Saturday, October 28, 2023

States sue Meta for knowingly hurting teens with Facebook and Instagram − here are the harms researchers have documented

Instagram’s emphasis on filtered photos of bodies harms girls’ self-image. Thomas Barwick/DigitalVision via Getty Images
Christia Spears Brown, University of Kentucky

Forty-one states and the District of Columbia filed lawsuits against Meta on Oct. 24, 2023, alleging that the company intentionally designed Facebook and Instagram with features that harm teens and young users.

Meta officials had internal research in March 2020 showing that Instagram – the social media platform most used by adolescents after TikTok – is harmful to teen girls’ body image and well-being. But the company swept those findings under the rug to continue conducting business as usual, according to a Sept. 14, 2021, Wall Street Journal report. The report was based on documents provided by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen.

Meta’s record of pursuing profits regardless of documented harm has sparked comparisons to Big Tobacco, which knew in the 1950s that its products were carcinogenic but publicly denied it into the 21st century. Those of us who study social media use by teens didn’t need a suppressed internal research study to know that Instagram can harm teens. Plenty of peer-reviewed research papers show the same thing.

Understanding the impact of social media on teens is important because almost all teens go online daily. A Pew Research Center poll shows that 77% of teens report they use social media daily.

Teens are more likely to log on to Instagram than any other social media site except TikTok. It is a ubiquitous part of adolescent life. Yet studies consistently show that the more often teens use Instagram, the worse their overall well-being, self-esteem, life satisfaction, mood and body image. One study found that the more that college students used Instagram on any given day, the worse their mood and life satisfaction were that day.

Meta has taken steps to make Instagram less harmful to teens, but experts say the changes are not enough.

Unhealthy comparisons

But Instagram isn’t problematic simply because it is popular. There are two key features of Instagram that seem to make it particularly risky. First, it allows users to follow both celebrities and peers, both of whom can present a manipulated, filtered picture of an unrealistic body along with a highly curated impression of a perfect life.

While all social media allows users to be selective in what they show the world, Instagram is notorious for its photo editing and filtering capabilities. Plus, the platform is popular among celebrities, models and influencers. Facebook has been relegated to the uncool soccer moms and grandparents. For teens, this seamless integration of celebrities and retouched versions of real-life peers presents a ripe environment for upward social comparison, or comparing yourself to someone who is “better” in some respect.

People, as a general rule, look to others to know how to fit in and judge their own lives. Teens are especially vulnerable to these social comparisons. Just about everyone can remember worrying about fitting in in high school. Instagram exacerbates that worry. It is hard enough to compare yourself to a supermodel who looks fantastic (albeit filtered); it can be even worse when the filtered comparison is Natalie down the hall.

Negatively comparing themselves to others leads people to feel envious of others’ seemingly better lives and bodies. Recently, researchers even tried to combat this effect by reminding Instagram users that the posts were unrealistic.

It didn’t work. Negative comparisons, which were nearly impossible to stop, still led to envy and lowered self-esteem. Even in studies in which participants knew the photos they were shown on Instagram were retouched and reshaped, adolescent girls still felt worse about their bodies after viewing them. For girls who tend to make a lot of social comparisons, these effects are even worse.

Objectification and body image

Instagram is also risky for teens because its emphasis on pictures of the body leads users to focus on how their bodies look to others. My colleagues’ and my research shows that for teen girls – and increasingly teen boys – thinking about their own bodies as the object of a photo increases worrying thoughts about how they look to others, and that leads to feeling shame about their bodies. Just taking a selfie to be posted later makes them feel worse about how they look to others.

Being an object for others to view doesn’t help the “selfie generation” feel empowered and sure of themselves – it can do exactly the opposite. These are not insignificant health concerns, because body dissatisfaction during the teen years is a powerful and consistent predictor of later eating disorder symptoms.

Meta has acknowledged internally what researchers have been documenting for years: Instagram can be harmful to teens. Parents can help by repeatedly talking to their teens about the difference between appearance and reality, by encouraging their teens to interact with peers face-to-face, and to use their bodies in active ways instead of focusing on the selfie.

The big question will be how Meta handles these damaging results. History and the courts have been less than forgiving of the head-in-the-sand approach of Big Tobacco.

This story has been updated to include news of state attorneys general filing lawsuits against Meta claiming the company knowingly put children at risk.

Christia Spears Brown, Professor of Psychology, University of Kentucky

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

‘I see no happy ending’ − a former national security leader on the Gaza hostage situation

Israelis whose relatives are being held hostage demonstrate on October 26, 2023 in front of the Defense Ministry building in Tel Aviv, demanding the government to bring back their loved ones. Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu via Getty Images
Gregory F. Treverton, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

Hamas took more than 200 people hostage during its deadly rampage in Israeli border towns on Oct. 7, 2023. Among the hostages are children and the elderly. While four of them have been released, the fate of the rest is unknown, as Qatar serves as an intermediary in working to free the hostages. In this interview with Naomi Schalit, The Conversation U.S. senior politics and democracy editor, Gregory F. Treverton of USC Dornsife, a former chairman of the National Intelligence Council in the Obama administration, says most hostage-taking has specific goals. This one, says Treverton, “is basically an adjunct of warfare, and that makes it very different” – and very hard to solve.

How do people in your field think about hostage-taking? I would imagine that the feeling is, “Oh, my god, please let nothing like that happen.”

It’s an utter dilemma, because on the one hand you feel for the hostages. And as we’ve seen in the past, the Israelis have been prepared to – and did – release a thousand hostages to get one Israeli back.

On the other hand, when you do a deal to get hostages released, you’re only encouraging more hostage-taking. So you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. As a result, every government, including the United States, says, “We never deal with hostage-takers.” But of course, they all do – and they have to.

I think it’s one of the hardest parts of being in the national security business. You want to free the people – but you’re also going to get criticized. Every time President Biden has gotten somebody out of Russia, people have said, “Oh, he’s paid too high a price” or “He’s rewarded hostage-taking,” and to some extent, that’s true. You are basically rewarding the hostage-takers. But we still have to deal with them. We want to get our people out. And at some some point – as the Israelis have shown – they’re prepared to pay almost any price to get them back.

