We taste-tested Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, Annie's Homegrown Macaroni & Cheese, Cheez-Its, and a simple, homemade pasta-and-cheese dish. Watch the video to see how they stacked up.

Perhaps you've heard about the recent outcry over the use of yellow dyes 5 and 6 in Kraft's popular Macaroni & Cheese. A couple of food bloggers have petitioned the food giant to ditch the artificial colors, calling them "unnecessary" and "potentially harmful."

The petition has already racked up more than 250,000 signatures. That isn't surprising, since Kraft's cheesy, gooey dish is a childhood staple. (I subsisted on a strict diet of it and Eggo waffles until about age 10.)

So just for fun, let's pretend that the petitioners succeed, and Kraft replaces its artificial dyes with natural coloring—or (gasp!) no coloring at all. Would the stuff then be healthier?

Well, let's consider the ingredients list for Kraft Macaroni & Cheese:

Enriched Macaroni product (wheat flour, niacin, ferrous sulfate [iron], thiamin mononitrate [vitamin B1], riboflavin [vitamin B2], folic acid); cheese sauce mix (whey, milkfat, milk protein concentrate, salt, sodium tripolyphosphate, contains less than 2% of citric acid, lactic acid, sodium phosphate, calcium phosphate, yellow 5, yellow 6, enzymes, cheese culture)

Now compare that to the ingredients list for Kellog's Reduced Fat Cheez-Its:

Enriched flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate [vitamin B1], roboflavin [vitamin B2], folic acid); soybean and palm oil with TBHQ for freshness, skim milk cheese (skim milk, whey protein, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes, annatto extract for color), salt, containst two percent or less of paprika, yeast, paprika oleoresin for color, soy lecithin

To me, the list looked pretty similar—except for one thing: Instead of yellows 5 and 6, Cheez-Its uses annato extract and paprika for color. Yes, you read that right: Cheez-Its uses natural coloring, while Kraft Macaroni & Cheese uses artificial. Indeed, agreed Jesse Jones-Smith, a nutritionist at Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health, "Kraft actually has a few extra additives, even compared to Cheez-its." She added, "If you gave a kid two servings of Cheez-its and a glass of milk, you would actually have more sodium in Kraft Mac & Cheese. Otherwise, the two meals are pretty nutritionally equivalent."

Nutritionist Marion Nestle isn't a fan of the stuff in the blue-and-yellow box, either. "Kraft Mac & Cheese is a delivery vehicle for salt and artificial colors and flavors," Nestle wrote in an email. "It is a non-starter on my list because it violates at least three of my semi-facetious rules: never eat anything artificial; never eat anything with more than five ingredients; and never eat anything with an ingredient you can't pronounce."

Right. But that got me wondering: What about Annie's Homegrown, the supposedly healthier brand of packaged mac and cheese? When Jones-Smith compared Annie's and Kraft's nutritional information labels and ingredients lists, she found that their dry pasta and sauce packets weren't too different:*

The real difference, she says, was in what the two manufacturers recommended adding: Kraft suggests making the dish with four tablespoons of margarine and a quarter cup of two-percent milk, while Annie's recommends two tablespoons of butter and 3 tablespoons of lowfat milk. "Margarine often has trans fat—why would they recommend margarine?" wondered Jones-Smith. The result is that when prepared, Kraft packs substantially more calories and fat into a serving than Annie's:

So what's a healthier alternative? I asked Tamar Adler, author of An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace, for a recommendation. She suggested a simple cheese, pasta, and cauliflower dish. Basically you mash up two cups of boiled cauliflower with a cup of parmesan, a little olive oil, and salt and pepper. Add it to a pound of pasta with a little of the pasta's cooking water, and you have a creamy, cheesy dish that Jones-Smith says is also more nutritious than both boxed versions: It's lower in sodium, fat, and calories, and slightly higher in protein. (It's slightly higher in saturated fat because of the real parmesan.)

It also tastes good. That's not to say that boxed mac and cheese tastes bad; it's hard to go wrong with cheesy, starchy comfort food. But I'm willing to guess that Adler's concoction is a few more steps removed from a bowl of Cheez-Its. Which is, well, comforting in its own way.

You can watch our taste test in the video at the top of this post.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated some of the values for Cheez-Its' nutritional information.

