Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Tofu mad

I subscribe to Dr Mercola’s email letters. Not because I believe in what he says, but he keeps me entertained and intrigued. Here is one recent one that came challenging the safety of soy products. The questions in his marketing campaign were:
• Is soy really the reason people in Asian cultures live longer and have fewer cases of certain cancers? Discover the surprising truth…
• Do you know what types of soy are good for you -- and those types that aren’t? Does your diet contain harmful soy? Answers in this interview…
• How much soy is too much? Do you know how much soy you are actually consuming? Foods that contain “hidden” soy may be in your own kitchen – find out what they are…
• Why this supposed “health” food may be blocking your body’s ability to absorb much-needed minerals -- and blocking your ability to digest your food.

I am a bit worried. I eat tofu regularly simply because Princess of the House doesn’t like much meat. Hubby doesn’t care much for tofu but we force him to eat some. He prefers meat. So how much tofu should we be consuming?

Here is one source from a website called soyonline in NZ.

The key message I got from this web is: because of the way it is processed, soy is dangerous. Soy, it says, contains potent chemical toxins such as phytic acid, trypsin inhibitors, toxic lysinoalanine and highly carcinogenic nitrosamines.(My hubby always tells me toxins are found in nature, especially in food. So I am not go get too excited about this.)

This website says: “Phytoestrogens that disrupt endocrine function and are potent antithyroid agents are present in vast quantities in soy, including the potentially devastating isoflavone Genistein. Infants exclusively fed soy-based formula have 13,000 to 22,000 times more estrogen compounds in their blood than babies fed milk-based formula, the estrogenic equivalent of at least five birth control pills per day. Premature development of girls has been linked to the use of soy formula, as has the underdevelopment of males. Infant soy formula has been linked to autoimmune thyroid disease.”

WOW, that is scary if you have babies feeding on soy formula.

A little something of everything is ok
I think the problem is off-the-shelf foods contain too many soy-based ingredients. Soy is everywhere – in breads, biscuits, breakfast cereals, cake mixes, sausages, hotdogs, chicken nuggets, fish fingers, pastries, and lots more. Today I made some pancakes instead of using Edmond’s premade ones. I looked at the ingredients list on the Edmond’s package, and found 2 soy ingredients there.

Thousands of years ago, Asians found out how to make soy safe to eat by soaking, fermenting and sprouting the beans. This eliminated the anti-nutrients and increased soy's nutrition. Today, lots of these processes are bypassed. And soy has crept into quite a few things in our pantry. I checked out the little pack of biscuits I put in Princess of the House’s lunchbox – there is soy there. There is soy additive in our bread, in breadcrumbs we use, and so on.

I think I will henceforth:
 Allow Princess of the House to only eat tofu sparingly. Where possible, eat fresh and “whole” food that I can cook at home. (This means forgo-ing the convenient packages of biscuits and chips.)
 Where possible, make my own pastries and cakes.
 Still have a drink of soy milk when I feel like it!

Drunk on growth

The turmoil continues in the US despite the US Federal Reserve pumping in US$80 billion to salvage AIG. Across the world, people holding AIA insurance policies are fretting. Over in Singapore, people are rushing to redeem their AIA policies (AIA is owned by AIG). I am tempted to post it, but I should not.

On Tuesday, the US Federal Reserve left its benchmark lending rate unchanged at 2 percent – a signal that the US economy is not about to tank. This has been worrying many people around the world. The US remains the world’s largest economy until China overtakes it. We have to wait and see if the credit crisis in the US will choke US growth and cause the Fed to act soon on cutting rates.

Across in China, the Central recently moved to make money cheaper. One would think that the US needs more of a kick-start than China, whose economy is still suffering from excessive consumption. China has been on a growth binge for over 9 years. And this week, its Central Bank moved to reduce the benchmark loan interest rate and the reserve requirement ratio for commercial banks – a move usually taken to mean the government wants cheaper liquidity to fuel growth in the economy.

