Get Your Bugs at Starbucks While You Still Can!

I love Starbucks. I know some of you think they are the evil empire. I know it is expensive. I know a lot of their food is pretty unhealthy. But here’s the thing: they have a drive-through near my house, and let me tell you, having a place where I can get a latte without hauling two small children in and out of the car is a godsend.

This week, Starbucks announced that they are phasing out the use of cochineal in their foodstuffs. If you haven’t heard, cochineal is a vibrant red coloring made from crushed insects. It is currently in several of their foods and drinks–including red velvet whoopie pies, strawberries and cream frappucinos, and birthday cake pops. A bit of a scandal happened after a popular vegan website revealed the use of cochineal, outraging vegans and grossing out a lot of other people.

I, too, was grossed out… but also curious.  I decided to try some of this cochineal stuff while I still could. I wanted to see what the coloring looked like up close, and I wanted to see if the knowledge of crushed bugs made the food less enjoyable. Also, I wanted an excuse to eat cake.

The verdict: I don’t mind cochineal being in my food (which is good, because it is in a lot of stuff). We ordered cake pops, and they were pretty and pink. Also, tasty. My one complaint is that the dough seemed a little uncooked inside, so we didn’t finish them (maybe that’s how they’re supposed to be?)…. but that had nothing to do with the cochineal.

Starbucks says they are going to replace cochineal with the well loved, health-conscious lycopene. I guess I’ll have to try that, too.

Learn Your Germs: What is Mad Cow Disease?

"mad_cows," by justthatgooguyjim on Flickr Creative Commons

As I was writing my toxoplasmosis post, I realized there is a far more topical disease to discuss: it was recently announced that a dairy cow in California was diagnosed with BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy). “Mad Cow Disease” is a concern, of course, because eating meat from a cow with BSE is strongly linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD) in humans. vCJD is a pretty awful, inevitably fatal neurodegenerative disease with a long, unpredictable incubation period. Luckily, it is super rare. To date, only a handful of variant cases have been confirmed in the United States. (A sporadic form of the disease, sometimes referred to as “classic CJD,” is thought to occur through an endogenous mutation rather than from outside sources, such as eating BSE-infected meat. It is more common than vCJD but also very rare.)

Interestingly, BSE and CJD are believed to be caused by prions, infectious agents researchers are still struggling to fully understand. Unlike bacteria and viruses, prions don’t contain DNA or RNA. Infectious prions are misfolded proteins that are believed to cause normal proteins around them to also become deformed. Because they are so different than typical infectious agents, prions are resistant to methods we use to detect and kill bacteria and viruses… As it so happens, prions aren’t even really alive.

As for this latest bovine illness, the Department of Agriculture has been quick to reassure the public that they believe the case poses no danger to humans... I guess I’ll put this in my terrifying-but-not-likely category, nestled somewhere along my anxiety spectrum between ebola and bear attacks.

 Here’s what the CDC has to say about prion diseases and vCJD. For a great read on prions, check out The Family That Couldn’t Sleep.

Learn Your Germs: What is Toxoplasmosis?

I'm not evil. Swearsies!
Cat by Denizen24 at Flickr Creative Commons

For a teensy protozoan, toxoplasmosis looms large in the media. People love them some t. Gondii–or at least they find it compelling. I, too, have fallen under the dark spell of this odd little parasite. What makes this fella so interesting?

First, the bad news: toxoplasmosis can be devastating. While a sizable chunk of the U.S. population has been infected with toxo (22.5% according to estimates cited by the CDC), most people escape with mild symptoms. The immunocompromised (such as those living with HIV/AIDS), however, can have far more severe symptoms, including seizures and central nervous system damage. Also, pregnant women who become newly infected with the parasite can miscarry, or their offspring may be born with birth defects. If you’ve ever been pregnant, you’ve probably been told not to handle cat litter, and toxo is why. Toxo likes to reproduce inside in cats, and their feces can be laden with its eggs. It can also be transmitted by ingesting food and water that is contaminated with the same oocysts. (Fun fact: the word oocyst makes me dry heave every time I read it!)