Limosa harlequin frog (Atelopus limosus):

Great news today that the endangered limosa harlequin frog (Atelopus limosus) has been bred in captivity for the first time. This unbelievably groovy-looking character is native to the tropical lowland forests of eastern Panama. Six partner organizations forming the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project have been caring for 65 adult limosa harlequin frogs, including:

  • Figuring out how to arrange rocks in the breeding tank to create the submerged caves like those the frogs prefer in the wild
  • Getting the right highly oxygenated, gently flowing water between 22 and 24 degrees Celsius (71-75 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Recreating the tadpoles' natural food—algal film growing on submerged rocks—by painting petri dishes with a solution of powdered spirulina algae and allowing it to dry

In other words, awesome Mary Poppins babysitting duties.

The project has successfully bred other challenging endangered species, including crowned treefrogs (Anotheca spinosa), horned marsupial frogs (Gastrotheca cornuta), and toad mountain harlequin frogs (A. certus).

"These frogs represent the last hope for their species," says Brian Gratwicke (see him in the the video below), international coordinator for the project and a research biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, one of the six project partners. "This new generation is hugely inspiring to us as we work to conserve and care for this species and others."

The limosa harlequin frog is deemed "Endangered" on the IUCN Red List because: 

[I]ts Extent of Occurrence is less than 5,000 km2 (1,930 square miles), its distribution is severely fragmented, and there is continuing decline in the extent and quality of its forest habitat in Panama.

It's also a victim of the fungal disease, chytridiomycosis, caused by the water-borne pathogen, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd). This worldwide amphibian plague is a real terror. From Amphibiaweb:

Bd may be responsible for the greatest disease-caused loss of biodiversity in recorded history. Over just the past 30 years, Bd has caused the catastrophic decline or extinction (in many cases within a single year) of at least 200 species of frogs, even in pristine, remote habitats. These rapid, unexplained declines have occurred around the world. Recently Bd has been implicated in the unexplained disappearances of Central American salamanders as well. While diseases have previously been associated with population declines and extinctions, chytridiomycosis is the first emerging disease shown to cause the decline or extinction of hundreds of species not otherwise threatened. Currently over 350 amphibian species are known to have been infected by Bd.

Worldwide distribution of Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), the amphibian chytrid fungus
Worldwide distribution of Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), the amphibian chytrid fungus: Credit: Fisher et al (2009); DOI: 10.1146/annurev.micro.091208.073435

It's still up for scientific debate whether the lethal explosion of chytridiomycosis worldwide is a result of:

  1. African frogs being traded around the world for scientific research and pregnancy testing starting in the 20th century
  2. Climate change
  3. Both 

Whatever the ultimate cause(s), nearly a third of Earth's amphibian species are now at risk of extinction. 

The mission of the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project is to rescue amphibian species that are in extreme danger of extinction throughout Panama. They're focused on establishing assurance colonies and developing methodologies to reduce the impact of the amphibian chytrid fungus so that one day captive amphibians may be reintroduced to the wild. Current project partners include Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Houston Zoo, Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and Zoo New England.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.)

A group of young activists is pairing up with a billionaire philanthropist to try to make the Keystone XL pipeline, and climate change, a central issue in the Democratic primary in Massachusetts. 

Tom Steyer, a former hedge fund manager and clean energy evangelist, has spent more than $37 million to pass and defend climate and energy initiatives in California. Now he's forming a super-PAC to spend on the April 30 Democratic primary for the special election to fill Massachusetts' empty Senate seat.

Steyer and young environmentalists are targeting Dem Rep. Steve Lynch for his support of the Keystone XL pipeline. Lynch voted for a House bill last year that called for the Obama administration to approve the controversial pipeline. Lynch's opponent in the primary, Rep. Ed Markey, has the support of a number of environmental groups and opposes the pipeline.

Steyer joined with Craig S. Altemose of the Better Future Project and three other Massachusetts college students to write a open letter to Lynch on Monday demanding he change his position on the pipeline:

Because climate change is such a serious issue, and because it is on the ballot as never before, we are asking you, Congressman Lynch, today to do one of two things by high noon on Friday, March 22. Either act like a real Democrat and oppose Keystone’s dirty energy. Or, get a sworn, binding statement – with securities law enforcement – from TransCanada and the refiners that all of the Keystone-shipped oil will stay here.

If Lynch doesn't change his tune, they wrote, Steyer will then "immediately launch an aggressive public education campaign" against Lynch. In an interview with Mother Jones, Chris Lehane, a spokesman for Steyer, declined to say how much they would spend on such a campaign, but said it would include paid media, get out the vote work, and field campaigns.

Steyer became involved in the Massachusetts race after Altemose and the other young activists reached out. ​Altemose said their effort is "less of an endorsement of Markey and more a repudiation of Lynch's actions." The campaign, he said, is designed to "make sure there's political consequences for disregarding future generations."

