Tag Archives: You Must Read

You Must Read— The Dorito Effect Why All Food Is Becoming Junk Food & What We Can Do About It

Do you every wonder why people say something tastes like chicken? Because chicken, in the modern sense, only tastes like the seasonings under which it has been drowned. Unseasoned chicken would taste, to quote Julia Child, like the stuffing from the inside of a teddy bear.

Why does chicken not taste like chicken anymore? Because we have focused on raising a bird that gets to market weight in record time on a monotonous diet of industrial grains, which themselves do not taste like anything, in order to produce perfect little bland lumps of white meat to be dredged in seasonings and breading. A chicken is meant to spend its days pecking at bugs and greenery under the canopy of a bright blue sky. If a chicken is raised in such a bucolic environment it will taste like chicken and need little in the way of spicy chemical warfare.

9781476724218This is the modern phenomenon that is chronicled in Mark Schatzker’s The Dorito Effect Why All Food Is Becoming Junk Food & What We Can Do About It. The central thesis is that food has become diluted in terms of nutrition and flavor, which are one in the same, due to the industrialization of production and the focus on yield above all other characteristics.

In essence, we are hardwired to seek out flavor because flavor, in nature, denotes nutrition, and if we are fed nutritious food we will be satisfied. When we are satisfied we will stop eating. Somewhere along the way, usually in post-World War II America, this connection got short circuited because we figured out how to create synthetic flavorings, which are bodies craved, that could be slathered on otherwise unsatisfying food vehicles, think about a tortilla chip with no salsa or nacho cheese dust. Thus, we would consume these now desirable, yet still unsatisfying, food vehicles with reckless abandon. Combine synthetic flavorings with the three horsemen of the food apocalypse—salt, sugar, and fat—and it is little wonder why a large percentage of our population is obese.

There is hard science behind the idea, but it comes down to the idea of nutritional wisdom. Our bodies learn what is nutritious and will crave those foods because those foods satisfy our needs for the basic building blocks of a healthy life. Flavor should be one of the signifiers of healthy food, but we no longer can trust that pathway. Think about diet soda for a moment. It confuses your brain into thinking that you have tasted something sweet, or at least an approximation of something sweet, yet the metabolic pathways indicate none of the biological aftershocks of sugar in the digestive tract. It is no wonder diet soda does not actually help people lose or maintain a healthy weight. You are just teasing your body with the false taste of sugar.

Food porn is a description generally applied to high end magazines that show glossy spreads of amazing tables or restaurant meals. However, I think the modern grocery store is a more apt place to view food porn. It is row upon endless row of seemingly amazing food—plump chicken breasts, sumptuous red tomatoes, etc.—that are in the end an unsatisfying stand-in for a real relationship with actual food. Just saying.

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You Must Read—American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood

We are what we eat, we are told. But we Americans do not eat what we truly are. We are an ocean nation, a country that controls more sea than land and more fishing grounds than any other nation on earth. And yet we have systematically reengineered our landscapes , our economy, and our society away from the sea’s influence. As of 2012, Americans ate a little less than 15 pounds of seafood per person per year, well below half the global per capita average and miniscule in comparison with the 202 pounds of red meat and poultry we consume. [Page 233]

Paul Greenberg is familiar to readers of this blog because I was a big fan of his prior book Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food. The author is back with a take on seafood that is closer to home, which is appropriate given the rapid rise in local food movements across the United States.

51dbCQm3YhLAmerican Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood is about the relative dearth of seafood eaten by American diners that is sourced from American waters. Through the lens of three types of seafood—oysters, shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico, and Alaskan salmon—Greenberg illustrates the odd market forces at work with respect to American sourced seafood.

Nothing illustrates his point better than the juxtaposition of Alaskan salmon and imported tilapia:

It was then and there that it hit me—the bizarre devil’s bargain that Americans have entered into with their seafood supply. Americans now harvest our best , most nutritious fish in our best-managed Alaskan fisheries and send those fish over to Asia. In exchange, we are importing fish farmed in Asia, with little of the brain-building compounds fish eaters are seeking when they eat fish. [Page 190]

Yes, we basically trade Alaskan salmon for fish that is barely fish. Tilapia is fish with training wheels. It is fish for people who find the flavor of cod, haddock, or Pollock not quite bland enough. My father, who slurped oysters with the best of them, referred to it as “Chinese junk fish” because it offered none of the benefits of fish while serving up a host of economic and environmental concerns.

