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    Consumers Avoid Extremes in Soft Drink Sizes

    Preferences tend to midrange options in beverages

    As portion sizes have increased, Americans' waistlines have expanded. And as a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests, consumers may be tricked into drinking more soft drinks when retailers eliminate small drink sizes.

    No matter what the volume of the soft drink, customers tend to avoid the largest and smallest options, according to authors Kathryn M. Sharpe, Richard Staelin, and Joel Huber, all Duke University. "Our basic premise is that consumer purchases are altered by the portfolio of drink sizes made available," the authors said.

    Fast-food restaurants, in an attempt to boost profit margins, have eliminated smaller drink sizes and added even larger sizes. The authors believe these policies have led to a 15 percent increase in the consumption of these high-calorie drinks.

    "Consumers who purchased a 16-ounce drink when a 12-ounce drink was available later chose a 21-ounce drink when the 12-ounce drink option was removed, since now the 16-ounce soda is the smallest option," they write. "This effect also occurred at the large end of the spectrum; people who purchased a 21-ounce drink when the 32-ounce drink was the largest size available moved up to the 32-ounce drink when a 44-ounce drink was added to the range of drink sizes available.

    By adding the 44-ounce option, the restaurant is able to shift the demand curve upward, even though the authors believe customers still want 12-ounce drinks.

    The researchers go on to simulate policy directions for slimming America's waistlines. Their models show that for flat taxation of soft drinks to reduce consumption by 10 percent, it would need to be 28 cents per drink and would reduce corporate profits by at least 7 percent.



    And as a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests, consumers may be tricked into drinking more soft drinks when retailers eliminate small dri...
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    Lab Tests Point to Problems with New Sweetener

    Consumer group says product can increase cancer risk

    A consumer group says a new commercial sweetner, said to be 200 times sweeter than sugar, may cause health problems and needs more study. Coca-Cola and Pepsi are planning to introduce new drinks made with the sweetner, rebiana, an extract of stevia leaves.

    In a letter to the Food and Drug Administration, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) says the agency should require additional tests, including a key animal study, before accepting rebiana as Generally Regarded as Safe, or GRAS.

    The letter cites a new 26-page report by toxicologists at the University of California, Los Angeles, several, though not all, laboratory tests show that the sweetener causes mutations and DNA damage, which raises the prospect that it causes cancer.

    "A safe, natural, high-potency sweetener would be a welcome addition to the food supply," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "But the FDA needs to be as sure as possible that rebiana is safe before allowing it into foods that would be consumed by tens of millions of people. It would be tragic if the sweetener turned out to cause cancer or other problems."

    One key animal study has not been conducted, according to the UCLA experts and CSPI. The FDA's guidelines advise testing prospective major new food additives on two rodent species, usually rats and mice. The new sweetener has only been tested on rats, but not mice.

    The toxicologists' report said that because several studies found mutations and DNA damage, a lifetime mouse study designed to evaluate the risk of carcinogenicity and other health problems was particularly important.

    The UCLA toxicologists emphasized the need for more genotoxicity tests, because of the evidence that derivatives of stevia that are closely related to rebiana damage DNA and chromosomes.

    Their report noted that much of the recent research on rebiana was sponsored by Cargill and urged the FDA to obtain independently conducted tests to ensure that corporate biases don't influence the design, conduct, or results of the tests.

    Rebiana is shorthand for rebaudioside A, a component of stevia. It is obtained from the leaves of a shrub native to Brazil and Paraguay. Coke, Pepsi, and other companies are excited about rebiana, because it supposedly tastes better than crude stevia, which is sold as a dietary supplement in health-food stores.

    After all the controversies pertaining to saccharin, aspartame, and other artificial sweeteners, the food industry expects many calorie-conscious consumers to eagerly opt for this natural sweetener.

    Two companies -- Cargill and Merisant -- have told the FDA that rebiana should be considered GRAS, a category given less scrutiny by the FDA than ordinary food additives. A third company, Wisdom Natural Brands, has declared that its stevia-based sweetener is GRAS and will market it without giving evidence to, or even notifying, the FDA. That company gave CSPI only a heavily redacted report prepared by scientists it hired to declare its stevia derivative, which is of unknown purity, is safe.

    Stevia is legal in foods in Japan and several other countries, but the United States, Canada, and the European Union bar stevia in foods because of older tests that suggested it might interfere with reproduction. New tests sponsored by Cargill did not find such problems.

    "I am not saying that rebiana is harmful, but it should not be marketed until new studies establish that it is safe," Jacobson said.

