Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Dec 5 2010

Latest San Francisco Chronicle column: processed v. real foods

“Minimally processed food a health goal” is the title of today’s Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Q: I may be preaching to the choir here, but isn’t eating a variety of unprocessed (or at least minimally processed) foods the best way to make sure your diet is healthy?

A: Indeed it is, and processing is the healthful food movement’s new frontier. Processed is code for “junk” foods – foods of minimal nutritional value. These crowd the center aisles of supermarkets, add loads of unneeded calories, rely on added nutrients for health benefits, last forever on the shelves and generate enormous profits for their makers.

Sodas are the obvious examples. They have no nutrients (unless fortified), and all their calories come from added sugars.

The food industry will insist that practically everything you eat is processed in some way. Unprocessed foods are rare exceptions – fruits direct from the tree or vine, vegetables pulled from the ground, nuts from wherever they come from, and raw meat, fish, eggs or milk.

Everything else is at least minimally processed – washed, aged, dried, frozen, canned, pasteurized or cooked. But these cause little, if any, loss of nutritional value and make some nutrients more available to the body.

In contrast, more extreme processing changes foods. It reduces the nutritional value of basic food ingredients, adds calories from fats and sugars, and disguises losses in taste and texture with additives such as salt, colors, flavors and other chemicals. Manufacturers add vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, omega-3s and probiotics expressly to make health claims.

Manufacturers say they make the products to give you what you demand: cheap, easy-to-eat-anywhere foods that require no preparation and give you the tastes you love. They back these contentions with increasingly far-fetched health claims, billions of advertising dollars and lobbyists galore.

The big issue is “ultra-processing,” says Carlos Monteiro of the University of São Paulo in Brazil. Writing in the November issue of the online Journal of the World Public Health Nutrition Association, Monteiro ranks the effects of food processing on health as the most important issue in public health nutrition today.

Ultra-processed foods, he says, are the primary cause of the rapid rise in obesity and associated diseases throughout the world.

He charges the food industry with creating durable, convenient, attractive, ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat products that are so palatable that they are habit-forming. And they are meant to be eaten everywhere – in fast-food places, on the street and while watching television, working or driving.

Ultra-processed foods are much higher in calories for their nutrients than unprocessed and minimally processed foods. They have loads of fat, sugars and salt, but are low in vitamins, minerals and fiber.

They are often cheaper than relatively unprocessed foods, especially when sold in supersize portions at discounted prices. And they are often the only foods available in convenience stores or vending machines.

He notes that virtually unregulated advertising identifies ultra-processed foods and drinks as necessary – and, when nutrients are added, as essential – to modern lifestyles and health. Overall, Monteiro says, their high palatability, along with aggressive and sophisticated marketing, undermine the normal processes of appetite control and cause adults and children to overeat.

This is just another way of saying what former Food and Drug Administration head David Kessler says in his provocative book, “The End of Overeating.” Kessler argues that processed and fast foods high in fat, sugars and salt have turned us into a nation of “conditioned overeaters” unable to recognize hunger or satiety.

Current policies ensure that ultra-processed foods stay cheap, and it’s no accident that the relative cost of fruits and vegetables has gone up by 40 percent since the 1980s, while the relative price of sodas and fast food has declined.

If you can afford it, choosing relatively unprocessed foods is good advice. As I wrote in “What to Eat,” it’s best to stick to the real foods around the supermarket perimeter. My only slightly facetious shopping rules: Avoid processed foods with more than five ingredients, ingredients you can’t pronounce, and those with cartoons on the package aimed at marketing to kids.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Food Politics,” “Safe Food,” “What to Eat” and “Pet Food Politics,” and is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University. E-mail her at, and read her previous columns at

This article appeared on page L – 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Dec 3 2010

Latest (short) publictions: enjoy!

Occasionally I write short pieces on request.  A couple have just been published.

The State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs (who knew?) runs a website,, on which it provides answers to questions “YOU Asked!”   It invited me to respond to the question, “Why are so many Americans overweight.”

And the professional journal, Childhood Obesity, asked several people to contribute to its new “Industry Watch” column.  The question: “Will private sector companies “step up to the plate” to protect children’s health?

Enjoy!  I file links to these and other writings under Publications on this site.

Dec 2 2010

The latest on the GM front: sugar beets and apples

I haven’t seem much comment on what’s happening with Center for Food Safety v. Vilsack, a suit to prevent planting of genetically modified (GM) sugar beets because USDA allowed them to be grown without filing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

This is kind of after-the-fact because Monsanto’s GM sugar beets have been planted widely for the last five years and now comprise 95% of the sugar beet crop in the U.S.

