Category Archives: essay

Things that won’t kill you Vol. 2: Fruit juice

This may seem like a strange thing to argue about, because the popular consensus still seems to be that juice is healthy. Jamba Juice markets itself as "the category-defining leader in healthy blended beverages, juices, and good-for-you snacks." They even use Jamba as an adjective to mean the opposite of high fructose corn syrup and trans-fats (adding those things to juice ""just wouldn’t be Jamba"), which again, constructs the brand as healthy vs. the demon poisons that make people fat. Even if it’s foolish to go looking for truths in advertising, I don’t think Jamba Juice’s branding generally occurs to people as a massive irony or lie. Advocates of banning or restricting soda vending machines in schools often claim that the soda should be replaced with 100% fruit juice with no added sugars, and for many people, a glass of orange juice still represents "part of a nutritious breakfast" strongly with desirable nutrients like Vitamin C.

The Case Against Juice

But a number of health trends have begun cast suspicion on juice, especially the (impartial and incomplete) shift from primarily low-fat to primarily low-calorie and low-carb dieting in mainstream weight-loss culture, and the growing concern about the role sugars (especially fructose) play in personal and national obesity.

On the low-calorie front, people who believe that losing weight or maintaining a healthy weight is all about the basic algebra of calories-in vs. calories-out often end up axing all caloric beverages from their diets because they have a bad satiety-to-calorie ratio—I mean, obviously, right? Fruit juice is just fruit with some or all of the filling fiber removed. If the goal is maximum satiety on minimum calories, you’re better off eating whole fruit and drinking water or artificially sweetened beverages.

On the low-carb front, people who believe that what’s important is not how many calories you eat but what kind are also going to see juice (and sometimes most fruits and vegetables as well) as "unhealthy." It does seem to be true that diets high in carbohydrates drive up insulin levels, slowing metabolism and encouraging the body to store fat. And the overwhelming majority of the calories in most fruit juices are in the form of carbohydrates. Some green vegetable juices have protein content approaching 50% of the carbohydrate content, but that just makes it 75% bad rather than 100% bad, at least as true carbophobes are concerned.

And finally, there are some non-carbophobes who might avoid juice because they’re wary of sugar qua sugar, rather than sugar qua carbohydrate. The carbohydrates in fruit juice primarily take the form of fructose—wikipedia has a handy chart of the kinds of sugars in common plant foods. It doesn’t seem like there’s a true consensus yet about whether or not fructose is especially bad—despite recent studies linking fructose to obesity, even within the medical community, some people still advocate fructose as a "low glycemic" sugar that’s better for diabetics. It basically all comes down to whether you think the fact that fructose is digested in the liver and doesn’t trigger insulin production is a good thing or a bad thing. To link it to other sugar purveyors: pro-agave nectar people should also think that fruit juice is healthy and people who think hfcs is bad because they think it’s "high fructose" compared to other sugars are, well, a) wrong, but b) should also be advocating hfcs-sweetened sodas over fruit juices, which are even richer in sugar.

Personally, I think the evidence that fructose in large amounts causes equivalent blood sugar spikes to other sugar, increased "bad" cholesterol and triglycerides and signs of insulin resistance compared to glucose, and can cause non-alcoholic fatty liver disease consumed in vast quantities suggests that it is certainly no better and possibly much worse for human health than glucose or sucrose. But "worse for human health" is relative, not absolute, and depends a lot on amount, kind, and context. 

What is health?

I’m generally convinced by the argument made by people like Gary Taubes that a diet composed of almost-exclusively proteins and fats might better represent the pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer diet (as would cyclical feast and famine) and prevent carbohydrate-induced insulin resistance and fat storage. Jared Diamond makes some of the same points in Guns, Germs, and Steel. But the benefits of agriculture ultimately outweighed the costs—both for the species as a whole and measured by individual health metrics. In the immediate aftermath of the transition to agriculture, lifespans and average height decreased, but after a few thousand years, people depending on rice, corn, and wheat began to get healthier again

Does that mean carbohydrates are a healthier basis for a diet than proteins and fats? No. But it does mean that people can (and do) live very long lives uninterrupted by diet-based disease during which they are strong and energetic enough to physically do anything they want to do while eating a diet consisting substantially of carbohydrates. And I think that’s not a bad working definition of "healthy."

