LAS VEGAS — Bad beef. Perilous peanuts. Carb-free pancakes.
Crazy stuff on those supermarket shelves, eh?
Banner headlines dominate much of what we know about food, but when it comes to eating we consumers often don’t know what we don’t know (to snag a Rumsfeldian turn of phrase). Such is the prevailing wisdom among many food scientists, gathered this past week for the annual meeting of the Institute of Food Technologists. These folks formulate much of what we eat, and then safety-test, quality-test and taste-test it all.
For all that research, you shoppers still puzzle the heck out of them. A few nuggets for thought:
Fond of fads
We Americans continue to dwell on quick-fix food solutions like low-carb diets, and consumption patterns are often swayed by preliminary, often contradictory studies. (Fish: Healthy and full of omega-3 fatty acids, or mercury-tainted and hazardous?) Rather than seeking a balanced diet, we seek specific things to eliminate, and obsess on others. “We’ve become a nation of avoiders,” says food science consultant James Coughlin. For better or worse, it's rare for a food fad to last more than a few years. Remember those pasta diets?
Misinformation can linger, though. Often complex regulatory suggestions from the government can be lost among banner headlines. One recent case: whether fish is safe from mercury. The Food and Drug Administration’s recommendations were far more complex , to say the least, than the takeaway message. “People want to be protected, but on the other hand, people want to be free,” says Rutgers food science professor Thomas Montville, a former member of the FDA’s food advisory panel.
Adds Ellen Camire of the University of Maine: “There are a lot of conflicting stories out there.”
Here and gone
Consider the number of new food and beverage products that appear each year — nearly 19,000. That’s enough to fill about a third of the average supermarket, according to James Albrecht, a taste scientist who has worked for Coca-Cola, Nestlé and spice maker McCormick & Co. “This is a busy business,” Albrecht says, noting that most new products fail because they don’t taste good enough to spur regular buying patterns. When formulating products, he likes to include a surprise taste that intrigues customers. Like what? He points out that Coca-Cola’s secret formula includes, among many things, rose oil.
While food manufacturers are scrambling to devise new reduced-carb options, the carbs-are-evil phenomenon is getting extra scrutiny by food experts. To begin with, it’s mostly an American phenomenon; Europe and others are still embracing their bread, pasta and rice. Research firm Mintel notes that 361 new U.S. lower-carb products launched between January and March 2004; there were just 38 in Canada and 15 in Great Britain.
While Atkins and other diets provide long-term regimens for dieters, many nutritionists believe dieters are being deprived of a proper nutrient balance. “Carbohydrates are ubiquitous. They’re in every food group in the food pyramid,” says Kristine Clark, director of sports nutrition at Penn State University. “We’ve maligned an important macronutrient.”
Frequently lost in these weight-loss efforts are a basic key to success: ingesting fewer calories. “All diets work for some period of time,” says Dr. Peter Pressman of the University of Southern California. “Not for ketosis, or for any other reason, but because of caloric restriction.”
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Aware of allergies
Though an estimated 3.5 to 4 percent of Americans suffer from an acute food allergy, much of the nation remains woefully unprepared. We obsess about the placement of peanuts on airplanes, but many emergency medical responders still do not or cannot carry epinephrine, which can cause a fatal rush of adrenaline in older patients but can also halt a deadly anaphylactic reaction in those under 25. And while some major restaurant chains like McDonald’s have become more aware of allergies, many smaller food-service operations have a long way to go. “In an industry where 10 million new employees appear every year, saying training is pretty easy. Doing training is really tough,” says food allergy specialist Stephen Taylor of the University of Nebraska.
You think “Fear Factor” is gut-turning? Try talking to food microbiologists, who are only too willing to point out that the sort of bacteria found in fecal matter is present in all sorts of food. But not all bacteria are alike, and their mere presence in food means far less than the type and quantity of microbe. Some types of E. coli found in meat and poultry, notably the O157:H7 strain, are harmful and sometimes deadly. Others are harmless. It’s important to know the difference. “We carry E. coli in our gut indigenously,” says Michael Doyle, director of the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety. “That’s normal.”
With stories abounding about bad beef, tainted chicken and even the perils of mayonnaise, a major food-safety culprit — produce — is often overlooked. Canteloupe and leafy greens often test at significant levels for E. coli and salmonella, according to data cited by Doyle. Sprouts like alfalfa test even higher.
The growing importation of produce from other countries, including those with less-strict agricultural standards, adds to these concerns. FDA surveys found microbes on four times as many samples of imported produce as home-grown produce. Concerns have been heightened due to cases like last year’s hepatitis outbreak, tied to green onions from Mexico. Albrecht calls imported produce “a real issue.”
It’s not just conventional produce being bought overseas at cut-rate prices; many developing nations have organic farms certified by U.S.-approved institutions. Organic produce is generally chemical-free, but it can still carry the same microbes. Wash your fruits and veggies.
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