Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
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).

Nov 16 2015

FDA is taking comments on “natural”

I’m always indebted to Food-Navigator-USA for spot-on commentary on current food politics.  Here, for example, is Elaine Watson on the FDA’s amazing decision to take comments on the meaning of “natural” on food labels.

Having studiously avoided this food labeling minefield for years, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has surprised many in the trade by seeking comments on the definition of a word that has launched a thousand class action lawsuits (well almost): ‘natural’.

Her piece is worth reading for its excellent reporting and interviews with industry stakeholders.

About “natural,” the FDA has said:

From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.

Now petitions have induced the FDA to seek comments, the first step in its standard rulemaking processes.

Specifically, the FDA asks for information and public comment on questions such as:

—Whether it is appropriate to define the term “natural,”

—If so, how the agency should define “natural,” and

—How the agency should determine appropriate use of the term on food labels.

“Appropriate” in this context translates as:  Should high fructose corn syrup be considered “natural?” (The FDA said yes in 2008).   How about GMOs? (the FDA’s position on GMOs is that they are not materially different from any other kind of food).

To file comments on these and other questions,

  • For electronic submissions, go to and search for docket number FDA-2014-N-1207.
  • For submissions by mail, use the following address. Be sure to include docket number FDA-2014-N-1207 on each page of your written comments.  Division of Dockets Management, HFA-305, Food and Drug Administration, 5630 Fishers Lane, Room 1061, Rockville, MD 20852
Nov 13 2015

Weekend Reading: Philosophy Comes to Dinner

Terence Cuneo, Andrew Chignell, Matthew C. Halteman, editors. Philosophy Comes to Dinner: Arguments over the Ethics of Eating.  Routledge, 2015.

I was happy to do a blurb for this book, having met Andrew Chignell and participated in an online course he ran at Cornell based on the book.

In recent years, I’ve seen an explosion of student and public interest in the politics and ethics of food.  It’s great to have philosophers contributing to this discussion, and this book explains why.

When thoughtful people differ about issues in food and nutrition, it isn’t always easy to decide what the right thing is to do.  Philosophers have ways of looking at controversial issues that help with such decisions.  This book lays out some typical arguments and explains how the major philosophical frameworks can help sharpen the discussion.

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