Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Mar 19 2014

Is saturated fat a problem? Food for debate.

What is a poor eater to do?

The latest meta-analysis of the effects of saturated fat on heart disease finds—none.

This study, reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine (doi: 10.7326/M13-1788), examined the results of

  • 32 observational studies involving 530 525 participants
  • 17 observational studies involving 25 721 participants
  • 27 randomized controlled trials involving 103 052 participants

The result?

Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats. 

This meta-analysis follows an editorial in a Mayo Clinic publication (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.mayocp.2013.11.006) by authors who argue that saturated fat is not the problem.  Carbohydrates (e.g., sugars) are the problem.  The authors argue:

  • Effects of saturated fat on blood cholesterol are weak and transient.
  • Meta-analyses have found a lack of an association between heart disease mortality and saturated fat intake.
  • Stroke studies find that patients with stroke had eaten less saturated fat.
  • Long-term studies find that people with the highest dairy consumption have the lowest mortality risk, and also low diabetes and heart disease.
  • Dietary trials find trivial or no benefit at all from decreasing saturated fat and/or increasing intake of polyunsaturated fat.

On this basis, they say that advice to reduce intake of saturated fat is irrational.

The New York Times asked several experts for comment on the meta-analysis, among them Dr. Frank Hu of Harvard:

The single macronutrient approach is outdated…I think future dietary guidelines will put more and more emphasis on real food rather than giving an absolute upper limit or cutoff point for certain macronutrients…people should try to eat foods that are typical of the Mediterranean diet, like nuts, fish, avocado, high-fiber grains and olive oil.

Dr. Hu was referring to a large clinical trial (not included in the meta-analysis), which concluded that a diet with more nuts and extra virgin olive oil reduced heart attacks and strokes when compared with a lower fat diet with more starches.

The Times story contained a reminder that the American Heart Association issued dietary guidelines last year to “restrict saturated fat to as little as 5 percent of their daily calories, or roughly two tablespoons of butter or two ounces of Cheddar cheese for the typical person eating about 2,000 calories a day.”

How to make sense of this?

I vote with Frank Hu that dietary advice should focus on food, not nutrients.

Focusing on one or another nutrient—fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, or sugar—takes foods out of their caloric as well as dietary context.

My guess: If you balance food intake with physical activity and are not overeating, the specific proportion of fat, carbohydrate, and protein won’t matter nearly as much.

While the arguments about fat v. sugar go on and on:  Eat your veggies, vary the foods you eat, don’t gorge, and enjoy what you eat.

Mar 18 2014

And on the GMO labeling front…

The food industry is so worried about the prospect of GMO labeling that companies have banded together to try an end run.  According to Politico

The coalition is calling for legislation that would require mandatory premarket approval of GMO food ingredients by FDA and grant authority to the agency to label products that raise safety concerns, set up a voluntary program for food companies to label foods that are GMO free, include GMO ingredients in a definition of “natural” foods and preempt state labeling laws.

Voluntary, of course, means that companies can voluntarily not label and maintain the status quo.

Considering GMO foods as “natural” is unlikely to go over well with anyone who already thinks that calling high fructose corn syrup “natural” is a stretch.

As for preempting state labeling laws, here’s what the industry is up against—a plethora of proposals—here summarized by  Politico Morning Agriculture:

- Rhode Island: H 7042, would require food and seed that contains more than .09 percent GMO ingredients to be labeled. The bill further defines “natural” to mean GMO-free.  

- Missouri: SB533 seeks to require the labeling of all genetically modified meat and fish raised and sold in the state.

- Vermont:  MA has already reported on the introduction last week in Vermont’s Senate of H. 112, a House-passed bill that would require GMO food labeling.  State Sen. Eldred French (D) has introduced S. 289, which would make manufacturers and growers of GMO crops liable for trespassing and damages should their seed drift into other fields:

- Washington: While voters in the Evergreen State knocked down a GMO labeling ballot initiative last fall, lawmakers are pushing for a narrower labeling effort that focuses on specifically protecting the state’s salmon fisheries in the event that FDA approves the genetically engineered AquaAdvantage Salmon. State Rep. Cary Condotta (R) has introduced HB 2143, which would require the labeling of GMO salmon:

- Alaska: State Rep. Geran Tarr (D) has introduced HB 215, which would require the labeling of foods with GMO ingredients with exceptions for animal feed, alcohol and foods processed with GE enzymes. The bill also would create an exemption from labeling forgenetically modified fish or genetically modified fish products”:

- Florida: SB 558 would require that by Jan. 1, 2016, GMO food items for sale in the state be labeled in text printed underneath the product’s ingredient list. The bill contains exceptions for animal feed, alcohol and processed food that a GMO ingredient does not account for “more than one-half of 1 percent of the total weight.”

