Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Mar 20 2013

Dietary supplements: A round-up of bad news

The bad news about dietary supplements pours in.  Most of them are harmless, but this industry is largely unregulated and the lack of oversight shows.

Here’s a brief summary of recent reports and an old one I’ve been saving for an occasion like this:

Some supplements do more harm than good

     A lengthy investigative report in the New York Times describes the death of a 22-year-old Army private attributed to taking a recommended dose of a workout supplement, Jack3d, bought at a GNC store on the base.

Jack3d contains a powerful stimulant called dimethylamylamine, or DMAA for short, which has similar effects as amphetamines, but claims to produce “ultra-intense muscle-gorging strength, energy, power and endurance.”

Some supplement companies don’t report problems to FDA

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), in Dietary Supplements: FDA May Have Opportunities to Expand Its Use of Reported Health Problems to Oversee Products, reports a doubling of the number of adverse event complaints to the FDA since 2008.  It attributes the increase to FDA’s enforcement efforts and to lawsuits publicizing situations in which supplement firms are not reporting problems.

Some supplement companies can’t back up health claims

Last year, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued two reports examining health claims on immune support and weight loss supplements, both fast-growing segments of the industry.

In its first report, Structure/Function Claims Fail To Meet Federal Requirements, the OIG points to FDA’s limited enforcement authority over such claims.  As a result, supplement companies cut corners and ignore requirements for such claims.

Some supplement companies make it hard to complain

In its second report, Dietary Supplements: Companies May Be Difficult To Locate in an Emergency, OIG says that many supplements do not put information about where to file adverse event reports on their labels.   Many companies fail to register with the FDA.  And when companies do register, they neglect to provide required information.  About 20% of dietary supplement labels dd not provide telephone numbers or addresses where consumers can report adverse events.

The supplement industry brought this on itself

A year or so ago, the New York Times published a long article about the cozy relationship between Senator Orrin Hatch (Rep-Utah) and the supplement industry.

If you want to understand how the supplement industry gets away with ignoring regulations, read how “Senator Orrin G. Hatch has helped the nutritional supplement industry, and been rewarded with donations.”

He was the chief author of a federal law enacted 17 years ago that allows companies to make general health claims about their products, but exempts them from federal reviews of their safety or effectiveness before they go to market. During the Obama administration, Mr. Hatch has repeatedly intervened with his colleagues in Congress and federal regulators in Washington to fight proposed rules that industry officials consider objectionable.

When Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) in 1994, it effectively deregulated the industry, allowing it to use a new category of vague health claims (“structure-function”), to use Supplement Facts labels, and to escape much in the way of oversight.

Even if we assume that most supplement manufacturers are honest about what’s in their products and what the products can and cannot do, some are not.  DSHEA gave the less honest manufacturers plenty of room to cause trouble, and so they do.

We will be seeing more such reports, no doubt.

Mar 19 2013

Mini Book Review: The Stop

I’m teaching Food Advocacy at NYU this semester and am using a book that comes out today:

Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis.  The Stop: How the fight for good food transformed a community and inspired a movement.  Random House Canada 2013.

Husband and wife team Saul and Curtis wrote this chronicle of Saul’s 15-year stint as the director of The Stop, a place that started out as a soup kitchen but ended up as much more.

This is an important book.  The Stop is no ordinary account of the substantial benefits of soup kitchens to servers and served.  It is an impassioned account of how to create food systems that foster independence and eliminate the indignities of charity.   Saul and Curtis put a human face on poverty.  If you want to know what today’s food movement is really about—and why it is anything but elitist–read this book.

Ordinarily, I hope that readers will order and buy books I mention at local, independent bookshops.  But this one is only available in Canada.  Here’s its link at Amazon Canada.

Mar 18 2013

Apologies for the meltdown

For the past few days, FoodPolitics.com has been down off and on, apparently because of routine maintenance but maybe some other  problems with the server.   Fortunately, the site does not seem to have been hacked.  I am traveling and will resume blogging tomorrow or Wednesday.  Thanks for your patience and stay tuned!

