Fortified junk food under FDA scrutiny

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Does junk food fortified with vitamins and minerals mislead consumers into thinking they are making a healthier choice?

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The federal government is about to find out.

At long last, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will investigate how easily consumers are fooled into believing that fortified junk food (snack foods and carbonated drinks with vitamins added artificially) can replace real nutritious food.

Initially used to address national public health concerns, the proper use of fortification can be beneficial to consumers.  Since the addition of folic acid in grain-based foods, the rate of neural tube defects has dropped by 25% in the United States.  And the fortification of salt with iodine has drastically reduced iodine deficiency and goiter prevalence.

But, over the last few decades, food manufacturers have managed to exploit the process.

Vitamin C is added to fruit snacks to make the products appear equivalent to whole fruit.  Minimal levels of whole grains are added to crackers just to meet the FDA’s standards for labeling a product as whole grain.   And antioxidants are loaded into soda and other sweetened drinks to distract consumers from the high levels of sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and/or artificial sweeteners.  Why do food manufacturers do this? The answer is simple. To confuse and mislead health-conscious consumers so companies can sell more products.

Known as the ‘jelly bean rule’, the FDA actually has a regulation that discourages this type of behavior.  The rule states that just because a product is low in fat, cholesterol, or sodium (like a jelly bean) doesn’t mean the company can place claims on the label touting the healthfulness of the product.

The rule states:

The addition of nutrients to specific foods can be an effective way of maintaining and improving the overall nutritional quality of the food supply.

However, random fortification of foods could result in over- or under-fortification in consumer diets and create nutrient imbalances in the food supply.

It could also result in deceptive or misleading claims for certain foods.

The Food and Drug Administration does not encourage indiscriminate addition of nutrients to foods, nor does it consider it appropriate to fortify fresh produce; meat, poultry, or fish products; sugars; or snack foods such as candies and carbonated beverages.

As you can see, this rule strongly discourages companies from fortifying foods with nutrients like vitamin C, calcium, protein and fiber for the sole purpose of making health claims.

But, they do it anyway.  Take one look down the aisle of a grocery store and it is pretty obvious that the ‘jelly bean rule’ is seldom enforced.

Slowly but surely, however, consumer health advocates and the FDA are taking notice of the misuse of fortification to sell products.  Over the last few years, several companies have faced expensive class-action lawsuits due to their avoidance of the FDA’s rule.

  • In 2011, Kellogg’s settled a class-action suit after claiming that two of their cereal products, Rice Krispies and Cocoa Krispies, supported healthy immunity due to the addition of several vitamins.
  • Though a lawsuit was never filed, Hershey’s received a warning letter in 2012 from the FDA for nutritional claims about calcium and other vitamins in their chocolate syrup.
  • And this year, Coca-Cola will be facing a class-action suit for their Vitamin Water products which contain health claims about healthy joints, optimal immune function, and reduced risk for eye disease.  Never mind that the product name alone conveys a message of health despite the fact that the products contain excessive amounts of sugar and artificial sweeteners – and not much else.

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The FDA’s proposed study will use a web-based survey to collect information from 7,500 adults.  Participants will view food labels and answer questions about their perceptions of the products.  With any luck, this research will add to existing data which shows that  consumers are often misled by fortified foods with health claims.  This type of evidence could further lead to stricter policies surrounding the practice, labeling, and marketing of fortified products. But, not without a fight from those powerful food companies.  Like any other type of regulation that prevents Big Food from continuing the status quo, heavy lobbying will ensue.

If you agree with the importance of this study, you can submit comments to the FDA for the next 12 days here.  While it might take awhile before we see any changes, this is certainly a great place to start.

Six Ingredients You Didn’t Know Were in Your Beer

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While ingredient labeling on food and non-alcoholic beverages is required by the Food and Drug Administration, labeling for alcoholic beverages is actually controlled by the Department of Treasury.   Why?  Well, after the end of prohibition, Congress recognized the tax potential of alcoholic beverages and assigned the role of regulating alcohol, including its labels, to the Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).

