Archive for November, 2012

‘Real’ color coded fall foods can be year round cancer fighters

Posted by -- November 29, 2012

If it tastes like apples, smells like apples and has “apple,” in the name, it must be made of apples, right? Well, not quite.

While the crunchy red fruit made it to the top of the list of cancer-fighting fall foods recommended by senior nutritionist Stacy Kennedy at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, she was referring to the real McCoy, complete with skin, not the kind of processed, high fructose corn syrup-sweetened products from which apples are noticeably absent, such as Snapple Apple (the ingredients in which include nary a hint of apple).

Kennedy’s list of seasonal power foods shows how beneficial a colorful diet can be. But that’s only true when what you eat reflects the ‘true colors’ of nature’s bounty and not the synthetic rainbow of brightly colored and misrepresented processed foods so prevalent on supermarket shelves.

Naturally colorful commodities are receiving more and more kudos these days for their nutritional benefits and cancer-fighting abilities. Unfortunately, many of the products that may appear to offer those benefits – as well as the tasty appeal of apples and other traditional fall fare – are a far cry from the health-enhancing fruits and veggies designed by Mother Nature, even when they’re not disguised by counterfeit colors whose only purpose is to fool consumers into buying nutritionally worthless non-foods.

Kennedy’s top, naturally-colored cancer-fighting foods include:

  • Apples, which she recommends we eat more of, noting that studies indicate that the quercetin they contain “protects the cell’s DNA from damage.” The key, she adds, is is “to eat them raw, and with the skin on” (which is one reason we would urge you to buy organic varieties).

    Our tip: Steer clear of adulterated apple products in sauce and pies that are  loaded with high fructose corn syrup and other undesirable ingredients (one example being Mott’s Original Applesauce which the order of ingredient indicates contains more HFCS than water).

  • Cranberries, not  just for Thanksgiving anymore. Kennedy recommends buying by the bagful while they’re available and freezing for later use. These cheerful little red balls (which are actually bouncy when ripe) contain benzoic acid, a potent cancer-inhibiting agent.

    Our tip: Just say no to canned cranberry sauce, which typically contains HFCS, as well as being highly processed. There is nothing easier to make, in fact, than fresh cranberry sauce from real berries, except maybe boiling an egg!*

  • Pumpkin, which is wonderful for eating as well as carving funny faces on. Kennedy, in fact, is a strong advocate for the entire ‘orange range’ of foods, including not just pumpkin, but squash, carrots and sweet potatoes, all of which contain a powerful cancer-fighting nutrient called carotenoid. She suggests keeping pumpkin in your diet throughout the year by adding it to other foods such as pancake batter, soup and smoothies.

    Our tip: It’s amazing how “food technology” can take a naturally healthful food like pumpkin and morph it into something that isn’t, an example being commercial pumpkin pies in which pumpkin is fused into a witches’ brew of ingredients such as HFCS, corn syrup and hydrogenated oil. Use pumpkin year-round, as Kennedy suggests, and we say if you’re a pie lover, make your own with either a homemade or ready-made graham cracker crust that does NOT contain artificial flavors, colors, HFCS or hydrogenated oils.

The thing to keep in mind is that ‘color coding’ appears to be one of Mother Nature’s main ways of  letting us know which foods should be included in a healthy diet – but such ‘healthy foods’ can both lose their nutrient value and become a source of ‘adverse additives’ once they’ve been highly processed.  And in that respect, we’re talking about a type of food identity theft that some might even regard as  a “crime against Nature.”

* Put fresh cranberries in a small pot; fill with water just to cover the berries; add sugar, more or less depending on how sweet you like them (for reference I use half a cup of sugar to a bag of cranberries, which is less sweet than most folks might like it); bring to boil; reduce heat and cook for around 10 minutes or until most of the berries burst open; the sauce will still look “soupy” but as it cools, and especially if placed in the refrigerator, it will significantly thicken. Store in the fridge and use in oatmeal, over vanilla ice cream, or as a tangy topping for salmon and chicken.

Will the ‘twilight of the Twinkie’ usher in a new dawn of more deserving desserts?

Posted by -- November 20, 2012

Is this the twilight of the Twinkie?

The thought of a world without Twinkies seems to have dominated the hearts and minds of many this past week. What could it be about a Twinkie that makes so many people so nostalgic? Perhaps that the Twinkie has always been there to shine as an example of the worst aspects of the American diet? Without Twinkies, or Ding Dongs or Ho Hos or even Wonder Bread for that matter, what will we have to point a finger at for our nutritional failings and junk food addictions (as actually happened in the course of a famous 1979 murder trial in which the lawyers for the defendant, a San Francisco politician charged with gunning down two other officials, claimed their client had overdosed on Twinkies, which was famously branded as the “Twinkie defense.”)

