Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Oct 28 2008

New food rating label: a step forward?

Big Food companies have gotten together and agreed on a scoring system to identify “better-for-you” packaged foods (see below).  Thanks to my colleague in Copenhagen, Morten Strunge Meyer (MortenCopenhagen), for sending the link to the qualifying crieteria.  As is true of scoring systems in general, these are complicated and constitute a slippery slope.  Take sodium, for example.  The allowance is particularly generous (junk foods don’t taste good without it) – 480 mg per serving.  That means 479 mg qualifies and that’s still nearly half a gram.

Having one checkmark instead of the various ones run by PepsiCo, Kraft, and Unilever seems useful if – and only if – the criteria are stringent (which this one is not for sodium), and this symbol replaces all of the others.  Even so, this looks like preemption.  It’s voluntary and seems designed to head off a mandatory traffic light system (red, yellow, green)  that would warn people away from the worst junk foods.  It also preempts the FDA proposal to display the full number of calories per package.  Alas, this is a standard food industry tactic: preempt with something that seems better than what is currently available to stave off something that could be worse.


Oct 27 2008

Worried about food safety? You should be

 A new poll says 90% of U.S. consumers are worried about food safety, but 79% of the worried think the problems are with imported food and only 21% are worried about domestic food.  Everybody should be worried about both, if you ask me.  The U.N. says China needs to do something about its food safety problems, and fast.  That would help.  China reports that melamine has been found in eggs, of all things (the chickens ate contaminated feed?).  So would cleaning up our own food safety system.

Oct 25 2008

Announcing the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Committee

The government must have announced the members of the committee that will develop the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, because the American Society of Nutrition (I am a member) has issued a press release congratulating the nine (of 13) appointees who are ASN members.  Who are the other four?  We will find out next week when the committee starts meeting.  Stephen Clapp interviewed me about the Guidelines for Food Chemical News (October 27).  Here’s my part of his article, subtitled, “Keep it simple, stupid!” 

“Not everyone is happy with the 2005 guidelines. Marion Nestle, a high-profile nutritionist who teaches at New York University, favors scrapping the current advice in favor of something much simpler. She served on the 1995 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, an experience she described in her book Food Politics. She hasn’t been invited back.

“I would hope for an enormous reversal of the last set of guidelines,” she told FCN. “They’re unteachable and incomprehensible. Buried in the 41 recommendations is the basic advice: eat less, move more, eat more fruits and vegetables and whole grains, and don’t eat too much junk food.

“The idea that this document is for policymakers is ridiculous,” she continued. “You could boil it down to a single recommendation: ‘Drink fewer sodas and juice drinks.'”

Nestle said in 1995 the advisory committee was told to interpret nutrition science for the public. In 2005 the panel was told to make “science-based” recommendations, she said, which she interprets as code for “We won’t let you say anything unless the science is incontrovertible.”

Basing the guidelines on Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) is a “huge mistake,” Nestle says, because the DRIs are “incomprehensible” and set too high for calcium and potassium, resulting in a recommendation to eat two or three servings of dairy products daily. “If the Dietary Guidelines have to be based on the DRIs, it’s too much food,” she says.

Nestle says nutrition science is unusually subject to interpretation and bias because it’s difficult to link specific nutrients to chronic diseases. “My biases are open,” she says. “Everyone else has biases, too, but they may not want to disclose them. The public is deeply confused — you should just give the best advice you can. Just take into consideration all the research available and don’t worry about the impact on one industry or another.”

Now wouldn’t it be useful if they took my advice?  I will be following this story with great interest.

Update 10/28: Here’s the USDA’s announcement of the full list of committee members.

Oct 24 2008

USDA proposes new pasture rules for organic ruminants

Under the current rules, meat sold as organic must come from animals with access to pasture.  Loophole alert!  The animals did not have to be raised on pasture.  The USDA now proposes to close the loophole as it applies to ruminant animals. This proposal is open for comment.  If you want to see how such things are done, this one is an excellent example (it includes a detailed history of the regulations, among other useful things).  USDA wrote this in response to more than 80,000 comments on the “announcement of proposed rulemaking.”  Virtually all of these wanted organically raised ruminants to be grazing on pasture.  The Federal Register notice is 24 pages of tiny type but my immediate take is that the USDA proposals are really good.  Take a look and see what you think.  I’m withholding final judgment until somebody does a decent summary so I don’t get bogged down in “We propose to remove the word “or” at the end of paragraph X and replacing the period at the end of paragraph Y with a semicolon.”

Oct 23 2008

Food allergies more common, says CDC

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a new report out on food allergies.  As everyone suspects, these have become more common in the last 10 years, especially among kids with asthma.  But the increase is really quite small and much smaller than I suspected.  The one big change is in the rate of hospitalizations; these have more than doubled.  Why? What’s really depressing is that nobody really knows.  I have argued for years that we need more research on food allergies.  With a food supply as complicated as ours, having one is no joke.

Oct 22 2008

San Francisco Chronicle: Melamine

Today’s Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle is about the melamine scandals.  Melamine is still a big problem.  It has just turned up as the cause of death of 1,500 raccoon “dogs” (animals raised for fur in China) and in pizzas in Japan.  There seems no end to ingenious uses for making food and feed appear to have more protein than they really do, never mind that melamine forms kidney crystals when mixed with one of its by-products, cyanuric acid.

For the science types among you, the intrepid Procter & Gamble scientists who identified melamine in pet food have just published their toxicology findings.  Take a look at Figure 1, which compares the chromatography of the “control” (safe) cat food with the cat food “tainted” with melamine and its nasty by-products.  And check out Table 1; it reports that nearly 15% of the so-called wheat gluten was actually melamine and cyanuric acid.  The amounts in Chinese infant formula were in the same ballpark, so it’s no wonder that so many babies got sick.  This is a huge scandal and clear indication that our food safety systems need a major fix.

Oct 21 2008

Menu labeling: a U.S. map

Center for Science in the Public Interest has mapped legislative initiatives by state.  Here’s a quick way to see which states are doing what.

Oct 20 2008

10 things the food industry doesn’t want you to know

Adam Voiland of U.S. News and World Report interviewed David Ludwig and me for this story based on our recent JAMA article.  He’s packed a lot of information into these 10 categories, which start with #1, the billions advertisers spend on marketing to kids, and end with #10, food industry attacks on critics (this means me).  Check out the links!

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