Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Feb 8 2017

Review committee says Dietary Guidelines process needs a fix

You may recall that one result of the fuss over the highly controversial BMJ article attacking the Dietary Guidelines process was appointment of a committee to review that process.

It has just published the first of its reports, which deals only with the first of the four charges to the committee, which were to determine:

1. How the selection process for the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) can be improved to provide more transparency, eliminate bias, and include committee members with a range of viewpoints;
2. How the Nutrition Evidence Library (NEL) is compiled and used, including whether the NEL reviews and other systematic reviews and data analysis are conducted according to rigorous and objective scientific standards;
3. How systematic reviews are conducted on long-standing DGAC recommendations, including whether scientific studies are included from scientists with a range of viewpoints; and
4. How the DGA can better prevent chronic disease, ensure nutritional sufficiency for all Americans, and accommodate a range of individual factors, including age, gender, and metabolic health.

The committee identified values governing the committee selection process:

  • Enhance transparency
  • Promote diversity of expertise and experience
  • Support a deliberative process
  • Manage biases and conflicts of interest
  • Adopt state-of-the-art processes and methods

Its recommendations:

  • Employ an external third party to review the candidate pool for committee members.
  • Make the list of provisional appointees open for public comment.
  • Publicly disclose nominees’ biases and conflicts of interest; develop a plan for managing them; have them reviewed by a federal ethics officer; document all this in the advisory committee’s report.
  • Adopt a system for continuous process improvement in the selection process.

Good recommendations and good luck with them.

I can hardly wait to see this committee’s report on the remaining charges.

In the meantime, it’s about time to start appointing the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, no?

Feb 7 2017

What’s up with SNAP?  An unsystematic roundup

I’ve been collecting miscellaneous items about SNAP, particularly those related to USDA’s promised release of information about the amount of SNAP benefits spent at specific retail stores.  Here’s the first:

The USDA alerted retailers that this information would be forthcoming (information about the legal challenges is here).  A few weeks ago, the USDA said:

You may have been contacted by email, voicemail and/or text because you are a current or former SNAP authorized retailer, who participated between 2005 and the present, and FNS received a request for records that will disclose each of your store’s individual annual SNAP sales amounts.  This information will be released promptly (i.e., approximately 12 calendar days from the email, voicemail, and/or text) to the public as the result of a court order.

But then the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) filed a motion to stop the release.  Why?  ” FMI seeks to preserve the confidentiality of sensitive data about the performance of its members’ stores.”

The court agreed to hear the appeal.

The USDA says it won’t release the information until the court case is resolved.

Why do you suppose the FMI does not want anyone to know how much money they get from SNAP purchases?

SNAP advocates have called for release of this information for years.  The delays are frustrating.

We will know more in a couple of weeks.

Other items

  • The Arkansas House of Representatives passed a bill to limit SNAP purchases to healthy foods.
  • Economists at Brown University have produced a new study demonstrating that SNAP benefits raise household spending on food more than would an equivalent cash benefit.  Brown’s press release explains it.
  • This morning’s Politico Pro Agriculture says that “House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) will call a hearing on SNAP purchases., citing the USDA report that sweetened beverages are the number two product class purchased.
Feb 6 2017

The latest in veterinary medicine: Stoned pets

I occasionally write about the food politics of marijuana-infused edibles.

Something new every day.

Here’s the latest veterinary problem: stoned dogs.

Dogs get into their owners’ edibles.  Yum.

Veterinarians say they see cases of “canine marijuana poisoning” every day, with a big increase since 2010.

Pets get their own medical marijuana, as needed.  But edibles cause emergency room visits.

This is all so complicated.  You also have to make sure your kids don’t get into the drugs prescribed for your pets.

Lots to worry about.  Have a great week.

Feb 3 2017

Weekend reading: Food Sociology

John Germov & Lauren Williams, eds. A Sociology of Food & Nutrition: The Social Appetite, 4th ed.  Oxford University Press, 2017.

I know about this book mainly because my NYU colleague Marie Bragg and I have a chapter in it, “The politics of government dietary advice: the influence of Big Food.”

The book is meant to introduce readers to the field of food sociology through themes.  It divides chapters by various authors into three sections: the social appetite, the food system, and food culture.

Its aim is

to make the sociological study of food relevant to a multidisciplinary readership, particularly those across health, nutrition, and social science disciplines.  Our further aim is to reach a broad readership so that those interested in food, nutrition, and wider issues of food production, distribution, and consumption can discover the relevance of studying the social context of food.

The chapters plunge into the controversies and come with summaries of the main points, sociological reflections, discussion questions, and ideas for further investigation.

The sociological reflection on Marie’s and my chapter says:

Dietary guidelines and food guides, although apparently “science-based,” are created by individuals who serve on government committees and are subject to the same kinds of influences as any other members of society.  Because the food industry is the sector of society with the strongest stake in the outcome of dietary guidance, government agencies and committee members are strongly lobbied by industry.  Controversy over dietary advice derives from the contradiction between the health-promoting goals of public health and the profit-making goals of food companies.

