Archive for May, 2013

Is the meatlike mold in Quorn really a ‘healthier’ alternative?

Posted by -- May 30, 2013

Of all the food additives and strange-sounding ingredients readers have asked us about here at Food Identity Theft, the oddest of all has to be mycoprotein, sold under the brand name Quorn.

Mycoprotein is not a mushroom, but a type of microscopic mold-fungi called Fusarium venenatum that is fermented in a giant tank, fed with oxygenated water, glucose and other ingredients, and then further heavily processed into a variety of “food-like” substances such as fake chicken and meat.

If you just look at the Quorn packaging or web site you would think that mycoprotein is the greatest culinary creation since flour from grain, a “natural” meatless way to “eat healthier” that was first discovered in the 1960s during a search for novel sources of protein to feed the world.

But there’s more to the mycoprotein/Quorn story than that.

Great Britain’s answer to Olestra?

First served up to consumers in the United Kingdom in 1985, after being tested to “determine if it was fit for human consumption,” according to the company, Quorn mycoprotein made it ‘across the pond’ to the U.S. around 2001. By the following year it had reached the attention of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which called it possibly “…the FDA’s worst blunder since Olestra,” (a fat substitute that caused, among other things, a condition dubbed “anal leakage”).

In 2002 CSPI was urging the Food and Drug Administration to take Quorn products off the market and set up a web site,, which has collected almost two thousand adverse reaction reports from consumers ranging from hives, vomiting and diarrhea to life-threatening anaphylactic shock.

“Here we have brand-new foods made with an ingredient never before eaten in the United States,”
CSPI Executive Director Michael Jacobson said at the time. But “(i)nstead of undergoing careful reviews, this fungus food was waved into the American food supply with only a cursory governmental review.”

While this may look like your typical fast-food nugget, these are made from mycoprotein, a microscopic mold-fungi called Fusarium venenatum.

And, in fact, the FDA “waved in” mycoproteins in 2002 as a GRAS (generally recognized as safe) ingredient, even while the manufacturer’s 1986 petition to have the mold declared a “food additive” by the agency was still under evaluation (where it remains to this day).

Not giving up, CSPI filed a class-action lawsuit in Connecticut against the company in 2009 on behalf of a consumer who was made ill by Quorn’s Chik’n Patties, and was quoted as saying, “I felt like the soles of my feet were going to come out of my mouth, I was vomiting so hard.” The case was dismissed, with the judge noting that the “possibility of FDA action preempts state laws.”

But despite yet another request by CSPI in 2011 to the FDA to take the product off the market, or, at the very least, include a warning on the Quorn packaging to the effect that “this product might cause severe diarrhea or vomiting, or a life-threating anaphylactic reaction…” Quorn products have remained on  store shelves with a low-key notice on the back of the package saying, “mycoprotein is high in protein and fiber. This may cause intolerance in some people.”

How do you spell ‘queasy’?

Quorn, a subsidiary of the UK company Marlow Foods (which until 2003 was part of  pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca), says on its web site that merely one in 100,000, or  perhaps one in 200,000 “will react badly to the protein in Quorn products,” and that by “contrast…one in 50 and one in 200 people” will react badly to soy, nuts, shellfish, dairy and eggs.

But CSPI says that’s not the case, and that way back in 1977, an unpublished study “conducted by Quorn’s developer found that 10 percent of 200 test subjects who ate the fungus experienced nausea, vomiting, or other gastrointestinal symptoms…” and that “CSPI found that almost five percent of Quorn eaters experienced adverse reactions. That was a higher percentage of people than those who reported allergies to shellfish, milk, peanuts or other common food allergens,” the group said.

Another mycoprotein issue — and a problem in scores of other processed foods — is the presence of undeclared processed free glutamic acid (MSG), a result of the protein fermentation process. Manufactured glutamic acid is the substance responsible for triggering the numerous adverse reactions often associated with monosodum glutamate, ranging from skin rashes and asthma attacks to mood swings, upset stomach, migraines, heart irregularities and seizures.

CSPI advises that consumers have numerous meat substitutes available that are made with “real food ingredients,” saying in its 2011 letter to the FDA that “We believe, and we suspect that any reasonable person would believe, that any novel food ingredient that causes hives, anaphylactic reactions, or vomiting so violent that blood vessels burst, cannot, indeed must not, be considered by the FDA to be ‘generally recognized as safe…”

All of which makes us wonder whether what’s needed here (as in similar cases) is simply another FDA designation called GRAR — “generally recognized as risky.”

Is your brain on HFCS the same as your brain on cocaine?

Posted by -- May 28, 2013

Does high fructose corn syrup make some of us behave like drug-addicted rats?

New research by an expert on addiction has found the same pattern of behavior in rats on cocaine and rats self-dosing on high fructose corn syrup.

Dr. Francesco Leri, an associate professor of neuroscience and applied cognitive science at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, presented these findings at the annual meeting last week of the Canadian Association for Neuroscience.

Leri has observed his “food addiction hypothesis” in two previously published studies, both using Oreo cookies, but this time he used actual high fructose corn syrup, selected “because of the controversy (over it) in the literature,” he told me in an interview.

