Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Mar 27 2014

Is Walmart the biggest SNAP beneficiary?

Here’s are some things I’d really like to know:

  • How much food assistance money gets spent at Walmart?
  • How many Walmart “associates” get SNAP benefits?

The USDA does not collect data on how SNAP recipients spend their benefits but I’ve been interested in these questions since reading Michele Simon’s report, “Follow the Money: Are Corporations Profiting from Hungry Americans?”

Our research found that at least three powerful industry sectors benefit from SNAP:

1) major food manufacturers such as Coca-Cola, Kraft, and Mars;

2) leading food retailers such as Walmart and Kroger; and

3) large banks, such as J.P. Morgan Chase, which contract with states to help administer SNAP benefits.

Now the Los Angeles Times is asking the same questions.  It points out that Walmart’s annual filing with the Security and Exchange Commission, which is required to list potential risks to profits, includes this mention among many others:

changes in the amount of payments made under the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Plan and other public assistance plans, (and) changes in the eligibility requirements of public assistance plans.

Translation: if Congress cuts SNAP and makes it harder for poor people to get benefits, Walmart loses money.  Three reasons:

  • People on food assistance spend a lot of their benefits in Walmart.
  • Walmart employees qualify for food assistance benefits.
  • Its business model will lose its taxpayer-supported subsidies.

The L.A. Times refers to other stories on the same topic

Maybe Congress would be kinder to SNAP benefits if it understood that big corporations benefit so much from them.

Walmart, by the way, sold $466 billion worth of goods in 2013, of which roughly half comes from groceries.

Mar 25 2014

Food companies want to hang onto trans fats

Good try FDA.

ProPolitico Morning Agriculture has a story today that surprises me.  Food companies are opposing the FDA’s proposal to revoke the GRAS status of trans fats (see previous post).

Why am I surprised?  I thought we were done with this one.  I didn’t think it was all that difficult to find substitutes for partially hydrogenated oils.  When trans fats went on food labels, most companies didn’t take long to go trans-fat free.

Now food companies are complaining that the FDA has gone too far, needs to allow companies to keep small amounts in foods, and doesn’t really have the authority to revoke GRAS status.

Among the 1600 comments received by the FDA are these:

Writing in favor of the revocation are:

As a reminder of what this is about, here’s a taste of what I said about trans fats in What to Eat:

Trans fats are not normal.   Hydrogenation causes some of the hydrogens in unsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids to flip abnormally from the same side of the carbon chain (in Latin, “cis”) to the opposite side (“trans”).   The normal cis unsaturated fatty acids are flexible, which is why they are liquid; they bend and flow around each other.   But the change to trans causes unsaturated fatty acids to stiffen.  They behave a lot like saturated fatty acids in the body, where they can raise cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease.

Mind you, this is not new information.   My trans fat file has papers on heart disease risk dating back to the mid-1970s.   In 1975, for example, British scientists suggested that one reason poor people in England had higher rates of heart disease was that they so often ate fish-and-chips fried in partially hydrogenated oils.   Since then, researchers have consistently found trans fats to be just as bad–or worse–than saturated fats from the standpoint of heart disease risk.

The recent meta-analysis says much the same thing.

Let’s get rid of trans fats once and for all and be done with them.  I hope the FDA holds firm on this one.

Mar 24 2014

Some musings on non-GMO Cheerios to start the week

I read about General Mills’s introduction of non-GMO Cheerios back in January, but didn’t get around to looking for them until this weekend.

I was expecting to see something like this (thanks Fooducate):

Instead, the information is tucked into a side panel. 

New PictureNew-non-GMO-Label-Original-CheeriosWMSmThis may explain why General Mills is complaining that the non-GMO is not doing a thing to boost sales of Cheerios.  If anything, sales are “down somewhat.”

And here’s a good one: According to one professor, the non-GMO Grape Nuts and Cheerios are going to be less nutritious than the GMO versions.

Post Foods’ new non-GMO Grape Nuts (click here ) no longer include Vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin B12 or vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)*, while the new non-GMO Original Cheerios no longer have Riboflavin on the ingredients list (the old version has 25% of the daily value in a 28 g serving while the new version has 2% of the DV).

