Sunday, May 31, 2015

Law Without Justice by Paul Robinson and Michael Cahill.


“In Law as in life, we want people to get what they deserve. Indeed, many (probably most) people, both legal experts and ordinary citizens think this is a fundamental reason (and perhaps the reason) that we have a legal system at all: to help give people what they deserve when life has not. If one person wrongs another, the law makes the wrong-doer pay. On the other hand, if someone has done nothing wrong, we expect the law to leave that person alone, as she does not deserve to be sanctioned or punished.

This basic notion holds particularly true for criminal law, in part because the stakes are higher on all sides. When a person gets away with murder, we are outraged. Why?  Because we are concerned about the message this sends to other would-be murderers, who now think they can kill without fear? Perhaps in part, but surely our outrage is more deeply related to the particulars: this murderer has committed an evil act and deserves to be punished, yet has evaded punishment. Similarly, when we hear that an innocent person  has been incarcerated, we are outraged. Why? Because we fear that this indicates a general corruption in the system and that the government may come for us next? A little, perhaps, but surely the main reason is that we sympathize with the individual, who has not received the treatment she deserves. In both cases, we feel that justice has not been done, and this offends and angers us. Isn’t justice supposed to be the system’s goal?

Surprisingly often, it isn’t. To take just one brief example, the case of Leandro Andrade who, in November 1995 went to two K-Mart stores and stole none video-tapes worth a total of about $154 . Because he had earlier convictions for burglary, minor thefts, and drug offenses involving marijuana – though he had already served time for those offenses – Andre was sentenced under California’s ‘three strikes’ law to two consecutive sentences of twenty-five years to life, meaning he will serve a minimum of fifty years in prison for his video tape theft.  Currently, California is spending about $26,000 per year for the incarceration of Andrade and each of its other prisoners. But it is also paying another price: the price of sacrificing justice by treating minor offenses as if they were far more serious than significant, violent felonies  .  .  .”

Julio Marrero, a guard in a federal prison who had received numerous threats to his life, purchased and carried a gun under the impression that  his exemption for obtaining a special permit as a officer of the federal government was equally applicable under the laws of the State of New York, was arrested, convicted of felony possession of a firearm, fined, given a 3 year suspended sentence and thus barred from work in law enforcement or corrections.




Deviations from the norms of just desert occur frequently in respect to bright-line determinations of the immaturity ‘defense. All actors below a specific cutoff age are  conclusively presumed to be immature and are tried in juvenile court in which the normative expectations  for offenders, and the punishments handed out are lowered. Above a certain age defendants are tried as adults and not allowed  an immaturity defense. The problem is only exacerbated by the increasing trend towards lowering the age at which juveniles can be tried and punished as adults. Here, as elsewhere, flexible standards rather than bright-line rules would better serve the goal of just deserts.  Undertaking complex judgments of blameworthiness – assessing mental capacities and functioning in specific situations should not normally be abandoned simply because they are sometimes difficult.

“Strict liability’ rules in criminal courts also lead to many deviations from the principle of just deserts as in the case of a mentally retarded individual who impregnated a girl who he thought and had been told by the girl herself and several friends was sixteen years old but was actually fourteen. He received a twenty year sentence for statutory rape. Felony-murder offenses are also the subject of deviations. A teenager in Chicago fled from an officer who stopped him for ‘erratic driving”. The officer pursued the kid on foot .Running between two cars into the street during the chase the officer was struck and killed by another officer responding to his call for assistance. The suspect was apprehended, convicted of felony murder and given a life sentence.

The author gives many other examples of distortions of the just desert principle in American law enforcement and jurisprudence. A serial killer is set free because his initial arrest lack sufficient  ‘probable cause’ and evidence gathered at the time of that arrest ruled inadmissible. He goes on to kill and dismember three more victims before finally being apprehended. Clear evidence of culpability in the murder of his girlfriend shows up after a man is acquitted and is thus only convicted of perjury and serves three years in jail. A woman is brutally raped but is only able to face what happened to her, identify her attacker- who in the meantime had raped several other women, after the statue  of limitations had run out.

