What You Can’t See Can Heal You

31 01 2008

By Jill Ettinger

There are an overwhelming number of people suffering from digestive disturbances in this country. This is due in part to the Standard American Diet, which wreaks havoc on our digestive system, as well as the over-use of antibiotics that kill friendly bacteria. (There are other factors, of course, such as lack of exercise, food allergies, genetic disorders, and so on.) Everyone’s dealt with one digestive problem or another at some point in their lives and knows just how uncomfortable, and even embarrassing it can sometimes be.

Just as we allow marketing to dictate our dietary preferences (which cause the internal imbalances in the first place), we also rely on them to solve it for us. (For years growing up I thought Roger Staubach was some kind of nut when he spelled relief “R O L A I D S.” Kids are so literal.) From the over-the-counter antacids to the prescription ads for ulcers, heartburn and the like, and now friendly bacteria yogurts, all aim to soothe America’s bellyache.

Traditional methods of yogurt making do contain high levels of friendly bacteria – stuff known as probiotics: mainly acidophilos and bifidus. Virtually all fermented foods supply the intestines with a strong dose, and encapsulated versions have been available for years. But the conventional yogurt industry in America has been devoid of enough “therapeutic” levels for decades, selling sugared, non-cultured yogurt ‘products.’ Oregon’s Springfield Creamery has been making Nancy’s Yogurt for over thirty years. They are considered one of the country’s most authentic source for commercially available organic probiotic cultured food products. From their website: “Springfield Creamery was the first to use live acidophilus and bifidum cultures in yogurt over 30 years ago. We use several strains of cultures which are added after pasteurization — each spoonful of yogurt contains billions of live, active cultures, providing you with continual health benefits.” How many cultures exactly? Somewhere in the range of 1,350,000,000 per 1/4 teaspoon. A mouthful contains more bacteria than people on earth.

The origin of artisan-crafted yogurt making is not totally clear, but best guesstimates place it in Europe and Turkey some 4500 years ago. It’s not hard to imagine the purity of a product made by hand from grass-fed cows and goats on rich soil, maybe some fresh berries and a bit of honey. It’s a far cry from what’s sitting on grocery store shelves in plastic containers laden with sugar, corn syrup, oils and frozen fruit pieces, made in enormous stainless steel tanks by the hundreds of gallons. How any bacteria – friendly or not – could survive that process is questionable.

As natural and organic foods find staying power in mainstream culture, one of the most commonly found options is yogurt. That credit goes to Stonyfield Yogurt, the New Hampshire based manufacturer now part of the Danone family. Stonyfield was one of the first cross-over products for the organic industry with taste and quality unrivaled by the likes of Yoplait, Breyers or its step-sister brand, Dannon. And as “real” yogurt found a place in American diets, so did a rise in awareness of friendly bacteria’s benefits. Enter Danone’s brainchild: Activia. Ads purporting this ‘clinically-proven digestive system regulator’ are everywhere, challenging consumers to give it a try for two weeks to create ‘intestinal rhythm.’ Except, it’s not clinically proven and Danone is facing a lawsuit.

In one of the most successful product launches in recent history, Activia has essentially sold its customers nothing more than regular old Dannon yogurt at a premium price –around $428 million worth since 2006. What this racket does to the collective consciousness is send one very strong and unfortunate message: “probiotics are a lie. Acidophilus is just another marketing scheme by big corporations with not-big-enough bank accounts.” Many people will not consider the history of yogurt’s benefits or the increasing need for friendly bacteria in their own diets. They’ll simply dismiss it all as ‘that Dannon lawsuit’ and opt for chocolate milk instead.

The digestive tract in humans is a lot like the roots of a tree. While we pull nutrients from the friendly bacteria produced within us, trees sprawl coils of roots into rich soil to feed itself. As water and soil quality degrade, we see problems with trees and thus ecosystems that rely on them. As our own internal soil becomes imbalanced, so does our entire body. Perhaps more than we need law suits against false advertising, we need education on ways to healthier relationships with those invisible critters controlling our bodies. If you’re not a yogurt eater, don’t worry, there are tons of ways to boost your friendly bacteria counts with fermented foods like those at Rejuvenative Foods, or over-the-counter probiotics available at virtually every health food store


100 More Ways to Go Green…For Really

30 01 2008

By Derek Beres

Have to give it up for Radar Magazine’s list of 100 Ways We’re Trying To Go Green. While it may not inspire the fundamentalists of the movement, it is enough to give us a laugh at the sometimes vehement approach to demanding environmentalism. Among my personal favorites:

– Definitely thinking about downloading some world music this weekend.

– When taking cabs, insisting that drivers turn off their headlights.

– Insisting that Baskin-Robbins workers wash and reuse our pink sample spoons.

– Buying a bunch of rain sticks from the hippie pagoda at the mall.

– Changing e-mail signature to include a photograph of a smiling penguin.

– Not paying bills online instead of not paying bills on paper.

– Same thing we’re doing about the war on terrorism: writing a very impassioned blog post.

Bass Makes the World Go Round

25 01 2008


By Derek Beres

Hamsa Lila has certainly matured over the years. Since borrowing elements of Moroccan ritual music for their 2003 debut, Gathering One, the San Francisco-based sextet has created a new modality for trance, once again proving that while forms rearrange, essence remains the same. For this four-man, two-woman outfit, the forms include traditional Gnawa instrumentation—the bass lute, sinter, the hypnotic metal clappers, krakebs, and stringed instruments such as the saz and oud—with the foundational guitars, bass and drums. The essence is a mesmerizing gaze into the future of world music.

Lila’s breakthrough was a case of stating the obvious. Oddly enough, the obvious is not always realized. By taking the low-end sinter and boosting intensity during production, allowing this instrument and not the percussion to lead each song, they essentially updated a Middle Eastern ceremonial music form with dance club aesthetics. While the sinter was always the driving force of Gnawa trance music, in the studio it has been, time and again, consumed by the rapturous chatter of metal clappers or various percussion instruments, not to mention gorgeous Arabic vocals. Enter Yossi Fine.

Few musicians have amassed a resume as impressive as Fine. Not only does he perform with world-class artists, but he often helps to define their sound. Since the ‘80s he has been pivotal in the evolution of bass, creating some of hip-hop’s most memorable bass lines (Hip-Hop Hoorah, ho, hay…) and touring with jazz legends such as Ruben Blades, Gil Evans, Stanley Jordan and John Scofield. Since creating Ex-Centric Sound System in 2000, he has released progressive albums surveying the state of modern African and Jamaican music. Since then he has recorded with and produced the likes of electro-tabla virtuoso Karsh Kale, Algerian DJ Cheb i Sabbah, Afrobeat innovators Antibalas and Moroccan trance master Hassan Hakmoun—not to mention, of course, Lila.

He took the band’s youthful and raw energy and gave it form and shape through the process of bass. The deep prowess of “Eh Musthapha” and “Turka Lila” was the result of his studio alchemy, and as shards of reggae and African music seeped in, you realized this was more than a Gnawa-inspired jamband. With the release of the rich and unforgettable Live in Santa Cruz (In the Pocket), Lila takes this lush tapestry of sound into the arena in which they excel: the stage.

To read the full article on PopMatters click here.

Thinking Outside the Bag

24 01 2008

By Jill Ettinger

Whether or not you’re a fan of the big box organic supermarket, it’s hard to resist Whole Foods when they make announcements like this one: The 270-store chain will phase out the use of plastic grocery bags by Earth Day (April 22) 2008 at all locations, offering and educating consumers on the benefits of reusable bags.

Plastic garbage bags were invented in 1950 (by Canadian Harry Wasylyk), and the portable shopping version integrated into our culture over the next two decades. As our consumer habits accelerated, so did the ubiquity of the petroleum by-product plastic bags. It’s a remarkable contribution to the planet, and hopefully Whole Foods sets off a chain reaction.

Is Unhealthy the New Healthy?

22 01 2008


By Jill Ettinger

In the current issue of Conde Nast’s Portfolio, Joe Keohane  takes a look at the gluttony pushers at CKE restaurants, the parent company of Carl’s Jr. and Hardees. The two fast food chains are ruthlessly appealing to their male-dominated audience with indulgent sandwiches, like the “Monster Thickburger.” At a time when McDonald’s is at least pretending to slim down, by adding salads and seemingly healthier items to their menus, CKE is hurling itself in the opposite direction, hailing meat as a condiment, topping burgers with more burgers, bacon, steak, eggs and even pastrami. Some sandwiches contain more than half of a day’s recommended caloric intake and over 100 grams of fat. And customers are gobbling them up, even though they can barely fit them in their mouths. Advertisements urge men to “be men” by eating fat-laden heart attack-inducing burgers because apparently women love greasy, fast food. At least according to some of the risqué ads CKE is using to bring fat into fashion. One includes Playboy founder Hugh Hefner and a burger, with the tagline, “Because guys don’t like the same thing night after night.” That is, of course, except for heaps of char-grilled meat.

This Wall Street Journal article appeared last week on the “death” of the Hydrox cookie. What? While the U.S. economy is teetering on a recession, the reputable WSJ would rather ask Americans to ponder more pressing issues like the Oreo’s lesser-known cousin’s chocolatey biscuit flavor nuances and mysterious creamy center’s texture in another case of marketing propaganda a la advertorial commentary. But it turns out people really do care. About a cookie. There’s a dedicated fansite for Hydrox lovers where they gather, reflecting on fond memories of its milk dunkability, or announce Hydrox “sightings” and sleuthing through current cookie recipes hoping to find their crunchy favorite reincarnated as a Paul Newman’s or a Famous Amos. Lamenting over the loss of a cookie? Are these people serious?

There’s also cupcake fever that’s afflicting hipsters nationwide. Donuts and candy bars? Those are for square, old, cubicle working people, and cops. If you’re young and cool, stay young and cool by getting fat and lazy. This is the bane of our cursed X generation, and it even comes with a little pleated paper wrapper bottom so you don’t lose any precious crumbs. Bakeries specializing ONLY in cupcakes are all the rage, popping up around the country. Sheet cake? Bundt cake? Bah! There are even vegan and gluten-free iced varieties feigning healthy – long gone are the days of the oat bran or blueberry muffin. The half-healthy scone is lucky to find work as a door stop or paper weight. And croissants? Why folks would sooner eat a bagel. The people have spoken, they want frosting. And sprinkles.

It seems that even the FTC is trying to stop the spread of healthy food, by launching yet another complaint against Whole Foods’ recent buy-out of competing chain, Wild Oats. The FTC is seeking an injunction to prevent the big box organic supermarket from closing any more of the less successful Wild Oats locations or converting them into the more profitable Whole Foods layouts, citing that Whole Foods would have a monopoly on the measly organic food market.

Is anyone trying to stop the Wendy’s “Baconator” commercials from airing?

Maybe it is time for Americans to admit they love being fat. Fad diets have been off by one letter. Sure, there will always be a fringe group of “health nuts” that enjoy things like mobility, regular heart rates, healthy sugar metabolism and slews of other “normal” body functions. But it’s 2008. We put a man on the moon almost 40 years ago. Now, let’s see if we can put that big ball of cheese IN a man.

Passing of a Legend

20 01 2008


I was very sad to get this news today. Andy’s last record, and first US breakthrough, Watina (Cumbancha), was one of my favorite albums of 2007. This comes from his US label. For more on Andy’s music, visit his label’s website. – DB

Belizean Musician Andy Palacio Passes Away After Heart Attack and Stroke

January 19, 2008 – Andy Palacio, an iconic musician and cultural activist in his native Belize and impassioned spokesperson for the Garifuna people of Central America, was declared dead tonight at 9pm Belize time due to a massive and extensive stroke to the brain, a heart attack and respiratory failure due to the previous two conditions.

Palacio, 47, started feeling poorly last week and eventually visited a doctor with complaints of dizziness and blurred vision. On the 16th of January, he began experiencing seizures and was rushed to a hospital in Belmopan, Belize and then on to another hospital in Belize City. At this point, most people were hopeful Palacio would recover.

On January 17th, Palacio’s condition worsened and he began experiencing more seizures. He was placed on an air ambulance to Chicago where he was expected to get treatment at one of the premier neurological facilities in the country. En route to Chicago, the plane stopped in Mobile, Alabama to clear immigration. At that point, Palacio was unconscious and it was determined that he was too ill to continue on the flight to Chicago. He was rushed to a hospital in Mobile, and placed on life support. There, doctors determined that the damage to his brain function was severe, and that his chances of recovery were slim. On January 18th, his family requested that he be flown back to Belize so that he might die in his homeland.

A national hero in Belize for his popular music and advocacy of Garifuna language and culture, news of Palacio’s condition sent shockwaves through the community. At 5pm today, a public service was held in Belize City for Palacio as people prayed for his recovery. Ceremonies were also held by Garifuna spiritual leaders in an effort to help with the situation. Belize is in the midst of a heated election, but the local news was entirely dominated by Palacio’s health crisis.

The reaction has also been strong around the world. Until the recent turn of events, the past year had been one of tremendous accomplishment for Palacio as his album Wátina, which was released at the beginning of 2007, had become one of the most critically acclaimed recordings of the year in any genre. Perhaps the most unanimously revered world music album in recent memory, Wátina appeared on dozens of Best of the Year lists in major media outlets around the globe and was roundly praised in glowing terms.

In 2007, Palacio was named a UNESCO Artist for Peace and won the prestigious WOMEX Award. Wátina was also nominated for the BBC Radio 3 World Music Awards. At home in Belize, the international success of Wátina has sparked a revival of Garifuna music, as young musicians have become inspired by Palacio’s example. Even in the days since Palacio’s health crisis began, the accolades have continued to pour in for his work.

That Palacio has been struck down at a moment of such international acclaim only increases the sense of shock and tragedy felt at his sudden and untimely death. Andy Palacio will be honored with an official state funeral. A massive tribute concert is planned in Belize City on Friday, January 25th.

Friends and supporters are invited to post messages in memory of Andy Palacio to his MySpace page as well as to the blog of his international record label Cumbancha.

Clone Soup

14 01 2008


By Jill Ettinger

“Flawed assumptions and misrepresented findings” is what the Center for Food Safety is calling a review of the FDA’s risk assessment on the effects of consuming foods produced from cloned animals. The non-profit agency’s concerns come as the FDA is expected to announce its approval for bringing cloned foods to market this week, though no long term research has been conducted. And though it will take several years to bring clone-produced foods to market, the go-ahead is wrought with controversy and consequences.

The principal behind cloning has good intentions: Find the best genetics and copy them, exactly. Theoretically, this is not necessarily a bad science; farmers have been hybridizing plants for millennia to produce the tastiest and heartiest crops. But genetic replication is a bit different. Instead of coercing a plant to grow tastier for example by introducing traits from other varieties, cloning is making a carbon copy of something believed to be the best possible choice – rather than a gradual evolution. An army of identical twins unleash themselves into the food chain, at once.

Imagine eating the same apple every day. Not the same kind of apple, but the same exact one. At some point, the probability that we are going to become deficient is likely. This is because humans have complex dietary needs that must be supported by foods varying in nutritional values. We are not panda bears sustaining solely on one food. Though it may seem as if it were a uniquely elite human characteristic, our wide-ranging osmic relationship to nourishment, which we often label as having a “gourmet pallet,” is actually designed to ensure we meet a variety of dietary requirements. Soil, where plant nutrients come from (whether we consume a plant product or transform it into an animal food) varies throughout seasons and regions. The effects of modern mono-cropping have had a serious impact on the nutritional value of food’s food, including the earth it grows in as well as other modern practices as ungraceful as dioxin-laced waterways, factory farmed animal excrement run-off and clear-cutting forests. All of these factors  contribute to the healthy or diseased food system we rely on.

Regarding essential nutritional characteristics, food scientists often only take into consideration knowledge regarding (a) the function of food as a whole entity – meaning all characteristics of a food working synergistically, and (b) the diverse dietary needs of human being. Blood type, allergies and genetic predisposition can dictate very different dietary needs from one person to the next. For science to assume this can be narrowed down to just a few ‘preferred’ genetic traits is an incredibly bawdy assumption. Long-term effects on a people given limited access to certain nutritional factors through cloned foods have not been thoroughly researched. But the corporations behind the science don’t appear to see any problem in bringing these products to market. Will cloned foods be labeled? Does a consumer have the right to know if they are eating these foodstuffs?

We’ve accelerated our ability to mass-produce food, yet we still have a minimal understanding of how nutrients actually work inside the body. Remember the low-fat craze that morphed into the all-fat fad ala Atkin’s diet? Is salt good or bad? What about sugar? How these facets of nutrition work in the body has been glossed over by the human trait of over-consuming, forcing us into a culture of dietary extremes. Seasonal eating sustained cultures for thousands of years, only to fall behind decadent demands of “civilized” cultures – flying foods around the world while others wilt and rot in our backyards. Cloning may appear to be able to address our dietary needs. With a minimal understanding of the human body, however, how can science be certain all of our needs will be addressed? Manipulating food into producing only certain genetic traits gives way to a potential for mutant results and deficiencies. There are reasons nature grows a strawberry, rather than isolated vitamin C molecules.

One might also suspend disbelief and consider that cloning animals may denote cloning humans. It could already be happening. With an overpopulated planet growing denser by the day, cloning humans makes sense, sort of. If there’s only so much room on earth, why not fill it with the fittest of the species to ensure that as starvation, war and climate change wipe out the poorer nations, that the meek shall not inherit the earth, but be banished from it forever? The 3rd world is a risk-factor for the corporate agendas’ rapid growth goals. We live in a culture where propaganda is to democracy what violence is to fascism. It’s rampant in the American condition: a nation of consuming, dependent debtors running a rat race, trying to stay in fashion. Nourishment is secondary to identity and egos based on the foods we eat, or rather, the brands we digest, the clothing we wear (and throw out each season), the gadgets, television shows and the SUV’s we insulate ourselves with. Cloning is to evolution what globalization is to capitalism. A consuming-based global economy will breed a population that embraces it, and eats it.