Addressing the Obesity Epidemic
“Reduced-fat Oreos are un-American,” declared Leonard Teitlebaum, managing director of Merrill Lynch, speaking on the topic of obesity at the Tuesday afternoon Hot Topic session, “Keeping the Food Industry Competitive: Expanding Margins, Not Waistlines.” While Teitlebaum joked about his distaste for the low-fat treat of millions, the food analyst, along with food marketers, nutritionists and corporate leaders were serious about the obesity epidemic and the food industry’s role in alleviating it.
Compared to other countries, shoppers in the United States are most likely to describe themselves as overweight and the most likely to say they are on a diet, explained Linda Gilbert, president of HealthFocus International, a market research firm that specializes in health trends. However, if you double the number of people who describe themselves as overweight, you actually get the number of people who are overweight, she reported.
While Americans are the most likely to say they are on a diet, the number of Americans who are managing their weight through diet has declined significantly. “It’s become more acceptable to be overweight,” says Gilbert, who points to larger clothing sizes, vacation groups catering to plus-size consumers, political advocacy groups that support the rights of overweight people, and the media, which say that you can be sexy at any size.
Another reason dieting has declined is because of a clear shift away from the deprivation model of weight management, Gilbert explained.
“Dieting is an outdated word in shoppers’ vocabulary,” said Gilbert. Instead, consumers use more-positive phrases like “I’m being good,” “I’m being healthy,” and “I’m watching what I eat.”
For food companies to make an impact in the obesity epidemic, Gilbert suggests moving away from deprivation and toward satisfaction. Instead of telling people what they can’t eat, the industry needs to tell people what they can eat to manage hunger.
Despite an interest in losing weight, shoppers are not willing to compromise taste for health benefits. Figures revealed during the conference show that more than 50% of shoppers choose foods or beverages just because they taste good. “Convenience and taste still rule,” says John Stanton, professor of Food Marketing at St. Joseph’s University. “If you want diet food, you want convenient and tasty diet food.”
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One suggestion Stanton offered for making food convenient and tasty while still managing the obesity problem was to make portion sizes smaller. He suggested reducing the quantity in the bag and offering mini-sizes and single-serve packages.
Both Stanton and Gilbert agreed that what will motivate consumers and food companies are the consequences of being overweight. For adults, these consequences will include health problems associated with obesity, like diabetes and heart disease, and quality of life.
Overall, the analysts, marketers, and corporate leaders on the program agreed that the food industry has a vital role to play in addressing the obesity issue.
Focusing on Calories and Claims
Much of the general public’s interest in nutrition seems to focus on carbohydrates and trans fat, but Lester M. Crawford, Acting Commissioner of FDA, spent more time at the Annual Meeting talking about calories. FDA is pondering new food label guidelines, and Crawford said that calories will likely a prominent place on labels. One concept he seemed to favor was listing calories on food labels in type much larger than for other elements, such as saturated fats. He also said he believed FDA would recommend that the total calories also be represented as a percentage of daily allowance.
Crawford took part in the Tuesday morning forum, “Politics of Obesity: Revisited,” in which he discussed FDA’s strategy to address the rising tide of obesity in America. He noted that FDA’s past attempts to encourage the choice of a healthy diet by authorizing certain health claims and requiring caloric and nutrition information have failed to reverse the growing rate of overweight and obesity. “The public wants concrete answers [about nutrition],” he said, “but we [at FDA] have a hard time keeping up with the creativity and ingenuity of the marketers.”
In August 2003, FDA established a special Obesity Working Group to look for ways to reduce this grave health crisis. “One of out of every six newspaper stories about food focuses on obesity,” Crawford said. “The public needs leadership on this issue.” He also noted that, “one out of every two people never exercise, and some people seem proud of that.”
He also spoke about the Qualified Health Claims Initiative, which will rank the scientific validity of health claims from A (meaning general agreement in the scientific community) to D (which, Crawford joked, means “take this at your own risk because while some people think it’s super great, they are probably the ones selling it”).
In the Tuesday afternoon symposium, “Qualified Health Claims: Is the FDA Report Card Making the Grade with Consumers?” Mark Kantor, professor at the University of Maryland, noted that recent research indicates that consumers do not seem to understand that the B, C, and D clauses of the proposed initiative refer to the scientific validity of health claims.
While acknowledging such criticisms, Crawford said, “It’s been overdue for the government to do more [in this area], but we do more than all other governments in the world combined.”
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If you could convert the extra 7 billion lb of fat American adults carry around, you could feed the entire world for two days, the entire state of California for one year, or everyone in Wyoming for 67 years, explained Keith Garleb, researcher with Abbott Laboratories. He and other researchers in the food industry discussed what ingredients could increase satiety and aid in the obesity epidemic, specifically calcium and fiber, during the Wednesday morning forum, “Addressing Obesity: Ingredients.”
