Apr 9 2013

Let’s Ask Marion: Who’s got the power to end hunger in America?

This is one of those occasional Q and A’s with Kerry Trueman, this time in solidarity with Food Bloggers Against Hunger.  It’s posted here.

Trueman: We produce more than enough food in the U.S. to feed every man, woman and child. In fact, we’ve got such a surplus that we throw away almost half of it. But more than 47 million Americans — including roughly 16 million kids — struggle with hunger.

And with budget cuts undermining our food stamp program, aka SNAP, this problem’s only getting worse. Who has the power to change this shameful state of affairs, and how?

Nestle: I’ve just seen A Place at the Table (a film in which I briefly appear), which lays out today’s hunger problem in a particularly poignant way. It was clear from the film that its low-income participants had to deal with what is now called “food insecurity,” meaning that they couldn’t count on a reliable supply of adequate food on a daily basis and sometimes didn’t have enough to eat. But they also had to deal with another problem: the food that they did get was mostly junk food. So the question really should be worded somewhat differently: How can we ensure that everyone in America can afford enough healthy food?

I’m guessing that the makers of A Place at the Table intended it to do for the 2013 version of food insecurity what the CBS television documentary, Hunger in America, did in 1968. That film showed footage of children so starved and listless that they might as well have come from countries at war or refugee camps.

What seems impossible to imagine in 2013 is the effect of that documentary. It shocked the nation. Viewers were outraged that American adults and children did not have enough to eat. Within that year, President Nixon called a White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health to recommend programs and policies to end hunger, and Congress appointed the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs (the McGovern committee) to develop legislation. This worked. Food assistance and other programs reduced poverty and hunger. Our present-day WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) and SNAP (food stamp) programs are the legacy of that outrage.

Where is that outrage today? Without it, Congress can ignore the millions of people who depend on SNAP benefits and view the nearly $80 billion cost of those benefits as an enticing target for budget cutting.

Who has the power to do something decent about hunger? In a word, Congress. Unlike the situation under presidents Nixon, Kennedy, and Johnson — all of whom took decisive action to help the poor — hunger in America today is nothing but a pawn in Washington power politics. We have come to value personal responsibility at the expense of social responsibility. It’s hard for many Americans to think that we must be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers when our own economic status feels at risk.

If we can’t count on Congress to do the right thing, we have to try to create our own local food security and engage communities in helping to care for one another. This means advocacy and coalition-building on two levels: national and local. On the national level, it means exercising democratic rights as citizens to lobby congressional representatives to address poverty and its consequences no matter how futile that may seem. On the local level, it means working with community residents to address their needs. It means engaging the media to get the word out.

That’s where Food Bloggers Against Hunger can help. Your job is to generate outrage and to encourage your readers to take 30 seconds and send a letter to Congress asking them to support anti-hunger legislation. Go for it!

Follow Kerry Trueman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kerrytrueman.  Marion Nestle is at www.twitter.com/marionnestle.

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Apr 7 2013

The Mediterranean diet: a delicious way to prevent heart disease?

In my April (first Sunday) Food Matters column for the San Francisco Chronicle, I catch up with the Mediterranean diet study first published online on February 25 (and widely publicized), and just now in print in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Q: I read about a study (New England Journal of Medicine, April 4) claiming that Mediterranean diets prevent heart attacks. Does this mean I can stop worrying about eating pasta?

A: That study, alas, was not about pasta. It wasn’t really about Mediterranean diets, either. Instead, it was about the benefits of supplementing healthy, largely vegetarian diets with olive oil or nuts.

We usually think of Mediterranean diets as offering lots of vegetables and fruit, some fish or poultry, small amounts of pasta, olive oil as the main fat, everything cooked wonderfully and accompanied by wine.

For years, studies of such diets have shown them to be associated with much lower rates of heart disease than are typically found in groups following “Western” diets. Studies of the effects of individual components of Mediterranean diets, however, have not always yielded such consistent results.

Used a control group

In the study you are referring to, investigators in Spain advised two groups of participants to follow a Mediterranean diet, but a control group to eat a low-fat diet. Advising people to eat in a certain way does not necessarily mean that they will. To make sure the diets differed, the investigators divided the Mediterranean diet advisees into two groups.

At no cost to participants, they gave one group a liter of extra virgin olive oil a week, with instructions to use at least 4 tablespoons daily. They gave the other Mediterranean diet group an ounce of mixed nuts a day to eat at least three times a week. They measured biomarkers in the participants’ blood to confirm that they really ate the supplements.

