by Marion Nestle

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Sep 27 2013

Whole grain chaos: FDA approves qualified health claim, sort of

In 2012, ConAgra petitioned the FDA to approve use of a health claim on labels and advertising for its whole grain products.  Here’s what ConAgra asked for:

Scientific evidence suggests, but does not prove, that diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol that include three servings (48 grams) of whole grains per day may reduce the risk of diabetes mellitus type 2.

or

Scientific evidence suggests, but does not prove, that whole grains (three servings or 48 grams per day), as part of a low saturated fat, low cholesterol diet, may reduce the risk of diabetes mellitus type 2.

To say that the FDA was less than impressed with evidence supporting this claim is to understate the matter.  After a comprehensive review of the evidence, here’s what the FDA says ConAgra can use:

Whole grains may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, although the FDA has concluded that there is very limited scientific evidence for this claim.

or

Whole grains may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. FDA has concluded that there is very limited scientific evidence for this claim.

No, this is not a joke.

Congress insists that the FDA must approve health claims, whether supported by science or not.

According to FoodNavigator, ConAgra is happy about this decision.  The first thing anyone will read is “whole grains may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.”

As I keep saying, health claims are about marketing, not health.  And qualified health claims are the worst examples.  A plague on all of them!

Aug 7 2013

You think the FDA gets to approve all food additives as safe? Not a chance.

I was invited to write the editorial to accompany a study published today in JAMA Internal Medicine looking at the highly conflicted process used to decide whether food additives are Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS).

Here’s the study.

Here’s my editorial.

I know this sounds completely crazy, but here’s what the study found:

  • Manufacturers get to decide whether food additives are safe or not.
  • Manufacturers get to decide whether to bother to tell the FDA the additives are in the food supply.

And if they do volunteer to inform the FDA (and many do),

  • Manufacturers get to decide who sits on the panels that review the evidence for safety.

In reading the study, it seemed to me that:

  • As long as not too many people roll over dead after eating foods with new additives, nobody will ever have a clue whether the additive is safe.
  • The regulatory gap has spawned an entire enterprise of GRAS consultants and GRAS consulting firms who are in the business—presumably lucrative—of providing the scientific documentation the FDA needs to determine additive safety.

Some of the consultants need to do a better job.  The FDA raises enough questions that about 15% (my estimate) of the requests would be denied.

The good news: If the FDA sees the safety documentation, it does its job.

But what happens to the rejected additives?  Or the ones that don’t get voluntarily sent to FDA?

Nobody really knows (think: caffeine in alcohol drinks–the FDA had no idea).

We need a better food safety system in this country and conflicts of interests in GRAS additive approvals are a good place to start.

Here’s what USA Today has to say about this (I’m quoted).

 

 

Jul 31 2013

Court turns down NYC 16-ounce soda cap; city will appeal

The  NY State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, has turned down the Bloomberg administration’s appeal (New York Statewide Coalition of Hispanic Chambers of Commerce v New York City Dept. of Health & Mental Hygiene).

The court’s decision in this case begins on page 22:

Like Supreme Court, we conclude that in promulgating this regulation the Board of Health failed to act within the bounds of its lawfully delegated authority. Accordingly, we declare the regulation to be invalid, as violative of the principle of separation of powers.

…we find particularly probative the regulation’s exemptions, which evince a compromise of social and economic concerns, as well as private interests. As indicated, the regulatory scheme is not an all encompassing regulation. It does not apply to all FSEs [food service establishments]. Nor does it apply to all sugary beverages. The Board of Health’s explanations for these exemptions do not convince us that the limitations are based solely on health-related concerns (pages 17, 18 of the decision).

OK.  So the city should have made the rule apply to all food service places and all sugary beverages.  Live and learn.

Mayor Bloomberg says the city will appeal:

Since New York City’s ground-breaking limit on the portion size of sugary beverages was prevented from going into effect on March 12th, more than 2,000 New Yorkers have died from the effects of diabetes. Also during that time, the American Medical Association determined that obesity is a disease and the New England Journal of Medicine released a study showing the deadly, and irreversible, health impacts of obesity and Type 2 diabetes – both of which are disproportionately linked to sugary drink consumption. Today’s decision is a temporary setback, and we plan to appeal this decision as we continue the fight against the obesity epidemic.”

The American Beverage Association is pleased.  It’s headline: “Hey New York – Your Beverage Is Still Your Choice!”

We are pleased that the lower court’s decision was upheld.  With this ruling behind us, we look forward to collaborating with city leaders on solutions that will have a meaningful and lasting impact on the people of New York City.

Even if the city loses the final appeal, the 16-ounce soda cap is the writing on the wall for soda companies.

Sales of full-sugar sodas have been falling for years and getting worse for both Coca-Cola and Pepsi.

Cutting down on the portion sizes of sugary drinks is still a really good idea.

