Archive for March, 2012

The point that didn’t quite ‘pop’ in the good news on popcorn

Posted by -- March 29, 2012

Dr. Vinson in his lab. Photo: Terry Connors

So how did popcorn become a hot and trending news item this week?

The short answer is: a student doing his thesis, a re-popped study, and a clever, if not entirely accurate spin from the press office of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

Headline writers and news anchors from around the country picked up the ‘happy news’ that “popcorn has more antioxidants than fruits and vegetables,” a take the study’s head researcher, Joe Vinson, PhD, said in a phone interview I had with him yesterday was “a false lead to go on.”

“They kind of played up the fruits and vegetables versus popcorn…there are different kinds of antioxidants,” Vinson contended.

Make no mistake, Dr. Vinson is hot on popcorn, but from a slightly different perspective. “It’s a perfect snack in my’s high in fiber, low in fat, low in calories and high in antioxidants,” he said, adding “it’s a different kind of food, and I’m thinking of it as a snack, not a replacement for these other nutrient-rich foods.”

But the ACS press office did its job well, and by Tuesday, when I spoke with Dr. Vinson, he had been contacted by Time, USA Today and other big news names, was featured at an ACS press conference, and was also up to date on how the topic was trending on Google.

Don’t dispense with the fruits and veggies just yet

Dr. Vinson’s study, done at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania and presented at a meeting of the ACS, was a second-popping of a 2009 one (also presented at an ACS meeting) that both Vinson and chemistry student Michael G. Coco conducted.

The new research, which is “more precise,” according to Vinson and “an improvement over the old” separated the hull from the “white fluffy part,” which was the idea of Coco, who is doing his thesis on the subject.

The popcorn hulls (“the part that sticks in your teeth”), they discovered, are where the antioxidants are hiding, but whether popcorn munchers are getting the benefits of these compounds, and if so, how much, remains to be seen.  “We hope that the antioxidants will play a part in the benefits that you get from eating popcorn…and if they are bio-available, that’s our next step,” said Vinson.

The study did a sort of ‘digestion simulation’ in the laboratory, but how that may differ in a person, Vinson hopes to find out. “We did our own digestion (research)  that doesn’t use enzymes, and you as a human being have enzymes and different pH changes to digest food,” he said.

When popcorn isn’t good for you

While Vinson and Coco found no difference in the measured antioxidant levels in air-popped versus microwaved popcorn, the latter zapped version was recently hot news itself on the Internet starting with an article in Prevention titled “7 food that should never cross your lips.

The problem with microwaved popcorn, according to Olga Naidenko, PhD, a senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group, comes not from the popcorn but from the lining of the microwave bags which contain the chemical perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).

PFOA is part of a class of nasty compounds linked to numerous diseases in animal testing. The chemical is vaporized during cooking and can migrate into the popcorn. “They stay in your body for years and accumulate there,” Naidenko says.

Manufacturers are said to be  phasing out PFOA by 2015, but between now and then, there will be a lot of microwaved popcorn consumed – although according to Dr. Vinson, air popping is the preferable method.

So if you like popcorn, eat away — it may turn out to have great health benefits besides its established whole grain content, But just stay away from the microwaved kinds and the MSG-added store varieties.

Popcorn, according to Dr. Vinson, is “better than any snack out there.” Better than things like corn chips, potato chips, nacho chips,  which are “all higher in fat, higher in calories and much lower in fiber.”

But certainly not something that should be substituting for your daily quota of fruits and veggies.

Five kinds of phony foods to steer clear of

Posted by -- March 27, 2012

The odd couple - HFCS and green tea

In our quest to pack more nutrition into our day, it’s easy to fall prey to processed foods and drinks making amazing claims to nutritional super-power. But despite the advertising hype, don’t think for one minute that what used to be considered junk food has suddenly been transformed into some remarkably healthy innovation simply by the addition of synthetic vitamins or minerals.

Since we know shopping these days isn’t always easy, especially if you’re short of time and have forgotten your reading glasses, here are five types of products to avoid next time you’re in the store to help keep those ersatz but enticing items out of your shopping cart:

1. Strictly ‘out to lunch’
My “lunchbox hoax” award for counterfeit commodities for kids goes to – Kraft and its Lunchables brand! These “lunch combinations” products have been on the market for some times now, with a few tweaks here and there (such as fruit being added to some of the selections). But even though the advertising copy refers to them as “lunchtime ideas you can really feel good about,” all of the Lunchables I looked at contained monosodium glutamate, the addition of which to a  packaged “lunch” designed for kids I find utterly astounding, given the sheer numbers of consumers trying to avoid it. And to top it off, the Capri Sun juice packs that are included  in some contain high fructose corn syrup. (Don’t they think anyone reads these ingredient labels?)

The contents of those colorful little boxes are still No. 1 when it comes to bad food selections for kids. Or adults, for that matter.

2. The way the cookie claims crumble
While there are plenty of packaged snack foods making phony nutrition claims, my all-time favorite for misleading labeling is “WhoNu?” cookies.  Eating these cookies, according to the copy on the package, is on a nutritional par with consuming oatmeal, milk, blueberries and spinach.  Well, it isn’t – and no amount of  pumping up them up with synthetic vitamins and minerals can turn them into the equivalent of real food.

