That Other Thing Making Us Fat

Newsflash: Food isn’t the only thing making us fat! To food and health personalities like Mark Bittman, Katie Couric and Michael Pollan preaching against typical eating habits: I hear you. But it’s not just the food.

Allow me to indulge myself with an anecdote related to obesity. I grew up on a farm. So did my father, his father and my great-grandfather. They got up before the sun every day to milk cows by hand. Then they did it again in the evening. My great-grandfather drove mules to plow, plant and harvest crops on hundreds of acres of land each year. My great-grandmother raised chickens and a garden for fresh vegetables. Somewhere along the line, indoor plumbing and electricity came along. And now machines do much of the back-breaking work on farms and in day-to-day life. But a few generations later, my family generally eats the same as they did when manual labor was the easiest sort to come by. And it’s not just my family.

Technology and urbanization aren’t the only things changing the way we live (and die) in developed economies. Take this unpopular sentence: The price of food in the United States is relatively cheap compared to the rest of the world. Americans spend less than 10 percent of our incomes on food.  In Japan, that spending level falls in the high teens. The Economist postulates that, as countries develop, citizens there spend proportionately less on food. We’ve also seen that obesity tends to climb in more developed countries. Let’s not kid ourselves: Americans like things cheap. So we buy more food. Human bodies are designed to seek out the most energetically rewarding things to eat. So we eat fat and sugar because it makes us feel good.

In a recent column, long-time New York Times food spokesperson Mark Bittman says that sugar and processed foods are causing weight gain. These energy sources alone are not the only nefarious influences plaguing the bodies of citizens of developed countries.

By and large, these citizens — Americans included — generally spend the majority of their waking hours in front of computers. It’s unhealthy for our bodies and throws our natural energy cycles off. We drink excessive amounts of caffeine to stay awake and motivated in the sitting position, which stresses our adrenal glands and taxes the quality of our sleep. That makes many people so tired that when they’re done sitting at a desk, all they have energy to do is to go home and relax in front of the computer or TV. The Washington Post says all of this sitting leads to organ damage, muscle degeneration, foggy brains and bad backs. I can surely attest to that last symptom. Americans also typically have fewer vacation days and use fewer sick days. That’s more time we’re soaking up screen time and fluorescent lighting in our offices with windows that can’t open to let in fresh air.

I imagine you’re reading this sitting at your desk, a similar place to where I’m writing it. Or perhaps riding on public transportation. So why don’t you take another quick trip with me?

I recently spent five days camping in the lush and rocky state and national parks west of Denver. Aside from several hikes that lasted as long as I usually occupy my desk chair, I had to walk to a water pump and exert more energy than turning on the tap to get H20. I gathered kindling and helped build a fire at night. I hiked all day, like humans were generally designed for. I barely looked at my phone, let alone a computer screen. I probably lost a few pounds in the process and I felt great besides. I was in the sun and the fresh air, the way nature intended. I have yet to see any research on the influence of fluorescent lights and central air on obesity.

We don’t need a war on “Big Food” to lower obesity rates in the U.S. We need to reevaluate our lifestyles as a culture. The warlike option is the easier one, which is why Katie Couric’s recent documentary “Fed Up” places the blame for obesity on food manufacturers. In addition to bowing to consumer demand for more natural and organic foods, the industry needs to stick up for itself and point a finger at how Americans live instead of just what they eat.

Overeating unhealthy food isn’t helping, but it’s also not the one-and-only culprit in the U.S. and global obesity epidemic. It’s our current lifestyle in the industrialized world and the fact that our bodies evolved to survive the wilds of nature, but we now use them, generally, to sit in buildings. That other thing making us fat is how we live.

2014: The Year of the Label

What’s in a name? Or, more appropriately for food manufacturers, what’s on a label? In 2014, this question will be analyzed from angles we’ve yet to imagine. 

While the federal government struggles to implement the Food Safety and Modernization Act, industry groups and large food processors are taking up the mantle to define food labeling. For some large processors, the sustainable practices often associated with this type of labeling, as well as the larger consumer movement for food information, have become part of corporate strategy and reliable ingredient sourcing. Food manufacturers are wise to keep a close watch on these developing trends to best position their operations for changes in both labeling and the product content it describes.

