Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jul 31 2009

More about organic nutrients

British newspapers are unfailingly interesting.  This morning’s Daily Telegraph carries a commentary by Rose Prince about the benefits of organics.  She provides an interesting take on the politics of this report (see previous post) and of the organic movement in general, along with this thought:

It is a pity that the focus has been on nutrition. All food is nutritious; having no food is what kills. The wider benefits of organic foods are still worth pursuing. It is what food does not contain and the effects that it does not have that really matter.

Jul 30 2009

Today’s huge flap about organics: forget nutrients

I’m in London and today’s tabloid Daily Express has a headline in type two inches high: “ORGANIC FOOD NO HEALTHIER.”  The article begins, “Eating organic food in the belief that it is good for your health is a waste of money, new research shows.”

2009-07-301

Really?  This surprising statement is based on the conclusions of a lengthy report just released from the British Food Standards Agency, Comparison of composition (nutrients and other substances) of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs: a systematic review of the available literature.  This report, done by excellent researchers at the prestigious London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, looked at the results of 162 studies comparing organic to conventionally grown foods for their content of nutrients and other substances.  Although it found higher amounts of some nutrients in organic crops, it found higher amounts of others in conventional crops, and no difference in others.  On this basis, the report concludes:

There is no good evidence that increased dietary intake, of the nutrients identified in this review to be present in larger amounts in organically than in conventionally produced crops and livestock products, would be of benefit to individuals consuming a normal varied diet, and it is therefore unlikely that these differences in nutrient content are relevant to consumer health.

In a statement accompanying release of the report, the Food Standards Agency says:

The Agency supports consumer choice and is neither pro nor anti organic food. We recognise that there are many reasons why people choose to eat organic, such as animal welfare or environmental concerns. The Agency will continue to give consumers accurate information about their food based on the best available scientific evidence.

Fine, but do animal welfare and environmental concerns not matter?  The authors of the report summarize their findings in a paper in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The paper concludes:

On the basis of a systematic review of studies of satisfactory quality, there is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs. The small differences in nutrient content detected are biologically plausible and mostly relate to differences in production methods.

Oh?  I thought that’s what organic foods were about – production methods: no antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, irradiation, genetic modification, or sewage sludge.  I thought better production methods were the precise point of organic foods.

But these authors did not compare amounts of antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, irradiation, genetic modification, or sewage sludge.  They did not look at any of those things.  They only looked at nutrients.  This is an example of nutritionism in action: looking at foods as if their nutrient content is all that matters – not production methods, not effects on the environment, and not even taste.

I’m surprised that investigators of this caliber would focus so narrowly on nutrient content.  There is no reason to think that organic foods would have fewer nutrients than industrially produced foods, and there are many reasons to think that organics have greater benefits for the environment, for pesticide reduction, and for taste, all of which affect human health at least as much — or more — than minor differences in nutritional content.   I buy organics because I want foods to be produced more naturally, more humanely, and more sustainably.  I see plenty of good reasons to buy organics and this study does not even begin to address them.

[Posted from London]

Jul 29 2009

Medical costs of obesity

The latest estimate from CDC on the annual cost of obesity: $147 billion.  Ordinarily, I don’t take such numbers too seriously because they are based on assumptions that may or may not  be correct.  But this number has been challenged by so personal an attack on the new head of the CDC, Tom Friedan, that I’m thinking it should be taken seriously.

The attacker is the supposedly independent – but thoroughly industry-sponsored –  American Council on Science and Health (ACSH).  Here’s the quote from its latest online newsletter:

Frieden’s Crusade Moves to Washington

A study presented on Monday at a CDC obesity meeting determined that obesity-related diseases account for nearly 10 percent of all medical spending in the United States – an estimated $147 billion per year. The study was sanctioned by CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden, whose partiality to government-interventionist responses to public health concerns is epitomized by his quote: “Reversing obesity is not going to be done successfully with individual effort. It will be done successfully as a society.”

“The reason he hyped this study was to promote more proactive government interventions, including a three cent soda tax,” says ACSH’s Jeff Stier. Dr. Ross adds, “Whenever I see numbers like this – especially when they are being promoted by someone we know is a fan of big government – I suspect that they have been altered or manipulated. Obesity is definitely a health threat, and it will definitely be a burden on our health care system. How much of a burden, we don’t know. But I don’t trust these numbers.”

Well, I don’t trust ACSH.  For one thing, just try to figure out who funds them.  For another, note the way ACSH invokes science to make its political agenda seem authoritative.

Whatever the real cost of obesity, its consequences will place a considerable burden on our health care system.    And it will take societal responsibility as much as – or more than – individual responsibility to deal with the problem.

[Posted from London]

Jul 28 2009

Kaiser-Permanente does menu labeling

Kaiser-Permanente hospital cafeterias in California, Oregon, and Hawaii will soon be displaying information about calories and nutrition on menu boards.  This huge not-for-profit HMO has a huge not-for-profit focus on preventive health.  It figured out a long time ago that healthy people don’t cost as much to take care of, and it constantly seeks new ways to encourage its members to stay healthy.  That’s why it sponsored a study to find out whether menu labeling helps people make healthier food choices.  Guess what: it does.

Now, if only for-profit hospitals would start doing the same….

