Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Nov 15 2009

Bisphenol A: And now, erectile disfunction!

The newspapers and the Internet are full of reports that men exposed to bisphenol A (BPA) have higher levels of erectile disfunction.  Before going into a panic, take a look at the study details.   This one was a survey of factory workers in China exposed to exceptionally high levels of this endocrine-disrupting chemical.

What does the study mean for men exposed to much lower levels?  We don’t have a clue.  But we’ve heard plenty of unsettling things about BPA (see previous posts), including accounts by Jill Richardson and others of the extraordinary efforts of industry lobbyists to prevent officials from banning BPA. This new research suggests that a ban is a pretty good idea, even if most people are not harmed by small amounts.

Reasons?

  • BPA is not essential in the human diet.
  • It is an unnecessary contaminant.
  • Small amounts of harmful chemicals can accumulate in the body.
  • We have no idea what the threshold for harm might be.
  • Removing it from the food and water supply is not all that difficult.

In sum, everyone except makers of BPA plastics can do just fine without it.  I’m stuck; I can’t think of a single reason not to ban it.

Update, November 20: According to reports, NY Senator Charles Schumer has introduced a bill to ban BPA.  The headline of this account says “tabled.”  I think it means “introduced”?

Nov 14 2009

FDA “looking into” safety of caffeinated booze

The FDA announced today that it has sent letters to 30 makers of caffeinated alcoholic beverages warning them that caffeine is not approved as an additive to booze:

Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, a substance added intentionally to food (such as caffeine in alcoholic beverages) is deemed “unsafe” and is unlawful unless its particular use has been approved by FDA regulation, the substance is subject to a prior sanction, or the substance is Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS).    FDA has not approved the use of caffeine in alcoholic beverages and thus such beverages can be lawfully marketed….The FDA noted that it is unaware of the basis upon which manufacturers may have concluded that the use of caffeine in alcoholic beverages is GRAS or prior sanctioned.  To date, the FDA has only approved caffeine as an additive for use in soft drinks in concentrations of no greater than 200 parts per million.  It has not approved caffeine for use at any level in alcoholic beverages.

The FDA asked the companies to provide evidence that the products are safe.  It also opened up a new web page on caffeinated alcoholic beverages.  This gives samples of letters, the list of manufacturers, and letters to FDA from attorneys general and scientists.  There is also a Q and A.  For example:

Q3. What happens if the industry doesn’t share its data in the next 30 days? What options are available to FDA?

A3. If FDA determines that the use of caffeine in an alcoholic beverage is not GRAS or subject to a prior sanction, FDA has a range of regulatory options available to it, from the issuance of a warning letter to seizure. It is the manufacturer’s continuing responsibility to ensure that the foods they market are in compliance with all applicable legal and regulatory requirements. FDA intends to exercise all options that are appropriate for the product in question.

As Michele Simon of the Marin Institute puts it, “It seems the sleeping giant has awaken!

Indeed it does.  You don’t think this counts for much?  Ask the makers of some of these drinks.  A couple of companies already have “voluntarily” removed the caffeine.  I’m willing to bet that others will soon follow?

Nov 13 2009

FTC looks at marketing to children

Thanks to Margo Wootan of CSPI for sending me the text of a speech by David Vladeck, the new director of the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Bureau of Consumer Protection, in which he discusses his agency’s priorities.  One of these is marketing to children.

And about time too.  The last time the FTC wanted to restrict advertising to kids was in 1978.  Then, Congress ridiculed the agency (What?  Restrict free speech?  Horrors!), and promptly passed a law preventing the FTC from taking action.  The head of the FTC, Mike Pertschuk, was fired and that was that (see Giant Killers, for his version of what happened).

Well, times have changed.  Kids are a lot fatter.  Trying to stop relentless food marketing aimed at children now seems like a pretty good idea.  Can’t wait!

Nov 10 2009

Raise your hand for chocolate milk?

