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Does a Body Good? New Study Adds to Milk’s Growing Image Problem

Milk may not be the healthiest choice after all.
Does a Body Good? New Study Adds to Milk’s Growing Image Problem

Long a staple of weekly grocery lists, the snow-white picture of purity, the unassailable go-to drink for good health, milk—yes, milk—is experiencing something of an image problem. The dairy identity crisis is no doubt thanks to a growing number of studies like the one released this week out of Sweden that suggests moo juice isn’t the magic elixir it has long been cracked up to be.

The new research calls into question one of those pieces of conventional wisdom that few of us would even think to disagree with. We all know that calcium-rich milk helps to build strong bones, right? For adults, that’s supposed to mean fewer bone fractures. Maybe not. A vocal chorus of public health experts, including those at the Harvard School of Public Health and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, have long pointed out that there’s little scientific evidence to support the notion that drinking milk leads to better bone health—and not enough to justify the current federal dietary recommendation of drinking three cups a day. The new study, published in the journal BMJ, would seem to add more fuel to this skepticism. Researchers reviewed the detailed dietary information of more than 100,000 Swedish women and men and tracked their health outcomes for up to 23 years, and they found no evidence that drinking more milk correlated with a decreased risk for bone fracture.

Among women, the results were most surprising. Women who drank at least three glasses of milk a day (which is consistent with U.S. guidelines) were 16 percent more likely to experience a bone fracture—and 60 percent more likely to break their hip—than women who drank less than one glass a day.

Even more alarming, women who drank more milk were 90 percent more likely to die of cardiovascular disease and 44 percent more likely to die from cancer during the course of the study. 

Milk-drinking men fared better, in the sense that those who drank three glasses of milk a day were “only” 10 percent more likely to die earlier, a risk that researchers tied to a 16 percent greater chance of suffering from cardiovascular disease.

Bottom line: Researchers found no positive health benefits from drinking more milk. On the contrary, the study suggests that drinking too much milk might do a body more harm than good.

But the news wasn’t all bad for the dairy industry. Unlike milk, fermented dairy products such as yogurt, cheese, sour cream, and buttermilk appeared to have at least some protective benefits, at least for women. As the Los Angeles Times reports:

Among all of the women in the study, those who ate more of these fermented dairy foods had lower rates of fractures and premature death compared with women who ate less of them. Each additional serving corresponded with a 10 percent to 15 percent reduction in the risk of both, the researchers found. However, the effects for men were ‘more modest’ or ‘non-existent,’ according to the study.

The study’s authors weren’t able to determine why this was the case, although they have a theory. While milk is notably high in lactose, fermented dairy products aren’t (the fermentation process eats up the lactose). When the body metabolizes lactose, it generates something called D-galactose. Prior animal-based studies have found D-galactose isn’t so great for the body, causing “oxidative stress damage, chronic inflammation, neurodegeneration, decreased immune response, and gene transcriptional changes.” As the Times points out, “when scientists want to mimic the effects of aging, they give animals shots or food containing D-galactose.”

As the Swedish research team admits, none of this is conclusive evidence that milk is bad for you. But for many health experts, there’s now enough science to debunk the notion that you can never get enough milk. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine cites a litany of studies that have found milk consumption does not lead to healthier bones in children, adolescents, or adults, while drinking milk has been linked to a higher risk for certain cancers.

For its part, the Harvard School of Public Health doesn’t even list dairy as part of its “Healthy Eating Plate,” which it developed as an alternative to the federal government’s “MyPlate.” Harvard’s diet guide is “based exclusively on the best available science” and is not subject to “political or commercial pressure from food industry lobbyists”—like the dairy lobby, which has doubled its political contributions over the last decade, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

As the Harvard website explains: “It’s not a news flash that calcium is key for healthy bones. Getting enough calcium from childhood through adulthood helps build bones up and then helps slow the loss of bone as we age. It’s not clear, though, that we need as much calcium as is generally recommended, and it’s also not clear that dairy products are really the best source of calcium for most people.”

So what are some arguably better sources? Nutrition experts say you can get plenty of calcium from leafy greens (kale, bok choy, and collards are particularly calcium-rich), beans, and fortified beverages such as soy milk and orange juice.

How Do Your Favorite Products Rate According to New 'Food Scores'?

An NGO alternative to stodgy nutrition labels provokes a big food backlash.
How Do Your Favorite Products Rate According to New 'Food Scores'?

What happens when you try to come up with a better way for American consumers to make sense of the groceries they're buying? Well, for starters, you get lambasted by the processed food industry.

That's the short story of the new Food Scores program from the Environmental Working Group, which debuted yesterday. No sooner had EWG issued its press release about its new Food Scores database than the Grocery Manufacturers Association fired off its own, calling the nonprofit’s ratings “severely flawed.”

This is only the latest skirmish in the back-and-forth over efforts to account for the healthfulness of packaged foods. Public health advocates and nutrition experts have long criticized the inadequacy of those congressionally mandated Nutrition Facts labels found on the packages of everything from soda to soup. Even as the Food and Drug Administration is in the midst of the achingly slow process of revamping the labels, critics are already saying the FDA will likely buckle under industry pressure and fail to go far enough.

Just this week in The New York Times, health columnist Jane Brody said as much, pointing out that among other things, the new labels probably won’t be any easier for hurried shoppers to decipher. You can bet that whatever the FDA comes up with, it won’t be nearly as straightforward (and thus, anathema to big food) as the easy-to-read, color-coded label Mark Bittman dreamed up a couple years ago.

