Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Aug 24 2015

USDA wants to pre-test Dietary Guidelines’ messages. Good idea!

The USDA is asking for input on its plan to test educational messages in the forthcoming 2015 Dietary Guidelines and related products.

It wants the tests to involve about 57,000 respondents in

qualitative and possibly quantitative consumer research techniques, which may include focus groups (with general consumers or with specific target groups such as low-income consumers, children, older Americans, educators, students, etc.), interviews (i.e., intercept, individual, diads, triads, usability testing, etc.), and web-based surveys.

The purpose of the testing is to identify consumers’ understanding of the guidelines’ education messages and to obtain reactions to “prototypes of nutrition education products, including Internet based tools.” As USDA puts it, this information “will be formative and will be used to improve the clarity, understandability, and acceptability of resources, messages and products.”

USDA says this information

will be used to further develop the Dietary Guidelines and related communications. These may include: (1) Messages and products that help general consumers make healthier food and physical activity choices; (2) Additions and enhancements to ChooseMyPlate.gov; and (3) Resources for special population groups that might be identified.

This is interesting.  I don’t remember USDA asking for consumer input on nutrition education materials since the 1992 pyramid.

Let’s encourage USDA to do this.

Send comments to Dietary Guidelines Communications, Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 3101 Park Center Drive, Room 1034, Alexandria, VA 22302. Comments may also be submitted via fax to the attention of Dietary Guidelines Communications at 703–305–3300 or through the Federal eRulemaking Portal at http://www.regulations.gov. Follow the online instructions for submitting comments electronically.

Aug 21 2015

Weekend reading: Savor: Stories of Community, Culture & Food

Kate Harrington and Mary McIntyre.  Savor: Stories of Community, Culture & Food.  Edited by Adrienne Cachelin.   Foreword by Gary Paul Nabhan.  Available from www.savorbook.com, 2015.

CaptureProceeds from sales of this book go to support the Glendale-Mt. View Community Learning Center where the authors work.  I liked the community aspects of this book so much that I did a blurb for it.

I can’t think of a better way to build community–to bring people of diverse cultures and histories together in common cause–than to ask them to describe what they most love to eat.  The Glendale Community Project has done just that and to gorgeous effect.  This book should inspire anyone to dig out treasured family recipes and share them with friends, new and old. 

Aug 20 2015

Muhtar Kent, Coca-Cola’s CEO, and scientist Steven Blair respond to critics

Coca-Cola, in case you missed the furor over last week’s New York Times article, has a huge public relations problem.

The damage control begins today with Coke’s CEO’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal:

Our company has been accused of shifting the debate to suggest that physical activity is the only solution to the obesity crisis. There also have been reports accusing us of deceiving the public about our support of scientific research…I am disappointed that some actions we have taken to fund scientific research and health and well-being programs have served only to create more confusion and mistrust. I know our company can do a better job engaging both the public-health and scientific communities—and we will.

By supporting research and nonprofit organizations, we seek to foster more science-based knowledge to better inform the debate about how best to deal with the obesity epidemic. We have never attempted to hide that. However, in the future we will act with even more transparency as we refocus our investments and our efforts on well-being.

He promises that the company will:

• Publish on our website a list of our efforts to reduce calories and market responsibly, along with a list of health and well-being partnerships and research activities we have funded in the past five years, which we will continue to update every six months.

• Charter and recruit an oversight committee of independent experts to advise and provide governance on company investments in academic research.

• Engage leading experts to explore future opportunities for our academic research investment and health and well-being initiatives.

Personally, I can’t wait to see the list of Coke-funded research activities.  Want to bet how many of those studies came out with results that Coca-Cola can use to claim that sugary drinks have no effect on obesity or type 2 diabetes?  I’d also like a count of the number of studies Coca-Cola has funded to cast doubt on the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the country’s major dietary monitoring program, which has the annoying habit of linking sugary drinks to those conditions.

Mr. Kent ends his piece with this plea:

As we continue to learn, it is my hope that our critics will receive us with an open mind. 

Unless Coca-Cola stops pouring millions of dollars into fighting soda caps and taxes, stops targeting its marketing to minorities, and stops lobbying against public health measures to help people eat more healthfully, keeping Mr. Kent’s version of an open mind will be difficult. 

