structural issues like the myriad causes and effects of poverty. As author and University of California Santa Cruz professor Julie Guthman puts it, "Built environments reflect social relations and political dynamics...more than it creates them."

When we frame the problem in terms of simplistic solutions, like "better access to fruits and vegetables" or "education about healthy eating" the underlying structures remain and the food, agricultural, and chemical industries are not impacted at all. As Ta-Nehisi Coates' writes in his new book Between The World And Me, "The purpose of the language of ... 'personal responsibility' is broad exoneration."

I asked Karen Washington, a food activist and farmer at Rise & Root Farm in the Bronx, what she thought about creating better access in "food deserts." "Bringing a grocery store into food insecure neighborhoods is not the answer," she wrote in a recent email. "What needs to be addressed is the cause of food insecurity; the reason for hunger and poverty. Do you really think that bringing a supermarket into an impoverished neighborhood, where people have no jobs and no hope is the solution? Heck no!"

According to the latest U.S. Department of Labor report, the rate of Black unemployment is more than double the rate of white unemployment--9.1 and 4.2 percent, respectively. Workers wages have been stagnant across the board for the past decade but for black workers, wages have fallen by twice as much as they have for whites in the past five years.

Washington says that the bottom line is that people need jobs. "No one talks about job creation, business enterprises, or entrepreneurships in low-income communities," she said. "We have to start owning our own businesses, like farmers' markets, food hubs, and food cooperatives. When you own something it gives you power."

Finley wants to see more people growing food for themselves and their neighbors. He says the focus is too often merely about bringing food into communities. "People don't have any skin in the game. I want people to have some kind of hand in their food. I don't care how rich you are, if you don't have a hand in your food, you're enslaved," he said.

Of course, it's critical to point out that for many people of color, the danger of immediate bodily harm is far more pressing than concerns about long-term health effects. As Washington sees it, it doesn't make sense to apply the Black Lives Matter Movement directly to food. "The only correlation is that people are tired of the injustices that plague their communities each and every day and are starting to take action and matters into their own hands," she said.

But it's also clear that the Black Lives Matter movement is expanding. "We are broadening the conversation around state violence to include all of the ways in which Black people are intentionally left powerless at the hands of the state," reads the group's website.

It's crucial to bring issues around food and health into dialogue with discussions of structural racism, poverty, and violence in this country. "What are they feeding us if we have more diseases than we've ever had before in certain communities?" asks Finley. "You have asthma, hypertension, diabetes, obesity--and all of this stuff is food-related."

Finley says this makes for an obvious connection to the Black Lives Matter movement. "We're under siege and a lot of these communities are being occupied and terrorized--by food companies," he said.

 

Kristin LawlessComment
Carl's Jr. Unveils Grass-Fed Burger With Side of Nudity

Originally published in The Huffington Post

According to the logic of fast food companies, caring about the province of your food or the state of your health is akin to snobbery, pretentiousness, and even being part of the "nanny-state." But fast-food marketers are also aware that the tide may be turning. Several recent McDonald's advertisements are case in point. In one new ad, the company specifically calls out "foodies" and "gastronauts," positioning its food as food for the "average Joe" and implying that "real Americans" do not and should not care about the quality of their food. But then, in a separate ad campaign, McDonald's attempts to appeal to those same "foodies" it disparages by claiming to be transparent about the ingredients in its food (if only on a very cursory level).

Now, Carl's Jr. is taking a page out this playbook but with a different tactic. Since fast food by its very nature is food that requires a certain amount of nescience -- about what it's doing to your health, about the environmental costs, about the poor treatment of millions of animals required for its products, and about the fair treatment of workers all along the food chain -- the introduction of the first "all-natural" "grass-fed" burger represents a potential shift in the fast food paradigm.

Sure, other fast food companies have made nods to "health," like in the case of McDonald's oatmeal, and the food industry has long made various health claims with "low-fat" or "no-cholesterol" on its products, but bringing a grass-fed burger to a major fast food outlet is significant. This isn't Chipotle or Shake Shack, which are branded as healthier fast food; this is Carl's Jr., a company that has never made any claims to health or sustainability.

So it's interesting to see how the company chose to introduce this burger: With Charlotte McKinney, a woman many have described as "a Kate Upton lookalike" nearly naked and strutting through a farmer's market to a chorus of ogling men. The viewer first confronts a mostly naked McKinney who basically moans, "I love going all natural. It just makes me feel better. Nothing between me and my 100 percent, all-natural juicy, grass-fed beef." This advertising tactic works to masculinize the concept of caring about the province of your food and the state of your health since the food industry has historically portrayed this concept as weak or effete.

While previous Carl's Jr. ads were equally demeaning, they were less surprising because they were hawking products that were damaging to our health and our environment as well -- they seemed perfect bedfellows. Grass-fed and all-natural, at their best imply a respect for nature, a respect for the health of our bodies and a concern about both human and animal welfare, so to see this paired with the most crass form of sexist advertising is deeply jarring. Granted, as a woman, I am not Carl Jr.'s target audience. In a statement about the new burger, Brad Haley, chief marketing officer of Carl's Jr. said, "We've seen a growing demand for 'cleaner,' more natural food, particularly among Millennials, and we're proud to be the first major fast food chain to offer an all-natural beef patty burger on our menu...Millennials include our target of 'Young Hungry Guys' and they are much more concerned about what goes into their bodies than previous generations."

But this is not the standard lean-chicken-breast-and-protein-shake variety of concern about what men put into their bodies -- (as deeply misguided on nutrition as that is) grass-fed beef, is actually a nutritionally sound and environmentally responsible approach to eating beef. It also stands for a much more humane way of raising animals for food, allowing them to graze on pasture and eat their natural diet, rather than cramming them into filthy feed lots and stuffing them with antibiotic-laced corn.

Will the food industry's attempt to capitalize on the "growing demand for cleaner more natural food" ruin the grass-fed designation, just at it did with organics in some cases? Where will all this grass-fed beef come from? It's not hard to imagine the industry tweaking the requirements for beef to be "grass-fed" in the same way that the egg industry claims "free-range" with thousands of hens housed in a crowded and filthy structure with "access" to a door that may or may not allow them to ever step foot outdoors. Is grass-fed just the next buzz word in food marketing that will quickly lose its meaning?

The fact that Carl's Jr. can even market this burger as "all-natural" is highly questionable. Beyond its grass-fed patty, the honey wheat bun contains roughly 30 ingredients including artificial flavors, hydrogenated soybean oil (trans-fat), and a bevy of other chemical flavor enhancers and preservatives. The ketchup contains high fructose corn syrup, the mayonnaise contains preservatives and flavor enhancers, and the pickle chips have more of the same. All told, you're consuming about 60 ingredients in that "all-natural" burger.

I'm left wondering if the target audience of men aged 18 to 34 will actually care about the province of their food and their health on the deeper level that the return to grass-fed beef represents. We can only hope that the Carl's Jr. ad is selling this demographic short in anticipating that the way to sell them on the importance of cleaner, fairer, more humane food is by exploiting women in sexist ads.

