Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Aug 3 2011

Where did the 2,000 calorie diet idea come from?

I’m in the midst of working on the copy-edited manuscript of my forthcoming book with Malden Nesheim Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics (University of California Press, March 2012) and spending every minute I have on it.  So I’m going to take some shortcuts on the blog this week and deal with some questions I’ve been asked recently.

One is right on the topic of the book:

Q.  Could you address the 2,000 calorie a day number (both its history and speculate on how an individual can arrive at a more personalized amount)? Short of metabolic testing (and I read conflicting opinions on that, too), it seems rather difficult to figure out how much I should be eating.

A.  Nothing could be easier, and here’s a preview of the kind of thing that will be in this book (with footnotes, of course):

If you look at  a food label, you will see ingredient contents compared to a 2,000-calorie average diet: “Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.”

Here’s the history of where that came from:

The FDA wanted consumers to be able to compare the amounts of saturated fat and sodium to the maximum amounts recommended for a day’s intake—the Daily Values.  Because the allowable limits would vary according to the number of calories consumed, the FDA needed benchmarks for average calorie consumption, even though calorie requirements vary according to body size and other individual characteristics.

From USDA food consumption surveys of that era, the FDA knew that women typically reported consuming 1,600 to 2,200 calories a day, men 2,000 to 3,000, and children 1,800 to 2,500. But stating ranges on food labels would take up too much space and did not seem particularly helpful. The FDA proposed using a single standard of daily calorie intake—2,350 calories per day, based on USDA survey data. The agency requested public comments on this proposal and on alternative figures: 2,000, 2,300, and 2,400 calories per day.

Despite the observable fact that 2,350 calories per day is below the average requirements for either men or women obtained from doubly labeled water experiments, most of the people who responded to the comments judged the proposed benchmark too high. Nutrition educators worried that it would encourage overconsumption, be irrelevant to women who consume fewer calories, and permit overstatement of acceptable levels of “eat less” nutrients such as saturated fat and sodium. Instead, they proposed 2,000 calories as:

  • consistent with widely used food plans
  • close to the calorie requirements for postmenopausal women, the population group most prone to weight gain
  • a reasonably rounded-down value from 2,350 calories
  • easier to use than 2,350 and, therefore, a better tool for nutrition education

Whether a rounding down of nearly 20 percent is reasonable or not, the FDA ultimately viewed these arguments as persuasive. It agreed that 2,000 calories per day would be more likely to make it clear that people needed to tailor dietary recommendations to their own diets. The FDA wanted people to understand that they must adjust calorie intake according to age, sex, activity, and life stage. It addressed the adjustment problem by requiring the percent Daily Value footnote on food labels for diets of 2,000 and 2,500 calories per day, the range of average values reported in dietary intake surveys.

 As to how many calories you personally need, I think they are too difficult for most people to count accurately to bother.  The bottom line: If you are eating too many, you will be gaining weight.   

The best advice I can give is to get a scale and use it.  If your weight starts creeping up, you have to eat less.

The book will go into far more explanation of such issues but for that you will have to wait until March.


Aug 1 2011

Who says you can’t grow vegetables in New York City?

The Wall Street Journal says you can.  If a Murdoch paper says so, it must be true.  I’ve got ripe tomatoes on my terrace.  But here’s serious urban farming in the Bronx.  Is local food a fad?  I don’t think so.

Jul 29 2011

Rethink the food label? Vote by Sunday noon!

The Berkeley group that organized a contest to redesign the food label has picked its top choices from among 24 entries.   Take a look at them on that site and vote for your favorite by midday Sunday.

Tara Parker-Pope has a nice summary on her New York Times blog along with interviews with the judges.  Lily Mihalik, cocreator of the project explains:

We asked food thinkers and design minds to come together and give advice on how they might rethink the food label and bring some insight into how design impacts choice…There are a lot of things right with the current label, but at the same time people are confused. The question is whether a new nutrition facts label could help people make more educated decisions.

