Archive for December, 2011

Supervalu’s “nutrition iQ” promotion offers consumers no added ‘intelligence’

Posted by -- December 29, 2011

If you’re a regular reader of our Food Identity Theft blogs you should know that one of my repeated mantras is to read the ingredient labels on processed foods.

But what if there was a way to zip through the supermarket, dancing down the aisle tossing only products deemed to be “healthy” in your cart! What a time saver that would be! Shopping might even become fun again.

Thanks to giant grocery retailer Supervalu, many consumers are doing just that.

In 2009 Supervalu rolled out its own food labeling system, dubbed nutrition iQ in its Albertsons stores, which has since expanded to Jewel-Osco, Acme, Hornbacher’s and Farm Fresh Markets. Called “the better-for-you food finder” (which is a pending trademark, by the way), nutrition iQ is a “shelf tag navigation program” that uses color coded tags below products to show which ones make the “healthy” grade.

As Heidi Diller, Albertsons’ registered dietitian, explains in a Youtube video, “reading labels is important, but that takes time. If only there was an easier way to shop healthy. Let our science guide you..(to) better-for-you shopping.”

Sure sounds good! But wait, hold the phone, who exactly is making these “better-for-you” decisions anyway?

As explained on various Supervalu store sites (each with a nutrition iQ micro site), the program was developed  “in collaboration with an independent panel of dietitians from the Joslin Clinic, part of an academic medical center affiliated with Harvard Medical School. The program helps you make better-for-you choices on the spot as you shop.” Going the “mommy blogger” approval route that the Corn Refiners Association did with high fructose corn syrup last year, Supervalu also features a video with a blogger mom of three, who is so overjoyed with nutrition iQ she states “They have gone through everything in the grocery store for me,” and “I am armed to the teeth with knowledge now!”

Utilizing different colors for “nutritional attributes,” such as “low sodium,” “whole grains,” “fats,” and “vitamins,” nutrition iQ states it “was created based on dietary recommendations from FDA nutrient content claims.”

With all that academic name dropping, I took nutrition iQ for a quick spin. One of the first products I saw (also featured in the Youtube video) was Campbell’s Healthy Request Chicken Rice soup. Given the green and blue “better for you” tag for being a “healthy level sodium” and “good source vitamin A” food, I checked the ingredients.

When you can count five sources of processed free glutamic acid (MSG) as well as disodium inosinate, an expensive additive that works synergistically with MSG, and  top it off high fructose corn syrup,  all I can say is what’s in the water at the Joslin Clinic where this was tagged as a “better for you” product?

Another “healthy” soup item, Campbell’s Select Harvest Light Roasted Chicken with Italian Herbs, contains yeast extract, a hidden form of MSG, as well as numerous ingredients that are likely sources of processed free glutamic acid as well.

Then there are Kellogg’s  Apple Cinnamon Nutri-Grain Cereal Bars, made with “real fruit.” The nutrition IQ tag  below this product touts two health benefits ””low saturated fat” and “low sodium.” But a scan of the rather lengthy ingredient list on the package reveals that the product also contains high fructose corn syrup in both its crust and filling (HFCS being the first ingredient in the latter), not to mention artificial flavor and the preservative TBHQ.

A number of cereals have also been given the nutrition iQ tag.  These include General Mills’ Raisin Nut Brain, cited as a source of whole grain, but which also contains artery-clogging partially hydrogenated cottonseed and/or soybean oil, and Fruit Cheerios (mentioned in a blog on fruity cereals that aren’t), which is seen as a good source of fiber, but which includes three kinds of artificial colors – red 40, yellow 6 and blue 1, as well as “other color added.”

All of which isn’t to say the nutrition iQ tag hasn’t been attached to some genuinely healthy products, such as Cascadian Farms organic granola cereals,which are also cited for the “fiber” they offer, but not for the fact that they contain organic ingredients, which are free of chemical additives and pesticides.

But for the record, we’re not the only ones to find fault with the nutrition iQ program. Other critics include Jennifer McCaffrey, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the Illinois Dietetic Association, who is quoted in a Bloomberg wire story as noting that processed egg products received “healthy” tags, while regular eggs did not, saying that may “lead people to believe that egg products are better than actual eggs…not necessarily the case.”

The bottom line on this promotion seems to be that whatever “intelligence” it offers is negligible, if not downright misleading – and no substitute for taking that little bit of extra time to simply read the label to determine which products are healthy and which aren’t.

FDA docket for HFCS renaming scam updated

Since we launched Food Identity Theft in September, I have been following the posted consumer comments at the FDA docket for the Corn Refiners Association petition of last year attempting to officially rebrand HFCS as “corn sugar.”

