Michelle Minton

Post image for Pseudoscience and Clickbaiting Results in Beer Fear

There’s a lot of pseudoscience about food out there. From genetically modified crops to organic foods to corn syrup, to preservatives, passionate opinions abound, but well-reasoned, well-researched reporting on the issues is scarce. Normally, I selectively address the more egregious offenses and ignore the rest. But once in a while, an article comes along that is so misinformed, so hyperbolic, and so viral that it cannot be ignored. When such an article maligns one of my favorite food items, beer, I am duty-bound to come to its defense.

Recently, Organics.org turned a post by the blogger Vani Hari, better known as the “Food Babe,” into the worst kind of clickbait with the sky-is-falling headline, “8 Beers That You Should Stop Drinking Immediately,” which has been making the rounds on social media networks. But rather than exposing any dangers in beer, what Hari does reveal is that she does not understand the brewing process, how additives and ingredients function throughout that process, or how the beer industry is regulated.

The first warning sign that the Food Babe’s information may be dubious is that one of her main sources was the book, Chemicals Additives in Beer, published by the Center of Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which has a poor record when it comes to being scientifically sound. As food historian Maureen Ogle noted in her rebuttal (which I highly recommend):

[T]his one fact set off my alarm bells: She [Hari] relied on information from the Center for Science in the Public Interest. If you’ve read Ambitious Brew, you know that I have zero patience with CSPI. For thirty years, that group has railed against the alcohol industry and lobbied for neo-prohibition. As a source of information, it’s untrustworthy, unreliable, and constantly shows a somewhat shocking disregard for science (weird, given the group’s name).

Moreover, I couldn’t find a copy of the book anywhere or even a listing that might demonstrate its existence.

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Post image for Victory for Maryland Parents and Consumers: Energy Drink Ban Voted Down

A bill that would have banned the sale of energy drinks for minors in Maryland was recently voted down in committee almost unanimously. The bill was introduced after the death of 14-year-old Anais Fournier, which was reportedly linked to the consumption of energy drinks, and several news stories linking energy drinks to an increased number of hospitalizations fueled the panic over energy drinks potential hazards. However, Maryland lawmakers, to their credit, did not rush to legislate on a matter that would affect all Marylanders based on a few anecdotal cases.

While it’s understandable that parents would want lawmakers to do something to protect their children from potentially hazardous products, legislating based on anecdotal evidence isn’t the answer. In fact, a ban would likely do more harm than good. As Maryland Del. Doyle Niemann (D-Mount Rainier) told me over email, “There may be issues with energy drinks, but I agree that there are limits to how much can and should be done legislatively.”

On March 15, after hearing the concerns of citizens and business owners in Maryland, the House Economic Matters Committee rejected the bill 22-1. Despite the emotional testimony of the parents of the late Anais Fournier, lawmakers did not seem convinced that a ban was appropriate or that the scientific case against energy drinks is conclusive.

The bill’s penalties were excessive and unreasonable by any standard. The proposal—which defined “energy drinks” as beverages containing 71 milligrams or more of caffeine in a 12-ounce container as well as other ingredients like taurine, guarana, panax ginseng, inositol or L-carnitine—would have made selling energy drinks to minors a crime with the punishment ranging from $500 for the first offense to $2,000 for subsequent offenses, and up to $20,000 for providing discounted or free energy drinks to anyone under the age of 18. Minors themselves could be fined up to $100 if caught in possession of energy drinks.

Despite all the scary headlines, there is no actual evidence that the energy drinks are harmful when moderately consumed. As I noted recently in The Baltimore Sun, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration conducted an investigation in 2012 and found no reason to take further action against the products. While this doesn’t mean they are perfectly safe in any quantity for every consumer in all circumstances, it means that the agency doesn’t see them as a threat to public health. And as noted in a subsequent letter to the Sun, the assertion that energy drinks are dangerous to the 10 percent of the population with undiagnosed heart conditions seems unlikely. Were that the case, we’d expect to see many more energy drink-related deaths given the huge increase in energy drink consumption in recent years.

Energy drinks, consumed in a great enough quantity, could pose potential health risk, but that is true for all consumable goods. The only way to protect children from the dangers of certain foods or beverages is for parents to give them guidelines about proper nutrition to help them make responsible consumption decisions now and in the future.

Post image for Professional Licensing: A Risk to the Free Markets and Freedom of Speech

From physicians to dentists to lawyers, the licensing requirements of many professions are well known—but for bloggers? A recent case in North Carolina demonstrates the dangers that mandatory occupational licensing poses to liberty and how established interests use such requirements to protect their bottom line.

