Archive for the ‘Food labeling’ Category

A sneeze, a wheeze or worse: part one

Friday, July 15th, 2011

a common food allergen

I've been reading about food allergies recently beginning with a Wall Street Journal article entitled "An 'Allergy Girl' Comes Out of Her Bubble." Sandra Beasley, author of that short piece, is in her early thirties, has major food allergies and has written a memoir, Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales fom an Allergic Life.

I found two medical websites dealing with the issue, one from the Mayo Clinic. and the other on We have to sort out food allergy from food intolerance, which is considerably more prevalent. I have mild food intolerance to milk and dairy products, presumably from a low level of the enzyme, lactase, which helps break down the lactose in those foods, but can drink a small glass of milk without any problems resulting. I have a relative who has fairly severe lactose intolerance and strictly avoids milk; if he drinks even a small glass, he's going to, at the very least, have lots of gas.

We have a local friend who is allergic to a protein in milk; she'll have bloody diarrhea if she drinks any quantity of it. She can drink coconut milk and, when she joins us at our favorite Thai restaurant, will order Thai ice tea with that substitution.

Mayo's website says the FDA requires food producers to provide a list of the big eight, the most common ingredients that cause around 80% of food allergies. The list includes milk, eggs, peanuts, so-called "tree nuts," including almonds, walnuts and cashews, fish including bass, cod and flounder, shellfish (e.g., crab, shrimp and lobster), soy and wheat.

Fresh meat, fresh produce and some oils don't require labeling, but packaged foods do. That holds true even when the allegen is in a flavoring, coloring or other ingredient. The manufacturers are required to list even small amounts of the allergens if and only if, they're actually contained in an ingredient.

But there's another issue or two or three. Some food allergens can be introduced via cross contamination, so many food producers will add statements like, "Manufactured in a factory that also processes peanuts." This is voluntary on the part of the food company and the FDA is working to make the format of these warning labels more consistent.

But the article from "allergy girl" describes an episode where she asked for a dairy-free menu in a restaurant, then ordered a drink. The cocktail came with a milky liquid bottom layer. Upon inquiry she found the garnish contained pine nuts.

The waiter said, "You didn't ask for the nut-free menu."

If you have severe food allergies and eat these, you may need the Epi-pen

In her case, as in the situation for many adults with major food allergies, multiple foods can cause life-threatening reactions.

We ask friends who are coming to our house for a meal what food intolerances and food allergies they have and plan accordingly. But two years ago, one man was about to reach for a dish that had a pine nut topping when his wife grabbed his hand.

"Did you forget to mention the last time you ate pine nuts, we had to visit the emergency room? she asked.

I was happy I had an Epi-pen in the nearby bathroom.



Snacking: fried has to goeth before a small (size)

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

Healthy snacks

To snack or not to snack, now that is the question. I read two articles on the subject, one in the Wall Street Journal and the other in the Mayo Clinic's online comments. Then I thought about Wednesday evenings, my own downfall.

The newspaper article was titled "The Battle of the Office Candy Jar" and detailed the travails of people whose bosses and office mates think that the workplace should always be stocked with a dish of candy bars. Then there are the tempters who are forever bringing cookies and birthday cakes in to work or selling candy bars for their kid's baseball teams or school fundraisers.

The WSJ calculated the effects of eating two pieces of candy a day, five days a week, assuming one didn't cut down other foood intake or decide they needed to increase their exercise regime. Wow, it's over seven pounds added a year. It's even worse when the candy is presented in a clear jar, rather than a covered and opaque dish.

I immediately thought, 'It's Wednesday!' That's when I go to a three-hour evening writers' critique group. My cohorts bring in stories to be read aloud and commented on (I have one for tonight on the Festival of Holi that our former graduate students from Mumbai brought us to recently). They also bring in cakes and cookies and I used to bring biscotti. Our leader always has a jar with Tootsie Pops and I invariably eat more than I intend.

The Mayo Clinic piece says snacks aren't always bad and their diet plan includes snacks that can help obviate hunger pangs and keep you from binge eating. But their choice of snacks is quite different: fruits and veggies make much more sense than doughnuts and candy.

Their website: can lead you to a healthy snack site which suggests 100-calorie snacks, e.g, 2 cups of carrots or, one of my favorites, air-popped popcorn.

I'd prefer to avoid snacking whenever possible, but I'm aware I need help in avoiding the tempting items I encounter on wednesdays or at parties. I've switched from bringing biscotti to fetching a sack of almonds. Mayo's cautions that even though nuts contain protein and thus can help you feel full for a longer time, they also contain calories, largely in the form of monosaturated fat (which is certainly a better variety than the polyunsaturated kind).

So I've made a game of it: I eat four almonds. No particular reason that I chose that number, but it works.

