Kiera Butler

Kiera Butler

Senior Editor

A senior editor at Mother Jones, Kiera covers health, food, and the environment. She is the author of the new book Raise: What 4-H Teaches 7 Million Kids—and How Its Lessons Could Change Food and Farming Forever (University of California Press).

 

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Death by Hamburger?

| Mon Jun. 21, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

Whether you're a burger lover or a strict vegetarian (I'm somewhere in the middle—more on this in the July/August 2010 issue of Mother Jones), you've probably heard that too much meat is definitely not a good thing. Most recently, researchers have linked overconsumption of red meat with early puberty in girls: A University of Brighton study found this month that about half of UK girls who ate 12 or more servings of meat each week at age seven had started their periods by age twelve and a half, compared to about a third of those who ate fewer than four servings. Worrisome, since some research suggests that girls who go through puberty early are at greater risk for breast cancer.

Meat-heavy diets aren't great for adults, either: In 2009, a landmark National Cancer Institute study of 500,000 Americans between the ages of 50 and 71 found that people who eat a quarter-pound of red meat or processed meat every day were 30 percent more likely to die in the 10 years of the study than those who ate 5 ounces of red meat or less per week. Compare that to research about vegetarian Seventh-Day Adventists, many of whom live significantly longer than the average American.

So, how much meat is too much? Americans eat about eight ounces of meat every day, more than twice the rest of the world's average. Most health experts agree that's too much (and in addition to being unhealthy, mass production and consuming this much meat has major environmental consequences). You can find current USDA guidelines for meat consumption here (generally five to seven ounces of meat or beans a day for adults, less for kids depending on age and size), but some some people think those recommendations are suspiciously high: Marion Nestle writes about agriculture lobby groups' influence over the USDA dietary recommendations in her book Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health.

But you don't have to swear off summer barbecues, either. As a rule of thumb, nutritionist Dawn Jackson Blatner, proponent of the light-on-meat flexitarian diet, recommends thinking of meat as "condiment instead of a large-meal focal point." Aspiring flexitarians, she says, should aim for two meatless days per week. 

In addition to limiting overall meat consumption, Imogen Rogers, a lead author on the UK study, notes that the World Cancer Research Fund recommends avoiding processed meat (such as ham and bacon), which has been linked to increased cancer risks. "Processed meat is also very high in salt, and at least in the UK the vast majority of children consume well in excess of the recommended maximum salt intakes," says Rogers. The National Cancer Institute also warns against eating meat cooked at high temperatures. "The way people cook red meat is usually by grilling, barbequing or frying," says Jie Lin, an epidemiologist at the University of Texas. "No matter what types of meat—red meat or white—if cooked under high temperature, generate HCAs that could lead to cancer."

Interested in cutting back on meat? Check out the Meatless Monday campaign, an initiative by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health aimed at reducing Americans' meat consumption by 15 percent.

 

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Top 10 Ridiculous Oil-Spill Quotes From Congress

| Fri Jun. 18, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

If we were to hold a contest for most tone-deaf oil spill comments by members of Congress, it'd be tough to top Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), who actually apologized to BP yesterday, for what he called a "shake down" on the part of the Obama administration to get the company to compensate affected Gulf coast residents, then tried to backpedal (sort of). Oof. But he's far from the only one: I sure hope our Congresspeople are buying offsets, since there have been an awful lot of gaseous emissions coming from them in the wake of the largest offshore oil spill in US history. Luckily, MoJo reporter Kate Sheppard has been there to document it, tweeting the absurdity live from Washington, D.C. Here, culled from Kate's tweets, are the top 10 most ludicrous, out-of-touch, and generally embarrassing things our Congresspeople have said in the months since the spill began. Begin cringing...now:

10. John Culberson (R-Texas), 6/15, at a press conference: Argues that the BP oil spill "is an anomaly–like an airplane falling from the clear blue sky."

9. Joe Barton (R-Texas), 6/15, at an Energy and Commerce hearing: "Chinese oil companies are drilling off the coast of Cuba, which means they are drilling off the coast of Florida."

8. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), 6/15, at an Energy and Commerce hearing: "If this hearing is not about stopping the leak, then why are we here?"

7. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), 5/4, told reporters:"I mean, accidents happen. You learn from them and you try to make sure they don't happen again."

6. Pete Olson (R-Texas) on moratorium, 6/15 press conference: "This is a kneejerk reaction by the administration to address a problem that doesn't exist."

