Archive for March, 2014
Posted by Linda Bonvie -- March 27, 2014
The second place designation in our Citizens for Health “Read Your Labels” campaign of food additives to avoid goes to a really bad actor found in many supposedly “healthy” foods as well as diet products and beverages. Although this ingredient has become totally entrenched in the marketplace, it has never been proven to be safe. In fact, studies done over 40 years ago connected it to the development of brain tumors in rodents and grand mal seizures in rhesus monkeys.
Even worse – school officials and health agencies are actively promoting this chemical as a healthy alternative for kids!
Number two: Aspartame (a.k.a. NutraSweet, Equal) the ‘diet devil’ in disguise
The aspartame fiasco is an example of how one bad regulatory decision can set the stage for a host of subsequent evils. In this case, the ‘original sin’ was a Food and Drug Administration commissioner’s decision more than three decades ago to ignore the agency’s own scientific advisers by clearing this laboratory-created synthetic sweetener for entry into the food supply, where it was soon firmly ensconced.
Aspartame (originally marketed as NutraSweet), which was accidentally discovered by a chemist working for Searle while looking for a new ulcer drug, is made up of three neurotoxic chemicals – substances that are toxic to brain cells. (See Tuesday’s blog about other similar excitotoxins liberally added to food.)
Citizens for Health Board Chair Jim Turner, a Washington, D.C. Attorney and author of the best-selling book The Chemical Feast: The Nader Report on Food Protection at the FDA, along with his advocacy group managed to keep aspartame off the market for 11 years until 1981, when its use was approved over the advice of FDA scientists as well as the agency’s Public Board of Inquiry that previously had concluded that it should not be permitted in the food supply.
That official OK was about as clear an example of corporate influence in government as has ever been seen, an obvious political favor to the then head of Searle, Donald Rumsfeld (yes, that Donald Rumsfeld) by the incoming Reagan administration for his help on the transition team. Turner summarizes the entire aspartame fiasco as a case of “political toxicity and biological toxicity working together to create toxic health problems for the public.”
Before long, thousands of aspartame-related health complaints about everything from migraines to memory loss to dizziness to vision problems were being reported to the FDA, which even acknowledged that adverse reactions might be possible, but did nothing to reverse the decision.
Today, a growing number of health-conscious consumers avoid aspartame like the plague, avoiding any product described as “low calorie” or “sugar free.” But if the dairy industry has its way, such descriptive phrases may disappear from the front of flavored milk cartons and other dairy products that contain this chemical sweetener.
The latest wrangle involving aspartame is over a petition filed by the National Milk Producers Federation and the International Dairy Foods Association to “amend the standard identity of milk” (and 17 additional dairy products). If the FDA agrees, it would allow flavored milk with added artificial sweeteners such as aspartame to be labeled as just “milk,” eliminating the now-required “low-cal” notice on the front of the package.
The dairy industry claims this would be all for the benefit of American kids. “Promoting more healthful eating practices and decreasing childhood obesity is one of the most pressing problems facing our country today,” notes the petition, which also states that the phrase “reduced calorie…” according to market research, “doesn’t appeal to children.”
But what it does reflect is that milk consumption is way down, especially in schools where the amount of calories in the products sold in school lunchrooms are starting to be “officially” limited, and the feeling of the dairy industry that in order to sell more milk – the aspartame-sweetened kind, that is – they’ve “got to hide it from the kids.”
Fortunately, a lot of American consumers and parents who have by now become familiar with aspartame’s long and ugly “rap sheet” – which includes actually promoting, rather than discouraging obesity — are no longer willing to go along with the idea that this neurotoxic additive is a “healthy” alternative to sugar, as reflected by the amount of public outrage the petition has sparked, including a counter-petition to “tell the FDA we don’t want aspartame in our milk,” and over 40,000 comments sent into the FDA docket.
But it does leave one to wonder about how a really bad additive actor, believed to have caused brain tumors in one set of test animals and brain seizures in another (the latter after being fed a milk-based formula), to say nothing of countless other adverse health effects, can come to be categorized as a “safe and suitable sweetener” for chocolate milk being sold to school children.
Posted by Linda Bonvie -- March 25, 2014
It’s a rite of spring as sure as hearing the birds singing in the morning – those cute Daisies and Brownies pitching The Cookies at us in front of our neighborhood supermarket and other stores.
Who can resist? It’s almost un-American to turn them down. After all, this yearly event started almost 100 years ago.
