“Most Importantly: They Need to Taste F%#@ing Good”

by Sam Jones

Okja is a Netflix original film that was released in June 2017 and directed by Bon Joon Ho. While some may characterize it as a dystopian sci-fi film, others recognize it as a commentary on our modern industrial food complex. Warning: spoiler alert.

Screen capture from Okja official trailer, available on Netflix.

Screen capture from Okja official trailer, available on Netflix.

The film begins in 2007 in New York City where Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) has recently taken over her father’s controversial agro-chemical company and turned it into a multi-national corporation that produces “natural, eco-friendly, and non-GMO” pork. She begins by presenting a few basic statistics to investors and reporters: the world’s population will surpass 9 billion by 2050 yet there are still millions of people going hungry around the world today. Lucy Mirando’s solution to global hunger and the growing population is to produce more food in the form of “super-pigs.”

Okja is the star super-pig of this story, but she does not much resemble the pigs we are used to. She is abnormally gargantuan and something of a mix between a dog, an elephant, and a rabbit. Her odd appearance seems to instill the sense that there is something fundamentally unnatural about her, however cute she may be. Ten years after the film’s opening scene in New York, the film brings us to the mountains of South Korea. A girl named Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) has been raising Okja for those ten years as more of a pet and a friend than as the property of an agro-chemical company. After a brief glimpse into the day-to-day adventures of Okja and Mija, the viewer is reminded that Okja’s fate will not be as rosy as her upbringing. The arrival of “the face of the Mirando Corporation,” Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal)—a wheezing, flamboyant, animal-loving, washed-up celebrity—signals the beginning of the end for Okja. She has been chosen by the Mirando Corporation as the Number One Super Pig (enormous, beautiful, and healthy) which means she must be transported back to New York City for the Super Pig Project’s inaugural celebration. The film now follows Mija, tricked into letting Johnny Wilcox take her beloved friend away, as she ventures to the United States to liberate Okja and bring her home.

While the Mirando Corporation claims that Okja and several other super-piglets were discovered on a farm in Chile, the truth is not so noble. In reality, Okja and other super-pigs like her are the result of genetic modification and breeding experiments conducted in a New Jersey lab. Sending the best-looking super-piglets to be raised by small farmers around the world turns out to be just a clever marketing scheme and cover-up. The Mirando Corporation knows that genetically modifying animals is dangerous and controversial, which is why they are being marketed as farm-raised, all-natural, GMO-free pigs.

While the film does not explicitly spell it out, it creates astoundingly familiar parallels to the reality of our current meat industry. Chickens, for example, have been bred to grow faster and larger than is biologically natural. Whereas a chicken being raised for meat forty years ago would be 4 pounds at 10 weeks old, today’s chickens reach a 5-pound market weight in half that time. It is an efficient and cost-effective method for bringing cheap, uniform food to consumers’ plates. It is arguably, however, unnatural, inhumane, and lacking in transparency.

Just as the super-pigs in Okja are genetically engineered to be abnormally large, so are today’s meat chickens (commonly called broilers). And just as the Mirando Corporation falsely markets its super-pigs as non-GMO, eco-friendly, and all-natural, the chicken industry now has labels for cage-free, free-range, antibiotic-free, and all-natural that rarely meet those standards as consumers expect. For example, cage-free hens are now able to spread their wings and move around, but studies have shown that they are not necessarily any healthier. Cage-free hens are more exposed to disease and higher ammonia levels and exhibit more aggressive behavior toward other hens. Such conditions are also more hazardous and arduous for workers who have shown greater incidence of respiratory problems. Free-range is also a misleading label. Chickens certified as free-range merely need access to the outdoors, the quality, time exposure, and size of which is not defined. A free-range chicken could therefore still spend its entire life in a warehouse, with perhaps the occasional chance to step outside onto a 10 by 10 slab of fenced-in concrete. In our current food industry, as in Okja, labels and marketing can be misleading and undermine consumer choice to the extent that what you think you are buying may be far from the truth, if not the inverse.

While Okja may seem like a strange sci-fi adventure movie, the underlying premise of animals bred for captivity, slaughter, and mass consumption is an emotional commentary on the food system we have created. But more than that, Okja is at its heart a film about humaneness. It finally asks us the impertinent questions that other films and books have until now failed to convincingly answer: Why are we treating animals this way? How have we become so blind to the irony of simultaneously loving and eating animals? Are we already living in a dystopian reality?

Nearing the film’s conclusion, one line stood out as the most disheartening of all. When the truth comes out about the Super Pig Project, and Lucy Mirando is exposed to the world, her advisors wonder whether customers will knowingly buy the meat their company has spent a decade producing. To quell all concerns, Lucy’s sister Nancy (also played by Tilda Swinton) responds: “If it’s cheap, they’ll eat it.”

And that is the saddest truth about the industrial food complex. If food is cheap, people will continue to eat it. And this pattern should not be viewed as a fault of the frugal consumer. Our system has been designed to provide the illusion of choice while in reality providing only one choice: the cheap choice. Any number of documentaries can be made or investigative books written on the inside truth of slaughterhouses and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). But the cost of producing that meat has yet to appear on the price tag of the finished product. And until it does—until the suffering, wastefulness, pollution, and myriad other negative externalities are included in the cost of buying it—people will continue eating it. That is what the super-pigs in Okja and the animals currently raised in CAFOs around the world amount to: a slab of meat in a plastic package for you and me to snack on, whether to satisfy a craving or distract us from boredom.

