Archive | Food and Drink

The FDA’s Unhealthy Salt Obsession

Is too much salt bad for you?  That used to be the conventional wisdom, but more recent scientific research has suggested the emphasis on salt is misplaced.  No matter.  As Walter Olson notes, the Food and Drug Administration appears to be moving ahead with plans to force gradual reductions in the salt content of processed foods.  Among other things, the FDA is concerning the adoption of federal targets for gradual salt content reductions to wean consumers from their taste for salt.  But reducing salt content will do more than alter food’s flavor.  It can affect texture and perishability as well.  Surely the FDA has better things to do than obsess over the salt content of processed foods.  But if the FDA persists, I suppose it just means these (no relation) will get more use. [...]

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Making Fake Maple Syrup a Felony

It is currently a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in federal prison to falsely identify cane sugar or corn-based syrups as”maple syrup.”   Apparently this is not enough for Vermont’s congressional delegation.  As the Los Angeles Times reports, Vermont’s senators have proposed legislation to make it a felony to represent a product as “maple syrup” when it’s not.

[NOTE: Post edited because I omitted some words.] [...]

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No Ketchup Pour Vous

The LA Times reports on new limitations on school lunches in France:

In an effort to promote healthful eating and, it has been suggested, to protect traditional Gallic cuisine, the French government has banned school and college cafeterias nationwide from offering the American tomato-based condiment with any food but — of all things — French fries. . . .

Moreover, French fries can be offered only once a week, usually with steak hache, or burger. Not clear is whether the food police will send students to detention if they dip their burgers into the ketchup that accompanies their fries.

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Unnatural Corn Class Action

Grist reports on a class-action suit that is being filed against ConAgra for allegedly deceptive marketing of its various vegetable oils.  The core of the complaint seems to be that some ConAgra products, such as Wesson corn oil, are labeled as “100% natural” even though they contain oil from genetically modified corn. If something comes from a GMO (genetically modified organism), they complainants allege, it cannot be “natural.”  It’s an interesting argument, particularly as the federal government has not issued guidelines as to how companies may use the word “natural” in their marketing.

It’s somewhat ironic that the plaintiffs in this litigation have elected to go after corn oil, however.  If the charge is that it is misleading to call something “natural” if it cannot occur naturally in nature, then no corn products would qualify, ever.  This is because corn itself does not “occur naturally” in nature.  Rather, it is the product of human cross-breeding and hybridization, albeit hybridization that occurred thousands of years ago.  Indeed, nearly all crop varieties, so-called “GMOs” or otherwise, are human-modified strains that would not occur naturally in nature.  Corn is simply a more extreme example in that it is farther removed from its natural cousins than other crops.

I don’t know whether the history of corn and other crops will affect the outcome of this suit.  Even if it’s hard to argue (as a scientific matter) that “GMO corn” is less natural than “non-GMO corn,” other types of oil are also part of the suit and words like “natural” have common colloquial meanings quite apart from the scientific reality.  But whatever the legal outcome, the suit illustrates how the conventional use of terms like “natural” to modern crops has little relationship to how those crops were actually developed. [...]

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Crop Diversity Revisited

Does a decline in crop diversity threaten future food production? A report in the August 2011 National Geographic suggests so. The article, “Food Ark,” reports that the “extinction” of food varieties could be a real problem.

Food varieties extinction is happening all over the world—and it’s happening fast. In the United States an estimated 90 percent of our historic fruit and vegetable varieties have vanished. Of the 7,000 apple varieties that were grown in the 1800s, fewer than a hundred remain. . . . .

Why is this a problem? Because if disease or future climate change decimates one of the handful of plants and animals we’ve come to depend on to feed our growing planet, we might desperately need one of those varieties we’ve let go extinct.

But it’s actually not at all clear that available food varieties are dwindling at such a dramatic rate. As I’ve noted before here and here, the research of Paul Heald and Susannah Chapman suggests that available crop varieties are actually increasing. In the case of apples, for example, Heald and Chapman show that the number of varieties available to apple farmers today is nearly four times greater than in 1900.

Particularly misleading is this graphic, which purports to show “our dwindling food variety.” Based upon a 1983 study by the Rural Advancement Foundation International, it compares commercial seed house offerings from 1903 and varieties maintained in the National Seed Storage Laboratory eighty years later, finding a shocking 93 percent decline in available varieties. But this is not an apples-to-apples comparison. Had the study instead compared commercial seed offerings in 1903 with those available from contemporary seed catalogs it would have found no appreciable decline. In fact, that is the point of this Heald and Chapman study, which found contemporary [...]

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Has the FDA Declared War on Supplements?

Just before the holiday weekend, the Food & Drug Administration issued a new draft guidance on when dietary supplement makers must file “New Dietary Ingredient” notifications and what such notifications must require. This has the supplement industry up in arms, as they fear the guidance could effectively eliminate most dietary supplements that have come on the market since 1994. The industry may be over-reacting. On the other hand, the FDA has gone after supplements before — and had its hand slapped back by the courts. I’ll be curious to see what comes of this.

