Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Everything is a disease or deficiency

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, food, drugs, polemics

It has been only 15 years since drug companies began directly marketing their products to consumers. My wife and I recently made the strategic decision to not use any medicine seen in a TV ad. I have sat there with a stop watch; in a 30-second ad, at least 15 seconds are taken up with the (fortunately) mandatory warning messages, and often there is little time for any "positive" message. Many ads have to be a full minute to have time for all the warnings! In nearly every ad, particularly for medications for asthma and cholesterol, one of the "side effects" is "sudden death".

Now we are wondering if the situation with foodstuffs is equally dire. We have been using chicken and turkey products in preference to beef for decades, primarily because of levels of saturated fat in "red meat". We'd read about the controversy over growth hormones, and recently began getting our milk from Trader Joe's, which has this notice, along with a quisling statement required by the FDA, that claims recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST) doesn't make a difference and can't be detected anyway. Both parts of that statement are false. In particular, rBST is detectable, but the test isn't cheap. As they say, do you want cheap milk or not? Well, as it happens, Trader Joe's milk costs less than all the alternatives at ordinary supermarkets, except when they have a sale. No need to test if the stuff won't be there in the first place.

A couple of times we bought eggs from Eggland's Best, but I decided to look into it. At the Egg Scorecard at, I found that they refuse to allow anyone to "score" their eggs, and other less official sources rate them poorly in the hygiene and humaneness of their operation. One of the best egg producers from an organic and humane treatment perspective is the Vital Farms brand sold at Whole Foods stores. Fortunately a WF store recently opened nearby.

Our experiences square pretty well with information found in a curious new book, Born With a Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks (sic), Quacks, and Hacks Pimp the Public Health by Martha Rosenberg. Concerning the subtitle: the word is Flacks. Flak is antiaircraft fire, or opposition from a heckler at a speech, by analogy; it is never pluralized. The character string "flaks" never appears elsewhere except in dictionaries as a phonetic hint as to how to pronounce "flacks".

Ms Rosenberg is also a cartoonist, and this item, from p.144, shows her rather clumsy style. I suppose some folks call it "endearing". Fortunately, the writing is anything but clumsy. It is polemical, but without the strident, fanatical edge of most polemics.

For "Big Pharma" and "Big Food", polemics are richly deserved. Big Pharma has been coasting on its "miracle drug" laurels since all the easy pickings of the 1940s and 1950s. The result has become thousands of branded drugs, most of which do very little good, and sometimes a lot of harm. Numerous other books detail that most "research" supporting new drugs is falsified. Then there is AgriBiz: less than 1% of Americans are now farmers, producing our food on just under 20% of the U.S. land area.

When I was a child, one tenth of working Americans were farmers. Prior to WWII, farmers were 18% of the work force. 1880 was the first year that fewer than half of American workers were farmers. In 1790, they made up 90%. From 90% to under 1%. Wow. Another 1% live on farms but aren't farming (their underage kids, in other words; from age 7 or so, even the kids work on the farm). Ironically, the number of hunters in the US is about 4% of the population, and we can assume that another couple of percent—spouse or children—help dress the game. But that means more than 90% of Americans never see where their meat comes from, never see an animal killed so they can eat, and most do not even cut meat any more, because you can buy it pre-cubed or pre-sliced or even, as the chicken breast cutlets we ate last evening, pre-spiced and ready to bake.

I guess I am one of the lucky few committed carnivores who does know. I've worked in a slaughterhouse; I was even there when they ran a truckload of bison through. We have usually lived in rural areas, so I have had neighbors show up with a brace of freshly shot rabbits or pheasants, which we then dressed out on the kitchen counter; we have helped friends butcher deer and hogs.

But back to the book. It is extensively researched (80 pages of notes and references). The Pharma section dwells primarily on four kinds of drugs: Antipsychotics that are now used for "depression" because "ordinary" antidepressives don't work very well, anti-menopausal drugs of several kinds, PTSD and the deadly drugs (including the antipsychotics) used to "treat" it, and the new bisphosphonates used for "bone health" but which frequently lead to even more fractures or bone death in the jaw. The Food section dwells on beastly treatment of animals throughout, whether the topic is milk, eggs, meat and the hormones in it, mad cow disease, or food labeling (or the lack thereof).

The biggest lack: Any "what to do about it" information. On one hand, it is a relief that the author isn't selling a product. However, spending 300 pages to raise a dozen kinds of alarms, without offering any remedies, does no service. Am I better off for being made even more paranoid? Let's see, we've already decided to eschew advertized drugs. We've done a few things to eat better, and with a little effort we can do more, because we live only an hour's drive from a cluster of Amish farms. Big Pharma and Big Food have woven themselves into society to the point that everything imaginable is either a disease or a deficiency.

My generation, the Baby Boomers, has aided and abetted BP-n-BF at every stage. Ms Rosenberg names a number of FDA and USDA officials who have allowed or even helped corporations bypass what few regulations exist. They are all Boomers. To a Boomer, aging is a disease; menopause is a disease; feeling even slightly bad is a disease; a passing mood is due to some deficiency; being too short, too tall, too thin, too fat, too sociable or too lonely are "challenges" to be met with this new drug or that tastier food or a more concentrated food supplement. Plastic surgery is booming (wrinkles and wattles and various sagging places are a disease). To millions, Western medicine is inadequate, so alternative medical treatments abound.

The sad truth is, there is no "cure" for decline and death. The death rate remains stubbornly at one per person, no more and no less. "Convenience" is the name of the game. Faster fast food, the tastier the better (too bad fat tastes so good); bigger portions; more variety on the buffet—and a Tums or "purple pill" to keep it all from waking you at midnight.

I realize we are in the midst of an evolutionary experiment. There is a significant chance that the tendency to get the most out of an exaggerated Western lifestyle is based on inherited tendencies that will soon become mostly extinct. When our kids get too fat to reproduce, they won't leave descendants. When they get too zoned out on mood drugs, they also leave fewer offspring. How many generations will it be until the majority of Americans and wannabe Americans actually exercise self control and responsibility? The future is theirs.

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