Monday, March 20, 2017

Eating in Color

The taste for sweetness has results we are all aware of, most dramatically, the alarming rise of diabetes in modern populations. But there is a subtler effect and that is partly the subject of Jo Robinson’s 2013 book, Eating on the Wild Side. There, she points out that since many beneficial bionutrients have a “sour, astringent, or bitter taste,” the modern practice of favoring and cultivating “the sweetest and mildest-tasting wild plants” has resulted in “a dramatic loss in phytonutrients” (Intro, 10). From there, she goes on to point out in chapter and verse how the modern preference, especially in America, for bland vegetables like beans and peas, leaves most people deficient in the very nutrients that can help ward off diseases like cancer. And she gives us the latest information about what those beneficial phytonutrients are, in which vegetables they can be found, and how best to prepare those vegetables and spices to reap the most health-giving nutrition from them.
Her first rule is a simple one: “we should shop by color, selecting varieties that are red orange, purple, dark green, and yellow” (14). In other words, instead of buying iceberg lettuce (the favorite lettuce variety for Americans), the wise consumer should buy darker varieties and variants like dandelion greens (to the horror of our white neighbors, my great aunt used to pick dandelion greens from lawns and lots in our neighborhood, and use them either in salads or cooked with beans). Why? Because dark green dandelion greens have eight times (8X) more antioxidants, twice as much calcium, three times more vitamin A, and five times more vitamin K than even that allegedly super-vegetable, spinach. The dark green color, as well as red, purple and red-brown are tipoffs to the presence of anthocyanins—powerful antioxidants that protect the body from free radicals. And what’s wrong with free radicals? These rogue elements—brought to us by stress, excessive sunlight, and aging—are heavily implicated in damaging cells, DNA, and the collagen that literally holds our bodies together, not to mention their role in cancer. So even at a cursory glance, any plant with anthocyanins would appear to be a benefactor of humankind. And yet, the average American diet is mostly deficient in such vegetables and seems to prefer the bland and beautiful: iceberg lettuce, peas and string beans, and white potatoes (re: potatoes, Robinson points out that Peruvian purple potatoes have twenty-eight (28X) more bionutrients than Russet potatoes, and one-hundred sixty-six (166X) more than white potatoes. They are also high in anthocyanins, and sport a far lower glycemic (sugar) index, meaning they are far less likely to lead to diabetes than our modern varieties).
As to that other staple of modern agriculture, corn, Robinson’s story of how modern corn was developed is hair-raising. It turns out that in 1946 corn seeds were experimentally exposed to the early atomic bombs at Bikini atoll. There was even a paper written in 1951, on the “Effects of Atomic Bomb Explosion on Corn Seeds.” The paper points out that most seeds thus radiated became “shriveled mutants.” But some were turned into our modern food supply: “Our modern supersweet corn came out of this collection of misbegotten seeds” (81). That is, a geneticist, John Laughnan, working with these shrunken seeds (he labeled them “shrunken-2 or sh2”), found that a couple of the samples he tried had become very SWEET—in fact, ten times (10X) sweeter than the average corn of that time. Not only that, the mutant sweet corn stayed fresh for ten days and more, unlike regular corn that turns to starch in that time, and hence needs to be eaten fresh. Perfect! With a little breeding to increase the starch content so it could breed, Laughnan had his brave new corn, marketed as Illini Xtra-Sweet. The result, after more tweaking, led to today’s corn, our supermarket corn, the direct result of that sweet atomic bomb mutation. Of course, it lacks the bionutrients of the original deep yellow corn, which boasts fifty-eight (58X) times more beta carotene and lutein and zeaxanthin—but who cares? It’s sweet taste matches Americans’ preferences, and lasts on the shelf for oh so long. 