While thousands of comments have come into the FDA, the vast majority against this marketing scam, only a handful were posted online this past fall. But during the last couple weeks, the agency has been busy adding more, bringing the number of posted public submissions to 789 as of this writing. They make for quite interesting reading, and it’s good to know how many savvy consumers there are who see through this ploy. But more important, if you haven’t yet done so, you can still put your own opinion on the official record by clicking here.

Happy New Year – and let’s make 2012 the year of the consumer!

The curious case of Brominated Vegetable Oil

Posted by -- December 27, 2011

One of the first food additives I ever reported on, back in the early ’90s, was brominated vegetable oil, or BVO.  I quite incidentally learned of BVO while researching something else — the highly toxic, ozone-depleting fumigant methyl bromide.

The first thing I learned about BVO, which serves the super-important purpose of keeping  flavoring oils “homogenized” and thus unclouded in some drinks and sodas, was that it had been banned in India. BVO also led me to meet Citizens for Health Chairman Jim Turner, although in a most roundabout way.

My main method of research back in those now seemingly ancient pre-Google, pre-Internet days consisted of making repeated phone calls to the Food and Drug Administration  for studies and other materials. At first, the FDA wasn’t very forthcoming with the details on BVO, but eventually, my persistent inquiries paid off when I was contacted by a staffer who said she had found a document (while moving her desk, as it happened) that I might find very interesting. It was a 21-year-old letter concerning BVO from none other than Jim Turner. She faxed me the letter, and I called Jim that same day.

The letter concerned a lawsuit that Jim and Mike Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), had filed against the FDA to prohibit BVO use in the ’70s, shortly after Jim’s book, The Chemical Feast: The Nader Report on the Food and Drug Administration, had come out. BVO had been shown to cause heart damage in research animals, and Jim’s lawsuit asked that the chemical be removed from food until further studies established its safety. But instead of simply prohibiting the use of BVO, the judge in the case created a whole new category for it: food additives permitted in food or in contact with food on an interim basis pending additional study. At the time, this “interim” list was intended to be exactly that, temporary. BVO was given two years to meet the safety requirements of the law. That was in 1977.

In the ensuing years, BVO has been banned not only in India, but in Europe and Japan as well. But here in the U.S., this potentially heart-harmful ingredient still is sitting (like Poe’s Raven) on the FDA’s “interim” list – and can still be found in sodas and drinks containing citrus oils such as Mountain Dew, Fanta Orange, some Gatorade drinks and Sunkist Pineapple. Somehow, BVO has managed to remain in regulatory limbo for over 30 years.

Recently, however,  it’s started to receive some media attention due to its similarity to toxic brominated flame retardants, such as a recent article in Environmental Health News which mentions patents granted this year to Dow Global Technologies for a brominated fatty acid-based flame retardant (as well as a 1967 patent held by Koppers, Inc.). And while scant studies have been done on the health effects of BVO, it’s known that bominated compounds build up in in humans, animals and the environment. (For example, PBDE, a brominated fire retardant, has been detected worldwide in dozens of species of freshwater and marine fish, birds, reindeer, bird eggs and even whales.)

While the FDA has set a “safe limit” for BVO at 15 parts per million, the Environmental Health News article describes several cases of bromine poisoning in humans following BVO-containing soda binges, including a 1997 report of “severe bromine intoxication” in a patient who drank two or more liters of orange sodas every day.

The beverage industry, of course, maintains all is well with BVO, and that the additive is FDA- approved even though a verdict on its safety has been indefinitely postponed. The Gatorade FAQ, while explaining why the drink contains no high fructose corn syrup and that “caffeine has no place in Gatorade products,” only says that BVO “does not contribute any fat calories.”

But, as Jim Turner said in his introduction to a book on the herb stevia  that I co-authored in 1996, “In this environment of entwined relationships between food regulators, food manufactures and the purveyors of food information to the public, consumers need to look to other sources of help.”

Of course, back when he said that, it was a lot harder to access such sources than it now is, thanks to the technologies now at our fingertips. But one thing that has not changed in the intervening decade and a half  are those “entwined relationships.” And that’s why all of us as consumers need to stop relying on the assurances of people with a vested interest in the status quo (whether they represent industry or government), and to “uncloud” our own knowledge of food additives and their effects  – just like BVO is supposed to do for the appearance of certain soft drinks.

We’ve saved the worst for last: the five most misleading food-industry ploys of 2011

Posted by -- December 22, 2011

The countdown continues! Here are our picks at Food Identity Theft for today’s top five food label deceptions– including the one you can directly help defeat.

