Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Monday, May 23, 2011
START in Aisle 2, third shelf from the bottom: here is grape juice for your heart. Over to Aisle 4: there are frozen carrots for your eyes.
Push a cart through the D’Agostino store in Midtown Manhattan, or any supermarket anywhere in America, and you just might start believing in miracles — or at least in miracle foods.
In aisle after aisle, wonders beckon. Foods and drinks to help your heart, lower your cholesterol, trim your tummy, coddle your colon. Toss them into your cart and you might feel better. Heck, you might even live longer.
Or not. Because this, shoppers, is the question: Are all these products really healthy, or are some of them just hyped?
The answer to that question matters to millions of Americans who are wagering their money and their waistlines on hot new products in the grocery aisles called “functional foods.”
Food giants like Dannon, Kellogg and General Mills don’t claim these products actually prevent or cure diseases. Such declarations would run afoul of federal regulations. Nor do they sell them as medical foods, which are intended to be consumed under a doctor’s supervision.
Rather, food companies market functional foods with health-promoting or wellness-maintaining properties. Such claims are perfectly legal, provided that they are backed up by some credible science.
All those heart-healthy red hearts on your box of Quaker Oats cereal or that can of Planters peanuts? That happy-colon yellow arrow on the tub of Activia yogurt? It’s all part of the marketing of functional food.
Over the past decade, despite all those sales pitches for “natural,” “organic” and “whole” foods, functional food has turned into a big business for Big Food. And more Americans are buying into the functional story. Sales of these foods and beverages totaled $37.3 billion in the United States in 2009, up from $28.2 billion in 2005, according to estimates from the Nutrition Business Journal, a market research firm.
But as sales soar, federal regulators worry that some packaged foods that scream healthy on their labels are in fact no healthier than many ordinary brands. Federal Trade Commission officials have been cracking down on products that, in their view, make dubious or exaggerated claims. Overwhelmed regulators concede that they are struggling to police this booming market, despite recent settlements with makers of brands like Kellogg’s Rice Krispies and Dannon’s Activia, which the authorities say oversold their health benefits.
Consumer advocates and some nutritionists are equally blunt. They say shoppers are being bamboozled by slick marketing. Many people grab products with healthy claims on the front of the package and overlook crucial nutritional information, like calorie counts, in the small print on the back.
Walk through any supermarket, and you’ll see what Ms. Nestle means.
Thursday, May 19, 2011
Monday, May 16, 2011
Imagine your child’s teacher was distributing twice daily snacks, before and after lunch — maybe Snickers and PopTarts in the morning, Mountain Dew and fries in the afternoon. Now let’s pretend you complain to the principal, who tells the teacher, “Could you please stop doing that? You have until … five years from Tuesday.”
Would you allow that?
Yet that’s pretty much what the Federal Trade Commission and other government agencies did last week when they announced food marketing guidelines. The agencies would like Big Food to refrain from marketing to children foods with more than 15 percent saturated fat, 210 milligrams of sodium or 13 grams of added sugar per serving or any trans fat at all.
But instead of announcing, “We have guidelines you must follow, and we’ll give you until January 2012 to comply,” the F.T.C. said, in effect, “We have voluntary guidelines we hope you’ll follow — they’re voluntary, you understand — and in five years we’d like you to voluntarily comply with these voluntary guidelines.”
We need legal action, not voluntary guidelines. The federal agencies that are involved with the F.T.C. in this request for less marketing to children — the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and the Agriculture Department — deserve credit for acknowledging marketing’s impact. If their suggested rules were followed, food advertising would be drastically different. “There’d be a large number of products they’d no longer be advertising,” says Marion Nestle, a New York University professor of nutrition and public health and the author of the book “What to Eat.”
But five more years, and then it’s voluntary? Five more years of allowing children to think that a diet of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, PopTarts, Doritos, 7UP and Chicken McNuggets is normal? By then, your five-year-old is 10; your newborn is five, and his or her eating patterns are set. Five more years — at least — of America bulking up? Who will pay for all that diabetes?
