Friday, March 24, 2017

EpiPens And Pharma Bros Are No Accident: How Government Colludes In Big Pharma’s Chicanery

EpiPens And Pharma Bros Are No Accident: How Government Colludes In Big Pharma’s Chicanery
By Kurtis Bright

The Free Market Isn't Really Free: How Big Government And Big Pharma Are in Bed Together

When controversies occur like the disgusting and absurd EpiPen price hike of 600 percent last year, the coverage follows a common pattern: we (led by the media) cycle quickly from horror, to outrage, to disgust, to shrugging our shoulders and moving on to the latest celebrity scandal in quick succession.

Somewhere in the mix, toward the end of the cycle, some corporate talking head or another on some finance program will utter some insightful nugget along the lines of, “Well, that’s capitalism for you. Nothing to be done.”

There’s nothing to see here folks. It’s just the invisible hand of the free market at work. Move along now.

The thing is, that isn’t really true. Things like this don’t happen in a vacuum; there are no accidents, not anymore. Events like these, as can be easily demonstrated, are the end product of years if not decades of meticulous planning, carefully nurtured relationships with elected leaders, and the shameless cultivating of regulators--who often hail from the ranks of the Big Pharma companies in the first place.

And let’s be very clear here: Big Pharma spends big bucks on lobbying not out of a starry-eyed love and admiration for our electoral system and the octogenarian rock stars peopled therein, but rather in order to get laws crafted just the way they want them to be. All together, pharmaceutical companies have spent nearly a billion dollars, about $880 million on lobbying congress over the last decade. That’s more than eight times what the gun lobby has spent over the same time frame.

And when it comes to one of the great health-related tragedies of our times, the opioid crisis, the lobby promoting the approval, sale and use of the drugs has spent 200 times more than have groups calling for stricter prescription guidelines for the drugs. Even seemingly common-sense efforts to slow the tidal wave of the opioid scourge--for instance a New Mexico bill that would have limited initial opioid prescriptions for pain to seven days--have been bitterly fought by companies like Purdue Pharma, makers of Oxycontin.

And consider the case of Mylan, the now-notorious company behind the EpiPen and its appalling price-hike: that company’s deep connections to government read like a how-to guide to crony capitalism. After purchasing another company that created the EpiPen design, Mylan refined it and patented it, swatting down a series of other companies who sought to create their own version via a series of FDA interventions.

The fact that the company’s CEO Heather Bresch is the daughter of West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin didn’t hurt the company’s prospects one bit. Nor did it stand in the way of the company’s efforts to get laws passed that required EpiPens to be stocked in every school in the country. Conveniently, these supplies have to be replaced every year, and of course Mylan is the sole company licensed to make them, thus creating an unbelievable and constant revenue stream for the company.

Yet another way Big Pharma manages to tilt the playing field in its favor is through patents. By taking a successful drug and tweaking the formula slightly when its exclusive status is nearing an end, they are able to buy themselves another five to seven years as exclusive manufacturers, with no competition from generic versions available. And regulators--who are often on the boards of Big Pharma companies themselves, or who are former employees--are often the people responsible for granting these renewed patents. Thus another never-ending revenue stream is created.

So next time you hear someone say, “Oh it just how the free market works” in response to the latest Big Pharma scandal--and there will be another and another soon enough--perhaps take a moment to explain to them the difference between cronyism and capitalism. The free market isn’t really free.

At least in pharmaceuticals--everybody pays and the fat cats atop the Big Pharma pyramid get fatter along with their lapdogs in Congress and the regulatory agencies.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Those Bright Oranges and Neon Pink Salmon Are Not What They Seem

More and Less Than Meets The Eye: Those Bright Oranges And Pink Salmon Are Not What They Seem
By Kurtis Bright

Tricks of the Food Trade: From Oranges to Chicken to Salmon, How Food Manufacturers Are Fooling You

If you needed any more proof that food manufacturers don’t want us to know what they’re putting in their products--that is, into our food--the ugliness over Vermont’s failed GMO labeling bill should tell you all you need to know.

