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Jeanne Turner

Jeanne Turner


Realistic Realm: Why “Supermarket Superstar” Stands Out in Reality TV

Today I'd like to welcome a guest blogger, Brent Frei with his pertinent views on the value of a new reality-based competitive TV show that airs on Lifetime at 8 p.m. EST Monday nights. The first show aired this past Monday and Brent shares his impressions.

 ~Jeanne Turner

Imagine three home cooks chosen from among thousands who submitted an idea for a new retail food product, in this case, a cake.

One would-be entrepreneur’s cake contains so much liquor it warrants a breathalyzer test, not to mention its severely hampered profitability. Another’s errs by erroneously betting on kids’ taste buds favoring butterscotch over chocolate, and besides, is exceedingly sweet.

But the third benefits by stuffing homestyle peach cobbler made from fresh Georgia peaches into a pound cake. How will that product fare in a freezer case that’s already burgeoning with convenience-added dessert options in a store that also operates its own bakery?

That’s one of the questions propelling the new TV reality series, “Supermarket Superstar," that premiered on the Lifetime cable network on July 22.

Each week, three finalists in a particular grocery category prepare their gold standards for judges, receive evaluation and mentorship, then return to the test kitchen to adjust their products for a consumer panel. After one of the hopefuls is eliminated, the remaining two receive help from commercial artists and packaging experts before approaching a buyer from the A&P family of supermarkets, who selects the category winner.

That winner receives a $10,000 prize and $100,000 worth of product development in the hope of conceiving and perfecting the one product, at the end of the season, that A&P’s multi-branded stores nationwide will elect to stock to the potential tune of millions of dollars in sales.

I learned of the pending new series from Andrew Hunter, a chef-consultant based in Los Angeles and the show’s R&D mentor who guides contestants in reformulating their products to make them better, more appealing and more profitable. A member of the Atlanta-based Research Chefs Association (RCA), Andrew embraces Culinology®—the happy marriage of culinary art and science.

Several years ago, the RCA launched a competition in which teams of Culinology students (several postsecondary degree programs exist in North America) conceive a frozen retail product according to a theme complete with nutrition analysis, rethermalizing instructions and strong visual and written marketing for captivating packaging. The teams ship their frozen entries to the annual conference in advance of the live competition.

On site, the teams prepare their gold standards from scratch, and judges evaluate how close the frozen products, reheated, compare to the just-cooked dishes. The annual competition has become so popular that, two years ago, the RCA launched a professional version of the original student competition.

After a quarter-century of working with chefs and witnessing countless culinary competitions, the RCA’s Culinology competitions—particularly those involving students—are by far the most fun and intriguing cook-offs I’ve ever seen.

As part of my role as a foodservice marketer and publicist, I work with many of the nation’s accredited culinary-arts programs, at both the secondary (high school) and postsecondary levels. I remember well when Food Network launched on cable, and Emeril Lagasse sent tens of thousands of Americans to cooking school in the hope of instant culinary stardom. Good or bad, enrollment skyrocketed.

Since then, thanks to both the economy and student-loan crisis, potential culinary and baking/pastry students are forced to make more-realistic choices concerning their future careers. Chef-instructors and career counselors now expound on the wealth of opportunities beyond the very narrow industry segment of fine dining. One of the most popular alternatives today is research and development (R&D).

“Supermarket Superstar" lacks much of the contrived drama of other reality cooking shows. That differentiation is part of the show’s strength. Sure, there’s eye candy. But unlike “Hell’s Kitchen," “MasterChef" and their ilk, this new series paints a more-credible view of what it takes to be successful in a particular food realm, opening the eyes of young people, foodservice professionals and career changers alike who might long for viable, fulfilling careers working with the medium they love: food.

Brent T. Frei is president of Frei & Associates, a foodservice-marketing firm based in Chicago. Frei is a member of Research Chefs Association, previous editor-in-chief of Chef magazine and director of marketing for the American Culinary Federation. He serves on several advisory boards, including Kendall College’s School of Culinary Arts in Chicago. Contact him at btfrei@aol.com.


Caffeine Jitters

At SupplySide Marketplace Daniel Fabricant, Ph.D., director of FDA's Division of Dietary Supplement Programs, confirmed FDA's announcement this week the agency is going to start to more closely examine products that contain added caffeine, particularly those that are marketed to a younger segment of the population.  Although he mentioned energy drinks in particular, Fabricant also included supplements and foods as segments open to scrutiny. "I don't know where the line will be drawn on caffeine; the agency will probably focus on populations that may be perceived as at risk, particularly children," he said.

In a Q&A on the FDA Web site with Michael R. Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, he said, "For healthy adults FDA has cited 400 milligrams a day—that's about four or five cups of coffee—as an amount not generally associated with dangerous negative effects. FDA has not set a level for children, but the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages the consumption of caffeine and other stimulants by children and adolescents. We need to continue to look at what are acceptable levels."

At the present time, manufacturers can add it to products if they decide it meets the relevant safety standards, and if they include it on the ingredient list. "The only time FDA explicitly approved adding caffeine was for colas in the 1950s. Existing rule never anticipated the current proliferation of caffeinated products," continued Taylor.

From chewing gum to waffles and snacks like Frito-Lays "Power Bites" in their Cracker Jack'd line extension, multiple product segments beyond beverages now include a jolt of caffeine.  While the Cracker Jack line does include the familiar sailor logo, there aren't any prizes inside (a major factor in my enjoyment of their original snacks when I was a child) and the company says this new product line targets adults. Obviously, there are adults who enjoy the taste of coffee and might seek it in a snack food.

One guideline to consider is that Health Canada does have recommended maximum caffeine intake levels for children and women of childbearing age. Their recommended maximum level for children age 4-6 years is no more than 45 mg/day, for 7-9 years the level is 62.5 mg/day and for children aged 10-12 years it is 85 mg/day. These figures were derived using average body weights of children, observed behavioral effects of caffeine and a recommended level of 2.5 mg per kilogram of the estimated body weight.

In addition, EFSA has its own set of regulations. Statutory labeling requires drinks containing more than 150 mg of caffeine per liter be balled with the term "high caffeine content" in the same field of vision as the name of the foods, which must be accompanied by an indication of the amount of caffeine per 100ml in the product.

New labeling legislation (The Food Information Regulation (EU) 1169/2011) which will apply from December 13, 2014, will require additional caffeine labeling for high caffeine drinks and foods where caffeine is added for a physiological effect. The details are listed here.

At the same time a European Commission working group this Fall investigated the authorization of five mental and physical caffeine-based health claims, as long as they contain strict conditions of use statements. Caffeine enhancement seems to be a mixed bag, with one claim linked to a warning—for cognitive claims, products would have to contain a minimum of 75mg to make claims with a warning that consumption should not exceed 300mg in one day.

As a personal choice, I wouldn't give my youngest child any food or beverage containing caffeine. She already has enough energy to power half the county, if we could just harness it somehow. Yet there are plenty of kids who drink soda loaded with caffeine and I've seen parents in Starbucks giving their children a sip of mommy or daddy's drink so they can share the experience.

FDA might try to regulate the level of caffeine in a product designed for or marketed to children, but this doesn't negate the parental responsibility for monitoring the types and quantities of foods and beverages they and their children consume.

Furthermore, personal choice is involved, even at the tender age of eight or nine. Let's face it, our kids, when well out of sight and safely ensconced at a table full of their friends in the school lunchroom, trade food, bargain for that extra cookie or wind up purging their lunchbox of the healthy foods their parents packed for them. One survey showed more than three-fourths of kids toss something from their lunch into the trash bin. So even when attempting to monitor caffeine intake, or sugar or any other ingredient for that matter, personal choice comes into play.

However, clear labeling does make that job easier and as other agencies charged with public health have taken a stand on caffeine for different age groups, FDA should as well.

Determining a safe level in a product destined for a child's consumption is a great idea and I am in favor of FDA setting standards.  Enforcing personal responsibility in food and beverage choices, on the part of adults and children, is tougher to mandate.


GMO and the Right to Choose

Whole Foods earlier this year entered the ring as the first national grocery store chain to set a deadline for GMO labeling on products sold in its retail outlets. It announced by 2018 all products in its U.S. and Canadian stores must be labeled if they contain genetically modified organisms.

Various polls cite statistics claiming the majority of the American public is in favor of this type of labeling on their foods. In my opinion this is a reasonable request, however the question remains, does the average consumer have a valid reason for demanding this labeling or is this simply the latest easy method of appearing socially conscious and/or politically correct by taking 30 seconds to vote in a poll or sign a petition on change.org? And what might we be missing if we banned GMOs altogether?

A report published in May 2012 by PG Economics, United Kingdom, listed some of the benefits the global community has derived from genetically modified organisms.

·         Net economic benefit at farm level in 2010 was $14 billion

·         For the 15-year period 96 to 2010 global farm income gain has totaled $78.4 billion

·         Insect resistant technology in cotton and corn crops delivered the highest increase in farm income particularly in developing countries.

·         The majority of 2010 farm income gains went to farmers in developing countries, 90% of which are resource poor and small operations.

·         From 1996 to 2010 crop biotechnology was responsible for an additional yield of 97.5 million tons of soybeans, 159.4 million tons of corn, 12.5 million tons of cotton lint and 6.1 million tons canola.

·         Greater crop efficiencies helped reduce greenhouse gas emissions because of fewer tractor and machinery runs.

·         Reduced pesticide spraying by 437 million kg from 1996 to 2010, the equivalent of the total amount of pesticide active ingredient applied to arable crops in the EU 27 equal to a period over one and a half year's worth of crops

It would appear just some of the benefits include greater insect resistance, resulting in corresponding benefits for the environment (beekeepers also report they lose fewer bees when less pesticide is used), greater yield in diverse climates and under unstable weather conditions and economic benefits for farmers globally,  including small operations in third world countries.

The Food and Drug Administration says it has no basis for concluding that foods developed by bioengineering techniques present different or greater safety concerns than foods developed by traditional plant breeding.

Yet despite this assurance, some companies have taken labeling demands a step further into food bans.

Whole Foods Market Inc., Trader Joe’s and other food retailers declared today they will not sell genetically engineered seafood if it is approved in the United States. This announcement comes as it appears likely the Food and Drug Administration will approve genetically engineered salmon from Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies.

The company’s ‘AquAdvantage Salmon’ grows to market size in half the time of conventional salmon. The company says it starts with an Atlantic salmon that includes a gene from the Chinook.  It is also working on advanced-hybrid trout and tilapia.


Walter Robb, co-CEO of Whole Foods Market said in a press release about the company’s decision to demand GMO labeling that it is “putting a stake in the ground" to support the consumer’s right to know. It seems it might be one small step from driving a stake in the ground to driving it through the heart. Or it could be a matter of 'staking a claim' for a share of the profits the company might reap by driving consumers away from traditional retailers into their welcoming organic arms.

I happen to be in favor of labeling as I would like to be able to investigate and weigh on my own the merits of genetically modified foods and what they mean for my family. But as with many other issues, I would like that right to choose and not have the decision made for me.


Competence Key in 21st Food Processing

In December 2012, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) released national average results from the 2011 administration of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

Students from East Asian countries, along with a few European countries, outperformed students around the world in mathematics, science and reading at the fourth- and eighth-grade levels, with U.S. students—by the numbers—lagging behind.

A  debate ensued over interpreting these numbers.  The Economic Policy Institute suggested the figures should be adjusted to reflect the socioeconomic disparity of U.S. students, while others pointed out U.S. students might not score as well in math, but they are confident about their skills and value math more than their foreign counterparts (TIMMS also ranked student confidence in addition to competence). I am confused about the confidence versus competency score. Should it be a consolation that if a student believes two plus two equals five, we can die happy realizing that although the answer is wrong, the student is confident in their math ability? Let's get one of them to explain the math behind today's low-key celebration of Pi Day. 

A refreshing approach is one adopted by the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, formed in 2006 without the hindrance of political party affiliation, to build a ‘product’ to allow companies to be successful in this geographic area. One element of this product designed to attract and keep businesses in the northeastern Indiana geographical sector is a talented work force trained to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

As part of a $20-million dollar grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., the alliance determined to set up educational learning centers to build and offer a highly skilled workforce. This involves community or technical college programs to retrain the adult workforce in needed skills and a look at the educational system as a whole from K-12.

The region now hosts six New Tech high schools, the largest concentration of such schools outside of New York, which feature integrated subjects and a teaching style focused on a project-based learning format emphasizing STEM—science, technology, engineering and math. The goal is to increase students’ achievements in these topics through an environment similar to a contemporary workplace. Although this area offers school-of-choice selection, parents must put the child’s name into a lottery system to gain a spot at one of the six New Tech schools.

John Sampson, president and CEO of the Northwest Indiana Regional Partnership said presently, the area consists of a work force of which 30% possess a two-year, four-year or advanced degree. The partnership’s goal is to move that figure to 60% by 2018.

As part of this mix, the area offers programs to teach certified skills in welding or electronics for example—skills required in a manufacturing environment.

Sampson said another challenge beyond education is convincing parents and children that manufacturing is a viable job opportunity. “There is an image there not reflective of the true environment of today’s manufacturing facilities and opportunities," Sampson said.

At each facility visited during a processing tour in the Fort Wayne area, plant managers and private owners noted the skills required in these facilities are much more technical than in decades past. The rewards are higher as well as evidenced by a highly tenured workforce in most factories visited and a statement by Mike Hughes, plant manager at Kraft in Kendallville, Ind. He says with two years of training at a vocational school a student can find a job that pays $60,000 to $70,000 a year with benefits.

Anyone who still thinks two plus two equals five had better brush up on their math skills to create confidence during a job interview at one of these northeast Indiana firms. And although food processing comprises just 6.6% of the manufacturing sector in northeast Indiana, perhaps the New Tech high school system will inspire a future food technologist or two.


Salt Sugar Fat: Just the Beginning

I don’t have any Lunchables in the refrigerator at the moment. Of course, when I purchase one, as a special treat for my daughter, she consumes it on the way home in the car. They're convenient and portable and a rare event in our household. Am I aware of the amount of salt and fat in that appealing little carton? Yes. I excuse it on the basis that I only buy the product once or twice a month, she considers it a treat and, as the family shopper and food gatekeeper, I control what she consumes. I try to keep our food intake on the healthier side of the equation overall.

A new book due to be released the end of this month, "Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us," by Michael Moss, seems to refute my belief that I am in control of the food intake in my household. The New York Times recently published an in-depth except from the book that discusses the extensive research and marketing techniques food companies employ to sell their products, including the pursuit of a “bliss point," or the combination of flavors and ingredients that create a consumer craving, the penultimate of food satisfaction that keeps them returning for more. It includes a section discussing Lunchables and other products I sometimes purchase.

I admit there is a certain time of the month when family members who wish to avoid severe bodily injury need to back off from the chocolate, slowly, with hands in the air—that chocolate is mine. We all know a toddler's concept of a balanced diet is a cookie in each hand. One reason Saturday morning cartoons promote toys, games and sugary foods to children is they don’t have the sense or wisdom to know when to quit. But do we know when to quit as adults? Or is there a way to create food addictions, especially if you get ‘em while they’re young?

As a journalist I have had the privilege over the years of talking to perhaps hundreds of food scientists who work on fascinating projects to derive ingredients with great benefit for consumers, such as protein isolates, probiotics and healthy grains, to name a few. Others are working on projects to reduce this trio of ingredients named in the book title and design products with reduced sodium, sugar or fat, topics frequently covered in Food Product Design. Reduction is challenging enough and elimination, in most cases, impossible without jeopardizing food functionality, shelf life and safety.

Just last month I watched panelists in a debate, the "War Against Obesity" at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, discuss this global pandemic. Among the panelists was Paul Bulcke, CEO of Nestle.  In his book, Moss writes of a secretive meeting in 1999 where a collection of senior food industry executives squashed the notion that it is partly their responsibility to reformulate and create healthier foods. Their attitudes were disappointing to read about, to say the least. Although that meeting occurred just over a decade ago, I would hope that food industry climate is changing, and executives like Bulcke are more the norm, appearing in public to discuss his company's role to help find a solution to the problem.

I believe there is a recipe of ingredients contributing to obesity and health issues plaguing a large percentage of our population. One factor that seems to be missing from the discussion is the level of consumer and societal responsibility.

Convenience is king in an increasingly busy world. Moss says in a Q&A about his book that convenience food offerings increased alongside the rising number of families with two working parents in the 1950s. Consider the single parent household where one person is responsible for earning a living and preparing the families’ meals. I used to make my own spaghetti sauce for example, a processed product singled out in the book as one containing copious amounts of sugar. I have to admit, I gave up making my own sauce after four kids combined with a career swept away my spare time. This book reminds us to examine our own food choices made to serve convenience or time constraints.

Another part of the equation could involve the educational system. Does anyone remember taking home economics in junior high? It was a brief, nine- or ten-week unit amidst other electives such as band, music, drama and shop class.  I vaguely remember the efforts the teacher made to introduce the concepts of nutrition, budgeting and cooking to an adolescent crowd more interested in the dating potential of their classmates than mundane details about calories and ovens. School budget cuts continue to shrink elective offerings such as music, art and home economics. With both parents or a single wage earner in the home too busy to teach proper nutrition and cooking techniques, one discussion might center around the possibility of reintroducing nutrition and home economics into the school curriculum—and for a period of time long enough for the message to sink in.

