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Thursday, May 22, 2014

Gluten May Not Be Viable Option for New Method of Execution

We all know at least one of them. You know the person I’m talking about – the “I have the biggest gluten sensitivity and ever since I went gluten free, I feel SO much better” person.  They usually go on to share a delightful array of bathroom related anecdotes and narratives to support their newly discovered hatred for a loaf of Iron Kids.  Being the glutton for confrontation and gluten that I am (a gluten glutton…..that sounds nice), the first thing that flies out of my big mouth is, “Oh, so you’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease by your doctor? I’m sorry to hear that!”   Would you be shocked if they hadn’t in fact been diagnosed with Celiac disease, seen an allergist or gastroenterologist, or even mentioned something to their primary care physician about it?  I’m sure not.

It seems that in today’s society full of WebMD-self-diagnosing-hypochondriacs, gluten, a composite protein found predominantly in wheat, barley and rye, is all the rage. Celiac disease, a hereditary autoimmune condition of the small intestine triggered by eating gluten, makes the Top 50 most searched diseases on Google ….nestled right below gonorrhea and ovarian cancer.   Let’s be clear – Celiac disease is a very real problem for people unlucky enough to be affected by the disease and its symptoms (it appears that ≈ 50% are asymptomatic) which include bloating, pain, chronic diarrhea, vomiting, pale & foul smelling stools, fatigue, idiopathic iron-deficiency anemia, and arthritis, to name a few.

A recent article by Business Insider’s Jennifer Welsh points out that, although the true prevalence of Celiac disease in the US is around 1%, 18% of adults now buy gluten-free foods and 30% of people want to eat less gluten…and they’re willing to pay big for it; sales of gluten-free products are expected to reach $15 billion by 2016.

You can now buy sparkling water that has been genetically modified to remove the gluten. Thanks, R.W. Knudsen.

So, what’s the deal with all the bread boycotting? It turns out that a study was published in 2011 which provided seemingly sound evidence that gluten caused “gastrointestinal distress” in patients who did not suffer from true Celiac disease. This was termed non-celiac gluten sensitivity, aka gluten intolerance, and may have led to a large volume of self-diagnoses and diet modifications.

However, as any good researcher and true disciple of evidence based medicine knows, an experiment must be repeatable in order for one to make sound decisions based on the data which the experiment has produced.  The lead researcher, Professor Peter Gibson of the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, Australia, decided to conduct another experiment. This time, he enrolled 37 patients who all reported that consuming a gluten-free diet relieved their gastrointestinal distress symptoms but were NOT suffers of the true autoimmune Celiac disease.  After enrollment, the patients were given a baseline diet that cycled through 3 different diets for a week in length and, most importantly, the patients had no knowledge of which diet they were consuming at any particular time (aka blinding).  Treatments consisted of one diet containing a large amount of added gluten, one containing a lower amount of gluten and whey protein, and one containing only whey protein. Each patient consumed all three diets over the course of the experiment to balance for the individual effect of each patient, regardless of which treatment diet they were consuming.  As a follow up, they also enrolled 22 of the original 37 patients on a similar study where they consumed another high gluten diet, whey protein only, or the original baseline diet in the same experimental design as the first, except for a period of only 3 days on each diet. 

The results of the 2 new trials?  “In contrast to our first study, we could find no specific response to gluten,” Gibson wrote.  Specifically, regardless of the diet the patients were on, they reported worsening GI symptoms (nausea, pain, bloating, and gas) and to relatively similar degrees.  The most interesting find came from the secondary trial in which patients reported worsening symptoms when the baseline diet was used as the control. Let’s put that in slightly less Big Bang Theory-esque terms: They reported that their symptoms worsened when absolutely nothing changed about their diet.  So, what gives?

Well, the researchers believe that the results were mostly a function of nothing but the good ol' human brain, in all its glory, and what is called a “nocebo” effect.  In other words, the patients thought they were going to feel bad, so they did. The researchers, however, did grant that there could be other factors that are yet to be elucidated at play in non-celiac gluten sensitivity, perhaps poorly absorbed short chain carbohydrates  (FODMAPs), but for now, it seems gluten is not a causative factor.  Might be time to rename that, eh?

As for the army of bread-bashing-bandwagon-hoppers out there, aside from the scientist in me who gets annoyed about every item you can buy at a grocery store that’s supposedly killing us all (unless the grocery store has the initials W.F., then you’re good), it upsets and perplexes me when I hear non-Celiac suffers brag about how their newly found life elixir is solely attributable to a wheat withdraw. The people I know who actually do have Celiac disease would like nothing more than to eat a non-cardboard crust pizza and wash it down with a frosty mug of Boulevard Wheat. 