The author also discusses the disparities of punishments and deviations from the principle in several areas of the law, including ‘the war on drugs’, increasing criminalization of administrative rules and the prosecution of corporate misconduct. He examines the empirical evidence that is sometimes used to justify such deviations in terms of deterrence, crime prevention, ‘law and order’ or simply ‘keeping the lid’ on things in high crime areas as embodied in the rationale behind ‘broken windows’ policing. He finds this evidence to be largely inconclusive.

 Although the author recognizes that no legal system can hope to entirely eliminate deviations from the rule of just deserts, the closer a system gets to it, the greater the authority the law achieves in the eyes of the people and therefore, the more incentive it provides to obey it. Without substantive just desert, no other measures of prevention, deterrence or public safety can hope to be successful. The provision of just deserts, he argues, undertaken with a greater flexibility and painstaking adjudication than is currently allowed in the law in many States, especially in present ‘good faith’ and and broad, abstract expectations of ‘reasonable conduct’ by officers and prosecutors, would not seriously injure their capacity to investigate, apprehend and convict dangerous criminals or maintain law and order, irrespective of the inchoate fears and unfounded claims and fallacies of widespread public perceptions of the extent of crime in America today. Harsh and unfair regimes of punishment and their attendant costs could be reduced significantly. Constitutional  protections of life and liberty under the Bill of Rights need not be relaxed. They could, in fact, be  greatly enhanced.



Thursday, May 21, 2015

Formal and Substantive Human and Civil Rights by Joseph Massad


The Soviet/US struggle over defining human rights is now the stuff of  history given the US victory in the Cold War but a brief review is necessary. While the US insisted that having the right to work, to free or universally affordable health care, free education, daycare, and housing (which the Soviet system granted in the USSR and across Eastern Europe as substantive and not merely as formal rights) are not human rights at all. the Soviets, in the tradition of socialism, insisted they were essential for human life and dignity and that the Western enumeration of the rights to free speech, free association, free movements, freedom to form political parties, etc., were “political” and “civil” and not “human rights, and that in reality in the West, they were at any rate only formal and not substantive rights except for the upper echelons of society and those who owned the media and could access it and could fund election campaigns, etc.

Moreover the Soviets argued that it was essential for humans to have human rights in order to be able to access civil and political rights in a substantive manner and that granting formal civil and human rights while denying substantive human rights amounted to granting no rights at all. Perhaps most important in this regard is that the post-World War II US definition of human rights did not encompass in the 1950s and 60s the rights of African Americans to vote, to receive the same social services as whites, and not to face official institutionalized racial discrimination – all of which were referred to in the US lingo as mere “civil rights.”. Malcolm X’s insistence that US violations of the human rights of African Americans should be taken up by the United Nations, which had the power to impose sanctions on the United States as a racist state, earned him much opprobrium and a much lesser status in latter official commemorations that Martin Luther King, who was satisfied principally with limiting the Black struggle in the US to the arena of “civil rights.”

While the Soviet form of “popular democracy” was anchored in the hegemony of this system of (human) rights and its resultant substantive and massive benefits and massive limits and (civil) restrictions applied universally to all Soviet citizens, the US system of liberal “democracy” was anchored in its own system of rights that granted substantive and massive benefits to smaller portions of the citizenry while applying massive restrictions to the larger portions. The post-World War II Soviet system did not need to resort to major coercive means when its hegemonic system did not seem all-encompassing; indeed in a country of some 260 million people, at the height of the 1960s and 1970s  Brezhnevite repression, there were no more than 500 political prisoners in the country. Amnesty International’s count in 1980 was that the Soviets had no more than 400 people imprisoned for political dissidence between 1976 and 1980. The postwar United States, in contrast, had to rely, especially in the late 1940s, on more massive means when the hegemony of its system was weakened, as evidenced by the McCarthyist repression and the repression of the antiwar and civil rights protests of the 1950s-1975, and had hundreds of political prisoners (under varying legal pretext used to prosecute activists), who are harder to count due to the use of criminal charges to imprison them. The reassertion of the US coercive system would be strengthened through its new racialized and repressive criminal justice system since the 1980s and more after September 2011 with legislation of the Patriot Act and related repressive measures.