A worried and teary-eyed woman holds a photo of her daughter.
Keren Shem, the mother of hostage Mia Shem, holds a photograph of her daughter as she speaks to the press in Tel Aviv on Oct. 17, 2023. Gil Cohen-MAGEN/AFP via Getty Images

Israel released more than 1,000 prisoners in 2011 in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, whom Hamas captured and held for five years. This is more than 200 times the number of hostages, so how do you even think about that?

At least in my professional experience, this is without precedent. The closest parallel would be the 1976 Entebbe hijacking and hostage-taking by two Germans and two Palestinians on a flight from Tel Aviv to Paris. Hijackers held 103 Israeli hostages, once they released the 148 non-Israeli hostages. Hamas holds twice the number of hostages, and in very, very different circumstances. In Entebbe, the Israeli government knew where they were, they were in a single place – the airplane – which had been forced to land in Entebbe, Uganda, after taking off from Tel Aviv. And that’s where Israeli commandos were able to rescue the hostages.

In Gaza, we don’t know where they are. We know for sure they’re scattered throughout the tunnels, likely in lots of different small groups. Hamas will presumably then use them as shields if fighting begins on the ground. They might think that that would encourage the Israelis not to make a major attack – to keep Hamas from killing all the hostages. We know that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu isn’t keen on a major ground assault, and this really puts the onus on the Israelis for how the hostage situation ends.

When you think about the history of hostage negotiations, do you see something that has any relevance to what’s going on now?

It seems to me it’s a really different category. Even Entebbe was hostage-taking for some political aim – the hijackers wanted Israel to release a large number of prisoners who were Palestinian. A colleague of mine used to say that the point of terrorism was to do the least amount of violence with the most people watching it. But Entebbe was political theater, basically, and this is not political theater. This is basically an adjunct of warfare, and that makes it very different. It’s not the usual kind of tit for tat, with “How much am I willing to pay?” or “Can I take a hostage to get somebody else out?”

Two buses driving through an arid landscape.
Buses carrying Palestinian prisoners on Oct. 16, 2011, who were being exchanged for Israeli hostage Gilad Shalit, held by Hamas for five years. Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images

What does Israel’s heavy bombing of Gaza and the beginning of a ground invasion tell you about the government’s approach to the hostage situation?

It suggests either that they have a pretty good fix on where the hostages are located, which seems unlikely given the network of Hamas tunnels, or that they have decided they must proceed in any case and will try their best to safeguard and free hostages as they go. Given the Hamas practice of using civilians as human shields, the outcome is likely to be very ugly.

Where do you see this going?

I see no happy ending. I don’t think there’s a deal that Israel could conceivably make, given its own politics. Or that Hamas would accept. So it does seem to me that at some point there is going to be that ground attack and the hostages are going to be caught in the middle of it. I see almost no alternative, given what Israel has pledged – to destroy Hamas. The Biden administration maintains that Israel doesn’t really have a strategy. They have a desire, which is to destroy Hamas. But that’s not a strategy for dealing with the hostages or for Gaza after the attack.

Gregory F. Treverton, Professor of Practice in International Relations, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

Be Ready to Save a Life: Understanding the 2 steps of Hands-Only CPR

Every year, 350,000 people die from cardiac arrest in the United States. However, hands-on emergency intervention like cardiopulmonary resuscitation – or CPR – from a bystander can make the difference between life and death in sudden cardiac arrest emergencies.

In fact, immediate CPR can double or triple a cardiac arrest victim’s chance of survival, according to the American Heart Association. During the first few minutes an individual is suffering from cardiac arrest, chest compressions can help keep blood flow active and push remaining oxygen through the body to keep vital organs alive, which extends the opportunity for a successful resuscitation once trained medical staff arrive.

Because 88% of cardiac arrests – electrical malfunctions in the heart that cause an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) and disrupt the flow of blood to the brain, lungs and other organs – occur at home, it is often a friend or family member who witnesses a child, spouse, parent or friend going into cardiac arrest. As survival can depend on how quickly CPR is started, compression-only CPR, or Hands-Only CPR, is recommended for use by people who see a teen or adult suddenly collapse in an out-of-hospital setting such as at home, work or in a park.

“By equipping people with Hands-Only CPR training, we are empowering them to spring into action if a loved one needs help, as the majority of cardiac arrests occur at home,” said Dr. Anezi Uzendu, M.D., interventional cardiologist and American Heart Association volunteer.

As part of the World Restart a Heart Day initiative, the American Heart Association aims to increase awareness about the importance of bystander CPR through its Hands-Only CPR campaign, nationally supported by the Elevance Health Foundation, and offers these two simple steps:

  • Call 911 (or send someone to do that).
  • Push hard and fast in the center of the chest of the individual experiencing cardiac arrest.

Using the beat of a familiar song with 100-120 beats per minute, such as “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees, can help you stay on pace with the necessary compressions.

“Being able to efficiently perform Hands-Only CPR in the moment can mean the difference between life and death, and by following these two simple steps we can increase someone’s chance of survival from cardiac arrest,” said Shantanu Agrawal, M.D., board certified emergency medicine doctor and chief health officer at Elevance Health. “As a longstanding supporter of the American Heart Association, we remain focused on working together to improve health inequities in our communities by expanding access to training and increasing the number of people who learn and feel confident performing Hands-Only CPR to save lives.”

To find more information and resources, visit

6 Links in the Adult Out-of-Hospital Chain of Survival
When properly executed, a strong chain of survival – or series of actions – can improve the chances of survival and recovery for victims of sudden cardiac arrest. Hands-Only CPR is a critical step in the American Heart Association’s Chain of Survival, which also includes:

  • Activation of Emergency Response: Recognize symptoms of cardiac arrest and call 911.
  • High-Quality CPR: Push hard and fast in the center of the victim’s chest until emergency personnel arrive.
  • Defibrillation: Use an automated external defibrillator (AED) to restart the victim’s heart and reset it to a healthy rhythm.
  • Advanced Resuscitation: Medical professionals provide additional life-saving medical services.
  • Post-Cardiac Arrest Care: Transport victim to an appropriate hospital or treatment facility to optimize survival, organ function and neurological recovery.
  • Recovery: Survivors receive additional treatment, observation, rehabilitation and psychological support to aid in recovery and help prevent recurrent cardiac arrest.