3. It’s only make-believe
Another example of a  product with no nutritional value but a great facade is the synthetic sweetener Splenda, which uses the antioxidant banner and an enticing picture of strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries  to create an impression of being both natural and good for you. (In fact, no artificial sweetener can make this claim, and all are controversial.) For a sweetener that really packs a nutritious punch, my advice would be to try unsulphured molasses, which not only delivers a naturally sweet taste, but contains natural potassium, calcium and iron.

4. Bursting their bubbles
Soda has never been, nor will it ever be, a nutritious product. Despite that fact, sodas touting quasi-health claims are out there trying their best to make you think that drinking them may offer some kind of health benefits.

Exhibit A; Canada Dry Ginger Ale with added green tea. Advertised to be “enhanced with 200 mg of anitoxidants from green tea & vitamin C,” this product also contains high fructose corn syrup and two preservatives.  If you don’t have the time to brew some green tea yourself, there are numerous brands of real green tea all “bottled up”and ready to drink (including some that also contain real sugar or honey instead of HFCS).

Exhibit B; Diet Coke Plus. Despite its claim of providing “great taste + benefits,” it mostly offers anti-benefits in the form of two artificial sweeteners, aspartame and acesulfame potassium. Coca Cola was warned by the FDA in 2008 that the agency policy “…states that the FDA does not consider it appropriate to fortify snack foods such as carbonated beverages.” The reply from Coke: “This does not involve any health or safety issues, and we believe the label on Diet Coke Plus complies with FDA’s policies and regulations.”

No matter how effervescent the claims made on such fizz, they all start to fizzle when you bother reading the ingredient labels.

5. Watered-down ‘lemons’
Sure, pouring lemon juice out of a bottle might seem a lot easier than having to slice and squeeze a real lemon.  But as if to prove that easier isn’t always better, the National Consumers League (NCL) filed a formal complaint this month with the Food and Drug Administration over four brands of “100 percent lemon juice” that only contain small amounts of the real thing.

NCL found that the brands Natural Lemon, Lira, Lemon Time and Pampa, while all labeled as 100 percent lemon juice were so diluted with water, the actual lemon part only ranged from 35 to 10 percent. NCL asked the FDA to take action and stop sales of the water-downed products.

The take-away? It’s best to be wary of all “natural” and “nutritious” claims use to dress up processed food products. More often than not, there’s something they’re hiding under all that labeling hype – and you can usually find it by going straight to the list of ingredients.

Food Identity Theft welcomes Beef Products Inc. explanation of their product

Posted by -- March 23, 2012

Today’s post is a milestone for Food Identity Theft.  Last week’s blog presented our view of a product commonly called “pink slime.”  For the first time, the manufacturer of a product we have featured has asked to present its side of the story, and we are pleased to present their views unedited.

We hope that Food Identity Theft friends and followers will continue to add their comments and views about this product, and the food supply in general, at our Facebook page. It is our view that our food supply has serious problems created in large part, if not primarily, by misinformation designed to confuse consumers.  This is why we are so incensed about the request to the FDA by the Corn Refiners Association to change the name of “high fructose corn syrup,” an ingredient widely recognized by consumers, to “corn sugar,” the name of a product already defined by the FDA as containing no (as in zero) fructose, and the misleading ads they run supporting their effort.

Beef Products Inc., the manufacturer of  “boneless lean beef trimmings” (the name they prefer for their product) have chosen a different road.  They want their side of the story to be known, and for this we applaud them.  We are confident that fully and effectively informed consumers can make reasonable choices. We make no comments today on “boneless lean beef trimmings” but will, from time to time, offer our views on the product as part of what we hope will be an ongoing forum. Today, we are running the unedited views provided by Beef Products Inc.

(Source: Beef Products Inc.)
Boneless Lean Beef Trimmings

USDA has announced it will permit schools to select whether the products they purchase contain boneless lean beef trimmings (BLBT).  In marking this decision, three basic questions need to be answered:

  • Is it meat?
  • Is it nutritious?
  • Is it safe?

The answers to above are yes, yes, and yes.

To understand why the answers are yes, it may be helpful to understand BLBT’s origins and evolution.

Beginning in the 1960’s, meat companies sought to increase the amount of lean meat obtained from the carcasses through the development of new processes.

One potential source of additional meat was the lean meat woven within the fat that could not be economically recovered through normal knife trimming.  Therefore, the industry began to look for other practical methods to harvest this lean tissue.

To recover this lean, beef companies developed equipment to separate this lean tissue by a physical process.1  This separation process ultimately led to BPI’s BLBT.

To separate lean meat from fat, USDA inspected and passed beef trimmings with at least 12% visible lean would be heated to a low temperature (less than 120º F).  This would result in the liquefaction of fat.  Then, by means of a centrifuge, the lean meat would be separated from the fat.

When initially developed, the product produced by the separation process was below the standards of beef trimmings derived by hand both in terms of nutritional quality and appearance.  The nutritional quality of the early product was affected by the presence of lower-grade proteins (connective tissue) that were in the trimmings and stayed with the lean meat during the separation process.  Appearance was affected by the temperature needed to liquefy the fat.  The products resulting from this process are known as “partially defatted chopped beef” (PDCB) and can be used in a variety of products, such as beef patties, pizza toppings, meat balls and chili.  PDCB is labeled as beef, but may be limited to a percentage of the meat in the total product, e.g., (beef patties –  no limit, chili –  25% of meat in the product).

