Archive for September, 2014
Posted by Linda Bonvie -- September 30, 2014
It’s no secret that the soft-drink industry is experiencing some hard times.
And now the purveyors of what used to be known as “soda pop” are desperately seeking new ways to convince American consumers not to dispense with these body-and-brain-ravaging beverages – especially with the drumbeat of negative publicity they’ve been getting in the media of late.
But they have a plan in place they hope will reverse that trend and restore the popularity of their flagship products, as well as head off proposals in both Congress and local jurisdictions to impose new taxes on them.
While part of the plan has been openly announced by the nation’s three biggest carbonated beverage companies — Pepsi, Coke and the Dr. Pepper/Snapple Group — at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, the way in which it will be implemented is still a secret. But what we couldn’t help noticing was how the attention was diverted from the real culprits that have caused soft drinks to become such unhealthy products and focused on another one instead.
What the trio of soda manufacturers pledged, in an agreement with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, founded by the American Heart Association and the Clinton Foundation, was to cut a whopping one-fifth of the beverage calories that each person consumes by the year 2025. Nowhere, however, was there any mention of eliminating the high fructose corn syrup that has come to replace sugar (and is often confused with sugar) in these so-called “sugary drinks,” but which has a far different metabolic effect that major studies have linked to the present epidemics of obesity and diabetes, as well as other ailments like pancreatic cancer.
Nor, for that matter, was there any reference to recent research that found consumption of diet soda containing artificial sweeteners might also be contributing to the onset of type 2 diabetes by interfering with gut bacteria.
The initiative, has also been characterized by conflicting descriptions of what it will involve.
According to initial news accounts, there won’t be any real attempt to reduce the caloric content of the beverages themselves, but merely measures such as reductions in container sizes and promotion of bottled water sales and “calorie awareness.”
But that’s not what was indicated by PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi in an interview with PBS correspondent Judy Woodruff. The company, Nooyi said is “looking at reformulations, fundamental investment in R&D to search for new ingredients, new sweeteners, so people can still get a great experience in a beverage, but at a much lower calorie.”
New ingredients? New sweeteners? What might she mean by that, exactly?
The two tricksters waiting in the wings
One distinct possibility is that such “reformulations” will include the addition of Sweetmyx, the “phantom flavoring agent” that we reported back in March would be “making its debut in beverages manufactured by Pepsi” and would probably be represented as simply an “‘artificial flavor’ or perhaps an ‘artificial sweetener,’ with the only other clue to its presence being a magical reduction in calories.”
As we noted at that time, the claim by the additive’s manufacturer, Senomyx, Inc. that it was granted generally recognized as safe, or GRAS status by the Food and Drug Administration, was disputed by that agency. It turned out to have been given that designation by a “third party organization,” the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association, in keeping with a 1997 proposed rule that would have allowed GRAS declarations to be made on a voluntary basis, but was never finalized.
What we also pointed out is that all we know about Sweetmyx is that it’s a “sweetener enhancer” that tricks your taste buds into perceiving a sweet flavor that’s really not there, and that it could well turn out to be another “excitotoxin” like aspartame that could cause neurons to self-destruct.
There’s also another possibility – that a reduction in calories could be achieved by the addition of HFCS-90, the form of high fructose corn syrup that’s 90 percent fructose and has been described by a leading manufacturer, Archer Daniels Midland, as the “ideal choice for reduced calorie foods such as beverages, jellies and dressings.” (In fact, PepsiCo already owns a patent on a method of using it to produce a reduced-calorie beverage.)
While the FDA supposedly does not permit HFCS formulations to be more than 55 percent fructose, industry claims that HFCS-90 has been used with the agency’s knowledge for decades.
The use of HFCS-90, in fact, it what primarily spurred our sponsoring organization, Citizens for Health, to file a petition with the FDA to require that precise amounts of fructose in products that contain HFCS be labeled. (Read and sign that petition here.)
Whether the soft-drink industry is now contemplating using either or both of these methods to achieve that promised 20 percent reduction in calories over the next decade remains to be seen. But if it is, what American Beverage Association President Susan Neely has predicted will be “the single largest voluntary effort by an industry to help fight obesity” could conceivably even end up making the obesity epidemic worse than it already is.
