Posts Tagged ‘FDA’

Can We Just Not Call It Food?

Thursday, September 26th, 2013

By Bob Gaydos

What's the beaver's connection with raspberries? DOn't ask.

What’s the beaver’s connection with raspberries? Don’t ask.

Sometimes, a little bit of curiosity can ruin your appetite.

I love raspberry-flavored, frozen Greek yogurt. I defy you to find a more soul-satisfying treat, especially with some dark chocolate shavings sprinkled on top.

Recently, having become a more conscientious food label-reader, I noticed a story on the Internet about ingredients that don’t have to be listed, but come under the heading of “natural flavoring.” Among the “natural flavoring” ingredients listed was “castoreum.”

“Hmm, something from the castor bean?” I wondered.

Off to Google I went and soon found myself in a state of shock, disbelief and a little bit of, well, disgust.

It turns out that castoreum is a yellowish secretion from the castor sac of adult male and female beavers. The castor sac is located between the anus and genitals in beavers and, along with its urine, is used to scent mark the beaver’s territory. Sweet.

While I had to admit the source made it a “natural” ingredient, I also wondered why the natural flavor of raspberries wasn’t sufficient. And more to the point, I wondered who the genius was who decided that the exudate from a sac located next to a beaver’s anus would be a good thing to add to yogurt to improve its flavor. What was the “Eureka!” moment? Who did the first taste test?

It turns out castoreum has been used for years in perfumes. So I imagine it wasn’t such a leap to go from putting a dab on the wrist to wondering if a shot of beaver sac juice would enhance the flavor of ice cream, candy, yogurt, iced tea and gelatin, especially, apparently, strawberry- and raspberry-flavored foods.

In case you’re wondering, the Food and Drug Administration puts castoreum in the “Generally Regarded As Safe” category. Maybe so, but I am generally going to think twice before I buy raspberry yogurt again.

As it happens, the search for information on castoreum also led me to data on what I at first thought was the source of castoreum — the castor bean. More bad news.

The castor bean (actually a seed) is regarded as the deadliest plant on the planet. It is the source, yes, of castor oil. But it is also the source of ricin, a powerful poison with no known antidote. The bean is also the source of a food additive identified usually as PGPR. I have learned that when I see a bunch of letters like that on a food label, it’s wise to find out what they mean.

So, remember the added ingredient to my favorite dessert — the chocolate shavings on top? Guess what’s listed on the label of Hershey’s dark chocolate bars? Yup. PGPR. Polyglycerol polyricinoleate.

PGPR is a sticky yellowish liquid that acts as an emulsifier — it holds the chocolate together. It is also much cheaper to produce than cocoa butter, meaning Hershey’s can give you less chocolate in its chocolate, at lower cost to itself, thus making more profits. PGPR also lets the candy sit on the shelves much longer and still be considered safe to consume. Apparently, we’re supposed to ignore that word ricin in the middle of the PGPR as well as the lack of cocoa in the chocolate bar. The FDA says PGPR is safe for human consumption, although lab tests on chickens showed what was described as reversible liver damage.

Finally, while still looking at the Hershey’s label, the word vanillin caught my eye. Again, not necessarily what it seems to be. Yes, vanillin is an extract of the vanilla bean and is used as an additive in lots of foods. But, because of the rarity of the bean and the cost associated with producing it, much vanillin today is of the synthetic variety, coming from lignin, which is a byproduct of, ahem, wood pulp.

So there you have it, my favorite dessert: ricin and wood pulp sprinkled on top of beaver scent-marking sac juice. Some days it just doesn’t pay to read the labels.

bob@zestoforange.com

 

If It’s ‘Safe,’ Put It on the Label

Wednesday, March 27th, 2013

By Bob Gaydos

A few weeks ago I wrote a column that proclaimed, “Turns out, you really are what you eat.” For me, in the midst of changing to a more healthful diet, that statement is truer than ever. The problem is, it is getting harder to know exactly what we’re eating and the mega-companies that produce the food we eat are going out of their way to keep it that way. They’re also getting a lot of help from politicians, who bemoan rising health costs and obesity on the one hand, but don’t seem eager to learn if, just maybe, the food we eat has something to do with both. Guess it depends on who’s buttering your toast.

