Plants as Intellectual Property: Patently Wrong?

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Since ancient times, Mother Nature has been a fertile source for drugs used to treat human diseases. One such remedy is the spice turmeric, specifically known for its naturally-yellow compound, curcumin, which has been used for at least 2,500 years. In light of the long and established experience with curcumin as a foodstuff and safe, low-cost, effective medicine, the spice is moving rapidly from the kitchen shelf toward the clinic.

Curcumin has shown some promising effects against a wide range of diseases, so well in fact that curcumin appears to possess all the desirable features of a designed-from-scratch, multipurpose drug.

If it's so safe and effective, why aren't more studies being done? Part of the delay is attributable to a U.S. patent, granted in 1995 to researchers at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, for curcumin's wound-healing properties, which prevented its development as a therapeutic. In a landmark case, highlighted in my video, Plants as Intellectual Property: Patently Wrong?, the Indian Council of Scientific and Industrial Research spent years arguing and finally proved that curcumin has been part of the Indian traditional system of medicine for centuries and so should be considered part of the public domain. It's like patenting broccoli. The patent was finally over-turned in 1997, a triumph for those trying to stop the misappropriation of traditional knowledge by multinational corporations. But if no one profits, who's going to pay for research?

Given that public knowledge does not involve any intellectual property, drug companies are not interested in its commercialization. You can buy turmeric in any grocery store for pennies a dose. "Unless there is intellectual property to make money, nobody will come forward," said a leading turmeric researcher.

Then how is any research being funded? Although curcumin itself is no longer patentable, derivatives, formulations, delivery systems, and synthetic methods can be. So, if you take some turmeric molecule and tweak it a little bit, you can patent it for your investors. Unless phytonutrients can be converted into new chemical entities for which more specific medical claims are possible, the development of these plants seems unlikely. Sure, they're extensively exploited as active ingredients of innumerable products on ill-regulated food supplement markets, but apart from this, progress through clinical trials remains sluggish. "Such waste of resources on the way of transformation from renewable materials to high tech/high value products ... is deplorable," drug research scientists write.

So maybe it would be good if Frito-lay did own the patent to broccoli. There's a reason we don't see Super Bowl ads for vegetables.

This reminds me of my video The Lie That Heals: Should Doctors Give Placebos? I went into the topic thinking one thing, but realized that there are strong arguments to be made on both sides.

Turmeric is pretty amazing stuff. Even if we won't hear about most of the research because companies can't patent it, we can educate ourselves:

The concept that the curcumin in turmeric is able to target multiple diseases pathways simultaneously is explored further in my video, Magic Bullets vs. Promiscuous Plants.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 - 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: Jules / Flickr

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Our Tax Dollars Subsidize Unhealthy Foods

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Why do food companies sell junk? Because unhealthy commodities are highly profitable. This is in part because of their "low production cost, long shelf-life, and high retail value," which create perverse incentives for industries to market and sell more junk. In a study highlighted in my video, Taxpayer Subsidies for Unhealthy Foods, researchers at the University of Cambridge stated, "Coca-Cola's net profit margins, for example, are about a quarter of the retail price, making soft drink production, alongside tobacco production, among the most profitable industrial activities in the world." One of the reasons production costs are so low is that we tax-payers subsidize it.

Distinguished UNC Professor of Nutrition, Barry Popkin, writes:

"For more than a century, Western governments have invested heavily in lowering the costs of animal products and some basic cash crops [such as sugar]. Accordingly, Western diets have shifted during the past century, especially after World War II, to include more animal sourced foods--meat, poultry, dairy, seafood, and eggs [as well as more sugar and corn syrup]. During this same period, however, we have begun to realize that a healthy diet actually requires fewer animal products and empty calories, and more vegetables, fruits, beans, and whole grains. Redressing this balance is a complex task requiring not only a shift in agricultural investment and policy, but also changes in social preferences that have developed over decades, in part due to dollar menu meat."

