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  • Study "Wounds" the Carbohydrate-Insulin Theory of Obesity

    August 24, 2015 3:53 PM

    Last week a very interesting and, by all accounts, very well-done study made waves among the nutritional science community. For many years, the idea that reducing carbohydrates is the most effective way to reduce fat due to its effect on insulin has been rapidly gaining in popularity.

    Prominent researchers like Dr. Robert Lustig (who famously called sugar a “poison”), and Gary Taubes (author of Good Calories, Bad Calories) have promoted the idea that it’s not just about how much you eat, but what you eat, that leads to obesity. Specifically, that carbohydrates and sugar cause a cascade of problems including insulin resistance, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. This new study, however, casts serious doubt on the hypothesized mechanism by which consumption of carbohydrates, in particular, would lead to these problems.

    The study, led by Dr. Kevin D. Hall, was published in the highly respected Cell Metabolism journal on August 13 and found that restricting dietary fat led to body fat loss that was 68 percent higher than a diet that reduced the same number of calories through carbohydrates for obese adults. The study was small, with only 19 participants, and short, lasting only four weeks.

    However, it was a well-designed and tightly controlled study. As neurobiologist Stephan Guyenet put it, “this study's methods were downright obsessive. The overall study design and diets were extremely tightly controlled, and the researchers took a large number of measurements using gold-standard methods.” The participants were randomly assigned to either the low-carb group or the low-fat group. After five days of baseline eating, the participants had their calories restricted by reducing either fat or carbohydrates by 30 percent (sugar was the same in both groups).

  • Back to School Lunch Scares

    August 19, 2015 3:15 PM

    It’s back to school season, which for many parents means spending money on new clothes, shuttling young people from sports games to ballet, and increasingly, worrying about the kind of nutrition their kids are getting when they’re away from the home.

    This is understandable since they are inundated with hyperbolic headlines like “sugary drinks kill,” “death by salt,” and “processed meat causes cancer”. It’s enough to add a few gray hairs to any parent’s head. While it’s important to teach kids about proper nutrition and make sure they’re eating a balanced diet in and outside of the home, this kind of inflammatory rhetoric doesn’t help parents make healthy and realistic choices for their children.

    So, here are a few tips to help you relax as you send your kids off into the great wide nutritional unknown.

    Soda won’t kill your kids. There is no doubt that excessive consumption of sugary drinks through soda or fruit juice can easily lead to a calorie surplus and weight gain. However, the occasional can of sports drink after a soccer game isn’t likely to cause any damage.

    You may have seen the headline announcing that a study says “Sugary Drinks May Kill 184,000 People Each Year.” It’s pretty scary, but it’s also pretty speculative and its methodology is questionable. The researchers used data from 62 self-reported surveys from only 51 countries between 1980 and 2010. They used “sugar availability,” to calculate consumption, presumably to account for the counties without adequate data. Rebecca Goldin, a Professor of Mathematical Sciences at George Mason University and Director of STATS.org (a group of researchers who work to evaluate and interpret statistical research for accurate reporting in the media) pointed out the many reasons people should be skeptical of this study, including a lack of transparency about how the researchers accounted for missing data such as sugar sources in the diet other than sugary drinks.

    They also failed to say how addressed the uncertainty in the proportion of diabetes/cardiovascular disease caused by sugary drink consumption, and the uncertainty of the proportion of deaths caused by these diseases. When someone goes into the hospital with a heart attack and dies, it’s very difficult to say if it was his five decades of smoking, sedentary lifestyle, or the liter of coke he drank every week.

    As Harry Cheadle over at Vice put it “X behavior causes Y deaths” headlines are always popular because people like numbers, and statements like that at least appear to quantify bad behaviors. Never mind if the numbers don't really make any sense.”

  • Government Nutritionists Wrong… Again

    August 10, 2015 3:40 PM

    Add it to the list of things that the government got wrong when it comes to nutrition: skipping breakfast may not make you fat. It turns out this apparent truism isn’t so true and the idea has only been in circulation for the last five years or so:

    The notion that skipping breakfast might cause weight gain entered the Dietary Guidelines in 2010, during one of the reviews conducted every five years by experts to update its findings… [They] collected research on skipping breakfast. Some of it did, indeed, suggest that breakfast skippers may be more likely to gain weight.