We just might have to wait until the devil nails a triple lutz before we ever see anything that remotely resembles Bittman’s label on American food products. But Food Scores represents a major step in that direction, despite its not being a federal program. The database rates more than 80,000 products based on nutrition, concerns about ingredients (such as whether they’re likely to contain pesticide residue), and the degree of processing.

It’s ridiculously easy to use: You can search for specific products or by manufacturer, or you can browse entire categories (“Cereals and Breakfast Foods,” for example). Each product is given an overall score between 1 and 10, and scores for each of the three categories are rated somewhere between “low concern” and “high concern.” All of it employs the almost universally understood color-coding system that ranges from green to yellow to red, similar to Bittman’s labels.

Most important, these are real products that you can find in real stores, ranging from Kellogg’s Raisin Bran to Coke Zero to Whole Foods' avocado lime vinaigrette salad dressing. Better yet, when you click on a product, you get a comparison chart of how that product ranks against others in the same category. Want an alternative to Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, with its middling overall rating of 5? There’s always Whole Foods' 365 Organic Everyday Value Macaroni & Cheese (rating: 3).

“Eat whole foods that are minimally processed.” That’s become the mantra among those who see that our culture’s dysfunctional relationship with processed foods is bankrupting us with its hidden social and environmental costs. But let’s face it: Even those of us who repeat this mantra ad nauseam sometimes resort to the inarguable convenience of, say, canned soup.

Among the many benefits of having worked at Gourmet before its sad demise was that I amassed a trove of treasured recipes—like this one for a creamless creamy squash soup. It’s amazing: delicious, yes, but every time I eat it, I also feel like I’m practically glowing with vitamin-rich good health. It’s not too hard to make either. But come a workaday lunch, there’s also no way that I’m going to spend a half hour peeling and dicing a bunch of vegetables. With Food Scores, I can now compare brands of store-bought squash soup. Campbell’s Homestyle scores a 6, with relatively high ingredient concerns but surprisingly low processing concerns; Trader Joe’s version scores a much better 3 overall.

Of course, you had to expect that any attempt not only to give consumers more comprehensible information about what they’re buying but to make an evaluative judgment about what’s in that food and how it’s produced was going to send the processed food industry into a conniption. Which is just what the GMA did in yesterday's press release.

“Not only will the EWG ratings provide consumers with inaccurate and misleading information,” the GMA says, “they will also falsely alarm and confuse consumers about their product choices.”

That’s rich, considering big food has lobbied for years to either block the implementation of nutrition labels or, when that failed, to make those labels arguably as confusing as possible. What’s even more ironic is that in its press release, the GMA holds up those labels as one of the best “fact-based sources” in an “already crowded landscape of subjective food ratings systems.”

Among the GMA’s litany of issues with the EWG system is that the ratings for the degree to which a product is processed are based on the best guess of EWG’s experts. Well, duh. Does anyone think the big food giants were going to divulge exactly how they make their products to some advocacy organization? This is also something EWG freely acknowledges, allowing consumers to weigh their faith in the organization’s expertise and independence against the corporate self-interest inherent in big food’s multibillion-dollar marketing apparatus—the likes of which, for example, has Coke simultaneously packaging its Vitaminwater to look suspiciously like medicine while denying in court that it has ever tried to convince consumers that Vitaminwater is at all healthy.

For whatever wonky flaws the EWG Food Scores database might have, at the end of the day, it’s a welcome challenge to the kind of disingenuous lobbying for “consumer choice” that has been big food’s modus operandi for decades—and which has given us the sort of federally mandated nutrition labels that all too often require us to read between the lines.

Vitaminwater Healthy? Coca-Cola Might Not Get Off Cheap on a Settlement Over Its Marketing

The soda company tried to settle a lawsuit on the cheap, but one advocacy group isn’t having it.
Vitaminwater Healthy? Coca-Cola Might Not Get Off Cheap on a Settlement Over Its Marketing

Coca-Cola’s no good, terribly bad couple of weeks appear to be dragging on. The company’s shares tumbled more than they had in the past six years after Coke announced disappointing third-quarter sales this week. The bad news must have been hard to swallow for the soda giant, considering that just last month, Coke was reveling in the success of its summer-long “Share a Coke” marketing campaign, which offered fresh hope that personalized cans could help reverse an 11-year downward drift in soda sales.

Now the world’s largest beverage maker has a revived lawsuit to contend with. 

The soda maker was so close to sweeping away the class-action lawsuit, which alleged that the company deceived consumers in marketing its sugary Vitaminwater as healthy. A spate of suits filed in various states had been consolidated into one big lawsuit in Ohio, and in July, the plaintiffs’ attorneys reached a relatively cheap $1.2 million settlement with Coke. That is, until one public advocacy group stepped in to say not so fast.


The nonprofit group Truth in Advertising is crying foul, and this week it formally requested permission from the court to object to the settlement. It’s not so much that $1.2 million is, essentially, pocket change for Coke—the company’s sales were almost $12 billion last quarter alone—but that the money will go to cover attorneys’ fees. Not a cent goes back to consumers. Even more troubling, Coke won’t be required to change all that much in terms of its deceptive marketing.

According to Truth in Advertising, “the settlement doesn’t stop Coca-Cola from continuing to call the drink vitaminwater, using the slogan ‘nutrient enhanced water beverage,’ or using health-conscious names such as ‘defense’ and ‘revive’ for its drinks.”

What’s the problem with that? In addition to a smattering of namesake vitamins, your average 20-ounce bottle of Vitaminwater contains 31 grams of sugar. Sure, that’s half the amount that’s in an equivalent amount of Coke, but it’s still the equivalent of guzzling seven teaspoons of sugar in one sitting. Meanwhile, nearly every major health organization is recommending we consume 10 teaspoons or fewer of added sugar per day.

