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Archive for June 2010

Can Stevia Silence la Pistola?

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Credit: steviaworldforum

Gilbert, Arizona–Can the American consumer’s shift from chemical to natural sweeteners provide a stimulus to the Mexican economy—and help stem drug-related violence south of the border?

According to Jim May, the “Father of Stevia,” “Indeed.”

“The climate is right,” May told Bite Digest, “and it’s safe to grow.” May was referring to the marijuana and cocoa crop that many Mexican farmers grow at great profit—and at great peril.

Rodolfo Torre Cantu, the leading candidate for governor in the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas,  fell in a fusillade of bullets today, less than a week before elections in which violence related to drug trafficking—more than 22,000 people have been killed since 2006—remains a central issue.

The Mexican sweetener industry already enjoys a unique relationship with the U.S.—Mexican cane sugar refiners benefited greatly from the NAFTA agreement, and their country is one of the few nations permitted to send refined white sugar to the States. Stevia, a plant whose extract is 300 times sweeter than sugar, grows in abundance in climates that are friendly to sugar cane, and the Mexican government is looking into the stevia business model and experimental stations.

Currently, May’s company, Arizona-based SweetLeaf, operates a plant in Chile, and with the FDA approval of stevia as a sweetener two years ago in the U.S.—it was formerly categorized as a “dietary supplement”—the 72-year-old entrepreneur and pied piper for natural sweeteners believes Mexican farmers can benefit greatly from the sweetener’s increased market share.

“It’s a no-brainer,” he said. “I’m biased, of course, but I believe stevia is the future of the American sweetener industry.”

May believes the problem stevia will face in the future will not be shortage of demand, “but shortage of supply.”

For a model, we might look to Japan, where stevia has been on the market since the early 1970s and enjoys 40% penetration of the commercial sweetener market. Such demand, coupled with Japan’s limited acreage, has created an opening for Chinese growers, currently the primary source of supply for the Japanese; violence among stevia growers is nil.

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Written by Brian O'Connor

June 29, 2010 at 1:56 am

Posted in sugar

Arthur Brisbane Jr.’s Sugar Bloodline

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New York, NY—In the wake of the NY Times announcement that Arthur Brisbane Jr. had been appointed the paper’s Public Editor, the journalist’s impressive pedigree received little attention. His grandfather, Arthur Brisbane, loomed large in the early 20th century newspaper business, the most influential columnist of his time. He worked for William Randolph Hearst, who recognized Brisbane as a mass-market juggernaut, a specialist of pithy and often bloated utterances—about sunshine’s anti-cancer properties, for example, or the unpromising prospects for air travel. Appearing on the front pages of the Hearst nationwide newspaper chain, Brisbane was digested daily by more than 20 million readers.

A master of the mass-circulation lead, Brisbane aligned himself with the refined sugar industry. He wrote in 1928: “This country, once the great sugar consuming nation of the world, now eats less sugar than it needs, a GREAT DEAL LESS…this is due in part to the folly of women trying to get thin, told by ignorant specialists ‘Sugar will make you fat.’ Sugar will NOT make you fat. On the contrary, it will supply heat, and burn up waste tissue.”

Of course, in the early years of the great sugar debate, scarce science existed regarding the physiological impact of sugar. Hearst and Brisbane, great pals, might not have understood the complexity of glucose, but they did understand money. Brisbane, syndicated in more than 500 newspapers, ranked as the highest paid journalist of his generation, and Hearst gladly accepted the sugar industry’s advertising money to thwart early attacks from the diet industry and sugar-phobes.

Bite Digest is pretty sure Brisbane’s grandson, as Public Editor, would have taken Brisbane the Elder to task for such transparent advocacy.

Written by Brian O'Connor

June 22, 2010 at 5:42 pm

Posted in sugar

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Fat Vikings?

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Reykjavik, Iceland–The 2008 meltdown of the Icelandic banking system contributed to an historic reduction of the nation’s assets, but has not extended to the country’s waistline, according to Benedikta Jonsdottir, the country’s most well-known nutritionist.

“Iceland has been getting fat,” she told BiteDigest. “And it is for the same reasons that America is fat, we are just 40 years behind.”

Jonsdottir, a principle in a chain of Icelandic health food stores, points to the increasing industrialization of Iceland—specifically its capital, Reykjavik, where more than 60% of the country’s 350,000 residents live.

