by Marion Nestle

Posts dated: April2011

Apr 30 2011

Soda industry vs. NYC Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed ban

Today’s New York Times carries a piece by Robert Pear on soda industry opposition to NYC Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to ban the use of food stamp (SNAP) benefits to buy sugary drinks.

My first-Sunday monthly column for the San Francisco Chronicle is on precisely the same topic.  I will post it tomorrow.

In the meantime, here’s what the Times says about how the soda industry is organizing opposition:

While the American Beverage Association has led the opposition, the fight demonstrates how various parts of the food industry have united to thwart the mayor’s proposal. Beverage industry lobbyists have worked with the Snack Food Association, the National Confectioners Association, which represents candy companies, the Food Marketing Institute, which represents 26,000 retail food stores, as well as antihunger groups like the Food Research and Action Center and Feeding America.

But here’s how the strategies play out in practice:

Eighteen members of the Congressional Black Caucus recently urged the Obama administration to reject New York’s proposal. The plan is unfair to food stamp recipients because it treats them differently from other customers, they said in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

While Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are among the largest contributors to the nonpartisan Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, a research and education institute, caucus members say their positions are not influenced by such contributions.

See my Food Matters column tomorrow for how I view all this.

Apr 29 2011

Sugar politics in action: Sugar sues HFCS

Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports: the Western Sugar Cooperative has just filed suit against the Corn Refiners and corn processors to stop them for falsely advertising HFCS as “corn sugar.”

Oh please.  Western Sugar is trying to claim that HFCS is not sugar, when it most definitely is.  To sugar associations, which represent cane and beet producers, sugar means sucrose (the white stuff on the table).

When the Sugar Association threatened to sue me for saying that soft drinks had sugar and nothing else (when they also contained HFCS), I patiently explained the biochemistry.  If you would like to read what they said, I’ve posted the threatening letter and my response at the bottom of this link. Here’s the biochemistry:

  • Sucrose: a double sugar of 50% glucose and 50% fructose linked together
  • HFCS: a syrup of about 45% glucose and 55% fructose, separated

The 5% differences are biologically insignificant and the body can’t tell them apart.

I never heard from the Sugar Association again, but I try to to remember to say sugars, plural.

Whether the FDA should allow the defendants to change the name of HFCS to Corn Sugar is a matter of some debate (see previous posts and comments on them).  The FDA will make its decision in due course.

In the meantime, this lawsuit is about marketing competition among sources of sugars (plural).  It has nothing to do with health.

Apr 28 2011

At last FTC releases principles of food marketing to kids

The FTC released its long-awaited principles for food marketing to children today.  These are proposed principles, scheduled to apply to marketing to children age 2 to 17, to go into effect by 2016.  The principles are now open for comment.

Principle A: Foods marketed to children must make a meaningful contribution to healthful diets, and contain at least one of these food groups:
• fruit
• vegetable
• whole grain
• fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk products
• fish
• extra lean meat or poultry
• eggs
• nuts and seeds
• beans
Principle B is that the foods should minimize intake of nutrients that could have a negative impact on health or weight.  The key standards are:
• Saturated Fat: 1 g or less per serving and 15% or less of calories
• Trans Fat: 0 g per serving
• Added Sugars: No more than 13 g of added sugars per serving
• Sodium: No more than 210 mg per serving
I thought the original proposals were far too generous.  But the only difference between these proposals and those proposed a year or so ago is a slight increase in sodium from 200 mg to 210 per serving.  I can only assume that this  difference is just enough to include a lot of junk foods that would otherwise be excluded by these principles.

 

Recall the history:  In 2009, Congress specified that an interagency group was to set up standards for identifying foods that should not be marketed to children and to publish them by July 15, 2010.   That group came up with a set of recommendations similar to these but more complicated.

The July 15 date came and went, as I explained in a previous post.  Why?  Rumors were that food industry opposition got in the way.  As reporter Melanie Warner pointed out, weak as they may appear, the proposed standards would exclude a great many highly profitable food products.  William Neuman provided a detailed account of why the FTC wasn’t budging on this in the New York Times.  And the Colbert Report had some fun with the FTC’s delay.The food industry has consistently opposed giving the FTC more authority over marketing of foods and supplements.

 

What are we to make of this? In the light of this history, the FTC must be congratulated for its courage in overcoming food industry opposition.  The principles are supposed to apply to all forms of media, print and electronic.  If so, the food industry will have a much harder time marketing foods to kids.  That’s great news.

