Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jan 18 2010

The FDA’s BPA “concerns” get a response

The FDA’s recently stated concerns about the health effects of bisphenol A did not go unnoticed.

The European Food Safety Authority is keeping a close eye on the FDA action because the two agencies have an agreement to cooperate.   But the U.K.’s Food Standards Agency continues to maintain that BPA is safe at current levels of exposure:

a 3-month-old bottle-fed baby weighing around 6 kg would need to consume more than four times the usual number of bottles of baby formula a day before it would reach the tolerable daily intake set by EFSA in 2006.

It is amusing to read the predictable responses of stakeholders who have a vested interest in demonstrating that BPA is safe – the chemical, plastics, and grocery manufacturers, for example.   In contrast, the Environmental Working Group said that the reversal of the FDA’s position is likely to be:

the Waterloo [that ends] nearly a decade of agency collusion with BPA manufacturers… It represents a victory for parents and children, and validation of the hundreds of independent studies linking BPA to numerous and serious health problems.

How harmful is BPA?  I have no idea.  I wish the FDA would release its review of the research.  But even without it there is now enough evidence questioning the safety of BPA to invoke the “precautionary principle:” don’t use it until it is proven safe.

Are BPA plastics essential in our food supply?  Clearly not.

Jan 17 2010

Eating Liberally asks about salt

The ever curious Kerry Trueman, Eating Liberally’s kat, wants to hear more about Bloomberg’s salt assault.  And well she might.  Today’s New York Times has a bunch of letters weighing in from all points of view.    Here’s how our conversation went:

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Pet Food Politics, What to Eat and Food Politics🙂

Kat: New York City’s new initiative to persuade food manufacturers and restaurants to voluntarily reduce the salt in their foods by 25% over the next five years is eliciting the usual outrage from the “nanny state” naysayers, for whom excess salt consumption is yet another matter of personal responsibility.

But as you noted last Monday, “nearly 80% of salt in American diets is already in packaged and restaurant foods and if you eat them at all you have no choice about the amount of salt you are getting.” Many Americans consume more than double the daily recommended intake of sodium, contributing to thousands of deaths and billions in medical costs annually.

Mayor Bloomberg equates the food industry’s overuse of salt to such health hazards as asbestos. But Mark Kurlansky, author of Salt: A World History, insisted to WNYC’s Amy Eddings that this analogy is false because “we could reduce our salt intake on our own, if we wanted to.”

Technically, this is true, if you’re willing and able to eliminate packaged foods from your diet, stop eating out, and start cooking all your meals from scratch. Unfortunately, the percentage of folks who have the time, inclination, and resources to do this is roughly on a par with those who think that Wall Street’s robber barons earned those big bonuses.

The food industry maintains that it would gladly reduce the sodium in its products–and some are doing so surreptitiously–if only consumers conditioned to crave super salty foods would be more willing to accept reduced sodium products.

The “invisible hand” of the market can’t seem to let go of the salt shaker. Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal is a step in the right direction, but do you think it will achieve meaningful reductions, or will we ultimately end up having to regulate salt?

Dr. Nestle: I love nanny-state accusations. Whenever I hear them, I know either that food industry self-interest is involved or that the accuser really doesn’t understand that our food system already is government-regulated as can be. These kinds of actions are just tweaking of existing policy, in this case to promote better health.

At issue is the default. Right now, companies have free rein to add as much salt to their processed or prepared foods as they like. The makers of processed foods do focus-group testing to see how consumers like the taste of their products. They invariably find that below a certain level of salt–the “bliss” point—their study subjects say they don’t like it. Soups are a good example. A measly half-cup portion of the most popular Campbell’s soups contains 480 mg of sodium or more than a full gram of salt (4 grams to a teaspoon).

To someone like me who has been trying to reduce my salt intake for years, those soups taste like salt water. That’s because the taste of salt depends on how much you are eating. If you eat a lot, you need more to taste salty. If you are like me, practically all processed and restaurant foods taste unpleasantly salty.

So what to do? I say this is indeed a matter of personal choice and right now I don’t have one. If I want to eat out at all, I know I’m going to feel oversalted by the time I get home.

I want the default choice to be lower in salt. Nobody is stopping anyone from salting food. You don’t think your food tastes salty enough? Get out the salt shaker.

