Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jan 27 2009

Mercury in high fructose corn syrup

Never a dull moment.  The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), a think-tank in Minneapolis, tested brand-name foods made with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and found about half of them to contain mercury.  HFCS, it seems, is made by a process that involves lye, which in turn is made in chlorine – alkali plants by a method that uses mercury. Mercury is a neurotoxin, although not as bad a toxin as methymercury, the kind that accumulates in large, predatory fish. A scientific report published in Environmental Health says the amounts of mercury in HFCS ranged from 0.00 to 0.57 micrograms per gram. The IATP’s bottom line: the process for making HFCS should be changed to one that does not introduce mercury.

This seems like quite sensible advice, but how worried should we be about mercury in HFCS? I agree that mercury in any form is unlikely to be good, but I have no idea whether such low levels do measurable harm.  For one thing, these studies did not compare the amounts of mercury found in HFCS to those typically found in foods that do not contain HFCS.  My guess is that most foods contain low levels of mercury because mercury is prevalent in air, water, and soil, especially around coal-burning power plants.  Also, soft drinks are the major sources of HFCS in American diets, but these were found to be relatively free of mercury.  This is puzzling.

If anything, these studies are a call for more research on heavy metal toxicology.  In the meantime, let’s lobby for changing this process for making HFCS, but even more so for cleaning up coal-burning power plants that supply 40% of mercury in our environment.

Update January 28: Food Production Daily has a good report on this, with quotes from the Corn Refiners.

Jan 27 2009

Which peanut butter products are OK?

I wondered how the Peanut trade groups were dealing with this situation.  The American Peanut Council posts lists of products that are not affected by the recalls–at least not yet.

Jan 26 2009

Peanut butter and pet foods

One more thing about the peanut butter recalls; they affect pet foods.  I can’t help saying it, but I did say that pet foods matter (and thanks to OrangeCloud for reminding me).  One of the points of Pet Food Politics was to demonstrate that the food supplies for pets, farm animals, and people are one and the same and cannot be separated.  If a safety problem affects pet foods, you can be sure that the same kind of problem will affect people food.  Examples: melamine in Chinese infant formula, and now peanut butter.

Lots of pet foods, especially treats, contain peanut butter and guess where that peanut butter comes from?  It comes from the same plant in Georgia that sends peanut butter everywhere else. Here are the recalled pet foods, so far:

Avanza Supermarket
Econofoods (Excluding Wisconsin stores in Sturgeon Bay, Clintonville, Marquette, Holton and Iron Mou
Family Fresh Market
Family Thrift Center
Food Bonanza
Grreat Choice
Pick’n Save (Ohio stores in Van Wert and Ironton only)
Prairie Market
SunMart Foods
Wholesale Food Outlet

Recalled pet food ingredients: Peanut Corporation of America or Parnell’s Pride

Jan 25 2009

Update on the peanut butter recalls

I was interviewed for 5 seconds on ABC News last night about the peanut butter recalls (look for Saturday, January 25, “Salmonella outbreak worsens”).  So far, nearly 500 people have become ill and there may be as many as 11 deaths.  ABC reporters were right on top of what’s happening, mainly because they participated in the FDA’s teleconference on January 21.  The transcripts of these sessions make interesting reading.  Here’s the take-home:

1.  How did Salmonella get into the peanut butter? They don’t know yet, and it’s a puzzle.  Investigators found traces of Salmonella in the plant, but  not the particular strain found in the peanut butter.

2.  Shouldn’t peanut butter be free of bacteria? Yes, in theory, because the peanuts are roasted (this should be a kill step) and bacteria do not grow well in foods that don’t have much water.  This plant roasted its own peanuts, but it also used peanuts that arrived already roasted.  These could have arrived contaminated or the contamination could have occurred at the plant.

3.  Why are so many products affected? The plant shipped two different kinds of peanut butter: the bulk kind that goes to institutions and a peanut butter ingredient that goes to factories to be turned into other products.  Both contained the particular toxic strain of Salmonella.

4.  Which products  have been found with this toxic strain? The bulk kind and Austin Sandwich Crackers made by Kellogg.  But give Kellogg credit for admirable behavior.  The company recalled its products the minute it heard about the potential problem.  By the time the FDA’s tests came back positive, Kellogg had already recalled the products.  The Kellogg website provides full disclosure.

Jan 25 2009

Oops: San Francisco Chronicle columns

I seem to have missed posting a couple of columns from the San Francisco Chronicle:

January 6, 2009:  This one, “ Fussy eaters–they learn by example,” was in response to a question about getting kids to eat real food.

December 17, 2008:  I had so many responses to the November 17 column on salt intake I answered a bunch of follow-up questions in the next one, “The nitty-gritty on sodium intake.”

Jan 25 2009

Eating Liberally: peanut butter

Eating Liberally’s kat wants to know what the deal is on Salmonella in peanut butter.  The list of recalled products gets longer every day and now some members of Congress want the FDA to ask for recalls of all peanut butter, even that in jars.  The CDC reports nearly 500 cases of illness and, perhaps, as many as 7 deaths.  If you want to see something amazing, take a look at the FDA’s recall list.  Where will this end?  Here’s what I said to kat.

Jan 24 2009

Update on obesity issues

While the new website was in production, I got a bit caught up on my reading.  Here’s what’s been happening on the obesity front.

Middle-age spread: eat less or else! A new study proves what every woman over the age of 50 knows all too well: you just can’t eat the way you used to without putting on the pounds.  Muscle mass declines with age, calorie needs do too.    Activity helps some, but not enough.  I think it’s totally unfair, by the way, but I’m guessing the same thing happens to men (but they have more muscle to begin with).  Alas.

Turn off the TV: Common Sense Media looked at 173 studies of the effects of watching TV on child and adolescent health.  Of 73 studies examining correlations between TV-watching and obesity, 86% found strong associations.  TV-watching was also strongly associated with such unfortunate outcomes as cigarette smoking, drug use, early sexual activity, and poor academic performance.  Conclusion: if you want to encourage kids to be healthier, turn off the TV!

British government launched an anti-obesity campaign: The UK government’s Change4Life campaign is designed to promote healthier lifestyles.  This is causing much discussion, not least because of its food-industry sponsorship (uh oh).  Food companies are said to view the campaign as good for business (uh oh, indeed). The government wants everyone to help with the campaign by putting up posters and such, and its website is cheery.  Buried in all of this is some good advice, but most of it is phrased as eat better, not eat less or avoid.  That, of course, is why the food industry is willing to fund a campaign which, if successful, could hardly be in the food industry’s best interest.

Jan 23 2009

Welcome to the new site

Here it is and welcome.  Hope you like it.  I’ll be working on the debugging and updates over the next few weeks so it should only get better.  Thanks for your patience!

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