Just when it seemed like the White Hats in Bernie Sanders country were going to succeed in taking control of GMO labeling so their citizens could know what they were eating, the bill was scuttled. Big grocery manufacturers and Big Agriculture went crying to their lackeys in Congress and got a new version of the DARK Act passed--so dubbed by opponents as the Denying Americans the Right to Know Act--a bill that actually prevents states from passing labeling laws. (Here's a good explanation of what the SAFE Act--its official name--entails, despite the article having been written before passage.)

So they’ve got secrets. Indeed, never before has an industry fought so hard to obscure its actual product and keep it hidden; selling GMOs requires a weird jujutsu that is essentially the opposite of advertising.

But as with anyone who has secrets and is trying to fool you, its good to know what they are, even if you don’t know exactly what they are hiding. But with these GMO guys there are some things we do know, some tricks of their trade that you can look out for when you’re shopping. Here are a few examples.

  • Neon pink salmon - That neon bright pink-orange color you often find in the salmon at the fish counter in your grocery store is usually not natural. Wild-caught salmon has a healthy pinkish red hue, due to the krill they eat. However, since farmed salmon eat chemical-laden food pellets and never encounter krill in at any point in their short, miserable lives crammed into off-shore pens by the thousands, their color would normally be a dull gray. But as any parent of a toddler knows, bright colors catch the eye. Shoppers unfortunately have been conditioned to expect that unnaturally bright pink-orange color in salmon. Thus, fish farms give the animals pigment pellets to give their meat that color. The practice is so ingrained that food pellet manufacturers have swatches of pinks and oranges and reds for industrial salmon farmers to choose from when ordering their fish feed.
    Pick your poison: It's called a Salmo-Fan and it is appalling. 
  • Oranges that are too orange - Have you ever wondered how those oranges you see in northern stores in winter can possibly all come with such a uniformly bright, vivid color? Well, if you know anything about the trickery of food manufacturers, it is of course no mystery: many Florida oranges are treated with a dye called Citrus Red No. 2 early on in the season to give them a brighter color. Of course, being firmly in the pocket of Big Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration has approved its use. However, despite this, you should know that the Center for Science in the Public Interest has issued multiple warnings over the dye. The non-profit group cites studies demonstrating that the dye can cause cancer in lab animals, among other problems. It is, however, banned in California. So oranges from that state should be free of the chemical. If you do end up buying bags of the Florida oranges, the label should say whether they have been dyed or not. However, buying loose oranges from a bin in a non-organic section of the store, you will never know what you’re getting--or rather, you probably will: dyed, chemically-treated oranges.
  • Other dyed foods - So now it has come down to this: even bread is getting the dye treatment. Often a loaf of supposedly wheat bread has been treated with caramel coloring to make it look...well, wheatier. It is a way in which manufacturers are able to fool us yet again, palming off refined grain breads as the healthier, and more sought-after whole wheat type. Other victims of industry dye jobs are pickles, which are given a shot of yellow coloring to make them look more vibrant and eye-catching, as well as deli meats. As we have witnessed repeatedly, the FDA has rolled over for Big Food (and of course their Big Money) and approved the use of these dyes. Indeed, is there anything they won’t approve, when it comes to pleasing food manufacturers and stuffing consumers full of chemicals and additives? At any rate, be on the lookout for dyes on food labels, as they often indicate a food that is highly processed and loaded with unnecessary and sometimes dangerous additives.
  • That ain’t no chicken soup I’ve ever heard of - Prepare yourself for a really nasty one: the U.S. Department of Agriculture has regulations in place that allow manufacturers to sell chicken that is up to 11 percent water. That doesn’t sound so horrible on the face of it. However what that means in practice this: after the chickens are slaughtered and had their feathers boiled off, they are cooled in a bath that contains bleach or another disinfectant. The reason they have to use bleach is because there is so much chicken feces spraying out of the birds following their gruesome deaths. Thus, up to 11 percent of your “healthy,” boneless, skinless chicken breast is bleach-poop water. Bon appetit!