Thanks to Marlene Schwartz of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale for alerting me to this Associated Press report about the new dairy industry campaign to rescue chocolate milk from the food police.  This, you will not be surprised to hear, is the latest activity funded by the milk checkoff program, a USDA-administered program that requires certain commodity producers to contribute funds to a kitty to be used for generic marketing.  One such program is MilkPep, the incredibly well funded marketing group that together with the Dairy Council invented the “Got Milk” mustache campaign.

MilkPep is now the proud defender of chocolate milk against efforts to get it out of schools.  Why would anyone be so mean as to want to do that?  Maybe because chocolate milk has more sugar and calories than plain milk?  No matter.  MilkPet is stepping up to the plate.  Its $500,000 to $1,000,000 “raise your hand for chocolate milk” campaign takes on those pesky nutrition advocates who think that kids ought to be eating something other than sweets in schools.

The rationale for the campaign?  If you get rid of chocolate milk, kids won’t drink milk.  You will deprive kids of the nutrients in milk and contribute to the “milk deficit.”   After all, this rationale goes, chocolate milk is better than soda (Oops.  Didn’t we just hear something like this relative to the Smart Choices fiasco?).

OK.  Let’s look at what this is really about:

  • Schools represent sales of 460 million gallons of milk – more than 7% of total milk sales
  • More than half (54%) of flavored milk is sold in schools
  • Chocolate milk is a key growth area for milk processors

MilkPep has produced a slide show to help companies take action (I apologize for not linking to it but I have not yet succeeded in uploading a large file, despite many attempts).  The slides advise allies to go on a “chocolate milk offensive”:

  • Do public relations
  • Get bloggers on board
  • Engage moms through social media
  • Take advantage of SuperBowl ads – the campaign intends to fund one
  • Reach out to media

Doesn’t this sound like something ripe for satire?  Colbert!  We need you!

Additions:  Do not miss the YouTube version.  And here’s theofficial MilkPep press release.  Note the testimonials to the benefits of chocolate milk.  It’s a health food!

Nov 9 2009

Are vegetarian diets OK?

I can’t believe the number of times I have been asked that question but it has just come up again in the context of recent complaints about the health and environmental hazards of eating meat.  So here, once again, is my nutrition academic’s take on the nutritional implications of vegetarian diets.

Full disclosure: I eat meat.  Humans are omnivores and I am one nutritionist who fully subscribes to basic, if banal, principles of healthful diets: variety, balance, and moderation. As I explain in my book, What to Eat, if you eat a variety of foods within and among groups – meat, dairy, fruit, vegetables, and grains – you don’t have to worry about nutritional details.  As long as calories are adequate and the foods are relatively unprocessed, the different kinds of foods complement each other’s nutrient contents and provide everything that is needed in reasonable amounts and proportions.

With that said, it is not necessary to eat meat.  Meat is not an essential nutrient.  I can think of plenty of advantages to eating no meat, eating less meat, or eating meat produced in ways that are far better for the health of animals, people, and the planet.

Why anyone would question the benefits of eating vegetarian diets, or diets that are largely vegetarian is beyond me.   People who eat vegetarian diets are usually healthier – sometimes a lot healthier – than people who eat meat.

But before getting into all this, there is the pesky problem of definition.  What, exactly, is a vegetarian?  As it happens, people who call themselves vegetarians eat many kinds of diets.  The least restrictive vegetarians do not eat beef but occasionally eat pork or lamb.  Next come the groups that eat no red meats, or restrict poultry, dairy, fish, or eggs.  The most restrictive are vegans who eat no foods of animal origin at all.

Nutritional implications depend on the degree of restriction.  The least restrictive diets, those that exclude meat but include fish, milk, or eggs, raise no nutritional issues whatsoever.  People who eat such diets are likely to have a lower risk of heart disease and certain cancers than the average meat-eating American, and a risk of osteoporosis no higher.

Only the most restrictive vegetarian diets raise nutritional concerns.  Vegans, who eat no foods of animal origin, need to do three things:

  • Find an alternative source for vitamin B12 (supplements or fortified foods).
  • Eat enough calories to maintain a good weight.
  • Eat a variety of grains and beans to get enough protein.

