Sunday, November 10, 2013

Zoning out after dining out at work

For years, I took a peanut butter sandwich to work every day for lunch, and I ate it alone. A PB sandwich was particularly easy to hold with one hand while I kept on grading papers and preparing labs or lessons. I chose that route so I could get home at a decent hour. I would've eaten dog food, or nothing, to accomplish that.

I wasn't fast enough

The only time I've ever dined out on workdays was at a high-pressure copy-editing job that I was offered on a temporary basis. I'd never done any copy-editing at all, so they hired me for a 2-week trial to test my speed and accuracy. Everyone else in the office went out-to-lunch together so I went with them. It turned out I flunked the trial; I didn't do the required tasks fast enough. Now, after reading a recent paper on the mental effects of dining out at work, I'm wondering if I should've kept to my solo peanut-butter-sandwich routine during the trial job. I probably would've done better. Although I wouldn't want the job now, it might've been nice to have had the option.

Social lunch or solo lunch?

So, how does eating out with co-workers affect one's after-lunch mental state? Researchers at Berlin's Humboldt University tested the cognition and mood of workers who dined alone in an office versus workers who dined out in a social group. They published their findings in PLOS ONE, an open-access peer-reviewed journal published by the Public Library of Science. Their findings are complicated, but the gist of the study is pretty simple. Dining out socially had cognitive and emotional effects, as compared to eating solo in-office. Some effects were good, but most were not!

Eating out at work impairs performance

A social meal with co-workers at a restaurant led to a calmer, more relaxed state after the meal, and a more positive mood. Nice, and not surprising. But this more relaxed and "less wakeful state" seemed to reduce "cognitive control on the performance level" for a while after returning to work. The social meal also reduced cognitive control related to "error monitoring processes." Hmm. I can think of categories of workers whom I might want to be in full possession of their error-monitoring processes. Medical personnel? Air-traffic controllers? An accountant doing my tax return? A techie fixing my computer? A clerk in a billing office? A truck driver? It's actually more challenging to think of a job where cognitive control and errors don't matter.

Could improve creativity

On the bright side, the researchers suggested that a social restaurant meal during the work day could be beneficial in situations where "social harmony or creativity is desired." I can see that. Discussing business deals, collaboration and professional networking certainly could benefit from a socially relaxing meal. Or work situations that require a defusing of stress at midday might benefit, I suppose.

So, what should we take from this study? The authors suggest that their findings might be relevant in designing specific meal situations for restaurants at "schools, universities, factories, hospitals, military, correctional institutions, or holiday resorts, depending on the overarching goal of these institutions...Different meal situations may be optimal if the aim is cognitive control and exactness or if well-being and recreation is desired." Well, yes...although the authors don't specify how these meal situations would vary.

PB sandwich works for me

For me, the solo peanut-butter sandwich routine has worked well. Not only does it save time, it probably has helped me focus and work more efficiently too. Maybe in a grumpier mood....but getting home earlier fixes that.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Making the most of basil from your garden -- all year long

1 pesto pizza 1
Ken's beloved pesto pizza, made from our garden
Garden plots can be finnicky. We've tried planting everything in our 20-year-old raised bed, but it seems to favor basil above all other hot-weather plants. One reason is the increasing amount of shade on the raised bed, from trees growing nearby. Most of the vegetables we plant there fail to flourish in the limited sunlight, but the basil tolerates the shade well.

  2 Ken's hand in garden resized

So we cater to the basil in summer. We nurture the soil with compost, no chemical fertilizers or pesticides. We cover the young basil plants with mesh to keep beetles from eating it. (We use tulle from a fabric store.) Mulch it with leaves. And all summer long we collect lots and lots of basil, much more than we can eat fresh. To take advantage of the basil abundance, my husband Ken has perfected a method of freezing the basil with olive oil so that we have a steady supply all year, for pesto on noodles and pesto pizza. Yum! Each frozen packet is just right for one pizza or one pesto-on-noodles dinner.

Harvesting and preserving the basil

Periodically during the summer, Ken picks basil leaves without damaging the plants, for the purpose of preserving them. He washes the leaves and shakes all the water out, in the colander. Then he piles the leaves on the kitchen table. Each pile equals about one tightly-packed measuring cup of basil.
2 piles of  basil resized

He stuffs each pile of basil into a sandwich bag.
   4 stuffing basil in bag resized
Then he adds two tablespoons of olive oil to each bag to keep the basil from turning brown.

