Blue Marble

The FDA Has Some Bad News About Your Kind Bars

| Tue Apr. 14, 2015 2:41 PM EDT

Depressing news for all you Kind bar fans: The popular nut and fruit snack, which bills itself as a "healthy and tasty" treat, is actually kind of not healthy at all.

According to a letter from the Food and Drug Administration to the makers of Kind, the bars "do not meet the requirements for use of the nutrient content claim 'healthy’ on a food label" under the law.

"Your website states, 'There’s healthy. There’s tasty. Then there’s healthy and tasty' and 'all of our snacks are pretty much the nirvana of healthful tastiness.' In addition, your webpage for the Kind Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate + Protein product states 'KIND Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate + Protein is a healthy and satisfying blend of peanuts and antioxidant-rich dark chocolate.' However, none of your products listed above meet the requirements for use of the nutrient content claim 'healthy' that are set forth in 21 CFR 101.65(d)(2)."

The FDA said the bars have too much saturated fat to justify the term "healthy," and also don't measure up to their "antioxidant-rich" claim. Bloomberg reports Kind is "moving quickly to comply" to edit its labels.

More disappointment for people who thought cheerfully labeled snacks and drinks (a la Vitamin Water) could actually make them fitter.

(h/t Bloomberg)

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Marco Rubio Used to Believe in Climate Science. Now He's Running for President.

| Mon Apr. 13, 2015 6:15 AM EDT

When the Florida state Legislature opened its 2007 session, Speaker Marco Rubio, a Miami Republican, took the stage to lay out his priorities for the year. Near the top of his list was a focus on clean energy.

"Global warming, dependence on foreign sources of fuel, and capitalism have come together to create opportunities for us that were unimaginable just a few short years ago," he said, in a video recording unearthed by BuzzFeed. Rubio predicted that legal caps on greenhouse gas emissions were inevitable, and he argued that Florida should prepare to become "an international model of energy efficiency and independence" and the "Silicon Valley" of clean energy.

Several years later, as a junior senator offering his party's rebuttal to President Barack Obama's 2013 State of the Union address, Rubio was singing a different tune. Solar and wind energy "should be a part of our energy portfolio," he said, but the United States should focus its efforts on extracting coal, oil, and natural gas "instead of wasting more money on so-called clean-energy companies like Solyndra." (Solyndra was a solar power company in California that failed spectacularly in 2011 after receiving a $500 million grant from the Obama administration. Republicans seized on it as a textbook case of the president's foolhardy energy agenda, but in reality the company was just badly managed.)

Rubio's comments since then have been more consistent: He argues that government policies to limit emissions are pointless in the face of rising pollution from developing countries. And, he says, such policies are certain to be "devastating" to the US economy.

He also rejects the notion that scientists are in agreement about the role humans have played in causing global warming. "I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it," he told ABC News last May.

On Monday, Rubio is expected to announce his candidacy for president. Check out the video above for a look back at his thoughts on climate change.

This story has been revised.

The Drought Is Behind California's Skyrocketing West Nile Virus Numbers

| Mon Apr. 13, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

California's drought isn't bad news for everyone: turns out West Nile Virus has been thriving in the state's parched climate. The California Department of Public Health announced last week that in 2014 it recorded the most cases of the potentially deadly mosquito-borne illness since it first showed up in the Golden State more than a decade ago. The CDPH tallied 801 diagnoses, including 31 deaths—the most ever in California.

Another State Agency Just Banned the Words "Climate Change"

| Wed Apr. 8, 2015 3:45 PM EDT
Madison, Wisc.

The climate change language police just struck again.

Last month it was in Florida, where former staffers with the state's Department of Environmental Protection alleged that senior officials, under the direction of Gov. Rick Scott (R), had instituted an unwritten ban on using the phrases "climate change" and "global warming." Scott denied the claim.

This week's incident is much less ambiguous. Yesterday, the three-person commission that oversees a public land trust in Wisconsin voted 2-1 to block the trust's dozen public employees "from engaging in global warming or climate change work while on BCPL time."

