Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Nov 18 2015

Food Policy Action releases 2015 Congressional scorecard

I went yesterday to the press conference for the release of the Food Policy Action 2015 Scorecard.










This was outdoors at Campos Community Garden in Manhattan’s East Village, attended by classes of schoolkids.  The speakers:

Food Policy Action aims to improve national discussions of food policy issues by informing the public about how elected officials vote on these issues.  Hence: the Scorecard.

As I discussed last year, points are awarded for votes on bills introduced or co-sponsored that deal with:

  • Domestic and international hunger
  • Food safety
  • Food access
  • Farm subsidies
  • Animal welfare
  • Food and farm labor
  • Nutrition
  • Food additives
  • Food transparency
  • Local and regional food production
  • The environmental effects of food production

In the Senate, for example, there were just 5 bills to be voted on an 10 that were co-sponsored (but not voted on).  In the House, there were votes on 10 bills and 12 that were co-sponsored (no vote).  This leaves lots of room for improvement, even among the best.

The speakers explained to the kids that the Scorecard gave grades to members of Congress, just like they get, and took them through a discussion of thumbs up and thumbs down appraisals of legislators’ votes on key food issues.  Congress is doing a little better this year than last, they said, but still has a long way to go.

Those of us in New York are lucky.  Both of our Senators, Kirsten Gillbrand and Charles Schumer scored 100.

Here are my reports on the Scorecards from 2013 and 2014.  The Scorecard is a great first step in holding legislators accountable.

Nov 17 2015

Cheerios for Protein?

I laughed when I first saw the Cheerios box advertising Protein.  Protein is hardly an issue in U.S. diets—most Americans consume twice what they need—so this is clearly a marketing ploy.

Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), however, was less amused.  Its scientists did the math and compared the protein to the amount in regular Cheerios.  They also looked at serving sizes.

  • Cheerios Protein: Protein 7 grams, Serving Size 55 grams
  • Cheerios regular: Protein 3 grams, Serving Size 28 grams

Hmm.  Not much difference, is there?

CSPI filed a formal complaint.

General Mills falsely and misleadingly markets Cheerios Protein to children and adults as a high protein, healthful alternative to Cheerios. In fact, Cheerios Protein has only a smidgen more protein per serving than Cheerios, or 4 grams, which is only 5% of the average American daily protein intake. Most of that 4 grams is attributable to differences in serving sizes: Cheerios Protein has a bigger, 55 gram serving size, whereas Cheerios uses a 27 gram serving size. Two hundred calories’ worth of Cheerios Protein has a mere 7/10th of a gram more of protein than 200 calories’ worth of Cheerios.

Even worse, they looked at sugars.

  • Cheerios Protein: 17 grams sugars
  • Cheerios regular: 1 gram

As CSPI puts it:

Rather than protein, the principal ingredient that distinguishes Cheerios Protein from Cheerios is sugar. Cheerios Protein has 17 times as much sugar per serving, as Cheerios, which General Mills does not prominently disclose. 8. General Mills charges a price premium for Cheerios Protein.


Buzzfeed has a good discussion of this.

Caveat emptor (I seem to be saying this a lot lately).

Nov 16 2015

FDA is taking comments on “natural”

I’m always indebted to Food-Navigator-USA for spot-on commentary on current food politics.  Here, for example, is Elaine Watson on the FDA’s amazing decision to take comments on the meaning of “natural” on food labels.

Having studiously avoided this food labeling minefield for years, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has surprised many in the trade by seeking comments on the definition of a word that has launched a thousand class action lawsuits (well almost): ‘natural’.

Her piece is worth reading for its excellent reporting and interviews with industry stakeholders.

About “natural,” the FDA has said:

From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.

Now petitions have induced the FDA to seek comments, the first step in its standard rulemaking processes.

Specifically, the FDA asks for information and public comment on questions such as:

—Whether it is appropriate to define the term “natural,”

—If so, how the agency should define “natural,” and

—How the agency should determine appropriate use of the term on food labels.

“Appropriate” in this context translates as:  Should high fructose corn syrup be considered “natural?” (The FDA said yes in 2008).   How about GMOs? (the FDA’s position on GMOs is that they are not materially different from any other kind of food).

To file comments on these and other questions,

  • For electronic submissions, go to and search for docket number FDA-2014-N-1207.
  • For submissions by mail, use the following address. Be sure to include docket number FDA-2014-N-1207 on each page of your written comments.  Division of Dockets Management, HFA-305, Food and Drug Administration, 5630 Fishers Lane, Room 1061, Rockville, MD 20852
Nov 13 2015

Weekend Reading: Philosophy Comes to Dinner

Terence Cuneo, Andrew Chignell, Matthew C. Halteman, editors. Philosophy Comes to Dinner: Arguments over the Ethics of Eating.  Routledge, 2015.

