Free Range

Topic Box Image: 

Suddenly We Like Organic Corn So Much We Have to Go to Romania to Get It

Demand is surging for organic foods—but American farmers are still growing almost exclusively GMO feed crops.

The U.S. grows more soybeans and corn than any other country in the world. So why are we importing so much of them?

It’s one of the strange ironies of our Byzantine global food system: Even as the socially conscious consumers who are driving demand for more organic products show an increasing desire to eat locally as well, it turns out there’s just not enough organic grain being produced in the U.S. to go around. That means a rising portion of the feed used to produce things such as organic eggs and milk is coming from places as far-flung as Romania, India, and Ukraine.

Say what?


U.S. imports of corn from Romania totaled just over half a million dollars in 2013—and they skyrocketed to $11.6 million in 2014. Soybean imports from India more than doubled in 2014 to $73.8 million. Both figures come from a new analysis of U.S. trade data released this week by the Organic Trade Association and Pennsylvania State University.

So how did we get here? Even as demand for organic products in the U.S. continues to soar—growing by 11.3 percent in 2014, yet another year in a decades-long trend of double-digit growth—American farmers continue to grow the GMO seeds that have dominated corn and soy production since the 1990s. Organic certification takes time, so the supply side of the market can’t exactly turn on a dime—but farmers have also become reliant on genetically modified crops and the ease with which they can treat them with glyphosate to control weeds. A staggering 90 percent of U.S. corn and soy is bioengineered, leaving little domestic supply to feed certified-organic livestock or be processed into certified-organic foods.

Which is why we’re turning to countries where either economics or politics has managed to keep the biotech juggernaut at bay, and the crops have a far easier time meeting organic standards.

This would seem to be a giant missed opportunity for American farmers. After all, organic feed–grade soybeans grown in the U.S. now sell for around $25 per bushel, versus just $9 per bushel for conventional soybeans, according to the OTA. Organic yellow corn feed sells at more than triple the price of conventional feed corn: $14 per bushel versus $4.

“This important study is a ‘Help Wanted’ message for American farmers,” Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of the OTA, said in a statement. “It shows substantial missed opportunities for the U.S. farmer by not growing organic—whether to meet the demand outside the U.S. or to keep up with the robust domestic demand for organic.”


But it’s not easy for American farmers to up and switch to organic. A farm must be free of GMO crops and synthetic chemicals for three years before it can be certified organic under U.S. rules. For many farmers, “it’s not worth the headache or the cost,” Paul Bertels, vice president of the National Corn Growers Association, said in an interview with Bloomberg.

While the “crop systems” of GMO seed and potent chemical herbicides unleashed by Big Ag may have driven up yields in the past several decades, farmers are increasingly being squeezed by the costs imposed by giants such as Monsanto and Dow to plant their patented crops.

Lynn Clarkson, an organic grain dealer in Illinois, is more sanguine about the future for organic feed in the U.S. “With the markets at break-even prices for many farmers, we’re seeing more interest in organic land,” he tells Bloomberg. “I’m not predicting a tidal wave, but I’m seeing twice as much interest in this as I have in the past.”

Until then, bring on the organic Romanian feed corn.

  • Food
  • Pulling a Quik One: Food Giant Cuts Sugar in Flavored Milk

    Nestle’s gradual move toward limiting the use of sweeteners fails to impress public health experts.

    Now parents can feel just a little less guilty about giving their kids sweet flavored milk.

    Giant food company Nestle announced Monday that it’s cutting the amount of added sugars in its flavored milk products. Its Nesquik powders—long marketed with that iconic Quik Bunny mascot—will now contain 10.6 grams of sugar for each two-tablespoon serving, which translates into a 15-percent reduction for the chocolate powders and a 27-percent reduction for the strawberry flavor, according to Reuters.


    As for Nesquik’s bottled milk beverages, those will also contain 10.6 grams of added sugar per serving (though because of the lactose naturally present in the milk, the total sugar content is higher). The reformulated products will start appearing in stores this month.

    The move appears to be part of a broader push by Nestle to reduce the amount of sugar, salt, and artificial ingredients in products aimed at kids, which includes cutting the amount of sugar per serving in children’s breakfast cereal to 9 grams or less.

    But as big food makers have slowly started to take responsibility for the role their products—often sugary, salty, and loaded with fat—have played in the obesity crisis and associated public health ills, the storyline is becoming more familiar: Some food company announces an incremental change to a particular line of products only to be greeted with a tepid response from public health advocates.

    “It’s a nice step in the right direction, but it’s not a huge victory for nutrition,” Michael Jacobson, executive director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said of the Nestle announcement in an interview with Reuters.