“We got the same results over and over, and now we are exploring the different aspects of it,” he said.

Purchasing a “huge pail” of HFCS over the Internet, Leri diluted the syrup by mixing it with distilled water to three concentrations and by inserting a small tube in the test animal’s mouth, the rats were able to press a lever and receive as many doses of HFCS as they wanted.

What Leri discovered was that the more he increased the percentage of HFCS, the more the rats worked to obtain it, which is “exactly what you notice with drug abuse, the same type of pattern,” he said.

“The (rats’) intake of the fructose is very much related to its concentration,” said Leri. “When you change the percentage of the solution, the behavior changes, and the most compelling and most interesting evidence we have is that as you increase the percentage (of HFCS), the animals work harder and harder for each infusion.”

Leri also “satiated” some of the rats by allowing them full access to their chow, and while the self-dosing of the HFCS decreased somewhat, “it was still there, it didn’t go away,” said Leri, adding that the rats “continued to prefer the higher concentrations.”

The rats in Leri’s study were also switched around from higher HFCS concentrations to lower, as well as the other way around, and their “behavior changed accordingly,” he said. “So we’re fairly confident that the self-administration behavior is controlled by the percent of the HFCS,” he told me.

Sweetness itself not necessarily addictive

Leri also tested his rats to see if their addictive and sometimes binging behavior toward the HFCS was due to a possible ‘species sweet tooth’, so he substituted saccharine — mixed to be as sweet as the HFCS. While the animals showed the same initial “liking reaction,” he noted, their self-administration of the saccharine subsequently fell significantly, unlike the way they responded to the HFCS.

“It’s clear to us that the animals are not responding just because it’s sweet,” Leri contended. “They are responding because HFCS has effects that are beyond the sweetness in the mouth … effects on the brain.”

These “effects” could be “nutritional signals,” he added, “but we think we’re dealing with its effects on the reward system.” Apparently, changing the saccharine concentration didn’t increase the rats’ desire to have more and more as it did with the HFCS. As he put it, “the curve is flat.”

A study published this January in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), on people, not rats, showed some very similar findings – that when a person’s brain is ‘high’ on excessive fructose it just doesn’t know when to stop eating.

“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).

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

While the FDA’s ‘legal limit’ on the fructose content of HFCS is 55 percent (10 percent higher than sugar), some studies have shown fructose amounts in soft drinks containing HFCS to be as much as 20 percent higher than that. And in response to a petition filed with the Food and Drug Administration by Citizens for Health  this past September, calling for the disclosure of actual amounts of fructose in HFCS, the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) itself has come out and admitted that an HFCS version with 90 percent fructose has been in use “with FDA knowledge for decades.” (Read about the petition here, and sign it here).

Despite the scientific evidence that keeps piling up about HFCS, the CRA has its story and is sticking with it. The group’s newly appointed president, John W. Bode, said in a prepared statement about Dr. Leri’s study that “it is irresponsible and ultimately counter-productive for these researchers to associate safe and widely used foods such as high fructose corn syrup with illegal narcotics…”

But Dr. Leri is just as determined to continue his research, which will include a follow-up study of a side-by-side comparison of addictive drugs and HFCS.

“There is a subset of individuals that are particularly vulnerable, and this is what we are going to follow up with high fructose corn syrup,” said Leri. “Not all of us develop compulsive, excessive, addictive patterns of consumption.”

“The 50 percent (concentration) of HFCS controls behavior very powerfully, he explained. “If the concentration is very high, they almost have no choice, The effect of drugs are the same.”

Six healthy sounding snack food scams

Posted by -- May 23, 2013

Vegetables, antioxidants, fiber – these are all good things, right? Sure, unless they are actually just your cabbage-variety junk food masquerading as healthful food substances.

With gazillions of products on store shelves vying for your attention, don’t think that food and beverage manufacturers are unaware that consumers look for these buzz words, along with pictures of fruits and veggies on packaging.  And they’re especially tuned into the guilty feeling that comes with snacking on less than stellar foods — guilt they make no bones about taking advantage of. Below are six examples of these fraudulent products, followed by some tips on healthy substitutes you can choose so you won’t fall prey to this snack-food scam.

Sweet Potato Chips from Food Should Taste Good:
I don’t think even the company that makes this product is quite sure what it is. While “Sweet Potato” is presented in a great big font, further down, in much smaller letters it says “tortilla chips (it’s a cracker too!)” and then the fact that it’s really: “made with sweet potato.”

Yes, it is made with some sweet potatoes, but this chip (or cracker, if you choose) is mostly made from corn. It’s essentially a corn chip, which is fine if that’s what you’re looking for. But don’t get misled by the sweet potato come-on.

Home-made sweet potato chips are quite easy to make. The hardest part is cutting the sweet potato which you can make much easier by using a mandoline-type cutter. The rest is as easy as opening this bag of corn chips in disguise.

Veggie Crisps Mixed Vegetable Snack from Herr’s:
Instead of the slick photo of veggies taking up a good top half of this bag, here’s what would be depicted if Herr’s accurately represented its contents: a bag of potato flour and potato starch, a bottle of canola oil, some “natural” flavors, more oil, and, finally – some tomato paste and spinach powder.