While producing super pigs to solve world hunger was the initial premise of the Mirando Corporation’s intention, it is not addressed at any other point in the film. In reality, meat is likely not feeding the hungriest people. If the goal of producing more, cheaper, faster-growing meat was to end world hunger, the model would fail even if the super pigs weren’t genetically modified, raised in confinement, and slaughtered on an assembly line. Meat is in truth a mere indulgence that is neither nutritionally necessary nor environmentally or economically sustainable. But it is cheap, so we will keep eating it despite these external costs. And the slaughter will continue because at the end of the day, as Nancy Mirando tells us in the film, meat is a commodity produced by an industry run by “hardworking business people who do deals. And these are the deals [they] do.”

Sam Jones is a first-year AFE student with an interest in sustainable agricultural development. She considers herself a “situational vegetarian” and claims to have a larger dessert stomach than the average human being. She is looking forward to knitting, reading, watching movies, baking, and snowshoeing over winter break.

Book Review: The Dorito Effect–The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor By Mark Schatzker

By Hannah Meier

Grocery store shelves are teeming with products that cater to every sense of flavor. New flavor combinations seem to appear out of thin air every day. Even meat and produce sections increasingly offer pre-seasoned and flavor-enhanced options. What happened to real flavor, and what does all of this have to do with the obesity epidemic? Mark Schatzker, a New York Times food journalist, hypothesizes the connection is stronger than cayenne pepper.

PDorito Effect pictureublished in 2015 and riding the wave of other big name titles in food journalism (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Food Politics, and Soda Politics, to name a few), The Dorito Effect takes a similar investigational look at the food industry, with author Mark Schatzker aiming to reveal just how much we, as consumers, don’t know about what we’re eating. In The Dorito Effect, Schatzker introduces the current state of emergency regarding obesity by detailing, in quite intimate (and condescending) detail, the despair a woman named Jean Nidtech felt about her weight and her relationship with food that led her to found what is now Weight Watchers. I’m not sure how he knew Nidtech had “visions of jelly beans […] dancing in her head,” but the picture he paints is one arguing that the biggest problem with obesity is an addiction to, or an obsession with, junk food.

Despite this sweeping generalization, Schatzker does illuminate the discrepancy between Americans’ obsession with fad diets and diet foods alongside obesity’s continued rise in prevalence. He notes that we have flip-flopped between villains du jour for decades (is it the salt or the sugar that’s slowly killing you today?). We invent reformulated food products to champion this “food danger,” but have yet to turn the dial on the burden of obesity. Through Schatzker’s reasoning, something in our food environment has certainly changed, but we have taken too reductionist of an approach in addressing it. Food is complicated, he aptly admits. As “we keep mistaking the mechanism of obesity for the cause” (eating too many calories), we dig ourselves deeper into a hole filled with a surplus of nutrient-poor, flavor enhanced, unsatisfying and addicting junk food.

Schatzker summarizes what is common knowledge for many in the Friedman community—our agricultural system, by primarily emphasizing production capacity and ignoring taste, has vastly reduced the nutritional quality and flavor of plant and animal products. The nutrients and plant “secondary compounds”—bioactives as you may know them—are really what constitutes flavor in food in its natural state. He argues that our senses were developed to recognize the various flavors and aromas inherent to particular foods, and that we are “wired” to want foods that fulfill particular physiological needs within our bodies.

Citing a Utah State Professor’s experiments with goats, who developed aversions to plants with toxins and learned to prefer flavors associated with nutrients in which they were deficient, Schatzker concludes that if humans interacted with food in the same way—choosing to eat particular types of plants based on the nutritional demands of the body—obesity would not be the epidemic it is today. We have confused ourselves, he claims, by ridding our food supply of plant secondary compounds, thereby stripping it of flavor and handicapping our innate ability to recognize key qualities and self-regulate our nutrition. Instead, according to Schatzker, we never get full from manufactured, flavor-added products because they don’t truly fulfill their purpose. We keep eating and eating and have ultimately found ourselves in the deep pit of an obesity epidemic.

The idea that our bodies innately respond to our food environment is a convincing hypothesis that has some scientific backing. For one thing, it’s long been accepted that humans have this same kind of post-ingestive feedback for high-calorie foods because we evolved to seek out foods with the most energy density. Schaztker dug up a study conducted by a pediatrician in the 1920’s, who fostered 15 babies and let them grow up eating whatever they wanted from a list of 34 foods (including potatoes, corn, barley, carrots, peaches and brains… among others) and found that these babies were excellent at adopting balanced diets and choosing foods to meet their needs as they changed over time. One baby with rickets, Schaztker recounts, drank cod liver oil in varying amounts over the course of his illness until he was better.

In a brief search of the literature, I failed to find similar studies to back this up. But this may be due to the increased ethical considerations of involving humans in experimental studies over a lack of effect.

Being realistic, the type of food exposure created by the dedicated pediatrician in the 20’s isn’t what most people in the 21st century experience. We live within cultures valuing food norms and are subjected to unbridled media influence. Schatzker would argue that the relationship between nutrients and flavors has been adulterated by the twin forces of the dwindling nutritional quality of our food supply and the abundance of synthetic flavor enhancements we now associate more with meeting emotional needs than biological ones.