Good question.  My take is that most of the entries are even more complicated than the current Nutrition Facts label and leave out a lot of useful things you might like it to do:

  • State the content of calories per serving
  • State the serving size
  • State the content of nutrients of interest per serving (opinions can vary as to which are worth listing)
  • Compare those levels to standards for daily intake
  • Explain how those levels apply to a typical day’s diet
  • Indicate how the food fits into diets that vary in calorie intake
  • List ingredients
  • List allergens
  • Be accurate, noticable, understandable, and usable

Overall, the label is supposed to help consumers make more healthful food choices.  It also has to fit on food packages.

As several of the entries suggested, it would also be helpful if the label could indicate the degree of processing.  Actually, you can figure that out now by looking at the ingredient list.  Count the ingredients, see if you can pronounce them, and make sure they are recognizable as food.

If anything, this project demonstrates how difficult it is to develop a design that addresses all of these issues.   The January 6, 1993 Federal Register notice that announced the Nutrition Facts label takes up nearly 900 pages.

That notice reviewed the research that led to the current label.  The review makes it clear that nobody understood any of the available design options.   The FDA, under great pressure to meet a deadline set by Congress, chose the design that was least poorly understood.

Hence the FDA’s web pages devoted to explaining how to read and interpret the Nutrition Facts label, and its even lengthier web guide to the food industry on how to create the labels.

The FDA is currently doing the preparatory work for an eventual revision of the label, so these designs come at an opportune time.  Take a look and see what you think of them. 

The designers were brave to take this on. 

And so is the FDA.

Jul 28 2011

Note to readers: a call for civility

I have received numerous complaints from readers about the increasingly hostile, aggressive, rude, and uncivil tone of some of the comments to this site.

I have not been censoring comments because I would like the site to be a forum for a wide range of opinions about matters related to food politics.  I know that people are passionate about their beliefs, and I do not take comments personally.

And for reasons of time and technical challenge, I have been reluctant to intervene.

But because I now understand that the tone of the comments is adversely affecting readers, I am calling for civility.

Societies set rules for civil behavior for a reason.  Lack of civility leads to hate and undermines democracy.

I do not want this site to contribute to the uncivil discourse that has become so common in our society.

No matter how strongly you feel about food politics issues, I expect your comments–whether aimed at me, other readers, or anyone else—to be offered thoughtfully, respectfully, and with an appropriate degree of civility.

I will delete comments that do not adhere to this expectation.

I thank all of you who have weighed in with your concerns about this and other issues.  Keep talking, please.

 

 

 

Jul 27 2011

Let’s talk about McDonald’s Happy Meals changes

McDonald’s sent out a press release yesterday to announce “healthier” changes to its Happy Meals.

Healthier?  Not quite.  The company is announcing a “Commitment to Offer Improved Nutrition Choices” [my emphasis].

The comprehensive plan aims to help customers — especially families and children — make nutrition-minded choices whether visiting McDonald’s or eating elsewhere.

Menu changes underway include the addition of more nutritionally-balanced choices that meet McDonald’s reputation for great taste and affordability, along with an increased focus on providing nutrition information that enable customers and employees to make simple, informed menu decisions.

McDonald’s says that by the end of this year it will automatically include produce or a low-fat dairy option in every Happy Meal.  It will:

  • Automatically include both produce (apple slices, a quarter cup or half serving)
  • Automatically include a new smaller size French fries (1.1 ounces)
  • Automatically reduce the sodium by 15% or more

I emphasize “automatically” because it means the default. If you order a Happy Meal, that’s what you get.   Research shows that most people stick with the default. If the default is a healthy meal, kids have a better chance of getting one.

Everything else is your choice:

  • Hamburger, Cheeseburger or Chicken McNuggets.
  • “Beverage, including new fat-free chocolate milk and 1% low fat white milk”

The press release says: “McDonald’s will automatically include produce or a low-fat dairy option in every Happy Meal.”

