Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Where the Taste Comes From (and the Smell, and the Color)

“Amid a barrage of criticism over the amount of cholesterol in their fries, McDonald’s made the switch to pure vegetable oil in 1990. The switch presented the company with an enormous challenge: how to make fries that subtly taste like beef without cooking them in tallow. A look at the ingredients now used in the preparation of McDonald’s French fries suggests how the problem was solved. Toward the end of the list is a seemingly innocuous, yet oddly mysterious phrase: “natural flavor.”

Open your refrigerator, your freezer, your kitchen cupboards, and look at the labels on your food. You’ll find “natural flavor” or “artificial flavor” in just about every list of ingredients. The similarities between these two broad categories of flavor are far more significant than their differences. Both are man-made additives that give most processed food most of its taste... About 90 percent of the money that Americans spend on food is used to buy processed food. But the canning, freezing, and dehydrating techniques used to process food destroy most of its flavor. Since the end of World War II, a vast industry has arisen in the United States to make processed food palatable. Without this flavor industry, today’s fast food industry could not exist. The names of the leading American fast food chains and their best-selling menu items have become famous worldwide... Few people, however, can name the companies that manufacture fast food’s taste.

The flavor industry is highly secretive. Its leading companies will not divulge the precise formulas of flavor compounds or the identities of clients. The secrecy is deemed essential for protecting the reputation of beloved brands. The fast food chains, understandably, would like the public to believe that the flavors of their food somehow originate in their restaurant kitchens, not in distant factories run by other firms.”

Fast Food Nation, p. 120

Flavor isn’t the only component of fast food that is manufactured at a factory. Many of the same companies that produce these flavor additives also produce aroma and color additives. Inside these factories, thousands and thousands of little glass bottles go around on conveyor belts, and end up sitting on laboratory tables and shelves. These little bottles contain all the things you think you’re eating—the smell, the taste, and the color—the stuff that comes from the actual restaurant is basically just the canvas.

Even something specifically labeled “all-natural” contains man-made additives. “The distinction between artificial and natural flavors can be somewhat arbitrary and absurd, based more on how the flavor has been made than on what it actually contains... Natural flavors and artificial flavors sometimes contain exactly the same chemicals, produced through different methods (126).”

“The Vegetarian Legal Action Network recently petitioned the FDA to issue new food labeling requirements for foods that contain natural flavors. The group wants food processors to list the basic origins of their flavors on their labels. At the moment, vegetarians often have no way of knowing whether a flavor additive contains beef, pork, poultry, or shellfish. One of the most widely used color additives—whose presence is often hidden by the phrase “color added”—violates a number of religious and dietary restrictions, may cause allergic reactions in susceptible people, and comes from an unusual source. Cochineal extract (also known as carmine or carminic acid) is made from the dessicated bodies of female Dactlyopius coccus Costa, a small insect harvested mainly in Peru and the Canary Islands. The bug feeds on red cactus berries and color from the berries accumulate[s] in the females and their unhatched larvae. The insects are collected, dried, and ground into pigment. It takes about 70,000 of them to produce one pound of carmine, which is used to make processed foods look pink, red, or purple. Dannon strawberry yogurt gets its color from carmine, as do many frozen fruit bars, candies, fruit fillings, and Ocean Spray pink-grapefruit orange juice drink (128-129).”

Regardless of the fact that I am now physically sickened by the idea of eating anything pink, red, or purple, I am in shock that these companies are not yet required to include such information on the packages of their products. There is something very wrong with a system that allows people to be eating ground up insects and larvae, and never know it.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Well, today is the day that we have to do 80 percent of our packing, and I woke up with a really sore shoulder and bad back pain. I am also bummed about the fact that I woke up at 4 am and never got back to sleep--so I don't have much energy now, and sometime this afternoon I'm probably going to crash. Not the best start, I'm afraid. Wish us luck!

Update: My brilliant cousin Sara has pointed out that my back pain and shoulder/neck pain are probably related to my fall Saturday night. Plus the thumb that I noticed later in the day yesterday, that's been hurting as though it had been jammed. All of these things are on the right side of my body, which is the side that got the impact when I tripped. Ridiculous that such a small thing could cause all of this pain, but there you have it. Also ridiculous that I didn't put any of this together on my own. :)

Further Update: Our packing is actually going pretty well, thanks mostly to Mike. I wasn't able to do much yesterday, and today I am working; plus the pain is lessened this morning, but still there. So once again, I think it will be up to him to finish up. 

