Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Dec 9 2016

Weekend reading: Chow Chop Suey

Anne Mendelson.  Chow Chop Suey: Food and the Chinese American Journey.  Columbia University Press, 2016.

When this book was sent to me for a blurb, my first thought was do we really need another book about Chinese food in America? As it turns out, we most definitely do.  I did the blurb, and happily:

Chow Chop Suey is an eye-opener, a book that will give everyone a deep appreciation of the exquisite skill required to produce authentic Chinese food and the sweep of history that brought Chinese cooking to America.  Anne Mendelson’s prodigious research has given us a highly respectful, insightful, refreshing, wonderfully written, and utterly compelling account of the role and plight of Chinese restaurant workers in this country.  I learned something new on every page.

An excerpt to give the flavor, from a section explaining the problems with translating Chinese cooking to American cooks.  In discussing an early attempt by Mrs. Yuenren Chao and her daughter Rulan:

Apparently Professor Chao had found Rulan’s translation too neatly compressed into proper usage and gone through it in a correctness-be-damned spirit, supplying back-formations with a more original take on Chinese nuances.  The result was sentences like “Roughly speaking, ch’ao [stir-frying] may be defined as a big-fire-shallow-fat-continual-stirring-quick-frying of cut-up material with wet seasoning.”  Anyone who has ever seen the action in a Chinese kitchen will recognize this as an unerring slap shot.

If, like me, you don’t think Chinese food is nearly as delicious as you remembered it from your childhood, you are right and this book explains why.

Dec 8 2016

Food Politics Alaska style: Supermarket prices

I visited the AC supermarket in Utqiagvik, the town formerly known as Barrow.

It could be anywhere USA, with anything you could possibly want, including fresh blueberries from Argentina.  How’s that for food miles?

Remember: all of this, no exceptions, comes in by cargo plane.

The produce section was lovely, with remarkably fresh foods at equally remarkable prices.

Would you believe the green leaf lettuce is $3.50, the baby carrots $7.29, and the romaine $4.69?  New York prices on steroids.

How about white potatoes at $3.29, red ones at $2.79, and baking potatoes at $18.99 for 10 pounds.

Or the reason I was so concerned about the tossed out school lunch milk cartons: $7.11 on sale.

How about bread on sale for $5.98 a loaf?

Just to make me feel at home, here are the sugary drinks down one entire aisle.  The 12-packs were on sale for $10.98, which must not be enough to discourage sales.

Are soft drinks a problem in Utqiagvik/Barrow?

Yes, they are.

The prevalence of obesity and diabetes is low, but rising steadily, and the Indian Health Service dentists told me that they see plenty of little kids with rotted teeth from drinking sodas and sweet juices in baby bottles.

The nutrition transition is taking place in America too, and for the same reasons that obesity and diabetes are becoming problems in the developing world.

Dec 7 2016

Food Politics Alaska Style: School Meals

I was in Alaska last week and got to spend a few days in Utqiagvik, the town formerly known as Barrow—thanks to an invitation from diabetes educators Angela Valdez and Laura Thomas.

Utqiagvik/Barrow is the northernmost city in the United States, several hundred miles above the arctic circle.  It has a population of about 4000, of which 60% are Inupiak, historically and today subsistence whale hunters.  

I visited the Fred Ipalook elementary school and observed its USDA federally subsidized lunch program for  100% of the kids. 

The meal consisted of a frozen juice cup (made from multiple juice concentrates), and previously frozen mashed potatoes, corn, and a steak patty.  All kids got the requisite carton of milk.

The lunch period was barely 20 minutes.  The littlest kids barely had time to eat the frozen juice, which they all ate first.

These kids don’t drink milk (for reasons of culture and lactose intolerance) and the milk cartons were mostly thrown out.   This seemed especially wasteful because milk is expensive here.  All foods are flown in and heavy ones cost a lot to send.

I wondered about alternative sources of vitamin D for kids who don’t drink milk (whale blubber for those who have it?).

Sunshine is not an option.  Here, for example, is my tourist photo taken at 11:00 a.m.  The sun never makes it over the horizon this time of year.

Tomorrow: Utqiagvik/Barrow supermarket and some comparison price shopping.