As for the “calorie awareness” part, however – well, that’s already the focus of a newly launched, full-fledged campaign, which we’ll be talking about in our next blog. Stay tuned.
Posted by Linda Bonvie -- September 25, 2014
By BILL BONVIE
The Corn Refiners Association has once again turned to academia to provide its increasingly beleaguered but still highly profitable product, high fructose corn syrup, with a new cloak of scholarly respectability.
The lobbying group, representing major HFCS manufacturers, has seen fit to fund yet another university “study” – this one designed to show just how unfounded all those “food fears” that seem to be resulting in HFCS being dropped as an ingredient in various products really are.
Only this time, the people it hopes to educate are food company executives who might be under the impression that consumers would rather not have this cheap laboratory sweetener, which scientific research from other universities has linked to such health problems as obesity, diabetes and pancreatic cancer, in the processed food and beverages they purchase.
Does that business about “food fears” related to HFCS sound a bit familiar? If you’ve been a regular reader of this blog, it should.
Back in July, we reported on how Professor Brian Wansink, the head of Cornell University’s “Applied Economics and Management Department” with a Ph.D. in food psychology and consumer behavior, had produced a 40-page CRA-funded paper on “food fears that are ingredient-based, focusing on the case of high-fructose corn syrup” and was based on “results of a national phone survey of 1,008 U.S. mothers.” Despite the fact that this “study” consisted strictly of marketing rather than scientific research, it received quite a bit of publicity, not only in the form of newspaper headlines but on the Today Show.
Perhaps encouraged by all that media hype, and with HFCS getting an increasingly bad rap from real researchers and dropped as an ingredient in more and more products, the CRA seems to be turning the approach of forming alliances with paid academic mercenaries into a strategy.
The result of its latest such partnership is what’s being called a “technical/white paper” entitled “Battle of the Buzz: Food Fears vs. Fact in the Digital Age,” prepared by the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and” supported by a grant from the Corn Refiners Association.”
After examining some120 news outlets covering scientific research on high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) from 2004 to 2013, what the authors of this paper concluded is that news outlets may be misleading consumers by failing to present a balanced “review of science.”
To support that notion, the CMPA has summarized 11 examples of “research, presentations and articles” that have been either been published in scientific or medical journals or delivered before various professional groups, along with their “HFCS sentiment.” It identified six as “negative” toward the sweetener while five were “positive.” And to further show how “unbalanced” the coverage has been, the paper includes a chart showing how the media had utterly failed to be influenced by a 2012 Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) conclusion that HFCS and sucrose are equal in their metabolic effects – in fact, actually “arguing against their findings.” (Not mentioned, of course is the fact that AND is an organization largely aligned with and funded by the food industry.)
Dr. Lichter lectures the media
Also prominently featured (in capital letters) is a quote from the CMPA’s president and cofounder, S. Robert Lichter: “The media still hasn’t gotten the messages from scientists that HFCS is essentially no different from any other nutritive sweetener. Overall, the coverage placed news values above scientific values.”
Now, you might wonder, is Dr. Lichter a scientist himself? Well, that depends on how you regard a “political scientist.” According to Sourcewatch.org, he’s a paid contributor to the Fox News Channel who in the mid-1980s held the DeWitt Wallace Chair in Mass Communication at the American Enterprise Institute, which is described as “an extremely influential, pro-business think tank.”
So, perhaps it should come as no surprise that this “white paper” partly consist of a rehash of the Cornell marketing survey by Dr. Wansink. Or that it’s “key insights” include claims that consumers are being influenced by “false controversy” to “say they avoid specific food ingredients.” And that such “reported ingredient avoidance influences food and beverage manufacturers to make unnecessary changes to formulations and marketing strategies.”
It’s that last “key insight,” in fact, that is really the point of this whole supposed “study” – the message that both the CMPA and its sponsor, the CRA, hope to get across to food manufacturers that there’s really no need to go changing any more of those “formulations” to exclude the high fructose corn syrup that they now contain.
