Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jun 27 2016

Israel’s solution to peanut allergies

While in Israel, I kept hearing that peanut allergies are virtually unknown in that country.  Nobody I met knows anyone with problems with peanuts—not Jews, Arabs, children, nor adults.

The explanation?

Bamba (and its Arabic equivalent).

These things are peanut puffs.

Because they melt in the mouth, they are often fed to babies as a first food.  Apparently, babies love them.

How do they taste?  Just as you might expect (peanut-flavored straw?).  They are sold everywhere as a snack and I met adults who love them too.

Do they really prevent peanut allergies?  Indeed, there might be something to this idea.

Introduction of peanut products into the diets of infants at high risk of developing peanut allergy was safe and led to an 81 percent reduction in the subsequent development of the allergy, a clinical trial has found…Researchers led by Gideon Lack, M.D., of King’s College London, designed a study called Learning Early About Peanut Allergy (LEAP), based on observations that Israeli children have lower rates of peanut allergy compared to Jewish children of similar ancestry residing in the United Kingdom. Unlike children in the UK, Israeli children begin consuming peanut-containing foods early in life.

Translation:  Bamba.

These researchers also found that allergic reactions did not return even if the children in that trial stopped eating Bamba for a year.

Their studies were funded mainly by NIH and the UK Department of Health, but the researchers also report that their clinical trials unit was supported by the National Peanut Board, Atlanta, and that the manufacturer of Bamba supplied the products.  The lead author, Gideon Lack, reports holding stock in DBV Technologies, the maker of Viaskin Peanut, a product that helps people with peanut allergies tolerate exposure to peanuts.

I’d like to see these studies repeated by fully independent researchers.

In the meantime, pediatric allergists are advising parents to let their babies eat peanut butter (but not peanuts because babies can choke on them).

These allergists—and the authors of the Bamba studies—participated in an American Academy of Pediatrics consensus statement:

There is now scientific evidence (Level 1 evidence from a randomized controlled trial) that health care providers should recommend introducing peanut-containing products into the diets of ‘‘high-risk’’ infants early on in life (between 4 and 11 months of age) in countries where peanut allergy is prevalent because delaying the introduction of peanut can be associated with an increased risk of peanut allergy.

If these studies are right, introducing babies to the widest possible variety of foods as soon as they can handle solid foods (usually at 4 to 5 months) may well help prevent allergies later on.

Jun 24 2016

Israel food: more random observations

Lunch in the old Yemenite section of Tel Aviv, now the up-and-trendy Kerem Ha Teymanim.

The restaurant is Shlomo Doron’s The Joy of the Wipe.  This doesn’t quite get at the meaning, which is what you do to eat hummus with pita bread.

The restaurant is near the Carmel Market.  These are great bowls of dates, dried fruits, and nuts.

Entire stalls are devoted to halvah, the candy made with sesame seed paste.

IMG_20160621_1233211

I did a day trip to the completely improbable Rutenberg restaurant: unexpectedly lovely food in a place remote from major cities, next to ruins of an electric plant and a bridge that used to cross the Jordan “river” (now a brackish small stream).  The restaurant is smack on the border with Jordan, 200 feet below sea level, and 45 degrees centigrade (112 degrees Fahrenheit—I’m not kidding) on the afternoon I visited.  The far end of the nearby stone bridge is in Jordan, and so is the watchtower on the hill in the back.

 

Beautiful food.

The chefs with a portrait of the eponymous Rutenberg, who had something to do with the nearby electric plant, now in ruins.

If ever there were a destination restaurant, this is it. Camels, maybe, but foot traffic?  Hence: improbable.

Jun 22 2016

The food scene in Israel—some early observations

Wandering around in the Rehavia neighborhood in Jerusalem, I saw a local park with a just-starting composting program.

Down the street from the official residence of the Prime Minister (that would be Benjamin Netanyahu), is the headquarters of the International Jewish Vegetarian Society.

I’m surprised at how little food advertising I’m seeing.  This restaurant overlooking the crater at Mitzpe Ramon is an example that seems typical.  Nestlé (no relation) ice cream bars are everywhere.

Coca-Cola is everywhere too, but this venerable truck is the only one I’ve seen.  This one was in Tel Aviv.

é

 

 

Jun 21 2016

The Sugar Association’s latest spin on the science

I’m in Israel this week where “eat-less-sugar” is just as big an issue as it is in the United States (translation: “without sugar”)

The U.S. Sugar Association is using an article in JAMA about the rising prevalence of obesity to argue that sugar cannot be responsible.  Sugar intake has declined in the U.S. since 2000, largely because of the decline in consumption of soft drinks.

Sugar, says the Sugar Association, cannot cause obesity (it’s energy balance).

Evidence?  The numbers don’t add up.

Oops.  Better take a look at the actual data from the JAMA paper:

What this figure shows is only a small increase in obesity over the last 10 years for men (on the left) and women (on the right)—for those above the 50th percentile of body mass index.