Mar 15 2013

Drug corporations 1, Bees 0

Everybody is, or should be, worried about the health of bees.  Without them, we don’t have pollinated agriculture.

Bees, the New York Times tells us in an astonishing statistic, “pollinate 71 of the 100 crops that provide 90 percent of the world’s food.”

Bees are not doing well, and nobody really knows why.  Could colonies be collapsing because of a virus?  Mites?  Stress?  Or, as in the case of a leading hypothesis, insecticides used on crops?

Europeans worried about a particular class of highly effective insecticides widely used in production agriculture—neonicotinoids—proposed to restrict their use in flowering crops for two years.

But the European Union voted today to allow use of neonicotinoids to continue, even though the European Food Safety Authority recommended against this.

Also as discussed in the New York Times,

Companies that produce neonicotinoid-based pesticides, including the German giant Bayer CropScience and Syngenta, the big Swiss biochemical company, have lobbied strenuously against the moratorium. Monsanto incorporates the chemical into some of the seeds it produces; in the United States, neonicotinoids are heavily used on the country’s huge corn crop.

Some nations in Europe already restrict use of these insecticides, but not all.

The Times quotes officials of companies that make neonicotinoid insecticides, Bayer and Syngenta.  The officials say:

  • The science is uncertain.
  • Banning them would jeopardize agricultural competitiveness.
  • Prices of food, feed, fiber and renewable raw materials would rise.
  • 50,000 jobs would be lost.

This comes right out of the standard industry playbook.  Anything that harms bees in the short term has long term consequences.  Shouldn’t officials be looking at long-term strategies for protecting bees.  Bees need help!  And so will we, if we don”t help them now.

Mar 14 2013

Food safety problems can happen anywhere, even Noma

I was interested to read in Food Safety News last week that Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant ranked as the world’s best, was the site of a norovirus outbreak that affected a large proportion of its customers.  

I tweeted something about this and was contacted immediately by Lisa Abend to correct errors in the story.  Her careful, highly detailed account in Time describes what happened and why. 

Noma immediately issued its own explanation, notable for providing much information beyond the usual “we regret.”

Since receiving the news, we have been working closely with The Danish Veterinary and Food Administration to find the source of the problem. As a result of our collaboration, we have determined the most likely cause of illness was Norovirus, which may have been brought in by a member of staff, who was symptom-free.

Noma even made the health inspector’s report easily available.

Did it lose customers over this incident?  Hardly.

I’ve not been to Noma, but I would love the chance to eat there.

The short-term lessons here are worth noting:

  • Transparency helps.
  • Cooperating with health authorities helps.
  • Fixing the problem helps. 

The long-term lessons are also worth pondering:

  • Food safety problems can happen anywhere.
  • Food safety has to be a priority for any place that makes or serves food.
  • Make sure employees wash hands frequently.
  • Pay employees to stay home while sick.
  • Make sure employees have health care coverage.

Without these actions, even people eating at expensive restaurants are at risk of norovirus and worse.

Mar 13 2013

Daily News editorial: The Judge Drank Corporate Kool-Aid

Politics, they say, makes strange bedfellows.  I can understand why the New York Times would do a front-page investigative report on how soda companies engage minority groups as partners while slamming Mayor Bloomberg for overreaching with his soda cap initiative.

But can someone please explain the Daily News?   Here’s yesterday’s front page:

This was followed by two pages of “Soda plan struck down; our cups runneth over” and other gleeful responses to the judge’s soda cap decision.

But then there’s this astonishing editorial.  Explain, please.

Judge drinks the Kool-Aid

In putting Mayor Bloomberg’s soda ban on ice, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Milton Tingling did a huge disservice to the health and welfare of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers.

Tingling concluded that the prohibition against selling sugared beverages in containers larger than 16 ounces was both arbitrary and beyond the authority of the Board of Health, which approved the regulations.

The only thing arbitrary here was Tingling’s ruling. More, the judge was the only party who was guilty of overreaching.

At heart, he simply substituted his judgment as to sound public policy for the board’s — an action that’s beyond a judge’s proper purview.

