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Is It Possible to Make Composting Cool?

As America’s food waste piles up in landfills, one design team reimagines composting for the 21st century.
Is It Possible to Make Composting Cool?

I’ve been talking a lot about the issue of food waste lately…but don’t tune out just yet! I know, I know—the phrase “food waste” is kind of an immediate turnoff. But once you get past the initial yuck factor that inevitably conjures the reek of the kitchen trash you forgot to take out, the whole subject is actually interesting, and kind of imperative.

You see, we humans—particularly those of us living in industrialized nations—waste a lot of food. I’ve mentioned before that the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates some 40 percent of the food we produce in the U.S. ends up in the garbage. Here’s another stat, courtesy of food-waste activist Tristram Stuart, author of Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal: We grow enough food worldwide to feed 12 billion people, but we’re “hemorrhaging food at every link of the supply chain,” he says.

So in recent weeks I’ve highlighted some novel ways people are addressing, or at least spotlighting, the problem of food waste, from the work of Josh Treuhaft, who hosts Salvage Supperclubs in Brooklyn (where diners eat in a washed-down Dumpster), to Isabel Sores, whose novel CSA in Portugal rescues perfectly edible “ugly” produce from the trash.

No matter how conscious we are about what food we pitch, we’re still going to end up with some amount of table scraps going in the garbage. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, food waste is now the biggest contributor to our municipal solid-waste stream, with more than 36 million tons being dumped in landfills or incinerated annually. As it piles up and rots, it produces methane, which is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The EPA estimates that a full 20 percent of our methane emissions come from landfills.

Wide-scale composting would seem like the most promising solution (only about 5 percent of American food waste gets composted). But c’mon, is it realistic? After all, this is a country where, judging by our TV commercials, the mere hint of a whiff of odiferous kitchen trash is cause for mortification and the unleashing of a torrent of chemical air freshener.

Turns out, Americans aren’t quite as put off by the notion of composting as one might think. A survey published earlier this year by the National Waste & Recycling Association found that, no surprise, nearly three-quarters of Americans don’t compost their food waste. But 67 percent of non-composters said they’d be willing to do it if community composting was made available (though most of them don’t want to pay more for the service).

“While America’s waste and recycling industry has developed innovative composting technologies, there are hurdles inhibiting such changes,” says Sharon Kneiss, president and CEO of the NWRA. “Challenges include the collection and transportation of food waste and the siting of food-waste composting facilities more broadly. But a far greater hurdle inhibiting an organics revolution may involve a lack of understanding by the American public about the value of such a change.”

Education is key, no doubt. After all, before the big recycling push of the 1990s, few people thought twice about pitching their beer bottles and milk cartons in the trash. Indeed, one of the reasons food scraps have become the largest share of waste going to landfills is that so much other material now goes into the recycling bin.

Composting could probably use something of an image makeover too. Take the ingenious idea of two graduate students in New York: Hello Compost. Aly Blenkin and Luke Keller were both going for their master’s in transdisciplinary design at Parsons when they teamed up with Linda Bryant at Project EATS, which helps establish urban farmsteads in working-class communities in New York. The concept: Sign up residents willing to collect their food scraps, supply them with handy odor-blocking canvas totes in which to store said scraps in their freezer (a must for New York City apartment dwellers), and then have them turn those scraps in for credits toward fresh produce from Project EATS farms.

Life being life, however, Blenkin and Keller got full-time jobs after graduating, and “the core team has spread out geographically,” as Blenkin puts it—meaning further implementation of Hello Compost is on hold. But so much is right about the project that it’s still worth talking about.

Not only does Hello Compost create a sort of dreamily sustainable feedback loop (rewarding participants who haul in their potato peels and melon rinds with credits to buy more produce), but it makes composting seem cool by design. From the website to the totes to the iPad app that lets composters track their credits and how much they’ve composted, it takes composting out of the moldering bins of 1970s-era back-to-the-earth hippie tracts and puts it smack-dab in the 21st century—where, judging by how much food we’re still pitching, it definitely belongs.   

This article is brought to you by IBM's People for Smarter Cities. TakePart is teaming up with IBM to highlight innovative ideas and creative change makers who are helping cities all around the world move forward.

Drinking Diet Soda and Not Losing Weight? Blame Your Gut Bacteria

We may finally know why artificial sweeteners are linked to weight gain.
Drinking Diet Soda and Not Losing Weight? Blame Your Gut Bacteria

For a while now, scientists have been gathering compelling evidence that the artificial sweeteners found in diet soda and a slew of processed foods sometimes do the exact opposite of what they’re supposed to. Instead of helping us shed pounds, they increase our risk for weight gain and lead to metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Why?

Turns out, the answer may have been in our gut all along.

In a new study published this week in Nature, researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, have found that a steady diet of artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin seems to alter gut bacteria in a way that causes blood-sugar levels to rise. That’s the first domino in a chain reaction that can lead to glucose intolerance, weight gain, diabetes, and other related health problems. Not only does the study appear to shed light on the vexing question of why artificial sweeteners might be doing us more harm than good, but it’s part of the next big frontier in medical science: the trillions of bacteria and other minuscule organisms that call our bodies home.

