Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jul 14 2014

Are organic foods more nutritious? And is this the right question?

I received a press release last week announcing the release of a new meta-analysis of more than 300 studies comparing organically produced foods to those produced conventionally.  The results show that organic foods have:

  • Less pesticides: this is to be expected as they are not used in organic production.
  • Less cadmium: this also is to be expected as sewage sludge, a probable source of cadmium, is not permitted in organic production.
  • More antioxidants: this is news because some previous studies did not find higher levels of nutrients in organic foods.

I was interviewed by the New York Times about this study:

Even with the differences and the indications that some antioxidants are beneficial, nutrition experts said the “So what?” question had yet to be answered.

“After that, everything is speculative,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “It’s a really hard question to answer.”

Dr. Nestle said she buys organic foods, because she believes they are better for the environment and wants to avoid pesticides. “If they are also more nutritious, that’s a bonus,” she said. “How significant a bonus? Hard to say.”

She continued: “There is no reason to think that organic foods would be less nutritious than conventional industrial crops. Some studies in the past have found them to have more of some nutrients. Other studies have not. This one looked at more studies and has better statistics.”

Two additional comments:

1. The study is not independently funded.   One of the funders is identified as the Sheepdrove Trust, which funds research in support of organic and sustainable farming.

This study is another example of how the outcome of sponsored research invariably favors the sponsor’s interests.  The paper says “the  Trust  had  no  influence  on  the  design  and management of the  research  project  and  the  preparation  of publications  from the project,” but that’s exactly studies funded by Coca-Cola say.  It’s an amazing coincidence how the results of sponsored studies almost invariably favor the sponsor’s interests.  And that’s true of results I like just as it is of results that I don’t like.

2.  The purpose of the study is questionable.  The rationale for the study is “Demand for organic foods is partially driven by consumers’ perceptions that they are more nutritious.”  The implication here is that research must prove organics more nutritious in order to market them.  But most people who buy organics do so because they understand that organics are about production values.  As I said, if they are more nutritious, it’s a bonus, but there are plenty of other good reasons to prefer them.

Organic food 120714 WEB

Other resources:

Jul 11 2014

Weekend reading: Grass (the green kind)

Courtney White, Grass, Soil, Hope: A Journey through Carbon Country.  Chelsea Green, 2014.

New Picture

 

Courtney White, whom I do not know but would like to, describes himself as a former archaeologist and Sierra Club activist who became a producer of grass-fed beef, thereby catching on to the importance of grass for restoring nutrients to soil, reducing climate change, and feeding the planet.  Carbon, he says, is key and we can achieve all this with low-tech methods.

He visits a bunch of “new agrarians” who are managing carbon-conserving agriculture, from farms to rooftops.

We’re all carbon.  We live in a carbon universe.  We breathe carbon, eat carbon, use carbon products, profit from the carbon cycle, and suffer from the carbon poisoning taking place in our atmosphere…We could, for example, find ways to support the 2 percent of Americans who actively manage the soil portion of the carbon cycle.  There are a million ways to help them, starting with the power of the purchasing dollar.  Seek out the new agrarians and buy their products.  Better yet, get involved yourself.

He writes well, and convincingly.

Jul 9 2014

Annals of food law: Peanut Corporation of America

OK, everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty, and executives of the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) are getting their day in court, accompanied by an aggressive legal defense.

According to Food Safety News, PCA’s lawyers are claiming that the government’s requests for disclosure documents are so egregious that the case should be dismissed.

Here’s a comment on the case from Eat, Drink, Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics:

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Irony alert: “egregious” is precisely the word I used to describe PCA’s actions related to its Salmonella problems more than a year ago:

I’ve been following this particular food safety tragedy for several years now.  The offenses were so egregious—officials blatantly ignored positive tests for Salmonella, for example—that some kind of punishment seemed warranted.

According to the account in USA Today:

The indictment alleges that PCA officials affirmatively lied to their customers about the presence of salmonella in PCA’s products,” said Stuart Delery, principal deputy assistant attorney general.

