Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Dec 19 2014

Farewell to the Colber(t) Repor(t). Alas.

Food Politics will mourn the passing of the Colbert Report.

What, you might ask, did the Colbert Report have to do with Food Politics?

Plenty.

For one thing, I was lucky (well, nonplussed) to appear on the show in August 2009.

The topic?  Sugar trade policy.

Oh.  Of course.

Screenshot 2014-12-19 09.01.08

I explained what this was about in a blog post.

Better, Colbert did occasional pieces: Thought for Food.

Eater has collected them all in one place (thanks to Eleanor Talbot West for sending).

Or, if you want to watch them separately…

It was great while it lasted.  I will miss the brilliant satire.

Addition: A reader just sent this link to Colbert’s in-character testimony to Congress on agricultural labor issues (from the expressions on the faces of the people sitting behind him, they must have been taking him seriously).

Dec 18 2014

The Healthy Nation Coalition doesn’t like the Dietary Guidelines. But what does it want?

This is my week to be talking about the Dietary Guidelines, apparently.  Yesterday’s Politico Morning Agriculture, a news source on which I greatly depend, noted yet another attack on the Dietary Guidelines, this one from a group called  The Healthy Nation Coalition.

The Coalition wrote a letter to the secretaries of USDA and HHS, the agencies sponsoring the Guidelines, with many complaints about process and ineffectiveness.

I had never heard of this group, so I went to its website and laughed when I saw this graph—a terrific example of why epidemiologists insist that association does not necessarily say anything about causation.

Screenshot 2014-12-17 10.46.00

 

The implication here is that the Dietary Guidelines either cause obesity (something patently absurd) or have had no effect on its prevalence (something only to be expected given the other changes in society that predisposed to obesity beginning in the early 1980s).

If anything, the Dietary Guidelines are a result of those forces in society, not their cause.

I have my own issues with Dietary Guidelines (see Fo0d Politics), mainly about the use of advice that is euphemistic (“choose lean meats”) or incomprehensible (reduce SoFAS—solid fats and added sugars), and their focus on nutrients (fat, sugar, salt) rather than foods.

But I can’t understand what this Coalition is about or what it wants.

Its website says the Coalition formed because

A sense of community has arisen around questioning our current approach to food and nutrition. Healthy Nation Coalition has its beginnings in the ancestral health, Weston A. Price Foundation, and low-carbohydrate nutrition communities.

I understand what the Coalition does not want.  It

suggests that the 2010 Guidelines are not appropriate for population-wide diet recommendations, especially with regard to restrictions on dietary fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and salt.

indicates that the 2010 Guidelines may lead to increased risk of weight gain, diabetes, and chronic disease in many populations.

indicates that reducing intake of sugars and starches has health benefits.

indicates that adequate, complete protein is a critical part of the adult diet and that many adults benefit from intakes above current minimum recommendations.

Here’s what it says it wants

the Healthy Nation Coalition proposes that this process be removed from the USDA and HHS and given to one or more independent agencies, offices, or entities that can create dietary guidance that is without bias and responsive to the needs of the people of America.

Really?  Like what?

The “ask” in the letter is this:

It is the duty of USDA and DHHS leadership to end the use of controversial, unsuccessful and discriminatory dietary recommendations. USDA and DHHS leadership must refuse to accept any DGA that fail to establish federal nutrition policy based on the foundation of good health: adequate essential nutrition from wholesome, nourishing foods. It is time to create DGA that work for all Americans.

But what would they look like?

I don’t recognize any of the names of the individuals listed as part of the Coalition.

Can anyone explain to me what this group wants and is about?

Dec 16 2014

More pressures on Dietary Guidelines: The “Back to Balance” Coalition

I had to laugh when I read Andy Bellatti’s blog post on the latest food industry front group, the Back to Balance Coalition.

A few years ago, Andy started a group called Dietitians for Professional Integrity to advocate for greater financial transparency and ethical sponsorships within the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Dietitians for Professional Integrity does not believe that it’s a good idea for the country’s largest organization of nutrition professionals to be sponsored by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, and other Big Food giants.

