Archive for May, 2014

FED UP: How what should have been an important movie missed the mark

Posted by -- May 29, 2014

fedup_movie

By James S. Turner,

Board Chair, Citizens for Health

FED UP, a fast-paced documentary co-produced and narrated by ABC News icon Katie Couric, effectively presents repeated food industry actions taken against the best interest of children.The film deserves kudos for reporting how, by combining powerful lobbying of government with profit- maximizing strategies, the food business undermines the health of children and families and how the obesity and diabetes epidemics have followed in the wake of repeated food-industry market-building initiatives.

But there’s a lot that’s missing here – and some aspects of this movie that are genuinely misleading. And that’s why, as a depiction of where we currently are as a society coping with the results of a food industry largely run amok, FED UP leaves one with the feeling of a missed opportunity.

 Here is the story.

In 1981, his first year as president, Ronald Reagan, lobbied heavily by the food industry, cut $1.8 billion from the school-lunch program.  Across the country schools sold their cooking equipment and replaced their in-school cooked meals with fast food from companies like McDonald’s. Simultaneously, junk food began turning up as secondary products in gas stations, office supply stores, movie theatres, and other non-food businesses as well as on supermarket shelves.  Both childhood and adult obesity and diabetes rose in direct proportion to the spread of this business model.

The film describes food industry manipulation of well-intended reforms. The food business turned such initiatives into ways to sell more junk. It spun efforts to stem the tide of disease and disability spread by the commercial debasement of food into sales slogans.  The late Sen. George McGovern, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs in the 1960s and ‘70s and an advocate of nutritional dietary guidelines, is shown lamenting food lobbyists redoing his reforms into key parts of their disease-spreading business promotions.

Bemused power brokers address the camera.  The Agriculture Secretary calls ketchup a vegetable in law but not in his house; a former FDA commissioner, who says humanity’s future is at stake, worries about decisions made—or not—during his tenure; courts block befuddled billionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s limits on supersize fast-food drinks; consumer and scientist advocates, investigative journalists, Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Tom Harkin, and former President Bill Clinton are shown impotently griping into the mike about powerlessness.  Angst grips the witnesses.

A different angst, in narratives from children suffering the alleged harms of modern food, punctuates the power-broker bewilderment. The food these kids eat presents heart-wrenching choices—teasing, lost friends, surgery, hiding. The plight of these children attests to the fact that abstract food debates affect real lives.  As Manohla Dargis’s New York Times review notes, “…their participation can feel borderline exploitative.”  Viewers can make that call.  The narratives are powerful.

Using reflective interviews with real players and films from as long as 50 years ago, FED UP weaves these themes—impotent powerbrokers, “powerful” children;  home/community grown and cooked food versus factory food;  industrial versus natural ingredients—into a story. The 1960s villainized fat. The 1970s created flavorless, fat-free food. 1980s food manufacturers used sweetness (called “sugar” or “sugary” consistently throughout the film) to make the defatted, flavor-depleted foods palatable.

 Filling two-thirds of Washington, DC’s E Street Cinema’s smallest theatre, the audience laughed, chortled, and even gasped at key points and gave a heartfelt round of applause at the end of the film.It also seemed that fewer- than-usual snack boxes and beverage containers littered the empty house at show’s end.Kudos for eleven bucks well spent, and a good time had by all – or at least a gratifying one of duty done.

Caveat: As The Times’ Dargis points out, the film is filled with “sugary” cartoon villains, including “Big Sugar”. Problem:  the U.S. Department of Agriculture says that Americans consumed the same amount of sugar per capita in 2009 (latest figures) as they did in 1909—no sugar explosion here.  Ninety-five percent of “sugary sodas,” contain no sugar.  Many “bad” foods like Oreos contain no sugar.  High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), often with excess fructose, sweetens them.  Perhaps “Big Syrup” would be a better name for the villain in this movie.

Consumers more savvy than reformers

Ironically, FED UP shows the food industry undercutting the last generation’s food reformers, then joins in undercutting today’s reformers. It does this by embracing the Corn Refiners Association’s $100 million advertising fable that brands all caloric sweeteners as being both identical and “sugar.” When research showed obesity and diabetes rising with HFCS sales, its sales dropped, showing that the public, a good food-fight ally, understands a lot more than it is given credit for. When The CRA asked the FDA to rename HFCS “corn sugar.” The latter, with 30,000 public comments against it, refused.   Nonetheless, the CRA continued to step up its all-sugar-is-the-same routine.

The CRA persisted with ads calling HFCS “sugar”. Now FED UP leads today’s food reformers in spreading the industry group’s false “sugary” tale.  It lumps all sweeteners together and calls them “sugar”. At the same time it argues that all calories are not the same.  It knows that there are different kinds of fats.  But when it comes to sweeteners, they are all identical and they are all “sugar”.  In his blog “5 reasons HFCS will kill you,” Mark Hyman, an on-camera expert in the movie, quotes Harry Truman as saying “If you can’t convince them, confuse them.” Fed UP, unfortunately, joins the CRA in confusing the issue.

But there is even more to that story: Back in 1981, skirting FDA doubts, HFCS began its ascent to becoming America’s dominant caloric sweetener. In that same year  Ronald Reagan’s newly appointed FDA commissioner blocked a Public Board of Inquiry ban on aspartame (NutraSweet), making that chemical the top non-caloric sweetener.  In clinical trials, NutraSweet use preceded female weight gain.  Donald Rumsfeld, NutraSweet company president, served on President Reagan’s transition team.   That team chose the Reagan Administration’s FDA commissioner, a former consultant to the Defense Department during Rumsfeld’s term as Secretary of Defense in the Ford Administration. That commissioner overturned the ban on Rumsfeld’s billion-dollar artificial sweetener.

