Archive for August, 2013

Five snacks that use healthy hype to hide unhealthy ingredients

Posted by -- August 29, 2013

According to the latest information  from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans don’t really “eat meals” any more. That’s because meals, according to the 2009-10 National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) data, have morphed into one long, continuous snack, with nearly 60 percent of Americans surveyed reporting having consumed three or more snacks the previous day. Even nearly a third of toddlers under the age of two are already becoming compulsive snackers, the figures suggest.

Given this national epidemic of munchies, we couldn’t help wondering what folks who claim to be concerned about health and fitness are snacking on.

In a very unofficial, unscientific Food Identity Theft survey, we found that people who described themselves as “careful” “healthy” and “informed” eaters are snacking away on items containing potato flour, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors, hexane-processed soy ingredients, fiber from chicory root and corn and a variety of additives containing free glutamic acid (MSG).

Admittedly, the descriptions and packages are designed to appeal to those who believe they are “eating healthy.”  But perhaps if the ingredient panels on so many of these products wasn’t hidden under the package flap and required not only glasses but a magnifying glass to read, health-conscious individuals might not be so easily duped into believing they’re buying a snack that’s good for them.

Here are five examples of seemingly healthy snack-foods that ought to be barred from the daily diet of anyone who is truly interested in eating well.

While the CLIF BAR products appear to have a halo of health around them – perhaps because they contain a percentage of organic ingredients – the original CLIF energy bar is basically a soy-based product, containing soy protein isolate as the second ingredient (after brown rice syrup), soybeans and soy flour. This nonorganic soy protein isolate is likely processed with hexane, a byproduct of gasoline refining. The Wisconsin based, nonprofit consumer group The Cornucopia Institute, says that hexane is a “neurotoxin and a hazardous air pollutant,” used by soy processors as a solvent. Hexane is not permitted in the processing of organic soy. Soy protein isolate is also a source of processed free glutamic acid – commonly referred to as “hidden” MSG.

Quaker Chewy Yogurt Strawberry Granola Bar
This is nothing more than a cheap candy bar masquerading as a “healthy” snack. The yogurt the package makes such a big deal about is merely a “flavored coating” and the “strawberry” refers to “sweetened dried strawberries” – with added fructose, potato starch, glucose syrup and sodium alginate.

The bar also contains high fructose corn syrup (in two locations on the ingredient panel), as well as a couple sources of hidden MSG and  the preservative BHT.

Kellogg’s Nutri Grain Cereal Bars
True, they’ve taken out the high fructose corn syrup, but the remaining ingredients are still pretty bad. Of course, we all know there are scores of foods and snack foods in the store with bad ingredients. But what surprised us about Nutri Grain Bars is the way the packaging and advertising have fooled many health-conscious folks. The Nutri Grain Strawberry Cereal Bar we examined, for example, contained carrageenan, Red 40, numerous soybean ingredients (that have been processed with hexane), fructose and artificial flavors.

Special K Protein Meal Bar
The list of ingredients on this product was printed in such a tiny font, and was so long that it ran from under the flap all the way down the package side. We had to find the super-duper magnifying glass to actually get a look at them – and what ingredients they are! Let’s start with whey protein concentrate and soy protein isolate – both sources of free glutamic acid (MSG), artificial flavors, preservatives, fructose, and a host of other ingredients derived from corn and soy. Not only isn’t this any kind of  substitute for a “real” meal, but it deserves to be charged with ‘meal identity theft’.

Veggie Crisps Mixed Vegetable Snack from Herr’s
By no stretch of the imagination can these be described as containing “mixed vegetables.” Their actual ingredients are potato flour mixed with canola oil, some added “natural” flavors and a dab of tomato paste and spinach powder (which has none of the nutrients contained in even a small serving of real spinach, such as Vitamin A, C and iron).

So if you’re one of those people who can’t stop snacking, at least try turning it into a healthy habit – by ditching all those additive-adulterated, thinly disguised junk foods in favor of something really nutritious — like some fruit, nuts, homemade granola bars, raisins, or how about just eating a real meal instead?




Apples head list of fruits, veggies that should be ‘organic only’

Posted by -- August 27, 2013

It’s a question you may well have asked yourself when shopping for fruits and veggies: which are the most important ones to buy organic?

Unless you spend all you time tending an organic garden or live in an area that has a robust organic farmers market, it’s likely that organic foods only make their way into your diet here and there. But some types of produce are so routinely contaminated with pesticides, and so often consumed by kids, that the only advisable way to buy them is organically grown.

