Friday, November 8, 2013

The bitter truth of food.

Yeah I know, I usually blog about socio economic issues or about personal philosophies. So talking about food, on the face of it, would seem to be a bit of a stretch.

I suppose the underlying "theme" as it were with my writings has been an expressed desire to figure things out for myself. To understand the truth of things. To get underneath biases and determine whether or not the things I believe track with the reality around me. In this sense, talking about food seems as appropriate to my incessant desire to think as anything else I've said or written about.

I just finished reading through an article about healthy seeming foods, that aren't terribly healthy. With the exception of one food listed (tuna) all of the others listed were cited as unhealthy not because of what they initially were, but rather what they became as food companies and marketers altered them.

Tuna was the exception to this trend because of the link between seafood and mercury uptake in the body, for those that are curious.

Every other commonly held "healthy thing" had simply become unhealthy in context, because of the desire to market them. And it always came down to three particular things added, in an effort to make them more palatable.

Ever had muesli for breakfast? And I mean real muesli, long before you could easily find it on a supermarket shelf. Though not an unpleasant's rabbit food. Trust me, I've tasted rabbit food, and it's quite similar. In a palatability contest Froot Loops wins hands down, which is probably why Froot Loops sell better, even to this day.

But in this day and age you can walk into any grocery store and find "natural" and "organic" cereals to eat of all types. And the sad truth is that most of them are no more healthy in any context, than any other cereal grain breakfasty food you'd choose.


Remember the three things I mentioned above. They are the culprit. Salt, sugar, and fat. We evolved to crave sugar and fat in our diet, because they are rich sources of energy. They are also rarified sources of energy if you don't have that thing that we do have....a civilization. Salt is also important because of how it alters our pallet to either mask or enhance flavors. Soft drink manufacturers use salt in soft drinks to mask overt sweetness to modify a drinks flavor profile (and it also helps make us thirsty too).

This triumvirate of additives goes way beyond merely foods that are labeled as "healthy" in our conscience though.

In the last 40 years or so we have transformed at a fundamental level how food works in modern societies. More often than not today food is made somewhere else, by someone else, to be consumed later (often a lot later) by us. This trend led to more or less the utter removal of fiber from the modern western diet. Fiber content interferes with successful long term freezing and storage methods and reduces shelf life.

This reality ironically helped fuel the problems with modern fiber rich alternative foods. How? Because one of the easy ways to not only make these foods more palatable, but to increase their shelf life is with added sugars, salt, and fat.

The uptake of sugar in the modern diet is especially pernicious. In the late 1970's we began this (now scientifically proven to be mistaken) trend towards low fat diets. And when you reduce fat in foods that would otherwise have fat, you make it fundamentally less palatable. Sugars, HFCS, and corn syrup solids in our foods have risen dramatically as a result, to regain that palatability. And the arguments between "natural" sugars and High Fructose Corn Syrup are non starters either chemically or endocrinologically. HFCS isn't bad because it's worse than table sugar. It's bad because it's cheap, and thus ubiquitous. And ask anyone who understands hepatic (liver) metabolism, and they'll tell you a high sugar diet is a high fat diet. And as sugar intake has skyrocketed, so has obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome.

It was with irony I noted that in the article I read about these so called healthy foods, the solution was strikingly simple. Make your own, and don't add sugar, salt, and fat.

Even if you don't have the time (or the inclination) for all of that, at least realize that sugar, fat, and salt intake are important to be mindful of. Not just because lowering them in your diet is good, but because relying on them (and thus your tastebuds) to inform your brain what is good, isn't a terribly great idea.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Sorry Brian. :)

(Rather than make my friend Brian Howard suffer through this reply to a topic on Facebook, I decided to post it here.)

The only real issue I had with the "meme" was that it was little more than a distortion of the nature of the problem, factually specious, and unnecessarily my point of view.

I tend to agree that raising the minimum wage will do little to help workers make any material gains in this economy. Our economic problems are deeply structural and not easily reversed. Because of this *merely* changing wage structures will do little but create artificial inflation in the short term, because a great deal of our economies wealth is walled off from the influence of consumption.

