Archive for July, 2012

Watch out for ‘sugar-confused’ junk food with a respectable name or image

Posted by -- July 31, 2012

What, exactly, are “sugar-infused wild blueberries”?

Apparently, they’re a kind of highly processed blueberry-flavored paste that contains “blueberry,” “natural blueberry flavors” and eight other additives, none of which is sugar, but the second of which is high fructose corn syrup.

Perhaps, then, the qualifier “sugar-infused” should be changed to “sugar-confused,” given the Food and Drug Administration’s recent ruling that high fructose corn syrup can in no way be regarded as “sugar” (let alone “corn sugar,” as the Corn Refiners Association would have liked).

But whatever the terminology used to describe it, this HFCS-infused ingredient is among the things you’ll be consuming should you opt for a blueberry bagel from Dunkin’ Donuts.  HFCS is also one of the ingredients listed in the Dunkin blueberry muffin. However, you won’t find any listed as an ingredient in the blueberry crumb donut.

While just about all the choices at Dunkin Donuts would not be what most food-conscious folks would call good pickins’, still, many probably believe that choosing a blueberry muffin or bagel over a doughnut is a healthier choice, especially if you’re avoiding HFCS.

Of course, if you’re grabbing something at a fast food place, whatever the “dish” is called, most likely you’ll also be in for a long list of undesirable additives. But what about home-prepared items? Without a label check, your “healthy” lunch or breakfast choice could be just as bad.

Exhibit A: Kellogg’s Smart Start Antioxidant Cereal

The advertising hype says this cereal not only has whole grain wheat flakes, but “antioxidants such as beta carotene to support a healthy immune system.” But a “reality” ingredient check reveals high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oil, artificial flavors, more high fructose corn syrup and several preservatives, which are pretty similar to ingredients in many of those Dunkin’ doughnuts.

Exibit B: Morning Star Farms Veggie Patties

If you’re looking for a hotbed of free-glutamic acid (such as is found in MSG), look no further than this company’s burgers line. Advertised to be a “better-for-you veggie burger, they contain such MSG ingredients as soy protein concentrate, autolyzed yeast extract, hydrolyzed proteins, and soy protein isolate, as well as artificial flavors and other not-so-good-for-you ingredients. It’s just one more  example of how home-cooked “healthy” is little better than a fast-food pickup.

(Is there really a Morning Star Farm that makes all these vegetarian dishes in a lovely pastoral setting? No, but you probably guessed that already, didn’t you? The Morning Star Farms brand was originally introduced by Worthington Foods, a division of Miles Laboratories in the 1970s, then acquired by Kelloggs’ in the late ’90s, with no sign of an actual farm as it passed hands to different food conglomerates.)

And therein lies a lesson of sorts: when it comes to processed food, you can’t simply take for granted that a particular item will necessarily be more or less healthy based on its name – any more than you can make a similar assumption about a company’s products based on the idea that the same family has been making them in the same place for as long as anyone can remember.

An interesting example is the company of which Dunkin’ Donuts is now a subsidiary – Smucker’s.  The same Smucker’s whose commercials present homey, bucolic depictions of Tim and Richard Smucker as boys in 1954 Orrville, Ohio, where everyone in town knew they’d grow up to make the world’s best jam, just as their family has been doing for five generations.

Not their father’s jam

Of course, anyone who bothers to read the label on a jar of regular  Smucker’s Strawberry Jam will immediately know that this is not the same “extra delicious jam” that is romanticized in a commercial showing young Richard Smucker trying to capture its essence in a strawberry field. That’s because back in 1954, it would be a long time before businesses such as Smucker’s starting replacing sugar in their products with the cheap laboratory-contrived sweetener high fructose corn syrup.

And while the company does offer organic jams as well as a premium line called “Orchard’s Finest,” such HFCS-free products aren’t anywhere near as widely available as the conventional HFCS-infused line of Smucker’s jams and preserves that are shown in the commercials.

Smucker’s in fact, now has quite a motley and extended ‘family” of brands featured at its website, ranging from Dunkin’ Donuts to standards like Pillsbury Flour, Folger’s Coffee, Pet Milk, Jif Peanut Butter and Hungry Jack Pancake Mix to Santa Cruz organic juices and Red River 100 percent natural Hot Cereal. In other words, it’s now a full-fledged food conglomerate, even though its commercials continue to convey the impression that it has remained a folksy, small-town, old-timey down-on-the-farm enterprise out of Orrville, Ohio after all these years.

