Alex Jung

Faking Your Way to Good Health

Coca-Cola acquired a new venture this year: VitaminWater. Vitamins + water = all you need, its label declares, suggesting it's a magic bullet for better health. With its playful descriptions and cheeky avoidance of capital letters on its labels, VitaminWater has set the bar for hip beverages -- partially because it's touted as a healthful alternative to regular water and partially because it matches your new iPod shuffle. Furthermore, we are told, the consumer is not just purchasing a beverage, but also a state of being: Do I need some lutein to help me "focus" today? Or maybe I need some glucosamine to help me "balance." The trendy drink is an especially appealing alternative during those hectic days when you didn't have time to eat properly, because drinking VitaminWater is just like eating food -- minus the hassle of chewing.

Coca-Cola bought Glacéau, the maker of VitaminWater for $4.1 billion -- the largest amount the company has ever paid for an acquisition. It has since peddled VitaminWater into the mainstream, expanding its placement in grocery stores and vending machines. The purchase was Coca-Cola's attempt to remain competitive in the cold beverage industry, especially during a time when soda sales are looking to decline for the fourth consecutive year.

Even diet soda can't salvage plummeting profits because, more and more, research is showing that diet soda is no healthier than its calorie-filled counterpart. A study published in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association studied soda drinkers over a period of four years and examined their risk of gaining a metabolic syndrome -- a condition defined by a large waistline, high blood pressure, and an off-kilter glucose and insulin metabolism. Ramachandran Vasan, the lead author of the study said, "We were struck by the fact that it didn't matter whether it was a diet or regular soda ... In those who drink one or more soft drinks daily, there was an association of an increased risk of developing the metabolic syndrome."

Sales of vitamin-enhanced drinks have, in contrast, tripled from 2001 to 2006. Following the trend, more traditional drinks are also receiving an upgrade: Diet Coke Plus will have vitamins and minerals; Dasani (owned by Coca-Cola) will have some fiber; Jones Soda will have energy drinks complete with amino acids.

The obsession with individual vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients seems to be a decidedly American phenomenon -- borne out of an odd union between nutritional science and the processed food industry. What happens is that the former cites certain nutrients as being especially healthful, and the latter then incorporates these discoveries into its products.

In the article "Unhappy meals," published on Jan. 28 in the New York Times Magazine, food philosopher Michael Pollan described the faulty assumption underlying "nutritionism" as the belief that "the key to understanding food is indeed the nutrient." He continues:

"Researchers have long believed ... that a diet high in fruits and vegetables confers some protection against cancer. So naturally they ask, What nutrients in those plant foods are responsible for that effect? One hypothesis is that the antioxidants in fresh produce -- compounds like beta carotene, lycopene, vitamin E, etc. -- are the X factor ... Yet as soon as you remove these useful molecules from the context of the whole foods they're found in, as we've done in creating antioxidant supplements, they don't work at all. Indeed, in the case of beta carotene ingested as a supplement, scientists have discovered that it actually increases the risk of certain cancers. Big oops."

Pollan's broader thesis was not to say that vitamins are insignificant, but rather that the vitamins in food work in far more complex ways than we might imagine -- that the orange may be healthful for more reasons than just having vitamin C. But what inevitably happens when purchasing processed food is a sort of nutritional synecdoche where a certain amount of a vitamin stands in for a food item -- e.g., as much vitamin A as in four spears of asparagus.

Plugging the nutrition-infused drinks, a Washington Post article states that a bottle of VitaminWater's Formula 50 has "as much folic acid as 2 1/2 cups of cooked broccoli." Who needs broccoli anymore? The future of eating has arrived. And it comes in bottle form.

But, for Dr. Sharon Akabas, coordinator of the M.S. Program in Nutrition for Health Professionals at Columbia University, the idea that vitamin-fortified anything has beneficial properties is a bit besides the point. Akabas broke it down in this way: "Why are you choosing the VitaminWater? If you need the vitamins, then you are potentially not eating an adequate diet. And if you're eating an adequate diet, then there is no need for VitaminWater."

