Lo No Go

Terms such as no-fat or no-sugar, low-fat or reduced-salt on food packaging may give consumers a sense of confidence before they purchase, but these claims rarely reflect the actual nutritional quality of the food, according to a new study led by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The work, which appears in the  Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, rekindles an ongoing debate on what United States regulators consider healthy labeling, as producers and interest groups grapple over rules on nutrition claims on packaged foods and ready-to-drink beverages and consumers contend with how to rationalise a purchase and make healthier choices.

“In many cases, foods containing low-sugar, low-fat or low-salt claims had a worse nutritional profile than those without claims,” explained lead investigator Lindsey Smith Taillie, a research assistant professor in the department of nutrition at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. “In fact, in some cases, products that tend to be high in calories, sodium, sugar or fat may be more likely to have low- or no-content claims.”

For example, a three-cookie serving of reduced-fat Oreos contains four-and-a-half grams of fat compared to seven grams in a serving of full-fat Oreos, but both still contain 14 grams of sugar per serving, which could provide the appearance that the low-fat version is “healthy.” Chocolate low-fat milk is another example. It has the lower fat content but it is higher in sugar relative to plain milk and higher in sugar and fat relative to other beverages.

The issue stems, in part, from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allowing packaged food and beverage manufacturers to assign labels in different ways for different foods.

As with the examples above, if you are a consumer trying to make a healthy choice, you assume reduced means a healthier product. But that product only has to be reduced in reference to the original food of the same product for that specific nutrient, a reduced-fat cookie, for example. That cookie could also contain higher sugar or sodium, so if consumers are only relying on the reduced claim, they could potentially end up with a less healthy cookie. “Essentially, reduced claims are confusing because they are relative and only about one nutrient,” said Taillie.

Foods with a low claim are equally, if not more, confusing, but for different reasons. The FDA allows a low-fat label on food if that food has less than three grams per reference amount customarily consumed, or RACC. However, that reference point varies across product categories. For example, the RACC for brownies is 40 grams, whereas the RACC for cheesecake is 125 grams.

“A low-fat brownie could have three grams of fat per 40 grams, whereas a low-fat cheesecake” would have to have three grams of fat per 125 grams. So if a consumer were trying to find a lower-fat option for a dessert, the low-fat brownie would have relatively higher fat than the low-fat cheesecake.”

After looking at data that included more than 80 million food and beverage purchases from more than 40,000 households from 2008 to 2012, Taillie and her colleagues at the UNC-Duke USDA Center for Behavioral Economics and Healthy Food Choice Research found that 13 percent of food and 35 percent of beverage purchases had a low-content claim (including no, free, low or reduced) and that low-fat was the most common claim, followed by low-calorie, low-sugar and low-sodium.

Investigators also looked at the groups who were more likely to purchase foods that made these statements. While differences in purchasing patterns by race/ethnicity were not statistically significant, non-Hispanic white households were most likely to buy products with a low-calorie claim and Asian households purchased more foods with low-fat or low-sodium claims. Non-Hispanic black households were the least likely to purchase food groups with any low-content claim.

There was also a connection between socio-economic status and food purchases. Researchers found that high-and middle-income level households were more likely to purchase food and beverages with low-content claims.

A key question for future research, said Taillie, will address how these claims affect consumer choice and how claims interact with other common strategies, such as sales or price promotions, to influence purchasing behaviour and ultimately, dietary quality.

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Domestic Mice

Long before the advent of agriculture, hunter-gatherers began putting down roots in the Middle East, building more permanent homes and altering the ecological balance in ways that allowed the common house mouse to flourish, new research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates.

“The research provides the first evidence that, as early as 15,000 years ago, humans were living in one place long enough to impact local animal communities, resulting in the dominant presence of house mice,” said Fiona Marshall, study co-author and a professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. “It’s clear that the permanent occupation of these settlements had far-reaching consequences for local ecologies, animal domestication and human societies.”

Marshall, a noted expert on animal domestication, considers the research exciting because it shows that settled hunter-gatherers rather than farmers were the first people to transform environmental relations with small mammals. By providing stable access to human shelter and food, hunter-gatherers led house mice down the path to commensalism, an early phase of domestication in which a species learns how to benefit from human interaction.

The findings have broad implications for the processes that led to animal domestication.

“The findings provide clear evidence that the ways humans have shaped the natural world are tied to varying levels of human mobility,” said Marshall, the James W. and Jean L. Davis Professor in Arts & Sciences. “They suggest that the roots of animal domestication go back to human sedentism thousands of years prior to what has long been considered the dawn of agriculture.”