Dec 6 2016

GMO alfalfa, sugar beets, canola: U.S. trends

USDA has just released a report on the adoption of these three GM crops in the U.S.  Ordinarily, USDA just tracks corn, soybeans, and cotton.

Here’s a quick summary of trends in alfalfa (green), sugarbeets (red), and canola (blue):

Canola hovers at around 90% of total, sugar beets at 95%, and alfalfa (a perennial) is just getting started at a bit over 10%, but rising.

Why?  According to data summarized by USDA, yields are higher and herbicide use and labor costs are lower.

Dec 5 2016

Farewell Steve Clapp, and thank you for your legacy

On Friday December 2 I posted Steve Clapp’s Fixing the Food System in my series on Weekend Reading.  His daughter has just written to tell me that Steve died on December 1 of acute leukemia, which he learned he had just six weeks earlier.

I so hope that he was able to see his book, hold it in his hands, and celebrate its arrival.

Memorial service: January 28 at Wakefield Country Day School, Flint Hill, VA, 2:00 p.m. with reception following.  Doors open at 1:00.

In sadness, I am repeating the post in honor of his memory.

Steve Clapp.  Fixing the Food System: Changing How We Produce and Consume Food.  Praeger/ABC-Clio, 2017  (but published November 30).

I wrote the Foreword to this book.  Here’s what I said:

In this welcome addition to my library of books about food policy and politics, Steve Clapp’s Fixing the Food System reviews the past and current history of calls for a national food policy, the most contentious controversies over food and nutrition issues that have impeded development of such a policy, and the work of advocates to achieve one.   As this book makes clear, this history began decades ago.

I first became aware of the importance of federal food policies in the early 1980s when I was teaching nutrition to medical students at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF).  First-year students were eager to learn about nutrition, but for personal more than for professional reasons.  They wanted to know what they—and the patients whose health problems they were learning to treat—should eat.  But by the time they were residents, I could see their dietary concerns vanish under the daily demands of patient care.  Trying to advise about diets was too difficult, time-consuming, and financially unrewarding to be worth the trouble.  It seemed unreasonable to expect doctors to take the time needed to counsel individual patients about the prevention of diet-related conditions—heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and the like.  If nutritionists like me wanted to focus on disease prevention rather than treatment, we would have to advocate to change the food environment to make healthful food choices the easy choices—even better, the preferred choices.  This meant we would have to advocate for food and nutrition policies aimed at promoting public health.

In 1983, I co-authored an article with UCSF colleagues on the need for such policies.[i]  It began:

The U.S. government helps to assure an adequate food supply for Americans by sponsoring a wide variety of food, nutrition, and agricultural support programs.  These federal activities were developed in the absence of a clearly articulated national policy, a situation that has resulted in the fragmentation of government programs and their wide disbursement among numerous agencies and departments.

Our article quoted the earliest calls we could find for a national policy to address these problems.  In 1974, long before the term “food system” came into common use, the National Nutrition Consortium of four leading nutrition and food science societies[ii] argued for a national nutrition policy that would:

  • Assure an adequate, wholesome food supply, at reasonable cost, to meet the needs of all segments of the population.
  • Maintain food resources sufficient to meet emergency needs and to fulfill a responsible role as a nation in meeting world food needs.
  • Develop a level of sound public knowledge and responsible understanding of nutrition and foods that will promote maximal nutritional health.
  • Maintain a system of quality and safety control that justifies public confidence in its food supply.
  • Support research and education in foods and nutrition with adequate resources and reasoned priorities to solve important current problems and to permit exploratory basic research.

Whether offered as nutrition or food policies, these were and remain highly appropriate goals for an abundant, healthy, safe, and effective food system.

My co-authors and I went on to identify the constraints that then limited government action to achieve such goals.  Despite an emerging consensus on the basic elements of healthful diets—fruits and vegetables, balanced calories, not too much junk food (as Michael Pollan put it more recently, “eat food, not too much, mostly plants”[iii])—the greatest impediment to policy development was the controversy over the science of diet and health.  As our article understated this issue,

The effect on the nation’s health of food processing and other changes in the U.S. diet is controversial.  Salt, sugar, fiber, saturated fats, alcohol, caffeine, calories, vitamins, and food additives all elicit vigorous debate.

