Only if Mom makes it

A Moldovian former defense minister will end a hunger strike only if he's fed his mother's food, according to Russian news agency Interfax. Valeriu Pasat is facing crimimal charges following an unauthorized $40 million sale of MiG fighter jets to the United States in 1997, an accusation Pasat challenges as politically motivated. Pasat has refused food while in custody, a period that has lasted more than two weeks. Pasat's lawyer has said the accused will end his hunger strike only if his mother is allowed to cook for him once a day, according to Interfax.


A girdle for McGriddle

An article in Scientific American reports that USDA research has identified a food additive which might cut down on fat absorption -- a potential boon for fast-food junkies.

A cellulose derivative, called hydroxypropylmethylcellulose (HPMC), seems to help slow down the absorption of fat by the body. Trials with hamsters on fat-heavy diets produced positive results. Just how HPMC works in the human body to reduce fat absorption, and whether there are any detrimental side effects, aren't yet known.

Given the obesity epidemic in the U.S., this research is promising. Yet finding a fix to a behavior problem that is itself entirely preventable may seem misguided. (Remember Olestra?) From the Department of Obvious Statements, a USDA scientist: "The less fat you eat, the better off you are."


Monsanto watch: March 17

Not Ready for Wheat: Monsanto has decided to shelve plans for genetically modified wheat despite the company's multimillion-dollar invesment in the project. According to reports, the gene giant made the decision in response to industry pressure and consumer concerns over the introduction of GM tech in a "key food crop." Instead, the company plans to focus its energies on a new hybrid soybean that requires less hydrogenization for oil production, and is billed as "more healthy" for consumers.

U.K. still resists: In an interview with the BBC, Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant says that farmers in the U.K. are eager to grow GM crops, and that consumer concerns in that country are overblown. GM crops are allowed in the U.K., but under very strict guidelines. According to a government survey, more than 90 percent of citizens in the U.K. are against GM crops.


What's in a name

Can fish farming be considered organic? That's a question that's stumped the USDA, and one that consumers are considering for perhaps the first time. This Boston Globe article profiles a fishery in Florida that is farming "organic" shrimp. The shrimp are "bred in dark greenhouses, fed organic pellets, and raised in covered tanks with pure artesian well water," according to the article.

But is it organic? The seafood industry may help to redefine the term to mean more than just "natural" and "pesticide-free." There are currently no USDA guidelines for organic seafood, yet the agency is currently working to figure out what such guidelines should establish.

Mercury concerns have turned many consumers away from fish caught in the ocean to fish raised in farms, where a controlled environment can better guarantee the quality and safety of the seafood. (See FDA data on mercury in fish here; guidelines here.) Yet fisheries that market "wild" salmon, for example, see their product as the only true organic product; as one seafood representative told the Globe, wild salmon is "completely natural."

Consider this: is lettuce that is raised organically, without pesticides or artificial fertilizers, still be considered organic if ground water in the area is contaminated with chemical run-off from a nearby agricorporate farm? Can "wild" fish that run the risk of mercury contamination truly be considered organic? Should organic be defined as process, a state of being, or both?


More on cookies

NY Times' Kim Severson (author of the Trans Fat Solution) talks bad fats in Girl Scouts cookies in this article, addressing an upcoming "healthy living" push that might make the Scouts look a tad silly. From the article,

...the research arm of the organization last year issued a 35-page health report, "Weighing In: Helping Girls Be Healthy Today, Healthy Tomorrow." Cookies were not mentioned.

The study is part of a "healthy living" initiative the organization plans to roll out later this year. To develop ideas for it, Judy Shoenberg, a Girl Scout researcher, recently met with Ann Cooper, a New York chef and food activist who is leading a national effort to reform school lunches.

"The first thing I said was: "What about the cookies?' " Ms. Cooper said. "You can't have a lifestyle initiative without changing the cookie because you look like a bunch of idiots."


Monsanto watch: March 8

Class action denied, again: A federal appeals court ruled that a group of farmers filing suit against the gene giant could not claim class-action status. An initial request was denied in 2003, and was immediatley appealed to the higher court.

The 1999 case accuses Monsanto and other suppliers of agricultural seed of price collusion during the 1990s in the market for genetically modified seeds, or GM seeds. The suit also alleges Monsanto failed to adequately test GM seeds for health and safety issues before releasing them into the market, and that the company made "deceptive statements or omissions" when concerning GM testing.

