Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Apr 1 2014

Call for ideas: Do government policies promote obesity? How?

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times recently devoted a column to an analysis of who really gets welfare in the United States.  He listed policies that favor not only the wealthy, but the fabulously wealthy:

  • Subsidies for private airplanes via tax write-offs and deductions
  • Tax deductions for private yachts
  • Tax deductions for hedge funds and private equity
  • Bank rescues
  • Incentives to operate locally

His column reminded me of one written in 2005 by Sean Faircloth, then a Maine State representative, “Six ways government promotes obesity and what to do about it.”

No government, Faircloth said, could have devised more effective policies for reducing physical activity and promoting junk food.  Taxpayers, he pointed out:

  • Subsidize oil companies and cars to the detriment of trails and sidewalks.
  • Make it impractical to get basic information in foods and restaurants (menu labeling regulations: where are you?).
  • Give large corporations free reign to market to children.
  • Allow soda and snack-food companies to market products in schools (USDA is trying to change this).
  • Direct billions in subsidies toward processed foods while neglecting fresh produce.
  • Promote high-calorie foods in programs for poor people.

I thought this was an interesting way of thinking about obesity policy and over the years have added these:

  • Allowing marketing costs to be deducted from taxes as business expenses
  • Bans on lawsuits against food companies
  • Ambiguous and obfuscating dietary guidelines (e.g. SoFAS in the 2010 edition)

No doubt there are others.

Can you think of any others?  Thanks.

Mar 31 2014

New book: Childhood Obesity

Kristin Voigt, Stuart G. Nicholls, Garrath Williams.  Childhood Obesity: Ethical and Policy Issues.  Oxford University Press, 2014.

 

 

I gave this one a blurb:

A well-researched, highly critical, but carefully balanced examination of everyday assumptions about childhood obesity and its prevention from an intensely moral perspective.  Although the authors demonstrate that no intervention is without ethical complications or effective entirely on its own, they call for immediate actions to reduce the stigma of childhood obesity, support parents, and create food environments healthier for children, adults, and the environment.    

Mar 28 2014

Salmonella is NOT an inherent part of chicken, proves Denmark

Yesterday, Food Safety News republished the last of a four-part series in the Portland Oregonian about how Denmark was able to get rid of Salmonella in chickens, but we can’t. 

This one explains why.

[USDA] announced a plan last year to stem Salmonella. Its goal is to reduce illnesses by 25 percent by 2020. The plan, which is still being rolled out, includes a controversial overhaul of inspections, enhanced testing and a first-ever limit on allowed Salmonella in cut-up chicken.

Denmark opted for a more comprehensive approach, attacking Salmonella in flocks, poultry barns, animal feed and slaughterhouses.

Why can’t we do that too?

  • The U.S. chicken industry is too big.
  • Reforms would cost too much.
  • Chicken prices would rise.
  • Chicken would cost more than beef.
  • Nobody–industry, regulators or retailers—wants to bother.
  • The U.S. food safety system is too fractured; no federal agency has the authority to mandate such reforms.
  • USDA food safety authority only starts at the slaughterhouse, not the farm.

An impressive number of excuses, no?

Better make sure you handle chicken as if it were radioactive and cook it thoroughly.

This series is well worth a read if you want to understand what’s wrong with our food safety system.

 

Mar 27 2014

Is Walmart the biggest SNAP beneficiary?

Here’s are some things I’d really like to know:

  • How much food assistance money gets spent at Walmart?
  • How many Walmart “associates” get SNAP benefits?

The USDA does not collect data on how SNAP recipients spend their benefits but I’ve been interested in these questions since reading Michele Simon’s report, “Follow the Money: Are Corporations Profiting from Hungry Americans?”

Our research found that at least three powerful industry sectors benefit from SNAP:

1) major food manufacturers such as Coca-Cola, Kraft, and Mars;

2) leading food retailers such as Walmart and Kroger; and

3) large banks, such as J.P. Morgan Chase, which contract with states to help administer SNAP benefits.

Now the Los Angeles Times is asking the same questions.  It points out that Walmart’s annual filing with the Security and Exchange Commission, which is required to list potential risks to profits, includes this mention among many others:

changes in the amount of payments made under the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Plan and other public assistance plans, (and) changes in the eligibility requirements of public assistance plans.

