Saturday, June 29, 2013


No, I don't mean the kind of "fake food" that artists very cleverly make as props for photo shoots, for restaurant display windows, films, theater productions - or simply for home decoration. What I am talking about is fake ingredients in our food, and occasionally, a totally fake food product (claiming to be something it is not). Annoying, yes, if we are not getting what we want. But can it also be unhealthy?

A report by the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) has argued that more and more of such "fake ingredients" are being used in our food products. Other organizations, such the National Consumers League have also done studies and tests that confirm this finding. The reason, of course, is to reduce costs - and increase the producer's net profit. Is this yet another effect of the recession on our food supply?

Liquids and ground foods are the easiest to adulternate. Here are some examples - though there are many more:
• Honey may contain large quantities of corn or cane sugar instead of real honey
• Olive oil may be diluted with cheaper oils
• Lemon juice labeled 100%, may actually be diluted with water and sugar
• So-called 100% pomegranate juice may be diluted with other cheaper juices
• Tea has been found to contain fillers like lawn grass or fern leaves
• Spices such as paprika or saffron may really be other ingredients that have been dyed with food colorings
• Expensive seafood such as tuna or albacore in your sushi may instead by some cheaper fish such as escolar.

But can such food actually be unsafe? Well, sometimes it just means a nutritional loss, and that's about it. At other times there can indeed be health risks - and not only for people with food allergies. It has also been argued by the FDA that if fake ingredients are used by a food product producer, they may also be cheating on other aspects - such as safe production practice.

Let's take spices. The Safe Food Handbook: How to Make Smart Decisions about Risky Foods, warns against buying spices, especially ones such as paprika and saffron overseas where they are usually much cheaper than in the U.S. Such spices could well be unsafe because of dangerous food colorings used.

One of my best friends brought back saffron from Morocco - including some for me (I guess she had not read that part of the book, or had forgotten...), and then discovered it was fake. She didn't buy it at a market. She bought it in a very elegant "tourist" spice shop, where she was taken on a very reputable and expensive tour.

Of course, most of these spices, when sold in the U.S. or Canada, are also imported. See The Safe Food Handbook for more on this topic - and how you can be safer.

To your good health,

Saturday, June 8, 2013


I had an unusual family correspondence about genetically modified food (GMOs) this week. It involved my brother who was concerned about possible health effects of eating such food, and another relative who is an expert in genetic engineering. This, and all the recent news in the U.S. papers, has forced me to focus again on the issue. I hadn't looked much at it since doing masses of mind-boggling research on the topic for The Safe Food Handbook: How to Make Smart Choices About Risky Food several years ago. The book, by the way, ended up with a very much reduced section on genetic modification for a variety of reasons.

What I discovered when I rechecked the science now was that our knowledge has not advanced that much since I wrote the book. We still aren't sure whether eating such food on a regular basis will harm our health. If it does, it is likely to be very long term - at least 20 years or more, of regular exposure to GMOs in our diet. In the meantime, the number of GMOs on our store shelves is expanding and increasing our chances of heavier exposure.

For several reasons, the GMO issue has now once again come to the attention of the U.S. public. And, some progress has been made to keep the eating public safer. Connecticut passed the first GMO food labeling law in the U.S. a few days ago. This law requires that food containing genetically modified ingredients be labeled as such. But it has an odd requirement - that four other states must pass similar legislation. So in other words, it ended up being a kind of compromise, and may never be implemented. Last minute heavy industry lobbying seems to have come into play.

If we are concerned about eating such foods, what do we do in the meantime, while we are waiting for better labeling or other action by the FDA? Well, if it is really true, as the U.S. Grocery Manufacturing Association claims, that perhaps 70% of the foods sold in America contain GMOs, then we have a problem. In fact, even organic items may well contain traces.

At least we can avoid some of the most obvious genetically modified produce by reading the PLU (small stuck-on labels)on our fruit and vegetables. A 5 digit number beginning with 8 means that the produce has been genetically modified. There is more on this in the book in the chapter on Fruits and Vegetables (section on Labeling).

And, we can avoid processed foods as much as possible, since they often contain dozens of ingredients, with at least one or two that have been genetically modified. Shopping at certain stores - often more expensive, such as Whole Foods Market, can also help. This chain carries hundreds of items that are verified by Non-GMO project, which is a process-based standard intended to help suppliers keep GMO ingredients to a minimum.

You can also give priority to foods which voluntarily carry a label saying "non-GMO" in other stores. Or, you may be able to source your food directly from a farm which is using GMO avoidance practices. Or, grow your own - if you can.

But the chances are that avoiding GMOs in our food may take more time, energy or money than many of us can afford. If that is the case, don't stress out about it. Eating the occasional genetically engineered food item is not going to kill you. Simply do the best you can, giving priority to your young children, and taking special precautions if you are pregnant, or, planning to become pregnant in the near future.

To your good health,



Well, so much for COSTCO making berries safer (see previous post). This past week it had a rather unpleasant recall of a supposedly very healthy frozen berry mix, sourced from Townsend Farms of Fairview, Oregon. At least 30 serious hepatitis A illnesses in Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and California have been linked to this Townsend Farms Organic Anti-Oxidant Blend. Yes...Here we go with another recall of an organic food.

But let's look closely at this product. It is a true example of our global food supply. Not only did it contain those supposedly contaminated pomegranate seeds from Turkey. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that this berry mix also included products from Argentina and Chile.

Yes, it is indeed wonderful to be able to buy anything we want to eat. But on the downside, such global sourcing of food has also been know to introduce new, or new strains, of bacteria, parasites and viruses into the U.S. from other countries. In this case, the particular strain of hepatitis A is rarely seen in North America, but is found in the North Africa and Middle East regions. It could well be that some sick farm worker in Turkey handled the pomegranate seeds. And there we are.

By the way, The Safe Food Handbook: How to Make Smart Choices About Risky Food, has a section in the introduction which analyzes why our food is not becoming any safer, in spite of all the efforts made and the new technology available. One of the main reasons noted is that "more and more of our food is imported from overseas." Yes, the U.S. does have food safety standards and guidelines for overseas producers, distributors, and processors. But, as the book points out, they are often poorly enforced and easily circumvented, more so in some countries than others. So we pay a price.

As an informed consumer, it is up to you to decide if you want to take the risk.

To your good health,