As the Center for Food Safety explains,

The court outlined the many ways in which GE sugar beets could harm the environment and consumers, noting that containment efforts were insufficient and past contamination incidents were “too numerous” to allow the illegal crop to remain in the ground. In his court order, Judge White noted, “farmers and consumers would likely suffer harm from cross-contamination” between GE sugar beets and non-GE crops. He continued, “the legality of Defendants’ conduct does not even appear to be a close question,” noting that the government and Monsanto tried to circumvent his prior ruling, which made GE sugar beets illegal.

No surprise, Monsanto is appealing and is likely to be joined by the government in the appeal.  Food Safety News quotes a Monsanto spokesman:

With due respect, we believe the court’s action overlooked the factual evidence presented that no harm would be caused by these plantings, and is plainly inconsistent with the established law as recently announced by the U.S. Supreme Court,” said David Snively, general counsel for Monsanto, in a news release….The issues that will be appealed are important to all U.S. farmers who choose to plant biotech crops…We will spare no effort in challenging this ruling on the basis of flawed legal procedure and lack of consideration of important evidence.”

Food Safety News also reports that a Washington state apple grower has petitioned USDA to allow it to market a GM apple engineered to resist browning.

But wait.  I’m confused.  Isn’t the FDA supposed to be the agency that approves the planting of GM foods?

This sent me right to the FDA site that summarizes GM varieties that are permitted to be planted (“completed consultations“).  I see papayas and cantaloupe on the list, but not a single apple variety.

How can this company market a GM variety of apples if the FDA hasn’t approved it?  Can anyone explain what’s going on here?  Thanks.

Update December 3:  A judge in San Francisco ordered GM sugar beets planted on 256 acres to be destroyed.  USDA is appealing.  And now everyone is worried about sugar shortages.  Oh dear.

Dec 1 2010

Senate passes food safety bill, 73 to 25

In case you missed it (and how could you?), the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act passed the Senate yesterday by a huge majority.  Thanks to Beth Bainbridge for sending me this link to a map of how the votes went—a graphic, interactive illustration of partisan politics in action.

If you would like to know what the bill really says as opposed to the mythology, you can read a short Summary , or take a look at the entire bill.  And here’s FoodSafetyNews on some of those details.

The next steps: (1) reconciliation with the House version passed a year ago July, and (2) submission of the joint version to President Obama for signature.  This has to be done before this session of Congress expires in just a few weeks.

By all reports, reconciliation will not be so easy.  FoodSafetyNews explains all the things that can derail the bill between now and then, and the list is long and weird (who ever heard of “blue-slipping,” for example?).

Some folks are happy about the Senate action, but some most definitely are not.  FoodSafetyNews summarizes the reactions, as does the New York Times account.

Time is short.  The stakes are high.  Keep fingers crossed.

Nov 30 2010

IOM: vitamin D, calcium supplements not needed!

In a report likely to send shock waves through the dietary supplement industry, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released new Dietary Reference Intakes for vitamin D and calcium.   The report summary says Americans are getting all the vitamin D and calcium we need, and we do not need more.

The committee emphasizes that, with a few exceptions, all North Americans are receiving enough calcium and vitamin D. Higher levels have not been shown to confer greater benefits, and in fact, they have been linked to other health problems, challenging the concept that “more is better.

In an account of the report in today’s New York Times, Gina Kolata writes that the committee was puzzled about how vitamin D became the hot nutrient of the year.  Sales rose 82% from 2008 to 2009.

Some of this surely had to do with testing.  A method for testing existed, so doctors used it.  The test, however, looked at an intermediate in vitamin D synthesis—not at the vitamin itself.  And the test did not have a standard until recently.

And groups like the Vitamin D Council promote much higher intakes of vitamin D supplements.  According to the Council:

Current research has implicated vitamin D deficiency as a major factor in the pathology of at least 17 varieties of cancer as well as heart disease, stroke, hypertension, autoimmune diseases, diabetes, depression, chronic pain, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, muscle weakness, muscle wasting, birth defects, periodontal disease, and more.

In my San Francisco Chronicle column on this topic a year or so ago, I pointed out that “vitamin” D is not really a vitamin.  It is a hormone. This means that vitamin D supplements are a form of hormone replacement therapy—not necessarily a good idea.

Are vitamin D supplements needed?  Not if you expose your skin to sunlight for a few minutes a day, even in winter.

Nov 29 2010

Never enough about S.510. Today’s the day!

Update 3:30 p.m.  Final Senate vote postponed until 9:00 a.m. tomorrow!

