Archives for the day of: January 4, 2012

From Harvard Public Health Review:

Could a sunny outlook mean fewer colds and less heart disease?

Do hope and curiosity somehow protect against hypertension, diabetes, and respiratory tract infections?

Do happier people live longer—and, if so, why?

These are the kinds of questions that researchers are asking as they explore a new—and sometimes controversial—avenue of public health: documenting and understanding the link between positive emotions and good health.

A vast scientific literature has detailed how negative emotions harm the body. Serious, sustained stress or fear can alter biological systems in a way that, over time, adds up to “wear and tear” and, eventually, illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Chronic anger and anxiety can disrupt cardiac function by changing the heart’s electrical stability, hastening atherosclerosis, and increasing systemic inflammation.

Jack P. Shonkoff, Julius B. Richmond FAMRI Professor of Child Health and Development at HSPH and at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, explains that early childhood “toxic stress”—the sustained activation of the body’s stress response system resulting from such early life experiences as chronic neglect, exposure to violence, or living alone with a parent suffering severe mental illness—has harmful effects on the brain and other organ systems. Among these effects is a hair-trigger physiological response to stress, which can lead to a faster heart rate, higher blood pressure, and a jump in stress hormones.

FOCUSING ON THE POSITIVE
“But negative emotions are only one-half of the equation,” says Laura Kubzansky, HSPH associate professor of society, human development, and health. “It looks like there is a benefit of positive mental health that goes beyond the fact that you’re not depressed. What that is is still a mystery. But when we understand the set of processes involved, we will have much more insight into how health works.”

Kubzansky is at the forefront of such research. In a 2007 study that followed more than 6,000 men and women aged 25 to 74 for 20 years, for example, she found that emotional vitality—a sense of enthusiasm, of hopefulness, of engagement in life, and the ability to face life’s stresses with emotional balance—appears to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. The protective effect was distinct and measurable, even when taking into account such wholesome behaviors as not smoking and regular exercise.

Among dozens of published papers, Kubzansky has shown that children who are able to stay focused on a task and have a more positive outlook at age 7 report better general health and fewer illnesses 30 years later. She has found that optimism cuts the risk of coronary heart disease by half.

Kubzansky’s methods illustrate the creativity needed to do research at the novel intersection of experimental psychology and public health. In the emotional vitality study, for example, she used information that had originally been collected in the massive National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, or NHANES, an ongoing program that assesses the health and nutritional status of adults and children in the United States. Starting with the NHANES measure known as the “General Well-Being Schedule,” Kubzansky crafted an adaptation that instead reflected emotional vitality, and then scientifically validated her new measure. Her research has also drawn on preexisting data from the Veterans Administration Normative Aging Study, the National Collaborative Perinatal Project, and other decades-long prospective studies.

In essence, Kubzansky is leveraging gold-standard epidemiological methods to ask new public health questions. “I’m being opportunistic,” she says. “I don’t want to wait 30 years for an answer.”

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From the Argus Leader:

McDonald’s and two other fast-food chains have stopped using an ammonia-treated burger ingredient that meat industry critics deride as “pink slime.”

The product remains widely used as low-fat beef filling in burger meat, including in school meals. But some consumer advocates worry that attacks on the product by food activist Jamie Oliver and others will discourage food manufacturers from developing new methods of keeping deadly pathogens out of their products.

The beef is processed by Beef Products Inc. of Dakota Dunes at plants at Waterloo, Iowa, and in three other states. One of the company’s chief innovations is to cleanse the beef of E. coli bacteria and other dangerous microbes by treating it with ammonium hydroxide, one of many chemicals used at various stages in the meat industry to kill pathogens.

“Basically, we’re taking a product that would be sold at the cheapest form for dogs, and after this process we can give it to humans,” Oliver said in a segment of his ABC television show, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, that aired last spring.

BPI, which once boasted of having its product in 70 percent of the hamburger sold in the country, has lost 25 percent of its business. McDonald’s has been joined by Taco Bell and Burger King in discontinuing use of the product, and the company is worried other chains and retailers will follow them.

“It’s just a shame that an activist with an agenda can really degrade the safety of our food supply,” said David Theno, an industry consultant who has advised BPI and is credited with turning the Jack in the Box burger chain into a model of food safety after a deadly E. coli outbreak in 1993. He called the BPI process “extraordinarily effective” in making beef safer.

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Lean beef long has been added to fattier meat to produce the blends of hamburger meat that’s sold in supermarkets and restaurants. BPI’s innovation was to develop high-tech methods of removing bits of beef from fatty carcass trimmings that had previously been sold for pet food or animal feed and then treating the beef with ammonium hydroxide gas to kill bacteria. Ammonia is used extensively in the food industry and is found naturally in meat. The gas BPI uses contains a tiny fraction of the ammonia that’s used in household cleaner, according to the company.

Ammonium hydroxide, a mixture of water and ammonia, is used in baked goods, cheeses, candy and other products, according to the International Food Information Council. The Food and Drug Administration approved the chemical for leavening, acidity control and other purposes. The ammonium hydroxide lowers the acidity of meat, making it inhospitable to bacteria.

A Washington Post report in 2008 described a BPI plant in South Sioux City, Neb., as a technological marvel that could be the “key to a safer meat supply.” But the good publicity didn’t last.

That same year, the documentary Food Inc., featuring authors Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan, portrayed the ammonia treatment as typical of “high-tech fixes” that agribusiness giants use to ameliorate the public health problems that the filmmakers contended are created by industrial-scale agriculture.

A 2009 New York Times story raised questions about the safety of the BPI product, citing government and industry records of E. coli and salmonella contamination of meat sold for school lunches. One of the company’s plants was barred by the USDA for a time from selling meat for schools.

* * *

The newspaper story included a quote from an email in which an Agriculture Department microbiologist called the pale-colored product “pink slime,” a term critics seized upon.

OIiver’s TV segment didn’t so much portray the product as unsafe as simply disgusting.

“To me, as a chef and a food lover, this is shocking,” he said.

Burger King issued a statement confirming that it was discontinuing use of the BPI product but was not clear as to why.

“The decision to remove BPI products from the BK system is not related to any particular event but rather part of the company’s normal course of business,” the company said.

McDonald’s and Taco Bell did not respond to requests for comment.

BPI officials said they still have other fast-food chains as customers but would not identify them.

Superficial fix or preventive process?

Patty Lovera, who follows food safety policy for the advocacy group Food and Water Watch, said the BPI product raises legitimate questions about whether the food industry is relying too heavily on chemical washes and other technology to kill bacteria instead of doing more to prevent the contamination.

More.

Image from EASY BEING GREENer.

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