I Wish I Were Far From the Madding Crowd

May 23, 2010

Food safety, marketing, and reducing childhood obesity

White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity Report

This report was released earlier this month. It discusses issues and offers recommendations relating to childhood obesity, including the usual regarding diet and lack of physical activity, but also notes the role that “obesogens” (endocrine disruptors and other chemicals thought to increase obesity by interfering with the body’s metabolic processes), food marketing, product formulation, access to healthier food, etc., play a part in the obesity epidemic.

Report: Solving the Problem of Childhood Obesity Within a Generation


Full reporthttp://www.letsmove.gov/tfco_table_of_contents.pdf (chapters also available as individual PDFs)

  • Early Childhood – A. Prenatal Care; B. Breastfeeding; C. Chemical Exposures; D. Screen Time; and E. Early Care and Education
  • Empowering parents and caregivers – A. Making Nutrition Information Useful; B. Food Marketing; and C. Health Care Services
  • Healthy Food in Schools – A. Quality School Meals; B. Other Foods in Schools; C. Food-Related Factors in the School Environment; and D. Food in Other Institutions
  • Access to Healthy, Affordable Food – A. Physical Access to Healthy Food; B. Food Pricing; C. Product Formulation; D. Hunger and Obesity
  • Increasing Physical Activity – A. School-Based Approaches; B. Expanded Day and Afterschool Activities; C. The “Built Environment”; and D. Community Recreation Venues

The role of marketing

The report notes:

Food marketing to children and adolescents is a big business. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) estimates that, in 2006, food, beverage, and quick-serve restaurant companies spent more than $1.6 billion to promote their products to young people. Children and adolescents are an important demographic for marketers for several reasons: (1) they are customers themselves; (2) they influence purchases made by parents and caregivers; and (3) they are the future adult market.

The report says that the relationship between marketing and obesity isn’t firmly established, but that advertising does appear to have an effect on kids. Give me a break. Why would companies spend that kind of money if they weren’t getting the results they wanted?

Many books have been written about the ways in which companies try to market products to kids. A couple of note are Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture by Juliet Schor and Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood by Susan Linn. Both books cover food marketing in a good amount of detail (and are well-documented).

One of the things that caught my attention in Born to Buy was Schor’s discussion of how marketing companies want to create a world in which consumers are constantly bombarded by 360-degree advertising (or what one agency refers to as “infinite consumer touchpoint possibilities”).

What are the effects of such marketing? Probably not just obesity. Overstimulation. Psychological effects. Increased materialism. And what are the eventual consequences? In an article, “Children, Commercialism, and Environmental Sustainability,” the authors (Tim Kasser, Tom Crompton, and Susan Linn) argue that “the same generation of children that is being encouraged to prioritize wealth, consumption, and possessions is the same generation that, if current trends continue, will need to drastically reduce its consumption patterns so as to prevent further global climate disruption, habitat loss, and species extinction.”

Food safety issues

The USDA Office of Inspector General issued a report in March 2010 (Audit Report 24601-08-KC) noting that:

One of the public food safety issues facing the United States is the contamination of meat with residual veterinary drugs, pesticides, and heavy metals. “Residue” of this sort finds its way into the food supply when producers bring animals to slaughter plants while they have these residual contaminants in their system. When the animals are slaughtered, traces of the drugs or pesticides contained in these animals’ meat is shipped to meat processors and retail supermarkets, and eventually purchased by consumers. In order to safeguard the Nation’s food supply from harmful residue, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) administers the national residue program.

The Inspector General found that “the national residue program is not accomplishing its mission of monitoring the food supply for harmful residues. Together, FSIS, FDA, and EPA have not established thresholds for many dangerous substances (e.g., copper or dioxin), which has resulted in meat with these substances being distributed in commerce. Additionally, FSIS does not attempt to recall meat, even when its tests have confirmed the excessive presence of veterinary drugs.”

So the food we eat might actually be a source of obesity in more than one way.  Does this bother anyone else?

April 18, 2010

Sugar is sugar … or not?