Today, more than 30 years later, we are still arguing about that science, and the scientific arguments still impede policy development.  In Fixing the Food System, Steve Clapp brings us up to the minute on federal progress (or the lack thereof) toward achieving a clearly articulated national food policy.  He begins and ends his book with the most recent policy proposals from leading food advocates Michael Pollan, of course, but also Mark Bittman, Olivier de Schutter, and Ricardo Salvador.  Their recent suggestions for improving our current food system reflect the many changes in agricultural production and food consumption that have taken place since 1974 but retain the basic elements of those earlier proposals.  Fixing the Food System explains why a national food policy is so badly needed and matters so much.

Steve Clapp is in a unique position to comment on food policy issues.  He’s been at the policy game for a long time.  I don’t remember when I first met him but I have been reading his work since he reported for the Community Nutrition Institute’s newsletter, Nutrition Week.  For those of us outside the Beltway in those pre-Internet days, Nutrition Week was a lifeline to the ins and outs of food politics in Washington, DC.   Later, when Steve moved to Food Chemical News, also—and still—a lifeline, I continued to read his reporting.  I often ran across him at meetings and hearings in Washington, DC and found it instructive to read what he wrote about those deliberations, not least because he got it right.

I say all this because he has been a keen observer of the food politics scene in Washington for decades and I can’t think of anyone who ought to know it better.  Fixing the Food System reviews the major debates he witnessed—the Dietary Guidelines, of course, but also attempts to set policy for food safety, marketing to children, hunger in America, and humane treatment of farm animals, among others.

Over the years, he also observed the work of policy advocates, and this book includes profiles of many individuals engaged in this work, some likely to be familiar to readers, whereas others may not.  Impossible as it is for me to judge whatever impact my own writing and advocacy might have, I am honored to be included among those whose work he presents.

Fixing the Food System describes political arguments over the kind of food system we ought to have and what an ideal system should accomplish.  But it is also about the importance of personal and political advocacy for a better food policies, those aimed squarely at promoting public health and environmental sustainability.

Advocacy makes a difference.  Advocates are scoring successes in improving one after another aspect of the food system.  In comparison to the 1970s or 1980s, we now have better food in supermarkets, more organic foods, more farmers’ markets, more nutritious food in schools, and impressive declines in consumption of sugary drinks.  My personal favorite among indicators of advocacy success—the change that makes me most optimistic—is the increasing number of college students who care deeply about food issues.  They are demanding local, seasonal, organic, and sustainably produced food in their cafeterias, and campus vegetable gardens.  And they are demanding and getting food studies courses and programs like the ones we started at New York University in 1996 that teach about how food is produced and consumed and the practical and symbolic meanings of food in modern culture and societies.  Today’s students are tomorrow’s advocates for healthier and more sustainable diets for everyone, everywhere, and for fixing what needs fixing in our food systems.  This book is a great starting place for this work.

–Marion Nestle, New York, June 2016

[i] Nestle M, Lee PR, Baron RB.  Nutrition policy update.  In: Weininger J, Briggs GM, eds.  Nutrition Update, Vol. 1.  New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1983:285-313.

[ii] National Nutrition Consortium, Inc.  Guidelines for a national nutrition policy.  Nutrition Reviews 1974;32(5):1253-157.  The Consortium included the American Institute of Nutrition, the American Society for Clinical Nutrition, the American Dietetic Association, and the Institute of Food Technology.

[iii] Pollan M.  In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.  Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual.  Penguin Press, 2008.

Dec 2 2016

Weekend reading: Fixing the Food System

Steve Clapp.  Fixing the Food System: Changing How We Produce and Consume Food.  ABC-Clio, 2017  (but it’s out).

I wrote the Foreword to this book.  Here’s what I said:

In this welcome addition to my library of books about food policy and politics, Steve Clapp’s Fixing the Food System reviews the past and current history of calls for a national food policy, the most contentious controversies over food and nutrition issues that have impeded development of such a policy, and the work of advocates to achieve one.   As this book makes clear, this history began decades ago.