While in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the hegemony of Soviet-style “popular democracy” eroded under the increasing US Cold War assaults on the USSR, most Soviet and East European citizens hoped to end the “popular democratic” systems of their ruling Communist Parties and gain Western style political and civil rights. They wanted that latter not instead  of but in addition to retaining those human rights that the Soviet system guaranteed them. In the end, they lost their existing human rights and gained very little Western political and civil rights, and even the modicum of rights they did gain were more formal than substantive and subjected to the vagaries of financial and class power. It was in this context of an all-persuasive imposition of neoliberalism on a global scale that the U.S. discourse of human rights and the meaning the US gives to “human rights” reigned supreme.

[This carefully drawn distinction between human and civil rights, formal and substantive, as illustrated in the contrast between the Soviet and US ideology and systems during the Cold War, plays an important role in Professor Massad’s analysis of the UN, private philanthropy the United States government, and domestic political action groups ‘crusades’ to save, for instance, women and ‘gays’  from the oppressive impositions of ‘Islam’ , that is, to reform Islamic societies in line with Western notions of civil rights to the utter neglect and even direct destruction of human rights in both the formal and substantive sense. A few examples will suffice.]

Most laws on the books today that discriminate against women in formerly colonized Muslim-majority countries, including nationality laws, are derived from Western liberal and secular colonial and national laws, yet no slogans that oppose secularism and liberalism,, seen as European par excellence, have identified these ideologies as essentially sexists and gender-discriminatory; yet somehow all Islamists are often condemned for allegedly being essentially sexist and that this is the main characteristic of their social programs. The point here is that if the concern with Islamists taking power is because some Islamists’ gender policies or views ( and many Islamist parties in fact have a far better record on gender equality and women’s representation than secular parties in the region), then why is opposition not articulated as strongly against non-Islamist parties (e.g. Mubarak and Sisi in Egypt) whose record on women is often far worse?

Some would say that in the U.S. and West European countries, at least since the mid 1980s, laws ( masquerading under the rubrics ‘crimes of passion’ and ‘domestic abuse’ rather than what is called ‘honor killings’ in Islamic society) that protected men who commit crimes against women have been removed but in Jordon they remain on the books. But if this is so, research has not turned to a condemnation of the Jordanian government and the regime which uphold this law, and which is derived from the Napoleonic code, but Arab culture and “Islam” tout court,  when all Islamic jurisprudential schools are condemnatory of “honor crimes” as murder and refuse to offer mitigating circumstances to men whom commit them. These crimes also occur at far lower rates in Muslim countries than in the U.S., whatever the laws on the books are.

In dealing with the question of the hijab and other dress codes, Mossad quotes Wendy Brown (commenting on an article in The New York Times in her paper “Civilizational Delusions”):

Decades after Euro-Atlantic women rose up against sexual codes that bound them to the roles of subservience, unpaid and unrecognized labor, sexual availability and decorative objectification, what is to be made of these New York women teetering on the balls of their feet in stilts? Imagine walking for an hour in such shoes, let alone running for a bus, chasing after children, navigating inclement weather, standing all day at work or even just for two hours at a cocktail party? In Islamic religious female dress, one would surely be more comfortable, far less likely to sprain an ankle, slip on ice, trip on an uneven sidewalk, permanently damage one’s feet, or succumb to chronic sciatica or other back injuries. One might have a better concentration, a wider subjective imaginary, and more versatility in greeting the various episodes and possibilities of a day.. In short, if shoes nearly impossible to stand let alone walk in are freely chosen, that does not make them shoes of freedom, something that of course that can be said of the hijab or niqab as well. Yet to my knowledge, no one, anywhere in the Western world, has ever seriously considered passing legislation to outlaw such shoes, their making or their wearing, including in schools or state offices.