UPDATE: Of course there are many supplement scams (see, e.g., here).  However the FDA guidance is not particularly focused on misleading marketing and hucksterism within the industry. [...]

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Cleveland Enacts Trans-Fat Ban

Yesterday the Cleveland City Council enacted the first part of the so-called “Healthy Cleveland” plan — a ban on “industrially produced trans fats.” The law takes effect at the beginning of 2013, save for doughnut makers, who have an extra six months to make the switch. The legislation also prohibits smoking in many public places, including parks and recreation areas adjacent to city buildings. [...]

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Senate Slip Up Could Doom Food Safety Bill

The Hill reports that the Senate’s failure to follow constitutionally prescribed procedures could doom the food safety bill.   The bill includes fee provisions that constitute taxes and the Constitution requires that all tax bills originate in the House of Representatives, and it looks unlikely that House Dems will let the slip pass.  Based on what Walter Olson has written about the bill, this could be a good thing.  (More here.)

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Should Genetically Modified Salmon Be Labeled?

The Food and Drug Administration is considering whether to approve genetically modified salmon for human consumption.  Aquabounty Technologies has submitted its “AquAdvantage” salmon, an Atlantic salmon genetically engineered to mature faster than wild salmon, for FDA approval.  Thus far, things look good for Aquabounty, as the FDA’s staff review concluded that AquAdvantage salmon are as safe to eat as other Atlantic salmon.  Further, the staff found “no biologically relevant difference” between the fish.

If the FDA approves AquAdvantage, it is unlikely that the FDA will require that AquAdvantage be labeled as genetically modified.  Indeed, the FDA may lack authority to require such a label.  As the Washington Post reports, if the FDA concludes that AquAdvantage salmon are not materially different than other salmon, there is no basis to mandate disclosure, as failure to label the fish does not mislead the consumer.  Failure to disclose how a product is made — in this case, that an eel gene was inserted in the salmon to make it grow faster — is not misleading to consumers.  Under existing law, so long as the genetically engineered salmon is not materially different than other salmon, the fact that it was genetically engineered is no more relevant than what it was fed, the size of its pen (assuming farm-raised salmon), or how it was killed.  Producers are free to disclose such process characteristics, but the FDA will not mandate it.

Would the FDA’s failure to mandate the labeling of AquAdvantage salmon be a problem?  I think not.  It is one thing to require producers to label their products so that consumers are aware of potentially harmful characteristics.  It is quite another to force a producer to label a product to disclose a non-material fact about the product that some consumers may dislike, such as how [...]

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The FDA to Target Salt

From today’s Washington Post:

The Food and Drug Administration is planning an unprecedented effort to gradually reduce the salt consumed each day by Americans, saying that less sodium in everything from soup to nuts would prevent thousands of deaths from hypertension and heart disease. The initiative, to be launched this year, would eventually lead to the first legal limits on the amount of salt allowed in food products.

The government intends to work with the food industry and health experts to reduce sodium gradually over a period of years to adjust the American palate to a less salty diet, according to FDA sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the initiative had not been formally announced.

Officials have not determined the salt limits. In a complicated undertaking, the FDA would analyze the salt in spaghetti sauces, breads and thousands of other products that make up the $600 billion food and beverage market, sources said. Working with food manufacturers, the government would set limits for salt in these categories, designed to gradually ratchet down sodium consumption. The changes would be calibrated so that consumers barely notice the modification.

The legal limits would be open to public comment, but administration officials do not think they need additional authority from Congress.

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I am a late-comer to coffee – I grew up without it, and only began drinking it in the last five or six years.  I started in earnest on sabbatical in Spain, with espresso, but soon realized that I preferred mightily the medium roast, slightly sweet, high altitude volcanic coffees of Guatemala, prepared either in a French press or carefully controlled drip.  I now count as a coffee snob – even though, as I note each time I am in Palo Alto, the true snobs have long since moved on to teas and probably things I have not heard of yet.

As to coffee and health, I have never quite known what to think.  I am easily moved to engage in selection bias, but I do credit coffee with helping me lose weight in the past few years – at bottom, a form of chemical stimulation that is not sugar.  But as to the larger and longer term effects, I haven’t quite known what to think.  So I was intrigued at the WSJ Personal Journal’s Melinda Beck’s useful and entertaining roundup of recent studies on the effects of coffee on health in today’s WSJ.  Bottom line is cautiously favorable to coffee, with some concerns the other direction (I read it this morning out on the stoop in a pair of gym shorts and nothing else, drinking hot coffee in the mid-morning sun and lapping up the rays – but query, dear readers, is the noon sun in DC on Dec 28 sufficiently strong to produce Vitamin D in the skin?  or am I simply freezing in the 30 degree weather?):

To judge by recent headlines, coffee could be the latest health-food craze, right up there with broccoli and whole-wheat bread.

But don’t think you’ll be healthier graduating from a tall

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