October 26, 2010

Cash is Better for your Health

Want to eat healthier? Buy food with cash not credit. So say researchers from Cornell. They looked at actual shoppers and "found that shopping carts had a larger proportion of food items rated as impulsive and unhealthy when shoppers used credit or debit cards versus cash."

Apparently, the psychological "pain" of parting with hard earned hard cash causes people to resist temptation at the checkout line. But credit, with its delayed payments and its own temptations to avoid paying off the monthly balance, encourages impulsive purchases.

The researchers suggest that it may not be a coincidence that obesity has been on the rise at the same time that cash use has declined. Jim Surowiecki has a fantastic piece on procrastination for The New Yorker that among other things talks about our need to put up roadblocks against our own tendencies (i.e. remove rather than resist distractions that keep us from our work). It's funny to think that what you pull out of your wallet at the grocery store might represent a roadblock or a primrose path for unhealthy eating.

Photo credit: Andres Rueda

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October 20, 2010

The Hidden Dangers of School Gardens
The Chicago public school system has any number of school garden projects. But whatever you do, don't you dare eat from them!:
These urban oases, carefully tended by teachers, students and volunteers, range from several square feet to several acres of fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers, and some schools even grow plants year-round in school greenhouses.

But one thing the more than 40 gardens have in common is that none of the produce ever finds its way into CPS lunchrooms. Instead, because of rules set by the district and its meal provider, the food is sold or given away.
Much of this has to do with food safety fears -- though perhaps the food service company Chartwells, which runs the school food program in Chicago, goes a bit overboard in suggesting that kids should only eat food grown by trained "professionals."

But how's this for irony -- Chartwells requires that school-garden-grown food must be pesticide-free yet virtually all the food it serves in cafeterias isn't. Oh, and the kids can take the fresh produce home and eat it -- they just can't serve it in school.

Ain't bureaucracy grand? The good news is that the new school food chief in the Chicago system is trying to get the rules changed so kids in Chicago, like kids in the rest of the country, can eat in school the food they're growing in school.

CC Photo credit: Joe Marinaro

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October 15, 2010

Hormone Treated Milk *Is* Worse Than Regular. Now What?

Glass of milk splashingPhoto: Guiri R. Reyes

Recently, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the state of Ohio's ban on labels that identify milk as rBST- or rBGH-free, meaning produced without the use of artificial bovine growth hormone. Consumer and organic food groups were jubilant at the Ohio news, which may have far-reaching repercussions not only for all milk, but for genetically engineered foods.

First, some background: rBGH stands for recombinant bovine growth hormone; rBST for recombinant bovine somatotropin. Both are a genetically engineered variation on naturally occurring hormone that farmers inject into cows to increase milk production by as much as 10 percent. It has also been proven to increase the incidence of mastitis in cows, which as any breastfeeding mother knows is a painful condition requiring treatment by antibiotics -- and indeed, rBGH use has also upped the use of antibiotics in dairy cattle.

The United States is the only developed nation to allow people to drink milk from cows given artificial growth hormone. All 27 countries of the European Union, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada have banned its use in milk destined for human consumption. [Update: Brazil does allow it.] In 2007, Monsanto, which created and manufactured Posilac, the most popular form of rBST, began encouraging its dairy-farmer customers to protest their rBGH-free competitors' labeling. Campaigns to restrict rBGH-free labeling were launched in 14 states, as this Ethicurean satire chronicled -- including a failed attempt in Pennsylvania (thank you, Dennis Wolff!), but only Ohio passed the effort. In October 2008, Monsanto saw the writing on the dairy wall and dumped Posilac on Eli Lilly.

Thanks to consumer pressure, approximately 60 percent of milk in the U.S. is rBST-free at this point, labeled or not, according to the Center for Food Safety. However, that leaves an enormous amount of milk still being produced with these hormones, and by extension cheese and most brands of ice cream, except for Ben & Jerry's.

Pus budget

The joyful reception to the appeals court's decision is about more than the right of consumers to know what's in their food -- something that may come in handy in the fight over labeling for genetically modified foods such as the new salmon. Much of the appeals court's rationale hinged on its assertion that there is a "compositional difference" between milk produced using the hormones and milk produced without. While the district court denied this fact, the appeals court stated very clearly that such a denial "is belied by the record."