But let me make two other comments. One is that the amount of salt we eat is so far in excess of what we need that asking food makers and sellers to cut down can hardly make a dent in taste. A new Swedish study just out says that young men consume at least twice the salt they need and the authors are calling on government to require food makers to start cutting down.

And yes, the science is controversial and not everyone has blood pressure that goes through the roof when they eat something salty. But lots of people do. And almost everyone has blood pressure that goes up with age. As a population, we would be better off exposed to less salt in our diets.

Some food makers are already gradually cutting down on salt, but quietly so nobody notices. If every food company were required to do that, everyone would get used to a less salty taste and we all might be able to better appreciate the subtle tastes of food.

My guess is that Bloomberg has started a movement and we will be seeing much more effort to lower the salt intake of Americans. As I see it, this is about giving people a real choice about what they eat.

Correction, January 22:  Juli Mandel Sloves of Campbell Soup correctly points out that I am in error.  A serving of soup is 8 ounces, not 4, even though the label says that a serving is half a cup.  How come?  Because the can is to be diluted with another can of water, making it 21 ounces divided by 2.5 servings per can, or about 8 ounces.    Complicated, no?  But this means the sodium content is 480 mg per cup, not half cup, despite what the label says.   I apologize for the error.  But here is an excellent reason to redesign the Nutrition Facts label, alas.

Jan 16 2010

FDA to reevaluate Bisphenol A (BPA)

The FDA now says it has concerns about BPA and intends to join other federal agencies in a review of the chemical’s safety.   As readers of this blog may recall from previous posts, the FDA has a long-awaited report on BPA sitting in a drawer someplace.  The report was due at the end of November.  Now we can guess the reason for the delay.  The report must have given BPA a pass even though studies seem to be coming in daily suggesting harm.  BPA may not be immediately deadly, but it does not seem good for human health.

The most recent study, this one  from England, looked at dietary intake data in the U.S.   It concluded that BPA is a risk factor for heart disease.  The industry, of course, disagrees.  They think the British study isn’t scientific enough.

Faced with increasing evidence of harm, the FDA is doing the right thing to take this one on.  The problem will be getting rid of BPA.  We can all do our part by avoiding hard plastic bottles, but what about the linings of canned foods?  The canning industry says it doesn’t have a safe substitute.  Until they find one, you will have to add canned foods to the list of foods to avoid.

Jan 15 2010

The latest “eco-stunt:” school food

In her riveting New Yorker review of Colin Beaven’s No Impact Man and other books based on year-long experiments in green living, Elizabeth Colbert coined the term, “eco-stunt” to describe them.   Julie Powell’s Julie/Julia blog project extended the genre to eating.   In this category, an intrepid school teacher, Mrs. Q, has vowed to eat school lunches every day for a year.  She is, of course, recording the details for posterity.  Will she survive?  I can’t wait to find out.

Update January 19: Thanks to Andy Bellatti of Small Bites for doing a personal interview with Mrs. Q.  I’m happy to see that she is indeed surviving, and flourishing at that.

Jan 14 2010

On the food safety front…

Cookie dough: Nestlé reports that it has again found E. coli O157:H7 in its cookie dough and will now be heating the flour before using (see, the New York Times account, and the report from FoodProductionDaily.com.

This is odd.  How do they know that the flour is the carrier?   As I discussed in previous posts, the source of the contaminating bacteria has either not been found or not announced.  This action implies that the company must think the flour is at fault.  Let’s hope so.  We certainly don’t want the chocolate bits to be the carrier.

FDA news: The FDA announced yesterday that it has appointed Michael Taylor as Deputy Commissioner for Foods.  This is a new office at FDA which, if Congress ever gets around to passing it, will be responsible for implementing the preventive control provisions of the food safety bill.  Peventive control, I’ve just learned, is the new euphemism for HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point).

As I describe in a previous post, Mr. Taylor’s appointment is not without controversy but his expertise in food safety runs deep.  I think this is a good move for FDA.

Update January 15: And here is what the Washington Post and the New York Times have to say about Taylor’s appointment.  I’m quoted in the Post story.

He is the quintessential revolving door,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. Taylor’s support for BGH and Monsanto’s other genetically modified products at the FDA was “questionable,” she said. “On the other hand, when he went to USDA, what he did there was absolutely heroic. He’s been very strong on food safety.

