Apr 19 2013
Apr 18 2013

FDA wants comments on labeling of artificial sweeteners in milk

The FDA is collecting opinions on a dairy industry petition to change the standard of identity for milk.  The dairy industry wants to be able to add artificial sweeteners to chocolate- and strawberry-flavored milk without saying so on the front panel of the package.

FDA Wants Your Opinion on Dairy-Product Labels - (JPG v2)

Why is the dairy industry doing this?  Because it believes that:

Labels such as “reduced calorie” or “no added sugar” are a turn-off to kids who might otherwise reach for flavored milk with non-nutritive (artificial) sweeteners at the school cafeteria or from the grocery store cooler.

As if kids should be reaching for milk with artificial sweeteners.  

The FDA wants to hear from YOU about this.  It wants your comments on these questions (my translation):

  • If the label just says Chocolate Milk, will consumers understand that the milk is artificially sweetened?
  • Are descriptions like “reduced calorie” really unattractive to children?
  • Will it be hard for consumers to figure out whether a product contains sugar or an artificial sweetener?
How about a couple of other questions?
  • Why would anyone put artificial sweeteners into milk in the first place?
  • Is giving artificial sweeteners to children a good idea?
  • Why does milk for kids have to be sweetened?  Can’t kids drink plain, unflavored milk?
Just asking.  Do weigh in on this one.  It’s not hard to do.

Go to www.regulations.gov. Search for docket number FDA-2009-P-0147. 

Apr 17 2013

Michael Pollan’s “Cooked” and Appraisals by food academics

Michael Pollan’s Cooked comes out April 23 but the New York Times jumped the gun and reviewed it yesterday.   I can’t wait for the copy I ordered to arrive so I can read it for myself.

cooked-cover

Whenever the book comes, this seems like a good time to post Geoffrey Cannon’s interviews with some of Pollan’s academic foodie fans (including me) about how we assess his work.  These appraisals are now posted in World Nutrition, the online journal of the World Public Health Nutrition Association.

cover april 2013

Geoffrey Cannon: When did you come across Michael Pollan?

I had been reading Michael Pollan’s articles in the New York Times Magazine with admiration, to say the least, so when he invited me to participate in a food conference he was running at Berkeley in the fall of 2002, soon after he arrived to teach there, I was looking forward to meeting him. The conference was splendid. It brought together a huge number of journalists, academics, filmmakers, and government and industry officials. The speakers were glittery. Alice Waters did the catering. The side trips were to a farm in Bolinas and an olive orchard in Sonoma run by the owners of the San Francisco Chronicle (they had sketches by Wayne Thibaud tacked to the bathroom walls). Sometime after that, I spoke in one of his classes. But the first meeting I remember in detail must have been in about 2004. I asked for his advice about the book I was working on at the time, which later became What to Eat.

What impressed you at that time?

We met for lunch at Chez Panisse, where he was clearly a regular (I was still having trouble getting a reservation). I wanted his advice about how to write for a general audience. He said he wasn’t the right person to ask, because he didn’t write as an expert. His starting point in developing books was from lack of expertise. As he learned, he brought readers along with him. This turned out to be hugely helpful.

I got to know him better in the spring of 2006 when I taught at Berkeley in a complicated arrangement between three schools. I was paid by public policy, had an office in public health, but journalism – meaning Michael – ran the life support. The following spring I went back to Berkeley to teach a course in science journalism in his program. We did some speaking gigs together.

Rate his work and impact

Obviously, I think he is terrific but I have to do full disclosure. He just wrote the splendid foreword to the tenth anniversary edition of Food Politics. I’ll just say this: lots of people in the US have been working on the food movement for decades, but his work reaches so large and so passionate an audience that he has to be given much of the credit for its expansion.

Quote one of his sayings that stays with you

In What to Eat, I said dietary principles were simple: eat less, move more, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, don’t eat too much junk food. Pollan says: Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much. Oh to be able to write like that.

 Give an example of where he has made a difference

Students read his work and want to act. Our NYU programs in food studies are filled with people who read Pollan and want to do something to make the food system healthier and better for the planet.

Has his work changed your thinking and if so, how?

I don’t think I ever understood the importance of meat animals in balanced ecological systems to the extent that I now do. The idea of the omnivore’s dilemma is mind-changing on its own. I like it because it is so inclusive of different ways of eating and enjoying food. And I can’t wait to read Cooked.

Does his work have relevance outside the USA?

People outside the US are going to have to answer this one but of course it does. Food systems are global. How we in America eat affects the food systems of countries everywhere else and, to some extent, vice versa.

In what ways if any do you think he is mistaken?

I’m of the belief that although health very much depends on what you eat, body weight depends on how much you eat no matter where the calories come from (one of the theses of my new book Why Calories Count). We argue about this all the time. Eventually, the science will get to the point where this gets resolved one way or the other. In the meantime, it’s fun to debate.

Reference: Gussow J, Kirschenmann F, Uauy R, Schell O, Nestle M, Popkin B, Cannon G, Monteiro C. The American genius. [Appraisals].  World Nutrition 2013;4:150-170.  My answers to Geoffrey Cannon’s questions start on page 161.

Addition, May 1.  World Nutrition has published a second set of Appraisals, with some commentary.

