Topic Box Image: 

Why the Additives in Processed Foods May Be Even More Dangerous Than You Think

Guess what? It's the food industry—not the FDA—that's pretty much determining what's safe for Americans to eat.
Why the Additives in Processed Foods May Be Even More Dangerous Than You Think

Want to get a good sense of just how utterly screwed up the Food and Drug Administration is when it comes to regulating all those unpronounceable ingredients on the labels of so many processed foods? Just check out the much ballyhooed announcement from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the trade group that represents most of the processed-food industry, of its newfound openness about food additives. The association has launched a “five-part initiative to help modernize the process” of evaluating whether additives should be considered safe, including establishing a “GMA-sponsored database” that will provide the FDA and “other stakeholders” access to the food industry's safety assessments of its own products.

Hold up a minute: The FDA doesn’t already have its hands on the data food companies have been using to determine whether the additives they’re putting into the food we eat are safe for human consumption?

In a word, nope.

Oh you poor, silly, naive American consumer. Did you really think that the FDA was poring over reams of scientific data before it gave the green light to an additive like epigallocatechin-3-gallate or gamma-amino butyric acid ? Not only does the agency not require food makers to submit scientific studies to back up claims that the additives they’re using are safe for humans to eat (that is, “generally recognized as safe,” or “GRAS,” in bureaucratic-speak), but the agency basically allows food companies to make that determination themselves. No FDA stamp of approval is necessary; it's pretty much been that way for the last 17 years.

I’m no great fan of flow charts, but this one devised by the nonprofit public watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest succinctly sums up what you otherwise might think should be an involved and deliberate process. After all, we’re talking about nothing less than ensure the food in our grocery stores is safe to eat for crying out loud. 

As you may have surmised from the chart, the FDA doesn’t even know all the additives that the food industry has deemed safe. Which is why the Grocery Manufactures Association thinks it’s being so progressive and transparent by providing that information to the very agency most Americans believe is on top of making sure harmful stuff doesn’t make its way into our food.

“Today the food industry is congratulating itself for sharing a database of its food additive safety studies with regulators at the Food and Drug Administration,” Laura MacCleery, chief regulatory affairs attorney for CSPI, said in a statement. “That this is seen as a step forward neatly illustrates the dysfunction built into the current system. It is outrageous that FDA doesn’t already have the identity, much less the safety data, of all substances added to the nation’s food supply.”

How did it come to this? Well, for starters, the law intended to govern the safety of food additives dates to the Eisenhower administration, when there were only about 800 additives in all. Today there are an estimated 10,000, manufactured by companies with names like FutureCeuticals, Hamari Chemicals, and ChromaDex.

But in the original law, GRAS was limited in scope: It covered things like oil or vinegar, ingredients that had been used in food since time immemorial. By 1997, feeling understaffed and overburdened, the FDA began allowing food makers themselves to determine whether their newfangled additives were safe, often based solely on the evaluation of a company’s employees or consultants it hired.

Plenty of independent public health watchdogs have been crying foul about this for years, among them CSPI, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and, more recently, the Natural Resources Defense Council. In a comprehensive three-year study of the issue released last year, Pew determined that “FDA has not reviewed the safety of about 3,000 of the 10,000 additives allowed in food.” That includes 1,000 that food makers have “self-affirmed as GRAS”—i.e., “safe” additives that the FDA theoretically doesn’t even know exist.

For its part, NRDC has taken to calling GRAS “generally recognized as secret,” and in its own report, published in April, provided four enlightening—or terrifying, take your pick—case studies of new additives for which companies had sought GRAS status, only to quietly withdraw their notices in the face of the FDA's scrutiny.

That would sound like the FDA was doing its job, right? Well, sorta. The NRDC report notes that “the FDA does carefully review the notifications [from companies seeking GRAS approval] and asks tough questions.” But because companies can just skip out of the review process altogether with no consequence and bring their additives to market anyway, what does it matter?

Indeed, that’s just what appears to have happened with the four additives spotlighted here, according to the NRDC:

• Epigallocatechin-3-gallate “A Japanese company declared this chemical to be GRAS for use in beverages including teas, sport drinks, and juices, despite evidence it may cause leukemia in fetuses based on studies using newborn and adult human cells grown on a dish. Moreover, the company did not address a short-term study on rats showing it affected thyroid, testis, spleen, pituitary, liver, and gastrointestinal tract.” Number of products on market with ECGC (per NRDC): 25

• Gamma-amino butyric acid “A Japanese company declared this neurotransmitter to be GRAS for use in beverages, chewing gum, coffee, tea, and candy. It did so despite having estimated exposure well in excess of what the company considered safe, relying on unpublished safety studies, providing the specifications in Japanese, and failing to consider existing exposures.” Number of produces on market with GABA (per NRDC): 5 (including bottled tea and nutrition bars)

• Sweet lupin protein, fiber, and flour “An Australian firm declared these chemicals to be GRAS for use in baked goods, dairy products, gelatin, meats, and candy, despite concerns that the chemicals would cause allergic reactions in those with peanut allergies.” Number of products on market with this additive (per NRDC): more than 20, none of which carry allergy warning labels

• Theobromine "A U.S. firm declared it to be GRAS for use in bread, cereal, beverages, chewing gum, tea, soy milk, gelatin, candy, and yogurt and fruit smoothies, despite having an estimated consumption rate more than five times the safe consumption level reported by the company’s consultant. In addition, the manufacturer did not provide convincing explanations for the testicular degeneration in rats and rabbits and delayed bone formation in rats that were seen in animal studies of theobromine.” Number of products on market with this additive (per NRDC): more than 20 (including isotonic waters, nutrition bars, and diet foods).

