Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jul 27 2017

The CDC Nominee’s Links to Coca-Cola

Last Sunday’s New York Times had a front-page story on Coca-Cola’s relationship to the current nominee for director of the CDC.  I’m quoted in it and soon got this request:

Good morning, Marion:

I saw this Times news coverage in which you’re quoted.

Given this news about reversing the CDC’s position on aligning with the private sector on sugar sweetened beverages, I’m wondering if you’d be game to elaborate on this and provide your perspective on it.

Sure.  Happy to.

The New York Times story on Coca-Cola’s connections to Brenda Fitzgerald, President Trump’s nominee to head the CDC, goes right into the book I’m writing.  The book is about food, beverage, and supplement industry funding of nutrition research and practice and with luck will be published by Basic Books late in 2018.

Fitzgerald was health commissioner for the state of Georgia and at first glance looks well qualified to head the CDC.  But a health advocacy group, US Right to Know, has had a long-standing interest in Coca-Cola’s cozy relationships with CDC—both Coke and CDC are in Atlanta, after all—and at some point obtained emails through FOIA that explain just how cozy.

Here’s what especially got my attention in the Times article :

  • While she was health commissioner, Fitzgerald accepted a million-dollar grant from Coca-Cola for an obesity program focused exclusively on physical activity—for sure, not on the health benefits of drinking less Coke (focusing on physical activity has long been a deliberate strategy of this company).
  • People associated with the activity program said “Coke had no influence over the program.”  Of course that’s what they think.  Much research shows that recipients of industry funding do not recognize the influence.  Such influence is unintentional, unconscious, and invariably denied.
  • When the previous CDC director, Tom Frieden, canceled Coca-Cola’s funding of obesity programs (he said it was unjustifiable “to have Coca-Cola run an obesity campaign that had an exclusive focus on physical activity), he asked company officials if they would be willing to fund something in “neutral space” like transportation or water programs.  Not a chance.

Food, beverage, and supplement companies are happy to fund research with a high probability of supporting marketing objectives.   Industry-funded research almost invariably comes out with results favorable to the sponsor’s commercial interests.

It’s unreasonable to expect otherwise.  Food companies are not public health agencies; they are businesses expected to generate profits and returns to shareholders—that is their #1 priority.

The moral for public health: don’t take the money.

 

 

 

Jul 26 2017

Uh oh: Papayas with Salmonella

First cantaloupe, now papayas.

The CDC has opened up a homepage on Salmonella infections associated with eating Yellow Maradol Papayas.

Here’s the count so far:

  • 47 Cases
  • 12 States
  • 12 Hospitalizations
  • 1 Deaths

Food Safety News has the story.  And provides the label you had best avoid.

As usual, by the time the CDC finds out about outbreaks, cases have slowed down (it takes time to find them).

This one is affecting people in states all over the country.

Papayas grow on trees.  Salmonella are animal bacteria.  Monkeys?  Arboreal sloths?

A more likely explanation is that the fruit came in contact with human waste or dirty hands sometime during collection, transport, or processing.

What to do?

Bacteria are on the rind.  They get on the fruit itself when you cut through it.  You can try scrubbing the outside before you peel the papaya.  The CDC recommends discarding it and cleaning your kitchen carefully.

Better preventive controls?  They are on the books (the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act).

Enforcement?  Not unless Congress appropriates the funds.

Why won’t it?  FDA appropriations go through agricultural appropriations, not health.  Do ag committees care about food safety?

I wish.

Addition:  Food Safety News reports that the distributor of the papayas has started recalling them, but not publicly.

Jul 25 2017

What’s the story on phthalates in Mac & Cheese?

A reporter asks:

I was wondering if you could share your thoughts with me about the new study finding phthalates in boxed Mac & Cheese.  Should consumers be afraid of just Mac & Cheese, considering phthalates are ubiquitous and found in almost every food we consume? What are your recommendations?

Here’s what I said:

The moral of this story is to eat a healthy diet and you don’t have to worry about things like phthalates.  What is a healthy diet?  It’s one in which most of the calories come from relatively unprocessed fruits, vegetables, and grains, and heavily processed foods—like boxed Mac & Cheese—are kept to a minimum.  The phthalate-in-Mac-and-Cheese problem is a processing issue.  Phthalates leach in during processing.  You love Mac and Cheese?  Great.  Make your own.

