Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jun 21 2007

McDonald’s Hugo Drinks

A colleague in Berkeley just sent me some photographs of McDonald’s advertisements for its new Hugo drinks. The drinks contain 42 ounces–the same size as the SuperSize servings McDonald’s promised to discontinue after Morgan Spurlock’s movie, SuperSize Me! appeared. They are supposed to sell for 89 cents but the downtown Berkeley outlet sells them for 69 cents, an excellent illustration of what we nutritionists mean when we talk about “cheap calories.” In Berkeley, McDonald is advertising Hugo drinks on the sides of city buses. These are written in Chinese, Vietnamese, and Spanish, clearly directed to minority groups.

Large portion sizes strongly encourage people to eat more calories. So do absurdly cheap prices. If McDonald’s wants to be part of the solution to America’s obesity problem, it needs to make it easier for people to eat smaller portions, not Hugo ones.   And if McDonald’s really wants to increase sales, it might pay attention to the happy effects of smaller portions on TGI Friday’s bottom line.

Interested in how portion sizes have gotten larger and how they get people to eat too much? Take a look at Lisa Young’s Portion Teller by Lisa Young and Brian Wansink’s Mindless Eating.

Jun 20 2007

Tyson Antibiotic-Free Chicken

In a full-page ad in today’s New York Times, Tyson Foods announces that all of its Tyson brand fresh chicken will be raised without antibiotics and marketed as “100% All Natural Chicken Raised Without Antibiotics–No Hormones Administered and No Artificial Ingredients.”

Tyson deserves applause for taking an important step toward greater food safety. Use of antibiotics as growth promoters increases chicken growth rates by about 10%, but non-therapeutic use of antibiotics increases antibiotic resistance in chicken bacteria. Resistant bacteria can spread to poultry workers, their families, and beyond, meaning that if the bacteria make people sick, the antibiotics will be useless as treatment. Tyson is a huge company that sells more than $26 billion worth of beef, chicken, and pork annually. If it eliminates non-therapeutic antibiotics, other companies may be encouraged to do the same.

The ad implies that only Tyson brand chicken is eliminating antibiotics and that its traditional chicken–undoubtedly the vast majority of what it produces–will continue to be treated with these drugs. If so, Tyson is positioning this particular chicken as a premium brand quite likely to be sold at a premium price. Watch for this at your grocery store.

As for No Hormones Administered: A footnote in tiny print at the bottom of the illustrated package label says “federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in chicken.” Chickens are never treated with hormones anyway.

Finally, “100% All Natural” simply means that the chicken has no artificial ingredients and is minimally processed. It does NOT mean that the chicken is Certified Organic or that the chickens are raised under uncrowded conditions, an issue I discuss in the What to Eat chapter titled “Meat: Organic versus “Natural.”

Take a look at the ad and tell me what you think.

Jun 19 2007

Flaxseed Omega-3 Fats

A reader in California writes: Hello, I am reading your book, what to eat, overall I am very much enjoying it, but I have noted a few things that I have to disagree with you on. One in particular regards Flaxseeds as a source for Omega-3 fatty acids…I am well aware that Flaxseeds are a great source of Omega-3 fatty acids, but they also have a very dense husk. My understanding is that if you eat the Flaxseeds in their whole form your digestive system is not able to breakdown the outer casing of the seeds and allow for the absorption of the fatty acids contained inside…You seem to believe that you can absorb the fatty acids in flaxseeds while they are in their whole form and I would love to hear back from you about the basis for your opinion.

My response: The writer is referring to a comment in What to Eat about a cereal said to contain 2,000 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids per 2-ounce serving. The question is whether any of that is usable. I would assume that the seeds have been broken during processing so that some of their fats can be absorbed, but I am unfamiliar with research on this question. Readers: do you know anything about this? If so, please post.

Jun 18 2007

Foods vs. Supplements

A writer for a women’s magazine asks: If you want to get more of a specific nutrient (lycopene, for example), is it better to take a dietary supplement or to eat foods containing that nutrient? What benefits do you get from eating a whole food that you might miss if you took a supplement instead?

My response: Unless you have been diagnosed with a vitamin or mineral deficiency and need to replenish that nutrient in a great big hurry, it is always better to get nutrients from foods—the way nature intended. I can think of three benefits of whole foods as compared to supplements: (1) you get the full variety of nutrients—vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, etc–in that food, not just the one nutrient in the supplement; (2) the amounts of the various nutrients are balanced so they don’t interfere with each other’s digestion, absorption, or metabolism; and (3) there is no possibility of harm from taking nutrients from foods (OK. Polar bear liver is an exception; its level of vitamin A is toxic). In contrast, high doses of single nutrients not only fail to improve health but also can make things worse, as has been shown in some clinical trials of the effects of beta-carotene, vitamin E, and folic acid, for example, on heart disease or cancer. And foods taste a whole lot better, of course. For more on this, see chapter 37 in What to Eat on “Supplements and Health Food.”

