Wednesday, February 23, 2011

An Example Of How Food Hysterics Reason.

Mark Bittman wrote an NYT piece about McDonald's new fruit and maple oatmeal that was easily one of the dumbest attempted take-downs of a food item I have ever seen.

It was very Fox News-ish in how it conveyed facts without context.  By the time people figured out the whole truth? Damage done.

And damage was undoubtedly the intent here.  Sometimes it's foodists crapping all over whatever seems to be popular at the moment, but lately attacks are usually nothing more than thinly veiled anti-corporate vitriol.

The way Food Hysterics bring about a story can be understood in two recent examples; one example being Mr. Bittman's critique of McDonald's fruit & maple oatmeal... or rather, fruit & maple oatmeal's creator - McDonald's, and the other being Michael Jacobson's HuffPo piece on caramel coloring.

Food Hysterics start with their worldview and work backwards, shaping the story to meet their predetermined outcome.  Bittman's beef isn't really with the oatmeal, it's with McDonald's. He says, 'The leading fast-food multinational, with sales over $16.5 billion a year (just under the GDP of Afghanistan), represents a great deal of what is wrong with American food today.'  So right off the bat, you should know that everything you are about to read is a negative against McDonald's.

Food Hysterics then steal one of Fox News' more devious tricks by leaving out all context in the numbers they report.  Those numbers are reported in a way to reinforce the negative image they just established.  The reader leaves the article disappointed and outraged... but they really aren't too sure why.  Bittman starts naming the number of ingredients and calls them chemicals without explaining what they're used for.  Yes, I do realize he's being honest, but not totally.  See, everything is a chemical.  You're a sack of chemicals, your filtered water is chemicals(H2O), but he knows that people squirm when they hear that so it just fortifies his point.  He recalls facts that are out of context, saying that this oatmeal has only 10 fewer calories than a McDonald's cheeseburger.  

Correct, but let's do a quick experiment.  Without looking up the nutritional facts... tell me how many calories you think are in a McDonald's cheeseburger.  You have your guess ready?  It's 300 calories.  That means that McDonald's Fruit & Maple Oatmeal contains a gut busting 290 calories.  Oh my!!  That's a whopping 14.5% of your daily recommended amount of calories(based on a 2,000 calorie diet)!  Not very much, considering breakfast should be the biggest meal of the day.  But never mind the context... too late for that, he already has you running for the hills in fear of those massive cheeseburger calories.  If you order the oatmeal sans the brown sugar, you can get down to an ethereal 260 calories and only 18 grams of sugar(32 grams with).

Mark then makes a point that oatmeal should just be the oatmeal + water and we should have the options of whether we wanted our wholesome goodness ruined with things like fruit and 30 calories worth of brown sugar.  He even goes so far as emailing McDonald's to pose them this question directly.  Two incredible things followed: first was that he actually reported what they wrote back and second... he glosses right over it.

Incredible thing number one: “Customers can order FMO with or without the light cream, brown sugar and the fruit. Our menu is entirely customizable by request with our ‘Made for You’ platform that has been in place since the late 90s.”

Incredible thing number two... his response: 'Oh please.'

Oh please?  This must be the Food Hysteric's equivalent to, 'Yeah, but still'

'Did you hear that the moon landing was faked?'
No.  We really did land on the moon.
'No, it was faked.  They have multiple light sources and shadows where they shouldn't be.'
Actually, they recreated the lighting conditions and surface areas on the moon to scale and proved it was right.
'Yeah...but still'

It basically means you have no argument.

Yes the oatmeal is 10 less calories than McDonald's cheeseburger or the Egg McMuffin, but those sandwich's are only 300 calories, which means the oatmeal is only 290 calories.  Not only that but the Egg McMuffin is only 7.1oz while the fully loaded oatmeal is 9.2oz.  So for less calories you get a more filling meal.  If your lunch and dinner had twice those calories, you would have only consumed 1,450 calories for the entire day and would most likely be running a caloric deficit.

I know this is a long post but bear with me... on to Michael Jacobson and the Center for Science in the Public Interest( CSPI ).

Jacobson's story warns of the dangers hidden in cola(which they already have a huge problem with).  He starts by talking about food marketers as if there is some building in Minnesota where they all live labeled, 'Food Marketers' and they're in constant cahoots with one another.  He mentions how caramel coloring is made and is all too happy with telling us there is a reaction with ammonia involved, but doesn't go so far as explaining the science.  Funny, I thought science was in his organization's name?