American Heart Association

How to deal with visual misinformation circulating in the Israel-Hamas war and other conflicts

Social media is often used during times of conflict to spread fake news. Jonathan Raa/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Paul Morrow, University of Dayton

In the three weeks since war began between Israel and Hamas, social media has been taken over with images and stories of attacks, many of which proved false.

For example, within hours of Hamas’ surprise attack on Oct. 7, 2023, screen grabs from a popular video game were shared by thousands of social media users as if depicting real scenes of violence against Israeli troops in Gaza. Five days later, a real explosion at a hospital in Gaza spurred further sharing of such spurious images to buttress various claims and counterclaims about responsibility for the casualties.

It’s not just this war. Over the past decade, international commissions and tribunals working to mediate conflicts in Syria, Myanmar, Ukraine and elsewhere have struggled to verify the large amount of digital evidence.

As a human rights scholar, I have, of late, been studying the ethics of viewing photos and videos of war and atrocities in situations where falsification of imagery is widespread. A principal lesson of this research is that users of social media have significant power to influence the content they receive and thus bear some responsibility when they consume and share false information.

Defining misinformation and disinformation

Scholars and policymakers distinguish misinformation from disinformation based on the intentions behind their creation and circulation. Misinformation consists of false information that is not created or circulated with the intent to deceive. Disinformation consists of false information, including visual information, that is intended to deceive and do harm.

At the start of any war, misinformation proliferates. Rumors that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had fled Kyiv spread quickly after Russian forces invaded that country, only to be rebutted by videos posted from the streets of the capital. The difficulty of sifting reports on the ground, along with the reality that Zelenskyy was personally at risk, made many people accept and share those rumors.

Increasingly, however, false information about conflicts comes from actors – whether governments, military officials, separatist groups or private citizens – intentionally using texts and images to deceive. In Myanmar, for example, military propaganda officers published photographs supposedly depicting Rohingya people arriving in the country under British colonial rule in the mid-20th century. In actuality, these photographs, shared to support the military’s claim that the Rohingya had no right to live in Myanmar, depicted refugees from the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Conditions for ethical responsibility

As social media becomes saturated with falsified images of mass violence in the Israel-Hamas war, the Ukraine war and other regions of the globe, individuals should ask what ethical responsibility they bear for their consumption of misinformation and disinformation.

Some might deny that users of digital media bear any such responsibility, since they are merely the passive recipients of content created by others. Philosopher Gideon Rosen claims that when people are passive toward some occurrence, they generally don’t bear ethical responsibility for it. Anyone scrolling the internet will passively encounter hundreds of images and related texts, and it is tempting to assume they bear no responsibility for the images of war and mass violence that they see but only for how they respond to them.

However, users of digital media are not merely passive recipients of falsified images and stories. Instead, they have power to influence the kinds of images that show up on their screens. This means, in turn, that users bear some ethical responsibility for their consumption of visual misinformation and disinformation.

Algorithms and influence

A woman sits facing two computer screens while scrolling through news stories.
Digital media relies on algorithms to deliver content. Noah Berger/AFP via Getty Images

Digital media platforms deliver content to users on the basis of complex decision-making procedures known as algorithms. Through both online and offline behaviors, users help determine what these algorithms deliver.

It is helpful to distinguish between influence and control. Having control over content would mean either encountering only images and stories that one consciously chooses or having the power to screen out any and all unwanted images. It is typical of digital communications, as philosopher Onora O'Neill has pointed out, that users lack the ability to control content in these ways.

Nevertheless, users can significantly influence the material they encounter in digital spaces. The algorithms by which social media platforms and other digital networks deliver content to users are not fully transparent, but neither are they wholly mysterious. In most cases, they are propelled by users’ past engagement with a platform’s content – a fact reflected in the very name of the “For You” page on TikTok.

Liking, tagging, commenting on or merely continuing to watch images of war and atrocities tends to lead to additional encounters with such content. The potential risks of this algorithmic process became apparent in the mid-2010s, when YouTube’s algorithm was found to be leading users into progressively more extreme videos related to jihadist violence.

Although major social media platforms have community guidelines prohibiting incitement to violence and sharing of graphic content, those prohibitions are difficult to enforce. In the context of some ongoing wars, they have even been relaxed – with Facebook temporarily allowing posts calling for violence against Russian troops and paramilitary groups occupying parts of Ukraine, for example. Taken together, these processes and policies have opened the door to substantial misinformation and disinformation about armed conflict.

Hiding, reporting or simply disengaging with violent content, by contrast, tends to lead to fewer such messages coming in. It may also reduce the odds that such content will reach others. If one knows that a Facebook friend or TikTok content creator has shared false information before, it is possible to block that friend or unfollow that creator.

Because users have these means of influencing the images they receive, it is reasonable to assign them some responsibility for algorithmically generated misinformation and disinformation.

Verifying images

Altering patterns of engagement with digital content can decrease users’ exposure to misinformation in wartime. But how can users verify the images they do receive before directing others to them?

One simple protocol, promoted by educators and public health groups, is known by the acronym SIFT: stop, investigate, find, trace. The four stages of this protocol ask users to stop, investigate the source of a message, find better coverage, and trace quotes and claims back to their original contexts.

Images, like quotes, can often be traced to their original contexts. Google makes available its reverse image search tool, which allows users to select an image – or parts of it – and find where else it appears online. I found this tool helpful during the first months of the COVID pandemic, when Holocaust photographs were circulated online in posts comparing mask mandates to deportation trains. Of course, as journalists and forensic researchers are quick to point out, such tools can only be applied to a small portion of the images we encounter in our daily lives.

No technique or protocol will give users absolute control of the images they see in wartime or provide complete assurance against sharing false information. But by understanding users’ power to influence content, it may be possible to mitigate these risks and promote a more truthful future.

