Archive for January, 2012

More bad news about fructose – and why only sugar is sugar

Posted by -- January 31, 2012

A study featured last year in the journal Obesity showed that the fructose content of many beverages sweetened with high fructose corn syrup delivers a much higher fructose “jolt” than what the corn industry claimed. In light of that revelation, another study just out is extra bad news for consumers of HFCS-laden products.

The new study, conducted by researchers at Georgia Health Sciences University, found that high fructose consumption by teens can put them at risk for heart disease and diabetes, and also speculated kids may “crave the cheap, strong sweetener.”  Study co-author Dr. Vanessa Bundy, was quoted in a university press release as saying “…it’s believed there’s something in the syrup processing (of HFCS) that plays a role in the bad byproducts of metabolism.”

The Corn Refiners Association (CRA), of course, immediately issued a press release alleging the new study draws “unfounded conclusions,” and also used its ‘media minute’ to once again reiterate what has lately become its favorite mantra — that despite its name, high fructose corn syrup is not really “high” in fructose.

But as Dr. Michael Goran, director of the Childhood Obesity Research Center found out, that’s quite likely not true. The results he received from an independent laboratory analysis of popular soda brands seem to indicate that high fructose corn syrup is the perfect name for this laboratory-concocted sweetener.

Dr. Goran, who is also professor of preventative medicine at the University of Southern California, discovered that what is commonly believed to be the fructose content of  HFCS in sodas and drinks – 55 percent –  didn’t jibe with his study results. Finding fructose levels as high as 65 percent in the Coke, Pepsi and Sprite analyzed, came as a “surprise” to Goran and his team. Now if you’ve been following my blogs here you should know that the CRA has spent  a whopping $50 million plus to convince folks that “sugar is sugar” and HFCS has just about the same fructose level as cane or beet sugar. So Dr. Goran’s research is pretty much a game changer and certainly should be considered a factor in studies such as the high fructose-heart disease one just released.

With the Corn Refiners Association spending even more big bucks on a renewed campaign to sell us on HFCS (and its makeover name, but more on that in a minute), with the theme of “sugar is sugar,”  a study published in the journal Metabolism last December says that there are big differences between “real” sugar and HFCS. The study showed that folks who consumed HFCS-sweetened drinks, versus ones with sugar, had higher blood levels of fructose, higher uric acid and heightened blood pressure.

Help us stop the corn sugar hoax

With the 2010 petition from the CRA to change the name of the increasingly unpopular HFCS to “corn sugar” currently open for comment, you still have a chance to speak your mind and make a difference. While the Food and Drug Administration is dragging its feet on this petition, the CRA is using it as an opportunity to keep the “conversation,” as they like to call it, going. By using the Internet, press and TV as a forum to get “corn sugar” in our heads as the new name for HFCS, the only way to put a stop to this is to get the FDA to act now.

Make sure you take a moment to click here and convey your comments to the FDA. You can copy and paste some sample messages on this page, or compose one of your own. Remember, real corn sugar is already a long-recognized product that contains NO fructose. And sugar, one of the oldest natural sweeteners, can only come from sugar cane or sugar beets. So please tell the FDA to reject this ridiculous attempt to conceal HFCS on packaging.

The FDA online docket is easy to use, but a few folks have had some questions, so here are some tips: under “Organization Name” you can simply put “none,” “self” or anything else that applies. You can leave the space under “Submitter’s Representative” blank if you want, and under “Category,” there is a drop-down menu with a bunch of choices with “Consumer” at the very bottom.

If you are tired of hearing from Big Corn every time you turn on the TV, tell the FDA to act now and reject this petition so the CRA can’t continue to deceive us. Who knows? – your comment might just be the one that tips the scales in favor of a decisive ruling against this attempted food flimflam.

Nutritional guide promotions: all part of a master plan?

Posted by -- January 26, 2012

This is getting ridiculous. Just when I though I had thoroughly covered all the promotions using colored tags, stars, symbols and numbers that the food industry has designed to enable us to do “healthier” shopping, I find there are still more.

The concept was described as “an industry free-for-all in which different companies used different, and in many cases self-serving, symbols to communicate how healthful their products were” in a New England Journal of Medicine article last summer about the Nutrition Keys program, a front-of-package promotion since renamed ‘Facts Up Front.”

All these attempts to guide us toward purchasing decisions have come at a time when the Food and Drug Administration can’t seem to come up with any recommendations for new and easy-to-understand package nutrition labeling.

Despite the lack of any uniform standards, there appears to be no lack of willingness by supermarket chains,  grocery trade associations and brands themselves to take you by the hand while shopping. And although all these programs claim they can help simplify making “healthy” and “better for you” choices, they kind of give us a hint as to just how bad the choices are to begin with.

