Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jul 25 2009

No wonder athletes take supplements: testosterone!

I’m not usually an avid reader of the sports pages but a recent article in the New York Times caught my eye.  A couple of over-the-counter dietary supplements adored by high school football players – Tren Xtreme and Mass Xtreme (manufactured by American Cellular Labs) – turn out to contain “designer” (translation: artificially synthesized) testosterone.

Why do high school athletes take this stuff?  Obviously, because it works. Never mind the effects of excess testosterone on bone growth in adolescent boys (not good).

The article sheds considerable light on the murky business of selling such products, the use of illicit drugs in sports, the wink-wink attitudes of everyone involved, and the difficulties faced by federal regulators.

Add this to the reasons why we need Congress to allow real regulation of dietary supplements.

Jul 24 2009

CSPI sues Denny’s over salt

Center for Science in the Public Interest has just sued Denny’s for failing to disclose the amount of salt in its fast foods.  I heard about this from a reporter from Nation’s Restaurant News who thought the suit was absurd.  Everyone knows Denny’s food isn’t healthy, she suggested.  Maybe, but I had no idea how much salt the foods contained, and I’m supposed to know such things.

The figures that follow refer to the sodium content.  Sodium is 40% of salt (the other 60% is chloride) so 4,000 mg sodium is equivalent to 10,000 mg salt (10 grams).  The standard recommendation for healthy people is 2,300 mg sodium per day.  People with hypertension are supposed to restrict sodium to 1,500 mg.  With that said, try these examples and remember, this is sodium:

  • 2,580 mg   Moons Over My Hammy sandwich  (ham, egg, cheese)
  • 4,120 mg  Spicy Buffalo Chicken Melt with regular fries
  • 5,690 mg  Meat Lover’s Scramble (eggs, bacon, sausage, bacon)

I see this as a flat-out issue of consumer choice.  If people want more salt, they can always add it at the table, but those of us want less salt don’t have a choice at all.  We are stuck with what is served to us and if we don’t know how much salt the food contains (and taste isn’t necessarily a reliable indicator of amount), we have no choice about the amount we are eating.

Litigation is not my favorite public health strategy but in this situation it seems like the only current option.  Voluntary salt reduction isn’t happening across the board, the FDA is up to its ears in food safety problems, so there is a huge vacuum waiting to be filled.  I will be interested to see what happens with this suit, and I’m not as convinced as the Nations Restaurant News reporter that it will be so easy to dismiss out of hand.

Later addition: I’ve just seen this from the industry-sponsored American Council on Science and Health, which thinks the CSPI lawsuit frivolous, to say the least:  “Maybe [CSPI’s] Michael Jacobson doesn’t want the public to have the choice of what he considers unhealthy food.”  That says it all!

Jul 23 2009

School meals: it’s good to feed kids

The USDA has a couple of new reports out on school meals.  One looks at the dismal rates of participation in the School Breakfast program.  Only about 30% of those eligible actually get breaksfast.  How come?  Kids are more likely to eat the breakfast when it is served in the classroom (rather than the lunchroom) and when they are given time to eat it.

The second study also proves the obvious: kids who eat breakfast eat less junk food and are likely to be better nourished (and, therefore, behave and learn better).

I know the USDA has to do these studies in order to satisfy taxpayers’ investment in the programs but shouldn’t our society ensure that all hungry kids are fed decently?  So many of the financial problems with the school meals programs could be solved if they were made universal (and we didn’t need to spend all that money to determine eligibility and make sure no kid gets a meal she isn’t entitled to).  Universal school meals would also take away the poverty stigma.  And yes, let’s serve breakfasts in classrooms and give kids time to eat.  After all, the research backs up those ideas, no?

Jul 22 2009

What’s new with calorie labeling?

For starters, calorie labeling in California is having a big effect – on the companies, if not customers.  The chains are madly cutting down on calories.  The most impressive example is a Macaroni Grill 1,270-calorie scallop-and-spinach salad (I can’t even imagine how they did this), which is now just a normal 390.

Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has a website devoted exclusively to calorie and other menu labeling initiatives where it tracks the legislation year by year and posts a handy map of what states and cities are doing on this issue.

And the latest issue of JAMA has a commentary by David Ludwig and Kelly Brownell about why it’s important to get calorie labeling in place even before we can get evidence for its effectiveness” For some of the most important public health problems today, society does not have the luxury to await scientific certainty…For restaurant calorie labeling regulation, there is a clear rationale for action.”

As to how well the system is working, try the Wall Street Journal’s take on the accuracy of the calorie counts.  Sigh.  Plenty of work left to do on this one.  But worth doing, no?

