Archive for May, 2012

In a victory for consumers, FDA turns thumbs down on ‘corn sugar’ alias for HFCS

Posted by -- May 31, 2012

For the past several months, we here at Food  Identity Theft have urged our readers to submit their comments to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on the Corn Refiners Association’s petition to allow the name “high fructose corn syrup” to be officially changed to “corn sugar.”

The last word on this hot-button issue has just come down from the FDA itself.  And it’s “no.”

The CRA will now have to quit referring to high fructose corn syrup, or HFCS, as “corn sugar,” which it has been doing these days at every opportunity, apparently on the assumption that its 2010 petition would ultimately be granted despite the overwhelming opposition of consumers.

But the FDA had other ideas – the main one being that sugar is defined as “a solid, dried, and crystallized food; whereas syrup is an aqueous solution or liquid food.” (Duh!!!) Or so the agency  informed CRA President Audrae Erickson in a letter dated May 30 (Wednesday) and signed by Michael M., Landa, director of the FDA’s center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, which also states that “…your petition does not provide sufficient grounds for the agency to authorize “corn sugar” as an alternate common or usual name for HFCS.”

While the Corn Refiners Association had ignored a letter last year from the FDA that had asked them to stop using “corn sugar” as a synonym for HFCS, which Erickson did a total of 10 times in two TV interviews last week, the official denial of the name change should now make such substitution verboten in the CRA’s commercials and communications. (In fact, one can’t help but wonder whether her blatant and repeated flouting of the FDA’s directive finally spurred the agency to act on this long-standing petition.)

The FDA’s rejection of the proposed name change also quite clearly reaffirms “corn sugar” as a “standard of identity” for dextrose (an ingredient with NO fructose) and declines the CRA’s request that “corn sugar” be eliminated as an alternate name for dextrose.

“We are not persuaded by the arguments in the petition that consumers do not associate “corn sugar” with dextrose,” notes the letter. “The term ‘corn sugar’ has been used to describe dextrose for over 30 years.”  It further points out that “’corn sugar’ has been known to be an allowed ingredient for individuals with hereditary fructose intolerance or fructose malabsorption, who have been advised to avoid ingredients that contain fructose. Because such individuals have associated ‘corn sugar’ to be an acceptable ingredient to their health when ‘high fructose corn syrup’ is not, changing the name for HFCS to ‘corn sugar’ could put these individuals at risk and pose a public health concern.”

The latter concern has been raised in a number of the comments submitted to the FDA by members of the public, which ran against the petition 100 to 1. Most, however, expressed indignation over the idea that an industry group would try to attach a new, innocuous-sounding identity to an increasingly unpopular ingredient that so many consumers have been going out of their way to avoid in an attempt to make it appear to be something it’s not.

So confident were the corn refiners in the pending approval of their petition, that in a press release issued last week they said, “Transitional co-labeling, such as ‘Corn Sugar (High Fructose Corn Syrup),’ and CRA’s education campaign will ensure consumers are well informed about the name change.”

While the FDA may well have denied the petition of its own volition, one can’t help but credit the growing public outcry over this deliberate attempt to confuse consumers (which, perversely, has been presented as an attempt to eliminate consumer “confusion”) with having set the stage for this major victory over attempted food identity theft.

To view the entire letter, click here.

Corn refiners hit airwaves in last ditch attempt to save HFCS

Posted by -- May 29, 2012

In a last-ditch attempt to keep the high fructose corn syrup flowing, despite another recent flood of bad press, Corn Refiners Association (CRA) president Audrae Erickson has gone on a broadcast media tour dispensing diet advice, discussing the many “attributes” of HFCS, and dropping the “corn sugar” name as many times as possible.

Erickson, introduced to “shed some light on what to look for when it comes to food labels” on the NBC Cleveland affiliate’s Good Company show, surrounded herself with toast and jam, cereal and chocolate milk, and proceeded to rattle off  CRA propaganda, as well as slipping in some big-time misinformation under of the guise of cheery mom-to-mom advice.

According to Erickson, all is good in the land of HFCS, and what really counts is “calories in,  calories out.”

Despite the rosy picture Erickson paints of HFCS, studies and recent headlines tell a different story. And when the corn refiners don’t like what they see from the press, they resort to other tactics.

As I reported last week, a UCLA-generated press release about a new study on fructose was the subject of a harassment campaign to change its wording by CRA director of communications David Knowles. The aggressive corn-PR representative called “multiple people on campus and made such a pest of himself that we made the changes (in the release),” a contact at the UCLA press office revealed.

FDA request ignored in “corn sugar” namedropping

The PR effort continued with Erickson’s media appearances (which included no “opposition” viewpoint), starting with her evasive response to a  Fox News New York interviewer’s question,“first, let’s talk about your relationship with the product…”  Rather than answering that, she went directly into her scripted routine that “high fructose corn syrup is truly just a sugar made from corn,” referring to what we here at Food Identity Theft call the “corn sugar hoax,” a rebranding effort by the CRA to have high fructose corn syrup referred to as “corn sugar” on food labels.

