Maddie worked as a travel guide in Argentina and a teacher at several educational nonprofits in San Francisco before joining Mother Jones. She’s also written for Outside, the Bay Citizen, and the Rumpus. She manages Mother Jones' Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program.
As I sit down to write this post, I'm munching on a chocolate-orange cookie, something I grabbed to get me through a mid-morning energy slump. Packed with processed sugar, this treat could be considered just some empty calories I burn off as long as I take a rigorous walk at lunch or practice yoga after work. But scientists from the University of California–San Francisco, whose article "The Toxic Truth About Sugar" came out yesterday in Nature, are hoping to change this mindset. "There is nothing empty about these calories," they write, arguing that a growing body of evidence places the blame of the worldwide increase in chronic diseases such as liver toxicity, obesity, and pancreatitis squarely on the shoulders of this pervasive ingredient.
If UCSF researcher Robert H. Lustig and his team had their way, sugar would be regulated similarly to alcohol and tobacco, and would be knocked off of a USDA list of foods "Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS)," which allows food manufacturers to add unlimited amounts to any food. Using four criteria established in 2003 to justify regulating alcohol, these scientists make a case for why sugar is a public health concern and should be regulated:
Sugar is unavoidable: In recent years, it is being added to almost all processed foods. Even if I avoid cookies and desserts, for example, and I think I'm controlling my intake, I'm probably still taking in more sugar than what's necessary through processed snacks, bread, condiments, and beverages. According to the USDA (PDF), the average American ate the equivalent of 52 teaspoonfuls of sugar a day in 2000, compared to the 10 teaspoonful daily maximum recommended. Per capita consumption was up 39 percent from the 1950s.
It's toxic: The paper maintains that excessive consumption of sugar affects health beyond just adding empty calories. The food has been linked to metabolic dysfunction and its ensuing diseases, and Lustig asserts that fructose (one of two molecules that along with glucose makes up sugar) can have the same impact on the liver as alcohol. For more on fructose, read my coworker Kiera Butler's piece on sugar versus corn syrup. Also, see Gary Taubes's article on sugar's toxicity, which features Lustig, in the New York Times magazine last spring.
It's addictive: This claim appears a little extreme (hard to imagine a group called Sugarholics Anonymous), but the paper cites various studies that examine human dependency on sugar. The sweetener dampens the suppression of hormones that signal hunger and satisfaction to the brain, so the more we eat, the less likely we are to realize when we've had enough of the stuff, and the more likely we are to want more.
Sugar has a negative impact on society: It's been linked to metabolic dysfunction, which can lead to heart disease, obesity, liver disease, and diabetes. In 2011, the United Nations declared that for the first time ever, chronic non-communicable diseases like these posed a greater burden on the world than infectious diseases. A 2011 University of Minnesota study linked the uptick in sugar consumption over the last 30 years to an increase in average body weight. Currently, seventy-five percent of all US health-care dollars are spent on treating metabolic syndrome and its resulting diseases.
So what's to be done to curb our demand for sugar? The pie in the sky solution for the UCSF scientists is to get food manufacturers to stop adding it to everything under the sun. "But sugar is cheap, sugar tastes good and sugar sells, so companies have little incentive to change," write Lustig and crew. Another solution is to make it less accessible by taxing it. Denmark is considering a sugar tax, and the United States may soon start taxing sugary sodas per ounce.
But the idea of regulating sugar is going to face plenty of protest from the massive sugar lobby, something that Lustig and colleagues recognize. Taking hope from the success public health officials have had in fighting the tobacco lobby and regulating smoking in places nationwide, the UCSF researchers are optimistic about the government's ability to take on sugar like it has taken on smoking.
As a skier, I'm constantly in search of empty fields of white far from the crowds. So the idea of my local ski area acquiring new mountainsides to plunge down sounds like a good way to disperse hoards of fellow snow bunnies into wider pastures. This year in California, skiers and boarders have been gushing over the merger between Tahoe's Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows, a connection that now allows patrons to access the two resorts using one lift ticket. Even more exciting is the potential that we'll get to ski in the undeveloped wilderness behind each resort to get from one to the other through a backcountry access gate (an internal pilot program to test this traverse starts this winter). Eventually, says Squaw Valley spokesperson Amelia Richmond, there may even be a series of chairlifts connecting the two mountains. It's also rumored that JMA Ventures, Alpine's former owner that still owns nearby Homewood Mountain Ski Resort, has looked into connecting Homewood to Alpine–clearing prized backcountry wilderness in its path.
But the Ski Area Citizens' Coalition, which grades ski resorts on their green practices, sees this type of development as something else entirely: a devastating blow to untouched natural reserves. Transforming a mountainside into a ski hill makes it unavailable as habitat to most species, and denudes land, making erosion more likely. New ski runs also mean more energy-guzzling chair lifts, which add to the emissions you've already created by driving to the resort. And making new snow to cover these runs depletes streams in already drought-ridden areas, as well as uses energy and contributes to global warming. That's just the beginning, says SACC: Ski resort land development paves the way for a real estate creep from incoming hotel chains, condos, and outlets. At the core of SACC's research efforts lies the nagging question: Do we really need to ski more terrain?