As Jill Richardson helpfully summarized it, compared to untreated milk, rBST milk has:

  • Increased levels of the cancer-causing hormone IGF-1 [more about that in this report from the watchdog group Consumer Union]
  • Lower nutritional quality when produced at certain points in the cow's lactation cycle; and
  • Increased somatic cell counts (i.e. more pus in the milk)

The court's decision notes that those higher somatic cell counts "make the milk turn sour more quickly and is another indicator of poor milk quality."

While the "compositional difference" debate may seem to be semantic wrangling (although that "pus" mention sure is eye-catching!), the appeals court's determination suddenly and unexpectedly undercuts the FDA's entire rationale for allowing the sale ofunlabeled rBST milk for human consumption. As with many technological processes, the FDA relies on the fact that the end product, whether it be milk or genetically engineered fish, is indistinguishable in all detectable ways from its conventionally produced counterpart.

For many, like Center for Food Safety attorney George Kimbrell, who coauthored the amicus brief on which the appeals court drew for its ruling, the court's conclusion was a surprise. He told me that going into the appeal, he had thought it "highly unlikely" that the appeals court would address the issue directly, since neither party to the lawsuit brought it up during the underlying case. For him, it's this aspect that makes the ruling truly groundbreaking.

He also observed that the FDA has not addressed the issue in a long time. "Perhaps it is time for FDA to go back and make a new determination about the differences in milk," said Kimbrell.

True -- or false and misleading?

What will the FDA do now? Probably nothing.

In an email exchange, FDA spokesperson Siobhan DeLancey sent me an excerpt of the current FDA rBST labeling guidelines, which date back to 1994. In it, the FDA allows producers to label milk voluntarily, but clearly doesn't like it when they do:

FDA is concerned that the term "rbST free" may imply a compositional difference between milk from treated and untreated cows rather than a difference in the way the milk is produced. Without proper context, such statements could be misleading. Such unqualified statements may imply that milk from untreated cows is safer or of higher quality than milk from treated cows. Such an implication would be false and misleading.

She did assure me, however, that, "If the FDA becomes aware of scientific evidence that there is a compositional difference between the two types of milk, it will reevaluate at that time."

Hmm. Wait a minute. Isn't that what just happened?

I pointed out to her that the appeals court had just established exactly what the FDA claims has not been established, that rBST-free milk "is safer or of higher quality than milk from treated cows" and referred to reams of data indicating just that. So is the agency going to reevaluate?

The FDA had no comment.

Well, glad we cleared that up. In fairness, the agency has not yet had a chance to review the Ohio ruling. Of course, a consumer group could petition the FDA and demand a reevaluation of rBST milk, so that it -- and not its artificial hormone-absent counterpart -- would have to be the one labeled. Indeed, there would be no small irony in Monsanto's campaign to expand the production of rBST-produced milk leading to mandatory labeling for it, much less establishing legal precedent to support labeling of genetically modified foods -- the cornerstone of Monsanto's business -- which some advocates say this ruling provides.

And what of the concern that Monsanto will simply push the state of Ohio to appeal the appeal all the way to the Supremes? Well, the Center for Food Safety's Kimbrell thinks the chances of a successful further appeal are dim. "The bar is set very high" at this point in the process, he said, and success requires finding "big errors of law... either statutory or constitutional in nature" which this decision simply does not have.

Even so, until and unless someone demands the FDA act in response to this ruling, the appeals court yet may find its most surprising and groundbreaking finding quietly ignored.

Originally published at

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October 8, 2010

Fixing USDA Dietary Guidelines Won’t Fix Our Diets

Food pyramidThe USDA’s current food pyramid, showing the servings from food groups recommended daily. Image: USDAReporter Jane Black has a good overview of the upcoming revision of USDA dietary guidelines in today's Washington Post. As she observes, Big Ag and Big Food typically resist any attempts by the government to give specific advice on which foods and how much of them you should eat. Black leaves it to nutritionist Marion Nestle -- who wrote a book about her own experiences drafting a revision to the dietary guidelines in the 1980s -- to sum the whole problem up: "The only time they talk about food is if it's an 'eat more' message ... If it's a question of eating less, then they talk about nutrients."

As a result, we get the off-kilter food pyramid that everyone knows and hates. You know, the one that says you can eat Froot Loops and M&Ms for breakfast, a cheeseburger for lunch, and three slices of pepperoni pizza for dinner and still be consistent with the pyramid.

