Thursday, 6 October 2011

Apple and Butter

It was the first time I'd thought hard about how our food system works. It was the late 1960's and I heard an interview with a nutritionist  (can't remember his name) who said why would anyone stop eating butter and replace it with something coming out of an industrial plant, ladled with artificial colour and flavour. Margarine was pretty crude back then.  I still don't eat it today, but there's no denying that soft margarines do have many credible supporters:

"Margarine is made from vegetable oils, so it contains no cholesterol. Margarine is also higher in "good" fats — polyunsaturated and monounsaturated — than butter is. These types of fat help reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or "bad," cholesterol, when substituted for saturated fat. Butter, on the other hand, is made from animal fat, so it contains cholesterol and high levels of saturated fat."

On the other hand, butter has many supporters too, and their number seem to be growing. One piece on butter's qualities, another on an effort by Denmark to tax people's desire for fat, and the unintended consequences of that tax in Sweden, and finally (totally off topic, but timely) because I always admire people who can link good jazz with anything, Paul Well's thoughts on Steve Jobs (that's the apple part).

Why Butter is Better Than Margarine

Author: Stephen Byrnes, ND, RNCP
One of the most healthy whole foods you can include in your diet is butter. “What?” I can hear many of you saying, “Isn’t butter bad for you? I thought margarine and spreads were better because they’re low in saturated fat and cholesterol?”

Be not deceived folks!

Butter is truly better than margarine or other vegetable spreads. Despite unjustified warnings about saturated fat from well-meaning, but misinformed, nutritionists, the list of butter’s benefits is impressive indeed:


Butter is a rich source of easily absorbed vitamin A, needed for a wide range of functions in the body, from maintaining good vision, to keeping the endocrine system in top shape. Butter also contains all the other fat-soluble vitamins (E, K, and D).


Butter is rich in trace minerals, especially selenium, a powerful antioxidant. Ounce for ounce, butter has more selenium per gram than either whole wheat or garlic. Butter also supplies iodine, needed by the thyroid gland (as well as vitamin A, also needed by the thyroid gland).

Fatty Acids

Butter has appreciable amounts of butyric acid, used by the colon as an energy source. This fatty acid is also a known anti-carcinogen. Lauric acid, a medium chain fatty acid, is a potent antimicrobial and antifungal substance. Butter also contains conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) which gives excellent protection against cancer. Range-fed cows produce especially high levels of CLA as opposed to “stall fed” cattle.
It pays, then, to get your butter from a cow that has been fed properly. Butter also has small, but equal, amounts of omega 3and 6 fatty acids, the so-called essential fatty acids.


These are a special category of fatty acids that protect against gastrointestinal infections , especially in the very young and the elderly. Children, therefore, should not drink skim or low fat milk. Those that do have higher rates of diarrhea than those that drink whole milk.

October 4, 2011, 8:30 pm
How About a Little Danish?

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Well lookee here: the inevitable move toward taxing unhealthful foods to raise income and discourage damaging diets has begun. Last month, Hungary, almost unnoticed, began taxing foods with high levels of fat, salt and sugar. And earlier this week, with just a little more fanfare, Denmark instituted an excise tax on foods high in saturated fat.

By our standards, the Danes aren’t even that fat: their obesity rate is about nine percent (it could be all that bike-riding), well below the European average of 15 percent and less than a third the rate of Americans. More startling, perhaps, is that the tax was introduced by a center-right government that was simply looking for new revenues. Although it met resistance, its passage was never really in doubt, because it was supported by both the right and the left. The tax was approved in a vote that ran about 90 percent in favor, and instituted at a rate of 16 Kroner (just under $3) per kilo, which will mean a half-pound of butter will rise in cost by about 15 cents.

When the old government was booted out last month, its place was taken by a coalition led by the leftish Social Democrats and including, among others, the Socialist People’s Party (SF). Before it even took office, that alliance was talking about doubling the tax, which would truly test its health benefits.

As an outsider who spent three days trying to comprehend the dynamics behind this, my understanding is bound to be flawed. But I believe there are two or three reasons this tax is happening (other than the obvious, which is that it makes sense).