Monday, June 28, 2010

Last Free Exit

There's a highway that we use a lot around here, President George Bush Turnpike, which is a toll road. And when you get on at a certain place, there's a sign saying "last free exit," since after that all the exits have toll booths on them. For several months after we first moved here, Mike could not drive past that sign without thrusting his fist in the air and shouting "We are free!" in the manner of Gerard Butler in 300, and generally being pretty amused with himself. I think the sign might actually be gone now, but I still think of it every time we drive past where it used to be.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

What Needs to Be Done

In 1995, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared that "advertising directed at children is inherently deceptive and exploits children under eight years of age"... Congress should immediately ban all advertisements aimed at children that promote foods high in fat and sugar. Thirty years ago Congress banned cigarette ads from radio and television as a public health measure--and those ads were directed at adults.

Congress cannot require fast food chains to provide job training to their workers. But it can eliminate the tax breaks that reward chains for churning through their workers and keeping job skills to a minimum. Job training schemes subsidized by the federal government should insist that companies employ workers for at least a year--and actually provide some training. Strict enforcement of minimum wage, overtime, and child labor laws would improve the lives of fast food workers, as would OSHA regulations on workplace violence at restaurants... Teenagers should be rewarded, not harmed, by the decision to work after school.

As for the food now served at school cafeterias, it should be safer to eat than what is sold at fast food restaurants, not less safe. The USDA should insist upon the highest possible food safety standards from every company that supplies ground beef to the school lunch program--or it should stop purchasing ground beef. American taxpayers shouldn't be paying for food that might endanger their children.

At the moment, a dozen federal agencies in the United States are responsible for food safety, and twenty-eight congressional committees oversee them. The welter of competing bureaucracies leads to confusion, gaps in enforcement, and numerous food safety absurdities. The USDA has the power to conduct microbial tests on cattle that have already been slaughtered, but cannot test live cattle in order to keep infected animals out of slaughterhouses. The manufacture of frozen cheese pizzas is regulated by the FDA, but if a pizza contains pepperoni on it, the USDA has food safety jurisdiction. Eggs are regulated by the FDA, but chickens are regulated by the USDA, and a lack of cooperation between the two agencies has hampered efforts to reduce the levels of Salmonella in American eggs. Salmonella has been almost entirely eliminated from Swedish and Dutch eggs. Every year in the United States, however, more than half a million people become ill after eating eggs contaminated with Salmonella, and more than 300 people die.

Congress should create a single food safety agency that has sufficient authority to protect the public health. The two main tasks currently assigned to the USDA--to promote American agriculture and to police it--are incompatible.

At the moment, the nation's roughly 200,000 fast food restaurants are not subject to any oversight by federal health authorities. The war on foodborne pathogens deserves the sort of national attention and resources that has been devoted to the war on drugs. Far more Americans are severely harmed every year by food poisoning than by illegal drug use. And the harms caused by food poisoning are usually inadvertent and unanticipated. People who smoke crack know the potential dangers; most people who eat hamburgers don't. Eating in the United States should no longer be a form of high-risk behavior.

Fast Food Nation, p. 263-265

Monday, June 21, 2010

Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser--9/10

My freshman year of college, when I was living in the dorms, my roommate Sara took a class about current social issues. She had to read Fast Food Nation, and when I think about this book I have always remembered the day when she got to the chapter about the unspeakably awful conditions of beef slaughterhouses, and started reading aloud to me. I remember being physically sickened, and deciding I didn't want to read that book. 

Just a couple months ago, Mike and I were talking, for some reason, about The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair. I've known of the book for years, and heard it mentioned many times in high school. But I had no idea what it was about (basically, the same thing as FFN, only much earlier). And when Mike told me, I said to him, "Well, I'm never reading that."

Now, only weeks later, I find it funny and surprising that that would have been my reaction. With my interest in food reformation right now, wouldn't you think that's something I'd want to read? So the other day at Half Price Books, I found a copy for about a dollar and bought it. But the experience just made me aware of how, in the face of such situations, our strongest instinct can sometimes be to look the other way.

