Thursday, December 10, 2009

FDA Considering New Food Labels

Thanks to John Donohue, whose blog is Stay At Stove Dad, I've learned that the Center for Science in the Public Interest is urging the Food & Drug Administration to re-do food labels.

Donohue thinks it's ridiculous to let the food companies express the amount of calories and other nutrients in terms of portion sizes that are not realistic. Like a 20-ounce Coke: who stops after drinking the so-called "usual" portion of 8 ounces? So, lots of folks may think they're drinking less than half the sugar than they actually are.

As I pointed out in an earlier blog, there's also a basic problem with the disclosure of the sugar content in the first place. Real people don't measure sugar in grams, but that's the standard of measure used on the labels. It's time to get real and start showing it in teaspoons. Tell me that there are 67 grams of sugar in a 20-ounce Coke, and I have no idea if that's a lot. Tell me it's 16 teaspoons, and the thought of all that sugar makes me gag!

So, let's all make our feelings known to the FDA and hope that under the Obama Administration someone in Washington might actually listen.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Risks of Mammography for Under-50 Women

Need another reason to be happy about not getting mammogram from age 40 on?

Skipping them will reduce your risk of breast cancer by reducing your exposure to radiation. Here's the explanation for how that happens, from the Cancer Prevention Coalition:

Thus, premenopausal women undergoing annual screening over a ten-year period are exposed to a total of about 10 rads for each breast. As emphasized some three decades ago, the premenopausal breast is highly sensitive to radiation, each rad of exposure increasing breast cancer risk by 1 percent, resulting in a cumulative 10 percent increased risk over ten years of premenopausal screening, usually from ages 40 to 50 (4); risks are even greater for "baseline" screening at younger ages, for which there is no evidence of any future relevance.

If that's not enough to give you pause, look a little further at the Coalition's web site and you'll see that compressing a breast in which cancer is already growing can actually cause cancerous cells to spread.

There are all sorts of other issues with mammography, like poor quality control and the mystery of why the risk factors for breast cancer apply to white women but don't work well to predict the disease in black women.

These are the kinds of questions we should be making noise about instead of rejecting sound scientific advice about when--and whether--to have mammograms.

The Good News about Mammograms That No One Wants to Hear

Here's the bottom line, folks. The uproar over the "new" recommendation that women under 50 should not get regular mammograms is all about money not women's health.

In fact, since 1971 the science has been clear that women under 50 get no benefit from regular mammograms. That is, they die just as often from breast cancer as women who haven't gotten regular mammograms. But despite getting no benefit, all too many undergo unnecessary biopsies that leave scars both physical and mental.

That was the very clear message that just came from the expert panel that finally had the guts to tell the unvarnished truth to the public. You'd think this new clarification about the lack of benefits from an unnecessary test would be greeted with cheers.

Instead, it's been treated like an assault on women motivated by a dastardly effort--by those "death panel" advocates in the Obama Administration--to cut health care costs.

So rabid has the mammography industry become about protecting its profits that it has literally become "un-American" to tell the truth about mammography.

OK. You need proof. So let's talk.

First, why should you believe me? Because I've been writing about various aspects of women's health for 30 plus years, and I spent a year as an editor at MAMM, the women's magazine whose sole topic is women's cancers. I have a shelf-full of books about women's health including one that every woman should have: The Secret History of the War on Cancer, by Devra Lee Davis, the Director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. (Look here for more about her.)

Second, even though someone is not a doctor, some facts about human breasts are easy for all of us to understand and go a long way to explaining the situation.

For instance, you might ask, what are they actually looking for on the X-ray film from a mammogram? Dr. Davis explains that they are looking for tiny white dots or other white shapes. This white "stuff," if you'll excuse the lack of scientific language, is calcium that can be left behind by cancerous cells as they grow. The breasts of women who have stopped menstruating and who are generally over 50, are fatty, and the fat shows up as black, a great background against which to see the white dots.

But the breasts of women under 50 are not fatty; they are dense, and are "riddled with lots of white spots, making it really hard to make out any tumor within," Davis writes in her book. So radiologists can only use their best guess to diagnose a particular white spot as suspicious, and most of the time--that's most of the time--they are wrong.

How wrong? In any given year, 70 of every 1,000 women under age 50 who have a mammogram will be told something suspicious has been found, meaning that over the decade between the age of 40 and 50, 700 women out of 1,000 will be told to undergo a biopsy.

Now a biopsy is no small thing. A friend of mine who underwent two of them--no cancer was found--described "excruciating pain." She was left with significant scars. And the mental anguish as women wait for the biopsy and then the result is similarly painful. Davis calls it "terror."

So if there's no benefit in terms of extending life, and all this downside of pain and anxiety--plus the expense--women under 50 should be cheering, not filled with new anxiety because of the recent announcement.

I find it shameful that most of the media coverage about the recommendations has sounded almost hysterical. You can just see the hand-wringing. The moaning about what women should do now? How will they cope? Etc. Etc.

Let's get over it, ladies. This is a step forward, not back. The advice is clear: if you're under 50, you will get no benefit from regular mammograms unless you are in a high-risk category. Over 50, you'll only have to get one every other year. That means less radiation, fewer trips to the imaging center, less humiliation as you have your boobs squished between two plates, fewer unnecessary biopsies, less mental anguish.

And is it a bad thing if we save some money besides?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Disturbing Product of the Month: The Trailer Hitch Toilet Seat

Back in the day, there was a website I co-founded called "SIS." It was a mix of serious news for women and a jaundiced look at some of the fantastically improbable products out there for sale.

Every month we selected a "disturbing product." We featured testicular implants for dogs, road kill jerky and other winners.

So I'm pleased to announce a revival of the Disturbing Product, and invite your nominations.

I'm starting things off with: The Trailer Hitch Toilet Seat.

Yes, this 1 5/16" steel tube, covered with soft padded camouflage material, fits right on to the trailer hitch of your car or truck, and you can own it for only $39.99!

This innovative item comes from Kotula's, whose catalog aims to please the macho man with other items like Rustic Barnboard Coolers, visors with glued-on hair , and a beer can cozy that "unleashes a satisfying burp and flashing lights" when you hit a remote so you can find where you left it.

We always awarded Bonus Points for product features or user tips that added zest to the products.

So Bonus Points to Kotulas for including these warnings for using the Trailer Hitch Toilet Seat:

"Not for use when vehicle is in motion (you moron)." And: "Can Get Slippery When Wet (you moron)." I added the moron part.

Kotula's has even created a video about the toilet seat that stars hunters in the woods stinking up the place so badly that the deer run away! A butler prepares the tailgate throne, toilet paper at the ready. Thanks, guys.

So please, when in your travels you come across a product as worthy as this, please leave a comment and a link, and I'll put it out there for everyone to enjoy.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Shale Gas: A Cautionary Tale from DISH, Texas

Natural gas is a cleaner fuel than oil, and much cleaner than coal. But it does carry an environmental price, as the little town of DISH, Texas, population 200, has just learned.

Reporting I've done over the past couple of years on natural gas has focused on the proposals by international energy companies to build liquid natural gas terminals along the East Coast of the United States, some in fragile areas like eastern Long Island Sound (see my posts here under the label "Broadwater") and others so close to populated areas that residents have gone to extraordinary lengths to stop them.

When I wrote about these proposals, it seemed so unnecesssary to me to invade our coastal waters to get natural gas supplies because natural gas production in the U.S. has been rising, thanks, in large part, to extraction of natural gas from shale formations. New domestic production seemed far more desirable--energy efficient and secure--than having huge ships cross the oceans from places like Qatar that would then offload the gas along our coasts, with the attendant sacrifice of fish, the health of the fishing industry, and the beauty of bays, estuaries and ocean.

But now along comes a cautionary tale from DISH, which recently spent 15% of its total budget to find out if the shale gas industry there was affecting community health. The town went to this extraordinary expense because the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality ignored the town's requests that it investigate pollution caused by the industry.

Dish's study turned up some disturbing results. It found benzene, a known carcinogen in all seven samples tested; three had levels exceeding the state's regulatory limit. In general
  • "The tests confirmed the presence of multiple recognized and suspected carcinogens...known to emanate from industrial processes of exploration drilling, flaring and compression" of natural gas.
In addition, the people of DISH have been complaining that their quality of life has suffered. The town is a bedroom community with rural surroundings, but now there's constant noise and vibration from the gas operations that literally shakes the homes to their foundations.

The news from DISH comes at a critical time. Other areas of the country with shale gas deposits, including Horseheads, in upstate New York, are looking at proposals for extracting natural gas. It's doubtful they can resist the lure of jobs and economic development, even though other suspected results of shale gas extraction may be earthquakes and water pollution. (Extracting the gas requires heavy use of water.)

All the more reason for passage of the so-called FRAC Act, now pending in both houses of Congress. It would close a loophole in the Safe Drinking Water Act so it would apply to natural gas extraction, and require full disclosure of all toxic substances released by drilling. Earthworks has documented the need for better regulation of shale gas extraction. It calls the loophole the "Halliburton Exemption," and yes, that leads directly to the leader of the dark side himself, Dick Cheney.

Our need for fuel of some kind is unavoidable, and natural gas is better than other fossil fuel choices. But we need to minimize the harm, and we can all thank the people of DISH for opening our eyes to the need to put good regulation in place before it's too late.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Your Hamburger Washed with Ammonia:Time to Boycott

Kudos to The New York Times and reporter Michael Moss for an investigative report that laid bare the disgusting process of making frozen hamburger patties.