Here’s what the news media say about it:

Jun 4 2013

Questions about food politics: iPhone apps and phytonutrients

I’m always happy to answer questions dealing with issues related to food politics.  Here are responses to two that came in last week.  I’ll do another two sometime this week. 

Q1.  I was just introduced to your book, What to Eat, and I read it, cover to cover, thoroughly enjoying each area of the market.  I am emailing in hopes that you have a suggested iPhone App, which suggests or promotes healthy eating.  Not so much calorie counter Apps, but Apps which make suggestions towards healthier options or perhaps even suggests macro or micronutrients which we may be lacking based on the foods we are purchasing and consuming.  Any help is much appreciated!  Thanks!

A.  I’m a diehard BlackBerry user and haven’t a clue.  Readers: suggestions?

Q2.  I’m an NYU MPH student and will probably be taking your Food Advocacy class next spring.  I adore your blog and as of late have been especially appreciative of your Farm Bill breakdowns. (What a confusing document!)  I was wondering what your take was on the NYTimes article that appeared in the Week in Review on Sunday titled, “Breeding the Nutrition out of Our Food” by Jo Robinson.  Have we really been losing the phytonutrients in our food since we became farmers?

A.  Ms. Robinson, whose terrific new book, “Eating on the Wild Side” is out this week, collected data on phytonutrient (plant antioxidant) levels in wild foods and their bred-to-be-less-bitter supermarket counterparts.  The wild ones have more, but they usually don’t taste as good.  The idea that foods now are less nutritious than foods in the past fits conveniently with concerns about our industrialized food system.  But data on trends in nutrient content are difficult to come by (the methods change over time), and differences in health benefits are impossible to assess.  The bottom line: people who eat fruits and vegetables—even supermarket varieties—are healthier than people who don’t.  Would they be even healthier if the vegetables were more bitter because of the phytonutrients?  Hard to say.  I’m going to eat my veggies and not worry about this one.

May 24 2013

Weekend viewing: A food politics story for kids—Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory

I’ve been waiting for the weekend to write about the kids’ story by Bettina Elias Siegel, the school food advocate who writes The Lunch Tray blog  (and who put “pink slime” on the map).

Her video story—in rhyme yet—is titled Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory: A Tale of Processed Food and is worth the 12 minutes it takes to watch it (try it out on your kids!).

I wondered about the back story: how did she come to write it, who did the illustrations, how did she put it together?    Fortunately, Dana Woldow, also a long time food advocate, has just posted an interview with Ms. Siegel on just those points (the interview starts about half way down the post).  Ms. Siegel says:

If kids could see more clearly how the processed food, fast food and soda industries are earning profits at the expense of their health, I do think they might grow resistant to those industries’ marketing tactics. That was the idea behind Mr. Zee and his apples.

The interview explains the details of how the story got written, illustrated, and posted.

Ms. Woldow’s column concludes:

Of course, not everyone has the equipment, the confidence, or the patience to make their own video, but anyone can use social media. Watch Bettina’s video (with your children, if you have any), and if you like it, share it with your friends. It won’t undo all the marketing that Big Food does to kids, but it’s a start.

Try it out on your kids.  What do they think of it?

Apr 29 2013

Happy 5th Birthday: Pew Commission

Five years ago today, The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production released its report: Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America.

I was a member of the commission, put together by Pew  Charitable Trusts in partnership with the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, and chaired by John Carlin, a former governor of Kansas.

The commission met for two years to investigate the effects of the current system of intensive animal production on public health, the environment, the communities housing confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and on the welfare of farm animals.

As a member, I had the opportunity to visit huge dairy farms, feedlots, pig farms, and facilities housing 1.2 million chickens.  This was, to say the least, quite an education.

The big issues? Overuse of antibiotics and the shocking environmental impact of vast amounts of animal waste.

The big surprise? Plenty of adequate laws exist to protect the environment and communities; they just aren’t being enforced.

A New York Times editorial noted that farm policies have turned “animal husbandry…into animal abuse,” and need rethinking and revision.

Indeed they did and do. 

As with all such reports, this one made too many recommendations but the most important ones had to do with the inappropriate use of antibiotics in farm animal production:

Restrict the use of antimicrobials in food animal production to reduce the risk of antimicrobial resistance to medically important antibiotics.

Another key recommendation:

Fully enforce current federal and state environmental exposure regulations and legislation, and increase monitoring  of the possible public health effects of IFAP [industrial farm animal production] on people who live and work in or near these operations.

And my sentimental favorite:

Create a Food Safety Administration that combines the food inspection and safety responsibilities of the federal government, USDA, FDA, EPA, and other federal agencies into one agency to improve the safety of the US food supply.

What good do reports like this do?

