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“Row upon row, aisle upon aisle of nutritional zero, gaily boxed and packed”

Not that anybody should be surprised by this, but it turns out that what we commonly regard as “healthy foods” may be nothing of the sort, not because the specific foods in question (fruits and vegetables) are wrongly characterized in and of themselves, but because farming techniques — the ones we’ve honed and developed over thousands of years of agricultural history, not just during the industrial age — have stripped many of the vital nutrients clean out of the actual produce that we buy from grocery stores:

We like the idea that food can be the answer to our ills, that if we eat nutritious foods we won’t need medicine or supplements. We have valued this notion for a long, long time. The Greek physician Hippocrates proclaimed nearly 2,500 years ago: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Today, medical experts concur. If we heap our plates with fresh fruits and vegetables, they tell us, we will come closer to optimum health.

This health directive needs to be revised. If we want to get maximum health benefits from fruits and vegetables, we must choose the right varieties. Studies published within the past 15 years show that much of our produce is relatively low in phytonutrients, which are the compounds with the potential to reduce the risk of four of our modern scourges: cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and dementia. The loss of these beneficial nutrients did not begin 50 or 100 years ago, as many assume. Unwittingly, we have been stripping phytonutrients from our diet since we stopped foraging for wild plants some 10,000 years ago and became farmers.

These insights have been made possible by new technology that has allowed researchers to compare the phytonutrient content of wild plants with the produce in our supermarkets. The results are startling.

. . . The United States Department of Agriculture exerts far more effort developing disease-resistant fruits and vegetables than creating new varieties to enhance the disease resistance of consumers. In fact, I’ve interviewed U.S.D.A. plant breeders who have spent a decade or more developing a new variety of pear or carrot without once measuring its nutritional content.

We can’t increase the health benefits of our produce if we don’t know which nutrients it contains. Ultimately, we need more than an admonition to eat a greater quantity of fruits and vegetables: we need more fruits and vegetables that have the nutrients we require for optimum health.

— Jo Robinson, “Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food,” The New York Times, May 25, 2013

Meanwhile, the manufactured food industry has spent decades honing its skill at manipulating our perceptions of food and eating, the better to convince us to keep buying and eating more, more, more. This has evolved, or rather devolved, right down to a finely nuanced propaganda campaign conducted largely by means of a whole new language of food that’s used inside the industry itself:

The massive popularity of these so-called junk foods (a phrase that was added to the language menu in 1973) is a testament to the food industry’s talent for creating feel-good food. Our diets may be richer for it, but so too is the English language, which now boasts many tasty new words and phrases cooked up by food industry scientists and technologists. (I’m indebted to New York Times reporter Michael Moss, particularly for his fascinating new book Salt Sugar Fat, for many of these terms.)

Food companies don’t want their customers to be obese, of course, but what they are dedicated to is increasing stomach share, or the market share within a food category . . . . [P]rocessed-food companies increasingly turn to their legions of scientists to produce foods that we can’t resist. These food geeks tweak their products by varying the levels of the three so-called pillar ingredients — salt, sugar, and fat.

Why not just crank these ingredients up to 11 if we crave them so much? It turns out that although we generally do like more of them, when you go past a certain amount, we like the result less. That optimum amount of salt, sugar, or fat is called the bliss point. Scientists also adjust these ingredients as well as factors such as crunchiness to produce a mouthfeel — that is, the way the food feels inside a person’s mouth — that causes consumers to crave more. Technologists can also induce a flavor burst by altering the size and shape of the salt crystals themselves so that they basically assault the taste buds into submission.

The holy grail of junk-food science is vanishing caloric density, where the food melts in your mouth so quickly that the brain is fooled into thinking it’s hardly consuming any calories at all, so it just keeps snacking . . . . [T]he real goals are either passive overeating, which is the excessive eating of foods that are high in fat because the human body is slow to recognize the caloric content of rich foods, or auto-eating: that is, eating without thinking or without even being hungry.