It seems to me that the debate comes down to a difference between ideas about nutritional "health" based on what might be theoretically optimal (for a very limited set of criteria), ideas about health based on potential pathology, and ideas about health based on actual health outcomes

Fear of juice is based on the first two—the idea that either people should eat as few carbohydrates as possible in pursuit of some sort of optimal diet, or that the fructose in juice will cause fatness (an aesthetic problem, not a medical problem) or disease and eventually death. Based on actual health outcomes, I think it would be almost impossible to make a case for the claim that drinking fruit juice—occasionally or regularly—is categorically unhealthy or the direct cause of disease or death.

In fact, things like fruit juice and hamburgers and Doritos, which can each be constructed as "unhealthy" are hard to entirely rule out of a "healthy diet." Even proponents of a soda tax generally agree that the only reason soda is a reasonable target is because it has no identified nutrients (what would happen if they fortified them, I wonder?).

The nutrient-density of juice is the primary reason for the long tradition of juice being regarded as a health food. If your concern is about essential vitamins and minerals (like many older models of nutrition, which people like Marion Nestle stand by) or consuming carbohydrates for fuel, which many physically active people still do, it’s hard to argue with the healthfulness of juice. I agree with Michael Pollan’s claim that popular beliefs about health often fall prey to "nutritionism," or the attempt to reduce food and nutrition to scientifically-identified nutrients and vitamins. At the same time, I don’t think you have to be brainwashed by the continued prevalence of nutritionism to believe there’s good evidence that many of the nutrients that scientists have identified are actually valuable or promote health and well-being (even if they’re not the only valuable aspects of food).

All juices are not created equal

The person who requested this entry was concerned specifically about fresh juices being portrayed as unhealthy, because they seem to have been smeared by concerns about packaged juices being just other source of dietary sugar.

While not all fruits lend themselves as readily to the production of refined sugars as sugar beets, some like apples, pears, and grapes can be turned into a nutrient-poor sweetener without most of the fruits’ color, flavor, or minerals and many fruit juices marketed as 100% natural fruit juices, like Juicy Juice, are sweetened with fruit juice that’s basically been turned into a sugar syrup. The nutritional distinction between those drinks and hfcs-sweetened soda is probably negligible regardless of whether your primary concern is calories, carbohydrates, sugar, or vitamins.

But the reason packaged juices often combined with fruit-based sugar is that many fruit juices aren’t actually that sweet on their own, or their sweetness is offset by the intensity of the flavor, as anyone who’s ever tried 100% cranberry or concord grape or cherry or blueberry juice knows. The fresh juices you can get at juice bars or make at home are calorie-dense, but they’re also extraordinarily nutrient dense and not likely to be consumed in quantity or alongside meals. They’re more often enjoyed on their own, like a snack, particularly after a workout—basically just like fruit. When you leave in some of the pulp, it becomes even less nutritionally distinct from fruit, and when you include vegetable juices or the juices of things like wheatgrass and ginger which are difficult or unpleasant to eat raw, you may be enjoying something that could, by some criteria, be healthier than a piece of fresh fruit.

Some juices even have pretty well-established medicinal uses. Cranberry juice, for example, can help prevent and cure urinary tract infections (that study notes the existence of "diet" cranberry juice, which I’d never heard of, but now that I have I wonder why there aren’t more "diet" juices sweetened with artificial sweeteners rather than pear or grape juice-sugar. Not that those would necessarily be "healthy" by everyone’s standards, especially given the links between saccharin and cancer and suspicions about the healthfulness of aspartame and sucralose…)

Ultimately, while I don’t think even the occasional hfcs-sweetened Capri Sun is incompatible with a "healthy" diet and life, I think it’s unreasonable to conflate fresh juice without added sweeteners with juices sweetened with refined juice-sugar. I guess people trying to eat an "optimal" diet a la Gary Taubes should avoid all juices, fresh or no, but I don’t envy them their carbohydrate-less life, nor am I convinced that the total deprivation of many foods that have aesthetic, gustatory, social and/or cultural value is necessarily "healthy" or "optimal" either. For the vast majority of people who think fruit and vegetables are part of a healthy diet, fruit juice and especially fresh fruit juice should also pass muster as a "healthy" choice especially when consumed in moderation, which I suspect fresh fruit juices usually are.

