Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Oct 20 2015

Uh oh. Big Soda lobbyists weaken Mexican soda tax

Yesterday, I received this ALERT from health advocates in Mexico:

Big Soda negotiates behind doors with PRI to reduce Mexican SSB tax to 5% for drinks with 5 grams of added sugars per 100ml– Public health advocates denounce conflict of interest and speak out in defense of the tax

Yesterday Mexico’s Congressional Finance Committee proposed and voted in favor of an alarming measure to reduce the rate of the current 10% sugar-sweetened beverage tax to 5% on products with 5 grams of added sugar or less per 100 milliliters. The measure was pushed through committee vote with a reservation from only one political party and moves on to a vote in the lower house within the next 24-48 hours. Beverages with more than 5 grams of added sugar per 100 milliliters would continue to be taxed at 10% (1 peso per liter).

A columnist in one of Mexico’s most prominent dailies indicates that this negotiation between the FEMSA Coca-Cola bottling company and the PRI political party (current administration and majority vote holder in Congress and Senate) came about after attempts at a food and beverage industry negotiation with the PRI, seeking to reduce Mexico’s SSB and snack taxes. The columnist says Bimbo (&the food industry) was eventually excluded from this negotiation to focus on an attainable goal of reducing the SSB tax. (See column in Spanish: )

After several recent press conferences and an act in Congress “to trap” industry lobby mosquitos (Oct 6), continuing to call for an increase to a 20% SSB tax in accordance with national and international expert recommendations, and warning the public and decision makers of industry lobby, today civil society advocates –the Nutritional Health Alliance and ContraPESO– published a full page ad in Mexico’s most important daily asking whether legislators are on the side of public health or soda industry interests and calling on them not to cede to the industry lobby.

In the ad (see translation below and image attached), advocates warn that the most currently consumed 600 ml sugary drink on the Mexican market that has 5 grams of sugar per 100 milliliters contains 30 grams of sugar, above the WHO’s new guidelines for healthy living.

The language of the initiative to reduce the tax recognizes the SSB tax as a public health measure and the progress made, yet proceeds to reduce the tax far below the expert recommended rate, representating a setback to Mexico’s landmark tax.

FYI: Although Mexico’s lower house of Congress (Chamber of Deputies) holds authority over final budget decisions on income, Mexican legislative process entails that the budget package, once voted in the lower house, passes to the Senate for review and a vote, before passing back to the lower house for final approval.

Tweet indignation over industry back-door negotiation and support for the current tax and need for an increased tax: #ImpuestoAlRefresco
Press interviews: contact
If you or your association can emit a declaration or letter of support, send to:

PUBLIC HEALTH ADVOCATES IN MEXICO – Ad in Reforma newspapers OCT 19, 2015 – IN DEFENSE OF MEXICAN SSB TAX. Translation:
Members of Congress:

Have you let yourselves be bitten by the sugar-sweetened beverage lobby mosquitos?:

Do you serve soda industry or public health interests?

– The tax on sugar-sweetened beverages is 10% (1 peso) and not 20% (2 pesos) per liter as recommended by international and national organizations.

– The proposal to lower the tax to 5% to beverages with 5 grams or less of sugar per 100 milliliters acquiesces to soda industry interests, which are the parties mainly responsible for the collapse of public health in Mexico.

– The most consumed 600 milliliter drink in Mexico has 5 grams of sugar for every 100 milliliters contains 30 grams of sugar (6 spoonfuls).

– This surpasses the 25 grams (5 spoonfuls) that the World Health Organization establishes as a maximum amount of added sugars per day in order to preserve one’s health. (1)

– Sugar is not an essential nutrient and there is solid evidence showing that its consumption is harmful to health, contributing to overweight, obesity and caries, serious public health problems in Mexico.

Sugar-sweetened beverages kill more Mexicans a year than organized crime. (2)

Whose side are you on?


Show that you work to protect the public health of the Mexican population and not Big Soda’s profits.

