Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
May 3 2010

Bylines: San Francisco Chronicle (Sugars) and Newsweek (Calories)

Two articles I’ve written are in journals this week: a short one in Newsweek (!) and my monthly Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle.

New York’s Calorie Counts: A Good National Model (Newsweek, April 30 online and May 10 in print)

The new health-care law contains an overlooked boost for nutritionists like me: by next year, all national chains with more than 20 locations must offer “clear and conspicuous” calorie information. It’s the most important obesity-related public policy since the USDA’s food pyramid. But reception to the new mandate has been muted so far, largely because the benefits of New York City’s similar 2008 law seem minor: one study found just 15 fewer calories were consumed per meal; another reported it was 30; and a third found that people ate more.

The problem with these studies is that they focus on Starbucks customers and fast-food goers in low-income neighborhoods—patrons who often care about convenience and value above all. They also fail to capture the long-term benefits of calorie counting, namely education and social pressure. Labels will offer case-by-case lessons in exactly what 1,000 calories looks like, and they may even spur restaurants to ease up on sugar and fat. (Denny’s, McDonald’s, and Cosi, among others, have debuted lighter fare in New York City.) Of course, much depends on the definition of “clear and conspicuous.” Still, the country’s nutritional literacy is about to improve—making my job a lot easier.

Sugary school meals hit lobbyists’ sweet spot (San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, May 2)

Nutrition and public policy expert Marion Nestle answers readers’ questions in this monthly column written exclusively for The Chronicle. E-mail your questions to food@sfchronicle.com, with “Marion Nestle” in the subject line.

Q: I’m stunned by the amount of sugar my daughter is served routinely in school: candied cereals, flavored milk, Pop Tarts, breakfast cookies, fruit juice – 15 teaspoons of sugar, just in breakfast. Why no standards for regulating sugar in school meals, especially when obesity and diabetes are such concerns?

A: Politics, of course. The U.S. Department of Agriculture spends $12 billion a year on school meals. Kids buy foods from snack carts and vending machines. Food companies fight fiercely to protect their shares in that bounty.

If you watched “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution,” you witnessed the struggle to get sugary foods out of schools. Fifteen teaspoons – 60 grams and 240 calories – is a lot for breakfast, but kids get even more sugar from snacks, treats from teachers and birthday cupcakes.

Sugars were never a problem when we supported school lunch programs decently. That changed when schools ran out of money, sought vending contracts with soft drink companies and encouraged kids to buy sodas and snacks. Schools evaded restrictions on snack sales during lunch periods. Nobody paid much attention to what kids ate in schools – until kids began getting fatter.

Why no standards? Nobody wants to take on the sugar lobbyists.

In 1977, a Senate committee recommended an upper limit of 10 percent of calories from added sugars. This was so controversial that from 1980 to 2000, the Dietary Guidelines gave no percentages when they said “eat less sugar.” The 1992 food pyramid said “Use sugars only in moderation.” It defined moderation in teaspoons – for example, 12 a day in a diet of 2,200 calories, which comes to less than 10 percent of calories. By then, health officials in at least 30 countries had adopted the 10 percent sugar guideline.

A committee of the Institute of Medicine undermined that consensus. Because science provides only circumstantial evidence for the effects of sugars on obesity and other health problems, the committee suggested a safe maximum of 25 percent of calories. Sugar trade associations happily interpreted this percentage as a recommendation.

In 2003, the World Health Organization issued a research report restating the 10 percent guideline. Using the IOM report as evidence, sugar trade associations enlisted senators from sugar-growing states to lobby U.S. government officials to withdraw funding from WHO. They also lobbied governments of sugar-growing countries to oppose the 10 percent guideline. WHO dropped the 10 percent sugar guideline.

Dietary guidelines are the basis of federal nutrition policy. The 2005 guidelines advised limits on sugars without stating a percentage. In a footnote, the guidelines said that sugars could be part of a day’s “discretionary calories,” defined as 2 to 8 teaspoons a day. This is less than 10 percent of calories, but the guidelines do not say so explicitly.

Neither does the USDA’s 2005 pyramid, which personalizes diet plans based on age, activity level and gender. I, for example, am allowed 195 discretionary calories for added fats and sugars. If I use them all for sugars, I get to eat 12 teaspoons – about 10 percent of my daily calories. This is less than the amount your daughter ate for breakfast or the sugars in a 20-ounce soda. Hence: lobbying.

Will we get an explicit sugar policy when Congress gets around to reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act? The draft bill says nothing about sugars but does require school foods to adhere to “science-based” nutrition standards based on the dietary guidelines. If so, this means a maximum of 10 percent of calories from added sugars.

The IOM has just released a “School Meals” report. This says that with careful planning, 10 percent should provide enough sugar discretionary calories to permit sweetened low-fat milk, yogurt and breakfast cereals. The IOM warns that without these sweetened foods, student participation rates and nutrient intakes might decline.