The article told the story of Stephanie Smith, a children's dance instructor, who ended up paralyzed from eating a hamburger contaminated with a particularly vicious form of E. coli bacteria.

This eye-opening story revealed that giant Cargill uses four different sources for the meat that it grinds into burgers including beef trimmings that are half fat, half meat and trimmings that come from "any small pieces of fat derived from the normal breakdown of the beef carcass" which are heated and put in a centrifuge. The "remaining product" gets treated "with ammonia to kill E. coli." Yummy!

Despite pressure from government officials, Cargill refuses to test each separate supply of "meat" before it grinds them all together; the only testing is of the final product. So when Smith became ill, it was impossible to track the bacteria back to its source.

Obviously, testing of each source of supply should be required.

But the hamburgers that come out of Cargill's grinders are essentially made of the wastes from the slaughtering process--trash that most of us wouldn't even feed to our dogs. Yet this garbage, some of which costs Cargill as little as 60 cents a pound, according to the article, is sold in supermarkets for, at minimum, $3 a pound.

Spread the word. Everyone should boycott frozen hamburger patties. (Perhaps with one exception: Costco. Costco tests each supply of meat for contamination before it grinds them together.)

If you want a safer hamburger, buy a package of ground beef and spend 5 minutes seasoning it and forming it into patties. Add some breadcrumbs, if you like--that's what Cargill does--for better texture. You'll be less likely to get sick and you won't be giving your business to a company that obviously puts profits ahead of the integrity of its products.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Credit danger at Bloomingdale's: 93.24% Interest!

You've got to be kidding: 93.24% interest? Can't be.

I blinked a few times, read the statement again and yes, that's what it said.

If I were to pay less than the full balance on my Bloomingdale's charge card, the store would add a finance charge of $2 on top of the 23.99 percent interest charge on any outstanding balance.

And if that happens, read the small print, "the actual ANNUAL PERCENTAGE RATE (their caps) charged on that account is 93.24%."

But wait. There's more, as I read in the really fine, gray print on the reverse of the bill.

There I learned that even if I pay this current bill in full by the due date, should I make another purchase at Bloomingdale's during the current billing period, a finance charge will appear on my next bill. And that will be based on the current balance (even though my full payment is in the mail!) plus the value of my purchase.

These terms, folks, should be illegal.

Just like all the other usurious interest rates charged on bank credit cards, and all the late fees, etc., etc. The U.S. Congress has been tinkering around the edges of credit card abuses instead of moving directly against these outrageous, confiscatory interest rates.

What cracks me up is that some of the big banks are now proudly advertising that you can opt out of overdraft protection on a credit card. Proud of what? That they've been forced by public outrage to make the "protection" optional? People were shocked to discover they had spent beyond their credit limit without realizing it and were then hit with such outrageous interest rates and charges that they amount to nothing less than theft!

So, Bloomingdale's, I won't be using your charge card ever again.

And the lesson to us all is to remember that the discount you get on the day you agree to take a department store charge card is a weapon that might just wreck your finances.

Just say no!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Quit Whining, Soft Drink Manufacturers. You've Been On the Government Dole for Too Long!

When you're out to buy a drink to go with take-out or fast food, the cheapest choice is always a Coke or a Pepsi or a Sprite. Plain bottled water usually costs more. A cup of coffee or a bottled tea costs more, and real juice, orange or apple for example, costs a lot more.

This fact should be at the heart of the growing debate about imposing a tax on sugared soft drinks rather than a false argument about individual freedom-of-choice or why Americans are getting so fat.

Advocates of the tax are focusing on the link between increased consumption of soft drinks and the rise in obesity. They say cheap soft drinks are helping to make us a nation of fattys, with all the bad health consequences that result from being obese. Placing a tax on soft drinks to raise the price, say proponents, will discourage consumption, and the money raised could be used to pay some of the cost of providing universal health care.

The opposition,led by the American Beverage Association, has framed its criticism as an objection to another form of government intrusion. It's recent quarter-page ad in The New York Times waved the flag of personal freedom:
  • "Our goal is to help Americans better understand the relationship between calories consumed and calories burned--as it should be their choice what to eat or drink and not the government's."
Before you swallow that appeal to your rights, consider that the government has had both feet planted in our food supply for decades.

Every year, for example, $10 billion of our taxes are handed out in subsidies to American corn farmers, which has had the effect since the effect of keeping corn prices below the cost of growing it. Our taxes then provide an indirect subsidy to soft-drink manufacturers in saving them about $243 million a year on high-fructose corn syrup, the sweetener used in almost all our soft drinks, according to a Tufts University study. (That study is called "Sweetening the Pot," and can be found at a Tufts' website with a series of fascinating reports on how U.S. government agriculture policies are affecting our food choices.)

That taxpayer-provided discount on the corn syrup is one reason--although not a big one-- for the low price of soft drinks; the cost of the syrup represents only 3.5% of the total cost of making a soft drink, according to the Tufts researchers.

Meanwhile, farmers who raise healthy food--fruits and vegetables--get no tax subsidies at all. That puts the healthiest food at a price disadvantage against all the food products, besides soft drinks, that benefit from the subsidies. Beneficiaries include the giant agribusinesses that concoct all manner of processed foods as well as beef, pork and chicken producers who feed corn to huge numbers of animals in confined and often cruel conditions.

Furthermore, we have a long tradition of using tax policies to push behavior in one direction or another, and whether you favor the push depends, quite naturally, on your self-interest rather than your conservative or liberal ideology.

You don't hear builders, for example, objecting to the tax deduction for mortgage interest that indirectly lowers the price of owning a house and puts renting at a disadvantage. Nor did General Motors object when Congress gave tax breaks to purchasers of Hummers.

So, the idea of using a tax to push consumers away from soft drinks is consistent with past policies. Making the drinks more expensive still leaves people free to buy and drink them, but might push some toward healthier choices.

And, the money that would be raised by the tax could be used not only to help pay for universal health care but also to provide support for vegetable and fruit farmers and help build regional food production networks.

So, beverage makers should quit their whining. It's time they had to face the competition without the advantage of subsidies from taxpayers, although ending the corn, soybean and wheat subsidies has proven politically impossible. But if free enterprise and free choice are really the beverage-makers' goal, then they should be lobbying for an end to the subsidies just as vigorously as they are opposing a tax on soft drinks.

But I won't be holding my breath waiting for that to happen.

What do you think?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Healthy Froot Loops? Not.

When my sons were little and asked for cereals like Froot Loops, I used to say, "Honey, that's not real food. Real food doesn't come in those colors." I wasn't kidding. To get the rainbow of colors into this junk food, Kellogg has to add two artificial blue colorings, a red and a yellow.

Years of reporting on the harmful effects of artificial ingredients in food convinced me long ago that a healthy diet consists of food the way it comes from nature. If it takes lab scientists to create it, then I'm not interested in putting that so-called food in my body.

Now along comes a new food industry program meant to tap into Americans' increasing awareness that much of the food on supermarket shelves is just corn in different disguises, sweetened and salted to a fare-thee-well.

It's called the "Smart Choice Program," and its green check-mark label will soon be adorning Froot Loops and other foods that don't deserve that designation.

Message to consumers: ignore the label. Read the ingredients list.

The gall of Kellogg in using the label is to be expected. But supposedly respected nutritionists, like Eileen T. Kennedy, dean of Tufts University's school of nutrition science, gave their approval. The New York Times quoted her as saying that Froot Loops would be a better choice for a child's breakfast than a doughnut.

Wow. What an insult to every parent in America. Here are your choices, Mom & Dad. Serve those kids sugary fried food or sugary food made from corn, with fiber and a vitamin pill thrown in.

And, it's not only an insult to our health, it's an insult to our budgets at a time when everyone--except the bankers--are having to find ways to trim expenses.

If you take a look at the ingredients list you can see what a travesty this is. Sugar is listed as the first ingredient and actually accounts for 41% of the weight of the cereal. It amounts to 3 teaspoons of sugar, as much as in many cookies.

And the price for this combo of cheap corn, cheap fiber, and the equivalent of one vitamin pill? $6 for a 19-ounce box!

Here are some ideas of healthy breakfasts that will cost less or certainly no more. Some can be prepared the night before and grabbed right out of the fridge, others may take a few minutes to prepare and eat at home:
  • A hard-boiled egg and a banana
  • A peanut butter and jelly sandwich
  • Cinnamon toast: slices of whole wheat bread and butter with a sprinkle of cinnamon and sugar
  • A bowl of Quaker Quick Oatmeal (costs a shy more than $2 for an 18-ounce package) sprinkled with raisins. You can microwave it in the time it takes to find your keys.
  • A smoothie: milk and whatever fruit is on hand whipped in the blender.

Here's my bottom line: If Froot Loops were actually healthy, the name of this product wouldn't be a deliberate misspelling of "fruit." Had they spelled it right, the name itself would be a fraud. Just like the new "Smart Choice" label.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Truth--and Myths--About Home Births

When I told my women friends that my older son's first baby--and my first grandchild--would be born at home, most of them looked shocked. They immediately voiced fears, saying that they thought it was much safer to have the baby in a hospital because things can go wrong, and in that case, an operating room would be immediately accessible.

