Environment Health

Earth Day 2015: On 45th anniversary, little cause for celebration

If American television is anything to go by in the lead up to the 45th Earth Day anniversary (on April 22, 2015), there should be some concern about how many more remain to be celebrated. Given the increasingly unnecessary to downright unhealthy reasons for the continued exploitation of our limited natural resources, there seems little sense to the ever-expanding environmental destruction.

First, a visit to Shark Tank, the American version of Dragon’s Den. In the (April 17, 2015) episode immediately preceding Earth Day, the self-proclaimed business gurus, or ‘sharks’, were presented with an opportunity to invest in flavoured disposable face wipes.

The male sharks immediately bailed. Not because NeatCheeks was an unbelievably dumb, wasteful idea. No, it was because the aspiring facewipereneurs hadn’t managed to secure a patent on said unbelievably dumb, wasteful idea: Adding sweetener to a disposable napkin.

So what was the epiphany that spawned NeatCheeks? As one of the facewipereneurs explained:

I was at a restaurant with my family. I didn’t have my typical wipes, and my 18-month old was covered in mac-n-cheese. We were at a quiet restaurant, so I knew if I wiped her face, she would fuss. Uhm, so I asked my husband to dip his napkin in his water and I began to wipe her face, and she reacted differently. She started saying, “Yummy, more!” because it wasn’t water in my husband’s cup; it was lemonade. So that’s when the idea of a flavored face wipe…

First, the idea is at best a semi-useful tip for a mom blog – although one can imagine some moms pointing out this isn’t news; who doesn’t know that kids prefer sweet flavours. More significantly, this ‘solution’ would take a simple, environmentally friendly (assuming a fabric instead of disposable paper napkin – although even re-using a paper napkin is less wasteful) and free tip and turn it into a completely unnecessary, environmentally harmful and costly “product”. That, in a nutshell, sums up most of the crap peddled on Shark Tank, Dragon’s Den and the like.

The facewiperepeneurs eventually received two investment offers of $150,000 for 25% of their ‘business’, contingent on them procuring a patent.

This particular episode didn’t go unnoticed. Just two days later it was featured on an episode of Last Week Tonight with Jon Oliver. It was part of a lead-in montage for a segment on frivolous patents and patent litigation. If the US Patent and Trademark Office eventually issues the facewipereneurs a patent, it should be shut down. As show host Oliver pointed out, a patent must be novel and non-obvious; wetting a napkin with sweet-flavoured water to wipe a kid’s face… seriously.

The same night the referenced Shark Tank episode aired, an episode of VICE also aired. It featured a segment on the environmental destruction of the rainforests in South East Asia, titled “Indonesia’s Palm Bomb”. The piece highlighted the massive swathes of Indonesian (and Malaysian) rain forests bulldozed and burned down by the rampant, illegal palm fruit trade. As the lead-in to the segment noted, the palm fruit is primarily used to produce palm oil, modified varieties of which are ubiquitous in packaged edible (hasten to call these ‘food’) products on most store shelves today.

One of those products is Nutella, the chocolate-n-hazelnut flavoured goop that’s almost entirely made of sugar (55 percent) and palm oil (17 percent). It’s marketed as a wholesome product despite being anything but, and unwittingly fed to millions of Western children daily by their witless parents. Sales of Nutella in the USA have more than tripled over the past five years to $240.4 million per year, according to market researcher Euromonitor International.

The French Senate recently tried to pass what had been dubbed the”Nutella Tax“. Palm oil is a particular target for physicians and health care advocates not (just) for its impact on the environment, but for its impact on public health. The main culprit is palmitic acid, a type of saturated fat (along with myristic and lauric) known to increase ‘bad’ (low-density lipid, or LDL) serum cholesterol, which is associated with numerous poor health outcomes.1

As may be obvious from the name, palmitic acid derives its name from the palm plant, in particular the oil derived there from; palmitic acid (C16:0) comprises nearly half the total fat content, and all of the saturated fat content, of palm oil.2

But palm oil is by no means the only, or even the main, source of harmful saturated fat in the Western diet (or as some have taken to calling it, the Standard American Diet, or SAD). Nearly two thirds of beef’s total fat content is saturated fat, more than half of which is in the form of palmitic acid.3 And meat consumption in the SAD has doubled over the last twenty years to 200 pounds per person per year.

The VICE segment also mentioned the broader destruction of rainforests worldwide, including those in South America (‘the Amazon’). Unlike Indonesia and Malaysia, the Amazon rain forests aren’t being destroyed for palm oil, but rather for cattle ranching and soy farming, with the soy exported and processed into cattle feed.4

One could not-so-jokingly say the world’s rain forests are being destroyed for palmitic acid, from a variety of sources. The fatty acid in turn is deleterious to human health. An economic ‘bonus’ of the massive South American deforestation required  to clear the land for those cattle ranches and soy farms is a boom in logging. Useful for producing all the plant fibre needed for those otherwise completely unnecessary sweetened disposable face wipes.

Something to think about next time you see an obese infant gnawing on a burger or brisket, chasing it down with a Nutella-slathered treat as its morbidly obese parents watch on adoringly, wiping the bloated kid’s face with NeatCheeks.

Sorry Earth, but as things look today, your tomorrows are numbered – as, obviously, are ours.


1.Diet, nutrition and the prevention of chronic diseases: report of a joint WHO/FAO expert consultation, WHO technical report series 916, Geneva, 28 January, 1 February 2002.

2. Full Report (All Nutrients):  04055, Oil, palm, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 27, 2014.

3. Full Report (All Nutrients):  13330, Beef, variety meats and by-products, mechanically separated beef, raw, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 27, 2014.

4. Amazon Rainforest: Campaigning for zero Amazonian deforestation by 2015, Greenpeace USA, 2014.

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