And most people don’t turn them down. In fact, they seem to buy them by the carload and then come back for more. They seem to just assume these are healthy cookies because cute little Girl Scouts are selling them.
Now I have nothing at all against Girl Scouts (even though not becoming a Brownie still remains one of the big traumas of my childhood). So I was taken aback when one of the moms bristled when I started reading the ingredients on one of the boxes.
“Can I help you with something,” she asked.
I told her I was surprised to see partially hydrogenated oils in the super-popular Thin Mints. And that it was especially a shock since back in November even the FDA (finally) proposed a ban on this artery-clogging ingredient that everyone acknowledges kills thousands each year.
“The girls don’t have to hear this,” she said, adding “they probably eat more vegetables than you do.”
I wanted to say “well, yes, Ma’am, I think they do need to hear this.” But instead, I purchased a box of Thin Mints and left, not wanting to be accused of causing any of those cute little Brownies to start crying.
And that’s brings up the real problem here. How can you trust an industry that continues to dupe this sugar-and spice-institution with unhealthy, artery-clogging additives (even while it uses a labeling loophole to pretend they contain “zero trans fats”)?
How bad are the ingredients in some of these Girl Scout cookies? Take a look:
- Samoas: partially hydrogenated oils, carrageenan and artificial flavors;
- Caramel deLites: partially hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup and artificial flavors and “corn sugar.” (What, exactly, is corn sugar? We’re not sure and the Girl Scouts aren’t returning calls. Is it dextrose, a corn-derived ingredient that contains no fructose? Or is it still more HFCS, which the Corn Refiners Association unsuccessfully attempted to rebrand as corn sugar several years ago.)
- Dulce de Leche: Yellow Lake # 5 and 6 and Blue 2 Lake, as well as some artificial flavors;
- Lemonades: partially hydrogenated oil, corn syrup and artificial flavors.
But this is much more than just another processed food with less than stellar ingredients. After all, you’re surrounded by such products every time you step foot inside a supermarket.
No, this is also about, what the Girl Scouts call the “5 skills,” things each one of these adorable girls learn every time you buy a box. Here are some of the good deeds the Scout site says will take place when you buy the cookies:
For Lemonades — “With each box of tangy lemon-icing-topped shortbread cookies you buy, you’re helping a girl learn about goal setting. She learns how to organize her cookie sale, build a goal, and work hard – skills that help her accomplish all she’ll set out to do in life.”
For the Caramel deLites — a girl leans about “…the importance of keeping her word, doing the right thing, and being fair. A girl learns the business ethics that will serve her throughout life.”
So are selling cookies with ingredients reported to cause heart disease, diabetes, obesity and other ills “doing the right thing?” Maybe the catch here is that when you partner with Big Food in a venture, there really are no “business ethics.”
And if you’re curious about what those original Girl Scout cookies were made from back around 1922, it was butter, sugar, eggs, milk, vanilla, flour, salt and baking powder.
Now those were cookies that could help anyone “do the right thing.” And in 2014, you can still make cookies from those very same ingredients.
Posted by Linda Bonvie -- March 20, 2014
They’re often referred to as “excitotoxins” because of their ability to literally excite brain cells to death. Consumers ingest massive amounts of these often hidden and highly toxic “flavor enhancers,” which can also cause adverse reactions ranging from skin rashes to asthma attacks, mood swings, upset stomach, migraines, heart irregularities and seizures. For those who are extremely sensitive, it can put them into life-threatening anaphylactic shock.
The Food and Drug Administration has been presented with ample evidence that these particular additives can be especially harmful to kids, the elderly and developing fetuses. Yet, they’re allowed to be routinely – and liberally — added to scores of processed foods, even organic, vegetarian and “natural” ones, for the devious purpose of fooling the tongue so the food tastes better. That’s why we’ve designated them as five, four and three on our list of additives to be avoided in Citizens for Health’s “Read Your Labels” campaign:
(5) Monosodium glutamate, (4) autolyzed yeast and
(3) hydrolyzed protein
Monosodium glutamate is by now a familiar name that many consumers make a big point to avoid. And while you’ll still see it in numerous products such as chips, ramen noodle dishes and soups, manufacturers know that many consumers check package labels for this neurotoxic flavor enhancer.
That’s why looking for monosodium glutamate on ingredient labels is just the tip of the iceberg.