Paul Morrow, Human Rights Fellow, University of Dayton

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Your immune system makes its own antiviral drug − and it’s likely one of the most ancient

Blocking viruses from replicating their RNA is one way antivirals work. CROCOTHERY/iStock via Getty Images Plus
Neil Marsh, University of Michigan

Antiviral drugs are generally considered to be a 20th century invention. But recent research has uncovered an unexpected facet to your immune system: It can synthesize its own antiviral molecules in response to viral infections.

My laboratory studies a protein that makes these natural antiviral molecules. Far from a modern human invention, nature evolved cells to make their own “drugs” as the earliest defense against viruses.

How antivirals work

Viruses have no independent life cycle – they are completely dependent on the cells they infect to supply all the chemical building blocks needed to replicate themselves. Once inside a cell, the virus hijacks its machinery and turns it into a factory to make hundreds of new viruses.

Antiviral drugs are molecules that inactivate proteins essential to the functioning of the virus by exploiting the fundamental differences in the way that cells and viruses replicate.

One key difference between cells and most viruses is how they store their genetic information. All cells use DNA to store their genetic information. DNA is a long, chainlike molecule built from four different chemical building blocks, each representing a different “letter” of the genetic code. These building blocks are connected by chemical bonds in a head-to-tail fashion to produce strings of millions of letters. The order of these letters spells out the genetic blueprint for building a new cell.

Many viruses, however, store their genetic information using RNA. RNA is built from a chain of four chemical letters, just like DNA, but the letters have slightly different molecular structures. RNA is single-stranded, while DNA is double-stranded. Viral genomes are also much smaller than cellular genomes, typically only a few thousand letters long.

Diagram of the mechanisms of four classes of HIV antivirals
This diagram shows how four different classes of antiviral drugs inhibit HIV. One stops viruses from entering cells, and three inhibit different viral enzymes. Thomas Splettstoesser/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

When a virus replicates, it makes many copies of its RNA genome using a protein called RNA polymerase. The polymerase starts at one end of the existing RNA chain and “reads” the string of chemical letters one at a time, selecting the appropriate building block and adding it to the growing strand of RNA. This process is repeated until the entire sequence of letters has been copied to form a new RNA chain.

One class of antiviral drugs interferes with the RNA copying process in a cunning way. The head-to-tail construction of the RNA chain requires each chemical letter to have two connection points – a head to connect to the previous letter and a tail to allow the following letter to be added on. These antivirals mimic one of the chemical letters but crucially lack the tail connection point. If the RNA polymerase mistakes the drug for the intended chemical letter and adds it to the growing RNA chain, the copying process stops because there is nothing to attach the next letter to. For this reason, this type of antiviral drug is called a chain-terminating inhibitor.

Viperin as antiviral producer

Previously, researchers thought that chain-terminating antiviral drugs were strictly a product of human ingenuity, developed from advances in scientific understanding of viral replication. However, the discovery that a protein in your cells named viperin synthesizes a natural chain-terminating antiviral has revealed a new side of your immune system.

Viperin works by chemically removing the tail connection point from one of the four RNA building blocks of a virus’s genome. This converts the building block into a chain-terminating antiviral drug.

This strategy has proved to be highly effective for treating viral infections. For example, the COVID-19 antiviral remdesivir works in this way. A viral RNA polymerase has to join together many thousands of letters to copy a virus’s genome, but an antiviral drug has to fool it only once to derail its copying. An incomplete genome lacks the necessary instructions to make a new virus and becomes useless.

Illustration of Remdesivir blocking a viral RNA polymerase from replicating RNA
Remdesivir (red, center) works by blocking a viral RNA polymerase (blue) from replicating RNA (violet and orange). Juan Gaertner/Science Photo Library via Getty Images

Moreover, although cells also have their own polymerases, they never replicate RNA like viruses do. This potentially allows chain-terminating antiviral drugs to selectively inhibit viral replication, reducing unwanted side effects.

Clearly, viperin does not fully protect against all RNA viruses – otherwise no RNA viruses would make you sick. It seems that some viral RNA polymerases, such as those in poliovirus, have evolved to discriminate against the antiviral molecules that viperin synthesizes and blunt their effect. However, viperin is only one arm of your immune system, which includes specialized cells and proteins that protect you from infection in other ways.

Ancient antivirals

Scientists discovered viperin about 20 years ago while searching for genes that turn on in response to viral infections. However, figuring out what viperin actually does proved very challenging.

Viperin’s function was particularly puzzling because it resembles an ancient group of proteins called radical SAM enzymes that are usually found in bacteria and molds. Notably, radical SAM enzymes are extremely rare in animals. Exposure to air rapidly inactivates them, and researchers thought they likely didn’t work in people. It’s still unclear how viperin avoids inactivation.

Diagram showing structure of viperin without (left) and with (right) an antiviral bound in its center. The structure with the antiviral is more tightly wound in its center.
This illustration shows the structure of viperin without (left) and with (right) an antiviral bound in its center. Soumi Ghosh and Neil Marsh/Journal of Biological Chemistry, CC BY-SA

Researchers were clued in to viperin’s function when they noticed that the gene coding for viperin is next to a gene involved in synthesizing one of RNA’s building blocks. This observation led them to examine whether viperin might modify this RNA building block.

Following this discovery, researchers identified viperinlike proteins across all kingdoms of life, from ancient bacteria to modern plants and animals. This meant that viperin is a very ancient protein that evolved early in life, probably well before the advent of multicellular organisms – because even bacteria must fight viral infections.

As more complex life forms evolved, viperin was retained and integrated into the complex immune systems of modern animals. Thus, this most recently discovered arm of your immune system’s defenses against viruses is likely the most ancient.

Neil Marsh, Professor of Chemistry and Biological Chemistry, University of Michigan

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

Does chicken soup really help when you’re sick? A nutrition specialist explains what’s behind the beloved comfort food

A bowl of chicken soup typically contains protein, vegetables and soothing broth. Westend61 via Getty Images
Colby Teeman, University of Dayton

Preparing a bowl of chicken soup for a loved one when they’re sick has been a common practice throughout the world for centuries. Today, generations from virtually every culture swear to the benefits of chicken soup. In the U.S., the dish is typically made with noodles, but different cultures prepare the soothing remedy their own way.