- West Virginia: Mountain State lawmakers are set to consider three GMO bills — a labeling measure, a seed and crop disclosure initiative, and a liability measure for contamination crops at another agricultural operation.

- 2013 labeling bill carryovers: A labeling bill in Hawaii’s House of Representatives, HB 174, which was introduced last January, could see some action this year as efforts by many of the islands each tackle the cultivation of GMOs could spur action by the state house on the issue. Also, a labeling bill in Illinois, SB 1666, has picked up 12 cosponsors, many of them signing on just this fall.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) seems to think that GMO labeling initiatives are winning.  It is now calling for “open dialogue.”  

And if the mandatory ballot labeling activity in more than 30 states in 2013 is any indication, the anti-GMO message is getting through. There are three components common to all these legislative efforts and ballot initiatives: they are framed as consumers’ “right to know;” they exempted alcohol, dairy, meat and restaurant food; and they would allow lawsuits based on asserted non-compliance.

I still don’t get it.  What are the food and biotechnology industries so afraid of?

They think GMOs solve major world food problems.  If so, what’s to hide? 

Mar 17 2014

The battles over school food: cupcakes again.

In devising science-based nutrition standards for school meals, USDA’s goal was to promote healthier diets.

You might think everyone would rally around proposals to help America’s kids grow up healthier, but no.  Special interests are at stake.

Jerry Hagstrom writes that “First Lady has food industry in a frenzy.”

Over the decades the food industry, school food service directors, farmers, and the rest of agribusiness have won many battles with nutritionists and the medical profession over government policies on what Americans should eat.

Interesting lineup of allies, no?

Last week, Congress held a hearing on all the complaints it’s getting about school meals.

Politico Morning Agriculture reports that the issue is cupcakes—again.

THE CUPCAKES ARE SAFE: The Department of Agriculture does not intend its proposed rules on the marketing or sale of junk foods in schools to prohibit class treats, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said during a hearing held by the House appropriations agriculture subcommittee Friday.

“We are not going to stop mom or dad from bringing in cupcakes,” Vilsack said.

The arguments over school food are not about kids’ health.

They are about who makes the most money from taxpayer subsidies of school meals.

School food service directors are on the wrong side of this one, alas.

Mar 14 2014

Weekend reading: Balancing on a Planet

David A. Cleveland.  Balancing on a Planet: The Future of Food and Agriculture.  University of California Press, 2014.

Here’s my blurb for this one:

In Balancing on a Planet, David Cleveland sets forth the evidence for this plea: if our world is to have a future, we must engage in serious critical thinking about the practices and consequences of our current food system and find immediate ways to transform it to one that is more sustainable.

Mar 13 2014

No, the FDA has not approved Sweetmyx: another reason to fix the GRAS regs

Yesterday, Emily Main of Rodale Press sent me this question:

Have you ever heard of this new “sweetness enhancer” that just got approved by the FDA? It’s called Sweetmyx and is made by a company called Senomyx, and is apparently licensed by Pepsi for exclusive use.  All I can really find out about it is that it enhances the sweet flavor of other sugars, so soda companies can use less sugar in their regular products…Do you have any insight about it?

Nope.  Never heard of it..  All I could find out was that Pepsi had an exclusive deal to use it, according to a Bloomberg report.

Sweetmyx, a new ingredient by Senomyx Inc. (SNMX), received approval for foods and beverages, clearing the way for PepsiCo Inc. (PEP) to use it to make lower-sugar beverages taste sweeter.

The Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association’s expert panel has determined that Sweetmyx is generally recognized as safe as an ingredient, San Diego-based Senomyx said today in a statement. PepsiCo has the exclusive right to use the product, a so-called flavor modifier, in many nonalcoholic drinks under a 2010 agreement.

While I was trying to discover what Sweetmyx is, exactly, this notice came in from the FDA: 

On March 11, 2014, Senomyx, Inc. issued a public statement suggesting that its food ingredient Sweetmyx (also known as S617) was generally recognized as safe (GRAS). The statement appeared to suggest that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had made the GRAS determination. In fact, the agency had not made this determination nor had it been notified by Senomyx regarding a GRAS determination for this food ingredient. The company’s statement has been corrected and now notes that a third party organization made the determination.

A company can make an independent GRAS determination without notifying the FDA. However, the agency does have a voluntary GRAS notification program whereby a company can inform the FDA of the company’s determination. The FDA maintains an inventory of such GRAS Notices on its website, allowing the public to confirm whether FDA has filed and responded to a GRAS notice.

When making a GRAS self-determination, companies should not state or imply that the FDA has made a GRAS determination on their food ingredients.

For more information on the GRAS notification process, please see: Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS).

Recall from one of my previous posts the shocking gap in FDA regulatory authority over GRAS determinations.

