Archive for June, 2013

‘School Nutrition Conference’ an education in mixed messaging

Posted by -- June 27, 2013

Next month marks “the school nutrition event of the year” with the 67th annual national conference of the School Nutrition Association (SNA) in Kansas City. And the list of exhibitors who are scheduled to take part in this annual shindig includes just about everyone involved in the industry, ranging from the California Cling Peach Board and California Olive Committee to Clif bars and Bumble Bee Foods.

Also appearing at the conference will be representatives of Pepsico Foodservice, the Dr. Pepper/Snapple Group, and, as mentioned in a blog earlier this year, the Corn Refiners Association (CRA), the trade group representing manufacturers of high fructose corn syrup. So just how does “school nutrition” and HFCS go together, you might ask? Well we’re still wondering that too, so we called the School Nutrition Association to ask.

While SNA spokesperson Diane Pratt-Heavner told Food Identity Theft that she “can’t speak about it,” she said we could certainly call the CRA “about what it plans to discuss or make available at its exhibit booth,” adding, “my point is, we have exhibitors from every corner of the school nutrition industry.”

When pressed about how HFCS fits into “school nutrition” Pratt-Heavner said that anyone “working within the food service industry” is welcome to exhibit at the conference as long as any food “exhibited on the floor meets the requirements for the meal program,” which soda, for example, does not.

As our SNA spokesperson couldn’t provide any further insight into the Corn Refiners Association’s scheduled participation in the event (of which they were a “top” sponsor for 2008), we called another group with a presence at the affair this year, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM).

Now the PCRM, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., is a highly respected group, especially known for advocating good nutrition. What would they think about having the CRA as “neighbors” at the show?

We spoke with Susan Levin, a registered dietician and director of nutrition education for PCRM, who summed it up this way: “conferences make strange bedfellows.”

Competing against the ‘noise’ factor

Levin described the presence of such groups  as a “whole other problem.” “While we’re trying to save the world nutritionally, there is this other issue of marketing and money,” she said, adding “it’s disheartening…very political and financial, and it makes it harder for nonprofits to have a voice. … I know at other conferences, we are this teeny tiny little booth saying ‘eat healthy’ and we’re just drowned out by so much other noise.”

Some of that “other noise” will no doubt be coming from Pepsico Food Service, that, according to its sales information sheet will be pushing its “whole grain rich portfolio,” consisting of several of its big-name brands, such as Tostitos, Cheetos and Doritos – items typically referred to as “junk food” –  apparently reformulated with some whole grains to make them school-lunchroom worthy.

The Cheetos Fantastix! Chili Cheese, one of the “portfolio” items being pitched at the conference, may start out with whole corn meal, but goes downhill pretty fast from there. In addition to numerous  non-kid-friendly ingredients, such as artificial flavors, artificial colors, several sources of free glutamic acid (MSG), and several MSG-enhancing ingredients, it contains actual monosodium glutamate itself — an additive many experts have determined an especially dangerous ingredient where kids are concerned.

The PCRM exhibit, Levin told us, will be designed to “educate school nutrition professionals about the benefit of plant-based diets for school children..not just cheese pizza,” by exhibiting some tried and tested recipes that “kids really like.”

Another issue the PCRM will be focusing on at the SNA conference is the danger of processed meats, such as bacon, sausage and cold cuts, something Levin said “should not be an option in a school meal” due to a cancer risk that is described by the American Institute for Cancer Research as being so high, there is no “safe amount to consume.” As it turns out, several companies that market such items will have booths at the conference, among them Tyson Foods Inc. (which doesn’t just sell chicken, but also bacon, ham, franks and sausages, and “Del Slices,”) Cargill Food Service North America and Sara Lee Foodservice.

But Levin isn’t discouraged by the odd assortment of industry, trade groups, ‘good’ food and ‘bad’ food that will be vying for the attention of school nutritionists at the SNA conference. “I do think there’s hope,” she said, “people are just more plugged in and are getting a little more outraged and getting better at fighting.”

