Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Mar 12 2008

Monsanto’s attack on no-BGH labels

Monsanto, the maker of recombinant bovine growth hormone (scientific name, recombinant bovine somatotropin or rBST; trade name, Posilac), is embarked on a national state-by-state campaign to get legislatures to rule that food products cannot be labeled that they are rBGH-free or rBST-free. In his weekend column, The Feed, Andrew Martin details how Monsanto has organized its very own “grass-roots” group, Afact, to campaign on the company’s behalf. As Martin puts it, “consumer demand for more natural products…has certainly interfered with Monsanto’s business plan for Posilac.” As I discuss in my book, Safe Food, Monsanto’s aggressive stance (in this and so many other issues that concern its products) has elicited much suspicion of its motives and of genetically modified foods in general. In 1994, Monsanto worked hard to convince the FDA that GM foods did not have to be labeled as such. Now, this company has only itself to blame for consumer resistance to its products.

Mar 12 2008

What’s the story on MSG?

Last week, Allison wrote: “I recently read the NYTimes article about MSG [monosodium glutamate] and although you were quoted, I’d love to hear more of your thoughts.”

This is a tough one. My files on MSG go back to 1971 when the FDA said this flavor enhancer, the sodium salt of an amino acid that forms part of virtually all proteins, was safe for everyone “except for those who are individually sensitive to the substance.” By these, it meant people who reacted to foods containing MSG with headaches, tingling, flushing or other such neurological symptoms. Because Chinese food contained a lot of MSG, the symptoms came to be known as “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.” In the late 1970s, scientists weighed in with reports of placebo-controlled trials that showed no reaction to MSG except for the first half hour after eating it. By 1980, scientists concluded that MSG only caused problems for a small percentage of individuals who had a genetic susceptibility. Placebo-controlled trials continue to find no difference in symptoms when people consume MSG or a placebo. That is why I told the reporter that there was no clinical evidence for problems and why “I thought the issue was settled though I know a lot of people will never believe that.” I wish what I had said next had been included because I went on to explain that such studies cannot account for the very real experience of people who experience symptoms, such as those whose letters appear in today’s Times.

How to make sense of this? MSG susceptibility falls into the category of many other food sensitivities and allergies, most of which are exceedingly difficult to diagnose. The science of food sensitivities, like much of nutrition science, is difficult to do, especially when serious symptoms are relatively rare in the population (it is too expensive to do studies on a large enough sample of individuals to get meaningful results).

If you are one of those people who experiences symptoms from MSG, there is only one thing to do: avoid it. And that brings us to the need to have more informative food labels. One again, we are in the realm of food politics.

Mar 11 2008

Beam food ads to outer space?

Um. I think this may be a joke but I am indebted to Ellen Fried for sending this item. The British intend to beam a commercial for Doritos (Frito Lay/PepsiCo) into outer space. The story ostensibly quotes Prince Charles: “Hopefully, like humans, they [aliens in space] will think our chips look absolutely delicious and want to try some. If the first word the aliens say when they land in their spaceship is Doritos, we will be delighted. The signal takes years to reach the star but if there are any aliens on the way here already maybe they will pick it up.”

Those of us who live in New York and are in shock over our Governor’s escapades can use some levity today. So let’s thank Prince Charles for that and his other good work on behalf of the environment.

Mar 11 2008

Bottled water vs. the environment

Bottled water is the target of environmental campaigns in the U.K as well as the U.S. My namesake, the Nestlé Corporation, appears to be under particular attack.  Acording to the British government, tap water “requires 300 times less energy than bottled water and does not create bottled packaging waste.”   I wonder how the company plans to rebut that argument. 

Mar 10 2008

Oxygen water–again?

I thought we were all done with the thoroughly discredited notion that extra-oxygenated water conferred special health benefits, but no such luck. It’s back with a vengeance and $4 million in advertising. This is one you can do at home (try shaking the bottle!).

Mar 9 2008

The meat recall saga continues

This week’s events:  The USDA won’t tell Congress the names of the stores or companies that received their share of the 143 million pounds of recalled meat; one of the packing plant’s employees, who makes $9 per hour, has been indicted for animal cruelty; and the role of the Humane Society in all of this is now called into question.  Stay tuned.

Mar 8 2008

Baseball food: lots of it!

Yesterday’s USA Today had a front page story on the latest method for selling bad seats at baseball games: raise the price and give people all they can eat. According to the Aramark manager at Atlanta’s Turner field, the typical customer takes 3.35 hot dogs, one 20-oz soda, one 7.9 bag of peanuts, one 3-oz nachos, and 32 oz popcorn. Anyone want to take a stab at adding up the calories? Hint: a 20-oz soda is 275.

Mar 6 2008

Food chains: the 143 million pound recall

OK. So we know much of the recalled hamburger meat was eaten by school children but where did the rest of it go? Into packaged meals, apparently. The Wall Street Journal has a nifty account of how this meat ended up in packaged Boston Market lasagna (Heinz), Progresso soup (General Mills), and Hot Pockets sandwiches (Nestlé–no relation) .  These companies have recalled 35,000 to 49,000 cases of products, each.  Yum.

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