Sorry, but I don’t buy the “kids won’t eat it” argument. I’ve seen plenty of schools where kids eat unsweetened foods. Somehow, they survive. Kids will eat healthier foods when meals are prepared by adults who care what kids eat, as Oliver has demonstrated.

As for legislation, California led the way with the 2007 school food nutrition standards bill, which regulated soda sales and the amount of sugar in snacks. Companies responded by reducing the sugars in their products. Passing the Child Nutrition Act will help, but its big drawback is funding. The draft bill increases school reimbursements by only about 6 cents per meal, not enough to meet costs in many school districts and much less than the $1 increase that many believe necessary.

But with luck, 2010 will bring us national legislation and improved editions of the dietary guidelines and pyramid. Let’s hope these make it easier for schools to help kids cut down on sugars.

Note: Nestle and Malden Nesheim will speak about their new book, “Feed Your Pet Right,” at 3 p.m. May 22 at Omnivore Books in San Francisco and at 3 p.m. May 23 at Point Reyes Books in Point Reyes Station.  Addition: Holistic Hound, Berkeley, Tuesday, May 18, 6:30 p.m.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Food Politics,” “Safe Food” and “What to Eat,” and is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University. E-mail her at food@sfchronicle.com and read her previous columns at sfgate.com/food.  This article appeared on page K – 8.

May 2 2010

Need a reason to eat at IHOP? Try “cheesecake stackers”

I’m indebted to the Associated Press for telling me about IHOP’s latest challenge to the KFC Double Down: a pancake sandwich with cheesecake filling.  Yum.

For some reason, IHOP does not provide calorie information for this creation.  One can only imagine.  Happy weekend!

Apr 30 2010

Food politics: our government at work (and play)

I’ve been collecting items sent to me this week about government actions at the local, state, and national level.  Here’s the weekend round up.

Santa Clara County, California, Board of Supervisors bans toys in kids meals: On April 27, the San Jose Mercury News announced that this county, clearly at the vanguard of actions to help prevent childhood obesity, passed a groundbreaking law banning toys in kids’ meals that do not meet minimal nutrition standards (the very ones I talked about in a previous post).  Companies can still give out toys in meals, as long as the meals meet those standards.  What an excellent idea.  Let’s hope this idea catches on in other communities.

Here’s the press release, a a fact sheet on childhood obesity, and remarks by the president of the board of supervisors, along with recommendations from the local public health agency.  Thanks to Michele Simon for the documents.

Connecticut state legislature plays computer games: This photo, attributed to the Associated Press, arrived from Michelle Futrell.  I worried that it might be Photoshopped.  Whether it is or not, it is flying around the Internet, in versions that clearly identify each of hard-at-play legislators.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) teaches kids about marketing: The FTC regulates advertising, including food advertising, and it must be getting increasingly concerned about the effects of marketing on kids.  To counter some of these effects, it has created a website, Admongo.gov, an interactive site to teach kids about advertising.  After playing these games, the FTC wants kids to be able to answer these questions:

  • Who is responsible for the ad?
  • What is the ad actually saying?
  • What does the ad want me to do?

The New York Times concludes: “Perhaps the effort comes not a moment too soon. Adweek devotes this week’s issue to “Kids” and “How the industry is striving to conquer this coveted market.” Thanks to Lisa Young for sending the links.

The FDA asks for comments on front-of-package (FOP) labeling: Patricia Kuntze, a consumer affairs advisor at the FDA sends the April 28 press release and the April 29 Federal Register notice announcing the FDA’s call for public comment on this topic.  The agency particularly wants data on:

  • The extent to which consumers notice, use, and understand FOP nutrition symbols or shelf tags
  • Results of research examining the effectiveness of various FOP approaches
  • Graphic design, marketing, and advertising that will help consumers understand nutrition information
  • The extent to which FOP labeling influences food manufacturers’ decisions about the contents of their products

The goal, says the FDA, is to make “calorie and nutrition information available to consumers in ways that will help them choose foods for more healthful diets – an effort that has taken on special importance, given the prevalence of obesity and diet-related diseases in the U.S. and of increasingly busy lifestyles that demand quick, nutritious food.”

Here is a speech on the topic by FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D.  For information about how to submit comments, click here. To submit comments, refer to docket FDA-2010-N-0210 and click here. You have until July 28 to do it.

Public comment, of course, includes the food industry and a FoodNavigator call for industry comment cites my recent commentary in JAMA with David Ludwig.  I’m glad food industry people are reading it and I hope the FDA does too.

