Thanks for Michele Simon of the alcohol industry watchdog, the Marin Institute, for telling me about Kraft’s creative idea for selling more Jell-O: mixed drinks. You have to be 21 or over to look at the site and, I guess, be 21 or over to eat Jell-O? Why do I think this will be a tough sell? Or maybe it won’t?
I’m fascinated by the “Soup Wars” (see previous post). The New York Times has a full-page ad today from Progresso: “Campbell’s has 95 soups made with MSG. Progresso has 26 delicious soups with no MSG (and more to come).” Then it adds in small print, “Except that which occurs naturally in yeast extract and vegetable proteins.” I thought people considered high fructose corn syrup to be the new trans fat (get rid of it!), but maybe it’s MSG?
Pity the poor makers of canned soups. Canning blands out the taste so they add grams of salt to cover the blandness. But less salt is healthier, so the companies add MSG (monosodium glutamate) instead.
Because MSG is the sodium salt of glutamate, a normal amino acid constituent of body proteins, it ought to be safe but health concerns about it go on and on (Wikipedia has a quick review). Lots of people tell me they are sensitive to it and that MSG gives them headaches or makes them dizzy. The research on MSG is so inconsistent that I can’t make head or tail of it. My guess is that we will be hearing a lot more about MSG, especially with Campbell’s and Progresso facing off about which soups use less. Stay tuned.
And here’s an account of what’s going on with this.
The Department of Health and Human Services has just issued new guidelines for physical activity. They come with a guide for adults, a toolkit for community organizers, and research information for professionals. The approach is easy: some activity is better than none; more is better than less. Seems like good advice (but if you are worried about weight, you still have to eat less).
The British Food Standards Agency has been checking on levels of melamine in sweets imported from China. Some candies contained as much as 152 milligrams melamine per kilogram (mg/kg) or parts per million (ppm). A kg is 2.2 pounds, which would be a lot of candy to eat. Some of the tainted infant formula contained 2,500 mg/kg, but you only use a scoop (10 grams or so) to make up a bottle of infant formula, and that would contain 25 mg.
I realize that I am asking the wrong question – melamine should not be in food at all – but how much is safe to eat? To follow this, you have to pay close attention to the difference between mg/kg melamine in food versus the amount per kg body weight.
The FDA says 2.5 mg/kg in food is unlikely to be harmful in anything other than infant formula. The FDA’s May 2007 melamine risk assessment said 63 mg/kg body weight was safe for adults but it established a Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI) 100 times lower, or 0.63 mg/kg body weight per day. The European TDI is even lower: 0.5 mg/kg body weight per day. Using the European TDI, a person weighing 80 kg (176 pounds) could supposedly safely consume 40 mg melamine from food a day. But a baby weighing 5 kg (12 pounds) drinking infant formula containing 25 mg melamine would be getting 5 mg/kg body weight with every bottle – ten times the European TDI. And babies drink several bottles a day. And if a by-product of melamine, cyanuric acid, is also present, kidney crystals can form at much lower concentrations.
All of this begs the question: how come it is there in the first place and what are the food safety agencies going to do about it? And when? In the meantime, food companies should be testing anything with protein in it for melamine and it’s best to avoid eating foods made in places where they aren’t doing such testing.
This week’s Eating Liberally Q and A is about my talk at a conference run by Jeffrey Sachs at Columbia a couple of weeks ago. I had no idea that it was possible to cause so much consternation in such brief remarks (we were allotted four minutes), but it elicited a quite lengthy and angry rebuttal from Professor Sachs. He took strong issue with my view that Capitalist economics might not help African agricultural development because farmers cannot afford to buy patented seeds, fertilizer, and machinery. The lack of agricultural development seems to me to be a social rather than a technical problem and, therefore, one that requires social rather than technical solutions. This seems pretty obvious to me, but not everyone agrees, apparently.
Consumer Reports International counted the sugars and salt in kids’ products in 32 countries. The sugars don’t look good, but they look worse in the U.S. Kids’ cereals have lots of sugars–40% of the calories internationally but 55% in the U.S. Consumer Reports will describe the U.S. part of the survey in its November issue. In the meantime, it says kids’ cereals changed their names from “Sugar” to “Honey” in the 1980s, but the sugars and calories are much the same. Also in the meantime, Consumer Reports rates the cereals. Most are the equivalent of fat-free cookies. I wish it were easier to find a cereal that had a reasonable amount of fiber (the point of cereals, after all) and didn’t add sugars. I’d much rather add my own, especially in the form of those crunchy brown crystals.
The FDA says melamine in food at or below a level of 2.5 ppm (mg/kg) is unlikely to be harmful–except in infant formula. This seems reasonable; on a per kg body weight basis, this would be a very low dose. But what about when it is mixed with its by-product, cyanuric acid? Nobody has yet defined the lowest dose of melamine which, when mixed with cyanuric acid, does not form kidney-blocking crystals. Melamine should not be in the food supply at all, and especially not in infant formula, under any circumstances