In the early 1980’s BPI entered the market by producing PDCB.  However, BPI was not content with simply producing PDCB; it wanted to improve the product quality.  By building its own equipment, it was able to address and eliminate the nutritional and product quality and shortcomings of PDCB.

By designing and installing a “de-sinewer2,” BPI is able to remove the connective tissue from the lean meat prior to separation of the meat from the fat.   Through this removal, BPI increased the protein quality from less than the 2.0 protein efficiency ratio of PDCB to over 2.5.  This step has made the final product comparable to hand derived trimmings.  Even under the newer Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score, BPI’s product is equivalent to other beef trimmings.

As to the overall appearance, BPI was also able to improve the separation process.  The temperature necessary for separation is approximately the same temperature of the carcass at time of slaughter (~ 105º F).  By reducing the temperature, the product’s appearance is improved.

Based on the changes BPI implemented, its lean meat derived from the trimmings is not only superior to PDCB, it matches hand derived trimmings.  On the basis of this, USDA permitted the use of BPI’s product in ground beef in 1990.  USDA also recognized a new name for the product, lean finely textured beef.

When pathogens were identified as an emerging public health concern in the 1990’s, BPI began sampling its product for E. coli O157:H7, the only adulterant in raw products.  To this day, BPI’s sampling program, of one sample per 60 pound box, takes more samples per pound of product than any other sampling plan in industry.  Notwithstanding this robust testing, BPI’s positive incidence rate for E. coli O157:H7 was below the rate for beef trimmings generally, negating any inference the raw materials are more highly contaminated.

However, testing only prevents shipment of adulterated product, it does not prevent the adulteration.  BPI, though research, determined that the rapid adjustment of beef’s pH, followed by a quick freezing and stress, could destroy pathogens, such as E. coli O157:H7.  BPI selected ammonium hydroxide to adjust the pH because it is in wide spread use in the food industry as a GRAS ingredient (generally recognized as safe) and it is a natural constituent of meat.3  Through scientific studies, this pH intervention has been demonstrated to reduce E. coli O157:H7 levels and was recognized by USDA in 2001.  To distinguish this product, BPI developed the name “boneless lean beef trimmings” or BLBT.

In the last year, BPI has finished its most recent validation of its pH process.  Also, it became only the second company to test its products for non-O157 STEC, pathogens similar to E. coli O157:H7 and which will be deemed adulterants by USDA on June 4th of this year.

This history puts the facts surrounding BLBT into context and supports the answers to the three core questions:

BLBT is meat

BLBT is made from raw materials that are meat.  These raw materials  are also used for other meat products for the consumer.
BLBT is produced by a process designed to remove lean from the fat more efficiently than could be derived by hand trimming.
Other meats from the separation process have has been in use for dozens of years without separate labeling of the resultant product.

BLBT is nutritious

BLBT has the protein quality of meat due to the use of the de-sinewer during processing.
BLBT has the nutrients commonly associated with other meat: protein, iron, zinc and B vitamins.

BLBT is safe

It is treated with a pH intervention using a GRAS substance in use throughout the food industry.
The pH intervention process has been repeatedly validated to reduce pathogens on the product.
BPI verifies the intervention through a robust finished product sampling program.

Cost Benefits

Given the answers above, BLBT also makes sense from an economic perspective.  It enables the recovery of approximately 30 pounds of lean meat per animal and costs less than any other meat with the same lean content.  This will assist schools in meeting the provisions of the dietary guidelines dealing with fat content of school meals at a lower cost.

Faced with lawsuit, HFCS makers try to disown ads for their own product

Posted by -- March 22, 2012

If you’re annoyed by those commercials and ads from the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) touting high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as being “nutritionally the same as sugar,” and claiming that “your body can’t tell the difference” between the two,  just imagine how the sugar industry is reacting.

While the mega-million-dollar ad campaign portraying HFCS as a “natural” product that’s “simply a sugar made from corn” has been the butt of considerable satire, including a skit on Saturday Night Live, the producers of actual sugar don’t find it funny at all. In fact, they’ve taken the CRA to court to answer to charges of false advertising.

Last year, sugar growers and refiners filed a complaint in Los Angeles federal court alleging that the CRA and its member companies, such as HFCS producer Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill have conspired to “deceive the public” about the test-tube sweetener.  Yesterday, the makers of HFCS were back in court, asking the judge to dismiss the portion of the case against them, claiming the CRA was solely responsible for the ad campaign proclaiming that “sugar is sugar.”

The complaint alleges that the member companies are “seeking to avoid liability by hiding behind the trade association they have sponsored….in excess of $50 million” to fund the campaign.

Mark Lanier, an attorney representing the sugar plaintiffs, characterizes the CRA member defendants as being “five companies that have joined together and put a front between them and the public so people don’t realize who the puppet master is pulling the strings behind these false advertisements,” adding, “We want to show who the real people are that are doing this fraud.”