Not Lovin' It: McDonald's Wages Class War in New Ads

Originally published 1/25/15 in The Huffington Post

If food is culture, then we in America are a country divided. Though overt talk of class politics has always been somewhat taboo, the food industry has long engaged in various forms of class baiting. In the early 1960s, food manufacturers marketed their convenient products by appealing to middle class women who might have more free time, implying that through using their products, housewives could lead lives of the leisured upper class, writes Harvey Levenstein in Paradox of Plenty. In 1969, the chairman of the board of Corn Products Company said, "We -- the food industry -- have given [the housewife] the gift of time, which she may reinvest in bridge, canasta, garden club, and other perhaps more soul-satisfying pursuits."

This aspirational marketing appealed to a wide swath of consumers who saw the industry's new products as part of a modern and advanced lifestyle -- even a way to move into a higher social stratum. That's not new. What is new is that the modern-day incarnation of food manufacturers have actually inverted this strategy. It is on full display in several new McDonald's commercials that have taken many a viewer off guard in their blatant attempts to appeal to a crass and aggressive form of class politics.

One new commercial specifically calls out "vegetarians, foodies and gastronauts," and asks them to "kindly avert their eyes." The commercial shows an extreme close up of McDonald's signature Big Mac and goes on to exclaim that there is no quinoa or soy, Greek yogurt or kale to be found there. The male voiceover adds, "And while it is massive, its ego is not." This ad essentially says: Forget all those food snobs, food movement elites and otherwise obnoxious kale-and-Greek-yogurt-eating people of the upper classes, McDonald's makes food for the masses -- the "real" Americans, the hard-working folks without ego or pretense.

By appealing to this sensibility, McDonald's hopes to lure consumers in on the basis of class politics -- with the added advantage that its food products are cheap and convenient, making it a near-necessity in our current economy for many of those same hard-working people. But here's the problem: diet-related diseases affect poor and working class people disproportionately, since people of lower socioeconomic status tend to consume lower-quality diets.

In another new ad that debuted during the Golden Globes (sparking social media ire), McDonald's redoubles its efforts to be seen as "every man's food," to appear integral to the American way of life. In this ad, McDonald's shows local and national events the company has put up on its roadside signs, "both happy and tragic," from celebrating local births and anniversaries, to recognizing national events with slogans like, "Boston Strong" and "We Remember 911," all set to the tune of a pop song sung by a children's choir. This kind of sappy, overwrought ploy to pull on the heartstrings of Americans while repeatedly showing those famous Golden Arches exemplifies some of the worst in shameless advertising.

This is especially true when we remember what McDonald's is actually selling: foods that are making Americans sick. The company is hawking dangerous products to the very people it is purporting to celebrate and represent. All of which makes McDonald's latest ad campaigns more problematic than they may at first appear. If it were selling products equally healthy to kale and quinoa, but perhaps less precious, say, rice and beans, then this type of marketing would be fair game. But since it is selling arguably one of the worst industrial products known to humankind (with related environmental consequences that affect everyone) the ad crosses the line into deceptive and harm-inducing territory.

And in an additional and incongruous ad campaign launched in October, McDonald's is claiming transparency -- something the farm-to-table crowd has been advocating for years. Here McDonald's is making a gesture toward the same group of people it disparages in the ad that calls out "foodies." This signals some desperation on McDonald's part: claiming the "every-man" class politics and insulting "foodies" on the one hand, while simultaneously trying to appeal to those same people by lauding "100 percent pure beef, no fillers, extenders or so-called 'pink-slime.'" With McDonald's reporting a 30 percent quarterly drop in profit this past October, the corporation is attempting to cover all bases.

But in doing so McDonald's insincerity shines through. It's clear the company doesn't really care about the people it claims to celebrate or speak for -- not the health of Americans, or the right to a fair and decent wage for workers.

Rather than alluding to transparency by making empty claims about its products, McDonald's foods -- among thousands of other industrial food products -- deserve labels alerting consumers to exactly what the food contains and what known health risks certain ingredients pose. If McDonald's really cares about the average American, as it purports to in its ads, how about some real transparency that makes it so "every-man" has more information about what he (or she) is eating?

And let's also call out its straw man marketing schemes that pit those concerned about the quality of our food supply against the "average Joe." Why are these mutually exclusive? The food industry has done a brilliant job of making words like organic, sustainable, and now, kale, words that signify a privileged elite bent on ruining real American food and policing everyone else's behavior. But if anything has ruined American food, and changed eating behaviors, it's the industrial food system with McDonald's, the nation's largest producer of fast food leading the way.

Erika CamplinComment
A Not-So-Subtle Meditation on Sugar

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As people streamed out of the Kara Walker installation “A Subtlety” on a recent Sunday afternoon to buy an ice cream cone from one of the trucks idling outside the old Domino Sugar Factory on the Williamsburg waterfront, I wondered how many thought about the jarring contradiction: paying homage to the bodily harms involved in the harsh industrial process inherent in refining sugar, then consuming the industrial concoction that is a Mister Softee-type ice cream cone.

Since so much of Ms. Walker’s work relies on the inherent contradictions that exist in contemporary American culture, especially as they relate to our brutal history, were the trucks, perhaps, even part of the exhibition? In a way, it felt like the perfect ending, punctuating her point.

In a similar vein, as (the mostly white) people posed in front of her giant sugar sphinx and took selfies with the statue behind them, something felt deeply wrong. People standing and smiling in front of this 35-foot-high and 75-foot-long sugar depiction of a black “mammy” — which renders the black female body in pure white and was made of 160,000 pounds of sugar as if it were just another New York City tourist attraction added to the sense that something about the entire experience was seriously amiss.

And this feeling was enhanced by the smell that hits you upon entering the old Domino factory. At first, it’s just overly sweet, but the sweetness quickly deteriorates into a sickly, oppressive smell, making it difficult to stay in the space for long. That, combined with the molasses-coated sculptures of black children carrying oversized baskets that were in various states of decay or destruction (some smashed into pieces on the floor), and the factory walls stained with large swaths of dark reddish-brown drippings, created an overwhelming presence to the great violence that still laces sugar production, as it has for centuries.

This very sugar refinery was long notorious for its terrible working conditions, even well into recent history. Beginning in 2000, the plant was the site of one of the longest labor strikes ever in New York City: 286 workers protested wages and working conditions for 20 months. The owners of the Domino sugar empire — the world’s largest refiner of cane sugar that imports sugar from the Dominican Republic and elsewhere — have been accused repeatedly of labor exploitation. The United States Department of Labor lists Dominican sugar as being produced by children or forced labor, bringing into focus the fact that the legacy of unfree labor, exploitation and violence is at once part of our past and our present.