This attempt to conceal HFCS in foods and beverages was “officially” presented in 2010 in the form of a petition to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has yet to be ruled on. And despite consumer opposition running at 100 to 1 against the “corn sugar” name change scam, the CRA is going full steam and dollars ahead with its ad campaign. Along with consumer outrage, last fall, a letter from the FDA to the CRA  released by the Associated Press asked the corn refiners to stop using “corn sugar” as a synonym for HFCS and to “re-examine your websites and modify statement that use the term.”

Erickson, nevertheless, managed to slip in “corn sugar” three times during the Fox interview and use the still unauthorized term all of seven times in the course of her routine in Cleveland.

The CRA ad campaign is also the subject of a pending lawsuit filed by sugar growers and refiners alleging that the CRA and its member companies conspired to “deceive the public” about HFCS.

While it’s somewhat amusing to watch Big Corn’s most engaging spokesperson attempt to rally whatever consumer support for HFCS might still be salvageable, such opportunities to score media points without any “counterpoint” from an expert to refute them amounts to nothing more than free airtime for industry propaganda.

Despite Erickson’s statement that HFCS is just “a natural sugar,” the facts are that:

  • HFCS is not sugar. Real sugar can only come from sugar cane or sugar beets.
  • HFCS is not “natural.” Regardless of how many times the CRA claims it is, HFCS is decidedly not a “natural” ingredient, but rather a man-made, highly processed, laboratory-created concoction.
  • HFCS contains varying amounts of fructose, despite the CRA’s claim that it’s actually low in  fructose. Tests have shown fructose levels in HFCS-sweetened beverages to be as high as 65 percent, and as high as 90 percent in another variety that may be used in diet items.
  • HFCS is not “corn sugar.” Corn sugar is already a recognized ingredient that contains NO fructose!

If there’s one thing we agree with Erickson on, it’s her comment that “today consumers want to know what’s in their foods.” If that sounds like you, then click here and take two minutes to tell the FDA that you don’t want high fructose corn syrup concealed on food labels as “corn sugar.” You can copy and paste some sample messages from this page, or compose one of your own.

Yes, we sure do want to know what it is we’re eating – and not be confused by having an ingredient like high fructose corn syrup listed as something that it’s not.

The Corn Refiners ‘get their way’ with UCLA, or do they?

Posted by -- May 24, 2012 — May 24, 2012 —  What do persistent public-relations people do when a product their organization has spent multi-millions to promote gets some really bad press?

Do damage control, of course. But the PR response to a recent scientific study regarding fructose was a classic case of  trying to ‘close the barn door after the horse runs away’. In other words, there was little the Corn Refiners Association could do to mitigate the message that had already gone out.

Last week’s headlines, preserved for posterity on the Internet, ran the gamut from big-name news organizations to publishing sites to individual bloggers. From an ABC News station’s “UCLA study finds high fructose corn syrup hurts memory, learning ability”  to popular finance site, “High Fructose Corn Syrup Can Make You Both Fat and Stupid,” the damage to an ingredient already under siege was irreversible.

The study at the center of the story, conducted by Dr. Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, a well-respected professor of neurosurgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, found that a diet high in fructose can slow down mental processes “hampering memory and learning,” or as put it, “make you stupid.”

The first press release issued by the UCLA media office said “The UCLA team zeroed in on high-fructose corn syrup, an inexpensive liquid six times sweeter than cane sugar, that is commonly added to processed foods, including soft drinks, condiments, applesauce and baby food.”

After being taken down for a time, the release was revised with “sugar” added before “high fructose corn syrup” and some of  Dr. Gomez-Pinilla’s quotes altered as well. For example, one that originally stated “We’re concerned about high-fructose corn syrup…” was changed to “We’re more concerned about the fructose in high-fructose corn syrup…”

After some new consumption figures for HFCS were also added, along with sugar totals,  a notice was tacked onto the new version informing the reader that changes had been made to the original.

 If at first you don’t succeed…..   

Wondering why the press release had been revised after it was sent out into the media sphere, I called Elaine Schmidt at the UCLA press office.

Schmidt was quite upfront about what went on. “We got a call from a lobbyist from the Corn Growers Association (sic) who took issue with some of the things we said,” she told me.

David Knowles, the “lobbyist” to whom she referred, is actually the director of communications for the Corn Refiners Association (CRA), the folks behind the “sugar is sugar” ads and the pending petition before the FDA to change the name of high fructose corn syrup to “corn sugar.”

Knowles didn’t just make one phone call, either. “He was calling multiple people on campus, and he made such a pest of himself that we made the changes,” Schmidt said.

The CRA’s Knowles also sent numerous emails with links, tables and charts, including, Schmidt told me, a number of links to the website Sweet Surprise, “so we just sort of ignored those. He was very specific about sending selective links.”