The fat in Thin Mint

One can have a wholesome cookie that still tastes great without all those nasty additives. So I was surprised to find that Girl Scout cookies, sold by the millions of boxes every year, still contain partially hydrogenated oil -- otherwise known as a trans fatty acid.

Although FDA rules requiring "trans fat" labeling don't kick in until 2006, many companies have taken the initiative and include trans fat information on a product's "nutrition facts" label. I applaud Little Brownie Bakers and ABC/Interbake for taking this step; however, I think it's time to bring the Scouts into the nutritional 21st Century.

I'm not the only person, it seems, concerned about the continued use of bad fat in Scout cookies. On the Girl Scouts of the USA Web site, a FAQ explains that trans fats were previously considered a "healthier food choice compared with saturated fats." This, now, is not the case -- but the site does not outline any steps the cookie makers may be taking to eliminate trans fats from their recipes.

So a serving (about 4 cookies) of "Trefoils," an "old-fashioned" shortbread cookie, contains a total 6 grams of fat, with 1.5 grams of saturated fat and 2 grams of trans fats. A serving of "Thin Mints" has a total 7 grams of fat, with 4 grams of saturated fats and 1 gram of trans fat. (Take a look at all the Girl Scout cookie nutritional information here.)

The USDA recommended allowance of saturated fats is 20 grams per day, on average. There isn't, to my knowledge, any "recommended" daily dose of trans fats -- yet conventional wisdom would suggest we avoid it altogether.


Green, but not organic

California state officials told Mendocino agriculture commissioners that they're not allowed to put an organic stamp on marijuana grown in the region, despite their best interests in informing people about the benefits of pesticide-free "produce."

California voters approved the use of medical marijuana in 1996, yet possessing, using or growing pot is still a crime under U.S. federal law.


Brazil goes GMO

Legislators gave the green light to a bill that will allow Brazil's soybean farmers to legally plant genetically modified crops. The black market in GMO seeds has been vibrant, as some 20 percent of farmland in Brazil already grows smuggled seeds from Argentina. The decision to push legal GMO crops opens up yet another market for Monsanto's "Roundup-ready" seeds, which are high-yield and can withstand heavy doses of the company's herbicide, Roundup.

(For company literature on Roundup, look here; for EPA reports on the health effects of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, look here. For a complete history of Monsanto's influence and increasing control of global agriculture, check out Mindfully.org's Monsanto page.)

The company is already fast at work. Monsanto's subsidiary in Brazil plans to invest more than $20 million to develop technology that will make Bt soybeans (soybeans with genes that fight off certain predatory insects) even more bug-resistant.


Monsanto watch: March 2

Environment 1, Monsanto 1: Biowatch, a South African watchdog group, wins access to information about the company's GMO experiments, but is ordered to pay the giant's legal fees as a result. The group calls the ruling "chilling," and fears it may stymie other groups looking at legal action to acquire environmental information.

Seed eater: Monsanto grabs a third seed maker in as many months to expand its growing regional seed business. NC+ Hybrids was sold for $40 million, and controls about 1 percent of the U.S. corn seed market. Monsanto acquired Emergent, a cotton seed maker, in February, and Seminis, a company that owns more than 20 percent of the global seed market, in January.

Not on the ingredient list

A U.S. food manufacturer has recalled more than 350,000 pounds of food produced at a Texas plant for fear the items may contain shards of glass. Schwan's Food Manufacturing is, according to reports, cooperating with the FDA in the recall of thousands of frozen egg rolls, pizzas and other frozen food items.

An initial recall following the discovery of glass in food was initiated in January; a subsequent recall was triggered by the discovery of more glass in products not on the original list. Some of the food items were believed to have been served in schools, according to this MSNBC article, whch also includes a list of affected foods.

Talking with your mouth full

Civilized dinner conversation with teenagers might seem impossible, but a single mom from California has created a way that is not only successful, but also a money-maker. "Food for Talk" cards offer conversation starters, quotes from famous people or influential books, geared to get kids and parents to talk to each other while enjoying dinner or any other collective meal.

Do families really need cue cards to chat? According to this story in the Seattle Times, only one in three families actually sit down together for meals. Considering tha most families spend more time at the drive-thru window than at the table, perhaps this converstational food is exactly what families need. Spending more time paying attention to each other, and in turn, to what we're eating, is an idea certainly worth talking about.

Red dye update

Apparently the government of Sudan isn't too pleased that the name of its country is associated with a cancer-causing food colorant. Britian researchers are shrugging their shoulders, saying that when the dye was discovered and named in 1986, "we weren't around."