Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Dec 30 2016

Reading for the new year: Gary Taubes’ Case Against Sugar

Gary Taubes: The Case Against Sugar.  Knopf, 2016.

The title of this book says just what it is: a legal brief arguing that sugar is the cause of just about everything that ails us: obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, of course, but also cancer, high blood pressure and, therefore, stroke, as well as gout and Alzheimer’s disease.

This book makes a different argument: that sugars like sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup are fundamental causes of diabetes and obesity, using the same simple concept of causality that we employ when we say smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer.  It’s not because we eat too much of these sugars…but because they have unique physiological, metabolic, and endocrinological (i.e. hormonal) effects in the human body that directly trigger these disorders.

Sugar, Taubes says, is the basis of a simple unifying hypothesis—insulin resistance—to explain all of these conditions.  To make this case, he provides vast amounts of evidence: historical, observational, and interventional.

Is he right?  Many of his hypotheses are testable and it is greatly to his credit that he has organized the Nutrition Science Initiative (NuSi) to do just that.

Taubes is an excellent writer, clear and compelling, and he covers an enormous territory here, from slavery to manipulation of research by the sugar industry.

I worry that focusing on one substance—sugar—smacks of “nutritionism,” reducing the complexities of dietary patterns and health risks to just sugar.   I also think questions remain about the dietary context in which we consume sugar, particularly calories but also complex carbohydrates (starch), which gets digested to sugar—glucose.  Should we not be worried about excess glucose on its own?

If I understand the last chapter correctly, Taubes ducks the question of how much sugar is OK to eat.  Or maybe it’s not ducking.  Maybe what he is saying is that the only safe level of sugar is none.

If so, that is well below the 10% of calories recommended as an upper daily limit by the US Dietary Guidelines and the World Health Organization on the basis of those committees’ reviews of the science.

Let’s get those hypotheses tested.

In the meantime, I am all for eating less sugar.

If this book encourages people to cut down on sugar, it’s all to the good.

Dec 28 2016

Drink orange juice, says Pepsi

PepsiCo has pledged to put real money behind promoting healthy foods, and it is doing just that with a new Tropicana campaign—Morning Spark.

The idea is to get millennials to drink orange juice in the morning, especially Tropicana OJ.

The campaign is going on the APlus.com site, whose cofounder is Ashton Kutcher.

The idea is to

introduce Tropicana to new audiences in new ways, through compelling and engaging content that people can connect to and want to share. Approaching 70 years, Tropicana is a heritage brand and realizes that today, more than ever, we can bring something people truly need to America’s breakfast tables – positivity and optimism. We hope this is the first step in redefining what Tropicana stands for in America’s households.

Who writes these things?  Oh well.

Here’s what the campaign is doing: a social experiment video.  The press release says:

To create the first video, Tropicana visited a coffee shop in Brooklyn on a weekday morning to hand out compliments to people and see if it sparked a change in their attitude, and it did. To see people light up and smile when we told them something positive we noticed was truly amazing. We can’t wait to do more of these efforts with A Plus.  Celebrities who shared the launch video: Ashton Kutcher, Adam Levine, Robin Thicke and Lil Wayne.

What is this about really?  “The orange juice category has faced challenges including declining sales, nutrition misconceptions and disease threatening citrus crops.”

The campaign points out the benefits of OJ: One 8-ounce glass of Tropicana’s 100% orange juice provides:

  • A day’s supply of vitamin C – an antioxidant that promotes healthy skin and gums, helps your body to absorb iron from food and helps maintain a healthy immune system.
  • Folic acid, which is essential for women of childbearing age.
  • As much potassium as a banana. Potassium helps to maintain healthy blood pressure, among other benefits.

Funny thing: the campaign does not mention the 22 grams of sugars in 8 ounces.

Really, I have no trouble with 8 ounces of orange juice even though it must represent the juice of at least three oranges.

And really, freshly squeezed OJ is utterly delicious.  It is also less sweet than Tropicana.

For nutritional purists, an orange is a better choice.

But I’m totally for advertising healthier products, so let’s give Pepsi credit for this campaign.

Here’s what the Washington Post has to say about all this (I’m quoted)

Dec 27 2016

Marketing to kids

The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity has a new report out on TV food marketing to kids.

Even though the time kids spend watching TV has not changed much since 2008″

  • They are seeing more food ads per hour
  • White adolescents are seeing 18% more ads.
  • Black adolescents are seeing 30% more ads.

Get those kids outside this week!

Dec 25 2016

Food Politics, even on Christmas

Thanks to Maria Fernanda Gombi-Vaca in São Paulo for taking a photo of  Coca-Cola’s Christmas display.

