Archive | Food and Drink

Study Linking GMOs to Tumors in Rats Retracted

In September 2012, Food & Chemical Toxicology published a peer-reviewed study purporting to show that rats fed genetically modified corn had a higher incidence of tumors than those that were not.  This was significant, as this study was the first to find evidence of an adverse health effect in any mammal species from the consumption of GM foods.  The study immediately faced a wave of criticism from scientists and experts in the field, who noted the paper’s many methodological failings.  In response to such criticism, Food & Chemical Toxicology retracted the paper on November 28, after the paper’s authors refused to withdraw it on their own. The authors are now threatening suit against the journal, and anti-GMO activists are organizing a boycott, but the editors are standing their ground.

UPDATE: Hoisted from the comments, here’s more from Ars Technicaand an early critique of the study at Respectful Insolence. [...]

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Flipping on Trans Fats

This week the Food and Drug Administration announced that it is targeting trans fats in food. Specifically, the FDA announced its preliminary determination that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), the primary source of trans fat in the American diet, are [no longer] “generally recognized as safe” as food additives. If finalized, this determination would mean that food producers would be required to obtain pre-market approval before adding PHOs to foods. As a practical matter, this would practically end the use of PHOs.

The FDA has been concerned about trans fats for the past decade or so. Food labels have been required to list trans fat content since 2006. But there was a time when health experts, and the self-appointed food nannies, thought trans fats were safe. Indeed, as detailed in this Atlantic piece (and this lengthier academic article), there was a time when groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest were urging fast food chains and others to replace animal fats with PHOs. So while CSPI today praises the FDA for targeting trans fats, it also celebrated decisions by fast food chains like Burger King to start using trans fat-heavy PHOs. In other words, had it not been for the food nannies, American consumption of trans fats might not have been so high in the first place.

UPDATE: A commenter notes that the FDA does not require full disclosure of trans fat contents in food as nutritional labels are only required to list he amount of trans fats per serving, and can list the amount as zero if it is below 0.5g. This is correct, but not limited to trans fats. For instance, it’s true with calories too.

Also, I edited the first paragrpah to re-insert some accidentally omitted words. I apologize for the error. [...]

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Teaching Carnivorous Fish to Be Vegetarians

the Washington Post reports on a successful effort to convert captive cobia to a vegetarian diet.

The conversion of these carnivorous fish to a completely vegetarian diet is a first, according to the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, and a key to breaking a cycle in which the ocean’s stocks of small fish — menhaden, anchovies and sardines — are plundered by industrial fishing partly to provide fish feed to aquaculture, one of the fastest-growing economic sectors in the world.

“It would take the pressure off harvesting the menhaden fishery,” Place said, referring to the bony and oily little fish billed as the most important in the sea. Menhaden, caught off Virginia’s coast, feed a plethora of marine animals, including dolphin, swordfish and birds.

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NY appellate court rules 5-0 against Bloomberg soda ban

The First Department of the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court has ruled 5-0 against NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s soda ban, in the case of  In re New York Statewide Coalition of Hispanic Chambers of Commerce, et al. v. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, et al. (The Hispanic Chambers opinion begins on page 22, following two other opinions released the same day.)

In New York State, the trial courts of general jurisdiction are the Supreme Court. The intermediate courts of appeal are the Appellate Division, which are divided into four geographic Departments, similar to the U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal. The highest court is the Court of Appeals. Thus, Mayor Bloomberg has the option of trying to bring the case to the Court of Appeals.

The Appellate Division’s decision is quite straightforward: “[T]he Board [of Health] did not bring any scientific or health expertise to bear in creating the Portion Cap Rule. Indeed, the rule was drafted, written and proposed by the Office of the Mayor and submitted to the Board, which enacted it without substantive changes.” If the Board’s ban on the sale of sodas larger than 16 ounces were actually a health rule (similar, for example, to a ban on the sale of infected meat), there would not be so many exemptions for certain types of vendors.

The Appellate Division applied the four-part separation of powers test from Boreali v Axelrod, 71 NY2d 1 (1989). The Appellate Division summarized the four Boreali factors:

First, Boreali found the PHC [Public Health Council] had engaged in the balancing of competing concerns of public health and economic costs, “acting solely on [its] own ideas of sound public policy”. Second, the PHC did not engage in the “interstitial” rule making typical of administrative

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Rethinking “Calories In, Calories Out”

I came across an interesting new paper on SSRN looking at caloric intake and obesity across populations “Macronutrients and Obesity: Revisiting the Calories in, Calories out Framework” by Daniel Riera-Crichton and Nathan Tefft. Here’s the abstract:

Recent clinical research has studied weight responses to varying diet composition, but the contribution of changes in macronutrient intake and physical activity to rising population weight remains unknown. Research on the economics of obesity typically assumes a “calories in, calories out” framework, but a richer weight production model separating caloric intake into carbohydrates, fat, and protein, has not been explored. To estimate the contributions of changes in macronutrient intake and physical activity to changes in population weight, we conducted dynamic time series and structural VAR analyses of U.S. data between 1974 and 2006 and a panel analysis of 164 countries between 2001 and 2010. Findings from all analyses suggest that increases in carbohydrates are most strongly and positively associated with increases in obesity prevalence even when controlling for changes in total caloric intake and occupation-related physical activity. If anything, increases in fat intake are associated with decreases in population weight.

