Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Oct 22 2010

The latest salvos in the sodium debates

Scientific debates about the role of sodium in high blood pressure go on and on.  Committees of scientists reviewing the research invariably conclude that people would be healthier if they ate less salt (salt is sodium chloride).  The 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is only the most recent group to urge population-wide reductions in sodium intake.

The Institute of Medicine has just issued a new report on reducing sodium.  Its Report in Brief gives a quick summary

As its primary strategy for sodium reduction, the committee recommends that the FDA set mandatory national standards for the sodium content in foods…beginning the process of reducing excess sodium in processed foods and menu items to a safer level. It is important that the reduction in sodium content of foods be carried out gradually…Evidence shows that a decrease in sodium can be accomplished successfully without affecting consumer enjoyment of food products if it is done in a stepwise process that systematically and gradually lowers sodium levels across the food supply.

But wait!  Hypertension rates have been increasing for years without any change in sodium excretion, says a report in FoodNavigator.com.  The report refers to new study in this month’s American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reviewing trends in sodium excretion from 1957 to 2003.

Sodium excretion, a precise reflection of intake, say Adam Bernstein and Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health, has not changed in the last half century, despite rising rates of high blood pressure.   Instead, they suggest that rising rates of obesity might be the cause.

The accompanying editorial, by David McCarron and his colleagues, takes the argument even further as can be seen just from its title: “Science trumps politics: urinary sodium data challenge US dietary sodium guideline.

The editorial says that this new study provides:

plausible, scientific evidence of a “normal” range of dietary sodium intake in humans that is consistent with our understanding of the established physiology of sodium regulation in humans. This scientific evidence, not political expediency, should be the foundation of future government policies….Guidance for sodium intake should target specific populations for whom a lower sodium intake is possibly beneficial. Such an approach would avoid broad proscriptive guidelines for the general population for whom the safety and efficacy are not yet defined.

Is this review likely to change the Dietary Guidelines due out later this year?  The Advisory Committee was convinced that the preponderance of evidence favors the importance of sodium as a causative agent in high blood pressure.

Because so much is at stake for the processed food industry, this argument is not likely to be resolved quickly.  Stay tuned.

Oct 21 2010

Toddler eating patterns: the latest survey

Nestlé, the world’s largest food company (no relation) has conducted periodic studies of infant feeding practices since 2002, no doubt to encourage sales of its Gerber products.  The surveys—FITS (Feeding Infants and Nutrition) Studies—invariably show that Gerber  baby foods would be better for babies than what they currently are fed.

The latest FITS results, says the Nestlé press release, “are startling.”

  • One-third of toddlers and 50% of preschoolers eat fast food at least once a week.
  • On-quarter of families eat dinner together four or fewer nights each week.
  • Half of 2-year-olds and 60% of 3-year-olds watch more than one hour of television each day.
  • 17% of 2-year-olds and 24% of 3-year-olds watch more than two hours of TV each day.
  • 25% of older infants, toddlers and preschoolers do not eat even one serving of fruit on a given day, and 30% do not eat a single serving of vegetables.
  • French fries are still the most popular vegetable among toddlers and preschoolers.
  • 71% of toddlers and 84% of preschoolers consume more sodium than recommended on a given day.

If these trends are real, could food marketing have anything to do with them?  Nestlé/Gerbers does not speculate.

The survey does report some good news:

  • “Only” 17% of infants age 6-8 months consumed a dessert or sweetened beverage on a given day compared to 36% in 2002.
  • “Only” 14% of infants age 12-14 months drank a sweetened beverage on a given day, down from 29% in 2002.
  • 33% of mothers are breastfeeding 9-11 month old children compared to 21% in 2002

The breastfeeding trend, if true, is good news indeed.  Evidently, the word is also getting out on sweetened beverages.  Progress?  Yes, but plenty more to do.

Oct 19 2010

What do checkoff programs do?

I’m catching up on reading and just ran across a report about the accomplishments of the dairy checkoff.  This, you will no doubt recall, is the USDA-sponsored program that collects a “tax” from dairy producers and uses the funds for generic promotion of dairy products.   What fills the folks running the checkoff with pride?  Among them,

  • Focusing on dairy health and wellness by helping to combat childhood obesity by encouraging schools to implement physical activity and good nutrition, including dairy.
  • Partnering with Domino’s Pizza to develop pizzas using up 40% more cheese than usual.  This worked so well that other pizza chains are doing the same thing.
  • Partnering with McDonald’s to launch McCafe specialty coffees that use up to 80 percent milk, and three new burgers with two slices of cheese per sandwich.  The result?  An additional 6 million pounds of cheese sold.
  • Creating reduced lactose milks in order to bring lapsed consumers back to milk.  The potential result?  An additional 2.5 to 5 billion pounds of milk each year.
  • Partnering with General Mills’ Yoplait to develop yogurt chip technology that requires 8 ounces of milk.
  • Maintaining momentum for single-serve milk by offering white and flavored milk in single-serve, plastic, resealable bottles.

