Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Feb 24 2014

A big week for Let’s Move! It starts, alas, with WAT-AAH!

Rumors are flying that Let’s Move! will announce significant accomplishments this week.

From what I can piece together from ProPolitico and press conference announcements, they go on all week.

  • Tuesday: School wellness policies
  • Wednesday: Food assistance programs other than SNAP
  • Thursday:  The Nutrition Facts label

These promise to be more useful than Mrs. Obama’s visit to the New Museum in New York to celebrate a pop-up exhibit organized by WAT-AAH!, a company that makes bottled water—marketed specifically to kids.

The company is a supporter of Let’s Move!’s Drink Up! campaign.

Its bottled waters are “functional,” meaning ostensibly nutritionally enhanced in some way.

For example, its “Power” product says it is:

Ultra pure water!

Bone-building magnesium!

Absolutely NO SUGAR!

Taste like pure clean water!

Sounds like plain, ordinary water to me (unless the amount of magnesium is substantial, which seems unlikely—I can’t find a Nutrition Facts label for it).

The idea here is to get kids who won’t drink water to drink bottled water aimed specifically at them—at $1.50 a pop.

This was great publicity for the company, but I sure wish Drink Up! would emphasize how terrific tap water is, especially in New York City, where it really is terrific.

Added comments:  A reader points out that WAT-AAH!’s health claims are difficult to substantiate (e.g., boosted oxygen level, brain function), and are just the kinds of claims that concern the FTC.  

And, despite Drink Up!’s public stance on how tap water is just fine, WAT-AAH! puts down tap water.  To check both the claims and the put down, go to the website, click on WAT-AAH! Drinks!, then on Just the Facts, and scroll on down.  

You will find plenty of highly iffy health claims, along with this:

Screenshot 2014-02-24 14.36.38

OK, so this is about marketing so what’s the big deal?  I can think of several reasons for concern:

  • It’s marketing bottled water.
  • It’s marketing directly to kids.
  • It’s marketed with absurd health claims.
  • It claims to be substantially better for kids than tap water.
  • It’s endorsed by the First Lady.

The FTC has gone after health claims just like these.  Can it go after WAT-AAH!’s claims and, thereby, take on the First Lady?

This is what happens—all too often—when health programs try to partner with private industry.  The private industry invariably wins, and the health partner loses credibility.

 

Feb 21 2014

Reading for the weekend: Lethal But Legal

Nick Freudenberg.  Lethal but Legal: Corporations, Consumption, and Protecting Public Health.  Oxford, 2014.

Lethal But Legal

 

I spoke last night on a panel celebrating the release of this book.  I gave it a rave blurb:

Lethal But Legal is a superb, magnificently written, courageous, and thoroughly compelling exposé of how corporations selling cigarettes, guns, cars, drugs, booze, and food and beverages enrich themselves at the expense of public health.  Even more important, Freudenberg tells us how we can organize to counter corporate power and achieve a healthier and more sustainable environment.  This book should be required reading for anyone who cares about promoting health, protecting democratic institutions, and achieving a more equitable and just society.

I will be using this one in classes.  Congratulations to Nick Freudenberg, director of Hunter College’s Food Policy Center, for producing this distinguished work of scholarship.

Feb 19 2014

Brazil’s new dietary guidelines: food-based!

Brazil has issued new dietary guidelines open for public comment.  For the Brazilian Dietary Guidelines document (in Portuguese), click here..

Brazilian health officials designed the guidelines to help protect against undernutrition, which is already declining sharply in Brazil, but also to prevent the health consequences of overweight and obesity, which are sharply increasing in that country.

The guidelines are remarkable in that they are based on foods that Brazilians of all social classes eat every day, and consider the social, cultural, economic and environmental implications of food choices.

The guide’s three “golden rules:”

  • Make foods and freshly prepared dishes and meals the basis of your diet.
  • Be sure oils, fats, sugar and salt are used in moderation in culinary preparations.
  • Limit the intake of ready-to-consume products and avoid those that are ultra-processed.

The ten Brazilian guidelines:

  1. Prepare meals from staple and fresh foods.
  2. Use oils, fats, sugar and salt in moderation.
  3. Limit consumption of ready-to-consume food and drink products
  4. Eat regular meals, paying attention, and in appropriate environments.
  5. Eat in company whenever possible.
  6. Buy food at places that offer varieties of fresh foods. Avoid those that mainly sell products ready for consumption.
  7. Develop, practice, share and enjoy your skills in food preparation and cooking.
  8. Plan your time to give meals and eating proper time and space.
  9. When you eat out, choose restaurants that serve freshly made dishes and meals. Avoid fast food chains.
  10. Be critical of the commercial advertisement of food products.

Now if only our Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee would take note and do the same?

Would you like us to have sensible, unambiguous food-based guidelines like these?  You can file comments on the 2015 Dietary Guidelines here.

Thanks to Professor Carlos A. Monteiro of the Department of Nutrition, School of Public Health at the University of Sao Paulo for sending the guidelines and for their translation, and for his contribution to them.

Feb 18 2014

To start the work week: “Caffeinated”

Murray Carpenter.  Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts, and Hooks Us.  Hudson Street Press, 2014.

I learned some things I didn’t know about caffeine from this book, which is why I blurbed it:

Caffeinated is a surprising exposé of the “caffeine industrial complex,” the industry that markets this substance in every form it can.  This book compellingly argues that the health hazards of excessive caffeine intake need more attention and better regulation.  I’m convinced.  You will be too.

Feb 17 2014

In Memorium: Sid Caesar

Thanks to Deborah Szekeley for forwarding this link to an evening in the 1950s when Sid Caesar, who died last week, went to dinner with Imogene Coca at a health food restaurant in New York.

