Archive for the ‘Corporations and healthy foods’ Category

A sneeze, a wheeze or worse: part one

Friday, July 15th, 2011

a common food allergen

I've been reading about food allergies recently beginning with a Wall Street Journal article entitled "An 'Allergy Girl' Comes Out of Her Bubble." Sandra Beasley, author of that short piece, is in her early thirties, has major food allergies and has written a memoir, Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales fom an Allergic Life.

I found two medical websites dealing with the issue, one from the Mayo Clinic. and the other on We have to sort out food allergy from food intolerance, which is considerably more prevalent. I have mild food intolerance to milk and dairy products, presumably from a low level of the enzyme, lactase, which helps break down the lactose in those foods, but can drink a small glass of milk without any problems resulting. I have a relative who has fairly severe lactose intolerance and strictly avoids milk; if he drinks even a small glass, he's going to, at the very least, have lots of gas.

We have a local friend who is allergic to a protein in milk; she'll have bloody diarrhea if she drinks any quantity of it. She can drink coconut milk and, when she joins us at our favorite Thai restaurant, will order Thai ice tea with that substitution.

Mayo's website says the FDA requires food producers to provide a list of the big eight, the most common ingredients that cause around 80% of food allergies. The list includes milk, eggs, peanuts, so-called "tree nuts," including almonds, walnuts and cashews, fish including bass, cod and flounder, shellfish (e.g., crab, shrimp and lobster), soy and wheat.

Fresh meat, fresh produce and some oils don't require labeling, but packaged foods do. That holds true even when the allegen is in a flavoring, coloring or other ingredient. The manufacturers are required to list even small amounts of the allergens if and only if, they're actually contained in an ingredient.

But there's another issue or two or three. Some food allergens can be introduced via cross contamination, so many food producers will add statements like, "Manufactured in a factory that also processes peanuts." This is voluntary on the part of the food company and the FDA is working to make the format of these warning labels more consistent.

But the article from "allergy girl" describes an episode where she asked for a dairy-free menu in a restaurant, then ordered a drink. The cocktail came with a milky liquid bottom layer. Upon inquiry she found the garnish contained pine nuts.

The waiter said, "You didn't ask for the nut-free menu."

If you have severe food allergies and eat these, you may need the Epi-pen

In her case, as in the situation for many adults with major food allergies, multiple foods can cause life-threatening reactions.

We ask friends who are coming to our house for a meal what food intolerances and food allergies they have and plan accordingly. But two years ago, one man was about to reach for a dish that had a pine nut topping when his wife grabbed his hand.

"Did you forget to mention the last time you ate pine nuts, we had to visit the emergency room? she asked.

I was happy I had an Epi-pen in the nearby bathroom.



Colorful foods, natural & un-

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

Any food dyes here?

I've always been suspicious of food dyes. Reading labels and seeing Red 40 and Yellow 6 made me wonder if they added any benefit, other than allowing the food companies to sell more of their product. Then we were in Maryland, near the end of an eleven day trip to visit kids and grandkids and old friends and I spotted an article in the Washington Post titled "Eye-catching foods to get closer look from regulators." Today the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times had similar articles.

So I went back to an online 2007 British article published by professional staff from two medical schools which, in a randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial showed adverse effects (hyperactivity) from one mxture of artifical food color and additives. In 2008 the non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest, calling those dyes the "Secret Shame" of food industry and regulators, petitioned the FDA to ban them, noting several of them were already being phased out in the United Kingdom.

CSPI noted that a 2004 meta-analysis had shown that those dyes can affect children's behavior and quoted two more recent British government-funded studies of kids in a general population that had also concluded that the dyes and a preservative (sodium benzoate) had adverse effects on behavior.

So what happened? You got it. The FDA didn't ban the dyes.

In June of 2010 CSPI published another article that raised issues beyond hyperactivity, namely cancer and allergic reactions. They commented that our public is exposed by the food manufacturers to roughly fifteen million pounds per year of eight synthetic dyes. Three of those dyes are contaminated with known carcinogens, CSPI said, and a fourth, Red 3, was already acknowledged to be a carcinogen by the FDA itself.

Three of the four plus Blue 1 can cause allergic reactions in some people; this is not new knowledge according to CSPI.

Why do the food companies use the dyes? They're eye-catching and kids look for bright colors. CSPI urged the FDA to ban the dyes since there is evidence in human and animal studies of potential harm from them, but none of helpful effect, except to the wallets of the food producers.

That article came out in late June of 2010. Now in late March of 2011 the FDA is convening a panel of experts with the comment that artificial food dye is an issue "for certain susceptible children with ADHD and other problem behaviors."

I'm not betting on the outcome of the panel's recommendations, at least not from the FDA. On the other hand the food industry may be catching on. Some may try natural colors and I saw a mention of a new Koolaid product, Koolaid Invisible.

