Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Sep 9 2016

Weekend reading: Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation

Sandor Ellix Katz.  Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods.  Chelsea Green, 2016.


This is the updated and revised edition of Katz’s wildly popular and influential book—a how to on the theory and practice of preparing, eating, and enjoying fermented foods.

Katz describes himself as a fermentation evangelist, and so he is.

By eating a variety of live fermented foods, you promote microbial diversity in your body.  The live bacteria in those ferments…help to digest food and assimilate nutrients, as well as stimulate immune responses.  There is no one strain that is uniquely beneficial; rather the greatest benefit of eating bacteria lies in biodiversity.

With the microbiome the hot new thing in biology, this book could not be better timed.

And besides.  Fermented foods are delicious.  Ginger champagne, anyone?

Sep 8 2016

Good news: U.S. Household food security improves!

The USDA has just released its annual summary of statistics on national food insecurity, with these encouraging results.

Both total and very low food security have declined since 2014 and are heading back to the lower levels observed in the early 2000s.

The USDA defines food insecurity as not having enough resources to provide food for family members.

The new data show:

  • Households considered food insecure = 12.7%
  • Households considered severely food insecure = 5%
  • Households with children who are food insecure = 7.8%
  • Food insecurity is higher in households headed by single parents, especially those who are Black or Hispanic
  • Food insecurity is higher in some states (e.g., Mississippi = 20.8%) than others (e.g., North Dakota = 8.5%)
  • Food-insecure households participating in federal food assistance programs = 59%

These figures are better than last year’s, but still need improving.

The bottom line: federal food assistance programs do not do enough to alleviate food insecurity, even among households enrolled in them.

Sep 7 2016

The well deserved fuss over the UK’s childhood obesity plan

The much delayed UK government’s plan for dealing with childhood obesity has finally been released to virtually universal dismay over the missed opportunity.

The strategy is now a Plan, and says it is “the start of a conversation.” It reconfirms the government’s intentions to implement a soft drink tax, subject to consultation, but does not include a range of measures recommended by its own Public Health England and by last year’s House of Commons Health Committee, such as reduce food marketing and controls on retail promotions. It relies on voluntary sugar reduction by the food industry and encouraging parents to help increase children’s physical activity to meet the recommended 1 hour per day.

It’s fun to read the criticisms: nobody minces words.

An editorial in The Lancet

The UK Government’s long-anticipated response to the childhood obesity crisis disappointed everyone. From doctors, health charities, and celebrities to the very industry it seeks to propitiate, the Childhood Obesity Plan, published with as little noise as possible in the summer recess, has met with resounding criticism. As a Comment in today’s Lancet highlights, the strategy has been delayed for a year, and in that time it has been watered down to a vague Plan with no teeth.  Reading the report from start to finish gives the impression that its authors haven’t.

The Lancet editorial continues

The absence of curbs on industry practices that contribute to childhood obesity—promotions of unhealthy food in supermarkets and restaurants; advertising of junk food through family TV programmes and social media—seems like a gift to industry.

The Lancet is especially miffed because it ran a series on obesity last year that made it clear what kinds of policies needed to be enacted.

Also in The Lancet, World Obesity’s Tim Lobstein and Klim McPherson say

What we read in the government’s Plan is nothing particularly new, nothing bold, and very little that can actually be measured to assess the Plan’s success. It is a document that is not only a disappointment to public health professionals, but also evidence of a government walking away from its moral duty to protect the health of children, and its fiscal duty to protect the NHS from the consequent costs.

The Association for the Study of Obesity (ASO) issued a statement:

the plan is a lost opportunity to provide leadership and commitment in tackling childhood obesity as part of a whole systems approach. It lacks bold actions that are needed to reverse the current high levels of child obesity such as: a ban on junk food advertising before the 9pm watershed; reduction in portion sizes; reformulation targets for industry that address high energy density foods; curbing the promotion of unhealthy foods in supermarket; investment to increase and extend evidence-based child weight management services. All of these would be robust, evidence-based actions and would start to tackle the root causes of obesity in this country.

Again in The Lancet, Yoni Freedhoff and Kevin Hall point out the need for more sensible weight loss studies:

Over the past several decades, dozens of randomised controlled trials have compared various diets for the treatment of obesity. Ideally, such studies should have provided strong evidence for clear clinical recommendations and also put a stop to society’s endless parade of fad diets. Unfortunately, the evidence base remains contested and the “diet wars” continue unabated…What is especially striking is the similarity of the long-term pattern of mean bodyweight change, irrespective of diet prescription.5 …Fewer resources should be invested in studying whether or not a low-carbohydrate diet is marginally better than a low-fat diet, or whether intermittent fasting provides marginally better short-term outcomes than a so-called Paleo diet.

Their study provides further evidence why we need stronger policies for preventing obesity.  It’s too bad the UK couldn’t do better.

And if you think things are any better in New Zealand

The food industry has hit out at claims in a leading journal that New Zealand’s childhood obesity plan was flawed and that the government valued corporate profit over public good. The Food and Grocery Council said that an editorial in the New Zealand Medical Journal, which claimed that the government’s strategy did not address excess sugar intake, was “flawed on many fronts.  Moreover, the FGC complained that its response to the article, solicited by Fairfax Media, was not run.

Addition, September 14

Sep 6 2016

Sugar politics: San Francisco

My daughter, Rebecca Nestle, sends these from Valencia Street, San Francisco, August 2016.