Translation: if Congress cuts SNAP and makes it harder for poor people to get benefits, Walmart loses money.  Three reasons:

  • People on food assistance spend a lot of their benefits in Walmart.
  • Walmart employees qualify for food assistance benefits.
  • Its business model will lose its taxpayer-supported subsidies.

The L.A. Times refers to other stories on the same topic

Maybe Congress would be kinder to SNAP benefits if it understood that big corporations benefit so much from them.

Walmart, by the way, sold $466 billion worth of goods in 2013, of which roughly half comes from groceries.

Mar 25 2014

Food companies want to hang onto trans fats

Good try FDA.

ProPolitico Morning Agriculture has a story today that surprises me.  Food companies are opposing the FDA’s proposal to revoke the GRAS status of trans fats (see previous post).

Why am I surprised?  I thought we were done with this one.  I didn’t think it was all that difficult to find substitutes for partially hydrogenated oils.  When trans fats went on food labels, most companies didn’t take long to go trans-fat free.

Now food companies are complaining that the FDA has gone too far, needs to allow companies to keep small amounts in foods, and doesn’t really have the authority to revoke GRAS status.

Among the 1600 comments received by the FDA are these:

Writing in favor of the revocation are:

As a reminder of what this is about, here’s a taste of what I said about trans fats in What to Eat:

Trans fats are not normal.   Hydrogenation causes some of the hydrogens in unsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids to flip abnormally from the same side of the carbon chain (in Latin, “cis”) to the opposite side (“trans”).   The normal cis unsaturated fatty acids are flexible, which is why they are liquid; they bend and flow around each other.   But the change to trans causes unsaturated fatty acids to stiffen.  They behave a lot like saturated fatty acids in the body, where they can raise cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease.

Mind you, this is not new information.   My trans fat file has papers on heart disease risk dating back to the mid-1970s.   In 1975, for example, British scientists suggested that one reason poor people in England had higher rates of heart disease was that they so often ate fish-and-chips fried in partially hydrogenated oils.   Since then, researchers have consistently found trans fats to be just as bad–or worse–than saturated fats from the standpoint of heart disease risk.

The recent meta-analysis says much the same thing.

Let’s get rid of trans fats once and for all and be done with them.  I hope the FDA holds firm on this one.

Mar 24 2014

Some musings on non-GMO Cheerios to start the week

I read about General Mills’s introduction of non-GMO Cheerios back in January, but didn’t get around to looking for them until this weekend.

I was expecting to see something like this (thanks Fooducate):

Instead, the information is tucked into a side panel. 

New PictureNew-non-GMO-Label-Original-CheeriosWMSmThis may explain why General Mills is complaining that the non-GMO is not doing a thing to boost sales of Cheerios.  If anything, sales are “down somewhat.”

And here’s a good one: According to one professor, the non-GMO Grape Nuts and Cheerios are going to be less nutritious than the GMO versions.

Post Foods’ new non-GMO Grape Nuts (click here ) no longer include Vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin B12 or vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)*, while the new non-GMO Original Cheerios no longer have Riboflavin on the ingredients list (the old version has 25% of the daily value in a 28 g serving while the new version has 2% of the DV).

How come?  It’s hard to find non-GMO vitamins (who knew?).  Vitamins, it seems are often produced from genetically engineered microorganisms, or from microbes growing in fermentation tanks that are fed a nutrient mix that contains ingredients from GM sugar beets or corn.

Should we be worried about nutritional deprivation among Cheerios eaters?

Cheerios are essentially a vitamin pill wrapped in rapidly absorbable starch.

The ingredients: whole grain oats, corn starch, sugar, salt, tripotassium phosphate, wheat starch.

Everything else is added vitamins.

Personally, I prefer my cereals with no added vitamins (they taste bad).  And I doubt they make much difference to health.

Whether non-GMO will have a noticeable effect on sales of Cheerios remains to be seen.

If General Mills doesn’t advertise the change, it can’t expect non-GMO to boost sales.

Curious, no?

