Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Apr 1 2015

Interview with Columbia University Public Health Students

For tonight’s Grand Rounds at Columbia University, I did an interview with FPOP (Food Policy and Obesity Prevention).

Food Policy Expert Marion Nestle on the Heinz-Kraft Deal, GMOs, and the Secret Ingredients to Healthy School Lunches

March 31, 2014—Years before the Reagan Administration decreed that ketchup was a vegetable, Marion Nestle saw the connections between the dinner table and politics. Nestle, the nation’s leading advocate for good nutrition, will address the Mailman School in a Grand Rounds talk tomorrow and kick-off Public Health Fights Obesity, a month-long series of lectures and special events, including an April 16 symposium on preventing childhood obesity.

Nestle, a professor and founder of the department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, is the author of acclaimed books, includingFood Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, and most recently, Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics.

In anticipation of her Grand Rounds talk, the student group Food Policy and Obesity Prevention interviewed Nestle about everything from attempts to regulate Big Soda, GMO labeling, to school lunches done right.

The federal Dietary Guideline Advisory Committee recently published recommendations that for the first time considered issues of food sustainability. There has been a lot of controversy.    

The guidelines have always been controversial, but never anything like this. I think this is an example of how worried the food industry is about the pushback about diet and health in America. Sustainability is the “S word” in Washington. The guidelines committee is trying to do is what I’ve been advocating for a very long time, which is to bring agricultural policy in line with health policy. Right now the policies are completely divorced.

At the same time you have Heinz and Kraft joining forces.  

The food industry is in a defensive position because food and health advocates have been enormously successful in changing the market and changing people’s views. The fastest growing segment of the food industry is organics. The makers of processed foods are in retreat.  Warren Buffett must think there’s plenty of money to be made in selling junk foods.  I hope he’s wrong.

Is Big Food increasingly eyeing opportunities overseas?

If you can’t sell it here, you sell it there. The best example of this is the soda industry, which is the subject of my next book. There has been a 10- to 15-year decline in sales of carbonated sweetened beverages in the United States. It’s one of the great successes of health advocacy. To compensate, Coke and Pepsi are increasingly focusing their efforts overseas. Expect obesity and its consequences to follow.

Speaking of global commerce, should we be concerned about trade agreements like the Transpacific Partnership?

Food and Water Watch called it “NAFTA on steroids.” It’s very hard to know what’s going on because the negotiations are being done in secret. People are worried that a lot of the protections we have against bad things in food will be taken away on the basis of violations of trade agreements.


Poster supporting a soda tax in Berkeley

Closer to home, here in New York we’ve heard a lot about attempts to legislate on soda with failed attempt to limit portion sizes. Other areas have had more luck—

Not luck—skill! The only place in the United States where a soda tax has been successful is Berkeley. They did everything about advocacy right. Instead of framing it as a health argument, they framed it as an argument against corporate power: Berkeley versus Big Soda. And there was an enormous grassroots effort to engage the entire community. Community organizing is classic public health. Nobody does it very often. But when it’s done, it works!

Another issue people have been talking about is GMO labeling. 

I was on the FDA food advisory committee in 1994 when they were in the process of approving GMOs. Those of us who were consumer representatives told the FDA that it had to require labeling. I’m surprised it’s taken this long for there to be a major national uproar. From the beginning, the question was: if they don’t want labels, what are companies like Monsanto trying to hide?

Speaking of Monsanto, there was news this week that a chemical in their Round Up herbicide is a likely a carcinogen.

RoundUp also induces weed resistance, which has become an enormous problem for the industry. And most of it is used on GMOs. It’s a plant poison! Why would anyone think it would be good for health?

Are GMOs always bad?

The papaya that’s engineered to resist ring spot seems like a reasonable use of biotechnology to me. It saved the Hawaiian papaya industry. That’s the only example I can think of that’s beneficial. Most of the technology has been applied to commodity crops.

What about food insecurity? Can GMOs help?

If you want to help food-insecure nations, you need to empower them to do their own agriculture. That agriculture needs to be sustainable. GMO crops are not sustainable.  They require seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides, every year.


President Obama signs the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010

According to a new Rudd Center study, more kids are eating fruit at school. At the same time, there’s a lot of pushback against healthy foods at school.

In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. That was bipartisan. Today, bipartisan seems out of the question. The Republicans want to roll the Act back. There’s no question it’s working in most schools that have people committed to it. There are huge advances being made in school food that carry over to food outside school. Kids come home and they want different foods because they see that eating healthy foods is valued.

How much is this change tied to school leaders compared to funding?

More funding would help. But some of the poorest schools have cafeterias where you walk in and the food smells good. They’re making it happen by cooking onsite with USDA commodity foods, which are unprocessed and cheap. Someone who knows how to cook can turn USDA surpluses into good meals. But not every school does that. I’ve been in schools where the food was terrible, the kids weren’t eating it, and the plate-waste was astronomical.  If the food service workers know the names of the kids, it’s a good sign the food will be good too.

