Tag Archives: econundrums

The Most Popular Theory About What Causes Obesity May Be Very Wrong

Mother Jones

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You’ve heard it over and over again: The obesity crisis, which affects more than a third of US adults and costs the country hundreds of billions of dollars every year, is due to the fact that people eat more calories than they expend. In other words, one of the leading causes of preventable deaths is rooted in gluttony and sloth. If people jogged more and ate fewer Big Macs, they wouldn’t get obese.

What if that idea is just wrong? Gary Taubes thinks it is. Taubes joined us on the most recent episode of Bite to talk about the flaws in this popular idea of how we get fat.

As a journalist and author, Taubes has devoted his career to understanding how what we eat affects our weight. Taubes sees serious flaws in the “energy-balance theory”—that you just have to eat less and move more to stave off the pounds—and thinks that the idea is seriously undermining the fight against obesity. The more nutritionists and doctors promote that theory, he argues, the more they avoid talking about what Taubes sees as a more convincing cause of our public health woes: sugar.

Taubes traces the roots of the energy-balance theory in his new book, The Case Against Sugar. In the 1860s, German scientists invented a calorimeter which measured how many calories a person consumed and then used up. This innovation helped inform the “new” nutrition science of the early 1900s: “You could measure the energy in, you could measure the energy out,” Taubes explains. “Clearly if someone was getting fatter, they were taking in more energy than they expended. From this came this theory that obesity was an energy-balance disorder.”

But in the 1960s, researchers developed radioimmunoassay, allowing them to measure the circulation of hormones in the blood. Scientists could soon establish how hormones regulate the fat we accumulate, and how the food we eat influences those hormones. But at that point, notes Taubes: “The obesity and nutrition community continues to say, ‘look, we know why people get fat: It’s because they take in more calories than they expend.'”

That stubborn theory—Taubes sarcastically deems it “the gift that keeps on giving”—prevails even today. As my colleague Julia Lurie pointed out in this story, junk food companies use this idea in order to peddle sugary foods to kids. In one lesson of Energy Balance 101, a curriculum backed by companies like Hershey and PepsiCo and taught to 28 million students and counting, students learn that going for a bike ride can balance out munching on a chocolate bar.

The problem with this mentality, Taubes and numerous doctors and scientists argue, is that it ignores the way certain ingredients play a unique role in the way our bodies develop fat. Sugar is metabolized differently, and it doesn’t trigger the hormone that tells us when we’re full. Doctor Robert Lustig argues that too much sugar causes metabolic syndrome, a condition linked to heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses.

So if obesity isn’t an energy-balance disorder, but is rather a metabolic defect, says Taubes, “you have to fix the hormonal thing.” And “the way you start fixing it is you get rid of all the sugar in your diet.”

Taubes realizes all of this is such a bummer to swallow. He’s written a book that’s “the nutritional equivalent of stealing Christmas,” he writes. So I wanted to know, if not sugar, what’s his vice? You’ll have to listen to the episode to find out.

Bite is Mother Jones‘ podcast for people who think hard about their food. Listen to all our episodes here, or subscribe in iTunes, Stitcher, or via RSS.

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The Most Popular Theory About What Causes Obesity May Be Very Wrong

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What We’ve Suspected About Fitbits All Along Is True

Mother Jones

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The makers of Fitbit, the wearable activity tracker, say the technology is “redefining fitness.” Lots of people have bought in: About 1 in 5 Americans own a wearable fitness tracker, like Jawbone, Garmin, or Fitbit. Big-name companies—BP, Bank of America, IBM, Target, Barclays—offer free or subsidized trackers to their employees in hopes of developing a healthy, active workforce. The wearable fitness tracker industry is expected to top $5 billion within three years.

And the need is clear: More than two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese.

The problem is, there is mounting evidence that when it comes to improving health, the trackers don’t work.

In a Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology study published Tuesday, researchers tracked 800 people over the course of a year—some with Fitbits worn around their waists, some without. On average, those wearing Fitbits recorded a modest 16 more minutes of active physical activity than those without Fitbits, and no difference from the control group in health outcomes like weight or blood pressure. After a year, just 10 percent were still wearing the Fitbits. That finding echoes previous research finding that half of all fitness tracker owners don’t use them.

