Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Oct 10 2016

Save the date: Food Film Fest, New York, October 20-24

New York City’s Food Film Fest opens October 20.

The organizers are offering a 20% discount off of all tickets and VIP passes to readers of this blog.

Use the code FOODPOLITICS20 to take advantage of it.

The festival runs from October 20-23 at the AMC 25 in Times Square and is a benefit for the Billion Oyster Project.

All showings feature Taste What You See on the Screen service.  Each night has a different theme:

  • THRS – Best of 10 Years
  • FRI – Louisiana + More
  • SAT – Food Porn
  • SUN – Japan

For details, tickets, etc, click here.

Oct 7 2016

Weekend reading: why we love eating meat

Marta Zaraska.  Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Year Obsession with Meat.  Basic Books, 2016.

If this were just another diatribe against meat-eating, I would not have bothered to read it but this book is much more interesting than that.  The Polish-Canadian journalist Marta Zaraska describes herself as a “sloppy vegetarian,” someone who doesn’t eat much meat but

can’t seem to completely let go of meat either.  There is something in it—in its cultural, historic, and social appeal, or maybe in its chemical composition—that keeps luring me back.

And that’s what this book is about: the cultural, historic, and social (and maybe even the chemical) appeal of eating meat.  Zaraska identifies the reasons—the hooks—of this appeal, linked as they are to genetics, culture, history, and the politics of the meat industry and government.

Although Zaraska clearly thinks eating less meat would be good for health, animal welfare, and the environment, that’s not really the book’s goal.  Instead, it’s to understand why most people don’t want to be vegetarian, let alone vegan, and why even small steps in that direction are worth taking.

What’s impressive about this book is the friendliness, human understanding, and charm of its writing, and the global scope of the interviews on which it draws (full disclosure: it briefly quotes my work).

A couple of scientific points didn’t ring right (beans do have methionine, just not as much as is needed), and I’m not sure that mock meats, meat substitutes, and edible insects will satisfy the “hooks” she describes so well, but these are minor quibbles.

Oct 6 2016

FoodNavigator-USA’s focus on “alternative” proteins has a Special Edition on alternative proteinsmeaning plant proteins that can substitute for the proteins in meat and other animal products.  These are not only useful for vegetarians, but cost less, and are much kinder to the environment.

As interest in them has grown, food companies have taken notice.  FoodNavigator says:

According to Lux Research , ‘alternative proteins’ such as soy, algae, pea, rice and canola, will account for up to a third of the protein market by 2054. But which ones have the most potential, and will new market entrants from duckweed and sacha inchi to cricket powder gain any real traction in the marketplace?

Oct 5 2016

Some thoughts about SNAP: declining enrollments and legal issues

Let’s start with the USDA’s latest figures on SNAP participation.  Enrollment is down by a couple of million which could be good news (people have jobs that pay enough to make them ineligible) or bad news (elibility runs out).

The USDA issued a report in 2001 explaining the reasons.


As the report explains:

The large decrease in the number of food stamp participants is due to both a decrease in the number eligible for food stamps and a decrease in the rate at which eligible persons participate. The decrease in the participation rate played a slightly more important role, explaining 56 percent of the fall in the number of participants. The decrease in the number of eligible persons explains 44 percent of the fall in the number of participants.

Next, let’s look at the article in the New York Times on attempts to improve the quality of foods that can be purchased with SNAP benefits.

There have been manymanymany calls for the food stamp program to promote more healthful diets. Many states have requested waivers allowing for restrictions on what benefits can buy (some items, like alcohol, tobacco and household supplies, are already prohibited). Further restrictions have been rejected by the Department of Agriculture, which administers this welfare program.

The article is based on a study trying incentives for buying fruits and vegetables, restrictions on junk foods, and a combination of both.   The study concluded:

A food benefit program that pairs incentives for purchasing more fruits and vegetables with restrictions on the purchase of less nutritious foods may reduce energy intake and improve the nutritional quality of the diet of participants compared with a program that does not include incentives or restrictions.

the study was accompanied by an editorial calling for a trial of mixed incentives and restrictions.

But, as Daniel Bowman Simon tells me, the law only allows the USDA to do incentives.  By law, it cannot do additional exclusions.  This is because Congress says what retailers can and cannot sell to SNAP recipients:

As written in 7 U.S. Code § 2012, section (k)

“Food” means (1) any food or food product for home consumption except alcoholic beverages, tobacco, hot foods or hot food products ready for immediate consumption….

