Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Apr 7 2016

Sponsored research: raspberries this time

This morning, I received a query from a scientist:

I have been following your documentation of industry-funded research on health benefits. I’ve been thinking about this issue from the perspective of fruits and vegetables. We know that they are good in general, but how does one fund research to demonstrate that clinically? In particular, how does one get specific about the form and amount that his helpful for specific health benefits?  You may be interested in this press release from the raspberry industry telling about the papers at the Society for Experimental Biology meetings that are relevant to the health benefits of eating raspberries. This seems to be approaching what a good model might look like. I’m interested in your perspective. Furthermore, are the results relevant to nutritionists?

Here’s how I answered it:

Thanks for sending.  I guess my question would be something along the lines of why getting specific about form and amount of specific fruits and vegetables is important for public health.  People don’t eat just raspberries.  They put them in cereal or on desserts.  Raspberries are expensive.  Wealthy, educated and, therefore, healthy people are likely to consume them.  So this looks like marketing research to me—selling raspberries as a superfood.  If you think there is a special benefit to raspberries and that it would be good to quantify it, the best strategy would be to get the research funded by an independent agency.  Otherwise, it’s clearly marketing research (hence the press release).   At least that’s how I see it.

This, of course, gets us back to the question of sponsored research which, as my collection of sponsored studies has shown, almost inevitably produce results favorable to the sponsor.  I love raspberries and don’t doubt for a minute that they are healthy, but a superfood?  I don’t think so.

I’m still working on the descriptive analysis of the year’s collection of sponsored studies.  I will also be giving more thought to such questions, so send them along.

Apr 6 2016

Food Navigator Special Edition: Food Preservation

FoodNavigator-USA provides daily information about issues of interest to the food industry.  It’s useful.  Here, it has a collection of articles on current thinking about how to preserve foods, a problem since antiquity and now even more so over concerns about food additives.

Special Edition: Food preservation

Consumers and retailers are becoming increasingly unwilling to accept products with a shelf life maintained by use of the synthetic preservatives – even if they are safe and legal. But what natural solutions are available to manufacturers, and are they up to the job? Meanwhile, will novel processing techniques ultimately render all preservatives, artificial or otherwise, redundant in certain products?

4 strategies for preservative-free food from Grain-Free JK GourmetRetailers and manufacturers that want to meet consumers’ growing demand for food free from preservatives need to rethink their strategies for packing, shipping and stocking products, suggest the husband and wife team behind Grain-Free JK Gourmet. .. Read

‘Artificial’ preservatives are falling out of favor, but what are the alternatives?The percentage of new food and beverage launches (retail) making ‘no additives/preservatives’ claims rose from 12.46% in 2012 to 20.24% in 2015, according to Mintel*, while there has also been a marked rise in the number of companies pledging to ditch ‘artificial’ preservatives from established brands over the past couple of years… Read

Blue LEDs show promise as food preservation methodBlue light emitting diodes (LEDs) have strong antibacterial effects on foodborne pathogens, according to a study from the National University of Singapore (NUS)… Read

True Drinks teams up with Niagara Bottling to make AquaBall preservative-freeTrue Drinks Holdings has struck a deal with Niagara Bottling under which the latter will produce a preservative-free formulation of True Drinks’ flagship sugar- and calorie-free kids’ beverage AquaBall… Read

Kraft to remove artificial colors & preservatives from Original Mac & Cheese in 2016Kraft has unveiled plans to remove artificial preservatives and synthetic colors from its iconic Original Kraft Macaroni & Cheese in the U.S. starting January 2016. Meanwhile, Kraft Dinner Original in Canada will be free from synthetic colors by the end of next year.  .. Read

Americans believe ‘preservatives / chemicals’ are significantly more harmful than added sugar, saturated fat and sodium, says new pollA poll* of more than 4,200 US consumers conducted in April 2015 by CivicScience shows Americans believe that ‘preservatives / chemicals’ are significantly more harmful to their heath than added sugar, saturated fat and sodium… Read