To add to my list of programs and promotions to help the confused consumer, I present:

Safeway’s “SimpleNutrition” program

Looking kind of like a board game, SimpleNutrition is comprised of 22 “benefit messages” under “two groups of messages” that are supposed to meet “lifestyle, dietary” and “specific nutrition or ingredient criteria.” Could anything be simpler than that?

Safeway (with over 1,500 stores in the U.S. alone), says its goal is to “make it quicker and easier to find better nutrition choices.” However after spending some time on their  “how it works” page, I’m still not exactly sure how it all works, But what I do know is there is something not quite right about giving a “benefit” shelf tag to foods simply because they are “sugar free,” which means they most likely contain artificial sweeteners, or because they are “natural ” especially since we know that “natural” is a pretty loose term under which a lot of nasty ingredients can be concealed. (Hey, if the FDA can’t define “natural” I’m sure not gonna count on Safeway to do so.)

Publix Markets’ “Nutrition Facts” tags

Apparently not bothered that “nutrition facts” is the exact same term the government requires for processed food packaging information panels, Publix, a Southern supermarket institution with over 1,000 stores, now features its own “Nutrition Facts” program that asks, “Who has time to analyze food labels? Luckily, when you shop with us, you don’t have to.”

This Publix promotion tips off its customers to foods that are “sugar-free,” “low fat” and “low calorie,” along with ten other nutritional superiority claims, via green, red and white shelf tags. Publix also takes a stab at defining “natural,” using brown tags for “all-natural” products, but the spokeswoman I talked to yesterday couldn’t say if items containing high fructose corn syrup, for example, would make the cut as “natural” or not.

Like similar attempts to help us do healthy shopping in a hurry, that information alone is not enough to tell us if in fact the products so designated are actually better for us. They could be worse choices – but only by reading the ingredient label could we make that distinction.

I will give Publix Markets credit, however, for what appears to be a major shift toward organic foods, including a small number of  upscale “GreenWise” stores selling even more organic selections.

Stop & Shop’s Healthy Ideas

The creative naming of these programs is pretty much the biggest difference between them. Stop & Shop, for example, wants us to have “a simple way to know it’s healthy”: all you have to do is look for the Healthy Ideas shelf tag!  Healthy Ideas tags are also on “nearly all the fruits and vegetables in the produce department.” Was that really necessary, Stop & Shop?

(Along with these helpful programs, I previously covered Supervalu’s “nutrition iQ,” industry-created “Facts Up Front,” “Guiding Stars,” and my favorite “what were they thinking” the NuVal scoring system.)

Not all such nutrition advice programs have gained public acceptance, however. Those that have already bit the dust include:

Smartspot, Pepsico’s self-serving “more nutritious” designations on its own brands, which was launched in 2004 and canned in 2010;

Sensible Solutions, a similar idea from the marketing gurus at Kraft, which made its debut in 2005 and was“put on hold” in 2009;

Smart Choices, a promotion designed and paid for by the food industry that got bad press when its ‘better-for-you’ icon started appearing on Kellogg’s Froot Loops packages. It came and went in 2009.

If I were the conspiracy type, I would say that all these instant information promotions are part of a master plan from the food industry to encourage us not to read ingredient labels. But as the New England Journal of Medicine article put it “A mantra of the food and beverage industry is that ‘there is no bad food.’”

But of course, there is. And not Publix or Stop & Shop or Supervalu, and certainly not the Grocery Manufacturers Association, is going to point it out to us. That’s up to you, the savvy shopper who won’t be fooled by the tricks of the trade.

Linda Bonvie, FoodIdentityTheft.com

Warning: supermarket shopping can be hazardous to your health

Posted by -- January 24, 2012

Despite offering shoppers what may seem like an unlimited selection of items, the supermarkets of today are deceptively stocked with scores of ersatz and redundant products that have been deliberately designed to entice you. Along with test-tube replacements for real food ingredients that have been developed by laboratory chemists, most of their appeal is the work of ad agencies that have mastered the art of the sell.

That’s why in his book In Defense of Food, Author Michael Pollan calls on us to “eat food” – a  statement so simple, it needs some explanation.

In the chapter “Food Defined,” he gives what he calls “rules of thumb” to help the confused shopper select real foods versus what he refers to as  “foodish products.”

Pollan’s first tip, “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food” (or, he adds, maybe even your great, great, grandmother), touches on just how long fake foods have been a part of the supermarket landscape. British nutritionist John Yudkin, goes even further back in history, Pollan points out, by advising, “Just don’t eat anything your Neolithic ancestors wouldn’t have recognized…”

His next “rule of thumb” should be familiar to many following the issues we’ve been reporting on here at Food Identity Theft:
“Avoid food products containing ingredients that are A) unfamiliar, B) unpronounceable, C) more than five in number or that include, D) high fructose corn syrup.”

