Monday, June 29, 2015

One Crisis After Another

Nothing could make the point better, about behavior having consequences, than the short parade of crises in the news this last week.  According to the CDC, the US has a sleep crisis.  Meanwhile a health advocacy group blames Coke for the continued obesity problems in America.  We text while we drive because we are addicted to technology.

The watchdog group, Center for Science in the Public Interest, is circulating their own version of the famous Coca Cola commercial from 1970, the “Hill Top Ad,” to raise awareness about the dangers of drinking sugary soft drinks.  The parody is necessary, they say, to counter the promotion efforts by Coke, Pepsi and others.  "The industry is spending billions of dollars to encourage people to drink more, and the health side of the equation needs to get the message out to drink less.”

So here is one more group who believes that Americans are so gullible or stupid or impressionable that billions in advertising can talk them into doing something that, if they were just a little better informed, they would not.  Is that even credible?  Are commercial ads really so powerful that we are helpless to resist?  Get a grip!  The industry’s response was that they “put clear calorie information on all of our cans, bottles and packs” to allow consumers to make the choices that are best for them.

Obesity does continue to be a problem in America, and The LA Times reports a new study finding a constant increase.  “Two-thirds of U.S. women and three-quarters of U.S. men are overweight or obese.”  This is not good, but can we blame that on beverage advertising?  This is a discipline issue compounded by a responsibility issue as another advocate enhances their own income and job security by trying to protect victims by shifting the blame. 

Just two days earlier came the reports of a “sleep crisis.”  The CDC is working on new sleep guidelines as research shows that adults get less sleep than recommended, a minimum of at least 7 hours each night. “Anything from 6 hours and below can raise your risk for a heart attack, stroke, diabetes and obesity.”

On the same subject Reader’s Digest announced in March:  “Sleep deprivation now rivals obesity and smoking as our greatest public health crisis.”  They say lack of sleep is making us “fat, sick and stupid.”  Later in the article the blame is placed on technology and the responsibility to solve it has fallen on employers as they try to combat workplace fatigue by offering “sleep-hygiene courses, taught by an increasing legion of sleep experts who come at the problem from various disciplines: medicine, psychology, business. Recognizing that getting their employees to sleep more at home will help them perform better at work, top corporations are bringing these experts in to preach the gospel of sleep to their employees.”

Once upon a time employees were expected not to fall asleep at work.  Once there was a simple concept called bedtime – when we were children, parents enforced it; by the time we became adults, we had developed the habit.  Today it’s technology’s fault and the employer’s problem to fix.  The only surprise was that they didn’t try to also blame it on the caffeine in the cola.

A few days later CBS informed us that use of smart phones behind the wheel is on the increase and “distracted driving caused 3,100 deaths in 2013.”  Their expert explained how this is an addiction, like gambling.  Technology is being developed in Australia to track drivers’ eye movements and sound an alarm, at the same time as states propose new laws.  You see, we have shown we cannot control or be responsible for our own behavior.

So the lack of sleep is making Americans fat, sick and stupid; the soft drinks are making Americans fat and sick; and it takes a watchdog group and employers to solve that problem because we are apparently incapable of saying no to the cola, no to the smartphone and yes to a reasonable bedtime.  We cannot resist using the phone while driving, a practice that began only a few years ago.  Am I the only one that finds this trend really, really scary?

Friday, June 26, 2015

Food Waste

Building on the idea from last week about some people’s false belief that you shouldn’t eat what you can’t pronounce, another problem is that often people refuse to eat some things they can easily pronounce only because it is not pretty enough.  This is a great example of how lack of perspective causes Americans (and many others) to let the superficial outweigh the substantive aspects of so many decisions.

In early 2013, but not for the first time, CBS featured a story about how almost half of the food grown worldwide ends up plowed back under or thrown away.  The reasons cited for this enormous waste were “inadequate infrastructure as well as irresponsible retailer and consumer behavior.”  The infrastructure problems especially in the area of delivery and spoilage were more common in less developed countries, but “countries like Britain and the United States have relatively efficient farming methods, so the majority of waste occurs on the consumer's end.”

The PBS News Hour followed up last week with this video report that began:  “Much of what is grown on American farms never makes it to market.”  It seems there is plenty of produce going to the landfill because of price fluctuations (driven by supply and demand) but also based on a grading system looking at expected and acceptable appearance.  Almost 40% of food is lost all along the supply chain, but a substantial amount never makes it to market at all.  Food that is equally nutritious is not sent to the stores because it is off-color, slightly the wrong shape or the wrong size.  Instead it is plowed under or is trucked to a landfill after final inspection.  For example, peaches have different levels of appearance standards:  some only acceptable to the premium markets, a second tier sent to less fussy retailers and the rest thrown out.

