Consumers Want ‘Clean’ Food Labels; Now Professionals’ Tool Helps Them Define What Is, Isn’t, ‘Clean’

 

Every so often (every fifteen minutes or so, it sometimes seems!), a new food-related ‘buzz word’ catches the ear of consumers – sometimes almost at the same time it attracts the attention of food industry professionals. Not long ago, the ‘new’ word, or phrase, was ‘clean labels‘ – meaning, among other things, labels free of multi-syllable, unpronounceable words naming ingredients no one without a science degree can understand.

Consumers want ‘clean’ labels – and the products behind them to be healthier, less likely to initiate or compound health issues, than too many existing products are, or appear to be.

Complex additives are put into food products for an assortment of reasons, including flavor enhancement (salt and other spices being good examples), an ability to hold various ingredients in a liquid, semi-liquid or solid formula (emulsifiers and stabilizers), and shelf life-extending (salt again, as well as other things). Some of these reasons have seemed to make sense to product producers, but increasingly, they make less if any sense to consumers. That, and the fact that consumers are increasingly demanding healthier, ‘greener’ foods, are leading causes of the clean label movement.

The tool at https://gocleanlabel.com/about/ was created by a professional for professionals, but consumers, too, can use it to learn more about the clean label movement and, more specifically, to answer questions they have about specific ingredients. Questions such as ‘what is this’ and ‘what is it meant to do’. You also can use it to identify still-being-used materials that are, or aren’t, ‘clean’.

Both food processors and retailers are making strong steps to ensure fewer potentially harmful (or simply unnecessary) chemicals are added to foodstuffs. Undoubtedly, there are people who feel the industry isn’t moving fast enough – people who would, in effect, throw the baby out with the bathwater: Good chems out with not-so-good (or absolutely bad!) ones.

Ultimately, members of the consuming public need to take a greater interest in educating themselves about food additives, and learn how to make reasoned decisions about what they’re OK with putting in their bodies, and what they’re not.

I am working on a feature (for fooddive.com) about the new nutrition label that has been developed by the FDA. It is tentatively scheduled to become mandatory on a majority of food products (all except those produced in relatively small volumes) in 2018. But there’s already some push-back from at least one organization, and you can expect more push-back as a result of what we can only imagine will be dramatic, drastic changes of direction by the incoming presidential administration.

The thrust of my piece concerns the fact that changes to the nutrition label, while very much a separate issue from the overall additives one, reflect the fact that both industry, which had a hand in shaping the proposed label, and government are struggling – and that is not too strong a word – to deal with increasing scientific knowledge about foods and with changing consumer expectations.

As a courtesy to the readers of this blog, I will post a short note when my fooddive.com feature on that topic is published. (FYI, I write regularly on ingredients for fooddive.com. And as I’ve done for most of the past 40 years, I also regularly scan food trade publications – and now, web sites, too – around the world for both industry trends and consumer attitude shifts for this blog, which originated in the mid 1970’s as a column for trade publications in the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.)

(By the way, between them, this blog and my other one, YouSayWHAT.info, have been read in no fewer than 80 countries in the last year!)

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Seaweed-based stabilizer/emulsifier Banned for Organic Foods in U.S.

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It’s called carrageenan, and if you closely read content labels, you’ll notice it’s in a lot of things – as a thickener, an emulsifier (to help hold other ingredients in the appropriate mix), and as a stabilizer. It’s also said to increase shelf life – a feature of questionable value, given that food processors often are best-guessing the long-term viability of their products when they put ‘best by’ or ‘use by’ dates on them.

(I still have a too-large bottle of dry curry that is in the neighborhood of 20 [or more!] years old. While it no doubt is not as potent as it once was, it’s still a viable product in my kitchen – able to contribute both flavor and heat to dishes without resulting in, as an un-viable spice might, stomach distress or worse.)

The U.S.D.A.’s National Organics Standards Board (NOSB) ruled last week that, as of 2018, carrageenan will no longer be allowed in products labeled as ‘organic’.