One of the emails Knowles sent, Schmidt noted, included charts “published by the USDA” that Dr. Gomez-Pinilla started looking at. “Facts are his expertise, and he started going through them and then found another chart that completely contradicted what the lobbyist said,” Schmidt told me. “I think people can use charts and statistics as they wish, but you have to look at them within context,” she added.

On their ‘home turf’ at, the Corn Refiners Association made a point of the fact that the UCLA press release had been “corrected,” and gave their own quotes on the situation for any reporters who might happen to find their site.

One quote at the corn page by John S. White, Ph. D., who is said to be a “sweetener expert” and president of his own research company, but more often than not is speaking on behalf of the CRA, says that to compute with the study, “a consumer would have to eat 66 apples or drink 51 cans of soda per day…”

I asked Dr. Gomez-Pinilla what he thought about that statement and he told me in an email that while he had not personally seen White’s comment, “the numbers seem exaggerated,” adding “…a practical analogy of our results with humans would be someone whose main source of drinking fluid during the day is from sodas.”

Meanwhile, back at UCLA, Knowles, apparently, was still trying for more revisions. “He did contact the campus media office, where they put our press releases online, and was trying to badger them to change some more, and they just said ‘this is it,’” Schmidt told me, “So I think he stopped calling.”

“He (Knowles) kept trying to bring it back to sugar,” Schmidt added, “and we said the study is focused on fructose. He was trying to split hairs about the language.”

“I think that’s just his job, and he was very effective at pummeling our campus editor, who did what he had to do to get him off his back,” Schmidt said.

So, yes, the CRA’s badgering did succeed in getting some perfunctory changes made in the offending press release. But for millions of consumers, there was no taking back what they have long suspected – that the presence of  high fructose corn syrup in just about every product under the sun is, well, just plain “stupid.”

Get off the couch and “stand up for real food”

Posted by -- May 22, 2012

From Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution page

What did you eat this past Saturday?

If it came from a frozen box or can or was cooked in the microwave, you obviously didn’t take part in chef Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution Day.

May 19th was Oliver’s “day of action,” to promote ‘real’ food and “get back to basics and start thinking about where our food comes from.”

Food Revolution Day spanned 63 countries and 664 cities, Oliver noted on his Facebook page –  all to promote better food choices and healthier lifestyles, as well as Oliver’s petition, which currently has over 800,000 signatures. Called the “one million challenge” the petition is a plea to improve food choices, especially in schools and to “keep cooking skills alive.”

While Oliver’s contentions — that home-cooked meals are a rare event, and that most kids “are completely out of touch” with where food comes from (maybe the stork?) –  may be correct, it’s also true that cooking-related shows are at an all-time high.

Check out the schedule for the Food Network and you’ll see an entire list of highly popular shows all devoted to preparing food, such as “Sandwich King,” “The Best Thing I Ever Made,” “Mexican Made Easy,” and “The Pioneer Woman” – where “ranch wife” Ree cooks up a storm every Saturday.  Other “reality” cooking-related shows include TLC’s “Next Great Baker,” in which contestants bake for cash and prizes, hosted by the star of yet another TLC cooking show called “Cake Boss.”

Oliver’s Food Foundation, however, goes a step further, by attempting to get people off the couch simply watching other people cook and back in the kitchen actually doing it themselves. To this end, the  foundation sponsors “Big Red,” a mobile “teaching” kitchen that tours the country to make folks “street-wise about food” and bring back the “joy of cooking.”  At the beginning of this month, for example, it showed up at UCLA Medical Center after being invited by the UCLA Health System to help address the “increasing” number of obesity-related health issues seen at the hospital. “Shockingly,” Health System CEO David Feinberg was quoted as saying in the university paper, “one of the top reasons why people need transplants (at UCLA) is obesity-related liver disease.”

Five ways to transform yourself into a ‘real food revolutionary’

The first official Food Revolution Day, of course, was not intended to make eating real food a one-day a year event, but rather to mark the beginning of a nationwide revolution in our daily eating habits.  So even if you missed out on the launching of Oliver’s campaign, you and your family can ‘get with the program’ anytime you choose.  Here are a few ideas to get you started – and keep you rediscovering the joys of real food every day:

  • Purchase a bread machine: Tired of reading bread labels to find a loaf made without brominated and bleached flour, high fructose corn syrup and neurotoxic additives? Bake your own, and you can use high-grade ingredients at less cost with no hand kneading involved.
  • Get a crock pot – and use it: An oft-gifted device, the crock pot usually sits gathering dust. The crock pot is a handy way to make “real” food when you can’t be home all day cooking. You probably have one already; check behind the toaster and coffee maker.
  • Grow some easy veggies: Some things are fairly easy to grow; all you need is a sunny spot and a container of soil. Tomatoes are a favorite as are snap peas, Swiss chard and different varieties of greens. Let the kids be part of the growing action and they will eat every last bite of food that came from their own garden.
  • Shop at your local farmers market: A bag of fresh, local goodies from a nearby farmers market is probably enough to inspire you to cook tonight instead of looking in the freezer for a pizza. There’s nothing like some time spent around fresh, real food to get you cooking!
  • Steer clear of highly processed, frozen “dinners”: The best way not to be tempted to consume that overpriced, overly processed frozen dinner at 6 p.m. when you’re hungry and tired is to not buy it in the first place. If you must eat ready-made chow, frozen foods with organic ingredients are much better choices. (Amy’s Kitchen, for example, offers a variety of such products).