But with the exception of organic foods, which are subject to certain USDA-imposed standards and from which many undesirable additives are excluded, the supposed integrity, longevity or image projected by any brand is no more a guarantee you’ll be consuming a “healthy” product than is the idea of eating something like a muffin or a bagel rather than a doughnut.

In other words, to find out what’s really “junk food” and what isn’t, there’s simply no substitute for reading the ingredients.

Confused by ‘label lingo’? Here’s a little guide to help you sort it out

Posted by -- July 24, 2012

As a careful and conscientious shopper, do you often find yourself confused by the language used on food labels?

If so, I’d like to offer you the benefit of a short primer on some frequently used packaging terms and euphemisms.

Here, then, is the first edition of our Food Identity Theft Guide to ‘Label Lingo’:

Dilution diction: “beverages,” drinks,” cocktails” and “flavors”
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows the term  “diluted juice” to be used to describe products that are just that, it’s doubtful you’ll ever see it on a label. Instead, such liquid refreshments are usually described as “beverages,” “drinks” or “cocktails.” Any product that goes by one of these descriptions contains less than 100 percent juice — most always a whole lot less,  and in some cases even less than one percent. The only good news is that in most instances the label must specify just how much actual juice the beverage, drink or cocktail contains, a percentage that should be listed on the information panel.

The FDA considers “beverages that purport to contain juice” to be ones that not only say “juice” on the package, but also show pictures of fruits or vegetables. But don’t be deceived by such wholesome graphics. More often than not, a beverage, drink or cocktail will contain such added ingredients as high fructose corn syrup that you might wish to avoid.  Then there’s the “juice percentage exception”  that applies to certain drinks containing so little juice it may be not even possible to calculate the actual amount. In such cases you should find the term “flavor” or “flavored” instead, and no misleading fruit graphics. Products labeled as “100 percent juice” should be just that, and if they are made from concentrate are required to say so or else be described as “reconstituted.”

A new meaning of “sucker punch”?

Since a “punch” is not defined by the FDA, it can be  just about anything –  such as an artificially flavored beverage containing no fruit juice at all.

When  “healthy” doesn’t necessarily mean “healthful“

Healthy” is a pretty broad term that the FDA allows to be used not only on packaging but in brand names such as “Healthy Choice,” a line of microwavable products with some less-than-healthy ingredients. To describe itself as “healthy,” a product must meet certain requirements regarding its fat, saturated fat, sodium and cholesterol content. That may sound good – until you check out the contents of some of these supposedly “healthy” dishes. Healthy Choice brand Cafe Steamers Lemon Garlic Chicken and Shrimp, for example, while having less than 300 calories per serving, also contains a  healthy helping of additives, including several forms of free glutamic acid, a coloring agent and the unknown ingredient simply called “flavorings.”

“Lean” means healthy too, right?

The term “lean” is defined by the FDA as containing less than 10 grams total fat and less than 4.5 g of saturated fat per serving, which may lead many diet-conscious consumers to believe that Stouffer’s “Lean Cuisine” brand is another one of the  “healthy” options in the frozen food aisle.  The Lean Cuisine website also uses such  buzzwords as “nutritious” and “goodness” and urges consumers to “be culinary chic,” which seems to imply that its products are smart and stylish.  In actuality, however, even if “Lean Cuisine” meets the FDA’s low-fat standard, ingesting such additives as high fructose corn syrup (the number-two ingredient in its glazed chicken entree) and artery-clogging partially hydrogenated oil, as well as yeast extract and isolated soy protein – both considered to be disguised forms of MSG – is anything but.

The perplexing phraseology of pet-food labels

Pet-food contents conform to a jargon all their own. There are dinners, platters, entrees, formulas and recipes, all which dictate how much of a particular ingredient the so-called “food” may contain.

When a pet food is called “beef” or “chicken” the named ingredient cannot be less than 95 percent  (including water), but add a descriptor such as “dinner,” “platter,” “entree,” or “formula,” and voila, the beef or chicken can now be as low as 25 percent including water! Exclude the water, and the “beef,” for example, can drop to 10 percent. Add another ingredient in the name, such as “rice,” and the two combined can now total down to 25 percent

What label “lingo” do you find confusing?  Post your picks at our Food Identity Theft Facebook page and we’ll try to decode it for you.

Does fumigating almonds with a toxic gas make them safer or hazardous to our health?