If you think that’s shocking, wait until you get a load of Coke’s defense. Apparently, the company didn’t even try to contend that a product it markets with suspiciously medicine-ized labels, with names such as Power-C, Essential, and Revive—a product called Vitaminwater, for crying out loud—is healthy. Coke pretty much argues that you’d be an idiot to think Vitaminwater is good for you.

In court filings, Coke’s lawyers flat-out state that “no consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking Vitaminwater was a healthy beverage,” according to Bloomberg Businessweek.  

For its part, Truth in Advertising is agitating for a more generous settlement, as well as more far-reaching changes in how Coke markets what is essentially sugar water. Meanwhile, another, similar suit concerning Vitaminwater is waiting in the wings, filed back in 2009 by the public advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Do Americans Really Want Sustainable, Humanely Raised Food?

Two recent court decisions would seem to say yes, and Whole Foods is betting on it.
Do Americans Really Want Sustainable, Humanely Raised Food?

“If two recent court decisions are any indication, the nation’s agricultural producers need to spend less time listening to their lawyers and more time listening to consumers" when it comes to ethics and animal welfare.

Those are strong words, indeed, and perhaps surprisingly, they appeared this week not on the editorial page of, say, The New York Times or the San Francisco Chronicle, but smack-dab in the heart of the nation’s farm belt, in the Des Moines Register. The two court decisions in question no doubt mark huge victories for animal rights activists, as well as for any consumer who cares about how farm animals are treated. Brands are making the push too: Whole Foods launched an ad series this week promoting the values, not value, of the products it sells. 

Earlier this month, a federal district court judge in California dismissed a lawsuit brought by attorneys general in six states challenging a law passed overwhelmingly by California voters in 2010 that will, among other things, require all eggs sold in the state to come from humanely raised chickens. The law, set to take effect in January, stipulates that egg-laying chickens cannot be confined in cages that are too small to allow them to stand up, turn around, and extend their wings.

Six states—Alabama, Kentucky, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma—sued to overturn the law, arguing that it violates the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause prohibiting individual states from regulating interstate commerce, in this case by essentially imposing regulations on egg producers in states outside California. But Judge Kimberly Mueller disagreed.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court last week let stand another California law, this one prohibiting the production and sale of foie gras. Proponents of the ban, which was passed in 2004 and took effect in 2012, have long argued that the epitome of haute cuisine is also the epitome of cruel, with ducks essentially being force-fed just to enlarge their livers for the sake of fancy appetizers.

Thus, it seems we may be arriving at something of a tipping point when it comes to consumers demanding that their food be raised more sustainably and humanely. Or are we? Advocates of more ethical agriculture can take heart not only in these two court decisions but in California’s Proposition 2—which not only led to the state’s new egg regulations but required more humane treatment of calves and pigs as well—passing with 62 percent of the vote, the largest margin of any ballot initiative in the state’s history.

You’d think with such support for better farming practices seemingly on the rise, that would be great news for a grocery chain like Whole Foods, which has arguably done more to pioneer bringing the, well, “whole foods” movement to American consumers than any other company.

But even as Whole Foods unveiled a major new initiative last week to post “Responsibly Grown” ratings on its produce and flowers, giving shoppers yet another way to evaluate the environmental and social impacts of the food they’re buying, the chain has rolled out its biggest advertising campaign in years as it seeks to convince consumers that they should care about how their food is produced.

Whole Foods is spending an estimated $15 million to $20 million—essentially quintupling its annual ad budget, according to The New York Timeson an ad campaign with the tagline “Values Matter,” spotlighting the chain’s commitment to the kind of sustainable and humane farming that consumers often say they care about, only to balk at spending extra cash on.

In what appears to be the campaign’s flagship 60-second spot, which must have been engineered with the express purpose of inducing goose bumps, the confident yet relatable female announcer tells us:

We are hungrier for better than we ever realized. We want to know where our food comes from. We care what happens to it along the way. We want to trust our sources. We want people and animals and the places our food comes from to be treated fairly. The time is ripe to champion the way food is grown and raised and caught. So it’s good for us and for the greater good, too. This is where it all comes to fruition. This is where values matter.

Why Whole Foods thinks it is imperative that it make this argument now demonstrates both the irony of its success as well as the difficulty of recruiting more shoppers to put their money where their values are. As more traditional grocers have jumped on the Whole Foods bandwagon, expanding their organic offerings and playing up their locally grown produce, they’ve siphoned off some of Whole Foods’ clientele, putting a chain that has often inspired a fanatic, cult-like following into something of a slump from the perspective of Wall Street.

What may be more threatening to the Whole Foods agenda, however, is how even bigger fish appear to be co-opting its socially conscious program. The biggest of these, of course, is Walmart, which just a couple weeks ago made a splashy (if vague) announcement that it was committing to the creation of “a more sustainable food system.”

As I wrote in the wake of Walmart’s PR lovefest, the retail giant has a history of crowing about the good it’s doing in its press releases while failing to follow through on its pledges in any meaningful way.

It’s a smoke-and-mirrors game, designed to deceive consumers into believing that, somehow magically, Walmart has taken the sort of cheap, inhumanely raised, environmentally exploitative processed food that has become standard fare in America and transformed it into something the socially conscious consumer can feel good buying—all at a cut-rate price.

While Whole Foods execs behind the scenes note that the chain has worked to rein in costs and pass the savings on to customers, the new ad campaign doesn’t seek to compete on price. Rather, the “Values Matter” tagline would seem to do just the opposite, albeit indirectly. By playing on the notion of “values” versus “value,” Whole Foods is trying to almost subliminally challenge penny-pinching Americans to stop making price the deciding factor in where they shop.