Oliver’s motto is: “stand up for real food.” To which we might add,“it’s easier than you think!”

Advice from former FDA head: “absolutely” avoid foods with high fructose corn syrup

Posted by -- May 17, 2012 — May 17, 2012 — In a 2010 interview with CBS anchor Katie Couric, former FDA Commissioner Dr. David Kessler was asked, “Should I try to buy things that don’t have high fructose corn syrup in them?”

“Absolutely,” was Kessler’s reply.

But exactly how does that work? High fructose corn syrup, a “highly processed sweetener” in Kessler’s words, can be found in so many food items these days it’s possible even the Corn Refiners Association has lost count.

While eliminating HFCS from your diet is difficult, it can be done. And in the process you may just find that you’re eating more “real food,” as Kessler advised Couric to do. “Real food” means food with real ingredients, food that can stand the test of label-reading scrutiny, food that your grandmother would have eaten.

And in case you’re wondering what Dr. Kessler thinks of the 2010 Corn Refiners Association’s attempt to rename high fructose corn syrup to the sweeter sounding “corn sugar,” the Associated Press quoted him as saying last year, “Whatever you call it, it should have little place in the American diet.”

So if you feel the same as Dr. Kessler on the subject, here are five ways you can follow his advice to  keep high fructose corn syrup out of your diet:

1. Buy organic varieties of certain foods

Sure, it would be great to buy all organic food. But if that’s not happening any time soon at your house, there’s an easy way to bring some organic into your life and at the same time avoid HFCS.

Just like in the good old days when ketchup, rolls, mustard, salad dressings, jam, and hundreds of other processed  food items didn’t contain this test-tube sweetener, organic foods do not contain HFCS.

So swap out some conventional condiments, breads and crackers for organic ones and  you’ll get an “easy pass” to faster HFCS-free shopping.

2. Shop at a Whole Foods Market

Is there a Whole Foods Market in your area? If so, the entire store is an HFCS-free zone!

High fructose corn syrup is on the Whole Foods Market list of “unacceptable ingredients for food,” a list that also includes such chemical additives as artificial colors and flavors, aspartame and bromated flour.

3. Steer clear of fast-food restaurants

Fast food places are hotbeds of bad ingredients – including, of course, high fructose corn syrup. Buns, dressings, drinks, condiments and sauces are likely culprits, but so are items such as cole slaw and potato salad and even many so-called “healthier choices” such as carrot salad and sliced fruits.

One chain where you don’t have to worry about HFCS, however, is Jason’s Deli, with over 230 locations in 28 states, which claims to have no trace of the sweetener in any of the food items it sells.

4. Eat more “food” and fewer “food products”

Sure it’s fast and easy to buy a ready-made meal (actually called a “TV dinner” when it was first introduced by Swanson in the early 1950s), but convenience comes at a cost, and if you’re trying to cut HFCS out of your diet, this is a very good place to start.

Author Michael Pollan says in his book “In Defense of Food,” that long lists of ingredients that are “unfamiliar, unpronounceable,” and “more than five in number or that include high fructose corn syrup,” are “reliable markers”  that the foods you are considering consuming have crossed the line from “foods to food products.”

5. Read the ingredient label before the item goes in your cart

Once something hits your shopping cart, it’s pretty much a done deal, so make your decisions carefully before that fateful moment. Despite what may seem like a bounty of delicious, healthy foods, supermarkets are stocked with scores of ersatz and chemical-laden products, including loads of items containing HFCS.

Pollan’s other shopping tip, however, may be the best one of all: “get out of the supermarket whenever possible…you won’t find any high fructose corn syrup at the farmers market.”

‘Sugar’ or ‘sugars’? The meaning depends on the ‘context’

Posted by -- May 15, 2012

Pepsi Throwback is made with "real" sugar. Other front of package sugar claims may mean something else. — May 15, 2012 — Now that Disney’s “Mary Poppins” has been resurrected as a stage play, a whole new generation has been introduced to the catchy tune “A Spoonful of Sugar” that Julie Andrews sang on the original movie sound track.  Unfortunately, the meaning of the word “sugar” is now a lot more ambiguous than it was back in the 1960s when that film made its debut.

These days, it’s quite easy to confuse “sugar” with “sugars.” According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), those terms mean different things depending on the “context” in which they appear. In other words, the exact place that either word occupies on a food product package can lead to an array of amazingly confusing claims.