The 1981 sweetener events reinforce the film’s message:  Food is political.  That message is “not subtle,” says Mark Bittman, the provocative New York Times Food Politics writer, celebrity cook-at-home chef, and FED UP performer/endorser. Caveat:  politics is subtle and subtlety matters.  Grasping political subtleties helps turn isolated consumers into effective activists.  Some food companies spin the public with false ads, industrial sweeteners, and fake flavors, colors, and textures.  Our health suffers. Informed FED UP watchers can counter this manipulation by remembering the correlation between rising obesity/diabetes rates and HFCS sales. Time, research, and markets will tell how much this correlation matters.

The talking heads in this movie know the HFCS story. They say in blogs, interviews, and court documents that they believe HFCS adds to obesity and diabetes and is digested differently from real sugar.   Dr.  Hyman calls HFCS a “killer” and advises consuming sugar in moderation but avoiding HFCS totally. Another scientist shown told a court that the body metabolizes HFCS in dangerously different ways than it does sugar.  Surprisingly, very little of this information, which might soften a mother’s candy-versus-a-child’s-health choice, finds its way into Fed UP, and then only peripherally to its main focus on “sugary” villains.

Another subtlety: Sometimes a food company is not a complete villain. For example, companies as diverse as Subway, Pepsi, Chick-fil-A, Wal-Mart’s Wild Oats, and Whole Foods all identify HFCS as an “unwanted ingredient” in some or all of their products.  Board rooms and store aisles offer good food-fight venues. HFCS manufacturers set up their food company clients as targets by calling HFCS “sugar.” One judge dismissed a diabetic child’s case against HFCS makers, saying that they did not put the HFCS into food, food companies did.  Some food sellers might ally themselves with food reformers in their own self-interest before the lawsuits start targeting them, as the judge’s ruling suggests.

In another subtlety, FED UP shows the US Secretary of Agriculture disputing his own agency’s vegetable definition. When a person occupies a power seat, the power resides in the seat at least as much as in the person.  This subtlety complicates our food problem. President Clinton signed a law eliminating the warnings on saccharine, itself tagged as a weight promoter by some researchers.  An adviser to the former FDA commissioner featured in FED UP defended Monsanto’s NutraSweet —weight gain studies and all—on CBS’s 60 Minutes, then joined Monsanto as an in-house scientist.  On the Today show, Katie Couric hosted Monsanto touting NutraSweet. People in power seats perform virtually oblivious to the effects of their acts and virtually powerless to act differently.    

What didn’t make the cut                                                                                     

In 1970 I wrote The Chemical Feast: The Nader Report on Food Protection at FDA on industrial food.  During the next 30 years a coalition of natural, organic, and health-food manufacturers, stores and consumers promoted natural food as a consumer choice.  That coalition blocked the Federal Trade Commission’s attempt to ban the words “natural,” “organic,” and “health” from food products.  It stopped excessive FDA limits on consumer access to vitamin and mineral supplements.  It got Congress to allow previously banned health claims for food and to pass the Organic Food Production Act. 

These efforts to integrate the natural and industrial food sectors are part of the rest of the story that didn’t make it into this “expose” of the food industry.

On its second weekend, FED UP was featured at 55 theatres in 19 markets and placed 27th for weekend revenue with a respectable $3,346 gross per screen.  But its relatively small audience and mixed reviews seem to destine it, as one reviewer suggested, for likely rerelease as a TV special. 

One reviewer, Baylen Linnekin at Reason.com, describes “What Fed UP Gets Wrong About the Food Industry,” saying that the film “ claims to shine a critical light on the food industry and the ‘obesity epidemic’” but “ignores the real culprit,” government subsidies for farmers and food companies.  At Eater National (www.eater.com), Paula Forbes says “The Sugary Outrage of Fed UP Doesn’t Go Far Enough…,” referring to the movie as  “one of those bracing documentaries that gins up alternating feelings of despair, rage, and impotence.” 

FED UP touches the real world upheaval in people’s lives created by the forces of food industrialization and how those people work to tame those forces.  Efforts to promote locally and home-grown food, including organic and natural food stores and farmers’ markets go on every day, as do successful campaigns to pressure food companies and regulators to reformulate and accurately label food products. Scores of activists work diligently and joyfully to improve the quality of our diet and our awareness of what we eat. But those people and their efforts didn’t make it into the film, nor did tools the audience could use to advance the cause of better food.

So while consumers may be largely “fed up” with denatured, industrial food, they are equally disillusioned with the feelings of “despair, rage, and impotence” this film leaves us with — even while it sadly misses the mark on so many nutritional nuances and encouraging trends and reforms.

James S. Turner is a Washington DC based attorney and author.  He served as special counsel to Senator George McGovern’s Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. He wrote The Chemical Feast: The Nader Report on Food Protection at the FDA; and co-wrote Making Your Own Baby Food and Voice of the People: The Transpartisan Imperative in American Life.  He is Board Chair of Citizens for Health, a twenty year old consumer activist group one of whose projects, with the support of The Sugar Association, works to end consumer confusion about the differences between sugar and other sweeteners.

 

How a bold new disguise could sneak a toxic additive into your family’s diet

Posted by -- May 27, 2014

Aspartame chemical formula on school chalkboard

By BILL BONVIE

It’s something that seems to be happening more and more these days: a deliberate effort to make us less and less aware of harmful substances that are being slipped into our food.

A good example is what’s been happening with the artificial sweetener aspartame – and what’s poised to happen next.