In the meantime, maybe it's time to wean your kids off of M&Ms.

If you do eat fast food, you may want to buy this book

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

My writing mentor, Teresa Funke, sent me an email after reading one of my posts recently. She mentioned that her family has a book titled Eat This Not That! Her three kids love reading the book and pointing out choices, especially wrong ones, that she and her husband make. They've purchased several editions of the book over the past few years.

Well I had to buy the book and easily found it in our favorite locally owned bookstore, Old Firehouse Books (that's right; it's in an old fire station). This is the 2011 edition and costs $19.99.

The authors (major and minor) are David Zinczenko, the editor-in-chief of Men's Health and a co-writer, Matt Goulding, who's said to be a New York Times best-selling food author and has cooked and eaten his way around the world. I Googled the second author and found he also has a book called Cook This Not That! Since we already do lots of healthy heart cooking I won't buy that other book.

But let's go back to the book that I did purchase.

So what does this book do? Remember, I rarely eat fast food at all and if I do it's because we're on a trip and didn't bring sandwiches (we almost always do for shorter road trips, but the second or third day out, we may have to find a place to eat). My favorite choice then is Subway since I can pick a simple "sub" and not goop it up. Plus I know what the calories are in the sandwich since they're listed.

But the book is interesting. It lists the "20 Worst Foods in America,' for instance. It tells what's really in a "Chicken McNugget" (seven ingredients in the meat and twenty more in the breading). It has a Top Swaps section telling which burger, wings, pasta, ribs, fajitas, chicken, fries, salad, pizza and ice cream is better than its competitor. It focues on some specific food choices (bad ones, according to the book) and tells why (e.g., a Taco Bell Mexican Pizza has 64 different ingredients; Skittles have more sugar per package than two twin-wrapped packages of Peanut Butter Twix and a whole range of additives that help bring about all those colors; many of those were apparently linked in a Lancet article to hyperactivity and behavioral problems in children).

The bulk of the book fits the title, side by side comparisons of food choices from different fast food restaurants. They're interesting and may be quite useful to those of you who partake on a regular basis of such fare.

I have some real caveats however. Many of their "Eat This' selections still have way too much salt and sometimes more fat than I'd be interested in eating. The book touts losing weight without exercising or dieting. That's not my style at all. Nonetheless it's both a good read, and according to Teresa, a nice way to introduce kids to making food choices. The book rates and, in some areas, grades a wide variety of foods.

Overall I'd give it a C+, but you may rate it higher, even if you only eat fast food occasionally.



The Gut-brain interface

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

The human digestive tract

Today I came across an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal. I've spent much of the day trying to track down background information and, thus far, appear to have only scratched the surface.

The initial article was titled "Hungry? Your stomach really does have a mind of its own." It described an research effort by scientists working for the Nestle SA company, a huge firm headquartered in Switzerland, but operating in 86 countries and employing well over a quarter million people.

When I think of Nestle, I think of chocolate, but they started with condensed milk and baby formulas. They've done some praiseworthy things and some that have been severely criticized. Among the former are efforts to halt child labor in cocoa production; the latter includes promotion of the use of infant formula to mothers in developing countries.

The article I was reading talked about satiety factors to stop us from overeating. Nestle has a group of its scientists working on foods that potentially can trick what is termed the gut brain. That's known to physicians as the enteric nervous system, a huge collection of nerve cells involved in actions and reactions in the GI tract: the esophagus, stomach, small intestine and large intestine.

So here's how it works, or at least some of how it functions, in hunger and satiety. Eating stretches the stomach, causing "I'm full" messages to be sent to the real brain, the one in your head. Chemicals called peptides are released when food is present in the intestine; that also signals the brain. Then there's another mechanism I'd never heard of, one called the "Ileal Brake."

The ileum is part of the small intestine and apparently another "I'm full" message can be sent upstairs when there is an excess of fat reaching that part of the gut, in this case excess means more than can be handled (processed) at the moment.

So the Nestle scientists developed a mechanical model of the human GI system, one that cost a million dollars, is the size of a really big refrigerator and is computer-controlled. Using this machine, their lead scientist, Heribert Watzke, and his crew are simulating the progress of a meal through our GI tracts.

I found a video of Dr. Watzke speaking to what appeared to me to be a mostly college-age audience at Oxford, England. He's a very entertaining speaker, obviously partakes a bit too much of his own company's products (or other food) and admits this. He thinks we shouldn't be called omnivores, but rather "Coctivores," creatures that eat cooked food.

His premise is that cooking allowed mankind to develop larger brains and freed them to be able to move around the planet. He wasn't speaking of the food products his company produces, but rather presented a formula: food + cooking = energy.

I need (pun intended) to digest this concept a little more; I'll return to it at a later time.

Meanwhile I suggest you Google Dr. Watzke and observe his show.