The FDA definition of “sugar,” as found in the Code of Federal Regulations, means the natural sweet substance that is “obtained from sugar cane or sugar beets.” But the term you’ll find on the Nutrition Facts Label is “sugars” with an “s” which is defined as “the sum of all free mono- and disaccharides (such as glucose, fructose, lactose and sucrose),” with no information as to what the source is or if the “sugars” are naturally occurring or added.

To further the confusion (which is what started my investigation into this issue), numerous food packages claim the products inside have “less sugar” when in fact they don’t contain any real “sugar” at all.  A case in point: Capri Sun juice “drink,” which states on the package that it has  “25% less sugar than leading regular juice drinks.” Now Capri Sun is a product that in ingredient-label reality basically consists of nothing more than water and high fructose corn syrup. So what does “less sugar” on this HFCS-laced beverage that’s being marketed to kids really mean?

Taking my question to the FDA, I was first told that “’less sugar’ is a nutrient content claim defined under 21 CFR.” I was also told that “sugar-free” in actuality, means “sugars-free.” But when the agency addressed the wording in the Nutrition Labeling Education Act back in 1993, despite numerous comments to the effect that “sugars-free “would be more precise terminology, the FDA decided in favor of “sugar-free” instead, reasoning that “sugars-free” would be “confusing” to consumers.

Also in 1999, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) filed a petition with the FDA requesting that “added” sugars (as opposed to naturally present sugars in products such as pure juice and milk) be listed on the Nutrition Facts label, which oddly enough the American Dietetic Association went on record as opposing, saying that if folks want to see if the “sugars” are naturally occurring or added, they should consult the ingredient label.

If “sugar” means sucrose (from sugar cane or sugar beets), then shouldn’t “less sugar” mean less sucrose?

I asked the FDA that very question, and finally received this response in an e-mail: “Sugar can be a confusing term in that it can refer to both a food (or ingredient) and a nutrient. How it may be used depends on the context in which it is used.”  The agency further stated that when the term “sugar” is used as a “statement of identity or ingredient statement” it means real sugar, as in sucrose. “Otherwise, we view the term as a nutrient.” So the HFCS-loaded Capri Sun drink can state “less sugar,” even though it contains no real sugar, by making a front-of-package “nutrient” claim, which allows for “sugars” to be called “sugar.”

We don’t need any more sugar confusion!

If all this adds up to just more confusion while shopping, here are two things you can do.

First, bypass the Nutrition Facts label if you’re looking to avoid HFCS and other sugar “imposters” and go straight to the ingredient label, which will tell you exactly what sweeteners are used in the product. Natural cane or beet sugar will be called by its actual name: “sugar.”

Second, click here to send your comments to the FDA regarding the 2010 petition (which is still active and accepting comments at the agency) from the Corn Refiners Association to change the name of the unnatural HFCS to “corn sugar.”

Tell the FDA that when it comes to sweeteners, the issue is confusing enough already, thank you.  We don’t need any additional confusion created by a test-tube, laboratory-created sweetener masquerading as a “sugar” that it’s not.

Helpful readers score some additional points about the nutrition facts label

Posted by -- May 10, 2012

This graphic appeared in the 1993 "FDA Consumer" special report called "Focus on Food Labeling." Reprint courtesy of the FDA — May 10, 2012   On Tuesday, I wrote about the “five big things that are wrong with the nutrition facts label” (NFL) and got a lot of feedback from Food Identity Theft blog readers. Some alert individuals reminded me that I had neglected to mention one of the biggest problems with the NFL, and another about a contest held last year to redesign the label to try and make it more user-friendly.

First, I neglected to mention the zero trans-fats loophole. Numerous products are allowed to claim “0 trans-fats” on the nutrition facts label if their trans fat content is under 0.5 grams per serving. This can easily add up to significant amounts of artery-clogging trans fats, even if you think you’ve eaten none. The easy way around this loophole labeling is to look for the real culprit, partially or fully hydrogenated oil on the ingredient label, and leave the devious products that contain it on the supermarket shelf.

The contest, “Rethink the Food Label” was a project of the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism, and featured some “celebrity” judges, including writer Michael Pollan and Center for Science in the Public Interest Executive Director Michael Jacobson.

The winning concept, from Renee Walker, a designer from San Francisco, is an intriguing and  appealing layout that gives a prominent display to food ingredients. Walker used some fairly simple food examples in her design, such as an apple, peanut butter and frozen vegetables, leading Pollan to say, “I liked being able to see the visual breakdown of foods, although I wonder how her design would work with more complicated products, like Lucky Charms, say, or a PowerBar. Even so, it’s a step in the right direction.”

My favorite is another Walker design which has a list of questions in the box that are answered yes, no or maybe, including “Is it real food?”; “Did your grandmother eat it?”; and “Is it better than a doughnut?”

The FDA, which says it is working on a big-time revision to the NFL, will be hard pressed to come up with something more to the point than that.

