Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Aug 30 2013

The Upanishads and other thanks for food

I love collections on obscure (and sometimes not so obscure) food themes.  This book collects prayers, incantations, and thanks for food from may cultures.

Adrian Butash.  Bless This Food: Ancient and Contemporary Graces from Around the World.  New World Library, 2013.

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In addition to the expected Christian prayers giving thanks for what is about to be consumed, the book has others, like this one from the Upanishads:

I am food, I am food, I am food.

I am the food-eater, I am the food-eater, I am the food eater.

I am the combining agent, I am the combining agent, I am the combining agent.

…I, who am food, eat the eater of food.  I have overcome the world.  I am brilliant like the sun.

A thought for the start of the weekend.  Enjoy!

Aug 28 2013

Proponents of food biotechnology are still talking about Golden Rice? Sigh.

Yes, they are, as witnessed by the article in the New York Times last Sunday and the editorial about food biotechnology in the September food  issue of Scientific American.

Nicholas Kristof, also of the New York Times, summed up the arguments in favor of Golden Rice in a tweet: “Leftist hostility to Golden Rice is so frustrating! It wld reduce # of kids dying of Vit A deficiency.”

How I wish nutrition interventions were this easy.

If I sound weary of the defense of Golden Rice as the solution to the vitamin A-deficiency problem, it’s because I wrote about the science and politics of Golden Rice extensively a decade ago in my book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety. 

In 2010, I did a second edition.  Here, in its entirety, is all I could find to say:

Golden Rice (Chapter 5) is the most prominent example of the benefits of agricultural biotechnology but ten years later its promise was still unfulfilled.  Field trials began in 2008 and the rice might be in production by 2011 [Oops.  It’s still not in production].  In the interim, researchers re-engineered the rice to contain higher levels of beta-carotene and showed that people who ate it could, as expected, convert beta-carotene to vitamin A.   Supporters of Golden Rice continued to complain about the impossible demands of regulators and anti-biotechnology advocates.   Advocates continued to argue that GM crops are unnecessary and threaten indigenous food security.  The Gates Foundation remains the major funder of GM projects involving nutrient-enriched indigenous crops. Such technological approaches, advocates maintain, are doomed to fail unless they also address underlying social issues.

In the original text of Safe Food, I wrote:

Much of the promise of food biotechnology depends on its science, but the realities depend on social as well as scientific factors…The lack of vitamin A is the single most important cause of blindness among children in developing countries and a major contributor to deaths among malnourished children and adults….[but] Golden Rice is unlikely to have much commercial potential in developing countries. Its public relations value, however, is enormous.

I quoted Greenpeace, then the leading anti-biotechnology advocacy group:

Golden Rice obscures fundamental issues of societal values—in this case, poverty and control over resources—and is a techno-fix imposed by corporations and scientists without consulting recipients about whether they want it or not….the true purpose of Golden Rice is to convince people to accept genetically modified foods….

I went on to explain that a common theme of biotechnology proponents is that “Golden Rice holds so much promise that no questioning of its value is justified.”  But:

The companies may be donating the technology to create the rice, but farmers will still have to sell it, and people will still have to pay for it. Moreover, in many countries where vitamin A deficiency is common, food sources of beta-carotene are plentiful, but people believe the foods inappropriate for young children, do not cook them enough to make them digestible, or do not consume enough fat to permit much in the way of absorption. It remains to be seen whether the beta-carotene in Golden Rice will fare better under such circumstances. Overall, vitamin A deficiency is a complicated health problem affected by cultural and societal factors as well as dietary factors. In this situation, the genetic engineering of a single nutrient or two into a food, while attractive in theory, raises many questions about its benefits in practice.

I then explain what happened when I sent a letter outlining some of these nutritional issues to a professional journal.  The letter went viral.  One of the responses said:

It would seem to me that the simplest way to find out if vitamin A rice [sic] works as a vitamin supplement is to try it out. If it doesn’t then what has been lost except a lot of hot air and propaganda; on the other hand if it does work and your letter has delayed its introduction, could you face the children who remain blind for life as a consequence?

The sic is because it’s beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A, but never mind.   As I commented,

The writer seemed to be suggesting that even if beta-carotene contributes just a little to alleviating vitamin A deficiency, no questioning of the theoretical premise of Golden Rice—and, by implication, food biotechnology—is acceptable… What I find most striking about such views is their implication that complex societal problems—in this case, malnutrition—are more easily solved by private-sector, commercially driven science than by societal decisions and political actions.

As for what to do about vitamin A deficiency?

Taken together, the many nutritional, physiological, and cultural factors that affect vitamin A status suggest that the addition of a single nutrient to food will have limited effectiveness. Instead, a combination of supplementation, fortification, and dietary approaches is likely to be needed—approaches such as promoting the production and consumption of fruits and vegetables rich in beta-carotene, educating people about how to use such foods, and improving the quantity and variety of foods in the diet (so beta-carotene can be better absorbed). Perhaps most helpful would be basic public health measures such as providing adequate supplies of clean water (to prevent transmission of diarrheal and parasitic diseases).

Today, I would add sustainable agriculture to that list but even with that addition, none of these social solutions is likely to contribute to corporate profits.