Disclaimer: While I have significantly modified my diet to a more healthful emphasis on non-meat fanoods and organic food, I am not a vegan or vegetarian. I believe all living things, including animals, are entitled to humane treatment and that animals who are pets or companions should not be used as food. Period.

I also believe that we humans are entitled to know as much as possible about the food being offered to us, including any changes made to the original product. Then we can make whatever decision we want, informed or uninformed, as long as we have a fair chance. That’s what this is about.

This week, President Obama, following the lead of a bought-and-paid for Congress, signed into law what has come to be known as the Monsanto Protection Act. Big mistake.

Much of the president’s political support has come from voters who believed his stated commitments to openness in government and a healthier, more informed citizenry. This swoop of his pen calls much of his rhetoric into doubt. In brief, the so-called act is actually one turgid paragraph buried in the homeland security section of a huge budget bill. It allows Monsanto, which did an all-out lobbying effort to get Congress to stick the paragraph in the bill, to plant genetically modified crop seed without any court reviewing whether or not it is safe.

Genetically modified crops are hardier, more resistant to pesticides and produce more product in less space. Through review of the gene-modifying process, the government says, it decides if they are safe for human consumption.

So ask yourself: Why then is it necessary in the first place for a food giant to want protection from having to prove its “safe” food is safe?

Correct answer: Money. It costs a lot to pay lawyers to defend you in court. Even mega-rich companies like Monsanto try to avoid court costs. Also, any doubts raised about the safety of a food product — cereal, bread, beef — is bound to hurt sales. More money.

This has far more to do with Monsanto’s bottom line than homeland security. And the fact that nobody can be 100 percent sure the genetically modified organisms are, in the long run, safe.

Now, a lot of apparently intelligent people say publicly that the GMOs are indeed safe for us to eat. I don’t discount this out of hand. As I said, this is about letting us, not some high-priced lobbyist, decide what food we want to eat and what food we’d just as soon avoid. (Obama has also appointed a former Monsanto executive as his food safety adviser.) If GMOs are so safe (may European nations have banned them), then label them and let the president give a personal testimonial on the label if he wants. “Mmm mmm good, says Barack.” Just let me know what I’m eating.

Or drinking.

The other current labeling issue involves milk, which we are told from birth is good, even necessary, for our good health, and aspartame, which, well, let’s say has had some issues.

The dairy industry has asked the Food and Drug Administration to allow it to remove front-of-package labeling on flavored milk products that proclaim “low calorie” or “artificially sweetened.” These milk products, especially chocolate milk, are big with kids, but they are drinking less of it and industry executives think the front labels may scare them off.

Again, money.

Actually, it’s more likely the labels scare off parents who then look at the ingredients and see aspartame has been added for sweetness. Just to be clear — aspartame is already in these products and listed in the ingredients. That will not change. The milk people just want it to be less obvious and to continue to label the products “milk” without any of that annoying added information.

Now, to start with, using artificial sweeteners as an argument for improving the health of children is specious. The sweeteners are so much sweeter than sugar (aspartame is 200 times sweeter) that they increase children’s appetite for other sweet foods. And school officials are not keen on kids being targeted this way and not being absolutely clear as to what they are offering in their cafeterias.

A chemical concoction, aspartame (once sold as NutraSweet) has been a controversial product from the start. Still, while being mentioned in connection with many health concerns (including brain cancer), aspartame has been found to be safe for human consumption in the United States and more than 100 other countries. For proof, check your diet soda’s ingredients.

The point is, they still call it diet soda or low-cal whatever, meaning you might want to check the ingredients to see what makes it so tasty. Just like you might want to check your milk product. Or not.

We Americans like to think of ourselves as savvy and independent consumers. We also say we revere science and aspire to good health. Yet we rank near the bottom of the world rankings for science students and near the top for obese ones — and health care costs. Maybe we should connect those dots.

Meantime, just give us all the info on the food we get and let us decide for ourselves if we want to eat it.

bob@zestoforange.com