Tuesday, September 27, 2011

5 Ways People Are Trying to Save the World (That Don't Work)


Between the hybrids, the reusable canvas shopping bags and cloth diapers, everybody's doing their little bit to save the world. Entire industries have sprang up to cater to us socially-responsible types who want to leave behind a better world for the robots to inherit once they take over.

But, most of the time, making you feel better is about all it does. For instance...

Buying Organically Grown Food

Why People Do It:

Seems like a no-brainer. Organic food eliminates the use of chemical fertilizers, hormones and pesticides. Getting rid of all those nasty chemicals means healthier foods and less contamination to the planet.

And anything that's organic or natural has to be better for you, right? It's like you're eating the opposite of Twinkies here.

Why They Shouldn't:

So what's the problem with eating healthier food and saving the Earth? Nothing, except that the food may not be any healthier. And that's even if you can afford the (much) higher prices. Oh, and the impact on the planet may actually be worse.

The funny thing about those chemical fertilizers and pesticides is that they were invented for a reason, and that's to increase food production. Turns out organic farming is pretty damn inefficient. Holding hands and thinking peaceful thoughts does dick all against pests that want to eat your crops and weeds that want to choke them out. The current acre of farmlandproduces 200 percent more wheat than it did 70 years ago. The same goes for meat and poultry. The chemicals did that for us.

Take them away, and suddenly you're getting less food per acre of land. According to some guy who won a Nobel Prize, we could feed 4 billion people if we went all organic. This sounds great except maybe to the 2.5 billion people who would be left without anything to eat.

A tiny fraction of the people organic food would leave starving.

Despite all the claims that chemicals used in farming are bad for us, it turns out cancer rates have dropped 15 percent since farmers began using chemicals. How is that possible? Well it's mainly due to people being able to afford more fruits and vegetables, because the chemicals allow more to be grown. That's one reason the average life expectancy in the US went up by almost 10 years between 1950 and 2000.

As for the environment, it turns out organic farming has its own issues. Because it is much less efficient, there is actually a shortage of organic food available. This leads to people having the food shipped in from much further away. We're no scientists, but we think that doing things like shipping organic milk 900 miles over the highway in a truck belching diesel fumes is probably canceling out any environmental benefits you might have gained from going organic.

Oh, and did we mention organic farming uses a lot of manure to fertilize crops? This results in a greater risk of contamination. Although organic produce only accounts for one percent of the food supply, it accounts for eight percent of the E. coli cases in the U.S.

Basically, you are at greater risk of eating a shit sandwich, which is admittedly organic, but still.

Rejecting Vaccinations

Why People Do It:

Because the chemical cocktails in vaccines are poisoning our children! Depending on what websites or episode of Oprah you watch, vaccines contain poisonous mercury, and are causing everything from autism to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which is about as scary a medical term as you can have without using "flesh-eating" or "dick-melting."

Why They Shouldn't:

In a word: science. While the folks pushing the anti-vaccination agenda mean well (though some seem to be doing it out of a knee-jerk fear of "Big Pharma") their claims aren't backed up by the actual studies.

"Trust me, those medicines will only make you sick. Also, I'm sorry, you seem to be dying for some reason."

Apparently the whole autism scare was based on a 1998 report which has since been rejected by all the major health organizations, and was even retracted by its authors in 2004. In the scientific world, that's the equivalent of calling bullshit on yourself.

As for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, studies actually showed that the cases of SIDS actually went down 40 percent even as vaccination rates went up. This is science's way of saying "You are fucking wrong."

"According to my chart, you are a fucking moron."

A lot of the arguments against vaccination focus on the fact that a preservative used in some vaccines contains mercury. There are only two problems with this: the type they were using wasn't dangerous, and they stopped using it in 2001.

We're not saying vaccines have no risk. As with any drug, there is a chance some kids may have a bad reaction. But the odds of serious side effects are fairly slim compared to the risk of catching the disease if children are not vaccinated.

The thing is that when enough parents decide not to vaccinate their kids, those little germ factories start doing what they do best and epidemics break out. Then you end up with a little snotty babies running around infecting people like some kind of really cute zombie apocalypse.



Why People Do It:

We've all been raised to believe that unless we all recycle, our forests will soon be barren and we'll be living among mountains of our own filth, Wall-E style.

Recycling is also supposed to use fewer resources and create less pollution. What could possibly be wrong with that?

Why They Shouldn't:

The image of the paper industry hacking down every tree until we were all gasping for lack of oxygen was always ridiculous; we've increased the number of trees over the last 50 years as logging companies plant more to ensure future supply.

