Forks over Knives.

First, I just want to say – wow, yesterday was like whiplash after I posted and then everything blew up in my face for completely isolated reasons.  But that’s irrelevant.  I guess.

I’m trying to catch up with myself here – I’ve been reading so much and not writing as much, plus work is a lot at the moment.  But I watched a documentary this past week called Forks over Knives.  It’s about how horrible animal products are for people, basically.  They made all kinds of correlations between health, age, diet, etc… and backed their claims up with things like evidence of how Asian cultures have adopted American eating habits in many regions that are now suffering in health like we are despite their notoriously clean history.

The doctors in the film were interesting characters and I was shocked to Google one and find out he is in fact living in my neighborhood in Cleveland.  Then it made sense.  I’m in a wealthy part of the city and right beside my old college, Case Western Reserve, where they have the Cleveland Clinic.  Yeah, that makes sense.

While I was researching more on the topic and contemplating finding the book to read too, I was coming across a lot of interesting words and ideas.  For example, fruitarianism.  Eating only things that fall from plants – the perfect peaceful diet.  Nuts, fruits.  Limited, though.  The reason why Apple is called Apple because Steve Jobs was practicing this diet at the time.  It is possibly more akin to our natural diets than we realize, but it results in deficiencies.  Another concept I saw is “forest gardening”, which supports the sustainable practices I was mentioning previously in my small farms rant.  It combines more practical, natural settings to grow plants like the prairie studies are researching.  And, finally, I found a phrase that I really enjoy: “environmental veganism”.

Environmental vegetarianism is the practice of vegetarianism or veganism based on the indications that animal production, particularly by intensive agriculture, is environmentally unsustainable.[1] The primary environmental concerns with animal products are pollution and the use of resources such as fossil fuels, water, and land.

I’m a fan of that.  And this documentary doesn’t stray far from that concept, although it primarily focuses on health of the human body.  But I’m glad I already practice similar eating habits to those covered in the film.  I’m glad I know my homeopathic remedies well.  I find it silly to think we’ve “rediscovered” the power of plants when, realistically, we are just reinventing a wheel that mother nature made, we used, and then we subsequently forgot.

The High-Fructose Corn Syrup Debate

I’ve always avoided high-fructose corn syrup.  But I’ve also always avoided sugar, period.  I was never sure if I should avoid one more than another.  Instead, I aim to choose items that are in their whole forms, like bulk nuts and other fresh ingredients that I make into something with my own hands.  However, avoiding the topic couldn’t last forever.  I decided to organize my own thoughts on the high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) debate.

What is sugar?
Before we can attack HFCS, let’s think for a minute about what sugar is and what it does to our bodies.  First of all, sugar as we know it today generally translates to beet sugar or sugarcane.  The key to the definition is that these food sugars are monosaccharides (simple carbohydrates) such as glucose and fructose.  Simple carbohydrates chemically break down quickly for sudden energy release from the split bonds.  Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, are known to be more complicated to break down and therefore release energy more slowly but steadily.  Sucrose is a disaccharide, with one glucose linked to one fructose.  Sugars are carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen based.

Sugar in America.
Sugar has a bad association in America with diabetes, obesity, and other health problems.  We’ve been consuming sugar globally for hundreds of years and, in some cultures, for thousands of years, but the consumption rates in America have skyrocketed.  This article demonstrates the drastic increase of sugar consumption per person per year in America over the last two centuries.  Most data indicates a steep rise in American sugar consumption with the closure of the Civil War with two dramatic drops at the time of the World Wars.  Some studies have predicted that, based on the current trend line in consumption data, Americans will be consuming essentially ‘100% sugar’ by the year 2606 (based on a 95% goodness of fit and an assumed average caloric intake).  And while Americans are told they should be consuming no more than 100 to 150 calories per day of added sugar, they may not realize this includes sugar naturally found in food products.  For example, dairy products have lactose.  Fruits are actually very high in the sugar fructose.  Yet, while obesity continues to rise, it may not actually be sugar consumption that is to blame.  Studies find a more intense correlation between lifestyles and weight gain.  It is likely that sugar, high in calories and added to the vast majority of American foods, has a way of bloating one’s calorie count without much detection.  I guess the argument can be made that it’s in everything, so we eat it in place of healthier alternatives, and so we get fat.  But we don’t have to buy the sugary stuff!  We do because we crave it.  No one made you buy that candy or that dessert or even that stew that had nearly undetectable added sugar – it’s just what your tastes are accustomed to!  Because we actively partake in activities that maintain a sugary demand in our country.  Sugar doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but we have diverged from the evolved eating habits of our prehistoric ancestors.  Besides, anything is bad in excess.

