Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jan 6 2016

Viewpoint: Food-industry Funding of Food and Nutrition Research

My latest Viewpoint, “Corporate funding of food and nutrition research: science or marketing,” was published yesterday in JAMA Internal Medicine 2016;176 (1):13-14.  doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.6667.

The longstanding influence of food industry funding on nutrition research, researchers, and professional societies1 threatens the credibility of nutrition science. So much research is sponsored by industry that health professionals and the public may lose confidence in basic dietary advice. Although most journals now require authors to disclose who pays for their work, disclosure—even done diligently—is not sufficient to alert readers to the extent to which industry funding influences research results and professional opinion. As is well established from experimental and observational research, drug company gifts and grants can have substantial effects. To recipients, however, these effects are almost always unconscious, unintentional, and unrecognized, making them especially difficult to prevent.

Medical schools and medical journals have increased efforts to minimize and manage conflicts of interest with industry. But from my observations, nutrition researchers, journals, and professional societies, like medical researchers, often fail to realize that food-industry funding may affect their work and its credibility.

Two recent investigative articles in the New York Times illustrate the concerns about biases introduced by industry funding. The first3 described the support by Coca-Cola of academic researchers who founded a new organization, the Global Energy Balance Network, to promote physical activity as a more effective method than calorie control (eg, from avoiding sugary sodas) for preventing obesity. The second4 analyzed emails obtained through open-records requests to document how Monsanto, the multinational agricultural biotechnology corporation, on the one hand, and the organic food industry, on the other, recruited professors to lobby, write, and testify to Congress on their behalf.

Both articles3,4 quoted the researchers named in these reports as denying an influence of industry funding and lamenting the paucity of university research funds and the competitiveness of federal grants. Despite leaving their organizations open to accusations that they have sold out to industry,5 officers of nutrition research societies tell me that they cannot function without industry funding of journals and conferences. They have a point. Although the investment by federal agencies in food and nutrition research has increased steadily since the early 1990s, US Department of Agriculture grants are diminishing, and the National Institutes of Health are funding fewer researchers at state agricultural colleges. Investigators have a hard time obtaining grants for projects related to food composition, food technology, nutrients, and nutrient metabolism as federal agencies have understandably shifted priorities toward research on obesity, genetics, and chronic diseases.6

Food companies, such as Quaker Oats, used to support basic research conducted by in-house scientists, but Unilever and Nestlé (no relation) are among the very few companies that continue to do so. Instead, food companies outsource research, much of which can appear as designed for marketing purposes. Recently, in preparation for what I intend to be a more systematic analysis of corporate funding of nutrition research, I began collecting a convenience sample of studies funded by food and beverage companies or trade associations as they appear in journals I happen to be reading. I sort them by whether their results do or do not favor the interests of the sponsor, and post examples online at my blog, http://www.foodpolitics.com.7

Between March and October 2015, I identified 76 industry-funded studies. Of these, 70 reported results favorable to the sponsor’s interest. Despite ongoing requests to readers of my blog to help me identify funded studies reporting results contrary to a funder’s interest, I have found only 6.  [Note: Since writing this, the score has gone to 90:9.] This discrepancy is consistent with the results of systematic investigations of industry sponsorship, such as one on the role of sugar-sweetened beverages in obesity.8 In general, independently funded studies find correlations between sugary drinks and poor health, whereas those supported by the soda industry do not.9 In the studies I collected, companies or trade associations promoting soft drinks, dairy foods, eggs, breakfast cereals, pork, beef, soy products, dietary supplements, juices, cranberries, nuts, and chocolates supported the study itself, the investigators, or both. These studies all found significant health benefits or lack of harm from consuming the foods investigated, results that can be useful for deflecting criticism of a company or promoting its products.

Mars Inc, for example, the maker of chocolate candies such as M&Ms, funds studies on the effects of cocoa flavanols on arterial function and blood pressure. One such study, published in September 2015,10(p1246)concluded that these compounds “improved accredited cardiovascular surrogates of cardiovascular risk, demonstrating that dietary flavanols have the potential to maintain cardiovascular health even in low-risk subjects.” The study investigators,10 one of whom is employed by Mars, followed well-established scientific protocols in conducting the research. Science is not the issue here. Marketing is the issue. The question is why Mars would fund a study like this and assign one of its employees to help design and write it. In this instance, the answer is obvious. Mars issued a press release “Cocoa flavanols lower blood pressure and increase blood vessel function in healthy people,” and noted these results in a full-page advertisement in the New York Times on September 27, 2015, Neither the press release nor advertisement explained that cocoa flavanols are largely destroyed during all but the most careful processing of chocolate, nor did they mention chocolate at all. They didn’t have to. Uncritical readers are likely to interpret the statements as evidence that chocolate is good for them and that its sugar and calories can be ignored.

