Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Apr 10 2009

Consumers prefer traffic-light food labels

Lots of well meaning people are trying to develop systems for labeling foods by their degree of nutritional quality (I file posts on this topic under Scoring systems).  My preference is for traffic lights — green for eat anytime, yellow for once-in-a-while, and red for hardly ever).  So I was not surprised to see an announcement of a new study from Australia that tested consumers’ understanding of several kinds of food ranking systems.  According to the study itself, traffic lights beat out the other systems tested in helping consumers choose healthier foods.  I hear rumors that the Institute of Medicine is starting a study to evaluate consumers’ understanding of the various kinds of ranking labels on food products.  I suppose we will need to wait until that study is complete – a process that usually takes two or three years – before we hear its conclusion.  If we have to have one system, I’m voting for traffic lights.

Apr 9 2009

The argument for soda taxes

Kelly Brownell of the Yale Rudd Center and Tom Friedan of the New York City Health Department write that taxes on sodas make sense as a way to get people to consume less of them (New England Journal of Medicine, April 8).  Cutting down on sugary drinks is the first thing to do to control weight.  Brownell and Friedan lay out the arguments for and against soda taxes and conclude that this approach has significant potential for improving health. Take a look at the paper and see if you agree.

In the meantime, Corby Kummer at the Atlantic Food Channel writes about what’s happening in Washington on this very issue.  And David Katz responds to comments from the Beverage Association about the paper (hint: they didn’t like it).

Apr 8 2009

Great news: probiotic ice cream!

Now here’s news we’ve all been waiting for: Brazilian food scientists have invented probiotic ice cream.  Probiotics, as you no doubt have heard, are bacteria like the ones that ferment milk into yogurt.  These are supposed to do great things for your health.  As I discuss in What to Eat, there is some – but not terribly compelling – evidence to back up this claim.

This product apparently looks and tastes like ice cream, but supposedly replaces nasty bacteria in your intestines with friendlier types.    But wait!  I thought freezing killed off most of those friendly bacteria.  Frozen yogurt has less fat than ice cream, but it also has way fewer bacteria than regular yogurt.

If this stuff ever gets onto the market, I’ll bet its makers advertise the number of bacteria they put into the ice cream, but don’t say a word about how few survived freezing and storage.

Functional foods (those designed to have some nutritional benefit beyond the nutrients in the food) are about marketing, not health.   They are supposed to make you feel good while eating lots of ice cream.

I don’t need probiotics to feel good about eating ice cream.  Especially ginger ice cream.  Or peach.

Added comment, April 9: Does freezing kill probiotic bacteria?  Yes it does, although “most” is an exaggeration.  As I discuss is What to Eat, the National Yogurt Association standards for regular yogurt require 100 million live bacteria per gram; its standard for frozen yogurt is 10 million bacteria per gram – a ten-fold decrease.   In bacterial terms, both are small numbers.  In any case, these bacteria may be good for you (and I emphasize the uncertainty), but watch out for the calories!

Apr 7 2009

Pistachio recalls: curioser and curioser

The FDA, reports the New York Times, is getting tougher about food safety, and about time too.  Within the last few days, the FDA has issued guidance to industry about how to deal with pistachios, warned food companies that they must follow Good Manufacturing Practices, explained to companies how recalls are supposed to be done, warned consumers not to eat pistachios unless their source is known, and continued to  update the list of recalled products.

None of this gets at the real problems: the lack of a unified food safety system with some teeth in it, resources to carry out food safety oversight and inspections, and authority to order recalls of potentially unsafe food (recalls, as I keep reminding you, are voluntary).  And I guess we should add traceability.  According to the account in USA Today, the plant that shipped the contaminated pistachios has no idea where they all went.

Pistachio growers have stepped into the breach and now have a website listing products that have not been recalled.

The FDA’s handling of the pistachio situation differs sharply from the agency’s usual way of handling such things.  Usually, the FDA waits for people to get sick before taking action.  The odd thing here is that nobody seems to have gotten sick from eating contaminated pistachios.  So what the FDA is doing is working – so far.

And all this is happening under the leadership of an Acting Commissioner while the newly appointed Commissioner, Dr. Margaret Hamburg, awaits congressional approval.

May 26 update: FoodProductionDaily.com reports that the supplier of Salmonella-contaminated pistachios had tested the nuts, found them to contain Salmonella, and re-heated them, but didn’t bother to check to make sure the Salmonella were killed or that the nuts weren’t recontaminated with unroasted nuts.  Bill Marler has more to say about this.  Here’s the FDA inspection report of April 30, and the FDA Pistachio recall page again.

Apr 6 2009

Can restaurants do healthier food?

The editor of the San Francisco Chronicle magazine invited me to write about what restaurants could do to make it easier for customers to make more healthful choices.  Here’s what I said:

As a nutritionist who cares deeply about the effects of food on health, I am often asked to speak to groups of owners of restaurants and restaurant chains. I accept such invitations whenever I can because I have an agenda for restaurant owners. I want them to make it much easier for customers to make healthier food choices.

Yes, I know. Restaurants are in the business of selling food. Restaurants must offer choices and give customers what they want. But restaurants bear some responsibility for encouraging people to eat too much and, therefore, contributing to obesity and its consequences.

