Category Archives: Healthy Diet

Is diet food healthy food? If you believe diet food brands, it is!

diet food collageIf you’ve been part of the FoodFacts.com community for a few years or more, you’re familiar with our stance on branded diet foods. We’re not fans. We truly believe that dieting done right requires adapting a healthy lifestyle – one which embraces fresh, healthy foods, exercise and the avoidance of ingredients that are distinctly unhealthy. If you’ve ever taken a look at the ingredient labels of any of the diet branded foods, you know they don’t fit that bill. It’s become obvious that many consumers agree with our approach as the sales of those foods are in decline. So, like any skilled and savvy manufacturer those diet brands have set out to reinvent themselves. Is diet food healthy food? If you believe diet food brands, it is!

For years, Americans cycled through one brand-name diet after another, each promising a sure method to lose weight. Along the way, Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers and Lean Cuisine made fortunes off their low-calorie, low-fat diet programs and products.

But it seems those days are over, according to industry analysts and nutritionists. “Dieting is not a fashionable word these days,” says Susan Roberts, a professor of nutrition and psychiatry at Tufts University. “[Consumers] equate the word diet with deprivation, and they know deprivation doesn’t work.”

According to Mintel, a market research firm, few people are purchasing diet products anymore. A survey of 2,000 people released by the firm in October found that 94 percent of respondents no longer saw themselves as dieters. They were also disillusioned with the industry: 77 percent of the consumers surveyed said that diet products are not as healthy as they claim to be, and 61 percent said most diets are not actually healthy.

“Consumers are not dieting in the traditional sense anymore – being on programs or buying foods specific to programs,” says Marissa Gilbert, an analyst from Mintel who worked on the report. “And there’s greater societal acceptance of different body sizes.”

That’s really hurt the dieting industry, Gilbert says. From summer 2014 to summer 2015, Lean Cuisine’s frozen meal sales dropped from around $700 million to about $600 million, or about 15 percent. Weight Watchers, Medifast and Jenny Craig have also seen revenues wither over the past few years. Sales of diet pills have dropped 20 percent in the last year, according to the Mintel report.

Roberts says it’s likely because many people who wanted to lose weight tried these diets and programs but weren’t successful. “They’ve tried Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig and books and things of their own design,” she says. “It didn’t work.”

As Jean Fain, a Harvard Medical School-affiliated psychotherapist and author, has noted, programs like Weight Watchers typically are just “a short-term fix and conditional support for long-standing eating issues” and can even exacerbate them.

With each subsequent failure, people become more skeptical about the products. Some give up on losing weight altogether, Roberts adds.

But many people do still want to lose weight, and increasingly they’re hoping good nutrition and “healthy eating” will get them there, says R.J. Hottovy, a senior equity analyst with market research firm Morningstar. “Consumers are looking for a more holistic, more health and wellness approach,” he says. “The shift in food trends is toward fresher and more natural ingredients.”

The problem is there’s a lot of disagreement over what a healthy, well-balanced meal looks like. Half of the people in Mintel’s survey said they didn’t know what to think about nutrition and wellness information.
As we’ve reported, even the federal government isn’t sure what “natural” means. And increasingly consumers have to contend with terms like gluten-free, vegan and non-GMO in the grocery store. These and other restrictive notions of eating have been quick to catch on, but often don’t have consistent scientific evidence backing them up as healthful or effective for weight loss.

Roberts, who also founded a weight loss start-up called iDiet but says she doesn’t currently make money from it, observes that food companies are taking advantage of the chaos. “Companies are bombarding [consumers] with gluten-free, sugar-free, cholesterol-free, and it’s got us to a very bad place because people don’t know what to think anymore,” she says. “I think what [consumers] want to do is lose weight by eating sensibly. That’s the holy grail of weight loss, and the companies say, ‘We’ll lock into that.’ ”

And while Weight Watchers’ point system emphasizes “natural” fare and home-cooked meals, it’s still manufacturing processed, high-sodium, low-fiber products.

According to Julie Lehman, marketing director for Lean Cuisine, the company, which is owned by Nestle, has put new labels on products that were already cholesterol-free or gluten-free without changing their formulations. “Lean Cuisine is an emblem of the diet culture that we’ve all grown up with. We know that and we want to walk away from that and focus on eating well and eating healthy,” she says. The brand has added “No Preservatives” and “Gluten-Free” and “Non-GMO” labels and a new line of frozen meals, certified organic by the nonprofit Oregon Tilth. “Consumers are demanding some of these things, and we want to offer it to them,” Lehman says.

Roberts is unconvinced. She doesn’t see the products getting any healthier. “They can relabel them, but the meals are not any different. If you open a box of Lean Cuisine or something like that, you’ll see about a quarter cup of veggies in there. Is that an outstandingly healthy meal? By my standards, it’s not.”

People will still be hungry and still feel deprived, and may ultimately not meet weight loss goals, she says. “They’ll give healthy eating a bad name just as they gave dieting a bad name.”