It’s fairly radical when you think about it. For more than a generation now, Walmart's single-minded obsession with driving down production costs has led the way in conditioning Americans to accept nothing less than the lowest possible price, removing from the equation practically every other consideration—everything from, say, whether the workers are making a living wage to whether the cattle in those cheap hamburger patties were shot full of antibiotics.

Yet, still we bitch and moan about how much we spend on groceries, even as the proportion of our income that we spend on them is arguably at its lowest point in, like, forever. As this nifty chart from Bloomberg Businessweek attests, we spend but 11 percent of our income on food today, versus 17 percent some 30 years ago. Back in the 1930s, that number was as high as 25 percent.

Today, though, when you exclude money we spend eating out, the percentage of our income we spend on groceries plunges even more dramatically, to just 7 percent—less than any other country in the world.

So maybe, just maybe, we ought to be rethinking what a “normal” grocery budget looks like—one that would take into account the true costs of producing more socially and environmentally responsible food. Yet judging by Whole Foods’ oblique approach, that’s not a line of argument even the nation’s “healthiest grocery store” appears willing to make.

Should You Have to Sign a Noncompete Agreement For a Job Making Sandwiches?

Jimmy John's is the latest example of fast-food companies ripping off workers.
Should You Have to Sign a Noncompete Agreement For a Job Making Sandwiches?

Jimmy John’s may like to think of itself as the future of ("freaky fast") fast food, but it turns out the increasingly ubiquitous sub shop is building its business the old-fashioned way: by sticking it to its low-wage employees.

Sure, it’s the big chains like McDonald’s that have born the brunt of criticism for the way they treat their workers amid the growing campaign by fast-food employees demanding a living wage. But it seems Jimmy John’s, the sixth fastest-growing restaurant chain this year, according to Nation’s Restaurant News, is resorting to labor tactics that might make even Grimace, well, grimace.

As the Huffington Post reports, Jimmy John’s has ripped a page from “How to Wring the Most from Your Employees 101” and made a sweeping noncompete clause part of its standard employment agreement. Get a load of it:

Employee covenants and agrees that, during his or her employment with the Employer and for a period of two (2) years after … he or she will not have any direct or indirect interest in or perform services for … any business which derives more than ten percent (10%) of its revenue from selling submarine, hero-type, deli-style, pita and/or wrapped or rolled sandwiches and which is located with three (3) miles of either [the Jimmy John's location in question] or any such other Jimmy John's Sandwich Shop.

Strip away the legalese and what it boils down to is this: If you’re, say, a Jimmy John’s delivery driver or sandwich maker, and you’ve signed this agreement, you can’t work at another sandwich shop located within three miles of any Jimmy John’s anywhere for two years. Not only that, you basically can’t work any place where sandwiches are served.

Take the example recounted in the Huffington Post of a high school kid who works at a Jimmy John’s in Illinois. “Once he leaves for college at the University of Alabama, he has been foreclosed from working just about anywhere in Tuscaloosa that serves a decent share of sandwiches—including, in theory, the school cafeteria—because most of those places fall within three miles of a Jimmy John's.”

“American businesses are paying out a historically low proportion of their income in the form of wages and salaries,” Neil Irwin points out in The New York Times. Yet on top of that, they’re still managing to exact an even greater toll on employees through dubiously legal—yet arguably immoral—practices like noncompete agreements. Collectively, these strategies "tilt the playing field toward the owners of businesses and away from the workers who staff them,” Irwin writes.

On the surface, at least, this would seem to contradict the carefully crafted corporate ethos of flip, freewheeling fun that pervades your average Jimmy John’s—the sort of attitude that fairly seems to scream, “This is a great place to work!” Which is rooted no doubt in the legend of the company’s founder, the original Jimmy John himself (Jimmy John Liautaud), who as a 19-year-old college drop out opened his first sub shop in Charleston, Ill., back in 1983—a bit of lore still prominently featured on the chain’s menu. “Peace!” is how Liautaud signs off on his little note to customers, wherein he openly admits what anyone who's ever ordered a Jimmy John's sandwich already knows, namely that the “world’s greatest gourmet sandwiches” aren’t really "gourmet."

But you don’t have to look far to see that this vaguely hippieish, laid-back vibe is something of a sham. Yes, the bold red-and-black color palette, blocky type, and preponderance of five-pointed stars in the corporate design scheme may oddly call to mind the proletariat uplift of revolutionary Russian posters circa 1920—but the “inspirational” agitprop posted above the tables are more in the spirit of Ayn Rand than Karl Marx. One quote printed on the restaurant's wall, from Helen Gurley Brown, read “The only thing that separates successful people from the ones who aren’t is the willingness to work very, very hard!” What on its face can seem a gung-ho celebration of American entrepreneurial spirit look far more grim when considered in light of Jimmy John’s recent run-ins with its employees.

The only reason the onerous noncompete clause came to light was because it surfaced as evidence in a broader lawsuit filed by two former Jimmy John’s employees in August, which is angling for class action status. The suit alleges the chain has engaged in “systematic wage theft” by forcing workers to keep working after they had clocked out.

This was in the same month that the National Labor Relations Board ruled that a Minnesota Jimmy John’s acted illegally after it fired six pro-union employees who had posted signs calling customers’ attention to the fact that Jimmy John’s does not provide workers with paid sick days. Last year, a group of 300 Jimmy John’s delivery drivers filed suit, claiming the company failed to reimburse them for on-the-job driving expenses, and that having to pay those expenses themselves pushed their take-home pay below minimum wage. In 2012, a federal judge ordered another half-dozen Jimmy John’s employees reinstated after they were fired for trying to organize a union.