We, as a whole, do not really consider the bounty of the sea. Cattle and the steaks that are cut from their carcasses are the apex foodstuff that comes from American land followed closely by the legions of swine and chickens processed into McRibs and nuggets of various odd shapes:

We need to understand that the marshes of Louisiana are not just an idyll to observe egrets and alligators; they are a food system, one that provides a large portion of the catch in the continental United States. If we choose to , we can support the environment that is home to shrimp, redfish, bluefish, blue crabs, oysters, flounder, sea trout, and others. Yes, there is a small risk of contamination from eating wild seafood from the Gulf. But that risk, when compared to all the other food risks we take as a nation, is infinitesimal. [Page 155]

It’s about consumer behavior and realizing the bounty that is present on our shores. If we could just get out of the whole bland white shrimp, slightly pink salmon, and piles of tilapia complex their could be a huge outpouring of economic support for American seafood. The challenge lies in getting people to accept something that is outside of their comfort zone. Ironically, this has been done already with more familiar land based foods. A few years ago odd cuts of beef like flank or skirt were sold for a fraction of the price of more mainstream cuts, but now those flavorful cuts command a premium. Heritage breeds of pork and poultry populate our palates in increasing numbers every year. Why can’t we do the same with food that swims?

But the future of the American catch depends not only on American governance , but also on the behavior of American consumers. There is no more intimate relationship we can have with our environment than to eat from it. [Page 16]

Take a weekend, read Greenberg’s American Catch, and think about the next type of seafood that you order at a restaurant or buy at the supermarket. Make it Alaskan salmon or Gulf shrimp or an odd filet that the fishmonger at the co-op is all excited about that week. America depends on it.

You Must Read—The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Any event that has occurred just five times since the first animal with a backbone appeared, some five hundred million years ago, must qualify as exceedingly rare. The notion that a sixth such event would be taking place right now, more or less in front of our eyes, struck me as, to use the technical term, mind-boggling. [Page 7]

The extinction of a species is an extraordinary event—think about a child learning that the dodo was essentially wiped off the face of the Earth by human behavior—yet there is a cycle where mass numbers of extinction events occur. For all intents and purposes, the evidence points us to a conclusion that human beings are about to witness a mass extinction of species.

9781250062185Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History is the most accessible book that I have ever read dealing with the science behind the extinction of species. Generally, books on this topic are dense academic or scientific works that quickly bore and confuse the general public with detail that is not of interest to the general public. Making scientific knowledge accessible to even an educated general public is no small feat and should be considered a success in and of itself. Furthermore, Kolbert weaves a rapid paced tale that engrosses the reader with both the amazing variety of natural life on the planet and the very precarious nature of so much of that life.

The story is quite simple. Humans are the weediest species on the face of the planet. As a species we inhabit all forms of habitats and manipulate those habitats to suit our preferences. Furthermore, through industrial development and behavior we have begun to fundamentally alter the chemistry of the entire biosphere. The end result is that as the conditions around the planet change a great number of species will be unable to adapt or move leading to their extinction. All that will remain will be the weeds of the plant and animal worlds.

How many species will go extinct? We do not know because “Yet another possible explanation for why observations don’t match predictions is that humans aren’t very observant.” [Page 187] We do not even know how many species exist at this moment in time, so if something is lost that was never discovered how will we account for its loss? The answer is that we will not and the world will be a less amazing place.

What frightens me the most in reading this book and others on climate change’s impacts is that we have no idea how forthcoming changes will impact the livability of the planet. It’s one thing to talk about aggregate temperature increase or species going extinct or sea levels rising, but it is another thing entirely to imagine the collapse of entire ecosystems because the connections between species are lost. The web of life seemed like such an easy concept to grasp when you are a middle school student in your first real biology class. It seems like a scary ass concept now that you are an adult staring at human derived climate change that is messing up the basic operating rules for the entire Earth.

I do not know if it is all doom and gloom. I would like to think that for the sake of my small children the world will not be such a grim place by the time they reach adulthood with children of their own. I just seem to lose hope the more that I learn.

