Ethical battlefield

by Jennifer Barnett-Fox
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In its most basic form, food nourishes and sustains vital processes, furnishing the energy required for daily living — a fact that will never be negated. Increasingly though, the purchase and consumption of food has become a subject that invokes passion, questions our most basic rights and offers solutions that are highly dependent on which side of the argument you reside.

Battles include the removal or downsizing of so-called junk foods, the questionable nutritional content of school meals and an over-willingness to try to legislate away the growing obesity epidemic.

Companies that strive to maintain both transparency to consumers and a fiscal responsibility to shareholders walk a fine line offering little margin for error. And so far, there’s no clear consensus about how to effectively deal with any of these issues.

At this halfway point in the year, Baking & Snack offers an update on matters that directly affect the future of the the baking and snack industry. Childhood obesity, school lunches and sodium reduction are just a sampling of the controversial issues facing food manufacturers this year and beyond.

Schools provide breakfast and/or lunch to 31 million students each day. That number not only presents an opportunity for food manufacturers but also represents a growing concern that the foods making up the majority of a child’s daily intake are not as nutritious and beneficial as they should be.

For years, lawmakers, concerned parents and various health advocates have promoted healthier foods in schools. Although the desire for improvement is strong, there exists a widening lack of consensus, creating a grab bag of ideas and proposed guidelines that have left food processors, parents and school-nutrition providers searching for common ground and a unified voice.

Changing nutritional guidelines, influence by lobbyists and a growing consumer desire for clean labels has created a new set of issues for parents, schools and the manufacturers supplying schools. Because school nutritional guidelines differ state to state, county to county and district to district, many companies producing products for schools follow the guidelines endorsed by larger manufacturers and/or school districts central to their distribution areas. In absence of any official policy, many school food service providers default to guidelines established by the US Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service. The voluntary program recognizes schools that improve overall nutrition. In terms of whole grain for which there is also no government standard, foods qualifying as whole grain must be formulated with at least 51% of its grain as whole grain.

With little consensus among government and schools, the issue of the healthfulness of school nutrition is increasingly co-opted by concerned citizens and small-scale food manufacturers such as Revolution Foods. The Oakland, CA-based company was created with the belief that all children deserve access to healthy, wholesome foods at school. Revolution Foods delivers healthy meals and nutrition education to schools and programs across the country. The company also manufactures USDA-certified-organic lunchbox snacks made with whole grains for retail stores.

Recently, the most visible proponent for healthy school lunches may be British chef and nutrition advocate Jamie Oliver. After undertaking a rocky overhaul of school lunches in Greenwich, England, in 2004 through the Feed Me Better campaign, Mr. Oliver fought school and parental resistance to reform the current school lunch program.

Five years later, Mr. Oliver turned his attention to Huntington, WV, after it was declared the US’s unhealthiest city by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The social experiment, “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution,” aired this spring on ABC.

The reality TV show showcased the trials and triumphs of trying to change a system that is increasingly viewed as dysfunctional, if not broken. When surveying the sack lunches brought by students, Mr. Oliver found that in addition to educating students, parents and caregivers also need additional knowledge in order to make better nutritional decisions for themselves and their children.

While a number of consumer packaged goods (CPGs) manufacturers did not receive favorable reviews by “Food Revolution” standards, several companies such as General Mills and Unilever have found their product placements and advertising successful among consumers in connection with the “Food Revolution.”

More importantly, the movement has struck a chord among everyday consumers and celebrities alike, with a common goal of getting fresh foods back into schools. A nationwide petition has garnered close to 600,000 signatures so far. As a result of his efforts to reintroduce fresh food in schools, Mr. Oliver won the 2010 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) prize from TED, a nonprofit devoted to “Ideas Worth Spreading,” which awards $100,000 and “One wish to change the world.” A growing Facebook community has blossomed as a result of the ABC show and Mr. Oliver’s TED win.

Mr. Oliver’s Food Revolution dovetails with First Lady Michelle Obama’s recent Let’s Move campaign. Mrs. Obama’s initiative supports the goal of solving the epidemic of childhood obesity within a generation. On March 16, Mrs. Obama delivered a keynote address at the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association’s (GMA) Science Forum.

