Sep 24 2013

Out today: the American edition of The Stop

Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis.  The Stop: How the Fight for Good Food transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement.  Melville House, 2013.

This book is now available in the U.S.

Husband and wife team Saul and Curtis wrote this chronicle of Saul’s 15-year stint as the director of The Stop, a place that started out as a soup kitchen but ended up as much more.

This is an important book.  The Stop is no ordinary report on how soup kitchens convey substantial benefits to servers as well as the served.

As I said in my blurb for it:

An impassioned account of how to create food systems that foster independence and eliminate the indignities of charity.   Saul and Curtis put a human face on poverty.  If you want to know what today’s food movement is really about—and why it is anything but elitist—read this book.

I also used it in class last semester, where it stimulated much discussion and debate.  It ought to be available at bookstores everywhere.  Don’t miss this one.

Sep 23 2013

Pepsi, Mexican style

In Mexico, you can get most kinds of sodas in 3 liter bottles.  At 17 pesos ($1.33) for 3 liters, Pepsi is cheaper than water.

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Note the 3-peso penalty if you buy two 1.5-liter bottles.  

It’s hardly a coincidence that Mexico has high soda consumption and high rates of obesity.  Taxing sodas seems like a particularly good idea in this situation.

Sep 21 2013

Mexico suffers from a sugar deficiency?

Mexico has an overweight-plus-obesity rate of 70%, and 15% of the population has type-2 diabetes. You might think that a key public health message might be “eat less sugar.”

But check this ad on a city bus:

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Translation:

  • Cane sugar
  • It’s natural
  • A little happiness each day
  • Only 15 calories per tablespoon 

In other (implied) words, “eat more sugar! It’s good for you!”

Sep 19 2013

White House Convening on Food Marketing to Children

If kids really are to eat more healthfully, food and beverage companies have to stop pushing products at them.  But if companies don’t market to kids, they lose money.  Regulation would solve the problem, but is not politically feasible.  Voluntary efforts are limited to companies that agree to participate.   Short of regulation, what more can be done?

This invitation felt like history in the making.  I accepted with pleasure.

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Mrs. Obama’s speech alone was well worth the trip.

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You can see it for yourself thanks to Eddie Gehman Kohan, who posted a video and a transcript of the speech on her ObamaFoodorama site.

Here is a small excerpt:

And I’m here today with one simple request — and that is to do even more and move even faster to market responsibly to our kids…the goal here is to empower parents instead of undermining them as they try to make healthier choices for their families.  And we need you to lead the way in creating demand for healthy foods so that kids actually start “pestering” us for those foods in the grocery store.  And then parents actually start buying them, and then companies have incentives to make and sell even more of those foods.

And ideally, in a decade or so, we would see a dramatic shift across the entire industry.  We’d see companies shifting marketing dollars away from those less healthy products and investing those dollars in your healthier products instead…See, the decisions that you make about marketing won’t just affect what our kids are eating today — those decisions are going to also affect the health of your workforce tomorrow…. You see, over the past few years, we’ve seen some real changes in the foods our kids are eating, starting from the time they’re born…this isn’t just some passing trend or fad.

So there might be those out there whose strategy is to just wait this out — folks who might still be thinking to themselves, well, in a few years, this lady will be gone — (laughter) — and this whole Let’s Move thing will finally be over, so we can go back to business as usual.  And I know that none of you here are thinking that way.  (Laughter.)  But if you know anyone who is — (laughter) — you might want to remind them that I didn’t create this issue, and it’s not going to go away three and a half years from now when I’m no longer First Lady.

Obama Foodorama also posts the list of who attended.  This was a diverse group of representatives of the food industry, trade associations, media, government agencies, private organizations, and universities who sought common ground.

A few points seemed clear from the discussion:

  • Some food companies are making substantial progress in trying to reduce their marketing of less healthful foods.
  • Advocates wish they would do more, faster.
  • The business barriers are formidable.