Equally silly were the warnings most of us got hammered with growing up, about tales of overflowing landfills, full of trash that takes thousands of years to biodegrade. At least in America, we were never in danger of walking through streets of garbage. Some expert at Gonzaga University, with a lot of time on his hands, calculated that at current rates all the garbage in the US over the next 1,000 years would fill up a 35 square mile landfill 100 yards deep.

This sounds like one of those "Holy shit!" scary figures until you consider this is about one tenth of one percent of the land currently used for grazing in the US. Also, this would be the accumulation over 1,000 years by which time we should have bigger things to worry about, like overthrowing our robotic overlords.

As for saving resources by recycling, this is where it gets tricky. Partly this is because whether or not recycling saves resources depends on whether you consider human labor to be a resource (that is, the effort to pick up, sort and transfer the items to be recycled). Recycling requires more trucks, more crews and more people to oversee the entire process. In Los Angeles alone there are twice as many garbage trucks than there would have been without the recycling program. Just like those douchebags who drive to the gym to run on a treadmill but still hop in the car to go the one block to the corner store to pick up their pork rinds and soda, it's not clear just how much benefit there is at the end of the day.

Also, re-using something is not always better than just tossing it away. A chemist at the University of Victoria calculated that you would need to use a ceramic mug 1,000 times before you would see benefits over using disposable polystyrene cups for those 1,000 cups of coffee. This is because it takes far more energy to make that mug and takes energy and water to wash it after each use.

Now obviously you can't take that to the extreme and go to a lifestyle of all-disposable dishes and clothes, and where every ink pen is sold in box made up of three pounds of cardboard and plastic. But the problem was never as bad as they kept telling us.

Using Antibacterial Soap

Why People Do It:

Bacteria makes us sick. The only way for us (and our precious children) to stay healthy is to kill the fuckers. We're, uh, referring to the bacteria there, not the precious children.


These days you can get antibacterial anything: hand soap, dish soap, hand lotion, edible panties, gun oil. We'll have those bacteria eradicated in no time!

Why They Shouldn't:

Nature is a funny thing. Not "knock-knock joke" funny, but "horrifying death preceded by agonizing suffering" funny. The thing about biology is that while it is really easy to kill a lot of something, it's a lot harder to kill all of something. And the survivors tend to be a lot tougher and pissed off.

Thus, there is concern that the stronger bacteria will become resistant as the weaker bacteria are killed off by our shelves of antibacterial products, leaving only the resistant ones behind. Darwinism works its magic.

Bacteria. Maybe.

This has already happened with the staphylococcus bacteria, which have developed strains that laugh at penicillin like Superman laughs at bullets, except Superman won't cause you to develop pus-filled boils and kill you afterward.

If the idea of super germs isn't scary enough, it turns out the same chemicals we're using to try and kill those germs may actually be making us sick as well. The active ingredient in antibacterial soap is now thought to have the potential to affect sex hormones and the nervous system both. In fact, the chemicals causing the concern have been found in the urine of 75 percent of people, which means the poison is probably in your wiener right now.

If all this still isn't ironic enough for you, then consider that getting rid of all those bacteria may actually be worse for us in the long run. Scientists believe that kids who are kept in sterile environments develop more allergies. The theory is that these kids are not exposed to the germs and their immune systems never develop the natural resistance to them. Basically it means our immune systems are playing Dungeons & Dragons instead of pumping iron and taking Karate and banging hot chicks.

The final nail in this comedy of errors and mixed metaphors is that studies found that using antibacterial soap is no better than using regular soap. Just one more marketing gimmick.

Buying Carbon Offsets

Why People Do It:

Unless you think it would be awesome to have have Earth turn into freaking Tatooine, you're probably in favor of stopping global warming.

Carbon offsets are supposed to make you carbon neutral, by paying to have someone else reduce their carbon dioxide output in an amount equal to the amount you are putting into the air with your decadent, Hummer-driving lifestyle.

Why They Shouldn't:

At the end of the day, much like buying your girlfriend a bracelet after a night in the champagne room, it's debatable whether you are doing anything except paying to clear your own guilty conscience.

Because I love you?

You're buying a promise from someone else that they are going to reduce their own carbon emissions by a certain amount. The trouble is that currently there is no standard or authority that monitors the offsets.

Investigations found that often, people buying offsets have bought worthless promises. Even when the company offering the offset follows through, there still might not be any additional benefit because the company who took your credits was already planning to reduce its emissions anyway.

They couldn't design a functional one that looked like a middle finger, but they wanted to.