I was happy to do a blurb for this book, having met Andrew Chignell and participated in an online course he ran at Cornell based on the book.

In recent years, I’ve seen an explosion of student and public interest in the politics and ethics of food.  It’s great to have philosophers contributing to this discussion, and this book explains why.

When thoughtful people differ about issues in food and nutrition, it isn’t always easy to decide what the right thing is to do.  Philosophers have ways of looking at controversial issues that help with such decisions.  This book lays out some typical arguments and explains how the major philosophical frameworks can help sharpen the discussion.

Nov 12 2015

Candidate Cruz and sugar policy

I”m feeling wonky this morning and can’t resist commenting on Senator Ted Cruz’s remarks about the US sugar program.

According to BuzzFeed,

while railing against “corporate welfare,” Cruz singled out subsidies for the sugar industry — a policy Rubio has consistently, and controversially, supported despite objections by free-market critics.

“Sugar farmers farm under roughly 0.2% of the farmland in America, and yet they give 40% of the lobbying money,” Cruz said in the debate. “That sort of corporate welfare is why we’re bankrupting our kids, and grandkids.”

Chase Purdy of Politico quoted Cruz as saying “I would end those subsidies to pay for defending this nation.”

Only that’s not how the sugar program works. Subsidies for U.S. sugar producers are provided by consumers, through artificially high prices, rather than by the government. Rather than direct subsidies, the sugar program involves limiting import and supporting prices, leading to U.S. sugar prices that are higher than sugar on the global market.

Politico also investigated “40% of the lobbying money.”

Forty percent of what? It’s not clear. But it’s hard to imagine any way to get there. Total spending on lobbying was $3.24 billion last year, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Agribusiness spent $127.5 million, or about 4 percent. The sugar cane and sugar beets industry? $9.6 million, or 0.3 percent.

I love writing about our arcane sugar policies, which do indeed involve quotas and tariffs, but not subsidies.  The USDA explains sugar policies on its website.  The important ones:

Sugarcane growers have their own explanation of how the system protects them.

And because politics makes strange bedfellows, the Heritage Foundation’s explains how US sugar policies gouge US consumers, costing us more money than sugar consumers anywhere else.

From a public health standpoint, higher prices for cane and beet sugar aren’t all that bad if they encourage people to consume less.

But on a per person basis, the increased cost isn’t all that much: on the order of $10 per capita per year.

This explains the lack of public opposition to the policies.  They are hard to notice at the grocery store.

It also explains why  food companies prefer using high fructose corn syrup.  It’s cheaper.  Corn production, after all, does get subsidies for crop insurance.  But then, we use corn to make ethanol.

Aren’t ag policies fun?  No wonder candidates don’t understand them.

Nov 11 2015

San Francisco State vs. Pouring Rights Contracts

When I was in San Francisco last week, I met Janna Cordeiro and Real Food Challenge students from San Francisco State University (SFSU) who are taking on Big Soda.  As Janna explained in an e-mail,

Last spring, SFSU administration quietly released an RFP to solicit a corporate sponsor for Pouring Rights.

The Pouring Rights contract —for a 1 time minimum $2 Million donation and yearly $125K donation— not only includes 80% access to all drinks sold on campus, naming rights for the sports stadiums (and scholarships, seats, etc), access to students and alum for social media campaigns, access to STUDENT-owned campus center, and on and on BUT also an endowed chair in the school of the sponsor’s choice. Pepsi Professor anyone?

She points out that “The students believe that the release of the RFP violated important shared governance agreements that guide the campus, and that it was intentionally kept very low profile.”

She also notes that since San Francisco’s soda tax campaign, several high profile policies limiting SSBs have been passed:

1) City of SF has passed 2 important pieces of legislation: warning label requirements on ads,  ban on use of city funds to purchase ssbs (including the many contractors such as Department of Children Youth and Families), and ban on sub ads on city property

2) The SFUSD passed a comprehensive wellness policy which bans all sugary drinks sold or offered on school grounds including fundraisers/festivals/ and staff/teachers drinking.

3) Most major hospitals are SSB free INCLUDING all of UCSF campuses and our public hospital.

This means:

Essentially, SFSU and our City College Campuses are the only public spaces where SSBs are sold or advertised. So, we can’t let the SFSU administration go through with this, and this group of students from the Real Food Challenge SFSU are stepping up to fight back. Let’s join them and show our support!  They have already organized demonstrations when PepsiCo and Coca-Cola were on campus for their presentations, but have much more planned. The also have a 15 page resolution that covers ALL the bases!

And here’s her call to action:

What can you do?

  1. Sign the petition:   Lots of information on this page so it’s a great place to start. 
  1. Send them a letter of support for them to give the SFSU President Wong who has agreed to meet with them on Nov 19th in an open Town Hall mtg. email:
  1. If you’re local, attend the Town Hall meeting at 12noon on 11/19. Location TBD. Invite on Facebook.
  1. Follow on Facebook—  show your support and Tweet about it. I’ve been pushing out tweets on OpenTruthNow if you need ideas.
  1. If you have connections, help them get high visibility MEDIA attention. Contact me directly, and I can send you the media contact. for the group.