Does that mean carrageenan is ‘dangerous’, or that it potentially poses some kind of threat to consumers? Not necessarily. For all intents and purposes, that ruling simply acknowledges that, because it is exposed, during processing, to chemicals that fall outside the definition of ‘organic’. Carrageenan will continue to be used as a product-building aid in processed foods not, as no ‘processed food’ could be, described as ‘organic’.

Carrageenan is derived from a type of seaweed harvested primarily in the Philippines, Indonesia and East Africa. During commercial processing, it is exposed to assorted chemicals so it ends up as a fine powder, in no way resembling seaweed one might encounter ‘in the wild’.

CivilEats.com has a highly informative article on carrageenan here.

I can’t help but wonder what what kind of ‘organic’ product would need a stabilizer or an emulsifier. So I also can’t help but wonder why the U.S.D.A.’s National Organics Standards Board agonized – as they apparently did, not over just months, but years – as to whether carrageenan should in any way be associated with something said to be ‘organic’.

I don’t, as my wife would say, git it.

Organics now represent in the neighborhood of 11% of all produce sold (at retail) in the U.S. And organics’ share-of-market is growing – just as, hardly coincidentally, processed foods sales are slipping down an icy slope. The reason is simple: Not just Millennials, but older generations, too, are fed up with ingredients labels full of ‘stuff’ they can’t even pronounce and have no clue what it is or why it’s there. A sizable number of them have taken stands against the likes of Red No. 40, Yellow No. 5 and Blue No. 1 – synthetic colorings used to make food look better. They have, so far as we know, no effect on taste, but opposers of them contend they might affect us in some other, nefarious way.

(A quick aside: Why, pray tell, do forty or more shades of red exist, as food colorings? Or five or more shades of yellow? And not one of them a pastel!)

It is truly frightening to think of the tens of bunches of money being wasted on [1] developing all those odd colors and their counterparts in other food ingredients and [2] investigating and regulating same. Part of the problem is, of course, we have more people than viable jobs.

When I lived in England, from 1971-76, in the first of the offices I worked (for a year), every so often – I think it was weekly, but perhaps it was bi-weekly – an employee of a contractor came in and wiped down all the telephone handsets, probably aided by something less potent than the sprays restaurant servers use on tables between guests. On the first such visit I witnessed, I was astonished, and I was astonished again every time I saw this ritual repeated. It seemed perfectly pointless, and a waste of my employer’s money, to engage someone to provide this ‘service’.

Yet here we are in 2016, when a significant majority of U.S. supermarkets have a sanitary lotion dispenser available just inside the door – so no one should have to (heaven forbid!) touch a cart handle they haven’t subjected to a sanitary wipe-down after wiping down their own hands! (What have the most obsessed of those shoppers been doing/touching before entering their local food dispenser’s shop?)

It’s partly because some shoppers/consumers do think that way that the NOSB has banned carrageenan from ‘organics’. That seaweed—sourced ingredient probably poses no harm to humans, but better safe than sorry, right?

Litigation lawyers would, of course, disagree.

China Aiming to Develop ‘Spaced-Out’ Varietal Wines

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China is aiming to produce some really spacey wines – vin via vines nurtured to fruition, or at least new wine varietals, in their country’s newest space lab, labeled Tiangong-2. The aim is to see which, if any, varietals of cabernet csavignon, merlot and pinot noir might be able to produce new and plentiful generations of wine in some of the toughest-to-grow-wine-in territories on earth — including the sun-scorched Gobi desert, the high-altitude foothills of the Tibetan plateau, and the rock slopes of Ningxia Province.

Decanter-China, a bilingual website about the local wine industry, reported recently that,

Chinese scientists hope that growing the vines in space for a short time will trigger mutations that may make the plants more suitable for the harsh climate in some of the China’s emerging vineyard regions.

“In particular, scientists want to see whether genetic mutations in space make the vines more resistant to cold, drought and some viruses.”

Chinese growers in some areas, such as Ningxia, have to bury their vines in winter to protect them from freezing temperatures.

The vines came from a nursery based in Ningxia’s Helan Mountain East region, one of China’s most renowned quality wine regions, reported Ningxia local media.

The nursery is owned by the Chenggong Group, which has been importing vines from France’s Mercier Group since 2013.

In October, China sent two male astronauts to Tiangong-2 via the Shenzhou 11 spaceflight to perform research for 30 days, according to China National Space Administration.