The study also looked at the effect of incentives: For the first six months, some Fitbit wearers were offered cash or charity donations based on reaching a certain number of steps. Those with the charity option didn’t exercise any more than those without; those with the cash option exercised slightly more, but not enough to affect health. When the incentive ended, they went back to their old habits.

Eric Finkelstein, a Duke-NUS Medical School professor and the study’s co-author, says having a fitness tracker is like having a scale in the bathroom—it can be a helpful measurement tool, but it’s not a public health intervention in and of itself. “The notion you can give out a bunch of watches and suddenly people will get more active is just silly,” he says.

The conclusions follow a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association finding that those who wore wearable fitness trackers lost less weight than those self-reporting their diet and exercise.

The key issue, the authors of both studies say, is that trackers primarily measure steps, when in fact, the number of steps doesn’t matter as much as the amount of aerobic activity that will get you breathing hard. “If you just get 10,000 steps but are just trudging along, I’m not sure how those steps will have much health benefit,” says Finkelstein. He suspects that the goal of 10,000 steps, the default goal on today’s Fitbits, were calculated based on the federal government’s recommended 150 minutes of exercise per week. “So people sort of ran with this 10,000 steps number and took it a bit out of context.”

What’s more, Fitbit users can develop a false sense of achievement, said John Jakicic, a health researcher at the University of Pittsburgh and lead author of the JAMA, to NPR. “People would say, ‘Oh, I exercised a lot today, now I can eat more.’ And they might eat more than they otherwise would have.”

One improvement, says Finkelstein, would be tracking steps of aerobic activity rather than total steps on the device itself. (Fitbit tracks aerobic activity online.) Another approach is using the trackers as a measurement tool to complement fitness programs. Studies have shown that coupling trackers with counseling or personal training helps participants lose weight.

“As the leader in connected health and fitness, we are confident in the positive results our millions of users have seen from using Fitbit products,” said a Fitbit spokesman over email. “Numerous published studies, along with internal Fitbit data, continue to demonstrate the health benefits of using a fitness tracker combined with a mobile app to support health and fitness goals.” Fitbit points to the two studies involving counseling and personal training studies mentioned above, as well as to two small short-term studies of people with serious mental or physical illnesses.

So does this mean you should hold off on buying that Fitbit? “People who like to track these things, give it a go—I would say start out with a low-cost one,” says Finkelstein. But “don’t be surprised if in six months, you’re not using it.”

Correction: The original version of this article misstated the brand of fitness tracker used in the Journal of the American Medical Association study.

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What We’ve Suspected About Fitbits All Along Is True

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The Horrible Chemicals That Make Your Winter Gear Waterproof

Mother Jones

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Ever since our early ancestors left the fertile sauna of Africa and headed North, we humans have been searching for ways to fend off sleet and snow and rain and cold. The Inuit once relied on seal and whale intestines to get the job done. Nowadays, we rely on waterproof synthetics.

These modern fabrics represent a certain kind of progress, but they also have a worrisome downside. Some of the fluorocarbon chemicals used in their manufacture are dangerous for our health, and are so stable that their residues will persist in the environment, quite literally, until the next Ice Age. What’s more, there’s no guarantee that the industry’s latest alternatives, which are marketed as safer, are much of an improvement.

To make their fabrics repel water—causing it to bead up and fall away rather than penetrate the material—most manufacturers rely on perfluorocarbons (PFCs), the same chemicals used to make nonstick cookware and cupcake wrappers. Some PFCs escape into the atmosphere and into wastewater during production—and small amounts can turn up as residue on the clothing itself.

PFCs have been around since the 1950s, but we didn’t know a lot about their effects until the early 2000s, when scientists began releasing data on PFC toxicity and their persistence in the environment. A particularly troublesome PFC is perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, a suspected human carcinogen that has been linked to cancer, kidney damage, and reproductive problems in rats. It may also pose human health risks if it accumulates in drinking water at levels as miniscule as 1 part per trillion—the equivalent of less than one teaspoon in 1,000 Olympic swimming pools’ worth of water. One study also associated elevated exposure to PFCs, including PFOA, with weakened immune responses in children.