Take, for example, the company that sold carbon offsets based on a plan to reduce methane gas at a landfill. It sounded great until investigations revealed that the methane reduction plan was in place long before the offsets were sold. That part of the plan is all well and good, but it completely destroys the whole concept of buying and selling carbon offsets. Nothing was being "offset."

Man, if we can't trust a painless "something for nothing" scheme to save the world, what can we trust?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Snake Oil in Your Snacks


Foods masquerading as drugs have become a $160 billion business.


ProBugs, a yogurtlike beverage for kids, is tasty, fun and good for your child's digestive system, if claims from its maker, Lifeway Foods, near Chicago, are to be believed. Sold at high-end stores like Whole Foods, it comes in flavors like Sublime Slime Lime and contains a hefty dose of 7 billion to 10 billion good bacteria that "inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria" in the gut, according to Lifeway's website. The label promises ProBugs will give bad germs "a time-out" and adds: "You can never have too many good bugs."

You'd never guess from the breathless marketing that when Lifeway tested ProBugs in a clinical trial, it failed spectacularly. In the study a daily dose of ProBugs did nothing to reduce the incidence of antibiotic-associated diarrhea in 125 young kids. Nor did it impact measures like stomach pain or missed days of school, according to the results published by Georgetown University researchers in a medical journal last August. Only the sickest kids showed a hint of a benefit.

When a drug flops doctors prescribe it less and insurers stop paying. But Lifeway continues to tout ProBugs' digestive benefits as if nothing has happened. It put out a press release about the failed study, claiming ProBugs "may have a positive effect on reducing antibiotic-associated diarrhea."

"Probiotics can help so many children," swears Lifeway Chief Executive Julie Smolyanski, referring to products containing protective bacteria. Her company, with $58 million in annual sales, doesn't have enough money to do another trial, she says. She accuses Georgetown of botching the study by confusing which patients got ProBugs and which got a placebo. Lifeway has refused to pay any more bills for the study. Georgetown stands by the findings and says Lifeway had no complaints until the results came in.

Foods masquerading as drugs are the hot spot in the packaged-food business. The world's biggest food companies are stuffing ostensibly beneficial bacteria, omega-3 fatty acids and other additives into packaged foods. They are funding clinical research in order to justify health claims--often deliberately vague--that blur the line between nutrition and medicine. The foods promise to boost immunity, protect your heart and digestive system or help you sleep. In some cases, like the ProBugs kefir, manufacturers aren't adding new ingredients but merely repackaging old foods with bold new health claims.

More than 2,000 so-called functional food brands generated $31 billion in U.S. sales in 2008, up 14% from 2006, according to the market researcher Packaged Facts. Globally, it is a $160 billion business. Sales are growing at a 7% annual clip. This includes $4 billion spent on yogurt with high doses of "probiotic" bacteria; $1.8 billion on breads and other foods with added omega-3 fatty acids; $1.5 billion on fortified cereals and snack bars; $900 million on "energy" (i.e., stimulant-containing) drinks with additives like the amino acid taurine or the herb guarana.

"We're going through a revolution in food," says Thomas Pirko, president of Bevmark consulting, whose clients include Coke, Kraft and Nestlé. "It's a whole new consciousness--every product has to be adding to your health or preventing you from getting sick." If you find the perfect additive, he adds, "you get rich."

But most of the claims "are completely unsubstantiated," says Steven Nissen, head of cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic. "Medical attention does not come from a Cheerios box." Designer foods can be a way for clever marketers to lure people away from real health foods--fresh fruits and vegetables. "It plays on our psychology," says Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma. "We want to consume sugar; we want to consume fat; we want to consume salt. These products give us an excuse to binge."

Added omega-3 fatty acids don't make Sara Lee's Soft & Smooth Plus white bread into a health food. Extra bacteria don't cancel out the sugar in the yogurt. "People should be getting nutrition from real foods, not from foods that are artificially modified to give supposed health benefits," says University of Wisconsin cardiologist James Stein.

Georgetown's Daniel Merenstein wants to know which yogurt health claims are valid.

Some of the new products are far-out indeed. Nestlé sells its supplement drink Glowelle for $42 a six-pack at Neiman Marcus. It "is clinically proven to help protect skin" from moderate sun exposure, boasts its website, citing an unpublished 56-patient study. DreamWater, from Sarpes Beverages in Charlotte, N.C., is touted as "the first water that helps you relax and fall asleep." But an independent group, the Natural Standard, concludes there's "insufficient evidence" that one of its main additives gets into the brain. Sarpes Chief Executive David Lekach says the drink works for him. "All I'm doing is delivering very, very commonly bought supplements in a liquid form," says Lekach.