So is the new industry-sponsored database likely to make the concerns of public health advocates go away? Don't count on it. As CSPI’s Laura MacCleery puts it: “Whether these companies’ evaluations are submitted on paper, assembled in a new database, or gift-wrapped with a bow tied around it, it’s no substitute for having independent and rigorous evaluations of suspect additives used in our food.”

Brooklyn's Trendiest Dining Reservation May Be in a Dumpster

Josh Treuhaft's Salvage Supperclubs go far beyond your average hipster PR stunt.
Brooklyn's Trendiest Dining Reservation May Be in a Dumpster

You’ve heard about Dumpster diving, but how hip are you to Dumpster dining?

Yes, a fair number of Brooklynites may be lamenting the glitzy gentrification of their borough, but one of the hottest places in the borough to eat right now may be a gigantic Dumpster.

Let's pause here for a bit of mocking: Yes, we've gone from Dumpster swimming pools to Dumpster restaurants in fair Brooklyn. I know, I know—is there anything those hipsters won't pay money for if it's wrapped up in just the right shade of cool? Sure, dining on any given New York City sidewalk in late August can mean sipping rosé in the uncomfortably close vicinity of a smelly, seepy pile of garbage. So maybe al fresco dining in the big city is just a little trashy by nature.

However, this is far from some spoof-worthy, roll-your-eyes stunt. The Salvage Supperclubs, hosted by Josh Treuhaft, a recently minted design for social innovation MFA grad of New York’s School of Visual Arts, are bringing awareness to one of the biggest but all too often overlooked social and environmental issues of our time: the problem of food waste.   

“People don’t like waste. It’s icky,” Treuhaft told The Wall Street Journal. But, he added, “when you talk about food, people’s faces light up.”

So far Treuhaft has organized seven of the suppers, teaming up with chef Celia Lam, whom he recruited from the Natural Gourmet Institute. Diners pay $50 for a multicourse dinner served inside a (washed-down) Dumpster parked in the street, seated around a table usually assembled from decommissioned scaffolding.

There they dine on dishes that sound like they belong on the menu of any of the legion of trendy eateries that have popped up from Red Hook to Williamsburg—but all the recipes are made from scraps. At a recent dinner, guests were served beet tartare with cashew cheese and radishes, watermelon-rind pickles, beet-green spanakopita, heirloom tomato soup shooters, and peach-peppermint sorbet, according to the Journal.

While no actual Dumpster diving is involved in the dinners, the peaked, past-its-prime food is sourced from farms, farmers markets, restaurants, and home kitchens. Without the intervention of Treuhaft and Lam, it all would have ended up in the trash. Proceeds from the dinners are donated to the nonprofit City Harvest, which itself salvages some 46 million pounds of food a year in New York to help feed the city’s estimated 2 million residents who face hunger.

In the U.S., estimates of the amount of food we waste are staggering: Upwards of 40 percent of consumer food purchases end up in the trash, according to a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council. All told, we're scrapping 133 billion pounds each year, which is like tossing more than $161 billion into the garbage.

That we could feed 25 million additional people if we just cut our food waste by 15 percent, according to NRDC, should itself be enough to prompt us to question the food we throw away—even if that means admitting our mothers were onto something when they admonished us to clean our plates with the old “There are children starving in Africa…."

But food waste isn’t just a social issue. It’s a bona fide environmental concern. All the resources that are used to grow and produce food—from the land gobbled up by farms to the inputs of water and ag chemicals to the energy used to transport food to market—that’s all for naught when the food winds up in the trash. Some 4 percent of our oil consumption, for example, and 25 percent of our freshwater use can be tied to food waste, according to NRDC.

Oh, and when you’ve got more than 30 million tons of food going into landfills, it rots and produces methane, a greenhouse gas that’s 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. According to the EPA, landfills account for more than 20 percent of human-caused methane pollution.

What's accomplished by throwing a bunch of overwhelming stats at you, dear reader? The good news about food waste is, unlike a host of other social and environmental issues, it’s a problem we all can do something about. You may not be able to afford to switch to a hybrid car or put solar panels on your roof—or spend $50 to eat a dinner of not-quite trash—but it costs nothing to be more mindful about the food we pitch. Heck, it saves money. It’s a logical extension of how much more conscious we’ve become about the food we buy, with farmers markets booming and “locavore” having long entered the popular lexicon. It’s just bringing that same level of awareness to the food we’re throwing away.

A few of my favorite at-home tips, courtesy of NRDC:

• Shop wisely: Plan meals, use shopping lists, buy from bulk bins, and avoid impulse buys. Don’t succumb to marketing tricks that lead you to buy more food than you need, particularly perishable items.

