I Wish I Were Far From the Madding Crowd

July 29, 2010

Chemical persistence and “corn’s koala”

Filed under: Satire — Myles Tougeau @ 10:28 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

While tag surfing I came across “Chemicals Persist, Even in Nature” (Scientific Enquirer).

A routine study to determine the extent of man’s encroachment on the environment stumbled across a major finding late last week. Scientists sent out into the field to measure the size of the remaining tracts of nature realized, as they walked further and further from their cities, that common city chemicals may be ending up in some unexpected places.

“As I looked overhead, I realized that air was flowing into nature from the cities,” reported one scientist. “I was shocked when I realized that the pollution created in the cities might actually have been escaping into nature all this time.” (more)

Okay, so I was a little slow (it’s late) and didn’t really catch on until I read “New Human Is ‘Corn’s Koala,’ Says Monplanto” (LOL now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this happens in the future).

At a Friday morning press conference, biotech giant Monplanto announced that it had created a genetically modified human that derives all its necessary nutrients from corn.

“Just as the koala subsists entirely on a diet of eucalyptus, this new strain of human can live a full, healthy and happy existence simply by eating corn,” said Monplanto company representative Clyde Jackson. “No longer will we have to waste time wondering what to eat at every meal—the answer will always be the same: delicious, nutritious corn.”

Jackson said that Monplanto is merely freeing up time for busy Americans, who would rather be at the beach or playing video games than staring into the fridge with indecision.

“We have better things to do with our time than decide what’s for dinner,” he said. “Americans are all about being free, and this will provide freedom from food decisions.” <snip>

At the press conference, it was revealed that Monplanto’s corporate executives had popular food author Michael Pollan to thank for the idea of creating “corn’s koala.” The concept was first introduced in Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The author was reportedly “not pleased” with this attribution.

Nicely done! And I love the name!  (Cute picture, too. Ah, if life were only that simple.)

May 5, 2010

PepsiCo CEO: “If all consumers exercised … obesity wouldn’t exist”

Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi tells Fortune Magazine that obesity is all our fault

FORTUNE: You’ve said that Pepsi should be part of the solution, not the cause, of obesity. How are you and PepsiCo planning to go about that?

Nooyi: If all consumers exercised, did what they had to do, the problem of obesity wouldn’t exist….

(Thanks to Fooducate for finding that one!)

So there you have it.  It’s all our fault! (Since that’s the case, maybe we should just stop buying PepsiCo products.)

Based on the above, I would be willing to bet that Nooyi would disagree with the following article’s conclusions.  I would also be willing to bet that most major food and beverage companies spend a lot of money not just on advertising, but on marketing research, too.

Neurophysiological Pathways to Obesity: Below Awareness and Beyond Individual Control, Deborah A. Cohen, Diabetes July 2008 vol. 57 no. 7 1768-1773

doi: 10.2337/db08-0163

http://diabetes.diabetesjournals.org/content/57/7/1768.full

I think Cohen makes some very good arguments, but I would quibble with her on two points.

One, she says “the suppositions that a change in genetics and/or metabolism is responsible for the increase in obesity over the past three decades are implausible due to lack of evidence of mutations over this short period of time….” But if changes in metabolism are being caused epigenetically by exposure to chemicals in the environment, the rate of such changes could be much more accelerated than the rate of mutations one would expect from random mutations to people’s DNA.

Two, she says that arguments that it is totally the individuals’ fault that they are overweight or obese imply that 30 years ago people had more self-control.  Well, frankly, maybe they did!  That should not be discounted as a possibility.  But I would tend to go with the argument that most of the problem is caused by eating more and not being active enough.

Having said that,  I think her arguments about why people are eating more are quite valid and that food and beverage manufacturers are probably not going to make eating less any easier.

For the sake of argument let’s say that food and beverage manufacturers actually do want you to eat and drink less (well, at least as long as you keep eating and drinking their products).

So which companies are going to willingly cede market share to other companies?  Umm … none?  So what does that mean?  It means that they’re going to continue marketing their products as aggressively as they have in the past.  (It’s like a tragedy of the common food court!)  They’re just going to try to use different techniques to persuade people to but their products.  “Healthy. Organic. Natural.”  Most importantly, “Much better for you than that other company’s products….”

