Lillian Udell | College of Nursing 2014
This past February, Oceana, the largest ocean conservationist NGO, released a report revealing that a significant amount of seafood sold in the U.S. is fraudulently labeled. After testing 1200 fish samples, the organization found that nearly one-third of the seafood was marketed as a different type than what it really was. Subsequently, consumers may be eating high levels of mercury without knowing it, and possibly facing other digestive risks related to eating too much of the wrong kind of fish.
The week after Oceana’s report, Oxfam International, a confederation of organizations aiming to end poverty, released “Behind the Brands,” the product of an 18 month long project measuring the performances of the ten largest food corporations including PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, Coca- Cola, and Nestlé. The report graded each company on seven main issues: small-scale farmers, farm workers, women’s rights, climate change, water, land, and transparency. Each of the ten companies received a failing score in every category.
These issues illuminate one of the largest problems that the American public has to face when it comes to all things food-related: the issue of transparency, or the lack thereof. In the modern day U.S., it is extremely challenging to eat healthy even if we want to; in the absence of transparency, we don’t know what is in what we’re eating, where it comes from, or even how it’s being made. The evidence is hard to ignore, with report after report exposing our food for what it really is, or, really is not.
In one such exposé, a new book called Pandora’s Lunchbox, author Melanie Warner uncovers the real sources of the added vitamins we so often see in our ingredient lists. Vitamin D, for example, which goes into nearly all of our
milk, organic or conventional, is manufactured in China with myriad chemicals from Australian sheep grease (75). B1, an essential ingredient in Splenda, is produced from the “brown goop” that comes from burning coal; B3 is manufactured from the waste products of nylon; and Vitamin A is often produced using acetone, a chemical we know best as nail polish remover (84-85). These synthetic ingredients are even allowed to slip into certified organic foods, often accepted by consumers as being safe and untainted (80).
Additionally, ingredients are often listed as something they’re not. One example is what the food industry calls “food-stimulating starches.” These not only allow the components of frozen foods to stay thick and moist, but also allow the flavor that’s needed from fruits and vegetables to be extracted without including the actual fruit or vegetable itself. Just to add to the mystery of the finished product, the list of ingredients is lawfully allowed to include “flour,” “cornstarch,” or “blueberries,” for example, even if all of the above is modified beyond recognition (6).
Then there are the ingredients that do not need to be listed at all. These include food contact substances, materials added to packaging and machinery, which can come with their own dangers. In fact, in 2010, General Mills recalled 28 million boxes of cereal because of a contamination caused by methylnaphthalene, a food contact substance. Events like this are bound to happen as long as companies have enormous discretion over what to consider safe or authentic. As long as the corporation’s own hired scientists deem it innocuous, the Food & Drug Administration does little to interfere (Warner, 2013, pg. 104-109).
Delving further into this issue, Pulitzer Prize winning writer Michael Moss spoke to chemists, food technicians, executives, designers, lobbyists,and others to investigate the inner workings of the food industry for his recent book, Salt Sugar Fat. What he discovered paints a bleak picture of the powers that be in the food industry. “It has taken me three and a half years of prying into the food industry’s operations,” Moss wrote, “to come to terms with the full range of institutional forces that compel even the best companies to churn out foods that undermine a healthy diet. Most critical, of course, is the deep dependence the industry has on salt, sugar, and fat” (pg. 337). According to Moss, this dependence has gotten our taste buds “jacked up for big doses” of all of the above, allowing consumers to become addicted to processed food while food corporations pander to their shareholders (p. 341,pg.338).
All of this information presents a bleak prospect for change. However, as Moss says, just knowing this information can be empowering; after all, what we eat and what we buy are our choices (p. 347). We can begin implementing change by holding the food industry accountable and demanding more transparency. The wheels have already been in motion for years, but there
is still a long way to go. Last November, Proposition 37 was on the ballot in California, proposing the enforcement of labeling for any food containing Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Though the measure failed, since then, several states have also moved to bring the issue to the ballot box, with Whole Foods even announcing recently that by 2018, all products
with GMOs in their stores would be mandatorily labeled. Also earlier this year, an online petition pressured PepsiCo to remove the ingredient Bromated Vegetable Oil, commonly used as a flame retardant, from Gatorade. While PepsiCo claims the change had nothing to do with the grassroots campaign, it stated that it was done in reaction to consumer concerns.
Pressuring corporations into changing or better labeling their ingredients is certainly necessary, but still far from ideal. It is also imperative to reform our eating habits by changing how we look at eating itself. Properly educating the public about proper portion sizes might significantly lower the amount of food that’s necessary to buy in the first place. Plus, spending money on food can be better emphasized as a priority. Americans spend a significantly smaller amount of their annual income on food than they did in 1950. Perhaps our priorities need to be reordered, and our taste for the newest technology and “toys” can be tempered a bit. The market exists on supply and demand; if consumers begin demanding fresher products, the food industry will be forced to reorder its priorities and more space will be made available to supply the consumers with what they desire.
Even if we cannot reach the day when our shopping carts include more carrots than potato chips, perhaps we can start by eliminating the riskier edibles, or at least learning about what they are. Maybe then, we can eliminate the chemical azodicarbonamide, which can cause burning eyes and skin irritation when exposed to air, from our bread, or propylene gycol, a chemical used in British Petroleum’s oil dispersant, from the sugar glaze that often coats our sweet snacks (Warner, 2013, p.103, p. 99). Maybe our list of 5000 additives, 3000 of which have been added since 1980, can be made smaller (p. 105). Or maybe, one day, when we sit down for dinner, we can be certain of what kind of fish is on our plate.
1 Democracy Now. (2013, February 22). Study: 1/3 of U.S. Seafood Samples Are Mislabeled. Retrieved from http://www.democracynow.org/2013/2/22/headlines#22212
2 Democracy Now. (2013, February 27). Behind the Brands: On Food Justice, Oxfam gives Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s, Nestlé, & Pepsi failing grades. Retrieved from http://www.democracynow.org/2013/2/27/behind_the_brands_on_fo od_justice
3 Warner, M. (2013). Pandora’s Lunchbox. New York: Scribner.
4 Moss, M. (2013). Salt Sugar Fat. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.
5 Almandrala, A. (2012, November 7). Prop 37 Defeated: California Voters Reject Mandatory GMO-Labeling. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/07/prop-37- defeated-californ_n_2088402.html
6 Polis, C. (2013, March 8). Whole Foods GMO Labeling to be Mandatory by 2018. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/08/whole-foods-gmo- labeling-2018_n_2837754.html
7 Choi, C. (2013, January 25). Gatorade To Remove Bromated Vegetable Oil After Consumer Complaints. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/25/gatorade- brominated-vegetable-oil_n_2551533.html