What's Good for General Bullmoose...

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

A Bull Moose has some clout

Several major concerns in Americans' diets have apparently taken another step to resolution. I've written how the dietary salt (sodium really) recommendation has recently been lowered so that about 70% of us (all but the young, white and quite healthy) should be ingesting only 1,300 to 1,500 mg. of sodium per day. That's tough enough to do. I saw a recipe yesterday in a "Light Cooking" magazine my wife gets that was interesting: a steak hash. But per portion it had 1,000 mg. of sodium.  That's over two thirds of what I should eat in a whole day. I didn't bookmark that recipe.

Then there's the relatively high cost of fresh fruits and vegetables compared to some other choices, so called "prepared foods" one can buy in the supermarket. Those mixtures are often filled with sodium, fats and sugars, but they're comparatively cheaper in many instances.

We're fortunate enough, as a pair of USAF retirees,  to be able to buy our fruits at the Air Force Base Commissary closest to us as we did when we drove to Cheyenne to see our Dermatologist today. And in the summer, of course, we've again purchased a veggie share and a fruit share from the local CSA, Grant Family Farms. Next summer two sets of friends will join us in that, so the variety will go up and the price per item down as we purchase larger shares. Then we got a quarter of a "hand-raised" cow this year at a wonderful per pound price. That came through friends whose neighbor has a very small herd and sells a few each year.

So what if you're on a tighter budget and don't live where friends and their neighbors have livestock?

Today in The New York Times appeared an article titled "Promote Healthy Foods."  It details how Wal-Mart (since 2008 I think it's actually Walmart), now the biggest retail concern in the country has a new plan, one that over the next five years will cut down on packaged foots content of the sodium, fat and sugars. That gradual approach doesn't ring well with some; I saw some negative quotes, but other countries have followed the same pattern with success. it's hard to go from high-salt to low-salt diets in one urgent push. I know since I tried that when my own blood pressure first went up in the early 1980s.

I tried some "no-salt" foods and hated them. Yet now, some 25+ years later, I'm quite comfortable adding pepper and other spices and using no table salt and no cooking salt.  We cook with a little salt when we have company, using less than the recipe calls for, and I frequently see our guests adding salt at the table. When we eat alone there's no salt shaker there.

Wal-Mart is also planning to offer fruits and vegetables at lower prices. And the article said they plan to build some more stores in rural and "underserved" areas. The company has been discussing healthy eating and our epidemic of childhood obesity with the First Lady and she apparently endorsed their efforts. Why is this significant? Well it's because they can pressure their suppliers to follow along with the concept. They are the Bull Moose herd leader and others tend to tag after them.

We don't do much shopping with them, but in this case I say, "Hooray for Wal-Mart."

Walmart weighs in on local produce

Friday, October 15th, 2010

Let me start with a disclaimer. I don't have any personal connection with Walmart and I'm aware of the issues that unions, small locally-owned stores and others have had with the corporation. We rarely even set foot in our local Walmart mega-store.  We do have a Sam's Club card and occasionally buy something there, but do most of our non-CSA grocery shopping at another chain entirely.

We've continued to get the majority of our veggies and fruits from our CSA, Grant Family Farms. The organic produce, mostly grown locally, or in the case of apples, regionally has been wonderful. On the other hand, I've been fully aware we're in a minority. There are lots of people who could afford the extra price, but have never tried farmers' markets. Others don't have access to a CSA organization. Many more wouldn't be able to afford the prices even if they wanted to purchase these kinds of groceries. I've seen articles implying governmental support would be needed before this happened.

I doubted that was likely to occur, but wondered if one of the huge grocery chains could start the process of giving making healthier choices available for almost anyone. Now that seems to have started.

A article in the October 14, 2010 edition of the New York Times gave me some measure of optimism in this arena  and some background information that I was unaware of.

Walmart is the world's largest grocer. What it does can influence markets and manufacturers across the  globe. That being said, up until now I hadn't heard much that linked the chain with sustainable agriculture.

Apparently Walmart has been edging toward sustainability goals for five years and set a series of these targets. Now they're turning their sights toward food with a goal of doubling the percentage of produce grown in a given area, actaully the same state a given store is located in.

Still they are only aiming at a 9% local foods goal in the United States. That's a sliver, a nice sliver to be sure, but they're already set much higher targets in Canada (30% by the end of 2013 according to the article).

They're also planning to spend a billion dollars on food from farms much smaller than the enormous ones most of their groceries come from now, cut down on food waste by improving their farm to market shipping patterns, and query their large-scale producers on their use of water, fertilizer and chemicals. There's even a beef-purchase clause in their new plan that is aimed at prevention of further loss of the Amazon forest.

All this will result in more money in the Walmart coffers, but I don't care. They have such incredible clout, on such a wide scale that their new goals will influence agricultural and marketing practices in a major fashion.

It's a good start.