The anthropologist Lila Abui-Lughod's Egyptian native informants authorized her to make this plea to western feminists :"I have done fieldwork in Egypt over more than twenty years and I cannot think of a single woman I know, from the poorest rural to the most educated cosmopolitan, who has ever expressed envy of US women, women they perceive as bereft of community, vulnerable to sexual violence and social anomie, driven by individual success rather than morality, or strangely disrespectful of God.”

Many, even the vast majority of poorer Muslim women  reject the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women’s premise of total gender equality with regard to housing provision, economic maintanence of the marital home and children, and child support in the case of divorce, given that Islamic jurisprudence has historically placed great emphasis on male responsibility in these arenas. Indeed this ‘traditional logic may explain why poverty and economic well-being  in Arabic countries cannot be easily identified as a gender issue, unlike the U.S. which, at any rate, is one of the few nations that has continuously refused to ratify the CEDAW.

[Most of Joseph Assad’s book consists of a Critical analysis of the historical roots and contemporary elaborations of Orientalism (he is the  the disciple of Edward Said), Semitism and the Abrahamic conceptions of cultural in our current “Clash of Civilizations” and “War on Terror”. It makes for difficult  reading, confounds pre-conceptions and embroils the reader in controversy especially in regards the the issues surrounding the use of terms such as ‘Queer’, “Gay” or even ‘Sexuality” which have no functional equivalence in the Arabic language and which he has suggested the use of which by government agencies and NGO’s in protecting ‘rights’ is more provocative of repression in Islamic contexts then understanding.

But the careful distinction he makes between ‘human’ and ‘civil rights, and the role these conceptions play in neo-liberal agenda ( expanding ‘global finance’, opening international trade, invoking ‘austerity’ on foreign and our own governments and supporting repressive secular regimes)- which de-emphasizes the former in favor of the latter in the context of phantasmagoric representations and essentializations of the Islamic Other and no lack of self-deception with regard to the substantive character of its own society- holds the treatise together.]

Islam in Liberalism by Joseph A. Massad; University of Chicago Press, 2015


Sunday, May 3, 2015

Starch by Joanna Blythman



Joanna Bythman is an investigative food journalist and influential commentator on the British food chain. This book (Fourth Estate, London, 2015) is an examination of the food processing industry in the U.K., Europe and America; how it works and the character of its products. Here  I present her chapter on starches, followed by her brief remarks on recent advances in nanotechnology as applied to packaging.
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In food manufacturing starch is essential kit, by far the most commonly used item, in the food manufacturer’s box of tricks, as one authority explains: ‘Since their development in the 1940s, modified food starches have become a vital part of the food industry. Practically every category of food utilizes the functional properties of starch to impart some important aspect of the final product.’

It’s no exaggeration to say that the modern processed food industry is predicated on the stuff. This is why, when you turn to the ingredients listings on the massed ranks of manufactured foods, the word starch turns up with regularity, sometimes prefixed by a source, say, potato starch, or more often by the enigmatic word ‘modified.’

Starch acts as a muse for the modern food industry, a biddable, versatile, obliging substance that inspires a never-ending flow of creativity. Although it is utterly lacking in any food personality of its own, the very neutrality of nondescript starch makes everything feasible. Think of it as a facilitator, an ingredient that generates a boundless range of technical possibilities.

Added starch makes puffed potato snacks and breakfast cereals crisp and expansive, it makes your tortilla chip crunchier, and your crisps crispier. It lends smoothness and creaminess to processed cheese. It extends the shelf life of yogurt, gels fruit and cream fillings, adds fiber to bread, replaces eggs, makes batter more clingy, adds porosity to crackers, and airiness to cakes. In tumbled, injected and emulsified meats, such as sausages and ham, it can mimic fat, so acting as a ‘meat extender’. Starch seals in moist glazes and marinades and acts as a carrier for flavorings and colorings. It stops your orange juice from separating and makes it cloudy. Starch binds the water in mayonnaise, margarine, ketchup and salad dressings, toughens up dough for the onslaught of factory baking, and adds viscous heft to bouillons and gravies. It stiffens canned foods – soups, pulses, vegetables – and makes ready meals more resilient to the temperature changes posed by chilling, freezing, transportation, reheating, and the general stress and elevated temperatures of factory production. Starch providers ‘freeze/thaw stability’, prevents freezer ‘burn’ and gives food more ‘microwave tolerance.’ Last but not least, it can create texture. Whatever consistency is needed – crisp, crunchy, smooth, shreddable, jellied, stringy, cuttable, short, smooth, cohesive or chewy – multi-tasking starch can deliver it.