For now, this data seems to support my hypothesis (and bias belief) that there is a large group of scone scorners out there that are full of a lot more than rice cakes, and personally, I think common sense goes a long way with most things at the intersection of food and health. If, for example, your daily habits include going Adam Richman on a baker’s dozen from the local hipster donut shop and you aren't an Ironman athlete, you’re going to have a bad time.  If something is really wrong, talk to your physician sooner rather than later and don’t rely on Bev, your dog walker’s, uncle’s, ex-wife whose only qualification is that she looks great in a cocktail dress at age 48, for life changing medical advice. For most people who would like to make a change of some sort, enlisting the help of our long lost friend, moderation, is likely a good place to start.


Gluten Glutton

Friday, May 16, 2014

Liam Neeson says 'Nay' to Banning Carriage Horses in NYC

Liam Neeson has quickly become one of the top action movie stars in Hollywood, so naturally, when he writes an op-ed piece in the New York Times, people take notice. He decided to write the piece to speak on behalf of the carriage horse industry in New York City, which has come under fire by mayor Bill de Blasio as an inhumane treatment of the animals and an outdated tradition, which he wants to replace with electric powered replicas of vintage cabs. Unlike many other actors these days, however, Neeson appears to be a pragmatic person who will evaluate a situation for himself and not espouse wild accusations about the treatment of modern farm animals.
Banning horse carriages in New York City is a touchy topic
Banning horse carriages in New York City is a touchy topic
Liam took the time to visit with the carriage horse owners, visited the stables where the animals are housed, and came his own conclusion that these animals are well-cared for. As an Irish farm-boy himself, he believes that “it has always been my experience, ALWAYS, that horses, much like humans, are at their happiest and healthiest when working.” So, he decided to increase the pressure on mayor de Blasio to come and see the horses and stables himself, which so far de Blasio has refused to do, despite his avid campaign to remove them from NYC. According to the article, horses having been pulling carriages in NYC for the past two centuries, likely longer. They have made an estimated 6 million trips in the past 30 years, and they maintain a remarkable safety record over their long history.

Banning horse carriages in New York City is a touchy topic

From my perspective, the carriage horse industry is one of the few ways New Yorkers can get a glimpse of a domesticated farm animal on a daily basis, and as we continue to see more and more people move into urban environments, the need for exposure to farm animals will grow even more severe. In a recent Fox News article, it appears that animal welfare activists have been picketing Neeson’s NYC home to harass him for his views on the industry. So far, Neeson has avoided the activists, but I respect his willingness to stand up for an NYC tradition that already appears to be highly regulated and gives city-dwellers a glimpse of working horses in their element.

Thank you Liam Neeson, for being an advocate for the New York City carriage horse industry, we need more celebrities like you who can appreciate the use of farm animals in modern environments!

According to a recent poll, only 28 percent of New Yorker’s support the mayor’s plan, but obviously this is a controversial issue. What are your thoughts on whether horses should continue to be used for NYC carriage rides?


Wednesday, May 7, 2014

USDA Ag Census - Geeking Out Over Agriculture

Big ranches. Small farms. Community supported agriculture programs. All of these are outlets where food is planted and raised for American citizens and, in many cases, the world.

But unless you live near a rural community, it can be really difficult to find a farm or ranch to visit in order to learn more about the food you eat, the farms that produce it and more importantly, the farmers and ranchers raising and producing it.

To make the vast endeavor of learning about your food a bit more manageable, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has recently published the results of the 2012 Ag Census. Yes, I am aware it is 2014 but the USDA collects, combines and categorizes millions and millions of data points so it takes a while to make it easy to share.

A new facet to the Ag Census data are the easy-to-read infographics. Generally, if an individual wanted to look up how many operations in the U.S. specialized in beef cattle (619,000 according to the census), that person would have to scroll through pages of reports, Excel files and other documents looking for the exact right piece of information. However, this year the USDA has created some really nifty infographics that highlight some important and key components of American agriculture.

Infographics tell the story of the 2012 Ag Census
Click to enlarge
Source: USDA Ag Census 
You can see in the infographic above many answers to questions regarding current agriculture issues. For example, more than 57,000 farms or ranches employ the use of alternative energy sources (wind, water, etc). How cool is that?! Farmers and ranchers using alternative energy to produce food for the world in an environmentally sustainable way!
Another fact that isn't necessarily cool but provides some insight into the costs behind farming: Farmers spent almost $20 BILLION on seed in 2012, which is a 66% increase from 2007.
There is also a tool called Quick Stats, which allows you to build a specific query. For example, if you wanted to look up the average age of the principal operator on California farms that have only one owner/operator, you could do that with a few clicks [the answer to that query is 60.7 years old, btw].

I hope you'll take the time to geek out over these cool tools that USDA has developed - I have been playing with the Quick Stats function a lot and the infographics page says that new inforgraphics will be added in the future, so I am checking that page often!

What are some questions you have about ag that you are going to research using the USDA data?

Until next time,
~ Buzzard ~


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