Tag Archives: nutritional research

Woo Spotting Two: Who’s selling you a line about your food?

Who’s selling you a line about your food?

Recap: There are a lot of unprincipled pseudo-scientists whose business is lying to you about food and your health for profit.

The pseudo-science they pedal is called “woo”. Woo is generally fueled by exploiting anxiety, hope and concerns about health.

“Woo” sites have much in common including ample low hanging signs of disingenuous claims. We don’t need to discuss the values of their message to recognize the genre.

Woo Spotting Rule Number Two: Any person or site Claiming to Know the Cause or Cure for Multiple Disorders is a charlatan.

Bad News charlatans warn that one thing – wheat, a herbicide, artificial sweetener, GMO corn, milk – causes a wide array of ailments.

Remember William Davis, the publisher of the Wheat Belly series? The Canadian Broadcast Company aired a fascinating study of Davis’ claims and practices  in The War on Wheat in the news program The Fifth Estate.  Davis claims that alterations in wheat during the “Green Revolution” are responsible for most of the feared diseases of our age.  In this screen shot you can see some of the ailments Davis claims are Caused by gluten.

Predatory quack William Davis.

William Davis preaches Wheat Belly. CDC: The Fifth Estate.

One food component, gluten, causes all that? Do you really think that possible. Remember the last rule? If it doesn’t make sense it’s probably bogus? Does this really make sense? .

Consider  Kevin Trudeau, the author of The Natural Cures Book  doing ten years in prison for fraud in his diet book. The book promises cures for cancer, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, chronic fatigue syndrome and every other grand 21st century affliction. Trudeau does not focus on one “natural” ingredient but provides a compendium which will save you from modern medicine.

The good news charlatans, Davis’ counterparts, claim on a myriad of web sites that a natural product like Vinegar or Garlic is a better cure than traditional medication for a catalog of ills. This is a little more sinister. People can die and have died from these claims. Steve Jobs did.

Some compounds in some foods and plants do, of course, have impact on disease or metabolic function, but legitimate research deals with these one component and one ailment at a time in disciplined detail.  Science and accurate medicine is not based on instant insight – for instance Davis’ appendicitis revelation – but on years of painstaking experiments. If you believe that the Virgin Mary appeared on a piece of toast, that’s fine, but you should not believe that a scientific truth about a dread disease would reveal itself to someone who then monetizes it.

Science is complicatedWoo is simple.  Legitimate research deals with one aspect of a food at a time, with one disease at a time. Pseudo scientists intuit panaceas.

Woo Spotting Rule Number Two:

Frauds promise easy answers and “natural’ cures for the great puzzles of medicine: Parkinson, Alzheimer’s, Diabetes, The Common Cold or Crohn Disease. They exploit the scariest and most dramatic bogey men of health to separate you from your wallet. Parkinson’s is sexier than piles of ingrown toenails.

They dish up misinformation suggesting that conditions which have puzzled legitimate science for years can be conquered with simple ingredients or their own supplements, but, Garlic does not kill cancer .Safeway does not sell Miracle cures. Juice cures cannot replace the tools standard medicine has thus far developed, as incomplete as they are. It’s sad, but it’s true. Nor will a single ingredient prevent cancer or heart disease.

Legitimate researchers need years to determine which components of foods  impact a condition – metabolism, weight gain, tumor growth, dementia, for instance –  positively or negatively, and they never (ever) market their findings themselves. They publish them in scientific journals. Science Daily is a site where you can check for published studies. Charlatans use their observations for which they seek out corroborating anecdotes to create alarm or hope.

Scientists do research. Pseudo scientists feign enlightenment. Scientists publish peer reviewed studies in journals. Pseudo-scientists self promote.

Summary so far: If a web site or a person suggests that a food or food trait causes or a cures multiple ailments or that a food can cause or cure dramatic, feared diseases for which no trained and dedicated teams of researchers have been able to find an answer, they are predators and you are prey. They are messing with you, exploiting your fears and hopes. You have nothing to gain.

 

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Fear and Loathing in the Produce Isles

For several years American Consumers have been exposed to an onslaught of misleading and alarming information about the foods they eat and the plants they grow. The most common of the “pseudo-scientific” or, really, unscientific claims have ignited a passionate anti-GMO movement, whose adherents believe that crops altered by genetic engineering, either by the insertion of a gene slice from the same or another organism or the use of a protein in the organic bacterial pesticide Bacterium Thuringiensis to protect plants from predators are toxic, dangerous and will destroy the environment. The Anti-GMO faction believes that the American Government conspires with “Big Ag” and “Big Food” to poison its citizens, that genetically engineered organisms and the pesticides they are engineered to resist are carcinogens, that the pesticides used on engineered organisms are killing off bees and lepidoptera and will result in over half of US Children will be autistic by mid-century, that the policies of the companies holding patents for the seeds have caused famine in the third world and wide spread suicide among farmers ruined by corporate policy and that GMO crops will cause loss of all plant diversity.

