Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Nov 27 2015

Weekend Reading: Kima Cargill on Food Psychology

Kima Cargill.  The Psychology of Overeating: Food and the Culture of Consumerism.  Bloomsbury, 2015.


I did a blurb for this one:

Psychologist Kima Cargill takes a tough, critical look at today’s consumerist culture from the perspective of research as well as of observations drawn from her clinical experience with patients struggling with weight issues. To stop overeating in today’s food environment means finding effective ways to counter the many moral, political, economic, and social imperatives to consume. The ideas in this book should inspire readers to think of obesity in an entirely different way—more as the result of a consumerist society than of individual weakness.

Nov 25 2015

A retraction and apology

The Journal of Public Health Policy (JPHP) will soon announce the retraction of a Viewpoint—an opinion piece—I co-authored with a Guatemalan physician, Dr. Joaquin Barnoya, “The food industry and conflicts of interest in nutrition research: A Latin American perspective.” Because of factual errors in the piece, and in response to valid objections about the errors from its subjects, they and we requested its retraction and JPHP is doing so.

I believe it is useful to explain how this happened.  In late summer, Dr. Barnoya brought to my attention an advertorial, a sponsored news account, published in el Periódico and other Guatemalan newspapers announcing an alliance among the Central American Bottling Corporation (cbc), the largest beverage distributor in Guatemala and bottler for PepsiCo; the Guatemala-based Institute of Nutrition of Central America and Panama (INCAP); and the U.S.-based Shalom Christian Foundation to distribute a supplemental food product, Mani+, to chronically malnourished children in rural areas (here is a translation of the advertorial).  Mani+ is a sweetened, peanut-based, nutrient-fortified supplemental food made from local ingredients in Guatemala, used to prevent malnutrition in young children.  The advertorial displayed a photograph of the directors of the three organizations holding the agreement.  It also displayed statements from all three directors emphasizing the alliance’s importance in addressing childhood malnutrition.

As readers of this blog should know, I have long been concerned about the conflicts of interest that arise when food companies—especially soda companies—enter into alliances with public health organizations.   The New York Times made the consequences of such alliances clear in its recent revelations of Coca-Cola sponsorship of the Global Energy Balance Network and the fallout from those revelations.  The announced alliance between cbc and INCAP raises similar concerns, particularly in the light of more general food industry partnerships with research and health institutions in Latin America.  Our intention in writing the Viewpoint was to question the appropriateness of this alliance, as well as of other such partnerships and alliances.

We should, however, have exercised more care.  Shortly after publication of the Viewpoint, Carolina Siu Bermúdez, the director of INCAP who appears in the advertorial, wrote to object that our piece incorrectly implied a financial relationship with cbc, and that Dr. Barnoya had failed to disclose that INCAP paid a substantial portion of his salary via a grant from yet another organization.  We also received letters from Dr. Edward Fischer, the founder of NutriPlus/Mani+, Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Vanderbilt University, objecting to our statement that the alliance was responsible for manufacturing (rather than just distributing) the product.   Both asked us to retract the Viewpoint.

Upon investigation, we realized their objections had merit.  Indeed, further investigation by us and by the editors of the JPHP exposed additional errors.  Together, these include the following clarifications and corrections:

  • The alliance is involved only in the distribution of Mani+, not its manufacture (as we had asserted).
  • The actual nature of the alliance between cbc, INCAP, and the Shalom Christian Foundation—who does what—is, in fact, unclear. The Viewpoint should have characterized the relationship with less certainty and specified that cbc has no financial relationship with either INCAP or the Foundation.
  • Dr. Barnoya should have disclosed his financial relationship with INCAP, and I should have insisted that he do so.
  • The Viewpoint was triggered by the advertorial, and we should have made this connection more explicit.
  • The reference in the Viewpoint to the advertorial is incorrect. It is listed as (2015) cbc co. Unidos contra la desnutricion. INCAP, cbc y Fundacion Crisitiana Shalom Firman Convenio 23(July): 9.  The correct reference is Alianza Contra la Desnutricion. elPeriódico. July 23, 2015;Advertorial: 9.

To correct and clarify these issues, we would need to revise the Viewpoint.  Doing so, however, is not possible once a paper is published.  That left us no choice but to request a retraction, which I believe is the right course of action in this situation.

In my books and other writing, I try as hard as I can to be precise and accurate.  This incident is a lapse that I regret deeply, for which I take responsibility, and for which I apologize to Carolina Siu Bermúdez, to Dr. Fischer, and to my readers.  I also apologize to Phyllis Freeman and Anthony Robbins, the editors of JPHP, and to Lucy Wheeler of Palgrave, who have set an exemplary standard of ethics and integrity throughout these investigations and discussions.

As for lessons learned: Although I fully intend to continue to write critically about alliances between food companies and public health organizations, I also intend to use this experience to recommit myself to accountability and to diligence in checking and double-checking facts and disclosures going forward.   Again, my deepest apologies.

Nov 24 2015

A casual (non-scientific, but amusing) soda tasting

I gave a talk on Soda Politics to NYU’s long-standing Experimental Cuisine Collective, a partnership between NYU’s chemistry and food studies programs.

I thought it would be fun to start it off with a soda tasting (thanks to Jeff Potter, author of Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Cooks, and Good Food, for the photos):


In my book, I talk about research demonstrating that hardly anyone can tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi, or between colas sweetened with table sugar or high fructose corn syrup.  I thought it would be fun to double check.

We asked participants to taste 6 unlabeled soda samples.


The six choices:  Coca-Cola, PepsiCola, Caleb soda, Coca-Cola Life, Mexican Coca-Cola, and a duplicate of Coca-Cola.

The idea was to see whether people could tell which was which and whether they could tell the difference between Coke made with high fructose corn syrup (regular Coke), table sugar (Mexican Coke), or Stevia (Coca-Cola Life).

38 people participated.  Here are the results:

  • Coca-Cola: this was identified correctly by 14/38, but only 10 correctly identified the duplicate.
  • Mexican Coca-Cola: 4/38
  • Coca-Cola Life: 17/38
  • Pepsi: 11/38
  • Caleb’s Cola: 29/38 (it’s color is distinctly different)

Only one person correctly identified all six.  I, alas, only got one right—Caleb’s.  It looks different and tastes less sweet.

You think you can do better?  Give it a try.

Nov 23 2015

USDA grants encourage veterinarians to work on farm animals

When I wrote my books on pet foods some years ago, Feed Your Pet Right and Pet Food Politics, I was reading a lot about veterinary practice and how it has shifted from large animals to small.  The shift is so great that hardly anyone trains to be a farm-animal veterinarian anymore.  Almost all students focus on pet dogs and cats.

Among practicing veterinarians,

  • 75 % treat pets
  • 6% work treat horses
  • 8% treat farm animals


The USDA wants to change that, at least a little.

It announced an award program of $4.5 million to pay off the school loans of up to 49 veterinarians who promise to work for three years in rural America where veterinarians are scarce.  The maximum award is $75,000, which is expected to cover half the average school-loan debt.  Recipients may be required to devote at least 80% of their time to work on food animals.

Sounds like a great opportunity to get terrific experience.  I hope lots of recent grads apply.

Nov 20 2015

FDA approves genetically modified salmon, and it won’t be labeled

The FDA has just approved AquAdvantage’s genetically engineered (GMO) Atlantic salmon.  The salmon will not have to be labeled as GMO.

The FDA has spent at least four years coming to this decision.  In previous posts, I’ve discussed.

What more to say?  Only that federal agencies are tone deaf about the GMO issue.

The FDA thinks that just because it judges the salmon safe to it, that automatically makes it acceptable to the public.

But as anyone who knows anything about risk communication can tell you, even if the salmon is safe to eat, the public may not want it for a host of other reasons.

The decision not to label the salmon, is also tone deaf.  The FDA bases its decision on its decision that genetic modification is not material, meaning that the GMO fish has a similar nutrient composition to wild or other farm-raised salmon.

But the FDA requires labeling of plenty of other non-material processes: made from concentrate, previously frozen, and irradiated, for example.

As far as I can tell, the FDA has learned nothing about risk communication in the 20 years since it approved GMO foods for production and consumption.  The protests are already underway, some from members of Congress.

Politico Pro Agriculture quotes Senator Lisa Murkowski (Dem-AK):

“We have made no bones about the fact that this is wrong, not only for Alaska and our wild salmon stocks…but around the country,” she said, adding: “At a bare minimum people around this country need to know what they are serving their families when it comes to seafood.”

Murkowski said the draft labeling guidance released today fell short of what consumers need and plans to “continue the fight” against the fish.

This will be interesting to watch.

The FDA documents


Nov 19 2015

Feds indict dietary supplement makers

I learned about the new civil and criminal actions against makers of dietary supplements from a press release from US Senator Claire McCaskill, ranking member of the US Senate Special Committee on Aging.  The dietary supplement industry, she says, “continues to resemble the Wild West.”  

The Department of Justice, Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have initiated enforcement actions against USPlabs,  which makes muscle and weight loss supplements such as Jack3d and OxyElite Pro.  The charge:

USPlabs engaged in a conspiracy to import ingredients from China using false certificates of analysis and false labeling and then lied about the source and nature of those ingredients after it put them in its products.  According to the indictment, USPlabs told some of its retailers and wholesalers that it used natural plant extracts in products called Jack3d and OxyElite Pro, when in fact it was using a synthetic stimulant manufactured in a Chinese chemical factory.

The indictment also alleges that the defendants sold some of their products without determining whether they would be safe to use.  In fact, as the indictment notes, the defendants knew of studies that linked the products to liver toxicity.

The FDA’s statement says that it has warned consumers not to use certain USPlabs products containing a synthetic alkaloid, aegeline, which is so toxic that it induces liver problems so severe that they caused several victims to need liver transplants and one died (the New York Times says more about this).