5 pouring oil resized
After that, Ken rolls up each bag as tightly as he can, squeezing the air out as he goes. He seals it shut and baggie of basil retains the rolled up shape; he pops it into the freezer for later use.
 6 folding baggie resized

Making a pesto pizza from the stored basil

Last night we decided to make a pesto pizza. We could have used fresh basil, but using the frozen basil is actually easier, and tastes just as good.
7 bag folded resized
Ken got out a frozen bag of basil, took the basil out of the bag, and broke up the icy chunk into smaller chunks. It has to be frozen to do this - don't let it thaw. Ken calls it "fracturing."

 8 fracturing frozen basil
He breaks it up into smaller frozen chunks, but leaves it chunky.

9 chopping basil resized
While it's still in pieces as in the picture above, he puts the still-frozen basil on the pizza crust. The crust below is a homemade crust, a blend of whole-wheat flour, white flour, corn flour and corn meal.

After adding the basil, we top it with sliced veggies and other things on hand: black olives, tomatoes and okra and zucchini from a sunnier garden plot, walnut pieces, nutritional yeast, vegan cheese. If we use cheese, the cheese goes on right after the basil. We bake it at 425 degrees for 20 minutes.

It's one of my favorite dishes of all time! I'm glad our finicky raised bed forces us to plant so much basil!

Ken's crust recipe

3 cups of flour (the pizza pictured was made of a blend of flours: 1.5 cup whole wheat, 1/2 cup white, 1/2 cup corn meal, 1/2 cup corn flour)
1 tbsp yeast
finely chopped fresh rosemary
garlic powder
1 tsp salt
1 cup warm water
1/3 cup olive oil
Work it into a ball, adding slight bit more water as needed to form a ball
Cover and let it rise for 30 minutes
Put it on an oiled pizza pan and shape it to the pan

What should high fructose corn syrup make you mad?

High-fructose corn syrup is the first ingredient of this popular pancake syrup, after water. Photo: Sally Kneidel
What is high-fructose corn syrup? Is it really dangerous to your health? Lots of health professionals and researchers say it is. Should you avoid it completely? Science writer Laura Bell of Science News just published a great article summarizing some of the latest buzz about high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). New research on its health effects is not entirely clear-cut, and those effects may depend on the genetics of the particular consumer. But Bell's article convinced me to minimize my family's consumption of HFCS, and avoid it whenever possible.

Lookin' in the frig...

Just 5 minutes ago, I poked around my family's kitchen looking for HFCS in our own foods, and quickly found 3 things in the frig that have it: ketchup, pancake syrup (it's the first ingredient after water), and chocolate syrup (HFCS is the first ingredient). As you probably know, ingredients are listed on food packages in descending order of their relative proportions in the food.

High-fructose corn syrup is a common ingredient in soft drinks, sweet and savory sauces, fast foods, baked goods, dairy products, and many other packaged foods.

What is HFCS?

High fructose corn syrup was developed by the corn industry, which is always looking for new products from corn, because corn subsidies make corn so cheap and thus so competitive in the marketplace. Food scientists at the Corn Projects Refining Company discovered a way to convert glucose from corn starch into a different sugar called fructose, not naturally found in corn. The regular corn syrup, containing glucose or maltose, was already on the market. But fructose has the advantage of being sweeter than corn syrup.

After tooling around with this fructose created from corn, the corn researchers came up with a new highly-marketable corn-based sweetener: high-fructose corn syrup. It's fructose blended with glucose. Although not as sweet as straight fructose, it's still sweeter than corn syrup and at least as sweet as table sugar (sucrose). It can be even sweeter than table sugar, depending on the ratio of fructose to glucose in the blend. HFCS offers numerous mass-production benefits: it's not only cheap and sweet, but also very stable in foods, and easy to store and transport in liquid form. Voila! A golden ticket to profits for food corporations!

Why are consumers and medical professionals concerned about HFCS?

For all its benefits for producers, HFCS is laden with threats to public health. For one thing, the cheap price of HFCS has led many companies to sweeten products that had not previously been sweetened, thus increasing the daily caloric intake of many Americans. In his new book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Michael Moss makes a convincing case that the food industry has intentionally hooked the American public on sweet, salty, fatty foods to increase sales, resulting in serious blows to our health. HFCS has provided a primary tool for hooking us.

Of course, health professionals are concerned about over-consumption of all sweeteners that are high in calories. But HFCS has its very own set of red flags, not shared by other sweeteners.

Four of the biggest concerns about HFCS are possible effects on the liver, the heart, abdominal fat, and the kidneys.

Liver damage?