In 2014 I chose the topic of GMO fears as the subject for a paper for the excellent McGill University course 181X, Food for Thought. It’s point was not to refute the anti GMO claims but to examine the means by which half of the “greatest country on earth” and much of Europe have come not only to accept and fear them as proven fact but to defend them tooth and nail against legitimate research. A list of sources of legitimate information, which is extremely hard to find due to the proliferation of pseudo-science on the Internet, is provided below. Here is the paper:

According to an ABC poll [1] earlier this year, 52% of Americans believe that genetically modified foods are unsafe to eat and 13% are “unsure” Two thirds of the American public fear a technology that has been proven safe to the extent that proving anything safe is possible – Genetically engineered organisms have been shown to be safe not only by extensive FDA, independent, and international research. No legitimate studies have been able to show any correlation between modified crop consumption or agriculture and harm to humans, the environment or other organisms.

The European Commission invested over 450 million Euros between the years 2001 and 2010 on research exploring potential risks of modified organisms. None were found. [2] Not one of the many governmental and private research organizations around the world which have tested genetic engineering extensively for potential hazards has yet been successful in detecting risk.

The attitudes of 52% of American consumers and activists range from mild concern to outrage and extreme fear. Activists and voters have attempted and in Hawaii briefly succeeded in passing bans on GMO crops. Over half of the American population demand that any GMO foods be labeled. This demand includes foods containing sugars – fructose and sucrose – which are chemical compounds indistinguishable from/ identical to sugars from non-GMO crops. Consumer pressure has moved corporations like General Mills to remove GMO ingredients from their foods with the ironic result that those products cannot be vitamin fortified and are thus less healthy.

Consumer ecological and world political objections range from fears that modified organisms will wipe out genetic diversity to Vandana Shiva’s claim that practices of companies like Monsanto, the producer of Roundup and patent holder for many GMO seed varieties have driven Indian peasants to commit suicide. [4].

If GMO crops have been researched and found safe by the world’s most respected organizations and promise real solutions for current and coming ecological and world nutritional challenges, how can two thirds of American consumes reject them? How does myth, ignorance and decidedly cultish belief trump empirical data in the national consciousness?

Very few people even understand what GMO means, for one thing.

What is a “GMO”.

A GMO is a Genetically Modified Organism, which leaves the unfortunate impression that there are tiny life forms or chemical bits in GMO products. BT corn and Roundup Resistant soy are GMO’s. Cattle and Pork are not GMO’s, but cattle or chicken which has been fed genetically engineered corn or soy is termed GMO by those with GMO agendas and concerns. Sugar, as explained above, is not GMO, but soft drinks, tomato sauce or baked goods containing sugar produced from genetically modified sugar beets are inappropriately classified “GMO’s”, leading to the inaccurate claim that 90% of the food sold in America is GMO.

Crops are genetically engineered for various reasons and by various methods – generally the process involves isolating a gene from a related or unrelated organism with a desired characteristic, creating a ‘vector’ of that gene, injecting the vector into a bacterium in turn is used to “infect” plant cells [3].The desired altered characteristic of the organism can be water tolerance in rice, bacterial resistance in threatened species like papayas, grapes, mangos or creating grapes resistant to the devastating bacterium xylella fastidosa. A protein from a bacterium (Bacillus Thuringiensis) is inserted into the corn genome to prevent corn borer infection. The most despised and feared GMO products are glyphosate resistant plants, also known as “Roundup Ready”. Roundup is the brand of Glyphosate produced by Monsanto.

Thre are very few GMO crop varieties in production. The only commercially produced crops are corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, squash, and papaya. A newly developed Potato strain has just been released for planting, as well, and a recently announced strain of browning resistant apples is expected to be available for sale in about two years. No distribution company at this stage. however, would be prepared to bring arugula or melons with altered genes to the market. None the less, customers demand that oatmeal be labeled for genetically altered strains and ask at farmers’ markets is the strawberries are GMO free.

Many countries in Europe have bowed to public pressure and have blocked planting of some of these crops. Note that these decisions were made to comply with public sentiment and not scientific data.

We are romantics and we tend to be luddites.
Or perhaps we are simply hopelessly nostalgic. When Alice Waters stood on the steps of San Francisco City Hall and smiled benevolently over the hundreds of volunteers who had fought tooth and nail to have a spot getting their hands dirty in the Garden For America, an entire nation went out and bought potting soil, throwback overalls and canning jars. America now pickles, cans and puts up wearing designer overalls. Chemistry, physics and big industry – big food, big ag, big resale, big chemistry – has no place in the romantic imagination of people who envision their carrots dug one at a time from a halcyon garden.

When Friederich Wohler first managed to synthesize urea from organic compounds (not from pee) in the 19th century, thus paving the way for synthetic adrenaline and many other chemicals the scientific community was outraged at the suggestion that living juices should not contain “vital essences”. Today the “vital force theory” still exists. [3] If God had intended us to fly, he would have given us wings. Our religious roots offer world views based on belief rather than knowledge – sects like Rosicrucians and Christian Scientists reject proven medical treatment in favor of faith. We have snake dancers.

We are lazy thinkers. We want simple answers to complex questions. We perceive, partially due to more and more alarming media coverage, that many frightening diseases have exploded into the population during the same period that GMO crops were being first developed then introduced, so we want to believe that doing away with the science will reduce the incidence of cancer, autism and many others. We would rather believe charismatic speakers or writers than deal with analytical reality, which requires curiosity and some effort. In matters GMO I have heard the arguments, “You may have some facts, but I have to go with my heart” (as in Jonestown or anti vaccination?) and, “It’s best not to fool with mother nature,”, that maternal giver of polio, athletes foot, hemorrhoids, tsunamis and locust swarms. By all means. Trust Mom.