Feeling “umami”: On taste, subjectivity, and metaphor

The Modern Four Taste Orthodoxy

The idea that there are four basic tastes—sour, salty, bitter, and sweet—was widely taken to be gospel truth until 2002, when the taste receptors for glutamate were identified. Glutamate, and the "umami" flavor it imparts to foods like seaweed, bacon, parmesan cheese, and Doritos, was first identified and isolated by a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. But the four-taste model was so dominant that umami’s status as a distinct taste was considered "controversial" until its molecular basis was confirmed almost a century later. Here’s the description of umami in a book titled Sensory Processes published in 2002 (before the taste receptors were identified):

Umami originated from a glutamate derived from seaweed. The chemical substance is commonly known as MSG, monosodium glutamate, and, by itself, has no odor and an unusual taste that is approximated, so they say, by appropriate combinations of the four primary taste qualities. Whether umami is a result of the unique combination of the four tastes or an independent classification of is own is open to debate (176).

Oh, they and the things they say.

Umami’s been gaining traction—Kikkkoman’s current advertising campaign is "discover umami"(.com)—but it hasn’t quite arrived. This past Sunday on Iron Chef America, one of the judges said he detected some "umami" in a coconut-based soup, and then he had to define it for the other judges (and perhaps the audience?). His first stab was to call it an "illusory" taste, although he did follow that up by ranking it with "sweet, salty and sour," so perhaps he actually meant something more like "ineffable." Either way it shows how dominant the classical four tastes still are.

Except "classical" isn’t quite right word, because it turns out the idea that we only experience four distinct tastes is actually a pretty recent invention—more recent than Ikeda’s "discovery" of umami, actually. Traditional Chinese medicine named five tastes: sour, bitter, sweet, pungent, and salty, each one corresponding with one of the five elements or movements that are omnipresent in early Chinese thought. Aristotle claimed there were only two, which doesn’t come as that much of a surprise given his characteristic love of dualities. Just as he divided visual perception into the "fundamental colors" black and white, which contain all the elements of all the other colors we perceive, Aristotle thought the whole range of gustatory sensations derived from the "fundamental tastes" of sweetness and bitterness. He also proposed a second-order classification of seven "primary flavors" that corresponded with his rainbow of seven "primary colors": sweet (which included fatty or oily), bitter, salty, harsh, pungent, astringent, and acidic or sour. Hard to say now what exactly the difference was between harsh, pungent, and astringent—I suppose the latter might be something like the tannins in tea and red wine while "pungent" instantly evokes blue cheese although it often just acts as a modifier rather than a descriptor—a pungent smell is strong, not necessarily strongly any particular thing. It’s hard to even think of those things as taste categories on the same level as "sweet" or "sour."

But one question that raises is whether or not it’s hard to think of them that way because there’s some objective difference between sweetness and astringency or because it’s just unfamiliar to think of "astringent" as a primary taste category. Certainly tannins cause a particular reaction on people’s tongues—is that less of a distinct taste experience than the reaction caused by sugars?

Colors are a useful parallel, again. A linguistics professor I had at NYU told us about this experiment that my casual googling is not coming up with, but here’s the gist: if you give children a set of colored tiles and tell them sort them into as many piles as they want, by color, there are predictable, reliable differences between the number of piles they make that correspond to the number of primary colors in their primary language. So, for example, English-speaking kids generally put all hues of blue in one pile while Russian-speaking kids usually separate lighter blues from darker blues because they have two "primary color" words for those shades. It’s one of the classic examples of how language can shape how we perceive the world rather than just reflecting it. Also a reason why translation is always imperfect. 