These, he says, are “reliable markers” that the foods you are considering consuming have crossed the line from “foods to food products.” Certainly many decent foods can contain more than five ingredients, but you get the point. Pollan mentions bread, which is also one of my favorite examples. It may look like bread and even smell like bread, but as I’ve mentioned here before, there is no excuse for bread or rolls with an ingredient label long enough to run down the entire side of the package. Bread should basically consist of just four ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast.

“Avoid food products that make health claims,” says Pollan. Why? “…For the most part it is the products of food science that make the boldest health claims,” he says, citing one of the first fake-food replacements – margarine. Margarine, as you may recall, was touted as the “healthy” replacement for butter, until everyone (including the Food and Drug Administration) finally acknowledged that all those trans fats were causing heart disease in folks at an alarming rate.

“Get out of the supermarket whenever possible,” Pollan advises, adding that “you won’t find any high fructose corn syrup at the farmers’ market.”

A good point, except that sometimes there is no farmers’ market readily available. So for those of us confined to supermarket selections, here are some of our own Food Identity Theft tips:

  • Don’t be fooled into buying tomato products that are made from concentrate and masquerade as “fresh” with pretty pictures of red, ripe tomatoes.
  • Don’t count on the truthful nature of front-of-package claims such as “No MSG.” Read the ingredients, and know what you’re looking for.
  • Don’t believe “nutrition facts” claims that a product contains zero trans fats if the ingredients  include any hydrogenated oils.
  • Don’t get tricked into believing “100 percent pure” orange juice is really the equivalent of freshly squeezed orange juice. Despite such claims, “not from concentrate” varieties are apt to have flavor added and be anything but fresh.

And remember the original supermarket shopping rule: don’t shop when you’re hungry. That’s when you’re most susceptible to appetizing pictures, descriptions and displays.

The legacy of a truth-in-labeling pioneer

Consumers lost a powerful advocate with the passing of Jack Samuels, founder and president of the Truth in Labeling Campaign (TLC), on January 15th.  Jack was a dedicated, knowledgeable and articulate spokesman, providing consumers with “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about MSG.”

A health-care professional himself, Jack suffered from an acute sensitivity to MSG; a condition so severe that exposure to the substance could cause him to lose consciousness (in a sense, he was almost like the ‘canary in the coal mine’ – reacting to toxic substances at low levels). Well before Jack and his wife Adrienne founded TLC in 1994, they went searching for answers about his sensitivity. In the process they found out about the power of the glutamate industry, and that it was virtually impossible for consumers to rely on the government to provide accurate information when it came to MSG in processed foods.

Shortly after  TLC was formed, the Samuels joined with physicians, parents and researchers in filing a Citizen Petition with the FDA, asking that all MSG found in processed foods be declared on the label. Predictably, neither that petition nor a subsequent lawsuit failed to result in any such improvements. But Jack and Adrienne continued on in a grass-roots effort to inform consumers on their own about the toxic potential of MSG, and where it is hidden in food, pharmaceuticals, dietary supplements, protein drinks and infant formula.  Their efforts to promote public awareness took the form of websites, blogs and Facebook pages, all dedicated to the idea that consumers have the right to know what’s in their food.

Even though Jack didn’t quite manage to bring about the reforms he hoped for, no one has done more to educate consumers, healthcare professionals, government officials and anyone else who would listen about the health risks of monosodium glutamate and other ingredients containing processed free glutamic acid. In so doing, he helped inspire a widespread movement dedicated to achieving truth in labeling. And that’s about as good a legacy as anyone can leave.

Thanks, Jack — you will be missed.

Sugar-free jelly outscores eggs in ‘easy’ nutrition-rating system

Posted by -- January 19, 2012

While the FDA says it is continuing to work toward establishing guidelines for “front of package” labeling (asking the Institute of Medicine for advice in the matter), industry continues to forge ahead with stars, numbers and different colored lights on packaging and shelf tags to tell us what they deem a “healthy” choice. But is this really helpful nutrition labeling or simply another way to do a sales pitch?

Teaching us how to shop is big business, even bigger, as it turns out, than I first realized. At the end of December, I told you about giant grocery retailer Supervalu’s “nutrition iQ” promotion and its shelf tag system to point out “better-for-you” choices. When I checked out some of those “better” choices, that a youtube video states will “arm you to the teeth with knowledge” I found products containing hidden MSG, partially hydrogenated oils and artificial colors as well as high fructose corn syrup, that had all received the “better-for-you” stamp of approval.