Or perhaps they figure that if their products are going to make us overweight or obese, then they’ll just sell us drugs to deal with metabolic syndrome and other health problems later.  (Huh, I wonder if any of the big food and beverage companies own any pharmaceutical firms.  Or have invested in them?)

Anyway, in the article Cohen identifies what she says are 10 neurophysiological pathways that can lead people to make food choices subconsciously or, in some cases, automatically.

These pathways include reflexive and uncontrollable neurohormonal responses to food images, cues, and smells; mirror neurons that cause people to imitate the eating behavior of others without awareness; and limited cognitive capacity to make informed decisions about food.

Given that people have limited ability to shape the food environment individually and no ability to control automatic responses to food-related cues that are unconsciously perceived, it is incumbent upon society as a whole to regulate the food environment, including the number and types of food-related cues, portion sizes, food availability, and food advertising.

There is a growing consensus that the global obesity epidemic is the result of increasing urbanization and globalization, coupled with significant changes in the food environment. Obesity was initially highest in developed countries, but developing countries are quickly catching up.

The dominant thinking about obesity is that prevention and treatment is a matter of self-control and individuals making wiser food choices.  However, if this is really the case, then it implies that 30 years ago, before obesity increased, the population had more self-control and made wiser choices, and since then, our collective capacity for self-control must have diminished. It also suggests that people who live in other countries with lower rates of obesity have more self-control than Americans.

Just as the suppositions that a change in genetics and/or metabolism is responsible for the increase in obesity over the past three decades are implausible due to lack of evidence of mutations over this short period of time, the idea that the levels of personal responsibility, knowledge, intelligence, or moral character of a majority of the population are rapidly declining is also not a credible explanation of this phenomenon. It is unlikely that the nature of people has changed so dramatically. What has changed dramatically, however, is the environment in which we now live.

The availability and affordability of food has increased, due to a combination of technological advances in food preservation and packaging, increased food production and crop yields, and decreases in food costs relative to total income. In many parts of the world, food is available to all socioeconomic classes 24 h/day, 7 days a week. Moreover, while food advertising is not new, greater sophistication in marketing—including the development of branding, expanded use of vending machines and other mechanisms for self-service, technologies like eye movement tracking, and the application of social psychology — are all widely used to increase impulse buying and sales of highly processed foods. The techniques are increasingly more sophisticated, customized, and targeted to increase their efficacy. (Emphasis added.)

Could the increases in food availability, food salience, and the sophistication of modern marketing explain the obesity epidemic? If so, there must be neurophysiological pathways within humans that facilitate consumption of readily available food. Further, these mechanisms should affect all population groups similarly, regardless of income or level of education.

Although individuals with a higher level of education have lower rates, the prevalence of overweight and obesity is increasing in well-educated individuals at roughly the same rate as in less educated individuals. It is not unusual to see doctors, nurses, and dietitians possessing expert knowledge about nutrition and weight control who are themselves overweight or obese. Thus, it is likely that the mechanisms affecting food intake are not a matter of conscious decision making based on knowledge but are operating below the level of individual awareness and beyond individual control.

This article will review the interaction between the food environment and human neurophysiology to provide some initial evidence that, to a large extent, obesity is the consequence of automatic and largely uncontrollable responses to an environment with excessive food availability and aggressive and unrelenting cues that cause people to eat too much. Ten possible neurophysiological pathways are proposed that, in conjunction with unprecedented increases in food availability and food marketing, might explain how and why people consume more calories than they expend, especially without their full awareness or control of their behavior. The mechanisms include 1) physiological reflexive response to food and images of food; 2) inborn preferences for sugar and fat; 3) hardwired survival strategies, including foraging behaviors in response to food variety and novelty, also without awareness; 4) inability to judge volume or calories either through visual perception or internal signals of satiety; 5) natural tendency to conserve energy; 6) mirror neurons that lead people to mimic the behavior of other humans, often without awareness; 7) automatic stereotype activation; 8) conditioned responses that result in desire for food when confronted with food-related cues; 9) automatic responses to priming; and 10) limited cognitive capacity and self-regulatory control. In addition, speculations on specific mechanisms that deserve further study and direction for obesity control are discussed.

