Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jun 11 2013

NYC Health Department: one New Yorker dies of diabetes every 90 minutes

The NYC Health Department goes to court at noon today for a hearing on the 16-ounce soda cap (I’ll be there).

Yesterday, it released alarming data on diabetes deaths, now at an all-time high.

The press release notes that although NYC’s overall deaths are going down,  diabetes-related deaths are going up.

The deaths are highest in low-income communities.

In April, the Health Department reported that nearly 650,000 New York adults have diabetes, an increase of 200,000 in a decade.   Most of these are due to type 2 diabetes, the “adult” kind.

Why?  Obesity.

Although a small percentage of overweight people develop type 2 diabetes, most people with type 2 diabetes are overweight.

Losing weight is the first thing to do to prevent or treat type 2 diabetes.

Reducing intake of sugary sodas is the first thing to do to lose weight.

That is why the health department wants to reduce the portion sizes of sugary drinks at food service establishments.

Today’s court hearing should be interesting. Stay tuned.

Jun 10 2013

Books not to miss: The food politics of restaurant workers

I’m going to be doing some catching up on reading over the summer, starting with this one.

Saru Jayaraman.  Behind the Kitchen Door.  ILR Press/Cornell, 2013.

This shocking, hugely important book takes a compassionate yet tough-minded look at the working conditions of restaurant workers—the poorly paid ($2.13 an hour), largely invisible people who wash dishes, clear tables, and mop the floors of the places from high end to low where many of us eat our meals.  Their work is not covered by federal labor laws.

Jayaraman, who co-founded the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and directs the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley, begins the book with a plea for advocacy:

When people ask what are the most important changes that we could make to our food system right away, I reply:  Enforce the nation’s labor laws and increase the minimum wage.

Think of that the next time you go out and eat.  And what you can do to support these goals.

Jun 7 2013

Chicago’s self-cancelling health program

A reader writes that she rode by this ad on her way to work yesterday.  It’s on Chicago’s beautiful lakefront walking-and-bike path.

Chicago

It’s for a Big Gulp 32-ounce drink, and a bargain at 69 cents.

The Chicago Park District explains that it:

partnered with Chicago-based AdTraction Media to develop a temporary outdoor advertising solution that adheres to concrete areas and will be displayed April through October.  The additional revenue from this agreement will help the Chicago Park District enhance the programs, projects and events offered to Chicagoans and visitors.

Did nobody in the Park District consider the irony?

Better get moving!  It takes at least 4 miles of running and 8 to 10 of biking to work off the 400 calories in that 32-ounce soda.

Jun 6 2013

More Q and A’s about food politics

More responses to questions that came in last week:

Q3.  Have you seen Dannon’s new campaign for their Greek yogurt?  I’m a nutritionist and received a huge package of collateral promotion material they wanted me to distribute.  The tagline for the product is, “Too delicious to be nutritious.”  Are they kidding?  They want a nutritionist to ratify the idea that healthy food is expected not to be good tasting? 

A.  I’m so with you on this one.  Of course healthy foods can be delicious and should be, every time.  Yogurt, especially the Greek kind, is a hot-selling product these days.   The advertising agency gets a hand slap for this one.  Of course Dannon will argue that the advertising worked.  Ink is ink and you and I are writing about it.

 

Q4.  There’s a recent op-ed in Forbes Magazine entitled, “Top Science Journal Rebukes Harvard’s Top Nutritionist” written by Trevor Butterworth. Could you respond to what’s going on around the controversy surrounding this Harvard professor?   

A.  Sure.  I already did, in comments posted last  January.  The controversy centers on disputes over the interpretation of research showing little effect of overweight on mortality except for the extremely obese.  The article in Nature discussing the controversy does an excellent job of explaining the inevitable uncertainties in nutrition research and the need to leave wiggle room—in case the science changes—whenever discussing new studies.

Jun 5 2013

Coke as a broker of peace and conflict

Coca-Cola as a peace broker

I don’t know what to make of Coca-Cola’s recent marketing strategies, as reported in the Washington  Post.   The ad,

“Small World Machines” starts with a relatively straightforward premise: India and Pakistan do not get along so well. It ends with the promise of peace: “Togetherness, humanity, this is what we all want, more and more exchange,” a woman, either Indian or Pakistani, narrates as the music swells. Sounds great. How do we get there? By buying Coke, of course.

The idea is to have two vending machines, one in Lahore and one in New Delhi, each with views of the other.  To buy a Coke, buyers have to cooperate.  Here are photos showing how it works.  And here’s how Coke explains it, with video and slides. 

As the Post explains, this may not be as far-fetched as it seems.

Sharing tasks and short-term, low-risk social interactions are classic conflict resolution tactics, including as a part of the civilian-to-civilian interactions sometimes termed “track two diplomacy.”  Indo-Pakistani tensions could use all the help they can get.

But the Post concludes with an update: 

Deputy foreign editor Karin Brulliard, a former Pakistan bureau chief, alerts me that, per the Wall Street Journal, Pepsi dominates the soda market there. Maybe that’s what’s been holding back peace?

This is not the first time that Coke markets its products as the key to world peace.  Those of you who are old enough might recall the “I’d like to teach the world to sing” video from 1990.

Coca-Cola as a conflict promoter

Who at Coke got the clever idea of producing personalized bottles with 150 popular names—in Israel, of all places?

Oops.  Forgot the 1.5 million Arabs who live there.

Alas, the campaign has caused a huge controversy in the Mideast.

Recall: All this is about selling Coke internationally.  Americans aren’t buying it so much anymore, so overseas it goes.