Fructose from HFCS behaves differently in the human body than glucose or sucrose. When you eat regular corn syrup or table sugar, the sugars don''t move into the liver unless the liver needs sugar for energy. But fructose seeps into the liver, whether or not the liver needs it. Laura Bell summarizes it this way, "When fructose is consumed some of it always ends up in the liver, where it may be packaged...for long term storage as fat. It may promote fatty liver disease." A researcher at UC San Francisco (Robert Lustig) compares HFCS to "alcohol without the buzz" because of its potential to cause liver damage. Miriam Vos at Emory University School of Medicine says certain people are probably more susceptible to liver damage by HFCS due to genetics, just as some are more vulnerable to cancer from tobacco or the effect of salt on blood pressure.

You may know that fructose is a naturally-occurring sugar in fruits, sometimes called fruit sugar. But not to worry. Fruit sugar does not behave the same way in the body as the fructose in HFCS and is not dangerous to the liver.

Heart disease?

A number of studies suggest that HFCS can raise the triglyceride level in the blood, which is a well-known risk factor in heart disease.

Abdominal fat?

Laura Bell cites studies that indicate fructose is more likely than glucose alone to cause an increase in the amount of fat in the abdomen.

Kidney trouble

HFCS may increase uric acid in the blood, a risk factor for kidney disease.

See Laura Bell's article for a more substantive review of health concerns.

The biggest danger

To some consumers, all the bad press on HFCS has made table sugar and other sweeteners look good in comparison. Many products are now labeled as "made with natural sugar" or "real sugar." And that can be dangerous, leading consumers to think they're harmless. In small amounts, maybe so. But a 2012 study cited by Bell found that 75% of packaged foods and drinks contain added sweeteners. Our soaring consumption of calories has led to national epidemics of obesity and diabetes, as I think we all know by now. Switching from HFCS to sugar or corn syrup is not going to fix that. Sugar, corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup can all contribute too many calories, and in that regard, none are "harmless."

In sum, limiting caloric intake altogether may be more important than avoiding particular sweeteners. Of course, we can choose to take care of our families by doing both - limiting calories and avoiding HFCS. That's my plan.

I'm mad

My "angry" radar is out for HFCS. Some food companies are now labeling it as "corn sugar" to confuse consumers who are trying to avoid it.  Such tactics make me mad.  It's one more example of deceptive labeling by giant food corporations, like the "made with real juice" labels on concoctions that are 5% juice.  Or the popular "All Natural" label which isn't regulated and means nothing.  I don’t like being manipulated by corporations for the sake of executive salaries and shareholder profits.  It happens a lot these days. When it affects my family's health, that really gets me steamed.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Ground zero for climate change? Corporate culprits in Charlotte

A rally in Charlotte last week against a corporation driving climate change. Photo: Sally Kneidel
Last year during the DNC, I heard activist leaders refer to Charlotte as "ground zero for climate change." I was startled by that.  I grew up in Charlotte and the city has seldom surprised me.  But that made me curious. So I decided to get more active in Greenpeace-Charlotte, and started reading the websites of NC WARN and Rainforest Action Network (RAN). Turns out, the culprits are very specific.  Climate activists are focused primarily on two corporate giants.

Duke Energy and Bank of America are both headquartered in Charlotte, and they’re both major players in climate change, as in driving climate change, through coal.  The tipping point where climate change will accelerate regardless of what we do is getting very close. And coal is a major cause – a cause that we could eliminate. According to Greenpeace, coal is the largest single source of climate-changing pollution in the world.

Activists in Charlotte. Photo: Sally Kneidel
What’s Bank of America's role in the coal debacle?  This Charlotte-based bank is the biggest bank in the U.S. and the country's top financier of the coal industry.  RAN reports that BofA has invested more than $6.4 billion in coal in just the last couple of years, ranging from coal mining to the construction of coal plants.  RAN is running a major campaign against Bank of America’s involvement in coal. For more info about BofA's link to climate change, see

And then there’s Duke Energy, the other culprit and the focus of this post.  

Activists in Charlotte "Duke Energy: Make Charlotte a CLEAN energy hub" Photo: Sally Kneidel
 Across the planet, anxious eyes are on Duke Energy…because it is the world’s largest corporate utility. Duke’s stature in the energy sector is formidable.  As we approach the climate’s tipping point, will Duke use its influence to lead the world away from the economic and social chaos of a disintegrating climate?  The answer appears to be simple, and definitive.  No.  Duke’s “2012 Sustainability Report” blithely admits to “an upward trend in our CO2 emissions in the years ahead.”  Duke’s CO2 emissions will keep rising because their 20-year plan (the “IRP”) calls for continued heavy reliance on coal, bolstered by nuclear and natural gas. With this plan, Charlotte’s electric company is likely to maintain its distinction as our nation’s second-largest utility emitter of CO2.

