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PBS NewsHour

Number of seniors threatened by hunger has doubled since 2001, and it’s going to get worse

Dorothy Abruzzo, 83, receives hot lunch from JFCS Senior Center May 6, 2015 in Naples, FL. JFCS Senior
         Center provides a place for its members to socialize along with services and classes, five days a week. Every Wednesday, it
         provides a hot meal followed by entertainment. Photo by Ariel Min/PBS NewsHour

Watch Video | Listen to the Audio

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s been called one of the longest-lasting and cruelest effects of the great recession. Millions of senior citizens who were caught up in the economic collapse now struggle to put food on the table.

Sarah Varney has our report from Naples, Florida.

This story was produced in collaboration with our partner Kaiser Health News.

SARAH VARNEY: It’s not easy to spot amid the sparkling waters, luxurious condos and high-end recreation. But in recent years, daily life for many seniors in this sunlit paradise has turned bleak.

WOMAN: This is my biggest gripe. I say, ‘All my life, I struggled. So, now in my ’70s, I have to struggle all over again?’  It bothered me a lot.

WOMAN: I was in control. But the recession has done terrible things.

WOMAN: I never in my life thought I would need charity.

SARAH VARNEY: Less than two miles away from the sandy Gulf beaches is the Naples Senior Center.

Jackie Faffer established these weekly luncheons to give older Floridians a place to socialize. But it soon became apparent just how desperately people needed the food served here.

JACLYNN FAFFER, Jewish Family and Community Services of Southwest Florida: I didn’t think that I would find the depth of the challenges that are faced by people, and specifically the seniors. We have, of our 676 members, about 60 percent are at, near or below the poverty line.

SARAH VARNEY: Many are like Mina and Angelo Maffucci. After raising their children, they sold their suburban New Jersey home and moved to southwest Florida to enjoy semi-retirement.

But Angelo could no longer work to supplement their Social Security income after seriously injuring his back, followed by prostate cancer.

MINA MAFFUCCI: This is when we first got here. This is when we first came to Florida.

SARAH VARNEY: Like others in their generation who built comfortable lives during the height of American prosperity, the Maffuccis found themselves instead entering an uncertain retirement. A faltering economy, sickness and bad luck drained their savings. They lost their home to foreclosure and had to move into a condo owned by their son, where they continued struggling to pay for medication and basic expenses.

ANGELO MAFFUCCI: At that time, when we were on our hands and knees, practically, let’s put it that way, and we opened up the closet, and all we had was coffee, so we made it. And that’s what we had. If we found a slice of toast or something, we had that, too. Cereal, once in a blue moon.

MINA MAFFUCCI: We didn’t know where to go, because we didn’t have — ever had a problem like this before. And we hated to ask people for help or this or that, you know?

SARAH VARNEY: A plaque on the wall of the Maffuccis’ home is a harsh daily reminder of their grim fortunes.

There are more than 9.5 million Americans over the age of 60 who struggle to pay for food. The problem has only worsened since the end of the great recession and the collapse of the housing market, even in the most unexpected places. The most recent data show one in six seniors now face the threat of hunger.

From 2001 to 2013, the number of seniors experiencing uncertainty over where their food would come from more than doubled. In 2013 alone, an additional 300,000 people over the age of 60 had difficulty buying or accessing food. The need for good nutrition is vital for seniors. Without it, they can become frail and weak. Chronically hungry seniors face a greater risk of depression, diabetes, congestive heart failure and heart attack.

Enid Borden is president of the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger in the Washington, D.C., area.

ENID BORDEN, The National Foundation to End Senior Hunger: We’re doing a worse job of trying to end senior hunger in America. You would think, with so much money that is poured into it, that, in fact, the numbers would be better than they are, but they’re not. So, if we continue to look at it and if we can to beat our heads against the wall and expect a different outcome, shame on us.

MAN: Suzanne, Meals on Wheels.

SARAH VARNEY: Borden says programs like Meals on Wheels serve an important role in many communities, like this one in Naples. But while charities provide temporary help to hungry seniors, they often have waiting lists that in some places stretch on for years. And charities and church groups can’t always address the underlying poverty that causes persistent food insecurity.

