Caffeine Awareness Month: Myth-busting and fact-checking – National Consumers League

coffee_icon.jpgWhether you’re working an 8-hour day, at home with the kids, or even trying to burn some excess calories at the gym after work, caffeine is usually within close reach, in one form or another. Within close reach there’s also a multitude of information. But how much of this is true? And, where are the information gaps for consumers?

For the third consecutive year during March, we take a closer look at caffeine – this time fact checking those myths and arming you with some truths that will help you make informed choices. And urging better consumer information, namely that the label of caffeinated products should include amount of caffeine in the products.

1.  Americans are drinking more caffeine than ever before

FALSE! Despite concerns expressed about proliferation of caffeine in the food supply, statistics indicate that there has not been an overall increase in caffeine intake in the United States in recent years. The principal dietary sources of caffeine also remain the same, with most intake of caffeine remaining from coffee, tea, and soda. This is consistent with a recent FDA-sponsored study that found between 70 and 90 percent of caffeine intake is from coffee and tea.

2.  Slamming down a caffeinated drink quickly will have more of an effect than sipping it slowly

FALSE! Whether you are on the go and consume a drink quickly, or like to sit and enjoy a drink with friends, there is no difference in caffeine’s effect on you. However, the speed of your own metabolism may influence digestion time.

3.  Added caffeine is stronger than naturally occurring sources of caffeine

FALSE! Caffeine is caffeine! There is no chemical or biological difference between the naturally-occurring caffeine in plants – like in coffee, tea, and chocolate – and synthetic caffeine commonly used in sodas, energy drinks, and supplements.

4.  Dogs and cats should not consume caffeine

TRUE! While 85 percent of human Americans drink coffee everyday, 100 percent of our furry friends must be kept away from sources of caffeine. Dogs, cats, and birds are more sensitive to the effects of caffeine than people are, and even the smallest amount (depending on breed, weight and other factors) can have severe consequences.

5.  Dark roasted coffee is stronger than lighter roasts

FALSE! Contrary to what many people assume, the darker the coffee roast, the LESS caffeine it has. This is because caffeine is heat sensitive, so if you roast coffee beans longer, they will contain less caffeine. For tea, it’s the opposite: the darker the tea, the higher the caffeine content.

6.  Guarana is just another form of caffeine

TRUE! Caffeine is found naturally in over 60 plants including coffee beans, cocoa beans, tea leaves, kola nuts, yerba mate, and guarana.

7.  Three cups per day is the maximum amount of coffee an adult should consume

IT DEPENDS… on the type of coffee, the size of your cup, and even how it was prepared. One thing’s for sure: the FDA, Health Canada, and the European Food Safety Authority all acknowledge that 400mg of caffeine per day is a moderate safe daily intake amount for healthy adults. How much is 400mg in terms of cups or servings? See below from lowest to highest caffeine concentration:

  • 16.6 servings of green tea (8 oz./24 mg caffeine)
  • 11.5 servings of brand cola (8 oz./average 35 mg caffeine)
  • 8.5 servings of black tea (8 oz./47 mg caffeine)
  • 5 servings of Red Bull energy drink (8 oz./80 mg caffeine)
  • 4.2 servings of  regular brewed coffee (8 oz./95.2 mg caffeine)
  • 2 servings of 5-Hour Energy (2 oz./200 mg caffeine)
  • <1 serving of energy shots (8 oz./average 480 mg caffeine)

8.  Energy Drinks contain large amounts of caffeine

FALSE!  The major energy drink brands (Red Bull and Monster) contain between 80 to 120 mg caffeine per serving.  For comparison purposes, a cup of home brewed coffee contains approximately 80 mg per cup while a store bought cold brew coffee can have up to 250 mg.  An 8-oz. energy shot contains 480 mg caffeine.

9.  Some people should limit their caffeine consumption 

TRUE! Caffeine sensitive people, pregnant women, those who are capable of becoming pregnant, and those who are breastfeeding should consult their health care providers for advice concerning caffeine consumption. Children and teens should generally consume less caffeine due to lower body weight than adults (and parents should monitor). 

10.  All caffeine products declare the amount of caffeine they contain

FALSE! NCL believes that ALL products containing caffeine – no matter whether naturally occurring, contained in a cup, a can, or a candy bar wrapper – should declare the amount of caffeine on the label.

While the FDA requires food labels to disclose added caffeine as an ingredient, the label is not required to provide the amount of caffeine. Very few products list the amount of caffeine they contain, although some companies, like Red Bull and Monster, provide this information voluntarily.

But, would it be so hard for all producers to provide caffeine content on the information panel?

National Nutrition Month is an annual initiative led by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.  DISCLOSURE: While researching facts for this blog, approximately 220 mg of caffeine (3 cups of cappuccino) was consumed! 

Dutch study examines consumer attitudes around food fraud – National Consumers League

ali.jpgIn 2013, Europe was confronted with a shocking food revelation. Food safety authorities unveiled that a number of popular products labeled “100% beef” actually contained significant amounts of horse and pig meat. While food fraud is hardly a new issue, this incident attracted global attention and caused consumers to reconsider their trust in the food industry.

To address growing speculation about food authenticity, Consumentenbond (a Dutch consumers’ association) conducted a study examining consumer attitudes around food fraud. The Consumer Trust and Food Integrity report was released this month in their magazine. The study was conducted in the Netherlands, but findings indicate the prevalence of food fraud throughout our transnational food system and illustrate a global concern around food safety and authenticity.

When looking at consumers’ knowledge of food fraud, the study found that two-thirds of consumers “worry about food fraud.” Consumers reported an overall skepticism of product labels and indicated that authorities could be doing more to prevent adulteration and mislabeling. Consumers were asked which foods they think have the highest prevalence of food fraud. Meat and chicken were ranked most susceptible, with consumers reporting possible fraud at 51 percent. Ready meals and (shell)fish were presumed to be the second and third most commonly misrepresented food items, at 44 percent and 38 percent respectively.

The survey also took a look at consumers’ trust in food retailers. Consumers were asked whether they thought products from specific suppliers have higher instances of food fraud. Products sold in organic supermarkets were suspected to have the highest rates of food fraud (33 percent.) Products sold at general grocery stores were interestingly suspected to have low rates of food fraud, at less than 10 percent.

The report shows some inconsistencies between consumer expectations and the realities of food fraud. Consumers are correct in their suspicions about meat and chicken, but should be more aware of fraud occurring in milk products, dried herbs, and honey.

According to the full authenticity test, out of 156 products, 33 products (21 percent) showed deviations. Researchers presume this percentage would be even higher if a larger sample size were tested.  Confidence in industry and regulatory agencies is shrinking as consumers become more aware of the prevalence of food fraud. Currently, food labels provide enough information for consumers to determine food authenticity. Improving traceability will require an increase in regulatory food checks and more precise labeling. Consumentenbond and the National Consumers League (NCL) call on industry and regulatory agencies to strengthen food inspection throughout the supply chain and to work towards a more transparent food system to regain consumer trust.

The American Food Protection and Defense Institute recommends that consumers take the following steps to avoid food fraud:

  • Buy from reputable brands and sources
  • Read the labels on the food products you buy
  • Be skeptical of prices that appear “too good to be true”
  • When possible, buy products from short, visible supply chains
  • Buy minimally processed foods with few ingredients

Different perspectives on the controversial soda tax – National Consumers League

soda_tax.jpgBy Maureen Chircop, NCL Intern

In 2012, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York proposed a tax on sweetened beverages that the New York Court of Appeals struck down. Despite the soda tax’s failure, Mayor Bloomberg believed the tax would improve public health. On June 16, 2016, Philadelphia passed a soda tax bill. Instead of focusing on public health benefits, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney concentrated on the community benefits of the soda tax, which amounts to an extra 1.5 cent on each ounce of soda sold.

Mayor Kenney predicts about $90 million in revenue will be generated by the end of next year. This money will be reinvested into community programs such as universal pre-k, community schools, and recreation centers. Not only do taxes on unhealthy habits work to promote positive public health benefits, but utilizing taxes to fund community programs are good for communities and should be encouraged.

For example, a previous tax that promoted positive public benefits is the federal cigarette tax that was passed in 2009. The law aimed to deter smoking by taxing cigarettes. An article from Fortune states that statistics show a decline in smoking occurs when tobacco taxes are present. The same article explains that “…tobacco taxes and consumption are strongly inversely related.” As the price of cigarettes increased, study after study has shown that smoking numbers have gone down. Therefore, it wouldn’t be surprising that a soda tax can garner similar results.

Opposing the tax, the American Beverage Association (ABA) believes that the positive health benefits are false. The ABA believes that the decline in soda consumption does not result in the decline of obesity. Although not all studies are complete because of the relative novelty of the tax, there are some promising trends. Studies do find a reduction in consumption of sugary beverages as their prices rise. According to a National Institute of Health (NIH) article, a 10 percent tax increase on soda has led to a 8 percent average decrease in consumption.

Despite the evident health benefits, those who oppose the soda tax say it may impact low income families more than middle class individuals. Even though this may be true, low income families reap the most benefits from a soda tax. The New England Journal of Medicine states that, “[H]igher taxes are particularly effective in poorer…groups,” which means that lower income individuals thus have a stronger incentive to curb their soda appetite. In addition, the health benefits are progressive for them.

A related tax that is creating positive public health benefits is the “junk food” tax in Mexico. The tax on junk foods in Mexico includes soda, of which Mexico has the fourth highest consumption rate. Despite contributing factors such as unemployment, marketing strategies, and other minor factors, overall soda consumption went down 12 percent over a year in Mexico.

Improved health is only one of the benefit of the soda tax. The tax can also produce much-sought-after funds for communities. For instance, in Mexico, the “junk food” tax raises $150,000 per month to orchestrate community initiatives to improve the health of the community. Similar to Mexico, Philadelphia politicians want to steer the funds to low-income communities for critical programs such as universal pre-k.

Critics that deny a correlation between taxes and health benefits are not looking at the tax through the correct lens. Yes, a soda tax may produce minimal health benefits, but there are still tangible health effects. Despite critics’ notion that a soda tax may not greatly reduce obesity rates, the revenue garnered from the tax will provide much needed community programs and initiatives that are extremely beneficial to lower income communities. In addition, a soda tax will reap fundamental revenue to invest in future generations of citizens.

Chipotle’s misdirected food safety efforts – National Consumers League

92_chipotle_stock_photo.jpgBy Ali Schklair, Linda Golodner Food Safety & Nutrition Fellow 

Back in August, Chipotle launched its ‘G-M-Over it’ campaign. In the name of food safety, it pledged to eliminate all genetically modified ingredients from its food supply. But the hype didn’t last long. By September, Chipotle was facing a class-action lawsuit challenging the validity of their GMO ban. Plaintiffs argued that the meat and dairy products served at the chain come from animals that feed on GMO corn and soy, not to mention the corn syrup used in Chipotle’s juices and soft drinks.

Fast-forward to December, and Chipotle was being linked to numerous foodborne illness outbreaks. Over a six-month period, 500 people were sickened and 20 were hospitalized from norovirus, salmonella, or one of two different strains of E. coli. 2016 isn’t looking much better for Chipotle. A federal grand jury has served the company with a subpoena asking for documents relating to the norovirus outbreak at a Simi Valley, CA location. At this point, it is safe to say that Chipotle has greatly misdirected its food safety efforts.

Outbreaks at restaurants are serious. In 1993 an E. Coli outbreak at the fast food restaurant Jack In The Box infected 732 people. The bacterium originated from undercooked beef patties in hamburgers. The outbreak involved 73 Jack In The Box restaurants in CaliforniaIdahoWashington, and Nevada and has been described as “far and away the most infamous food poison outbreak in contemporary history.” Four children died, and 178 other victims were left with permanent injury, including kidney and brain damage. The FDA implemented new guidelines and regulations after the Jack In The Box tragedy, including setting temperatures for cooking beef to destroy pathogens.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that approximately 48 million Americans are infected by foodborne diseases each year. Consumers are twice as likely to get sick from food prepared at a restaurant. Since pathogens can grow and spread anywhere throughout the supply chain, it’s often hard to track the source of an outbreak. When restaurants have multiple supply sources, as does Chipotle, it is even harder to identify the origin. As discussed in a recent New Yorker article, “while Chipotle has said that it is introducing more stringent testing and reassessing its food-handling practices, its reliance on local suppliers means that the task of insuring the integrity of its supply chain will be harder.” Not only will Chipotle have to revamp its food safety protocols, but it may also need to reconsider its entire local sourcing model—something that is a draw for many devoted Chipotle customers.