But first a little background:

When aspartame was originally introduced as a non-caloric sugar substitute under the trade name “NutraSweet,’ the company’s “swirl” logo usually served as an instant indicator that a product contained it. So even though it was being misrepresented as “safe” for most people – except those with the genetic condition phenylketonuria, or PKU – consumers who knew better could  easily steer clear of this neurotoxic additive, which was originally approved by a political appointee for the Food and Drug Administration despite being an apparent cause of brain tumors in lab rats.

Since aspartame (which was accidentally discovered by a scientist for the drug maker Searle) became a generic ingredient, however, its presence in various foods and beverages — and even in some children’s vitamins — has become a lot less apparent.  A typical example is Yoplait “Light” Yogurt, a heavily advertised item that you might never suspect contained it – that is, unless you made a point of examining the actual ingredients listed on the back panel.

But then, unless you’re a PKU sufferer, such reduced visibility really shouldn’t matter, according to a barrage of industry propaganda purporting to be scientific “fact.”  Typical of such assurances is what you’ll find about aspartame in Wikipedia (and this should be a cautionary tale for those who rely on this so-called “free encyclopedia” whose information is contributed “collaboratively” by “Internet volunteers”). “Since December 1998, a widely circulated email hoax cited aspartame as the cause of numerous diseases,” the entry claims, adding, “(t)he weight of existing scientific evidence indicates that aspartame is safe at current levels of consumption as a non-nutritive sweetener.”

Of course, there are many thousands of consumers who would disagree with that assessment, having discovered from personal experience just how misleading – and downright dangerous — such affirmations can be. They’re the ones who have suffered everything from migraines and seizures to temporary blindness – and in numerous cases, reported these “adverse reactions” to the Food and Drug administration, as well as to groups like the Aspartame Consumer Safety Network, for decades. Among them are airline pilots who found their ability to fly safely after ingesting aspartame-laced soft drinks was significantly impaired. (But then, what would you expect of a product that, according to patent information revealed  last year, is actually a waste product of E coli bacteria?)

To suggest that so many people from all walks of life are merely the victims of – if not parties to – an “email hoax” is a classic case of adding insult to injury.  (And shame on you, Wikipedia, for allowing thjs sort of industry-propagated propaganda to permeate your site when so many consumers know otherwise — not to mention doctors and scientists who believe aspartame may be a contributing factor to Alzheimer’s and cause brain damage and aggression in children.)

Enter ‘advantame’ – literally without any warning

Now, however, the FDA has opened up a whole new dimension in the downplaying of aspartame’s dangers – by approving “advantame,” an “exciting new ultrahigh potency sweetener derived from aspartame and vanillin.” Or at least, that’s how it’s described on the website maintained by Ajinomoto, the same company that also brought us the flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (which, like aspartame, is an “excitotoxin” that can literally excite certain brain cells to death).

But here’s the really scary part: because it’s” about 20,000 times sweeter than sucrose and 100 times sweeter than aspartame,” and therefor apt to be used in lower quantities, advantame has been officially declared “safe” for people with PKU — meaning it can be sold without any warning to them on the label.  But perhaps even worse, it turns out that  advantame (which has not yet been given an official trade name) was granted “generally regarded as safe” or GRAS status back in 2011, not by the FDA, but by an industry group, the Flavor Extract Manufacturers Association as a flavoring substance in nonalcoholic beverages, chewing gum, frozen dairy and milk products. And apparently, no one was any the wiser – except for one organization, which noted in a letter to the FDA that “(o)ur concern is that …advantame will be used to provide a portion of sweetness in products without labeling,” which it claimed “would be very deceptive to consumers.”

And what, you might ask, was the organization that was so concerned that consumers not be deceived by the absence of labeling for this new aspartame-based hybrid sweetener? Why, none other than the NutraSweet Company, the one-timer owner of the patent on aspartame, which now counts Ajinomoto among its competitors for a share of the market.

Perhaps it’s only fitting to close this blog by noting that Ajinomoto is also the company that once took Asda, a British food retailer, to court for listing aspartame among several “hidden nasties” not found in its products.  After a long-running (and no doubt costly) legal battle, the case was finally settled three years ago, with Asda agreeing to drop any reference to aspartame on its product labels.

Here at Food Identity Theft, however, we can still tell you that Asda’s original characterization was correct – aspartame is very nasty stuff indeed, and nothing you should want to ingest in any form.  That’s why it’s important that you let the FDA, even at this late date, know that, no matter what it’s called or how much of it a product contains, you don’t want this pernicious ingredient slipped into your food by any other name – or concealed as a flavoring agent with no name at all.

You can add your comments about the FDA’s approval of advantame at the agency docket here until June 20th.

‘Article’ about HFCS reflects industry infiltration of media

Posted by -- May 22, 2014

disguise_sm

By BILL BONVIE

Where do you go when you want well-informed, unbiased information on a particular topic – like, say, the safety of a particular food additive? Would you rely on an industry website or have more confidence in what a credentialed “expert” – that is, a professional dietitian or nutritionist — has to say at the online version of a daily newspaper published by a major news organization?

If you’re after “just the facts,” as Sgt. Joe Friday used to say on the iconic TV police drama, “Dragnet,” you would almost certainly opt for the latter.

But what if the supposed “facts” that appeared under the supposed expert’s byline turned out to be almost identical to the hype found at the industry website?

While the disguising of corporate hype as legitimate information in the media is nothing new, it has reached brazen new levels in reporting on food-related issues. One reason is that far too many registered dietitians and nutritionists are unduly influenced by industry groups and large food corporations that maintain a huge presence at their conferences with booths and seminars. (A recent one in California even had lunch catered by McDonald’s!)

