Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Aug 14 2007

More on Kids’ Preference for McDonald’s

The New York Times has just caught up with the study demonstrating that 3 to 5 year old kids prefer foods in McDonald’s wrappers even when foods in plain wrappers also come from McDonald’s (see my previous post on McDonald’s). Advertising Age, however, has quite another interpretation of this research: bad science (“small sample, obvious agenda”). My favorite part of the Advertising Age story is the advice given to McDonald’s by an expert in damage control. “One good way to handle it, he said, would be to plant some experts or scientists on TV to debunk the study, rather than offer up McDonald’s own executives.”

Right–let’s spin the best science money can buy. Give McDonald’s credit for handling this “crisis” without resorting to such tactics.

Aug 13 2007

Good News About School Meals?

The School Nutrition Association says that school wellness policies are doing great things. It reports that nearly all of the schools it surveyed recently are now offering fat-free or low-fat milk, fresh fruits and vegetables, salad bars or pre-packaged salads, and yogurt or yogurt drinks–a big change from just a few years ago. Also, one-third of the surveyed schools are offering locally grown foods. Are the surveyed schools representative of what’s really going on? Are kids eating the healthier options? Do tell.

In the meantime, the Fort Worth Star Telegram (August 12) describes the changes taking place in Texas lunchrooms under the auspices of the amazing Department of Agriculture in that state. In Texas, of all places, agriculture authorities are doing everything they can to provide healthier meals for school kids. If it can be done in Texas….

Aug 13 2007

FTC Demands Company Info on Marketing to Kids

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the agency that regulates food advertising, has just ordered a large group of food companies that make junk foods targeted to children to reveal how much money they are spending on advertising each of their products in general and to children, minorities, and other target groups. The FTC wants specific information about expenditures on marketing through traditional as well as modern kid-friendly channels: TV, radio, and print media, but also company-sponsored and other Internet sites, movie theaters, video games, in-store promotions, premium distributions, product placements, character licensing, sports sponsorships, word-of-mouth and “viral” campaigns, in-school, celebrity endorsements, and philanthropy, among others.

This is an astonishing action by the FTC, an agency that usually promotes food marketing and protects companies’ rights to do so. The last time the FTC tried to do something about the marketing of junk foods to kids–just on television–was in 1979. Then, Congress intervened, fired the head of the FTC, and passed a law allowing such marketing to continue. Well, times have changed in the intervening decades. Even little kids are now overweight and developing type 2 diabetes, reason enough to try to address the problem. At the end of 2005, the Institute of Medicine’s committee examining food marketing to kids complained that companies would not give it “proprietary” information about advertising expenditures or sales. So let’s give the FTC lots of credit for demanding this information and for considering how to put some curbs on the unchecked greed of companies pushing junk foods to kids.

Aug 11 2007

Can Foods Be Ranked Nutritionally?

A comment posted yesterday under the Label category asks whether it is possible to rank foods: “The idea that I’m trying to express is some measure that shows that 100 calories of, say, broccoli sauteed in olive oil is healthier than 100 calories of shortbread cookies or 100 calories of potato chips, even if they happend to have the same number of fat grams.”

I have philosophical as well as practical problems with this kind of approach. First, the practical: Foods contain 40 to 50 components known to be required in the human diet and hundreds more (antioxidants, for example) that are not considered essential but have effects on health. All foods except sugar–which has calories but no nutrients–have lots of different nutrients, but in different proportions. Once you get beyond soft drinks, the situation gets really complicated. Many groups have taken this on: Center for Science in the Public Interest, Hannaford supermarkets, the Australian Heart Foundation, for example. I think they are way too complicated and the cut points set up a slippery slope. If you rank foods high because they contain vitamins, all companies have to do is add vitamins to their products to make them rank higher.

Philosophically, I much prefer the “eat less, move more, eat lots of fruits and vegetables, and don’t eat too much junk food” approach. Because there are so many different nutrients to keep track of, and because foods have nutrients in different proportions, eating lots of different kinds of relatively unprocessed foods takes care of nutritional needs. Keeping junk foods (highly processed by definition) to a minimum means that you don’t have to worry about the nutritional details and can enjoy what you eat.

Thanks for asking!

Aug 10 2007

Sugars: Fructose v. Glucose v. Sucrose

Today’s question: “From what I’ve read about high fructose corn syrup, the bad-for-you part about it (in addition to the high quantities people consume at once, like in a 20 oz coke) is the fructose. Is fructose the real evil, and if so, then aren’t foods like fruit juices bad as well?”