It didn't change their minds when I told them that this was a low-risk pregnancy, that my son's girlfriend had been healthy throughout, and that everything showed that the baby--a boy--was doing well. Nor were their minds changed when I said she would have a birth assistant (a certified doula) to help her through the labor, and then a highly experienced midwife to deliver him.

Well, he was born a week ago today, and came into the world with eyes open wide, pink and healthy and calm.

I know exactly how he looked because I saw him within moments of his birth. All four of his grandparents, his uncle and aunt, were there at home waiting. We suffered along with Nicole as we listened to her cry and yell during the last throes of childbirth. But once we heard his cry, we ran upstairs, applauded, cried, hugged and poured champagne. I'll never forget that morning.

Baby Henry began nursing like a champ immediately, and has been calm and content ever since. When he wakes up to nurse, his eyelids flutter and he frowns as if all that light is still a shock to him.

And then I remember the hospital nurseries with fluorescent lights glaring, 24 hours a day. No wonder the nurseries are usually ringing with the howls of the newborns!

So the outcome for my grandson was perfect. The midwives--a second one came at the end to help--called it a beautiful birth. They should know. For one of them it was the 251st. birth she had attended.

The birth assistant, by the way, was with Nicole throughout her labor, coaching her on changing positions, massaging her, using aroma therapy, accupressure, a birth chair, etc. to help her.

But what of my friends' fears? Justified or not?


Here's the evidence, culled from the best and most recent study of home births. It comes from a study of 7,600 births in the U.S. and Canada, published in the British Medical Journal in 2005, that were planned to occur at home with certified midwives attending. All of the births studied were low-risk, meaning that the mothers were healthy, with no chronic health problems, and that all pre-birth exams showed the babies in good health as well. The outcomes of the home births were compared to low-risk births that occurred in hospitals.

  • Infant mortality was 1.7 per 1,000 births, a rate as low as occurs in hospitals with low-risk births.
  • Medical interventions occurred at less than half the rate as in hospitals. For example, only 2.1% of the women at home suffered an episiotomy, compared to 33%--yes, one in three--in the hospital. Only 3.7% of the women at home ended up delivering by caesarean section, compared to 19% in the hospital.
  • None of the mothers died. Some of the women--12%--were transferred to a hospital when problems developed. If a woman is within 20 minutes of a hospital, she is likely to be under care in an operating room as quickly as a woman who labors in the hospital. That's because it takes some time to mobilize the equipment and staff needed, and that mobilization can get started just as quickly with a phone call from home.
The study concluded: "Planned home birth for low risk women in North America using certified professional midwives was associated with lower rates of medical intervention but similar (infant)...mortality to that of low risk hospital births in the United States."

The bonus, of course, in this era of soaring health costs, is that a home birth is far less expensive than one that takes place in a hospital.

Meanwhile, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists continues to oppose home births while infant and maternal mortality rates for the U.S. continue to be far worse than those in other western countries where medical interventions, like cesaereans, occur far less often.

Which leads me to believe that opposition to home births is rooted in the desire of the medical establishment to protect their income stream, and not out of concern about the safety of women and babies.

Yet, American women are so frightened of childbirth at home that less than 1% choose to stay out of the hospital. A pity. For them, their families and babies.##

Monday, August 10, 2009

Good News about Global Warming: Kleenex To Be Made From Sustainable Wood

With good news about global warming in short supply, it's heartening to learn that Kimberly-Clarke has agreed to stop destroying forests to make Kleenex and its other disposable paper products.

This announcement came to me from Greenpeace which has been waging a long campaign they dubbed "Kleercut" to bring public pressure to bear against the manufacturer. Forests are major absorbers of carbon dioxide, and it's imperative that we harvest timber only in ways that sustain them. The success of Greenpeace reinforces my feeling that despite the continuing obstacles and nay-sayers, we now have a critical mass of people in the U.S. who understand the urgency of global warming.

Most people who know me would never call me Pollyanna, but it certainly is true that my view is affected by the people I work with and socialize with, my chosen people, if you will. And my people, along with millions like us in the U.S. and around the world, are engaged in all manner of personal life-style changes to live more gently on the earth, as well as being deeply involved in local, national and global efforts to preserve our beautiful green planet.

The changes range from people picking up after their dogs (helping to prevent bacterial contamination of the bays around here) to doing veggie barbecues instead of grilling that predictable steak (thereby helping to cut carbon dioxide emissions that come from raising so many cattle). All these changes come out of a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of all life.

In the case of Kleenex, good people, mobilized through Greenpeace and other organizations like the National Resources Defense Council, have brought public opinion to bear on Kimberly-Clarke, resulting in this announcement from Greenpeace:

"Kimberly-Clark has set a goal of obtaining 100 percent of the wood fiber for its products — including its flagship brand, Kleenex — from environmentally responsible sources. By the end of 2011, the company will no longer use any pulp from the Boreal Forest unless it is Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified. The policy also prevents the company from cutting endangered forests, and increases the company’s use of FSC-certified pulp and recycled fiber globally. (The statement continues:)

With this announcement, Kimberly-Clark, the largest tissue company in the world, becomes a sustainability leader. Now it’s time for Georgia-Pacific and Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark’s main competitors, to create their own policies to protect ancient forests."

Kudos to Kimberly-Clark!

But for a minimum of 18 months, if they are as good as their word, Kleenex and other Kimberly-Clark products may still be made from unsustainable cutting of the boreal forests, a term which refers to the evergreen forests of the northern hemisphere that lie between the tundra and the forests of trees that lose their leaves in winter.

Until then, and maybe after, I'll continue to buy Marcal toilet paper and tissues because they've been using only recycled paper for years to make their products . (For a list of sustainably produced paper products, go to the NRDC's web site.)

Of course, my optimism about the future won't stop me from writing letters to President Obama, calling members of Congress, and using my buying power to prod manufacturers to see the world green. But I do take heart from the Greenpeace success.

If we don't let ourselves be discouraged, we can pass on a beautiful world to our children and generations beyond.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Alert: Chilean Farmed Salmon Tainted with Dangerous Antibiotic

Salmon that is farmed in Chile and widely sold in the U.S. is being fed hundreds of thousands of pounds of an antibiotic that is so dangerous that its use is prohibited in food producing animals--that includes fish--by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The antibiotic, chloramphenicol, is linked to a lethal human blood disorder and is a suspected cause of cancer. There is no known safe dose; It is only used to treat serious human infections.

The situation shows, once again, how our food inspection system is so inadequate. The FDA should be inspecting Chilean salmon and stopping shipments from entering the U.S. if they contain any trace of the antibiotic.

But according to Public Citizen the FDA inspects only 1 to 2% of all seafood entering the U.S.

What a pickle, to mix metaphors: I not only love the taste of salmon, but I know it's healthy for my heart. And farmed salmon is a whole lot cheaper than wild salmon.

But if you put this in context, and think about the fact that the federal government allows other kinds of antibiotics to be fed routinely to cattle whose flesh is supposedly safe, this chloramphenicol has to be so dangerous that we should do our best to avoid it.

Word about Chilean salmon came today in a New York Times article that reported that Chile used 718,000 pounds of antibiotics last year to keep farmed salmon from dying from infections; about one-third were from the most dangerous family of antibiotics, quinolones. Farmed ocean fish are vulnerable to infection because they are grown in pens that can be unsanitary and overcrowded.

By comparison, Norway used only 2,075 pounds last year for its farmed salmon. This info became public because the environmental group, Oceana, requested the information.

Chile is the biggest supplier of salmon to the U.S., and the fish are sold by giant retailers including Wal-Mart and Safeway who, according to the Times, have reduced their purchases from the company because of health concerns.

Indirectly, of course, that means they are still selling at least some Chilean salmon.

What's a health-conscious consumer to do?

This is truly a case of buyer beware. Supermarkets, as I've noted here before, are required to label their seafood as wild or farmed and with country of origin. Your local fish monger is not covered by the law, but be sure to ask if the information is not visible.

So, to the best of your ability, buy only wild Pacific salmon, and stay within your budget by eating less. Norwegian salmon farmers rely much less on antibiotics, so that is a healthier choice. Or, try farmed U.S. trout instead for a change, which is in the same family as salmon. Environmentalists say that fish like trout that are farmed inland, rather than in the ocean, are safe to eat.

Monday, July 20, 2009

"Traitor Joe's" Takes Heat for Sales of Endangered Fish

Traitor Joe's: That's the nickname Greenpeace has pasted on Trader Joe's because the stores sell red-list fish: fish caught in ways that harm ocean habitats or other creatures or whose numbers are so low they may become extinct.

Greenpeace decided to put on the pressure because the private owners behind the supermarket chain have not been willing to even disclose how and where they get their seafood. (According to a statement from Trader Joe's, company policy is never to participate in surveys.) So now you can go to a "Traitor Joe" website and send the chain a singing fish telegram or take other action in protest.

Greenpeace recently updated the scorecards that rate markets on their seafood practices, and Trader Joe's got an F.

