Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jan 17 2014

Is wheat bad for you? Not for most people.

As Food Navigator-USA puts it, “No, wheat does not make people fat and sick.”

Bread lover that I am, I consider recent research to be giving us good news.

Food Navigator is referring to a review of research on whole wheat and health just published in the Journal of Cereal Science of all places.  The authors conclude that unless you have celiac disease or wheat allergies, eating whole-wheat foods is good for you.

In fact, foods containing whole-wheat, which have been prepared in customary ways (such as baked or extruded), and eaten in recommended amounts, have been associated with significant reductions in risks for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and a more favourable long term weight management. Nevertheless, individuals that have a genetic predisposition for developing celiac disease, or who are sensitive or allergic to wheat proteins, will benefit from avoiding wheat and other cereals that contain proteins related to gluten, including primitive wheat species (einkorn, emmer, spelt) and varieties, rye and barley…Based on the available evidence, we conclude that whole-wheat consumption cannot be linked to increased prevalence of obesity in the general population.

The authors find little evidence in support of popular myths:

  • Proliferation of wheat products parallels obesity and is causally related.  No, it does not.
  • Wheat starch differs from starches in other foods in especially undesirable ways.  No, it does not.
  • Whole wheat bread has a higher glycemic index than sugar.  No, it does not.
  • Wheat contains opioids that make people addictive. No, they do not.

In the meantime, the FDA has been working on updating its 2006 guidance to industry about how to label statements about whole grains. The agency has been conducting research on how consumers judge:

  • Food products, including nutritional attributes, overall healthiness, and health benefits.
  • Labeling statements in terms of their credibility, helpfulness, and other attributes.
  • Terms and statements such as “Made with Whole Grain”, “Multi-Grain”, and “100% Whole Wheat.”
  • Whole grain statements beyond the scope of the statements themselves (i.e., halo effects).
  • How whole grain statements influence consumer use of the Nutrition Facts.

Can’t wait to see the results.  They ought to be out soon.

Jan 16 2014

Congress on curbing food marketing to kids: not a chance.

Congress can’t pass a farm bill but it has plenty of time to micromanage nutrition and health.  Buried in the pork-filled Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014 (see Monday’s post) are some zingers.  Here’s one:

appropr

This refers to the ill-fated IWG report I’ve discussed previously. To recap:

  • Congress asked the FTC to examine the effects of food marketing to children and make recommendations.
  • The FTC, USDA, FDA, and CDC got together and produced a report recommending voluntary guidelines for marketing to children based on the nutritional quality of the foods.
  • I thought the guidelines were weak in addition to being voluntary (they allowed lots of junk foods to qualify).
  • The food industry disagreed, strongly, and went to Congress to object.
  • Congress caved in to industry pressure and said the report could not be released unless the FTC produced a cost-benefit analysis.
  • End of story.
  • Why Congress feels that it’s necessary to do this again is beyond me.

I suppose we should be glad our legislators are at least doing something.

As for the food industry’s role in all this: when food companies say they are doing everything they can to reduce marketing junk foods to kids, you now know what they really mean.

Jan 15 2014

The FDA clarifies: Is your drink a supplement or a food?

By an act of Congress, dietary supplements are regulated less strictly than conventional foods, so much so that some beverage manufacturers would much prefer to have their products labeled as dietary supplements than foods, energy shots, for example.

Under the law, the FDA pretty much has to keep hands off of supplements, except when something egregious happens, like people getting sick or dying.

The FDA is now trying to clarify the difference between beverages that are supplements and those that are drugs.  It just issued:

These documents, however, are guidance.  The are not regulations:

This guidance represents the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) current thinking on this topic.  It does not create or confer any rights for or on any person and does not operate to bind FDA or the public.  You may use an alternative approach if the approach satisfies the requirements of the applicable statutes and regulations.

Why is FDA doing this?  I’m guessing for two reasons.

1.  The weird ingredients in energy drinks:

We have observed an increase in the marketing of liquid products with a wide array of ingredients and intended uses.  Some of these products are marketed as dietary supplements, and others as conventional foods. 

We have seen a growth in the marketplace of beverages and other conventional foods that contain novel substances, such as added botanical ingredients or their extracts.  Some of these substances have not previously been used in conventional foods and may be unapproved food additives.

2.  The high caffeine levels in those drinks.

Other substances that have been present in the food supply for many years are now being added to beverages and other conventional foods at levels in excess of their traditional use levels, or in new beverages or other conventional foods.  This trend raises questions regarding whether these new uses are unapproved food additive uses.

Caffeine is GRAS (generally recognized as safe) at the levels added to soft drinks.

But the levels in energy drinks are so much higher that the FDA has questions about whether GRAS applies to them.

These guidance documents are open for comment.  If you care about such issues, weigh in now.

Jan 14 2014

Congress releases its draft budget bill (sigh)

In the strange way the U.S. government works, Congress has produced the “Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014,” which authorizes payments for government services, including those related to agriculture.

This is not the farm bill.  It’s what Congress decides taxpayers will pay for in the farm bill as well as bills that cover other programs run by USDA.

The House summary of agriculture appropriations is a lot easier to read than the bill itself, although it contains its share of double speak.  Try this:

WIC – This program provides supplemental nutritional foods needed by pregnant and nursing mothers, babies and young children. The bill provides full funding for WIC at $6.7 billion – $153 million below the fiscal year 2013 enacted level…This level will ensure all eligible participants will be served.

Can someone please explain to me how a cut of $153 million will ensure service to everyone who is eligible?  WIC is not an entitlement; eligible people cannot be served once the money runs out.

The bill does provide full spending—$82.2 billion—for SNAP, but only because it has to.  SNAP is an entitlement and spending for it is mandatory.  Unless, of course, Congress ever passes the farm bill, which currently contains a $9 billion proposed cut.

And here’s more double speak.  “The legislation includes several provisions to reduce spending and increase oversight of taxpayer dollars.”  How?  By authorizing spending for:

  • Oversight and monitoring requirements for the WIC program, including a directive for the Secretary of Agriculture to increase oversight of vendors to help rein in food costs;
  • A provision requiring USDA to submit a plan for reducing high error rates and improper payments in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs;
  • Requirements for the Secretary of Agriculture to help weed out and eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse in the SNAP program – including a directive to ban fraudulent vendors, and a prohibition on advertisements or outreach with foreign governments.

And why does the FDA’s budget still get decided by committees dealing with agricultural appropriations?

The FDA is a public health agency in the Department of Health and Human Services, which is funded by entirely different committees which you might think understand its mission a lot better than committees fussing about legislation that

restricts the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) from implementing certain regulations that would allow harmful government interference in the private market for the livestock and poultry industry.

I can hardly wait to see what the farm bill will look like.

Jan 13 2014

What are Americans eating?

I’ve only just come across this USDA chart, which first appeared in an article in Amber Waves.

USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) researchers looked at 1998-2006 grocery store food expenditures and compared what consumers buy to dietary guidelines for healthy eating.  

Oops.  

Jan 10 2014

Action on Sugar to the food industry: reduce sugar now!

A group of public health experts based mainly in Britain have announced a new anti-sugar campaign.

Called Action on Sugar, it is modeled on Great Britain’s campaign to get the food industry to gradually reduce salt in processed foods—voluntarily.  That campaign is considered to have led to a reduction of 25% to 40%.

Action on Sugar’s objective: Reduce sugar in packaged foods by 20% to 30% over the next 3 to 5 years.

Action on Sugar is a group of specialists concerned with sugar and its effects on health. It is successfully working to reach a consensus with the food industry and Government over the harmful effects of a high sugar diet, and bring about a reduction in the amount of sugar in processed foods. Action on Sugar is supported by 18 expert advisors.

As one of the experts put it, “Everywhere, sugary drinks and junk foods are now pressed on unsuspecting parents and children by a cynical industry focused on profit not health”—just like the tobacco industry behaves.

You have to love the British press:

New Picture

Enjoy the weekend!

 

Jan 9 2014

Are GMOs “natural?” The FDA won’t say.

I’ve written frequently about the “natural” issue—what’s natural in foods and what’s not—on this site and now must do so again.

Yesterday, FoodNavigator reported that the FDA “respectfully declined” to decide once and for all whether foods labeled “natural” can include GMOs.

To summarize what brought this on:

  • Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers referred a lawsuit over “all-natural’ claims on GMO-containing Mission tortilla chips to the FDA to decide whether GMO-containing products can be considered “natural.”
  • So did two other judges in cases involving Campbell Soup and General Mills Kix cereal.

The FDA’s letter to the three judges says the agency has to make decisions like this in the context of rulemaking, not litigation.

So how about making a decision about what “natural” means once and for all?

Not a chance.  The FDA says it has better things to do:  “Because especially in the foods arena, FDA operates in a world of limited resources, we necessarily must prioritize which issues to address.”

Back to court, this one goes, or so it seems.

Jan 8 2014

The endless GMO saga: today’s chapter

A reader writes: “Any chance you might weigh in on the latest GMO piece in the times?”

Sure.  This article, in case you missed it, puts anyone who opposes GMOs in the same camp as climate denialists.

I haven’t commented on it because I wrote a book about the topic in 2003—Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety—in which I said everything I had to say about the topic.  Nothing new has happened since.

In that book, I argued that the safety of GMOs is a surrogate for what people really worry about but aren’t allowed to discuss: corporate control of the food supply.

I drew on the literature of risk communication to explain what kinds of issues most worry the public: those that are technological, unfamiliar, and under someone else’s control.

Why should the public trust GMOs?  They are under corporate control and not labeled.

By pouring money into fighting labeling, the biotech industry looks like it’s got plenty to hide.  

For one possibility about what’s hidden, take a look at Tom Philpott’s take on the need for stronger and increasingly toxic pesticides to overcome the weed resistance to Roundup that is now widespread.

Now that GMO labeling initiatives are making some headway, guess what:

PoliticoPro tells us tells us that the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) now wants the industry to do voluntary labeling.  According to a leaked draft for discussion, the Association is working on legislation to send to Congress.  This would:

  • Require FDA to set up a voluntary labeling standard for foods that do not contain GMOs and determine the safety of GMO products.
  • Preclude states from adopting any laws that are not identical to the federal requirements and create a legal framework so that FDA can take a more active role in regulating GMO-labeling claims.
  • Require GMO producers to notify the FDA about all new bioengineered foods four months before they could be marketed.
  • Require FDA to define “natural”
  • Set up a national standard for voluntary GMO labeling 

While you are waiting for all this to happen, take a look at the Wall Street Journal’s perspective on this video: Can you spot the GMOs in your grocery store?

Here’s what JustLabelIt’s Executive Director Scott Faber says:

This ‘Hail Mary’ pass comes too late to deny consumers the right to know what’s in their food. Two states have already given consumers the same rights as consumers in 64 other countries around world, and 20 more states are poised to pass GE labeling legislation in 2014. Now is the time for food companies to work with JLI and others to craft a national mandatory labeling system, not make desperate moves to block states from protecting their consumers from misleading “natural” claims or to tie FDA’s hands in red tape.

Really, labeling would solve lots of problems, but let’s make it mandatory please.

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