Where does that leave consumers who eat out? The CDC suggests taking these four precautionary steps when picking a restaurant or dining out:

  1. Check inspection scores. Search online to see how the restaurant scored on their state health department health inspection.
  2. Make sure the restaurant is clean. Look around to see how used plates and utensils are handled. If you can see it, notice how food is being prepared and how cooking spaces are cleaned.
  3. Check that your food is cooked properly. Look at your meat to determine whether it is cooked thoroughly, and send it back if it appears too pink or raw in texture.
  4. Handle your leftovers properly. Refrigerate leftovers no more than an hour after leaving the restaurant. Eat leftovers within 3 to 4 days, and discard if you see signs of deterioration – like mold or a bad smell or texture – on leftovers.

The CDC and Food Safety News offer plenty more helpful information about avoiding food borne illness.

NCL’s visit to Corto Olive: An examination of true EVOO production – National Consumers League

corto.jpgBy Ali Schklair, Linda Golodner Food Safety & Nutrition Fellow 

Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is a fairly recent addition to the American kitchen. Due to the popularity of the Mediterranean diet and the promotion of “healthy fats,” many consumers are now opting for EVOO as their primary cooking oil. Over the past few decades, olive oil producers worldwide have scrambled to keep up with increasing consumer demand. Unfortunately, the majority of “extra virgin olive oil” available to consumers is not truly EVOO.

Results of a 2010 UC Davis EVOO study found that approximately 69 percent of imported oil labeled “extra virgin olive oil” is mislabeled. An emphasis on imported oils is important for two reasons: one, imported extra virgin olive oil dominates 97 percent of the EVOO market in the United States; two, there are no federally mandated quality standards for imported products in the United States. As a result, we are left with an unregulated EVOO market that is inundated with low quality olive oil.

In this industry, fraud starts in the fields. This fall, NCL’s Linda Golodner Food Safety & Nutrition Fellow Ali Schklair visited Corto Olive, a family-run olive oil company based in Lodi, California. There was something distinctly different about the olive trees at Corto. Instead of large and looming, these trees were trim, contained, and steadied by lean trunks. Schklair later learned that the shape and positioning of these trees is the reason Corto is able produce such high quality oil.

Traditionally, olives were picked by hand, making the harvesting process tedious and time consuming. As imported EVOO gained popularity in the U.S., many of the companies abroad did not have enough labor to satisfy demand. Without time to inspect each olive, oil producers started waiting for olives to rot and fall to the ground. The fruit (and the dirt, sticks, and leaves along with it) could then be easily raked up and sent to the mill. To mask the rancidity, oil is often refined, mixed with small amounts of good oil, and even altered in color and consistency. Rotting fruit, refining, and the mixing of oils mean that this oil is no longer high quality EVOO. Still, the manipulated product is shipped off to the U.S., too often falsely stamped with the “extra virgin olive oil” label.

In 1990, farmers in Spain developed an alternative harvesting system that allows olives to be picked at peak freshness. The “super high-density method” has olive trees planted and pruned close together so a special harvesting machine-not able to fit around traditional trees-can easily fit between rows.  The best producers in the U.S., like Corto, have adopted this method in order to provide higher quality oil than their international counterparts.

Once olives are harvested, they are brought to the mill for sorting and washing. Unlike most mills, Corto uses a special sorting machine called the “optical sorter” to remove only undesirable materials from the batch. This technology is used in other aspects of food processing, but Corto is the first to use it for olive oil. Corto’s use of the high-density method and an optical sorter is unique and ensures their oil is fresh and authentically extra virgin.

Extra virgin olive oil has gained popularity in the U.S. because of its many health benefits, which are real and important. But with such high instances of adulteration, it’s safe to assume that most consumers aren’t really getting what they pay for. So, how can consumers know if the oil they buy is truly extra virgin? Unfortunately, it’s hard to know for certain because most of our palates are not trained to recognize the real thing.

Throughout Europe, especially in the Mediterranean, olive oil is used as commonly as salt and pepper in the U.S. Understandably, taste is very important. In the U.S., products labeled “extra virgin olive oil” are mostly used in cooking, making it easier for lower quality oil to fly under the radar. Tom Mueller, author of the book Extra Virginity, offers information and tips on his website to help consumers make more informed choices. Using resources like this, and by putting a higher value on taste, consumers can learn to shop for higher quality oil and actually reap the benefits they seek. There are a number of honest, high quality EVOO brands on the market, including Corto. Please see NCL’s EVOO testing results here.

Turkey day safety tips – National Consumers League

Untitled-1.jpgThe holidays are fast approaching and whatever your family’s traditions, they are sure in involve large quantities of food. With all that food comes food safety risks. Here are a few tips to make sure your family has a safe holiday season. From NCL to your table, we hope you have a great holiday season!


Turkey Tips

Defrost: Don’t leave your bird out overnight! Plan to defrost in the refrigerator, allowing 24 hours for every 4-5 pounds of bird.  If you don’t have time for that, defrost your bird in a cold water bath changing the water every 30 minutes. This method should take about 30 minutes per pound to defrost. 

Preparation: Contrary to popular belief, you shouldn’t wash the bird before cooking it. Doing so only spreads germs to other foods, utensils and surfaces. If you plan on stuffing the turkey, don’t do so until right before cooking as harmful bacteria can being to grow in stuffing left to sit inside the turkey for long periods.  

Cooking: Turkeys, especially large ones, can take a long time to cook so make sure you allow plenty of time for your bird to be completely cooked. The internal temperature should be 165⁰F. Check the temperature of the bird at multiple locations; you want to make sure the coldest part has reached the appropriate temperature. If you have stuffed your bird, check it to make sure the stuffing has reached 165⁰F as well. Even if your turkey comes with a pop up thermometer, double check the temperature with a meat thermometer to make sure it’s done.

Bacteria Free Buffets

The first step to serving safe food throughout the holidays, or any time, is to ensure you thoroughly wash your hands before and after handling food. Always use clean plates, not those that previously held raw meat or poultry as they can cross contaminate the food you are serving with bacteria. The same is true for cutting boards and other surfaces prepared foods touch, like counters. 

Ensure that all food is cooked thoroughly reaching safe minimum internal temperatures.  All poultry needs to be cooked to at least 165⁰F.   Beef, pork, lamb, and veal should be cooked to 145⁰F if they are intact and 160⁰F if they are ground.  Storing foods in shallow containers allows them to cool or freeze quickly and evenly.  When reheating hot foods for a buffet keep them in the oven with the temperature set around 200-250⁰F until they are ready to be served. 

If possible when food is put out for the buffet, keep hot foods at 140⁰F or warmer and cool foods at 40⁰F or cooler.  For hot foods, this can be done with slow cookers, warming trays and chafing dishes.  Cold foods can be nested in dishes over ice. 


Put all leftovers in the refrigerator within two hours.  For most efficient cooling, store large amounts of leftovers in several smaller containers.  Leftovers should be stored at 40⁰F or 4.4⁰C or frozen at 0⁰F or -17.7⁰C.  Make sure containers are sealed and keep refrigerated for 3-4 days or frozen if you plan on keeping them longer.  Reheat hot foods to 165⁰F.

Stay Active

As we all know, the holidays can be a difficult time to maintain a healthy diet.  Studies have shown that while holiday weight gain isn’t as dramatic as we think, it can contribute to weight gain over a lifetime.  Most people gain about one pound over the holiday season which is a rather manageable amount.  That doesn’t mean you have to deny yourself some of the best food you’ll have all year, instead make sure you stay active and eat everything in moderation.  It might be cold but there are plenty of fun winter activities such as ice skating, skiing, sledding or even taking a brisk walk that can help you stay active throughout the holidays. 

More Questions?

For Thanksgiving and throughout the holiday season you can download The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) free app called “Ask Karen” that has answers in both English and Spanish for any food safety question you might have.  As always, the USDA will have its bilingual Meat and Poultry Hotline available Monday through Friday, 10a.m. to 4 p.m.  You can call in toll free at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854).

From everyone here at NCL, we hope you have a happy and healthy holiday season!

After 80 years, the FDA updates food-safety regulations – National Consumers League

food.jpgBy Ali Schklair, Linda Golodner Food Safety & Nutrition Fellow 

In 1938, Congress passed the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C). Regulated by the FDA, the law set safety standards for the manufacturing and distribution of food, drugs, and cosmetics. But, our food (drug and cosmetic) system has changed dramatically since the 1930s. 

Today, most of our raw and processed foods come from industrial farms. The popularity of frozen and prepackaged foods has skyrocketed. And imported foods account for 15 percent of the US food supply, including almost 50 percent of fresh fruit and 20 percent of fresh vegetables. While everything from farming practices to eating habits has evolved since the 1930s, the FDA has followed the same safety standards implemented almost a century ago.

The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which was first enacted in 2011, is a breakthrough for food safety in the US.  On Thursday, September 10th, 2015, the final preventive control rules for human and animal food were released. These rules are a critical piece of FSMA’s prevention-based approach to improving food safety. Additional rules addressing produce safety and food imports are expected to be finalized and released by the end of October. Once all rules are in effect, the US will have a food safety oversight system that requires producers and processors to take preemptive action against the growth and spread of pathogens.

A focus on prevention reflects how food policy and public health frameworks have shifted in America. Instead of relying on reactive interventions, today, health initiatives focus on identifying and preventing hazards before they reach the public. Prevention strategies are used to address public health problems like the flu, obesity, lung cancer, and now foodborne illness.

But, FSMA will only be successful in carrying out these preventive measures if the FDA has access to adequate funding. Currently, the House and Senate appropriations bills for the 2016 fiscal year do not meet funding needs. The Food Safety Modernization Act has the potential to overhaul our current food safety regulatory system, which will hopefully lead to less food contamination and less foodborne illnesses. However, without sufficient funding, we could be stuck with the same antiquated system for another eighty years. 

Promoting health or products? A look into the Facts Up Front program

factsupfront.pngDue to the work of the Facts Up Front campaign, today’s food products are marked with labels that advertise their nutrition facts. You have most likely seen them as the small snapshot of information on the front corners of products like cereal and bread. While this is a promising health campaign, consumers should be wary because these labels can often be misleading.

Facts Up Front was primarily developed by leaders in the food industry to help grocery shoppers like you and me easily identify nutritious food, when we may not have the time to read an entire Nutrition Facts panel.

Consumers seeking nutritional information should take a closer look at nutrition labels, as sometimes the food industry has been remiss in keeping honesty at the forefront of their labeling and marketing of products. Several years ago, one labeling campaign called “Smart Choices,” promoted sugar-laden, highly processed products as healthy options. Programs like Smart Choices, which had lenient criteria for what was considered “healthy,” lacked credibility and soon disappeared. Walter C. Willett, chairman of the nutrition department of the Harvard School of Public Health, said that the less healthy products that were given the Smart Choices’ seal of approval were in fact, “horrible choices.” As consumer advocates, we would like to see the food industry put the health of consumers at the heart of their new and improved labeling system.

Currently, Facts Up Front labels are only used by food companies that choose to display nutrition facts on the front of their packaging, which also raises some red flags. Michael Jacobson, the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, stated that Facts Up Front’s “voluntary nature means you may not see it on junk foods. And even if you did, it wouldn’t successfully highlight the food’s unhealthfulness.” There is no breakdown of the label information until you search online for Facts Up Front or a nutrition information website. The Facts Up Front labels show only the amount of calories, saturated fat, sodium, and sugar per serving on product packaging. The campaign may only display information about up to two nutrients or vitamins on front-of-packaging labels if the products meet FDA standards of a “good source,” which applies to foods that have 10 to 19 percent of the recommended daily value of a specific nutrient. The fact is, it is difficult for consumers to use these labels intuitively to make a “healthy decision,” which is what the campaign aims to accomplish.

The quick, simple informational element of this campaign requires more intensive public nutrition education, because it is clear that misleading nutrition marketing can, and does, occur. Facts Up Front can use the help of health marketing research, such as the Institute of Medicine’s 2011 study on front-of-package labels, and should continue to work with advocates to ensure labels provide the most honest, easy-to-use, and factual information to consumers. In the meantime, consumers should “trust, but verify” all nutrition labeling on food products.

Corner grocery stores: where convenience and junk food meet – National Consumers League


Many of us take for granted the ability to make trips to a full size grocery store. For 23.5 million Americans, accessing a full-size supermarket is a challenge. In some areas, small corner stores are often the only source of food for underserved communities. They act as the main source of groceries, which can be problematic, considering many corner stores stock mainly processed foods that are high in calories, fat, and salt.

Areas that lack convenient, affordable access to traditional grocery stores are often called “Food deserts,” defined by the USDA as low-income, low-access communities with a poverty rate of 20+ percent and at least 500 people who are more than a mile away from a large grocery store in urban areas (or more than 10 miles away in rural areas). Impoverished residents living far from a grocery store are at a higher risk of becoming overweight or obese.

The National Consumers League (NCL) has advocated for strong food policies since its founding in 1899. Pursuing improved food opportunities for consumers around the nation and in Washington, DC, where NCL is headquartered, is a top priority as food policy is a cornerstone of NCL’s mission to promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers. The District of Columbia’s City Council passed the FEED DC Act in 2010 in an effort to improve access to healthy food in low-income neighborhoods. The FEED DC Act awards grants to grocery store projects, such as the “Healthy Corners” program run by D.C. Central Kitchen.

Washington, DC food deserts are most commonly located in wards (the formal term for political sections here in the nation’s capital) 5, 7, and 8. Even in areas of the District that are not food deserts, corner stores serve as convenient neighborhood hubs where residents stop in to make quick, small purchases for snacks or meals. Corner stores offering healthier options could mean a major step in combating obesity among individuals living in lower income neighborhoods.

DC corner stores: How do they measure up?

This summer, the National Consumers League conducted a survey of corner stores in wards 1, 2, 3, and 4 of the District of Columbia. Twenty corner stores throughout the district were included in the survey, primarily near the Dupont Circle, Adams Morgan, U-Street, Columbia Heights, and Petworth neighborhoods. The stores surveyed ranged in the goods that they sold from those that offered alcohol and food, to others that focused mainly on food, and some that were simply convenience stores offering a variety of products.

Researchers were pleased to find that every corner store surveyed had some form of fresh produce available. Bananas were by far the most common, with apples and oranges taking a close second and third. It is likely bananas were so commonplace because they cost around $0.60 per pound versus pricier fruits like grapes which cost $2.53 per pound of cherries coming in around $4.50 per pound—not to mention their relatively long shelf life. Fruits that are cheaper, easily portable, require no packaging, and have a long shelf life are the most likely to be sold at corner stores.

Forty percent of stores had more than three different types of produce available, making them good options for consumers in search of healthy choices. There is still plenty of room for improvement. All corner stores should start offering a wider breadth of produce and healthy snacks. Having some fruit in stock is good, but bananas, apples, and oranges alone do not constitute a large enough selection for consumers.

Researchers were also pleased to find that 70 percent of the stores surveyed had produce available either in the front of the store or near the cash register. Putting produce in highly visible places—especially in place of the unhealthy impulse-buys that usually sit closest to cash registers—encourages consumers to choose healthy foods over those processed foods that are high in sugar and fat. Though 70 percent is a good number, advocates would love to see it even higher. Thirty percent of corner stores may appear to have no produce available as it is not visible upon entering the store. Ideally all corner stores would display produce near the front of the shop. Changing where produce is displayed is an easy and inexpensive way to make nutritional foods appeal to consumers.

Healthy Corners Program

In NCL’s survey, researchers encountered one corner store that was affiliated with a program called “Healthy Corners” run by D.C. Central Kitchen. This program, which builds on the Healthy Corner Store Program run by D.C. Hunger Solutions, distributes healthy foods to corner stores in neighborhoods that lack grocery stores or other means of getting healthy food. It provides a small stipend to store owners and routinely delivers produce and other healthy snacks. Through the program, storeowners can buy produce at wholesale prices and in smaller quantities than they would be able to get through conventional distributors. They are then able to sell produce at below-market prices, making it an even more appealing option for customers.

The role of programs like this in bettering the health of low-income communities is vital. As of 2013, 33 stores participated in Healthy Corners, grossing more than $40,000 in annual sales. The produce provided to corner stores through Healthy Corners is not going uneaten; 7,500+ health conscious snacks are served to DC residents each month.

Researchers didn’t survey wards 5,7, and 8—where they would have been even more likely to find stores participating in the Healthy Corners program, because those wards are home to food deserts. The demonstrated success of these programs, where they are put in use, begs for expansion, starting with communities most in need and ultimately branching out across the city.

Update:  Since this article was posted DC Central Kitchen announced that it expanded its Healthy Corners program from 32 to 62 corner stores, nearly doubling outreach to neighborhoods that need healthy options most.  A grant from the DC Department of Small and Local Business Development made this possible.  

Looking Forward

When it comes to providing produce access to low-income residents of the district, there is always room for improvement. The FEED DC Act, which helps fund the aforementioned Healthy Corners Program, also aims to encourage green technology in food stores and create jobs in areas of high unemployment. Additionally, the Cottage Food Act of 2013 lifts health department license requirements that very small business owners, bringing in less than $25,000 in revenue annually and likely just starting out, would typically need to abide by.  Both of these laws serve low-income communities by supporting businesses’ ability to provide healthier foods in unique ways. A continued push for legislation that eases restrictions on small business owners and aids in their distribution of healthy choices is necessary to ensure progress continues in the most underserved communities.

Pursuing new ideas to provide access to healthy foods is also vital. Mobile produce vans are increasingly popular. New York City has employed them to bring low-cost produce to some of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in the city. Likewise, the District has a “Mobile Market” provided by Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture. Similar to many of today’s farmers markets, the Mobile Market accepts and even encourages using SNAP/EBT benefits to purchase produce. The “Bonus Bucks” program doubles the purchasing power of food assistance benefits.

Efforts such as these aren’t going unnoticed. They serve as a vital resource for many District residents. Continued support and expansion of existing programs in conjunction with new efforts are a major step toward turning around poor health consequences in low-income areas. The first step in getting DC residents to eat healthier is giving them a choice.

Fish farms: Good, bad, or downright ugly? – National Consumers League

fishfarms.jpgDid you know fish accounts for 17 percent of the world’s protein intake? That may not seem like a lot, but by 2050, farmed fish production is expected to more than double to meet global demands. Fish are the most environmentally-friendly animal protein to produce, efficiently converting feed into meat while generating a fraction of the greenhouse gasses of livestock production. But as it stands now, our earth’s rivers, lakes, and oceans are fished to their limits.

Aquaculture (neat, huh?) will become vitally important in the near future to keep up with demand. Though industrial farming gets a lot of slack across the board, fish farming may be our answer to fulfilling the animal protein needs of the world’s growing population.

Why do fish farms get such a bad rap? For starters, antibiotics are an ever-growing concern in industrial farming. Eighty percent of the antibiotics used in the United States are used on livestock. It’s estimated that farmed salmon are fed more antibiotics per pound than any other livestock. Antibiotic resistant bacteria, created as a result of antibiotic overuse, are responsible for the deaths of 23,000 Americans each year.  Cramped underwater pens lead to filth and sickness, raising concerns about the spread of disease. Contention also surrounds what farmed fish are eating. In some cases, farmed fish eat other wild fish, negatively impacting the ocean ecosystems; in other cases they are fed pellets, which may not adequately meet their nutritional needs, and result in fattier, less nutritious, and less flavorful fish.

These problems are undoubtedly challenging, but attempts are being made to overcome them. Fish farmers are starting to open “on land” fish farms that eliminate any chances of diseases spreading in the ocean. Scientists are also finding new ways to filter water and keep farmed fish in a contained, clean environment so antibiotics are not required. These fish are reported to grow twice as fast as their ocean-raised counterparts. Advancements have been made in raising higher-maintenance ocean fish in land bound, sterile environments, making on-land fish farms a viable option for some rarer, more expensive species. Fish farmers are using less fishmeal, or ground wild fish, than they were 20 years ago, further taking pressure off the overfished ocean.

Consumers play a large role in the positive reinforcement of developing and using new sustainable fish farm technologies. The majority of fish we eat, 91 percent, comes from abroad. At home, we ship away third of what we catch. Buying American-grown and processed fish is not only more sustainable because it isn’t shipped as far, but it also supports developing cleaner ways to farm fish in our own country.  At the grocery store, consumers can keep an eye out for seafood that bares a Sustainable Seafood Certification.

Consumers who are concerned about farmed fish and wish to only purchase fish raised in the wild should try to eat fish and shellfish that fall lower down on the food chain. These fish are less likely to negatively impact the environment because they require less feed. Tilapia, catfish, and carp are all good options. Mollusks, like clams, oysters, and scallops, are the most environmentally-friendly source of animal protein, as they don’t use freshwater and they serve to clean the environment around them. Fish play a key role in fulfilling the protein needs of the world population. Now is the time to use purchasing power as a vote to promote positive aquaculture practices and reduce our impact on the ocean.