When the vines return to earth, they will be compared to a control group in the Ningxia nursery.

The Guardian reported that an oenologist named Li Hua recently visited a valley in the foothills of the Tibetan plateau. The area was better known for its panda population, but Li realized that the area’s high altitude, many hours of sunshine, sandy soil and low precipitation also offered ideal conditions for growing grapes.

Freezing temperatures and unfavorable soil are among the most serious challenges facing wine producers in places such as Ningxia, an impoverished region at the heart of China’s nascent wine industry with punishing -25C (-13F) winters.

Decanter said researchers hoped exposure to “space radiation” might trigger genetic changes in the vines that would help them “evolve new resistance to coldness, drought and viruses”.

The website said the vines were sourced from a nursery near Ningxia’s Helan mountain, a region local politicians tout as China’s Bordeaux.

After returning to earth the samples will undergo tests and be compared to other vines in order to find the most “suitable mutation”.

China’s rapid economic rise has transformed it not only into the world’s number two economy but also one of its top wine producers.

The Asian giant now consumes more red wine than any other country and has more vineyards than France. Estates are popping up from the frosty northeastern province of Liaoning to the scorching deserts of Xinjiang.

“The best Chinese wine I’ve ever tasted in my life is produced just outside of Beijing,” Fongyee Walker, a China-based wine specialist, said in a recent interview. “Beautiful wine… Blind tasting you wouldn’t even know they were Chinese.”

Walker, the director of Beijing’s Dragon Phoenix Wine Consulting, said that for wine drinking to really take off in China it needed to lose its aura of pomposity.

“I grew up eating Chinese food and I grew up drinking wine and I came here and was like: ‘Why does no-one just drink wine with jaozi [dumplings]?’” said Walker, who recently became mainland China’s first Master of Wine.

“So much of it is that myth of: ‘You have to be dressed up and you have to use a corkscrew and you have to do this and you have to do that,’” she added. “And I said, ‘Look, you can drink your wine from a beer glass and you can eat it with zhajiangmian [noodles] on the street corner.’ It’s a liquid for goodness sake! Get over it.”

On top of their wine-related research, Xinhua, Beijing’s official news wire, said astronauts were using the Tiangong space lab to “carry out key experiments related to in-orbit equipment repairs, aerospace medicine, space physics and biology, such as quantum key distribution, atomic space clocks and solar storm research.”

Anticipate More Options For Cheese On Sandwiches

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The parent of Pizza Hut, KFC and Taco Bell has entered into a marketing agreement with The National Dairy Checkoff, a mandatory program by which milk producers ‘contribute’ to a fund used to promote greater use of dairy products. Yum! Brands and Dairy Management, Inc. (DMI), the company that manages the checkoff program, see their joint venture as an opportunity to “raise U.S. Dairy’s profile” globally, according to an article on DeliMarketNews.com.

Working to get more cheese on chicken sandwiches is a great opportunity to grow sales,” said Paul Rovey, the Arizona dairy farmer who is chair of DMI. “Beyond cheese, this partnership also can help create products that grow milk and milk-based drink sales, along with ice cream and other dessert-based items.”

In addition to adding U.S.-produced cheese to sandwiches in global markets, the pilot program is also looking to explore innovative new strategies, such as introducing cheese sauces in Latin America and the Caribbean.

yum_brands

The partnership’s pilot program involves promoting U.S. dairy products through offerings at KFC and Pizza Hut restaurants. Yum! Brands, which boasts nearly 43,000 restaurants in 135 countries and territories, is a global leader in pizza, chicken, and Mexican-style restaurant food categories, and is poised to raise U.S. dairy’s profile..

A pilot program in Asia Pacific is also underway looking to add U.S. dairy products in some 2,500 Pizza Hut restaurants in 15 countries. The program is looking to maximize the profile of U.S. cheese in menu items. Stuffed-crust pizzas, for example, use string cheese sourced entirely from the U.S, according to Enrique Ramirez, Chief Financial and Strategic Officer for Pizza Hut, and innovative menu offerings like this can significantly increase U.S. dairy sales abroad. 