In proposing and voting on the ban, the commission "spent 19 minutes and 29 seconds talking about talking about climate change," according to Bloomberg:

The move to ban an issue leaves staff at the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands in the unusual position of not being able to speak about how climate change might affect lands it oversees…

The Midwest warmed about 1.5F on average from 1895 to 2012. Pine, maple, birch, spruce, fir, aspen, and beech forests, which are common in the region, are likely to decline as the century progresses, according to the latest US National Climate Assessment.

The ban was proposed by newly elected State Treasurer Matt Adamczyk, a Republican who ran on the unusual campaign promise to swiftly eliminate his own job. At a public meeting on Tuesday, according to Bloomberg, Adamczyk said he was disturbed to learn that the agency's director, Tia Nelson, had spent some time co-chairing a global warming task force in 2007-08 at the request of former governor Jim Doyle (D). Dealing with climate issues—even responding to emails on the subject—isn't in the agency's wheelhouse, he said. Adamczyk didn't immediately return our request for comment.

Adamczyk was joined in voting for the ban by State Attorney General Brad Schimel (R), also newly-elected. Schimel is handling Gov. Scott Walker's lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency over President Barack Obama's new climate regulations. The ban was opposed by the commission's third member, Secretary of State Bob La Follette, a Democrat.

Do Your State's Hospitals Serve Big Macs?

| Mon Apr. 6, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Would you like fries with your hospital stay? If so, you're in luck: Many hospitals house fast-food restaurants. Some even offer delivery to patient rooms. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) isn't wild about this phenomenon and made this map, which shows the US hospitals with fast-food chains inside them:

Image by Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine

Of the 208 hospitals—most of them public—that PCRM investigated in its report, 43 had fast-food chains inside, mostly McDonald's, Wendy's, and Chick-Fil-A. PCRM staff dietitian Cameron Wells told me that some of the fast-food joints have contracts that require them to give a certain percentage of their profits to their hospitals, "meaning the more unhealthful food the restaurant sells to patients and their families, the richer the hospital gets," she said. 

Six of the fast-food-serving facilities in the report were children's hospitals. One of those, Children's Hospital of Georgia, offers delivery service from McDonald's straight to patients' beds. "Seeing this in a children's hospital—that's the most vulnerable population," Wells says. "Fast food is not going to help children get better."

For the First Time, California Is Enforcing Water Restrictions

| Wed Apr. 1, 2015 2:48 PM EDT

Today, California Governor Jerry Brown announced mandatory water restrictions for the first time in the state's history. The announcement follows a drought of more than three years, which has officials worrying that Californians may have only one year of drinking water left.

The regulations require California cities to decrease water use by 25 percent, though, crucially, only requires agricultural users to report their water use and submit drought management plans. Agriculture accounts for about 80 percent of California's water usage. (For more drought background, check out our past coverage on agricultural water use—almonds are the biggest suck—and municipal water use.)

From the press release:

The following is a summary of the executive order issued by the Governor today.

Save Water

For the first time in state history, the Governor has directed the State Water Resources Control Board to implement mandatory water reductions in cities and towns across California to reduce water usage by 25 percent. This savings amounts to approximately 1.5 million acre-feet of water over the next nine months, or nearly as much as is currently in Lake Oroville.

To save more water now, the order will also:

Replace 50 million square feet of lawns throughout the state with drought tolerant landscaping in partnership with local governments;
Direct the creation of a temporary, statewide consumer rebate program to replace old appliances with more water and energy efficient models; Require campuses, golf courses, cemeteries and other large landscapes to make significant cuts in water use; and
Prohibit new homes and developments from irrigating with potable water unless water-efficient drip irrigation systems are used, and ban watering of ornamental grass on public street medians.

Increase Enforcement

The Governor’s order calls on local water agencies to adjust their rate structures to implement conservation pricing, recognized as an effective way to realize water reductions and discourage water waste.

Agricultural water users – which have borne much of the brunt of the drought to date, with hundreds of thousands of fallowed acres, significantly reduced water allocations and thousands of farmworkers laid off – will be required to report more water use information to state regulators, increasing the state's ability to enforce against illegal diversions and waste and unreasonable use of water under today’s order. Additionally, the Governor’s action strengthens standards for Agricultural Water Management Plans submitted by large agriculture water districts and requires small agriculture water districts to develop similar plans. These plans will help ensure that agricultural communities are prepared in case the drought extends into 2016.