Why is chicken so cheap? In the nine years that followed the passage of the '96 Farm Bill, corn and soy were subsidized below the cost of production to make cheap animal feed. So U.S. tax-payers effectively handed the chicken and pork industry around $10 billion dollars each.

What if we instead subsidized healthy foods? Or taxed harmful ones? Every dollar spent taxing processed foods or milk would net an estimated $2 in healthcare cost savings. Every dollar spent making vegetables cheaper would net $3, and subsidizing whole grains could net over a one thousand percent return on our investment.

Unfortunately, we can't count on Big Broccoli. The produce sector lacks the extensive funding that went to create the National Dairy Council, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the National Pork Producers Council, and the American Egg Board.

Even if we removed the hundreds of billions of dollars in annual subsidies for animal products, it might not be sufficient to tip the balance in favor of healthier diets. According to Professor Popkin, "We have created societies in the West that value and consume meat, dairy, poultry, fish and seafood. Over several generations, a particular way of life has been promoted that has shifted expectations about diet to include large amounts of animal-sourced foods"--the concept that a meal centers around some hunk of meat.

The idea that animal products should form the basis of our diet has been scientifically debunked, but remains the social aspiration of billions of people. As we in the West slowly come to accept that our diets and eating habits are not healthy, it is to be hoped that this will change policies not only here, but throughout the world.

For more on the power Big Food's hold over our political system, check out videos such as:

My video series on corporate influence over our federal nutrition guidelines may also be enlightening:

And if we really wanted to save our country money we could start by trying to wipe out some of our leading killer chronic diseases:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

Image Credit: Rakka / Flickr

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Peeks Behind the Egg Industry Curtain

NF-Mar19 Who Says Eggs Aren't Healthy or Safe?.jpg

The American Egg Board is a promotional marketing board appointed by the U.S. government whose mission is to "increase demand for egg and egg products on behalf of U.S. egg producers." If an individual egg company wants to run an ad campaign, they can say pretty much whatever they want. But if an egg corporation wants to dip into the 10 million dollars the American Egg Board sets aside for advertising every year, because the board is overseen by the federal government, corporations are not allowed to lie with those funds. This leads to quite revealing exchanges between egg corporations that want to use that money and the USDA on what egg companies can and cannot say about eggs.

Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act I was able to get my hands on some of those emails. Of course a lot of what I got were pages with nearly all of the text blacked out (you can see these in my video, Who Says Eggs Aren't Healthy or Safe?). But I did find some illuminating correspondence. For example, one email shows an egg company trying to put out a brochure on healthy snacking for kids. But because of existing laws against false and misleading advertising, the head of the USDA's poultry research and promotion programs reminds the company that eggs or egg products cannot be couched as being healthy or nutritious. "The words nutritious and healthy carry certain connotations, and because eggs have the amount of cholesterol they do, plus the fact that they're not low in fat, [the words healthy and nutritious] are problematic." This is the United States Department of Agriculture saying this!

However, the USDA official helpfully suggests, "I believe you can say something that's just as strong if not stronger, that is 'naturally nutrient-dense.'" Why can we say eggs are nutrient-dense but not nutritious? Because there's no legal definition of nutrient-dense. We can say Twinkies and Coca Cola are nutrient dense, but legally, we can't say something is nutritious unless it's actually... nutritious.

For example, the egg industry wanted to run an ad calling eggs a nutritional powerhouse that aids in weight loss. The USDA had to remind the industry that they can't portray eggs as a diet food because of the fat and cholesterol content. In fact, eggs have nearly twice the calories of anything that can be called "low-calorie."

"Nutritional powerhouse" can't be used either. Fine, the industry said, they'll move to plan B, and headline the ad "Egg-ceptional Nutrition." They couldn't say that either because, again, given the saturated fat and cholesterol you can't legally call eggs nutritious. So the headline ended up as, "Find true satisfaction," and instead of weight loss they had to go with "can reduce hunger." The USDA congratulated them on their cleverness. Yes, a food that when eaten can reduce hunger--what a concept!