"For someone to believe they can represent Massachusetts and be supporting policies that take us backward to the dirty energy past is just mind boggling," Altemose said.

What's it take to get conservatives in Tennessee fired up about blowing up mountains? China, apparently.

On Tuesday, the Tennessee Conservative Union, which bills itself as the state's "largest and oldest conservative group," started running anti-mountaintop removal coal mining ads on television throughout the state. Their complaint? The Chinese company Guizhou Guochuang Energy Holding Group announced last year that it is acquiring Triple H Coal Mining, which does mountaintop removal. The Tennessee Conservative Union ad warns that they will become "the first state in our great nation to permit the red Chinese to destroy our mountains and take our coal."

"We're proud that Tennessee is a red state," the ad concludes. "But just how red are we willing to go?"

The ad comes off as anti-China, but it also offers a critique of mountaintop removal coal mining in general, which is the big news here. The ad comes just a day before committees in both the state Senate and House are expected to vote on the Scenic Vistas Protection Act, a bill activists have been trying to get passed in the state for six years. The measure would make it illegal to blow up mountaintops to mine coal. Supporters are taking TCU's support for the bill as a sign that it might gain more traction this year.

"The Tennessee Conservative Union is 100% pro-Coal, but our organization does not support destroying our mountain heritage," TCU Chairman Lloyd Daugherty said in a statement Tuesday. "Mountaintop removal mining kills jobs because it takes fewer workers to blow up a mountain."

JW Randolph, Tennessee director of Appalachian Voices, a group that has been working to pass the anti-mountaintop removal law, welcomed the ad. "We don't care if you're from Bristol or Beijing, blowing up the oldest mountains in America for a few tons of coal is a bad idea," he said. 

Here's TCU's ad:

Florida manatees:

A record number of manatees—more than 180, and counting—have died so far this year from a red tide off the southwest Florida coast. These tides are caused by blooms of the alga, Karenia brevis, which produce a suite of neurotoxins (brevetoxins) deadly to fish, sea turtles, birds, and marine mammals. Red tides are harmful to people too, if you breathe enough of the aerosolized toxins or eat enough infected fish or shellfish. Now, from Craig Pittman at the Tampa Bay Times, we learn that a mysterious ailment is killing manatees off Florida's other (east) coast too. There's no red tide bloom underway there and no winter cold snap either:

So far... no sick manatees have been rescued, availing biologists with a live specimen to study for clues. They suspect the manatee deaths may be connected to back-to-back blooms of a [another species of] harmful algae, one that has stained the Indian River Lagoon a chocolate brown. Over the past two years the blooms wiped out some 31,000 acres of sea grass in the 156-mile-long lagoon that stretches along the state's Atlantic coast. Manatees eat sea grass, but with the sea grass gone, they may have turned to less healthful sources of nutrition.

Karenia brevis, as seen through a scanning electron micrograph:
Deadly little plant beasties, Karenia brevis, as seen through a scanning electron micrograph: MyFWC Research at Flickr

The dead manatees on Florida's east coast appear to have gone into shock and drowned after eating algae. Researchers surmise the deaths are related to this abrupt dietary change. Furthermore, Pittman reports, more than 100 brown pelicans have been found dead in that same area since the start of 2013:

"The pelicans were emaciated and full of parasites. So far biologists don't know what killed them or if there could be any connection with the dead manatees."

There's one big difference between the algae blooms on the east and west coasts—and that's what's causing them. The eastern bloom is fueled by nutrient pollution from storm runoff: a Miracle-Gro of fertilizers, sewage, manure, and pet wastes that fuels algae blooms. The cause of the western red tide is more muddled. According to the Mote Marine Laboratory:

In contrast to the many red tide species that are fueled by nutrient pollution associated with urban or agricultural runoff, there is no direct link between nutrient pollution and the frequency or severity of red tides caused by K. brevis. Florida red tides develop 10-40 miles offshore, away from manmade nutrient sources. Red tides occurred in Florida long before human settlement, and severe red tides were observed in the mid-1900s before the state's coastlines were heavily developed. However, once red tides are transported inshore, they are capable of using manmade nutrients for their growth.

NOAA reports that red tides off southwest Florida caused mass die-offs of endangered manatees in 1963, 1982, 1996, 2002, and 2003. ​So these episodes seem to be increasing in frequency. Florida's manatee population is estimated at 4,000 to 5,000 individuals—about half the total world population of the species, according to the IUCN Red List.