Chicken soup as a therapy can be traced back to 60 A.D. and Pedanius Dioscorides, an army surgeon who served under the Roman emperor Nero, and whose five-volume medical encyclopedia was consulted by early healers for more than a millennium. But the origins of chicken soup go back thousands of years earlier, to ancient China.

So, with cold and flu season in full swing, it’s worth asking: Is there any science to back the belief that it helps? Or does chicken soup serve as just a comforting placebo, that is, providing psychological benefit while we’re sick, without an actual therapeutic benefit?

As a registered dietitian and professor of dietetics and nutrition, I’m well aware of the appeal of chicken soup: the warmth of the broth and the rich, savory flavors of the chicken, vegetables and noodles. What gives the soup that distinctive taste is “umami” – the fifth category of taste sensations, along with sweet, salty, sour and bitter. It is often described as having a “meaty” taste.

The notion that chicken soup is an elixir goes back centuries.

Improved appetite, better digestion

All that makes sense, because amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, and the amino acid glutamate is found in foods with the umami taste. Not all umami foods are meat or poultry, however; cheese, mushrooms, miso and soy sauce have it too.

Studies show that taste, it turns out, is critical to the healing properties of chicken soup. When I see patients with upper respiratory illnesses, I notice many of them are suddenly eating less or not eating at all. This is because acute illnesses ignite an inflammatory response that can decrease your appetite. Not feeling like eating means you’re unlikely to get the nutrition you need, which is hardly an optimal recipe for immune health and recovery from illness.

But evidence suggests that the umami taste in chicken soup may help spur a bigger appetite. Participants in one study said they felt hungrier after their first taste of a soup with umami flavor added in by researchers.

Other studies say umami may also improve nutrient digestion. Once our brains sense umami through the taste receptors on our tongues, our bodies prime our digestive tracts to absorb protein more easily.

This can reduce gastrointestinal symptoms, which many people experience when they’re under the weather. Although most people don’t associate upper respiratory infections with gastrointestinal symptoms, research in children has found that the flu virus increased abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea symptoms.

There are many ways to make chicken soup.

May reduce inflammation and stuffy nose

Inflammation is part of the body’s natural response to injury or illness; inflammation occurs when white blood cells migrate to inflamed tissue to assist with healing. When this inflammatory process occurs in the upper airway, it results in common cold and flu symptoms, such as a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, coughing and thickened mucus.

Conversely, lower white blood cell activity in the nasal passages can reduce inflammation. And interestingly, research shows that chicken soup can in fact lower the number of white blood cells traveling to inflamed tissues. It does this by directly inhibiting the ability of neutrophils, a type of white blood cell, to travel to the inflamed tissue.

Key ingredients

To truly understand the soothing and healing effects of chicken soup, it’s important to consider the soup’s ingredients. Not all chicken soups are packed with nutritious healing properties. For instance, the ultraprocessed canned versions of chicken soup, both with and without noodles, lack many of the antioxidants found in homemade versions. Most canned versions of chicken soup are nearly devoid of hearty vegetables.

The core nutrients in homemade versions of the soup are what set these varieties apart from canned versions. Chicken provides the body with a complete source of protein to combat infection. Vegetables supply a wide array of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. If prepared the American way, noodles provide an easily digestible source of carbohydrate that your body uses for energy and recovery.

Even the warmth of chicken soup can help. Drinking the liquid and inhaling the vapors increase the temperature of nasal and respiratory passages, which loosens the thick mucus that often accompanies respiratory illnesses. Compared with hot water alone, studies show chicken soup is more effective at loosening mucus.

The herbs and spices sometimes used in chicken soup, such as pepper and garlic, also loosen mucus. The broth, which contains water and electrolytes, helps with rehydration.

So, to maximize the health benefits of chicken soup, I recommend a homemade variety, which can be prepared with carrots, celery, fresh garlic, herbs and spices, to name a few ingredients. But if you need a more convenient option, look at the ingredients and nutrition facts label, and choose soups with a variety of vegetables over an ultraprocessed, nutrient-depleted kind.

In short, the latest science suggests that chicken soup – though not an out-and-out cure for colds and flu – really helps with healing. Looks like Grandma was right again.

Colby Teeman, Assistant Professor of Dietetics and Nutrition, University of Dayton

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

A Full Menu of Festive Holiday Flavor

Cooking up a successful holiday gathering calls for everyone’s favorite recipes. From the centerpiece main dish to fresh salads and appetizers, roasted sides and baked sweets, you can take seasonal get-togethers up a notch by mixing traditional classics with newfound favorites.

Consider this full-fledged menu of flavor to give guests a memorable holiday experience from beginning to end and find more festive recipe ideas at

Fresh Flavors for Holiday Festivities

With the festive season arriving, bring together family and friends for a delicious feast you can feel good about serving. One standout recipe is this Cornish Game Hen with Kale Sweet Potato Salad that pairs fresh, leafy kale with roasted sweet potatoes and tender Cornish game hens for a truly elegant meal.

Elevate your cooking during the holidays with inspiration from Fresh Express and its more than 100 varieties of fresh, healthy and convenient ready-to-eat salads like the Sweet Kale Chopped Kit. It’s a perfect blend of a nutrient-dense salad mix of leafy kale, green cabbage, shredded broccoli and Brussels sprouts, as well as crunchy pumpkin seeds and dried cranberries, topped with a tasty poppyseed dressing.

Visit to discover more fresh, easy and healthy recipes for the holiday season.

