Thursday, November 27, 2008

Finally--Someone Talks About the Beer Crisis! (with a comment on both science and history)

We were prescient. Over a month ago, we told people to stop worrying about gasoline and start talking about beer. And it worked! Well, sort of. Gas has gotten cheaper, but beer remains expensive. We took an NPR story about bartenders underfilling beer glasses as an opportunity to throw in a few tidbits about the history of beer drinking vessels and measures. That was about retail practices rather than wholesale production, and we can't really take any credit for the drop in gas prices. But we had noted to ourselves the rising curve of beer prices, so clearly we were onto something. Anyway . . .

We are delighted to see that our colleague, historian Amy Mittelman, whose book we mentioned there, is prominently featured in an interview in US News and World Report, in which she addresses precisely this issue:
Will Beer Be the Next Casualty of the Crisis?
The downturn could hurt high-end brewers
By Kimberly Palmer
Posted November 18, 2008
The beer industry is often described as immune to economic downturns. After all, when people get laid off, they want to nurse their sorrows with a cold one, right?

It turns out that, as the beer industry has gone increasingly upscale, the answer to that question is no longer simple. In recent years, beer sales have been relatively flat except in one category—craft beers, which are made by small, independent brewers. Amy Mittelman, author of Brewing Battles: A History of American Beer, says that the heyday for such high-end, specialty beers could soon be over as consumers look to cut costs. Mittelman spoke to U.S. News about the future—and history—of the American beer industry. (read the rest)
This story also provides a welcome opportunity to catch up on the beer story that was breaking last last month, just before the elections: Rice University students made headlines with their attempt to develop a genetically modified beer yeast that would produce the compound, resveratrol--the component in red wine that, according to some studies, accounts for the "French paradox," as a result of which some populations that consume relatively high amounts of both fats and alcohol, nonetheless display fewer long-term health problems than do others with nominally bad dietary habits.

The titles of the various articles were instructive.

In the early story we cited, Eureka! Science News rather (over)dramatically led with: "Better beer: College team creating anticancer brew" (16 Oct.). It's a bit strange: good news that comes with mention of a potentially fatal illness may be lacking something, or at least make the product sound more like a medicine than a recreational drug. And if the title raises extravagant hopes among headline-skimmers, the body of the article provides the sobering message that this is no panacea (and indeed, that the medical benefits remain unproven; more on that sort of thing below). Not sure that was the best authorial strategy.

Far more effective was the approach in scientificblogging (16 Oct.):
"Only One Thing Could Make Beer More Awesome - Preventing Cancer (Thanks Biobeer)"

Think you knew spent too much time pondering the wonders of beer in college? These Rice University students have you beat. They're using genetic engineering to create beer that contains resveratrol, a chemical in wine that's been shown to reduce cancer and heart disease in lab animals.
(read the rest)
This one took a positive and mundane fact, and added the potential good news as a surprise bonus (and using the slangy, "awesome," in a story about college students had the right feel, too). Good strategy.

MIT's Technology Review , which reproduced most of the content of the preceding entry, chose the more neutral and generically upbeat "Beer That's Good for You" (4 Nov.) and added a few details of its own:
Since headlines began trumpeting the antiaging effects of red wine a couple of years ago, the traditional toast to good health has become more meaningful. But students at Rice University, in Texas, think that beer drinkers shouldn't be left out. They're trying to engineer a yeast that produces the antiaging chemical found in red wine--resveratrol--and use it to brew "BioBeer" with a health boost.

"It's not going to prevent you from getting a beer gut from drinking too much beer, or from getting cirrhosis of the liver," says Taylor Stevenson, one of six undergraduates working on the project. "But people are already drinking beer, so why not make the activity a little healthier?"
(read the rest)
The title of this article, like that of the first, is of course slightly misleading, because beer, as such (consumed in moderation), is a healthful beverage, which, historically, solved many problems in the human diet, from provision of useful carbohydrates to the maintenance of a supply of safe potables when water was often bad; not for nothing was it called "liquid bread" in several world cultures. The point, however, is welcome.

Latecomer NPR (8 Nov.) came up with the sloppily confusing title, "Turning Beer Into Wine, One Gene At A Time" (which risks conjuring up disturbing visions of Joe Six-Pack [yes, the obligatory reference is present] and Jesus in white lab coats).

(Oh, and the results of the iGEM competition? Slovenia won the Grand Prize. Rice got the award for "Best Presentation, Runner up.")

