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Trans-Fat Free: A Big Fat Lie?

Posted by -- December 13, 2011

By James J. Gormley

On October 20, 2011, the results of the second part of a two-phase study from the Institute of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board were published, Front-of-Package Nutrition Ratings Systems and Symbols: Promoting Healthier Choices, which concluded that “it is time for a move away from front-of-package systems that mostly provide nutrition information on foods or beverages but don’t give clear guidance about their healthfulness, and toward one that encourages healthier choices through simplicity, visual clarity, and the ability to convey meaning without written information.”

Although I hesitate to embrace a set of kindergarten logos or icons in lieu of more detailed information, as WebMD reported on November 28th “What you see on the front of the label is never going to be the full story. It’s still important to turn the package around and look at the Nutrition Facts panel […].”

A November study, that was published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association (JADA), reported on the results of a psychological and consumer-behavior study that used an eye-tracking device to see what consumers are really looking at on labels regardless of what they say they are looking for.

Twenty percent of the 203 participants actually looked for “trans fat free,” which is a testament to consumers perspicacity yet not especially reassuring given the Houdini-esque wiggle room given food producers in the use of this label. A label is allowed to say “trans fat free” if it has less than 500 mg of trans fat per serving!

Current law requires that products with less than five grams be listed in 0.5 gram increments, and lower than 0.5 grams as containing zero grams of fat. “Meaning, if a product has 0.49 grams of trans fat, the label can list the trans fat content as zero,” noted ScienceDaily on January 3, 2011, “thus masking a significant amount of trans fat that can exceed recommended limits and potentially lead to various adverse health effects.”

In fact, a study by Eric J. Brandt in the January/February 2011 issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion showed, according to ScienceDaily, that “misleading labeling practices can result in medically significant intake of harmful trans fat, despite what you read on Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved labels.”

“This labeling policy may result in people thinking they are consuming foods with no trans fats, when in fact they may be consuming food that cumulatively include trans fats in excess of 1% of total dietary consumption,” says the author, who also advocates that food labeling laws should be changed to require trans fat content be labeled in 0.1-gram increments.

Despite this deceptive labeling conundrum, don’t expect immediate help from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), our country’s deceptive labeling cops, since the FTC publicly lauded the FDA’s trans fat labeling scheme in testimony before the FDA in 2002, when they said:

“We are concerned, however, that the unique treatment proposed for trans fats on the Nutrition Facts panel may suggest to consumers that there is a significant qualitative difference between saturated fats and trans fats, and such a conclusion appears to be inconsistent with current dietary advice.”

Well, guess what, FTC, there is a significant qualitative difference between trans fats and saturated fats, so it’s good that consumers can distinguish between them, questions of hidden trans fats aside momentarily.

Trans fats: lower good (HDL) cholesterol, increase levels of atherosclerosis-causing lipoprotein-(a), cause tissues to lose good omega-3 fats, interfere with insulin, increase anti-cardiovascular C-reactive protein, interere with enzymes that metabolize fats, and interfere with the functioning of the immune system, whereas saturated fats do not.

Now, mind you, I am not pointing out these differences to promote saturated fat, which we want in only very low levels in our diet, but to draw the distinction between natural saturated fats and artificial, partially hydrogenated trans fats, which are in fact, dear FTC, even worse than saturated.

All this boils down to the fact that we have to be extra-vigilant when trying to determine what the trans fat level is in our foods, even if it says trans fat free. You should check to see if there are any partially hydrogenated fats listed — if there are, then you probably want to put it back on the shelf!

It’s hard enough to eat healthfully with the deceptive food labeling that food manufacturers cook up on their own; it’s even worse when the deceptive labeling is developed by the FDA and applauded by the FTC!

Caveat comestor! Eater beware!

A Tale of Two Honeys

Posted by -- November 15, 2011

By James J. Gormley

According to tests conducted for Food Safety News, over 75 percent of the “honey” sold in U.S. grocery stores … isn’t.

Findings showed that the pollen is typically filtered out, this despite the fact that the food safety arms of the European Commission, the World Health Organization and other bodies have “ruled that without pollen there is no way to determine whether the honey came from legitimate and safe sources.”

Ultra-filtration is a synthetic process which involves heating honey, sometimes watering it down, and then shooting it through filters using high pressure to remove the pollen.

According to Mark Jensen, president of the American Honey Producers Association (AHPA) in an interview with Food Identity Theft:

“The honey that is ultra-filtered is often synthetically produced, put in huge vats and trans-shipped so that certain countries, like China, can avoid anti-dumping laws and tariffs, by shipping to another country as an intermediary, such as India. Without the pollen, you don’t know where it came from, so anything can be put on the label.”

Jensen told Food Safety News that it is “pretty safe to assume that any ultra-filtered honey on store shelves is Chinese honey and it’s even safer to assume that it entered the country uninspected and in violation of federal law,” via the trans-shipping practice known as “honey laundering.”

In the meantime, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not seen fit to establish an official standard of identity for honey, despite the fact that occasional inspections have uncovered Chinese honey contaminated with chloramphenicol, a powerful veterinary antibiotic that can cause permanent bone marrow and liver damage in humans.

U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) is one of more than 20 U.S. senators and members of Congress of both parties who have repeatedly asked the FDA to create a federal “pure honey” standard, but to date these requests have fallen on deaf ears.

Meanwhile, the best bet for consumers is to seek out honey at health food stores, farmers markets, food co-ops and stores such as Trader Joe’s, one of the few stores which passed the testing with flying colors: its honey is actually honey!

A Sticky Problem

Posted by -- November 2, 2011

By James J. Gormley

Quick, take a guess: What’s the main thing missing from Fruit Roll-Ups, Fruit by the Foot and Fruit Gushers? Answer: fruit!

In an October 14 complaint from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) filed in a U.S. District Court in California, General Mills has been slapped with a proposed class action lawsuit for “misleading consumers about the nutritional and health qualities of its fruit snacks,” namely Fruit Roll-Ups, Fruit by the Foot and similar products.

Although the labels say these snacks are “fruit flavored,” “naturally flavored,” “a good source of vitamin C,” and low in calories, fat and gluten, according to the CSPI’s lawsuit, obscured on labels is the fact that the “so-called fruit snacks are mostly sugars (some from fruit concentrate and some from corn syrup), artificial additives and potentially harmful dyes.”

Some of the typical ingredients in these products are: partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil (trans fat anyone?); Red 40; Yellow 5; Yellow 6; Blue 1; and processed sweeteners. Not exactly whoesome nutrition.

In fact, Red 40 and Yellow 5 are made from petroleum and pose a whole range of unlabelled health risks, according to CSPI, including hyperactictivity and allergic reactions, in addition to being potentially carcinogenic. The British government and the European Union have already established regulations virtually eliminating the use of dyes such as these, not so the U.S. government.

“General Mills is basically dressing up a very cheap candy as if it were fruit and charging a premium for it,” said CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner.

The complaint also says that the labeling of these products violates different state laws, including Minnesota’s Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act and several California laws covering “misleading and deceptive advertising and fraudulent business practices.

Any surprise that this is the same company that markets two of the unarguably least healthy kids’ cereals, Reese’s Puffs and Lucky Charms?

For General Mills’ part, it was quoted in Marketing Daily with this response to word of a suit, in part: “We stand behind our products — and we stand behind the accuracy of the labeling of those products.” Fortunately, CSPI and Citizens for Health are standing behind truth, accuracy and the health of our nation’s children.

And this is certainly not the first fake fruit story on which we have reported, to be sure; click here to read Linda Bonvie’s September 22nd post, entitled “If you are goingto make fake food, call it what it is”!

It’s All About Authenticity

Posted by -- October 20, 2011

By James J. Gormley

Authenticity is very important to most people….and most countries. But authenticity is an idea that our U.S.  government doesn’t seem to fully embrace.

When it comes to “consumer protection,” the laws and regulations tend to favor corporations instead of consumers. That’s one reason why so many of us spend way too much time standing in grocery store aisles reading food package labels.

According to Britain’s Food Standards Agency (FSA), “Falsely describing, advertising or presenting food is an offence, and there are a number of laws that help protect consumers against dishonest labeling and misdescription.”

The FSA also says:  “Food authenticity is all about whether a food matches its description. If food is misdescribed, not only is the consumer being deceived, but it can also create unfair competition with the honest manufacturer or trader.”

This U.K. agency actually has a surveillance program devoted to food authenticity in which the agency carries out spot checks on foods to uncover and weed out adulteration and “misdescription.”

I don’t find the term “food authenticity” anywhere on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) labyrinthian website. And although I have not always been a fan of the U.K.  FSA’s positions, I really do like their active, and meaningful, use of this concept and of this term for regulatory review and enforcement, and I think our FDA should consider adopting this term.

There is a message here for U.S. regulators in encouraging the FDA to expedite its decision to deny the petition from the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) to mislabel the ingredient high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as “corn sugar.”

Reference:

U.K. FSA. Understanding Food Labeling Rules. Available at: http://www.food.gov.uk/scotland/regsscotland/ull/ Last accessed: October 13, 2011.