Healthy food is real food. You can easily determine how healthy your diet is by determining the contents of your grocery shopping. Are you purchasing meals with ingredient, or ingredients for meals? If you’re doing the latter, you’re on the right track!

http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/01/20/462691546/as-diet-foods-tank-confusing-health-labels-replace-them

Where exactly is the government showing us we should drink more water?

nutrition infographicTo accompany the government’s latest set of guidelines, they’ve updated an infographic tip sheet. FoodFacts.com loves infographics as they are quick and easy visual reads that can’t be mistaken or assigned incorrect interpretations by those for which they are intended. One of the government’s biggest messages this year is to drink water instead of sugary drinks. It’s a simple, but important message that Americans need to be reminded of over and over and over again. Unfortunately we don’t know that this infographic does its job as well as it could. Take a close look. Where exactly is the government showing us we should drink more water?

Tucked inside the U.S. government’s latest update to its official eating advice is this recommendation: “Drink water instead of sugary drinks” — aka soda.

The bluntness of this statement is remarkable, in part, because the Dietary Guidelines released Thursday are, in other ways, anything but direct. For instance, as we’ve reported, instead of explicitly telling Americans to cut their intake of red and processed meats, as an advisory panel of nutrition experts had recommended, the final guidelines hint at meat reduction in subtle terms. That change in messaging may have been linked to pressure from the meat industry.

By contrast, the government’s language on choosing water over sugary drinks is as clear as a glass of H2O. It is not, however, all that easy to find. We spotted it inside this MyPlate, My Wins tip sheet, part of a new campaign the U.S. Department of Agriculture also launched Thursday.

MyPlate, if you recall, is the icon of a dinner plate divided into portions of fruits and vegetables, grains and proteins that replaced the food pyramid in 2011. Unlike the Dietary Guidelines, which are written for nutrition professionals, policymakers and the food industry, MyPlate is for the general public. It’s an image that ends up in nutrition education materials in doctor’s offices, textbooks, school cafeterias and lots of other places.

Last year, as we reported, a coalition of nutrition scientists and public health advocates called on the government to add water to the ubiquitous MyPlate icon. Numerous studies have linked sugary drinks like soda to obesity, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Adding some sort of water symbol to the MyPlate icon would really bring home the message that water, not soda, should be the beverage of choice, advocates argued.
That didn’t happen, and, in fact, the USDA says it has no plans to alter the MyPlate icon, which the agency says will remain the visual centerpiece of its healthy eating messaging.

Instead, we got the infographic above — what the USDA says is the first of several new tip sheets to be released.

As you can see, the message to drink water, not sugary drinks, shows up there — in the very bottom, right-hand corner. While the language is clear, the visuals around it are hardly compelling.

“Ideally, [the water symbol] would be part of the main MyPlate image. That’s the thing that’s going to get the most publicity,” says Michael Jacobson, executive director for the Center for Science in The Public Interest, who was among those who signed the letter calling for stronger language on water in the Dietary Guidelines.

It’s also worth noting that, while 100 percent fruit juices also pack a sugary wallop, the MyPlate, MyWins tip sheet lists them as an acceptable form of getting your daily fruit intake. (The actual guidelines add more nuance, advising that people get at least half their recommended fruit intake from whole fruits.) For the record, William Dermody of the American Beverage Association tells us that “moderation of beverages is something we’re in line with as well.”

Overall, the new tip sheet’s messaging is confusing, says New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle, a noted critic of the influence industry exerts on government food policy. “It’s ugly and it’s hard to read,” she tells us.

In general, she wishes the government’s visual messaging on what Americans should and shouldn’t eat was much more explicit. Nestle points to guidelines from Brazil and Sweden (see below), which — as Julia Belluz has pointed out over at Vox — are breathtakingly easy to understand. Their virtue? Instead of talking about nutrients, they focus on what people really put in their mouths. “They’re about real food,” Nestle says.

With just a few simple changes this tip sheet can accomplish a whole lot more of the government’s goals … and a whole lot more for the population. Drink water. Eat real food. We’re getting there.

http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/01/08/462289710/uncle-sam-just-told-us-to-drink-water-not-soda-you-mightve-missed-it

How are you celebrating Big Block of Cheese Day?

ObamaFoodFacts.com would like to call your attention to one of the lesser-known American holidays – Big Block of Cheese Day! And yes, we’re serious. It’s a White House holiday and it’s been going on there for the last three years. So … How are you celebrating Big Block of Cheese Day? How about you take your turn chipping away at our current Big Cheeses in Washington?

Following President Obama’s last State of the Union, the White House will host a day-long question and answer session Wednesday online.

Americans will have the opportunity to chat with White House staff, members of Congress and senior cabinet members during the White House’s third annual Big Block of Cheese Day. Throughout the day, the White House invites users to ask questions using the hashtag #BigBlockOfCheeseDay on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr.

Answers will be provided by First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and many more in a list that includes over 40 names.

In its third year, Big Block of Cheese Day is a clever riff on an open house Andrew Jackson hosted in 1837 at the White House, featuring a 1,400-pound block of cheese that he invited participants to chip away at. It also pokes fun at a tradition from the fictional White House drama The West Wing, where staffers hosted an annual open house to allow lesser heard groups to voice their opinions.

You can find the full list of participants at the White House site, as well as instructions on how to participate in Big Block Cheese Day.