As the person who sent this to me put it, you can’t make this stuff up.

Oct 18 2010

Monsanto: the worst stock of 2010?

Some investment analysts have annointed Monsanto, the 800-pound gorilla of the food biotechnology industry, as the worst stock of the year.  Whether or not the company is really doing that badly, it is not having a good year.

For starters, its income  fell by half since its last fiscal year.

That’s bad news, but there’s more.  Just in the last few weeks:

  • Monsanto’s SmartStax corn which has been bioengineered to contain eight inserted genes turns out to produce yields that are no higher than those from the less expensive GM corn containing only three inserted genes.
  • Sales of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide are way down since it went off patent.  Farmers prefer to buy the cheaper Chinese generics.
  • More and more weeds are becoming resistant to Roundup.  To kill them, farmers have to buy other, more toxic herbicides, defeating the whole point of using this herbicide.
  • The Justice Department has Monsanto under investigation for possible antitrust violations.

It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for the company.

Maybe Monsanto could take the present crisis as a sign that it’s time to make some real effort to elicit public support.  How about petitioning the FDA to allow GM foods to be labeled, for starters?

Hey, I can dream.

Oct 16 2010

Obesity research in action: recent studies

FoodNavigator.com has a special issue on obesity research.  Its reports are based on single studies that may or may not agree with previous research and, therefore, require some interpretation.

Zero-calorie sweeteners do not prompt overeating, finds study: People do not compensate with extra calories after consuming foods and drinks sweetened with zero-calorie sweeteners, suggests a new study published in the journal Appetite…

Fruit flies help explain why diet success varies: A study on fruit flies has indicated that genetic interaction with diet has a greater impact on body weight than diet alone, which the researchers say can help explain different reactions to similar diets….

Sucralose does not promote weight gain: Human study: Consumption of sucralose and sucralose-sweetened products does not affect gut hormones linked to hunger, or detrimentally affect blood sugar levels, says a new study from Australia….

Food addiction: Fat may rewire brain like hard drugs: Overeating may be driven by a same neurobiological mechanism in the brain as drug addition, says a new study from the US that adds clout to the theory ‘food addiction’….

Overeating drives fat gain at the hips, says obesity-related study: Fat tissues in the upper and lower body may gain weight differently, says a new study which deepens our understanding of fat accumulation and obesity….

Two of these studies are about the effects of artificial sweeteners on hunger, satiety, calorie intake, and weight gain.  In contrast to previous studies, both of these find that sweeteners do not cause people to eat more to compensate for the reduced calories.

I’m guessing we will be hearing more about this topic, as new research results come in.  Stay tuned.

Oct 15 2010

Eating Liberally: What’s up with Walmart?

Every now and then I answer questions from Eating Liberally’s Kerry Trueman (kat).  Today’s is about Walmart’s sustainability initiatives.

Let’s Ask Marion Nestle: Is Wal-Mart’s Sustainability Strategy For Real?

Submitted by KAT on Fri, 10/15/2010 – 12:20pm.

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s Kerry Trueman corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Pet Food Politics, What to Eat and Food Politics🙂

KT: Why do you think Wal-Mart has decided to throw its colossal weight behind sustainable agriculture, both domestically and globally, in such a seemingly significant way? Is it a strategic pr move, a better-for-the-bottom-line calculus, or a bit of both? Is it too good to be true?

Dr. Nestle: I, of course, am a skeptic. Of course Wal-Mart wants to get into the business of sustainably and locally grown food. Wal-Mart is the largest grocery chain in the world, the 800-pound gorilla in the industry. It can demand whatever it wants from its suppliers, and at the lowest possible cost.

With these new initiatives, Wal-Mart suppliers will have to figure out ways to produce foods sustainably–without increasing the cost to Wal-Mart. So this move costs Wal-Mart nothing. It gains plenty. This move should recruit supporters of sustainable and locally grown food and induce them to overlook the company’s retrogressive labor practices.

Will these initiatives help farmers? Maybe, but only if Wal-Mart pays them decently for what they produce. As for Wal-Mart employees? Ditto. But I want to wait and see how it all plays out before making a final judgment.

This is also posted on Huffington Post.

And the New York Times has a story on it.

Oct 13 2010

IOM Front-of-Package Label Committee releases Phase 1 report

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) released its first Front-of-Package (FOP) labeling report this morning. Phase I is a tough, detailed examination of about 20 of the existing FOP schemes along with some recommendations about what such schemes ought to do.

FOP labels are those little spots, check marks, and tokens that are all over food packages these days and that are supposed to indicate that the product is especially healthy for you.  They may seem utterly trivial, but they are of desperate importance to food companies.  FOP labels sell food products.  Food marketers love them and need them.  The FDA worries that having so many of them confuses the public, and that the schemes are based on criteria that serve industry purposes more than to promote public health.

