Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Aug 24 2007

College Dining: An Eat-More Environment?

I had lunch today at one of Cornell’s brand-new undergraduate houses where 350 sophomores, juniors, and seniors have a meal plan that allows unlimited access to meals prepared in cafeteria as well as to snacks supplied at an all-night canteen. Unlimited access means that students do not pay for each item. Instead, they can eat as much as they want of three meals a day plus a late lunch four days a week, plus leftovers and snacks at night. For lunch (modest because it’s only the second day of classes), we had a choice of hamburgers, chicken burgers, fish burgers, or fish for sandwiches with lots of fixings; a salad bar; French fries (heavily salted); two soups; a fruit bar; and a bunch of baked desserts. In case that didn’t do, students could also do the bagel bar or make their own peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Cornell students have one healthy advantage; the campus is huge, these dorms are on the downhill side, and they have to hike uphill to get to class. And, of course, they are young. But I wonder how they figure out how to manage portions and calories in this kind of environment? Anyone have any idea?

Aug 22 2007

Another pet food recall?

The American Veterinary Medical Association has just announced two new recalls of pet foods, one Mars Petcare’s Krasdale Gravy dry dog food found contaminated with Salmonella, and the other some Wal-Mart chicken jerky products made in China found contamined with melamine. The Wal-Mart story is particularly interesting. According to Wal-Mart’s own statement, it heard reports about dogs getting sick from eating these products and took them off the shelves “proactively” on July 26. Translation: Wal-Mart did not issue a recall or warn customers who might still be feeding the products to their dogs. Instead, it did 17 tests and finally came up with melamine. That is the chemical which, when mixed with cyanuric acid, was shown to form crystals that caused kidney failure in cats a few months ago.  Wal-Mart only announced a recall August 22. A month later? Wal-Mart must not have learned much from the Menu Foods recall. Pet owners do not appreciate having bought foods that make their pets sick. The take-home lessons: Until China cleans up its food safety act, I’d rather not buy foods made there. And the same goes for Wal-Mart.

As you may have heard, my current project is a book about pet food. I am most interested in hearing from pet owners about their experiences with foods, veterinarian recommendations, and other such issues, and will post specific questions in a few weeks. In the meantime, don’t buy any recalled food.

Aug 21 2007

Will Sushi Hurt My Brain?

My latest interview with Eating Liberally is now posted. This “Ask Marion” delves into how to figure out the risks and benefits of eating raw fish: methylmercury (risk) v. omega-3 fats (benefit). It is also posted on Huffington, in the Living Now section.

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!

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