On a recent tour through the capital with BiteDigest, Jonsdottir pointed to the exurbing of the city that has occurred in the last 20 years, with new box-like glass and concrete office buildings sprouting, radiating in all directions from Reykjavik. Its effect, according to Jonssdottir, has been predictable.

“Lack of exercise and a more sedentary lifestyle,” she said. Indeed, Icelanders now drive cars in per-capita numbers rivaling the United States, but Jonsdottir also blames the obesity spike in sugar and sweetener consumption—underlined by a strange law forbidding the natural sweetener Stevia into the country. When I asked Jonsdottir the reasoning behind the ban, she replied simply, in broken English, “Stupid.”

Powdered fructose, sugar from natural fruits, sells well among the Icelanders that do take their health seriously, “but that is only about 10-15% of the people,” she said.

“Aspartame and MSG are also not supposed to be allowed into the country,” she said, “but somehow it is allowed.”

A call to the Icelandic Ministry of Health was not returned.

Jonsdottir pointed out that among the small population of health-conscious Icelanders, most believe that Aspartame is a major player in the obesity increase, as well as a spike in type 2 diabetes. Anecdotally, Bite Digest did see more of an incidence of Icelandic obesity—most of it in health food stores—compared to our last trip in 2001.

When the Vikings first settled the island more than 1,000 years ago, they lived off lamb, fish, seal, whale, and birds. One early delicacy was the Great Auk, a huge 15-pound flightless bird hunted to extinction by 1848. Today, although Icelanders’ consumption of tomato and cucumber rank among the highest in the world, as those crops are among the few that are farmed in-country, the Icelandic landscape is dotted with KFC and hamburger joints, Pepsi Max and Cola signs; a favorite cuisine is the hot dog, slathered with ketchup, mustard and an injurious amount of mayo, available at several kiosks throughout the city and into the wee hours on weekends.

Jonsdottir ventured that few Vikings suffered from obesity, with the possible exception of a chieftain named Olvir the Hump.

Written by Brian O'Connor

June 14, 2010 at 2:16 pm

Posted in sugar

FTC to Kellogg: Snap!

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Washington, D.C.—The Federal Trade Commission has put the clamp on the Kellogg Co. claim that Rice Krispies “helps support your child’s immunity” with “25% daily value of antioxidants and nutrients—vitamins A, B, C and E.”

On the back of the box, Kellogg further claims that the cereal “has been improved to include antioxidants and nutrients that your family needs to help them stay healthy.”

Suspecting corporate hyperbole, the FTC investigated and found no significant science to support these claims. The Commission reached a settlement with Kellogg, prohibiting the Battle Creek, Michigan, company from making claims about any health benefit of any food unless they are backed by scientific evidence and aren’t misleading.

The FTC’s chairman, Jon Leibowitz said, “Next time, Kellogg needs to stop and think twice about the claims it’s making before rolling out a new ad compaign, so parents can make the best choices for their children.”

Or was that a Leibowitz quote from last year? That’s when Kellogg Co. settled federal charges that it falsely advertised the benefits of eating Frosted Mini-Wheats, which the company claimed boosted attentiveness in nearly 20% of children who ate the cereal. In actuality, the study concluded that only half the children who ate Frosted Mini-Wheats improved their attentiveness—and only 11% of the children in the study improved their attentiveness by 20%.

Is it possible that of the Kellogg marketing and research staff, 100% had their attentiveness compromised when they crunched those numbers?

Gold medal Olympian Michael Phelps, dropped from an endorsement deal by Kellogg Co. in February 2009 for smoking marijuana, could not be reached for comment. At the time of Phelps’ dismissal, Kellogg Co. said his behavior “was not consistent with the image of Kellogg.”

One must wonder what they’re doing at the W.K. Kellogg Institute for Food and Nutrition Research in Battle Creek. Just last year the company spent $54 million to improve its laboratories and research facilities, and added 157,000 square feet of additional space for 300 employees. It brought under one roof the company’s best and brightest food scientists and developers, with 400,000 square feet of space, a flexible experimental production area and an improved pilot plant—where products can be tested before they hit full-scale production.

At the time, David Mackay, Kellogg Co. president and CEO, trumpeted the Institute’s accomplishments. Since opening 12 years ago, he said, the Kellogg Institute has introduced successful products that have built on its core brand names, such as Special K protein meal bars, waters, shakes, crackers and cereal flavor varieties. He added that it has allowed the company to reduce sugar and sodium in many of its products (We’ll wait and see on that, but in the meantime, it does put into stark relief the old days, when a box of Sugar Corn Pops needn’t misrepresent itself…)

“I’m confident that all this good work of the past will pale in comparison to the renovations and innovations we can expect now that Kellogg has the premier product development center in the industry,” said Mackay.