As someone who loves to eat and eats in restaurants several times a week, I am all too aware of efforts to get me to eat more than I ordinarily would. Rather than resisting those efforts on my own, I’d appreciate some help.

Here’s what I wish restaurants would do:

Give a price break for smaller portions. Larger portions are a huge barrier to healthful eating. Larger portions have more calories, of course. But they also encourage people to eat more, and they fool us into thinking that we aren’t eating so much. Controlling weight means eating smaller portions. I’d like restaurants to offer half-size servings for, say, 70 percent of the price of “normal” size. That would work better for me than taking home a doggie bag.

Make healthy kids’ meals the default. Why not put tasty and healthful meals on the menu as the only options for kids’ meals? If parents want their kids to eat junk food, they can always order it, but restaurateurs do not need to aid and abet that choice. Kids should be eating grownup food anyway – restaurant meals offer a chance to expand their food experience.

Cook with less salt. Put salt shakers on the table. If customers don’t think your food is salty enough, they can always add their own. But those of us who are trying to keep our blood pressure under control would appreciate food that did not already have so much added salt.

Notice that I’m not asking restaurants (other than fast food chains) to post calories or nutrition information, to label meals as heart-healthy or to do anything else to turn customers off. I’d be happy with just these three changes. Other suggestions, anyone?

Apr 4 2009

Prevent childhood obesity: drink water?

I can hardly believe it but just having drinking fountains in schools (and no sugary drinks) seems to be enough to reduce the risk of obesity in kids by 31%.  This astonishing result is reported in the latest issue of Pediatrics. Investigators arranged to have drinking fountains installed in about half of 32 elementary schools in “socially deprived” areas of Germany.  They also prepared lesson plans encouraging water consumption.  Kids in the intervention schools drank more water and reported consuming less juice.

Could we try this here?  The barriers are formidible.  First, the water fountain problem.  Water fountains must (a) be present, (b) be usable, (c) be clean and sanitary, and (d) produce water that is free of harmful chemicals and bacteria.  All of these are problematic.  I once tried to find out whether the water in school drinking fountains in New York City had been tested and was known to be safe to drink.  I had to file a FOIA (freedom of information act) request to get testing data.  This came from only a few schools and from water going into the fountains, not coming out of them.

And then there is the soda problem.  Schools in Germany do not have vending machines all over the place and kids do not have access to sodas, juice drinks, and other such things all day long.  Ours do.

But doesn’t this study suggest that if we got rid of vending machines and junk foods in schools – and made sure water fountains worked, were clean, and distributed clean water – that we could make a little progress on preventing childhood obesity?  Worth a try, no?

Apr 3 2009

Can food products be traced? Not easily.

In 2005, the FDA required certain categories of manufacturers to keep records about the source, transporters, and recipients of their products.  Recently, the Inspector General of the FDA’s parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, conducted an exercise to see whether traceability was working.  Inspectors bought 4 samples of 10 different food products (e.g., bottled water, oatmeal, tomatoes) at retail stores and attempted to track their supply chains.  Oops.  It only could trace 5.  For another 31, it could make educated guesses.  But nearly 60% of food facilities handling these products could not complete the tracing and 25% did not know they were supposed to.

The FDA, says the Inspector General, needs statutory authority to require producers to know their supply chains and everybody involved needs some education about how to do this.  No wonder we are still getting daily recalls of products containing peanut better.  Statutory authority means Congress.  I wish Congress would get busy on this!

Apr 2 2009

Pistachio recalls: what they mean

The interesting part about this latest recall – now 2 million pounds and involving 74 products so far – is how the Salmonella contamination was discovered.  According to a lengthy account in USA Today, a small nut company in Illinois, Georgia’s Nut, routinely tests for Salmonella and found the bacteria in nuts purchased from Setton Pistachio of California.  Georgia’s Nut recalled products distributed in the Chicago area.  This company also produces a trail mix for Kraft Foods.  It notified Kraft Foods, which also promptly recalled its products.

I’m guessing that Georgia Nut must follow a HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) plan.  HACCP is a science-based food safety procedure that requires analyzing where contamination might occur in production processes (hazard analysis), taking steps to prevent contamination at those critical control points, and using pathogen testing to make sure the steps were followed and the plan is working.

HACCP, as I keep complaining, is only required for meat and poultry production on the USDA regulatory side (where is it poorly enforced) and for sprouts, fresh juices, seafood, and eggs on the FDA side.  The producers of everything else are supposed to follow Good Manufacturing Processes, which are considerably less rigorous and, as we saw with the peanut butter recalls (more than 3,800 products from 200 companies) and their health consequences (nearly 700 sick, at least 9 deaths), clearly do not work.

How about HACCP for all foods?  Worth a try?

April 3 update: USA Today reports that Setton Pistachio has not yet issued its own recall (note: this is a good reason why the FDA needs the authority to order recalls), that its California plant passed recent inspections with relatively minor violations, but that its sister plant on Long Island is a mess.  USA Today also reports that Setton Pistachio has had positive tests for Salmonella for months.  What did the company do with the contaminated pistachios?  A mystery.

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