That's because, says Greenpeace:
  • Trader Joe's has no sustainable seafood policy
  • Isn't working with fishing industry groups or others trying to promote sustainable practices
  • Doesn't label its products so consumers can understand what they're buying
  • And claims in its ads that it is buying in a sustainable fashion, even though it's selling orange roughy and other species whose survival is in question. (See my March blog about for more info on sustainable fish.)
A statement from Jon Basalone, Executive Vice President Marketing & Merchandising for Trader Joe's, says that "Hearing recent feedback, our goal is to offer seafood options that fit customer needs ranging from food safety and taste to concern over the environment." It goes on to say that the company will take into account in its purchasing decisions the fish recommendations of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The company further denies that it actually sells some of the "red-list" species that Greenpeace claims it does, although, in a backhanded attempt to say it is really doing a better job than its competitors, it admits to selling some : "Trader Joe's sells fewer items on that 'Red List' than the #1 ranked grocery retailer in their report." Nothing to be proud of, folks.

And if true, maybe Trader Joe's would have spared itself this public relations problem if it had cooperated with Greenpeace in the first place.

In the meantime, those of us who shop at Trader Joe's should take the chain at its word that it listens to its customers and speak up about the seafood on sale. Ditto for its competitors. Remember, as you shop, that federal law now requires supermarkets to label all seafood with its place of origin and method of catch. If you don't see that information, let the store manager know you've noticed and expect better of the store.

In today's world of growing scarcity, unfortunately, we now need to know which species have been over-fished and how others are caught. Otherwise, we'll come to the point where the fish we love to eat will have been loved out of existence. You can get educated quickly at the Monterey Bay Aquarium website.##

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Proposed FDA Action To Cut Doses of Tylenol Shows Need for Disclosure in Ads of Active Ingredients

Advertising for over-the-counter medicines should disclose the active ingredients in them.

That should be the take-home message today in response to the news that an FDA advisory panel has recommended that Tylenol be sold in doses of no more than 325 milligrams, and that Percocet and Vicodin be banned altogether.

The sad fact is that the need for disclosure has been apparent for years. Ten years ago, The Women's Consumer Foundation conducted a face-to-face survey of 181 inner-city women that found a dangerous lack of understanding of the most basic information about over-the-counter (OTC) drugs. Many of the women--almost half--were taking medicines like Tylenol without knowing what was in them, and many were taking more than the recommended doses without realizing the danger.

Fewer than half the women knew that acetaminophen is the active ingredient in Tylenol (they were given four possible answers from which to choose) despite the fact that Tylenol was the drug that the women said they bought most often.

And, most dangerous of all, 44 percent of the women said they knew people who very often, or somewhat often, took more than the recommended dosages; 25 percent admitted to doing so themselves.

At the time we first published these findings on our not-for-profit website, SIS (now defunct, as is the Women's Consumer Foundation), the drug manufacturers claimed that our findings were wrong, that people do read and understand labels and don't take more than the recommended doses.

This latest recommendation by the FDA panel puts the lie to those assertions because it was based on statistics showing that 400 people die every year, and 42,000 are hospitalized in the U.S. because they overdosed themselves. Percocet and Vicodin contain a narcotic and acetaminophen, which is a leading cause of liver damage.

The panel members agreed that consumers need to be better educated about OTC medicines, and I concur.

The simplest way to do that is via the ads for these drugs. The FDA should require that all advertising for OTC drugs disclose the generic names of their active ingredients.

This remedy was actually proposed by a Federal Trade Commission administrative law judge more than 20 years ago. Sadly, the commission decided not to follow the recommendation.

So in all the years since, consumers have been bombarded with billions of dollars of OTC drug ads that mis-educate them, that lead them to believe that Tylenol contains some unique ingredient. Ditto for Nyquil, TheraFlu, Alka-Seltzer, etc. In reality, these expensive brand name products contain inexpensive ingredients that can be bought generically for far less--often 50 percent less.

So hundreds of people are dying, thousands are ending up in hospitals and millions are wasting their money because of advertising that misinforms and fails to provide the most necessary, basic information: the active ingredients in the medications.

Friday, June 26, 2009

How Much Sugar in a 20-Ounce Coke? 16 Teaspoons!

My husband will often drink a Coke while he is driving a long distance; the caffeine and sugar give him a jolt that helps him stay alert. But when I had a look at the nutrition label of a 20-ounce bottle he was drinking recently and told him how much sugar was in it, he was shocked.

It's not that he had never looked at the label before. But the label lists the amount of sugar in grams, and how many people know how much sugar weighs a gram? We use teaspoons to measure sugar into our coffee and tea, and it's in terms of teaspoons that the amount of sugar has some meaning.

I had recently looked up this question and found the answer: 4.2 grams of sugar equals 1 teaspoon.

Which means, I told him, that a 20-ounce bottle of Coke has 67.5 grams of sugar, equal to SIXTEEN teaspoons or 1/4 cup!

My husband drinks his coffee black, so thinking about someone pouring 16 teaspoons of sugar into that bottle was a powerful image.

He has never been obese and drinks very little soda, but many experts say soft drinks are a major contributor to the obesity epidemic.

It might be easier to convince people to cut back on soda pop if the nutrition labels on them (and on all other food as well) expressed the amount of sugar in terms people can understand--like teaspoons. Furthermore, as nutrition expert and author, Marion Nestle, points out, we also need to know how much of the sugar content of a food is there naturally--as in pure fruit juice--and how much was added by the food processor. She is hoping that the FDA under Obama will provide that information.

(By the way, many experts don't believe there's anything intrinsically more harmful about high fructose corn syrup than cane sugar. The problem is that government corn subsidies have made the syrup incredibly cheap, making it possible for manufacturers to super-size containers of soda and still keep the prices low enough to encourage consumption--which, by the way, is going down, despite their best efforts.)

Another peculiar aspect of sugar labeling is that there's no Recommended Daily Allowance. The amount of every other substance is given in grams or milligrams (for sodium) and then as a percentage of what the government believes is the desirable amount for an adult eating 2,000 calories a day.

But how much sugar should you eat? No guidance is given.

Absent that information, all you can do is first, look closely at the number of calories per serving, being careful to notice how many servings are in the package.

And, second, convert the grams of sugar into teaspoons that you can see with your mind's eye getting poured one after the other into your food: 4.2 grams of sugar = 1 teaspoon.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Doubt Evolution? See the Smithsonian's Ocean Exhibit

Today is World Ocean Day, and I love the coincidence with my visit yesterday to the Smithsonian's fabulous new ocean exhibit. You could easily spend a couple of days taking it all in--there are 2 hours of video alone!--but we had two hours of explanation from fish scientist Carole Baldwin who I profiled for a boating magazine a couple of years ago.

Ninety-five percent of the ocean is still unexplored, and Carole is one of the scientists who consistently find new species every time they descend to the depths. You get a real sense of how other-worldly it is in the deeps thanks to a video showing the view from a submersible as it descends. Where no light can reach, all of a sudden you see points of light given off by an infinite number of bio-luminescent creatures. It's gorgeous and amazing.

One of the most striking parts of the exhibit--and there are so many--was the huge skeleton hanging from the ceiling of an ancient ancestor of today's whales.

If you doubt evolution, or just want new ammunition to refute doubters, come see this fossil, which is irrefutable evidence of an evolutionary twist that is nothing short of astonishing.

Here's information that will dazzle your friends: Dolphins and whales evolved from a mammal or mammals who left the land and climbed back into the water.

The theory about why this happened, Carole explained, is that there was too much competition for food on land, or perhaps that there was so much food available in the ocean. Over eons, these four-legged land mammals developed the ability to feed under water and their front limbs turned into fins. Their back legs, however, shrank as they became useless, and that's what you see overhead at the exhibit: tiny, vestigial legs hanging from the skeleton. The fossil is about 35 million years old.

Validating belief in evolution, of course, is only one reason to visit this exhibit, which cost nearly $49 million to build and consumed 5 1/2 years of Carole's life as part of the team that created it. Here you can also learn why jellyfish have become so much more numerous (we've fished their predators almost out of existence), why some beaches have powdery sand and others big pebbles or rocks (crashing waves and tides wash away finer grains) and why the melting of ice in the Arctic is even more alarming than you thought (krill, that are the very basis of the food chain, eat bacteria that grow on the underside of the ice. No ice, no bacteria, no krill, no...).

You can also see a life-size model of Phoenix, a living female North Atlantic Right Whale who is known to have had two babies. Yes, there are now so few Right Whales that scientists have given them names. They are identifiable thanks to crusty patches on their skin called callocites.

The exhibit is permanent, meaning it will be at the National Museum of Natural History, which is on the National Mall, for decades. But why wait? This exhibit will dazzle and delight you in ways you can't even imagine.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

No Tears for Anti-Consumer General Motors

I feel bad for the auto workers and the dealers who are losing their livelihoods in the bankruptcy of General Motors. Yes, the workers had a sweet deal, but why should only bosses enjoy a plush life style when profits are good? And when the company saw itself losing market share, it was up to the management to control labor costs. So spare me the union bashing.

The loss of so many dealers is also deplorable. It will leave big holes in towns and cities across the country. Shutting them means more job losses and also the disappearance of stalwart community leaders who could usually be counted on as generous supporters of local causes. Frankly, I really can't understand the economic necessity of closing so many.

But I'm not shedding any tears over the demise of General Motors the Corporation as we've known it..

In the late 60s and early 70s, when I was cutting my teeth as a consumer reporter, GM already had become notorious as the company that sent detectives out to investigate Ralph Nader. The young Nader had exposed the propensity of GM's Corvair to flip over and kill its drivers. The Corvair was GM's response to the popularity of the Volkswagen Beetle. The Corvair's defect, Nader documented, was designed in, and instead of fixing the problem, GM covered up and tried to discredit him. You can read all about this in Nader's book about the Corvair, Unsafe at Any Speed. Publicity about GM's attempt to smear Nader did have one good effect: it made Nader a hero.

