How We Subsidize Obesity

Bloggers are talking today about a striking chart comparing the foods we should be eating with the foods the government subsidizes. The chart, originally published in 2007 by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), shows two side-by-side food pyramids. On the right is a version of the standard food pyramid, showing federal nutrition recommendations—that we should have 11 servings of grain a day, 9 servings of fruits and vegetables, 6 servings of high protein foods like meat and dairy products, and small amounts of things like sugar, oil, and salt. On the left is a pyramid showing the extent to which we subsidize each of those food groups.

Meat and dairy products got almost 3/4 of federal food subsidy money between 1995 and 2005, in spite of the fact that they should make up less than 1/4 of our diet. Sugar, oil, and other things we shouldn't eat very much of got around 10% of the federal money. And fruits and vegetables—which should be about 1/3 of our diet—received essentially no federal aid at all.


The Consumerist posted the chart with caption: "This is why you're fat." Americans are, of course, fat. With one in three Americans clinically obese, we are one of the fattest countries in the world. Why exactly that is is a complicated question. But part of the reason is that we eat too much of the wrong foods. While we may not need any extra incentive to eat sweet or fatty foods, we would probably eat less of them if they weren't so cheap. In fact, we can often buy unhealthy foods for less than they actually cost to make, because we use so much tax money to subsidize their production. Healthy foods, meanwhile, still cost full price.

Why are we subsidizing foods that we eat too much of? The main reason, of course, is that producing them is a huge, profitable, and politically well-connected industry. Derek Thompson isn't far wrong when he writes that "The federal government's food subsidy policy exists to manage supply and protect prices for farmers with excellent lobbying groups." Not only do we spend billions of dollars subsidizing the corn and soy to be fed to livestock, but we also buy enormous quantities of surplus—and often unhealthy—food for food assistance programs, including school lunches. Partly as a result, the prices of less healthy foods have been falling, while the prices of more healthy ones have gone up. Catherine Rampell links to another chart David Leonhardt put together last year, showing how starkly the prices of healthy and unhealthy foods have diverged. Over the last 30 years the relative price of meat and butter fell dramatically. The relative price of soda fell by 33%. But the relative prices of fruits and vegetable climbed dramatically—by more than 40%—over the same period. That's why a salad costs more than a Big Mac.

A number of cities—like New York and Philadelphia—are considering taxing soda, both to encourage people to drink less and to fund programs to treat the health problems associated with obesity. Whatever its merits, however, the idea of taxing something like soda to discourage people from drinking it smacks of paternalism. Why should the government dictate to us what we should eat or drink? But the fact is, as Derek Thompson says, that we already have a tax policy that radically distorts the price of what we eat. Except the point of this policy isn't to make us healthier, but to pad corporate profits.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • 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.

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
  • The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
  • The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
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