Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Children of the Quorn

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I found this post by CSPI (the Centre for Science in the Public Interest) calling for the ban of Quorn products in the US a little puzzling.

For those wondering, apparently Quorn is a “vat grown fungus” used in vegetarian meat product substitutes. Yes, I know, it sounds revolting to us omnivores. Personally, I think that plants (and I suppose fungi) should be proud to be themselves and not masquerade as meat. Putting that aside, apparently it’s quite popular. It’s not available in Canada because the CFIA has not tested, and therefore, not approved it for sale, as far as I can tell.

The FDA has approved the sale of Quorn products in the US but, based on reports of allergic reactions, the CSPI is calling for retailers to stop selling Quorn and for people who have experienced allergic reactions to report them to CSPI. If Quorn is toxic then, yes, it should not be sold. However, I can’t quite comprehend limiting the sale of a food simply because some people are allergic to it. Why not call for grocery stores to stop carrying peanut butter, soy, scallops, or any other common allergen?

Consumers should be aware that consuming Quorn may cause them to have an adverse reaction. They can make their own decisions from there. Unless there is more reason than this to believe that Quorn poses a significant risk, I say let the vegetarians eat their Quorn.


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Grocery store lessons: Labelling Lies (part 1)

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I recently learned a few interesting things about nutrition labels on food that I think every grocery shopper should be aware of.

The first lesson was when I saw a new product on the shelf and took a look at the label. I noticed that there were a number of things wrong with it. The ingredient list and the quantities listed in the nutrition facts panel didn’t mesh. The most glaring problem was the sugar, which was exponentially less than the amount of sugar in a similar product despite the fact that this particular product contained added sugar! To me, this was particularly worrisome, as this could prove to be dangerous for people with diabetes besides misleading all consumers into believing that the product is healthier than it actually is. I had concerns about the fat and fibre content as well. In addition to these concerns, the label listed sugar and fibre in milligrams. In Canada, these nutrients must be listed in grams.

I contacted the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) regarding the incorrect label. I must say, they were very quick to respond and agreed that the label contained these errors. Now here’s where it gets interesting. The CFIA does not have to approve product labelling in order for a product to make it to market. They have an excellent step-by-step guide to food product labelling http://www.alimentheque.com/divers/GuideFoodLabellingAdvertising_CFIA_dec2011.pdf but it’s down to the manufacturer to ensure the guide is followed. Large grocery chains will usually veto labels when listing new products for sale but sometimes things are missed. In addition, many products are only sold at smaller shops (which I’m assuming wouldn’t usually have a stringent approval process).

The CFIA will follow-up on submitted labelling concerns by contacting the manufacturer and any other relevant parties. As they don’t have the man-power to check every new product on store shelves, they rely on consumers to share any concerns regarding inaccurate labelling with them. You can easily submit any concerns to them via their web form.

Unfortunately, while the CFIA conducts their business, any inaccurately labelled products will remain on store shelves.

I think that this is an important reminder that we should not just look at the nutrition facts panel but also the ingredient list when we’re grocery shopping. I often find that the ingredient list is more useful than the nutrition facts (even when the facts are truthful). It’s also a good reason for us to attempt to buy as few packaged foods (i.e. those requiring food labels) as possible.


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Colour me surprised: Organic foods may contain pesticides!

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Last week consumers of organic produce got their knickers all in a knot over news reports of pesticide residue being found on “organic” produce. Now, I thought that we all knew by now that purchasing organic produce didn’t guarantee avoidance of pesticides. Apparently not.

Just a reminder… Organic food is not grown in isolation. There are pesticides in the soil, the rain, the air. Organic foods are not shipped and sold in isolation. There are many stages at which they may become contaminated with pesticides. Indeed, organic foods may also have pesticides deliberately applied during the growing process. Pesticides are allowable in organic farming, provided that they are not synthetic. For a list of permitted substances in organic farming see this from the Government of Canada.

Before we all give-up on organic produce, it’s worth considering a couple of things. One, it appears that the number of samples was quite small (the image at the bottom of the CBC article shows a sample size of 30 for the grapes). This could mean that the numbers are not an accurate reflection of the state of pesticide residue in produce in Canada. Two, only 1.8% of organic samples exceeded allowable limits for pesticides; 4.7% of non-organic samples did. In fact, less than half of the samples of organic produce tested positive for pesticides at all. While 78.4% of non-organic produce tested positive. Considering the numerous opportunities for organic produce to becomes contaminated with pesticides the number showing residue is actually quite small.

Yes, you’re taking a risk that your food is going to be contaminated with pesticides. That risk is present whether you choose organic or not. However, that risk is considerably greater if you choose non-organic produce. It’s also worth taking into consideration that by choosing organic produce you’re choosing to have fewer synthetic pesticides put into the environment. Over time, this may mean that your organic food will be less and less likely to be contaminated with synthetic pesticides.


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Don’t judge a food by its box

Was just reading this article about the CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) ending their inspection program for products making nutritional claims. My initial reaction to this pronouncement is mixed. Obviously, it’s not to our benefit (as consumers) to have this information unregulated. From the sounds of it food manufacturers will now be able to put pretty much whatever they want on packaging, as far as nutritional claims go, unless someone files a complaint with the CFIA. At the same time, we shouldn’t be relying on packaging to provide us with our nutrition education. Nor should we be purchasing many packaged foods in the first place. I believe that it was Michael Pollan who recommended that we not purchase foods that make nutritional claims on their packages. It may be a little extreme to go this far, but he does have a valid point. Why on earth would we trust food packaging when it’s clearly designed to convince us to buy foods. It’s just another marketing tool for the food industry. There may be some truth in some of the claims. However, you need to look farther than the front of the package. I suggest purchasing foods in as minimally processed a state as possible. When you are buying packaged foods, read the nutrition facts panel, compare different brands. Also, look at the top and bottom shelves. Eye-level shelves are premium spots at grocery stores and manufacturers pay a premium price to have their products placed there. You may find a healthier version at a lower price on a lower shelf. Remember: it’s not what’s on the box that counts, it’s what’s inside the box.