It might be that Jimmy John’s corporate execs could do well to take some of the admonishments posted throughout the chain’s restaurants to heart, such as this from Richard Branson’s How I Live My Life: “Do the right thing. Keep your good name. Be fair in all your dealings.”

Can the French Have Their Songbirds and Eat Them Too?

Celebrity chefs campaigning to cook ortolans outrage animal rights activists.
Can the French Have Their Songbirds and Eat Them Too?

A tiny, drab songbird is receiving a heap of outsize attention these days, all centered around the question of which is more endangered: the bird or the legacy of French haute cuisine.

That's "high cooking," or what we might call fine dining in English. But as they say, everything sounds better in French. After all, this is the language in which common snails are seductive escargots, calf’s pancreas is exotic ris de veau, and the decidedly unpoetic English “blood sausage,” which sounds like something the Saxon hordes might have cooked up to drive away the Roman legions, very nearly purrs as boudin noir.  

But perhaps not even the intoxicating effects of Franco-phonetics may be enough to distract from what critics might call the refined barbarism inherent in the traditional preparation of the ortolan. That's not stopping a quartet of some of France’s finest chefs from calling to make it legal to eat the bird again. Michel Guérard, Alain Ducasse, Jean Coussau, and Alain Dutournier are pushing for a waiver from French law that would allow the serving of ortolan for one weekend a year. 

Ortolans are small and fairly unremarkable, no bigger than the palm of your hand, and the most charitable description of their plumage might be “grayish green.” Non-ornithologists could be forgiven for confusing them with common city sparrows.

But according to conservationists, their population has plunged since 2001, declining by more than 40 percent across a range that extends from Scandinavia to Africa. They are considered threatened in Europe, and the European Union bans killing and cooking them.

Smack-dab in the middle of the ortolans’ migratory route, however, is France, which has outlawed their consumption since 1999. But, eh, this is France. As The New York Times reports, an estimated 30,000 wild ortolans are still being captured in the southwest each summer, and the authorities have responded with not much more than a Gallic shrug.

At less than an ounce, the ortolan would seem not to make much of a meal—nothing worthy of the gastronomic swooning that accompanies the very mention of them among legions of gourmands. But to eat one is “like being taken to another dimension,” according to Guérard, a three-Michelin-star chef, who spoke with the Times.

That’s because the process of getting them ready to eat reads decidedly like something out of the Dark Ages. Thanks to their diminutive size, ortolans need to be plumped before cooking, so they are trapped in the wild and kept in the dark for a month (alternatively, their eyes are plucked out), which for some unknown reason stimulates them to eat like crazy. Forced to swell to four times their normal weight, they are drowned in a snifter of Armagnac before they're cooked. If your 10-year-old did all that, you’d hustle him off to the psychologist with terrible visions of a blooming serial killer in your head; in France, it was the centerpiece of a beloved president's last meal.

Ironically, though, it seems preparing ortolans for the table hardly involves the sort of culinary wizardry for which the French are renowned: You just pop 'em in a hot oven for six to eight minutes.

Ortolans are traditionally eaten whole. The entire bird is popped into your mouth, bones and all, while a white linen napkin is draped over your head, giving a table of ortolan eaters the appearance of some weird coven. The reasons for this vary. The napkin either keeps the bewitching aromas wafting to your nose; it simply conceals a rather messy spectacle from your fellow diners as fat and blood dribble down your chin; or it shields your debauchery “from the eyes of God.” 

Of course, one might argue that the estimated 8 billion chickens Americans consume every year—with notably much less flair—aren’t often treated much better, given that the vast majority are factory farmed.

But that’s not the line of argument being advanced by Guérard and his fellow French chefs, who argue that eating ortolans is a part of French culinary heritage—and, after all, they’re only asking to prepare the birds one weekend a year.

“We just want to maintain a tradition,” Coussau told the Times.

Indeed, the question remains whether the ortolan is more endangered than traditional French cooking. For his part, Coussau cites “unpublished” Canadian research that puts the ortolan population in Northern Europe comfortably around 30 million.

Last year, the national legislature in France advanced a bill that would only allow restaurants that prepare all their food from raw ingredients in their own kitchens to use the designation “homemade,” after the country was shaken by revelations that more than a third of France’s non-fast-food restaurants admitted to using “industrially processed, often frozen food” behind the scenes. Yet whether that requires gorging innocent songbirds would seem open to debate.

Coussau doesn't believe the ortolan is an “unnecessary extravagance," as the Times put it. “There are many things that we eat that are not essential to live. We could survive on nutrition pills if we had to,” he says. “But if we go down that path, the notion of pleasure will disappear.”

Shut Up and Cook: Should Socially Conscious Chefs Just Get Back in the Kitchen?

Incredibly, at least one food writer out there says yes.
Shut Up and Cook: Should Socially Conscious Chefs Just Get Back in the Kitchen?

Sure, it can seem a little rich (pun intended) when a five-star chef starts pontificating about the superiority of locally grown food, the moral imperative of forging a deeper connection to what we eat, and the poetry inherent in a plate of diminutive heirloom beets for which said chef has the privilege of charging $15 or more. But does that mean these chefs should just shut their mouths and stay in the kitchen?

It’s a question that might seem moot today, five years after Jamie Oliver stormed U.S. airwaves with his Food Revolution; three years since a gaggle of world-renowned chefs ranging from Ferran Adrià to Gastón Acurio to Dan Barber penned their “Open Letter to the Chefs of Tomorrow,” in which they “dream[ed] of a future in which the chef is socially engaged, conscious of and responsible for his or her contribution to a just and sustainable society”; and at a time when hardly a day passes without news of some chef, somewhere, stepping up to start a public school vegetable garden or sounding off about unsustainable fishing or establishing a foundation to support local farming. (Today it’s René Redzepi, writing about delicious bugs and global hunger in Time.)

