American Elephants

Food Fads and Misinformation by The Elephant's Child


In my trip to Safeway yesterday, I grabbed a small container of key lime flavored Greek yogurt. The brand was “Open Nature,” one of Safeway’s proprietary brands, I assume to reach those who are attracted by the word “natural.” I am not. It was just handy, and key lime sounded good. The line after the brand logo was “Real Food From Natural Ingredients” — well, yes, that’s what I expect from food. Nobody’s going to be attracted by a label that says “Phony Food From Unnatural Ingredients”—though I’d bet that most people wouldn’t notice anyway.

Michelle Obama, in pursuit of thinner kids, is betting millions on getting people to read food labels with larger print. Safeway has probably done more market research than Ms. Obama. regarding the extent to which people read food labels. The Open Nature carton continues to note that the 2% nonfat milk is Grade A. The product contains ‘No Artificial Flavors or Colors, No Artificial Ingredients, and Milk From Cows Not Treated with rBST*. The asterisk points to the footnote—no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBST-treated and non-rBST-treated cows.

This was a big flap several years ago. Farmers were treating their cows with the forenamed hormone, which helped them to produce more milk. Dairy scientists explained that it was physically and scientifically impossible for the hormone to pass through a cow’s body to enter the milk in any way. Not good enough. Mild panic ensued. Dairy farmers quit using the hormone, cows went back to producing the normal amount of milk and certified that their milk came from cows that were not treated with rBST.

The media, always ready to reproduce anything with the word “study” gives them the chance, I guess to be first with something. Perhaps that is the excuse for failing to vet the “study” or even to be suspicious recognizing that the word “study” does not prove anything. It might all be a mess of pottage.


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The issue with rBST-treated cows may raise food safety issues for some, but it remains an issue of animal welfare for many others.

As the American Cancer Society writes,

At least 8 other national and international review committees have evaluated the evidence concerning potential health effects of rBGH on humans and dairy cows. These reviews (and the most recent year they convened) are listed below. Several of these reports document adverse effects on cows, including higher rates of mastitis [inflammation of the udder], foot problems, and injection-site reactions.

The Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (1999)
Health Canada (1999)
Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada (1998/9)
Canada Veterinarian Association (1998/9)
Commission of the European Communities (1988/9)
US National Institutes of Health (1990)
American Medical Association (1991)
Health Care Without Harm (2007)

The available evidence shows that the use of rBGH can cause adverse health effects in cows. … More research is needed to help better address these concerns.

Basically, cows did not evolve to produce milk for such a large proportion of the year. Here is a picture of a cow with mastitis:

To treat the mastitis, cows are then given antibiotics.

Again, as the ACS writes:

The increased use of antibiotics to treat rBGH-induced mastitis does promote the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, but the extent to which these are transmitted to humans is unclear.


Comment by Subsidy Eye

Subsidy, I was talking about rBST, Are we talking about the same thing? You start out talking about rBST, about which there was a panic several years ago (scientists said that nothing could be passed through to the milk) but everybody, I read, quit using it and brags about not using it. You write about rBGH. Is that a different hormone, a replacement hormone? I’m guessing Bovine Growth Hormone, but I have no idea what ST stands for. My point was that suppliers respond promptly to food panics even when there’s no reason to fear.

The false panic over GMO food means more kids in developing countries will go blind without the golden rice that would give them the missing vitamin A in their diets, but the GMO protesters have scared those countries where it would do the most good out of using it. And there’s Jenny McCarthy who, as an anti-vaccination activist, is prompting the return of measles and mumps. I like cows (but not on my front lawn) but not the human crackpots that do so much damage by promoting false information.


Comment by The Elephant's Child

Yes we are talking about the same thing. Recombinant Bovine Somatotropin (rBST) is another name for recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH).


Comment by Subsidy Eye

Don’t know the veracity of this statement, but would be pretty damning — though not surprising — if true:

Polls show that American consumers overwhelmingly support the labeling of milk produced with rBGH. But the FDA has said such labeling would unfairly stigmatize rBGH milk as less healthy. The FDA official responsible for this policy is Michael R. Taylor, whose occupation prior to joining the FDA was as a partner in the law firm representing Monsanto when it applied for FDA approval for rBGH. His employer after he left the FDA, by the way, was Monsanto.

Monsanto’s track record in these matters tends to be a tad shady. During Canada’s scientific review of Monsanto’s application for approval of rBGH, Canadian health officials said Monsanto tried to bribe them, and government scientists testified that they were being pressured by higher-ups to approve rBGH against their better scientific judgment.

Suspicion in the government works both ways. We should not simply assume that if government officials push for something that is pro big business that they are on the side of right.


Comment by Subsidy Eye

There’s lots of revolving door, but sometimes it’s just that they got to know someone and offered a job. and sometimes it’s pure graft. Any poll that says American consumers support labeling should first ask if they have any idea what rBGH is and what it does. Groceries are setting aside major shelf space for “gluten-free” foods, but most people going for a gluten-free diet have no idea what gluten is or why they would follow a diet that will only help those with Coeliac disease, but Gwyneth Paltrow has her children on a gluten-free diet. The label on a package of Italian sausage exceeded in statements inclined to make the consumer think it was good, the yogurt I complained about before. “Natural” is the one that irks me most.


Comment by The Elephant's Child

I believe in consumer sovereignty. Do you? If people want to be swayed by voluntary labels, isn’t that the free market at work?

And I strongly beg to differ that “most people going for a gluten-free diet have no idea what gluten is or why they would follow a diet that will only help those with Coeliac disease”, and I couldn’t care less what Gwyneth Paltrow does.

Far more people suffer from gluten intolerance than from Coeliac disease. These are the main people who are buying gluten-free products. I have several friends and relatives who are gluten-intolerant and NONE of them would choose gluten-free versions of foods like pasta, pizza and hamburger rolls if they had a choice. They don’t, because gluten causes them intestinal pain and diarrhea. Maybe you should do a little research first before condemning such people as ignorant instead of unfortunate.

Why has gluten intolerance become a problem? Probably through increased exposure, especially to refined wheat products. The wheat of 100 years ago contained far less gluten — a protein — than today. But wheat and barley producers were paid in part on the basis of the wheat’s protein content, which encouraged selective breeding in favor of cereals containing ever-higher levels of protein. Normally that would be a good thing. But combined with higher levels of consumption of wheat, especially refined wheat (which stays in the gut longer, increasing exposure time), some people have developed essentially allergic reactions to gluten.

I know some people who, seeing others around them developing gluten intolerance, are severely reducing their own exposure to gluten-containing foods, in the hope that they will be spared developing a chronic problem that would mean that they would have to forego wheat products totally. I don’t know whether that makes scientific sense, but one can — perhaps — have some sympathy for their concerns and their behavior.


Comment by Subsidy Eye

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