Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Feb 18 2009

Peanut butter recalls: the Harvard Survey

Some group at Harvard does telephone surveys of consumer attitudes and did one about the recallsNews accounts say that nearly all of the more than 1,000 respondents had heard about the recalls, but about a quarter of them erroneously thought that national brands of peanut butter in jars had been recalled.  Companies that put peanut butter in jars must do their own roasting, which is why they are announcing their safety in ads and on websites.   Consumers, the survey found, were not aware of the range of products affected.  How could they be?  I get announcements of newly recalled products every day and the total now exceeds 2,000. The take-home lesson?  Until we have a decent food safety system in place, avoid mass-produced foods with multiple ingredients (especially if you don’t know what they are or where they came from), buy local, and consider cooking – it solves a lot of safety problems.  Other ideas?

Feb 17 2009

Today’s giggle

Thanks to everyone who e-mailed this to me today. It’s a joke (I think), but a thoroughly plausible one. It’s flying around the Internet.  Here is its source. It is produced by koert van mensvoort whose own website is worth a look.  Enjoy!

The next great health food!

Feb 16 2009

Expanding portion sizes in the Joy of Cooking

Brian Wansink’s latest paper is an analysis of the increasing size of servings and meals through multiple editions of the classic cookbook, Joy of Cooking. These, he finds, have increased by 35%.  My former doctoral student, Lisa Young, looked at how portion sizes began to balloon in the early 1980s in parallel with increasing calories in the food supply (from 3,200 to 3,900 per day per capita) and with rising rates of obesity.  She showed how readers using identical recipes were instructed to make far fewer cookies in newer editions of the Joy of Cooking and wrote about this phenomenon in her book, The Portion Teller.

I wrote about this last year in a letter to the New York Times: “To the Editor: I could not resist looking up the calories for the gorgeous chocolate chip cookie recipe given on July 9. That recipe calls for about 4 pounds of ingredients to make only 18 cookies, each of which runs 500 calories — one quarter of the amount needed by most people for an entire day. I’d call one of those cookies lunch or share it with three friends. By the way, a similar recipe in the 1975 “Joy of Cooking” made 45 cookies with just half the ingredients. These would be just under 100 calories each.”

The point of all this: larger portions have more calories! And you need no further explanation for rising rates of obesity.

Update February 18: Wansink is a professor at Cornell, and the Cornell Chronicle did a story on it.

Feb 15 2009

Sales of HFCS-free foods zoom up

The bad press about high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is having an effect.  According to figures assembled by Phil Lempert, the Supermarket Guru, sales of products bearing “HFCS-Free” labels almost reached a billion dollars last year.  Fruit drinks are the biggest HFCS-free category, but HFCS-free yogurts, vegetable juices, and breads are the fastest growing. Lempert doesn’t say what companies are using instead of HFCS.  If it’s sucrose, it won’t be much of an improvement.  But no wonder the Corn Refiners think they need a hefty public relations campaign.

March 21 update: This trend is a front-page story in the New York Times.

Feb 14 2009

Soda tax: just a public policy argument?

Remember New York State Governor David Paterson’s idea about taxing sodas to raise funds for health care? According to news accounts, New York State Governor, David Paterson, now says his proposal to tax sodas is just a rhetorical device.  He didn’t really think it would ever pass.  He just wanted people to talk about how to do something to prevent childhood obesity.  Chalk this one up as a win for soda companies?

Update February 19: here are Kelly Brownell’s thoughtful comments on the matter.

Feb 13 2009

Clever move: Peanut Corp goes bankrupt

The peanut butter story gets more sordid by the minute.  Peanut Corporation of America, owner of the Georgia plant that shipped peanut butter laced with Salmonella, has gone belly up.    By filing for bankruptcy, it gets to avoid claims and class action suits related to the illnesses and deaths caused by the tainted peanut butter.  Check out what Consumers Union has to say about this ploy.

Feb 12 2009

Melamine in Infant Formula: clinical consequences

On February 4, the New England Journal of Medicine published four studies of the effects of melamine-adulterated infant formula on the infants unlucky enough to be fed it. Reuters has an article about the studies.

Feb 11 2009

The latest weird food idea: osteoblast milk product

I had never heard of OMP (osteoblast milk product or protein) until this morning when a reporter from the Associated Press in Beijing sent me an e-mail about it.  A milk company in China, it seems, is adding OMP to its milk and the Chinese food safety agency is investigating. The companies say OMP is safe and FDA-approved.

It didn’t take long to find out what this is about.  Japanese investigators isolated a protein, kininogen, from milk and demonstrated in laboratory experiments that it promotes bone growth.  These and other experiments in rats and people also show that it stimulates bone formation (I haven’t read them so I can’t comment on their quality).

FDA approved?  Not exactly.  In response to a petition from a company called Snow Foods, the FDA agreed that the use of milk proteins as additives to dairy foods is GRAS (generally recognized as safe) for human consumption.  But its “approval” letter assumes that the proteins are mainly lactoferrin and lactoperoxidase, which are pretty well known to be safe. The FDA’s letter says nothing about the use of kininogen as a bone-promoting agent.

I can see why the Chinese government is concerned.  It is one thing to demonstrate the effects of a protein in experiments, and quite another to add that protein to a food likely to be consumed by children.  The protein is already in milk and there is no evidence that adding more of it will make any difference to bone growth.   Without further studies to make sure that adding this protein does no harm, putting it into milk seems like a bad idea.

This seems like more about marketing than health, and it sounds like it is part of the huge current effort to sell more milk to the Chinese people.  I am bewildered by the pressure on the Chinese population to drink more milk and eat more milk products.  Aren’t most Chinese sensitive to undigested lactose?  None of this makes any sense to me.  Milk is not an essential nutrient or food and the Chinese have done fine for millennia without it.

I will be watching the unfolding of this story with much interest.  Stay tuned.

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