The results were impressive. Although there were no differences in overall mortality in nearly five years, the two supplemented-Mediterranean diet groups displayed about a 30 percent reduction in the risk of heart attacks and strokes as compared with the group advised to eat a low-fat diet.

But, because they did not find much change in the participants’ dietary patterns, the investigators concluded that the extra virgin olive oil and nut supplements must have been responsible for the observed health benefits.

What does the Mediterranean dietary pattern have to do with these results? Extra virgin olive oil and nuts are components of this pattern. Both contain “good” fats, largely unsaturated or polyunsaturated, and both are high in certain phenolic antioxidants.

These features have been recognized for decades. The Mediterranean diet came to public attention in America in the early 1990s as a result of efforts of the International Olive Oil Council, a trade group established by the United Nations.

The council recruited a group in Boston, Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust, to promote olive oil to American chefs, nutritionists and food writers. If, they said, we ate diets similar to those followed by the Greeks and southern Italians since ancient times, we might also achieve similar levels of health and longevity.

The council and Oldways based this idea on the results of research initiated soon after World War II. In the late 1940s, Rockefeller University sent investigators to the island of Crete to find out why its people, although living in extreme poverty, were so healthy. Once past infancy, people on Crete displayed the highest longevity in the world, rivaled only by the Japanese.

Subsequent Seven Countries studies conducted by Ancel Keys and his colleagues appeared to confirm the health benefits of Mediterranean dietary patterns.

Olive oil, nuts critical

Olive oil or nuts seem critical to these benefits. Besides their fat and phenol content, both are wonderful to eat. Olive oil tastes good by itself and it makes other foods, particularly vegetables, taste delicious. Nuts enliven any dish. So research on Mediterranean diets brought good news. You could eat delicious food – and it would be good for you.

The Mediterranean diet took hold. In the early 1990s, you had to search hard for a decent bottle of extra virgin olive oil; now almost any supermarket carries several brands, many of high quality. Except during the sad, but blessedly brief, low-carb era, the Mediterranean diet became mainstream.

But let’s be clear about what the Mediterranean diet is and is not. It is a model of the largely plant-based dietary pattern recommended by health agencies in the United States and worldwide. It does not mean supersize bowls of macaroni smothered in cheese.

Olive oil and nuts, for all their virtues, are loaded with calories. The Spanish study’s 4 tablespoons provide 400 calories. An ounce of mixed nuts is about 200. Include them in your diet by all means, but most definitely in moderation.

I think the best reason for following a Mediterranean diet is that its foods are terrific to eat. Pasta, vegetables, a fish, some good bread, and a glass of wine? Sounds good to me, any time.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics,” as well as “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 foodpolitics.com. E-mail:food@sfchronicle.com. 

Apr 5 2013

What’s new in food marketing? Protein!

Protein, a nutrient consumed by Americans at levels greatly in excess of requirements, is the latest fad in food marketing.

Protein is the buzzword that is helping sell many kinds of foods. Food companies are placing more prominent protein labels on packaging and adding protein to such products as drinks, bars and cereals…A label that says protein has what researchers call a “health halo effect” that goes beyond just the promise of protein. When people see the word, they also believe the product will make them feel more full or give them energy.

FoodNavigator-USA, a newsletter for the food industry, did a special edition on marketing innovations in protein-rich foods:

Once the preserve of sweaty men pumping iron, protein has emerged from an image overhaul as the ingredient of choice for product developers targeting men and women of all ages keen to battle the bulge and stay strong, lean and active as they age. In this FoodNavigator-USA special edition we explore consumer attitudes to protein, the latest market research, and how protein can fit into new product concepts in health and wellness, weight management, sports nutrition and more mass market products targeting women, boomers, and other groups.We also look at what protein options are available for formulators, from new algal-based proteins to pea, soy and milk proteins.

Learn to Pack a Protein Punch Customers Love (registration required for this one)

From Chobani to Special K: Are we on the cusp of a protein renaissance?

Selling protein to boomers (without talking about muscle wastage…) As any self-respecting baby boomer will tell you, getting old is something that happens to other people, and being told you’re not as sprightly as you once were is not the best way to get you to part with your hard-earned cash… 

Could algae be the next big thing in the protein market? Part one: Solazyme Roquette NutritionalsMuch has been written about the potential of proteins such as pea and canola as firms seek alternatives to dairy and other carbon-intensive – and increasingly pricey – animal proteins. But what about microalgae?.. 