    Such qualified praise no doubt leaves companies such as Nestle fuming behind the scenes. After all, established brands like Nesquik are worth hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue per year, and reformulating them can lead to commercial disaster, something that Nestle hints at on its own website.

    “We know it can be a challenge getting kids to eat a balanced breakfast—or any breakfast at all—so we are taking a gradual approach to reducing sugar, to help adapt taste preferences for the long term. Sometimes, reducing sugar without affecting flavor, texture, structure, color, and preservative properties is a significant challenge.”

    Of course, the underlying message there seems to be that the problem is kids: Those darn rugrats just won’t eat breakfast unless it’s chock full of as much sugar as a king-size candy bar.


    What Nestle’s statement doesn’t account for is the role big food has played in acclimating the public palate to a “norm” in which highly processed foods are designed to send our pleasure receptors into overdrive. It’s hard to imagine, but as two prominent researchers wrote last year in The New York Times, “If you consider that the added sugar in a single can of soda might be more than most people would have consumed in an entire year just a few hundred years ago, you get a sense of how dramatically our environment has changed.”

    Thus, as science continues to reveal the negative impacts on our health from too much added sugar, public health agencies have been busy revising their nutritional guidelines—which likely leaves the big food giants feeling like the goal posts are constantly being moved farther away.

    Just last month, the World Health Organization finalized its recommendation that added sugars contribute no more than 10 percent of daily calorie intake and even went so far to issue a provisional recommendation that the limit should probably be more like 5 percent.

    For kids, that means capping the amount of added sugar to approximately 15 grams per day, which does leave room for a bottle of Nestle’s newly reformulated Nesquik—but not much else.

  • Food
  • The 10 Best and Worst States for Eating Local Food

    Everyone loves a list, but how well does the annual Locavore Index reflect how we eat in the United States?

    If you’re passionate about eating local, apparently you can’t do better than living in Vermont.

    That is, at least, according to the latest Locavore Index from Strolling of the Heifers, a nonprofit that advocates for access to local healthy food that, coincidentally (right?), is based in Vermont.

    For the fourth straight year, the little sliver of a state in New England tops the list of states where eating local is easiest. Furthermore, all four top states kept their ranking from last year, even as a couple new ones joined the top 10. Here they are, with last year’s ranking in parentheses:


    1. Vermont (1)
    2. Maine (2)
    3. New Hampshire (3)
    4. Oregon (4)
    5. Massachusetts (11)
    6. Wisconsin (8)
    7. Montana (9)
    8. Hawaii (5)
    9. Rhode Island (6)
    10. Connecticut (20)

    Likewise, there was only a bit of shuffling at the bottom of the list, where the 10 worst states to eat local mostly just swapped a couple spots. (The index also counts the District of Columbia; hence, the total of 51.)


    42. Arkansas (47)
    43. Alabama (42)
    44. Georgia (40)
    45. Oklahoma (46)
    46. Mississippi (45)
    47. Louisiana (48)
    48. Florida (41)
    49. Nevada (50)
    50. Arizona (49)
    51. Texas (51)

    Now, I’m as much of a sucker for a provocative ranking system as the next person, and it’s hard to fault a small nonprofit for its efforts to raise awareness about the importance of eating local. But just what does the Strolling of the Heifers index tell us about the state of locavorism in the U.S.?

    As with its past rankings, the group calculates the number of farmers markets, CSAs, and locally oriented “food hubs” per capita, as well as the percentage of a state’s school districts with farm-to-school programs. This year it added another important measure: data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture, which gives the dollar volume of direct-to-the-public food sales by farmers. Strolling of the Heifers then calculated that on a per capita basis as well.

    Thus we see that residents in Vermont spend an average of nearly $44 per year on local food at farmers markets and the like, versus a paltry $1.04 spent by consumers in last-place Texas. The new data would seem to explain the jump by Massachusetts and Connecticut into the top 10.

    “The new direct sales data included in the Index from the Census of Agriculture shows that in states where farms are more diversified—including all the New England states—and where you see fewer large, monocultural commodity-producing farms, the per-capita direct-to-consumer sales levels are higher,” Martin Langeveld, director of marketing at Strolling of the Heifers, said in a statement.

    Yet it might seem odd that an index about eating local would take such a relatively broad, statewide view of any given market, which no doubt makes an apples-to-apples comparison difficult. Large states with densely populated urban areas fare somewhat poorly here, even as they account for the bulk of direct-to-consumer sales by farms. At $170 million, California farms lead the nation in the amount of food sold directly to consumers; New York ranks second, at just over $100 million. Yet on the Locavore Index, they rank 36 and 20, respectively.