The “corn sugar” scam is still open for comment

As any reader of this blog knows, in 2010 the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) submitted a petition to the FDA to rename the increasingly unpopular sweetener high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) to the kinder name “corn sugar.”

This sneaky move on the part of the CRA to rebrand its sweetener, that consumers are shunning in droves, is still active and sitting at the FDA docket. This means you still have a chance to make your voice heard and protest this outrageous attempt at concealing HFCS in foods.

In April, four consumer groups wrote to the FDA asking them again to deny the petition, saying that consumer opposition against it is running at 100 to 1. The current count of posted comments at the FDA docket site is 2070, with scores more yet to be posted online.

One of the comments I noticed today sums it up well: “Renaming an ingredient to try and trick people into buying it because they do not recognize its name anymore is an abuse of the system. The reason ingredients lists are required on food labels is so those with allergies (or wishes to avoid certain ingredients based on personal belief, diets, or their doctor’s recommendations) can easily identify the foods they are purchasing and ingesting.”

Comments from Citizens for Health supporters count among the many posted, but still more action is needed. 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. You can tell the FDA “Food Identity Theft sent me!”

Five big things that are wrong with the Nutrition Facts Label

Posted by -- May 8, 2012 — May 8, 2012  — Google “how to read the Nutrition Facts Label” and you’ll get over two million results back from youtube, bloggers, big name places such as the Mayo Clinic and of course, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Mandatory on food labels since the early ’90s, with some tweaks over the years, the Nutrition Facts Label (NFL) is something that the FDA has been trying to hype the importance of for over a decade, even while trying to explain exactly what the heck it means.

The most comprehensive attempt to decipher this label is available from the FDA in the form of a hefty microsite containing NFL “programs and materials.” There you can find resources for kids and adults, as well as “educators, teachers, dietitians and health professionals,” which include a “spot the block” campaign for kids and “tweens” that features a  song called “Dishin’ the Nutrition Rap.”

But is information provided by the NFL so vital that it’s worth going through a virtual Rube Goldberg  maze of lessons to get the “facts” right?

Even if the NFL was easier to understand and more often used by consumers, all of the “facts” it contains are based on one, most often overlooked, piece of information – the “serving size.” Now a serving size, which often has very little resemblance to what is actually being consumed, is created using what’s called “reference amounts” from the FDA. These amounts are calculated by “food consumption surveys” and based on what a person would “customarily consume” in one sitting (which is apparently less than half of a 20 oz. bottle of Pepsi, or no more than 20 chips or two small macaroons).

Here are five big reasons the NFL isn’t the holy grail of nutrition information we’ve been led to believe:

1. All “sugars” are not created equal

This is "real" sugar. Organic or not, it can only come from sugar cane or sugar beets.

The “sugars” portion of the NFL includes fructose, glucose, lactose and sucrose, with no information as to what the source is – such as real sugar vs. high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) – or if the “sugars” are naturally occurring or added. Plain milk, for example, contains 12 grams of “sugars,” and apple cider with no sweeteners added contains 30 grams. At the same time, an 8-ounce Pepsi that is made with high fructose corn syrup contains 28 grams.

To further the confusion, some beverages, such as Pepsi Next, which contain HFCS, aspartame and other artificial sweeteners, claim to have 60 percent “less sugar” on the label, while Pepsi Throwback, which is made from natural cane or beet sugar, boasts about being “made with real sugar.”

The NFL also doesn’t give us any hint of how much fructose is in a product.

I asked Dr. Michael Goran, director of the Childhood Obesity Research Center and professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California, who has been studying fructose amounts in beverages, about his thoughts on the NFL “sugars” category.

“Since not all sugars are equal in things like sweetness and metabolic effects,” he said, “I strongly believe that the sugar composition should be defined on the label.” He added that such a distinction would be similar to consumers looking for different kinds of fats in foods. “Consumers now understand and look for differences in fat composition and know to avoid trans fats. I think the same should be true for fructose, and the only way a consumer can really know what’s in a food or beverage is for the sugars to be defined by their composition.”

2. The calorie amounts can be wrong

Even if you were to get the portion part figured correctly, the calorie count provided may be way off the mark,  A study at Tufts University found an average of 8 percent more calories than were listed on the NFL in selected frozen meals. One product, for example, Lean Cuisine shrimp and pasta had 20 percent more calories than reported on the package. Another diet dish, Weight Watchers lemon herb chicken, had 21 percent more calories than what the NFL claimed.

While not having correct caloric numbers on a package, especially a diet one, may seem careless, it appears that the FDA allows for a 20 percent margin of error in figuring such things. Wrong numbers were also found to be a common issue on restaurant websites, with the worst offender being Denny’s grits and butter, with the actual calorie count being 200 percent higher than what the restaurant chain listed.

3. Low salt numbers might mean more than just less sodium

Products, especially ones that are typically high in sodium such as soups, sauce, gravy and snack foods, that show low sodium numbers on the NFL may contain what I refer to as “tongue-tampering” ingredients – technically advanced laboratory concoctions that fool our brains into thinking we’re eating more salt than is really in the food.