[Posted from London]

Jul 26 2009

Food in Fairbanks

I’m just back from a long trip to Alaska where I gave a talk at the University of Fairbanks.  Fairbanks, in central Alaska, is 200 miles from the Arctic Circle and has a short growing season from the end of May to the beginning of September, but those few weeks are brightly lit.  The sun set at midnight in mid-July and it never really got dark.

As for the food revolution, it is booming.  Even the local Safeway has gotten into locally grown foods, although not always accurately.Not exactly local food When I saw the pineapples, I asked what “locally grown” meant.  Somewhere in Alaska.   Oh.   But Safeway really does have locally grown food, mostly cabbages and root vegetables.  Where were they grown?   Someplace around here.

I saw vegetables growing everywhere, even in small urban spaces such as the entryway to the hotel where I was staying.  The long daylight makes for big vegetables and this plot sported a two-foot long zucchini.  Alas, it had disappeared by the time I got back to photograph it.

Hotel garden

And yes, Fairbanks has a farmers’ market, and it was in full swing.

Farmers' Market, Fairbanks

And then to the organic farm at Rosie Creek.  It was full of summer interns visiting from the nearby Calypso Farms.Rosie Creek

Calypso Farms has a terrific garden program in five schools in the area.

Calypso

And here a few first-time tourist remarks:

Where is the most entertaining food? That had to be at Bigun’s Crab Shack in Skagway.  Bigun is the chef, spelled that way, not Big-‘un (He’s the one that didn’t get away, according to his mom).  What Cajun cooking is doing in Skagway is beyond me but it was wonderful to have it on a hot summer day.

And what was the best off-beat museum?  It has nothing to do with food, alas, but I still vote for the Hammer Museum in Haines.  Not to be missed.

The Hammer Museum

Jul 25 2009

No wonder athletes take supplements: testosterone!

I’m not usually an avid reader of the sports pages but a recent article in the New York Times caught my eye.  A couple of over-the-counter dietary supplements adored by high school football players – Tren Xtreme and Mass Xtreme (manufactured by American Cellular Labs) – turn out to contain “designer” (translation: artificially synthesized) testosterone.

Why do high school athletes take this stuff?  Obviously, because it works. Never mind the effects of excess testosterone on bone growth in adolescent boys (not good).

The article sheds considerable light on the murky business of selling such products, the use of illicit drugs in sports, the wink-wink attitudes of everyone involved, and the difficulties faced by federal regulators.

Add this to the reasons why we need Congress to allow real regulation of dietary supplements.

Jul 24 2009

CSPI sues Denny’s over salt

Center for Science in the Public Interest has just sued Denny’s for failing to disclose the amount of salt in its fast foods.  I heard about this from a reporter from Nation’s Restaurant News who thought the suit was absurd.  Everyone knows Denny’s food isn’t healthy, she suggested.  Maybe, but I had no idea how much salt the foods contained, and I’m supposed to know such things.

The figures that follow refer to the sodium content.  Sodium is 40% of salt (the other 60% is chloride) so 4,000 mg sodium is equivalent to 10,000 mg salt (10 grams).  The standard recommendation for healthy people is 2,300 mg sodium per day.  People with hypertension are supposed to restrict sodium to 1,500 mg.  With that said, try these examples and remember, this is sodium:

  • 2,580 mg   Moons Over My Hammy sandwich  (ham, egg, cheese)
  • 4,120 mg  Spicy Buffalo Chicken Melt with regular fries
  • 5,690 mg  Meat Lover’s Scramble (eggs, bacon, sausage, bacon)

I see this as a flat-out issue of consumer choice.  If people want more salt, they can always add it at the table, but those of us want less salt don’t have a choice at all.  We are stuck with what is served to us and if we don’t know how much salt the food contains (and taste isn’t necessarily a reliable indicator of amount), we have no choice about the amount we are eating.

Litigation is not my favorite public health strategy but in this situation it seems like the only current option.  Voluntary salt reduction isn’t happening across the board, the FDA is up to its ears in food safety problems, so there is a huge vacuum waiting to be filled.  I will be interested to see what happens with this suit, and I’m not as convinced as the Nations Restaurant News reporter that it will be so easy to dismiss out of hand.

Later addition: I’ve just seen this from the industry-sponsored American Council on Science and Health, which thinks the CSPI lawsuit frivolous, to say the least:  “Maybe [CSPI’s] Michael Jacobson doesn’t want the public to have the choice of what he considers unhealthy food.”  That says it all!

Jul 23 2009

School meals: it’s good to feed kids

The USDA has a couple of new reports out on school meals.  One looks at the dismal rates of participation in the School Breakfast program.  Only about 30% of those eligible actually get breaksfast.  How come?  Kids are more likely to eat the breakfast when it is served in the classroom (rather than the lunchroom) and when they are given time to eat it.

The second study also proves the obvious: kids who eat breakfast eat less junk food and are likely to be better nourished (and, therefore, behave and learn better).

I know the USDA has to do these studies in order to satisfy taxpayers’ investment in the programs but shouldn’t our society ensure that all hungry kids are fed decently?  So many of the financial problems with the school meals programs could be solved if they were made universal (and we didn’t need to spend all that money to determine eligibility and make sure no kid gets a meal she isn’t entitled to).  Universal school meals would also take away the poverty stigma.  And yes, let’s serve breakfasts in classrooms and give kids time to eat.  After all, the research backs up those ideas, no?

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