U.S. dairy farmers, importers and DMI have brought us tremendous value in dairy expertise and innovation,” said Greg Creed, CEO of Yum! Brands. “I’m incredibly excited about taking this relationship to international markets.”

The pilot programs’ approach is based on the successful model, employed by the partnership through Pizza Hut and Taco Bell in the U.S, which focused on on-site Checkoff employees working with the food service companies to develop dairy-friendly menu items like Pizza Hut’s Grilled Cheese Stuffed Crust Pizza and Taco Bell’s Quesalupa.

Organics Now Close to 11% of All U.S.-sold Produce

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You needn’t have been paying a lot of attention to notice, over the past few years, more and more of the offerings in food store produce sections are organic products. Everything from apples to strawberries is increasingly being raised in ways not depending on pesticides, or artificial fertilizers, or other means at odds with nature’s own way of producing things from the ground, trees, and bushes.

Among the latest growers to announce a big organics push is potato and onion provider Potandon Produce, based in Idaho Falls ID. The company this week announced it is now offering organically grown red and yellow potatoes from fields in North Dakota.

Ralph Schwartz, the company’s vice president of sales, said that these are the first organic potatoes to be grown commercially in North Dakota, and plans already are underway to increase acreage next year in anticipation of growing consumer demand.

Fresh produce has always been and will continue to be the gateway for organics,” he said in a company release. “We’ve watched as organic products, especially produce items, have shifted from being a lifestyle choice for a small share of consumers to [being] mainstream for a majority of Americans.”

Preventing Food Waste Is Goal of Paris’s Freegan Restaurant

What can, by now, be called ‘a movement’ to reduce food waste – in one of the cleverest-possible ways, is what Paris’s Freegan Pony restaurant is all about. Chef Aladdin Charni feeds some 400 people daily on perfectly good food that, were it not for him, would have been discarded as ‘waste’ by merchants at Rungis, the world’s largest wholesale food market.

Why would all these vegetables – Freegan serves only vegetarian meals – be destined for destruction? Their ‘sell by’ dates had, or were on the verge of being, past.

What inspired Charni to establish his restaurant?

In order for us to prove the value and safety of food waste, we couldn’t just feed specific demographics of people. We believe food waste is absolutely fit for human consumption and so that’s who we feed – human beings,” Charni told CNN.

He explained that while he sources from numerous places – including food banks, restaurants, cafes, food photographers, evens, and functions – perhaps his greatest, and most reliable source is the Rungis market. Because the wholesalers there are selling to a spectrum of resellers as well as restaurants, they want their produce to leave the market at, or approaching, its freshness peak. When something – even a case of something – gives a merchant reason to suspect it’s past one of those points, they don’t try to sell it. They can’t: The French are particular about their food, and the Rungis merchants are particular about their reputations.

An increasing number of U.S. supermarket operators are making similar efforts to avoid seeing produce that may not be quite ‘fit for prime time’ be tossed into the dumpster. Instead, many are using perfectly healthy but just-past-prime foods in their in-house prepared food operations. In worst case scenarios, where something more than a few days beyond prime, it can form the basis for a soup – one already in the kitchen’s repertoire, or a new, innovative one.

Savings from not throwing perfectly good food out can be substantial. Of course it’s a lot easier to monitor the age of produce in a store than in one’s home, where things often are stuck into plastic containers are placed, in no logical way, on shelves. The volume of food ‘lost’ in this way amounts, amazingly, to more than 10% of what is bought for home use.

Consumers can save themselves a great deal of money if they create systems for refrigerator-storing of food. Both uncooked items and leftovers too often get overlooked until they are unsalvageable.

Its recent report on the Freegan Pony restaurant, on Paris’s outskirts, described how chef Aladdin Charni feeds some 400 people daily on perfectly good food that, were it not for him, would have been discarded as ‘waste’ by merchants at Rungis, the world’s largest wholesale food market.

Why would all these vegetables – Freegan serves only vegetarian meals – be destined for destruction? Their ‘sell by’ dates had, or were on the verge of being, past.

What inspired Charni to establish his restaurant?

In order for us to prove the value and safety of food waste, we couldn’t just feed specific demographics of people. We believe food waste is absolutely fit for human consumption and so that’s who we feed – human beings,” Charni told CNN.

