Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Media Is like High School For Science...

Ever have a rumor stat about you when you were in high school?

Infuriating, isn't it?

Sometimes it's a half truth, and sometimes it's just something taken out of context.  Either way, the efficiency of the rumor spreading is way higher than the efficiency of you explaining the whole story or putting what was actually said into context.  You converted one or two people, but everyone else you confronted just laughed in your face, called you a liar, and repeated the rumor to more people.

Many things in life are counter-intuitive.  We anticipate one thing but the other thing is true.  Less is sometimes more.  You really do, on average, hit the golf ball farther and straighter when you don't try to swing so hard, and so on.  These same types of things exist in food science.  Although, it's not that they're counter-intuitive, it's that the public has a bad intuition.

Let's look at BPA, for example.  Does everyone remember the statement put out by the FDA in regards to BPA in January?  What did it say?  Some remember it as an admission that the government was wrong about BPA and that we need to take a careful look at how it's regulated.  This is one of those rumors that start by something being taken out of context.  What the FDA said was that BPA was safe, but there haven't been studies on very subtle effects and that effects on the very young warranted further study.  But in several stories that came out since then, it was reported as if the government changed their mind on all the established science.

This is also a great example of how efficient rumors are vs. explaining the whole story.  For those who've really looked into BPA, you'll know that BPA(like most chemicals including some vitamins) have a level at which they cause harm.  So it has the potential to do harm, and the article(rumor) reports that it's in everyone's bodies, so it must be harming our bodies, right?  Hold on.  This is the type of rumor where you need to explain, and most people don't sit still for it, but let me have a crack at it.  BPA is established as a GRAS food additive.  It's not mixed directly in food, but rather it makes up part of the packaging that the food touches, so it must be labeled as an additive.  Anything GRAS has a limit on how it can be used and at what quantities.  That's per the Code of Federal Regulations.  That limit is based on the Lowest Observable Effect Level determined in lab tests.  Just to be sure it's safe enough to use, they take the quantity that is determined to cause the LOEL and divide it by as much as 1,000.  Now, the studies on BPA all say that it can't be proven that BPA is a definitive danger.  Furthermore, some studies show us how much BPA was found in a particular canned product.  I've mentioned this before but one of the highest BPA concentrations was found in canned fruit.  Here's the part you never get to read.  At those levels, a person would have to eat several hundred pounds of the fruit every day to reach the LOEL.  But the published rumor is titled, 'BPA in Cans Poses Health Threat, Report Claims'.

This has been going on for a while with different things.  I remember a similar story about Tab years ago and they figured you'd need to drink hundreds of cans a day to get ill from whatever the chemical was.

Salt is one of the relatively new bad guys.  The way you hear it told, the food industry is poisoning us with dangerous levels of sodium and they say it causes 100,000 deaths a year.  Wow, that's a lot of people.  The trouble is that BPA supposedly causes a lot of death's too, as does HFCS, as does trans-fat, but where do the numbers come from?


Correlation got you into fights in high school.  Correlation caused your parents to punish you when you did nothing wrong.  Correlation is basically this:  A is true and B contains A and B contains C, so C is true.  Put another way...  From statistics-help-online.com:
"Let's take some other ludicrous examples to explain the problem of correlation vs. causation. Define $T$ as the temperature of a day in Manhattan, and $I$ as the number of ice cream vendors out on that day. The correlation coefficient between these two is almost certainly quite positive. (How many vendors are out there in January?). Does this prove that ice cream vendors cause it to be hot? Obviously causation goes the other way. Common sense tells you that. Unless of course you believe in conspiracy theories."
 So all the salt people's numbers are based on correlation studies.  Is salt killing us? A clue can be found by observing other countries.  This is helpful in the HFCS argument since sugar is cheaper than HFCS outside of the US and we can compare with obesity and diabetic rates to see how much healthier they are(in the case of HFCS, non HFCS countries don't fare better).  

"When all the surveys in Britain are considered, there has been no consistent downward trend in salt consumption in recent years, said Dr. McCarron, who has been a longtime critic of the salt reformers. (For more on him and his foes, go to nytimes.com/tierneylab.) He said that the most notable feature of the data is how little variation there has been in salt consumption in Britain — and just about everywhere else, too.