Most of us understand little or no science and are not interested in finding out: We are not a stupid country, but neither are we as a whole well educated. According to New York Magazine writer Jim Holt less than 10% of Americans are scientifically literate. [5] Radical anti GMO activists make fruitful use of this. I once heard an anti-GMO speaker shout to a crowd: “ I want you to ask every waiter in every restaurant, to ask every butcher, every grocer, ‘Is this MUTANT food.” And the crowd roared agreement. The crowd did not know the meaning of “mutant”. As a people we Americans lack both the vocabulary and the critical skills to distinguish between truth and rhetoric.

Americans are not critically trained: We like to believe: We are seduced by sensationalist media and the false prophets, snake oil salesmen, charlatans and quacks. If enough celebrities speak to an issue, we generally believe them. We lack the tools to determine the accuracy of studies and scientific predictions.

The GMO panic began with a 1999 publication in the Lancet by S.W. Ewen and Arpad of the Rowett Research Institute Pusztai stating that rats fed on GM potatoes suffered intestinal damage[6] [11], followed by the publication of a study by Gilles-Éric Séralini[8] stating that rats fed GMO corn suffered alarming rates of cancer. Although the first study was retracted and the research money returned by Rowett and the second ingloriously withdrawn (it has since been republished to provide the text), the anxiety they created remains in a bizarre Internet version of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. – the more legitimate science tries to explain how facts worth, the more traction those dealing with angst and hyperbole attain. Anit GMO writers base many of their arguments on “Scientists have proven”, or “A published scientific article proves,” using these studies. They are convincing. Vani Hari actually persuaded the government of famine struck Zambia to reject shipments of life saving food on Hari’s advice. [16]

We are swamped by misinformation: Not only does passionate and irrational GMO opposition linger despite the efforts of concerned scientists to educate the public, but fanned by a celebrity created by the GMO debate it has all but overtaken the Internet and media. The anti-science community is now a profitable and well connected industry. One of the country’s impressive quacks, Dr. Joseph Mercola, has since taken up the anti GMO cause. Mercola [8] who is one of the forces behind the anti-vaccination campaign and who has been censured by the FDA [9] for other dangerous claims and practices is a frequent guest of Dr Oz, a highly vocal GMO opponent. (Oz has begun to distance himself from GMO opposition since the end of February 2014, but it is unclear where he stands at this time.)

Misinformation is an industry: Mercola is a relatively small fry compared to Vedana Shiva, a heroin of the Earth Justice movement, who has been honored for her work. It was Shiva who claimed that hundreds of Indians had committed suicide because they could no longer afford seed, among other things. She has recently been much in the news in a bust up with New Yorker science writer Michael Specter, who challenged the accuracy of her statements. [10] Shiva published a venomous ad homonym response, to which Specter’s editor, David Remnick, replied with violent logic.[17]

Slow Food: The most illustrious name to ascend the soap box is probably Alice Waters: It’s a very big important thing. We are talking about the seeds that gives us life. To imagine a company that wants to buy those seeds, patent those seeds, alter those seeds and and sell them back to us, it’s criminal.” [12] Waters, the poster child for the Slow Food Movement, follows founder and leader Carlo Petrini’s doctrine, and foodies follow Alice.

The disciples: Their followers blog, and blogs become memes. Organic Consumers’ blog tells you ten ways (they say) GMO will kill you. [13] Taking things one step further “Food Babe” has set the Internet afire with claims that “wheat belly”, since the question of gluten sensitivity has been laid to rest, is caused by glyphosate sprayed on wheat – even though the wheat is not GMO. [14]. There are so many of these blogs that finding reliable and fact based information has become extremely difficult.

Innumerable irresponsible sites like Realfarmacy.com, which hosts pieces by Mercola, offer a potpourri of faux science, alarmism and sensational misinformation, which is spread as memes via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Social networking has given false prophets a platform and leant quackery wings.

The established media repeats and thus affirms the claims: From lone prophets to the respected media: As the sheer volume of Anti-GMO sites and followers makes data harder and harder to find, legitimate organizations like NPR and Consumer Digest miss on fact checking and support the myth rather than the data. The UPI mistakenly picked up and broadcast vaccination opponent Stephanie Seneff’s claim that glyphosate (Roundup) would make half of all babies autistic stating that “MIT Scientist Claims..” , news outlets reprint the allegations,  and it’s a wrap. The entire country believes false statements, since they come from trusted sources.

Universities legitimize the myths: The interaction of popular intellectual media and Universities have given Anti GMO authors and journalists like Michael Polan and Mark Bittman a legitimizing forum for thee philosophies in which they Believe. Marion Nestle of NYU, Bittman and Polan, who heads the Department of Journalism at Berkeley have all spoken against Genetically engineered crops. [17] University of California Berkely is currently offering a course in Food policy, Edible Education 101 [18] .
Stephanie Senneff presents herself and is presented by the media and Anti-GMO activists as an “MIT scientist,”  which makes here the defacto voice of MIT.