Then there’s Sam Kass, who went from being the personal chef in Chicago for the family of a freshman senator all the way to the White House. Not only does Kass cook for the Obamas five nights a week and oversee the White House’s famed kitchen garden, but he’s a full-fledged policy adviser on the front line of the tooth-and-nail fight to preserve the administration’s hard-won standards for healthier school food.

With chefs giving TED Talks and popping up at the World Economic Forum, it’s hardly surprising that the Copenhagen-based MAD—“a community of chefs, cooks and farmers with an appetite for knowledge”—would be able to find someone to argue that chefs becoming more socially engaged is a good thing. What’s more interesting is that they were able to find a writer to take the opposite stand.

The easy job goes to Eric Schlosser, whose Fast Food Nation probably did more to raise the public consciousness about the consequences of industrial agriculture than any other work out there. Because he doesn’t need to do much heavy lifting to make his case, his piece feels a bit phoned in.

“Some people think that chefs shouldn’t speak out on social issues, that they shouldn’t get involved in political causes or try to change our current industrial food system,” Schlosser writes. “Well, everyone’s entitled to his or her opinion. But I think that argument is ridiculous.”

He goes on to ask, “If the people who prepare food every day for a living aren’t qualified to pass judgment on that system, who is?” Then he extols the work of Alice Waters, the grande dame of socially engaged chefs, to be sure—but really, we've heard all of this before.

The rhetorical gymnastics engaged in by Jay Rayner—the restaurant critic for The Observer, who is tasked with articulating the opposing view—are far more fun to watch.

“In recent years, a bizarre, albeit well intentioned, movement has sprung up,” he writes. “It portrays the high-end chef not merely as someone who knocks up a bit of dinner for rich people, but as an agent of social change; as someone who can make a cultural, political, and environmental difference.”

Rayner concedes that “the impulse to be involved in making the world a better place is a good one.”

“Only the most self-absorbed of us has no involvement whatsoever in community action of some sort, and chefs are people, too,” he writes. His quibble, he says, is with “the belief that there is something specific about cooking in luxury kitchens, in taking massively extravagant ingredients and processing them into finely honed dishes for people with big bank balances, that provides a unique skill set with a wider application.” 

“The reality is that in the battle to feed the coming nine billion, a good recipe for coq au vin is of no use at all,” Rayner writes.

But that becomes a bit like arguing that because the sort of chefs whose Michelin-starred establishments cater to a clientele that Rayner describes as “wretched, sneering, status-obsessed, gold-card-carrying narcissists, with scant interest in the food on the table before them,” can’t solve all the world’s myriad food-related problems, they shouldn’t attempt to contribute to the solutions to any of them.

Schlosser, for his part, says as much: “In the world’s most privileged countries, there’s this notion that somehow you have to be perfect and pure, you have to devote your life entirely to helping the poor, or it’s not worth doing anything at all.”

But beyond whatever impact any given chef can have in addressing the environmental havoc wreaked by industrial-scale agriculture or the public health consequences of too much processed junk, it may arguably be their passion for food­—for good-quality, sustainably grown ingredients able to produce a sort of rapture on the tongue—that is their most worthy contribution to the public psyche vis-à-vis what we eat.

Yes, as Rayner points out, the cultlike emphasis on, say, “local” can be misguided (the lion’s share of the environmental impact of food is associated with how it’s produced, not how far it’s shipped), but I can’t help thinking that having a chorus of voices out there reminding us what it really means for food to be “wholesome,” “fresh,” and “natural” in defiance of big food’s Orwellian use of such terms as mere labels is only a good thing. 

Walmart Wants to Make Food More Sustainable—but Don't Confuse a Pledge With Practice

The big-box king has a long history of making splashy eco-friendly announcements with lame follow-through.
Walmart Wants to Make Food More Sustainable—but Don't Confuse a Pledge With Practice

Let’s just let Walmart have its moment, shall we, and get the slick PR shtick out of the way. Yesterday, the world’s biggest retailer crowed that it's dedicated to creating a more sustainable food system. 

“In front of hundreds of associates, suppliers, and nonprofit organizations at its Global Sustainability Milestone Meeting, Walmart today announced its commitment to create a more sustainable food system,” reads a statement marking the event. (You can practically hear the horns blaring from the all-American marching band.)

How does Walmart plan to do this? Through what it calls four key pillars: “improving the affordability of food for both customers and the environment”; “increasing access to food”; “making healthy eating easier”; and “improving the safety and transparency of the food chain.”

To frame this bold, dynamic vision, of course, you need a bold, dynamic quote from Walmart President and CEO Doug McMillon, to show the company is serious and not shunting the whole thing off to some ineffectual arm of the corporate organizational flowchart. So here we go:

The future of food is absolutely critical for both our society and for our business, which means we have a huge opportunity to make a difference here. We’ve learned on our sustainability journey that we’re most successful when our initiatives create social and environmental value and business value at the same time. Food is our number one category worldwide, and we are going to do even more in our grocery business in the years ahead. Paving a sustainable future for food is necessary for society and our business.

It all sounds laudable. Too bad it’s likely nothing more than a marketing ploy.

Because if you take a hard look at Walmart’s previous much-publicized-but-ultimately-lackluster efforts at sustainability, what McMillon calls a “journey” looks more like "greenwashing" to plenty of critics.

One of the most vocal of these is Stacy Mitchell, codirector of the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance and author of Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses. In 2012 and again last year, Mitchell wrote two reports for ILSR that peel back Walmart’s PR gloss to reveal a retail behemoth that is as doggedly committed to the bottom line as ever. Whatever relatively paltry amount Walmart is spending on its environmental initiatives, Mitchell argues, it has reaped far more feel-good publicity. These promises pay for the company, even if they don't pay off for the public.