Now, the weird news: Toxoplasmosis has some interesting effects on animal behavior, and maybe human behavior, too. After becoming infected with toxoplasmosis, rodents’ brains are damaged. They become less afraid of cats (infected rats are even attracted to cat urine) and are more likely to be eaten. Thusly, toxoplasmosis reunites with its reservoir–to reproduce yet again!

Research is still examining the possible effects of toxoplasmosis on people. As this article in The Atlantic  and this article in The New York Times discuss, infected people may have subtle behavioral manifestations, like delayed reaction times and disinhibition. Researchers have also even suggested a possible link between toxoplasmosis infection and severe mental illness.

With such a large percentage of the population infected (and with no current psychotic cat-zombie apocalypse or anything), there’s hardly cause for concern unless you are at risk for severe toxoplasmosis infection… but it’s something to ponder the next time you snuggle up to your cat. Me-ow.

Why Does Play Sand Have a Cancer Warning?

Sandbox photo by FourTwentyTwo
from Flickr Creative Commons

With arsenic in brown rice and radioactive tissue box holders already making headlines, you now get to worry about… wait for it…


John and Sherry over at the fabulous Young House Love recently built a lovely sandbox for their little girl and filled it with sand, only to discover an ominous warning on the sand bags about the silica in the sand potentially causing cancer. Yes, common play sand carries one of those those “Warning in the State of California” labels (like the ones on your Christmas lights). This is because California is either a) is full of crazy hippies or b) actually protects its consumers… I can’t decide.

Isn’t silica, like, in beach sand? Well, yes, but… apparently all that dust in the newer, manufactured play sand may be unhealthy. At least that’s the best I could glean from YHL, OSHA, the (albeit biased) Safe Sand website, and a bunch of crazy moms (like me) online. I really wanted to find an official EPA statement about this specific issue, but it didn’t happen… The OSHA information is not specifically about play sand and the EPA link on the Safe Sand website is dead.

I felt for John and Sherry, I really did, because this is totally the sort of thing that would happen to me. I’d be standing there, 200 lbs of sand unloaded before me, staring at a warning label, wondering just how dangerous this stuff is for my kid. I would think “aw, screw it, it’s fine” and then I’d panic, change my mind, and be hauling sand like a crazy person out of my kid’s sandbox. (They replaced their sand with pea gravel).

I saw cheap “natural” play sand at Home Depot, and that looks like a good option, but that, too, had the warning. I would assume that’s safer, though? …Now that it’s time to refill our sandbox, I’ll either buy that or spend an arm and a leg buying Safe Sand from California. Tempest in a teapot? Probably. But it’s hard to let your kid play in something that says “cancer” right on the bag.

Infant Tylenol Dosage Change

"Why didn't they just make a uniform concentration in the first place, mommy??"
"Crying_baby," from Flickr Creative Commons by bbaunach

Apparently, a change to infant acetaminophen has been phasing in for almost a year. I just didn’t notice because I don’t give Piglet Tylenol very often (…maybe something about asthma blah blah blah). Some makers of acetaminophen are getting rid of the concentrated infant drops (which are a higher concentration than children’s liquid), and are moving to having one general strength of infant/children’s liquid. Makes sense. Kids must have been overdosed left and right.

Anyway, this change is GOOD because eventually the dosaging will be uniform… but in the meantime, be careful, there may still be two different types of liquid Tylenol/acetaminophen on the shelf: 80mg/0.8ml (these will be phased out) and 160mg/5ml.

Make sure you have the bottle in hand to read the dosage strength when you call your healthcare provider for your infant’s dosage. THEN, make sure you don’t have stray bottles around that could get mixed up… When I call for a dosage I try to write the date and the current dose right on the bottle.

Read more about this issue on the American Academy of Pediatrics website, (I’m soooo crushing on them lately). Also, while I was looking into this, I saw that there was a semi-recent recall of liquid Tylenol due to some issues with the bottle, so you might want to check if you have any of that lying around, too.

When Do You Call the Pediatrician?

"Eyes," by Tiffany on Flickr Creative Commons

Sometimes it’s hard to know when to contact your child’s doctor.  A few years ago, I was fussing and fussing over an illness my firstborn had. I had just brought her into the office a few days before, and was reluctant to call, but I was worried. My mother-in-law finally just said, “Call the doctor. It’s their job.” A heavy weight was lifted off my shoulders. I soon discovered that pediatric doctors and nurses expect these calls and questions, especially regarding newborns and babies. In fact, a good practice welcomes questions, and is set up to expect phone calls throughout the day. Even on the weekends and at night, pediatric practices should have someone covering phone calls for urgent situations.  I know this seems obvious, but I’ve seen a lot of parents sit in the ER for hours and hours for consultation on a run-of-the-mill virus.