Henning taste tetrahedronGetting back to the four taste orthodoxy, that was something a German psychologist named Hans Henning  came up with in 1916. He devised a ""taste tetrahedron" with each of the four tastes he thought were primary at the four vertexes. The idea was that flavors could be conceptually mapped onto geometric plane based on which of the primary flavors they were comprised of—a flavor relying on two of the primary tastes would be located on the edge between those two vertexes. Flavors that used three would be on the surface between the relevant three points. And the tetrahedron was hollow, according to Henning, because no substance could produce all four taste sensations. So while taste itself was three-dimensional, tastes were two-dimensional at best.

Minor digression: I suspect Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the eighteenth century French gourmand who’s responsible for the cliche "you are what you eat" (well, ish, the problem of translation rears its head again; what he wrote was Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es, which is closer to, "Tell me what you eat, I will tell you what you are") would disagree, and name as exhibit A something involving veal stock (a sweet-sour-salty-bitter cabbage soup maybe?). Speaking of veal stock, Brillat-Savarin also sought to identify the special savory quality of "the purely sapid portion of flesh soluble in cold water," or functionally, umami. His word was osmazome. And surely Brillat-Savarin wasn’t the first to muse on the particular deliciousness of dashi, truffles, and tomatoes—especially after they’ve been cooked down into a rich sauce. So the 1908 "discovery" of umami turns out to be, like so many "discoveries" (*cough* America *cough*), basically a trumped-up (re)-christening.

Henning pruned away tastes like "astringent" and all the shades of flavor produced by the almost infinite variety of aromas we can detect because those aren’t, strictly speaking, "taste" sensations. The prickling and burning sensations caused by capcaicins (which make peppers "hot"), the puckering induced by tannins, and the palpable richness of unctuous or viscous foods are all tactile sensations. And aromas, obviously, are processed by the separate-but-related chemical sense of smell. As most people know, particularly if they’ve ever been seriously congested, smells are what turn functionally one or two-dimensional taste sensations into much more complicated (and enjoyable) perceptual experiences. Laboratory experiments in the early twentieth century that involved delicately swabbing the tongues of blindfolded, noseplugged subjects confirmed Henning’s taste quartet. In those conditions, the only things most tasters could reliably identify were sour, salty, sweet, and bitter.

More science to the rescue?

Setting aside for a moment the question of whether or not "taste" should actually be seen as a multi-sensory experience, those experiments were also limited by the descriptive vocabularies of the participants and the kinds of compounds applied to their tongues. Did the researchers try compounds that would have tasted alkaline or metallic or umami to most people? Even if they did, maybe people wouldn’t identify something like "umami" (or "osmazone") because they didn’t have a word for it, not because they didn’t taste it. Or maybe if they did, they called it "savory," and that was conflated with "salty."

Umami is, if not illusory, still notoriously difficult to isolate when tasting food and even harder to characterize. Perhaps part of that is because the compound itself has no smell, although neither do sugar or salt, and perhaps another part is that its description always ends up sounding more evaluative than descriptive—I mean, the Japanese term literally means "delicious." On the Iron Chef America episode I mentioned earlier, another judge playing with his new vocabulary joked, "Ooh, mommy!" which was dumb and irritating, but not actually completely off-base in terms of trying to describe the particular sensation imparted by glutamate. Try eating msg plain sometime (it’s available as Accent(tm) in the spice section of most grocery stores and in bags ranging from a few ounces to multiple pounds in Asian markets. And no, it won’t kill you, which is a post I’ll get to some other time)—it tastes like the exact intersection between Doritos, instant ramen, and Heinz ketchup. How do you describe that? It’s like the taste of tastiness.

More recent research, most of it enabled by the sequencing of the human genome, suggests that four tastes is far two few. While scientists haven’t identified them all yet, they now estimate that there are probably about 40 distinct taste receptors (and 300 distinct olfactory receptors), at least half of which are devoted to detecting bitter tastes. They’ve also discovered a number of complications in terms of how chemicals react with those receptors, and how the response triggered by different chemicals is perceived and processed in the brain. Even with other senses muffled, it now seems that people can indeed identify metallic, alkaline, and umami in addition to the big four. If we have trouble differentiating between all the different kinds of "bitter" we can taste, that’s probably because we tend to be averse to those tastes and have little practice trying to distinguish or name them, not a lack of complexity at the level of the tongue.

