Letters to the editor, March 2013

This article was originally published in March 2013

PCC nutrition facts labels

I was so thrilled to see that nutritional information for PCC deli items is online and available! I’m working to track my food and get to a healthy weight and it is comforting to have the actual nutrition to log versus guesswork. I really appreciate all the work that is going into making this database available and accessible online. Thank you, PCC!
— Amara Oden

Whole-milk dairy

Many thanks to Nick Rose for his article, In Defense of Whole-Milk Dairy (January 2013 Sound Consumer) as a good first step in expanding discussion of this topic. My only quibble is that his endorsement of whole-milk dairy products is way more tepid than it ought to be.

Given the well-known health benefits of the omega-3 and other fats found in dairy products from grass-fed cows (the adjectives “heart-healthy” and “brain-healthy” often are employed when discussing omega-3 fats), these products are not just “not bad for your health,” as Mr. Rose concludes, but exceptionally good for your health. These products should be enjoyed not just “in moderation” but in abundance. Indeed, your health is more likely to suffer from a deficit of these fats than from an excess of them.

Sound Consumer readers can find additional information in the books “Real Food: What to Eat and Why” by Nina Planck (see the chapters “Real Milk, Butter and Cheese” and “Beyond Cholesterol”) and “Deep Nutrition” by Catherine Shanahan, M.D., and Luke Shanahan.
— Terry Hiatt

Ethical chocolate

I’m trying to be more conscientious about the chocolate I purchase, both from an environmental point of view and from a labor perspective (e.g., paying workers a living wage).

Can you share what the minimum required standards are for the chocolates you carry? Do you know anything about the labor practices of the chocolates that don’t claim to be fair trade?
— Jill

PCC replies: We researched the labor policies of our chocolate vendors and are pleased to say PCC is adopting a fair labor standard for the chocolate sold in our stores.

PCC will sell chocolate candy, confections and cocoa powders only from vendors that provide assurance child slave labor is prohibited and follow International Labor Organization (ILO) Fundamental Conventions. We’ve asked all our vendors to sign affidavits ensuring compliance with this standard. Read more about this in the April Sound Consumer.

Arsenic in rice

I’ve been a PCC member, “Consumer Reports” subscriber, and vegetarian for years.

In September 2012, “Consumer Reports” published an article disclosing arsenic levels in many forms of rice and rice products. Arsenic is a carcinogen.

I eat quite a bit of Lundberg short-grain organic brown rice and so was more than a bit dismayed at the reported levels of arsenic found in that specific variety.

The “Consumer Reports” article noted that while some forms of arsenic occur naturally in rice, there are both organic and inorganic (not good) forms, and there is no federal standard for arsenic levels in rice.

At a PCC store in October, I was surprised that it appeared as though PCC staff seemed unaware of the article and of possible consequences for PCC customers. What is PCC’s position and how is it informing staff and shoppers?

Also, in the January 2013 Sound Consumer, I read about Lotus Foods red rice, which the Sound Consumer says: “contains zero arsenic, a concern for lovers of brown rice.” According to the Lotus website, the amount of arsenic in its rice is not zero but “… 0.008 mg in one 60-gram serving, which is equivalent to a quarter cup of uncooked rice and about 1 cup of cooked rice — less than what you would take in from drinking a liter of water.”
— Harold Goldes

PCC replies: Regarding Lotus rice, you’re right: we should not have stated it contains “zero” arsenic, since fractionals matter in this issue. We regret the error. Since there’s no standard for safety, we should have cited actual data, in a comparative framework.

Lotus Foods tells us the results for “total arsenic” in Bhutan Red Rice, which was tested by a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) lab, were 49 parts per billion (ppb). You can compare that with the full list of rices tested by “Consumer Reports” at: Results of our tests of rice and rice products, November 2012, Consumer Reports.

We first addressed dietary arsenic in the February 2012 and April 2012 Sound Consumer “Letters to the editor.” We also provided a full report in the May issue (Arsenic in the food supply: Questions and answers). 

When the “Consumer Reports” article broke, we were ready with solid information in a memo sent to all store directors to share with store staff. We recently circulated a refresher memo.

PCC’s director of public affairs has been part of the Organic Trade Association’s Arsenic Task Force since it began in February 2012, which ultimately produced a 66-page white paper for industry and government regulators, urging a federal standard be set.

Xanthan gum

A letter in the October [2012] issue of Sound Consumer called attention to the problems associated with carrageenan. Xanthan gum also is problematic. Xanthan gum can be an effective laxative. It is widely used to thicken foods and give them smooth texture.

