Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Sep 3 2009

What’s new in obesity prevention

Reports about what to do about obesity in adults and children are coming out one after another.

The HSC Foundation has produced Fighting Obesity: What Works, What’s Promising? (click on Fighting Obesity Report).  Based on interviews, it reviews model programs that are having some success, such as The Food Trust, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization; The Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children (CLOCC); and The Coordinated Approach to Child Health (CATCH) Program.  Its main conclusion: a focus on pregnant women and children will have the biggest payoff.

NIH has New Tools to Promote Healthy Habits, one of which is “We Can!  Ways to Enhance Children’s Activities and Nutrition.”  The online program tells families how to improve food choices, increase physical activity, and reduce screen time.  [Question: do online programs do any good at all?  I’d really like to know.]

Finally (for now), the Institute of Medicine and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have produced Local Government Action to Prevent Childhood Obesity, with a mind-numbing 58 steps that governments could take to do some good .  They also published a brief summary. Fortunately, the authors select the 12 actions most likely to succeed:

  1. Create incentive programs to attract supermarkets and grocery stores to underserved neighborhoods
  2. Require menu labeling in chain restaurants to provide consumers with calorie information on in-store menus and menu boards
  3. Mandate and implement strong nutrition standards for foods and beverages available in government-run or regulated after-school programs, recreation centers, parks, and child-care facilities, including limiting access to unhealthy foods and beverages
  4. Adopt building codes to require access to, and maintenance of, fresh drinking water fountains (e.g. public restrooms)
  5. Implement a tax strategy to discourage consumption of foods and beverages that have minimal nutritional value, such as sugar sweetened beverages
  6. Develop media campaigns, utilizing multiple channels (print, radio, internet, television, social networking, and other promotional materials) to promote healthy eating (and active living) using consistent messages
  7. Plan, build and maintain a network of sidewalks and street crossings that connects to schools, parks and other destinations and create a safe and comfortable walking environment
  8. Adopt community policing strategies that improve safety and security of streets and park use, especially in higher-crime neighborhoods
  9. Collaborate with schools to implement a Safe Routes to Schools program
  10. Build and maintain parks and playgrounds that are safe and attractive for playing, and in close proximity to residential areas
  11. Collaborate with school districts and other organizations to establish agreements that would allow playing fields, playgrounds, and recreation centers to be used by community residents when schools are closed (joint-use agreements)
  12. Institute regulatory policies mandating minimum play space, physical equipment and duration of play in preschool, afterschool and child-care programs

A 12-step program for preventing childhood obesity!  These are good ideas.  What will it take to get them put into practice?

Sep 2 2009

Acrylamide, sigh

I don’t know what to say about acrylamide.  Acrylamide is the powerful carcinogen that gets formed when carbohydrates and proteins are cooked together at high temperature, as in dark toast, French fries, and potato chips.    I just can’t figure out how bad it is, and I like my toast well toasted.  But:

Canada recently added acrylamide to its list of toxic substances.  The European Union has just listed it as a hazardous chemical “of high concern.”

The FDA, trying to figure out what to say about acrylamide, is asking for public comment:

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is requesting comments and scientific data and information on acrylamide in food. Acrylamide is a chemical that can form in some foods during certain types of high temperature cooking. FDA is seeking information on practices that manufacturers have used to reduce acrylamide in food and the reductions they have been able to achieve in acrylamide levels. FDA is considering issuing guidance for industry on reduction of acrylamide levels in food products.

The FDA offers an information page on acrylamide.  This comes with a Q and A and information about avoiding acrylamide when eating or cooking.

How serious a problem is acrylamide?  Nobody knows, really, and the research is mixed. According to recent reports, Dutch investigators say that acrylamide has no relationship to brain or lung cancer.  So that’s some relief.

Update, September 3: No surprise, but surveys show the public doesn’t know much about acrylamide.  With so much uncertainty, this is a particularly tough one to deal with.

Update, September 5: Food Production Daily has produced a nifty interactive timeline of events in the history of troubles with acrylamide, since it was first suspected of being a problem in 2002.


