The Big Apple Takes on the Big Gulp
By Kristin Wartman
The controversy surrounding New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recent plan to ban sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces ranges from praise for taking on “America’s expanding waistline” to deriding him as a “nanny” for infringing on our personal choices and freedoms. But what’s largely missing from the debate is a real critique of the true villain in this battle—Big Food.
Those who favored the decision heralded Bloomberg: The Washington Post, in an editorial, writes, “The country need [sic] innovative leaders with a similar determination to take on America’s expanding waistline.” Frank Bruni writes in The New York Times, “Cry all you want about a nanny state, but as a city and a nation we’ve gorged and guzzled past the point where a gentle nudge toward roughage suffices. We need a weight watcher willing to mete out some stricter discipline.”
Those who feel our ability to buy a 32-ounce container of Coca-Cola has become the stand-in for civil liberties, such as the Center for Consumer Freedom, placed an ad in New York City newspapers, featuring Bloomberg as a “nanny” with a tagline that reads: “You only thought you lived in the land of the free.” Jon Stewart did a bit last Thursday lamenting the fact that he agreed with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who said Bloomberg was taking away our personal freedoms. And a New York Times editorial claimed the mayor was overreaching, writing: “[T]oo much nannying with a ban might well cause people to tune out.”
In the meantime, Big Food still has free reign to produce and market harmful products with virtually no regulation or oversight. So far, the government has been incredibly weak on regulating food producers and advertisements. Last year, the Obama administration proposed voluntary guidelines for the types of food advertised to children. The guidelines were extremely modest, allowing for two-thirds of processed foods to remain unchanged and placed mostly insignificant caps on the allowance of sugar, fat and sodium in products marketed to kids. Even these voluntary guidelines were called “unworkable and unrealistic” by one prominent industry group.
This is not the case in Europe. In 2007, the French government ordered all food advertisements to carry warning labels telling consumers to stop snacking, exercise and eat more fruits and vegetables. These warning labels are found in advertisements on television, radio, billboards and the Internet for all processed, sweetened or salted food and drinks. Other European countries have taken similar measures. In Sweden and Norway, all food and beverage advertising to children is forbidden. In Ireland, there is a ban on TV ads for candy and fast food and the ban prohibits using celebrities and sports stars to promote junk food to kids. According to Pamela Druckerman, author of Bringing Up Bebe, snacking is generally discouraged in France and children eat three meals a day with one small snack around four in the afternoon.
Regulations like those in Europe are the kind that could help to encourage new cultural norms around food in this country—and they don’t target the consumer by banning or taxing particular foods but rather they force corporations to label their unhealthy products and abide by advertising regulation.
Professor and author of Weighing In, Julie Guthman, had this to say about the ban: “Ultimately, I would prefer to see regulation at the point of production. If we as a polity think that sugary drinks are detrimental to public health, we shouldn’t allow them to be produced,” she said in an e-mail. This would surely be a more radical solution since it would place the burden on the corporations rather than the consumer. Guthman said the ban is a better idea than a soda tax because, “A regressive soda tax punishes those who have the least ability to pay.” But she’s weary of the ban since it still targets consumers and “focuses on the size of the drink which would seem to suggest that individual consumers can’t make good decisions. That is terribly paternalistic,” Guthman said.
The idea of a super-size soda ban is a broader variation of Bloomberg’s proposed plan last year to disallow the purchase of soda with food stamps. Critics of this initiative felt it was also paternalistic and stigmatized the poor who would not be able to shop like other consumers. The difference with the current soda ban is that all New Yorkers would be affected and it is here that the ban may potentially bring benefit by creating new cultural norms around food and beverage choice.
A 2010 study completed by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that the barrage of fast food advertising makes kids think processed, junk foods are “normal and expected.” The same can surely be said for the increase in portion sizes. As long it is “normal” and culturally accepted to drink a 20, 32 or 64-ounce soda along with that burger and fries, people will continue to do so.
As Ronald Bayer, a professor at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia put it in The New York Times, “The behaviors that harm our collective health are not, by and large, the result of bad or foolish individual choices. These “bad habits” are shaped by our culture, social arrangements and commercial interests.”
Ultimately, this ban may prove ineffectual since consumers will still be able to buy the equivalent of the larger size sodas in other ways, like buying two bottles or going to restaurants where refills are free. And of course, sodas are not the only problem when it comes to our unhealthful diets.
Mayor Bloomberg is brave to go head-to-head with Big Food by limiting portion size and trying to create a new norm but this tactic might further distract from the underlying problem of our virtually unregulated toxic and super-sized food supply. If nothing else, the proposed ban highlights the deeply complex and troubling conundrum that our current food system presents. Something clearly must be done—it just seems that regulating and curtailing the powers of Big Food would be a better place to focus our attention rather than merely capping the portion size for one of many sugary, addictive, non-nutritious substances at our never-ending disposal.
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By Jacob L. Steenwyk and Antonis Rokas
From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
How A. Latus Differs From its Parents.<p>Elucidating the identity of closely related fungal pathogens and how they differ from each other in infection-relevant characteristics is a key step toward reducing the burden of fungal disease. For example, we found that <em>A. latus</em> was three times more resistant than <em>A. nidulans</em>, the species it was originally identified as using microscopy-based methods, to one of the most common antifungal drugs, <a href="https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00520" target="_blank">caspofungin</a>. This result provides a clear example of the potential importance of accurate identification of the <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogen causing an infection.</p><p>We also examined how <em>A. latus</em> and <em>A. nidulans</em> interact with cells from our immune system. We found that immune cells were less efficient at combating <em>A. latus</em> compared to <em>A. nidulans</em>, suggesting the hybrid fungus may be trickier for our immune systems to identify and destroy.</p><p>In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our quest to understand <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogens is becoming more urgent. Growing evidence suggests that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/myc.13096" target="_blank">a fraction of COVID-19 patients are also infected with <em>Aspergillus</em>.</a> More worrying is that these <a href="https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201603" target="_blank">secondary <em>Aspergillus</em> infections</a> can worsen the clinical outcomes for those infected with the novel coronavirus. That being said, we stress that little is known about <em>Aspergillus</em> infections in COVID-19 patients due to a lack of systematic testing, and none of the infections identified so far appear to have been caused by hybrids.</p><p>So, when it comes to hybrids, some are fantastic (the minotaur), some are helpful (the mule) and some are dangerous (<em>Aspergillus latus</em>). Understanding more about the biology of <em>Aspergillus latus</em> may help in our understanding of how microbial pathogens arise and how to best prevent and combat their infections.</p>
This Saturday, June 6, marks National Trails Day, an annual celebration of the remarkable recreational, scenic and hiking trails that crisscross parks nationwide. The event, which started in 1993, honors the National Trail System and calls for volunteers to help with trail maintenance in parks across the country.
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By John Letzing
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The Navajo Nation covers the corners of three different states. Google Maps
Growing Contribution<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzM3NDY5Ny9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjM4MTgyM30.IuQTKQs1stvYYKD6vaVTrqAyoBsUG0BhDvlhxsyKwPA/img.png?width=980" id="02a05" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2841f82b1785df5d5ed7bf64d3bb882b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
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Scuba divers around the world are holding their metaphorical breath to see if a coronavirus infection affects the ability to dive.
DAN medical experts explained the difference between normal lungs, on the left, and "very serious lungs caused by COVID-19," on the right. Matias Nochetto / Divers Alert Network (DAN)
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