I am indebted to Michele Simon for sending a photo of this flier for the latest innovation in home-delivered food–Oreo Dessert Pizza. I’m sorry I can’t figure out how to make the photo bigger so you can see it better, but the way this works is that with any online pizza order you get a dessert pizza worth $3.99 tossed in. And, if you order two 20-ounce sodas, you get slap-on cooler wrappers, whatever those might be. The flier doesn’t disclose Nutrition Facts, so you have to guess the calories. Hint: Lots. Somebody try this and report back please.
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The FDA is taking comments on its proposals to revamp the food label through August 1, 2014 (instructions are at bottom of post).
I’ve also filed comments on the FDA’s Serving Size proposals.
These proposals are highly technical and tough to slog through, so I tried to deal with the big picture.
July 27, 2014
FROM: Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health, New York University
RE: Comments: Serving size proposals, Docket No. FDA-2004-N-0258
In addressing the question of how to change serving size designations on food labels, FDA is faced with an impossible dilemma . Serving sizes, which are supposed to be based on amounts typically consumed from packaged products, are invariably perceived as recommendations for dietary intake.
To comment on each of the bold-face, italicized points:
- Typically consumed: This information derives from dietary intake surveys which invariably underestimate actual intake, often by 30% to 40%.
- Packaged foods: Food labels only appear on packaged foods. RACC amounts on packaged foods are often much lower than amounts served in restaurants or fast-food places (pizza is an obvious example). It is unclear whether amounts reported as consumed are from packages (with Nutrition Facts labels) or are from restaurants or fast-food places where portion sizes can be much higher than those for foods in packages.
- Recommendation: Substantial anecdotal information suggests that people view labeled serving sizes as what they should be eating. They view the serving sizes as meaningless compared to the portion sizes of foods they are accustomed to eating.
What is well established is that overall calorie intake has increased since RACCs were established in 1993 and marketplace portion sizes have also increased.
Therefore, any increase in RACC runs the risk of being interpreted as a validation of current portion sizes and as a recommendation to eat more.
On the other hand, larger portions have more calories. These must appear on the label.
To address this dilemma, FDA should:
- Make dual-column labeling mandatory for all food and beverage packages likely to be consumed in one sitting.
- Require total calories in the package to be displayed on the front of the package.
- Include a footnote explaining that the serving size is not meant as a recommendation
INSTRUCTIONS FOR FILING COMMENTS
The FDA provides:
File comments here
USDA has a report out on consumers’ use of nutrition information in restaurants before the menu labeling law goes into effect.
What law? The menu-labeling provision that is part of the Affordable Care Act still—four years later—waiting for the FDA to get around to issuing final rules (I last wrote about this in April 2013).
In 2011, the FDA proposed rules for public comment, and proposed final rules in 2013:
These too were opened for public comment with the process expected to be completed in February 2014. Oops. Missed that one.
Rumors are that the FDA is under pressure from pizza chains and movie theaters to be exempt from the final rules, and that the White House is holding them up. The White House has had them for 90 days. That’s supposed to be the limit.
According to Politico Pro Agriculture
It was three months ago today that the White House first received FDA’s final rules for calorie labels on menus and vending machines, and by the Office of Management and budget’s own rules, that means time is up. Interagency review at OMB is supposed to take no more than 90 days before the final release of a measure, though that timeframe is often extended with little explanation on more controversial initiatives. While OMB is always mum on its schedule for rule reviews and releases, the end of the standard review period is sometimes a hint that something will be coming, if not today — the day before a long weekend — then soon. In the meantime, brush up on the issue here: http://politico.pro/1mKNcFr and here: http://politico.pro/1lzZLDe
In the meantime, the USDA has done some research and come up with some interesting findings:
Among people who eat out, the ones most likely to use nutrition information on menu boards are those who:
- Eat out less frequently
- Have other healthy behaviors (such as having dark green vegetables at home).
- Rate their diets as good.
- Are women.
- Participate in SNAP.
SNAP participants? Really? If true, SNAP participants are more eager for calorie information than the general population, and good for them!
These results explain much about the confusing findings from studies of New York City’s menu labeling law. These generally find no overall effect although calorie labels have a big effect on people who are conscious of health to begin with (me, for example).
FDA: how about getting out the final rules? Then we can sit back and watch USDA economists compare what’s happening to these baseline results.
I always am interested in Michele Simon’s provocative reports. Her latest, Whitewashed, is no exception. It’s about how the government promotes dairy foods, no matter what kind or where they appear.
