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8 Beloved Things That Aren't Disappearing (Despite What You've Read)

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Don’t panic, but we’re running out of things to panic about running out of. It seems every month the Internet becomes hysterical over an alleged shortage of some popular item. But more often than not, these “shortages” are just live demonstrations of economics at work, taking us on a roller coaster of supply and demand made sensational by panic-inducing headlines. Let’s put a few of these rumors to rest. 

1. Chocolate

You’ve probably read the headlines: “The world’s biggest chocolate-maker says we’re running out of chocolate,” raves the Washington Post. “The cocoa crisis: Why the world’s stash of chocolate is melting away,” The Guardian warns. But fear not, cocoa connoisseurs: The sweet stuff isn’t going anywhere. It’s just going to get a bit more expensive. 

“The ‘running out of chocolate’ theme can reasonably be seen as spreading fear, uncertainty, and doubt in an attempt to manipulate the market,” Clay Gordon, a chocolate consultant and author of the book Discover Chocolate, told mental_floss. “Do you have to worry about there not being chocolate anymore? The answer is no.”

But the narrative isn’t entirely contrived. Gordon says there are two very real pressures on the cocoa chain: climate change, which will likely cut supply, and increased demand for chocolate from new markets, like Asia. If you took economics 101, you know that when supply goes down and demand goes up, prices skyrocket. We’re already seeing this: Cocoa prices have climbed by more than 60 percent since 2012. Cheap, mass market chocolate candies, like Snickers and M&Ms, will be the hardest hit, Gordon says. “The current large producers of cocoa are at greater risks than smaller producers,” he says. Indeed, last year Hershey announced it was raising prices by 8 percent. 

A 2011 study says climate change will start to really impact cocoa farmers by 2030, but goes on to say that “there will also be areas where suitability of cocoa increases,” so there’s that. The looming shortage is also sparking new innovations in cocoa production. Researchers are creating new breeds of cacao trees that are resistant to some disease and can produce seven times more beans.

(And that 60 percent price increase the Washington Post was worried about? That’s lower than the high reached in 2011. In 2012—which the Post used as a baseline—the price collapsed. A just-as-accurate headline would have read "cocoa prices have fallen 15 percent since 2011." And it’s still much lower than the all time cocoa high from 1977.)

Gordon says you can prepare for the price increase by switching from cheap chocolate to higher quality stuff, which may be a bit more pricey, but is unlikely to get any more expensive. “A lot of the higher-end chocolate is made from cocoa that’s purchased more directly and is also made from cocoa beans that are not traded on the market and are not subject to speculation,” he explains. Also, it tastes better. 

2. Bacon

Back in 2012, panic erupted among pork lovers when a global bacon “shortage” threatened to ruin breakfast. The source of the rumor was traced to a single press release from The National Pig Association (NPA) of the United Kingdom that used some pretty strong language, calling a global shortage of pork and bacon “unavoidable.” The story was picked up by CBS News, CNBC, and the Washington Post, among other outlets. But a bacon shortage there was not. Instead, as with chocolate, bacon simply became more expensive for a while. 

The panic was tied to the 2012 drought that badly damaged the global corn supply. Pigs are raised on corn, “hence, the ‘bacon shortage’—actually a global increase in meat prices as a slightly delayed downstream consequence of the increase in corn prices,” as Matthew Yglesias at Slate explained. In 2013, panic spiked again after a virus killed millions of pigs, sending prices even higher. Indeed, the retail price of bacon hit a painful all-time high in the summer of 2014 of around $6 per pound.

But how quickly things change: Just a few months later, the price of pork dropped, with forecasters calling for an all-time high of 23.9 billion pounds to be produced in the U.S. in 2015. “It’s amazing,” John Nalivka, president of agriculture-advisory firm Sterling Marketing Inc., told the Wall Street Journal this January. “We’ve gone from ‘We’re going to run out of pork!’ to ‘What are we going to do with all of this meat?’” 