    But the evidence the experts on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee relied on were observational. As Peter Whoriskey commented, “observational studies in nutrition are generally cheaper and easier to conduct. But they can suffer from weaknesses that can lead scientists astray.” And astray they went. When the Advisory Committee decided to enshrine their “breakfast-weight hypothesis” into the Dietary Guidelines, they cited only one randomized controlled trial, which found “no relationship with breakfast alone” and weight gain.

    Last year, however, a team of researchers from Columbia University did a controlled trial to examine this breakfast hypothesis. They divided a large number of people into “oatmeal breakfast,” “frosted corn flakes breakfast,” and “no breakfast” groups. At the end of the trial they found that the breakfast-skippers lost more weight than the other groups.

  • What Happens an Hour After Drinking Locally Sourced, Sustainable, Organic Kale Juice?

    August 6, 2015 12:50 PM

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    We’ve all done it: shared a story about some study showing that chocolate is a weight-loss miracle food or a story about how KFC serves deep-fried rat before realizing—too late—we perpetuated an untruth. We spread an inaccurate, viral story and made everyone online a little dumber. Hopefully, such experiences make us a little more skeptical, a little less inclined to take hyperbolic headlines at face-value. You might have seen this infographic making the rounds lately, claiming to show “what happens to your body an hour after drinking a can of coke.” It’s the most recent example of why you shouldn’t always believe what you read.

  • Green Alarmism about Sunscreen Debunked

    August 4, 2015 7:03 AM

    Often spoon-fed alarmist hype by green activist groups, reporters rarely get the science right about the risks associated with trace chemicals found in consumer products. Accordingly, kudos go to the author of a piece published on Fox News (originally published on Health.com), which debunks activist-generated misinformation about chemicals used to make sunscreens. In the past, I have pointed out that Fox News has blindly reported misinformation pushed by greens, particularly the Environmental Working Group, so this latest report is refreshing. 

    The story explains:

    [T]he skin experts Health talked to were adamant that we should be more worried about shielding our skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays than about the chemical makeup of the products we’re using to do that.

    “Five million Americans are treated for skin cancer each year, and an estimated 9,940 people will die of melanoma”— the deadliest type of skin cancer— ”in 2015,” Steven Wang, MD, head of dermatological surgery at Memorial Sloan Kettering Basking Ridge in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, told Health. “The biggest precaution that you should be taking is using sunscreen. There is enough research at this point from various credible bodies that say sunscreens are safe and, when used appropriately, will reduce skin cancer.”

    This reporter appears to understand that we need to consider the benefits of products and weigh them against the risks. And it should be clear to any honest observer, that avoiding the real and substantial risk of skin cancer from sun exposure, is far higher than any theoretical and unproven risks associated with short-term, trace exposures to certain manmade chemicals.

  • If You Don't Eat Your Meat, They Can't Have Their Taxes

    August 3, 2015 8:29 AM

    If you think the brainless health nannies in the United States are bad, you should read up on the absurd proposals bursting from the cranial voids of Australian nannies. From plain packaging on cigarettes, which may or may not have actually increased smoking, to a proposal that would give cops the power to raid pubs and breathalyze patrons, the Aussie nannies seem to be quite innovative in their exercise of petty authoritarianism. But a recent proposal to tax meat really takes the cake.

    Tim Andrews, executive director of The Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance, has the herculean (or Sisyphean if you’re a pessimist) task of defending the people from government overreach. He wrote an amusingly caustic piece on those proposing the tax. An excerpt:

    What outrages me the most is the fact that it’s our taxes that pay for all of this. All of it. Our taxes pay the salary for these ‘academics’. Our taxes pay for the website this was published on. Everything about the lifestyle tax nanny state industry is paid for by our taxes…Professor Marinova’s salary is $177,345 a year.  And yet she feels compelled to call for further taxes on the most hard up in society.

    This is a good example of the phenomena economist Bruce Yandle dubbed “bootleggers and Baptists,” wherein two dissimilar groups want the same policy; one for moral reasons and the other for personal gain. The Baptists provide a cloak of morality so that politicians can grant personal gain either directly or by doing a favor for their supporters. In this case, the Baptist—public health advocates—provide the public good argument that allows a politician to fleece taxpayers while looking like a really good guy just trying to protect Australians. The researchers calling for the 10 to 15 percent tax on meat claim it is needed to help people repent their carnivorous ways and switch to what they believe is a healthier diet for both people and the planet. It’s just icing that the government gets to rake in billions more in desperately needed revenue and maybe send some of the plunder to these publicly-funded researchers.