Even author Michael Pollan stands, in a way, behind the cake-like treat with the mystery filling, saying “A world without Twinkies would be a lessor place – we need them, if only to calibrate our scale of badness in food.”

But the Twinkie was not always the ‘crème de la crème’ of junk food. Once upon a time — 1930 to be exact — Charles Dewar, VP of Continental Bakeries, came up with the idea of a cream-filled sponge cake to utilize off-season baking pans. The Twinkie was an immediate success, due in part, according to Dewar, to its freshness.

Back then the Twinkie contained typical food ingredients such as eggs, lard and flour, giving it a maximum shelf life of three days. Dewar’s salesmen continually removed stale stock, keeping the Twinkie supply fresh and appetizing, and unknowingly planting the seeds for a market that would evolve into sales of over 500 million Twinkie snacks a year.

But if Twinkie consumption itself mirrors the proliferation of people who can’t do without their sweet-and fat-filled foods, so does the history of the product reflect our evolving food science, which made possible the Twinkie’s transformation into a little yellow cake with fatty goo in the middle that can remain “fresh” for nearly a month.

Twinkie science explained

Author Steve Ettlinger set out several years ago to get to the bottom of the 37 ingredients that make up the iconic confection, the popularity of which was officially recognized by the addition of a Twinkie to the Millennium Time Capsule by President Clinton.

In Ettlinger’s 2007 book, Twinkie, Deconstructed: my journey to discover how the ingredients found in processed foods are grown, mined (yes, mined), and manipulated into what America eats, he traveled far, interviewed many, and learned firsthand about “the alchemy of modern food science that turns recognizable commodities like corn and petroleum into anonymous white powders and viscous liquids and then turns those into yellow cakes with creamy filling…”

Ettlinger’s chose the Twinkie to be the mother ship for his mission to uncover and discover the origins and methods of the science behind modern food technology. “This journey – my journey,” he writes, “is the story of making convenience food, guided by science and commerce, just like the history of Twinkies themselves.”

When he first approached Interstate Bakeries Corporation to help with interviews and tours of the actual Twinkie plant, they declined, saying “its preference (is) to help writers who are merely reminiscing about their sweet childhood memories.” (I might have qualified for that, given my own recollections of making little figures from squished up Wonder Bread in grammar school).

So instead Ettlinger tracked the Twinkie ingredients like a secret agent, going down the entire processing chain to find the origins of chemicals such as high fructose corn syrup, polysorbate 60 and FD&C Yellow #5. “It became evident that the Twinkie is a dynamic, complex food system, “ he noted, asking, “Why don’t I need those ingredients (calcium sulfate, sorbic acid, coloring, etc.) in my homemade cakes? Sometimes it became difficult to relate the massive industrial and technical activities involved to making the ingredients for a simple baked good.”

Should this marvel of food-science evolution, which has earned the distinction of becoming America’s most recognizable form of junk food, disappear from store shelves forever,  would we be better off, or would another pseudo-pastry soon win our hearts and minds?  I’d like to think that the ‘twilight of the Twinkie’ will be followed by the dawning of a new age of appreciation for the old-fashioned pleasures of more deserving desserts, such as the ones that our grandmas used to whip up from ingredients such as butter, eggs, sugar and flour.

Fruit -flavored ‘antioxidant’ 7UP is nothing of the sort, new lawsuit claims

Posted by -- November 15, 2012

1957 ad for 7up -- "you like it, it likes you"

In what appears to be yet another case of food identity theft, a certain company has been accused of stealing the identity of cherries, mixed berries and pomegranates in producing soft drinks that don’t contain so much as a smidgen of any of these fruits.

The soft drink at issue is an old familiar one – 7UP – and the company, the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, has become the latest big food conglomerate to face a legal challenge over phony marketing language used to describe its products. Just last week, we reported that the J.M. Smucker Company was also being hauled into court to defend what plaintiffs allege are misrepresentations regarding the healthfulness of two of its products, the relatively new Uncrustables, ready-made frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and century-old Crisco vegetable shortening.