The second New York Times article4 raised more insidious concerns about industry involvement with scientists, using Monsanto and organic food companies as cases in point. Although both industries recruit scientists to speak on their behalf, Monsanto has far greater resources. In 1994, I was a member of the Food Advisory Committee to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) when that agency approved genetically modified (GM) foods. I observed how Monsanto-funded scientists convinced the FDA that labeling GM foods would be misleading.

Confronted with increasing public support for labeling foods that are produced with GM ingredients, the biotechnology industry supported—and the House of Representatives passed—H.R. 1599 in July 2015. This bill, expected to be considered by the Senate before the end of 2015, has the Orwellian title, “The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act,” but some critics call it the “Denying Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act.” Proposed by Representative Mike Pompeo (Kansas) on the basis that GM foods are safe and, therefore, acceptable, the act would block states from enacting labeling laws (as Vermont has already done) and permit GM foods to be labeled as “natural.” Opponents question the safety of GM foods. But they also raise additional reasons for full transparency in labeling—patents, control of seed stocks, the widespread application of chemical herbicides to GM crops, and the increasingly widespread resistance of weeds to those herbicides. When evaluating conflicting scientific and policy arguments about GM foods, it is useful to know who funds the researchers and their studies.

Should nutrition researchers and professional societies accept funding from food companies? Not without careful thinking. It’s time that food and nutrition researchers and societies recognize the influence of food-industry sponsorship, take steps to control its effects, and ensure that sponsored studies promote public health, not the marketing of food products. Journal editors should ensure that editors and members of editorial boards are free of industry conflicts, require peer reviewers to note food-industry funding in manuscript evaluations, and be wary of accepting industry-funded publications with evident commercial implications. If food companies and trade associations want to fund research, they should consider pooling resources and setting up an independent foundation to administer the grants. Everyone involved in this system should be doing everything possible to advocate for more research funds from federal granting agencies. Nothing less than the credibility of nutrition research and advice is at stake.

REFERENCES

1 Nestle  M. Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health.3rd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press; 2013.
2 Lo  B, Field  MJ, eds. Conflict of Interest in Medical Research, Education, and Practice. Washington, DC: National Academies Press; 2009.
3 O’Connor  A. Coca-Cola funds scientists who shift blame for obesity away from bad diets. New York Times. August 9, 2015. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/08/09/coca-cola-funds-scientists-who-shift-blame-for-obesity-away-from-bad-diets/?_r=0. Accessed October 22, 2015.
4 Lipton  E. Food industry enlisted academics in G.M.O. lobbying war, emails show. New York Times. September 5, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/06/us/food-industry-enlisted-academics-in-gmo-lobbying-war-emails-show.html. Accessed October 22, 2015.
5 Simon  M. Nutrition scientists on the take from Big Food: has the American Society for Nutrition lost all credibility? June 2015. http://www.eatdrinkpolitics.com/wp-content/uploads/ASNReportFinal.pdf. Accessed October 22, 2015.
6 Toole  AA, Kuchler  F. Improving health through nutrition research: an overview of the U.S. nutrition research system. Econ Res Rep No. 182. January 2015.http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/1760111/err-182.pdf. Accessed October 27, 2015.
7 Nestle  M. Food Politics blog. http://www.foodpolitics.com. Accessed October 27, 2015.
8 Lesser  LI, Ebbeling  CB, Goozner  M, Wypij  D, Ludwig  DS.  Relationship between funding source and conclusion among nutrition-related scientific articles. PLoS Med. 2007;4(1):e5. PubMed   |  Link to Article
9 Massougbodji  J, Le Bodo  Y, Fratu  R, De Wals  P.  Reviews examining sugar-sweetened beverages and body weight: correlates of their quality and conclusions. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014;99(5):1096-1104. PubMed   |  Link to Article
10 Sansone  R, Rodriguez-Mateos  A, Heuel  J,  et al; Flaviola Consortium, European Union 7th Framework Program.  Cocoa flavanol intake improves endothelial function and Framingham Risk Score in healthy men and women: a randomised, controlled, double-masked trial: the Flaviola Health Study. Br J Nutr. 2015;114(8):1246-1255. doi:10.1017/S0007114515002822PubMed   |  Link to Article

ARTICLE INFORMATION

Corresponding Author: Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, New York University, 411 Lafayette, Fifth Floor, New York, NY 10003-7035 (marion.nestle@nyu.edu).