Friday, March 10, 2017

Apps to Help You Navigate What Is Healthy and What Isn't

How Do We Even Know What Is Healthy Anymore? These Apps Can Help
By Kurtis Bright

The Answers To All Your Food Choice Questions Are a Swipe Away--Just Download These Apps

No one needs to tell you that smart phones are ubiquitous these days. We’ve all been stuck walking behind someone who is hogging the sidewalk while staring at their phone, walking at a snail’s pace, swerving randomly back and forth. And there’s nothing quite as poignantly illustrative of the aloneness-togetherness of modern life than when you see a table full of friends out for dinner together, but silent and not looking at each other--because they are all furiously texting away.

But as annoying as our modern connected life is, it has its benefits: we have more information at our fingertips than 99 percent of humanity ever had available in all the libraries of the world.

This is of course a double-edged sword: there’s tons of information out there, but there is just as much, if not more, misinformation as well.

And misinformation is the order of the day, when it comes to making healthy food choices. Recently, however, some really useful apps have emerged that can help clear up the confusion as to what’s actually healthy and what’s not, even as you do your shopping on the fly.

  • Chemical Cuisine - This is an app that was created under the auspices of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and it has data on a plethora of additives, including descriptions and an evaluation of the relative safety of each. Whenever you come across a product containing on of those multi-syllabic, impossible-to-pronounce names, simply enter it into the Chemical Cuisine database and you’ll get a rating: safe, cut back, caution, avoid, or certain people should avoid.
  • Dirty Dozen - Cataloguing the dozen most chemically compromised fruits and vegetables--that is, those with a thin skin which thus absorb more pesticides, or which can take up chemicals via their root systems--this app advises you which ones you should always buy organic. It is of course daunting to face the prices of organic fresh fruits and veggies these days, so we all appreciate saving a few bucks when possible. That’s why this app is so useful: they also have a list called the Clean 15, which are fruits and vegetables that are least likely to carry chemical contaminants to your table.
  • Seafood Watch - The condition of the world’s life-giving oceans is in dire straits and grows worse every day. Not only is there widespread bleaching of the coral reefs and the massive plastic floating trash island in the Pacific, we are also overfishing several species into extinction. With this app the ecologically and health conscious shopper can buy seafood guilt-free. It gives you a color rating--red means overfished or farmed in harmful ways, yellow is somewhat better, and green is the best option of all. But there is also a Super Green list, giving you seafood options that are best for sustainability, and also those that are most likely to be free of contaminants like PCBs and mercury.
  • Fooducate - An extremely clever app that has a database of over 200,000 food items with a letter grade and nutritional value listing, it will also tell you if the food contains artificial additives. Not only that, it will offer healthier options--all by simply scanning in the UPC code.

Making The Whole Grain Switch: Some Amazing Benefits Of Eating Whole Grains

Making The Whole Grain Switch: Some Amazing Benefits Of Eating Whole Grains
By Kurtis Bright

Everybody’s Talking About Whole Grains--But Why? Here Are Some Amazing Benefits

With so many conflicting dietary recommendations out there, it’s easy to get confused. Every day it seems like there’s some new breakthrough health study, some re-discovery of a long-lost indigenous plant that is the latest miracle cure.

However some things are based on pretty solid evidence that has been accumulated over a long time. One of these that is pretty much universally agreed upon is that we need whole grains in our diet.

However, as with many things in this age of too much information and not enough knowledge, even the term itself can be confusing: what exactly are whole grains?

The difference between refined grains and whole grains may seem a matter of splitting hairs, but it is actually quite important: whole grains include all the parts of the original grain kernel, the bran, germ and endosperm, which give us the fiber we need. Two sliced of dark rye bread contain 5.8 grams of fiber whereas two slices of white bread only contain 1.9 grams of fiber.

And fiber is important because it digests more slowly, and makes us feel fuller and more satiated. What’s more, fiber helps control blood sugar levels, lowers LDL or bad cholesterol, and reduces the risk of colon cancer. For grains with the highest fiber content look for oats, barley and bulgur. So when you eat foods made with whole grains as opposed to refined grains (white bread, pasta, etc.) you are going to not only feel fuller longer, you will avoid the dreaded sugar crash that comes with eating high glycemic-index foods.