April 28, 2010

Health Affairs special issue on child obesity (March 2010)

Health Affairs special issue on child obesity

http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/vol29/issue3/

Includes articles on obesity trends, prevention, connections with food and agriculture policy, effect of schools, lessons learned from states and localities, and more.

Note: Unfortunately it looks like you will have to pay to read the articles, but access to the abstracts (and the policy briefs listed below) is free.

From the Health Affairs blog

Child Obesity: Health Affairs Explores Strategies For Combating Epidemic

April 23, 2010

An all consuming world?

Following the theme of yesterday’s post, I’ve included links to another video on waste and consumption (this one about McDonough’s & Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle concept), food consumption (includes a striking map), and creating green economies.

Rethinking how we make things

Waste = Food (Documentary on 49:23 min.)
http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-3058533428492266222#

An inspiring documentary on the Cradle to Cradle design concept of the chemist Michael Braungart and the architect William McDonough. Winner of the Silver Dragon at the Beijing International Science Film Festival 2006.

Sustainable consumption

Can Consumer Culture Be Transformed?

http://earthsky.org/human-world/state-of-the-world-2010-can-consumer-culture-be-transformed

Deborah Byrd of EarthSky looks at consumerism and its repercussions.  The quiz was interesting (I scored worse than she did). She also discusses the State of the World 2010 report on moving from a consumerist society to a sustainable one (see link below).

Quiz – Consumer Consequences: Find out if you are living a sustainable life
http://sustainability.publicradio.org/consumerconsequences/

State of the World 2010: From Madison Avenue to Mad Max? (Press Release) –  January 12, 2010
http://www.worldwatch.org/node/6359

Report websitehttp://www.worldwatch.org/sow10

Excerpt from press release (emphasis added):

The report examines the institutions that shape cultural systems. Business has played the leading role in shifting cultures to center on consumerism, making an array of resource-intensive products such as bottled water, fast food, cars, disposable paper goods, and even pets seem increasingly “natural.”

Government has also promoted consumerism as a lynchpin of policy, often making it synonymous with national well-being and job creation. As the global economic recession accelerated in 2009, wealthy countries primed national economies with $2.8 trillion of new government stimulus packages, only a small percentage of which focused on green initiatives.

Food consumption

Where The Buffalo Roamed
http://www.weathersealed.com/2009/09/22/where-the-buffalo-roamed/

Includes a map of the contiguous United States, visualized by distance to the nearest McDonald’s.

This site contains a number of other fascinating maps and graphics on a wide variety of subjects.

Food, Inc., the future of food, and waste = food
http://earthsky.org/agriculture/food-inc-the-future-of-food-and-waste-food

Transforming Cultures Blog – WorldWatch Institute

http://blogs.worldwatch.org/transformingcultures/retire-ronald/

Creating a sustainable economy

Green Economy Takes Centre Stage at UNEP 2010 Champions of the Earth Awards

http://www.eco-business.com/news/2010/apr/22/green-economy-takes-centre-stage-unep-2010-champio/

UNEP Green Economy Initiative

http://www.unep.org/greeneconomy/

The New Green Economy Conference Conversation

Part 1 – http://dirt.asla.org/2010/01/21/the-new-green-economy-part-1/
Part 2 – http://dirt.asla.org/2010/01/21/the-new-green-economy-part-2-what-d…
Part 3 – http://dirt.asla.org/2010/01/26/the-new-green-economy-part-3-what-i…

CleanSkies: EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson Calls For Green Revolution at NCSE Conference
http://greeneconomy.ning.com/video/lisa-jackson-calls-for-green

National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE)

http://ncseonline.org/

NCSE Green Economy Blog

http://greeneconomy.ning.com

Note: While this looks like it might contain some good information, they seem to have a little problem with spam.

April 18, 2010

Sugar is sugar … or not?