Read her blog post here.
Download the full report here.
Read the executive summary here.
Here’s are some of the surprising (to me) findings detailed in the report:
- About half of all milk is consumed either as flavored milk, with cereal, or in a drink;
- Nearly half of the milk supply goes to make about 9 billion pounds of cheese and 1.5 billion gallons of frozen desserts–two-thirds of which is ice cream;
- 11 percent of all sugar goes into the production of dairy products.
Where the government enters the picture is through the “checkoff programs” for promoting milk and dairy. These are USDA-Sponsored programs, paid for by dairy farmers through checkoff fees, but run by the USDA.
U.S. Department of Agriculture employees attend checkoff meetings, monitor activities, and are responsible for evaluation of the programs. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the legality of the checkoff programs as “government speech”, finding: “the message … is controlled by the Federal Government.”
The report has some interesting findings about the checkoff. Although checkoff funds are supposed to be used for generic marketing, the dairy checkoff helped:
- McDonald’s make sure that dairy foods play an important role in product development.
- Taco Bell introduce its double steak quesadillas and cheese shreds.
- Pizza Hut develop its 3-Cheese Stuffed Crust Pizza and “Summer of Cheese” ad campaign.
- Dominos add more cheese to its pizzas as a result of a $35 million partnership.
- Domino’s “Smart Slice” program introduce its pizza to more than 2,000 schools in 2011.
- Promote “Chocolate Milk Has Muscle” and “Raise Your Hand for Chocolate Milk.”
I like dairy foods, but should the government be doing this?
Understanding why school nutritionists want to scrap the USDA’s nutrition standards takes some effort.
The question: Why is the School Nutrition Association (SNA)—the organization that represents the interests of “lunch ladies”—supporting Republican attempts to derail the nutrition standards?
The SNA has a long and honorable history of fighting for better nutrition for children, and it supported the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act—the one that gave USDA the authority to mandate healthier meals.
Jerry Hagstrom, who writes the daily Hagstrom Report, took a stab at explaining why SNA shifted position:
When the school-lunch program started, most schools cooked their own food. As the number of children participating in the school-lunch program grew, the need to provide more food led the schools to buy prepackaged, processed food, which led to the companies making those foods becoming big players within SNA.
Helena Bottemiller Evich of Politico adds to the explanation:
The story behind the school lunch flip-flop is a complicated web of lobbying change-ups, industry influence and partisan posturing inside the Beltway…Interviews with more than a dozen former and current SNA officials reveal a dramatic shift in SNA’s policy platform, and even more so, its approach: choosing to wage war on Capitol Hill — pitting the association against [Michelle] Obama and her team — instead of trying to win more concessions directly from the Department of Agriculture…[This] has sparked a civil war within the nutrition community and the association itself. Nineteen former SNA presidents wrote to appropriators last week urging them to reject calls for a waiver — a break in ranks that was painful but necessary, signers said.
She adds this critical piece of information:
Several former presidents of the organization said they are worried that food companies have influenced the group’s agenda over concerns that the nutrition standards for the $11 billion program will take a big bite out of sales of popular items like pizza and salty snacks…About half of the group’s $10 million operating budget comes from food industry members.
Kevin Concannon, USDA Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, told Jerry Hagstrom that the SNA’s current leadership is making a “serious mistake” is supporting members of Congress who want to block USDA’s standards. If the SNA lobbies for permanent blockage of the standards, he thinks they will be “playing with fire.” SNA, he said, is isolated on the issue. “The stakes are really high for the future of the country,” he said. “It is a battle worth waging.”
Is SNA isolated? Indeed it is. Here’s the list of organizations that support the new standards, compiled by the American Public Health Association.
Today, the House Appropriations Committee will discuss the annual spending bill for the Agriculture Department, meaning that it will consider proposals to weaken nutrition standards for school meals.
In what has to be a groundbreaking move, First Lady Michelle Obama has an Op-Ed in today’s New York Times.
Yet some members of the House of Representatives are now threatening to roll back these new standards and lower the quality of food our kids get in school. They want to make it optional, not mandatory, for schools to serve fruits and vegetables to our kids. They also want to allow more sodium and fewer whole grains than recommended into school lunches.
…Remember a few years ago when Congress declared that the sauce on a slice of pizza should count as a vegetable in school lunches? You don’t have to be a nutritionist to know that this doesn’t make much sense. Yet we’re seeing the same thing happening again with these new efforts to lower nutrition standards in our schools.
