Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Feb 14 2008

Ben & Jerry’s sings about cloning

Thanks to Maya Joseph for sending Ben & Jerry’s endearing cow cloning song. Its message: just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. But wait! Isn’t Ben & Jerry’s owned by Unilever? Does this mean that Unilever–a huge multinational food corporation that sells nearly $60 billion annually–opposes animal cloning? Or is the company just leaving Ben & Jerry’s alone with its core customers?

Feb 13 2008

Country-of-origin labels: voluntary?

Unless Congress does something weird, Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) will go into effect this spring. Apparently, some companies are already doing it. I’m traveling this week and bought a little packet of Snak Club Tropical Mix at an airport news stand, thinking that it would be mostly raisins and peanuts, which it mostly was. The COOL was an unexpected bonus although I hardly know what to make of it: “Product of U.S.A., may contain ingredients from Thailand and/or Phillipines [sic] and/or Mexico and/or China and/or Chile and/or Argentina.” Somehow, I’m guessing that this is not what proponents of COOL had in mind, exactly.

Feb 13 2008

Yet another scoring system

Adam Drewnowski at University of Washington in Seattle has come up with yet another scoring system to rank the nutritional value of food products. So we now have three done by independent scientists: Hannaford’s, David Katz’s, and now this one (see previous posts). And companies like Kraft (Sensible Solutions) and PepsiCo (Smart Spot) have their own. What is a consumer to do? I, of course, say get rid of all of them.  I’m willing to concede that an alternative would be for the FDA to convene a summit and select one rating method. As these systems proliferate, the “one rating system” idea looks better and better, no?

Feb 12 2008

Salt and more salt

Center for Science in the Public Interest has petitioned the FDA to take away GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) status for salt because of its links to high blood pressure. Yesterday’s  USA Today did a story on this issue with some terrific graphics, unfortunately not shown in the online version. Missing is the pie chart showing the sources of salt in American diets: naturally occurring 12%, added at the table 6%, used during cooking 5%–and 77% in food processing! If you want to avoid salt in your diet, you have to avoid processed foods. American producers say they cannot remove salt from their products or nobody would buy them. Really? The Australians have managed to convince their food industry to reduce the salt.  They’ve even achieved a 13% reduction in the salt in Vegemite!

Feb 12 2008

In memorium: Earl Butz

Earl Butz, former Secretary of Agriculture in the Nixon administration, died last week at the age of 98. He had a long and varied career, but in the context of food systems he is famous for having revolutionized U.S. agricultural policy. Instead of paying farmers not to produce food, he encouraged farmers to produce as much food as possible. They did, and indeed produced so much corn that new uses had to be found for it. Voila! High fructose corn syrup! The movie, King Corn, includes an interview with Mr. Butz. He was proud of having so greatly increased U.S. food production. Indeed, the number of calories in the U.S. food supply increased from about 3,200 per day in the mid-1970s to the present 3,900 per day, with all the consequences that I discuss in Food Politics and in What to Eat. His passing marks the end of an era.

Feb 10 2008

The diet soda puzzle

Diet sodas, which are just water plus one or more artificial sweeteners, ought to save tons of calories and help people manage weight and metabolic imbalances, right? You might think so, but that’s not how the research is turning out. A big, complicated study of the effects of diet on “metabolic syndrome” (meaning multiple risk factors for heart disease, diabetes, etc) finds diet soda to be one of the factors associated with predisposition. OK. The study was based on food frequency questionnaires and other results are also hard to interpret but this isn’t the first study to find diet sodas coming out on the wrong side. The artificial sweeteners might be at fault but my guess is that diet sodas are a marker for some of the less healthful dietary practices. You know my rule from What to Eat: never eat anything with anything artificial in it.

Feb 10 2008

The pet food indictments

I haven’t been saying much about pet food, mainly because my forthcoming book about the recall and its aftermath, Pet Food Politics: Chihuahua in the Coal Mine, is in the works at University of California Press but won’t be out until September. Last week’s indictments of the heads of the Chinese companies that supposedly produced and shipped the contaminated wheat gluten (actually wheat flour laced with melamine), and the American company that imported it, got plenty of press. I particularly appreciated the USA Today version from Julie Schmit and Elizabeth Weise who have understood the importance of this story from the beginning, and whose article provides links to to the indictment documents.  As for why this story isn’t just about pet food, check out what the U.S. Olympic teams are doing about food when they go to Beijing for the summer games.

Feb 9 2008

Obesity: genetics vs. environment?

I can’t believe researchers are still arguing about whether obesity is due to genetics or environment when it is so obvious that both are involved.  The latest study compared identical with non-identical twins and concludes that genetics explains an astounding 77% of the difference in obesity.  That percentage is enormous in biological terms and reason enough for skepticism.  The accompanying editorial gives additional reasons.  My take on this: of course genetics matters, but 25 years ago kids didn’t used to be so fat and rates of childhood diabetes (type 2) used to be much lower.  Genetics cannot have changed much in the last 25 years.  If the percentage attributable to genetics really is this high, it means that 77% of the population is susceptible to becoming obese if the environmental conditions so predispose, which they most certainly do these days.  Your take?

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