I could not agree more.  And the same could be said of the American Society for Nutrition.  See, for example, one of its recent sponsored sessions.

Friday, December 5, 7:00 am – 8:45 am

Sponsored Satellite Program and Breakfast:

Defining Moderation: Should There Be Dietary Guidance for Chocolate?

Sponsored and organized by the National Confectioners Association

As I keep pointing out, you can’t make this stuff up.

But to return to the Back to Balance Coalition.

The Back to Balance Coalition brings together food and beverage organizations, health advocacy groups, and nutrition professionals who are supporters of balance, variety and moderation in dietary guidelines. The group aims to bring forward common sense, practicality, economic, and cultural relevance into dietary guidance.

As Andy puts it, “Leave it to the food industry to appoint itself as the sole definer of what constitutes balance, variety, and moderation.”

The beleaguered 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, as I explained yesterday, is under pressure from Congress to avoid saying anything about how food production and consumption might affect the environment, despite estimates that agriculture accounts for 15% to 20% of greenhouse gas emissions.

The Back to Balance Coalition has a different agenda.  It does not want the Dietary Guidelines to say a word about eating less of any foods its members sell.

Instead, it wants the Guidelines to talk about choice [my translations follow]:

  • Empowering choice is more effective than restricting it [so you will keep choosing our highly profitable junk foods].
  • All foods can fit within a healthful, overall dietary pattern if consumed in moderation with appropriate portion size and combined with physical activity [please ignore the amounts of money we spend to market our unhealthiest products].
  • Restricting food choices by classifying specific foods as “good” or “bad” is often overly simplistic and may foster unhealthy eating behaviors [you might not buy our products!].
  • Guiding Americans on which nutrient rich food choices to make versus not to make, and focusing on portion guidance to provide “how to” practical advice, can help people make wise food choices within the context of the total diet [never mind the fortunes we sink into promoting supersize junk foods].

To the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee: Courage!

 

 

 

 

Dec 15 2014

2015 Dietary Guidelines: more congressional micromanagement

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is meeting today by teleconference.

One issue, no doubt, will be the House directive in the appropriations bill (page 50 of this draft):

Dietary Guidelines.—The Committee is concerned that the advisory committee for the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans is considering issues outside of the nutritional focus of the panel. Specifically, the advisory committee is showing an interest in incorporating sustainability, climate change, and other environmental factors and production practices into their criteria for establishing the next dietary recommendations, which is clearly outside of the scope of the panel. The Committee directs the Secretary to ensure that the advisory committee focuses only on nutrient and dietary recommendations based upon sound nutrition science and not pursue an environmental agenda. Should environmental or production factors be included in the panel’s recommendations to USDA and
the Department of Health and Human Services, the Committee expects the Secretary to reject their inclusion in the final 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Amazing, how Congress thinks it knows more about nutrition thank nutrition scientists.

Let’s grant that Congress knows what the political fallout will be from these guidelines.

NPR interviewed Kate Clancy, who has been arguing for the need to include environmental considerations in dietary guidelines for years.

In 1986, nutritionist Kate Clancy, then teaching at Syracuse University, co-authored [with Joan Gussow] an article called “Dietary Guidelines for Sustainability.” It was addressed to her colleagues, Clancy says. She wanted them “to take a broader view of what they were advising people to do, with regard to their diet. It wasn’t just nutrients.” She urged them to consider not just what foods contribute to personal health, but also what types of food “contribute to the protection of our natural resources.”

Makes sense, no?

Too bad politics trumps science in this Congress.

Dec 12 2014

The loss of pleasure caused by menu labeling?

Several readers alerted me to a Reuters article about the FDA’s “lost pleasure” analysis of the effects of the new menu labeling rules.

U.S. health regulators estimate that consumers will suffer up to $5.27 billion in “lost pleasure” over 20 years when calorie counts on restaurant menus discourage people from ordering french fries, brownies and other high-calorie favorites.