It looks to me as though excluding soft drinks, for example, would require Congress—not the USDA—to change this definition or let states do so.

Daniel wonders why USDA doesn’t make this clear.  Me too.

I’m told that three states have requested waivers and that the USDA is considering them.  How?  I don’t know, but stay tuned.

NOTE:  Several readers filed corrections on this post and I thank them.  I have revised it accordingly.

Oct 4 2016

Michelle Obama: The Legacy of Let’s Move!

Tomorrow afternoon, First Lady Michelle Obama will be talking about the impact of her Let’s Move! initiative to end childhood obesity in a generation.  She is expected to say something there about the future of the White House kitchen garden.

In the meantime, two reporters wrote accounts of her legacy yesterday (both quote me).


Julia Belluz talks about “how Michelle Obama quietly changed what Americans eat.”

I spoke with a dozen people who worked closely on her campaign, as well as the health and food policy researchers who studied it…I learned that some of the very things that made Michelle Obama sometimes appear soft — the industry collaborations, the emphasis on exercise — were part of the shrewd strategy that made her effective. Through her leadership, the Obama administration seized on a moment when America started paying attention to food, and made fighting obesity a top priority — both symbolically and legislatively.

Obama planted a garden, waged snappy social media campaigns, and worked behind the scenes with researchers, lawmakers, heads of government departments, schools, and food giants to quietly change what Americans eat.

Even observers who previously worried about Obama’s food industry partnerships now called her advocacy “brilliant,” “unprecedented,” and a “godsend.”


Sarah Fritsche writes about “how the Obama administration led an American food movement” and provides an extraordinarily impressive timeline of accomplishments from 2009 on.

These are impressive stats, but as the Obamas enter their final months in the White House, one is left to wonder what exactly will be the lasting impact and legacy of the administration.

In an increasingly divisive political scene, and with the November election up for grabs, it may be too soon to tell. While childhood obesity rates appear to be leveling off, says Nestle, it takes a long time to gather data and track results. And, although the food industry is on alert, if the incoming administration takes less of a watchdog approach, these strides in food policy and awareness run the risk of losing momentum.

“Will it be undone is the big question,” says Nestle. “It depends a lot on who gets elected.”

Sep 30 2016

Weekend reading: “Chickenizing”

Ellen K. Silbergeld. : How Industrial Meat Production Endangers Workers, Animals, and Consumers.  Johns Hopkins Press, 2016.

Ellen Silbergeld, a professor of environmental health sciences, epidemiology, and health policy at Hopkins, has long been a strong advocate for getting toxic substances out of our food supply.  Here, she takes on our system of industrial farm animal production in a plea for better treatment of everyone and everything involved in it.

Big issue #1: the use of antibiotics as growth promoters.  This not only induces bacteria to become resistant to those drugs, but also is unnecessary.

Big issue #2: the failure of HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point—the method for preventing food safety problems) to prevent harmful, antibiotic-resistant bacteria from reaching the public.

Overall, she says:

The inextricable relationship between industrial food animal production and the environment challenges us in two ways.  First, we are all at risk–not just those of us who consume the products of industrially raised animals–and second, decontaminating food products will not contain the public health problems of this industry.  It is time to think about industrial food animal production as an industry in terms of environmental pollution, and it is long overdue to recognize that its pollution footprint, like its production, is industrial in scale (p. 127).

As for the remedy, “agriculture is an industry, and as such it carries certain obligations.”  These include, among others:

  • Industries must abide by laws that prevent monopolization, price fixing, and overconcentration.
  • Industries must bear full liability for unsafe products.
  • Industries must obey the labor laws of the country.

She has plenty more to say about government’s role in all this.

Our role is to insist that industry and government follow and apply laws.  We had best get busy.

Sep 29 2016

The EPA says glyphosate is “not likely” to be carcinogenic

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has done an extensive analysis of research on whether glyphosate (Roundup), the herbicide to which GMO crops are resistant, is carcinogenic.

To put this in context, the amount of glyphosate used in the United States is huge and rising (the scale is hundreds of millions of pounds).