There was this booth.

And this unidentified person wearing a great tee shirt:

Sep 2 2016

Weekend reading: Michel Ableman’s Street Farm

Michael Ableman.  Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier.  Chelsea Green, 2016.

Chelsea Green publishes books on “the politics and practice of sustainable living,” and its catalog gets better all the time.

Michael Ableman’s latest book is beautifully designed, packed with wonderful color photographs, and a must have for anyone even remotely curious about whether urban farming is worth a try.

Ableman was asked to start urban farms in the toughest areas of downtown Vancouver.  His book is a series of thoughtful, personal, and remarkably frank essays about how he turned vacant lots and parking lots into vegetables while engaging with the locals, coping with the city bureaucracy, dealing with landlords desperate for more parking space, and managing the hazards of trying to make this work among people beset by poverty, alcohol, and drugs.

But he did make it work and this book explains how you too can do this.

Street Farm is an elegant how-to manual on using farming to do real community work with populations classically “hard to reach” but thriving on such initiatives.

Sep 1 2016

Clever food industry ploy: look-alike snacks

Jennifer Harris and colleagues at the Rudd Center have a study out in Obesity on how food companies are making products to meet the USDA’s nutrition standards for snack foods—but look just like the original products that don’t.

These, the press release says, are confusing to parents and children.

A fact sheet provides the evidence.

Students believed that look-alike Smart Snacks and the less-nutritious versions of the brands sold in stores were similar in healthfulness and expected them to taste the same.

No wonder.

This, of course, is the result of “nutritionism,” the defining of the healthfulness of a food by its content of specific nutrients—vitamins, salt, sugar, saturated fat.

The “healthier” versions raise the question: Is a slightly better-for-you product a good choice?

Not necessarily, alas.

This is why food-based standards make more sense.  Snack foods have a place in kids diets, but ideally a small one.

Aug 31 2016

Do poor people need more cheese products?

The USDA intends to buy $20 million worth of cheese products and will give them to federal nutrition programs and food banks.

Why?

To raise the price of milk and help milk producers.

Milk producers think this is way too little.  They asked USDA to buy $150 million in cheese products.  This would take 900 million pounds of milk off the U.S. market, reduce supply, and increase prices.

Is life tough for dairy farmers?  So they say.

As for cheese, we already eat a lot of it, more every year.

Is this the best way to support dairy farmers?

Just asking…

 

Dairy fat and risk of cardiovascular disease in 3 cohorts of US adults

Mu Chen, Yanping Li, Qi Sun, An Pan, JoAnn E Manson, Kathryn M Rexrode, Walter C Willett, Eric B Rimm, and Frank B Hu

Am J Clin Nutr first published on 24 August 2016 doi:10.3945/ajcn.116.134460

http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/early/2016/08/23/ajcn.116.134460.abstract

 

High intake of regular-fat cheese compared with reduced-fat cheese does not affect LDL cholesterol or risk markers of the metabolic syndrome: a randomized controlled trial

Farinaz Raziani, Tine Tholstrup, Marlene D Kristensen, Matilde L Svanegaard, Christian Ritz, Arne Astrup, and Anne Raben

Am J Clin Nutr first published on 24 August 2016 doi:10.3945/ajcn.116.134932

http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/early/2016/08/23/ajcn.116.134932.abstract

Aug 29 2016

Yes! The Berkeley soda tax is doing what it is supposed to

Jennifer Falbe and other investigators from Kristin Madson’s group at UC Berkeley have just produced an analysis of the effects of the Berkeley soda tax on consumption patterns.

They surveyed people in low-income communities before and after the tax went into effect.  The result: an overall 21% decline in reported soda consumption in low-income Berkeley neighborhoods versus a 4% increase in equivalent neighborhoods in Oakland and San Francisco.

The Los Angeles Times breaks out these figures: 

In Oakland and San Francisco, which have not yet passed a tax, sales of regular sodas went up by 10%.

Other findings, as reported by Healthy Food America:

  • During one of the hottest summers on record, Berkeley residents reported drinking 63 percent more bottled water, while comparison cities saw increases of just 19 percent.
  • Only 2 percent of those surveyed reported crossing city lines to avoid the tax.
  • The biggest drops came in consumption of soda (26%) and sports drinks (36%).

Agricultural economist Parke Wilde at Tufts views this study as empirical evidence for the benefits of taxes.  He writes on his US Food Policy blog that it’s time for his ag econ colleagues to take the benefits of taxes seriously:

There is a long tradition in my profession of doubting the potential impact of such taxes…Oklahoma State University economist Jayson Lusk, who also is president of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA), has blogged several times about soda taxes, agreeing with most of the Tamar Haspel column  in the Washington Post, and concluding stridently: “I’m sorry, but if my choice is between nothing and a policy that is paternalistic, regressive, will create economic distortions and deadweight loss, and is unlikely to have any significant effects on public health, I choose nothing” (emphasis added).

Wilde points out that Lusk has now modified those comments in a blog post.

All that said, I’m more than willing to accept the finding that the Berkeley city soda tax caused soda consumption to fall. The much more difficult question is: are Berkeley residents better off?

Yes, they are.

The Berkeley study is good news and a cheery start to the week.  Have a good one.

Addition

Politico adds up the “piles of cash” being spent on the soda tax votes in San Francisco, Oakland, and Alameda and analyzes the soda industry’s framing of the tax as a “grocery tax.”

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