5. Beware of bogus “blueberries”
Everyone loves blueberries. They are a super-antioxidant fruit that taste great. Food manufactures love blueberries too, or should I say, they love the idea of blueberries. To uncover this culinary chicanery you don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes — just check the ingredient panel on numerous “blueberry” foods and you’ll find ingredients such as “blueberry-flavored fruit pieces” or artificial flavors and blue colors, but nary a blueberry. Our favorite blueberry not foods are the Jiffy brand blueberry muffin mix and ShopRite instant oatmeal with “blueberries & cream.”


4. Trans fat free? Well, not quite
Trans fats are recognized as a major contributor to heart disease – but you probably knew that already, didn’t you? And you most likely check that handy nutrition facts label to make sure the processed foods you’re buying contain no trans fats. Like so many other moves by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the trans fat labeling requirement that went into effect in 2006 falls way short of providing consumers easy help in choosing trans fat-free foods.  If a food product contains less than 0.5 grams of this bad-cholesterol raising ingredient, it can tout 0 trans fats – meaning you can be getting a significant dose of trans fats even if all the products you consume state they have none. Trans fats, which are never the saturated  variety, can be found in processed foods such as crackers, cookies, breads and fast foods, in the form of a cheap shortening that also gives products a longer shelf life.  So how can you avoid trans fats in your diet? Once again, read the ingredient label. If a product contains any partially hydrogenated oil, put it back on the shelf, even if the nutrition label says it’s trans fat free.


3. The “whole grain” claim that isn’t the whole truth
Many breads, cereals, crackers and even some cookies shout “WHOLE GRAIN” at us on their packaging. Some even list the grams of whole grain in big letters, and some use the word “wheat” in the name of the product, but what does it all mean? Whole grains include grains such as wheat, corn, rice, oats, barley, quinoa, sorghum, spelt and rye, but only when they are eaten in their whole form. If a product is made with “enriched flour,” even if it specifies “wheat flour,” that is not a whole grain. Here’s where it get even trickier; while a product may claim it “contains” or is “made with” whole grain,  unless the word “whole” (such as whole wheat flour or whole oats) is listed among the first ingredient, chances are it’s just a tiny bit added to justify the claim. The Whole Grains Counsel, which maintains a web site devoted to this issue, says we should be eating around 48g per day. For some examples, one slice of 100 percent whole wheat bread provides approximately 22g of whole grains, whereas a serving of Ritz Simply Socials “golden wheat” gives you only 5g of whole grain. Another product with a misleading name, Nabisco’s Wheat Thins, also only provides 5g per serving. So if you’re looking for whole grains, once again, look to the ingredient list, not the product name or claim.


2. MSG by any other name isn’t “NO MSG”
Sneaker than the Grinch stealing Christmas, manufacturers are onto the fact that more and more consumers are trying to avoid monosodium glutamate. But instead of removing it, some companies simply slap labels stating “No MSG,” or “No MSG added” on products with disguised forms of the flavor enhancer. If a food contains the ingredient monosodium glutamate, that fact must be stated on the label. However, monosodium glutamate is only one of many ingredients that contain “free” glutamate.  There are numerous others, including yeast extract; anything “hydrolyzed;” autolyzed yeast; soy protein concentrate and whey protein isolate. Another sneaky tactic is to state that the MSG, from whatever source, is “naturally occurring.” Don’t believe it. “Naturally occurring” is never defined, and the free glutamate, whether found in monosodium glutamate or in any other ingredient was deliberately added for the purpose of making the product taste better. It didn’t get there by accident.

This is corn sugar. It contains NO fructose, and is NOT HFCS!

1. The great “corn sugar” scam
Without further ado, our pick for the top food labeling deception scheme, for the most glaring example of the food industry attempting to scam the public is the Corn Refiners Association’s plan to rename high fructose corn syrup – an ingredient with a serious image problem – to the innocuous-sounding  “corn sugar.” Aside from being an obvious trick to try and sidestep the fact that an untold number of consumers are avoiding products that contain HFCS, the strategy is an attempted case of “ingredient identity theft,” since “corn sugar” already exists as a totally different product that contains NO fructose! Now how, you might ask, can it be that they would try to rip off an existing name in so devious a  manner? Well, it be, and it’s up to you, as a savvy and not easily fooled consumer to tell the FDA you won’t stand for such nonsense – by adding your comments to a rising tide of consumer objections to the CRA’s petition to rebrand this chemical-concoction sweetener that have been submitted to the agency.

Let’s make 2012 the year of the consumer!