It’s just fortunate that in reality, industry doesn’t determine what constitutes a “balanced view of science” (if such a thing even exists) – and that increasing numbers of consumers are coming to understand that some “food fears” are justified, and that their purchasing power is what ultimately determines how products are formulated.
And that they’re not nearly as gullible or misinformed as bought-and-paid for pseudo-scholars are trying to make them out to be
Posted by Linda Bonvie -- September 23, 2014
In our last blog, we talked about new scientific findings on the health effects of high fructose corn syrup. An experiment involving 22 healthy college students showed that two weeks of regular soft drink consumption accompanied by relative inactivity started to immediately generate risk factors for heart disease, inflammation and diabetes. And that to counteract them, a lot of exercise (the equivalent of walking at least six miles a day) was required.
But what about just switching to diet drinks laced with those zero-calorie artificial sweeteners? Wouldn’t that be a whole lot easier?
Sure it would. Whether it would accomplish anything, however (other than putting your health and quite possibly your brain at risk), now seems even less likely than it did before.
For some time, a growing body of scientific evidence has indicated that consumption of such sweeteners as a way of controlling weight may actually be counterproductive. Recent studies have shown that they can actually create a craving for high–calorie foods by decreasing levels of the “reward chemical” dopamine, and actually seem to promote obesity.
Now, new research out of Israel points to artificial sweeteners as likely culprits in the development of “obesity-related metabolic conditions,” such as type 2 diabetes, by interfering with our internal ecosystem of gut bacteria, which is an essential part of the body’s mechanism for regulating blood sugar.
And while exercise didn’t seem to be a factor in this study, it conclusions may not be the kind that can be just “walked off.”
The study, as reported in the journal Nature, found that that the three most widely used non-caloric synthetic sweeteners — saccharin, sucralose and aspartame — actually raised blood sugar levels in mice by creating increased glucose intolerance. No such effect was observed in mice either drinking water by itself or water with plain sugar added to it, whether fed normal chow or a high-fat diet.
Humans were also part of the research, including nearly 400 non-diabetic individuals who were involved in comparative tests. The researchers found those who consumed artificial sweeteners to have significantly altered gut bacteria, along with signs of glucose intolerance and raised blood sugar levels similar to the results found in the mice.
A long-overdue ‘reassessment’
“Our findings suggest that non-caloric artificial sweeteners may have directly contributed to enhancing the exact epidemic that they themselves were intended to fight, “noted the lead author, Dr. Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute of Science, who added that the results had convinced him to stop using artificial sweeteners in his coffee.
That’s what the writer of an accompanying commentary, Cathryn R. Nagler, a professor of pathology at the University of Chicago, thinks other users of these sugar substitutes should be moved to do as well. “What the study suggests is we should step back and reassess our extensive use of artificial sweeteners,” she said.
Of course, regular readers of this blog know that there are other good reasons to “reassess” our use of these chemicals. Aspartame, which is found in most diet products, has been the subject of thousands of consumer adverse reaction complaints, ranging from seizures to migraines to temporary blindness (which is why airline pilots are discouraged from drinking diet sodas). It is also considered by many experts to be a neurotoxin – or more specifically, an “excitotoxin” due to its ability to literally excite certain brain cells to death, especially in children and the elderly.
And research done on sucralose (a.k.a. Splenda) at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis (as we’ve previously noted) found that it had diabetes-promoting effects in human test subjects, It has also been linked to gastrointestinal problems, such as inflammatory bowel disease, and been reported to cause migraines.
(As for saccharine, while the Food and Drug Administration has decided it is not a bladder cancer risk, as earlier research seemed to indicate, it still can cause allergic reactions in some people. But since it is really not used much anymore to sweeten processed foods or beverages, its consumption is now somewhat of a marginal issue at best.)
What is becoming more and more apparent, however, is that the great majority of soft drinks, whether regular or diet, are hazardous to our health – and that the addition of artificial sweeteners to food and beverages is not an effective way of avoiding obesity and diabetes, but is rather likely to be helping promote these “epidemics” as well as causing other health problems.
So does that mean that we need to forgo all sweetness in our diet? By no means. Thankfully, we still have old-fashioned, natural and genuinely “nutritive” sweeteners, like real sugar, honey, maple syrup and molasses available to us (or, for those who prefer a non-caloric product, stevia). And, unlike HFCS that has been clandestinely added to so many of our processed foods (including those that aren’t even supposed to be sweet), they can be used “in moderation.”
Posted by Linda Bonvie -- September 18, 2014
The scientific evidence that high fructose corn syrup is indeed hazardous to our health just won’t stop coming, despite the best efforts of the corn refining industry to reassure us that it’s all nothing more than baseless Internet rumors.
The latest such findings were the result of a study (actually, a pair of studies) done by a team of researchers from various universities in New York, California, Missouri and Australia who specialize in such disciplines as exercise science, health, wellness and nutrition, and featured in The New York Times.
The research team tested the effects of drinking what was considered an average American’s daily consumption of HFCS-laden soda on 22 “healthy college-age men and women” who were also asked to do either half or twice as much daily exercise as they normally would on alternating two-week schedules. The minimum expected of whichever group was doing more was 12,000 steps, or about six miles a day.
When results of the carefully controlled experiment were analyzed, the researchers found that just two weeks of soda consumption coupled with relative inactivity resulted in a significant increase in blood concentrations of dangerous very-low-density lipoproteins and a 116-percent increase in markers of bodily inflammation. There were also “clear signs of incipient insulin resistance, which is typically the first step toward Type 2 diabetes,” as the Times article noted.
And that’s pretty much in keeping with what previous research has shown, such as:
- the 2011 study of 48 adults between the ages of 18 and 40 that found those who consumed high fructose corn syrup for two weeks as 25 percent of their daily calorie requirement had increased blood levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, which were considered indicators of increased risk for heart disease;
- the Georgia Health Sciences University study of 559 adolescents aged 14-18 conducted the same year, which found higher fructose consumption to be associated with multiple markers of cardiometabolic risk, and
- a 2007 study funded by Rutgers University’s Center for Advanced Food Technology that revealed “astonishingly high” levels of reactive carbonyls in soft drinks containing high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) not found in those sweetened with sugar – evidence that such beverages could contribute to the development of diabetes, particularly in children.
The thousands of steps needed to offset the damage
There was, however, a mitigating factor revealed by the latest research. Those “12,000 steps a day” seemed to counteract such adverse effects and bring cholesterol and blood sugar levels down to normal. But such findings, cautioned Dr. Amy Bidwell, who led the research, should not encourage people to consume large amounts of fructose on the assumption that all they have to do is go for a long walk. “I don’t want people to consider these results as a license to eat badly,” noted Bidwell, an assistant professor of exercise science at the State University of New York in Oswego. It’s more a matter of “if you are going to regularly consume fructose, be sure to get up and move around,” she said.
While that might be good advice, it’s also contingent on other considerations.
For one thing, it’s important to keep in mind that the subjects of this experiment were “healthy college-age men and women” who would probably have far less of a problem with walking six miles a day than many individuals who are neither as young nor as healthy (although even college students, who spend long hours in classrooms and on their computers, can easily fall into a rut of becoming sedentary). There’s no getting around the fact that large numbers of people today – many of whom are habitual soda drinkers — lack either the physical ability or simply the time to devote to that level of activity, no matter how desirable it might be.
Then there’s the broader issue of the vast number of products other than soft drinks that still contain high fructose corn syrup, ranging from fruit juice to baked goods to frozen foods – the kinds of items to which no sweetener was ever added before the market became flooded with this cheap, synthetic sugar substitute.
That’s what makes consuming HFCS “in moderation,” as the Corn Refiners Association advises, such a difficult proposition when one’s diet consists mainly of processed foods.
Given that combination of factors, it would seem there’s more reason than ever to shun soda and other products that list HFCS as an ingredient – and opt for the growing number of items that now make a point of having “no high fructose corn syrup” (but watching out for other ingredients on our top ten list of additives to avoid as well).
Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be taking as many steps every day as you can – regardless of how healthy your diet is.
Posted by Linda Bonvie -- September 16, 2014
By BILL BONVIE
If we were to create a new food group, it might be simply known as “food goop.”
It would include the now notorious ground beef extender often referred to as “pink slime,” the “return” of which has once again made it the stuff of headlines, and the even worse (and far more prevalent) culinary culprit we’ve nicknamed “chicken ooze,” which has somehow managed to stay out of the news.
In case you haven’t been privy to the recent reports about the comeback of “pink slime,” this paste made from sanitized meat scraps, which is described as “finely textured beef,” and which became widely unpopular following an expose by ABC News, is now starting to be used again by a number of unspecified food retailers and processors. (For the record, it should be noted that the term “pink slime” is now the subject of a defamation lawsuit against ABC News.)
Not that it ever completely went away. True, the consumer revulsion that followed the media accounts, which included a former U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist’s estimate that it was being used in 70 percent of ground beef, did cause many companies (along with the USDA’s School Lunch program) to drop it as an ingredient. And that, in turn, led to a number of plant closures.
However, with meat prices now on the rise and the media frenzy having died down, some food enterprises decided this might be as good time as any to start reusing it. As a result, two of its producers, Beef Products Inc., and Cargill, have reopened facilities that had previously been shut down, although Cargill says it no longer treats the stuff with ammonia hydroxide, but more palatable-sounding citric acid.
So where might this pate of beef remnants now be found? Well, according to The Wall Street Journal, Cargill is currently selling its version of the product to nearly 400 retail, food-service, and food-processing customers. And NPR has reported that “grocery stores and food processors, like the makers of lasagna and pasta sauce” are once again mixing the material into their ground beef. Some retailers, however, such as Kroger, Safeway and SuperValu, as well as fast-food chains like McDonald’s, have promised their customers that they wouldn’t be bringing it back.
Of course, such adverse publicity may have given some people the impression that it’s no longer allowed to be used (as a clerk in the meat department of our local supermarket thought). So, for the record, the extender created from such trimmings is still “generally recognized as safe” (or GRAS) by the government, which doesn’t require it to be labeled as an added ingredient. (It also shouldn’t be confused with mechanically separated beef, which is removed by means of a different process and is now considered unfit for human consumption due to concerns about mad cow disease).
So, given the absence of a labeling requirement, how would you know if it’s being used or not if you’re intent on avoiding it? That depends.
If the item you’re wondering about is a Cargill processed beef product, you should see it on the label, since the company is now voluntarily providing that information. Cargill also lists “finely textured beef” on the boxes of ground beef it supplies to supermarkets – but while the stores are urged to inform their customers of the fact when they relabel the products, there’s no guarantee they will, according to a company spokesman. So if you want to know about the ground beef in your supermarket’s meat case, probably the best way is to ask the meat manager. And if you’re concerned about other processed foods – or about what you’re getting at restaurant chains – your best bet would be to inquire as well.
‘Chicken ooze’ much easier to find – and identify.
No such inquiries, however, need be made in regard to “chicken ooze,” or mechanically separated poultry (MSP). That’s because, unlike those “finely textured” beef trimmings, the government requires that MSP be labeled, so all you need do is look at a product’s ingredients to see if it’s there. (And when you do, you may be surprised at how many processed foods contain it.)
And chicken ooze, as we’ve pointed out in previous blogs, may be far more gross than pink slime in terms of both its contents and the risk it poses for salmonella contamination.
As we first reported here last October, this cheap, toothpaste-like filler is produced by taking the carcass (bones and all) of a chicken or turkey after most of the meat has been hand-removed, and processing it through a giant machine that crushes and separates bone, and mixes and filters what remains. But, MSP must be a listed ingredient, a rule imposed by the USDA back in 1995.
But then, there’s more to chicken ooze than just whatever scraps of meat are left on the carcass. There are also bone fragments (up to one percent), bone marrow, chicken or turkey skin (which can also include feather particles and hair), kidneys (which the USDA claims “do not pose a health or safety concern”) and immature sex glands.