Considering that one little ounce of ‘real’ spinach will give you 56 percent of your daily allowance of vitamin A, 14 percent of your C and 5 percent of your iron, this bag of corn flour chips contains zero of those nutrients, so whatever amount of paste and powder are in them doesn’t amount to much of anything.

All Natural Veggie Sticks from Nice!:
Nice!, the new-ish Walgreens store brand has put a lot of thought into the package design of these potato-flour thingies they call “veggie sticks.” Front and center is a “pot” labeled “spinach” with the “veggie” sticks in them bearing a sign that says “eat your greens.” Maybe they mean the color green, as the small amount of spinach powder these contain doesn’t amount to a hill of, well, spinach.

Fiber Plus Antioxidants from Kellogg’s:
If you just went by the front of this box you may think this product contains everything you need for health and happiness; fiber, antioxidants, coconut and fudge.

With just one bar providing 35 percent of your daily fiber “value,” it sounds like a heck of a deal. But the fiber in these Kellogg’s chewy bars isn’t from whole grains, but rather from chicory root fiber, an additive that food manufacturers love, since it adds loads of fiber to foods, is slightly sweet and mixes well with other ingredients without adding a strong flavor.

Unfortunately, one big problem with chicory root fiber is that individuals can differ greatly in just how much they can tolerate without suffering from gas, bloating, nausea and flatulence.  Even small amounts can set some folks rumbling. So considering what Kellogg’s is packing these bars with, perhaps you’d be better off not to try them for the first time on your way to that big job interview.

But it’s not the turbulent chicory root fiber that puts these bars in the “fake” category. It’s the rest of the ingredients, which include high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors, artificial colors and partially hydrogenated oil – making this a healthy snack not.

Green Tea Ginger Ale from Canada Dry:
I don’t care how many antioxidants they pump this with — it’s still soda! And a soda with high fructose corn syrup as the second ingredient and two preservatives to boot. If it’s green tea you’re looking for there are numerous high quality ready-made brands (such as Honest Tea with honey) to choose from, or you can make your own with boiling water and some tea! I know it sounds crazy, but folks have been brewing tea like that for centuries, I’ll bet you can probably do it, too.

Garden Veggie Straws from Sensible Portions:
The folks that designed the Garden Veggie Straws package must have had a moment of  truth about this product. A small moment, perhaps, recorded in very small type way down on the bottom of the package, which refers to it as “potato snack.”  But that, of course, is eclipsed by the super-gigantic “veggie” name and basket of vegetables graphic.

Actually, this product is pretty much comprised of potato flour and starch with some rice flour and corn starch thrown in for non-veggie good measure. But then, there’s is the added tomato paste and spinach powder, which in some contorted, regulatory way, allows this product to be out in the marketplace with the term “veggie” in its name. (Oddly, it’s also distributed by no less than the Hain Celestial Group, one of the biggest players in the natural and organic food category.)

Are you really hankering for a healthy snack?

Then here are some simple suggestions for steering clear of scams like the ones mentioned above:

Veggies– the real thing: If it’s vegetables you want to snack on, then make it vegetables, not potato-flour chips! Carrots, peppers, celery – all these veggies travel quite well and can be easily prepped at home for any snack bag.

Organic corn and potato chips:  At those times when only a chip will do, the organic section of your supermarket is a much better place to look, with plenty of varieties to select from.

Nuts: Cashews, pistachios and almonds are now widely regarded as “health foods.” Watch out, however, for ones with flavor-enhancing additives. (Actually, nuts taste great with nothing added other than, perhaps, a bit of sea salt).

Fruits: Apples, bananas and oranges look as if nature designed them just for taking on the road with you.

Homemade goodies: Do you make your own popcorn, cookies, bars or fruit mixes from healthy or organic ingredients? Then make an extra batch to take along with you, and you’ll avoid becoming a hungry ‘hostage of the highway’, buying cheap chips and fake veggie products from convenience stores and rest areas vending machines.

Food industry is hoping shoppers will look no further than ‘Facts Up Front’

Posted by -- May 21, 2013

Last year I wrote about the numerous front-of-package labeling systems out there, from Safeway’s “SimpleNutrition” to the “NuVal” scoring system to Walmart’s “Great for You” label and the well-funded, industry-sponsored “Facts Up Front” – all of which I suspected at the time of being part of a master plan to encourage us not to read ingredient labels.

Well, I haven’t changed my mind. In fact, the current effort to promote Facts Up Front, which was first launched in 2011 by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the Food Marketing Institute,  has made it more evident than ever that the food industry doesn’t want us to look at any of the “facts” about a product beyond those on the highly hyped ‘front of package’.

Last month the GMA debuted its marketing plan for the Facts Up Front label, soon to include a major advertising blitz, with the launch of what it calls “a simple, interactive…web-based tool” to teach consumers how to “make informed choices.” The organization also refers to its front-of-package icons, consisting of four to six small blue boxes with rounded bottoms, as “the most significant reform of food and beverage labels in over 20 years.”