Top 10 Food Identity Theft picks for 2011

Posted by -- December 20, 2011

Foods that don’t quite deliver what the label promises. One or more will probably surprise you…

10. A class act it’s not: GODIVA Chocolatier Dark Chocolate filled with Raspberry
We’ve all been hearing how good dark chocolate is for you, and who out there doesn’t know the Godiva name means top of the line – especially given its luxury price tag of $2.95 for a 1.5-ounce single-serving bar. But this super-premium confection (made by “chocolatiers” no less) contains both high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and the preservative sodium benzoate. No less an authority than Dr. Andrew Weil refers to HFCS as a “cheap sweetener” and a “marker for low-quality food” — certainly not the sort of ingredient Godiva founder Joseph Draps would have used in the products sold in his Belgian chocolate shop in 1926.


9.  ‘Funny’ honey
The sweet nectar of the bees, honey is one of the world’s oldest sweeteners. The trouble is, over 75 percent of the “honey” being sold in stores in the U.S. really isn’t. Tests done for Food Safety News revealed that most of the honey you find in the supermarket contains no pollen, and without pollen, it’s impossible to tell if the honey came from “legitimate or safe sources.” This ultra-filtered honey is most likely from China and what ‘extras’ it may contains is anyone’s guess.


8.  Once upon a time, it came from an orange
Pasteurized, stripped of oxygen and dumped in million-gallon storage tanks where it sits for up to a year, and then revitalized with flavor packets containing secret ingredients, your “premium” orange juice has really been through quite a ‘squeeze’ by the time it reaches your breakfast table. In fact, we’re not even sure it deserves to be called “orange juice “any more. Despite the 100 percent pure claims and pretty photos of juicy oranges, the “not from concentrate” varieties marketed by Tropicana, Minute Maid  Florida Natural and other major brands are not what they appear to be.

7. Another “fresh” deception
As you may have noticed by now, “fresh” is a very popular labeling term, and too often just not true. Such is the case with numerous canned tomato products that tout “made with 100% vine ripened tomatoes” or “made from fresh tomatoes.” If an ingredient check shows tomato paste, the sauce was reconstituted from industrial tomato concentrate, and can hardly be called “fresh.” Another case where you have to read the ingredient listings, not the label claims.



6. A case of fruit identity theft
Searching for the fruit in numerous fruity products can be a fruitless challenge. From Kellogg’s Froot Loops, Post brand Fruity Pebbles, to General Mills’ Fruit Roll-Ups, these fruit-labeled products contain plenty of artificial colors and flavors to look like fruit, but what’s missing is the real thing. Recently the  Center for Science in the Public Interest filed a complaint against General Mills for its deceptive “fruit”  products, accusing them of “misleading and deceptive advertising and fraudulent business practices.” The take away? Once again, reading the ingredient list is the only way to find out if you’re actually getting what you think you are.

Check back on Thursday for the top five of our food identity theft picks, including, of course, the numero uno worst food deception. Stay tuned!

Want to be a savvier shopper? Listen in on the food industry

Posted by -- December 15, 2011

Have you ever wanted to be the proverbial ‘fly on the wall’? Would you like to hear the chit chat that goes on behind closed doors and the scheming and planning to get us to think and act a certain way?

Well, you can, and you don’t need any fancy spy stuff or to do anything illegal. All you need is a computer and an Internet connection and you can learn more about the murky world of food labeling, manufacturing, and consumerism than you ever wanted to know. In fact, in our wired world, eavesdropping on the food industry has never been easier.

Reading food industry trade publications is often irritating, but well worth the aggravation. In fact, after just a few minutes of such ‘spying’, you’ll never be able to shop quite the same way again. Those pretty packages of processed whatevers just won’t have the same hypnotic effect on you.

In about 15 minutes at two online trade pubs, I learned that  “consumers have limited knowledge” when it comes to what ingredients we choose to avoid, that “clean labels” are a hot trend, that something called “lifestyle food brands” will be the new way our friends and neighbors judge us (“A person drinking a Mountain Dew is perceived differently than a person drinking a Naked Smoothie”) and that the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) is pulling out all the stops in trying to regain customers for its beloved high fructose corn syrup.

Wanting to learn more about what elevates the social status of a Naked Smoothie juice drinker (interestingly, the Naked Juice Co. and Mountain Dew are both owned by PepsiCo) I soon found myself sidetracked by numerous blinking, flashing and eye-catching ads from the CRA.

One purple box at apparently targeting food manufacturers who may be thinking of jumping on the consumer-popular “NO HFCS” bandwagon, advised readers to “get the facts before you act,” Clicking on the blinking box sent me to the CRA’s “tool kit resource library,” where “food and beverage professionals could” learn the “facts” about HFCS.

Perhaps most interesting on the page containing newletters, podcasts and webinars for “professionals” was the “answering consumer questions” tab that provides the kind of canned answers you get when trying to get information from customer service lines. Giving ready-made responses to questions such as “high fructose corn syrup isn’t natural, why are you still using it?” and “will eating high fructose corn syrup make me gain weight?” the page also makes a direct plea to food manufactures on the top: Before you consider reformulating your food and beverage products to contain table sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), take a look at what grocery store sales receipts are saying.