For students interested in food and health, what sectors offer the most opportunity? Government? Nonprofit?

It depends on what you like. We need good people in government. It’s really important to have public health professionals work from within to make agencies like the FDA and Department of Agriculture do useful work. Everybody loves NGOs. It doesn’t matter which. Just do it!

Attend Marion Nestle’s Grand Rounds talk on April 1, 4:00-5:30 p.m., at Alumni Auditorium, 650 West 168th Street, or watch it on LiveStream.

Mar 31 2015

Dietitians to remove their “endorsement” from Kraft Singles

Congratulations to Sonja Connor, president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, for this decision about the Kids Eat Right partnership with Kraft (this letter was sent to me by several AND members).  Congratulations also to all of the AND members who let their disappointment with this partnership be known.

I want to update all of you on a few immediate actions we are taking on the Kids Eat Right pilot initiative with Kraft. As our Academy members, you deserve the most immediate as well as accurate information that we are able to provide.

The Academy and Kraft are in discussions to terminate the contract for our pilot program. This will take a short period of time to complete. We will continue to keep you posted as we move to finalize the termination.

Elements of the program are already in motion and cannot be changed. On April 1, Kraft Singles will begin appearing on retail shelves with the Kids Eat Right logo on the packaging. We are working with Kraft to limit the time it remains on the shelves.

The Academy deeply regrets the circumstances that have led to the pending termination of this initiative. As we have shared previously, we launched this initiative to raise consumer awareness about the importance of having vitamin D and calcium as essential nutrients in children’s diets.

This pilot initiative was never intended to be an official Academy endorsement of a particular product, which is strictly prohibited by our policy and is expressly included in all contracts.

The Board and Academy leadership are taking immediate steps to avoid a similar situation in the future. We will engage with the Academy House of Delegates and with all Academy members on future initiatives to promote healthful foods and nutrition in the most professional, ethical and transparent manner possible.

Thank you for your continued support of the Academy and your patience as we resolve this situation.

And congratulations to Andy Bellatti, founder of Dietitians for Professional Integrity, a group working to uncouple the Academy from its cozy ties to food companies (these were documented by Michele Simon a couple of years ago).  His quote in the New York Times:

Hopefully, this is the beginning of much-needed and much-overdue dialogue on the academy’s corporate sponsorships…Dietitians need to continue advocating for an organization that represents us with integrity and that we can be proud of, rather than continually have to apologize for.

Mar 30 2015

Another picture worth many words: Coca-Cola in Myanmar

Except for Cuba, Myanmar used to be the only country in the world where Coca-Cola could not be sold.  The Burmese (now Myanmar) military junta kept Coke out for more than 60 years.

No more.  In 2013, Coca-Cola opened its first bottling plant in Myanmar as part of a $200 million investment in that country.

To do that, the company had to face many challenges: unfamiliarity with cold drinks, lack of refrigeration, and substantial labor and human rights issues.

But, as Coca-Cola explains:

For the people of Myanmar, this was more than the return of a delicious, refreshing beverage. To them, Coca‑Cola embodies the bright promise of better days and better lives ahead. And we look forward to being part of their journey.

When an NYU nutrition graduate, Catherine Normile, MS, RD, told me she was working on development projects in Myanmar, I asked her to take a look and see if she could send me photos of how Coca-Cola’s incursion into that country was proceeding.

Here’s one:

IMG_4572

And here’s another:

IMG_4475

She sent many more, but these will give you the idea.

Coca-Cola seems well established in Myanmar after just under two years.

I wonder how the country’s health statistics are coming along?

Mar 27 2015

Weekend reading: Fruits of Eden

Amanda Harris.  Fruits of Eden: David Fairchild and America’s Plant Hunters.  University Press of Florida, 2015.

I blurbed this one:

If you have ever wondered how navel oranges, figs, avocados, dates, and other such foods came to be grown in America, here’s the answer: plant explorers.  Amanda Harris tells the stories of adventurers sent out to search the world for delicious foods.  Fruits of Eden is a welcome history of these little-known plant experts who succeeded in improving the diversity and deliciousness of our daily fare.

 

 

Mar 26 2015

Is breakfast necessary?

With apologies for how silly this question might sound, Whitney Kimball of Hopes&Fears asked, “Is breakfast the most important meal of the day?”

Here’s what I told her:

The question isn’t silly at all, although I always laugh when I hear it. That is because I am publicly outed as not a breakfast eater—at least not first thing in the morning. I don’t usually start getting hungry until 11 or so and rarely eat before then. Coffee, yes. Solid food, later please. The idea that early eating is essential makes perfect sense for farm laborers and small children. Whether it matters for normal, sedentary adults is a different question.

