Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
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.

Aug 8 2007

Raw Milk or Raw Deal?

This must be the week for talking about raw milk. The Washington Post and the New York Times both ran stories about the push to be able to drink raw milk, legal or not. Why do people want raw milk? Some like the taste, some swear by its health benefits, some believe in a natural, raw food ideology, and some just don’t like the government telling them what not to eat. The health benefits are supposed to be that raw milk contains enzymes and good bacteria that get destroyed by pasteurization (which heats milk to a temperature that kills most bacteria, bad and good). Food safety officials, on the other hand, cringe at the idea of feeding unpasteurized dairy foods to anyone, let alone children. Cow’s milk is not sterile and there are all too many instances in which harmful bacteria in whole milk made people sick, and sometimes very sick. Drinking raw milk is risky. How risky? It’s hard to say. If you know your dairy is following rigorous food safety procedures, there’s a good chance that its products are OK. But what if you don’t? When it comes to milk, I prefer mine pasteurized. The enzymes in milk get destroyed during digestion anyway, so why take a chance? Cheeses, however, are another matter. As long as they are properly aged and salted, raw milk cheeses ought to be just fine. Even so, I’m happier about eating them when I know that their producer is following a carefully designed safety plan with monitoring and testing for harmful bacteria. If I don’t know this, I just have to trust the seller and hope for the best. Raw milk generates intense passion on both sides. But why so much? Do tell.

Aug 8 2007

Oh Good. Candy is Organic

I’ve just heard that organic candy is the new hot food. According to reports from Europe, “healthy” candy–another oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one–are the growth drivers for the candy industry. Candy is candy. If candy is organic or is laced with vitamins or substances that promote health, at least under laboratory conditions, it still has sugary calories. But is it better for you? Opinions, please.

Aug 8 2007

Eating Well on the Road: An Oxymoron?

This week’s interview with Eating Liberally comes out of our dismal experience at the Yearly Kos convention (see post) at the McCormick center in Chicago. I didn’t mention the food because it was so 1980s. Surely, Chicago can do better, and does in other parts of the city. It’s also posted at Huffington Post.

Aug 7 2007

If a Food Says McDonald’s, it Tastes Better?

Give kids identical foods, some in McDonald’s wrappers, some not, and ask the kids which ones they like best. Big surprise: they like the foods labeled McDonald’s much better, especially if they often eat at McDonald’s or watch a lot of television.   And these were little kids–aged 3 to 5.  That’s the gist of a new study from the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, a journal not on my usual reading list so I am indebted to the UC Berkeley Center for Family and Community Health for sending it to me. Actually, the effect of branding on kids’ taste preferences is so easy to demonstrate that even kids can prove it. In my book Food Politics, I quote a science fair project done by a couple of 13-year-olds in Portland, OR who did the same experiment with their classmates’ soda preferences. This is why companies are so eager to put their brand in every possible place where kids can see it. It makes kids want to eat brand-named foods (what I call “kids’ foods”) and not want to eat foods without brands. As for adults….?

Aug 6 2007

Do School Diet Interventions Work? Yes!

At last, some good news. Joel Moscowitz of the Center for Family and Community Health at Berkeley’s School of Public Health frequently sends out articles he has collected about obesity prevention. The latest is a “meta-analysis” (meaning an analysis of data collected from many research studies on the same topic) of 12 projects that use a combination of diet and physical activity to help school children lose weight. According to the authors of this article, published in the International Journal of Obesity, diet and activity work remarkably well, especially when families are involved. Doesn’t this seem promising?

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