North Carolina resident Steve Cooksey was ill, obese, and struggling with type 2 diabetes. In 2009, after being rushed to the hospital, nearly in a coma, he decided to do everything in his power to get healthy. By following a low-carbohydrate diet, Cooksey claims he was able to drop 45 pounds and get off insulin and drugs. He documented his story on his personal blog, where he provided advice to others practicing the “paleo” diet that he believes saved his life.

That sounds like a win-win situation, but not according to the North Carolina Board of Dietetics and Nutrition (NCBDN), which decided to go after Cooksey for the “crime” of offering nutritional advice without a dietitian’s license. In 2011, it sent Cooksey a letter, claiming that his blog, by giving readers “unlicensed dietetic advice,” even for free, violated North Carolina law. The NCBDN included a 19-page copy of his online writings with comments in red ink pointing out what he could and could not say.

Even more surprising, the notice asserted that Cooksey’s private conversations with readers and friends via email and telephone also constituted a violation of the state’s dietitian licensing law!

Unfortunately, Cooksey’s case is far from an isolated incident. In just about every state, there is a dizzyingly long list of jobs that require would-be workers to go through a long, expensive, and sometimes arduous process to earn the privilege of entering into a given profession. While the stated reason for requiring occupational licenses is public safety, established players operating under existing licensing schemes usually fight tooth and nail to maintain occupational license requirement in place, to make it harder for potential competitors to enter the market.

Today, roughly 30 percent of jobs in the U.S. require some form of license (a sharp increase from a low back in 1950, when the share was only 5 percent). Fortunately, some workers are fighting these licensing regime—and many are winning.

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zhangEarly in the week I wrote about a major breakthrough toward the peaceful use of nuclear fusion. While that type of energy could drastically change human life on earth by providing bountiful clean and safe energy, it is, unfortunately, likely decades away from being commercially viable. Fear not because there are armies of researchers working around the world to find other affordable alternatives to fossil fuels that will help humanity cruise into the future. In this past year, one group of scientists have discovered a way to extract large amounts of hydrogen from plants—a process that would provide plentiful, cheap, and “green” energy, that could hit the market as a way to power vehicles in as little as three years.

For seven years a team of researchers at Virginia Tech have been searching for a non-traditional way to produce large amounts of hydrogen at low cost. They believe they have found that solution by using xylose, a simple sugar first discovered in wood, but found in most edible plants, including bamboo (a popular plastic alternative on the eco-friendly home goods market). The scientists created a custom “enzyme cocktail,” and by mixing it with the xylose and polyphosphate they can produce about three times as much hydrogen than other methods have been able to achieve. Y.H. Percival Zhang, one of the researchers on the project believes that hydrogen power can replace less sustainable modes of energy production and that his technology will have an impact on energy markets in the very near future.

“The potential for profit and environmental benefits are why so many automobile, oil, and energy companies are working on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as the transportation of the future,” Zhang said. “Many people believe we will enter the hydrogen economy soon, with a market capacity of at least $1 trillion in the United States alone.”

The real breakthrough in Zhang’s research is that he has found a way to create large quantities of hydrogen by using a renewable and abundant resource.

Zhang is using the second most prevalent sugar in plants to produce this hydrogen… This amounts to a significant additional benefit to hydrogen production and it reduces the overall cost of producing hydrogen from biomass.

Dr. Zhang is also the man behind a few other, related human achievements this past year including creating a sugar-powered battery that could power modern gadgets and a process that creates massive amounts of starch from wood, which could reduce food insecurity around the world, saving millions of lives. His work exemplifies one of the main messages of Human Achievement Hour: global challenges will not be solved through conservation or sitting in the dark, but rather through technology advancement, which the efforts of the environmentalist movement are slowing down.

About Human Achievement Hour (HAH): Human Achievement Hour is about paying tribute to the human innovations that allow people around the globe to live better, fuller lives, while also defending the basic human right to use energy to improve the quality of life of all people. Human Achievement Hour is the counter argument to Earth Hour, and promotes looking to technology and innovation to help solve environmental problems instead of reverting to the “dark ages,” by symbolically refusing to use electricity for an hour.