We demand that the special tax be preserved and increased to 20% for ALL SUGAR-SWEETENED BEVERAGES, as recommended by international and national organizations.

Oct 19 2015

Industry (and other) reactions to Soda Politics

Friends and colleagues are asking me about reactions to Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning).

The book has only been out for a week or two, but here’s a report on the early returns.

I’ve posted the few reviews that have come in on the Soda Politics page.  Amazon has posted five reviews so far—all 5-star—and all from people I do not know personally.

But never mind all that.  What about the reaction of the soda industry?

This too is just starting.  The industry group, IFIC (International Food Information Council), did a Food Insight on the book.,  I’m guessing the reviewer didn’t read it very carefully, since she seems to have missed my deliberately cautious interpretation of the science.

The American Beverage Association issued a press release.  Since it is not yet online, I reproduce it release issued by the American Beverage Association

This says:


In response to the publication of “Soda Politics,” a book by New York University’s Marion Nestle, the American Beverage Association issued the following statement:

“The people who make up America’s beverage companies have a long history of engaging in thoughtful discussions and meaningful actions to address the public health issues of overweight and obesity.  By bringing stakeholders together and working with leaders like President Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama, we are delivering real and significant results.  To support our voluntary efforts, we work hard to bring consumers the fact-based information and the beverage options they need to make the right choices for themselves and their families.  And we are always interested in new opportunities to make more meaningful changes to improve public health.  We welcome discussions with anyone from government, academia, or non-profits who are willing to partner and make a difference.”

The rest is about all the good things the industry is doing.

Read the book and decide for yourself!

Oct 16 2015

Weekend reading: Tom Farley’s Saving Gotham

Tom Farley, MD.  Saving Gotham: A Billionaire Mayor, Activist Doctors, and the Fight for Eight Million Lives.  Norton, 2015.

Dr. Farley is the former New York City Health Commissioner under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the second Tom in that position (the first was Tom Frieden, now head of the CDC).

He has produced a wonderfully written, personal, eye-witness, in-the-trenches account of how the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene led the nation in creating public health interventions to reduce smoking, get rid of trans fats. put calorie labels on restaurant menus, and reduce soda consumption—with impressive improvements in the health of New Yorkers.

His book also covers the Department’s failures to convince the USDA to allow a pilot project to get sodas out of SNAP and the courts to support the city’s proposal to cap the sizes of sugary drinks at 16 ounces.

For me, a New York City resident  who lived through these events and wrote about some of them in Soda Politics, this book was fun, even gossipy, and disclosed things I hadn’t known.  It has much to teach anyone about how the politics of city public health agencies, how to get things done in complicated city institutions, and how to treasure even the smallest successes.

This particular health department had three things going for it: courageous health commissioners, huge city health problems that desperately needed to be addressed, and a mayor fearless (and rich) enough to take on the challenges.

Farley ends the book with a quote from Bloomberg:

While government action is not sufficient alone, it is nevertheless absolutely essential.  There are powers only governments can exercise, policies only governments can mandate and enforce, and results only governments can achieve.  To halt the worldwide epidemic of noncommunicable diseases, governments at all levels must make healthy solutions the default social option.

That is, ultimately, government’s highest duty.


Oct 15 2015

Catching up on food nanotechology

Every now and then something reminds me about food nanotechnology, the use of molecular size nanoparticles to whiten or improve the safety or shelf life of processed foods (see previous posts on the topic).

What brought this on is a recent report from Australia that sounds all too familiar.  Friends of the Earth commissioned tests and found “nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and silica in 14 popular products, including Mars’ M&Ms, Woolworths white sauce and Praise salad dressing.”  Australian regulators, however, have denied that nanoparticles are in use “because no company had applied for approval.”

Last year, Friends of the Earth did the same in America.  Its report, “Tiny Ingredients Big Risks,” documents nanomaterials in more than 90 food products, among them Jet Puffed Marshmallows, Trix Cereal and Nestle Original Coffee Creamer.