Could algae be the next big thing in the protein market? Part two: Aurora AlgaeProtein has never been hotter – at least that’s what the market researchers tell us – and vegetarian proteins in particular are top of the pops right now… 

US pea protein market ‘ready to explode’For a long time in the shadow of soy as a plant protein source, pea protein is establishing itself in food and beverage applications, with the US market set to explode, say industry experts… 

Cost and supply benefits are ‘icing on the cake’ for soy proteinsAfter a few years of difficult market conditions, the soy protein market is enjoying ‘dynamic growth’, but what does the future hold for this ingredient, and what kind of impact will the GMO issue have?.. 

Functional improvements drive demand for milk proteinsContinued development of new functional properties of casein and whey proteins will drive growth in their use and innovation in their applications in the coming year, said dairy experts… 

Fonterra consumer research reveals ‘fantastic opportunity’ to educate boomers on proteinIf manufacturers can present them in a more appealing way, there is a huge untapped market in the US for higher protein products appealing to baby boomers looking to stay active, according to consumer research from dairy giant Fonterra Nutrition…

Have you had your P.L.A.Y. today? PepsiCo targets women with new protein product launchPepsiCo is developing a novel protein-based product designed to appeal to women that “won’t show up on a shelf the way you envision it”, revealed bosses at its Nutrition Ventures arm at the Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo (FNCE) this week… 

And this just in, also from FoodNavigator-USA:   PepsiCo seeks to patent novel high-protein nutrition beverages in 4floz ‘hydration units’ as protein craze gathers pace 

Apr 4 2013

Stonyfield responds to yesterday’s post

My post yesterday about the increase in sugars in certain Stonyfield yogurts elicited this e-mail from Stonyfield’s Vice President for Communications and Social Media. I’m posting it here with her permission:

Hi Marion,

Alice Markowitz here…I read your blog post today–and wanted to give you an update on our yogurt and company.

Happy to say, that as Chairman of the Stonyfield Board, Gary [Hirshberg] is still wholeheartedly and irrepressibly involved with the company and our direction. Likewise, Stonyfield is actively engaged in the labeling issue, as we continually try to communicate the importance of knowing where your food comes from and how it’s produced.

I also wanted to clarify that we’ve shared the parent company Groupe Danone with Dannon since 2003, and we’ve always operated our company independently. That includes making our own decisions about the recipes we use for our yogurts.

In 2011, we replaced some of the sugar in our Smooth and Creamy style nonfat yogurts with organic stevia. Our fans didn’t like the switch, so we went back to using just organic sugar with our new Blends. So, while there’s more sugar in those yogurts now than when we used stevia, the amount is about the same as our pre-stevia recipe. In fact, the slight increase is due primarily to an increase in milk in the product, resulting in more protein, more milk sugar.   As with many of our products, Blends has a mix of naturally-occurring sugars from milk and fruit and some added sugars.

We are concerned about the amount of sugar in our yogurts. In fact, almost half of the sugar listed in the nutritional info is what’s found naturally in the milk and fruit – which is why you see different sugar amounts in different flavors. The sugar we do add is organic sugar used to create the flavors that our yogurt lovers prefer the most.

Ultimately though we offer the choice to the consumer, and offer 98 different organic products. If yogurt eaters prefer to restrict their sugar intake, we offer plain versions of our nonfat, lowfat, whole milk and Greek yogurt without any added sugar. Turns out we’re also the only company that offers a plain yogurt for babies (with naturally-occurring milk sugars only) so parents have a choice if they prefer no sugar.

Probably more info than you ever wanted but hope this clarifies things a bit.

All the best,

Alice

Apr 3 2013

Is Stonyfield yogurt upping its sugar?

Maybe it’s a coincidence but now that Gary Hirshberg has left Stonyfield to work on Just Label It!, its parent company, Dannon, is sweetening up its “Blends” yogurts.  

Or so writes a reader:

Yes it’s more sugar!  In the French Vanilla (6 oz cup), they added 10 g (from 17 – 27g)! 

In the Peach (also 6 oz cup) they added 6g (from 20 -26). 

It’s so bad that kids are fighting over it.  

We have noticed that they are eating less fruit because they want that sugar in the yogurts.

As I wrote of the competition between Dannon and Yoplait (owned by General Mills) in the yogurt chapter of What to Eat

The chief weapon in the yogurt battles is sugar.  Both brands are desserts.  Sugars constitute 55 percent of the 80 calories in Go-GURT, 67 percent of the 90 calories in Danimals Drinkable, and 68 of the 170 calories in Danimals XL.  Even in Stonyfield’s YoBaby organic yogurts…53% of the 120 calories come from added sugars.  Some of Stonyfield’s yogurts for older kids appear berry-flavored, but they have no fruit at all….