Known as “salt enhancers” and made by a small number of high-tech companies around the world under different trade names, these chemicals have no taste of their own, but work by activating taste receptors on the tongue. You won’t see them in the supermarket or on the food label, but rather listed under the catch-all term “artificial flavorings,” or perhaps even “natural flavoring.”

Other types of  ‘taste altering’ chemicals are used for the purpose of enhancing sweet tastes and blocking bitter ones.


4. Where are the phytonutrients?

Health-promoting compounds found in fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and teas are notably missing from the NFL. Without mention of these flavonoids and other healthful compounds, some foods may look like they have nothing to offer, when in fact they can be a treasure trove of important phytonutrients.

Grape juice, for instance, along with an NFL “sugars” listing of 36 grams for a one-cup serving, also contains scores of important phytonutrients not found in, say, a bottle of Coke that has a similar NFL.


5. Spending ‘store time’ reading the NFL distracts from the real deal

To find out what’s really in the food we buy, there’s only one place to look, – the actual ingredient label. Not as  eye-catching’ as the NFL, the ingredient label, while it does have its limitations, will at least tell you if the food item you’re looking at is something you’re really interested in consuming. It will tell you if the food is made with real sugar or HFCS, if those blueberries are real or just fake blueberry bits, if the product contains MSG or hidden MSG – in other words, the kinds of things you would never learn if your only checked out the NFL.

Another bonus of reading the true ingredient label is that once you see just how many additives and fake ingredients are in processed foods, you might start buying more “real” foods made with actual ingredients – or perhaps making them yourself.

The “facts” found on a Nutrition Facts Label are often the least relevant facts when it comes to understanding the actual nutritional value of the product involved – if, indeed, they are “facts” at all.

‘Food fraud’ comes in two varieties, illicit and officially permitted

Posted by -- May 3, 2012 — May3, 2012   Let’s talk a little about “food fraud.” It’s a form of deception that comes in two varieties –  illicit and the kind actually permitted by the regulators charged with protecting our health and well-being.

Before the spring of 2007, not many people were familiar with the chemical melamine. But that year consumers learned a heart-wrenching lesson in food fraud as the news unfolded that melamine-tainted wheat gluten imported from China had resulted in the deaths of thousands of pets. The poisoned ingredient went from China to a pet food manufacturing company in Canada, which in turn produced pet food bearing the label of some big name companies in the U.S.

In a recent report commissioned by the Department of Homeland Security, food fraud is defined as being “the deliberate substitution, addition, tampering or misrepresentation of food, food ingredients or food packaging, or false or misleading statements made about a product for economic gain.”  And if you want to see just how prevalent food fraud is, check out the new online tool launched by the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP).

The USP, a non-profit organization that establishes standards for foods, supplements and drugs, recently launched its Food Fraud Database, said to be the first public compilation of its kind. Already the database has identified the top eight foods listed as “most vulnerable” ingredients for adulteration, among them olive oil, spices, milk and honey.

The ever-increasing amount of imported food also opens the door for increased risk. A recent FDA-sponsored report found that foods imported into the U.S. have tripled over the last decade, with seafood, fruits, nuts and vegetables leading the pack.

The database,  according to the USP,  will make things safer for consumers by “evaluating current and emerging risks for food fraud,” as well as improving testing methods.  “This…is a critical step in protecting consumers,” said Dr. John Spink, associate director of the Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection program at Michigan State University, one of the researchers involved in analyzing the new database.

If there’s one thing that the consumers should keep in mind to avoid deliberately adulterated products, it’s be careful of the brands you buy. Clare Narrod, a risk analysis program manager for the University of Maryland’s Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, is quoted as advising, “Avoiding fakes comes down largely to being an informed shopper and buying from trustworthy sources. Branded products tend to have more supply-chain safeguards” against such substitution and misrepresentation, she says.

And of course, the fewer processed food items you buy and the more you make dishes from “scratch” the less chance you have of being a food-fraud victim.

‘Loophole labeling’: the other kind of food fraud

Selling high fructose corn syrup as honey or passing off soybean oil as extra virgin olive oil  are certainly blatant examples of food fraud. But there’s another kind of product misrepresentation, one permitted by regulators and perpetrated in supermarkets all over the country.  We at Food Identity Theft refer to it as “loophole labeling,” meaning taking advantage of loose labeling laws that allow manufacturers to get away with things that should be illegal.

Exhibit A: the zero trans fat label. Cookies, peanut butter, cereal, breads, and numerous other items, that all actually contain trans fats, which can lead to coronary artery disease, are able to declare zero amounts on the nutrition facts panel,  We know, for instance,that there’s no way a product containing “fully hydrogenated oil,” as do the standard jars of Jif and Skippy peanut butter (including the Jif low-fat variety), can be trans-fat free.  But if those “choosey” moms who choose Jif are just looking at those so-called “nutrition facts” without bothering to read the actual ingredients, they (and their kids) can easily become victims of loophole labeling fraud.