Doesn’t that sound like the Happy Meal will come with low-fat milk?

Wrong.

The meal comes with a choice of a soda or low-fat chocolate or white milk.  Soda remains an option.  And the meal still comes with a toy.

So all the fuss—and McDonald’s has gotten huge press over this—is about 3 or 4 small slices of apples, one ounce less of French fries, and less sodium.

The New York Times’ summary:

These may be steps in the right direction, but I’d call them tiny baby steps.

So what’s going on here? Much of this is about responding to Michelle Obama’s call for action on childhood obesity.

But according to the Wall Street Journal, business matters may also be at stake. Happy Meals account for less than 10% of McDonald’s U.S. sales, but sales have been declining since 2003 for a funny reason: “gadgets for children have become more sophisticated and the toys less desirable.”  Of course the only reason kids want Happy Meals is for the toys.

But kids have to eat.  Instead of Happy Meals, parents have been

ordering adult-size items off the ‘dollar menu’ and splitting them between two children rather than buying two kids’ meals.

Kids’ meal orders at fast-food restaurants have declined 15% since 2006 to just under a billion, while dollar-menu items ordered by or for kids have increased 29% in the last five years.

The Wall Street Journal quotes a restaurant consultant who comments that

Making [apples] a forced decision is a pretty unusual thing for a restaurant to do…If they can get to a place where parents associate them with healthy offerings in a world of increasing fast casual options that are perceived as healthier, that will be good for them.

But will it? McDonald’s tested healthier meals with disappointing results.  So this has to be about McDonald’s trying to appear to do something to promote kids’ health. In reality, it can’t. McDonald’s is a business and its business interests come first.

If McDonald’s were serious, it could offer a truly healthier Happy Meal as the default and back it up with marketing dollars.  When the company does that, I’ll cheer.  Until then, as I told the Times, “I’m not impressed.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jul 26 2011

Thanks to emerging markets, U.S. food companies grow profits

The second quarter financial results are in and food companies are doing great, thanks to sales in developing countries. For example:

McDonald’s: Meatandpoultry.com reports (July 22) a 15% increase in income “boosted by strong sales throughout the world.”  Total revenue for the quarter was $6.9 billion, up 16% from $5.9 billion during the same quarter last year.

PepsiCo: Food Navigator reports an increase in net income to $1.88 billion up 18% from $1.6 billion last year. Despite “challenging conditions in the North American beverage market”… worldwide beverage and snacks businesses accounted for growth along with the acquisition of Russian dairy and juice company Wimm-Bill-Dann.  Sales in emerging markets increased 4% in beverages and 9% in snacks:  “We continue to enjoy robust top-line growth in key emerging markets,” said PepsiCo chairman and CEO Indra Nooyi.

Coca-Cola: Although its North American sales were sluggish, sales increased “due to growth in emerging markets such as China, Russia and Mexico.”  Income rose 18% to $2.8 billion from $2.4 billion last year.  Sales rose 6% in Latin America, 5% in Europe, 7% in Eurasia and Africa, and 7 in the Pacific region.   Growth in China ws 24%, in Russia 17%, and in Mexico 7%.  In contrast, North American volume recorded a growth of a measly 1%.

Americans are turning away from these products.  We already have plenty of obesity.  Now it’s time to export it.

Jul 25 2011

Campbell Soup fights the salt wars

As I endlessly repeat, even companies that want to make “healthier” products cannot do it—unless the products sell. If they don’t, forget it.

Witness: Campbell Soup. The company has given up on reducing the absurdly high salt content of its soups and is adding back the salt. Why? Its “health-inspired low-sodium push failed to lift sales.”

Campbell’s new CEO announced this at, no surprise, its annual investors’ meeting: “For me it’s about stabilizing it [company sales] first and then planning growth beyond that.”

