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.

Why the FDA's "High Fructose Corn Syrup Isn't Sugar" Verdict Doesn't Matter

| Thu May 31, 2012 1:19 PM EDT

Today, the FDA told the Corn Refiners (the good people behind that awesomely audacious series of ads about how corn syrup is natural) that they're not allowed to change the name of high fructose corn syrup to "corn sugar." Consumers Union cheered the ruling, stating in a press release that "If the name had been changed, it would have given consumers the wrong impression that this product is 'natural.'" Which it's definitely not.

I'm probably going to take a lot of flack for this, but I don't think the ruling makes a lot of difference one way or the other. Sure, it's nice to make the industry come clean about products that are heavily chemically processed (though cane sugar processing is hardly chemical-free), but the real problem with sweeteners is not quality but quantity. As I've said before, Americans eat too many sweeteners, period. And in excess, HFCS and sugar do the same bad things to your body: They can trigger insulin resistance and lead to a whole host of metabolic problems.

The HFCS verdict is sure to please the sugar refiners, who aren't exactly small-batch artisenal craftsmen. In fact, the two industries have been locked in a decades-long PR battle, of which this is just the latest skirmish. I'm not saying that today's ruling is a bad thing; there are plenty of perfectly valid reasons to be wary of HFCS—most recently, the stuff has been linked to memory loss. But just because cane sugar gets to be called "natural" doesn't mean it's good for you.

Okay, done ranting, you can go back to eating your cupcake now. 

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Unplugging These 6 Gadgets Will Cut Your Electricity Bill

| Mon May 21, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

We all know we're supposed to unplug our technological gadgets when we're not using them, and back in the days when we only had a few home electronics—a TV here, a stereo there—that wasn't so hard to do. But as our devices proliferate (see chart below), this formerly simple task has become increasingly annoying. Who wants to spend an extra 10 minutes every morning stalking around the house and finding phone chargers and cable boxes to unplug like we're on some kind of weird easter egg hunt? And furthermore, would the energy savings from unplugging really be enough to make it worth the effort? I asked a few experts to weigh in.

Men Find Vegetables Unmanly

| Wed May 16, 2012 3:43 PM EDT

My mom likes to tell a story about how, after coming over for dinner to our vegetarian household, a woman from the neighborhood earnestly asked her how she had managed to persuade my dad to eat vegetables. Apparently this woman had the worst time interesting her husband in salad. Okay. So, just for fun, let's leave aside the troubling question of why exactly this lady's marriage involved this weird infantilization and turn to the much more hilarious matter: Seriously, why didn't this dude like veggies?

According to a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, it's probably because men don't consider them manly. For reals:

In a number of experiments that looked at metaphors and certain foods, like meat and milk, the authors found that people rated meat as more masculine than vegetables. They also found that meat generated more masculine words when people discussed it, and that people viewed male meat eaters as being more masculine than non-meat eaters.

Another rad finding was that in most languages that have genders, meat is masculine.

As a solution, the study's authors suggest that "reshaping soy burgers to make them resemble beef or giving them grill marks might help cautious men make the transition." See, ladies with veggie-hating husbands? It's that easy.

Does Eating Corn Syrup Kill Your Memory?

| Wed May 16, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

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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