food safety

Regulating junk food will make the tobacco battle look like a walk in the park.

via US Department of Health & Human Services

via US Department of Health & Human Services

Unhealthy diets are now a greater threat to global health than tobacco. Just as the world came together to regulate the risks of tobacco, a bold framework convention on adequate diets must now be agreed.

–from  the opening address of the sixty-seventh session of The World Health Organization’s AssemblyGeneva, Switzerland, May 2014.

Tobacco and junk food—here’s how they’re the same:
We all know that both are bad. It’s a universally-accepted truth that tobacco and junk food are implicated among the leading causes of premature death and chronic disease.
Both are incredibly addictive. Last year the American Medical Association officially classified food addiction as a disease. Eating junk food triggers physiological changes and neural responses; in the food -addicted (estimated to be one of us in twenty) the brain’s response is virtually indistinguishable from that of smokers, alcoholics, and drug addicts when they’re given their drug of choice.

Here’s why junk food is more perilous:
Tobacco is sabotage, and every smoker knows it, but food is supposed to be good for us.
Tobacco is a binary choice—to smoke or not to smoke. Eating is not a discretionary activity; food is sustenance. While cigarettes can be avoided, food addicts are forced to confront their demons three times a day. How long do you think abstinence would last if former smokers were offered a pack of cigarettes at every meal?

You can argue that junk food is a choice, but is it really?
There’s no scientific or nutritional standard to separate the junky stuff from the healthy foods. Junk food has no official classification or designation in the food industry, the medical community, or governmental agencies. Some say that if you have to ask it’s probably junk. Or they’ll point to the classic pornography definition that relies on prevailing standards: you know it when you see it. Until there’s an acid test or even basic agreement on a simple definition, we can’t be sure of our choices, and more importantly, there’s no way to regulate it.

It’s not as simple as avoiding the unholy trinity of salt, sugar, and fat.
You can’t just draw a line in the sand. Pixie Stix and Doritos are easy, but most foods–even those with a surfeit of the reviled ingredients–have some redeeming nutritional value. Rarely are calories truly empty. There are also plenty of foods–think of nuts, olives, and dark chocolate–that could qualify as junk food for their salt, sugar, or fat levels but are decidedly healthy. Truly dangerous ingredients and additives like artificial trans fats, nitrites, and food dyes should be banned, but mostly we just need to know what’s in our food; we don’t want to be told what we can eat.

The World Health Organization gets it right when it argues for the highest level of global agreement and collective action in dealing with junk food.
It’s also right that there are lessons to be learned from the world-wide effort to reduce smoking like warning labels, stringent advertising guidelines, and limited access to child-oriented media. Like tobacco, taxes should be hiked on unhealthy food products with the revenue funding healthcare and health education, and agricultural subsidies should be distributed to align with our nutritional goals: cheap broccoli and pricey high-fructose corn syrup.

Where the WHO gets it wrong is comparing junk food to cigarettes. Junk food is so much worse.

Posted in food knowledge, food safety, Health | 1 Comment

Why Are We Talking About Food Dyes?

There’s a dark side to the rainbow.
We’ve wondered about food coloring for years.
There was the Great M&M Scare of the 1970’s when rumors of a cancer link fueled a public fear of red candy shells. We toughed it out for almost a decade with a lackluster mix of green, orange, yellow, and brown.

Then we started hearing about studies linking yellow food dye to testicular cancer. And kidney tumors linked to blue coloring. Food dyes have been associated with chromosomal damage, adrenal, thyroid, and brain tumors, and a whole host of health, behavior, and learning issues in children like hyperactivity, anaphylaxis, and impulse control.

After decades of wondering, while the inclusion of synthetic dyes steadily rose in an increasing number of processed foods (doubling just since 1990), last week the FDA decided to take a look at the issue. The advisory panel tasked with its review found the evidence to be ‘inconclusive,’ recommending that the agency continue its hands-off approach.

Bear in mind that countries throughout Europe have banned most artificial dyes based on the same evidence. Food manufacturers, including American giants like Kraft, Kellogg’s, and McDonald’s have reformulated their products with natural alternatives for the European market, while they continue to sell foods with the questionable ingredients to the U.S. market. Imagine, there are actual strawberries coloring a U.K. McDonald’s strawberry sundae and orange soda gets its color from  pumpkin and carrot extract, instead of the FD&C Red Dye #40  and Yellow #6  that we get.