The researchers at Weizmann started with mice. First, they found that mice given water laced with artificial sweeteners developed glucose intolerance. This was not the case for mice given plain old water or (surprisingly) sugar water. It’s part of what has puzzled researchers all along: How can “zero-calorie” sweeteners, which our bodies don’t metabolize into energy or store as fat, cause blood-sugar levels to rise?

The answer, according to the new study, may have to do with proximity. While we don’t digest those sweeteners, they nevertheless come into contact with the legions of bacteria that live in our gut. When researchers used antibiotics to wipe out the gut bacteria of mice, it completely reversed the effects of the artificial sweeteners on the mice’s glucose metabolism. Likewise, when scientists took the gut bacteria from glucose-intolerant mice and transferred it to mice that had had their gut bacteria eradicated, the recipients became glucose intolerant. Analyzing the bacteria more closely, the scientists found “profound changes” in the bacterial populations, “including new microbial functions that are known to infer a propensity for obesity, diabetes, and complications of these problems in both mice and humans.”

The next step was to see whether the same thing happened in humans. Researchers first examined a sample of 381 people, analyzing their blood-sugar levels and colonies of bacteria in their digestive tracts, and found that people who reported consuming higher quantities of artificial sweeteners were more likely to be glucose intolerant. Then they performed a controlled experiment in which a much smaller group (just seven people) who said they did not routinely consume artificial sweeteners were given them for a week. Half began to develop glucose intolerance after just four days, and further analysis showed these participants possessed the kind of gut bacteria that appeared to cause glucose intolerance when exposed to artificial sweeteners.

“Our relationship with our own individual mix of gut bacteria is a huge factor in determining how the food we eat affects us,” said Eran Elinav, one of the study’s lead researchers, in a statement. “Especially intriguing is the link between use of artificial sweeteners—through the bacteria in our guts—to a tendency to develop the very disorders they were designed to prevent; this calls for reassessment of today’s massive, unsupervised consumption of these substances.”

Eran Segal, one of Elinav’s colleagues at Weizmann and a coauthor of the study, was a little more cautious. Because of the small sample size, “by no means are we prepared to make recommendations as to the use and dosage of artificial sweeteners based on the results of this study,” Segal told The Verge.

Another scientist, Christopher Gardner at Stanford University, who was not involved in the research, questioned the study’s design, pointing out that the dose of saccharin given to participants was the maximum amount permitted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration—the equivalent of a 150-pound person drinking 42 12-ounce sodas per day. “That may be ‘acceptable’ according to some set of guidelines,” Gardner wrote to The Verge in an email, “but it should be noted that realistically this is a very high dose they are using and one that wouldn’t be consumed by a typical consumer.”

Still, as Elinav suggests, the research appears poised to further explain our complicated relationship with the staggering amount of bacteria we carry around with us. The more science emerges focused on our microbiome, what writer Michael Pollan has described as “a vast, largely uncharted interior wilderness that scientists are just beginning to understand,” the more it’s challenging our very notion of who we are.

We are host to an estimated 100 trillion microbial species, only a fraction of which are potentially harmful. That, in effect, means that we’re only about 10 percent human, as Pollan pointed out in The New York Times last year. For every one human cell in our body (those cells containing the DNA we inherited from our parents), there are about 10 microbes. Keeping all those bugs happy—including, perhaps, keeping them away from artificial sweeteners—could help keep our bodies healthy and happy too.

Lemon, Lime—and Lithium? Turns Out, 7-Up Used to Contain the Potent Drug

Like Coke, the popular soda has a psychotropic past.
Lemon, Lime—and Lithium? Turns Out, 7-Up Used to Contain the Potent Drug

No doubt you’ve long known what originally put the “Coca” in Coca-Cola. But here’s a fun bit of happy-hour trivia you might not be familiar with: What put the “Up” in the original 7-Up?


That’s right: It turns out that what today is perhaps the most boring and staid of all the major soft drinks (except when it’s liberally spiked) has a semi-scandalous past.

That cocaine gave Coke its original happy kick isn’t news—unless, of course, you’re in third grade, which is about when it seems most of us became aware of Coke’s psychotropic history, owing to the breathless revelations of that kid. You know, the one who always seemed in possession of some dubious bit of grown-up-sounding knowledge. But I myself have to admit that I’d never before heard of 7-Up’s once-upon-a-time not-so-secret ingredient. That tidbit isn’t even the most startling revelation in psychiatrist Anna Fels’ provocatively titled op-ed that appeared last weekend in The New York Times: “Should We All Take a Bit of Lithium?”

Fels charts what she characterizes as a small yet growing body of scientific evidence that suggests tiny doses of lithium, consumed regularly, contribute to better overall mental health, likely because lithium seems to act to protect neurons in the brain. In some areas of the country, you’re probably already on a regular regimen: Lithium is a naturally occurring element that’s found in varying minute concentrations in tap water.

The evidence Fels presents is fairly startling (which is no doubt why her article has been sitting near the top of the Times’ most-emailed list for the past several days). To wit: “In 1990, a study was published looking at 27 Texas counties with a variety of lithium levels in their water,” she writes. “The authors discovered that people whose water had the least amount of lithium had significantly greater levels of suicide, homicide and rape than the people whose water had the higher levels of lithium. The group whose water had the highest lithium level had nearly 40 percent fewer suicides than that with the lowest lithium level.”