Cornish Game Hen with Kale Sweet Potato Salad

Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour, 10 minutes
Servings: 4

  • 1 package (6 ounces) stovetop stuffing
  • 2 cups chopped apples, divided
  • 4 Cornish game hens (20 ounces each)
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 2 teaspoons Italian seasoning, divided
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon salt, plus additional, to taste, divided
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 large sweet potatoes, peeled, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 package (10.9 ounces) Fresh Express Sweet Kale Chopped Kit
  1. Heat oven to 350 F.
  2. Prepare stuffing according to package directions. Add 1 cup apples and fluff stuffing with fork; cool 15 minutes.
  3. Remove anything inside hens, rinse cavity with cold water and pat dry.
  4. In small saucepan, melt butter over low heat. Add 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning, paprika, 1 teaspoon salt, garlic powder and pepper; mix well. Remove from heat.
  5. Fill cavity of each hen with apple stuffing.
  6. Place hens in 13-by-9-by-2-inch baking dish. Tie legs together and tuck wings under. Baste with butter mixture.
  7. Bake 50-60 minutes, or until thermometer inserted in thickest part of thigh reads 165 F and stuffing temperature reads 165 F. Baste with butter mixture every 15-20 minutes.
  8. In bowl, toss sweet potatoes with remaining Italian seasoning and olive oil. Arrange in single layer on sheet pan. Sprinkle with salt, to taste.
  9. Bake with hens 25 minutes, or until tender. Remove from oven and cool. Tent hens with foil and let rest 10 minutes.
  10. Place greens from salad kit in large bowl. Add remaining apples and sweet potatoes; mix well. Toss with salad dressing. Add toppings; toss to combine.
  11. Serve Cornish game hens with sweet potato kale salad.

A Festive, Everyday Side Dish

While the busy holiday season can be loads of fun, you still need to get dinner on the table between parties. When you find yourself in a pinch this holiday season, squeezed for time and searching for a quick solution for dinner, turn to an easy side dish that can appease everyone. Potatoes are a nearly unanimous favorite.

Make putting dinner on the table a breeze with a solution like little potatoes from The Little Potato Company, which can help bring holiday happiness to mealtime. Ready in as little as 5 minutes, they come pre-washed and require no peeling or cutting, making them the perfect time-saving solution for the holiday season.

Ideal for this Perfect Roasted Little Potatoes recipe, these little potatoes are a tasty, fresh whole food that you can feel good about serving. Ready in half an hour with minimal prep and a few simple ingredients, it’s a perfect side dish for any occasion.

Visit for more information and holiday inspiration.

Perfect Roasted Little Potatoes

Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Servings: 6

  • 1 1/2 pounds The Little Potato Company Little Potatoes
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1-2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
  1. Preheat oven to 400 F.
  2. In large bowl, toss little potatoes with oil, salt and pepper until coated.
  3. Spread potatoes in single layer on rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake 30 minutes, or until tender.
  4. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.

Tip: For extra holiday flavor, add paprika, garlic and fresh herbs.

Get Creative with Delicious, Decorative Cookies

A decadent holiday meal isn’t complete without a sweet dessert to cap off the evening. When in doubt, go with a traditional treat that’s perfect for sharing: cookies.

These Ornament Cookies can be shaped any way you like to celebrate the holidays. The royal icing adorning these festive favorites is made with powdered sugar and meringue powder; just use food coloring to add a personal touch.

For more than 120 years, Domino Sugar has helped millions bake special recipes like these cookies made with non-GMO, vegan, kosher and gluten-free Golden Sugar that’s free flowing and easy to scoop, spoon and pour. The sugar retains a hint of molasses flavor, giving it a golden color and providing a perfect way to add less processed sweetness to your loved ones’ favorite desserts.

Find holiday recipes, baking tips and more at

Ornament Cookies

Prep time: 25 minutes plus 1 hour to decorate
Cook time: 20 minutes
Yield: 2 dozen cookies


  • 1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 cup Domino Golden Sugar
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg
  • 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Royal Icing:

  • 4 cups Domino Powdered Sugar
  • 3 tablespoons meringue powder
  • 1/3 cup, plus 2-3 tablespoons, warm water, divided
  • desired food coloring
  1. To prepare cookies: In large bowl, beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add vanilla and egg; beat until well combined. Scrape sides of bowl as needed. Add flour and salt; beat until just combined.
  2. Dump mixture onto lightly floured surface and divide in half. Shape each half into disks and wrap with plastic wrap. Refrigerate 30 minutes.
  3. Preheat oven to 350 F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
  4. Working on lightly floured surface, roll dough to 1/2-inch thick. Cut cookies using ornament-shaped cookie cutter. Place cookies on prepared pans and bake 18-20 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove from oven and cool at room temperature.
  5. To make royal icing: In large mixing bowl, combine powdered sugar, meringue powder and 1/3 cup water. Beat on low speed until combined. Increase speed to medium-high and beat 8-10 minutes, adding 2-3 tablespoons warm water, as necessary. Icing should be stiff enough to hold peak when tested.
  6. Color royal icing with food coloring and decorate cookies.


Fresh Express
Little Potato Company
Domino Sugar

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Tex-Mex Sweetpotato Beef Skillet

For busy families, it’s hard to beat a one-skillet dish that cuts down on cleanup without sacrificing flavor. Especially during the hectic fall season when cool, crisp days call for comforting food, you can warm up the evening with a hot Tex-Mex meal that’s sure to occupy a permanent spot on the menu.

Start with a versatile comfort food staple like sweetpotatoes, which provide the body for this filling Tex-Mex Sweetpotato Beef Skillet. As a versatile veggie that’s easy to add to a variety of recipes for enhanced flavor and nutrition content, they can become a pantry must in your home for simple and elevated recipes alike. To maximize their already-lengthy shelf life (up to 4 weeks), simply store in a cool, dry, well-ventilated area away from heat sources – never in the refrigerator, which can cause “chill damage.”

Because they can be cooked and prepared in a skillet, baked, grilled, slow-cooked, microwaved, air-fried and more, they provide a crowd favorite that’s a breeze to use in the kitchen. In this delicious dish, they’re combined with peppers, onions, ground beef, broth, tomatoes, corn, Southwest seasoning and more to keep chilly days at bay.

Consider this fun fact to share with your loved ones at the dinner table: The one-word spelling of “sweetpotato” was officially adopted by the National Sweetpotato Collaborators in 1989 to avoid confusion with equally unique and distinctive potatoes, which are also grown and marketed commercially in the United States.