You start to see the familiar pattern emerge of facts without context after giving away his true bias.  He goes on to mention how lab rats and mice were given the coloring and formed tumors.  What he doesn't mention and, more importantly, what he doesn't address in any of the comments was the toxicity.  One study put the minimum amount of 4-Methylimidazole that causes cancer in lab rats to be 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight.  The most 4-Methylimidazole they found per 20oz cola was 213 micrograms or .213milligrams.  Let's say someone weighs 100 Kg, they would need to ingest 4,000 mg/kg of bodyweight to get cancer.  That works out to over 18,000 20oz bottle of cola in the same 2 year period as the rats.  Can you drink 9,000 bottle of cola a year?  If I really try, I can get down 48 12oz servings in a week.  So even though I am a heavy pop drinker, I would fall far short.

But it's not about the science, is it?  It's about scaring people into taking a specific action.  These food hysterics are using you and your misguided outrage to shape the world the way they see fit.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Brief Discussion Of Food And Income.

Fair Food Fight, a food activist blog has recently caught my attention.  They mean well, I'm sure, but the premise of many of their arguments is flawed.

The reason for their flaws seems to be that they need their ideas to always prevail while making sure certain people are always seen , not just as in the wrong, but part of a concerted effort do some harm.

So the food companies(corporations), ag companies(corporations), the products they sell, and even the government are all part of the problem in their eyes.  This leaves little room for facts, which they didn't consider when they formed their ideology.

What follows is a comment I left on their blog, The Devaluation of Food, Farms and Our Future.  The blog touched on other things, but I took plenty of room just responding to their call to make food a higher percentage of our income.  Enjoy.

If you look at the history of agricultural and economic development, the percentage spent on food is a fairly accurate indicator of wealth in a country.

It starts at 100% or very close to it, where nearly everyone is subsistence level farmers.  People were very poor because all of their money went to buying food.  They were the ultimate locavores... except they were perpetually starving.  The food they grew was barely enough to keep them going and that was before they had to sell some for money to buy other things. 

So that extreme doesn't work.  People can't go pursue other interest, because their labor is needed on the farm.  Speaking of which, we needed to have a lot of kids because we needed the labor.

Saying that we need to spend more on food, doesn't necessarily mean that we'll go backwards as a nation, but it also doesn't mean we'll all weigh less.  It's a flawed premise, assuming it's the cheap cost of food that makes people heavy.  Over-consumption of calories is what makes people obese.  We over-consume because food is much easier to find, ready to eat, and because we are too poor to be secure in our food choices. 

As humans, we have ALWAYS eaten whatever we could find.  Until recently, we couldn't eat enough, because we could never find enough food.  So the real problem is discipline and restraint, a concept which humans are relatively new to.

You can craft a caloric budget that allows for the foods you want along with exercise to help keep the balance.  You can do this with the prices of food now and especially if food is even cheaper.

I think the proper way to look at this is to say that people don't make enough money.  When we live paycheck to paycheck, you are never completely sure you'll have enough to eat in the future or have the money to buy the food(as cheap as it is).  So what we do is search for the best values for our money to stretch our dollars.

So if your theory is correct then paying more for that food will make people buy less of it, but that ignores thousands of years of human instincts.  More likely, we'd just spend the extra money and seek out more calorically dense foods, rather than more nutritionally dense foods.  When I have lot's of money, I am not so concerned with getting enough to eat.  I can eat a light meal, knowing that more is available later.  But as a poor person, which I most certainly am, I am much more likely to go to a buffet and consume larger meals. 

So that's it.  I was searching for specific ag econ graphs showing caloric consumption over the years as well as Engel Curves showing income vs food expenditures, but I got bored.  Link this blog, and follow me on twitter @samvance  If you already follow me, get someone else to.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Zero Tolerance Extremism.

Once again, my blog title is a clickable link that goes to a food science resource.  Today's resource is the faculty list of UMass' Food Science Department.  I chose UMass because they were ranked as the top food science department for PhD students in the country.

Today I'd like to address the problems concerning zero tolerance in  the conversation about food.  It's a pretty common practice when people argue about anything, that they take the arguments to the extreme boundaries to try to make a point.  So any discussion of guns leads to a world where jack-booted thugs are raping your  mother while you're watching and powerless because you have no gun... or it's like a John Woo film and everyone is diving sideways in slow motion shooting everybody until we are all dead.

Get the idea?

