Monday, October 26, 2009

The "Smart Choices" the U.S. Government Wants To Make For You

The short summary: Food makers have combined to work with nutrition experts to develop standards to brand food products in such a way as to communicate that the products comply with the government's dietary guidelines and widely accepted nutritional standards. A large number of manufacturers have joined one such program, "Smart Choices" and now the Food and Drug Administration is weighing an intervention. As far as I can tell, parents haven't risen up and demanded that the FDA act. Consumers aren't marching on behalf of new standardized food labeling. There is no Upton Sinclair on the best-seller lists with a "The Jungle" like tome denouncing the cereal manufacturers.

What there is is a new push for nanny-statism that boggles the mind. Read the Times and Post stories closely, and you will see there FDA representatives fairly straining to break out into full "big brother" mode and regulate every food package in America.

"The government is interested in improving nutrition labeling on packages in part," writes the Times, "because of the nation’s obsesity epidemic, which experts say is tied to a diet heavy in processed foods loaded with calories, fats and sugar."

"As a mother of two who frequently finds herself racing down the grocery aisle hoping to grab foods that are healthy for my family, I would welcome the day that I can look on the front of packages and see nutrition information I can trust and use," The Post quotes FDA big boss Margaret Hamburg as saying. "As the commissioner of FDA, I see it as my responsibility, and the responsibility of this administration, to help make that happen."

Think about this proposed new mission for the FDA for a moment, and just how vast it is. If the government is suddenly in charge of the labeling of all food products for children on the theory that the government must prevent obesity, why wouldn't it be involved in the labeling of all food products for all people? And beyond labeling, why not grab the authority to dictate what can and cannot be manufactured in the first place?

The problem isn't just the FDA of course, but also the legions of plaintiffs' lawyers who need a replacement for cigarette and asbestos plaintiffs. Imagine the vista that is opening before them as they consider suits for damages brought against makers of all sorts of food products which can be alleged to have contributed to Dick's and Jane's diabetes developing at age 10 due to chronic obesity. The jury will be presented with the FDA's statements and experts will testify on how the Fruit Loops fairly lept from the shelves into the mouths of children everywhere. Cha-ching.

"This is just one more segment of America being overrun by government regulation under the guise of 'assisting the unwary consumer,'" Liz wrote me in a follow-up e-mail. "If consumers don't start taking responsibility for themselves and the choices they make, and start resisting the intervention, the government and the plaintiffs' bar will be more than happy to make their choices."

The industry --all of it, not just the bigs, right down to every potato chip and ice cream maker and even the producers of soy-- had better step up to shut down the FDA's early efforts to grab control of the marketplace. Every rulemaking has got to be resisted and every bogus lawsuit contested or life without Fruit Loops, and every other food choice freely made, will be a memory within a decade.


Alzheimer's linked to lack of Zzzzs

Sleep deprivation leads to more plaques in genetically susceptible mice. Interesting but far from conclusive

Losing sleep could lead to losing brain cells, a new study suggests. Levels of a protein that forms the hallmark plaques of Alzheimer’s disease increase in the brains of mice and in the spinal fluid of people during wakefulness and fall during sleep, researchers report online September 24 in Science. Mice that didn’t get enough sleep for three weeks also had more plaques in their brains than well-rested mice, the team found.

Scientists already knew that having Alzheimer’s disease was associated with poor sleep, but they had thought that Alzheimer’s disease caused the sleep disruption.

“This is the first experimental study that clearly shows that disrupted sleep may contribute to the disease process,” says Peter Meerlo, a neuroscientist at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. “What makes it exciting for me is that it shows that chronic sleep loss, in the long run, changes the brain in ways that may contribute to disease.” A vicious cycle could result if sleep loss leads to Alzheimer’s disease and the disease leads to more sleep loss, he says.

Researchers led by David Holtzman, a neurologist and neuroscientist at Washington University in St. Louis, used a method called microdialysis to measure the levels of a protein known as amyloid-beta in the fluid between brain cells of mice. Amyloid-beta sometimes twists into a sticky form and clumps together, forming such plaques. Scientists don’t yet understand how, but they think that clumping of amyloid-beta eventually leads to the death of neurons and the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease (SN: 8/16/08, p. 20).

Although levels of amyloid-beta in the brain tissue of the mice didn’t seem to change, Holtzman’s group found that levels of the protein released into brain fluid did rise and fall throughout the day. “We didn’t know it would coordinate with sleep and wakefulness,” Holtzman says. “We just knew the levels fluctuated.”

Levels of the protein increased in mice during the night — when mice are mostly awake — and fell during the day when mice sleep. The longer the mice stayed awake, the more amyloid-beta levels increased, the team found. The team also measured amyloid-beta levels in the cerebral spinal fluid of some healthy young people and found the same pattern observed in the mice — amyloid-beta levels increase when people are awake and fall during sleep.