Most amazingly, Tingling held that the board had acted rationally in voting the portion cap as one method of trying to rein in the city’s epidemic of obesity and obesity-related diseases.

He bought the indisputable premise that the board was right to draw connections among high soda consumption, obesity and diabetes, which are debilitating New Yorkers young and old.

But then the judge threw that over by stating the obvious fact that the board did not have the power to ban supersized sugar drinks everywhere, only in establishments regulated by the Health Department.

Because the public could get a 32-ounce cup at, say, a 7-Eleven, but not at restaurants, he in effect deemed the ban to be an ill-designed contraption destined to fail. But who is Milton Tingling to say that? No one.

His fundamental error was to consider the regulation from the point of view of vendors who were hoping to get out from under it.

Those covered by the ban claimed they were the victims of capriciously unequal treatment and shifted Tingling’s concern away from the pressing rationale for a regulation that would have been broadly applied.

There’s nothing arbitrary about the consequences of drinking large quantities of sodas and other overly sweetened beverages.

The correlation in certain communities among consuming soda, becoming obese and contracting related diseases are certain.

The neighborhoods with the highest obesity rates — Harlem, the South Bronx, central Brooklyn — have the largest percentages of people who are likely to drink more than one sugar-sweetened beverage each day.

All too predictably, people in low-income areas such as Bedford-Stuyvesant and East New York, Brooklyn — places where soda consumption is highest — are four times as likely to die from diabetes as residents of the more affluent upper East Side, where people generally consume far fewer sugary drinks.

No matter.

Tingling attended to the arguments of businesses looking after their own financial interests over the demands of public health — while at the same time declaring that the Board of Health is barred from taking into account the substantial economic costs generated by obesity.

Ultimately, Tingling bought into the all-or-nothing argument — the same line of thinking that killed an earlier Bloomberg proposal that would have barred people from buying sugary sodas with food stamps.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture killed that experiment, asserting that it would be unfair and unproductive to target only a limited population in such a test. So Bloomberg tried to go bigger, and Tingling shot him down.

If bringing down a serious threat is a rational goal, as Tingling wrote, then you do it as best you can, even incrementally.

A halfway measure is better than no measure and is certainly not arbitrary.

Bloomberg vows an appeal.

Here’s hoping that Tingling’s judicial superiors recognize that pursuing public health is not just rational, it’s imperative. 

Afterthought: compare this to the Times’ editorial:

There are better ways for Mr. Bloomberg to use his time and resources to combat obesity.  One is to push Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the State Legislature to impose a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks…the big-drinks ban was ill conceived and poorly constructed from the start.

Mar 12 2013

Corporate health 1, public health 0: Judge nixes Bloomberg soda cap

Late yesterday afternoon, while I was fielding international calls about the soda size cap scheduled to take effect today, state Supreme Court justice Milton A. Tingling “enjoined and permanently restrained” New York City from implementing the portion-size rule.  

First, let’s recall what the soda cap is about.

In the 1950s, a 16-ounce soda was LARGE.

 

Today, a 16-ounce soda is SMALL.

 

Never mind the effect of increasing portion size and calories on body weight.  The court, says the Tingling opinion:

Does not find the necessity to address at this point the appropriateness of the Board’s attempts to classify obesity as an epidemic or a contributing factor to chronic disease…the issue before this court is whether the Board has the authority to mandate which issues come under its jurisdiction…in this case it the Portion Cap Rule and whether the Board has the authority to promulgate same (page 10). 

He concludes that the proposed rule is: 

Fraught with arbitrary and capricious consequences… uneven enforcement even within a particular City block, much less the City as a whole…It is arbitrary and capricious because it applies to some but not all food establishments in the City, it excludes other beverages that have significantly higher concentrations of sugar sweeteners and/or calories on suspect grounds, and …no limitations on re-fills…the Portion Cap Rule is found to be arbitrary and capricious (page 34). 

And this:

The Portion Cap Rule, if upheld, would create an administrative Leviathan…The Rule would not only violate the separation of powers doctrine, it would eviscerate it. Such an evisceration has the potential to be more troubling than sugar sweetened beverages (page 35). 

