Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Apr 29 2009

Is Stevia really “natural?”

The April 26 New York Times Magazine carried a seductive ad on page 15 for PepsiCo’s “Trop50 orange juice goodness with 50% less calories and sugar…And no artificial sweeteners”  PepsiCo performs this miracle by diluting the juice by half with water (really, you could do this at home).  But in case the result isn’t sweet enough for you, Trop50 adds the sweetener, Stevia.

PepsiCo can get away with claiming that its juice drink has no artificial sweeteners.  Because Stevia is isolated from leaves of the Stevia plant, the FDA lets companies claim it is “natural.”

We can debate whether a chemical sweetener isolated from Stevia leaves is really “natural” but here’s another problem: Stevia doesn’t taste like sugar.  Companies have to fuss with it to cover up its off taste.  And, they must do so “without detracting from the perceived benefits of its natural status.”  Flavor companies are working like mad to find substances that block Stevia’s bitter taste, mask its off flavors, and extend its sweetness, while staying within the scope of what the FDA allows as “natural.”

Yesterday, I received an e-mail from a Stevia PR representative eager for me to see the company’s website.  “Naturally delicious” anyone?

Apr 28 2009

No patents on seeds!

Carmelo Ruiz, who blogs about agricultural issues from his bilingual base in Puerto Rico, sends information about the “no- patents-on-seeds” coalition.  This group of European advocates for open sharing of seeds and breeding methods has produced an excellent new report: The Future of Seeds and Food.  Here is a terrific summary of the current patent situation, the growing concentration of the seed industry, the legal situation (not pretty), and ideas for doing something about it.

Patents, says the report, block innovation and access to essential genetic resources, and they “foster market concentration, hamper competition, and serve to promote unjust monopoly rights.”  To address world hunger, open systems of plant and animal breeding would work much better.

If you, as I do, find issues of genetic patenting uncomfortably arcane, check out this report.  It makes clear why such patents matter and why something urgently needs to be done about them in Europe as well as in the U.S.

Apr 27 2009

Swine flu, CAFO’s, Smithfield, China: connecting the dots

Eating Liberally’s ever curious kat connects the dots between the current swine flu crisis (getting worse by the minute) and China’s interest in buying America’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods.  She wonders what I think about all that.  See the latest Ask Marion: “Who needs bioterrorism when we’ve got manure lagoons.”

April 29 update: Here is Grain’s report on these connections.

Apr 25 2009

Weekend entertainment: the cost of fast food calories

Smart Money has produced a most instructive display of the cost of 100 calories in meals at fast food restaurants.  Click on the numbers starting with #1 (for which you have to click on #2 – the numbers are off by 1 for some reason).  #1 is the most expensive: $1.47 per 100 calories for at McDonald’s Southwest Salad with Grilled Chicken.  # 13 (click on #14) is a Burger King Double Whopper with Cheese at 49 cents for 100 calories but you have to buy 1010 calories at this price.  The cheapest, #15 (click on #16) is a 32-ounce Coca-Cola at 38 cents per 100.

It would be interesting to do the same thing for nutritional value.  Could nutrients (other than calories) be proportional to cost?  That idea might be worth a closer look.

Apr 24 2009

Pesticides in Chilean farmed salmon?

Among the many publications that flood my snail mailbox is the trade magazine, Pacific Fishing. I’m not sure why it gets sent to me but I do look at it since it covers a world I know little about.   The May issue has several articles about banned pesticides in Chilean farmed salmon.  I had completely missed this story, even though the New York Times discussed the problem on February 5.  That was the day the Pew Environmental Group revealed the results of its FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request to the FDA.  The otherwise undisclosed documents say farmed fish from Chile contains residues of pesticides banned by the FDA since 2007.

But Chile is not alone in using banned pesticides.  British Columbia salmon farmers use SLICE, a pesticide that kills sea lice.  Because such pesticides are toxic, it is not surprising that they also seem to be killing local prawns and other invertebrates along the Canadian West Coast.

A Pacific Fishing reporter, Don McManman, went to great pains to find out what the FDA was doing about all this.  His interview makes entertaining reading.  The FDA’s final answer?  Looking into it, apparently.

I’m wondering why the Pew Group had to file a FOIA request to get information that the FDA should be releasing to the public.  The lack of disclosure makes it appear that the FDA cares more about protecting the salmon farming industry than consumers, especially now that the public has the right to choose.  Seafood has Country-of-Origin labeling (COOL).  With COOL , you can see whether farmed salmon comes from Chile or British Columbia and decide for yourself whether you want to eat fish raised on pellets containing banned pesticides.

Want to check out the documents?  Go to the Pacific Fishing website, then Resources. Scroll down and look for “Insecticides–It’s What’s for Dinner,” “Chile Salmon Report,” and “Chilean Contamination History.”

Apr 23 2009

Do endocrine disrupters cause asthma and obesity?

According to press reports, investigators from a Mt. Sinai School of Medicine project funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Growing Up Healthy in East Harlem,” find higher levels of endocrine disrupters, mostly phthlates and bisphenol A, among obese girls (age six to eight) in East Harlem, as compared to girls who are not obese.   The actual research does not appear to be published yet – I can’t find it on the Epidemiology website – but the EPA’s site provides the latest report on the project.

Endocrine disrupters are widely used in food and beverage packaging materials, as well as things such as cosmetics, shampoos, lubricants, and paint. As I explained in earlier posts, federal agencies have been taking a hard look at such substances, particularly bisphenol A.  Their interim conclusion: such chemicals pose no harm at current levels of intake.

While waiting for more research or regulatory action, a group called As You Sow has asked food companies what they are doing about bisphenol A.  Its report, Seeking Safer Packaging, concludes that the companies it surveyed generally aren’t doing nearly enough.  A few companies – notably Hain Celestial, Heinz, and Nestle (no relation) do have plans to phase out these chemicals eventually.

Why isn’t there more research on endocrine disrupter chemicals?  Without it, we have only two choices: precaution or do nothing and see what happens.  In this instance, it looks like the evidence favors precaution.  Glass bottles, everybody!

Apr 22 2009

The People’s Garden at USDA? Happy Earth Day!

It’s Earth Day and the USDA says it is going to turn the grounds of its Washington DC buildings into The People’s Garden –  a sustainable landscape that will “promote healthy food, people, and communities” across the country.

Yes!

And here’s where to see what it will look like.

I can’t wait!

Apr 22 2009

Food industry self-monitoring

If it’s one thing the food industry does really well, it’s surely to pat itself on the back.  Something called The Ethisphere Institute (motto: “Good.  Smart.  Business. Profit.”) has produced a list of the world’s most ethical companies, among them Kellogg’s, Danone, PepsiCo, and Unilever.  How did Ethisphere do this?  It analyzed data from the companies.  I’m guessing it didn’t include marketing to children or misleading health claims as ethical criteria.

And food company representatives have gotten together to establish guidelines for funding food and nutrition research so as to prevent conflicts of interest.  The guidelines make sense – keep everything transparent and stay out of the way of research and publication – but do not address what I see as the most serious consequence of food industry sponsorship: setting up research studies to  inevitably yield results that favor the sponsor’s products.

This, I can assure you, is remarkably easy to do and happens all the time (see, for example, my post on Açaí).

Yes, food and nutrition research is difficult to do and interpret.  That is why independent funding is essential.  At least that’s how I see it.  You?

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