Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Latest Innovations

The world is full of inventors and inventresses, and every now and then I like to use this space to highlight some of the exciting new developments they've come up with—especially as they impact the worlds of vegetarianism and anti-vegetarianism. Both the good guys and the bad guys have been doing a lot of innovating lately, so let me just pop the top on a frosty Soy Beer (the latest drink of choice for the discerning vegetarian) and let's see what's new.

  • Neither Fish Nor Ford— You'll be excited to know that a new product named FastBass, a plastic fish painted to look like a race car, is available on-line for $59.95 at It aims to capitalize on the growing market appeal of both NASCAR racing and professional bass fishing—the so-called "redneck twins of Southern sports." Marketers see this as a natural fit, noting that, "The 100,000 bubbas in the [NASCAR] stands are the same people who have an avocation for bass fishing."
  • Even the President Gets No Respect— And speaking of bubbas… Eaves Food Incorporated of Georgia has developed a one-third pound hamburger affectionately called the "BUBBA burger". Recently the company was forced to recall 28,860 pounds of BUBBA burgers because of possible E. coli contamination.
  • My Bells!— The Bella Mia restaurant in San Jose, California came up with a great way to save on the cost of veal—they just used pork instead. Now the restaurant has agreed to pay a $60,000 court settlement. The district attorney assigned to the case noted, "There are several groups who don't eat pork products, and many of those people may have been ordering veal to avoid pork." Gee, I wish I had $60,000 for every time I've gotten meat in a restaurant entrĂ©e labeled "vegetarian"!
  • Kids' Stuff— The dairy industry always has something dubious in the works, and lately they've been developing new containers targeted toward children. Among those being tested are the "Milk Chug" (jazzy single-serving bottles of flavored milk aimed at teenage boys) and new three-liter bottles that young children can pour without lifting.
  • Better Kids' Stuff— To promote the 75th birthday of the Green Giant, the company asked kids to compete at the National Veggie Eating Invention Contest at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Museum in Washington. Winners included a "Veggie Pult" that launches carrots into the mouth and an "Easy Biter Motorized Corn Cob," with motorcycle-inspired handles.
  • Whatever Happened to Olestra, anyway?— Just down Madison Avenue from Green Giant, America's food processors seem to be climbing back on the high-fat bandwagon. Among the new offerings are Philadelphia Snack Bars from Kraft (cheesecake "in a convenient on-the-go package"), and Calzone Creations from Sara Lee Corp. (microwavable sandwiches with as much as 12 grams of saturated fat each). According to a poll sponsored by the Food Marketing Institute, just 46 percent of the supermarket shoppers who say they are "very concerned" about nutrition are worried about the fat content of foods. That's down from 60 percent in 1996.
  • Soy is Hot!— Have you been noticing the twelve new types of soymilk showing up every day at the supermarket? It's no wonder that the National Milk Producers Federation has registered a trade complaint asking the Food and Drug Administration to stop use of the word "milk" by soybean beverage makers. Indeed, soymilk sales in mainstream supermarkets reached $126 million last year, a 60 percent increase over the year before. (That may sound like a lot, but it's still less than 1% of the $22 billion Americans spend each year on soda and cows' milk.) Of course, the soybean's popularity isn't limited to soymilk. Everyone wants to get in on the action. The Indiana Soybean Board sponsors an annual "soybean utilization" contest that in the past has yielded such novelties as soy-based gelatin, ski wax, lip balm, fire starter and breakfast cereal. One of this year's winners was SoySnaps, a cracker said to be "similar to a Ritz," but with the "light texture of overdone pizza crust." Mmmm!
  • Try a Little Tenderness— Finally, there's some exciting news from the meat industry in their long battle to make better use of the 10 "subprimal" cuts of meat they say they get from every steer. (Of course, for some of us all cuts of meat are "subprimal," as are the brains of those who produce and sell them.) One slaughterhouse in Corpus Christi, Texas has started zapping animal carcasses with 400 volts of electricity. They say this tenderizes them by tearing apart muscle tissue and "accelerating the aging process." Even more innovative is the new "hydrodyne" meat tenderizing process, developed in part by scientists at the USDA. They put meat—400 pounds of it at a time—into a vat of water anchored in concrete. Then they set off a small explosive charge, and voila—shoe leather is magically transformed into filet mignon! This invention is dynamite! (That's a joke.) Think of the possibilities. Think what this could do for your boss. He could certainly stand to be a little more tender!

Well, that's what's new. I didn't have time to tell you about the New York hotel that decorates with cheese, or the "Elvis Sandwich," but maybe I can save them for another time. I have to admit, though, I did make up the part about the Soy Beer. (It sounds like a good idea though, doesn't it?) Yes, Soy Beer is just an idea whose time has yet to come. I'm working on it. Meanwhile, I'm promoting another great idea I have: Organic Water.