The F.T.C. is endorsing food that contributes to a healthful diet, but it’s mandating nothing, simply requesting voluntary compliance from a blame-the-victim industry that pushes ultra-processed, unhealthful junk. From fast food to cookies, snacks and breakfast cereals (many with the same nutritional profile as cookies) and worst of all, sugar-sweetened beverages, many of these products have these things in common: their slim “benefits,” if any, often come from chemically added nutrients, and they contain multiple forms of sugar, highly refined carbohydrates, chemically extracted fats and mystery ingredients only a food scientist or profiteer could love.
These concoctions are the poster children for what’s wrong with American food and in turn our diet, and about Big Food’s marketing strategies and power, which harm our diet, weight, health and budget. (Nearly every age group weighs at least 10 percent more than they did in the mid-‘60s, and our diabetes rate increased by 164 percent from 1980 to 2009, according to the CDC. See my blog for more numbers on this.)
Food marketing to children needs to be reined in, and it’s impossible for me to believe that Coke is going to voluntarily refrain from marketing to anyone, let alone the children and adolescents who comprise the largest segment of its market. One more statistic, then I’ll stop: the average male adolescent consumes 300 calories of soda a day, about 15 percent of his required calories.
It might help to take a quick look at how quickly and effectively our (often Republican!) governments acted against cigarette marketing: Five months after the famous 1964 Surgeon General’s report linking smoking to cancer, the F.T.C. required warning labels on all packaging and advertising. By 1971 President Nixon signed a law banning radio and television ads for cigarettes, a law that took effect eight months later. When big tobacco focused on children and adolescents (Joe Camel had become more recognizable than Mickey Mouse), billboard advertising was banned, to be replaced by anti-smoking messages.
There’s more, and some of it resulted from successful lawsuits, first by individuals and later by states’ attorneys general. Those same kinds of lawsuits will eventually happen as more and more evidence shows that junk food kills people. But from the time cigarettes were identified as unhealthy, government moved to discourage Americans from smoking them, saving tens of millions of lives in the process.
Obesity comes from excess calories and causes diabetes. Excess calories come from junk food. (Few people get fat eating real food.) And although this may not be quite the smoking gun that links cigarettes and lung cancer, there isn’t a serious independent dietary researcher or agency in the world who would claim that the typical American diet isn’t skewing numbers for obesity, diabetes and a slew of other diseases and needlessly premature death.
In this conversation, I frequently hear, “The difference between tobacco and food is that you need food to live.” This isn’t food I’m talking about, though, but food-like products. No one needs Pepsi or Whoppers; we aren’t born craving doughnuts or nachos.
Some industry members acknowledge the problem and claim to be working on it, creating smaller portion sizes and “healthier” versions of classic junk foods. Others talk about self-responsibility, as if their own marketing played no role in encouraging people to act in self-destructive ways. But no one in industry is interested in regulation; we may hear griping about the voluntary guidelines, but there must be a collective sigh of relief at what appears to be a brokered deal that gives the industry a five-year break-in period before … before what? Before either something else happens — like an even more business-friendly government — or the voluntary “regulations” take effect. And nothing happens. In the meantime, keep feeding the kids those Snickers.
Or maybe it’s time for some of those lawsuits.
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
The claim is that all our environmental problems can be solved by listening to the compelling call of our timeless culture. What message – buried within the Indian culture – is so simple yet so profound that it can “fix” the unfixable?
In its very first mantra, Isha Upanisad, a frequently read Vedic text, reminds us that everything animate and inanimate within this universe is controlled and owned by the Lord. Therefore, one should only accept those things which are set aside as one`s quota, and not accept other things.
Pollution, as stated in the scriptures, is a direct result of “over-consumption”, which in turn is a product of greed, and greed is generated by materialism combined with secularism.