Vitamin B12 is found only in foods of animal origin – meat, dairy, eggs, or fish.  With this one exception, fruits, vegetables, and grains provide plenty of the other vitamins and minerals.  Vegans who obtain enough calories from varied plant food sources should be taking care of those nutrients as well as protein.

On the protein question: Foods from animals are higher in protein than those from plants.  Their proteins are of somewhat better quality, meaning that they more closely resemble human proteins.  If calories are adequate, protein is rarely a problem.   Protein is hardly lacking among Americans.  The protein requirement is about half a gram for each pound of body weight, which works out to 55 grams for a 120-pound woman and 65 grams or so for a 180-pound man. On surveys, women report eating a daily average of 70 grams of protein, and men 100 grams, and these amounts are likely to be underestimates.  Even vegans get more than enough protein from grains, beans, and vegetables as long as they get enough calories.

In relatively unprocessed foods, protein is closely linked to calories.  Diets with enough calories usually contain enough protein unless the diet is unusually restrictive or includes a lot of junk food.  Think about it: entire civilizations – in ancient Egypt, China, and Mexico, for example – were based on wheat, rice, beans, or corn as sources of protein.   We used to think that vegetarians had to be careful to combine plant foods (beans and corn, for example) to get enough protein but we know now that variety and calories take care of it.

Developing countries are another matter.  In places where food is scarce, children thrive better when they are fed a little meat (or dairy, fish, or eggs) along with whatever else they are eating, but a richer plant-based diet also works well.

That brings us to children.  Is it OK to feed vegetarian diets to kids?  This too depends on what is meant by “vegetarian.”  If the diet restricts just beef or red meat, it poses no problems.  Dairy foods, fish, and eggs are adequate substitutes.  And keeping sodas and junk foods to a minimum is always a good idea.

Vegan diets are another matter and I can think of plenty of reasons why they are controversial for children.  Supplements can take care of kids’ needs for vitamin B12 and other nutrients, but calories can be a serious problem.  Children sometimes have a hard time when they have to get all their food energy from vegetables, grains, or beans.  I advise vegan parents to pay close attention to calories, to make liberal use of olive oil and nut butters, to make sure plenty of beans, grains, and potatoes are available, and to monitor their children’s weight in comparison to lines on standard growth charts.

Except for the most restrictive diets, I wouldn’t worry at all about vegetarian diets for adults or for kids.  They have plenty of what’s good for health and a lot less of what is not so good.  The health advantages can be impressive.    So eat your veggies!

Nov 6 2009

Claude Lévi-Strauss dies at 100

In his thoughtful (and lengthy) obituary of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Edward Rothstein describes the French anthropologist as a profoundly influential and powerful thinker, an intellectual giant of the 20th century, and a scientist whose analyses of the cultural significance of myths “challenge the reader with their complex interweaving of theme and detail.”  Lévi-Strauss did all this, and more.

But I think of Lévi-Strauss as the inventor of Food Studies before the field existed.  If present-day food academics do not always acknowledge his groundbreaking use of food and foodways to explore how “primitive” societies make sense of their worlds – or require students to read his books in their courses – it is surely because “challenge” falls so far short of conveying the stunning impenetrability of his writing.

Here, for example, is one of the more lucid passages from the chapter on culinary anthropology in The Origin of Table Manners (1968).  This is from the University of Chicago 1990 edition, page 487 (translated by John and Doreen Weightman):

Within the basic triangle formed by the categories of the raw, the cooked and the rotten, we have, then, inserted two terms, the roast and the boiled, which, in most cases, can be placed, one in the vicinity of the raw and the other in the vicinity of the rotten.  Still missing, however, is a third term, illustrating the concrete modalities of the form of cooking which most resembles the abstract category of the cooked.  This modality, I suggest, is smoking, which, like roasting, implies a non-mediated operation (involving neither a receptacle nor water), but which, unlike roasting but in the manner of boiling, is a slow form of cooking, and so both thorough and steady.