Sugar has a long and sordid history. Sugar plantations in the Caribbean and southern United States were the first large-scale monocultures for producing a highly profitable product — the prototype for our current industrial agriculture system. As the author and anthropologist Sidney Mintz puts it, even before capitalism had arrived as the dominant economic structure, the early plantation systems were “agro-industrial” due to “the combination of agriculture and processing under one authority…This was because neither mill nor field could be separately (independently) productive.” Mintz adds that “the combination of field and factory, of skilled workers with unskilled, and the strictness of scheduling together gave an industrial cast to plantation enterprises.”

The sugar plantation/factory also separated production from consumption and the worker from his tools, which helps to define the lives of these mostly unfree workers between the 16th and late 19th centuries in the New World. And while slave laborers were the first to produce sugar en masse for worldwide consumption, the working class found comfort in sugar, which became less a symbol of power and more a symbol of profit as it was transformed from an upper-class luxury into a mainstay and even necessity of the working-class diet. “The introduction of foods like sucrose made it possible to raise the caloric content of the proletarian diet without increasing proportionately the quantities of meat, fish, poultry and other dairy products,” writes Mintz.

Which brings us to today, when the people suffering most from diet-related illness brought on in large part by the overconsumption of sugar are poor people of color. Corporations which provide cheap calories that fill the belly while also providing pleasure effectively profit off populations with limited means. Diabetes (almost all of which is Type 2) is 66 percent higher among Hispanic Americans and 77 percent higher among African-Americans as compared to their white peers. African-American women suffer more from the disease than any other group: One in four women older than 55 has diabetes, and African-American women have the highest rates of two of the worst complications resulting from diabetes — amputation and kidney failure.

Sugar is particularly toxic for those with diabetes, and many Americans are eating tremendous amounts of it; the most recent estimate is three pounds of sugar per week, or 156 pounds per year. At this rate of consumption, sugar does previously unimaginable things to our bodies at increasingly younger ages, prompting the name-change of adult-onset diabetes to Type 2 diabetes — one in three children born in 2000 will develop the disease, and many children in this generation will not outlive their parents.

For most Americans, sugar is close to impossible to avoid — it laces the bulk of the processed foods that we rely on for nearly every meal. And we continue to import more than 200,000 tons of sugar a year from the Dominican Republic, despite the known labor violations.

This was the very sugar that Ms. Walker used for the exhibit. Domino donated 80 tons of it (she “only” used 40), highlighting the grotesque waste of resources in which we all partake. Beyond the human rights violations are the environmentally costly processes of production itself, from the chemical fertilizers and pesticides used to grow the sugar to the pollutants spewed into the environment as it is refined.

And so Ms. Walker’s “A Subtlety,” which closed this past Sunday, connected in so many critical ways the issues of racial and sexual oppression with the industrial processes that go into much of our food supply. Indeed, we are all increasingly made of sugar, and our consumption of it makes us complicit in the violence and destruction that Ms. Walker rendered visible in her sugar sphinx — yet at the same time we are victims of this damage, borne out in our own bodies.

This also appeared in The New York Times

Safe Shmafe: How Slate's Latest Article on Pesticides Got It (Really) Wrong

images-1 Last week, Slate published an article claiming that -- counter to popular assumptions -- the pesticide levels on most of the produce we eat are nothing to worry about. The title says it all: "Organic Shmorganic: Conventional Fruits and Vegetables are Perfectly Healthy for Kids."

In one sensational, simplistic article, author Melinda Wenner Moyer appears ready to undermine the 50-year battle that organic food advocates have waged against an increasingly monolithic industry to provide healthy, uncontaminated food. In the piece, Moyer concludes that conventionally grown produce that harbor pesticide residue are not harmful for kids and are not much worse than their organic counterparts.

Moyer points to the fact that organic farms often use pesticides of their own. However, she also admits that most organic pesticides break down in the environment more easily and are less likely to contaminate the soil and water. That alone is a good enough reason to support organics since runoff from agriculture is the number one polluter of America's waterways. Also, by Moyer's own admission, pesticides are used in organic agriculture as a last resort, limiting our exposure even further.

Moyer asserts that since synthetic pesticides are engineered to be used in smaller quantities, that might also somehow make conventional food less toxic overall than organic. But this sounds like the industry talking -- why wouldn't we seek to further regulate all toxic substances on our foods, whether organic or not, rather than concluding we might as well eat the conventional foods?

Beyond Residue

When Moyer says that pesticides are "perfectly healthy for kids," she doesn't specify whose kids. It's clear that she hasn't considered farmworkers' families and those who live near agricultural fields. These populations are routinely exposed to large quantities of pesticides and are greatly impacted.

Moyer claims she is focusing primarily on the heath effects of consumers. But the logic of separating our own health from environmental health and worker health is specious. Just ask farmers.

Kira Kinney, an organic farmer in New Paltz, New York, finds Moyer's compartmentalized argument especially troubling. "The author says she is only looking at this narrow window of residue on produce, but I do not understand, as a grower, how one can break apart the farm process to only look at things in such narrow focus," says Kinney.

Kinney sees Methyl bromide -- a fumigant that is being phased out in produce production, but is still in use on some farms -- as a good example. "It is applied to the soils of most conventional strawberry farms -- and other produce [farms] as well. It basically kills everything living in the soil, and makes lots of people sick in areas where this gas is being pumped into the soil," she says.

Even if we focus strictly on the direct health effects for consumers eating produce grown with pesticides, Moyer makes gross oversights. She starts the article off by saying, "I can't help but wonder whether giving my son organic food really makes a difference to his health, considering that he's been known to lick the bottom of his shoes, kiss my poop-sniffing dog, and eat crackers -- someone else's -- off of the preschool floor."

In fact, these are two completely different issues. Recent science on the microbiome, or bacteria in and on our bodies, shows that kids who grow up with dogs have a healthier microbiome and exposure to a variety of bacteria likely helps to improve our immune systems. But this has absolutely nothing to do with pesticides.

Or perhaps it does. There is evidence to suggest that one pesticide, glyphosate, the ingredient used in the ubiquitous Roundup may disrupt and kill beneficial bacteria in our guts leading to impaired immune function and a cascade of ill health effects.

This shouldn't come as a big surprise since pesticides, insecticides, and fungicides work to kill organisms indiscriminately. There are also numerous studies that show use of these various "cides" disrupts soil microflora, so why not our own as well?

Dose: Not as Straightforward as You Think

The basis of Moyer's argument is that "the dose makes the poison" when it comes to the toxicity of pesticides. This concept is the cornerstone of toxicology and many toxicologists will tell you that's all there is to it: Ill effects occur along a linear curve depending on how much of the toxin one is exposed to. However, much of the conventional thinking on this matter is being overturned.

I asked Dr. Bruce Blumberg, a professor of developmental and cell biology and pharmaceutical sciences at the University of California, Irvine, about this theory. Blumberg works with endocrine disrupting chemicals and many pesticides fall into this category.