And last week I reported on Facts Up Front, an industry-funded (to the tune of $50 million) front-of- package “nutrient based labeling system” presented by the Grocery Manufactures Association and the Food Marketing Institute, which the groups claim will be hitting the shelves this year.

As if that wasn’t enough, I’m here to add to that list Guiding Stars and the NuVal “scoring system” with its claim of “nutrition made easy.”

NuVal, described as being “developed independently by a team of nutrition and medical experts,” is another shelf-tag system that rates the “nutritiousness” of foods by scoring them from 1 to 100 using a patent-pending algorithm. Despite its claim of  being “completely independent from any commercial brands or retailers” a look at its website’s “about” page reveals that NuVal is a joint venture with Topco Associates LLC – which is “the leading procurement and service cooperative for grocery retailers, wholesalers and food service distributors in the U.S.”

The NuVal concept, summarized on its website as “the higher the score, the better the nutrition,” appears to be a bizarrely flawed idea. Take this example; Polaner Sugar-Free Concord Grape Jelly (which contains sodium benzoate, artificial colors red 40 and blue 1, and the artificial sweetener Sucralose)  receives a NuVal score of 82, whereas eggs receive a score of only 33.

NuVal media contact Robert Keane, when asked how grape jelly made the grade higher than an actual food product, like eggs, told me that consumers are expected to compare “like items,” and didn’t appear to have any concerns over the fact that the higher numbers represent all that extra “nutritiousness.” He said that shoppers will use the scores the way they “purchase food” (although I’m not quite sure what he meant by that).

NuVal also offers no “nutritiousness” differentials for foods containing monosodium glutamate, artificial sweeteners and colors. In fact Keane said that if we compared two processed food items containing the exact same ingredients, the one with lower sodium but containing monosodium glutamate would score a bigger number than the higher sodium product without the MSG. The same reasoning applies for the artificial sweetener aspartame.  A Coke, which has the lowest NuVal score of one, would jump to 15 if it contained aspartame instead of a caloric sweetener.

NuVal, which according to Keane,  was created, by 13 of the “top food scientists in America,” licenses its scoring service to “retail partners,” and even has a sample letter to give your store on its website requesting that they get on board.

Stars compete with numbers

Guiding Stars, called “Nutritious choices made simple,” appears to be another variation on the theme, It uses a rating system featuring one to three big yellow stars — perhaps to appeal to those those who can’t count to the higher NuVal numbers.

Guiding Stars also has an advisory board of experts and scientists. It, too, emphasizes how “frustrating” and “confusing” it is to pick nutritious foods, and how it takes all the “guesswork” out of that tedious task.

It’s great to see that Guiding Stars gives a fresh tomato three stars and that NuVal rates broccoli at 100, but did we really need all those experts, doctors and scientific analysis to come up with that?

Hopefully most of us know that foods like potato chips aren’t of great nutritional benefit without needing a guidance system to pick a bag. If you really must have some chips, you’d be much better off to find some simple, preferably organic ones that are made without MSG, partially hydrogenated oil or artificial colors or flavors.

Author, Professor and blogger Marion Nestle was quoted in a recent USA Today article about NuVal as saying, “I think their purpose is to sell food products, if you want to encourage people to eat healthy… you want them to eat real food.”

And while NuVal’s Keane, in attempting to explain how artificial flavors and colors don’t factor in, told me that their “scores deal with the nutrition quality of food,” I still want to know how that sugar-free grape jelly scored an 82.

Linda Bonvie, FoodIdentityTheft.com

There’s still time to oppose Big Corn’s sugar-coated attempt to deceive us!

Posted by -- January 17, 2012

The 2010 petition from the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) to rebrand the unnatural and increasingly unpopular sweetener high fructose corn syrup as“corn sugar” is still open for comment. This means you still have a chance to protest this sneaky move on the part of the CRA to assign an innocuous-sounding alias to an ingredient that consumers are shunning in droves. Since the FDA says it reads and “considers these comments,” we need to have as many concerned and conscientious consumers as possible go on record in opposing this outrageous  attempt at concealment. So make sure you click here and get your comment into the FDA while the petition is still open, (If you don’t have the time to compose a personal message, there are several on this page that you can copy and paste at the FDA docket.)

Here are a few tips on comment submissions to the FDA: Under “Organization Name” you can simply put “none,” “self” or anything else that applies. You can leave the space under “Submitter’s Representative” blank if you want, and under“Category,” there is a drop-down menu with a bunch of choices with “Consumer” at the very bottom. It’s easy to add your comment and make yourself heard. The more folks who add their names and comments to this petition, the better the chance the FDA will realize that the public won’t stand for being hoodwinked in this devious  manner.

