Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jun 17 2009

Pesky problems with multi-nutrient supplements

It’s hard not to think of multivitamin supplements (which also include minerals) as perfectly safe, since the amounts of specific nutrients rarely exceed recommended levels.  But according to recent reports, formulation mistakes get made and these don’t always get caught by quality controls.  Here are two examples.

According to FoodProductionDaily.com, 25% of Adverse Event Reports (AERs) sent into the FDA last year concerned multivitamin supplements. This, says one supplement trade association, should not be interpreted to mean that there is anything wrong with the supplements.  Maybe not, but how about checking?

I say this because of the high zinc levels in the Nutro pet food recently recalled by Mars (see previous post).  Thanks to Sophie for sending a link to a report that some bags of the kibble contained zinc at more than 2000 ppm as compared to the 75 ppm that is supposed to be there.   This, of course, is why I keep insisting that everyone, not just pet owners, should be concerned about the quality of pet food.  We only have one food supply.  If a problem exists with pet food, it’s quite likely that something similar could happen to ours.

The take-home lessons:

  • For food manufacturers: Don’t trust the suppliers of vitamin/mineral mixes; test them!
  • For the government: How about requiring all supplement manufacturers to follow HACCP (science-based food safety) plans, with testing and quality control.
  • For customers (this means you): Contact the consumer affairs representative listed on the package label, ask if the company tests vitamin and mineral levels in finished products, complain if it doesn’t, and demand to see test data if it does.

Addendum: October 16, 2009: Thanks to Anthro for sending a link to this October 7 article from the website of the New England Journal of Medicine: “American roulette – contaminated dietary supplements.”   This is only to be expected from deregulated industries.

Jun 16 2009

Nanotechnology: threat or promise?

A recent meeting of the Institute for Food Technologists included presentations on applications of nanotechnology to food. These, say food technologists, have the potential to improve the safety, quality, and shelf life of foods.  They cite as examples anti-microbial coatings on food packaging materials and improved delivery systems for vitamin and flavor ingredients.

Nanotechnology deals with substances at the atomic and molecular levels, which means really, really small.  One nanometer is 0.000,000,001 meters (10 to the minus 9, or one millionth of a millimeter).

Until now, I haven’t said anything about food nanotechnology because I really don’t know what to say about it.  Is it safe?  How would we know?  Friends of the Earth says nanotechnology is the antithesis of organic agriculture and  represents a new threat to our food supply.  Even Food Technology thinks it should be disclosed on package labels.

The FDA says it already has the authority to regulate food nanotechnology.  The industry says that overly strict regulations are impeding progress in this industry (sounds like the GMO arguments, no?).

What’s going on here?  I’m having trouble getting a handle on this one.

If you know something about this, comments are most welcome.

Jun 15 2009

Cancer statistics, 2009

I’ve just received the latest cancer statistics from CA–A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. The good news is that overall cancer death rates are down from their peak in the 1990s and rates of specific cancers are stable or decreasing.  None seems to be increasing.

Look at what is happening with heart disease (page 15).   Its rates have fallen by half since the mid-1970s for people under age 85.  Even for people over 85, heart disease death rates are falling rapidly.

Obesity is a risk factor for both cancer and heart disease.  So ideas about its effects on health need to take these statistics into consideration.  But before dismissing obesity as a risk factor, note that both heart disease and cancer remain leading causes of death, and both disproportionately affect low-income groups.   Groups with low income and education tend to have many risk factors for these diseases, among them high rates of obesity.

Public health still has plenty of work to do.

Jun 12 2009

Food, Inc. is out at last!

Today is the official release date for Food, Inc., the latest film about our food production system and its discontents.  This one has generated tons of interest, and for good reason (I’ve seen it twice).  For one thing, it is star-studded: Eric Schlosser!  Michael Pollan!  For another, it takes a hard look at the less savory aspects of industrial food production for a purpose: to make you think before you eat.

To that end, the film comes with:

And, not least,

  • Its very own anti-Food Inc. website, a contribution from meat and poultry trade associations eager to provide a point-by-point rebuttal of every scene in the movie.

