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Boy, Hipsters Sure Are Defensive About Their Almond Milk

| Thu Jul. 24, 2014 4:27 PM EDT

When I penned my little opus about almond milk last week, I really didn't intend to insult anyone's intelligence, provocative headline aside. What I really wanted to do was encourage people to think about what they're buying when they buy this hot-selling product. My editors chose the title and I went along, because they know more than me about what makes people click. And people clicked! I'm pretty sure that "Lay Off the Almond Milk, You Ignorant Hipsters" is my most-read piece ever at Mother Jones.

It takes a gallon of water to grow a single almond. How does an almond's water footprint stack up to other foods'?

Reactions mostly hovered in a range between mild annoyance and blind rage. One guy dropped by the Facebook page of the farm I helped found, Maverick Farms, to inform me that he planned to keep drinking almond milk—and spilling it, even. To drive his point home, he even looked up the farm's phone number and repeated his pledge on the answering machine. Thanks for the update!

The oddest response came from Gawker's Hamilton Nolan, who took the opportunity to school me in the art of the "food troll":

This fool is talking about how almond milk is not as good as just eating almonds. False comparison. I eat tons of almonds. Love em. And I drink almond milk too. Love it. I can have both. You love regular almonds so much? Do you eat more almonds than me? Not a chance. I eat more almonds than you. And still drink almond milk. Case closed on that particular argument I guess.

Still not convinced? Nolan adds the coup de grace: "If I puked up almond milk it probably wouldn't even taste that bad relative to other kinds of puke."

On a protein basis, almond milk looks like a disaster: it takes 23 gallons of water to produce a gram of almond milk protein.

Right. Meanwhile, several people thundered that since I dare question the value of almond milk, I must be a tool for Big Dairy. "Were you paid off by the Dairy Farmers of America to write that piece?" one wag wondered on Twitter, adding, helpfully " PS I'm no hipster and I love my Almond Milk!"

Actually, my piece did not purport to judge almond milk against the standards of dairy milk and find it wanting. "I get why people are switching away from dairy milk, I wrote, since "industrial-scale dairy production is a pretty nasty business." I did cop to drinking a bit of kefir, a fermented milk product. But my intention wasn't to promote Big Dairy, but just to point out that almond milk is nutritionally pretty vapid compared to other products. An eight-ounce serving of Helios brand organic kefir contains 16 grams of protein, vs. 1 gram per serving in most almond milk brands. That's a remarkable difference. But of course, people consume things for all sorts of good reasons, not just protein content.

Now, I didn’t get into much of an ecological analysis in my piece, but there is an interesting one to make here. Back in May, my colleagues Julia Lurie and Alex Park looked at the literature and found that it takes 23 gallons of water to produce a glass of almond milk and 35 gallons to produce a serving of yogurt. Let's assume that it takes a similar amount of water to make Helios kefir, which is essentially fermented skim milk. On the surface, the almond milk looks a lot easier on the water supply. But if you look at it on a protein basis, almond milk looks like a disaster: it takes 23 gallons of water to produce a gram of almond milk protein—and less than two gallons to produce a gram of kefir protein.

Even though kefir costs more than $4 per quart vs. about $2 for almond milk, it starts to look like quite a bargain on a protein basis.

Almond milk's dilute nature lies at the heart of the critique made by Slate's Maria Dolan, the most thoughtful one I've seen of the piece. My basic complaint against almond milk is that it's a watered-down product: you take something that's quite nutrient-dense and deluge it with water, essentially selling people a few almonds and a lot of water.  

I'm thinking about it in the wrong way, counters Dolan. "Is drowning them in water to create almond milk really a bad thing from an environmental perspective?" she asks. "Just as making meat a garnish, not the centerpiece of your meal, thins the environmental impact of eating beef, so consuming almonds sparingly—by diluting them into milk, for instance—reduces their ecological impact."

But I'm not sure that almond milk works to moderate people's almond consumption. California's rapid, and ecologically troubling, expansion of almond production is largely driven by booming exports, mainly to Asia. But US consumption is booming too. According to the Almond Board of California, the US market consumed 394 million pounds of almonds from the 2007-'08 harvest and 605 million pounds in 2012-'13. That's a 50 percent jump in five years. And as I noted in my post, almond milk sales are surging at an even faster clip. It seems to me that the almond milk craze, whatever else it is, reflects a clever food industry strategy to sell yet more almonds, not a way for consumers to reduce their environmental impact.

The Almond Board also reports that California now provides 84 percent of the globe's almonds. Given the state's severe water constraints, and that current levels of production already require 60 percent of managed US honeybees for pollination, often to disastrous effect, we may all have to ease up—not just on the almond milk, but also on almonds themselves. Hell, even ignorant hipsters like me love almonds.