“There’s never been a more delicious way to cherry pick your antioxidant!”  claims the website for 7UP Cherry Antioxidant. “With all-natural cherry flavors, 7UP Cherry Antioxidant is the perfect pick me up.” But such hype was instead picked up as false and misleading by a Sherman Oaks, California consumer, David Green, who chose  to sue 7UP in U.S. District Court over it, maintaining that he purchased the drinks based on depictions of the colorful fruits on the labels, which he assumed were the source of the advertised antioxidants. Instead, he discovered that the only “antioxidant” in the beverage was a small amount of added vitamin E. The other ‘not-nutritious’ ingredients are high-fructose corn syrup, citric acid, potassium benzoate and Red Dye 40. with Blue Dye 1 added to the Mixed Berry and Pomegranate varieties.

“Adding an antioxidant to a soda is like adding menthol to a cigarette – neither does anything to make an unhealthy product healthy,” noted Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, which is bringing the suit on Green’s behalf with the consumer-protection class- action law firm Reese Richman LLP.

We attempted to contact the media office of the Dr, Pepper Snapple Group to find out how they justified making such claims but were unsuccessful in reaching anyone, being repeatedly told the “mailbox is full” and then being rerouted back to the same repetitive message. As we reported last week, however, Smucker’s has been quoted as calling the actions filed against it “wasteful, expensive and time-consuming litigation that cannot and will not benefit the public.”

But we think it is well worth all that time and expense that litigation of this sort is costing companies, because it can and will benefit the public. Every time news of such lawsuits becomes publicized, it can only serve to reinforce the realization that there is nothing beneficial about  products such as soft drinks laced with high fructose corn syrup, or pseudo-sandwiches filled with artery-clogging trans fats and HFCS.

If any of these cases do proceed to court, there is also the possibility that litigation will lead to either better enforcement of existing law or changes in laws and regulations designed to protect the public from deliberate misrepresentations or unsafe and unhealthy products and practices. For example, in the latest lawsuit, the plaintiffs have alleged that the product formulation being used is actually illegal, since “the FDA has a policy that states that the agency ‘does not consider it appropriate to fortify…snack foods such as candies and carbonated beverages’  and … (has) sent a warning letter to Coca-Cola for similar violations of that policy.” They also charge that “the antioxidant claims violate several California laws,” including its Consumers Legal Remedies Act, the Sherman Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Law, and provisions of its Business and Professions Code related to fraudulent business practices and misleading advertising.

But the laws and regulations are only as good as society’s willingness to enforce them and the awareness that they are being ignored or violated. And, in this particular case, to invoke a decades-old advertising slogan, it well might be that “nothing does it like 7UP.”

‘Wasteful’ lawsuits reveal hidden deceptions behind ‘wholesome’ food claims

Posted by -- November 9, 2012

The total disconnect between claims made on food product labels and the actual nature of the products themselves has once again ended up in court, the latest action being against two J.M. Smucker products –  the additive-filled frozen peanut butter and jelly item called Uncrustables, and the vegetable shortening Crisco (which was actually the very first product to make use of the hydrogenation process over a century ago).

While the magic wand of marketing can add pretty pictures and cool buzz words such as “wholesome” and “natural,” it can’t change a product into something it’s not, or keep the lawsuits from being filed.

Smucker’s recently asked a California judge to dismiss the most recent action – the third against the company on similar charges –  hanging its trans-fat hat on a Food and Drug Administration  loophole which allows the presence of the artery-clogging substance in both products to be listed as “0” if there is less than 0.5g of trans-fats per serving.

Quoted in a trade publication as calling the actions a “trilogy of trans-fats lawsuits” that force “food manufactures to undergo wasteful, expensive and time-consuming litigation that cannot and will not benefit the public,” the company claims it is in “complete compliance” with all labeling requirements.

Uncrustables, a frozen ready-made peanut butter and jelly sandwich, while marketed as being “wholesome” and having a “great homemade taste,” is a virtual wellspring of additives including dough conditioners, trans-fats and high fructose corn syrup. The plaintiffs in the current action, California consumers Alice Vinson and Lucina Caldera, claim that the Uncrustables marketing language was “part of an intentional campaign to deceptively market Uncrustables as healthful and nutritionally comparable to homemade PB&J,” and that the HFCS they contain “can cause diabetes (and) tooth decay.”

Explanation of a loophole’s exploitation

Smucker’s Crisco Original and Butter Flavor shortening products, while advertised as having “50% less saturated fat than butter and 0g of trans-fats per serving,” are both made from fully hydrogenated palm oil and partially hydrogenated palm and soybean oil, sources of trans-fats that have apparently sneaked in under the 0.5g labeling loophole. The plaintiff’s state that comparing the saturated fat of butter to the product implies “that Crisco is a more healthful alternative to butter because of its lower saturated fat content,” and that the “all vegetable” claim is also misleading as the shortening is so highly processed it has been rendered an “artificial non-vegetable product…” by the time it reaches the consumer.