According to the current rules stipulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as long as the amount of trans-fats in a product is under 0.5 grams per serving, it can declare a big zero for the artery-clogging ingredient on the label. And those “zeros” can add up. Eating three servings of different foods that contain amounts small enough to fit  ‘through the loophole’, for example, can easily amount to well over a gram of trans fat, even though you might think you’ve eaten none.

The answer? Check the actual ingredient label. If it lists any kind of hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil, the product contains trans-fats, regardless of what the nutrition label says.

Exhibit B: Products that contain “no MSG.”  If a food contains the ingredient monosodium glutamate, that must be declared on the label. There are, however, numerous other ingredients that contain similarly “free” glutamate, including yeast extract; anything “hydrolyzed;” autolyzed yeast; soy protein concentrate and whey protein isolate. All of these MSG-sibling ingredients are added for one reason only: to make the product taste better.

Avoiding such “hidden MSG” takes both label reading and knowing what you’re looking for. (For some science-based facts about MSG, as well as a list of hidden MSG sources, check out the Truth in Labeling site).

In a way, it would be almost better to have no regulation at all than the kind that permits ‘loophole labeling’- at least then, we’d know it was up to us to find out what our food really contained, rather than relying on labels that are deliberately designed to deceive us. And since food fraud can affect not just our wallet, but our health and well being, becoming an ingredient-savvy shopper has become more crucial than ever.

If Nutella’s claims were class-action-worthy, what about these other deceivers?

Posted by -- May 1, 2012 – May 1, 2012  Nutella was on its way to court. Last February Athena Hohenberg, a California mom, claimed Ferrero, the Italian company that has been making the hazelnut and cocoa product since the 1940s tricked her into believing the sweet spread is “”healthier than it actually is,” and got a class-action lawsuit going in California.

Recently settled for just over $3 million, $2.5 million of which will be divided among consumers who purchased the product within a certain time frame (click here for the Nutella class-action settlement website if you want to claim your share), Hohenberg said she was misled by advertising stating Nutella can be part of an “easy, balanced breakfast.”

So while Nutella is on the hot seat for pushing its chocolatey product as a kids’ breakfast staple, we want to know how come these other “breakfast” items don’t have some moms just as angry;

  • Kellogg’s Froot Loops: while Froot Loops contains no fruit at all, it does manage to get into the box partially hydrogenated oil, artificial colors and flavors and a preservative.
  • Kellogg’s Smorz cereal: described as “crunchy graham cereal covered in rich chocolatey coating with marshmallows.” The ingredient panel for this breakfast item reads like an example of what not to eat, from hydrogenated oils to artificial colors and flavors to high fructose corn syrup. While the ingredients are less than good,  the website shows an image of wheat stalks against a blue sky with the caption “the goodness of grains.”
  • Quaker Oats Cap’n Crunch Chocolatey Crunch: The website tells us that the “Cap’n has been busy in his test kitchen again!” Well kids, we can only imagine what else is in that “test kitchen” since this “decadent delight” is made with refined corn and oat flour, artificial flavors, colors and preservatives.

Ferrero USA busied itself to revise its web sites and “modify certain marketing statements about Nutella,” which includes making the Nutella nutrition labels more prominent. Consumers can cash in on the case by receiving refunds of $4 for each jar purchased, up to $20. Meanwhile Cap’t Crunch, in the form of Quaker Oats, appears to be making almost exactly the same claim, that ‘Crunch’ served with ”low-fat milk and fresh fruit or a glass of 100% juice” makes a “nutritious” breakfast. Isn’t there a mom out there who want to haul the Cap’n into court?

Will the “real” sugar please stand up?

Several Food Identity Theft blog readers have asked about beverages, especially Pepsi Next, that make the claim “less sugar.” In the case of Pepsi Next, it says “60 percent less sugar…than Pepsi-cola.”

How can that be, since “regular” Pepsi uses high fructose corn syrup as its main sweetener. What does “less sugar” mean exactly?

I took the question to the Pepsi Cola company. In an e-mail exchange with Andrea Canabal in the company’s press department, I first asked what “60 percent less sugar” means.

Repeating the same message that’s found on the bottle, she told me that Next has “60 percent less sugar than regular Pepsi, yet maintains the real cola flavor.”

“I thought only Pepsi Throwback was made with sugar,” I replied.

“Pepsi Throwback is made with real sugar…” was her answer.

So there you have it. There’s “real” sugar –  and then there’s the other stuff, namely high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), the unreal “sugar.”

Taking the question further, I contacted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which oversees packaging claims, and asked my question about the Pepsi Next “less sugar” label – we’ll see what they come back with. However, I do like the idea of calling the sweet substance made from sugar cane or sugar beets “real” sugar, and I think we should send the ‘unreal’ HFCS back where it came from – the laboratory.

Let the “real” sugar revival begin!