There are studies, too, that suggest lithium can prevent dementia, which is a growing public health concern as the American population, on average, becomes older.

But Fels, who is on the faculty of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, fully recognizes that convincing the public to add lithium to its routine of daily dietary supplements is a tough sell, owing to the drug’s association with, say, mental health treatment, circa One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. She reports that even patients with major mood disorders who would likely benefit from lithium treatment often reject the drug.

’Twas not always so. In the century before Kurt Cobain’s moody ode to the soporific effect of medical-grade lithium, people flocked to natural springs where the element was abundant, Fels reports. It was on the basis of lithium’s salubrious reputation that it was added to Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda—or what would become 7-Up. The fizzy beverage would contain lithium citrate until 1950.

Which might not be so surprising at the end of the day. After all, the history of most major soft drinks today is intertwined with that of the nascent pharmaceutical industry; Coke, Pepsi, and Dr Pepper were all invented by pharmacists. It’s not for nothing that most corner drugstores had a soda fountain.

Today, of course, we’re becoming ever more aware of just how unhealthy a regular soda habit can be, with increased soda consumption linked to higher rates of obesity and obesity-related diseases, such as diabetes. It’s ironic—in light of the historic claims made by soda makers that their products enhanced mood—that last year, researchers at the National Institutes of Health found a correlation between higher rates of soda consumption and depression, at least in older adults.

Which makes Fels’ proposal seem as misguided as her revelations about low-dose lithium consumption are enlightening: “Who knows what the impact on our society would be if micro-dose lithium were again part of our standard nutritional fare?” she muses. “What if it were added back to soft drinks or popular vitamin brands or even put into the water supply? The research to date strongly suggests that suicide levels would be reduced, and even perhaps other violent acts. And maybe the dementia rate would decline. We don’t know because the research hasn’t been done.”

Creepy 1984 overtones aside, adding lithium back into soda would seem to be hardly what a country battling an unprecedented obesity epidemic needs: an excuse to drink more high-calorie sugar water because, you know, it’s good for you.

When the Feds Won’t Regulate Big Ag’s Antibiotic Abuse, Cities Call for Reform

San Francisco and Berkeley, Calif., want the federal government to address the widespread use of the drugs in farm animals.
When the Feds Won’t Regulate Big Ag’s Antibiotic Abuse, Cities Call for Reform

In what appears to be a growing movement, San Francisco and Berkeley this week became the first cities in California to join a growing number of local governments pressing lawmakers in Washington to take action on the issue of antibiotic use in the ag industry. Across the country, cities are calling on Congress to pass legislation that would address the rise of drug-resistant “superbugs” that have been linked to the rampant use of antibiotics in livestock.

In April, the nonprofit activist group Food & Water Watch launched a nationwide campaign asking local governments to adopt resolutions supporting federal legislation to stop the unnecessary use of antibiotics in livestock. So far, 20 cities have heeded the organization’s call, including Chicago, Seattle, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh.

The resolutions target two bills that are languishing in Congress: the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act in the House and the Preventing Antibiotic Resistance Act in the Senate. Both bills have been stuck in committee since being introduced more than a year ago. The odds of either passing anytime soon are seen as close to zilch. The site gives the House bill a 1 percent chance of ever being enacted.

While this is not surprising, given the partisan paralysis of Washington, it is shocking when you consider that nearly every major medical organization has been sounding the alarm about the waning efficacy of lifesaving antibiotics and the spread of antibiotic-resistant bugs. These city governments are echoing calls from the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the Institute of Medicine/National Academies of Science, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which estimates that at least 23,000 Americans die from antibiotic-resistant infections each year.

Some 80 percent of the antibiotics consumed in America today are used by the agriculture industry, and much of that is given to healthy animals to enhance growth and counter the effects of living in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions on factory farms. Of course, as anyone who has taken high school biology knows, over time some of the very bugs those antibiotics are meant to kill survive, then multiply, producing an infectious strain resistant to antibiotic treatment.

Hence what Food & Water Watch and other groups are billing as a campaign to “save antibiotics.” Though it lacks the emotional punch of “Save the whales” or “Save the polar bears,” it is nevertheless an apt characterization of the issue. We risk squandering the lifesaving power of these marvels of 20th century medicine just so Big Ag can raise fatter chickens and cows in the 21st century.

What makes the whole thing all the more galling is that the Food and Drug Administration has known this could happen since the late 1970s, yet it’s done virtually nothing to stop it. Advocacy groups have recently tried to force the agency to action through the courts, but a recent appeals court ruling siding with the FDA has put the kibosh on that for the moment.

Right now there are two main paths forward: Get Congress to pass a law requiring the FDA to limit the use of antibiotics in the livestock industry, or convince the industry to take voluntary action.

Although the announcement by poultry giant Perdue earlier this month that the company had achieved a 95 percent reduction in the use of human antibiotics in its operations might lead one to believe there’s some hope in the latter route, public health advocates are more than a little dubious.