And unlike the ill-reputed paste made from those beef trimmings, which is used to bulk up ground beef, the glop known as mechanically separated poultry is added to a wide variety of processed foods — products ranging from deli meats to corn dogs to “Lunchables.”
But though it’s much easier to spot, chicken ooze has so far avoided the spotlight. And given that it lacks the notoriety that the media have heaped on pink slime, it doesn’t appear that any of the manufacturers of these products will feel compelled to consign it to the scrap heap of processed-food history any time soon.
Posted by Linda Bonvie -- September 11, 2014
A new number has just been released by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that should set off flashing red, yellow and blue warning lights for food shoppers throughout the land.
The FDA now estimates that at least 96 percent of children aged 2-5 years are being exposed to at least four artificial colors in food products – FD&C Red 40, Yellow 5, Yellow 6 and Blue 1.
What that means is that the great majority of America’s kids –especially those of preschool and kindergarten age — are now being fed foods that are tainted by virtue of being painted.
Perhaps you never thought of the use of synthetic food dyes in quite that way. But to “taint” can be defined as “to modify by or as by a trace of something offensive or deleterious.” In other words, to add a very small amount of a substance that can be harmful or “injurious to health.”
And that’s how many experts now view the artificial hues that are used to “pretty up” so many processed foods by making these nutrient-deficient products appear more colorful.
In fact, one of their primary concerns about these additives is how they may be affecting children – a worry supported by research. A few years ago, studies were performed at Yale University’s Department of Pediatric Neurology to determine the effects of five common synthetic food dyes on baby rats. Only unlike experiments that have used excessive amounts of substances in question, these used the equivalent of the “real world” exposures our kids have to these dyes. And the results were alarming – the rats became hyperactive and showed diminished learning ability.
Nor is this an effect that has been confined to lab rats. Not long ago, a British study, published in the medical journal The Lancet, which found that artificial food dyes increased hyperactivity in children, prompted the American Academy of Pediatricians to acknowledge a link between their consumption and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and to recommend parents try removing them from the diet of a child who suffers from the condition.
In other words, the road to Ritalin could well be paved with all those FD&C’s you see listed among the ingredients of today’s processed food products.
Fake colors versus true hues
But hyperactivity isn’t the only health problem that these fake hues are associated with. Red dye No. 40, a petroleum derivative and the most commonly used artificial color, has been known to cause allergic reactions such as hives and swelling around the mouth, and is a suspected carcinogen. Yellow No. 5 (tartrazine) has been linked to chromosomal damage and may cause allergic reactions and migraines. Yellow No. 6 (sunset yellow), currently banned in Norway and Sweden, can cause gastrointestinal distress, swelling of the skin, nettle rash and migraines, and may also be carcinogenic. And Blue No. 1, or “brilliant blue,” which has been banned in France and Finland, may trigger asthma, low blood pressure, hives and other allergic reactions. (It also caused serious complications and death in hospital patients when used in feeding tube solutions several years ago.)
The irony is that the “true colors” of foods – those that nature intended — not only make them look more appealing, but actually show that they’re rich in certain vital nutrients.
The red in a tomato, for example, indicates the presence of lycopene – a powerful antioxidant also found in red-tinged commodities like watermelon, sweet red peppers and pink grapefruit, which helps ward off heart disease and also is believed to lower the risk of prostate and breast cancer. The yellow color of veggies and fruits such as squash, pineapple and bananas is due to carotenoids and bioflavonoids, which also provides strong antioxidant properties that benefit your heart, vision, digestive and immune systems, and also are a great source of vitamin C. And the substances that give foods like blueberries, blackberries, pomegranates, plums and eggplant their ‘true blue hue’ help prevent both heart disease and cancer.
Given the many health benefits of the variety of vivid colors Mother Nature has imparted to our foods, the idea of buying foods disguised with unhealthy, counterfeit colors – in other words, that have been both painted and tainted –should be enough to make every consumer who’s not between the ages of two and five cringe.
Posted by Linda Bonvie -- September 9, 2014
Seeing that the movie FED UP is being made available starting today for home viewing on Blu-Ray and DVD, we thought this would be the perfect time to rerun Citizens for Health Board Chair James S. Turner’s review.