So, surely Duke has some clean renewables in the mix.  Maybe elsewhere, but not here. While other utilities across the country are turning to wind and solar, Duke Energy Carolinas plans to derive only 2.2% of its generating capacity from wind and solar, and only 2.2% from energy-efficiency programs for at least the next 20 years.  Shocking but not that surprising, when you understand the corporate mindset that made Duke the biggest in the world.  You see, the more power plants Duke builds, the more profit they make.  Duke is guaranteed by the state to receive a 10.7% rate of return on equity (ROE), which includes construction projects.  Solar threatens this business model. For one thing, solar panels can allow families to generate on-site power, rather than buying electricity from a huge utility.  With such a decentralized power source, Duke would lose considerable control over ratepayers. 

Ever wonder who pays for all the construction of expensive power plants with Duke’s current plan?  Ratepayers like you and me. Not North Carolina’s new energy-hogging data centers (server farms). They and many giant corporations get special deals and much lower rates.  (Google “Duke’s rate rigging scheme” for a great explanation of that; it’s on the website of NC WARN.)  No, you and I will pay for the new plants we don’t want, or at least, that's Duke's plan for us, as captive ratepayers. Since Duke's a monopoly in NC, we have no other electric utility to choose.

But we do have a voice, and we have a responsibility to use it.  

Demonstration against rate-hikes in Charlotte. Photo: Sally Kneidel
Duke is right now seeking approval from the Utilities Commission for an almost 14% rate increase for the average residence and 10% for small to medium-sized businesses.  (The already low rates for many industrial customers and data centers will increase only 3%.)  The rate-hike request will be Duke's third in just four years. They’re also requesting to increase their guaranteed rate of return (ROE) to 11.25% -- a very high profit margin compared to most other businesses. One frustrating aspect of this rate-hike request, for us ratepayers, is that Duke wouldn’t need these new power plants if they aggressively promoted conservation, energy-efficiency, and solar rooftops instead.

If the idea of paying for more than your share of unnecessary plants makes you mad, you have a chance to show your opposition. The N.C. Utilities Commission regulates Duke and must approve their rate-hike requests.

On July 8, there will be an Evidentiary Hearing at the N.C. Utilities Commission in Raleigh NC, with expert witnesses testifying.  Those of us who are fighting the rate-hike will hold a press conference and ratepayers' assembly before the hearing, in front of the building, and everyone is welcome. The address is Dobbs Building, 430 North Salisbury St., Raleigh.  The hearing itself is not a public hearing, the Utilities Commission will not hear comments from the public, but we can sit inside the room where evidence is presented and let our presence be known.

If you don’t make it to the Evidentiary Hearing, you can still submit your comments on the rate hike by emailing or mailing a letter to:
Public Staff — N.C. Utilities Commission
Consumer Services Division
4326 Mail Service Center
Raleigh, NC 27699-4326

To clarify that you’re writing about the Duke rate hike, mention “NCUC Docket E-7, Sub 1026″ in your letter or the subject line of your email.

The Utilities Commission is our best opportunity right now to influence Duke’s future actions. This is the time to email them. Without rate hikes, Duke can’t continue its current plan for the future. If you care about the world your grandchildren will live in, if you care about your pocketbook, please let them know.  Tell them you object to paying for more dirty and dangerous plants.  

For more info, check out this eye-opening fact sheet from NC WARN explaining Duke's secret rate-rigging scheme.  Also, visit the websites of NC WARN and Consumers Against Rate Hikes.

U.S. corporations spread fast-food, meat, and obesity around the globe

Photo: Sally Kneidel

American men gained an average of 19 lbs between 1980 and 2010; American women, 18 lbs. Those are among the fastest weight gains in the world, writes Leslie Patton of Bloomberg News. Much of that weight gain can be attributed to aggressive marketing by fast-food companies such as McDonald's, Domino's Pizza, and Yum Brands (KFC). Heavy sales of processed and packaged foods are also to blame, as described in Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Moss's new expose, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.

Food activists in the U.S. have worked hard to educate the public on the dangers of fast-food, and have made some progress in persuading fast-food restaurants to carry a few less-fatty alternatives.

Plunder abroad

Having saturated the American market, fast-food corporations are now exploiting more vulnerable and less-wary territories abroad. According to the Waistline Index compiled by Bloomberg, men in Mexico, Brazil and Chile are gaining weight these days on a diet high in fast-food, processed food, and sugary drinks.

