Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Nov 1 2008

Dietary Guidelines: the process begins

According to Food Chemical News, November 3 (which, alas, only subscribers can read online), the first meeting of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines committee began with speeches from the agency sponsors.  FCN quotes Penelope Slade Royall, deputy assistant secretary of health in HHS’s Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (an office in which I worked from 1986-88):

“even when the new guidelines are approved and released in 2010, there’s nothing the committee can do to change people’s behavior…There are very dedicated people across the country working on these [guidelines] and I don’t understand why we’re not more successful.”

Really?  I can make some guesses.  Why not start by making the guidelines clear, direct, and unambiguous?  How about “eat less sugar,” “eliminate sugary drinks,” “eat less fast food,” “eat less often,” and “eat smaller portions.”   Or just the mantra of What to Eat: “Eat less, move more, eat fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and don’t eat too much junk food.”

Oct 31 2008

Diabetes rates double, especially in South

The CDC announces that rates of type 2 diabetes have nearly doubled overall in the last ten years,and more than doubled in states in the south and in Puerto Rico.  Ten years ago, the average was around 5%; now it’s around 10%.  No surprise: the rates closely track rates of obesity.

Oct 31 2008

More fuss over bisphenol A

The FDA’s lack of concern (see previous post) about the safety of bisphenol A has now come under criticism from a subcommittee of its own science advisory board.  As described in USA Today, the board criticizes the FDA for relying too heavily on industry-funded studies and not holding the studies to rigorous scientific standards.    Here’s the board’s report.  An earlier story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal charged that the FDA used research – and a research summary –  provided by the plastics industry as the basis of its original conclusion that bisphenol A posed no problems.  It looks like this is turning out to be one of those unfortunate examples of industry interference with the risk assessment process.  The science of food toxicology is difficult enough without this sort of thing happening.  Alas.

Oct 31 2008

Australians like traffic-light food labels

We will be seeing industry-sponsored ratings on food packages.  Australians, on the other hand, are considering front-of-the-package traffic lights.  Thanks to Morten Strunge Meyer (MortenCopenhagen) for sending this link to the Australian report on this proposed system.

Oct 28 2008

New food rating label: a step forward?

Big Food companies have gotten together and agreed on a scoring system to identify “better-for-you” packaged foods (see below).  Thanks to my colleague in Copenhagen, Morten Strunge Meyer (MortenCopenhagen), for sending the link to the qualifying crieteria.  As is true of scoring systems in general, these are complicated and constitute a slippery slope.  Take sodium, for example.  The allowance is particularly generous (junk foods don’t taste good without it) – 480 mg per serving.  That means 479 mg qualifies and that’s still nearly half a gram.

Having one checkmark instead of the various ones run by PepsiCo, Kraft, and Unilever seems useful if – and only if – the criteria are stringent (which this one is not for sodium), and this symbol replaces all of the others.  Even so, this looks like preemption.  It’s voluntary and seems designed to head off a mandatory traffic light system (red, yellow, green)  that would warn people away from the worst junk foods.  It also preempts the FDA proposal to display the full number of calories per package.  Alas, this is a standard food industry tactic: preempt with something that seems better than what is currently available to stave off something that could be worse.

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Oct 27 2008

Worried about food safety? You should be

 A new poll says 90% of U.S. consumers are worried about food safety, but 79% of the worried think the problems are with imported food and only 21% are worried about domestic food.  Everybody should be worried about both, if you ask me.  The U.N. says China needs to do something about its food safety problems, and fast.  That would help.  China reports that melamine has been found in eggs, of all things (the chickens ate contaminated feed?).  So would cleaning up our own food safety system.

Oct 25 2008

Announcing the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Committee

The government must have announced the members of the committee that will develop the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, because the American Society of Nutrition (I am a member) has issued a press release congratulating the nine (of 13) appointees who are ASN members.  Who are the other four?  We will find out next week when the committee starts meeting.  Stephen Clapp interviewed me about the Guidelines for Food Chemical News (October 27).  Here’s my part of his article, subtitled, “Keep it simple, stupid!” 

“Not everyone is happy with the 2005 guidelines. Marion Nestle, a high-profile nutritionist who teaches at New York University, favors scrapping the current advice in favor of something much simpler. She served on the 1995 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, an experience she described in her book Food Politics. She hasn’t been invited back.

“I would hope for an enormous reversal of the last set of guidelines,” she told FCN. “They’re unteachable and incomprehensible. Buried in the 41 recommendations is the basic advice: eat less, move more, eat more fruits and vegetables and whole grains, and don’t eat too much junk food.

“The idea that this document is for policymakers is ridiculous,” she continued. “You could boil it down to a single recommendation: ‘Drink fewer sodas and juice drinks.'”

Nestle said in 1995 the advisory committee was told to interpret nutrition science for the public. In 2005 the panel was told to make “science-based” recommendations, she said, which she interprets as code for “We won’t let you say anything unless the science is incontrovertible.”

Basing the guidelines on Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) is a “huge mistake,” Nestle says, because the DRIs are “incomprehensible” and set too high for calcium and potassium, resulting in a recommendation to eat two or three servings of dairy products daily. “If the Dietary Guidelines have to be based on the DRIs, it’s too much food,” she says.

Nestle says nutrition science is unusually subject to interpretation and bias because it’s difficult to link specific nutrients to chronic diseases. “My biases are open,” she says. “Everyone else has biases, too, but they may not want to disclose them. The public is deeply confused — you should just give the best advice you can. Just take into consideration all the research available and don’t worry about the impact on one industry or another.”

Now wouldn’t it be useful if they took my advice?  I will be following this story with great interest.

Update 10/28: Here’s the USDA’s announcement of the full list of committee members.

Oct 24 2008

USDA proposes new pasture rules for organic ruminants

Under the current rules, meat sold as organic must come from animals with access to pasture.  Loophole alert!  The animals did not have to be raised on pasture.  The USDA now proposes to close the loophole as it applies to ruminant animals. This proposal is open for comment.  If you want to see how such things are done, this one is an excellent example (it includes a detailed history of the regulations, among other useful things).  USDA wrote this in response to more than 80,000 comments on the “announcement of proposed rulemaking.”  Virtually all of these wanted organically raised ruminants to be grazing on pasture.  The Federal Register notice is 24 pages of tiny type but my immediate take is that the USDA proposals are really good.  Take a look and see what you think.  I’m withholding final judgment until somebody does a decent summary so I don’t get bogged down in “We propose to remove the word “or” at the end of paragraph X and replacing the period at the end of paragraph Y with a semicolon.”

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