More so, advocates say the seniors touched by charity programs are the success stories. By most estimates, there are many more older Americans who remain out of sight.

THOMAS FELKE, Florida Gulf Coast University: There’s a hidden problem here, and it’s a little bit invisible.

SARAH VARNEY: Professor Tom Felke recently analyzed poverty rates among seniors in Naples as part of his work at Florida Gulf Coast University. He found many poor retirees are living in gated communities, but the very gates meant to signify safety and status are hampering efforts to help those seniors who are struggling with hunger.

THOMAS FELKE: And we know it exists. But I don’t think we don’t know the depth to which it exists. We just need to access them … getting inside those communities and letting people know: ‘These are programs that are available to you.’

SARAH VARNEY: Felke says that will require stepped-up efforts by groups like the Harry Chapin Food Bank, where outreach workers aggressively target apartments and senior centers to sign people up for food stamps other nutrition programs.

Only one-third of eligible seniors are enrolled in food stamps, compared to three-quarters of the eligible general population.

AL BRISLAIN, Harry Chapin Food Bank: In some ways, seniors are the hardest people to reach, because part of it’s the pride, part of it’s that they don’t have the knowledge of the social service system, and part of it is their isolation.

SARAH VARNEY: Al Brislain is president of the local food bank.

AL BRISLAIN: If you’re a single senior sitting in an apartment, you don’t know what to do. You don’t know where to go. And so getting out to them, getting the word out is half the battle, and also reassuring them that they deserve this help, that it’s neighbors helping neighbors, that it’s the government supporting you in your time of need.

SARAH VARNEY: Mina and Angelo Maffucci now get deliveries from a local food pantry and receive $34 a week in food stamps. They’re grateful for the help, but they also know their circumstances are unlikely to change.

ANGELO MAFFUCCI: We can’t work anymore. And I don’t want to put a burden on my children that you have to give us each $100 a month or something like that.

MINA MAFFUCCI: And we — I wouldn’t ask them.

ANGELO MAFFUCCI: I wouldn’t ask them for anything like that. So, the only thing we can hope for and pray for is that we live a little longer together.

MINA MAFFUCCI: Yes.

ANGELO MAFFUCCI: You know?

SARAH VARNEY: With millions of baby boomers heading toward their sunset years, most on fixed incomes, researchers expect the number of seniors facing the threat of hunger will rise by 50 percent over the next decade.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Sarah Varney in Naples, Florida.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Our reporting team spent more time with seniors who are struggling to make ends meet. We have their stories, along with a photo essay, which you can find on our home page. That’s PBS.org/NewsHour.

The post Number of seniors threatened by hunger has doubled since 2001, and it’s going to get worse appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

Asking for help at 80 — America’s new faces of hunger

Dorothy Abruzzo poses for a portrait in her kitchen. Photo by Ariel Min/PBS NewsHour

Dorothy Abruzzo, 83, poses for a portrait in her home in Naples, Florida. “I never in my life thought I would have needed charity.” Photo by Ariel Min/PBS NewsHour

NAPLES, Fla. — The warm sands and tony neighborhoods surrounding this retirement refuge are known as Florida’s “Paradise Coast.” But for seniors struggling to keep food on the table, it’s far from a paradise.

Seniors who go hungry in Naples are indicative of the problems facing seniors nationwide. In 2013, the last year for which data is available, 15.5 percent of America’s seniors — roughly 9.6 million people — faced the threat of hunger. Personal illness, family financial trouble — especially following the recession — or losing a spouse add to the problem. When mortgage payments and medicine are a priority, there is not always money left for food.

Tonight on the PBS NewsHour, watch a full report on seniors and hunger. We reported from Naples, where we met several people who were willing to share their stories with us.