Written by Brian O'Connor

June 7, 2010 at 5:34 pm

Posted in cereal

Hershey’s to go Dark and Kiss 600 Jobs Goodbye

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Derry Township, Pennsylvania–Hershey’s plant at 19 E. Chocolate Avenue, a 105-year-old humming relic of America’s disappearing industrial past and the birthplace of the white-plumed Chocolate Kiss, will be going dark.

The Chocolate Workers Union Local 464 yesterday cast a grim “Yes” vote that will effectively eliminate 600 jobs as the workload is shifted to a new West Hershey plant across town. A “No” vote would have prompted Hershey’s to “quickly consider an alternative location in the United States,” according to Hershey spokesman Kirk Saville. In essence, the 1,400-member union jettisoned 30-percent of its rank and file from their livelihoods—the definition of a bittersweet vote.

With annual revenue eclipsing $5 billion, the Hershey Company has long been antagonized by what it characterizes as the artificially inflated price of domestic refined sugar. In 2007 the company committed to a new plant in Monterrey, Mexico, where refined sugar prices are cheaper. Last year, after plant closings in Connecticut and California, they closed their Reading, Pennsylvania factory, where York Peppermint Patties, 5th Avenue and Zagnut candy bars and Jolly Rancher hard candies were produced. In all, 1,500 jobs disappeared.

This is just the latest in a protracted battle waged by candy and chocolate makers to cut costs and bring down sugar prices, dating back more than 95 years, when Milton Hershey began acquiring sugar plantations in Cuba. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign promise to “stop subsidizing sugar,” was largely the result of the candy lobby’s attempts to permit more sugar imports from foreign countries into the States.

Sugar manufacturers argue that these quotas, set by the U.S. Government to restrict imports, stabilize prices. “There is no subsidy as such,” Benjamin L. Legendre, Professor and Department Head, Audubon Sugar Institute at Louisiana State University, told BiteDigest. “However, because we restrict imports, the market price for sugar in the U.S. is higher than it would be if we didn’t restrict imports. Right now, the world market the way it is, without quotas, we’d be paying more for sugar than we are right now.”

Layoffs will take effect within two years. Tom Ridge, ex-Governor of Pennsylvania and former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and a member since November 2007 of the Hershey Company Board of Directors, did not return a call for comment.

The Hershey’s Kiss began production at the Derry Township, Pennsylvania, plant in 1907, and chocologists assert that the product got its name from the sound of the chocolate being deposited during the manufacturing process. 80 million kisses, 26 calories each, are manufactured daily at the Hershey plant and a sister plant in Virginia, using more than 400,000 pounds of sugar.

The 19 E. Chocolate plant will find new life as administrative offices, perhaps where invoices for the new Mexico plant will be processed.

Although the plant closing represents a blow to the American labor movement, at least the American sweet tooth is safe: three Hershey factories in Pennsylvania will continue to produce Kisses, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bars.

Written by Brian O'Connor

June 5, 2010 at 5:43 pm

Posted in sugar

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Will Hershey’s say “Hasta Luego”?

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Derry Township, Pennsylvania–Is Hershey’s historic Chocolate Avenue plant going dark after 110 years?

Not completely, according to company spokesman Kirk Saville. If the chocolate Makers Union agrees to move 600 workers to a newer plant on the west side of town, the historic building will convert to administrative offices by 2011, with 400 workers losing their jobs in the shuffle.

If the union doesn’t agree to the move, the company has threatened to relocate. Saville declined to elaborate on a location, but we can assume it’ll be somewhere where Hershey can purchase its raw materials cheaper–like Mexico, where it has already opened a plant.

“Hershey’s and Mars, they’re thinking that if they could go on the world market and buy sugar, they could save a lot of money,” says Benjamin L. Legendre, Ph.D., Professor and Department Head, Audubon Sugar Institute at Louisiana State University. “By the U.S. Government restricting imports of sugar, it keeps the prices higher for them. The user groups lobby in Washington so they can buy cheaper sugar.”

It’s no secret that sugar is a small portion of the cost of a candy bar. “A lot of these makers will move their plants to Mexico or Canada because they say the price of sugar here is too much, so they move there because of the cheap price of sugar.”

Wonder where Hershey’s next move is?

Written by Brian O'Connor

June 1, 2010 at 11:30 pm

Posted in Uncategorized