While “trans-fat free” and “no MSG” are widely misused in the food world, nothing seems to come close to the ultra popular “natural.” With no definitive guidance from the FDA  as to the meaning of the term, food manufactures slap it on products with abandon.

Author and blogger Bruce Bradley, a 15-year veteran of the food product marketing world, says, “There is no FDA definition of ‘Natural,’ and in that vacuum, processed food companies have filled the void with their own, self-serving interpretations.”

As an example, Bradley cites high fructose corn syrup, which he describes as “anything but natural…the result of an extraordinarily intensive process involving a series of enzymatic and chemical reactions. In fact, as one pro-HFCS group states, ‘the corn undergoes so much processing, and the products of the processes are so removed from corn that there is no detectable corn DNA present in HFCS.’”

As the litigation lingers on, it will hopefully have the side effect of informing all those still clueless shoppers out there that what they see advertised about a food may bear little or no relationship to what they actually get – and in that way, can and will “benefit the public” after all.

In the storm’s wake, out with the fake!

Posted by -- November 4, 2012

There’s nothing like shining a flashlight into a dark cupboard to really put a spotlight on your food purchasing skills.

To be sure, in planning to ride out a history-making hurricane “good” or “bad” food isn’t necessarily on top of most people’s minds, but it should be. For many of us on the East Coast trampled in Sandy’s walk inland, the storm probably brought out the worst in our eating habits – for example, one fairly careful eater I know has been living on Goldfish crackers and Pepsi for almost a week now. There is no excuse for this!

While there’s plenty of advice online about what to buy and what to do when preparing for a blackout, most tips involving food mention some pretty bad items, things no one should be eating, much less those stressed out to the max who need better nutrition than Twinkies, Spam and items filled with MSG and high fructose corn syrup will give you.

After the first buffet round of extreme eating to consume the still-edible contents of your refrigerator, days (or weeks) without power can turn into a “Rambo”-like existence with “the maddening loss of conveniences and the shortage of food (driving) you over the edge,” says author Jon Robertson in his vegetarian gourmet survival guide, Apocalypse Chow.

While Chow gives much practical – and humorous – advice for dealing with days on end with no power, it also offers scores of recipes, many quite gourmet, to make with either no heat, or a one-heat source (such as a one-burner butane stove), including “fire-roasted blueberry cobbler,” and “almost instant black bean chili.”

If you’re not the kind to care about going gourmet during a prolonged period of being “powerless,” there are many items you can stock up on that won’t turn your Spartan existence into a digestive nightmare.

A perfect time to rediscover real food

Fresh fruits such as apples, oranges and grapefruit can keep well for a time without refrigeration, and bananas, if not too ripe to begin with, can last up to seven days before they are considered pie or bread fodder. Root vegetables, such as carrots, turnips, beets, potatoes and sweet potatoes can keep for weeks in a cool, dry and dark place and cooked using a gas range. The fresher they are to begin with, the longer they will keep. Canned soups and chili without such ingredients as hydrolyzed proteins, MSG and HFCS (Amy’s brand is a good choice); peanut butter without HFCS or hydrogenated oils; 100 percent juice in boxes; nuts and seeds without MSG-type flavor enhancers; organic canned beans and vegetables; canned or pouch tuna and salmon and canned fruit sweetened with fruit juice are just a few of the better options available. (For an interested viewpoint against the concept refrigeration in general see The Anti-Fridge blog here).

Gas stoves and ovens will typically work during a power outage and, in addition to a hot meal, will provide you with numerous other choices. And if a prolonged blackout has forced you to trash everything in the fridge, consider it a sign from the food gods, and make a pledge to never, ever put fake food in it again.

As odd as it sounds, being stuck at home without a working microwave and not much of anything else to do could be a good time to reconnect with actual food ingredients, not to mention a different way of preparing them. As Chow author Robertson observes,  “If you’re lucky enough to escape with your hide, missing the conveniences of life as you know it can drive you mad. The days pass. You gaze upon your silent appliances, the unseeing eyes of your computer and TV, and wish you had something to eat besides another jar of salsa.” In which case, “eating great meals can go a long way toward helping you feel better.”

To say nothing of enabling you to reconnect with genuine food – and banishing those products guilty of food identity theft from you life.