Steven Blair, one of the scientists involved in Coke-funded research, posted this statement today:

I have asked that my video addressing energy balance be taken down from the GEBN website. I regret that a statement I made in this video has been used by some to brand GEBN as a network focusing only on physical activity. This is not true and never has been true. From the beginning the mission of GEBN has been to study the science of energy balance which involves both diet and physical activity. GEBN has some of the top nutritionist experts in the world who have published research showing the importance of diet and in particular of soda consumption in causing obesity. My dismissal of diet as a cause of obesity did a disservice to their work. I hope many of you can relate to feeling so passionate about an issue that you say some things that you later regret. I believe that both diet and physical activity are important in obesity and that we must address both together to help people achieve healthy weights. I look forward to working with other GEBN researchers to do this.

James Hill, another of the scientists involved in this fiasco, also has issued a statement.  When it becomes public, I will post a link to it.

Additions, August 21

Aug 19 2015

Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of favorable research: the saga continues

When the New York Times published an article describing Coca-Cola’s financial sponsorship of university researchers who de-emphasize the role of sugary drinks in raising the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes, it kicked up a storm.

USA Today’s editorial board said:

It isn’t that companies pay scientists to put out false research. It’s that companies fund the work of scientists who happen to be doing research that spurs consumers to look away from science that hurts corporate interests.

Soft drinks are far less dangerous than cigarettes, but GEBN’s website, tweets and videos come right out of Big Tobacco’s playbook, brought into the digital era. Its leaders have done research in the past under about $3 million in grants given to their universities.

USA Today also printed a response by a Coca-Cola spokesman:

A recent New York Times article created confusion about our support of research and non-profit organizations, stating we want people to think that only exercise matters and not diet — but nothing could be further from the truth. We have always operated under the fact that a healthy, balanced diet and regular exercise are key ingredients for a healthy lifestyle.

That said, we need to do a better job of being even more transparent about the research we fund, the non-profit organizations we support and the way we publicly share this information. And we will.

Yesterday, Senator Richard Blumenthal sent letters to the University of Colorado, West Virginia University, and the University of South Carolina urging them to  clarify the nature of the University’s relationship with projects funded by Coca-Cola and to review the academic integrity of such grant agreements.

I believe your university must determine whether this research is in effect promoting a predisposed and biased agenda, rather than reflecting the impartiality and objectively (sic) expected from a public academic institution.

Years of litigation with tobacco companies were necessary to fully expose the tragic public health consequences when companies lie about the hazards of the products they sell.  I am deeply concerned that we may force future generations to relive this history if corporate-sponsored studies devoid of scientific integrity are permitted once again to deceptively downplay and conceal the dangers of a product consumed on a mass scale.

Do not underestimate Senator Blumenthal’s ability to deal with food companies.  He, you may recall, was responsible for withdrawal in 2009 of the ill-conceived Smart Choices program during his stint as Connecticut’s attorney general.

I’m still waiting for the Global Calorie Balance Network to issue its promised statement.  Stay tuned.

Aug 18 2015

Australian beer company says don’t worry about beer calories: be active!

Louise Fisher, a dietitian and food and nutrition consultant in Australia, writes:

I’ve loved your recent blog posts on Coca Cola’s sponsorship of research that fortuitously concludes that it’s not Coke that’s making us fat, it’s lack of exercise.  It’s no surprise to see that the alcohol industry here in Australia is running the same line. I just received a link to a guide to “get the facts on alcohol” Beer the beautiful truth from Lion, one of our biggest suppliers of beer. And what do you know, beer doesn’t make you fat, you just need to be more active.

Under Myth Busters on page 4:

DOES ALCOHOL CAUSE WEIGHT GAIN? DOES BEER MAKE ME FAT? It’s not the alcohol per se that causes weight gain. Eating or drinking more calories/kilojoules (energy) than you burn, from any food or drink, can contribute to weight gain. It is important to balance the calories we eat and drink with those we burn through physical activity and basic functioning like breathing and sleeping.

If you do drink, it’s important to know the calories in alcohol mainly come from the alcohol content, as well as the carbohydrate and sugars content. For example, a low strength beer will typically have less calories than a full strength beer. So really, it comes down to how much and what type of alcohol you have and what you eat with it – the chips, the kebab. Plus how active you are.

Hey.  If this strategy works for Coca-Cola….

 

Aug 17 2015

Coca-Cola’s partnership with cooperative scientists: a cartoonist’s take

Now cartoonists are producing their own interpretations of the revelations in the New York Times of Coca-Cola’s funding of scientists to argue that what you drink has far less to do with obesity than does how much you move.