Giving mice a shot of a hormone called orexin, which promotes wakefulness, also caused amyloid-beta levels to increase. And blocking orexin’s activity led to a decrease in the amount of protein released into the brain fluid. The researchers don’t yet know whether orexin is directly responsible for helping release amyloid-beta into brain fluid or if orexin keeps animals awake, allowing more time for levels of the protein to build up.

For three weeks, Holtzman’s team studied mice that were genetically predisposed to build Alzheimer’s plaques, allowing some of the animals to sleep only four hours a day while others slept normally. Sleep-deprived mice made more plaques than well-rested mice, but a drug that blocks orexin’s action was also able to stop plaque buildup, the researchers discovered.

Studies in people haven’t shown a link between Alzheimer’s disease and chronic sleep loss, but Holtzman speculates that lack of sleep, particularly in mid-life when plaques begin to form, could hasten onset of the disease in genetically susceptible individuals. Drugs that block orexin might also be used as a potential therapy for halting plaque development, he says.

Other researchers aren’t so sure that’s a good idea. “Treating patients chronically with orexin inhibitors is really not an option,” says Masashi Yanagisawa, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. The drugs would likely make patients sleepy unless used at extremely low doses, he says. One such drug is in clinical testing as a treatment for insomnia.

It is also unclear whether orexin or some other aspect of the sleep and wake cycle regulates amyloid-beta levels, researchers say.

“Mechanistically we don’t understand why [sleep] is manipulating amyloid-beta rhythms,” says Sangram Sisodia, a molecular neurobiologist at the University of Chicago, “but we do know it’s doing something good for the brain.… There’s a clear message here about why it is so important to sleep.”


When Government Gets Science Wrong

Advocates of greater government involvement in the health care system are asking the public to put a lot of faith in bureaucrats' ability to decide what "science" tells us is the best way to treat our personal medical problem. Yet the public should be warned: the government doesn't always know best when it comes to making us healthy and sometimes society pays a price for their errors.

Consider what government has done with dietary recommendations related to tuna fish. Mothers who have been pregnant in recent years know that among the list of pregnancy no-no's is eating too much of certain fish. For example, the official guidance for our health department has been that pregnant women should eat no more than six ounces of albacore tuna fish per week. Many women (myself included) assumed that meant that, like with alcohol or nicotine, it's safest to eliminate tuna, and fish more generally, from our diets. After all, why take a chance?

Indeed, according to one national poll, nearly nine in ten pregnant women were concerned about mercury in canned tuna. Almost half of all audiences agreed with the statement that "With all the uncertainty about mercury in fish, it's best for pregnant women and nursing mothers to avoid it all together to ensure the safety of their child."

Yet it turns out those of us who were trying to play it safe were actually creating new risks for our developing babies. Fish is the most naturally-rich source of essential omega-3 fatty acids, which aid in the development of the fetal brain and eyes. That's why doctors now actively encourage pregnant women to eat seafood twice a week, but that doesn't make the same impact as the anti-fish alarmism. A peer-reviewed FDA report issued last year warned that 95 percent of American women eat less than the recommended amount of fish. Increasingly independent scientists and government officials are recognizing that the government's guidance to limit seafood to avoid trace amounts of mercury has backfired on this generation of children.

Government also can over-react as a result of fear of dangerous substances. The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, for example, created onerous new restrictions on the types of toys that can be made available. As the Manhattan Institute's Walter Olson, detailed in City Journal , the law not only stipulated safety standards for current toymakers, but also applied to products already in existence. As a result, many harmless children's playthings-like books produced before 1985-were made worse than worthless: they were deemed dangerous, and thus were discarded from many stores, thrift shops and libraries. Sadly, the real casualties of this law were kids-particularly kids from families unwilling or incapable of paying the often high-price of new children's books-who lost access to a world of stories and ideas.

Should we really trust the government to apply their logic to determine what medical procedures are most efficient and should be made available to the public? A recent report from the United Kingdom provides a window of what we can expect from such a process. The UK's National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) is seeking to limit the use of steroid injections to treat chronic lower back pain, and will instead encourage suffers to try alternative treatments, such as acupuncture.

It's not surprising, really-that's the way that government's "control" health care costs. But what's noteworthy is that some specialists feel politics was behind the decision As the British newspaper, the Telegraph, reports: "specialists are furious that while the group included practitioners of alternative therapies, there was no one with expertise in conventional pain relief medicine to argue against a decision to significantly restrict its use." In other words, because acupuncture reps were on the panel making the decision, they decided to slash the availability of traditional treatment and encourage more people to try "alternative" treatments.

It's not science at its best; it's politics as usual, and it's our future if we allow government to take-over health care.


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