You Must Read—The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt & the Fire that Saved America

In years past, wars had been fought and rivers of blood shed for far less land than that which was under consideration by the select group of “forest arrangers” as they called themselves. Never before had the fate of so much territory been determined by a small, mostly unarmed group of tree specialists. They were in one the creation, transforming by surveys, mapping, and suggestions areas larger than some eastern states. [Page 56]

9780547394602If you think that our modern conflicts over the role of the federal government in owning land is acrimonious and/or unique you must read Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt & the Fire that Saved America.  It has everything that you would come to expect in a modern tale about conservation. Politicians making decisions about public lands who are corrupt? Check. Private industries with deep pockets looking to profit from the cheap sale of public lands? Check. A few dedicated politicians acting in the interest of public conservation? Check. It just happens to not involve anyone with the last name Koch or a corporation with the name Exxon.

The book is really about two events. The first is the creation of the United States Forest Service under the aegis of Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot. The second is a massive fire in the American west, mostly on land managed by the Forest Service, that changed the perception of public lands in the American consciousness. The title of the book is slightly hyperbolic in that America itself was probably not at risk in the period, but the future of our public lands surely was in doubt.

These two stories are interwoven to provide the foundation for the fundamentals of the modern conservation movement in the United States where federal lands would be at forefront of the battle. Even today we see the same battles being fought when clowns like Cliven Bundy claim that their rights to land supersede any federal claim to the land and right wingers line up behind them in support. At least until it is revealed that the clown in question is a raving lunatic with horribly outdated and pathetic racist beliefs. Just saying.

Amazingly, history favors the conservation of lands. Few people, if any discounting those on the lunatic fringe, look back and view the creation of the national parks as a bad thing. Yet at the time of creation there was great debate. The same thing is true of lands managed by the federal government outside of the park system.

One of the great follies that came to be following the fires in 1910 was the so-called “ten o’clock rule,” which by the mid-1930s came to be defined as any fire reported the prior day had to be put out by ten o’clock the following morning. The result would be disastrous in terms of forest and people lost to fire:

The ten o’clock rule would stay in effect for most of the century until rangers who realized that fires were critical to the health of a forest started to have a voice. Budgets escalated as the fire control mission became even bigger and more intrusive. From the air and on the ground, with chemicals dropped like bombs and with bulldozers to scrape perimeter lines, the Forest Service attacked all fires, growing into a force of nature—or against nature, depending on the view. [Page 273]

Forest in the American west need fire. Fire clears out weaker trees and combustible undergrowth. Fire creates a patchwork of trees of various ages and, thus, heights which are not as susceptible to fires that hop along the crowns of trees. Fire can also be the mechanism for a forest’s regeneration as many seeds and cones will not release protective layers until a cleansing fire has pass through. These ideas were anathema to a generation of foresters who grew up under the tutelage and influence of men like Gifford Pinchot. If there is a place to lay blame on that generation of foresters it is on their belief that fire was inherently evil vis a vis the forest and that fire could be controlled by man. Time has proven that the suppression of fires only gives man the impression that he has controlled the elemental force.

Fire is a transformative event for forests, but it is part of the natural cycle:

They knew well enough that a forest after a fire is not a cemetery, set with stones—just a change of worlds. Still, it was hard to see any tomorrow in the ashen landscape. [Page 249]

We would do well to remember this fact as we approach the fire season in a year where much of the American west is affected by extreme drought. Time and time again, our government will send men and women into harm’s way because individuals have decided to ignore nature’s will and inhabit a combustible forest. It was done in the early-Twentieth Century and it will be done again in the Twenty First:

Then they did what all western boomers did after a combustible punch: got up off the floor and rebuilt, with brick, stone, and steel, shaking a fist again at nature. [Page 2]

You Must Read—Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World

Soda—or pop if you are of that persuasion—is a well-known public health enemy. It delivers a powerful one two punch of empty calories and a lot of sugar. The consumption of soda in the United States has risen dramatically since World War II. Take for example the average size of a soda bottle. Before the 1950s the standard container size was ~6.5 ounces. You know, those little glass Coke bottles that everyone tries to find in antique stores. Contrast that with today’s 12 ounce cans and 20 ounce bottles, which are considered single servings by everyone but government nutritionists.

9781613747223But, how did soda get to be such a big deal? Rather than spend more than two hundred pages demonizing an industry that has more than its share of detractors Tristan Donovan chronicles the rise of the soda giants in Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World.

