Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Feb 18 2014

To start the work week: “Caffeinated”

Murray Carpenter.  Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts, and Hooks Us.  Hudson Street Press, 2014.

I learned some things I didn’t know about caffeine from this book, which is why I blurbed it:

Caffeinated is a surprising exposé of the “caffeine industrial complex,” the industry that markets this substance in every form it can.  This book compellingly argues that the health hazards of excessive caffeine intake need more attention and better regulation.  I’m convinced.  You will be too.

Feb 17 2014

In Memorium: Sid Caesar

Thanks to Deborah Szekeley for forwarding this link to an evening in the 1950s when Sid Caesar, who died last week, went to dinner with Imogene Coca at a health food restaurant in New York.

Perhaps it is still open?

 

Feb 14 2014

President’s Day Weekend Reading: The Diet Fix

Yoni Freedhoff.  The Diet Fix: Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work.  Harmony Books, 2014.

Ordinarily I don’t pay much attention to diet books but this one comes from the Canadian obesity physician, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, whose Weighty Matters blog is fun to read and well worth following.

The key to healthy dieting, he says, is to avoid dieting’s seven deadly sins: hunger, sacrifice, willpower, restriction, sweat, perfectionism, and denial.

This sounds hopeful.

Instead, you are to reset your relationship with food forever, starting with a 10-day preliminary experiment in which you get ready, keep a diary, banish hunger, cook, think, exercise, indulge, eat out, and set goals.  Then you move forward, one day at a time.

“You absolutely CAN do this,” he says.

This is a seriously mindful weight-loss program that works well for his patients.  It ought to.

Give it a try?

The book even comes with recipes.

Feb 12 2014

Sugar v. HFCS: How I got involved in this lawsuit

Eric Lipton of the New York Times, who wrote Monday’s revelation of how the National Restaurant Association funds front groups to fight a raise in the minimum wage, has just topped that story.

Today, he writes an enlightening account of the legal battles between sugar and HFCS trade associations over marketing issues, in which I seem to have played a part.  The story quotes me:

Marion Nestle, a New York University professor and nutrition expert named in several documents [scroll down to "Using Marion Nestle"] as someone whom corn industry executives sought to influence, said the role both industries played was unfortunate.

“It is a plague on both of their houses,” she said, adding that she felt manipulated by the corn refiners industry, which used her statements to defend its products. “It is a disgusting performance neither should be proud of.”

Mr. Lipton sent me two of the documents last night (letters from Audrae Erickson of the Corn Refiners Association to Larry Hobbs of the Institute of Beverage Technologists, and to J. Justin Wilson of Rick Berman’s public relations arm of the Center for Consumer Freedom).

Here’s my recollection of how I ended up in this lawsuit:

Yes, I argue that the science shows that sucrose (table sugar) and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) contain the same sugars—glucose and fructose—and do much the same things in the body.  I think everyone would be better off eating a lot less of either.  I repeated this in many blog posts over the years.

Sometime in 2010, Christopher Speed, then director of food and nutrition sciences at Ogilvy Public Relations, asked if I would meet with his client, Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association (CRA).  I agreed, provided the CRA make a contribution to the NYU library’s food studies collection for cataloging expenses.  This turned out to be $1,500.  We met.

Shortly after that, my statements about the equivalence of sucrose and HFCS appeared on the Corn Refiners’ website.

I asked to have the comments removed.

Ms. Erickson’s response?  My comments were public and if I wanted them removed I could take the CRA to court.

That ended our correspondence.

From Mr. Lipton’s account I learned for the first time of the CRA’s involvement with the Center for Consumer Freedom (see previous blog posts).

This explains what had been a great mystery.  The Center for Consumer Freedom has not exactly been my great fan.  It features me under ActivistCash, and usually has rather unpleasant things to say about my work and opinions.

But with respect to my opinions about sucrose v. HFCS, its comments were quite complimentary.  I should have realized that CRA was paying the Center, via Berman, to do this.

