Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Nov 4 2014

Souvenirs from the Dietitians’ annual meeting

The annual meeting of the Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics, formerly the American Dietetic Association, always provides an incredible exhibit of products from food companies—the latest in dietetic junk food and food company nutritional spin.

Knowing how much I enjoy these things, and that I am working on a book about food advocates and the soft drink industry (Oxford University Press, September 2015), several of my colleagues brought back souvenirs.

Functional foods (with “healthy” ingredients above and beyond what occurs naturally)

  • For Keurig brewing machines, a container of Fibersol Cran-Raspberry flavored instant tea mix, with soluble fiber added (is tea really a significant source of soluble fiber?).
  • MealEnders.com’s chocolate mint signaling lozenges, “an antidote to overeating.”  If you feel that you are overeating, suck on one: “take control, curb appetite, get results” (if only).
  • A 6-ounce can of Kao Nutrition’s black coffee with 270 mg polyphenol (coffee chlorogenic acid), naturally present because the coffee was not brewed at high temperature (well, coffee is a plant extract, after all).

Swag

  • A pen with a pull-out section that gives the potassium content of commonly consumed foods (these come in other versions too, apparently).

Soda company propaganda

  • A brochure from PepsiCo’s Nutrition Team, HydrateNow.  Gatorade, it points out, is 93% water (and the other 7%, pray tell?.
  • A pamphlet from PepsiCo on Calorie Balance: “many things influence your everyday nutrition.  For maintaining a healthy weight, the most important factors are how many calories you eat and the total calories you use up”  (but if those calories happen to be empty?).
  • A PepsiCo brochure on Diet Beverages for People with Diabetes (but it still is advertising Pepsi).
  • A list of PepsiCo drinks that meet the USDA’s nutrition standards for schools (a long list, alas).
  • A scientific paper, “What is causing the worldwide rise in body weight,” sponsored by Coca-Cola (Coke’s answer: lack of physical activity, of course.)
  • A poster from the American College of Cardiology, “Striking an energy balance,” sponsored in part by Coca-Cola.   It says: “Drink water or no- or low-calorie beverages” (it does not say you should Drink less soda”).
  • A pamphlet on National School Beverage Guidelines sponsored by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Dr Pepper Snapple, and the American Beverage Association:  “The beverage industry committed to bold change and then made it happen.  Working with our school partners, we transformed the beverages available to students” (yes, but it doesn’t explain that public pressure forced them to do this).
  • A Coca-Cola pamphlet, Balancing Act.  This gives five easy ways to burn 100 calories: playing soccer 13 minutes, briskly walking 15 minutes, climbing stairs 10 minutes, jumping rope 9 minutes, gardening 19 minutes (based on a 150 lb person).  Funny, it doesn’t mention that one 12-ounce Coke is 140 calories.
  • A FamilyDoctor.org pamphlet, Healthy Eating for Kids, from the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Dietetic Association, distributed with a grant from Coca-Cola.  It lists healthy eating habits—family meals, be active, limit screen time, stay positive, etc (but—surprise—does not suggest that your kid might be healthier not drinking sugar-sweetened beverages).

Treasures, all.  I really love this stuff.  Thanks.

Nov 3 2014

Farewell to the “Mayor of Food,” Boston’s Thomas Menino

Corby Kummer’s moving tribute in the Atlantic to the former Mayor of Boston, Thomas Menino explains that Minino deserved the title “Mayor of Food” because he

loved food almost as much as he loved Bostonians. He loved eating it, talking about it, and arguing about it…Menino cared about food for exactly the reasons today’s food-movement activists do, and long before it was fashionable to embrace what food can and should mean: access to fresh produce for everyone of every income level; gardens as ways to unite and repair communities; and, most importantly, fresh food as a route to better health. The mayor told everyone, including his biographer, longtimeAtlantic senior editor Jack Beatty, that he wanted to be remembered as “the public-health mayor.”

In November, 2013 I attended the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association in Boston, at which Mayor Menino gave a speech.

I was amazed to hear him say that the single biggest political battle of his five terms as mayor was getting sodas out of the public schools.

He was proud that Boston students are now drinking less soda.

Mayors willing to fight for public health are rare.  He was indeed the public health mayor and is badly missed.

Oct 31 2014

Happy Halloween, maybe

The Union of Concerned Sciences has produced this infographic in celebration of Halloween.

Screenshot 2014-10-28 14.57.09

It’s not Halloween parents should be worrying about.  It’s every day!

The UCS graphic is based on data from 2010-2011.  The 2011-2012 data are just in and show some improvement.  Teenage boys merely consume an average of 152 grams of sugars a day, down a bit from a year ago.

Men, overall, consume 135 grams on average, and women consume 106 grams.  The average is 120 grams.