While all submitted comments have not yet been added to the FDA site, there’s hope that most, if not all, may eventually be posted there, as it appears the agency has been updating it several times a week for about a month now, with some 1,482 public submissions currently appearing. Here a few of the latest:

“I won’t buy ANYTHING in food items that contain it and are educating all my friends and family to do the same. Don’t let them change the name. How will we know where it is hiding if we can’t find it?”

“Please do not be fooled by the CRA’s attempt to change the name of a known food additive, High Fructose Corn Syrup, or HFCS, to the less specific and deceptive ‘corn sugar’. This is an obvious attempt to deceive health conscious consumers and businesses…They need to be able to avoid it safely, by being able to readily identify it in their consumer products.”

“I object to the relabeling of the product “high-fructose corn syrup” as corn sugar. The word ‘Sugar’ has been used for centuries to refer to the product that comes from sugarcane or sugar beets. Additionally, there’s already a food product recognized by the FDA with the name “corn sugar. (It’s NOT High Fructose Corn Syrup.)”

Misrepresentation, or just a big ‘misunderstanding’?

So why the attempted name change? While most consumers recognize it for what it is – a marketing ploy designed to misrepresent an undesirable food additive and confuse the issue,  the CRA will tell you it’s actually meant to clear up all the confusion. That’s right  —  its purpose, according to them, is to benefit consumers by eliminating any  misunderstanding created by the high fructose corn syrup moniker. “An ingredient should not be ‘driven out of the marketplace’ because it has a name that is widely misunderstood by the public,” says the CRA on one of its many webinars for those in the food business.

Of course, nothing  is contrived to confuse consumers quite as much as the claim put forth by Big Corn is that HFCS is a “natural” ingredient. The funniest example of this misleading statement comes out of the CRA site Cornnaturally.com – part of the group’s “educational campaign” geared mostly for folks in the food industry.  Almost like something straight out of a Saturday Night Live routine, fifth-generation Illinois farmer Len Corzine tells us in a video that HFCS is a “very natural product because we’re taking a product from the corn, which takes energy from the sun to produce sugars and starches…”

Wow, Len, thanks! I hadn’t realized that the sun was responsible for making the corn grow. That sure makes anything remotely derived from it natural, right?

In reality, making high fructose corn syrup is a multi-step, chemical process that utilizes a synthetic “fixing” agent chemical and enzymatic reactions that eventually make it possible to conjure fructose out of corn starch. As CRA president Audrae Erickson says in the movie King Corn, “There’s a lot of technology that goes into making HFCS.”

All of which is why I hope thousands of us consumers will comment to the FDA about this great marketing scam. Let’s let the CRA know we are not confused at all, We know an unnatural product – and attempted food identity theft – when we see it!

“Natural” can run the gamut from bugs to beaver butts

Posted by -- January 12, 2012

When flavors and colors are described as “natural,” what does that mean, exactly? Sure, it sounds benign, but in the arcane world of food labeling, things are seldom what they seem. In fact, some “natural flavors” are in the ‘say it ain’t so’ category. And remember, “natural flavors” are typically proprietary information, meaning no matter how hard you might try, you won’t be able to find out exactly what they’re made of.

Of course, if you’d prefer to go along your merry way consuming all kinds of processed foods and treats without giving a thought to what you’re really eating, you need read no further. But if you’re even the least bit concerned that the products that look so good might not be what you think they are, here are a few facts about some “natural” ingredients that might just make you think twice.

Castoreum: If the name doesn’t sound all that appealing to begin with, you might freak out when you learn this ingredient, which is used in a variety of foods and beverages including vanilla and raspberry flavorings, is really an extraction of the dried glands and secretions from a beaver’s rear end (and that’s putting it politely). In fact, if you’re thinking of going into the food business and need some “natural-flavor” castoreum for your ice cream, you need go nor further than castoreum.com, where Agro Laboratory, a “leading supplier” will sell you some. Just look for the photo of the cute little beaver swimming on the home page.

Cochineal and Carmine: These crimson, orange and red food colorings made from the bodies of a scaly female insect are used to color applesauce, baked goods, meats and spices. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, researchers at the University of Michigan found that this insect-derived “natural” color additive can cause life-threatening allergic reactions. The only good news about cochineal and carmine is that in 2009 the Food and Drug Administration required that these ingredients be specifically labeled when used in food and cosmetics. So if you don’t want any bug extract in your cupcakes, here’s yet another reason for reading the ingredient label.