But management's move against Nader typified its strategy for dealing with safety and quality issues: cover-up and denial.

These were the years when if you had a crash, you could be impaled by the steering column (now the columns collapse into themselves) or thrown around inside the car to smash your face or limbs on metal dashboards and protruding, sharp handles (everything is now padded and smooth), or get thrown through the windshield because there was no belt to hold you. GM (and the other American manufacturers) fought safety improvements including seat belt and air bag laws, protesting over and over that each change would unjustifiably and unnecessarily raise the price of their autos.

As for quality, improvements came only under pressure from foreign manufacturers who won over American consumers with better-built cars. GM might have been able to keep its mammoth market share if it had listened to consumer complaints. Instead, deaf and dumb, it kept pushing its cars as sexy, powerful, fantasy vehicles with chrome and fins--and recently, cup holders.

Years ago in the days when my family went skiing nearly every weekend in winter, we owned a GM Blazer. We liked its size, but the interior very quickly came apart. Knobs and handles fell off--it looked like we had battered it! Mechanically, it wasn't much better. Today, we have cars with bumper-to-bumper warranties, and they almost never break down. GM was a reluctant follower of that trend, forced into responding by foreign competitors.

But fall-apart interiors were nothing compared to the defective anti-lock brakes in our 1996 Chevrolet Tahoe. When the SUV was just two months old, the brakes failed when my husband tried to slow down for a car in front of him that was waiting to make a left turn. An excellent and experienced driver, he repeatedly pressed the brake pedal, only to have it repeatedly fall to the floor without slowing the car at all. My husband and son walked away from the slow-speed collision, but the driver of the other car was seriously injured and her car was totaled.

When I raced to the scene after getting a phone call from my husband, my years of consumer reporting told me there had to be a defect in the Tahoe's brakes. Sure enough, when I researched complaints filed with the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, I found more than 7,000 describing the exact same failure. I wrote an expose of the situation, but it ran only on my fledgling and now defunct Internet website, SIS, and on TV's Inside Edition, which picked up the story from me.

Of course, GM denied that anything was wrong with the brakes. It wasn't until 1999 that the dissemblers in Detroit admitted that all these accidents were not the fault of drivers who just didn't know how anti-lock brakes worked. The company announced one of the largest recalls ever, calling in 3.5 million vehicles to correct the brake problems. By that time, there were more than 10,000 complaints on record, and there had been thousands of crashes and hundreds of injuries, although no deaths. The recall barely made a ripple of news because GM timed the announcement so well: it released the news on the day before the funeral for JFK, Jr., whose death in a small-plane accident had swamped all other news. (Yes, car companies get to choose when they will release notice of a recall.)

We got the message after that. I vowed never again to buy another GM vehicle. I'd guess, from the fall in their market share, that lots of Americans quietly came to the same conclusion.

But there's more in GM's ugly history. Strike 1 was safety. Strike 2 was quality. Strike 3 was GM management's failure to respond to the energy crisis and global warming. In this, of course, they once again used their powerful friends in Congress to fight federal support for mass transit and to ensure that mileage standards would not be raised. Even more egregious was their success in giving tax breaks to buyers of the most notorious gas guzzlers, the humongous Hummers and Cadillac Escalades.

Yes, folks, our memories are short. It was only in 2007 that Congress decided there might be something wrong with giving a $25,000 tax credit to any business owner who bought a vehicle heavier than 6,000 pounds. The credit was intended for people like farmers who really need heavy vehicles, but the law had left a loophole, and GM happily walked through as the globe continued to warm. So anyone who owned any kind of business--an insurance agency, a mortgage company, an accountancy practice--could claim the credit. That's why the streets of our cities and suburbs became over-populated with these urban assault vehicles which were, and are, a danger to people in smaller, normal cars, and which suck down fuel like Kool-Aid. Naturally, GM lobbied against ending the tax credit.

More recently, they successfully fought giving California a waiver to impose its own standards for controlling greenhouse gases. The Bush Administration refused to give the waiver, but the Obama Administration is in the process, thankfully, of making the California standards the standards for the whole country.

So, a frank look back at the history of General Motors makes it clear that this company was a bad citizen that disregarded the dangers of its vehicles and worked always to maximize profit no matter what the consequences to the public. It survived for so long only because of its success in lobbying Congress and its decades as a monopoly that dominated the market.

Drivers today are safer than they would have been, cars are better made, and the air is clearer, because of consumer advocates like Ralph Nader and because of global competition that eventually made American consumers realize that better cars came from across the ocean.

So, no tears for the management, stock and bond holders of General Motors. They deserved bankruptcy long ago for their callous disregard of our safety and our planet.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Largest Organic Milk Producer Uses Small- Farmer Exemption To Cut Costs

Aurora Organic Dairy is the largest organic milk and butter producer in the country, keeping thousands of cows at facilities mostly in Colorado. According to the company's web site, its
"new model" of organic production on a large scale meets "the fullest promise of (the) organic movement." Because of its nationwide distribution, Aurora produces private label and store brand organic dairy products for giant retailers including Wal-Mart, Costco, Target & Safeway.

But the company's self-congratulation has been met with boos and hisses from family-size organic milk farmers and organizations that represent them. These small-scale competitors charge that Aurora wants it both ways: produce on a large scale but claim a financial exemption meant to help small farmers.

The issue, however, is not the first controversy to blow through Aurora.

  • In April, 2007, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed to revoke Aurora's organic certifications. The U.S.D.A. said it had found 14 "willful violations" of organic regulations including such basics as not giving cows sufficient access to pasture.
  • Instead of filing an appeal, which would have created an open proceeding and a record of testimony and is the usual next step in such cases, Aurora immediately began negotiating with the Bush Administration officials then heading the agency.
  • In August, 2007, Aurora signed a consent agreement with the government in which it agreed to make changes in its operation, but admitted no wrong-doing. The government also gave Aurora cover against charges that some of the milk it had been selling had not actually met organic guidelines. It did this by saying that the company's certifications were valid, thus making is possible for Aurora CEO Marc Peperzak to proudly declare, "Our milk is and always has been organic."
  • Critics called the settlement a whitewash, and in October, 2007, class action lawsuits alleging fraud by Aurora were filed.
With those lawsuits still pending, Aurora had to defend itself again this May at new USDA hearings about the seemingly esoteric "producer-handler" exemption. Production of milk in the U.S. is governed by very old laws intended to protect family farmers. One aspect of these laws is to exempt small dairy farmers who bottle their own milk from paying into a national fund used to promote milk consumption.

Aurora has claimed this exemption. According to Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst for the Cornucopia Institute, an advocacy group, this has saved Aurora millions of dollars, enabling it to undercut prices and threaten the livelihood of family farmers.

I contacted Aurora to get their side of this story. I wanted to know why they think they deserve to use the exemption, just how much money it saves them, and basic information like how many cows they actually raise. I wanted to interview someone at the top, preferably CEO Peperzak or President Mark Retzloff, who both proclaim their dedication to creation of sustainable systems of food production and the principles of the organic movement.

They declined my request, instead having an outside public relations representative forward an email to me. "We have no interest in responding to the latest round of baseless claims by Cornucopia Institute," it read. "Cornucopia has made clear that it is trying to run Aurora Organic out of business in order to drive up the price of organic milk."

So the acrimony continues while the U.S.D.A.'s hearing officer contemplates the testimony he recently heard before rendering a decision.

If you're a buyer of organic milk, it's up to you make up your own mind about all this. If you don't like what Aurora is doing, or think it's just fine, let them know. Here's their phone #: 720-564-6296.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Sweet Diesels Few & Far Between

I've been a fan of diesel cars ever since I wrote an article for Smithsonian magazine a few years ago about how people were making their own fuel out of waste grease or turning the grease into biodiesel at home. After doing the research, I became very optimistic about commercial biodiesel becoming available quickly, so I went out and bought a used 2002 Volkswagen Jetta diesel.

(Biodiesel can be used in existing diesel engines without modifying the engines. If you use strained grease, you need a dual fuel system so you can start and stop the engine with petroleum diesel. Otherwise, the gel in the grease creates clogs.)

I've been very happy with the Jetta: it rides like a much bigger car, even at fast highway speeds, and gets more than 40 mpg at the same time! Unlike pokey gasoline engine cars or hybrids that get similar mileage, the diesel has plenty of power--it's just plain fun to drive.

However, my hopes for commercial biodiesel have not turned into reality. There are all sorts of obstacles to getting the fuel distributed nationally, not least of them that regional fuel depots don't want to invest in necessary new facilities to handle it. Furthermore, we've been shipping most U.S. biodiesel to Europe where diesel cars dominate. And then, when the price of petroleum diesel finally dropped to more reasonable levels, it put biodiesel--made here mainly from soybeans--at a competitive disadvantage.

Even so, when we recently decided to get rid of our gas-powered family-sized car that we use for long trips, I thought I'd trade the Jetta for a new VW Passat diesel, which Volkswagen had promised to bring to the U.S. sometime this year. It's a bit larger and therefore a bit safer on highways where you dance with tractor-trailers, and yet would get excellent mileage.

But no. A spokesperson for VW says they've changed their minds, and there will be no Passat diesel anytime soon. Bummer.