For the 9th year in a row the Washington D.C.-based Environmental Working Group has issued it’s “Dirty Dozen” most contaminated produce lineup and its “Clean Fifteen” list of commodities with the smallest pesticide residues. Based on USDA  and Food and Drug Administration pesticide-analysis data of more than 28,000 samples, the list is an easy way to purge the worst pesticide-plagued offenders from your diet.

Here are the top five from the EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” list, along with some of the reasons we think you should spring for the organic versions. (see the full list plus two extra crops here):

1. Apples
This is a real shame, as apples have high levels of anti-inflammatory flavonoids that are concentrated in the peel. If apples made the top of the list, that means conventional applesauce and apple juice can’t be far behind.

2. Strawberries
Strawberry fields are a hotbed for pesticide and fungicide use, including fumigation of the soil prior to planting. Another bonus for organically-grown varieties: studies have shown them to be significantly higher in antioxidants. If that’s enough for you to cross conventional strawberries off your shopping list, you might also think about buying organic strawberry jam and jellies.

3. Grapes
If you were compiling a list of the healthiest foods on the planet, grapes would be a top contender. Unfortunately they also make the top of the EWG Dirty Dozen list. The good news is that organic grapes are easily available, so there’s no reason to stop buying this amazing fruit. You should also consider trying organic wine and making the switch to organic grape jelly.

4. Celery
Celery has been near the top of the EWG’s list for several years, and many experts say to absolutely avoid conventionally grown celery.

5. Peaches
What could be a finer treat than a juicy, tree-ripened peach on a summer day? Not only are peaches amazingly delicious, but they are great sources of vitamin A, potassium, zinc and vitamin C. If you can find good-quality organically grown peaches don’t pass them by.

Rodale, publishers of Organic Gardening and a host of other “healthy living” publications, also adds bread to the “don’t buy conventional” list, noting that wheat, rye and other grains are “commonly sprayed with insecticides to keep the bugs away, particularly a class called organophosphates, which have been linked to IQ problems and ADHD in children.”

(For that same reason, Rodale also recommends that you consume only organic cereals and snack foods, such as pretzels and crackers, made from grains.)

The benefits you get from organically grown commodities go beyond the fact that you are ingesting fewer toxic pesticides. Organic farmers don’t raise chickens on a diet of antibiotics, drugs and caffeine; organic fruits and vegetables contain an average of 30 percent more antioxidants; organic agriculture helps preserve the integrity of groundwater, fosters sustainable farming practices and the preservation of nutrient-rich soil, and, as an extra bonus, organic processed foods contain no HFCS!

D.I.Y. sweetener used in new study adds to sugar, HFCS confusion

Posted by -- August 22, 2013

University of Utah biology professor Wayne Potts, right, and former Ph.D. student James Ruff, left, set up one of the “mouse barns” used in their new study. Photo: Lee J. Siegel, University of Utah.

A new study published last week about mice and sweeteners has resulted in some really big headlines that have continued to compound consumer confusion over the difference between high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and sugar.

The study, by a research team out of the The University of Utah published in the journal Nature Communications, came to some alarming conclusions – that (according to the university press release) “Sugar is toxic to mice in ‘safe’ doses,” and  “new test hints three sodas daily hurt lifespan, reproduction.” The media took it from there, further blurring the distinction between natural sugar (sucrose) and the man-made invention know as high fructose corn syrup.

The research involved caged groups of “house mice,” some fed a diet that replaced part of their calories with 25 percent added sweeteners (more on that in a minute) and others fed exactly the same number of calories but without the sweet substitution. After 26 weeks, all of the mice were placed in “mouse barns” a more realistic setting than cages, which allowed for observation of their ability to survive, claim “territory,” and breed, for another 32 weeks (during which time all the mice were fed the added-sweetener diet).

Food Identity Theft spoke with the study’s lead author, University of Utah Biology Professor Wayne Potts about the results, and especially about what sweetener it was the test group, and later the entire group of mice were fed.

Potts said his study, titled “Human-relevant levels of added sugar consumption increase female mortality and lower male fitness in mice,” didn’t actually use sugar, but rather a third-party made sweetener that more “closely mimicked HFCS, being roughly a 50/50 mixture of glucose and fructose monosaccharides” that’s “very similar (to HFCS).” As we’ve often noted here, however, HFCS is typically more than 50 percent fructose, and in some cases, much more – as high as 90 percent (which is why Citizens for Health has filed a petition with the Food and Drug Administration seeking to have the actual HFCS-fructose amount listed on product labels).

A ‘broad term’ gets even broader

The University Press Office was even a bit more lax about using the terms “sugar,” and “added-sugar diet” in its press release. When asked about the release headline, “Sugar is toxic to mice in ‘safe’ doses,” the communications specialist said, “I think the glucose/fructose mix is just ‘sugar,’” and then that she would check to “make sure that’s okay,” adding “I’m thinking that sugar is just a broad term…they referenced it as ‘sugar’ in the study, but they didn’t give them white crystals.”

