Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Feb 17 2010

Should our national heart agency partner with Coke?

I went to the reception last week for Diet Coke’s red dress event,:

Diet Coke and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) of the National Institutes of Health have joined forces to raise awareness about women’s risk of heart disease — in support of NHLBI’s The Heart Truth campaign — with a multi-faceted program that will reach consumers across the nation.

To celebrate American Heart Month in February, Diet Coke’s Red Dress Program will take center stage at high-profile events, including sponsorship of The Heart Truth’s, Red Dress Collection fashion show at Fashion Week 2008. Diet Coke will also unveil new packaging and programs featuring The Heart Truth and Red Dress logos and messages on heart health.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest points out that Coca-Cola, whose products are not exactly heart healthy, is a strange partner for the NHLBI.  The agency should reconsider.  It wrote NHLBI to say so.

New York Times reporter Tara Parker-Pope asks: “Should Coke talk about heart health?”

I don’t know how long Diet Coke and NHLBI have been engaged in this partnership but it is surely more than five years.  From NHLBI’s point of view, the partnership publicizes the risk of heart disease to women.  For Coca-Cola, the benefits are obvious.

Are such partnerships a benign win-win?  History suggests otherwise.  In 1984, Kellogg cooked up a partnership with the National Cancer Institute to put health claims for fiber on the boxes of All-Bran cereals (I discuss this incident in Food Politics).  In doing so, Kellogg (and NCI) went around the FDA and undermined that agency’s control over health claims on food packages.  This let to the current mess over health claims, which the FDA is now trying to clean up.

Update March 3: The Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University has filed a petition to NHLBI to give up the partnership.

Feb 16 2010

European companies’ ongoing struggle for food and supplement health claims

As readers of this blog know, I am not a fan of health claims on food packages or supplements.  I think they are inherently misleading.   It’s hard for me to believe that eating any one food product or supplement will have a significant effect on disease risk.

It is one thing to say that a nutrient is required for good health.  It is quite another to say that products containing that nutrient are going to have the same effect.  We would all be better off eating foods rather than food products.

That’s why health claims are really about marketing, not health.

Food marketers work hard to get approval for health claims.  America is well ahead of Europe in allowing them.  European regulatory agencies are still trying to hold health claims to reasonable scientific standards.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has been turning down requests for health claims right and left, but recently broke down and  approved one for iron, requested by the Association de la Transformation Laitière Française, a trade association of French dairy cooperatives.  Iron, of course, is an essential nutrient.

EFSA said the association could say: “Iron contributes to normal cognitive development of children.” But EFSA said the association could not say: “Iron is necessary for the cognitive development of children.”

I don’t think dairy products should say either, but that’s just me.

As for supplements:  In December, Food Chemical News reported that supplement firms in the European Union are considering filing a case with the World Trade Organization over EFSA’s refusal of so many of their proposed claims.   They consider the rejections a barrier to trade.  The firms are looking for a non-European Union country to make their case.

Never underestimate the self-interest of makers of food products and supplements in the struggles over health claims.

Feb 15 2010

Organic data: production, support programs, nutrients, safety, and corporate ownership

In light of the new USDA rules (see yesterday’s post), I’ve been collecting information about organics.

PRODUCTION: the USDA’s latest (2008) survey results come in 59 tables giving data on organic acres, productivity, and anything else you might want to know about the this piece of the agricultural sector – crops, vegetables, and animals.  Interesting facts: more than 14,500 organic farms produce food on 4.1 million acres, but all of this comprises less than 1% of farming in the U.S.

USDA ORGANIC PROGRAMS:  the USDA says the organic agricultural sector is growing because farmers view it as a “way to lower input costs, decrease reliance on nonrenewable resources, and capture high-value markets.”  The USDA summarizes data on organic production by commodity, and explains its support and research programs.

NUTRIENTS: Remember the study last summer arguing that organic foods are no more nutritious than non-organic?  Now a French study comes to the opposite conclusion.   The authors claim that organics are more nutritious than non-organics.  I see organics as more about production values than nutrition, so I expect these kinds of arguments to go on forever.