Our children deserve so much better than this.
Yes, they do, and how terrific that she is saying this.
Also a must read is ObamaFoodorama’s account of the President’s position on all this. From White House press secretary Jay Carney:
It is “inappropriate to let politics and pressure from the food industry” change federal law.
“The President and First Lady both feel very strongly about the need to continue moving forward when it comes to school nutrition and not allowing politics to pull us backward,” Carney said.
Carney made his comments during a gaggle aboard Air Force One when asked about the President’s “reaction” to the First Lady’s event on Tuesday with school nutrition pros.
For a nutritionist like me, this is history in the making. Cheers to both and let’s hope their efforts work.
Addition, June 2: If you cannot understand why the School Nutrition Association is pushing for the waiver and elimination of the rules, see Jerry Hagstrom’s lucid explanation: they don’t cook.
When the school-lunch program started, most schools cooked their own food. As the number of children participating in the school-lunch program grew, the need to provide more food led the schools to buy prepackaged, processed food, which led to the companies making those foods becoming big players within SNA. Under the new rules, those companies have to come up with tasty products with less salt, sugar, and fat and use whole grains. At the same time, the fruit and vegetable requirements—which bring more business to the United Fresh Produce Association—threaten to take up more of the school-lunch budget.
Congressional interference with school nutrition standards is looming large on the horizon.
Margo Wootan of CSPI is collecting signatures on a petition to stop this. She writes:
Some members of Congress are playing politics with our children’s health. We expect they will act on Tuesday May 20 to gut nutrition standards through the appropriations process.
They might say they just want to provide schools with a little more “flexibility,” but their changes would roll back standards on salt, whole grains, fruits/vegetables, and snacks.
These are the same people who legislated that pizza is a vegetable (because it contains a little tomato sauce)!
…Thankfully, ninety percent of schools now meet the updated nutrition standards for school lunch, helping millions of students get more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
- Congress is trying to micromanage school nutrition standards to win political points.
- Schools need support and technical assistance, not a free pass to serve junk to kids.
- And kids need nutrition standards based on science, not politics.SIg
SIgn the petition. Better yet, write you own letter.
Marion Nestle Speaks Out on the Big Business of School Food
A year ago, when I was working as an editor at the magazine Whole Living, I oversaw a special issue on food featuring “Visionaries”—people making a real difference in the way this country thinks about eating. There was “The Motivated Mayor” (Michael Bloomberg); “The Integrator” (Harlem chef and restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson); and, among several others, there was “The Badass.”
That would be Marion Nestle. The author of a handful of books that examine the intersection of food and politics, Nestle is a public-health nutritionist and a professor at New York University. She is also one of the most outspoken advocates for a national food system that prioritizes health and the environment over corporate profits. (Michael Pollan ranks Nestle the second-most powerful foodie in America, after First Lady Michelle Obama.)
Recently she published her new book, Eat, Drink, Vote, an admirably approachable look at wide-ranging issues such as farm subsidies, obesity, genetically modified foods, and trans fats.
On the eve of its release, Nestle and I sat down over lunch to discuss, among other things, lunch. Ours was fine—Caesar salad for her, Niçoise for me—but the lunches that dominated the conversation weren’t the ones on our plates. Rather, we talked about the meals that our nation’s kids will be loading onto their trays in the new school year.
It’s an issue that Nestle cares deeply about, and for good reason. For starters, school lunches (and breakfasts) tend to represent the lion’s share of the nutrition that a low-income child will get in a day. (For the truly impoverished, they may be the only meals children get.) The food served sets an example to a “large, captive, impressionable audience,” as Nestle puts it in the book, making cafeterias key battlegrounds in the fight against obesity and poor nutrition.
And it’s certainly a fight. Throughout Eat, which features some 250 food-related cartoons by illustrators around the country, Nestle calls out the entrenched powers—namely, our Congressional representatives and the deep-pocketed food and beverage lobbies to whom they seem ever more beholden—working at cross-purposes to the folks fighting for a food policy focused on promoting our own well-being and that of our environment.
Just look at what happened in 2011, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) tried to rate tomato paste based on its true nutritional value. School pizza makers went running to their friends in Congress, who promptly blocked the USDA’s decision. So an eighth of a cup of tomato paste is still credited with as much nutritional value as a half a cup of vegetables. Nestle chose a cartoon that wittily depicts the you-must-be-kidding-me moment (by Pulitzer Prize-winner Mike Peters) for the cover of her book.