    And there’s evidence that Strolling of the Heifers’ farmers-market focus may itself become somewhat obsolete in terms of measuring the strength of the fast-changing market for local foods. As the USDA ag census reports, direct sales to consumers by farms has increased 8 percent since 2007, yet between 2002 and 2007, it increased 32 percent.

    That slowdown seems to be reflected as well in the pace of new farmers markets opening in the U.S. While 2014 saw yet another record year in the number of farmers markets operating in the U.S., with some 8,268 registered with the USDA, that represented a mere 1.5 percent increase over 2013, far less than the double-digit increases that occurred from 2008 to 2012.


    So does that mean local eating has jumped the shark, a passing fad like tapas, cronuts, and flavored martinis?

    Not exactly.

    As interest in local eating has grown, so have the means of distribution for local farmers. The explosion of farm-to-school programs, which the Locavore Index measures, is one such avenue. But as NPR reported earlier this year, there are myriad other ways local food is finding its way to market, with middlemen distributing it to restaurants, grocery stores, and the like—a trend not reflected in the Locavore Index.

    It may not be that our collective commitment to local eating has peaked, but we may have reached a saturation point when it comes to farmers markets. You might feel great chatting up your friendly local farmer about his crop of heirloom tomatoes, but what is the farmer getting out of it?

    “It’s just not as cost-effective for producers to be face-to-face with consumers,” Sarah Low, an economist at the USDA, told NPR. “A lot of farmers like to spend their time farming, not necessarily marketing food.” 

  • Food
  • ‘Hourly’ Pay for Fast-Food CEOs Is Astonishing

    Just how long would you have to flip burgers for $10 an hour to make what your boss makes?

    As legions of fast-food workers and their supporters prepare for a major nationwide strike next week, they’re getting some powerful ammunition in their push for a $15-an-hour minimum wage: An analysis published Monday shows an enormous chasm between the wages of the average restaurant worker and food-chain CEOs.

    USA Today looked at the pay of the top dogs at 13 of the country’s leading restaurant and retail companies—two industries that have made plenty of feel-good headlines recently as titans such as Walmart and McDonald’s have moved to raise workers’ hourly pay.


    But even as these companies seek to boost their frontline workers’ wages to around $10 an hour, that would still leave a jaw-dropping pay gap.

    Assuming a 40-hour workweek, the CEOs at the 13 companies in the USA Today analysis rake in an average of $5,859 an hour. An employee making $10 an hour and working seven days a week, 10 hours a day, would have to work more than two months straight to pull in that much. With these CEOs making more than $1.60 a second, it’s not too far-fetched to say that they’re paid more for blowing their nose than than what they’re touting as an equitable wage for an hour’s worth of work by their companies’ lowest-paid workers.

    It’s a divide that, although particularly stark in food and retail, exists across industries. A typical worker’s compensation grew a paltry 10.2 percent between 1978 and 2013, while average CEO pay exploded by 937 percent, according to an analysis last year from the Economic Policy Institute. Yet for much of the last 50 years, during which the U.S. experienced robust periods of economic growth, the gap between what CEOs made versus what the average worker made wasn’t nearly so yawning. Back in 1995, it was “only” about 123 to 1. In 1978, it was around 30 to 1, and in 1965, three years before McDonald’s rolled out the Big Mac nationwide, it was a mere 20 to 1.

    Conspicuously absent in USA Today’s analysis is the compensation for McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook, whose pay package has yet to be released by the company, because he’s been on the job less than a year. “Hourly wages” for other CEOs in the restaurant biz are as follows:

    • Chipotle co-CEO Montgomery Moran: $13,489 an hour

    • Chipotle co-CEO Steven Ells: $13,471 an hour

    • Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz: $10,285 an hour

    • Dunkin’ Brands CEO Nigel Travis: $4,889 an hour

    • Yum! Brands CEO David Novak: $4,795 an hour

    • Wendy’s CEO Emil Brolick: $3,645 an hour

    • Domino’s CEO Patrick Doyle: $3,571 an hour

    • Dine Equity CEO Julia Stewart: $2,766 an hour

    • Panera Bread CEO Ronald Shaich: $1,292 an hour


    Of course, as USA Today points out, most CEOs probably work more than 40 hours a week. Although it’s debatable just how grueling those extra hours are, given the time spent cruising at 35,000 feet in the corporate jet or confabbing over cocktails and hors d’oeuvres at lavish board retreats, the paper also breaks down CEO compensation assuming a 60-hour workweek. Chipotle’s Montgomery Moran still hauls in almost $9,000 an hour, and who among us wouldn’t consider working an extra 20 hours a week if it meant taking home a cool $180,000—which, as it turns out, is near the median price of a house in the U.S. right about now?

