Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Aug 27 2009

Hormones in the food supply

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) in Minneapolis has a new report out that summarizes research on hormones in the food supply, of which there are many: arsenic growth promoters, recombinant bovine growth hormone, synthetic hormones in packaging (plasticizers, bisphenol A), and industrial contaminants (dioxins, PCBs, etc).  Never has the statement “more research needed” made more sense.  Plenty of uncertainties still remain about how much, if any, harm is caused by these substances, but while waiting for that research, IATP advises: avoid.  How?  Eat low-fat meat and dairy foods (these chemicals are stored in fatty tissues) and organics (these should be free of hormone-like substances or have much less), don’t use plastic containers made with bisphenol A, and get busy on changing policy!

Aug 26 2009

Oh great. All U.S. fish are contaminated with mercury.

My book, What to Eat, has a chapter on the mercury-in-fish dilemma.   Do we follow dietary guidelines to eat more fish or do we worry about the amount of toxic methylmercury those fish might have?

The U.S. Geological Survey and Department of the Interior have just released a report that will not make this dilemma easier to resolve.     Fish in every one of 291 streams sampled throughout the country are contaminated with mercury.  According to the press release, the good (well, slightly better) news is that “only” a quarter of the samples exceeded federal guidelines for people eating average amounts of fish.

Where does the mercury come from?  “Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury emissions in the United States — but 59 of the streams also were potentially affected by gold and mercury mining.”

The remedy seems pretty obvious: let’s insist that coal-burning power plants and mining operations clean up their emissions.   How about right now!

Aug 25 2009

American Heart Association: Eat (a lot!) less sugar.

At last, the American Heart Association (AHA) has done something useful.  It advises eating less sugar.  Americans eat way too much, it says, a whopping 22 teaspoons a day on average.  Let’s work this out.  A teaspoon is 4 grams.  A gram is 4 calories.  So the 275 calories in that default 20-ounce soda you picked up from a vending machine come from nearly 17 teaspoons of sugar – close to the average right there.  If you have trouble maintaining weight, soft drinks are an obvious candidate for “eat less” advice.  Neither the Wall Street Journal (in which I am quoted) nor the New York Times say much about how soft drink manufacturers are reacting to this recommendation, but it isn’t hard to guess.

Here, for example, is what the industry-sponsored American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) has to say:

The study targets added sugars as the main culprit of dietary excess, but since “U.S. labels on packaged foods do not distinguish between naturally occurring or added sugars,” it is difficult to tell the difference. However, “our bodies can’t tell the difference either,” says ACSH’s Jeff Stier. “Natural and added sugars are nutritionally the same. Added sugar causes obesity as much as the orange juice promoted by the American Heart Association causes obesity [e-mail newsletter, August 25, 2009].

Smart Start

This is the first time the AHA has seriously weighed in on sugar.  I find this especially interesting because the AHA has a long history of endorsing sugary cereals (as I discuss in Food Politics and also in What to Eat).  In this example, the AHA’s endorsement is in the lower left corner.  This product has sugars of one kind or another listed 9 times in the ingredient list.

The AHA gets paid for such endorsements.  Let’s hope the new recommendation encourages the AHA to stop doing this.

Update August 27: I really don’t know what to say about the ACSH’s Jeff Stier.  he is acting more like the Center for Consumer Freedom’s Rick Berman every day.   Today’s e-mail newsletter from ACSH contains this statement:

In her blog in The Atlantic, NYU Professor of Nutrition Dr. Marion Nestle has fallen into the habit of suggesting that ACSH is incapable of objective analysis of public health concerns because we are, in her distorted view, “thoroughly industry-sponsored.”

ACSH’s Jeff Stier wrote to her editors: “Like many of the country’s top non-profits, Dr. Nestle’s NYU included, we accept corporate donations, with no strings attached. But we also receive significant support from individuals and foundations. Her misleading description of us suggests that we represent industry. We do not. We are advised by some of the nation’s leading scientists and represent consumers.