“A Perdue spokesperson stated that the company’s voluntary reduction in the use of antibiotics shows that the industry doesn’t need to be regulated to change its ways. If only that were true,” writes Scott Edwards, codirector of the Food & Water Justice Project at Food & Water Watch. “One of the big problems with industry’s use of antibiotics is that the FDA does a poor job of tracking the use of these drugs in U.S. meat producers. There are very weak reporting requirements, and industry’s admissions of antibiotic use are purposefully murky and undefined. Even Perdue’s official statement leaves it unclear how antibiotics will continue to be used to ‘treat and control illness in sick flocks.’ ”

Edwards continues: “[V]oluntary simply doesn’t cut it; antibiotic abuse by industry is a current crisis and our public health and safety cannot afford to wait until there’s an industry-wide decision to do the right thing. So while we should be throwing Perdue a chicken bone for its marketing decision to reduce antibiotic use, the most important part of Perdue’s announcement is that it shows what the industry has been claiming for years—that it can’t produce meat without the abuse of antibiotics—is false. It’s past time for the FDA to do what we all know is possible, and that is to force the meat industry to eliminate its use of harmful antibiotics though protective, non-voluntary regulation.”

From the Gridiron to the Concession Line: Former Linebacker Is Now Raising Grass-Fed Beef

Former Rams player Will Witherspoon is supplying the Edward Jones Dome with Animal Welfare Approved–certified burgers and hot dogs.
From the Gridiron to the Concession Line: Former Linebacker Is Now Raising Grass-Fed Beef

It may indeed have been better to be a cow than a Ram at the Edward Jones Dome on Sunday. While the St. Louis Rams took a drubbing at the hands of the Minnesota Vikings, losing 34–6, the team otherwise made history by offering up to fans for the first time hot dogs and burgers made from certified-sustainable, humanely raised, grass-fed beef.

Just last year, Will Witherspoon was down on the field as a Rams linebacker, the last season of a decade-long NFL career that started with the Carolina Panthers and included stints with the Philadelphia Eagles and the Tennessee Titans. Today he’s the owner of Shire Gate Farm, about 80 miles southwest of the stadium. There he's raising the grass-fed beef that’s ending up in the hands of screaming fans back at the Edward Jones Dome.

It’s one of the more surprising career transformations for a former NFL player, but it began back in 2007. That’s the year Witherspoon was named the Rams' MVP and also the year he and his wife, Rebecca, bought their farm in Owensville, Mo. At first, they just wanted pasture for their two shire horses, but over time, Witherspoon came to relish the serenity of country life (in contrast to, say, enduring yet another bone-crushing tackle), and he sought to convert Shire Gate from a “farm” to a farm.

“It’s a place where my daughters and I can work with the animals and the land,” Witherspoon said in 2010, when he was playing for the Titans. “I use the companionship of the animals and the beauty of the land to refocus myself after the demands of playing football. Shire Gate is our retreat from the world.”

Witherspoon raises White Park cattle, and his operations are certified by Animal Welfare Approved, which conducts annual audits of every farm in its program to ensure it meets strict standards—no antibiotics or hormones, for example, and all cattle must be raised on pasture. Shire Gate doesn't raise enough cattle to supply Delaware North Companies Sports, the stadium's concessionaire, with enough burgers and dogs to feed its legion of hungry fans, so Witherspoon sourced meat from other local AWA-certified farms to make up the difference.

“When the bigger players in the food industry raise their game and start sourcing local, sustainably produced food in this way, it can lay the foundations for real change," Witherspoon said in a statement, "not just at sports venues but everywhere."

Leading Poultry Producer Cuts Nearly All Antibiotic Use

Perdue says 95 percent of its birds will never be treated with the controversial drugs.
Leading Poultry Producer Cuts Nearly All Antibiotic Use

In response to what public health experts say is a growing crisis of potentially lethal antibiotic-resistant bacteria, poultry giant Perdue has announced that it has stopped using antibiotics in its chicken hatcheries and is limiting applications throughout its business.

“By no longer using any antibiotics in our hatcheries or any human antibiotics in feed, we’ve reached the point where 95 percent of our chickens never receive any human antibiotics, and the remainder receive them only for a few days when prescribed by a veterinarian,” said Bruce Stewart-Brown, senior vice president of food safety, quality, and live operations at Perdue, the nation’s third-largest chicken producer.

It sounds impressive, and in a number of ways, it is. Just five years ago, every single chicken raised by Perdue received human antibiotics in some form. The company cited consumer concerns about rampant use of antibiotics in factory farms as well as its own growing awareness of the problem of antibiotic resistance as its motivation for overhauling its practices.

“We recognized that the public was concerned about the potential impact of the use of these drugs on their ability to effectively treat humans,” said Stewart-Brown. “We focused first on removing growth-promoting antibiotics.”

Indeed, 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States today are used in the livestock industry, and much of that is mixed with feed and given to animals daily—both to prevent the spread of disease in often crowded and unsanitary conditions and to promote growth. (Why antibiotics cause animals to bulk up isn’t fully understood, but it’s a practice the industry latched on to decades ago.)

Such indiscriminate use, however, has been linked to the alarming rise in antibiotic-resistant infections in people. Since no new class of antibiotics has been developed in more than 30 years, it seems we may have stalled out in the evolutionary-pharmacological arms race that has produced a dangerous class of superbugs.