— Paul McFedries, “The Jargon of Junk Food,” IEEE Spectrum, May 31, 2013

In 1972, Theodore Roszak wrote a brief reflection on the fairly apocalyptic state of mainstream food culture in America and technological society at large. It was later included in one of the most wrenching and inspiring gut punches of a book you could ever read, Less Is More: An Anthology of Ancient & Modern Voices Raised in Praise of Simplicity, assembled and edited by Goldian VandenBroeck and bearing an introduction by none other than E. F. Schumacher. I invite or dare you to read it and contemplate how far we have failed to come — despite the various counter-trends that have arisen in America since 1972 (farmer’s markets, the organic food movement, foodies and foodism, etc.) — since Roszak first offered this disturbing thought experiment as a diagnosis and indictment of how industrial-technocratic civilization has mistreated other peoples and the natural world while developing a wholesale case of neurotic self-delusion about its own moral character:

Those who anguish over a starving mankind on the easy assumption that there just is not enough land and resources to feed the hungry might do well to pay a special kind of visit to their local supermarket. Not to shop, but to observe and to meditate on what they see before them and have always taken for granted. How much of the world’s land and labor was wasted producing the tobacco, the coffee, the tea, the refined cane sugars, the polished rice, the ice creams, the candies, the cookies, the soft drinks, the thousand and one non-nutritional luxuries one finds there? The grains that become liquor, the fruits and vegetables that lost all their food value going into cans and jars full of syrups and condiments, the potatoes and corn that became various kinds of chips, crackles, crunchies, and yum-yums, the cereals that became breakfast novelties less nourishing (as a matter of scientific fact) than the boxes they are packed in, the wheat that became white breads and pastry flours . . . .  How many forests perished to package these non-foods? How many resources went into transporting and processing them? (And the less nutrition, the more processing.) How much skilled energy went into advertising and merchandising them? There they stand in our markets, row upon row, aisle upon aisle of nutritional zero, gaily boxed and packed, and costing those fancy prices we then gripe about as the high cost of living.

It is out of such routine extravagances that the technocracy weaves its spell over our allegiance . . . and then assures us we are the hope of the world.

For a visual commentary, see the last half of this two-minute excerpt from Koyaanisqatsi:

Recommended Reading 34

The Teeming Brain’s “Recommended Reading” series has been on hiatus since last November. And now it’s back, with a slightly altered/streamlined format (read: no graphics, just links and text) that’s more sustainable in the context of your trusty editor’s various other claims on time, energy, and attention.

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Madrid: Dignity and Indignation
Aaron Shulman, The American Scholar, Winter 2013

[EDITOR’S NOTE: An American ex-pat living in Spain — and deeply loving it — explains how the country’s apocalyptically awful socioeconomic situation is forcing him and his wife to leave. Reading his description of the situation, one can’t help but extrapolate from it and speculate about the possible preview it provides for what will happen, and already is happening, elsewhere, especially since the stated causes and progression of the crisis sound so very familiar here in, e.g., the United States.]

Spanish paro [unemployment] has already surpassed the worst levels of the American Great Depression. The Red Cross recently launched a campaign to combat hunger in Spain, redirecting resources previously dedicated to Haiti. More than one in every four children live in households below the poverty line. Things are bad in a way no one could have imagined even five years ago.

. . . . Spain’s unemployment figures depress me because they seem to presage collapse, but the reality of life in a country with so many unemployed is even sadder. Elisa and I relocated from Córdoba to Madrid this past April, and since then almost every day I see a corriente, or average, person rooting around in the trash in search of food — never mind homeless people, who now also have competition at soup kitchens and food banks. The border between the perennially homeless and the newly homeless is increasingly porous and irrelevant.

. . . . What brought Spain to this point? The Spanish economic boom in the years preceding the crisis was a grim parable described as a fairy tale we’re all familiar with: subprime mortgages, unchecked speculation, laughable regulation, political complicity—a world built on fictions. The Spanish version had a result even more disastrous than elsewhere because way too many of the country’s economic eggs were in the construction sector basket.

