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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
  • Kids’ ‘Fruit’ Drinks May Have More Sugar Than Soda—and Parents Don’t Realize It

    Marketing is tricking consumers into thinking non-carbonated beverages are healthy.

    If you’re a parent, you’re probably already wary of giving your kids sugary soda—but what about such popular kids’ favorites like Sunny D, Capri Sun, Hi-C, and all those other dubiously labeled “fruit drinks”?

    With more added sugar on average than any other beverage, soda is no doubt deserving of its public health enemy No. 1 status. It’s a prime source of the sort of empty calories that have been linked to the epidemic of childhood obesity and related ills. Just this week, news broke that Burger King had become the last of the big three burger chains to drop soda from its kids’ meals.

    But when it comes to other popular kids’ drinks, a new study finds that parents are often deceived into believing they are healthier than soda—or just healthy in general.

    In an online survey of nearly 1,000 parents, researchers at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut found that while 62 percent of parents said they had given their kids soda at least once in the past month, nearly 80 percent had provided “fruit drinks,” a category that excludes beverages made from 100 percent fruit juice. That’s despite well over half of the respondents saying they were either somewhat or very concerned about the amount of sugar their kids consume.

    How to explain the discrepancy? As one of the study’s authors, Jennifer Harris, put it in a statement: “Although most parents know that soda is not good for children, many still believe that other sugary drinks are healthy. The labeling and marketing for these products imply that they are nutritious, and these misperceptions may explain why so many parents buy them.”  

    Think about it: If Sunny D touted the 11 grams of sugar in each 6.75-ounce bottle instead of “100% Vitamin C,” you’d probably think twice about buying it for your kids. Ditto for those Hi-C juice boxes, which likewise give top billing to the vitamin C content while burying that they contain a whopping 25 grams of sugar per box. There is, rather amazingly, more sugar in every ounce of Hi-C fruit punch than regular Coke, while a single pouch of Capri Sun fruit punch packs as much sugar as the American Heart Association recommends preschoolers consume in an entire day.

    It turns out the most misleading claim of all may very well be that Capri Sun, Hi-C, Sunny D, and their ilk are even “fruit drinks”: As the study authors point out, none contain more than 10 percent fruit juice, and often they’re made from much less.

    Worse yet are sports drinks. And while parents of toddlers probably aren’t packing their kids off to daycare with a pouch of Gatorade, plenty of parents of adolescents seem to think their budding athletes will perform that much better on the field if they’re hopped up on electrolytes. But any extra energy is likely to come from another source: Sports drinks often contain even more sugar per ounce than soda. A single 4-ounce pouch of Gatorade Prime (marketed as an energy booster) contains 23 grams of sugar, even as the AHA recommends teenagers limit their sugar intake to just 21–33 grams per day.

    So what should kids be drinking instead? Echoing the advice of public health advocates, Harris recommends sticking to water, low-fat milk and, in limited quantities, 100 percent fruit juice. Her rule of thumb as you make your way through the grocery store? “The more health messages on the front of the package, the less healthy the product is,” she tells The Washington Post. “You have to ignore the messages on the front of the package, and if the first ingredient is sugar, put it back.”

  • Food
  • Burger King Finally Kicks Soda off Its Kids’ Menu

    The home of the Whopper becomes the last of the three big burger chains to stop hawking soft drinks to kids.

    You could be forgiven for missing the news that Burger King has dropped soda from its kids’ meals—the company didn’t issue so much as a press release about it.

    Maybe that’s because the fast-food giant isn’t exactly blazing a trail here. It’s the last of the big three burger chains to make the move. In 2013, McDonald’s announced it would phase out soda as part of its Happy Meals by this year, while Wendy’s removed soda as an option for its children’s menus in January.

    Instead of soda, kids can wash down their BK chicken nuggets with their choice of fat-free milk, apple juice, or low-fat chocolate milk. While soda has been exiled from the kids’ menu board at company-owned stores, it’ll be up to individual franchisees to decide whether to follow suit. (Of course, parents can still go ahead and order soda for their kids if they want to; the sugary drinks just won’t be listed as an official option.)