Posted by -- July 21, 2012

Is the forced treatment of California-grown almonds with a probable carcinogen a public safety measure, or a bad regulation that puts consumers at risk, farmers at a disadvantage and gives the California nuts a bad name?

Known as the “almond rule,” or, as a judge dubbed it, the “salmonella rule,” since 2007 it has mandated that almonds grown in California’s 400-mile-long Central Valley area must be “pasteurized” – that is, either steam treated or gassed with the toxic fumigant propylene oxide (PPO) before sale to U.S. consumers. Growers can ask for an exemption for almonds that receive further processing such as roasting, blanching, or other heat treatments.

Since nearly all domestic almonds come from this fertile area in California (said to provide one quarter of America’s food supply), that means that any “raw” almonds you buy, unless they were imported from abroad, have been pasteurized via one of these methods. Which method was used depends on the brand and the preference of the grower (except for organic almonds, which are always steam treated). Farmers can also sell small quantities of truly raw, untreated almonds in quantities of 100 pounds or less at farmers markets and farm stands in California.

Giant almond processing and marketing company Blue Diamond Almonds ®, told Food Identity Theft that while its sliced and slivered almonds are steam “pasteurized,” its whole-nut “natural” line is treated with the toxic PPO gas. Other Blue Diamond Almonds products such as Almond Breeze, Nut Chips and Nut Thins use steam-treated almonds, with any whole “naturals” going to Canada being steamed rather than fumigated.

The rule, which took raw “foodists’” for whom such almonds are a dietary staple and other health-conscious consumers by surprise back in 2007, is still the subject of litigation, with a group of almond growers heading back to court to argue that the U.S. Department of Agriculture overstepped its authority in requiring California central-valley growers to treat their almonds (something not required for imports or almonds grown in any other part of the U.S. for that matter). They’ve also pointed out that California almonds can be exported unpasteurized to all countries other than Canada and Mexico.

Among groups filing a “friend of the court” brief in support of the current case pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals is Citizens for Health and its board chair, Washington, D.C. attorney Jim Turner.

“Either of these treatments makes them useless as raw almonds because they won’t sprout,” Turner noted, adding, “this has essentially destroyed the raw almond market in the U.S.”

Highly nutritious raw almonds, the “friend” brief notes, are “particularly important to a variety of groups, most notably ‘raw foodists’ and vegetarians,” and are acknowledged by many nutritionists to be healthier than cooked almonds. Raw food and vegetarian diets use almonds extensively, and folks in the U.S. who desire truly “raw” almonds are now forced to order them from other countries – all of which is perfectly okay with the USDA.

The “almond rule” fiasco began with some California almonds that were found to be contaminated with salmonella in 2001 and 2004 –  an “extremely rare” occurrence, according to the current court brief. This lead the California Almond Board to consider a mandatory rule requiring the pre-market treatment of almonds, a plan authorized soon afterward by the USDA.

A rule that has something ‘not’ in it for everyone

Although the ruling caused California almond farmers to lose a lucrative market in raw almond sales and raw foodists to lose easy access to a diet staple, the average supermarket almond consumer also has something to be concerned about — the chemical “pasteurization” treatment itself.

That’s because propylene oxide, also used in making polyurethane foams, antifreeze and hydraulic fluid, has been classified as a probable human carcinogen. And while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently allows PPO treatment of almonds, it has also made moves to ban the fumigant twice, and in 1996 seemed on the verge of revoking its “food additive regulation” status.

Changing its tune after protests from the manufacturer of the gas, the EPA permitted the chemical’s status to remain on the books and set an allowable residue level of 150 parts per million. But sometime between then and now, that residue allowance doubled to 300 ppm. And despite the fact that the state of California considers PPO to be a “known carcinogen” growers in that state can release almonds for sale once the PPO levels are down to 300 ppm.

Canada, which did not previously allow PPO use, also set an approved residue level of 300 ppm in 2009 to comply with its “international trade obligations.”

Joan Levin, a retired Chicago attorney and raw ‘foodie’ who has been following the issue carefully since 2007, noted that the “almond rule” was something “none of the raw community knew about” prior to its becoming law. “Really, if there was something so dangerous about raw almonds,” Levine said, “don’t you think ‘we’ would have said something about raw almonds coming in from other countries which can be legally sold here?” By the same token, she asked, “why are we allowing our California growers to ship untreated almonds to our allies abroad?”

