by Marion Nestle

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Nov 4 2014

Souvenirs from the Dietitians’ annual meeting

The annual meeting of the Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics, formerly the American Dietetic Association, always provides an incredible exhibit of products from food companies—the latest in dietetic junk food and food company nutritional spin.

Knowing how much I enjoy these things, and that I am working on a book about food advocates and the soft drink industry (Oxford University Press, September 2015), several of my colleagues brought back souvenirs.

Functional foods (with “healthy” ingredients above and beyond what occurs naturally)

  • For Keurig brewing machines, a container of Fibersol Cran-Raspberry flavored instant tea mix, with soluble fiber added (is tea really a significant source of soluble fiber?).
  • MealEnders.com’s chocolate mint signaling lozenges, “an antidote to overeating.”  If you feel that you are overeating, suck on one: “take control, curb appetite, get results” (if only).
  • A 6-ounce can of Kao Nutrition’s black coffee with 270 mg polyphenol (coffee chlorogenic acid), naturally present because the coffee was not brewed at high temperature (well, coffee is a plant extract, after all).

Swag

  • A pen with a pull-out section that gives the potassium content of commonly consumed foods (these come in other versions too, apparently).

Soda company propaganda

  • A brochure from PepsiCo’s Nutrition Team, HydrateNow.  Gatorade, it points out, is 93% water (and the other 7%, pray tell?.
  • A pamphlet from PepsiCo on Calorie Balance: “many things influence your everyday nutrition.  For maintaining a healthy weight, the most important factors are how many calories you eat and the total calories you use up”  (but if those calories happen to be empty?).
  • A PepsiCo brochure on Diet Beverages for People with Diabetes (but it still is advertising Pepsi).
  • A list of PepsiCo drinks that meet the USDA’s nutrition standards for schools (a long list, alas).
  • A scientific paper, “What is causing the worldwide rise in body weight,” sponsored by Coca-Cola (Coke’s answer: lack of physical activity, of course.)
  • A poster from the American College of Cardiology, “Striking an energy balance,” sponsored in part by Coca-Cola.   It says: “Drink water or no- or low-calorie beverages” (it does not say you should Drink less soda”).
  • A pamphlet on National School Beverage Guidelines sponsored by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Dr Pepper Snapple, and the American Beverage Association:  “The beverage industry committed to bold change and then made it happen.  Working with our school partners, we transformed the beverages available to students” (yes, but it doesn’t explain that public pressure forced them to do this).
  • A Coca-Cola pamphlet, Balancing Act.  This gives five easy ways to burn 100 calories: playing soccer 13 minutes, briskly walking 15 minutes, climbing stairs 10 minutes, jumping rope 9 minutes, gardening 19 minutes (based on a 150 lb person).  Funny, it doesn’t mention that one 12-ounce Coke is 140 calories.
  • A FamilyDoctor.org pamphlet, Healthy Eating for Kids, from the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Dietetic Association, distributed with a grant from Coca-Cola.  It lists healthy eating habits—family meals, be active, limit screen time, stay positive, etc (but—surprise—does not suggest that your kid might be healthier not drinking sugar-sweetened beverages).

Treasures, all.  I really love this stuff.  Thanks.

Oct 29 2014

The Environmental Working Group’s Scorecard on Processed Foods: A Revelation

On Monday this week, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) announced that it was releasing Food Scores: Rate Your Plate.

This is an astonishing interactive food database that rates 80,000 (!) supermarket foods on their nutritional value, ingredients as well as contaminants, and level of processing.

The database awards scores ranging from 1 (terrific) to 10 (really bad).

Feeling unimaginative this week, I typed in “Apples” and found 13 products, scored at from 1 to 6 points.  You can click on the product to get EWG’s breakdown of how and why each product is scored.

Some of the EWG findings are amazing and, in some cases, alarming:

  • 58% of the products scored contain added sugars.
  • 46% of the products contained “natural” or artificial flavors.