• Learn when food goes bad: “Sell by” and “use by” dates are not federally regulated and do not indicate safety, except on certain baby foods. Rather, they are manufacturer suggestions for peak quality. Most foods can be safely consumed well after their use-by dates.

• Mine your fridge: Websites such as can help you get creative with recipes to use up anything that might go bad soon.

• Eat leftovers: Ask your restaurant to pack up your extras so you can eat them later. Freeze them if you don’t want to eat immediately. Only about half of Americans take leftovers home from restaurants.

Food Giant Nestlé Tackles Animal Cruelty on Factory Farms

It’s ‘the most comprehensive and ambitious animal welfare program’ in the industry, says the Humane Society.
Food Giant Nestlé Tackles Animal Cruelty on Factory Farms

Nestlé, the single largest food maker on the planet, today announced sweeping new requirements aimed at bettering the lives of farm animals raised by its sprawling network of suppliers. The company has vowed, among other things, to rid its supply chain of a litany of cruelly confining crates and cages, such as gestation crates for sows, veal crates for calves, and cages for egg-laying chickens. It has also pledged to ban unnecessary and inhuman practices such as cutting the horns from cattle, particularly those that have traditionally been done without painkillers.

It’s not often that you get to report feel-good news about big food, but two sunny stories about some of the world’s biggest food processors in a single week? What rabbit hole have I fallen down?

Nestlé's move follows another major announcement last week by another major food maker, Kellogg’s, which launched an aggressive new initiative to cut global warming emissions up and down its own supply chain.

As I pointed out last week, the emphasis on the supply chain is key, because for big food companies, that’s where the vast bulk of their business lies. While historically they may have adopted certain socially responsible policies that covered their corporate operations, those facilities are really just the tip of the iceberg for companies that source ingredients from all around the globe.

For Nestlé, that means buying its milk, meat, and eggs from some 7,300 suppliers worldwide. Not that long ago, such companies often maintained that what their suppliers did was out of their control. But thanks to the advocacy of NGOs such as HSUS and Oxfam, with its “Behind the Brands” campaign, some food makers are increasingly taking responsibility for their supply chain as well.

Indeed, while Oxfam doesn’t include animal welfare as one of the main issues it tracks, Nestlé outranks all its big food competitors overall on the organization’s “Behind the Brands” scorecard, which rates companies based on things including land-use issues, treatment of workers, and commitment to addressing climate change.

Still, given the ability of any given megacorporation’s PR apparatus to spin one little positive change into supposedly headline-grabbing news—“BigOil Corp. Announces Shift to Single-Ply Toilet Paper in Company Washrooms, Saving 5,000 Trees!”—there’s always the sneaking suspicion in reporting these kinds of stories that you might be getting duped.

Nevertheless, the Humane Society seemed pretty happy with Nestlé’s new anticruelty rules, calling the action “the most comprehensive and ambitious animal welfare program by a global food retailer to date.”

Given that Kellogg’s unveiled its new climate initiative a mere two weeks after rival General Mills did the same, maybe we can hope (if not hold our breath) that Nestlé’s move might inspire the same spirit of competitiveness toward social responsibility in other food makers as well.

McDonald's Cozies Up to Foodies to Prove Its Food Is 'Real'

But can plying food writers with gnocchi made from french fries turn the chain's fortunes?
McDonald's Cozies Up to Foodies to Prove Its Food Is 'Real'

What’s it going to take to get McDonald’s out of its slump? How about gnocchi? Or beignets? Or a pumpkin-spiced cronut knockoff dubbed the “biznut”—part biscuit, part doughnut?

On the off chance that trusting McDonald’s to turn out such gourmet-sounding fare sets your mouth watering, hold your horses. You’re not likely to see any of it on the menu board of your neighborhood Mickey D’s anytime soon. These are just some of the dishes that were served at a series of events for media cognoscenti, billed as “a transforming dining experience of ‘fast food’ to ‘good food served fast,’ ” according to a McDonald’s spokesperson. The menus were devised by celebrity chefs who were invited to concoct Food Network–worthy dishes using some of McDonald’s ingredients, according to the Associated Press.

“We've got to make sure that the food is relevant and that the awareness around McDonald’s as a kitchen and a restaurant that cooks and prepares fresh, high quality food is strong and pronounced," company CEO Don Thompson said last year, according to the AP. Dan Coudreaut, the company’s director of culinary innovation, was even more blunt: “A lot of our guests don’t believe our food is real.”

But it’s a rather bizarre PR strategy to try to convince reporters, bloggers, and other opinion makers that, gosh darn it, the food at McDonald’s is real by serving highbrow versions of dishes that will never grace a dollar menu. 

That gnocchi? It was reportedly crafted from McDonald’s fries, served up alongside slow-cooked beef (presumably not from McDonald’s) at one such event in New York’s über-trendy Tribeca neighborhood last fall. As for those “biznuts,” they were made from the chain’s biscuit mix. Attendees began the evening munching on kung pao chicken appetizers fashioned from (no surprise) Chicken McNuggets.

The New York dinner was followed by another “transforming dining experience” in New Orleans, where the Golden Arches had the audacity to dish out grilled-chicken-stuffed beignets sprinkled with sugar and served with packets of honey-mustard sauce.