If you’ve followed any of the discussion about high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) vs. sucrose, you’ve probably heard representatives of the soft drink industry and HFCS refiners repeatedly say that fructose is no different than sucrose and that they’re metabolized the same (which, according to more and more research, is debatable).  I’ll get to that a little further on.

How much sugar we’re consuming

Amber Waves article “Behind the Data: Estimating Consumption of Caloric Sweeteners.” (April 2003)

Amount of HFCS and refined sugar delivered to food and beverage manufacturers in 2001

Intake levels represent the difference between total deliveries of calorie sweeteners for food and beverage use and estimated losses
Graphics from http://www.ers.usda.gov/AmberWaves/April03/Indicators/behinddata.htm

Make note of that 31.1 teaspoons per day figure for 2001.  (Daily intake in teaspoons = average annual intake in pounds / 365 days per year x 16 ounces per pound x 28.3495 grams per ounce / 4.2 grams per teaspoon.)

Think about the last item in that formula.  If the label on a box of cereal says 9 g of sugars, that means that a single serving contains 2 tsps of sugar.  A 12 oz. soda containing 39 g of sugars contains more than NINE teaspoons of sugar.  You get the idea.

According to Dietary Assessment of Major Trends in U.S. Food Consumption, 1970-2005 (see references), for 2005 it was down to 30 teaspoons per day.

What does this tell us?

Several points, one, representatives of the Corn Refiners Association and beverage manufacturers are right when they say that whether it’s fructose or sucrose doesn’t really matter.  If you’re consuming almost 4 times the amount of added sugars you should be, you are going to have problems!

Two, sucrose contained in beverages begins to undergo hydrolysis once it’s bottled and separates into its component parts (that is, fructose and glucose).  So in many cases when you’re drinking a sugar-sweetened soda you’re not drinking sucrose in solution, but sucrose, fructose, and glucose.  If enough time goes by most of the sucrose turns into free fructose and glucose.

A number of studies have shown that fructose is metabolized differently than glucose, but other studies seem to indicate that’s not as much of a concern, except possibly in two cases: one, when the ratio of fructose to glucose consumption is high, or in cases of high consumption of calories.  I would say that we have a combination of those, a relatively high ratio of fructose to glucose consumption (look at the relative amounts of HFCS to refined sugars used by beverage manufacturers!) together with consuming too many calories from sugar.  (And remember, that’s just the average amount.  Some people are consuming even larger amounts of sugar.)

Background on high fructose syrups

I recently came across a very interesting article, coauthored by John S. White, who is, or at least has been, a consultant to the Corn Refiners Association.

“Manufacturing, composition, and applications of fructose.”  L. Mark Hanover and John S. White.  American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 1993, v.58(suppl.), 724S-732S.

The article describes the manufacturing and refining process of HFCS (or, as the authors call it, HFS), the composition of various grades of HFCS (as well as crystalline fructose and crystalline fructose syrup), functional properties and uses, and regulatory status.

What I found so fascinating about this particular article though, were these bits of information scattered throughout it.  According to the authors , HFS-42 (that is, HFCS that is 42% fructose) was the “first generation syrup of commerce.”  (p.726S)

They go on to note that :

Japanese and US manufacturers were producing HFS containing 55% fructose by the late 1970s.  HFS-55 was adopted by the carbonated-beverage industry and became the predominant sweetener in colas by late 1984. (p.726S)

On p. 727S, a table showing the typical composition of the various grades of fructose (ranging from 42% all the way up to 80% and 95%).

  • HFS-42 is 42% fructose, 53% dextrose (i.e. glucose), and 5% oligosaccharides
  • HFS-55 is 55% fructose, 42% glucose, and 3% oligosaccharides
  • HFS-80 is 80% fructose, 18% glucose, and 2% oligosaccharides
  • HFS-95 is 95% fructose, 4% glucose, and 1% oligosaccharides

One of the minor differences between HFS-80 and HFS-95 is that they, unlike the other two, contain less sulfated ash and no sulfur dioxide.  (Okay, the HFS-42 and -55 contain only 2 parts per million.)

