Dairy Industry Milks New "MyPlate"
This week, the USDA unveiled a new icon for healthy eating, MyPlate, a successor to the Food Pyramid and MyPyramid.
There's a lot to like about the new visual. The share-of-plate metaphor is easier to grok at a glance than the multi-layered pyramid. You can tell by looking that about half your plate should be fruits and vegetables and only about a quarter should be protein.
Another positive feature is that the amino-acid intensive category is called "Protein"--not "Meat." Historically, one of the main criticisms of the UDSA guides has been their insinuation that meat and dairy products are an essential part of every healthy diet. That's not surprising considering the lobbying might of American agribusiness. At the end of the day, the U.S. Cattlemen's Association is a lot more powerful than whoever represents our nation's tofu producers in Washington. So, it's nice to see the USDA taking an ecumenical stance when it comes to recommending "protein," as opposed to "meat."
However, when I saw the MyPlate icon, my first thought was: "The dairy industry won big, here." Notice that in the top right corner, there's a separate satellite orb labelled "Dairy," in what looks like a glass next to the plate. The visual upshot is not only that dairy is a necessary part of every healthy diet, which is simply not true, but also that Americans should drink milk with every meal. Strictly speaking, the dairy orb could represent cheese, yogurt, or milk products, but it sure looks like a glass of milk with dinner.
Notice that, unlike meat in the "Protein" category, milk products get exclusive billing under the "Dairy" label, even though there are other non-milk sources of calcium that can fill the same role in the diet. At least Canada's Food Guide calls this category "Milk and Alternatives," which still sets milk up as the norm, but at least allows that there are other choices.
Dairy can be a healthy part of the diet for many people, but a significant percentage of the adult population can't digest milk at all. The U.S. is somewhat unusual by global standards both in terms of the absolute amount of fluid milk chugged by adults and the almost moralistic fervor around milk as a staple of health. I'm not slagging on dairy products. I'm just pointing out that daily dairy consumption is an option, maybe not even the ideal option--it shouldn't be touted as the norm for the entire country.
Sure enough, when I checked the dairy trade press, I found that the dairy industry is taking a victory lap, just as I predicted:
The shape may have shifted from pyramid to plate, but the message remains the same: dairy is an important part of the daily diet, for adults and children alike.
For that reason, the U.S. dairy industry today praised the USDA’s new MyPlate education tool, which provides a clear and visual message that a healthy diet is comprised of a variety of nutrient-rich foods, including low-fat and fat-free milk, cheese and yogurt.
America’s dairy farmers and processors commend the USDA for including a light blue circle depicting a serving of “Dairy” -- milk, cheese or yogurt -- next to the dinner plate to illustrate how to build a healthy eating plan, including a serving of dairy at every meal. [Emphasis added.] Dairy Herd Network/Consortium of dairy industry groups
So far, MyPlate is being touted as a triumph of science over industry pressure, and in some ways it is. For example, the USDA comes right out and tells Americans to eat less and avoid oversized portions, which isn't exactly what the food industry wants to hear. The eat less message isn't new to MyPlate, but it's a positive recent development and it's good to see them staying the course.
However, odds are, MyPlate is itself the product of heavy lobbying, just like its predecessors. So, caveat eater.
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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
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