Schatzker goes on to spend an inordinate amount of time oscillating between revering the flavor industry for its chemical ingenious and condemning it for perpetuating the disconnect between nutrition and flavor. His sometimes unrefined writing style blames both the overweight individual (often identifying her as “fat” so-and-so) and the food system at large for failing to reverse obesity. Though he does a good job of addressing the complexity of the association between food, flavor and nutrition, he stops short of identifying other key issues that cannot be overlooked when confronting obesity. Financial instability, social inequality, food policy and availability, and cultural norms among the larger issues, with emotional and psychological influences also playing a huge role in what food ends up on individual and family tables.

Schatzker’s grand resolution at the end of the book is to entrust food technology with the task of bringing us back to foods with flavors true to their nutrient content. He believes that if food technology can harness genetic modification to improve yield and durability, surely it can modify genes that enhance nutrient quality. While certainly a good idea, will genetically modifying food to be more nutritious reverse obesity on its own? Hardly.

It will be up to experts like us to dig deeper, and tackle each level of the complex food system with the Friedman understanding that everything is connected, everything is important.

Hannah Meier is a first-year, second-semester NUTCOM student, registered dietitian, and food lover enamored with the complexity of the food system and the way individuals interact with it. Reading The Dorito Effect had no impact on her liberal use of herbs and spices in the kitchen.


Like a Marathon, Running: A Love Story Ends with a Payoff That Negates Doubts Along the Way

by Matt Moore

In the middle of Jen A. Miller’s memoir, Running: A Love Story: 10 Years, 5 Marathons, and 1 Life-Changing Sport, the story starts to read like an extended submission to Boston.com’s Love Letters feature. But while a protracted description of her personal love life may discourage some readers who just want running tales, it in fact sets up Miller’s journey of self-discovery and redemption as running becomes her constant companion.

The book unfolds over nine chapters; each begins with a snippet of Miller’s experience at the 2013 New Jersey Marathon before returning to a chronological narrative. Miller begins the memoir by bookdescribing her self-esteem and body-image concerns and her parents’ divorce that would lead her to be conflict-averse, factors that would shape her future relationships. The remainder of the book is devoted to major relationships with three men: an alcoholic, a potential soulmate who abruptly dumps her for a job in another state, and someone who tries to control every aspect of her life. For Miller, running started as a component of each relationship and later became an escape.

I was first eager to pick up Running: A Love Story after reading an excerpt on The New York Times Well Blog that depicts her running to lose weight with help from an unbalanced diet of alcohol, cigarettes, and coffee. This combination leads to her passing out in the middle of the run. It wasn’t the suffering that attracted me, but the shared experience of falling in love with a sport that can heal and help overcome adversity.

It’s her relatability that makes Miller’s account compelling and a perfect complement to the canon of running books written by (or about) the sport’s titans such as John L. Parker Jr.’s impeccable Once a Runner. Miller is a skilled but not elite runner; she is not Quenton Cassidy striving for the Olympics or Dick Beardsley and Alberto Salazar dueling in the sun. While she admittedly has the money and professional stature to lead a life a grad student can only imagine, it is refreshing to read about a runner whose dedication competes with jobs, relationships, and responsibilities. Its contemporary setting is a nice change of pace from other popular running books. Dated references to 60s musical culture or the Vietnam War are replaced with mentions of Guster, Pete Yorn, the Boston Marathon Bombings, Hurricane Sandy, and the 2008 recession.

Although Miller depicts a love affair with running, the language she uses isn’t always romantic. Miller delves into her experiences with depression and alcohol abuse and includes her irreverent and entertaining internal monologues she has while running on topics like pain, poop, puke, and sweat. Instead of poetically and confidently building the lead up to a big race, Miller pleads “please God heal” after feeling a pre-race muscle tweak—a feeling not at all unfamiliar to your average runner. In addition to the frustrations of her relationships, Miller relates the infuriating process runners face when having to restart training from ground zero after injuries and other setbacks.

That being said, I think she devotes a bit too much time to some of her human love interests and misses an opportunity to dive further into the training grind of repeats, tempo runs, and long runs. While I appreciate her frank descriptions of the protective powers of Body Glide, I wonder if she was sponsored by Clif Bar & Company since Clif Bars and Shot Bloks are mentioned repeatedly (edit: she’s not). There are also some odd interjections about topics like the minimalist running trend, sugar content of Gatorade, and therapy.

At one point Miller offers a sentiment shared by most runners: “I wish I could say that everything about my running life after that race was perfect, but running is rarely a perfect sport.” In the same way, her writing is not always perfect. Some will be turned off to what other reviews deem to be “crude” language—sometimes it’s less Love Letters and more Sex and the City.

During the portrayal of her second relationship, I put the book down to Google other reviews, particularly from female readers, to see if we were on the same page about some of Miller’s subject matter. Surprisingly, reviews I found were even more critical, admonishing her for not accepting responsibility for her failed relationships and her initial satisfaction after completing her first marathon and not having the desire to run another.

In the end, I wondered if these critics actually finished the book. Although it’s a slow burn, Miller recognizes her personal flaws and how codependence and enablement exacerbated relationship and personal problems. She also transforms as a runner and concludes with a series of paragraphs that pack an emotional punch, condensed here:

But my running is different now. I’m not running away from anything, or toward anything. I run because I like it. I’m not trying to beat my body into a specific shape, or trying to run out my problems. Running is part of my life now, like writing and dog hair on my couch or clothes…I don’t know if I would have reached this point without running, but I’d rather not know. It’s a cleanser for my mind, body, and soul…For so long, I thought that running was a Sisyphean task. With that race, on that day, when the medal of a spinning New Jersey was placed around my neck, I realized I was wrong. Through running, I am the phoenix, reborn. And I will keep turning to running, and being reborn, until I can run no more.