Certainly Professor Potts and the University of Utah are not the first to make sugar “a broad term.” The
confusion over the difference between high fructose corn syrup and real sugar has traveled far and wide, possibly originating with none other than the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which refers to the expression “sugary drinks” (which are most likely ones that contain high fructose corn syrup) as a “consumer-tested message.”

In past interviews, John S. Webster, director of Public and Governmental affairs for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, told us that “the term ‘sugary drinks’ is not a defined term.” It was chosen to “convey the idea” of drinks that contain “added sugars” – meaning any beverage sweetened with ingredients listed in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which includes honey, molasses, corn sweetener, and high fructose corn syrup, for example,” he said.

So muddled is the media on this issue, in fact, that a report on the study from msnNOW states that “unsurprisingly, the sugar industry isn’t buying it,” then goes on to quote a response from the Corn Refiners Association, which represents the manufacturers of HFCS.

But I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to know the actual substance in question when I hear about a study in which the female mice “died at twice the normal rate” and males “were a quarter less likely to reproduce,” and both sexes generally “lose about 30 percent of their health and reproduction.”

Potts current research, however, should be a bit more exacting in terms of what sweeteners are being studied, as it’s a side-by-side comparison between actual sugar and high fructose corn syrup, something “the toxicologists were most interested in (doing),” Potts said.

But despite being continually confused with “sugar” by politicians, the media and even  researchers, it’s become increasingly clear that the public has a growing distaste for HFCS and doesn’t need further research to be convinced that this unnatural sweetener has no place in a healthy diet.

Newest ‘Top Ten Plus’ additive to avoid was once the stuff of ‘bathroom humor’

Posted by -- August 20, 2013

The next addition for our “Top Ten Plus” additives to avoid was included among Time magazine’s “50 worst inventions.” At one time it required a warning label that consumption “may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools,” and a respected consumer group has dubbed it the “most complained about additive ever.” It interferes with the body’s ability to absorb some essential vitamins, and originally its manufacturer, Procter & Gamble, wasn’t even sure if it should be marketed as a drug or a food additive. The company subsequently spent hundreds of millions to maneuver it through the Food and Drug Administration’s regulatory process and market it to the public.

The Top Ten Plus Food Additives to Avoid:
Number 12 – Olestra (brand name: Olean)

Considering the checkered history of olestra, many had thought this fat substitute had been consigned to the land of really, really stupid ideas. But, alas, it’s somehow remained in the food supply. And thanks to an expanded use, company-determined  “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) proclamation in 2007 and 2010 by Procter & Gamble, you may find olestra not only in a current lineup of Frito Lay’s and Pringles chips, as well as a popular bakery cookie, but it could possibly even turn up in a bevy of  coming food attractions, ranging from mayo to bread to ice cream to breakfast cereals.

Due to an FDA decision ten years ago, olestra-containing products no longer need to carry that warning label about “loose stools,” which made the rounds from late-night stand-up routines to cartoons and even movies, as in this line from the 2002 comedy, The Sweetest Thing: “what kind of marketing brainiac puts anal leakage on his product?”

Professor, author and blogger Marion Nestle, who wrote about the history of the additive, The Selling of Olestra, in a 1998 edition of Public Health Reports, describes the FDA’s actions at the time of olestra’s approval in 1996 by saying, “This peculiar decision – judging olestra ‘safe’ while alerting consumers to its potential hazards – was only the latest episode in a 30-year struggle to bring olestra to market.”

‘Let the consumer beware’ replaces diarrhea alert

If you were paying attention back in the late ’90’s, you may remember all the hoopla surrounding the introduction of fat-free WOW and Pringles chips containing the “new” non-digestable fat substitute olestra. It didn’t take long for adverse reaction reports to start coming in, many collected by the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

Michael Jacobson, executive director of CSPI, told Food Identity Theft in an email that his organization “received and sent to the FDA more than 2,000 adverse-reaction reports, with people complaining of horrible cramps, terrible diarrhea, and unspeakable smells. Procter & Gamble,” he added “submitted at least 10 times as many reports to the FDA.”

“Curiously, controlled studies have not been able to replicate the gastrointestinal symptoms, which is why the FDA allowed companies to drop the initially required warning label,” Jacobson said.

A member of our team who contacted Frito-Lay inquiring as to what had become of that warning label on products containing olestra, was immediately corrected by a company “nutrition specialist,” who said it was “more of an informational label than a warning label.”  The FDA, she noted, had originally asked that such a label be put on packages “so that it could track the number of adverse effects” to olestra, which had occurred “in a small amount of people” during the initial testing of the fat substitute.

Any such adverse effects reports the company received, she claimed, were sent to the FDA, but there weren’t all that many, and eventually, the agency said the label could be removed, since it appeared that “more people had trouble with lactose intolerance,” which has “a similar effect.” And since the label was removed, she knew of “very few” complaints made to the company about the ingredient.

When our team member pointed out that most lactose intolerant people knew what foods they should be avoiding and asked the Frito-Lay nutrition specialist how someone would know they were reacting to potato chips containing olestra, she replied that it was matter of “cause and effect … you would just assume it was the thing you ate.”

According to CSPI, those WOW chips, which are no longer on the market, were “quietly renamed,” to Lay’s “Light,” a move the group was quoted as saying was “designed to intentionally deceive people into thinking that the product was an entirely new olestra-free lower-calorie chip.”

In 2006, with the warning label gone, and the only mention of olestra appearing on the chip’s ingredient list, CSPI (which very actively opposed the FDA approval of the additive) threatened Lay’s and Pringles (owned at the time by P&G) with a lawsuit if more prominent notice of the controversial ingredient didn’t appear on the packaging. As an apparent result, the labeling was later revised to make mention of “Olean” on the package front.

And then there’s the cookie

Back at P&G headquarters, the search for new markets for olestra-containing foods resulted in “a unique partnership” with 85-year-old Cincinnati-based Busken bakeries.

“Several years ago (P&G) approached us about test marketing a product with olestra,” Dan Busken said in a phone interview, adding “of course it’s had its share of bad press.” But that doesn’t appear to have slowed sales of  the bakery’s “Skinny Cookie,” the olestra-containing version of its smiley face original, over half a million of which have been sold by Busken’s in the last three years.

The Skinny Cookie, which has the required vitamins E, A, K and D added (as olestra depletes the body of those nutrients), cannot be sold “out of a bakery showcase,” but must be packaged in a box or individual unit that has the ingredients listed, Busken said. He described the box as simply listing “olestra right in line with the other ingredients, not called out on the front or anything like the Pringles container does. You can buy one cookie,” he added, “but it would be packaged.”

Busken said that the Skinny Cookie has “been a good story for P&G to take back to headquarters and show that there is a market for using their ingredient in baked goods, not just chips.”

Jacobson’s opinion on the potential olestra-expansion was not quite as cheery. “It would be a shame if food manufacturers started incorporating it into more than the two brands of potato chips in which it has been used for the past decade,” he said.

“Cutting calories from saturated fat is a reasonable goal,” Jacobson added, “but not if comes at the expense of thousands of people suffering gastrointestinal misery.”

Coke offers a tentative and lame ‘defense of aspartame’

Posted by -- August 15, 2013

Coke’s “grandpa” ad showing in the UK released the same day as its “defense of aspartame” ad in the U.S.


Have you heard the news?  “Coke’s fighting back!”

That’s right.  It was such a big announcement, it even made the ABC World News on Tuesday evening, and was subsequently hyped on NBC and Internet sites like

And what, exactly, is this reportedly colossal counter-offensive by the Coca-Cola Company designed to accomplish?  Why, to defend the company’s use of artificial sweeteners — and especially aspartame — against adverse publicity (much of it having to do with the many adverse reactions to aspartame) that may be behind a noticeable slump in diet soda sales.

Or, according to an NBC News report out of Chicago, the goal was described by Caren Pasquale Seckler, vice president of social commitment at Coca-Cola, as being “to clear up the confusion around diet sweeteners.”

Given the extent of the coverage, one might think that a major campaign had been rolled out to try and debunk the growing mountain of scientific and anecdotal evidence of all the ways that aspartame may be hazardous to our health and well-being. But in actuality, the effort supposedly under way, which might perhaps best be described as tentative in scope and tepid in tone, seems to involve a lot of sound bites and very little fury — in fact, very little of anything that might justify all the media fanfare.

What the first wave of this assault consists of, in fact, is a print ad appearing in the Atlanta edition of USA Today and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta being the home base of Coca-Cola), which will also run in the Chicago Tribune next week. Whether there will be any follow-up, Seckler is reported to have said, will depend on the “response” in  those two cities.

Something to ‘feel good about’? Really?

The content of the ad, itself, however, hardly seems likely to evoke much more than a “ho-hum” response at best. Under an unobtrusive headline reading “Quality products you can always feel good about” and a picture of two ordinary-looking women, one having lunch and the other holding a bottle of Coke,  is a carefully constructed message of reassurance, which claims that for 127 years, “people have always been able to trust the quality of our products and everything that goes into them,”and  “that’s something that will never change.”