With these farm rejects, the grocery store leftovers and disposal from our kitchens and restaurants, food is the largest category of material found in landfills.  There it rots, producing methane gas.

Now a few farmers in California have a program to donate it to the local food banks to reduce the waste.  Participation is limited but growing, aided by some states' tax breaks to farmers who donate.  In other parts of the US, creative entrepreneurs follow a model from France where they sell “ugly” fruits and vegetables for less.  “A new grocery store in Boston is on a mission to solve two problems: preventing tons of food from going to waste and offering healthy alternatives to families who might not be able to afford traditional stores” by promoting the unattractive produce at a bargain price.  This seems to be a growing trend, though regular grocers, even some that advertise themselves as “green” and “natural,” continue to apply unnecessarily fussy standards that reflect the preferences of their customers.

Bottom line is that waste is bad.  When any part of that waste can be traced to unreasonable behaviors, like rejecting healthy food because it is not exactly the right size, shape or color, it tells of a weakness in the dimensions of perspective and critical thinking.  It is understood that strengthening behaviors in one aspect of a dimension can often overlap into improving other behavior in the same dimension.  Perhaps that means that losing our prejudice about the color and shape of foods will result in applying the same standards and behavior, of valuing what’s inside instead of rejecting based on appearance, in the area of our interpersonal relationships as well.  That’s something to hope for.

Monday, June 22, 2015


Almost exactly two years ago in an entry called “Is It Real Science?” I used a couple of current news articles to show the difference between real science and the kind of celebrity endorsement tactics used to promote questionable health claims.  One of them presented their findings along with specific information about how a particular experiment was set up and conducted.  The other talked only about how the practice of placentophagy had been endorsed by famous people with no scientific or medical credentials.

That was that; until very recently when I heard the cry of “yucky-poo” coming from the direction of our computer.  Placentophagy is the practice of new mothers taking the placenta (afterbirth) out of the hospital to eat at home.  (The phagy ending comes into English from the Greek phage meaning one who eats.)  The latest research confirms what we suspected all along.

The article from Fox News that prompted the outburst, tells us that there is no science supporting the practice.  “Researchers at Northwestern University found that the common practice of eating the placenta after childbirth does not have health benefits— and may have unknown risks.”  Cautions include that “storage and preparation are not regulated, and dosage is inconsistent,” and we don’t yet even know what is in it.

That is not enough to stop new, possibly nursing mothers who are usually very careful about what they put into their bodies, but who put more faith in pop culture than in science or their own doctors.  We are told “the practice has increased in popularity, with celebrities such as Kourtney Kardashian talking about the benefits.”

To follow such advice is not only extremely poor critical thinking but also irresponsible behavior as the mother of a newborn.  Of course regular readers already have known that for a couple of years.

Friday, June 19, 2015

If You Can't Pronounce It...

The following message is common on the Internet, especially in social media.

Michael Pollan, a food writer and activist, wrote for a 2008 NPR story: “Don’t buy products with more than five ingredients or any ingredients you can’t easily pronounce.”  Other activists like the “Food Babe” website are spreading this easy-to-remember but simplistic idea, using fear and bad science to condemn any food or additive that sounds harmful, artificial or synthetic.

Just to test the notion, would you like to eat a food containing: cholecalciferol or tocopherol or phylloquinone?  How about pyridoxine?  Trick questions – they are also known as vitamins D, E, K and B6.  Everyone gets some of each daily in food or taken in those tablets we believe will make us healthier.  Most of the time these and other vitamins have been produced synthetically.  (They can’t get all that vitamin C added to cereals, drinks and lozenges by just grinding up fruits and vegetables.)

The idea that you shouldn’t eat what you can’t pronounce is absurd.  If that were the case and they decided to call azodicarbonamide “delta 3” instead, no one would know the difference or care – problem solved!  Well-educated and respected experts agree.  Take this story I found on  Robert Gravani, PhD, a food scientist professor at Cornell University, confidently debunks this craziness.  There is nothing to fear.  As he puts it, "In many cases, additives improve our health."

So what of all the warnings about evil corporations trying to poison us with chemicals?  The New York Times ran a profile on the author of the Food Babe website.  “Sometimes she finds an ingredient, often an ugly-sounding chemical (propylene glycol, which she said was in beer), and finds a secondary industrial use (antifreeze) for it.”  But this example is not true and indicative of her lack of scientific training and understanding.  “Dr. David H. Gorski, a surgical oncologist who also has a degree in chemistry, wrote on Science-Based Medicine that the beer ingredient is propylene glycol alginate, which, despite its name, is not even close to propylene glycol, is not antifreeze and is derived from kelp.”  The chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida described her message as “abject food terrorism,” adding:  “She found that a popular social media site was more powerful than science itself, more powerful than reason, more powerful than actually knowing what you’re talking about.”