I first became aware of the importance of federal food policies in the early 1980s when I was teaching nutrition to medical students at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF).  First-year students were eager to learn about nutrition, but for personal more than for professional reasons.  They wanted to know what they—and the patients whose health problems they were learning to treat—should eat.  But by the time they were residents, I could see their dietary concerns vanish under the daily demands of patient care.  Trying to advise about diets was too difficult, time-consuming, and financially unrewarding to be worth the trouble.  It seemed unreasonable to expect doctors to take the time needed to counsel individual patients about the prevention of diet-related conditions—heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and the like.  If nutritionists like me wanted to focus on disease prevention rather than treatment, we would have to advocate to change the food environment to make healthful food choices the easy choices—even better, the preferred choices.  This meant we would have to advocate for food and nutrition policies aimed at promoting public health.

In 1983, I co-authored an article with UCSF colleagues on the need for such policies.[i]  It began:

The U.S. government helps to assure an adequate food supply for Americans by sponsoring a wide variety of food, nutrition, and agricultural support programs.  These federal activities were developed in the absence of a clearly articulated national policy, a situation that has resulted in the fragmentation of government programs and their wide disbursement among numerous agencies and departments.

Our article quoted the earliest calls we could find for a national policy to address these problems.  In 1974, long before the term “food system” came into common use, the National Nutrition Consortium of four leading nutrition and food science societies[ii] argued for a national nutrition policy that would:

  • Assure an adequate, wholesome food supply, at reasonable cost, to meet the needs of all segments of the population.
  • Maintain food resources sufficient to meet emergency needs and to fulfill a responsible role as a nation in meeting world food needs.
  • Develop a level of sound public knowledge and responsible understanding of nutrition and foods that will promote maximal nutritional health.
  • Maintain a system of quality and safety control that justifies public confidence in its food supply.
  • Support research and education in foods and nutrition with adequate resources and reasoned priorities to solve important current problems and to permit exploratory basic research.

Whether offered as nutrition or food policies, these were and remain highly appropriate goals for an abundant, healthy, safe, and effective food system.

My co-authors and I went on to identify the constraints that then limited government action to achieve such goals.  Despite an emerging consensus on the basic elements of healthful diets—fruits and vegetables, balanced calories, not too much junk food (as Michael Pollan put it more recently, “eat food, not too much, mostly plants”[iii])—the greatest impediment to policy development was the controversy over the science of diet and health.  As our article understated this issue,

The effect on the nation’s health of food processing and other changes in the U.S. diet is controversial.  Salt, sugar, fiber, saturated fats, alcohol, caffeine, calories, vitamins, and food additives all elicit vigorous debate.

Today, more than 30 years later, we are still arguing about that science, and the scientific arguments still impede policy development.  In Fixing the Food System, Steve Clapp brings us up to the minute on federal progress (or the lack thereof) toward achieving a clearly articulated national food policy.  He begins and ends his book with the most recent policy proposals from leading food advocates Michael Pollan, of course, but also Mark Bittman, Olivier de Schutter, and Ricardo Salvador.  Their recent suggestions for improving our current food system reflect the many changes in agricultural production and food consumption that have taken place since 1974 but retain the basic elements of those earlier proposals.  Fixing the Food System explains why a national food policy is so badly needed and matters so much.

Steve Clapp is in a unique position to comment on food policy issues.  He’s been at the policy game for a long time.  I don’t remember when I first met him but I have been reading his work since he reported for the Community Nutrition Institute’s newsletter, Nutrition Week.  For those of us outside the Beltway in those pre-Internet days, Nutrition Week was a lifeline to the ins and outs of food politics in Washington, DC.   Later, when Steve moved to Food Chemical News, also—and still—a lifeline, I continued to read his reporting.  I often ran across him at meetings and hearings in Washington, DC and found it instructive to read what he wrote about those deliberations, not least because he got it right.

I say all this because he has been a keen observer of the food politics scene in Washington for decades and I can’t think of anyone who ought to know it better.  Fixing the Food System reviews the major debates he witnessed—the Dietary Guidelines, of course, but also attempts to set policy for food safety, marketing to children, hunger in America, and humane treatment of farm animals, among others.

Over the years, he also observed the work of policy advocates, and this book includes profiles of many individuals engaged in this work, some likely to be familiar to readers, whereas others may not.  Impossible as it is for me to judge whatever impact my own writing and advocacy might have, I am honored to be included among those whose work he presents.