Apr 16 2013

Happy publication day: Farmacology

At your local bookstore now:

Daphne Miller, MD.  Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing.  William Morrow, 2013

 

I blurbed it:

Farmacology is an eloquent call for better systems of sustainable agriculture and humanistic health care.  In linking the two, Dr. Miller brings a physician’s critical eye and understanding to this lovely, touching, and sometimes quite funny account of what she learned about taking care of patients from visits to farmers who view growing food as part of an self-sustaining, integrated, natural cycle.  Her insight: both soil and people do better when treated as complex systems, not fragments.  This is a fresh, original, and utterly charming book that belongs on the shelves of everyone who loves food or thinks about health care.

Dr. Miller provides a link to a page on her website with more information on the book, reviews and her “official” Farmacology slide show.

Enjoy!

Apr 15 2013

CT scans of ancient mummies show indications of atherosclerosis

I had no idea scientists were taking CT scans of mummies, and was riveted by a paper in the April 6-12 issue of The Lancet.  The investigators acquired or took CT scans of 137 mummies collected from various museums, the Brooklyn Museum among them (this photo is from the British Museum).

The mummies originated from four different parts of the world.

  • Ancient Egypt
  • Ancient Peru
  • Southwest America (ancient Pueblo Indians)
  • The Aleutian Islands

Their deaths occurred over nearly a 6000-year span, from perhaps 3800 BCE to 1900 CE.

The CT scans revealed calcifications in the arteries of 34% of the mummies.  The older the mummies were at the time of death, the more calcifications they displayed (average age at death was about 43).

The authors’ conclusion:

Atherosclerosis was common in four preindustrial populations including preagricultural hunter-gatherers. Although commonly assumed to be a modern disease, the presence of atherosclerosis in premodern human beings raises the possibility of a more basic predisposition to the disease.

The most fun is the table itemizing details about each of the 137 mummies.  For example, #57 was a male mummy from Egypt, age 40-45, from the Middle Kingdom Dynasty 12, around 1981-1802 BCE, with definite calcifications of the iliac, femoral, popliteal, and tibial arteries.  

The authors say that the presence of calcifications in the arteries of four preindustrial populations across a wide span of human history argues that “the disease is an inherent component of human ageing and not characteristic of any specific diet or lifestyle.”

Maybe, but we don’t know whether the calcifications caused the death of these individuals.  The paper assumes that calcifications seen on the CT scans indicate atherosclerosis.  Even if they do, it’s not clear whether or under what circumstances they might lead to coronary heart disease or stroke. 

The accompanying editorial doubts that dietary cholesterol and cigarette smoking were responsible for atherosclerosis in antiquity.  Instead, “infection is likely to provide the unifying explanation” (via inflammation).

More research needed!  But this is an entertaining example of the use of modern medical technology to explore interesting questions in human anthropology, physiology, and health.

Reference:  Thompson RC, et al.  Atherosclerosis across 4000 years of human history: the Horus study of four ancient populations.  The Lancet 2013;381:1211-1222, and editorial on pages 1165-1166.

Apr 12 2013
Apr 11 2013

Food aid reform is up against intense lobbying

International food aid has long been fraught with politics.

Since 1954, our system for donating food for emergencies and aid has worked like this:

  • The government buys U.S. farm commodities.
  • It requires at least 75% of these commodities to be transported on U.S. ships.
  • The commodities are given to governments for emergency relief, or
  • They are given to American charitable organizations to sell so the groups can use the money to finance development projects (this is called “monetization”).

Other countries that donate food buy it internationally so it doesn’t have to be shipped long distances.

The U.S. is the only major donor country that uses food aid to benefit U.S. farmers, U.S. shipping companies, and U.S. charitable groups, and does not buy food aid internationally.

This system has long been known to undermine local agriculture and food systems, and to fail to get to those who need it most.   It takes months to get food aid where it is needed, and the entire enterprise is inefficient and unnecessarily expensive, according to a 2011 report by the Government Accountability Office.

Now, says the New York Times, the Obama administration wants to fix these longstanding problems.

The Agency for International Development (USAID) wants the U.S. to:

  • Buy food in local countries (although 55% would still go to U.S. farmers)
  • End “monetization” to U.S. charitable organizations.

The mere suggestion of reform has elicited intense lobbying by—surprise!—shipping companies, agricultural trade organizations, and some, but by no means all, charitable groups.

Some aid groups, Oxfam, for example, strongly favor such changes.

But food aid is part of the farm bill (Title III).  This means that any changes to current programs would have to be passed by Congress.

Good luck with that in the present political environment.

Food aid, along with SNAP (food stamps), are key issues to watch as Congress tries again to write and pass a farm bill.  Stay tuned

Resources: The excellent discussion of this issue in the Hagstrom Report (April 10) provided links to relevant documents.

 

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Apr 10 2013

Why regulate? Because it works.

JAMA Pediatrics has just published the online version of a study by Daniel Taber et al, Association Between State Laws Governing School Meal Nutrition Content and Student Weight Status: Implications for New USDA School Meal Standards.

I wrote the accompanying editorial: School meals: A starting point for countering childhood obesity.

In it, I review how researchers like Taber et al are demonstrating how regulations aimed at changing the environment of food choice seem to be helping children and adults eat more healthfully.

That is why regulation is worth consideration.

The food industry cannot make significant changes on its own.  Food companies are beholden to stockholders and returns to investors.

We can’t count on consumer demand.  It’s up against the billions of dollars spent on food marketing, advertising, and lobbying.

It’s government’s role to level the playing field.

Studies like this one are beginning to show positive results.

If you take junk food and sodas out of schools, kids don’t eat as much of them and are healthier.  If you have strict nutrition standards for school food, the food is healthier and so are the kids.

This may all seem self-evident, but now we have research to prove it.

Government agencies should pay close attention and figure out everything they can do to make the food environment healthier for children and adults.

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