I rather think food manufacturers should be looking at what consumers are saying, but more on that in a moment.

Attracted to the “webinars” section, I checked out the “Worried about High Fructose Corn Syrup?” presentation and learned about the “consumer research findings” pie chart. Apparently we are all represented in the CRA pie (which probably contains HFCS), either as an “eater” who has no concerns and is “happy eating their chosen diet,” a “sugar worrier,” who doesn’t distinguish one sweetener from another, an “HFCS worrier” and an “HFCS hater.”

Included in the pie (and on other sections of this “professionals” page) are numerous statistics which change from page to page. If we add up the HFCS “worriers” and “haters,” the CRA figures are 18.1 percent, but on another page it claims that only 3 percent of consumers look for HFCS on food labels and 4 percent are avoiding it. Where the rest of the worriers and haters went is unknown.

What is known is that over 4,000 responses have come into the Food and Drug Administration on the Corn Refiners Association petition attempting to officially change the name of HFCS to “corn sugar,” and the vast majority of those consumers are card-carrying HFCS “haters.” In fact, I spent well over an hour mining through those comments and still have not come upon one that is in favor of this name switch. It sure sounds as though they represent a bigger slice of the pie than the CRA had hoped for.

Typical of some of the comments I saw from the FDA docket are these:

“Make no mistake – this is about the Corn Refiners bottom line. The more aware and informed consumers become about the dangers of HFCS, the more they will seek alternatives or avoid products containing HFCS altogether. This is already happening, and the Corn Refiners are feeling the pinch. Their petition is an effort to confuse consumers into buying products they are working diligently to avoid.”

“It seems quite obvious that the purpose of renaming this poison is to deceive the consumer. Your job is to protect the consumer. Need I say more?”

“Anyone with an honest heart and clear conscience knows this petition to change the name of HFCS to corn sugar is only to protect profits, not to educate or protect the health of consumers…It is the duty of our elected Government Officials to reject these covert attempts to deceive the consumers in the name of profit. There is a very old word to describe this very attempt: F R A U D.”

The ‘name game’ petition from the CRA is still active at the FDA, and you still have time to add your own voice to the issue by clicking here. The more responses that come in, the clearer the message to the FDA and industry that consumers have enough smarts to know when they are being fooled for the sake of profits.

Before I left I signed up for a webcast called The Changing Ingredient Game: the Business Case for High Fructose Corn Syrup.  I’ll talk more about this in an upcoming blog – but for now, suffice it to say that after you do a little eavesdropping on what the food industry is saying about you, there are probably a lot of things you’ll never be able to swallow again.

Trans-Fat Free: A Big Fat Lie?

Posted by -- December 13, 2011

By James J. Gormley

On October 20, 2011, the results of the second part of a two-phase study from the Institute of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board were published, Front-of-Package Nutrition Ratings Systems and Symbols: Promoting Healthier Choices, which concluded that “it is time for a move away from front-of-package systems that mostly provide nutrition information on foods or beverages but don’t give clear guidance about their healthfulness, and toward one that encourages healthier choices through simplicity, visual clarity, and the ability to convey meaning without written information.”

Although I hesitate to embrace a set of kindergarten logos or icons in lieu of more detailed information, as WebMD reported on November 28th “What you see on the front of the label is never going to be the full story. It’s still important to turn the package around and look at the Nutrition Facts panel […].”

A November study, that was published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association (JADA), reported on the results of a psychological and consumer-behavior study that used an eye-tracking device to see what consumers are really looking at on labels regardless of what they say they are looking for.

Twenty percent of the 203 participants actually looked for “trans fat free,” which is a testament to consumers perspicacity yet not especially reassuring given the Houdini-esque wiggle room given food producers in the use of this label. A label is allowed to say “trans fat free” if it has less than 500 mg of trans fat per serving!

Current law requires that products with less than five grams be listed in 0.5 gram increments, and lower than 0.5 grams as containing zero grams of fat. “Meaning, if a product has 0.49 grams of trans fat, the label can list the trans fat content as zero,” noted ScienceDaily on January 3, 2011, “thus masking a significant amount of trans fat that can exceed recommended limits and potentially lead to various adverse health effects.”

In fact, a study by Eric J. Brandt in the January/February 2011 issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion showed, according to ScienceDaily, that “misleading labeling practices can result in medically significant intake of harmful trans fat, despite what you read on Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved labels.”