There is something deep within each of us that seems to baffle our hopes for more livable world. At the root of the problem is relentless, almost unconscious drive to have and enjoy more than we really need.
Environmental pollution is a spiritual problem, and it demands a spiritual solution. The greatest barrier to an ecologically balanced environment is a materialistic world-view that defines the individual as a biochemical machine operating in a godless, soul-less universe. Unfortunately, this widespread theory forms the basis of most modern scientific thought. It is known as “reductionism”.
Reductionism has given rise to a civilization driven to exploit the earth`s resources and creatures without restriction.
Indian culture teaches that we live in a world designed by God. Individuals who are aware of God, don`t want to possess, control, or enjoy more than they actually require.
Vedic wisdom instructs that God is the ultimate proprietor of everything , and that each living being on earth, according to its needs, has inherent rights to his or her share of this planet`s God-given resources. These principles are part of nature`s system of inviolable higher-order laws, including the law of karma.
A practical outline for an ecologically sound way of life may be found in the Hare Krishna movement`s books of Vedic knowledge, which recommend the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra for transforming consciousness from material to spiritual.
With the right formula, we can transform our environment. If awareness of our position in the world and the message of the Bhagavad-gita and Isha Upanishad are rightly understood, the consciousness changes, everything else changes for the better.
This article was originally published in the Hindustan Times, on October 1, 2001.
Sunday, May 8, 2011
Stacey Cramp for The New York Times
ON a sunny Sunday just before the vernal equinox, Rich Ciotola set out to clear a pasture strewn with fallen wood. The just-thawed field was spongy, with grass sprouting under tangled branches. Late March and early April are farm-prep time here in the Berkshires, time to gear up for the growing season. But while many farms were oiling and gassing up tractors, Mr. Ciotola was setting out to prepare a pasture using a tool so old it seems almost revolutionary: a team of oxen.
Standing just inside the paddock at Moon in the Pond Farm, where he works, he put a rope around Lucas and Larson, his pair of Brown Swiss steer. He led them to the 20-pound maple yoke he had bought secondhand from another ox farmer, hoisted it over their necks and led them trundling through the fence so they could begin hauling fallen logs.
Mr. Ciotola, 32, is one of a number of small farmers who are turning — or rather returning — to animal labor to help with farming. Before the humble ox was relegated to the role of historical re-enactor, driven by men in period garb for child-friendly festivals like pioneer days, it was a central beast of burden. After the Civil War, many farms switched from oxen to horses. Although Amish and Mennonite communities continue to use horses, by World War II most draft animals had been supplanted by machines that allowed for ever-faster production on bigger fields.
Now, as diesel prices skyrocket, some farmers who have rejected many of the past century’s advances in agriculture have found a renewed logic in draft power. Partisans argue that animals can be cheaper to board and feed than any tractor. They also run on the ultimate renewable resource: grass.
“Ox don’t need spare parts, and they don’t run on fossil fuels,” Mr. Ciotola said.
Thursday, May 5, 2011
Hedonism, the path of unrestricted sense enjoyment, of ‘eat, drink and be merry’ and ‘beg, borrow or steal’, as advocated thousands of years ago by the Indian atheist philosopher Charbak, has now become a fashion in the Western countries. Teachers and students alike openly, proudly and, may I add, “foolishly” propound this distorted philosophy, which leads to all kinds of immorality and degradation in society. While more and more people indulge in all kinds of sense gratification, with obesity becoming a national concern in both North America and China, an ever increasing number of people on the planet cannot even meet their basic necessities of life. According to 2010 census, 1 out of 7 persons on the planet suffer from malnutrition, or in hard figures, 925 million people out of the estimated global population of 6.5 billion, 13.6%, cannot meet their basic needs of life, with hundreds of thousands dying every year due to such an impoverished condition. [http://www.worldhunger.org/articles/Learn/world%20hunger%20facts%202002.htm]
Contrary to popular belief, however, meeting one’s basic needs in life is no guarantee to happiness; nor is increasing one’s needs beyond the basic necessities of life automatically leading to increased happiness. Ironically, the opposite is true: to increase sense enjoyment is to increase ones entanglement in this material world and to increase sense gratification, disregarding the established laws of nature, directly increases one’s suffering.