GMOs: General Mills kicked off 2014 by slapping “Not Made With Genetically Modified Ingredients” labeling on boxes of original Cheerios. The breakfast classic’s primary ingredient, oats, made the transition simple because that crop’s never been genetically modified. But, like green grocery innovator Whole Foods’ demand that suppliers label GMO content by 2018, such moves by big players are a bellwether of what could become the norm.

Food manufacturers are keeping a hawk’s eye on GMO labeling policy. Campbell Soup Co. Vice President of Manufacturing Mark Cacciatore said in an interview in December “… we need consistency in legislation. It would be chaos for us if there were different [GMO labeling] requirements in different parts of the country.”

Last year, 26 states introduced GMO labeling legislation, sparking several highly publicized and narrowly defeated votes. Only two states succeeded: Maine and Connecticut passed GMO labeling laws that go into effect only if four other large states also implement labeling laws. Several states are already proposing laws regarding GMO agriculture and foods this year.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) is pitching a federal GMO policy that would make the labeling voluntary, preempt state laws on GMO labels and shift much of the responsibility of OKing GMO foods to the Food and Drug Administration.

Natural: In the same proposal, the GMA wants the FDA to define the term “natural” and preempt states from defining the word. The FDA admits “natural” is difficult to define. It hasn’t objected to foods labeled “natural” if they’re free of added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances. But that’s advice, not law. In the last year, well-known manufacturers including Pepperidge Farms, Naked Juice, Ben & Jerry’s and Frito-Lay dropped the word from their labeling and marketing as suspect ingredients were called into question amid a flurry of class-action suits. 

Sustainable: McDonald’s recently vowed to source only “verified sustainable beef” for its burgers by 2016. This year, the fast food giant said it aspires to support development of global principles and criteria for that beef. “Sustainable,” like “natural” is another labeling term that lacks uniform definition.

Nutrition Labeling: Facts Up Front, the front-of-package nutrition labeling initiative spearheaded by the GMA and Food Marketing Institute in 2011, is expected to unleash a $50 million ad campaign. Supporters including General Mills, Kraft and Mondelez International will likely fund their own promotion of the labeling. The GMA said as many as 80 percent of products from participating manufacturers will display Facts Up Front by the end of 2014.

Food Date Labels: In its campaign against food waste, the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) has honed in on food date labels printed on packaging. Often interpreted by consumers and retailers as expiration dates, the council and some manufacturers say this date instead indicates peak freshness. As the date comes and goes, confused consumers toss the food out due to safety concerns. This could add up to hundreds of dollars’ worth of annual waste for American households. The NRDC calls for a simpler date labeling system for food. Though the FDA and USDA regulate food label dating, they don’t define the date terms, leaving it up to states. Lack of an industry-wide definition equals more food in dumpsters, according to the NRDC. 

Food labeling is the industry topic to watch in 2014. Food Manufacturing will keep you posted with daily news, articles and blogs at

This article originally appeared in Food Manufacturing’s January/February 2014 print issue.

Food is Going to Pot

Edibles, special brownies or adult cookies. Call the THC-infused foods now legally on the market in Colorado and Washington what you will. The regional legalization of recreational marijuana opens a door for niche food manufacturers, though some consumers are finding it hard to swallow.

ABC News said the products are flying off of the shelves to the point that retailers are imposing purchase limits. In fact, one edibles company is investing in a new 30,000-square-foot manufacturing facility and warehouse to meet demand. Like wine tours and cheese tastings, THC-infused edibles offer an intriguing new educational experience for foodies in locales where it’s legal. Twenty states and the District of Columbia allow medical cannabis use. Given the current tide of decriminalization and palliative legalization, the edibles market is buzzworthy indeed.

The Washington Post reports the push toward legalized and taxed marijuana has roots in states’ financial desperation. The paper publication also posits that forays into natural health cures and citizen skepticism about government regulation (and perhaps hilariously kitschy propaganda) are cultivating consumer interest in cannabis. Edibles offer an alternative for those who’d rather not smoke. Hemp, the male cannabis plant, is also gaining more acceptance as an extremely renewable source of fiber for cloth and paper.

But this is America, so naysayers killing the vibe are definitely in supply.

Recently, The New York Times ran a column penned by a mother whose 21-year-old son unknowingly ate a roommate’s THC-infused chocolate bar. The man ended up in the hospital, yet sustained no lasting injuries. But don’t blame the manufacturer. He ate a “4:20 Bar” wrapped in a very explicit label detailing its THC content and the recommended serving size. It’s unfortunate that he had a bad experience, but he’s an adult. And an allergic reaction to peanuts would cause more lasting harm.

