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.