I think it’s wonderful that the First Lady is taking on this critical topic, impressive that such diverse opinions were represented, and remarkable that this meeting, if nothing else, holds the possibility of opening the door to further discussion.

An open door is needed.  As Bill Dietz, a former CDC official who was at the meeting, told FoodNavigator: “the food industry has repeatedly thwarted federal efforts to curb food marketing to kids.”

Center for Science in the Public Interest has some suggestions for what the next steps should be.

Cheers to Let’s Move! for taking this on.

Sep 18 2013

New books on food: San Francisco

Erica Peters.  San Francisco: A Food Biography.  Rowman & Littlefield, 2013.

For anyone curious about how San Francisco’s foods and restaurants became world-recognized icons of American regional cuisine, this book is a welcome starting place.

It’s one of a collection of books in the AltaMira Studies in Food and Gastronomy, edited by the prolific Ken Albala.  Readers may argue about Peters’ choice of topics to discuss—she left out some of my favorites—but the book is a great way to begin to delve into the city’s food history.  It’s well referenced and is wonderfully illustrated with photographs from historical collections (but alas, most of them are undated).

Sep 17 2013

The salt debates continue: American Journal of Hypertension

The American Journal of Hypertension has published a series of point-counterpoint articles on the salt debate: are public health campaigns to reduce sodium intake warranted by the data?  Public health agencies argue yes.Others argue to the contrary.

This debate is not easily resolved, mainly because everyone eats a high-salt diet; most salt is already in processed and restaurant foods and eaters have no choice.

So the issue really becomes one of whether it makes any difference to high blood pressure to reduce high salt intakes and, if so, to what level—questions difficult to answer with current methods.

Introduction

The Salt Discourse in 2013
Theodore A. Kotchen

CDC Response

Sodium Reduction Is a Public Health Priority: Reflections on the Institute of Medicine’s Report,Sodium Intake in Populations: Assessment of Evidence
Janelle P. Gunn, Jessica L. Barron, Barbara A. Bowman, Robert K. Merritt, Mary E. Cogswell, Sonia Y. Angell, Ursula E. Bauer, and Thomas R. Frieden

NYC DOHMH Response

Getting the Message Right: Reducing Sodium Intake Saves Lives
Jenifer E. Clapp, Christine J. Curtis, Susan M. Kansagra, and Thomas A. Farley

Editorial

The IOM Report Fails To Detect Evidence to Support Dietary Sodium Guidelines
Michael H. Alderman and Hillel W. Cohen

Researcher Responses

Physiology, Not Policy, Drives Sodium Intake 
David A. McCarron

Extreme Sodium Reductions for the Entire Population: Zealotry or Evidence Based?
Andrew Mente, Martin J. O’Donnell, and Salim Yusuf

Flawed Evidence Should Not Derail Sound Policy: The Case Remains Strong for Population-Wide Sodium Reduction
Lawrence J. Appel and Paul K. Whelton

Sodium: How and How Not to Set a Nutrient Intake Recommendation
Robert P. Heaney

Sep 16 2013

Arsenic in rice: another food issue to worry about?

Is arsenic in rice something you should be worried about?

I never know what to say about food contaminants consumed in tiny amounts, in this case, micrograms (millionths of grams) per serving.

The FDA devotes a web page to arsenic in rice.  Here, the agency releases the results of its testing, which found amounts of arsenic mostly below 6 micrograms per serving.

Higher levels—11 micrograms per serving—were found in three samples from Texas, Louisiana and California.  The highest was 30 micrograms per serving of hot ready-to-eat rice bran cereal.

Is this good, bad, or indifferent?  And how would we know?

The FDA says such levels are too low to cause concern about short-term health problems.

But Consumers Union thinks the real issue is the long-term effects.

Today’s widely-reported message on arsenic levels in rice misses the point.  The issue is not the short-term risks of rice consumption. The concern is the long-term effects from exposure to arsenic in rice. As Consumer Reports has said in the past, consumers should not ignore the potential risks from consuming rice and rice products over a long period of time…Consumers are not well-served if they do not have the full story. The concerns about long-term effects are significant and warrant the FDA’s decision to investigate further.