So what’s all the hoopla about? Well, if you peer carefully enough at those little blue boxes (a task for which some people might need a magnifying glass), you’ll find data on calories and three nutrients that’s been borrowed directly from the nutrition facts label “around the corner” of the package – including “daily values” of two optional nutrients to help sell some products.

What $50 million buys

Originally called “Nutrition Keys,” this particular system soon morphed into Facts Up Front after the GMA received some “advertising and communications counsel,” according to its spokesperson, Ginny Smith. And while the blue icons may not appear all that impressive, the group has also received some big bucks  – around $50 million – to “support” the program. But then, it’s not every campaign that can use Michelle Obama as a selling point.

While it doesn’t appear that the First Lady actually endorses Facts Up Front, or any other industry-generated labeling initiative, for that matter, the GMA loves using her photos and edited videos to help sell the concept. Its website, for example, includes parts of her keynote speech at the GMA Science Forum in 2010, where she said that parents don’t have the time to “untangle labels filled with ten-syllable words or do long division with these portion sizes.”

So does Facts Up Front solve this problem? Apparently the GMA believes that it does, but exactly how? Well, in a video that can be viewed at the new and improved Facts Up Front website called “Saving Time and Money,” Registered Dietician Kim Kirchherr claims the system allows a busy shopper to use these ‘facts’ to “pull (a product) off the shelf and really read the rest of it as time allows.”  I’m sure the GMA member companies, which include most Big Food brands, just love it when consumers “pull” products off the shelf like that without any further inspection!

So how does the U.S. Food and Drug Administration feel about this type of promotion? “We have been keeping the FDA informed of our plans and our progress, Smith maintained,  “and what they told us repeatedly is that they are intrigued and interested.”  That contention, however, is challenged by some experts, including food writer Marion Nestle, who believes that Facts Up Front is a “scheme” to do an “end run” around the FDA’s own front-of-package labeling initiatives. Others view it as an attempt to “preempt” the agency.

Whatever the industry’s explanation of the program’s purpose, the fact remains that Facts Up Front doesn’t do much in the way of helping consumers make better food choices, but merely directs the attention of shoppers right to where food and beverage manufacturers want it – the valuable, and often deceptive, front of the package.

Green means ‘healthy’– right?

With all of the front-of-package labeling concepts now in play, the importance of what color these “nutrition” icons appear in has received little scrutiny, until now.

A recent study by Jonathon Schuldt, assistant professor of communication at Cornell University, appearing in Health Communication indicates that these icon colors do indeed make a big difference in how consumers react to a food item, and more specifically, how healthy they perceive the food to be.

Schuldt found that study participants “perceived a candy bar as healthier” when it contained a green label instead of a red one, despite the fact that the labels showed exactly the same calorie count, leading to the conclusion that “green labels increase perceived healthfulness,” especially in consumers who say they give ‘healthy eating’ high importance.

Perhaps that’s what candy company Mars had in mind when they incorporated the “Guideline Daily Amounts,” or GDA, in its candy line-up, with a green-coded calorie count on the front of the package, and green fat, sugar and sodium listings on the back.

Despite any other techniques these highly compensated marketing minds may have in store for us to better sell their goods, be they icons, stars, wheels or Walmart’s  person-shaped symbol, the real information you need to look for – although it’s not on the front of the package – is the ingredient label. And by simply  reading that, you won’t be hoodwinked, as Dr. Schuldt put it, “….to perceive relatively poor nutrition foods in a healthier light.”

Newly reformulated 10-calorie sodas leave fructose levels a mystery

Posted by -- May 16, 2013

Are you an ‘ex-Pepper’? If so, The Dr. Pepper/Snapple Group hopes to bring you back into the fold.  In an effort to lure what it refers to as “consumers who have left the soft drink category” the company is working feverishly to blanket the country with a new lineup of products, consisting of some of its biggest brand names reformulated with a witches’ brew of synthetic sweeteners – a combination of high fructose corn syrup, aspartame and acesulfame potassium (what the company calls its “proprietary blend”).  The selling point is that each supposedly contains no more than 10 calories per 12-ounce serving, which accounts for the special designation under which they’re being marketed  –“TEN.”

Since HFCS is the second ingredient in the three “TENs” I looked at, Canada Dry Ginger Ale, 7Up and Dr. Pepper, I couldn’t help wondering what the fructose amount is in the HFCS being used. After all, Archer Daniels Midland, one of the biggest manufacturers of this test-tube sweetener, has run ads for a product called “Cornsweet 90” a HFCS blend containing 90 percent fructose that it has called “the ideal choice for reduced calorie foods such as beverages…” And the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) itself has acknowledged in a letter to the Food and Drug Administration that this mega-fructose additive has been in use “with FDA knowledge for decades” (more on that in a minute). So I called the Dr. Pepper Snapple company press office with my question.

In the short conversation I had with company spokesperson Chris Barnes, I leaned more ‘ad speak’ than I could have in a Mad Men marathon. Terms like the “broader TEN platform,” “mouth feel,” “broader flavor system,” and my favorite, the “lapsed soft drink consumer” were dropped repeatedly in our talk. But when I got to my fructose question, Chris didn’t have an answer for me other than “I don’t know that we do share specific ingredient information beyond what’s on the label.” He did ask why I was interested and promised to follow up with the research and development department, but felt fairly sure the company wouldn’t divulge that information.