What is high-fructose corn syrup?
HFCS is, chemically-speaking, essentially the same product as table sugar.  The difference is the glucose and the fructose in HFCS is unbounded, whereas it’s bonded in regular sugar.  Sugar can only be grown in the more tropical climates, thus its production is highly limited in the US and its tariffs for importing are high.  HFCS, on the other hand, is extremely cheap, very obtainable in a corn-dominated country, and highly soluble.  So what’s everyone complaining about?

Debunking accusations agains HFCS.
There are a number of studies that show HFCS is no more obesity-causing than regular sugar, but none of them deny that Americans eat too much sugar.  That’s the main source of the issue.  But people tend to blame companies for slipping HFCS (the cheap alternative to sugar) in everything to make the products taste better.  That means they sell more for less investment.  But does that mean using sugar instead would change anything?  The price.  Our tastes?  No.  Our sugar cravings?  No.  Therefore our obesity problem?  Probably not, unless some actual lifestyle changes were made.  So what other arguments are out there?  Well, there’s the one about the creation of HFCS being synthetic and artificial and therefore bad.  Well isn’t anything we make or do technically unnatural?  What is baking bread or scrambling an egg?  It’s just inducing chemical reactions.  I used to be opposed to “chemicals” until my friend pointed out that everything is a chemical.  And because the two kinds of sweeteners are chemical twins, what is the problem?  Another argument is that our brains being unable to register HFCS as sweet and therefore we consume more than we would of sugar.  In this article, a study is reviewed about the hypothalamus in the brain which detects consumption, calories, and other levels and which would be responsible for detecting sweeteners.  The study concluded that glucose and fructose do affect the brain differently, but that the boundedness or unboundedness does not have a proven affect on how they do this.  While reading this article, I couldn’t help but notice the author’s reference to carbonyls like they were some obvious health threat.  Carbonyls are a type of carbon monoxide ligand; ligands are directly connected to receptors in the body.  Some ligands are antagonists that block receptors.  Metal carbonyls are notorious for their toxicity and ability to block important oxygen bondings.  The carbonyls found in HFCS have a bad rap simply because a connection is believed to exist between the carbonyls present and diabetes.  That doesn’t necessarily mean obesity, now does it?  But what I find even more interesting (and explained extremely thoroughly in this article) is that these carbonyls and this unbounded property of HFCS doesn’t mean anything, as far as sodas are concerned.  The carbonation in soda in fact hydrolyzes up to about 90% of the bounded sugars so that they are now unbounded and, quite frankly, now identical to HFCS before you’ve even opened the can.

Conclusion
HFCS is overdramatized without people fully understanding the facts first.  There is also not enough conclusions about the topic, especially considering the amount of conflicting data from animal studies, etc., that currently exists.  Maybe non-carbonated products are worse in HFCS than in regular sugar, but I simply don’t know and not enough long-term data exists yet on the health effects.  I do, however, stand by the fact that we consume too much of whatever you want to call it (any combination of fructose, glucose, sucrose, lactose,…) and that Americans need to become more active.  That is the problem leading to the obesity epidemic: CALORIE CONSUMPTION >> CALORIE EXPENDITURE.

Shopping with a Conscience.

