Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Aug 21 2007

I do miss Peter Jennings

I’ve just been sent a YouTube link to the Peter Jennings special of a few years ago (2004?) titled “How to get fat without even trying.” It’s a remarkable look at how food company marketing practices encourage obesity. This is not exactly an unbiased opinion, since I am in it. More than that, when he began our interview, Peter Jennings told me he had read my book, Food Politics, and was basing the program on it. I was so stunned by this that I can’t remember another word. I wish he was still with us.

Aug 20 2007

Type 2 Diabetes is Now Controversial?

Today’s New York Times has a front page story by Gina Kolata, who seems to make a career of taking contrary positions on commonly held ideas about health matters. This time, she takes on common understanding of type 2 diabetes. Her article appears to argue that people with type 2 diabetes do not need to worry nearly as much about high blood sugar as they do about high blood cholesterol, that they need a mountain of drugs to stay healthy, that obesity isn’t really related to this condition (genetics counts more), and that rates of type 2 diabetes are not increasing, anyway (it’s just being diagnosed more frequently). Statisticians are unlikely ever to agree on the numbers but type 2 diabetes is the best reason I can think of to follow my “eat less, move more” mantra. Type 2 diabetes is a largely preventable condition. Yes, only small percentage of overweight individuals will develop type 2 diabetes, but the probability of getting it increases with increasing body weight. And if you look at the body weights of people who have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, most of them–95% in some studies–are overweight. It doesn’t take much of eating less and moving more to prevent or resolve symptoms. And that works for high blood cholesterol, as well.  Doesn’t doing that seem better than being tied to a lifetime of pharmaceuticals? And what about type 2 diabetes in young children? Isn’t type 2 diabetes something that everyone ought to be trying to prevent? I wrote about these issues in an editorial in the American Journal of Public Health a couple of years ago. Read the references to it and see how they compare to the this-won’t-work attitude expressed in Gina Kolata’s article. Will her article help clear up public confusion about how to approach chronic diseases related to diet and activity levels? Do weigh in on this one.

Aug 19 2007

Do Artificial Sweeteners Induce Sugar Cravings?

This is an interesting follow-up question on post #83: Diet Sodas and Metabolic Risks: “I have heard that the intense sweet flavor of artificial sweeteners signals the body that there are a lot of carbohydrates coming. Since the diet soft drink provides none, a craving for them may be stimulated – hence the weight gain associated with sodas, diet or not. Have you heard this explanation before?”

Indeed, I have. I’ve seen a couple of studies suggesting that artificial sweeteners encourage the taste for sweet. I think these are preliminary and need further confirmation but the idea is consistent with trends. As I explain in the chapter on diet drinks in What to Eat, rates of overweight have risen in parallel with the increase in use of artificial sweeteners, so on a population basis, the chemicals don’t seem to do any good for weight trends. Individuals may find them helpful to control calorie intake, but on average most people seem to compensate–and overcompensate–for calorie savings from artificial sweeteners. After all, a teaspoon of sugar is only 16 calories and it doesn’t take much to compensate. When it comes to food, I don’t like anything artificial and I don’t like the way artificial sweeteners taste, so they are pretty low on my recommended list. I much prefer sugar, especially the brown crystalline kind.

Aug 19 2007

More Pesticides in Dried Fruit?

It’s a slow news Sunday, so I’ll just answer a couple of questions, both of them using USDA’s food composition data. Here’s a question from a reporter: “There seems to be consensus from the sources I’ve so far read that dried fruit contains higher levels of pesticides than fresh. What I can’t figure out is if that is only because typically one eats more dried fruit in a sitting (6-8 dried apricots as opposed to 1-2 fresh, for example) and that when you dry fruit there’s less volume but the same amount of pesticide, or if more pesticides are used on dried fruit for some reason.”

Answer, of sorts: This is a concentration issue. There can’t be more pesticides on dried fruit than there were on the fresh; there is just less water so the amount per weight appears greater. The same is true of nutrients. Some will be more concentrated (calories!). Others will be lower because of losses during processing (vitamin C, for example). For nutrient composition, USDA data are easy to use. Unfortunately, no such thing exists for pesticides.

Aug 18 2007

Want to know where food comes from?

If so, you are not alone, according to a recent Zogby poll. Just about everyone responding to the poll not only would like country of origin labeling, but believes American have a right to know where food comes from. Do you agree? Write your congressional representatives!

Aug 17 2007

Whole Foods Scores a Win

Despite the efforts of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to block purchase of Wild Oats stores by Whole Foods on anti-trust grounds, a federal judge is allowing the merger to go through. As reported in today’s New York Times, Whole Foods believes that it needs the purchase to keep the company competitive. If Whole Foods’ competitiveness seems distasteful and inappropriate to its stated mission (as reportedly documented in FTC filings and reports of its CEO’s sometimes covert bloggings) , consider that it is a publicly traded company. Like all such companies, its primary responsibility it to stockholders and that means that it not only must make profits, but must grow and report growth to Wall Street every 90 days, or else. Shares of Whole Foods stocks rose yesterday by $3.33 so Wall Street thinks it’s doing something right. And you?

Aug 17 2007

Nutrition Policies to Prevent Cancer?

A most unusual presidential panel on cancer prevention, sponsored by the National Cancer Institute, has just weighed in with a report asking for better policies to make it easier for people to eat more healthfully. The Washington Post views the report as taking on the food industry (also tobacco). It quotes the chair of the panel as saying that the country has a moral obligation to protect the health of Americans. Indeed it has, but it is surprising that a panel reporting to this president puts so much of the responsibility for healthful eating on the food industry. The report itself is worth reading for its strikingly candid comments–“Ineffective policies, in conjunction with limited regulation of sales and marketing in the food and beverage industry, have spawned a culture that struggles to make healthy choices – a culture in dire need of change”–and its emphasis on the need to eat less and move more (my philosophy, precisely). The committee had only three members: it’s chair, Dr. LaSalle Leffall of Howard University, Margaret Kripke (M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, University of Texas), and none other than Lance Armstrong.

Aug 16 2007

Michael Jacobson vs. Stephen Colbert?

Several people have sent me the link to the video of Michael Jacobson’s appearance on the Colbert Report. Jacobson is the director of Center for Science in the Public Interest, the venerable organization for healthy nutrition policy. Take a look at it and let me know how do you think he did.

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