"Endocrine disrupting chemicals most assuredly work at low doses that produce what we call "non-monotonic," or nonlinear, dose responses," Blumberg says. "There are many cases where a low dose of a chemical has one effect, whereas a higher dose either has no effect, or an opposite effect."

The idea that the dose makes the poison, says Blumberg, "makes the assumption that the dose-response curve must be linear. As even laymen know, there are precious few responses in nature that are linear."

Since toxicologists assume the linear dose response, the EPA rarely, if ever, tests for what exposure at lower levels may mean. But in Blumberg's research, he routinely finds effects on the development of fat cells and the prevalence of obesity at levels near to or below what's known as the "no observed adverse affect level" (or NOAELs) and sometimes at or below the EPA-established tolerable daily intake.

In one study Blumberg found that the fungicide triflumizole caused changes to fat cells, and increased fat cell size at levels 400 times below the EPA approved NOAEL and four times lower than the tolerable daily intake.

Furthermore, Moyer relies on the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) data to back up her claim that pesticide residues are harmless. This is a huge oversight since the process by which pesticides receive EPA approval is riddled with conflicts of interest. Blumberg described the process like this: The EPA asks companies that are introducing new chemicals to perform basic tests, including tests for carcinogenesis and reproductive harm, for example. The company then performs these tests in-house or asks a contract laboratory to do them and shows the data to the EPA.

"Despite this clear conflict of interest, the EPA says, 'thank you very much,' talks about the issue for a while, and then either approves, or disapproves the chemical for use based on the industry supplied data, which may or may not be complete," says Blumberg.

Very Little Human Data

Another key point is that the EPA makes its safety determinations without any human data. Thomas Zoeller, a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, says that, "Because humans are exposed to lots of things, you can't get a cause-effect sense for a single pesticide. So, when they make a 'safety' determination, it is without the benefit of human data."

Blumberg added that the EPA rarely tests these chemicals directly, nor conducts an independent investigation. Instead, the agency often performs computer modeling studies that estimate what an average person might consume based on assumptions about the residues on food. (These models are what Moyer refers to in the Slate article.)

However, the EPA does not ever test the exposure levels actually found in consumers. Nor does it look at levels in those applying the pesticide, nor their families, nor those who live close to where these pesticides are applied. In other words, Blumberg says, "Populations are never sampled to assess whether exposure falls within the range predicted by the modeling studies."

Zoeller says that the EPA's capabilities are severely limited due to built-in industry protections. "[The EPA] have been given the task of evaluating whether a chemical is harmful, not if it is safe. The statute protects the industry, not the consumer. EPA is caught in the middle."

Zoeller added that Moyer's article makes the mistake of claiming "safe levels" of pesticides. "I doubt seriously that EPA risk assessors would say it like that. They would say that according to the data they have, 'levels of exposure below X should not produce adverse effects.' There's a big difference," he says.

Pesticides' Combined Effects

Moyer seems to be arguing that since we are exposed to so many toxins on a daily basis, pesticide residue makes little difference. That's a dangerous assumption. In fact, limiting our exposure to pesticide residue on food, whenever possible, is smart precisely because it's one factor we can control.

What's more, Moyer's article makes no mention of the combined effects of these toxins. One 2011 study found that the widespread decline in male reproductive health may be linked to increased exposure to a combination of pesticides, which have not been adequately tested.

Another 2012 study found that the combined effects of widely used pesticides exceed the effects of individual pesticides. To date, there is not nearly enough data on these combined effects, even though the average American is exposed to 10 or more pesticides every day, through food and drinking water.

These dangers are especially worrisome for children and pregnant women. In fact, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recently warned about the dangers of exposure to pesticides and other toxins, as the average woman is exposed to an estimated 163 unique chemicals per day, according to the Environmental Working Group.

The bottom line is that most data that suggests pesticide residue is safe is the result of a deeply conflicted regulatory system. Under our current system, we rely on the companies manufacturing these chemical to find them dangerous, rather than an independent entity to prove them safe. As such, these chemicals have never been deemed safe for children, expectant mothers, or anyone else at the doses most Americans are currently being exposed to.

We now know that low levels of these toxins can adversely effect our microbiomes and our reproductive health, while increasing the risk of obesity. So why not err on the side of caution?

Indeed, as Blumberg puts it, "If we wait for such proof [in humans], despite numerous animal studies that should have alerted us to the potential dangers of specific chemical exposure, we have utterly failed to protect the public."

A version of this article first appeared on Civil Eats.

Bad (and Good) Eating Habits Start in the Womb

Last week my piece "Bad Eating Habits Start in the Womb" appeared in TheNew York Times and generated a lot of interest and  commentary — it was the number one most emailed story on the entire site for over a day. I find this to be an encouraging sign that people are really concerned about the food they eat, and especially about the health of their babies and children. Click here to listen to an interview I did for New Hampshire Public Radio discussing my piece. Below is a description from NHPR's website.

You may be familiar with the ordeal of introducing children to broccoli and spinach.  Two new studies suggest that finicky eaters might have picked up their discriminating habit in the womb. Forget genetics, personal responsibility, and discipline. Your taste for junk food and soda may have a lot to do with how your mother satisfied her cravings.

Kristin Wartman, is a food, politics and health journalist. She recently wrote about the new science of food choices for the New York Times.

Photo: Rafael Viana Araujo via Flickr Creative Commons

Bad Eating Habits Start in the Womb

THE solution to one of America’s most vexing problems — our soaring rates of obesity and diet-related diseases — may have its roots in early childhood, and even in utero.

Researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, a nonprofit research organization in Philadelphia, have found that babies born to mothers who eat a diverse and varied diet while pregnant and breast-feeding are more open to a wide range of flavors. They’ve also found that babies who follow that diet after weaning carry those preferences into childhood and adulthood. Researchers believe that the taste preferences that develop at crucial periods in infancy have lasting effects for life. In fact, changing food preferences beyond toddlerhood appears to be extremely difficult.

“What’s really interesting about children is, the preferences they form during the first years of life actually predict what they’ll eat later,” said Julie Mennella, a biopsychologist and researcher at the Monell Center. “Dietary patterns track from early to later childhood but once they are formed, once they get older, it’s really difficult to change — witness how hard it is to change the adult. You can, but it’s just harder. Where you start, is where you end up.”

This may have profound implications for the future health of Americans. With some 70 percent of the United States population now overweight or obese and chronic diseases skyrocketing, many parents who are eating a diet high in processed, refined foods are feeding their babies as they feed themselves, and could be setting their children up for a lifetime of preferences for a narrow range of flavors.

Read the full article

Just Say No to Antibacterial Soaps

hand-sanitizer-children-schooljpg-fb88b109e3996591 We are approaching flu season and there's one scene that's becoming more and more common: people and parents dousing themselves and their children with antibacterial soaps. But this aggressive tactic may actually be causing more harm than good. That's because antibacterial soaps, much like antibiotics, don't discriminate between good and bad bacteria — they just obliterate them all. And without the good bacteria protecting us, we may be more likely to get sick in the first place.

