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Gut Bacteria, Obesity

In 1977, National Lampoon parodied Scientific American as “Scienterrific American.” I think they were on to something. I’ve written a few posts about whether we should trust scientists, whether scientists can trust each other, etc. Sadly, some scientists will publish what they are paid to publish, and some will publish whatever makes headlines, so they can continue to work. Some of their results are not reproducible, which means they aren’t really doing science. The charitable view is that eventually the scientific method will sort out the scientific from the scienterrific, but a lot of us were ingesting PFOA from Teflon long before we were told that it was a carcinogen.

Recent headlines advised that the FDA had banned sales of many antibacterial soaps, containing any of over a dozen chemicals, because “the risks outweigh the benefits.”

Studies in animals have shown that triclosan and triclocarban can disrupt the normal development of the reproductive system and metabolism, and health experts warn that their effects could be the same in humans. The chemicals were originally used by surgeons to wash their hands before operations, and their use exploded in recent years as manufacturers added them to a variety of products, including mouthwash, laundry detergent, fabrics and baby pacifiers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the chemicals in the urine of three-quarters of Americans.

That New York Times article notes that a trade group, The American Cleaning Institute, opposes the FDA ruling, and claims to have studies that support their opposition. I’m sure they do.

Scientific American (the real one) has posted an excerpt of a book, Let Them Eat Dirt: Saving Your Child from an Oversanitized World, written by two microbiologists: B. Brett Finlay, Ph.D., and Marie-Claire Arrieta, Ph.D.

Finlay and Arrieta point out that while antibiotics have certainly saved many, many of us from dying young from an infectious disease, they have also changed our environment in more subtle ways. Besides the fear about developing unstoppable superbugs, we may be making ourselves susceptible to a raft of non-infectious diseases. One concern is the use of antibiotics in meat, another is the use of antibiotics in early childhood:

While these studies didn’t prove that antibiotics directly cause obesity, the consistency in these correlations, as well as those observed in livestock, prompted scientists to have a closer look. What they found was astonishing. A simple transfer of intestinal bacteria from obese mice into sterile (“germ-free”) mice made these mice obese, too! We’ve heard before that many factors lead to obesity: genetics, high-fat diets, high-carb diets, lack of exercise, etc. But bacteria—really? This raised skepticism among even the biggest fanatics in microbiology, those of us who tend to think that bacteria are the center of our world. However, these types of experiments have been repeated in several different ways and the evidence is very convincing: the presence and absence of certain bacteria early in life helps determine your weight later in life. Even more troubling is the additional research that shows that altering the bacterial communities that inhabit our bodies affects not just weight gain and obesity, but many other chronic diseases in which we previously had no clue that microbes might play a role.

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Genetically-Modified Copyrights

In, Unhealthy Fixation, William Saletan defends GMOs :

I’ve spent much of the past year digging into the evidence. Here’s what I’ve learned. First, it’s true that the issue is complicated. But the deeper you dig, the more fraud you find in the case against GMOs. It’s full of errors, fallacies, misconceptions, misrepresentations, and lies. The people who tell you that Monsanto is hiding the truth are themselves hiding evidence that their own allegations about GMOs are false. They’re counting on you to feel overwhelmed by the science and to accept, as a gut presumption, their message of distrust.

And then he talks up Papayas with viruses, staple crops with Bt and Golden Rice with Vitamin A. Somewhat late in the article, Saletan does admit that the extent to which pesticide-resistant GMOs lead to increased pesticide use is a problem:

Two factors seem to account for the herbicide increase. One is direct: If your crops are engineered to withstand Roundup, you can spray it profusely without killing them. The other factor is indirect: When every farmer sprays Roundup, weeds adapt to a Roundup-saturated world. They evolve to survive. To kill these herbicide-resistant strains, farmers spray more weedkillers. It’s an arms race. …

As weeds evolve to withstand Roundup, farmers are deploying other, more worrisome herbicides. And companies are engineering crops to withstand these herbicides so that farmers can spray them freely.