3. Tequila

Rumors of a tequila shortage have circulated since the early 2000s, when, following a surge in demand, prices skyrocketed and producers needed to start using lower quality product just to fill the gap. Because of the rise in consumption, farmers started planting more agave, the plant from which tequila is made. By 2005, there was so much agave available that the bottom fell out of the market, and many farmers abandoned their agave operations for a more lucrative crop: corn

Many of the farmers who stuck with the tequila-producing plants saw their crop succumb to rot and had to burn large swaths of it around 2007 and 2008. Because the plants take so long to mature, it was rumored that a shortage of agave would only begin to impact the tequila market around 2013, but that never really happened—or at least not to any extreme degree. Because of the boom and bust cycles, large tequila brands have begun to take more care in monitoring their agave nurseries. In 2013, Bloomberg reported that Sauza Tequila had 15 million plants. 

In the last few years, the demand for tequila has only continued to rise, seeing a 5 percent increase in U.S. sales volume last year. Producers have boosted their agave crop accordingly, and many of the large manufacturers are investing in research to turn production into a more efficient science. The downside, experts say, is this cheap mass market tequila is of low quality, the kind only suited for frozen margaritas out of a machine. Depending on your taste in tequila, that might be just fine. 

4. Internet

Despite our love for chocolate, tequila, and bacon, they’re all things we could reasonably live without if we really had to. The Internet, on the other hand, is a necessity for modern living, which is what makes headlines like this one so scary. “It’s been a long time coming, but we’re finally going to run out of internet,” writes Darren Orf at Gizmodo, predicting “an internet crisis of biblical proportion.” The reality is much less click-baity and a little bit technical. Bear with me. 

At the dawn of the modern Internet, each computer was given a different “internet protocol” (or IP) address. In the early '80s, the fourth version (IPv4) was standardized which gave a series of 32-bit numbers unique to each individual computer that identify your device to the Internet. “IP addresses are the Internet’s equivalent of telephone numbers,” explains Robert McMillan at the Wall Street Journal. In total, there are about 4.3 billion possible 32-bit IP numbers, and we’ve run out. But that doesn’t mean your internet is going to shut off. It probably won’t affect you at all, unless you’re a massive business hoping to expand your Internet footprint. 

Some of the biggest Internet companies, including Google and Facebook, are in the process of switching over to a new Internet protocol system called IPv6 (IPv5 never made it out of the lab). As the WSJ explains, the new system “allows for a mind-boggling increase in addresses to 340 undecillion, or 340 followed by 36 zeroes, enough to assign an IP address to every gram of matter on Earth.” The transition will happen over a number of years and, with the exception of a few hiccups for people with outdated home routers or operating systems, consumers’ Internet access shouldn’t be interrupted. 

5. Prosecco

Italian sparkling wine—a.k.a. Prosecco—is now more sought after than actual Champagne (at least in the UK). Despite its growing popularity, the beverage’s prices have remained about the same. So, earlier this year, Robert Cremonese, export manager of a Prosecco brand called Bisol, dropped a marketing bomb on bubbly imbibers. “Last year’s harvest was very poor,” he told an industry publication, “and down by up to 50 percent in some parts, so there is a very real possibility of a global shortage.” 

The media responded accordingly, and people panicked. But the rising tide was short-lived. Stefano Zanette, President of the Prosecco DOC Consortium, a group “charged with protecting, upholding and promoting the standards of Prosecco,” released a statement debunking the scheme. “Despite the fact that the 2014 harvest was hit with some harsh weather,” he said, “the total certified production was up 17.9 percent as compared to the previous harvest.” Cheers! 