Recalling that old Mounds/Almond Joy commercial, “Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t,” perhaps the explanation lies along similar lines: Sometimes the USDA thinks “raw” almonds are safe, sometimes they don’t.

Elegant dining won’t necessarily help you to avoid MSG, HFCS

Posted by -- July 17, 2012

Are you one of those ‘picky eaters’ who conscientiously reads food labels, rejecting processed products that contain high fructose corn syrup, MSG in all its forms and other suspect ingredients?

I hope so.  But I’d also like to let you in on a little secret: if you occasionally eat out, it’s more than likely you’re ingesting many of those same nasty additives you go to such trouble to avoid at home.

And if you think that doesn’t apply to you because you shun fast-food restaurants in favor of more elegant eateries, think again. Actually, it’s easier to find out what’s in a McDonald’s or KFC concoction than in a fancy restaurant dish. And grilling the server till you get pegged as an obnoxious customer may not be of much help in finding out either. Although your server may be able to rattle off each special and soup of the day,  he or she probably has no idea of what ingredients went into its preparation.

While you may assume that paying a top price for an entree guarantees a “made from-scratch” dish prepared by a skilled chef, the fact is that many pricy establishments take shortcuts too, and what’s advertised as “homemade” may not mean what you think it does.

A big supplier to the restaurant industry is the mega-corporation Unilever, owner of such diverse companies as Ben & Jerry’s, Sunlight dish detergent, Bertolli Olive Oil and Lipton Tea. The company also has a division called Unilever Food Solutions, which is described as “…the leading global provider of culinary and commercial inspiration to chefs.”

Some of that added “inspiration” includes ingredients such as Knorr Ultimate Bases, Hellmann’s Real Sauces, Knorr Ready-To-Use-Sauces and LeGout Cream Soup Base.

Hold the MSG

If you’ve ever asked your server or heard someone inquire whether the restaurant uses MSG, most likely the answer was “no.” MSG, after all, isn’t very popular these days; it’s a cheap and easy way to make less-than-high-quality food taste better. While the chef may no longer sprinkle MSG directly on a dish (as was popular back in the 1960’s before we knew any better), it appears that all Unilever Food Solutions base ingredients do contain MSG.

Both the Knorr Roasted Beef Base and Chicken Base are not only made with hydrolyzed protein, which contains processed free glutamic acid (the chicken variety also has autolyzed yeast extract, yet another ‘hidden’ form of MSG), but disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate, expensive flavor ‘potentiaters’ that work synergistically with processed free glutamic acid.

Don’t think such ingredients are just for “dives” that don’t have a high-class chef, Unilever apparently knows otherwise. The company features Marco Pierre White, a “three Michelin star” chef no less, on a special “make it like Marco” mini-site that advises restaurant owners and chefs against being “narrow minded” or “afraid to use convenience products.” Marco doesn’t “tolerate snobbery” and feels that the Knorr products, which he has used as a base in his kitchens for over 30 years, “adds that extra kick of flavor.”

So now we know that if you break the bank to eat at one of Marco’s “kitchens” such as the Oak Room at Le Meridien Piccadilly in London, that obscenely-priced “perfect steak” was liberally MSG’d  with Knorr Ultimate Roasted Beef Base.

If you’re a vegetarian, things don’t look much better. While the product-information page for the Knorr Vegetable (Vegetarian) Base doesn’t contain an ingredient list, it does give a link for a “product specification” sheet for “basic line bouillon” that not only includes monosodium glutamate and yeast extract, but also says it’s not vegetarian due to flavorings that contain “meat and cysteine from duck feathers.”

Just what is “homemade” anyway?

Unilever’s LeGout Cream Soup Base, containing autolyzed yeast extract and disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate, generally an accomplice to processed free glutamic acid (MSG), is used to make everything from soup to sauces, dips and entrees and is called “the ideal starter for many popular comfort foods!” by Unilever. Even the LeGout “no MSG added” soup base contains autolyzed yeast extract.

But the most bizarre case of restaurant trickery appears to be the Lipton 1-2-Tea brand concentrate for restaurant use, described as unsweetened, “real brewed iced tea,” that contains “high fructose corn syrup and corn tea extract,” as well as two preservatives and a food coloring, red 40.