A minority of food additives, like dietary fiber, have solid evidence behind them. But those are the exceptions. The European Food Safety Authority started reviewing food health claims in 2006 and has rejected 80% of more than 900 proposed claims to date. Only 9 of the most recent 416 food claims passed muster. The latest loser is the French multinational Danone, maker of Dannon yogurt, which recently withdrew its application for yogurt health claims that it had been making for years.

American authorities are far more permissive. The 1930s law that created the Food & Drug Administration exempts foods from pharmaceutical-style regulation. A 1994 law allows food companies to advertise how their products affect the normal "structure and function" of the body but not treat disease. Even the FDA admits that the difference is murky: Only drugs can treat Alzheimer's, but preventing absentmindedness is a food claim. Foods can regulate digestion so long as they don't treat chronic constipation.

If drug companies made so many claims with so little evidence, "they would be fined," says Georgetown University physician Daniel Merenstein, who did the study of Lifeway's good bacteria. The FDA is starting to crack down; it went after General Mills last spring for saying Cheerios can lower cholesterol. But the FDA also makes it hard for companies that want to rigorously test foods, Merenstein says. It often insists that foods already on supermarket shelves be treated like drugs and run through a gauntlet of preliminary studies before large-scale human studies can begin. He says he recently had a drug trial approved in two weeks, while a probiotic one took 20 months.

Merenstein just finished a 638-child, Danone-funded study that showed DanActive, another yogurt drink, reduced infections by 19% in young kids. It had no effect on missed days of day care. "The question is, do these things work?" says Merenstein. Getting the answers could take years. In the meantime, here's the evidence--or lack thereof--behind the claims for some of the biggest food categories.

Even clinical-trial failures can make great marketing copy. POM Wonderful, the privately held Los Angeles maker of pricey pomegranate juice ($5 a pint), has spent $32 million funding scientific studies, including trials in 2,500 patients. "We've tried to bring modern science to bear on this ancient fruit," says POM President Matthew Tupper. "We're not aware of any other beverage supplement that has the same level of clinical research behind it."

In fact, there's not a single definitive result among studies listed on POM's website. The biggest experiment, with 289 patients, used ultrasound on the neck to test whether drinking pomegranate juice reduced hardening of the arteries in heart patients. It found "no significant difference." (The authors hypothesized that the juice may have helped sicker patients.) Other trials in prostate cancer and erectile dysfunction are more preliminary.

In February the FDA warned POM it was marketing its juice as an unapproved drug and demanded it tone down its sales pitch. The FDA cited all sorts of glowing testimonials on its site, including how the juice saved the life of a cancer patient, made mysterious lumps disappear and helped treat a heart-valve infection. POM says it's negotiating with the FDA.

Vitamins have been getting great p.r. ever since Howdy Doodyhost Buffalo Bob Smith crowed, "Wonder Bread builds strong bodies eight ways," in the 1950s. The latest fad: lacing sugar water with vitamins and positioning it as a health drink. The concept was dreamed up by entrepreneur and health nut Darius Bikoff, who started selling Vitaminwater in 1996 and sold the brand to Coke in 2001 for $4.1 billion. Pepsi ( PEP - news- people ) and other beverage companies sell competing versions.

Nutritionists declare that there is no benefit to getting more than your recommended daily allowance of vitamins. "If you ingest what you need, that's fine--and that's it," says Hans Verhagen, head of nutrition research at the Netherlands' National Institute for Public Health & the Environment. Westerners get enough of most vitamins, he says.

Excess vitamins can be dangerous. Supplement guru Gary Null claims he became severely ill after ingesting his own supplement that contained 1,000 times as much vitamin D as it was supposed to. He blames a contract manufacturer and is suing them.

But smaller doses may do harm, too. A 2007 Journal of the American Medical Association study pooled 68 trials of 232,000 patients and observed a 5% higher death rate among people who took high doses of beta-carotene, vitamin E or vitamin A. A 1999 study of 9,500 patients found that taking 400 international units of vitamin E daily raised the risk of heart failure by 13%. Swallowing enough fortified waters, snack bars and breads could edge consumers toward the upper limits for vitamins set by the National Institutes of Health, worries Marion L. Neuhouser, a diet researcher at Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Water plus sugar plus questionable doses of vitamins. What's Coke's explanation? It says that Vitaminwater has less sugar than soda and that vitamins' role in health "has been thoroughly documented." It says the doses it uses are safe.

Plant sterols derived from nuts and grains are one of the few food additives with a proved health claim. They can lower cholesterol by up to 10%, human trials have found. Cardiology guidelines recommend them. Brands containing sterols include Promise Activ butter substitute (Unilever), Minute Maid Heart Health Orange Juice (Coca-Cola) and Smart Balance Peanut Butter (GFA Brands).