Published Online: November 23, 2015. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.6667.

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: Dr Nestle’s salary from New York University supports her research, manuscript preparation, website, and blog at http://www.foodpolitics.com. She also earns royalties from books and honoraria from lectures to university and health professional groups about matters relevant to this Viewpoint.

Jan 5 2016

Rogue Dietary Guidelines

While we are endlessly waiting for the release of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines, Tamar Haspel and I thought we would jump the gun and write up for the Washington Post what we think most makes sense: How to eat more healthfully, in 6 easy steps.

Here are our Rogue Dietary Guidelines:

Go through the fine print of the omnibus spending bill just passed by Congress, and you’ll see that the 2015 Dietary Guidelines, scheduled for release in — you guessed it — 2015, have been pushed out to 2016. You wouldn’t think that the government’s efforts, every five years, to help Americans eat more healthfully would turn into a political football. But when its appointed scientists reviewed the literature on meat and health, for example, they did something quite radical. They said what they meant with no equivocations: Americans should eat less meat.

As if that were not radical enough — previous committees had pussyfooted with such euphemisms as “choose lean meats to reduce saturated fat” — this committee insisted on an additional reason beyond health: environmental considerations.

The result? Uproar.

Arguments like the ones over the Dietary Guidelines, fueled by lobbyists, politicians and agenda-driven groups, make diet advice seem maddeningly inconsistent, but the fundamentals haven’t changed much at all.

It’s time to take back the process, so we’re going rogue and issuing our own Dietary Guidelines, untainted by industry lobbying, unrestricted by partisan politics. Here, in six easy steps, is our advice for the new year: what we think dietary guidelines ought to say.

  1. Eat more plants. You heard it from your grandmother. You heard it from Michael Pollan. Now you hear it from us: Eat your vegetables. Add fruits, beans and whole grains, and the wide-ranging plant category should make up most of your diet. Variety is the key. Plants offer us such an astonishing range of roots, stems, leaves, flowers, buds and seeds that there is bound to be something even the most jaded vegetable skeptic can love.
    Vegetables, fruits, beans and whole grains: Plants should make up most of our diet. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)
  2. Don’t eat more calories than you need. Although on any given day it’s hard to tell whether you’re doing that, over the long term, your scale is a sure-fire indicator. If the pounds are going up, eat less.

Let’s pause here for the good news. If you follow our first two guidelines, you can stop worrying. Everything else is fine-tuning, and you have plenty of leeway.

  1. Eat less junk. “And what’s junk?” we hear you asking. We have faith that you know exactly what junk is. It’s foods with lots of calories, plenty of sugar and salt, and not nearly enough nutritional value. It’s soda and sugary drinks. It’s highly processed, packaged foods designed to be irresistible. It’s fast food. You know it when you see it. When you do, don’t eat too much of it.
  2. Eat a variety of foods you enjoy. There is research on the health implications of just about any food you can think of. Some — such as fish — may be good for you. You should eat others — such as meat and refined grains — in smaller amounts. The evidence for most foods is so inconsistent that you should never force yourself to eat them if you don’t want to, or deny yourself if you do. If you love junk foods, you get to eat them, too (in moderation, of course). You have bought yourself that wiggle room by making sure the bulk of your diet is plants and by not eating more than you need.

This is an appropriate place to talk about a phrase that has been thrown around a lot in the Dietary Guidelines brouhaha: “science-based.”

As a journalist (Tamar) and a scientist (Marion), we’re very much in favor of science. But in this situation, the food industry’s frequent calls for “science-based” guidelines really mean, “We don’t like what you said.”

Arriving at truths about human nutrition isn’t easy. We can’t keep research subjects captive and feed them controlled diets for the decades it takes many health problems to play out. Nor can we feed them something until it kills them. We have to rely on animal research, short-term trials and population data, all of which have serious limitations and require interpretation — and intelligent people can come to quite different opinions about what those studies mean.

Which is why “eat some if you like it” isn’t a wishy-washy cop-out. It acknowledges science’s limitations. We do know that plants are good, and we do know that junk foods aren’t, but in between is an awful lot of uncertainty. So, eat more plants, eat less junk, and eat that in-between stuff moderately. That is exactly the advice science demands.