“By way of this email, I ask for a conspicuous and fair correction. We are happy to engage on the issues Dr. Nestle writes about, but her attacks on us are below someone of her stature. We’d prefer an informed and enlightening discussion of the issues, not underhanded and unfounded attacks on credibility.”

“Apparently, Dr. Nestle believes that your opinions are irrelevant, since they diverge from her ideological agenda,” says Stier. “We represent you, consumers, who want science rather than ideology informing public health decisionmaking. Does she really think that consumers are so monolithic that they either agree with her or are put up to it by some sinister entity?”

Readers: Does anyone know what is going on with this group?  It sounds so much like the Center for Consumer Freedom that I can’t help but wonder.

Aug 24 2009

Smart Choices: 44% sugar calories!

You may recall my previous posts about the new Smart Choices program.  This program was developed by food processors to identify products that are ostensibly “better for you”  because they supposedly contain more good nutrients and fewer bad ones.  This program is about marketing processed foods and I wouldn’t ordinarily take it seriously except that several nutrition professional associations are involved in this program and the American Society of Nutrition is managing it.  In effect, this means that nutritionists are endorsing products that bear the Smart Choices logo.

So what products are nutritionists endorsing?  I went grocery shopping last week and bought my first Smart Choice product: Froot Loops!

Froot Loops

Froot Loops

Look for the check mark in the upper right of the package.  Frosted Flakes also qualifies for this logo, and do take a look at what else is on the approved list.

A close look a the Nutrition Facts label of Froot Loops shows that it has 12 grams of added sugars in a 110-calorie serving.  That’s 44% of the calories (12 times 4 calories per gram divided by 110).  The usual program maximum for sugar is 25% of calories but it makes an exception for sugary breakfast cereals.  Note that the fiber content is less than one gram per serving, which makes this an especially low-fiber cereal.

Look at the amounts of sugar and fiber.OK.  I understand that companies want to market their processed foods, but I cannot understand why nutrition societies thought it would be a good idea to get involved with this marketing scheme.  It isn’t.  The American Society of Nutrition gets paid to manage this program.  It should not be doing this.

But, you may well ask, where is the FDA in regulating what goes on package labels?

Good news: I am happy to report that our new FDA is on the job!  FDA officials have written a letter to the manager of the program.  Although the letter is worded gently, I interpret its language as putting the program on high alert:

FDA and FSIS would be concerned if any FOP [Front of Package] labeling systems used criteria that were not stringent enough to protect consumers against misleading claims; were inconsistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans; or had the effect of encouraging consumers to choose highly processed foods and refined grains instead of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains [my emphasis].

Update August 25: I received an interesting e-mail message from a member of the Keystone group that developed the Smart Choices program.  The message confirms that this program is a scheme to make junk foods look healthy.  It says:

Glad to see your posting about Froot Loops! The negotiations over criteria were interesting. Lots of good debate on various points, but when the companies put their foot down, that was it; end of discussion. And sugar in cereals was one such point. Others included the non-necessity for breads, etc. to contain half or more whole grains and the acceptance of fortification to meet the nutrient requirement.

In other words, some people in the group argued that breads needed to contain at least half a serving of whole grains to quality and that added vitamins and minerals should not count toward qualification.  Too bad for them.  I guess the companies put down feet.  But why didn’t they speak up then?  And why aren’t they speaking up now?

Aug 21 2009

Colbert Report: The sugar crisis!

Colbert Report, August 19: I was interviewed on the Colbert Report about sugar policy, of all things.  U.S. sugar policy is so absurd that I did not think it could be satirized, but Colbert managed just fine.  Here’s what I would have said if I hadn’t been completely disconcerted by his dousing himself with five pounds of sugar:

The sugar “crisis”: On August 5, several groups representing makers of processed foods wrote a letter asking the USDA to raise the quota on imported sugar because stocks are lower than they have been in years.  Why?  Because domestic sugar production is thoroughly governed by quotas, imported sugar is thoroughly controlled by quotas and tariffs, and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is increasingly diverted to ethanol.  Got that?