Whether wooing the media at glitzy events with fancy, newfangled tidbits fashioned in part from McDonald’s cheap, run-of-the-mill fare is going to turn the public's perceptions around is anyone’s guess, but it sure seems like an unwitting way to highlight what’s not exciting about your everyday menu. There’s also a whiff of decadent denial about the whole thing that vaguely calls to mind, say, Kirsten Dunst’s Marie Antoinette nibbling on petits fours, or Nero fiddling while Rome burns.

Indeed, as a global empire itself ($27.5 billion in revenue in 2012), McDonald’s appears to be stumbling under the weight of its own might. If the past month is any indication, there’s nary a glimmer of hope on the horizon.

Same-store sales at McDonald’s in the U.S. fell 1.5 percent in the second quarter, the third straight quarter of decline. “We are moving with a sense of urgency,” Thompson told investors in a conference call after the results were announced, according to USA Today.

The disappointing numbers came amid a swirl of more bad news for the mega-chain: a ruling from the National Labor Relations Board that McDonald’s Corp. could be held responsible for labor and wage violations committed by its franchisees; a meat scandal in China, including video evidence showing workers at a processing plant recycling expired beef and chicken; and a Consumer Reports survey of more than 32,000 subscribers that ranked McDonald’s flagship menu item, its burgers, the worst in the country. A local McDonald's has even been playing a (presumably unwelcome) recurring role in media dispatches from the turmoil in Ferguson, Mo.

Prior to all that, there was the disastrous rollout of Happy, the Happy Meal mascot: a goggle-eyed box with a lunatic smile, complete with all-too-realistic teeth, as unsettling as those videos in which a human mouth is superimposed on a dog or a cat. Grub Street gathered a bunch of kids to gauge their reaction, and the resulting video was pretty hilarious. (“For a second it actually kind of makes me happy, and then for, like, the other second it actually creeps me out,” one girl says, followed by this boy’s take: “It’s like a little box that’s alive that’s like, 'Oh, finally, I found a human I can eat!' ”)

Do biznuts sound addictive? Sure, but they only exist in a McDonald's fantasyland. It seems that these days, in the real world, McDonald’s can’t even get Happy right.

Two Giants of the Food Industry Vow to Tackle Climate Change

Thanks to public pressure, Kellogg’s and General Mills go from 'laggards' to leaders on global warming.
Two Giants of the Food Industry Vow to Tackle Climate Change

Snap, crackle, power to the people! 

Bowing to public pressure, industrial food giant Kellogg’s announced a major initiative to tackle its global warming emissions yesterday, leapfrogging ahead of rival General Mills. The latter announced its own “sweeping commitments” to address climate change a mere few weeks ago—commitments that, according to one NGO, “went beyond what any food and beverage company has done prior.”

It’s a rather stunning turn of events. Just this past May, the advocacy group Oxfam released a report, Standing on the Sidelines, that took the world’s "Big 10" food companies to task for essentially doing little or nothing to curb their industry’s mind-boggling contributions to global warming pollution.

According to the report, which was part of Oxfam’s larger Behind the Brands campaign, “if together they were a single country, these 10 famous companies would be the 25th most polluting country in the world, emitting more [greenhouse gas emissions] (263.7 million tons per annum) than Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway combined.”

Not only that, but Oxfam singled out both Kellogg’s and General Mills as the “clear laggards” of the bunch.

That was, again, just three months ago. What accounts for the dramatic change in course? What caused two multinational companies, which, together with the eight other largest food makers in the world, bring in $1.1 billion a day in revenue—“equivalent to the gross domestic product of all the world’s low-income countries combined,” according to Oxfam—to change so much so quickly? 

Grassroots campaigning—or, to be specific, what might be called corn-and-soy-root campaigning.

Some 230,000 Oxfam supporters signed the organization’s petition calling on Kellogg’s and General Mills to step up their game, and that’s combined with the 115,000 who signed a petition initiated by Missouri farmer Richard Oswald on specifically targeting Kellogg’s.

Rural counties in Missouri may have been responsible for the razor-thin margin by which the state recently adopted a “right to farm” amendment, widely seen as a boon for Big Ag in the fight to fend off more pesky environmental regulations. But Oswald is proof that you can’t paint all farmers with the same brush.

A devastating flood in 2011 that wiped out all of the fifth-generation farmer’s crops was the clarion call for Oswald. He’d already been dealing with extreme fluctuations of weather that he sees as caused, in part, by climate change—which is not only poised to wreak havoc on the global food supply but is putting smaller farmers out of business.

“The economic impact of the variability [in weather] contributes to fewer people able to make a living on the land,” he told Oxfam.

Oswald had already done his part, implementing a number of measures on his farm to reduce carbon pollution, such as adopting no-till planting. But he knew it was a drop in the bucket compared with the kinds of carbon reductions that could be made if big food makers like Kellogg’s began to demand emission cuts all along their supply chain.

“As an individual I have to look and see what I can do,” Oswald continued. “If you can get everyone in the world to think about what we could do to make it better, then we could do a lot.”