Take Walmart’s oft-repeated, stunning goal of “working toward 100 percent renewable energy.” Well, Mitchell’s report last year was titled Walmart’s Assault on the Climate, so you can see where this is headed. Eight years after former Walmart CEO Lee Scott announced the retail giant would become a leader on sustainability issues (presumably to as much fanfare as yesterday’s announcement), the company today derives 4 percent of its electricity from renewable sources—far behind, say, Kohl’s, which uses 100 percent renewable energy, and even lagging behind McDonald’s 30 percent.

Notably, as Mitchell points out, Walmart’s sustainability goals are typically framed as big game changers (100 percent renewable energy!), but unlike the company’s other goals (total sales, for example, or store growth), its environmental benchmarks almost always lack a timetable. At Walmart’s current rate, for example, it will take 300 years for it to achieve its goal of using 100 percent renewable energy.

But it’s the press announcements that make headlines and burnish Walmart’s corporate image with consumers. Back in 2005, the company was facing a public backlash over its labor practices and rampant growth; some 38 percent of Americans said they had an unfavorable view of Walmart, according to Mitchell. By 2010—five years after it launched its sustainability initiative (and garnered much press)—that number had dropped by almost half, to 20 percent.

As Mitchell writes in her 2012 report, Walmart’s Greenwashing, since announcing its very public decision to go green, “the company’s head office in Bentonville, Ark., has issued a steady stream of announcements about cutting energy use, reducing waste, and, more recently, selling healthier food"—and now, two years later, sustainable food. "Most of these announcements declare goals," she continues, "not achievements. But the goals sound audacious enough to reliably produce sweeping headlines and breathless accounts of how Walmart could remake the world by bending industrial production to its will.”

If Walmart’s fuzzy “commitment to create a more sustainable food system” is anything like the one it announced (again, to much hoopla) in 2009 to improve the sustainability of everything it sells, it’ll no doubt follow the same trajectory: a whole lot of press attention that, in turn, makes a wary public more comfortable about shopping at Walmart—followed by a whole lot of equivocating.

The rot at the root of Walmart’s efforts to become more environmentally friendly, critics argue, is that its fundamental business model is the antithesis of sustainable. “Twenty-acre parking lots that define and extend sprawl, 200,000-square-foot stores that cumulatively generate millions of miles of automobile travel, and literally hundreds of abandoned, massive facilities left behind as community blight,” as Kaid Benfield of the Natural Resources Defense Council has put it. “And I’m not even getting into labor practices or impacts on local businesses.”

When it comes to our nation’s food supply, there are already telltale signs that Walmart’s “sustainable” meddling might do more harm than good, even as the mega-retailer is poised to have a big impact no matter what: It already claims a 25 percent share of the dollars Americans spend on groceries, and it has its sights set on capturing 50 percent.

That staggering growth created rampant consolidation in the food industry, Mitchell points out, as “meat-packers, dairy companies, and other food processors merged in an effort to be large enough to supply Walmart without getting crushed in the process.” This hasn’t been good for farmers. For example, Mitchell cites USDA statistics that show that for each dollar American shoppers spent on pork, the share that went to farmers fell from 45 cents to 25 cents between 1990 and 2009—while the share that went to Walmart and other big chains rose from 45 cents to 61 cents.

There’s a bit of cruel irony, too, in Walmart pledging to make food more “accessible,” presumably in low-income communities in food deserts. As Mitchell writes: “For neighborhoods that are truly underserved, it seems hard to argue with the notion that having a Walmart nearby is better than relying on 7-11 and McDonald’s for meals. But poor diet, limited access to fresh food, and diet-related health issues are a cluster of symptoms that all stem from a deeper problem that Walmart is likely to make worse: poverty. Poverty has a strong negative effect on diet quality, a 15-year study recently concluded, and access to a supermarket makes almost no difference."

Here’s the real kicker:

“Neighborhoods that gain Walmart stores end up with more poverty and food-stamp usage than communities where the retailer does not open, a study published in Social Science Quarterly found. This increase in poverty may owe to the fact that Walmart’s arrival leads to a net loss of jobs and lower wages, according to research by economists at the University of California-Irvine and Cornell.”

How to Make a $55,000 Batch of Potato Salad—and Raise Money for Charity

One guy’s quirky Kickstarter campaign ends up doing some good.
How to Make a $55,000 Batch of Potato Salad—and Raise Money for Charity

It’s every Kickstarter entrepreneur’s dream: Put your spark of genius out there for the world to admire and bask in the glory as the pledges roll in, surpassing your initial funding goal by more than 5,000 percent.

But what was the brilliant idea that turned into an Internet sensation, leading to a community-wide celebration the likes of which locals had probably never before seen?

Potato salad.

Last weekend saw the first-ever (and probably last) PotatoStock in Columbus, Ohio, the culmination of one man’s quirky Kickstarter ride. Back in July, gearing up for the Fourth, Zack Danger Brown, an independent software developer, had something of an epiphany—if you can call it that. “I realized that I really like potato salad, but had never made it,” he told CNET at the time. “Then I wanted to make potato salad.”

Brown decided to crowdfund his culinary endeavor. This wasn’t “I want to make the world’s best artisanal potato salad using locally sourced, organic ingredients and heirloom recipes that will transform the way a discerning public appreciates this timeworn American picnic staple.” This was “I just want to make potato salad.”

Brown set his funding goal at a modest $10. Within a matter of a few days, he’d raised more than $100. Before it was all over, he’d rake in more than $55,000.