One of the most illuminating purports on the topic of “basic needs” written by India’s foremost spiritual visionary, Srila Prabhupada, gives us a clear insight as to what the Vedic standard of life is meant to be. “Basic needs” for most people refer to those things in life needed to keep their body healthy and stout so that they can live without undue encumbrances. Living within a world of relativity, the poverty line drawn for one country often differs drastically from that of another. In the USA for example, statistics showed in year 2009 that close to 15% of the population were living below the poverty line. Yes, the claim is that in America, “the land of plenty”, such a high percentage of its population live below the poverty line. At a closer look, however, what the figures reveal is that close to 15% of the population were earning less than $ 20,000 a year with the American poverty level for 2011 now set at $ 22,350 for a family of four.[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poverty_in_the_United_States]
Clearly, what is basic for one country is seen as overindulgence for another. The Vedic culture, however, adds an important dimension to meeting one’s “basic needs”. “Basic needs” are meant to encompass not only the needs of the body but indeed those of the soul. Of the two, those of the soul are considered more important. The Vedic injunction is “jivasya tattva jijnasa”.
“Life's desires should never be directed toward sense gratification. One should desire only a healthy life, or self-preservation, since a human being is meant for inquiry about the Absolute Truth. Nothing else should be the goal of one's works.” [SB 1.2.10]
Let us thus properly utilize this human form of life to inquire about the absolute truth and thus become truly happy. Actual civilization begins with “atma-jnana”, knowledge of the soul.
Every single human being, including all embodied living entities in lower species of life, is burdened by the four same bodily necessities of life: eating, sleeping, mating and defending. According to the Vedic way of life, these four basic necessities of life can best be achieved by living within an agrarian based environment where life is simpler and our basic necessities can more easily be met. Have you ever wondered why historically the majority of the world’s population have lived in Asian countries and why this fact remains so even today? There are injunctions in the ancient Vedas whereby one is recommended to live only in such places where mango trees and papaya trees grow naturally. One should live in places where one can find natural pure waters, where one can easily grow one’s own food, where one can peacefully tend cows and associate with saintly persons, brahmanas, all governed and protected by a good responsible king. The Vedic culture thus stresses in many practical ways this most important principle of “simplicity” or “simple life”, a concept almost forgotten in today’s ever increasing complex way of living.
Srila Prabhupada thus explains the flaws of modern society, a society which has deviated in a major way from these simple concepts of life: “The basic principle of economic development is centered on land and cows. The necessities of human society are food grains, fruits, milk, minerals, clothing, wood, etc. One requires all these items to fulfill the material needs of the body. Certainly one does not require flesh and fish or iron tools and machinery. During the regime of Maharaja Yudhisthira, all over the world there were regulated rainfalls. Rainfalls are not in the control of the human being. The heavenly King Indra deva is the controller of rains, and he is the servant of the Lord. When the Lord is obeyed by the king and the people under the king's administration, there are regulated rains from the horizon, and these rains are the causes of all varieties of production on the land. Not only do regulated rains help ample production of grains and fruits, but when they combine with astronomical influences there is ample production of valuable stones and pearls. Grains and vegetables can sumptuously feed a man and animals, and a fatty cow delivers enough milk to supply a man sumptuously with vigour and vitality. If there is enough milk, enough grains, enough fruit, enough cotton, enough silk and enough jewels, then why do the people need cinemas, houses of prostitution, slaughterhouses, etc.? What is the need of an artificial luxurious life of cinema, cars, radio, flesh and hotels? Has this civilization produced anything but quarrelling individually and nationally? Has this civilization enhanced the cause of equality and fraternity by sending thousands of men into a hellish factory and the war fields at the whims of a particular man? [SB 1.10.4]
Meeting the basic needs of life is meant to be a simple affair which should not be much time consuming. But it is only possible when we keep in mind the spiritual dimension of life. The real basic needs of life are those of the spirit self. The basic need for every living being is to reconnect with the Lord in love and devotion, only then will he be happy. That we have forgotten in today’s misguided society. We falsely run after the illusory temporary material comforts of life falsely thinking we will be happy. It is for this reason that the Vedic culture advocates that we minimize our bodily demands to nourish our spiritual needs. It is for this reason that we find statements advocating a total disinterest in working towards economic development which further entangles the living entity in this world. And it is for this reason that we find such astounding statements that the Vedic way of life advocates that one actually earns less and remains happy with whatever Krishna easily provides. Only then we will experience real lasting happiness in both this world and the next.