The FDA says it:

continues to warn consumers about the risks associated with some over-the-counter products, falsely marketed as dietary supplements, which contain hidden active ingredients that could be harmful. In the last year, the agency has warned of more than 100 products found to contain hidden active ingredients. These products are most frequently marketed for sexual enhancement, weight lossand body building.

Earlier this year, Senator McCaskill:

sent letters to 15 retailers inquiring about their policies concerning dietary supplements and what they do to prevent the sale of harmful or fraudulently marketed products in their stores and on their websites and shows. This inquiry was in response to the discovery of products such as Brain Armor, which was recently removed from the Amazon website, that made false claims about their ability to enhance memory and treat dementia.

She also  

wrote FDA Acting Administrator Stephen Ostroff to request that the FDA take appropriate action to suspend sales of any supplement containing picamilon, a product that FDA has determined is not a dietary ingredient. McCaskill also asked for any documents submitted to the FDA as a part of the New Dietary Ingredient notification process that confirm the ingredient’s safety, and for any cases in which picamilon had caused ‘adverse events’ in consumers. After the FDA failed to respond, McCaskill asked retailers to voluntarily remove products containing picamilon from their shelves—an action that many took.

As past Chairman of the Senate’s Consumer Protection Subcommittee, McCaskill has also examined misleading and false claims made by makers of weight-loss products. 

Wild West indeed.  The supplement industry brought this on itself when it convinced Congress that its products were so safe and so much more effective than prescription drugs that regulations were unnecessary.  In 1994, Congress agreed and passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, which essentially deregulated dietary supplements and, except for egregious instances like this one, forced the FDA to leave supplements pretty much alone.

The industry argues that there are just a few bad apples like these.  But how would we know?

Nov 18 2015

Food Policy Action releases 2015 Congressional scorecard

I went yesterday to the press conference for the release of the Food Policy Action 2015 Scorecard.










This was outdoors at Campos Community Garden in Manhattan’s East Village, attended by classes of schoolkids.  The speakers:

Food Policy Action aims to improve national discussions of food policy issues by informing the public about how elected officials vote on these issues.  Hence: the Scorecard.

As I discussed last year, points are awarded for votes on bills introduced or co-sponsored that deal with:

  • Domestic and international hunger
  • Food safety
  • Food access
  • Farm subsidies
  • Animal welfare
  • Food and farm labor
  • Nutrition
  • Food additives
  • Food transparency
  • Local and regional food production
  • The environmental effects of food production

In the Senate, for example, there were just 5 bills to be voted on an 10 that were co-sponsored (but not voted on).  In the House, there were votes on 10 bills and 12 that were co-sponsored (no vote).  This leaves lots of room for improvement, even among the best.

The speakers explained to the kids that the Scorecard gave grades to members of Congress, just like they get, and took them through a discussion of thumbs up and thumbs down appraisals of legislators’ votes on key food issues.  Congress is doing a little better this year than last, they said, but still has a long way to go.

Those of us in New York are lucky.  Both of our Senators, Kirsten Gillbrand and Charles Schumer scored 100.

Here are my reports on the Scorecards from 2013 and 2014.  The Scorecard is a great first step in holding legislators accountable.

Nov 17 2015

Cheerios for Protein?

I laughed when I first saw the Cheerios box advertising Protein.  Protein is hardly an issue in U.S. diets—most Americans consume twice what they need—so this is clearly a marketing ploy.

Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), however, was less amused.  Its scientists did the math and compared the protein to the amount in regular Cheerios.  They also looked at serving sizes.

  • Cheerios Protein: Protein 7 grams, Serving Size 55 grams
  • Cheerios regular: Protein 3 grams, Serving Size 28 grams

Hmm.  Not much difference, is there?

CSPI filed a formal complaint.

General Mills falsely and misleadingly markets Cheerios Protein to children and adults as a high protein, healthful alternative to Cheerios. In fact, Cheerios Protein has only a smidgen more protein per serving than Cheerios, or 4 grams, which is only 5% of the average American daily protein intake. Most of that 4 grams is attributable to differences in serving sizes: Cheerios Protein has a bigger, 55 gram serving size, whereas Cheerios uses a 27 gram serving size. Two hundred calories’ worth of Cheerios Protein has a mere 7/10th of a gram more of protein than 200 calories’ worth of Cheerios.

Even worse, they looked at sugars.

  • Cheerios Protein: 17 grams sugars
  • Cheerios regular: 1 gram

As CSPI puts it:

Rather than protein, the principal ingredient that distinguishes Cheerios Protein from Cheerios is sugar. Cheerios Protein has 17 times as much sugar per serving, as Cheerios, which General Mills does not prominently disclose. 8. General Mills charges a price premium for Cheerios Protein.


Buzzfeed has a good discussion of this.

Caveat emptor (I seem to be saying this a lot lately).

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