The White House equivocates on organics: What’s going on with the White House garden?  Is it organic or not?   Michael Pollan forwards this item from the Associated Press:

Assistant White House Chef Sam Kass, an old friend of President Barack Obama’s who oversees the garden, says labeling the crops “organic” isn’t the point, even though the White House only uses natural, not synthetic, fertilizers and pesticides.

“To come out and say (organic) is the one and only way, which is how this would be interpreted, doesn’t make any sense,” Kass said Monday as he walked among the garden’s newly planted broccoli, rhubarb, carrots and spinach. “This is not about getting into all that. This is about kids.”

Uh oh.  Has “Organic” become the new O-word?  Surely, the White House is not secretly pouring herbicides and pesticides over its garden vegetables.  If not, are we hearing a small indication of big agribusiness pushback?

Apr 29 2010

Living Liberally Annual Celebration May 1

I am being honored by Living Liberally at the group’s annual celebration.  Come celebrate with me!

When: Saturday, May 1st – 7-11pm
Where: The DCTV Firehouse, 87 Lafayette St, between Walker & White, in lower Manhattan

How: Get tickets here.

What Living Liberally is about:

For the past 7 years, Living Liberally has been creating progressive social communities across the country. In New York, you’ve enjoyed happy hours, comedy shows, film screenings, forums, guest speakers and so much more.

Around the country, people need this type of liberal network more than ever. As we hear about the Tea Baggers in the news, many of us ask,  “Where is OUR Tea Party?”

Well, the fact is there are liberals in over 300 cities that are drinking something stiffer than weak tea. Drinking Liberally chapters are often the first stop for candidates trying to reach progressive audiences and for local advocates looking to recruit for their campaigns.

In some cities, it’s the only event that welcomes “liberals,” providing a necessary destination for those who want to create a more progressive future for our country. The Liberally team is only able to create this network with your support. Each year, the Annual Celebration gathers allies, honors partners and pulls in the necessary resources for the work ahead.

This year, we’ll be honoring the Service Employees International Union, a great ally to the progressive grassroots; and Dr. Marion Nestle, a food policy activist who helps us all Eat and Live Liberally.

At the event, we’ll also enjoy great sustainable food from Eating Liberally, toast with an open bar and celebrate in terrific political company.

Apr 28 2010

KFC’s Double Down again. Sigh.

I can’t believe I’m writing about the bunless Double Down sandwich for the fourth time (see previous posts), but KFC’s marketing department never ceases to amaze.  In reading the company’s press releases, I somehow missed what KFC is doing with the “missing” buns: donating them to food banks!

When introducing a bunless sandwich, the obvious question is: what happens to all the buns? To celebrate the launch of the Double Down, KFC will do some good by donating the “unneeded” sandwich buns to feed the hungry….it’s great to find a good home for some of those ‘unneeded’ KFC buns at food banks around the country.

The mind, as they say, boggles.  You need go no further to understand why we need a more rational and effective food assistance policy in this country.

Could KFC’s relentless marketing efforts be acts of desperation?  According to Advertising Age (April 19),

The fast-food chain formerly known as Kentucky Fried Chicken seems to have tried everything. It’s changed its name to initials, then back to words, then back to initials. It’s leaned on cheap marketing stunts…most recently, launching the 500-calorie Double Down sandwich, which replaces bread with chicken breasts…KFC’s market share tumbled six full points since 2005 to 30% in 2009, while the category grew from $14.5 billion to $16.1 billion.

Advertising Age says KFC’s measured media advertising budget was a mere $235 million in 2009, and that the Double Down is expected to improve KFC’s fortunes.

No question, the Double Down brought in plenty of free media buzz.  I’ve once again contributed to it, hopefully for the last time.

Apr 27 2010

16 companies say they will reduce salt

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced yesterday that sixteen food companies have agreed to join the National Salt Reduction Initiative spearheaded by the city’s health department.  The companies have volunteered to reduce the sodium in their products by 25% within the next five years.  Mostly, they say they will do this by 2012 or 2014 (see summary table).

Nation’s Restaurant News points out that four of these companies are restaurant chains – Starbucks, Au Bon Pain, Subway, and Uno Chicago Grill.  One, Boars Head, is a deli chain.  And some food product companies – Mars, for example – are issuing their own press releases.

This is all good news and should encourage many more companies to take the low-salt pledge.

As the New York Times points out, salt lurks in unexpected places in processed foods.  The article came with a great graphic, well worth a look.

To translate the numbers, recall that salt is 40% sodium.  This means that 400 mg sodium = one gram of salt, 200 mg sodium = half a gram of salt, and 4 grams of salt = 1 teaspoon.

Apr 26 2010

Chocolate toddler formula?

Mead-Johnson, the company that prides itself on its “decades-long patterning of infant formulas after breast milk,” now goes one better.  It sells chocolate- and vanilla-flavored formulas for toddlers, fortified with nutrients, omega-3s, and antioxidants.