Batten down the hatches, East Coasters: A new study argues that for every one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees F) of global warming, the US Atlantic seaboard could see up to seven times as many Katrina-sized hurricanes.

That's the conclusion of Aslak Grinsted, a climatologist at Copenhagen's Niels Bohr Institute, who led an effort to match East Coast storm surge records from the last 90 years with global temperatures. His results, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest that the strongest hurricanes are likely to become more commonplace with only half the level of warming currently projected by scientists.

Red represents hurricane projections with one degree (C) global warming; blue represents no warming. The gap between these lines suggests that a warmer climate will produce more frequent hurricanes; the gap is widest at the top, meaning the biggest increase will be with the biggest storms. Courtesy PNAS

"There is a sensitivity to warming, and it is surprisingly large," Grinsted said.

The study compiled storm surge measurements from tide gauges at six locations on the East and Gulf Coasts, filtering out the effects of seasonal cycles, daily tides, and overall sea level rise to isolate the impact of storms. Next, these records were stacked against both global temperatures and a series of other climatic factors, like natural water temperature cycles and regional rainfall. The result? Global temperatures turned out to be one of the best predictors for hurricane activity. Using computer models, Grinsted found that a one-degree (C) rise in global temperatures could multiply extreme hurricane frequency by two to seven times.

When it comes to extreme weather, hurricanes are among the most costly events—and also among the least understood. Most of our understanding of the link between hurricanes and climate change traces to a research paper released in 2010 that argued that hurricanes worldwide could become up to eleven percent more intense by 2100; Grinsted's research adds the wrinkle that the biggest storms, in addition to becoming bigger, are likely to happen more often. That is, in the US: Grinsted said exact projections would likely differ for other coastlines across the world.

On Friday, President Obama announced plans for a $2 billion research initiative for clean energy technology.

Here's how the White House described it:

Over 10 years, the Energy Security Trust will provide $2 billion for critical, cutting-edge research focused on developing cost-effective transportation alternatives. The funding will be provided by revenues from federal oil and gas development, and will not add any additional costs to the federal budget. The investments will support research into a range of technologies – things like advanced vehicles that run on electricity, homegrown biofuels, and domestically produced natural gas. It will also help fund a small number of real-world experiments that try different transportation techniques in cities and towns around the country using advanced vehicles at scale.

Obama first called for an Energy Trust Fund in his State of the Union address last month. Under his plan, the $2 billion would come from royalties for federal oil and gas leases. The proposal asks Congress to include this in their 2014 budget.

This is today's second bit of good news for environmental advocates. The administration is also expected to announce that it is directing all agencies to take emissions into account when approving new projects, which includes highways, pipelines, and drilling plans. The guidance is expected to direct agencies to consider climate when they make assessments under the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act. The law was passed to look at more direct environmental risks, like the potential for oil spills or the destruction of habitat, but the White House Council on Environmental Quality is expected to tell the agencies to look at the potential impact on emissions now, too.

UPDATE: Well, perhaps we should have known this was a little too good to be true for a Friday. The Washington Post is reporting that the Obama administration plans to revise rules on emissions from new power plants it released last year, which would likely delay their implementation. 

The discussions center on the first-ever greenhouse gas regulations for power plants, which were proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency nearly a year ago. Rewriting the proposal would significantly delay any action, and might allow the agency to set a separate standard for coal-fired power plants, which are roughly twice as polluting as those fueled by natural gas.
While the move could bolster the administration’s legal justification for regulating power plants’ carbon emissions, any retreat on the rules would be a blow to environmental groups and their supporters, who constituted a crucial voting block for President Obama and other Democrats in last year's elections.

In North Carolina, legislators are working to undo the progress their state has made on renewable energy.

Back in 2007, it was the first southern state to pass a renewable energy mandate. The law requires investor-owned utilities to draw 12.5 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2021. But House bill 298, introduced on Wednesday, would end that mandate altogether.

Let's just savor, for a minute, this nugget about the bill's sponsor, from the Charlotte Observer:

The bill’s leading sponsor, Republican Rep. Mike Hager, is a former Duke Energy engineer who has repeatedly said that energy sources for generating electricity should be chosen on a least-cost basis rather than being selected by government policy. The leading nonrenewable options are natural gas, coal and nuclear.
"I don’t think you should be subsidizing businesses into longevity," Hager said. “I’ve had one or two tell me they’ll never get off subsidies. I’ll pay for them, my children will pay for them and my grandchildren will pay for them.”