Likened to smallpox

Tim Lobstein, director of policy and programs at the International Association for the Study of Obesity in London, compares the globalization of the American diet and its health effects to the transmission of smallpox and measles when Europeans entered Central and South America 300 years ago. "The parallel now is the big transnational corporations also setting foot in these remote areas and bringing non-communicable diseases," such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Domino's now has more international locations than U.S. locations.

China a prime target

These efforts to expand markets into un-plundered territory is not entirely new. In my 2008 book Going Green, I and my co-author reported that Tyson Foods entered an agreement with a Hong Kong-based group in 1997 to begin locating poultry complexes throughout China, each designed to process half a million birds per week. At a 2005 food summit in Chicago, a Tyson executive said that Tyson saw its investments in China as laying the "foundation for profits in the coming years."
China's meat consumption per capita doubled in the 20 years between 1985 and 2005, and is still rising today. Yum (KFC) now has 5200 locations in China; the Chinese rate of diabetes is expected to pass that of the U.S. by 2030.

What to do?

Avoid supporting exploitive companies that blatantly value profits over all else, and that target especially vulnerable populations (including American children). Give your food dollars to someone else. Take care of your own family's health by eating plant-based foods. In doing so, you'll also be cutting down on the vast greenhouse-gas emissions associated with the livestock sector, and you'll be choosing a more humane lifestyle.

Friday, May 17, 2013

New study: fast food tied to childhood asthma

As a climate activist, I often work alongside people with different agendas regarding air pollution.  My main concern is climate change, but some of my fellow activists are focused on health effects of air pollution in the here and now -- effects such as asthma. At meetings about coal pollution, asthma is a recurrent topic. According to the CDC, at least 1 in 12 people in the U.S (8% of the population) have asthma. The air quality in my hometown of Charlotte is among the worst in the nation, largely due to the numerous coal plants around here, operated by the nation's largest electric utility, Duke Energy.

Well-known triggers of asthma attacks

You probably know that airborne irritants are considered common triggers for asthma attacks. The CDC urges those with asthma to avoid smoke, car exhaust, mold, etc. Those warnings are consistent with the commonly-held (and accurate) notion that air quality is a big factor in the asthma picture.

Asthma and fast food

Knowing the connection between asthma and foul air, I was surprised to read a recent study that links asthma and fast food! How could fast food cause asthma? Not sure, but the link seems to be real. The study that suggests this connection is huge.

Severe asthma linked to eating fast food 3 or more times per week

Philippa Ellwood at the University of Auckland in New Zealand surveyed food and health data from more than a half-million people in dozens of different countries. Respondents included 13- and 14-year-old students, and the parents of 6-7-year-olds. The respondents were asked to write down the type and frequency of food eaten over a 12-month period. After analyzing the survey results, Ellwood and her colleagues found an increased risk of "severe asthma" in adolescents and children who consumed fast food three or more times per week. The link between asthma and fast food was consistent regardless of the child's gender or family income.

Fast food also linked to eczema, nasal congestion, red eyes

The survey also revealed a connection between the consumption of fast food and severe eczema in both age groups of children. The study found as well a link between fast food consumption and "nasal congestion, itchy or runny nose, sneezing and red eyes" - symptoms we often associate with an allergy to airborne irritants.

How could fast food cause asthma?

Ellwood did not analyze the cause of the link between fast food and asthma, but reported that "biologically plausible" causes could include the high levels of saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, sodium,carbohydrates and sugar in fast food.

The published report didn't say this, but I'm wondering if weight gain may be part of the story. High consumption of fast food is known to be associated with weight gain. And weight gain has been reported to increase asthma symptoms.

Foods that may offer asthma protection

On the positive side, Ellwood and her colleagues reported that consuming fruit and milk at least three times weekly seemed to protect children in both age groups from asthma. Eating vegetables, cereal and eggs appeared to reduce the risk of asthma in the younger group more than in the 13- and 14-year-olds. Of course, it seems evident from the report that keeping fast-food consumption low could help too!

To read more

The abstract or summary of Philippa Ellwood's published study is here. To read the report of this study in Science News, click here.

Previous post on fast food

One of my previous posts on the hazards of fast food: New studies: fast food "kids meals" loaded with calories and fat

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Powerful new exposè: food giants plot to addict us

The US govt and dairy industry worked together to force more unhealthy milk fat into our diets

Sad and dangerous fact: the first and maybe only priority of any giant corporation is profits. Check out the documentary "The Corporation" to understand the frightening fall-out of that reality. I learned from that film why public health and environmental health always seem secondary, if they're considered at all. They ARE secondary when powerful corporations are in control, as they increasingly are.