And while you’re participating in this truly fun interpretation of an old-fashioned idea, you might want to keep a few things in mind about cheese.

Cheese contains a host of nutrients like calcium, protein, phosphorus, zinc, vitamin A and vitamin B12. Calcium is one of the nutrients most likely to be lacking in the American diet. According to government statistics, nine out of 10 women and six out of 10 men fall short of calcium recommendations. The high-quality protein in cheese provides the body with essential building blocks for strong muscles. For a complete listing of the nutrients in cheese, see the table below.

If you are lactose intolerant, many cheeses, particularly aged cheeses such as Cheddar and Swiss, contain little or no lactose and are often well tolerated.

For the past 30 years or so, saturated fat—found in meats, eggs, cheese, butter, whole milk, lard and some oils—was considered a primary cause of heart disease. New research, however, is showing that saturated fat has a minimal impact on heart disease risk, which is changing the “saturated fat is bad” paradigm and allowing people to enjoy more cheese and other favorite foods. Further research is needed showing significant scientific agreement.

Think cheese today … our American Big Cheeses in D.C. and the smaller cheeses we can put on our plate that deliver some serious health benefits!!!

http://www.healthyeating.org/Milk-Dairy/Nutrients-in-Milk-Cheese-Yogurt/Nutrients-in-Cheese.aspx

http://time.com/4177369/white-house-big-block-cheese-day/

New dietary guidelines advise on sugar but not red meat

dga-2015Every five years, the U.S. government updates Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The guidelines evolve over time as they take into consideration the latest research and findings in nutrition science. Last month, the Obama administration released its much anticipated update. Some of it was expected. The government’s official advice on what to eat (and not eat) included sugar limitations (sugar was in the news a lot last year, so FoodFacts.com wasn’t surprised). What the official advice left out, though, was a surprise. Our new dietary guidelines advise on sugar but not red meat.

Many Americans consume up to 22 teaspoons a day. To meet the new 10 percent target, they’d need to cut their sugar intake by nearly half — to no more than 12 teaspoons a day on a 2,000-calorie daily diet.

Over the past five years, a growing body of evidence has linked high levels of sugar consumption to an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, even among Americans who are not overweight or obese.

Much of the dietary advice included in the new guidelines will sound very familiar and remains unchanged from 2010. For instance, there’s a focus on consuming more fruits and vegetables, more fiber and whole grains, and less salt.

Top administration officials within the U.S. departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, who were tasked with writing the guidelines, decided not to include some of the recommendations made by a Dietary Guidelines advisory panel that reviewed the latest nutrition science.

For instance, the advisory committee had recommended including sustainability as a factor in making food choices. But administration officials nixed that idea.

The committee had also advised telling Americans to cut back on red and processed meats. But that recommendation sparked a vigorous challenge from the meat industry, and the final dietary guidelines do not include any specific advice to cut back on these sources of protein.

The recommendation “was certainly controversial,” says Tom Brenna, a nutrition professor at Cornell University and member of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.

“The red and processed meat recommendation, I think, has morphed a bit into a different kind of message,” Brenna tells us. “A little bit like turning a coin over, in a sense, where if you eat less red meat, one is eating more of other protein foods.”

Instead, the guidelines emphasize a “shift towards other protein foods” — including more nuts and seeds and about 8 ounces of seafood per week, based on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet.

The suggestion to limit meat intake comes in more subtle form. For instance, the guidelines point out that many teen boys and adult men consume more than the recommended 26 ounces a week of protein from animal sources, so they should “reduce overall intake of protein foods by decreasing intakes of meat, poultry, and eggs.”

There’s also an overall recommendation — unchanged from 2010 — to reduce saturated fat intake to less than 10 percent of daily diet, a shift that could, in practice, require limiting intake of red meat.

“The message to eat more seafood, legumes and other protein foods really does mean substitute those for red meat,” Brenna says. “So I think the message is more or less there, it’s just not as clear.”

That message to cut the red meat should have been stated more directly, says Barry Popkin, a nutrition researcher at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “I am disappointed that the USDA once again is cutting out recommendations to truly limit red meat intake,” he tells us in an email.

The other major change to the government’s nutrition advice: dietary cholesterol. The new guidelines drop a longstanding recommendation to limit cholesterol from foods to 300 milligrams a day.

As Alice Lichtenstein, vice chairwoman of the expert panel that advised the government on the guidelines, told us last February, there isn’t strong evidence that limiting cholesterol-rich foods lowers the amount of artery-clogging LDL cholesterol that ends up in the blood.

The guidelines also call on Americans to cut sodium to no more than 2,300 milligrams per day. Most of us consume far more — about 3,440 milligrams daily on average — much of it in the form of foods like pizzas, soups, breads and cured meats.

The Dietary Guidelines have clear implications for federal nutrition policy, influencing everything from the national school lunch program to the advice you get at the doctor’s office. But they are written for nutrition professionals, not the general public.

Perhaps the new guidelines DO reference limiting red meat consumption – by emphasizing the consumption of other proteins. But we know there have been several specific studies in the last year or so that speak directly to the adverse effects of red and processed meats in American diets. Food industry influence – or broader, more effective statements? More transparent, straight forward statements leave less room for guesswork on the part of the consumers relying on the guidelines. A little food for thought.

http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/01/07/462160303/new-dietary-guidelines-crack-down-on-sugar-but-red-meat-gets-a-pass

Could there be a link between processed foods and autoimmune diseases?