Several studies indicate that higher calcium intake relates to a lower body mass index (BMI) explained Susan Lawlor, researcher with Marigot in Ireland. Researchers speculate that a low-calcium diet drives up parathyroid hormone (PTH), which then tells the kidneys to drive up active vitamin D. Active vitamin D pushes the fat cells to stimulate fatty acid syntheses, reduce lipolysis, and generally contribute to fat storage.
“Are we being naïve when we think that calcium could be the magic ingredient,” asked Lawlor. “Are people who eat more dairy more health conscious? Does eating more dairy cut down on the intake of processed foods and soda?” The evidence does support a relationship between calcium and weight management, she explained, but clearly energy balance or calories-in/ calories-out is the key to weight management.
Other studies have shown that dietary fiber intake is inversely associated with BMI—the higher the dietary fiber intake, the lower the BMI. Researchers believe dietary fiber suppresses appetite by contributing to a feeling of fullness, delays stomach emptying, and slows the rate of absorption in the small intestine.
Researchers at Louisiana State University suspect that besides contributing to a feeling of fullness, fermented fibers may trigger satiety peptides produced in the colon. The fermented fibers produce short-chain fatty acids in the cecum, which signals peptides to tell the body it’s full. However, Maren Hegsted, one of the researchers on the study, pointed out that the study was done on rats and needs to be confirmed in humans. She also indicated that the amount of fermented fiber used in these studies is greater than the amount likely to be consumed by humans. Hegsted and her colleagues are beginning to look at the amount that these fibers could be used at in humans and still produce the same results.
Other researchers are working to add different fibers, specifically viscous and fermentable fibers, to meal replacement drinks, cereal, and other food products. “We hope to provide enough feeling of fullness so that people won’t eat between meals and control their hunger,” Garleb said. “We need to provide enough benefit so that people can stick to weight-management programs.”
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Child Obesity Initiatives
Most experts agree that child obesity is one of the most important health issues in the country, but a new research project raises questions about whether programs and initiatives to address this complex problem are taking the right approach.
David McCarron, M.D., president of the Academic Network in Portland, Ore., revealed the initial findings of a national initiative called Shaping America’s Youth during the Tuesday morning forum, “Politics of Obesity: Revisited.” The initiative surveyed more than 1,300 organizations targeting the problem of inactive and overweight children. A staggering 92 % of the organizations that started the survey answered all 73–111 questions, providing the most comprehensive look to date of organizational efforts to deal with childhood obesity.
The results showed some stark contradictions between what steps medical experts say are necessary and what actually is being done. For instance, experts agree that family involvement is a key to reducing childhood obesity but only 8% of the programs involve other family members. The survey also found that 80% of the programs target children above age 6—long after health habits have been established.
“Most of the programs are based on providing educational material rather than helping make active structural changes in the child’s environment,” McCarron said. “The programs are not tying back into children’s lives—they are talking rather than making changes.”
McCarron noted that the survey raised questions of whether programs, which in total touch some 4.6 million children, are spending enough time with them. Some 50—60% of the programs have direct contact with the children less than once a week. About 78% of the programs operate for less than a year, and 40% have funding for only one year.
The programs, he said, declared that their biggest objective was “outcomes-based criteria,” meaning they hoped the information they develop can be studied and used by others. However, he said, programs are not fulfilling this mission, since less than 5% published their data in professional journals.
Shaping America’s Youth was begun in July 2003. The Website (www.shapingamericasyouth.com) was launched in December, and the survey was completed in February 2004. Judith S. Stern, Sc.D., professor of nutrition and internal medicine at the University of California, Davis, praised this speed, particularly in comparison to what she sees as inactivity on the part of government agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration. “The government has been too slow,” she said. “They are talking, instead of acting.”
Van S. Hubbard, M.D., director of the division of the NIH Nutrition Research Coordination, noted that organizations tackling childhood obesity should look hard at whether they are truly contributing to the solution. “A lot of people want to get into the game, but they are not asking what added value they are providing.” He said that organizations should talk more often with other groups to see how they can link efforts to maximize their impact.
Shaping America’s Youth was sponsored jointly by Nike, McNeil Pharmaceuticals, and Campbell Soup Co., with the involvement of the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Diabetes Association, and Kaiser Permanente.
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Obesity and the Low-Carb Craze
“All diets in their essence will fail,” said Anne Mixon from the NPD Group, pointing to a recent survey which found that three out of four diets fail. In a forum on Thursday morning, “Impact of the Low-Carb Craze: Effect and Influence on the Many Sectors of the Food Industry,” researchers and industry leaders agreed that Americans need to make balanced lifestyle changes which include exercise and a healthy diet. However, the panelists disagreed strongly on what constitutes a healthy diet.
“The Food Pyramid is the smoking gun of obesity,” said Gil Wilshire of the Carbohydrate Awareness Council, who pointed to the reliance on whole grains as the cause of the obesity epidemic. “Do you know how we fatten up cattle? We put them in a pen, keep them sedentary, and feed them corn and grain. That’s what we’re doing in the U.S.” Wilshire, who lost 105 lb on a reduced-carbohydrate diet, suggested avoiding white foods including pasta, potatoes and refined sugar.