The new book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us drives that message home. Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Michael Moss lays out an appalling picture of profit-scheming in the food industry, with devastating consequences. Just as tobacco companies marketed to youth, suppressed cancer links, and intentionally made tobacco products addictive, the giant food corporations have purposely hooked us on sugar, salt and fat in order to maximize their sales and profits.

Regulatory boards in cahoots

I've seen first-hand through my activist work on coal and climate change that corporations are often regulated by government staffers who are actually industry insiders. These insiders often "regulate" to assist corporate financial goals, apparently indifferent to public welfare. After a stint on the regulatory board, they're often hired back into the corporations they once regulated, at generous salaries. That's one way corporations, including food corporations, get away with their expansion plans.

Food corporations enhance the "feel good" sensations of food

In his new book, Michael Moss describes research laboratories where food scientists work to maximize the pleasant “mouthfeel” of fat by altering its chemical structure, or figure out the“bliss point” of sugary drinks. He reveals corporate campaigns designed to market sugary foods to young children, perhaps programming them biologically to crave sugar for the rest of their lives. Moss exposes strategies used to distract consumers by promoting sugary foods as “low sodium,” or fatty foods as “low sugar.” Food executives confessed to Moss that the processed-food industry would cease to exist without salt, sugar and fat. Companies Moss mentions include General Mills, Kraft, Coca-Cola, and Nestlé.

Why do we eat so much cheese?

I heard a radio interview of Moss on my local NPR station (WFAE's "Charlotte Talks") on Friday March 8 2013. The thing that struck me most about the interview was the government collusion in this assault upon American health. It struck me because that very thing frustrates me so much, as a climate activist working to stop electric utilities from polluting. Our state government sets policies that favor corporate profit, not public welfare. (Yes, North Carolina's primary electric utility is a for-profit corporation.)

But back to my topic here: food corporations. Our increased consumption of fat-laden cheese is a prime example of how our government takes cares of industries often at the expense of public health. The average American now eats 33 pounds of cheese per year (up from 10-11 pounds per person in 1970). According to Moss, the explosion of cheese into the American diet began as a result of skim milk. Moss explains the government’s hand in this. "Starting in the '60s, people began drinking less whole milk as a way of reducing calories and intake of saturated fat. That left the dairy industry with a glut of whole milk and the milk fat they were extracting from the whole milk to make skim milk. They went to the government and asked for help. And they started making more cheese with that milk. The government, since it subsidizes the dairy industry, came up with a marketing scheme that allowed the dairy industry to collect tens of millions of dollars every year, for advertising and marketing to encourage consumers to eat more cheese, not just as an hors d'oeuvre, but as an ingredient in processed food. And so, suddenly, cheese began showing up as slices on sandwiches, as ingredients in packaged foods in the store. And our consumption of saturated fat, while we thought we were taking it out of our diets, snuck back in, because cheese is largely invisible as a fat in that form."

Largely because of high-fat diets, 36% of adults and 20% of children in the U.S. are now clinically obese, resulting in sharp increases in the incidence of diabetes, heart disease, and many other serious ailments.

What can you do?

Read packaging labels for salt, sugar and fat content. Educate yourself by reading these recommendations from the CDC for daily salt intake. For sugar, the American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 tsp of sugar for women and 9 tsp for men per day.(The average American consumes more than 20 tsp of sugar per day.) The American Heart Association also offers guidelines on daily fat intake. For children, ask your pediatrician, since it depends on the child's age.

To avoid excessive salt, sugar, and fat in your diet, focus on fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and unprocessed foods. In general, minimize your family's intake of fast food and processed foods. When you do buy processed foods, read those ingredients.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Babies learn healthy food preferences in the womb, study shows

The only vegetables that my cousin Martin will eat are white potatoes. He does have some flexibility about how they're cooked, I'll give him that. Baked potatoes, french fries, mashed potatoes, and tater tots are all acceptable to him. But he's quite consistent in his rejection of all other vegetables. Martin's 34 now and I've known him his whole life. He's always been a taters-only kind of guy.

I thought about Martin recently when I read an article about how babies learn to like vegetables that may have a slightly bitter taste, or otherwise distinctive taste, such as broccoli or carrots. If any veggie has a truly bland and unobjectionable taste, it would be white potatoes.

What if kids don't like nutritious veggies?