These days a random loaf of bread on the supermarket shelves is as likely to tout some sort of “whole wheat/whole grain” notice on the label as not. But as with most food labels, manufacturers are tricksy little Hobbitses: even if it says “made with whole grains” that bread could still contain a majority of refined grains over whole grains.

Another thing to look for is that the grain is listed among the first three ingredients on the label. And another trick from unscrupulous manufacturers seeking to cash in on people’s desire for healthier food: be wary of “healthy” looking bread that is simply refined grain bread that has been dyed brown or mixed with molasses to give it a darker color.

In addition to helping us feel fuller and staving off hunger longer, whole grains also help with digestion. We’ve known this for some time, but recent studies are showing that the benefits of fiber aren’t limited to just keeping you regular.

For one thing, fiber helps prevent diverticulosis, a bowel condition typified by inflammation, constipation and diarrhea. It also helps keep the bacterial balance in the gut healthy. And the lactic acid in whole grains aid digestion and nutrition absorption, and may even benefit the immune system.

What’s more, whole grains also can help lower blood pressure by lowering cholesterol and triglycerides. Eating whole grains have even been found to contribute to a 19 percent lower risk of hypertension in men who ate seven or more servings a week.

Perhaps best of all, by replacing refined grains with whole grains, your risk of heart disease is greatly reduced.

Gosh, it’s almost like we evolved to eat whole, natural foods as they grow out of the ground, as opposed to refined, chemical-laden, mass-manufactured “foods” that have been stripped of all nutritive value in the name of profit.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Feces and Fat: Possible Link Between Fecal Bacteria and Obesity

Feces and Fat: Possible Link Between Fecal Bacteria and Obesity
By Kurtis Bright

How Bacteria In Feces Has Been Linked to Inherited Obesity

You’re a big, fat stinkin’ mess. So says a group of British researchers, anyway.

Okay, that’s not exactly true. But what they are saying is that the content of our feces may well play a role in how much fat we store in our bodies--and possibly even tell us who has an inherited propensity for obesity.

An exciting new study out of the U.K. seems to demonstrate that the makeup of the bacteria found in the feces of individual people may be linked to the levels of dangerous types of fat we have in our bodies. Researchers think could lead to breakthroughs on how and why obesity is passed along in families as well.

Carried out by researchers at King’s College in London, the study analyzed stool samples from more than 3,600 sets of twins. What they found was that there is ample evidence that at least some of the composition of this bacteria is heritable, thus offering the beginnings of an explanation for why obesity is an inherited trait.

They compared data culled from the samples provided by the study participants to six different measures of obesity, including body mass index and the composition of a person’s body fat, they distinct types we carry. Thus the researchers were able to find a correlation with visceral fat, an especially dangerous fat type that is stored in the abdomen, giving people not only the “spare tire” look, but also pressing in on surrounding organs like the liver, pancreas and intestines. Having excess visceral fat has also been connected to higher risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Although the study showed a clear link between this particular type of fecal bacteria and fat, lead author Dr. Michelle Beaumont of The Department of Twin Research and Genetic Epidemiology at King's College London was quick to point out that it is not yet possible to explain why there might be such a connection.

“As this was an observational study we cannot say precisely how communities of bacteria in the gut might influence the storage of fat in the body, or whether a different mechanism is involved in weight gain,” she said.

Researchers theorize that perhaps a lack of variety in fecal bacteria could lead to higher levels of the types of gut microbes that specialize in turning carbohydrates into fat.

There is certainly a growing body of evidence that gut bacteria has a much greater influence over many biofunctions: not only obesity, but also our mental health and brain function too.

For some time we’ve known that the composition of at least half of human feces is bacteria that is shed from the gut. Indeed, Dr. Beaumont suggested that eating a wider variety of different types of foods--as our hunter-gatherer ancestors did, long before monocrops and industrial food production had limited our choices the way they are today--could lead to more diversity of microbes in our gut biome.