While the HFCS content is probably small due to the zero-calorie listing (foods and beverages with less than five calories per serving can state “calorie free” on the label), unsweetened, “brewed” tea is probably the last place you would expect to find HFCS. Unilever didn’t return my phone calls about 1-2-Tea, so my question about the possible use of HFCS 90, a 90-percent fructose HFCS formula used in diet and low-calorie foods, remains unanswered.

So how does an informed consumer eat out? The best tip seems to be, unless you have an “in” with the restaurant owner and know you’re getting good information as to how the food is prepared, to steer clear of soups, items with sauces, gravies, creamed dishes and just about anything else that has numerous ingredients. And I’d make a point of avoiding Chef Marco’s high-priced eateries.

Will big companies change organic food, or vice versa?

Posted by -- July 13, 2012

This past spring, a “study” done by Loyola University professor Kendall J. Eskine, added yet another popgun to the anti-organic arsenal of pesticide purveyors and various other enterprises that see the organic revolution as a threat to their profits. The study somehow managed to come to the “scientific” conclusion that people who seek out organic food are selfish jerks who wouldn’t help their own grandma across the street.

This was determined by Eskine showing pictures of comfort foods, such as brownies and ice cream and then pictures of labeled organic vegetables, to 62 undergraduate students. The students then looked at (you can’t make this stuff up) pictures of people engaging in bad deeds, such as a politician accepting a bribe, and were asked to judge that behavior. To the shock and dismay of all, the students who looked at organic veggie photos were less likely to have good moral standards and said they wouldn’t volunteer as much as those who saw the brownie photo.

Certainly Eskine’s analysis of students looking at photos of food was less than stellar science. But it made the talk-show rounds, with Dr. Dale Archer, a clinical psychiatrist, further promoting the idea in an article in Psychology Today, “Does Going Organic Make You a Jerk,” a variant of which was also featured on FoxNews.com.

Dr. Archer described individuals who opt for an organic diet as suffering from “moral superiority syndrome, “ and advised that buying organic does not mean you’re “better, smarter, greener or necessarily making more of a difference in the world than your McDonald’s chomping neighbor.”

Of course, such outmoded portrayals of organic consumers as snobs and elitists are quickly dispelled these days by a visit to almost any large supermarket. The reality is that organic products (including brownies)  are now being offered by scores of  big food conglomerates, having long long ago escaped from your local health food store into the marketing mainstream.

Just about all the major food companies, in fact, have now recognized organic’s potential as an engine of profitability and hopped aboard the train.  Which is why the lead story in the Business section of last Sunday’s New York Times has caused such a stir within the organic community itself. The piece, headlined “Has ‘Organic’ Been Oversized?,” examined the question of whether the dominance of these huge corporations in the organic marketplace is enabling them to compromise the strict standards that govern organic products and ingredients. Or, as the subhead stated, “To Purists, Big Companies Are Co-opting an Industry.”

One of the more negative responses was posted at the website of The Organic Trade Association (OTA), which describes the piece as having “done a disservice to families seeking healthy choices for their children and farmers choosing organic to stay in business because it does not present a balanced picture about the U.S. organic process.”

Pointing out that  in order to earn organic certification, “everyone must follow the same regulation and meet the same requirements regardless of size or ownership,” the OTA goes on to contend: “The use of the USDA Organic seal on well-known brands has helped raise consumer awareness of organic,” which has permitted the sector’s annual sales to surpass $30 billion and created jobs at four times the national average. Among the results it cited have been “increasingly fewer pesticides applied to soil and waterway,” “fewer antibiotics given to livestock,” and “options for families looking for healthy food.”

How ‘size matters’ from another perspective

Other commentators acknowledge that some of the concerns raised in the Times piece by Stephanie Strom  regarding corporate influence over organic criteria are not without merit – but also maintain that this should  in no way discourage people from opting for organic products. Grist Food Editor Twilight Greenaway, for example, in an article reposted by the Organic Consumers Association, asks, “Could organic be a more rigorous standard free of corporate interest? Absolutely. Will I continue to rely on the label to guide some of my food choices? You bet I will.”

While noting that she share’s OTA’s  concerns, Greenaway maintains that “if the New York Times article does little else but raise people’s awareness about the fact that there is a board of individuals constantly discussing what exactly ‘organic’ means, and that the standards they uphold are vulnerable to corporate influence, that’s probably a good thing.” She goes on to point out that the fact that there are advocacy groups campaigning to keep additives such as DHA and carrageenan out of organic food “is also a good thing. In the case of most conventional food, there is no discussion at all, let alone an intensive investigation. It’s all relative; but given the way Big Food has shaped the rest of our food system, organic is still the best we have.”

