‘Free-From’ Beats GMO, Labeling Changers With A MUCH Clearer Message

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A ‘Free-From’ event exhibitor

While the U.S. struggles with issues related to GMO labeling, gluten- dairy- and wheat-free issues, the U.K. and at least a couple of continental European countries are merrily moving along with a movement called, simply, ‘free-from’. It encompasses all of the above, and might extend to other ‘freedoms’ currently relevant or potentially relevant to food growing and onward up the food chain.

Meanwhile, the U.S. congress passes, and sends to the president for his signature – ordinarily done with a handful of pens as ‘give-aways’ to selected recipients – a bill that, for all intents and purposes, does next to nothing to ensure products offered to the public are free of genetically modified ingredients.

I know, I touched on the GMO issue a couple of days ago. But this is, oddly, a view few American organizations or individual companies have addressed – and it’s one that’s taking off, elsewhere.

What has been said about the about-to-be-signed GMO bill is the fact that, as one observer said, “the devil is in the details,” and speculation is that it will take “years” for those details to be worked out. In other words, no one should have high hope that this bill will move the ball very far soon – maybe not even before the next – hopefully one-term – president is replaced.

(While this blog tends to avoid issues of a political nature, it is worth noting, about now, with one of the two major political parties having its election year convention as we speak, with the other’s conclave due within a couple of weeks, that whichever of the hardly-lesser ‘evils’ is elected is more than likely to have serious impacts on food-related policies.

(Trump has promised to disrupt treaties that affect how, and from where, food enters this country.

(A Clinton campaign pledge has her “increase[ing] funding to support the next generation of farmers and ranchers in local food markets and regional food systems; And she’ll create a focused safety net to help family farms get through challenging times.”

(But campaign statements and promises too often give way to different concepts once a politician [at whatever level] is in office. Time will tell how these two’s promises bear up.

(But you can be sure that, one way or another, either would in one, two or another way, disrupt ‘business’ as usual as its being done in the food trade these days.

 

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Feeling Under The Weather? A Pork Chop May Perk You Up

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Tiring (already) of grass-fed beef, and GMO-free stuff of all sorts? Never fear! Chinese farmers are pursuing what they hope will become ‘the next great thing’ in food – cows, pigs and ducks fed a diet rich in ancient Chinese medicines.

A New York Times article yesterday (July 16) reported that, because there traditional Chinese medicines and health foods are seeing a surge in popularity in the world’s most populous nation, “farmers are adapting the age-old elixirs — a dash of ginseng here, a speck of licorice there — for use on livestock.”

The results they’re promising will be flesh that will be delicious and healthy – “lean, juicy meats that can protect against colds, arthritis and other illnesses.”

The science, rewarded recently with a Nobel Prize to a doctor for the specific scientific research procedures she used to extract a certain plant-based material and use it to create a chemical drug, is said in yesterday’s Times article to be “less resounding, though one study did find that cows that were fed Chinese medicines performed better in hot weather.”)

Several years ago, a farmer in the southern region of Guangxi “began mixing 22 kinds of herbs into the daily feed for his livestock.” The pigs that Mr. Lin now raises sell for $460, about $200 more than the typical price for conventional pigs, he said, and some customers even eat his meats instead of taking medicine.

“The pigs raised this way don’t get sick, they have good texture and they’re meaty,” he said.

Farmers like Mr. Lin hope that China’s increasingly health-conscious middle class will help bring medicinal meats into the mainstream. The health-food market in China reached $1 trillion last year, and it is expected to grow 20 percent annually for the next several years.

Mr. Lin said China was returning to something good from the past that had been neglected. “In the old days, we used traditional methods to feed the animals,” he said. “People’s longevity was very long.”

 

GMO Bill Heads To White House – Why?

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With both the Senate and the House of Representatives signed off on it, a much-discussed, somewhat controversial bill concerning the labeling of genetically modified foods is on its way to the White House for signing by President Obama.