Campbell shares rose by 1.3%.  Investment analysts were optimistic: “We look for future results to benefit from an increased emphasis on bolstering sales with tasty soup products.” 

From Campbell’s point of view, any guidelines that require it to reduce salt set “virtually unachievable” standards that are “misguided and counterproductive.”

In practice, the “draconian” thresholds for sodium, fat and sugars meant a high proportion of foods currently on the market would not meet the standards, while the proposed nutritional principles “describe products that manufacturers will not produce because children and teens will not eat them.”

From the standpoint of the advertising industry, Campbell’s “U-turn is a cautionary tale.”

Campbell’s problem, according to the industry, is that it “didn’t just dip its toe in the water with some stealthy, under-the-radar sodium reduction, it went for it all guns blazing as part of an overall commitment to ‘nourish people’s lives everywhere, every day.”

Clearly, concern about its customers’ health was a big mistake. And business analysts note that Campbell’s

u-turn – albeit just on one product line – raised questions about just how strong this commitment actually was…What would happen if instead of investing marketing dollars into a ‘please try me again’ campaign, Campbell’s embarked on a ‘we are absolutely determined to make this work’ campaign?

Oops. Bad press. In response, Campbell backtracked again.

In a press release, the company insisted that it is continuing to produce lower-sodium choices including 90 varieties of Campbell’s soups and more than 100 other Campbell products, such as V8 juices, Prego Italian sauces, SpaghettiOs pastas and most Pepperidge Farm breads.

The CEO said:

“Reducing sodium was absolutely the right thing for our company to do”  and Campbell’s Healthy Request, the company’s popular line of heart-healthy soups, has had compound annual sales growth of 21 percent over the past five years.

Campbell also says it “plans to shift the allocation of its R&D resources to ensure the company’s efforts are focused on a variety of ways to bring innovative products to market, not only on sodium reduction.”

We know that many consumers take great interest in the impact of the foods they eat on their long-term health and well-being … But we also recognize that the health and wellness attributes of foods mean different things to different people. For many, weight loss and weight maintenance is of primary importance. Others define their wellness needs in terms of vegetable nutrition, sodium reduction, energy and stamina, or digestive health. Thus, reducing sodium is just one component of our wellness strategy.

And one the company feels must be sacrificed to sales.

Make no mistake: food companies are not social service agencies. When it comes to a commitment to public health, the bottom line is all that counts—and has to be, given the way Wall Street works.

This needs a system change, no?  And one starting with Wall Street, which isn’t a bad idea for other reasons as well.

Jul 22 2011

Mrs. Obama’s food access initiatives: retailers say yes

Michelle Obama, who has made elimination of “food deserts” a cornerstone of her campaign to end childhood obesity, announced this week that several supermarket and drug store chains—Walmart, SuperValue, and Walgreens among them—have committed to finding ways to put healthier foods into low-income areas.

The USDA issued a press release and a fact sheet on the initiative.

This week, the Food Marketing Institute released “Access to Healthier Foods: Challenges and Opportunities for Retailers in Underserved Areas.”  The report summarizes the risks and benefits of locating grocery stores, describes how to get local governments to provide incentives, and gives some examples of success stories.

Mrs. Obama’s event was thoroughly covered by ObamaFoodorama, which notes that recent research suggests only minimal benefits from putting grocery stores into low-income areas and observes that it’s going to take a lot more than just better access to encourage people in underserved areas to eat more healthfully.

Some advocates worry that the access issue is being used as an excuse for large retail corporations to get a foothold in inner cities than it is for residents to have better food choice, and that an influx of big chains will put small grocers out of business.

Maybe, but I’m guessing that people who live in areas without decent grocery stores will be more than delighted to have them nearby, especially if the stores keep their promises to provide fresh produce.

Just for the record, the research on food deserts (or swamps as some prefer) makes it clear why this is an important issue:

Read, think, advocate!

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