Monthly Archives: March 2012

2012 Gallop-Healthways Well-Being Index Report: Most Obese Metropolitan Areas

The Gallop-Healthways Well-Being Index attempts to track Americans’ physical and emotional health and quantify other information necessary to evaluate programs that can increase productivity and lower healthcare costs. Every year, the information collected throughout preceding months is used to generate a report of those metropolitan areas that have the highest obesity rates among its citizens.

Well, it’s that time of year again.  The report has been released, and the results are weighty:

1.  McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, Texas
Obesity rate: 38.8 percent
Health care costs due to obesity: $411 million

2.  Binghamton, New York
Obesity rate: 37.6 percent
Health care costs due to obesity: $132 million

3.  Huntington-Ashland, West Virginia-Kentucky-Ohio
Obesity rate: 36 percent
Health care costs due to obesity: $147 million

4.  Rockford, Illinois
Obesity rate: 35.5 percent
Health care costs due to obesity: $179 million

5.  Beaumont-Port Arthur, Texas
Obesity rate: 33.8 percent
Health care costs due to obesity: $183 million

6.  Charleston, West Virginia
Obesity rate: 33.8 percent
Health care costs due to obesity: $147 million

7.  Lakeland-Winter Haven, Florida.
Obesity rate: 33.5 percent.
Health care costs due to obesity: $279 million

8.  Topeka, Kansas
Obesity rate: 33.3 percent
Health care costs due to obesity:$110 million

9.  Kennewick-Pasco-Richland, Washington
Obesity rate: 33.2 percent
Health care costs due to obesity: $117 million

10.  Reading, Pennsylvania
Obesity rate: 32.7 percent
Health care costs due to obesity: $190 million

##

PINK SLIME: grassroots crusades, corporate campaigns and an insatiable appetite for knowledge

Several months ago, nobody really knew anything about Gerald Zirnstein.  Times change.

Mr. Zirnstein is a microbiologist who previously worked for the United States Department of Agriculture, and he is largely credited with coining the term “pink slime.”  The phrase refers to a beef filler known as boneless lean beef trimmings or lean finely textured beef, which consists of fatty beef scraps and connective tissue that are removed from parts of cows that are exposed to significant amounts of feces and are highly susceptible to contamination.  The scraps need to be treated with ammonia hydroxide to remove pathogens such as Salmonella and E. coli before being heated and spun in a centrifuge to isolate protein and remove fat.  The concoction is thereby transformed into a gelatinous mass that almost radiates a shiny hue of pepto-bismol pink, which is used as a filler in commercial and retail meat products.

Not surprisingly, producers fill meat products with the compound because it’s cheap, efficient and positively impacts the bottom line.  Michael Moss, a reporter for The New York Times who won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for reporting about such practices, recently explained that

[i]n the meat industry, there’s something called least cost formulations… Companies will mix and match trimmings from different parts of the cow and different suppliers to achieve the perfect level of fatness. This material is … slightly less expensive

The widespread use of pink slime flew under the proverbial radar for years, even though Mr. Zirnstein estimated that around 70 percent of meat bought at grocery stores and other retailers contained the ammonia-washed filler.  It recently gained widespread attention, however, when Celebrity Chef Jamie Oliver began crusading against the use of pink slime.  Advocacy groups joined the conversation, the issue went viral and pink slime became a topic frequently debated through social media and on network newscasts.

The United States Department of Agriculture didn’t quite realize the significance of the public outrage – even though its actions had already been subject to criticism – but the agency eventually decided to change the federally subsidized lunch program so that schools will now be provided with the option of serving students with meat that does not contain pink slime.  In a somewhat surprising but related development, McDonald’s publicly declared that it would not rely on the pink slime to fill its meat products, and Taco Bell and Burger King discontinued its use.  A number of grocery stores still sell meat that contains pink slime, but many others no longer sell meat containing the filler.

Beef Products Inc., the largest supplier of pink slime in the country, has experienced a considerable decline in its operations due to these events.  The extensive media coverage, coupled with retailers refusing to stock meat that contains pink slime, has led to a significant decrease in demand for the filler.  As a result, Beef Products Inc. announced earlier this week that it would suspend operations at several facilities, including its plants in Garden City, Kansas, Amarillo, Texas and Waterloo, Iowa.  These sites collectively produced around 900,000 pounds per day, and their closure will result in the temporary layoff of 650 employees.

The company is now engaging in an aggressive public relations campaign designed to restore confidence in its products.  Industry groups and politicians are also rallying behind Beef Products Inc.  For example, Governor Terry Branstad of Iowa, home to one of the processing plants, has vowed that pink slime is lean, quality meat that costs less and is healthier than alternatives.  Governor Branstad will be joining Texas Governor Rick Perry and Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, whose states housed other processing plants, to demonstrate their support for Beef Products Inc. by touring its facility in South Sioux City, Nebraska, later this week.

Even United States Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has voiced his support of the use of pink slime.  Earlier this week, he said that “I can guarantee you that if we felt that this was unsafe, we wouldn’t allow it to be marketed and we wouldn’t make it part of our school lunch program.”  In other words, trust the government… just don’t listen to the government’s microbiologist who first voiced concerns about the use of pink slime, referred to it as an “adulterant” and recommended that it not be included in ground beef.  He’s shady, the rest of us are trustworthy.

For what’s it’s worth, I’m pretty sure that the campaign fails to address the heart of the issue by blaming the outrage exclusively on public disgust about the health risks associated with eating a visually unattractive beef filler.  I don’t really think that this is the case, because many Americans already choose to consume highly processed food made from the most disgusting scraps of animals – even though they realize that eating the highly processed food may well adversely affect their health.  As a culture, society has already accepted the risks associated the consumption of these products, and campaigning against this issue is almost akin to rallying against a straw man argument.

In 2010, for example, consumers spent more than $1.6 billion on hot dogs, which generally consist of meat trimmings, fat, flavorings and preservatives that are mixed in vats, forced into tubs and stuffed into natural or synthetic casings.  The United States Food and Drug Administration specifically recognizes that hot dogs can contain any amount of mechanically separated poultry and up to 20% of mechanically separated pork, which the agency describes as

a paste-like and batter-like poultry [or pork] product produced by forcing bones, with attached edible tissue, through a sieve or similar device under high pressure to separate bone from the edible tissue.

That’s visually unappealing and raunchy, yet the process has done little to deter many consumers.  People know that hot dogs may well be prepared using a reprehensible processes, that the processed food contains may well contain many foul animal byproducts and that their consumption correlates with many known health risks.  Regardless, the same people still knowingly decide to eat the food.

Where’s the outrage?  What aren’t people attacking the hot dog industry?   They’re not, arguably because the risks have been disclosed, the process is transparent and neither the government nor the industry are perceived as disempowering Main Street America.

And that’s what this comes down to: choice.  It’s the heart of the problem, and a considerable amount of the outrage is likely derived from the fact that consumers are only now learning of the reality of pink slime.  We’ve been eating it for years, but its existence wasn’t readily disclosed and we therefore have been unable to make an informed decision about whether we should consume the product.

And, of course, many activists blame the United States Department of Agriculture of the concealment of information.  The agency allows distributors and retailers to label pink slime as meat.  The product is not listed on nutritional labels, and therefore even the most diligent consumer was unable to chose between purchasing meat containing the filler and meat not containing the ingredient.  Incidentally, Undersecretary of Agriculture Joann Smith was heavily involved in the decision-making process, and she was appointed to the Board of Directors of Beef Products Inc. once she left the agency.

Bettina Elias Siegel, a face of this grassroots movement and author of the popular petition on change.org, recently summarized the manner in which the lack of information – or the concealment of information – led to the present situation.  She’s eloquent and objective, so I’m simply going reproduce part of her recent posting:

But clearly something else arose out of my petition and the media coverage associated with it.  Consumers learned — many for the first time — that USDA allows [lean finely textured beef, or LFTB] to be mixed into the nation’s ground beef supply, up to 15%, without any labeling to disclose that fact.  Reportedly, 70% of beef in this country now contains LFTB.

And as it turns out, consumers are quite unhappy about this fact.

Some people are concerned about food safety, given the pathogenic nature of the raw material used by [Beef Products, Inc., or BPI] to make the product.   Its safety record, though now admirable, was somewhat more troubling between 2005 and 2009 when E. coli and salmonella were repeatedly found in its product, as reported by the New York Times.   Some consumers – rightly or wrongly — worry about the use of ammonium hydroxide in the processing of their food.  Some people consider the inclusion of an unlabeled filler to be a form of economic adulteration, in that their package labeled 100% ground beef might only be  85% ground chuck or ground round and the rest a gelatinous meat filler.  And others claim there are aesthetic differences between beef with LFTB and pure ground beef.

Whether any or all of these concerns are valid is almost beside the point.  Our free market is founded on informed consumer choice, but in this case USDA deprived consumers of the ability to make that choice when it made the controversial decision to treat LFTB as “ground beef,” no different from ground chuck or ground round.

Now that the truth about LFTB is coming to light, BPI’s business may be suffering.  But this consumer reaction should not come as much of a surprise to the company;  why else did BPI, according to the Times, lobby USDA back in 2001 to exempt their product from labeling?

Of course, that was always Mr. Zirnstein’s contention.  The USDA microbiologist-turned-whistleblower has simply explained that “[t]he public’s not aware of it, hasn’t been for years. It’s not their fault. Nobody told them.”

##

Human ingenuity combines with corporate marketing to create a better breadstick

Domino’s Pizza has launched a national marketing campaign that has absolutely nothing to do with pizza.  Enter the wonderful world of Domino’s Parmesan Bread Bites, the latest offering that is the subject of a brand spankin’ new commercial that’s part of the latest corporate advertising campaign.

The commercials feature Brian Edler, a franchise owner in Findlay, Ohio.  He’s been a rising star in the industry for some time, first receiving national attention when he set a world record by baking 206 medium cheese pizzas in one hour.  His pizza-powers are the stuff of legends, as he served as  Captain of the U.S. Pizza Team, competed at the World Pizza Championship in Italy and won the Fastest Dough title at the annual World Pizza Games.

Well, Franchisee Brian is back in the news.  He apparently designed the Parmesean Bread Bites by deciding to cut a breadstick into four separate and distinct bite-sized pieces and sell the product to consumers.  Customers no longer need to bite into a breadstick; they’re now able to more efficiently consume the product by simply popping a bite-sized piece straight into their mouth.

A marvel of human ingenuity, no?

Patrick Doyle, the Chief Executive Officer of Domino’s Pizza, agrees that Brian’s product is revolutionary.  He appears in the commercial, grinning and giggling while he praises Brian’s leadership and initiative.  Not surprisingly, he has directed all other franchisees to begin selling the bite-sized pieces of breadsticks.

The best ideas come from the folks on the front lines, no?

Brian’s friend Bob LaRichie apparently believes that the creativity of those in the trenches can rival corporate research.  Friend Bob also appears in the commercial, almost unable to control his excitement as he marvels at Brian’s decision to cut breadsticks into four bite-sized pieces.  He pointedly stresses that the decision originated in Ohio and that the product wasn’t the result of management’s influence on corporate test kitchens.  According to Friend Bob, “that’s what’s awesome about this!”

If Franchisee Brian is able to significantly contribute to executive operations, CEO Patrick should fear for his job, no?

Brian’s employee Lauryn Schlinghof makes a cameo appearance and explains that CEO Patrick should probably begin seeking alternative employment.  Employee Lauryn joins Friend Bob is recognizing Franchisee Brian’s decision to cut breadsticks into four bite-sized pieces.  Dressed in a neatly pressed uniform and standing in the world’s cleanest franchise, she explains that Franchisee Brian should be promoted to the Chief Executive Officer of Domino’s Pizza.

Anyway, I’m not sure why this whole damn marketing campaign agitates me.  It probably says more about me than CEO Patrick, Franchisee Brian, Friend Bob or Employee Lauryn.  I’m sure they’re nice people, and I’m probably just frustrated that no matter what I do and no matter how hard I work, my efforts will never be recognized by Domino’s Pizza.

Not so fast.  Domino’s Pizza has also announced it’s “Think Oven” campaign.  The new initiative will allow consumers to submit ideas through an online suggestion box.  Now, we all have the opportunity to become the next Franchisee Brian, without making the commitment to owning and operating a franchise.  Life is good.

Here’s to hoping that the company accepts my idea to slice its medium pizzas into twelve pieces instead of eight.  Fame and fortune are calling.

##

Peanuts and Cracker Jacks? Baseball weighs in with an eight pound burger, a two foot hotdog and a three pound pretzel

Earlier this month, the Washington Nationals unveiled the StrausBurger, a hefty hamburger composed of ground brisket, chuck and short ribs topped with a heck of a lot of condiments.  The damn thing weighs in at around 8 pounds and contains somewhere in the neighborhood of 8,000 to 10,000 calories.

Ironically, the sandwich is named after Stephen Strausburg, a lanky young pitcher who looks like he’s never eaten a hamburger, much less a ball of meat that weighs as much as the human head.

Nolan Ryan, the competitive owner of the Texas Rangers, is obviously not impressed with the StrausBurger.  Earlier this week, his team introduced the Champion Dog, a 2 foot hotdog served on a virtual loaf of bread that weighs in at around a pound.  The monstrosity is complimented by sauteed onions, shredded cheese, chili, jalapenos, and, of course, a side order of french fries.  As you can tell from this picture, it’s about as big as a baseball bat.

Steve Peterson, President of Classic Foods, the producer of the meat used in the Champion Dog, was obviously excited.  When referring to the surreal combination of meat trimmings, fat, flavorings and preservatives, he claimed that it was “the next ka-pow.”  I’m still not sure if he was referring to the hot dog, the 2,000 to 3,000 calories contained in the meal, or its $26 price tag.

It’s not the first time that the Texas Rangers have offered fans the opportunity to stick a foot in the grave.  In 2010, the Ballpark at Arlington began serving a pretzel that tipped the scales at an absurd 3 pounds and topped the charts at between 3,400 and 3,700 calories.  It’s served with a modest sampling of marinara sauce, honey mustard dressing and nacho cheese and served in a cardboard pizza box. At the end of the day, it weights nearly as much as a chihuahua

Ballpark Operations Manager Casey Rapp explained the twisted reasoning behind the knot-shaped combination of flour and salt by reasoning that “[l]ast year during the playoffs, we said, ‘We gotta come up with something that’s bigger than anything else, that really signifies Texas.'”

Mr. Rapp certainly hit a home run – no pun intended – because everything really is bigger in Texas.  Including people.  For those of you keeping score, Arlington – the home of the Texas Rangers – now ranks as the 15th fattest city in the entire country.  Over 35 percent of the city’s population is clinically obese, which is the second highest rate in the entire freakin’ country.

Surprised?

(And before all the southerners call foul… yes, I live in Texas.  I used to live in Arlington.  But I’m still alive)

##

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN COMPETITION AND ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE: a conspiracy of researchers, stationary bikes and little white lies

Walt Disney once said, “I have been up against tough competition all my life.  I wouldn’t know how to get along without it.”

Well, weekend warriors and gym rats may be able to learn a thing or two from the creator of the goofy little mouse with red shorts.  Scientific research is now exploring the relationship between competition and athletic performance, and recent studies support the conclusion that people perform at greater levels when competing against an opponent.

For example, Professor Kevin Thompson, the Head of Sports and Exercise Science for Northumbria University, recently examined the effects of competition by asking cyclists to ride a stationary bike.   As they rode, each participant was shown two avatars on a video screen: the first avatar depicting the participant’s current pace and a second avatar depicting a cyclist riding at a rate equal to each participant’s personal best pace.  The cyclists were told to race the second avatar in an effort to beat their personal best time.

Dr. Thompson’s representations weren’t exactly true.  The second avatar was actually moving at a rate that was slightly greater than each participant’s personal best pace. Still, the participants, who were cycling while watching the avatars on the video screen, were able to match the second avatar.  As a result, the participants actually beat their personal best rate.

Dr. Thompson ultimately concluded that such competition can lead to an improvement of up to 5% in sporting performance.  He explained that

[t]hese findings demonstrate that a metabolic reserve exists which, if it can be accessed, can release a performance improvement of between two and five per cent in terms of their average power output.  At elite level sport, even an increase of one per cent in average speed can make the difference between somebody being placed in a race or not.

We may all have a little bit of untapped potential.  Dr. Jo Corbett, Senior Lecturer and Course Leader for Sports Performance at the University of Portsmouth, conducted a similar study.  The results, published in the Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, were strikingly similar to the research conducted by Dr. Thompson.

Dr. Corbett directed fourteen cyclists to independently ride a stationary bike at maximum speed.  A video display rendered a computer image of each cyclist, providing a visual depiction of his or her pace.

Later, they were again directed to ride the stationary bike at maximum speed.  This time, however, each cyclist was told that he or she would be competing against another participant hidden behind a screen.  As they rode, the cyclists were shown two images on the video display: an avatar that represented the cyclist and an avatar representing his or her undisclosed opponent.

Almost every cyclist beat the opponent during the second trial.  After the race, however, they learned that the undisclosed opponent was actually a visual rendering of each cyclists’ previous best time.  In other words, each cyclist, believing that they were independently competing with another person, actually outperformed their earlier maximum performance.  Dr. Corbett concluded that

[w]hen an athlete finishes exercising they are almost always left with a physiological energy reserve but our results show that head-to-head competition provides the motivation to tell the brain to eat into a greater part of this reserve.

The basis of this and similar conclusions isn’t necessarily revolutionary: we’ve long noted the correlation between competition and athletic performance.  Now, however, we’re starting to uncover the scientific basis for the increased performance, and the key seems to be tapping hidden potential and drawing upon untapped energy reserves.  It may be time to ditch the energy shots and breathable caffeine and seek the company of a friend or a colleague when pounding the pavement or hitting the trails.

##

%d bloggers like this: