Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Oct 1 2013

Government held hostage over health care?

What a strange society we live in.  We need a sense of humor at a time like this.

Here’s a commentary on the whole situation from my new book, Eat, Drink, Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics.

Enjoy!

Sep 30 2013

McDonald’s going healthy? Really?

At the White House Convening on food marketing to children a couple of weeks ago, representatives of food companies repeatedly stated that advocates are not giving them nearly enough credit for how hard it is for them to make and market healthier products.  They have shareholders to please.  They need positive reinforcement.

Pressures on advocates to applaud food companies’ efforts may explain the furor last week over McDonald’s latest promises to go healthy.  In a deal brokered with the Clinton Foundation’s Alliance for a Healthier Generation, McDonald’s announced its new initiatives in full-page newspaper advertisements (read the text here):

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Among other promises, McDonald’s said it would:

Promote and market only water, milk, and juice as the beverage in Happy Meals on menu boards and in-store and external advertising.

I did not participate in any of the press events so I can’t vouch for what was said.  But it must have left the impression that McDonald’s was dropping sodas as the default drink in Happy Meals (if parents wanted a soda for their kids, they would have to order one).

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), for example, issued a press release: “Removing Soda from kids’ meals among McDonald’s improvements.”

Ronald McDonald’s slow march toward healthier meals made a major advance today, but a long road lies ahead for the company. Getting soda out of Happy Meals is historic progress that should immediately be adopted by Burger King, Wendy’s, and other chains. Soda and other sugar drinks are leading promoters of obesity and diabetes and one day it will seem crazy that restaurants ever made this junk the default beverage for kids.

USA Today quoted CSPI’s Margo Wootan:

The prospect of being able to easily order a value meal at McDonald’s that’s comprised of a burger, a small salad and bottle of water is a huge step forward, says Margo Wootan, director of nutritional policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “It takes a meal from being a nutritional disaster (burger, fries and soft drink), to something that will fit a healthy diet.

But then folks started looking at the fine print of McDonald’s actual agreement with the Clinton Alliance.

Uh oh.

CSPI issued another press release the next day: “McDonald’s, Alliance for Healthier Generation, misled public and media re: soda and Happy Meals.”

McDonald’s and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation misled the media, CSPI, and families when they stated that the company would not feature, promote, or market soda in connection with Happy Meals. In briefings to health groups and in their press release and full-page newspaper ads, McDonald’s and the Alliance claimed that the company would “promote and market only water, milk, and juice as the beverage in Happy Meals on menu boards and in-store and external advertising.” But small print in McDonald’s formal agreement with the Alliance states that “McDonald’s may list soft drinks as [sic] offering on [sic] Happy Meal section of menu boards.”

In any case, as McDonald’s explains in its press release, don’t hold your breath for any of its promises to happen soon:

All pieces of this commitment will be implemented in 30-50 percent of the 20 major markets within three years and 100 percent of the 20 markets by 2020.

In other words, McDonald’s intends to carry out these promises in a third to half of most of its major national and international markets by 2016—three years from now.  It will fulfill the promises in these particular 20 markets by 2020—seven years from now.

Food companies, alas, do not make it easy to applaud them.

Promises are one thing.  Now, if they would actually do something to make and market healthier products….

Addition 1:  Let’s Move! director and chef Sam Kass has this comment on McDonald’s promises:

We are encouraged by the progress announced today…. Making it easier for families to choose a healthy beverage in kids’ meals, and providing a salad option in the value menu are positive steps. A great deal of work remains to be done if we are going to ensure our children have the nourishment they need to live healthy lives and reach their full potential.

Addition 2: Here’s an explanation of how the discrepancy was found, from its finder, Casey Hinds of Kentucky Healthy Kids.  Casey sent the link to Michele Simon who forwarded it to Margo Wootan (and I read about the exchange on Twitter).

Update, October 11: McDonald’s clarifies its commitment; it will not advertise sodas with Happy Meals.

Sep 27 2013

Whole grain chaos: FDA approves qualified health claim, sort of

In 2012, ConAgra petitioned the FDA to approve use of a health claim on labels and advertising for its whole grain products.  Here’s what ConAgra asked for:

Scientific evidence suggests, but does not prove, that diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol that include three servings (48 grams) of whole grains per day may reduce the risk of diabetes mellitus type 2.

or

Scientific evidence suggests, but does not prove, that whole grains (three servings or 48 grams per day), as part of a low saturated fat, low cholesterol diet, may reduce the risk of diabetes mellitus type 2.

To say that the FDA was less than impressed with evidence supporting this claim is to understate the matter.  After a comprehensive review of the evidence, here’s what the FDA says ConAgra can use:

Whole grains may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, although the FDA has concluded that there is very limited scientific evidence for this claim.

or

Whole grains may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. FDA has concluded that there is very limited scientific evidence for this claim.

No, this is not a joke.

Congress insists that the FDA must approve health claims, whether supported by science or not.

According to FoodNavigator, ConAgra is happy about this decision.  The first thing anyone will read is “whole grains may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.”

As I keep saying, health claims are about marketing, not health.  And qualified health claims are the worst examples.  A plague on all of them!

Sep 26 2013

CDC’s thoroughly convincing report on the threat of antibiotic resistance

The CDC has produced a major study on antibiotic resistance and how it works. 

The report provides convincing evidence that use of antibiotics in farm animals must be restricted to therapeutic purposes—and not used to promote growth.

Sep 25 2013

Tonight at 8:00 p.m. EST: MythBusters

Anna Lappé has a new entry in her Food MythBuster film series, this one on marketing to kids.

You can watch the trailer at the website, and also sign up for the  launch event to participate in the live Q&A session online.

New Picture (4)

Sep 24 2013

Out today: the American edition of The Stop

Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis.  The Stop: How the Fight for Good Food transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement.  Melville House, 2013.

This book is now available in the U.S.

Husband and wife team Saul and Curtis wrote this chronicle of Saul’s 15-year stint as the director of The Stop, a place that started out as a soup kitchen but ended up as much more.

This is an important book.  The Stop is no ordinary report on how soup kitchens convey substantial benefits to servers as well as the served.

As I said in my blurb for it:

An impassioned account of how to create food systems that foster independence and eliminate the indignities of charity.   Saul and Curtis put a human face on poverty.  If you want to know what today’s food movement is really about—and why it is anything but elitist—read this book.

I also used it in class last semester, where it stimulated much discussion and debate.  It ought to be available at bookstores everywhere.  Don’t miss this one.

Sep 23 2013

Pepsi, Mexican style

In Mexico, you can get most kinds of sodas in 3 liter bottles.  At 17 pesos ($1.33) for 3 liters, Pepsi is cheaper than water.

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Note the 3-peso penalty if you buy two 1.5-liter bottles.  

It’s hardly a coincidence that Mexico has high soda consumption and high rates of obesity.  Taxing sodas seems like a particularly good idea in this situation.

Sep 21 2013

Mexico suffers from a sugar deficiency?

Mexico has an overweight-plus-obesity rate of 70%, and 15% of the population has type-2 diabetes. You might think that a key public health message might be “eat less sugar.”

But check this ad on a city bus:

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Translation:

  • Cane sugar
  • It’s natural
  • A little happiness each day
  • Only 15 calories per tablespoon 

In other (implied) words, “eat more sugar! It’s good for you!”

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