Even so, Food Studies students and scholars are much in his debt.

Nov 5 2009

Kellogg’s withdraws IMMUNITY claim!

Kellogg’s says it will phase out boxes of Cocoa and other Rice Krispies cereals with the IMMUNITY claim on them.

Withdrawn, November 4, 2009

Withdrawn, November 4, 2009

The Immunity claim falls into an FDA regulatory grey area.  It is a structure-function claim, meaning that the product is supposed to support a structure or function of the human body – not treat or cure a disease. If Cocoa Krispies were a dietary supplement, the claim would be completely legal because Congress authorized structure-function claims for supplements when it passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994.

Over the years, food makers complained that if supplements could use such claims, they could too.  At first, the FDA issued warning letters to food companies using structure-function claims.  It stopped after the courts ruled that food companies could make claims for the health benefits of their products on First Amendment grounds.

Now FDA says structure-function claims are OK to use as long as they are truthful and not misleading.  Misleading, of course, is in the eye of the beholder.  Evidently, the San Francisco city attorney thought this claim was misleading and demanded the evidence to back it up.  USA Today wrote about this on the front page (I’m quoted in it).

Wisely, Kellogg’s is going to find another design for its Rice Krispies packages.  Consider this particular box a collector’s item.

The lesson: In the absence of FDA action, food marketing is allowed to run rampant, and city and state attorneys are doing the FDA’s job.  Good for them.  And let’s hear cheers for the power of the press.

Nov 4 2009

Europe rejects droves of health claims

In what the functional food industry refers to as a “bad day at the office,” the European Food Standards Agency (EFSA) rejected hundreds of health claims, particularly those for probiotics.  More recently, it rejected a claim that glucosamine prevents cartilege degeneration.  Hard as it may be for the food and supplement industries to believe, EFSA just can’t find scientific evidence to support those claims.

A representative of the company that applied for the glucosamine claims says his company now anticipates a loss in product sales, and complains that it had “invested quite heavily in this submission, in terms of effort and financial outlay.”

Too bad.

Why can’t they come up with the science to support those claims? For one thing, who would want to do the research?  Danone and Yakult have just announced two $50,000 grants to study probiotics.  This won’t go far and the sponsorship is an almost certain guarantee that the results will be just what the companies paid for.

Independent research is much more complicated.  Consider folic acid, for example.  The latest clinical trial of folic acid and colon cancer went to a lot of trouble to prove that folic acid supplements are harmless.  In most people, they have no effect on colon cancer, neither benefit nor risk.  Among the few people who had unusually low levels of the vitamin in their blood, the supplements appeared to have some protective effect.  You can interpret results like this either as evidence for no benefit or as evidence that folic acid supplements might benefit some people under some circumstances.

And that brings us to supplements again.  A trade association for supplement manufacturers says:

While it cannot be denied the food and supplement industry has entertained its fair share of cowboys, our concern is that the [EFSA] regulation goes so far as to throw the baby out with the bathwater. At the very point in time when consumers need most information to help them make the right food and supplement choices to help them offset largely preventable chronic diseases, we see the industry being gagged.

“Cowboys” are indeed a problem, and one well known to the American supplement industry. Says the head of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, the euphemistically named supplement trade association:

Fifteen years ago, our biggest threat was an over-reaching FDA….More recently, the problem has been an FDA that’s under funded and lacks the political will to do what it needs to do. And as a result today, many of the problems that burden the dietary supplement industry are ones that come from within the industry itself from that lack of oversight….Companies… intentionally – or inadvertently – put prescription drugs or anabolic steroids into their products and call them dietary supplements; products that just don’t do what they claim.  Also some companies practice economically motivated adulteration, passing off shoddy products as something more than they are … and ignore the new GMP requirements in hopes that they will fall under the radar screen.

Perhaps in response, the Boston Globe says we should repeal the 1994 law that deregulated dietary supplements and give the FDA some regulatory teeth.  Good idea.

Please forgive my endless repetition of this mantra: health claims are about marketing, not health.

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