The makers of PFCs have been the subject of several blockbuster exposés—PFOA most recently made headlines as the culprit poisoning residents of Parkersberg, West Virginia. These compounds have a very long biological half-life—specifically, it takes our bodies more than four years to flush out half of the PFCs currently residing in our tissues. As such, the US Environmental Protection Agency warns that “it can reasonably be anticipated that continued exposure could increase body burdens to levels that would result in adverse outcomes.”

Because PFOA and its precursors virtually never go away, they accumulate in nature and eventually find their way back to us. Researchers have found the chemical in remote parts of the Arctic, in soil and dust, in fish and meat, in human tissue, and in drinking water throughout the United States. (To find out if your county’s water has tested positive for the chemical, see this map).

In 2006, the EPA asked major chemical manufacturers, including DuPont and 3M, to set a goal of eliminating PFOA and its precursors from both emissions and products by January 31, 2015—their final reports are due by the end of this month. The European Union has also proposed restrictions on the substance. So problem solved, right? You no longer need to fret about the chemicals used to make your sweet new neon ski parka?

Well, not exactly. There are reasons to stay worried. For one, the EPA’s phaseout program was voluntary, and it includes no mandate that clothing manufacturers must also remove PFCs from their supply chains. (The EPA does say that it is working on a rule that would require clothing companies that import fabrics made with PFOA to subject themselves to the agency’s review). Greenpeace tested 40 pieces of outdoor clothing and gear it had purchased in late 2015, and reported that PFOA is “still widely present” in name-brand products, including items from the North Face, Patagonia, and Mammut.

Patagonia calls Greenpeace’s assessment “not accurate,” and says it has mostly phased out PFOA. Mammut says it has eliminated the chemical entirely—as does North Face, starting with its spring 2015 line. Some of the products Greenpeace tested may have been manufactured before phaseout efforts were complete.

Most of the sportswear manufacturers have replaced PFOA, which has an eight-carbon backbone, with six-carbon (C6) PFCs. Mammut, for example, says it is provisionally using a “responsible” and “PFOA-free” C6 chemistry, while Marmot, another outdoor clothing brand, argues that C6 “is the safest alternative for the environment.”

It’s true that these shorter PFCs don’t remain in our bodies as long as PFOA does. Still, “the C6 chemicals don’t seem to be the magic coating for your clothing that you’re looking for,” says Environmental Working Group senior scientist David Andrews. Like PFOA, the shorter compounds persist in the environment, which is one reason why Greenpeace, EWG, and plenty of other scientists around the globe don’t consider them safe alternatives. In addition, as Patagonia explains, “the shorter-chain structure also tends to perform less effectively in repellency tests.” Which means a larger quantity may be needed to achieve the same result.

Manufacturers in the United States are not required to test chemicals for safety before using them in products, and the health effects of the shorter-chain PFCs are as yet a mystery. But “the short-chain chemicals show a lot of the same characteristics as their longer predecessors,” EWG’s Andrews told me.

Indeed, as a class, PFCs raise all sorts of red flags. In 2014, 200 scientists from around the world signed the “Madrid Statement,” a document calling for more research on PFC toxicology and urging governments around the world to restrict their use for nonessential purposes. “We should probably have more oversight into this whole class of chemicals,” Andrews says. “It took decades to show how bad PFOA is.”

Outdoor clothing makers acknowledge these concerns—”it may be preferable to search for fluorocarbon-free water repellent as a long term solution,” notes Patagonia—but they insist their hands are tied. The North Face’s “chemical responsibility” web page, assures that the company hopes to phase out “fluorinated DWR” (that’s durable water repellent) by 2020, but notes that “short-chain DWR is currently the best available viable alternative.”