The Food Guide Pyramid can’t be blamed for obesity in America, since less than 6% of people actually follow the recommendations said Judi Adams, a Registered Dietitian with the Wheat Foods Council. She pointed to several statistics that combat the “demonization” of carbohydrates. For example, Italians eat five times as much pasta as Americans and have half the obesity rate. Germans eat three times more bread and have only two-thirds the obesity rate.
Adams also mentioned the National Weight Control Registry, a group of Americans who have lost 30 lb or more and kept it off for a year or longer. The group lost weight by eating a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet with fewer calories and exercising daily.
Wilshire responded to Adams’ statistics by pointing out that “association is not causality.” He claimed that showing that thinner people eat more carbohydrates doesn’t mean that carbohydrates cause weight loss.
“We’re looking for the silver bullet,” said Mike Otterburn of Cargill. “I think most of us have said it’s a balance, it’s exercise, and it’s lifestyle change. There’s not a silver bullet.”
During a less-heated portion of the discussion, market analysts shared information about who is actually following a low-carb program. An online survey by The Valen Group discovered that of the 59 million carb-controllers, 20% were on no specific plan, but were following their own regimen. Of the adults not currently on a low-carb diet, 19.4% would consider trying one within the following year, primarily because they have seen demonstrated success. Stuart Rabkin, CEO of The Valen Group, was quick to point out that low-carb consumers follow other healthy lifestyle practices. They exercise more than average American, and 83% watch the quantity of food they eat.
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Revising the Food Guide Pyramid
“The Food Guide Pyramid is imbalanced and tumbling,” said Eric Hentges of the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP), a division of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture that works to revise and bring the food guide up to date. At the Thursday afternoon forum, “The Revised Food Guide Pyramid: What Will It Mean to the Industry?” researchers, nutritionists, and government officials discussed the benefits of the Food Guide Pyramid and the challenges to revision.
Only a half to a quarter of consumers eat at least the minimum number of recommended servings on the Food Guide Pyramid, explained Louise Berner, a nutrition professor at California Polytechnic State University. Omission of fruit and dairy was most common, with 41% of people consuming less than a serving of dairy a day.
It’s clear that we need to increase our intake of fruits, vegetables, and milk said Hentges. For example, we need a three –to four– fold increase in our intake of leafy green vegetables. While that may sound daunting, that increase translates to eating two cups of broccoli or greens over a week.
The problem is particularly problematic when it comes to children, said Marilyn Swanson, a Registered Dietician, with the National Food Service Management Institute at the University of Mississippi. Only 2% of youth meet all the recommendations of the Food Guide Pyramid, and 16% do not meet any of the recommendations. Only one in five youths consume five servings of fruits and vegetables each day. Teenagers drink twice as much soda as milk, with fewer than 20% of girls age 9–19 getting the recommended daily intake of calcium.
Children aren’t the only ones having trouble with the guidelines. Roughly 46% of adults are aware of the recommendations, but don’t follow them specifically, said Susan Borra of the International Food Information Council. Part of the problem may be confusion over the guidelines, with nearly 61% of consumers agreeing that there’s conflicting information about what’s good and what’s bad.
Educating consumers, clearing up confusion, meeting nutritional goals, and clarifying serving sizes are just some of the challenges the CNPP and USDA face as they work to revise the dietary guidelines. USDA wants the public’s advice, suggestion and input on these challenges.
USDA is considering whether the pyramid shape should be changed, what shape would work better, how USDA can educate Americans about the food guide, and how to motivate Americans to follow it.
While USDA works on revising the food guide, Guy Johnson of Johnson Nutrition Solutions is quick to point out that there’s more to change than just the food guide. “The pyramid is only part of the message,” he said. “It’s unfair to single out the pyramid as the cause of obesity or any other problems.”
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With concern about the needs of an aging population and concern over the obesity epidemic, the focus in developing new food products is on increasing the health benefits of food and also reducing the caloric and carbohydrate content. At the “New Products & Technologies: Innovations in Healthy Ingredients” session on Tuesday morning, several industry leaders discussed what their organization was doing to improve the health components of their products.
Companies are working hard to insert antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and other healthy components into food. However, there are several challenges in inserting nutraceuticals into new products. It’s imperative that the process or nutrient doesn’t dramatically change the color or taste of the product. It’s also important that the added nutrient lasts for the shelf life of the product.
Lutein, a lipophilic carotenoid, absorbs visible light and protects the skin and eyes from sun damage. “It’s your internal pair of sunglasses,” said Hannah Barnes, a scientist with Kemin foods. “We can wear sunglasses and sunscreen, but we don’t wear these all the time. They also don’t protect from all forms of UV light.”