By taking arguments about food out to the extremes, Food Hysterics hope to make their point while making you defend the most ridiculous scenarios.  Just think of the movie, Super Size Me.  In that movie, Morgan Spurlock wanted to prove that our(Western, mostly American) fast food diets are making us very sick/unhealthy/giving us feline AIDS/etc.  

Morgan Spurlock could have set up an experiment similar to what comedian Doug Benson did in his stonermentary, 'Super High Me'.  What Doug did was smoke pot several times a day, every day, for 30 days.  He followed that up with 30 days of no pot.  So Doug had two sets of data to compare.

What Spurlock did was not only eat McDonald's every meal, but he also(as the title suggests) Super Sized those meals.  The end.  This is very extreme and is meant to prove a point rather than honestly explore an issue.  For instance, if he wanted to be fair, he could have maintained his normal caloric intake but only ate McDonald's and compared the results afterward.  He could've binged for 30 days and then tried to lose weight for 30 days eating only McDonald's.  He could have brought a registered dietitian the McDonald's tray liner with the nutrition facts on the back and planned out meals that met his needs.  Nope, just Super Size it... all day... every day.  Nobody does that.  Nobody eats out for every meal.  Hell, I'll say that most people don't even eat every meal(like breakfast).

I get flamed* by several Twitter trolls** who are anti-everything except a small garden. I have a theory that most of it traces back to an anti-corporate sentiment(which makes me appear pro-corporate for calling out their extremist views) more than anything, but they have some odd views about food nonetheless.

I was asked what my thoughts were on chemicals in food. ???  I wasn't sure how to respond because I didn't know how much they understood about food.  Do they realize that all food is made of 100% chemicals?  Were they referring to gras food additives and wanted to belittle them by just saying the word chemical?

So I explain that things are added to food to improve the: taste, texture, color, mouth feel, shelf life, safety, or nutritional value.  The troll then wonders how many people, if polled, would say they wanted any chemicals added to their food.  So now we already went to an extreme - 'any'.  Of course, if that's how the poll were conducted, everyone would vote no.  It's a leading question.  If I do a survey where I ask people if they want to be shot through the air at 500mph, I'll bet I get nearly all 'No' responses.  Does that mean that commercial air flight should be outlawed?

When I get pulled into these back and forths, I can usually see where things are heading.  So the interrogation breaks down into profits for the food companies.  So now I'm a shill because I explain why things are added to food.  If I were a food technologist working for a large company that was needlessly adding things to food without merit, I would be pretty happy.  Why?  Because I would get to be the hero after I reformulate the products, ditching the wasted materials and saving that company a shitload of money.  I explain that companies won't spend money on unneeded ingredients.  The conversation later evolves into that person referring to everything he doesn't eat as 'shit' and says, 'people eat shit they get sick. This can be backed by 10's of 100's of studies - but of course you disagree.'

This conversation goes nowhere.  It's a horrible circle that makes him crazier and more paranoid while making me dumber for responding.  What people need to realize is that there is a lot of nuance in food science and food issues.  Can BPA hurt you?  Yup, in high enough amounts.  Last I checked, the highest concentrations were found in a 15oz can of French Style green beans... and you'd need to eat 1,000 cans to get sick from the BPA.


People have died from drinking too much water, but we need water to live.  We actually need fat and salt, just not so much.  So the conversation can't be about banning or eliminating things, it has to be about moderation and educational outreach.  I need the help of food scientists and food science educators out their reading this.  

We have politicians wasting our time talking about the aforementioned BPA, and they have needlessly banned potatoes from the WIC program, even though they are great sources of fiber and potassium.  We have people suing Taco Bell because the filling isn't 100% beef, without considering that 100% beef leaves no room for seasonings.  We have a lot of hysteria out there and people are starting to just believe the negative because they haven't seen food scientists go on Oprah or The Daily Show or The Today Show, but they see plenty of Michael Pollan telling them not to eat foods that their Grandma wouldn't recognize.

We need to get out their and call out the extremists with science.  Call them out when they make silly arguments and explain the science behind what's in food.  If you know a food science professor or food science professional, get them on Twitter.  Have them follow me @SamVance. Be warned though, you'll get bombarded with trolls who seem to have all day to try to tweet you down and then discredit anything you try to say.  Hell, I even have a mock version of myself on Twitter @shitSamVancesez

* Flame - to pick apart someone's comments on the internet, usually resulting in the dreaded 'Flame War', a heated exchange that goes on for quite some time.
** Troll - A person who seeks out someone to flame.  Trolls are usually limited to specific topics and not at all random.  They find someone commenting on their pet subject, then they start internet arguments(Flame Wars)