    Conservatives often argue that chief executives deserve such outsize compensation because they are responsible for the kind of capitalist wizardry that transforms the ordinary experience of, say, serving up burgers or bean burritos into extraordinary returns for investors. Shares of Chipotle, for example, rose 29 percent in 2014.

    But does such success really require CEOs to be paid 300 times more than the employees who make the company’s lattes or ring up those Bacon Double Cheeseburgers?

  • Food
  • Indiana Pizza Parlor Closes After Owners’ Antigay Remarks

    Online retribution was swift and merciless.

    Memories Pizza is, well, just a memory—at least for now. The small-town pizza shop in Walkerton, Indiana, has temporarily closed following a firestorm of criticism after its owners declared that they would exercise their rights under Indiana’s hotly debated Religious Freedom Restoration Act and refuse to cater same-sex weddings.

    That declaration, made first to a local TV station whose report soon went viral, earned the pizza parlor the dubious distinction of being the first business in the state to publicly say it would deny its services to gay couples in the name of religious freedom.


    Yet, far from being the kind of zealots who just seem to be spoiling for a fight, Memories owners Kevin O’Connor and his daughter, Crystal O’Connor, appear more like a couple of small-town Midwesterners who accidentally stumbled—or were coaxed—into the media spotlight.

    Never mind that; at this point, the scenario in which a gay couple in Walkerton (pop. 2,100) might walk into Memories and ask the O’Connors for a dozen or so postnuptial pepperoni pies would seem entirely—almost wildly—hypothetical. It was a question posed by a reporter from South Bend TV station ABC 57.


    In the heavily edited segment, Crystal’s less-than-fully-formed views on the subject are stitched together with plenty of shots of the pizza parlor’s interior and the reporter’s voice-over, making it almost abundantly clear this was a last-ditch effort to fulfill an assignment to get some small-town business owner—any small-town business owner—to go on camera to talk about the controversial law. “We’re not discriminating against anyone,” Crystal ultimately says. “It’s just our belief. And everyone has a right to believe anything.”

    It’s not the first time a business more accustomed to selling food has found itself in the midst of a gay rights culture war, although it has more often been bakeries refusing to make wedding cakes for gay couples (not pizza pies) that have sparked controversy and lawsuits. Restaurants and other businesses are where a law like Indiana’s goes from being words in a bill to a real-world invitation to discrimination. They’re also where people like the O’Connors have probably, unknowingly, interacted with gay members of their community. We all have to eat, after all. 

    Which is partly why Crystal’s reasoning is near heartbreaking in its naïveté—and would be almost endearing were it not the justification for so much of the garden-variety prejudice in the world. Surely she has unwittingly served gay people in the past, even if Memories has never catered a gay wedding.

    The sentiments of Crystal’s father, Kevin, proved a bit more incendiary, albeit hardly surprising given his generation and that he’s probably never watched an episode of Glee. “That lifestyle is something they choose,” he says. “I choose to be heterosexual. They choose to be homosexual. Why should I be beat over the head to go along with something they choose?”

    In this age of Internet shaming, the reaction was swift and predictable. Hundreds of angry one-star reviews penned by folks who have likely never set foot in Indiana, much less Walkerton or its hometown pizza parlor, popped up on Yelp. One trickster quickly snapped up “memoriespizza.com” and provided this message: “Don’t discriminate. (It’s not nice.) Also, in all seriousness, it’s really dumb to not own a domain name for your business. Especially after you spew stupid shit on TV.” A Google Map search for the business briefly substituted its name as “Gay Memories Pizza.”


    On the flip side, the O’Connors have become media darlings of the conservative right. A GoFundMe campaign started by Dana Loesch and Lawrence B. Jones of TheBlaze, Glenn Beck’s news network, has raised more than $135,000 for the O’Connors in just 18 hours.

    Kevin O’Connor’s attempts to qualify his original statements haven’t done him any favors when it comes to tamping down reactions. He was quick to point out that he doesn’t “have a problem with gay people” and would never refuse to serve them on any ordinary day—he just doesn’t believe he should be expected to cater their weddings.