First, like its counterparts throughout Western Europe, the Danish government is struggling to find new income. And although there have been excise taxes on tobacco, sugar, alcohol and other “luxury” goods here for nearly 100 years, this one must have felt like peeking under a rock and finding a diamond.

Then there’s the idea that Danes — like many citizens of many countries, including our own — do not mind paying taxes as long as they’re put to good use, and here to a great extent they are. Denmark is far from ideal, yet it offers many benefits of a progressive tax structure that Americans could see if we only had the political will: real universal health care, free education to all through college or trade school, terrific child care and retirement benefits, and more.

Finally, “social engineering” (better term, anyone? “enforced attitude adjustment” doesn’t cut it) is standard in Denmark. “It’s simply not taboo here,” said Jesper Petersen, when I spoke with him over coffee in the Parliament’s cafeteria. Petersen, who is 30 years old and looks it, is a spokesperson on taxation for the SF and was mentioned to me several times as a likely minister of taxation when the new government sorts itself out. (He refused to comment.)

“For generations, when we believe something is bad for the population but not so bad that it should be outlawed, we tax it,” he said. Thus, not only alcohol and tobacco but pesticides are taxed, and the first step taken to reduce the use of antibiotics and growth promoters in animals was to tax them. (It wasn’t the last step, but I’ll report on Denmark’s relatively progressive animal agriculture at another time.)

This tax is not without problems. It’s limited to saturated fats, though other fats and empty carbohydrates from sugar to white bread are probably equally to blame for the obesity epidemic. Although the tax will be applied to imported goods as well, labeling and documentation from some neighboring countries are less than reliable. And, of course, since Denmark is a small country, people may just cross the border to score their fixes of butter, frozen pizza and ribeyes.

But Petersen believes that seeing the strategy as health-related rather than simply income-generating will allow government to both increase its rate and expand it to more unhealthy foods. Then, he says, the new revenues can be spent “on health care and prevention of lifestyle diseases” rather than on lowering income tax. And after admitting that it was complicated, he said, “If anyone can do this, we can. We have the labeling, we have an administration that can deal with complicated stuff, and we have companies that are used to making these kinds of adjustments.” (It’s worth noting that the use of trans fats is illegal in Denmark — as well as in Austria and Switzerland — and that this, too, happened without much fuss.)

I have been advocating for taxes similar to these for years, so talking to Petersen was fantasy-like. At the end of our interview he said, “These taxes will work, and they’ll become the trend. Health problems from lifestyle diseases are big in every European country — and even more in the United States — and everyone will be watching us. They’ll see that this can help us control health care expenses — which will help us control the economy — and make people more healthy and allow them to live longer and better lives. We’ll also pressure industry to create products that are healthier.

“All of this can be done.”

I think he’s right. We’ll see similar taxes implemented throughout Scandinavia, and countries as diverse as France and Romania are already considering them. When we can say the same of the States, which needs these taxes more than any country in the world, it’ll be time for a serious celebration. Perhaps a few rounds of Danish?

Butter shortage has Swedes churning
by naomi powell  •  Oct. 6, 2011 •

Danes looking to sneak butter over the Swedish border to escape a new fat tax may be out of luck. After years of lukewarm interest in butter and heavy cream, Swedes have developed a new passion for the stuff.

The demand is such that Sweden is now battling a national butter shortage. Supplies were low enough at one point that a local newspaper printed instructions on how to churn it at home.

The butter boom has been attributed to low-carb fad diets and a return to “natural cooking” that eschews processed spreads, sauces and other products. But the shortage has as much to do with the rapid decline of the country’s dairy industry as it does with renewed demand. Sweden is one of the few countries in Europe where milk production has consistently decreased -- a trend the industry is struggling to reverse.

“We have cheap land here and Swedish producers are paid similar prices as elsewhere,” said Lennart Holmstrom of the Swedish Dairy Association. “The conditions are the same and still our production falls while in Denmark and the Netherlands they increase production. We are working very hard to mobilize and retain the farmers we have left but it is a very difficult job.”