What’s in it for the writers, for the bloggers and the followers? Follow the money: Grants, speakers’ fees, web sites selling cures. Ads on blogs. Vedana Shiva demands $40,000 per speaking engagement. She appears to live well. [16] Mercola pushes miracle cures. Oz has his media empire. As for the new girl on the block, Stepehanie Seneff, whose prediction that glyphosate, the herbicide used in some GMO plantings would cause half the country to be autistic: speakers fees and possibly the gratification of being celebrated as the voice of MIT on issues biochemical. (Seneff is a computer science professor, not a microbiologist).
Further down the disinformation chain there is social cohesion. Belief and belonging foster identity. Once believers join the march they are members of a community which tolerates no contradiction.

What about the politics? A tricky part about the public consensus of democracy is that people believe that everything is democratic, including science. It is not. Science is evidence based, or to use a nice word, “empirical”. Daniel Moynihan’s :”You are entitled to your own opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.”  is poorly understood. Equipped with fear and a surplus of bad information a growing number of not only Americans but Europeans have begun to demand either that GMO foods be labeled or be forbidden altogether. The Council of Europe in a bow to public opinion granted member nations the right to ban import of GMO crops, and some  have. The California County of Sonoma and Kauai in Hawaii voted on outright bans on GMO growing. The Sonoma proposition lost, but Hawaii’s passed. It has since been overturned. Politics overrules science, and by doing so negates science.

Readers’ Digest Version: A small number of blogging public activists used a discredited study to promote an anti-science / pseudo-science agenda. Their misinformation is picked up and promoted first by media figures and food celebrities then by legitimate media sources, leading an unquestioning and scientifically poorly educated public to fear food created by genetic engineering. Activists who profit from the GMO hysteria use this fear to demand cessation of genetically engineered farming and failing that to demand labelling of all products containing any substances derived from genetically engineered crops. A bad study leads to national hysteria.

There are, however, a few bright points. The media seems to be picking up on a nascent “Science is Cool” sentiment. Oz appears to have changed his opinion, Celebrity Scientist Neil DeGrasse Tyson has come out against pseudo scientists with his usual short tempered accuracy, and hysteria usually dies down at some point. And then there are a few very sane and very clear and unbiased voices.

Nathanael Johnson, a refreshingly unbiased agriculture writer for the ecology site, www.gryst.com, has written a series on the truth and myths of GMO’s. He has a few more ideas as to the cause of the roots of genetic hysteria. For one thing, says Johnson, the company associated with GMO crops and Roundup is Monsanto, the company responsible for and still closely associated with Agent Orange, which, in turn, is emotionally linked to Roundup. “For most people, I suspect, GMOs are a metaphor — a stand-in for of all that is vaguely frightening in our food system. People attach their mistrust of agribusiness and fear of the unknown to this metaphor.”

Bibliography and Footnotes.

1) Gary Langer. Skepticism of Genetically Modified Foods. ABC Poll. June 19/?. http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=97567Poll: Skepticism of Genetically Modified Foods 2) A Decade of EU Funded GMO research 2. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, decade of EU Funded Research, ISBN 978-92-79-16344-9 / doi 10.2777/97784 3) Ronald, Pamela C; R.W. Adamchak, Tomorrow’s Table. Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food. 5) JIM HOLT, Madness About a Method. New York Times Magazine December 11, 2005 6) David H. Freedman Scientific American The Truth About Genetically Modified Food Aug 20,2013. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-truth-about-genetically-modified-food/?page=1 7) Worstall, Forbes. 11/30/2013 That Appalling Seralini GMO Cancer Paper Has Been Withdrawn 8) Joseph Mercola’s Blog: http://gmo.mercola.com/ 9) Quack Watch.Com – http://www.quackwatch.com/11Ind/mercola.html 10)Michael Specter, Seeds of Doubt. Annals of Science August 25, 2014 Issue http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/08/25/seeds-of-doubt

11) Mischa Popoff & Patrick Moore & Robert Wager, Organics versus GMO: Why the debate? October 15, 2013, Genetic Literacy Project http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2013/10/15/organics-versus-gmo-why-the-debate/ 12) Alice Waters Discusses Food, Community, and GMOs November 14, 2012 Yoli’s Green Living. http://yolisgreenliving.com/2012/11/alice-waters-discusses-food-community-gmos/ [13] Alexis Baden-Mayer & Ronnie Cummins, Ten ways GMO foods are killing you – And the Planet Organic Consumers Association, February 1, 2012 http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_24800.cfm 14) The Healthy Home Economist. http://www.thehealthyhomeeconomist.com/real-reason-for-toxic-wheat-its-not-gluten/
15) Carlo Petrini. Ten Reasons to Say No GMOS Italy – March 5, 2015 – Carlo Petrini http://www.slowfood.com/international/food-for-thought/focus/71683/ten-reasons-to-say-no-gmos/q=25F06E 16) Keith Kloor, The Rich Allure of a Peasant Champion. Discover Magazine. October 23, 2014 3:29 pm 17) David Remnick, New Yorker editor David Remnick responds to Vandana Shiva criticism of Michael Specter’s profile The Genetic Literacy Project. September 2, 2014 http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2014/09/02/new-yorker-editor-david-remnick-responds-to-vandana-shiva-criticism-of-michael-specters-profile/ 18) Nathaneal Johnson, Panic-Free-GMO’s. Grist.com July 8, 2013 continuing.