Jun 18 2007


I’m not sure how long the move will take but I’ll be back as soon as everything is up and running.  Farewell to this site.  It’s been fun.  And let’s hope the new site will be even more so!  Thanks for your patience.

Jun 18 2007

Organic Standards: Integrity

Today’s question, from a college professor in California, has to do with maintaining the integrity of the standards established by the USDA’s National Organic Program for defining foods as organic: “It seems to me that the non-organic food industry must love this chipping away at the underlying meaning of “organic”. I’m worried about whether these changes are going to negatively affect the future availability of organic foods in grocery stores — why would people want to pay the premium for organic if it’s not really? My question is: have you written on this topic? Are others who you can refer me to?

Here’s my response: I have indeed written about this topic, and it is an important one. In What to Eat, I discuss the chipping-away-at-organic issues in several places, most specifically in the section on “The Politics of Organics” on pages 42-44 (and see Endnotes for references). Organics are the fastest growing segment of the food industry. Because organic production methods constitute an explicit critique of methods used in conventional industrial agriculture, the producers of conventional foods–along with their friends in the USDA and Congress–would love to weaken the standards to make it cheaper for them to produce and market foods as organic.

The latest USDA proposal (Federal Register, May 15, 2007) is to allow non-organic substitutes to be used in foods certified as organic when organic substances are not available. For example, the USDA wants to allow non-organic beet juice to be used to color products certified as organic when organic beet juice color is not available. Is this a good idea? I doubt it.

Anyone concerned about this issue should be working hard to make sure the organic standards continue to mean that organic foods are really organic and the Certified Organic seal can be trusted. This means expressing your opinion to your congressional representatives, to the USDA, and to the National Organic Standards Board. The Organic Consumers Association is an excellent source of information about this issue and provides plenty of background information for taking action.

Jun 14 2007

Kellogg’s Nutrition Announcement

In an announcement quite similar to one made by Kraft a few years ago, Kellogg today said that it will stop promoting most of its junk foods to children under age 12 (see news release). Here is my comment:

Kellogg has been one of the most active companies in marketing junk foods to children—sugary cereals, Pop-Tarts, and Cheez-Its come to mind (see the chapter on “Foods Just for Kids” in What to Eat). That is why Center for Science in the Public Interest singled Kellogg out as a target for a potential lawsuit. Kellogg responded by taking a good hard look at company practices and agreeing to fix some of the worst. Let’s give the company credit for making impressive promises. But the proof will be in what it actually does. If Kellogg starts to lose sales as a result of the promised changes, the improvements are unlikely to last and the company will find other ways to market its products to kids. I say this because my conversation with a Kellogg official earlier this week was a word-for-word duplicate of one I had with an official of Kraft a few years ago when Kraft announced that it was reformulating its products and would be limiting its marketing to kids. Kraft did indeed make some of its promised changes but as some students of mine demonstrated last year, the company is still actively engaged in marketing junky foods to children (see paper by Lewin et al). I think food companies are in an enormously difficult position on this issue. Even if they want to do the right thing and really care about kids’ health, their primary responsibility is to meet stockholders’ investment expectations. If the reformulated products don’t sell, or if overall sales decline, the companies will be forced to find other ways to generate income. Let’s hope Kellogg is able to do what it promises, and that other companies immediately follow suit.

Jun 13 2007

Cooking measurements

This question comes from a careful reader of What to Eat: “in Appendix 1 on page 528, you list 1 gram as being equivalent to 1/5 teaspoon, 1 tsp. as equivalent to 5 grams, and 1 tablespoon as equivalent to 15 grams. As grams are a measure of mass, and teaspoons are a measure of volume, I’m sure you realize these equivalencies make no sense. Even if 1 gram of water has a volume of 1/5 of a teaspoon (I believe it does, more or less), you can’t use them as equivalents for any other
substance with a different density…I wouldn’t normally write someone an email about such a small thing, but you obviously value accuracy, so I figured you’d want to know.”

Here’s my answer: You are of course correct for chemists but most readers are unlikely to use grams or milliliters; they use household measures. For cooking purposes, rough measures work well enough so precision isn’t really required. What I hoped to do was to give readers a rough idea of what the measures feel like. Baking is the one place where precision is important but even there a difference in measurement of a gram or milliliter would not matter much. Readers tell me they are put off by discussions of grams and milliliters and are grateful to have a rough sense of what the amounts mean in
practice. By putting the measures in two columns (see Appendix 1), I hoped to indicate how small the differences were between rough and precise measures. This sacrifices precision, of course, but for what I hope is a worthy purpose. Thanks for being such a great reader!

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