  • Slate Exposes Deceitful Heart of the Anti-GMO Movement

    July 17, 2015 9:13 AM

    Will Saletan has an exhaustively researched and cogently argued piece at Slate on the dishonesty of the anti-biotechnology activists and the harm they have caused. He lays out, for all to see, the naked truth about their efforts. It has nothing to do with the truth. They only care about pushing their agenda, even if it comes at the cost of human lives. As Saletan writes, “[t]hey want more studies. They’ll always want more studies. They call themselves skeptics. But when you cling to an unsubstantiated belief, even after two decades of research and experience, that’s not skepticism. It’s dogma.”

    Saletan describes the tactics employed by activists to hoodwink the public and politicians. Fear-mongering, misinformation, and information-overload are particular effective. Fear-mongering is the easiest one: they can simply say, “We don’t for sure that this thing is safe.” And because science is hard and usually involves reading long, boring blocks of text, few people will bother to dig deeper. Those who do will find plenty of intentional misinformation or manipulation of research. As Saletan points out in this passage:

    Schubert systematically distorted the evidence…Schubert said the study found that “smokers who supplemented their diet with beta-carotene had an increased risk of lung cancer.” He neglected to mention that the daily beta carotene dose administered in the study was the equivalent of roughly 10 to 20 bowls of Golden Rice. He also failed to quote the rest of the paper, which emphasized that in general, beta carotene was actually associated with a lower risk of lung cancer.

    One feature of their methods Saletan left out is the role played by the media. Anti-biotech activists rely on journalists to create an echo-chamber for their baseless claims. In this digital age it’s all about them clicks. And putting up a headline like “Study Finds Golden Rice Causes Cancer!” will get a lot more attention than a title like “Study shows smokers who supplement diet with beta carotene at increased risk for lung cancer, but for everyone else beta carotene has benefits.” For one thing, it is way too long (fire that headline writer), but it is simply not as shocking and therefore less likely to motivate someone to read it. So, most journalists just republish whatever was written in a study’s press release; few have the time to slog through entire research papers.

    And this is what activists count on. They count on individuals and media outlets being too limited in time and interest to actually verify their claims. Sometimes this gets them into trouble, like when a clever journalist published a bunk paper on how chocolate can help people lose weight and then wrote a piece about reporters being gullible. But most of the time, nobody is the wiser and the misinformation gets filed away in the back of peoples’ minds, slowly building a basis for them to “instinctually” share the activists’ bogus claims.

  • More Unintelligible Gibberish on GMO Risks from Nassim Nicholas Taleb

    July 16, 2015 12:47 PM

    A few months ago, statistician and risk analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb, known mostly for his intriguing 2007 book The Black Swan, teamed up with a handful of colleagues to write a “scholarly” diatribe claiming to demonstrate that “what appear to be small and reasonable risks” with GMOs may “accumulate inevitably to certain irreversible harm.” Therefore, the precautionary principle “should be used to prescribe severe limits on GMOs.” The paper received a lot of attention in scientific circles, but was roundly dismissed for being long on overblown rhetoric but conspicuously short on any meaningful reference to the scientific literature describing the risks and safety of genetic engineering, and for containing no understanding of how modern genetic engineering fits within the context of centuries of far more crude genetic modification of plants, animals, and microorganisms.

    Well, Taleb is back, this time penning a short essay published on The New York Times’s DealB%k blog with co-author Mark Spitznagel. The authors try to draw comparisons between the recent financial crisis and GMOs, claiming the latter represent another “Too Big to Fail” crisis in waiting. Unfortunately, Taleb’s latest contribution is nothing more than the same sort of evidence-free bombast posing as thoughtful analysis. The result is uninformed and/or unintelligible gibberish.

    For example: “The statistical mechanism by which a tomato was built by nature is bottom-up”. The tomatoes we eat today are vastly different than those produced by nature. In the wild, tomatoes are poisonous, marble-like berries. The cultivated tomatoes we eat today are the products of vast genetic changes wrought by human hands. More to the point, what does it even mean that tomatoes were built from the bottom up? Surely Spitznagel and Taleb aren’t claiming tomatoes themselves suggested to we humans what genetic changes to make? On its face, the statement may sound profound, but it simply defies meaningful comprehension.