    Cargill's version of rebiana is called Truvia and would be used by Coca-Cola. Pepsi's version is called PureVia and is produced by Merisant's Whole Earth Sweetener division. Merisant is best known for marketing the Equal brand of aspartame.

    CSPI has not questioned the safety of two artificial sweeteners, sucralose (Splenda) and neotame, but says that suggestive evidence indicates that saccharin, aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet), and acesulfame-K pose small risks of cancer.

    "The whole issue of what gets GRAS status needs to be reviewed by Congress," Jacobson said. "It's crazy that companies can just hire a few consultants to bless their new ingredients and rush them to market without any opportunity for the FDA and the public to review all the safety evidence."

    Two of the most harmful ingredients in the food supply are considered GRAS: salt, which raises blood pressure and causes thousands of unnecessary heart attacks and strokes every year, and partially hydrogenated oil, which is the source of artery-clogging artificial trans fat. CSPI has long campaigned to get partially hydrogenated oil out of the food supply and to reduce salt to safe levels.



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    Kids Burn More Calories Playing Active Video Games

    All video games are not created equal

    A study published in the September issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine finds that kids who play an active video game burn more than four times as many calories per minute than those playing a seated game. In addition, their heart rates are significantly higher with the active game.

    Video and computer gaming is rapidly becoming the preferred leisure-time activity for school-aged children. Computer and video game sales have increased by $5.2 billion in the last decade and more than 83 percent of U.S. children age 8 to 18 have video game players in their bedrooms.

    At the same time, obesity rates continue to increase worldwide; sedentary activities such as seated game-playing may contribute.

    The gaming industry has recently begun producing active "extertainment" gaming systems. "A recent active gaming concept that allows players to experience various activities (bowling, fishing, tennis, golf) in a virtual world is the XaviX gaming system," the authors write. "In addition to the exercise gaming modalities, the XaviX system includes a gaming mat that allows participants to travel the streets of Hong Kong at a walk or a run, avoiding obstacles and stamping out ninjas."

    Researchers at the Institute of Human Performance, University of Hong Kong, Pokfulam, measured heart rate and calorie expenditure in 18 kids age 6 to 12 during a 25-minute gaming protocol.

    Participants rested for five minutes, then played a seated computer bowling game, an active bowling game and the action/running game for five minutes each, with five minutes of rest between active games.

    Compared with resting, children burned 39 percent more calories per minute playing a seated game, 98 percent more playing active bowling and 451 percent more during the action/running game. When compared with seated gaming, they burned 0.6 more calories playing active bowling and 3.9 more calories per minute playing on the action mat.

    "This translates into a more than four-fold increase in energy expenditure for the XaviX J-Mat game," the authors write. "Preventing weight gain requires an energy adjustment of approximately 150 kilocalories [calories] per day. The four-fold increase in energy expenditure when playing on the XaviX J-Mat would fill the proposed energy gap, if this game were played for 35 minutes a day."

    In addition, participants' heart rate was significantly higher during either active game than during rest, and also was higher during the action mat gaming than during seated gaming.

    "Our data demonstrate that the two active gaming formats result in meaningful increases in energy expenditure compared with the seated screen environment," the authors conclude. "The next step is to test whether active gaming interventions can provide sustainable increases in childhood physical activity."

    In an accompanying editorial, Russell R. Pate, Ph.D., of the University of South Carolina School of Public Health, Columbia, writes the study "findings show that kids who play the new generation of video games requiring physical activity expend energy at levels that could help to prevent obesity."

    This is important, he notes, because electronic entertainment is not going away, adding, "If we want to promote physical activity in the context of contemporary society, we will have to fight fire with fire. Physically active video gaming may be part of the antidote to the poisonous growth of sedentary entertainment."

    "Substituting physically active video gaming for sedentary gaming is an attractive option," Pate said. "The economics of this strategy could work at the societal level. If that proves to be true, the video gaming industry and the kids themselves will solve the problem. We ought to find out if they will."

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      Getting a Reverse Mortgage: Smart Move or Something to Avoid?

      Seniors face big risks and costs

      As retirement approaches for baby boomers, or as more and more of their parents are stuck in homes they can't or won't sell, a growing number of Americans are considering reverse mortgages as one way to supplement their income. Exactly what is a reverse mortgage? It's a payment that a homeowner receives from the holder of the mortgage, or a third party, in either a monthly or yearly amount or in a lump sum with the amount tied to whatever equity someone has in their home.

      Sounds like a good deal, right? Many people seem to think so. In the past eight years, the number of reverse mortgages has grown from less than 8,000 a year to more than 100,000. While this is still a small percentage of the number of overall mortgages that are held in the United States today, it still represents a substantial increase in a type of mortgage that has drawn much criticism because of its high costs as well as the way they have been marketed and sold to aging homeowners.