I carefully read ingredient lists now and sometimes cannot find products I want to use that do not contain it. I am disappointed.
— Abigail Lumbard

PCC replies: You’re not alone in trying to avoid xanthan gum. We’ve heard anecdotally from several shoppers that xanthan gum aggravates digestive problems, including irritable bowel syndrome. We haven’t seen a lot of hard data, though.

Unlike other “gums” that are derived from plants, such as guar gum and locust bean gum, xanthan gum is produced from bacteria. It can be difficult to avoid if you’re on a gluten-free diet. It’s added to many gluten-free packaged foods and bottled salad dressings.

The more you cook from scratch, of course, the easier it is to avoid any additives. Making your own salad dressing is an easy way to avoid xanthan gum. Some gluten-free bakers have reported they can make muffins, cookies, etc. without xanthan gum and the results turn out just fine. (Bread is trickier and we don’t recommend it.)

To our knowledge, xanthan gum is not in fresh dairy or ice creams (though ice cream often contains other gums), so you should be able to shop those aisles worry-free.

Modern wheat

I’ve been hearing a lot about the highly hybridized modern wheat varieties lately. I am concerned about some claims about their effects on human metabolism and about the pervasive presence in American agriculture and food production.

Can you tell me what products PCC carries that will help me replace these modern wheats with traditional, heirloom forms of wheat in my diet?
— Name withheld

PCC replies: There has been some media attention about how modern, hybridized varieties of wheat can cause health problems, including weight gain. Many health experts dismiss this theory.

Modern white and hard red wheats have been bred over the past 70 years to accommodate industrial agriculture — for high yields, easy threshing, high protein and high gluten to make fluffy breads. Ancient grains, such as emmer, farro, einkorn and kamut, are closer to their original genetic makeup than modern wheat varieties and tend to have less gluten.

If a product states only “wheat,” then you should assume that it is a newer variety. Some heirloom wheat products we carry at PCC include: Jovial’s einkorn pasta, flour, cookies and grains; Eden’s kamut pasta; puffed kamut cereal; and Bluebird Farms whole grain emmer/farro and Potlatch Pilaf. We carry pretzels, pastas, tortillas and several breads made with spelt flour, which some consider an heirloom variety. Of course, we have a wide variety of other non-wheat, whole-grain choices such as wild rice, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, etc.

Ractopamine in pork

Can you tell me if the all-natural pork products at PCC were produced with ractopamine?

The drug has been in the news recently because of Russia’s ban on meat imports from the United States for beef, pork, and turkey. Part of the story has gone back to review how the Food and Drug Administraton (FDA) ignored complaints from farmers about the impact on their animals when FDA approved ractopamine for use, and also the fact that it is administered right up until slaughter time.
— Ann Anagnost

PCC replies: We’re happy to report that neither Pure Country Pork nor Beeler’s pork were produced from hogs given ractopamine, a drug used as a feed additive to promote leanness.

Ractopamine reportedly is fed to an estimated 60 to 80 percent of pigs in the United States and has resulted in more reports of sickened or dead pigs than any other livestock drug on the market, according to the FDA.

You’re right: Russia recently halted imports of beef and pork from the United States until USDA determines proper measures to test for ractopamine. Ractopamine reportedly has been banned in 80 countries, including the European Union, Taiwan and China.


Could you please provide some information regarding Rotenone? It’s a naturally occurring pesticide that is classified as organic but is toxic to humans. How commonly has it been used in the products eventually sold at PCC? Thank you,
— Ali Naini

PCC replies: Rotenone is a “piscicide” (a pesticide used to kill fish) that is applied directly to water to manage fish populations in lakes, ponds, reservoirs, rivers, streams and in aquaculture (fish farming).

Its use in agriculture has been phased out since its status as an EPA-registered pesticide was cancelled voluntarily by the manufacturer several years ago.

Research shows rotenone is correlated with Parkinson’s disease and other central nervous system problems. Improper use in agriculture can cause the death of fish in nearby water, violating the organic tenet that substances used in organics must not have adverse environmental effects. It is not allowed in organic systems.

Also in this issue

Organic dairy farms benefit farmers and local economies

The organic dairy sector provides more economic opportunity and generates more jobs in rural communities than conventional dairies, according to a report released in November by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

Soil & Sea: reports from our producers

It's the International Year of Quinoa! Also: immigration reform, "funny" honey and the impacts of ocean acidification are a few things on the minds of farmers and fisherman.

Is nutritious delicious?

When foods are described as "healthy," they often are perceived as the opposite of delicious. Researchers have found that if the exact same food is given to a taste panel with two different names, the panel almost always prefers the plate of "homemade cookies" over the plate of "whole-grain cookies."