While there are other major soda players there is one name that essentially defines the category: Coca-Cola. The Atlanta, Georgia-based company has become the proxy for all discussions about soda and this is for good reason. It’s marketing tactics have defined the category for the better part of eighty or more years coinciding with the introduction of the now-famous Santa Claus ads by Haddon Sundblom. It’s distribution channel is the model favored by the industry. It’s global reach and global brand identity are nearly unmatched anything outside of national governments. Heck, I bet there are corners of the globe where the Coca-Cola logo is more recognizable than the American flag.

The story is interesting because in many ways soda should have been a victim of World War II. Rationing of sugar and the lack of proper substitutes—high fructose corn syrup would not be available to soda makers until later—should have crippled the industry and taken the brand images outside of the consideration set of the world population. However, Coca-Cola allied itself quite amazingly with the U.S. military and, by extension, the victories of the U.S. military. Soldiers on battlefields across Europe and the Southeast Asia came to see a bottle of Coca-Cola as a piece of home and by permission of the U.S. military Coca-Cola was going to provide those bottles. It also helped that the U.S. military helped the company build bottling plants to supply soldiers all over the world and when the soldiers went home those plants supplied the populations left behind. I am sure that if you asked an official historian there would be little mention of this nice government subsidy in the history of the company.

More frightening, in my opinion, than anything else is just how pervasive soda has become in our modern lives. Take for example:

  • Soda now comprises approximately 9% of our daily caloric intake in the U.S. up from 4% in the 1970s
  • Children get nearly 11% of their daily caloric intake from soda or other sugar drinks

It’s easy to see how this has become such a problem. Think about how close the nearest soda is to you right now. If a soda is not in your refrigerator or on your desk, how far away is a vending machine or location that sells soda? I am guessing that within a few minute walk everyone who will ever read this blog has access to a Coke. I have been on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert and seen a small refrigerated case with the familiar red and white logo. About the only place I can remember being free of western soda brands was Cuba. Soda was still present, but just not the familiar brands back home.

But the health impacts of this sweet obsession are equally appalling:

  • If you regularly consume 1 or 2 cans of soda per day you have a 26% greater risk of developing Type II diabetes as opposed to a person who rarely consumes soda
  • In men, a 1 can a day habit has been shown to raise the risk of heart disease by 20%

A lot of these debilitating effects can be traced back to sugar and HFCS, which has for the most part supplanted real sugar in soda in the U.S. Don’t believe me? Read David Gillespie’s Sweet Poison.

Tristan Donovan’s Fizz is an excellent way to gain an understanding about how a sugary drink became such an integral part of our social and economic fabric.

You Must Read—Sweet Poison: Why Sugar Makes Us Fat

There’s nothing wrong with being in the business of selling products that every human on the planet is hardwired to consume. The difference between sugar and tobacco is that the sugar industry has us all convinced it is our fault we’re fat, not theirs. [Page 192]

Sometimes you read a book and, while it is not particularly enjoyable, it leads you to another book that is truly profound. Recently, I struggled through Year of No Sugar: A Memoir by Eve Schaub. The concept was interesting, but the tone was liberal, privileged, and preachy. If you have ever watched an episode of The Goode Family you know exactly what I mean.

9780718179076However, that tome led me to David Gillespie’s Sweet Poison: Why Sugar Makes Us Fat. The author is an Australian lawyer, IT professional, consultant, and person who generally struggled with his weight following college like so many of us do. Working out and dieting did not work, so he set out to figure out what was structurally wrong with our food system.

Why is this a structural problem? If left to our own devices the human body will naturally tell us that we are full. However, we are very fat as a species and getting fatter. Why is such a beautifully engineered machine as the human body being subverted and making us fat? Sugar. More specifically, fructose. Our bodies, for some evolutionary reason, do not register calories consumed via fructose. Thus, we will continue to eat until we consume enough non-fructose calories.

Throughout most of human history this was not a problem because sugar was rare and expensive. The few pieces of ripe fruit, which also contain a lot of fiber, were not enough to upset the delicate balance our bodies orchestrate. Modern society has destroyed all of this by making fructose cheap and nearly ubiquitous.

