Tag Archives: Food and Drink

Food Subsidy Fails

Many developing countries use food-price subsidies or price controls to improve the nutrition of the poor. However, … consumers may then substitute towards foods with higher non-nutritional attributes (e.g., taste), but lower nutritional content per unit of currency. … We analyze data from a randomized program of large price subsidies for poor households in two provinces of China and find no evidence that the subsidies improved nutrition. (more)

This of course seems to be the median result for all randomized studies which try to improve people: no effect.

In the recent Fast Food episode of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit!, Brian Wansink of the Cornell Food & Brand Lab was shown separately asking two different groups to estimate the calories in a western chicken salad they had just eaten. Those told correctly that it was from Taco Bell correctly estimated its 970 calories, while those who were told it came from “California Garden Cafe; Gourmet garden-fresh cuisine” guessed about half as many calories.  Since one of main anti-fast-food proposals is for clearly-marked calorie counts on menus, this lab result suggests such proposals would hurt non-fast-food places more.  Anyone know how robust is this lab result, or if the proposals apply equally to all food sales?

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Picking On Cryo-Nerds

Tyler Thursday on cryonics: “My question is: why not save someone else’s life instead?”  Today, Tyler elaborates:

[Some] asked why I compare cryonics (unfavorably) to acts of charity, rather than comparing other acts of personal consumption (I enjoy the gelato here in Berlin) to charity. My view is this: the decision to have one’s head frozen is not primarily instrumental but rather expressive. Look at the skewed demographics of the people who do it, namely highly intelligent male readers of science fiction, often with tech jobs. … It’s a chance to stand for something and in a way which sets them apart … for instrumental rationality, for Science, … for the conquering of limits, … and for the notion that the subject sees hidden possiblities and resources which more traditional observers do not. …

People interested in cryonics are often highly meritorious. … So I’m … happy to endorse laissez-faire for the practice but still I don’t find myself settling into really liking the idea. … The world would be better off, and the relative status of the virtuous nerds higher, if instead the cryonics customers sent more signals which were perceived as running contrary to type. Ignoring cryonics, and promoting charity, would do more to raise the status of intelligence and analytical thinking than does cryonics.

Tyler’s argument is hard to follow here. Is he merely saying the world is better if anyone acts more contrary to type, expresses less relative to instrumenting, or donates more to charity? If so, why pick on cryonics and tech nerds in particular, why not just rail in general against all expressing, typed-acts, and non-charity? If the argument is that the world gains unusually more from tech nerds acting against type, expressing less, and giving to charity, then we need to hear an argument for that. It certainly seems odd to complain that tech nerds, usually critiqued for being overly practical, are actually overly expressive.

Let’s be concrete. Tyler goes way out of his way to be, and call attention to his being, a “foodie” – his eating a gelato in Berlin, and then mentioning on his blog, clearly has a big expressive component. Being a foodie lets Tyler join a high status community and stand for art, culture, etc. in a way that sets him apart and supports the notion he can see hidden food quality that the rest of us do not see. (I like “great” food, but honestly not much more than ordinary food.) Does Tyler think the world would be equally better off if foodies were to act contrary to type, express less via buying less fancy food, and give the difference to charity? If so, why has he never mentioned it in his hundreds of food posts?

Could it be Tyler knows that tech nerds are low status in our society and fair game for criticism? Is this really any different than rich folks complaining about inner city kids who buy $100 sneakers instead of saving their money or giving it to charity, even while they buy $1000 suits and dresses instead of saving their money or giving it to charity?

Added:  Tyler responds, sort of.

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Only Trust Us

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, … for the Jews, …
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me.

PLoS Medicine:

While we continue to be interested in analyses of ways of reducing tobacco use, we will no longer be considering papers where support, in whole or in part, for the study or the researchers comes from a tobacco company.

Eric Crampton:

As good a [bias] case can be made … against tobacco industry funding. How many anti-tobacco public health researchers would be able to continue getting grants from Ministries of Health if their research found that smoking isn’t as bad as the Ministry might have thought?

John Tierney:

Many scientists, journal editors and journalists see themselves as a sort of priestly class untainted by commerce. … This snobbery was codified by the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2005, when it … refused to publish such work unless there was at least one author with no ties to the industry who would formally vouch for the data.  That policy … looked especially dubious after a team of academic researchers (not financed by industry) analyzed dozens of large-scale clinical trials in previous decades and reported that industry-sponsored ones met significantly higher standards than the nonindustry ones.


As Gary Taubes nicely illustrates in his book, “Good Calories, Bad Calories,” scientists who disagreed with the accepted wisdom on the evils of fat in the diet were accused of being corrupted by industry grants even if they had received most of their money from government agencies that were looking — unsuccessfully — for evidence to back the fat-is-bad theory. Meanwhile, scientists who went along with the conventional wisdom on fat weren’t criticized for the corporate money they’d received from food companies.