If you're interested in facing the facts of what is going on with our food, read Fast Food Nation. It isn't just a description of slaughterhouses and fast food restaurants, although those things are included. It's a commentary on the entire culture of our nation--the way we've begun to worship technology and the "free market," the way profits have become more important than human lives, and the way simple willful ignorance has allowed corporate greed to centralize and create a system that is not very different from the system of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

You're thinking this sounds dramatic. I know. There were times throughout my reading that I had that same thought. And then I continued reading, and found plenty of evidence to back up that claim, and stories to make my stomach turn. I'll be writing more blog posts about this, and I'll share some of that information with you, so you don't have to start off by reading the whole thing if you're not ready. But I really think you should. 

Here's a sample, and a pretty good summary of what is going on:

Throughout the Cold War, America's decentralized system of agriculture, relying upon millions of independent producers, was depicted as the most productive system in the world, as proof of capitalism's inherent superiority. The perennial crop failures in the Soviet Union were attributed to a highly centralized system run by distant bureaucrats.
Today the handful of agribusiness firms that dominate American food production are championing another centralized system of production, on in which livestock and farmland are viewed purely as commodities, farmers are reduced to the status of employees, and crop decisions are made by executives far away from the fields. Although competition between the large processors has indeed led to lower costs for consumers, price fixing and collusion have devastated independent ranchers and farmers.
The antitrust laws outlawing such behavior need to be vigorously enforced. More than a century ago... Henry M. Teller, a Republican senator from Colorado, dismissed the argument that lower consumer prices justified the ruthless exercise of monopoly power. "I do not believe," Teller argued, "that the great object in life is to make everything cheap."

Having centralized American agriculture, the large agribusiness firms are now attempting, like Soviet commissars, to stifle criticism of their policies. Over the past decade, "veggie libel laws" backed by agribusiness have been passed in thirteen states. The laws make it illegal to criticize agricultural commodities in a manner inconsistent with "reasonable" scientific evidence.
The whole concept of "veggie libel" is probably unconstitutional; nevertheless, these laws remain on the books. Oprah Winfrey, among others, has been sued for making disparaging remarks about food. In Texas, a man was sued by a sod company for criticizing the quality of its lawns... In Colorado, violating the veggie libel law is now a criminal, not a civil, offense. Criticizing the ground beef produced at the Greeley slaughterhouse [in Colorado] could put you behind bars.

--Fast Food Nation, p. 266-67
The book feels daunting, but it's significantly shorter than it looks; almost the entire last quarter is research notes. Just when I was thinking I would never get through it, I reached the epilogue. The book was written in 2001, nine years ago, which means that it's possible that some of these situations have changed. (Not likely--but possible.) Research on that is the next thing on my list. Regardless, there is no way that enough has changed for this to no longer be an issue; which is why you need to read it. We desperately need change, but it can't happen until people decide to stop looking the other way. 

Friday, June 18, 2010

eBay Adventures

Oops. I've pulled a Mike, and accidentally ordered something on eBay that it turns out is shipping from South Korea. Combine that with the fact that, in my excitement, I got on eBay, saw that the auction was ending in 25 minutes, and decided to buy it before realizing that there was another listing with a Buy It Now option that, because it came with free shipping, would have been cheaper, and... Well, I suppose we shall say that this was not my best work. However, the deed is done, the price is paid, and here's hoping that Benjamin's birthday present will arrive sometime before Christmas!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Ah, Sexism...

From Top 10 of Everything 2010:

Top 10 Most Expensive Paintings Ever Sold at Auction

  1. Garçon à la Pipe, Pablo Picasso--$104,168,000
  2. Dora Maar au chat, Pablo Picasso--$95,216,000
  3. Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II, Gustav Klimt--$87,936,000
  4. Triptych, Francis Bacon--$86,281,000
  5. Portrait du Dr Gachet, Vincent van Gogh--$82,500,000
  6. Le Bassin aux Nymphéas, Claude Monet--$80,379,591
  7. Bal au Moulin de la Galette, Montmarte, Pierre-Auguste Renoir--$78,100,000
  8. The Massacre of the Innocents, Sir Peter Paul Rubens--$75,930,440
  9. White Center (Yellow, pink and lavender on rose), Mark Rothko--$72,840,000
  10. Green Car Crash--Green Burning Car I, Andy Warhol--$71,720,000