The trillions of bacteria that live in and on our bodies are called the microbiome — research into the microbiome is hot right now with new and exciting studies regularly making headlines. The microbiome makes our lives possible and in fact these bacterial cells outnumber our human cells by a lot — ten to one — and play a crucial role in our health. Recent research implicates a compromised microbiome in diseases and chronic conditions ranging from allergies, diabetes, and obesity, to autism, depression, and schizophrenia. And our chances of contracting flu, colds, and even being susceptible to food poisoning is likely based on the health of our microbiome. Scientists are now theorizing that the health and diversity of our gut bacteria, in particular, may be at the very root of our overall health. A recent New York Times piece looks at how our compromised microbiomes may be what's causing the modern allergy epidemic:

The prevalence of allergic disease and asthma increased between two- and threefold in the late 20th century, a mysterious trend often called the “allergy epidemic."

These days, one in five American children have a respiratory allergy like hay fever, and nearly one in 10 have asthma.

The article posits that suburban and city residents who lack exposure to the diverse bacteria found on farms suffer a damaged microbiome which compromises our bodies' ability to develop a healthy immune system, which can differentiate between a real threat and a perceived one. As is the case with allergies, a less-than optimally healthy immune system can overreact to various environmental triggers. The Times article takes the reader to Amish farm country in rural Indiana where rates of allergies among children growing up on farms are significantly lower than for their city dwelling peers:

The earlier exposure begins, it seems, the greater the protection — and that includes during pregnancy. Children born to mothers who work with livestock while pregnant, and who lug their newborns along during chores, seem the most invulnerable to allergic disease later.

In another recent article in The New Yorker the microbiome is featured with an emphasis on mental health. The article presents recent research showing that germ-free environments lead mice to become more anxious, depressed, and hopeless. This is because much of our serotonin is produced in the gut, up to 80 percent by many accounts, and a lack of healthy and diverse bacteria in the gut interferes with serotonin production. The article also cites research that shows a lack of beneficial bacteria made mice obese and prone to diabetes. Again, what we are exposed to as babies is crucially important:

Organisms that are present when we’re two months old may have shaped our brain, but they have long since disappeared when we hit twenty or forty or sixty. Indeed, while a recent summary in the journal JAMA Pediatrics suggests that bowel bacteria may provide insight into “autism, schizophrenia and anxiety,” the authors also emphasize the role that timing plays in the microbiome’s influence over the developing brain.

Both of these articles and countless others point to the importance of what happens to you as a newborn baby and in utero. According to the Times article, "What happens to your mother during the nine months before your birth may affect your vulnerability to many diseases decades later, from heart disease and obesity to schizophrenia."

For those reading this, that ship has sailed — but how can you help optimize the microbiome of future generations? Short of moving to the country and taking up farming, there are several key elements. When possible, have a vaginal birth. During the baby's trip down the birth canal, he or she acquires important bacteria from the mother that is specifically tailored for the baby. Researchers have found that a mother's bacteria change during pregnancy to help provide specific protection for the newborn. A recent study from the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that infants born by cesarean lacked a specific group of bacteria found in infants delivered vaginally, even if they were breastfed. While a cesarean birth sometimes cannot be avoided, most women are able to breastfeed. This is the single most important thing a mother can do to guarantee a healthier microbiome.  Researchers found that infants who were strictly formula-fed, compared with babies that were exclusively or partially breastfed, also had significant differences in their gut bacteria. The researchers wrote:

We want parents (and physicians) to realize that their decisions regarding c-section and breastfeeding can impact their infant's gut microbiome, and this can have potentially lifelong effects on the child's health," says postdoctoral student and first author Meghan Azad, University of Alberta.

And while having babies in tow while milking cows is not possible for most city dwellers, ensuring that your baby is exposed to a variety of bacteria is possible. Beyond breastfeeding, the next most important thing is to avoid antibacterial soaps and other antibacterial products. These products kill all the bacteria wherever you put them. Parents who constantly use antibacterial soaps before touching their baby or who clean the baby's toys and clothes with antibacterial soaps are doing a major disservice to the baby and his or her microbiome.

There is also added concern over the ingredient triclosan, which is the antibacterial agent found in soaps, shampoos, deodorants, toothpaste, and cleaning supplies as well as toys, trash bags, kitchen utensils, and bedding. In recent animal studies, scientists have found that triclosan causes hormone-related problems including an increased risk of infertility and early puberty. The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has recently stated that, "the agency does not have evidence that triclosan in antibacterial soaps and body washes provides any benefit over washing with regular soap and water." And the FDA is reviewing the safety of triclosan, which has existed on the market since the 1970s without adequate studies demonstrating its safety. According to an article on CBS News, "The Endocrine Society, a group of doctors and scientists who specialize in the hormone system, flagged triclosan four years ago as an ingredient that alters levels of thyroid hormones and reproductive hormones like testosterone and estrogen."

We are just beginning to understand how our overly sterile modern living environments might be causing more harm than good. Over the next several years we will likely uncover more and more evidence to prove that our war on bacteria is damaging future generations and ourselves. For now though, make it a priority to avoid all antibacterial products — including that antibacterial soap you thought would keep you and your kids from getting the flu. Good old fashion soap and water works just fine.

Photo from Cleveland.com

The Shutdown: Our Food Safety, Health and Welfare at Stake

AmericaHP While Congress battles it out over health care reform, the resulting government shutdown will have far-reaching impacts on food safety, environmental protections, food production and farming. It also has serious implications for the health and nutrition of many Americans. Depending on the duration of the shut down, it could be nothing less than catastrophic for a great number of people.

For those same Americans to whom the Republicans are so opposed to providing adequate health care, the shutdown will also affect their already limited ability to access healthy foods, further harming their health. This will be especially true for those most in need -- namely the nine million pregnant women and new mothers who rely on the Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC).

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says that states will be able to fund WIC for a week and beyond that additional funds may be available through October, however, the USDA warns that state agencies "may still face funding shortfalls associated with FY 2014 obligations during the shutdown."

WIC is a critically important program that provides healthier food options for pregnant women and new mothers who are poor, have medical problems, or are considered to be at "nutrition risk." WIC also provides important health referrals to the nine million people who currently rely on the program. And when considering the negative long-term effects that poor nutrition has in utero and in young children, the true costs of cutting funding for WIC have not been accounted for.

Which brings us back to health care. Many politicians fail to see that the state of the economy depends in large part on the state of health among all Americans. American health is on a downward trend and by cutting crucial food funding for the poor, especially pregnant women and new mothers, we will only exacerbate this trend.

The shut down also means that the USDA's communications offices are now closed. So, if important information about food safety comes to light, we probably won't know.

USDA databases that provide import market information for farmers will also be closed. Modern Farmer reports that, "Markets rely on reports from the USDA to set the price of soy, wheat, corn, beef, etc. Without an October report traders would be adjusting prices in the dark and farmers would be selling without knowing the real value of their crops."

Small family farmers will also be affected since many are dependent on loans from the USDA and delays on loans will likely cost many their farms -- as many as 1,400 small farmers are likely to lose their farms as a result of the shutdown, according to Rural Foundation Advancement International.

Other agency shutdowns that will affect our food system include:

  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is essentially completely shut down except for current work on Superfund sites. This means the EPA will stop monitoring air pollution and pesticide use.
  • The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which will eliminate much of its food-safety checks, including "routine establishment inspections...monitoring of imports, notification programs (e.g., food contact substances, infant formula), and the majority of the laboratory research necessary to inform public health decision-making."
  • The National Institutes of Health (NIH), which has stopped taking new patients for clinical research and its hotline for medical questions is closed.
  • The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which has stopped its flu program and says that it will have a "significantly reduced capacity to respond to outbreak investigations." The CDC has also stopped providing "support to state and local partners for infectious disease surveillance."

And while the USDA will continue to inspect meat, dairy, eggs and food imports with 87 percent of its employees still working, the agency has also said that if a violation is indeed found it may not have the resources to fully investigate. The USDA plan also warns that, "A lengthy hiatus would affect the safety of human life and have serious adverse effects on the industry, the consumer and the Agency."

The FDA, which is responsible for inspecting the majority of the food industry, will not be functioning in this capacity during the shutdown. Typically, the FDA inspects 80 food facilities a day and files reports on those in violation of health codes. This means an end to important investigations and reports, like the one that brought a peanut facility to a close last year after a salmonella outbreak.

It's beginning to look like what Republicans have wanted all along: To eliminate social programs to help the poor and scale back on regulations particularly when it comes to the environment and our food supply. But what kind of country would that look like? Currently four out of five Americans live in danger of falling into poverty and are struggling with joblessness.

These Americans are reliant on social programs like WIC or food stamps (which will continue to be funded at least through October) and without this help many will be forced to decide between medications, rent, or food.

Every American would be best served by understanding that the health of Americans comes first and defunding social programs, regulatory agencies, and independent research will only further undermine America's deteriorating health, which in the end, will cost us a lot more than a failing economy.

 

Vegan Foods, Diet Products, and Other Big Food Scams

Last week I did two interviews both relating to how the industrial food system loves to tell us how its products will help us lose weight and be healthier. Tuesday, I was on Chef Erica Wides' show Let's Get Real on the Heritage Radio Network to talk about vegan and vegetarian "foodiness" products, as she calls them. Wides defines foodiness as fake food, made to look like real food that often makes some kind of (false) health claim. When it comes to vegan and vegetarian foods, people often think they are eating better simply because they don't eat meat. The trouble is, people often resort to the packaged and processed versions of vegan or vegetarian food. As an example of how these foodiness products are worse than the read thing, take a look at the ingredients for two products we discussed on the show: Pizza-Pizza-Pizzaz

Toffutti Pizza:

WHEAT FLOUR (UNBLEACHED), CRUSHED TOMATOES, WATER, SOYBEAN OIL, SUGAR, SALT, YEAST, FOOD STARCH-MODIFIED (CORN), OREGANO, BLACK PEPPER, GARLIC. The dairy-free cheese contains the following: WATER, EXPELLER PRESSED PALM OIL, MALTODEXTRIN, NON-GMO (TOFU, SOY PROTEIN) NON-DAIRY LACTIC ACID BLEND OF NATURAL GUMS (LOCUST BEAN, GUAR, CELLULOSE, XANTHAN AND CARRAGEENAN), ORGANIC SUGAR, POTATO FLAKES, VEGETABLE MONO AND DIGLYCERIDES, SALT.

Veja-Links:

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00941_2898924704Click here to listen to the full half hour episode.

On Friday I went on Huff Post Live for a segment called "Myths and Facts about Weight Loss." I am sometimes reluctant to do these types of interviews because the focus on weight loss and obesity is a bit misguided. I think we need to focus on the consolidation of the food supply and the way in which the industrial food system is at the root of our collective health and weight problems. Which is why I always emphasize that the solution to weight loss is to eliminate industrial foods from your diet as much as possible. This perspective shifts the blame from the people stuck in an industrial food paradigm to the horribly skewed food system pumping out terrible products. The best way to do this is to emphasize the important of eating real, whole foods. So, what are real, whole foods?

  • Fresh vegetables and fruits (preferably organically grown)
  • Fresh meats like beef, poultry, pork (preferably pasture-raised, if possible)
  • Dairy products like milk, yogurt, cheese, butter (preferably from grass-fed animals)
  • Beans and legumes
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Whole grains
  • Herbs and spices
  • Plenty of filtered water

What's the rest of what you see on grocery store shelves, in fast-food restaurants, and on TV? Packaged and processed foods. If you eliminate these foods from your diet, I guarantee you will lose weight. But even more importantly, you are refusing to participate in an industrial food system that has proven to make people sick, devastate the environment, and exploit people, animals, and natural resources. Once you commit to taking a stand against that, the weight loss seems like an added bonus. For more, you can watch the whole interview here and the two minute version here.

FDA: Working Hard to Protect Industry
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The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) made two moves in recent days that seemingly address consumer concerns on some hot button issues. First, it banned the use of bisphenol A (BPA) based epoxy resins in coatings for baby formula packaging. Second, it proposed a limit on how much arsenic is allowed in apple juice. Looking more closely at these decisions, however, it seems that FDA is really more interested in appeasing industry, than doing its duty to protect the public.

So what action is the FDA really taking? Due to intense consumer demand, manufacturers of infant formula packaging have already stopped using BPA. And, based on the new standard for arsenic levels, 95 percent of companies that make apple juice are already in compliance.

The FDA’s BPA ban is actually an abandonment petition coming from industry stating that it is now illegal to use BPA for those specific products—but it does not say anything about the safety of BPA.

“It is a ban but it’s a ban that was initiated by the industry,” Dr. Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumer’s Union, said in a recent telephone interview. “They have not taken action on the safety of BPA even though they have been pressured to. But when industry comes in and says, ‘This is no longer being sold,’ that’s an easy out for them because if industry didn’t agree and FDA tried to ban it or take action, maybe the industry would go after them.”

The FDA made a similar move last year when it banned BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups when nearly all U.S. manufacturers had already stopped using BPA for those products. The move was mainly said to be about “boosting consumer’s confidence.”

Both the FDA and the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group, have said that the BPA ban is in response to marketplace demands, not due to safety concerns regarding the ubiquitous substance.

And there are an abundance of safety concerns regarding BPA as well as increased public awareness about the potential dangers of BPA. The American Chemistry Council has repeatedly dismissed the hundreds of peer-reviewed studies that link BPA to a wide range of health concerns including various types of cancer, impaired immune function, early onset of puberty, obesity, diabetes, and hyperactivity.

In addition, a recent study published this June in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives changes our understanding of how BPA is absorbed by the body. Researchers found that BPA is absorbed under the tongue and goes directly to the bloodstream, resulting in a much higher exposure to the chemical.