In selecting our top ten food additives to avoid, we not only picked monosodium glutamate, but also two of the most common ingredients that contain manufactured glutamic acid, the substance in monosodium glutamate that triggers all those adverse reactions. And there are dozens more. In fact, if you want all the manufactured glutamic acid (or MSG) out of your diet, you won’t be eating many processed foods.
There is no doubt that the food industry has a love affair with MSG. It allows products with bland or sparse ingredients to taste really exciting, both saving companies money and adding immensely to sales. Why use 20 chickens in a commercial chicken soup recipe when you can use half that number, add some yeast extract, and everyone will love the taste?
The history of monosodium glutamate use is a sneaky one as well. This toxic chemical found its way into more and more products during the 1950s and ’60s, its use having reportedly doubled in each decade since the 1940s. In addition to being marketed as an ‘off the shelf’ flavor enhancer, it was also at one time added to baby food. But in the late 1950s, researchers tested the chemical on infant mice and discovered it destroyed nerve cells in the inner layers of the retina. A decade later, prominent neurosurgeon Dr. John Olney, found it had a similar effect on cells, or neurons, in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. Disclosure of that information to Congress in 1969 was enough to get monosodium glutamate voluntarily removed from baby food, to which it was being added in amounts equivalent to those that had produced brain damage in test animals.
Experts now know that feeding excitotoxins, such as monosodium glutamate and other ingredients containing manufactured glutamic acid, to newborns and young children can have devastating effects on learning ability, personality and behavior. In his book, Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills (originally published in 1994), well-respected neurosurgeon Dr. Russell Blaylock noted that “sometimes the effects might be subtle, such as a slight case of dyslexia, or more severe, such as frequent outbursts of uncontrollable anger…”
The list of adverse reactions to these additives is wide and varied, and because they are “sneaked” into so many foods, highly sensitive people who react to very small doses have no way of knowing they have even been exposed.
The Truth in Labeling Campaign, a grassroots, science-based, information service to help people identify reactions to manufactured glutamic acid and avoid ingesting it, estimates that as many as half of all Americans are sensitive to ingredients containing MSG. And the harm these additives cause isn’t necessarily limited to obvious adverse reactions, for as Blaylock points out, MSG can produce “silent damage to the brain with very few symptoms.”
How to keep your diet (relatively) free of MSG
While monosodium glutamate can be easy enough to look for, the dozens of ingredient names that also contain manufactured glutamic acid can turn a trip to the supermarket into an adventure in chemistry.
Along with autolyzed yeast and hydrolyzed protein, you need to watch out for anything that’s
“hydrolyzed,” and basically any ingredient name that contains the word “protein” (e.g., whey protein isolate, textured protein). (For a complete list of ingredients that “always” and “often” contain MSG, look here). To add to the confusion, many companies use the trick of putting “NO MSG ADDED” on the labels of food products that contain various amounts of manufactured glutamic acid, which is ‘hidden’ in over 40 different ingredients.
Highly sensitive people can react to extremely small doses of these additives, making nearly all processed foods a dangerous proposition for them. One such extremely MSG-sensitive individual was the late Jack Samuels, who with his wife Adrienne, a Ph.D. focusing on research methodology, founded the Truth in Labeling Campaign, sharing studies and information they learned over decades of research at their web site www.truthinlabeling.org.
Now that you have some idea of where you’ll find various forms of MSG, if you want to know why such dangerous ingredients are still allowed in food, we suggest you read The Man Who Sued the FDA, by Adrienne Samuels, which documents Jack and Adrienne’s own story of ‘discovery’ in regard to MSG that spans several decades. The book is also the story of how industry and, in particular, a lobbying group known as the Glutamate Association gets its way when it comes to keeping this toxic additive in the food supply at all costs, even to the point of producing studies claiming MSG to be “safe” that many experts have deemed blatantly flawed.
Admittedly, keeping your family’s diet free of these neurotoxic substances may be tricky, but is well worth the effort. Remember, the brain you save may be your own.
Posted by Linda Bonvie -- March 18, 2014
By BILL BONVIE
The phantom flavoring agent we’ve told you about in past blogs is now reportedly available as a food and beverage additive, and should be coming soon to a supermarket near you.
It’s even been given a name – Sweetmyx.
Only don’t expect to see that name listed among the ingredients of products that contain it. More than likely, it will simply be another “artificial flavor” or perhaps an “artificial sweetener,” with the only other clue to its presence being a magical reduction in calories. And while it will be making its debut in beverages manufactured by Pepsi, a Swiss company is reported to be finding ways to use it in all kinds of other processed foods.
