Food in the news–July 2019

What are anti-vaxxers turning their attention to as a possible cause of autism? Why are opponents of meat substitutes engaged in vegan shaming? How do the 2020 Presidential candidates shake out on the Green New Deal and related issues? Are natural flavors superior to artificial flavors? Are expiration dates useful or useless? These are just some of the questions being asked about food in the news this month.

Ultra-processed foods are still in the news. There is at least one other defender of ultra-processed foods out there. Convenience and helping women spend less time in the home kitchen to be able to enter the workforce are just some of the reasons Naomi Schalit has joined the conversation. And, from a Dear Dietitian column, Gerald sent in a letter that sounds remarkably similar to my comments. Thank you Leanne McCrate and Gerald who pointed out the problem of including a fiber supplement as the primary source of fiber in the ultra-processed diet in the NIH study.

One thing I missed during my series on ultra-processed (or more appropriately ultra-formulated) foods is that Nova has changed its definition of ultra-processed foods. The revision is vaguer about the types of foods that qualify but much more specific on the types of food additives that should be avoided. The Nova classification is really about avoiding additives not about avoiding processed foods. An easier to understand version than the academic article is available. ICYMI, check out my conversation with Jeremy of the Eatthispodcast on ultra-processed food. I gave out an incorrect link in an earlier post. BTW, I just submitted another comment to Jeremy, this time on traffic light warnings on foods.

Do food additives cause autism? Is processed food going to be the next target of the anti-vaxxers? Well, researchers at the University of Central Florida have given them some ammunition. The additive in question is propionic acid found as a mold inhibitor in “packaged foods, breads and cheeses.” Like so many studies of this kind they use a model system with human cell cultures (this time neuronal stem cells) when exposed to the additive. To tie this to the gut-brain axis with no animal studies, no proposed mechanism, and no link to autism-spectrum-disorder is overextrapolation gone wild. They also fail to mention that propionic acid is a natural component of Swiss cheese.

The Central Florida studies seem to be similar to ones conducted at Georgia State University to test additives to see if they enhance the effect of carcinogens in mice. The additives did not cause cancer, just enhanced it when the carcinogens were present, but the news stories implied they were the cause. It was not clear whether it was the polysorbate 80 or the carboxymethylcellulose or their functional properties that led to the observed effect.

Sometimes I dream that anti-addivistas will come under the same scrutiny that anti-vaxxers are now. Then I wake up. I do not want to make light of finding a cause of autism. I have a special interest in finding a better understanding of the chemistry of autism and the ability to mitigate or prevent it. Such overextrapolation of very limited data and the demand to draw certain conclusions from inconclusive data, however, harms the pursuit of potential solutions and science in general.

package of vegan "meat" crumbles
Plant-based meat is an ultra-processed food

Vegan shaming is apparently a thing now. It is no longer healthy enough to go vegan. Now vegans need to be plant-based. Plant based has two distinctive connotations—(a) consume food primarily from plants or (b) consume food primarily from plants while avoiding any ultra-processed, plant-based foods. So, what is at stake here? Meat-like foods that are made from plant ingredients, or worse yet, meats grown in the laboratory are what vegans should not even be thinking about, much less eating.

Presidential candidates intrigue me. Every election cycle I follow the candidates closely regardless of political party. This election is only about fifteen months away. A few months ago, I discussed the Green New Deal. It turns out that there are descriptions of the 2020 candidate positions on the Green New Deal as well as on food and farming. Marianne Williamson is getting a little more specific on her stance on processed food, and it’s not favorable. Matt Ryan, also a candidate, has a book out on The Real Food Revolution which is also not supportive of processed food. On the other hand a third hopeful, Jay Inslee, co-authored Apollo’s Fire, which, to me, seems to be a much more realistic approach to climate change than the Green New Deal. I promise minireviews on each of these two books at the end of October.

eCommerce and sustainability was in the news as if in response to the questions I raised about how sustainable were these delivery practices. The story suggests that grocery deliveries could be more sustainable than individual shopping if several deliveries were made to different homes close to the supermarket by the same vehicle. Getting an item superfast from a long distance away, however, greatly taxes the system and is generally unsustainable. The whole idea of purchasing a food, meal or kit online and having it delivered fast, at the lowest price, that delivers a unique experience in a diverse marketplace does not appear to be compatible with environmentally sustainable practice.

Natural flavors vs. artificial flavors has been a recurring theme on this blog. A nice article on the topic quotes Gary Reineccius of the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota. He is a potential mythbuster suggesting that natural flavors are usually less chemically complex, safer, and more environmentally sustainable than artificial ones. In the interest of full disclosure, I almost went to Minnesota to pursue my PhD under the direction of Dr. Reineccius, but I ended up in Massachusetts. I have nothing but admiration for the man and his work.

a tub of Benecol buttery spread past its Best-if-Used-by date
Oops! I am expired! Do you dare spread some of my richness on your bagel?

Expiration dates represent one of the most misunderstood concepts that we face in modern life. Most consumers associate an expiration date with danger. Certain food advocates criticize them because such dates contribute to food waste. Now we hear of a man who ate expired foods for a year just to demonstrate that foods don’t become magically unsafe once they pass their expiration date. The dates tend to be more about spoilage than about safety. A uniform, less confusing policy on such dates would be welcomed. 

pile of granulated, white sugar
Not added sugar if used as an ingredient in the home.

And finally, added sugars. I don’t even know where to start with the following statement I ran across: “In fact, a study reported in the British Medical Journal pointed out for the first time that processed food is the main source of added sugar in the American diet. And nearly 60% of the daily calories we consume are ultra-processed. Yikes!”  If it is added sugar then it is added to a processed food. I think that makes processed food by definition the only source of added sugar.

Those of us with a background in food processing consider items like white sugar, maple syrup and honey to be processed foods even though the Nova classification considers them to be culinary ingredients. BTW, the FDA treats them as contributors to the DV for added sugars even for pure, single-use packages. These ingredients only become classified as components of an ultra-processed food by Nova if a manufacturer includes them in a product that will be prepackaged for sale. They are not added sugars if used as ingredients at home. And then . . . Oh, just forget it!

Next week: Food deserts, food swamps, food apartheid, grocery gaps and other names for food maldistribution



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