The report established a strong research basis for the need for policies to clean up industrial farm animal production and better protect the health and welfare of everyone and everything involved: workers, communities, the environment, and the animals themselves.

This is a good time to take another look at the report and consider how its basic—and absolutely necessary—recommendations can be put in place, and the sooner the better.

Apr 17 2013

Michael Pollan’s “Cooked” and Appraisals by food academics

Michael Pollan’s Cooked comes out April 23 but the New York Times jumped the gun and reviewed it yesterday.   I can’t wait for the copy I ordered to arrive so I can read it for myself.

cooked-cover

Whenever the book comes, this seems like a good time to post Geoffrey Cannon’s interviews with some of Pollan’s academic foodie fans (including me) about how we assess his work.  These appraisals are now posted in World Nutrition, the online journal of the World Public Health Nutrition Association.

cover april 2013

Geoffrey Cannon: When did you come across Michael Pollan?

I had been reading Michael Pollan’s articles in the New York Times Magazine with admiration, to say the least, so when he invited me to participate in a food conference he was running at Berkeley in the fall of 2002, soon after he arrived to teach there, I was looking forward to meeting him. The conference was splendid. It brought together a huge number of journalists, academics, filmmakers, and government and industry officials. The speakers were glittery. Alice Waters did the catering. The side trips were to a farm in Bolinas and an olive orchard in Sonoma run by the owners of the San Francisco Chronicle (they had sketches by Wayne Thibaud tacked to the bathroom walls). Sometime after that, I spoke in one of his classes. But the first meeting I remember in detail must have been in about 2004. I asked for his advice about the book I was working on at the time, which later became What to Eat.

What impressed you at that time?

We met for lunch at Chez Panisse, where he was clearly a regular (I was still having trouble getting a reservation). I wanted his advice about how to write for a general audience. He said he wasn’t the right person to ask, because he didn’t write as an expert. His starting point in developing books was from lack of expertise. As he learned, he brought readers along with him. This turned out to be hugely helpful.

I got to know him better in the spring of 2006 when I taught at Berkeley in a complicated arrangement between three schools. I was paid by public policy, had an office in public health, but journalism – meaning Michael – ran the life support. The following spring I went back to Berkeley to teach a course in science journalism in his program. We did some speaking gigs together.

Rate his work and impact

Obviously, I think he is terrific but I have to do full disclosure. He just wrote the splendid foreword to the tenth anniversary edition of Food Politics. I’ll just say this: lots of people in the US have been working on the food movement for decades, but his work reaches so large and so passionate an audience that he has to be given much of the credit for its expansion.

Quote one of his sayings that stays with you

In What to Eat, I said dietary principles were simple: eat less, move more, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, don’t eat too much junk food. Pollan says: Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much. Oh to be able to write like that.

 Give an example of where he has made a difference

Students read his work and want to act. Our NYU programs in food studies are filled with people who read Pollan and want to do something to make the food system healthier and better for the planet.

Has his work changed your thinking and if so, how?

I don’t think I ever understood the importance of meat animals in balanced ecological systems to the extent that I now do. The idea of the omnivore’s dilemma is mind-changing on its own. I like it because it is so inclusive of different ways of eating and enjoying food. And I can’t wait to read Cooked.

Does his work have relevance outside the USA?

People outside the US are going to have to answer this one but of course it does. Food systems are global. How we in America eat affects the food systems of countries everywhere else and, to some extent, vice versa.

In what ways if any do you think he is mistaken?

I’m of the belief that although health very much depends on what you eat, body weight depends on how much you eat no matter where the calories come from (one of the theses of my new book Why Calories Count). We argue about this all the time. Eventually, the science will get to the point where this gets resolved one way or the other. In the meantime, it’s fun to debate.

Reference: Gussow J, Kirschenmann F, Uauy R, Schell O, Nestle M, Popkin B, Cannon G, Monteiro C. The American genius. [Appraisals].  World Nutrition 2013;4:150-170.  My answers to Geoffrey Cannon’s questions start on page 161.

Addition, May 1.  World Nutrition has published a second set of Appraisals, with some commentary.

Apr 16 2013

Happy publication day: Farmacology

At your local bookstore now:

Daphne Miller, MD.  Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing.  William Morrow, 2013

 

I blurbed it:

Farmacology is an eloquent call for better systems of sustainable agriculture and humanistic health care.  In linking the two, Dr. Miller brings a physician’s critical eye and understanding to this lovely, touching, and sometimes quite funny account of what she learned about taking care of patients from visits to farmers who view growing food as part of an self-sustaining, integrated, natural cycle.  Her insight: both soil and people do better when treated as complex systems, not fragments.  This is a fresh, original, and utterly charming book that belongs on the shelves of everyone who loves food or thinks about health care.

Dr. Miller provides a link to a page on her website with more information on the book, reviews and her “official” Farmacology slide show.

Enjoy!

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