The CRA ignores an order from the FDA

While attorneys for the corn refiners try to characterize the commercials as “truthful speech” that the Sugar Association is trying to “stifle,” last October it was the U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that asked the CRA to stifle itself. In a letter released by the Associated Press, the FDA asked the corn trade group to stop using “corn sugar” as a synonym for high fructose corn syrup and to “re-examine your websites and modify statement that use the term.”

In 2011 the CRA submitted a petition asking the FDA to allow “corn sugar” to appear on food labels instead of HFCS (which is still sitting at the agency). Not wanting to waste any time in getting the campaign going, the CRA forged ahead and started its deceptive rebranding effort (despite the fact that “corn sugar” refers to an entirely different product called dextrose, something that contains NO fructose).  And although the FDA asked that they stop swapping out the corn sugar name in place of HFCS over five months ago, it appears the CRA is still using the term just as much as before — if not more.

Citizens for Health Board Chairman James Turner, in a recent Los Angeles Times article about the “corn sugar” name switch, was quoted as saying, “we are arguing that the public understands that it (HFCS)  and sugar are different things and to try to cloud that over is a mistake. All we want is for the public to be able to distinguish a product they don’t want to buy.”

The Corn Refiners Association, however, has continued to use the “sugar made from corn” mantra over and over again, perhaps on the theory that if you repeat a falsehood often enough, it becomes true. But no amount of repetition will turn HFCS into something it’s not, and if the legal action by the sugar growers and producers succeeds, the CRA will be asked to halt this annoying ad campaign once and for all.

How you can get involved!

If you don’t feel like heading out to southern California to see how the case is going, you can still be a part of the issue by giving your opinion on this corn sugar scam to the FDA. As long as the FDA docket is open, you still have a chance to speak your mind about the proposed name change  to “corn sugar,” what we call a classic case of attempted food identity theft.

Click here to send your comments to the FDA. You can copy and paste some sample messages from this page, or compose one of your own.

Remember “corn sugar” is actually dextrose, 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. You can say, “Food Identity Theft sent me!”

Facebook page reflects consumers’ growing ‘unliking’ of high fructose corn syrup

Posted by -- March 20, 2012

If any further proof were needed of the power of social media to galvanize popular outrage, Ivan Royster has provided it.

When Royster started his “Ban High Fructose Corn Syrup” Facebook page back in 2009, he did so only with friends and family members in mind. “When you Googled high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) the first things you would find were from the Corn Refiners Association (CRA),” he recalls, “There wasn’t anything on Facebook, and I wanted a place to post information where people could draw their own conclusions.”

Royster did just that, spending hours each day searching for studies and facts about HFCS, and also answering posted questions and emails (which he still does every day). His dedication to getting the message out has resulted in making his page one of the top places for people to find facts and share information about HFCS, drawing over 210,000 fans so far and getting him interviewed by The New York Times.

This “conversation definitely needed to have a forum,” says Royster, who no longer consumes any products containing HFCS. “But I never imagined it was going to become this popular.”

Having now spent several years reading what consumers have to say about HFCS,  Royster believes that the CRA has largely succeeded in one area – its attempts to generate confusion. “Their ‘sugar is sugar’ ads have really confused the public a lot,” he contends, noting that they seem to be the main topic of discussion on the page.

Judging from some of the recent comments on the page, however, it’s apparent that the ad campaign has aroused a lot of ire as well.  “I’ve been seeing those ‘corn sugar’ commercial a lot. They should be sued for false advertising & blatant lies,” says a fan, while another observes, “Those commercials saying your body can’t tell the difference, sugar is sugar, make me and my mom really mad. My brother is allergic to corn, and let me tell you, your body KNOWS the difference..”

Should the CRA succeed in its current effort to have to have the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allow the name “high fructose corn syrup” to be changed to “corn sugar,” it will add immensely to the confusion, in his opinion “That would confuse even more consumers by making them think that HFCS went away,” he maintains. (To add your opinion on this proposed name switch to the FDA’s docket, click here).

So what, exactly, is Royster hoping to accomplish? “I want people to have the facts, and also be able to share stories and personal information on HFCS” is how he describes the mission that the page has come to represent.

One thing he would like to be able to share with his Facebook audience is a photo of actual HFCS, which has so far proven oddly difficult to find. “Why” he asks, “is this stuff so hard to buy? I’ve been trying to get some for quite some time now.”

A few years ago a Facebook contact did send him some photos of a white bucket containing a “kind of disgusting” pink and white liquid that said “HFCS 55” in red letters on it. He posted the photos on the Facebook page, and got quite a few comments on them.”

He also got a comment in the form of a letter from an attorney representing the Corn Refiners Association. “They said I didn’t have permission to post these photos, “So I had to take them down.” The letter itself, however, was a form of recognition of just how effective his efforts have been in promoting consumer awareness of the problems posed by the prevalence of HFCS in processed foods, reflecting the fact that the page has come under surveillance by the industry itself (even while it continues to claim that consumers really don’t care all that much about the presence of  HFCS in products, and that the issue will soon fade away if food processors simply ignore it).

Royster’s goal is still the same as when he started the page – to provide a place to help consumers become more aware of what’s in their food. “People assume a food is safe if it’s on the market and the FDA has ‘approved’ it,” he said. “High fructose corn syrup is still used a lot. I have to read labels and ‘duck and dodge’ to avoid it. I would love to be able to stop in a convenience store, run in and get a drink that’s HFCS free. Right now there are virtually no options in these types of stores. When I see HFCS-free foods and beverages start to trickle down to convenience stores, then I would say we’ve been successful.”

