Letters to the editor, August 2012

This article was originally published in August 2012

Toothpaste labels

I’m disappointed that Tom’s of Maine now is listing “natural flavors” in the ingredients of many of its toothpaste formulations. They used to list every ingredient, and now they do not, despite still claiming to list every ingredient.

The Tom’s website still says “Every ingredient in our products is posted along with our reason for using it and where it’s sourced.” But that is not true — “natural flavor” could be just about anything. I hope other people will complain to Tom’s.
— Jami Kimble

PCC replies: We called Tom’s and recommended the company list each individual flavor, reiterating that consumers are suspicious that the term “natural” may hide unnatural ingredients. Tom’s said all its flavors are derived from natural essential oils and fruit extracts and directed us to its full list of ingredients on the website.

A chart on page 8 of this issue gives details about the properties of the toothpaste brands at PCC. For more on the flavor industry, see The flavor industry, August 2010, Sound Consumer.

Fair trade labeling

I wonder if you would do an article about this whole confusing situation with fair trade labeling, especially the change in allegiances from “Fair Trade” to other certifications, such as IMO Fair for Life. I’ve noticed Theo Chocolate has switched to IMO Fair for Life, and a friend noticed recently that many labels in coffee shops are using other certifications than Fair Trade. I am trying to figure it out.

I’ve been online and talked with people in your stores, and people at Equal Exchange, and if I’m having a hard time figuring it out, then probably other people are too. It needs to be sorted out so people can be confident they’re buying fairly traded products.
— Valerie Sammons, Ballard

PCC replies: Companies such as Theo say they switched to IMO Fair for Life because the Certified Fair Trade seal (at the time) could be shown on products that used only a minimal amount of fairly traded ingredients — as little as 2 percent. Some companies also complained too much money for certification was going to administrative costs — not farmers.

The Organic Consumers Association and Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps filed a legal complaint in 2011 saying the low threshold for the Fair Trade Certified seal enabled deceptive and misleading labeling. This year the certifying body revised its standards so only products with 100-percent Fair Trade Certified ingredients may show the full Fair Trade Certified label. Products containing 20 percent Fair Trade Certified ingredients may show a Fair Trade Certified Ingredients label.

See our February 2011 article, Creating change through chocolate, which addressed the shifting trend in certifications, with numerous comparisons.

Ethical eating

I am writing to thank you for your articles in the July issue on sustainable seafood. I am happy to see that PCC has such a high rating.

I also write to respond to your comment on the letter in that issue from Jim Borgogno. He is a vegan who wrote to urge others to be vegan. You replied that “Sustainable agriculture must involve animals” and referred to raising just one kind of animal (or one kind of plant) as “monocropping.” The inference is that you believe eating animals is justified because they are needed for growing plants. I have not looked deeply into this necessity but I’m skeptical.

Even if animals are needed for agriculture, it does not follow that we should eat them. By such (lack of) logic, we also ought to eat any other animals that are “involved,” such as horses, dogs and cats. Perhaps we should even eat farmers. This brings to mind Jonathan Swift’s proposal.
— Russ Lyons

PCC replies: Although animals are necessary for healthy soil, it doesn’t mean we must eat them. Regardless of sustainability, the morality of eating meat is very personal. There always will be rational arguments to support a wide range of choices reflecting the variety of viewpoints among PCC’s membership.

Organic cows on grain?

Is grain necessary for milk production? We read of beef cattle being fed grain to fatten them up before slaughter and that it makes them sick because cattle are meant to eat grass, not grain. So are dairy cattle constantly ill? Without grain, do they not produce enough milk to be economically feasible?
— Name witheld

PCC replies: Grain absolutely is not necessary for milk (or beef) production, but it increases milk production (and more rapid weight gain in beef cattle) because grain contains more calories than grass. You’re right that high-grain diets common in beef finishing programs can induce acidosis, causing sore hooves, diarrhea, dehydration and liver abscesses. Acute acidosis can cause heart and lung failure, and death.

A study by the University of Wisconsin, Cornell, and Oregon State found organic producers use about half the grain that conventional producers use, and that organic herds average 31 percent less milk than non-organic herds. It found organic producers also let calves nurse with their mothers much longer, to help get them off to a good start.

Choose organic tea

I drink a lot of tea, mostly black. I purchase organic but often wondered if it mattered when it came to tea. Recently I became aware of increasing concerns about the disturbing levels of pesticides and heavy metals found in all teas coming out of India and China — organic or conventional, black, green and even some herbal.