16) BBC: Zambia rejects GMO food aid. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/2371675.stm

17) Marion Nestle, Mark Bittman and Michael Polan
Rebuttal to Mark Bittman on GMO’s

Mark Bittman gets the science wrong (again) on Roundup – New York Food | Examiner.com

http://www.forbes.com/sites/jonentine/2014/01/06/agent-orange-gmo-after-usda-backs-24-d-seeds-michael-pollan-marion-nestle-lead-activist-hype-of-discredited-link/

18) The UC Berkely course Edible Education 101. http://edibleschoolyard.org/ee101

Further reading:

http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2013/10/15/organics-versus-gmo-why-the-debate/

http://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2013/11/30/that-appalling-seralini-gmo-cancer-paper-has-been-withdrawn/

Nathanael Johnson, Gryst. http://grist.org/food/rat-retraction-reaction-journal-pulls-its-gmos-cause-rat-tumors-study/ GMO mythbuster.

http://grist.org/food/gmo-labeling-trick-or-treat/

Nathanael Johnson’s Panic-Free-GMO series in Gryst.com beginning 8 Jul 2013 http://grist.org/series/panic-free-gmos/

(this post is about 07 Adverse Food Reactions / Food Production Stories)

Scienced Based Medicine: http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org

International Scientific Organizations and State and international health organizations stating that GMO’s cause no risk. http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/GLP-Science-and-GMOs.pdf

The New York Times on Vani Hari, the most prolific of the anti GMO food bloggers and vaccination deniers: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/15/style/taking-on-the-food-industry-one-blog-post-at-a-time.html?_r=0

 

 

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Food Smarts – The Getting of Culinary and Nutritional Wisdom

And why I have been mostly silent.

There have been only rare additions to Culinary Promiscuity in the last year, and I have an excuse. I took a kind of sabbatical for the getting of knowledge.

It’s Harvard’s fault. Somehow news of Science and Cooking,   an online  Harvard course in food science  held by food eminences like Harold McGee  , David Arnold , Joan Rocca, Ferran Adria, Jose Andres, and Nathan Myhrvold  – the list is impressive – in collaboration with Harvard’s Department of Physics found my inbox.

Gee, I thought, How difficult can this be? After all I have a BA in Chemistry with plenty of physics and biology, and I work near if not quite in the food industry, so piece of cake, right? And I signed right up.

As it turned very difficult. I had forgotten nearly everything I  had learned in college. I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought about food science, and a lot of  the things I thought I  knew were wrong.

The course turned out to be extremely demanding and absolutely fascinating, covering both the theory of food in general and molecular practices in particular and the practice by some of the world’s most respected chefs. I had to relearn concepts at which I once excelled and grapple with facts I had never known. I got to watch Bill Yosses make an exquisite “glass” apple after Harvard explained how sugar bonds, Joan Roca build a little tower of super cooled ice and Myhrvold create his version of the perfect steak using frozen nitrogen. In sweats. Fabulous.

As a final assignment I designed and carried out an experiment on sous vide tuna which took me on a long and complicated web crawl seeking out facts on rigor mortis in fish and fish amino acids. The teaching assistants liked it. Exhilarating success.

As I nurtured my inner geek I learned that for me facts, the empirically provable truth is the antidote to the floods of quackery, nutritional misconceptions, food fads, the Food Network, $400 prix fixe dinners and the foolish adulation of the latest cuisine presented through spin rather than substance abounding in our matrix. I now “get” molecular cuisine. It’s not a game. It really is a science. I don’t really love it or want to subsidize the enormously high staffing cost needed to prepare it for dinner, but the premises are fascinating.

Of course Science & Cooking ate my life – sorry, I can’t go out, I have homework due – but it was worth it. I even passed it – pretty well, as a matter of fact.

While Science and Cooking  is no longer available as a free MOOC, the course  is still archived and can be accessed through the edx.org site. If not, the units – usually lasting a few minutes to half an hour, are available on YouTube . You don’t have to deal with the physics and chemistry if that’s not your strength. The culinary segments put anything the Food Network has to offer to shame.

Edx.org (and other MOOC sites) offer courses beyond food physics and celebrity Chefs, food, nutrition, eating being so much more than chemistry: . There are moral, agricultural, political, financial, nutritional aspects to food. Food nourishes and it kills. Every civilized country has a department or agency of food safety like the FDA. The entirety of life – human survival -comes down to a couple of inches of dirt, enough water and a little sunshine. Failing any one of those three elements armies slaughter each other, famine turns civilization into Barbary. Famished citizens die of hunger in the street, vomiting the grass they ate to stave off hunger pains. All these subjects are covered.

Mcgill University is currently holding a course on nutrition covering aspects from micro nutrients to food safety alarms to world hunger  covering a great deal of what the Harvard course did not, although they share a few Venn intersections. I am taking it. It’s not nearly as sexy but a lot easier than the Harvard course. I find it comforting to have what I have long suspected about food alarms  and claims to be true. The course tackles along with misconceptions about vitamin supplements (“America has the most expensive urine in the world”), agricultural practices and food poisoning. It tackles additives and pesticide use – more on that soon – old wive’s tales and modern myths.

Coursera, an alternative MOOC site has a wide array of courses on food. The site will hold a course in Science and Gastronomy through the Hong Kong Institute of Science and Technology, one in Sustainability of Food systems by the University of Minnesota, The Nordic Diet by the University of Copenhagen (biochemistry suggested), The Meat We Eat by the University of Florida.