What’s going on here?

For starters, I love Mac & Cheese, although not so much for the kind in boxes.

In case you don’t know much about this dish, check out the Hartman group’s useful historical Infographic.

As for phthalates:

So why am I not more upset about them?  They are easy to avoid.  Just don’t eat foods in boxes.

David Katz has an excellent piece that puts phthalates in a wider dietary context:

This whole topic represents risk distortion, and it’s something we tend to do all the time. We all know, or certainly should, that a dietary pattern of wholesome, whole foods, mostly plants, is monumentally good for us. Such a diet not only minimizes bad chemicals in the food we eat, it – more importantly- minimizes bad food in the food we eat!

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Jul 24 2017

The food industry vs. menu labeling: the saga continues

Remember menu labeling?  The idea started in New York City in 2008.  Here is one of my early posts on it.  My point in mentioning this: if you care about such things, menu labeling is useful, fun, and effective if you pay attention to it.

Despite a lot of research suggesting otherwise, menu labeling must work.  How else to explain industry’s ferocious and unrelenting opposition to it?

The latest is a lawsuit filed by the Food Marketing Institute and the National Association of Convenience Stores against New York City, which announced that it plans to enforce the regulations it has had in effect for nine years—even though the FDA has delayed national implementation once again until 2018.

To get some idea of what fast-food places are upset about, it helps to check in with the American Pizza Community, the friendly-sounding, but actually highly aggressive trade association for fast-food pizza places.

Here, for example, is its congratulatory statement to the FDA for delaying compliance with the law for another year:

The American Pizza Community welcomes the important step by the Food and Drug Administration toward applying common sense to federal menu labeling regulations…The previous approach threatened to impose excessive burdens on thousands of small businesses without achieving meaningful improvements in educating consumers. The American Pizza Community commends the Administration’s decision to extend the compliance date to May 7, 2018 and its request to collect comments for reducing the regulatory burden and increasing flexibility in implementation methods.  We support menu labeling and look forward to working with policy makers to implement a permanent solution that provides consumers with information and enables small business owners to comply with flexibility while continuing to thrive and create jobs.

By “support,” the pizza folks mean the “Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act of 2017.

Instead of requiring calories to be posted next to the menu item, this bill would allow nutrition information to be available “solely by a remote-access menu (e.g., an Internet menu) for food establishments where the majority of orders are placed by customers who are off-premises.”

Also, “an establishment’s nutrient content disclosures may vary from actual nutrient content if the disclosures comply with current standards for reasonable basis.

The pizza industry has the Wall Street Journal on its side.

The Food and Drug Administration can’t possibly fulfill all of the responsibilities it claims to have, and here’s one way the Trump Administration can set better priorities: Direct the agency to end its effort to inform Americans that pizza contains calories.

I guess the hope is that if they delay long enough, menu labeling will quietly disappear.

CSPI, however, has other ideas.  It filed a lawsuit to force the FDA to implement the regulations.

This lawsuit asserts that the delay of the menu labeling requirement—published without prior notice or an opportunity for comment, one day before the menu labeling rule was supposed to take effect—is illegal and must be vacated.  Since the regulated industry was ready to comply before the delay, it can promptly comply with the menu labeling rule once reinstated and, thus, begin to provide this important health information to the public without delay, according to the complaint.

Recall that menu labeling was authorized by Congress as part of the Affordable Care Act in 2010.  No wonder CSPI wants the rules implemented right away.

The ACA is still with us—so far.

Jul 21 2017

Healthy Food America’s resources for advocates

Healthy Food America is relatively new on the food advocacy scene but I am always impressed by the useful resources it produces.

It is my go-to place for information about soda taxes and other ways to reduce sugars and sugary drinks.

It offers, for example:

Useful?  Yes!

Jul 19 2017

Water: With added hydrogen, oxygen, or adjusted acidity

I received this inquiry from a reporter wanting a comment:

Hi, Marion, I’m doing a story about the trend of waters that claim to have extra health benefits because of their added “molecular oxygen” or “molecular hydrogen.”