Although I didn’t get any further insight about fructose amounts from Barnes, he did tell me how “very excited” the company is so far with how “TEN” is “performing,” allowing folks who had concerns over taste and calories to now have the “benefit” of a soft drink once again.

A shocking acknowledgment

Now admittedly, the question of fructose amounts in HFCS is a touchy subject, something the CRA likes to gloss over by repeatedly asserting that the additive isn’t really high in fructose (one reason it had unsuccessfully sought to change its name to “corn sugar”) and telling consumers over and over that HFCS is “virtually the same” as real sugar, which is a 50/50 combination of glucose and fructose.

But contrary to the big public relations blitz put out by the CRA claiming that “sugar is sugar,” a growing body of evidence has come to light showing  that HFCS is apparently being used by food and beverage manufacturers in highly fluctuating fructose amounts, including the mega-90 version. Such findings led Citizens for Health to file a petition with the Food and Drug Administration last September, which asked the agency to take action against manufacturers using HFCS with fructose levels above 55 percent, the highest amount the FDA allows, and in the interim, to require the actual amount of fructose it contains to be specified on product labels. (To sign and support that petition, click here).

The CRA response to the FDA about that petition was a shocking acknowledgment that, in violation of FDA regulations, HFCS-90 has been used in the food supply “with FDA knowledge for decades.”  The letter, signed by CRA interim president J. Patrick Mohan, also refers to “fluctuations in fructose levels above 42 or 55%” in HFCS, that he apparently believes “would be expressly permitted” by the agency.

But despite Mohan’s apparent belief that all is fine and dandy regardless of what the actual fructose amount in an HFCS blend might be, the FDA has made it perfectly clear that HFCS 90 “contains a substantially different ratio of glucose to fructose than…HFCS-55,” and that the agency doesn’t have enough information to “ensure that this product is safe.”

Numerous medical experts and extensive studies have linked excess fructose consumption to a wide variety of health problems, such as obesity, diabetes, liver and heart disease. And for the CRA, which spent many millions of dollars to tell consumers that HFCS really isn’t high in fructose at all, this statement is quite telling.

But for now, the matter of just how much fructose might be in those new Dr. Pepper/Snapple Group formulas remains a mystery. Which is something you might want to keep in mind before you reach for a “TEN” on your supermarket shelf in the belief that you can now have the “benefit” of drinking soda without having to worry about the consequences.

Ten food items you might be surprised to learn contain HFCS

Posted by -- May 14, 2013

So just how much high fructose corn syrup are you consuming, anyway? If you regularly dine out or eat processed foods, the chances are high you’re taking in more than you might have ever imagined.

Back in the 1980s, when HFCS was a fairly new food ingredient, it was being touted as “better use of an abundant homegrown crop” in a trade publication ad for Cargill  headlined “How the newest ingredient in soda pop helps sweeten the pot for corn growers.”  As the ad explained it, a $90 million expansion of the company’s facilities would, when completed, give it “a total capacity of 1.3 billion gallons of fructose a year … enough to fill a trainload that would stretch 154 miles.” Which is an awful lot of fructose – the very component that the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) has more recently tried to downplay in advertising claiming that HFCS is not really all that high in fructose after all.

But all that extra capacity has apparently been put to use, judging from the way HFCS has morphed way beyond “soda pop” into every conceivable food product that can be made. An example of just how much HFCS is being produced these days comes directly from the CRA itself, which noted in the most recent “Corn Annual” report  that total shipments for HFCS for 2011 came to more than 19 billion pounds of the stuff.

Back when that ad ran, in 1982, USDA numbers for “deliveries” of HFCS only amounted to 26.6 pounds per person each year. But that number has been insidiously rising year after year as this test-tube sweetener has found its way into every kind of food, hitting the 60-pound-per-person mark in 1997 (interestingly, sugar intake has actually declined over the last century according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures).

So exactly how much HFCS do these various foods contain? Unless you’re privy to “proprietary” information, as it’s called in the industry, you really have no way of knowing. That’s also true of the actual fructose amount in whatever HFCS “blend” a manufacturer may be using. These unknown fructose concentrations are the subject of a current petition filed with the Food and Drug Administration by Citizens for Health, asking that the agency take action against food and beverage manufacturers using HFCS with fructose amount above 55 percent, the highest amount the FDA allows. (Read more about the issue here, and sign and support the Citizens for Health petition here).

Finding HFCS in everything from prunes to pickles

What we do know for sure is that HFCS turns up in some very unexpected places, such as the products below.

Progresso Bread Crumbs (Plain): The package says the these bread crumbs will “inspire your passion for the art of cooking…” with “authentic Italian taste,” but you’d be hard pressed to find an “authentic” Italian dish that called for high fructose corn syrup.

Sunsweet Prunes: Referred to on the label as “the American Super Fruit,” there is no doubt that prunes are a healthy as well as a sweet-tasting natural product – and one you would least suspect would harbor an unnatural sweetener like HFCS.