Nanoparticles are really small (10-9 meters, or one millionth of a millimeter).  How they work and what they might do to the human body is greatly in need of research.

The FDA’s guidance to industry—nonbinding and, in my opinion, not particularly helpful—says nanoparticles are safe in foods but that companies using them should let the FDA know about it.

It is prudent practice for you to do so, particularly when the manufacturing process change involves emerging technologies, such as nanotechnology…The consequences (to consumers and to the food industry) of broadly distributing a food substance that is later recognized to present a safety concern have the potential to be significant…FDA does not categorically judge all products containing nanomaterials or otherwise involving application of nanotechnology as intrinsically benign or harmful. Rather, for nanotechnology-derived and conventionally-manufactured food products alike, FDA considers the characteristics of the finished product and the safety of its intended use.

Are they really safe?  Nobody knows, leaving much room for unease, as Twilight Greenaway pointed out in Grist in 2012.  Her Grist colleague Tom Philpott wrote about this question even earlier—in 2010: “The strategy seems to be: release into the food supply en masse first; assess risks later (if ever).”

This is not reassuring

Web MD suggests that “while researchers are still sorting it out, avoid heavily processed foods, and read labels if you’re concerned.”

Good advice, and another reason to avoid heavily processed foods.

Oct 14 2015

The Revolving Door: From CSPI to The Sugar Association?

Politico Morning Agriculture (behind a firewall, unfortunately) reported this morning that Bruce Silverglade has filed a letter on behalf of The Sugar Association objecting to the FDA’s proposal to put Added Sugars on food labels.

The objection is on procedural grounds.  The Sugar Association opposes the FDA’s labeling proposal and wants the agency to allow more time for public comment (and, of course, additional time for lobbying against the measure).

Silverglade is now an attorney at Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Matz.  He joined this firm after resigning from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), where he had worked as director of legal affairs for more than 25 years.

CSPI has advocated for policies to reduce sugar intake for many years, and favors putting Added Sugars on labels (as I explained in a previous post).

The “Revolving Door”—-exchange of positions between the food industry and government—often raises uncomfortable questions.

This example, a move from a food advocacy group to The Sugar Association, is unusual.  And sad.

Oct 13 2015

Salt warning labels coming to New York City, December 1

Last month, the New York City Board of Health voted to require chain restaurants to publish warnings when menu items contain more than the recommended daily limit for sodium, thus taking the lead on regulating the amount of salt in foods.

Salt, says the city health department, is a leading cause of cardiovascular disease but also a leading driver of health disparities: blood pressure levels are higher in African-American populations.

The rule, which takes effect December 1, says that chains with 15 or more locations in New York City must display a warning symbol — a salt shaker inside a triangle — if the item has more than 2,300 milligrams of salt.

The policy does not restrict choice or limit how much sodium can be in food.

The New York State Restaurant Association (NRA) called the new rule “burdensome.”

It issued a statement:

This is just the latest in a long litany of superfluous hoops that restaurants here in New York must jump through…Every one of these cumbersome new laws makes it tougher and tougher for restaurants to find success.

The health department estimates the regulation will apply to 10 percent of all menu items.  Some examplesof affected products (For the record, 40% of salt is sodium; for grams of salt multiply by 2.5):

  • Panera Bread Smokehouse Turkey Panini (2,590 mg),                  “
  • TGI Friday’s sesame jack chicken strips (2,700 mg)
  • Regular-size Applebee’s Grilled Shrimp ‘n Spinach Salad (2,990 mg)
  • Subway footlong spicy Italian sub (2,980 mg)
  • Red Robin monster-size salted caramel milkshake (3,400 mg)

But the Salt Institute, a salt producers’ trade group, called the policy “misguided”:

This is another example of the government creating policy based on outdated, incorrect sodium guidelines that have been refuted by ten years of research. Research shows Americans already eat within the safe range of sodium consumption and population-wide sodium reduction strategies are unnecessary and could be harmful,” said Lori Roman, President of the Salt Institute.

The consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest said the proposed warnings “will prompt restaurants to use less salt and will help consumers reduce their risk of stroke or heart attack.”

This one will be interesting to watch.  Will people pay attention?  Will chain restaurants take steps to reduce sodium levels?  Will hypertension levels decline?  I hope researchers are hard at work collecting baseline data.

Oct 12 2015

Independently funded study by Industry-funded authors finds sugary drinks to increase the risk of hypertension. The score: 70:6.

Do sugar-sweetened beverages increase the risk of high blood pressure?

Yes, says this study, which was conducted by investigators who accept research funding from Coca-Cola and the Calorie Control Council (a trade association for companies that make or use artificial sweeteners).  But the study itself was funded by independent government agencies or health associations in Canada.

I’m counting it in the category of studies with results unfavorable to the food industry sponsors.

This brings the score to 70 industry-funded studies since mid-March with results favorable to the sponsor, to 6 with unfavorable results.

Sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and incident hypertension: a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective cohortsViranda H Jayalath, Russell J de Souza, Vanessa Ha, Arash Mirrahimi, Sonia Blanco-Mejia, Marco Di Buono, Alexandra L Jenkins, Lawrence A Leiter, Thomas MS Wolever, Joseph Beyene, Cyril WC Kendall, David JA Jenkins, and John L Sievenpiper.  Am J Clin Nutr 2015; 102:914-921 doi:10.3945/ajcn.115.107243.

  • Conclusions: SSBs were associated with a modest risk of developing hypertension in 6 cohorts. There is a need for high-quality randomized trials to assess the role of SSBs in the development of hypertension and its complications.
  • Funding: “The Canadian Institutes of Health Research…through the Canada-wide Human Nutrition Trialists’ Network and by the Diet, Digestive Tract, and Disease (3D) Centre, which is funded through the Canada Foundation for Innovation.  The Ministry of Research and Innovation’s Ontario Research Fund provided the infrastructure for the conduct of this project.”  Some of the investigators also received funds from Canadian government agencies or health associations.
  • Authors’ funding disclosures: RJdS has received research support from the Calorie Control Council and the Coca-Cola Company…ALJ is a part owner, vice president, and director of research of Glycemic Index Laboratories, Toronto, Canada….JB has received research support from the Calorie Control Council and The Coca-Cola Company…CWCK has received research support from the Calorie Control Council, the Coca-Cola Company (investigator initiated, unrestricted grant), Hain Celestial, Kellogg, Kraft, Loblaw Companies Ltd., Solae, and Unilever…DJAJ has received research grants from Loblaw Companies Ltd., Unilever, the Coca-Cola Company… JLS has received research support from the Calorie Control Council and the Coca-Cola Company…travel funding, speaker fees, or honoraria from the Calorie Control Council, the Canadian Sugar Institute, World Sugar Research Organization, White Wave Foods, Abbott Laboratories, Dairy Farmers of Canada, Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, The Coca-Cola Company, and the Corn Refiners Association….


This is an exception that proves the rule.  In this study, a group of investigators, some—but not all— of whom typically receive funding from food companies, participated in a study funded by Canadian government and health agencies.

One possible explanation is that when investigators typically funded by soda companies are funded independently,  they design and conduct independent research.

If nothing else, this study is evidence for the need for and value of independent funding of nutrition research.

Oct 9 2015

Weekend reading: Sustainable farmers

Forrest Pritchard.  Growing tomorrow: A Farm-to-Table Journey in Photos and Recipes.  The Experiment, 2015.

I did a blurb for this book:

Who says that nobody is going into farming these days or that you can’t make a living growing foods organically and sustainably?  Certainly not the 18 pioneers described in this lovely, inspiring book.  Forrest Pritchard chose farmers of diverse crops—mushrooms, honey, lobsters, avocados, grain, beef, and more—and tells the personal stories of how they created lives of deep productivity and satisfaction.  Any aspiring farmer or consumer of freshly farmed products will get great pleasure from reading this book and admiring its photos.

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