Thursday, December 31, 2015

USE BY and other interesting package DATES

Year ending. Year beginning. So let’s talk about calendar dates – not weight loss goals or New Year’s resolutions, but dates on packages, cans, cartons of food and what they may or may not mean for you.

The information that I am providing today (the upshot) is freely available in more detail from the USDAs Food Safety and Inspection Service. I am not covering infant formula which has separate rules, and I notice that tuna and other canned fish are not specifically mentioned in the fact sheet. If you want more info on those products you might have to use the feature.
Here are the take home points on those package dates, some may surprise you:
There is no federal – or country wide – law regarding dates on food packages. Meaning, they ae not required at all, by the federal government.

Around 20 states have laws regarding dates on food items, but the laws vary.
An open date – just the date, no words to describe it – and a sell by date – are not meant for use by us. These are more a message from the manufacturer to the store owner letting them know that the foods will be of the highest quality if sold by – displayed until – whatever that date is.
If a package has a date and with that date are the words USE BY, you should – use it by that date. The food will be of better quality if you use it by then, and if you are not going to use it by that date, you can freeze it. Foods can stay in the freezer indefinitely, but be mindful of how you package them so they don’t get freezer burn.

Eggs are interesting. A few states require sell by or expiration dates and some others forbid them! If an egg carton has USDA stamped on it, you will find a package date. The date the eggs were put in that carton. And it’s a little unusual. It only contains 3 numbers. This 3 digit date indicates the number of days since the start of the year that the eggs have been packaged. So if you buy a carton of eggs and it says 145, the eggs were put in the carton on the 145th day of the year – year starting January 1st. If there is a sell by date on this same USDA carton of eggs, it cannot be after that package code date.

Also interesting, eggs can be stored in the fridge and used for 3 to 5 weeks while maintaining great quality – even after a use by date. Of note, the eggs should remain in the carton and at the coldest part of the fridge (so much for all the refrigerator egg gadgets!)

If there is not a use by date, the USDA provides advice on when to use the food by, and offers a chart here. The thing that stood out to me when I looked at the chart is that opening the product is the kiss of death, and that almost everything should be used within 2 days of breaking the seal (except milk and produce). It’s like time is suspended until the seal is broke and then it rapidly accelerates.
Other important food safety and shelf life considerations: If you leave a product out of refrigeration, like hot dogs you are waiting to grill, the use by date is void, they are not safe anymore. Thawing something out at room temperature for over two hours is also frowned upon. Notice this is not about quality anymore, it’s about safety via contamination. Other safety issues mentioned in the handout involved not washing ones hands before preparing foods.

BTW, there was no specific mention of yogurt, milk or cheeses, but USDA/FSIS indicated that the foods should be fine if kept refrigerated– and until you notice an off odor, color or perhaps mold J

Monday, December 21, 2015

How The 2016 Federal Budget impacts nutrition, dietary advice and calorie labeling

If you are confused about what foods to eat and which constitute a healthy routine diet, you are not alone. In fact, this year has been extraordinary for its confusion and contention surrounding nutrition science and dietary guidelines. In fact, the experts - nutrition and public health – do not agree. The controversy was simmering even before the release of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report, an update to the Guidelines I meticulously explained and passionately promoted 5 years ago – before I joined the rank of researcher (i.e., became a more critical reviewer).

Did the uproar over the Committee’s recommendations make its way into your daily news briefs? If so, you’ll know that the contention was strongest around the recommendation to lower meat intake, not just for health, but for the planet – for sustainability.

After the report was released, a non-scientist, nutrition journalist published a scathing article on the recommendations, which led to a crusade by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and a point by point response letter signed by over 100 experts, researchers and scholars (myself included) that was posted just about a week ago.

There is not just dissent on the recommendations, which include less salt, less saturated fat, less sugar, but also on the scientific evidence used and the scientific process itself. So much so, that the recently passed Omnibus Appropriations Bill 2016, delays the release of the guidelines! Read for yourself (selected text from the Congressional directives):

Congress continues to be concerned about the quality of scientific evidence and extraneous factors that were included in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee's Scientific Report.

To ensure the guidelines adhere to the nutritional and dietary scope of the law and are based upon sound science, bill language has been included clearly stating that the final guidelines cannot be released or implemented unless they are based upon significant scientific agreement and adhere to the statutory mandate.

Questions have been raised about the scientific integrity of the process in developing the dietary guidelines and whether balanced nutritional information is reaching the public. The entire process used to formulate and establish the guidelines needs to be reviewed before future guidelines are issued. It is imperative that the guidelines be based upon strong, balanced science and focus on providing consumers with dietary and nutritional information that will assist them in eating a healthy and balanced diet. At a minimum, the process should include: full transparency, a lack of bias, and the inclusion and consideration of all of the latest available research and scientific evidence, even that which challenges current dietary recommendations.

The agreement (the Budget) provides $1,000,000 to review the dietary guideline process.

And that’s not all! The Omnibus Appropriations Bill takes aim at school nutrition and calorie labeling as well. The federal government by enactment of this bill, further delays calorie postings for grocery stores and ‘similar retail establishments,’ which I am assuming are the bowling alleys, movie theatres and convenience stores. My colleagues tell me that the FDA had already made those postponements and the Budget Bill just makes it a mandate. I might have been too focused on vending – which was already set for 2016 – to have noticed. What I am thinking is 1) this calorie labeling is never gonna happen and 2) if the federal law is not in place, state and local laws can’t be pre-empted, thus they can remain more restrictive… good for Philadelphia.

With regard to the school lunch program, schools can have more time to figure out how to increase the whole grain content of meals – though 95% of schools haven’t suggested that they need more time, so this is dumb. Also, the rule to lower the sodium content to a new lower goal has been halted pending scientific evidence that it is necessary to do so for health.

Here are a couple of links re the budget that was just passed.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Food as tradition vs Food as reward

Food has many meanings and purposes. Food can soothe the soul as well as sustain the body. It may even heal and restore. It is a source of nourishment, especially, or perhaps only – when it contains protein, carbs, fats and nutrients, not empty calories (e.g., high sugar, high salt and high saturated fat). And food is a source of pleasure, helping us to recall happy moments, favorite people, and traditions.

For many of us, the act of preparing, cooking and serving food is an expression of love: familial, social, charitable. Within cultures, broad and refined, certain foods celebrate, symbolize, crystalize (as in rites of passage, milestones). There is room in all our lives for these occasions[1], these moments of food as something more than or other from, sustenance. There is no room in any of our lives for abandoned consumption of even our cherished foods. To be honest, gluttony sort of ruins the whole appeal. But this blog post is not about moderation or counting calories. I am hoping that in time, soon, it will no longer be necessary to even mention calorie moderation, not because we have found a magic pill that lets you eat whatever you want, or because exercise suddenly causes easy weight control, but because we will have learned, as a nation, that calories MUST be part of the strategy.[2]

These other than sustenance reasons for eating that I described above, fall into the appropriate practices of most societies throughout time. But there are less salubrious reasons for eating and sadly, these unhealthy, psychologically damaging reasons are often situated and cemented in childhood: pacification, reward, boredom. Recently, I observed one of these unhealthy uses of food, which I’ll describe in a moment, and that scene triggered a few other memories of the misuse of food, memories that are at least 20 to 30 years in the past – I’ll share them too.

The first and recent example uses food as reinforcement. This particular example can be thought of as either negative or positive reinforcement, which is unusual and psychologists might disagree with me, but I’ll explain my reasons and why I call it negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is an action that takes away an unpleasant thing, while positive reinforcement provides a reward or something pleasant when a particular behavior is exhibited. In my interpretation, one is meant to extinguish and the other is meant to encourage. I think that using food to take away an unpleasant emotion would be using it for negative reinforcement – a really bad idea. In the case I witnessed, a child was crying – throwing a pretty good tantrum – and the dad said to the mom, “Give her a lolly pop.” WHOA. – I most certainly did cringe. More distally, when I was a young adult babysitter, I observed what the parents clearly meant to be positive reinforcement when they gave their child a cookie for using the potty. To this day I have wondered if that girl grew up to have an eating disorder. And a little more recently, but still 20 or more years ago, I remember watching a friend constantly hand her son food to eat as they rode around in the car – visiting people. He was bored and eating chips and drinking soda kept him occupied. He is a (heart breaking) morbidly obese young adult now.

Food is not meant to drown out our feelings, teach us to do things, or keep us from being bored.  Parenting is hard -  I get that, but food as a parenting strategy is a dangerous mistake. Though I am firm in my belief that food not be a reward, food can certainly be a pleasure and serving it rewarding. When foods become embedded with our culture, our traditions, and our families it is a good thing. But using food to treat a bad mood, stress or mental illness is ineffective and it’s unhealthy. If you’ve found yourself using it this way, instead, try exercise, talking to confidants or professionals, writing, meditating, praying, and other positive coping mechanisms. Heck, even medicine if all else fails, but not food. Food is not the answer nor the treatment for emotional or physical pain.

[1] Note: this is not the same thing as having style of cooking that consistently creates excess calories or uses large amounts of nutrients/substances of concern (i.e., sugar, fatty and or fried/breaded foods and salt/sodium)
[2] Forgive me for another small aside, but as I wrote the sentence above regarding the pill that lets you eat whatever you want, I had a little epiphany. The ads for pills and supplements do say, ‘eat whatever you want and lose x pounds.’ And that is not the real issue. It is less about WHAT one eats and a lot about HOW MUCH; so the magic pills have to let us eat what we want, as much as we want and keep us thin and metabolically healthy – good luck waiting on that.