The bill has been hailed by some in the food industry and soundly decried by others. And an ‘interactive feature’ in The New York Times last week gave consumers pause to consider how much better off, or wiser, they’ll be (or not) with this or any other GMO-oriented legislation.

The July 11 New York Times piece (cited above) pretty much sums up what consumers need to know, right now, or in the foreseeable future, on the GMO issue. (Spoiler: The issue isn’t as big a deal many would have you believe.)

The problem comes with the concept of genetic manipulation of food, and where it happens in the food chain. At first glance, if you were unfortunate enough to see a ‘modern’ bred-for-cooking chicken in the flesh, as it were, your first reaction no doubt would be, ‘nature would never make something that looks, and is, by design, as physically challenged as this poor creature is’. And you’d be right.

fat chickens

An unfortunately large number of the chickens bred these days for eating – so called ‘food chickens – are a far cry, physically, from their ancestors of half a century ago. They’ve been dramatically ‘modified’ by selective breeding – not by having their genes manipulated. The objective has been to satisfy the public’s desire for white, as opposed to dark, chicken meat, and the best white meat – in terms of quantity and solid volume, is found in the breast. So, chickens have been selectively bred to have enormous breasts – to a point, as The Times interactive feature notes, its “legs can barely support.”

An article linked-to at that point in the ‘interactive’ article goes so far as to describe the selective breeding of chickens – “modern chicken genetics” – as “a form of abuse”: Chickens today, the linked-to piece says, “stagger about, sometimes on splayed legs, or mostly just sit down.”

A good share of the corn grown in the U.S. today is genetically modified so it resistant to the chemical glyphosate, the active ingredient in the Monsanto herbicide Roundup. This gene modification was necessary because Roundup is designed to travel down through a broad spectrum of plants, killing them all the way down to their root system. So, it can  keep corn fields pretty clear of weeds that grab moisture the corn needs, etc.

Some think the chemical (glyphosate) is toxic, possibly contributing to the development of cancer, in humans. There’s no real evidence to support that.

The point of the corn gene manipulation is to enable the plant to defeat the chemical’s objective, and it works. As or more important, though, is the fact that in the course of traveling down through a plant to its roots, the glyphosate apparently in no modifies the corn in a way that could be harmful to humans.

(Full disclosure: For the better part of a year, in the mid-1970’s, shortly after Roundup was first marketed, I helped promote it by producing, at Monsanto’s expense, ‘user stories’ from farmers, municipal and state roadside maintenance authorities, NASA, the Orange Bowl, cemetery managers, wholesale plant growers, lawn care professionals, and many others from one side of the U.S. to the other. The articles were placed in trade magazine serving specific trades – and they were glad to get them, because Roundup was, and still widely is, considered to be something of a ‘miracle product’ that cuts labor costs by vastly reducing the amount of time it takes to clear away unwanted plants.

(A Monsanto sales rep I traveled with in Texas told me a story of an instance where a woman complained to him that Roundup was “killing my dogs, my chickens and my kids; Notice the priorities, there, he said.” His response: He pulled out a sample size of the product – a couple of ounces – and promptly drank it! “She all but fainted,” he laughed.)

Another issue, also pointed out in The Times’ interactive piece, is the fact that, with GMOs being talked about by some as posing health risks (no proof, so far) et cetera, some manufacturers are sticking ‘GMO free’ and similar labels on products – including ground oats, and water – where GMOs are not an issue!

Sadly, there is no ‘safe source’ of authoritative information on whether or not, ultimately, some GMOs might be found to be less than beneficial, without posing any risk to humans.

Chickens are routinely fed genetically modified grain – modified to help chickens ward off diseases. No one has ever suggested that GMO grain, or the breeding manipulations causing chickens to grown far faster and end up with far great breast weights than nature intended, is causing fried chicken eaters to gain weight or developed clogged arteries. Both have a far more direct relationship to the cooking fat that favorite food is cooked in.

People notoriously try to blame ‘something else’ on such conditions as having high blood pressure (cut your salt intake!) water retention (ditto’) or being too ‘bulky’ (you can see where this is going!).