July 24 update: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is keeping track of the research along with policy implications.  The bottom line to date?  Menu labeling is having some effects, but there’s more work to do.

Jul 21 2009

Use manure as a biofuel?

Here’s another USDA report well worth a look.  This one looks at the use of manure in the United States.  Interesting statistics: about 5% of cropland is fertilized with manure, and about half of that goes on cornfields.  So the obvious question seems to be that if there’s all that manure around, why not use it to produce biofuels?

Why does this seem like a bad idea to me?  It makes about as much sense to use manure as corn for biofuel.   Wouldn’t it be better to use all that CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) effluent to fertilize the other 95% of cropland?  Wouldn’t composting animal waste and using it on crops instead of chemical fertilizers be more sustainable and solve a lot of problems?  Or am I missing something here?

Jul 20 2009

Food politics: European version

I’m always suprised when people ask me what I mean by “food politics.”    What, they say, does politics have to do with food?   Here’s a good example: European farm subsidies.  These were originally supposed to promote farm production, but today the European Union drops $75 billion, at least a third of it for other purposes.  As an investigative report in the New York Times explains, the biggest subsidies – just as in the U.S. – go to the wealthiest recipients.   A typical small farmer in Romania gets $550.  But the Queen of England and the Prince of Monaco get $700,000 or more, each, and Cargill, that needy company, got $14 million.  And then there are subsidies like this one: €127,000 for Ligabue, a Venetian caterer, for sugar and dairy packets considered as exports because they are consumed on cruise ships?   Why do I think politics enters into this somehow?

Jul 17 2009

Regulation of bottled water: oops

There is so much wrong with bottled water that it’s hard to know where to begin (read Elizabeth Royte’s Bottlemania, for starters).  But let’s start with the fact that bottled water is the most brilliantly marketed product ever invented.  The companies get it practically free out of a tap and charge you a dollar or more – sometimes a lot more – for a quart or less).  The plastic bottles pollute the environment.  Worst of all, drinking bottled water makes people less apt to be vigilant about protecting public water supplies.

And it isn’t even regulated very well, or so says a report from the Government Accountability Office.  The title says it all: “Bottled water: FDA safety and consumer protections are often less stringent than comparable EPA protections for tap water.”  The report was released in time for congressional hearings on the topic.   Reporters had a lot of fun with the self-interested statements of industry people who testified.

None of this gets into the additional question of bisphenol A and other endocrine disrupters in plastic bottles that are sometimes used for water.  The Canadians are now saying that bisphenol A is safe at amounts commonly used, and so is a California expert committee.  The American Chemistry Council is pleased with these decisions.

Where does that leave us?  Defend tap water!  As for endocrine disrupters, stay tuned but why use bisphenol A when other alternatives are so readily available.

July 24 update: The International Bottled Water Association is suing a maker of steel water bottles for false advertising.  The bottle maker’s ads apparently suggested that plastic water bottles leak synthetic estrogens.   Bisphenol A must be causing serious problems for the bottled water industry, along with all those pesky enviromental concerns.

Jul 15 2009

Let’s stop using antibiotics in animal agriculture

The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (of which I was a member) recommended as its #1 priority the elimination of antibiotics for promoting growth and other unnecesary purposes in farm animals.  I discussed this report in a previous post.

There is much fuss about this issue this week because the House is holding hearings on the Preservation for Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act.  If passed, this will phase out the use of seven classes of antibiotics important to human health that are currently allowed to be used as growth promoters in animal agriculture.  The FDA testified in favor of the act.  So did members of the Pew Commission: Robert Martin, Fedele Baucio, and Bill and Nicolette Niman.

So who could possibly be opposed to such a good idea?  How about the American Veterinary Medical Association, for starters, apparently more worried about its members’ self interest than about sensible use of antibiotics.

Maybe we’ll get lucky and the Congress will do the right thing on this one.

Update July 16: Ralph Logisci, who helped staff the Pew Commission, posted a blog on the movement to ban non-therapeutic antibiotics on Civil Eats.  It goes into considerable depth on the issues and is well worth reading. And the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) has just produced a report on eliminating the use of non-thereapuetic antibiotics in, of all things, ethanol production.  Who knew?  Turns out they use antibiotics to control fermentation.  Oops.  Not a good idea.  IATP says plenty of alternatives are available and the ethanol industry should adopt them.

July 20 update: in case you haven’t seen it, here’s the meat industry’s July 9 statement in opposition to the bill attempting to ban antibiotic use.

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