Harry Knight, right, used to be a jeweler and the main breadwinner of the family in New Jersey before he and Sarah Knight
         followed their daughter down to Naples. Photo by Ariel Min/PBS NewsHour

Harry Knight was a jeweler and the main breadwinner of the family before he and his wife Sarah followed their daughter to Naples from New Jersey. Photo by Ariel Min/PBS NewsHour

Harry and Sarah Knight, 76 and 75, moved to Naples 14 years ago after selling their house in New Jersey. Harry found a job at Publix grocery store, which helped make ends meet. But things started to crumble when Sarah’s numerous health problems — Crohn’s disease complicated with a string of other ailments, like giant cell arteritis, polymyalgia and fibromyalgia — began to drain them of their funds. Then, Harry got fired after a verbal clash with his manager.

Now, the Knights budget about $100 for food each month. They receive about $17 worth of food stamps per month and the rest they receive from Jewish Family and Community Services of Southwest Florida, a local organization that provides food, services and activities for seniors in the region.

“If it wasn’t for the [JFCS], we’d be starving,” Sarah said. JFCS provides them three gift cards with $25 on each every month, which they can use to purchase necessities other than food.

Photos of family and relatives cover the walls of the Knights' dining room. Photo by Ariel Min/PBS NewsHour

Photos of family and relatives cover the walls of the Knights’ dining room. Photo by Ariel Min/PBS NewsHour

Even with the help, they’re still $700 short on their monthly budget, a large part of which is for medicine for both Harry and Sarah need, especially after Harry was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s last year. Research has found that food insecure seniors are more vulnerable to disability and are more likely to suffer from chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and hypertension, which require a healthy diet.

“This is my biggest gripe. I said, ‘All my life, I’ve struggled,’” Sarah said. “’So now, in my 70s, I have to struggle all over again?’ It bothered me a lot. In fact, I felt suicidal — that’s why I’m going to a therapist.”

Jaclynn Faffer, president and CEO of JFCS of Southwest Florida, did not foresee this problem, either, when she first opened the senior center.

Jaclynn Faffer waits for the members to arrive for the Wednesday luncheon and activities at Jewish Family and Community
         Services senior center in Naples. Photo by Ariel Min/PBS NewsHour

Jaclynn Faffer waits for members to arrive for the Wednesday luncheon at Jewish Family and Community Services’ senior center in Naples. Photo by Ariel Min/PBS NewsHour

“We were surprised to find the significant needs that exist in Collier County, in terms of financial security and food insecurity,” Faffer said, adding that out of their 676 members, about 60 percent are at, near or below the poverty line.

The JFCS senior center also provides grocery deliveries for those who cannot drive or are without a car — another common problem faced by food insecure seniors nationwide. Research has shown that typically, if you cannot drive, it makes it harder to secure affordable food. Among low-income families without a car, 64 percent are food insecure, about twice the rate of low-income families that do have access to transportation.

Angelo and Mina Maffucci pose for a portrait in the kitchen of their son's apartment where they've been living
         for about five years since they've lost their house. Photo by Ariel Min/PBS NewsHour

Angelo and Mina Maffucci pose for a portrait in the kitchen of their son’s apartment, where they’ve been living for about five years — since they lost their house. Photo by Ariel Min/PBS NewsHour

Angelo and Mina Maffucci, 82 and 79, are among those who struggle without the use of a car. Not too long after they moved to Naples, they lost most of their savings in the mortgage nosedive and on medical bills for Angelo’s back injury and prostate cancer.

They were able to live in an apartment their son owns, free of rent, but without a car or money, they sometimes went for an entire day with just a cup of coffee.

Mina Maffucci says she and her husband Angelo went a few difficult years without seeking assistance for food. Photo by
         Ariel Min/PBS NewsHour

Mina Maffucci says she and her husband Angelo spent a few difficult years before seeking assistance for food. Photo by Ariel Min/PBS NewsHour

“We hated to ask, you know? We didn’t know where to go, because we didn’t … ever have a problem like this before,” Mina said.

Currently, they live on Social Security checks, food stamps, grocery delivery from the JFCS senior center and additional help from their son.

Dorothy Abruzzo boils water in her kitchen. Photo by Ariel Min/PBS NewsHour

Dorothy Abruzzo moved to Florida from Philadelphia 24 years ago. Photo by Ariel Min/PBS NewsHour

Dorothy Abruzzo’s apartment is impeccably clean and adorned with carefully curated vintage furniture that she has collected over the past few decades, with empty walls completely free of any photos except for one: her parent’s wedding portrait from the early 1900s.