6. Avocados

Avocados are having a moment. Or rather, they’re having a decade. In 1999, Americans consumed a little more than a pound of the fruit per capita. Compare that to last year, where that number rose to 5.8 pounds per person. The problem: farming avocados requires a lot of water, about 72 gallons for a single pound of fruit. And California, where 80 percent of American-grown avocados are raised, is facing its fourth year of extreme drought. In April of this year, New York magazine asked, “Have You Eaten Your Last Avocado?” The short answer? No. In fact, the executive director of the Hass Avocado Board told QZ that in 2015, there would be more avocados available in the U.S. than any time in the last 10 years. 

The long answer: California farmers are adapting to the unfortunate growing conditions, planting avocado trees in higher density and seeing good results. “We're producing twice as much fruit for a little bit less water,” one farmer told NPR. The California Avocado Commission expected the 2015 harvest to be up by 10 percent. But even if the Golden State’s harvest was low, 70 percent of the avocados Americans eat are imported from places like Chile and Peru. So, according to New York, “Avocados won’t disappear; they’ll just become a luxury item.” 

7. Limes

Panic over a “limepocalypse” hit a fevered pitch last spring. But it wasn’t so much a shortage as it was a massive and short-lived price hike. The cost of limes increased by 400 percent, with cases going for more than $100 in the first part of last year. Low harvest numbers due to bad rainfall in Mexico, compounded by crop infestation, boosted cost. But the other problem was that many of Mexico’s lime regions were absorbed in a war between farmers and drug cartels. Prices quickly dropped with a crackdown on the cartel, and when the growing season got into full swing and production picked up. Here’s a headline from March of last year: "Soaring lime prices put squeeze on restaurants, food lovers." And less than two months later, in May: "Lime prices plummeting before Cinco de Mayo."

8. Corona

Somehow, Corona has become the 5th best-selling beer in the U.S. with consumption up 10 percent in the last five years. Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Constellation Brands, which owns Corona, is boosting its plant size to keep up with demand. It didn’t take long for the narrative to be twisted into fear-mongering headlines warning of an impending Corona shortage. The rumors caught the attention of Constellation Brands’ senior director of communications, Michael McGrew, who issued this statement: "There are some inaccurate reports coming out today stemming from a Wall Street Journal story that ran yesterday. To clarify, we DO NOT anticipate any Corona shortages. There is no merit to this rumor."

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The Elements
9 Diamond-Like Facts About Carbon
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How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.
 
 
It can be glittering and hard. It can be soft and flaky. It can look like a soccer ball. Carbon is the backbone of every living thing—and yet it just might cause the end of life on Earth as we know it. How can a lump of coal and a shining diamond be composed of the same material? Here are eight things you probably didn't know about carbon.

1. IT'S THE "DUCT TAPE OF LIFE."

It's in every living thing, and in quite a few dead ones. "Water may be the solvent of the universe," writes Natalie Angier in her classic introduction to science, The Canon, "but carbon is the duct tape of life." Not only is carbon duct tape, it's one hell of a duct tape. It binds atoms to one another, forming humans, animals, plants and rocks. If we play around with it, we can coax it into plastics, paints, and all kinds of chemicals.

2. IT'S ONE OF THE MOST ABUNDANT ELEMENTS IN THE UNIVERSE.

It sits right at the top of the periodic table, wedged in between boron and nitrogen. Atomic number 6, chemical sign C. Six protons, six neutrons, six electrons. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, and 15th in the Earth's crust. While its older cousins hydrogen and helium are believed to have been formed during the tumult of the Big Bang, carbon is thought to stem from a buildup of alpha particles in supernova explosions, a process called supernova nucleosynthesis.

3. IT'S NAMED AFTER COAL.

While humans have known carbon as coal and—after burning—soot for thousands of years, it was Antoine Lavoisier who, in 1772, showed that it was in fact a unique chemical entity. Lavoisier used an instrument that focused the Sun's rays using lenses which had a diameter of about four feet. He used the apparatus, called a solar furnace, to burn a diamond in a glass jar. By analyzing the residue found in the jar, he was able to show that diamond was comprised solely of carbon. Lavoisier first listed it as an element in his textbook Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, published in 1789. The name carbon derives from the French charbon, or coal.