Of further concern is the fact that without clear government regulations, manufacturers can replace BPA with other chemicals that may be just as harmful. (I wrote about this in a previous article for Civil Eats).

“Anything that substitutes for BPA should have to go through a screen for hormonal activity,” Hansen said. “There is a report that looks at 16 different replacements for BPA and I would suspect all of these have the same hormonal activity.”

Hansen was more optimistic about the FDA’s new federal limits on arsenic in apple juice. The new regulation says that apple juice containing more than 10 parts per billion could be removed from the market and companies could face legal action. But the FDA stressed that most companies on the market are already below that threshold.

Much of the concern around apple juice stems from a Consumer Reports finding published last year in which researchers tested 28 different apple juices bought from stores in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. Five samples of apple juice tested and four of grape juice had total arsenic levels exceeding the 10 parts per billion federal limit for bottled and drinking water, according to the report.

Consumer Reports also found high levels of lead in apple juice and grape juice as a result of insecticide use. The report also brought to light the fact that for the past decade, most concentrate has come from China (PDF) and concerns have been raised about the possible continuing use of arsenical pesticides there.

Hansen said the new limit is important because, for the first time, it puts a federal limit on the amount of arsenic in a juice product. But the limits don’t address the arsenic found in grape juice, nor the levels of lead in any juice products. “Yes, that is problematic,” Hansen said. “It’s good that they’ve done it for apple juice but they should be doing it in other juices as well. We found [arsenic] in grape juice and FDA’s own data has found it can show up in pear juice as well.”

While inorganic and organic arsenic are both found in these juices, it was originally thought that inorganic arsenic was of greatest concern, since it is a known carcinogen. According to the FDA, inorganic arsenic has also been associated with skin lesions, developmental effects, cardiovascular disease, neurotoxicity and diabetes.

Organic arsenic was once thought to pass through the body more quickly and not cause harm. However, the FDA now states that organic arsenic may cause harm as well. “Some organic forms can be even more toxic than the inorganic,” Hansen explained.

The arsenic found in apple juice is largely the result of years of arsenical insecticides being applied to apple orchards, Hansen said.  He added that the science on arsenic is evolving so that scientists now believe it is far more toxic than was previously thought.

Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, wanted a limit as low as three parts per billion, but the FDA is putting that limit at 10 parts per billion, a threshold that the vast majority of manufacturers already meet.

According to an Associated Press article, “All of the experts—including the government and the consumer advocates—agree that drinking small amounts of apple juice isn’t harmful. The concern involves the effects of drinking large amounts of juice over long periods of time.” But for the public, that language is vague—especially for an overburdened consumer scanning labels and reading ingredients for products on grocery store shelves.

Furthermore, a new study found that the combined effect of estrogen and arsenic significantly increases the risk of prostate cancer. BPA is one of the many endocrine disrupting chemicals in our food supply that has an estrogen-like effect in the body. Therefore, it is possible, that within that plastic bottle of apple juice is a potent concoction of chemicals that may lead to prostate and other forms of cancer.

Ultimately, the public is left with many questions regarding the safety of foods, beverages, and packaging—all of which the FDA is supposed to screen. According to the FDA’s Web site, its designated role is “protecting the public health by assuring the safety, effectiveness, quality…of most of our nation’s food supply…”

What will it take for the FDA to do its job and protect the American people? So far it seems that public and consumer pressure haven’t been enough. The FDA has yet to respond to the two million comments on the petition to stop the approval of genetically engineered salmon or the one million comments on labeling genetically modified foods.

As is the case with the latest BPA ban and proposed limits to arsenic in apple juice, the public is left with no clear answers and no real assurance that the agency has its best interest in mind.

Photo: baby drinking formula, by Shutterstock

This article also appeared on Civil Eats

All Calories Are Not the Same -- WATCH: TED Talk

[ted id=1774] In this compelling TED talk, Dr. Peter Attia says that insulin resistance and diabetes cause obesity — not the other way around as the conventional wisdom holds. More importantly, he says it's the refined grains, starches, and sugars in our diets that cause insulin resistance in the first place. Meaning, it's not how much we eat but what we eat -- more proof for the argument that all calories are not the same, contrary to what the food industry wants us to believe. It won't be long before Big Food will have to acknowledge the science and take responsibility for its poor quality food products, rather than insisting that all calories are the same and scolding Americans to simply "eat less and exercise more." Dr. Attia says that obesity is really just a proxy for the underlying illness that is insulin resistance. He says that by blaming the obese, we are blaming the victims in a food system gone awry. Our processed food supply — which is heavily reliant on refined grains and sugars — is the real culprit here.

Bloomberg's No Beyoncé: The Real Dilemmas with the Soda Ban
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The Bloomberg administration is back in court three months after a state court judge barred New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to create a city-wide ban on sugary beverages over 16 ounces. Reports of the latest court proceedings say that the judges were more sympathetic to lawyers from the American Beverage Association than to those from the Department of Health. Marion Nestle agrees and writes that, “the judges were much tougher on the DOH attorney than on the one from the ABA.”

Perhaps this is because the ABA has swayed public opinion so thoroughly in its opposition of the soda ban with its insidious and seemingly grassroots campaign, “New Yorkers for Beverage Choices.” This organization says it represents New Yorkers, businesses, and community organizers but is in fact a creation of the beverage industry itself. By using the language of “choice” the industry has persuaded many New Yorkers that by defending the billion-dollar beverage industry, they are in fact, standing up to elites like Bloomberg as well as protecting their civil liberties. Last July, paid canvassers hired by the beverage industry stopped New Yorkers on the street to sign petitions. So far, more than half a million people and businesses have signed on to protect New Yorker’s freedom to choose what size sugary beverage to buy.

Public opinion was also swayed back in January, when the NAACP and the Hispanic Federation sided with the beverage industry and opposed Mayor Bloomberg’s ban. This move brought the issues of race, class, choice, and agency to the fore in a debate seemingly about the prevalence of sugary drinks and their connection to the rates of diet-related disease and obesity. The ensuing conversation has shed light on the vast chasms across racial and class lines when it comes to reforming our food system and regulating our food industry.

The proposed soda ban highlights one crucial tenet about Americans: We do not like being told what to do. Rather, we prefer to be seduced by slick marketing and sexy ad campaigns. This way, it’s as if we have chosen one particular product based on a sense of self-identification — the ultimate goal of advertisers and corporations. The most obvious recent example of this is the marketing confluence of Beyoncé and Pepsi. Here we have the glamorous (svelte and healthy) mega pop star hawking a product that we know leads to obesity, diabetes, and a host of other health issues.

Of course, Beyoncé is only one in a long list of celebrities that shill for these beverage corporations: Elton John, Britney Spears, Mariah Carey, Madonna, LeBron James and Sofía Vergara are among the many others. Our American obsession with fame and wealth is partially why these endorsements work so well; the other part has to do with this concept of choice; after all, Pepsi’s tag line has long been, “The choice of a new generation.”