Delery also said some officials at PCA, no longer in business, fabricated lab results certifying to customers that the products were salmonella free “even when tests showed the presence of salmonella or when no tests had been done at all.”

If you would like to catch up on this endlessly fascinating case, in which contaminated peanut butter made 714 people in 46 states sick, here’s Food Safety News’ year-old timeline of its events.

Jul 8 2014

Conflicts of interest in nutrition research:

Over the July 4th weekend, a reader sent a link to a paper about to be published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition titled Increased fruit and vegetable intake has no discernible effect on weight loss: a systematic review and meta-analysis.

I took a look at the abstract:

Studies to date do not support the proposition that recommendations to increase F/V intake or the home delivery or provision of F/Vs will cause weight loss. On the basis of the current evidence, recommending increased F/V consumption to treat or prevent obesity without explicitly combining this approach with efforts to reduce intake of other energy sources is unwarranted.

This would seem to make some sense, no?  But the dismissal of recommendations to increase fruit-and-vegetable consumption sent up red flags.

My immediate question: who paid for this study?

Here’s the conflict of interest statement.

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Note the presence of companies making processed foods whose sales would decline if people ate more F&V.

A coincidence?  I don’t think so, alas.

More evidence: just today, Bettina Siegel sent me her post on a paper sponsored by the Corn Refiners Association, once again with a predictable outcome.

When it comes to nutrition research, “guess the sponsor” is a game that is all too easy to win.

Jul 7 2014

Use of menu labeling: baseline data from USDA

USDA has a report out on consumers’ use of nutrition information in restaurants before the menu labeling law goes into effect.

What law?  The menu-labeling provision that is part of the Affordable Care Act still—four years later—waiting for the FDA to get around to issuing final rules (I last wrote about this in April 2013).

In 2011, the FDA proposed rules for public comment, and proposed final rules in 2013:

These too were opened for public comment with the process expected to be completed in February 2014.  Oops.  Missed that one.

Rumors are that the FDA is under pressure from pizza chains and movie theaters to be exempt from the final rules, and that the White House is holding them up.  The White House has had them for 90 days.  That’s supposed to be the limit.

According to Politico Pro Agriculture

It was three months ago today that the White House first received FDA’s final rules for calorie labels on menus and vending machines, and by the Office of Management and budget’s own rules, that means time is up. Interagency review at OMB is supposed to take no more than 90 days before the final release of a measure, though that timeframe is often extended with little explanation on more controversial initiatives. While OMB is always mum on its schedule for rule reviews and releases, the end of the standard review period is sometimes a hint that something will be coming, if not today — the day before a long weekend — then soon. In the meantime, brush up on the issue here: http://politico.pro/1mKNcFr and here: http://politico.pro/1lzZLDe

In the meantime, the USDA has done some research and come up with some interesting findings:

Among people who eat out, the ones most likely to use nutrition information on menu boards are those who:

  • Eat out less frequently
  • Have other healthy behaviors (such as having dark green vegetables at home).
  • Rate their diets as good.
  • Are women.
  • Participate in SNAP.

SNAP participants?  Really?  If true, SNAP participants are more eager for calorie information than the general population, and good for them!

These results explain much about the confusing findings from studies of New York City’s menu labeling law.  These generally find no overall effect although calorie labels have a big effect on people who are conscious of health to begin with (me, for example).

FDA: how about getting out the final rules?  Then we can sit back and watch USDA economists compare what’s happening to these baseline results.

Jul 3 2014

“Foodies” unite: happy 4th of July

Mark Bittman got my attention and cheers when he wrote about rethinking the word “foodie.”

I do wish there were a stronger, less demeaning-sounding word than “foodie” for someone who cares about good food, but as seems so often the case, there is not…shifting the implications of “foodie” means shifting our culture to one in which eaters — that’s everyone — realize that buying into the current food “system” means exploiting animals, people and the environment, and making ourselves sick. To change that, we have to change not only the way we behave as individuals but the way we behave as a society. It’s rewarding to find the best pork bun; it’s even more rewarding to fight for a good food system at the same time. That’s what we foodies do.