But then the ad goes on to indicate that there have, indeed, been changes in Coca-Cola products — those that “go along with the times and people’s tastes.” which translate into offering people “high quality low-and no-calories sweeteners including aspartame … “great tasting options they can feel good about.”  And while acknowledging that “some people have questions” about their use, it goes on to assure readers that “time and again,” such sweeteners “have shown (sic) to be safe, high quality alternatives to sugar,” with “the safety of aspartame supported by more than 200 studies over the last 40 years.”

So there you have it — the use of aspartame, while admittedly representing one of several changes in Coca-Cola products (another being the substitution of obesity-promoting high fructose corn syrup for sugar in its caloric sodas), is “something that people can feel good about.”

Except, that is, when they don’t.

That’s one of the things this particular ad makes no mention of — the thousands of people who have suffered adverse reactions to aspartame, which have manifested themselves in symptoms ranging from dizziness and memory loss to seizures, blinding headaches and even temporary blindness. Nor does it mention the studies that have associated aspartame with the development of brain tumors in lab animals, nor that, as Citizens for Health Board Chair James S. Turner has noted, “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.” Nor is there any mention of the fact that aspartame is considered by experts to be an “excitotoxin” capable of killing certain brain cells by literally exciting them to death, especially in children and the elderly.

But, oddly enough, the elderly do have a prominent role in another Coke ad — a TV commercial released in the United Kingdom on Wednesday, the very same day the defense-of-aspartame ad appeared in Atlanta. Its theme: “Live like grandpa did.” To the accompaniment of Tom Jones’ “It ‘s Not Unusual” (although what this song has to do with the ad isn’t exactly clear), a member of today’s generation is contrasted via split screen with his “grandpa,” who back in the day is shown doing things like climbing stairs, eating an apple instead of chips, cooking dinner, and sitting at a table. The underlying message, of course, is that grandpa always enjoyed Coke — and you can still do likewise.

Actually, the idea of living like grandpa did is one that kind of appeals to us — especially seeing how the only thing used to sweeten the Coke back in grandpa’s era was pure sugar, without the addition of “great-tasting options” like aspartame and HFCS. It could, in fact, be one reason why the grandpas shown in this commercial are still so spry and healthy looking.

FDA’s policy of self-determination provides ‘safe passage’ for one of the worst additives ever

Posted by -- August 13, 2013

Who decides if food additives are safe before they end up in that frozen dinner, canned soup or cake?

If you said the Food and Drug Administration, you’re only about 57 percent right.  And the rest? According to a new study, the approximate 43 percent of the more than 10,000 additives in the U.S. food supply that are regarded as Generally Recognized as Safe, or GRAS, had their safety determined by the manufacturer!

But wait, there’s more! Of that 43 percent, the study says, approximately 1,000 “GRAS” additives ended up in food without FDA knowledge (which is A-okay with the agency).  And for the icing on the additive-laden cake, those manufacturers that do decide to voluntarily inform the FDA get to pick who conducts the safety review of the additive.

The study, “Conflicts of Interest in Approvals of Additives to Food Determined to be Generally Recognized as Safe,” published last week in JAMA Internal Medicine stated that, “The lack of independent review in GRAS determinations raises concerns about the integrity of the process and whether it ensures the safety of the food supply…”

Professor, author and nutrition blogger Marion Nestle, who wrote an accompanying editorial to the study, put it a bit more bluntly, stating, “as long an not too many people roll over dead after eating foods with new additives, nobody will ever have a clue whether the additive is safe.”

The food additive approval process, as explained by Nestle, appears to be a downhill trip of FDA oversight. In 1958, she says, “Congress passed a law requiring companies introducing a new additive to provide evidence of safety before putting it on the market.” But as many food additives had been consumed for a very long time, an exemption was made for these GRAS substances so they didn’t require any premarket approval. If a manufacture believed its additive met GRAS requirements, they could petition the FDA, as many did.

However, in 1997, a fast-track additive-to-market plan was proposed by the agency. With the exception of color additives, “food companies could—at their own discretion—notify the FDA that experts generally agreed that a new additive was safe,” Nestle says in her editorial, adding that these rules “proposed 16 years ago, have never been issued in final form and are still pending.”

“Most complained about additive ever” makes a GRAS comeback

Since “formal” GRAS determinations by the FDA were phased out in 1997, the current method, should a manufacturer choose to notify the agency at all, is to send a GRAS notice to the agency that includes the name of the additive, the “notifier” who is making the GRAS determination, its intended use and the basis for determining that the substance is safe for food use.