Concurring in those sentiments is Alexis Baden-Mayer, the OTA’s political director, (who was quoted in the Times.). “I hope this type of article does not discourage people from buying organic,” but rather “informs them about how carefully each ingredient is vetted before it goes into organic,” she told Food Identity Theft. “No other food agency is looking into ingredients the way the Organic Standards Board is.” And while acknowledging that big corporations would often like to cut corners in creating organic versions of their regular products, she believes “large companies that are not 100 percent organic should be able to offer organic food on a mass scale without cutting corners.”

And then Baden-Mayer summed up what I thought was the most effective counter-argument to the concerns raised in the Times: “I don’t see why organic shouldn’t be the norm. I’d like to see conventional companies transition to organic and offer a greater and greater proportion of their food in organic form.”

In other words, now that those “Big Food” conglomerates have opted to commit at least part of their efforts to the organic revolution, rather than simply worrying about their impact on standards, we should be focusing on harnessing their vast marketing resources to bring the benefits of that revolution to an ever greater segment of the public.  So that perhaps one day, in the not-too-distant future, those companies will have become “organicized” to the point where eating organic food will be considered as commonplace as chomping on a McDonald’s is today. And the average consumer will definitely have become better, smarter, greener, and – yes – even morally superior as a result. To say nothing of a whole lot healthier

The ‘corn sugar’ scam is ended, but the confusion lingers on

Posted by -- July 10, 2012

So how did this CRA commercial end up as a "news" video at ABCnews.com?

Although the Food & Drug Administration gave a thumbs down at the end of May to the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) 2010 petition to have high fructose corn syrup officially called by the better-sounding name “corn sugar,” recent postings from web sites, including The Consumerist and mercola.com, are still reporting numerous sightings of the “corn sugar or cane sugar your body can’t tell the difference” ads.

In fact, The Consumerist, a consumer advocacy site sponsored by Consumer Reports, after noting last month that the “CRA continues to flood the basic cable airwaves with ads touting the name (corn sugar)” has even put the question to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the nation’s official “consumer protection agency,” charged with the job of making sure “companies…don’t mislead or trick people” with “deceptive” advertising.

The response The Consumerist got was similar to the answer I received  from the FTC: that no comment will be made unless the agency has “concluded an investigation,” and is “filing a complaint.”  While investigations into deceptive advertising can originate with complaints from consumers, competitors or the agency’s own monitoring of advertising, an FTC spokesperson told me, no complaint to date had been filed against the CRA.

But curiously enough, The Consumerist received a statement form CRA president Audrae Erickson, which said in part: “Our mission is to help consumers understand the simple, indisputable fact that high fructose corn syrup is just another form of sugar. Knowing this information will help them make better decisions about calorie control and consumption.”

Ms. Erickson apparently didn’t bother reading down to the part of the letter she received  from the FDA listing one of the key reasons “corn sugar” won’t fly: the fact that sugar is defined as a “solid, dried, and crystallized food, whereas syrup is an aqueous solution or liquid food.”

So although the corn refiners may have been foiled in their formal attempt to turn HFCS into “corn sugar,” they’re apparently not about to abandon the effort to convince consumers that’s what it is. The CRA’s  “Sweet Surprise” website, for example, still makes the claim that “HFCS is simply a form of sugar made from corn.”

It’s possible, of course, that the FTC will now step in and put an end to this stealth campaign by forbidding further “corn sugar” mentions from hitting the airwaves and Internet. But that doesn’t necessarily mean those “sugar is sugar” ads might not still be readily available to web users – from a major news site.

Media continue to confuse the issue

At the ABCnews.com video page one of the CRA’s “corn sugar” commercials was posted in March bearing an ABC news logo and stamped “courtesy: Corn Refiners Association” with the caption “Ad supports high fructose corn syrup” and the subhead “Corn Refiners Association’s commercial proclaims ‘sugar is sugar’.”

Curious as to why the CRA ad would be running as “news” on the ABC site without an accompanying story, I made several calls to the network in New York,  and finally managed to reach someone who provided some answers.

It seems the commercial was originally posted along with a story about the lawsuit filed by sugar growers and refiners against the CRA and member companies for false advertising (of which the commercial in question could be exhibit A). Videos are posted twice, the ABC spokesperson told me, as it “increases the editorial value of the story,” and this stand-alone posting should be in no way considered an endorsement of high fructose corn syrup by ABC News, but simply reflects the way video content is handled by the site.