In the grand scheme of things, as we can see that scheme today, GMOs are the least of the worries of people who consume way too much salt, and sugar (in the form of soft drinks, candy, etc.) and fail to exercise.

For the moment, it would be best to keep the GMO ‘threat’ in perspective: It ain’t one, that anyone’s been able to pin down.

The president can sign the bill, creating a new law, and the food industry can say – or it could, if the language of the bill were clear enough – ‘see, we’re doing what you want! Isn’t that wonderful?’

No, in fact, it isn’t.

I’ve worked (as a writer) on the fringe of the food industry for the better part of forty years. The technological changes in that time – what’s known now that wasn’t even imaged then – is mind boggling. Maybe there’s some reason why, in some instances, genetically modified foods might pose a risk of some sort to people. Maybe there isn’t. But none of what I regularly read about developments in the trade suggest there’s any reason why careful manipulations shouldn’t continue, when risk are clearly evaluated and taken into consideration.

A lot of what Congress does is wheel-spinning, or publicity-oriented. This bill may represent one, the other or both of those. What it doesn’t represent is a viable means of addressing what may, or may not,  be an issue worth getting excited about. Or wasting all the Congressional time and energy this bill has.

While some Congressional bills may require as few as two pages  – the one authorizing President Obama to give gold medals to the Apollo astronauts on the 40th anniversary of the moon landing – many spending bills and some others are notorious for filling 1,000 or more pages.

Multiply than times 500 or so – for 435 members of Congress plus other need-to-see’s. That amounts to 1,000 reams of paper – at 500 pages per ream – per bill. And that’s just the House version.

Every month, I attend meetings of county-level Board of Supervisors in Virginia meetings where the agenda, including multiple pages of explanatory files and charts, etc., is readily available on tablet-sized computers placed conveniently in front of each Supervisor. Small towns, as mine is (at 4,000 or so souls), and right-thinking counties really need to watch their expenditures, and it’s pretty obvious that using even a few reams of paper to duplicate, every month, something stored in an electronic file, is beyond wasteful: It’s an irresponsible use of public money.

Call me stupid, but I have enough faith that those who produce the food we eat, have no interest whatsoever in poisoning us. I can’t imagine any major (or even a minor) food producer introducing GMO ingredients into what they intend to market if they had the least suspicion the GMO aspect could put their customers – members of the shopping and consuming public – at risk.

All else aside, doing so would be illegal under existing law. The about-to-be GMO labeling law is highly unlikely to have any positive effect, but certainly could have some negative ones: Companies charged with mislabeling when the ‘facts’, between the complainant  and the accused, are, well, disputable.

 

Promo cost for drug with Million-Dollar Potential: $12.00-18.00

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That $12-18 figure, while it hardly represents the total a pharmaceutical company might spend to promote a new drug, it does, according to Medicare’s Open Payments data for 2013, represent the amount actually spent during information-sharing lunches where doctors heard from big pharma reps about for specific medications.

The information, which came to light in a study reported last month in JAMA Internal Medicine, was a compilation of data on 279,669 doctors who received 63.524 payments relative to one drug to lower cholesterol, two to address symptoms of hypertension (high blood pressure), and an antidepressant.

Any given doctor might, over the course of a medication’s life, prescribe it thousands, if not tens of thousands of times. Collectively, doctors often do prescribe a medication enough times to make it worth millions of dollars, if not tens of millions, to its maker.

The $12-18 figure represents what pharmaceutical reps typically spent on lunch for doctors at those information-sharing sessions. Certainly a modest enough sum, when the potential benefit to the drug’s maker is taken into consideration.

Yes, many patients also benefit from drugs doctors first learn about over lunch with a big pharma rep.

Yet the fact remains that, according to the above-cited study, doctors are significantly more likely to prescribe a lunch-promoted drug than an alternative – even when the alternative might cost the patient (or his/her insurer, or Medicare) considerably less.

Dr. R. Adams Dudley, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, the lead author of the study, decried this “system of education for doctors” in a New York Times article on the study.