. . . . On top of the increasingly untenable work situation, the comportment of police in the face of demonstrations is becoming more brutal and frightening. In September we happened to leave Neptune Plaza just minutes before police began beating demonstrators who had nonviolently surrounded the congress. In a restaurant we watched live TV coverage of defenseless people holding up their hands and yet still receiving blows. The next morning a shocking video appeared of police launching projectiles in a train station. A few days later the head of the riot police was awarded a medal by the government.

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Killer Robots Must Be Stopped, Say Campaigners
Tracy McVeigh, The Observer, February 23, 2013

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The title and subject of this article would tend to invite scorn and skepticism for their seemingly over-the-top invocation of outlandish science fictional-type fears if it weren’t for the fact that, as described by the following excerpts, the imminent rise of autonomous killer robots, as well as the present rise of serious opposition to them by people in positions of authority and respect, really and truly is happening.]

A new global campaign to persuade nations to ban “killer robots” before they reach the production stage is to be launched in the UK by a group of academics, pressure groups and Nobel peace prize laureates. Robot warfare and autonomous weapons, the next step from unmanned drones, are already being worked on by scientists and will be available within the decade, said Dr Noel Sharkey, a leading robotics and artificial intelligence expert and professor at Sheffield University. He believes that development of the weapons is taking place in an effectively unregulated environment, with little attention being paid to moral implications and international law.

The Stop the Killer Robots campaign will be launched in April at the House of Commons and includes many of the groups that successfully campaigned to have international action taken against cluster bombs and landmines. They hope to get a similar global treaty against autonomous weapons.

“These things are not science fiction; they are well into development,” said Sharkey.

. . . . Last November the international campaign group Human Rights Watch produced a 50-page report, Losing Humanity: the Case Against Killer Robots, outlining concerns about fully autonomous weapons.

. . . . US political activist Jody Williams, who won a Nobel peace prize for her work at the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, is expected to join Sharkey at the launch at the House of Commons. . . “Killer robots loom over our future if we do not take action to ban them now,” she said. “The six Nobel peace laureates involved in the Nobel Women’s Initiative fully support the call for an international treaty to ban fully autonomous weaponised robots.”

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The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food
Michael Moss, The New York Times, February 20, 2013

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is simply riveting, and in a way that explodes an all-too-easy and glib dismissal along the lines of “Yeah, we already know junk food is addictive. So what else is new?” Moss names names and gives specifics in an article, adapted from his new book Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, that sounds like it could blow open the junk food industry in much the same way the famous 1996 Vanity Fair article that served as the basis for Michael Mann’s The Insider blew open the shady world of Big Tobacco.]

The public and the food companies have known for decades now. . . . that sugary, salty, fatty foods are not good for us in the quantities that we consume them. So why are the diabetes and obesity and hypertension numbers still spiraling out of control? It’s not just a matter of poor willpower on the part of the consumer and a give-the-people-what-they-want attitude on the part of the food manufacturers. What I found, over four years of research and reporting, was a conscious effort — taking place in labs and marketing meetings and grocery-store aisles — to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive. I talked to more than 300 people in or formerly employed by the processed-food industry, from scientists to marketers to C.E.O.’s. Some were willing whistle-blowers, while others spoke reluctantly when presented with some of the thousands of pages of secret memos that I obtained from inside the food industry’s operations. What follows is a series of small case studies of a handful of characters whose work then, and perspective now, sheds light on how the foods are created and sold to people who, while not powerless, are extremely vulnerable to the intensity of these companies’ industrial formulations and selling campaigns.

. . . . If Americans snacked only occasionally, and in small amounts, this would not present the enormous problem that it does. But because so much money and effort has been invested over decades in engineering and then relentlessly selling these products, the effects are seemingly impossible to unwind. More than 30 years have passed since Robert Lin first tangled with Frito-Lay on the imperative of the company to deal with the formulation of its snacks, but as we sat at his dining-room table, sifting through his records, the feelings of regret still played on his face. In his view, three decades had been lost, time that he and a lot of other smart scientists could have spent searching for ways to ease the addiction to salt, sugar and fat. “I couldn’t do much about it,” he told me. “I feel so sorry for the public.”