If you’ve followed any of the discussion about high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) vs. sucrose, you’ve probably heard representatives of the soft drink industry and HFCS refiners repeatedly say that fructose is no different than sucrose and that they’re metabolized the same (which, according to more and more research, is debatable).  I’ll get to that a little further on.

How much sugar we’re consuming

Amber Waves article “Behind the Data: Estimating Consumption of Caloric Sweeteners.” (April 2003)

Amount of HFCS and refined sugar delivered to food and beverage manufacturers in 2001

Intake levels represent the difference between total deliveries of calorie sweeteners for food and beverage use and estimated losses
Graphics from http://www.ers.usda.gov/AmberWaves/April03/Indicators/behinddata.htm

Make note of that 31.1 teaspoons per day figure for 2001.  (Daily intake in teaspoons = average annual intake in pounds / 365 days per year x 16 ounces per pound x 28.3495 grams per ounce / 4.2 grams per teaspoon.)

Think about the last item in that formula.  If the label on a box of cereal says 9 g of sugars, that means that a single serving contains 2 tsps of sugar.  A 12 oz. soda containing 39 g of sugars contains more than NINE teaspoons of sugar.  You get the idea.

According to Dietary Assessment of Major Trends in U.S. Food Consumption, 1970-2005 (see references), for 2005 it was down to 30 teaspoons per day.

What does this tell us?

Several points, one, representatives of the Corn Refiners Association and beverage manufacturers are right when they say that whether it’s fructose or sucrose doesn’t really matter.  If you’re consuming almost 4 times the amount of added sugars you should be, you are going to have problems!

Two, sucrose contained in beverages begins to undergo hydrolysis once it’s bottled and separates into its component parts (that is, fructose and glucose).  So in many cases when you’re drinking a sugar-sweetened soda you’re not drinking sucrose in solution, but sucrose, fructose, and glucose.  If enough time goes by most of the sucrose turns into free fructose and glucose.

A number of studies have shown that fructose is metabolized differently than glucose, but other studies seem to indicate that’s not as much of a concern, except possibly in two cases: one, when the ratio of fructose to glucose consumption is high, or in cases of high consumption of calories.  I would say that we have a combination of those, a relatively high ratio of fructose to glucose consumption (look at the relative amounts of HFCS to refined sugars used by beverage manufacturers!) together with consuming too many calories from sugar.  (And remember, that’s just the average amount.  Some people are consuming even larger amounts of sugar.)

Background on high fructose syrups

I recently came across a very interesting article, coauthored by John S. White, who is, or at least has been, a consultant to the Corn Refiners Association.

“Manufacturing, composition, and applications of fructose.”  L. Mark Hanover and John S. White.  American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 1993, v.58(suppl.), 724S-732S.
http://www.ajcn.org/cgi/content/abstract/58/5/724S

The article describes the manufacturing and refining process of HFCS (or, as the authors call it, HFS), the composition of various grades of HFCS (as well as crystalline fructose and crystalline fructose syrup), functional properties and uses, and regulatory status.

What I found so fascinating about this particular article though, were these bits of information scattered throughout it.  According to the authors , HFS-42 (that is, HFCS that is 42% fructose) was the “first generation syrup of commerce.”  (p.726S)

They go on to note that :

Japanese and US manufacturers were producing HFS containing 55% fructose by the late 1970s.  HFS-55 was adopted by the carbonated-beverage industry and became the predominant sweetener in colas by late 1984. (p.726S)

On p. 727S, a table showing the typical composition of the various grades of fructose (ranging from 42% all the way up to 80% and 95%).

  • HFS-42 is 42% fructose, 53% dextrose (i.e. glucose), and 5% oligosaccharides
  • HFS-55 is 55% fructose, 42% glucose, and 3% oligosaccharides
  • HFS-80 is 80% fructose, 18% glucose, and 2% oligosaccharides
  • HFS-95 is 95% fructose, 4% glucose, and 1% oligosaccharides

One of the minor differences between HFS-80 and HFS-95 is that they, unlike the other two, contain less sulfated ash and no sulfur dioxide.  (Okay, the HFS-42 and -55 contain only 2 parts per million.)