Potatoes are high in carbs, but their white flesh is not known for a wide range of other nutrients. The most colorful vegetables and fruits tend to be the most nutritious and to have the most disease-preventing qualities. The dark greens, the reds, the orange-yellows, and the blue-purples. Some are sweet, but many others are not so. Most veggies that are packed with nutrients have a taste that can be disagreeable to some. And if kids don't like them, what can you do?  Serve white potatoes at every meal? Disguise more nutritious vegetables with dressings or other ingredients? Maybe.

Babies can learn to like veggies in utero or through breast milk

Another option is to start introducing potentially disagreeable tastes very early. Research suggests early introduction makes a difference in a child's acceptance of different tastes. A baby can become acquainted with tastes of flavorful vegetables even while 100% breastfed. Even before birth! That's according to bio-psychologist Julie Mennella of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. In an experiment, Mennella followed the diets of pregnant and breast-feeding mothers for three weeks, asking some of the women to drink carrot juice every day. She then later kept track of the babies when they were introduced to solid foods. The babies of the mothers who had consumed carrot juice for three weeks liked carrots better than babies whose mothers had not.

Exposure to tastes in infancy can make a big difference

In a different experiment, Mennella looked at babies being offered carrots for the first time. She found that those who'd eaten a variety of vegetables in the past liked the carrots more than those who'd had little exposure to other vegetables. She suggested that early exposure to a variety of flavors helps babies to trust new foods later in life.

Mennella also experimented with babies and flavored formulas. She observed (not surprisingly) that 7-month-old babies disliked and rejected formula that had been given a slightly bitter or sour taste. But 7-month-olds who had been introduced to the bitter or sour formula months earlier drank it happily. "Clearly experience is a factor in developing food habits," said Mennella.

Future comfort foods may be learned in Mom's arms

Not just taste experience, but emotional experience too is important in shaping our eating habits. Mennela said that foods we learn to trust while in the safety of our mother's arms may form the foundation of what we regard as comfort food later on.   Come to think of it, Martin's mom is a big fan of potatoes.  And she does know how to cook 'em!  On holidays, she serves a dish of potato wedges that have been doused in olive oil and baked in a a hot oven until slightly crisp on the outside. Yum! Perhaps not as nutritious as carrots or kale, but most definitely a comfort food!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Why is flu more common in winter? The answer can help protect you

 How do these sneeze droplets differ in winter? Read on!
Photo courtesy of 

This year's flu season is expected to be one of the worst the US has seen in 10 years, according to the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Said Dr. Joseph Bresee, "There's flu all over the country right now...there's widespread disease in most states and high levels of disease in most states...the country has lots of flu."

Most of the US is nearing a "moderate to severe" flu season, and it has not yet peaked.

Flu outbreaks are worse in cold weather

All flu outbreaks tend to be worse in winter. In the Northern Hemisphere flu season is November to March. But seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere - the cool weather of autumn starts in May, and flu season there is May to September.

Why is winter worse?

I had always heard that flu spreads in winter because we're all cooped up together indoors. But that's not it, apparently.

Dr. Peter Palese of Mount Sinai School of Medicine and his colleagues have studied the transmission of flu between guinea pigs, which can get infected with human flu viruses. Palese's results indicate that spending more time together inside is not a factor in the timing of flu outbreaks.

Sneezed droplets have longer hang time in winter air

Palese says flu viruses are more stable (and last longer, presumably) in colder, drier conditions. What's more, the droplets of fluid that people spew into the air with sneezes and coughs are much smaller at lower temperatures and lower humidity, so the droplets carry much farther and stay suspended in the air longer. The smaller droplets can be inhaled more deeply into the respiratory passages and lungs, Palese says. The opposite is true at warmer temperatures and higher humidity, when the droplets become much bigger and sink to the floor, reports Palese. These influences are so pronounced that "at 75 to 80 degrees, we don't see any transmission" of flu viruses.

In cold dry air, inhaled particles cling to membranes

Palese and his colleagues also report that colder, drier air makes mammals' respiratory tracts more vulnerable to infection by airborne viruses. In cold air, "the mucous is much more viscous," Palese explains. Sticky mucus clogs up the cilia, or tiny hairs, that normally move in waves to expel virus-laden particles from the breathing passages. So in cold weather, inhaled flu viruses tend to stay where they land, reproducing and infecting the unfortunate victim.

What can you do?

If you have the flu, stay home. When you sneeze or cough, cover your nose and mouth. If you don't have a cloth or tissue, use the inside of your elbow. If you're touching doorknobs or anything else an infected person may have touched, wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your nose, mouth, or eyes.

