Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Sep 20 2010

One more time: corn sugar chemistry

Thanks to alert reader Glen for pointing out that the FDA already has a regulation for Corn Sugar in the Code of Federal Regulations, under food substances Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS).  CFR Section 184.1857 reads:

(a) corn sugar (C6H12O6, CAS Reg. No. 50-99-7), commonly called D-glucose or dextrose, is the chemical [alpha]-D-glucopyranose. It occurs as the anhydrous or the monohydrate form and is produced by the complete hydrolysis of corn starch with safe and suitable acids or enzymes, followed by refinement and crystallization from the resulting hydrolysate.

(b) The ingredient meets the specifications of the Food Chemicals Codex, 3d Ed. (1981), pp. 97-98 under the heading “Dextrose….”

(c) In accordance with 184.1(b)(1), the ingredient is used in food with no limitation other than current good manufacturing practice.

The Corn Refiners have just petitioned the FDA to be allowed to use the name Corn Sugar to apply to both glucose/dextrose and High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS).  But the existing definition seems to exclude HFCS.  While HFCS is about half glucose, it is also about half fructose, and its manufacture from corn starch requires one more enzyme.

A reminder about sugar chemistry:

  • Glucose is the sugar in blood, and dextrose is the name given to glucose produced from corn but biochemically they are identical.
  • Fructose is the principal sugar in fruit.  In fruit, it raises no issues because it is accompanied by nutrients and fiber.
  • Sucrose is table sugar.  It is a double sugar, containing one part each of glucose (50%) and fructose (50%), chemically bound together.  Enzymes in the intestine quickly and efficiently split sucrose into glucose and fructose, which are absorbed into the body as single sugars.
  • HFCS is made from corn starch.  It contains roughly equivalent amounts of glucose (45 to 58%) and fructose (42 to 55%).

HFCS raises several issues, health and otherwise:

  • Quantity: the U.S. food supply provides to every American (all ages) about 60 pounds of sucrose and another 60 pounds of HFCS each year.  This is way more than is good for health.  Sugars of any kind provide calories but no nutrients.
  • Fructose: increasing evidence suggests that the metabolism of fructose–which differs from that of glucose–is associated with abnormalities.  This means that it is best to reduce intake of fructose from table sugar as well as HFCS.
  • Farm subsidies: these go to large corn producers and have kept down the cost of HFCS relative to that of sucrose.  The use of corn to make ethanol has raised the relative price of HFCS.
  • Genetic modification: Most corn grown in the United States is genetically modified to resist insects or herbicides.

From a health standpoint, it makes no difference whether the sweetener is sucrose or HFCS.

As for agave sugar as a substitute: it can have much higher concentrations of fructose than either sucrose or HFCS but its labels do not give percentages so you have no way to know how much.

Given all this, what’s your guess about what the FDA will decide?

Sep 18 2010

Restaurant safety grades: creativity in action

I haven’t said anything to date about New York City’s new safety grades for restaurants.  Their purpose is to encourage restaurants to do a better job on safety procedures so customers don’t get sick.

As the Health Department explains, the grades are awarded on a point system.  Points go to violations of food safety regulations.  The fewest points get an A.  Those with the most get a C.  The B grade is someplace in between.

Wall Street Journal blogger Aaron Rutkoff discovered a restaurant with an exceptionally creative method for dealing with its embarrassing B grade.

Enjoy the weekend and watch out for those grades!

Sep 17 2010

A decent food safety system: will we ever get one?

I get asked all the time what food has to do with politics.  My answer: everything.  Take food safety, for example.

No wonder meat producers hate bad press.  According to Illinois Farm Gate, when consumers read scary things about meat, they stop buying it.

When media attention is given to animal welfare issues, regardless of the production practices involved, consumer demand softens not only for that particular meat, but for all meats. Over the past decade, pork and poultry demand would be higher, were it not for media attention to livestock production issues. Such attention causes consumers to eat less meat and show preference to spend their food dollar on non-meat items for as long as 6 months after the media report.

This week’s bad press is about the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in industrial pig farming.

Dispensing antibiotics to healthy animals is routine on the large, concentrated farms that now dominate American agriculture. But the practice is increasingly condemned by medical experts who say it contributes to a growing scourge of modern medicine: the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, including dangerous E. coli strains that account for millions of bladder infections each year, as well as resistant types of salmonella and other microbes.

Dr. James R. Johnson, an infectious-disease expert at the University of Minnesota explains what this is about:

For those of us in the public health community, the evidence is unambiguously clear….Most of the E. coli resistance in humans can be traced to food-animal sources.

Will reports like this discourage consumers from buying pork and other meats?  Consumers are not stupid.  They just might.

As for our profoundly dysfunctional Senate: it seems increasingly unlikely to pass food safety legislation before the midterm election cycle.  All of a sudden, food safety is too expensive?