Several clothing companies say the durability of their products—made possible by PFC chemistry—is key to their environmental friendliness. As Patagonia’s spokesman put it: “Abandoning PFCs and moving to currently available alternatives would have an even greater negative impact on the environment because the lifespan of our gear would be greatly reduced, requiring replacement far more quickly, which of course carries significant costs—carbon emissions, water usage, waste output, bigger landfills, and more.” He added that the company is still committed to finding an alternative, and that it has partnered with a Swiss firm working at the “cutting edge of chemical treatments that don’t harm the planet.”

There is at least one safer option currently floating around. A company called Nikwax sells a PFC-free waterproofing product akin to the rubber in the soles of your shoes: You cover your jacket with the Nikwax gel, toss it in the wash, and presto—it’s coated with a network of elastic water-repellent molecules. The problem is that Nikwax is a direct-to-consumer product, meant to go on the jacket you’ve already bought. In that sense, it doesn’t help solve the PFC conundrum.

But that could change. In January, Páramo, a small British brand partnering with Nikwax, became the first company in the outdoor industry to completely eliminate PFCs from its manufacturing process. Italian climber David Bacci wore Páramo’s threads as he scaled the Patagonian peaks Fitz Roy and Cerro Torres, and wrote that clothing “worked perfectly” and kept him “dry and warm in extreme conditions.”

Nikwax North America president Rick Meade says he thinks the publicity around fluorinated chemicals will lead to some “dramatic shifts of interests to consumers in the next one to three years.” For now, until more clothing companies commit to ditching PFCs, your snow outfit will most likely be made with a PFOA cousin that’s coated in mystery.

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The Horrible Chemicals That Make Your Winter Gear Waterproof

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Flint Is Still a Disaster, But Obama Just Proposed a Giant Cut to Water Funding

Mother Jones

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President Obama has called Flint, Michigan’s water crisis “inexplicable and inexcusable.” But his administration’s proposed 2017 budget, released today, cuts the Environmental Protection Agency’s water infrastructure funding by roughly a quarter billion dollars.

The EPA’s State Revolving Fund (SRF) provides loans to improve state and local water quality and is the primary source of federal funding for water infrastructure improvements. The 2017 budget proposes a $158 million increase to the Drinking Water SRF, which would help municipalities replace pipelines, fix water main breaks, and generally improve aging water infrastructure—the type of changes that could help places that, like Flint, have an aging water infrastructure. But the budget also proposes a $370 million cut to the Clean Water SRF, which goes toward projects making water sources cleaner overall, from reducing urban runoff pollution and improving wastewater treatment to researching how unregulated chemicals in our water supply affect human health.

In light of the disaster in Flint, the proposed cuts have provoked criticism from both sides of the aisle: Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said he was “grossly disappointed” by the proposal, while Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) accused Obama of prioritizing climate change over water. Overall, federal water infrastructure spending has been relatively stagnant for years:

Mae Wu, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, equates the proposed budget with “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” “Cutting funds that help keep pollution out of our water (CW SRF) and moving the money to remove pollution once it’s already in our drinking water (DW SRF) is no solution at all,” she wrote in an NRDC blog post. “At best it is a short-term band-aid approach to addressing the chronic levels of underinvestment in our water infrastructure by local, state, and federal government.”

The bigger problem, says Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, is that the nation’s water challenges overall continue to be woefully underfunded. “We’re talking about a hundred million here, a hundred million there,” says Gleick, who notes that the single F-35 fighter costs roughly $100 million. “Overall, our budget priorities are still distorted.”

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Flint Is Still a Disaster, But Obama Just Proposed a Giant Cut to Water Funding

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The Problem With Rooftop Solar That Nobody Is Talking About

Mother Jones

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A couple of years ago, Steven Weissman, an energy lawyer at the University of California-­Berkeley, started to shop around for solar panels for his house. It seemed like an environmental no-brainer. For zero down, leading residential provider SolarCity would install panels on his roof. The company would own the equipment, and he’d buy the power it produces for less than he had been paying his electric utility. Save money, fight climate change. Sounds like a deal.