Increasing lutein, which is found naturally in green leafy vegetables, helps the body filter harmful light, prevents premature aging in skin, and protects the eyes against cataracts and sight damage due to aging. While lutein is highly functional in the body, the structure of the molecule makes it insoluble in water and makes it difficult to fortify beverages with the antioxidant. Attaching the carotenoid to sucrose monolaurate, which does dissolve in water, allows Kemin to add lutein into beverages like soda, milk, sports drinks, and fruit and vegetable juices.
Flaxseed, an oilseed grain with less than 3% net carbohydrate, is also rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Studies have linked a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids to lower incidence of cardiovascular disease, increased bone health, and neural development. In May 2003, the White House issued a letter recommending that Americans increase consumption of omega-3 fatty acids. And this May, the Food and Drug Administration approved content claims for omega-3 oils. However, the unsaturated oil content of flaxseed has previously made it difficult to use. Dan Best of Pizzey’s Milling said that the company has developed a process that allows flaxseed to be milled and used in low-carb pizza crust, tortillas, and breads. Consumers on low-carb diets will reduce their carbohydrate content and increase their omega-3 fatty acids.
Soy isoflavones are also known for their many health benefits including its benefits on menopausal symptoms, bone health, prostate health and cardiovascular health. Adding soy isoflavones has been a challenge to the food industry because of the nutraceuticals sandy texture and sedimentation. Under the leadership of Eli Pinthus, NutraLease Technology has managed to load microemulsion droplets with nutraceuticals like soy isoflavones and carotnenoids. This enables food manufacturers to increase the nutritional content of drinks like soda, tea and flavored water.
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Millennials: Trend Makers
The old saying was “Never trust anyone over 30.” When it comes to the future of the food industry, however, the new mantra might be “Trust everyone between the ages of 15 and 24.” While the Baby Boomers get most of the press, the 15–24 age group—dubbed by some as the “Millennials”—are the second largest demographics group, comprising some 40 million people.
A. Elizabeth Sloan, president of Sloan Trends and Solutions as well as a columnist for Food Technology magazine, noted that the Millennials grew up on supplements and organic foods, and their attitudes will dictate the shape of the food industry. For instance, they are already pushing universities to provide organic versions of food in cafeterias.
Sloan, speaking during the Wednesday morning Hot Topic session, “Keeping the Food Industry Competitive: Changing the Odds,” noted that new research suggests that some of the conceptions people have about this important age group may be wrong.
For example, the number-one reason that Millennials change their diets is not weight loss, but improvement of physical performance. New research from BuzzBack Research shows that the top five criteria Millennials have for food is freshness (cited by 74%); that it’s easy and fast to prepare (71%); can be eaten on the go (61%); provides extra energy (58 percent); and is a source of vitamins (52%).
At the same time, the Millennials like gourmet food. Of six age groups broken down by Sloan, the Millennials were most likely to prefer gourmet foods. Nonetheless, they were last in Technical Program wanting that gourmet food to be an art form. “Boomers want their food on fancy, decorated plates,” Sloan said. “They want their food simple and sophisticated.”
They were also the top group in being willing to try new foods; yet, in contrast to what many might believe, the Millennials fall near the bottom of age groups desiring food with a lot of spices. “Some people think young people want everything extreme,” Sloan said.
Other studies presented by panelists showed that overall consumer interest in health shows no sign of abating, including the low-carb craze. One study found that the number of people who wanted to lose weight for the sake of their appearance dropped by 0.2%t from 2002 to 2003, while those who desired to lose weight for health reasons rose 9.9%.
One-third of people ages 8–17 now consult their parents before they visit a fast-food restaurant, a 6% rise this year. In the past year, consumption of French fries at quick-service restaurants plummeted 11%, while salads rose 12%. “Two-thirds of Americans are eating low-carb diets, even though most of these are diets they made up themselves and probably aren’t really low carb,” Sloan said.
Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California, Davis, drew audience interest with her research that shows that 46% of consumers expect the information on food labels to be deceptive. Her surveys found the most reliable sources of information for health food information, as perceived by consumers, was in order, Consumer Reports; food magazines; the government; newspapers; health food stores; and supermarkets. In the last 6–9 months, she noted that doctors have been supplanted as trusted sources of food information by pharmacists.
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Challenge of Omega-3
With the message out that omega-3 fatty acids can benefit everything from the cardiovascular system to the brain, food makers are scurrying to enrich and fortify products with omega-3s and get them on the market, but there’s one obstacle to overcome—flavor. Some of the best candidates as sources for omega-3s are fish oils, algal oils, and linseed oil can be highly susceptible to oxidation, which deteriorates flavor, increases the risk of rancidity, and reduces the shelf life of a product.