Finally, I have to say that perhaps my favorite aspect of the book was Miller’s mother, an ever-present source of support at almost all her races, whether waiting to hand off mid-race snacks or greeting her at the finish with a hug. Like her final opinion on running, Miller’s explicit appreciation of her mother comes late in the book. But with an ironic proximity to Mother’s Day, it’s a reminder that runners don’t always need a mythical Bruce Denton coaching their lives and that a free printed training schedule and the consistent encouragement from a friend or family member can be just as effective.

Matt Moore is a second-year AFE student for whom training for the Chicago Marathon is one reason to get up in the morning. You can contact him on Twitter @boxman37 and catch him on the airwaves along with Katherine Pett every Saturday morning at 8 a.m. on WMFO.

Load Your Queue with AFE-Related Horror Movies This October

by Matt Moore

I love horror movies. And it’s October, which means I am going to tell people what horror movies they should see. Coincidentally, from classics like The Birds to modern disasters like The Happening, topics related to Agriculture, Food, and Environment have served as a platform for scares and social commentary in horror cinema for decades. Here are seven movies to watch this month, in chronological order, that broach issues that are still contentious today, including GMOs, pesticides, climate change, and the American diet.

Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974)

Four years before George Romero’s iconic condemnation of consumerism in Dawn of the Dead, Spanish director Jorge Grau used zombies to criticize pollution and experimental agricultural technology. The film tells the tale of George (Ray Lovelock), an antique shop owner traveling to the English countryside from Manchester. When his motorcycle is wrecked at a gas station by Edna (Cristina Galbó), who plans to visit her sister, they are forced to unite against the living dead while trying to clear their names after a local detective becomes convinced they are responsible for the increasing body count.


The machine (Source)

The source of the zombie outbreak: an experimental machine designed to kill insects and parasites using ultrasonic radiation. George confronts “Agricultural Department Experimental Section” workers who manage the machine several times, and they argue that the technology offers a safe and government-approved alternative to chemical pesticides. The radiation emitted by the machine affects the “primitive” nervous systems of insects, causing them to fight and kill one another. Unfortunately, while effective in wiping out pests, it also activates the nervous systems of the recently deceased.

Grau’s concerns with pollution and agricultural technology is apparent from the start, as his camera follows George out of a Manchester filled with bad air, dead animals, and dirty nuclear power plants. The journey is interspersed with images of the green, tranquil, “untouched” countryside in juxtaposition to the ugly city. The characters give voice to Grau’s distrust of modernization and science by making despondent claims such as “when we all die, only the scientists will survive,” and that it is futile to appeal to the government when it won’t even take action on more “important” issues. Don’t write off the film’s premise as being silly since most early zombie films reached for bizarre explanations of what makes the dead walk, and Let Sleeping Corpses Lie is one of the best films to come out of the subgenre’s golden age.

Long Weekend (1978)

If you fantasize about nature rising up and fighting back against polluters and perpetrators of animal cruelty, this movie is for you. The Australian offering tells the story of Long-WeekendPete (John Hargreaves) and Marcia (Briony Behets), a married couple attempting to patch up their relationship during a weekend camping trip at an isolated beach. Marcia’s complaint during an early phone conversation that “Pete’s being a real shit” sums up the plot well, as he inflicts environmental harm by flicking a lit cigarette into brush, cutting down a tree for no reason, and shooting a dugong, among other infractions.

Of course, Marcia is not innocent: she drenches pests with insecticide and smashes an eagle’s egg, which serves as part of an underlying commentary on abortion that may still resonate today. Director Colin Eggleston lets you know that things may not end well for the couple with ominous opening music, close-ups of insects and plants, and typical horror tropes (e.g., locals telling outsiders that their intended destination does not exist) that are guaranteed to lead to danger.

Overall, it’s a decent film that unfortunately reflects the difficulty and awkwardness of depicting live animals attacking humans without the aid of today’s special effects capability. Its most memorable moments include the dugong that refuses to die and a tagline reminiscent of I Spit on Your Grave and other contemporary revenge films: “Their crimes was against nature…nature found them guilty.”

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978)

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes succeeds as a B-movie parody…for about 20 minutes. The film opens with a direct reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, explaining that viewers laughed at the notion of nature attacking humans in 1963—until millions of birds descended upon the real-life town of Hopkinsville, KY in 1975 (and again in 2013!). From there, viewers are launched into the story of government agent Mason Dixon (David Miller) leading a team tasked with solving the growing problem of tomatoes killing humans. Apparently, a USDA experiment has caused tomatoes to grow at an “unprecedented rate,” and they are now on a murderous rampage, immune to “chemicals, bugs, and bullets.” In what may be considered a copout, viewers are never told what caused the tomatoes to attack, although one agent does wistfully explain that “All we wanted was a bigger, healthier tomato.” Familiar shots are taken at the government with cuts to an aging Senate Subcommittee on Domestic Tomato Growth and Expansion that decides to take no action after an interminably long period of review.