General Mills: Chobani’s ‘wilfully deceptive’ ads assert that safe & legal ingredients in rival products are toxic and unsafeThe legal firestorm prompted by Chobani’s provocative new ad campaign for its Simply 100 Greek yogurt range has intensified this week as General Mills has filed a lawsuit accusing Chobani of false advertising and unfair competition… Read

Fresh-baked cookie pioneer Otis Spunkmeyer will launch retail line in early 2016Well-known fresh cookie-maker Otis Spunkmeyer is expanding its empire beyond food service and into the retail segment for the first time with the launch of a line of sweet baked goods that will hit store shelves nationwide in 2016. .. Read

Plant-based preservatives emerge as consumers hunt for clean-label meatsFrom celery to citrus to vinegar, consumers are glancing over nitrate-containing meat products and going for what they deem a more natural alternative… Read

Apr 5 2016

Berkeley vs. Big Soda: The Video

Watch the Ecology Center’s video: Berkeley vs. Big Soda, and learn how Berkeley voters won a soda tax.

The blurb says “This tells the story of how a community stood up for children’s health against one of the world’s most powerful industries – and won.   See: www.BerkeleyVsBigSoda.com.”

Yes you can do this at home.  Do it in your town!

 

Apr 4 2016

The Guardian: my thoughts on food companies’ taking out the negatives

Here’s my piece from The Guardian, April 2, 2016.

No amount of ‘free from’ labelling will make processed food good for you
Campbell’s is phasing BPA out of its cans. That, and GMO-labelling initiatives, are all great, but canned foods still aren’t fresh, local or sustainable

Americans these days don’t want artificial and unsustainably produced ingredients in the food they buy and eat. For the makers of highly processed foods – ultraprocessed in today’s terminology – there isn’t a lot that they can do to make the products appear fresh and natural.

But Campbell’s is certainly trying. A few months after announcing that it will phase out genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the iconic soup company said on Friday that it will remove Bisphenol-A (BPA) from its cans by next year.

BPA, you will recall, is a chemical typically used in polycarbonate plastic containers and in the epoxy linings of food cans. It’s also an endocrine disrupter, which means it can interfere with the work our hormones are doing. Some research finds BPA to have effects on childhood development and reproduction.

Although the FDA doesn’t believe evidence of potential harm is sufficient to ban BPA from the food supply, the agency discourages use of BPA-polycarbonate or epoxy resins in baby bottles, sippy cups or packaging for infant formulas. For the past year or so, other retailers have been working hard to phase out BPA and to reassure customers that their cans and packages are safe.

All of these companies sell highly processed foods in an era when the public is demanding – and voting with their dollars – for fresh, natural, organic, locally grown and sustainably produced ingredients.

They can’t provide those things, but they can tout the bad, or unpopular, things that aren’t part of their product, the “no’s”: no unnatural additives, no artificial colors or flavors, no high fructose corn syrup, no trans fat, no gluten and, yes, no GMOs or BPA.

Let me add something about companies labeling their products GMO-free. In my view, the food biotechnology industry created this market – and greatly promoted the market for organics, which do not allow GMOs – by refusing to label which of its products contain GMOs and getting the FDA to go along with that decision. Whether or not GMOs are harmful, transparency in food marketing is hugely important to increasing segments of the public. People don’t trust the food industry to act in the public interest; transparency increases trust.

Vermont voted last year to mandate GMO labeling in the state – the US Senate rejected a bill in mid-March attempting to undermine it – and food conglomerates such as Campbell’s, General Mills, ConAgra, Kellogg and Mars have committed to labeling their products as containing GMO.

In addition to removing BPA from packaging and GMO from products, at least 11 other companies have announced recently that say they are phasing out as many artificial additives as possible, as quickly as they can.

Taco Bell, for example, will get rid of Yellow Dye #6, high fructose corn syrup, palm oil and artificial preservatives, and replace them with “natural” ingredients. Huge food companies such as Kraft, Nestlé (no relation) and General Mills are heading in the same direction.