Dr. McCarron and his colleagues analyzed surveys from 33 countries around the world and reported that, despite wide differences in diet and culture, people generally consumed about the same amount of salt. There were a few exceptions, like tribes isolated in the Amazon and Africa, but the vast majority of people ate more salt than recommended in the current American dietary guidelines."
 So if we all eat about the same amount of salt but we have varying amounts of high blood pressure and heart trouble, then what does that say about salt causing problems.

A couple rules of thumb for reading news releases about studies:
Scientists don't generally brag, so take note of the ones that do and what their intentions may be.
Regardless of your opinion of the matter, judge a study on it's science and methodology, not it's source of funding.
Look for numbers and look for them in context.  Beware of studies were they are vague aboiut the numbers or use them out of context, as in percentages.
Read the whole study if possible.  Sometimes a researcher or writer of the article will say the opposite of what the study actually proves.
Beware of Meta-analysis.  These are studies of studies and they're never as good as well designed original studies.
Learn statistics. This will make you smarter and less likely to be taken advantage of by con men or people with an agenda.
One study proves nothing!  Reproducibility is king.  A good study can be duplicated and if it's true, the results will be reproduced.
Correlations are a starting point in a scientific quandary, not the end.  You need causation, not correlation studies and a lot of percentages to be validated.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Getting Fresh with Foodies...

Kroger Fresh Fare Closing.

The Kroger Fresh Fare concept that existed at the fancy Kenwood Towne Center will be closing at the end of the month according to an article in the Cincinnati Business Courier which I have linked to in the title of this blog.

It's either closing due to lower sales or trouble with the newly built property, depending on who you ask.  If you ask me, it's a bad strategic move either way.

First let's assume they aren't meeting sales numbers.  OK, but did they adjust their expectations when the economy nose dived?  Are they using unrealistic goals as an excuse to up and leave?  The more likely reason could be that they don't want to be in the middle of any entanglements that arise from Bank of America foreclosing on the property... and sales are probably down as well.

This is bad for several reasons.  First, this is Kroger's front door step.  Closing a unique concept in the home of your headquarters is like Louisville KFC's closing down or Wendy's closing their Dublin, OH locations.  Even though they have a few other Fresh Fare concepts in the country, it's still a proof of concept for the company.  What message do you send to shoppers about that concept and about the strength of your brand if you yank one of 2 or 3 in the country from your own front doorstep?

Even if it loses them some money, it's worth keeping the concept alive and can serve as a great test market for all things upscale.  The development on the site of the Kenwood Towne Center isn't going to crumble into dust.  The businesses will rebound and whoever is still there will reap the rewards.  Also, Kroger now has a ton of Marketplace locations and they could easily close one of those instead or one of their regular Kroger stores.  The closing of that store will be ironic because it will cause the other Kroger stores in the area to be much busier.  This will be great for those store's numbers but will annoy the shoppers that get sick of waiting in long checkout lines.  Some of these shoppers will instead seek out unique experiences like those found at Whole Foods, Fresh, and Kroger Fresh Fare... if it were still open.

Foodies or Food Snobs: Time for a stern talking to...
Like many of you, I get excited about food.  I can get lost for hours in a grocery store and not buy anything.  In fact, I often get so excited that I can't decide, then walk away empty handed.  I love to look for quality ingredients, try new brands, and be a cheer leader for the things I do like.

What I don't like is what I hear and read from some foodies and food blogs.  I won't start beef(get it?) with any blogs by being negative, but I will praise a couple blogs I think are good examples.

Fries With That Shake - Run by Jess Ward, the Burger Baroness herself celebrates food and tells you what's good without being too good for certain foods.  Maybe it's the fact that she's a fan of burgers, but you never get the feeling you're being lectured, shamed, or talked down to for the food you enjoy.  Bravo Jess, and next time you're in Cincinnati, lets go out for burgers. Follow her on Twitter @BurgerBaroness

Get in mah belly! - Run by Liz and I don't know nearly as much about this blog except that it's honest and not what I would call a Shiite Foodie.  Maybe that's not fair... how about Fundamentalist Foodie.  She likes the food of the masses, seems humble about her food experiences, and like Jess, is really excited to write about food.