Groundbreaking civil action launched against HFCS makers

Posted by -- June 25, 2013

Last year at this time the news wires were abuzz with the FDA’s decision denying the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) petition to rename high fructose corn syrup “corn sugar.” This June, however, the Associated Press, daily papers and law journals are reporting another story regarding HFCS, one perhaps just as disconcerting to the CRA – that the manufacturers of this test-tube sweetener are being taken to court.

Buffalo attorney J. Michael Hayes filed last week what is likely a first-of-its-kind civil action against six manufacturers of HFCS, including giants Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill, for products liability, failure to warn, gross negligence, reckless conduct and injuries.

Hayes’s plaintiff in the case is a Buffalo-area woman and her 14-year-old daughter who has type-2 diabetes, a condition, Hayes says, to which there is a “direct, causal connection” with the consumption of HFCS.

“My view,” Hayes told Food Identity Theft in a phone interview last week, “and my experts’ view is essentially the government is too corrupt to do anything on this…so you’re not going to get the politicians to do it, you’re certainly not going to get industry to do it, because they’re making too much money. So the only choice is litigation.”

“I’ve got a nationally renowned expert who is solid that HFCS is a cause of type-2 diabetes, which is what we have to prove in the law,” Hayes said. “It doesn’t have to be the sole cause,” he added, but “it has to be a substantial factor.”

Hayes said his interest in pursuing a case against HFCS grew out of what he “filtered” from a health and nutrition conference he and his wife, a nurse and nutrition counselor, attended last year. “I spent three days absorbing that, and I came out of it saying HFCS is an artificial product that is causing a harm, and it’s not warned against.” So  “it very well may be that there is something here.”

“Industry argues (HFCS) is the same as sugar, which is not true as we know. It has a different metabolic effect,” he maintained. It is also his belief that “if you make HFCS and you know it’s going to be consumed and you know it has the potential to cause illness and disease, then you have to place a warning on (products containing) it.”

An ‘evolving’ legal challenge

Galvanized by what he had learned at the conference, Hayes advertised in a local paper seeking clients for his HFCS case, and was called by the mom (both mother and daughter are being kept anonymous in the complaint), whom Hayes describes as being a “very conscientious” parent.

The attorney’s 17-page complaint, which calls HFCS “a toxin,” also states that HFCS is “totally man-made,” “not natural” and “cannot simply be extracted from an ear of corn.” It also notes that “(s)ince 1970, coinciding with the advent and increasing and pervasive commercial use of HFCS, type-2 diabetes rates in the United States have skyrocketed.

“I know they (the defendants) are going to fight like crazy for the first three or four years…and because these are individual cases and not a class action I could have another dozen (plaintiffs) coming in.”

Hayes says he will not be discouraged by losing one of these cases, as “we can try another and another one,” nor does he think that he is the only litigator who will be pursuing such claims.

“It’s fascinating and it’s evolving,” he said. “These cases are going to pop up all over the nation, and this is going to take HFCS off the shelves.”

Linda Bonvie
foodidentitytheft.com

Ten (more) surprising places you’ll find HFCS

Posted by -- June 20, 2013

Although high fructose corn syrup turns up in an amazing array of foods and beverages, some are still a surprise. What, for example, is this test tube sweetener doing in bagels, stuffing and whole grain crackers? (Being used as a preservative, perhaps?)

To eliminate all HFCS from your diet, you really need to constantly be reading ingredient labels and rejecting any and all products that contain it.

Why you should avoid it…

  • HFCS and high fructose consumption have been implicated by researchers in a variety of diseases and health problems, including heart disease, diabetes and weight gain.
  • The actual fructose percentage of HFCS is variable and unknown (which is why Citizens for Health has petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to require that the true fructose content of HFCS formulas be disclosed on food labels).
  • Contrary to industry propaganda, HFCS isn’t “corn sugar” or a “natural” ingredient, but a laboratory-created concoction that’s much cheaper than real sugar.
  • Researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles in 2012 showed that a diet high in fructose slows the functioning of the brain, hampering memory and learning – and that omega-3 fatty acids may counteract the disruption.

…and some (more) of the unexpected products in which it turns up:

Lender’s Bagels
Although the package copy says that Lender’s uses a “family recipe” that goes back 75 years, we really don’t think the Lender family was using HFCS in the 1930s – decades before it was invented.