Another reporter asked

I’m looking for comment on whether regularly drinking bottled water with a pH as low as 4 could stress the system, etc….the story I’m writing goes into more detail on the how and why of low-pH waters and how they may or may not affect health.

My first reaction: you have to be kidding.

I think these waters are hilarious—products of brilliant marketing.

The basic facts:

  • Water is two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen, neutral in acidity.  The body has a terrific buffering system to keep the blood at exactly the right level of neutrality (pH 7.35-7.45).
  • Stomach contents are extremely acid: pH 1.5-3.5.
  • Gases in water quickly equilibrate with air.

At the Fancy Food Show, I picked up a plastic pouch of hydrogen-infused water

clinically proven [no references or data given] to help reduce inflammation and is a powerful source of antioxidants.  It’s perfect for your workout, beauty, and overall daily routine.”

This product also claims to provide anti-inflammatory benefits, relieve fatigue and jet lag, improve fitness performance, boost energy, and enhance circulation and cell function.

I asked what it tasted like.  Water, they said.

It did.

  • The upside: harmless.
  • The downside: silly.

Caveat emptor.

 

Jul 18 2017

Vatican says bread for Eucharist cannot be gluten-free

Food politics generally doesn’t usually get into matters of religion, but sometimes has to.   Today’s issue is whether bread for the Catholic Eucharist can be gluten-free.

No, it can’t.

As the New York Times explains,

The unleavened bread that Roman Catholics use in the celebration of Mass must contain some gluten, even if only a trace amount, according to a new Vatican directive.

The directive…affirms an existing policy. But it may help to relieve some of the confusion surrounding church doctrine on gluten…The issue is especially urgent for people with celiac disease…or for those with other digestive conditions that make them vulnerable even to small amounts of gluten… “The confusion can be great when these ‘breads’ are advertised as gluten-free alongside what are described as gluten-free but are in fact low-gluten altar breads,” according to the Catholic Church in England and Wales. “The confusion can also be the cause of great upset both to those Catholics who are allergic to gluten and to those who minister to them.”

People with celiac disease cannot eat wheat, rye, or barley, which contain gluten proteins.  If they do,  the gluten leads to a toxic product that causes severe damage to the intestinal tract and other serious symptoms.

About 1 out of every 133 people has this condition.  This prevalence has remained constant over time.  But the number of people consuming gluten-free diets has greatly increased.  This could be because people just feel better not eating bread and pasta, or maybe because their celiac disease has just not been diagnosed.

The Hartman group has a useful Infographic about gluten-free trends.

Fortunately, lots of gluten-free products are now available, even if some Catholic jurisdictions forbid them.

NPR talks about one option option for gluten-avoiding Catholics:

That is where the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration of Clyde, Mo., come in. After a decade of work, they came up with a Vatican-approved wafer, using wheat starch and water. It contains just .001 percent gluten, an amount low enough for most celiac sufferers…They sell about 15,000 breads per week…”We believe Communion is the actual body of Christ and that’s the center point of our liturgy as Catholics — being able to receive Jesus.

What about other religions?  My inside source at the Episcopal Grace Cathedral in San Francisco tells me that its services use

bread rather than wafers for communion, and almost always have a gluten-free alternative on hand (the bread is baked fresh for this purpose by the Bread Ministry!).

The purpose of doing this is “to make everyone feel welcome and included.”

Amen to that.

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Jul 17 2017

Food-Navigator-USA Special Edition: Paleo Diets

Here’s another one of this site’s roundup of articles on specific topics, written from the perspective of food companies.  Paleo sells.

Special Edition: Paleo: Fad, Trend, or Movement?

Definitions vary, but most advocates of the Paleo diet think the dietary rot set in once humans stopped hunting and gathering and started to grow crops and raise animals for food. So grains, legumes, and dairy are typically off limits (although some Paleo fans say grass-fed dairy is OK). While critics say any diet that eliminates major food groups should be treated with caution, the number of products featuring Paleo claims and certifications is growing rapidly, and many retailers and manufacturers are now looking at how to tap into the trend, which some market researchers see as the next evolution of low carb, and gluten-free.

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