The situation has become so embarrassing to some of the more conscientious members of this group that they’ve rebelled and formed their own group, Dietitians for Professional Integrity, as we reported here more than a year ago.

A current example of how such industry infiltration can result in consumers being misled into accepting corporate propaganda as fact came to our attention when we chanced to read a column posted online by the Gannett newspaper Florida Today. Written by Susie Bond, identified as a registered/licensed dietitian and nutritionist for Health First’s ProHealth & Fitness Centers,  it appeared under the headline “More from Susie: sugar vs. high fructose corn syrup.”

When we first read Bond’s attempts to debunk the “myths” regarding HFCS, we couldn’t help thinking that we’d seen this all somewhere before. And as it turned out, we had – at none other than the “Sweet Surprise” website maintained by the Corn Refiners Association, the trade group that has spent huge amounts of money trying to convince the public that this cheap synthetic sweetener is nothing more than a “natural” form of “sugar made from corn” (and whose attempt to have the product renamed “corn sugar” was rejected last year by the Food and Drug Administration).

That wasn’t the only thing we discovered on revisiting the “Sweet Surprise” site, however.  Because there, in a section labeled “in the News” was – yes, you guessed it – a link to the very same article.

But since the column consisted of only a slightly rewritten restatement of the claims already made at the site, it looks like the only purpose served by that link is to lend more seeming legitimacy to the CRA’s long-held position that HFCS is really no different from natural sugar.   The similarity was so pronounced, in fact, that Bond’s last two “myths” are virtually identical to those listed on the website about  HFCS supposedly being “banned in Europe” and “subsidized by the U.S. government.”  Coincidence?

Ignoring the evidence

To get an idea of how closely her presentation of points matches that made by the corn refiners, you need only read how she attempts to discredit the “myth” that “HFCS causes obesity and diabetes….

Critics say that the use of HFCS in the ‘70s coincided with the increase in obesity and diabetes rates in America. There is no evidence to support this belief. Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that consumption of HFCS has been declining, while obesity and diabetes rates continue to climb. Around the world, obesity is increasing even though HFCS consumption is limited outside of the U.S.

…and compare it with the wording you’ll find at the “Sweet Surprise” site:

Myth: High fructose corn syrup is to blame for obesity and diabetes.

Reality: Nope. There is no scientific evidence that high fructose corn syrup is to blame for obesity and diabetes. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows that consumption of high fructose corn syrup has actually been declining while obesity and diabetes rates continued to rise. Around the world, obesity levels are also rising even though HFCS consumption is limited outside of the U.S.

What both overlook, of course, is that “scientific evidence” of a link between HFCS and obesity and diabetes does exist. It includes a 2010 Princeton University study in regard to obesity, and another funded by the Center for Advanced Food Technology of Rutgers University, which concluded that soft drinks sweetened with HFCS contributed to the development of diabetes.  There was also the University of Southern California study done last year that showed countries using HFCS had a 20 percent higher diabetes rate than countries that didn’t. (And while it’s true HFCS has recently been removed from some products, it still remains in countless others.)

We were curious to know if Bond was aware of these and other studies when she submitted that column, and so (at her invitation) we emailed her that question and some others about what sources she used and whether she was a paid consultant for the CRA.  As of deadline time, we still hadn’t heard back, and will let you know if we do.

But whether she has some affiliation with the CRA or simply relied on it as her source of information, this unabashed repackaging of industry assertions once again demonstrates that you can’t automatically assume a certified “professional” is giving you sound, unbiased advice – any more than you can believe everything you read in the newspapers (or on the Internet).

Altered fast food billboard echoes classic movie scene ‘mutilation’

Posted by -- May 20, 2014

By BILL BONVIE

jaws

In the original movie “Jaws,” there’s a classic scene in which a billboard for Amity Island is found to have been vandalized so that the female boogie boarder it depicts is shouting “Help!!! Shark” while a large, ominous fin looms in the water just behind her. This leads to a lively exchange between the somewhat fatuous and shortsighted Mayor Vaughn and Hooper, the marine biologist. The mayor refers to it as “a deliberate mutilation of a public service message” and tells Brody, the police chief, he wants the “little paint-happy” perpetrators caught and “hung up by their Buster Browns” – to which Hooper replies, “Now, why don’t you take a long, close look at this sign. Those proportions are correct.”

Well, something similar has now happened in real life – to an actual billboard. Only in this case, the correctness of the alteration relates to portions, rather than proportions – and what they consist of.

burgerking

The sign in question (in case you didn’t catch it on YouTube) was an advertisement for Burger King, depicting a ‘meal’ consisting of a parfait “entrée,” an ice cream cone “side” and a milkshake “drink.” Whatever the ad agency that designed it had in mind – presumably, that the fast-food restaurant chain was a place to toss all nutritional concerns aside and indulge one’s childish appetites – it suggested another message. And it took some “paint-happy” graffiti artist in health-conscious Seattle to respond to the company’s unintended invitation – by turning the Burger King logo into a cartoon of an obese individual with the word “Diabetes” in parenthesis underneath.

Now, I can see where some officials (particularly those whose livelihoods depend on luring people into Burger King) might be considerably put off by such “deliberate mutilation” and want the perpetrator punished.   But the fact remains that, just like in “Jaws,” this defacing of private property was a very effective means of making advertising more accurate – and honest.

In fact, the added message actually reflected what may be a far greater threat to consumers than sharks are to swimmers, surfers and boogie-boarders at the nation’s beach resorts.