What we eat and how we eat go hand in hand. We’ve all been there, sitting in front of a screen and finding that, all of a sudden, that bag, box or sleeve of something crunchy and tasty is all gone. We’re so focused on what to eat that how to eat gets short shrift. So:

  1. Find the joy in food. Eat mindfully and convivially. One of life’s great gifts is the need to eat, so don’t squander it with mindless, joyless consumption. Try to find pleasure in every meal, and share it with friends, relatives, even strangers.
  1. Learn to cook. The better you cook, the better you eat. There are days when cooking feels like a chore, but there are also days when you find profound satisfaction in feeding wholesome homemade food to people you love. And foods you make at home are worlds apart from foods that manufacturers make in factories. No home kitchen ever turned out a Lunchable.

If you go out in the world armed only with these guidelines, you’ll do great. Sure, there’s much more to know, if you want to know it. We’ve forged careers writing about food and nutrition, and either one of us could talk micronutrients until your eyes glaze over. But these few basics are all you need to make good food decisions. Choose foods you like, cook them and enjoy them.

It really is that simple.

Haspel is the James Beard award-winning writer of Unearthed, a Washington Post column devoted to finding out what’s actually true about food.

Nestle is professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University and is the author, most recently, of “Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning).”

 

Jan 4 2016

Politico Pro Agriculture’s pick of top 2015 food policy stories

Jason Huffman, Helena Bottemiller Evich, and Jenny Hopkinson of Politico Pro Agriculture have published their end-of-year assessment of game-changing events in food and agriculture policy last year.  Here’s their list:

  • Avian flu blew up the U.S. egg industry.
  • The Trans-Pacific Partnership deal got done.
  • The battle over the Dietary Guidelines turned even nastier.
  • The FDA banned most uses of trans fat.
  • The FDA said a genetically engineered fish is safe to eat.
  • The EPA released its final Waters of the U.S. rule, inciting the wrath of multiple industries, states and lawmakers.
  • A federal judge sent peanut company executives to jail for decades for their part in a giant salmonella outbreak.
  • The FDA released major rules to promote the safety of produce and imports.
  • The FDA doubled down on added sugars on food labels, proposing daily values for the listings.

I’ve discussed most of these on this site (all except Waters of the US).

I can’t wait to see what this year brings—more of the same, for sure, but what else?  Stay tuned.

Dec 31 2015

Food art: final thoughts for the year

May your new year be filled with beautiful food, beautifully presented, nutritious, and always delicious.  Happy new year!

How These 98 Identical Food Cubes Were Made photo

“Cubes,” by  Lernert & Sander.

See BonAppetit.com for explanation and identification.

Dec 29 2015

Sidney Mintz 1922-2015: some personal memories

The anthropologist Sidney Mintz has died at the age of 93.  It feels way too soon.

I first heard of him in 1985 when I read a review of Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History.  I immediately ordered a copy, which he signed it for me much later.

Sweetness and Power used sugar as an entry point into a critical analysis of social institutions, in this case slavery, race, class, and global capitalism.  As he explained, the book continues to be relevant to those concerns as well as to today’s obsession with sugar consumption.

Studying a single food or commodity such as sugar may seem like an incongruous project for an anthropologist who claims to work mostly with living people. Still, it is a rich subject for someone interested in the history and character of the modern world, for its importance and popularity rose together with tea, colonial slavery, and the machine era…How do we get from one child’s sweet tooth to the history of slavery, of war, and of corporate lobbying in the Congress?…These are the kinds of questions that have arisen in recent years. Alongside them are the shacks of the cane cutters, scattered in so many of the earth’s tropical corners, which deserve at least equal attention from anthropologists.

When my colleagues and I started Food Studies programs at NYU, we considered Sweetness and Power to be the seminal work in the field.  So did everyone else.  We polled academics working on food issues about what should be included in a Food Studies “canon”—a list of books that every student ought to master.  Only one book appeared on everyone’s list: Sweetness and Power.

I adored Sid.  Whenever I ran into him at meetings, we talked about how much fun it would be to teach together.  In 2004, we did—in Puerto Rico: The Bitter and the Sweet: Puerto Rico, Sugar, and Caribbean History.  Sid was 82 at the time.

He had done his anthropology field work in Puerto Rico half a century earlier and published this research as Worker in the Cane: A Puerto Rican Life History.  He was still in touch with the children and grandchildren of the cane cutter observed in that book, and he visited with them while we were there.  The University of Puerto Rico honored him.  In Puerto Rico and throughout the Caribbean, he is a national hero.

In 2007, I gave  the Sidney Mintz lecture at Johns Hopkins (here’s my title slide).