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Is Smart Making Us Dumb?
Evgeny Morozov, The Wall Street Journal, February 23, 2013

Teaser: A revolution in technology is allowing previously inanimate objects—from cars to trash cans to teapots—to talk back to us and even guide our behavior. But how much control are we willing to give up?

In 2010, Google Chief Financial Officer Patrick Pichette told an Australian news program that his company “is really an engineering company, with all these computer scientists that see the world as a completely broken place.” Just last week in Singapore, he restated Google’s notion that the world is a “broken” place whose problems, from traffic jams to inconvenient shopping experiences to excessive energy use, can be solved by technology. The futurist and game designer Jane McGonigal, a favorite of the TED crowd, also likes to talk about how “reality is broken” but can be fixed by making the real world more like a videogame, with points for doing good. From smart cars to smart glasses, “smart” is Silicon Valley’s shorthand for transforming present-day social reality and the hapless souls who inhabit it.

But there is reason to worry about this approaching revolution. As smart technologies become more intrusive, they risk undermining our autonomy by suppressing behaviors that someone somewhere has deemed undesirable. Smart forks inform us that we are eating too fast. Smart toothbrushes urge us to spend more time brushing our teeth. Smart sensors in our cars can tell if we drive too fast or brake too suddenly. These devices can give us useful feedback, but they can also share everything they know about our habits with institutions whose interests are not identical with our own. Insurance companies already offer significant discounts to drivers who agree to install smart sensors in order to monitor their driving habits. How long will it be before customers can’t get auto insurance without surrendering to such surveillance? And how long will it be before the self-tracking of our health (weight, diet, steps taken in a day) graduates from being a recreational novelty to a virtual requirement?

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Unlike: Why I’m Leaving Facebook
Douglas Rushkoff, February 25, 2013

[EDITOR’S NOTE: When somebody of Rushkoff’s status and stature as a commentator on the world of information technology goes and does (and says) something like this, you can know that a sea change is brewing.]

I used to be able to justify using Facebook as a cost of doing business. As a writer and sometime activist who needs to promote my books and articles and occasionally rally people to one cause or another, I found Facebook fast and convenient. Though I never really used it to socialize, I figured it was okay to let other people do that, and I benefited from their behavior.

I can no longer justify this arrangement. Today I am surrendering my Facebook account, because my participation on the site is simply too inconsistent with the values I espouse in my work. In my upcoming book Present Shock, I chronicle some of what happens when we can no longer manage our many online presences. I argue — as I always have — for engaging with technology as conscious human beings, and dispensing with technologies that take that agency away.

Facebook is just such a technology. It does things on our behalf when we’re not even there. It actively misrepresents us to our friends, and — worse — misrepresents those who have befriended us to still others. To enable this dysfunctional situation — I call it “digiphrenia” — would be at the very least hypocritical. But to participate on Facebook as an author, in a way specifically intended to draw out the “likes” and resulting vulnerability of others, is untenable.

Facebook has never been merely a social platform. Rather, it exploits our social interactions the way a Tupperware party does. Facebook does not exist to help us make friends, but to turn our network of connections, brand preferences, and activities over time —  our “social graphs” — into a commodity for others to exploit. We Facebook users have been  building a treasure lode of big data that government and corporate researchers have been mining to predict and influence what we buy and whom we vote for.  We have been handing over to them vast quantities of information about ourselves and our friends, loved ones and acquaintances. With this information, Facebook and the “big data” research firms purchasing their data predict still more things about us.

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Is it OK to be a Luddite?
Thomas Pynchon, The New York Times Book Review, October 28, 1984 (reprinted at The Modern Word)

The word “Luddite” continues to be applied with contempt to anyone with doubts about technology, especially the nuclear kind. Luddites today are no longer faced with human factory owners and vulnerable machines. As well-known President and unintentional Luddite D.D. Eisenhower prophesied when he left office, there is now a permanent power establishment of admirals, generals and corporate CEO’s, up against whom us average poor bastards are completely outclassed, although Ike didn’t put it quite that way. We are all supposed to keep tranquil and allow it to go on, even though, because of the data revolution, it becomes every day less possible to fool any of the people any of the time.