He also admits that monoculture is a problem, but claims that monoculture is thousands of years old, therefore not GMO’s problem.

Saletan hammers home the point that GMOs are not really a group of like things, therefore shouldn’t be labeled as such. As all pro-GMO astroturfers point out eventually, homo sapiens have been altering the genetics of its plants and animals through selective breeding for centuries. Saletan uses, ‘Genetically-Engineered’ (GE), and that or ‘transgenic’ organisms would be more accurate terminology, but most people use GMO for organisms modified using biotechnology rather than breeding.

In the comments is the interesting theory that anti-GMO activism is a false flag operation intended to discredit those who are actually opponents of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), the TransAtlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), The TransPacific Partnership (TPP) and Big Ag’s tendency to slap a patent or copyright on anything with DNA.

As a recap, ACTA is law in the US, but was rejected in Europe. The proposed TTIP and TPP include much of the same corporation-friendly intellectual property legislation as does ACTA. Seeds have been patented for quite some time, and now GMO seeds are being copyrighted. Patents expire after about twenty years; copyrights are supposedly the life of the author plus fifty or seventy years, but as my former coblogger Jim Marino has noted, valuable copyrights seem to be extended routinely.

GM I dunnO

Suddenly Republican representatives prefer federal oversight to state’s rights.

In, Food fight! Congress, consumers battle over GMOs, McClatchyDC covers Kansas’ Representative Mike Pompeo’s efforts to protect conventional agriculture from state laws that would require them to label GMO products.

So far, three states – Vermont, Connecticut and Maine – have passed mandatory labeling laws for genetically modified food. At least fifteen other states are considering similar regulations.

Pompeo’s “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act” would nix those laws and instead set up a voluntary nationwide labeling system overseen by the federal government.

A lot has been written back and forth about GMOs being safe or not. Less has been written about the safety of the workers handling GMO crops that are doused in pesticides. Even less has been written about the possibility that some pests will eventually become resistant to glyphosate.

For my money, the produce I get from organic producers seems to taste better. It also seems to be better for my teeth, weight and sleep. It costs more, but I consider it a worthwhile investment in my family’s well-being.

Can We Trust Our Scientists?

A few weeks ago while looking at the changes in the latest dietary guidelines, I asked whether we could trust our experts. In his latest post, The View From Outside, John Michael Greer asks a similar question about the  scientific community as a whole:

Within the community of researchers, the conclusions of the moment are, at least in theory, open to constant challenge — but only from within the scientific community.

The general public is not invited to take part in those challenges. Quite the contrary, it’s supposed to treat the latest authoritative pronouncement as truth pure and simple, even when that contradicts the authoritative pronouncements of six months before. …

Especially but not only in those branches of science concerned with medicine, pharmacology, and nutrition, the prostitution of the scientific process by business interests has become an open scandal. When a scientist gets behind a podium and makes a statement about the safety or efficacy of a drug, a medical treatment, or what have you, the first question asked by an ever-increasing number of people outside the scientific community these days is “Who’s paying him?”

Tom Whipple takes energy depletion very seriously. In addition to his briefs for ASPO, Whipple has been posting a series called The Peak Oil Crisis in his hometown paper, the Falls Church News Press. In his latest installment, The Mother of All Black Swans, he once again reports that unlimited energy is the only “way out.”

Coming down the road are a pair of technologies that will produce nearly unlimited amounts of cheap, pollution-free energy, and have the potential to change life-as-we-know-it.

