My latest Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle…
As I argued in my book, Safe Food, in 2003, the big problem with genetically modified foods is not whether the foods are safe to eat. Instead, the real problem is a matter of who controls the food supply. To understand, for example, why GM foods are not labeled as such, it is useful to understand that the biotech food industry is secretive, agressive in defending its property rights and attacking critics, and relentless in protecting its corporate interests. Today’s example: biotech food companies are not permitting independent research scientists to study the foods. As reported in the New York Times, corporate control and secrecy have gotten so bad that a group of 26 corn-insect researchers has complained to the EPA that companies are not permitting them to grow GM crops for research purposes. This, of course, makes questions about the environmental and human health risks unanswerable.
Biotech food companies complain bitterly about consumer distrust of their products. The remedy is simple: label the foods and let independent researchers study their environmental and safety effects.
I am interested to see that the Center for Science in the Public Interest has taken on Topps marketing as a new campaign, and for good reason. Topps, famous for chewing gum and baseball trading cards, makes a bunch of candies aimed at kids, one of them in the shape of infant feeding bottles. Disney is now using a kids’ music group – the Jonas Brothers – to promote the baby bottle candy. Not a good idea.
In 2007, Michael Eisner, the former head of Disney bought Topps from the family firm that had owned it for decades. Long before the sale, I once had lunch with Arthur Shorin, the former owner of Topps. I was impressed by his responsible attitude about marketing candy to children. He was facing a difficult problem. Without doing irresponsible marketing, he couldn’t sell enough candy to stay in business. Hence the sale to Eisner. At the time, Mr. Shorin said “This will be a change in ownership, not a change in direction.” Well, that’s business for you.
Update February 20: thanks to Dan for the correction. Fixed.
Some group at Harvard does telephone surveys of consumer attitudes and did one about the recalls. News accounts say that nearly all of the more than 1,000 respondents had heard about the recalls, but about a quarter of them erroneously thought that national brands of peanut butter in jars had been recalled. Companies that put peanut butter in jars must do their own roasting, which is why they are announcing their safety in ads and on websites. Consumers, the survey found, were not aware of the range of products affected. How could they be? I get announcements of newly recalled products every day and the total now exceeds 2,000. The take-home lesson? Until we have a decent food safety system in place, avoid mass-produced foods with multiple ingredients (especially if you don’t know what they are or where they came from), buy local, and consider cooking – it solves a lot of safety problems. Other ideas?
Brian Wansink’s latest paper is an analysis of the increasing size of servings and meals through multiple editions of the classic cookbook, Joy of Cooking. These, he finds, have increased by 35%. My former doctoral student, Lisa Young, looked at how portion sizes began to balloon in the early 1980s in parallel with increasing calories in the food supply (from 3,200 to 3,900 per day per capita) and with rising rates of obesity. She showed how readers using identical recipes were instructed to make far fewer cookies in newer editions of the Joy of Cooking and wrote about this phenomenon in her book, The Portion Teller.
I wrote about this last year in a letter to the New York Times: “To the Editor: I could not resist looking up the calories for the gorgeous chocolate chip cookie recipe given on July 9. That recipe calls for about 4 pounds of ingredients to make only 18 cookies, each of which runs 500 calories — one quarter of the amount needed by most people for an entire day. I’d call one of those cookies lunch or share it with three friends. By the way, a similar recipe in the 1975 “Joy of Cooking” made 45 cookies with just half the ingredients. These would be just under 100 calories each.”
The point of all this: larger portions have more calories! And you need no further explanation for rising rates of obesity.
Update February 18: Wansink is a professor at Cornell, and the Cornell Chronicle did a story on it.
The bad press about high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is having an effect. According to figures assembled by Phil Lempert, the Supermarket Guru, sales of products bearing “HFCS-Free” labels almost reached a billion dollars last year. Fruit drinks are the biggest HFCS-free category, but HFCS-free yogurts, vegetable juices, and breads are the fastest growing. Lempert doesn’t say what companies are using instead of HFCS. If it’s sucrose, it won’t be much of an improvement. But no wonder the Corn Refiners think they need a hefty public relations campaign.
March 21 update: This trend is a front-page story in the New York Times.
Remember New York State Governor David Paterson’s idea about taxing sodas to raise funds for health care? According to news accounts, New York State Governor, David Paterson, now says his proposal to tax sodas is just a rhetorical device. He didn’t really think it would ever pass. He just wanted people to talk about how to do something to prevent childhood obesity. Chalk this one up as a win for soda companies?
Update February 19: here are Kelly Brownell’s thoughtful comments on the matter.