Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Mar 31 2009

And now you can’t eat pistachios either

The FDA is announcing the “voluntary” recall of certain pistachio products.  Certain, in this case, means a mere million pounds of products from Setton Pistachios of Terra Bella, CA.  These appear to be contaminated with multiple strains of Salmonella. As with the peanut butter recalls, pistachios are used in many different kinds of products.  The FDA learned about the problem from Kraft Foods, which found Salmonella in its Back to Nature Trail Mix. Nobody has gotten sick yet, but stay tuned.  The FDA has a brand new pistachio recall page on its website.  Now you can keep track of pistachio recalls along with the peanut butter recalls which continue to come in every day and now add up to nearly 4,000 products.

Will this ever end?  While waiting for Congress to approve the appointment of Dr. Margaret Hamburg as FDA Commissioner, her deputy, Joseph Scharstein, has just taken over as acting commissioner.  These new officials will have plenty of work to do to get this mess under control.

Mar 30 2009

Antioxidants as a marketing tool

Antioxidant nutrients are so important as marketing tools that they constitute their own brand, say British experts on such questions.  Apparently, up to 60% of consumers who see an antioxidant claim on a product label will buy it for that reason.  Despite lack of evidence that additional antioxidants make people healthier (and may actually do some harm), these claims are so popular that food companies introduced nearly 300 new antioxidant-labeled products into U.S. supermarkets last year.  I’ve been collecting choice examples: breakfast cereals, of course (they are always at the leading edge of nutritional marketing), but also jelly beans.  The marketing has become so competitive that unprocessed fruits and vegetables have to get into the act.  I’ve seen ads for blueberries, tomatoes, and artichokes advertising their high antioxidant content.  Of course they have antioxidants.   All fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants, and theirs may actually do some good.

Mar 28 2009

Fixing the food safety system: new ideas

The Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation announce the release of a new report on how to fix the food safety system.  The report, Keeping America’s Food Safe: A Blueprint for Fixing the Food Safety System at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), makes a bunch of suggestions for strengthening the FDA.  The FDA, it says, needs to concentrate resources on the highest risks, enforce existing rules (what a concept), establish a position with authority over all food safety programs in the agency, and work with Congress to establish a Food Safety Administration within HHS.

Wait a minute: I thought two agencies were involved in food safety regulation.  Yes, HHS regulates most foods through the FDA, but the USDA regulates meat and poultry.  These are not two separate food systems. Wastes from food animals (USDA-regulated) contaminate fruits and vegetables (FDA-regulated).

Don’t we need one system?  I think we do.

And buried in the mess of bills submitted to Congress and currently under consideration (handily summarized by Bill Marler), are several aimed at doing just that.  This is a great time to weigh in on them, especially since polls show that nearly 75% of Americans are more afraid of food than they are of terrorists.

Mar 27 2009

Influences on teenage obesity: fast food proximity

Kids who go to high schools located within 500 feet of a fast food outlet are fatter than kids whose schools are further away, according to a study in the March American Journal of Public Health. The Los Angeles Times took a look, mapped the fast food places near several local high schools, and found no lack of them.  Are kids generally fatter because they have easier access to fast food?  Or is that the only kind of food available?  Or are fast food outlets a marker for unhealthy neighborhoods?

Whatever. The Times quotes an NRA spokesman arguing that the study doesn’t mean a thing.  I can understand why the NRA might be worried.  What if cities stopped allowing fast food outlets near schools? That’s just what the Los Angeles city council tried to do last year. With some research evidence to back up the idea, this study might kick off a national trend.

And maybe, just maybe, kids might start eating healthier meals at school?

Mar 26 2009

What, exactly, is a healthful food?

When it comes to food, defining “healthy” is a major preoccupation of food companies these days.  Marketers are falling all over each other trying to label food products with numbers or symbols to convince you that their products are better-for-you choices.  These, as I keep saying (see posts under “Scoring systems”), are about marketing, not health.

Now, the Strategic Alliance, the component of the Oakland-based Prevention Institute devoted to “promoting healthy food and activity environments,” has produced a working definition of a healthful food.  Its report, Setting the Record Straight: Nutritionists Define Healthful Food, applies three principles:  Healthful food should be (1) wholesome, (2) produced in ways that are good for people, animals, and natural resources, and (3) available, accessible, and affordable.

This is a food system definition that makes scoring systems unnecessary.  “Wholesome,” says this document, means foods that are minimally processed, full of naturally occurring nutrients, produced without added hormones or antibiotics, and processed without artificial colors, flavors, or unnecessary preservatives.

I wonder how many of those highly processed products in supermarket center aisles can meet this definition?

Mar 25 2009

What do I think of Açaí?

I’m often asked about Açaí, the latest miracle fruit that is supposed to cure whatever ails you.

If this is a miracle, it’s one that must be enjoyed by the company that makes MonaVie brand Açaí, which sells for about $40 a bottle.  I had heard about Açaí and was not overly impressed.  But then I got an e-mail from a MonaVie enthsiast who was so convinced of its benefits that he sent me the research.

Here’s one of the studies. It looks formidible but its conclusions are simple.  In translation: MonaVie contains antioxidants.  The antioxidants in MonaVie act like antioxidants in the test tube and in the body, and they work better than potato starch, which has no antioxidants. Why am I not surprised? This is a study sponsored by the manufacturer.

You can read about this study and the rest of fuss over this juice in the March 12 New York Times. It’s in the Style Section (where else?).  The bottom line: all juices have antioxidants and most are a lot cheaper than MonaVie.

As for weight-loss claims: This month’s Nutrition Action Healthletter explains how to analyze Internet advertising, using Açaí as an example of truth-bending.

Mar 24 2009

Is meat bad for health?

A new study from the Archives of Internal Medicine says yes.  People who eat the most red meat have a 20% to 30% increased risk of premature mortality.  In an accompanying editorial, Barry Popkin points out additional reasons to consider eating less meat: food prices, the environment, and climate change.

The Associated Press and the Washington Post have much to say about this study.

And here’s the meat industry’s reaction.

Mar 22 2009

Food marketing: cartoons, scholarship, and action

First, the cartoons: this week’s question from Eating Liberally’s kat has to do with whether it makes sense to put cartoon characters on eggs or, for that matter, fruits and vegetables.  I vote no, of course, and the illustrations alone explain why.

Next, the scholarship: The latest volume of Annual Reviews of Public Health contains excellent reviews of studies of the influence of the food marketing environment on child and adult health.

Sara Bleich et al explain why obesity has become so common in the developed world.

Kelly Brownell’s group reviews the effects of food marketing on childhood obesity.

David Katz discusses school-based obesity interventions.

Mary Story et al describe policy approaches to creating healthy food environments.

And the American Association of Wine Economists (a group new to me, but interesting) forwards its Working Paper #33:

Janet Currie et al on the effect of fast food restaurants on obesity.

Finally, the action: Perhaps in response to all this, language inserted into the congressional spending bill asks the Federal Trade Commission to set up an interagency committee to set nutritional standards for products allowed to be marketed to children age 17 or under.  According to Advertising Age, the food industry thinks this is not a good idea.

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