China’s decade of growth
China’s obsession with economic growth is mindboggling. Mindboggling because the economic rain makers are bent on keeping growth going. I would say, let the economy slow down, let it turn negative for a few years. Let there be a recession. Didn’t our mothers and grandmothers tell us they grew up during the war, or during the depression. ‘Every generation needs a war’ or ‘Every generation needs to grow up poor’ they used to tell us. I think every now and then, we need to go into recession for a while. This means people will lose jobs; companies will go bankrupt, and we all turn inward for a while – afraid, uncertain of the future. That can be a good period to reconfigure, rethink how we lead our lives.

This is the law of nature – what goes up must come down. Economies grow, economies must turn slow. The globalization of the world has set unreal expectations for our generation. We think that bigger or more is always better.

Small is beautiful
EF Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful is one of my constant companions when I need to remind myself that excessive growth, can be to our own detriment. At this moment in history, we have two choices: to continue growth (using maximum land, capital, labour, technology at all cost) as a way of life, or to focus on maximising the richness of our life by using as little as possible. These two philosophies are extreme opposites – in Schumacher’s view. One has to do with focusing on creating bigger economies using more resources. The other focuses on extending the economy’s lifespan by using as little as possible. I think the choice is clear. The tough part is putting it into action.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The great dying of American banking icons

These are sobering times. Major American banking icon Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection and is heading towards disintegration after it failed to find a buyer. Lehman, sinking under US$613 billion in debts, survived the railroad bankruptcies in the 1800s and Great Depression in the 1930s.

And just over this Sunday, we read that in one of Wall Street’s most dramatic history, Merrill Lynch, agreed to sell itself to the Bank of America for US$50 billion to prevent a financial collapse. The great Merrill Lynch? Surely not.

Now, American International Group (AIG) is hanging by its lifeline, as it seeks US$40 billion from the US Federal Reserve to stave off a quick death.

News from Bloomberg says New York State governor David Paterson would allow AIG to borrow $20 billion from subsidiaries to bolster its capital. Shares in A.I.G. tumbled more than 50 percent on Monday (Sept 15), as investors grew concerned over the company’s credit crisis.

AIA policy

I have to fret because I hold an AIA Assurance (whose parent company is AIG), bought since I started working in 1985. And my hubby has an AIA policy now. Will we see any money should we need to make a claim on the policy?

Here is an uninformed person’s take on the whole situation.

America has been the world’s role model for greed at all cost. Now we learn, greed comes with a price on our heads. We also learn, that we should not buy investments we don’t understand.

The American banking system has been the role model for modern capitalist nations – they all want to emulate Lehman, Bank of America or Goldman Sachs. How they fail to see, the “emperor too has no clothes”. Shame, shame.

America has in the past looked at disdain at Asia, at its crony capitalism. Now, we know, America too has its own version of crony capitalists. All those bankers wrapped up in Giorgio Armani or Ermenegildo Zegna suits. They all look positively crisp, the smell of greed lingering out of every pore as they seek to outsmart one another in creating, buying and selling debt instruments no one can understand but themselves.

Here’s what America should learn from Asia. Do what the Koreans did: bring out your gold, and melt them. Except Americans don’t save in “gold” they have annuities which are possibly all invested in airy fairy-type instruments.

America should peg its currency to the Renmenbi, for some stability. China may be able to use some of its reserves to bail America out. (Provided the Crony Capitalists in China haven’t bought heaps of Lehman or Merrill Lynch debt instruments which they thought they understood.)

Or better, America can do what Malaysia did; set up a National Investment Agency (using Fed Reserve money) to buy up all the soon-to-collapse company and salvage all the not-so-junky assets, reemploy all those men-in-fancy outfits. Soon you’ll realize, people forget. And life goes on. See how Malaysia survived.