The FDA says it plans further investigations.  In the meantime, it says you should:

  • Eat a well-balanced diet.
  • Vary your grains.
  • Consider diversifying infant foods

This is always good advice.

But Consumers Union  is more specific.  It suggests you worry a little and observe these limits:

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At the moment, this is the best information available.  FDA: get to work!

FDA references:

Sep 13 2013

Drink Up? The new Let’s Move! campaign

Michele Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign to end childhood obesity within a generation has taken on a new angle: Drink Up.  It issued a press release yesterday urging Americans to drink more water.

The “Drink Up: You Are What You Drink” website explains:

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Let me be absolutely clear: I am totally in favor of encouraging kids to drink water.

But:

  • Water deficiency is not a public health problem in the United States.  Childhood obesity is the problem.
  • Drinking water will only help to counter childhood obesity if it substitutes for sugary sodas.

  • Bottled water companies such as Dasani (owned by Coca-Cola) and Aquafina (PepsiCo), and their trade group The American Beverage Association (ABA), are the main supporters of this initiative.
  • This makes the message sounds like “drink bottled water,” without much attention to environmental implications.

The ABA’s congratulatory press release says:

Staying hydrated is important to staying in balance, and bottled water provides people with a convenient and popular choice. By supporting this new initiative, our industry is once again leading with meaningful ways to achieve a balanced lifestyle.”

Hydrated?  Not an issue for most people (exceptions—elite athletes, people at high altitude, the elderly).

Bottled water?  In places with decent municipal water supplies, tap water is a much better choice; it’s inexpensive, non-polluting, and generates political support for preserving the quality of municipal water supplies.  See, for example, what Food and Water Watch has to say about bottled water.

James Hamblin’s critical account  in The Atlantic indicates that the press conference must have been tough going.  Sam Kass, White House chef and executive director of Let’s Move! took the questions.

Another reporter: “Why aren’t we talking about obesity?”

Another reporter: Are we talking about replacing sugary drinks and sodas with water?”

Lawrence Soler, president and CEO of Partnership for a Healthier America, fielded that one. “It’s less a public health campaign than a campaign to encourage drinking more water. To that end, we’re being completely positive. Only encouraging people to drink water; not being negative about other drinks. “

I consider Let’s Move! to be a public health campaign, and a very important one.

Hamblin concludes:

I know we’re just trying to “keep things positive,” but missing the opportunity to use this campaign’s massive platform to clearly talk down soda or do something otherwise more productive is lamentable. Public health campaigns of this magnitude don’t come around every day…Keeping things positive and making an important point are not mutually exclusive, you fools.

My interpretation

Let’s Move! staff have stated repeatedly that they must and will work with the food industry to make progress on childhood obesity.  I’m guessing this is the best they can do. Messages to “drink less soda” (or even “drink tap water”) will not go over well with Coke, Pepsi, and the ABA; sales of sugary sodas are already declining in this country.

I’m thinking that the White House must have cut a deal with the soda industry along the lines of “we won’t say one word about soda if you will help us promote water, which you bottle under lots of brands.”   A win-win.

Isn’t drinking water better than drinking soda?  Of course it is.

But this campaign could have clarified the issues a bit better.  Jeff Cronin, communications director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest circulated a poster created by Rudy Ruiz (of the communications firm Interlex) for a public health campaign in San Antonio:

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Public health partnerships with food and beverage companies—especially soda companies—are fraught with peril.   Let’s hope this one conveys the unstated message like the one in San Antonio: My balance is less soda and more tap water.

Other resources

As always, Eddie Gehman Kohan writing at ObamaFoodorama provides a clear, detailed summary of the relevant details along with transcripts of Michele Obama’s remarks at the launch in Watertown, Wisconsin (site of a Pepsi bottling plant, among other things).

Amanda Chin has a good piece in the Huffington Post (I’m quoted).

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