Mr. Taubes has also found some wonderful examples of selective journalism in the dispute over sugar’s health effect: An article stressing the harms of sugar would make dissenting scientists look bad by stressing their connections to the sugar industry, whereas an article exonerating sugar would make the other side’s scientists look bad by stressing the money they received from companies making sugar substitutes. …

“Scientists were believed to be free of conflicts if their only source of funding was a federal agency, but all nutritionists knew that if their research failed to support the government position on a particular subject, the funding would go instead to someone whose research did.” … Not-for-profit advocacy groups … “are rarely if ever accused of conflicts of interest, even though their entire reason for existence is to argue one side of a controversy as though it were indisputable.”

If the new principle is that we mustn’t publish research not funded by groups committed to proving our official beliefs, how long before “our” beliefs exclude yours?  How long before interdisciplinary journals like Science or Nature refuse to publish papers by economists, known for their suspiciously right-wing leanings, unless non-economist co-authors vouch for them?  Do you really think that can’t happen?

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Vegan Compromise

How is it that Americans, so solicitous of the animals they keep as pets, are so indifferent toward the ones they cook for dinner? The answer cannot lie in the beasts themselves. Pigs, after all, are quite companionable, and dogs are said to be delicious. …

How would you judge an artist who mutilated animals in a gallery because it was visually arresting? How riveting would the sound of a tortured animal need to be to make you want to hear it that badly? Try to imagine any end other than taste for which it would be justifiable to do what we do to farmed animals.” …

“Almost always, when I told someone I was writing a book about ‘eating animals,’ they assumed, even without knowing anything about my views, that it was a case for vegetarianism,” he says. “It’s a telling assumption, one that implies not only that a thorough inquiry into animal agriculture would lead one away from eating meat, but that most people already know that to be the case.”

More here.  She’s right: we will not tolerate folks watching animals tortured for entertainment, as in movies or cock-fights, but we will tolerate animals being tortured for food, for meds, or perhaps lipstick.  We care far more about our pets than our food, even if they are very similar creatures.  And we know deep down that the usual sorts of principles most folks endorse do not support this behavior.  We are hypocrites.

Those with strong self-images as principled intellectuals have two outs:

  1. Become vegetarians, to make our acts match our words.
  2. Change our principles, to make our words match our acts.

Rather than warring to the death for one side or the other to win such a conflict, I prefer to seek compromises between our near and far selves.  Let us seek principles that can account for most of our acts, then try to change the other acts to conform with such easier principles.  My tentative resolutions:

  • We don’t care much about most animals, even smart ones.
  • It is a bad sign about someone that they would be enjoy watching animals being tortured.  We prohibit such watching to make our society look “civilized” to other societies.
  • We are kind to our pets to show others we are loyal to those loyal to us.  Fido has always been there for us, so we will be there for him – up to a point at least.
  • We are willing to spend only modest sums to make food animal lives a bit more enjoyable.  We should spend such sums, but not go overboard.

More interesting quotes from that article: Continue reading "Vegan Compromise" »

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Denying Dominance

Participants expecting to have a conversation with an obese student were much quicker to indicate that words like “powerful”, “strong” and “dominant” matched their self-concept than were participants expecting to have a conversation with a normal-weight student. …  Moreover, participants expecting to chat to an overweight student reported feeling more socially powerful as revealed by their agreement with statements like “I could make the interaction more enjoyable for my partner” and “I expect that my partner will like me more than I like him”. Finally, participants waiting to talk to an overweight partner also tended to rate their partner more negatively, and were more likely to say that obesity is due to lack of willpower.

More here.  Humans clearly attend closely to status, an important part of status is dominance, and a key way we show dominance is to tell others what to do.  Whoever gets to tell someone else what to do is dominating, and affirming their own status.  But we are also clearly built to not notice most of our status moves, and so we attribute them to other motives.  And as long as we are making up motives, we might as well make up the most admired of motives, altruism.

So we tend to think we tell others what to do in order to help them, and not to dominate them.  In particular we tend to think we tell fat folks what to do, and control their behavior, because this will help those fat folks.  For example, many support taxing soda or fast food in order to help fat folks.

Yet it is completely crazy to imagine that fat folks have not yet heard that fat might be unhealthy or unattractive.  Believe me, they’ve heard!  If they are choosing to be fat, they are doing so reasonably informed of the consequences.  Our constant anti-fat “public health” messages are not at all kind – such messages just serve to put fat folks down, and lift the rest of us up.  If anyone is so clueless as to need constant reminders, it is those who can’t see their own over-bearing domination, such as putting down fat folks to lift themselves up.

Hat tip to Stefano Bertolo and Tyler Cowen.

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Painless Meat

New Scientist:

Might “pain-free” be the next sticker slapped onto a rump roast? … Progress in neuroscience and genetics in recent years makes it a very real possibility. …  “If we can’t do away with factory farming, we should at least take steps to minimise the amount of suffering that is caused,” says Adam Shriver, a philosopher. … [who] contends that genetically engineered pain-free animals are the most acceptable alternative. …

One objection to the idea of knocking out pain in livestock is that it could mean they put themselves in harm’s way. In 2006, researchers identified six children from three Pakistani families with mutations that inactivated one particular gene. None of the children had ever felt pain, though they appeared otherwise healthy. All the kids had bruises and cuts, and one, who was known to place knives through his hand and walk on coals, died after jumping off a roof.