One tool I HEART is the online Pediatric Symptom Checker from the American Academy of Pediatrics. It is easy to use and filled with helpful treatment information, as well as common-sense guidelines about who to call and when, and guidelines for true emergencies (do head to the ER for those). I keep it bookmarked for easy reference.

Confession: I am Bad at Playing

"Rusty Ran Away," by Jenni from the Block on Flickr Creative Commons

I am self conscious about many things as a mother… my kids don’t eat as well as they should, they don’t get baths every day, and I forget to bring snacks and baby wipes to the park. The worst of these shames, however, is by far more all-encompasing and important: I am bad at playing. In general. In every way.

In my defense, here are some things I am good at: dancing with my kids, singing songs, talking about the world and events, asking questions… But my inner child is sullen, constantly eye-rolling and storming off. Not a joiner. Example: My three-year-old daughter hands me a flashlight and asks me to play with her. I turn it on and off. I point it at the ceiling. I put it down. Yay. Wasn’t that fun?  …Luckily, my husband compensates pretty well. Give him a flashlight and they are suddenly both spelunkers, exploring secret caves, rescuing miners, finding rare minerals. They hold a freaking press conference about the aliens they found on a distant planet. He is rough and tumble, funny, creative. Just tonight at dinner he and Weasel made up a language. They spoke in this language for ten minutes straight.

I mentioned the situation to my mother and she claims she had trouble playing with me, too. She also says she doesn’t remember her mother doing a whole lot of make believe either. While I am hard pressed to remember a time my mother and I explored an enchanted forest or went on a pirate adventure, I also don’t feel a sense of loss about my childhood, which was filled with gardening and books and songs and discussions (and playing with my dad).

Still, I want to do better than I am doing now. I remember inventing elaborate scenarios with my friends as a child. I remember doing better as a nanny, even… that wasn’t so long ago! Now I can’t even play blocks without turning on NPR. What’s wrong with me? …I realized that, for one thing, I’m tired. It’s hard to be fun when you’re tired. I’m also used to being wired, to having multiple stimuli at all times. It’s hard to play when you’re checking your phone or half watching television. I also feel like the house is in constant disarray, and playing is often messy, so I get skittish.

So, my goals for this summer? Get sleep, put the phone away, and use the folded laundry to make a fort…

There May Be E. coli in the Chicken you ate today

Iz in ur Chickin, makin' u sick.
Escherichia Coli by Nathan Reading from Flickr Creative Commons

The New York Times reports that E.Coli is in 48% of chicken samples–according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Holy snow!

Except… the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine is a non-profit group that has vegetarianism on its agenda. Oh, and the study had only 120 samples. Oh, and it is questionable if these were even the sort of strains of E. coli that make people sick.  So it is largely baseless at this juncture. I’m not even sure why this made the New York Times, or why any agency trying to gain any public health momentum would even bother with a study with only 120 chicken products…

But wait. It seems they may have pulled a PETA here. They are taking something attention grabbing and sensational and using it as a launching pad for a larger discussion. Because, wow, did they get their negative messaging out in this article. They basically say that they want people to know there is poop on their meat. (To be fair, let us not forget outbreaks of E.coli on fruits and vegetables. There may be poop on your spinach, too.). They even get a vice president at the National Chicken Council to affirm to the New York Times that they “abide by the Department of Agriculture’s zero tolerance for visible fecal matter.” That’s right folks–we’re really careful that you can’t SEE any poop on your food!  …NOW you’re thinking about food safety, aren’t you?

Despite my dismissiveness of this study, I’m uncomfortable with the realities of factory farms. I think we could do a lot more to prevent bacterial contamination. I am the sort of meshugana who wears gloves when handling raw meat. Eating meat is also occasionally problematic for me. (Not problematic enough to avoid meatballs on a regular basis, but still). It is easy to make food look sanitized in the context of a supermarket. This “small study” reminds us that words like “carcass” and “fecal matter” relate to the food we eat.  Do what you will with that.