Here’s my favorite quote from the review in the New York Times:

one of the scariest movies of the year, “Food, Inc.,” [is]an informative, often infuriating activist documentary about the big business of feeding or, more to the political point, force-feeding, Americans all the junk that multinational corporate money can buy. You’ll shudder, shake and just possibly lose your genetically modified lunch.

Go see it and decide for yourself!

Jun 11 2009

The Lancet worries about climate change

I’m getting caught up on my journal reading and have just run across the May 16-22 issue of The Lancet devoted to a commission report on climate change.  The cover quote: “Climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.”

Among other things, the report addresses the effects of climate change on food production and water availability, none of them good.  It raises issues well worth discussion:

The present structure, organisation, and control fo the globalised food and agricultural system are failing to address the needs of both poor people and the environment.  For example, profits of giant agricultural and food corporations increased greatly in 2008, when the number of hungry people grew.

The report is well referenced and is a great resource for information about what climate change will do to food and agriculture.  But the report does not deal with the ways in which agriculture contributes to climate change.  For that angle, see previous posts.

Jun 10 2009

You are invited…

I list my public speaking gigs on this site but am often asked when I am doing something in New York.  Here’s one coming up soon.  I’ve given more information about this event in the links to the right.   Come if you can!

Join Party Hosts

Mig Boyle, Paige Brodsky, Carrie Carmichael, Jaimie Cloud,

Mary Daly, Lew Friedman, Kathy Jones, Anna Lappé,

David Lerner, David Levine, Leah Margulies, Nancy Romer, David Terrio

for an informative and entertaining evening to benefit

Corporate Accountability International

at the home of
David Levine and Jaimie Cloud
14 Wooster Street #5
Soho between Grand and Canal Streets

Wednesday June 17th  6:30-9:00

Featured Speakers:
Speaker Christine C. Quinn
Marion Nestle

For more information, questions or to RSVP (by June 12th )
Matt Wilson
mwilson@stopcorporateabuse.org
617-695-2525
Appetizers and drinks will be served

Jun 9 2009

The soda tax debate: more of the same

On June 3, the New York Times editorial page endorsed the idea of a tax on sugary sodas, and I especially liked the way the writer placed the issue in context:

Bigger fixes are needed, of course, starting with decent health care. The young need more exercise, healthier lunches and better education on nutrition. All consumers — not just those lucky enough to live near farms or large grocery stores — should be able to buy fresh fruits and vegetables at affordable prices. While we wait, Congress could impose an excise tax on sugary drinks — one of the main culprits in the obesity epidemic.

Yesterday, the Times published three letters in response, a set remarkable for concisely summarizing the same tired, old arguments.

From the American Beverage Association: “Balancing calories consumed with those expended through physical activity is the critical factor in preventing obesity. Therefore, we must continue to educate Americans about the importance of energy balance.”  Yes, but that won’t be enough.  As I have explained in previous posts, overeating calories has a much greater impact on weight gain than physical activity has in preventing it, and plenty of those overeaten calories come from sugary drinks these days.

Another writer, complaining that personal responsibility and parental responsibility have been lost in this discussion, then goes on to propose precisely the non-personal, societal approaches that the editorial was promoting: “Let’s try removing soda machines from our schools, providing healthier school lunches and ensuring that our gym classes are financed.”

Good ideas.  But I still think soda taxes could be an interesting experiment, well worth a try.

Jun 8 2009

HFCS-free sales booming

Thanks to Phil Lempert, the Supermarket Guru, for alerting me to the current HFCS-free sales boom.  HFCS, of course, is High Fructose Corn Syrup, the liquid sweetener made from corn (see previous posts).  Food marketers have gotten the message that many people consider HFCS to be the new trans fat, even though it is not much different biologically from common table sugar (sucrose).

HFCS is replaced easily by sucrose, which used to be much more expensive.  Now, because of the use of corn for ethanol, sucrose is only slightly more expensive than HFCS.

Click on the Table to see the overall 13% growth in sales over the last year, with products like HFCS-free milk drinks, juices, salad dressings, and teas registering 1,500% to 16,000% increases.  Like “trans fat-free,” the term “HFCS-free”  is a calorie distractor.  It too will make you forget about the calories.

The irony is that white table sugar – formerly a leading target of “eat less” messages – suddenly has a health aura.  Marketers have wasted no time moving in to use that aura to sell the same old products.

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