In a report last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention charted what it called “the potentially catastrophic consequences of inaction” on the issue of antibiotic resistance, noting that 2 million Americans every year are sickened by antibiotic-resistant infections, with at least 23,000 dying from them. For its part, the World Health Organization warned in its own report released this year that “the problem is so serious that it threatens the achievements of modern medicine. A post-antibiotic era—in which common infections and minor injuries can kill—is a very real possibility for the 21st century.” (The CDC says we’ve already arrived at that threshold.)

In light of the sheer scope of the problem, Perdue’s actions, while laudable, may appear to be a drop in the bucket—a sentiment perhaps echoed in the somewhat tepid response from public health advocates.

“The amount of antibiotics used on the farm is simply not sustainable if we want to preserve their uses in human medicine,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “I hope Perdue’s actions foreshadow changes across the industry and embolden regulators to prohibit the misuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture.”

Indeed, Americans may have no choice but to rely on the goodwill and voluntary efforts of the livestock industry to tackle the problem. Despite having sounded the alarm about the dangers of widespread antibiotic use on farms back in the 1970s, the Food and Drug Administration has failed to take strong action on the issue. CSPI, along with several other public health and environmental groups, tried to force the agency’s hand by taking it to court several years ago. The groups won a pair of initial cases, but last month a federal appeals court overturned both rulings, saying the agency had no congressional mandate to regulate antibiotic use on farms.

That decision was “deeply disappointing,” said Robert S. Lawrence of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, “because it allows voluntary guidelines to take the place of decisive action in confronting one of the most important public health problems of our time.”

Those voluntary guidelines, which the FDA released last December, were called “a major new policy” and “the agency’s first serious attempt” to address the antibiotic free-for-all on factory farms in the media—but they left public health advocates fuming.

As Sarah Borron, a researcher with the advocacy group Food & Water Watch, pointed out last March, the FDA’s guidelines contain an enormous loophole: While they prohibit the use of medically important antibiotics to promote livestock growth, they do nothing to curb their prophylactic use. That is, farmers can still routinely ply healthy animals with antibiotics to keep them from getting sick—and if they happen to grow faster, so be it.

Food & Water Watch analyzed the FDA’s list of more than 400 antibiotics affected by the new guidelines and found that 89 percent of the drugs being barred as growth enhancers can still be given to otherwise healthy animals for other reasons, no questions asked.

So when Perdue crows that its “very limited use of antibiotics is more restrictive than the new FDA Guidelines announced last December,” well, like your average factory-farmed boneless chicken breast, you gotta take that with a grain of salt.

Low-Carb Wins Another Battle in the Diet Wars

According to a new study, focusing on fat is the wrong approach.
Low-Carb Wins Another Battle in the Diet Wars

In the quest to tell us what we should be eating to live longer and healthier, nutrition science is either doing a bang-up job lately or causing mass confusion, depending on your point of view.

No doubt this isn’t the only article you’re likely to come across in the next day or so trumpeting the results of what’s being hailed as a major new study that finds people who stuck to a low-carb diet for a year lost more weight and were generally healthier than those who followed a low-fat diet.

Yep, that’s right: After years of health professionals tsk-tsking about the possible ill effects of forswearing carbs in favor of a return to steak and eggs for breakfast, it turns out ole Dr. Atkins might have been onto something after all.

Many nutritionists and doctors have “actively advised against” low-carb diets, Dr. Lydia A. Bazzano at Tulane University, a lead author of the new study, tells The New York Times. “It’s been thought that your saturated fat is, of course, going to increase, and then your cholesterol is going to go up. And then bad things will happen in general.”

That was before nutrition scientists began to question another long-standing bias against saturated fat, which many of us were raised to believe was the diet equivalent of the bogeyman, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

For the study, published this week in the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers selected a group of approximately 150 people ages 22 to 75 with no history of diabetes or heart problems and randomly assigned them to stick to either a low-carb or a low-fat diet for a year. Notably, they were not required to cut the overall amount of calories they ate, just the amount of carbs or fat.

The low-fat group, for its part, reduced its total fat consumption to less than 30 percent of daily calories, which, as the Times notes, is consistent with federal dietary guidelines. The members of the low-carb group, on the other hand, increased the total amount of fat in their diets to more than 40 percent of daily calories, with a little more than 13 percent ultimately coming from saturated fat—more than double the limit set by, say, the American Heart Association.

The average weight loss for the low-fat dieters? Four pounds. And for the low-carb dieters? Almost 12 pounds. Yep, nearly three times as much.

Of course, there are lots of unhealthy ways to lose weight. What appears even more surprising than the dramatic difference in weight loss observed in the current study is how much healthier on the whole the low-carb dieters seemed to be than the low-fat ones.

Not only did the low-fat dieters lose more lean muscle than fat, but their levels of HDL cholesterol (aka good cholesterol) were lower than those of the low-carb group, while their risk for heart attack over the next decade, based on Framingham risk scores, remained more or less the same, according to the Times. The low-carb dieters managed to lower their scores.

