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October 2005, Volume 11, Number 4

Pesticides, Obesity, Flu

The two most commonly used insecticides in US agriculture, malathion and chlorpyrifos, show up at detectable levels in elementary school-age children when they eat a normal diet, but do not when they eat organic food, suggesting that food is an important source of chemicals in children.

The Consumers Union reported in 2000 that peaches, apples, pears, grapes, green beans, spinach, winter squash, strawberries and cantaloupe had the highest levels of pesticide residues. Those with few residues included bananas, broccoli, canned peaches, canned or frozen peas, canned or frozen corn, milk, orange juice, apple juice and grape juice.

The Food and Drug Administration was reported in October 2005 to be on the verge of approving a rule that milk from cloned animals and meat from their offspring are safe to eat. A few offspring of cloned pigs and cows are already trickling into the food supply, and many farmers believe that genetic copies are the next logical step in improving the nation's livestock, but polls show that two-thirds of consumers say they do not want to buy meat, milk and eggs from clones. Dolly, a sheep born in 1997, was the first mammal cloned from an adult cell, and many show cattle and hogs are clones of previous winners.

Cloning involves sucking the nucleus out of an egg, injecting a new nucleus from an adult cell and implanting the resulting embryo into a surrogate mother animal. Clones appear to be nearly identical genetic copies of the adult progenitor.

Obesity. A quarter of Americans are obese, and two-thirds are overweight. Most Americans say they want to eat healthier, prompting the $550 billion processed-food industry to search for ways to reduce fat but keep food such as fried chicken tasty. A key player is the $4 billion a year ingredient business, which, for instance, keep the fruit in yogurt suspended or allow many foods to stay in warehouses or on supermarket shelves for up to nine months without spoiling.

Fiber is beneficial because it prompts slower, steady digestion, preventing spikes in blood sugar and insulin. With consumers unwilling to add fruit, vegetables and beans to their diet, Cargill and National Starch developed resistant starch, which is starch extracted from tapioca or corn and modified so that it resists digestion. Adding resistant starch to bread, muffins, pasta and corn chips increases the fiber content by several grams a serving. However, consumer research shows that convenience and taste still outrank nutrition as the top priority for most people.

Obesity, defined as having a body mass index or more than 30, is likely to get worse, since a quarter of children are overweight, based on public school fitness test scores for fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders. Studies suggest that about three-quarters of overweight teens will become obese adults. Latinos, Pacific Islanders and Blacks in low-income communities had the highest percentage of overweight children.

A Rand study published in the journal Public Health examined the weight gains of 6,918 children from 59 metropolitan areas around the U.S between kindergarten and third grade, and found that higher fruit and vegetable prices were associated with more weight gained. In Mobile, Alabama, the region with the highest relative fruit and vegetable prices, children gained about 50 percent more excess weight than the national average, while the excess weight gain was about half the norm in Visalia, California, the area with the lowest relative cost for fruits and vegetables. USDA, which funded the research, believes that US fruit and vegetable prices are low enough that everyone can afford to buy recommended quantities.

As a result of public health legislation passed in 2004, France in 2006 will become the first country to impose mandatory health messages on the benefits of balanced diets on all television and radio advertisements that promote processed food, such as urging viewers to eat five fruits and vegetables daily and exercise regularly. Food companies can avoid the band at the bottom of the ad if they pay a government fee of 1.5 percent of the value of the ad. About 70 percent of the ads directed at children deal with food. Sweden and Norway ban children's advertising on local television, although viewers can see commercials from other countries on cable and satellite channels.

The US has 56,000 supermarkets, and they are being squeezed by upscale outlets such as Whole Foods, where 10 percent of sales are prepared foods, and discounters such as Wal-Mart, the largest US grocer that in 2004 sold $109 billion of food and grocery items twice as much as Kroger, the largest US supermarket chain. Wal-Mart accounts for almost 20 percent of US grocery sales, and Kroger, Albertsons and Safeway, the three largest supermarket chains, are stagnating.

Marla Cone, "Going Organic Can Shield Children From Pesticides," Los Angeles Times, September 3, 2005. Melanie Warner, "Science's Quest to Banish Fat in Tasty Ways," New York Times, August 11, 2005.