French’s Flavor Infuser 10 Minute Marinade: High fructose corn syrup takes the honor of being the very first ingredient in this concoction, even before water and tomato paste.

Kraft Catalina Anything Dressing: With the claim that it’s “fat free” appearing on four places on the packaging, this product is apparently intended to be used on more than salad, as the name implies. It also has HFCS is listed as its second ingredient, right after tomato paste.

Kraft Miracle Whip: Kraft calls this popular dressing a “secret blend,” but if you read the label you’ll find that it includes HFCS.

Vlasic Bread & Butter Pickles: HFCS is the second ingredient, right after cucumbers – demonstrating how easy it is to make a sandwich with HFCS in every single ingredient and not even realize it!

Mott’s Original Applesauce: Here’s yet another supposedly good-for-you-food bearing a major brand name that’s been adulterated with this cheap and unnatural sweetener. Fortunately, organic unsweetened applesauce is easy to find and just about the same price.

Krusteaz Cranberry Orange Supreme Muffin Mix: How “supreme” could the muffins made from this mix be with HFCS in them?

Heinz 57 Sauce: While the label asserts  it will “add zest to steak, chicken & pork,” a glance at the fine print says it will also add HFCS, which is the second ingredient in this sauce after tomato paste.

Campbell’s Healthy Request Vegetable Soup: Also masquerading as a “healthy” product while containing high fructose corn syrup is this new version of an old standard recipe, whose label claims that’s it’s “M’m! M’m! good…for your heart.” But a study, done at that University of California at Davis, found that adults who consumed HFCS for two weeks as 25 percent of their daily calorie requirement had increased blood levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, indicators of increased risk for heart disease. And in 2011, researchers at Georgia Health Sciences University concluded that high fructose consumption by teens can put them at risk for heart disease and diabetes.

The upshot is that despite industry claims that high fructose corn syrup is fine “in moderation,” the fact that so many diverse types of popular food products have been spiked with it makes consuming “moderate” amounts highly unlikely – unless you’re in the habit of carefully scrutinizing the ingredients of every processed food you buy (or of purchasing organic products). Not to mention that there may well be even higher levels of fructose in many of those items than you’ve been led to believe.

You might even say there’s a whole trainload of it just waiting for you in the supermarket.

Newly approved pesticide poses yet another peril to threatened honeybees

Posted by -- May 9, 2013

Along with exposure to particularly pernicious pesticides and being fed a diet of high fructose corn syrup, which a new study shows lowers their ability to detoxify, our beleaguered bees may soon be facing yet another threat to their survival. On Tuesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency granted “unconditional registrations” for another pesticide that the agency itself calls “very highly toxic” to honeybees.

The green light given to Dow AgroSciences’ application for sulfoxaflor, which may now be used on almost every conceivable agricultural commodity, came as a new blow to beekeepers, as well as bad news to environmental and consumer watchdog groups around the country.

Sulfoxaflor is considered to be the next generation of neonicotinoids, those systemic pesticides widely used to treat crop seeds, and especially corn, that have just been banned in Europe for two years because of their suspected role in the bee blight known as “colony collapse disorder,” or CCD. And this newest chemical is being introduced with “many unanswered questions,” and great potential for “unreasonable adverse effects,” as far as bees are concerned, the Center for Food Safety said in its comments to the EPA docket earlier this year.

The EPA, for its part, has chosen to downplay the role of pesticides in CCD, putting them at the bottom of the list of probable causes in a recent report done in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture that cites such factors as mites, viruses, bacteria and poor nutrition as the likeliest explanations. But many authorities who have studied the problem are more apt to concur with those European experts who point the finger at pesticides as the chief culprit.

“We don’t know how bad this stuff (sulfoxaflor) is…the chemical companies get a free ride in this country,” Pennsylvania beekeeper David Hackenberg, co-chairman of the National Honey Bee Advisory Board told me.

I first spoke to Hackenberg this past January, right before the great honeybee transport began, bringing bees from around the country to California’s Central Valley to provide the necessary pollination to produce the state’s almond crop. At that time Hackenberg, the guy who was first to discover colony collapse disorder– the mysterious disappearance of bees from their hive – told me he predicted this year would be the worst (bee) loss that we’ve ever seen in the U.S., and he, and many others still believe that to be the case.

In spite of the fact the almond growers “probably got a fairly decent crop,” Hackenberg said “what we’re looking at are a lot of small, weak beehives. You’ve got bees that probably started out good, and as soon as they started to fly a lot of those older bees ‘forgot’ to come home,” he added.

Estimate of bee losses called understated

Despite an estimate of bee losses of 31 percent in the U.S. for the past winter season just released by  the Bee Informed Partnership, “an extension project” comprised of agri-academics and other experts, Hackenberg believes the “real” number is much higher, in the range of 45 or even 50 percent. “I don’t know how they pull these numbers out of a hat,” he said, adding that one of the largest beekeepers in the country told him if they would survey the guys “who are really making a living (from beekeeping)…you would find those bee losses are probably hitting the 50 percent mark.”