I was also fascinated to learn:

  • The CRA spent $30 million since 2008 on public relations.
  • Of that, $10 million funded research by James Rippe to prove HFCS is no different from sucrose (something you would learn from any basic biochemistry textbook).
  • Mr. Rippe got a $41,000 monthly retainer from the CRA.

Clearly, I should have asked for a lot bigger donation to our library.

Thanks Eric Lipton, for terrific investigative reporting.  Please do more of these.

Addition, July 28, 2014: I’m cleaning up files and just came across the two excellent articles in the Washington Post on the “soft lobbying” war between The Sugar Association and the Corn Refiners, and on how “the sweetener wars got very, very sour.”  Sour, indeed.

Feb 11 2014

Room for Debate: CVS to stop selling cigarettes

The New York Times Room for Debate blog asked me to comment on What other unhealthy products should CVS stop selling?

Here’s my response: Next, Cut the Soda and Junk Food.

Good for CVS! Cigarettes are in a class by themselves. The evidence that links cigarette smoking to lung cancer and other serious health problems is overwhelming, unambiguous and incontrovertible. So is the evidence that the mere presence of cigarettes is sufficient to create demand, especially among young people.

When the anti-cigarette smoking movement began, the issues were simple: stop people from starting to smoke and get people who smoked to stop — by making it difficult, uncomfortable and expensive for smokers to continue their habit. The ultimate goal? Put cigarette companies out of business. This, of course, has been politically impossible, not least because cigarette companies pay such high taxes.

If CVS wants to promote health, it could increase sales of healthy snacks, and stop selling sugary foods and drinks.

Although there are many parallels in company marketing practices, food is not tobacco. For all tobacco products, the response is simple: stop. Food is more complicated. We must eat to survive. A great number of foods meet nutritional needs. The evidence that links a particular food product to health is often uncertain. This is because each food is only one component of a diet that contains many foods in a lifestyle that might involve other factors that affect health: activity, alcohol, drugs, stress and let’s not forget genetics.

With that said, if CVS really wants to promote health, it could consider increasing its sales of fruits, vegetables and healthy snacks, and stop selling sodas, ice cream, chips and other junk foods. Those foods may not have the same bad effect on health as tobacco, but eating too much of them on a regular basis is associated with weight gain, obesity and the conditions for which obesity is a risk factor, like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. If CVS wants to counter obesity, dropping soft drinks is a good place to start. They have scads of sugars, and kids who drink them regularly take in more calories, are fatter and have worse diets than kids who do not.

Feb 10 2014

We have a farm bill at last, for better or worse

On Friday, President Obama signed the Agriculture Act of 2014, a.k.a. the farm bill.

 The green object on the left is a John Deere tractor.  Why is it there?

The John Deere company:

The bill has 12 titles or sections:

  1. Commodities
  2. Conservation
  3. Trade
  4. Nutrition
  5. Credit
  6. Rural Development
  7. Research, Extension, and Related Matters
  8. Forestry
  9. Energy
  10. Horticulture
  11. Crop Insurance
  12. Miscellaneous

I took a quick look at what’s new in Title 4: Nutrition—the part that deals with SNAP.  Here are a few of its details [with my comments]:

Sec. 4001. Preventing payment of cash to recipients of supplemental nutrition assistance benefits for the return of empty bottles and cans used to contain food purchased with benefits provided under the program.  [This closes a loophole but hardly seems worth the trouble---how much cash is involved here?  And won't it be impossible to enforce?]

Sec. 4018.  No funds authorized to be appropriated under this Act shall be used by the Secretary for recruitment activities designed to persuade an individual to apply for supplemental nutrition assistance program benefits. [This one is especially troubling, as it eliminates USDA outreach activities to people who might be eligible for benefits but don't know about them.]

Sec. 4028. Nutrition education is to include physical activity in addition to healthy food choices.  [Translation: Focus obesity-prevention efforts on activity, not on making fewer purchases of junk foods and sodas.]

Sec. 4202.  The Secretary [of USDA] shall conduct a pilot project…[to] facilitate the procurement of unprocessed fruits and vegetables in not more than 8 States. [It's only a pilot program but it's to promote local farm-to-school programs! Score this one as a small win.] 