Led by Thomas Cucchi of National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, France, and Lior Weissbrod of the University of Haifa in Israel, the study set out to explain large swings in the ratio of house mice to wild mice populations found during excavations of different prehistoric periods at an ancient Natufian hunter-gatherer site in the Jordan Valley of Israel.

Examining tiny species-related variations in the molar shapes of fossilized mice teeth dating back as far as 200,000 years, the team built a timeline showing how the populations of different mice fluctuated at the Natufian site during periods of varying human mobility.

The analysis revealed that human mobility influenced competitive relationships between two species of mice; the house mouse (Mus musculus domesticus)and a short-tailed field mouse (M. macedonicus), that continue to live in and around modern settlements in Israel. These relationships are analogous to those of another pair of species called spiny mice which Weissbrod and Marshall discovered among semi-nomadic Maasai herders in southern Kenya.

Findings indicate that house mice began embedding themselves in the Jordan Valley homes of Natufian hunter-gatherers about 15,000 years ago, and that their populations rose and fell based on how often these communities picked up and moved to new locations.

When humans stayed in the same places for long runs of time, house mice out-competed their country cousins to the point of pushing most of them outside the settlement. In periods where drought, food shortages or other conditions forced hunter-gatherers to relocate more often, the populations of house mice and field mice reached a balance similar to that found among modern Maasai herders with similar mobility patterns.

The study confirms that house mice were already a fixture in the domiciles of eastern Mediterranean hunter-gatherer villages more than 3,000 years before the earliest known evidence for sedentary agriculture.

It suggests that the early hunter-gatherer settlements transformed ecological interactions and food webs, allowing house mice that benefited from human settlements to out-compete wild mice and establish themselves as the dominant population.

“The competition between commensal house mice and other wild mice continued to fluctuate as humans became more mobile in arid periods and more sedentary at other times, indicating the sensitivity of local environments to degrees of human mobility and the complexity of human environmental relationships going back in the Pleistocene,” said Weissbrod, currently a research fellow at the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa.

Weissbrod’s research involves analysis of microvertebrate remains from a wide range of prehistoric and historic sites in Israel and the Caucasus dealing with paleoecology and human-ecosystem interactions.

A 2010 graduate of the doctoral program in archaeological anthropology at Washington University, he began research for this study as part of a dissertation examining fluctuations in populations of mice and other small animals living around Maasai cattle herding settlements in Kenya.

Marshall helped Weissbrod to develop the ethnographic context for underlying research questions about the ecological impact of human mobility. Together they built field-based ecological frameworks for understanding changing animal human interactions through time focusing on mice and donkeys.

Working from his lab in Paris, Cucchi used a new technique called geometric morphometrics to identify the mouse fossils and reliably distinguish telltale differences in the miniscule remains of house mice and wild species. The method relies on high resolution imaging and digital analysis to categorize species-related variations in molar outlines nearly as thin as a single millimeter.

The findings, and the techniques used to document them, are important to archaeological research in a broader sense because they lend further support to the idea that fluctuations in ancient mouse populations can be used as a proxy for tracking ancient shifts in human mobility, lifestyle and food domestication.

“These findings suggest that hunter-gatherers of the Natufian culture, rather than later Neolithic farmers, were the first to adopt a sedentary way of life and unintentionally initiated a new type of ecological interaction; close coexistence with commensal species such as the house mouse,” Weissbrod said. “The human dynamic of shifts between mobile and sedentary existence was unraveled in unprecedented detail in the record of fluctuations in proportions of the two species through time.”

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See also; Domestic Cats.


 

Shake The Fake

The WVU Reed College of Media, in collaboration with computer science students and faculty at the WVU Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, is hosting an artificial intelligence (AI) course at its Media Innovation Center that includes two projects focused on using AI to detect and combat fake news articles.

Students in the senior-level computer science elective course are working in teams to develop and implement their own AI programs under the instruction of Don McLaughlin, research associate and retired faculty member of the Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering.

Stephen Woerner, a computer science senior, is on one of the teams charged with creating a system that detects fake news articles. His team’s approach utilizes a machine learning system to analyze text and generate a score that represents each article’s likeliness that it is fake news. Woerner added that this score is accompanied by a breakdown that explains the rating and provides transparency.

“Artificial intelligence can have all the same information as people, but it can address the volume of news and decipher validity without getting tired,” Woerner said. “People tend to get political or emotional, but AI doesn’t. It just addresses the problem it’s trained to combat.”