Perhaps it is still open?

 

Feb 14 2014

President’s Day Weekend Reading: The Diet Fix

Yoni Freedhoff.  The Diet Fix: Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work.  Harmony Books, 2014.

Ordinarily I don’t pay much attention to diet books but this one comes from the Canadian obesity physician, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, whose Weighty Matters blog is fun to read and well worth following.

The key to healthy dieting, he says, is to avoid dieting’s seven deadly sins: hunger, sacrifice, willpower, restriction, sweat, perfectionism, and denial.

This sounds hopeful.

Instead, you are to reset your relationship with food forever, starting with a 10-day preliminary experiment in which you get ready, keep a diary, banish hunger, cook, think, exercise, indulge, eat out, and set goals.  Then you move forward, one day at a time.

“You absolutely CAN do this,” he says.

This is a seriously mindful weight-loss program that works well for his patients.  It ought to.

Give it a try?

The book even comes with recipes.

Feb 12 2014

Sugar v. HFCS: How I got involved in this lawsuit

Eric Lipton of the New York Times, who wrote Monday’s revelation of how the National Restaurant Association funds front groups to fight a raise in the minimum wage, has just topped that story.

Today, he writes an enlightening account of the legal battles between sugar and HFCS trade associations over marketing issues, in which I seem to have played a part.  The story quotes me:

Marion Nestle, a New York University professor and nutrition expert named in several documents [scroll down to "Using Marion Nestle"] as someone whom corn industry executives sought to influence, said the role both industries played was unfortunate.

“It is a plague on both of their houses,” she said, adding that she felt manipulated by the corn refiners industry, which used her statements to defend its products. “It is a disgusting performance neither should be proud of.”

Mr. Lipton sent me two of the documents last night (letters from Audrae Erickson of the Corn Refiners Association to Larry Hobbs of the Institute of Beverage Technologists, and to J. Justin Wilson of Rick Berman’s public relations arm of the Center for Consumer Freedom).

Here’s my recollection of how I ended up in this lawsuit:

Yes, I argue that the science shows that sucrose (table sugar) and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) contain the same sugars—glucose and fructose—and do much the same things in the body.  I think everyone would be better off eating a lot less of either.  I repeated this in many blog posts over the years.

Sometime in 2010, Christopher Speed, then director of food and nutrition sciences at Ogilvy Public Relations, asked if I would meet with his client, Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association (CRA).  I agreed, provided the CRA make a contribution to the NYU library’s food studies collection for cataloging expenses.  This turned out to be $1,500.  We met.

Shortly after that, my statements about the equivalence of sucrose and HFCS appeared on the Corn Refiners’ website.

I asked to have the comments removed.

Ms. Erickson’s response?  My comments were public and if I wanted them removed I could take the CRA to court.

That ended our correspondence.

From Mr. Lipton’s account I learned for the first time of the CRA’s involvement with the Center for Consumer Freedom (see previous blog posts).

This explains what had been a great mystery.  The Center for Consumer Freedom has not exactly been my great fan.  It features me under ActivistCash, and usually has rather unpleasant things to say about my work and opinions.

But with respect to my opinions about sucrose v. HFCS, its comments were quite complimentary.  I should have realized that CRA was paying the Center, via Berman, to do this.

I was also fascinated to learn:

  • The CRA spent $30 million since 2008 on public relations.
  • Of that, $10 million funded research by James Rippe to prove HFCS is no different from sucrose (something you would learn from any basic biochemistry textbook).
  • Mr. Rippe got a $41,000 monthly retainer from the CRA.

Clearly, I should have asked for a lot bigger donation to our library.

Thanks Eric Lipton, for terrific investigative reporting.  Please do more of these.

Addition, July 28, 2014: I’m cleaning up files and just came across the two excellent articles in the Washington Post on the “soft lobbying” war between The Sugar Association and the Corn Refiners, and on how “the sweetener wars got very, very sour.”  Sour, indeed.

Feb 11 2014

Room for Debate: CVS to stop selling cigarettes

The New York Times Room for Debate blog asked me to comment on What other unhealthy products should CVS stop selling?

Here’s my response: Next, Cut the Soda and Junk Food.

Good for CVS! Cigarettes are in a class by themselves. The evidence that links cigarette smoking to lung cancer and other serious health problems is overwhelming, unambiguous and incontrovertible. So is the evidence that the mere presence of cigarettes is sufficient to create demand, especially among young people.

When the anti-cigarette smoking movement began, the issues were simple: stop people from starting to smoke and get people who smoked to stop — by making it difficult, uncomfortable and expensive for smokers to continue their habit. The ultimate goal? Put cigarette companies out of business. This, of course, has been politically impossible, not least because cigarette companies pay such high taxes.

If CVS wants to promote health, it could increase sales of healthy snacks, and stop selling sugary foods and drinks.

Although there are many parallels in company marketing practices, food is not tobacco. For all tobacco products, the response is simple: stop. Food is more complicated. We must eat to survive. A great number of foods meet nutritional needs. The evidence that links a particular food product to health is often uncertain. This is because each food is only one component of a diet that contains many foods in a lifestyle that might involve other factors that affect health: activity, alcohol, drugs, stress and let’s not forget genetics.

With that said, if CVS really wants to promote health, it could consider increasing its sales of fruits, vegetables and healthy snacks, and stop selling sodas, ice cream, chips and other junk foods. Those foods may not have the same bad effect on health as tobacco, but eating too much of them on a regular basis is associated with weight gain, obesity and the conditions for which obesity is a risk factor, like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. If CVS wants to counter obesity, dropping soft drinks is a good place to start. They have scads of sugars, and kids who drink them regularly take in more calories, are fatter and have worse diets than kids who do not.

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