Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jan 2 2008

More on nutrition scoring: David Katz responds

My previous post elicited a long and thoughtful comment from Dr. David Katz. His response is well worth reading. Take a look. And thank you David for writing in. Your scoring system is an interesting experiment. Will people routinely choose foods with higher scores? Will food companies change their product formulas in order to qualify for higher scores? Will people be healthier as a result? Will they be less confused about nutrition?  I will be interested to follow the progress of your system and see how it works out. Thanks again for writing and happy new year!

Jan 1 2008

The first topic in 2008: food scoring systems

My first question in the new year is from “fretful reader” who asks: “Esteemed Wise Woman Whose Writing Lights A Fire Under Me: …today’s [San Francisco] Chronicle has a story about the ONQI(overall nutritional quality index)…which purports to ‘make nutrition easy’. My college education (about 30 yrs old, damn near antiquated) is
inadequate to the task of combining “positive nutrients” , “negative nutrients”, dividing them, and why didn’t they remember to subtract the number of ingredients on the list altogether…as a way of penalizing the ‘foods’ that have those scary long lists in a designed to be unreadable, vertical typeface? Does it sound like I’m irritable? Probably.”

Dear irritable, fretful: Me too. I’m not much for scoring systems of any kind on food. I don’t think you need a score to know whether you are eating a junk food or not and is a slightly better junk food better for you? I can’t remember who started these things but PepsiCo has its Smart Spots and Kraft has its Sensible Solutions and companies like those can set up their own criteria for what is and is not “healthier.” It’s a lot of fun to go to supermarkets and look to see which products qualify. Kraft’s Lunchables are a good place to start. See if you can tell the difference between products that do and do not qualify. Hannaford supermarkets got some independent nutrition researchers to develop criteria for awarding one , two, or three stars to healthier products and guess what: less than one quarter of nearly 30,000 products qualified for even one star, and most of those were fruits and vegetables in the produce section. So when the criteria are tough, hardly anything qualifies. So now Dr. David Katz at Yale has gotten a committee together to develop his own set. You have to have a degree in mathematics to understand it but that doesn’t really matter. Do you really need a scoring system to tell you that General Mills’ Wheaties (score: 246.2403) is better than Barbara’s Puffins Peanut Butter (9.937892) or Kellogg’s Cocoa Krispies (0.476746)? Never mind the apparent but misleading precision of the 4 to 6 decimal places. All of these are low scores. The problem with these systems is that the criteria are arbitrary and make some highly processed foods look better than others. This is a great marketing tool but will it help people eat more healthfully? I doubt it. I take an extreme position on all such systems. They should not be allowed. If we must have them, the FDA needs to step in and set up one set of criteria. And I don’t envy the committee that has to do that. So I am adding one more item to my list of “rules” for supermarket shopping in What to Eat. If it has a self-endorsement of nutritional quality, don’t buy it; such things are about marketing, not health.

Dec 31 2007

Question of the year: high fructose corn syrup

I will end the year with the big issue of 2007: high fructose corn syrup. It is basically the same as sugar (sucrose). The “high fructose” is misleading. Sucrose is glucose and fructose (50/50). High fructose corn syrup is glucose and fructose (45/55 or 55/42). So whether you eat cane sugar, organic cane sugar, table sugar, or high fructose corn syrup, you are eating the same thing–glucose and fructose. Yes, fructose is metabolized differently, but most foods do not contain just fructose. The big issues are quantity and calories. Eating too much sugar (or starch, for that matter) is much more of a problem when there is lots of it and lots of calories from sugars or anything else. So we are back to moderation, alas. Enjoy your dessert and happy new year!

Dec 31 2007

Trans-fat substitutes: How?

Here’s a quick question, just in: “I finally got the chance to finish What to Eat, and I noticed that you didn’t talk about non-hydrogenated margarine in your margarine section. I’m not wondering if it’s better for you because I’m sure it’s still soybean oil with a bunch of stabilizers, but I’m just wondering how it’s made.”