Unfortunately, there are very few diesel cars yet available in the U.S. You can get an improved Jetta diesel or a diesel SUV in a luxury brand, but there are very few to choose from otherwise.

This despite the fact that diesels get 20 to 30% better mpg than comparable gas cars with all the torgue and durability you could want. And, thanks to new technology and ultra-low sulfur petro diesel, new models meet the strictest (California) air pollution standards.

Still, I was left with the reality that we needed another car, so I did the research, looking for a full-size gasoline vehicle with good mileage. So discouraging, because essentially there are none. Then I discovered the Mercedes Benz E320 diesel, introduced in 2008, with the new clean technology. It promised to get about 25 mpg in local driving, and in the 30s on the highway.

I located a used one with about 20,000 miles on it, trekking over the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey to see it. I got in for a test drive, and I hadn't gone 200 yards before a smile spread across my face: this is one sweet ride!

Quiet--no more loud diesel noise. Smoke-free--no more nasty tailpipe emissions. Smooth. Everything about this vehicle is smooth and powerful. I bought it.

It cost more than we'd expected to spend--although buying it used saved a lot--but we figure it will last a good 10 years. And I've been averaging close to 30 mpg in my combined stop-and-go and local highway driving.

Too bad the automakers are so slow about bringing more sweet diesels to U.S. car buyers.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Antioxident Vitamins C & E Can Have Negative Effects

Put the word "antioxident" on a packaged food, and folks are a lot more likely to buy it, say market researchers. And, since food companies' goal is to entice you to buy their products, they've been busy taking advantage of that reaction.

The problem is, there's little proof that added antioxidents help us stay healthy; instead some new evidence suggests they actually interfere with some of the benefits of exercising and losing weight.

Nutritionist Marion Nestle, who monitors the sins of the food industry from her perch at New York University, says hundreds of products now tout the presence of antioxidents, but that we're being fooled. In her blog, she says there's a "lack of evidence" of the benefits of artificially adding antioxidents to your diet in the form, for example, of vitamins C & E.

(In case you've been living in a bubble, antioxidents appear to play a powerful role in fending off cancer and diabetes and fighting the effects of aging.)

Today came the news that if you're on a weight reduction program and/or exercise regularly, taking vitamin C & E for their antioxident effects may, in fact, work against your health.

The study, reported in The New York Times, found that our bodies' natural reaction to exercise and weight loss is not only to mobilize our built-in natural antioxident defenses from free oxygen, but also to make us more sensitive to insulin. When the two vitamins were added to the diets of study subjects who were exercising and losing weight, the study showed they short-circuited our natural responses.

There's no debate that unprocessed foods in their natural state--like berries, broccoli, garlic, tomatoes and spinach--contain potent antioxidents in combination with many other nutrients. This combination isn't replicated by supplements. Also, while our bodies have evolved to handle the amounts of antioxidents present in fruit and vegetables, ingesting large amounts via supplements changes our bodies' reaction.

The bottom line is the same old boring one: spend your money on eating more fruit and vegetables instead of buying expensive packaged products with added antioxidents of dubious value.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Kraft Defends "Lunchables"

How do you defend a food product targeted to kids that's high in sugar and calories and low in nutrition? You don't. You try to confuse the issue by talking about other food products.

That summarizes Kraft's response to my questions about the bologna-and-cheese "Lunchable" I wrote about in my last post.

Sydney Lindner, associate director, corporate affairs for Kraft, called my attention in an email to a subset of this combination lunch product--and of other Kraft foods--that are labeled "Sensible Solution." More about how they define those in a minute. Here's what Lindner had to say, in part:

"With kid-favorite foods conveniently packed together, quality Oscar Mayer meats and Kraft cheeses, and prices comparable to other lunchtime options, Lunchables Lunch Combinations are an incredible value. Nutritionally, the majority (italics mine) of Lunchables products have less calories than the daily recommended intake per meal and many (my italics again) meet Kraft's Sensible Solutions guidelines."

Got that? First of all, calling a product an "incredible value" wheb its components can be purchased, at retail, for less than half the price of the combo, is truly "incredible:" incredibly profitable. As for the rest of that comment, Lindner is saying that the bologna-and-cheese Lunchable doesn't meet Kraft's so-called sensible guidelines. So what should it be labeled? Unreasonable food? Ridiculously non-nutritious food? Maybe with just a skull-and-crossbones to warn you off?

As for it's sensible guidelines, a Kraft "convenient meal product" earns the label "sensible" if it meets one of the following criteria:
  • Free of, low in, or at least 25% less, when compared to similar products in the category, in at least (or just) one of the following: calories, fat, saturated fat, sugar or sodium
  • Or, contain less than 35% calories from fat
  • Or, meets the definition of lean or extra lean
Translation: A "Lunchable" can be called "sensible" if it's less a junk food than other Lunchables.

A Lunchable can also get the sensible designation if Kraft supplements it with 10% of daily needs of a few vitamins or minerals, and the food does not exceed 600 calories/serving and 960 mg of sodium, among other sky-high limits.

Kraft also, by the way, pats itself on the back for advertising only Sensible Solution products to children between 6 and 12. Teenagers are obviously open season.

What's truly sad is that Kraft was actually honored in 2005 at a Nutrition & Obesity Summit convened by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for creating its Sensible Solution products.

What would truly be honorable for Kraft would be to totally overhaul the contents of all its Lunchables or ditch them completely. That might actually do some good.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

"Lunchables" Should Carry a Health Warning

I'm working on a book about food shopping, and that is taking me to parts of the supermarket I usually ignore. In particular, I focused on a section of the meat case set aside specifically for Oscar Mayer's kid-targeted "Lunchables."

These supposedly all-in-one lunches look cheap: only $2.99.

But after I read the labels and had a look at what was inside, I saw that these are actually expensive, high-profit combos whose ingredients are worth no more than $1.50. Plus, they are so empty of good nutrition and full of fat and sugar that they should carry a health alert to warn parents off.

Something like: Warning: Lunchables may make your children fat and add to their risk of diabetes and heart disease.

Judge for yourself. "Cracker Snackers, Bologna & American," consists of:
  • 6 Ritz crackers
  • 1.5 oz. processed American cheese
  • 1.5 oz. bologna
  • 1 "fun-size" Butterfinger--the size you give away at Halloween
  • a 6 oz. Capri Sun "Flavored Water Beverage"
This tiny lunch will leave almost any child hungry an hour later while jolting their body with 23 grams, or nearly 6 teaspoons, of sugar. (1 tsp. sugar = 4 grams)

Overall, there are 410 calories in that "lunch" because of the unconscionably high amount of fat and sugar it contains. Everything in the package except the cheese is sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. The Capri Sun also contains the artificial sweetener, sucralose, just in case it wasn't already sweet enough. (The taste made me gag.)

The total fat content is 20 grams, 9 of them saturated, no surprise since these "foods" contain unhealthy oils including cottonseed and hydrogenated palm kernel oil. There's even half a gram of trans fat.

An adult eating this will take in 35% of their total recommended daily intake of salt. For a child, depending on age, it could be an even higher percentage, but the standard nutrition label is based only on an adult eating 2,000 calories a day.

Kraft, which owns Oscar Mayer, fully expects that kids will be eating this "lunch." The company shamelessly promotes it to kids by putting it in a box whose graphics tie into the x-box game, Banjo-Kazooie, and a chance to win a Banjo Bash party.

The only good thing kids will get out of this combo is 13 grams of protein, usually the one nutrient Americans never lack.

Dietary fiber? None. And if you recognize most of the names in the ingredients list you must be a chemist.

Parents, beware. The apparent convenience of a "Lunchable" carries an invisible price: your child's health.

I'll report soon on what Kraft has to say about this product.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Yogurt Not Required to Have Beneficial Bacteria

In another move that forces consumers to work harder to get healthy food, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently proposed that food companies can continue to call a product "yogurt" even though it doesn't contain any live cultures of beneficial bacteria.

You can't make yogurt without adding active, live cultures to milk or cream, but you can then kill them off with heat in further processing.

It's the cultures that give yogurt its tart taste and creamy texture. Credible research has found that the bacteria benefit the human gut, helping people who have constipation, diarrhea, lactose intolerance, or other more serious conditions like colon cancer and inflammatory bowel disease. They also restore the good bacteria in your gut that get killed, along with the ones that are making you sick, when you take antibiotics.

The cultures also help cure vaginal yeast infections.

In its published response to a petition asking that yogurt, by definition, mean a product with live cultures, the FDA acknowledged that most people think of yogurt as a health food. But the bureaucrats went on to say they weren't convinced that consumers really understood about the connection to live cultures.

So, as before, they propose leaving the burden on shoppers to read each label to be sure they're getting live cultures.

Food companies will continue to be able to call their product yogurt even though the bacteria have been killed off in the making of the final product.

The National Yogurt Association--whose members include companies like Dannon--is attempting to make the shopping search easier with a special live culture logo.

But if you haven't read yogurt labels recently, take a few minutes to do so next time you buy some. Despite the healthy connotations, a lot of flavored yogurt is full of sugar--anywhere from 4 to 6 teaspoons per container, corn starch thickeners, coloring, etc.

Furthermore, the proposed new standard of identity for yogurt would remove the requirement that artifically sweetened yogurt declare that fact on the main label, saying for example, "Low-fat Yogurt Sweetened with Aspartame." Again, to find out what sweetener was used, you'll have to read the ingredients label.