The SACC grades Western ski resorts on 36 criteria, ranging from snow-making practices to investment in biodiesel, to educate winter sports nuts about which ski area to choose if they care about their environmental impact. Released in an annual report card, the grades reflect info culled from public records, development plans, and surveys filled out by each resort.
Y La Bamba photo by Alicia J. RosePortland indie band Y La Bamba doesn't serenade you at restaurants or feature a trumpet, and its members don't sport matching embroidered tuxedos. Its resemblance to a mariachi band is more subtle: emotive lead vocals, a plethora of stringed instruments, an accordion, songs of lament. Though her music is now rather folky, lead singer Luzelena Mendoza's past reveals an adoration of traditional Mexican singers whose influence on the band is undeniable.
"When I was a little girl I loved mariachi and the conjuntos and all the little trios and singing at church," Mendoza fondly remembers. It's hard to imagine Mendoza, six feet tall with striking tattoos scrawled across her shoulders and neck, as a small, pious child. But as she continues to resurrect memories, the picture comes into focus.
The singer grew up in sheltered Mexican communities, first in Michoacan and later in California and Oregon, and her list of childhood favorites sounds like a classic Latin jukebox medley: "Ramón Ayala, Los Madrugadores, Los Panchos, Los Dandys, Los Caminantes, Pedro Infantes, Pepe Aguilar, Javier Solís." During Mendoza's teenage years in the US, R&B entered her repertoire and prompted her to develop her voice. "I would sing along with mariachi stuff in the background because I loved the way it felt."
The reason she was entranced with Mexican singers in the first place? "I was born into it." Her dad was a fan of the accordion and someone who "always wanted to be the center of attention and sing his heart out." But her parents haven't always been supportive of her career path. "They didn't really know how to accept who I was. It's not like I'm half-Mexican or something—it was the real fuckin' deal. To see something like me come out of something that strict and thick and beautiful," she explains, referring to her conservative Catholic upbringing, "they were like, who is this?"
She pushed onward, dabbling in punk rock and working as a body piercer before creating Y La Bamba with fellow Portlanders in 2003. Mendoza writes most of the band's songs, dipping into legends and stories as much as her own personal experiences. Recently, for instance, she wrote a song called "Lamento de Madre," which juxtaposes her own mother with the famous Mexican legend of "La Llorona," the crying woman, whose wails of grief over her children's deaths plagued waterways in Mexico and Central America.
Cranberry salsa—that's salsa, not sauce—has been my Thanksgiving dinner contribution of the last few years. I gave up on the traditional stuff long ago, after too many Thanksgivings where the cranberry offering slides out of a can and plops into a bowl, maintaining its floppy cylindrical shape until someone mashes it into a gelatinous goo and sticks a spoon into it. I'd wager that secretly, only about a fourth of Thanksgiving eaters even like the stuff.
"Not so!" shouts Ian, my MoJo colleague from the next cube over. Ian hails from the fair hills of Connecticut. "In New England, cranberry sauce is an important marker of a good Thanksgiving," he tells me, glaring at me for questioning what he sees as an essential holiday coulis.
But I say, why suck the life out of this tart, crimson New England bead, reducing it to an insipid mess of sugar and limp berries? According to the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers' Association, the cranberry is one of only three fruits native to North American soil, along with the Concord grape and the blueberry. It's time to get to know the fruit in raw form, and salsa allows you to taste the tangy snap of fresh cranberries. In the recipe below, the cranberries' tartness pairs well with the heat of ginger and chilis. Orange zest pulls it all together. So what if we've wandered off the traditionalist's map? On a plate heavy with roasted, boiled, sautéed, and simmered vegetables, a bit of raw crunch is a welcome respite.
• 1 bag of fresh cranberries
• juice and zest of 1 orange
• 1/4 cup sugar
• 2 tablespoons minced ginger
• 1-2 serrano peppers
• juice of 2 limes
• a pinch of salt
• 1 bunch of chopped cilantro
Directions: In a saucepan, heat sugar, orange zest, orange juice, and ginger with 1/4 cup water until the mixture reduces and turns syrupy. In the meantime, chop the cilantro and serranos. Combine chilis and cranberries in a food processor until finely chopped. Transfer into a bowl, and add the ginger-orange syrup. Stir in cilantro, salt, and lime juice. Add a little more sugar and lime as needed; the salsa gets better after a couple of hours of soaking in its own juices. Eat with tortilla chips as an appetizer, or serve as a side dish.
I call myself a pescatarian, though when I do choose to layer lox on my bagel or slurp the occasional oyster, I prefer responsibly sourced seafood, or at least to know exactly what I'm eating. And sometimes when sitting down to a sushi dinner, that's not exactly clear. To everyone but the most discerning epicure, pink fish can be pretty easily mistaken for other types of pink fish. So it came as no comfort to read Consumer Reports' new investigation, "Mystery Fish," which found that more than 20 percent of seafood purchased at restaurants and stores in three US states was improperly labeled or identified. Among the most mysterious meats was red snapper, which, after going through DNA matching during this particular investigation, could never be positively identified as such.
Consumer Reports sent 22 samples of "red snapper" to an outside lab for DNA testing, where along with other seafood samples, their genetic sequences were compared with standardized gene fragments. Eight red snappers were deemed as possible DNA matches, but the rest were unidentifiable or simply mislabeled.