Reminder about definitions: “Sugar” usually refers just to sucrose made from sugar cane and sugar beets; it is glucose and fructose stuck together.  The other major sweetener is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).  It is also made of glucose and fructose, but separated.   Sucrose and HFCS work the same way in the body and are hardly distinguishable physiologically.   For the purposes of this discussion, I use sugar to refer to the sweetener refined from sugar beets and sugar cane, and HFCS for the sweetener made from corn.

Sugar protection policies: Even though it amounts to only 1% of agricultural production, U.S. sugar is the single most heavily protected agricultural commodity.  No matter what the price on the world market, U.S. sugar producers and processors get paid a high price.  Historically, this price has been two to three times higher than world market prices.   Although this has for decades cost American consumers $2 billion to $3 billion a year in higher sugar prices, nobody much noticed because it “only” amounted to about $10 per year per person over and above what you would pay for sugar anyway.  Today, the gap between domestic and world market prices has gotten much smaller, mainly because there isn’t as much HFCS around (more on this later).

Quotas and tariffs: These are amazing, really.  U.S. producers are allowed to grow a certain amount of cane and beets each year for which they are guaranteed a price set by USDA.    Beets get 55% of the total quota allotment and cane gets 45%. This works like a closed shop.  If you want to start growing beets or cane for domestic sugar production, too bad.  Catch 22: You only get to have a quota if you already have a quota.  As for tariffs:  The 2008 Farm Bill says that 85% of total sugar in the U.S. must be produced domestically, and only 15% can be imported.  That 15% comes in through quotas distributed among about 20 countries.   Any other sugar they want to send us is subject to high tariffs, except from Mexico.  Under NAFTA, Mexico can export as much sugar to us as it wants to at the favored price.  But imported sugar is never supposed to exceed 15%.

International issues: Our agreement with the World Trade Organization (Uruguay Round) says we have to take a certain amount of world market sugar.  But the 2008 Farm Bill restricts imports.  Oops.  The contradictions in these policies still have to be resolved.  The processed food people think the USDA can raise the percentage.  Can it?  Hmmm.  We don’t know this yet.

Who benefits: A few thousand beet producers in about 15 states and a few hundred cane producers, and the sugar processors.  They get paid amounts that are higher than world market prices.   The countries that have sugar quotas also get higher prices for their sugar quotas.  Producers of sugar cane and beets love this system.   Florida cane producers defend it this way: “U.S. sugar policy ensures that jobs in rural America are not sent overseas, and that American consumers are not held captive by unreliable foreign suppliers of subsidized sugar.”  Like American-owned sugar plantations in the Dominican Republic, for example?

Who loses: According to the Government Accountability Office, everyone in America pays higher prices for sugar than we need to.  This amounts to a transfer of wealth from 350 million of us to a few thousand sugar producers and processors.   International sugar-producing countries that do not have quotas, those in Africa, for example, are also out of luck.

How this happened: The system started out in the Great Depression with the best of intentions.  Despite endless attempts to get rid of sugar supports and let prices fluctuate according to the world market, Congress continues this elaborate and expensive system to protect sugar producers and processors.  These groups have banded together in cooperatives so they avoid anti-trust laws.   Even the New York Times thinks we should get rid of sugar protections.  These groups, of course, are among the most generous and powerful contributors to congressional election campaigns.  Even more, they are equal opportunity contributors: they give to both Democrats and Republicans.  The Fanjul family in Florida is especially influential.  In the best known example, Mr. Fanjul was able to get President Bill Clinton to take his call on a federal holiday when Clinton was in the midst of a tryst with Monica Lewinsky (source: the Starr report).

What about HFCS: The public now puts HFCS in the same category as trans fats: poison (it’s not; it’s just sugars).   In response, makers of processed foods and beverages are starting to replace it with cane and beet sugar.   As explained in the current Advertising Age, sugar is now at war with HFCS.  HFCS used to be a lot cheaper than sugar, but its cost has gone up as more of it is used for ethanol.  Supply is down; costs are up.