“This labeling policy may result in people thinking they are consuming foods with no trans fats, when in fact they may be consuming food that cumulatively include trans fats in excess of 1% of total dietary consumption,” says the author, who also advocates that food labeling laws should be changed to require trans fat content be labeled in 0.1-gram increments.

Despite this deceptive labeling conundrum, don’t expect immediate help from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), our country’s deceptive labeling cops, since the FTC publicly lauded the FDA’s trans fat labeling scheme in testimony before the FDA in 2002, when they said:

“We are concerned, however, that the unique treatment proposed for trans fats on the Nutrition Facts panel may suggest to consumers that there is a significant qualitative difference between saturated fats and trans fats, and such a conclusion appears to be inconsistent with current dietary advice.”

Well, guess what, FTC, there is a significant qualitative difference between trans fats and saturated fats, so it’s good that consumers can distinguish between them, questions of hidden trans fats aside momentarily.

Trans fats: lower good (HDL) cholesterol, increase levels of atherosclerosis-causing lipoprotein-(a), cause tissues to lose good omega-3 fats, interfere with insulin, increase anti-cardiovascular C-reactive protein, interere with enzymes that metabolize fats, and interfere with the functioning of the immune system, whereas saturated fats do not.

Now, mind you, I am not pointing out these differences to promote saturated fat, which we want in only very low levels in our diet, but to draw the distinction between natural saturated fats and artificial, partially hydrogenated trans fats, which are in fact, dear FTC, even worse than saturated.

All this boils down to the fact that we have to be extra-vigilant when trying to determine what the trans fat level is in our foods, even if it says trans fat free. You should check to see if there are any partially hydrogenated fats listed — if there are, then you probably want to put it back on the shelf!

It’s hard enough to eat healthfully with the deceptive food labeling that food manufacturers cook up on their own; it’s even worse when the deceptive labeling is developed by the FDA and applauded by the FTC!

Caveat comestor! Eater beware!

Beware of holiday traditions hijacked by food fakery

Posted by -- December 8, 2011

It’s December! A month overflowing with shopping, family get-togethers and parties. It’s a season  filled with warmth, joy, and more chemical-laden, unnatural, test-tube, bad food than any other time of the year.

Like Thanksgiving, the season to be jolly tempts us with bad food choices and shortcut goodies that somehow make their way into our shopping carts. So if you want to keep the holidays healthy as well as happy, steer clear of the Food Grinch and his brightly colored assortment of chemical concoctions.

Hold the fruitcake
While this seasonable “treat” may be the butt of many jokes, the fact is that somebody – a lot of somebodys, in fact – must be eating it, since its annual appearing in supermarkets is as dependable as Santa’s is at the mall. But as hard as I looked, I couldn’t find a fruitcake that wasn’t made with a lengthy list of inadvisable ingredients. And that includes the highly regarded Trappist Abbey Fruitcake, “made by the Trappist monks of Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey in Layfayette, Oregon “ These monks sure must be busy each year adding just the right amounts of high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors, colors and preservatives to their fruitcake recipe!  The Entenmann’s supermarket fruitcake (which for ten bucks, isn’t exactly cheap) was just as additive-laden, but did note on the box, that it is “baked fresh daily,” which I found interesting, considering that its shelf life doesn’t expire until next summer.

“Homemade dessert” identity theft
Since homemade treats are as much a part of holiday tradition as shopping, it’s only natural that they would fall prey to food identity theft scams. The result has been a potpourri of ready-made cookie mixes, pie crusts and refrigerated dough products that are often passed off as “homemade” simply because they require a minimal amount of preparation.

Pillsbury, for example, offers numerous holiday refrigerator cookie products, one being ready-to-bake Snow Man shaped cookies containing bleached flour, partially hydrogenated oil, artificial flavors and colors.   That’s hardly the kind of stuff one would expect in a “homemade” cookie. A much better choice (especially if you’re making cookies as a gift) is the baking mix from Arrowhead Mills, or my personal favorite, Pamela’s Baking & Pancake Mix (a gluten-free product that’s the best and easiest all-around base for any kind of cookie or muffin you’re in the mood to make, even if you’re not on a gluten-free diet).

Yet another example of “homemade dessert identity theft” is that age-old holiday treat, the pie. There is no reason to fall prey to chemical-filled ready-to-bake pie crusts such as the ones Pillsbury floods the market with. A hideous concoction containing partially hydrogenated lard, BHA and BHT, more preservatives AND artificial colors, this “time-saving treat” is an insult to the time-honored tradition of the homemade pie (and unfortunately is also said to be “America’s #1 pie crust”).