And so, in a country where eating locally produced food is a longstanding preference, milk production has plunged 15 per cent in the last 20 years. Meanwhile, demand for butter alone spiked 18.2 per cent in 2009, with the average Swede putting away 1.8 kilograms. That’s not much compared to other European nations -- the French consumed 7.9 kilograms per capita in 2009 -- but as the appetite for butter and cream continues to grow, it’s pushing dairy farms to their limit.

“We’ve had shortages before, but never this big or for this long,” said Claes Henriksson of dairy giant Arla. “The gap between milk production and demand for butter has been quite high but we didn’t expect demand for butter to rise so much that we’d be put in this situation.”

In order to free up Swedish cream for butter production, Arla -- which controls 45 per cent of the Sweden’s dairy market -- plans to import 150 tonnes of Danish cream per week to substitute into other products such as yogurt. Mr. Henriksson expects the butter supply to return to normal by the end of the month.

The Swedish Dairy Association wants to increase annual milk production by 18 per cent to 3.3 billion litres. If that fails, Swedes will likely face more shortages in the future, Mr. Holmstrom says.

This American life
by Paul Wells on Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The question before the house now, or one of them, is whether Steve Jobs was an innovator. It’s easy to come up with perfectly fair definitions of the term that leave him offside. The mouse and the graphic user interface came from the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Music downloading was huge before he ever did it, or at least it seemed huge before he changed the scale on which the word is understood. I remember taking my first iPod to a computer store where one of the geeks showed me how to pry the back off. The magic came off with it. Just a thin battery, a thin hard drive, and a circuit board. Anybody could do it. Many already had.

So if innovation means being the very first, count Jobs out. There’s actually a parallel argument in jazz music, if you can believe it, where people have spent 30 years debating whether Miles Davis innovated anything. The obvious answer is that, if innovating means being very first, he didn’t. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie showed him how to play bebop. Lester Young was stripping ornament from his solo lines when Miles was in short pants. And so on. But Miles heard new currents, found ways to make them consistent with his own aesthetic, and presented them in ways a general audience could grasp and then love. And then he did it again and again. If an innovator is a conduit between an idea and all its possible audiences, then both of these guys were at the heart of that game.

Very early on, Apple got in the habit of producing products that weren’t particularly impressive in their technical specs but inspired loyalty with an appeal to intangibles. The Apple II+ wasn’t particularly a smarter or faster beast than the TRS-80 or the Commodore Pet or the other dinosaurs of the silicon swamps at the dawn of the 1980s. But it looked (a tad) more elegant, and its top was connected with nothing more than velcro strips so you could get at the crazy number of expansion slots — eight, I think — that made even that paleolithic machine open to easy, radical customization.

Those were key elements of the Jobs style: aesthetic grace and heaps of flexibility. A third element was apparent soon after: a deep urge to simplify, often beyond reason. The first Macintosh keyboard had no numerical keypad, even though keypads are actually pretty useful. The first iPod had fewer controls than it should have had. Jobs’s mouse had one button when the rest of the industry was using two or even three. Those extra mouse buttons were really handy. Almost always Jobs would un-simplify his products as he went along. But that urge to strip to the bone matched the intuition of millions of consumers, who were sure that if a machine is as smart as advertised, it should not need a human to do all the work.

Jobs screwed up a lot. He made dud products (Lisa, Newton) and dud applications (Hypercard, Mobile Me). He managed to get himself fired by the company he founded; there’s a movie, a Russian novel, in the way he schemed his way back in. If he hadn’t he’d be a footnote. His greatest triumphs came near the end of his life: the iPhone in 2007, the iPad in 2010 — together worth three-quarters of the whole company’s sales last quarter — the very late-breaking market-share growth of Apple laptops and desktops. In the last few months of Jobs’s life, his company became the biggest in the world. There’s been no comeback like it.

One more lesson from Miles Davis: there is no need to confuse effectiveness with virtue when taking the measure of a man. Jobs seems to have been a fine fellow, but it wasn’t virtue he was trying to spread, it was competence and ingenuity. Virtue was one of the things his customers could do with his stuff, if they liked. It came from them, not from him. Jobs didn’t lead so much as listen, refine, extend, echo, and repeat. He amplified human potential. Not a bad life’s work.

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