    The change “will help children eat better now, as soda is the leading source of calories in children’s diets,” Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said in a statement. “It also helps to set kids on a path toward healthier eating in the future, with fewer kids becoming conditioned to think that soda should be a part of every eating-out occasion.”

    Indeed, the public advocacy group has been campaigning for the past several years to pressure restaurant chains to stop plying kids with soda. CSPI cites what it calls a “preponderance of scientific evidence” that shows drinking sugary beverages promotes weight gain, including a 2001 study that found just one extra soft drink per day increased a child’s chance of becoming obese by 60 percent. Sugar-sweetened drinks, which include soda (at the top of the list), sports drinks, energy drinks, sweetened teas, and fruit drinks, account for almost half the added sugars in the average American diet—and too much added sugar has increasingly alarmed nutritionists and other health experts.

    As you might expect, Burger King doesn’t appear too eager to tout the health benefits that might be associated with kids drinking less sugar, which might get their parents to rethink the whole classic burger-fries-soda combo for themselves. Alex Macedo, president of Burger King North America, issued a carefully calibrated statement via email to USA Today, calling the decision to finally drop soda from the chain’s kids’ meals “part of our ongoing effort to offer our guests options that match lifestyle needs.”

    While the chocolate milk option “delivers wholesome sweetness and is packed with calcium,” according to BK’s website, an eight-ounce serving of it also contains 25 grams of sugar—just a gram less than the same amount of Coke.

  • Food
  • No, Really: You’re Probably Eating Way Too Much Sugar

    New health guidelines say you should steer clear of added sweeteners—but good luck managing that.

    Who says we ought to be eating less sugar? The World Health Organization, that’s who.

    In a widely anticipated move, the organization this week released updated guidelines that recommend we get no more than 10 percent of our daily calorie intake from “free sugars,” or what is more commonly called “added sugar.” The health organization further recommends an overall general reduction in the consumption of added sugar over the course of a person’s lifetime—going so far as to suggest that limiting added sugar to just 5 percent of your daily calories is an even better target.

    So what does that mean in real terms? For an average adult eating 2,000 calories a day, limiting sugar to 10 percent of calories equals 50 grams of sugar. Drink one 20-ounce Coke, which contains 65 grams, and you’re already over your limit. A 6-ounce container of Yoplait Original Strawberry yogurt packs 26 grams—that’s more than the 25 grams that would be your limit if your goal was the WHO’s more restrictive 5 percent target. And you only made it through breakfast.

    In all, the average American consumes almost 90 grams of added sugar each day—22 teaspoons—according to the Harvard School of Public Health.

    As two prominent researchers who have studied the impact of sugar consumption on heart disease, James J. DiNicolantonio and Sean C. Lucan, wrote in The New York Times last year, 75 percent of packaged foods—including countless savory products—contain added sugar. They noted, “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."

    Although food makers have vehemently decried what they see as a lack of science behind the growing concern over our sugar-eating habits, public health experts such as those at WHO say there’s more than enough evidence to suggest that the surfeit of sweet in our diet leads to obesity and the epidemic of related ailments, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

    That’s put sugar in the crosshairs. Just last month, the committee charged with revising the federal dietary guidelines in the U.S. similarly set a recommended maximum of no more than 10 percent of daily calories from added sugar. It marked the first time the panel has advocated for a specific limit.

    Such recommendations sound straightforward enough, but there’s a catch, one that can be more or less summed up in a single question: Do you really have any idea how much added sugar you eat every day?

    Probably not. As defined by WHO, “added sugar” is sugar “added to foods and beverages by the manufacturer, cook, or consumer, and sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices, and fruit concentrates.” This definition excludes the sugar that naturally occurs in, say, fruits and vegetables. The processed food industry has cried foul, essentially saying that sugar is sugar—why differentiate between “added sugar” and the sugar that makes an apple sweet?