Keep the conversation going!

When the slime hits the fan, a burger loving nation recoils

Posted by -- March 15, 2012

To borrow a term used in the movie “Ghostbusters,” we’ve been”slimed.” Only in this case, we’re not talking about some sort of otherworldly ooze, but rather a cheap and kind of creepy-sounding byproduct of butchering that rates as one of the most flagrant and disagreeable examples of food identity theft.

It’s something, in fact,  that celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has been talking about it for some time, McDonald’s got rid of only last year, and that today the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is expected to announce that schools participating in the federal school lunch program will be allowed to opt out of using.

It’s “pink slime,” the term used to describe mechanically separated beef scraps and connective tissue treated with ammonia hydroxide to kill pathogens. And while its presence in the majority of our hamburgers was hardly a secret,  the fact that it’s used in a reported 70 percent of ground beef and served up in school lunches to the tune of an expected seven million pounds this year has now hit the media fan big-time, much to the consternation of consumers, parents and food retailers alike. It’s enough to even make Wimpy wince.

Among those thoroughly disgusted by this revolting disclosure, which was recently the subject of a special investigation on on ABC World News,  are Houston blogger Bettina Siegel, who writes “The Lunch Tray,” a blog devoted to “kids and food.”  At the beginning of March she launched a petition requesting that the USDA put an end to pink slime in the school lunch program, which has so far generated over 200,000 signatures.

“Even apart from safety concerns, it is simply wrong to feed our children connective tissues and beef scraps that were, in the past, destined for use in pet food and rendering and were not considered fit for human consumption.” says Siegel.

Siegel joins chef Jamie Oliver, who has been conducting  pink slime demos (putting beef scrap in a washing machine and then soaking it in ammonia and water) and is credited with getting McDonalds and Burger King to go slime free.

“Everything about this process to me is about no respect for food or people or children. I want to know when I’m eating this stuff and I want it clearly labeled,” says Oliver.

Ground beef containing the filler is not required to have any labeling indicating the slime additive is present,  so “the only way you can use ground beef,” says Oliver, “is by watching the butcher grind it in front of you.”

The manufacturer of pink slime, Beef Products, Inc., is not taking this attack lightly and has been fighting back with a bizarre web site with an equally odd name, “Pink slime is a myth” (which, aptly enough, is done up in pink). The company prefers the filler be referred to as “lean finely textured beef,” and features the “top 7 myths of pink slime,” on the site (number one being that the popular media photo used is apparently of “chicken slime” and not their “pink” product).

If you haven’t gone vegetarian yet, maybe now is a good time.

Give the FDA your opinion on the “great corn scam” petition while you still can!

The docket remains open at the FDA, so you still have the opportunity to voice your opinion on the 2010 petition by the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) to change the name of high fructose corn syrup to “corn sugar.”

Of course the CRA is taking advantage of the FDA’s slow process to keep giving us the “corn sugar” message, but you can take advantage of this too – by being sure to click here and convey your comments to the FDA. You can copy and paste some sample messages from that page, or write one of your own.

A quick look at some of the submissions online shows that it’s clear the public isn’t fooled by what the CRA is doing. Here are a few examples:

“Please, FDA, the term “corn sugar” is clearly an attempt to confuse people who now know how harmful high fructose corn syrup is to their health. We, the people of the United States, demand that you stand up to the corporate powers and represent us, and not them.”

“…how can changing the name of something known as High Fructose Corn Syrup to ‘Corn Sugar’ possibly help clarify what it is? The ‘corn sugar sham’ as it is called has shown again how the FDA rolls over and plays dead on command from big business. Shame on you! You need to start working for the people, not the big business interests.”

“I go out of my way to avoid high fructose corn syrup. Now the industry wants to change the name to corn sugar to dupe consumers. This is not acceptable! HFCS is man made, not a naturally occurring substance. It has harmful effects on the human body. Rather than a name change, it SHOULD BE OUTLAWED!”

The agency has posted over 1,900 public submissions online, which is well less than half the number actually sent in. But where the FDA is concerned, there is power in numbers, so every comment counts! Stand up for truth in labeling and tell the CRA that HFCS is no more “corn sugar” than “pink slime” is “meat.”

Coming soon to a supermarket near you: imaginary flavors

Posted by -- March 13, 2012  Looking to consume fewer calories? Less salt? Before you buy a processed food item, do you check the nutrition facts label for the “sugar” and “salt” listings?  If so, here’s something you should know: products claiming to be “low calorie” and “low salt” may contain some ‘tongue-tampering’ ingredients —  laboratory concoctions that mess with our taste buds and fool our brains into thinking we’re eating something we’re really not.

Known as “sweet taste modulators,” “sweet enhancers,” “fructose enhancers” and “bitter blockers” (which are now finding a market for use along with the herbal sweeter stevia) and “salt enhancers,” these chemicals have no taste of their own, but work by either activating or blocking taste receptors on the tongue. You won’t find these compounds listed as such on food labels,  but rather categorized under the catch-all term “artificial flavorings,” or even “natural” ones.