The FDA’s “GRAS notice inventory,” is all online, including the agency’s usual response, known as the “no questions” letter. Included in that “inventory” is one additive that many people had thought was gone for good – the infamous fake fat substitute known as olestra (or Olean)

Called “the most complained about additive ever,” by Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and included among Time magazine’s “50 worst inventions,” olestra may also be the only ingredient to ever have required a warning label on products containing it noting that consumption “may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools,”  or to have been targeted by comedians for a related side effect known as “anal leakage.”

It also was one of the more expensive additives brought to market, with Procter & Gamble having spent around $500 million on it since its invention in 1968. In 1987 the company petitioned the FDA to have it “officially” approved as a food additive which it finally achieved in 1996, but only for chips and crackers and amid unresolved safety and testing questions.

By 1997, P&G and CSPI had each submitted over a thousand adverse reaction reports to the FDA, many for severe diarrhea, fecal incontinence and abdominal cramps, and by 2002, CSPI noted that such reports were approaching the 20,000 mark, “more than all other food additive complains in history combined.”

Given all the complaints and jokes about this indigestible ingredient – which also interferes with the body’s ability to absorb certain essential vitamins – one might have thought olestra would have been long consigned to the scrap heap of failed products. But actually, it’s still out there – only without those prominent label warnings to scare off consumers. And apparently, P&G is not about to simply write off its investment, having filed a 673-page self-determination of GRAS status with the FDA in 2010 for the use of olestra in a wide variety of additional ready-to-eat foods, including mayo, ice cream, bread, cakes and cookies (all with no warning notices on the package).

A short eight months later, the FDA responded with a “no questions” letter, indicating that the agency would not  challenge P&G’s “conclusion that Olestra is GRAS under its intended conditions of use.”

All of which is yet more proof  of why it’s advisable to read ingredient labels before purchasing any processed food product – and why, seeing how the FDA has deferred to manufacturers’ judgments in regard to the safety of food additives, the adage “let the buyer beware” has never been more applicable.

Lawyers for Vitaminwater admit drink’s ‘health benefits’ not meant to be believed

Posted by -- August 8, 2013

Are you an average, reasonable consumer – the kind who might, say, expect a drink product with such buzz words as “healthy” and “nutrient enhanced” on its label and “vitamin” in its name to have some of these redeeming benefits?

The seemingly common consumer belief that Vitaminwater, acquired by Coca-Cola for a whopping 4.2 billion in 2007, is healthier than a Coke, has been the subject of litigation by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) since 2009. CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson states at the group’s website that Vitaminwater marketing “will go down in history as one of the boldest and brashest attempts ever to affix a healthy halo to what is essentially a junk food…”

The most recent action in this nutrition identity theft case came last month when a federal magistrate recommended that the case be allowed to proceed as a class action.

Already, however, the Vitaminwater case has managed to distinguish itself in the annals of  product litigation by having produced what is perhaps the most laughable example of bad labeling defense ever. In an early attempt to have the case dismissed, the defendant’s lawyers are reported to have made the claim that “no consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking Vitaminwater was a healthy beverage.”

Given the use of such zingy descriptive terms as “revive,” “power-c” and “energy,” and claims of reducing  the risk of eye disease, keeping joints healthy, and “optimal immune function,” it sure might sound like a healthy beverage. But an ingredient check shows it to be mainly comprised of filtered water, crystalline fructose (another corn-derived sweetener made by the same corn refiners that produce high fructose corn syrup), a tiny bit of fruit juice ( less than half of a percent, according to CSPI) and some synthetic vitamins.

While the people marketing Vitaminwater have made numerous “health” claims on its behalf, a current look at the brand’s deliberately sophomoric-sounding web site reveals some very odd-sounding copy points you can find by clicking on bottles, such as:

power-c: this stuff is red and has something to do with vitamin c.
defense: everyone always says ‘the best defense is a good offense.’ What does that gym coach jibberish (sic) even mean?
Focus: it’s a real shame that archers use their astonishing focus just for shooting arrows.

And if the 120 calories in Vitaminwater and its corn-derived fructose is too much, take a look at Vitaminwater Zero, said to be “naturally sweetened,” but still containing another corn ingredient, erythritol as well as “stevia leaf extract.”

Truvia lawsuit reveals an even bigger deception

At the end of last month I reported on another class action recently filed in Hawaii federal court against Cargill’s Truvia, which claims the “stevia” sweetener isn’t natural at all, but “highly chemically processed,” and “likely to deceive” consumers.

The complaint also revealed that the primary ingredient in Truvia, is erythritol, which coincidentally also happens to be the second ingredient in Vitaminwater Zero after water itself. Erythritol is described in the Truvia lawsuit as coming from corn starch converted “…to glucose through the biochemical process of enzymatic hydrolysis,” further fermented with yeast.