But while reading the contract, Weissman discovered the fine print that helps make that deal possible: SolarCity would also retain ownership of his system’s renewable energy credits. It’s the kind of detail your average solar customer wouldn’t notice or maybe care about. But to Weissman, it was an unexpected letdown.

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The Problem With Rooftop Solar That Nobody Is Talking About

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These 19 Big-Name Toothpastes and Face Scrubs Will Be Forced to Ditch Tiny Bits of Plastic

Mother Jones

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Just before Christmas, Congress passed a law banning microbeads—those tiny pieces of plastic that act as exfoliants in face washes, toothpastes, and other personal-care products.

Researchers have found that the beads are too small to be caught by water treatment plants, so they end up in waterways. There, they act as sponges for toxins—such as pesticides, heavy metals, and phthalates—and are frequently mistaken by fish for food. Roughly 300 million tons of the plastics per year end up in US waterways.

The Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, which requires companies to stop using plastic microbeads by June of 2017, was introduced to the House in March. The House passed the bill in December, and the Senate passed it a week later with unanimous consent.

The law comes after several states had passed bans on the beads; in response to consumer pressure, large personal-care companies such as Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble had already announced initiatives to phase out the microbeads.

But several popular consumer products still contain the plastics, and these brands have some reworking to do before summer of 2017. Here are some big-name products that contain plastic microbeads—and some that don’t.

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These 19 Big-Name Toothpastes and Face Scrubs Will Be Forced to Ditch Tiny Bits of Plastic

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Here’s What You Need to Know About the West Coast’s Toxic Crabs

Mother Jones

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Fisherman from across the West coast are flocking to California, where the start of crabbing season is just days away. Or not: Health officials are warning that rock and Dungeness crabs along the state coast are contaminated by high levels of domoic acid, a known neurotoxin. State authorities are expected to decide this week whether or not to delay the opening of the Dungeness season—which yields one of the biggest harvests in the nation—and temporarily halt the harvest of rock crabs, which is permitted all year. In the meantime, here’s what you need to know:

How do I know whether that crab on I ordered last week was contaminated? Commercial seafood is regularly tested, so while there may be less Dungeness crab, you don’t have to freak out too much about consuming neurotoxins with the crab you ate at a restaurant or bought at a store. West Coasters should avoid eating recreationally caught shellfish (more details here). If domoic acid is ingested, it can cause vomiting, seizures, and in extreme situations, death. There haven’t been any reported hospitalizations or deaths from domoic acid poisoning since the late 1980’s, when three deaths and multiple hospitalizations spurred increased regulation.

Besides Dungeness crabs, are any other marine creatures are affected? Yes, lots. according to a NOAA report released Tuesday, domoic acid is showing up at potentially lethal levels among a record number of animals, including dolphins, whales, sea lions, and seabirds, and causing seizures among the latter two. Washington closed some areas to crabbing and clam digging earlier this year, Oregon has indefinitely postponed the start of its razor clam season, and California health officials have warned against eating recreationally caught shellfish in some regions.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

What’s this going to do the West Coast’s robust crabbing industry? California, Oregon, and Washington are the top producers of Dungeness crab in the United States; in California alone, commercial crabbing boats brought in 17 million pounds of the crab in 2014, worth nearly $60 million. Some fishermen make half of their income from the California Dungeness crab harvest, and the bloom is particularly ill-timed since Dungeness crabs are in highest demand between Thanksgiving and New Years. “These are incredibly important fisheries to our coastal economies and fresh crab is highly anticipated and widely enjoyed this time of year,” said the state Fish and Wildlife regional manager Craig Shuman. “But public health and safety is our top priority.”

Where is the domoic acid coming from? The acid is coming from a toxic phytoplankton, or algae, species that thrives in warm waters and makes its way into the food web as it’s consumed by anchovies, sardines, and shellfish. This year, thanks to a combination of El Niño and a large stretch of warm water off the west coast dubbed “the blob,” the algae has bloomed at record-setting levels, forming a ribbon up to 40 miles wide snaking up the West coast.