5. Ralph Hall (R-Texas) 6/15, at a press conference: "It’s a shame we can't drill ANWR. It’s a shame we don't get that energy off the coast of Florida."

4. Parker Griffith (R-Ala.), 6/15, at an Energy and Commerce hearing: argued that the treatment of oil executives has been "disrespectful."

3. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), 6/15, at a press conference: "I resent the fact that [Obama's] trying to blame some of this on Bush. On 9/11 I don't remember Bush trying to blame this on Clinton."

2. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), 6/9, at a press conference: "The bridge to that promised land of renewable energy is built out of fossil fuels."

1. Joe Barton (R-Texas), 6/17, apologizing to BP CEO Tony Hayward at an Energy and Commerce hearing: "I am ashamed ... that a private corporation can be subject to what I would characterize as a shake down."

Don't miss a second of Congress' oil spill hijinks! Follow Kate Sheppard on Twitter. See MoJo's complete oil spill coverage here.

Big Oil's Chernobyl?

| Mon Jun. 7, 2010 7:00 PM EDT

PBS Need to Know's Jon Meacham recently interviewed Carl Safina, president and co-founder of the Blue Ocean Institute, on the dirty dispersants BP is using on the spill, the long-term forecast for the Gulf, and why the spill is shaping up to be the oil industry's Chernobyl. The segment (below) is really worth watching in its entirety, but here are a few highlights:

Jon Meacham: You testified last week that the dispersant was an out-of-sight, out-of-mind strategy.

Carl Safina: A good way of thinking about it is you have a greasy pan, you put the detergent on it and it starts dissolving the oil. So it’s no longer sticking in a concentrated way, it’s creating a bowl of dirty dishwater. That’s what a dispersant does. It doesn’t neutralize the oil. It doesn’t make the oil go away. In fact, the dispersant makes the oil more toxic to living things...The toxic parts don’t evaporate, because they’re not at the surface. They can get into the gills, into the mouths of fish, and they bathe all the larval eggs, all the baby fish, and all the little baby crustaceans...And the dispersant itself is also toxic.

...

JM: What are your views on the long-term effects on ocean life?

CS: No one knows exactly what the long-term effects will be, but we have quite a bit to draw on. We know the oil is toxic, we know the dispersant is toxic, and it makes the oil more toxic, and we know there is more of it in this semi-enclosed body of water than has ever happened in history. So there is almost certainly a very large die-off of fish eggs, fish larvae, and plankton communities. We also know that turtles eat oil. They just tend to ingest these blobs, because they eat jellyfish usually. And it kills them. We also know it kills dolphins and whales. When the Exxon Valdez ran aground it killed about 40 percent of the killer whales there. That population has not recovered in 20 years. The herring population has also not recovered in 20 years. So we knows it kills wildlife at the moment of the event, and that the long-term effects can linger for decades.

JM: Characterize this. Is this a Katrina-like event? What are the analogies in history that you’re thinking of?

CS: In talking to people in the Gulf, they are saying this is going to make Katrina look like a bad day...I think that rather than this being something like Katrina, this is Big Oil’s Chernobyl. I think it’s a catastrophe that shows the enormous risk this industry poses to public health, and to the health of communities.

JM: Who do you blame for the spill? Is it BP? Is it lax regulation? And what can we do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?

CS: I think we have a culture of irresponsibility and a culture that makes us think about ourselves first, instead of our safety first, or our community first, or our country first. BP has been irresponsible. They had indications of trouble, they went ahead. They didn’t want to spend more money on a better backup system. They didn’t have backup plans. On the other hand, we have a government whose job is supposed to be to insulate our interest—the public interest and the interest of the future and the country—from the narrow interest of a few people, and that failed, too.
...

JM: Is there any good that can come from this?

CS: I’m not sure any good can come out of this, but there is a very important lesson t be learned. People have said that the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of rocks. We’re trying to wring the last drops out of oil that we’re depleting. Ever since I was in high school we have known that what we need is a diverse array of fuel sources that focuses mainly on clean, renewable sources of energey…We need to move that way by building a grid that can carry that energy around the country from wherever it’s abundant to wherever it’s needed.

...

JM: What can ordinary Americans who are concerned about this actually do to help reverse course?