“The cost of an alternative system of drug education would be paltry,” he said.

What’s ‘Good’ For You? Or ‘Healthy’? It Depends Who You Are/Who You Ask!

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One of several New York Times charts symbolizing the healthy/not healthy issue.

When it comes down to it, Americans don’t have a firm grip on the concept of ‘healthy’ versus ‘not so healthy’ foods. And, sadly, because of conflicting advice from assorted vested interests, most people are far from approaching the level of understanding of why this food, while it may supposedly be ‘good’ for you in ‘this’ way, is far from good for you in another way.

The New York Times devoted a great deal of time and resources to researching this subject and, sadly, came away with head-scratching concerns on top of confusion why the what’s-good-for-you subject is so, well, incomprehensible.

The USDA doesn’t help: It recently came out with a revised standard for nutritional information on packaged food labels and the supposedly-improved ones truly aren’t – leaving consumers, as they have been for years, trying to make sense of terms and quantities they can’t comprehend.

An excellent explanation of why the U.S. has so resisted going totally metric – many domestic industries already employ that system exclusively – is laid out in this Time Magazine article from 2014. Some of the stated reasons may have made a certain amount of sense at one time, but they no longer do – just as, except for its currency, the British have been all-metric since the late 1970’s.

(I happened to leave, after five years there, as the change-over was starting. The thing that amazed me most was how quickly and adeptly lovers of Fahrenheit and other non-metric units switched over.  Yet even today, when I discuss something involving a measurement with a friend there, I have to do an electronic [or old-fashioned, paper-based] conversion to get ‘on the same page’ with them.

Our auto industry is all-metric. So is the military. So is the industry producing wine and ‘hard’ alcoholic beverages : 5ths and quarts disappeared some years ago, replaced by .75 liter (litre) and liter bottles. Beer producers are switching, too, albeit more subtly : Incrementally, they are making the percent-of-a-liter ID larger than the old standard ‘ounce’ measure on their bottles.

But because, except in a limited number of instances, it is impossible to produce a food package of a size that can be converted from ounces to milligrams/milliliters or vice versa in whole numbers, and because manufacturers insist on measuring sizes in quantities only vaguely approximating what people call a serving, comparisons of the value Brand A to Brand B  are, at best, an exercise in futility.

So, regardless of whether Brand A or Brand B is ‘healthier’ or ‘better for you,’ it’s pretty hard to tell from packaging and serving sizes.

The Times report noted that a survey of “hundreds” of nutritionists – members of the American Society for Nutrition – revealed “a surprising diversity of opinion, even among experts.”

Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, told the paper, “Twenty years ago, I think we knew about 10 percent of what we need to know” about nutrition, “and now we know about 40 or 50 percent.”

The Times report is long, detailed and, sadly, will leave many readers none the wiser – or not much the wiser, anyway – after they’ve plowed through the entire thing.

And when reading any such report, one has to keep in mind that it refers to ‘healthy’ and ‘good for you’ foods for ordinarily healthy people. To a concerning extent, though, the findings of such studies are meaningless for ‘special needs’ people like me: I have Stage 4 Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD), meaning many things that are ordinarily good for healthy people – things such as tomatoes, potatoes, beans and nuts – should seldom if ever pass my lips.

Diabetics have their own dietary issues, of course.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says that some 29 million Americans have Type 2 Diabetes. That’s roughly 9.3% of the population.

Another 10% of adults have CKD.

So, right off the bat, close to one-fifth of the American population falls outside the ‘good/not good’ – ‘healthy/unhealthy’ measurements of most nutrition surveys. And that doesn’t count those with special dietary needs because they are way under-, or over-weight.

If you are fortune enough to in the larger group that can choose what you eat based on common measurements like those surveys and ‘experts’ produce, consider yourself fortunate. But keep in mind, it wouldn’t take a lot to push you into one of the ‘endangered’ classes!

Olive, Alive Oh: A Tree’s Genome Has Been Sequenced in Spain

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Credit: Manuel Sánchez (RJC-CSIC)

The more that is known about a plant, the better the chances are for modifying its behavior and improving its product – be it a fruit, a nut or, as an example, a kind of fruit called an olive.

