Sunday, August 17, 2008

Weekend Update

From our department of Universal Government Truths, this just in: High fructose corn syrup is actually "natural."

I know--you thought HFCS was a science experiment disguised to look like something edible.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration had previously told manufacturers they could not use the term "natural" to describe foods with HFCS in it because synthetic fixing agents are used in the manufacturing process. But now the FDA has found a way for companies like Archer Daniels Midland to proclaim HFCS as "natural" as, er, what? Fuel oil, maybe?

"The process sees the enzymes for making HFCS being fixed to a column by the use of a synthetic fixing agent called glutaraldehyde," according to an industry publication. "However, this agent does not come into contact with the high dextrose equivalent corn starch hydrolysate and so it is not 'considered to be included or added to the HFCS.' "

"However," says the FDA, "we would object to the use of the term 'natural' on a product containing HFCS that has a synthetic substance such as a synthetic fixing agent included in or added to it."

"We would also object to the use of the term 'natural' on a product containing HFCS if the acids used to obtain the starch hydrolysate do not fit within our policy on 'natural'."

Sounds perfectly natural to us. And you thought high fructose corn syrup just made you fat. Hah!


The new government outlook on what constitutes natural fits perfectly into the industry view of a healthy menu for kids.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest recently surveyed the meal choices at the nation's fast-food outlets and found that in almost every case, the options for kids added up to too many calories. In fact, according to the CSPI, 93 percent of 1,474 possible choices at the 13 chains they looked at exceed 430 calories—an amount that is one-third of what the Institute of Medicine recommends that children aged four through eight should consume in a day.

According to the CSPI, KFC has a wide variety of side items, but there are few meal combinations that keep a reasonable ceiling on calories. One example of a high-cal combo KFC kid’s meal (the chain calls them "Laptop Meals") has popcorn chicken, baked beans, biscuit, Teddy Grahams, and fruit punch, which has 940 calories. (KFC has since dropped Baked Cheetos from its kids’ meals, and some outlets vary the number of chicken strips or sides.)

Most of the kids’meals (93 percent) at McDonald’s and Wendy’s are too high in calories, as are the possibilities at Burger King (92 percent), Dairy Queen (89 percent), Arby's (69 percent), and Denny's (60 percent—though its kids' meals don’t include drinks). (Since CSPI’s study was completed, Burger King has introduced one new children's meal with macaroni and cheese, apple "fries," and 1 percent milk, which has a reasonable 420 calories.)

And which chain came out on top? If you said Subway, you would be correct. Only a third of its "Fresh Fit for Kids" meals, which include a mini-sub, juice box, and one of several healthful side items (apple slices, raisins, or yogurt), exceed the 430-calorie threshold. Subway is the only chain that doesn’t offer soft drinks with kids’ meals.

"Parents want to feed their children healthy meals but America’s chain restaurants are setting parents up to fail," said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. "McDonald's, Burger King, KFC, and other chains are conditioning kids to expect burgers, fried chicken, pizza, French fries, macaroni and cheese, and soda in various combination at almost every lunch and dinner."

Besides being almost always too high in calories, 45 percent of the kids' meals at the 13 chains studied by CSPI are too high in saturated and trans fat, and 86 percent are too high in sodium. That’s alarming, according to CSPI, because a quarter of children between the ages of five and ten show early signs of heart disease, such as high LDL (the "bad" cholesterol) or elevated blood pressure.


That certainly explains why kids avoid the greasy fast food in the school lunch line, right? Or did we get that backwards?

Schools officials in Fairfax County, Virginia, report that this fall for the first time lunch lines will be monitored with security cameras to try and cut down on food thievery.

The school system's food and nutrition services department estimated that $1.2 million worth of prepared food was lifted from cafeterias in the past school year.

Penny McConnell, director of food and nutrition services, said she hopes the cameras will curb theft and send a message to students that stealing from the cafeteria is no less serious than shoplifting from a store. "I would hate for them to make this a habit and take it into the community," she said. "They could get themselves into some serious situations that could impact their futures."

Stealing food is pervasive throughout the county, McConnell said, in high- and low-income areas alike. In an April issue of the McLean High School student newspaper, a reporter watched eight students stealing food during one lunch period. According to the story, one student shrugged after being spotted; another smiled.


What's a little food pilfery when there are so many calories to go around?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently released figures on food availability and with some helpful translation services from the Ethicurean we now know that between 1970 and 2004 about 500 hundred additional calories became available for the average American to consume.

The figures don't show exactly what Americans did with those extra available calories. But judging from the expanding girth of many Americans, there shouldn't be too much guesswork involved.

Among the more telling findings is the increase of about 150 calories a day in fats and oils in the American diet since the 1990s.


A sure sign that U.S. farmers are hard at work is the number of "dead zones" in the country's coastal waters.

There's a huge dead zone where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico caused by fertilizers in farm runoff from the nation's heartland. Another appears like clockwork every summer in the Chesapeake Bay. Fertilizers produce algae that suck all the oxygen out of the water so that nothing else can live there.

Writing for the journal Science, researchers say the number of marine “dead zones” around the world has doubled about every 10 years since the 1960s. At the same time, the zones along many coastlines have been growing in size and intensity. About 400 coastal areas now have periodically or permanently oxygen-starved bottom waters. Combined, they constitute an area larger than the state of Oregon.

“What’s happened in the last 40, 50 years is that human activity has made the water quality conditions worse,” Robert J. Diaz, the study’s lead author and a professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary, said in an interview. “Dead zones tend to occur in areas that are historically prime fishing grounds.”

While the size of dead zones is small relative to the total surface of the earth covered by oceans, scientists say they represent a significant portion of the ocean waters that support commercial fish and shellfish species.

In recent years, dead zones have grown in places like coastal China and the Kattegat Sea, where the Norway lobster fishery collapsed. They have also cropped up unexpectedly in pockets off the coast of South Carolina and the Pacific Northwest.

“There are large areas of the Gulf where you can’t catch any shrimp,” said Nancy Rabalais, executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. Dr. Rabalais has studied the dead zone there for more than two decades. “It’s sort of a losing battle.”


Finally, it's about time someone came up with a system where you can pick your favorite local food items from the comfort of your easy chair.

The University of Maryland recently uploaded a new website that allows consumers to choose everything from fresh tomatoes to ground emu from local farmers.

Developed by the university's Environmental Finance Center, the "Food Trader" site acts like a community bulletin board, where farmer's can list the foods they are harvesting and consumers can contact them directly about where they can buy it.

The next logical step if for gardeners like us to have our own website where we can tell consumers where they can get seeds so they can come over and start planting. We could also post dates for weeding and harvesting. How much do you think we should charge?

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