If you are looking for a quick introduction to food sociology, here’s a place to begin.  The editors are Australian academics so there are plenty of Australian examples.

Feb 2 2017

USDA’s latest data on food trends

The USDA has just issued a report on trends in per capita food availability from 1970 to 2014.

Here’s my favorite figure:

The inner ring represents calories from those food groups in 1970. The outer ring includes data from 2014.

The bottom line: calories from all food groups increased, fats and oils and the meat group most of all, dairy and fruits and vegetables the least.

The sugar data are also interesting:

Total sugars (blue) peaked at about 1999 in parallel with high fructose corn syrup (orange).  Table sugar, sucrose, has been flat since the 1980s (green).

Eat your veggies!

Feb 1 2017

Food marketing to kids: Heart & Stroke Canada says no!

Heart & Stroke Canada has a new report on food and beverage marketing to kids: The Kids Are Not Alright.

The press release says:

Our children and youth are bombarded with ads for unhealthy products all day, every day, influencing their food and beverage choices. This is having a devastating effect on their health and setting up conflict at home.

Marketing is big business and it is sophisticated…New research reveals that over 90% of food and beverage product ads viewed by kids and teens online are for unhealthy products, and collectively kids between the ages of two and 11 see 25 million food and beverage ads a year on their top 10 favourite websites.

It is time for this marketing storm to stop.

Its advice:

  • Eat healthy early, eat healthy often
  • Family food fights
  • Not your grandmother’s commercials
  • Industry self-regulation is a failure
  • Legislation means a fair fight for everyone

Lots to work with here.  Glad to have it.

Jan 31 2017

Are we drinking less soda? The industry says yes.

The CDC has just released two reports on consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, one for adults and one for children and adolescents.

For adults ages 20 and over, the CDC says:

  • Half drink at least one sugar-sweetened beverage on any given day.
  • These contribute 145 calories per day or about 6% of total calories.
  • The amount consumed declines with age.

For kids ages 2 to 19, the CDC says:

  • More than 60% consume at least one a day.
  • Sugary drinks provide an average of 143 calories a day or 7% of total calories.
  • Roughly 10% of kids drink 3 or more per day.
  • Kids ages 12 to 19 drink the most.

The Washington Post tracked the trends.  The decline in consumption of sugary drinks has slowed down from the peak in about 2000.

Is this trend real?

These figures are based on self-reported intake (or parents’ reports of their kids’ intake) in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).

I much prefer industry data on sales, which don’t have to deal with the messy business of self-reports.

Fortune Magazine, for example, says soda sales have declined for the last 11 years.

The downward trend is good for public health.  May it continue!

Jan 30 2017

Tomato flavor! Scientists nail it.

I am a long-time reader of Science Magazine and every now and then come across an article I just love.

My latest favorite is a study titled “A chemical genetic roadmap to improved tomato flavor.”

As any grower of backyard (or, in my case, terrace) tomatoes can tell you, the most delicious tomatoes wonderfully balance sweetness, acidity, and flavor.

As the authors understate in their Abstract, “Modern commercial tomato varieties are substantially less flavorful than heirloom varieties.”

To correct this problem, they identified flavor-associated chemicals in 398 modern, heirloom, and wild tomato varieties.  These chemicals are present in minute (picomolar, nanomolar) amounts and hard to identify.

But any tomato grower could have told them what they found:

Modern commercial varieties contain significantly lower amounts of many of these important flavor chemicals than older varieties.

The investigators also identified the genes responsible for sugars, acids, and volatiles.

They found:

A total of 13 flavor-associated volatiles were significantly reduced in modern varieties relative to heirloom varieties. Volatile chemicals define the unique flavor of a tomato and are essential for consumer liking. Thus, poor flavor of modern varieties can largely be attributed to the dilution of many flavor volatiles that positively influence liking. This dilution of flavor chemicals should be correctable by reintroducing superior alleles of genes controlling their synthesis.

They did a couple of other things

Analysis of [genetic] loci impacting sugar content provides a cautionary tale regarding crop domestication and improvement. We identified two loci …that have significant associations with glucose and fructose content on chromosomes 9 and 11 …Both of these loci are located within regions previously identified as being within both domestication and improvement sweeps, indicating early and continued selection for larger fruit…Taken together, the negative correlation between fruit weight and sugar content in S. lycopersicum is likely associated with the loss of the high-sugar alleles during domestication and improvement as ever-larger fruits were selected..

Translation: Tomatoes bred to be bigger have less sugar.  Smaller tomatoes are sweeter .

Grow cherry tomatoes (Sun Golds—yum).

Here’s one of the illustrations, in this case showing the variation in genes for certain flavor chemicals in various kinds of tomatoes.



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