How so? Well, first consider the fact (one I verified this with the manager of a local Burger King) that all those desserts shown on the billboard contain high fructose corn syrup, the synthetic laboratory sweetener that studies have linked to the current high rate of diabetes. (In one University of Southern California study, researchers found that countries using HFCS had rates of diabetes that were about 20 percent higher than countries that didn’t mix the sweetener into foods). And consider, too, that this diabetes “epidemic” (along with that of obesity) has corresponded precisely to the widespread replacement of natural sugar with much cheaper HFCS in untold numbers of food products.

Now let’s look at the actual extent of the threats depicted in both the altered movie billboard and the real one.

A review of deaths from attacks by all types of sharks (not just great whites) in the U.S. over the last decade of the 20th Century and the first decade of the 21st shows that there were a total of just under two dozen on all three coasts combined – the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Gulf.

Diabetes, by contrast is the primary cause of death for over 71,000 Americans every year – and a contributing factor in more than 230,000 additional deaths. And nearly two million of us are diagnosed with the disease each year, according to the American Diabetes Association. In fact, statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that from 1980 through 2011, the number of Americans with diagnosed diabetes has more than tripled, from 5.6 million to 20.9 million (far outpacing the rate of actual population growth).

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that those tens of thousands of diabetes deaths, or the explosion of new cases, or the incredible increase in obesity associated with them, are all attributable to eating Burger King desserts – especially given all the products that contain this additive.

But what I am suggesting is that the careless consumption of HFCS-laden confections being promoted by that billboard is the very sort of behavior that many experts have been warning can lead to a life-threatening diagnosis of diabetes – which is the very same point that graffiti artist was making.

True, the altered Amity Island welcome sign may have looked a lot scarier. But the message added to the Burger King billboard correctly identifies a threat that’s far more insidious, and that didn’t even exist back in 1975 when “Jaws” was released. I’m referring, of course, to high fructose corn syrup, which made its appearance in our food supply as suddenly and sneakily as that great white did in the waters off Amity Island.

And in respect, it’s one that has turned that billboard into a true sign of the times.

Screen shot credits: Jaws billboard, We are movie geeks, wearemoviegeeks.com; Burger King, Foodista, foodista.com

Class action victory over misuse of ‘natural’ overlooks a glaring example

Posted by -- May 15, 2014

woman buying groceries in supermarket.

BY BILL BONVIE

When consumers are being deliberately misled and the Food and Drug Administration fails to act, the filing of a class action is looking more and more like the best course of action.

The latest settlement of such litigation marked another significant victory for consumer advocates on the issue of deceptive label language used to hoodwink the public into believing a food product is healthier than it really is. In fact, a spate of lawsuits against food companies for misusing the term “natural” seems to have succeeded in spurring a number of other brands to remove such references from their packaging.

But, as Food Identity Theft discovered, even class action lawsuits can miss things that could well have an adverse effect on the health of consumers.

Such appears to be the case with the recent news that Kellogg’s had agreed to respective settlements of $5 million and $325,000 over the inaccurate use of terms such as “all natural” and “nothing artificial” on various products in its Kashi and Bear Naked lines. The company also agreed to change either the formulas or labels involved by the end of the year.

It’s not the first such case to be settled by the food industry rather than decided by a court. Last year, as we reported here, the soft-drink giant Pepsico agreed to a $9 million settlement of a lawsuit that challenged the use of the word “natural” in its Naked Juices, which contain artificial ingredients.  (A similar suit has also filed against Cargill for calling its Truvia sweetener “natural” when its main ingredient, erythritol, is chemically processed.)

In the case of Kashi, what was described as “all natural” included such additives as pyridoxine hydrochloride, calcium pantothenate, hexane-processed soy ingredients, ascorbic acid, glycerin and sodium phosphate.   Bear Naked is alleged to have falsely advertised certain food products by labeling those products “100% Natural” or “100% Pure & Natural” when they contained hexane-processed soy ingredients, according to a website on the suit, which also noted that the company denies it did anything wrong, and asserts its labels were “truthful and consistent with the law.”

But on a recent trip to the supermarket, we discovered a Bear Naked product that wasn’t listed among the half-dozen named in the lawsuit – one also containing a soy-based additive that, according to a consumer “ambassador” for the company, isn’t processed with hexane, which is why it apparently won’t be included in the settlement.  But hexane-processed or not, it’s still a substance that many consumers would consider not only unnatural, but potentially harmful.

The product in question, Bear Naked 100% Natural Original Cinnamon Granola, comes complete with cutesy assurances that it is “bearly processed” and contains “no HFCS, artificial flavors, or hydrogenated oils and “no monkey business.” But one of the ingredients it does contain is the flavor enhancer soy protein isolate – a form of free glutamic acid that is a close relative of monosodium glutamate and one that can trigger adverse reactions in MSG-sensitive individuals.  It’s also categorized by some neuroscientists in a class of excitotoxins capable of killing brain cells by literally exciting them to death, particularly in children and the elderly

Misleading ‘natural’ terms fewer – but not gone

Now, one might think curtailing the inaccurate use of descriptive terms on food packages was the job of the FDA. But the agency has consistently declined to provide a definition of “natural” (even as recently as last January), allowing its use on food products as long as they contain no added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances, and taking no apparent action to enforce even those provisions.