Is climate change causing this problem? Scientists are reluctant to attribute any one event solely to climate change, but warmer waters are certainly playing a role—and ocean temperatures are expected to continue warming with climate change. “The toxins are commonly present in the food web but this year, with this unprecedented bloom, they’re likely having a bigger impact than ever before,” said Kathi Lefebvre, a biologist at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. “Our concern is that there does appear to be a link between warm water and bigger blooms, so what does this tell us about future years with warmer conditions?”

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Here’s What You Need to Know About the West Coast’s Toxic Crabs

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These Nail Polish Brands Contain a Chemical That Could Mess With Your Hormones

Mother Jones

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Want some toxins with that mani-pedi?

A new study by researchers at Duke University and the Environmental Working Group found that a common nail polish chemical and suspected endocrine disruptor called TPHP is leaching into the bodies of polish-wearers.

TPHP, also known as TPP, is commonly used as a fire retardant in furniture and a hardener in plastic goods. According to the authors, research suggests that the chemical causes changes in hormone regulation, metabolism, and reproductive systems.

The study, published today in Environmental International, found that women who painted their nails with polishes containing TPHP saw a sevenfold increase of a TPHP metabolite (a substance formed when the body metabolizes TPHP) just 10 to 14 hours after painting their nails.

“It is very troubling that nail polish being marketed to women and teenage girls contains a suspected endocrine disruptor,” said Johanna Congleton, a co-author of the study, in a press release. “It is even more troubling to learn that their bodies absorb this chemical relatively quickly after they apply a coat of polish.”

TPHP is a common addition to nail polishes; an analysis of EWG’s Skin Deep database found that about half of all nail polishes—or 1,500 polishes in the database—contain the chemical, including popular brands like OPI, Sallie Hansen, and Revlon. (Below are a few big-name brands; here‘s the complete database.)

Environmental Working Group

To figure out if the chemical was being absorbed from fumes or directly from the nails, some women in the study wore gloves and applied polish to synthetic nails, while others applied polish directly to their own nails. The TPHP metabolite levels of the former group didn’t change significantly while the latter group saw a sevenfold increase, suggesting that fumes weren’t the main vehicle for the chemical. Nails are impermeable to most molecules, so the researchers theorize that the chemical leached through the cuticles, or that another ingredient in the polish made the nails more permeable.

It’s still unknown if the levels of TPHP coming from nail polish are harmful to the body, as most of the studies on the effects of TPHP have been conducted on animals.

It’s also unknown if there’s a less toxic chemical that could replace TPHP in nail polishes. The chemical acts as a plasticizer, making the polish flexible but durable. It may have replaced a chemical called DBP, which fell out of popularity when it was found to be a hormone disruptor. If companies move away from TPHP, as they did with DBP, the challenge is making sure the replacement isn’t just as toxic as the original. “I’m assuming that if you need a plasticizer, there are other options available,” said Congleton in an interview. “But I would want to be able to identify what those are and make sure the right questions have been asked.”

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These Nail Polish Brands Contain a Chemical That Could Mess With Your Hormones

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Here’s How Much Water Golf Courses, Ski Resorts, and Pools Are Using in California

Mother Jones

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California residents have gotten used to gentle coaxing to save water: ads urging residents to “Make It a Quickie” when showering and restaurants withholding water unless it’s ordered, for example.

But it wasn’t enough: This spring, Gov. Jerry Brown mandated water use reduction for the first time in California’s history. Starting in June, cities and towns were required to cut water use by 25 percent. Although no one has estimated the specifics of the state’s water use since 2003, officials predict that the cuts will save nearly 500 billion gallons of H2O over nine months—enough for all Los Angeles homes and businesses for about two years.

So far, the reductions have been a success: Officials recently announced that the state beat its goal in June, reducing municipal water use by 27 percent. It’s up to local agencies to figure out how best to reach the goal—most have targeted regulations on outdoor use, since half of the water consumed by California homes goes to lawns and gardens. Los Angeles “water cops” ticket those who water their lawns on the wrong day; the city is also issuing rebates for those who replace their lawns with drought-tolerant plants. Many agencies are simply fining residents who exceed monthly limits.