Won’t someone think of the children?

Another New York Times article stated that “. . .  like flavored cigarettes or wine coolers, critics say, edible marijuana offers a dangerously easy on-ramp for younger users.” Yet Boone’s Farm and Mike’s Hard Lemonade are perfectly legal. That’s where adult supervision comes in. The article follows that, “Marijuana, even if consumed by children in high doses, poses few of the grave dangers of overdosing on alcohol or drinking household chemicals.” In environments with young children, it’s common sense to hide the edibles, just like responsibly stashing liquor and Draino out of their reach. Accordingly, manufacturers have a responsibility to label their products accordingly and to refrain from advertising that would attract children.

Foods containing THC shouldn’t be any more maligned than alcoholic beverages.

Countless booze-soaked foods are on the market. My dad likes to hand out Grand Marnier chocolates at Christmas. A local bar dispenses amazing vodka-soaked gummy bears. A former coworker bestowed Old Kentucky Bourbon Chocolates upon the office folk around Derby time. I’m sure we’ve all had a few too many Jell-O shots once or twice.  It’s a personal and parental responsibility to police what’s being munched on.

On a recent trip to Peru, I drank copious cups of coca tea to calm altitude sickness. Without coca candy, I couldn’t have made it through the four-day Inca Trail hike, including a 13,775-foot peak. Coca, the plant whose leaves are used to create the addictive drug cocaine, has been used harmlessly for centuries in high-altitude parts of Peru. Shops in the country sell candy and cookies infused with the leaf’s active ingredient. Sure, if you consume too much, you’re bound to have an unfavorable reaction. But that’s a personal choice. If a consumer has nausea, a headache or would rather not drink but still itches for some stress relief, edibles are an accessible answer where legally allowed.

Some edibles producers load more than average food manufacturing technology into their production processes. These aren’t your garden-variety Phish concert brownies.

Dixie Elixirs and Edibles, the previously mentioned expanding edibles manufacturer, extracts cannabis oil with CO2 and concentrates it. The company conducts lab tests on the extracts and products at three stages in the manufacturing process to ensure proper dosage. Getting legitimate processors involved in manufacturing this kind of food is much safer for consumers than the randomly produced varieties available at festivals probably near you. Technology in edibles production also opens a door for food manufacturing equipment makers who are willing to cater to the budding market.

Adding to the viability of edibles manufacturing is the Obama administration’s recently issued guidelines for banks working with legitimate marijuana enterprises. Meant to instill confidence in doing this previously illicit business, banks say the guidelines aren’t sufficient and the government seems to be blowing smoke. However, several similar small edicts add up to eventual major policy shifts.

It’s not a business model for everyone, particularly those outside of states that currently allow cannabis sales, but THC-infused edibles is a niche market with high profit potential.

Food Additives Go Au Natural

A quick Google search of “food additives” yields first-page results including the terms “avoid,” “scariest,” “evil” and “sketchy.” The court of public opinion has handed down a verdict that food manufacturers would be wise to heed. By popular demand, the natural additives are coming.

Shorter, simpler and therefore “cleaner” food labels are in high demand by health-conscious consumers. Manufacturers face a reformulation challenge: consistently adapt the product to the previous version’s flavor, color, mouthfeel and shelf stability. Some large food manufacturers are complying piecemeal with natural additive demand while attempting to maintain the quality of their products.

Kraft Foods is on a natural-additive tear. Last October, Kraft vowed to cut artificial dyes from three varieties of mac and cheese that come in kid-friendly pasta shapes. In February, the company pledged to remove artificial preservatives from its most popular varieties of Singles cheese slices by replacing sorbic acid with natamycin. This naturally occurring anti-fungal agent, produced by bacteria during fermentation, is commonly found in soil.  What’s so bad about sorbic acid? It’s just not “natural.”

“Natural” lacks legal definition, but has generally agreed-upon parameters. The FDA washes its hands of total authority, admitting that “[b]ecause of inherent limitations of science, FDA can never be absolutely [emphasis theirs] certain of the absence of any risk from the use of any substance.” Hence consumer demand for natural food additives.