I applaud the author for opening up further dialogue about the effect an excess of these ingredients can have on the human body. There is a recipe here for solving the health issues that extends far beyond three basic components—salt, sugar and fat. Perhaps those three can serve as a springboard to meaningful, productive dialogue and lasting solutions among all the stakeholders, industry, government, the educational system, and the individual.  If books such as this lead to responsible, informed decision making then it is all for the good.


Friend or Faux—Finding the Right Diet Expert

January marks a fresh start for many dieters, resolved to finally lose those extra pounds and slim down. In January, Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emmanuel appeared on local TV station affiliate WGN-TV to endorse Rip Esselstyn’s fitness and vegan dieting plan from Esselstyn’s new book, “The Engine 2 Diet." Emanuel’s goal through this endorsement is to reduce obesity in Chicago, improve the locals’ health and life expectancy and reduce the financial drain resulting from corresponding health issues associated with obesity.

The mayor’s goals are laudable, and a number of studies do indicate an increased intake of fruits and vegetables imparts health benefits. However, a strict vegan diet might be a hard sell in the former stockyard capital of the nation. Esselstyn isn’t advocating flexitarian eating, or ovo-lacto vegetarian (a diet that includes some dairy and egg products) or lacto vegetarian (including dairy while excluding eggs), but strict vegan—plant-based foods only.

When Esselstyn appearePhoto: Sugar by Julied on the news clip, showcasing some of his meal ideas for a total vegan diet, he highlighted his use of a non-dairy milk substitute plant-based almond milk, claiming that one glass of whole milk “has the equivalent of four slices of saturated fat from four slices of bacon."

I’m not a dietitian. But as an enthusiastic consumer of low-fat milk and dairy products, I thought I would go to the source to ask about that saturated fat issue. I chatted with Greg Miller, Ph.D., MACN, executive vice president of research, regulatory and scientific affairs for the National Dairy Council (NDC), Rosemont, IL. Miller also serves on the editorial board of a number of nutrition journals. I thought he might know a thing or two about milk.

Miller’s comment regarding the comparison of milk to bacon: “That’s absurd. You can't compare the two." Miller noted that milk contains nine essential nutrients, according to NDC literature “making it one of the most nutrient-rich beverages you can enjoy."

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends three servings of low-fat or fat-free milk or milk products per day. And it is important to note that the dairy industry does offer a number of alternatives to whole milk, such as the low-fat and fat-free versions recommended in the Dietary Guidelines. Miller said, “Americans need to drink more milk, not less." He continued, “Science shows that a proper intake of dairy foods, according to the Dietary Guidelines, can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes and high blood pressure."

One of the most successful and widely respected diets is the DASH Diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertention), or dietary approaches to stop hypertension, which is similar to the Dietary Guidelines. The DASH Diet resulted from a study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and several of the top medical research hospitals in the country and is one of the most widely researched diets in history to show a correlation between its recommended eating plan and lowering high blood pressure.

In the DASH diet, a person would consume more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy foods than in a typical American diet. The eating plan does include moderate portions of meat, fish, poultry and other animal-based proteins.

An expert on the DASH diet is Connie Weaver, Ph.D., distinguished professor and department head of Nutrition Science, College of Health and Human Sciences at Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN. Among many other duties, she also serves on the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academy of Science.

Weaver compared DASH to the more familiar “My Plate" diet plan. She pointed out the DASH diet closely mimics the dietary guidelines which are reviewed every five years using an appraisal of the most recent scientific evidence regarding best practices for human nutrition, by a committee appointed by the Department of Health and Human Services.

In terms of vegetarianism, Weaver said that consumers can create alternatives to the dietary guidelines, but “it takes a very sophisticated, educated consumer to meet their nutritional requirements for amino acids and minerals, for example, that are provided by animal sources. This (strict vegetarianism) is not the common American diet and requires a lot of effort." Vegans need to be aware particularly of a potential lack of Vitamin D and B12.
Weaver echoed Miller’s statement regarding the American intake of dairy products. “There are not a lot of other sources for the calcium dairy provides. Americans need to choose dairy more often, not less, and there are multiple options to include a low-fat version of dairy in the diet."
As a side note on the mayor's endorsement, Weaver said, “It takes five years of training to be able to give dietary advice." I haven't had that training. Then again, most mayors haven't either. The best advice would still be to look to the experts when it comes to healthy eating.

(Note: The clever faux vegetable plate of cookies can be found at www.facebook.com/sugarbyjulie)