Fixing the Food System describes political arguments over the kind of food system we ought to have and what an ideal system should accomplish.  But it is also about the importance of personal and political advocacy for a better food policies, those aimed squarely at promoting public health and environmental sustainability.

Advocacy makes a difference.  Advocates are scoring successes in improving one after another aspect of the food system.  In comparison to the 1970s or 1980s, we now have better food in supermarkets, more organic foods, more farmers’ markets, more nutritious food in schools, and impressive declines in consumption of sugary drinks.  My personal favorite among indicators of advocacy success—the change that makes me most optimistic—is the increasing number of college students who care deeply about food issues.  They are demanding local, seasonal, organic, and sustainably produced food in their cafeterias, and campus vegetable gardens.  And they are demanding and getting food studies courses and programs like the ones we started at New York University in 1996 that teach about how food is produced and consumed and the practical and symbolic meanings of food in modern culture and societies.  Today’s students are tomorrow’s advocates for healthier and more sustainable diets for everyone, everywhere, and for fixing what needs fixing in our food systems.  This book is a great starting place for this work.

–Marion Nestle, New York, June 2016

[i] Nestle M, Lee PR, Baron RB.  Nutrition policy update.  In: Weininger J, Briggs GM, eds.  Nutrition Update, Vol. 1.  New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1983:285-313.

[ii] National Nutrition Consortium, Inc.  Guidelines for a national nutrition policy.  Nutrition Reviews 1974;32(5):1253-157.  The Consortium included the American Institute of Nutrition, the American Society for Clinical Nutrition, the American Dietetic Association, and the Institute of Food Technology.

[iii] Pollan M.  In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.  Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual.  Penguin Press, 2008.

Nov 30 2016

FDA seeks input on issues related to dietary fiber

You might think that fiber simply refers to components of food plants that cannot be digested by human enzymes and are excreted in feces.

No such luck.

Like everything else in nutrition, fiber is complicated, not least because intestinal bacteria can digest some of those components and produce nutrients we can use.

In May, the FDA said that naturally occurring dietary fibers such as those found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains—and 7 specific isolated or synthetic fibers—could be declared on the label under “Dietary Fiber.”

The FDA defines fiber as (no, I’m not kidding):

non-digestible soluble and insoluble carbohydrates (with three or more monomeric units), and lignin that are intrinsic and intact in plants; isolated or synthetic non-digestible carbohydrates (with three or more monomeric units) determined by FDA to have physiological effects that are beneficial to human health.

The isolated or synthetic non-digestible carbohydrates said to have beneficial effects are:

  1. [beta]-glucan soluble fiber
  2. psyllium husk
  3. cellulose
  4. guar gum
  5. pectin
  6. locust bean gum
  7. hydroxypropyl methylcellulose

 

Cows and termites can digest cellulose.  We can’t.  But the FDA has evidence that they do other good things, for example, like lowering cholesterol.

The makers of processed foods love using these fiber additives for their various texturizing properties—and also because they can claim them as fiber on the label.

Now the FDA wants help in understanding whether 26 other kinds of isolated and synthetic fibers qualify as “Dietary Fiber” on food labels and, if so, what their beneficial effects on health might be.

The mind boggles.  This is another reason to stick with fruits, vegetables, and grains.

The comment period for the Request for Information opens on November 23, 2016 and will be open for 45 days.

For Additional Information:

Nov 29 2016

FDA clarifies what’s happening with menu labeling

Remember menu labeling—the amazing number of calories posted on your favorite items at chain restaurants?  For those of you who don’t live in New York City or other places with calorie labels, they are supposedly coming soon to places near you.

Here’s FDA-speak for what is happening:

In December 2015, section 747 of the 2016 Omnibus Bill prohibited FDA from using appropriated funding to implement, administer, or enforce the menu labeling requirements until one year after FDA finalized the draft September 2015 menu labeling guidance. While FDA originally issued a statement indicating the Omnibus Bill extended the compliance date, FDA is clarifying that the compliance date remains December 1, 2016, but, consistent with the Omnibus Bill, FDA will not begin enforcing the final rule until May 5, 2017, which is one year after the date that the Notice of Availability for the final guidance published in the Federal Register.  For more information see: Menu and Vending Machines Labeling Requirements.

Got that?

Really, these are worth waiting for.

Did you really want to eat that 650-calorie muffin?

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