Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Nov 30 2007

Food banks in trouble

Today’s New York Times tells us that food banks are having a hard time meeting the need for their services. Food donations are down, and the number of people needing emergency food is up. I have heard this story over and over in the years since I first started writing about hunger policy. As Janet Poppendieck explains in her timeless book, Sweet Charity, food banks and emergency food–helpful as they are–are bad public policy. The Times article is excellent evidence for the need for better anti-hunger policies in the United States. It’s too bad things have to get so bad before anyone notices.

Nov 30 2007

Does Bisphenol A affect reproductive function or cancer risk?

The Department of Health and Human Services has just released a huge report from an expert panel on the potential toxicity of bisphenol A, a component of polycarbonate plastic bottles widely used to package bottled water, milk, and infant formulas. The Department initiated the report because of suggestions that bisphenol A disrupts endocrine function or causes prostate cancer in laboratory animals. The panel looked at all the studies it could find examining the effects of high and low dose bisphenol A on fetal development, reproductive function, accelerated onset of puberty, and prostate cancer.

I found the report a struggle to read, in part because it is so long (384 pages) and in part because it does not have an executive summary. The panel’s conclusions, which come way at the end, are also hard to figure out because they are expressed as degree of concern (negligible, minimal, or some) about the effects of bisphenol A on three groups: pregnant women, infants and children, and adults.

The good news is that the panel was surprised by how little evidence it found for adverse effects at either high or low doses. For adults its concern is negligible except for people who have high occupational exposures. For pregnant women, infants, and children, the panel has some concern about effects on the nervous system and behavior, but minimal concern about accelerated puberty. Mostly, the panel thinks more research is needed. The report is now open for comment.

Nov 30 2007

Bad news about acrylamide

A question posted about acrylamide asks: “I heard on the radio today that a study has demonstrated that the cooking of potatoes in oil, whether on top or in the oven, raises acrylamide to dangerous levels. In my novice readings, I have learned that traditional, more saturated fats may be more stable than the industrial veggie oils. So, to what extent are these results impacted by the frying fat?”

Acrylamide is a puzzle. It is a bad carcinogen but it appears in just about any carbohydrate-containing food that is heated to high temperature. And most foods contain at least some carbohydrate. High-carbohydrate foods, like potato chips and French fries, are prime examples of foods high in acrylamides. Food companies are working like mad to figure out ways to reduce levels in processed foods, and the European Union is also working hard on this problem. I put acrylamides in the category of things I don’t worry about much. They are in everything, especially high-carbohydrate junk foods–another reason to go easy on eating those foods.

Nov 30 2007

Good news about obesity rates

The Centers for Disease Control and Promotion (CDC) announces that obesity rates are leveling off, at least among white women. The data show less favorable trends among men and women of color. One reason for the slowing down of obesity trends may be another favorable trend: the prevalence of regular physical activity seems to be increasing.

Nov 30 2007

Food Miles from New Zealand

I am back from speaking at New Zealand’s “Primary Industries Summit,” a government-sponsored meeting of agricultural business leaders called to challenge their “conceptions of what the global economic environment will look like in 2020″ and to suggest ideas about how best to position New Zealand’s agriculture to give it a competitive advantage. The short answer: good, fair, clean, and green. The big challenge: Food miles. New Zealand is really, really far to get to (it took consecutive flights of 6, 13, and 3 hours to get me to the meeting venue). For New Zealand business leaders, “eat local” means fighting words. Their mantra: our foods have lower carbon footprints than yours. That’s the perspective from the Antipodes. Antipodes, by the way, is the brand name of their local bottled water–at least the bottles are glass.

It’s good to be back. I will be posting catch-ups in rapid succession.

Nov 21 2007

A Pause in the Blog: New Zealand, this time

I am off to a meeting in New Zealand–Primary Industries 2020–for the next week. This is a government meeting about how New Zealand businesses can succeed in a changing global economy. Making safe food is one way, and I will be talking about food safety and risk management, using the pet food and spinach recalls as examples. Will I have Internet access? Best to consider the blog on vacation until December 1. I will miss Thanksgiving when I cross the dateline tomorrow, but wish all of you a delicious holiday.

Nov 20 2007

Brian Wansink! At the USDA!

Every now and then something incredible happens and here it is. Brian Wansink, Cornell Professor and author of Mindless Eating, has been appointed executive director of the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. This is the piece of USDA responsible for dietary advice to the public. Wansink is the guy who does the terrific research on environmental determinants of overeating showing that large portions, wide drinking glasses, foods close by, and health claims encourage everyone to eat more calories than they need or want. Will he be able to anything good at USDA? Let’s hope so. In the meantime, cheers to USDA for making a brilliant appointment.

Nov 19 2007

The (silly) battle of the antioxidants

Which fruit has the most antioxidants? The latest report says blueberries, followed by cranberries, apples, red grapes, and finally green grapes. What? Pomegranates don’t even make the top five? In this case, who knows? The investigators were testing a new assay method and those were the only fruits they examined. Never mind. It doesn’t matter. A fundamental principle of nutrition is variety. In this case, variety means that it’s good to eat different kinds of fruits and vegetables. Each contains its own unique complement of antioxidants and other nutrients and if you eat a variety of foods, you are likely to get all the ones you need and not overdo on any.

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