But here’s what I’m still concerned about:
  • The principles are voluntary. Nobody has to follow them.
  • Who is going to hold food companies accountable for following the guidelines?
  • Why do food companies get until 2016 to implement them?  Five years?
Can’t we do any better?  Of course, given my druthers, food companies would not be allowed to market directly to children at all.


Update, April 29: According to Advertising Age, the food and advertising industries are unhappy with the FTC proposals:
If companies were to comply with these proposals, the restrictions are sufficiently onerous that they would basically block a substantial amount of advertising.
Apr 26 2011

Should food labels say salt or sodium?

According to today’s Food Chemical News (which, unfortunately, requires a subscription to read), the FDA is arguing to make the international standard for food labels say sodium, not salt.

The U.S. delegation to the Codex Committee on Food Labeling will push for requiring the term “sodium” rather than “salt” on nutrition labels.

The European Union and its allies prefer “salt,” arguing that it is better understood by consumers.  But:

The United States is strongly opposed to removing “sodium” from the list of nutrients requiring disclosure. “We hope to achieve compromise and not remove sodium from the list,” said Schneeman. Asked about resolution of the dispute, she replied, “We still have our feelers out [to potential supporters]. Sodium is the nutrient, not salt.”

Maybe, but salt is what people eat.

I think “salt” makes more sense.  You?


Apr 25 2011

Do farm pesticides reduce kids’ IQs?

The Environmental Working Group announces the publication of three studies finding a correlation between diminished IQ and blood levels of pesticides.

The studies were done separately by groups of researchers from the Mt Sinai School of Medicine, University of California Berkeley’s School of Public Health, and Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.  All were published in Environmental Health Perspectives and are available at that site (although sometimes with a delay and you have to look hard for the pdf of the whole article).

All three studies examined levels of organopesticides in the blood of pregnant women.  All looked at one or more measures of IQ taken when the children were 1 to 9 years old.

The Berkeley study, Prenatal Exposure to Organophosphate Pesticides and IQ in 7-Year Old Children, examined Latino farmworkers and their children.  Researchers found a difference of 7 IQ points between children with the highest and lowest levels of organopesticides.

The Mt. Sinai study, Prenatal Exposure to Organophosphates, Paraoxonase 1, and Cognitive Development in Childhood, was done with a prenatal population in New York City.

The Columbia study, 7-Year Neurodevelopmental Scores and Prenatal Exposure to Chlorpyrifos, a Common Agricultural Pesticide, also was done on an inner-city population.

It has been difficult to demonstrate demonstrable harm from agricultural pesticide use except among farmworkers exposed to very high doses.  These studies mean that lower doses experienced by people who merely eat agricultural products also can cause harm.

The study will undoubtedly be criticized for not adequately controlling for socioeconomic variables that influence IQ—they were all done with low-income populations—and, more importantly, for not explaining precisely how pesticides might influence childhood learning and achievement.  And some will surely argue that a 7-point IQ difference is well within experimental error.

But at the very least, pesticides are a marker for poorer cognitive outcome.  The fact that three independent groups of investigators arrived at similar conclusions means that the results need to be seriously considered.

Organic vegetables anyone?

And just for the record, here’s the Environmental Working Group’s list of the foods with highest and lowest levels of pesticides:

Highest Levels Lowest Levels
Celery
Peaches
Strawberries
Apples
Blueberries
Nectarines
Bell Peppers
Spinach
Cherries
Kale/Collard Greens
Potatoes
Grapes (imported)
Onions
Avocado
Sweet Corn
Pineapple
Mangos
Sweet Peas
Asparagus
Kiwi
Cabbage
Eggplant
Cantaloupe
Watermelon
Apr 23 2011

Note to readers about comments

As should be obvious to anyone who has followed this blog for any time, I do not censor comments.  I welcome comments from readers who hold diverse opinions.

In the four years I have been blogging, I have deliberately deleted less than a dozen comments—the two or three that were pornographic or used inappropriate language, and a handful of duplicates.

I mention this because I received complaints this week that I was not allowing critical comments to be posted.  Not so.

I’m guessing they got caught in the spam filter.

This site gets more than 200 spam posts a day, most of them of astonishing length in gibberish or Cyrillic.  I cannot possibly go through all that to sift out the legitimate posts.  I clear spam without looking at it.

I have not been able to figure out the screening criteria for spam but I’m guessing the filter is suspicious of long posts with links.