The period for comments to the FDA technically ended at the end of March, but the FDA has been fiddling around with the yogurt standard for years and years. So, send them a comment anyway, either by fax at 301–827–6870, or via an Internet comment portal. If you use the portal, enter Docket No. FDA–2000–P–0126.

Here's a tip to save you money while eating the healthiest commerical yogurt possible: Buy plain yogurt with active cultures and add fruit, honey and other goodies yourself. You can also easily make your own and save even more.

But thanks again, FDA. We've got nothing better to do than stand in the supermarket aisles reading labels.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Beware Bank CDs Automatic Roll-Overs

With lots of people, including me, feeling queasy about the stock market, conservative bank Certificates of Deposit are looking pretty good--or at least safe.

But banks have a sneaky way of bumping up their profits on CDs: when they mature, they roll them over into the lowest interest rate they offer. That is, unless you get in touch and demand the best rate.

A banking insider clued me in to this scam. You start off being smart, putting your money into the highest-interest CD you can find. Could be via the Internet, could be you walked into the bank. Great.

What you probably didn't realize was that to capture your money, the bank offered you their best possible rate.

But when the term is up, the bank hopes you'll forget about or just let it ride, assuming that because they had a good rate before, they'll give you a good rate now. That's when they get you.

Banks don't offer everyone the same interest rate for the same term. The've become like the airline industry, with prices changing constantly. Same thing with the banks. You don't know what interest a bank will pay, unless you ask and specifically for the highest rate possible.

I realized this recently when I checked on the maturity date of a 6-month CD I bought on line from HSBC. Fortunately, the banks are required to send you notice of maturity. But when I looked on the web site to see what the new interest rate would be, there was nothing--no information.

Turns out, that's standard operating procedure.

When I called customer service for HSBC, I learned that the best interest rate they would offer me on a new 6-month CD was 1.25%. That's almost 50% less than the top interest being offered by other banks! Wow! What's amazing is that when I bought the CD 6 months ago, HSBC had one of the highest rates available--4%. No longer.

You can find out who has the highest rates from listings that appear in most local newspapers, or via

So keep a careful schedule of when your CDs mature. Be prepared to demand the highest rate from the existing bank, and shop around to make sure they're offering you a good deal.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Supermarkets Selling Endangered Seafood

U.S. consumers buy half their seafood at supermarkets, spending more than $16 billion every year on these purchases. But without the knowledge of most buyers, many of the fish species offered for sale are in danger of extinction because of massive over-fishing.

The environmental organization Greenpeace is waging a campaign to stop those sales and save some of the most popular fish from extincton.

Greenpeace rates supermarkets on the basis of their policies for acquiring fish and for their selection of what fish to sell.

The highest ranked chain is Whole Foods, and it would be great if other big supermarket chains followed their lead.

Whole Foods doesn't sell shark or bluefin tuna (sorry, sushi fans, but bluefin is one of the most endangered) or orange roughy. And, as I found out visiting one of their stores a few days ago, they are scrupulous about adhering to new legal requirements to reveal, on labels, the geographic origin of each species of fish and whether it's farmed or wild. (Seafood markets are not covered by the new law.) In the case of Chilean Sea Bass, another species that is under heavy survival pressure, Whole Food's label says that the Marine Stewardship Council has certified that the area from which it comes--near Antarctica--is being fished sustainably.

Most of these species whose survival is endangered share the characteristic that they take a long time to mature enough to be able to reproduce. Thus, if they are caught before they reach maturity, the species declines--and rapidly.

Efforts to control overfishing on the supply side have had limited success for lots of reasons, including the existence of pirates for whom fish is the booty of the 21st century.

So, the demand for these species needs to be cut, and that's where the supermarkets and we consumers come in. Greenpeace's ratings show that most supermarkets haven't yet even developed a policy on stocking endangered fish.

Consumers can help with this. You can conduct a survey of your local supermarket and send the results to be compiled by Greenpeace. A toolkit for this purpose can be downloaded from the Greenpeace site.

You can also get a handy pocket guide from the Monterey Bay Aquarium to take with you when you're out shopping. It lists which fish you should avoid and which you can serve up with a clear conscience.

If we all don't become mindful of the impact of our food choices, our children will never know the taste of so many of the fish we eat today. They will have vanished from the earth.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Decoding Food Labels: "Naturally Raised Beef" Isn't

Once again, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has bowed down to agribusiness and decided to define "naturally raised beef" as anything but. The word "raise," you'd think, would have some relationship to how a steer spends its life, able to roam a pasture and eat grass, or confined to a filthy feedlot.

But this new definition says absolutely nothing about the conditions in which an animal is actually raised.

All this term will now mean is that the steer has not been treated with antibiotics, hormones or any substances that promote its growth, or fed byproducts of other animals. It's those byproducts--left over pieces of dead animals--that have lead to worries about mad cow disease, and caused European countries to rightly turn away most American beef.

This "naturally raised" definition, by the way, refers also to pork and chicken.

Critics have said that instead of calling it "naturally raised," the term should have been "naturally fed."

But the rule doesn't require that steers have access to pasture of even the outdoors, and there's nothing natural about feeding corn to cows, which is what they get in those feedlots. In fact, as Michael Pollan pointed out in a PBS radio interview, fattening beef on corn--made possible only because U.S. agricultural policy subsidizes corn production--does terrible things to the cow's intricate system of transforming what should be grass into wonderful milk.

If you want to eat beef from cows that have actually lived a decent life, eating grass on a pasture, the label to look for is "grass fed" with the logo of the American Grassfed Association. That logo means that the animal has eaten only mother's milk, grass or hay for its entire life.

What a concept. Unfortunately, it's hard to find such beef. Only four giant agribusinesses control the slaughtering of more than 80% of beef consumed in the U.S. Antitrust anyone?

What's the solution? Spend more for grass-fed beef, and consider that steak a luxury treat for once and a while. By eating less beef, you'll also be reducing your carbon footprint as effectively as if you bought a hybrid car. You'll be healthier, too.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Punishment To Fit the Crime

I can't help but compare the eagerness to condemn and punish Michael Phelps for taking a hit from a bong to the utter lack of outrage from so many national leaders and media pundits about the corporate and political criminals who've wrecked the world economy and the lives of millions.

Take Bernie Madoff, inexplicably still allowed to live in his luxury apartment. The jail time he eventually will face seems an insufficient penalty. He--and the other Wall Street titans who ran what I now understand as legal Ponzi schemes--need to hear and see, close up, the consequences of their actions. Putting them in a pillory right next to the raging bull on the real Wall Street has occurred to me, but I doubt they'd survive with their skins intact. And I don't believe in the death penalty.

Better, it seems to me, would be to require them to engage in long-term, unpaid volunteer work at homeless shelters or social service offices,while they, themselves, are forced to live in those Homeland Security trailers--the ones that off-gas toxic pollutants--foisted on the displaced from New Orleans.

I'm not alone in having such fantasies. They are the natural consequence of the unwillingness, so far, of anyone in Washington, including Obama, to hold accountable the crew that bankrupted this country and the world, and who profited and continue to profit from the unjust, calamitous wars that continue to rage. Which of course includes Bush, Cheney & company.

The Nation magazine recently tapped into this public desire with a "Retire Bush" contest. The idea was that people should suggest what Bush should do in his retirement. The winner, Kristen Wack, would give George W. the job as host of a revised version of the reality show The Biggest Loser; the contestants would be corporate executives who would compete for instigating the most colossal management debacle.

I like it--as a start, particularly because it includes the element of public humiliation, a necessary humbling for the arrogance that is surely the hallmark of the era just ended.

But, it's only a start. A runner-up entrant in The Nation contest suggested that Bush spend his retirement "assembling a legal dream team to fight extradition to The Hague for war crimes."

I hope I live long enough to see that happen, or to see one brave district attorney somewhere in America indict Bush & Cheney right here at home.

That last idea is coming from Vince Bugliosi, the author and former Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney who prosecuted the lunatic murderer Charles Manson. In his latest book, "The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder," Bugliosi presents what he says is more than sufficient evidence for any district attorney in America to indict W for the deaths of 4,000 American soldiers. He argues that by lying to the American public, by saying that Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat, Bush was directly responsible for the deaths of our soldiers.

You can find out the name of your local DA, and urge him or her to take action and link to a You at There's also a link there to a YouTube video of Bugliosi testifying before Congress.

While we wait for accountability, here's an invitation: what do you think would be fitting punishment for Madoff, irresponsible bankers, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and company?

Friday, February 6, 2009

Phelps Getting Punished--for Nothing!

The anti-drug moralists are in full cry after Michael Phelps, as predicted.

All hail the idiot sheriff of South Carolina's Richland County, who says he'll charge Phelps criminally if he can muster the evidence. Y'all know how it is down south there, where no crime goes unpunished, right? And Sheriff Leon Lott can't find anything more important to do, or at least nothing else that might make the national news.

Then there are undoubtedly the tee-totalers at USA Swimming who suspended Phelps from competition for three months. Not because smoking a bit of pot would enhance his performance--never a suggestion about pot, which of course, has been surrounded with a mythology that it makes recreational users, well, losers. Phelps a loser? Well, not exactly.

But there's some good news just now on the marijuana front. The Drug Policy Alliance asked folks to protest to the Obama Administration about the latest raids on medical marijuana providers in California, and a whole bunch of losers somehow managed to stay awake long enough to send so many emails and faxes that they got our new prez's attention.