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Help Us Solve the Rotisserie Chicken Mystery

| Thu Jul. 24, 2014 2:18 PM EDT

Megan McArdle alerts me today to a story from a local TV station that answers a question I've vaguely wondered about for a while: Why is it cheaper to buy a cooked and seasoned rotisserie chicken than a raw chicken? Cat Vesko provides the straight dope:

Right now, an uncooked chicken at Ralphs runs you $9.87, but a rotisserie chicken is $6.99; at Gelson's, you'll pay $8.99 for a cooked chicken or $12.67 for the raw version; and at that beloved emporium of insanity Whole Foods, a rotisserie chicken is $8.99, while a whole chicken from the butcher counter is $12.79 ... per pound.

....In most cases, preparing meals from scratch is significantly cheaper than buying them pre-made. What makes rotisserie chickens the exception? The answer lies in the curious economics of the full-service supermarket....Much like hunters who strive to use every part of the animal, grocery stores attempt to sell every modicum of fresh food they stock. Produce past its prime is chopped up for the salad bar; meat that's overdue for sale is cooked up and sold hot. Some mega-grocers like Costco have dedicated rotisserie chicken programs, but employees report that standard supermarkets routinely pop unsold chickens from the butcher into the ol' rotisserie oven.

This is a curiously roundabout explanation, but it boils down to this: whole chickens that are about to reach their sell-by date—and be thrown out—are instead taken to the deli to be cooked up. The grocery store doesn't make as much money as it would selling the chicken fresh, but it makes more money than it would by throwing it out.

I guess this makes sense. Except for one thing: the number of rotisserie chickens in your average supermarket is huge. As near as I can tell, the number being roasted in any single hour is greater than the total number of raw whole chickens in the entire poultry section. In other words, there's just no way that supermarkets toss out (or come close to tossing out) enough whole raw chickens to account for the vast pile of rotisserie chickens on offer. An awful lot of these chickens must have been purchased explicitly for the rotisserie. At least, that's what my informal eyeball estimate tells me.

What's more, the availability of all those cheap rotisserie chickens is a conspicuous incentive to stop buying whole raw chickens in the first place, and supermarkets obviously know this. This is one of the reasons most supermarkets stock so few whole chickens these days.1 So selling rotisserie chickens cheaply is just cutting their own throats. Why would they do that and lose money on the chicken?

So there must be something else going on. I'm not sure what, but I suspect there's more to the story than just using up chickens that are approaching their sell-by date. Do I have any readers who work in supermarkets and can enlighten us?

1Not the only reason, or even the main reason, of course. The main reason is that most of us just don't want to bother cooking a whole chicken these days.

UPDATE: The most popular guess in comments is that rotisserie chickens are a loss leader. Sure, you lose a dollar or two on each one, but you make up for it with the cole slaw and 2-liter sodas and so forth that everyone buys to go with them.

This is the most obvious explanation, and I'm totally willing to buy it. I just want to know if it's true. Not a guess, but a confirmation from someone who actually knows if this is what's going on. Anyone?

A Question About Botched Executions

| Thu Jul. 24, 2014 12:45 PM EDT

I'm reluctant to ask a question that may strike some people as too cavalier for a subject that deserves only serious treatment. But after yesterday's botched execution in Arizona—the latest of several—I continue to wonder: why is it so damn hard to execute people?

For starters, there are plenty of time-tested approaches: guillotines, firing squads, hanging, electrocution, gas chambers, etc. Did those really fall out of favor because people found them too grisly? Personally, I find the sterile, Mengele-like method of lethal injection considerably more disturbing than any of the others. And anyway, if you're bound and determined to kill people, maybe you ought to face up to a little bit of grisly.

Beyond that, is it really so hard to find a lethal injection that works? Obviously I'm not a doctor, but I do know that there are plenty of meds that will very reliably knock you unconscious. And once you've done that, surely there are plenty of poisons to choose from? Or even asphyxiation: place a helium mask over the unconscious prisoner and he'll be painlessly dead in about ten minutes or less.

Can anyone point me to a readable but fairly comprehensive history of executions over the past few decades? When and why did lethal injection become the method of choice? Why does there seem to be only one particular cocktail that works effectively? Lots of people have asked the same questions I'm asking, but nothing I've ever read really seems to explain it adequately.