Tomatoes and their victims (Source)

The film has become a cult hit, and a large part of its charm is the lack of many special effects: in one scene, actual garden tomatoes are showing floating (accompanied by a recurring dubbed grumbling) to the surface of a bay to attack unsuspecting swimmers. Unfortunately, the jokes start to fall flat relatively quickly—although Dixon’s master of disguise expert provides solid laughs while he infiltrates the tomatoes—and food waste activists might cringe at scenes of vengeful humans stomping on tomatoes.

Warning Sign (1985)

When you combine skepticism over GMOs (transgenic tobacco had just been developed, and further GMO field testing was about to begin) with lingering Cold War paranoia, you get BioTek Agronomics, the fictitious Monsanto counterpart at the center of controversy in Warning Sign. In real life, Monsanto had recently moved into the field of agricultural biotechnology, and it is clear that director Hal Barwood was concerned.

The film focuses on Sheriff Cal Morse (Sam Waterston) as he attempts to contain a mysterious outbreak BioTek with the help of his wife Joanie (Kathleen Quinlan), who is on security duty inside the building. A pathogen that acts much like the “rage” virus from 28 Days Later has infected workers who begin to attack their unexposed colleagues. Placing Warning Sign on this list is bit of a bait and switch once you find out the nature of the pathogen, but the film’s criticism of modern agricultural practices is obvious. Its opening scenes could come straight from Tim Griffin’s ASP slides: experimental USDA cornfields and plants being doused with chemicals. BioTek is said to be developing a new kind of corn that does not require fertilizer: a “revolution in agriculture” thanks to genetic engineering. A closing line delivered by ex-BioTek employee Dan Fairchild (Jeffrey DeMunn) adds a final parting shot: He invites the Morses to a meal that includes genetically enhanced corn on the cob and mockingly comforts them by insisting, “Relax, I’m a scientist. I know what I’m doing.”

The Stuff (1985)


It’s all-natural (Source)

A horror comedy that hits its mark, The Stuff tackles the consumerism and marketing side of the food system. The film opens with a miner discovering a white substance bubbling out of the
ground. On a whim, he decides to taste it—and he loves it. The movie then jumps to a point where “The Stuff” has been mass harvested and approved for human consumption. It has become a staple in the American diet and the preferred dessert, which causes the ice cream industry to fight back: Corporate spy Mo Rutherford (Michael Moriarty) is hired to steal The Stuff’s recipe.

As he discovers that The Stuff is literally killing its consumers, it slowly becomes the only source of food for many Americans. Consumers become walking advertisements, claiming that it “kills the bad things inside us” and has 0 calories while providing all other nutrients even though nobody knows what’s in it. Made during a time before ingredient labels had been standardized and recipes were protected as trade secrets, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) takes a number of hits.

Characters constantly discuss how the entire committee that approved The Stuff to be sold retired. It is assumed they were all paid off, which one character describes as “The American Way.” In one scene that mirrors the recent incident in which a GMO supporter claimed Roundup was safe to drink but refused to consume it, a distributor who has become rich off of The Stuff refuses to actually eat it. While today’s consumers may be better educated about processed foods, The Stuff still holds up as a parody of the corporate, consumerist food system and provides plenty of laughs and gore along the way.

The Last Winter (2006)


The test site (Source)

Ron Perlman plays Ed Pollack, a representative of KIK Corporation, which is an oil corporation that symbolizes any evil energy company du jour. His job is to prepare sites in Alaska where KIK has gotten Congressional approval to drill oil wells. KIK performed a test drill several years prior, but nobody knows the actual results since they have been sealed. Regardless, KIK touts the development as a step towards “energy independence” for the United States—viewers can tell the movie was made during the time of related presidential campaign debates. Pollack soon butts heads with James Hoffman (James LeGros), a scientist contracted by KIK who warns against the project due to thawing permafrost; rising, erratic temperatures; and a potential sour gas leak from the test site.

In a complete reversal from the previous films on this list, The Last Winter uses scientists as the main protagonists who are under pressure from politicians and corporations despite looming environmental hazards. Viewers are never explicitly told what the original test drill uncovered (wendigos are involved), and the full extent of the environment’s revenge is largely left up to their imagination, but it is clear that humans have hastened their own destruction. At one point, Hoffman asks, “Why do we despise the world that gave us life?”

Between the setting and escalating tensions between human characters, you’d be forgiven for mistaking The Last Winter for 1982’s The Thing. However, it stands on its own as an effective psychological thriller. As a bonus, “Friday Night Lights” fans are treated to a touch football game scene involving Zach Gilford and Connie Britton in supporting roles.

The Bay (2012)

Originally, director Barry Levinson (The Natural, Rain Man) was approached about making a documentary about the “40% dead” Chesapeake Bay, but he decided it would be more effective to engage audiences with a fictional narrative told through found footage. Originally covered up by the government, the footage depicts an ecological disaster and its effects during Fourth of July festivities, including, of course, a crab eating contest interrupted when participants start vomiting. The narrative unfolds through the lenses of several characters with interwoven storylines, the most heart-wrenching being a young girl abandoned by her parents and whose final, agonizing hours and spent with a friend via FaceTime.

As it turns out, industrial dumping into the bay (e.g., chicken poop) has led to an infestation of parasitic isopods that feast on human hosts. The film’s scapegoat is the local mayor, who naturally insists that there are no environmental problems to worry about and that the weekend should go on as planned, even when the isopods are discovered. The found footage subgenre may be oversaturated at this point, and the science may not be as accurate as Levinson claims it is, but The Bay is a solid movie that serves its job to emotionally invest viewers in the plight of the Chesapeake, and you can watch the trailer below.