Fortunately, Christmas tree ornaments have no sugar or calories…

Dec 23 2016

Weekend reading: Larry Cohen’s Prevention Diaries

Larry Cohen.  Prevention Diaries: The Practice and Pursuit of Health for All.  Oxford, 2016.

Image result for larry cohen prevention diaries

Larry Cohen is an old friend and I was happy to be asked to do a blurb for his terrific book:

Prevention Diaries is Larry Cohen’s intensely personal and introspective account of why stopping health problems before they start makes sense for individuals and for societies—and is possible.  His stories of how advocates have successfully intervened to prevent problems caused by unhealthy eating, cigarettes, automobiles, guns, violence, and system inequalities should inspire everyone interested in public health to get involved in prevention programs that will make a real difference in people’s lives.

Here’s a brief excerpt from his “food for thought” chapter:

The realities of our food system can feel overwhelming—too large and too entrenched to change all at once.  But, as with so many big problems, communities and businesses are taking valuable steps to create the system we want and need.  Indeed, it feels like the United States is at the beginning of a sea-change in its pproach to food—with a swell of interest in seemingly old approaches, like farmers’ markets, heirloom produce, and cooking from scratch, which benefit consumers and workers.  As the movement has been building, its momentum and innovation have increasingly started to reshape government policies and industry practices in ways that ensure all people can enjoy the fruits of a healthier food system (p. 93).

From his lips to God’s ear, as the saying goes.

Dec 22 2016

More on the industry-funded sugar guideline paper

The Associated Press reporter Candice Choi has a special interest in industry-funded research (as I do) and has been using emails obtained through FOIA requests to document connections between funders and researchers that otherwise would not come to light.

Yesterday, she reported some follow up on the article I was surprised to see published in the Annals of Internal Medicine—the one I wrote about in my last post.

Ms. Choi came up with these delicious tidbits:

  • Mars Inc., which is one of the companies that funds ILSI (the International Life Sciences Institute, which funded the study in the Annals charging that dietary guidelines for sugar are based on weak evidence), is now denouncing the study on the grounds that “the paper undermines the work of public health officials and makes all industry-funded research look bad…[and] creates more doubt for consumers rather than helping them make better choices.”
  • Mars is saying this even though emails show that two Mars executives knew about the study last year.
  • Mars now said it will make clear to ILSI hat it does not support such work.
  • ILSI’s executive director says ILSI devised the concept for the study, but the paper originally said that the authors wrote the protocol and conducted the study independently from the funder. Oops.  When confronted with the Associated Press emails “showing the group sent the authors ‘requested revisions’ on the proposal last year,” the journal corrected that statement to make clear that ILSI “reviewed and approved” the protocol.
  • One of the authors did not fully disclose her consulting and research agreements with companies that make high-sugar foods.  The AP had emails demonstrating this author’s financial ties to Coca-Cola and to ILSI for a previous grant on the same topic.  The Annals now show a more complete disclosure statement.

The point of all this is that when food companies sponsor research, they sometimes are much more involved in it than they would like to let on.

Mars is right.  These kinds of incidents make all industry-funded research look bad.  Mars should know.  It funds research to make chocolate look like a health food.

Dec 20 2016

Industry-funded study says advice to eat less sugar is based on bad science (surprise)

I haven’t posted an industry-funded study for a while, but here’s a good one.  This is a systematic review published in the Annals of Internal Medicine attacking dietary advice to eat less sugar on the grounds that such advice is not scientifically justified.

This one doesn’t pass the laugh test.

What are dietary guidelines supposed to do?  Tell people to eat more sugar?

This review is particularly peculiar:

  • It was funded by the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), a food-industry front group.
  • Two of the four authors consult for ILSI, and one of the two is on the scientific advisory board of Tate & Lyle, the British sugar company.
  • The authors admit that “given our funding source, our study team has a financial conflict of interest and readers should consider our results carefully.”  No kidding.
  • It was published by a prestigious medical journal.  Why?
  • It is accompanied by an editorial that thoroughly demolishes every single one of the authors’ arguments.

I can understand why ILSI wanted this review.  Many of its funders make sugary foods and drinks.  They would like to:

  • Cast doubt on the vast amounts of research linking excessive sugar intake to poor health.
  • Discredit dietary guidelines aimed at reducing sugar consumption.
  • Head off regulatory attempts to tax or label added sugars.

In funding this study, ILSI is following the tobacco industry playbook to the letter.  Strategy #1 is to cast doubt on the science.

When the 2015 Dietary Guidelines came out with a recommendation to restrict sugar intake to 10% of calories or less, the Sugar Association called it“agenda-based, not science-based.”  The Annals review says international sugar guidelines do not “meet criteria for trustworthy recommendations and are based on low-quality evidence.”

I detect a theme here.