How come?  It’s hard to find non-GMO vitamins (who knew?).  Vitamins, it seems are often produced from genetically engineered microorganisms, or from microbes growing in fermentation tanks that are fed a nutrient mix that contains ingredients from GM sugar beets or corn.

Should we be worried about nutritional deprivation among Cheerios eaters?

Cheerios are essentially a vitamin pill wrapped in rapidly absorbable starch.

The ingredients: whole grain oats, corn starch, sugar, salt, tripotassium phosphate, wheat starch.

Everything else is added vitamins.

Personally, I prefer my cereals with no added vitamins (they taste bad).  And I doubt they make much difference to health.

Whether non-GMO will have a noticeable effect on sales of Cheerios remains to be seen.

If General Mills doesn’t advertise the change, it can’t expect non-GMO to boost sales.

Curious, no?

 

Mar 21 2014

Yesterday, food studies under attack. Today, it’s the dietary guidelines

The food movement must be succeeding beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.

Now it’s the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s (DGAC’s) turn to come under attack.

The Guidelines:  These are principles of healthful diets aimed at policymakers  (not the general public).

The history:  They have been published every five years since 1980, so we are now in round #8 scheduled for publication in 2015.

The process: Two federal departments, USDA and Health and Human Services, appoint an advisory committee of nutrition scientists.  The committee reviews the science and prepares a report.  Since 2005, the agencies have written the guidelines, not the committee.     

Disclosure: I was a member of the advisory committee for the 1995 Guidelines.

The fireworks: According to ProPolitico Morning Agriculture (behind a pay wall, alas), the committee is attracting unusual attention from the right:

  • The Washington Examiner, writes that “committee members…are hijacking the guidelines to advance a range of ideological agendas having nothing to do with healthy eating.”
  • The Daily Caller asks “Are Progressives Inserting Their Agenda Into Your Diet?” Tuesday.
  • The Washington Free Beacon wants you to “Meet the Radicals Creating the New Federal Dietary Guidelines.”

A clue to what is upsetting these folks comes from the committee’s request for public comments.  It is asking for comments that address:

  • Elements of a whole food system
  • Information on specific food groups or commodities
  • Sustainability metrics that have been implemented or are in development

These, apparently, are fighting words.

Yesterday, Fox News asked why “ivory tower types” were in charge of determining food choices for Americans.

Its story particularly singled out Miriam Nelson, a professor at Tufts (not New York University—could Fox be confusing her with me?):

New York University professor Miriam Nelson, said at the committee’s last meeting, “We need to make sure that the guidelines and the policies are promoting those foods … [that] are sustainably grown and have the littlest impact on the environment.”

…The professors of the DGAC may think their job is save the planet by promoting sustainable agriculture and plant-based diets, but if they don’t understand the real-world implications of their work, they’ll be oblivious to the havoc they’ll wreak on the millions of Americans whose diets hinge on their guidelines.

By this time, the Dietary Guidelines are hardly of interest to anyone but policy wonks (really, they never change all that much).  Cheers to the current committee for injecting some life into them.

The 2015 Guidelines will be fun to watch.

Mar 20 2014

Is Food Studies the end of civilization? Really?

Before my talk at the University of North Carolina Charlotte this week, I was introduced by its Chancellor who read from an article written by Mary Grabar who works for a local conservative think tank, the Pope Center.

“Food studies” has become an academic growth area, adding to the deterioration of the humanities, and to the advancement of leftist ideologies. No doubt our universities will be producing many more “scholars” investigating all aspects of food: food and race, food and capitalism, food and gender, etc.  But we will have fewer graduates familiar with literary and philosophical masterpieces.  Fewer will be able to produce good writing—or real food.

The audience was amused, as was I, and I think my talk was a sufficient rebuttal on its own.

But I do want to comment on her remarks directly.

Food Studies, she argues, has “little to do with legitimate intellectual endeavors like agriculture or nutrition science. Instead, food becomes another lens through which to examine oppression, sustainability, and multiculturalism.”

It most certainly does all of that, and is perfect for those purposes.

What could be possibly be more democratic than food?

Everyone eats.

Food studies, which tends to promote local, organic, seasonal, sustainable and healthful food, inherently questions the industrial food system.  It also promotes food equity, food justice, and food sovereignty.  No wonder it worries conservatives.

I, for example, teach courses in food policy, politics, and advocacy, in which I teach students how to analyze food systems and advocate for those that promote the health of people and the planet.

When my academic department at NYU inaugurated our undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral programs in food studies in 1996—18  years ago!—we could hardly have predicted how quickly the field would spread to other universities or how brilliant and exciting so much of its scholarship would turn out to be.

I’m proud of my own contributions to the field and thrilled that Food Studies has gotten to the point where conservative critics worry that it might be effective.

In one sense, Ms. Grabar’s article helps the field.  It contains links to websites for several Food Studies programs, ours among them.

For other such links and additional resources, go to the website of the Association for the Study of Food and Society.

This is a wonderful field of study.  Come join us!

Mar 19 2014

Is saturated fat a problem? Food for debate.

What is a poor eater to do?

The latest meta-analysis of the effects of saturated fat on heart disease finds—none.

This study, reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine (doi: 10.7326/M13-1788), examined the results of

  • 32 observational studies involving 530 525 participants
  • 17 observational studies involving 25 721 participants
  • 27 randomized controlled trials involving 103 052 participants

The result?

Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats. 

This meta-analysis follows an editorial in a Mayo Clinic publication (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.mayocp.2013.11.006) by authors who argue that saturated fat is not the problem.  Carbohydrates (e.g., sugars) are the problem.  The authors argue:

  • Effects of saturated fat on blood cholesterol are weak and transient.
  • Meta-analyses have found a lack of an association between heart disease mortality and saturated fat intake.
  • Stroke studies find that patients with stroke had eaten less saturated fat.
  • Long-term studies find that people with the highest dairy consumption have the lowest mortality risk, and also low diabetes and heart disease.
  • Dietary trials find trivial or no benefit at all from decreasing saturated fat and/or increasing intake of polyunsaturated fat.

On this basis, they say that advice to reduce intake of saturated fat is irrational.

The New York Times asked several experts for comment on the meta-analysis, among them Dr. Frank Hu of Harvard:

The single macronutrient approach is outdated…I think future dietary guidelines will put more and more emphasis on real food rather than giving an absolute upper limit or cutoff point for certain macronutrients…people should try to eat foods that are typical of the Mediterranean diet, like nuts, fish, avocado, high-fiber grains and olive oil.

Dr. Hu was referring to a large clinical trial (not included in the meta-analysis), which concluded that a diet with more nuts and extra virgin olive oil reduced heart attacks and strokes when compared with a lower fat diet with more starches.

The Times story contained a reminder that the American Heart Association issued dietary guidelines last year to “restrict saturated fat to as little as 5 percent of their daily calories, or roughly two tablespoons of butter or two ounces of Cheddar cheese for the typical person eating about 2,000 calories a day.”

How to make sense of this?

I vote with Frank Hu that dietary advice should focus on food, not nutrients.

Focusing on one or another nutrient—fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, or sugar—takes foods out of their caloric as well as dietary context.

My guess: If you balance food intake with physical activity and are not overeating, the specific proportion of fat, carbohydrate, and protein won’t matter nearly as much.

While the arguments about fat v. sugar go on and on:  Eat your veggies, vary the foods you eat, don’t gorge, and enjoy what you eat.

Mar 18 2014

And on the GMO labeling front…

The food industry is so worried about the prospect of GMO labeling that companies have banded together to try an end run.  According to Politico

The coalition is calling for legislation that would require mandatory premarket approval of GMO food ingredients by FDA and grant authority to the agency to label products that raise safety concerns, set up a voluntary program for food companies to label foods that are GMO free, include GMO ingredients in a definition of “natural” foods and preempt state labeling laws.