  • Manufacturers get to decide whether food additives are safe or not.
  • Manufacturers get to decide whether to bother to tell the FDA the additives are in the food supply, and even if they do.
  • Manufacturers get to decide who sits on the panels that review the evidence for safety.

In the case of Sweetmyx, the company’s consultant says it’s safe so why bother to see if the FDA agrees.

My questions:

  • Pepsi: don’t you want FDA approval before putting this stuff in your drinks?
  • Chemists: what is Sweetmyx anyway?
  • FDA: don’t you think you ought to take a look at this thing?
  • Congress: how about insisting that the FDA establish a better system for dealing with food additives

Hey, I can dream.

Additions, March 14:

A reader reminds me that the Center for Food Safety filed a lawsuit to get the FDA to do a better job on GRAS determinations (more information is here).

Another reader points out that Coca-Cola also was flirting with Senomyx a few years ago but evidently gave up the idea.

And another notes that Senomyx’s financial report makes it clear that the company knows it has regulatory issues: “Senomyx may be asked to complete additional studies to evaluate and/or monitor the safety of new flavor ingredients in order to maintain applicable regulatory approvals and/or obtain regulatory approvals outside of the United States.”

Mar 11 2014

Betting on Herbalife and hedging the bet

Skeptic of the value of dietary supplements that I am, I cannot help feeling sorry for Herbalife.

The company sells protein shakes and snacks, vitamins and dietary supplements, and energy and fitness drinks which, it says, “combined with healthy eating and exercise, can help you lead a healthy, active life.”

Yes indeed, healthy eating and exercise will do that for you every time.

But Herbalife has become the victim of a bizarre hedge fund bet and its consequences.

In what is one of the most blatant conflicts of interest besetting a food product, a hedge fund manager, William Ackman, made a billion dollar “short” bet that Herbalife’s stock would fall.

When the stock did not do so immediately, Mr. Ackman set out to destroy the company’s reputation to force its stock down.

He even got members of Congress, including Senator Edward Markey (Dem-Massachusetts) to call for an investigation of the company’s marketing practices, an action that caused a 14-point drop in the stock.

This decidedly unsavory story was the subject of a New York Times investigative report yesterday: “Staking $1 Billion That Herbalife Will Fail, Then Lobbying to Bring It Down.”

The company has grown into a global powerhouse, with a worldwide team of more than three million so-called members and distributors who operate as independent contractors through a system that rewards many of them not only based on actual sales, but also on their ability to recruit more distributors.

The sales tactic, popular with many nutritional supplement companies, has frequently been the target of criticism. In 1986, California authorities issued an order prohibiting Herbalife from making false claims about the weight-loss powers of its nutritional drinks.

Herbalife reported sales of $4 billion in 2012 and is sold in more than 90 countries by distributors who earn profits on product sales and additional commissions from a “multi-level marketing” compensation structure.

Ackman argues that this is a pyramid scheme that particularly disadvantages Hispanic distributors and customers.  Other hedge funds disagree and have placed “long” bets on Herbalife.

This is food politics at a breathtaking level of income.  The Times story is well worth a look.

Mar 10 2014

The farm bill promotes fruits and vegetables? Really?

I was surprised to read in yesterday’s New York Times that the farm bill was full of goodies for fruits, vegetables, and organics.

While traditional commodities subsidies were cut by more than 30 percent to $23 billion over 10 years, funding for fruits and vegetables and organic programs increased by more than 50 percent over the same period, to about $3 billion.

I took a quick look at the cost accounting.  Giving these program listings the benefit of the doubt:

TITLE AND PROGRAM $ MILLIONS/10 YEARS
SNAP
  Assistance for community food projects     36
  Food insecurity nutrition incentive   100
  Pilot for canned, frozen fruits, vegetables       5
Organic
  Research and extension   100
  Specialty crop research   745
  Beginning farmer development   100
  Foundation for Food and Ag Research   200
Horticulture
  Farmers market, local food promotion   150
  Organic ag and tech upgrade     10
  Organic product promotion order     61
  Plant pest and disease management   193
  Specialty crop block grants   270
Miscellaneous
  Outreach to socially disadvantaged producers     50

 

Even stretching the items like this, it’s $2 billion over ten years, not 3.   $2 billion is good; $3 would be better.

What am I missing here?

