Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Sep 7 2009

FDA to research food labels

The FDA just announced in the Federal Register that it plans to take a good hard look at public understanding of what’s currently on food labels.  It says it will do an Internet survey of 43,000 people to:

  • Identify attitudes and beliefs to do with health, diet and label usage
  • Determine relationships between these attitudes and beliefs, demographics, and actual label use
  • Look at the relevance of these attitudes
  • Identify barriers to label use

I hope they ask me!

What is this about?  Let me take a wild guess: Health claims?  Smart Choices labels?  Anything that makes people think highly processed foods are good for them?  Or distracts from the Nutrition Facts panel?

The FDA is required to allow 60 days for comment.   Tell the FDA you think the more research it does on food labels, the better!

Sep 5 2009

Kellogg’s asks for a Froot Loops correction. More on Smart (?) Choices

Froot Loops

Earlier this week, I received a phone call from Dr. Celeste Clark, Kellogg’s senior vice president for global nutrition, corporate affairs and chief sustainability officer.

She had seen my previous blog post on the Smart Choices program, and wanted me to know that Froot Loops has been reformulated to contain 3 grams of fiber, not less than 1 gram, as I had posted, and that  in all fairness, I ought to post the new version.  Sure.  Happy to.  Here it is.Froot Loops_Nutrition Facts

This higher fiber product, of course, gets us into the philosophical question:  Is a somewhat-better-for-you, highly processed food really a good choice?  Does the additional 2.5 grams of fiber convert this product to a health food?  Whether Froot Loops really is a better choice than a doughnut as the Smart Choices program contends, seems debatable.

If I read the Nutrition Facts and ingredient list correctly, Froot Loops cereal contains:

  • No fruit
  • Sugar as the first ingredient (meaning the highest in weight–41%)
  • Sugar as 44% of the calories
  • Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and, therefore, trans fat (although less than half a gram per serving so the label can read zero)

But with an implied endorsement from the American Society of Nutrition, which is managing the Smart Choices program, I guess none of that matters.  Or maybe the added fiber cancels all that out?

I pointed out to Dr. Clark that I had just bought the fiberless Froot Loops at a grocery store in midtown Manhattan, which means the old packages must still be on the market.

I discussed this and other such products with William Neuman of the New York Times whose reporting on the Smart Choices program appears on the front page of today’s business section under the title, “For your health, Froot Loops.  Industry-backed label calls sugary cereal a ‘Smart Choice.'”

According to his well reported account, Kellogg’s and other participating companies pay up to $100,000 for that seal.  No wonder the American Society of Nutrition and everyone else involved in the program want to set nutrition standards so loosely that they can encompass as many products as possible.   The more products that qualify for the Smart Choices logo, the more money the program gets.  I’d call that a clear conflict of interest.

Neuman managed to find nutritionists who defend the program.  I am not one of them.

Update September 6: CBS did a story on Smart Choices (I’m interviewed in it)

Update September 9: The American Society of Nutrition must be getting a bit defensive about the negative publicity, as well it should be.  It has issued an explanation to members.

Sep 4 2009

Slow Food Eat-In for School Meals: September 7

How’s this for community organizing?  Slow Food’s national Eat-In to support legislation to get better food into schools is happening this Labor Day.  So far, 295 groups throughout the country have signed up.  Interested in participating?  Here’s the information.

time_for_lunch-header

Slow Food explains what this is about:

On Labor Day, Sept. 7, 2009, people in communities all over the country will sit down to share a meal with their neighbors and kids. This National Day of Action will send a clear message to Congress: It’s time to provide America’s children with real food at school.

Getting Congress’ attention is a big job, and we need your help. On Sept. 7, attend an Eat-In taking place near you.

If there isn’t an Eat-In in your area, sign up to organize one. Sept. 7 is right around the corner, so it doesn’t have to be a big event. You can gather your friends for an outdoor picnic on Labor Day, take a photo (the more creative, the better) and email it to timeforlunch@slowfoodusa.org immediately following your picnic. That’s a terrific way to show your support.