    “... by tinkering in small steps ...” Sure, early farmers tinkered in small steps. Then the 20th Century came along, and breeders began making many giant leaps in genetic manipulation -- long before the advent of recombinant DNA in the 1970s. For six or seven decades, breeders have been making macro genetic changes using tools like induced mutation breeding, protoplast fusion, and wide crossing, all of which result in changes to the genetic composition of plants that are orders of magnitude greater than those which result from genetic engineering. What, I’d like the authors to explain, makes the alteration of a single gene or small number of genes in an organism a bigger step than randomly scrambling whole genomes via mutation breeding?

  • Federal Witch Hunt Successfully Bans Trans Fats

    June 16, 2015 2:07 PM

    Ding dong the witch is dead; killed by the federal government…well, that’s if the witch was a recluse people hardly ever saw, probably hasn’t hurt anyone, and was brought into town by the person burning her at the stake. The “witch” I’m referring to is trans fats, which were officially banned today via Food and Drug Administration (FDA) edict. A witch hunt is a good way to describe what the FDA did; revoking the additive’s determination as “generally recognized as safe,” because despite the fact that Americans have almost completely eliminated the substance from our diets voluntarily, the administration believes any amount of trans fats can be harmful. The fact that there is no scientific evidence to prove this didn’t seem to temper calls to “burn it at the stake.”

    Back in 2003 Americans, ate an average of 4.6 grams of trans fats per day, but thanks to the efforts of some public health groups and diligent label-reading consumers, consumption dropped to around 1 gram per day by 2012. Despite this, the FDA announced plans in November 2013 to completely eliminate the additive because they believed completely eliminating the additive will save “10,000-20,000 lives annually.” This number is based on a paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Despite the fact that all of the studies linking trans fats to adverse health effects only looked at very high levels of consumption (accounting for more than 5 percent of daily energy intake, versus the 0.6 percent we currently consume), the researchers assumed any trans fat consumption correlated with risk. Therefore, they only needed to take the risk seen from extremely high levels and calculate how much risk there would be at extremely low levels. According to the tentative determination:

    Extrapolating from this FDA estimate, assuming a linear association with health effects, and no effects of other interventions, and adjusting to current US statistics on coronary events (myocardial infarction or fatal CHD), it is possible that eliminating industrially produced TYFAs from current levels (0.6% of energy) may potentially prevent as many as 10,000 to 20,000 coronary events and 3000 to 7000 CHD deaths annually” (emphasis added).

    This is extremely problematic because it’s simply not known if there is a linear correlation with risk all the way down to zero consumption. Take sodium, for example; it can certainly be detrimental at very high consumption levels, but it is also deadly to consume too little sodium. As Dr. Eric Decker, head of the Department of Food Science at the University of Massachusetts, noted, “It is very common for kinetics to not be linear especially at extremely low or high concentrations of bioactive agents. Therefore, it does not seem scientifically prudent to make a bold statement of how many deaths a food ingredient is causing without any clinical data.” It’s the dose that makes the poison: just about any food or beverage, including water, can become harmful if consumed in great enough quantities.

    Ignoring whether or not there is a need for the FDA to completely eliminate trans fats from the American diet, one must question whether they should and what the consequences of a ban will be. Many forget that it is the dietary meddling of the government that caused the rise of trans fats in our diet in the first place. The American Heart Association, on which government dietary advisors base many of their recommendations, advised Americans beginning in the 1960s to reduce saturated fat and switch to vegetable oil (no big surprise the AHA only rose to national prominence with help from the maker of Crisco oil). As this Wall Street Journal article notes, Americans listened to AHA’s advice, going from nearly zero vegetable oil consumption in 1900 to consuming 7 to 8 percent of all calories from these oils.

    What will the makers of frosting, pastries, and pie crust use instead of partially hydrogenated oils? Well, we don’t know yet.

  • Raise a Glass to Lower Taxes

    May 26, 2015 4:23 PM

    You might not know it, but about half the cost of your preferred alcoholic beverage is made up of taxes and fees. One man in Congress, Rep. Todd Young (R-Ind.) wants to change that. Today he introduced a bill that would introduced a bill that would cut the current federal excise tax rate on whiskey, rum, vodka, and gin. For the first 100,000 gallons, the bill would reduce the tax from from $13.50 per proof gallon to $2.70 per proof gallon, and for subsequent gallons the tax would be $9 per proof gallon.

    H.R. 2520 has support from both the American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) and the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. (DISCUS), which said in their press release that “[d]istilled spirits products are one of the most highly taxed consumer products in the United States.” According to ACSA President Tom Mooney, the bill “will help create jobs across America for the rapidly growing distilling industry. It will translate into real economic benefits and jobs for hundreds of small distillers and their surrounding communities.”

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