These changes are making a dent, but there’s no denying that home water use is a drop in the bucket compared to California’s thirsty outdoor businesses. Farms, of course, are the state’s biggest water user, consuming 80 percent of the state’s developed water. They were excluded from the 25 percent water reduction rule, but they’ve suffered region-specific cuts of their own, and, in some cases, are fighting back.

Of the thirsty nonagricultural businesses, golf takes the lead: The average Palm Springs golf course uses the same amount of water in one day that a family of four does in five years. The 123 golf courses in the Palm Springs area use nearly a quarter of the region’s groundwater.

The good news: Even the golf industry is coming around; more and more courses are using recycled water, leaving zones off the fairway unwatered, and taking advantage of drought tolerant landscape rebates.

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Here’s How Much Water Golf Courses, Ski Resorts, and Pools Are Using in California

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Why You Should Never, Ever Shake Your Martini

Mother Jones

A version of this story was originally published by Gastropod.

Whether you sip it with friends, chug it before hitting the dance floor, or take it as a post-work pick-me-up, there’s clearly nothing like a cocktail for bracing the spirit. In addition to its peculiar history as a medicinal tonic, plenty of hard science lies behind the perfect cocktail, from the relationship between taste perception and temperature to the all-important decision of whether to shake or stir.

In this episode of Gastropod—a podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history—we discover the cocktail’s historical origins, its etymological connection to a horse’s butt, and its rocky history, post-Prohibition. We also investigate the science of the perfect cocktail with culinary scientist Dave Arnold. Here are three tips he shared with us that will improve your drinks and wow your guests. Cheers!

Tip #1: Add salt—but not too much. It might seem counterintuitive, but, in a world overflowing with fancy bitters and spherical ice makers, the thing your cocktail is missing is actually much simpler: salt. Arnold, the mixologist behind high-tech cocktail bar Booker and Dax, shared this secret with Gastropod. It’s just one of several scientific tricks contained in his new book, Liquid Intelligence: The Art and Science of the Perfect Cocktail.

Of course, the most important ingredient in a cocktail is the liquor. The sugar, acids, and ice choices also have flavor implications, making every cocktail recipe into a kind of calculus that factors in the physics of energy transfer as well as variations in the molecular structures of different sweeteners.

But salt can play a crucial role. Arnold is quick to point out that you should only add a very tiny amount—”We are not talking about salting the rim of your glass here!” he told Gastropod.

Cocktail construction chart, created by the US Forest Service in 1974, now housed in the National Archives

Arnold’s insight draws on the same logic that calls for adding a pinch of salt to most baked goods, from ice cream to pastry. “These very, very small quantities of salt really just cause all the flavors to kind of pop,” Arnold explains, because of the way our taste buds work. Recent research has begun to tease out how the receptor cells on our tongues responds to sour, bitter, sweet, and salty tastes differently depending on their concentration and how they are combined. For example, if you add a tiny sour note to a bitter-flavored drink, it will actually boost the bitter sensation, but at a more moderate concentration, sour tastes suppress bitterness. (Try this at home, by adding a drop of lime to a margarita, versus the full ounce.)

Similarly, at very low concentrations, salt doesn’t register as a taste at all, but instead reduces bitterness and boosts sweet and sour notes in the food or drink you add it to. Basically, says Arnold, “next time you make a cocktail, add a tiny little pinch of salt to it and stir—and then tell me you don’t like it better.”

Tip #2: Shake daiquiris, not martinis. James Bond is famous—some might say notorious—for preferring his martini shaken, not stirred. But science-minded bartenders would urge you not to follow his lead—though Arnold is quick to point out that the right way to make a drink is the way it tastes good to you. Still, there’s some solid science behind why a martini should be stirred and a daiquiri shaken, rather than the other way around. Both methods chill, dilute, and blend your drink—but they have different effects on flavor and texture that work better with some cocktail recipes than others.

Typically, Arnold explains, when you shake a drink, it will get colder—and thus more diluted—than it would be after stirring. “Banging ice rapidly around inside a shaking tin is the most turbulent, efficient, and effective manual chilling/dilution technique we drink makers use,” he explains. Because flavor perception, and sweetness, in particular, is blunted at cooler temperatures, a shaken drink needs to start out significantly sweeter than its stirred equivalent.