Voluntary, of course, means that companies can voluntarily not label and maintain the status quo.

Considering GMO foods as “natural” is unlikely to go over well with anyone who already thinks that calling high fructose corn syrup “natural” is a stretch.

As for preempting state labeling laws, here’s what the industry is up against—a plethora of proposals—here summarized by  Politico Morning Agriculture:

- Rhode Island: H 7042, would require food and seed that contains more than .09 percent GMO ingredients to be labeled. The bill further defines “natural” to mean GMO-free.  

- Missouri: SB533 seeks to require the labeling of all genetically modified meat and fish raised and sold in the state.

- Vermont:  MA has already reported on the introduction last week in Vermont’s Senate of H. 112, a House-passed bill that would require GMO food labeling.  State Sen. Eldred French (D) has introduced S. 289, which would make manufacturers and growers of GMO crops liable for trespassing and damages should their seed drift into other fields:

- Washington: While voters in the Evergreen State knocked down a GMO labeling ballot initiative last fall, lawmakers are pushing for a narrower labeling effort that focuses on specifically protecting the state’s salmon fisheries in the event that FDA approves the genetically engineered AquaAdvantage Salmon. State Rep. Cary Condotta (R) has introduced HB 2143, which would require the labeling of GMO salmon:

- Alaska: State Rep. Geran Tarr (D) has introduced HB 215, which would require the labeling of foods with GMO ingredients with exceptions for animal feed, alcohol and foods processed with GE enzymes. The bill also would create an exemption from labeling forgenetically modified fish or genetically modified fish products”:

- Florida: SB 558 would require that by Jan. 1, 2016, GMO food items for sale in the state be labeled in text printed underneath the product’s ingredient list. The bill contains exceptions for animal feed, alcohol and processed food that a GMO ingredient does not account for “more than one-half of 1 percent of the total weight.”

- West Virginia: Mountain State lawmakers are set to consider three GMO bills — a labeling measure, a seed and crop disclosure initiative, and a liability measure for contamination crops at another agricultural operation.

- 2013 labeling bill carryovers: A labeling bill in Hawaii’s House of Representatives, HB 174, which was introduced last January, could see some action this year as efforts by many of the islands each tackle the cultivation of GMOs could spur action by the state house on the issue. Also, a labeling bill in Illinois, SB 1666, has picked up 12 cosponsors, many of them signing on just this fall.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) seems to think that GMO labeling initiatives are winning.  It is now calling for “open dialogue.”  

And if the mandatory ballot labeling activity in more than 30 states in 2013 is any indication, the anti-GMO message is getting through. There are three components common to all these legislative efforts and ballot initiatives: they are framed as consumers’ “right to know;” they exempted alcohol, dairy, meat and restaurant food; and they would allow lawsuits based on asserted non-compliance.

I still don’t get it.  What are the food and biotechnology industries so afraid of?

They think GMOs solve major world food problems.  If so, what’s to hide? 

Mar 17 2014

The battles over school food: cupcakes again.

In devising science-based nutrition standards for school meals, USDA’s goal was to promote healthier diets.

You might think everyone would rally around proposals to help America’s kids grow up healthier, but no.  Special interests are at stake.

Jerry Hagstrom writes that “First Lady has food industry in a frenzy.”

Over the decades the food industry, school food service directors, farmers, and the rest of agribusiness have won many battles with nutritionists and the medical profession over government policies on what Americans should eat.

Interesting lineup of allies, no?

Last week, Congress held a hearing on all the complaints it’s getting about school meals.

Politico Morning Agriculture reports that the issue is cupcakes—again.

THE CUPCAKES ARE SAFE: The Department of Agriculture does not intend its proposed rules on the marketing or sale of junk foods in schools to prohibit class treats, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said during a hearing held by the House appropriations agriculture subcommittee Friday.

“We are not going to stop mom or dad from bringing in cupcakes,” Vilsack said.

The arguments over school food are not about kids’ health.

They are about who makes the most money from taxpayer subsidies of school meals.

School food service directors are on the wrong side of this one, alas.

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