The crystalline fructose and crystalline fructose syrup are both 99.5% or greater fructose.

What is interesting is that the authors note, p. 731S, that HFS-55 was being used in colas by late 1984, but that in 1988 the FDA had “proposed to recognize the long history of safety for fructose and reaffirm the GRAS status of HFS as a direct human food ingredient.” (FDA, 1992, 21 CFR 182.1866)  GRAS = “Generally Recognized As Safe” (for particular uses of a substance), CFR = Code of Federal Regulations

They go on to note: “The petition is specific for HFS-42, but may include HFS-55 on review of its additional processing steps.”

I’m not a lawyer, but to me that sounds like HFS-55 had not actually been approved for use as a direct human food ingredient at the time that cola manufacturers were starting to use it.  (I guess they must have just done that after the fact.)

HFS-55 vs. HFS-42

“The carbonated beverage industry is the largest user of HFS-42 and -55.” (p. 729S)  HFS-42 is primarily used in non-colas and HFS-55 in many colas, though colas can also be made using more HFS-42.  (See the graphic above about the use of sugar vs. HFCS by food vs. beverage manufacturers.)

In 1993 more than than 90% of energy-containing carbonated beverages produced in the U.S. were sweetened with HFS.

If I understand Hannover and White correctly, before 1984 most colas apparently were sweetened with HFS-42 and after 1984 with HFS-55.  In other words, the HFCS had approximately a 13% increase in the amount of fructose in it after the switch.

More importantly, the ratio of fructose to glucose changed from 42:53 to 55:42.  Why is that important?

Fructose malabsorption

Too much fructose in the diet can cause irritable bowel syndrome and other gastrointestinal problems.  However, studies have found that the problems are reduced when fructose is consumed with glucose.  (A certain percentage of the population is more prone to this, but it doesn’t seem to be an issue for most people.)

This is where you run into the problems of fructose metabolic products related to metabolic syndrome.   (The results of some studies also suggested that fructose malabsorption and metabolism problems were more likely to be associated with copper deficiency.)

Is HFCS the biggest problem?

I was going to say that HFCS is not the innocent player some portray it to be, then I realized that’s not really accurate.  The use of HFCS is not in and of itself the problem; the problem is food and beverage manufacturers putting it in almost every food and beverage they can.  It’s cheaper than refined sugar.  And most fast food places and restaurants reportedly make a higher profit margin off of soft drinks.  Once HFCS was introduced soft drink ingredients became so inexpensive that a lot of places started offering free refills.  I’m sure someone has brought that up before, but perhaps free refills are one of the main contributing factors to the increase in obesity (!?).   When people had to pay for a second glass of soda, they drank less.  Sorry, I don’t have a citation for that, but that seems obvious.  (Okay, I had to check.  I did a search on Google Scholar on +”obesity epidemic” +”free refills” and got 21 hits.   Google Scholar searches the scientific literature and books, as opposed to the entire Web.)

One example (with excerpt containing search terms):

Fructose, insulin resistance, and metabolic dyslipidemia

H Basciano, L Federico, K Adeli – Nutrition & Metabolism, 2005 – biomedcentral.com
in humans and animals, but the emphasis on fat reductions has had no significant benefits relative to the obesity epidemic. bombarded by huge million-dollar advertising campaigns for soft drinks, offered extra-extra-large serving sizes with free refills.

Apparently this is known as “portion distortion.”

Put that together with chronic overconsumption of sugar (regardless of whether they’re fructose or sucrose), unbalanced diets (deficiencies in vitamin D?), and not as much exercise as we should be getting.

Then throw in genetics, add a good dose of epigenetics in the form of gene-environment interactions, and you have all the conditions for development of metabolic syndrome and an obesity epidemic.

More on this in another post.

References

Dietary Assessment of Major Trends in U.S. Food Consumption, 1970-2005, by Hodan Farah Wells and Jean C. Buzby, Economic Information Bulletin No. (EIB-33) 27 pp, March 2008, http://www.ers.usda.gov/Publications/EIB33/

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.