Do you ever feel guilty buying certain things at the store?  There are three things that really get me:

1. Out-of-season foods.
It’s hard to eat healthy and local at the same time without boring your tastebuds to death.  I just spent the last 5 weeks in Africa where I witnessed this isn’t a problem: people have the freshest, sweetest fruits I’ve ever tasted growing at their fingertips year round.  In Cleveland, however, healthy and local aren’t commonplace during the long winter months.  Unless you want to eat cabbage and broccoli all winter, you can plan on buying imported fruits.  I first came to this realization when one day I thought, I don’t eat enough fruit; I should buy some apples.  But apples don’t naturally grow here in the winter.  Was eating an apple really worth supporting the industry of shipping exotic foods from afar all year round just to satisfy my palate?  No.  How could I get around this?  Better planning.  Next year, I should take advantage of abundant apples and other fruits growing locally and then learn to can them with spices!  Mmmmm.  Or even make pies and freeze them.  Too bad others don’t feel this way.  We only encourage such out-of-season deliveries by buying and creating a demand for more.

2. Chemicals.
After several classes about environmentalism and policies, Silent Spring attaches itself to every thought I have of store-bought chemicals.  Although I personally refuse to buy and use chemical herbicides, insecticides, and most household cleaning products, I am aware that I still buy and use things that are not very environmentally-friendly.  For example, my drains got extremely clogged last year and my mom bought me a bottle of Drain-O which I reluctantly applied.  Or how about something as simple as acetone to take off nail polish?  Or even nail polish itself?  Air fresheners in aeresol cans?  Even buying plastic zip-lock bags falls into this category for me – an evil necessity that, quite frankly, isn’t necessary at all but we convince ourselves that it is.

3. Plastic amenities.
My chemical fears continue in this category.  I don’t just mean plastic bags, but plastic utensils and kitchen items.  I buy glass mason jars and use them for everything as much as I can.  My friends make fun of me for traveling with mason jars instead of snack bags, but I feel like a much better person for using them.  But where plastic really irks me is in the kitchen itself.  I love to cook, and the thought of flipping on an oven instead of lighting a fireplace bothers me enough already.  I do everything within my power to avoid plastic spatulas, plastic cups, plastic bowls, plastic anything!  This theme continues into my housework where I strive to buy metal brooms instead of plastic sweepers.   I work overtime to avoid electricity use.  I even do a lot of my laundry by hand in my bath water after I’ve taken a bath.  My friends think this is crazy, but I argue it’s much simpler than going to the Laundromat.  And I dread the day that I have my own house and contemplate my need for washing units of my own.  What wastes!  But when it comes to appliances, I always put in the extra money for that metal toaster or metal blender with the hopes that it will last longer, will degrade better, and was better for the environment to be produced.  Besides, metal appliances are so much classier!

Maybe it’s just me – and maybe it shouldn’t be just me – but buying certain things in the store send me reeling on a guilt trip.  Are there any things in particular that bother you?  I mean, most of us break down and buy a car at some point, which is bad enough, but what about the little nagging things?  Like imported goods and plastic, plastic, plastic?

Maybe, one day, we won’t have to make environmentally-conscience decisions every time we shop.  Maybe they’ll be the only option!

Land Ethics – Something Not To Be Underrug Swept

I am studying Civil Engineering, but I am specializing in the “Environmental Geotechnical” subdivision of the broad CivE field.  For this reason, one of my classes this semester is Environmental Geology.  I thought it would be a boring class about rocks, but it really isn’t.  Despite my preconceived notions, I ordered all of my text books months in advance and have since kept up on the reading.  I wish more students could delve into these materials as seriously because I am surprised by how relevant every topic really is.  I keep recalling these Indian proverbs recited in my family (Native American, albeit in French) about how life is one fragile web; what happens to one thread happens to all.  The expression fits this class perfectly.