The crystalline fructose and crystalline fructose syrup are both 99.5% or greater fructose.

What is interesting is that the authors note, p. 731S, that HFS-55 was being used in colas by late 1984, but that in 1988 the FDA had “proposed to recognize the long history of safety for fructose and reaffirm the GRAS status of HFS as a direct human food ingredient.” (FDA, 1992, 21 CFR 182.1866)  GRAS = “Generally Recognized As Safe” (for particular uses of a substance), CFR = Code of Federal Regulations

They go on to note: “The petition is specific for HFS-42, but may include HFS-55 on review of its additional processing steps.”

I’m not a lawyer, but to me that sounds like HFS-55 had not actually been approved for use as a direct human food ingredient at the time that cola manufacturers were starting to use it.  (I guess they must have just done that after the fact.)

HFS-55 vs. HFS-42

“The carbonated beverage industry is the largest user of HFS-42 and -55.” (p. 729S)  HFS-42 is primarily used in non-colas and HFS-55 in many colas, though colas can also be made using more HFS-42.  (See the graphic above about the use of sugar vs. HFCS by food vs. beverage manufacturers.)

In 1993 more than than 90% of energy-containing carbonated beverages produced in the U.S. were sweetened with HFS.

If I understand Hannover and White correctly, before 1984 most colas apparently were sweetened with HFS-42 and after 1984 with HFS-55.  In other words, the HFCS had approximately a 13% increase in the amount of fructose in it after the switch.

More importantly, the ratio of fructose to glucose changed from 42:53 to 55:42.  Why is that important?

Fructose malabsorption

Too much fructose in the diet can cause irritable bowel syndrome and other gastrointestinal problems.  However, studies have found that the problems are reduced when fructose is consumed with glucose.  (A certain percentage of the population is more prone to this, but it doesn’t seem to be an issue for most people.)

This is where you run into the problems of fructose metabolic products related to metabolic syndrome.   (The results of some studies also suggested that fructose malabsorption and metabolism problems were more likely to be associated with copper deficiency.)

Is HFCS the biggest problem?

I was going to say that HFCS is not the innocent player some portray it to be, then I realized that’s not really accurate.  The use of HFCS is not in and of itself the problem; the problem is food and beverage manufacturers putting it in almost every food and beverage they can.  It’s cheaper than refined sugar.  And most fast food places and restaurants reportedly make a higher profit margin off of soft drinks.  Once HFCS was introduced soft drink ingredients became so inexpensive that a lot of places started offering free refills.  I’m sure someone has brought that up before, but perhaps free refills are one of the main contributing factors to the increase in obesity (!?).   When people had to pay for a second glass of soda, they drank less.  Sorry, I don’t have a citation for that, but that seems obvious.  (Okay, I had to check.  I did a search on Google Scholar on +”obesity epidemic” +”free refills” and got 21 hits.   Google Scholar searches the scientific literature and books, as opposed to the entire Web.)

One example (with excerpt containing search terms):

Fructose, insulin resistance, and metabolic dyslipidemia

H Basciano, L Federico, K Adeli – Nutrition & Metabolism, 2005 – biomedcentral.com
in humans and animals, but the emphasis on fat reductions has had no significant benefits relative to the obesity epidemic. bombarded by huge million-dollar advertising campaigns for soft drinks, offered extra-extra-large serving sizes with free refills.

Apparently this is known as “portion distortion.”

Put that together with chronic overconsumption of sugar (regardless of whether they’re fructose or sucrose), unbalanced diets (deficiencies in vitamin D?), and not as much exercise as we should be getting.

Then throw in genetics, add a good dose of epigenetics in the form of gene-environment interactions, and you have all the conditions for development of metabolic syndrome and an obesity epidemic.

More on this in another post.