I am talking about the twin technologies of cold fusion and hydrinos, each of which, when widely deployed, will constitute a revolution in the history of mankind fully equivalent to the discovery of fire, the wheel, the agricultural revolution, or the industrial revolution. Both of these technologies are based on turning the hydrogen found in water into virtually unlimited amounts of energy at very low cost and without any harmful pollution. …

So where are these technologies and when can we expect to hear and read about them in the mainstream media, especially if they are getting close to becoming commercial products? The answer to this is simple. Both these technologies are based on science that is beyond that generally accepted by scientific community, especially those who have never looked into the results of the experiments. While those few scientists who have tested and are familiar with the details of these technologies tell us that they are for real, the bulk are waiting for irrefutable proof that they actually produce large amounts of cheap energy before they are willing to accept that our knowledge of nature may not be as complete as we like to think and that some scientific theories may be wrong.

Proponents of Cold Fusion, or Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR) persistently claim that mainstream scientists ignore them, but when mainstream scientists do take the trouble to debunk their claims, LENR enthusiasts have an almost endless list of additional links to supposedly irrefutable evidence that LENR is just around the corner. They also cite oblique indications that NASA or some private firm is funding LENR research as proof that we will all soon be drawing almost free kilowatts of electricity from cold fusion devices in our basements.

Many mainstream scientists are more impressed with controlled ‘hot’ fusion, which has been just around the corner since the H bomb tests, and characterize any doubts about the fusion research at ITER as anti-science. They cite news releases that Lockheed-Martin’s SkunkWorks has a new design for a compact fusion reactor to support their belief that we will all soon be drawing almost free kilowatts of electricity from compact nuclear fusion devices just down the street.

Yet other mainstream scientists still hold forth that some configuration of fission reactor will be inherently safer, cleaner and more efficient than the ones we have built so far. They cite news releases about Thorium-MOX reactors to support their belief that we will all soon be drawing almost free kilowatts of electricity from nuclear fission plants a few miles upwind.

Nuclear power is not the only technology that is supposed to save us, though. When environmentalists express concern about crops of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), some scientists insist that only GMOs promise to produce enough food for the increasing world population. They’ve been promising that for almost as long as the fusion camp.

On ScienceBlogs, Greg Laden linked to an Atheist Radio interview of “GMO expert” Dr Anastasia Bodnar. Laden will also interview Dr Bodnar, but the comments of a plant evolutionary biologist, going by Laurent, echo Greer:

… pro-GMOs advocates are too often a bit naively scientistic in their approach of the issue, and quick and prone to label any less optimistic contender with an anti-science stamp that is just plain unfair. I understand this is because they are not used to meet with “resistance” or “lesser optimism” from people that understand GMO technology correctly, since most of the time this is about stumping onto not-so-knowledgeable tech-deniers. But still.

When I read in your comment that golden rice’s failure has directly its roots from people trying to prevent its production, I really wonder if you’re not dismissive of the fact that part of the issue is also adoption by local producers of the new technology / variety. This step is often overlooked, even though there are strong cultural and economic constraints to change. Hypertechnophiles tend to view real world change as a logical and self fulfilling prophecy, and that’s where they are bound to fail. GMO’s don’t escape this, because some subtleties are not even considered of importance. (And in the golden rice case, rice colour was itself a troubling matter for people that would have benefitted from the product).

Beside, GMO’s will be an important convenience tool for the industry and the potent industrial agriculture occuring in the temperate western world, but one cannot assume that it will take over more complex agricultural spaces, especially in the tropics. We should stop arguing that it will put an end to starvation or local agricultural deficiencies, because their causes are way beyond the rather limited scope of gene-technology and involve many aspects of ecology, economy and culture that are actually far from understood.

GMO’s are an oversold technology, and should reasonnably be put back at their place (important, but not miraculous). First, researchers should be more carefull to not mimicking industry narratives as to how this tech will solve major societal issues. Yes, there’s some interesting potential, but no, we are not exactly filling the full bragged promises.