The research--published in the journal Genome Biology--should if nothing else create new avenues for future research that will help us better understand how gut bacteria, and thus obesity may be passed down in families.

Gluten-Free Myths: Dispelling Misconceptions About the Latest Dietary Scapegoat

Gluten-Free Myths: Dispelling Misconceptions About the Latest Dietary Scapegoat
By Kurtis Bright

The Gluten-Free Fad Doesn’t Seem to Be Going Away, So Here Are Some Facts

If you’re like millions of Americans, you might be thinking about hopping on the gluten-free bandwagon.

Perhaps you’ve read one too many stories about celebrities who have lost dramatic weight by cutting carbs. Or perhaps you’ve simply given up on living a normal life because you have an annoying co-worker who won’t shut up about being gluten-free themselves, and you figure, hey, if you can’t beat them, join them.

Well, before you drink the (gluten-free!) Kool-Aid, here are a few myths surrounding gluten. 

  • Myth #1: Gluten is terrible and it must stamped out before it kills again - It is considered received knowledge among the trendy and the gullible that gluten is a newly discovered deadly substance that ruthlessly seeks to make you fat and possibly stab you to death in your sleep. This is only a slight exaggeration. While gluten can have a negative effect on people with Celiac disease as well as on people with other levels of gluten intolerance, the truth is that the vast majority of people have no such sensitivity. We’re talking less than one percent of Americans. However that isn’t stopping people from self-diagnosing with something that has been termed “non-celiac gluten sensitivity,” which, to all appearances, seems to be little more than a cry for attention from those who have more money than sense. But the dubious nature of the "diagnosis" isn't stopping the marketing behemoth that is the gluten-free sector of the food industry from cashing in. However, here’s the simple truth: gluten is a naturally occurring protein that is found in wheat and other grains like barley and rye that is not threatening at all to 99 percent of people--neither in terms of causing illness, nor in terms of making you fat. As always, weight loss comes with no magic bullet: reducing caloric intake and increasing calories burned is how it works, folks. Always has, always will. Those with Celiac disease experience stomach pain and bloating if they eat even trace amounts of it, but for the rest of us, it’s just another component of food.
  • Myth #2: Gluten-free is not the same as wheat-free - Often people think that by giving up white bread and flour and replacing it with whole-grain versions they have successfully turned away the scourge of gluten. No. Once again, gluten is found in not only wheat and spelt, but also rye and barley. And to review, these grains in their whole, organic form are not inherently bad dietary choices. Whole grains contain more fiber and usually have a lower glycemic index than the refined version, so they help you feel fuller for longer. Switching to whole grains may even contribute to weight loss, in tandem with other dietary changes like reducing caloric intake and getting more exercise. But cutting out wheat products is not the same as “going gluten-free.” And while we’re on the topic:
  • Myth #3: A gluten-free diet alone will lead to dramatic weight loss - The trend-setters and their minions like to tout tales of Hollywood stars who lost eye-popping amounts of weight for upcoming film roles by switching to a gluten-free diet, but there are almost always other factors involved. For starters, you have to keep in mind the collateral effects of giving up gluten: in a gluten-free diet, highly refined carb items like bagels, donuts, crackers, pasta, etc. are gone too. And these are foods that we already recognize are detrimental to maintaining a healthy body weight. By substituting whole grains for refined flour products, along with introducing more vegetables and high protein foods, you automatically reduce the amount of high-glycemic foods you’re eating. Keep in mind too that going on any kind of serious diet--such as those that film stars adopt in pursuit of multi-million dollar roles--automatically implies that you are restricting calories, or at least keeping a strict count of calories consumed. Studies show that simply by being aware of the number of calories in the foods we eat, we tend to reduce how much we eat. A kitchen scale is your best friend in the battle of the bulge, not a pyre made of everything wheat. Thirdly, when we are assessing the miracle weight loss programs of the glitterati, don’t forget that every one of them has at least one dietician if not more, along with at least one personal trainer if not a whole stable of them. High-dollar movie stars also have the luxury of embarking on a three to six-month weight loss and exercise program prior to shooting in which the entirety of their JOB consists of getting in shape. It’s just silly and frankly irresponsible for these folks to go on talk shows and tout fad diets like gluten-free eating when they’ve also been working out with a professional trainer six hours a day, six days a week for three months or more prior to shooting their films, and enjoying meals prepared for them by professional chefs under the auspices of dieticians. It is equally foolish for us to think there is some short cut.