We are only three days away from Human Achievement Hour (March 29, 8:30pm to 9:30pm)! What better way to celebrate than with a post from our friends at HumanProgress.org. Stephanie Rugolo, HumanProgress’s managing editor, is spreading the good news about how far humankind has come by discussing some of the recent developments in organ replacement technology. Since this is a perfect example of how technological advancement benefits human life on earth, I wanted to share her insights:

Medical breakthroughs are giving hope to hundreds of thousands of people waiting for organ transplants. There are 120,000 people waiting for organ transplants in the United States alone. By this time tomorrow, twenty to thirty Americans will die because they cannot get a new kidney—not to mention other organs. Compare this man-made shortage to Iran where organ donors may be compensated with cash. In contrast to the United States, there is a donor waiting list in Iran. As long as the industrialized world rejects the Iranian model, we must turn to innovation to resolve the organ shortage crisis. Luckily, scientists are developing technologies that might accomplish just that.

French doctors implanted the first permanent and completely artificial heart in December. The lucky Frenchman was a 76 year old with terminal heart failure. Carmat, the company that engineered the artificial heart, intended their product for terminally ill patients like him who are too old to have any chance of receiving a human heart. Without the implant, the French patient may have lived for a few more days or possibly weeks—if lucky. Since he was the first person to be fitted with the artificial novelty, the operation would have been considered a success if he had lived for another month. With the Carmat’s artificial heart, this patient lived for another two and a half months before passing away in March 2014.  Carmat expects its heart to allow future patients to live for up to an additional five years. That could provide a normal social life to some 100,000 people in need of a new heart in the United States and Europe alone.

Last month, University of Texas scientists announced that they grew human lungs in a lab for the first time. This is a huge breakthrough considering the lung is probably the most complex of all organs in terms of cell types, according to UT researchers. Unfortunately, the use of lab-grown lungs as transplants in humans is as many as five to ten years away. When this technology reaches a mature stage, it will save thousands of lives, such as the 1,600 Americans who are waiting for a lung transplant today. Until then, these lab-grown lungs can be used by scientists and researchers to evaluate lung cells and better understand agents that target and damage the lung. Consequently, this new technology has the potential to improve the lives of those who suffer or will suffer from ailments like pneumonia, hemorrhagic fever, tuberculosis, or hantavirus.

Organovo, a San Diego-based company, made great advances in 3D printing of a human liver in the past year. This technological innovation could make it possible for the hundreds of thousands of people at death’s door while waiting for organ transplants to press ‘print’ and live. The life-saving process of 3D bio-printing involves layering sheets of live cells. The snag, it seems, is to keep 3D-printed organs “alive” for long periods of time. The 3D-printed liver, for example, has stayed alive in a lab for 40 days—a major breakthrough—and the outlook is optimistic for a functional 3D-printed liver this year. Like the lab-grown lungs, it will only be used in research for now. Luckily, that will speed up medical studies and drug research while making research results more accurate.  Watch the fascinating process of 3D printing an organ here.

Organ transplant recipients will directly benefit from medical advances that circumvent today’s shortage-inducing laws. As these technologies are used to speed up research, other medical advances will allow ever more people to live longer, fuller lives. This is timely to note considering that on March 29, from 8:30 – 9:30 p.m., we will mark the Human Achievement Hour, which pays tribute to human innovations that improve our lives. In honor of that Hour, many thanks to the researchers who develop technologies that facilitate human progress.

Stephanie Rugolo is the Managing Editor of HumanProgress.org.

About Human Achievement Hour (HAH): Human Achievement Hour is about paying tribute to the human innovations that allow people around the globe to live better, fuller lives, while also defending the basic human right to use energy to improve the quality of life of all people. Human Achievement Hour is the counter argument to Earth Hour, and promotes looking to technology and innovation to help solve environmental problems instead of reverting to the “dark ages,” by symbolically refusing to use electricity for an hour.

sun-epaShocking as it might seem, some of us at CEI agree with environmentalists that reducing personal waste is a good idea. Voluntarily reducing our individual energy consumption and waste material can have a number of benefits, including saving your household money!

However, we also believe that the solutions to global environmental issues will not come from taxes or limitations on consumption, but rather from scientific advancement—whether it’s finding new ways to feed the world, methods of providing unlimited clean water, or by creating an energy source that is cheap, safe, unlimited, and “green.”

Researchers in California made a great leap toward creating a source of virtually unlimited energy this past year as they strive to harness the power of nuclear fusion—the same process that powers stars like our sun.

Scientists at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) announced that in the last year “for the first time the energy released through the fusion reaction exceeded the amount of energy being absorbed by the fuel.” This is a significant step toward an energy source that would be plentiful and environmentally friendly.