SAFETY: Are organics more likely to carry dangerous microorganisms because they are fertilized with manure?  Dutch researchers say not necessarily.  If the manure compost is turned occasionally, the bacteria will be killed.  My comment: all food should be produced safely and organic rules specify how compost is to be used.

CORPORATE OWNERSHIP: Thanks to Subvert for reminding me about Michigan State professor Phil Howard’s nifty charts of Who Owns What in the Organic Food Industry:

If you find it difficult to sort out issues of integrity and trust in the organic industry, this kind of information provides ample reason for your difficulty.  That is why the work of organic advocacy groups like the Cornucopia Institute is so important: they are trying to keep the industry honest.

Feb 14 2010

USDA closes organic dairy loophole

USDA’s 2002 organic rules said that dairy herds must have access to pasture.  They did not say the animals had to actually be fed on pasture.   This loophole is now supposed to be fixed.  USDA has just issued new rules.

Starting in June, organic dairy herds must be sent to pasture for the entire grazing season of at least 120 days and must get at least 30% of their food from pasture during that season.  Smaller organic dairy farmers are already doing this.  Now the big ones will have to come into line. And about time too.

Here’s how the New York Times explains this action.

Before this final rule, the Cornucopia Institute had a number of concerns (in 2008). The proposed rules were bundled together with provisions that had not been properly reviewed by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).  These problems have now been solved.

Mark Kastel of the Cornocopia Institute writes:

In its final version we are virtually 100% satisfied (still doing some technical review).  Even more importantly we are highly impressed by the professional approach taken by Kathleen Merrigan and the staff at the organic program as to how they plan to implement this.

He sends the Institute’s most recent press release celebrating the new rules.

Score this one as a win for organic advocates!

Feb 12 2010

Bagged salads: safe or not?

Consumers Union tested a couple of hundred samples of bagged salads, organic and not.   The results? Nearly 40% contained levels of coliform bacteria higher than safety standards.  Coliforms indicate fecal contamination.  This is disgusting to think about but does not make anyone sick.

So the Consumers Union results could be reassuring or not, depending on whether you are an optimist or pessimist.  Yes, the coliform levels were high, but none of the samples contained toxic forms of E. coli, such as O157:H7.

Still, the high frequency suggests that bagged salads need either much better washing or much better maintenance of the cold chain (so the bacteria don’t grow), or both.  If nothing else, the report is a good reason why it’s important to give bagged salads a thorough washing before you eat them or serve them to anyone.

Consumers Union makes a big point of the need to get food safety legislation moving.  The House passed its version of a bill at the end of last July.  The Senate hasn’t budged on its bill.   In the meantime, we still have major national outbreaks and recalls.

The most recent?  225 people in 44 states plus the District of Columbia ill from Salmonella because they ate salami coated with contaminated black pepper. We still don’t have a food safety system that works.  We need one fast.

Feb 11 2010

What Mrs. Obama’s campaign does not do: food marketing to kids

Mrs. Obama’s campaign to prevent childhood obesity did not mention food marketing to kids.  But check the latest research.

Researchers at UCLA took a careful look at the correlation between watching commercials on TV and childhood obesity (Their paper is in the February 2010 American Journal of Public Health).  Kids who watch commercials on TV are more likely to be obese than kids who watch non-commercial TV.  Commercials, of course, are largely for junk food and kids see a lot of them.  The authors conclude:

steering children away from commercial television may have a meaningful effect in reducing childhood obesity…The existence of many high-quality, enjoyable, and educational programs available on DVD for all ages should make it relatively easy for health educators and care providers to nudge children’s viewing toward less obesogenic television content [my emphasis].

Relatively easy?  They have to be kidding.  Food commercials are ubiquitous in kids’ lives.

For example, Lisa Sutherland and her colleagues at Dartmouth took a look at the prevalence of food brands (mostly junk foods) in movies from 1996 to 2005 (Pediatrics, February 2010).  There are loads of such placements, and movies aimed at younger kids tend to have the most.

As for industry self-regulation, Kelly Brownell and his colleagues at Yale have plenty to say about how it’s not working and what would be needed to make it work (also in the February American Journal of Public Health).

Michelle Obama may not be able to touch this one, but Congress can.  And it should.