    If the O’Connors’ plight seems like a sideshow distraction in the larger, more serious fight over legislation that seeks to counter perceived discrimination with more discrimination, I would argue there’s something in the O’Connors’ struggle to articulate their beliefs that reflects the tortured logic of Republicans’ increasingly untenable stance on gay marriage. Rather than bully them out of business and transform them into a cause célèbre for social conservatives, let them speak—the contradictions in their beliefs do more to marginalize their views than any number of fake Yelp reviews ever could.

  • Food
  • Kraft Drops Dubious ‘Kids Eat Right’ Logo From Its Processed ‘Cheese’ Singles

    Industry PR flap raises more questions about professional nutritionists’ ties to big food.

    If you’re looking for a textbook case of corporate PR gone horribly wrong, look no farther than your dairy aisle. By slapping the “Kids Eat Right” logo from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics on packages of its American “cheese” Singles, Kraft no doubt hoped to score brownie points with busy parents concerned about what their kids are eating. Instead, the company has found itself trying to clean up a publicity nightmare.

    Even as the label is set to start appearing on packages of Kraft Singles as soon as Wednesday, the food giant has already agreed to stop using it, and the academy—the world’s largest organization of nutrition professionals—is squirming under the spotlight that has exposed its all-too-cozy relationship with the processed food industry.

    Just two weeks ago, The New York Times broke the story of how Kraft’s individually wrapped slices of knock-off cheese would be the first grocery item to feature the “Kids Eat Right” logo, a sort of crayon-script label that, at first glance, would seem to make sense on a snack long associated with the Yo Gabba Gabba! set.


    You have to look closely to see the words proud supporter of in an arc above “Kids Eat Right”—those extra three words are in the same shade of blue-on-blue as the words that identify Kraft Singles as a “pasteurized prepared cheese product.” Just as Kraft is trying to hide, in plain sight, that its “cheese” isn’t really cheese at all, it is attempting to make parents believe that it’s good for their kids—when what it’s actually saying is that it has thrown a bunch of money at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to support the group’s “Kids Eat Right” campaign.

    The Times’ story led to an uproar among a vocal faction of the academy’s members as well as outside critics and public health advocates. After all, it doesn’t take a degree in nutrition science to be skeptical of the notion that a processed cheese product packed with 2.5 grams of saturated fat per slice is part of a healthy kid’s diet.

    Initially, the academy tried to defend itself, a quixotic effort that boiled down to more technicalities: It’s not an endorsement—it’s publicity for the campaign.

    Now the group has reversed course entirely. “The academy and Kraft are in discussions to terminate the contract for our pilot program,” the organization wrote in an email statement, as reported by the Times. “This will take a short period of time to complete.” As for the packages of Kraft Singles featuring the logo that are already headed to stores? “We are working with Kraft to limit the time it remains on shelves,” according to the emailed statement.


    It seems both Kraft and the academy are hoping this blows over faster than you can melt an American Single in a hot skillet; the academy declined to comment further on the fracas in the Times story.

    But the cozy relationship between big food and professional nutritionists has been getting more scrutiny. The Associated Press writer Candice Choi has filed at least two eye-opening stories in the past couple of months that show how companies such as Coca-Cola, Frito-Lay, General Mills, and Kellogg’s are spending huge money behind the scenes to “educate” nutritionists and pay for PR that comes off like objective diet advice.

    Such corporate ties have led a number of disgruntled members of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to break away to form their own group, the aptly named Dietitians for Professional Integrity. Commenting on the Kraft Singles fiasco, the organization’s founder, Andy Bellatti, told the Times, “Hopefully, this is the beginning of much-needed and much-overdue dialogue on the academy’s corporate sponsorships. Dietitians need to continue advocating for an organization that represents us with integrity and that we can be proud of rather than continually have to apologize for.”

  • Food
  • The Sneaky Way Congress Wants to Help 'Big Food' Manipulate GMO Labels

    When politicians talk about 'clarity for consumers,' you know you'd better watch out.

    Don’t underestimate the power of the DARK side. The congressional duo who have been trying to pass legislation that would prevent states from enacting GMO-labeling laws—and nullify those already on the books—are back.

    Reps. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., and G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., announced Wednesday that they are reintroducing their euphemistically named Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act—or what critics have effectively derided as the Denying Americans the Right-to-Know (DARK) Act.


    Just like its official title, the bill sounds reasonable enough: In its newest iteration, it would establish a federally sanctioned label that companies could use to market their products as GMO-free, so long as they have completed a certification process that would be overseen by the Department of Agriculture.

    That’s decidedly not what GMO-labeling activists have been agitating for. For starters, they want to see food that contains GMO ingredients labeled as such—a warning label, in effect, not a marketing tool. You don’t have to be a cynic to wonder what else might be lurking in the bill when you hear how members of Congress are talking about it.