Indeed, while most of us may imagine belching coal-fired power plants and gridlocked freeways when we think of carbon pollution, a full third of all greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans are related to our food supply. That’s according to a 2012 analysis by the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research, which highlights fertilizer used to grow crops, the methane generated by livestock, and all those humming refrigerators in the coldscape as contributing factors.

While many of the Big 10 food companies have adopted policies to address climate emissions in their own operations, critics have long complained that that’s just one step short of greenwashing. It’s not only because those targets tend not to be based on science but, more significantly, because big food makers rely on a sprawling global supply chain that may range from palm oil plantations in Indonesia to cattle ranches in Brazil to sugar plantations in Africa.  

Direct operations only account for about 10 percent of big food’s carbon pollution, some 30 million tons, compared with more than 230 million tons generated along the supply chain. As part of their newfound commitment to addressing climate change, both Kellogg’s and General Mills have pledged to set reduction targets for their entire supply networks by next year—and Kellogg’s is apparently taking an even more aggressive approach.

So there’s something to forward to all your cynical friends who don’t think you can make a difference signing some silly online petition.

What's a Healthy Diet? This Nutrition Expert Says You Shouldn't Ask His Colleagues

There may be dirty little secrets behind all those healthy-eating headlines.
What's a Healthy Diet? This Nutrition Expert Says You Shouldn't Ask His Colleagues

It’s a provocative headline—maybe too provocative: “What Should We Eat to Stay Healthy? Why Experts Actually Have No Idea.”

So goes the title of a recent Reuters op-ed by David Seres, an associate professor at the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University in New York. It’s the type of headline meant to grab your attention, a hallmark of an age in which the findings of even small-scale nutrition studies are packaged and hyped by the media into tantalizing tidbits that routinely shoot to the top of any given website's “most-emailed” list. You know the type: “Eating Blueberries Reverses Memory Loss!”; “Diet Soda Linked to Kidney Disease!”; “Live Longer, Live Healthier: Eat Nuts!”

Therein lies the problem. With such a headline, Seres (or, to be fair, perhaps his editor at Reuters) resorts to the same brand of overblown sensationalism that he seems to criticize in his piece. Do experts really have “no idea” what we should eat to stay healthy? Hardly the case.

The professor trains his academic’s eye on the way results of nutritional studies are often conveyed to the public, and much of what he says is eminently valid if decidedly not share-worthy—the equivalent of humdrum exhortations to eat your veggies and exercise when what the public wants is its health news in quick, sweet, easily digestible bites.

Seres outlines the problems and pitfalls of most nutrition studies, starting with the true-but-hardly-gee-whiz fact that it's both complicated and expensive to conduct the research. Diet studies often fail, for example, because not enough test subjects stay on the diet. Furthermore, researchers may have to follow subjects for a number of years, if not decades, to get meaningful results. It can even be hard to target one aspect of a diet, as changing how people eat in one way can produce a domino effect on other health and lifestyle habits.

Which leads us to a helpful little lecture on the difference between randomized and observational studies. Really, if you’re going to consume any sort of health-related news, it’s a distinction everyone should know.     

“In a randomized study, we recruit a group of subjects with a desired set of similarities, and randomly assign them to a treatment, which in this case is a diet,” Seres writes. “Researchers then monitor the subject to see how the different treatments have affected him or her. Because the subjects are relatively similar, and the treatments randomly assigned, researchers can establish cause and effect.”

In observational studies, by contrast, researchers look at a broad sample of people to see whether two things occur together with a high degree of frequency. But there’s no way to determine whether one thing causes the other. Hence, we’re talking correlation as opposed to causation, and that’s why you have so many health headlines employing the word “linked.”

To use Seres’ example, an observational study might find a correlation between smiling and happiness, and thus your headline might be “Researchers Link Smiling to Happiness.” No matter the implication, that doesn't mean smiling causes happiness.

“While less difficult and less expensive—and therefore much more popular—this type of research can only generate hypotheses about cause and effect,” Seres writes. “Most of our dietary guidance is based upon this kind of research.”

So if all those do-gooder nutrition recommendations are so much B.S., I guess that means we can all go back to a steady diet of pizza, burgers, and soda, right?

That's the opposite kind of sensationalism, of course. Seres seems to hunger for the same thing the public does: certainty. He just wants to find more scientific rigor behind the clicky headline. But while it’s worth reminding all of us that scientific research is an imperfect and constantly unfolding process that's open to error and misinterpretation, it seems ludicrous to come nigh close to throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater for want of definitive answers.

No diet, let alone any single “superfood,” is going to ensure that you never develop cancer or die of a heart attack. Researchers may never be able to establish the kind of ironclad cause-and-effect relationship between, say, eating too much bacon and early mortality, as they did with smoking a generation ago. But does that mean we should all go bacon-heavy Paleo? Or dive headlong back into the carb-counting Atkins craze? If the state of nutrition research is as dire as Seres seems to imply, then where are the studies touting the supposedly miraculous health benefits of the processed-food-laden, sugary, fatty, french-fries-as-vegetable “Western” diet?

When I come across one, I’ll be sure, dear reader, to let you know.   