He explained that while he sources from numerous places – including food banks, restaurants, cafes, food photographers, evens, and functions – perhaps his greatest, and most reliable source is the Rungis market. Because the wholesalers there are selling to a spectrum of resellers as well as restaurants, they want their produce to leave the market at, or approaching, its freshness peak. When something – even a case of something – gives a merchant reason to suspect it’s past one of those points, they don’t try to sell it. They can’t: The French are particular about their food, and the Rungis merchants are particular about their reputations.

An increasing number of U.S. supermarket operators are making similar efforts to avoid seeing produce that may not be quite ‘fit for prime time’ be tossed into the dumpster. Instead, many are using perfectly healthy but just-past-prime foods in their in-house prepared food operations. In worst case scenarios, where something more than a few days beyond prime, it can form the basis for a soup – one already in the kitchen’s repertoire, or a new, innovative one.

Savings from not throwing perfectly good food out can be substantial. Of course it’s a lot easier to monitor the age of produce in a store than in one’s home, where things often are stuck into plastic containers are placed, in no logical way, on shelves. The volume of food ‘lost’ in this way amounts, amazingly, to more than 10% of what is bought for home use.

Consumers can save themselves a great deal of money if they create systems for refrigerator-storing of food. Both uncooked items and leftovers too often get overlooked until they are unsalvageable.

Pharmacy Chain Accused of Saying Elders ‘Like To Steal’

Most retailers take steps to encourage people to shop their stores and seek to get those who do so to remain customers. The CVS pharmacy has been accused of turning those concepts on their heads: Several discrimination suits filed against the chain in New York City on Oct. 31 accuse the retailer of advising staff, in a ‘loss prevention’ handbook, that older people ‘like’ to shoplift and of failing to discourage employee actions intended to embarrass departing older visitors, creating the impression that they may be hiding and stealing items.

The New York Post reported that the employee handbook warns employees that senior citizens on a “fixed income” present a “special shoplifting concern.”

The paper said that attorneys from the Manhattan law firm Wigdor LLP brought the suits on behalf of former employees arguing that the policy is “tantamount to an admission of discrimination against older customers.”

Lawyers Michael Willemin and David Gottlieb noted that they have testimony from 16 whistleblower ex-staffers who claim that CVS stores across the city discriminate by profiling elderly shoppers as well as blacks and Hispanics.

One of the cases was initiated by Anson Alfonso, a former “market investigator” for CVS, where he was part of a team of undercover employees who helped track and bust shoplifters.

Alfonso, 27, worked as a store detective from January 2013 to October 2014. He told The Post that store managers, supervisors and even stock personnel would frequently swipe security tags past checkpoints to set off an alarm when an elderly person was leaving a CVS store. The intent was to intimidate them and imply, with no evidence whatsoever, that the older person was shoplifting.

“They would say, ‘I didn’t see it but I know that old person was stealing,’ ” Alfonso said.

The paper noted the shoplifting-among-the-AARP-set theory mirrors a 1998 “Seinfeld” episode titled “The Bookstore,” in which Jerry catches his Uncle Leo stealing a book from Brentano’s. When Jerry confronts him, Leo protests that the petty theft is his right as a senior citizen.

“It’s not stealing if it’s something you need,” Jerry’s dad, Morty, says, with his mom, Helen, noting, “Nobody pays for everything.”

A shocked Jerry shouts, “You’re stealing, too?!” and Morty explains, “Nothing. Batteries. Well, they wear out so quick.”

But attorney David Gottlieb says there’s nothing funny about the pharmacy chain harassing innocent seniors and other groups protected under the law.

“It is reprehensible that CVS targets customers based on race, ethnicity and even age, and we intend to hold the company accountable for these practices,” he said.

The new filings come a year after Gottlieb’s firm sued CVS in a federal class action, alleging store managers ordered security guards to focus on minorities.

A CVS spokeswoman said, “We are not aware of these new cases, so we are unable to comment specifically. However, in previous cases brought by the same law firm on similar complaints, plaintiffs’ attorneys have not been able to produce any documentary evidence to support their allegations.”