Neonicotinoids can affect bees by moving up through a plant and producing contaminated pollen and nectar. In addition, the HFCS fed to them by many large-scale beekeeping operations has been shown in two recent studies to pose a further threat to the health of honeybees.

One study, just published by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana, found that bees consuming HFCS are more susceptible to pesticides, possibly because they are not receiving the protective compounds found in pollen that trigger the bee to ‘detox’. Lead study author May Berenbaum told the Los Angeles Times, “If you’re feeding them high-fructose corn syrup, then pathogens may be more dangerous and pesticides can be more toxic.”

And last June, as I previously reported, a study by Chensheng Lu, an associate professor at Harvard School of Public Health, found that bee colonies fed HFCS treated with one of the nicotine pesticides, imidacloprid, resulted in the collapse of almost every test hive, showing the same pattern consistent with the CCD observed by beekeepers.

“We’re starting out this year probably 300,000 hives short going into the summer,” Hackenberg said. For right now, at least, that means higher prices for consumers and a lack of bees for the hobbyist, as whatever bees there were for sale are “long gone.”

Hackenberg, along with several dozen other beekeepers are currently headed up to Maine to “start putting the bees in the blueberries.”

“It doesn’t matter what those bees are going to cost, (the farmer) is going to rent them,” he said, but added, “there is this thought that by the year 2018 we’re not going to have to worry about growing fruits and vegetables in this country because it’s going to cost too much to produce them.”

If that’s the prospect now facing beekeepers and growers alike, it may be time to consider whether our “crop protection” efforts are actually going to end up destroying everything they’re supposedly designed to protect.

Four examples of how you’ve been reading food labels all wrong

Posted by -- May 7, 2013

Reading a food package sounds like it should be pretty easy, doesn’t it? You simply pick it up and learn about the product that’s inside. But there’s a war going on in food labeling, a conflict between the words and images that call attention to the package and its actual contents, which manufacturers typically would rather you didn’t scrutinize.  So they try their best to ‘sucker’ you in with containers that shout out, in Three Stooges fashion, “Hey, look over here!”

Of course when you shop for “real” food in the produce section or the farmers’ market, there is typically no packaging to read — the food sells itself, so to speak. But when you look at what’s inside most “food-like substances,” as author Michael Pollan calls them, you can see why such diversionary packaging is needed.

So what are some of the ways manufacturers entice us into buying products using misleading claims and pictures? Here are a few examples:

4C Totally Light Green Tea Mix

The hook: antioxidants and ‘green tea’ itself. Green tea has become a favorite of health-food enthusiasts due to some amazing ingredients called catechins and, in particular, EGCG, that  appear to be some of the best things a body can consume to ward off numerous diseases and other ailments.

The truth: “antioxidants” is a broad term. The package says each serving contains 70mg of “antioxidants,” but it doesn’t specify what kind are in this drink, and whether they come from the EGCG that make green tea so desirable or merely from the vitamin C that has been added in the form of ascorbic acid. And since this product also contains an artificial sweetener, it can hardly be described as a health drink.

The take-away: The best information I’ve yet seen on this subject came from Men’s Health magazine, which had 14 green tea drinks analyzed for total catechin content and found that Honest Tea green tea with honey came in on top with 215 mg of catechins and 71 mg of the powerful antioxidant EGCG.  To see the entire list (on which 4C is not included), click here.

Yoplait Greek Frozen Yogurt

The hook: Greek yogurt with “2X the protein of regular frozen yogurt.”

The truth: If you read my blog last week, you’re already aware that Greek yogurt is a very controversial item and frozen Greek yogurt even more so. It’s possible that frozen yogurt can contain live cultures (the reason we eat yogurt in the first place), but since frozen yogurt can possibly have acidifiers added in the manufacturing process and even undergo heat treatments, it doesn’t necessarily contain live and active cultures by the time you consume it.

While the big selling point on this product is that it has twice as much protein as conventional frozen yogurt, a closer look at the fine print reveals the statement that the “protein has been increased from 3.5g to 7g” per serving, but most likely not from “real” Greek yogurt, but from “milk protein concentrate,” or MPC.   As noted last week,  this is an undefined, unregulated ingredient that can come from animals other than cows and is the subject of a current legal action against Yoplait and its parent company General Mills for another one of its so-called “Greek” yogurt products.

The take-away: If you are eating yogurt for its health benefits, you’d best stick with a plain, organic variety and dress it up with your own fruit and flavorings.

True Lemon “Lemon for Your Water”

The hook: “100% natural,” “made from lemons.” Water additives are currently all the rage, and this one claims to provide an all-natural way to “flavor the day your way.”

The truth: While the box makes a big point about the product beginning “in the grove with fresh lemons selected for their superior taste,” the first ingredient is citric acid, which is almost always derived from corn, not lemons, made using a mold that feeds on corn syrup. The process of making citric acid from corn also produces manufactured glutamic acid (MSG) as well. The product also “contains soy,” which is hardly something you’d expect to find in a lemon grove.

The take-away: Most water flavorings contain some undesirable ingredients. If you want more than plain water, it’s not all that difficult to make your own flavored versions – eloquently known as “spa water” – as described here.