Researchers in Spain recently sequenced the complete genome of a 1000-year-old olive tree, and it is widely expected their work will – in time, but hardly soon – enable improvements in genetics improvement for production of olives and olive oil, and possibly also lead to advancements in protecting olive trees from attacks from the bacteria Xilella fastidiosa and the fungi Verticillium dahlia – something not accomplished anywhere to date.

A report on this breakthrough, which was several years in the making, appeared in the July 4 issue of New Food magazine.

The reason it will be some years before many significant result from the sequencing concerns the fact that olive trees grow very slowly. Very very slowly. That may have something to do with why they can live to a ripe old age of 3000-4000 years!

“Without a doubt, [the sequenced tree] is emblematic, and it is very difficult to improve plant breeding, as you have to wait at least 12 years to see what morphological characteristics it will have, and whether it is advisable to cross-breed,” says Toni Gabaldón, ICREA research professor and head of the comparative genomics laboratory at the CRG.

(“ICREA, the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies, is a foundation supported by the Catalan government and guided by a board of trustees. An institution without walls, ICREA works hands in hand with Catalan universities and research centers to integrate ICREA research professions in the Catalan research system. The foundation offers permanent, tenured positions to researchers from all over the world interested in coming to work at Catalonia. Over the years, these positions have  become a synonym of global academic excellence,” the Foundation’s website says.

(The Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) “is an international biomedical research institute of excellence, created in December 2000. It is a non-profit foundation funded by the Catalan Government through the Departments of Economy & Knowledge and Health, the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness, the ‘la Caixa’ Banking Foundation, and includes the participation of Pompeu Fabra University,” CRG’s website says.)

Pablo Vargas, who coordinated the three-year research effort to sequence the olive tree’s genome, says this about the research: “There are three phases to genome sequencing: first, isolate all of the genes, which we published two years ago. Second, assemble the genome, which is a matter of ordering those genes one after the other, like linking up loose phrases in a book. Last, identify all of the genes, or binding the book.”

Clearly not a simple, get-in-done-by-next-Tuesday project!

While the researchers didn’t say as much in the New Food article on their work, it would appear obvious that it won’t just be Spanish olive trees to benefit from their efforts. How, and how much, will come to light when it does – to scientists, researchers and olive-growing/processing specialists a decade or so from now.

Cutting Down On Pasta? Don’t! It Could Be Good For You

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‘Think pasta is fattening? Think again. A new study reported this month in the journal Nutrition and Diabetics indicated that moderate levels of pasta consumption contributes positively to a good BMI (Body Mass Index) and with “better adhesion to the Mediterranean diet.”

Put another way, pasta consumption balances well with “a diet of a type traditional in Mediterranean countries, characterized especially by a high consumption of vegetables and olive oil and moderate consumption of protein, and thought to confer health benefits; Researchers [have] found that people who eat a Mediterranean diet have lower odds of having a heart attack,” a Wikipedia article says.

George Pounis, the first author of the Italian study – the one cited above – sums up the results this way: “Our data show that enjoying pasta according to individuals’ needs contributes to a healthy body mass index, lower waist circumference and better waist-hip ratio.”

Previous research has touted the heart-healthy benefits of the Mediterranean Diet, which is a way of eating rather than a specific meal plan. It emphasizes fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, peas and olive oil plus fish and poultry.

However, little was known about how pasta — also a staple in the Mediterranean region — affected health, the researchers behind the new study said. This finding fills that gap, they believe.

“We have seen that consumption of pasta, contrary to what many think, is not associated with an increase in body weight, rather the opposite,” Pounis added in a journal news release.

Many people have shunned spaghetti, noodles and other types of pasta in recent years because of concerns they were fattening. The new study could potentially cause Americans and others to revise their views.

The Italian study covered thousands of people surveyed in several ways over several years.

 

 

Developments concerning food — from research to farm to factory to restaurants and home.