But I ask again: what are dietary guidelines supposed to do?  We cannot lock up large numbers of people and feed them controlled amounts of sugar for decades and see what happens.  Short of that, we have to do the best we can with observational and intervention studies, none of which can ever meet rigorous standards for proof.  So this review is stating the obvious.

Take a look at the accompanying editorial.  After destroying each of the flawed premises of this review, it concludes:

Industry documents show that the F&B [Food & Beverage] industry has manipulated research on sugars for public relations purposes….Accordingly, high quality journals could refrain from publishing studies on health effects of added sugars funded by entities with commercial interests in the outcome. In summary, our concerns about the funding source and methods of the current review preclude us from accepting its conclusion that recommendations to limit added sugar consumption to less than 10% of calories are not trustworthy. Policymakers, when confronted with claims that sugar guidelines are based on “junk science,” should consider whether “junk food” was the source.

I don’t ever remember seeing a paper accompanied by an invited editorial that trashes it, as this one did, but this incident suggests a useful caution.

Whenever you hear that something isn’t “science-based,” look carefully to see who is paying for it.

The press coverage

Dec 19 2016

USDA issues rules to protect poultry growers: a compromise, but still better

USDA has just released three sets of GIPSA rules governing poultry grower ranking (“tournament”) systems (GIPSA stands for Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration).

These are draconian systems in which poultry growers working for giant, vertically integrated poultry companies compete with each other for payments.

The system works like this:

The vertically integrated live poultry dealer provides the chicks, feed, and medication to poultry growers who house and feed the birds under a contract. The poultry grower grows the birds to market size (preferred weight for slaughter) and then, after slaughter, receives a settlement check for that flock. The payment received depends on how efficiently the poultry grower converted feed to meat as compared to the other poultry growers in the settlement group.

It’s hard to begin to imagine how unfair this system can be.

The poultry companies control the following inputs and production variables: chick health, number of chicks placed, feed quality, medications, growout time, breed and type of bird, weighing of the birds, and weighing of the feed.

And on top of this, “company employees who are also poultry growers get preferential treatment and may get better birds or get to keep flocks longer.”

Or, as GIPSA’s Q and A puts it:

For example, if a chicken grower attempts to organize other chicken growers to bargain for better pay or publicly expresses unhappiness with the way they are being treated by a processor, they can suffer retaliation. Processors can require growers to make investments that are not economically justifiable for the grower, or can terminate contracts with little notice. And because in contract growing the processors own the birds and provide inputs like feed, they can choose to provide poultry growers with bad feed or sickly birds that have a higher mortality rate, which cuts deeply into a grower’s opportunity to earn income on those birds.

The USDA press release pointed out that

the four largest poultry processors control 51 percent of the broiler market and 57 percent of the turkey market.  In part due to this concentration, poultry growers often have limited options for processors available in their local communities: 52 percent of growers have only one or two processors in their state or region to whom they can sell.  That means processors can often wield market power over the growers, treating them unfairly, suppressing how much they are paid, or pitting them against each other.

GIPSA initially proposed rules in 2010 that would protect growers from some of these abuses by paying them more fairly, but the industry objected.  It doesn’t like the revised rules either.  As the National Chicken Council puts it, “Obama Administration Strangles Poultry and Livestock Producers with New, Controversial Regulations.”  And the pork producers say they will work with president Trump to get rid of the rule.

The current proposals are a compromise, but a reasonably good one.  The proposal establishes criteria that the USDA Secretary may use to determine:

whether a live poultry dealer has used a poultry grower ranking system to compensate poultry growers in an unfair, unjustly discriminatory, or deceptive manner, or in a way that gives an undue or unreasonable preference or advantage to any poultry grower or subjects any poultry grower to an undue or unreasonable prejudice or disadvantage.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition says the rules

finally give the largely toothless act some bite. The “Farmer Fair Practices Rules” published today…will provide much-needed protections to contract farmers in the poultry and livestock industry.

Food and Water Watch says (via email)

These proposed and interim rules provide important, though modest, protections for farmers, but fall far short of the safeguards mandated by the 2008 Farm Bill. Hopefully, these rules can provide a foundation for strengthening farmer protections in the face of an increasingly consolidated poultry, hog and cattle slaughter and processing industry.

But I particularly love the tell-it-like-it-is statement from the Government Accountability Project’s Amanda Hitt (also via email):

It’s been a long time since we have been in a position to praise the Department of Agriculture, but today, Secretary Vilsack got it right…The GIPSA rules that came out today are not only a welcome attempt to right a series of wrongs that heretofore have gone unchecked, but are also simple common sense.

These farmers…were lied to and manipulated by a corporate machine that has been using its political influence to profit at the peril of the American farmer. This is not a partisan issue; this is about putting limits on corporate greed. I hope that all can agree that something needs to be done and that these rules are an important first step.

Here are the relevant documents:

 

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