The fat finding may be counter-intuitive, but the finding that increases in carbohydrate consumption correlate more strongly with increases in obesity is not surprising at all. It conforms with much that’s been learned about weight gain and weight loss in recent years. [...]

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New York Judge Nixes Super-Size Soda Ban

A state court judge has voided New York City’s much discussed (and much derided) ban on the sale of large sugary drinks, the New York Post reports.   The ban was slated to take effect tomorrow.  Due to the judge’s ruling, however, NY health inspectors won’t have to run around testing drink sizes and coffee sellers will still be able to add sugar to large drinks.  (Lattes and the like were exempted, however, due to their milk content — further evidence of the law’s udder irrationality.)  Here is the opinion, and more coverage from the WSJReason, and Reuters.

UPDATE: NYU’s Rick Hills comments:

Justice Milton Tingling of the New York supreme court (that’s a trial judge for you non-New Yorkers) struck down Mayor Bloomberg’s soda portion cap this afternoon, citing the state non-delegation doctrine and the state’s administrative law constraint on arbitrary and capricious rule-making. The essence of the opinion is that defining soda portion size is above the Department’s pay grade, because it is “legislative” in character, a major policy requiring the imprimatur of City Council. . . .

In favor of Justice Tingling’s anti-paternalism canon is that the doctrine simply forces Mayor Bloomberg to apply to the City Council to make controversial policy decisions. As I have elsewhere noted with respect to taxis, the Mayor has been excessively prone to bypass Council, either applying to Albany for direct state legislative authority or simply ruling by executive decree (or by the decree of mayoral sock puppets like the Department of Health).

But one might complain that judicial glosses on statutes, derived from nothing more than the judge’s libertarian suspicion that an agency’s intervention into the market is too novel or meddling, over-extend judicial power even as they constrain agencies’ power. The

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Are Plastic Grocery Bag Bans Bad for Public Health?

San Francisco banned disposable plastic grocery bags in 2007. It’s not alone. Several dozen communities around the country have adopted similar policies, all in the name of environmental protection. Those thin plastic bags may require far less material than in years past, but some still see them as wasteful. New research, however, shows that banning those plastic grocery bags may be bad for your health.

In a paper up on SSRN, the University of Pennsylvania’s Jonathan Klick and George Mason’s Joshua Wright (recently confirmed as a Commissioner on the Federal Trade Commission) present evidence that bans on disposable plastic grocery bags lead to an increase in food-borne illness. Here’s the abstract:

Recently, many jurisdictions have implemented bans or imposed taxes upon plastic grocery bags on environmental grounds. San Francisco County was the first major US jurisdiction to enact such a regulation, implementing a ban in 2007. There is evidence, however, that reusable grocery bags, a common substitute for plastic bags, contain potentially harmful bacteria. We examine emergency room admissions related to these bacteria in the wake of the San Francisco ban. We find that ER visits spiked when the ban went into effect. Relative to other counties, ER admissions increase by at least one fourth, and deaths exhibit a similar increase.

The results really should not be all that surprising. As Businessweek reports, prior research found that few people regularly wash reusable grocery bags or take other precautionary steps (such as using separate bags for meat and produce). So, not surprisingly, tests find coliform and even e.coli bacteria in a significant percentage of bags.

Of course one solution is to encourage shoppers to take better care by regularly washing their grocery bags and storing them in places where bacteria is less likely to form. But would such educational [...]

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Did White House Suppress Science on GMO Salmon?

Jon Entine details the evidence that the White House forced the Food & Drug Administration to sit on a scientific assessment concluding that approval of a genetically modified salmon developed by AquaBounty Technologies would have “no significant impact” on the environment. After Slate published an investigative report, the FDA quietly released assessment last Friday, over six months after it had been completed.

The seven month delay, sources within the government say, came after discussions late last spring between Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius’ office and officials linked to Valerie Jarrett at the Executive Office, who were debating the political implications of approving the GM salmon. Genetically modified plants and animals are controversial among the president’s political base, which was thought critical to his reelection efforts during a low point in the president’s popularity. . . .

The hurried release of the Environmental Assessment last Friday capped a frenzied two days behind the scenes at the White House and FDA. Within hours after the Slate article and leaked document were posted, an administration official notified the FDA that the administration was dropping its indefinite hold. “The White House had no place to hide,” said a government source. The “final” draft environmental assessment is identical to the document leaked to the GLP, but is dated May 4—two weeks later. . . .