So if VitaminWater could never replace a balanced meal, then what are we getting out of it? A bottle of Formula 50 has 32.5 grams of sugar and 125 calories, which doesn't actually make it so different from a regular can of Coca-Cola, which has 39 grams of sugar and 140 calories. As for a side-by-side comparison with tap water, while it might not have vitamin C, tap water also doesn't have any sugar.

Beyond the added glucose, VitaminWater's negative effects may not be physiological as much as psychological. Dr. Akabas describes how fortified drinks could create what she calls the "off the hook phenomenon -- that is, the feeling that one has a false sense of insurance." I can have my cake and drink my VitaminWater too!

In this way, VitaminWater might not be so different than diet soda was from regular soda. Ordering a Diet Coke (or perhaps now, a Diet Coke Plus), with a Quarter Pounder and fries doesn't ease anything other than guilt. Nutrient-laced drinks could potentially go even further in preventing people from adopting healthier eating habits and lifestyle changes by virtue of their ability to "replace" food. More to the point, one requirement for a healthy diet has remained constant: eat more fruits and vegetables. And no amount of vitaminfibersugarwater is going to change that.

But perhaps nothing else better illustrates the food industry's remarkable elasticity to subsume its critics than FruitWater -- a "diet" version of VitaminWater that's lower-calorie and lighter on the sugar. FruitWater's label says:

"Wait, we have a theory ... about diet drinks. Yes, there are no calories but the artificial sweeteners may trick our bodies into craving more sweets. Know someone who says they're addicted to diet ... (you fill in the blank)?

"With that said, we the makers created this naturally and lightly sweetened alternative. It'll help you wean off the sauce.

Now you can just get addicted to something else.

Noose Hung on Door of Black Columbia University Professor

On October 1, students across the country participated in a "We Are All Jena" walkout to protest the charges against the Jena Six and also to demonstrate solidarity against racial inequalities that are far from eradicated, and further more, whose influence extends far beyond the Deep South. The noose, a chilling representation of an overt form of white supremacy, has returned as a specter of something that never actually went away. "We Are All Jena" has an especially eerie significance for the community at Columbia University where yesterday someone hung a noose from the door of Madonna Constantine, a black professor of psychology and education at Teachers College who focused her scholarly work on racial dynamics and cultural competence in counseling psychology.

This hate crime quickly prompted town halls and protests: of the former, two (one of undergraduates and the other of Teachers College students and faculty) occurred the day the news broke, and of the latter, a rally and press conference occurred last night and a protest is planned for today at 2 pm at 120th street.

This hate incident comes on the heels of another where an unknown person vandalized a bathroom stall in the International Affairs Building with the message, "Attention You pinko Commie Motherfuckers and Arab Towelheads: America will wake up one day and Nuke Mecca, Medina, Tehran, Baghdad, Jakarta, and all the savages in Africa. You will all be fucked! America is for White Europeans."

The concern is not just that a hate crime happened, but rather the institutional sluggishness afterwards. While President Bollinger released a statement to the Columbia Spectator he made no such announcement to the university community at large (nor did he respond to the vandalism). Administrators too, were conspicuously absent for the Teachers College meeting yesterday, prompting an student to ask anonymously, "Do we have to wait for a murder ... for us to get the support we need from the faculty?"

Many students also view this hate crime as part of a greater issue. Columbia College junior and member of Students Promoting Empowerment and Knowledge (SPEaK) Desiree Carver-Thomas told the Spectator,"I've been here two years and this [hate] just seems part of the culture and it's an ugly manifestation of the culture here at Columbia. I'm wanting to get at the root of the culture and the problem rather than chasing after every event that happens on campus because that just runs us ragged."

Will New Food Labels Make Americans Thinner?

2005 was the year of the whole grain. While nutritionists and dietitians had long touted the benefits of whole grains, it was food behemoths like General Mills and Kraft that had the financial capabilities of generating national buzz by transforming their classic products into more nutritional edibles. Nutritional fads are nothing new and neither are the reformulations processed foods undergo to cater to them. For example, Trix, that rainbow-hued confection with a sugar-induced white rabbit for a mascot, could now boast wholesome graininess on the side of its box. And while the cereal technically reduced its sugar content, it maintained the same number of calories (as well as a disturbing 13 grams of sugar per 30-gram portion). It was a superficial makeover designed to ease the consciences (but not the waistlines) of consumers.