Gillespie’s real triumph in this book is laying out the biochemical process in a clear, easy to understand way—trust me, biochemists and doctors are not known for writing accessible prose—that lays bare the fundamental failure of our modern food system.

You want to know how messed up the system is? We subsidize corn that is used to make high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) that is essentially killing us. If you live in the corn belt—like me here in Iowa—envision about half of the fields of corn being used to make HFCS. That is the scale of the problem. This is why it is a structural problem.

Furthermore, the problem is structural because foods that are not normally considered sweet—bread, cereal, etc.—have become veritable minefields of sugar laden pseudo-foods. Take a moment and consider the cereals we consider acceptable for breakfast. How are Lucky Charms, Trix, Fruity Pebbles, or anything similar considered anything but an occasional dessert instead of a breakfast cereal? No wonder we are fat. If you start the day off with one of these fructose bombs you might as well just schedule your trip to the endocrinologist for a diabetes checkup. It does not stop at breakfast.

The solution seems simple: cut out the sugar. In fact, the solution is that simple. In practice, it will be much harder but unless we want to look like the humans in Wall-E there is no other choice. Put down the Big Gulp. Now!

You Must Read—Flash Boys

The haves enjoyed a perfect view of the market; the have-nots never saw the market at all. [Page 69]

There was a moment in business school when I realized that I looked at the stock market different from almost everyone I would every meet in the hallowed halls of future MBAs. In a discussion with our first-year finance professor I made the assertion that the appearance and behavior of modern stock exchanges appeared to be strikingly similar to sports books populated with degenerate gamblers. There was never a compelling counter argument and as the financial crisis in 2008 unfolded I felt somewhat vindicated after taking some major heat for the rest of that semester. Not that I am bitter.

Flash Boys Mech 3p_r3.REV.for cat.inddWhat we did not know in 2008, but is strikingly apparent now is that the way modern stock exchanges work is rigged against the average investor and even the large institutional investor for the express gain of a class of predatory traders. Michael Lewis, the author of Moneyball and The Big Short, details the nature of high frequency trading (HFT) and one exchange’s efforts to circumvent the trend in Flash Boys.

The lens through which the evolution of exchanges as tools to serve the interests of HFT is Brad Katsuyama and the exchange he founded, IEX. This is not a happy story in that you will be stunned at how certain firms are given a no risk way to extract money from financial markets, essentially a tax on capital formation, for nothing more than the cost of high speed computers and transmission equipment. Furthermore, many firms will make choices counter to the best interests of their clients in the name of making commissions and kickbacks. In essence, HFT has distorted the market to make it incredibly inefficient.

Proponents of high frequency trading will make all sorts of arguments trotting out Wall Street boilerplate about liquidity and capital flow. It’s all bunk because they are motivated to make money, not make the markets liquid or provide you a way to amass capital for business purposes. If they could make the same amount of money slapping themselves on the internet you would see a flood of well-dressed Ivy League pukes posting short videos of slapping themselves silly. Too often pundits and commentators get lost in the processes of Wall Street when they need to realize that all that matters is the result of making money. All decisions are made with that in mind. It is the prime directive.

The funny thing about HFT is that it is perfectly legal for these firms to manipulate the market to extract their financial tax. If you or I acted on a piece of information that the rest of the market did not have access to then it would probably end up being insider trading. If an HFT firm does the same thing in millisecond and nanosecond time frames then it is considered perfectly legal. It helps that there is a veil of secrecy about the exact mechanics of HFT and regulations are byzantine enough to provide cover for the activities. Always be suspicious when a guy in a five thousand dollar suit puts up his hands and says, “Hey, I’m just following the law.” No one believed it when the people doing the same thing had names like Al Capone or Meyer Lansky and there is no reason why we should believe the people doing the same thing on Wall Street.

What Flash Boys really turned me onto was the idea, not promoted in the book by the way, that we should not trust our future, primarily 401Ks for most of us, to the vicissitudes of Wall Street greed. Our financial future needs to have a foundation built on something other than the gussied up sports books breathlessly promoted by CNBC. I believe that future looks like a place where people rely less on debt and achieve security through community. Sure, it’s a little utopian but spend a couple nights reading Flash Boys and you might be selling out to join a commune.

By the way, since cancelling pay television I have been cranking through the books.  My reading list went from long to wanting.  Sweet.