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, this was the response:

"The President believes that federal resources should not be used to circumvent state laws, and as he continues to appoint senior leadership to fill out the ranks of the federal government, he expects them to review their policies with that in mind."

So it looks like some freedom from DEA hardball tactics may be on the way.

Now all we need is for the Obama Administration to stand up for rational discourse on the overall subject of marijuana. It's way past time.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Puritans Set To End Michael Phelps' Career

Horrors! The greatest swimmer in the world took a hit from a bong at a party last November, someone snapped a picture that got published yesterday in a British tabloid, and the sheep in the media immediately began speculating that his career was over.

What a waste if that prediction comes true. But that's the way it is in the insane reality created by the War on Drugs.

I don't know if Michael Phelps smoked any marijuana during all the years that he trained for, and then won his record number of Olympic medals. I doubt it, because he has never tested positive for any banned substances.

But even if he had, marijuana has never been characterized as a performance-enhancing drug, and isn't that what should concern us about athletes using drugs? To the contrary, the official party line of the Drug War is that use of marijuana undermines athletic performance. Yet Phelps has won more swimming medals than anyone else. So where does that line of upside-down logic lead?

It leads, once again, to the conclusion that it is long past time to stop spending billions of dollars every year to stop people from using marijuana, and not just for medical purposes. Despite the uniformly idiotic depictions in Hollywood movies of marijuana users as wasted, useless drop-outs, the truth is that millions of Americans use the weed to relax, loosen social barriers, laugh a lot--and then get on with the serious business of living. In short, for the same purposes as alcohol, which was also once prohibited in this country by the Puritans among us, the hard-noses who think they have the right to tell us which social drugs are acceptable.

Tranquilizers and other mind-altering prescription drugs are fine. Ditto for alcohol. Americans learned from alcohol prohibition that it is a welcome social lubricant, safe to use as long as there are rules restricting it to adults and laws, for example, against driving under the influence.

The same kind of restrictions should apply to marijuana, and its use and controlled sale should also be legal just as it is for alcohol.

It's time for everyone who knows this is true to stop hiding and come out and say so. There's so many good reasons for doing so.

In this time of economic disaster, legalizing use of marijuana would cut taxpayers' costs for police, prisons and judges, money that could be shifted to education, mental health and social services. In 2007 alone, there were 830,000 arrests for violation of marijuana laws, 89% for possession for personal use. Talk about waste!

The Drug Policy Alliance, which is one of the organizations leading the fight for sanity on this issue, says, "The war on drugs has become a war on families, a war on public health and a war on our constitutional rights." It has resulted in a disproportionate impact on minorities, and stripped millions of people of their right to vote, because in many states, conviction on a drug felony means an end to voting rights. Blacks are 4 times more likely to get jail time for marijuana possession as whites; Latinos, 3 times more likely.

For an eloquent description of all that's wrong with the Drug War, go see what the Drug Policy Alliance has to say at their website.

I'd like to think Michael Phelps' exposure as a user of marijuana would cause people to stop and consider the need to legalize marijuana. Last year, U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (Dem of Massachusetts) and Ron Paul (Republican from Texas) introduced a bill called the "Personal Use of Marijuana by Responsible Adults Act of 2008." It went nowhere, as expected. I hope it will be reintroduced, and that all the people who know the truth about marijuana will pick up their phones and let their reps in Congress know it's past time for this modest reform.

An even easier action is to go to a website set up specifically to urge President Obama to add marijuana law reform to his agenda.

I hope he has the courage to take this on, because of both its economic benefits and its horrible impact on minorities.

That's the horror the media should be writing about. Not the "gotcha" photo of splendid Michael Phelps having a harmless good time.

Friday, January 9, 2009

What If LIPA Had Spent $6 billion on Conservation?

Showing once again the critical importance of having a functioning, professional news organization, Newsday revealed today that the Long Island Power Authority has spent $6 billion to feed our supposedly insatiable appetite for power.

LIPA, under one-time consumer advocate Richie Kessel, put all that money in on its bet that the residents of Long Island would never kick the power habit. So we'll be paying $1.49 billion for the privilege of buying power (fuel costs are separate and will be added) for the next 20 years generated by the new Caithness plant in Yaphank. Contracts giving us access to out-of-state power via new the new Neptune cable will cost us $2.7 billion. And so on.

Of course, the way consumer rates for electricty are set, LIPA had every incentive to go along with the never-ending growth scenario. Falling usage means falling revenue the way the game is rigged, and shrinking an organization on purpose--well, in your dreams.

But just think how much power, money and air pollution could have been saved if LIPA had invested even $1 billion in conservation and alternative power. Gordian Raacke, founder of Renewable Energy Long Island, lamented in an email to me that "we are investing these billions in technologies of the past rather than those of the future. What we need are investments in 21st Century state-of-the-art energy technologies like energy efficiency and renewable power like solar and wind."

Indeed, but the wind project was supposedly too expensive. Now we must ask, compared to what?

Raacke went on to write that LIPA plans to spend only about $32 million on its energy efficiency program and $14 million this year on its solar program. That's less than 1 % of its $3.845 billion operating budget.

In a different scenario, in which LIPA's leaders were really serious about conservation, they could have shoved some of that $6 billion into a program to give every Long Islander a half-dozen compact fluorescent bulbs. Just watch your bills drop with those! They could have lowered our school and town taxes by giving away bulbs to school districts and municipalities, enough of them to trade out every old-technology incandescent bulb.

LIPA could could have financed completely or heavily subsidized the installation of a huge number of solar panels on homes, as has occured in other countries like Germany. The solar incentive program LIPA has been running for several years puts the pay-off for the investment out at 10 years, too long for most people. A bigger subsidy could have brought that down to 5 years, or even 3, and then it would have been a no-brainer for most people. Solar panels would have sprouted almost as fast as crab grass, and on those scorching days of summer, all those panels could have been sending excess power back into the grid--at a cost so much less than Caithness, etc., it makes me want to cry $6 billion tears.

LIPA could have enlarged its program of rebates for purchases of the most efficient appliances on the market, giving people a good reason to ditch their old refrigerators and power-glutton air conditioners.

It could have funded extensive public education programs to teach people about the importance of conservation.

Instead, we'll all suffer for the next 20 years for decisions made in secret by this so-called "public" authority. this quasi-governmental creation that was designed and is used to hide their operations from the public. (Just think about other "Authorities" like the MTA, and you get the idea.)

Let's not forget that we have Newsday to thank for this revelation. Newsday, whose excellent reporters and editors have been bought out and laid off in droves, gutted by a succession of owners who saw it only as a money machine to pay off the huge debt they took on to build a media empire.

It's time, folks, to rise up, to lead our elected officials by the nose so that they get the idea: we really want conservation. We really want lower taxes and know there are ways to lower them. We really want to preserve our planet. We really get it.

For cost-effective ideas on how to conserve energy (the most cost effective is improving insulation) go to the website for Renewable Energy Long Island. And weep some $6 billion tears.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Diet Season: The Gimmicks Multiply

I just received an email seeking publicity for a new book touting junk food as a way to help manage your weight. Sure. I want to believe that 100-calorie packs of cookies and Cheetos, mini-cheese burgers and such will melt those pounds away. I'd also like to believe that the drop in my 401k account was actually a mistake, and I'm richer, not poorer.

But it just ain't so. And so, I'm not going to name that new book here, partly because the author is a former executive of Coca Cola and Genera Mills.

The bigger reason is that believing you can lose weight by snacking is just another delusion, a way to keep people spending money on diets and gimmicks that just don't work.

I ought to know. I've been fighting this battle since I was a child, and I've done a fair amount of research over the years about nutrition and fad diets.

Here we are at the beginning of a New Year, and everyone who has made a resolution to lose weight--this year! for sure!--is looking for an easy way.

There isn't one. As the leader at my local Weight Watchers meeting repeats every week: there is no cure for obesity.

Weight Watchers isn't paying me to write this. But the truth is that their comprehensive approach to weight loss is the only one that gives you a real chance to feel comfortable in your body.

For example, in recent years their plan has focused on research indicating that people need to consume a relatively large quantity of food in order to feel satisfied and not give in to temptations to binge (one of my weaknesses). In fact, I've come to realize that I need to spend a good amount of time chewing, just raising that fork or spoon to my mouth, in order not to feel deprived.

The key to eating a lot but losing weight is to eat filling but low-calorie foods--like fruits, vegetables, soups, salads, whole grains, beans. Not 100-calorie snack packs, whose sugar content, in my case, seems to trigger a physiological desire for more sugar that can make it almost impossible for me to stop eating until the whole box of snack packs or a pint of Haagen-Dazs is gone.

Motivated by health problems, I lost 20 pounds in 2008 following the Weight Watchers method, and I believe if I work at it, I can lose more this year.

But the operative word here is "work." It takes planning, cooking, concentration, regular exercise and reinforcement that the weekly Weight Watcher meetings supply. A slim woman at a recent meeting said she had lost 85 pounds 14 years ago and has kept it off, in part by still attending meetings for support. That could be discouraging, if you want to dwell on the fact that she still needs help after all these years.

Or, you could, as I have, take inspiration from her example. It's possible to get thin and stay thin. But let's not kid ourselves. It's not easy, and believing in tooth fairy versions of diets won't get you there.