With PepsiCo recently agreeing to pay out $9 million to settle a lawsuit that challenged its Naked Juice brand use of the word “natural” – and with the drink giant agreeing to remove the phrase “all natural” from the product’s label — the Vitaminwater litigation likely being certified as a class action, and the lawsuit against Truvia, it looks as though we can expect to see more changes in food labeling being produced by legal maneuvers than the Food and Drug Administration.

American Beverage Association uses CDC data in its own version of ‘spin the bottle’

Posted by -- August 6, 2013

With Americans putting on weight at a record rate, big beverage companies are always looking for ways to justify that the hyper-consumption of sodas and other beverages, most all sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, are not a contributing factor in the current obesity epidemic.

The Coca-Cola Company, for example, refers to what you will get downing 12 ounces of its flagship, HFCS-sweetened product as “140 happy calories,” and shows how you can easily burn them off doing “extra happy activities.” Coke’s “be OK” commercials, one of which was recently banned in the UK for being misleading, is said by the company as one of the ways they are addressing “obesity head-on.”

But the numbers are certainly not on their side, with one-third of adult men and women in the U.S. considered obese, morbid obesity now off the charts, and childhood obesity having more than doubled in the last 30 years.

So when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued some newly crunched numbers via its National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) about the consumption of sweetened foods and beverages among U.S. adults, it hit a happy note with the American Beverage Association (ABA), trade group for “Big Bev.”

In fact, the ABA could barely contain its enthusiasm in reporting on the NCHS “data brief” number 122 at its “Sip & Savor” blog last month, which it interpreted to mean that “…a mere 4.33 percent of average daily calories among adults can be attributed to beverages,” and that “when you do the math, singling out soft drinks for obesity in America doesn’t add up.”

Wow! Even I thought that only 4.33 percent of average daily calorie consumption from soda and other beverages was pretty amazing, So I thought I would do the math as they suggested. I calculated that in a 1,500-calorie diet, that would work out to a meager 65 calories a day, and that for a 2,000-calorie a day diet, it would come to 86.6 calories. Since that 12-ounce Coke, to cite but one example, contains 140 calories (and that’s just one serving), whatever became, I couldn’t help wondering, of the rest of those calories from one or more– perhaps quite a few more soft drinks?

Setting out to investigate this astonishing revelation, I made some calls, the first one right to the source, Dr. Bethene Ervin, the lead author of CDC data brief number 122.

How the ABA arrived at the 4.33 beverage-calories per day was by taking the paper’s “on average” 13 percent of calories in the diet of middle income adults (because as income level goes down, the number goes up) that come from added “sugars” (meaning all added caloric sweeteners, including the ubiquitous HFCS *).  Of that 13 percent, “one third comes from beverages, roughly four percent of the calories,” Dr. Ervin said.

But, Dr. Ervin added, that figure doesn’t account for “the peak group,” those that consume the most sweetened beverages — adolescents and young adults. Since the ABA-quoted number was for adults aged 22 to 85, and because sweetener intake decreases as you age, “you’re averaging them both out, so the effect is being washed out.  The (number) is being diminished by averaging in the group that’s consuming less, which is the older age group,” she said. And while Dr. Ervin thought the ABA number was technically correct, she acknowledged “the U.S. population is consuming a large amount (of caloric beverages)” and that adults and especially kids are well over the dietary guidelines.

Quick, easy and diluted data

My next stop was to contact  the ABA itself. Spokesperson Chris Gindlesperger was more than happy to talk about the figure, saying this is all “part of the story we are trying to tell. When you actually look at the data…it doesn’t match up to the rhetoric from some of the folks that believe caloric beverages are driving the obesity issue.”

Gindlesperger said the 4.33-calorie number sounded quite reasonable to him, and when I asked how it all panned out when just one HFCS-sweetened soda would take you over the top of that figure, he responded, “you’re right, but I don’t thinks that’s a ‘gotcha’ moment or anything.”

But then, Gindlesperger added another little factoid that seemed to substantially revise the entire equation: it seems fifty percent of the ABA member company sales are “diet” or zero calorie beverages, so “you’re talking about half the market with no calories.”

Dr. Ervin’s data brief number 122, Consumption of Added Sugars Among U.S. Adults, 2005 – 2010 derives it figures from the National Health & Nutritional Examination Survey, commonly referred to as NHANES, an ongoing, yearly health survey of the U.S. population.

Based on census data, NHANES looks at several thousand selected people around the country each year who are compensated for undergoing a variety of medical tests and interviews, which includes a “dietary recall.” The data are used in developing health policies and programs, and basically all the places where you’ll find statistics about the U.S. population’s dietary habits or health.