Many—if not most—studies demonstrating that breakfast eaters are healthier and manage weight better than non-breakfast eaters were sponsored by Kellogg or other breakfast cereal companies whose businesses depend on people believing that breakfast means ready-to-eat cereal.  Independently funded studies tend to show that any eating pattern can promote health if it provides vegetables and fruits, balances calories, and does not include much junk food. For most people, when you eat matters far less than how much you eat.  If you wake up starving, by all means eat an early breakfast. If not, eat when you are hungry and don’t worry about it.   Kids who won’t have access to decent food in school may well be better off fed breakfast at home and surely will learn better if their stomachs aren’t growling.

Mar 25 2015

The Paleo diet, sigh

The Wall Street Journal, hoping to generate some controversy, got me involved in a point/counterpoint about the Paleo Diet: “Is a Paleo diet healthy?”

It can be, but this is a point/counterpoint.  Hence, I took the position “NO: You Lose Too Much Pleasure for Dubious Benefits.”  

Here’s what I said:

Nutritionist that I am, the first questions I have about any diet are: What is it? Is the rationale behind it logical? And does it promote health?

A paleo diet is based on the premise that our genes govern what’s best for us to eat. We evolved to eat whatever could be hunted or gathered. This makes it OK to eat leaves, shoots, roots, seeds, eggs, animals, birds and fish, but not OK to eat grains, legumes, dairy or processed foods.

Why do paleo proponents think the ills of modern society stem from a mismatch between our genetics and today’s typical diets? The cave men, some argue, didn’t suffer from diseases such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

The problem with that theory is that we really don’t know what our Paleolithic ancestors ate. As I often argue, determining what people eat is the single most intellectually challenging question in nutrition science. It is extraordinarily difficult to get an accurate idea of what people ate yesterday, let alone 10,000 to a million or more years ago.

In reality, scientists are nowhere near being able to match genes to specific kinds of diets. The reason cave men didn’t have chronic diseases like diabetes is more likely because they didn’t live long enough and lacked antibiotics, rather than because they didn’t eat carbohydrates.

Variety is key

What we know for sure is that the fundamental tenets of nutrition are variety, balance and moderation. The fewer kinds of foods consumed, the greater the chance of nutrient deficiencies. So while it is certainly possible to eat healthfully on a paleo diet, restricting whole groups of relatively unprocessed foods can make this more challenging. It also can take some of the joy out of eating by forcing people to give up foods that they love or that are part of their cultural heritage.

While there is no doubt that highly processed “junk” foods are unhealthy and should be kept to a minimum, grains and legumes are hardly the enemy. Diets that vary enormously—from the traditional high carbohydrate, rice-based cuisines of Asia to those of the Mediterranean rich in grains and olive oil—have been shown to promote health and longevity.

Yes, grains contain glutens, and bread and pasta are caloric, but such foods are also delicious and part of traditional diets in nearly every culture. Yes, legumes contain unpleasant phytochemicals, but these are mostly destroyed by cooking, and beans and peas are excellent sources of vegetable protein. If you eat foods from animal sources, why restrict dairy? Cheese and yogurt are lovely foods, and I, for one, cannot imagine life without an occasional serving of ice cream.

Eating less works

Any restrictive diet helps to reduce calorie intake, so it isn’t surprising that there are studies linking paleo to weight loss, lower blood sugar and a reduced risk of cancers for which obesity is a risk factor. Eating less works every time.

So does eating a largely plant-based diet. Research suggests that we can reduce risks for today’s diseases of affluence by eating more foods from plant sources and balancing calorie intake with expenditure. To the extent the paleo diet achieves these goals, it is a reasonable choice.

But food is so much more than bundles of nutrients. What we eat also nourishes us psychologically and culturally. So while a paleo diet isn’t necessarily bad, why bother? I’d be sad to miss all those delicious forbidden foods.

Mar 24 2015

My Plate, My Planet: Support Sustainability in Dietary Guidelines

I signed an today’s ad in the New York Times to encourage support for considering sustainability in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines.

Screenshot 2015-03-24 09.34.08

We need health policies that consider agriculture and agricultural policies that consider health.

Here are:

Mar 23 2015

Critical Public Health: special issue on “Big Food”:

With Simon Williams, I have just co-edited a special issue of Critical Public Health: “Big Food”: Critical perspectives on the global growth of the food and beverage industry.”

Here’s what’s in it.

Editorial

Research

Commentaries

  • Big Food’ and ‘gamified’ products: promotion, packaging, and the promise of fun, by Charlene Elliott.
  • Food as pharma: marketing nutraceuticals to India’s rural poor, by Alice Street.

Thanks to Simon Williams for initiating (and doing the heavy lifting on) this project, and to all the terrific contributors.

Enjoy!

 

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