Kiera Butler

Kiera Butler

Senior Editor

Kiera answers your green questions every week in her Econundrums column. She was a hypochondriac even before she started researching germ warfare.

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Kiera has written about the environment, arts and culture, and more for Columbia Journalism Review, Orion, Audubon, OnEarth, Plenty, and the Utne Reader. She lives in Berkeley and recently planted 30 onions in her backyard.

Does Eating Corn Syrup Kill Your Memory?

| Wed May. 16, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

If you've ever experienced a cupcake coma (you know, the period of extreme lethargy that follows a sugar high brought on by consumption of one or more cupcakes), you might not be surprised by some recent findings on the effects of processed sweeteners. A team of UCLA researchers has observed that high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) makes rats more forgetful, while omega-3 fatty acids—chemical compounds that research has shown can protect the brain's synapses—seem to have the opposite effect.

The researchers, whose paper will be published this week in the peer-reviewed Journal of Physiology, trained a group of rats to navigate a maze. Then, they randomly divided the rats into four groups, and for six weeks they fed each group a slightly different diet in addition to the usual rat chow: One group received HFCS in its water; another received omega-3 fatty acids. A third received both HFCS and omega-3s, and the fourth, a control group, received plain old rat chow.

At the end of the six weeks, the group that had been given omega-3 fatty acids but no HFCS was the speediest at remembering how to get out of the maze. The control group (no HFCS or omega-3s) was the second fastest, and the group that had received omega-3 fatty acids and HFCS came in third. The slowpokes of the lot were the group that had only received HFCS. The takeaway: HFCS seemed to impair rats' memory, while omega-3 fatty acids seemed to help it.

In addition to the memory effects, the researchers also noticed changes in the rats' metabolism. The groups that had been fed HFCS showed signs of insulin resistance, a condition that has been linked to diabetes and obesity.

So can you up your recall skills by cutting HFCS out of your diet? Hard to say, since a controlled rat study doesn't exactly count as proof that too much sweet stuff makes humans forgetful. But it's certainly something that merits more scrutiny: The study's lead researcher, biology professor Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, believes that insulin could affect the brain as well as the metabolic system. "Insulin is important in the body for controlling blood sugar, but it may play a different role in the brain, where insulin appears to disturb memory and learning," said Gomes-Pinilla in a press release. "Our study shows that a high-fructose diet harms the brain as well as the body. This is something new."

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A Podcast for Caffeine Fiends

| Tue May. 15, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

If you are a slave to your morning coffee like I am, you might want to take a listen to the latest episode of the Field Trip podcast, which is entirely devoted to the fascinating backstory of your caffeine fix. Highlights include San Francisco's celebrated coffee makers Ritual Roasters spilling the beans on their rigorous taste testing process, and the Field Trip crew bravely sampling the most highly caffeinated coffee in the world.

Have a listen:

Play

FDA Delays Sunscreen Rules. Again.

| Fri May. 11, 2012 12:08 PM PDT

If you've been following the epic saga of the FDA's long-awaited sunscreen regulations, you probably won't be surprised to hear that the agency has pushed back enforcement of its latest set of rules from this summer to mid-December of this year. The rules—you know, someday—will bar manufacturers from making outlandish claims on their labels (no more SPF 150). But that's not all. Last year, MoJo's Jen Quraishi summarized the regulations in a blog post:

--all sunscreens must be SPF 15 or higher if they claim to prevent sunburn, early aging, and reduce skin cancer risk. Anything under SPF 15 could only be advertised to help prevent sunburn.

--all sunscreens must provide protection against both ultraviolet B radiation (UVB) and ultraviolet A radiation (UVA) in order to be labeled as "Broad Spectrum."

--no more labels that market a sunscreen as either "waterproof" or "sweatproof." The label "sunblock" is also disallowed.

--any product that claims water resistance must also tell consumers how much time they can expect to get SPF protection for while in the water.

--no product can claim to offer immediate protection after application unless they submit data to the FDA and get the FDA's express approval

--sunscreens in the form of wipes, towelettes, powders, body washes, and shampoo cannot be marketed without approved application.

All of which would be a step in the right direction. But as Environmental Working Group pointed out, the new rules continue "to allow oxybenzone, retinyl palmitate and several other ingredients in sunscreens despite scientists' concerns about their toxicity."

Classy Hardwood Floors Tied To Sex Abuse in the Amazon

| Wed Apr. 11, 2012 3:00 AM PDT
Sawmills line the banks of the river to receive raw lumber from the forest. Here it is processed to rough planks before conditioning and further export.

Cedar and mahogany are woods known for their ability to class up a living room. Both woods are common in high-end furniture; cedar is often used in flooring, and mahogany makes for some fine moldings. But it doesn't come cheap: The wood from one mahogany tree costs about $11,000 on the lumber market; a cedar tree runs about $9,000. The Peruvian Amazon is a major source of these woods for the American market, and a new report from the Environmental Investigation Agency found that between 2008 and 2010, 35 percent of inspected shipments from Peru contained wood from illegal logging operations; the researchers say that the overall figure (including non-inspected shipments) is estimated to be as high as 88 percent. 

The report's authors point out that because of lack of oversight, illegal logging is widespread in Peru—despite the fact that it received $150 million yearly in international support for its forest conservation programs. Although timber operations cash in on the dodgy practices, the overall effect is detrimental not only to the environment, but also to the economy and local people. Researchers in Loreto, where much of the activities take place, estimate that illegal logging losses (due to "tax evasion, non-payment of required fees, and devaluation of standing timber") cost Peru $250 million annually, 1.5 times more than the country earns from all its timber exports combined. The humanitarian cost of logging is also considerable. Consider this moving testimony from one former logger:

Maria, a single mother nearing 50 years of age, had no job. thus, when a neighbor told her about temporary work available as a cook in a logging camp, she thought she had been presented with a good opportunity. The pay seemed good to her: 300 soles per month (approximately US $110), above the average pay for a cook in the city of Iquitos. She would have to leave her children and move to the camp, but it would only be for three months. Unfortunately, things did not turn out as planned. Six months later, she ended up fleeing.

In order to convince her to move to the jungle and leave her children, the habilitadores gave her 250 soles (approximately US $90) as an advance payment. She left Iquitos and traveled one day by river to join up with other people who knew how to get to the camp. From there, days to the middle of the jungle.

Getting there was not the most difficult part. Maria was the only woman in the camp and was surrounded by approximately 25 men, most of whom were between the ages of 20 and 30, and all of whom were strong enough to fell trees measuring more than one meter in diameter. Maria's nightmare began when she realized that the men expected her to not only cook them breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but also provide them with sexual favors.

Maria remembers each night as being a nightmare. "I was there for six months. I barely slept from my fear, always worried that something was going to happen. when I knew they wanted to attack me, I couldn't sleep. thinking they were coming, I would wake up. so that they would think I was awake, I would move, I would get up, I would light my lantern, that is the way I was there, I would sleep on my side. And suddenly it was time to wake up."

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