But you might be relieved to hear it was declared safe – or at least “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS. And that, of course, means the Food and Drug Administration has conferred an official stamp of safety on it, right?
Well, not exactly.
In fact, the FDA, in a rather unusual declaration, has let it be known that it’s done no such thing, despite an announcement sent out to and parroted in the media that sure sounded like it had.
In fact, here’s how the press release containing that announcement was worded:
“Senomyx, Inc. (SNMX), a leading company using proprietary taste science technologies to discover, develop and commercialize novel flavor ingredients for the food, beverage and flavor industries, announced today that its new Sweetmyx flavor ingredient, previously referred to as S617, has been determined to be Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) under the provisions of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, administered by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “
And here was the FDA’s response:
“On March 11, 2014, Senomyx, Inc. issued a public statement suggesting that its food ingredient Sweetmyx (also known as S617) was generally recognized as safe (GRAS). The statement appeared to suggest that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had made the GRAS determination. In fact, the agency had not made this determination nor had it been notified by Senomyx regarding a GRAS determination for this food ingredient. The company’s statement has been corrected and now notes that a third party organization made the determination.”
Ah, yes, it was actually a “third party organization” that made the determination of safety – to be specific, the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association, which also uses the acronym FEMA (not to be confused with the better known federal agency). And that group seems to have made its determination in keeping with a 1997 proposed rule that would have allowed GRAS declarations to be made on a voluntary basis, but was never finalized.
But, like one of those courtroom statements that the jury is instructed to disregard, the original announcement had its desired effect, which was to jack up the company’s stock price 26 percent (and possibly to give the impression of an official safety confirmation to anyone who wasn’t privy to the follow-up).
So is the FDA now planning on doing its own assessment of the safety of Sweetmyx? Not that we’re aware of.
In fact, if the FDA knows what this stuff is or how it’s made, they’re not passing that information on to the public. All we do know is that it’s not really a “sweetener,” but rather a “sweetener enhancer” that tricks your taste buds – and your brain – into perceiving an amplified level of sweetness that’s not really there.
A road we’ve been down before?
Might Sweetmyx, then, turn out to be another “excitoxin” that can cause neurons in your brain to fire until they self-destruct, like MSG (another “flavor enhancer”) or aspartame? Again, we don’t know.
And aspartame should, perhaps, be an object lesson in the dangers of allowing a chemical concoction to enter the market as a sweetening agent without our having a complete understanding of its effects and potential hazards. In fact, aspartame (originally marketed as NutraSweet) actually received GRAS status — although that approval by a political appointee, FDA commissioner Arthur Hull Hayes, in the early 1980s came despite some rather ominous results of testing done by the original manufacturer, G.D. Searle, which caused an earlier FDA approval to be rescinded, and ran counter to the advice of the FDA’s own Public Board of Inquiry.
Many thousands of adverse reaction reports have since resulted from aspartame’s widespread assimilation into any number of products as a noncaloric synthetic sweetener, ranging from migraines to vision problems to blackouts. But once having become firmly entrenched (even though it is now being shown to actually promote weight gain), it has become an accepted additive to processed foods that consumers often don’t even realize is there, and that no amount of health complaints seem able to dislodge.
Now once again, we see a mysterious new ingredient about to be added to an unspecified number of products, but which this time isn’t even likely to be identified by name. In fact, food industry marketer-turned-critic Bruce Bradley cites it as an example of how companies encourage “excessive consumption” by introducing “more and more minimally tested additives” into the food supply “with questionable concern for the long-term health consequences for consumers.”
But is it mere coincidence that Sweetmyx is making its appearance at a time when so-called “sugary drinks” — which actually contain high fructose corn syrup – are being targeted by reformers as a major cause of the current obesity epidemic? After all, what could be wrong with finding a way to reduce the “added sugars” (again, really HFCS) they contain without making them seem any less sweet?
As it turns out, quite a lot — which we know only too well from having already had the disastrous experience of allowing industry to use our food as a testing ground for experimental substances to enhance its profits.
Posted by Linda Bonvie -- March 13, 2014
Read your labels day countdown continues!
The next ingredient to avoid in our Read Your Labels campaign should have been banned in the U.S. decades ago. It has been known to cause cancer in laboratory animals for over 30 years, and the evidence of its toxic nature is so compelling that this additive has been banned in many countries, including Europe, China, Canada, and Brazil.