I haven’t tried the Coursera courses yet, but the site is better than Edx, as it offers an option to sign up to be informed of courses in planning, so that you can sign up when they go live. These non profit organizations also offer a broad spectrum of non food related courses. Coursera hosts beginning Chinese, Edx beginning coding and Greek mythology. The selection is vast. “MOOC”, by the way, stands for Massive Open Online Course.” All MOOC’s are free, unless they are being taken for credit. The hosts are some of the world’s finest Universities. You can in every course aim for a certificate or simply audit, cherry picking the parts that interest you. If you cannot finish one in time to get certified  you can go back to the archived course and finish that at your leisure. The getting of wisdom was never so cheap or so easy.

What a deal!

I encourage you to  join me at the nerd table, where we can laugh at the cool kids table emoting over the current culinary myths and scares. We could hang out together with our slide rules sticking out of our pocket protectors. The kind of knowledge offered by these MOOC’s may not be power, but it’s certainly reassuring.

There are also plenty of brick and Mortar opportunities to  learn about food, too.  I just learned this  – The University of the Pacific San Francisco plans to offer a Masters of Arts program in Food in San Francisco under culinary anthropologist Ken Alba .

UCLA offers Science and Food   to it’s students with online segments. You can subscribe to their email list. There is, of course,  the School in Bra, Italy,  Being attached to and founded in cooperation with Slow Food, however, there will be some level of ideology served  up with the math. For those really hard core good geeks out there, Universities like UC Davis have internationally recognized food science programs. I wish I had known all this earlier, but still, I’ve got McGill and Harvard. My date for tonight is Dr Ariel Fenster, Joe Schwarz or David Harpp. I think we’re going to talk discuss food cults.

 

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Rolly Polly Nation, the Law and the Blindered Prophets

So we’re fat. And now what?

Mayor Bloomberg has been proposing one of those simple save the world solutions to just about everything, also known as an administrative Brain Phart, in the form of a Big Gulp fiat. By limiting the size of sodas he suggests, New York can get a grip on its citizens’ girth and health.Zip Zap Zum.. Problem solved.

Now that Alice Waters’ sensationalized cerebral flatulence on (0 calorie) bottled water has petered out, the nation appears to be flocking to the soda is evil camp and willing to curtail its consumption with any possible means including taxation and prohibition. Public shaming and caning cannot be far behind.

The science behind the ardor attributes every nutritional and plenty of the physical ills of our culture to soda: Obesity, heart and circulatory disease, kidney and  liver damage and diabetes to name a few.  According to the USDA the average American ingests 360- “added” sugar calories a day, enough to add 36 pounds a year, half of them from soft drinks.  If you calculate in Americans who drink no soda, someone is piling on unimaginable tons of blubber and endangering themselves and the health economy.. A UC Davis study predicts that a soda tax would save 2600 lives a year.

Advocacy groups like the nattering CSPI, who have finally found a cause to legitimatize themselves with a National Soda Summit, are riding the wave out front while agrandizing themselve by elevating a congress to a summit.   Both the CDC and USDA support the concept of state soda taxes. Pop producers and interest groups like The American Beverage Association  have taken up the challenge and deny their claiims, smacking of Gordon Gecko self interest and insincerity as they do. Salvo’s are flying like bullets over the Alamo.

You really have to enjoy a good fight. They bring out the jesters like Brokelyn.com  and the worst and most entertaining in politicians straining to gain favor with the masses, but this one is unsettling on many counts.

For one thing the crusade against soft drinks is simplistic. Demonizing one thing, in this case soda, promotes the idea of a silver bullet as the solution to a tangled mess of complex issues, here obesity, disease and the financial burden of paying for little buddy scooters for  Mountain Dew addicts. It is the lazy approach we Americans like to take to just about any problem. Remember when Obama ran on “Change”, and a country voted for him in the assumption that he would solve all our problems in a few months, but he didn’t?  Now his approval ratings have plummeted and we blame him? It doesn’t occur to us as a Nation that things are complicated and solutions take time, so attacking one thing – token or substantial – appeals immensely to our lazy nature. This is the same.  Sensational gestures rarely reap sensational results.

Soda isn’t the only contributor to the “obesity epidemic”. There are a slew of other factors in our national weight crisis. My favorite is convenience food, mostly because I don’t eat much, so I can feel smug about damning those who do. The Huffington post just published statistics showing that processed foods, which are generally less healthy and higher in calories than fresh foods, have risen to the top of the American grocery list from near the bottom, while dairy products have dropped to last place

The most obvious and my least favorite culprit is lack of exercise – I rather prefer chairs and chaise lounges to Pilates and would rather drive than hike, even though I know I lose much more weight from physical exertion than deprivation.  French women, who by the way DO get fat – just not as much as we do – walk a lot. The French and European Paradox is fairly easily explained by their greater exercise in the run of their normal days. Life in Europe is not harder but requires more motion than in the US, which burns pounds. They also don’t eat the junk so many of us like.

Fast food, famously caloric and cheap due to farm subsidies and the use of sweeteners where one does not expect them – namely in meat – coupled with America’s growing nutritional ignorance and the convenience for working families earns the obesity blue ribbon.  The statistics mentioned above also show that Americans are buying fewer groceries. Since they obviously aren’t eating less, it’s a good guess that they are getting fed at Quick Serve Restaurants. A simple McD’s hamburger contains only 250 calories, but their most advertised items like Angus Bacon and Cheese Burger have nearly 800. That’s without the fries and the Coke or the Blizzard. A Starbucks White Chocolate Mocha Frappuccino® Blended Beverage delivers 330 – ten of those and you’ve gained a pound.