I remember as a youngie (that’s the previous millenium I realise), private industry breeders took scientists to the field trials for transgenic potatoes supposedly resistant to mildew in my homecountry. And guess what? GMO clones were the only diseased plants. Of course, we then discovered about gene silencing processes. We then discovered about RNA interference. We then discovered about small RNAi and transcriptional dynamics. All this knowledge came out thanks to transgene-tech. But on the other hand, there’s something quite disappointing: the discourse to promote GMO has never changed a iota over the first (and basic) failures, and never had any pro-GMO acknowledged these. Even you, you are saying words I’ve heard about twenty years ago already. To me, an unbalanced immutable narrative is not the sign of healthy or mature discourse.

Same happened when transgenes were not supposed to cross species boundaries, were not supposed to create environment selective for weed or insect resistance or lead to further the need for increased herbicide weed control, were not supposed to break free in human food tracks while supposed to stay in cattle grains and the list is still going on.

Of course, none of these documented events were that bad and catastrophic. But as the list was growing in the previous decades, it should have induced at minima a change in the narrative, so as to adjust to all the potential prescriptive bad luck events that had been correctly predicted by evolutionary biologists.

When you promise gold, people expect gold, not golden rocks. Frankly, while I completely understand how one is exasperated by anti-GMO bad arguments, I cannot despise the “anti”-crowd for thinking transgene tech is sort of a snake-oil. Because it sort of looks like it is.

Which lead to a question worth posing: in times of dire research funding, how much grant monney is diverted from potentially efficient alternatives to fuel biotech only approaches because of its inner narrative of miraculous solution?

I ask that, because it looks like conventional breeding has improved yield potential at a much larger scale, and GMO builds upon a success without acknowledging that part coming from hard blind genetics, taking gratification for a success it doesn’t compare to yet.

Can We Trust Our Experts?

I haven’t had time to read more than the executive summary yet, but in, We’re Fat and Sick and The Broccoli Did It! – which I found on LinkedIn – David Katz MD defends the 2015 Dietary Guidelines and attacks the Nina Teicholz Op Ed I quoted in my previous post:

“That someone with book sales at stake might inveigh against the collective judgment of the diverse members of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is also not much of a big, fat surprise. That the person in question might misconstrue her own, strong opinion for genuine expertise despite lack of relevant training is no big, fat surprise either. …

But that the New York Times would allocate its imprimatur and rarefied real estate to an infomercial masquerading as an Op-Ed is, well, a genuinely big, genuinely fat, and lamentably disappointing surprise. That journalistic standards are complicit in the death of expertise is a sad surprise. Oh, well.”

I suspect Katz and Teicholz primarily disagree about meat, but Katz claims that, as a population, we never really cut back on other fatty foods, either, we just ate around them:

” … the now famous notion that we decreased our intake of dietary fat, or even saturated fat, is mostly belied by national trend data. We actually kept our total fat intake, and saturated fat intake, nearly constant, but diluted it down as a percent of total calories by eating more low-fat junk food. The idea that cutting saturated fat doesn’t foster cardiovascular health is based on the antics of a population that never cut their saturated fat intake in the first place.”

But while he lauds the work of the current committee, Katz doesn’t address why the Dietary Guidelines established by previous committees had to be changed so radically:

” … they also chose to remove guidance against dietary cholesterol. This appears to be at odds with the gist of the report, but that’s the beauty of it. The committee members looked at a vast array of evidence, and did the hard work of research: considering conclusions they didn’t necessary hold at the start. …”

Teicholz probably has an agenda, but I do have to wonder if these guidelines are any more reliable than the last ones. The committee scientists may not work for the government, but they are probably not independently wealthy, either.

Do you want Slime with that?

Seems like I can’t go to the grocery store without spending sixty bucks. A multitude of media outlets are reporting that meat, fish, poultry, and egg prices are up seven or eight percent, but it is even worse if you are buying non-processed, ethically-produced, organic foods. My wife, my stepson and I feel much better since making that switch, and so far it is paying off in fewer visits to the doctors and pharmacies. Her irritable bowel syndrome and high blood pressure have vanished. My weight has plummeted. He has more serious issues, but is feeling better.