Such lack of control encouraged many food companies to use the term “natural” with competitive abandon – that is, until consumer watchdogs started taking them to court over such misleading label language.  That’s not to say that some manufacturers haven’t continued to describe their products as “natural” – and that some might not even be justified in doing so.  But others still use it in ways that seem designed to deceive, such as:

Minute Maid Premium fruit drinks. On the front of the cartons for this line of refrigerated beverages, which include Lemonade, Tropical Punch and Fruit Punch, the words “100% Natural” is prominently displayed, with the word “flavors” in smaller letters underneath. Perhaps the lawyers for this Coca-Cola subsidiary think that adequately limits the application of the phrase to flavors, although one could easily make the assumption that it describes the entire product. In any case, the second ingredient in all these drinks is the very unnatural laboratory sweetener high fructose corn syrup.

New Grain Berry Pancake & Waffle Mix. Again, the manufacturer might claim that “Natural Berries of Grain” simply describes the berries, not other ingredients.  But that claim, along with “antioxidants to support heart health and total health” could well give a hurried shopper the impression that this is a totally “natural” and “healthy” product, when, in fact, one of the ingredients contains aluminum, the toxic metal that was directly linked to Alzeheimer’s  in an early-onset case of that disease.

Herr’s All Natural Good Natured Baked Multigrain Crisps. Among the ingredients in this product is one that might seem OK – caramel color – unless you know that caramel color is considered an artificial coloring that contain a potentially carcinogenic chemical called 4-methylimidazole (4-MeI), according to ConsumerReports.org.

Yes, thanks to those class-actions suits, there are far fewer misleading uses of “natural” terminology on food packages.  But that doesn’t mean we can afford to let down our guard.


Despite corn refiners’ con job, tide turning against HFCS

Posted by -- May 13, 2014

yoplaitHFCS

These must be pretty depressing times for the Corn Refiners Association.

It seems that each day another company or brand is dropping the test-tube industrial sweetener high fructose corn syrup in place of real sugar. Even the First Lady was overheard saying “Our bodies don’t know what to do with high fructose corn syrup – and don’t need it.”

To try and counter this tidal wave of consumer distaste for HFCS, the CRA has a new marketing campaign out called “Say vs Do.” It’s aimed at industry, and hopes to convince brands that consumers really have no idea of what they’re buying.

One, for example, shows two twenty-something shoppers named Walter and Stacey. Walter could care less about what he buys, but Stacy on the other hand even reads the ingredients on a bag of carrots.

And how does this epic one-minute video end? Eureka! Both walk out of the store with the same unnamed cola. But it looks like the CRA is fighting an uphill battle here. Even if Stacey and Walter don’t care what kind of cola they buy, there are millions of consumers who do. And I’m not just talking about soda.

For example:

  • Yoplait yogurt is removing HFCS from all of its products. The company posted a statement on its web site saying that the change came “straight from” Tweets and email from its customers.
  • Subway proudly announced that it is removing HFCS from the 9-grain wheat bread it bakes.
  • Pepsi is introducing a whole new line of soft drinks “made with real sugar” this summer.
  • Chick-fil-A recently announced that it is removing HFCS from its buns as well as a premium line of chicken sandwich called “Super Chix.” And…
  • the new line of Wild Oats products hitting Walmart stores this month makes a point of having HFCS on its list of “unwanted ingredients.”

And that’s not all.

This Easter, First Lady Michele Obama’s remark to celebrity chef Marc Murphy from the Food Network that our bodies do not need HFCS was heard far and wide – even as far as the CRA. The group’s new president and CEO, John Bode, wasted no time in snapping back, saying “It is most unfortunate that she was misinformed about how the body processes caloric sweeteners, including high fructose corn syrup.”  In fact, the body does process HFCS differently — the fructose goes directly to the liver and begins building fat.

But despite miles of research showing just how differently the body does process HFCS from other sweeteners, it looks like the CRA has it story and is sticking to it. It matters not to them how many experts say otherwise.

And that brings us back to the CRA’s video campaign. Another one in the collection features its favorite spokesdoc, Dr. James Rippe, who, according to The New York Times received $41,000 a month as a retainer from the CRA, as well as over $10 million to help fund his “research.”

Looking straight into the camera with a bit of a smirk on his otherwise straight face, Dr. Rippe tries to tell us that HFCS is somehow “interchangeable” with sweeteners like natural sugar, honey and, yes, even molasses (the health benefits of which have long been extolled). Eliminating HFCS, he claims is “giving a free pass to the other sugars because they don’t contain calories or in some way that they’re healthier.”

Well, in the first place Dr. Rippe, we’re not simply talking about calories here, as if all calories were created equal, which they’re decidedly not. And, yes, those natural sweeteners definitely appear “healthier” than HFCS, which scientific studies have linked to a host of health problems, including the current epidemics of obesity and diabetes, neither of which existed before HFCS was introduced into our diets. (Yes these are correlations, not causes, but still information that consumers have a right to know, and which you are not telling them.)

“But the bottom line here,” Dr. Rippe says “is that if people are eliminating high fructose corn syrup from their diet because they think there’s some health benefit to (it), that’s a bargain with the devil.”

Ever one to overreach, Dr. Rippe seems to be saying, misleadingly, that cutting HFCS from your diet could cause you harm.

Hmm, but it makes you kind of wonder just who Dr. Rippe thinks he made his bargain with?

 

 

 

Top beverage makers bow to consumer pressure, but need to go a lot further

Posted by -- May 8, 2014

bvo3

 

It’s yet another example of the power of consumer activism.

But don’t start applauding just yet – because it’s not all it’s cracked up to be from a health standpoint.

First, the good news: At long last, both of the nation’s leading soft-drink conglomerates, Pepsi and Coke have announced their intentions to get the brominated vegetable oil (BVO) out of their products. And it’s quite evident the decision was in response to consumer pressure, with petitions launched on the website Change.org by Sarah Kavanagh, a Mississippi teen, getting much of the credit.