Processed foodsFoodFacts.com is well aware that there are diseases and conditions that weren’t as prevalent in our population as they were some decades back. Autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes, celiac disease and multiple sclerosis weren’t as high up on our radar screens simply because we didn’t always hear about them. Unfortunately for those who suffer from autoimmune disorders, that’s no longer true. We’re all more aware of the conditions because more and more people have been affected by them. How did that happen, exactly? In just a few decades instances of autoimmune conditions have increased dramatically. It certainly makes FoodFacts.com step back and consider the possibilities. Could there be a link between processed foods and autoimmune diseases?

After a hard day at work, it is tempting to reach for foods that are quick and easy to prepare. For many of us, this means turning to processed foods, such as microwave meals, which are usually high in fat, salt, sugar and other additives.

Processed foods are defined by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as “any food other than a raw agricultural commodity and includes any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing, such as canning, cooking, freezing,dehydration or milling.”

This means that it is not only microwave meals that meet the “processed” definition; cheese, breakfast cereals, canned fruits and vegetables, bread, savory snacks and meats such as bacon and sausages are also examples of foods that have been subject to some form of processing.

A number of studies have reported the negative health effects of consuming some processed foods, including increased risk of weight gain and heart disease. And last October, the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded that eating processed meats can cause colorectal cancer.

Now, Prof. Aaron Lerner, of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel, and Dr. Torsten Matthias, of the Aesku-Kipp Institute in Germany, suggest the consumption of processed foods may be associated with development of autoimmune diseases.

An autoimmune disease occurs when the immune system attacks healthy cells in the body, mistaking them for foreign invaders. This can lead to destruction of body tissue and abnormal organ growth and function.

There are more than 100 types of autoimmune disorders. Some of the more common forms include celiac disease, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis(MS), Crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

Prof. Lerner and Dr. Matthias note that there has been a rise in both the prevalence of autoimmune diseases and consumption of processed foods in recent years. For their study, they set out to determine whether there is a link between the two.

Specifically, the researchers looked at how certain additives in processed foods – used to improve the taste, texture, smell and shelf life – affect the intestines and the development of autoimmune diseases.

The team explains that many autoimmune diseases are triggered by dysfunction of “tight junctions” in the intestine, which are sealants between epithelial cells that protect the mucosa – the lining of the gastrointestinal tract that helps food pass through.

Normal-functioning tight junctions help protect the immune system from bacteria and other foreign bodies, but any damage to the tight junctions can lead to what is called “leaky gut” – in which toxins can enter the bloodstream, potentially leading to the development of autoimmune diseases.

In their study, the researchers identified at least seven common food additives – including glucose, gluten, sodium, fat solvents, organic acids, nanometric particles and microbial transglutaminase (an enzyme used as a food protein “glue”) – that weakened tight junctions in the intestine.

Based on their findings, the researchers suggest that consumption of processed foods may increase the risk for autoimmune diseases. They note that the food additive market is not highly regulated, making such findings a cause for concern.

Prof. Lerner says:

“Control and enforcement agencies such as the FDA stringently supervise the pharmaceutical industry, but the food additive market remains unsupervised enough. We hope this study and similar studies increase awareness about the dangers inherent in industrial food additives, and raise awareness about the need for control over them.”
In June of last year, the FDA revealed they are banning a key source of artificial trans fats in processed foods called partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), with the hope that doing so will reduce Americans’ risk of heart attack and heart disease.

We’re happy to see attention being paid to the controversial food additives that have no place in our food supply. The ban on trans fats in our foods should only be the beginning of much needed changes to the ingredient lists in our grocery stores. Until that day comes, FoodFacts.com wants to urge everyone to shop for ingredients for meals instead of meals with ingredients. Let’s concentrate on clean eating in the new year!

http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/304645.php

Vegetables take center stage on dinner plates across America in 2016

salad barVegetables are trending this New Year. As consumers become more aware and educated they’re making some serious changes to their diet and lifestyle. Part of those changes is the reframing of the main course of a meal. In years past, FoodFacts.com the main course of an American meal focused on the protein – whether that protein was meat, poultry or fish, the protein was the star of the show. The times are changing though. Vegetables take center stage on dinner plates across America in 2016. Consumers everywhere are assigning new value to the vegetable component of the meal.

About a decade ago, food writer Michael Pollan issued a call to action: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. As 2016 opens, it looks like many American cooks and diners are heeding that call.

Vegetables have moved from the side to the center of the plate. And as another year begins, it appears that plants are the new meat.

Bon Appetit magazine named AL’s Place in San Francisco the best new restaurant of 2015. Meats at AL’s Place are listed under “sides.” The rest of the menu features vegetable-centric dishes sometimes featuring animal protein as an ingredient – pear curry, black lime yellowtail, persimmon, blistered squash. The hanger steak (with smoked salmon butter), however, is a side dish.