Confectioner’s glaze: While this actually sounds like an appetizing ingredient, the name is where anything close to appealing ends. Also called shellac and resinous glaze, this ingredient is basically bug juice, obtained by scraping the secretions, called “lac,” of  a very small red bug off tree bark. The female secretes the sticky substance to make a protective shell to lay her eggs. Doesn’t sound so appetizing now, does it? Confectioner’s glaze is used in products such as candies (Hershey’s Milk Duds, for example), cosmetics and chewing gum.

MSG: If you were MSG you would want to hide too, and what better place then under the secret  “natural flavors” category. While ingredients such as “monosodium glutamate,” and “hydrolyzed” proteins are required by the FDA to be disclosed on the food label, over 40 other MSG-containing ingredients are not. Another place MSG can be sneaked into foods are in the ingredients “stock” and “broth,”  both of which can be used without naming what they are actually made of.

Tongue-tampering ingredients: Also labeled as “natural flavors” these are masking ingredients that mess with our taste buds. Wild Flavors, a mega flavor-development company out of Cincinnati, Ohio, has created “Resolver” which they describe as overcoming “undesirable taste components” by blocking the taste on the tongue. It does this by “attaching itself to the receptor” and not allowing the “taste sensation” to be perceived.  Taste-bud-deception concoctions such as these are used in both foods and beverages as well as supplements.

While what can be called a “natural” flavoring or color includes a lot, not all ingredients can be stuffed into that category. So what to do if your product has an undesirable name? If you’re the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) and you’re trying to pitch high fructose corn syrup (not a “natural” ingredient) to a public who wants no part of it, you could try to make a switcharoo to a better sounding one, a name that sounds natural and sweet like “corn sugar.”

What is “corn sugar”

First off, corn sugar is NOT high fructose corn syrup. Corn sugar is recognized by the FDA as its own unique product that contains not a bit of fructose. That’s right: as crazy as it sounds the CRA is attempting to change the name of high fructose corn syrup to a known ingredient that contains NO fructose. How confusing is that? Several years ago the CRA started sneaking the name “corn sugar” into print and television commercials when it was referring to HFCS, and in 2010, the group filed a petition with the FDA to “officially” change the name.

The FDA docket is still open and available for you to comment on this attempted marketing ploy.  Currently there are 1,280 public submissions posted online from thousands received by the agency, including a good number from Citizens for Health supporters. While not all comments are posted at the site, this is still a big change from last September when I first started reporting on this issue. At that time there were only 127 posted public comments.

This should be an extremely important issue to you if you care about the integrity of food labeling and your rights as a consumer, So please be sure to send in your comment to the FDA, which you can easily do by clicking here.

Linda Bonvie —  FoodIdentityTheft.com

Bogus ‘extra virgin’ olive oil a common form of food fraud

Posted by -- January 10, 2012

In the fight against food fraud and misleading package claims, reading the ingredient label is your best defense. But in the case of bogus “extra virgin” olive oil, it isn’t quite that simple.

And in fact, olive oil flim flams are much more common than you might think.

A 2010 report by the University of California-Davis Olive Center found that 69 percent of imported olive oil samples touted as “extra virgin” were actually made from inferior grades. In addition, some of the samples showed signs of oxidization (from age or bad storage), poor quality or adulteration with cheaper, chemically refined oils, such as soy and canola.

A few surprises that came out of the UC-Davis study included all three samples of Cosco brand Kirkland Signature organic olive oil qualifying as true extra virgin, while two out of three samples of Newman’s Own Organic, Colavita and Filippo Berio “Extra Virgin” failed to meet the criteria.

The UC-Davis study is just the most recent expose in a long history of olive oil scams and scandals. Author and expert Tom Mueller describes some of them that go back to ancient times in his new book Extra Virginity: the sublime and scandalous world of olive oil. Since it involves a highly valuable commodity that can be quite easily tainted, olive oil adulteration has always been a lucrative crime. In a 2007 New Yorker article called “Slippery Business,” Mueller described how in 1997 and 1998, “olive oil was the most adulterated agricultural product in the European Union, prompting the E.U.’s anti-fraud office to establish an olive-oil task force.” As one investigator told him, “profits were comparable to cocaine trafficking, with none of the risks.”

With U.S. consumers alone spending $720 million a year on olive oil, according to the California Olive Oil Council, it’s not hard to see why this form of food fraud is becoming more commonplace. The trade pub Food Manufacture reports that organized crime is now making the jump from drug trafficking to culinary crime because the latter is more difficult to detect and penalties for getting caught aren’t nearly as severe.

Is “extra virgin” really all that special?

“Real” extra-virgin olive oil is respectfully referred to by Mueller as “a cocktail of 200 plus highly beneficial ingredients,” whereas “bad olives have free radicals and impurities, and then you’ve lost that wonderful cocktail…that you get from fresh fruit, from real extra-virgin olive oil.”

