Food Engineering

Editor's Note: Oreos, irradiation, biotechnology

June 5, 2003


NO, THESE ARE NOT NEW JEOPARDY categories or the answers waiting for the question from the great and powerful Carnac. Our baby boomer and above age group readers may recall Johnny Carson as the caped Carnac. Carson would mysteriously solve conundrums contained in envelopes that had been hermetically sealed in a mayonnaise jar on Funk & Wagnall’s porch.

What these three words have in common is that they are all very familiar to consumers, but some of the terms may be more familiar than you might expect.

The increasing public awareness of foodborne illness as well as highly publicized food recalls have prompted consumers to accept irradiation as an effective food safety tool, according to the National Food Safety & Toxicology Center. In addition, the organization reports, the number of supermarkets that offer irradiated meat has jumped from 84 in June of 2000 to 7,000 stores in 50 retail chains today.

Another recent survey shows that Americans are supporting the benefits of biotechnology. Research shows that biotechnology is not likely to become a concern for most American consumers. According to the International Food Information Council (IFIC), most Americans think biotechnology will benefit them in the next five years. The IFIC report also found that 77% percent of consumers could not think of any information not currently included on food labels that they would like to see added.

Could the recent Oreo trans fat lawsuit by Stephen Joseph change that? Joseph says that “trans fats are put into food products to increase shelf life, but they shorten human life.”

Despite the media attention, some consumers are not getting the message or don’t care. This theory was proved out by my mini survey of office mates, many of whom do not work in the food industry. One co-worker reported that all the media hype made her want to buy Oreos. Then again, several of my co-workers were not even aware of the current “Oreo situation.”

According to a Nurses’ Health Study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Harvard School of Public Health, women whose trans fat consumption amounted to 3 percent of daily calories were 50 percent more likely to develop heart disease over 14 years than were those whose trans fat consumption amounted to a little more than 1 percent of daily calories. Three percent of a 1,500-calorie daily diet equals 5 grams of trans fat—found in a Dunkin’ Donuts cake donut, a large McDonald’s fries, a Cinnabon, or six Oreo cookies, the report claims.

Regardless of your stance on the recent battle over trans fat, I am not so sure if this one will fall out of the media limelight quickly. The food industry may need to call Carnac out of retirement to see how this one plays out with consumers.