Stouffer’s French Bread Pizza
While the copy on the box advises that serving this with a salad will make for a “wholesome meal,” one can’t help wondering how “wholesome” a meal is that includes not only HFCS, but two forms of artery-clogging partially hydrogenated oil.

Stouffer’s Signature Classics stuffed pepper
It’s easy to be fooled into thinking this is a healthy product, given that the front of the package says it has “no preservatives” and the back notes that it’s  “Good to Remember” “that “Stouffer’s is supported by the Nestle Research Center, one of the world’s leading centers for nutrition, health and wellness.” But when you discover that the ingredients include both HFCS and various sources of free glutamic acid, which can he hazardous to brain health, it may cause you to think twice.

Wheatables Toasted Honey Wheat Crackers
This seemingly healthy “stone-ground” snack item actually contains more HFCS than honey (according to the order in which these ingredients are listed), but it probably wouldn’t sell as much if they were called “toasted high fructose corn syrup” crackers, now would they?

Pepperidge Farm One Step Stuffing Mix
“Imagine the tempting smells of a country kitchen, savory garden herbs, succulent roasts, the aroma of baking bread,” reads the hype on the package. But the product inside seems much less homey and appealing when you find that it contains both HFCS and at least two sources of free glutamic acid, as well as the suspect preservative TBHQ.

Hershey’s Syrup Special Dark
While dark chocolate is considered a true health food, high in flavonols, with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, you might be a bit surprised – shocked, even – to learn that the number-one ingredient  in this syrup’s “special dark” formula is none other than HFCS, followed by corn syrup and water.

Nabisco Newtons 100% Whole Grain Fruit Cookies
What, you might ask, could be wrong with a cookie made from whole grains and “real fruit” that’s also a “good source of fiber”? Well, how about some decidedly unnatural HFCS that Nabisco chose to add to the recipe, along with artery-clogging partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil and the artificial flavor vanillin? (And since when, we couldn’t help wondering, did the company start finding it necessary to bake its cookies down Mexico way?)

Hunt’s Manwich Original Sloppy Joe Sauce
HFCS is listed as the second ingredient in this all-American sandwich bun filler right after the reconstituted tomato paste (referred to on the ingredient label as tomato puree).

Heinz Original Cocktail Sauce
The claim that this condiment is made from “the highest quality ingredients” is made less credible by the fact that the third ingredient is HFCS, which is used mainly to sweeten food products on the cheap.

Jack Daniel’s Marinade in a bag (Honey Teriyaki)
While this whiskey-flavored seasoning, also made by Heinz, might be called “honey teriyaki liquid marinade” on the front of the package, a quick glance at the side panel reveals that it has the dubious distinction of having HFCS as its number-one ingredient. And that’s not to mention the two preservatives and hydrolyzed soy protein – a form of free glutamic acid – further on. (There is, however, some honey in there somewhere.)

On the positive side, we’re starting to see an increasing number of products that say, “No high fructose corn syrup” rather prominently on their labels – an indication that some food manufacturers are starting tor respond to the widespread public rejection of this unhealthy and unnatural sweetening agent. But obviously, we still have a ways to go in the struggle to get high fructose corn syrup and other unhealthy additives out of so many of the items that constitute a large part of the American diet – including those that are represented as being “good for us.”

Campaign to stop ‘government intrusion’ on shopping offers nothing to back it up

Posted by -- June 18, 2013

Just as the long-running situation comedy “Seinfeld” was often described as being “a show about nothing,” the current series of “Your Cart, Your Choice” TV commercials now being run around the country by the American Beverage Association (ABA) appears to be a campaign about nothing.

At least, that’s the impression I got by talking to an ABA spokesperson, who could provide nothing in the way of concrete examples of how  “the government” and “some politicians” are trying to do your grocery shopping for you with “new laws, regulations or taxes,” as the commercial alleges — other than citing a couple of obscure state taxes on soft drinks.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the ABA, along with any other trade groups  that may be financing these spots, is spending all that money for nothing.  There’s obviously something behind it – they’re just not telling us what. But whatever it is, this commercial appears to have some sort of preemptive purpose – perhaps to try and thwart any attempt at government regulation, be it on a federal, state or local level – before it occurs, and to collect as many names and email addresses from consumers to join the posse as possible.