Other issues: As if all this wasn’t complicated enough, sugar beets are largely genetically modified, leading more than 70 companies to say they won’t use that sugar.  Sugar cane production in the Southern states pollutes the Everglades, leading to billions of dollars in clean up costs.  And the labor practices of sugar cane plantations have long been the subject of much investigative reporting.  And what about relations with Cuba?  Until the Castro revolution, we got nearly all of our imported sugar from our Caribbean neighbor.  If relations with Cuba improve, will that country have a quota?

So what’s really going on? Food processors want cheap ingredients.   Cheap sugar makes for relatively cheap junk foods and high profits for manufacturers.  Current sugar policies make no sense in today’s global marketplace and we all ought to be eating less sugar anyway.  On average, we have about 70 pounds of sugar and another 70 of HFCS available per year for every man, woman, and child in the country along with a few pounds of other caloric sweeteners to boot.  That’s close to half a pound of sugary calories per day.   Less of all of them would be better, no? 

A final happy thought:  Maybe the processed food makers’ request – which is entirely self-interested – might lead to improvements in U.S. farm policy as well as relations with sugar-producing countries in the Caribbean and Africa.

Aug 20 2009

Time magazine: America’s food crisis

This week’s must read: Time Magazine on what’s wrong with industrial food production systems and all the good things lots of people are doing to make it better.

August 26 update:  The American Meat Institute didn’t like the article much:

It’s dumbfounding that Time magazine would take one of the great American success stories — the efficient agricultural production of an abundant variety of healthy, safe and affordable foods for consumers in the U.S. and throughout the world — and turn it into an unrecognizable story of exploitation, manipulation and greed.

Aug 18 2009

In memorium: Mark Hegsted, 1914-2009

Mark Hegsted, who headed the USDA’s now-defunct Center for Human Nutrition in the Carter Administration, died in June at the age of 95.  He was one great guy.  Before USDA, he was on the faculty of the Harvard School of Public Health, where he was famous for studies on how different types of fats affected blood cholesterol levels (the Hegsted equation) and on the epidemiology of calcium and osteoporosis.  These, counter-intuitively, showed that populations with the highest intakes of calcium and dairy products had the highest rates of osteoporosis.  At USDA, he dealt with now historical documents in nutrition history: the 1977 Dietary Goals for the United States and the 1980 Dietary Guidelines.  When President Reagan came into office in 1980, he was immediately fired from his director’s position and relegated to an office in USDA”s version of Siberia.

The New York Times published an obituary, and Harvard University sent out a press release.

I learned about his death from his son, who wrote on June 21:

Dear Friends,

My Dad, David Mark Hegsted, passed away on Tuesday, June 16, 2009 in Westwood, MA, after a brief illness.  He was 95.

For those of you who did not know him, he was born in Rexburg, Idaho in 1914, studied at the University of Idaho and received his Doctorate in Biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.  He was one of the first two Professors of Nutrition appointed in 1942 at the Harvard School of Public Health and had a long and distinguished career there.  He authored dozens of scientific papers, traveled all over the world and received many awards from colleagues in his field.  During the Carter administration he headed the U.S. government’s newly created Center for Human Nutrition in Washington, DC and published the first “Dietary Guidelines for Americans”.

More importantly, he was a good and gracious man who will be remembered fondly by all who knew him.  In his later years he especially enjoyed playing bridge and working in his garden at Fox Hill and was a faithful follower of the Boston Red Sox.  He is survived by my family in the Yukon, and his granddaughter Camilla Franck and great-granddaughter Sarah Hespe of New York City.  My mother, Maxine, and my sister, Christina, predeceased him.

It was great for both of us that I could be with him so much during this last phase of his life.  Please take a moment to remember this special man.

Best,
Eric

About five years ago, I went to visit Mark Hegsted in his retirement home outside Boston.  I brought along a tape recorder.  Here is the transcript of our interview.

Henry Blackburn at the University of Minnesota has been collecting historical documents about the history of heart disease prevention.  This includes Mark Hegsted’s personal accountMark Hegsted’s personal account of the history of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.  For anyone interested in the history of nutrition in the United States, this is invaluable information.