Yes, olives are fruits, just like cherries. And like fruit juice, olive oil is perishable and can taste different from season to season.

To help ensure that you’re getting a top-grade, “true” extra virgin olive oil, you should look for a bottle that’s as new as possible on the shelf, as evident from the “best buy” date – typically two years from bottling. Or even better, if it’s indicated, the actual date of harvest. Old, rancid olive oil has not only lost the antioxidants and magical health benefits extra virgin is known for, but can actually be bad for you. Make sure the oil you buy is packaged in dark, glass bottles and keep it away from heat and light.

A few more olive oil factoids to keep in mind:

  • Good olive oils can range in color from green to gold; color doesn’t determine quality.
  • Fresh, true extra-virgin olive oil should be “vibrant and lively,” and while it may taste bitter, it should never be rancid or greasy.
  • Don’t buy “extra light” olive oil, which has just as many calories but none of the health benefits of extra virgin, as well as also being highly refined.

High-quality, extra virgin olive oil doesn’t have to come from Italy. Excellent oils also come from Spain, Turkey and California. The California olive oil industry has its own council and “certified extra virgin” label on products that the council claims guarantees you are buying “real” extra virgin olive oil.

For further help in distinguishing genuine extra virgin olive oil from the mislabeled impostors, author Mueller offers a lengthy guide to buying olive oil at his blog Extra Virginity.

How the food industry is making healthy eating ‘easy’ in 2012

Posted by -- January 5, 2012

If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to have a healthier diet this year, the food industry would like to to make it really easy for you.

So easy, in fact, that you’ll never have to read a list of ingredients again.

Of course, you can always forgo processed food entirely, If you’ve got the time and ability, that would be one way  to avoid having to read  product labels – and also bypass all the colorful packaging claims.  But if that doesn’t sound like it’s going to happen any time soon at your house, you’d best be wary of new “labeling systems” hyped as shortcuts to finding out the “facts” about product nutrition.

The current Nutrition Facts label, a now-familiar part of processed food packages, never quite made the grade in guiding consumers to better food choices.  Author Marion Nestle notes in her blog Food Politics that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration  originally tested several versions for consumer understanding. “The result?” she writes, “Nobody understood any of them. The FDA, under pressure to complete the regulations by the congressional deadline, chose the option that was least poorly understood – the best of a bad lot.”

Apparently the FDA realizes that too, as it maintains a hefty website devoted to helping you figure out  the Nutrition Facts label with charts, graphs, and a little quiz at the end.

But even if the Nutrition Facts label was better understood and read more often by consumers, all of the “facts” it contains are based on one little piece of information that’s probably the most overlooked – the serving size. A serving size, which appears to have little resemblance to amounts actually consumed, is dictated by “reference amounts” from the FDA based on what a person would “customarily consume” in one sitting, which are calculated by “food consumption surveys.”

Once you’ve begun reading the confusing criteria used in determining what constitutes a “serving size” and the variations they allow from product to product, what becomes apparent is that the rest of the information you see listed on the “Nutrition Facts” label isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Another essential aspect of nutrition missing from that label is the amount of certain health-promoting compounds found in fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and teas called phytonutrients. Without mention of these flavonoids, carotenoids and other healthful compounds, a quick comparison of the Nutrition Facts labels for a Coke and a bottle of pure grape juice won’t show much difference between the two. In fact, a check of the facts label for my favorite honey green tea (high in antioxidants) makes it look like nothing more than a bottle of sugar water.

So with all the confusion, hype and missing pieces of the nutritional pie, it’s no surprise that the hunt is on for better quick-glance nutrition labeling. Currently the FDA is contemplating just how to go about revamping the Nutrition Facts labels (with proposed changes including more accurate serving sizes).

Meanwhile the food industry is again attempting to step up to the plate with its own version.

Last week, for instance, I reported on Supervalu’s “nutrition iQ” promotion, which also unfortunately omits more information than it offers. And undeterred by the embarrassing quick end to the Smart Choices labeling program in 2009 – which was supported and funded by major food companies – a new “nutrient-based labeling system” called “Facts Up Front” is being introduced by two industry groups, the Grocery Manufactures Association (GMA) and the Food Marketing Institute. The name refers to the fact that the “facts” involved will be posted on the highly important front package space — an area comparable in value to a magazine’s cover or the “above-the-fold” space in a newspaper. (And I’m guessing such a prime location won’t be used to reduce the appeal of a product.)