Jan 13 2010

GM corn causes organ problems in rats?

French investigators have published a reinterpretation of some feeding studies in small samples of rats.  The studies were done originally by Monsanto to test three varieties of the company’s genetically modified corn.  These investigators obtained the data from the feeding trials as the result of a court case in Europe, which Monsanto lost.   They analyzed the data using their own statistical methods.

I found the paper extremely difficult to read, in part because it is written in exceptionally dense and opaque language, and in part because it presents the data in especially complicated tables and figures.  I must confess to giving up trying to make sense of it and will simply present its conclusion:

our data strongly suggests that these GM maize varieties induce a state of hepatorenal toxicity. This can be due to the new pesticides (herbicide or insecticide) present specifically in each type of GM maize, although unintended metabolic effects due to the mutagenic properties of the GM transformation process cannot be excluded…All three GM maize varieties contain a distinctly different pesticide residue associated with their particular GM event (glyphosate and AMPA in NK 603, modified Cry1Ab in MON 810, modified Cry3Bb1 in MON 863). These substances have never before been an integral part of the human or animal diet and therefore their health consequences for those who consume them, especially over long time periods are currently unknown. Furthermore, any side effect linked to the GM event will be unique in each case as the site of transgene insertion and the spectrum of genome wide mutations will differ between the three modified maize types.

And here is Monsanto’s response.  I would be most intererested to hear the opinion of animal toxicologists on these studies.

Jan 11 2010

New York City’s new health initiative: Salt!

The New York City Health Department is at it again.  First trans-fat, then calories, then sodas.  Now, it’s going after salt in packaged foods and restaurant meals.   It is asking for a 25% reduction in the next five years.   How come? Because nearly 80% of salt in American diets is already in packaged and restaurant foods and if you eat them at all you have no choice about the amount of salt you are getting (see previous posts).

The Health Department is sending a clear message: reducing the salt content of packaged and restaurant foods will help New Yorkers stay healthy.

The initiative is voluntary.  But if everyone complied, we would all get used to a less salty taste and the current high salt levels will taste too salty.

This is actually a modest proposal.  We still have a long way to go.  The proposed standard for marketing foods to children, for example,  is 480 mg sodium (more than a gram of salt) per serving.  A mere half-cup of Campbell’s low sodium soups contains that much.  Campbell says it’s up to you to get the company to do better.

According to today’s Wall Street Journal, companies are already cutting the salt, albeit surreptitiously.   And according to the account in the New York Times, a Campbell official said: “We will continue to reduce sodium as long as there’s consumer acceptance in the marketplace.

So they think it’s up to you.   Fine.  Give companies plenty of reason to cut the salt.  Tell companies you want real consumer choice.   You want to decide how much salt to eat.  In the meantime, FDA: get busy on this one.

Correction, January 22:  Juli Mandel Sloves of Campbell Soup correctly points out that I am in error.  A serving of soup is 8 ounces, not 4, even though the label says that a serving is half a cup.  How come?  Because the can is to be diluted with another can of water, making it 21 ounces divided by 2.5 servings per can, or about 8 ounces.    Complicated, no?  But this means the sodium content is 480 mg per cup, not half cup, despite what the label says.   I apologize for the error.  But isn’t this a good reason to redesign the Nutrition Facts label?

Jan 8 2010

Genetic causes of obesity: 1%?

Recent news reports encouraged me to take a quick look at the January 2010 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition where investigators have attempted to identify the proportion of human obesity accounted for by genetic variation.  Their conclusion: probably no more than 1% (we used to think it was 5%).  I don’t know why anyone would be surprised.  Obesity rates rose sharply in the early 1980s, with no possibility for so rapid a change in the genetic composition of the population.

I don’t think we need complicated genetic explanations for obesity.  We have so much evidence that people started consuming more calories at about that time and are continuing to do so.  Why more calories?  Portion sizes got bigger, and – hard as it may be to believe – larger portions have more calories!

In a commentary on the study, Claude Bouchard puts it this way:

The obesity epidemic we are facing today unfolded over the past few decades and can clearly not be explained by changes in the frequency of risk alleles. It is more likely due to a changing social and physical environment that encourages consumption and discourages expenditure of energy, behaviors that are poorly compatible with the genome that we have inherited.

Hence: eat less, move more!  And have an active weekend!

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