Proper handling techniques and fortification of ideal foods can remedy the problems in many cases, however, and research is moving forward to find more flavorful fortification techniques as omega-3s become increasingly dubbed in food science circles as “the new calcium.” Speaking at the Wednesday morning symposium, “Challenges in the Development of Functional Foods with Omega-3 Fatty Acids,” scientists described that one problem in omega-3 fortification is that the compounds that serve as efficient antioxidants in bulk oils can in fact be pro-oxidants in complex food systems. In a case study of oxidation mechanisms of omega-3 fatty acids in mayonnaise, researchers with the Danish Institute for Fisheries Research found that the low pH in mayonnaise and the high content of iron in egg yolk—used as an emulsifier in mayonnaise— are main factors that cause lipid oxidation, and they suggested that flavor could perhaps be improved with lower iron levels. Studies by the same team on the flavor quality of milk that had been fortified showed that flavor improved dramatically when rapeseed oil was used as the source of omega 3s.
Copper can be just as big a problem as iron in causing oxidation. Ian Newton, managing director of Ceres Consulting, described a case of omega-3 enriched margarine makers who suddenly saw the fishy flavor of their produce increase and the shelf life decrease. They finally pinned down the cause to a change in sea salt suppliers, with the new sea salt used in the product containing just a small level of copper that triggered a large amount of oxidation.
Foods that contain any levels of peroxide will also have oxidation problems, said the researchers. Retaining the flavor and shelf life of omega-3-fortified foods can also be simply a matter of careful handling of products and thoughtful placement of oils in the ingredient stream, said Brian Langdon of Omega Protein Inc. Adding omega-3s as near to the end of the ingredient stream as possible is helpful, and the best place to add is before the final mixing of the product, he suggested. In addition, oils should not be mixed in a vortex or open system, which adds air to the mix.
Polyunsaturated oils used for fortification should be frozen for an extended period, which retards oxidation, and immediate use of the oil is recommended in further reducing its exposure to heat, light and air—all factors that can cause oxidation. Some products that are emerging as the best foods for omega-3 fortification include frozen food entrees, soups, refrigerated foods, salad dressings, yogurts, spreads, juices, egg product and cheeses, which are especially helpful in providing omega-3s because of their attraction to a wide audience, ranging from children to the elderly.
—Nancy A. Melville
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Safety of Organic Foods
For many consumers, the word “organic” is synonymous with “safe.” However, food safety experts continue to pursue the question that has dogged the organic movement since its early days: Is it any safer than conventional food?
Surveys show that about 61% of Americans buy organic food for precisely that reason, said Harshavardhan Thippareddi, assistant professor of food science and technology at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, speaking at the Thursday morning symposium, “Organic Foods: Food Safety Issues and Challenges.” But Thippareddi stressed that it’s important to clarify that the organic label is a production claim, not a food safety claim. “Consumers may see organic food safety relating to safety from chemicals used in conventional foods, but it’s important to clarify that organic claims do not refer to microbial safety,” he said.
The demand for organic foods in the U.S. has been sustained over time, with growth of the industry at 20% annually since 1991 and organic foods accounting for about $9 billion in sales in 2002. Foods labeled as organic are required to be grown and handled under the rigorous guidelines set forth by the Organic Foods Production Act that Congress passed in 2002. While the guidelines strive to keep foods more chemical-free than conventional foods, they may be just as susceptible to foodborne pathogens such as Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7, and Campylobacter. Case in point: In a study comparing levels of Salmonella found from samples taken from a nationally recognized organic free-range chicken producer with chickens grown under traditional commercial conditions, researcher J. Stan Bailey with USDA’s Poultry Microbiological Safety Research Unit in Athens, Ga., found that, despite the higher price and organic label, the free-range chickens had levels of contaminants that were equal to the conventional samples. “There are a lot of good reasons to buy organic,” said Bailey. “But this research confirms other data that free range are no better than conventional chicken, microbiologically.”
Within regard to chicken production, Bailey suggested that the U.S look to Sweden as an excellent model of an efficient system. “They have a simple system of killing all production birds that are tested as Salmonella positive; they have good control of their feeds, good pest control, and a strong monitoring system.” One of the key problems that can give rise to bacterial problems on organic farms is fecal contamination from wild and domestic animals in the field. “This is particularly a problem on smaller organic farms, which don’t have the closure of larger farms,” said Trevor Suslow, researcher with the University of California, Davis, Dept. of Vegetable Crops. Another window of possible contamination is irrigation water used by farms, he added. “Some growers, due to their location or resource, use water that is questionable or even known to be contaminated. This is not uncommon for small farms in general, but it is especially a problem with organic farms,” he said. Rigorous washing techniques can eliminate some contamination, but not all, and the researchers called for more aggressive research into how various antimicrobial strategies that are being used in traditional animal processing operations can be adapted to the organic food production systems.
—Nancy A. Melville
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Benefits of Organic Foods
Many regard the nutritional benefits of organic foods as lying more in what the foods don’t have—chemicals—than what they do. But research shows that some distinctions may indeed make organically grown produce healthier than conventional produce, according to speakers at the Friday morning symposium, “Quality and Potential Health Benefits of Organic vs Conventional Produce.”