The company’s philosophy: Your toddler won’t drink milk?  Try chocolate milk!

The unflavored version of this product, Enfagrow, has been around for a while.  In 2005, nutritionists complained about this formula because it so evidently competed with milk as a weaning food.  Mead-Johnson representatives explained that Enfagrow is not meant as an infant formula.  It is meant as a dietary supplement for toddlers aged 12 to 36 months.

Really?  Then how come it is labeled “Toddler Formula”?

And how come it has a Nutrition Facts label, not a Supplement Facts label?

Here’s the list of ingredients for everything present at a level of 2% or more:

  • Whole milk
  • Nonfat milk
  • Sugar
  • Cocoa
  • Galactooligosaccharides (prebiotic fiber)
  • High oleic sunflower oil
  • Maltodextrin

I bought this product at Babies-R-Us in Manhattan.  It’s not cheap: $18.99 for 29 ounces.  The can is supposed to make 22 servings (one-quarter cup of powder mixed with 6 ounces water).  At that price, you pay 86 cents for only six ounces of unnecessarily fortified milk plus unnecessary sugar and chocolate.

No wonder Jamie Oliver encountered so much grief about trying to get sweetened, flavored milks out of schools.

But really, aren’t you worried that your baby might be suffering from a chocolate deficit problem?  Don’t you love the idea of year-old infants drinking sugar-sweetened chocolate milk?  And laced with “omega-3s for brain development, 25 nutrients for healthy growth, and prebiotics to support the immune system”?

Next: let’s genetically modify moms to produce chocolate breast milk!

FDA: this package has front-of-package health claims clearly aimed at babies under the age of two.  Uh oh.  Shouldn’t you be sending out one of those package label warning letters to Mead-Johnson on this one?

Addition, May 1: in response to interest in what other products are made by Mead-Johnson, or its parent, the drug company Bristol-Myers Squibb, I’ve linked their names to product pages.

Addition, May 6: Julie Wernau of the Chicago Tribune did a front page (business section) story on this and is following up on it in her blog.

Apr 23 2010

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines: some hints at what they might say

By congressional fiat, federal agencies must revise the Dietary Guidelines every five years. This is one of those years.   The 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has been meeting for a couple of years and is now nearly done.

Some unnamed person from the American Society of Nutrition must be attending meetings.  The society’s Health and Nutrition Policy Newsletter (April 22) provides a report.

From the sound of it, this committee is doing some tough thinking about how to deal with “overarching issues” that affect dietary advice:

  • The high prevalence of overweight and obesity among all Americans
  • The need to focus recommendations on added sugar, fats, refined carbohydrates, and sodium (rather than the obscure concept of “discretionary calories” used in the 2005 guidelines)
  • The benefits of shifting to plant-based, rather than meat-based, diets
  • The need to help individuals achieve physical activity guidelines
  • The need to change the food environment to help individuals meet the Dietary Guidelines

Applause, please, for this last one.  It recognizes that individuals can’t do it alone.

The committee’s key findings and recommendations:

  • Vegetable protein and soy protein: little evidence for unique health benefits, but there are benefits, such as added dietary fiber intake, from diets high in vegetable and soy proteins.
  • Carbohydrates: a consistent relationship between soft drink intake and weight gain. Overweight and obese children should reduce overall energy intake, especially from added sugars (and especially in the form of soft drinks and sugar-sweetened beverages).
  • Fats: mono and polyunsaturated fats, when replacing saturated fats, decrease the risks of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes in healthy adults. No benefit from increased intakes of omega-3 fatty acids above 250-300 mg a day.  Adults should eat two servings of fish per week to obtain omega 3 fatty acids.
  • Sodium: decrease sodium intake to 2,300 mg sodium per 2,000 calorie diet to lower blood pressure in adults and children. Since 70 percent of the population is hypertensive, the goal for most individuals should be 1,500 mg per 2,000 calorie diet.
  • Potassium: because higher intakes of potassium are associated with lower blood pressure, adults should increase intake to 4,700 mg daily.

Translation: more fruits and vegetables, fewer processed foods, and changes in the food environment to make it easier for everyone to follow this advice.

Next steps: the committee is supposed to complete its report by May 12 and send it to USDA and DHHS. The agencies post the report in June for public comment. Then, agency staff write the guidelines and publish them by the end of the year.

Historical note: prior to 2005, the committee wrote the guidelines.  I was on the 1995 committee and we drafted guidelines that the agencies hardly touched (except to tinker with the alcohol guideline, as I discussed in Food Politics and What to Eat).  The guidelines have always been subject to political pressures, but with the agencies writing them, expect even more.

Let’s hope the committee’s sensible ideas will survive the process.  I will be paying close attention to how the 2010 guidelines progress.  Stay tuned.

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