Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Sep 10 2007

Lock Kids in at Lunch?

Ah, the British are way ahead of us. Chef Jamie Oliver, who singlehandedly is trying to fix school lunches in the U.K., thinks kids should be locked in at lunch and not allowed to go off campus to buy fast food. If all kids ate meals at schools in the U.S., there might be enough money to provide healthier meals. Well, it’s a thought.

Sep 10 2007

Today’s Question: Feed Efficiency

I haven’t thought carefully about this question since I first read Francis Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet in the 1970s: “I have a question…about growing grains for livestock feeding: When corn, for example, is grown, it has a k/cal value, or an amount of caloric energy that I assume can be counted for human nutrition. As it is used for feed, is caloric energy lost in the transfer? In other words, is the resulting food (all the butchered and eaten parts of a cow, for example) similar in energy content to the edible feed that went into it? I assume we lose some caloric value along the way, but how much? To me, this has all kinds of implications that I’d like to ponder, including the implications of this from the (admittedly broad) prospective of global hunger.”

This is about “feed efficiency ratios”–the amount of food it takes to make a pound of animal or a pound of us. Let’s hear it for Wikipedia, which has a nice summary with a reasonable reference. It takes more grain to make beef than pigs, chicken, or fish. A lot of those animals are not usable for food (maybe half a beef carcass, for example) and we have our own problems with efficiency. The calories listed in food tables are pretty much what we can use and the better tables specify how well the meat is trimmed. Good question!

Sep 10 2007

FDA Considering Traffic Light System for Healthy Foods

The FDA is meeting this week to consider a red, yellow, green system for labeling foods according to their degree of healthfulness. Here’s what the New York Times has to say about this. This is, of course, would be much like the Hannaford supermarket “follow the stars” program, about which several of you have strong feelings (see comments under entries for Supermarkets and Labels). In the early 1990s, Center for Science in the Public Interest did a fold-out pyramid designed to be put on school cafeteria tabletops. This listed foods on green (anytime), yellow (once in awhile), and red (seldom) sides of the pyramid. As is always the case with these kinds of approaches, the line between categories is a thin one and subject to much argument and manipulation. The FDA proposed something much simpler about five years ago: to put the entire number of calories on the front of packaged foods. What a good idea! It still hasn’t happened. Don’t hold your breath for this one either.

Sep 8 2007

Healthy Snacks–An Oxymoron?

 

For this tidbit, I am indebted to a correspondent who wishes to remain anonymous. PepsiCo, which owns Frito-Lay, is partnering with the American Dietetics Association (ADA) to poll members about their knowledge and attitudes about “healthy” snacks. Presumably, Frito-Lay will use this information to market healthy (well, maybe a bit healthier) snacks to consumers. The survey is online at www.brgrs.com/ada. Why the ADA is partnering with PepsiCo is a question worth pondering, but PepsiCo’s interest in doing so is obvious. ADA members are actively involved in counseling people about what to eat and PepsiCo would love them to recommend Frito-Lay products. Should nutritionists partner with food companies? Do the benefits outweigh the risks? I think these questions deserve serious thought, no?

Sep 7 2007

Food Additives and Hyperactivity–Again!

I thought we were done with food additives as a cause of hyperactivity in kids years ago, but here it comes again. A new and well controlled study in The Lancet, funded by the British Food Standards Agency (which presumably has no axe to grind), reports higher average levels of hyperactivity in young children drinking a mix of sodium benzoate (a preservative) and food colors. For why these results surprise me, take a look at the Wikipedia entry for the Feingold Diet, the additive-free diet developed decades ago to prevent hyperactivity in kids. The first Wikipedia paragraph says it all:

“The Feingold diet is a food elimination program developed by Ben F. Feingold, MD to treat hyperactivity. It eliminates a number of artificial colors and artificial flavors, aspartame, three petroleum-based preservatives, and (at least initially) certain salicylates. There has been much debate about the efficacy of this program. Some mainstream medical practitioners deny that it is of any value, while other medical practitioners, as well as many people living with ADHD and parents of children with ADHD, claim that it is effective in the management of ADHD as well as a number of other behavioral, physical and neurological conditions. The debate has continued for more than 30 years, involving not only consumers and physicians, but scientists, politicians, and the pharmaceutical and food industries.”

After this excellent beginning, the article gets so muddled that the editors warn: “The neutrality of this article is disputed.” Indeed. Until now, my reading of the science was that the more carefully the studies were done, the less benefit they showed. Even the best studies showed wide individual differences–most kids were unaffected by removing additives but a small percentage seemed to get better. This made the studies especially subject to biased interpretation.

This new study seems well done but again shows large individual differences, so expect the debates to continue. In the meantime, it’s good to remember that color additives go into processed foods to cover up flaws and make them look attractive. Kids don’t need to be eating highly processed foods. The study is another good reason to feed kids plenty of fruits, vegetables, and other minimally processed foods.

Here’s what today’s New York Times has to say about the study.

Sep 6 2007

Kellogg’s Nutrition at a Glance?

I get sent lots of food company press releases and this one is just in. Kellogg’s is announcing its new nutrition labeling for cereal boxes. Useful? Or even more confusing?

Sep 6 2007

Sugar Free?

The FDA is fed up with products claiming to be sugar free but not mentioning that they still have lots of calories. So the agency has decided not to let food companies get away with this anymore. Its latest “guidance” warns companies that if they say a product is “sugar-free,” it better be low in calories too. It’s great to see the FDA trying to do something about misleading health claims. Doesn’t this poor, beleaguered agency deserve a cheer for this one!

Sep 6 2007

Scientific American Special Issue on Feast or Famine

My article, “Eating Made Simple,” appears in the September issue of Scientific American along with a podcast. Enjoy! The journal’s website also has an excerpt from What to Eat–Chapter 5 on the produce section: “Genetically Modified, Irradiated, and Politicized.” Enjoy that too!

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