Blogs

GROWING UP FAT = GROWING UP TOO FAST?

Childhood obesity appears to be causing some girls to reach puberty as early as age 9, according to a University of Michigan study just published in the journal Pediatrics:

"Our finding that increased body fatness is associated with the earlier onset of puberty provides additional evidence that growing rates of obesity among children in this country may be contributing to the trend of early maturation in girls," said Dr. Joyce Lee, the lead author.

Blooming too early is a bad sign. Global warming’s got my tiger lilies blooming in July instead of August. And now it looks like a fast food diet’s got girls growing up too fast. Our hothouse culture already cheats tweens out of childhood, and premature puberty can only burden young girls further:

"Earlier onset of puberty in girls has been associated with a number of adverse outcomes, including psychiatric disorders and deficits in psychosocial functioning, earlier initiation of alcohol use, sexual intercourse and teenage pregnancy and increased rates of adult obesity and reproductive cancers," the study said.

Rhoda Morgenstern, Mary Tyler Moore’s eternally dieting best friend, once held up a brownie and said something like, “I ought to just apply this directly to my hips.” Maybe someone should produce a PSA showing a 9-year-old girl waving a pair of deep-fried chicken breasts and saying, “I might as well apply these directly to my chest.”

TWINKIES: THE MILITARY INDUSTRIAL-STRENGTH SNACK CAKE

Will Scooter Libby get his just desserts? Half-baked claims about Saddam Hussein’s alleged appetite for yellow cake, aka enriched uranium, gave rise to the whole Plamegate fiasco, but instead of using the Twinkie Defense, Libby’s lawyers opted for the even more pitiful “I forgot” ploy, inspired, perhaps, by a decades-old Steve Martin SNL monologue:

How many times do we let ourselves get into terrible situations because we don't say "I forgot"? Let's say you're on trial for armed robbery. You say to the judge, "I forgot armed robbery was illegal."

Libby’s lawyers claim their clients’ felonious fibs to the FBI were a symptom of discombobulation, not duplicity. The pressures of his job were such that he simply couldn’t remember who said what to whom, when.

Had Libby pleaded excess Twinkie consumption instead, his lawyers could have reasonably argued that their client suffered an adverse reaction to all the mysterious minerals and chemical compounds that go into those iconic golden snack cakes.

Exhibit A would be Steve Ettlinger’s hot-off-the-presses Twinkie, Deconstructed, which follows the Twinkie’s odyssey from a simple cream-filled cake with a short shelf life to eternal Big Food legend. The original Twinkie, made from eggs, lard, and flour, has morphed over time since its birth in the thirties from a conventional yellow cake into an Agribiz amalgam of processed ingredients and chemical compounds—39, altogether—that only an alchemist could understand.

The road from eggs, lard and flour to ferrous sulfate, monocalcium phosphate, and sodium stearoyl lactylate is a long strange trip indeed, and a microcosm of our twisted food chain. Steve Ettlinger went digging, literally, to learn what goes into all those indecipherable, unpronounceable ingredients, and lays it all out for the layperson in a friendly and folksy fashion.

That’s not to say, though, that Ettlinger’s expose is easy to digest. But then, we’re talking about a processed food made, in part, from the food grade equivalent of Plaster of Paris. If you’ve got a hankering for a cake made from the same minerals our military uses in tracer bullets and artillery shells, I guess a Twinkie would hit the spot.

WHAT WOULD MARY POPPINS DO?

It seems only fitting that Britain should be the ultimate nanny state; it is a matriarchal monarchy, after all. A spate of spats over fast food in just the past week or so shows just how much more aggressive the Brits are when it comes to challenging Big Food’s chokehold on our children.

Prince Charles took a tour last Tuesday of a diabetes center in the United Arab Emirates, which has the second highest rate of diabetes in the world. In a deliberately audible aside, he asked a nutritionist, “Have you got anywhere with McDonald’s, have you tried getting it banned? That’s the key.”

The Prince of Green’s slam had the golden arches seeing red, of course, and defenders of Mickey D rushed to point out that some of Prince Charles’ own Duchy Originals line of organic food products contain more fat and calories than a Big Mac. Another red herring to go with those post-Oscar attacks on Al Gore’s electricity bill.