This works out to about 20% of total calories, at least twice the amount recommended.

Boo!

Oct 29 2014

The Environmental Working Group’s Scorecard on Processed Foods: A Revelation

On Monday this week, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) announced that it was releasing Food Scores: Rate Your Plate.

This is an astonishing interactive food database that rates 80,000 (!) supermarket foods on their nutritional value, ingredients as well as contaminants, and level of processing.

The database awards scores ranging from 1 (terrific) to 10 (really bad).

Feeling unimaginative this week, I typed in “Apples” and found 13 products, scored at from 1 to 6 points.  You can click on the product to get EWG’s breakdown of how and why each product is scored.

Some of the EWG findings are amazing and, in some cases, alarming:

  • 58% of the products scored contain added sugars.
  • 46% of the products contained “natural” or artificial flavors.

The average food in its database has:

  • 14 ingredients;
  • a 58 percent chance of containing added sugar (including a 22 percent chance of added corn syrup) and is 13 percent sugar by weight;
  • a 46 percent chance of containing artificial or natural “flavor” and a 14 percent chance of artificial coloring;
  • a serving size of 80 grams packing 121 calories;
  • 446 milligrams of salt per 100 grams. For some foods, that amounts to 30 percent of the daily salt intake recommended by the Institute of Medicine, and that’s in a single serving.

 Play around with the site.  You will learn plenty about what’s on those shelves.  EWG has performed a great public service in making this information accessible.

Here are the relevant documents:

And just for fun, here’s the USDA’s Food and Nutrient Database for Dietary Studies 2011-2012 with its searchable version of foods, portions, and nutrients.

Oct 27 2014

Yes, food is worth serious study.

Yesterday, the New York Times Magazine carried this advertisement:

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It’s from the University of California’s new Global Food Initiative: “Helping the world feed itself sufficiently and nutritionally—that’s the power of public.”

I’m proud to be a graduate of UC Berkeley, a public university that provided me with an education—from undergraduate through doctoral—that was, at the time, at a cost low enough so I could take advantage of it.

If Food Studies had existed when I was a student there, I would have enrolled in it immediately.  Instead, I had to wait until we could invent it at NYU in 1996.

But how wonderful that the UC system is using the Global Food Initiative to advertise the power of a public education.

And how wonderful that food education is respectable enough to be advertised in the New York Times.

Oct 24 2014

Weekend reading: Congressman Tim Ryan’s Real Food Revolution

Congressman Tim Ryan.  The Real Food Revolution: Healthy Eating, Green Groceries, and the Return of the Family Farm.  Hay House, 2014.

Congressman Tim Ryan (Dem-Ohio) describes himself on his Website as

a relentless advocate for working families in Ohio’s 13th District. He was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2002 and was sworn in on January 7, 2003. Successfully reelected five times, he is now serving in his sixth term…He is a champion of efforts to make college more affordable, revitalize America’s cities and improve the health and well-being of American families and children.

I did a blurb for his latest book and meant every word:

It’s wonderful that Congressman Tim Ryan cares about the way food affects the health of Americans.  I just wish more members of Congress cared about these issues too.

Oct 22 2014

Food Policy Action rates Congress on food issues

Food Policy Action announced the release of its second annual National Food Policy Scorecard last week, ranking members of the House and Senate on their votes on key food-related issues.

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Food Policy Action is unique among food advocacy organizations in its explicit use of the political process.  Its goal is to

promote policies that support healthy diets, reduce hunger at home and abroad, improve food access and affordability, uphold the rights and dignity of food and farm workers, increase transparency, improve public health, reduce the risk of food-borne illness, support local and regional food systems, protect and maintain sustainable fisheries, treat farm animals humanely and reduce the environmental impact of farming and food production.

How?  By holding legislators accountable for their foods on food and farming issues.  Hence: The Food Policy Scorecard.

I discussed the previous scorecard in December 2013.

On this round, Food Policy Action awarded scores of 100 to 71 members of Congress – 54 in the House of Representatives, 17 in the Senate.

It awarded scores of zero to 35 members.

The scores are given for votes on bills related to key food issues:

  • Hunger
  • Food aid
  • Food labeling
  • Farm subsidies
  • Sustainable farming

The website makes it easy to track your legislators’s votes.

I looked at Senators from New York.

  • Kirsten Gillbrand scores 85 (she lost points by voting against reducing federal insurance subsidies for rich farmers and against protecting states’ rights to require GMO labels)
  • Charles Schumer scores 100

This is a valuable tool for anyone who cares how politics works in America.  Let’s hope it encourages citizens to hold their representatives accountable and legislators to think twice before voting against consumer-friendly food and farming bills.

