Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jul 18 2007

Food Companies Promise to Stop Marketing Junk Foods to Kids

A bunch of food companies promised today to stop marketing the worst of their junk foods directly to kids. I wish I could be more optimistic about what seem like amazingly generous pledges by these 11 companies. Will they really stop marketing junk food directly to young children? Remember: these are the very same companies that formed an alliance just a couple of years ago to protect their First Amendment rights to market junk foods to kids. So the companies are not making these promises as acts of altruism. They are forced to do this by public concerns about their role in promoting childhood obesity (for which there is much evidence and by fear of regulation if they don’t. Unfortunately, the history of what companies promise and what they actually do about marketing to kids is not reassuring. Kraft and McDonald’s, for example, have made similar promises in the past. Yes, they fulfilled some of the promises, but mostly they appear to be conducting business very much as usual. Food companies, of course, are caught in an impossible dilemma: even if they want to do the right thing, they can’t if it means losing sales. Maybe—just maybe—the companies will behave better because so many are joined in the effort. But who will hold them accountable? I say, let’s give them six months and see if they do what they say.

Jul 17 2007

Natural Color in Farmed Fish?

Another question today: “I BUY FARM RAISED SALMON FROM SUPERMARKET IT IS FROM ASIA. DOESN’T SAY COLOR ADDED. I SEE ATLANTIC FISH SO CALLED, NATURAL COLOR ADDED. WHY WOULD THEY SAY THAT IF IT IS NATURAL?? DO YOU HAVE AN ANSWER FOR THAT ONE.. THANKS.
LOVE YOUR ARTICLES. AL.”

Weird, no? I discuss this problem in the Fish Quandaries chapter of What to Eat in the section called Label Quandary #3: Artificial Color. The bottom line: all farmed salmon is colored pink because otherwise it would be an unappetizing gray and nobody would buy it. The color, which is fed to fish in the food pellets, usually is a synthetic version of the natural pigment (which originates from krill) but is sometimes isolated from yeast. Is either “natural?” This could be argued either way but the real point is that the FDA has not produced a regulatory definition for “Natural.” It should, if for no other reason than to end the confusion. Food companies want everything to appear “natural” because they know it sells. The fish section is the wild west of the supermarket. Caveat emptor!

Jul 17 2007

Chia Seeds

Today’s question (see Flaxseeds) is about Chia seeds: “I have heard and read that Chia seeds, (Salvia hispanica, a plant of the genus Salvia in the Mint family) are very high in omega-3s and very nutritious in several other ways. They were highly prized by the Aztecs and have been touted as a little-known “superfood”. Have you any knowledge about them or the accuracy of this?”
I consulted my standard sources for this sort of thing, Wikipedia (always a good place to start and then confirm independently) and the USDA’s authoritative data on food composition. As you suggest, Chia seeds have a good balance of omega-3 unsaturated fatty acids. But does this really make it a “superfood?” I think foods are foods. All natural, unprocessed foods have a mix of nutrients and the best approach is to eat a lot of different kinds of relatively unprocessed foods that together provide the nutrients and other components of food that promote health. Chia seeds, like flaxseeds or other kinds of seeds, nuts, fruits, vegetables, and grains contribute good things to the diet, but it’s the overall combination of foods you eat that counts. Enjoy Chia seeds if you like them, but are they a miracle food? I wish it were that easy.

Jul 16 2007

McDonald’s Burger Con

Lori Dorfman, of the Berkeley Media Studies Group, says to take a look at McDonald’s new burger promotion. Marketing directly to kids? You decide. In the meantime, the Berkeley Group has great materials on food marketing to children and what to do about it.

Jul 15 2007

Sicko

I have just seen Michael Moore’s indictment of America’s health care system. I think Sicko is a much more engrossing, compassionate, and important film than the reviews I’ve seen have suggested. Go see it and let me know what you think.

Jul 14 2007

FDA “Rules” for Evaluating Food Health Claims

The FDA has just announced the opportunity for anyone interested to comment on how the agency plans to evaluate the scientific validity of health claims on food labels as a basis for allowing them. In case you haven’t noticed, just about every product in supermarkets boasts some health benefit, no matter how absurd the idea that eating a particular breakfast cereal might really prevent you from getting heart disease. Health claims are not really about health. They are about selling food products. So any time the FDA tries to deny a health claim, the company takes the agency to court. The courts say the First Amendment protects commercial speech so food companies can say pretty much anything they want to about the health benefits of their products. The FDA keeps trying to require some basis for scientific substantiation of health claims and this is its latest effort. I put “rules” in quotes because its new guidance document represents the FDA’s “current thinking on this topic. It does not…operate to bind FDA or the public.” My opinion: health claims should be allowed on food products. Foods are foods; they are not drugs and health claims are invariably misleading. Never mind. It’s too late for that. But at least let’s require some evidence for health claims. If you want to weigh in on this issue, here’s your chance. The FDA wants comments by September 7.

Jul 13 2007

Should TV Ads Disclose Calories?

A reader writes: ”
I am a fan of your work, and am writing to ask your opinion of an idea.

Can you think of an appropriate lobbying group to consider demanding that all TV food advertisements carry a listing of calories, fat, and sugar content? I was watching a TV show that had several ads for restaurant meals, hefty desserts, etc and realized how seductive such ads can be. Perhaps, if we viewers saw that a certain ice-cream creation had over 1,000 calories and 40 grams of fat, we might not hop in the car for a fix.

If alcohol ads have ‘Drink Responsibly” all over them on TV, and cigarettes only show up in print ads but still with the Cancer warnings, could not food ads have a simple listing of the three common obesity triggers?”

Opinions, please. Would something like this be useful?

Jul 11 2007

Where Food Comes From

Today’s USA Today has several terrific stories about how hard it is to know where our food comes from and why it matters that we do. The cover story in the Life section follows Phil Lempert, the supermarket guru, around a store reading package labels to try to figure out the origins of ingredients. A second piece lists where specific foods come from. Dairy, peanut butter, bread, and soda pop are All-American, but Brazil is the number one source of orange juice. And who knew that fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables head the list of imported foods and Mexico is the leading source? A third story, in which I am quoted, discusses Country of Origin Labeling (COOL), a law passed by Congress years ago but endlessly postponed under pressure from food industries. Only supermarket fish are required to list the country that caught or farmed them, and as far as I can tell, this is a law ignored more often than not. If Congress doesn’t get its act together and put COOL into action, we won’t have a clue where our food comes from. Why do we need to know? Safety and miles traveled, for starters. Ever heard of COOL? It’s worth writing your representatives for this one.

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