This all reminds me of this fantastic poem:  “Grace to be Said at the Supermarket,” by Howard Nemerov, which reminds me of one of my all time favorite poems, A Supermarket in California, by Allen Ginsberg.

Pre-diabetic? “Preposterous?”

This is totally normal, right?
"TylerMadsen," by Cheese_colored_mumu on Flickr Creative Commons.

Another article at The Atlantic caught my attention today. At the TEDMED conference, a technology and medicine conference in Washington, D.C., Dr. Ivan Oransky, the executive editor at Reuters Health, spoke to what he feels is an epidemic of unhelpful pre-diagnoses–diagnoses such as “pre-diabetes” and “pre-hypertension.” He calls them “preposterous.” Har.

If you’re not yet familiar, a pre-diagnosis indicates that while a patient does not yet meet the clinical standards for a disorder, there is an expectation that they may soon have a problem. So, you may not yet have high blood pressure, but your blood pressure is just under hypertension levels. You may not have Type II diabetes, but your sugars are higher than they should be. The article also cites “pre-dementia” and “pre-anxiety,” diagnoses of which I have never heard. (I sincerely doubt “pre-anxiety” is diagnosed with any real frequency.) He also submits that “100,000 people die every year due to complications associated with treating pre-conditions,” which is curious. Are these alleged deaths from blood-pressure medications? Other medications? Surgical complications from operating on pre-cancers? I want more information! If only I was at TEDMED!

It is hard to judge Dr. Oransky’s viewpoint through this brief article. While I completely agree that we have problems in this country with over-treatment and medical errors, I do think there is enormous value in diagnosing conditions such as pre-hypertension and pre-diabetes. Brian Fung writes, “It’s hard to know whether better living can eliminate all preconditions.” Well, I don’t know about so-called “pre-anxiety,” but eating well and exercising are critical in staving off diabetes and hypertension. Patients may know they are fat, but do they know they are on the road to diabetes? Visions of glucometers and needles can make a real difference. So too can telling a patient he is on the way to high blood pressure, especially if he has a family history of stroke and heart disease. Simple diet and exercise interventions can be life changing for these patients. Medications may be over-prescribed and tests may be over-ordered, but suggesting lifestyle modifications to hold off medical intervention can really do no harm.

Children and Belief

Image via

I was trying to get sweet Weasel (age 3) psyched up for the Easter Bunny a few weeks ago, but she was initially more interested in the logistics of a magical Bunny than the candy.

“Has anyone taken a picture of him? Can I see it?”

“No. He’s pretty speedy. He doesn’t want to be seen.”

“Why not?”

“…Um, because it would make him less magical?”

The night before Easter she glanced out windows, looked toward the door.

“I really just want to see that little guy.”

And then Easter came, and the candy came. And the oddness of a skittish candy-wielding bunny receded into the background. I breathed a sigh of relief because I’m a little uneasy about the lying-to-my-kids thing. Of course, I also don’t want my kid to be THAT kid, the one who reads the New Yorker, the one who is skilled at reciting his parents’ politics (and, okay, yes, the bastard who told me about Santa when I was four).  But still. I am Weasel’s conduit for the adult world, her translator for all things Grown Up. I would like for her to trust me. A line must be tread carefully between the fantastical and the real. I want magic to be created without it one day leaving a little dark void where it once existed.

Then today, Weasel and I happened to be in a church (long story). And she wanted to know about Jesus and Mary. About Jesus’ father(s). About why Jesus was on a cross. I treaded carefully. I mentioned God.

“Like a fairy Godmother?”

“Sort of.”

I don’t mean to equate the Easter Bunny with God–I just want to exemplify how the Easter Bunny is cheap and quick magic, how it glosses over the complexities of belief, lends faith and yanks it away. There is little room for a discussion down the road of literal versus figurative belief, of spiritual meaning. It is a simple card trick in a circus filled with whirling acrobats. It endangers understanding of the complexity of belief down the line.

I know I’m over-thinking this. The thing is, maybe part of me wants to see a picture of that little guy, too–a better, more  important picture than the candy and the basket.

Check out this piece on the Easter Bunny, development, and belief at The Atlantic.