The commercial, which is featured at the coalition’s scant site, yourcartyourchoice.com, shows a stern shopper wheeling her cart through a supermarket saying “give me a break…the fact is, it’s not the government’s job to grocery shop for my family, it’s mine.”

To try and get some information on just how the government might be inhibiting anyone’s grocery shopping, I called the ABA and spoke with a representative, Chris Gindlesperger, who gave me the lowdown, appearing to read from scripted material, but also winging his responses when necessary.

Chris told me that Americans for Food & Beverage Choice sort of morphed from an earlier ABA coalition called Americans Against Food Taxes, which appeared on the scene in 2009 when the prospect of a federal soda tax loomed on the horizon, only to be dismissed by the Congressional Budget office that same year.

“After 2009 the idea of soda taxes sort of spread across the country,” Chris told me, although he could cite only two states where such a tax currently exists, West Virginia – whose soft drink tax dates back to 1950s – and Arkansas, which enacted one in the mid ’90s. (and both those taxes are levied on manufacturers, not consumers).

Food? What food?

While it certainly makes sense that the ABA would be fighting against any such beverage taxes, seeing  how its most “notable” members are Pespsico, CocaCola and the Dr. Pepper/Snapple Group, just what they have to do with “food” and interfering with “what goes in (your) shopping cart” was something I couldn’t get Chris to explain. He circled the question numerous times before finally coming up with “some lawmakers and others would say you can drink a certain drink or not drink another drink or have a certain amount of whatever it is.”

After that powerful statement, Chris appeared to go back to his script, telling me, “I think what really matters here is this: it’s a slippery slope. If it starts with soft drinks or a limit on the size of soft drinks what’s next? Is it the size of the piece of pizza you can get, is it how many French fries you can eat, is it how many apples you can buy at the grocery store?”

“Now no one is going to tax apples or limit them, but you get my point here,” he added with a confirming chuckle.

Apart from the hypothetical references to pizza, apples and French fries, Chris never did give me any actual examples of how “food” figured into this, his slippery slope” reference (which also peppered his spiel) being the only apparent connection between soda and other groceries.

When asked if any other trade groups were involved in the campaign, the only one he would divulge was the Grocery Manufacturers Association, claiming that “we are still recruiting partners for this effort.”  As for whether the Corn Refiners Association (whose members manufacture the high fructose corn syrup used in soft drinks instead of sugar) might be helping support it, he said he didn’t know, but added, “when we hang up, I may call over and ask them to join.”

So by all means, visit the page and watch the video — but be forewarned that if you sign up to “stay connected,” which I did, assuming I would get some kind of information packet, all you are probably doing is adding your name to the list of folks who are “joining” in a theoretical opposition against any future “government intrusion” on their grocery shopping.

In other words, expect nothing in the way of concrete information. Or as naturalbusinessnews.com says about the commercial: “Video: not safe for people who can’t stand bullsh–”

Autism: a spectrum of risk factors that includes HFCS

Posted by -- June 13, 2013

Last year the publication of a scientific paper in the peer-reviewed journal Clinical Epigenetics suggesting that autism was related to the consumption of high fructose corn syrup touched off a heated debate among those involved in the controversy over the likely causes and prevalence of autism.

The subject, after all, is a very sensitive one, and this particular study seemed to hit a nerve – or an awful lot of nerves. Such was the intensity of the reaction that two of its authors, Professor Renee Dufault and Dr. David Wallinga, prepared several statements explaining their work, plus a Q and A about “exploring the links between food and autism.”

What particularly got sparks flying was the researchers’ conclusion that “(a) comparison of autism prevalence between the U.S. and Italy using the Mercury Toxicity Model suggests the increase in autism in the U.S. is not related to mercury exposure from fish, coal-fired power plants, thimerosal, or dental amalgam but instead to the consumption of HFCS.”

Dufault and Wallinga subsequently explained that the paper “does not allege consumption of HFCS causes autism,” but rather “how it may be one important risk factor of many that contributes to a cumulative or ‘total load’ of risks” and that “this study finds that (HFCS) may be a risk factor that can contribute to the development of an autism spectrum disorder.”