According to sources, the White House political block—a direct violation of numerous ethics regulations and possibly of federal laws—was instituted over the objections of scientists at the FDA, but with the awareness of HHS Secretary Sibelius, her senior adviser Andrea Palm and the Office of Science and Technology Policy and its director John Holdren, who is responsible for enforcing “science integrity” across government agencies. . . .

FDA scientists and staffers say they were instructed not to

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Is Organic Food Healthier or Safer?

A new study fails to find scientific support for claims organic food is healthier or safer than conventional alternatives and everyone acts as if this is a surprise. It shouldn’t be. Scientific research has fairly consistently failed to validate the claimed superiority of organic food, as I’ve noted in prior posts over the past ten years (see, e.g., here, here, and here). Organic foods do not consistently show higher nutrient levels than conventional foods, nor are there even clear environmental advantages. Organic farming uses less energy and fewer chemicals, but it also tends to be more expensive and requires more land — meaning that a widescale shift to organic production would increase food costs and require putting more acres under plow, with consequent negative effects on species habitat.

For this latest study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, Stanford researchers conducted a meta-analysis of over 200 studies looking at the differences between organic and conventional foods, and concluded “the published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.” Organic foods tended to have lower pesticide residues and were less likely to have antibiotic-resistant bacteria, but the researchers concluded the differences were not significant enough to have any meaningful health impact. If organic food truly is healthier — and it may be — the existing scientific literature cannot (yet?) support such claims, particularly as applied to organic foods across the board. There may be specific foods, however, for which organic production may make a difference (or for which organic production methods tend to correlate with other practices that produce positive results).

The bottom line is eat organic foods if you like. Just don’t believe there’s any scientific basis for claiming you will be healthier as a result. As the [...]

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How Not to Label Biotech Foods

In November, Californians will vote on Proposition 37, a ballot initiative to impose a mandatory labeling requirement on all foods produced with or from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). For reasons I discuss in this New Atlantis article, this requirement is unnecessary, unwise and potentially unconstitutional.

The effort has been endorsed by numerous progressive organizations and the California Democratic Party. Of note, those who usually police the misuse or politicization of science have been strangely quiet about the misleading and inaccurate scientific claims made by Prop. 37 proponents. Although the proposition warns of “adverse health consequences” from genetic engineering of foods, there is not a single documented case of adverse health consequences due to the use of GMOs. Yet about traditional crop-breeding techniques, we can say no such thing. It’s no wonder that the National Academy of Sciences has issued numerous reports concluding that the use of modern genetic modification techniques, in themselves, have no bearing on the relative safety of a food product. What was done to a specific GMO matters more than whether specific modification techniques were used.

It is even misleading to single out crops and other organisms modified by modern genetic modification techniques as “genetically engineered. Many common crops are “genetically engineered” in that they are the result of direct human modification. Corn, for example, does not exist naturally. It was “engineered” by humans, albeit using less precise breeding methods centuries ago.

The organizers of the effort claim consumers have a “right to know” whether their foods contain GMOs. But nothing stops consumers from obtaining such information. Organic producers and others who wish to cater to those who dislike GMOs are free to label their products accordingly (and, in my view, should be able to do so without some of the excessive disclaimers urged by [...]

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First They Came for the Big Gulps

Will Mayor Bloomberg and his New York Nannies be satisfied with the ban on large sodas? Don’t bet on it. The policy is unlikely to do much of anything to reduce obesity — certainly not quickly enough for Mayor Minding-Others’-Business. And besides, there are lots more high-calorie options out there, and the Nannies are taking notice. As reports:

The board hand-picked by Mayor Michael Bloomberg that must approve his ban of selling large sugar-filled drinks at restaurants might be looking at other targets. . . .

At [a recent] meeting, some of the members of board said they should be considering other limits on high-calorie foods.

One member, Bruce Vladeck, thinks limiting the sizes for movie theater popcorn should be considered.

“The popcorn isn’t a whole lot better than the soda,” Vladeck said.

Another board member thinks milk drinks should fall under the size limits.

“There are certainly milkshakes and milk-coffee beverages that have monstrous amounts of calories,” said board member Dr. Joel Forman.

First they came for the Big Gulps, and then they came for the Triple-Shot Caramel Macchiatos. [...]

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Studies Undermine “Food Desert”-Obesity Link

The NYT reports:

t has become an article of faith among some policy makers and advocates, including Michelle Obama, that poor urban neighborhoods are food deserts, bereft of fresh fruits and vegetables.

But two new studies have found something unexpected. Such neighborhoods not only have more fast food restaurants and convenience stores than more affluent ones, but more grocery stores, supermarkets and full-service restaurants, too. And there is no relationship between the type of food being sold in a neighborhood and obesity among its children and adolescents.

The two studies used relied on different methodologies but reached the same conclusion: The relative availability of different types of food in a neighborhood has little observable effect on the obesity rate. [...]

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