One other way is to have the IMF bail out America. Except, where would the IMF get its money from (since the US is the largest holder of voting rights (which I read to mean also financial contributor). Then IMF would have to lay some rules on the banks in America – no more excesses. No more new expensive suits and mega laptops and fancy Bloomberg or Reuters-Thompson trading terminals in their dealing rooms. Use the abacus, they are cheaper. No more lattes or mochachinos, drink Chinese green tea.

Perhaps America should let some Arabs take over their banking system, convert them into hybrids – a form of Islamic banking housed in capitalist buildings.

Or perhaps, America should sell some of its banking assets to a venture owned by the oil-rich states in the Middle East and the nouveau riche in China. Then the Chinese and the Middle East will teach the world their form of trading, the Ali Baba kind which is less complicated.

Here’s how you and I, as man-in-street may be affected. Imagine all the layoffs in the US? Well, these financial types will soon be walking in the streets, looking for work. They will flock to Asia, Europe or elsewhere, to sell their “once were warrior” skills.

I love this saying: “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.” So, unless we remember the price of greed, we will always have to relearn what we missed learning.

As for me and my house, no Made-in-China food

I stopped buying Made-in-China food products when possible. This is the sad truth, it is not always possible to not buy Made in China (MIC). Our local Asian market Lim’s Garden stocks many different brands of MIC noodles, soy sauce, salted veggies and garlic. The grown-in-China garlic is about NZ$3.99 per kg. The grown-in-NZ garlic is about $13 per kg. What a world of difference. The Chinese garlic has to travel from some unknown patch in Chinese soil, go in a shipping vessel, to land in NZ shores. Why is it still so much cheaper? Because the poor Chinese farmer does not have control over his sale price. He just hands over his garlic crop to a middle man who ships in off for a little or fat profit, whichever we chose to believe. Poor Chinese farmer probably lives in a harsh condition, doing his utmost best to keep farming the way he knows best. My not buying his garlic does not help either.

Fonterra's half sin
NZ’s biggest export company Fonterra is suffering some bad press at the moment. Products made by its Chinese partner Shijiazhuang Sanlu Group Co Ltd, is reportedly found to contain melamine (an industrial additive, used in among others, as a base for plates and cups that don’t break).

According to Prime Minister Helen Clark (PM): New Zealand officials at Fonterra have been aware of the contamination since mid-August, despite a full public recall only being initiated 2nd week of September 2008.

Fonterra, according to the PM, could not recall the product as local authorities in China would not do it. (Clark told TV One on the Breakfast show on Sept 15, 2008).

This won’ be the first time the Chinese are using industrial ingredients in food. Remember those stories about human meat in Chinese buns or cat or dog meat in Chinese buns?

In 2007, a pet food recall was initiated by Menu Foods and other pet food manufacturers who had found their products had been contaminated and caused serious illnesses or deaths in some of the animals that had eaten them. The pet food was imported from a manufacturer in China, Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology. The practice of adding "melamine scrap" to animal feed is reported to be widespread in China. (Source: Wiki). What is it about the Chinese businessmen who choose such an atrocious way to make a little more profit?

Made in Thailand, Japan
My precaution? I stopped buying MIC food. I only buy Made-in-Thailand (MIT) noodles (I have no idea if their food standards are better), MIT tapiaco starch, rice flour and glutinous rice flour. I buy Made-in-Taiwan salted lettuce (it has an ISO stamp, not that that’s an endorsement of hygiene or food standards.). I buy Made-in-Japan Kikoman soy sauce, miso and Made-in-Malaysia’s Yeo salted beans. I stopped buying Chinese dried dates. I was told the Chinese coloured their version with colouring to make them brighter looking.

It is a funny feeling for me, given that I grew up eating MIC products. I used to love Ma Ling luncheon, or Ma Ling salted fish with black beans. I grew up eating MIC salted radish, lettuce and fermented bean curd. Now, I don’t.

Have I changed? Or has China changed? I don’t know, but I won’t take any chances.