It’s not just day-glo Popsicles and rainbow Skittles.
It’s estimated that a young child with a taste for fast- and processed foods could be eating as much as a pound of food dye every year. But well beyond the usual suspects you’ll find food dyes in a staggering array of foods like canned fruit, fresh oranges, chocolate milk, salad dressing, ginger ale, cookies and bread, chips and crackers, even matzoh balls. Oy veh.

Food dyes contribute nothing to the nutritional value or safety of food, existing only as a marketing tool, mostly to make highly-processed foods more appealing to children. Even if the evidence has been termed ‘inconclusive,’ we’re still looking at potential health consequences. Why risk it?

The Center for Science in the Public Interest was instrumental in reopening the FDA debate over food dyes. Read their full report: Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks.

 

 

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Food Sovereignty: One town goes it alone.

The town of Sedgwick, Maine has done something that no other place in the United States has dared to do: its citizens voted, unanimously, I might add, to declare food sovereignty. They have given themselves the right to control their own food supply; “to produce, process, sell, purchase, and consume local foods of their choosing,” without government intervention. The local ordinance overrides the authority of state and federal health codes, regulations, inspections, and restrictions. This means that raw milk, foraged foods, home-cured meats, and goods produced in unlicensed kitchens can be freely bought and sold.

In recent years, we’ve seen a flowering of small culinary start-ups. Cost, scale, and access keep them cooking at home instead of in the commercially licensed kitchens required by mainstream distribution channels. That then bars them from purchasing sales permits and liability insurance, driving many of them underground. Some state and local governments have chosen to relax regulations while others are cracking down on unlicensed operations, forcing them to comply or shut down. This has led to incidents like last year’s so-called pie-gate, when the elderly, pie-baking church ladies of St. Cecilia’s Parish were harassed and shut down by a state inspector in the midst of an annual bake sale fund-raiser marking the first Friday of Lent.

Questions of safety and liability come to mind.
There are growing concerns about the integrity of our national food system, and criticism of the sometimes arbitrary and wrong-headed nature of health code enforcement. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, one out of six Americans gets sick from food-borne illness, with 3,000 of them dying each year. Sedgwick decided to takes its chances with local producers, taking reassurance from the personal nature of the interactions between producer and consumer. Residents are being encouraged to make informed decisions, especially if they are consuming raw milk products, and to waive liability stemming from transactions.

Maine is governed by “home rule,” which gives municipalities the power to alter and amend their charters on local matters that aren’t prohibited by constitutional or general law. So far, state and federal authorities have been hands-off in Sedgwick, and three nearby towns are in the process of adopting similar measures.

Learn more about the food sovereignty movement. Grassroots International publishes Food for Thought and Action: A Food Sovereignty Curriculum. It’s available as a free download from their website.

 

 

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Obama’s Food Policy: Not as we had hoped.

image via Devil's Haven

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Those were heady days, back in ’08, when we ushered in our 44th President.
He  knew what arugula was and ate at really good Chicago restaurants. His family avoided high-fructose corn syrup and bought organics.
Could our new President be one of us? […]

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It’s Organic. But What About the Packaging?

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It’s not a question of whether packaging components will leach into your food. It’s only a question of how much.

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When 28 million boxes of Kellogg’s cereal were recalled last summer, it gave us something new to worry about.
The problem wasn’t with the Froot Loops and Corn Pops (well, no more than the usual problems we have with over-processed, over-sugared breakfast cereals), but with the cereal boxes.

You know the slick, weirdly waxy-feeling liner bag inside of cereal boxes? That’s not wax. It’s plastic that has been impregnated with preservatives derived from oil and coal tar, and they leach into the cereal as it sits on the shelf. The incident highlighted gaps in the FDA’s chemical approval system and its lack of oversight when it comes to the safety of food packaging. […]

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Food Traceability: Fed Ex for the food chain

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I just ate a banana.
It was grown by the Molina family on their farm in Ecuador’s El Oro province on the southwest coast.
I saw its organic certification from the USDA, and when it was loaded onto a ship in Guayaquil Bay, I could see that it was joined by bananas from two other organic farms.