All this may well benefit consumers to an extent. It also makes perfect sense from a business perspective: the “no’s” sell. But what everyone needs to remember is that foods labeled “free from” still have calories and may well contain excessive salt and sugars. The healthiest diets contain vegetables and lots of other relatively unprocessed foods. No amount of subtraction from highly processed foods is going to change that.

Apr 1 2016

Weekend reading: CSPI’s Carbonating the World

Center for Science in the Public Interest has produced a new report:

It’s a lavishly illustrated and well documented investigative report into soda company marketing in developing countries.

Here’s an example of the documentation, enough to explain why Coke and Pepsi are pouring billions of dollars into bottling plants and marketing in India:

 

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For anyone interested in the nutrition transition from undernutrition to overnutrition in developing countries, this report is a must read.  Actually, it’s a must read for anyone who cares about diet and health.  If you do nothing else, look at the marketing illustrations from Nepal, Indonesia, or Nigeria.  They tell the story on their own.

Mar 31 2016

What do Americans eat? It’s hard to say.

I’ve just received a new report from USDA’s Economic Research Service, U.S. Food Commodity Consumption Broken Down by Demographics.  This looks at trends in per capita food availability—the amounts of specific foods available in the food supply, obtained from data on production and imports, from 1994 to 2008, corrected for waste, per person in the United States.

Food availability data, especially when corrected for waste, suggest trends in per capita consumption patterns (otherwise why would USDA bother to collect them?), but they are not consumption data.  They are about supply, not use.

With that said, the trends seem odd to me.  They demonstrate a decline in the availability of:

  • Fruit (mainly oranges)
  • Vegetables
  • Dairy (mainly milk)
  • Beef
  • Pork
  • Potatoes
  • Sugars

The supply of yogurt and cheese, however, has increased (but their per capita availability is relatively low).

The supply of apple juice also has increased:

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Food availability data corrected for waste are supposed to come close to what people actually eat.  But if people are eating less of practically all foods, how come so many of us are still gaining weight?  Surely it’s not because of apple juice.

These data are an important source of information on U.S. dietary patterns.

But what do they mean?  The authors do not say, so it’s left to us to figure that out.

As I keep saying, finding out what people eat is the single most intellectually challenging problem in the field of nutrition.

Mar 30 2016

Issue Brief on use of branded characters to market to kids

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has a new Issue Brief on food companies’ use of branded characters to market to kids.  Here’s what it’s talking about:

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These, RWJ says, work better with junk foods than healthy foods, even though some child health advocates have called for their use only for healthy foods.

I don’t want them used to sell anything to kids.  I don’t think anyone should be marketing anything to kids.

RWJ’s assessment of the present situation?  “Significant opportunities for improvement still exist.”

No kidding.

Mar 29 2016

Some food guides are unafraid of sustainability

I’ve just heard about the new Netherlands food guide.  It emphasizes sustainability.  According to an article in National Geographic’s The Plate,

The Netherlands Nutrition Centre says  it is recommending people eat just two servings of meat a week, setting an explicit limit on meat consumption for the first time [but see added comment below].

Here’s what the Netherlands food guide looks like.

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Google translator calls this a pyramid, and explains: “Moreover, the Pyramid helps you eat more environmentally friendly broadly.”

Ours, of course, looks like this.  I’m guessing the USDA is working on a new food guide in response to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines.  These do not mention sustainability at all—the S word.

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If you want to check out food guides m other countries, see FAO’s pages on food-based dietary guidelines.  You can search the site by regions and countries.  Fun!

Added comment: A reader from Amsterdam, who obviously speaks Dutch better than Google translator, and who also is well versed in the Dutch nutrition scene, writes:

Sustainability is indeed an important concern in the new Dutch food guide. However, the recommendation for meat is not ‘two servings per week’, but two servings of red meat and two servings of white meat (chicken), for a total of four per week. One serving is 100 gram or 3.5 oz. of meat. Diehards may add a third serving of red meat; 300 g of red meat (11 oz) plus 200 g of chicken (7 oz) per week is considered the absolute limit.

The fish advice has been reduced from twice to once a week because environmental concerns were thought to outweigh the small health benefit of a second weekly serving of fish.

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