 

Mar 21 2014

Yesterday, food studies under attack. Today, it’s the dietary guidelines

The food movement must be succeeding beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.

Now it’s the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s (DGAC’s) turn to come under attack.

The Guidelines:  These are principles of healthful diets aimed at policymakers  (not the general public).

The history:  They have been published every five years since 1980, so we are now in round #8 scheduled for publication in 2015.

The process: Two federal departments, USDA and Health and Human Services, appoint an advisory committee of nutrition scientists.  The committee reviews the science and prepares a report.  Since 2005, the agencies have written the guidelines, not the committee.     

Disclosure: I was a member of the advisory committee for the 1995 Guidelines.

The fireworks: According to ProPolitico Morning Agriculture (behind a pay wall, alas), the committee is attracting unusual attention from the right:

  • The Washington Examiner, writes that “committee members…are hijacking the guidelines to advance a range of ideological agendas having nothing to do with healthy eating.”
  • The Daily Caller asks “Are Progressives Inserting Their Agenda Into Your Diet?” Tuesday.
  • The Washington Free Beacon wants you to “Meet the Radicals Creating the New Federal Dietary Guidelines.”

A clue to what is upsetting these folks comes from the committee’s request for public comments.  It is asking for comments that address:

  • Elements of a whole food system
  • Information on specific food groups or commodities
  • Sustainability metrics that have been implemented or are in development

These, apparently, are fighting words.

Yesterday, Fox News asked why “ivory tower types” were in charge of determining food choices for Americans.

Its story particularly singled out Miriam Nelson, a professor at Tufts (not New York University—could Fox be confusing her with me?):

New York University professor Miriam Nelson, said at the committee’s last meeting, “We need to make sure that the guidelines and the policies are promoting those foods … [that] are sustainably grown and have the littlest impact on the environment.”

…The professors of the DGAC may think their job is save the planet by promoting sustainable agriculture and plant-based diets, but if they don’t understand the real-world implications of their work, they’ll be oblivious to the havoc they’ll wreak on the millions of Americans whose diets hinge on their guidelines.

By this time, the Dietary Guidelines are hardly of interest to anyone but policy wonks (really, they never change all that much).  Cheers to the current committee for injecting some life into them.

The 2015 Guidelines will be fun to watch.

Mar 20 2014

Is Food Studies the end of civilization? Really?

Before my talk at the University of North Carolina Charlotte this week, I was introduced by its Chancellor who read from an article written by Mary Grabar who works for a local conservative think tank, the Pope Center.

“Food studies” has become an academic growth area, adding to the deterioration of the humanities, and to the advancement of leftist ideologies. No doubt our universities will be producing many more “scholars” investigating all aspects of food: food and race, food and capitalism, food and gender, etc.  But we will have fewer graduates familiar with literary and philosophical masterpieces.  Fewer will be able to produce good writing—or real food.

The audience was amused, as was I, and I think my talk was a sufficient rebuttal on its own.

But I do want to comment on her remarks directly.

Food Studies, she argues, has “little to do with legitimate intellectual endeavors like agriculture or nutrition science. Instead, food becomes another lens through which to examine oppression, sustainability, and multiculturalism.”

It most certainly does all of that, and is perfect for those purposes.

What could be possibly be more democratic than food?

Everyone eats.

Food studies, which tends to promote local, organic, seasonal, sustainable and healthful food, inherently questions the industrial food system.  It also promotes food equity, food justice, and food sovereignty.  No wonder it worries conservatives.

I, for example, teach courses in food policy, politics, and advocacy, in which I teach students how to analyze food systems and advocate for those that promote the health of people and the planet.

When my academic department at NYU inaugurated our undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral programs in food studies in 1996—18  years ago!—we could hardly have predicted how quickly the field would spread to other universities or how brilliant and exciting so much of its scholarship would turn out to be.

I’m proud of my own contributions to the field and thrilled that Food Studies has gotten to the point where conservative critics worry that it might be effective.

In one sense, Ms. Grabar’s article helps the field.  It contains links to websites for several Food Studies programs, ours among them.

For other such links and additional resources, go to the website of the Association for the Study of Food and Society.

This is a wonderful field of study.  Come join us!

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