What’s all of the food fuss about? I trace the current wave of the new American food consciousness to Michael Pollan. The author, in his 2008 New York Times Best Seller “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” postulated that it’s healthiest to abstain from eating foods and ingredients your grandmother wouldn’t recognize. Pollan refers to highly manufactured foods as “food-like substances.” Cue the rush to all things natural in order to promote health in an era riddled with obesity and chronic disease.

As international trade erases borders, consumers are increasingly turning to foods whose sources and ingredients are more transparent. People who spend their days inundated by technology are finding comfort in simple, classic foods and home cooking. But most food purists simply can’t spend all of their extra hours in a flour-dusted apron. The next-best alternative? Eat processed foods that contain as few ingredients as possible, preferably natural. That’s where manufacturers come in.

Consumers want transparency and choice. If they can afford it, they’ll avoid health risks. In the information age, consumer sentiment is forcing the government’s hand.

For instance, the FDA is currently investigating caramel coloring in soft drinks and other foods after Consumer Reports tested them for chemical 4-methylimidazole (4-Mel), an impurity formed at low levels in some caramel coloring during manufacturing. The FDA hasn’t established a maximum 4-Mel level, though Consumer Reports urged the agency to set one.

When it comes to additives, the FDA is charged with finding reasonable certainty of no harm to consumers when used as suggested. Note that recently banned trans fats were considered innovative when Proctor & Gamble began selling “crystallized cottonseed oil,” branded as Crisco, in 1911. They were effectively banned mere months ago. Wary consumers might be ahead of their time.

Manufacturers’ investigations into more natural ingredients encourages a shift in the additive market. Packaged Facts has acknowledged slack and falling demand in several artificial food additive categories, and forecasts that R&D within the natural additives industry will lead to development of new natural additives and colorings. This transition to natural ingredients will be easier for large manufacturers whose economies of scale afford them more flexibility, but eventually small manufacturers are likely to go with the natural additive flow.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2014 print issue of Food Manufacturing.

Antibiotics and Pigs’ Blood: You Are What What You Eat Eats

Despite the title, I’m not blogging after too many drinks or while performing some satanic ritual. What I mean to say is: If you are what you eat, then you are also what your food gets its nourishment from. Two recent cases might quell your appetite.

Case One: Antibiotics in animal feed. The FDA announced last week that 25 pharmaceutical companies would voluntarily phase out antibiotics used in feed to promoting animal growth. The drugs were initially meant to eliminate illnesses in animals, as they are in humans. But in the in the 1970s, scientists noticed antibiotics made for bigger livestock. Heavier animals fetch higher prices at market, so antibiotics became a common animal-feed additive. Then, as exposure to those antibiotics worked through the food chain, humans started to show more tolerance to antibiotics used to treat illnesses. It seemed that pathogens in human bodies were reacting to the antibiotics introduced in animal bodies. The CDC called for a change in antibiotic practices last year, attributing 23,000 deaths annually toinfections resistant to antibiotics.

According to consumer group The Organic Center, “Statistics released by FDA show that animal production uses over 29 million pounds of antibiotics annually. If everyone chose just one organic product out of every 10 they purchased, we could eliminate over 2.5 million pounds of unnecessary antibiotic use each year. That could go a long way in reducing the development of antibiotic resistance.”


The FDA is taking heed and hopefully we’ll have those pathogens under control soon. In the meantime, some companies, like Chick-Fil-A, are switching to meat from antibiotic-free animals to appease the concerned public.

That’s a start on antibiotics, as The New York Times editorial board encourages, but jury is still out on this next issue.

Case Two: Porcine Blood.

The Wall Street Journal reports that porcine plasma, a powder made from pigs’ blood and mixed into animal feed, may be spreading the Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea (PED) virus. It’s what’s for dinner! A reduced U.S. pork herd could lead to higher costs for manufacturers of pork foods like lunchmeat and, everyone’s favorite, bacon. Retailers and consumers are likely to feel a hog shortage in their wallet too. The spread of PED also makes U.S. pork exports less appealing to trading partners.

In the age of information, consumers can find out almost anything about their food. And they care about what what they eat eats. Consumers are also becoming more interested in how their food lived and even died. Animal rights groups are pushing for better treatment of hogs during gestation and chickens during slaughter.

Where do you stand on the use of antibiotics and animal rights in food production?

This blog was originally posted on on April 3, 2014.