Non-government organizations have been trying for years to work with those governments to change their growing practices, and a popular pesticide recently was banned by the Stockholm Convention. Now that Starbucks has partnered with Tata, a large Indian corporation, American consumer pressure and Starbucks’ commendable corporate responsibility are increasing awareness.

Seeing that PCC carries organic tea brands, and PCC consumers assume a certain level of safety in your products, I thought perhaps educating your customer base on the risks would continue to raise consumer awareness. Pressuring your suppliers will help effect change on a global level.

Now if only we could grow tea locally!
— Megan Hutcheson, a loyal View Ridge member

PCC replies: Thank you for alerting us to this concern. We see published medical studies and media reports saying groundwater used for irrigation appears to be the primary source of heavy metals. The trace levels in tea reportedly are not toxic, but many of our vendors say they test anyway. Tazo, Choice Organic Teas and Yogi Tea perform random tests for pesticides.

Traditional Medicinals also tests for heavy metals, pesticides and microbial contaminants. Choice says trace levels of naturally occurring heavy metals occasionally show up, but well below levels of concern. No pesticides have been found at any detectable level. Other brands have not yet replied to our queries.

Certainly, buying organic tea is the safest choice. Organic standards prohibit nasty insecticides, such as the one you refer to, endosulfan, being phased out in India and China (and worldwide) under the Stockholm Convention but still persistent in the environment. Sakuma Brothers Farm in the Skagit Valley is one of only two domestic tea growers we know of, and the only one on the West Coast.

Toxins and autism

Regarding Detoxification for good health (June 2012 Sound Consumer), there’s growing awareness of the relationship between the toxic bath that we live in and the epidemic of autism. This epidemic started to appear in the mid-’80s, correlating strongly with the heavy use of plastics and the flood of unregulated chemicals in our food, homes, clothing, cars and toys.

Another toxin is mercury, which PCC’s article points out can disrupt nerve and brain function. The focus has been whether there’s mercury in vaccines, yet I’d like to point out high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) may be contaminated with mercury, since mercury is used in making caustic soda, which is used to make HFCS. As informed consumers, we can help prevent the toxicity during fetal development and early childhood in our own families by spreading the word to other women of child-bearing age and mothers.
— Elinor Kriegsmann

PCC replies: We first reported in 2009 that HFCS commonly is contaminated with mercury. Nearly a third of 55 foods from companies such as Quaker, Hunt’s, Manwich, Hershey’s, Smucker’s, Kraft, Nutri-Grain and Yoplait contained detectable levels of mercury. PCC has no products containing HFCS. Read the PCC news release dated Nov. 28, 2007.

Artificial sweetener

I recently learned about neotame, a new sweetener I heard is produced by Monsanto. Apparently the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows neotame to be added to foods without labeling. As far as I know, all other forms of sweeteners added to food must be listed in the ingredients.

This concerns me because I feel I should have the right to know what is added to products I eat. It also concerns me because although Monsanto assures us it is safe, the long-term effects of this product are not known.

What is PCC’s policy regarding selling products containing neotame? Can or will PCC do anything to lobby FDA to require neotame to be labeled? PCC’s stand to research and take action on things like this makes my shopping experience so much better.
— Peri Hartman

Editor replies: There are a lot of blog postings and other websites discussing neotame, but much of the information may be false and misleading. It is confusing.

First, neotame is one of many artificial sweeteners, which are not allowed at PCC. Neotame must be labeled if it’s in a food.

Neotame isn’t made by Monsanto; it’s manufactured by the NutraSweet Company, which once was owned by Monsanto but was sold some years ago. You’re probably familiar with another NutraSweet artificial sweetener, aspartame. Neotame reportedly is about 8,000 times sweeter than table sugar and 40 times sweeter than aspartame. Unlike aspartame, neotame doesn’t appear to be used commonly in diet soft drinks and other diet foods.

The confusion about labeling may have to do with the fact that neotame is basically aspartame plus 3,3-dimethylbutyl. This element reduces the production of phenylalanine, which allegedly makes it safe for those suffering from phenylketonuria (PKU). Neotame therefore does not need to bear a PKU warning label like aspartame.

Also in this issue

Choosing toothpaste

The many ingredients in toothpastes can be confusing. Here's a look at what they do for teeth, and why it's important to buy natural brands.

Soil & Sea: reports from our producers

The good: peach and nectarine flavor is outstanding this year, and there's a record Northwest blueberry harvest. The bad: walnuts have disappeared from Oregon, fishmeal prices have spiked, and meat prices are on the rise.

News bites, August 2012

Breakfast dessert for weight loss?, Fluoride warning, Organic bread better, and more