“Everything we’ve been told about food and exercise for the past 30 years is dead wrong,” claim the film’s promoters in hyping FED UP as “the film the food industry doesn’t want you to see.” While not disagreeing with that premise, Turner also has some reservations about the correctness of some of this movie’s key assertions — as well as its omissions.
So, whether you’re reading it here for the first time or reading it again, here’s what he had to say about this film.
FED UP: How what should have been an important movie missed the mark
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.
Posted by Linda Bonvie -- September 4, 2014
That may be a worn-out and tired cliché, but it was never truer.
Just last week, WhiteWave Foods, the company that makes Horizon and Silk brands, announced it will be removing carrageenan from those products.
First, all Horizon flavored milks will give carrageenan the boot, followed next year by other Horizon organic products, such as eggnog, whipping cream, cottage cheese and sour cream.
As for Silk, by next year its soy and coconut beverages will be carrageenan free as well.
Now of course, the company still maintains carrageenan is safe. But consumer “feedback” told them “it was time to make a change.”
“Feedback” is a bit of an underestimate.
What really happened is a lot more than just some emails from customers.
First, an irate group of consumers led by popular food blogger Vani Hari – The Food Babe – started sounding the alarm about carrageenan in 2012. And last year the Cornucopia Institute issued a big report titled: Carrageenan, How a ‘natural’ food additive is making us sick.” The Cornucopia report details all the scientific evidence that shows consuming this additive can do some nasty things to your health.
And then, last year Food Identity Theft added carrageenan to its list of top food additives to avoid, giving more press and consumer attention to the issue.
We also did an investigation into carrageenan in pet food, finding that our four-legged friends are no safer from this gut-wrenching additive than we are.
If you missed any of those reports, here’s why you want to avoid carrageenan, and why WhiteWave is probably happy to have washed its hands of it.
Experts have been questioning the use of this additive, the sole purpose of which is thickening foods and adding a good “mouth feel” as industry calls it, since the 1960s.
Derived from red seaweed, the carrageenan used by the food industry is called “food grade,” but it appears that this more edible-sounding version can turn into the potent inflammatory and carcinogenic “degraded” version in the human GI tract. (The “degraded” version is so strong it’s used to induce inflammation in laboratory animals to test anti-inflammatory drugs).
The Cornucopia Institute report showed how regular consumption of carrageenan can produce “prolonged and constant” inflammation, which is a “precursor to more serious disease.”
And one of the worst aspects of this is that even usually additive-free organic foods can contain carrageenan. All of which makes label-reading a must (on pet food, too) if you want to avoid it.
And thanks to all the attention it’s been getting lately, a whole lot of consumers want to avoid it.
While this is a great start, other “natural” sounding products still contain the additive, including Blue Diamond and Pacific brand Almond “milk,” Starbucks soy milk latte, numerous brands of yogurt and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.
HFCS, another additive consumers want no part of
But the biggest consumer challenge, and success, is going on with the laboratory sweetener high fructose corn syrup
It seems like every week you hear of another brand that’s opting out of using this corn-derived, man-made sweetener, and bringing back real sugar.
That’s why you can find “NO HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP” on more product labels all the time, especially soft drinks – including the biggest brands, like Pepsi.
Remember – HFCS made its debut by being quietly added to these beverages in the 1970s. So maybe it will go out the same door it came in.
And when it does disappear from food and drinks entirely – and that day will come — we can all give ourselves a big collective pat on the back.
Posted by Linda Bonvie -- September 2, 2014
To a lot of consumers, whether they heard it from local TV news anchors or National Public Public Radio, the news last Thursday must have come as a shockaroozi.
It seems that a new study not only has found that one in 10 processed foods still contain the partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) that the Food and Drug Administration proposed a ban on nine months ago as a primary source of artery-clogging trans fats, but 84 percent of those products are labeled as having “zero trans fats.”
Now, had it not been for those enterprising researchers at the New York Department of Health and Public and Mental Hygiene who came up with these revelations, who would ever have known such a thing?