The lost-pleasure analysis, which is criticized by some leading economists and public health groups, was tucked into new regulations published last month by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration…Public health advocates alerted Reuters to the inclusion of the analysis, which they say makes such regulations more vulnerable to challenges by industry because it narrows the gap between the government’s projections of a regulation’s benefits and costs. Amit Narang, an attorney at Public Citizen, said the lost pleasure calculation could help companies or trade groups to challenge the menu rule in court.

I searched the FDA’s Federal Register notice but could not find the word “pleasure” anywhere in it.

No wonder.  I was looking at the wrong document using the wrong search term.

The right document is the FDA’s impact analysis of menu labeling. The correct term is “consumer surplus” (see page 92).

If consumers respond to this information [calorie labels] by reducing consumption there will be a loss in consumer welfare associated with substitution away from certain food…We acknowledge that the reduction in consumer surplus, as a proportion of gross benefits, could range from 0 to 100 percent. Due to limitations in available data regarding the degree to which consumer surplus is lost in the face of consumption changes as a result of menu labeling…we simply adjust gross benefits downward by the midpoint of the range, or 50 percent, uniformly distributed between 10 and 90 percent, and estimate the loss in consumer surplus to range from $2.2 billion to $5.27 billion.

The readers who sent this to me were incredulous that an economic value—in the billions, yet—would be assigned to eating less junk food.

I had heard this before.  Some years ago, I gave a talk on obesity to a conference of agricultural economists.  During the Q and A, I was asked how I accounted for the costs of the loss of pleasure people might feel for not being able to eat so much.

I did not have a good answer to that question then, and I still don’t, other than suggesting that the pleasures of health easily compensate for those costs.

But you have to love the way economists think, no?

Dec 11 2014

Congress again micromanages nutrition standards

Congress, in its infinite wisdom, is again using the appropriations process to micromanage nutrition standards for school meals and the WIC program, against the advice of the Institute of Medicine and other health experts.

The new appropriations bill includes several provisions relevant to issues I discuss frequently here.  By all reports, this is the best that can be expected, given the makeup of this Congress.

  • Section 751 grants exemptions to states from the whole grain requirements for school meals “Provided, That school food authorities demonstrate hardship…in procuring specific whole grain products which are acceptable to the students and compliant with the whole grain-rich requirements (my translation: forget whole grains and recommendations by health experts.  They are way too much trouble).
  • Section 752 says that no federal funds may be used to pay the salaries of people doing work “that would require a reduction in the quantity of sodium contained in federally reimbursed meals, foods, and snacks sold in schools…until the latest scientific research establishes the reduction is beneficial for children (We know more about the effects of salt on health than do health professionals and expert committees).
  • Section 753 says Congress won’t pay the salaries of anybody who tries to “exclude or restrict, he eligibility of any variety of fresh, whole, or cut vegetables (except for vegetables with added sugars, fats, or oils) from being provided under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (no, you can’t keep white potatoes out of the WIC program).

Chalk these up to effective lobbying by the School Nutrition Association, makers of salty snacks, and the potato lobby.

The good news, such as it is:

  • Congress did not roll back most of the USDA’s food standards for school meals.
  • It only cut SNAP by $400 million.
  • It only cut WIC by $93 million.

These must be considered enormous victories, given the circumstances.

Addition, December 12:  The Hagstrom Report quotes USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack:

On the provision to require the availability of white potatoes in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), Vilsack said, “With all due respect to the politicians who make the law, I have more confidence in pediatricians and more confidence in medical science than in political science.” 

 

 

Dec 9 2014

FoodNavigator-USA’s special edition on sodium reduction

I like the special editions of the business newsletter, FoodNavigator USA.  This especially big one collects its recent articles on sodium reduction—a big issue these days.   These give a good idea of how food companies are dealing with pressures to lower their salt content.

It’s expensive, risky, and difficult, but manufacturers have made huge progress on sodium reduction in recent years. But how much further can they go, and where is the return on investment if consumers are at best indifferent to their efforts, or at worst downright suspicious?

This special edition explores the challenges of sodium reduction, and asks whether it’s falling down the food policy agenda in the US, but also provides examples of creative solutions that can help manufacturers reduce it without compromising on taste or functionality.