    “Our goal for this legislation remains to provide clarity and transparency in food labeling, support innovation, and keep food affordable,” Pompeo said in a release—with a notable lack of irony for a Republican advocating federal legislation that would trump states’ rights.  

    He’s echoed by his friend across the aisle, Butterfield, who intoned, “This bill will provide clear rules for producers and certainty for consumers at the grocery store checkout lane.”

    What their joint press release fails to mention is that their bill would continue to allow companies to “voluntarily” choose to label products made with GMOs. But as the Environmental Working Group points out, that voluntary labeling program hasn’t been a smashing success. In the 14 years since the Food and Drug Administration issued draft guidelines for it, how many manufacturers do you think have signed up to tell consumers, “Hey, look, our products are made with GMOs”? None.

    The so-called DARK Act would also override GMO-labeling laws that have already been passed in at least three states, and it would prohibit any other state from passing its own law requiring companies to label.

    Make no mistake: That’s the real intention here. Pompeo and Butterfield may talk about “clarity” and “certainty for consumers,” but when you think of it, what could be more certain and clear than a label that essentially says, “This product in your hand was made with GMO ingredients”? As for saving consumers money, the pols take a page from the big food lobby, which has spent millions battling GMO-labeling initiatives in a number of states—by trying to scare consumers into believing that mandatory disclosure of GMO ingredients would hike the average family’s grocery bill by $500 per year. A study by Consumers Union last fall said it would be more like $9 per year for a family of four.


    If Pompeo and Butterfield’s proposed “GMO-free” labeling system overseen by the USDA sounds a bit familiar, that’s because it is. We already have a GMO-free label, in effect. It’s called “Organic.” And that’s where the debate gets really interesting.

    As GMO-labeling advocates point out, the vast majority of Americans say they want to know what’s in the food they eat; by some measures, 90 percent support mandatory labeling of foods with genetically engineered ingredients. Yet if that desire to know were so strong—a desire that presumes a significant degree of wariness about GMO crops—how is it that we’ve come to live in a country where 85 percent of corn and 91 percent of the soybeans grown are genetically modified? By certain estimates, 75 percent of the processed food in our grocery stores already contains genetically modified ingredients.

    Let’s face it: I’d venture that the majority of consumers spend more time watching cat videos on YouTube than taking the time to understand where their food comes from, what’s healthy to eat, and what’s healthy for the planet. After all, a Consumer Reports survey found 64 percent of Americans believed that the more or less meaningless label “natural” on a food product meant that it didn’t contain GMOs. Might it be that it’s time we stop letting labels doing the work for us and start really getting to know our food?

  • Food
  • Gluten-Free Wheat: Farmers Are Trying to Make an Oxymoron a Reality

    Can a complicated breeding project be finished in time to capitalize on a diet trend?

    What if there was no gluten in wheat? For those who suffer from celiac disease—and the millions more who claim to suffer from gluten sensitivity—that would seem to be a dream come true. It’s a tempting fantasy for wheat farmers too, one they’re now trying to turn into a reality.

    The Kansas Wheat Commission has committed $200,000 to fund the first two years of a genetic research project to construct a comprehensive list of everything in wheat’s DNA that can trigger a reaction in celiac patients, according to The Associated Press. While an increasing number of consumers—not just celiac sufferers—say they’re keen to avoid gluten in their diets, most seem to have only a hazy notion of what gluten is: a host of complex proteins that make dough sticky and elastic and give baked products like bread their distinct texture.


    It’s no surprise the research is coming out of Kansas—the state consistently vies with North Dakota as the largest wheat producer in the country. When you’re growing upwards of 300 million bushels of a crop that contains one of the highest concentrations of a component that has become a dirty word among legions of consumers, you might do well to eliminate it.

    “If you know you are producing a crop that is not tolerated well by people, then it’s the right thing to do,” Chris Miller, senior director of research as Kansas-based Engrain, tells the AP. Even as the lead researcher behind the project casts the effort toward gluten-free wheat as a kind of public service, it seems unlikely that the wheat industry would go to so much trouble just to try to develop a crop for the 1 percent of the population that’s estimated to have celiac disease.

    Instead, they likely have their eye on the blockbuster growth over the past decade of the gluten-free market. Depending on how you measure it, that market is worth something like a billion dollars or possibly $10 billion (or more) in the U.S. alone, and even though market research firms define it different ways, most continue to predict double-digit growth.