From the standpoint of health researchers, the study achieved something of the gold standard: a clinical, randomized trial versus the type of observational studies that often pore over reams of data but can only determine correlation as opposed to cause and effect.

Yet such studies, by nature, are expensive and difficult to conduct, meaning their scope is often limited, in terms of both time and number of participants. The current study only tracked low-carb and low-fat dieters for a year, for example.

Nevertheless, the study is likely to enter the growing body of evidence that suggests nutrition experts have been way off in demonizing fat and, by extension, launching an unsuspecting public on a carb free-for-all. For more than a generation, cutting back on fat has meant ramping up our carb consumption, and it seems notable that today Americans are, on average, fatter than ever, and rates of obesity-related diseases such as diabetes have spiked.

Ultimately, it’s a steady diet of diet-related headlines that may be most hazardous to our health. Americans tend to glean the big news about nutrition research without understanding its nuances, which can lead to an all-or-nothing attitude about certain foods and a general sense that health scientists don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.

A huge study released last March by researchers at Harvard and Cambridge universities, for example, found no link between the consumption of saturated fats and heart disease, but even the study’s lead researchers were quick to caution that the findings shouldn’t be taken as a license to load up on bacon and ice cream.

Aaron E. Carroll, a professor at the Indiana University School of Medicine, may have hit the nail on the head last week in an article for The New York Times. Carroll starts by focusing on what recent science has revealed about our relationship with another age-old diet bugaboo: salt.

Yes, too much salt isn’t good for you, particularly if you have high blood pressure. But that’s led to a extreme reaction in the opposite direction, with the FDA, the World Health Organization, and the American Heart Association all advocating low-salt diets, setting limits of as little as 1.5 grams per day, when the average American consumes about 3.4 grams.

Guess what? A study published this month in the New England Journal of Medicine found that not only did people who consumed more than seven grams of salt a day have a higher risk of a “major cardiovascular event,” but the risk for people who consumed less than three grams was even greater.     

“It’s a cliché but true: In so many things moderation is our best bet,” Carroll writes. “We have to learn that when one extreme is detrimental, it doesn’t mean the opposite is our safest course. It’s time to acknowledge that we may be going too far with many of our recommendations.”

Why the Additives in Processed Foods May Be Even More Dangerous Than You Think

Guess what? It’s the food industry—not the FDA—that’s pretty much determining what’s safe for Americans to eat.
Why the Additives in Processed Foods May Be Even More Dangerous Than You Think

Want to get a good sense of just how utterly screwed up the Food and Drug Administration is when it comes to regulating all those unpronounceable ingredients on the labels of so many processed foods? Just check out the much ballyhooed announcement from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the trade group that represents most of the processed-food industry, of its newfound openness about food additives. The association has launched a “five-part initiative to help modernize the process” of evaluating whether additives should be considered safe, including establishing a “GMA-sponsored database” that will provide the FDA and “other stakeholders” access to the food industry’s safety assessments of its own products.

Hold up a minute: The FDA doesn’t already have its hands on the data food companies have been using to determine whether the additives they’re putting into the food we eat are safe for human consumption?

In a word, nope.

Oh you poor, silly, naive American consumer. Did you really think that the FDA was poring over reams of scientific data before it gave the green light to an additive like epigallocatechin-3-gallate or gamma-aminobutyric acid? Not only does the agency not require food makers to submit scientific studies to back up claims that the additives they’re using are safe for humans to eat (that is, “generally recognized as safe,” or “GRAS,” in bureaucratic-speak), but the agency basically allows food companies to make that determination themselves. No FDA stamp of approval is necessary, and it’s pretty much been that way for the last 17 years.

I’m no great fan of flow charts, but this one devised by the nonprofit public watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest succinctly sums up what you otherwise might think should be an involved and deliberate process. After all, we’re talking about nothing less than ensuring the food in our grocery stores is safe to eat for crying out loud. 

As you may have surmised from the chart, the FDA doesn’t even know all the additives that the food industry has deemed safe, which is why the Grocery Manufactures Association thinks it’s being so progressive and transparent by providing that information to the very agency most Americans believe is on top of making sure harmful stuff doesn’t make its way into our food.

“Today the food industry is congratulating itself for sharing a database of its food additive safety studies with regulators at the Food and Drug Administration,” Laura MacCleery, chief regulatory affairs attorney for CSPI, said in a statement. “That this is seen as a step forward neatly illustrates the dysfunction built into the current system. It is outrageous that FDA doesn’t already have the identity, much less the safety data, of all substances added to the nation’s food supply.”

How did it come to this? Well, for starters, the law intended to govern the safety of food additives dates to the Eisenhower administration, when there were only about 800 additives in all. Today there are an estimated 10,000, manufactured by companies with names such as FutureCeuticals, Hamari Chemicals, and ChromaDex.

But in the original law, GRAS was limited in scope. It covered ingredients that had been used in food since time immemorial, such as oil and vinegar. By 1997, feeling understaffed and overburdened, the FDA began allowing food makers themselves to determine whether their newfangled additives were safe, often based solely on the evaluation of a company’s employees or consultants it hired.