The average food in its database has:

  • 14 ingredients;
  • a 58 percent chance of containing added sugar (including a 22 percent chance of added corn syrup) and is 13 percent sugar by weight;
  • a 46 percent chance of containing artificial or natural “flavor” and a 14 percent chance of artificial coloring;
  • a serving size of 80 grams packing 121 calories;
  • 446 milligrams of salt per 100 grams. For some foods, that amounts to 30 percent of the daily salt intake recommended by the Institute of Medicine, and that’s in a single serving.

 Play around with the site.  You will learn plenty about what’s on those shelves.  EWG has performed a great public service in making this information accessible.

Here are the relevant documents:

And just for fun, here’s the USDA’s Food and Nutrient Database for Dietary Studies 2011-2012 with its searchable version of foods, portions, and nutrients.

Oct 20 2014

Food professionals’ relationships with food companies: a Q and A

In the past few weeks, I’ve been sent several questions asking my opinion of food professionals’ relationships with food companies.   I thought I would deal with them at one time (all are edited for succinctness and clarity):

Q.  I am a food science student looking into career options in the food industry. I love food science and truly believe that processing food is a good idea that can positively impact the planet and its people.  I want to do something worthwhile,, but I still need to eat.  Can’t the food industry be changed from the inside? Can’t you advise good companies, people, or places where I could start my search? 

A.  I have met social entrepreneurs who strongly believe that businesses can be ethical, do good, and still make heaps of money.  Maybe so.  If you are going to try that route, I think it essential that the company be family or cooperatively owned, and not publicly traded.  You might take a look at food companies incorporated as Benefit Corporations. These are now authorized in about half the states to consider the interests of all stakeholders, not just shareholders, when making decisions.  They are different from B corporations certifying companies that meet certain sustainability criteria.

Many companies work hard to reduce their environmental impact.  But the real question is what they are doing about health impact.  Are they going overboard on health claims?  Are they marketing to children?  These are questions I’d want to ask.  In your shoes, I’d start by looking at companies making products that you like, feel good about, and would be proud to be associated with.   And then take a closer look at how the companies operate.   Working for food companies is always a good learning experience, but if you really want to change the world, you might be better off with a nonprofit agency.

Q.  I’m a graduate student in nutrition and I would like to know what recommendations you may have for students to navigate conflicts of interest with food companies when beginning a career.  I intend to pursue an academic career but am concerned that my credibility as a scientist could be compromised by my participation in industry-funded publications and research. 

A.  It’s great that you are asking such questions. From the standpoint of ethics, that’s an important first step.  You should most definitely publish your research, no matter how it is funded.  Be sure to disclose potential sources of funding bias and conflicts of interest.  While you are doing your research, you can take special care to control for potential biases—conscious and unconscious—in your study design, conduct, and interpretation to ensure that they are not influenced by the funder.  In searching for jobs, you might consider those in academia, government, and NGOs that are less likely to require you to compromise principles.  Finding such jobs may not be easy, but you will be OK if you are always ethically transparent and as straightforward about biases as it is possible to be.

Q.  Do you believe that relationships between the food industry and nutrition professional organizations like the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) and the Association for Nutritional Science (ASN) are problematic? Why?

A.  Sponsorship by food product makers puts nutrition professionals in conflict of interest.   Nutritionists ought to be advising clients and the public about what to eat to stay healthy and prevent chronic disease.  This necessarily means promoting consumption of some foods but discouraging consumption of others.  Nutritionists cannot speak truth to clients and protect corporate sponsorship at the same time.  If nothing else, food industry sponsorship gives the appearance of conflict of interest and makes AND and ASN appear as arms of food company marketers.  But it also affects—or appears to affect–AND ’s and ASN’s positions on key issues in nutrition and health.  Overall, financial relationships between these organizations and their food industry sponsors undermines the credibility of their positions on food issues.

Q.  What sort of changes do you think the Academy needs to make in order to make food industry relationships more beneficial to its members and the public overall?

A.  Nutrition and food professional organizations need to establish a firewall between corporate sponsorship and content or opinion.  This requires setting up rigorous guidelines for what food companies can and cannot expect from their donations.  They should not, for example, be permitted to sponsor content sessions at meetings, not least because opinions expressed at sponsored sessions rarely appear objective.  The organizations should have complete control over how and where corporate donations and company logos are used.