OK, so the soda industry won this round.  How come? 

The New York Times points out that the portion size cap aroused:

the ire of the American soft-drink industry, which undertook a multimillion-dollar campaign to block it, flying banners from airplanes over Coney Island, plastering subway stations with advertisements and filing the lawsuit that led to the ruling.

The American Beverage Association issued this statement:     

The court ruling provides a sigh of relief to New Yorkers and thousands of small businesses in New York City that would have been harmed by this arbitrary and unpopular ban.  With this ruling behind us, we look forward to collaborating with city leaders on solutions that will have a meaningful and lasting impact on the people of New York City.

The Mayor says the city will appeal.

CSPI’s Michael Jacobson notes that this is what happened with calorie labels.  Eventually, he reminds us, the city prevailed:

Many years hence, people will look back and think it was crazy for sugar drinks to ever be served in 32- and 64-ounce pails. 

Mar 10 2013

Daily News Op-Ed: Bloomberg’s soda ‘ban’ should be only the beginning

My double-page op-ed in today’s New York Daily News:

Liberty from big soda: Why Bloomberg’s ‘ban’ should be only the beginning of a public health revolution

 

 

 

Barring any late legal surprises, Mayor Bloomberg’s 16-ounce cap on sugary sodas goes into effect on Tuesday, March 12. After that, restaurants, movie theaters, sports venues and food carts will not be permitted to sell extra-large portions of sugar-packed drinks.

Stay calm. This does not signal the end of democracy in America. This is not the nanny state gone out of control.

If we want Americans to be healthy, we are going to have to take actions like this – and many more – and do so soon. It’s long past time to tax sugar soda, crack down further on what gets sold in our schools, tackle abusive marketing practices, demand a redesign of labels – and extend the soda cap, no matter how controversial it may seem. This must be the beginning, not the end, of efforts toward a healthier America.

In short, we need a series of serious changes to make the healthy choice the easy choice. The soda size cap is a nudge in that direction. You will still be able to drink all the soda, and down all the sugar, that you want. The cap on soda size makes it just a tiny bit harder for you to do so.

That “tiny bit harder” is its point. If you have to order two sodas instead of one, maybe you won’t. If you have to add sugar to your coffee drink yourself, maybe you will only add one or two teaspoons instead of the 10 or more someone else put in there for you.

For a public health nutritionist like me, the soda size cap is a terrific idea. Unlike other foods, sodas are a unique target for intervention. They contain sugars – and sugar calories – but nothing else of nutritional value. They are candy in liquid form. Candy has a place in healthy diets, but a small one. So it should be for sodas.

It’s no surprise that people who drink large amounts of liquid candy have worse diets, are heavier, and have more health problems than those who do not. And it looks like the body doesn’t compute the calories from liquid sugars as accurately as it does for sugars in foods.

On top of that, big sizes make the problems worse. To state the obvious, larger portions have more calories. If an 8-ounce soft drink provides 100 calories, then a 16-ounce drink provides 200, a 32-ounce drink provides 400 and a 64-ounce drink provides 800.

But big sizes also have other effects. They induce people to eat and drink more than they would if given smaller portions. Big sizes confuse people into underestimating the number of calories consumed.

Most people eat whatever size is in front of them – the “default,” in public health-speak – and are content with that amount. So a reasonable goal of public health intervention is to change the default drink to a smaller size. Hence: Bloomberg’s 16-ounce size cap.

From my nutritionist’s perspective, a 16-ounce soda is still generous. Just one contains the equivalent of 12 packets of sugar. Just one provides 10% of the daily calorie needs of someone who typically eats 2,000 calories a day. Just one contains the upper limit of sugar intake that health officials recommend for an entire day. Once you down a 16-ounce soda, it’s best to stop right there.

You may find this hard to believe, but the original Coca-Cola was 6.5 ounces, smaller than any size available today. In the 1950s, Coke advertised its 16-ounce bottle as large enough to serve three.

Times have changed. The sizes of foods and drinks have expanded, and so have waistlines. This is no coincidence. On the basis of calories alone, larger portions are all you need to explain why Americans are putting on pounds.