Encouraged by how her original petition amassed more than 200,000 signatures and convinced Pepsico to remove the additive from one of its Gatorade products, Kavanagh launched another one aimed at getting the additive out of Coca-Cola’s Powerade.

The ensuing pressure – augmented by television’s Dr. Oz, who called BVO his “number one shocking health threat in your food” – seems to have galvanized both companies to finally start taking steps to get rid of this unhealthy ingredient, which is already banned by the European Union, India and Japan. (Interestingly enough, Coca-Cola was quoted in the media as saying it’s working to remove BVO from all its products to be more consistent in the ingredients it uses around the world.)

The products that will be affected by this decision include the soft drinks Fanta and Fresca, put out by Coke, and Pepsi’s Mountain Dew and Amp energy drinks.

Right now, BVO is ranked No. 7 on Food Identity Theft’s “top ten list of food additives to avoid.” It will stay there for the time being, until it’s actually been removed from the products in question.

But what makes this harmless-sounding ingredient so bad?

The rap sheet on BVO

It isn’t just that BVO is used as a flame retardant, which Kavanagh noted in her petition and which alarmed a lot of consumers. As we previously reported, this additive, which is used to keep beverages from appearing cloudy, accumulates in fatty tissue and has been shown to cause heart damage in research animals. In fact, it has never actually been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, where its status has been in limbo for more than three decades.

And if that’s not enough, it was described this week by the website Marketing Daily as “a synthetic chemical formed by bonding vegetable oil to bromine,” which is “a heavy, volatile, mobile, dangerous reddish-brown liquid,” according to webelements.com.

Then there’s this from the holistic website NaturalNews.com: “All bromines are endocrine disruptors (that) can also interfere with iodine absorption by the thyroid, breast tissue and prostate tissue, causing nutritional deficiencies which can promote cancer.”

There’s also a frightening bit of information that was provided by Food Identity Theft in a blog posted here at the end of 2011:

“While the FDA has set a ‘safe limit’ for BVO at 15 parts per million, (an) Environmental Health News article describes several cases of bromine poisoning in humans following BVO-containing soda binges, including a 1997 report of ‘severe bromine intoxication’ in a patient who drank two or more liters of orange sodas every day.” (See more here.)

In other words, this innocent-sounding additive is nothing that the FDA should ever have allowed to be added to beverages in the first place.

But despite its safety status having remained in limbo all these years   — and a lawsuit that Citizens for Health Board Chair Jim Turner and Michael Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), filed against the FDA to prohibit BVO use back in the 1970s – the federal regulators have still not taken steps to order its removal from food (or more specifically, beverages).

Now for the bad news

And that’s why the influence that conscientious consumers like Sarah Kavanagh and those who supported her have had on industry decision-making is so significant – and why we need more efforts like hers to get food companies to stop putting harmful ingredients in the products that millions of us buy every day. And unfortunately  –and here’s where the bad news comes in — those may well include the ingredient that Pepsi and Coke are planning on substituting for BVO, sucrose acetate isobutyrate.

Just as we suspected might be the case, there are some health concerns regarding this additive as well. According to NaturalNews.com, a study published in Food and Chemical Toxicology found that dogs fed this chemical “showed enlarged livers and altered liver enzyme function.” It further noted that scientific studies have found that this particular chemical, “when ingested by humans, is largely exhaled,” indicating that it “enters the blood supply upon being ingested orally and then makes its way to the lungs.”

So here’s a suggestion for the beverage manufacturers: When you do get around to removing the BVO, don’t replace it with anything.  While the result might not look that appealing, you can put something on the label about the how the cloudy appearance shows that no stabilizers or “separation” chemicals have been added.

And while you’re at it, get rid of the high fructose corn syrup (Mountain Dew, Fanta, Amp Energy Drink) and the neurotoxic artificial sweetener aspartame (Fresca).

In other words, if you’re going to bow to consumer demands for healthier products, don’t do it in a half-baked sort of way.

Look out for these 3 ways ‘label language’ is used to fool you

Posted by -- May 6, 2014

supermarketBy BILL BONVIE
The fact that consumers are becoming more and more knowledgeable about what they’re eating these days hasn’t stopped today’s big food conglomerates from finding all kinds of creative ways to try and fool them.

Last week, we revealed a particularly outrageous example – the substitution of a formula containing the neurotoxic flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate for a widely trusted, MSG-free herbal seasoning, Old Bay, in Herr’s “Old Bay Seasoned Potato Chips.”

While it’s not often one sees anything that blatantly deceptive in the marketing of processed foods, there are lots of other, more subtle ploys used by the industry and the “Mad Men” it hires to make its products seem more benign than they really are.

Here are some examples of the misleading label language with which the industry tries to camouflage some of its more insidious ingredients:

 

1) Health claims that divert your attention from the presence of atrocious additives.  You see them all the time on product packaging – buzzwords and phrases that convey the distinct impression that the manufacturer can be trusted to look out for your  health and well-being.