What many people do that I don't like is very similar to reviews written in auto magazines.  In those magazines, the guy is always disappointed and makes some shitty comment about the test car that makes the reader feel that the whole process was beneath him.  They'll write things like, 'Of course, we would have preferred to test the 6-speed manual, but we'll have to make do with this automatic.'

So food snobs love to brag about how unique their dishes or ingredients are and love to dog on anyone else they feel doesn't have exotic enough ingredients.  Maybe they only drink IPA's or brag about how much the superdark microbrew costs, or scoff's at the idea of a domestic draft.  These people have indoctrinated themselves to the point that they can't eat a simple cheeseburger or make a fried egg sandwich unless it's flax seed bread, brushed with seasoned extra virgin olive oil, toasted on the grill and made with rare eggs that you can only find in a certain farmer's market that's only open during the summer solstice of every leap year for 2 hours.

Stop it.  You're missing the point of food(aside from providing nutrition).  The point is to have an enjoyable experience and to make something that tastes good that you can share.  What it's become is a canvas for food hipsters to put on an air of superiority.  Foodies react to food as if that is how they think they should react and not what they really think/feel.  It's not about brands or being ironic.  Stop being dicks.  

Re: the Kroger story...

I know Kenwood is not in Cincinnati Proper but it is Cincinnati to everyone else that doesn't dwell in the Cincy Metro Area.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Bottle Caps 2: Electric Booga-Dew.

Last week, I blogged about a new bottle cap design being used by a Pepsi bottler for Mountain Dew.  Yesterday, I was surprised to see yet another design in use.  The third design was for an August 2, expiration date while the second design was from a bottle marked July 26.

Notice the difference between the July 26 cap(left) and the August 2 cap(right).  The newer cap places the threading closer to the bottom of the cap.  Also notice that the plastic ridge from the 2nd design is now more pronounced in the 3rd.

Here is a much clearer pic that starts to give away the most significant difference between the 2nd and 3rd caps.

As I mentioned last week, the 2nd cap(center) was ever so much shorter than the original(left) and probably saved the company money as for as cost of the product and transportation cost.  Now look at the difference between the 2nd cap and the 3rd(right).  It seems this cap is even shorter and more dramatic in design, especially if you compare it with the original.  Is this a supply issue or market testing?  The 3rd design looks a lot like the short bottle caps that Coca Cola switched to for their 20 oz bottles.  My only complaint is that the caps slip away from the fingers pretty easy when attempting to unscrew and take a drink with one hand while steering my car with the other.

In other pop news...

Coca Cola brought back Mello Yello and gave it a retro themed can.  I love the can's design.  It's very pleasing without looking too extreme.  They kept the formulation the same, as far as I know, and I was surprised to see they didn't switch to cane sugar as Pepsi did for it's Throwback products.  Of course, Mello Yello was replaced by Vault, which has the exact(or nearly exact) formulation.  I'm glad to see an established brand back on the shelves.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Mountain Dew Bottlers Trying Out New Caps?

Here, you see a normal screw top cap for a plastic, 20 oz Mtn Dew bottle.  Notice the soft plastic lining as well as the many short plastic threads on the inside.  This bottle was dated for July 10th, 2010.

Compare that cap with this one.  This cap has less threading on the inside and those individual ridges are longer.  Pay particular attention to the lack of a lining.  The lining acts as a gasket, making sure the product is sealed and maintains pressure.  This cap features a ridge that you can see running just inside of the cap.  The ridge is angled to be thicker at the bottom(top of the cap).  This is fairly ingenious because as the cap is screwed on, the mouth of the bottle squeezes between the ridge and the cap, creating a tight seal.  No need for a liner.  I can tell that this cap definitely feels different when unscrewing.  This bottle had the same sell by date as the other one.  So the question is this; is this the new bottle cap design and are we going to see this in the rest of the PepsiCo line-up?

Here are both caps, side by side for comparison.