Besides all its information on which plants are the most healthful, Robinson’s book has one more virtue that is invaluable: it tells us how to prepare these beneficial plants to get the maximum benefit from them. This took even me by surprise. I’ve been using garlic liberally for years. But I never knew about how to maximize the active ingredient in garlic, allicin. Folklore calls garlic the peasant’s penicillin, but allicin really does have powerful antibiotic effects. According to Robinson, a milligram of allicin is equal to 15 international units of penicillin, which means that three cloves (each clove has seven to thirteen mg of allicin) have “the same antibacterial activity as a standard dose of penicillin” (49). Garlic has even been found to block the formation of some cancers. It’s an antioxidant, antibacterial, antiviral, anticlotting wonder.
BUT…you have to prepare it correctly. It turns out that allicin is not actually contained in raw garlic; its ingredients—aliin and alliinase—are, but they’re isolated in the clove. In order to get them together, you have to slice or press or chew garlic to blend them to form allicin. But there’s another but—and this is what I never knew. If you are going to heat garlic, as in sauteeing it in oil, you don’t do it right after chopping or pressing the garlic. Heat destroys the enzyme (alliinase) needed to cause the blending reaction. So you need to keep the chopped garlic aside for at least 10 minutes, and then the heating doesn’t matter; chopped and/or mashed, it’s already blended to form the allicin, so that blessed nutrient remains intact and usable.
This one bit of biochemical information seems to me worth the price of the book as a whole. And that deserves saying again. Traditional cooking in cultures like the one I grew up in have ‘known’ and passed on such information in their cuisines. But they didn’t know exactly why they did what they did and ate what they ate. It was traditional, the result of long trial and error that becomes a cultural demand. With the advances in biochemisty of recent years, however, we now know the why: why darker vegetables are better, why traditional growing practices are better, why garlic, despite its odor on the breath, is a boon to humanity. And that’s what Jo Robinson gives us in this book: the biochemical basis for traditional farming and cooking practices, and the biochemical reasons for the deficiencies and diseases of modern eating/farming practices with their results in the human body. 
So eat all those veggies your mother told you were good for you: crucifers (cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, kale, broccoli, brussels sprouts, radishes, turnips), now knowing that along with their slightly bitter taste come glucosinolates, rich in antioxidants, and, in broccoli, sulforaphanes, an anti-cancer agent. And red cabbage because it has six times (6X) more antioxidants than the green variety. And blueberries—though the smaller ones the farmers never pick have the most anthocyanins—are very nearly as good frozen as fresh, and more than that, pick up antioxidant power when they are cooked.
Speaking of which, there’s one more gem here. Our modern tomatoes (see my blog “Tomatoland”) have been bred with a mutant gene designed to make them ripen uniformly (which is done by exposing picked green tomatoes to ethylene gas). The only problem is that this mutant gene has lowered the lycopene content in tomatoes, and lycopene is the beneficial antioxidant (good for prostate cancer) in tomatoes. One way around this is to grow your own. And cherry tomatoes are the most nutritious variety. What’s unexpected, though, is the following: it turns out that cooking tomatoes makes them more nutritious (did the residents of Naples know this when tomatoes first came to them from the New World?) This means that a good tomato sauce is richer in lycopenes than raw tomatoes in a salad. It also means that processed tomatoes—canned or prepared as tomato paste—are also richer in lycopene, because they’re cooked in processing, and heat increases the bioavailable lycopene, by as much as ten times (10X). Amazing. I’ve been eating tomato sauce my whole life, and never knew this.
That’s what Jo Robinson’s book can do for you. It can give you information about what you currently eat, and steer you in directions you never would have suspected. And these days, with so much fake food being pushed on us, that is a gift no one can afford to overlook.