This and other restaurants are also using the whole vegetable. What used to go in the compost heap is now fermented, roasted or smoked and used in other dishes. The stem-to-leaf approach follows the example of nose-to-tail eating.

WastED is a project that brings together chefs, farmers, fishermen and food purveyors to “reconceive waste” in the food chain, according to the group’s website.

The WastED salad has been available at Sweetgreen restaurants, making use of the restaurants scraps – broccoli leaves, carrot ribbons, roasted kale stems, romaine hearts, roasted cabbage cores, roasted broccoli stalks and roasted bread butts all mixed with arugula, Parmesan, spicy sunflower seeds and pesto vinaigrette.

Food waste has become a concern to the U.S. government as well as chefs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency have set a goal to reduce food waste by 50 percent by 2030, calling in a joint statement to “feed people not landfills.” The statement says that food loss and waste account for about 31 percent (133 billion pounds) of the nation’s food supply.

The ascendance of vegetables has added a new word to the food lexicon: spiralizing. Piles of spiralized vegetables – produced with, yes, a spiralizer – are replacing pasta in some home and restaurant kitchens. Cookbooks, blogs and tools are available to help.

Eaters in 2016 also are likely to see more dried beans, peas and lentils on their plates. The United Nations has declared this the International Year of Pulses to raise consumer awareness of the nutritional and environmental benefits of the edible dry seeds. Chickpeas seems to be the rising star of the pulse world. They’re not just for hummus anymore.

The rise of vegetables and focus on food waste are the culmination of more than a decade’s worth of government, consumer and food and environmental activists’ concerns that have finally trickled into the mainstream. Sustainability issues are becoming particularly visible in the fish we’re eating. More overlooked fish and some invasive species are being offered to diners.
So-called “clean labels” are another expression of these concerns. Both consumers and food purveyors are focused on removing GMOs, artificial ingredients, preservatives, antibiotics and growth hormones from food. Even fast-food outlets are using more eggs from cage-free chickens and dumping ingredients that have been genetically modified.

There are generational shifts, too, in the way we eat.

Millenials – now more numerous than Baby Boomers – have a huge impact. The corporate food world is keenly interested in how and what this large group of consumers eats. And they do buy and eat differently than older generations. They order ingredients online, learn to cook from You Tube as well as cookbooks and websites. They care about the environment, ethical treatment of animals and community. They frequently use food delivery services rather than going to the supermarket, and order meal kits that deliver prepared ingredients.

Whatever your age, expect 2016 to be the year not only of the vegetable, but of more awareness of what we spear with our forks.

FoodFacts.com is looking forward to a new take on the dinner plate. We’ll be following this important trend closer as we get further into the new year!

http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/01/01/461704287/vegetables-likely-to-take-more-of-your-plate-in-2016

Happy New Year … a look at 2015 in food

foodcollageHappy New Year! As FoodFacts.com looks forward to a healthy, educational 2016 in a world with fewer unhealthy ingredients, and more nutritionally aware consumers, we’re looking back at 2015 to see what we can find in terms of trends and important food issues that came to the forefront this year. Here’s a look at 2015 in food.

Cage-free, antibiotic-free, artificial-free. Sound familiar?

Many of the world’s biggest food companies announced major changes this year — in what they purchase and how they manufacture their food.

Many of the big moves we saw came from companies striving to bring more transparency to their supply chain. McDonald’s pledged to source chickens raised without antibiotics. Dunkin’ Donuts and Costco are switching to cage-free eggs.

Some companies signaled to customers that they were “cleaning up” and simplifying their ingredient lists. Panera ditched dozens of additives. Even Lucky Charms and Butterfingers are getting minor makeovers: General Mills and Nestle said they’re removing artificial colors and flavors from their products.
“Big Food is definitely feeling the pressure,” Scott Allmendinger, who consults with food companies for the Culinary Institute of America, told us. Packaged-food companies lost $4 billion in market share last year, according to a Fortune analysis.

A 2015 Nielsen survey found an increasing number of consumers say they’re willing to pay a premium for “all natural,” “clean” and minimally processed foods. (As we’ve reported, it’s hard to know what any of these terms actually mean. The federal government is soliciting input for how to define “natural.”) And, it seems, these foods marketed as cleaner and more natural are blending into mainstream grocery stores. One example: the success of Kroger’s Simple Truth line of products, which focus on “simpler” and organic ingredients.

“Consumers are slowly migrating away” from the center aisle of the grocery store that’s filled with processed baked goods and canned foods, says Jack Russo, an analyst with Edward Jones, a financial advisory firm.
At the same time, the sales of foods marketed as “local” have surged to $11 billion a year. The organic and natural sector, including GMO-free and gluten-free, is growing at about 8 to 10 percent a year, says Russo.
Russo sees this trend continuing, with growth continuing in the 6 to 8 percent range for the next few years, he says.

Food Waste
Another issue that gained traction this year: the 133 billion pounds of food wasted in the U.S. annually.

To put a visual to this estimate, imagine filling a huge skyscraper such as the Willis Tower (formerly known as the Sears Tower) 44 times.

That’s the image that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack used when he announced in October a new national goal to reduce food waste by 50 percent by the year 2030.

Everyone who eats could play a role in reducing waste. And we have plenty of moral imperatives to do it. As Pope Francis once said, some food waste is akin to “stealing from the table of those who are poor and hungry.” The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that the typical American family tosses out about $1,600 a year in groceries.

There’s plenty wasted on farms, too, some of which is entirely unavoidable. But as we documented in this story, a lot of food isn’t harvested simply because it’s not quite up to our cosmetic standards. Often, bags of salad and plenty of other edible food items end up in landfills because they won’t stay fresh long enough to be shipped across the country. A number of NGOs and startups are trying to figure out how to get more of it into the hands of the hungry and the people happy to pay less for imperfect produce.

The environmental footprint of food waste is significant. As we’ve reported, all that food we toss out is creating billions of tons of greenhouse gases, and costing us precious water and land.

Foodborne Illness
This year also brought some high-profile outbreaks of foodborne illness. If you’re a Chipotle stockholder, you’re probably well aware of the fallout.

As we’ve reported, Chipotle Mexican Grill is linked to two separate outbreaks of E. coliinfections. The first outbreak sickened 53 people in nine states and prompted the temporary closure of many Chipotle locations in Washington and Oregon.

Then, in early December an outbreak of norovirus sickened at least 120 people in Boston, mostly students at Boston College. Most of the sick students reported eating at a nearby Chipotle.

As our colleague Dan Charles reported, city health inspectors cited Chipotle for allowing a sick employee to work his shift. In the violation report, the inspectors specified that the restaurant should follow its employee illness policy.

Though the Chipotle outbreak got a lot of attention, there are thousands of outbreaks of norovirus each year.

The CDC says norovirus is the leading cause of foodborne disease in the U.S. It’s estimated that about 20 million people a year get sick with it.

The vast majority of outbreaks are caused by infected workers. So, hopefully, the lesson learned in 2015 is this: Restaurants need to keep sick workers off the job.

The CDC estimates that 1 in 5 food service workers has gone to work while sick with vomiting or diarrhea. “It is vital that food service workers stay home if they are sick,” says the CDC’s Aron Hall. He says businesses should consider measures such as paid sick days.

Innovation And Investment In Food And Agriculture
While Big Food is hustling to keep up with changing consumer tastes and values, hundreds of new and nimble companies are entering the marketplace to compete with them. A report by the Dutch banking group Rabobank found that investment in food and agriculture is set to surpass $4 billion by the end of the year.

Rabobank thinks we’re headed toward a “smarter food system.” And plenty of companies and investors want to help us get there. How? Mainly, with technology and (big) data tools for both consumers and farmers.

Venture capitalists are excited about food and agriculture, too, and are pouring money into startups. Entrepreneur reported earlier this year that “startups all along the food chain — from farmers and tech companies to home cooks — are reaping huge rewards [from venture firms]: $2.06 billion invested in the first half of 2015 … nearly as much as the $2.36 billion total for 2014.”

FoodFacts.com likes the direction in which we’re headed. We’re excited to see consumer trends following a healthier, more natural path. And we couldn’t be more pleased about how food manufacturers are reacting to that consumer path. We’re expecting to see more of the same in 2016 and beyond!

Happy New Year!

http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/12/29/460589462/the-year-in-food-artificial-out-innovation-in-and-2-more-trends

Whole Foods comes clean with New York paying $500,000 for overcharging city customers

WholefoodsAll around the country there are consumers who are devoted to Whole Foods. In New York City, it’s so well-loved that there are nine locations with a new one coming to Harlem. If there’s one thing New Yorkers are really sensitive to, though, it’s a rip-off and it appears that’s what they got from Whole Foods last summer. But now, Whole Foods comes clean with New York paying $500,000 for overcharging city customers.

It was the story that, over the summer, ushered in a season of discontent with the grocery store chain nicknamed by its critics “Whole Paycheck”: the accusation that Whole Foods had overcharged some New York customers for, among other items, produce and pre-packaged fresh products.

Apologizing — and blaming its employees — Whole Foods quickly retreated.

“Straight up, we made some mistakes,” co-chief executive Walter Robb said in an online video that introduced a price-auditing system. “We want to own that and tell you what we’re doing about it.”

But the saga did not end there. Now, Whole Foods and New York City’s Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) have announced that the grocery chain will settle with the city for $500,000 — but issued dueling news releases about what the settlement means for consumers.

“After discovering the troubling and repeated mislabeling of pre-packaged goods at Whole Foods last year, we are happy to have reached an agreement with Whole Foods that will help to ensure New Yorkers are better protected from overcharging,” DCA Commissioner Julie Menin said in a statement. “Whether it’s a bodega in the Bronx or a national grocery store in Manhattan, we believe every business needs to treat its customers fairly and, with this agreement, we hope Whole Foods will deliver on its promise to its customers to correct their mistakes. DCA will also continue its vigilance in making sure New Yorkers are protected every time they check out at the grocery.”

