By Bob Gaydos
A few weeks ago I wrote a column that proclaimed, "Turns out, you really are what you eat." For me, in the midst of changing to a more healthful diet, that statement is truer than ever. The problem is, it is getting harder to know exactly what we're eating and the mega-companies that produce the food we eat are going out of their way to keep it that way. They're also getting a lot of help from politicians, who bemoan rising health costs and obesity on the one hand, but don't seem eager to learn if, just maybe, the food we eat has something to do with both. Guess it depends on who's buttering your toast.
Disclaimer: While I have significantly modified my diet to a more healthful emphasis on non-meat foods and organic food, I am not a vegan or vegetarian. I believe all living things, including animals, are entitled to humane treatment and that animals who are pets or companions should not be used as food. Period.
I also believe that we humans are entitled to know as much as possible abut the food being offered to us, including any changes made to the original product. Then we can make whatever decision we want, informed or uninformed, as long as we have a fair chance. That's what this is about.
This week, President Obama, following the lead of a bought-and-paid for Congress, signed into law what has come to be known as the Monsanto Protection Act. Big mistake.
Much of the president's political support has come from voters who believed his stated commitments to openness in government and a healthier, more informed citizenry. This swoop of his pen calls much of his rhetoric into doubt. In brief, the so-called act is actually one turgid paragraph buried in the homeland security section of a huge budget bill. It allows Monsanto, which did an all-out lobbying effort to get Congress to stick the paragraph in the bill, to plant genetically modified crop seed without any court reviewing whether or not it is safe.
Genetically modified crops are hardier, more resistant to pesticides and produce more product in less space. Through review of the gene-modifying process, the government says, it decides if they are safe for human consumption.
So ask yourself: Why then is it necessary in the first place for a food giant to want protection from having to prove its "safe" food is safe?
Correct answer: Money. It costs a lot to pay lawyers to defend you in court. Even mega-rich companies like Monsanto try to avoid court costs. Also, any doubts raised about the safety of a food product -- cereal, bread, beef -- is bound to hurt sales. More money.
This has far more to do with Monsanto's bottom line than homeland security. And the fact that nobody can be 100 percent sure the genetically modified organisms are, in the long run, safe.
Now, a lot of apparently intelligent people say publicly that the GMOs are indeed safe for us to eat. I don't discount this out of hand. As I said, this is about letting us, not some high-priced lobbyist, decide what food we want to eat and what food we'd just as soon avoid. (Obama has also appointed a former Monsanto executive as his food safety adviser.) If GMOs are so safe (may European nations have banned them), then label them and let the president give a personal testimonial on the label if he wants. "Mmm mmm good, says Barack." Just let me know what I'm eating.
The other current labeling issue involves milk, which we are told from birth is good, even necessary, for our good health, and aspartame, which, well, let's say has had some issues.
The dairy industry has asked the Food and Drug Administration to allow it to remove front-of-package labeling on flavored milk products that proclaim "low calorie" or "artificially sweetened." These milk products, especially chocolate milk, are big with kids, but they are drinking less of it and industry executives think the front labels may scare them off.
Actually, it's more likely the labels scare off parents who then look at the ingredients and see aspartame has been added for sweetness. Just to be clear -- aspartame is already in these products and listed in the ingredients. That will not change. The milk people just want it to be less obvious and to continue to label the products "milk" without any of that annoying added information.
Now, to start with, using artificial sweeteners as an argument for improving the health of children is specious. The sweeteners are so much sweeter than sugar (aspartame is 200 times sweeter) that they increase children's appetite for other sweet foods. And school officials are not keen on kids being targeted this way and not being absolutely clear as to what they are offering in their cafeterias.
A chemical concoction, aspartame (once sold as NutraSweet) has been a controversial product from the start. Still, while being mentioned in connection with many health concerns (including brain cancer), aspartame has been found to be safe for human consumption in the United States and more than 100 other countries. For proof, check your diet soda's ingredients.
The point is, they still call it diet soda or low-cal whatever, meaning you might want to check the ingredients to see what makes it so tasty. Just like you might want to check your milk product. Or not.
We Americans like to think of ourselves as savvy and independent consumers. We also say we revere science and aspire to good health. Yet we rank near the bottom of the world rankings for science students and near the top for obese ones -- and health care costs. Maybe we should connect those dots.
Meantime, just give us all the info on the food we get and let us decide for ourselves if we want to eat it.
Bob Gaydos is a veteran of 40-plus years in daily newspapers. He began as police reporter with The (Binghamton, N.Y.) Sun-Bulletin, eventually covering government and politics as well as serving as city editor, features editor, sports editor and (more...)