    While health experts concede that all sugar impacts the body in similar ways, they argue that the problem isn’t sugar, it’s that we eat too darn much of it. And if you’re getting your sugar fix through fruits and vegetables, at least you’re also getting a bunch of nutrients your body needs. “Added sugar,” in other words, is just another way of saying “empty calories.”

    But as of now, there’s no way for American consumers to tell just how much added sugar they’re eating. The Food and Drug Administration is weighing a redesign of the Nutrition Facts panel found on most food packaging, the first major revamp of the label since it debuted 20 years ago. Among the biggest changes the agency is considering is a separate line to distinguish “added sugar” from “sugar.” Despite intense opposition from the processed food industry, it looks like that will happen.

    That still leaves plenty of room for confusion. Many health recommendations refer to sugar consumption in terms of teaspoons or even calories. The WHO recommendations, for example, present the 10 percent maximum as “200 calories” for a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet. Huh? Even with smartphone in hand, only the most tenacious of consumers is going to stand in the grocery aisle trying to calculate how many calories are in the 19 grams of sugar in a cup of Kellogg’s Raisin Bran.

    A good rule of thumb if you want to watch your sugar intake: Steer clear of sugar-sweetened beverages, which account for half of the average American’s sugar consumption. Sure, soda is an obvious culprit, but a heap of sugar can be lurking in seemingly healthy drinks. A 15.2-ounce bottle of Odwalla’s Original Superfood Smoothie, for example, packs 49 grams of sugar. An 8-ounce glass of OJ can have upwards of 25 grams.

    So yeah, avoid the beverage aisle in the grocery store. It becomes far tougher, however, if you want to stay below WHO’s alternative recommendation of just 25 grams of added sugar per day. It takes just two Nature Valley Greek Yogurt Protein Bars to get you almost there (22 grams). A Starbucks Grande Cappuccino with soy on your way to work in the morning (11 grams) and then, for dinner, a half cup of Prego Traditional Pasta Sauce over your spaghetti (10 grams) likewise add up. Toss a couple tablespoons of Wish Bone Fat-Free Ranch Dressing on your side salad (2 grams), and you can forget dessert.

    Heck, just one of those single-serve Heinz ketchup packets snatched up by the handful at your local burger joint has 7 grams of sugar.

    Add it all up, and you can see how we’re drowning in sugar, indeed.

  • Food
  • Senate Wants to Save You From Superbugs By Ending Farms' Overuse of Antibiotics

    New legislation would direct FDA to actively regulate the use of drugs on livestock.

    In the mostly toothless fight by the Food and Drug Administration to combat the alarming rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs—a spike that can be traced in large part to the profligate overuse of the lifesaving drugs on factory farms—we can at least take heart in one thing: Someone in Washington, D.C., still seems to care about the issue.

    It's not just any old someone. Rather, four U.S. senators are pushing legislation that would close a gaping loophole in the FDA’s voluntary program to address the growing problem of antibiotic resistance. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, introduced the bill Monday, which was cosponsored by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. If passed, the legislation would require the FDA to actively regulate the use of drugs that are important to human health and end the use of antibiotics and dosages that violate the agency's standards. 

    The sad truth is that the bill faces an uphill battle. A similar bill was introduced two years ago, when the Democrats controlled the Senate, only to go nowhere—and the political climate in Congress hasn’t grown any friendlier to industry regulation since then.

    Which is more than just a shame—it’s a public health disaster. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 2 million Americans develop antibiotic-resistant infections each year, resulting in at least 23,000 deaths, and a report last year from the World Health Organization warned that “far from being an apocalyptic fantasy,” an era of modern health care without antibiotics “is instead a very real possibility for the 21st century.” Even so, the FDA has done next to nothing to effectively fight the problem.

    Yes, the agency made some splashy headlines in 2013 with its voluntary program to rein in antibiotic use on factory farms, specifically by eliminating the ridiculous practice of administering antibiotics to animals simply to make them gain more weight.