The risks of HFCS consumption, the authors say, include mineral imbalances in the body, such as zinc, calcium and phosphorus depletion, which can result in the compromising of a key enzyme needed to eliminate organophosphate pesticides. Deficiencies in zinc can also impair heavy metal excretion, they point out.

Then there’s the potential of mercury exposure.

Dufault, while working at the Food and Drug Administration in 2005, discovered mercury residues in samples of HFCS. After presenting her findings to the FDA’s Center for Food Safety, she was instructed to discontinue her investigation, but after retesting, and finding mercury in nearly half the original samples, she and eight other scientists published the findings in the journal Environmental Health. (For the complete story on Dufault’s findings about mercury and HFCS see this 2009 article in Mother Jones.)

The mercury Dufault found in her samples results from a type of HFCS manufacturing process that uses mercury cell production, which can leave residues of the toxic metal in the finished product. While the Corn Refiners Association adamantly maintains that mercury-based technology in no longer used in the production of HFCS, Dufault states that “we are not aware of any independent verification of that fact.”

Oxidative stress: a high-fructose side effect

Another damaging effect of HFCS comes from its higher fructose content, explained Dr. Richard Deth, professor of pharmacology at Boston’s Northeastern University and a co-author on the autism paper, in a phone interview.

While “no one thing is causing autism,” he said, “we can think about the role of HFCS in particular because when this product, as opposed to natural sugar, is used, the fructose — in this case a higher proportion of fructose than normal — bypasses the first step of a particular pathway,” creating “a greater chance of oxidative stress” than sugar’s “more balanced situation.”

Deth said that in the case of autism, “it’s quite clear (from) lots of references” that it is associated with both “oxidative stress (which occurs when damaging oxidants exceed our antioxidant defenses) and low levels of antioxidants.”

Referring to the fructose content in sweeteners, rather than that which naturally occurs in fruits or vegetables, Deth said that the higher the fructose amount, the greater the chance of producing oxidative stress. “This shift toward (higher) fructose leaves us in an antioxidant-vulnerable situation,” he explained.

While the FDA’s legal limit on the fructose content of HFCS is 55 percent (10 percent higher than in sugar), studies have shown amounts in soft drinks to be as much as 20 percent higher, and a growing body of evidence has come to light that HFCS with highly fluctuating fructose amounts, including a mega-90 percent fructose version, is apparently being used by food and beverage manufacturers.

Such findings led Citizens for Health to file a petition last September with the FDA asking the agency to take action against manufacturers using HFCS with fructose levels above 55 percent, 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).

“Oxidative stress,” Deth said, “is a common denominator” in autism that “many things cause and promote. But one can look for clues in the time course for increases in autism that began occurring around 1988. “So it has to be something that is quite broad and effects the whole population,” he noted.

Observing that the preponderance of HFCS in food products has more to do with “convenience” than concern for producing healthy food, he added, “now we can see that these things are not without consequence.”

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

Posted by -- June 11, 2013

Since this blog was published in January, research done on rats by Dr. Francesco Leri, an associate professor of neuroscience and applied cognitive science at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada (which we talked about two weeks ago) has determined that high fructose corn syrup is indeed an addictive substance. Dr. Leri found that 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.” Nor did satiating the rats on their regular chow make the craving for HFCS go away. When administered saccharine, however, the rats did not continue to crave it as they had with HFCS. To Leri, this indicated that “HFCS has effects that are beyond the sweetness in the mouth … effects on the brain.”

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.

‘Nutrition’ drinks with additives that are hazardous to your brain can’t replace real food

Posted by -- June 6, 2013

If there’s anything that the folks at Abbot Laboratories and their ad agency seem determined to do, it’s to ensure that as many people as possible gulp down their Ensure® “nutrition shake” products on a daily basis. To that end, they’ve saturated the airwaves with cutesy commercials showing animated bottles of these sweet-tasting concoctions taking a dominant role over the various food substances, such as fruits and vegetables, inside a refrigerator with the proclamation, “Nutrition in charge!”

Nutrition, indeed! According to the ad copy, just two bottle a day of this “simple choice to help you eat right” supplies you with just about everything it takes to keep your various components functioning at an optimum level – including something called “Revigor®.” Who could ask for anything more?

