Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
May 30 2009

NYC celebrity sighting: The Obamas at Blue Hill!

One of the things about living in New York City is that you run into celebrities all the time and pay no attention.  As it happens, my partner and I were meeting Sidney Mintz and his wife tonight at my neighborhood restaurant, Blue Hill. We wondered why the street was blocked off, a huge crowd gathered at one end, and secret servicemen all over the place.

The Obamas!  At the next table!  Six feet away!  I can’t tell you what they ate because Dan Barber cooked for them.  But I saw the President pay the bill.

Turns out this was their promised night out, and the Republicans are already complaining that it cost the taxpayers too much.  From the applause in the restaurant when they were leaving, the picture-taking mob in front of the restaurant, and the crowds lining 6th Avenue, this is one expense nobody minds.   They looked they were having fun.  We did too.

And here they are dressed for Blue Hill and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.

June 1 update: Obama Foodorama has some more details, as does the New York Times. And then there’s Frank Bruni’s complaint about the choice of restaurant.  Well, you had to be there.

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May 30 2009

My latest San Francisco Chronicle column: Gluten Intolerance

My once-every-three-weeks column for the San Francisco Chronicle is set up as a Q and A.  I don’t get many questions through the column, but the few that do come in are often quite challenging.  This one is from a school chef wondering how to deal with kids who might be gluten intolerant – and whether gluten intolerance is becoming more common.  Interesting questions!  Here’s what I had to say about them.  If you have questions about food and nutrition that you’d like me to answer, send them to food@sfchronicle.com (put Marion Nestle in the subject line).

May 29 2009

Washington State U. vs. Michael Pollan (and Bill Marler)

For days now, my e-mail inbox has been flooded with messages about the flap at Washington State University over Michael Pollan’s Ominivore’s Dilemma. The messages come from Bill Marler, the Seattle-based “food poisoning attorney” and blogger whose firm specializes in class action lawsuits on behalf of victims of foodborne illness.

This is a good story.  The university bought copies of Omnivore’s Dilemma to distribute to the freshman class (a common community-building exercise at universities these days).  Then, it decided not to give them out.  Could corporate pressure from Washington State agribusiness have had anything to with this decision? No, said the university; they just couldn’t afford to bring Pollan to the campus.

Marler called their bluff.  If it’s really about money, he said, he’d pony up.   The result: the event is back on.

But I’m curious.  Does it really cost $40,000 to get Pollan to travel from Berkeley to WSU?  Pollan says no.  I just hope Marler gets to keep the change and use it to help sick kids.

May 28 2009

The latest from Red Bull: Cocaine!

According to Time online, advertising for the sports drink Red Bull Cola made officials in Germany so suspicious that they did a little testing.  Ach du himmel!  Traces of cocaine.  No wonder guys like it so much.

Here is the ingredient list: Water, Sugar, Carbon Dioxide, Caramel Color, Natural Flavors from Plant Extracts (Galangal, Vanilla, Mustard Seed, Lime, Kola Nut, Cacao, Licorice, Cinnamon, Lemon, Ginger, Cocoa Leaf, Orange, Corn Mint, Pine, Cardamom, Mace, Clove), Lemon Juice Concentrate, Caffeine from Coffee Beans.  With these, you get 130 calories, virtually all from sugar, and some unstated amount of caffeine – along with some other no longer quite so secret ingredients, apparently.

Yum.

Update June 5: European regulatory authorities think this is a non-issue and plan no action.

May 27 2009

Outsourced agriculture: the new colonialism?

The Economist, that radical magazine, has produced an editorial and a long article about how rich countries in the Middle East and Asia are rapidly acquiring agricultural land – and the water rights that go with it – in impoverished developing countries in order to ensure food security for their own populations.  The buyers are Saudi Arabia, Kuwait,  South Korea, China, and the like.  The sellers?   Sudan, Ethiopia, Congo, and Pakistan.

If this sounds uncomfortably like colonialism revisited, it is for good reason.  As The Economist so nicely puts it, while putting agricultural land to good use might help reduce Third World malnutrition, “these advantages cannot quell a nagging unease.” From whence comes the unease?  The deals raise questions about lack of transparency, government collusion, bargain prices, effects on local food markets, and who gets the benefits.

The Economist suggests the need for a dose of skepticism, not least because of the size of the purchases – an astonishing total of 15 to 20 million hectares so far (a hectare is about 2.5 acres).  Advises The Economist: “defer judgment and keep a watchful, hopeful but wary eye” on the process.

This sounds optimistic to me.  You?

May 26 2009

Latest court ruling: Pringles are potato chips (sort of)

Ah the British.  So ahead of us in so many ways.  A British court has ruled that Pringles have enough potato in them to qualify as crisps (translation: potato chips) and, therefore, are subject to a Value Added Tax of 15%.  Procter & Gamble, the maker of Pringles, argued against the tax.  Pringles, it says, are not crisps.  Why?  Because their shape and packaging are “not found in nature.”   Tough, said the court.  Pringles are 42% potato.  That’s enough to qualify them as crisps.  Under the law, crisps get taxed.

Pringles are 42% potato?  OK, but what else do they contain?  Here’s the ingredient list: DRIED POTATOES, VEGETABLE OIL, RICE FLOUR, WHEAT STARCH, MALTODEXTRIN, SALT AND DEXTROSE. CONTAINS WHEAT INGREDIENTS. (You will be relieved to note: No artificial ingredients.  No preservatives.)

Hey: potatoes are the first ingredient!  I say tax ’em.

Update May 25: Here’s what Advertising Age has to say about the Pringles-as-a-vegetable idea.  Pringles, it says, was able to supply the entire world with its product out of one factory in Tennessee, precisely because of its infinite shelf life and packaging.  Ordinary potato chips, alas, get rancid after a while.

May 23 2009

And now…orange juice!

I’ve been hearing about Alyssa Hamilton’s new book (pub date: May 26) for some time now.  It’s called “Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice.”  From what I can tell, it takes on the orange juice industry for processing the joy out of the juice.  Hamilton is currently with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis.  She is Canadian and the Toronto Star has just interviewed her about the book.

I’m looking forward to reading it.  My son in California has an orange tree growing in his backyard.  The juice from its oranges is delicious even though it doesn’t taste nearly as sweet as commercial orange juice.   Orange juice producers want to offer a stable, consistent product.  It sounds like this book suggests that the taste-and-health costs of that consistency are pretty high.

May 22 2009

HFCS is the new trans fat?

Will the confusion about sugars never end?  A recent study reconfirms the metabolic problems caused by too much fructose, but public opinion continues to blame High Fructose Corn Sweeteners (HFCS) as the new dietary evil.   HFCS isn’t really high in fructose.  It has about the same amount of fructose as common table sugar.   Both are about half fructose and half glucose, and both cause metabolic problems when you eat too much of them.  So go easy on the sugars!

Here’s what the New York Times has to say about the study.

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