Top 10 Most Expensive Paintings by Women Artists

  1. Les Fleurs, Natalia Goncharova--$10,860,832
  2. Picking Apples, Natalia Goncharova--$9,778,656
  3. The Visitor, Marlene Dumas--$6,343,082
  4. Bluebells, Natalia Goncharova--$6,229,793
  5. Children Playing with a Dog, Mary Cassatt--$6,200,000
  6. Calla Lilies with Red Anemone, Georgia O'Keefe--$6,166,000
  7. Roots, Frida Kahlo--$5,616,000
  8. Danseuses Espagnoles, Natalia Goncharova--$5,573,122
  9. Cache-cache, Berthe Morisot--$5,168,000
  10. Chant 2, Bridget Riley--$5,113,296

The fact that there's a separate category already tells you something: Namely, that the absence of female artists on the first list isn't coincidental. It's not just because no female artists happened to be on it, but because female artists aren't even considered to be in the same league. 

And then there's the fact that, as a general rule, the men's paintings went for ten times as much as the women's. Tell me, what makes one of these paintings worth over $80 million more than the other?

I sure can't tell. 

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Dresden Files, by Jim Butcher--9/10

My normal reading has been slowed down lately by the fact that I've been immersed in The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. It isn't a series I'd recommend to anyone who reads this blog, because, well, to be honest, Jim Butcher is a bit of a perv. He's obviously a giant sci-fi/fantasy geek who's living out every fantasy he's ever had, and so there is a much higher level of inappropriateness in this series than I would normally tolerate. It's unfortunate, because they're actually really excellent books, but oh well; and because of that I figured I wouldn't bother writing about them on here. I just haven't written any book reviews lately, so I wanted to let you know why. 

Monday, June 14, 2010


In reference to music, I think copyright laws are mostly crap. 

If you're a musician, you put your music out there for people to listen to. Once you do that, I think you should be relinquishing a large amount of control over it--except, of course, to the extent that you can prevent someone else from just taking your song and pretending it was theirs. 

But things like this? 

You might be tempted to assume that this tension isn’t a big deal because copyright holders won’t go after creative kids or amateurs. But they do: In the 1990s, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) asked members of the American Camping Association, including Girl Scout troops, to pay royalties for singing copyrighted songs at camp. In 2004, the Beatles’ copyright holders tried to prevent the release of The Grey Album – a mash-up of Jay-Z’s Black Album and the Beatles’ White Album — and only gave up after massive civil disobedience resulted in the album’s widespread distribution. Copyright holders even routinely demand that YouTube remove videos of kids dancing to popular music. While few copyright cases go to trial, copyright holders like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) don’t hesitate to seek stratospheric damage awards when they do, as in the Jammie Thomas-Rasset filesharing case.

My question is, why on earth would copyright holders care about YouTube videos of little kids dancing to their songs? That's exposure! The parents of those kids aren't making money off posting the videos. People still know who sang the song. What are the copyright holders losing? I can understand the Jay-Z/Beatles thing, because another artist would be making money off their work--although if it were me I don't know that I'd care. But the Girl Scouts? Really?? I mean, that's just pathetic. It's basically bullying.

As far as all the stuff with file-sharing programs, and the big record companies whining that they're losing money, I say it's about time they quit with the fear campaign and actually try something to fix the problem. ("Today, the RIAA — the lobbying group for the world’s big four music companies, Sony BMG, Universal Music, EMI and Warner Music — admits that the lawsuits are largely a public relations effort, aimed at striking fear into the hearts of would-be downloaders." The money they make from suing people doesn't go to artists--it's used to sue other people. Read more.)

