What’s eating American consumers?

Bread never goes stale, milk stays fresh for weeks. Something strange is going on


The term “superfood”, used to describe high-nutrient foods, could take on an entirely different meaning in the US when applied to the phenomenon of the loaf of bread that never seems to go stale and other foods with similar nature-defying powers.

Since crossing the Atlantic three months ago, one of the eye-openers of day-to-day life is the shockingly poor quality of food on sale in some supermarkets: milk that doesn’t turn sour for weeks, fresh produce that doesn’t want to go mouldy, and fruit that rots from the inside, while the outside remains mysteriously shiny and perfect.

These kinds of events occurring in your kitchen make you reach for the packet or bottle to examine the label more closely to understand how food manufacturers can get away with saying something is “all natural” when it clearly isn’t.

The birth of her daughter prompted Kathy Pugh, a food coach originally from New York whose mother hails from a farm in Co Longford, to look more closely at what is in food and how manufacturers label their products. She now walks customers around supermarkets, helping to educate them about food and how to spot the ingredients to avoid.

“Americans are probably the best marketers in the world; we can sell anything,” she says, noting the ability of manufacturers to slap an attractive slogan on a bottle or container to entice a buyer.

“I feel like all the information is there but you have to be willing to look for it.”

Misleading labels
The difficulty for customers is that the labels can be misleading. Pugh describes one of the sneakier practices of food manufacturers concerning transfats, the toxic hydrogenated oils that are difficult to digest and one of the key ingredients contributing to obesity and diabetes.

Since 2006, food manufacturers have been able to say their products have zero transfats if they contain less than 0.5g per serving, so your food can include 0.49g of transfats per serving and you can still give the product a “zero transfats” label. Eating multiple servings in one day can send you well over the recommended daily limit of transfats.

The prevalence of high-fructose corn syrup, a sweetener cheaper than sugar that is used in processed food and drinks, is even more concerning. Pugh can identify this ingredient, one of the culprits behind obesity and diabetes, on many supermarket shelves, in everything from sugary drinks to bread to salad dressing. “It is becoming increasingly difficult to eat real clean food,” she says.

Unlike the term “organic”, which has strict rules governing its use put in place by the US Food and Drug Administration, “natural” is an unregulated term, so food manufacturers can label products “natural” that customers in a hurry could choose over another product.

While “organic” foods must be free of genetically modified ingredients and synthetic pesticides, there are no rules forcing manufacturers to state that an organic field of corn is growing near a GM-field of corn.

Genetically modified
Almost 90 per cent of corn, the number-one crop grown in the US, is genetically modified, while 93 per cent of soy has been genetically engineered. As much as 70 per cent of all processed foods in US grocery stories may contain ingredients from genetically engineered plants, according to the Grocery Manufacturers of America, yet efforts to have them labelled on products have run aground. Food companies spent more than $40 million (€31 million) last year to lobby for the defeat of the proposition 37 initiative in California to block the labelling of genetically modified foods.

Supermarkets are, however, watching changing consumer habits as customers query what is in their food by voting with their shopping trolleys and baskets. Whole Foods, one of the healthier food supermarkets, has promised to have all genetically modified products labelled as such by 2018.

A growing number of customers are avoiding the big-chain supermarkets altogether. Neighbourhood food co-ops owned by the customers and stocked with food chosen by those
customers are becoming increasingly popular. So too are delivery services from local farms.

South Mountain Creamery in Maryland, 113km (70 miles) northwest of Washington DC, is adding 100 homes a week to its delivery of fresh produce such as meat, milk and eggs to people’s front doors in Maryland, neighbouring states and the district of Columbia. The company serves 8,000 homes.

“The biggest concern is from families with children who say they cannot digest the milk sold in supermarkets and want to see and be able to identify all-natural, farm-fresh produce,” says Adrienne Moretz, the creamery’s market and social media co-ordinator.

It seems that if customers can’t trust what is on offer in US supermarkets, they are willing to source it directly from the farm.