Regardless of the way you show your support, please let us know about your plans, so we can add it to the map. If you’d like to spread the word about your picnic and invite your neighbors to join you, please download our Organizer Toolkit, which has suggestions that you may find useful.

Sounds like fun!  And if enough people get involved, we may even get some action from Congress.

Sep 3 2009

What’s new in obesity prevention

Reports about what to do about obesity in adults and children are coming out one after another.

The HSC Foundation has produced Fighting Obesity: What Works, What’s Promising? (click on Fighting Obesity Report).  Based on interviews, it reviews model programs that are having some success, such as The Food Trust, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization; The Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children (CLOCC); and The Coordinated Approach to Child Health (CATCH) Program.  Its main conclusion: a focus on pregnant women and children will have the biggest payoff.

NIH has New Tools to Promote Healthy Habits, one of which is “We Can!  Ways to Enhance Children’s Activities and Nutrition.”  The online program tells families how to improve food choices, increase physical activity, and reduce screen time.  [Question: do online programs do any good at all?  I’d really like to know.]

Finally (for now), the Institute of Medicine and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have produced Local Government Action to Prevent Childhood Obesity, with a mind-numbing 58 steps that governments could take to do some good .  They also published a brief summary. Fortunately, the authors select the 12 actions most likely to succeed:

  1. Create incentive programs to attract supermarkets and grocery stores to underserved neighborhoods
  2. Require menu labeling in chain restaurants to provide consumers with calorie information on in-store menus and menu boards
  3. Mandate and implement strong nutrition standards for foods and beverages available in government-run or regulated after-school programs, recreation centers, parks, and child-care facilities, including limiting access to unhealthy foods and beverages
  4. Adopt building codes to require access to, and maintenance of, fresh drinking water fountains (e.g. public restrooms)
  5. Implement a tax strategy to discourage consumption of foods and beverages that have minimal nutritional value, such as sugar sweetened beverages
  6. Develop media campaigns, utilizing multiple channels (print, radio, internet, television, social networking, and other promotional materials) to promote healthy eating (and active living) using consistent messages
  7. Plan, build and maintain a network of sidewalks and street crossings that connects to schools, parks and other destinations and create a safe and comfortable walking environment
  8. Adopt community policing strategies that improve safety and security of streets and park use, especially in higher-crime neighborhoods
  9. Collaborate with schools to implement a Safe Routes to Schools program
  10. Build and maintain parks and playgrounds that are safe and attractive for playing, and in close proximity to residential areas
  11. Collaborate with school districts and other organizations to establish agreements that would allow playing fields, playgrounds, and recreation centers to be used by community residents when schools are closed (joint-use agreements)
  12. Institute regulatory policies mandating minimum play space, physical equipment and duration of play in preschool, afterschool and child-care programs

A 12-step program for preventing childhood obesity!  These are good ideas.  What will it take to get them put into practice?

Sep 2 2009

Acrylamide, sigh

I don’t know what to say about acrylamide.  Acrylamide is the powerful carcinogen that gets formed when carbohydrates and proteins are cooked together at high temperature, as in dark toast, French fries, and potato chips.    I just can’t figure out how bad it is, and I like my toast well toasted.  But:

Canada recently added acrylamide to its list of toxic substances.  The European Union has just listed it as a hazardous chemical “of high concern.”

The FDA, trying to figure out what to say about acrylamide, is asking for public comment:

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is requesting comments and scientific data and information on acrylamide in food. Acrylamide is a chemical that can form in some foods during certain types of high temperature cooking. FDA is seeking information on practices that manufacturers have used to reduce acrylamide in food and the reductions they have been able to achieve in acrylamide levels. FDA is considering issuing guidance for industry on reduction of acrylamide levels in food products.