Tell that to industries producing food that nobody will buy out of fear of becoming sick.

That’s food politics in action for you.

Last year at about this time, Bill Marler, the Seattle attorney who represents victims of food poisonings, sent every senator a tee shirt with this logo on it.  I suppose it’s naive to hope that maybe he will get his wish by this thanksgiving, but I am everlastingly optimistic that reason occasionally prevails.

Footnote 1: China is considering the death penalty for perpetrators of food safety crimes: “Officials who are involved in food safety crimes should not be given a reprieve or be exempt from criminal punishment.” Mind you, I am not a proponent of the death penalty, but I do think we need a safety system that holds food producers accountable.

Footnote 2: And then there is the half billion”incredible” egg recall.  Slow Food USA has a nifty video on the alternatives: “USDA and FDA.  Make eggs edible.  Now that would be incredible.”

Sep 16 2010

Baby food politics: Should WIC pay more for “Functional” foods?

Laurie True, who directs California’s WIC Association ( WIC is the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children), writes in The Hill about the latest efforts of infant formula company lobbyists to extract more money for their products.

WIC, for the uninitiated, provides formula and foods to low-income mothers of small children.    But unlike Food Stamps, it is not an entitlement.  Eligible families cannot enroll in WIC if the program does not have enough money to pay for the food.

Despite ample research demonstrating the effectiveness of this program in improving the nutritional status of participants, only about half of eligible mothers and children are able to enroll.

Any increase in the cost of infant formula means that even fewer eligible mothers will be able to participate.

At issue is a provision of the Childhood Nutrition Reauthorization Act thrown out when the Senate passed the bill last August.

The dropped provision called for USDA, which manages WIC, to make a scientific decision about whether WIC should offer foods that contain new “functional ingredients” like omega-3s, antioxidants, and probiotics.  These are increasingly being added to infant formula, baby food, and other foods that WIC buys.  They cost more.  But do the ingredients really make kids healthier?

To say the least, the science is highly conflicted and most studies show little evidence of demonstrable benefit.

WIC buys 60% of U.S. infant formula, so formula makers are eager to jack up the price.  USDA’s studies say that functional ingredients cost WIC upwards $90 million annually.  Formula makers are spending a fortune to make sure that these ingredients get no scientific scrutiny.

Call this baby food politics, but it matters.

Sep 15 2010

This is good news? U.N. says 925 million people are chronically hungry

The Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Program released their most recent figures on world hunger yesterday.

The good news: the number is 98 million fewer than in 2009, and below one billion.

The bad news: it is 925 million, a level the U.N. considers “unacceptable.”

In conjunction with the U.N. report, Oxfam America has released one of its own: “Halving Hunger: Still Possible.”  

Oxfam issued a press release on its report:

Ten years after world leaders committed to halve world hunger by 2015, little progress has been made to reduce the number of people who go to sleep hungry, and many hard-won achievements have been undone by the global economic, food and fuel crises….In the ten years since the MDGs [Millennium Development Goals] were agreed, the proportion of hungry people in the world has decreased by just half a percent – from 14 percent in 2000 to 13.5 per cent today.

Gawain Kripke, Policy Director for Oxfam America , said:

A new global food crisis could explode at any time unless governments tackle the underlying causes of hunger, which include decades of under investment in agriculture, climate change, and unfair trade rules that make it difficult for families to earn a living through farming.

The report says that “with a coherent and coordinated global response, halving hunger is still possible.”  That, however will require an increase in aid of $75, at least half from developed nations.

Hunger, it says, “is not inevitable; we can end it if we choose to.”

But will we choose to?  Doubtful.   The Senate is holding up action on the food safety bill because it is estimated to cost a little over $1 billion, and at least one senator thinks that’s too much to pay for a safe food supply, let alone making sure that people have enough to eat.

Here’s what today’s New York Times has to say about all this.  Oxfam is right.  Hunger is not inevitable.  But why don’t we have the political will to do something about it?

Sep 14 2010

Corn Refiners ask FDA to replace “HFCS” with “Corn Sugar”

The Corn Refiners Association is asking the FDA to allow a change in the name of their embattled sweetener from High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) to Corn Sugar.

Of course they want this change.  HFCS is the new trans fat.  Everyone thinks HFCS is poison.

For the record once again, HFCS is not poison.  It is just a mixture of glucose and fructose in almost the same proportions as table sugar, sucrose.

Mind you, I am not fond of the idea that Americans use 60 pounds of corn sweeteners per capita per year and another 60 pounds of table sugar, and I am not particularly eager to help the Corn Refiners sell more of their stuff.

But you can understand the Corn Refiners’ pain: food companies are getting rid of HFCS as fast as they can and replacing it with table sugar.