The question of choice is a sticky one in this soda ban debate since the billion dollar advertising industry has led Americans to believe they have unlimited choices when it comes to food and drink. Most Americans scoff at the idea of their “choices” actually being dictated to them by some outside force; but the reality is that we actually don’t have unlimited choices when it comes to our food. In fact, most options on grocery store shelves boil down to choosing products from roughly a handful of large corporations, often made using the same ingredients — corn and soy. Four companies make 75 percent of breakfast cereals and snacks, 60 percent of cookies, and 50 percent of all ice cream. Four companies slaughter 81 percent of all beef and control 70 percent of all milk sales.

Bloomberg can certainly wield great power with the soda ban, causing critics to cry overreach and nanny-state — but what about these corporations? And the billion dollar advertising industry? The difference is in the presentation: Bloomberg is no Beyoncé. When Beyoncé tells us what to drink we listen; when Bloomberg does, there’s outrage.

It’s worth asking the NAACP and Hispanic Federation why they don’t oppose Beyoncé’s marketing of Pepsi when we know that diabetes rates are 77 percent higher among African Americans and 66 percent higher among Latinos than their white peers. It’s been widely reported that both organizations receive funding from Big Beverage corporations, and thus opposing them has become too risky. As Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said in a New York Times article, “Their opposition makes the battles harder. It gives credibility to the industry’s arguments, which are typically self-serving.”

These organizations argue that the ban will unfairly harm bodega or other small business owners, which has validity since the ban seems arbitrary in its application. Why is a 20-ounce Frappuccino from Starbucks, with a whopping 79 grams of sugar, exempt from this ban simply because it contains dairy? By comparison, a 20-ounce bottle of Coke contains 65 grams of sugar and is not exempt. This example highlights two key contradictions: Large corporate stores won’t suffer financially from the ban; and there is an air of class discrimination between the people who typically buy these beverages.

Ben Jealous, NAACP President and CEO, has said that the organization would support a comprehensive ban. “This is the troubling part: this ‘ban’ wouldn’t have been a ban at all, in that it would have stopped it from the mom and pop shops, it wouldn’t have stopped it at 7-Eleven,” Jealous said on the Chris Hayes show. “How are you banning soda if you’re not banning ‘Big Gulps’?”

Bloomberg’s soda ban, while perhaps a step in the right direction, is akin to a band-aid on the big gaping wound that is our inequitable food system. The opposition to the ban by the NAACP and the Hispanic Federation shines a spotlight on that wound.

Public opinion is a powerful tool and the beverage industry is pushing all the right buttons to sway New Yorkers into siding with an industry that causes demonstrable harm to our health. If the judges agree that the ban is encroaching on our “freedom to choose,” then they too are missing the bigger picture.

But perhaps the most salient lesson to come out of this debate is just how limited changes to the food system will be if we do not address class and racial inequality. The claims of paternalism against Bloomberg’s ban are valid — the very concept of the ban implies that certain people are not capable of making good decisions on their own and strips them of agency. The trick is that the corporations are playing the same game. They aren’t giving consumers any more credit than Bloomberg is — they just make it so that when they tell us what to do, it’s a whole lot more sexy.

Pay People to Cook at Home

THE home-cooked family meal is often lauded as the solution for problems ranging from obesity to deteriorating health to a decline in civility and morals. Using whole foods to prepare meals without additives and chemicals is the holy grail for today’s advocates of better eating.

But how do we get there? For many of us, whether we are full-time workers or full-time parents, this home-cooked meal is a fantasy removed from the reality of everyday life. And so Americans continue to rely on highly processed and refined foods that are harmful to their health.

Those who argue that our salvation lies in meals cooked at home seem unable to answer two key questions: where can people find the money to buy fresh foods, and how can they find the time to cook them? The failure to answer these questions plays into the hands of the food industry, which exploits the healthy-food movement’s lack of connection to average Americans. It makes it easier for the industry to sell its products as real American food, with real American sensibilities — namely, affordability and convenience.

I believe the solution to getting people into the kitchen exists in a long-forgotten proposal. In the 1960s and ’70s, when American feminists were fighting to get women out of the house and into the workplace, there was another feminist arguing for something else. Selma James, a labor organizer from Brooklyn, pushed the idea of wages for housework. Ms. James, who worked in a factory as a young woman and later became a housewife and a mother, argued that household work was essential to the American economy and wondered why women weren’t being paid for it. As Ms. James and a colleague wrote in 1972, “Where women are concerned their labor appears to be a personal service outside of capital.”

Connecting the Dots: GMOs and Our Food Future

Monarch_Butterfly_Danaus_plexippus_Milkweed The recent New York Times editorial, which argues against labeling genetically modified foods (GMOs), is shocking in its shortsightedness. The thrust of the argument is that GMOs pose no risk to consumers; the editorial reads, "there is no reliable evidence that genetically modified foods now on the market pose any risk to consumers."

But the previous day, the Times published an article noting a startling decline in monarch butterflies -- the most in recent decades -- which the article attributes to changing weather patterns and changed farming practices. More specifically, the article quotes experts who say that the decline is a result of "the explosive increase in American farmland planted in soybean and corn genetically modified to tolerate herbicides." The article goes on to say:

"The American Midwest's corn belt is a critical feeding ground for monarchs, which once found a ready source of milkweed growing between the rows of millions of acres of soybean and corn. But the ubiquitous use of herbicide-tolerant crops has enabled farmers to wipe out the milkweed, and with it much of the butterflies' food supply."

Much like bees, the monarch butterfly provides essential pollination for many of our food crops -- this pollination is the foundation of our food supply. According to a study by researchers at UC Berkeley, one third of the world's food supply is dependent on pollinators. Chip Taylor, director of the conservation group Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas said that, "If we pull the monarchs out of the system, we're really pulling the rug out from under a whole lot of other species."

To say that GMO crops pose no threat to consumers when their use is clearly debilitating this vital butterfly species, is a careless misrepresentation of the long-term effects these novel crops are having on our food systems and perhaps the very foundation of a secure food future. With greater foresight we must more thoughtfully connect the dots between harm to our environment and harm to ourselves.

Radio Interview: Big Food and Nutrition Education

Tuesday night I went on Let's Get Real on the Heritage Radio Network to discuss my latest article on Civil Eats about the corporate sponsorship of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Listen in for the entertaining conversation I had with Chef Erica Wides. Click here to tune in.

Dieticians are in bed with Foodiness, Incorporated! Erica Wides is once again joined in the studio by nutrition expert Kristin Wartman to talk about her recent article in Civil Eats about big food's influence on The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Hear how companies like Coca-Cola and General Mills fund nutrition studies on sugar and processed food. Doesn't that just seem like a conflict of interest? Kristin spoke with a dietician employed by Sodexo off the record; hear how a food professional deals with the contradictions of health and "foodiness." Later, Erica challenges Kristin to a game of foodiness truth-or-dare!