My interpretation:

  • Yes, sugar consumption is down.  That’s excellent progress but there’s still a long way to go.
  • Yes, calories count, and physical activity is good for health.
  • But—the decline is sugar consumption correlates with a leveling off of obesity in adults, just as would be predicted.
  • Even so, eating less sugar is a good idea for just about everyone.

Most Americans consume twice the sugar recommended.  Less would be better, but the “10% of calories” recommendation still leaves plenty of room for dessert.

Jun 20 2016

The food scene: Tel Aviv

I’m in Israel this week at a meeting on Sustainable Food Systems* along with some basic food tourism.

The trip started with a visit to the small-but-impressive farmers’ market at the Port of Tel Aviv.

The market is under umbrellas to protect people, sprouts, and other vegetables from the intense Mediterranean sun (it’s hot here).  

The market is in two sections, separated by an indoor section with stalls for an amazing array of (mostly) locally produced artisanal food products.

And here’s Shir Halpern who developed this market, runs others, and is doing everything possible to encourage young farmers.

This is a great way to start any visit to a new country.

*Just for fun, here’s my interview in today’s Haaretz—-in Hebrew.   And here’s an English translation (thanks to Hemi Weingarten of Fooducate)

Jun 17 2016

Philadelphia passes soda tax!

 

Of course, it’s not over yet.

Jun 16 2016

Today’s big news: the Philadelphia soda tax vote

The Philadelphia city council votes sometime today on whether to pass a soda tax, with most—but not all—of the revenues targeted to pre-kindergarten education.  I’m getting on an airplane pretty soon and will miss the vote, but it is widely assumed to pass.

The decision is up to the city council.  Although the soda industry spent more than $4 million on public relations to urge the council to vote no, and promised to fund the first year of pre-K, its efforts don’t seem to be working.

To put this in context: Sodas are an easy target for public health measures.  Nobody needs them, they are candy in liquid form, and they have no nutritional value.   But it seems as though their makers are willing to spare no expense to stop any city that attempts to tax them.  The total in Philly is $4.9 million by the latest rumors.

Americans are highly likely to support taxes that are earmarked for social purposes, as the Philly tax mostly is.

Every other city council can see that Berkeley gets more than a million a year for discretionary child health programs.  Philadelphia is a bigger city and will get more, but is using it to fill budget holes as well as Pre-K.  I’m guessing lots of places will figure out that they can do this too.

At the very least, the soda industry will be willing to donate huge amounts of money to get city councils to delay or block measure, as it did in Philadelphia.

This vote is worth watching closely (you can do that here).  I’m sorry to be missing it but will try to catch up with it later.

References

Politico’s deep dive is here.

 

Jun 15 2016

Seafood politics: Catfish? Really?

The Senate just voted to reverse a decision of Congress last year to remove catfish inspection from the FDA (which is usually in charge of regulating seafood) and give it to the USDA (which usually regulates meat and poultry).

Why did the 2008 and 2012 farm bills say that catfish inspection should be given to USDA?

It depends on whom you ask.

  • Defenders say it’s because USDA has the resources to protect us against unsafe Vietnamese catfish.
  • Critics said it’s to protect the Mississippi catfish industry against the food safety hazards of cheap imported catfish from Vietnam.

Indeed, the USDA inspection program is finding antibiotics and other unapproved carcinogens in catfish imported from Vietnam.

This issue, however, is a sticking point in US negotiations with Vietnam over the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

Vietnam wants the USDA catfish inspection removed as an unfair barrier to trade.

As I wrote about this issue in 2013,

What is this about?  Not fish safety, really.  It’s about protecting catfish farmers in the South and setting up “more rigorous” safety criteria that will exclude competitive foreign catfish imports, especially from Vietnam.

Food retailers and retail trade associations are for reverting inspection to FDA. They say USDA’s catfish inspection program will take years to allow imports from Vietnam, thereby causing the cost of domestic catfish to rise.

But today, Politico Morning Agriculture reports that more than 100 House Republicans are urging repeal of the USDA’s catfish inspection program, pointing out that

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has 10 times stated that this program is “duplicative” and at “high risk” for fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement…This is not a food safety issue.  USDA acknowledges that catfish, regardless of where it comes from, is considered a “low risk food.”

When I wrote this issue previously, I got comments that I needed to better appreciate the superiority of USDA’s import safety program.  As I said in response:

It’s not surprising if USDA’s import safety system is better than the FDA’s.  USDA gets $14 million a year to run its currently non-operating catfish inspection system.  The FDA gets $700,000 and, according to the Government Accountability Office, has managed pretty well with it.

My conclusion then and now:

If the political fuss over catfish inspection reveals anything, it is why we so badly need a single food safety agency—one that combines and integrates the food safety functions of USDA and FDA—to ensure the safety of the American food supply.

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