Sec. 4204.  Not later than the 2020 report [on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans] and in each report thereafter, the Secretaries [of USDA and HHS] shall include national nutritional and dietary information and guidelines for pregnant women and children from birth until the age of 2.  [I'm baffled by this one.  Current Guidelines apply to everyone over the age of 2 and already contain advice for pregnant women.  I doubt this is meant to make sure that the Guidelines advise parents to avoid giving sodas to kids under the age of 2.]

Sec. 4208. Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive.  This provides for competitive matching grants to increase the purchase of fruits and vegetables by SNAP participants.  [As discussed by Michele Simon and Daniel Bowman Simon, the bill does not necessarily favor local foods or purchases at farmers' markets, and the size of the incentive is unclear.]

Sec. 4209.  Food and agriculture service learning program…to increase capacity for food, garden, and nutrition education within host organizations or entities and school cafeterias and in the classroom.  The USDA is to award competitive grants to entities that have a proven track record; work in underserved rural and urban communities; teach and engage children in experiential learning about agriculture, gardening, nutrition, cooking, and where food comes from; and facilitate a connection between elementary schools and secondary schools and agricultural producers in the local and regional area. [This must mean Food Corps.  The bill authorizes $25 million until spent, but the funding is not mandatory.  Will it be funded?  Fingers crossed.]

Sec. 4213.  Pulse crop products.  The [USDA] Secretary shall purchase eligible pulse crops and pulse crop products for use in the school lunch program…[and] the school breakfast program. [Bean growers---soybean growers?---must be doing some effective lobbying.]

Sec. 4214. The Secretary shall carry out a pilot project in schools participating in the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program…in not less than 5 States, to evaluate the impact of allowing schools to offer canned, frozen, or dried fruits and vegetables.  [It looks like the frozen food industry is also doing some effective lobbying.  Frozen vegetables are fine, but not if they mean giving up fresh ones.]

—Thanks to Daniel Bowman Simon for pointing out some of these issues and for providing links to relevant sources.

Feb 7 2014

Coca-Cola marketing scores again

Far be it from me to defend Coca-Cola’s advertisements.  They have only one purpose: to get you to buy more of the company’s flavored, colored, caffeinated water with nearly a teaspoon of sugar per ounce.

Drink a 20-ounce Coke?  That’s 18 teaspoons.

But you have to hand it to Coke’s marketers.

They just got me to write about the fuss over the company’s “It’s Beautiful” Super Bowl ad, which shows people of all colors and kinds singing America the Beautiful in—can you believe this?—foreign languages.

The response?  Tweeted bigotry:

WTF? @CocaCola has America the Beautiful being sung in different languages in a #SuperBowl commercial? We speak ENGLISH here, IDIOTS.

What amazes me about the response is that Coca-Cola has been doing commercials like this for decades.

Remember these?

Why this sudden outpouring of xenophobia and homophobia?  

It’s disturbing to think about why this is happening now, but I won’t be surprised if the controversy brings Coke lots of favorable publicity and helps the company sell even more sugary beverages.

Feb 6 2014

Is surgery really the best way to deal with obesity?

I received an e-mail message from Dr. Justine Davies, the editor of The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, announcing a series of review articles on bariatric surgery for treatment of obesity.

Bariatric surgery, she says,

is the most effective treatment for both obesity and type 2 diabetes. In many people with type 2 diabetes, bariatric surgery not only limits disease progression, but also reverses complications.

She asks: So why is this procedure not being used more often to treat
patients with obesity?

Bariatric surgery has substantial benefits in terms of weight loss, metabolic status, and quality of life. It is safe and effective, and the future savings made through prevention of comorbid diseases could counterbalance its high cost. The surgery should, therefore, be available as an option to use when appropriate, and not only when all other options have been eliminated. Bariatric surgery offers a real opportunity for preventing comorbid diseases and complications of obesity. If it is only used as a final resort, this opportunity will be missed.

I can think of several good reasons: pain and suffering, treatment complications, questionable long-term prognosis, and cost, for starters.

Prevention is a better option.

If only we knew how….

Here are the papers:

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