A key difference between organic fruits and vegetables and those that are conventionally grown appears to not be necessarily in their levels of vitamins and minerals, but in their levels of secondary plant metabolites, which work as defense mechanisms in plants to fend off infection and pests, said Alyson Mitchell, as assistant professor and food chemist with the UC Davis Dept. of Food Science and Technology.
In humans, the metabolites have been shown to offer health benefits, including reduced risk of heart attacks and coronary heart disease. The use of artificial pesticides and chemicals can reduce the need for such defense mechanisms, however, possibly causing lower levels of the metabolites seen in conventionally grown plants, Mitchell said.
“It is recognized that high-intensity agricultural practices can disrupt the national production of secondary metabolites involved in plant defense mechanisms,” she said. In a study comparing organic and conventionally grown tomatoes and green peppers, Mitchell said that’s just what she found—the organic tomatoes had not only higher levels of nutrients, including vitamin C, than those in conventionally grown varieties, but they also had higher levels of secondary plant metabolites.
In a comparison of organic and conventionally grown samples of broccoli purchased at grocery stores in Northern and Southern California, the researchers found significantly higher levels of flavonoids—metabolites that are known to act in the body as antioxidants—in the organically grown broccoli. Significant differences were not seen between the organic and conventional green peppers. While the researchers aren’t sure why, Mitchell speculated that the differing microstructure of the plants may play a role.
The findings add to a growing body of literature consistently showing higher levels of vitamin C and antioxidants in some organically grown vegetables, including recent research from UC Davis showing higher levels of phenolics in marionberries and blueberries.
However, the task of building more solid evidence of the benefits of organic vs conventional fruits and vegetables is hampered by variances in organic growing, ranging from soil and climate differences to variations in crops, seasons, and farmer philosophies, said Diane Barrett, also a researcher in the UC Davis’ Dept. of Food Science and Technology. “We need more controlled and real-life commercial studies, and we need better collaboration between researchers to get a broader look at growing systems,” she said.
—Nancy A. Melville
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Despite ongoing safety concerns, the Food and Drug Administration is looking to plant-made pharmaceuticals as a highly promising means of building and securing the world’s drug supply, said FDA Acting Commissioner Lester Crawford, speaking at the Tuesday afternoon forum, “Plant-Made Pharmaceuticals.” Crawford noted that FDA is working closely with USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to monitor such concerns as keeping crops isolated from other food crops.
“We want to regulate [plant-made pharmaceuticals] in such a way that public health is not put in jeopardy, but we want to go about that in a way that won’t impede development because we think this is an industry that offers great promise,” he said.
Plants have become a focus of design for production of pharmaceuticals because of their complex biology and the similarity of their cellular structures to human cells.
The production economics of plants are very attractive, costing potentially only 10% of the cost of traditional biotech medicines, said Mike Phillips, vice president of Biotechnology Industry Corp.
Research on plants for pharmaceuticals has focused primarily on alfalfa, corn, duck weed, rice, safflower, and tobacco, with the potential for someday offering treatments for diseases ranging from Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and Crohn’s disease to cystic fibrosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and spinal cord injuries, among many others. “The possibilities are endless,” said Phillips. “Of course, many will fail, but you keep looking for the one to take to market that makes all of the research and development worthwhile.”
Crawford added that the plant-made pharmaceuticals could offer needed relief as FDA stretches itself to monitor FDA manufacturing facilities around the world that provide food to the U.S. “As this industry develops, I think it will be a very useful adjunct to the security and integrity of the world drug supply”, he said.
Concerns about plant-made pharmaceuticals are plenty, however, and they include fears that crops, such as corn, can easily be mistaken for regular corn and mixed into the regular food supply, said Jeff Barach, vice president of special products for the National Food Processors Association. He said that problems could also arise with containment of crops, especially when planted near other, non-pharmaceutical crops. “NFPA’s official position on plant pharmaceuticals is that production is not appropriate without a goal of 100% protection of food crops.” He added that some solutions for safer methods of production include more rigorous containment, such as growing crops in isolated locations, in large greenhouses, or even in caves, and only using non-food crops, such as tobacco and duck weed.
Food crops are essential for pharmaceuticals because of their unique cell structure, said Phillips, and limiting production to non-food crops would severely limit drug-making potential. “If companies were limited to tobacco or duck weed, the funding would evaporate and the promise for this would end overnight,” he said.
—Nancy A. Melville
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Consumer Perception of Food Risk
Do you avoid drinking coffee because you’ve heard it’s bad for you and might even cause cancer? “The good news is that the bad news you’ve heard about coffee in the media is wrong,” says Jim Coughlin, a food chemist with Coughlin Associates.
Coughlin went on to talk about all the good things coffee does—studies suggest it may cause less depression and Parkinson’s disease, for instance. And, he added, there has not been any link to coffee and cancer in humans.
Coughlin was speaking at a forum, but the topic wasn’t cancer or coffee. The forum, held on Friday morning, was called “Perception vs Reality: Communicating Risk in the Era of Modern Food Analysis.”