Twenty-four years ago, after her husband died, Dorothy followed her daughter to Naples from Philadelphia. She paid cash for a condo in a luxurious area — Pelican Bay — then had to keep lending money to her daughter who was going through some financial and marital trouble. Dorothy worked a daytime job at a luxury dress shop until she had to go through an emergency carotid artery surgery that left her sick and unable to drive for a while. She was able to recover, but a recent mismanagement of funds by a relative left Dorothy with pretty much nothing, forcing her to rent and live on food stamps.

“I mean, I never in my life thought I would have needed charity. … 83 and I’m renting and on food stamps,” Dorothy said. “I’ve put myself on a budget [for food] — $159 for the whole month.”

Beatrice poses for a portrait on her bed. Photo by Ariel Min/PBS NewsHour

Beatrice poses for a portrait on her bed. Photo by Ariel Min/PBS NewsHour

At 94 years old, Beatrice — a pseudonym, because she wished to stay anonymous — still drives a beat-up, red Pontiac everywhere, even with her lungs semi-permanently in need of oxygen support. She’s always been independent — and still wants to be — but when it comes to food nowadays, that became almost impossible, especially after moving out of her son’s condo after he suffered a stroke.

“You know that [SNAP benefits and supplemental food programs] makes me feel very insecure to even talk about it, because, I [wasn’t] that type at one time. And to get this at 94, and to have these people help, it’s unbelievable.” she said.

On top of her medical bills, Beatrice has to pay the monthly rent of $885 for her efficiency apartment, and she’s worried that the rent will go up in the fall. She receives $70 in food stamps each month and additional help from the JFCS senior center, including grocery gift cards and the food pantry.

“I do everything alone. I go shopping alone, still drive a car. I’m very independent. That’s the thing that bothers me. At one time, I was in control. But the recession has done terrible things,” Beatrice said.

Members of Jewish Family and Community Services' senior center arrive for lunch and activities. Photo by Ariel Min/PBS
         NewsHour

Members of Jewish Family and Community Services senior center arrive for lunch and activities. Photo by Ariel Min/PBS NewsHour

Over the next decade, the number of baby boomers struggling with food insecurity is expected to rise by 50 percent.

Government food programs won’t be enough to serve this population. That is where programs like those offered by Jewish Family and Community Services’ senior center fill in the gaps. But many of these groups nationwide face long waiting lists and worry, too, about the coming need.

“Seniors are living longer, and they’re outliving their incomes,” said JFCS’s Faffer. “And, unlike younger people, who we can help find a job, find more affordable housing, with our seniors, that just can’t happen.”

The post Asking for help at 80 — America’s new faces of hunger appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

In 1850, Ignaz Semmelweis saved lives with three words: wash your hands

The Vienna General Hospital

On May 15, 1850, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis urged doctors at Vienna General Hospital to wash their hands. Photo via Wikimedia

On this date in 1850, a prickly Hungarian obstetrician named Ignaz Semmelweis stepped up to the podium of the Vienna Medical Society’s lecture hall. It was a grand and ornately decorated room where some of medicine’s greatest discoveries were first announced. The evening of May 15 would hardly be different — even if those present (and many more who merely read about it) did not acknowledge Semmelweis’s marvelous discovery for several decades.

Ignaz Semmelweis

Ignaz Semmelweis, circa 1860. Photo via Wikimedia

What, exactly, was the doctor’s advice to his colleagues on that long ago night? It could be summed up in three little words: wash your hands!

At this late date, we all expect our doctors to wash their hands before examining us or performing an operation in order to prevent the spread of infection. Surprisingly, physicians did not begin to acknowledge the lifesaving power of this simple act until 1847

It was then that Dr. Semmelweis began exhorting his fellow physicians at the famed Vienna General Hospital (Allgemeines Krankenhaus) to wash up before examining women about to deliver babies. His plea was far more than aesthetic; it was a matter of life and death and helped to prevent a deadly malady known as “childbed” or puerperal (from the Latin words for child and parent) fever.