If you don’t have the time or patience to make pie crust from scratch, there are many organic, and (really) natural crusts to choose from, such as the offerings from Wholly Wholesome. With three organic, ready-to-bake crusts available from this one company alone, there is no excuse to bring something like the above-mentioned Pillsbury product into your home. But you don’t necessarily need to go organic to find a graham crust without all those additives, an example being the Heartland crust we found at our local supermarket made from “normal” food ingredients.

Beware of fake fillings
Now that you’ve got the crust part done right, you don’t want to ruin it with a chemically contrived canned filling. The popular Duncan Hines brand Comstock, for instance, contains HFCS, artificial colors, and “color retention” preservatives.  For a far more “honest-to-goodness” pie, you can always  buy some nothing-added frozen fruit, find a ready-made filling with decent enough ingredients such as Grandma Hoerner’s “big slice” fillings, or go with the season and simply slice some real apples yourself.

Avoid turkey traps…
As with Thanksgiving, if a turkey is on your menu steer clear of anything called “deep basted” (or any similar terminology), which is simply a more appetizing-sounding way of saying the turkey was injected with numerous chemicals, flavor enhancers and other ingredients you wouldn’t want at your table.

…and gravy shortcuts
Ready-made gravies are some of the absolute worst products you can buy ingredient-wise, for the holidays or at any other time. In both its powdered and canned varieties, ready-made gravy seems to offer the biggest mega-dose of monosodium glutamate in its various forms. Knorr Roasted Turkey Flavored Gravy mix takes the prize for having five ingredients with free glutamic acid as well as the better-known ingredient monosodium glutamate. The J.R. Watkins “Natural” Products Roasted Turkey Gourmet Gravy (inspired by Grandma Watkins, no less) is another glutamate feast. Gravy is basically just stock or broth that is thickened and reduced by cooking. If gravy is a must on your menu, try this easy recipe from Whole Foods Markets, and leave the monosodium gluamate to Grandma Watkins.

Just remember that there are all kinds of unhealthy concoctions out there disguised as  traditional and homemade goodies. Make this the kind of December that has no place for them on your holiday table.

What’s in your refrigerator? Join the Food Identity Theft Food Label Challenge

Posted by -- December 6, 2011

Are you trying to clean up your kitchen? No, I don’t mean with a mop or Mr. Clean Magic sponge. I’m talking about purging your pantry of foods containing chemicals and additives you no longer want to consume. Take a good look in the fridge and cupboard, and you may be surprised. Very surprised.

We want you to tell us what you find, and join us in the 2012 Food Identity Theft Food Label Challenge.

The Challenge was inspired by an email I received from one of our Food Identity Theft Facebook friends.

“Our family decided some time ago to not purchase any foods containing HFCS (high fructose corn syrup). We thought we were doing a good job at this so I was more than surprised when we discovered item after item containing HFCS in the fridge and pantry. In fact, just about every single item I packed for my son’s lunch today contained HFCS!”

Our more-then-surprised friend went on to list the following ten items she found harboring high fructose corn syrup including some typical pantry staples:

Yoplait Yogurt
Smucker’s strawberry jelly
Mott’s Apple Sauce
Cool Whip
Kraft Salad Dressing
Grey Poupon Honey Mustard
Heinz Ketchup
Heinz Sweet Relish
Claussen Bread ‘n Butter Chips
Dickinson’s Country Pumpkin Butter

Other common items she didn’t mention in which you will also find this laboratory-created sweetener are various brands of bread, cereal, canned fruit and even frozen meals. (One of the items you won’t find HFCS in, interestingly, is Karo Corn Syrup!)

So what’s in your kitchen that you thought you were avoiding? Tell us at our Facebook page what your surprise findings are, and help us all in turning our kitchens into “No-HFCS Zones”!

Two of the most “popular” chemical additives

Two of the most talked about and unwelcome mealtime chemical additives are also the ones most commonly found in a wide and surprising variety of foods – high fructose corn syrup and monosodium glutamate.

If you’re looking to avoid HFCS, there is no other way then to read the label (not the “nutrition facts” part, but the actual ingredient listings). Of course,  if the Corn Refiners Association got its Christmas Wish fulfilled, even that may not work (more on that in a moment).

Monosodium glutamate is another ingredient that manufacturers know consumers are trying to avoid, so they try to avoid listing it. A sneaky technique to hide this chemical flavor enhancer  is called “clean labeling,”  which works by using other food additives containing free glutamic acid that consumers may not know about or recognize. It then becomes easy enough to fool them by slapping  a “NO MSG” claim on the label!

Foods containing ingredients such as autolyzed yeast, hydrolyzed vegetable protein and yeast extract (for a more complete list, go here) all contain free glutamic acid. Even organic food may be part of this deception. An example I found recently is the “squeaky clean” labeled Pacific Natural Foods Organic Free Range Chicken Broth (low sodium), which contains autolyzed yeast. This product features all the magic label words – organic, free-range, gluten free and low sodium, but still contains a dose of free glutamic acid.

