Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Oct 6 2013

Soda tax controversy goes international

My monthly first Sunday Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Q: I hear that the Mexican government wants to increase taxes on sodas as a way to fight diabetes. The soda industry persuaded voters to defeat soda taxes in Richmond and El Monte last year. Won’t it do the same in Mexico?

A: It might. I’m just back from a lecture trip to Mexico City where I heard plenty about the proposed soda tax and the industry’s response to it.

Last month, the Mexican government proposed an additional soda tax of one peso (about 8 cents) per liter. The idea is to raise $1.5 million per year while discouraging soda consumption, thereby helping to reduce the country’s high prevalence of obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

Mexicans drink lots of soda. By some estimates, average per capita consumption is 50 gallons a year, the highest in the world. It’s no coincidence that more than 70 percent of Mexicans are overweight or obese, and around 15 percent have Type 2 diabetes, a prevalence that terrifies health officials. This type of diabetes, if undiagnosed and untreated, can lead to blindness or foot amputations.

‘Nutrition transition’

Mexico is a classic example of a country in “nutrition transition.” As the economy improves, people increasingly buy high-calorie ready-made foods, put on weight, and raise their risk for diabetes. Meanwhile, the poorer segments of the population continue to experience high levels of stunting, iron-deficiency anemia and vitamin A deficiency.

This makes obesity a relatively new problem in Mexico, one widely understood to result from the introduction of processed foods – especially sodas – into the Mexican food market.

I could easily see how deeply sodas are embedded in Mexico’s food culture. Sodas were advertised and available everywhere. And they come in enormous three-liter bottles that cost less than the price of bottled water – only 17 pesos ($1.35) each. Clean water is not always available, making sodas the easy choice.

Sodas are cheap because Mexico grows its own sugarcane and sells it at market prices. We, however, artificially support the higher price of U.S. sugar through tariffs and quotas. That’s why our sodas are made with high fructose corn syrup. We subsidize corn production so corn syprup costs less than sugar.

Some people think cane sugar tastes better than high fructose corn syrup, although controlled taste tests don’t always back this up. It’s ironic that U.S. supermarkets now carry, at highly inflated prices, Mexican Coca-Cola sweetened with cane sugar.

Industry efforts to defeat the Mexican soda tax have been ferocious, just as they were in Richmond and El Monte last year. Producers argue that if the tax really does decrease consumption, it will cause hundreds of thousands of jobs to be lost.

I saw a newspaper advertisement from the Mexican Beverage Association that not only attacked the science relating soft drinks to obesity, but extolled the health benefits of sodas: “Sugar is nutritious; it’s a carbohydrate. Carbohydrates are essential for life. Sugar is indispensable for the brain. Soft drinks hydrate and bring energy.”

An ad from the sugarcane industry also threatened job losses – “The tax will generate unemployment and discourage productivity and investment” – and noted that workers and the poor will bear most of its burden.

The big questions

As with any such initiative, the big questions are whether the tax is likely to reduce soda consumption, obesity and diabetes, and whether the revenue will be used for widely beneficial public health purposes. Mexico’s Congress will have to address these questions when it votes on the tax in the weeks ahead.

In the meantime, a coalition of consumer and health groups, in part funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, has been putting posters in subway stations that illustrate the amounts of sugar in soft drinks. The groups are actively advocating for the soda tax and for using its funds to provide free potable water in schools – something that does not now exist. But TV stations have refused to carry their ads for fear of losing soda advertisers.

Like their U.S. colleagues, Mexican public health authorities are searching for effective ways to reverse obesity trends. Sugary drinks are an easy target. Taxing them might happen despite industry opposition – especially if the funds are earmarked for clean water.

Editor’s notesMarion Nestle will discuss her new book, “Eat, Drink, Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics,” with Narsai David at the Commonwealth Club on Oct. 15 at 6 p.m., and at Book Passage in Corte Madera on Oct. 19 at 11 a.m.

She is also receiving the James Beard Foundation Leadership Award for her writing about how science and public policy influence what we eat. The award ceremonies are Oct. 21 at the Hearst Tower in New York.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Eat, Drink, Vote,” “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics,” “Food Politics” and “What to Eat,” among other books. She is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University, and blogs at www.foodpolitics.com. E-mail: food@sfchronicle.com

Oct 4 2013

Weekend reading: the history of U.S. vegetarianism

Shprintzen AD.  The Vegetarian Crusade: The Rise of an American Reform Movement, 1817-1921.  University of North Carolina Press, 2013.

My blurb:

A fascinating account of the nineteenth-century origins of the vegetarian social movement to improve American morality and health. The book stops in 1921 when the Vegetarian Society disbanded, but that movement’s legacy is today’s passionate vegetarians, who comprise a vital part of the current movement to improve food systems and the health of people and the planet.

Oct 3 2013

Center for Consumer Freedom, Mexican style

The President of Mexico has proposed a tax on soft drinks.  The soft-drink industry is not pleased.

As with Richmond, California’s tax initiative and New York City’s soda cap, the industry is pulling out all stops to oppose the tax.

It’s even gotten the Beverage Association’s attack dog, the Center for Consumer Freedom, into the action.

la foto

Photo: Mireia Vilar

Translation:

  • Should obesity be fought with taxes?
  • Yes or no? 
  • To tax the fatties (Google’s charming translation)

CCF is putting signs on school buses, apparently.

On the off chance that you are not familiar with CCF, SourceWatch is a good place to begin.

It runs media campaigns which oppose the efforts of scientists, doctors, health advocates, animal advocates, environmentalists and groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, calling them “the Nanny Culture…Its advisory board is comprised mainly of representatives from the restaurant, meat and alcoholic beverage industries.

I’ve also written about this group.  Enough said.

Oct 2 2013

While the government is shut down, have some fun. Read (not eat) “Candy”

Samira Kawash.  Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure.  Faber & Faber, 2013.

New Picture

In this delightful, intriguing account of candy in the United States, Samira Kawash argues that we must stop vilifying this sugary treat and start taking it more seriously—as a cultural icon, a marker of gender identity, a prototype of the marketing of processed foods, a source of pleasure for children and adults, and for good or ill, a contributor to daily diets.

Candy, she correctly points out, is not all that different from many other sugar-laden foods and deserves its rightful place in American diets—in moderation, of course.

Kawash, who writes the candy professor blog, wanted to call this book “In Defense of Candy,” which is what it is.  I loved her writing, her originality, and her sense of humor.  For example, she makes the connection between views of  “sweet, trivial people (women and children) and sweet, trivial candy” and observes that “So much of what we call food today is really candy.”

And so it is.

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):

IMG-20130929-00084

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.

Page 31 of 280« First...2930313233...Last »