Well, how about regular readers of this blog? We’ve been warning you about the “trans fat loophole” that allows up to 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving to be reduced to a zero on the “Nutrition Facts” label since the beginning of 2012. We’ve also been regularly providing you with examples of the numerous packaged foods that still contain partially hydrogenated oil, despite claims that food companies have been hard at work in an effort to get rid of them.
And just last week, even before the reports of this latest “study” were aired, we took the trouble to get in touch with the FDA to try to find out if any specific action had either been taken or was being planned to implement the proposal made last November to take PHOs off the agency’s list of Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) ingredients. And here’s the response we got in an email from Marianna Naum, Ph.D. of the Strategic Communications and Public Engagement Staff of the FDA’s Office of Foods and Veterinary Medicine: “We continue to review comments to the proposal and at this time aren’t able to conjecture on date of next action.”
Might industry have put the brakes on the FDA’s proposed ban?
Wow! Given that the FDA itself, in calling for this ban (or “phase-out”) of PHOs, estimated that these additives are responsible for 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths every year, it certainly doesn’t appear to be in any particular hurry to stem this acknowledged tide of death and serious illness. Especially when you consider the fact that an “extended comment period” on the proposal ended back on March 8 – nearly six months ago.
Might it have been put off by some of the comments submitted during that period, do you suppose? That is, the ones that came from “stakeholders” – meaning food industry groups with an economic interest in maintaining the PHO status quo and who don’t really see trans fat as posing that much of a health risk?
“The food industry is urging the Food and Drug Administration to withdraw its ‘tentative determination’ that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) should no longer be ‘generally recognized as safe (GRAS),” the online trade pub Food Business News reported back in April. Industry associations and companies, it noted, while “supporting “further reduction” of dietary trans fat, “suggested there were other less disruptive and more effective approaches to accomplish the same end.”
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, for example, urged the agency to replace its proposed ban on PHOs “with a fundamentally different approach that will achieve a policy aim that will be supported by consumers, industry and the agency.” Such a “prudent” course of action, the GMA maintained, could consist of a “less onerous proposal that builds on already existing programs that are successfully driving trans fat consumption to lower levels,” lest the food supply be significantly disrupted and consumers “unjustifiably denied access to products such as baked goods, pastries, confectioneries, some flavors, seasonings and many other products.”
A similar sentiment was voiced by Mark B. Andon, Ph.D., vice-president, research, quality and innovation at ConAgra Foods, Omaha, who contended that dropping the GRAS status of PHOs “would place potentially thousands of food products at risk of being deemed adulterated due to the presence of an ingredient that has been safely and commonly used in foods for over 50 years.”
The food giant General Mills likewise expressed the opinion that “current low intakes of trans fat are safe” and suggested that a level of trans fat below 0.2 grams per serving either be established as the new “zero” (as did the American Bakers Association) or become a “threshold limit.”
Then there’s Matt Jansen, senior vice-president of Archer Daniels Midland Co. and president of ADM’s global oilseeds and cocoa business, whose concern is that a PHO ban “would inevitably lead to increased use of fats and oils higher in saturated fatty acids, making it more difficult for consumers to comply with the Dietary Guidelines recommendations on saturated fat intake.” (At about the same time he said that, a comprehensive review of 72 studies from 18 countries undertaken by researchers from Britain’s University of Cambridge determined that saturated fats do not pose a cardiovascular risk after all.)
We could go on, but you get the idea. Despite its claims to have significantly reduced the levels of PHOs in the American diet, it’s plain to see that Big Food is still very much addicted to these non-nutritive preservatives of product shelf life – and either doesn’t care or refuses to acknowledge that they are shortening the actual lives of thousands of customers every year. And the FDA’s present procrastination could well be an indication that it’s causing the agency to rethink its bold proposal of last November.
But there is one thing you can do to influence the food industry to completely remove this health hazard from its products – and, in the process, to be your own watchdog instead of relying on reluctant regulators. It’s to read those ingredient labels carefully and if you see “partially hydrogenated” anything, don’t buy the product – whether or not its tran fat listing is zero.
If it convinced more people to do that, the New York Department of Health and Public Hygiene deserves to be commended – even though the results of its study are really “old news.”