Q.  How can relationships between health professionals and the food industry be beneficial for public health overall?

A.  The role of health professionals is to give the best advice possible about diet and health.  The role of food companies is to provide profits to shareholders.  These goals are not the same and are only rarely compatible.  In my experience, people who want to work for food companies to change corporate culture from within do so from good motives, but soon discover that corporate imperatives take precedence over health goals. If health professional organizations want their advice to be taken seriously, they must establish and adhere to rules and guidelines designed expressly to protect their integrity.

Q.  I read your post on the revolving door,  It seems to me that your underlying premise is the notion that any company that makes food is indicted as part of the big evil food conspiracy. Surely, you can’t really believe that. 

A.  Of course I don’t. But food companies are not social service agencies.   Their job—their legal responsibility—is to continuously expand sales and distribute ever-increasing profits to shareholders.   If they can do this and promote health at the same time, more power to them.  But people would be healthier eating food, not food products.  In our present system, products are far more profitable and the focus on them is rarely works in the interest of public health.

Food and nutrition professionals need to make a living.  Unfortunately, jobs in industry pay better–and sometimes a lot better–than jobs in government or NGOs.  That’s the real dilemma that underlies all of these questions.

Oct 15 2014

School nutrition standards: the latest update

Last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine food issue dealt with such matters as what kids around the world eat for breakfast, and what happens when second graders are treated to a seven-course, $220 tasting meal.

But it also carried a major investigative piece by political reporter Nicholas Confessore about how the once-bipartisan school lunch program has become a political battleground.

when Michelle Obama started Let’s Move!, her campaign against child obesity, in 2010, the members of the School Nutrition Association were her natural allies…the Obama administration got behind the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, an ambitious bill that would impose strict new nutrition standards on all food sold in public schools. A generation raised on Lunchables and Pizza Hut, the bill’s authors believed, could learn to love whole-wheat pasta and roasted cauliflower…But to pass the bill, the White House needed to enlist not only Democrats and Republicans in Congress but also a host of overlapping and competing interest groups: the manufacturers who supplied food to schools, the nutrition experts who wanted it to be more healthful and the lunch ladies who would have to get children to eat it.

They succeeded with the nutrition experts, but failed to account for the cozy financial relations between the food product makers and the School Nutrition Association (SNA).

As I’ve discussed previously, the SNA, backed by product manufacturers, is now fighting the White House, the USDA, and research evidence that kids will indeed eat healthful food and will be better off for it.

Center for Science in the Public Interest has this to say about what’s happening with school meals.

school food fat cats

 

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has a new infographic on how “Healthier School Meals Matter.”

Bettina Siegel, the Houston school lunch blogger at The Lunch Tray, and food consultant Nancy Huehnergarth, in consultation with SNA members, posted an open letter to urge SNA members to oppose the organization’s stance on school nutrition standards.

As Bettina Siegel describes, the SNA promptly sent an e-mailed “urgent message” from its board of directors to all 55,000 members, saying the association was “troubled” to learn about the open letter.

SNA welcomes the diversity of opinions in our association, and we consider all member input when developing or approving SNA positions…Members should be aware that this letter will try to discredit the association and limit SNA’s efforts to advocate on your behalf for any kind of flexibility under the new standards.

This inspired Nancy Huehnergarth to write an op-ed for the Hill. 

School food service directors, if you dare publicly disagree with the policy direction of the School Nutrition Association (SNA) you are in for an unpleasant surprise.  Your voice will likely be quashed…While SNA members have now been reprimanded and criticized for expressing divergent opinions through a sign-on letter, views held by SNA’s corporate sponsors seem to be welcome with open arms…Something is terribly amiss with the SNA leadership when a reasonable, respectful, member-driven request is quashed without even a discussion, while corporate sponsors are allowed to propose the association’s legislative positions. I strongly urge supportive SNA members to sign on to the open letter and ignore the intimidation tactics. The health of America’s schoolchildren, and the reputation of your organization, depends on it.

And so it does.

Oct 14 2014

Today’s food politics of Ebola

Ebola is much in the news, and for good reason.  It is highly contagious, difficult to contain, and deadly.

