Long warm days call for cool refreshing treats such as ice cream. One afternoon I was enjoying a milky bar — ignoring the calories and savouring the apparent goodness — when I glanced at the ingredients on the box. Sugar, fat, cholesterol in mind-numbing percentages were accepted — with a good dose of guilt. What I was not prepared for was the ingredient list.
This was a made-in-Canada Haagen-Dazs R Gelato with tiramisu flavour — a trademarked Nestlé product. Along with cream, sugar, eggs, chocolate, etc. were two ingredients not found in Grandma’s kitchen. The first was propylene glycol, which is antifreeze, a common de-icer and paint additive. In its industrial form it is highly toxic. The lower level is used in pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and snack foods. It is a permissible product for use in foods by Health Canada.
A little more research on propylene glycol (PG) yielded results as watery as skim milk. Most of the research into the safety of the continuous ingestion or application of PG was inconclusive. In other words, researchers don’t know the long-term effects on our health. It is not used in the same dairy bar manufactured elsewhere such as in Europe or the United States. It’s just Canadians who get a little dose of this chemical in this Nestlé product (Click here for an ingredient list of Haagen-Dazs’ tiramisu gelato from its product website).
The use of ethanol in an ice-cream bar was just as disturbing. Health Canada allows ethanol as a food additive in six categories. Although the use of this product in packaging requires a litany of adherence to regulation because of potential toxicity, one only has to identify good manufacturing practice to use it IN food. Again, ethanol was not listed as an ingredient in this bar in the U.S. or Europe.
The fire in my belly had long dissolved the cream and chocolate I once craved. Truthfully, I felt violated by the company who manufactured the product and most certainly by Health Canada, whose focus is on taking away our natural health products in favour of the literal (my own view) potential poisoning of Canadians. Are these permitted additives making us sick?
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My quest took me to the kitchen freezer and a private-label ice-cream brand sold at Superstore (Loblaws). I found the ingredient list, but could not find the country where this ice cream was made. A little research revealed a chilling answer: In Canada, private-label brands are not required by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to disclose the source of food or place of manufacture. This loophole is a huge disadvantage to innovative startups, mainstream brands, and trade. Private-label manufactured foods can have a foreign list of ingredients and be made in another country even if it is sold by a strictly Canadian company in Canadian stores.
A case in point is Black River Angus TM beef from Walmart. Suspiciously uniform, I went on a quest to find the source of the beef and the place of manufacture. Not a chance — there is no trail to the source of that product or the place of processing through Walmart, although it was boxed in Edmonton.
I was truly unaware of the lack of uniform regulation in Canada when it comes to the source of food ingredients or additives and the requirement to disclose the place of manufacturing. It is apparent that food processors, Health Canada, and the CFIA may have different sets of rules under which they operate. While food processors want a level playing field so that private-label brands also are required to disclose, they also have been permitted access to additives that would send a shiver up the spine of even the most liberal consumer.
As I cooled my heels — with a simple glass of water — I pondered a very important question: Where is the farmer in this process? While our dairy farmers strive to produce a clean and wholesome product for use in ice cream and other milk products, are they seen as part of the solution or part of the problem?
It is easy for a consumer to say that ice cream is not good for you and I have encountered many children who are not allowed to eat ice cream because it is deemed junk food. Even on this Nestlé TM bar the trademark logo for 100 per cent Canadian milk was used — suggesting some purity and goodness. Milk and milk products are good for you but some of the additives for stabilization or shelf life need to be withdrawn so that the farmer is not caught in a net of negativity from the cow to the cone.
Most farmers are not food manufacturers and they may consider getting together with their industry representatives, processors, and consumers to ensure that collectively an ice-cream bar is just that — an ice-cream bar. And when we encounter these revelations it may be a good time to write the mother company to question its ingredient list; Health Canada to demand evidence of long-term safety; and the CFIA to ask why private-label declarations differ from other processed foods. Or vote with your dollar and refuse it at retail.
There are three main ingredients in ice cream, and like summer sunshine and love, that is all we really need. We can exercise our right and our choice of what we eat, where we buy it, and who makes it for us.