Find more comfort food favorites by visiting

Watch video to see how to make this recipe!

Tex-Mex Sweetpotato Beef Skillet

Recipe courtesy of Meredith Bernard of “This Farm Wife” on behalf of the North Carolina Sweetpotato Commission

Servings: 6

  • 2          medium sweetpotatoes
  • 3          bell peppers (combination of red, yellow and orange)
  • 1          small onion
  • 2          tablespoons olive oil or butter, divided
  • 2          garlic cloves, minced
  • 1          pound lean ground beef
  • 1/2       cup beef broth
  • 1          can diced tomatoes
  • 8          ounces tomato sauce
  • 1          can Mexi-corn or Southwest corn
  • 1          tablespoon Southwest seasoning
  • salt, to taste
  • pepper, to taste
  1. Rinse and scrub sweetpotatoes to clean. Chop into 1/2-inch cubes. Dice bell pepper and onion. Set aside.
  2. In skillet over medium heat, heat 1 tablespoon oil or butter.
  3. Add garlic and saute until fragrant, being careful not to burn.
  4. Add ground beef, breaking apart and stirring until cooked through, 5-7 minutes. Remove garlic and beef to covered bowl or plate; set aside.
  5. In same skillet, add remaining oil or butter. Saute peppers, onion and sweetpotatoes until slightly tender.
  6. Pour in broth, diced tomatoes and tomato sauce; cover and simmer 12-15 minutes.
  7. Stir in cooked beef and corn. Cook until liquid reduces and mixture thickens slightly. Add seasoning and salt and pepper, to taste.
North Carolina Sweetpotato Commission

House speaker paralysis is confusing – a political scientist explains what’s happening

Jim Jordan, center, has been working feverishly to line up support for his speakership. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Charles R. Hunt, Boise State University

Political observers, most Americans and even members of Congress can’t remember a battle for the post of speaker of the U.S. House as fraught as the one that began back in January 2023 and continues still, 10 months later.

On Jan. 7, California Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy finally became speaker after 15 rounds of voting. But on Oct. 3, he was ousted. On Oct. 17 and again on Oct. 18, Ohio Republican Jim Jordan came up short in two rounds of voting to replace McCarthy.

The reason it’s so hard to recall a parallel is that there isn’t one – at least not since the 1850s, which saw a fight over the speakership that took nearly two months and 133 rounds of voting.

Along with all manner of other inauspicious “firsts” in American politics over the last few years – a violent attempt to overturn a presidential election in the halls of Congress and a former president being indicted for the attempt, to name just two – the century-long tradition of House speakers being quickly and unanimously elected by their party has been similarly blown to pieces.

It can be hard to understand what’s going on. But as a political scientist who co-authored a textbook called “Congress Explained,” I have an obligation to give it my best shot. Here are three of the most revealing elements of the ongoing speaker kerfuffle, and how political science can help people – including me – understand them.

1. Jordan’s attempts to win over his conference

For a member of Congress with a reputation as a far-right “attack dog,” Jordan has spent a lot of the past few days on what congressional experts like to call “herding cats” – leaders getting their rank-and-file party members in alignment for a vote, even when many of those members want different things.

To get members to go their way, party leaders in Congress frequently use a combination of offers and threats. They can, for example, offer rank-and-filers desired committee assignments or attention to their pet issues.

Alternatively, they can encourage – implicitly or explicitly – someone to challenge the member in a primary, or withhold fundraising support, which is a main responsibility of party leadership. So far, Jordan appears to have favored this more aggressive approach in what The New York Times called a “pressure campaign” to round up support from moderate members still unsure about him.

Whether the pressure tactics end up being enough for Jordan to become speaker is an open question. But if he does win the gavel, he’ll need to work even harder to win over his colleagues for impending budget negotiations and to deal with international crises in the Middle East and Ukraine. And fundraising promises or threats may not be enough.

2. The votes cast for non-Jordan Republicans

In a first round of voting on Oct. 17, Jordan fell short of the majority required to become speaker of the house. Not surprisingly, no Democrats backed him. But he also faced 20 Republican holdouts. Even more Republicans voted for someone else on Oct. 18. And those holdouts didn’t all vote for the same person. Who they did vote for can reveal a lot about the internal dynamics in the Republican Party.

Most of the Republican holdouts voted for either McCarthy or House Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who as recently as last week was touted as McCarthy’s heir. Those members have been extensively quoted as having major problems not just with Jordan as a potential speaker but with the chaos introduced to the broader legislative process by far-right members like Jordan ally Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz.

Several Republicans from the New York delegation voted for someone who had first appeared to be a bit of a head-scratcher: New York Republican Lee Zeldin, who is no longer a member of Congress.

Although Zeldin – or any other person, even if they are not a member of the House – can be elected speaker under House rules, the votes cast in his direction were purely symbolic. But they were also telling.

These New York Republican representatives, many of whom come from districts won by Democratic President Joe Biden, are sending the message that they and other Republicans elected in competitive districts are the only reason Republicans have a majority in the House at all. They have a point: There is significant evidence that in the 2022 election, farther right candidates, particularly those who denied the outcome of the 2020 election, were less popular with voters than their moderate counterparts – and almost cost Republicans the House majority.

The votes for Zeldin, therefore, are a warning to fellow Republicans from the moderates in New York, insisting they not be taken for granted.

3. The floor action of Congress’ most extreme members

C-SPAN is not known for its exciting television, but political observers on Tuesday afternoon were treated to a few dramatic moments that – aside from their entertainment value – are emblematic of some of the larger dysfunction and political dynamics that have come to define both parties in recent years.

One instance came during California Democrat Pete Aguilar’s Oct. 17 nomination speech for Democratic speaker candidate Hakeem Jeffries of New York, in which Aguilar noted that Jordan has yet to pass a bill out of the chamber since 2007, when he was first sworn in.

California Democrat Pete Aguilar nominates Hakeem Jeffries and criticizes Jim Jordan.

In response, far-right Republican members Gaetz and Lauren Boebert of Colorado reportedly applauded.