This collaboration with the computer science course serves as an example of the Media Innovation Center’s mission to support initiatives, projects, research and curriculum innovations that intersect its work in technology, media and information networks.

“Fake news isn’t just a media problem,” said the Center’s Creative Director Dana Coester. “It’s also a social and political problem with roots in technology. Solving that problem requires collaborating across disciplines.”

McLaughlin says working at the Center has helped his students this semester, as it suggests a more creative atmosphere than classrooms he’s used in the past.

“I’ve taught this course before, but the students seem to be more enthused this time. We appreciate the space and the breakout areas available for team collaboration here at the Center,” said McLaughlin. “Those amenities are valuable in a university environment.”

Each team will demonstrate their completed AI project during the last week of classes at the Media Innovation Center located in the Evansdale Crossing building.

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Vale The Bat Signal

Bat Signal

The Bat-Signal has illuminated Los Angeles City Hall, in honour of Batman actor Adam West, who died last week aged 88.
Mayor Eric Garcetti and Police Department Chief Charlie Beck activated the signal just after 9:00pm local time (2:00pm AEST) for the fitting #BrightKnight tribute event for the Hollywood legend.
Hundreds of fans, some in costume, cheered on as the Bat-Signal silhouette appeared on the City Hall tower.

See also Vale Adam West.

thank-you-batman


 

Dairy Camel

A growing number of wild camels from central Australia are being turned into dairy cows, as interest in the camel milk industry builds.
The number of dairies has now risen to around 10 and more products are starting to appear on the market including fresh pasteurised camels’ milk, cheese, ice-cream, yoghurt, camel milk powder and skincare.

Dairy Camel
Chris Williams and his wife Megan are former dairy cattle farmers, who first encountered camels when they worked on a beef property in the outback, where the humped animals were seen as pests.
But when they decided to set up their own business at Kyabram in Victoria, Mr Williams said they “wanted something niche”, and gave camels a second look.

“We researched many different things… milking goats, buffalo, even miniature Herefords at one stage and then we heard you can milk camels,” he said.
The high retail price was also a drawcard.
Pasteurised camel milk sells for more than $20 per litre in some states.
Farmers say camel milk is expensive because the production costs are high and the yields are much lower than what dairy cattle produce.
“We couldn’t have budgeted for how much it was going to cost to just get a litre of milk from a camel, having been no major research or industry,” Ms Williams said.
“Even just last year, cost of production was up around $17 per litre just to produce it.”
One producer who is diversifying into new products is Lauren Brisbane who owns QCamel in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland.
“We have a real opportunity to develop this industry and be able to supply milk around the world if we all work together,” she said.
Ms Brisbane has been working with camels for 12 years and decided to start milking them a few years ago.
“I’m really passionate about them. They’re so intelligent, that’s what I love,” she said.
But she also warns it is a risky industry not a cash cow.
“If people are coming, looking at it and going oh we’re going to make all this money then don’t bother,” she said.
“There’s nothing quick about a camel, it takes time.”

That isn’t stopping a growing number of local and international companies from investing.
It’s understood Chinese investors are looking at setting up a camel milk business in South Australia.
And investors from the United Arab Emirates have already funded Camilk’s $8 million pilot farm at Rochester, north of Melbourne.
Then there’s The Australian Wild Camel Corporation at Harrisville, south-west of Brisbane, which has the country’s largest herd of 450 animals including 65 milkers.
The company, which is being funded by local investors, aims to build the milking herd to 1,000 over the next few years.
“Our main issue is to take it from that cottage industry,” chief operating officer Paul Martin said.
“We’ve got to jump that hurdle and get it into a commercial where we can sell the produce overseas on volume and start to get our efficiencies on farm.”
Like other farmers, Mr Martin is trying to get the public to see camels in a new light by producing cheese, ice-cream and skincare.
“In a land like Australia we’ve got this animal that can survive through pretty well anything mother nature can throw at it and we’re shooting it,” he said.
“And yet it produces meat, it produces milk, it produces fat products, hide leather. It’s an amazing animal.”

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Everyday Negatives

Flashbacks of scenes from traumatic events often haunt those suffering from psychiatric conditions, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). “The close relationship between the human imagery system and our emotions can cause deep emotional perturbations,” says Dr Svetla Velikova of Smartbrain in Norway. “Imagery techniques are often used in cognitive psychotherapy to help patients modify disturbing mental images and overcome negative emotions.” Velikova and her team set out to see if such techniques could become self-guided and developed at home, away from the therapist’s chair.