The book was published in 2006.  In this instance, I’m sorry that it’s holding up so well.

Apr 2 2013

Retailers and the GM salmon problem

A coalition of consumer, health, food safety and fishing groups behind the “Campaign for Genetically Engineered (GE)-Free Seafood” is recruiting grocery store chains to agree not to sell genetically engineered seafood even if the FDA allows it to be sold.  The campaign is aimed at the genetically modified AquaBounty salmon, which the FDA has had under consideration for ages, with no decision in sight.

The stores that have pledged not to sell GM salmon include Trader Joe’s (367 stores), Aldi (1,230 stores), Whole Foods (346 stores in U.S.), Marsh Supermarkets (93 stores in Indiana and Ohio), and PCC Natural Markets (9 stores in Washington State) and co-ops in Minnesota, New York, California, and Kansas.

This is a big deal because other GM seafood are in the research pipeline.  Large percentages of Americans say they oppose GM seafood and that the FDA should not allow it to be marketed.

And if the FDA does approve it, the agency is highly unlikely to require any special kind of labeling.

This reminds me of what happened to genetically modified tomato paste in the U.K.  Supermarket chains were selling the cans with labels clearly indicating that they were “produced from genetically modified tomatoes.”  The stores priced them favorably, and customers bought them — until Monsanto shipped unlabeled corn to Great Britain and caused a furor.

Retailers decided that they had plenty of tomato paste, didn’t need upset customers, and refused to continue selling the GM varieties.

Retailers call the shots in this situation.

I think much of the public distress over GM foods is because of lack of transparency.  Without labels, customers cannot exercise freedom of choice.

Just label it!

 

Apr 1 2013

Menu labeling: What’s new?

Today I’m doing a roundup of items about menu labels.  Remember them?

The President signed calorie labels into law when he signed the health care act more than three years ago.

The FDA has still not issued rules for them.

Where are they?

The Associated Press tried to find out.

It quotes FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg :

There are very, very strong opinions and powerful voices both on the consumer and public health side and on the industry side, and we have worked very hard to sort of figure out what really makes sense and also what is implementable…menu labeling has turned out to be one of the FDA’s most challenging issues.

Why?  The restaurant and food industries don’t like it.  They want exemptions for movie theaters, airplanes, bowling alleys and other businesses whose primary business is not to sell food.   And alcohol, of course.

And rumors continue that the White House Office of Management and Budget is holding them up.

Will menu labels work?

They certainly work for me.

And it looks like they might work for other people too, especially if accompanied by traffic-light labels indicating calorie levels.  Or so says a recent study from Oklahoma State.

Calorie counts most influenced purchases when accompanied by a green light label for foods with less than 400 calories, a yellow label for foods with between 401 and 800 calories, and a red label on those with more than 800 calories.

Are the posted calorie amounts accurate?

With just a few exceptions, they are close enough not to worry about, says Consumer Reports.

Come on, FDA, get the rules out so everybody can have as much fun with these as I do.

Mar 29 2013

The Coke “chairs” ad: Stand up for Coke!

I’m indebted to Yoni Freedhoff for posting Coca-Cola’s latest anti-obesity initiative, this one in Spain.

Will Chairs conquer the world?  Not if you stand up for Coke!

“What if we stand up?” is the message.  OK, this is not an absurd idea, in theory.  As Mal Nesheim and I review in our book Why Calories Count, plenty of evidence supports the health benefits of standing and fidgeting, rather than sitting.  

But this ad comes from Coca-Cola, as part of its “4 commitments to fight overweight and sedentary lifestyle” campaign.

Why would Coke do this?  As BrandChannel says, “to get out ahead of the negative “sugary drinks” PR wave.”  It notes that Coke just signed a new bottling agreement in Spain, where it also launched “Happiness” ATMs as part of its global “ Open Happiness” campaign.

But in “Chairs,” gone is Coke’s role in promoting health. Sure, it’s meant to be funny but the substituted message is about how it’s the consumer’s fault for sitting down so much. Coke is implying that its a third, disintereted party and that consumers should take it up with their chairs (which, really, is another way of saying consumers should take it up with themselves). 

The ad follows others run in the U.S. and in the U.K.

What I love best about the Spanish ad is that it could have come right out of The Onion.   Its writers argued that the ferocious opposition to Mayor Bloomberg’s 16-ounce soda plan proves that Americans are willing to stand up for their beliefs.

Dr. Freedhoff points out another irony: Coca-Cola is in the business of selling chairs (who knew?).

Collectibles!

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