Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Oct 8 2014

Some thoughts on military might: obesity, candy, and the USDA’s arms race

Mission: Readiness versus obesity

As I noted in an earlier post, Mission: Readiness, an organization of former high-ranking military officials concerned about obesity and other health problems in military recruits and personnel, has issued a hard-hitting defense of USDA’s school nutrition standards.

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But the military loves giving candy to kids

Dr. Karen Sokal-Gutierrez, who is engaged in international programs to reduce sugar-induced tooth decay among children, sends the results of her Google search for “US Military give children candy.”

Halloween candy buy back: To prevent tooth decay in US children, this program is having us send our candy to servicemen. Do they eat it themselves, or do they give it to local children where they serve?

A historical perspective on generations of military candy practices

US troops endanger Afghan children by giving them with candy

Images for US soldiers giving children candy

Dr. Sokal-Gutierrez notes that it’s not just the military that give children in developing countries candy—it’s also tourists and aid workers in developing countries and refugee camps.

She understands why it feels good to do this, but points out that the children might not have toothbrushes or dental treatment.  Candy, she emphasizes, contributes to severe tooth decay, mouth pain, malnutrition, problems in school, etc.

Why is the USDA Buying Submachine Guns?

Another reader, Kris Gilbertson, asks this question based on an article in Modern Farmer.

According to a USDA press rep, the guns are necessary for self-protection.

“OIG [USDA’s Office of the Inspector General] Special Agents regularly conduct undercover operations and surveillance. The types of investigations conducted by OIG Special Agents include criminal activities such as fraud in farm programs; significant thefts of Government property or funds; bribery and extortion; smuggling; and assaults and threats of violence against USDA employees engaged in their official duties,” wrote a USDA spokesperson.

One can only resort to cliche: food for thought.

Oct 7 2014

Start baking: In Search of the Perfect Loaf

Samuel Fromartz, In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey.  Viking, 2014.

 

Fromartz is a journalist, blogger (chewswise.com), and editor in chief of The Food and Environment Reporting Network.

I happily blurbed this one:

Fromartz is a passionate, deeply serious home baker who writes eloquently and gracefully about what it takes in skill and ingredients to produce a delicious baguette or country loaf.  His account of the history and comeback of heritage wheat grains is a revelation that will send even the most gluten-phobic reader to search for breads made from them.  Perfect Loaf is a lovely book–a perfect read for anyone who cares about good food.

Oct 6 2014

Mexico’s front-of-package food label: Eat more sugar!

Mexico has a new scheme for front-of-package labeling.

Take, for example, this label for Coca-Cola’s “green” Life drink, sweetened with sugar and Stevia.

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The label says:

Sugars

9 g

10%**

The asterisks take you to this explanation:

**Of the daily nutrients recommended based on a diet of 2000 calories

Huh?  Since when is sugar intake recommended?  Since when does 9 grams equal 10% of a recommended amount?

How is it possible that Mexico set a daily standard intake (equivalent to our Daily Value) of 90 grams (!)—nearly twice as much as the amount recommended as an upper limit by the World Health Organization  and many other international health authorities?

The answer: food politics, of course.

Most international health agencies recommend an upper limit for added sugars of 10% of calories (50 grams for a 2000-calorie diet).  They consider 5% (25 grams) even better for health and especially for dental health.

The Mexican label covers total sugars.  This hides the copious amounts added by food companies.  All of the sugar in Coca-Cola Life is added.

How did this happen?  From what I’ve heard,

  • Mexican public health authorities were not consulted about this standard.
  • Although public health scientists filed well-documented objections, these were ignored.
  • Critics are now under a gag order.  If they work for the government, they are not allowed to criticize the sugar label.

Officials of the Ministry of Health and the Mexican equivalent of the FDA have close ties to food companies.  They produced this label in collaboration with the food industry, with no input from independent public health experts.

For a country that leads the world in obesity prevention policies, this label is a huge embarrassment.  It should be fixed, immediately.

Ecuador, on the other hand, is using this front-of-package label.  Wouldn’t it be helpful if everyone did?

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Oct 3 2014

Where to find Coca-Cola Life in Mexico? In the produce section, of course.

I’m in Mexico City and María Verónica Flores Bello, who teaches at a university here, gave me this photo taken at a Selecto supermarket.  It, she says, is Coca-Cola’s “brand new green Coca Cola, sweetened with stevia and sugar, as healthy and fresh as eating vegetables….”la foto

Here’s the label:

coca cola life

Soon to a supermarket near you?  Only if Mexicans buy it.