Honorable Mentions

If you prefer your eco and food horror straight up without having to think, here are some other movies you may enjoy:

  • Beginning of the End (1957): Radiation-enhanced crops grown by the USDA in an effort to end world hunger are eaten by locusts that grow huge and terrorize humans. This one ended up on “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”
  • The Birds (1963): The Alfred Hitchcock classic in which birds descend upon a California town to attack its citizens without any explanation.
  • Blood Feast (1963): “Godfather of Gore” Herschell Gordon Lewis presents this tale of a caterer who sacrifices women to an Egyptian goddess and includes their body parts in his meals.
  • Ravenous (1999): Actually an intelligent black comedy with a fantastic ensemble cast set after the Mexican-American War and involving cannibalism and more wendigo legends.
  • Cabin Fever (2003): Known mostly as the only thing Rider Strong has done since “Boy Meets World,” gratuitous shots of Cerina Vincent, and a kid yelling about pancakes, it features a water-borne flesh-eating illness.
  • The Gingerdead Man (2005): Gary Busey plays an executed serial killer who winds up possessing a gingerbread cookie to continue his killing spree.
  • The Ruins (2008): In a plot better than it sounds, American tourists in Mexico find themselves under physical and psychological attack by vines while be prevented from escaping by the locals.
  • The Happening (2008): Nature drives humans to mass suicide. Despite an amazingly intense opening scene, the less said about this movie the better.
  • Grace (2009): An assumed-to-be-stillborn baby is revived and develops a taste for blood—because her mother is vegan, maybe?

Are Your Diet Choices Based in “Fact” or “Faith?” One Religion Professor Thinks It’s the Latter

by Katherine Pett

Looking for a nutritional antidote to food fears? Take a look at new release The Gluten Lie by Alan Levinovitz, PhD, and stop being scared of your sandwich.


Despite what the sinister cover of The Gluten Lie by Alan Levinovitz, PhD, suggests, this book is not about gluten… entirely. When I first picked it up, I assumed the author meant to proclaim that gluten sensitivity, the diagnosis du jour, is nonexistent. But the book makes little attempt to determine what is and isn’t healthy. In fact, it’s the exact opposite of a diet book.

A religion professor at James Madison University, Levinovitz remains agnostic about the existence of gluten sensitivity: to him, it may exist or may not. In fact, he takes this neutral tone with every food fad he discusses, from banishing sugar to forbidding fat. There is evidence for and against each recommendation, but not as much as you’d think.

Levinovitz is primarily concerned with the belief systems that cause sweeping dietary crazes. As a professor of religion, no one is more capable of delivering the Good Word: Many of our beliefs about food are more religious than rational in nature. We unconsciously base food choices and food fears on faith, not facts.

The strict-sounding title is based on the book’s thesis: If you tell people something is true when the research is inconclusive, it’s a lie. Unlike religious leaders for whom myths are tools to give hope and guidance to a congregation, people who invoke science—rather than God—to inspire behavior change have an obligation to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

In the book, Levinovitz uncovers which nutrition “facts” are more rooted in legend than reality and reveals the (sometimes sordid) history behind them. For each of these hotly-debated food elements (ex., gluten, fat, salt, and sugar), there are authorities who swear that eliminating it will fix your life.

For example, gluten restriction, especially as a part of the CrossFit/Paleo paradigm, can seem a little, well, cultish. But it’s nothing compared to the originators of sodium-restriction who formed an actual cult. Known as “Ricers,” these people were a group of extremist dieters who followed low-sodium, rice-diet guru Dr. Walter Kemper of Duke University. The Rice Diet was not unlike today’s Paleo or Bulletproof diets in that it attracted a lot of attention and plenty of celebrity adherents, such as Buddy Hacket, Dom DeLuise, and multiple NFL players. It was different, however, in the sense that its founder kept a harem of devoted dieting women in houses he owned, connected their housing via walkways, and was named an heir in their wills.

But why, you might be wondering, would people believe that a no-sodium, all-rice diet will solve your problems? Especially now when people have access to Google, PubMed, and a world of scientific references and textbooks that tell us that balance is key to health? It turns out that it isn’t hard to make a convincing and seemingly science-based argument. All you need to do is pick a few studies, conveniently tweak the details so they match your framework, add a few scary statistics and unproven claims and, boom, you’ve written the next Wheat Belly.

To prove his point, Levinovitz shows how it’s done with a diet of his own invention: The UNpacked DietTM. In the book’s last chapter, Levinovitz creates a mock first chapter of a “science-based” diet book that explains how plastic packaging will make you sick and fat. The diet comes complete with numerous citations, references to seemingly authoritative researchers, and excellent graphics tracking bottled water use and the rise in obesity. Even though I knew the diet was meant to be facetious, I found myself seriously considering some of the arguments. “That sounds reasonable,” I heard my inner-voice saying.

Just after he nearly convinced me that plastic really is the source of all my problems, Levinovitz then repeats the entire chapter, but with cartoon thought bubbles pointing out each flaw in the reasoning. Every single point that seemed so meaningful is actually a careful misrepresentation of evidence that doesn’t prove nearly as much as the “author” would like. The similarities between the writing in The UNpacked DietTM and any other diet book gracing the bestseller list are uncanny. In fact, it made me wonder if Dr. Levinovitz missed an opportunity by deciding to pull back the curtain on the genre, rather than to partake in its riches.