In the United States, however, it can still be found in processed foods ranging from breads to tortillas to knishes. The only good thing we can say about this additive is that its use is on the decline, no doubt due to some really bad press over the years, but you still have to be on the lookout to avoid it. Read on to learn how keep this unnecessary, toxic ingredient out of your diet.
Number 7: Potassium bromate
Used to “improve” flour and make more uniform, attractive bakery products, potassium bromate (or bromated flour) has been on the list of carcinogens in California since 1991. And while many other countries have banned its use entirely, the Food and Drug Administration has merely asked the baking industry to voluntarily stop using it.
According to the American Bakers Association, if potassium bromate is used “properly” no detectable residues will be found; however, if too much is used, or any number of other procedures are not followed (such as proper temperature settings or baking time) a residue of this carcinogenic additive will end up in the finished product.
According to The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), FDA tests going back to 1992 and 1998 found levels of bromate in “several dozen baked goods” that would be “considered unsafe by the agency (FDA).” One sample, CSPI noted in a press release “had almost 1,000 times the detection limit.”
In 1999 CSPI submitted a petition to the Food and Drug Administration to ban this additive, saying that “The FDA has known since 1982 that potassium bromate can cause tumors of the kidney, thyroid and other organs in animals,” with additional studies over the years all confirming its toxic properties.
While some commercial brands have replaced potassium bromate with other dough-enhancing additives, brominated flour is still widely used in restaurants and bakeries. General Mills, makers of Pillsbury and Gold Medal brand flours, offers no less than 22 different brominated flours at its “professional baking solutions” site. Bottom line: if a bakery can’t tell you what ingredients it uses in making its cakes, cookies and bread, it’s time to find another bakery. The oddest product that we found potassium bromate in – considering its big “benefit” is to promote yeast rising — was New York brand flatbreads.
This leads us to another nasty bromine additive…
Number 6: Brominated vegetable oil
While PepsiCo got lots of kudos back in January when it announced that it would be removing brominated vegetable oil, or BVO, from one of its Gatorade products, that doesn’t mean it’s gone from the marketplace. In fact, PepsiCo continues to use BVO in other beverages it makes, such as Mountain Dew
BVO, which used in food and beverages for the highly important cosmetic purpose of keeping their ingredients all neatly blended together, builds up in fatty tissue and has been shown to cause heart damage in research animals. But while it is banned as a food additive in many other places, including Europe, India and Japan, its status has been in limbo at the FDA for over three decades.
BVO is especially apt to be found in in orange and other citrus-flavored beverages, so be sure and check their ingredients carefully before buying them..
Posted by Linda Bonvie -- March 11, 2014
By JAMES TURNER and BILL BONVIE
“Soon it will be much easier to tell whether a packaged food or beverage is actually healthy.” — Men’s Journal. “Michelle Obama Wins Big Against Powerful Corporate Interests.” — Christina Wilkie, Huffington Post. “It’s a victory.” — Mark Bittman, The New York Times.
Finally last week, after a decade of work, the Food and Drug Administration announced proposed changes to its 20-year-old “Nutrition Facts Label.” Michelle Obama hosted the press conference announcing the new label and received kudos from swooning media.
But, will the new label actually make as much of a difference in our becoming a nation of healthier eaters as the First Lady indicated?
Let’s do a reality check:
In a blog at the end of January, “FDA fiddles with Nutrition Facts Label while ignoring burning food issues,” we highlighted some of the current label’s failings. And while we’re glad to see the FDA acknowledging that it needs improving, the proposed changes — despite their elaborate release and flattering press — would leave consumers poorly informed in several crucial areas.
For starters, it often misrepresents the amount of artery-clogging trans fat in a product. The new label does not correct the current loophole that allows up to 0.5 grams of trans fat to be represented as “zero” grams. The FDA should immediately eliminate this “loophole” for a substance it has acknowledged kills over 7,000 people a year. Even though the agency has now proposed a phase-out of trans fat, failure to correct this discrepancy means that people who now believe they are avoiding this additive may well, in fact, be unknowingly consuming not insignificant amounts. The label could easily aid such consumers by either specifying that a product contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fats or rounding the amount up to 0.5, rather than down to zero.
But, we’re told, the emphasis of the new label will no longer be on “fats.” “To help address obesity, one of the most important public health problems facing our country, the proposed label would drive attention to calories and serving sizes” instead of fats, says Michael Taylor FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods.