While Dr. Ervin may know exactly where her figures are coming from and what they may mean in the scheme of things, she maintained that what the ABA is doing  is “making a statement from my report… (which) by adding groups in … dilutes the impact of it if you just looked at young adults.”

The CDC “data briefs,” which are printed and all ready to fold and mail, are something Dr. Ervin speculated were designed to be “quick and easy for policy and political people,” and a fast way to get “information out to the media.”

But not all such “information” is as cut and dried as it may seem, which may make it possible for some parties to to play ‘fast and loose’ with this sort of data — something that became even more apparent when I spoke with Christie Munsell, a research associate and nutritionist at the Yale University Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

Munsell said she was “not really surprised” to hear that “they are being creative with how they are reporting these findings.” But she took the most exception with the ABA’s statement  that “when you do the math, singling out soft drinks for obesity in America doesn’t add up,” noting that everything else could be factual —  they are just quoting from the CDC report — but I think that just this one calculation can’t justify that sentence.”

So while the ABA  may be accurately quoting those statistical numbers from the CDC, it somehow just doesn’t add up. Or perhaps we should simply think of it as Big Bev’s attempt to play “spin the bottle.”


*For an explanation of why all caloric sweeteners are called “sugars” see Five big things that are wrong with the nutrition facts label.

Expert cautions: brand name honey likely of Chinese origin

Posted by -- August 1, 2013

If you’ve ever purchased honey from a supermarket or a big box store, chances are pretty good that the honey isn’t what you thought it was. But a bill pending in the U.S. Senate may help put a stop to honey identity theft in the U.S , where there are currently “no standards” or requirements for truth in labeling for honey, according to Texas A&M anthropology professor Vaughn Bryant.

Senate Bill 662, if passed in its current lengthy form, contains a provision that “would require the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Customs to do a better job of making sure what goes on the label is in fact what’s in the jar,” said Bryant.

Bryant, who is also a “melissopalynologist” –  an expert detective in identifying pollen and its source – may be one of the biggest supporters of the bill. He is hoping the U.S., which is one of the “few countries in the top honey-producing nations that does not do any kind of analysis,” will finally set some rules where honey is concerned.

“As far as I know I’m the only person in the U.S. who looks at honey to try and identify where it comes from,” Bryant told Food Identity Theft in a phone interview. “There is no one in the U.S. Customs who does it, and no one in the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) who does it.”

What Bryant looks for, based on decades of experience in distinguishing it, is pollen,  the microscopic specks that bees leave behind in their honey that tell the story of where that honey came from and what those bees foraged on.

Without pollen, the origin of honey is impossible to trace, and origin is of prime importance to both beekeepers and consumers, especially if that honey is from China, the world’s number one honey-producing country. Chinese honey is cheap and often contaminated with drugs, pesticides or even diluted with sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup. In an attempt to keep low-cost Chinese honey from flooding the U.S. market, a big import tariff was imposed in 2001. Since pollen-free honey can’t be traced, a trick called “transshipping,” is used, where Chinese honey is shipped to other countries with fake documents and passed off as coming from a tariff-free location.

If it’s ultra-filtered, it’s probably from China

In 2011, Food Safety News reported that more than three-fourths of the honey sold in the U.S. (including 100 percent of the honey from Walgreen’s, Rite-Aid and CVS drug stores) was “ultrafilered,” so highly processed that it was totally devoid of pollen.  Mark Jensen, president of the American Honey Producers Association, was quoted in the article as saying, “in my judgment, it is pretty safe to assume that any ultra-filtered honey on store shelves is Chinese honey…”

Bryant, who conducted the testing for that report, said that he has never found any pollen in honey he has tested bearing the Walmart, CVS or Sue Bee label, and he has “looked at a lot of Sue Bee honey.”

But aside from missing pollen, Bryant also takes issue with honey that is mislabeled as to where it’s from.

Recalling an incident in a “big box grocery store where I live” he encountered a large display of honey with a sign saying it was from Texas. “So I purchased some and took it to the lab and tested it.” What Bryant found was that not only wasn’t the honey from the specific Texas location where it was advertised as having originated, but it wasn’t even from Texas. However, when he went back to tell the manager of the store what he does for a living and what he had discovered, he was told “so what.”

“I said ‘don’t you care that this is wrong’ and the manager just walked away. And to this day it still says ‘Texas’ on the sign,” he said.

His advice to consumers is not to purchase honey from large retail chains, but instead to buy from local beekeepers. “Unfortunately even there we find people who are cheating,” he said.  But “you stand a much better chance by buying local honey that it might really be what it is supposed to be.”

And if the honey provision in Bill 662 passes, the U.S. might just catch up to the quality standards imposed by food safety organizations in most other countries.