Then we had the spectacle of poor Connor McCreaddie, the obese English 8-year-old who weighs in at 218 pounds, more than triple the weight of a healthy child his age. His mother nearly lost custody of him after social workers complained that she and Connor routinely skipped appointments with nurses, nutritionists and social workers. From the AP:

The boy's case attracted national attention after his mother allowed an ITV News crew to film his day-to-day life for a month…

…Sky TV showed footage of Connor's mother serving him meals of french fries, meat and buttered bread…

…"Bacon. Mmmm… That's my favorite. Um … chicken , steak, sausage," the boy told the camera.

Obviously, Connor is morbidly obese, which endangers his health, and it’s equally obvious that his mom isn’t much help. But what makes his mother more culpable for her son’s corpulence than the millions of other parents of obese children who feed their kids a steady diet of junk food?

Threatening to remove Connor from his grease-steeped household seems a bit draconian, if not Dickensian—in Dickens’ era, of course, working class kids were suitably skinny, and Oliver Twist could not even get a second helping of gruel, despite saying “please.”

Can you imagine the chaos in our culture if parents were faced with the prospect of losing custody of their children for failing to feed them decently? Where would we warehouse all those gluttonous little Augustus Gloops, anyway?

Britain is attempting to stem the tide of tubby tots by banning ads for foods high in salt, sugar and fat during children's television shows. But by attempting to define what constitutes “junk food,” the regulators have crafted a knotty set of standards that nets such foods as cheese, raisins and porridge, while letting some obvious junk foods slip through the loopholes, apparently.

France is trying a different tack, announcing yesterday that it will require all food and drink advertisements to include one of four healthy eating messages or face fines. The menu of message choices is:

"Avoid snacking between meals", "Avoid eating too much salt, sugar or fat", "take regular exercise" and "eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables every day".

Good luck with that, or should I say, bonne chance. Why does sound advice, in any language, come out sounding just like the grownups on Peanuts?

IS THE WEB OF LIFE UNRAVELLING?


The list of nominees for next canary in the coalmine gets longer every day. Frogs led the field at the end of the century, but polar bears and fish are gaining ground in the Losing Our Habitat sweepstakes. The canaries have even made a comeback, thanks to toxic Teflon-coated cookware.

Bees, our littlest migrant workers, are battling “colony collapse disorder,” a mysterious new malady that has commercial beekeepers in a panic over how they’re going to pollinate some $14 billion dollars worth of crops.

In short, the web of life that binds us all together on this planet is coming undone. If you think biodiversity is only for epicurean elitists with their heirloom peas and heritage pork, you’re not connecting the dots between all our destructive habits and the world’s declining habitats.

But rather than beat you over the head with a sustainably harvested two-by-four, which would be unproductive, unpleasant, and needlessly violent, I encourage you to get up to speed on the urgent need to preserve biodiversity by watching The (Bio) DaVersity Code, the latest progressive parody from Free Range Studios.

Free Range teamed up with The Harvard Medical School’s Center for Health and the Global Environment and the Buckminster Fuller Institute to produce this animated short, which effectively makes the case that what endangers some of us endangers all of us.

In the finest Free Range tradition, The DaVersity Code shows how our colossal carbon footprint is trampling the planet, and lays the responsibility squarely at our feet with links to sites that offer solutions, such as this one from Harvard, which reads, in part:

The choices we make in three main areas of our lives—the food we eat, the way we live in our homes, and how we transport ourselves– have greatest potential to cause environmental damage and threaten biodiversity. Making better choices in these areas could improve the environment and slow the loss of biodiversity.

Biodiversity is not just a buzzword; if you don’t believe me, ask the bees. If you can find any, that is.

NOTHING EXCEEDS LIKE EXCESS

Food is a form of fuel, so I suppose you could argue that meeting all of one’s daily caloric needs with an appetizer of “pizza skins” is the ultimate in energy efficiency.