Just within the first chapter, I was pummeled with scientifical points and pointed fingers.  The author of my “Introduction to Environmental Geology” book, Edward A. Keller, begins his book with “Concept One: Human Population Growth… The number-one environmental problem is the increase in human population”.  True or not true?  It is clearly his opinion, but he supports it well.  He talks about the “population bomb”, where exponential growth in our population explodes our numbers… and how our flocking to concentrated areas rather than pioneering and exploring has cornered us and subjected us to natural disasters.  My mother would argue that disasters, famine, disease, etc. are all mechanisms of the planet to balance itself out.  Now that we have improved technologies, agriculture, and medicine that extends our lifetimes significantly (and thereby affecting our population numbers in one stillframe), these disasters are merely keeping us in order.

But Keller takes this to another level.  He argues that “some studies suggest that the present population is already above a comfortable carrying capacity for the planet” (16), just pages before he explains the likelihood that Earth will outlive us by billions of years.  He constantly reiterates how short our time on this planet has been relative to the Earth’s age, and it’s a matter of hours around New Year’s after a whole year has passed before our arrival.  By page 18, Keller is essentially arguing that the Earth is not in danger.  We are in danger, some of the wildlife is likely affected by us and therefore in danger, but the planet keeps on apathetically turning.  Remember, this is a geology book, so plate techtonics, physical and chemical composition – none of that will change.  However, if we keep feeding the gases into the atmosphere that cause changes in the climate and the cold front patterns, the planet will naturally balance that with its ever-changing topography and natural disasters.  What Keller is trying to say is as simple as this: Don’t fix the planet, because it will balance itself out regardless; instead, view environmentalism as monitoring the Earth for the sole purpose of saving ourselves.

This brings me to “land ethics”, introduced on page 33.  It’s interesting how many people I know will go through their lives not thinking a second about the environment.  They’ll buy what they want to buy, drive where they want to drive, and not blink at all at the looming threat of a planetary disaster.  It’s people like these who do not invest in the vavlues of land ethics.  These ethics declare humans responsible, through their actions as citizens to this planet, for all other humans as well as the flora, the fauna, the ground, the water, and the air.  Believing in a land ethic means you agree that “we are the land’s citizens and protectors, not its conquerors”, that “this role change requires us to rever, love, and protect our land rather than allow economics to determine land use” (33), which it so often does.  This is no “hippie” notion – this is purely being responsible.

It sickens me that notions such as land ethics have such a classy, hippie, cool appeal.  Trigger words should instead include survival, necessity, and catastrophe prevention.  We are “blessed” enough to live in this era which teeters on the brink of some serious global crises.  Granted, these crises may only exist for our race, for our species, because the Earth will move on without us.  But, if we want to invest in the safe future of our offspring, we should concern ourselves less with economic survival and acknowledge the big picture.  We might all have our internal disputes, even those between nations, but what are those really to the planet as a whole?  They’re petty things.  The ONE THING that this entire planet should be able to agree on in the IMMEDIATE NEED to preserve a place for our children to live.  Other planets may not be a solution, and if we can’t fix our problems here then we will be certainly ill-equipped to take on an entirely new and foreign system.

The planet really is a fragile web.  However, it can rebuild itself.  Mother Earth a.k.a. Gaia is one crafty spider, and we are merely insects she’s got saved aside for later in her web.  It’s about time every human realizes he cannot live here for free, that he is indebted to his environment for eternity.  We might have fancy technology, but Mother Earth’s power will always overcome us in the end.  What makes us any different than the dinosaurs or any other mammal subjected to the same environment as we?  Have a conscience – it just might save your life.

P.S. Did you know?  Not only does the Earth’s techtonic plates, through their convergence, divergence, subduction, etc. dictate our living conditions on the surface, but the planet’s shape controls our climate.  Ever wondered why the equitorial jungles are surrounded by deserts?  It has to do with hot air collecting and dumping its burdening water content at the Equator, then its recycling away from the Equator in arid gusts that steal away any moisture in the deserts.  This is one of the many ways Mother Earth balances herself out and decides how we live.