Big Ag’s ‘Right to Farm’ Victory Not Such a Big Win

Missouri’s new constitutional amendment appears headed for a recount.
Big Ag’s ‘Right to Farm’ Victory Not Such a Big Win

How would you have voted on Missouri’s Amendment 1? Here’s how the question appeared on Tuesday’s ballot: “Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to ensure the right of Missouri citizens to engage in agricultural production and ranching practices shall not be infringed?”

Sounds innocuous enough, right? A little puzzling, true, but heck, why not enshrine the age-old practice of farming in the state constitution? At the very least, it seems to be not much more than a feel-good gesture, like designating the jumping jack as the official state exercise (which Missouri also did this summer, in “honor” of Missouri native Gen. John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing).

But if your instincts told you the amendment sounded just a little too anodyne to be true—the political equivalent of a wolf in sheep’s clothing—you’re not alone. Yes, as you might have guessed, voters in deeply agricultural Missouri (where I live) passed the “right-to-farm” amendment on Tuesday—but the thing squeaked by with such a narrow margin that it’s all but certain to face a recount. According to my hometown paper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Amendment 1 passed by just over 2,500 votes out of nearly 1 million cast, putting the margin of victory well beneath the threshold to trigger a recount.

Far from just a sort of golly-gee good-natured nod to farmers, the right-to-farm amendment is a shrewd political move to thwart what the agriculture industry sees as increasingly meddlesome state regulations, themselves born out of a growing consumer awareness of the industrial ag business model. Missouri Farmers Care, an umbrella group that counts Monsanto and Cargill among its members, has spent more than $650,000 in support of the amendment; opposition groups spent $400,000, much of which came from the Humane Society of the United States, according to The New York Times. It’s a counterresponse to regulatory measures such as the 2008 voter-approved initiative in California that requires more living space for laying hens, or to the outright ban on GMO crops one county in Oregon passed in May.

“We feel like this will just head off something that could be coming that could harm what is the number one industry in our state,” Missouri state Rep. Bill Reiboldt told TakePart Food Editor Willy Blackmore last year, after the Missouri house passed Reiboldt’s bill to put the amendment on the ballot. “Is it really needed? I think it is. If these people were able to shut us down, we would be hurt economically in a way that would be unbelievable.”

It’s clear that by “these people,” Reiboldt means interloper activist organizations such as PETA and the Humane Society, which have campaigned against the deplorable conditions at many factory farms, and which many rural farmers, like the state rep, see as composed of clueless urbanites who want their cheap burgers and their happy cows—and who don’t understand that, in his words, “genetic engineering is a tremendous technology that is really feeding the world.”

Indeed, such a geographic split was clearly evident in Tuesday’s election results, with the amendment passing handily in most of Missouri’s rural counties; those votes were countered by defeat in the state’s urban centers, including St. Louis, Kansas City, and Columbia. But even leaving aside the question of whether “urban” consumers should have at least some say in how their food is grown and raised, what’s interesting (and heartening) about the debate over Amendment 1 is not only that it signals a public that is more engaged with questions surrounding sustainable agriculture, but that the debate over the future of farming in America is playing out among rural farmers themselves.

“This [amendment] is an unnecessary corporate takeover of our state constitution that forever guarantees the rights of corporations to write their own rules and bypass democracy and local control.” That’s not some radical left-wing activist from downtown St. Louis talking to the Post-Dispatch but livestock and grain farmer Rhonda Perry from Howard County in central Missouri.

Or as Darvin Bentlage, a cattleman and farmer in southwest Missouri’s Barton County, put it to The New York Times before the vote last weekend, “One thing’s for sure—[this amendment is] going to put ag culture above everybody else. We’re going to be a different class of people. You won’t be able to complain about anything that we do. That should never be the case.”

Whether that will be the case, even if the amendment survives the expected recount, is open to debate. So far, only North Dakota has passed a similar amendment, and legal experts say it won’t be until lawsuits are filed and state courts begin interpreting what constitutes an “infringement” on the constitutional right to farm that the impact of such an amendment can be assessed. 

Even as the fate of Amendment 1 appears to hang in the balance, what’s clear is that grassroots efforts to challenge the environmental and public health ramifications of industrial-scale agriculture have put the industry on the defensive. You may not have voted in Missouri on Tuesday, but don’t be surprised if a similar right-to-farm measure pops up sometime soon on a ballot near you.

Russia's Latest Reaction to Sanctions: Ban Kentucky Bourbon

This is no Cold War.
Russia's Latest Reaction to Sanctions: Ban Kentucky Bourbon

Oh, how long ago Sochi seems. Hard to believe that it has only been six months since Russia played host to the Winter Olympics, that budget-busting, multibillion-dollar pageant of sportsmanship-as-symbol-of-international-comity. With the world watching, of course a slew of big American companies such as McDonald’s and Coca-Cola ante up big bucks to emblazon their logos on everything in an attempt to fuel their own marketing machines with a bit of that fleeting feel-good buzz.

And I do mean fleeting. Today tensions between Russia and the West are plummeting to rock bottom, owing, of course, to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and everything that’s followed (e.g., that downed Malaysian airliner). Last week, both the United States and the European Union announced yet another round of even tougher economic sanctions against Russia, targeting such foundational economic sectors as the country’s finance, arms, and energy industries.