As explained by the DCA, the agreement requires Whole Foods to:

• pay $500,000;
• conduct quarterly in-store audits of at least 50 products from 10 different departments at all New York City stores to help ensure products are accurately weighed and labeled, and to correct all inaccuracies;
• in the event that DCA inspectors identify mislabeled pre-packaged foods at a Whole Foods store, that store must immediately remove all mislabeled products and, within 15 days, Whole Foods must check the accuracy of that product’s pricing, as well as 20 additional products from the same department, at all New York City stores;
• implement and enforce policies and procedures that require employees not estimate the weight of a package but rather individually weigh each package and only label the package with a label that is based on the weight of the actual contents; and,
• conduct trainings for all New York City employees who are involved in weighing and labeling products.

Whole Foods, however, was less sanguine about the agreement, saying it is only paying to move on.

“While WFM refused to consider the DCA’s initial demands of $1.5 million, we agreed to $500,000 in order to put this issue behind us so that we can continue to focus our attention on providing our New York City customers with the highest level of quality and service,” the company said in a statement.

Whole Foods also criticized the auditing system outlined in the agreement.

“Unfortunately the DCA has misrepresented this agreement,” the company said. “WFM has had in place preexisting pricing and weights / measures programs including a third party auditing and training program and a 100 percent pricing accuracy guarantee that gives customers a full refund on any item inadvertently mispriced. These are pre-existing programs that go above and beyond the DCA’s requirements. Furthermore, the DCA’s allegations of violations on weighted/measured items were limited to New York City, and as our joint agreement states, there was no evidence of systematic or intentional misconduct by anyone in the Northeast region or the rest of the company.”

The agreement caps off a tough year for Whole Foods. The company didn’t just see dwindling revenues and have its stock price lose roughly a third of its value. It also faced criticism over $6 asparagus water and hard questions about whether its animal welfare rating system is meaningless. One investigation by animal activists even alleged its Thanksgiving turkeys endure “horrific conditions.”

Earlier this month, Paul R. La Monica of CNN Money wondered whether Whole Foods — a leader in the organic grocery revolution and a mainstay in gentrifying cities around the country — might not be targeted for a buyout.

“Some traders think the company might be looking to sell out so it no longer has to deal with Wall Street,” La Monica said. “… There’s little doubt that Whole Foods … would also be better off if it didn’t have to worry about meeting quarterly earnings and sales targets.”

Whole Foods is an expensive experience. FoodFacts.com is, however, grateful that this nutritionally conscious grocery store is there to offer consumers interesting, flavorful and generally more healthful alternatives. At the same time, we were a little shocked out that the market was actually OVER charging New York City customers on prices that are already on the high side to begin with.

We’re happy Whole Foods settled the score with New York City. We do expect more from businesses that appear to be more nutritionally aware and educated that have expressed some degree of preference for transparency.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/12/29/whole-foods-to-pay-500000-for-overcharging-nyc-customers/

More bad news for Chipotle – foodborne illness outbreak in Boston

chipotle closedChipotle is one of the most popular fast casual chain restaurants in the United States. It’s a restaurant that an abundance of consumers associate with being a healthier option than regular fast food restaurants. Chipotle’s elevated image contributes to its popularity as it’s generally felt that the chain uses better, fresher ingredients, fewer GMO ingredients and, overall, offers consumers a better option for a lunch or dinner on the go. Recently though, Chipotle’s been experiencing some problems on the health front. And now there’s more bad news for Chipotle – foodborne illness outbreak in Boston may tarnish their health halo.

Is it those holiday parties filled with people eating together? We’re not sure, but we keep hearing about new clusters of people getting poisoned by their meals.

The latest outbreak sickened at least 120 people in Boston, most of them students at Boston College.
This included eight members of the college’s basketball team. The team is scheduled to play Providence this evening, and as of this morning, it’s unclear whether the game will happen.

Most of the sick students reported eating at a nearby Chipotle Mexican Grill. (The college updated the number of students sickened from 80 to 120 students at 12:26 p.m. on Wednesday.)

This provoked suspicions of a link to an earlier outbreak of E. coli poisoning in the Pacific Northwest traced to Chipotle restaurants there.

It appears, however, that the two outbreaks are unrelated. According to preliminarytests, the Boston College students were sickened by another disease-causing organism, called norovirus.

Norovirus is sometimes overlooked, because it is less likely to kill you than disease-causing forms of E. Coli or salmonella. But it is by far the most common source of foodborne illness, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Chipotle has closed the restaurant near Boston College while the investigation continues. Government inspectors cited the company for allowing an employee to work there while ill last week, although the illness was not specified. Norovirus is highly contagious and is generally spread from person to person. (For more on what it’s like when this nasty bug strikes, read Emily Sohn’s essay over at Shots.)

On the other side of the country, meanwhile, prominent food safety lawyer Bill Marler tells us by email that an outbreak of foodborne illness has dampened spirits in his own office building. Last week, 200 people complained that they didn’t feel well after a catered event in that building. Three went to the hospital.

They were infected with norovirus

Today, all the restaurants in that building are closed, including a Starbucks. “People look a bit uncomfortable on crowded elevators,” Marler writes.

In the midst of this renewed food-safety crisis, Chief Executive Steve Ells apologized and said the restaurant would be the “safest place to eat.”

In an interview with Matt Lauer on “Today” Thursday morning , Mr. Ells, who founded the fast-casual Mexican-food chain in 1993, said he was sorry for the people who have gotten sick after eating at Chipotle and detailed what the company was doing to change its food-safety procedures.

