It’s Thanksgiving (have a great one!) and God knows I’ve got plenty to be grateful for: family and friends and a roof over my head, a decent health plan, the welcome arrival of autumn and its epic skies and cool nights. Justice Department investigations, too. Let’s not forget them.
But I hope I don’t seem too trivial if I add that I’m also grateful for the glorious, uplifting, appalling spectacle of the world as it passes by. I’m a chump for a story. (I expect my last words to be, “Wait, I need to see how this turns out . . .”) Human nature being what it is, a lot of stories are about stupidity, error, and greed; but when I’m being honest, I don’t know what I’d do without them.
Here, for example, are some outstanding entries in life’s rich parade, taken from the food world this past week.
Nutrition science. Let’s hear it for the tireless folks who figure out why food is good for us—not just generally, but in exquisite detail. It’s hard work, and it requires some public-spirited entity to cough up some cash. This week, for instance, it was announced that the Ocean Spray growers cooperative was preparing to contribute $10 million to proving that cranberries prevent urinary and other infections. Why? For your health, of course. “With antibiotic resistance on track to kill more people than cancer, the World Health Organization has called on government sectors and society to take action on this serious threat to global public health,” explained Ocean Spray CEO Randy Papadellis. “We want to be sure that Ocean Spray does our part to look at all the components of this one-of-a-kind fruit and how it can contribute to whole-body health.”
Ocean Spray is too modest. The cranberry guys are also contributing to the important scientific process of replicating research—in this case, presumably, the blinded clinical trial (the best kind of study), published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that found no effect of cranberries on UTIs. The journal was so impressed by the data that it included an editorial headlined “Cranberry for Prevention of Urinary Tract Infection? Time to Move On.” Official cranberrydom disagrees (as they explain here). How much do we want to bet that the research they commission supports their case?
More science. And while we’re on the subject, the British grocery chain Asda is selling cute little pineapple plants for the holidays. Its pitch: NASA has proven that a pineapple plant in your bedroom reduces snoring. The press response has been amazing; everybody is reprinting this amazing story. The one smallish problem? There doesn’t seem to be any sign that NASA ever said any such thing. It’s true that back in the 1980s, NASA did some research on phytoremediation—the use of plants to remove indoor environmental pollutants. And it’s true that the scientist most associated with that research, a guy named Bill Wolverton, does in fact argue for keeping large numbers of certain houseplants in your home to preserve air quality. And yes, conceivably better air quality might reduce snoring. But Wolverton’s book How to Grow Fresh Air doesn’t contain even one mention of the words “pineapple,” “snore,” or “snoring.” (Thanks, Google.)
A supermarket fibbing? I blame Putin.
Nature’s generosity. When you think about the benefits of food, it’s not all about labeling and patents and ownership. It’s also about the way nature provides us with gift after gift, placing remarkable capabilities in the humblest plant or animal, as resources for all humankind to use freely. For instance, it was recently discovered that the cherry-like acerola can prevent fruit juice mixes from turning brown. Now that we know, everyone can start using this cool natural property of a cool natural product. Oh, wait: Coca-Cola just patented it. Apparently nature’s gifts are just about labeling and patents and ownership after all. Good to know.
Labeling. What would we do without it? And we should be especially thankful that FDA has decided to improve the way nutrition is described on packaged food by requiring companies to include more detail. Very important to some of us are the labeling requirements for fiber. Come 2020, we’ll be able to look at a package of food and know—well, almost nothing about how much fiber is in there. Why? Because FDA hasn’t entirely decided what counts as fiber. Normal food-plant components like husks and bran count. So do additional processed products such as beta-glucan soluble fiber, psyllium husk, and hydroxypropyl methylcellulose. But, as Food Dive explains, the agency is hung up considering an additional 26 other types of fiber—including gum acacia, bamboo fiber, pea fiber, soluble corn fiber, soy fiber, and xanthan gum. To qualify, they have to be non-digestible carbohydrates—which apparently no one is disputing. But they also have to be beneficial to human health. And despite what your grandmother might have told you about roughage, there’s a question about whether it applies to bamboo fiber and xanthan gum.
FDA will eventually sort it out. In the meantime, if products can’t call themselves high-fiber, they can at least call themselves natural and healthy.
Oh, wait . . .
Entrepreneurs. God love ’em. They slave day and night and put their personal fortunes on the line just to provide us with things that we really truly need. Take Little Spoon, for instance. Sure, you can get your fix of quinoa and turmeric and whatnot from Blue Apron or one of the other meal kit companies. But what about baby? Is the poor innocent lamb supposed to survive on oatmeal and bananas and stuff in jars? That’s where Little Spoon comes in. It knows you have fears and questions: “Parenthood is filled with questions,” the company writes. “Is my baby gaining enough weight? Is it normal that my baby likes avocado one day, and hates it the next? What exactly should I feed my baby and when?” (Actually, my own parenthood questions were closer to, “Will I ever sleep again? How is it possible for such a small person to create so much spit? And am I absolutely certain that if I turn my back on him for a minute he won’t stop breathing?” Those are normal, right?)
Anyhow, Little Spoon has you fill out a questionnaire about your baby’s age, size, and preferences; puts together a custom dietary program that will put your mind at rest; and ships you little tubs of Beet Tahini Chickpea Apple Brown Rice Cardamom and Quinoa Raspberry Pear Coconut Milk Vanilla Date Wheat Germ Oil and other superfoods for your superbaby. Prices start at $140 a month.
The glyphosate saga. It’s going to be a long time before the next season of Game of Thrones. So if you cherish an endless tale filled with danger, conflict, inscrutable motivations, and unreadable alliances, the world’s favorite pesticide is happy to oblige. The latest chapters: This month, an all-star team of cancer specialists and epidemiologists reported the latest results in a glyphosate-and-cancer study (focusing on occupational rather than dietary exposure) that began two decades ago. The results: “we found no evidence of an association between glyphosate use and risk of any solid tumors or lymphoid malignancies, including NHL [non-Hodgkins Lymphoma] and its subtypes. However, we found some evidence of a possible association between glyphosate use and AML [acute myeloid leukemia].” The group, in case you were wondering, received no industry funding.
Meanwhile, Monsanto and farm groups are suing California over its requirement that products containing glyphosate bear a cancer warning; cancer patients are suing Monsanto, maker of the product, for failing to warn them of its dangers; and more than a million citizens of the European Union have signed petitions demanding that parliament vote against renewing the chemical’s license later this month.
At this rate, George R. R. Martin will finish writing his epic before Monsanto and its critics finish writing theirs. And if by chance the whole thing gets resolved? Think what Ned Start would say: dicamba’s coming.
And finally. The team here, without exception, are an old-fashioned kind of journalist. We don’t drive fancy cars or see ourselves on television or nail down those seven-figure book deals. But we love the process of finding out new, surprising, revealing things about the world and explaining them as well as we can. It may not sound like much to ask, but it’s a job that’s gotten harder and harder to find in recent years. Your presence, your interest, and your willingness to let us just tell it like it is without fear or favor, let us go on. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts.