Archive for January, 2013

Suspect additive still out there, despite being removed from one product

Posted by -- January 29, 2013

In a half-hearted nod to consumer concerns, PepsiCo announced last week that brominated vegetable oil, or BVO, will be removed from one of its Gatorade products.

What might have prompted the powers that be at powerful PepsiCo to make so bold a concession? After all, even though BVO has been shown to cause heart damage in research animals, builds up in fatty tissue, is banned in India, Europe and Japan and its status has been in limbo at the Food and Drug Administration for over 30 years, it still serves the highly significant cosmetic purpose of keeping those Gatorade ingredients all mixed neatly together.

PepsiCo, maintaining that its products are “safe” told the Chicago Tribune that the additive had been removed “because we know that some consumers have a negative perception of BVO…despite (its) being permitted for use in North American and Latin American countries,” and added that the company had started  working on using an “alternative ingredient” over a year ago.

Last year, BVO received some really bad press due to its similarity to a toxic flame retardant, and in November, a Mississippi teen started an online petition to have it removed from Gatorade that got over 200,000 signatures, along with lots of media attention.

Sarah Kavanagh, who has declared her Change.org petition a “victory” said at the site that “this is so, so awesome. Companies like Gatorade put so much thought into marketing. As someone who loves to drink their products, I’m so glad they’re making strides to put as much consideration into their customers’ health.”

Yes, Sarah, it is awesome that your petition had such an effect, but just how much “consideration” PepsiCo has for the health of its consumers may be an overstatement, especially since BVO can be found in other PepsiCo beverages, such as the soft drink Mountain Dew.

What’s OK here isn’t always ‘over there’

While many consumers found it scary to learn that popular beverages contain an ingredient so similar to a flame-retardant chemical, the most commented on aspect seemed to be that BVO had been booted from the food supply in other countries, which means that PepsiCo has been making different versions of its Gatorade product for sale in those locations. Another example of this is the Kraft water “enhancer” MiO, which comes in a Canadian version minus the propylene glycol –  a food additive that’s banned in Canada but is considered OK in the U.S.A.

And those aren’t the only food ingredients that are considered just fine for Americans to consume, despite having been given the boot in some other countries. Others in this category include:

  • Potassium bromate: an additive that helps bread rise; banned most everywhere except the U.S. and Japan
  • Yellow 5: also called FD&C yellow 5 or Tartrazine. This synthetic yellow color that can be found in everything from candies to drinks to cereals has been banned in Norway and Austria with the UK Food Standards Agency calling for a voluntary phaseout in 2008. Because of the numerous adverse reactions people can have to this coloring agent, it’s presence must be declared on a product’s ingredient list.
  • Red Dye No. 3: Banned by the FDA over two decades years ago for use in cosmetics and externally applied drugs, this coal-tar derivative dye can still be found in foods and medications.

As for BVO, the beverage industry continues to call it “safe” based on its use being allowed in food products by the FDA, even though its official listing at the agency is as a food additive(s) permitted in food or in contact with food on an interim basis pending additional study.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for this indefinitely postponed “study” to be performed and reach any sort of conclusion. Instead, just ditch the Mountain Dew and any other products that might contain this innocuous-sounding ingredient.

EPA giving pass to chemicals seen as threat to bees by EU scientists

Posted by -- January 23, 2013

Honeybees collecting corn pollen

While alarm bells are being sounded by scientists abroad about the threat posed to honeybees from three systemic pesticides, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may be about to give a green light to the registration of a new, very similar chemical.

Last week the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) released its report on certain pesticides and bees, finding that three of the neonicotinoid chemicals (the subject of last weeks blog) used widely on crops pose an “acute risk” to honeybees.

The EFSA findings could potentially be the tipping point leading to a ban on several of these systemic, synthetic nicotine chemicals in the European Union, something that environmental groups, beekeepers, and concerned individuals in the U.S. had hoped for with the filing of an emergency petition to stop the use of Clothianidin  (one of the neonicotinoids) at the EPA last year.

While the EPA denied that petition to immediately suspend the chemical’s registration, it did open the docket for public comment for a  limited time last summer. According to Beyond Pesticides, one of the groups that filed the document with the agency, there were over one million signatures supporting it, with well over a thousand posted at the EPA docket online.

EFSA, a non-regulatory risk assessment agency for the European Union, identified numerous threats to bees by three of the neonicotinoids, including those of exposure from pollen, nectar, dust from the pesticides and guttation, which are drops of sap that form on the tips of a leaf that bees forage from.

HFCS may be conduit for toxins

Another form of exposure to these synthetic nicotine chemicals that Food Identity Theft reported on last week may come from the high fructose corn syrup fed to honeybees, as practically all corn, with the exception of organic, comes from seed treated with the neonicotinoids. According to the EPA, corn seed treatment is the single biggest use for these chemicals, with corn also being the crop most widely grown in North America “in nearly every state…reaching a near-record 92 million acres in 2011,” says the agency, comparing that to an “area virtually equivalent to the entire country of Germany.”

Because these pesticides act in the plant systemically, they stay active as a plant grows, causing contamination of the pollen and nectar, and potentially any products made from seed-treated crops.

“Given the vulnerability of bees when HFCS is typically used as a supplemental feed, and the fact that the bee’s immune systems are likely weakened, ongoing diligence is required in monitoring HFCS for very low levels of pesticides,” Washington State University Research Professor Dr. Charles Benbrook told me in an email.

The plight of the honeybees known as colony collapse disorder (CCD), where honeybees abandon their hive and queen, was first recognized around 2006 and coincides with the registration of neonicotinoid pesticides and also with extra high-dose treatments of corn seed for several years beginning around 2004.

In denying the environmental group’s 2012 petition, the EPA admits that “data, literature and incident reports do make clear that Clothianidin is acutely toxic to bees.” And a leaked 2010 memo from the agency clearly states, “The persistence of residues and potential residual toxicity of Clothianidin in nectar and pollen suggests the possibility of chronic toxic risk to honey bee larvae and the eventual instability of the hive.” Despite these admissions, the chemical is still on the market.

While the neonicotinoids may be under close scrutiny in Europe, here in the United States the EPA is on the verge of granting a new pesticide registration for a similar chemical called sulfoxaflor, referred to as “a fourth-generation neonicotinoid,” to be used on a wide variety of crops from nuts to citrus to cotton (the EPA will have a public comment period open until February 12th).

What effect yet more of these systemic pesticides will have on honeybees already in trouble is a gamble the EPA appears to be poised to take. Many others, however, don’t want to wager for such high stakes. As one consumer stated in a public comment to the agency: “Do not continue to allow toxins into the environment that harm such valuable insects. NO HONEYBEES = NO FOOD.

Is high fructose corn syrup helping to bring on an agricultural apocalypse?

Posted by -- January 18, 2013

 

A sunny day this February in California’s Central Valley will predict the future for the state’s almond crop – and, in turn, perhaps the future of American agriculture. That’s the day when almond growers will know if the honeybees will be returning to their hives.

The bees don’t end up buzzing among the California almond blossoms by chance; they are trucked there from all around the country. Starting in the next few weeks, over 49 billion honeybees in their 1.7 million-plus hives will be transported by beekeepers to California so the bees can “make” the nuts that make up this $3-billion-a-year industry.

Honeybee pollination is responsible for over one-third of the food crops grown in the United States, including citrus, blueberries, cherries, broccoli, and is totally indispensable to California almond growers.

If the bees that provide nature’s necessary touch in producing this year’s almond crop don’t fare well, it could be the “breaking point” for both almond growers and beekeepers, who since 2006 have had to deal with super-declining numbers of honeybees due to what’s known as colony collapse disorder (CCD), which causes bees to leave their queen and fly off from the hive, never to return.

In short, we’re talking about a possible agricultural apocalypse – a catastrophe to which high fructose corn syrup could well be a contributing factor, according to the latest research.

Pennsylvanian beekeeper David Hackenberg, co-chairman of the National Honey Bee Advisory Board and the go-to person for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Agriculture and scientists and universities trying to crack the mystery of CCD, says that starting last fall, indications have been on the rise that this is “probably going to be the worst year ever” for the ongoing decline in honeybee populations. “Bees are basically collapsing, whether it’s (from) CCD or a different kind of collapse or both,” Hackenberg said.

Hackenberg describes colony collapse disorder, which he has the dubious distinction of being the first to have discovered, as “when you have a good hive of bees and in a matter of days or weeks you have a sudden loss; you still have a queen, but only a handful of bees. And pretty soon you don’t have those.”

Experts trying to solve the mystery of CCD have come up with numerous and varied theories. But Hackenberg has been following the trail of a new class of systemic pesticides called neonicotinoids, containing synthetic nicotine, that’s widely used to treat crop seeds, especially corn.

“The old organophosphate pesticides, (they) killed bees dead. It knocked the colony out in the summertime,” Hackenberg said. “The scientists are more and more pointing to the fact that if a beehive picks up a systemic pesticide, it doesn’t kill the hive (immediately)…(the bees) bring it back to the hive and it starts the clock. That colony of bees is doomed.”

Systemic pesticides, such as neonicotinoids, move up through a plant, producing contaminated pollen and nectar. And after the first frost, when outside food is no longer available, the bee colony is affected by any contaminates in the food they stored from the summer, he explained. Honeybees are also fed by beekeepers, some of whom use sugar. These days, however, many large operations routinely feed bees with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

The birds and the bees – and high fructose corn syrup

A recent study, published last June in the Bulletin of Insectology by Chensheng Lu, an associate professor at Harvard School of Public Health, gives further support to Hackenberg’s suspicions of the neonicotinoids. And Lu’s study brings up another way for bees to consume the pesticides — through the HFCS fed to them by beekeepers.

In Lu’s study, colonies were fed HFCS treated with one of the nicotine pesticides, imidacloprid, which resulted in the collapse of almost every test hive, all showing the same pattern consistent with the CCD seen by beekeepers. Corn seed, which is still widely treated with the neonictinoids, received extra high doses of the chemical several years ago, just around the time CCD was first being recognized.

The Corn Refiners Association, comprised of all the big manufacturers of HFCS, posted several rebuttals to Dr. Lu’s study, claiming that HFCS “has NOT been shown to be causing Colony Collapse Disorder,” and that the chemical was not found in the HFCS that was not treated.

But research professor Dr. Charles Benbrook at Washington State University told me in an e-mail that “it is difficult to detect pesticides in HFCS because of the nature of the matrix. HFCS tends to gum up the machines designed to detect pesticides in food.” He added that “…research points to the need to detect nicotinyls in HFCS well below 1 part per billion — lower than most limits of detection in routine pesticide-food testing.”

“Questions persist regarding the impact of very-low levels of pesticides in HFCS because HFCS often becomes the primary feed source for honeybees at the end of the season,” said Dr. Benbrook, who noted that this is “a period when both bee health and hive health is strained.”

Dr. Benbrook also has concern over other possible pesticides in HFCS, “…it is likely that there are Bt toxins, and/or their breakdown products, in HFCS. These are technically classified as pesticides by the EPA, but have never been tested for in HFCS to my knowledge.”

And, of course, one can’t help but wonder if all this HFCS the honeybees are consuming is contributing to other colony health issues. “HFCS is nutritionally inferior to honey as a source of nutrients for bees,” said Dr. Benbrook, adding, “…concerns persist over the adverse impacts of HFCS on bee health from a nutritional perspective.”

Hackenberg also has issues with using HFCS as a food for bees. “HFCS will put weight on bees,” just as it does on people, “whereas sugar won’t,” he pointed out.

All those honeybees brought in from around the country to the Central Valley almond groves will have a lot riding on them, and a lot of folks watching what unfolds. “We put them on trucks, send them to California and unload them,” Hackenberg said.  “And the first day the sun comes out and they fly, that day is going to tell the tale. If they fly out and don’t come back, we’ve got a problem.

“We know the birds are in trouble, but the honeybees are the barometer of the environment. If the honeybees are going down, so are the rest of us.”

What’s in a name? Most likely, an attempt to create a phony product image

Posted by -- January 15, 2013

The real Chef Boyardee in a 1953 commercial

“Homemade goodness,” “real,” “fresh,” “natural” –  in the magic of marketing lingo, these are appealing words worth a lot of bucks. Even better is to have a founder, preferably one who goes back a few decades, when food was more ‘real’ than it now is, to pitch a product with their likeness and homey words.

I’m guessing most of us know there really is no Green Giant or Pillsbury Dough Boy, but what about the names and images of supposed entrepreneurial epicures attached to food products? Does featuring a culinary creator make for superior quality or is it just another device to entice shoppers?

Marie Callender’s: Okay, there actually was a Marie Callender who baked pies in the early 1940s and by all accounts was a real American success tale, turning her pastry prowess first into pie shops and then in 1969 to a chain of restaurants (which was sold to Perkins in 2006).

But what you’ll find in the supermarket frozen-food section seems to be another story — and don’t take the slogan on the packaging, “From my kitchen to yours since 1948,” too seriously, either.

It wasn’t Marie, but rather entrepreneur Larry Dinkin who was responsible for the marketing of Marie Callender Retail Foods, for which he was recognized in Advertising Age as one of the top 100 marketing people. Dinkin successfully steered the company from a start-up in 1987 to a sale to agri-business giant ConAgra Foods in 1994 for more than $150 million.

While the frozen Marie Callender’s line makes much of a ‘real’ Marie, showing a grandmotherly woman and kid on its website and using more buzz terms like “wholesome ingredients” and “a heritage of homemade taste,” a look at some of the actual ingredients these foods are made from don’t sound like anything a cook in 1948 would have used.

The newest addition to the lineup is Marie Callender’s Comfort Bakes, which contain the typical long list of chemical additives, preservatives and ‘nonfood’ ingredients that we’ve come to expect in such  products, the “real” Marie Callender’s legacy for being a good cook notwithstanding.

Chef Boyardee: “A real person with real recipes.” So goes an ad for Chef BoyArdee products, and yes, Ettore “Hector” Boiardi was a real chef, an accomplished one at that, who landed a job at the Plaza Hotel in New York City in 1915 at age 17. In 1924, Chef Hector and and his wife opened what proved to be a most popular Italian restaurant in Cleveland, possibly inventing the “carryout” idea by selling his customers spaghetti sauce and meatballs in milk bottles.

The Chef Boyardee brand is now another part of the ConAgra lineup, but whatever great Italian dishes Chef Hector created have since morphed into your typical multi-chemical, quasi-food products that some have dubbed “Chef MSG.”

ConAgra, however, makes the most of Chef Hector, featuring a video with some “surprised but happy faces” when consumers learn there was in fact a real Chef Boyardee. One is so excited she says, “It makes me feel better about serving it to my family because it’s not just a made-up name and made-up label.”

Betty Crocker: This brand name has become so familiar that the fact there never was an actual “Betty Crocker” probably doesn’t matter anymore. And interestingly enough, the brand, owned by General Mills, no longer even portrays the persona of the fictional Betty that was carefully developed in the 1930s and updated and used for more than 60 years, along with a so-called “Betty Crocker”  featured on a radio show that ran for over 24 years.

With the quantity of ready-made foods now in the store, including dozens bearing the Betty Crocker name, it’s hard to conceive of a time when consumers regarded such products with healthy skepticism. But according to the Encyclopedia of Consumer Brands, “during the first half of the twentieth century, convenience foods were not associated with good eating.” However,  “all that changed in 1947, when the first Betty Crocker cake mixes hit America’s shelves.”

Now, of course, it’s just a brand name, covering products from Bac-Os to Bowl Appetit, as well as numerous cake, brownie, cookie and frosting mixes. And if you’re looking to avoid partially hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, monosodium glutamate, artificial colors, flavors and preservatives, it might be best to take a leaf from the past and once again think of these “convenience foods” as “not associated with good eating.”

Chef Michael’s Canine Creations: In spite of the commercials; there is no Chef Michael.

“My name is Chef Michael,” says a faceless fellow in the commercial, “and when I come home from my restaurant, I love showing Bailey how special she is.” But this dude is nothing more than a figment of the marketing minds at Purina (or its ad agency). Of course if you read the ingredients for this pet food it would be quickly apparent that meat-by-products, soy flour and corn gluten meal – all found in Canine Creations –  ain’t coming from any restaurant. (At least I hope not.)

 

A ‘Water Enhancer’ – or simply ‘something in the water’?

Posted by -- January 10, 2013

What happens when you take a perfectly drinkable glass of water and add some propylene glycol, acesulfame potassium, some artificial colors and a preservative? If you ask me, contaminated water.

But if you’re a really, really big company such as Kraft and get some brilliant advertising minds in the act, along with a super budget, what you get is “MiO Liquid Water Enhancer.”

Launched two years ago, targeting people between18 and 39 with the advertising slogan, “MiO answers this wish to personalize life’s experiences in a way no other beverage can,” the product is so successful it will now be included in the Big Parade of Super Bowl commercials. Making its debut in a 30-second third-quarter ad spot that will reportedly cost more than $4 million, MiO — an Italian word meaning “mine” – is a classic example of how expert marketing can lead us to consume chemical-laden products we don’t need.

In fact, the MiO concept of squirting a colored, flavored liquid into water is apparently so appealing and profitable that Coca-Cola introduced its own version late last year called Dasani Drops, also containing multiple artificial colors and preservatives.

Interestingly, the MiO lineup sold in Canada contains none of the propylene glycol additive, a chemical manufactured in several grades for a variety of both industrial, cosmetic and food applications, But then, there are very few, if any, food uses of this substance allowed in either Canada or Europe.

While the theme of the MiO Super Bowl commercial may be totally cool, the same unfortunately, can’t be said of this chemically enhanced variation on the Kool-Aid theme.

Rediscovering what we already knew

Providing yet another reason to stop promoting aspartame-sweetened drinks, a study by the U.S. National Institutes of Health released this week found drinking such beverages to be associated with a higher chance of becoming depressed.

Also found to raise the risk of depression, although not as much as the aspartame-laced drinks, were sodas, iced tea and “fruit punches” (such as Hi C and Kool-Aid) that are mostly all sweetened with high fructose corn syrup.

Last week I reported on another example of the disturbing trend of replacing one test-tube sweetener (HFCS) with another —  a campaign recently launched in Howard County, Maryland called “Howard County Unsweetened” that promoted diet drinks containing aspartame as “better choices” to parents and kids over 13.

Another case of aspartame-pushing was reported last September in the New England Journal of Medicine, which described what was called an “intervention” among overweight and obese adolescents to see if replacing full-calorie beverages with no-calorie alternatives would slow weight gain. It consisted in part of a “home delivery” for a year of diet drinks to participants’ homes every two weeks.

Reading about these events and “interventions,” one would never know that aspartame is considered by some leading medical authorities to be an “excitotoxin” – that is, a substance that literally excites brain cells to death, especially in children whose blood-brain barriers are not fully developed or in older people in whom this protective mechanism has been compromised. Nor would one think that we’re talking about a substance that an FDA Public Board of Inquiry concluded years ago should not be permitted in the food supply prior to its being overruled by a political appointee.

In fact, “aspartame depression” has long been cited as one of the results of consuming this artificial sweetener, along with other side effects such as migraines, seizures and memory loss. One study, “Adverse reactions to aspartame: double-blind challenge in patients from a vulnerable population,”  conducted nearly two decades ago by the Department of Psychiatry, Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine, Youngstown,  found  “a significant difference between aspartame and placebo in number and severity of symptoms for patients with a history of depression, whereas for individuals without such a history there was not. We conclude that individuals with mood disorders are particularly sensitive to this artificial sweetener and its use in this population should be discouraged.”

Interesting, isn’t it, how we seem to forget what researchers knew years ago, only to suddenly find ourselves rediscovering them?  Maybe it’s the result of all that aspartame we’ve been exposing our collective brains to over the years.

Excessive fructose may be making ‘spoiled appetites’ a thing of the past

Posted by -- January 8, 2013

Back in the day, one of the most common admonitions from moms was “don’t eat that, you’ll spoil your appetite.” But if today’s kids are consuming foods and drinks with higher levels of super-sweet fructose, such as are found in high fructose corn syrup, the very opposite may be true.

According to the results of a new study published at the beginning of January in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), a brain on fructose just doesn’t know when to stop eating.

Drinking a fructose-sweetened beverage, the researchers found, created no sense of having ‘had enough’ giving a “completely different effect” than did the consumption of a beverage containing glucose (which makes up 50 percent of ‘real’ sugar).

“When we gave participants a fructose drink…there was not that fullness signal getting  up to the appetite control region,” said study co-author Dr. Kathleen Page, Assistant Professor of Clinical Medicine at Keck School of Medicine of University of Southern California (USC).

Glucose, however, had the “opposite” effect, Dr. Page noted, in that it “basically inhibited those regions of the brain called the hypothalamus and reward regions…that regulate motivation for food.”

The study, conducted with 20 volunteers using MRI scans to view brain blood flow, was, Dr. Page said, “exactly” what had previously been seen in lab experiments with animals.

The Corn Refiners Association (CRA), quick to notice any mention of ‘overeating’ and ‘fructose’ in the same sentence, sent out a press release the same day the study was released saying that the study involved “massive doses of sugars” not consumed in “real life.”

“I don’t think that’s a true comment if you look at the amount (of sweetener) in a typical 20-ounce soda, which is 60 grams,” Dr. Page said. “We gave 75 grams so it’s not that much different.”

An ‘unbalanced’ formula with different results

The fructose in sugar, or sucrose, is a set amount of 50 percent with the other half being glucose. In high fructose corn syrup, however, research has shown the amount of fructose varies widely. And even though the CRA doesn’t talk about it, HFCS that is up to 90 percent fructose is apparently being sold for use in some foods and beverages.

“That’s why we are interested, we know there are differences in the way our bodies process fructose and glucose…there are reasons to believe that fructose is worse for us than glucose,”  Dr. Page said, adding “the processing of HFCS, which could be made with higher percentages of fructose…has public health implications.”

While the FDA’s legal limit on the fructose content of HFCS is 55 percent (ten percent higher than sugar), some studies have shown amounts in soft drinks to be as much as 20 percent higher. Research by Dr. Michael Goran, director of the Childhood Obesity Research Center and professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California, found some of the HFCS-sweetened beverages he had analyzed coming in as high as 65 percent fructose. And a recent study in the journal Global Public Health by Dr. Goran pegged HFCS as an “additional contributing factor” to the development of diabetes, likely coming from the “more damaging” fructose in HFCS.

(This past September, Citizens for Health filed a petition with the FDA calling for disclosure of the actual amounts of fructose in HFCS. Read about it here, and sign the petition here).

“It’s hard to know (fructose amounts) as foods don’t state their fructose content, just (total) sugars,” Dr. Page said, pointing out “most people aren’t aware of how much fructose they’re getting in these foods. If Dr. Goran’s study is true, we may actually be getting more fructose than we think.

“We know there are very different hormone responses, and these hormones signal to the brain to make us feel full,” said Dr. Page.  “The body is responding differently to fructose than to glucose, we’re pretty confident with that.”

Dr. Page said she tells her patients a good strategy for healthier eating is to follow the recommendations of the American Heart Association, which include consuming fewer processed products. “You don’t find HFCS in natural foods,” she added.

‘Dump that sugar’ campaign: good intentions gone awry

Posted by -- January 3, 2013

Where's the syrup?

In mid-December 2012, to much fanfare, a dump truck poured 9.6 tons of white sand onto the parking lot of Howard County, Maryland’s Burleigh Manor Middle School as students shouted “Dump That Sugar!” The dumping display marked the official launch of Howard County Unsweetened, a multi-faceted, community-wide campaign to reduce childhood obesity by helping kids and parents choose beverages with lower sugar content.

There was, however, a catch to this catchy campaign. Sugar is actually found in very few of the soft drinks sold these days, the vast majority of which contain high fructose corn syrup. A more apt analogy  might have been to dump an equivalent amount of sticky fuel oil to represent this industry-exclusive, goopy test-tube sweetener, found in everything from soda to bread to ketchup.

But then, it seems that more and more such well-intentioned efforts these days are missing the mark by confusing HFCS with “sugar.” In fact, this particular campaign launched by a Maryland-based philanthropy with the stated purpose of reducing childhood obesity and making it “easier for parents and kids to make better beverage choices,” also somehow neglected to even mention HFCS on its extensive list of sweeteners. It was a significant omission, since the higher fructose content of this laboratory syrupy concoction is considered by many experts to be a prime suspect in the current obesity epidemic. (This September, Citizens for Health, filed a petition with the FDA asking that the agency take action against manufactures using HFCS with fructose amounts above 55 percent, the highest the FDA allows. Read about that here, and see and sign petition here).

There’s also the fact that the “healthier beverages” and “better choices” the campaign recommends include drinks artificially sweetened with aspartame. For many years critics of aspartame (including Citizens for Health and the Food and Drug Administration’s Public Board of Inquiry on the sweetener) have raised substantial doubts about aspartame’s safety and pointed out its potential to cause serious health problems.

The Howard County Unsweetened campaign, sponsored by the Horizon Foundation, comes complete with two separate websites, a Facebook page and lots of tweets, all of which refer to syrupy HFCS-sweetened drinks as “sugary.” The Foundation has also joined forces with County Executive Ken Ulman to keep these so-called “sugary” beverages out of vending machines on county property.

One of the Horizon Foundation campaign sites, betterbeveragefinder.org, contains an entire database of drinks designated by either a “best” or “good choice” icon (collectively referred to as “the best beverages for your family”).  Site-recommended beverage swaps include practically every artificially sweetened drink there is – along with where to buy them.

‘Sugary’  shorthand substitutes for HFCS

In May of last year the Food and Drug Administration ruled that HFCS is not sugar and cannot be called “sugar.”  In spite of this fact the Howard County campaign has joined a growing number of media, politicians and health authorities in falsely using the “sugar” and “sugary” designations to describe products containing high fructose corn syrup. In fact, Dr. Michael Goran, co-author of a recent study on the increase in diabetes, has referred to the prevalence of HFCS as “a huge shift in the food supply that is increasing the amount of fructose that we’re exposed to.” (Read blog here.)  Health authorities virtually all concur that the consumption of excess fructose can have serious health consequences including obesity.

In addition to such confusion, a second sweetener problem may be occurring as a side effect of these well-intended efforts. It now appears that the type of misinformation disseminated by health campaigns of this sort may be promoting the expanded consumption of “diet” sodas and juice drinks containing controversial artificial sweeteners.  This past August, a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that kids are already drinking more such synthetically sweetened beverages than ever before – twice as many, in fact, as a decade ago.

The Foundation’s “Better Beverage” site does acknowledge that there is “a debate” over the relationship between diet beverages and weight gain, but aside from that there is no mention made of the other health aspects of substituting one highly controversial test-tube sweetener (aspartame) for another (HFCS). I couldn’t help wondering how an organization with a mission of “improving health and wellness” could be recommending drinks containing aspartame for kids over 13 while ignoring concerns about aspartame safety. I also wondered how it could fail to make any reference to HFCS on either of its websites. So I put these questions directly to Horizon Director of Communications Ian Kennedy.

Kennedy’s answer to the latter question was that the Horizon board, working in conjunction with the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, had decided it wanted a “laser-specific focus on sugary drinks” – one utilizing “a sort of shorthand for things that are sweetened.”

A railroad tanker transporting HFCS

Not only does the Foundation make a point of using this “sugary shorthand” in referring to all HFCS-laced beverages throughout its websites, but it also lists just about every different type of sweetener in existence – except, oddly enough, for the ubiquitous HFCS.

At betterbeveragefinder.org, the group categorizes sweeteners into three boxes representing “natural,” “artificial” and “hybrids.” While cane sugar – which is sucrose – is classified as “natural,” unaccountably, sucrose itself is listed separately as a “hybrid.”  Kennedy could not explain this inconsistency except to say he would “defer to our folks at the Rudd Center” on that question.

But the fact that HFCS, which is used in the vast majority of beverages containing caloric sweeteners, didn’t make the list at all is something Kennedy called an “oversight” on his part. He added, “we have corn syrup on the list, and as far as I understand (the difference) between corn syrup and HFCS is just that HFCS has been concentrated even more.”

In fact corn syrup and HFCS are decidedly not the same – (see my article here).

When I informed Kennedy  that there is a substantial difference between the two products, he again suggested he would put me in touch with the Rudd Center. I was also left a message from someone else at the Foundation later in the day offering to find a registered dietician who could “help” with my questions.  (I did call the Rudd Center but was unable to reach them during the holiday week. I plan to contact them again and try to get answers to these questions for an upcoming Food Identity Theft blog.)

One thing the betterbeveragefinder site didn’t neglect to mention, however, was sugar’s long-time presence in the food supply, calling it something “your grandmother might have used.” Kennedy concurred, adding, “certainly sugar has been a part of our diets for hundreds of years…the difference is we’re seeing that sugar is becoming a more prominent part of our diet,” with that second reference to “sugar” meaning any “full-calorie sweetener” such as HFCS. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, however, per capita consumption of sugar — like your grandmother used — has remained essentially constant for the past 100 years, while the use of HFCS, the “syrupy” stuff, has exploded during the time that obesity and diabetes has grown to nearly epidemic proportions.

Aspartame concerns still ‘premature’ after all these years of danger signs

Asked whether he thought the campaign encourages the consumption of diet beverages containing aspartame by teens, as reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Kennedy responded, “I don’t think so.” But he provided no evidence to support his position.

“We understand that people have their own tastes and if somebody really wants the taste of a cola, given the science that is out there, the better options for now are ‘low’ or ‘no calorie’ colas” (although the Foundation would prefer water or beverages without any sweetening agents as a  source of hydration).

“In our conversations and review of the literature, it’s mixed on artificial sweeteners,” he maintained. “There wasn’t the strong body of evidence pointing to their unhealthy nature that there was for sugary drinks. It’s a tricky area given the mixed nature of the scientific evidence,” but “we felt it was premature to exclude them.”

Strongly disagreeing with that assessment, however, is Citizens for Health Board Chair Jim Turner, a Washington, D.C. attorney and author of the best-selling book The Chemical Feast: The Nader Report on Food Protection at the FDA, who, since 1970, has been demanding that the safety of aspartame and other sweeteners, be proven..  “When something is harmful” Turner says, “the longer it takes to ‘prove’ the harm the greater the damage.  Here we have trusted intermediaries – schools, governments, obesity centers, etc. – recommending that children consume products in spite of the ‘mixed nature of the scientific evidence’.”

“The FDA and various companies that have profited from aspartame have turned the law on its head. They argue that aspartame should remain on the market until its critics can prove that it is unsafe,” says Turner.  “The law says no additive can be used unless and until it is proven safe. Schools and communities fighting obesity,” he adds, “need not and should not be bound by the notion that we should consume an additive until and unless it is proven unsafe.”

Turner’s work led to the removal of cyclamates from the FDA’s Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) list of food additives, helped get a warning linking cancer and saccharin on saccharin labels, and led to the FDA’s Public Board of Inquiry that rejected the marketing of aspartame, only to be overturned by an industry friendly FDA commissioner.

Aspartame (originally marketed as NutraSweet), is made up of three neurotoxic chemicals – substances that are toxic to brain cells, Turner points out. His advocacy group managed to keep this synthetic sweetener off the market for 11 years, until 1981, when its use was approved over the advice of FDA scientists, as well as the FDA Public Board of Inquiry that concluded aspartame should not be permitted in the food supply based on data, including several animal studies, linking its consumption with brain cancer.

How, then, did aspartame ever make it into the food supply and why don’t today’s obesity fighters seem to care about its history?

“One month after that board ruled, Ronald Reagan was elected president, and Donald Rumsfeld, the head of Searle, the company that made aspartame, was on Reagan’s transition team. When Reagan took office, a doctor who had worked for the Defense Department during Rumsfeld’s tenure as Defense Secretary under President Ford was appointed as FDA commissioner and overruled both the Public Board of Inquiry and all the scientists at the FDA who supported its decision,” Turner explained.

Turner summarizes the entire aspartame fiasco as a case of “political toxicity and biological toxicity working together to create toxic health problems for the public.”

And while the Horizon Foundation refers to aspartame-sweetened drinks as “healthier” options than the full-calorie version, Turner has a far graver concern about its increasing consumption.

“After aspartame went on the market, a particular type of brain tumor, the same type that showed up in the rodent studies we were relying on over 30 years ago, increased by 10 percent in people in the United States,” he said.  “In addition, there have been studies in the past few years connecting aspartame with cancer. All in all, it’s a horrendous story.”

A story, apparently, that the Horizon Foundation is either unaware of or would rather not talk about. Instead, the Foundation chooses to focus its efforts strictly on calories, even while obscuring health concerns about aspartame and other noncaloric sweeteners and blurring the huge distinction between the consumption of traditional sugar and the high fructose corn syrup that has come to replace it in so many products.

Certainly a tanker truck dumping fuel oil onto the grounds of Burleigh Manor Middle School to chants of “spill that syrup” would have been a much more fitting way for the Foundation to have launched the Howard County Unsweetened campaign.