Seemingly similar or identical to the same group’s Nutrition Keys program introduced in January of last year, Facts Up Front appears to be as much of an industry-funded effort as Smart Choices was. Pamela G. Bailey, president of the GMA,  is quoted in trade pub FoodProductDesign.com as saying, “Through our $50 million comprehensive, multi-faceted consumer education campaign, we will bring the Facts Up Front program alive for consumers and help them understand and use this important new tool.”

Say again? How can a system described as “simple” and “easy-to-use” require this much money to “educate” consumers? The program’s website states that the Facts Up Front program will “allow consumers to quickly see, understand and use key nutrient information as they peruse store shelves and navigate aisles.”  And, to better illustrate that fifty-million dollar education program, it attempts to prove that point with a three-panel graphic showing a  female stick figure shopper (perhaps reflecting the fight against obesity) examining the product with the word “look,” then spotting the new icons with the word “learn,” followed by a smiling stick-person head with the word “live” above it.

If only our efforts to ascertain the real facts about the ingredients in processed foods were all that simple – and reassuring.

To corn refiners, ‘word identity theft’ comes naturally

Posted by -- January 3, 2012

Railroad tank car with HFCS

Last October I reported on a letter released by the Associated Press from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to the Corn Refiners Association (CRA), which basically ordered the trade group to stop using “corn sugar” as a synonym for high fructose corn syrup and to “re-examine your websites and modify statements that use the term.”

But in a new year’s check of several CRA-run websites (including one called cornsugar.com), it appears that all the “corn sugar” messages still remain, along with my all-time favorite statement by the association that “corn sugar…is an FDA approved alternate label name for dextrose, a corn-based sweetener that contains no fructose.” But when the CRA  “…use(s) the phrase ‘corn sugar,’ we are using it to describe high fructose corn syrup as a form of sugar made from corn.”  What this ‘clear as mud’ statement means is that when anyone else (including the FDA) uses the term “corn sugar” they are referring to dextrose (also called glucose), a product that contains NO fructose. But when the CRA says “corn sugar,” it’s talking about HFCS, a different product entirely that does indeed contain fructose.

Then, while I was at the CRA’s Sweet Surprise site just this morning, a really big box popped up with four questions to answer. The first one said “HFCS is natural,” allowing the reader to choose either  a big “T” for true or a big “F” for false. I selected “false,” and was told my answer was wrong. “True!” the message said, “HFCS is made from corn. It contains nothing artificial or synthetic.”

Not so fast, Corn Refiners. As I discussed in a November blog, there is no “official” FDA definition of the term “natural”. What the group is hanging their “natural” hat on appears to go back to a July 2008 letter from an FDA food labeling team supervisor after a meeting between the FDA, CRA and manufacturers of HFCS. The process described at that FDA meeting on how HFCS is made, in which a synthetic fixing agent chemical called glutaraldehyde is said to be all washed away before the additional “enzymatic reaction(s)” occur, was enough for that FDA staffer to comment that “we would not object to the use of the term natural” on products containing HFCS.

Having been given such casual consent to use that particular ‘N’ word  the corn folks didn’t waste any time in hyping it to the heavens. Issuing a press release a few days later, CRA president Audrae Erickson said, “Upon careful review of the current manufacturing process for high fructose corn syrup, the FDA found that HFCS can be labeled natural.” Erickson was also quoted as saying “This is very good news!”

Fast forward to 2010 and the case of Lauren Coyle versus Arizona brand beverages ,which challenged the use of  the word “natural” on labels of Arizona drink products containing HFCS. The court, in asking for an official opinion from the FDA on whether HFCS is considered a natural ingredient, was told by the agency it would “respectfully decline” to make such a determination.

It seems the FDA letter that the CRA is quoting – and which can still be found on the group’s websites, by the way – is considered an “informal communication” and not any type of “definitive statement” as to the FDA’s opinion of the naturalness of HFCS. “The opinions of individual employees do not bind the agency, and FDA has made clear that only the Commissioner can speak definitively for the agency,” the letter to the court stated.

Interestingly, two years before the CRA ran with the term “natural,” it went on record opposing a petition filed by the Sugar Association asking the FDA to define the term, saying “CRA opposes the Petition’s request to define the term ‘natural’ for FDA-regulated food.”

But I suppose the Corn Refiners were just doing what comes naturally to folks who seem to have a natural tendency to play fast and loose with definitions.

More comments posted protesting “corn sugar” petition

A docket check at the FDA site for the Corn Refiners Association petition of last year to give HFCS the sweet name “corn sugar”  has been updated with almost 100 more consumer comments since last week, currently showing 879 public submissions! Now this is a case of Food Identity Theft you can help prevent by adding your voice to the public protest. Click here to tell the FDA what you think of this marketing ploy.