Duke Energy, may I remind you, is the largest utility in the country, one that has received millions and millions in subsidies for fossil fuels over the years.

Greenpeace's Connor Gibson points out that Hager's bill resembles the "Electricity Freedom Act," a piece of model legislation rolling back renewable energy mandates promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, the well-known public policy group uniting conservative lawmakers and corporate interests. Yes, Hager has a history of involvement with the organization.

Under its current law, the state has added clean energy-related jobs. Environmental Entrepreneurs, a program of the Natural Resources Defense Council, released a report recently finding that North Carolina announced more new clean energy and transportation projects than any other state in 2012. NRDC reports these projects were set to create 10,867 new jobs—more than in anywhere else besides California.

A bat with white-nose syndrome.

This story first appeared on Scientific American's Extinction Countdown blog.

A dead tri-colored bat (Perimyotis subflavus) found at Table Rock State Park in South Carolina has tested positive for Geomyces destructans, the deadly and mysterious fungus that has killed millions of bats since it was first observed in February 2006. The fungus has now been found in 22 US states and five Canadian provinces.

When visible, G. destructans manifests as a fuzzy white patch on bats' noses, wings and other hairless parts of their body, a condition that yielded the name white-nose syndrome (WNS). Scientists do not yet know if the fungus itself is killing the bats or if it is just a symptom of whatever else is causing the deaths. What we do know is that bat populations that contract the fungus have a 70 to 100 percent mortality rate. There is no known cure or treatment. The fungus thrives only in cold conditions, so WNS appears to threaten only hibernating bats at this time.

Here's where the disease has been found:

Bats have tested positive for white-nose syndrome in 22 eastern states.

"The news that white-nose syndrome has been confirmed in South Carolina is devastating for these very important mammals," Mary Bunch, wildlife biologist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DNR), said in a prepared release. "We will continue to work closely with our partners to understand the spread of this deadly disease and to help minimize its impacts to affected bat species."

The loss of North American bats could lead to agricultural losses of more than $3.7 billion per year.

According to the South Carolina state agency, the tri-colored bat colony in Table Rock State Park lives in an isolated region where the general public can’t reach them, so there is no threat of human contact. Some scientists fear that people may be transmitting the fungus from cave to cave, although its most obvious transmission path is bat to bat.

Other bat species living in South Carolina that could become exposed to WNS include the big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus), little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus), Eastern small-footed bat (M. leibii), Northern long-eared bat (Nyctophilus arnhemensis) and Southeastern bat (M. austroriparius). None of these species are currently listed as endangered, but we have already seen bat populations across the northeast plummet due to WNS, so this is a bad sign for all of South Carolina's bats.

Bats have an important role in regulating insect populations, a function that is vital to successful agriculture. A recent study found that the loss of North American bats could lead to agricultural losses of more than $3.7 billion per year.

Clockwise from top left: Whitehouse, Blumenauer, Waxman, Schatz

It's been a few years now since Representatives Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) led an ambitious but doomed charge to get a carbon-pricing bill through Congress.

But in the wake of President Obama's climate-centric State of the Union and Inaugural addresses, a growing number of Democratic lawmakers are grinding out bills that would make polluters pay for their greenhouse gas emissions. Last month, Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) announced plans to introduce a bill this spring to place a $20-per-ton tax on CO2, a move they argue could raise $1.2 trillion over the next decade. And today, Rep. Waxman, along with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), and Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), hopped on the bandwagon with their own draft carbon-pricing scheme. Waxman's legislation hasn't been formally introduced into Congress, but is open for public feedback until April 12.

The two bills both aim to confront climate change by harnessing the power of the free market, a spokesperson for Rep. Waxman said, but offer different mechanisms for doing so. The Waxman bill would target power plants, for example, while the Boxer bill would focus on "upstream" emitters like coal mines and oil refineries. But both bills are likely to undergo tweaks before being officially introduced.

The as-yet-unnamed Waxman bill would require the EPA and Treasury Department to collaborate on assessing how much big polluters are emitting, and levying an appropriate fee.

The exact price per ton of carbon pollution is still an open question (the lawmakers are seeking public input on this and other issues), but the draft bill purports to be based on the principle that "all revenue generated by the carbon pollution fee should be returned the American people." Options for this could include using the money to lower the federal deficit, or helping the public shoulder higher energy costs.

Franz Matzner, a government affairs analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said despite the bad track record for past bills like this, now isn't the time to be cynical.

"Waxman and the others have done exactly the right thing in putting this bill out," he said, "and reminding Congress that there's important work to be done on their end for climate change."