Currently, nuclear energy is produced through fission, where the nucleus of an atom is split apart, releasing enormous amounts of energy. In nuclear fusion, the nuclei of atoms fuse together and create massive amounts of energy. While scientists can create fusion; for example, a hydrogen bomb which is also known as a fusion bomb uses the power of nuclear fission—so, a nuclear bomb—in order to achieve fusion. The holy grail in nuclear fusion research is to find a method of causing fusion that takes less energy than the fusion reaction creates, which they call “ignition.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, attempting to replicate the condition inside of a star has been no easy task for scientists.

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Post image for New York Alcohol Bill Benefits Big Business at Consumers’ Expense

New York’s consumers and small alcohol retailers could soon be paying more for their tipples, for the benefit of big wholesalers. A bill now making its way through the New York legislature would require all wine and liquor sold in the state to be warehoused in in-state for 24 hours prior to sale. While the bill would be a boon to the state’s two largest wine wholesalers, who already store their products in-state, it will significantly raise the cost of business for small and mid-sized wholesalers who warehouse in New Jersey—possibly even putting them out of business. Consumers will see prices increase not only right away, but also in the future as competition dwindles.

The bill’s (S3849-2013) author, Senator Jeffrey Klein (D-Bronx), touts it as a way to even the playing field and protect warehouse jobs in the state, while pointing out that 33 other states have similar laws. But so what? In practice, the bill will do nothing to help consumers, either in the short or long term. Right away, prices will increase, as wholesalers are forced to rent space in New York’s more expensive warehouses.

Small and medium-sized liquor and wine dealers will pay an additional $10 per case—a cost increase that, as Connie Oehmler of Verity Wine Partners estimates, will result in an extra $2 per bottle for consumers. And that’s assuming these small and medium wholesalers remain in operation. For many, the cost increases may mean they have to close shop. Over the long term, the reduced competition will give largest wholesalers and warehouse owners little incentive to reduce their prices.

While the bill would provide little benefit to New York consumers, it would prove lucrative for the state’s two largest wine and liquor wholesalers—Southern Wine & Spirits and Empire Merchants–which have put a lot of money into bolstering the bill’s chances. Empire Merchants, which has warehouses in Queens and Brooklyn, has contributed a total of over half a million dollars over the last eight years to key lawmakers in the state, including Gov. Cuomo, state Senate co-leader Dean Skelos, and Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver. Klein, who has received $33,000 in campaign donations from the Empire Merchants, reportedly met with Empire on the legislation, according to a New York Post source. Oehmler is right to call the bill a “blatant, bald-faced attempt to put all their competition out of business.” And this isn’t the first time that a New York lawmaker or Klein, specifically, has been wrapped up in a proposal that appears to be written for the exclusive benefit of a few big New York businesses.

In addition to raising raising alcohol prices, the bill will also likely encourage cross-border alcohol purchasing, as consumers seek out cheaper products in neighboring states, resulting in a lost tax revenue for New York. Despite all the negatives, Klein likely will not back away from his flawed proposal.

Post image for Should States Legalize Sports Gambling? Yes!

With Super Bowl XLVIII in the history books, all that remains now is for the losers to lick their wounds and for the victors to collect their spoils. The Seattle Seahawks will return home to their adoring (and loud) fans while the winners of friendly bets and office pools will collect their winnings. Of course, in most states wagering on sports is illegal. Should it be, or is it about time that states legalized the widespread activity of sports gambling?

The short answer: It should never have been banned in the first place. Legalization would protect gamblers from the dangers of the black market, increase revenues for cash-strapped state governments, and restore adult Americans’ right to decide how to spend their own money. The question of whether some gambling should be legal has long been settled. All but one state — Hawaii — has some form of legalized gambling. All but six states have lotteries, in which almost 60 percent of Americans bought tickets in 2013. Gambling is, quite simply, in our nature. People have engaged in it since the beginning of recorded history and about 86 percent of Americans reported gambling at least once in their life, according to a Gambling Impact and Behavior Study done in 1999.

Bans don’t work: Despite the de facto ban on Internet gambling, an estimated 70 million Americans still wagered online in 2010. And, despite the fact that sports wagering is only legal in four states, an estimated 50 percent of American adults all across the nation put money down on the outcome of this past weekend’s Super Bowl. Bans on sports gambling make criminals of ordinary people, put them in potentially dangerous situations in dealing with bookies, and make states miss out on potential revenue.