Dietary Assessment of Major Trends in U.S. Food Consumption, 1970-2005, by Hodan Farah Wells and Jean C. Buzby, Economic Information Bulletin No. (EIB-33) 27 pp, March 2008, http://www.ers.usda.gov/Publications/EIB33/

April 11, 2010

Monsanto and seed control – Joint USDA/DOJ Public Workshops on Agriculture and Antitrust Enforcement Issues

Genetic engineering may not be the only threat posed by Monsanto and other firms that are now dominating agriculture.  (See my previous post that, among other things, discusses the spread of resistance to glyphosate.)  Control of the seed supply through patents and licensing means that seed prices could become noncompetitive.  Higher seed prices will eventually result in higher food prices.  In addition, non-genetically-engineered crops will become more difficult to find.

Public Workshops on Agriculture and Antitrust Enforcement Issues in Our 21st Century Economy


Includes links to the Iowa Workshop agenda and transcript (348 pages!), prepared remarks, comments (over 15,000 were received!)

Press Release: Department of Justice and USDA Workshops to Explore Competition and Regulatory Issues in the Agriculture Industry to Begin March 12 in Iowa

Original – http://www.justice.gov/atr/public/press_releases/2010/255559.htm

From PR Newswirehttp://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/department-of-justice-and-usda-workshops-to-explore-competition-and-regulatory-issues-in-the-agriculture-industry-to-begin-march-12-in-iowa-85082887.html

At the end of this post I have included excerpts from the Dec. 2009 report Out of Hand: Farmers Face the Consequences of a Consolidated Seed Industry, which discusses the ramifications of the use of biotechnology in agriculture.

Monsanto 7-State Probe Threatens Profit From Gene in 93% of Soy (Bloomberg News)


March 10 (Bloomberg) — At least seven U.S. state attorneys general are investigating whether Monsanto Co., the world’s largest seed producer, has abused its market power to lock out competitors and raise prices.

Iowa and Illinois, whose antitrust probes Monsanto disclosed previously, have joined with Ohio, Texas, Virginia and two other states in a working group coordinating the inquiries, according to investigators, farmers and seed dealers….

“Rapid Rise in Seed Prices Draws U.S. Scrutiny,” NY Times


“Justice Dept. Tells Farmers It Will Press Agriculture Industry on Antitrust,” NY Times



8 Steps the Department of Justice Could Take to Reform Farming « AllergyKids Blog

Part of a blog post by Robyn Smith, founder of the Allergykids Foundation (http://www.AllergyKids.com).  Emphasis added.
On Friday in an unprecedented move with the USDA, the Department of Justice  will launch an investigation into the farm business. The investigation begins a 7-state probe into how Monsanto treats its customers, our nation’s farmers.

I recently had the honor of presenting for our nation’s top producing farmers in Chicago at the Top Producer Seminar, sponsored by Cargill and Pioneer. I was scheduled to present with Monsanto’s VP of Sustainable Yield, but a few days before the presentation was told that he had moved to China and that there was no one to take his place. I then had the privilege of spending the afternoon in an incredibly insightful discussion with the farmers, many of whom are Monsanto’s customers, who are remarkable fathers, grandfathers and businessmen.

As I found the courage to take the stage, I shared that according to the USDA, farm income was down 35% in 2009. I then shared that Monsanto is reporting, in forward looking statements to Wall Street analysts based on projected sales that they have asked for from the farmers, that they are expecting gross margins in Q2 2010 of 62% and that they are expecting to drive up the price mix of their products, corn and soy, by 8-10%.  I also shared that according to these forward looking statements, Monsanto expects to expand their glyphosate revenue to an estimated $1 billion in gross profit by 2012, further enabling Monsanto to drive R&D into seeds and to price those seeds at a premium – further driving price increases on the farm.

And then I listened.

What I learned from these remarkable men and women is simply jaw dropping.

Due to Monsanto’s contracts with seed companies, farmers are now bound by the threat of a lawsuit if they speak out regarding farm practices.  As third and fourth generation farmers, inheriting their grandfathers’ lands, their corn crops are no longer regulated by the FDA but by the EPA due to the insecticidal proteins they now contain, and they are subject to rising, unregulated costs never beforeseen in farming – contractual fees, trait fees, licensing fees and royalty fees and germ plasm fees associated with a technology that has been engineered into seeds designed to enhance Monsanto’s bottom line.