CS: One of the things that we hear is that we are all responsible because we all use petroleum. That’s not really why we’re all responsible. We’re all responsible because we haven’t insisted on an energy policy that gets us beyond fossil fuels. Ever since we’ve lived in caves, every time we want energy we light something on fire. We’re still doing that. I think it’s time for us to get out of our caves and use the clean, eternal, renewable energy.
 

This PBS Need to Know interview with Carl Safina comes courtesy of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Immigration Raids on Oil-Spill Workers, and Other News From the Gulf

| Mon Jun. 7, 2010 1:41 PM EDT

MoJo reporter Mac McClelland is reporting from the Gulf Coast, tweeting, blogging, and snapping pictures of the BP disaster. Over at her blog, The Rights Stuff, Mac reports on ICE's crackdown on undocumented oil spill workers. Last week, a BP mole spilled the beans to Mac about what's really going on behind BP's beach blockades. Finally, watch Mac on PBS' Need to Know:

 

Is Greek Yogurt Better Than Regular?

| Mon Jun. 7, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

A few years back, when I lived in the predominantly Greek NYC neighborhood of Astoria, Queens, I got hooked on two foods: 1) flaky, cheesy spinach pie, and 2) yogurt from the local Mediterranean specialty market. Thick, creamy, and tangy, it bore little resemblance to the gelatinous American stuff I was used to. I bought big containers of it and ate it every day for breakfast with fruit. Sadly, since moving to California, I have yet to find a spinach pie as delicious as those in Astoria. (Bay Area readers, your tips are welcome.) But happily, at around the time that I moved, American yogurt manufacturers started making Greek-style yogurt, and since then it's exploded in popularity: All my local supermarkets carry it now. I still think it tastes better than American style. But it's also pricier. Which got me wondering: Which kind of yogurt is more nutritious? And which is better for the environment?

Ohio State University nutritionist Julie Kennel Shertzer explained to me that both Greek- and American-style yogurt are made by fermenting milk with live bacteria cultures—the only difference is that Greek yogurt is strained to remove the liquid whey, hence its thicker consistency. (The Greek yogurt company Fage has a good explanation of the process here.) Both are nutritional superstars: They're excellent sources of calcium and good sources of protein, their bacteria cultures aid digestion, and the unsweetened low- and nonfat varieties are low in calories. But according to Shertzer, Greek yogurt does have a few nutritional advantages over regular yogurt: "Since it's a more concentrated product, it packs a few more grams of protein per serving," she says. It's also a bit lower in sugar and carbohydrates, since lactose, a form of sugar present in all dairy products, is removed with the whey.

But Greek yogurt is not better for the environment than American-style yogurt, for one simple reason: It requires much more milk to make. For American-style yogurt, the ratio of milk to final yogurt product is about 1:1 (sometimes more like 1.3:1, since many manufacturers add in a little bit of condensed skim milk to improve the texture and protein content), while for Greek yogurt it's often as high as 4:1. Considering that dairy farms take quite a toll on the environment and produce a large amount of greenhouse gases (a recent United Nations study found that 3 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions come from milk production, including shipping) the environmental difference between Greek and American yogurt is fairly significant.

There's another problem, too: What to do with the whey that's left over from the Greek yogurt straining process? Rolf Carlson, vice president of sourcing and development at the yogurt manufacturer Stonyfield Farm explained that there are two kinds of whey: Sweet whey can be used as a food additive, but acid whey isn't as useful. Many major yogurt manufacturers give their acid whey to farmers to be used as animal feed or fertilizer, but according to Carlson, farmers must be careful when applying it to cropland, since whey runoff can pollute waterways (PDF). "It can affect the microbiology of the water," says Carlson. Some good news: Both Stonyfield Farm and the Greek yogurt company Chobani told me they are in the process building pricey anaerobic digesters to convert their waste whey into energy to power the factories.

If you're worried about Greek yogurt's environmental problems, you might consider making your own at home, and using the leftover whey: Simply pour American-style yogurt into cheesecloth and strain it for several hours over a container. The yogurt in the cheesecloth will be thicker and creamier when it's done. Use the whey left in the container instead of water to make rice—or in biscuits or just about any baking recipe in place of water. Supposedly you can also drink it. (I've never tried it, but Mother Jones co-editor-in-chief Monika Bauerlein swears it's delicious.)

Corrections appended: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that lactose is created during the fermentation process. It's actually present in all dairy products. An earlier version also stated that acid whey was inedible; it's actually just less desirable as a food additive.

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