“Everyone requires possessions such as food grains, clothing, money and other things necessary for the maintenance of the body, but one should not collect more than necessary for his actual basic needs. If this natural principle is followed, there will be no difficulty in maintaining the body. [NOI, Verse 2, Purport]
“This is the picture of ideal family life. When Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu asked Ramananda Raya about the goal of life, Ramananda Raya described it in different ways, according to the recommendations of the revealed scriptures, and finally Sri Ramananda Raya explained that one may stay in his own position, whether as a brahmana, a sudra, a sannyasi or whatever, but one must try to inquire about life's goal (athato brahma jijnasa). This is the proper utilization of the human form of life. When one misuses the gift of the human form by unnecessarily indulging in the animal propensities of eating, sleeping, mating and defending and does not try to get out of the clutches of maya, which subjects one to repeated birth, death, old age and disease, one is again punished by being forced to descend to the lower species and undergo evolution according to the laws of nature. Prakriti kriyamanani gunai karami sarvasaha [Bg. 3.27]. Being completely under the grip of material nature, the living entity must evolve again from the lower species to the higher species until he at last returns to human life and gets the chance to be freed from the material clutches. A wise man, however, learns from the sastras and guru that we living entities are all eternal but are put into troublesome conditions because of associating with different modes under the laws of material nature. He therefore concludes that in the human form of life he should not endeavour for unnecessary necessities, but should live a very simple life, just maintaining body and soul together.
Certainly one requires some means of livelihood, and according to one's varna and asrama this means of livelihood is prescribed in the sastras. One should be satisfied with this. Therefore, instead of hankering for more and more money, a sincere devotee of the Lord tries to invent some ways to earn his livelihood, and when he does so Krishna helps him. Earning one's livelihood, therefore, is not a problem. The real problem is how to get free from the bondage of birth, death and old age. Attaining this freedom, and not inventing unnecessary necessities, is the basic principle of Vedic civilization. One should be satisfied with whatever means of life comes automatically. The modern materialistic civilization is just the opposite of the ideal civilization. Every day the so-called leaders of modern society invent something contributing to a cumbersome way of life that implicates people more and more in the cycle of birth, death, old age and disease.” [SB 7.14.5]
To facilitate meeting our basic material needs as well as to help meet our spiritual needs, in his wisdom, Lord Krishna, the creator of this material world, has devised a simple yet very scientific social system called varnasrama dharma. When properly understood and applied, the varnasrama way of life, which is centered on land, cows and Krishna, automatically helps individuals and society alike to advance and prosper. Daiva varnasrama dharma is that same varnasrama dharma which emphasizes the need to focus all our activities on the divine and thus spiritualize our lives to become happy both in this life and the next.
The article originally appeared as a regular column in, THE EIGHT PETALS, an e-newsletter in support of Varnasrama dharma. The author can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information contact: email@example.com
Tuesday, May 3, 2011
Getting caught is a drag.
Just ask Kirt Espenson, whose employees at E6 Cattle Company in western Texas were videotaped bashing cows’ heads in with pickaxes and hammers and performing other acts of unspeakably sickening cruelty.
