Editor’s Letter: August-September 2015
By Brian Hartz
Trans fats. Sugar. Sodium. Carbs. Cholesterol. Gluten. GMOs.
Bakers’ building blocks have been under fire for years now. It’s a miracle anyone still eats bread, given all of the bad press the industry’s essential ingredients have received.
Consumers are hounded left and right to avoid the ingredients listed above. They’re viewed as a rogue’s gallery in which only careless gluttons would indulge themselves.
But as the saying goes, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. For example, partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) – a major source of trans fats – are regarded as unsafe for human consumption as they’ve been proven to give rise to heart disease, obesity and memory loss.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in June issued new rules requiring food manufacturers to completely eliminate PHOs from their products within three years. Companies like McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A have already fallen in line.
In Canada, sodium reduction was all the rage, with a major campaign to reduce Canadians’ daily average sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams per day by 2016. Excess sodium consumption has been shown to increase the risk of hypertension, which in turn can lead to heart disease and stroke.
Now, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and sugar find themselves playing the villain – and drawing the gaze of food regulators.
The GMO debate is particularly perplexing. Major names such as Chipotle have announced that they’ll use only non-GMO ingredients, yet industry research shows that consumers aren’t willing to spend more for non-GMO food. This, despite well over half of adults surveyed by the NPD Group in 2014 expressing concern over GMOs in their food supply.
NPD analyst Darren Seifer thinks confusion over what constitutes genetically modified food is to blame, telling FoodNavigator-USA.com that “when we asked people to tell us what GMOs are, the biggest answer we get is ‘I don’t know.’ We naturally fear what we don’t understand, and think it is bad.”
Sugar, on the other hand, is a known quantity – or is it? Consumers have been told for years that too much sugar is bad. But it turns out that there’s a whole spectrum of ingredients that are, for all intents and purposes, sugar. Their names, however, reflect a different reality: “corn syrup,” “dextrose,” “polyol,” “fruit juice concentrate,” “glucose,” “barley malt.”
Taken out of context, none of these ingredients sound especially egregious. But they constitute a category of ingredients that, heretofore, could be lumped under the catch-all term “added sugars.” Not so, anymore. Health Canada has proposed changes to food labels that would require individual sugary ingredients to be itemized and listed together in one section of the label.
“Our government is breaking new ground with our proposal on the labelling of sugars on foods sold in Canada,” Health Minister Rona Ambrose said in June. “Nowhere else in the world will consumers have the kind of information Canadians will have about the sugars contained in the foods they eat. This information will help them understand how much sugar is in a product, whether it’s a little or a lot of sugar, and where the sugar comes from.”
Most of us could stand to improve our diets. But most of us also have the ability to make good choices and not go around blaming this ingredient or that ingredient for our health woes. Maybe I’m tilting at windmills, but it seems that the ingredients coming under the most fire from regulators are the very ingredients that have sustained humanity since time immemorial. Members of the baking industry should stay abreast of the conversations and developments around GMOs and sugar to ensure they remain in compliance, but also so they can play an active rather than passive role in future debates over ingredients and public health. There are some ingredients bakers can do without, but others they can’t – and the freedom to formulate is one of the most important.