In food studies, we say that food is a lens through which to view the most important problems of society.  Here are some thoughts on the food politics of Ebola.

Dietary Supplements for Ebola Prevention or Treatment

The Council for Responsible Nutrition, the trade association for supplement manufacturers, has found it necessary to issue an advisory on use of dietary supplements to prevent or treat Ebola infections.

The American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA), the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), the Natural Products Association (NPA), and the United Natural Products Alliance (UNPA) are therefore endorsing the following unified advisory for marketers and retailers, as well as for consumers of dietary supplements:

  • Marketers and retailers of dietary supplements are urged to refuse to stock or sell any supplements that are presented as treating or curing Ebola virus disease, or preventing Ebola virus infection.
  • Marketers and retailers should refrain from promoting any dietary supplement as a cure or treatment for Ebola virus disease.
  • Anyone who believes they may have Ebola virus disease or may have come in contact with the Ebola virus should contact a healthcare professional immediately. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more information on Ebola virus disease and the proper actions to take if you suspect you are ill.

The knowledge that no known treatment exists for Ebola has not stopped supplement manufacturers from advertising the benefits of their products for this infection.

FDA Warning Letters

The FDA has stepped in and issued warning letters to three manufacturers marketing their products as possible treatments or cures.  The FDA letters, which make interesting reading, went to:

Marketing of Nutritional Supplements

A simple Google search of “supplements Ebola” turned up this kind of information this morning:

The Ebola virus can be destroyed naturally – despite what you’ve been told To date, not a single virus has been tested that is not inactivated (killed) by a large enough dose of vitamin C (ascorbic acid). Many other antioxidants have similar virucidal effects, but vitamin C appears uniquely to be of greatest potency and clinical efficacy, as its simple chemical structure allows for it to be disseminated throughout the body with little restriction… Vitamin C is both very potent and optimally bioavailable in accessing any viral infection.

And this:

The substances in the Natural Allopathic protocol for Ebola offer a power unequalled in the world of medicine that we can harness to save many lives of people infected with Ebola…. Magnesium salts, sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), iodine, selenium and vitamin C are concentrated nutritional medicinals that have been used in the direst of medical circumstances…The core of the Natural Allopathic protocol redefines the way emergency room and intensive care should be practiced on Ebola patients with proven fast-acting, safe, concentrated and mostly injectable nutritional medicines. If the Ebola infection truly gets out of hand, it is comforting for parents to know that they can legally administer these same medicinals if infected people are treated at home. All of the Natural Allopathic Medicines can be also taken orally or used transdermally (topically) to almost the same effect if treatment is started early enough.

How Can Supplement Makers Do This?

The ability of supplement manufacturers to claim health benefits for their products, and mostly get away with it, is a result of congressional action in passing the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), which essentially deregulated these products.

Twenty years later, the supplement industry is deeply divided between responsible and irresponsible manufacturers, both allowed by law.

As the president and CEO of one supplement company puts it,

The industry of 1994, roughly $8 billion in sales, has experienced compounded double-digit growth every year since DSHEA became law…DSHEA opened the door to growth, innovation, new science, new discovery and a nation of wanting consumers enchanted with the thought that there are natural solutions to their individual health needs…20 years later, it’s time to take a hard look at what DSHEA doesn’t provide to the industry today. The barrier to entry into this industry continues to have no hurdles; DSHEA does not define the boundaries of consumer trust… The generations of today, and the generations of tomorrow will demand transparency, they will demand efficacy, and they will demand quality and safety from all of us.

Clearly, they aren’t getting that now.

Other Connections to Food Politics

Chocolate

Politico writes:

EBOLA THREATENS WORLD’S CHOCOLATE SUPPLY:  Ivory Coast, the world’s largest producer of cacao, the raw ingredient in M&Ms, Butterfingers and Snickers Bars, has shut down its borders with Liberia and Guinea, putting a major crimp on the workforce needed to pick the beans that end up in chocolate bars and other treats just as the harvest season begins… the outbreak already could raise prices…Prices on cocoa futures jumped from their normal trading range of $2,000 to $2,700 per ton, to as high as $3,400 in September over concerns about the spread of Ebola to Côte D’Ivoire.