Other websites contain long lists of where she got it wrong, but that does not slow down the pure-food crusade backed by an estimated 3 million followers.  They can band together to use their economic power to force unnecessary changes on the rest of us.  See this news article from late last month announcing:  “A number of major fast-food chains and food companies have recently announced healthier practices, moving to all-natural ingredients and ending the use of downright strange and sometimes hard-to-pronounce additives.”  They list specific examples including:  Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Panera, Dunkin Donuts, Kraft, Coke, MacDonald’s and others.

That story claims: “Experts say these latest moves represent a real effort to make food both healthier and better for the environment, while also tapping into the growing consumer demand for more natural products.”  But the first assertion is not the case!  Experts don’t worry about how easily pronounced the ingredients are.  It’s obvious that the writer is either too lazy to research the facts or has handpicked the “experts” to match a preexisting agenda.

The second part is true.  Corporation are changing their practices and ultimately passing the costs to us, the consumers, based on demand for changes driven by the often erroneous warnings by unqualified, self-appointed watchdogs, who profit from the fear and misinformation they spread.  Followers of such dietary fear-mongers line up like sheep, desperate for hope or looking for easy answers.  And the rest of us are forced to accept the new standards.  That is what’s really scary.

Monday, June 15, 2015


Announcement:  Ladies and Gentlemen, please excuse the delay.  The movie was scheduled to start at 2:15, but our projectionist overslept.  Of course you understand that getting out of bed is very difficult for some people and we must be understanding and compassionate.  His parents could hardly risk accusations of bullying by forcing him out of bed or shaming him into meeting his responsibilities.  The management appreciates your patience and understanding and assures you that the movie will begin as soon as possible.

The above scenario seems unlikely.  No right-thinking person would expect theater management or the customers to tolerate the behavior of that projectionist.  Getting out of bed and getting to work on time is a reasonable expectation of any job.  Yes, it takes a certain amount of discipline and is more difficult for some, but to tolerate violations without negative consequences only condones the irresponsible behavior and leads to more of the same.

Why then would we read on the BBC website and elsewhere that being overweight may become the new normal?  This article from last year asks “why has liberating women, and increasingly men, from the pressure to look perfect ended with us embracing the jelly-belly as a positive?”  There is so much of it around, we are getting used to it, accepting it more in ourselves and others; while in France hiring too skinny runway models has been outlawed.  If this is the case, what else is about to be normalized?  (Remember, your health is no longer only your business now that the healthy are forced to subsidize the healthcare costs of the sick.)

There is a clear parallel between oversleeping, overeating, smoking, binge drinking, accumulating unnecessary debts, starting a family before being able to support one, reaching retirement with inadequate savings, drug addiction and a number of other behaviors.  They all require discipline.  They are all more difficult for some than for others.  They constitute a real cost to society by affecting a person’s health or job performance or the ability to live independently.  Why are we told to tolerate some behaviors, while condemning others; that some are weaknesses and others are diseases?  Smokers are ostracized, but if a smoking relative dies he becomes a victim of deceptive advertising by evil Big Tobacco.  When someone ignores reality and makes the huge unwise choice to try to raise a family on minimum wage he becomes a victim of some social injustice, but if you make the small-scale decision to sleep in on a work day, you are reprimanded.

Have we gotten to a point where tolerance is considered a virtue only as long as we tolerate the right things?  People label themselves as tolerant as a badge of honor, taking part in part in protests to show off for their friends (and customers).  They will march in favor of the popular cause and protest against an unpopular one – whereas defenders of the "wrong" cause will be portrayed as spiteful and uncompassionate in an attempt to bully them into submission.  Our standards are not our own but are set by the in-crowd from Hollywood or by the self-proclaimed victims or by those who have the resources to shout long and loud enough to sway public opinion.*  These standards of conduct fluctuate based on moods and perceptions of society.  They seep into the culture while most stand idly by.  Perhaps tolerance as it is popularly accepted is mere laziness where it is easier to ignore some behaviors than to defend real standards.

*For example, folks cry out for the labeling of GMOs arguing that "consumers should know what they are buying," yet Americans wolf down $30+ million in dietary supplements - herbs, Chinese remedies and the like - with absolutely no assurance that what is on the label is actually in the bottle and if it is, no idea of the potency of a particular batch.