Plenty of independent public health watchdogs have been crying foul about this for years, among them CSPI, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and, more recently, the Natural Resources Defense Council. In a comprehensive three-year study of the issue released last year, Pew determined that the “FDA has not reviewed the safety of about 3,000 of the 10,000 additives allowed in food.” That includes 1,000 that food makers have “self-affirmed as GRAS”—meaning “safe” additives that the FDA theoretically doesn’t even know exist.

For its part, NRDC has taken to calling GRAS “generally recognized as secret,” and in its own report, published in April, provided four enlightening—or terrifying, take your pick—case studies of new additives for which companies had sought GRAS status, only to quietly withdraw their notices in the face of the FDA’s scrutiny.

That would sound like the FDA was doing its job, right? Well, sorta. The NRDC report notes that “the FDA does carefully review the notifications [from companies seeking GRAS approval] and asks tough questions.” But because companies can just skip out of the review process altogether with no consequence and bring their additives to market anyway, what does it matter?

Indeed, that’s just what appears to have happened with the four additives spotlighted here, according to the NRDC:

• Epigallocatechin-3-gallate “A Japanese company declared this chemical to be GRAS for use in beverages, including teas, sport drinks, and juices despite evidence it may cause leukemia in fetuses based on studies using newborn and adult human cells grown on a dish. Moreover, the company did not address a short-term study on rats showing it affected thyroid, testis, spleen, pituitary, liver, and gastrointestinal tract.” Number of products on the market with ECGC (per NRDC): 25

• Gamma-amino butyric acid “A Japanese company declared this neurotransmitter to be GRAS for use in beverages, chewing gum, coffee, tea, and candy. It did so despite having estimated exposure well in excess of what the company considered safe, relying on unpublished safety studies, providing the specifications in Japanese, and failing to consider existing exposures.” Number of produces on the market with GABA (per NRDC): 5 (including bottled tea and nutrition bars)

• Sweet lupin protein, fiber, and flour “An Australian firm declared these chemicals to be GRAS for use in baked goods, dairy products, gelatin, meats, and candy despite concerns that the chemicals would cause allergic reactions in those with peanut allergies.” Number of products on the market with this additive (per NRDC): more than 20, none of which carry allergy warning labels

• Theobromine “A U.S. firm declared it to be GRAS for use in bread, cereal, beverages, chewing gum, tea, soy milk, gelatin, candy, and yogurt and fruit smoothies despite having an estimated consumption rate more than five times the safe consumption level reported by the company’s consultant. In addition, the manufacturer did not provide convincing explanations for the testicular degeneration in rats and rabbits and delayed bone formation in rats that were seen in animal studies of theobromine.” Number of products on the market with this additive (per NRDC): more than 20 (including isotonic waters, nutrition bars, and diet foods)

So is the new industry-sponsored database likely to make the concerns of public health advocates go away? Don’t count on it. As MacCleery puts it: “Whether these companies’ evaluations are submitted on paper, assembled in a new database, or gift-wrapped with a bow tied around it, it’s no substitute for having independent and rigorous evaluations of suspect additives used in our food.”

Brooklyn's Trendiest Dining Reservation May Be in a Dumpster

Josh Treuhaft's Salvage Supperclubs go far beyond your average hipster PR stunt.
Brooklyn's Trendiest Dining Reservation May Be in a Dumpster

You’ve heard about Dumpster diving, but how hip are you to Dumpster dining?

Yes, a fair number of Brooklynites may be lamenting the glitzy gentrification of their borough, but one of the hottest places in the borough to eat right now may be a gigantic Dumpster.

Let's pause here for a bit of mocking: Yes, we've gone from Dumpster swimming pools to Dumpster restaurants in fair Brooklyn. I know, I know—is there anything those hipsters won't pay money for if it's wrapped up in just the right shade of cool? Sure, dining on any given New York City sidewalk in late August can mean sipping rosé in the uncomfortably close vicinity of a smelly, seepy pile of garbage. So maybe al fresco dining in the big city is just a little trashy by nature.

However, this is far from some spoof-worthy, roll-your-eyes stunt. The Salvage Supperclubs, hosted by Josh Treuhaft, a recently minted design for social innovation MFA grad of New York’s School of Visual Arts, are bringing awareness to one of the biggest but all too often overlooked social and environmental issues of our time: the problem of food waste.   

“People don’t like waste. It’s icky,” Treuhaft told The Wall Street Journal. But, he added, “when you talk about food, people’s faces light up.”

So far Treuhaft has organized seven of the suppers, teaming up with chef Celia Lam, whom he recruited from the Natural Gourmet Institute. Diners pay $50 for a multicourse dinner served inside a (washed-down) Dumpster parked in the street, seated around a table usually assembled from decommissioned scaffolding.

There they dine on dishes that sound like they belong on the menu of any of the legion of trendy eateries that have popped up from Red Hook to Williamsburg—but all the recipes are made from scraps. At a recent dinner, guests were served beet tartare with cashew cheese and radishes, watermelon-rind pickles, beet-green spanakopita, heirloom tomato soup shooters, and peach-peppermint sorbet, according to the Journal.

While no actual Dumpster diving is involved in the dinners, the peaked, past-its-prime food is sourced from farms, farmers markets, restaurants, and home kitchens. Without the intervention of Treuhaft and Lam, it all would have ended up in the trash. Proceeds from the dinners are donated to the nonprofit City Harvest, which itself salvages some 46 million pounds of food a year in New York to help feed the city’s estimated 2 million residents who face hunger.