If your comment does not get posted, try shortening it (always a good idea anyway) and sending it without links.

And thanks for reading.   I do read all of the comments and wish I could respond to them.  Keep the comments coming!

My apologies to any of you whose comments disappeared. Please try again.

 

 

Apr 22 2011

Food marketing to kids goes viral

Several recent articles highlight concerns about food marketing to children.  Yesterday’s New York Times, for example, explained why obesity experts are increasingly concerned about advertising through new electronic media:

Like many marketers, General Mills and other food companies are rewriting the rules for reaching children in the Internet age. These companies, often selling sugar cereals and junk food, are using multimedia games, online quizzes and cellphone apps to build deep ties with young consumers. And children…are sharing their messages through e-mail and social networks, effectively acting as marketers.

…The sites can attract substantial audiences. HappyMeal.com and McWorld.com, sites from McDonald’s, received a total of 700,000 visitors in February, around half of whom were under 12, according to comScore, a market research firm. The firm says 549,000 people visited the Apple Jacks site from Kellogg’s, which offers games and promotes an iPhone application called “Race to the Bowl Rally.” General Mills’s Lucky Charms site, with virtual adventures starring Lucky the Leprechaun, had 227,000 visitors in February.

Advertising Age notes the use of cell phones, ipods, and ipads by younger and younger children:

Over half the parents in the survey say their children should be able to go online on their own by age 6, and by 5 should be able to play games on a cellphone or on a console or listen to a portable music player on their own.

And the Public Health Law Network explains takes up the question of parental responsibility vs. food industry responsibility.  It asks whether it is:

reasonable for food and beverage companies to spend hundreds of millions of dollars targeting children with marketing, mostly for obesogenic foods, placed literally everywhere and anywhere a child might eat, study, or play, and then demand that parents run interference against them?

Food companies think marketing to kids is plenty reasonable.

Here’s a situation in which some policy changes would be most helpful.  How about some restrictions on what food companies can do in order to make it easier for parents to manage what their kids eat?

Just a thought.  Happy weekend!

Apr 21 2011

More on Oxfam’s anti-poverty partnership with Coca-Cola

Among the many thoughtful comments on yesterday’s post is one from the Director of Oxfam America’s Private Sector Department, Chris Jochnick, who writes that I did not “quite capture the scope and intent of this project.”

As part of our work, Oxfam has a responsibility to engage with global corporations, through both collaboration and campaigns, in order to have constructive dialog on their business practices.

….Throughout the work, Oxfam has maintained complete independence including the ability to undertake advocacy against either company if the situation warranted. The Coca-Cola Company and Oxfam America shared the costs of the collaboration roughly in the proportion of 2:1, with The Coca-Cola Company contributing two-thirds of the costs (US $400,000) and Oxfam America contributing one-third of the costs in kind including staff time.

Unrelated to the study, The Coca-Cola Company made an earlier donation of $2,500,000 to Oxfam between 2008-2010 for humanitarian work in Sudan, with an emphasis on work related to water, sanitation and hygiene.

….Our independent voice keeps Oxfam’s approach to private sector collaborations dynamic and honest.

Let me add a bit more about what I think is wrong with this picture.

The goal of Coca-Cola is to sell more Coca-Cola.  The goal of Oxfam is to address world poverty.  I’m having trouble understanding how these goals could be mutually compatible.

Coke sales in the United States are flagging.  Last year, three quarters of Coke’s revenue derived from sales outside of North America in emerging economies where rates of obesity are increasing rapidly.

Sugary beverages like Coke are increasingly associated with obesity and its health consequences, problems now rampant in developing economies.

In the past year, Coke has embarked on an aggressive campaign of contributions to potentially critical groups such as the American Academy of Family Physicians, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Save the Children, and now Oxfam.

These groups are now highly unlikely to advise their constituents to cut down on sugary sodas.  If nothing else, sponsorship buys silence.

Oxfam may have done the work of its Poverty Footprint Report without company interference.  It is what is not in the report that is so much in Coke’s interest.

For just under $3 million, Coke has purchased an endorsement from Oxfam of its “anti-poverty” practices and silence on the role of sugary drinks in obesity.  This kind of public relations is well worth the price.

What does Oxfam get in this bargain?  The money, of course, but at the cost of serious questions about the credibility of its report and its independence.  Perhaps these are tolerable, but what about loss of respect?

I score this as a win for Coca-Cola.

 

 

 

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