But how can one boring, anodyne ingredient do so much? After all, starch in the form that ordinary people know it, such as cornflower and arrowroot, can only perform a fraction of the tasks mentioned above. As you might have guessed, the starches available to food manufacturers are rather remote relatives of those we might use at home. They have been altered in various ways to endow them with properties they lack in any of their recognized household forms. Natural starches, you see, are badly behaved, dysfunctional starches that can only ever find their true potential through the improving hand of food technology.

Modified starch, the most familiar of these ‘improved’, more ‘functional’ starches, has clocked up decades of steadfast services to industrial food manufacture. This type of starch can be made using various techniques to change its characteristics. These include breaking it down with acids, bleaching it, converting it with enzymes, pre-gelatinizing it by heating and drying it so that it forms a gel in cold water, oxidizing it, cross-linking it with fats, converting it into esters or ethers, and bonding it with phosphates. Starch can also be browned using dry heat (dextrinization) to turn it into ‘starch sugars’, such as maltodextrin. Put it this way, modified starch is definitely not something you could cook up in any home kitchen.

There are many types of modified starch, each with unique properties and functions, a case of horses for courses. The starch in canned soups, for example, is often bonded with phosphates, which allows it to absorb more water yet stop any separation in the liquid. To prevent tomato sauce spilling of the factory pizza during baking, a modified starch treated with chorine solution is often added to the topping.

In Europe, modified starches are considered as food additives, and must carry an E number. These days, because the prefix ‘modified’ tend to ring the wrong bell with consumers, starch companies are developing a new tier of more functional ‘clean label’ starches that can lose the label-polluting M - word and E number, and be replaced with the more consumer-friendly ‘soluble fiber’, ‘starch’ or ‘dextrin’ tags.

These new wave starches are presented as more natural because the have not been chemically altered. Instead, only physical and mechanical techniques such as heat, extrusion, drum drying, compression and atomization can be used to change the particle size and structure. Because these newer functional starches are branded and trademarked, the companies that produce them need only volunteer minimal information about how they are made because the method becomes their intellectual property (trade secret).Marketed as specialty starches targeted for specific uses, they have really caught on with manufacturers. As one academic explains, ‘specialty starches continue to outpace unmodified starches in the processed food industry because of their ruggedness and ability to withstand severe process conditions.’

It’s easy to see why food manufacturers take such a keen interest  in starch, both old-timer and new guard. Whether it comes from corn, wheat, cassava, peas or potato, starch is wonderfully cheap and abundant because it is made from commodity cereals and cash crops that are much less expensive than other categories of foods. Therein lies the appeal of starch. It provides reliable, inexpensive bulk to pad out pricier ingredients, which makes for cost-effective replacement, as this starch company tells food manufacturers:

Like you, we are committed to keeping costs low. Our business is built on successfully replacing expensive ingredients with more cost-effective alternatives, helping you to withstand price fluctuations. Whether replacing expensive texture systems or substituting costly proteins, our starches will meet all your expectations and reduce ingredient costs. So what’s the secret of creating foods that appeal to customers’ concerns about cost and quality? Take a fresh look at your recipes and replace expensive ingredients withy no-compromise alternatives to reduce cost, not consumer appeal. We can provide you with tools to replicate the eating enjoyment and texture consumers look for at a fraction of the cost.

With the aid of starch, manufacturers can use ‘cost optimization’ to ‘value engineer’ their product for the benefit of price-sensitive shoppers. A worthwhile mission, surely?