Additionally, tastes interact, even without the "interference" of smell or feeling. Sour flavors dampen bitter flavors (the role of the lime in a gin and tonic) and if you have a lot of something sour, it may make other foods or even relatively "neutral" substances like water taste sweet. There are also substances in specific foods that can mess with your taste receptors, which is why artichokes give anything else you eat for a while after an additional subtle sweetness (part of why it’s a great appetizer ingredient). The most dramatic example is the "miracle fruit" people got all excited about last year that contains a protein that temporarily binds to "sweet" taste receptors and reacts with acidic compounds, meaning you can eat plain raw lemons and they taste like the sweetest candy. (Note: it is kind of cool to be able to scarf down lime wedges like potato chips, but eating that much acid turned out to be sort of a regrettable decision for a lot of the people at our miracle fruit party. The remainder of the tablets we bought have languished in a drawer for over a year.)

To complicate matters even further, not all people taste the same things the same way. "Supertasters" are highly sensitive to bitter and spicy compounds, and some people really do have a "sweet tooth" that makes them inclined like sweeter foods more than most people, which could reflect a different perception of sugars anywhere between their tongue and their brain. Related: some fifteen percent of the population thinks cilantro tastes like soap.

And, as most people know from personal experience, the way people respond to the same foods may change over time—I drank about a hundred mochas when I was fifteen and had an irrepressible crush on a Starbucks employee, which stopped me from ordering the hot chocolate I actually wanted because I didn’t want to seem like a little girl. Gradually, aided no doubt by the fact that mochas are as close to hot chocolate as a coffee drink can possibly be, I came to like the coffee flavor. Within another year or so, I honestly preferred my coffee black (and personally delivered by a particular waiter at my local Denny’s).

But all that said, I can’t quite get behind the idea that we’re all special snowflakes and taste is an entirely, or even primarily subjective, individual experience. I just don’t buy that in five years or so, I will be able to "tell [a restaurant] my flavor type on the Internet at the time I make my reservation and [have them] design a meal just for my DNA," the way this Gourmet magazine article suggests.

Fill in the blank: My, you’re ____________! A) sour B) salty C) bitter D) sweet E) umami

Surely it’s not a purely arbitrary coincidence that the four tastes Henning settled on were part of basically every attempt to classify the primary tastes from ancient China to ancient Greece to Restoration England. Would anyone, ever, propose a four-taste system that included only harsh, pungent, astringent, and sour? Or metallic, umami, spicy, and oily?

It seems odd, and potentially significant that the four tastes Henning canonized are also the tastes with the most widespread metaphorical use. They’re not just taste sensations, they’re part of our basic descriptive currency for emotional states, facial expressions, personalities, reactions, gestures, and the things that prompt those things. Sourpuss. Salty humor. A bitter pill. A sweet smile. And they’re used similarly in other languages—the French refer to someone being overly polite or affable as "Etre tout sucre tout miel," or "being all sugar all honey," and the phrase "sweet as sugar/honey" in Arabic (ahla-mina s’sukkar/l’asal) means the same thing it does in English. I’m sure there are a million more examples, but foreign languages aren’t my strong suit.

Other flavors can be, and often are, used metaphorically, especially "spicy" (which, remember, was a common candidate for the fifth spot in many pre-20th C. classification schemes), but few of them have permeated to the point of idiom and cliche the way the big four have. You might describe a person as astringent or a prospect as savory, but both involve a taking a little poetic license. Others are even further afield—I guess I can imagine a metallic facial expression or alkaline feeling, but I think you’d need other context to help you out there and I’m really not sure what it would mean to describe something other than food as "umami."

At least one thing the metaphorical use of taste seems to suggest is a minimum amount of shared taste perception. When Shakespeare used the phrase "honey tongue," no one in his audience needed to have heard the phrase before to understand what he was getting at. With all due respect to individual genetic and cultural differences, it seems to make more sense that  people would largely share the same taste experiences than that they would differ, at least in extreme ways. It seems only natural that we should all be repulsed by the bitter poisons that would kill us, and that our understanding of what sorts of feelings are involved in and communicated by a "bitter glance" is part of that common taste experience.