Let's Watch Stephen Colbert Make Fun Of Tim Draper's Stupid Plan To Split California Into 6 States

| Thu Jul. 24, 2014 12:24 PM EDT

In 2016, Californians will vote on stupid Tim Draper's stupid initiative to turn America's greatest state into six stupid (and deeply unequal) little states. The initiative will fail, and even if it somehow passes, the state legislature will never approve it, and even if it somehow did, Congress will never agree to it. So, this whole thing is stupid. Fitting then that famed ridiculer of stupid things Stephen Colbert had Draper on his show last night.

Colbert began by introducing Draper (a "Silicon Valley billionaire and evil stepdad in a Lifetime movie") and his stupid plan to the uninitiated:

Then "the riskmaster" himself came on. Watching Draper come off like a weirdo is entertaining enough, but the real money shot is when Colbert responds to Draper's promise that he has no future in politics: "so, you're just going to set the charges, blow it apart, and then say 'not my fucking problem'?"

Watch:

(h/t Valleywag)

Quote of the Day: John Boehner Invites Obama to Ignore Congress on Immigration

| Thu Jul. 24, 2014 11:49 AM EDT

From House Speaker John Boehner, who is currently beavering away on a plan to sue President Obama for dealing with too many problems on his own:

We’ve got a humanitarian crisis on the border, and that has to be dealt with. But the president clearly isn’t going to deal with it on his own, even though he has the authority to deal with it on his own.

Man, this begs for a follow-up, doesn't it? What exactly does Obama have the authority to do on his own, Mr. Speaker? What unilateral actions would you like him to take without congressional authorization? Which particular law would you like him to reinterpret? Inquiring minds want to know.

Idaho Tribe Cancels Ted Nugent Concert Because of His Support for Washington Football Team Name

| Thu Jul. 24, 2014 10:59 AM EDT
This is an actual image from Ted Nugent's Facebook page.

Ted Nugent doesn't have a racist bone in his body. But sometimes racist words just happen to come out of it. On Monday, tribal officials in Idaho canceled the aging rock-and-roller's scheduled concert at a Coeur d'Alene casino over his past rhetoric. Per Indian Country Today:

Later in the day, [tribe spokeswoman Heather] Keen said in a statement, "Reviewing scheduled acts is not something in which Tribal Council or the tribal government participates; however, if it had been up to Tribal Council this act would have never been booked."

Then, Monday evening, Keen announced the concert was being canceled, explaining that "Nugent's history of racist and hate-filled remarks was brought to Tribal Council's attention earlier today." Tribal Chief Allan added that "We know what it's like to be the target of hateful messages and we would never want perpetuate hate in any way."

Among the racist issues brought to the tribe's attention: Referring to President Obama as a "subhuman mongrel," and his wholehearted support for the Washington football team name, which he outlined in a 2013 op-ed for the conservative conspiracy site WorldNetDaily, titled "A tomahawk chop to political correctness." The first line of the piece is, "Every so often some numbskull beats the politically correct war drum..." and it continues at pace from there, nodding to "Native Americans whose feathers are ruffled" and, "wafting smoke signals of real distress."

Nugent responded to the canceled event at the Coeur d'Alene casino and calls for similar cancellations elsewhere by calling his critics "unclean vermin," thereby refuting any further claims of racism.

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A Quick First Look at Paul Ryan's Anti-Poverty Plan

| Thu Jul. 24, 2014 10:34 AM EDT

Paul Ryan is out today with his anti-poverty proposal, and my first reaction after a quick skim is that I'm surprised at how limited it is. Maybe that's fine. There's no law that says every white paper has to offer a comprehensive solution to every federal program ever invented. In any case, Ryan is offering ideas primarily in three areas:

Experimentation. In a few select states, he wants to consolidate a number of federal poverty programs and then allow states to use the money to test different approaches to fighting poverty. It would be revenue neutral ("this is not a budget-cutting proposal—this is a reform proposal") and states would have to agree to a rigorous program of testing and research to evaluate how well their plans work.

EITC. Ryan wants to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit. This would be paid for by unspecified cuts in other anti-poverty programs.

Education. This is a bit of a hodgepodge and requires some reading between the lines. Mostly, he seems to want to block grant spending on early childhood programs; increase federal support for K-12 vouchers; "modernize and reform" tuition assistance for colleges; and block grant job training programs.

Ryan also has some ideas about prison reform and loosening occupational licensing standards. I'll try to have more on this later after I've read his paper more thoroughly. Overall, my initial reaction is that I like the idea of more rigorously testing different anti-poverty approaches, but I'm pretty skeptical of Ryan's obvious preference for eventually eliminating most federal anti-poverty programs and simply sending the money to the states as block grants. This is a longtime conservative hobbyhorse, and not because states are models of efficiency. They like it because it restricts spending, especially during recessions when federal entitlement programs automatically increase but block grants don't. That may please the tea party set, but it's bad for poor people and it's bad for the economy, which benefits from countercyclical spending during economic downturns.