In Sunday’s Times, Brian McFadden comes to this conclusion:
Capture2Here’s the entire strip

Capture1:

 

 

 

 

 

The Global Calorie Balance Network (GEBN) scientists say they will have a response to all the criticism (and now ridicule).

GEBN welcomes the opportunity to engage in a global debate and discussion on the science and application of energy balance to promote health and reduce chronic disease. GEBN also welcomes scrutiny and constructive criticism. We respect our critics and ask that they respect us in return. The recent media attention has raised important issues about the goal and mission of GEBN. We have taken these comments very seriously and are in the process of clarifying these issues here on our website. We will have that information available early this week.

I look forward to seeing it.

Aug 14 2015

Let’s Ask Marion: Can Exercise Balance Out Soda Drinking?

This is the latest in a series of Q & A’s written by .   It appeared on Civil Eats, August 12, 2015.  And please note references added at the end.

Civil Eats: Your next book, Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning), documents the history of how this sugary beverage gave rise to some of our most powerful corporations and has lately become Public Enemy Number One in the war on obesity.

With sales on the decline, the New York Times recently reported that Coca-Cola is pouring millions of dollars into a ‘science-based’ campaign to convince the public that the secret to achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is not avoiding excess calories, but getting more exercise. What’s the science on more exercise versus fewer calories?

Marion Nestle: When it comes to studies about the health effects of sugary drinks, the science, alas, depends on who pays for it. Studies paid for by government or private health foundations show that if you want to prevent obesity, [a combination of] eating less and moving more works every time.

You can lose weight by eating less on its own. But you will have a much harder time doing that by increasing physical activity. This is because it takes lots of effort to compensate for excess calories. Eat two little Oreo cookies—100 calories—and you have to walk a mile to work them off. Drink a 20-ounce soda and you need to cover nearly three miles. This was the point of the New York City health department’s subway current poster campaign, which shows that you need to walk from Union Square in Manhattan to downtown Brooklyn to burn off 275 calories.

The soda industry would love you to believe that the principal cause of obesity is lack of physical activity, and they put tons of money into research to discourage other ideas. They much prefer you to believe that all of their products can be part of an active, healthy lifestyle that includes balanced diets, proper hydration, and regular physical activity. I call the idea the “physical activity diversion.” It deflects attention from what really counts in obesity prevention: not eating huge amounts of junk foods, snack foods, and sodas.

Mind you, I’m greatly in favor of physical activity for its many benefits: physiological, social, psychological, and health. But there is a good reason for the outraged reaction to Coca-Cola’s video seemingly suggesting that all you have to do to burn off the 140 “happy calories” in a 12-ounce soft drink is to laugh out loud for 75 seconds. This is so far from the reality of calorie balance that several countries actually banned the commercial [in 2013].

Soda companies promote the primacy of physical activity in other clever ways. The Coca-Cola Foundation says that about one-third of its philanthropic contributions go to organizations working to counter obesity, especially through promotion of physical activity.

Both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo invest heavily in sponsorship of international sports teams. They put fortunes into recruiting sports celebrities as spokespersons. These investments accomplish two purposes: they influence fans to buy the products and shift the focus to physical activity. Obesity, these imply, is about what you do, not what you eat or drink. Public health advocates complain about how frequently young people—especially those of color or in low-income families—are exposed to advertising by professional athletes. The sponsored programs and celebrities never suggest that drinking less soda might be a useful health-promotion strategy.

As a nutritionist and co-author of a book titled Why Calories Count, I thoroughly agree that balance, variety, and moderation are fundamental principles of healthful diets, and that weight gain is a result of calorie imbalance.

But soda companies distort these principles to distract from their marketing of sugary drinks and how overconsumption of these drinks overrides normal physiological controls of hunger and satiety. Independently funded research makes it abundantly clear that avoiding sodas is one of the best things you can do for your health.

Sponsorship of research or research investigators by Coca-Cola or the American Beverage Association is reason alone for skepticism.

References: I am grateful to Richard Cooper for forwarding his paper on the relative contributions to obesity of diet and exercise.  From his review of the literature, you must reduce calories to lose weight.

He also pointed me to rebuttals by  Blair and Hill, the investigators featured in the New York Times article cited above.

The rebuttal by Steven Blair and colleagues.