So, by way of explaining the title of the blog, I didn’t leave out tastes like umami and metallic and alkaline (and however many more have yet to be named) because I wanted to reify the outdated idea that we only have four basic tastes. Instead, I wanted to invoke the dimensions of taste that seem most central to our experiences with food and also impart clear metaphorical connotations. The twinned subjects of this blog—the food I make and eat and my experiences and concerns as a cook and an eater—will both be sour sometimes, salty often, bitter occasionally, and hopefully sweet at least from time to time. I would try to be and feel and say umami things too, but I’m not sure I know how.

References not linked above:

Aristotle and William Alexander Hammond. 1902. Aristotle’s psychology: a treatise on the principle of life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press). Digitized 2006 by Google.

Brillat-Savarin, Jean Anthelme. 1825. The Physiology of Taste or Transcendental Gastronomy, trans. Fayette Robinson. Digitized 2004 by ebooks@Adelaide and Project Gutenberg

Korsmeyer, Carolyn. 1999. Making Sense of Taste: Food & Philosophy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Against the Whole Foods Boycott

Perhaps because Whole Foods looms large in my dissertation research, or maybe just because it’s actually gaining some traction, friends and colleagues keep asking me what I think about the consumer boycott some people are calling for in response to Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s August 11 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about health care reform.

The short version: I don’t agree with Mackey’s argument, but I think the boycott is ill-conceived. I think a better way to express your disagreement with Mackey is to write your own letter/op-ed and send it to your legislators and news providers.

The long version:

Lest anyone think I’m taking the side of a great admirer of Ayn Rand who infamously posed as "rahodeb" (an anagram for his wife’s name, Deborah) on the Yahoo! Finance Bulletin Boards to talk up his company and his haircut and criticize Wild Oats, I’ll start with why I disagree with the op-ed. First, he confuses the "intrinsic ethical right to health care" that some people, like the UN (see article 25), claim people theoretically should have, with the constitutional rights people do have when they are citizens of the U.S. (or Canada, or the U.K.):

Many promoters of health-care reform believe that people have an intrinsic ethical right to health care—to equal access to doctors, medicines and hospitals. While all of us empathize with those who are sick, how can we say that all people have more of an intrinsic right to health care than they have to food or shelter?

Health care is a service that we all need, but just like food and shelter it is best provided through voluntary and mutually beneficial market exchanges. A careful reading of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution will not reveal any intrinsic right to health care, food or shelter. That’s because there isn’t any. This "right" has never existed in America

Even in countries like Canada and the U.K., there is no intrinsic right to health care.

Woo tautology. Even if you don’t agree with the UN that medical care is a basic human right, you can appreciate this logic: any right intrinsic to humans is, by definition, an intrinsic right whether they live in Canada or Myanmar. Ethical claims about intrinsic rights address what rights people should have by virtue of being human, not what rights they do have according to a constitution. Whether a right is constitutionally protected or that protection is enforceable are separate issues with no bearing on their intrinsicness. Intrinsicosity. Intrinsicicity. 

Mackey is also blurring two different arguments here: 1) whether or not humans have an "intrinsic ethical right" to health care and 2) whether the government or the market would do a better job of providing health care. Although his logic may be muddled, it’s clear which side he takes: 1) no and 2) the market.

Thing I disagree with Mackey about #1: Is Health Care an Intrinsic Ethical Right?

It’s very difficult to separate the right to medical care from the right to life (which even Mackey would have to acknowledge, as it’s in the Declaration of Independence). While frequently interpreted as the right not to be actively killed, there’s no effective difference between shooting a healthy person and denying life-saving treatment to a dying person. As some other UN covenant with a long and sober name elaborates (article 6), the right to life suggests that "no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life," and illness can be just as arbitrary as murder.

Of course, this gets complicated because some illnesses (like some murders) are not arbitrary, and some of the ways they’re not arbitrary depend on voluntary behaviors, like smoking or leading a sedentary lifestyle. Also, many things other than life-saving treatments are encompassed by "medical care."

It seems pretty clear that the right to life encompasses the right of children to be vaccinated against potentially-fatal diseases. It’s much less clear whether or not it encompasses the right to abortion, relationship counseling, sex change operations and hormone therapies, addiction treatment, erectile dysfunction, and conditions that may be largely cosmetic like acne or balding. And it’s probably safe to say that the right to life doesn’t imply an intrinsic right to free health care for anyone who can pay.

Like illness, ability to pay is often–but not always–arbitrary. Characteristics beyond a person’s individual control affect their ability to accumulate wealth, and fortune is fickle, but people also make choices that affect their personal wealth–for example, deciding to get a Ph.D. in the humanities instead of a J.D. (not that the latter is a guarantee anymore either).

THAT SAID, a health care system that allocates care based on the ability to pay would undoubtedly cause some people to be arbitrarily deprived of life. So Mackey’s free market system would, in fact, violate the intrinsic ethical right to life-saving care, and that’s why he has to claim there isn’t one. I think he’s in the minority with that belief–there seems to be a pretty broad consensus around the idea that health care shouldn’t be a privilege of the wealthy, and that if you show up to a hospital in cardiac arrest, someone ought to take care of you whether or not you can pay them anything. And if we’re going to collectively pay for emergency life-saving care, it’s also in the collective interest to pay for preventative care. It hurts everyone when insurance companies deny coverage to people based on pre-existing health conditions or yank their coverage once they get sick. Several of Mackey’s proposed reforms were designed to ameliorate some of those problems, but his plan would inevitably leave many people uninsured.

Thing I disagree with Mackey about #2: Is the Market the Best Health Care Provider?

What strikes me as the most compelling reason for a public option, as a layperson whose understanding of this is admittedly incomplete, is that the fact that the U.S. spends more per capita than any other nation on health care despite the fact that something like 46 million people or fifteen percent of the population are uninsured and still ranks lower than many countries with universal universal health care on "overall health system performance" according to the WHO.

Also, given that no one’s proposing getting rid of existing private plans, if they’re really so much better than the public option, they should be able to out-compete it. I know there are concerns about a public plan being so dominant that it could dictate terms to doctors and hospitals, so obviously there would need to be protections. However, I think it would inevitably be more efficient for consumers if people weren’t trying to extract annually-increasing profit.

The idea that competition and profit motives make businesses more efficient because they have to compete or die whereas public services that have no incentive to streamline their operations become bloated mistakenly assumes that efficiency is the only/best way to profit. As private health insurers have found, denying sick people coverage is an excellent way to save money, and sometimes spending a lot of money on things like lobbying and public relations delivers a greater return than simply providing the service they exist to provide. A taxpayer-funded insurer that didn’t have to spend money on those things would be a lot more efficient, and people might indeed be incline to switch to an insurer that wasn’t as likely to screw them to benefit stockholders or executives.


It doesn’t make any sense to boycott Whole Foods because of this op-ed. There are two primary reasons people are calling for a boycott: 1) they disagree with Mackey and/or 2) they are upset that he made his beliefs public or that he was given such a high-profile platform on which to do so. Unfortunately, even when the primary motivation is #1, the boycott only targets #2. That’s not "censorship," like some people are claiming (see comment threads on facebook and elsewhere), but both reasons are questionable motives for a boycott.

Ad Hominem Boycott

For any shoppers truly concerned about the political beliefs of CEOs, there was plenty of evidence long before the op-ed that John Mackey was an unapologetic libertarian who supports free market capitalism. In the 2000 election cycle, he gave $2K to Libertarian presidential candidate Harry Browne. But honestly, if you’re concerned that some fraction of the money you spend on groceries might end up supporting someone whose politics differ from yours, you should probably look in to self-provisioning.

Shopping at a store doesn’t necessarily endorse or financially support its CEO’s every political belief. Take any other CEO and any other political or philosophical belief: would it make sense to boycott Williams-Sonoma if its CEO wrote an op-ed or gave an interview or organized a street theater performance in which he expressed the opinion that all recreational drugs should be legalized or that the universe was created by a divine or supernatural being?