What, exactly, motivated almost 7,000 credit-card-wielding individuals to wildly overfund a kitchen novice’s fledgling attempt to throw together one of the easiest side dishes known to humankind remains a mystery. (Though something of the spirit can be gleaned from a post from an early backer: “I’m not so much for potato salad, but I support your right to potato salad. You have my pledge sir, and I admire the cut of your jib.”)

In July, a few days into his campaign, Brown joked to CNET, “I didn’t get into the potato-salad game to make money. I did it to make potato salad.” But a couple months later, sitting on a serious pile of cash, Brown was faced with a dilemma most Kickstarter users can only dream about: He had far more capital than he knew what to do with.

So last Saturday, Brown threw a big potato party for his hometown of Columbus. There were potato sack races, Mr. Potato Head play stations, T-shirts that read “Peace, Love & Potatoes,” and more than 3,000 pounds of spuds donated by the Idaho Potato Commission (you knew the potato-growers' lobby was going to find a way to get in on the action).

Even better, a stunt that sounded like it was born after one too many beers with the bros proved worthwhile indeed. Brown donated the proceeds to the Columbus Foundation, which supports local organizations fighting hunger and homelessness.

Of course, the stunt’s charity was dwarfed by the summer’s other viral Internet sensation turned massive fund-raiser, the Ice Bucket Challenge, which raised a staggering $100 million for ALS research. In any case, Brown seems as aware as any nonprofit of the challenge of repeating such wacky, spontaneous success.

“I don’t want to be the guy who is clinging to his 15 minutes of Internet fame a year from now, shilling potatoes or mayonnaise,” he told The Verge.

Instead, he’s looking to perhaps trade in his career as a software developer for one as a sitcom writer.

Coke's Attempt to Be Your BFF Pays Off Big

What seemed like a weird marketing campaign leads to a bump in sales.
Coke's Attempt to Be Your BFF Pays Off Big

Am I the only one who thought it was bizarre when cans of Coke started to appear this summer with people’s names on them? Maybe so. Turns out Coke’s season-long “Share a Coke” campaign was such a hit, it reversed an 11-year downward trend in sales of the supersweet soda.

For the first time in more than a decade, sales of Coke’s carbonated drinks rose, gaining 2.5 percent for the 12 weeks ending in August—just as Coke’s seasonal marketing campaign came to an end. The simple idea was to feature 250 of the most popular first names among teens and millennials plastered across cans and bottles of Coke, Diet Coke, and Coke Zero—in addition to such feel-good, totally generic words as “Friend,” “BFF,” “Bestie,” and “Buddy.”

Admittedly, I got a bit suckered into the whole thing myself when I spotted the name of an old friend of mine emblazoned on a Coke in the supermarket checkout line. We’d been trying to make plans for weeks, and so I snapped a picture of it and texted her: “It’s a sign we should get together next weekend.” (Coke, of course, would be disappointed that I didn’t buy the bottle to give to her.)

“Yeah, that whole Coke thing is weird,” she later told me. The law office where she works regularly stocks cases of Diet Coke. “We’re all walking around with cans with other people’s names on them.”

Yet somehow the sheer absurdity of this oxymoronic corporate attempt to mass-market personalization—whereby dads spent the summer grilling while unwittingly gripping cans of Coke labeled “Alyssa” or “Jenna,” or grandmothers quenched their pool-time thirst with Diet Cokes marked “Oscar”—seemed lost on the American public. Also unremarked, it seemed, was that Coke’s “genius” multimillion-dollar campaign was nothing new. It's essentially the same ploy used by hawkers of cheap souvenirs at boardwalks and amusement parks since tourism began—all those key chains and mini license plates your eight-year-old just has to have because her name is on it.  

Instead, Coke appears to have scored a major marketing coup, particularly among the coveted demographic of millennials. “To see your name on a big brand, it makes it personal,” 22-year-old Ricardo El Torro tells The Wall Street Journal. Twentysomethings Alyssa and Shane Lescalleet of Lancaster, Ohio, plan to keep the bottles they found with their names on them displayed in their living room, next to their wedding pictures.

All this would amount to no more than an eye-rolling attempt by a major American brand to channel the telegraphic ethos of the rising text-and-Twitter generation were it not for the fact that Coke’s marketing strategy only thinly veils some rather insidious designs.

Coke has long been a master at investing its fizzy, nutritionally vapid products with all manner of touchy-feely sentiment—from the tearjerking “America the Beautiful” ad last winter all the way back to “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” By plastering its products with a bevy of carefully vetted, demographically targeted first names, Coke hopes the next generation will come to connect “Coke” with “friend” and not, say, diabetes.

Sure, Coke’s overall sales have been on a consistent downward slide, no doubt owing at least in part to increased public awareness of just how unhealthy soda is. But public health advocates still have had a hard time convincing people that a product that does nothing to fill you up could possibly be one of the primary culprits behind America’s obesity epidemic and its attendant health ills.

So let's do some simple math. A standard fast-food medium soda is about 21 ounces. Fill it with Coke, and that’s 240 calories and 65 grams of sugar—the same number of calories and more than three times the sugar of a Krispy Kreme chocolate-iced glazed doughnut. Face it, self-service free refills mean that most people go back to fill ’er up again. So now you’re guzzling 130 grams of sugar, which is equivalent to 32 teaspoons.

Because excess sugar consumption has been linked to weight gain and heart disease (not to mention diabetes and certain cancers), the American Heart Association recommends adults consume no more than 9.5 teaspoons of added sugar every day. For its part, the World Health Organization has recently proposed dropping its recommended daily allowance to no more than six teaspoons.

That’s the kind of information our “besties” over at Coke prefer to keep secret.