Pizza skins, an invention of the restaurant chain Uno Chicago Grill, are a perfect example of American culinary ingenuity/insanity, “a cross between a pizza and stuffed potato skins, with a deep-dish pizza crust crammed with mozzarella and cheddar cheese, mashed potatoes, bacon and sour cream,” according to Reuters.

People have the right to pig out and restaurants have a right to profit from our desire to do so. But the Center for Science in the Public Interest thinks that consumers aren’t being given sufficient information to make informed choices when we eat out.

How many people would still order the pizza skins knowing they contain 2,060 calories, 134 grams of fat, of which 48 grams is saturated fat, and 3,140 milligrams of sodium?

The average person only needs about 2,000 to 2,500 calories a day, and the USDA tells us we should consume, at most, 83 grams of fat daily, and of that, no more than 19 grams of it saturated.

Diners who try to offset such an indulgent appetizer by selecting a healthy sounding entrée, something like, say, Uno Chicago Grill’s “Fresh Chicken and Broccoli Pasta,” will consume another 2,060 calories, with 128 grams of fat, much of it saturated, too.

If you were actually trying to heed the USDA’s dietary guidelines, which evidently no one does, a meal of pizza skins and the chicken and broccoli pasta would require you to fast for several days in order to comply with your Recommended Dietary Allowances.

The National Restaurant Association takes issue with the CSPI’s criticism of the restaurant chains:

"Pointing to a select few menu items at a select few restaurants as being high in calories, and generalizing that to all restaurant fare is misleading, inaccurate and does the public a grave disservice," the association said in a statement.

Of course, you could argue that routinely serving huge portions of insanely fatty food does the public a grave disservice, too, although it may be a service to gravediggers.

New York City’s Board of Health tried to address the problem by passing a regulation back in December, along with the infamous trans-fat ban, that would require restaurants to post their menu’s nutritional content where consumers could see it, whether on the menu or a menu board.

The restaurant industry has been battling to overturn the rule ever since. They’d rather we didn’t see that information, and most of us don’t really want to know, either. We already know the pizza skins are bad for us, so spare us the gory details.

A diner confronted with the actual caloric and fat content of a side of pizza skins may think twice about actually ordering them, or so the CSPI hopes. Which is why the restaurant industry desperately wants to keep us from knowing. If we do the math, it adds up to problems for them.

INNER TURMOIL BREWING AT STARBUCK’S?

The thrill is gone, according to a Valentine’s Day memo from former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz to Jim Donald, the company’s current CEO. The internal document, whose authenticity has been confirmed by Starbucks, bemoans “The Commoditization of the Starbucks Experience:”

Over the past ten years, in order to achieve the growth, development, and scale necessary to go from less than 1,000 stores to 13,000 stores and beyond, we have had to make a series of decisions that, in retrospect, have lead to the watering down of the Starbucks experience, and, what some might call the commoditization of our brand.

Many of these decisions were probably right at the time, and on their own merit would not have created the dilution of the experience; but in this case, the sum is much greater and, unfortunately, much more damaging than the individual pieces…

…one of the results has been stores that no longer have the soul of the past and reflect a chain of stores vs. the warm feeling of a neighborhood store. Some people even call our stores sterile, cookie cutter, no longer reflecting the passion our partners feel about our coffee…

…I take full responsibility myself, but we desperately need to look into the mirror and realize it's time to get back to the core and make the changes necessary to evoke the heritage, the tradition, and the passion that we all have for the true Starbucks experience…

But the NASDAQ bell may have already tolled for Starbucks, according to maverick money mavens The Motley Fool:

…Schultz is the spiritual leader of Starbucks. If he thinks the stores are losing their soul, they probably are.

And Schultz knows that management can't allow that to occur. Starbucks sells an experience first and coffee second. Lose the experience, goes the thinking, and Starbucks becomes Caribou Coffee at best, and McDonald's at worst.

Then again, it may already be too late. Same-store sales growth declined from 7% in the fourth quarter to 6% in the first quarter. If Schultz is right, and nothing is done, then that number will continue to decline.