There could be a way around that problem. Recent research indicates that the sensation of pain is distinct from the unpleasantness, or “affective pain”, connected with it. This suggests it might be possible to eliminate the suffering caused by pain without tampering with the physical sensation. … They have engineered mice that lack two enzymes … When the team injected a noxious, painful chemical into their paws, the mice licked them only briefly. In contrast, normal mice continued to do so for hours afterwards (Neuron, vol 36, p 713). This suggests that livestock could be spared persistent, nagging pain. ….

Alan Goldberg … contends that public attitudes may make pain-free livestock a non-starter. He and colleague Renee Gardner conducted an online survey on the use of pain-free animals in research and found little public support, even among researchers who experiment on animals (Alternatives to Animal Testing and Experimentation, vol 14, p 145).

This last result is striking.  (I can’t find the article to learn more – the journal is here).  Why not save farm animals from pain?  My guess: for most folks to be interested in reducing farm animal pain, they would have to believe farms animal suffer lots more pain than wild animals suffer.  And they don’t so believe.

But wild pain isn’t obviously the right standard.  If lives with farm pain are still better than not existing, it is still good to create farm animals even if they suffer more than wild animals.  But if reducing pain is cheap, it might well be good to reduce farm pain well below wild levels.

I really don’t know how much pain we cause farm animals.  So far I have given farms the benefit of the doubt, but I’d be interested in visiting typical meat farms in my area, if that could be arranged.

Added: Unnamed finds the survey article, which only considers pain-free animals in biological experiments, not farms:

Participants were evenly divided between agreeing and disagreeing with the practice, and scientists followed this trend. Participants who classified themselves as a member of an animal advocacy group or as a vegetarian were much more likely to disagree with the practice.

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Faith In Breasts

A nice example of entwined medicine, faith, social status, and care showing:

I made the mistake of idly musing about breast-feeding to a group of new mothers I’d just met. This time around, I said, I was considering cutting it off after a month or so. At this remark, the air of insta-friendship we had established cooled into an icy politeness, …

In my playground set, the urban moms in their tight jeans and oversize sunglasses size each other up using a whole range of signifiers: organic content of snacks, sleekness of stroller, ratio of tasteful wooden toys to plastic. But breast-feeding is the real ticket into the club. …

One day, … I noticed a 2001 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association open to an article about breast-feeding: “Conclusions: There are inconsistent associations among breastfeeding, its duration, and the risk of being overweight in young children.” Inconsistent? … I called my doctor friend for her password to an online medical library, and then sat up and read dozens of studies examining breast-feeding’s association …

After a couple of hours, the basic pattern became obvious: the medical literature looks nothing like the popular literature. It shows that breast-feeding is probably, maybe, a little better; … A couple of studies will show fewer allergies, and then the next one will turn up no difference. Same with mother-infant bonding, IQ, leukemia, cholesterol, diabetes. Even where consensus is mounting, the meta studies—reviews of existing studies—consistently complain about biases, missing evidence, and other major flaws in study design.

Hat Tip to Alex.

Added 8:30am:  adina and Yvian make good points, so I'm persuaded: it does look like breast feeding has given substantial benefits.  Though note that a Brian comments at MR that formula has recently improved to greatly reduce the difference.

Added 11:20am: Alex privately points me to this rather damning critique of that supposed 6 point IQ gain study.

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Evaporated Cane Juice

The ingredient list of Trader Joe's Brand Spinach Pizza includes "Organic Evaporated Cane Juice (Natural Milled Cane Sugar)."  Just as grinding up oranges makes "orange juice", grinding up sugar cane plants makes "cane juice."  To get sugar, you evaporate this to get rid of the water.  

What fraction of folks who read such ingredient lists could really fooled by calling sugar "evaporated cane juice", especially when it is called "sugar" more directly just a few words later?  Could the gain from fooling this few really outweigh the loss of respect from all the other readers Trader Joe's should suffer?

My guess is that other readers are not much offended because they enjoy feeling superior to the fools mislead by such ingredient wordings.  The warm glow from feeling superior outweighs any lack of respect, or feeling insulted, and on net encourages such readers to continue to buy the product.

Added:  OK, uncle; I accept there are legitimate reasons for this wording, at least for some people.

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OB meetup Friday 13th 7PM Springfield VA

Do you believe in luck?  If not, and you live near DC, come to an OB meetup at my place southwest of Washington DC on Friday March 13th, at 7PM!  If you reply to this post and say you want to come, AND provide your real e-mail in the "email" line when you post, I'll email back with details.  (The email address provided by each commentator gets sent to the author of the original post.)

Even if I know you're coming, replying here will let others know who's coming.

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