Sep 1 2009

The Beverage Association responds

I promised to post some of the responses to the New York City Health Department’s new campaign against sugary drinks.  Here’s what the New York Times has to say.  Still reeling from the American Heart Association’s recommendation to reduce sugars from soft drinks (see previous post), the Beverage Association has issued this statement:

The messages being spread about beverages by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene are so over the top that they are counterproductive to serious efforts to address a complex issue such as obesity. Like most foods, soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages are a source of calories. Simply naming one food source as a unique contributor minimizes a disease as complex as obesity. The key to energy balance and maintaining a healthy weight is counting calories in and calories out, not focusing on specific foods or abstaining from any one food or beverage in particular. While we support the campaign’s desire to help people lead healthier lives, we do not believe the campaign imagery represents a serious effort to address a complex issue such as obesity…Further, the beverage industry provides an array of beverages with a wide range of calories, including zero calories…all of which can be part of a balanced lifestyle [my emphasis].

Yes!  Drink water!  Preferably out of a tap!

Aug 31 2009

NYC Health Department’s new campaign: Pour off the Pounds!

The ever intrepid New York City Health Department launches a new campaign today: Stop drinking soft drinks or else you are “Pouring on the Pounds.”

It explains the rationale for the campaign in a bulletin.  In short, as described in the press release:

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“On average, Americans now consume 200 to 300 more calories each day than we did 30 years ago. Nearly half of these extra calories come from sugar-sweetened drinks. When Health Department researchers surveyed adult New Yorkers about their consumption of soda and other sweetened drinks, the findings showed that more than 2 million drink at least one sugar-sweetened soda or other sweetened beverage each day – at as much as 250 calories a pop…. The Health Department advises parents not to serve their kids punch, fruit-flavored drinks or “sports” and “energy” drinks…. If you order a sugar-sweetened beverage, ask for a “small.”….if you enjoy sugar-sweetened beverages, make them an occasional treat and not a daily staple.”

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What?  Soft drinks add empty calories that nobody needs? These sound like fighting words!  I can’t wait to hear the response of the Beverage Associations and will post them as soon as they come in.  Stay tuned!

Aug 28 2009

Antibiotics in farm animals: the fight is on

I served as a member of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production which issued its final report in April 2008.  Our most important recommendation: reduce the widespread use of antibiotics as growth promoters and as a routine method of preventing infections.  Why?  Because of increasing evidence of human resistance to the kinds of antibiotics used in farm animal production and to related antibiotics.

You think everyone involved in production of farm animals understands the dangers of continued overuse of these drugs?  Not a chance.  A coalition of 20 meat producing groups has asked Congress not to restrict their use of antibiotics.  The American Meat Institute has issued a statement condemning our report.  The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has done even more.  It just issued its own report taking on the Pew Commission’s antibiotic recommendations.  Why the ferocity and why now?  Congress has submitted a bill – the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2009 (PAMTA) – that would restrict use of several antibiotics in farm animal production.

Ralph Loglisci, who was the Pew Commission’s communication director, has an excellent blog post dealing with the AVMA statement.  If you want to understand what all this is about, take a look at it.

While these debates continue, antibiotic-resistant bacteria are increasingly turning up in our food supply.  Tell your representatives to support PAMTA!

Aug 27 2009

Hormones in the food supply

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) in Minneapolis has a new report out that summarizes research on hormones in the food supply, of which there are many: arsenic growth promoters, recombinant bovine growth hormone, synthetic hormones in packaging (plasticizers, bisphenol A), and industrial contaminants (dioxins, PCBs, etc).  Never has the statement “more research needed” made more sense.  Plenty of uncertainties still remain about how much, if any, harm is caused by these substances, but while waiting for that research, IATP advises: avoid.  How?  Eat low-fat meat and dairy foods (these chemicals are stored in fatty tissues) and organics (these should be free of hormone-like substances or have much less), don’t use plastic containers made with bisphenol A, and get busy on changing policy!