To this end, “total calories” would be prominently displayed at the top in large, bold numerals. Portion sizes would also be increased to give a more realistic idea of the amounts people eat. And the new phrase “added sugars” would be placed on the display.
The sugar fallacy – and the risk of being too calorie conscious
This strategy can also mislead consumers. Total calories can be lowered even while portion sizes are increased by simply adding extra amounts of fructose (as has been noted by at least one major manufacturer of high fructose corn syrup). This use of fructose underscores the nature of the ‘sugar fallacy’ the new label promotes, which is only made worse by adding the phrase “added sugars.”
The per capita consumption of sugar is the same today as it was in 1909. By contrast, the per capita consumption of fructose is far higher today than it was in 1980, the year its presence in processed foods began to increase in the form of high fructose corn syrup, leading to its becoming the caloric sweetener most often added to food.
Unless they read ingredients, consumers of low-calorie food products listing “added sugars” could miss the addition of high fructose corn syrup. This difficulty could be overcome by listing “sweeteners” and “added sweeteners” by name on the Nutrition Facts Label. Or, “natural sugar” could be differentiated from “added sweeteners” on the nutrition label.
It is important for consumers to know if and when they consume which sweetener — including sucrose and fructose. The label should avoided disguising this information by lumping all sweeteners under the generic heading “sugars” and “added sugars.”
The proposed label would also prominently display a food product’s number of calories. But where do those calories come from? The proposed Nutrition Facts Label doesn’t say. If the source is unbound fructose (from high fructose corn syrup, for example), it can make a big difference to people trying to stay healthy, lose weight, or avoid becoming overweight.
Also, if fostering a new sense of “calorie consciousness” is the purpose of all this, it poses a new risk to consumers: the greater likelihood that they’ll opt for “lite” products containing either caloric sweeteners with higher amounts of fructose or non-caloric artificial sweeteners like aspartame, which is neurotoxic and can pose a genuine health hazard (especially to children and the elderly).
What the real goal of food labeling should be
“Our guiding principle here,” noted Mrs. Obama, “is very simple: that you as a parent and a consumer should be able to walk into your local grocery store, pick up an item off the shelf, and be able to tell whether it’s good for your family.” Bravo! — that is exactly what we’re all hoping better food labeling will achieve.
But, while she is absolutely right about the guiding principle involved, the proposed “new” Nutrition Facts Label, in its current form, falls short in helping shoppers understand whether something is really “good for” their families.
Continuing to misstate up to 0.5 milligrams of trans-fats as 0 milligrams is just one glaring example. Now, the FDA might argue that by the time these label changes are implemented – most likely in a few years – all added trans fat (in the form of partially hydrogenated oil) will probably have been phased out of food, as it proposed back in November. Perhaps, perhaps not. But in the meantime, consumers will go on eating dangerous quantities of this substance in multiple products in the mistaken belief that their diet is trans-fat free.
Saying “sugars” and “added sugars” also fools the consumer. Using terms like “sweeteners” and “added sweeteners” would provide far more useful information about the specific additives being used to sweeten food products. Displaying this kind of information on food labels would help individuals know whether a product is what they intended to buy by giving them an idea of what kind of additives it contains, its nutritional profile and how much of it is advisable to eat.
But in its proposed form, there is much less to the new Nutrition Facts Label then there easily could be. Some of the changes, in fact, are purely cosmetic – like moving the “daily values” in each product of fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbs and protein, as well as the newly specified nutrients potassium and vitamin D, from a right-hand column to one on the left (which sounds a bit like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic).
None of these comments are meant to criticize the First Lady or to question the sincerity of her campaign to improve the health of American families. We consider some of the things she’s done as having been definite steps in the right direction, from the White House organic garden to the “Let’s Move” program she’s pursued to combat childhood obesity. In fact, there’s no one we can think of who’s been a bigger advocate for healthy living.
But in the case of the new Nutrition Facts Label, her advocacy represents, at best, a nod in the right direction. Now we need to urge her to fight for full disclosure of things like actual trans fat levels, the amounts of fructose in HFCS, and which sweeteners are added to products.
In the meantime, to get more of an actual understanding of what’s in the processed food you eat, and how healthy or harmful it really is, you should, in fact, be reading the label – the ingredients label, that is, which you’ll usually find in a much less prominent place on a food package or can than the Nutrition Facts Label.