Legalized gambling = increased tax revenue: Nevada generated upwards of $20 million in tax revenue from sports wagering in 2012. Only three other states — Oregon, Delaware, and Montana — reap the benefits of legal sports wagering. For an idea of the potential revenue states could gain from legalized sports wagering, consider this: more than $2.5 billion is illegally wagered during the three-week period of “March Madness” last year, according to the FBI.

Gambling bans don’t protect the sport: Some argue sports gambling hurts the game. They appear to believe players will throw games if they bet on opponents. But as we have seen, bans do not stop sports betting, they merely drive it underground where it attracts a criminal element and cannot be policed effectively. To the extent that legalization makes gambling a transparent activity organized by businessmen, rather than a black market run by criminals, legalization should make it easier for teams, leagues, and courts to police misconduct by players and coaches.

As we have seen in the past, Americans are going to continue wagering on sports whether or not it is legal. The real question is: Do we want to have this activity go on in the shadows of the black market or have it occur in a legal market where it can be monitored and participants can be protected?

In the middle of this holiday season my colleague Stephanie Rugolo over at the Cato’s new project, HumanProgress.org, is spreading cheer by getting out the word about the improving human condition. She offered these thoughts which I’d like to share:

Good News to Share Over the Holidays: The World Is Getting Better

You’ve heard it all before, “The world is becoming increasingly violent,” “Work-related injuries are on the rise,” “Soon, we’ll have no more forests.” As it turns out, pessimism is often at odds with the real world.

Long term trends for nearly every indicator of human progress are positive. For instance, forest coverage in rich countries is increasing in line with the Environmental Kuznets Curve. This trend will hopefully continue in the developing world as it becomes richer.

rugolo pic 1

According to the International Labor Organization, work fatalities are way down, while economic freedom is on the rise. This should give pause to those who think that free market is synonymous with bad working conditions. Quite the opposite. Economically free countries tend to be richer than economically unfree countries, and richer countries have safer working environments.

 

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Moreover, there has been a dramatic decline in violence. Conflicts between major powers, which used to be commonplace, are non-existent. Deaths due to genocide are way down, too.

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So cheer up and enjoy the holidays!

Post image for Taxpayer-Funded Propaganda to Show the “Evils” of Private Alcohol Sales

As if there wasn’t enough money in politics, now government agencies are using taxpayer dollars—our dollars—in an attempt to influence state policy. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded The Public Health Institute’s Alcohol Research Group almost $650,000 a year for five years to research the effects that alcohol privatization in Washington State has had on prices and alcohol-related harms. At first glance, it may seem like a perfectly appropriate research topic for the NIH to support, but the details make one wonder whether the motives for such research are scientific curiosity or pure politics.

The organization that received the grant and its scientists have a long history of producing anti-alcohol-biased research. Dr. William Kerr, the lead on the project, has written and spoken many times in the past about his firm stance against the privatization of alcohol sales which he believes directly results in increased drinking and costs to the state. He received funding from the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association, an organization with the sole purpose of defending control state systems, to produce a study warning states of the dangers of privatization. In all likelihood, the conclusion of this forthcoming study will communicate a similar attitude.

Why would NIH award millions of taxpayer dollars to fund a study by a researcher with such an obvious bias? The answer is that NIH wants a study to show the evils of privatization that it can then show to any lawmaker considering privatization in his or her own state. Not only is this a waste of taxpayer money, but this government propaganda makes it harder for real stakeholders in the debate, such as citizens and businesses, to make their case for less government.

Results of Privatization

In November 2011, voters in Washington State approved Initiative 1183 officially ending the state monopoly on the sale of spirits. Since then, health advocates, retailers, and employee unions have waged a PR war, attempting to spin the story about the aftereffects of privatization, either to convince other control states (those states that have government-run liquor stores) to follow suit or to send them running from the very idea of loosening state control over liquor sales. According to the Reason Foundation’s Leonard Gilroy:

Robust competition is starting to take place among national retail chains, which tend to focus on offering few brands at more competitive prices (due to volume purchasing), while smaller specialty spirits retailers are emerging to offer competition through more variety in product mixes and greater attention to customer service and offering a high-quality retail experience. Perhaps more importantly, the fears promulgated by privatization opponents—primarily over the potential declines in state liquor revenues and significant negative effects on public health and safety—have not materialized.

And according to the Washington Policy Center, alcohol-related crimes have even declined since privatization in Washington. Of course, the facts have not deterred public health advocates from spinning a yard about the dangerous of getting the state out of the business of selling liquor.

Of course, that won’t stop organizations like ARG and others from pushing the idea that liquor privatization is unequivocally bad for society.

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