Low wages that force Americans into government assistance are a reality. A reality that in some way shape or form touches close to half the U.S. Population. When you do the math it is quite scary. Add up AFDC/TANF, SNAP, WIC, Housing Assistance, etc.... (and I leave off Medicare and Social Security deliberately because they are paid for by an entirely different tax system than income tax) about half of American families receive some sort of government assistance.

This isn't a few Americans living off the teat of the rest of's a lot more than a few. If a simple program like Food Stamps were to just "go away", I can confidently say that many grocery chains would go belly up.....mine included. In most of our operating markets it accounts for more than 25% of our business. It was less than 5% in the 80's.

How we ended up here is becoming clearer by the day to most economists, regardless of political affiliation. We've had a 30-40 year long experiment in supply-side economic theory in play, and it's clearly been a failure. And yet as a generation we have bought into the philosophy and the mindset behind it, much of which is based on false assumptions. It will likely take as long of a concerted effort in another direction in economic philosophy (like the previous 40 years of mostly Keynesian policy...that actually worked) to right the ship.

False assumptions? Here are a few.

Capitalists create jobs. This is the entire pivot upon which supply side theory is based, and it just isn't true. As a person who has worked in the corporate world for 30 years, I can say confidently that hiring is always a last resort, and not a first. Jobs are created by consumer demand, and entrepreneurs  who leverage that demand. It is a synergy and not a cause/effect relationship. Without consumers buying things, an economy cannot exist. And wealthy consumers? They are usually a drag on an economy at large for a myriad of reasons. A wealthy consumer who makes 10 times more than you or I is not buying 10 times more food, or cars, or tshirts, or (insert name of banal things here). Wealth becomes an abstraction of power, and in the case of an economy not a particularly useful one.

Progressive taxation is bad. Little historical fact. All taxation in history has been progressive, mainly because it makes the most sense in real economic terms. One immutable fact here is that if you tax a wealthy person far more than a poor one....the wealthy person does not become poor. It doesn't seem intuitively fair, and perhaps this is why most people easily buy into flat-tax arguments. But this is little more than a distortion leading to confirmation bias by those who aren't wealthy. And the problem isn't necessarily wealthy people. The number of American's who possess wealth levels 20 times or more of the national average hasn't changed that much as a percentage of the population. What has changed is the amount of wealth they possess relative to everyone else. We have an income distribution curve in this country similar to puppet dictatorships. And though we don't have citizens suffering to the degree that those in puppet dictatorships do, we do have an income distribution that creates an economy nearly impossible to maintain.

Social Security and Medicare are a huge drag on the government. Partially true, but not in the way most people naively assume. Most people assume these two entitlements are paid for with income taxes. THEY ARE NOT. They are paid for under the Payroll Tax, a tax which vanishes to ZERO PERCENT on income above $110,000. Raising the tax cap (which has been done numerous times) returns these programs to solvency. So this "problem" is really just an issue used to gain political leverage and not a real problem in any true sense. Granted there are financial games played with the Social Security Trust Fund (a tactic introduced by the CBO during the Nixon Administration), but these are done primarily to hide costs....primarily over the last 40 years the costs of war. The biggest drain on income tax? The Military, which eats more than half of every tax dollar.

The definition of unskilled labor. I simply challenge anyone working in a white collar job to take a break and work in a supposedly unskilled position...and then tell me no skills are required. The truth of the matter is most people work either in small business or large corporate enterprise, and this honestly hasn't changed all that much in the last 75 years. And most of those people were "unskilled" by the modern definition. Automation, new systems, technology have increased productivity drastically this is true. But almost all the financial gains reaped from this have gone to the top and not to the workforce. Whether this seems totally fair to you, or not, does nothing to solve the real market economy problem this has created. Ironically this leads to a near perfect storm guaranteeing the expansion of government assistance to fill in the gaps, which manifests the very enemy of conservative economics. Perhaps the underlying tenets are wrong?!??!??

I could go on and on. The real gist of my position is this. We are on the tail end of a failed experiment in economic theory, and every so slowly eyes are opening to this reality. The very nature of "what's wrong" pivots on whether or not you see this as evident.

Answers are usually easy. It's asking the right question that matters.