In the mid-19th century, about five women in 1,000 died in deliveries performed by midwives or at home. Yet when doctors working in the best maternity hospitals in Europe and America performed deliveries, the maternal death rate was often 10 to 20 times greater. The cause was, invariably, childbed fever. And a miserable end it was: raging fevers, putrid pus emanating from the birth canal, painful abscesses in the abdomen and chest, and an irreversible descent into an absolute hell of sepsis and death — all within 24 hours of the baby’s birth.

The reason seems readily apparent today, if not back then. Medical students and their professors at the elite teaching hospitals of this era typically began their day performing barehanded autopsies on the women who had died the day before of childbed fever. They then proceeded to the wards to examine the laboring women about to deliver their babies.

Dr. Semmelweis was brilliant but had two strikes against him when applying for a position at the Vienna General Hospital in 1846: he was Hungarian and Jewish. Medicine and surgery were considered to be the premier specialties in Vienna but because of his background and religion Semmelweis was relegated to running the less desirable division of obstetrics. Nevertheless, his claim to immortality was the result of an obsession with finding the means to end the childbed fever epidemics that were killing nearly a third of his patients. (The hospital ward run by midwives, without autopsy duties, had far better outcomes with their deliveries).

Every day he heard the heart-rending pleas of women assigned to his care begging to be discharged because they believed these doctors to be the harbingers of death. Fortunately, Dr. Semmelweis was smart enough to listen to his patients.

The obstetrician made the vital connection that puerperal fever was caused by the doctors transferring some type of “morbid poison” from the dissected corpses in the autopsy suite to the women laboring in the delivery room. That morbid poison is now known as the bacteria called Group A hemolytic streptococcus.

 Photomicrograph of Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria, 900x Mag. A pus specimen, viewed using Pappenheim's stain. Last
         century, infections by S. pyogenes claimed many lives especially since the organism was the most important cause of puerperal
         fever and scarlet fever. Wikimedia

Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria, seen through a microscope, the cause of puerperal fever. Photo via Wikimedia

Historians are quick to remind that Semmelweis was not the first physician to make this clinical connection, one that many expectant mothers of the era called “the doctors’ plague.” For example, the obstetrician Alexander Gordon of Aberdeen, Scotland, suggested in his 1795 Treatise on the Epidemic of Puerperal Fever that midwives and doctors who had recently treated women for puerperal fever spread the malady to other women. More famously, in 1843 Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Harvard anatomist and self-proclaimed “autocrat of the breakfast table,” published “The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever,” in which he discerned that the disease was spread by physicians and recommended that actively practicing obstetricians abstain from performing autopsies on women who died of puerperal fever as one of their “paramount obligations to society.”

That said, it was Dr. Semmelweis who ordered his medical students and junior physicians to wash their hands in a chlorinated lime solution until the smell of the putrid bodies they dissected in the autopsy suite was no longer detectable. Soon after instituting this protocol in 1847, the mortality rates on the doctor-dominated obstetrics service plummeted.

Unfortunately, Semmelweis’s ideas were not accepted by all of his colleagues. Indeed, many were outraged at the suggestion that they were the cause of their patients’ miserable deaths. Consequently, Semmelweis met with enormous resistance and criticism.

A remarkably difficult man, Semmelweis refused to publish his ”self-evident” findings until 13 years after making them despite being urged to do so repeatedly by those who supported him. To make matters worse, he hurled outrageously rude insults to some of the hospital’s most powerful doctors who deigned to question his ideas. Such outbursts, no matter how well deserved, never go unnoticed, let alone unpunished, in the staid halls of academic medicine.

Becoming more shrill and angry at each detractor’s critique, Semmelweis lost his clinical appointment at the Vienna General Hospital and in 1850 abruptly left for his native Budapest without even telling his closest colleagues. In 1861, he finally published his work, “Die Aetiologie, der Begriff und die Prophylaxis des Kindbettfiebers” (“The Etiology, the Concept, and the Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever”), in which he explained his theories on childbed fever, the ways to avoid spreading it by means of vigorous hand-washing and an attack on every one of his critics with a vitriol that still leaps off the page.