The big player in this new field of imaginary flavor fabrication appears to be a biotechnology company called Senomyx, which has become close friends with some big names such as Kraft Foods, Nestle, Campbell’s Soup Company, Coke and Pepsi.  Senomyx research  has received some big bucks from its friends as well, including a reported $30 million “up front” from PepsiCo.

Last year, Senomyx had its first commercial launch of two of its “Sweet Taste modulators,” known as S6973 and S2383, and recently revealed PepsiCo’s interest in its efforts to market a fructose enhancer that will allow foods to contain up to a third less high fructose corn syrup and still taste the same. That disclosure was made by Senomyx CEO Kent Snyder, who was quoted in a trade publication as saying  “…During the past year, we have identified enhancers that enabled up to a 33% HFCS reduction, while retaining the preferred sweetness profile and taste test,” also saying the chemical ingredient is of  “…a high interest (to) PepsiCo…”

Added Snyder,”We’re helping companies clean up their labels,” referring to the sneaky tactic of “clean labeling,” in which a manufacture manipulates a product’s ingredients so it looks more consumer friendly.

So even while the Corn Refiners Association is claiming that major food companies are once again embracing high fructose corn syrup, the scientists at Senomyx are busily engaged in bringing out a fructose enhancer that would cut the amount of it used in products. Or, as Snyder put it, “Reducing HFCS in these products…would be welcome by consumers and manufacturers.”

Now this is nothing like mixing herbs or spices to make things more flavorful, but rather more like the kind of stuff you might find a mad scientist working on in a sci-fi movie. The concept, as described in is one built “on work by scientists who have successful cloned human taste receptors,” then used “biological screening technique(s) to evaluate millions of molecules to identify which substances bind to specific taste receptors.”

Well, I don’t know about you, but when I eat something I want the taste to actually exist, not be some hallucination that the food is sweet or salty. Talk about “mind-altering” drugs!

Since Senomyx-created ingredients won’t be labeled, the only way of avoiding them would seem to be to beware of low-cal, and reduced calorie foods, especially low salt items and of “new and improved” reduced calorie reformulations. All of which is bound to make shopping that much more tedious for conscientious consumers.

Oops! They forgot the fruit!

Oops – someone forgot the fruit again!

The latest addition to the rogues gallery of fruitless “fruit” products is “Oops! All Berries” cereal from our friend Cap’n Crunch, who sails under the flag of Quaker Oats.

Oops! joins such other breakfast classics as Froot Loops by Kellogg’s, Post Fruity Pebbles, General Mills’ Trix Wildberry Red Swirls and Fruity Cheerios in being a product that will have you searching fruitlessly for any actual fruit.

The name of this product, “Oops!” is more of a mystery than the fact it contains no fruit. Could it be that Quaker Oats named it that as sort of a “truth-in-labeling” claim for the less-than-fruity ingredients?  Despite the red, purple and odd aqua and green colors in the “fruit” balls, “Oops!” will not provide you with any of the benefits that a real blueberry or strawberry will.

And as I’ve learned, if a product has “fruit,” “fruity” or “blueberries” in its name, most likely you won’t find any. So if fresh fruit is out of season in your locale, get some frozen varieties, put a bowl in the fridge at night, and by breakfast time you’ll have some actual fruit to put on your cereal – that is to say, real fruit with real taste!

And no fooling!

France bans BPA in food packaging; will the U.S. take a hint?

Posted by -- March 8, 2012

The recent announcement by the Campbell Soup Company that it is in the process of phasing out the use of the controversial chemical BPA (bisphenol A) in its cans may prove once again that if you’re in the  food industry, it’s decidedly not true that there is “no such thing as bad press.”

Campbell’s senior vice president and CFO Craig Owens, is quoted in a trade pub as saying, “…there is some debate over the use of BPA…” and that the company holds in high esteem the “trust” it’s “earned from consumers.”  But is Cambell’s just being more consumer friendly, or is the “debate” really over how to keep the Campbell name out of the news when it comes to BPA levels in food?

Along with numerous studies on the effects of BPA, last year’s report by the Breast Cancer Fund that measured levels of BPA in canned foods put Campbell products, including items marketed to kids, such as Disney Princess Cool Shapes, at the top of the list for levels of the chemical,

Don’t look for it on the label

The announcement by Campbell’s comes on the heels of a recent decision by France to prohibit the use of BPA in all food packaging this February. And the FDA said it will decide by the end of this month if it will institute a similar ban here in the U.S., most likely because of a 2008 lawsuit by the Natural Resources Defense Counsel asking the FDA to do just that.

Of all the ingredients contained in processed foods, there are some that you won’t find on the label. This includes certain chemicals used in packaging materials that can be reasonably expected to migrate into the food you will be eating. BPA is one of those additives, and for that reason, it has been regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) since the early 1960s.

Concerns over BPA getting into food via plastic containers, cans, beverage bottles, baby bottles and cups have been in the news for some time. The chemical mimics the hormone estrogen, and has been implicated in numerous health and behavioral issues. U.S. food companies that have already taken steps to ditch their use of the chemical by switching to BPA-free packaging include Muir Glen, Trader Joe’s and Eden Foods, and apparently doing so isn’t all that hard or even costly. Campbell’s was even quoted as saying the change was not going to have an impact on product cost.