  • Goya Brown Rice With Vegetables, which features the words “heart healthy whole grains,” along with a heart symbol, on the front of the box, and tells you on the back that “a delicious healthy side dish is only 5 minutes away,” one with “low fat” and “high fiber” and that’s “seasoned with carrots, corn, bell peppers and rich chicken flavor.” Only that “chicken flavor,” if you bother to check, is actually enhanced with monosodium glutamate and yeast extract, a related form of free glutamic acid, adding up to a double dose of excitotoxins (which can literally excite certain brain cells to death).
  • Manischewitz Matzo Balls & Chicken Broth, an ethnic favorite with a comfortably familiar brand name, whose can notes that it has zero grams of trans fat and carries a seal bearing the slogans “To Life” and “Healthy Body, Healthy Spirit.” But what it doesn’t mention is that the monosodium glutamate it contains could be harmful to the health of your brain (especially if you’re one of the older generation of consumers who might be most apt to buy this traditional product). Nor does it warn you of the other adverse reactions it could cause that might not even be attributed to it.

2) Expressions of authenticity intended to fool you into thinking nothing new has been added. It’s almost a subliminal reaction you get to certain types of words and images – for instance:

  • Hershey’s Syrup with Genuine Chocolate Flavor – although the first ingredient turns out to be the laboratory-concocted sweetener high fructose corn syrup, which is anything but “genuine.”
  • Heinz Tomato Ketchup, whose label includes a declaration that it’s “grown, not made,” with an asterisk referring to a further assurance that the tomatoes are “grown from Heinz seeds.” Reading that, you might not realize that HFCS is also one of the ingredients – one that is definitely made, not “grown.” (Tip: You can avoid it by simply buying organic ketchup, which is now made by several companies, Heinz among them).
  • Mott’s Original Apple Sauce.  From that name, along with the graphic of appetizing-looking apples, you’d never know it, too, contains HFCS – something that most certainly wasn’t included in the “original” recipe, since it was first introduced in food products back in the 1980s.

3) Terms of endearment that might cause you to ignore the product’s less-loveable aspects. This   is where the creative departments of ad agencies shine – for instance, when coming up with fanciful prose for things like:

  • Campbell’s Home Style Chicken Noodle and Chicken with White Wild Rice soups. Along with the use of “Home Style” in the name, you’ll find the nostalgia-inducing slogan, “The taste that takes you home.” Of course, without reviewing the ingredients, you might never suspect that the taste they’re talking about comes from a mind-numbing combo of flavor-enhancing additives – not just monosodium glutamate, but soy protein concentrate and yeast extract (a ‘triple whammy’ to the brain cells of growing kids).
  • Mott’s Original Apple Sauce.  Yes, it gets citations in two categories –  this second one for the charming characterization of how “Mott’s brings the best of the orchard to families so they can enjoy delicious fruit goodness every day.” Along with that daily dose of added high fructose corn syrup.

I could cite various other examples – and you probably can, too – but I think you get the point: Don’t fall for the smoke and mirrors that food companies (and their ad agencies) use to distract you. Instead, go directly to what they usually would rather you didn’t notice – the actual list of ingredients.

Baby-food makers hustle to keep up with savvy consumers

Posted by -- May 1, 2014

babyfood

When the book Making Your Own Baby Food, co-authored by consumer advocate James S. Turner, who now chairs Citizens for Health, first appeared more than 40 years ago, the idea of doing such a thing seemed perhaps a bit radical to many if not most Americans, and was considerably ahead of its time.

But these days, the concept is one that has quite literally ’hit home’ for untold numbers of savvy consumers, who feel it’s the best way – perhaps the only way – to make sure their kids get the proper nutrients and to encourage them to become healthy eaters right from the start.  In fact, according to an article in The New York Times, homemade purees, prepared with the help of new blending appliances,  now account for about a third of the baby food consumed in this country.

But it’s more than just kids on whom this trend seems to be having a profound effect.

Maker of commercial baby foods, whose sales have been slipping for nearly a decade – by an average of more than four percent a year — as a result of so many mothers opting to make their own, have responded, as the Times article notes, by “competing head-on with mom’s kitchen.”

And the result has been the introduction of some far healthier products and brands – including organic ones and new lines featuring fresh ingredients without any additives or preservatives – than you would have found on supermarket shelves 20 or 30 years ago.

In that regard, ‘we’ve come a long way, baby’ since the days when baby-food manufacturers were lacing their products with the neurotoxic flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate, a substance that can have a particularly harmful effect on young and vulnerable brain cells.

But such attempts by the industry to keep up with alienated parents who have literally been taking matters into their own hands should tell us something important that doesn’t just apply to baby food. It’s a prime example of how the marketplace works – and how it can be made to work by conscientious consumers.

A lesson in consumer power

Left to their own devices, most food companies will follow the paths of least resistance.  One such path is to cut corners – for instance, by substituting high fructose corn syrup, a cheap laboratory concoction linked to obesity, diabetes and other adverse health effects, for natural sugar. Another is to use the most convenient short cuts available to sell a product, prime examples being the addition of monosodium glutamate and other harmful forms of free glutamic acid to “enhance” the flavor of foods and the use of artery-clogging partially hydrogenated oil, now acknowledged to cause thousands of fatal heart attacks every year, to increase an item’s shelf life.

But when knowledgeable shoppers begin to resist these pernicious practices in large enough numbers – by boycotting the products at issue and by making it quite clear to the companies that make them why they’re doing so – and that gets reflected in shrinking profit margins, you can bet they’ll soon start to abandon the use of these atrocious additives.

By the same token, when consumer demand for healthier products, such as organic foods, starts to increase, you can be sure that more of them will suddenly start appearing on store shelves – and at much cheaper prices.

So, no, the baby-food phenomenon isn’t just about baby food. In its profound influence on the marketplace, it has demonstrated in a very big way just how much power you as a consumer have over the companies you buy products from – not just purchasing power, but the power to dictate how those products will be manufactured. But only if you choose to use it – because if you don’t, those companies will be the ones calling the shots and limiting the choices you have available to you.