The panelists noted that consumers have become increasingly concerned about chemicals in food, particularly as new analysis techniques have allowed those chemicals to be discovered at lower concentrations. In 1989, the words “Food Scare” appeared in 188 newspaper articles, according to a study shown by one panelist. By 1999, those words were in 1,435 articles.
Ironically, Coughlin noted that consumers often perceive more risk than exists when it comes to food products. “Seventy percent of the food carcinogens that have been revealed in rodent tests are for liver cancers that do not occur in man,” he said. “Man is not just a big rat.”
David Ropeik, director of risk communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Management, said food companies must make efforts to better understand how consumers perceive risk. “This panel shouldn’t be called perception versus reality,” he said. “Perception is reality.”
He noted research that shows that people are biologically hardwired “to fear first and think second.” Often, for this reason, the statistical information that scientists rely falls on deaf ears when it comes to consumers. A wide range of factors affects how people perceive risks. For instance, he said that people are less concerned about risks that are an act of God than an act of man. “In one study, it was shown people were more likely to buy flood insurance when a company convinced them floods were an act of man rather than God,” he said. Those premiums leapt when the company convinced people that that flooding was traced to manmade decisions, like building flawed dams.
In the same way, he said, food companies should learn to communicate risks by paying attention to these basic human drives rather than rely solely on scientific data. For instance, people are more afraid of risks to children rather than adults, and this has to be taken into account in communications messages about risk.
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Promoting Food Safety
Conflicting regulations from local, county, state, and federal authorities can cause inconsistencies in the food retail business, but aggressive education can allow food handlers to better comply with safety measures, said food safety experts in the Tuesday morning symposium, “Outreach to the Hospitality and Foodservice Industry.”
In the retail sector, regulatory inconsistencies can be a particular problem when establishments deliver products to off-site facilities and avoid placing them “in commerce,” said J. Lee Budd, of Prepcheck Food Safety Services.
Using Caesars Entertainment as an example, Lee described how the company has consolidated operations has allowed increased consistency and eliminated duplicated labor within the operation. But in supplying products to other states, and to Indian gaming venues in particular, multiple regulatory bodies have come into play.
“You have to set up communications in these projects to make sure you have a reasonable flow of food safety knowledge, to both the food safety regulators and your customers,” he said.
A big issue is that local regulators are not familiar with the manufacturing equipment, Budd said. “They don’t classify time and temperature relationships the same way as the USDA. We really need standards,” he said.
Other areas that are in particular need of more consistent regulation include lethality standards, labeling requirements, 10-day shelf-life requirements, and classification of “fully cooked” products vs reheat.
Experts also called for greater adoption of HACCP plans and use of Certificates of Analysis in a retail setting. “If we could just stick to HACCP for temperature control issues and not have variances, it would be very helpful,” Budd said.
In addition to coming to better consensus on regulation, the key to achieving food safety in the environment of confusing regulation is simply aggressive education.
Among effective programs available for education is the Cooperative Extension Service, a national system of educational programs. The service offers low-cost, high-quality programs that can be accessed at the county level to meet the needs of specific audiences.
In educating food handlers, programs must not only be informative, but also effective, and interactive programs can ensure that handlers apply any information that’s provided, said Angie Fraser of North Carolina State University’s Cooperative Extension Service. Since the food industry is exceptionally multicultural, programs must also offer education in different languages, she added.
Other programs that can offer effective education include ServSafe, SuperSafeMark, and Essentials of Food Safety and Sanitation, offered with American National Standard Institute– accredited food protection manager’s certification examinations. The programs are based on the FDA’s Food Code recommendations and Conference for Food Protection standards.
—Nancy A. Melville
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On-the-Go Food Packaging
As food packaging evolves to accommodate the demands of an increasingly on-the-go world, food design is going along for the ride, with new shapes and forms that comply with the key requirement of being portable, said packaging experts at the Wednesday afternoon symposium, “Convenient Food Packaging for the On-the-Go Lifestyle.”
Time-honored foods whose designs have been modified in response to the portable trend include everything from Cheddar cheese shaped in single-serving, hand-held flex-tubes, to the shape of the Oreo made miniature and sold in reclosable cups.
“The trend of foods being made ideal for in-the-car snacking is a huge area of growth in the U.S., and it will continue to be successful,” said Tom Biddie, director of packaging and development for Kraft Foods.
In addition to an emphasis on the bite-sized, hand-to-mouth eating experience, foods are being packaged to suit the nation’s ever-expanding nutritional awareness, with products sized to sell in such tidy portions exactly 100 calories or less than 300-calories.
“People are demanding products to be portionalized to control dietary needs,” said Biddie.
The nutritional component is also seen in such trends as meals-in-a-bottle and other packaged “meal solutions” designed to substitute for—or replace—the sit-down meal. “The traditional family cycle of meals is being replaced by blurred eating sessions and snacking throughout the day,” said Biddie.