One cost consideration from the French BPA ban, however, may be the export of Florida orange and grapefruit juice. Yes, while we are drinking orange juice imported from Brazil and other countries, it seems France is enjoying Florida citrus – packed in containers utilizing BPA, which now will no longer be allowed into the country. Florida-to-France juice exports are said to represent over $20 million in sales.

Tweeting for dollars

If you don’t live in the United Kingdom, chances are you’ve never heard of the Advertising Standards Authority, or ASA, described as “here to make sure all advertisements are legal, decent, honest and truthful.”   Reading about some of its recent rulings, it sounds like it’s a lot harder to be an ad agency in the UK than in the U.S.

While past decisions have involved Coca-Cola Great Britain, United Biscuits and Kellogg, the ASA has just had its first flap over a tweet.

After carefully pecking at five tweets from model Katie Price and soccer star Rio Ferdinand, who were actually tweeting on behalf of Mars Corp. for the company’s Snickers bar, the ASA  dismissed any objections due to the fact that the commercial nature of the communication was revealed in the last tweet with both a “sinckersUK”  and “spon” (for sponsored) tag.

Ferdinand tweeted first about “really getting into knitting,” with the other three “teasers” talking about knitting a cardigan and buying wool, and finishing with “you’re not you when you’re hungry,” along with a photo of the soccer star and a Snickers bar.

The UK advertising watchdog said it was “acceptable” that the first four setup tweets didn’t contain a “spon” tag and that consumers would understand this was marketing.

Considering that Price has 1.5 million Twitter followers, Ferdinand 2.3 million, I would take that to mean there must be an awful lot of Brits who are ‘marketing savvy’. Hopefully, they also know when food advertisers are putting them on in other ways as well – and that “you’re not you” once you’ve consumed enough chemical-laden commodities disguised as food, since “you are what you eat.”

“Natural” back in court again

Posted by -- March 6, 2012

The ultra-popular buzz word “natural” is back in court again. Tropicana is the latest company that’s being taken to task for its loose use of the fashionable term, in this case for the claim that its “pure premium” brand juice is “100% pure and natural.”

The complaint, filed in California, states that “to extend shelf-life, Tropicana NFC (not from concentrate) juice undergoes extensive processing which includes the addition of aromas and flavors to its NFC juice. It is not natural orange juice. It is instead a product that is scientifically engineered in laboratories, not nature…”

Although that disclosure is not ‘hot-off-the-press news’ – and as I reported in December, these refrigerated juices are typically pasteurized, stripped of oxygen and dumped in million-gallon storage tanks where they sit for up to a year, and then revitalized with flavor packets containing secret ingredients –  it’s good  to hear about the lawsuit.

Okay, I know lawsuits are often the butt of jokes and negative comments in the court of public opinion. But cases such as this one, against some of the most powerful food companies around, are anything but “frivolous.” The filing of a lawsuit remains one of the most powerful and effective ways to try and make a company ‘clean up its act.’

While many of these food actions never get so far as to be ruled on by the courts, even the ones that don’t come to trial can bring forth some interesting information.

A complaint filed last October in California by the Center for Science in the Public Interest against General Mills and its Fruit Roll-ups and Fruit Gushers products stated that although the packaging  made the products appear to be nutritious, they were in fact “little better than candy.” General Mills, in its motion to dismiss the class-action lawsuit, claimed the “fruit” items (which contain trans-fats and artificial colors) were never represented  as being “healthful or nutritious,” and that the label “plainly disclose(s)” all those not-fruity ingredients (see how important it is to read the ingredient label). Think of how many of these products would sell if the packaging told it like it is: “Attention parents, these so-called ‘fruit’ products are NOT healthful or even nutritious.”

Other consumer legal actions challenging the “natural” claim include a recent case against Frito-Lay for deception in calling Tostitos and SunChips “all natural”; Kellogg’s-owned Kashi products; two class-action lawsuits against ConAgra for its Wesson cooking oil brand; and Snapple, for its use of HFCS in drinks labeled as “all natural.” Snapple removed all HFCS from its products in 2009.

Industry hides in the ‘grassroots’  to head off exposure via lawsuits  

As an interesting aside, while looking up several of these cases I kept getting returns for a group called “Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse,” or CALA, which apparently has chapters all over the country. Now at first look, this appears to be some type of grassroots citizens group who just can’t take these crazy lawsuits any longer. And a look at the California chapter website doesn’t dispel that image, with a Paypal donation button and a “homey” feel (although I was a little confused about the banner headline that states “California chooses bad lawsuits instead of good jobs.”)

But it doesn’t take too long to get the ‘dirt’ on CALA, revealing it to be little more than a “front group’ for industry. An article posted by Center for Justice & Democracy and Public Citizen titled “The CALA files: the secret campaign by Big Tobacco and other major industries to take away your rights,” notes that “(w)hile CALA chapters masquerade as grassroots citizens groups spontaneously manifesting citizen anger against so-called “lawsuit abuse” in their states, this report shows them to actually be part of a national corporate-backed network of front groups that receive substantial financial and strategic assistance from …some of America’s biggest corporations.”