“I’m here today to urge all of you to move faster and to go farther because the truth is we don’t have a moment to waste,” Mrs. Obama said at the GMA meeting in March, “because a baby born today could be less than a decade away from showing the first signs of high cholesterol, high blood pressure [and] type 2 diabetes, if he or she is obese as a child.”

The GMA announced its support of the Let’s Move initiative with a commitment to work with communities, school districts and government agencies to get nutritious foods into school. The organization’s Web site, stated, “America’s food and beverage companies have changed more than 10,000 recipes (reducing fats, sugar, calories and sodium) to offer consumers more health options.”

In June, the Grains for Health Foundation gathered 200 experts from government, industry, academia and health organizations in Minneapolis, MN, to discuss the future of grains in the school food supply. The foundation is working for a gradual modification of the grain food supply chain involved in school meals to assist in the fight against child obesity.

A post-conference task force, led by the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agriculture and Natural

Resource Sciences (CFANS), will work to create a model to gradually change the nutrition of grain-based foods in schools.

In 2009, whole-wheat pancakes and whole-wheat tortillas were added to the permanent list of reimbursable school meal commodity foods list as a part of the Grain Purchase Program (GPP) initiated by the

American Bakers Association (ABA) as part of the 2008 Farm Bill. Schools in 41 states and Puerto Rico used GPP funds to purchase whole-wheat pancakes for breakfast and whole-wheat tortillas for lunch during the second half of the school year (February to September).

If the “Food Revolution” and Let’s Move campaigns accomplish nothing more than to stir up the American public, food manufacturers would benefit.

School children fed by the current school lunch programs are the consumers of tomorrow. It is up to each manufacturer to determine the best way to garner support from parents and caregivers who want to feed their children in a healthier, more economical way while creating brands that can become influential family favorites.

It’s a battle that has raged for three decades and one that appears to be far from over. Rumblings about the reduction of sodium levels picked up in October with an announcement from the American Medical Association (AMA) that reducing the nation’s collective sodium consumption could lower medical treatment costs by $18 billion each year. In defense of its announcement, AMA quoted a RAND Corp. study that said by meeting the current national sodium guidelines of no more than 2,300 mg a day, 11 million cases of hypertension would be eliminated, extending the lives of thousands each year. According to RAND, Santa Monica, CA, adults typically consume 3,400 mg of sodium per day.

Some months later in January, the New York City Health Department launched its National Salt Reduction Initiative (NSRI). Headed by New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, NSRI is coordinating a national effort to prevent heart attacks and strokes by reducing the amount of salt in CPGs and restaurant foods, reducing American’s sodium consumption by 25% during the next five years. The public-private partnership has developed targets for sodium reduction in 62 categories of packaged food and 25 categories of restaurant food. There are voluntary 2- and 4-year targets in each food category. In total, 16 companies have agreed to NSRI standards, including Hain Celestial, H.J. Heinz Co., Subway, Unilever, Kraft Foods, Mars Food US, Au Bon Pain, McCain Foods and Starbucks.

“By working together over the past two years, we have been able to accomplish something many said was impossible — setting concrete, achievable goals for salt reduction,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “The National Salt Reduction Initiative has the potential to save tens of thousands of lives that otherwise would be lost to cardiovascular disease in coming years.”

Not to be outdone, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) further pushed the debate about sodium by again requesting the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) revoke salt’s Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) status and regulate it as a food additive instead. “If companies don’t cooperate, they can certainly expect other state and local governments and, perhaps at long last, the FDA to begin regulating in this area,” said Michael F. Jacobson, CSPI executive director.

In April, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommended strategies for reducing sodium intake to levels stated in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, in response to a 2008 Congressional request. IOM concluded that reducing the sodium content in food will require new government standards for an acceptable level of sodium. Following the announcement, FDA offered a statement proposing review of the IOM recommendations, suggesting continued work with federal agencies, public health and consumer groups and the food industry to support the reduction of sodium levels in the food supply.

The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) also came out in support of IOM’s efforts to reduce sodium in foods, but the organization called for further research into the health impacts of broad-based reduction programs. “Significant progress has been made in reformulating food products, but considerable challenges remain,” said Marianne Gillette, president, IFT. “Food manufacturers must balance the multiple functions of sodium in food in addition to taste. Changing the sodium content in food impacts microbiological safety, flavor balance and quality, texture, mouthfeel, preservation, color and nutritional properties of a product.”