Feb 10 2010

Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity: Applause!

I had best comment on this before anyone asks.   First Lady Michelle Obama wants to do something about childhood obesity and has gone into action.  She announced her “Let’s Move” initiatives accompanied by much fanfare.  Check out:

This is big news.  I see much to admire here.  The campaign focuses on kids.  It is sensitive to political realities (it’s called the uncontroversial “Let’s Move,” not the inflammatory “Let’s Eat Less” or “Let’s Eat Better”).  It’s brought a large number of groups on board (the New York Times account emphasizes this point).  It aims to do something useful about school food and food “deserts” (areas without grocery stores).  And it derives directly and explicitly from the White House garden.

I wasn’t able to watch the press conference but I hear that Will Allen was an invited speaker.  Allen is the charismatic and highly effective head of Growing Power, which runs urban farms in Milwaukee and Chicago.  I’m told he said:

  • It’s a social justice issue.
  • Every child in this country should have access to good food.
  • We have to grow farmers.


Before the announcement, Marian Burros wrote in about the barriers this effort will face (I’m quoted in her article).   And the Los Angeles Times discussed the enormous and enormously successful lobbying effort undertaken by the soft drink industry against soda taxes.  It predicted that the First Lady would not mention soda taxes when she announced her obesity campaign.  Indeed, she did not.

But she did say:

The truth is our kids didn’t do this to themselves.  Our kids didn’t choose to make food products with tons of fat and sugar and supersize portions, and then to have those foods marketed to them wherever they turn.

So let’s call this campaign a good first step and give it a big round of applause.  I hoping everyone will give it a chance, help move it forward in every way possible, and keep fingers crossed that Mrs. Obama can pull it off.

Feb 9 2010

Confused about nutrition? Eat food!

I can’t resist dealing with the questions just asked by Elliot and Johannes.  From Elliot:

A meta-analysis of prospective epidemiologic studies showed that there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease or cardiovascular disease (see: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, January 13, 2010)…[but] in his book, Good Calories Bad Calories, Gary Taubes clearly attributes most of our chronic disease problems — including heart disease — to carbohydrates (see page 454).  In contrast, Colin Campbell in his book The China Study (pages 113-133) forcefully argues that animal proteins contribute to CVD.  Yet, Dr. David Katz in his book Nutrition in Clinical Practice (pages 130, 133) asserts that to prevent heart disease, “saturated and trans fat should be restricted to below 7% (or even 5%) of total calories . . . .”  Who’s right?  We badly need your unbiased wisdom on this topic.

Joannes says that according to the Weston A Price Foundation,

it seems as if (naturally-occurring) saturated fats are almost better for you than the unsaturated fats we get fed these days, which mainly consist of rancid oils which more than anything contribute to heart disease, whereas many saturated fats are actually quite beneficial.

OK.  Here’s my “unbiased wisdom” (if such a thing exists).  I like to ask: What do saturated fats, sugars, and animal proteins have in common as factors in the development of heart disease?   Answer: They are all single nutrients.

Recall that nutrition research is difficult to do because diets contain many foods, foods contain many nutrients and other chemicals that affect health, and other behavioral, socioeconomic, and genetic factors influence heart disease.  Studies of single nutrients take these chemicals out of their food, dietary, caloric, and lifestyle contexts and are, therefore, reductive.

Such studies tend to produce ambiguous results that demonstrate small differences, if any.  Small differences create situations ripe for interpretation.  Interpretation depends on the viewpoint of the interpreter.  That is why it helps to know who is doing the interpreting and who sponsored the studies.

Short of that, you would have to read every study cited by these authors and come to your own decision about how to interpret them – a daunting task.

My approach to conflicting research?  I look for points of agreement. The authors cited here do not disagree about the basic principles of healthful diets: variety in food intake, moderation in calories, largely plant-based (although not necessarily exclusively), and minimally processed.  Eat according to those principles and you do not have to worry about nutritional details.

All of that boils down to the advice I propose in What to Eat: eat less, move more, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, and don’t eat too much junk food.

Let the scientists and their interpreters fight it out over single nutrients.  Eat food and enjoy your dinner.

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