Healthy people are also emotionally effected by what we see and the images we remember. Velikova explains, “if we visually remember an image from an unpleasant interaction with our boss, this can cause an increased level of anxiety about our work and demotivation.” There is great interest in ways to combat such everyday negative emotional responses through imagery training. But she warns, “this is a challenging task and requires a flexible approach. Each day we face different problems and a therapist teaches us how to identify topics and strategies for imagery exercises.”

To find out if we can train ourselves to use imagery techniques and optimise our emotional state, Velikova and co-workers turned to 30 healthy volunteers. During a two-day workshop the volunteers learnt a series of imagery techniques. They learnt how to cope with negative emotions from past events through imagery transformation, how to use positive imagery for future events or goals, and techniques to improve social interactions and enhance their emotional balance in daily life. They then spent the next 12 weeks training themselves at home for 15-20 minutes a day, before attending another similar two-day workshop.

Velikova compared the results of participant psychological assessment and brain activity, or electroencephalographic (EEG), measurement, before and after the experiment. “The psychological testing showed that depressive symptoms were less prominent. The number of those with sub-threshold depression, expressing depressive symptoms but not meeting the criteria for depression, was halved. Overall, volunteers were more satisfied with life and perceived themselves as more efficient” she explains.

Following analysis, the EEG data showed significant changes in the beta activity in the right medial pre-frontal cortex of the brain. Velikova notes that this region is known to be involved in imaging pleasant emotions and contributing to the degree of satisfaction with life. There were also changes in the functional connectivity of the brain, including increased connectivity between the temporal regions from both hemispheres, which Velikova attributes to enhanced coordination of networks linked to processing of images. She concludes, “this combination of EEG findings also suggests a possible increase in the activity of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), well known for its anti-anxiety and antidepressant properties.”

Velikova and co-workers’ results indicate that self-guided emotional imagery training has great potential to improve the everyday emotional wellbeing in healthy people. The team is now further exploring how the approach affects the cognitive function of healthy people. With minimal professional intervention, this technique could be developed to be a cost-effective aid for those with sub-threshold depression. It could also be promoted by businesses to help improve workforce morale and drive up productivity.

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Plastic Waste

Of the 78 million tons of plastic used for packaging, just 2 percent actually gets recycled and re-used in a similar way.

Nearly a third is leaked into the environment, around 14 percent is used in incineration and/or energy recovery, and about 40 percent winds up in landfills.

One of the problems: Polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP), which account for two-thirds of the world’s plastics, have different chemical structures and thus cannot be repurposed together. Or, at least, an efficient technology to meld these two materials into one hasn’t been available in the 60 years they’ve both been on the market.

That could change with a discovery out of Coates’ lab. Geoffrey Coates, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Cornell University and his group have collaborated with a group from the University of Minnesota to develop a multiblock polymer that, when added in small measure to a mix of the two otherwise incompatible materials, create a new and mechanically tough polymer.

The two groups’ work is detailed in a paper, “Combining polyethylene and polypropylene: Enhanced performance with PE/iPP multiblock polymers,” published online in Science.

James Eagan, a postdoctoral researcher in Coates’ group, is lead author of the paper. Other collaborators included researcher Anne LaPointe and former visiting scientist Rocco DiGirolamo.

Scientists for years have tried to develop a polymer that does what Coates, LaPointe and Eagan have achieved. By adding a miniscule amount of their tetrablock (four-block) polymer, with alternating polyethylene and polypropylene segments, the resultant material has strength superior to diblock (two-block) polymers they tested.

In their test, two strips of plastic were welded together using different multi-block polymers as adhesives, then mechanically pulled apart. While the welds made with diblock polymers failed relatively quickly, the weld made of the group’s tetrablock additive held so well that the plastic strips broke instead.

“People have done things like this before,” Coates said, “but they’ll typically put 10 percent of a soft material, so you don’t get the nice plastic properties, you get something that’s not quite as good as the original material.”

“What’s exciting about this,” he said, “is we can go to as low as 1 percent of our additive, and you get a plastic alloy that really has super-great properties.”

Not only does this tetrablock polymer show promise for improving recycling, Eagan said, it could spawn a whole new class of mechanically tough polymer blends.

“If you could make a milk jug with 30 percent less material because it’s mechanically better, think of the sustainability of that,” he said. “You’re using less plastic, less oil, you have less stuff to recycle, you have a lighter product that uses less fossil fuel to transport it.”

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