Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Mar 3 2014

Let’s Move! scores one more: No white potatoes in the WIC package

On Friday afternoon (that slow news moment), Let’s Move! and the USDA announced the release of the long-awaited Final Rules governing foods eligible for purchase by participants in WIC–The Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children.

These are the first such revisions since 1980.  The rules:

  • Increase the dollar amount for purchases of fruits and vegetables.
  • Expand whole grain options.
  • Allow for yogurt as a partial milk substitute.
  • Allow parents of older infants to buy fresh produce instead of jarred infant food
  • Give states and local WIC agencies more flexibility in meeting the nutritional and cultural needs of WIC participants.

These are good moves but the big news is that the USDA stood up to lobbyists for the potato industry who have pushed the White House and Congress to allow participants to buy white potatoes with their WIC funds.

As I noted in an earlier post, the exclusion of white potatoes follows recommendations of the Institute of Medicine based on observations that WIC mothers already buy plenty of them.

Potato lobbyists got Congress to insert language in the 2014 Agriculture Appropriations bill urging the USDA to allow white potatoes in the package.

The USDA responded by asking the Institute of Medicine to reexamine the WIC food package in time for reauthorization of child nutrition programs in 2015.  This is now underway.

Although WIC is a small program relative to SNAP, it still provides about $7 billion a year for its nearly 9 million participants.

Food companies fight fiercely to ensure that their products are eligible to be purchased with WIC funds.  The potato lobbyists got Congress to intervene in USDA rules on school meals.

They must have thought they could win this one too.

It’s encouraging when public health wins out over industry lobbying.

But this one is small potatoes.  How about a few wins against Big Food?

Feb 28 2014

The food label proposals: some follow-up items

Release of the FDA’s proposals for revisions of the Nutrition Facts label got, to say the least, lots of attention.

A few items need some follow up.

The politics

The best discussion of the First Lady’s involvement in the new food label comes from Helena Bottemiller Evich at Politico:

The reaction of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA)

How’s this for a brilliant response?

We welcome First Lady Michelle Obama’s announcement of the proposed updates to the Nutrition Facts panel and thank her for her leadership on this and broader health issues.  The nation could not ask for a more thoughtful, effective or passionate advocate than Michelle Obama.

For 20 years, the Nutrition Facts panel has been an invaluable tool to help consumers build more healthful diets for themselves and their families, and the time is right for an update.

Diets, eating patterns and consumer preferences have changed dramatically since the Nutrition Facts were first introduced.  Just as food and beverage manufacturers have responded by creating more than 20,000 healthier product choices since 2002, and by providing tools like Facts Up Front front-of-pack labels, the FDA is responding with a thoughtful review of the Nutrition Facts panel.

We look forward to working with the FDA and other stakeholders as these proposed updates to the Nutrition Facts label make their way through the rule making process.

It is critical that any changes are based on the most current and reliable science.  Equally as important is ensuring that any changes ultimately serve to inform, and not confuse, consumers.

How you can file comments

A frustrated reader complains that he can’t find information on the FDA’s website about how to file comments.     That’s because the proposals haven’t been published yet.

They are scheduled for publication in the Federal Register on March 3.  Look for instructions then.  After that, the FDA will collect comments for 90 days.

Two sets of proposed rules will be open for comment:

Start drafting comments now!

Feb 27 2014

FDA’s new food label: much improved!

The FDA is proposing an updated food label today.  How’s this for a surprise? I like it!

First, consider the old one that went into effect 20 years ago:

FLold

In developing this label, the FDA tested several designs.  The public could not understand any of the prototypes, so the FDA picked this one because it was the best of a bad lot (the least worst).

If you think it should be easy to revise, consider that its explanation required about 900 pages in the Federal Register of January 6, 1993.

Now take a look at the FDA’s proposed changes:

FLproposed

The FDA also proposes an alternate design that clarifies which Daily Values are floors (“eat more”) and which are ceilings (“eat less”):

FLalt (1)

Another improvement: updating of portion sizes.  The old ones were based on serving sizes reported in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  The new label recognizes that portion sizes are much larger than they used to be.

Screenshot 2014-02-26 12.42.38 - Copy

The ice cream example: A serving used to be a laughable half cup.  Now it’s a cup.