Lawrence DiStasi

Saturday, March 18, 2017

How Many Minutes to Midnight?

Now we’re getting to the real meat of what the recent election of Donald Trump was all about. On Friday, March 17, the President’s new Secretary of State finally gave voice to his boss’s policy, and it wasn’t pretty. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned of a possible first strike on North Korea to eliminate that nation’s emerging nuclear capabilities. He said that “all options” are being considered to counter North Korea’s latest moves, including its recent ballistic missile tests. Tillerson tried to couch his threat in diplomatic language, but his message seemed clear to all who heard it:

Certainly we do not want for things to get to a military conflict. We’ve been quite clear on that in our communications. But obviously, if North Korea takes actions that threaten the South Korean forces or our own forces, then that will be met with an appropriate response. Let me be very clear: The policy of strategic patience has ended.

Notice that Tillerson didn’t say, “if North Korea takes actions against us or our allies.” No, he said “takes actions that threaten the South Korean forces or our own..” Which is a way of saying that ‘a threat can be anything we say it is.’
The following day, Saturday March 18, in China in a meeting with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Tillerson reiterated his warning, saying that the nuclear ‘threats’ from North Korea had reached danger level, though, in an apparent effort to reassure the Chinese, he refrained from repeating his first strike threat: “I think we share a common view and a sense that tensions in the peninsula are quite high right now and that things have reached a rather dangerous level,” he said (never mentioning, of course, the American-South Korean joint military exercises that contribute heavily to that “tension”). Minister Wang Yi tried to further calm the waters, saying that the issues should be resolved by talks: “Now the situation on the peninsula arrives at a new crossroad, where it could be further escalated into conflicts, or finding a way to restart negotiations by strictly implementing relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions,” he said. But the U.S. Secretary of State had already said that “the policy of strategic patience” had ended, meaning, presumably, that mere talks weren’t enough anymore.
Though one would think that the chief diplomat of the United States would have at least some faith in talks for resolving conflict, his sentiments are quite in line with the thinking of Tillerson’s master, President Trump. The new President doesn’t much like talk. He prefers action, and, if necessary, military action, and if really necessary, nuclear military action. What’s the point of having nukes, he is reported to have said, if you don’t use them?
So now we have what may be the most dangerous nuclear situation since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Then, the United States and the Soviet Union stood toe to toe over the Soviet placement of ballistic missiles in Cuba—only 90 miles off the coast of the United States. The United States set up a naval blockade to stop Soviet ships from putting the final touches on the missile batteries, and demanded that the Soviets dismantle the ones already built. The Soviets refused and kept its tankers headed toward Cuba, with nuclear submarines as escorts. No one knew what would happen when the tankers met the American blockade. American generals like Curtis LeMay had already urged a quick first strike to knock out the missiles, but President John F. Kennedy waited, hoping that some contact with his adversary in Russia, Nikita Khrushchev, would resolve the crisis short of nuclear war. And at the last minute, Khrushchev did, in fact, communicate his willingness to dismantle the missiles if Kennedy would do the same with American missiles in Turkey. This negotiation averted the nuclear crisis, even though neither Kennedy nor subsequent presidents lived up to the quid pro quo.
Now, however, the two main actors, Donald Trump in the U.S. and Kim Jong Un in North Korea, are quite different characters from Kennedy and Khrushchev—both of whom were seasoned politicians and men of considerable sanity. Trump and Jong Un, by contrast, are rank amateurs, and worse, among the most unstable national leaders on the planet. Both have the emotional and intellectual maturity of teenagers. Both are driven by a narcissism so extreme that it would be considered pathological in any healthcare setting (though in politics, narcissism seems almost a required trait). And both seem similarly driven to prove to the world that they are big, and bad and as brave and fearless as their fathers. In short, we have two mentally- and morally- and emotionally-stunted leaders sitting in control of the most fearsome weapons ever invented, and eager to demonstrate that they are quite willing to use them. They remind one of rival gorillas circling each other for control of a pack, stamping loudly, growling to show their teeth, pounding their chests to display their fierceness. Only that, with gorillas, it is only one or both who could be torn to pieces. With our paranoid primates in charge of our two benighted countries, it’s half the world that could be drowned in wreckage and fallout. Not to mention the millions of bodies on site that would be incinerated.
What’s worse, in Trump’s case, is that North Korea is a perfect target for this bully. A tiny underdeveloped nation, it has alienated most of the world with its policies and bluster and recklessness; with its total disregard for its people’s health and welfare, preferring to waste its treasure on nukes and missiles and a standing army of millions. Of course, the United States demonstrates a similar penchant, especially under Trump, to prefer guns over butter (witness his recent budget draft), though not to the same extreme degree. No matter. North Korea will not gain much sympathy throughout the industrial world, and that makes it a perfect target. So does the fact that in the West, concern for Asians never amounts to much in the first place. With huge populations, Asians seem quite dispensable to many Americans—witness the attitude towards killing Vietnamese in our recent war there. Eliminating a few million in North Korea might seem quite appropriate to many of our Neanderthal brethren.
Add to that the tendency for Donald Trump to divert attention away from intractable problems by initiating what seem to be unthinkable thoughts or actions—such as the recent totally unfounded tweets accusing former President Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower during the election—and you have an almost perfect case for initiating the perfect distraction: a military action against a universally hated foe. Who would want to pursue alleged connections between Trump and the Russians or worry about his monstrous healthcare plan or obscene budget when a nuclear strike is threatening or happening in Asia? No one. The best way to rally the nation round the flag is to start a new war. George W. Bush knew that. Hitler and Goebbels knew that. And Donald Trump knows that. Stir up fear in the homeland and everyone salutes the flag and rushes to enlist. The wall to be built on the Mexican border uses the same fear in a smaller arena. But a nuclear strike against North Korea? That would have them running to erect statues of the Donald in all the parks in the land. Wouldn’t it?
In truth, it’s really quite insane. And that’s what makes it even scarier. Anyone with an ounce of common sense would see that diplomacy must be used to the very end, and beyond, before nuclear threats. Even the Chinese Foreign Minister saw that, and said so. But in America at this stage of the game, common sense is the least available commodity. And so, here we are. With two teenaged boys displaying their nuclear penises and engaging in a pissing contest whose outcome no one can predict. Because no one knows if either one of these little assholes really has a lick of courage or not.
And that, my friends, may be the most dangerous element of all.