Today’s answer: I deal with this vexing question in the Sugar(s) chapter of What to Eat. The problems (and I’m not convinced they are very serious) of fructose depend on what you compare it to. Sucrose, the white stuff in sugar bowls, is a double sugar made of glucose and fructose, 50% each. Corn sweeteners are also glucose (42%) and fructose (55%). I’m not convinced the body can tell them apart. Fruit juices also have glucose and fructose. If you compare the metabolism of fructose to glucose, there are differences, but I think the problems are with quantity, not quality. A little sugar makes foods taste good; a lot adds calories that nobody needs these days. From the standpoint of calories, fruit juice has just as many as soft drinks so a little goes a long way even though it is a healthier alternative.

Aug 9 2007

Better Nutrition Labels?

Today’s question (see Vending Machines post): “I was looking at the Nutrition Facts Label on a bag of carrots today…If I read this label and compare it to packaged foods, the carrots really don’t look all that healthy. And yet I know they are. I have the same experience with apples and with other fruits and vegetables. What needs to be added and changed on the Nutrition Facts panel so that this makes more sense? Has anyone done a blind study of nutrition labels, having people compare them side-by-side and see which food they believe is more healthy without knowing what the food is, but from the label alone?”

Response: When Congress passed the nutrition labeling act of 1990, which mandated Nutrition Facts labels on packaged foods, the FDA created a bunch of possible designs and tested them on consumers. The result: nobody understood any of the designs. The FDA chose the one that consumers least misunderstood. In What to Eat, I devote two chapters to explaining food labels, one for Nutrition Facts, and one for Ingredients. The FDA has a lengthy site to teach the public to understand food labels. I think the ingredient list tells you more about the real nutritional value of foods than the Facts part. My rule, only somewhat facetious, is to never buy foods that have more than 5 ingredients. The more processed a food is, the more ingredients it is likely to have (to cover up the losses), and the lower its nutritional quality. Fresh and some frozen foods have only one ingredient: carrots, apples, broccoli, beans. The most important thing I’d change on food labels is the calories. The FDA proposed five years ago to require packages likely to be consumed by one person to display the total number of calories on the front panel, rather than listing calories per serving, which makes the calories appear lower than they are. What happened to that excellent proposal? It disappeared without a trace (the packaged food industry loathes the idea). It’s tricky to figure out what else an ideal food label would display. Any ideas? Forward them to the FDA (and post them here, of course).

Aug 9 2007

Healthy Foods in Vending Machines?

An NYU colleague, Shari Lichtman, posted this comment today (#8 under Welcome): “I write to tell you how much I enjoyed and learned from your book, What to Eat, which I read very recently….perhaps we can get better choices in the NYU vending. Downtown, in the SCPS Woolworth Building, the selections are scary!”

Vending machines everywhere are scary. I am involved in a project at Cornell (where I am a visiting professor) to improve the quality of foods in the machine in the nutrition department. I am pretty much at the point where I think doing so is hopeless–are “healthy” junk foods better than any other kind? Has anyone out there ever tried to do this and succeeded? I’d really like to hear your experiences.

Aug 9 2007

Insulin, Calories, and Body Weight

This question just in: “I absolutely loved your book “What To Eat.” I work at a book store and I constantly recommend it to people there. But I had one question I can’t seem to find the answer to anywhere. I’m a type 1 diabetic, and for years I’ve counted carbs and given myself insulin to match up only to carbs. As far as insulin is concerned, fats and proteins make little to no difference. For that reason, I always assumed that the low carb diets would be effective to lose weight, since they can diminish your insulin use so dramatically. So, I guess my question is, Why don’t fats and proteins affect your blood sugar as much as carbohydrates? The same question put another way might be, Why don’t all calories affect blood sugar? Or maybe, Does insulin use correlate strongly to weight gain/loss?”

Here’s how I see this: Insulin responds to calories from any source, but the rise in blood glucose following a meal depends mainly on the amount of carbohydrate you eat. This is because starches and sugars are metabolized (broken down) almost completely to glucose, whereas only some parts of some proteins break down to components that can be used to form glucose. With fats, only the glycerol portion—which is a small part of fat–can be made into glucose. High insulin levels push glucose into cells where they form carbohydrates and can also be synthesized into fat and stored. Alas, calories from any source contribute to weight gain.

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