Yet when you read the sales literature for starch products, a strong sense of self-interest on the part of food manufacturers emerges. Here, for instance, is how one starch company sells its starch-based fat replacer:

[It] cleverly allows food manufacturers to remove some butter content from products and still use the label ‘all butter’, which highlights to consumers that the food is still a decadent product. The finish of the product would retain the same ‘shortness’ and buttery richness and mouth-feel as the full fat equivalent.

Hey, presto. The addition of starch allows opulently labelled ‘all butter’ biscuits or croissants to contain less butter than they did before. Not quite what your average person might deduce from the label. The fat-replacing starch being recommended here goes by the name of Delyte, presumably a play on delight/delicious and lite/light (low fat). Or possibly the person who thought it up was thinking of delete, meaning something taken away; in this case, butter.

In food manufacturing, starch often forms the basis of a product. ‘Your base starch as a viscosifier, which established your food’s structure’, one company explains. An example here might be a Catalan-style flan or French crème caramel, where starch replaces more expensive eggs, milk and crème. ‘Once you’ve created the structure with your base starch, co-texturizers [ another set of starches] fine-tune texture properties. They bring out the more subtle differences in texture that experience in our mouths while eating, such as mouthcoating [creamy] and meltaway [lusciousness].’

As well as offering cheap bulk and texturizing potential, starch has never been in such demand as it currently is to replace other nutrients. As health regulators have breathed ever so lightly down the the neck of the processed food industry to make its products healthier, reduction of fat, sugar and salt has become a regulatory religion, one that opens new doors for starch. Products can be reformulated, bumping up quantities of starch and cutting persona non grata ingredients, thus providing a justification for reduced fat and sugar claims on the label. Using starch, manufacturers can adjust the composition or ‘matrix’ of a whole host of processed foods, to recast them in a flattering nutritional light. Dong so ticks a few boxes with the public health establishment, and the sums also add up very nicely for manufacturers, as this starch company explains:

Our specialty solutions mimic the organoleptic qualities of fat, delivering a creamy, luxurious texture and smooth, glossy appearance in better-for-you applications. We’re also skilled at replacing costly tomato solids. Whether you are looking to replace oil, cream, milk, milk solids, vegetables or egg, we an ensure premium quality and guilt-free indulgence at a competitive price.

And when it comes to starch, ingredient savings are no idle promise. A high-performance starch can replace fat at a ratio of 10:1 in dips, dressings, soups and mayonnaise for a lower calorie, low fat label at lower cost. Starch can stand it for 30% of the cream in a ready made spaghetti carbonara and make redundant at least 35% of the tomato paste  otherwise needed to make a credible pasta sauce. It allows manufacturers to reduce the margarine in puff pastry by a fifth. A starch developed using a ‘cling optimized texture system’ will even have the necessary adhesion, viscosity and suspension to replace ‘up to 40% of the tomato/ vegetable solids in soups and solids’.

On a factory scale, using starch makes for massive savings. To achieve this end, mimicry lies at the heart of food manufacture, a constant itch to make not a faithful version of the real thing, but something that passes for it. For food technologists and new product developers, all the fun with food comes when you take it apart, break it down into components, then reassemble it in a more lucrative. Easy-to-process form.

Greek yogurt is a case in point… which between 2008 and 2012 achieved a spectacular sales curve. Sensing an opportunity, many companies wanted to get in on this dynamic sales sector but they faced a stumbling block.. When produced in the traditional way, Greek yogurt takes a whole lot more more milk to make, different equipment and factory set-ups than standard yogurt.

The starch manufacturer Ingredion first mapped the sensory attributes of Greek yogurts on the market: qualities such as ‘jiggle’, ‘slipperiness, and surface shine. It then devised an innovative starch, which it claimed can give ‘ a similar texture and eating experience to the market leading product’, yet it is much cheaper to produce because it uses less milk and can be made using the standard high temperature/short time non-Greek method, without any investment in new equipment. With this fabulously functional starch, Ingredion promises that yogurt manufacturers ‘can get to market faster, and produce product at lower overall cost’.