As I listened to the farmers and learned about their trade practices, I could not help but think of AT&T and the Bell System which for years functioned as a regulated monopoly until an antitrust investigation resulted in its break-up, as the practices employed by Monsanto on the farm, rival the fee structure that the phone company once had in place…..

More background

Food’s Wake-Up Call to EPA: “The regulatory system is not working” « AllergyKids Blog

Out of Hand: Farmers Face the Consequences of a Consolidated Seed Industry

A Report by the “FARMER to FARMER” Campaign on Genetic Engineering, Dec. 2009

From the Executive Summary

The seed industry has quickly consolidated. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced in August 2009 that it would investigate alleged anticompetitive conduct in the seed industry largely because a few dominant firms now control much of the seed supply.

Ten companies account for about two-thirds (65 percent) of the world’s proprietary seed – that is, branded varieties subject to intellectual property protections – for major crops. Economists say that an industry has lost its competitive character when the concentration ratio of the top four firms (CR4) is 40 percent or higher. In seed, the top four firms account for 50 percent of the proprietary market alone, and 43 percent of the commercial market, which includes both proprietary and public varieties. This level of concentration has proven problematic, reducing choice and increasing prices for the average American farmer.

NOTE: The top four companies are Monsanto, Dupont/Pioneer Hi-Bred, Syngenta, and Bayer CropScience.

At least 200 independent seed companies have been lost in the last thirteen years alone.

Discussions on seed industry consolidation typically center on the dominant firm, the Monsanto Company, which achieved the No. 1 position in less than a decade by capturing the markets for corn, soybean, cotton, and vegetable seed. Its position is most evident when looking at acreage. Today, its genetically engineered (GE) traits are planted on more than 80 percent of U.S. corn acres and more than 90 percent of soybean acres.

Three major trends have emerged in the Monsanto-dominated seed marketplace that prove challenging to farmers.

1) Historic price increases in seed driven by royalty fees for GE traits

USDA figures show that the most substantial price increases occurred parallel to the rise in GE crop plantings, with the most significant price increases occurring within the last few years.  Corn seed prices in 2009 were more than 30 percent higher, and soybean seed nearly 25 percent higher, than 2008 prices. These mark the steepest year-to-year increases to date.

Monsanto’s dramatic price increases are unmatched. The company’s traits and the technology (royalty) fees tied to them stand out as the driving force behind increased seed costs. These fees vary by crop type, but all have increased substantially over the years. The Roundup Ready trait in soybeans added $6.50 per bag in 2000 and has nearly tripled since then, now costing $17.50 per bag for the same trait – sometimes attributing to nearly half the price of a bag of Roundup Ready soybean seed.

2) The biotechnology industry’s push for greater market penetration of stacked traits in corn

Higher seed prices have also resulted from Monsanto leveraging its market share to stack various traits into single varieties. In 2008, Monsanto executed an “expanded trait penetration” plan to increase sales of seed comprised of, or “stacked,” with three different traits. The strategy is aggressive and effective: First capture ample market share through attractive pricing structures and then increase prices once “penetration goals” are met. Because each trait fetches a separate royalty for Monsanto, as seed traits are stacked, prices grow.

3) Lack of conventional corn and soybean seed options

Monsanto also boosts triple-stack seed sales by effectively eliminating other options in the marketplace. As the industry consolidates, seed options narrow, and farmers lose access to important varieties they once relied on. Conventional (non-GE) options have diminished, and single and double trait corn varieties are also more difficult to locate. Farmers report that it is increasingly hard to Bt corn without the Roundup Ready trait.  Monsanto’s data confirms this trend.

To drive farmers toward triple stack varieties, Monsanto implemented more dramatic price increases for single trait and double stack varieties while reducing single trait and conventional options in its own brands and subsidiary companies. Little attention has been given to this emerging trend, where demand does not factor in as much as a lack of choice.