But sterols have never been proved to avert heart disease. "I don't think anyone knows if they prevent heart attacks," says Cleveland Clinic cardiologist Steven Nissen. "There are basic scientists who are worried they don't." Some preliminary data suggest that sterols might harm arteries. In 2006 a small Finnish human study published in Atherosclerosis found that sterols keep arteries from relaxing, which indicates worsened blood vessel function. In a 2008 study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, mice that were fed plant sterols suffered more- severe strokes. The researchers also found evidence that sterols collected in the blood vessel walls of human patients--just like cholesterol. Douglas Balentine, the head of nutrition at Unilever, says the animals in the studies were given massive doses that aren't relevant to humans.

In the wake of these studies, preventive cardiologists at the University of Wisconsin Hospital stopped recommending foods with sterols, says James Stein, uw's head of preventive cardiology. "I don't think a margarine should be considered a health food," he says. For patients who want a cholesterol-lowering margarine, he says, Johnson & Johnson's Benecol is a better choice because it contains plant stanols, which also block cholesterol but aren't absorbed into the body.

Web ads for FRS health energy boast the steely face of cyclist Lance Armstrong with the caption "Tired of being tired?" The liquid concentrate contains quercetin, a chemical derived from the skins of berries and grapes. The ads claim quercetin is "the only antioxidant clinically proven to boost energy."

This bold promise is based on science done in animals and cells, along with some small human trials. One study of 11 elite cyclists found that those who took quercetin for six months were able to complete a time trial 3.1% faster than before, though the difference compared with a placebo was not significant.

Some scientists say quercetin holds promise for fighting fatigue and even infection. "The science is far beyond almost all of the other nutritional supplements on the market," says University of South Carolina professor Mark Davis, who has consulted for the FRS Company.

But last year researchers at the University of Georgia found no benefit from the supplement in 30 healthy volunteers tested on seven different performance measures. (The study was funded by Coca-Cola, which apparently was thinking of launching its own quercetin supplement.) Lead researcher Kirk Cureton has tested 60 more patients since then, with the same null result. He says there is little evidence backing other popular energy additives, including the amino acid taurine in Red Bull. The exception: caffeine.

"It's the marketing folks within these companies that make these decisions, not scientists," says Cureton. "When the marketing people decide what they want to say, they go try and find some evidence to back it up." FRS says the science behind its supplement is "unassailable."

Emerging basic research suggests that imbalances in good gut bacteria may be involved in obesity, diabetes and other ills. Yogurt companies aren't waiting for definitive answers. They're touting all sorts of health benefits to their probiotic yogurts right now.

Danone's Activia ($2 billion in annual sales) contains special bacteria that concentrate in the intestines and, in some studies, decrease the time it takes for food to move through the digestive system. Danone can't claim it treats constipation, but it devised ingenious television ads in which actress Jamie Lee Curtis talks about "digestive issues." "I've just discovered a yogurt that can help," she says in one. An animation--just like the ones in drug ads--shows the good bacteria working in a woman's belly.

Some human trials of other probiotics show they modestly reduce the incidence or severity of diarrhea in young kids. But it depends on which strain you eat. A 201-patient Israeli study from 2005 showed that two strains, Bifidobacterium lactis and Lactobacillus reuteri, reduced diarrhea in infants. But reuteri was far more effective. "Think about probiotics how you think about antibiotics," says Michael Cabana, the chief of pediatrics at UC, San Francisco. Probiotics are "not interchangeable." But food companies aren't required to say how much of which strains are in their yogurts, and many don't.

Researchers once blithely assumed that any amount of probiotics was safe. Dutch researchers definitively disproved this in 2008 when they administered massive doses of good bacteria to the intestines of severe pancreatitis sufferers. Patients who got the good bacteria were more likely to die, according to results published in The Lancet.

Everyone knows that omega-3 fatty acids can protect the heart. Less well known: Not all omega-3 fatty acids are created equal.

Most big studies confirming the cardiovascular benefits of omega-3s have tested either docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 found in salmon, sardines and breast milk, or another fish oil called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). But many foods that brag about being "an excellent source" of omega-3 fatty acids instead contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), derived from nuts and flaxseeds. Because only a small percentage of ALA is converted into EPA and DHA inside the body, it may not have the same heart benefits, cardiologists say. Kellogg ( K - news- people )'s Kashi Almond Crunch cereal says it contains 500mg of omega-3, but it's all ALA. If you want omega-3s for your heart, read the fine print and look for products with EPA or DHA. Kashi says people don't get enough omega-3 and that it makes no specific health claims.

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