Is sodium reduction falling down the food policy agenda?  Four years ago sodium was public enemy #1. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) was calling for the FDA to modify the GRAS status of salt and slash the daily value for sodium to 1,500mg, and the food industry was on high alert. Today, sugar is the new bogeyman, and while sodium intakes remain stubbornly high, the FDA has yet to issue voluntary guidelines. So is sodium reduction falling down the food policy agenda?

AHA education campaign pressures food manufacturers to reduce sodium: The American Heart Association says its recently launched consumer education campaign encouraging Americans to “break up with excess salt” seeks to “build an army of passionate and willing supporters” to pressure food manufacturers to reduce sodium in packaged foods.

Advanced technology eases sodium reduction efforts: Advances in technology can help firms more quickly and easily reduce sodium in breads and grain-based packaged foods – a previously repetitive and expensive trial and error process, according to Janice Johnson, food applications leader in salt at Cargill.

Will proposals to mandate potassium labeling on the Nutrition Facts panel give potassium-chloride based sodiumreplacers a shot in the arm?  Some food manufacturers still worry that using potassium chloride to replace salt in their recipes might compromise their clean label credentials. But the FDA’s recent proposal to include potassium as one of the nutrients that must be listed on the Nutrition Facts panel is helping to change that mindset, says NuTek Salt.

Sodium reduction: has all the low-hanging fruit been plucked?  Food manufacturers are under increasing pressure to reduce sodium, but surveys suggest many shoppers are, well, not that bothered. So where does this leave firms plugging sodium reduction solutions?

Reformulation by stealth: Just 2% of new launches in salty snacks make overt sodium reduction claims: The vast majority of sodium reduction activity in the US food industry is now being conducted by ‘stealth’ in order to avoid alienating shoppers, according to Tate & Lyle.

Industry to FDA: Think again before setting category-by-category sodium reduction targets.  Two leading food industry associations have urged the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) not to set category-by-category limits for sodium amid rumors that the agency is planning to outline a new sodium reduction strategy this year.

Can seaweed become the ultimate salt replacer – and why hasn’t it yet?  Seaweed is well-researched, sustainable and effective, according to an expert. So what is stopping it from really taking off as a salt replacer?

Mandatory salt reduction could save more in healthcare costs: Study.  Mandatory salt reduction may save more in healthcare costs than the current voluntary system, say the authors of a study published in Value in Health.

Myth busting? High salt intake may not increase thirst:  It is commonly believed that consumption of salty foods increases thirst, and could be a reason for increased consumption of sugary soft drinks and alcoholic beverages. But just how true is this notion?

Are salt reduction efforts reflected in heart health?  Salt reduction efforts around the world are making progress – but how has lower salt consumption affected health?

Salt substitutes help reduce blood pressure.  Efforts to reduce consumer blood pressure and risk of hypertension by replacing normal salt with blends of potassium chloride, magnesium sulfate and less sodium chloride are working, but may be more effective in countries where the majority of salt comes from home cooking, according to a meta-analysis in the December American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

‘Quiet’ salt reduction is vital – but gourmet salt growth may stifle industry efforts.  Salt replacer use is growing but low salt claims are not, as food companies favour a ‘quiet’ approach – but growth in gourmet table salts may threaten salt reduction efforts.

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Dec 8 2014

Sugary drink advocacy, Mexican style

The creatively active Mexican advocacy group, El Poder del Consumidor, launched a new video take-off on Coca-Cola ads—“Haz feliz a alguien” (“Make someone happy”)—with a demonstration on Mexico City’s Zocalo in front of the National Cathedral.

 

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They sent along a translation of the video:

What would make you happy this Christmas?

That my dad were here with us.

PLAY SPORTS/EXERCISE (posted at the bottom of the screen to mimic Coke ads here)

That my mom could see her grandson.

PLAY SPORTS/EXERCISE

That my dad could play soccer with me.

PLAY SPORTS/EXERCISE

Make someone happy this Christmas.

50,000 people in Mexico are blind because of diabetes.

Someone’s limb is amputated every 7 minutes because of diabetes.

In Mexico, 66 people die each day from drinking sugary drinks.

Make someone happy.

Share this video and remove soda from your table.

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