Trends in packaging show that the demand for convenient yet nutritious foods and portable foods is indeed at a global level, said Lynn Dornblaser of Mintel International Group.
One leading packaging trend that is taking hold in Europe, she said, seeks to lift the microwave from a merely convenient option to a bona fide preparation method. Products including Marks and Spencer’s Steam Cuisine and Bird’s Eye steamed vegetables are made just for the microwave. “These foods turn the corner by selling the microwave not as an alternative, but as the best preparation method,” said Dornblaser.
Other packaging trends picking up steam around the world include rice and soups that go beyond having to add water to being heat-and-eat; Ennis Foods’ open-and-eat, reclosable chip-and-dip packages; and Spence’s Lox-in-a-Box, including smoked salmon, creamed cheese, and a spreader. “It’s basically a Lunchable for grown-ups,” said Dornblaser. Another open-and-eat product that is seeing success in Europe is a single-served salad, complete with a fork—a distinction from most U.S. products, said Dornblaser. “It’s amazing to me how few products we see that contain a utensil, knowing how much potential there is for products that contain a fork or knife,” she said.
And while there are plenty of product packages that are tailored for children, a potentially big market that hasn’t been tapped is the older consumer market. Dornblaser noted that the market of baby boomers is 77 million people strong, and the oldest ones are just 60. “They’re going to get very demanding as they get older and crabbier, so there’s a lot of opportunity for older eyes, older hands, and people who have difficulty opening and closing packages,” said Dornblaser.
The future of product packaging holds such innovations as self-heating packaging for foods such as coffee, and self-cooling methods for beer, said packaging expert Aaron Brody, of Brody, Inc. Consumers can expect to see increasingly “smart” food packaging, such as packages that alert consumers that a product is almost spoiled and those that interface with heating appliances.
In addition, packaging will get more fun, Brody added. “Food packaging will become a truly recreational venture. Just look at what the kids are eating now and the packages they’re using—they’re shooting stuff out of tubes and having all kinds of fun with packaging, and that’s only going to get more creative,” he said.
—Nancy A. Melville
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Feeding on the Way to Mars
The question of what scientists would find on Mars seems a far smaller mystery than another question that scientists debated: How will NASA feed the astronauts on their way to and from the red planet on a trip that could last several years? There are, after all, no interstellar McDonalds, and feeding astronauts during such a long journey raises all sorts of nutritional, mechanical, and even psychological issues.
Speaking at the Thursday afternoon symposium, “NASA Food System: Food Processing on a Long-Duration Mission,” Michele Perchonok, food scientist at the NASA–Johnson Space Center, raised a host of these issues: How does space radiation affect the nutrient components of food? Will the cooking process create volatile elements that could prove to be harmful in an enclosed spacecraft? Will growing crops in recycled water affect the micronutrients?
“We could give the astronauts a pill that meets all their nutritional needs, but how psychologically pleasing would that be?” Perchonok asked. “As they go off into space, and the earth recedes behind them, and they know they’re not going to see it again for 2½ years, highly acceptable food will be an extremely important and familiar element in an unfamiliar and hostile environment.”
She expects that at some point NASA will send astronauts to an isolation facility in a place such as Antarctica and test the psychological impact of different food systems—basically “boring” food—against a diet that includes comfort food like fresh bread and pasta.
A mission to Mars is, of course, still many years off, and at this point Perchonok concedes that there are many more questions than answers about feeding astronauts. However, at the panel, scientists presented prototypes of some of the first attempts at food preparation equipment for long-duration space missions.
R. Paul Singh, professor of food engineering at the University of California, Davis, showed the recently completed prototype for a Multiple Fruit and Vegetable Processing System for Advanced Life Support. The MFVP is designed to process tomatoes—it slices, dices, crushes, juices, and turns them into soup, sauce, and paste.
The kind of machine taken for granted on a kitchen panel raises all sorts of challenges in space. All food preparation equipment is judged by a complex equation called the Equivalent System Mass (ESM) Analysis. The formula evaluates different requirements for each food system—such as the amount of space it takes up, how much power it requires, and how much crew time will be devoted to use it—to determine if it makes the cut. (Food systems will also eventually be tested on top of a 14,000-ft high Colorado mountain, which mimics the atmospheric pressure in the spacecraft.)
Sudhir K. Sastry, professor in the Dept. of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Ohio State University, presented a prototype for another gadget—a reheating and sterilization technology. The intriguing device is a food package equipped with electrodes that heat the packaged food. Afterward, the same package is used to sterilize body waste and store it until it can be jettisoned. “You don’t want to open the hatch on a daily basis,” he says. “The device will contain the waste so you can strategically open the hatch once in a while.”
by Kelly DiNardo, Joe Mullich & Nancy A. Melville
Kelly DiNardo is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va., Joe Mullich is a freelance writer based in Sherman Oaks, Calif., and Nancy A. Melville is a freelance writer based in Tucson, Ariz.