There’s no question that school meals are big business. In 2011, the USDA school breakfast program served nearly 12 million children, at a cost of nearly $3 billion, Nestle writes in Eat, while the lunch program served nearly 32 million children, at a cost of $11 billion. The companies involved in providing all that food have a serious interest in holding on to their share of that money, preferably while investing as few resources as possible.
“Any change in the standards means that the products that have been created specifically for school lunches [that pizza, for example] have to meet new standards,” Nestle pointed out over lunch. “And that pisses everybody off”—everybody who’s already making money off school meals, that is.
Which makes it all the more remarkable that those meals have, in fact, gotten better. In December 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The legislation marked the first time in a generation that school lunch regulations had been updated. (One telling example of just how much our dietary landscape has changed over the decades: the previous laws featured minimum calorie levels but no maximums.) The new act gave USDA the power to establish nutrition standards for all of the food sold and served in schools.
In addition to lunches and breakfasts, this includes the so-called “competitive foods” available from vending machines and carts. There are now limits on the levels of saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, and calories, and the standards require that snacks be rich in whole grains and provide nutritional value. Drinks can contain no more than 40 calories per 8 fluid ounces, or 60 calories per 12 fluid ounces—numbers that rule out all regular sodas and Gatorades.
Healthier for kids also means healthier for the environment. (Another cartoon in the book, by Joel Pett, aptly illustrates the direct link between “soft-drink pushers” and damage to the natural landscape.) There’s a direct impact on the supply chain when school lunches are heavier on organically grown produce instead of (corn-fed) chicken coated in cornmeal and deep-fried in corn oil, for example.
Given the numbers involved, healthier school lunch standards should ultimately mean a shift in what is being grown and raised in this country. Fewer sodas in vending machines means less demand for high-fructose corn syrup and less acreage devoted to monocultures of corn. Fruit and vegetable salads replacing chicken fingers means less demand for antibiotic-laden factory-farm birds. In a logical world, greater demand for healthy crops to produce federal school lunch meals would translate into more support for them in the next Farm Bill.
There’s more to making school lunches better than just changing the rules, though, Nestle explained. The food has to taste good, too, and the kids have to actually eat it. “I have been in some of the best school lunch programs in the country,” she said, “and the kids weren’t eating.” They may avoid the meals for social reasons, she explained. “It may have a bad reputation. They may not like the way the cafeteria looks. They may not have time to eat.” (She blames the no-time-to-eat problem in part on an educational culture that’s fixated on testing and suggested that programs teaching kids about growing and cooking food can help overcome some of the other barriers.)
I asked Nestle about who’s getting it right, and she replied that the now-somewhat-famous program at the Calhoun School, located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, represents “the Platonic ideal” of what a school lunch operation can be. It doesn’t come as a huge shock that children eat well at an educational institution that charges in the neighborhood of $40,000 a year per student, but the man behind the program, French Culinary Institute-trained “Chef Bobo,” doesn’t just cook for rich kids.
He is a frequent speaker at conferences around the country on school lunches and healthy eating, and he regularly brings in cooks from other schools to intern in his kitchen, which features produce and chickens sourced from local vendors and includes a vegan option every day (see one of his recipes to the left). Several of Bobo’s sous chefs have gone on to start similar lunch programs at other schools, including at a public charter school in the Bronx.
Nationwide, Nestle said, there are more farm-to-table programs linking students with local farmers than ever before. Schools in cities and in the countryside are sowing their own kitchen gardens, and the three-year-old Food Corps supports a network of volunteers who work in poor communities to teach kids about healthy food, build school gardens, and help bring better food into public-school cafeterias.
Sure, school lunches still need work—someday that tomato paste will be called out for what it really is—but the fact is, we’ve come a very long way. “Look back ten years!” Nestle said in regard to the overall shift in this country’s dietary landscape. “Healthy food has gone mainstream.” Despite the entrenched interests, she said,changes are happening, in large part because Americans better understand the importance of what they put in their mouths. With Eat, Drink, Vote, the badass lunch lady furthers the cause.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Jocelyn Zuckerman is the former articles editor at OnEarth, the former executive editor of Whole Living and deputy editor of Gourmet, where she won a James Beard Award for feature writing in 2002. She is also an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and has written for the New York Times Magazine, Parade, and Plenty.