According to the research, Aguilar is not wrong about Jordan’s reputation: The Center for Effective Lawmaking, an academic research center out of Vanderbilt University, ranks Jordan near the bottom of his Republican conference on a whole battery of figures measuring legislative effectiveness.

That doesn’t mean that Jordan can’t be an effective speaker. But the willingness of the party to nominate someone with such a thin record of achievement – and Gaetz’s and Boebert’s open enthusiasm for the comment about Jordan’s lack of action – is a monument to the increasingly obstructionist politics that continue to plague Congress.

Charles R. Hunt, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Boise State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

Saturday, October 21, 2023

Comets 101 − everything you need to know about the snow cones of space

Comet Hale-Bopp was visible from Earth in 1997. E. Kolmhofer, H. Raab; Johannes-Kepler-Observatory, Linz, Austria, CC BY-NC
Shannon Schmoll, Michigan State University

When you hear the word comet, you might imagine a bright streak moving across the sky. You may have a family member who saw a comet before you were born, or you may have seen one yourself when comet Nishimura passed by Earth in September 2023. But what are these special celestial objects made of? Where do they come from, and why do they have such long tails?

As a planetarium director, I spend most of my time getting people excited about and interested in space. Nothing piques people’s interest in Earth’s place in the universe quite like comets. They’re unpredictable, and they often go undetected until they get close to the Sun. I still get excited when one comes into view.

What exactly is a comet?

Comets are leftover material from the formation of the solar system. As the solar system formed about 4.5 billion years ago, most gas, dust, rock and metal ended up in the Sun or the planets. What did not get captured was left over as comets and asteroids.

Because comets are clumps of rock, dust, ice and the frozen forms of various gases and molecules, they’re often called “dirty snowballs” or “icy dirtballs” by astronomers. Theses clumps of ice and dirt make up what’s called the comet nucleus.

A diagram showing comet nuclei, which look like gray rocks, of progressively larger sizes.
Size comparison of various comet nuclei. NASA, ESA, Zena Levy (STScI)

Outside the nucleus is a porous, almost fluffy layer of ice, kind of like a snow cone. This layer is surrounded by a dense crystalline crust, which forms when the comet passes near the Sun and its outer layers heat up. With a crispy outside and a fluffy inside, astronomers have compared comets to deep-fried ice cream.

Most comets are a few miles wide, and the largest known is about 85 miles wide. Because they are relatively small and dark compared with other objects in the solar system, people can’t see them unless the comet gets close to the Sun.

Pin the tail on the comet

Starry sky with a comet in the mid left portion of the image and a tree in the foreground
Comet Hale-Bopp as seen from Earth in 1997. The blue ion tail is visible to the top left of the comet. Philipp Salzgeber, CC BY-ND

As a comet moves close to the Sun, it heats up. The various frozen gases and molecules making up the comet change directly from solid ice to gas in a process called sublimation. This sublimation process releases dust particles trapped under the comet’s surface.

The dust and released gas form a cloud around the comet called a coma. This gas and dust interact with the Sun to form two different tails.

The first tail, made up of gas, is called the ion tail. The Sun’s radiation strips electrons from the gases in the coma, leaving them with a positive charge. These charged gases are called ions. Wind from the Sun then pushes these charged gas particles directly away from the Sun, forming a tail that appears blue in color. The blue color comes from large numbers of carbon monoxide ions in the tail.

The dust tail forms from the dust particles released during sublimation. These are pushed away from the Sun by pressure caused by the Sun’s light. The tail reflects the sunlight and swoops behind the comet as it moves, giving the comet’s tail a curve.

The closer a comet gets to the Sun, the longer and brighter its tail will grow. The tail can grow significantly longer than the nucleus and clock in around half a million miles long.

Where do comets come from?

All comets have highly eccentric orbits. Their paths are elongated ovals with extreme trajectories that take them both very close to and very far from the Sun.

Comets’ orbits can be very long, meaning they may spend most of their time in far-off reaches of the solar system.

An object will orbit faster the closer it is to the Sun, as angular momentum is conserved. Think about how an ice skater spins faster when they bring their arms in closer to their body – similarly, comets speed up when they get close to the Sun. Otherwise, comets spend most of their time moving relatively slowly through the outer reaches of the solar system.

A lot of comets likely originate in a far-out region of our solar system called the Oort cloud.

The Oort cloud is predicted to be a round shell of small solar system bodies that surround the Earth’s solar system with an innermost boundary about 2,000 times farther from the Sun than Earth. For reference, Pluto is only about 40 times farther.

Sphere of small particles with a disk like structure in the middle. A tiny rectangle in the center points to a zoomed in image of the Sun and planet orbits
A NASA diagram of the Oort cloud’s structure. The term KBO refers to Kuiper Belt objects near where Pluto lies. NASA

Comets from the Oort cloud take over 200 years to complete their orbits, a metric called the orbital period. Because of their long periods, they’re called long-period comets. Astronomers often don’t know much about these comets until they get close to the inner solar system.

Short-period comets, on the other hand, have orbital periods of less than 200 years. Halley’s comet is a famous comet that comes close to the Sun every 75 years.

While that’s a long time for a human, that’s a short period for a comet. Short-period comets generally come from the Kuiper Belt, an asteroid belt out beyond Neptune and, most famously, the home of Pluto.

There’s a subset of short-period comets that get only to about Jupiter’s orbit at their farthest point from the Sun. These have orbital periods of less than 20 years and are called Jupiter-family comets.

Comets’ time in the inner solar system is relatively short, generally on the order of weeks to months. As they approach the Sun, their tails grow and they brighten before fading on their way back to the outer solar system.

But even the short-period comets don’t come around often, and their porous interior means they can sometimes fall apart. All of this makes their behavior difficult to predict. Astronomers can track comets when they are coming toward the inner solar system and make predictions based on observations. But they never quite know if a comet will get bright enough to be seen with the naked eye as it passes Earth, or if it will fall apart and fizzle out as it enters the inner solar system.

Either way, comets will keep people looking up at the skies for years to come.

Shannon Schmoll, Director of the Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.