Today, the Senate is supposed to deal—at last—with S.510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act.  Here’s what I’m told is likely to happen (it gives me a headache just to think about it):

  • 4:00 pm EST: Senate resumes discussion of S.510.
  • 6:30 pm: Senate proceeds to cloture vote on the substitute amendment to S.510.
  • Cloture is invoked.
  • Post-cloture and upon the use or yielding back of the time allotted in the agreement (1 hour for motions re: 1099 and 4 hours for Coburn motions), the Senate will proceed to vote on the motions in the following order: (1) Johanns (1099 forms–the repeal on a tax burden on small businesses), (2) Baucus (1099 forms), (3) Coburn (earmarks), (4) Coburn (substitute)
  • Once those are disposed of, Senate votes on passage of the bill, as amended.
  • Observers expect all of this to last well into the night.
  • Note: Because all of the amendments are offered as motions to suspend the rules, they require a 2/3rds vote. Final passage requires 51. Cloture requires 60.

And in case your mind is still not made up about how this should go, take a look at today’s commentaries:

Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser have an op-ed in the New York Times: A Stale Food Fight:

In the last week, agricultural trade groups, from the Produce Marketing Association to the United Egg Producers, have come out against the bill, ostensibly on the grounds that the small farms now partially exempted would pose a food safety threat. (Note that these small farms will continue to be regulated under state and local laws.) It is hard to escape the conclusion that these industry groups never much liked the new rules in the first place. They just didn’t dare come out against them publicly, not when 80 percent of Americans support strengthening the F.D.A.’s authority to regulate food.

And FoodSafetyNews, ever on the job, has three pieces on the bill today (I’m referred to in a couple of them):

With a little luck, the Senate will pass the bill tonight, large and small farms will comply with its provisions, and our food supply will be safer as a result.  One can always dream.

Additions: a few more editorial comments, all in favor of passing S.510.

The Sacramento Bee editorial (11-25)

The Minneapolis Star Tribune (11-27)

The Bemidji (MN) Pioneer (11-28)

The Baltimore Sun (11-28 and the 29th in some editions)

New York Times editorial (11-16)

USA Today (11-23)

Las Vegas Sun (11-23)

Lexington (KY) Herald Leader (11-23)

Nov 26 2010

Sustainable food films for the holidays

Focus Features has been asking people in the food community for five recommendations of films they particularly like.   Here are my picks:

Folks From the Food Movement on Sustainable Cinema: Marion Nestle

By administrator November 19, 2010

Marion Nestle

Marion Nestle: I would not pick Thanksgiving as the optimal time to watch films about food production systems but I’ve chosen films—documentaries and not—that tell stories worth watching for their entertainment value as well as for their more serious messages.

Super Size Me

1. |Super Size Me

I have to begin with this one because it’s my screen debut! I appear in it for ten seconds as a talking head defining calories, among other things. This is Morgan Spurlock’s account of a month-long experiment eating nothing else but food from McDonald’s. Spurlock’s depiction of his 25-pound weight gain is not only a commentary on the role of fast food in America’s obesity epidemic, but also a fast-moving and riveting examination of the corporate side of our country’s love affair with burgers and fries.

King Corn

2. |King Corn

It’s hard to imagine that a story about how two guys grow corn on one acre in Iowa could be so utterly delightful, but Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis have a sense of humor along with plenty of imaginative smarts. This is the best place to see how industrial farming really works. Spoiler alert: I love the scenes in which they start with corn and cook up a batch of high fructose corn syrup, take two minutes to plant their acre, and discover that their acre is eligible for corn subsidies. This film may be a documentary about corn production and harvesting, but it is a pleasure to sit through again and again.

Food, Inc.

3. |Food, Inc.

This is the most commercially successful of the recent documentaries exposing the evils of the industrial food system, and for good reason. Starting with the splendid opening credits, it is wonderfully directed (by Robbie Kenner) and narrated by food movement superstars, Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser. Even for people who know something about industrial food production, the film breaks new ground. For me, the most moving episode was the 4:00 a.m. immigration raid on hapless Mexican workers at a Smithfield packing plant. The film tells stories ranging from the infuriating (seed patenting) to the heartbreaking (the lethal effects of toxic E. coli on a small child). Best, it is a rousing call to action. Join the food movement!


4. |Tampopo

Who knew that the Japanese made spaghetti Westerns? As it happens, they do or at least used to. A lone cowboy rides into town and teaches a young woman how to cook noodles so delicious that customers line up to eat them. The message? It takes hard work to develop real cooking skills but the results are worth it. The hero may ride off into the sunset, but this film carries its lessons lightly and is marvelous cross-cultural fun.