The soda example: A serving used to be 8 ounces.  Now it’s a more realistic 12—or 20—ounces.

The other significant changes:

  • Require listing “added sugars.”   Yes!
  • For packages that are likely to be eaten at one time, require “dual column” labels to indicate both “per serving” and “per package” information.  
  • Require the declaration of potassium and vitamin D.  Vitamins A and C can be listed voluntarily.
  • Revise some Daily Values to reflect recent science.
  • Remove “calories from fat” (the kind of fat matters more than the amount).
  • Emphasize calories, serving sizes and Percent Daily Value.

The details will come in a Federal Register notice to be released today (see links below).

My take?  These changes should make the label easier for everyone to understand and use.

My preference?  I like the Alternate Proposal, and can’t wait to see if anyone else does.

The FDA will be collecting comments for 90 days.  Weigh in!  The food industry certainly will.

In the meantime, congratulations to the FDA for a job well done and to Let’s Move! for inspiring the changes and moving them along.

FDA Resources

Feb 26 2014

Is obesity really leveling off? Yes, and falling in kids ages 2 to 5!

The biggest story—front page, right column—in the New York Times today is CDC’s report of a 43% drop in obesity among children ages 2 to 5 in the last decade.

  • 2003-2004: 14%
  • 2011-2012:   8%

A change this large is highly unusual.

The data come from a report in JAMA which found no change in overall obesity prevalence in that decade among infants and toddlers, youth ages 2 to 19, or adults.  When looking at the data for subgroups, however, the authors found two exceptions:

  • The big decline in obesity among children ages 2 to 5
  • A big increase in obesity among women ages 60 and older (oops)

What to make of this?

The decline in obesity among young children is consistent with previous reports, although these showed a smaller change.

To examine what the data show, it helps to look at an illustration.  The JAMA paper does not provide one, but a reporter sent me this:

Screenshot 2014-02-26 08.17.27

The lower curve is for children ages 2 to 5.  It shows a sharp uptick in 2003-2004 (what was that about?), followed by a decline in 2007-2008.  The new data extend the decline a little further.

Any decline in the rising prevalence of obesity is cause for celebration.  So is the no change in a decade among almost everyone else.

The reasons?  I can only speculate but the “eat less junk food and move more” message must be getting out.

Feb 25 2014

Let’s Move! announces universal school meals !

Let’s Move! is making several sensational announcements today.

Announcement #1: Universal school meals

This one is extraordinary: Schools with 40% or more of children eligible for free or reduced-price meals will be able to serve free breakfasts and free lunches to every student in the school, regardless of family income.

This means an end to:

  • USDA paperwork requirements for ensuring eligibility.
  • Parents having to fill out complicated eligibility forms.
  • Schools having to monitor to make sure kids’ families have turned in the paperwork or paid.
  • Schools turning away kids whose families haven’t paid.
  • Schools destroying the meals of kids whose families haven’t paid.
  • Students knowing who gets free meals, and who does not.

Guess what:  This program, which will affect 22,000 U.S. schools and 9 million children, is cost-neutral.

How is this possible?

  • No more tedious, labor-intensive, expensive paperwork and monitoring.
  • More student participation means more reimbursement.

This is just what school food advocates have been saying for years (see, for example, Janet Poppendieck’s Free For All: Fixing School Food in America).

For this alone, Let’s Move! deserves enthusiastic congratulations.

Announcement #2: limits on marketing junk foods and sodas in schools

As discussed in ObamaFoodorama today, USDA’s new rules will:

  • Ban the marketing of unhealthy foods to children on school grounds.
  • Phase out on-campus advertising for sodas and junk foods at schools during the school day.
  • Apply the ban to places such as scoreboards on football fields and in gymnasiums, on vending machines, and on menu posters, cups and plates in cafeterias.

This is good news and a terrific step in the right direction, even though there are plenty of loopholes:

  • Scoreboards with Coke logos, for example, can be phased out over time.
  • After-school fundraisers and concessions at sports events are exempt.
  • Schools can opt out.

These announcements are a tribute to the persistent work of school food advocates over a great many years.

But there is still plenty of room for more advocacy:

  • Universal meals for all public schools.
  • Closing the loopholes on junk food marketing to kids.
  • Ensuring compliance with school meal standards.

The relevant documents

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.

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