‘Pure,’ ‘processed’ can be same

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What’s pure and white, besides brides, lilies and the driven snow?

Some might add a priest’s undergarments. The Roman Church recognized white as a symbol of purity in the very early days of its existence.

Some of you would imagine sugar granules falling from a spoon and into your hot chocolate and regard it as obviously pure, while your daughter offers, “Ugh, D-a-a-d, that’s processed stuff.”

Relax, you are both right, for once.

Pure is a great word that we use deceptively. White table sugar has been chemically processed and what comes out is highly purified. More than 99 percent is a natural chemical that links a molecule of glucose and a molecule of fructose.

The molasses has been separated out, along with whatever got hauled in from the field. The word “processed” defines something we do every day. We salt things, cook things and otherwise change chemistry to make them last longer, taste better and even be safer to eat.

If we choose to get animated about the word “processed,” we’ve got to understand what we mean and why we think that it’s bad for us.

In the hope that my readers will develop some immunity to labeling and flim-flam, this seems a good spot to describe the way that the advertising industry wiggles a worm in front of your face and makes you think that it’s mama’s apple pie.

Forget advertising of the ’50s. Forget “Madmen,” the TV show. Promotion has progressed from clever jingles to assessing the reactions of test groups. Science has leapfrogged beyond the unreliability of subjective responses.

If I pay you to stick your head in an MRI machine, I can detect your brain’s reaction to an image without asking you anything. A good read on this subject is the book, “Unconscious Branding,” by Douglas VanPraet.

Have you noticed television’s iridescent moth that captures the eye and promotes a product without necessarily saying what the heck the drug does?

The first trick in advertising is generally to grab your attention.

It seizes your brain from the path it was taking and says, “Whoa, there stud. Look over here.” Whether it’s a moth, a big-eyed puppy or some other charming creature, you can’t help turning toward it.

Remember that your brain gets engaged before you are aware it happened. It’s one of those things I explained and defended in a previous column.

Next, the scene should draw you in and make you feel comfortable.

Images of purity, goodness, and “Made in America” work pretty well at holding on to you after you were sucked in. Ways to engage your senses and do some epigenetic rewiring have been analyzed, described and used on you and me.

I still watch the moth. It is associated with a good feeling. Incidentally, the product seems to be pretty effective, with a low risk of addictive potential. Working from memory, I think that follow-up on this sleep inducer looks good to six months.

Often, the patient dictates what they want prescribed, based on slick advertisements. The doctor has a limited amount of time to take a stand in favor of rationality.

Sugar is like that, too. Marketing has attracted us to pure cane sugar. Counter-marketing promoted natural brown colors and the corn producers want us to choose high fructose sweetened soft drinks.

My next article will set a base in chemistry and metabolism. If you miss it, subsequent presentations may be a little less comprehensible, but don’t give up.

There are many important questions. Is sugar addictive? Is one form safer than another? Does sugar promote cancer and heart attacks or just the resulting obesity? Are all forms of sugar the same?

It may take months to work through those. Timely subjects may pop up and warrant a sidetrack. Comments and suggestions continue to be welcome. Help me to make this interesting.

I’ll finish with a story:

I left military service and quickly became involved in setting up a cancer program in another state.

Two attorneys asked me to come to a city council meeting. They wanted a city ordinance to put pressure on a sugar beet plant. The place stunk up everything in its downwind path. My role was answering any question dealing with health effects.

The attorneys didn’t show up that night and the chairman said, “Dr. Mulkerin, have you something to say?”

I talked about unpleasant odors that might irritate the airways and discussed expensive chimney scrubbers that could ameliorate the problem.

The newspaper chose the morning headline to read “Cancer specialist testifies against ...”

I had said nothing about cancer, but I landed in a mud puddle of controversy. One of my patients came to me and asked whether I knew what he did.

I answered that he worked for the beet plant and he corrected me. He was the vice president. I got a short lecture on economics and a sugar beet pin that I wore for months. It’s still in a drawer at home.

Opinions and, I fear, some studies are influenced by economics. American consumption of sugar and corn syrup is measured in millions of metric tons.

I’ve seen a report that the industry spends $127 million per year for lobbyists. Whatever the right number, the industry is massive and the effects on health are mainly negative. We also spend between $20 billion and $55 billion per year on weight loss.

Do those systems work to offset a serious problem? That answer is coming later.

Dr. Larry Mulkerin is a retired clinical professor. He can be reached at mulkerin@charter.net.

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