“I’m sorry for the people who got sick. They are having a tough time and I feel terrible about that,” Mr. Ells said. “We’re doing a lot to rectify this and to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

In recent months, Chipotle has battled a number of outbreaks at its restaurants. Chipotle closed a restaurant Monday afternoon in Boston after more than 100 fell ill due to a norovirus.

From late October through mid-November, at least 52 people got sick from E. coli bacteria in an outbreak that spread through nine states. Chipotle has more than 1,900 locations in the U.S.

The food-safety concerns have hurt Chipotle’s business and prompted the company to sharply reduce fourth-quarter sales and earnings estimates.

Chipotle shares were up 4.8% to $574.13, but are still down 21% in the past three months.

Mr. Ells said teams of public-health and food-safety professionals were going through Chipotle’s entire distribution chain for all 64 ingredients used in its food to develop new procedures that will be “10-15 years ahead of industry norms.”

FoodFacts.com believes that consumers are very forgiving. But we do wonder about the effects of two instances of foodborne illness attributed to the brand in a relatively short time period and how that may affect perception. If you’re a Chipotle fan, how does yet another bout of public-health problems affect your image of Chipotle and the brand’s quality and status as a healthier food choice?

Let us know what you think!

http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/12/09/459056550/chipotle-faces-another-foodborne-illness-outbreak-this-time-in-boston

Low and slow takes on a whole new meaning as we learn to turn down the heat when cooking meats

iStock_000074539897_MediumSometimes the latest research can be really surprising, linking something you don’t normally think about as being dangerous or detrimental with something seemingly innocuous. That’s how we felt about a new study recently published in the journal Cancer. The results of that study have shown us how low and slow takes on a whole new meaning as we learn to turn down the heat when cooking meats.

The study finds that high-temperature cooking methods may increase the risk of kidney cancer if you consume a lot of meat. Turns out, the techniques you use to prepare your meat seem to play into this risk.

And other studies have found that high consumption of well-done, fried or charred meats is associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer, pancreatic and prostate cancer.

“The lower-risk methods are baking and broiling,” says Stephanie Melkonian, a post-doctoral fellow at the MD Anderson Cancer Center and a co-author of the new study in Cancer.

Other lower-temperature cooking techniques include sous-vide — which is used in some professional kitchens – and preparing meat in a Crock Pot or some other type of slow cooker. Or you can make a traditional pot roast, which skips the high-temperature searing process in favor of lower-temperature browning. This particular recipe cooks at 300 degrees.

If you listen to my story on Morning Edition, you’ll hear chemistry professor Matthew Hartings of American University use a steak and a blowtorch to explain the chemical reactions that take place as meat is browned.

Basically, as the outside of the meat browns up, and the temperature heats up, the chemical reaction creates lots of aroma and flavor compounds, some of which are molecules called cyclic amines. Harting says we evolved to like those flavor compounds. Think of it as an evolutionary nudge from our ancestors, who came to associate these smells as a sign that all nasty bacteria were cooked out.

But here’s the potential downside: If you cook the meat too long, at too high a temperature, the chemical reaction keeps going, creating other compounds. Some of them, known as heterocyclic amines (or HCAs), can be carcinogenic when we consume them in high-enough concentrations.
As the National Cancer Institute explains, HCAs “have been found to be mutagenic — that is, they cause changes in DNA that may increase the risk of cancer.”

To evaluate the association between cooking techniques and cancer risk, the researchers at MD Anderson documented the eating and cooking habits of people who’d been diagnosed with kidney cancer.

Then, they compared the kidney patients’ habits with the habits of a group of healthy, cancer-free people.

“What we found is that the way [people] cooked [their meat] did matter,” says Melkonian.

Those with cancer consumed more meat overall. And they were also more likely to pan-fry their meat at high temperatures, cook it over an open flame, or cook it until it was well-done or charred.

The study documented a nearly two-fold increase in the risk of kidney cancer associated with the intake of one particular type of HCA, known as MelQx, which is — according to the paper — “one of the most abundant HCAs commonly created in the grilling, barbecuing, and pan-frying of meats at high temperatures.”

As the researchers write in the study, this suggests “that the intake of meat cooked at high temperatures may impact the risk of kidney cancer through mechanisms related to mutagenic cooking compounds.”

It’s important to point out that other possible mechanisms may explain the link between high consumption of red meat and increased cancer risks.

For instance, as the authors point out, “heme iron and N-nitroso compounds exposures, which were not measured in the current study, also may play a role.” In other words: It’s complicated.

And as the authors point out, future studies are needed to get a more complete understanding.

It’s fascinating information that makes you stop and think carefully about how you cook your food. We’re always looking to understand what the healthiest foods are for us to consume and why. It’s equally important to examine what can make food unhealthy and how to avoid it. This study helps us with just that. So when you’re getting ready to fire up that grill or heat up the oil in that frying pan, you can remember that baking or broiling will get the job done with equal amounts of flavor and texture without the carcinogenic compounds!

http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/11/23/456654768/turning-down-the-heat-when-cooking-meat-may-reduce-cancer-risk