 

Oct 20 2014

Food professionals’ relationships with food companies: a Q and A

In the past few weeks, I’ve been sent several questions asking my opinion of food professionals’ relationships with food companies.   I thought I would deal with them at one time (all are edited for succinctness and clarity):

Q.  I am a food science student looking into career options in the food industry. I love food science and truly believe that processing food is a good idea that can positively impact the planet and its people.  I want to do something worthwhile,, but I still need to eat.  Can’t the food industry be changed from the inside? Can’t you advise good companies, people, or places where I could start my search? 

A.  I have met social entrepreneurs who strongly believe that businesses can be ethical, do good, and still make heaps of money.  Maybe so.  If you are going to try that route, I think it essential that the company be family or cooperatively owned, and not publicly traded.  You might take a look at food companies incorporated as Benefit Corporations. These are now authorized in about half the states to consider the interests of all stakeholders, not just shareholders, when making decisions.  They are different from B corporations certifying companies that meet certain sustainability criteria.

Many companies work hard to reduce their environmental impact.  But the real question is what they are doing about health impact.  Are they going overboard on health claims?  Are they marketing to children?  These are questions I’d want to ask.  In your shoes, I’d start by looking at companies making products that you like, feel good about, and would be proud to be associated with.   And then take a closer look at how the companies operate.   Working for food companies is always a good learning experience, but if you really want to change the world, you might be better off with a nonprofit agency.

Q.  I’m a graduate student in nutrition and I would like to know what recommendations you may have for students to navigate conflicts of interest with food companies when beginning a career.  I intend to pursue an academic career but am concerned that my credibility as a scientist could be compromised by my participation in industry-funded publications and research. 

A.  It’s great that you are asking such questions. From the standpoint of ethics, that’s an important first step.  You should most definitely publish your research, no matter how it is funded.  Be sure to disclose potential sources of funding bias and conflicts of interest.  While you are doing your research, you can take special care to control for potential biases—conscious and unconscious—in your study design, conduct, and interpretation to ensure that they are not influenced by the funder.  In searching for jobs, you might consider those in academia, government, and NGOs that are less likely to require you to compromise principles.  Finding such jobs may not be easy, but you will be OK if you are always ethically transparent and as straightforward about biases as it is possible to be.

Q.  Do you believe that relationships between the food industry and nutrition professional organizations like the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) and the Association for Nutritional Science (ASN) are problematic? Why?

A.  Sponsorship by food product makers puts nutrition professionals in conflict of interest.   Nutritionists ought to be advising clients and the public about what to eat to stay healthy and prevent chronic disease.  This necessarily means promoting consumption of some foods but discouraging consumption of others.  Nutritionists cannot speak truth to clients and protect corporate sponsorship at the same time.  If nothing else, food industry sponsorship gives the appearance of conflict of interest and makes AND and ASN appear as arms of food company marketers.  But it also affects—or appears to affect–AND ’s and ASN’s positions on key issues in nutrition and health.  Overall, financial relationships between these organizations and their food industry sponsors undermines the credibility of their positions on food issues.

Q.  What sort of changes do you think the Academy needs to make in order to make food industry relationships more beneficial to its members and the public overall?

A.  Nutrition and food professional organizations need to establish a firewall between corporate sponsorship and content or opinion.  This requires setting up rigorous guidelines for what food companies can and cannot expect from their donations.  They should not, for example, be permitted to sponsor content sessions at meetings, not least because opinions expressed at sponsored sessions rarely appear objective.  The organizations should have complete control over how and where corporate donations and company logos are used.

Q.  How can relationships between health professionals and the food industry be beneficial for public health overall?

A.  The role of health professionals is to give the best advice possible about diet and health.  The role of food companies is to provide profits to shareholders.  These goals are not the same and are only rarely compatible.  In my experience, people who want to work for food companies to change corporate culture from within do so from good motives, but soon discover that corporate imperatives take precedence over health goals. If health professional organizations want their advice to be taken seriously, they must establish and adhere to rules and guidelines designed expressly to protect their integrity.

Q.  I read your post on the revolving door,  It seems to me that your underlying premise is the notion that any company that makes food is indicted as part of the big evil food conspiracy. Surely, you can’t really believe that. 

A.  Of course I don’t. But food companies are not social service agencies.   Their job—their legal responsibility—is to continuously expand sales and distribute ever-increasing profits to shareholders.   If they can do this and promote health at the same time, more power to them.  But people would be healthier eating food, not food products.  In our present system, products are far more profitable and the focus on them is rarely works in the interest of public health.

Food and nutrition professionals need to make a living.  Unfortunately, jobs in industry pay better–and sometimes a lot better–than jobs in government or NGOs.  That’s the real dilemma that underlies all of these questions.

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