Aug 26 2009

Oh great. All U.S. fish are contaminated with mercury.

My book, What to Eat, has a chapter on the mercury-in-fish dilemma.   Do we follow dietary guidelines to eat more fish or do we worry about the amount of toxic methylmercury those fish might have?

The U.S. Geological Survey and Department of the Interior have just released a report that will not make this dilemma easier to resolve.     Fish in every one of 291 streams sampled throughout the country are contaminated with mercury.  According to the press release, the good (well, slightly better) news is that “only” a quarter of the samples exceeded federal guidelines for people eating average amounts of fish.

Where does the mercury come from?  “Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury emissions in the United States — but 59 of the streams also were potentially affected by gold and mercury mining.”

The remedy seems pretty obvious: let’s insist that coal-burning power plants and mining operations clean up their emissions.   How about right now!

Aug 25 2009

American Heart Association: Eat (a lot!) less sugar.

At last, the American Heart Association (AHA) has done something useful.  It advises eating less sugar.  Americans eat way too much, it says, a whopping 22 teaspoons a day on average.  Let’s work this out.  A teaspoon is 4 grams.  A gram is 4 calories.  So the 275 calories in that default 20-ounce soda you picked up from a vending machine come from nearly 17 teaspoons of sugar – close to the average right there.  If you have trouble maintaining weight, soft drinks are an obvious candidate for “eat less” advice.  Neither the Wall Street Journal (in which I am quoted) nor the New York Times say much about how soft drink manufacturers are reacting to this recommendation, but it isn’t hard to guess.

Here, for example, is what the industry-sponsored American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) has to say:

The study targets added sugars as the main culprit of dietary excess, but since “U.S. labels on packaged foods do not distinguish between naturally occurring or added sugars,” it is difficult to tell the difference. However, “our bodies can’t tell the difference either,” says ACSH’s Jeff Stier. “Natural and added sugars are nutritionally the same. Added sugar causes obesity as much as the orange juice promoted by the American Heart Association causes obesity [e-mail newsletter, August 25, 2009].

Smart Start

This is the first time the AHA has seriously weighed in on sugar.  I find this especially interesting because the AHA has a long history of endorsing sugary cereals (as I discuss in Food Politics and also in What to Eat).  In this example, the AHA’s endorsement is in the lower left corner.  This product has sugars of one kind or another listed 9 times in the ingredient list.

The AHA gets paid for such endorsements.  Let’s hope the new recommendation encourages the AHA to stop doing this.

Update August 27: I really don’t know what to say about the ACSH’s Jeff Stier.  he is acting more like the Center for Consumer Freedom’s Rick Berman every day.   Today’s e-mail newsletter from ACSH contains this statement:

In her blog in The Atlantic, NYU Professor of Nutrition Dr. Marion Nestle has fallen into the habit of suggesting that ACSH is incapable of objective analysis of public health concerns because we are, in her distorted view, “thoroughly industry-sponsored.”

ACSH’s Jeff Stier wrote to her editors: “Like many of the country’s top non-profits, Dr. Nestle’s NYU included, we accept corporate donations, with no strings attached. But we also receive significant support from individuals and foundations. Her misleading description of us suggests that we represent industry. We do not. We are advised by some of the nation’s leading scientists and represent consumers.

“By way of this email, I ask for a conspicuous and fair correction. We are happy to engage on the issues Dr. Nestle writes about, but her attacks on us are below someone of her stature. We’d prefer an informed and enlightening discussion of the issues, not underhanded and unfounded attacks on credibility.”

“Apparently, Dr. Nestle believes that your opinions are irrelevant, since they diverge from her ideological agenda,” says Stier. “We represent you, consumers, who want science rather than ideology informing public health decisionmaking. Does she really think that consumers are so monolithic that they either agree with her or are put up to it by some sinister entity?”

Readers: Does anyone know what is going on with this group?  It sounds so much like the Center for Consumer Freedom that I can’t help but wonder.

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