Archive for the ‘WHO’ Category

GMOs: What’s a consumer to do?

July 9, 2013

Presentation1GMOS are in the news yet again. The controversies re their health and economic value abound, as does the ‘evidence’ for and against their production/cultivation and release on the market.

The World Health Organisation – WHO – defines genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally. In their 20 Questions on GM foods they specifically discuss the safety of GM foods. “Different GM organisms include different genes inserted in different ways. This means that individual GM foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis and that it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods. GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health.” Note the phrase – “not likely”.

Some argue that GMOS can solve World Hunger. Yet the FAO Director General, Jose Graziano da Silva, seems not to agree. In March 2013 he issued a warning saying that GMOs not needed to eradicate hunger.Our position as FAO is not that we are against GMOs but we are saying we don’t need them now to eradicate hunger.” He expressed concern about the impact GMOs have on the environment. “We don’t know what will happen to areas of production and the crops.”

Due to an interview I was involved in recently (see here: http://www.sundaycircle.com/2013/07/crop-wars/), I have been talking about GMOs to a couple of people and they were all asking the same question: “So as a consumer what is the bottom line?”

As a health and consumer educator —  a Home Economist — I would say that:

  • We still do not have enough data on the potential risks to human health in the long-term from consumption of GMOS.
  • We already have evidence on the impact on the environment and on social and economic aspects related to farmers. It is not always so positive.
  • So we might want to be a bit cautious still… Some people might even decide already to avoid GMOs altogether for health and ethical reasons.

My Key Messages for (Maltese) Consumers

1. Read labels on packaged foods. If the food contains GMOs it will say so; not necessarily on the front of the package; but in the ingredients list. Some companies will voluntarily put a label that their food does not contain GMOs. This will typically be on a food which consumers might think could contain GMOs (e.g. soy products). This label is often somewhere quite visible.

 2. Buy organic as much as possible. Any food which is certified organic cannot contain GMOs. Look for the official EU label. new_EU ORGANIC logo

 3. If you buy your chicken meat from a local source, ask the producer if the feed given contains GMOs.

The same goes for local eggs. Ask the producer if the layers are given feed containing GMOs.

It is more difficult to check re feed given to other local animals slaughtered for meat which we buy through the butcher or at supermarkets.

4. Avoid the ‘Big Four’ as they are often called. Most GM ingredients are products made from the ‘Big Four:’ corn, soybean, canola (also known as rape seed), and cottonseed, used in processed foods.  Some of the most common GM Big Four ingredients in processed foods are listed below*. REMEMBER: It will be stated on the label if these GM ingredients are present :

Corn
Cornflour, cornmeal, corn oil, cornstarch, gluten and corn syrup
Sweeteners such as fructose, dextrose and glucose
Modified food starch

Soy
Soy flour, lecithin, protein, isolate and isoflavone
Vegetable oil and vegetable protein

Canola/Rapeseed oil
Canola/rapeseed oil, additives made from canola/rapeseed oil

Cottonseed
Cottonseed oil, additives made from cottonseed oil

5. For sweetened foods, check on the ingredients list for the type of sugar used. You might find GM beet sugar as one of the ingredients.

 *May be derived from other non-GM sources

Sources:

http://www.who.int/foodsafety/publications/biotech/20questions/en/

http://www.gmeducation.org/government-and-corporations/p207350-un’s%20food%20and%20agriculture%20organisation%20issues%20gmo%20warning%20.html

Good for you; good for the environment

December 28, 2010

(Image (c) Barilla; Source: http://www.barillacfn.com/en/pyramid)

As we approach the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011, typically many of us are making their New Year’s resolutions.  A common resolution is to improve our diet – “I must cut down on those high-fat, high-salt packet snacks”. “I should really ban fizzy sugary drinks from our dinner table.” “I need to drink more water.” The goal is often to manage our weight and to safeguard against illness and health problems. Good for us!

But have you ever stopped to think that choosing to improve our diet as a New Year’s resolution might have additional value…beyond personal gain?  Well it does! It can also help to safeguard the natural environment.

You have probably often heard the food-related slogan “Good for you, good for the environment.” Some of you may already use it in your educational settings. It seems, however, that this food choice principle is now being given much more importance both by governments and by industry.

In 2009, the government of Sweden proposed a new set of dietary guidelines combining health and environmental impact. (http://www.slv.se/upload/dokument/miljo/environmentally_effective_food_choices_proposal_eu_2009.pdf) Recommendations in the Environmentally Effective Food Choices proposal included: eating locally produced meat, chicken, fruits, vegetables and berries, eating sustainable fish, avoiding bottled water and palm oil, and limiting rice consumption (as its production results in large amounts of methane). Unfortunately, these guidelines were not approved by the EU Commission who said that they would encourage Swedish consumers to choose locally produced products at the expense of products from other countries, which contravenes the principles of free movement of goods in the EU internal market. Although the original proposers (the National Food Administration) made revisions to the guidelines to address this criticism, the Swedish government eventually decided to withdraw the proposed guidelines.

Nonetheless, this interest in guiding consumers on the food and sustainability link is gaining momentum in Europe.

This past September the German Council for Sustainable Development published their updated Sustainable Shopping Basket guide. (http://www.nachhaltigkeitsrat.de/fileadmin/user_upload/English/pdf/publications/brochures/Brochure_Sustainable_Shopping_Basket_September_2010.pdf) With respect to food they recommend that the consumer’s shopping basket “should contain above all  healthy food products, organic products,  seasonal fruit and vegetables grown locally,  less meat and fish, fair-trade products and beverages in recyclable packaging units.” The guide also explains sustainability-related labels to look for when making food choices.

The above Swedish and German recommendations are in tune with a December 2009 report by the UK’s Sustainable Consumption Commission which mapped out synergies and tensions between public health, the environment, economic stability and social inequalities. ( http://www.sd-commission.org.uk/publications/downloads/Setting_the_Table.pdf) The Setting the Table’s priority recommendation for changes likely to have the most significant and immediate impact on making our diets more sustainable was: Reduce consumption of meat, dairy products, and fatty and sugary (low nutritional value) foods, and waste less food.

The food industry is also pitching in with their research and guidance. Just recently, in December 2010, the Barilla Centre for Food and Nutrition (BCFN) published what they called a Double Pyramid to graphically represent the link between the well-known food pyramid and the generation of greenhouse gases, water use and the ecological footprint. (http://www.barillacfn.com/en/pyramid) Although the food pyramid depicted is not the same as that of the WHO Europe CINDI Healthy Eating Guide, its concept is the same and food group placements are similar. Eat-often foods found at the base of the food pyramid, such as bread, pasta and wholegrains are shown to have a lower impact on the environment than meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs and fats, oils and sweets found higher up in the pyramid. In other words, recommended foods for health are more environment-friendly and vice-versa.

The Double Pyramid and the rationale behind it was presented at an open debate at the European Parliament and discussed by a panel of MEPs and food policy experts. MEP Paolo de Castro warned: “The issue of food supply, fuelled in recent years by the exponential growth in demand, particularly in some areas of the world, is leading us onto dangerous ground. Food is destined to become an insufficient and costly resource. Today’s challenge is to increase productivity, with fewer resources and less pollution.”

These words echo those of Professor Joan Gussow, noted American nutritionist and environmental scientist, who nearly a quarter of a century ago, wrote ”Learning to view foods as more than just sources of nutrients may guide consumers toward sustainable food choices. A shift to sustainable diets would be an important first step in widespread adoption of a sustainable agriculture policy that promotes the conservation of natural resources and regional self-reliance in food production and consumption.”

So if you are teaching or writing about the food pyramid, food groups and healthy eating, there is very good reason to also emphasise the sustainability link. (For more on this you might also want to check out the Dolceta website on Sustainable consumption [http://www.dolceta.eu/malta/Mod5/spip.php?rubrique1], as well as Seasonal and Sustainable an interesting recipe book recently published by my Home Economist colleague Karen Mugliett [http://www.timesofmalta.com/life/view/20101211/news/healthy-cuisine-for-every-season].)

And finally, as you make your New Year’s resolutions, choose one or two related to sustainable food consumption. Remember that from the health perspective: What’s good for you is very probably good for the environment.

Food for Julia – Breast is best

October 8, 2010

Baby Julia was born 2 weeks ago on September 23rd. In honour of my beautiful new niece I have decided to write a blog about breastfeeding.

We have often heard the phrase ‘breast is best’. It’s been around as a promotional message for quite a while now. In fact, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of the infant’s life, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond.

The list of benefits of breastfeeding is constantly growing.

Well-known benefits for the infant include that breast milk:

  • Comes at the right temperature and consistency for the child
  • Provides the right balance of nutrients to help an infant grow into a strong and healthy toddler
  • Has disease-fighting antibodies that can help protect infants from several types of illnesses, such as ear infections, diarrhea and certain lung infections
  • Reduces the risk that the child becomes overweight as it grows older
  • Reduces the risk that the child suffers from type 2 diabetes, eczema, and leukemia as it grows older.

Some recent research also suggests that breast milk contains two amino acids (protein building blocks) which help an infant’s brain develop and also increase the infant’s cognitive skills. These amino acids are not normally added to formula milk available commercially.

But the benefits of breastfeeding do not pertain to the infant only. The mum stands to gain a lot too. Benefits we are all familiar with include:

  • The emotional bonding with the infant
  • The cost savings
  • The convenience
  • The mother regaining her pre-pregnancy weight and figure more quickly
  • A natural method of birth control.

Interestingly, a number of recent scientific research studies are suggesting that there are even more health benefits for mothers if they breastfeed. For example:

  • Women who breastfeed for at least 24 months over the course of their reproductive lifespan have a lower risk of developing heart disease. Researchers suggest that this could be due to the beneficial effects that breastfeeding has on the body’s metabolism of sugar and fats, and on decreasing visceral fat—the dangerous kind that collects around the abdominal organs.
  • Mothers who breastfeed also have a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. Research has found that women who breast-fed for less than a month had nearly twice the risk of developing type 2 diabetes decades later in life compared to those who breast-fed for longer, or those who never had children. A possible explanation is that lactation makes cells more sensitive to the hormone insulin. (Notably, diabetic mothers who breast-feed usually require less insulin whilst they are nursing.) It could also be due to breastfeeding’s effect on where fat is stored: on the hips and thighs rather than on the abdomen. Excess visceral fat, frequently accumulated during pregnancy, is a key risk factor in adult diabetes.
  • Breastfeeding for 6 months or more helps protect against breast cancer in women who have their first baby after age 25, or who have fewer than four children (two risk factors for breast cancer). Prolonged breastfeeding also lowers a woman’s lifetime risk of ovarian and endometrial cancer. This could be because breastfeeding suppresses ovulation—and the ovulatory hormones that play a role in these cancers—during those first few months that the mother is breastfeeding exclusively.
  • A number of studies have linked breastfeeding to protection against rheumatoid arthritis, possibly due to breast milk’s impact on the levels of female sex hormones, like oestrogen and certain androgens, which are thought to play a role in this debilitating condition.

The WHO has a very simple yet interesting slideshow called ‘10 facts on breastfeeding’ which summarises the above.  Click http://www.who.int/features/factfiles/breastfeeding/facts/en/index9.html to access.

So calling all new mums! Remember…You are a very special person because you can make the food that is uniquely perfect for your baby. Do your best to breastfeed for at least the first 6 months of your baby’s life. Invest the time in yourself and your baby – for both your sakes!