City officials concerned about the health of their citizens, as those in New York most definitely are, want to do everything they can to prevent obesity and the illnesses that go with it. Their rationale is humanitarian, but also fiscal. Poor health is expensive for both individuals and society. You don’t believe that excessive weight is an issue? Just ask the military.

We can thank Big Soda – Coca-Cola, Pepsi and their trade association, the American Beverage Association – for the contribution of big sodas to weight gain. Soda companies have spent fortunes to create demand, to make drinking large amounts seem normal, to market sodas as essential for health and happiness and, these days, to fight Bloomberg’s soda cap and take the city to court over it.

Soda companies may make things you like to drink, but they are not social service agencies. Their job is to get you to buy more soda to satisfy the financial demands of investors. They are about business. They are not about fun or happiness or personal choice – and they certainly are not about health.

The soda industry may profess to care more about your well-being these days, but it ultimately will not do anything to promote health if doing so harms sales.

So-called “nanny-state” measures – like bans on driving while drunk, smoking in public places and, now, selling absurdly large sugary drinks – help to level the playing field. Such measures are about giving everyone an equal opportunity to live a safer and healthier life.

At the moment, it is up to you to make healthier choices, but that’s not easy in the face of relentless soda marketing. Governments have a responsibility to provide healthier environments for their citizens.

Here are some additional actions New York City should take, if only it were allowed to.

Close the loopholes. The city does not have jurisdiction over sales of sodas in convenience stores and supermarkets. The state does. Gov. Cuomo denied Mayor Bloomberg’s request to extend the size cap to those stores, not on principle but because he hadn’t thought about it. He should, right now. Let’s keep all sugary drinks to 16 ounces or less.

Fix the price differential. A 7.5-ounce can of soda costs twice as much per ounce as a two-liter bottle, and you can’t buy just one; it comes in an 8-pack. Price determines sales. If a 16-ounce soda costs a dollar, a 32-ounce soda should cost two dollars.

Tax sodas. Most people wouldn’t dream of eating candy all day, but soda companies have made it seem normal to drink sodas from morning to night. Raising the price of sodas would discourage sales, especially among young people most susceptible to marketing efforts and most vulnerable to weight gain. A one-cent tax per ounce should do the trick and raise plenty of needed revenue besides.

Remove vending machines from schools. Yes, the Beverage Association only puts “better-for-you” drinks in school vending machines, but sugar-filled sports drinks are still liquid candy. And kids should not have to pay for water in schools.

Restrict marketing of sodas to children. Soda companies market extensively to children and adolescents, especially those in low-income neighborhoods. Just look at billboards, celebrity photos on soda cans and Pepsi’s $50 million dollar deal with Beyoncé. They should not be permitted to market to kids this way. We already have restrictions on cigarette and alcohol marketing to kids. It breaks no new ground to add sodas to the list.

Don’t let SNAP (food stamp) benefits be used for sodas. Bloomberg tried this, but the federal Department of Agriculture said no. There is absolutely no reason that taxpayer-subsidized food assistance for low-income people should go toward junk with no nutritional value. He should try again.

Show full calories on the front of containers. The current way calories are tallied, in a measure called “calories-per-serving,” is confusing because the servings are unrealistically small and people don’t do the math. Soda cans already give the full calories in tiny type on the Nutrition Facts label, but I want to see the full calories in big type on the front.

Actions like these will evoke ferocious opposition from the soda industry, and it will spare no expense to make sure such things never happen. We would surely hear more and more howls of “nanny-state” from those who insist Bloomberg has led us to the brink of a public health police state. Polls say that many New Yorkers oppose the 16-ounce cap and would oppose measures like this, too.

But I can’t tell whether the opposition comes from genuine concern about limits on personal choice or because soda companies have spent millions of dollars to protect their interests and gin up histrionic, misinformed opposition.

Come Tuesday, the 16-ounce soda is the new default size in New York City. While waiting for the court decision and for politics to play out, why not give it a chance? Maybe it will help you live a healthier and longer life.

 

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