I personally also attribute nationally increasing girths to the disappearance of vanity. My shallow sense of worth by appearance is the main reason that I stay  under the four hundred or so pounds my genes keep screaming for me to gain. The younger generation does not seem to mind large amounts of flesh drooping over their tank tops or low rise shorts.  In the dark ages at college there was one fat girl in our dorm. We loved her, but it was clear she would never have the success we envisioned for ourselves (marrying well, above all – we weren’t as smart as we thought we were) .  Groups of young girls roaming downtown today are more likely to be convex than concave and they are apparently just fine with it. Maybe Bloomberg out to ban chic clothes in plus sizes. Or dictate full length mirrors on school doors and strewn around restaurants and food stores.

Despite the nutritional left’s cries that food is too cheap and you can make do with fresh produce as economically as with convenience food, the cost of fresh produce versus convenience food is repeatedly cited as a major factor in the poor American diet. The supposed impact of posting calories and nutritional content not only on groceries but at chain eateries – another silver bullet – has not brought the expected success.

Too few people know how to cook and really understand nutrition. Cooking used to be taught at least to seventh grade girls.No more.

Add to the above that we eat too much. Before we settled on blaming soda  for everything there was a hue and cry about candy, fats, salt and sweets. David Kessler, former Commissioner of the FDA , maintains, possibly correctly, that sugar and fat are addictive and that America’s tendency to treat itself to more carbonara, King Size Snickers and multiple Whoppers is due to a kind of conspiracy by the food companies, who act like dope pushers, hooking us young and stringing us along until our common food caused illnesses shorten our national life span. Kessler has also stated that he supports government intervention in food choices and costs.

This is where it gets scary.

Kessler’s and others’ complete lack of hesitation to support government intervention into personal dietary choices is troubling. When we find that the soda tax doesn’t work, a new demon will be found and regulated (remember trans fats? yet another silver bullet). Whether it is a junk food tax, a fast food intervention or an age ban on selling ice cream or candy to minors is unimportant. What does matter is that some politicians will at least try to do public good by invading personal choice. .The New York Health Commission has already discussed control of other high energy foods.  Britain is already debating a 20% “fat tax” on unhealthy items. Denmark has initiated a butter tax.

There is another problem with panacea, single demon of the day thinking of the obesity problem: We imagine immediate results (think Obama again). This is scientifically improbable as far as fatness is concerned. Changes in national average weight and health are more likely to take generations than years. Enough studies have revealed that excessive weight once gained sets the brain and body to continue to demand energy intake.  Individuals with strong will power can lose weight and keep it off, but we cannot suppose that demographics will do so. Yanking on the anchor chain will hardly turn the Queen Mary.

And this: Polls show a large portion of the populatoin in favor of bans and interventions of one kind of another – that means many people telling many other people what to do, “If it solves the health problem” (it won’t). or “saves us money spent on health care” (it can’t). When we begin to tell our neighbors how to live their lives, no matter how good we believe it might be for them, we cross a very dangerous line. It’s not quite drowning Salem witches to save their souls, but their dinner is simply none of our business. If you want to intervene, you can tell your congress person to stop funding mobility assistants for people who eat too much, but one should be careful at handing the keys to someone else’s cupboard to politicians. It could backfire.

Tax and ban proponents liken themselves to anti tobacco campaigners and the taxes they support to cigarette taxes, an interesting comparisojn but false.  There is no such thing as second hand Coke, and drinking a Pepsi in your home will not give your children earaches.  While cigarettes are the proven cause of many miserable deaths, sugared drinks are contributors to some.

East Virginia promotes its proposed Soda tax with the promise that the money will be used to sponsor nutritional education, as are many cigarette taxes. Good idea? Certainly, but if it please the sovereign state, why the Hell weren’t you offering nutritional education without a tax, if it’s so damned important? (It is).

This is where I offer a solution, and if I were God, I’d be glad to. I don’t have one, but I have a couple of ideas: Start working for long term success by educating children and young adults, use media to get messages out to the country – our English channels could take a cue from Spanish speaking television’s impressive public service announcements “Salud es vida”- health is life. Stop subsidizing sugars.

Rather than banning large portions, require that any outlet selling super-sized portions also offer reasonably small servings of popcorn, soda and ice cream for reasonable prices, increasing rather than reducing consumer choice.  You just try now to get a one man popcorn at the movies or an edible portion at Cold Stone Creamery, where every cone is family sized.

As long as you are at it, legalize fruit kiosks like those in New York in all cities and insist that inner city grocers selling liquor and snacks also stock fresh fruit. It’s invasive, true, but not as much as preventing them from selling empty calories.

If the government really wants to make an impact, might we suggest that instead of reducing the amount of time allotted in schools for physical ed they increase it. John F Kennedy’s school fitness programs, aimed at making us competitive with the dreaded Russians, were effective.  So we’ve got drones doing our dirty work – so what.  Fitness is still in our national interest.  Let the kids climb rope, do jumping jacks and run races again. It supposedly helps their brains as well as their physical health. If you say it is too expensive, then please quit bellyaching about the cost of health care for the unfit.