Let’s help them CRUSH Big Soda ! Student Rights not Pouring Rights!



November 13: The San Francisco Chronicle has a discussion of this action (I’m quoted)

November 19: The SFSU president drops the soda partnership proposal!


Nov 10 2015

Two reports: Who is Obese? How to Curb Global Sugar?

The first report is from the UK.   Fat Chance? Exploring the Evidence on Who Becomes Obese is a curious example of what happens when a sugar company (AB Sugar) partners with a health organization (2020 Health) to produce a policy document.

The report examines the role of age, gender, socioeconomic factors, the built environment, mental health and disability, sleep, bullying and child abuse, smoking, ethnicity, and religion as factors in obesity—everything except diet and activity levels.

The press release for the report gives key findings, among them:

  • Obesity rates are rising rapidly among the poor as well as other groups who experience social instability.
  • Uncertainty seems to be a significant factor for weight gain.
  • Fast food outlets near working environments have a significant impact on the BMI of men; the lack of green space has an impact on obesity rates particularly among girls.
  • Half of all people suffering with psychosis are obese.
  • Parental obesity, especially in mothers, is a far more predictive factor in childhood obesity than is ethnicity.

Its authors write:

What is particularly highlighted in recent research, though rarely explicitly stated, is that obesity rates seem to be deeply influenced by social change (not just influences within static social categories). The studies we have compiled for this review show a subtle trend that has become increasingly evident over the last decade. It is highlighted in economic mobility, rising rates of mental illness, technological habits and engagements, and rapidly shifting urban ground. Argued here, broadly speaking, is that many of these categories strongly hint to a meta-structure that remains profoundly under-researched and largely ignored. This is the structure of uncertainty, a type of habitus that influences the terms of emotional engagement between an individual and their daily life. Insidiously, it undermines health seeking behaviour by making daily decision processes cognitively intolerable and emotionally taxing.

They conclude:

…approaches to obesity that recognise and incorporate complexity might impact a host of rising health problems that affect communities across Britain. The same interventions that encourage healthy BMI may improve energy levels through metabolic process and sleeping habits, while reducing risk of mental health problems, diabetes and a range of other comorbidities not discussed in this report.

But they don’t say what those interventions might be.

Could they possibly have something to do with removing sugary drinks and foods from local environments?

For doing just that, the World Cancer Research Fund International has produced Curbing Global Sugar Consumption: Effective Food Policy Actions to Help Promote Healthy Diets & Tackle Obesity.

Examples of actions which have had these effects include school nutrition standards in Queensland, Australia; a vending machine ban in France; a front-of-package symbol that led to product reformulation in the Netherlands; soda taxes in France and Mexico; a programme targeting retail environments in New York City, USA; a programme promoting increased water consumption in schools in Hungary; school fruit and vegetable programmes in Netherlands and Norway; a healthy marketing campaign in Los Angeles County, USA and a comprehensive nutrition and health programme in France.

The first report asks us to solve problems of poverty, instability, and mental health before taking action to prevent obesity, even when actions are known to be effective.  The second calls for such actions now.

Could AB Sugar’s sponsorship possibly have something to do with this difference?

Nov 9 2015

University of Colorado returns Coca-Cola funding for Global Energy Balance Network

On Friday, the University of Colorado School of Medicine announced that it was giving back the $1 million that Coca-Cola had donated to fund the Global Energy Balance Network.

This is the group of scientists funded by Coca-Cola who were promoting activity as the best way to prevent obesity, but playing down any contribution of soft drinks and junk food to weight gain (see my post on this).

This is the fourth impressive result of the investigative report by Anahad O’Connor in the New York Times in August that revealed Coca-Cola’s funding of such initiatives.

  1. Coke’s chief executive, Muhtar Kent, disclosed that the company had spent almost $120 million since 2010 to pay for partnerships with medical and community health groups, and promised that the company would be more transparent.
  2. Coca-Cola set up a transparency website where it revealed the list of funded organizations.
  3. Coke ended its relationships with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the American Academy for Pediatrics, and the American Academy of Family Practice (or these groups pulled out—everyone seems to want to credit).
  4. Now this. Coke says it will donate the returned money to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

I am quoted in this story:

Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, called the network “a front group” for Coca-Cola intended to promote the message that obesity is primarily caused by a lack of exercise, not by overconsumption of junk food.

On Friday, Dr. Nestle, the author of “Soda Politics,” said she was pleased that the university had returned the money.

“Both deserve congratulations for making a difficult but necessary decision,” said Dr. Nestle. “Let’s hope other groups also decide to do the right thing and end such financial relationships.”


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