Not satisfied with trying to turn the entire adult population into habitual Ensure guzzlers, however, the company has also been actively marketing a junior rendition of the product called PediaSure® to ensure that kids are getting their share as well. PediaSure comes in two basic variations – a standard one designed to “help kids grow and gain weight” (with or without fiber) and a version called “Sidekicks®” whose label features a cartoon of a kid superhero and a description of what’s inside as “nutrition support for an uneven diet.”

But before I talk about the implications and possible effects of bringing up a whole new generation of ‘Ensurees’, I’d like to discuss some of the aspects of what you’re ingesting along with all those supposed nutrients whenever you take a swig of this stuff.

While Ensure is available in a variety of flavors, I’ll focus on the Big Enchilada of the Ensure lineup – Ensure Complete®, a product that brings to mind the “Vitameatavegamins” of Lucille Ball’s classic commercial spoof that enabled you to “spoon your way to health” and was “so tasty, too.” Or at least that’s the impression conveyed by the Ensure commercial in which it’s depicted as the “mystery guest” in the fridge promoting itself as the answer to all your nutritional needs, with calcium and vitamin D for healthy bones, Omega 3 for your heart, antioxidants for your immune system and protein and “Revigor” to “protect, preserve and promote muscle health.”

Vitameatavegamins, however, when swallowed repeatedly, had the effect of making Lucy increasingly, ah, incoherent. And while no one’s saying any such thing about Ensure Complete, two bottles of which are recommended daily “as part of a healthy diet,” it does contain a number of ingredients that many experts believe are not at all helpful to brain health. They include sodium caseinate, soy protein isolate, whey protein concentrate and milk protein concentrate – all forms of free glutamic acid (MSG), capable of killing certain brain cells (those in the hypothalamus) by overexciting them, which is why they are called “excitotoxins.”  (In addition, milk protein concentrate has been described by Food & Water Watch as an unregulated “mystery ingredient.”) Another additive,  the thickening agent carrageenan, as we reported here last month, is not considered particularly great for “gut health,” either, as it can cause inflammation in the colon (as well as being another likely source of  free glutamic acid).

A triple threat to  developing brains

And that brings me to PediaSure®, which follows in the path of Ensure, ingredient-wise, by delivering a “triple whammy” of excitotoxins in the form of milk protein concentrate, soy protein isolate and whey protein concentrate along with carrageenan. However, children’s brains, according to experts in neuroscience, are especially susceptible to the effects of excitotoxins due to the lack of a fully developed blood-brain barrier, making a cumulative dose of free glutamic acid administered on a daily basis sounds somewhat less than ideal “for your child’s growth and development.” In fact, one  autism researcher, Dr. Amy Yasko, who has done extensive work in molecular biology and biochemistry, is convinced  that “neurological inflammation” can result in autistic behavior, and that to reverse it, “it is critical to remove excitotoxin triggers from the system” by “closely monitoring food and supplement intake.” And that’s not to mention carrageenan’s potentially inflammatory (and possibly carcinogenic) effect on the gastrointestinal tract.

Of course, the people at the other end of the Abbott  Laboratories information line seemed blissfully  unaware of such concerns. According to to a cheerful and courteous supervisor named Erica who did some checking for us, “all the ingredients in the company’s nutrition products are approved and considered safe” by the Food and Drug Administration and meets all that agency’s regulations. But she would be glad to pass on our concerns to the company, “so it knows how you feel.” (For the record, Abbott Laboratories just a year ago agreed to pay a near-record $1.5 billion in criminal and civil penalties after what was described as a long-running investigation into the unlawful promotion of a prescription drug targeting nursing home patients with dementia.)

Ingredient issues aside, there is another aspect of these all-purpose drinks that particularly resonates with us here at Food Identity Theft: the idea that for many consumers, they’ve come to substitute for actual food.  Perhaps that’s largely due to the influence of all those commercials showing Ensure as taking charge of your nutritional needs while lording it over the fruits and veggies in the fridge, or promotional gimmicks like the “Yuck-O-Meter” at the PediaSure website that asks “which food gets a big ‘yuck’ from your picky eater?” and helps you to find the perfect PediaSure alternative.

