By Denise Tessier
Here at ABQjournalWatch.com we try to point out instances where opinion has crept into headlines and news page stories.
I submit opinion — especially industry opinion — has become ingrained in the fabric of other sections of newspapers as well. Long before the U.S. Supreme Court decision that corporations are “persons” entitled to free speech, newspapers, including the Albuquerque Journal, began a pattern of readily giving industry a voice in specially labeled sections.
Although it’s on a local, rather than global corporate level, the Sunday Journal’s Real Estate section, for example, doesn’t take a hard-hitting look at the real estate industry, but serves as a showcase for builders, realtors, home tours and the like. Any rare attempt at viewing the industry with a critical eye is left to the news and business pages.
Readers probably don’t expect the Food section that appears in Wednesday’s Journal to be hard-hitting at all, and likely are satisfied when it’s simply informative. The Journal’s Food section can be that, and it’s at its best when it boasts staff or locally written copy. An example of such a page (Feb. 3) included a staff report by Matt Andazola on menus appropriate for wedding receptions, plus the local Farmers’ Markets column by Denise Miller, who offers advice on when to buy seasonal fruits and vegetables and how to prepare them.
A story by former Albuquerque Journal sports writer Russ Parsons, now a food writer with the Los Angeles Times, anchors this week’s page, giving it a quasi-local quality (and a clever headline – “The Romaine Empire” – on the superiority of crunchy romaine lettuce).
Those in the know have come to accept that many of the stories on food pages originate with press releases from corporations and food associations that want to encourage the use of their appliances or food products. The stories that result oftentimes are essentially free advertisements, and many readers take these product introductions with a grain of salt, if you’ll excuse the phrase.
Yet, sometimes it’s hard to swallow the industry take that insidiously settles in among the recipes or tips for using the latest kitchen gadget.
Stories on the food page sometimes cry out for a journalistic approach, considering that we live in an age of genetically modified foods, chemical additives and lab-created flavors, sweeteners and fats – in a time when, for example, increasing numbers of consumers have developed intolerance to wheat (possibly prompted by a super gluten that was created by the food industry to make breads and bagels fluffier; you have to go to The Huffington Post or the AlterNet to learn that).
One story that cried out for more research and detail ran Jan. 20 on the Journal’s Food section front, headlined “‘Real’ sugar in soft drinks not likely healthier.”
My first reaction was, “According to whom?”
A headline like that should carry some kind of attribution, as in “’Real’ sugar in soft drinks not likely healthier, expert says.”
But the expert was absent from the story as well as from the headline.
The Journal story was most of an article written by Rosie Mestel of the Los Angeles Times, and its premise was that beverage companies are coming out with vintage formulas for soda pop because of worries about high-fructose corn syrup and claims by many beverage drinkers that soda manufactured with cane or beet sugar, such as Coca Cola made in Mexico, tastes better.
The story talked about “Pepsi Throwback” and other sugar-based drinks being introduced, and appeared to be leading up to a quasi-scientific analysis when it started comparing the chemical compositions of sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. It went so far as to say that:
There are also recent reports that overconsumption of fructose in particular many induce metabolic changes that raise the risk for diabetes and heart disease.
But then it concluded that:
Because the fructose levels in high-fructose corn syrup and sucrose are so similar, there isn’t much reason to suppose that Pepsi Throwback and other “natural sugar” drinks are any healthier.
I doubt anyone would characterize them as healthier, but are they perhaps not as bad? No answer here.
Part of the problem with this story is that it didn’t include the background articles one could find linked in the online version. So, it gives a nod to “recent reports” without naming them, and ends up incomplete.
Another article that attempted to talk about a high fat/salt/sugar product in health terms was the “Food Tidbit” (from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune), which the Journal ran Jan. 27 under this unbelievable headline: “Get your Omega-3 fatty acids in Jif.”
Food products deserve scrutiny when they make health claims, but the writer mostly critiqued the product’s taste, saying he detected no fishy flavor from the anchovy and sardine oil in the “Omega-3” version of Jif , adding – of all things – that it wasn’t salty enough, even though it has 160 milligrams per serving instead of the 150 mg in regular Jif. And the article ignored the product’s 3 grams of sugar per serving and its use of fully hydrogenated vegetable oils. Most Americans don’t realize that all one needs to make peanut butter is to grind up peanuts – adding neither sugar nor salt.
Lest one doubts that the food industry itself has become political, one need only take note of the food tax mess during the recent New Mexico legislative session. Legislators ludicrously parsed the nutritional merits of white vs. brown bread, corn vs. flour tortillas, in trying to decide whether to revive a tax on foods.
Journal UpFront columnist Thom Cole did a good job – with an appropriate tone of incredulity and sarcasm – when he summarized what legislators were contemplating with his Feb. 17 article, “Put Down That Twinkie, Food Cops Are Coming.” From that column, readers learned that items approved for purchase by participants in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) would have been tax free, which sounds simple until one realizes that the state’s Health Department Web site lists 168 pages of WIC-approved items on fresh and frozen vegetables alone.
We also learned that because neither Whole Foods nor Trader Joe’s are vendors in the WIC program, all of their signature brands would have been taxed. “Smith’s shoppers wouldn’t have to pay taxes on their pinto beans, but shoppers at Whole Foods would,” Cole wrote. The column flowed with good research and reporting until one line stopped me like a red light:
The real grocery stores — like Albertsons, Lowe’s and Smith’s — participate in WIC and would be able to apply to the Health Department to make more of their items tax-free.
The real grocery stores? Now, I’m no fan of Whole Foods, especially since their hostile takeover and closure of Wild Oats. (Novelist Elizabeth Berg appropriately refers to the chain as Whole Paycheck in one of her books.) And I understand Cole’s point, that some people have the wrong idea about Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. But to make that point, he should have put “real” in quote marks, i.e.:
The “real” grocery stores — like Albertsons, Lowe’s and Smith’s — participate in WIC and would be able to apply to the Health Department to make more of their items tax-free.
Calling the corporate stores that carry GMO and heavily processed foods “real” grocery stores is akin to saying those that carry organic and more healthful selections aren’t. (Notice how we’ve even acquiesced to the corporate line in our language? In the “real” world, unadulterated food would be just “food” in no need of an “organic” label; it’s the non-organic stuff that should be labeled with all the alterations and concoctions that have taken place.)
One might even argue that Albertsons or Smith’s aren’t “real” grocery stores anymore, seeing as these supermarkets sell processed food-like products, paper goods, hardware, automotive items and pesticides, with a proportionately small section of farm- and ranch-produced foods thrown in.
Because of corporate influence – on both the production and selling ends of what we eat – food has become politicized. It’s time reporters, headline writers and editors tried their best to not buy into the industry line, but rather serve the consumer – the reader – when covering food and food issues, especially when it come to food products and health.