Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Apr 11 2016

The strange story of my accepted but yet-to-be published commentary on a Disney-sponsored study gets stranger

Last week, StatNews.com revealed that the Walt Disney company tried to withdraw a research study it had funded because its University of Colorado authors, Jim Hill and John Peters, were behind the Global Energy Balance Network, the group funded by Coca-Cola to minimize the role of sugary drinks in obesity.

The headline: “Disney, fearing a scandal, tried to press journal to withdraw research paper.”

StatNews.com based the story on e-mails obtained from the University of Colorado by Gary Ruskin of US Right to Know through open records requests.

An e-mail from John Peters to a Disney representative says “could I ask you to look this [draft press release] over and edit as you see fit.”

But the authors’ conflict-of-interest disclosure statement says:

This work was supported by the Walt Disney Company and by the National Institutes of Health (grant no. DK48520). The Walt Disney Company and the National Institutes of Health had no role in the design, analysis, or writing of this article.

This may be strictly true, but the authors were asking Disney to approve their press release, which is not exactly “no role.”

Readers: does any of this sound familiar?  In February, I wrote a blog post about precisely this article for which I wrote an invited Commentary, accepted by the journal but not published.  I said:

The paper turned out to be by a group of authors, among them John Peters and Jim Hill, both members of the ill-fated Global Energy Balance Network, the subject of an investigation by the New York Times last August…I thought Disney’s sponsorship of this research and its withholding of critical baseline and sales data on kids’ meals that the company considered proprietary did indeed deserve comment, and wrote my piece accordingly.  Brian Wansink [the journal editor] soon accepted it for publication but to my surprise, gave it to Peters et al. for rebuttal.  They filed a lengthy response.  I was then given the opportunity to respond, and did so, briefly.

My Commentary—and the back-and-forth—were omitted (although they are online and will be published in a later issue, apparently).

Brian Wansink wrote colleagues who are editing the next issue of the journal that the back-and-forth debate over the article “was heated, and it also dragged on (because of Disney approvals) and – as we feared – it missed the deadline of our issue.”

This suggests that Disney had even more of an involvement, but when I asked Wansink if Disney approvals were responsible for his having dropped my Commentary, he said no, they just ran out of room.

We now know that Disney was more involved than disclosed.  How involved?  We dont know but perhaps other e-mails will surface to answer that question.

In their Rebuttal to my Commentary, Hill and Peters said

We were disappointed by Dr. Nestle’s assertion that Disney’s decision to not allow publication of kid’s park attendance numbers or raw kid’s meal sales numbers (because of their proprietary nature in the competitive business of theme parks) and the fact that Disney funded the study raises “red flags” about the veracity of the data presented…While we believe caution and transparency are always key ingredients when working with industry we also believe that solving the obesity problem will require finding a productive model for working together that can channel everyone’s energy toward finding solutions.  The Disney study is a good example of why partnering with industry can help move the field forward.

I am sorry I disappointed them, but I disagree.

The e-mails demonstrate even more forcefully that the Disney study is a good example of why partnering with industry should raise acres of red flags.

To repeat my response:

The response from Peters and Hill still fails to acknowledge the severity of the problems posed by Disney’s sponsorship of their research—the company’s failure to produce data essential for proper interpretation of study results, and the level to which sponsorship by food companies biases such interpretations.  At one point, Disney boasted of the results of this research, confirming its benefit to marketing goals.  The threat of industry sponsorship to research credibility has received considerable press attention in recent months, as must surely be known to these authors. [References one and two]. 

Because of Disney’s funding, the company must have thought it had the right to determine whether and how its funded study would be published.  And, as these e-mails reveal, therein lies the problem.

Apr 8 2016

Weekend reading: Krishnendu Ray’s The Ethnic Restaurateur (Bloomsbury, 2016)

Full disclosure.  I recruited Krishnendu Ray to NYU (for good reason as you can see from this interview in the Washington Post) and he is now my department chair.

With that said, I greatly admire what he’s done in this book, which is to cast a sociological eye on immigrants to the United States who get their start by using what they know of their own food tastes and traditions to open and run restaurants of the “ethnic” variety in today’s terminology.

Ray argues here (and elsewhere) that the contributions of immigrants to modern food culture are largely ignored by academics and critics who view

discussions of taste as marginal to the real lives of marginal peoples. In this conception, poor, hard-working people can teach us about poverty and suffering, hierarchy and symbolic violence, but never about taste…As a consequence, taste loses its contested and dynamic character, and…even its fundamentally sociological nature. As labor and immigrant historians have shown us repeatedly, good food matters to poor people, perhaps even more than it does to the rich and the powerful.

In his book, Ray draws on his readings, experience teaching at the Culinary Institute of America, and on interviews with cooks from China, India, Italy, and elsewhere to examine their motivations, experiences, and attitudes about the food they prepare and serve.  He says

Nothing devalues a cuisine more than proximity to subordinate others.  That explains not only the rise, fall, and rise again of Italian cuisine in America, but also the difficulty of Chinese, Mexican, and Soul food to break away, in dominant American eyes, from the contamination effect of low-class association.  Poor, mobile people are rarely accorded cultural capital.  The circulation of taste through the social architecture of class and race allows for the creation of a subcultural niche, say for the best taco, genuine dim-sum, or most authentic fried chicken, yet rarely assures a position among elite food cultures. [p. 97]

After reading this book, I find myself paying much more attention to the ethnic restaurants in my neighborhood, and thinking about who owns them, who works in them, and why and how they arrived at their menus.  This book will change the way you think about them too.

Here is Krishnendu Ray on WNYC to explain why some cuisines—French in particular—are more expensive than most “ethnic” cuisines.

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.

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