The Corn Refiners Association and its ‘numbers game’

If you’ve watched television or read a magazine in the last five years, you’ve no doubt seen the “sugar is sugar” ads put forth by the Corn Refiners Association (CRA). The group also floods the airwaves with its mantra that consumers are “confused” by the name HFCS, inasmuch as the test-tube sweetener has about the “same amount of fructose as sugar,” and for that reason HFCS needs to have its name officially changed to the sweeter-sounding “corn sugar” title.

Now, all other issues surrounding HFCS  aside, it’s required by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration to have a standard fructose content of either 42 or 55 percent.

But in the bizarro world of Big Corn and food labeling, there apparently are no rules. Consider this ingredient, Cornsweet 90®, a HFCS product made by agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) that contains not 42 percent, or 55 percent, but a whopping 90 percent fructose!

Upon learning about this particular sweetener, I placed a call to ADM and was told that yes, Cornsweet 90 is HFCS and could be labeled on food items as such. ADM says the products it’s most suited for would be low- and reduced-calorie foods and beverages and pharmaceuticals such as syrups. The ADM website calls Cornsweet 90 “ADM’s sweetest high fructose corn syrup.”

Is Cornsweet 90 added to foods in the U.S. under the ingredient name HFCS? Are we, in fact, gobbling up giant amounts of fructose in low-cal foods? I plan to find out. Stay tuned.


Hidden MSG and the ‘soup wars’

Posted by -- March 1, 2012

It says "No MSG," but this product contains autolyzed yeast

2008 could go down in the annals of advertising escapades as the year of the “soup wars.” I’m not sure who fired the first shot, but by the fall of that year, Campbell and Progresso were flinging slings and arrows back and forth claiming one had more MSG-free soups than the other.

The biggest skirmish in the battle came when Progresso took out ads saying: “Campbell’s has 95 soups with MSG; Progresso has 26 delicious soups with No MSG.”  Campbell’s responded with an ad in The New York Times that showed a can of Progresso soup with the caption “Made with MSG,” alongside cans of Campbell’s Select Harvest soup saying, “Made with TLC.”

Along the way the Glutamate Association, the trade group that represents users and manufacturers of monosodium glutamate, entered the fray saying all this was merely a “marketing gimmick” that will confuse consumers into thinking that MSG, “…a perfectly safe product poses a health risk…”

The Glutamate Association did get something right: it was a “marketing gimmick,” a sneaky one known as “clean labeling.”

A “clean” label is one that does not list ingredient names consumers look to avoid, the kind that will get the product put back on the shelf rather than in the shopping cart. Where MSG is concerned, “clean labeling” can mean listing such flavor-enhancing ingredients as “yeast extract” or “hydrolyzed protein” instead of the better-known (and often shunned) “monosodium glutamate.”

MSG-Free It’s Not

If a food contains monosodium glutamate, according to the Food and Drug Administration, that fact must be stated on the label. However, monosodium glutamate is only one of many ingredients  containing “free” glutamate (or manufactured glutamic acid) that is used in processed foods.

A check of Campbell’s Select Harvest, “No MSG added, 100 percent natural,” Savory Chicken and Brown Rice soup offers a good example of a “clean” label. Using yeast extract, a source of ‘hidden’ MSG, and “natural flavors,” which are typically another place to conceal free glutamate, Campbell’s goes to town advertising the naturalness and ‘MSG free-ness’ of its product.

In an interesting aside, the Campbell’s website (which doesn’t list the actual soup ingredients) contains an “ingredient glossary,” to help you “learn more about the ingredients found in our soups.” However while there are definitions for things such as lime juice (“the juice of limes”), and barley (“a hardy cereal grain”), there are none for monosodium glutamate, yeast extract, and natural flavors.

This "No MSG" product contains "yeast extract"

It’s natural, right?

Another selling point for some of these foods is the assertion that the MSG, from whatever source, is “naturally occurring,” as in “hey, we didn’t put it in on purpose, it just naturally happened when we added these ingredients.” Don’t believe it. “Naturally occurring” is never defined, and the free glutamate, whether referred to as “monosodium glutamate” or by any other name, was added for the purpose of improving taste and sales. It didn’t get there by accident.

Here are some more sneaky names of ingredients that contain free glutamic acid:

  • autolyzed plant protein,
  • autolyzed yeast,
  • calcium caseinate
  • glutamate
  • hydrolyzed plant protein (HPP)
  • hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP)
  • maltodextrin
  • monopotassium glutamate
  • sodium caseinate
  • soy protein concentrate
  • textured protein
  • yeast food or nutrient
  • yeast extract

(For a complete list, as well as lots more information on monosodium glutamate and free glutamic acid, click here.)

In an interesting test (although not a scientific one, by any means) of how many shoppers are avoiding MSG, a large supermarket a few miles from where I live that is going out of business (and reducing all items by 80 percent) had just about been stripped clean of all products last time I was there, with the exception of a full stock of jars of Accent – a flavoring ingredient comprised of pure monosodium glutamate.

The “soup wars” may be over, but if you want to be a savvy consumer and avoid all forms of free glutamic acid under whatever name it masquerades, nothing takes the place of reading the ingredient label. Because no matter what you call it, it’s all still MSG.

Linda Bonvie,