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!

Mar 28 2013

Yes, dogs can eat carbohydrates, and here’s why

When Mal Nesheim and I were writing our book about the pet food industry, Feed Your Pet Right, we were constantly challenged to defend our contention that dogs can eat pretty much anything, including commercial food products made with grains.

Our reasoning: dogs are not wolves.  They evolved to take full advantage of the leftovers from human food consumption.

Now a study published in Nature Magazine, “The genomic signature of dog domestication reveals adaptation to a starch-rich diet,” explains how this happened. 

The investigators sequenced the entire genomes of dogs and wolves.  They identified 3.8 million genetic variants, and used them to identify 36 genomic regions that appeared related to dog domestication.  Many of these gene regions appear to be associated with the behavioral changes needed to domesticate wolves.  

Ten of the genes turned out to have roles in starch digestion; three of these genes promote digestion.

The investigators identified mutations in key wolf genes that allowed this to happen.  The study provides evidence that dogs “thrive on a diet rich in starch, relative to the carnivorous diet of wolves.”  

This, they say, constitutes a crucial step in the early domestication of dogs.

In conclusion, we have presented evidence that dog domestication was accompanied by selection at three genes with key roles in starch digestion: AMY2BMGAM and SGLT1. Our results show that adaptations that allowed the early ancestors of modern dogs to thrive on a diet rich in starch, relative to the carnivorous diet of wolves, constituted a crucial step in early dog domestication…In light of previous results describing the timing and location of dog domestication, our findings may suggest that the development of agriculture catalysed the domestication of dogs.

 If your dog is domesticated, it will love those carbs just as you do.  But keep it away from the pizza and cookies.  We seem to have co-evolved to put on the pounds together too.

Mar 27 2013

How to make people think foods are healthy: greenwash!

Green labels are all that it takes to make consumers think that foods are healthier, says a new study (see full reference below):

You don’t believe this?

Decide for yourself: Which candy bar is healthier?

This clever study found that green labels increase perceived healthfulness, especially among consumers who place high importance on healthy eating.

Read it and weep: Jonathon P. Schuldt (2013): Does Green Mean Healthy? Nutrition Label Color Affects Perceptions of Healthfulness, Health Communication, DOI:10.1080/10410236.2012.725270.

Mar 26 2013

More on energy drinks

You have to love the marketing geniuses at Monster Energy Drink.

As I suggested in a previous post, it and similar products have become the new frontier for food advocacy, largely because of linkages, as yet unproven, between their high caffeine content and the deaths of several young people.

Now, Suffolk County has passed legislation that blocks companies from giving free samples and coupons to minors and selling the drinks in county parks.

In 2010, Suffolk Country introduced a previous version of the bill that proposed to ban sales of energy drinks to anyone 19 or younger.

How is Monster Energy responding to such assaults?

Clever: change its labels from Supplement Facts to Nutrition Facts.

Why would it do this?

As explained in the New York Times, Monster Beverage “will no longer be required to tell federal regulators about reports potentially linking its products to deaths and injuries” [doing so is required for supplements, but not foods].

A spokesman for Monster, Michael Sitrick, said the company had decided to market its products as beverages for several reasons. One was to stop what he described as “misguided criticism” that the company was selling its energy drinks as dietary supplements because of the belief that such products were more lightly regulated than beverages [Misguided? They are more lightly regulated].

Another consideration, he said, was that consumers can use government-subsidized food stamps to buy beverages [EBT-card benefits cannot be spent on supplements].

Let’s see if other places follow Suffolk County’s lead.

Mar 25 2013

White House weakened food safety rules

I subscribe to Food Chemical News, at great expense but for good reason.  On Friday, I received this alert addressed to Dear Subscriber:

Food Chemical News has discovered a stunning set of documents, made available by the Department of Health and Human Services as part of a transparency initiative, that prove FDA was forced by the White House Office of Management and Budget to remove certain elements from the draft of its FDA Food Safety Modernization Act preventive controls proposal. It had long been speculated among FDA watchers that the agency intended to include requirements for product testing, maintaining supplier verification programs and tracking consumer complaints in its FSMA proposal, published in the Federal Register Jan. 16, but the eight documents we found this week, while searching for other information, confirm it.