They can't even say eggs are "relatively" low in calories. Can't say eggs are low in saturated fat--they're not. Can't say they're relatively low in fat, they're not. Can't even call them a rich source of protein, because, according to the USDA, they're not.

It's illegal to advertise that eggs pack a nutritional wallop, or that they have a high nutritional content. Eggs have so much cholesterol, we can't even say they "contribute nutritionally." Can't say eggs are "healthful," certainly can't say they're "healthy." Can't even say eggs contribute "healthful components."

Since we can't say eggs are a healthy start to the day, the USDA suggests a "satisfying start." Egg corporations can't call eggs a healthy ingredient, but they can call eggs a "recognizable" ingredient. Can't truthfully say eggs are good for us, either. By law, according to the USDA, the egg industry "needs to steer clear of words like 'healthy' or 'nutritious.'"

For a food to be labeled "healthy" under FDA rules, it has to be low in saturated fat (eggs fail that criteria) and have less than 90mg of cholesterol per serving (even half an egg fails that test). For the same reason we can't tout ice cream for strong bones, we can't say eggs are healthy because they exceed the threshold for cholesterol.

Egg corporations aren't even allowed to say things like "Eggs are an important part of a well balanced, healthy diet" on an egg carton because it would be considered misleading according to the USDA's National Egg Supervisor, since eggs contain significant amounts of fat and cholesterol and therefore can contribute to the leading killer in the United States, heart disease.

The industry can't afford to tell the truth about the eggs, or even the hens that lay them. The industry crams five to ten birds in cages the size of a file cabinet their whole lives, but when providing footage to the media, the American Egg Board instructs, "do not show multiple birds in cages--they look too crowded and open us up to activist criticism."

Not only is the industry barred from saying eggs are healthy, they can't even refer to eggs as safe because more than a hundred thousand Americans are food poisoned by Salmonella from eggs every year.

The egg board's response to this egg-borne epidemic is that Salmonella is a naturally occurring bacterium. An internal egg industry memo didn't think that should necessarily be the key message, fearing that "it may be counterproductive by implying there is no avoiding Salmonella in eggs aside from avoiding eggs altogether."

The food poisoning risk is why the American Egg Board can't even mention anything but eggs cooked hard and dry. No soft-boiled, no over-easy, no sunny-side up--because of the Salmonella risk. The American Egg Board's own research showed that the sunny-side up cooking method should be considered "unsafe."

In light of bird flu viruses, both the white and yolk must be cooked firm. The VP of marketing for the Egg Board complained to the USDA saying they'd "really like to not have to dictate that the yolks are firm," and cites a Washington Post article saying runny yolks may be safe for everyone except pregnant women, infants, elderly, or those with chronic disease. It turns out it was a misquote--eggs can't be considered safe for anyone.

Instead of safe, they can call eggs "fresh," the USDA marketing service helpfully suggests. But they can't call eggs safe, and they can't say eggs are "safe to eat." They can't even mention safety at all.

Wait a second, not only can eggs not be called healthy they can't even be called safe? Says who? Says the United States Department of Agriculture.

For more peeks behind the egg industry curtain see:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

Image Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr

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Feeding Our Children

Found this on a wall in an elementary school cafeteria. Tragically, this is everywhere. Pushing junk food begins as early as possible, brainwashing innocent children’s minds with a strong belief that eating junk food is the norm. Meanwhile: —>Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. …

Original Link

Feeding Our Children

Found this on a wall in an elementary school cafeteria. Tragically, this is everywhere. Pushing junk food begins as early as possible, brainwashing innocent children’s minds with a strong belief that eating junk food is the norm. Meanwhile: —>Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. …

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GMOs – what’s the difference?

Who you are changes what you hear....

 Enjoy this simple cartoon on the two faces of the GMO message.

GMO.jpg

 

There are always two sides to every story, but the GMO companies can afford to publish their own ads.

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