    Given that “gluten-free” has become hazily synonymous with feel-good (but largely meaningless) labels such as “all natural” and “healthy,” it seems a smart move that the Kansas project aims to produce its gluten-free wheat the old-fashioned way—through selective breeding of wheat strains identified as naturally low in whatever gluten proteins might trigger celiac symptoms rather than genetically modifying the wheat.


    But that just signals how confused the whole issue of gluten has become, wherein a natural substance that happens to cause a serious autoimmune reaction in a very small portion of the population now is being tarred as a nutritional bugaboo for the masses.

    In other words: What if just about everything we think we know about gluten is wrong?  

    Writing for New York University’s ScienceLine this week, Nicole Lou reminds us that the research behind so-called non-celiac gluten sensitivity, the catchall diagnosis for those who seem gluten-intolerant but don’t have celiac disease, is far from settled. Many consumers who eat gluten-free foods have never been diagnosed with any celiac-related disorder—or any medical condition at all. That would be 82 percent of gluten-free consumers surveyed by the market research firm Mintel. Some 65 percent of consumers who eat gluten-free foods say they do so because those foods are healthier, while more than a quarter say they do it to lose weight, despite no scientific evidence to that effect, according to Mintel.

    As it turns out, those who think they might be sensitive to gluten may not be sensitive to gluten at all. Rather, their bodies may be reacting instead to an entirely different set of compounds found in wheat and tons of other foods. The suspected culprits are not gluten proteins but carbohydrates known as—get ready for it—“fermentable oligo-di-monosaccharides and polyols,” or FODMAPs. Fructose and lactose are FODMAPs, as are fructans (found in wheat as well as garlic and onions), galactans (in beans and legumes), and polyols (in stone fruits).


    In 2011, a study out of Australia appeared to offer the first scientific support for the notion that there could be such a thing as non-celiac gluten sensitivity. But two years later, Peter Gibson, the scientist who had led the research team, conducted a different study, and this one pointed to FODMAPs—not gluten—as the culprit behind the sort of digestive complaints often associated with gluten insensitivity.

    “When you decrease FODMAPs, 75 percent of people with bowel symptoms are better,” Gibson tells ScienceLine. That’s compared with only 8 percent of participants who showed gluten-specific effects.

    Already, “low-FODMAP” diets have begun to appear on the radar. But rather than jump on the low-FODMAP bandwagon, as so many consumers have done when it comes to forswearing gluten, we might do better to wait for the science to catch up to our suspicions. Experts say that within the next decade, we could see advanced diagnostic techniques that could analyze a patient’s intestinal bacteria to determine whether gluten or FODMAPs are causing gastrointestinal symptoms—though it might be harder to convince consumers they are merely suffering from an overabundance of food-marketing hype. 

    In the meantime, wheat farmers will try to get rid of the wheat in gluten altogether—and if FODMAPs prove to be as trendy of a dietary nemesis, we may soon be covering a new program to breed them out of the grain too.

  • Food
  • Put Down the Diet Soda, Grandpa: Zero-Calorie Drinks Linked to Health Risks for Seniors

    Research finds that older Americans who regularly drink artificially sweetened beverages are adding inches to their waistline.

    Looks like it’s time to convince Grandma to kick her Diet Coke habit. In the latest bit of dismal news for the soda industry, another scientific study has found virtually zero health benefits to drinking zero-calorie diet soda. In this instance, older Americans who regularly consumed diet soda were more likely to pack on excess pounds around their belly, increasing their risk for heart disease and metabolic syndrome.

    “Calorie free does not equal consequence free,” Sharon P.G. Fowler of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio tells Reuters. Fowler led the study, which was published this week in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.


    Researchers looked at data that had been collected back in the mid-1990s at the outset of the San Antonio Longitudinal Study of Aging, which involved nearly 750 adults age 65 or older. Among other questions, participants were asked about their diet soda consumption, and their height, weight, and waist circumference were measured. Some 375 participants returned for the last of three follow-up visits in 2003–04.

    Among the remaining participants, Fowler and her team found that while those who never drank diet soda saw an average increase in their waist circumference of .8 inches, those who occasionally drank diet soda gained more than twice as much, and those who drank it daily increased their belly size by a belt-busting 3.16 inches—a nearly fourfold gain over nondrinkers.

    The study controlled for factors such as physical activity and smoking.

    What it doesn’t do, Fowler emphasizes, is prove that the diet soda caused the bigger bellies. “We can’t prove causality, but there is quite a consistency in observational studies,” she tells Reuters.

    Indeed, a growing body of research has linked consumption of diet soda and other artificially sweetened beverages to weight gain and other ill effects. A 2008 study out of the University of Texas, for example, found that people who regularly drank such beverages were twice as likely to become overweight or obese than those who didn’t. A 2014 study from Johns Hopkins University reported that adults who drank artificially sweetened beverages consumed more calories overall per day than those who didn’t.