He also  got the attention of George Lakoff, the Berkeley linguist best known to me for his work on the importance of “framing” advocacy issues—describing them in ways that resonate emotionally.

Lakoff writes:

As a linguist, I know that the “-ie” suffix is a diminutive marker. It is added to children’s names, serves a trivializing function, and otherwise indicates nonserious pursuits (Barbie, Baggie, birdie, hoodie, selfie and so on). The word “foodie” has this element of English grammar built in and cannot be rescued as a term for a serious food advocate…Preparing, cooking and enjoying food connects us to all living things, to the wonders of life, and to the very serious responsibilities of a food advocate.

Let’s hear it for the “very serious responsibilities of a food advocate.”

Foodie that I am proud to be, I do indeed take these responsibilities seriously.

You too, I hope.

Enjoy the long, hot weekend, the fireworks, and the food, of course.

 

Jul 2 2014

University of California’s new Global Food Initiative

I was fascinated to read yesterday that the President of the University of California (my alma mater), Janet Napolitano,  presented plans for a new 10-campus food initiative  to the California State Board of Food and Agriculture.  I loved it that she made the announcement with Alice Waters at Berkeley’s Edible Schoolyard.

The UC Global Food Initiative, Napolitano said:

is a commitment to work collectively to put a greater emphasis on what UC can do as a public research university, in one of the most robust agricultural regions in the world, to take on one of the world’s most pressing issues.  The food initiative will build on UC’s tradition of innovative agricultural research to support farmers and ranchers. Future efforts will build on work already begun by UC’s 10 campuses and its Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Here’s what she says the UC Global Food Initiative will do:

  • Use collective purchasing power and dining practices to encourage sustainable farming practices, healthy eating, and zero food waste.
  • Put food pantries and farmers markets on all 10 campuses.
  • Partner with K-12 school districts to enhance leveraging procurement.
  • Integrate food issues into more undergraduate and graduate courses.
  • Develop catalogues of food-related courses.
  • Put demonstration gardens on each campus for experiential learning.
  • Mine data on California agriculture and response to climate change.
  • Allow small growers to serve as suppliers for UC campuses.

What fun!  Can’t wait to see how it works.

Good work Alice Waters!

I hope other universities—including mine—start copying.

Here’s the info:

Go Bears!

Jul 1 2014

Summer reading and cooking: Calories In, Calories Out

Catherine Jones and Elaine Trujillo.  The Calories In, Calories Out Cookbook: 200 Everyday Recipes That Take the Guesswork Out of Counting Calories – Plus, the Exercise It Takes to Burn Them Off.  The Experiment, 2014.

Screenshot 2014-07-01 09.08.14

Ordinarily, I don’t blurb or review cookbooks, but this one is introduced with a chapter on “Understanding the World of Calories” by my Why Calories Count co-author, Dr. Malden Nesheim.

Why Calories Count recommends understanding calories but most definitely does not recommend counting them.  They are too difficult to count accurately unless you weigh everything you are eating, and that’s not much fun for most people.

But if you happen to enjoy counting calories, this book is for you.  It does several clever things:

  • It arranges the recipes by calories from 0-199 per serving to 300-399 per serving.
  • For every recipe, it gives calories, a few other nutrients, and diabetes exchanges.
  • For every recipe, it also lists the kinds and duration of physical activity needed to balance the calories.
  • It gives ways of fiddling with the recipes to adjust calories.
  • It answers FAQs about calories.
  • It lists gluten-free options.

On top of all that, the book is beautifully designed and illustrated, exceptionally easy to read, and scientifically sound.

Even better, the recipes are easy to follow and look delicious.

Let me give one example: creamy chocolate pots (Pots de Crème)

  • 148 calories in: These have 3 grams of protein, 16 of carbohydrates, 8 of fat, and 2 of fiber; 24 milligrams of sodium, 1 carb choice, 1 whole milk diabetic exchange.
  • 148 calories out: Women need to walk 36 minutes or jog 17 minutes.  Men need to walk 30 minutes or jog 14 minutes.

Anyone reading this book will learn a lot about nutrition and calorie balance.

Anyone who enjoys calorie numerology, will have a lot of fun with this book.

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