4. IT LOVES TO BOND.

It can form four bonds, which it does with many other elements, creating hundreds of thousands of compounds, some of which we use daily. (Plastics! Drugs! Gasoline!) More importantly, those bonds are both strong and flexible.

5. NEARLY 20 PERCENT OF YOUR BODY IS CARBON.

May Nyman, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon tells Mental Floss that carbon has an almost unbelievable range. "It makes up all life forms, and in the number of substances it makes, the fats, the sugars, there is a huge diversity," she says. It forms chains and rings, in a process chemists call catenation. Every living thing is built on a backbone of carbon (with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements). So animals, plants, every living cell, and of course humans are a product of catenation. Our bodies are 18.5 percent carbon, by weight.

And yet it can be inorganic as well, Nyman says. It teams up with oxygen and other substances to form large parts of the inanimate world, like rocks and minerals.

6. WE DISCOVERED TWO NEW FORMS OF IT ONLY RECENTLY.

Carbon is found in four major forms: graphite, diamonds, fullerenes, and graphene. "Structure controls carbon's properties," says Nyman.  Graphite ("the writing stone") is made up of loosely connected sheets of carbon formed like chicken wire. Penciling something in actually is just scratching layers of graphite onto paper. Diamonds, in contrast, are linked three-dimensionally. These exceptionally strong bonds can only be broken by a huge amount of energy. Because diamonds have many of these bonds, it makes them the hardest substance on Earth.

Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 when a group of scientists blasted graphite with a laser and the resulting carbon gas condensed to previously unknown spherical molecules with 60 and 70 atoms. They were named in honor of Buckminster Fuller, the eccentric inventor who famously created geodesic domes with this soccer ball–like composition. Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering this new form of carbon.

The youngest member of the carbon family is graphene, found by chance in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in an impromptu research jam. The scientists used scotch tape—yes, really—to lift carbon sheets one atom thick from a lump of graphite. The new material is extremely thin and strong. The result: the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.

7. DIAMONDS AREN'T CALLED "ICE" BECAUSE OF THEIR APPEARANCE.

Diamonds are called "ice" because their ability to transport heat makes them cool to the touch—not because of their look. This makes them ideal for use as heat sinks in microchips. (Synthethic diamonds are mostly used.) Again, diamonds' three-dimensional lattice structure comes into play. Heat is turned into lattice vibrations, which are responsible for diamonds' very high thermal conductivity.

8. IT HELPS US DETERMINE THE AGE OF ARTIFACTS—AND PROVE SOME OF THEM FAKE.

American scientist Willard F. Libby won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 for developing a method for dating relics by analyzing the amount of a radioactive subspecies of carbon contained in them. Radiocarbon or C14 dating measures the decay of a radioactive form of carbon, C14, that accumulates in living things. It can be used for objects that are as much as 50,000 years old. Carbon dating help determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old corpse found frozen in the Alps. It also established that Lancelot's Round Table in Winchester Cathedral was made hundreds of years after the supposed Arthurian Age.

9. TOO MUCH OF IT IS CHANGING OUR WORLD.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important part of a gaseous blanket that is wrapped around our planet, making it warm enough to sustain life. But burning fossil fuels—which are built on a carbon backbone—releases more carbon dioxide, which is directly linked to global warming. A number of ways to remove and store carbon dioxide have been proposed, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which involves planting large stands of trees, harvesting and burning them to create electricity, and capturing the CO2 created in the process and storing it underground. Yet another approach that is being discussed is to artificially make oceans more alkaline in order to let them to bind more CO2. Forests are natural carbon sinks, because trees capture CO2 during photosynthesis, but human activity in these forests counteracts and surpasses whatever CO2 capture gains we might get. In short, we don't have a solution yet to the overabundance of C02 we've created in the atmosphere.

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Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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