Overall take? If you work in wellness or you’re just an avid follower of nutrition in the news, you need this book. If you have an annoying friend who bugs you about the newest “antinutrient,” you need this book so you can toss it to your annoying friend while you run away. This book is timely, given the wake of The Food Babe, expands understanding of the belief systems that underlie our country’s disordered eating culture, and acts as a reset button for our own food prejudices.

While he may not make the point directly, it is implied throughout the book: You can’t cheat death with “one simple trick” to get rid of belly fat. There is no toxic nutrient that causes all disease. So chill out. Eat your sandwich.

Interested? Check out a recent lecture by Levinovitz, where he explains the concept of his book:

Katherine Pett is a first-year Biochemical and Molecular Nutrition student at The Friedman School.  Follow her on twitter @smarfdoc or contact her at katherine.docimo@tufts.edu. 

How Do You Find a Word that Means the Food Babe? A Fearmonger, a Food Activist, a Clown?

by Katherine Pett

Vani Hari, AKA The Food Babe, has taken the Internet by storm and created quite a controversy. Supporters laud her for taking on corrupt “Big Food,” but scientists and doctors aren’t so sure. The Food Babe is proud of the fact that she doesn’t understand science, and says so herself in her new book, The Food Babe Way. As a student at the Friedman School, I decided to investigate.

I was determined to not hate The Food Babe Way. I actually figured I would buy most of Hari’s arguments. After all, she’s for effective labeling and more clarity in the food industry, goals that are downright noble in my mind. Sure, she has been lambasted on Reddit and NPR, critiqued by The Atlantic, and debunked by scientists like Kevin Folta, Steven Novella, and Michelle Francl, but she must make a few good points, right?

511aD7n++YL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Food Babe is a banking consultant turned investigator best known for getting the “yoga mat” chemical, azodicarbonamide, taken out of the bread at Subway restaurants. Emboldened by success, she has identified  other chemicals she believes are hazardous and has gone after numerous other food producers, including Kraft and General Mills, demanding they reveal ingredient lists and remove food additives.

The Food Babe’s campaigns have caused a stir. Experts argue that The Food Babe’s activism is actually fearmongering: she is making people afraid of GMOs, food colorings, and antioxidants (used as preservatives) and causing a national case of chemophobia.

I’d done my background research on Ms. Hari, and I felt ready to approach the book with an open mind. No, she doesn’t understand much about biochemistry, but neither does most of America! That doesn’t mean citizens aren’t capable of understanding food and making healthy choices. It also doesn’t mean they aren’t entitled to engage with the food industry.

So I went into the book with a mission: Who really IS the Food Babe and what can we learn from her book?  And this is what I decided…

As a Friedman Student and as a human being, I simply cannot recommend that anyone read this book.

The Food Babe is NOT a Science Fan

The Food Babe bills herself as a friend of the public and an enemy of “conventional wisdom.” In her words, “I’m not a part of the nutrition, dietetics, or medical establishment. And that’s a good thing, because many of them have swallowed and passed along the industry-funded advice that has made us all sicker, fatter, and more unhealthy than we’ve ever been in history.”

While it’s certainly true that a lack of nutrition education has kept her out of the pocket of “Big Food,” it’s also kept Hari from being able to discern scientific evidence from not-so-scientific evidence.

Consider, for example, her widely publicized critique of microwaves (that has now been taken down from her blog). In her character assassination of the technology, she claimed that microwaving food not only destroys nutrients, but that it alters water’s crystal structure, something she said can also be done by exposing water to the words “Hitler” or “Satan.”

While her book unfortunately doesn’t make claims this entertaining, she still advocates for getting rid of your microwave and espouses some radically unscientific theories. For instance, she declares that pasteurized milk is the reason for increased bone and heart diseases in the United States.

Pasteurization, she says, “kills” phosphatase, which is necessary for calcium incorporation into bones. Without “alive” phosphatase, the calcium you drink cannot leave your veins and simply sticks to your blood vessels, causing calcification and artery disease.

I’m not sure where The Food Babe got this idea, but it is false. Not only are enzymes and proteins in our food not alive, and thus cannot be killed (we can only assume she means that they are denatured, or misshapen by the heating process), people don’t need dietary phosphatase to absorb or utilize calcium. This “fact” is just one of many less-than-true assertions she makes.

There are plenty of resources on the web that are more than happy to point out numerous factual errors The Food Babe has made in her research. Try here, here, here, or here.

However, what is astonishing about the depth of Hari’s ignorance is that most of it could have been cleared up with a little Wikipedia. Surely making the connection that “azodicarbonamide” is in both yoga mats and bread took a little Googling—why couldn’t she have Googled the amount of it you’d have to consume for it to be problematic? (It’s a lot.)  It leads one to think that perhaps The Food Babe isn’t as interested in the truth as she’d have you believe.

The factual mistakes in her book overshadow her valid points. She rightly, in my opinion, points out the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture and criticizes the White House, and Michelle Obama in particular, for endorsing Subway as “healthy food” for kids.  Despite these and a few other helpful tips, I felt the good parts of this book came too few and far between.

The Food Babe is Not a Writer

The style of the book, sort of a tone-deaf combination of conspiracy theory and pop-science, did not win me over. Vani Hari may have a talent for scaring food companies, but she does not have a deft hand with prose.

The Food Babe Way often feels as if it was written by a valley girl describing like, the grossest thing she like, ever, like saw. For instance:

“The word ‘natural’ on a label is virtually bogus.”