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Using Dead Heroes

In Donald Trump’s first address to a joint session of Congress last night, the highlight was generally conceded to be the tribute to the widow of Chief Petty Officer William Ryan Owens, who was slain in the Trump administration’s first foray into actual battle. Faking great emotion (fakery being his strong suit), the president first mentioned Owens’ sacrifice, then pointed to his widow in the gallery who was obliged to rise while keeping back her tears, and then kept pointing and applauding for long minutes while the cameras stayed on the grieving widow openly weeping for her slain husband, while Congress members clapped and cheered boyishly, madly. The whole spectacle was mawkish hero-worshipping at best, and gruesome war-mongering at worst, making it seem as if Owens had died in a critical battle of a major war to “keep the country safe.” In fact, Owens died in a badly-botched commando raid on the village of Yakla in Yemen that took the petty officer’s life needlessly; but since it was Trump’s first taste of war (being a hapless Commander in Chief is the closest he’s come to combat, never having served in any capacity in the U.S. military—the now-Chief was deferred four times while in college from 1964 to 1968, and then in 1968 got a medical deferment—though he has claimed that the military school he attended in high school gave him more military experience than those who’ve actually served…like John McCain, we presume), he had to make it seem like the Alamo. With the hero allegedly (according to Trump) looking down from Heaven upon the gathering in Congress and exulting in this sacred hallowing of his memory.
            The problem is, a New York Times article on Feb. 1 (“Raid in Yemen: Risky from the Start and Costly in the End,” by Eric Schmitt and David Sanger), gave many details of the elite commando raid, and it was anything but heroic. First planned by President Obama, but deferred because a night without moonlight would not occur until after his presidency was done, the raid was approved hastily and with little debate by Trump’s new national security team looking for a decisive victory to highlight the decisiveness of the new regime. Unfortunately, the problems began at the outset when, possibly due to noise from drones scouting the invasion area, the target al-Quaeda stronghold learned of the attack. Thus, the critical element of surprise was gone and though the commandos knew it, they pressed on anyway. What resulted was a vicious firefight and attack on the whole village of Yakla in which the United States lost both Petty Officer Owens and an expensive Osprey aircraft worth millions, and the village lost numerous civilians including women and children:

“The death of Chief Petty Officer William Owens came after a chain of mishaps and misjudgments that plunged the elite commandos into a ferocious 50-minute firefight that also left three others wounded and a $75 million aircraft deliberately destroyed. There are allegations — which the Pentagon acknowledged on Wednesday night are most likely correct — that the mission also killed several civilians, including some children. The dead include, by the account of Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, the 8-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born Qaeda leader who was killed in a targeted drone strike in 2011.”

Of course, Pentagon officials at first denied that there were civilian casualties, but eventually had to admit to the ‘collateral damage’ when reports from Yemeni authorities and grisly photographs of the dead appeared on social media sites. Yemeni officials said that virtually the whole village of Yakla had been destroyed. Yemen’s foreign minister, Abdul Malik Al Mekhlafi, condemned the raid on Twitter as “extrajudicial killings.” The Pentagon and Trump tried to make it all seem worth it, because ‘real intelligence’ was gathered.
            So there you have it: this botched and ill-conceived and essentially useless raid is what Donald Trump in his speech to Congress and the nation tried to cast as a heroic battle against dastardly terrorists trying to invade and destroy us. He looked pained and compassionate as he clapped for the grieving widow, and waxed eloquent about her husband’s sacrifice, which he claimed God and the grateful nation would never forget.
            The Congress did its part, as noted above, by clapping and cheering madly for the heroic nation (with heroes like Owens fighting its battles, how could all Americans not feel heroic themselves?) that views itself as leading the fight for freedom around the world. And winning—for hasn’t Donald Trump said that the U.S.A. under his leadership is going to start winning again? And of course, it was clear that most of those who clapped—especially the fatly smiling President himself and his fatly smiling Repugnant colleagues—were cheering mainly for themselves. Donald Trump, though he had ducked out of the major war of his generation with deferments and medical excuses, had finally reached his apogee: the non-serving President had become a commander, a winner, a war hero by proxy. And all across the country, no doubt, his supporters, many of them having served and been maimed in the very war he ducked out of, bought the tale hook, line and sinker, and cheered and teared up along with him.
            War. It’s the old standby for all demagogues, able to bring the dumb masses to their feet in the fake emotion of flag-waving patriotism for fallen heroes. Works every time—at least for a little while.  

Lawrence DiStasi