Dr. Semmelweis’s behavior became more and more erratic and he was finally committed to an insane asylum on July 30, 1865. He died there, two weeks later, on Aug. 13, 1865, at the age of 47. Historians still argue over what caused Semmelweis’s mental health breakdown and subsequent death. Some point to an operation Semmelweis performed, wherein he infected himself with syphilis, which may also explain his insanity. Others believe he developed blood poisoning and sepsis while imprisoned in the asylum for what may have been an unbridled case of bipolar disease. More recently, some have claimed that the obstetrician had an early variant of Alzheimer’s disease and was beaten to death in the asylum by his keepers.

Semmelweis’s professional timing could not have been worse. He made his landmark discovery between 1846 and 1861, long before the medical profession was ready to accept it.

Although Louis Pasteur began exploring the role of bacteria and fermentation in spoiling wine during the late 1850s, much of his most important work initiating the germ theory of disease occurred between 1860 and 1865. A few years later, in 1867, the Scottish surgeon Joseph Lister, who apparently had never heard of Semmelweis, elaborated the theory and practice of antiseptic surgery, which included washing the hands with carbolic acid to prevent infection. And in 1876, the German physician Robert Koch successfully linked a germ, Bacillus anthracis, to a specific infectious disease, anthrax.

Since the early 1900’s, however, physicians and historians have heaped up high praise for Semmelweis’s work and expressed sympathy for his emotional troubles and premature death. Today, in every school of medicine and public health, his name is uttered with great reverence whenever the critical topic of hand washing is taught. Sadly, in real time, he was derided as eccentric at best and, at worst, as an angry, unstable man who ought to be drummed out of the profession.

The real truth of the matter is that his detractors were wrong and he was right. Dr. Semmelweis paid a heavy price as he devoted his short, troubled life to pushing the boundaries of knowledge in the noble quest to save lives.

On the 165th anniversary of publicly announcing his landmark medical discovery, it seems fitting that we pay grand tribute to the great Dr. Semmelweis. Perhaps the gesture he might appreciate the most, however, is for us all to simply wash our hands often and well.


Dr. Howard Markel writes a monthly column for the PBS NewsHour, highlighting the anniversary of a momentous event that continues to shape modern medicine. He is the director of the Center for the History of Medicineand the George E. Wantz Distinguished Professor of the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan.

He is the author or editor of 10 books, including “Quarantine! East European Jewish Immigrants and the New York City Epidemics of 1892,” “When Germs Travel: Six Major Epidemics That Have Invaded America Since 1900 and the Fears They Have Unleashed” and “An Anatomy of Addiction: Sigmund Freud, William Halsted, and the Miracle Drug Cocaine.”

The post In 1850, Ignaz Semmelweis saved lives with three words: wash your hands appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

Twitter chat: What’s behind the push to remove artificial ingredients from restaurant menus?

Chipotle Becomes First Non-GMO US
         Restaurant ChainLast week, Panera Bread announced that it will be removing more than 150 artificial ingredients from the items on its menu. The restaurant chain follows Chipotle and Kraft as the latest company to jump on the menu-makeover bandwagon.

Allison Aubrey, who covers food and nutrition for NPR, and Michael Moss, author of the book “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” recently joined Gwen Ifill to discuss some of the forces driving this trend.

“The reason why these companies are making these changes now is that they’re talking to their customers, and consumer sentiment has really changed,” Aubrey told Ifill.

“Much of what this is about are these food giants trying to regain the trust of customers who are caring more and more about what they put in their bodies and caring less and less for some of the strategies we have seen from the processed food industry over the years,” Moss agreed.

To what degree is consumer pressure contributing to brands’ decisions to strike artificial additives, GMOs and more from their menus and ingredients lists? What factors sparked the natural food revolution? How great are the health risks posed by these ingredients, and what is the impact (both economic and in terms of taste) of these changes?

We discussed this topic with Aubrey (@AubreyNPRFood) and Moss (@MichaelMossC) on Twitter. Read a transcript of the conversation below.

The post Twitter chat: What’s behind the push to remove artificial ingredients from restaurant menus? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.