Hunt’s Tomatoes Sauce

The hook: “100% natural” (with depictions of fresh tomatoes) plus the supposed reliability of a long-established product from a big-name brand.

The truth: Tomato sauce should be one of the simplest of all products – made from ripe tomatoes –  which is the impression that you might get when you see a brand like Hunt’s on the shelf.  Unfortunately, that’s not often the case. This particular product, is made not from fresh tomatoes, but from “tomato puree” – meaning reconstituted industrial tomato concentrate, along with more citric acid, an ingredient called “tomato fiber,” and unspecified natural flavors. (It’s somewhat revealing that the product name appears to be simply “Hunt’s Sauce,” with the word “TOMATOES” stuck in in a tiny, practically invisible font.)

The take-away: While there are a lot of ‘not-so-great’ tomato sauce products out there, you can also find some really good, organic varieties. Watch out for “tomato puree” which is basically reconstituted tomato paste, and don’t let products with that ingredient fool you with pictures of fresh tomatoes, either.

So the answer to how to read a food package is quite simple: rather than focusing on the claims and graphics the manufacturer wants you to see, go right to  the ingredient label. And if that appears to be a list of things that don’t sound like food, just put the item back on the shelf and find something made from real ingredients instead.

There are more ways than one that antibiotics end up in food

Posted by -- May 2, 2013

While the big media “meat” of last year, pink slime, a filler in ground beef, got some extreme press exposure, there’s another additive present in meat – and chicken and pork and even farmed fish — that didn’t exactly ‘hit the fan’ as much as “mechanically separated beef scraps and connective tissue treated with ammonia hydroxide” did.

Maybe it was the name, or perhaps the disgusting graphics or celebrity chefs, that tipped the scale on the “slime” issue, but it certainly isn’t the only concern for those who eat meat.

The use of antibiotics in meat and poultry is not something industry likes to talk about, even to the Food and Drug Administration. The agency, which routinely tests for antibiotic-resistant bacteria in meat, really doesn’t know too much else about what’s going on, according to former FDA Commissioner David Kessler.

Kessler commented in a recent New York Times op-ed piece that the “crisis of antibiotic resistance…(is) getting worse,” and apparently all the FDA knows about these drugs is that food animals are being administered antibiotics to the tune of  30 million pounds annually. “We don’t know much more except that,” Kessler said, “rather than healing sick animals, these drugs are often fed to animals at low levels to make them grow faster and to suppress diseases that arise because they live in dangerously close quarters on top of one another’s waste.” In Kessler’s phrase, they’re a means of producing “cheaper meat.”

But there’s an additional avenue by which food animals take in antibiotics that Kessler didn’t mention in his Times piece, a “side effect” so to speak of the food they eat. It’s a practice that is not regulated, monitored or reported, according to two consumer-watchdog groups who recently filed a citizen petition with the FDA to try and have it curtailed.

The corn, car and meat connection

The petition, filed in March by The Center for Food Safety and Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), seeks to halt the use of antibiotics in the making of what’s called “distillers grains,” the leftover corn mash and slurry from ethanol production that is sold for animal feed.

It seems that ethanol production, which involves yeast and fermentation, also breeds bacteria, something that lowers production levels. To try and control this, antibiotics, such as penicillin and tetracycline, are added. And tests performed by the FDA have shown these drugs remain in the ethanol ‘leftovers’ fed to cattle, chickens and pork at “significant” levels.

According to the groups’ petition, “FDA studies, industry-funded studies, and nonprofit organizations’ studies all confirm that distillers grains sold as animal feed contain antibiotics.” The petition further states that these antibiotic residues are “wholly illegal” under federal laws and “unnecessary” to produce the fuel additive.

And this is no small amount of feed they’re talking about either. An IATP report from 2012 notes that the massive increase in ethanol production has also resulted in making more than 34 metric tons per year of distillers grains, most of which go to feed beef and dairy cattle.

But that’s something the people who raise those cattle may be unaware of, Elisabeth Holmes, staff attorney for The Center for Food Safety, told me in a phone interview. “That’s one of the reasons we wanted to file the petition. The pharmaceutical manufacturers know and the ethanol manufacturers know, but we don’t know if a lot of the producers who are feeding this know that there’s antibiotic residue in it.”

“We really need to take extra sources (of antibiotics) into account,” said Holmes.

And what those “extra” sources might be is anyone’s guess. Since such uses are not regulated,  the FDA doesn’t track them and drug makers aren’t required to disclose them, Holmes noted. What the FDA does know for sure, however, is that antibiotics are present in distillers grains. In 2008 and again in 2010 the agency analyzed samples of the feed for drug residues, finding positive results both times.

However, “they’ve done nothing since those studies,” said Holmes, “and they’ve done nothing in response to the petition we filed.” She added that there are “perfectly viable alternatives” to antibiotics that ethanol manufacturers can use, but “no legal requirement that they switch over” to them.

Holmes’ suggestion to those who eat meat is to choose sustainable or organic varieties “where antibiotic use is not allowed.”

In the meantime, as Kessler pointed out, “We need to know more about the use of antibiotics in the production of our meat and poultry. The results could be a matter of life and death.”