Can we afford to keep eating this way when I retire? Can we afford not to? Yesterday morning I heard, ‘Pink Slime’ Is Making A Comeback. Do You Have A Beef With That? on NPR:

A much-maligned beef product that was once frequently added to hamburger is making a comeback. Two years ago, beef processors cut back sharply on producing what they call “lean, finely textured beef” after the nasty nickname for it, “pink slime,” caught on in the media. …

“Ultimately what happened is consumers contacted retailers. So by the end of March 2012, Cargill’s finely textured beef had incurred an 80 percent decrease in volume. We ultimately were forced to close down two of the production sites out of the five we had operating that produced finely textured beef,” [Cargill spokesman Mike Martin] says. …

But now, Cargill says, sales of the product are up as beef prices are rising. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says in 2010, the cost of ground beef averaged $2.25 a pound. Now it’s nearly $4 a pound. So grocery stores and food processors, like the makers of lasagna and pasta sauce, are buying more ground beef with the cheaper beef product mixed in. …

Yecch. I like the odd bit of meat, but I see a more affordable, vegan diet in my future. Thanks to my stepson’s green thumb, we are already growing some vegetables, and have started a few apple trees.

Diet Soda Empire Strikes Back

Over the last year, many media outlets have been reporting a decline in soda sales, particularly diet soda sales. In January, the NY Times posted The Quest for a Natural Sugar Substitute, which is largely about the beverage industry trying stevia instead of aspartame to sweeten diet sodas.

In April, Forbes wrote that stevia’s aftertaste wasn’t selling, and suggested the better pitch might be still, or non-carbonated, beverages like teas:

… volumes declined by 3.2% year-over-year to less than 13 billion gallons last year, primarily due to a slide in diet drink sales. … Consumers have been shifting to natural and healthier beverages with less sugar and calorie content due to the health risks associated with sugary drinks. The diet counterparts have fared even worse, with the artificial sweetener aspartame being criticized for causing sugar cravings, dehydration, weight gain and even heart diseases. Health and wellness concerns have further caused a 7% decline in diet soda consumption in the domestic market in the first quarter. Consumers have also reported bitter aftertastes of diet drinks which use the natural sweetener stevia, initially considered a bankable solution. …

More recently, the industry has turned to science – sort of. The American Beverage Association funded a study, which purports to show that diet soda is better for weight loss than soda. That study was published in a journal called Obesity, and has been widely reported regurgitated by media such as the NY Times Well blog, CNN and probably your local news. At the Well, many commenters reject the study because of who funded it, while other supposedly unpaid commenters implore us to accept the study as proven science, writing, “Conspiracy theories abound but the simple truth is that non-caloric sweeteners are useful, safe and tasty. Time to move on.

Nothing to see here, folks. Keep buying diet soda. Pleeease!

Medical News Today offers a more critical look, starting with the headline, Industry-funded study implies diet soda is ‘superior to water for weight loss’:

The new study included 303 overweight participants, all of whom were taking part in a weight loss and exercise program and all of whom were regular consumers of diet drinks. Randomized into two groups, one group was instructed not to consume any diet drinks and to drink at least 24 oz of water daily during the study period. The other group could continue to drink diet sodas.

After 12 weeks, … those in the diet drink group had lost 14.2 lb on average. … about 4 lb more than the people in the group instructed to drink mostly water …

Did both groups do the same exercises? What else did they eat? Did both groups lose inches? Did both groups add muscle mass? Did both groups keep the weight off? We are not being told much beyond the one stat about weight loss.

But … researchers themselves confess … that because of the design of the study they are unable to identify the mechanism for the greater weight loss in the diet soda group. … the study does not detail what the non-diet drink group consumed, beyond water.

The study does not provide detailed information on what – in addition to water – the control group consumed in lieu of diet drinks. As these participants were regular soda drinkers, it could be that they replaced their diet soda intake with other sweetened drinks, in addition to the water they were asked to drink.