In case you're interested, voluntary collective licensing is one possible solution:

The concept is simple: the music industry forms several "collecting societies," which then offer file-sharing music fans the opportunity to "get legit" in exchange for a reasonable regular payment, say a total of $5-10 per month (after all, services like Rhapsody sell all-you-can-eat music for around $10 per month, so we know the rate should be below that). So long as they pay, the fans are free to keep doing what they are going to do anyway—share the music they love using whatever software they like on whatever computer platform they prefer—without fear of lawsuits. The money collected gets divided among rights-holders based on the popularity of their music.
In exchange, file-sharing music fans will be free to download and share whatever they like, using whatever software works best for them. The more people share, the more money goes to rights-holders. The more competition in applications, the more rapid the innovation and improvement. The more freedom to fans to publish what they care about, the deeper the catalog.

The whole thing is just ridiculous. Like that second article says, file sharing is not going anywhere. The lawsuits aren't deterring people from using P2P sharing programs--in fact, they're more popular than ever. It's time to accept it and move on.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Texas Credit Union

What is with this place and their wildly inappropriate billboards right now? First there's the "that's what she said" one that I mentioned a little while ago. Now we've seen one that says something like "super remodel" and has a hot girl holding a drill (in reference to remodeling your house or whatever). Who is their advertising agency, MTV? I am not a fan. 

Thursday, June 10, 2010

T-mobile Adventures

Hahaha.... I chatted with a T-mobile representative today because I made a payment and accidentally typed my checking account number in wrong. This is what he said:

~Jason G:  We do apologize that you accidentally made this error.


Good Morning, Good Morning, to You!

Two things have made me cry today.

The first was footage of the BP spill, most of which I've been avoiding until now, and interviews with the families of a few of the men who died in the explosion.

The second was this card on PostSecret, and the Facebook group that's been created in response to it. 

In other news, I think the sight of Lana zooming around the house in her little walker might be the funniest thing I've ever seen in my life. She's very cheerful this morning, and I am loving that.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Abusive Monday

Ouch. I've been beat up a little today--or rather, in the last two hours.

I took Mike to work after his lunch break so I could keep the car, and after I dropped him off I plugged in my iPod and got my ears exploded. The volume was all the way up on my iPod because I'd been listening to it at home while cleaning, and the volume on the radio was up really high because Mike likes it that way. My ears were ringing for a good ten minutes afterward, and it was quite uncomfortable. 

Then I went to Talia's house because she asked me to let her dogs out, and bashed my thumb trying to get the back gate to latch behind me. It has a really unattractive bruise under the nail now. 

And then, while I was filling the dogs' water bowl, my thumb still throbbing, Ginger--who is now approximately the size of a Shetland pony and not even full grown--clawed me and left three pretty good scratches across my arm. 

All this, combined with the massive bruise/gouge I received on my leg from the corner of my bed a couple days ago, makes me feel like I'm either being clumsier than usual, or being targeted by various sinister elements of the universe which are out to get me.

Just kidding. Not about all my little injuries, but about being so dramatic about them. :)

The end.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Straight and Narrow

My entire adult life (I'm using this phrase loosely to include my teenage years), people have looked at my hair and asked me why I didn't straighten it. My answer was usually something like, "I've tried, but it doesn't work very well;" "I use a chemical relaxer, and that's as close as I can get;" "I want to, but I don't have a good enough straightener."

It finally occurred to me today that the correct answer is, "Because my hair is curly." 

I mean, why the heck would I straighten my hair? For a new hairstyle every now and then, sure. But that's not what people mean. Here is what I am realizing today: People are operating under the assumption that straight hair is the norm. Since my hair is naturally curly, I need to straighten it to make it right. 

But why?

Don't get me wrong--I am just as guilty as everyone else of thinking this way. The way I used to answer that question is evidence of that, as is the fact that, as much as I hate it, I always feel prettier with my hair straight.

This was a topic on The Today Show this morning, and would you believe that it wasn't until I watched that show that I had this realization? How on earth has it taken me 25 years to realize that I don't need to apologize for my curly hair? And what do you suppose is the reason that our collective culture feels this way--that straight hair is better than curly hair? Who decided that curly hair needs to be fixed?

They mentioned something interesting on the show this morning: That women with straight hair are seen as more dependable, professional, and together, while women with curly hair seem more wild and artistic. I found this pretty surprising, probably because curly is my natural state, and I have never thought of myself as wild or artsy. Is that how any of you see it?

To be fair, there is a few years' difference between these pictures, but still. You see my point.