“There is just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever.”

She repeatedly and ham-handedly uses terms like “toxins,” “laced,” and “poison” to describe food additives, deliberately making processed foods seem more like illegal drugs than, say, macaroni and cheese.

She mentions castoreum, and how it’s derived from beaver’s anal glands four separate times.  She uses the word “laced” fifteen times. She uses a form of the word “toxin” over one hundred times.

About 50% of the book, it seemed, was ingredient lists of processed foods with the “toxins” bolded. The same processed foods could be listed (with the requisite multi-page ingredient lists) more than once. Sugars and sodium were bolded as “toxins.” Surely no one would be surprised to learn that a chocolate chip cookie contains added sugar, but when they read that the cookie is “laced with” “toxic” added sugar, they may get a different impression.

It is one thing to read a diet or lifestyle book that is beautifully written, argued, or researched, even if you don’t agree with all the findings. It is quite another to feel like you’re reading a very, very long high school paper.  Books by Michael Pollan or Malcolm Gladwell can be hotly and intelligently contested, but they are at least well crafted.

I point out Michael Pollan as a foil because he and the Food Babe share many of the same beliefs (he is referenced several times in “The Food Babe Way”).  For instance, the Food Babe gets her advice to avoid foods with ingredients you can’t pronounce from Pollan.  They share a fundamental unease with GMOs and a similar approach to dieting.  Because of this, I recommend potential Food Babe readers try some Michael Pollan instead.  They will hear many of the same viewpoints accompanied by better research and writing.

The Food Babe is NOT an Idiot

If you follow The Food Babe Way diet, I commend you, because it seems complicated. Every day you have to drink lemon water with cayenne pepper and a green juice, and you can never, ever eat a GMO or a non-organic bite of food. Her meal plans in the back of the book look like they barely hit 1,000 calories per day.

However complicated the protocol is, it is healthy. The Food Babe diet is like an expensive, all-organic version of the USDA diet guidelines: plant based, low in red meat and saturated fats, and including only whole grains.

By the time I finished the book I was convinced that the Food Babe knew exactly what she was doing. Her book reads like a phishing email, designed so only the most gullible will follow up, join the Food Babe Army, and buy the Food Babe products.  A growing online backlash against the Food Babe frequently cites how Vani Hari banishes critics from her blog and Facebook page.  When scientists questioned her theories, she shot back a blog post saying, calling critics “hate groups” and arguing that “these issues are too important to be left to experts.”

While Ms. Hari is absolutely right that the public can and should be engaged in public debates about food safety and nutrition, I don’t think this is what she is doing.  Unilaterally deciding that something is toxic and scrounging up a gullible public to follow her unquestioningly is the opposite of intelligent debate.

At the end of the book, she inserts a recommended reading list that includes books by Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and Marion Nestle.  I recommend you skip The Food Babe Way and go right to those instead.

Katherine Pett is a first-year student in the Biochemical and Molecular Nutrition program at The Friedman School.  She is NOT in the pocket of the food industry, either that or they haven’t told her how to access her secret account in the Caymans.  She can be reached at katherine.docimo@tufts.edu and on Twitter @smarfdoc.

More spring break ideas: books!

By Kate Hebel

Books1From my first day of classes at Friedman, I’ve met professors and students who persistently engage my desire to learn. Even within our common field of nutrition science and policy, everyone comes from a wide variety of backgrounds and maintains diverse interests. In honor of Spring Break, a perfect opportunity to catch up on some reading, I’ve compiled a list of books that may inspire you to continue your learning outside the classroom. Now, I’m not claiming to have read all of these books; in fact, my colleagues, professors, and classmates have recommended many of them to me. And while it’s not an exhaustive list of the must-read literature out there, I hope there’s at least something for everyone. One thing is for sure – my personal reading list just got a bit longer!


Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food by Berry Wendell

Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All by Oran Hesterman

Food Matters by Mark Bittman

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Slow Food Nation: Why Our Food Should Be Good, Clean, and Fair by Carlo Petrini

The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities by Will Allen and Charles Wilson

The Town That Food Saved by Ben Hewitt
The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry

Food Industry/Business

Conscious Capitalism by John Mackey and Raj Sisodia

Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan

The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table by Tracie McMillan

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

Food Politics

Food Politics, Revised and Expanded Edition by Marion Nestle

Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know by Robert Paarlberg

Food Fight: The Inside Story of the Food Industry, America’s Obesity Crisis & What We Can Do About It by Kelly D. Brownell and Katherine Battle Horgen

Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics by Marion Nestle


Hunger/Food and Water Security

American Wasteland by Jonathan Bloom

Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity by Lester Brown

Poor Economics by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo

Running Out of Water by Peter Rogers and Susan Leal

The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Freshwater in the Twenty-first Century by Alex Prud’homme

Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal by Tristram Stuart


Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual by Michael Pollan

Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More than We Think by Brian Wansink

One Man’s Meat by EB White

The End of Overeating by David Kessler

Thinner This Year: A Younger Next Year Book by Chris Crowley and Jennifer Sacheck

What the World Eats by Faith D’Aluisio and Peter Menzel

Thank you to everyone who helped me to compile this list.

Did I miss one of your favorite titles? Feel free to share more titles in the comments section!

Kate Hebel is a second-year Nutrition Communications student and a Registered Dietitian. In her free time she enjoys reading and looks forward to knocking a few of these classics off her personal reading list this month.