The knee jerk assumption that bigger is better may have hamstrung Starbucks, in the end. Up-and-coming entrepreneurs should consider Starbucks a cautionary tale; staying small has its own rewards, as Bo Burlingham, Inc.’s editor-at-large, documents in Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big. Small Giants profiles 14 companies that chose excellence over expansion, and prospered.

Sometimes, I guess, Grande is not so grand.

DEJA EW ALL OVER AGAIN


From izzyrocstar via YouTube:

“I got somethin’ to say about this New York City rat incident over here at Taco Bell slash KFC. Mayor Bloomberg over here worryin’ about the trans-fats, he needs to worry about the trans-rats…I can’t be havin’ that, goin’ over there eatin’ the soft taco, or rat chalupa, or somethin’ like that. You gotta get your extermination game up, kid, can’t be workin’ like this, man, can’t be worryin’ about what’s in my food…”

Thanks to YouTube, people all over the world are gawking at the spectacle of chihuahua-sized rats having an after hours rave at our local KFC/Taco Bell. Film crews from every news channel in the city descended on Sixth Avenue and West 3rd street yesterday after the Rats Gone Wild segment started circulating on the Internet.

I’ve only been to this Taco Bell once, last December, to purchase a prop burrito for a post about the Great Scallion Scare. Thanks to the E. coli outbreak, the place was dead, but with the revelation of this rat pack revelry, it’s deader than dead. Citizen activism has transformed KFC/Taco Bell’s parent corporation, Yum Brands, to Yuck Brands overnight.

Yum Brands hastened to reassure its customers, declaring that "This is completely unacceptable and is an absolute violation of our high standards." As we say in New York, that, and two dollars, will get you on the subway.

The West Village Taco Bell had been cited “as recently as December for a number of health code violations, including evidence of rodents and live cockroaches.” And it’s not the exception; a quick search of NYC’s Health and Mental Hygiene website shows more than a dozen KFC/Taco Bell outlets with significant violations. Guess it depends on what your definition of “high standards” is.

After I photographed my prop beef burrito, I set it on the kitchen counter and opened it, gingerly, just out of anthropological curiosity. I felt a fleeting moment of kinship with those puzzled Afghanis inspecting the packets of peanut butter our military dropped on them as a “humanitarian” afterthought after we started bombing Al Qaeda in 2001. This is something I’m supposed to eat?

I tossed it in the trash. But that’s not to say that Taco Bell burritos aren’t fit for rats, who, after all, have to fit in somewhere on the food chain. Seems only fitting that they’d feel right at home in a fast food chain.

IKEA SELLS NICKEL BAGS

Yes, America’s addicted to oil. But there’s another petroleum-based product we can’t seem to get enough of—the ubiquitous plastic shopping bag—and IKEA’s decided to stop enabling our dependency by discouraging our bag habit.

The Swedish retailing giant gives away some 70 million plastic bags annually at its 29 U.S. stores, but starting March 15th, the bags will cost five cents, while the price of IKEA’s sturdy reusable bags will drop from 99 cents to 59 cents.

Bringing your own string bag to the grocery store has been mandatory crunchy-granola protocol for eons, and yet, this simple act of conservation still has the capacity to bemuse cashiers and brand you as some kind of green-tea-sipping, universal-health-care advocating, surge-opposing, foaming-at-the-mouth eco-terrorist treehugger/vegan.

Besides, the bring-your-own-bag ethos means having to carry a bag with you at all times, which requires planning, which precludes impulse shopping. And that’s just too inconvenient for your average free-wheeling, free-spending American. We don’t need no stinkin’ string bags; we’ve got the world on a string.

But we’re “strangling the planet” with our bag habit, as IKEA spokeswoman Mona Astra Liss noted yesterday when she explained why IKEA decided to begin charging customers for the bags. The money will be donated to American Forests, a conservation group. From Reuters:

Last June, IKEA began charging its U.K. customers for plastic bags, and has reduced its bag consumption by 95 percent…

The average American family of four throws away about 1,500 single-use polyethylene bags, which do not degrade for around 1,000 years, IKEA said. Less than 1 percent are recycled.

Collectively, we Americans blithely throw away an estimated 100 billion shopping bags a year, blissfully unaware of all the ways these nonbiodegradable totes degrade our environment.