To be sure, there is great demand among farmers for GE corn and soybeans. Yet demand for conventional varieties is growing at the same time that farmers are seeing these varieties slip away as the industry consolidates. Higher Roundup Ready soybean seed prices have sparked  renewed interest in conventional soybeans. In 2009, numerous university extension agents reported that conventional soybean sales had doubled and demand could not be met. In fact, this year marked the first reduction of GE soybean acres since their introduction in 1996.

This report explores how the renewed demand for conventional soybeans is a result of various factors: high seed and glyphosate costs, glyphosate-resistant weeds, high premiums for conventional soybeans, and the ability to save non-patented varieties of conventional seed. Taken together, buying conventional soybean seed leads to cheaper production costs, access to more profitable markets, and the ability to save and improve seed.

“Antitrust Questions for Monsanto,” NY Times


“As Patent Ends, a Seed’s Use Will Survive,” NY Times


Videos on same topic at http://article.wn.com/view/2010/03/20/Expiring_patents_sow_seeds_of_battle/

“Crop Scientists Say Biotechnology Seed Companies Are Thwarting Research,” NY Times


March 21, 2010

U.S. Task Force on Childhood Obesity looking for ideas

We’ll see whether this has any impact, given some of the recent discoveries about the role of fructose in the obesity epidemic.

Task Force asks public for ideas on how to solve the obesity challenge (March 17, 2010, press release)

Federal Register request for input, March 16, 2010:

[Text version] [PDF version]

On Feb. 9, 2010, President Obama created the first-ever federal task force to enhance coordination between private sector companies, not-for-profits, agencies within the government and other organizations to address the problem of childhood obesity. The Presidential Memo that established the Task Force directed senior officials from executive agencies and the White House to develop a comprehensive interagency action plan that details a coordinated strategy, identifies key benchmarks and goals, describes research gaps and needs, and assists in the development of legislative, budgetary, and policy proposals that can improve the health and well-being of children, their families, and communities.

Now, Dr. Robert Lustig spoke about the basic problem with FDA and USDA on this issue in a lecture (see “The toxic effects of … sugar“).  He said that the biggest problem is not lack of exercise, but ingesting too much fructose.  (If lack of exercise is the reason, explain why there’s an epidemic of obese six-month-olds.)

Lustig says that the studies linking fat consumption and heart disease did not control for sugar consumption.  He pointed out that in Western societies high-fat diets are high-sugar diets.   And he said that FDA won’t regulate fructose because it’s not an acute toxin, but a chronic toxin leading to metabolic syndrome (plus, the FDA considers it “natural”—which Dr. Lustig notes is true only on the technicality that HFCS is made from a natural product—HFCS is highly processed and refined).  And the USDA, which controls the food pyramid, won’t touch high fructose corn syrup because it’s made from corn.  (See also “Junk food turns rats into addicts. Bacon, cheesecake, Ho Hos alter brain’s pleasures centers.”)

The Federal Register notice points people to First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative – http://www.letsmove.gov/.  I certainly support this, but I think they need to go further and start looking at the connection between fructose and obesity.  The site has links to all sorts of useful information, including a link to the Food Environment Atlas from USDA which shows consumption of various foods around the U.S., as well as maps showing diabetes and obesity rates (under “Health”).

While there’s no acknowledgement that the type of sugar we’re consuming has an effect, I did notice that there are signs that someone in the government is paying attention.  Water is recommended as the main drink.  Fruit juices are discouraged, as are “added sugars.”  But they don’t appear to have made the leap yet to the connection between fructose and the metabolic syndrome, which appears to be even more important than the number of calories consumed or burned.

Related posts:

Update on fructose – Dr. Lustig on Nightline” and “Fructose overdose

See also:

Laura Sanders.  “Junk food turns rats into addicts. Bacon, cheesecake, Ho Hos alter brain’s pleasures centers.” Science News.  November 21, 2009.

Paul Johnson and Paul Kenny. “Society of Neuroscience Program.”  ‘Neuroscience 2009′ Conference. October 17-21, 2009.  Chicago.

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