The FDA offers an information page on acrylamide.  This comes with a Q and A and information about avoiding acrylamide when eating or cooking.

How serious a problem is acrylamide?  Nobody knows, really, and the research is mixed. According to recent reports, Dutch investigators say that acrylamide has no relationship to brain or lung cancer.  So that’s some relief.

Update, September 3: No surprise, but surveys show the public doesn’t know much about acrylamide.  With so much uncertainty, this is a particularly tough one to deal with.

Update, September 5: Food Production Daily has produced a nifty interactive timeline of events in the history of troubles with acrylamide, since it was first suspected of being a problem in 2002.


Sep 1 2009

The Beverage Association responds

I promised to post some of the responses to the New York City Health Department’s new campaign against sugary drinks.  Here’s what the New York Times has to say.  Still reeling from the American Heart Association’s recommendation to reduce sugars from soft drinks (see previous post), the Beverage Association has issued this statement:

The messages being spread about beverages by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene are so over the top that they are counterproductive to serious efforts to address a complex issue such as obesity. Like most foods, soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages are a source of calories. Simply naming one food source as a unique contributor minimizes a disease as complex as obesity. The key to energy balance and maintaining a healthy weight is counting calories in and calories out, not focusing on specific foods or abstaining from any one food or beverage in particular. While we support the campaign’s desire to help people lead healthier lives, we do not believe the campaign imagery represents a serious effort to address a complex issue such as obesity…Further, the beverage industry provides an array of beverages with a wide range of calories, including zero calories…all of which can be part of a balanced lifestyle [my emphasis].

Yes!  Drink water!  Preferably out of a tap!

Aug 31 2009

NYC Health Department’s new campaign: Pour off the Pounds!

The ever intrepid New York City Health Department launches a new campaign today: Stop drinking soft drinks or else you are “Pouring on the Pounds.”

It explains the rationale for the campaign in a bulletin.  In short, as described in the press release:

pr057-09-poster1

“On average, Americans now consume 200 to 300 more calories each day than we did 30 years ago. Nearly half of these extra calories come from sugar-sweetened drinks. When Health Department researchers surveyed adult New Yorkers about their consumption of soda and other sweetened drinks, the findings showed that more than 2 million drink at least one sugar-sweetened soda or other sweetened beverage each day – at as much as 250 calories a pop…. The Health Department advises parents not to serve their kids punch, fruit-flavored drinks or “sports” and “energy” drinks…. If you order a sugar-sweetened beverage, ask for a “small.”….if you enjoy sugar-sweetened beverages, make them an occasional treat and not a daily staple.”

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What?  Soft drinks add empty calories that nobody needs? These sound like fighting words!  I can’t wait to hear the response of the Beverage Associations and will post them as soon as they come in.  Stay tuned!

Aug 28 2009

Antibiotics in farm animals: the fight is on

I served as a member of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production which issued its final report in April 2008.  Our most important recommendation: reduce the widespread use of antibiotics as growth promoters and as a routine method of preventing infections.  Why?  Because of increasing evidence of human resistance to the kinds of antibiotics used in farm animal production and to related antibiotics.

You think everyone involved in production of farm animals understands the dangers of continued overuse of these drugs?  Not a chance.  A coalition of 20 meat producing groups has asked Congress not to restrict their use of antibiotics.  The American Meat Institute has issued a statement condemning our report.  The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has done even more.  It just issued its own report taking on the Pew Commission’s antibiotic recommendations.  Why the ferocity and why now?  Congress has submitted a bill – the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2009 (PAMTA) – that would restrict use of several antibiotics in farm animal production.

Ralph Loglisci, who was the Pew Commission’s communication director, has an excellent blog post dealing with the AVMA statement.  If you want to understand what all this is about, take a look at it.

While these debates continue, antibiotic-resistant bacteria are increasingly turning up in our food supply.  Tell your representatives to support PAMTA!

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