That’s why we’ve designated April 11 (4-11) as National “Read Your Labels Day,” which is intended to encourage food shoppers to become more aware of the actual ingredients in the processed products they buy, and to make choices based on that knowledge.
We would also encourage readers of this blog to use the 90-day public comment period now in effect to in make their opinions known to the FDA about those proposed changes to the Nutrition Facts Label – and to propose changes of their own.
Posted by Linda Bonvie -- March 6, 2014
What if we told you that two closely-related preservatives, commonly-added to scores of processed foods (many of them for kids), are banned in Japan and most European countries; have been found to alter brain chemistry in mice when they are exposed prenatally; that one is listed as a carcinogen by the state of California, and that by adding these chemicals to its list of “eliminated” ingredients, the Feingold Diet success rate for treating kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) almost doubled!
Well, listen up, because this pair of preservatives, commonly added to our food for the sole purpose of extending its shelf life to increase manufacturers’ profits, are the next unnecessary, harmful ingredients we urge you avoid in our Read Your Labels campaign,
Number 8: BHA and BHT (Butylated Hydroxyanisole and Butylated Hydroxytoulene)
Sometimes we get so used to seeing certain ingredients listed on labels that it seems they must be OK. Such is the case with BHT and BHA, which are used in scores of products, such as cereals, snack foods, chewing gum, pies, cakes, processed meats and even beer. These industrial preservatives are also sprayed onto the lining of food packages.
BHA and BHT, which are actually made from coal tar or petroleum, have been the focus of behavioral and health concerns for decades, although the Food and Drug Administration continues to allow the use of these industrial anti-oxidants in food products (as well as medicines and cosmetics).
Over 30 years ago studies found that after pregnant mice were fed BHT and BHA, their offspring were born with altered brain chemistry. According to the researchers, “the affected mice weighed less, slept less and fought more than normal controls.” On top of that, BHA is considered a possible carcinogen by the World Health Organization and listed as a carcinogen in California.
While there are many cereals available that don’t contain these or any other chemical preservatives for that matter (including organic varieties), one of the biggest producers of breakfast cereal, Kellogg’s, is also one of the bigger users of BHT, which we found in practically every Kellogg’s cereal we looked at – including its cornerstone product, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.
A brand is only as good as its ingredients
Fortunately, many shoppers are no longer willing to accept the presence of such unsavory additives simply because the products that harbor them are put out by “trusted” brands.
“I don’t understand why they use these toxic preservatives when there are alternatives,” noted one, New Jersey resident Dan Brown, who banished his kids’ favorite cereal, Kellogg’s Frosted Mini-Wheats, from the house when he learned about the harmful effects of the BHT it contains.
Brown, a stay-at-home dad and professional musician, who says his family goes through “a lot of cereal,” was so angry with what he read about BHT and BHA, that he wrote Kellogg’s, saying he had found another brand that was cheaper “without BHT and other additives and chemicals,” telling the company, “I am sorry that you feel that you have to poison me and my family to make a profit on your food; maybe you should rethink your business plan…”
One company that seems to have carefully considered its business plan is Mom’s Best Cereals. Based in Minneapolis, this four-generation family-owned business makes 10 cereals containing no high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils or artificial flavors or preservatives such as BHA or BHT. Now ranked third in sales in the U.S. ready-to-eat cereal market, Mom’s Best has managed to win over consumers such as Brown, who have ditched the big-brand cereals such as Kellogg’s and General Mills for ones containing better ingredients.
“Once you learn what’s really in these products, you can’t go back, especially when you’re feeding it to your kids. For manufacturers to put harmful ingredients in food marketed to kids just blows my mind,” says Brown, whose advice to other parents is to “read the label, no matter how hard that can be when you’re shopping, especially shopping with kids. But you’ve got to do it.”
Stay tuned as we continue our countdown of the top ten ingredients to avoid including a soda additive that’s also used as a flame retardant, a known carcinogen that is still in baked goods in the U.S. because it helps food manufacturers make more money and a very common flavoring additive that kills brain cells.
Posted by Linda Bonvie -- March 4, 2014
If you’ve been half-listening to the news the past few months, you might be under the impression that the FDA has tackled this trans fat problem once and for all. Finally, it seemed this killer was being reigned in and outlawed. (Whew, that’s one less thing to be checking labels for.)