There are a lot more suggestions out there.  Let the Senate form one of their famous committees for something both useful and attainable. Obese children and food sick adults clogging the system  should give them some common bilateral ground, for a change.

Bloomberg is hardly a stupid or simple man, although touting National Doughnut Day as he introduced his plan was not all that astute.  I suspect the proposed Big Gulp Ban is conceived as much a statement as a fix. Unfortunately as we have all seen there are many less astute politicians urged on by public advocates, who will hustle to follow suit and outdo it with perverse creativity.

I realize the desire is illusionary, but it would be so uplifting to see measured common sense minus the sensationalism injected into the obesity, diabetes, health care debate. I don’t know about you, but I had a terrific mother once who told me to eat my broccoli and not the candy bar. I loved her, but that was really annoying, and I don’t want my mayor or state senate stepping into her unfortunately empty shoes. (For one thing they wouldn’t stand a 500 calorie snowcone’s chance in Hell of filling them.)

Don’t expect the same results from Bloomberg’s program and other states’ proposed soda taxes as the smoking bans achieved. You may see a change in your lifetime, but I am sure I will not. My family lives to 100.

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Research proves Food is bad for you. Or no, wait – maybe not.

When I was about sixteen a disgruntled taxi driver had the bad manners to shoot my father, shattering his  carotid artery, which had about the plasticity of a china cup. Research had just discovered that the arterial sclerosis affecting the artery was caused by beef, butter, milk, ice cream,  pork and baby lamb chops and just about anything else I like to eat. My mother, determined not to be widowed early, followed the cardiologist’s dire warnings and  changed our diet, which, considering my  mother’s voluptuous egg, cream and butter based cooking was like turning the Queen Mary on a dime.

Bacon and burgers were replaced with poached salmon and steamed spinach. Vegetables no longer dripped with butter and cheese, our milk went from creamy white to transparent blue, margarine and Wesson oil took the place of butter, and cottage cheese was dressed up to provide a thoroughly inadequate and mildly disgusting alternative to sour cream. We were among the zillions of families catapulted into anti cholesterol hysteria by a nutritional scientific community, which avowed longer and better lives for all if we just cut out red meat and took the skin off our chicken.

In the next few years Victoria Station, a rollicking beef restaurant group in yellow railway cars, folded because the management failed to see the anti-cholesterol writing on the wall, the chicken industry (no skin please) exploded from farms to batteries and the food factories of the world developed cholesterol free versions of anything that was any fun based on partially hydrogenated oils. Lard became an obscenity and pie crusts lost in the exchange.

The Mad Men generation of Americans spent their middle age eating gawdawful alternatives to real food, trusting their doctors and the nutritional voice of the Nation, the FDA. They died anyway, and possibly occasionally sooner than they otherwise would have. What a pity. No wonder they drank.

Shortly after my mother’s non coronary related death twenty five years after the shooting my father remarried. His second wife couldn’t cook for squat, not last because her hoarding had the stove covered three inches deep in shatskis and collectable jam jars. She seemed to believe that vodka and Cheesits were a pretty acceptable dinner substitute. Under her influence father’s preferences quickly morphed from boiled halibut to double cheeseburgers, Mexican omelets with bacon, and Linguini Alfredo. He lived another 26 years and died at 96 from strep. Perhaps if he’d lived another ten or so years, the cholesterol would have had a shot at him.

I so intensely disliked my mother’s nutritionally correct steamed spinach, simmered kale and faux cottage cheese sour cream, that once out of the nest I decided to die young, if necessary, but not to be miserable with healthy food. Every time one of my dinner mates whined, “My doctor won’t let me eat shellfish / chocolate /  peanuts / salumi because of cholesterol,” I suppressed the urge to say “Shut the fuck up and let me have my lobster bisque in peace,” and made a mental not to find another dinner companion.

My chances of dying young are dwindling, but despite a life of Epoisses, flans and duck breast, I have what my doctor describes as “divine cholesterol levels”. How come?

More recent studies indicate that not milk fat but trans fats , that is the products in all of the low fat baked goods, cool whip and anything else concerned eaters were making do with, were disastrous for coronary health, not lamb and vanilla ice cream. In other words, it really is not butter, whether you believe it or not, and it’s not better – in fact it’s worse for you than butter.

Better yet: According to new research by the Royal University of Copenhagen milk fat is good for you, or at least better than the alternative. They’ve been at this for a while, actually, and while all contemporary research should be suspect (Copenhagen does, after all,  have a lot of cows and export a lot of milk products, so what’s to keep his Highness the Danish King from suggesting to the scholarly researchers that their duty to their country was to do an empirical spin job on our Danish butter?)  it’s pretty hard to envision the University of Copenhagen carrying out studies funded by  Kraft or the Danish Dairy and adjusting their results to harmonize with the funders’ objectives. It’s more likely that they just know a heap more about milk and cream and the resulting products than, say the University of Beijing.

Food research is big and oddly enough widely believed despite continual retractions and opposing results. There’s a great deal of fun to be had with it, and Culinary Promiscuity looks forward to doing just that. Soon. For the moment, however, let us just gently propose that based on the scientific community’s long track record of contradiction and failure increased skepticism towards people telling us what will make us healthy is advisable.  Take their pronouncements with with a grain of salt, which, by the way, researchers tell us will lead to coronary disease. Or maybe not.  We are an excessively nutritionally gullible nation.

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