Something You Ate

A Gender Bender Frog, Mercury
Corn Syrup & the Fantastic Voyage

Here’s some news to read with an empty stomach. A male frog, raised in a herbicide-suffused pool, developed female organs and spawned eggs. Two studies found dangerous levels of mercury in high fructose corn syrup.
And a digestible camera filmed the trip of a bowl of ramen through the body. It may not be pretty or even palatable, folks, but the fight for stricter food safety regulations is coming to a boil.
Even before the Food Safety Modernization Act was passed in 2010, there was already concerns about the relative free-reign the food industry has over what’s being served to Americans.
Grassroots movements for sustainable agriculture, urban farming, organic produce, the Slow Food organization and others have all been in the front war for more industry transparency, and for improved eating habits.
However, such groups are perhaps too identified with an elite that can afford choosing what they consume, compared to the core of society, who lacks the acquisitive power to do so.
Food labels are vague or plain deceiving, and consumer loyalty prevails at the grocery store. As a result, prices of low quality products, driven by demand, remain more affordable to the majority.
Darnell, the resident at the University of California at Berkeley, has lived life as both a caring father and a fertile mother. Thanks to atrazine, a popular weed killer, his appearance and internal organs turned from male to female.
The herbicide is used on half of the corn and 90 percent of sugarcane produced in the U.S. Some 80 million pounds of it are dumped throughout the country to keep lawns, golf courses and Christmas tree farms looking pristine as they do in pictures.
Despite having been licensed for use in 1959, it was only in the 1990s that studies were conducted about its possible effects on lab animals, in this case, frogs. And from the get go, the results were startling.
Atrazine shrunk their voice boxes, caused malformation of their reproductive organs and turned many hermaphrodites. Testes of some frogs even produced eggs instead of sperm.

So, the question scientists asked was, if atrazine can so powerfully alter the gonads of a frog, how close are we to be affected by it too? And the answer is, very. Specially Hispanic minorities who make up the bulk of the agricultural workforce in this country.
According to Mother Jones, a 2009 investigation found that 33 million Americans are exposed to atrazine through drinking water. Now, consider that Darnell, the frog, was raised in a solution at a level of 2.5 parts per billion, which is even less than the EPA allows.
That’s one of the reasons the E.U. banned the herbicide in 2003. But there’s no chance for the same to happen any time soon in the U.S., because of the corn lobby. Producers like it because it increases yields and lets them cut back on plowing, besides reducing erosion.

It’s no wonder we mention corn. The biggest U.S. crop is also vulnerable to another contamination, no less dangerous: mercury. Two separate studies sounded the alert way back in 2009 but, as far as anyone knows, nothing has really changed since.
Mercury was found in nearly 50 percent of tested samples of commercial high fructose corn syrup, according the scientific journal Environmental Health.
And the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy detected it in nearly one-third of 55 popular brand-name food and beverage products where the syrup is the first or second highest labeled ingredient.
The reason such studies were conducted way back in 2009 and the use of high fructose corn syrup has actually increased instead of diminished, speaks volumes of the power of the industry lobby. And, of course, the enduring appeal of brands such as Quaker, Hershey’s, Kraft and Smucker’s.
Mercury, a powerful neurotoxin that can cause brain damage, gets into the food chain through the processing of corn syrup, which uses caustic soda. But unless there’s a renewed push to force the industry to switch to cleaner technologies, nothing will change.
Curiously, there’s a bill waiting to be passed in the House, that was introduced first in 2006 by then Senator Barack Obama, to phase out all mercury use in chlorine plants by 2012. Maybe now, that’s election year, he could sign an Executive Order mandating its approval.

Media artist Stefani Bardin collaborated with gastroenterologist Dr. Braden Kuo to create what many a nutritionist has dreamed about: an educational, graphic experiment showing how artificial foods are processed differently than whole foods inside the body.
Mouth to Anus, the straight-to-the-point title of the work, consists of several components: two subjects, two whole meals, a few ingestible capsules equipped with tiny cameras, and a whole lot of preparation.
One subject was served a bowl of Top Ramen noodles, Gummi Bears and Gatorate, that is, the kind of cheap meal that’s becoming a staple of a large percentage of poor Americans. The other, was given a healthy portion of hand-made noodles, pomegranate cherry juice gummy bears, and hibiscus.
By monitoring the trajectory of the food inside the subjects’ digestive track, Bardin and Dr. Kuo were able to document the different rates by which their bodies broke down the meals.
The digestion of the person who ate ramen and drank blue Gatorade, for example, both industrially made with non-degradable components derived from petroleum, took much longer than the one fed with whole foods, among other interesting conclusions.
The concept may be stomach churning, but there’s nothing eye averting about the experiment. The video is tastefully edited to serve its noble purpose. Their, er fresh view of the human digestion presents a new approach to that old concept, you are what you eat.
It’s a timely initiative that can help build a new understanding and awareness about what you chow down your body and the reasons why we need more food safety regulation in this country. If not for anything else, then at least to cut down on our expensive medical bills.


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