What we choose to eat is often determined less by a food's nutritional value than by the way that nutritional information is packaged. The consumer watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest submitted a petition last November to the Food and Drug Administration advocating a national system of symbols to adorn packaged foods. The idea is to create an easy cheat sheet for consumers so they don't have to read through the fine print while grocery shopping.

This proposal follows the line of other CSPI projects that include adding calorie counts next to meals at chain restaurants and having higher nutritional standards for the solid and liquid candy sold in school vending machines. Advocating for transparency is difficult to argue against, which is probably why the FDA recently began preliminary meetings with corporations, public health officials, consumer advocacy groups, and others to discuss what a national labeling system would look like. The FDA said, of course, that such a system would be "voluntary" -- meaning, if the companies don't like it, they don't have to use it.

But food conglomerates like General Mills, PepsiCo, Kraft and Kellogg's have already anticipated such a push and begun affixing different symbols of their own on their products. The symbols, always colorful and cheerful, range in terms of usefulness. General Mills has a series of different buttons that resemble Boy Scout badges: a glass of milk for a "good source of calcium," a leaf for a "good source of fiber," a dumbbell for a "good source of iron" and so on. PepsiCo's "Smart Spot" is an exciting check mark awarded to those products that are able to meet one of the following requirements: contain at least 10 percent of a "targeted nutrient" like protein, fiber, calcium, iron, vitamin A, or vitamin C; are reduced in calories or bad things like fat, sodium, or sugar; or fit the ambiguous description: "formulated to have specific wealth or wellness benefits." With the bar so low, one wonders why every product doesn't have a green check next to it.

Kraft's system combines the two: teaming an image of a sun with the words "sensible solution." To earn the distinction of "sensible solution," a food product essentially has to be low in one of the typical food villains: fat, saturated fat, and sodium, or high in the food all-stars: some vitamin, calcium and, of course, whole grains. The philosophy underpinning all of these different logos is the implication that one healthy aspect of a food product negates all potentially harmful ones; the logic also works conversely, where the absence of one or more of these "bad" ingredients suggests that the product as a whole is healthful. The former is whole grain Lucky Charms; the latter is Diet Pepsi.

Kellogg's system is most like the one that the CSPI suggests might be useful for U.S. consumers because it resembles the U.K.'s labeling system. Kellogg's highlights specific components: fat, saturated fat, sodium, sugar and calories, and lists the respective amount per portion and what percentage of the daily value it constitutes. For example, Apple Jacks have 120 calories per portion (six percent of what a person with a 2,000 calorie diet needs), .5 grams of fat (one percent), 150 milligrams of sodium (another one percent), and 15 grams of sugar (with a suspicious* in place of the percentage value). The U.K. system, which includes fat, saturated fats, sugar and salt, is presented the same way but goes a little further by color-coding the components with a green-is-good, orange-is-OK and red-is-bad system -- a bit like the Homeland Security terror alert.

Currently, this privatized system of nutritional branding is a slightly more sophisticated form of the ubiquitous braggadocios -- "94 percent fat free" or "50 percent less sugar" -- that scream across the front of boxes. The shift to more refined marketing tactics reflects the current cultural pulse surrounding food and nutrition: Well over 60 percent of Americans are considered overweight, and the obesity rate is at an all-time high. Americans are dying from what the Center for Disease Control is calling an "epidemic" -- one that we are supposed to believe can be prevented with good consumer choices.

The CSPI petition, though, does not seem to be challenging the notion that obesity is the result of an individual's bad choices, but rather agreeing with it. Its goal is that a national system would create more well-informed consumers. "You could send a child to the store with 20 bucks and say, 'Johnny, you can buy whatever you want as long as it has a green dot -- and you can get one red-dot food," CSPI Director Michael Jacobson told the AP last month. A new labeling system would underscore certain, important aspects of food products, but would neither broaden the choices that consumers have nor eliminate the frequent culprits in processed foods like refined sugars, grains and the ever-present high fructose corn syrup (just check nearly any loaf of bread).

The underlying subtext of the petition was that Americans need to be shifting their diets away from packaged products and toward more fruits, vegetables and home-cooked meals:

"The typical American diet is too high in foods rich in calories, saturated fat, trans fat, salt and added sugars, and too low in fiber- and micronutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, as well as low-fat calcium rich foods."

Furthermore, it adds, "Thousands more lives could be saved if people ate fewer foods rich in saturated fat and more fruits and vegetables."

A red dot would hopefully be the equivalent of a cigarette warning label, only its meaning would be: Eating this product may cause obesity and lead to death. But it's questionable that such a system alone would really propel consumers to buy a celery stick over a package of Hot Pockets. CSPI claims that one of the best nutritional guides came from a supermarket chain called Hannaford in the Northeast. Hannaford instituted a three-star system that avoided the marketing ploys of corporations by taking a more holistic approach to grading a product. So if something had too much sugar, then that would immediately disqualify it from having any stars -- despite the presence of whole grains. According to consumer patterns, the star system has in fact changed the way consumers shop, but only in terms of which processed food consumers choose. Sales among cereals went up or down according to the star rating, but the constant left unchanged by the ratings were fresh fruits and vegetables.

What the CSPI is urging the FDA to create -- essentially more transparency -- should be a given. Still, it is unlikely to be the magic solution to quelling America's obesity problem. In a certain light, giving more information could be a double-edged sword: It could be used to further blame individuals for making "bad" decisions because, if there are red dots all over boxes, then shouldn't consumers know better?

What is largely missing is a holistic look at the economic and nutritional structures in place. Many of the consumers in question about are likely from low-income communities, where fresh and diverse fruits and vegetables are rare. At the crux of the problem is a difference between disseminating more information and creating a situation where better choices could be made. I doubt that consumers would be shocked to see a bag of Lays potato chips sporting a scary red dot. The battle between a carton of Cheez-Its and a peach is unfair at best; behind packaged food is a multibillion dollar industry, where enormous subsidies are used to chemically transform corn and soybeans into snacks and cereals and slick advertising equates those products with gastronomic pleasure. Can a red dot really beat all that?

Is Your Couch Toxic?

American consumers have more to worry about. In addition to the dangers of kids playing with toys coated with lead paint, are couches infused with chemicals that can cause a number of bodily harms -- from cancer to reproductive trouble. Furniture is now on the list of ordinary objects that make the average home a veritable minefield of toxins.

Co-sponsoring organizations Making Our Milk Safe (MOMS) and Friends of the Earth are supporting passage of California's AB-706, which would ban the further use of brominated and chlorinated fire retardants (BFRs and CFRs) often used in furniture. Other safer alternatives exist, and could open the door to Green Chemicals in the future. Over the past 30 years, certain chemicals within the family of toxins were banned, but this merely prompted companies to switch to another type of BFR or CFR. The legislation calls for a ban of these chemicals altogether. The video to the right is part of their Killer Couch campaign to raise awareness regarding this issue.

AB-706 is also better known as the Crystal Golden-Jefferson Furniture Safety and Fire Prevention Act, named in memory of a firefighter who died of non-Hodgkins lymphona, a disease common to firefighters that has been linked to dioxin, a carcinogen that's activated in serious fires.

Sagging Your Pants? Risk a Fine Or Jail Time

Beginning mid-way in September, the law in Mansfield, Louisiana are imposing a city-dress code that prohibits the sagging of pants. Pant-saggers can be fined $150 (plus court costs) or be thrown into jail up to 15 days. Seriously?

The logic of the rule, is "race-blind" and relying on standards of "decency," regardless of the fact that purveyors of the style are black men. In the West Ward of Trenton, Councilwoman Annette Lartigue is drafting an ordinance to fine or enforce community service to curb this national epidemic. She said,

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