Additional actions required by the order include:

Taking action against water agencies in depleted groundwater basins that have not shared data on their groundwater supplies with the state;
Updating standards for toilets and faucets and outdoor landscaping in residential communities and taking action against communities that ignore these standards; and
Making permanent monthly reporting of water usage, conservation and enforcement actions by local water suppliers.

 

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Why Leftover Pasta Might Be Healthier Than Fresh

| Wed Apr. 1, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Last week, lovers of rice rejoiced when the Washington Post reported on a simple trick to improve the nutritional value of the food. According to researchers in Sri Lanka, all you have to do is add a fat (they used coconut oil) to the cooking water, cool your rice over night, and voilà!—up to to 50 percent of the calories (a cup of rice contains about 200 when cooked conventionally) are gone.

It works by converting the white rice—which made mostly of digestible starch—into one that is indigestible, or "resistant," meaning that it's eventually excreted instead of metabolized by our bodies. The researchers found that adding fat and then allowing the rice to cool changed the composition even after the rice was reheated.

With diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and obesity rates rising around the world, this simple tweak to a dietary staple for billions could be a major boon to public health. And it's just one example of how chemistry can be put to work in the kitchen. Here are five more ways to improve foods' nutritional content through cooking:

The study participants who had the reheated pasta instead of fresh reduced spikes in blood sugar by 50 percent.

1. Use the heating/cooling method on other carbs too: The BBC reported last year that pasta might be healthier when eaten as leftovers. Researchers from the University of Surrey found that eating cold pasta resulted in smaller spikes in glucose than eating freshly cooked pasta. These results were even more pronounced when the pasta was reheated: The study participants who had the reheated pasta instead of fresh reduced spikes in blood sugar by 50 percent. A previous study in 2009 also showed that freshly cooked legumes, cereals, and tubers had significantly higher levels of resistant starch after multiple cycles of heating and cooling. The resistant starch in peas, which had the most dramatic change, increased by 115 percent. Resistant starch consumption has been linked to improvements in gut functioning, insulin sensitivity, increased satiety, and even decrease in fat accumulation.

2. Turn down the heat: Chances are you are already well aware that fried foods aren't doing good things for your health. But according to the FDA the downsides of frying aren't just calories and fat—the high temperature is a problem too. When certain foods are subjected to high temperatures (anything above 248 degrees Fahrenheit), one byproduct is a compound called acrylamide, a possible carcinogen that also has been linked to nerve damage at high levels. French fries and potato chips have high amounts of acrylamide, but the chemical is also produced in many home-cooked foods including toast, potatoes, and even coffee. To mitigate your exposure, soak potatoes in water for more than 30 minutes before cooking, don't over-brown your bread, and refrain from frying your food. Dark-roast coffee may have less acrylamide than light, an FDA report suggests.

3. Don't forgo frozen: Fruits and vegetables found in the freezer aisle can sometimes be more nutritious than fresh ones on the shelf. As my colleague Kiera Butler reported last year, before being frozen, produce undergoes a process called blanching that stops the enzymes that would otherwise cause the vegetables to lose color, texture, and nutrients. Because this process happens soon after harvest, frozen vegetables sometimes retain more fiber, vitamins, and minerals than the fresh ones that have to travel to the grocery store. Blanching might also make certain vitamins more digestible.

4. Marinade meats: Meat marinades do more than enhance flavor and texture—they prevent the formation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are dangerous chemicals created when meats are cooked at high temperatures. These compounds have been linked to cancer and reproductive problems. While there are noted benefits from marinades with lemon juice or vinegar, a study published last year in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that when you marinade meat with beer, the carcinogenic potency is greatly reduced. Black beer had the best results, reducing PAHs found in pork by 53 percent.

5. Use your microwave: Yes, that's right—the microwave has been redeemed. Because it cooks food quickly without exposing it to high levels of heat, the microwave can preserve nutrients when cooking vegetables. A 2003 study by Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University showed that, compared to boiling, microwaving retained more water-soluble vitamins in turnip greens, and another done in 2008 by the University of Tsukuba in Japan found that the microwave was one of the best cooking options for preserving antioxidants in peppers. Researchers also found that chemicals called glucosinolates—which may fight cancer—actually increased after red cabbages were microwaved. The American Institute for Cancer Research also recommends precooking meat in the microwave before putting it on the grill to reduce the cancer-causing HCAs and PAHs mentioned above.

Here's What President Obama Just Promised the World in the Fight Against Climate Change

| Tue Mar. 31, 2015 11:26 AM EDT

This morning, hours ahead of a looming deadline, the United States released its formal submission to the United Nations in preparation for global climate talks that will take place in Paris later this year. Known as an "intended nationally determined contribution," the document gives a basic outline for what US negotiators will pony up for an accord that is meant to replace the aging Kyoto Protocol and establish a new framework for international collaboration in the fight against climate change.

The US submission offered few surprises and essentially reiterated the carbon emission reduction targets that President Barack Obama first announced in a bilateral deal with China in November: 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. The document then gives a rundown of Obama's climate initiatives in order to demonstrate that the US goal is attainable with policies that are already in place or are in the works. Chief among those policies is the Clean Power Plan, which sets tough new limits for carbon emissions from the electricity sector, with the aim to reduce them 30 percent by 2030.

 

With today's announcement, the United States joins a handful of other major polluters, including Mexico and the European Union, in formally articulating its Paris position well in advance. In a series of earlier UN meetings over the fall and winter, negotiators stressed that setting early delivery dates for these pledges was important so that countries will have time to critique each others' contributions in advance of the final summit in December. But although the deadline is today, many other key players—including China, Brazil, Russia, Japan, and India—have yet to make an announcement.

Environmental groups' immediate reactions to the US submission were mostly positive.

"The United States' proposal shows that it is ready to lead by example on the climate crisis," World Resources Institute analyst Jennifer Morgan said in a statement. "This is a serious and achievable commitment."

At least one leading Republican offered an equally predictable rebuttal, according to the Associated Press:

"Considering that two-thirds of the US federal government hasn't even signed off on the Clean Power Plan and 13 states have already pledged to fight it, our international partners should proceed with caution before entering into a binding, unattainable deal," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

The World's Worst Climate Villain Just Showed Us Exactly How to Stop Global Warming

| Tue Mar. 31, 2015 6:30 AM EDT

There was a somewhat surprising announcement this week from a country with one of the world's worst climate reputations: Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott's office declared that his government is committed to signing on to the next major international climate accord, set to be hammered out in Paris later this year.

In a statement, the PM's office said that "a strong and effective global agreement, that addresses carbon leakage and delivers environmental benefit, is in Australia’s national interest."

I have no idea what "carbon leakage" is. Presumably it's something similar to carbon dioxide emissions, which are the leading cause of global warming. (Update: Carbon leakage is "the term often used to describe the situation that may occur if, for reasons of costs related to climate policies, businesses were to transfer production to other countries which have laxer constraints on greenhouse gas emissions," according to the European Commission.) Regardless, the announcement is a welcome sign from an administration that was recently ranked as the "worst industrial country in the world" on climate action.

The Paris summit is meant to elicit strong commitments to reduce carbon pollution from all of the world's leading economies, so it's a good thing Australia is willing to play ball. The country gets 74 percent of its power from coal (that's nearly twice coal's share of US energy generation). Australia has the second-largest carbon footprint per capita of the G20 nations (following Saudi Arabia), according to US government statistics.

Whether or not Australians liked their carbon tax, new data show it absolutely worked to slash carbon emissions.

But let's not get too excited. Although Abbott hasn't yet specified exactly what kind of climate promises he'll bring to the table in Paris, there's good reason to be skeptical. Here's why: In the run-up to the talks, developed countries are keeping a close eye on each others' domestic climate policies as a guage of how serious they each are about confronting the problem. It's a process of collectively raising the bar: If major polluters like the United States show they mean business in the fight against climate change, other countries will be more inclined to follow suit. Of course, the reverse is also true—for example, the revelation that Japan is using climate-designated dollars to finance coal-fired power plants weakens the whole negotiating process. That's one reason why President Barack Obama has been so proactive about initiating major climate policies from within the White House rather than waiting for the GOP-controlled Congress to step up.

So, on that metric, how are Australia's climate policies shaping up? It looks like they're going straight down the gurgler.