Response: I did actually, but in two other chapters, the next one and the one on fats and oils so the explanation is hard to find. Sorry about that. Here’s the deal: companies use variations of two methods: (1) substitute a highly saturated fat like palm kernal or coconut oils, or (2) mix a totally saturated fat (which will not have any trans) with an unhydrogenated fat (also trans-free) until you get the degree of thickness required. Both methods increase the amount of saturated fatty acids. Saturated fats raise the risk of heart disease, but not as much as trans. So the substitutes are likely to be marginally better than oils with trans.

Dec 31 2007

Nutrient composition: philosophy

This question comes from Sheila: “Recently, I was served a plate of “salad” that consisted entirely of several varieties of vegetable sprouts and grain sprouts, dressed with a fresh herb dressing. It was delicious. The salad maker stated this small plate of sprouts held the nutrient content of several cups of fresh whole vegetables, stated the nutrients are quite concentrated in the sprouts. Is this true? The only “literature” I can find on this subject is from seed companies who obviously have a vested interest in selling the seeds for the sprouts. I would appreciate knowing the true comparison of nutrient content. Thank you.”

Food composition: My immediate question is “which nutrients?” Sprouts have so much water that their nutrient content cannot possibly equal that of vegetables with less water. But certain antioxidants–sulforaphane, for example–are more concentrated in sprouts than in adult plants. Ordinarily, questions about food composition are easy to answer. Look up the food on the USDA’s food composition data base. But I can’t find anything about sprouts on the USDA site. A Google search turned up bean sprouts on a data base from the Australia and New Zealand food standards agency. Sprouts are 93% water, and 100 grams contain 9 mg calcium, 129 mg potassium, and 10 mg vitamin C. In contrast, broccoli (according to USDA) is 89% water, and has 47 mg calcium, 316 mg potassium, and 89 mg vitamin C. So broccoli beats sprouts for those particular nutrients. Sprouts are fine to eat and the small amounts of nutrients they contain are useful. So enjoy them! And happy new year!

Dec 31 2007

whole grains: philosophy

It’s the end of the year and snowing in upstate New York and a good day to respond to some questions. How about this one from Migraineur about whole grains: “What I would like to see is evidence that shows that whole grains are a better place to spend part of our daily calorie budget than are vegetables, meats, dairy products, fish, eggs, high quality fats, and fruits. That is to say, am I better off consuming whole grains or omitting grains entirely?”

My philosophy: the answer, of course, is “it depends.” Nutrition is about two things–calories and nutrients. Humans are omnivores. We can get calories and nutrients from just about anything we eat, plant and animal. If getting enough calories is the problem, grains are a big help because they are relatively concentrated in calories. Whole grains are better choices because they provide more nutrients than processed grains. But: if eating too many calories is the problem, then foods with fewer calories are better choices. Whole grains may have more nutrients, but they are just as caloric as processed grains. The science shows that people who eat whole grains are healthier, but good health practices track: people who habitually eat whole grains tend to eat better diets, stay active, and behave in other healthier ways. So it is impossible to tease out the effects of whole grains or any other single food or nutrient from dietary patterns as a whole. What does all this mean? If you like eating grains (and I do), then it’s fine to eat them. If you do not or don’t want to, you don’t have to. I cannot think of one single food or food group that is essential in human diets. And single foods and nutrients always have to be considered within the context of calories. That’s how I see it. Happy new year!

Dec 30 2007

The Marilyn Manson Pyramid

While we are all debating the merits of grains, whole and not (my bottom line: they are too delicious to give up; like everything else, eat in moderation), how about this version of the USDA’s Pyramid, courtesy of Eminem? Happy new year!

Added comment: oops

Dec 29 2007

Coca-Cola is promoting exercise!

Coca-Cola is announcing its new partnership with ExerciseTV. The press statement explains: “Coca-Cola continues to make great strides in educating the public about the importance of exercise, and how its broad range of products can benefit health-conscious consumers.” This must be part of Coke’s new strategy as a wellness company (see previous comments on the “Pomegranate-Blueberry” drink and Minute Maid Orange Juice). What do we think of this?

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