Shaking also adds texture to a drink, in the form of lots of tiny air bubbles. That’s a good thing when you’re making a cocktail with ingredients that taste nice when they’re foamy, like egg whites, dairy, and even fruit juice, and not as good when you’re mixing straight liquor with bitters. Sorry, Mr. Bond.

Or, as President Jed Bartlet put it, “James is ordering a weak martini and being snooty about it.”

The other thing to bear in mind is that you really shouldn’t linger over a shaken drink. “The minute that someone hands you a shaken drink, it is dying,” says Arnold. “I hate it when people don’t drink their shaken drink right away.” We can’t responsibly advise you to chug them, so we recommend making your shaken drinks small, so that you can polish them off before the bubbles burst.

Tip #3: Add milk. And then remove it. Ever since the first ice-cube was added to the original cocktail recipe of liquor, bitters, and sugar, mixologists have loved their bar gear. Ice-picks, mallets, swizzle sticks, shakers, strainers, and even red-hot pokers were all standard features of the nineteenth-century celebrity bartender’s toolkit. Today, Dave Arnold has added rotary evaporators, iSi whippers, and liquid nitrogen to the mix, placing the most cutting-edge cocktails out of reach of the home mixologist.

But there is one super trendy, high-tech trick that you can try at home. It’s called “booze-washing,” and it makes use of protein to remove the astringency from a drink. It actually has a historic basis—even Ben Franklin wrote down his own a recipe for milk punch that uses the casein protein in milk to strip out the phenolic compounds and turn a rough-around-the-edges brandy into a soft, round, soothing drink. But Arnold came up with the idea when he was trying to make an alcoholic version of an Arnold Palmer, the delicious iced tea/lemonade mix.

“I knew that adding milk to tea makes it less astringent, which is why the Brits do it,” Arnold explained. “And then I wanted to get rid of the milk, because I didn’t want a milk tea, I wanted a tea tea.” So he added citric acid, which caused the milk to curdle, so he could separate it out in a centrifuge. “And only afterwards was I like, oh yeah, milk punch!”

Arnold washes drinks to remove flavors, rather than add them. He’s taking advantage of the chemical properties of protein-rich ingredients—milk, eggs, or even blood—that preferentially bind to the plant defense chemicals that can give over-oaked whiskey, certain red wines, tea, coffee, and some apple varieties a mouth-puckering dryness. He’s found that as well as smoothing out a drink, booze-washing has the side benefit of creating a lovely, velvety texture.

Arnold demonstrates booze-washing in a sequence of photos from his new book, Liquid Intelligence. Photos by Travis Huggert, who is also responsible for the image used in the embedded Soundcloud player, above.

The good news is that you don’t need a centrifuge to make the perfect milk punch or alcoholic Arnold Palmer at home. You follow Arnold’s recipe (which he shares on the Gastropod website), let it sit overnight, and then strain out the curds through a cloth and then through a coffee filter. According to Arnold, your yield will be a little lower than with a centrifuge, but the result will be just as tasty. His only word of warning is that you have to drink the resulting cocktail within a week, or else the proteins will clump together and the drink will lose its foaming power. But that shouldn’t be too difficult…

Listen to Gastropod’s Cocktail Hour for much more cocktail science and history, including an introduction to the world’s first celebrity bartender, an unexpected use for Korean bibimbap bowls, and a cocktail personality test based on Jungian analytics.

Gastropod is a podcast about the science and history of food. Each episode looks at the hidden history and surprising science behind a different food and/or farming-related topic—from aquaculture to ancient feasts, from cutlery to chile peppers, and from microbes to Malbec. It’s hosted by Cynthia Graber, an award-winning science reporter, and Nicola Twilley, author of the popular blog Edible Geography. You can subscribe via iTunes, email, Stitcher, or RSS for a new episode every two weeks.

This article has been revised.


Why You Should Never, Ever Shake Your Martini

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