I also have a four by six card that says

My home-made snack barrier

If you do eat fast food, you may want to buy this book

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

My writing mentor, Teresa Funke, sent me an email after reading one of my posts recently. She mentioned that her family has a book titled Eat This Not That! Her three kids love reading the book and pointing out choices, especially wrong ones, that she and her husband make. They've purchased several editions of the book over the past few years.

Well I had to buy the book and easily found it in our favorite locally owned bookstore, Old Firehouse Books (that's right; it's in an old fire station). This is the 2011 edition and costs $19.99.

The authors (major and minor) are David Zinczenko, the editor-in-chief of Men's Health and a co-writer, Matt Goulding, who's said to be a New York Times best-selling food author and has cooked and eaten his way around the world. I Googled the second author and found he also has a book called Cook This Not That! Since we already do lots of healthy heart cooking I won't buy that other book.

But let's go back to the book that I did purchase.

So what does this book do? Remember, I rarely eat fast food at all and if I do it's because we're on a trip and didn't bring sandwiches (we almost always do for shorter road trips, but the second or third day out, we may have to find a place to eat). My favorite choice then is Subway since I can pick a simple "sub" and not goop it up. Plus I know what the calories are in the sandwich since they're listed.

But the book is interesting. It lists the "20 Worst Foods in America,' for instance. It tells what's really in a "Chicken McNugget" (seven ingredients in the meat and twenty more in the breading). It has a Top Swaps section telling which burger, wings, pasta, ribs, fajitas, chicken, fries, salad, pizza and ice cream is better than its competitor. It focues on some specific food choices (bad ones, according to the book) and tells why (e.g., a Taco Bell Mexican Pizza has 64 different ingredients; Skittles have more sugar per package than two twin-wrapped packages of Peanut Butter Twix and a whole range of additives that help bring about all those colors; many of those were apparently linked in a Lancet article to hyperactivity and behavioral problems in children).

The bulk of the book fits the title, side by side comparisons of food choices from different fast food restaurants. They're interesting and may be quite useful to those of you who partake on a regular basis of such fare.

I have some real caveats however. Many of their "Eat This' selections still have way too much salt and sometimes more fat than I'd be interested in eating. The book touts losing weight without exercising or dieting. That's not my style at all. Nonetheless it's both a good read, and according to Teresa, a nice way to introduce kids to making food choices. The book rates and, in some areas, grades a wide variety of foods.

Overall I'd give it a C+, but you may rate it higher, even if you only eat fast food occasionally.



Genetically-engineered Foods

Friday, February 18th, 2011

a large, but normal salmon

I can't say I've had much of an opinion on genetically modified organisms (GMO) or the more recent take on them, genetically engineered (G.E.) foods. After all, goes one argument I've read in a number of places, mankind has been selecting and thus modifying foods/food anmals for certain "desirable" traits for thousands of years, so what's the difference.

Then I read Mark Bittman's Opinionator post in the New York Times online (Feb 15, 2001) and found one crucial difference, honesty. The government has approved three new G.E. foods, one of which becomes hay, another to be used to make fuel (ethanol) and the third a variety of sugar beets. None of them have to be labeled as coming from GMOs.

When I looked at public opinion polls from 1997 to 2010 originating in a number of countries around the globe, people want to know if they're buying G.E. foods. The numbers in favor of labeling are 70-90+%. There's a question of safety in the public's mind, one ABC poll conducted nearly ten years ago had 35% of respondents thinking G.E. foods were safe, 52% voting they were unsafe and 13% without an opinion.

Yet 93%, in the same group polled, thought the federal government should require labeling.

The three G.E. products I'm writing about are alfalfa, corn and sugar beets. The alfalfa could become hay fed to animals, dairy cows for instance, who were supposedly being raised organically, and therefore, strictly speaking, the milk from those cows wouldn't be organic. But we wouldn't know that if the government rules don't require labeling of the alfalfa as G.E.

Now there's a new worry. I printed a copy of a Sep 20, 2010 article titled "Super salmon or 'Frankenfish'? FDA to decide." A Massachusetts company, AquBounty, is producing a G.E. salmon which grows twice as fast as ordinary salmon. The photo of a G.E. AquAdvantage salmon swimming alongside an ordinary salmon of the same age (presumably Photo-shopped together) is striking. I wouldn't have assumed they were the same species.

And the Food and Drug Administration is apparently about to approve the new super fish. Two Alaska Senators and a California Assemblyman have introduced bills to either ban the fish or require its labeling as G.E.

In Europe most foods containing more than 0.9% of GMOs must already be labeled.

The claims in favor of GMO crops are they need less water, less fertilizer and fewer pesticides and similar sprays. Bittman's column notes these claims aren't verified in many instances and most of the world's farmers can't afford to grow the new GMO species.

I'm personally not very afraid of the G.E. crops and even the salmon. Bittman notes that neither allergic reactions nor transfer to people of antibiotic resistance , major concerns of those against GMO crops/foods, have thus far been shown to be factual problems.

But, the labeling issue is quite another matter. If it's a GMO food product, it ought to say so.