Think it will sell?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Label Lies

Not too long ago in this space I talked about "Santa Cruz Fat Free Guacamole," which I found in the grocery store, and which I'm sure is very groovy stuff except for the fact that it is neither "fat free" nor "guacamole." A short while after I wrote that column I was enjoying my favorite eggplant goo, Imam Bayeldi, on some crackers. "This is great stuff," I thought. "Too bad it's so greasy." I looked at the label to see just how greasy it was and found that, despite the fact that olive oil was one of the first listed ingredients, the goo had "0" calories from fat. Either the label was wrong or my local Middle Eastern market had found a way around the laws of thermodynamics.

These experiences got me to wondering what other food labels may contain grossly misleading information. I decided to investigate, and here are some of the things I found…

  • Food labels love to make health claims, whether they are true or not. For example, Post Golden Crisp Cereal advertises itself as "wholesome," despite the fact that sugar is its first listed ingredient. Actually, of its 7 listed ingredients, 3 are sugars, one is hydrogenated oil, one is artificial color and one is salt. I guess that leaves "wheat" as its "wholesome" ingredient. Wholesome indeed.
  • Hundreds of products lie about their fat content. Annie's Natural "Low Fat Gingerly Vinaigrette" salad dressing, for instance, gets 50% of its calories from fat. This doesn't sound like "low fat" to me, but it's a lot better than the bottle of Hidden Valley Original Ranch "Fat Free" dressing with bacon I found that gets 130 of its 140 calories from fat. Maybe they got the labels mixed up (??!!), or maybe in Hidden Valley what they hide is the truth.
  • Speaking of hiding the truth, check out Dinty Moore "97% fat free" Chicken and Dumplings, Valley Fresh "96% fat free" chunk chicken, and Swanson "99% fat free" chicken and beef broth. Despite these claims, each of these products gets 25% of its calories from fat. And "90% lean, 10% fat" ground beef actually gets 50% of its calories from fat. Well, at least that's better than the "80% lean" stuff, which is in reality over 2/3 fat.
  • Of course, many meat products don't have nutrition labels at all. Why? They would look terrible, so the meat lobby got them exempted. (Labeling of meat products is controlled by the Department of Agriculture ("DOA"), and isn't subject to the FDA labeling requirements.) "It's not a bribe, Mr. Congressperson—just think of it as a tip."
  • Dairy content is another area that seems to spawn food label lies. On the Coffee Mate coffee creamer label it says, "This is a non-dairy product." Under "ingredients" on the very same label it lists "sodium caseinate (a milk derivative)." How do you suppose they define "dairy?" Of course the other "non-dairy creamers" lie on their labels too.
  • If you want food labels that are both misleading and dumb, check out Hormel Pig's Feet and Cedar Springs leg of lamb, both of which advertise themselves as "semi-boneless." What does that mean, anyway? Wouldn't it be more honest just to admit that they contain hunks of fibula and/or a few toe bones carefully hidden inside?
  • My prize for dumbest misleading label, though, goes to Herb Ox Vegetable Bouillon Cubes. Among its ingredients is "fat flavor" (mmmm!), which, in turn, contains "partially hydrogenated corn oil" and "flavor." Gee, that's informative.
  • Of course, misleading food claims are not confined to product labels. Indeed, restaurant menus can be some of the worst offenders. How many gazillion times do non-vegetarian dishes show up in the "vegetarian" section of the menu? How many gazillion times do they forget to mention the cheese or chicken broth or worse in menu descriptions?
  • Sometimes restaurant lies even carry over to their national advertising. For example, the restaurant chain Chili's incessantly advertises "baby back ribs." Despite this depraved-yet-enticing claim, clearly intended to raise images of cannibalism, I have it on good authority that there are no actual babies in these ribs at all. Instead, they are made with dead animal parts, just like all their other menu items. (Jonathan Swift and Jeffrey Dahmer, eat your hearts out.)
  • Of course the mother of all food label lies is found on your friendly neighborhood carton of cow's milk. Milk labeled as "2%" really gets 34% of its calories from fat. The reason the dairy people lie and call it "2% fat" is that they sell more milk if people mistakenly believe it is a low-fat product rather than a high-fat product. Simple? Yes. Blatant frauds on the consumer? Absolutely!


    What I want to know is, where is our government in all of this? The folks in Washington have been strangely silent. Have the FDA, DOA and Congress all sold out to the meat and dairy and Coffee Mate lobbies, or is it that they just don't care very much? And if they don't care, why not? Why pass labeling laws in the first place if you are going to ignore noncompliance?

    Maybe it's time we took matters into our own hands. Hindus are already suing McDonald's over their fraudulent claims about "beef" in their fries. Maybe it's time we stand up to the other lies too. If only Jonathan and Jeffrey were here to sue the Chili's folks over the "baby back ribs" scandal, I'd support them in a minute. It just seems like the right thing to do.