I’ll explain what these labels mean on Monday,

Happy weekend.

Oct 1 2014

Time Magazine Editorial: Soda Industry Promises

I was asked by Time Magazine to write a comment on the soda industry’s recent promises.  It was posted yesterday.

The Soda Industry’s Promises Mean Nothing

Agreeing to decrease soda consumption by 20 percent is easy to do when demand is already falling rapidly

–Marion Nestle, September 30, 2014

The recent pledge by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and the Dr Pepper Snapple Group to reduce calories that Americans consumd from their products by 20 percent by 2025 elicited torrents of praise from the Global Clinton Initiative, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the national press.The real news: soda companies are at last admitting their role in obesity.Nevertheless, the announcement caused many of us in the public health advocacy community to roll our eyes. Once again, soda companies are making promises that are likely to be fulfilled anyway, whether the companies take any action or not.

Americans have gotten the word. Sodas in anything but small amounts are not good for health.

Although Coca-Cola and the American Beverage Association have funded studies that invariably find sodas innocent of health effects, the vast preponderance of research sponsored by the government or foundations clearly demonstrates otherwise.

Think of sodas as candy in liquid form. They contain astonishing amounts of sugars. A 12-ounce soda contains 10 (!) teaspoons of sugar and provides about 150 calories.

It should surprise no one that adults and children who habitually consume sugary drinks are far more likely to take in fewer nutrients, to weigh more, and to exhibit metabolic abnormalities compared to those who abstain or drink only small amounts.

And, contrary to expectation, diet sodas don’t seem to help. A widely publicized recent study suggests that artificially sweetened drinks affect intestinal bacteria in ways, as yet undetermined, that lead to metabolic abnormalities–glucose intolerance and insulin resistance. This research is largely animal-based, preliminary, and requires confirmation. But one thing about diet drinks is clear: they do not do much good in preventing obesity.

People who drink diet sodas tend to be more obese than those who do not. The use of artificial sweeteners in the United States has gone up precisely in parallel with the rise in prevalence of obesity. Is this a cause or an effect? We don’t know yet.

While scientists are trying to sort all this out, large segments of the public have gotten the message: stay away from sodas of any kind.

Since the late 1990s, U.S. per capita consumption of soft drinks has dropped by about 20 percent. If current trends continue, the soda industry should have no trouble meeting its promise of another 20 percent reduction by 2025.

Americans want healthier drinks and are switching to bottled water, sports drinks, and vitamin-fortified drinks—although not nearly at replacement levels. The soda industry has to find ways to sell more products. It also has to find ways to head off regulation. Hence: the promises.

To deal with sales shortfalls, the leading soft-drink brands, Coca-Cola and Pepsi, have expanded their marketing overseas. They have committed to invest billions to make and promote their products in Latin America as well as in the hugely populated countries of Asia and Africa where soda consumption is still very low.

From a public health standpoint, people everywhere would be healthier—perhaps a lot healthier—drinking less soda.

In California, the cities of San Francisco and Berkeley have placed soda tax initiatives on the November ballot. The American Beverage Association, the trade association for Coke, Pepsi, and the like, is funding anti-tax campaigns that involve not only television advertising and home mailings, but also creation of ostensibly grassroots (“astroturf”) community organizations, petition campaigns, and, when all else fails, lawsuits to make sure the initiative fails. These efforts are carbon copies of the tactics used to defeat New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s portion size cap proposal.

If the soda industry really wants to help prevent obesity, it needs to change its current practices. It should stop fighting tax and size initiatives, stop opposing warning labels on sugary drinks, stop lobbying against restrictions on sodas in schools, stop using sports and music celebrities to sell products to children, stop targeting marketing to African-American and Hispanic young people, and stop funding research studies designed to give sodas a clean bill of health.

And it should stop complaining, as PepsiCo’s CEO Indra Nooyi didlast week, that nobody is giving the industry credit for all the good it is doing.

If the government really were serious about obesity prevention, it could ban vending machines from schools, set limits on the size of soft drinks sold at school events, define the amount of sugars allowable in foods and beverages, and, most of all, stop soda marketing aimed at children of any age.

Because neither the soda industry nor the government is likely to do any of this, public health advocates still have plenty of work to do.

Marion Nestle is professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University. She is currently working on a book titled Soda! From Food Advocacy to Public Health.

Sep 30 2014

What do you think? Is the “Revolving Door” useful or conflicted?

My post about the “Revolving Door” elicited a thoughtful response from Jerry Hagstrom, Founder and Executive Editor of the immensely useful Hagstrom Report, to which I subscribe.