How does fast-track Greekish yogurt compare in taste to the genuine article? Because most such products are not sold as natural, plain yogurt, but with added flavors and sweeteners, we rarely have the opportunity to compare like for like. However, it is common knowledge in the processed food industry that starch can import unwelcome flavors. As one authority notes: “cereal-based starches such as corn and wheat starch are sometimes considered to have off-notes described as ‘cardboard’ or ‘cereal-like’. Fortunately for manufacturers, because most processed foods have multiple ingredient formulations., they can make sure that off-tastes are routinely drowned out by other flavors.

Even companies that make starches don’t attempt to sell their organoleptic qualities. To do so would be a waste of time, because they all understand that starches taste, at best, of zilch. Instead they try to make a virtue out of nothingness. ‘The bland taste of potato starch allows whole meat products to maintain their natural palatability’ is how one starch company puts it. A more forthright version of the same message might read ‘the boringness of starch won’t interfere with other ingredients.” They are used as fillers, stabilizers, thickeners, pastes, and glues in dry soup mixes, infant food, sauces, gravy mixes etc.

And if the addition of starch means net loss of flavor, it also translates into a net loss of nutrition also, because when highly refined starches of the type used by food processors replace proteins, fats,  fruits and vegetables, they actually worsen the nutritional profile of the resulting product.

Now this might sound counterintuitive if you’ve paid attention to the standard government nutrition advice: “Rather than avoiding starchy foods, it’s better to try and base your meals on them, so they make up about a third of your diet.’ In recent times, starchy foods, even the most refined types, have been hyped by public health agencies. Starchy foods such as cereals, pasta and bread, we are told, ‘are a good source of energy and the main source of a range of nutrients in our diet. As well as starch, they contain fiber, calcium, iron and B vitamins.’ This presentation of starchy carbohydrate as a hero nutrient is highly debatable. If we are going to champion certain foods on the basis of micronutrients, such as iron and B vitamins, then meat would be a better bet because it contains them in greater abundance. As for fiber, we can get all we need vegetables and fruit.

Of course, starchy carbs in their whole, unprocessed forms do contain some useful micronutrients, but the same cannot be said for the refined sort, which would be more accurately described as stodge, or fodder. Refined starches are rapidly broken down into simple sugars and readily absorbed into the bloodstream. This is why, if you chew a bit of white bread for a few seconds longer than usual, it will begin to taste sweet. Refined carbohydrates cause spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels, which encourages our bodies to produce and store fat. Long term, this predisposes us to chronic disease. Due to their smaller particle size, highly processed, chemically or physically altered starches –precisely the type used in food processing –cause an even faster rise in blood sugar. So when food manufacturers brag about reducing sugar –on the surface, a noble mission –it is worthwhile noting that if starch is the replacement, then this is a case of more of the same. Think of it as a gesture, a tactical, piecemeal reformulation that should not be mistaken for a radical one.

In so many ways, starch is a never-ending source of inspiration to food manufacturers. Classless starch finds a role in every echelon of food processing. It’s facelessness allows to go everywhere and anywhere.

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Controversy over chemicals used in packaging , such as bisphenol A and phthalates, has been aired or decades, but the same cannot be said for nanoparticles, an emerging technology. Nanoparticles, which are far too minute to see with a microscope, are derived from materials such as clay, silver, titanium, silica and zinc oxide, and increasingly used in food and drink packaging. They can improve certain ‘smart’ functions: extending the shelf life of food by decreasing the permeability of plastics, acting as ant-bacterial coatings, or making packaging lighter and stronger. Nanosilver, for example, is used to coat plastic food containers so that anything stored within can be sold for longer. Nanoclays can be incorporated into the fabric of plastic bottles to prevent oxygen from migrating through the walls and shortening the shelf life of the contents.