In the U.S., estimates of the amount of food we waste are staggering: Upwards of 40 percent of consumer food purchases end up in the trash, according to a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council. All told, we're scrapping 133 billion pounds each year, which is like tossing more than $161 billion into the garbage.

That we could feed 25 million additional people if we just cut our food waste by 15 percent, according to NRDC, should itself be enough to prompt us to question the food we throw away—even if that means admitting our mothers were onto something when they admonished us to clean our plates with the old “There are children starving in Africa…."

But food waste isn’t just a social issue. It’s a bona fide environmental concern. All the resources that are used to grow and produce food—from the land gobbled up by farms to the inputs of water and ag chemicals to the energy used to transport food to market—that’s all for naught when the food winds up in the trash. Some 4 percent of our oil consumption, for example, and 25 percent of our freshwater use can be tied to food waste, according to NRDC.

Oh, and when you’ve got more than 30 million tons of food going into landfills, it rots and produces methane, a greenhouse gas that’s 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. According to the EPA, landfills account for more than 20 percent of human-caused methane pollution.

What's accomplished by throwing a bunch of overwhelming stats at you, dear reader? The good news about food waste is, unlike a host of other social and environmental issues, it’s a problem we all can do something about. You may not be able to afford to switch to a hybrid car or put solar panels on your roof—or spend $50 to eat a dinner of not-quite trash—but it costs nothing to be more mindful about the food we pitch. Heck, it saves money. It’s a logical extension of how much more conscious we’ve become about the food we buy, with farmers markets booming and “locavore” having long entered the popular lexicon. It’s just bringing that same level of awareness to the food we’re throwing away.

A few of my favorite at-home tips, courtesy of NRDC:

• Shop wisely: Plan meals, use shopping lists, buy from bulk bins, and avoid impulse buys. Don’t succumb to marketing tricks that lead you to buy more food than you need, particularly perishable items.

• Learn when food goes bad: “Sell by” and “use by” dates are not federally regulated and do not indicate safety, except on certain baby foods. Rather, they are manufacturer suggestions for peak quality. Most foods can be safely consumed well after their use-by dates.

• Mine your fridge: Websites such as can help you get creative with recipes to use up anything that might go bad soon.

• Eat leftovers: Ask your restaurant to pack up your extras so you can eat them later. Freeze them if you don’t want to eat immediately. Only about half of Americans take leftovers home from restaurants.

Food Giant Nestlé Tackles Animal Cruelty on Factory Farms

It’s ‘the most comprehensive and ambitious animal welfare program’ in the industry, says the Humane Society.
Food Giant Nestlé Tackles Animal Cruelty on Factory Farms

Nestlé, the single largest food maker on the planet, today announced sweeping new requirements aimed at bettering the lives of farm animals raised by its sprawling network of suppliers. The company has vowed, among other things, to rid its supply chain of a litany of cruelly confining crates and cages, such as gestation crates for sows, veal crates for calves, and cages for egg-laying chickens. It has also pledged to ban unnecessary and inhuman practices such as cutting the horns from cattle, particularly those that have traditionally been done without painkillers.

It’s not often that you get to report feel-good news about big food, but two sunny stories about some of the world’s biggest food processors in a single week? What rabbit hole have I fallen down?

Nestlé's move follows another major announcement last week by another major food maker, Kellogg’s, which launched an aggressive new initiative to cut global warming emissions up and down its own supply chain.

As I pointed out last week, the emphasis on the supply chain is key, because for big food companies, that’s where the vast bulk of their business lies. While historically they may have adopted certain socially responsible policies that covered their corporate operations, those facilities are really just the tip of the iceberg for companies that source ingredients from all around the globe.

For Nestlé, that means buying its milk, meat, and eggs from some 7,300 suppliers worldwide. Not that long ago, such companies often maintained that what their suppliers did was out of their control. But thanks to the advocacy of NGOs such as HSUS and Oxfam, with its “Behind the Brands” campaign, some food makers are increasingly taking responsibility for their supply chain as well.

Indeed, while Oxfam doesn’t include animal welfare as one of the main issues it tracks, Nestlé outranks all its big food competitors overall on the organization’s “Behind the Brands” scorecard, which rates companies based on things including land-use issues, treatment of workers, and commitment to addressing climate change.

Still, given the ability of any given megacorporation’s PR apparatus to spin one little positive change into supposedly headline-grabbing news—“BigOil Corp. Announces Shift to Single-Ply Toilet Paper in Company Washrooms, Saving 5,000 Trees!”—there’s always the sneaking suspicion in reporting these kinds of stories that you might be getting duped.

Nevertheless, the Humane Society seemed pretty happy with Nestlé’s new anticruelty rules, calling the action “the most comprehensive and ambitious animal welfare program by a global food retailer to date.”

Given that Kellogg’s unveiled its new climate initiative a mere two weeks after rival General Mills did the same, maybe we can hope (if not hold our breath) that Nestlé’s move might inspire the same spirit of competitiveness toward social responsibility in other food makers as well.