He writes: “You seem critical of the “revolving door” but I would ask the following:

  • What would you have these people do for employment when they leave government? If they are political appointees,  they can’t stay forever.
  • Shouldn’t they use their knowledge? Should they be expected to move into an entirely different field? Wouldn’t it be a shame for the professional world of food and agriculture to lose their expertise?
  • What about academics who take government jobs and then go back to academia? Don’t they learn how to get research grants? But their knowledge of how government works is considered valuable to universities and to students.
  • Do you see any problem with someone being in government and then going to work for a nongovernmental organization or a foundation or coming from an NGO or a foundation into government? That happens too and those institutions have agendas.

As a reporter I view all these people with a combination of faith and skepticism whether they are in government or out.

Good questions, with no easy answers.

Open Secrets provides many examples of government officials who become lobbyists for the industries they used to regulate.

Conflicts of interest are likely to be even greater for those who revolve the other way—from industry to government–and especially when former industry executives move to high-level positions in regulatory agencies.

If nothing else, I see the revolving door as giving the appearance of conflict of interest.

Readers: What do you think?  How would you respond to Jerry Hagstrom’s questions?

 

 

 

Sep 29 2014

The infamous “revolving door:” two recent examples

The Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets website is the go-to source for information about undue corporate influence in Washington.

Among other juicy tidbits, it has some things to say about the “revolving door,” the trading of jobs between government and the industries it regulates.

Although the influence powerhouses that line Washington’s K Street are just a few miles from the U.S. Capitol building, the most direct path between the two doesn’t necessarily involve public transportation. Instead, it’s through a door—a revolving door that shuffles former federal employees into jobs as lobbyists, consultants and strategists just as the door pulls former hired guns into government careers.

Here are two recent examples:

  • According to the Hagstrom Report, Anne Cannon MacMillan, a deputy chief of staff to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, left the USDA to become the director of government relations for Roll Global, the California company founded by Stewart and Lynda  Resnick, the owners of Pom Wonderful, Fiji water, and other brilliantly marketed food and beverage products.
  • Robert Post, left his post as acting director  of the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, the agency that brings us the MyPlate food guide, to join the Chobani yogurt company, as its senior director for nutrition and regulatory affairs.

Former federal officials come to industry with deep knowledge of how the system works and how to beat it.   They also bring long lists of key contacts who know how to make Washington work in the new employer’s favor.

Oh yes.  They also get paid better.

Ethical?  Revolving door appointments follow the letter of the ethics law.  We can argue about whether they follow its spirit.

Sep 26 2014

Weekend reading: Brian Wansink’s Slim by Design

Brian Wansink.  Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life.  William Morrow, 2014.

In his new book, Wansink, the author of Mindless Eating (Amazon’s #1 Best Seller in Eating Disorders, Self-Help) and guru of Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab, promotes the idea that small changes in the food environment will encourage healthier eating.

Wansink, of course, is the behavioral economist who conducts clever and revealing experiments proving this point: the bottomless soup bowl (people eat and eat and eat), the Super Bowl study (students eat more from larger containers), the organic aura hypothesis (people perceive foods with health claims as having fewer calories), the stale popcorn study (if it’s there, people will eat it).

His studies are fun and I especially like his work because it shows how much environmental factors influence food choice.  If so, we need policies to change the environment to make the healthy choice the easy choice.

Wansink, however, usually interprets his work as suggesting what you—as an individual—can do to counter the environmental forces: pay attention, use smaller plates, snack-proof your house.

He does that in this book too, but also has suggestions for actions that restaurants, supermarkets, and food makers can take to sell healthier foods and still make money.   If you are a fast-food restaurant, for example, you can:

Make it motivating

  • Start a Healthy Habits loyalty card—five punches and the sixth healthy item is free.
  • Give 5 percent off the healthier combo version: diet versus regular, baked versus fried.

He says:

Give away a sixth meal?  Give a 5 percent discount?  On a $5 meal that’s a 25-cent loss.  Think of it instead as a $4.75 gain, because diners could have easily otherwise gone somewhere else.  And it’s a $9.50 gain if they brought a friend.

Could this start a movement?

In an e-mail, Wansink writes:

My goal is for this book to ignite a Slim by Design Movement that transforms restaurants, grocery stores, workplaces, schools into healthier places that guide us to make smarter, healthier choices. The book tells people exactly what they can ask their favorite restaurant or grocery store to do, and the web site allows them to complete abbreviated scorecards and post them to Facebook and Twitter to show people there are simple, scalable, solutions that can make all of us Slim by Design.

Policy change, anyone?

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