So for people who don’t have Celiac disease or other gluten sensitivity, feel free to eat all the expensive gluten-free products you want--or however much you can afford. But let’s not fool ourselves: eating sensible portions of natural, unrefined, whole foods without a lot of added sugar, along with taking up a sensible exercise program is the only real path to weight loss and health.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

What You Eat Could Be Affecting Your Mood

What You Eat Could Be Affecting Your Mood
By Kurtis Bright

Avoiding Sugar Crashes Is Only Half The Battle--Food Strategies That Can Boost Your Mood

At some point or another, everyone has experienced “stress eating,” that is to say, eating from a place of emotional need. Crying into a pint of Ben and Jerry’s after a breakup is a common rom-com trope for good reason.

But the fact is, grabbing a candy bar or other sweet snack when we feel stressed is actually natural on some level, and even based on biological imperatives. The simple truth is that foods like these make us feel good because our ancient wiring has built-in rewards for us for taking in (formerly) desperately needed fats and sugars.
However, that taste of sugar and sense of well-being comes with a price: the inevitable sugar crash. Following the elation of the sugar high comes the morass of low energy, crankiness and even depression--an ugly vicious circle that leads many to seek a quick fix for their low mood in the form of another candy bar, then another and another. So little wonder that people in many developed countries are so depressed, obese and suffering from diabetes.

Lucky for us, there are foods that are better at giving us better moods--moods that last--along with higher energy. Over the long term, foods like these will keep you in a better, more productive mood.

  • Caffeine - Much is made of the notion of coffee addiction, both teasing and periodic alarm. However, the energy and buzz of elation you get following your morning cup of joe is not a joke: a study at Harvard in 2011 showed that women who drank at least two daily cups of coffee showed a 15 percent lower chance of depression than their coffee-deprived counterparts. And depression risk decreased by 20 percent for those who consumed four cups a day. Because caffeine triggers the release of dopamine, it helps you focus and improves outlook. In moderation, virtually all modern studies show that coffee is a fairly benign drug of choice. Just be aware that if you drink coffee too late in the day it can and will affect your sleep, and if you are a coffee-drinker who experiences anxiety--a very real possible result according to studies--you should probably cut back a bit.
  • Fat - We crave fat at a biological, animal level, simple as that. Back when our ancestors were still scavenging on the savannah while trying to avoid lions and other predators, to find a food source containing a lot of fat was something like striking biological gold. The reward centers in our brains are hardwired to release dopamine and other feel-good chemicals when we absorb fat for this reason. Fat slows digestion and our bodies can store it for later use, so when you and your body don’t know where your next meal is coming from, you tend to crave it. What's more, your body is designed to hang onto every molecule you take in, banking that valuable fat for later. It is perhaps because of this physical need that the body has for fat that we experience a calming sense of satisfaction when we eat it. When studies examine people with mood disorders, they find that eating two seafood meals per week high in omega-3 fatty acids is strongly correlated to lower rates of depression. Researchers think this is because these fats help maintain brain function in regions responsible for mood and emotion.
  • Afternoon Carbs - Despite what you’ve been told by your trendy, gluten-free neighbor, carbohydrates are not the devil. The fact of the matter is carbs are vital to our energy levels and brain function. If you are one of the many people who experience a dreaded late afternoon decline in mood and energy, it might well be due to the fact that your brain is running low on serotonin. Have a small serving of carbohydrates, say 25 to 30 grams or so, for instance, three-quarters of a cup of Cheerios or other unsweetened cereal. Even that small amount can give you a surprising boost without a huge caloric cost or a massive sugar crash after.