But no matter how many synthetic nutrients such products offer, the only way to really ensure that our bodies and brains – and those of our children — are getting the vitamins, minerals and micronutrients they need to function at normal, let alone optimal levels, is by consuming genuine, unadulterated whole foods. Whatever the fanciful commercial gimmicks and slogans used to promote them, flavored concoctions created in a laboratory, complete with additives that can be hazardous to our brains, can no more replace nature’s diverse bounty of truly nutritious commodities than can Vitameatavegamins.

Today’s ‘China Syndrome’ could well be bringing tainted organic products halfway around the world

Posted by -- June 4, 2013

With all of the high profile food safety stories coming out of China, many consumers are steering clear of Chinese imports. But what about organic foods coming from China? Is it really organic? Is it even safe?

At the beginning of May, The House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats, held a hearing to gather “information” on all food imported from China (not just organic), which amounted to a whopping 4.1 billion pounds in 2012,  including 80 percent of the tilapia Americans consumed, and substantial amounts of apple juice, cod, garlic and spinach.

But so-called “organic” imports from China present a host of other issues that include fraudulent organic certification and various unapproved ingredients such as pesticides and dyes.

Testifying at the May hearing were representatives from two consumer groups, Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst at The Cornucopia Institute and Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, both of whom have been following this issue carefully.

Just last month, the “organic industry watchdogs” at the Cornucopia Institute issued a report titled “Not Good Enough for Pet Food,” a reference to the 2007 Chinese melamine contamination of dog and cat food in the U.S. that resulted in the recall of over sixty million packages and the reported illnesses or deaths of 17,000 pets. (The following year, there was another melamine incident in China, this one involving infant formula that sickened an estimated 300,000 babies there, sent over 12,000 to the hospital and killed six).

“We don’t trust, for good reason, the Chinese to supply ingredients for our dog and cat food,” said Kastel in the group’s report, “(w)hy, should we trust Chinese exporters for the food that we are feeding our children and families?”

Kastel also noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture  and Food and Drug Administration are only inspecting one to two percent of all the food that enters U.S. ports, and even in that small amount, a “disproportionate number of serious problems” had been found. “Because of the restricted nature of doing business in China, U.S. certifiers are unable to independently inspect farms and assure compliance to the USDA organic food and agriculture standards that are required for export to the U.S.” he  informed the  subcommittee.

The ‘farming out’ of organic inspection

Organic certification of Chinese food works in the same way as in the U.S. or, for that matter, any other country that wishes to use the “organic” name or USDA seal, which is to rely on a third party called an ACA, or accredited certifying agency. “The bigger issue” for Chinese organic imports, according to  Food & Water’s Lovera, is “when you have a product being sold as organic that has a fraudulent certificate,” a situation that has been occurring more often lately, she told me in a phone interview.

Lovera noted that we don’t know how many fraudulent “organic” items may be entering the U.S. as “we would have to do so much more sampling than (USDA) does,” a rate she described as “pretty low.” Organic products, she added, aren’t singled out for any special checking or analysis at the border.

Considering some of the more recent incidents in China, including nearly half of the rice served in restaurants in southern China having been found to be tainted with cadmium, rat meat being passed off as lamb, and thousands of dead pigs found floating in the main river than runs through Beijing, things aren’t exactly great for Chinese consumers either. In fact, Chinese tourists have reportedly emptied shelves in Australia of infant formula, not wanting to chance it with what’s being sold in their own country.

Interestingly, the recent sale of Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, to a Chinese firm brought to light the flip side of food safety issues with the United States allowing hog feed to be laced with a controversial additive called ractopamine, which is a kind of steroid for pigs. This FDA-approved drug is banned in over 160 countries, including China, and with the possibility of Smithfield becoming a Chinese property last year, the company “quietly weaned the first of its pigs off” the drug in 2012, according to Reuters.

So what’s an organic-conscious consumer to do? What Lovera advises is that where agricultural commodities are concerned, there’s no place like home. “We do tell people to look (at) where their food is coming from,” she said. And “setting food safety aside, in terms of our economy, the closer you can get to home the better.

“At this point there are very few things that can only be produced in China,” she said, “…check the country of origin and look for U.S. organic food.”