My conclusion:

Can genetic engineering usefully contribute to such efforts? Possibly, but that question cannot yet be answered. In the meantime, the industry’s public relations campaign continues.

Aug 27 2013

Texas takes on new USDA school food standards. Sigh.

Thanks to Bettina Siegel of The Lunch Tray for alerting me to Texas’s latest declaration of independence from Washington, DC.

The governor signed a bill this summer that was supposed to allow Texas high school students to buy “competitive” (because they compete with federally funded school meals) fast foods.  But a mistake in the wording allows them to buy “foods of minimal nutritional value”—candy, sodas, and the like in conflict with long-standing USDA regulations.

So while the Texas legislature was trying to allow high schools to sell fast food entrees at lunch, its sloppy drafting has inadvertently limited high schools to selling only a few foods – basically soda and candy – identified by the federal government over forty years ago as the least healthy for our children.

Way to go, Texas!

Based on the bill analysis, the Texas legislators behind HB1781 seemed to care only about bucking state nutrition policy, but they have also put the state in direct conflict with the new federal competitive food rules.  When those rules go into effect in the 2014-15 school year, sales of FMNV will certainly be barred, as will almost all of the competitive food currently sold in high school “food courts.”  And while the new federal rules do make an exception for occasional junk food fundraisers, such as a bake sale, HB1781 has no such limitation, allowing high school junk food fundraisers every day of the school year.

USDA’s school food standards are a great improvement over what they’ve been in the past and they deserve much support.

They do not need Congress (“pizza is a vegetable”) or state micromanagement.  Let’s hope this clearly unhealthy Texas law gets stopped in its tracks, and the sooner the better.

Aug 26 2013

FDA study: Do added nutrients sell products? (Of course they do)

The FDA has announced that it will be studying the effects of nutrient-content claims on consumers attitudes about food products.

FDA does not encourage the addition of nutrients to certain food products (including sugars or snack foods such as [cookies] candies, and carbonated beverages). FDA is interested in studying whether fortification of these foods could cause consumers to believe that substituting fortified snack foods for more nutritious foods would ensure a nutritionally sound diet.

Here’s one of my favorite examples of what the FDA is talking about.

New Picture

 

I’m guessing the FDA’s new research project is a response to increasing pressure from food companies to be allowed to add nutrients to cookies, candies, and soft drinks.

Food marketers know perfectly well that nutrients sell food products.  The whole point of doing so is to be able to make nutrient-content claims on package labels.

The FDA has never been happy about the practice of adding nutrients to junk foods just to make them seem healthy.   Its guidance includes what is commonly known as the “jelly bean rule.”   You may not add nutrients to jelly beans to make them eligible to be used in school lunches.

But this does not stop food manufacturers—especially soft drink manufacturers—from trying.  Hence: Vitamin Water (now owned by Coca-Cola).

Plenty of research demonstrates that nutrients sell food products.  Any health or health-like claim on a food product—vitamins added, no trans fats, organic—makes people believe that the product has fewer calories and is a health food.

As I keep saying, added vitamins are about marketing, not health.

Aug 23 2013

Annals of food and culture: The potato museum, Munich

Thanks to reader Doire for alerting me to Munich’s Kartoffelmuseum.

The tiny museum is based on the private, obsessive collection of Otto Eckart, the CEO of the Pfanni company.  I was not familiar with this company so I looked up its Wikipedia entry.  Here is what Google translator says it says:

The Pfanni GmbH & Co. OHG is a German food company based in Stavenhagen , the kitchen in the production of finished potato products is specialized. She is since 1993 a subsidiary of Unilever Germany gr.

Worth the trip are the gorgeous old drawings and etchings of potato planters and harvesters, and the astonishing collection of old books on potato history and cooking.  

And then this:

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Of this case, the catalog says:

A special jewel of the museum is the “collection of rare objects.” Here the visitor finds curiosities, precious things, unusual and strange exhibits.  It is a combination of art and rubbish.

The prize: a photo of Marilyn Monroe dressed in an Idaho Potato sack.  I also loved the potato Christmas tree ornaments hanging at the top of the case.

Art or rubbish?  You decide.

I thought it was definitely worth the visit.

Aug 22 2013

Soda advertising: Bavaria

In the Munich subway, Marienplatz station, Coca-Cola ads feature bottles with common German (?) names on the labels, in this case Kevin, Tobias, and Sandra.

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At the entrance to the tour of the salt mine in Berchtesgaden (definitely worth the visit), Coke (foreground) and Pepsi (far background) sponsor separate outdoor cafes.

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Aug 21 2013

More Bavarian food politics

The central farmers’ market in Munich, the Viktualienmarkt, has some organic (“bio”) producers.  This one displays a sign that it has been organic for 20 years (20 Jahre Bio).

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Aug 20 2013

Food Politics: Munich style

I am in Munich this week to give a talk at a meeting of environmental historians and will be posting tourist photos.  Here’s today’s from the main tourist area in front of city hall:

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My (rather loose) translation:

Eat vegetarian today.  For the sake of health, the animals, and the environment.

I guess the Germans do pig crates too.

The exhibit is sponsored by the Albert Schweitzer Stiftung für Mitwelt (Tr. Foundation for Mankind), a vegan animal-welfare group.

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