Its report is long and detailed, written in government-speak, and a challenge to understand.  Here is its major conclusion (page 141):

For cancer descriptors, the available data and weight-of-evidence clearly do not support the descriptors “carcinogenic to humans”, “likely to be carcinogenic to humans”, or “inadequate information to assess carcinogenic potential”. For the “suggestive evidence of carcinogenic potential” descriptor, considerations could be looked at in isolation; however, following a thorough integrative weight-of-evidence evaluation of the available data, the database would not support this cancer descriptor. The strongest support is for “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans” at doses relevant to human health risk assessment [my emphasis].

But this review is not over yet.  Still to be done is work on glyphosate’s immediate toxic effects.  The EPA is working with other agencies to:

  • Compare the toxicity of glyphosate vs. formulations, as well as compare formulations vs. formulations
  • Provide publicly available toxicology data on cancer-related endpoints
  • Provide publicly available toxicology data on non-cancer endpoints
  • Investigate the mechanisms of how glyphosate and formulations cause toxic effects

Expect more reports like this to come.

Addition: In 2015, the European Food Safety Agency’s peer review of risk assessments of glyphosate concluded that it was “unlikely” to cause cancer in humans.

Sep 28 2016

What does “healthy” mean (on food labels)?

As it promised in response to a petition from the KIND fruit-and-nut bar company (as I discussed in a previous post), the FDA is now asking for public comment on what “healthy” means on food package labels.

You might think that any food minimally processed from the plant, tree, animal, bird, or fish would qualify.

But “healthy” is a marketing term for processed food products (not foods).  

As Politico Morning Agriculture reminds us, things got complicated when KIND, which makes products from whole nuts, said its bars deserved to be called “healthy.”

In 2015, KIND received a warning letter from FDA arguing the company violated federal rules by using “healthy” on its packages. KIND then petitioned the agency, and, after an exchange about why the current definition is outdated, FDA decided to reverse course. For example, it requires that a food be low-fat to be labeled “healthy,” a standard that a nut-based bar doesn’t meet, while products like fat-free puddings do.

The FDA’s rules now say:

The term “healthy” and related terms (“health,” “healthful,” “healthfully,” “healthfulness,” “healthier,” “healthiest,” “healthily” and “healthiness”) may be used if the food meets the following requirements: 21 CFR 101.65(d)(2)

OK.  I know you can’t read this (you can look for it here). The point is that to qualify as “healthy,” a product has to be low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol; relatively low in sodium; and contain at least 10% of the Daily Value per serving for vitamins A or C, calcium, iron, protein, or fiber (with some exceptions).  There are also rules for levels of nutrients added in fortification.

The FDA wants input on whether all of this makes sense in the light of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines and the KIND petition.

In its inimitable FDA-speak:

While FDA is considering how to redefine the term “healthy” as a nutrient content claim, food manufacturers can continue to use the term “healthy” on foods that meet the current regulatory definition. FDA is also issuing a guidance document stating that FDA does not intend to enforce the regulatory requirements for products that use the term if certain criteria described in the guidance document are met.

If I correctly understand the meaning of “does not intend to enforce the regulatory requirements,” the FDA, while waiting for your comments, will allow manufacturers to call products “healthy” as long as the products:

(1) Predominantly contain mono and polyunsaturated fats regardless of total fat content; or

(2) Contain at least ten percent of the Daily Value (DV) per serving of potassium or vitamin D.

In other words, if your food product is made with a low saturated fat oil and contains potassium or vitamin D, it is by definition “healthy.”

Correction, September 29: An FDA official wrote to say that I didn’t quite get this right.  

Actually, if a food exceeds the low fat requirement currently in our definition, we will not take any enforcement or compliance action as long as the food meets all of the other requirements in the definition, namely that it is low in saturated fat, cannot exceed the specified levels of cholesterol and sodium, and contains at least 10 percent of the daily value for beneficial nutrients.  

Second, we are not saying that foods must contain potassium or vitamin D to be labeled as “healthy.”  We are simply indicating that potassium and vitamin D can be substituted for the beneficial nutrients now listed in the current regulations, in line with the new Nutrition Facts label regulations.

My apologies to the FDA for misunderstanding the notice.

The FDA’s request is good news for KIND bars.

But it smacks of “nutritionism”—the use of these two single nutrients (as well as others on the short list of beneficial nutrients) as indicators of quality in processed food products (and don’t get me started on vitamin D, which is a hormone, not a vitamin, and best obtained by getting outside in the sun once in a while).

Understand: this effort is not about semantics; it is about marketing.

Would you like to weigh in on what you think qualifies a food as “healthy?”  Here’s how:

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