And as Black points out:

Although most people do not read them, the guidelines have broad impact on Americans' lives. They dictate what is served in school breakfast and lunch, in education materials used by SNAP -- formerly called food stamps -- and in the development of information on the nutrition labels of food packages. They also underpin education materials that are available in community centers, doctors' offices and hospitals.

In some ways, I think the very existence of the guidelines has become deeply problematic: they have more or less become the government arm of the industrial-food marketing machine. The USDA's primary role as promoter of American agricultural products seems to trump its responsibility to regulate those products from their food-safety or public and environmental health standpoints, just as it does its responsibility to provide dietary guidelines that might discourage the eating of some of those economic drivers.

So, remind me again: Why isn't the Department of Health and Human Services in charge of nutritional guidance? Oh, right. Because then Big Food might get frozen out of the process.

Let's not oversell the importance of the federal dietary guidelines. While they do affect things like the National School Lunch Program, the USDA isn't bound by them. The government's Institute of Medicine recently came out with its own set of dietary guidelines for school lunches that are mostly an attempt to get school meals into compliance with existing USDA guidelines. And what's stopping the USDA from incorporating the institute's recommendations? It's not just industry lobbying -- it's the additional cost of a menu that features more vegetables, fresh food, and less meat.

The insufficiency of federal dietary guidelines is not the primary reason that Americans don't eat enough vegetables -- in fact, don't eat particularly well at all -- while kids get an astonishing 40 percent of their calories from solid fat and added sugar. American food consumption patterns are mostly about price signals and environmental cues. These point inevitably and totally toward the purchase of energy-dense, nutrient-poor, heavily processed food at the expense of fresh, healthy, mostly plant-based foods. If we really care about changing that, we need to look at ways to make the prices on supermarket shelves reflect our stated values as a society, and constrain food companies from surrounding us with marketing messages telling us -- usually in total opposition to government guidelines -- exactly what they really want us to eat.

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October 7, 2010

Pesticide made by GM Corn Now Polluting Streams

Corn field next to streamBt corn is contaminating streams like this one.Photo: reallyboringOne of the main arguments offered in support of the wide use of genetically engineered crops is that they reduce overall pesticide use. This is particularly the case with Monsanto's "Bt" line of corn, soy, and cotton seeds, which are able to produce their own pesticide, a "natural" toxin from genes of the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis. Ironically, commercial pesticide derived from Bt also happens to be one of the only chemical pesticides approved for use in organic agriculture, because it's produced through a biological process.

Biotechnology companies thus consider Bt seeds some of their most "eco-friendly" products. In theory, farmers don't have to spray pesticide as much or as often on these crops, and therefore pesticide runoff into waterways is much less of a concern. Well, after years of denial, Monsanto finally admitted recently that superbugs, or pests that have evolved to be able to eat the Bt crops, are a real and growing concern. And now, researchers at the University of Notre Dame have shown that the Bt from genetically engineered maize is polluting waterways in Indiana (the study area). They found Bt toxin in almost 25 percent of streams they tested, and all the streams that tested positive were within 1,500 feet from a cornfield.

Bt gets into streams and rivers by leaching out of crop debris left on fields through the now-ubiquitous industrial "no-till" farming technique, in which fields aren't plowed after harvest so as to prevent soil erosion. As a result, leaves and stalks get washed into streams through large-scale farms' irrigation canals: the Notre Dame scientists found such debris in almost 90 percent of streams near cornfields. And while the Bt levels detected weren't shockingly high, the tests were performed six months after harvest. The debris had been sitting in the streams and leaching Bt pesticide into the water for quite a while.

The fun part? No one has any idea yet of the effects of long-term, low-dose exposure to Bt on fish and wildlife. Perhaps it's high time somebody did a study on that since, as the researchers dryly observed, the presence of Bt toxin "may be a more common occurrence in watersheds draining maize-growing regions than previously recognized." Apparently.

So. Not only do genetically engineered crops have worse yields than conventionally bred crops, cost more, lead to pesticide resistance, contaminate other plants with their transgenes, possibly cause allergies and even organ damage, but now we also learn that the plants themselves are possibly poisonous to the environment.

These kinds of genetically engineered seeds keep being touted as the only way we're going to feed the world. Isn't it about time we started investing in less toxic alternatives?

Originally published on

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