Well, one day that may be true. But for now, it’s still in food. Lots of foods. So even though things sound promising, for this Read Your Labels Day 2014, trans fat are still very much on the list!
Top ten additives to avoid: Number 9, trans fat (as in partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated oil)
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that if people in the U.S. cut this stuff out of their diets it would prevent over 20,000 heart attacks and more than 7,000 deaths a year from coronary disease, while a study in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated the heart-damaging toll from this ingredient is over 200,000 “events” a year.
The best part of banishing this heart-disease-promoting ingredient from your menu is that you won’t miss it one iota. But in order to do so, you need to ignore both claims that a product doesn’t have any and what appears on the “Nutrition Facts” label, and go directly to the list of ingredients.
By now everyone – doctors, registered dieticians, government authorities, health officials – everyone agrees that trans fats are really, really bad for you. Not only do they increase LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, but they decrease your “good” HDL cholesterol. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, studies have shown that people with the highest blood levels of trans fats are at much greater risk of developing certain cancers. So why are there still trans fats in processed foods?
One reason is that partially hydrogenated oils containing trans fats are cheaper and easier for food manufacturers to use. But the main advantage these highly processed oils provide to the food industry is the way they keep pastries, breads, cookies, crackers and other baked goods from going rancid, allowing them to remain on store shelves longer than they ordinarily would. In other words, they increase a product’s “shelf life” even while quite possibly shortening the life of the consumer who buys it.
Besides bakery items, this industrially-created oil can often be found in frozen or refrigerated products such as French fries, pizza, dough, pies and cakes as well as in many of the items served in restaurants, including fried foods, pies, cakes and salad dressings.
Now you might think that checking the Nutrition Facts label, which has required trans fat labeling since 2006, would be the easiest way to avoid this artery-clogging substance. Think again. Current Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations allow manufacturers to claim there are “zero trans fats” on the Nutrition Facts label as long as the amount is under 0.5 grams per serving (an amount that varies from product to product and is usually much less than you think). Let’s say you eat three servings of a food that claims to have zero trans fats, but in fact has 0.4 – just under the amount required to be labeled. Without realizing it, you’ve just consumed 1.6. grams of trans fats (or more, if your portion size was bigger than what the serving size is on the label).
A well-rounded zero
Some manufacturers play the zero trans fat game with an interesting twist in logic. Pillsbury’s refrigerated pizza crust product, for example, that contains partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil has a happy label statement in a yellow circle of “0g Trans Fat.” But next to the hydrogenated oil is a little asterisk that sends us to a note at the bottom of the ingredient list that says, “adds a trivial amount of trans fat.” So is it zero or is it “trivial?” And what exactly is Pillsbury’s idea of trivial? The only thing we know for sure is it’s under 0.5 grams per serving or they couldn’t put that big zero on the package.
(One of the more interesting facts about trans fats is that at one time they were considered healthier than the saturated fats found in dairy products such as butter or in meat. Then in the 1990s researchers started identifying the adverse health effects of consuming trans fats, but by this time they were entrenched in the food supply, and it has only been recently that food manufacturers have begun removing them to some degree.)
Trans fat-free zones?
In 2007, New York City Mayor Bloomberg followed through with his phaseout of trans fats in the city’s restaurants by banning them from serving foods containing over 0.5 grams. But that prohibition carries the exact same “zero trans fats” labeling loophole that the FDA has allowed in supermarket foods. So while the New York City “ban,” along with similar ones in places like Philadelphia and Boston may have reduced the amount of trans fats consumed by restaurant patrons, it by no means has banned them, as a much smaller city is now attempting to do.
On January 1st, the Boston suburb of Chelsea, Massachusetts was poised to be the first city in the nation to have a complete ban on trans fats in packaged and restaurant foods sold there. Not the 0.5 grams allowed in Boston and other locations, but nada – absolutely zero.
Unfortunately, this groundbreaking achievement was postponed, perhaps due to heavy pressure from industry, especially the National Restaurant Association, whose representative was quoted as saying the group was “encouraged” by the delay, which will “allow the industry to provide additional perspective.”
The Chelsea ban, which will be reconsidered by the city’s board of health later this month, would certainly be a strong message to “industry,” to get off the corporate couch and stop selling foods that considerably reduce a consumer’s “shelf life.”
But why wait, when you can institute your own trans fat ban right in your own home? All it will require is a moment to read the ingredient label before you allow a product to enter.
Coming next: the carcinogenic additive in your chips and cereal.