As the IOM press release explains:

A multitude of nutrition rating, or guidance, systems have been developed by food manufacturers, government agencies, nutrition groups, and others in recent years with the intent of helping consumers quickly compare products’ nutritional attributes and make healthier choices. Ratings are typically communicated to shoppers through symbols placed prominently on food packaging, usually on the front, or on retail shelf tags. Unlike the Nutrition Facts panel, these rating systems and symbols are unregulated, and different systems focus on different nutrients. The variation may confuse consumers, and questions have been raised about the systems’ underlying nutritional criteria.

The committee did a terrific analysis of current FOP schemes.  My favorite parts are its

  • Clear, concise histories of nutrition and FOP labeling (students: take note!)
  • Detailed evaluation of the strengths (few) and weaknesses (many) of the existing schemes
  • Demonstration of the inconsistent results of applying the schemes to specific foods

The report gives examples of the inconsistent results of three scoring schemes: Guiding Stars, NRFI [Nutrient-Rich Foods Index], and Nu-Val

  • Instant oatmeal received 3 Guiding Stars, and scores of 87 by NRFI and 39 by NuVal.
  • Non-instant oatmeal received 2 Guiding Stars, and scores of 22 by NRFI and 57 by NuVal
  • Toasted oat cereal received 2 Guiding Stars, and scores of 84 by NRFI and 37 by NuVal
  • Fat free milk, 1% fat milk, and fat free plain yogurt received 3 Guiding Stars, but fat free milk was scored 56 by NRFI and 91 by NuVal; 1% fat milk was scored 30 by NRFI and 81 by NuVal, and fat free plain yogurt was scored 43 by NRFI and 96 by NuVal.

The committee’ key recommendation: FOP labels should deal with just four nutrients: calories, saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium.

These nutrients, says the committee, “are routinely overconsumed and associated most strongly with diet-related health problems affecting many Americans, including obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer.”

Comment: Trans fat seems unnecessary here.  It is already out of most packaged foods.   Or maybe the committee thinks that leaving it off will give food companies permission to put hydrogenated oils back in?

The committee chose not to add sugars to this list:

The committee concurred that both added and naturally occurring sugars contribute to the caloric content of foods and beverages and overconsumption of high-calorie products can lead to obesity.  Highlighting calories per serving in nutrition rating systems would address this concern.

Comment: I think consumers want to know about added sugars in food products.  I certainly do.

Phase II comes next

It will examine designs and look at consumer understanding of the labels, and will discuss “the pros and cons of having a single, standardized front-label food guidance system that is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.”

Presumably, Phase II will deal with questions that are not addressed in the Phase I report:

  • Will this scheme supersede all of the other labeling systems currently on food packages?
  • Will it be voluntary or mandatory?  For all food products, or just selected ones?
  • If the scheme is voluntary, why would food companies choose to use it since it mostly highlights the negatives—the nutrients to be avoided?
  • How will it affect the nutrient-content claims currently on food packages?  (Examples: “Contains 8 vitamins!”  “100% vitamin C!” “High fiber!”)
  • How will it affect shelf-labeling schemes such as the Nu-Val system used at Price Chopper supermarkets and the ANDI system used by Whole Foods?

FOP labels are about marketing, not health

This scheme, like the many others developed by food companies singly or together, is designed to help the public decide whether one highly processed, packaged food product is nutritionally better than another.

As I have discussed many times on this site, this approach raises a philosophical question: Is a slightly “better for you” food product necessarily a good choice?

I hope the committee will ponder this and some of my other questions as it enters Phase II.

Addendum: I gather from what I’ve heard about the press conference this morning that some of my questions were answered.  The FOP proposal will not affect nutrient content claims on the front of packages.  Companies will still be able to proclaim the nutritional benefits of their products in words and banners.  They just won’t be able to use them in whatever symbol gets chosen.  So what difference will this report make?  Not much, alas, except to get rid of the silly symbols in use right now.

Update, October 14:  William Neuman’s account of this event in the New York Times starts with this: “Tell us how your products are bad for us.”

Oct 12 2010

It’s National School Lunch Week!

The USDA has issued a lengthy press release on its current efforts to improve school meals.  One part of this is the HealthierUS School Challenge, which awards grants to schools to create healthier school food environments.

I just received another press release from the USDA (not yet posted online), this one announcing that Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan and White House Assistant Chef Sam Kass are kicking off the 2nd annual Washington D.C. “Farm to School Week.”

Merrigan and Kass will visit Savoy Elementary School to highlight Obama administration efforts to improve school meals by incorporating locally-grown foods. Merrigan and Kass will also tour the Savoy school garden and emphasize healthy eating, locally grown ingredients, and farm to school programs.  Here’s the schedule:

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

1 p.m. EDT

WHAT: Agriculture Deputy Secretary Merrigan and White House Assistant Chef Sam Kass will kick-off the 2nd annual D.C. Farm to School Week.
WHERE: Savoy Elementary School

2400 Shannon Place SE

Washington, D.C.  20020

These are good things to do.  Now, how about some policy changes?


Page 179 of 334« First...177178179180181...Last »