So avoiding monosodium glutamate can be tricky due to the sneaky way it’s included in processed foods. But what about HFCS. That’s easy, right? All you have to do is read the label. Well if you’re a reader of this blog you should know by now that the Corn Refiners Association has another plan in mind. For over a year they’ve been spending big bucks trying to hypnotize us into thinking that HFCS is really “corn sugar.” To that end, they’ve petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to make the switch official.

So what happens should Big Corn gets its wish and HFCS starts appearing on everything from cake to mustard disguised as “corn sugar” (or maybe from there it will morph into plain “sugar”)? That’s why it’s really important to let the FDA know what you think about this rebranding scam for HFCS. Send in your opinion to the agency here. It’s hard enough to avoid chemicals in food when you know what you’re looking for, without having to look for it in a false wig and mustache!

Fruit identity theft – or ‘where’s the fruit’?

Posted by -- December 1, 2011 – Yes, it’s true. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day  Unfortunately, many of us are inviting some sneaky guests  to the breakfast table with bogus claims of bearing fruit.

Most everyone has heard about the importance of eating more fruits and vegetables; in fact, dietary experts are now calling for a lot more than you might think. The Harvard School of Public Health, for one, recommends five to thirteen servings a day. But unless we have a full-time cook who spends all day in the kitchen prepping fruits and veggies, we’re unlikely to be consuming anywhere close to 6 ½ cups daily. So you might think that “sneaking in” some extra fruit in whatever form we can find it is a good idea. Well, perhaps – that is, unless the fruit in question doesn’t really exist, but is merely an example of “fruit identity theft.”

In fact, try finding any actual fruit in a number of seemingly ‘fruity” cereals, and your search will prove to be ..well, fruitless.

Fruit identity theft case number one: Kellogg’s Froot Loops; Now maybe they didn’t really mean fruit, it is spelled “Froot” after all. But this vintage breakfast “food” (introduced in 1966) is colorful, claims “natural fruit flavors” and comes complete with the familiar face of Toucan Sam, but unfortunately contains no fruit.  In place of anything fruity, it does contain red 40, yellow 6, BHT as a preservative and artery-clogging partially hydrogenated oils.

Fruit identity theft case number two: Post Fruity Pebbles; There is nothing in Fruity Pebbles that sounds remotely like fruit, looks like fruit or even was a fruit at any point, except for the word “fruity” in the name. Post does claim it “rocks your whole mouth!” whatever that means. This cereal is also a hotbed of bad ingredients including still more trans fat-containing hydrogenated vegetable oil, and a variety of artificial colors, flavors and preservatives.

Fruit identity theft case number three: General Mills’ Trix Wildberry Red Swirls; Trix cereal is even older than Froot Loops and in the ongoing quest to keep it updated ,General Mills has introduced the “wildberry red” flavor. As for truth in advertising there is “red,” as in Red 40, an artificial color, but not a hint of berries, wild or otherwise.

Fruit identity theft case number four: Fruity Cheerios; another General Mills product. Appealing to an older crowd than Fruity Pebbles, these Fruity Cheerios come in a really neat 1960s retro-type package. And it does contain a little something resembling fruit in the form of “pear puree,” This ingredient, however, is listed down below the oil and above the salt, along with red 40, blue 1 and yellow 6.

As I mentioned in a September blog on fake blueberry foods and “fruit” snacks, the presence of real fruit and vegetables in processed foods is so scarce nowadays that if a product does contain it they often make it a big selling point as in, “made with REAL fruit.”

So what to do if we want to up our intake of fruits? The rule of thumb seems to be that if a product has “fruit,” “fruity” or “blueberries” in its name, it won’t contain any. If you want more fruit in your diet, there’s no substitute for the real thing, which isn’t all that difficult to come by. A quick pick, if fresh fruit is out of season, is to stock up on some frozen varieties, put some in a dish, put it in the fridge, and by morning you’ll have some real fruit to put on your breakfast cereal.

As for the cereal itself, there are plenty of better choices out there, including selections from   companies such as Cascadian Farms and Amy’s Kitchen. And don’t forget the old standby, oatmeal — only watch out for not-so-hot “kids’ oatmeal” products that contain the same artificial flavors, colors and preservatives as the above“fruit-flavored” cereals. You can probably make quick-cooking oats (which contain just one ingredient, oats) in a pot just as fast as more processed microwave varieties.

Fruit identity theft is another reason why you have to read the label on a product, not just the name or package claim – that is, if you want to provide your family with more fruitful sources of nutrition.