This morning, Politico Pro Agriculture summarized what states are doing to promote local food production:

Arizona: HB 2233 would create a task force to develop recommendations for how the state can improve the quality and nutrition of food sold in state facilities, including suggestions for promoting locally grown food: http://1.usa.gov/1qniAzl

Hawaii: HB 1184 seeks to set a state-wide food sustainability standard to be achieved by 2025 that would increase the availability of locally grown and produced foods to reduce the state’s reliance on imports. The standard would be set at a level double the cash farm receipts that are produced in 2015: http://1.usa.gov/1oDB9LL

HR 82 and its senate companion SCR 6 calls on the state departments of agriculture and education to develop a farm-to-school program that would provide locally grown produce to public school salad bars: http://1.usa.gov/1h4Yq6v

SB 524 similarly seeks to create an agricultural development and food security program under an existing economic development statute that would seek to increase demand for and access to locally grow foods through promotional campaigns and improving infrastructure, among other things: http://1.usa.gov/1fiiYWP

Iowa: H2426 seeks to promote small farmers through a new financial assistance program, a marketing program, a revolving grant program and a property tax exemption for farmers who sell their products to state facilities or schools. The measure also calls for state facilities, when cost effective, to purchase from local farmers: http://bit.ly/1hYHJMg

Kansas: SB 380 aims to create a local food and farm task force to develop funding and policy recommendations for supporting and expanding local food production. The task force would be required to issue a report to the legislature by the beginning of the 2016 legislative session: http://bit.ly/1fP9Lv9

New Jersey: SR 44 calls on state and local government entities to purchase locally made food and products: http://bit.ly/1dG8XX4

Michigan: HB 4487 would amend an economic development statute to include the creation and funding of programs to promote local agriculture: http://1.usa.gov/1oDBkH5

Mississippi: HB 1556 would provide a state income tax credit to grocers that amounts to 25 percent of the cost of purchasing locally grown and produced products starting in 2014: http://bit.ly/OaTaWq

Missouri: HB 2088 would create a “Farm-to-School Program” within the department of agriculture to help facilitate the use of locally grown produce in school meal programs through a website and database that would link farmers and schools. The bill, which was introduced March 5, sets up a task force that is charged with developing recommendations for the program: http://on.mo.gov/1fij1SA

New Jersey: SR 44 calls on state and local government entities to purchase locally made food and products: http://bit.ly/1dG8XX4

Rhode Island: H7494 would create a task force for developing recommendations on how to improve the nutrition of food sold at state facilities, including promoting locally grown products: http://bit.ly/1fwAA0W

Lest we forget, the Center for Responsive Politics produced these statistics on farm bill lobbying:

  • 325. Number of companies and organizations registered as lobbyists in 2013 to work on the Senate’s farm bill through the end of October 2013 — the fifth-most of any legislation
  • 111.5 million.  Amount “agribusiness” spent on lobbying in the same period, more than even the defense industry and labor unions.
  • 93 million.  Amount companies and individuals in agriculture made about in campaign donations during the 2012 presidential campaign.

If we want the next farm bill to promote fruits and vegetables (a.k.a. specialty crops), we need to start working on it right now.

Mar 7 2014

Universal school meals? Not quite, alas.

Last week during the rollout of all the accomplishments of Let’s Move!, I wrote enthusiastically about one of them: universal school meals.

I pointed out that schools in which 40% or more of children are eligible for free or reduced-price meals will now be permitted to serve free breakfasts and free lunches to every student in the school, regardless of family income.  Oops.

And I said: This program, which will affect 22,000 U.S. schools and 9 million children, is cost-neutral.  Oops again.

Ain’t necessarily so, not so simple, it’s complicated—objected four readers who know a lot more about the arcane rules for school meal reimbursement.

  • My first error: the 40% refers only to kids eligible for free meals, not reduced-price.
  • Second error: because of the reimbursement formula used by USDA, cost-neutrality does not kick in until 60-65% of the kids are eligible for free meals.

Let’s hope I get it right this time.

Readers explained that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 authorized a Community Eligibility Provision.  This allowed schools serving mostly low-income children to serve all meals to all children at no cost.

USDA reimburses the schools using a formula based on the percentage of students identified as eligible for free meals as certified by some other means-tested program such as SNAP or being homeless.

USDA rolled the program out gradually in pilot projects.  Seven states participated in 2013.

The idea was that if the pilot projects were successful–which they were–the program would be available to all states by 2014-15.

My take: school districts with lots of low-income kids ought to be doing this, but making the programs pay for themselves requires high levels of outreach and involvement.

Advocates:

  • Get your school districts to apply.
  • Work with the schools to make the food so good that all kids will want to eat it.
  • Tell USDA you want to get rid of the complications: authorize universal meals for all school children

A challenge?  Yes, but worth it.

As I pointed out, universal school meals put an end to:

  • USDA paperwork requirements for ensuring eligibility.
  • Parents having to fill out complicated eligibility forms.
  • Schools having to monitor to make sure kids’ families have turned in the paperwork or paid.
  • Schools turning away kids whose families haven’t paid.
  • Schools destroying the meals of kids whose families haven’t paid.
  • Students knowing who gets free meals, and who does not.

These new rules are a step in that direction and deserve advocacy support.

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