This move is driven not only by bad press, but also by the fact that the price differential has all but disappeared.  HFCS started out at one-third the cost of table sugar.  Growing corn to make alcohol changed all that.

Let’s give the Corn Refiners credit for calling a sugar a sugar.  I would prefer Corn Sugars (plural) to indicate that it is a mixture of glucose and fructose.  But as long as they don’t call it “natural,” the change is OK with me.

But I’m wondering if it’s too late.  Maybe anything with the word “corn” in it will be enough to turn people off?  According to the Associated Press, the Corn Refiners are already using Corn Sugar in their advertising, so we will soon find out.

Your thoughts?

Additional historical note: Thanks to a reader, candyprofessor.com, who is evidently a fount of information about such things, for this enlightening tidbit:

In the early 1900s, what we call “corn syrup” was sold as “glucose,” the chemical name for the type of sugar derived from corn starches. Food reformers pointed to the “glucose” in candy and claimed that candy was poisoned with “glue.”  So the corn producers lobbied to have “glucose” renamed “corn syrup.” Sounds like we’re coming around again full circle…now “corn syrup” is poison!

Updates, September 15: Tara Parker-Pope writes about this in the New York Times (and quotes me).  So does Michele Simon on her blog.  As usual, Simon says it like it is:

As a result of this demonizing, we are now in the ridiculous situation where food companies are falling over each other to remove HFCS from their products, slap on a natural label, and get brownie points for helping Americans eat better….Only Big Food would find a way to make a product full of refined white sugar (which at one time was also demonized) seem like a healthy alternative. It’s like I always say, the food industry is very good at taking criticism and turning it into a marketing opportunity.

How, I wonder, will the Corn Refiners manage this one?  Not so easily, judging from readers’ comments.

Update, September 16: Fo0dNavigator.com reports that more than half of Americans surveyed will not buy products with HFCS.  Market researchers are advising food companies to get rid of it.

Sep 13 2010

Department of Talmudic investigation: Define candy!

Caroline Scott-Thomas of FoodNavigator.com poses a question to which I must confess I had never given a thought: What, exactly, is candy?

Why would anyone care?  The Streamlined Sales Tax Governing Board cares a lot (and so do candy companies).  The Streamlined Board is devoted to helping states figure out how to impose simpler and more uniform taxes.  It is asking for comments on its current definition, which says that candy is:

A preparation of sugar, honey, or other natural or artificial sweeteners in combination with chocolate, fruits, nuts or other ingredients or flavorings in the form of bars, drops, or pieces. ‘Candy’ shall not include any preparation containing flour and shall require no refrigeration.

The point of this definition is to clearly distinguish candy from cookies.  Cookies contain flour.  Candies, by this definition, do not.

Here is where things get deliciously Talmudic.  The Tax Board wants to modify the definition to explain what it means by “flour”:

For purposes of the definition of candy, “flour” does not include a product that can be called “flour” under the Food and Drug Administration’s food labeling standards if the product is not grain based. If only the word “flour” is listed on the product label, it is assumed that the product contains grain based flour. However, if the word “flour” on the label is preceded by a modifier used to describe the product the “flour” was made from and the modifier is not a type of grain, then the product is not considered to contain “flour” for purposes of the definition of candy. For example, flour substitutes or products that are not made from grain but which are finely milled so that they meet the Food and Drug Administration’s definition of “flour,” such as “peanut flour” or “cocoa flour” are not “flour” for purposes of this definition.

Isn’t this fun?  Scott-Thomas points out that under this flour rule, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Three Musketeers are considered candy and taxable, but Kit Kat and Milky Way, which contain flour, would be cookies and exempt.  Apparently, the Tax Board does not view this distinction as arbitrary.

If you think it is a loophole, and that Kit Kat and Milky Way are getting off tax free, or you have other thoughts about how candy tax policies should or should not work, you are welcome to submit comments by September 27.  The Streamlined Tax Board has posted instructions about how to file comments on its website.

Sep 11 2010

The latest in marketing genius: “Baby” Carrots

Eat them like junk food! That’s the slogan of the new, over-the-top advertising campaign for “baby” carrots. I put “baby” in quotes because they aren’t.

I hate to be the one to break this to you but baby carrots are plain old ordinary adult carrots, cut and scraped into baby-size pieces.

Mind you, I’m a nutritionist and we do love carrots. And the CDC says only about one-quarter of Americans eat three servings of vegetables a day.

But $25 million to sell them on the basis of sex (I’m not kidding) or, violence (sigh)?

Well, at least they aren’t marketing these to kids.  For that, we have to go back a few years to the Sponge Bob “baby” carrots of 2006 or so (see below).  I haven’t seen those packages lately.  Guess that idea didn’t work.

Will this new campaign work any better?

[Thanks to Michael Bulger for sending the links.]

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