Food Safety News picked up the story.

Food Chemical News is reporting that documents released on regulations.gov on Feb. 28 reveal cuts made by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to the implementing regulatory package for the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).Those apparent cuts include striking out requirements for food companies to test for microbial contamination of environments and finished food products, as well as rules for companies to maintain supplier verification programs and track consumer complaints.

We encourage readers to review the documents here and comment on anything of interest in our comment section.

The documents say that the White House deleted:
  • Requirements for environmental monitoring for pathogens.
  • Requirements for finished product testing for pathogens.
  • An assumption that if environmental monitoring finds pathogens on food-contact, the pathogens are also in the food.
  • Requirements for a supplier approval and verification program.
  • A requirement that companies review consumer complaints about safety.
  • FDA authority to copy company records.
The White House also:
  • Added a year to the length of time companies and farms of all sizes have to comply with the law. 
Why?  Undoubtedly election-year politics.  The election is over.  
The FDA needs to do its job.  
Let’s get these items reinserted.
The safety of Americans is at stake here.  
Mar 22 2013

Reading for the holiday weekend: Kosher!

Timothy D. Lytton.  Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food.  Harvard University Press, 2013.

I blurbed this one, and for good reason:

Kosher is one terrific book.  It’s a wonderfully entertaining account of the squabbles, finger-pointing, and cutthroat competition that turned kosher certification from scandalous corruption to a respectable—and highly profitable—business.  Today, if a food is labeled kosher, it is kosher, which is more than can be said of most claims on food labels. You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the fun in Timothy Lytton’s presentation of an unusually successful case study in business ethics.

Here’s Lytton’s  flyer on how to get it.  And his recent column in Food Safety News.

Mar 21 2013

If we want food companies to act ethically…

I was fascinated to read Michael Mudd’s piece in the New York Times on Sunday, “How to force ethics on the food industry.”  Noting that the court overturned Mayor Bloomberg’s 16-ounce soda ban, he said:

But governments should not be deterred by this and should step up their efforts to protect the public health by limiting the marketing tactics of food companies. Anyone who believes these interventions are uncalled-for doesn’t know the industry the way I do.

…The industry is guilty because it knew what the consequences of its actions might be. Large food processors employed a flock of Ph.D. nutritionists and food scientists. The connection between calorie consumption and weight gain was always as plain as the number on the bathroom scale. But instead of acknowledging this and taking corrective action to sell a better product more responsibly, food processors played innocent by blending in with the crowd of causes.

This sent me to dig through my files to search for what I’d saved about Mr. Mudd’s efforts at Kraft.  Here, for example, is the front page of USA Today, July 1, 2003.  Kraft chose USA Today to announce its new anti-obesity initiatives, and gave it an exclusive to do so.

The initiatives included, among a long list, elimination of all in-school marketing, setting nutritional criteria for marketing practices, and establishing meaningful criteria for health claims.

Even at the time, I was dubious:

They have to demonstrate what it is they’re actually doing before I can start turning cartwheels about this…Kraft has other credibility problems when it comes to marketing healthier products…Philip Morris Co., the tobacco giant now called Altria Group, owns 84 percent of Kraft [Altria sold off Kraft in 2007].

One year later, Kraft announced  that  it had begun to act on its promises.  After another six months, Kraft introduced its Sensible Solution  program  to label “better-for-you” products. leaving plenty to be dubious about.  By 2004, Michael Mudd was no longer with Kraft.

In 2007, I sent a couple of students out to see whether Kraft had kept its promises.  Not a chance, as we documented.

How come?  Food companies are not social service agencies.  Their job is to sell products.  And, as Michael Moss explains in Salt, Sugar, Fatthey must do whatever it takes to achieve that goal.

As Mr. Mudd now puts it,

It’s time to end the charade and mandate the needed changes that the industry has refused to make. 

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