I know all of this because Dole practices traceability, a concept that is being embraced by more and more growers and manufacturers. Traceability lets consumers trace the origins of their food—not just to a country, but to a specific farm or processor. […]

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Filth in Food: We might as well drink out of the toilet.

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Let me state at the outset:

I am not a germaphobe.
I don’t have food rituals, issues, or obsessions. I use the silverware set out for me, I let different foods touch on my plate, and I am well-acquainted with the 5-second rule.
What I do have is a healthy respect for bacteria and a reasonable gross-out threshold.

Every once in a while a bit of news is reported that makes me want to take a bath in hand sanitizer.
You know the kind of news I’m talking about. Reports like when the the FDA increased allowable levels of filth in food (currently it’s 30 insect fragments plus 1 rodent hair per 100 grams, or about 4 spoons’ full of peanut butter), or when a middle school student’s science project proved that the ice in fast food restaurant soda machines is dirtier that toilet water.

Take a deep breath, maybe gargle some mouthwash, and let’s look at some tales from the annals of yucky, germy, disgusting things you probably put in your mouth. […]

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Egg Safety: How to Boil an Egg

image courtesy of Bella Irae

You

Soft-boiled, sunny-side up, over-easy, gently poached.
Uh uh. Not these days. Runny yolks are out. Hard-boiled is the safest way to go.
And you think you know how to boil an egg, but I’m here to tell you that you can do better. […]
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The Egg Recall: Rethinking the 5-Second Rule

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The freshly buttered piece of toast slips off your plate and falls to the floor.

The floor looks clean.
It landed buttered-side up.
The dog didn’t lick it.
Looks fine to me!

It seems like a perfect time to invoke the 5-second rule. […]

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Chew the Right Thing

image via Kosher Ham

Funny, you don’t look Jewish…

There are roughly 6.5 million Jews in the U.S., just about 2% of the population, according to the Census Bureau. Maybe a million of them keep kosher. So why is it that nearly half of all the food in American supermarkets is kosher-certified?

Pivotal kosher moments in US history:

  • Coca Cola (certified kosher, 1935)
  • Tropicana orange juice (1990)
  • Oreos (1997)
  • Kosher Pork (2011)
    It’s like the Jewish version of the Holy Grail. It’s actually a Spanish variety of goose with a decided porkiness to its flesh.

Every one of them was a watershed. But nothing changed the way Americans look at kosher food like the 1972 Hebrew National hot dog commercial. As Uncle Sam munches on a hot dog, a disembodied, heavenly voice assures him that as a Hebrew National beef hot dog, it is free of the additives and by-products typically found in lesser processed meats.  As the camera pans heavenward, the voice proclaims, “We answer to a higher authority.”

 

Kosher has become synonymous with purity and quality. It requires scrutiny and monitoring that exceed national standards, playing nicely in the current environment of heightened concerns about food safety. Labeling of kosher food is considered to be more trustworthy than mainstream labeling. Strict product labeling tells vegans and vegetarians when meat or dairy is present;  Muslims can trust that kosher meat products contain no pork; and consumers with food allergies can safely monitor their diets.

The kosher label is so desirable that it now dominates new product launches. It is the number one label claim for new food and beverages, topping even organic, natural, and low fat. Mainstream retailers like WalMart and Whole Foods are hustling for certification to sell kosher chickens.

A higher authority than the USDA.

Of course the ancient, Jewish dietary laws stand for more than just food safety. Adherence is intended to connect daily living to a higher spiritual plane. For the typical kosher consumer, 85% of whom are not Jewish, faith is not a factor— just a lack of faith in the agencies that monitor our food system.

Kosher Quest has a guide to kosher package symbols and their certifying agencies.

Buck the trend and dine at Traif. Named for the Hebrew word for non-kosher, the Brooklyn restaurant is a celebration of pork and shellfish.

If you missed it the first time around, now’s your chance to view the seminal 1975 Hebrew National hot dog commercial.

J.


Posted in food safety, vegetarian/vegan | Tagged , | 1 Comment
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