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I loved visiting with him and his wife Jackie whenever I could.  They were in New York for a speaking engagement early in 2009 and my partner, Mal Nesheim, and I had arranged to take them to dinner at Blue Hill.  What an evening that was.  We had to talk our way through vast crowds and a police barricade around the restaurant.  The newly elected Obamas, it seems, had picked Blue Hill for a date night in New York.  We were seated at the next table (but not introduced).

Whenever I talked to Sid, he told me about his speaking invitations all over the world, his new book projects, and his increasing collection of honors. Here’s Sid in action at NYU in 2012.

I know I’m not the only one who treasured knowing him and will miss him.  But this feels like such a huge loss.

Obituaries

The New York Times

History News Network

Johns Hopkins

Dec 28 2015

Chipotle’s food safety problems: an update

I’m fascinated by reports of Chipotle’s ongoing problems with foodborne illness.

  • The main interest of the press in these episodes is their effect on Chipotle’s stock prices.
  • The outbreaks have been linked to a bunch of different pathogens: E. coli O157:H7, E. coli STEC O26, Salmonella, norovirus, and, possibly, hepatitis A.  This means they are due to different causes at different outlets.
  • The food, foods, or individuals responsible for these outbreaks are uncertain, making them hard to know how to prevent.
  • Hence: conspiracy theories.

The outbreaks

The most recent CDC report (December 21) counts 53 cases of E. coli 026 from 9 states, with 20 hospitalizations.

12-18-2015: Epi Cruve: Persons infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli O26, by date of illness onset

The FDA reports (December 22) that there are 5 more recent cases of illness caused by a different type of E. coli 026 among people eating at Chipotle.

Food Safety News summarizes the previous Chipotle outbreaks.

  • Seattle: July 2015, 5 people sick from E. coli O157:H7, from unknown food source.
  • Simi Valley, CA: August 2015, more than 230 sick from norovirus (most likely from an ill worker).
  • Minnesota: August and September 2015, 64 people sick from Salmonella Newport (tomatoes?).
  • Boston: December 2015, at least 136 people sick from norovirus.

The consequences

  • Nearly 500 people have become ill after eating in a Chipotle since July this year.
  • Stock prices are down 30 percent from a high of $757.77 in August.

The conspiracy theory

The title says it all: “ANALYSIS: Chipotle is a victim of corporate sabotage… biotech industry food terrorists are planting e.coli in retaliation for restaurant’s anti-GMO menu.”

I don’t think so.

You don’t need conspiracy theories to explain poorly designed and executed food safety procedures.

What is to be done?

The New York Times attributes the inability to identify the food source to Chipotle’s record-keeping:

One of the challenges here has been that we have been able to identify the restaurants where people ate, but because of the way Chipotle does its record-keeping, we have been unable to figure out what food is in common across all those restaurants,” said Dr. Ian Williams, chief of the outbreak response and prevention branch of the C.D.C.

That, at least, should be an easy fix.

For the rest, Chipotle has initiated a new food safety program, and has recruited a leading food safety expert, Mansour Samadpour, to set it up.  I met Samadpour at Earthbound Farms when he was helping that company prevent further problems after the spinach outbreak of 2006.  He knows what he his doing.

Chipotle needs to follow his advice—in letter and in spirit.

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler advises Chipotle to follow a 12-step program to create an effective culture of food safety from top down and bottom up within the company.  For example, he advises the company’s CEO, Steve Ells to say:

  • It is time to have a culture of food safety added to the “integrity” of the food. I have now learned that bacteria and viruses do not care a whit if my food’s ingredients are organic, sustainable, non-GMO and humanely raised.
  • I am going to hire a vice-president of Food Safety. That person will report directly to me and to the Board of Directors. Like Dave Theno being brought in to address the Jack-in-the-Box crisis of 1993, this person will have the resources and access to decision makers to create a culture of food safety from the top down.
  • The company’s new mantra – “Safe Food with Integrity” – will be completely transparent and shared with all – including our competitors.

Will Ells take his advice?  I hope so.

Dec 26 2015

Weekend Reading: Food Wars

Tim Lang and Michael Heasman. Food Wars:The Global Battle for Mouths, Minds and Markets.  Second Edition.  Taylor & Francis, 2015

I did a blurb for this as well as for its first edition.

What’s so terrific about this book is its basis in theory applied to real-world, cross-cutting food issues involving government, business, and civil society.  The authors emphasize the need for all of us to advocate for healthier and more sustainable food systems, for food peace rather than food wars, and to do so now.

Dec 25 2015

Holiday greetings from Food Politics

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Thanks to this site for the image.

 

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