Send in the Twix Bars:
The Give-Get of Technology
March 08 2011

by tmartin on March 8, 2011

I SPOTTED an interesting sounding article in the Boston Globe the other day, headlined “Ingenuity vs. Obesity.” (http://www.linkyy.com/6nU ) As one of the many whose life represents a constant struggle between “this tastes great” and “these jeans don’t fit,” I couldn’t help but jump in and start reading.

About three paragraphs in, I started to wonder.

Don’t get me wrong – the article describe some interesting technologies being developed in the Boston area that address the intersection of our bodies and food.

For example, there’s the Lexington company named GI Dynamics whose EndoBarrier is basically an internal condom for the digestive tract that lets foods slide along part of the small intestine without being absorbed. It’s got applications for diabetes and obesity. (http://www.gidynamics.com/endobarrier-overview.php)

In Boston, we have Gelesis (http://www.gelesis.com/content/about-gelesis/), a firm that’s raised $16M in venture funds to develop a capsule that swells up inside your stomach, making you feel full.

Over in Cambridge, the war on fat is carried on by companies like Zafgen, which develops an injectable drug that slows fat production, and Energesis Pharmaceuticals, which researches ways to burn off fat.

These are but a few examples from the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in the battle of the bulge, a battle that matters because the majority of adults in the US fall into the obese or overweight categories. This, in turn, increases diabetes and cardiovascular health risks.

It may have been the notion of pharmaceutical fat burning that triggered it. I mean, sure I’d like a magic pill to make those extra pounds disappear so I could be as slim and fit and flat-tummied as the American ideal.

But I’m not stupid either.

We all know what burns fat, even if we don’t like the answer. Food in = energy out. Put too much on one side or the other and you end up with fat or starvation. Want to use stored fat? Draw upon it to create energy.

So it was with that ah-ha moment that I began to wonder if we’re working really hard to solve a problem with technology that we also created with technology.

We’ve done a great job using technology to produce more food, for less cost. There are whole associations devoted to this career discipline, including the Institute of Food Technologists (http://www.ift.org/food-technology.aspx).

Much of this has been wonderful applications of science and technology – creating more bountiful harvests, ensuring food safety, understanding food chemicals and their outcomes…

But some of these technologies create end results that merely led to the need for other technologies — like stomach-filling capsules — to counter their results.

UMass Extension notes that the food industry may be spending as much as $10 billion a year advertising food and beverages to people who are forming their eating habits – i.e., youth and children under the age of 18. The Kaiser Family Foundation says approximately a third of the ads are for candy and snacks, a fourth are for cereal, and a tenth are for fast food.

All of these promoted products become possible through applied food science – aka, technology applied to food and drink.

Our inventions in chemistry, materials, and genetics deserve applause … but with images of sugar plum EndoBarriers dancing in our heads, maybe they deserve a little pause as well.

It’s sort of like intro to algebra. One of the first things you learn is the concept of simplification. When you’re trying to solve a problem, you start by bringing it down to its most basic level by cancelling out both sides of the equation.

When you look at the fat question, it’s pretty clear that a big dollop of technology sits on both sides of it. Have we been busily investing in technology just so we can invent more technology to solve the problems we created with it in the first place?

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with eating these products of food technology. Bring on the Twix bars! Bring on the Starbursts! I love ‘em!

It’s just that maybe a few moments of introspection are in order — and not just with the fat question either.

Instead of charging ahead and assuming that we can invent a solution to every problem, why not take a look to see where we can simplify the equation? To see if our very own technology is already part of the problem?

We hold in our minds and in our hands great power to shape our world. Therein lies the core of technology – using knowledge to create a thing, a process, a solution.

Ingenuity vs. Obesity. You gotta’ love that match up. But perhaps we also have to ask if we’ve merely battling ourselves — and if we can simplify the equation down to one that’s easier to solve.

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