      In July, President Bush signed a rescue Housing Bill that was intended to help homeowners facing foreclosure, but also to raise the amount someone is able to borrow using federally backed reverse mortgages. The increases were from a maximum of $362,790 to $417,000, and even as much as $625,500 in some high cost areas. The bill, which will go into effect sometime in the next 60-90 days, also limits the relatively high cost of reverse mortgages by capping those costs at $6,000.

      However, not only are reverse mortgages typically more expensive than regular mortgages, they are quite a bit more complicated. Add to that the current credit crisis and depressed housing market, reverse mortgages may not be the "golden goose" all those television infomercials would lead you to believe. While they resemble home-equity loans, you have to be over 62 years old to qualify for one and the amount you get will depend on your age, the value of your home, and interest rates.

      On the plus side, the federal government guarantees more than 90% of all reverse mortgages through the Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM) program. What that means is if the value of your home drops to the point where the price it sells for is less than the amount owed, the federal government will cover any short-fall. Otherwise, the mortgage holder will suffer a loss. Plus you don't have to make monthly payments or meet an income requirement to qualify.

      In fact, you don't even have to repay the loan until you move out of your house, sell, or die. Whatever debt is left on your house is settled with the proceeds from the sale of the home. And if there's any money left over, if you are still alive, it goes to you and if you have died, it goes to your heirs.

      As for costs, the basic rates for reverse mortgages are currently lower than those on home-equity loans -- somewhere around 4.3% for a reverse mortgage compared to 5.3% for home-equity lines of credit. This may seem like a good deal, but keep in mind that reverse mortgages are "rising debt" loans which means the interest you owe is added to the loan's balance and that could eventually become a large portion of your overall debt. Eventually you wind up owing interest on the interest, compounding the cost of the mortgage.

      Plus, there are a number of upfront charges such as origination fees, the cost of the appraisal, and a title search. Add to that a 2% mortgage insurance premium required for all HECM loans. The housing rescue bill helps a little by limiting origination fees to 2% of the loan up to the first $200,000 and 1% of the rest, with a cap at $6,000. Still, $6,000 may be a fairly high price to pay to get access to equity in your home.

      According to the AARP, high cost is the primary reason two out of three seniors who had been considering a reverse-mortgage shoppers decide against it. To be fair, not all lenders charge high fees. So do comparison shopping if you are considering a reverse mortgage; you may be able to negotiate for lower fees.

      Historically, the way reverse mortgages were sold had something of a checkered past. Some mortgage brokers were accused of pressuring borrowers to buy something called deferred annuities with the money that they received from their loans. The new housing law prohibits lenders from requiring borrowers to buy investments or insurance products as a condition of getting the loan.

      The new housing bill also prohibits requiring the purchase of annuities and other financial products. Still, you should question any financial product that someone tries to sell to you, including a reverse mortgage.

      Keep in mind that even after taking out a reverse mortgage, you're still responsible for property taxes, insurance, utilities, fuel, maintenance, and other expenses related to your home. If you don't maintain homeowner's insurance, for example, you risk the loan becoming due and payable. Also, if you sell your home or no longer use it as your primary residence for 12 months in a row, you or your estate will have to repay the cash you received from the reverse mortgage, including interest and other fees to the lender.

      So if you don't intend to live in your home until you die, you may want to reconsider getting a reverse mortgage. If you have to enter a nursing home for longer than 12 months, the loan will become due. Consider that if you can't remain in your home for several years, a reverse mortgage might not make much sense financially.

      In fact, if you have equity in your home and you can qualify for a home-equity loan and you can make the monthly payments on that home equity loan, that may be a less expensive way to supplement your retirement than taking out a reverse mortgage. That way you get a lump sum of income from your home's equity as you continue to live there. (But you have to pay off the home equity loan when you sell your home.)

      Another option to supplementing retirement income is to downsize. Sell your house and trade down by buying a less expensive home so that you will have the profits from the sale of your larger or more expensive home to invest or live on. You could also consider renting and investing the money from the sale of your home rather than immediately buying another home.

      In either case, experts recommend that anyone who is thinking about a reverse mortgage should first talk to a loan counselor to weigh the pros and cons. You can find a loan counselor on a list approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (http://www.hud.gov/offices/hsg/sfh/hcc/hcs.cfm), or you can find a local housing counseling agency by calling (800) 569-4287.

      Getting a Reverse Mortgage: Smart Move or Something to Avoid?...
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