    For her part, Fowler thinks there’s some twisted dieter’s logic to that. “I think it’s probably true that for some people, if they are not being really hardcore about losing weight and getting a healthier lifestyle, if they switch over to diet soda, that allows them to have an extra slice of pizza or a candy bar,” she tells Reuters.

    Yet while the explanation of “I’m drinking diet so I can indulge in a bigger slice of cake” continues to have its adherents among researchers and public health experts who are trying to figure out why drinkers of diet soda appear to gain more weight, other theories have emerged as well. Some experts have suggested that artificial sweeteners mess up our brain chemistry in a way that ends up causing us to crave more sugar, while an intriguing study published last September linked consumption of artificial sweeteners to changes in gut bacteria that were associated with obesity.

    Even as the science surrounding artificial sweeteners and weight gain remains in flux, there’s one zero-calorie beverage that experts agree is better than all the others: water.

  • Food
  • House Democrats Take Monarchs’ Side in Losing Battle Against Big Ag

    A letter from representatives asks the president to give endangered species protection to beleaguered butterflies.

    What do Iran and our plummeting population of monarch butterflies have in common? Nothing, really—except maybe to get you to rethink the value of letters postmarked from Capitol Hill.

    Senate Republicans may have dominated headlines recently with their foreign-policy stunt turned PR disaster, but another letter—this one signed by 52 House Democrats—would appear to put the letter-writing skills of Congress to better use.


    At issue is the alarming drop in the number of monarch butterflies making their annual migration to Mexico over the past two decades. Back in the mid-1990s, almost a billion butterflies were estimated to have made the trek, blanketing some 44 acres of evergreen forest in the mountains west of Mexico City each winter. This year, just 56.5 million made it, covering a scant 2.8 acres of forest—the second-lowest count on record.

    The situation is so dire, scientists and environmental groups warn that we could see the great monarch migration virtually disappear in a generation, if not sooner.

    Now, it seems, the monarchs’ plight has led to the formation of something like a butterfly caucus in the House. In a letter to the president this week, congressional Democrats called the Obama administration to protect the monarch butterfly under the Endangered Species Act.

    “As we have learned from examples like the passenger pigeon, formerly vast populations of species can disappear without the proper protections,” the members of Congress wrote, calling the ESA “the last best chance to save this amazing species and its incredible migration.”   

    It’s no coincidence, however, that only a scant handful of representatives who signed the letter hail from Farm Belt states—a mere three by my count—just as it’s no coincidence that the monarch’s precipitous plunge can be traced to the mid-1990s. That’s when agri-tech giant Monsanto released the first in its patented line of “Roundup Ready” crops: soybeans and, later, corn, cotton, canola, alfalfa, and sugarbeets that were genetically modified to withstand a virtual deluge of Monsanto’s own Roundup herbicide, generically known as glyphosate.

    Between 1992 and 2011, glyphosate use skyrocketed more than a hundred fold, from 20 million pounds per year to more than 250 million pounds. It was a boon to Big Ag, but not so much for monarchs—all that glyphosate was killing off the native milkweed the butterflies depend on to survive.


    It can’t be overstated how cruicial milkweed is for the species. It is the only plant on which monarchs lay their eggs and that their larva can feed on. Yet Big Ag’s herbicide free-for-all is causing upwards of a million acres of monarch habitat to disappear each year in the central U.S., according to the nonprofit Monarch Watch. The irony is that milkweed presents little threat to harvests, unlike, say, palmer amaranth or pigweed; it is an innocent bystander.

    To be sure, the House Democrats applaud “the early efforts by farmers, local, state and federal agencies to plant milkweed and to educate the public on the plight of the monarch.” But it’s not enough: “Without a sea change in how the federal government addresses the use of herbicides, especially as applied to herbicide-resistant crops, vital monarch habitats will simply continue to disappear.”

    How amenable the Obama administration might be to stemming the tide of herbicide is debatable. While the Fish and Wildlife Service has said monarchs “may” merit federal protection, the Environmental Protection Agency is currently facing not one but two lawsuits from environmentalists over its handling of the monarch crisis. The first suit charges that the agency has failed to respond to an urgent petition to limit the use of glyphosate. The second seeks to block the EPA’s recent approval of Enlist Duo, a next-generation chemical herbicide made by Monsanto rival Dow that contains significant quantities of—you guessed it—glyphosate.

  • Food
  • Wildlife