Mary Helen Arthur

• Food Science Communicator Pat Kendall, Colorado State University, and Daniel L. Engeljohn, of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, discussed in the Jan. 27 Detroit News the agency’s new rule on irradiated meat that became effective on Feb. 22. According to Kendall, irradiation “seems to be a safe and acceptable way to manage a food-safety problem that we have.” But “that doesn’t mean the consumer wants it. No packing plant in its right mind is going to do something the consumer will not want,” she continued. Engeljohn said that although lack of long-term human studies was considered during the approval process, he is confident that the animal and human studies provide ample information. “This is the most-studied technology, ever,” he said. For example, the process of canning food, which also changes chemical compounds, was approved with much less scrutiny decades ago, he noted.

• Communicator Manfred Kroger, Pennsylvania State University, said in the March 4 Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville) that “food irradiation is very much similar to the concept of pasteurization of milk in the 1920s.” He added, “each new technology brings new opposition.”

• Communicator Christine M. Bruhn, University of California, said in the Feb. 22 Associated Press item that “most people are ready [for irradiation]. They are sick and tired of hearing of cases of food-borne outbreaks.”

• Kroger, John A. Milner of Pennsylvania State University, and Clare Hasler of the University of Illinois addressed functional foods and the boundaries between nutrition and drugs in the March 2000 issue of Discover. “We are witnessing the marriage of the food and pharmaceutical industries,” Kroger said. But he cautioned that “some of [the] health claims may be premature,” referring to a ginkgo biloba chewing gum that is said to improve memory. Food and Drug Administration oversight of these products is limited and provides no dosage guidelines, causing Milner to note that “even healthy compounds can be harmful if you eat too much.” Genomics may lead to truly individualized nutrition, according to Hasler and Kroger. Hasler predicted that future grocery stores will have a mini-clinic with the ability to perform a quick blood test and provide a genome printout that includes the person’s top disease risks and a recommended shopping list. “Hopefully, that will lead people to diet patterns that defray—or even eliminate—many of the chronic diseases we face,” Hasler said. Kroger predicted that the focus on individualized nutrition would eventually begin before birth. “We’re already modifying diet based on a gene. Soon, we’ll be able to go a step further—to take an amniotic fluid sample from an unborn baby and determine its genome,” Kroger said, creating the opportunity for parents to select the optimal functional baby foods.

• Malcolm C. Bourne, Cornell University, explained in the Jan. 1 Finger Lake Times (Geneva, N.Y.) that although some people talk about the good old days, “the good ol’ days weren’t so good.” Over the past 100 years, there have been dramatic changes in food production, storage, and preparation, along with monumental improvements in health and quality, Bourne explained. Food preparation and storage in the United States at the turn of the century was similar to that in developing nations today, he noted. People had to make frequent trips to the store because food spoiled so rapidly, he added. Among the many advances discussed, Bourne credited increased efficiency at all stages of food production with reducing the cost of food from 40–50% of the average American family’s income in 1900 to only 11% in 1998. “We wouldn’t be able to buy a lot of the things we take for granted if the food system were not so efficient and cheap,” he said.

• Communicator Dian A. Dooley, University of Hawaii, discussed the role of carbohydrates in a healthy diet in the Jan. 12 issue of The Honolulu Advertiser. Throughout history, human beings have evolved with a diet predominantly composed of carbohydrates, which is the way bodies need to be fed to maintain optimum health, Dooley said. Refined sugars and flours have a high calorie count, so consuming large amounts would tend to promote weight gain, she noted. “You can eat a great diet high in carbohydrates, and I could also create a horrible diet high in carbohydrates,” she said. “It’s all in the choices. So go for the complex carbs in food choices, the whole grains, fruits and vegetables. It’s not the carbohydrates that make you gain weight. It’s the excess calories,” she added.

• Communicator Robert G. Cassens, University of Wisconsin, commented on the long-running controversy about nitrites in cured meats in the Nov. 8 Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.). Processors now use the bare minimum of nitrites to inhibit bacterial growth, and the benefit of avoiding botulism outweighs any theoretical risk of cancer, he said. Cassens noted that some health food stores try to fool the public by advertising meat that is “nitrate free.” Nitrates are a different chemical, not typically used in the meat curing process. Those meat products may still contain nitrites, he added.

• Communicator Mark Kantor, University of Maryland, and IFT Director of Publications Fran Katz talked about some of the positive effects of food additives in the Feb. 3 Hockessin (Del.) Community News and the Feb. 5 Antelope Valley Press (Palmdale, Calif.). Kantor explained that “enrichment” is reintroducing nutrients into a food in the amounts that were lost during processing. “Fortification” is adding nutrients, such as iodine in salt and vitamin D in milk, to prevent deficiency diseases that might occur in large numbers of people, he added. Katz discussed functional additives such as texturizing agents and emulsifiers. She noted that some additives, such as antioxidants, may have benefits in addition to preserving products.

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  1. Food Safety and Defense