I don’t think it would. If the company discriminated against employees with conflicting beliefs, or in some other way caused harm and suffering with their business practices, sure. (Which some people think Whole Foods does, and that would be a fine reason to organize a boycott). But John Mackey expressing his opinion about health care reform =/= nefarious corporate policy. And as far as I can tell, neither John Mackey nor Whole Foods as a company are funding any direct lobbying efforts. All of which makes claims like the ones Russell Mokhiber makes particularly over the top:

The problem with Mackey’s campaign is that it results in the deaths of 60 Americans every day due to lack of health insurance.

Mackey is responsible for these deaths as much as anyone. (@ Common Dreams)

It way overstates the power of Mackey’s personal beliefs and his op-ed, to call it a full-on "campaign" or hold it responsible for the fact that people right now may be dying due to inadequate insurance. Mackey has not, with this op-ed, personally denied anyone health care. The most damage this op-ed could have done is convince someone with political leverage that a public option is a bad idea (and it seems unlikely that this column would have been the deciding factor—it’s just not that convincing). If he has, you’re not going to change their minds by throwing a tantrum, attacking Mackey personally, or refusing to shop at Whole Foods.

If you disagree with Mackey and want to address the potential harm done by the op-ed, the best thing you can do is to write a letter of your own. Explain why you think his proposed reforms would be inadequate without a public option. Send it to your legislators and local papers. Post it on your blog. Send it to the Wall Street Journal. Boycotting the grocery chain he oversees doesn’t do anything to address the claims he made in the offending op-ed, it’s just an attempt to punish Mackey for his personal beliefs about health care reform.

The real target

Effectively, the boycott doesn’t punish Mackey for having stupid, tautological beliefs about the human right to health care, it punishes him for expressing those beliefs in a highly visible way. Which, apparently, a lot of people calling for the boycott are totally fine with:

If Whole Foods shareholders were to start to wonder whether having their corporate brand dragged into the health care debate is really a smart use of their assets, I would call that a good thing. (@ Yglesias)

He has his right to speak his point of view. I have the right to take my money elsewhere.(@ Daily Kos)

as long as this dispicable preson [sic] of a ceo makes statements like he did, and now as long as this same ceo sits on your top foods board and represents your company, i refuse to buy from whole foods market any more (@ Whole Boycott)

In principle, I don’t believe there should be economic boycots [sic] based on political speech that doesn’t rise to the level of hate speech or the like. In reality, there are large scale boycotts by rightwing corporate America of progressive media outlets and rightwingers have no qualms about boycotting progressive business owners. (@ Comments from Left Field) 

The last one is my favorite: "In principle, I think this is a bad idea, but if rightwingers do it…"

Sure, not everyone gets to air their personal beliefs in such a high-profile way, but if the concern were really about where he got to express his opinions, the boycott probably ought to target the Wall Street Journal for giving Mackey column space. That would raises a whole separate set of issues about privilege and political influence, newsworthiness, and op-ed balance, and I think ultimately, the editorial choice is pretty defensible. Mackey is the CEO of a company that provides different kinds of health care benefits to thousands of employees in countries with different kinds of health care systems. That doesn’t make Mackey’s opinion the only or most worthwhile one, but it’s certainly a reason to think he might have some sort of useful perspective, and publishing his column is neither an endorsement of his opinion nor does it preclude the publishing of other, contradictory opinions. But that argument is moot anyhow because I haven’t seen any calls for a boycott of the WSJ.

Boycotting Whole Foods instead suggests that executives ought to keep their political beliefs concealed, even when they might have something to contribute to the debate or when publicizing their beliefs might alert consumers to policies and political contributions that might actually be unfair or harmful and really would merit an organized response. We’re better off being able to keep tabs on the politics of major companies’ executives and using boycotts to protest unfair, harmful corporate policies. Sure, some people are taking this opportunity to complain about Whole Foods union-busting again, but that’s a sidebar. The message of this boycott is "Shut up, Mackey," and maybe "rightwingers have no qualms" about that sort of thing, but I do.

I’ll write about my general ambivalence about Whole Foods some other time…suffice to say I don’t shop there often enough for my participation, or non-participation, in the boycott to make even the most trivial difference. However, I think this boycott does more harm than good, and it makes me want to shake my fist impotently at people whose political beliefs I probably mostly share and tell them to get off my side.