Yet if some state legislators have their way, horrific but valuable videos like that one will never be made.
But, first, the story: Espenson, who comes off on the phone as sincere and contrite, explained to me that he’d made a “catastrophic error in a very difficult situation,” when ultracold weather caused frostbite in some of his 20,000 cattle. He was short-staffed and had his best employees saving the endangered but viable cows while new workers were asked to “euthanize” those who were near death. Out came the hammers. “We just didn’t have the protocol to deal with it,” he told me. “I made a mistake and take full responsibility.”
The offending employees have been terminated. Nothing like this has ever happened before. Nothing like this will ever happen again.
Much as I’d like to believe Espenson, this sounds like too many other horror stories of animal cruelty, and frankly — without belittling either situation — the excuses echo Abu Ghraib. And this is far from an isolated incident. Remember the four Iowa factory farmers who pleaded guilty in 2009 to sexually abusing and beating pigs, and the abuses of downed cattle exposed by the Humane Society of the United States in 2008 at the Hallmark slaughterhouse in California, which led to the country’s biggest ever recall of meat.
The root problem is not Espenson or his company, any more than the root problem at Abu Ghraib was Lynndie England. The problem is the system that enables cruelty and a lack not just of law enforcement but actual laws. Because the only federal laws governing animal cruelty apply to slaughterhouses, where animals may spend only minutes before being dispatched. None apply to farms, where animals are protected only by state laws.
And these may be moving in the wrong direction. In their infinite wisdom the legislatures of Iowa, Minnesota, Florida and others are considering measures that would punish heroic videographers like the one who spent two weeks as an E6 employee, who was clearly traumatized by the experience. (I spoke to him on the phone Saturday, with a guarantee of anonymity.)
Minnesota’s “ag-gag” law — isn’t that a great name? — would seek to punish not only photographers and videographers but those who distribute their work, which means organizations like the Humane Society of the United States and Mercy for Animals, which contracted the videographer for the E6 investigation. “It’s so sweeping,” says Nathan Runkle, the executive director of Mercy for Animals, “that if you took a picture of a dog at a pet shop and texted it to someone, that could be a crime.” Unconstitutional? Probably, but there it is.
Videotaping at factory farms wouldn’t be necessary if the industry were properly regulated. But it isn’t. And the public knows this; the one poll about the Iowa ag-gag law shows a mere 21 percent of people supporting it. And poll after poll finds that almost everyone believes that even if it costs more, farm animals should be treated humanely.
That is not the norm on factory farms. Espenson insists that it was a coincidence that the investigator for Mercy for Animals showed up just when his workers were hammering cows’ heads; the videographer believes it was routine. And, while the farmer claims that extreme weather had hurt the cows, Weather Underground recorded that the weather was far from extreme during the period in question. The investigator theorizes that weaker, less desirable animals were sickened by living in their own feces.
We can’t know. What we can know is that organizations like the Humane Society and Mercy for Animals need to be allowed to do the work that the federal and state governments are not: documenting the kind of behavior most of us abhor. Indeed, the independent investigators should be supported. As Runkle says, “The industry should be teaming up with organizations like ours to put cameras in these facilities, to advocate for mandatory training and have real euthanasia policies, things that would allow the public to trust these operations rather than fear them.”
The biggest problem of all is that we’ve created a system in which standard factory-farming practices are inhumane, and the kinds of abuses documented at E6 are really just reminders of that. If you’re raising and killing 10 billion animals every year, some abuse is pretty much guaranteed.
There is, of course, the argument that domesticating animals in order to kill them is essentially immoral; those of us who eat meat choose not to believe this. But in “Bengal Tiger,” a Broadway play set at Baghdad Zoo, the tiger — played by Robin Williams — wonders: “What if my every meal has been an act of cruelty?” The way most animals are handled in the United States right now has to have all of us omnivores wondering the same thing.
An earlier version of this column misidentified the location of E6 Cattle Company. It is in western Texas, not in southwest Texas.