Russia’s response? Ban Kentucky bourbon.

Trust me, I looked high and low for evidence equating Russia’s sudden disdain for a particular brand of American-made bourbon with, say, the U.S. Treasury Department's barring new financing to some of Russia’s largest banks. Indeed, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported last year that a quarter of Russian households were buying whiskey, with a 5 percent spike among those between 18 and 25.

You might—might—be able to make something out of that if Russia were banning all U.S. bourbon. After all, exports broke the $1 billion mark for the first time last year, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. But it’s not. Just a single label is being blocked: Kentucky Gentleman. (With a name like that, you probably don’t need the Los Angeles Times to tell you it’s “a relatively inexpensive brand.”)

Russia’s national consumer watchdog agency, Rospotrebnadzor, claims it has found trace amounts of phthalates, a type of industrial solvent, in the bourbon, which is produced by Barton Brands distillery in Kentucky, a subsidiary of Sazerac.

Far from a public health crisis, however, the move is more likely part of what appears to be a strategy of passive aggression on the part of the Russians in response to growing economic pressure from the West. While Russia was more than happy to let the Golden Arches reign over the Sochi Olympics, for example, last week Rospotrebnadzor announced it was suing McDonald’s for a spate of violations, including allegations of food contaminated with dangerous bacteria. The agency has also reportedly launched investigations of Burger King and KFC. Meanwhile, Russian officials have banned most grain imports from Ukraine (no surprise) and barred Polish produce from entering the country, according to The Washington Post, supposedly because of high levels of pesticides—and not because Poland has allied itself with the EU and the West (wink).

Of course, as the Post points out, Russia could decide to start playing hardball, moving beyond food safety straw men. It could, for example, toss out carefully negotiated arms control treaties or wreak havoc on ongoing efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear program. There's also the Eurasian Union, a $3 trillion trade union to be composed of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan that's in the works. But it seems the Russians may be taking the whole idea of a diplomatic game of chicken a bit too literally. According to the Post, next up on the list of foods they may block? U.S. chickens. Which were banned by the Kremlin back in 1996. 

Free Range is a biweekly column that covers the often weird and sometimes wonderful world of food industry news. From the latest hits at the drive-through to the front lines of the battle over restaurant wages, Free Range is your source for news and commentary on the latest in food. The opinions expressed are the author's own and do not reflect the views of Participant Media. 

Meet Pizza Hut’s Most Outlandish Stuffed-Crust Creations

The pie giant’s 1995 crust innovation was adopted globally—but the flavor combinations haven’t exactly been traditional.
Meet Pizza Hut’s Most Outlandish Stuffed-Crust Creations

Forget the emerald coastline, crystal waters, and balmy Caribbean breezes—the Dominican Republic’s new claim to fame, set to excite a stampede of muffin-topped American tourists, may well be Pizza Hut’s Double Hut pizza.

Why settle for one stuffed crust when you can have two? That’s right: This thing is kind of like a pizza wheel. You’ve got your outer ring stuffed with mozzarella, then an inner ring stuffed the same way (another unappetizing analogy: pizza doughnut).

I know what you’re thinking: “But then you’ve got a hole in the middle.”

Uh-uh. Pizza Hut fills that with a cup of marinara dipping sauce.

Despite some of the breathless “Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe they did that” gushing that’s greeted this junk-food monstrosity in the blogosphere, the Double Hut pizza isn’t entirely new—Mexico apparently had it first.

It’s not even the wildest of the mutant stuffed-crust Pizza Hut pizzas that’ve popped up around the globe.

Next year will mark the 10th anniversary of the Pizza Hut stuffed-crust pizza. It was on March 26, 1995, on the cusp of the NCAA’s Final Four weekend, that America’s No. 1 pizza chain unveiled what it called a “revolution” in the pizza industry. The $45 million ad campaign featured TV spots with Donald and Ivana Trump, as well as Ringo Starr and the Monkees, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

The stuffed-crust pizza was a hit, increasing sales for Pizza Hut in the U.S. by $300 million (something like what the Doritos Locos Taco would do for Taco Bell years later). Americans were hooked on the pie, even though just one slice of the Meat Lover’s version packs 440 calories—220 of them from fat alone. But one could argue that Pizza Hut never really went full-on crazy with it in the States. At least, not when you compare it with what the chain’s been stuffing in its crusts overseas.

Sure, Pizza Hut tried to outsize its fast-food competitors, which were dishing up things like a “sandwich” made with fried chicken instead of bread (KFC) or a foot-long cheeseburger (Carl’s Jr.). A year or so ago, Americans could call up and order a Crazy Cheesy Crust Pizza, a kind of monkey bread pull-apart pie that seems to have been downsized a bit into the Cheesy Bites pizza.


No one but New Zealanders, to be sure, is likely to line up for CheeZee Marmite Stuffed Crust pizza, but you gotta imagine no less an American icon than Homer Simpson going into sort of a drooling, catatonic state at the sight of New Zealand’s Chili Dog Stuffed Crust pie. (Even those straitlaced Brits got a Hot Dog Stuffed Crust pizza—“with FREE Mustard Drizzle!”—in 2012.)