La Grande Bouffe and Ratatouille

5. |La Grande Bouffe and Ratatouille

I can’t decide between these two films for my number five. La Grande Bouffe (The Great Binge, in my translation) is a French film of the 1970s that doesn’t seem to show up in food film festivals. It deserves a revival, not least for its splendid cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Philippe Noiret, and Ugo Tognazzi, among others. As I recall, the guys spend a weekend gorging on food and sex, giving entirely new meaning to the pleasure of food in general, and to fruit tarts in particular.

Ratatouille is, of course, about a cartoon mouse who yearns to become a chef, and does so with great panache. The film is surprisingly faithful to the day-to-day reality (OK, exaggerated) of professional kitchens, and the extraordinary amount of teamwork involved in producing superb restaurant food. It may not make anyone want to become a chef, but it gives plenty of insight into what it takes to do so.

Nov 24 2010

Facts and rumors: the current status of S. 510

Following the ongoing saga of S. 510, the Food Safety Modernization Act, is like taking a graduate course in political science.   And sociology graduate students everywhere should be writing dissertations on how a bill designed to help protect the public from food hazards like Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7  became a flashpoint for debates about the role of government in personal choice.

Let’s start with the rumors.   I’m hearing from sources inside the Beltway that the Senate and House have agreed to pass S. 510 in part because they can use it to get something else they want: repeal of an annoying provision in the health care reform act passed last spring that requires 1099 tax reports for business purchases.

The Senate is said to be dealing with S. 510 late in the afternoon or early evening of Monday, November 29.  It is supposed to work like this:

  • There will be a cloture motion, which will pass with 60 votes.
  • The Senate will agree that all amendments to S. 510 will require 67 votes.
  • Senator Coburn will offer amendments, but they will not get 67 votes.
  • The Senate will add language repealing the 1099 tax provision.
  • The Senate will pass the bill (this needs 51 votes)
  • The House will agree to accept the Senate bill as written with no changes.
  • The bill will get sent to President Obama to sign before Congress adjourns.
  • The President will sign the bill.

Maybe, but this does not sound like a done deal to me.  For one thing, opposition to S. 510 seems to be getting noisier.  Remember the adage “politics makes strange bedfellows?”  Take a look at the groups who now oppose the bill, united in their opposition to giving the FDA or government any additional authority:

  • The health food industry
  • The dietary supplement industry
  • The meat industry: American Meat Institute, Cattlemen’s Association, etc.
  • The Tea Party
  • The raw milk community and its legal arm, the Farmer to Consumer Legal Defense Fund
  • Some, but by no means all, small farmers and advocates for them

Missing from this list is Big Agriculture, an absence explained by the fact that the bill does not apply to feed commodities or to seeds.

As for the Tester amendment exempting small farms from certain provisions of the bill: It is opposed by 20 organizations of vegetable growers, and is also is likely to be opposed by companies like Monsanto which do not want the FDA making safety decisions based on size or anything else except risk.

Caroline Scott-Thomas writes in FoodNavigator-USA that all food producers, large and small, should be producing food safely, not least because bacteria do not care how big a farm might be: 

Think about it: If a large-scale cheese maker refused to recall potentially tainted products for financial reasons, as the Estrella Family Creamery is doing, would it inspire dewy-eyed sympathy? I doubt it.

I agree, and also with the comments of Bob Whitaker, the Produce Marketing Association’s Chief Science Officer, who points out that plenty of growers are already using preventive controls like the ones requires by S.510:

There are a lot of very small growers who are already doing this.  I think there is plenty of evidence where growers have already made this a priority and they have been able to do so in a pretty innovative manner. There is a cost to this…But it doesn’t have to be overwhelmingly expensive. A lot of this is common sense.  People need to dive in and understand that this is food and you have to take responsibility for the safety of our food, to the extent that you can… Consumers have to be confident that our products are safe.

I’ve seen this too.  Lots of small food producers do everything they can to reduce microbial risks.  They don’t need a government agency to tell them what to do.

Others, however, won’t take safety steps unless forced to.  That’s why we need this bill to pass.

In the meantime, the debate continues. USA Today, long concerned about food safety, favors the bill. Senator Coburn, however, does not.

Happy Thanksgiving holiday, everyone.

And special thanks to Carol Tucker Foreman of Consumer Federation of America for cluing me in on the latest developments.

Addition: Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP), a food safety advocacy group formed originally by parents of children harmed by eating fast-food hamburgers, strongly favors S. 51o.  Under its auspices, 80 victims of foodborne illness have written a letter to the Senate in the hope that this will help solidify support for passing this bill.

Many of us have traveled to Washington D.C. numerous times to meet with lawmakers, sharing our personal stories as to why stronger food safety laws are necessary; others of us have written opinion pieces, letters, and blog entries urging action on this important legislation. S. 510 would be the first major overhaul of the FDA’s food-safety authorities in decades. It is time to pass this legislation.

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