Rather than participate in another round of wait-and-see, many companies have taken matters concerning sodium reduction into their own hands. Campbell’s Soup Co., Sara Lee, ConAgra and General Mills are a few of those who have chosen to set their own standards regarding sodium reduction. Sara Lee committed to reducing salt an average of 20% over the next five years across its key categories of fresh bread, hot dogs, lunchmeat, breakfast foods and cooked sausage.

General Mills also announced a goal of decreasing sodium by 20% across multiple product categories by 2015. “General Mills is committed to reducing sodium levels in a series of small steps across our portfolio,” said Susan Crockett, PhD, vice-president of health and nutrition and director of the Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition at General Mills. “We believe making changes in a series of smaller steps is the right way to continue to deliver great taste while reducing sodium.” Examples will include a 16% reduction in Cheerios and Honey Nut Cheerios and a 36% sodium reduction in the Chex Mix snack line.

According to the Snack Food Association (SFA), the sodium content of many salty snacks already falls in line with the reductions proposed by NSRI. Lisa Katic, RD, SFA health policy adviser, said that salty snacks actually do not add a great deal of sodium to the average diet — perhaps 2 to 4%. Ms. Katic also pointed out that to improve the American diet with respect to hypertension is not simply to reduce sodium consumption but to increase potassium intake, which is an important part of the equation.

In March, PepsiCo., Purchase, NY, announced it would cut sodium in its product line by 25% within five years, excepting Lay’s Classic. The company is developing a new salt that dissolves more quickly in the mouth. The new salt features a different size and crystal structure, so people don’t have to eat as much to get the same effect, according to Mehmood Khan, MD, the company’s chief scientific officer. “Every consumer just about will tell you consistently they do not want to compromise on taste, so there’s the scientific challenge,”

Dr. Khan said. In early May, the company announced that six flavors of Lay’s reduced-sodium chips, which launched in January, are selling 30% ahead of projections.

Science is also responsible for significant reductions of sodium levels in baked foods during the past three decades. USDA data confirms that the average sodium in a slice of bread dropped from 254 mg to 180 mg since 1963. The American Bakers Association (ABA) recently came out in support of incremental reduction of sodium. “Bakers have proactively reduced sodium in their bread products by 29% in the past 47 years,” said Robb MacKie, ABA president and c.e.o. “ABA supports the goal of reducing sodium in foods; however, it must be accomplished in a measured and thoughtful manner.

“Grain foods are the foundation of a healthy and balanced lifestyle,” he continued. “They are the single greatest source for eight of the 12 essential vitamins for the body. ABA will oppose action that would jeopardize American’s health by limiting access to essential nutrients that promote overall public health.”

Salt plays a critical role in the production of bread, contributing greatly to product quality, taste and texture. Drastically reducing sodium in a short time frame would likely discourage consumption of whole grain and enriched grain foods that include key nutrients such as thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, iron, folic acid and fiber.

ABA continues to stress the importance of a holistic approach to nutrition, as opposed to the singling out of one ingredient.

“ABA welcomes the opportunity to partner with the Food and Drug Administration as it develops a measured reduction strategy based on sound science,” said Lee Sanders, ABA senior vice-president, government relations and public affairs. “Educating the general public and sodium-sensitive consumers is essential to the success of incremental sodium reduction efforts moving forward.”

The latest National Eating Trends report from The NPD Group, Port Washington, NY, found that amidst the concern regarding sodium content the actual consumption of low-sodium and sodium-free foods has declined. “In my 30 years of observing Americans’ eating behaviors, there is often a gap between what consumers say and what they do,” said Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst, The NPD Group. “It’s easier to aspire to a positive behavior than to actually do it.”

By the nature of the foods they produce, baking and snack manufacturers will need to remain highly cognizant regarding this issue. For additional resources, please see Page 12 of this issue, where Baking & Snack contributing editor Theresa Cogswell highlights the role of sodium in baking and solutions for its reduction. And search for additional resources on sodium reduction methods.

Other side of the story

The Salt Institute urged caution concerning many of the proposed sodium reduction changes. The Salt
Institute is a North American-based nonprofit salt industry trade association dedicated to advocating responsible uses of salt, particularly to ensure winter roadway safety, quality water and healthy nutrition and its more than 14,000 known uses. Founded in 1914, The Salt Institute includes the leading salt companies in the world.

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