    That the program is voluntary isn’t the only catch. The FDA allows antibiotics to be given to livestock on a regular basis—day in, day out, for an unlimited amount of time—as a prophylactic measure. That is, to prevent the spread of disease that’s almost inevitable when you cram lots of animals into a confined space. 

    You can understand why the livestock industry and drug makers haven’t been quaking in their boots in response to the FDA’s rather lame attempt to tackle the problem: Factory farms still get to pump their animals full of antibiotics—now they just have to say they’re doing it to prevent disease rather than to bulk up their livestock. One industry trade association has said as much: “Growth uses of medically important antibiotics represent only a small percentage of overall use, so even if all other factors are static, it’s unlikely overall use would be greatly affected.” Those are the words of the Animal Health Institute, as cited by Avinash Kar, an attorney who works on the issue of antibiotic abuse at factory farms for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

    As Kar points out: “Yes, 25 of 26 drug manufacturing companies have agreed to participate in FDA’s voluntary program. But you have to ask why? As we have emphasized before, the reality is that drug companies and the meat industry don’t have to change their practices much at all.”

    The bill introduced by Feinstein and Collins seeks to change that, namely by setting limits on how long an antibiotic can be used for preventing and controlling disease, according to The Wall Street Journal.

    Too bad this legislation can’t make like a superbug and develop its own resistance to other lawmakers’ attempts to kill it.

  • Food
  • Common Food Additives May Be Making Us Fat

    It could be more than just the calories in that creamy ice cream that’s packing on the pounds.

    Science has given wary consumers another reason to avoid some of those tongue-twisting ingredients listed on the packaging of countless products in the average American grocery store. In a study published this week in Nature, researchers say they’ve found evidence that two commonly used emulsifiers in processed foods may be linked to the rise in obesity and to certain chronic digestive disorders.

    The team of researchers, led by two scientists at Georgia State University, wanted to see what impact the synthetic emulsifiers polysorbate-80 and carboxymethylcellusose might be having on the trillions of bacteria that make up the gut microbiota and are essential for healthy digestion. Both emulsifiers are found in a slew of products—most notably ice cream and other frozen dairy desserts. But they can also crop up in everything from canned soup and salad dressing to frozen entrées and cream cheese (and even sunscreen and hemorrhoid cream, but we won’t think about that).

    The scientists fed the emulsifiers to mice at doses comprable to what your average person might consume. What they found was that the gut bacteria of the mice that were given the emulsifiers were altered in a way that made the digestive tract of the animals more prone to inflammation—which is linked to the onset of metabolic syndrome, a group of common obesity-related disorders that can lead to type 2 diabetes as well as heart and liver disease. In mice genetically predisposed to inflammatory bowel disease, the changes to their gut bacteria appeared to trigger that disorder.

    That would seem significant, as public health experts have struggled to thoroughly explain the alarming spike in obesity rates in America and in other developed countries. While many say overeating and a relative lack of physical activity are leading factors, they argue those issues alone are not enough to explain the obesity epidemic and the proliferation of related health problems.

    “The dramatic increase in these diseases has occurred despite consistent human genetics, suggesting a pivotal role for an environmental factor,” Benoit Chassaing, one of the study’s lead researchers, said in a statement. “Food interacts intimately with the microbiota, so we considered what modern additions to the food supply might possibly make gut bacteria more pro-inflammatory.”

    We may not give much thought to the estimated 100 trillion organisms that call us home, but when it comes down to it, we’re more bacteria than human. Bacteria outnumber our own cells 10 to one, and scientists are increasingly coming to understand that messing with all those tiny organisms may be causing a host of big problems. A blockbuster essay published in The New York Times last year by science writer Pagan Kennedy looked at the research suggesting our overreliance on antibiotics may be linked to obesity, while in a study published last September, scientists found a link between another popular food additive and changes in the gut bacteria of mice—artificial sweeteners.

  • Food