But plastic bags clutter landfills, clog storm drains and choke wildlife, which is why they’ve been banned everywhere from Ireland to Australia, Rwanda to Bangledesh, even as bag consumption continues unabated in the U.S.

Of course, some Americans consider it our nation’s birthright to pollute and plunder the world’s resources on a heretofore unprecedented scale, so perhaps it’s not surprising that IKEA’s Bring Your Own Bag initiative has apparently ruffled the feathers of that rabid Republican rooster, Rush Limbaugh. I say apparently, because while googling this story, I came across what appears to be a tirade on the topic, but my attempt to read the article was thwarted by the message “You are accessing a page reserved for Rush 24/7 members only.” Ew. Talk about a club you wouldn’t want to join.

Limbaugh’s a proud polluter himself, poisoning the airwaves with his toxic bilge and bile. If he had a soul he would surely sell it to the devil, so it’s no wonder he takes umbrage at any effort to curtail our consumption of “Satan’s resin,” as Elizabeth Royte caustically characterizes plastic in her book Garbage Land .

Royte pleads with us to think “…about the enormous amount of material and energy that goes into the stuff we use for an instant and then discard…We don’t need better ways to get rid of things. We need to not get rid of things, either by keeping them cycling through the system or not designing and desiring them in the first place.”

Whether IKEA’s bag fee will wean America off its toxic tote habit remains to be seen, but, as an old IKEA ad campaign observed, it’s a big country. Someone’s got to clean it up.

WHOLE FOODS’ MACKEY: THE MAVERICK CEO

We’re heavily invested in Whole Foods stock. At $1.99 a quart, it’s a bargain, and I’m bullish on not only the chicken, but the beef and mushroom, too (very important to maintain a diverse portfolio.) Jim Kramer might not recommend it, but its place in our pantry is assured.

Whole Foods gets a bad rap—somewhat unfairly, I think--for its high prices and anti-union stance, and I’ve often bemoaned the way they plaster posters promoting the “buy local” mantra all over their stores without providing much actual local produce.

But, at the end of the day, Whole Foods transformed the way we shop when it came to Manhattan, making the conventional supermarket across the street from us all but obsolete. And after watching an interview with John Mackey, Whole Foods’ CEO, on The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer the other night, I feel pretty good about spending my food dollars at Whole Foods.

Mackey, a 53-year-old college dropout, has grown his business from a single organic grocery store in Austin, Texas in 1978 into a $9 billion a year enterprise with nearly 200 stores nationwide, according to NewsHour Economics Correspondent Paul Solman.

“Whole Foods sees itself as an alternative model,” Solman noted. “Its stock, publicly traded; its loyalty to its stakeholders, customers, community and employees, instead of just the shareholders who invest.”

Let’s give Whole Foods some gluten-free, agave-sweetened brownie points for giving five percent of its profits to community projects. And paying its workers an average of more than $15 an hour, with full health benefits. According to Solman, “Though Whole Foods is America's second-largest non-union retailer, it ranks fifth among Fortune magazine's best 100 firms to work for.”

Maybe that’s because Whole Foods employees feel like they have a stake in the company and aren’t just toiling away to make a bunch of corporate fat cats even fatter; Whole Foods executives have their salaries capped at 19 times the worker average. And Mackey himself recently took a pay cut, to $1 a year. Why?

“…it's the appropriate thing for me to do at this time in my life. I have enough money,” he told Solman. Stop the presses! A CEO whose appetite for affluence has limits!

He may also be mindful of the fact that sales have slowed as conventional retailers like Wal-Mart climb on board the organic shitake mushroom gravy train. Whole Foods once-hot stock declined 40 percent last year, and Mackey’s looking for ways to stop the slide.

Still, Wall Street was taken by surprise yesterday when Whole Foods announced that it’s agreed to buy competitor Wild Oats for a reported $565 million. Mackey’s hoping that by expanding his empire, he can sustain his chain’s success. But Mackey’s market share is being nibbled away at not only by big box behemoths like Target and Wal-Mart, but smaller chains like Trader Joe’s, whose clever niche marketing appeals to the same savvy and adventurous customers who flock to Whole Foods.