Regardless of how it got there, it seems the “corn sugar” commercials will not be going away anytime soon.

Despite the clear distinction the FDA provided between HFCS and cane or beet sugar, the term “sugary drinks” continues to be used by major media outlets as well as Big Apple Mayor Michael Bloomberg and staff in talking about New York’s proposed ban on super-size, mostly HFCS-sweetened beverages. One of the most tangled and confusing references can be found this week at the Foodconsumer site in an article that states, “sugar that is commonly used in sugar-sweetened beverages is high fructose corn syrup or HFCS, which is now called by the industry corn sugar.”

Not all reporters and writers have missed the point. An opinion piece published in U.S. Catholic actually got it right in noting that “Bloomberg’s proposal would limit all “sugar water” products—a misnomer since virtually all such products are sweetened with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)—to just 16 ounces.”

Perhaps what the FTC really ought to do is require the corn refiners  to run remedial advertising – for example, having a representative walk through the question mark in the corn field apologizing for the confusion their advertising has sown and explaining the differences between real sugar and the laboratory concoction that’s still officially known as high fructose corn syrup.

High fructose corn syrup turns up in the oddest of places

Posted by -- July 5, 2012

Responding to my blog last week on pet food and advertising, several readers wrote to let me know about one of the most ridiculous places ever to find high fructose corn syrup. That’s right — pet food. Dog food, to be precise– and no less than a Purina product called Moist and Meaty and the Walmart favorite, Ol’ Roy Soft & Moist brand.

Calling Purina to ask why in the world a dog food would contain HFCS, I was told that was a “very good question.” My representative looked up the Moist and Meaty ingredients and then told me that the HFCS is used to maintain the product “texture,” and she was unsure if HFCS was in any other Purina products, but thought that it would only be found in “moist” ones (which are more like soft and squishy and made to resemble fake ground meat).

Walmart’s Ol’ Roy lists HFCS as the second ingredient – right after beef-by-products. Walmart didn’t respond to my email question, but it’s probably safe to assume that they supposedly use it for the same texture-preservation purpose.

It should be noted that both these dog food products contain the highly controversial preservative ethoxyquin, which aside from its use as a preservative is also registered as a pesticide. Ethoxyquin, originally developed by Monsanto, is implicated by many veterinarians, dog breeders and others to be a cause of numerous degenerative diseases in dogs, including cancer, liver problems and birth deformities in puppies. In 1997 the FDA asked pet-food manufactures to voluntarily lower the maximum level of this preservative/pesticide from 150 to 75 parts per million after tests conducted by Monsanto showed that the higher amount “may not provide an adequate margin of safety…”

But a recent notice at the FDA website shows that sometime between 1997 and 2012, things changed. The maximum amount allowed, it seems, has now gone back to 150 parts per million. However, labeling of the additive is mandatory, whether it is added directly to the food or as a component of another ingredient. So if you don’t like the  idea of feeding your dog a registered pesticide, you might want to check the ingredient listings on the pet food you buy for that as well as for high fructose corn syrup.

A few of the other unlikely places in which HFCS turns up  

While it may not be unusual to see HFCS in all varieties of sodas, condiments and even bread, there are other food items — so-called “healthy” ones and even toddler foods –where you’ll find it listed as an ingredient. These days, HFCS seems to turn up practically everywhere you look, even in places you least expect it. To name just a few:

  • Yoplait ® yogurts – advertised as having “all the health and goodness of yogurt with the delicious blended creaminess of Yoplait®”
  • Gerber Graduates ® toddler animal crackers. This product is marketed as being “perfect for a toddler practicing motor skills by picking up food,” but we think it’s also perfect for toddlers to practice eating junk food. High fructose corn syrup can also be found in Gerber arrowroot cookies and toddler cereal bars.
  • AMP energy drinks by Pepsico,  “You’ve evolved, has your energy drink?” asks the website for this product. But if you want to “evolve” beyond consuming HFCS, this isn’t the drink for you.

On the positive side, an increasing number of products make a point of saying they “contain no high fructose corn syrup.” But there are still far too many that have become repositories for this unnatural additive – including some you’d  never suspect.

Latest pesticide data not as reassuring as regulators would have us believe

Posted by -- July 3, 2012

At the end of May the Department of Agriculture (USDA) released its 2010 numbers for the annual Pesticide Data Program (PDP) – a yearly sampling of commodities conducted since 1991 by the agency that checks for and measures pesticide residues. 2010 was the first year that included baby food in the analysis.