  • Funding: Drs. Blair, Archer, and Hand are funded via unrestricted research grants from The Coca-Cola Company for analyses of dietary trends and for an energy balance study.
  • Conflict of interest: None declared [Evidently, these investigators do not perceive funding by Coca-Cola as a conflict]

The rebuttal from James Hill and John Peters:

  • Conflict of interest: J.H. receives research grants from the American Beverage Association and serves on advisory boards for McDonalds, General Mills and McCormicks. J.P. receives research funding from the American Beverage Association.

 

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Aug 13 2015

The Guardian: Coca-Cola says its drinks don’t cause obesity. Science says otherwise

I wrote this piece for The Guardian in response to the New York Times article earlier this week about Coca-Cola’s funding of scientists who think obesity is more about exercise than drinking sodas:

These days, you almost have to feel sorry for soda companies. Sales of sugar-sweetened and diet drinks have been falling for a decade in the United States, and a new Gallup Poll says 60% of Americans are trying to avoid drinking soda. In attempts to reverse these trends and deflect concerns about the health effects of sugary drinks, the soda industry invokes elements of the tobacco industry’s classic playbook: cast doubt on the science, discredit critics, invoke nanny statism and attribute obesity to personal irresponsibility.

Casting doubt on the science is especially important to soda makers. Overwhelming evidence links habitual consumption of sugary drinks to poor health. So many studies have identified sodas as key contributors to chronic health conditions – most notably obesity, type-2 diabetes and coronary artery disease – that the first thing anyone trying to stay healthy should do is to stop drinking them.

Soda companies know this. For at least the last 10 years, Coca-Cola’s annual reports to the US Securities and Exchange Commission have listed obesity and its health consequences as the single greatest threat to the company profits. The industry counters this threat with intensive marketing, lobbying and millions of dollars poured into fighting campaigns to tax or cap the size of sugary drinks.

But it is also pours millions into convincing researchers and health professionals to view sodas as benign.

Just last month, the Mayo Clinic Proceedings published a study arguing that the results of national dietary surveys, such as those that link sugary drinks to type-2 diabetes, are so flawed that they constitute a major misuse of public funds. The authors report honoraria, speaking and consulting fees from Coca-Cola.

This week’s revelation of Coca-Cola’s funding of the Global Energy Balance Network is only the latest example of this strategy in action. The Network promotes the idea that to prevent obesity you don’t need to bother about eating less or drinking less soda. You just have to be more active. Never mind that most people can’t lose weight without also reducing their intake.

A reporter who looked into this group discovered that Coca-Cola had funded the research of the scientists behind it, and generously. The network’s website was registered to Coca-Cola. None of this, however, had been made explicit.

Most nutrition professional journals now require researchers to declare who funds their studies, making it possible to compare study outcomes with funding sources. Studies sponsored by Coca-Cola almost invariably report no association of sugary drinks with diabetes, they question the validity of studies that do find such associations or, as in the case of Global Energy Balance Network investigators, they find activity to be the most important determinant of body weight.

Analyses of studies funded by Coca-Cola or its trade association demonstrate that they have an 83% probability of producing results suggesting no harm from soda consumption. In contrast, the same percentage of studies funded by government agencies or independent foundations find clear linkages between sugary beverages and such conditions. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Since March, I’ve been posting industry-funded studies with results that favor the sponsor’s interests every time I find five of them. They are easy to find. Despite pleas to readers to send me industry-funded studies that do not favor the sponsor, I hardly ever get them. Whenever I come across a study that shows no harm from sodas, I immediately look to see who paid for it.

Soda companies spend generously to convince researchers and health professionals not to worry about sodas’ health effects. But why do researchers take the money? It is too simplistic to say that they are “bought.” Industry-funded investigators say they believe the funding has no effect on the design, conduct or interpretation of their research. But research involves choices of questions, assumptions and methods. It is not difficult to carry out a study that appears to meet high scientific standards yet fails to include critical controls that might lead to alternative conclusions.

Researchers funded by Coca-Cola need to take special care to control for unconscious biases but can only do this if they recognize the possibility. Many do not. Neither do many peer reviewers or editors of scientific journals. Although food-company financial support should not necessarily bias results, it appears to do so in practice.

Industry-funded scientists resent questioning of the influence of sponsorship on the quality of their science. They charge that investigators who find adverse effects of sodas on health are equally biased by career goals, righteous zeal or anti-corporate morality. Yes, independent scientists may have biases of their own, but their overarching research goal is to improve public health. In contrast, the goal of soda companies is to use research as a marketing tool.

Disclosure is essential. If a study is funded by Coca-Cola, caveat emptor.

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