And since the talk is of genetically engineering beer yeasts, it is worth noting that recent research from Stanford has also decoded the genome and history of these organisms. Some reports could not resist trumpeting as a revelation the news that lager and ale yeasts prove to be related: "Lager lovers convinced that their beer of choice stands alone should prepare to drink their words this Oktoberfest." But the real news beneath that report from the front of the warring beer factions is the insight into the way that artisanal practice in effect achieved the same results that one would now pursue scientifically--selecting for a combination of traditional traits associated with ale flavors, and new ones that permitted the colder fermentation required for longer-lasting lagers. "'These long-ago brewers were practicing genetics without even knowing it,' said geneticist Gavin Sherlock, PhD. 'They've given us a very interesting opportunity to look at a relatively young, rapidly changing species, as well as some very good beer.'" ("Heads up: Stanford DNA study reveals evolution of beer yeasts," Eureka! Science News, 10 Sept.)

The scientific and historical question: Will the Rice experiment do anything to change the popular resistance to genetically modified foods? To be sure, genetic modification, especially of crops in open nature, should be undertaken with all due caution (and humility). That said, the sad fact remains that most of the resistance to such scientific innovations is instinctive and based on presuppositons and fears rather than knowledge--one of the few instances in which many avowedly secular people display an almost religious superstition. One might begin with the fact that irradiated and genetically modified foods, which have yet to be proven to cause demonstrable harm to human health, are strictly regulated--whereas "health supplements"--which, thanks to an abominably foolish US law dating back to 1994, are allowed to make wild and unsupported claims for their supposed benefits--are not. (My favorite example, cited by the irrespressibly skeptical physicist Bob Park, was the company that marketed salt water under the name of "Vitamin O").

Just over a week ago came further confirmation that most of the supplements that supposedly educated but definitely prosperous citizens purchase with such zeal and abandon (take a trip to your local Whole Foods store--or "whole pay check," as they call it around here) have no value, except to separate a sucker from his or her money. Ginkgo biloba does not prevent dementia or Alzheimer's. It thus joins echinacea and probably St. John's Wort on the list of greatest failures. As Steven Novella points out, the quest is not entirely irrational, for herbal drugs "are, after all, just pharmaceuticals in unpurified plant form." The problem--aside from the fact that people insist on selling the herb rather than purifying the possible drug, and that, as he says with some irony, the marketing precedes the research, rather than vice-versa--is that when a clinical study fails to prove benefits, producers of the supplements simply refuse to accept it ("there is great promise"). Novella observes:
The only herbal remedy that has been abandoned by proponents and marketers because evidence showed it was unsafe is ephedra - and that was only after the FDA banned it as unsafe. Proponents have never, to my knowledge, abandoned a claim or a product due to negative scientific data.
That is the bottom line. No industry or profession can claim to be evidence-based if they never stop using or selling a treatment because scientific evidence shows it does not work. We will see what happens to the gingko market. I predict nothing will happen. The NPA already has their spin.
As a thought experiment, imagine how you would react to a pharmaceutical company dismissing negative evidence about one of their drugs in the same way.
And, to add insult to injury, other new studies confirmed the trend of earlier research, which showed that consumption of significant doses of supplements of even necessary vitamins and minerals not only did no good, but in fact potentially caused harm. As Tara Parker-Pope of the New York Times put it, "Everyone needs vitamins, which are critical for the body. But for most people, the micronutrients we get from foods usually are adequate to prevent vitamin deficiency, which is rare in the United States." Interestingly, this is pretty much what we learned in advanced science seminar back in high school (which is longer ago than I care to remember). Linus Pauling had suggested that Vitamin C was a cure for the common cold, but our chemistry teacher scoffed at the notion and suggested that the Nobel laureate had lost his edge: "Either you're getting adequate amounts from a normal diet, or your body can't absorb them properly--in which case supplements do no good." ("News Keeps Getting Worse for Vitamins: The best efforts of the scientific community to prove the health benefits of vitamins keep falling short," Well Blog, 20 Nov.)

And if you think that's depressing, watching the responses of readers who insist that they know why multiple, large-scale, carefully controlled clinical studies just "can't" be right and "must not" have taken factor x or y into account is a deeply disturbing excursion into the world of scientific illiteracy and self-delusion. (One expects this sort of denial from the capitalist supplements industry, which is incorrigible and has a material stake in the affair.) It is illuminating, though (and here's where we bring things back to history): if educated people have so little capacity to understand the physical world, which operates according to regular and demonstrable laws and rules of evidence, can it be any surprise that they encounter so much more difficulty in making sense of the social world of history, culture, and politics, with its immeasurably more varied and complicated causal factors and interactions? Next time, don't take chances: Call a historian.

Health benefits? I think I'll just stick with beer (lager), thank you.

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