Food safety

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler points out that Ebola started out as a foodborne illness.    Its most likely source was infected bushmeat that transferred the virus to human handlers.

Following standard food safety procedures is always a good idea while hoping that health officials get this epidemic under control.

 

Oct 13 2014

Rules for calorie labeling on restaurant menus: where are they?

Remember menu labels?  We’ve had them in New York City since 2008.

In 2010, President signed national menu labeling into law as part of the Affordable Care Act.  The FDA proposed rules for labels in 2011, collected comments on the proposed rules, missed the July 3, 2014 deadline for issuing them, and by all reports sent them to the White House Office of Management and Budget last April.

What is the holdup?  Lobbying of course.

  • The delay on releasing the final rules is widely reported to be due to lobbying efforts by industry groups.  Known to have visited the White House and FDA officials are, among others, the Food Marketing Institute, Publix Super Market, Schnuck Markets, Kroger, Dominos Pizza, the Pizza Hut Franchise Association and Hungry Howies.
  • The Food Marketing Institute (FMI), the National Grocers Association (NGA) and Food Industry Association Executives (FIAE) held a lobbying “fly-in” to prevent FDA’s final menu labeling rule for calorie disclosures being extended to grocery stores.
  • A bill backed by the supermarket industry is the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act (H.R. 1249/S. 1756) which would require menu labeling only for establishments where the majority of business is derived from restaurant-type food.

As for whether menu labels do any good:

At the moment, studies of the effects of menu labeling are restricted to laboratory models or situations in New York and other cities that passed such laws within the last few years.

More definitive research must wait for the final FDA rules and their application.

How about releasing the rules soon?  They’ve been dragging on way too long.

 

 

Oct 7 2014

Start baking: In Search of the Perfect Loaf

Samuel Fromartz, In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey.  Viking, 2014.

 

Fromartz is a journalist, blogger (chewswise.com), and editor in chief of The Food and Environment Reporting Network.

I happily blurbed this one:

Fromartz is a passionate, deeply serious home baker who writes eloquently and gracefully about what it takes in skill and ingredients to produce a delicious baguette or country loaf.  His account of the history and comeback of heritage wheat grains is a revelation that will send even the most gluten-phobic reader to search for breads made from them.  Perfect Loaf is a lovely book–a perfect read for anyone who cares about good food.

Oct 6 2014

Mexico’s front-of-package food label: Eat more sugar!

Mexico has a new scheme for front-of-package labeling.

Take, for example, this label for Coca-Cola’s “green” Life drink, sweetened with sugar and Stevia.

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The label says:

Sugars

9 g

10%**

The asterisks take you to this explanation:

**Of the daily nutrients recommended based on a diet of 2000 calories

Huh?  Since when is sugar intake recommended?  Since when does 9 grams equal 10% of a recommended amount?

How is it possible that Mexico set a daily standard intake (equivalent to our Daily Value) of 90 grams (!)—nearly twice as much as the amount recommended as an upper limit by the World Health Organization  and many other international health authorities?

The answer: food politics, of course.

Most international health agencies recommend an upper limit for added sugars of 10% of calories (50 grams for a 2000-calorie diet).  They consider 5% (25 grams) even better for health and especially for dental health.

The Mexican label covers total sugars.  This hides the copious amounts added by food companies.  All of the sugar in Coca-Cola Life is added.

How did this happen?  From what I’ve heard,

  • Mexican public health authorities were not consulted about this standard.
  • Although public health scientists filed well-documented objections, these were ignored.
  • Critics are now under a gag order.  If they work for the government, they are not allowed to criticize the sugar label.

Officials of the Ministry of Health and the Mexican equivalent of the FDA have close ties to food companies.  They produced this label in collaboration with the food industry, with no input from independent public health experts.

For a country that leads the world in obesity prevention policies, this label is a huge embarrassment.  It should be fixed, immediately.

Ecuador, on the other hand, is using this front-of-package label.  Wouldn’t it be helpful if everyone did?

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