So what’s the scoop? Are we ingesting fewer pesticides? Is seeking out organic products really all that necessary? And what about those baby foods? It depends on whom you ask. Government regulators say things are all basically A-OK, but consumer groups offer a different perspective.

The Food & Drug Administration (FDA), USDA and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) all had positive things to say about the results of the 2010 PDP. The EPA, for example, contended that “(t)he very small amounts of pesticide residues found in the baby food samples were well below levels that are harmful to children.” And the FDA added this statement to the USDA press release: “Based on the PDP data from this report, parents and caregivers can continue to feed infants their regular baby foods without being concerned about the possible presence of unlawful pesticide chemical residues.”

But if you check out what the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which has been following the PDP for the last ten years, has to say about the results, you might think they are talking about an entirely different study.

EWG president Ken Cook, in the group’s June statement on the study, contends that “(g)overnment scientists have found disturbing concentrations of pesticide in some baby foods. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture has found weed killers widespread in finished tap water…The latest USDA tests show we have much more work to do.”

So what gives? Should we believe the FDA and not be concerned, or take heed as the EWG advises?

It’s all a question of ‘tolerances’

The difference in opinion seems to boil down to a highly complex concept embraced by the EPA called “risk assessment,” which is not a ‘real life’ scenario in regard to pesticides.

The fact is that the EPA permits pesticide residues to remain on food. It uses measurements called “tolerances,” the maximum legal amounts allowed in the food you eat. Your fruit salad, for instance, could have multiple traces of pesticides in it, all quite legal, from a variety of chemicals applied to different fruits.

To set a tolerance (which is in reality an “enforcement tool”) the EPA reviews animal studies designed to look for organ damage to the test animal, then divides the no-observable-effect level by an “uncertainty factor.” The results are then extrapolated from animal studies and an allowable tolerance is issued.

So when the EPA talks about pesticide levels that are not “harmful to children,” they’ve made a pretty big leap from a rat to a kid – one that doesn’t mean no pesticides were detected. As Mary O’Brien, former staff scientist for the Environmental Research Foundation, has observed, “Risk assessment arranges deck chairs on the Titanic.”

The 2010 USDA data, according to the EWG, shows that 68 percent of food samples contained detectible pesticide residues. The group also noted that:

  • Some 98 percent of conventional apples have detectable levels of pesticides.
  • Domestic blueberries tested positive for 42 different pesticide residues.
  • Seventy-eight different pesticides were found on lettuce samples.
  • Every single nectarine the USDA tested had measurable pesticide residues.
  • As a category, grapes have more types of pesticides remaining on them than any other fruit, – 64 different chemicals, in all.
  • Thirteen different pesticides were measured on a single sample each of celery and strawberries.

The experts weigh in on the baby food question

Dr. Chuck Benbrook, senior scientist for The Organic Center had this to say about the results of the tested baby food: “Nine percent of the green bean samples had clearly unacceptable levels of the organophosphate insecticide methamidophos. A remarkable 25 percent of pear baby food samples contained six or more residues, and 3.7 percent of the samples contained 10 residues.”

Jim Turner, board chair for Citizens for Health, and author of Making Your Own Baby Food, which sold over a million copies with three editions during its print run, says that this “is further evidence that you can’t rely on conventional baby food and should be making your own from organic produce.”

Renowned nutrition authority Dr. Andrew Weil agrees, telling the EWG, “It is bad enough that baby food contains pesticides at all; the fact that pears contain a likely human carcinogen is an outrage. Parents should purchase organic baby foods, or better yet, prepare their own by putting organic foods through a simple hand-turned food mill.”

The 2010 Pesticide Data Program results seems to confirm what organic advocates have been saying all along: that we know too little about the toxic chemicals used on our food supply and even less about how they may interact with each other and what those effects may be on the most vulnerable –  infants and children.

Resources:

If you would like to make the switch to organic, but are not ready to go ‘all the way,’ check out the EWG list of fruits and veggies most highly contaminated with pesticide residues here.

The Organic Center also puts out “The Shopper’s Guide” that lists the fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide risk per serving, as well as some information on dairy, meat, and grains, which can be downloaded here:

Another plus of an organic diet is that you won’t find any high fructose corn syrup in organic processed foods!