If our world survives, the next great challenge to watch out for will come — you heard it here first — when the curves of research and development in artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics all converge. Oboy. It will be amazing and unpredictable, and even the biggest of brass, let us devoutly hope, are going to be caught flat-footed. It is certainly something for all good Luddites to look forward to if, God willing, we should live so long. Meantime, as Americans, we can take comfort, however minimal and cold, from Lord Byron’s mischievously improvised song, in which he, like other observers of the time, saw clear identification between the first Luddites and our own revolutionary origins. It begins:

As the Liberty lads o’er the sea
Bought their freedom, and cheaply, with blood,
So we, boys, we
Will die fighting, or live free,
And down with all kings but King Ludd!

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Miracles and the Historians
Peter Berger, The American Interest, December 21, 2011

Modern science has achieved high credibility and prestige, not only for its intellectual plausibility, but because of its immense practical successes. Modern science, and the technology it has made possible, has fundamentally changed the circumstances of human life on this planet. One result of this has been the ideology of scientism, which asserts that science is the only valid avenue to truth. On the part of believers there has been the understandable impetus to present belief itself as being based on science. The prototypical figure in this has been Mary Baker Eddy, founder of a denomination aptly called Christian Science, with Jesus transformed into someone called Christ, Scientist. Not only does this do violence to the Jesus found in the New Testament, but equally so to science as an intellectual discipline. In the same line there have been attempts to establish a Christian economics, a Christian sociology, and so forth. Such constructions are as implausible as a Christian geology, or a Christian dermatology.

But there is something more fundamental involved in all of this: The refusal to accept the fact that there is more than one way to perceive reality.

. . . . If [the historian] wants to claim the status of “science” for his discipline, he has no alternative to following in the “naturalistic tradition”. The acts of God (miraculous or otherwise) cannot be empirically investigated or falsified. How the historian then looks at the same phenomenon, such as a Biblical account of ancient events, will obviously depend on his theology. If he believes in Biblical inerrancy — every sentence is literally true — he will definitely have some serious problems.  But there are other, more flexible ways of looking for revelation “in, with and under” the Biblical text. In that case, even the most rigorous historical scholarship cannot undermine the approach of faith.

The other mind-body connection: Food and psychological health

For the past several decades, the term mind-body connection has been used to refer to the idea, familiar in both the world of alternative health care and the world of “positive thinking,” that our thoughts and emotions can exert a powerful effect on our physical health. I’ve personally verified and validated this to an extent in my own life by discovering that a proper regulation of inner states and outlooks, aided by much introspection, meditation, and other attentional/concentrative disciplines, undeniably contributes to better physical health. (One of the most interesting and preternaturally effective practices is simply to direct neutral awareness to the site of any pain or discomfort, and to feel it as deeply and fully as possible, searching out its inner “shape” and relaxing into it. But that’s another story.)

Thanks to my being saddled with reactive hypoglycemia, I’ve also had to become hyper-aware of the effects flowing in the opposite direction: the effects not of mind upon body but of body upon mind. Eating the wrong things, or the right things at the wrong time of day, can result in fairly catastrophic deteriorations of my inner state, both cognitively and emotionally.

Today a neat little article at Big Think focuses specifically on this issue (the effects of nutrition on the mind), and is well worth your time:

If you believe your emotions can affect your health, nutritionist-author Nora Gedgaudas would say you’ve got another thing coming. In her view, your emotions are largely a product of your health.

At the Ancestral Health Symposium this month at UCLA Gedgaudas spoke about “the myth of the ‘mind-body connection’ and how diet can powerfully impact mental health and cognitive performance” and she expanded on this in an interview with Age of Engagement. “Emotions are biochemical storms in the body and brain,” she says. “The healthier your biochemistry, of course, the better the emotional and also the cognitive forecast.” Psychological issues have physiological underpinnings, she says, not the other way around. Nor are they a result of outside issues.

But what if we have serious problems in life and they drag us down mentally? “What we choose to focus on is largely a product of biochemistry,” she says. “We see absolutely everything through this lens that is our blood sugar stability (…), our hormones and our neurotransmitters.”

Full story at Big Think.

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