A boon for the food industry and consumers, surely? Unfortunately, it looks as if nanoparticles can also leach from packaging into food and drink. Researchers recently found, for instance, that aluminium and silicon nanoparticles migrated from plastic bottle into an acidic medium – of the kind you find in fizzy drinks and juices p- and that this migration increased with time, and at higher temperatures.

The potential health problems with nanoparticles is their minuteness. They ate about one ten-thousandth the width of a human hair, which makes them more reactive and more bioactive than larger particles of the same substance. This means they can end up in places that larger particles would not – our cells, tissues and organs, where they can accumulate to ill effect Nanoscale zinc oxide, for example, has been found to cause lesions in the liver, pancreas, heart and stomach of laboratory animals. The European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety has warned that ‘clear positive toxic responses [in some of these tests] clearly indicate a potential risk [of nanoscale zinc oxide] to humans. Other research suggests that nanoparticles of titanium oxide can damage DNA, disrupt cell function, and interfere with the defense activities of the immune system. One emerging scientific theory is that nanoparticles absorbed in the gut may be a factor in the growing prevalence of inflammatory conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome ,and Crohn’s disease.

The European Commission cites evidence from laboratory studies that nanoparticles can promote clumping of protein molecules, a factor in a number of medical condition. It also acknowledges that they can be transported from the upper lining of the nose [by inhalation] into the lungs and brain, a particular hazard for factory workers who have to handle nanomaterials. “Full evaluation of the potential hazards is still to come’, the European Commission reports, in a vaguely promising way,. In the USA, the National Academy of Sciences is far more impatient and warns that ‘critical gaps’ in understanding nanoparticles have been identified but ‘have not been addressed with needed research’. Basically, nanotechnology is out and about, and in contact with our food and drink. Regulators have been caught on the hop. The Institute of Food Science and Technology has expressed concern that

There does not appear to be a requirement for the supplier to specify the inclusion of nanoparticle in packaging materials and neither, due to the lack of end-product labeling requirements, is the consumer likely to be aware of the composition of the packaging material.

About 400-500  nanopackaging products are estimated to be in use now, and nanotechnology is predicted to account for 25% of all food packaging by 2020. In fact, packaging is just the advanced guard for this novel technology; nanotech additives are already out inforce on U.S. shelves. Nanosized titanium dioxide, for example, is now turning up in products such as coffee creamer, cookies, cream cheese, turkey gravy, lemonade and chocolate. Fresh fruit and vegetables can also be coated with a thin, wax-like coating, containing nanoparticles, to extend shelf life.

Could nanotech additives also be in the UK and European food chain? The truth is no-one really knows, and there has been no legal obligation on food manufacturers to inform us of their presence . . .

Who doesn’t know someone with a food allergy, or asthma, or irritable bowel syndrome, or with cancer, for that matter? Closed-minded toxicologists refer back to the philosophical musings of Paracelsus to justify an accommodating attitude to toxic compounds in our food chain and environment as they examine each one in splendid isolation from the safe confines of the laboratory. The rest of us, however, are right to question the comforting pronoucement of the imperturbable Paracelsus, frozen in the 16th century, that small doses of poison  do us no harm. We can be open-minded enough to consider the very real possibility that by activating, blocking, hijacking or otherwise messing with the normal functioning of our bodies, engineered chemicals are contributing to a wide range of human health problems, including obesity, diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, infertility and other disorders of sexual development. And if we do take this proposition seriously, then reducing our exposure by minimizing the amount of packaged food and drink we consume is one obvious place to start.


Friday, May 1, 2015

Thistles by Ted Hughes




Against the rubber tongues of cows and the hoeing hands of men
Thistles spike the summer air
Or crackle open under a blue-black pressure.
Every one a revengeful burst
Of resurrection, a grasped fistful
Of splintered weapons and Icelandic frost thrust up
From the underground stain of a decayed Viking.
They are like pale hair and the gutturals of dialects.
Every one manages a plume of blood.
Then they grow grey, like men
Mown down, it is a feud. Their sons appear,
Stiff with weapons, fighting back over the same ground.


Painting by John Singer Sargent