I’m glad I got to know him, even so late.

Aug 15 2009

Let the school-meals revolution begin!

My latest Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle is about school food.  As always, the column is a Q and A

Q: School is starting soon. Is there any hope that school food will ever improve?

A: Yes, there is. The food revolution is upon us. Go into any school that has joined the revolution – many have – and you will see kids eating recognizable foods, helping themselves from salad bars, finishing what they take, all within the typical 30-minute lunch period. And nary a chicken nugget or soda in sight. Teachers in such places swear that the kids behave and learn better, do not bounce off the walls after lunch, and show fewer signs of eating disorders.

From what I’ve seen, this miracle requires a committed principal, a dedicated school food service director, and at least a few teachers and parents who care what kids are eating. If the food service people know the kids’ names, it’s an especially good sign. With such elements in place, the food will be real and taste good enough for the kids to want to eat it.

But the school food revolution can do more. It can turn the cafeteria into a teachable moment. I discovered that on my first teaching job when I saw how easy it was to teach biology through nutrition. Everyone eats.

Schools can use what’s served for lunch to teach the chemical composition of food and its biological effects. They can use recipes to teach mathematics, food choice to teach political science, and the entire eating experience to teach literature, English or foreign languages. Kids can be taught about food plants and animals, how they are produced, and the associated monetary, labor and environmental costs.

Individuals like you can make this happen. The national model, of course, is Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley. If your dream is to have your school connect food production to eating, take a look at Berkeley’s Center for Ecoliteracy’s how-to guide, “Big Ideas: Linking Food, Culture, Health, and the Environment.” (Go to ecoliteracy.org.)

Although many schools are not equipped to grow or cook food, they can still produce healthy meals that kids want to eat. I’ve just met with some of the people who work with the British chef, Jamie Oliver, on his school dinner campaigns. Oliver used his cooking skills and celebrity status to produce revolutionary changes in English school meals which, if anything, were worse than ours. I like his ideas because they sound much like mine, and I especially enjoy the British way he puts them:

  • Ban the junk. Please, let’s. It’s time we got rid of vending machines, a la carte service and everything else that competes with federally funded school meals. If we did that, we wouldn’t have to have all those nutrient-based arguments about what’s allowed in vending machines. Kids need water? How about fixing the drinking fountains or supplying tappable containers of filtered water as I’ve seen done in the Berkeley schools.
  • Big love to dinner ladies. This is Oliver’s way of calling for better support – financial, material and emotional – to the school food service people. I vote yes.
  • Teach kids about food. Teach kids to grow, cook and taste food, and they will never look at fast food or food “just for kids” the same way again.
  • Half a quid a kid! Translation: School meal programs need and deserve more money. In American schools, the federal lunch program is required to be self-supporting while everything else is subsidized. Education officials in San Francisco tell me they know how to produce healthy, tasty meals for kids but they desperately need more money to do it right. Slow Food USA is sponsoring a Time for Lunch campaign aimed at getting legislators to better support school meals. Join it. The program kicks off with an Eat-In on Sept. 7. (Go to slowfoodusa.org for more information.)

These are great ideas, but I don’t think Oliver takes them quite far enough. I want another action that I think is essential for American school meal programs:

  • Make school meals universal. Our present system requires a hugely expensive local and national bureaucracy expressly devoted to preventing kids who are deemed ineligible from getting free or reduced-price meals in schools. This ugly system stigmatizes poor kids and makes the kids of illegal immigrants go hungry.

Why not just say that we think all kids should be fed breakfast and lunch while they are in school? Doing this would allow all that bureaucratic waste to be applied to the meals themselves, making it easier for the “dinner ladies” to obtain better food and be paid decent wages.

The school year begins soon. Here’s your opportunity.

[Marion Nestle is the author of “Food Politics,” “Safe Food” and “What to Eat,” and is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University. E-mail her at food@sfchronicle.com and read her previous columns at sfgate.com/food.  This article appeared on page K – 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle. © 2009 Hearst Communications Inc.]

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