To really get wild with the stuffed crust, though, book your passage to Asia and the Middle East. In Japan, they’ve got crust stuffed with salmon cream; in Hong Kong, an ooze of salmon roe and cream cheese (ringing a “deluxe” seafood pie topped with crayfish, scallops, shrimp, and clams); in Indonesia, a crust filled with chicken fingers and honey mustard. In Taiwan, there’s this thing called the Pineapple Bun Stuffed Crust Pizza, which, as far as I can tell, is really kind of like ringing your pizza with doughnuts.

But that’s not even the most outrageous Pizza Hut pizza in the Far East. Last year Pizza Huts in Singapore unveiled the Double Sensation Pizza, which, according to The Daily Meal, “is so complex it takes a while to describe: The pizza is separated into two rings, an inner ring and an outer ring. The outer ring’s crust has melted mozzarella, cheddar, and Parmesan oozing out of it, and between that and ring number two is a pizza topped with cheese, salsa, bell peppers, mushrooms, and turkey ham. The inner ring is stuffed with chicken sausage, which itself is stuffed with cheese. Inside that ring is a pepper Alfredo sauce, smoked chicken, and slices of zucchini. Oh, and at the center of it all is a cherry."

The most outlandish, gag-inducing stuffed-crust pizzas, though, have to be those that have invaded the Middle East. Exhibit A: Take a gander at the bizarre Cone Crust Pizzas that debuted in the Middle East a couple years ago, whirling pinwheels of dough crammed with admixtures like chicken and cream cheese.

Then there’s the king of American fast-food mash-ups: the Cheeseburger Crust Pizza. (Yeah, it’s exactly what it sounds like: Each slice comes with its own mini cheeseburger nested in the crust.) That beast debuted in the Middle East, then inexplicably popped up in the U.K. last year.

In any case, I think it’s telling, what happened when I plugged the ad headline for the Dominican Republic’s new Double Hut pizza into my Mac translator. The ad says, “Este antojo viene doble!Antojo is supposed to translate to “craving,” but when I typed it in, what I got was, “This ill comes double.”

Is Taco Bell's New Protein-Packed Power Menu Any Good for You?

Psst: Most Americans already get way more protein than they need.
Is Taco Bell's New Protein-Packed Power Menu Any Good for You?

Meat lovers across the country can heave a laudatory grunt: Taco Bell has announced that it's rolling out its protein-packed Cantina Power Menu nationwide July 17. The new menu features double portions of chicken or beef alongside ingredients that are lower in fat and carbs.

Reduced fat and carbs are undoubtably a good thing in a country where almost 35 percent of the population is obese. But do we need this much protein?

Whether or not we need it, Taco Bell execs are betting protein will sell. The chain announced that the Cantina Power Menu is just “the first iteration” in the taco giant’s “Power Platform.” Taco Bell says that it’s embarking on tests of a Power Breakfast Menu in Omaha, Neb., which will include a steak bowl, a steak burrito, and—right on trend—Greek yogurt.

Each item on the Cantina Power Menu serves up a minimum of 20 grams of protein. During the recent nationwide launch, Taco Bell President Brian Niccol said in a statement: “We’ve evolved the Cantina platform based on consumer feedback. We heard customers requesting a higher protein solution with the flavors Cantina delivers, so here is Cantina Power.”

“Solution” to what, exactly? Despite what any number of Axe-drenched, Red Bull–swilling 20-something guys harboring secret fantasies of their own set of Men’s Health–worthy six-pack abs may think, there’s pretty much nothing to be gained by wolfing down more meat.

Yes, protein is vital to just about every natural metabolic function in your body. But guess what? You likely already get way more than you need. According to the USDA, adult men in the U.S. consume, on average, almost 100 grams of protein a day, while adult women consume 70 grams.

That’s far more than the recommended daily allowance of about 56 grams for men and 46 grams for women.

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention breaks it down, here's what that looks like for guys: one cup of milk, a three-ounce piece of meat, one cup of dry beans, and eight ounces of yogurt. Skip the yogurt, and ladies will have their day's worth of protein.

What’s worse, high-protein diets have been linked to kidney problems, weight gain (and not just muscle), and certain cancers. A recent study published in the journal Cell Metabolism found people who eat lots of protein are four times more likely to die of cancer—a risk on par with smoking.

“I don’t care about all that,” you say. “I just wanna get ripped, and you gotta gobble the meat if you want bigger guns.”

Let me just point out that this guy is a vegan. And so is this guy.

Take it from an expert. Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at New York University and all-around food-industry gadfly, recently told The Huffington Post: “[B]ecause Americans consume so much protein, and there is plenty in foods from both plant and animal sources, and there is no evidence of protein deficiency in the U.S. population, protein is a non-issue.... Protein used as a marketing tool is about marketing, not health. The advantage for marketing purposes of protein over fat or carbohydrates is that it's a positive message, not negative. Marketers don't have to do anything other than mention protein to make people think it's a health food.” 

Free Range is a biweekly column that covers the often weird and sometimes wonderful world of food industry news. From the latest hits at the drive-through to the front lines of the battle over restaurant wages, Free Range is your source for news and commentary on the latest in food. The opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of Participant Media.