Almost a year ago, Australia made a very different kind of climate announcement: It became the world's first country to repeal a price on carbon. Back in 2012, after several years of heated political debate, Australia's parliament had voted to impose a fixed tax on carbon pollution for the country's several hundred worst polluters. The basic idea—as with all carbon-pricing systems, from California to the European Union—is that putting a price on carbon emissions encourages power plants, factories, and other major sources to clean up. Most environmental economists agree that a carbon price would be the fastest way to dramatically slash emissions, and that hypothesis is supported by a number of case studies from around the world—British Columbia is a classic success story. (President Obama backed a national carbon price for the US—in the form of a cap-and-trade system—in 2009, but it was quashed in the Senate.)

In Australia, the carbon tax quickly became unpopular with most voters, who blamed it for high energy prices and the country's sluggish recovery from the 2008 global recession. Abbott rose to power in part based on his pledge to get rid of the law. In July 2014 he succeeded in repealing it.

Now, new data from the Australian Department of the Environment reveal that whether or not you liked the carbon tax, it absolutely worked to slash carbon emissions. And in the first quarter without the tax, emissions jumped for the first time since prior to the global financial crisis.

The new data quantified greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector (which accounts for about a third of total emissions, the largest single share) in the quarter from July to September 2014. As the chart below shows, emissions in that same quarter dropped by about 7.5 percent after the carbon tax was imposed, and jumped 4.7 percent after it was repealed:

oz carbon emissions
Tim McDonnell

It's especially important to note that the jump came in the context of an overall decline in electricity consumption, as Australian climate economist Frank Jotzo explained to the Sydney Morning Herald:

Frank Jotzo, an associate professor at the Australian National University's Crawford School, said electricity demand was falling in the economy, so any rise in emissions from the sector showed how supply was reverting to dirtier energy sources.

"You had a step down in the emission intensity in power stations from the carbon price—and now you have a step back up," Professor Jotzo said.

…[Jotzo] estimated fossil fuel power plants with 4.4 gigawatts of capacity were been taken offline during the carbon tax years. About one third of that total, or 1.5 gigawatts, had since been switched back on.

In other words, we have here a unique case study of what happens when a country bails on climate action. The next question will what all this will mean for the negotiations in Paris.

Scientists Can Predict Your City's Obesity Rate by Analyzing Its Sewage

| Tue Mar. 31, 2015 6:10 AM EDT
The sewage of fat cities like Little Rock and Toledo is easy to distinguish from that of skinny ones like Denver and San Diego.

If someone were to ask you what distinguishes skinny cities from fat ones, you might think of the prevalence of fast-food joints, the average length of automobile commutes, or the relative abundance of parks and jogging trails. But there's also another, more underground factor: their sewage.

Researchers with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee collected raw sewage samples from the intakes of municipal wastewater treatment plants in 71 cities around the country. Their results, published last month in mBio, the American Society for Microbiology's open-access journal, showed that the microbial content of that sewage predicted each city's relative obesity with 81 to 89 percent accuracy.

The finding actually isn't all that surprising, says lead author Ryan Newton, a visiting professor at UWM's School of Freshwater Sciences. Other studies have shown that bacterial imbalances in your intestines can lead to metabolic syndrome, obesity, and diabetes. Newton's study, however, is the first to demonstrate that those microbial differences also play out across entire populations, even after our poop gets flushed, mixed together, and sent through miles of pipes.

The UWM study was enabled by computing advances that have allowed scientists to rapidly sequence microbial populations and look for patterns in the results. Other researchers are using similar techniques to look for correlations between gut bacteria and a wide range of health conditions.

Scientists hope other data derived from sewage could help predict epidemics and track public health trends.

Newton isn't the only scientist who sees sewage as a promising place for data dives. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Underworlds project, which began in January, will study sewage for the presence of viruses such as influenza and polio; bacterial pathogens that cause cholera typhoid fever, and other diseases; and biochemical molecules ranging from antibiotics to illegal drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine. Scientists hope the resulting data could help predict epidemics and track other public health trends within particular neighborhoods. 

As scientists gain a better understanding of the interplay between microbes and human health, they may eventually be able to look at municipal sewage to figure out which communities would be the best to target with public health campaigns designed to, say, get people to eat less sugar or more vegetables.

And just as important, sequencing sewage could eliminate the thorny problem of doing public health surveys. Unlike people, your poop can't lie about what you had to eat.