If you don't have the flu:
1) Get a flu shot. It's not too late.
2) Try to avoid breathing the air within 6 feet of an infected person who's sneezing and coughing.
3) If you're touching doorknobs or anything else an infected person may have touched, wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your nose, mouth, or eyes.

Sources for Palese's research and for flu prevention

Richard Knox. Flu heads south for the winter. NPR Morning Edition.
How Flu Spreads. The Centers for Disease Control

Monday, January 07, 2013

GMOs threaten Monarch Butterflies

Adult Monarch on milkweed I planted in my yard. Photo: Sally Kneidel
I was very sad that California’s Proposition 37 failed to pass in the Nov 6 election. The proposition would have required labeling of all genetically-modified foods and would have prohibited "all-natural" labeling of such foods. We desperately need government action regarding GMOs and I was hopeful this was the beginning. Well, it is a beginning in a way, because 46.9% of California voters voted to pass the Proposition. It probably would’ve passed, if not for the fact that the corporations profiting from genetic engineering spent five times more money on the vote than those who support labeling. Those corporations (e.g.Monsanto, Dow) spent about a million dollars a day, from early October until election day, on a media blitz of false and misleading claims directed at voters.

70% of our processed foods contain GMOs

The U.S. is one of the very few industrialized nations that hasn't either banned GMOs or required labeling. It’s a symptom of the control that corporations have over our government, through lobbying and campaign contributions. Because of this financial and political clout, the corporations behind GMOs are able to keep U.S. shoppers in the dark about the contents of the food on our grocery store shelves. Up to 85% of U.S. corn, 91% of soybeans, and 95% of sugar beets are now genetically modified. According to the Center for Food Safety, 70% of processed foods in supermarkets now contain genetically-modified ingredients, yet are not labeled as having them. Human-health risks from GMOs include immune suppression and cancer.

Wild plants and animals threatened

Risks to the planet are even more frightening for me. The uncontrolled dispersal of the engineered genes in agricultural plants threatens wild plant and animal species with contamination of their own genetic material and possible extinction. This sounds dramatic, but if you doubt it, read the Center for Food Safety’s “Monsanto vs. U.S. Farmers".
Anyway – the problems with genetically-modified foods are not new. I’ve known about GMOs and the corporate control of their development and proliferation for some time. I’ve known about the industry’s appalling disregard of anything other than corporate profits. My daughter Sadie and I wrote about that topic in our 2008 book, Going Green.

But I almost choked when I heard...

I just recently learned something new about an unexpected victim of the genetic-engineering industry. Monarch butterflies. Last summer, while researching a 2nd edition of my book "Creepy Crawlies and the Scientific Method", I began talking to monarch experts who are involved in the conservation of this magnificent butterfly, a species that weighs less than a paper clip but migrates 2000 miles every autumn! They migrate farther than any other insect, farther than many migratory birds. Through this research, I learned that monarchs are declining, and when I found out why, I almost gagged. Monsanto!!! Monsanto has wiped out much of the milkweed in the Midwest that these butterflies lay their eggs on. Not intentionally, but as a by-product of Monsanto's widely used agricultural herbicide “Round-Up.” Milkweed grows best in disturbed areas, such as in and around crop-fields. Farmers can and do now spray Round-Up directly on their maturing crops. Before, herbicides had to be used sparingly and before crops sprouted, because herbicides killed crops as well as unwanted plants.
But since Monsanto has genetically modified a huge proportion of crop seeds used in the U.S. to withstand  their own herbicide, Round-Up, those GM crops are now immune to this particular herbicide. So Round-Up is sprayed in abundance, throughout the growing season.  It kills all other plants in the vicinity, including milkweed.
And scientists say this is the primary reason monarchs are declining, due to loss of their "host plant" milkweed, which they must have for egg-laying and caterpillar growth.
It's very disturbing. And yet Monsanto marches on, squashing Proposition 37 and any other opposition to their dangerous domination of American agriculture.

What's to be done?

Write your legislators about GMOs and Monsanto.  Will it do any good?  I don't know.  Contact the Center for Food Safety and ask what you can do.
One thing you can do for sure is to plant milkweed.
Several monarch scientists and educators have created monarch websites for teachers, students, and citizens who’d like to get involved in monarch conservation, by planting milkweed and nectar plants and by monitoring, tagging, reporting data to monarch scientists, and more.  These are great websites, great projects - for families, classrooms, individuals.  Check them out!
Journey North
Monarch Watch
Monarch Larva Monitoring Project
Monarch Teacher Network