Beer manufacturers might list a few ingredients on the label or post them on their website, but thanks to the TTB, disclosing the information is completely voluntary.  And if the alcohol industries lobbying dollars are any indication, most big name brewers would much rather leave consumers in the dark about what is in their products.  Typical beer ingredients include water, barley, yeast and hops, but some of the mass market brewers have started swapping these simple ingredients out for cheaper options or adding other strange ingredients which they claim will improve the quality.

Here are six ingredients that might surprise you!

1.  High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)

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As a cheap alternative to sugar, food companies have been switching to HFCS for everything from soda to bread.  So it is no surprise that beer manufacturers have followed suit.  But HFCS is not the same as sugar.  It contains a higher level of fructose, which goes straight to the liver to be metabolized.  This disturbs glucose metabolism and can lead to metabolic disturbances that underlie the induction of fatty liver and insulin resistance (a hallmark of type 2 diabetes).

Where you’ll find it: Guinness

2. Fish Bladder

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Attention vegans! Isinglass, a gelatin-like substance produced from the swim bladder of fish, is often used by companies to remove the haziness or yeast byproducts from beer.  But you won’t find companies talking about it. Guinness, a known user of isinglass, only lists “malted barley, hops, yeast and water” as the “key ingredients” on their website.

Where you’ll find it: Murphy’s, Guinness, and other mass produced stouts

3.  Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s)

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Some companies claim that corn syrup gives their beer a milder or lighter flavor (is that a good thing?), but the fact is, corn syrup is just a cheaper starch.  Further, in America, corn syrup is generally made from a mix of conventionally grown and biotech varieties, meaning GMO’s are pretty much a guarantee.  GMO’s have not been tested long term on human beings, and pesticides sprayed on GMO’s have been linked with cancer and other diseases.

Where you’ll find it: Miller, Coors, Corona, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Fosters, and Red Stripe

4. Frankenhops

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The reason beer can get ‘skunked’ is due to a reaction between the hops in beer and sunlight. So how are companies able to use clear bottles? The answer is simple.  They don’t use real hops. Thanks to the miracles of modern science, a synthetic chemical has been developed which mimics hop flavor, but is not impacted by  the sun.  The chemical known as Tetrahydro Isomerized Hop Extract (or Frankenhops as I’m calling it) cannot be found in nature.  It also has no aroma, which is unfortunate for those that enjoy the floral fragrance that comes from real hops.

Where you’ll find it: Miller, Newcastle

5.  Caramel Coloring

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Toasted barley is usually what gives beer its golden or deep brown color, but beer manufacturers have taken notes from the soda companies and started adding caramel coloring instead.  Caramel coloring is manufactured by heating ammonia and sulfites under high pressure, which creates carcinogenic compounds. In fact this coloring has been proven to lead to liver, lung and thyroid tumors in mice.

Where you’ll find it: Newcastle

6. Propelyne Glycol

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Propylene glycol is an alcohol produced by the fermentation of yeast and carbohydrates.  For beer, this ingredient is added to help stabilize the head of foam, but propylene glycol is also an active ingredient in engine coolants and anti-freeze.  Sound toxic? It is.  But, according to the FDA, propelyne glycol is only toxic to humans if consumed in very high doses, which would be nearly impossible to ingest through the amounts found in foods or beverages.

Where you’ll find it: Corona

Want to avoid these ingredients without giving up beer completely?  Choose German beers.  Ever since the German Purity Law of 1516, beers in Germany can only be legally produced using the core ingredients of water, hops, yeast, malted barley or wheat.    German brewers aren’t even allowed to use sugar or other grains such as corn or rice.  Smaller craft and micro- brewers are also a safer bet, though most come with a premium price.  If you really want to know what is in your beer, try contacting the company directly.  If they won’t tell you what is in it, it might just mean they have something to hide.

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