This is just a quickie reaction. More later.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 24, 2014

Thu Jul. 24, 2014 9:34 AM EDT

A US Marine discusses the best route through the jungle in a training area in Hawaii with an Indonesian squad leader. (Department of Defense photo by Cpl. Matthew Callahan, US Marine Corps.)

For Lower Back Pain, You Can Skip the Tylenol

| Wed Jul. 23, 2014 8:24 PM EDT

Here's the latest from the frontiers of medical research:

About two-thirds of adults have lower back pain at some point in their lives, and most are told to take acetaminophen, sold under brand names like Tylenol, Anacin and Panadol. Medical guidelines around the world recommend acetaminophen as a first-line treatment.

But there has never been much research to support the recommendation, and now a large, rigorous trial has found that acetaminophen works no better than a placebo.

The good folks at Johnson & Johnson will no doubt disagree with extreme prejudice, but I'm not surprised. I suppose different people respond differently, but I've basically never responded other than minimally to Tylenol. It might dull a bit of headache pain slightly, but that's about it. However, there's more:

Dr. Williams said that acetaminophen had been shown to be effective for headache, toothache and pain after surgery, but the mechanism of back pain is different and poorly understood. Doctors should not initially recommend acetaminophen to patients with acute low back pain, he said.

Hey! That's right. I had some mild toothache recently thanks to a filling that involved a fair amount of work beneath the gum line. It acted up whenever I chewed food on that side of my mouth, and I found that Tylenol made it go away within 20 minutes. I was pretty amazed, since Tylenol had never really worked for anything else. But it was great for toothache.

Anyway, everyone is different, and Tylenol might work for you better than it does for me. It might even work for back pain. It doesn't on average, but that doesn't mean it's ineffective for everybody. In the meantime, maybe the medical research profession could hurry up a bit on that business of understanding what lower back pain is all about, OK? It so happens that I could use some answers on that score.

Twitter Releases Its Diversity Stats. And Boy, Are They Embarrassing.

| Wed Jul. 23, 2014 7:37 PM EDT

Twitter today followed in the footsteps of Google, Yahoo, LinkedIn, and Facebook by releasing statistics on the race and gender of its workforce. The company certainly deserves credit for voluntarily making its diversity stats public, unlike, say, Apple. "Like our peers, we have a lot of work to do," Janet Van Huysse, its VP of diversity and inclusion, admits on the company blog. But perhaps that's an understatement; Twitter actually lags far behind its peers on some key measures. For instance, only 1 out of every 10 Twitter tech employees is a woman:

Twitter

In case you're wondering, other large tech companies have significantly better gender diversity (though it's still abysmal compared to professions such as law or medicine). At Facebook and Yahoo, 15 percent of tech workers are women. At Google and LinkedIn, it's 17 percent. In 2010, Mike Swift of the San Jose Mercury News found that women held 24 percent of computer and mathematics jobs in Silicon Valley and 27 percent of those jobs nationally (though those categories may be broader than how they're defined by leading tech companies, as Tasneem Raja explores in this great piece on America's growing gap in tech literacy).

Unlike its peers, Twitter can't entirely blame its dearth of female coders on the talent pipeline: About 18 percent of computer science graduates are women. Instead, Van Huysse points to a slew of efforts to "move the needle" at Twitter, such as supporting the groups Girls Who Code and sf.girls and hosting "Girl Geek Dinners." 

As other reporters have noted, major tech firms started releasing their workforce data shortly after I obtained a batch of Silicon Valley diversity figures from the Labor Department and began asking them for comment. But pressure to release the stats has also come from a campaign by Color of Change and Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Push Coalition, which have demanded the stats during a string of private meetings with Valley execs, and last week launched a Twitter-based campaign to urge Twitter to make its diversity numbers public. Strikingly, only 1 percent of Twitter's tech workforce and 2 percent of its overall workforce is African-American:

Jackson argues that improving Twitter's diversity isn't just the right thing to do; it's also a good business decision. It turns out that "Black Twitter" isn't just a meme. According to a recent Pew survey, 22 percent of African-American internet users are on Twitter, while only 16 percent of White internet users tweet. Meanwhile, usage of Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ is roughly the same between Blacks and Whites.

In short, Twitter might make more money by hiring more people who reflect its audience. "There is no talent deficit, there's an opportunity deficit," Jackson said in a press release responding to Twitter's data. "When everyone is 'in,' everyone wins."