All this competition ought to be great news for organic farmers, but as Steve Bridges, who represents the organic farmers of Texas, told NewsHour’s Solman:

“There are not enough organic farmers in this country to supply all the grocery stores with organic food, so they're going to have to source this organic food from somewhere else. And where is that going to come from? Other countries, even China.

You know, I was even in Whole Foods the other day and found a 50-pound bag of black beans, certified organic from China. And you have to wonder about the integrity of some of this imported organic food that's coming from other countries that may not have as strong regulations as we do.”

Why aren’t more American farmers switching to organic agriculture methods to meet this growing demand? Isn’t that supposed to be capitalism’s great strength, that whole supply and demand thing? Somehow, our appetites always seem to end up feeding China’s economy instead of our own.

Mackey’s interview on the NewsHour gave me a fresh perspective on my frustration with Whole Foods lack of local produce. When I needed some broccoli for a recipe the other day, I picked up a bag of Whole Foods’ 365 brand frozen broccoli florets, thinking that just maybe it might be more local than the fresh California broccoli in the produce aisle. Its origins? China. I bought the California broccoli. Local? It’s all relative.

WHO’S INSPECTING YOUR SANDWICH? DEPENDS WHICH WAY YOU SLICE IT…

Looking for a sandwich with no bonus bacteria? An open-faced sandwich is your best bet. It’s got nothing to hide, because the Food Safety and Inspection Service, a branch of the USDA, inspects manufacturers of packaged, open-faced meat and poultry sandwiches on a daily basis.

Add another slice of bread, though, and you’re off the FSIS reservation. Sandwiches encased in two slices of bread, aka “closed-faced” meat and poultry sandwiches, fall, squarely or not, into FDA territory. What might be lurking under that second slice of bread: salmonella? Listeria? E. coli? Who knows? The FDA only inspects manufacturers of closed-faced sandwiches once every five or ten years.

And while the FSIS and the FDA are busy slicing up their food fiefdoms in this random, arbitrary way, neither food agency actually has the power to recall contaminated chicken or toxic tacos. All they can do is ask nicely.

Sometimes, the FDA doesn’t even bother; if a food product is merely tainted with a non-lethal strain of bacteria, the FDA has been known to look the other way and let the tainted food sit on supermarket shelves, rather than needlessly alarm consumers—or harm agribiz profits. It’s a sorry state of affairs, as CNN noted this morning:

John Roberts: Lately, it seems like the foods so many of us enjoy have turned on us: recalled mushrooms, contaminated chicken strips, even peanut butter’s been a threat. Chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta joins us now to talk about all these food dangers, and what you can do about it.

Dr. Gupta: Good morning, John. Yeah, it does seem like the food has turned on us…

(recites a litany of food-borne illnesses from the past few months… )

…unclear, John, as to why we’ve seen so many more food outbreaks recently…

…What’s most amazing to me is that there’s no mandatory recall system set up right now in the country; the USDA, the FDA, it’s sort of scattered, you know, one agency may be responsible for chickens, another for eggs. There is a Safe Food Act that is on the table right now to try and bring this all together, so you might be able to recall some of these foods, John…

The Safe Food Act was authored by a couple of Democrats, needless to say: Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois and Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut. It’s been on the table since April of 2005. They’re also urging the Administration to support the creation of a single food safety agency:

“This mismatched, piecemeal approach to food safety could spell disaster if we do not act quickly and decisively,” said Durbin. “That’s why since 1997, I have been pushing for a single food safety agency with the authority to protect the food supply based on sound scientific principles…

…Quick action is needed at the federal level. Today, we have 12 different federal agencies stumbling over each other to ensure the safety of our food supply.”

And while the FDA and the USDA fumble, some 76 million people suffer from food poisoning each year, according to CDC estimates. Does the FDA own stock in Imodium AD or what? Between approving diarrhea-inducing diet drugs, allowing the use of treated sewage effluent to irrigate salad crops, and ignoring bacteria that spell gastrointestinal disaster, their credibility is truly in the toilet.

Syndicate content