Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
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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Jul 14 2017

Do memory supplements help boost memory (oh how I wish)

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has a new report out calling for better federal oversight of memory supplements.

These are a growing market with sales estimated at $643 million in 2015, almost double since 2006.

FDA and FTC share oversight of memory supplement labeling and advertising, respectively, but neither approves claims in advance.  For this, thank the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 which pretty much lets supplement makers claim whatever they like for their products, as long as they word the claims carefully.

GAO found ads for memory supplements claiming that they would boost, enhance, improve, increase, or maintain a healthy memory.  They also made claims related to general brain health, cognitive function, and well-being.

Amazon sells these things. It advertises them like this:

Brain and Memory Booster – All Natural Formula- Brain supplement helps improve memory, mood, clarity and focus and protect against mental decline, depression, anxiety.

Do they work?

Alas, no, according to Consumer Reports.  But that doesn’t stop Americans from spending $91 million on them in 2015.

Really, something needs to be done about DSHEA.

Here’s the GAO report: Memory Supplements: Clarifying FDA and FTC Roles Could Strengthen Oversight and Enhance Consumer Awareness.
GAO-17-416.

Jul 12 2017

The fight over non-milk “milk”: the dairy industry plus FDA vs. soy producers and USDA

All those non-milk “milks’ in the dairy section—soy, almond, cashew, hazelnut, pumpkin seed, flax, hemp, coconut—make the dairy industry unhappy.  Milk says the FDA, is the “lacteal secretion” from cows.

Government agencies can’t agree; the USDA wants to help soybean farmers and favors selling soy milk as milk.

This dispute, obviously, is about marketing advantage.

Now Food Chemical News has a nifty investigative report on the fight between USDA and FDA over soymilk in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines.

The Good Food Institute filed a FOIA request and got 1500 pages of emails dating from 2011.

The USDA likes “soymilk:” everyone knows what it is.

The FDA prefers “fortified soy beverage” to indicate that the soy product does not have the same nutrient composition as cow’s milk.

This marketing dispute involves lawsuits, petitions, and more, according to the Associated Press account.

As I’ve written earlier, this is about market share.  Let them fight it out.

In the meantime, I don’t have any trouble telling which is which, and I’ll bet you don’t either.

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Jul 11 2017

How the GMO industry gets journalists to buy its messages

Monsanto’s corporate behavior has been so counterproductive that it has damaged the reputation of the entire food biotechnology industry (I document this in Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety).

What to do?

How about convincing journalists that food biotechnology is the solution to the world’s food problems and that any criticism of it is a critique of science in the same category as climate-change denial (as I told Thacker).

The journalist Paul Thacker explains that strategy in an article in today’s Progressive.

In recent months, media outlets have reported on a disturbing trend of corporate-sponsored journalism. The British Medical Journal exposed a multiyear campaign by Coca-Cola to influence reporters covering obesity by secretly funding journalism conferences at the University of Colorado. The watchdog group Health News Review reported that two journalism professors at the University of Kansas asked more than 1,100 health-care reporters about their views on opioids in a survey that was funded, in part, by the Center for Practical Bioethics, a group the U.S. Senate Finance Committee investigated for its ties to opioid manufacturers…Hints of the biotech industry’s media tactics have leaked from court cases filed against Monsanto alleging glyphosate causes cancer. Several filings reference internal Monsanto documents that describe the company’s social media strategy called “Let Nothing Go”—a program in which individuals who appear to have no connection to the industry rapidly respond to negative social media posts regarding Monsanto, GMOs, and agrichemicals.

His article describes the fierce industry pushback against anyone who raises questions about food biotechnology.

I know about that pushback firsthand.  That’s why this site no longer accepts comments.

We need open discussion about issues related to food biotechnology.  This article is a good place to begin.

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