Jun 4 2013

Questions about food politics: iPhone apps and phytonutrients

I’m always happy to answer questions dealing with issues related to food politics.  Here are responses to two that came in last week.  I’ll do another two sometime this week. 

Q1.  I was just introduced to your book, What to Eat, and I read it, cover to cover, thoroughly enjoying each area of the market.  I am emailing in hopes that you have a suggested iPhone App, which suggests or promotes healthy eating.  Not so much calorie counter Apps, but Apps which make suggestions towards healthier options or perhaps even suggests macro or micronutrients which we may be lacking based on the foods we are purchasing and consuming.  Any help is much appreciated!  Thanks!

A.  I’m a diehard BlackBerry user and haven’t a clue.  Readers: suggestions?

Q2.  I’m an NYU MPH student and will probably be taking your Food Advocacy class next spring.  I adore your blog and as of late have been especially appreciative of your Farm Bill breakdowns. (What a confusing document!)  I was wondering what your take was on the NYTimes article that appeared in the Week in Review on Sunday titled, “Breeding the Nutrition out of Our Food” by Jo Robinson.  Have we really been losing the phytonutrients in our food since we became farmers?

A.  Ms. Robinson, whose terrific new book, “Eating on the Wild Side” is out this week, collected data on phytonutrient (plant antioxidant) levels in wild foods and their bred-to-be-less-bitter supermarket counterparts.  The wild ones have more, but they usually don’t taste as good.  The idea that foods now are less nutritious than foods in the past fits conveniently with concerns about our industrialized food system.  But data on trends in nutrient content are difficult to come by (the methods change over time), and differences in health benefits are impossible to assess.  The bottom line: people who eat fruits and vegetables—even supermarket varieties—are healthier than people who don’t.  Would they be even healthier if the vegetables were more bitter because of the phytonutrients?  Hard to say.  I’m going to eat my veggies and not worry about this one.

Jun 2 2013

Got marketing? Organics face quandary

My monthly, first Sunday, food matters column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Q: I read that the new farm bill is going to establish a checkoff program for organics. What’s that? Is this good for organics?

A: As with everything in food politics, the answer depends on who you are. If you are a big producer of organic foods, it’s good news. If you are small, it may cost you more than it’s worth. And if all you want is to buy organic foods at a price you can afford, it could go either way.

Let’s start with the farm bill, which still has many hurdles to jump before it gets passed. The bill ties agricultural policy to food stamps (which take up 80 percent of the budget), favors large industrial farms over small, and only occasionally tosses in a token program to promote public health or environmental protection.

One such token is the organic checkoff. Both the Senate and House have amended the farm bill to permit organic producers and handlers to form a marketing and promotion program, commonly known as a checkoff.

Fee required

The way this works is that if the amendments survive, the bill passes and organic growers agree on the program – all iffy at the moment – the Department of Agriculture will require every producer and handler of certified organic foods to pay a fee per unit sale (the checkoff). The fees go into a common fund to be used for research and marketing of organic foods in general.

The USDA currently administers 19 checkoff programs. The best known are beef (“it’s what’s for dinner”), milk (“got milk?”) and eggs (“the incredible edible”). Others cover foods such as blueberries, Hass avocados, mangos, peanuts, popcorn and watermelon.

In these cases, the industry or its representatives voted for the programs. They are administered by the USDA but the industry pays for them.

Checkoff funds are allowed to be used for advertising, consumer education, foreign market development and research. They cannot be used for lobbying, although the distinction between promoting a product to consumers and extolling its virtues to lawmakers can be subtle.

The Organic Trade Association, which represents hundreds of organic producers but is dominated by the big ones, has lobbied for this program since 2010. The association is concerned that consumers cannot currently tell the difference between “natural,” a term that is unregulated, and “certified organic,” which is highly regulated, requires inspection and is more expensive to produce.

Mostly, the association wants to increase market share. Sales of organic foods in the United States have been growing by about 10 percent annually and reached $35 billion last year, but this amount is minuscule in comparison to total food sales. The growth potential of organic foods is enormous.

The congressional go-ahead is a triumph for the association, which convinced a majority of the Senate and House that the public wants the farm bill to support organics.

Opposing viewpoint

That many producers of conventional foods and their friends in Congress do not like organics is an understatement. They resent that consumers are willing to pay premium prices for organics. They consider organics to be a slap in the face – a personal assault on conventional agricultural practices.

They cite many reasons why the organic checkoff should not be allowed. For one thing, it is distinctly different from all other commodity checkoff programs – “organic” is a production process, not a food.

Because farmers are allowed to pay fees into only one checkoff program, the growers of organic blueberries would have to choose between the one for organics and the one for blueberries.

Questioning the cost

Critics of the entire concept of checkoff programs say all they do is increase food prices by passing the costs of promotion on to consumers.

Small organic producers and handlers are also leery. They object to having to pay fees for something that is not guaranteed to do them any good. Evidence for the benefits of checkoff programs is mixed. Some farmers benefit, while others do not.

And because checkoff funds are not allowed to be used for advertising that implies disparagement of other foods or production processes, small organic producers fear that marketing will focus exclusively on whether or not a product is certified and will be used to promote any organic product, including junk food. The rules will not allow promotion to focus on the benefits of organics to health or the environment.

Checkoffs are about marketing. They are not about health, sustainability, human welfare or any other value cherished by today’s food movement. Much as I favor organic over conventional production methods, I’m hoping organic producers will think carefully before approving a checkoff.

May 31 2013

Annals of public relations: the food industry vs. obesity

Yesterday was a blitz day for food industry public relations.

PR #1.  Coca-Cola placed a full-page ad in the New York Times: “Beating obesity will take all of us.”

Coke’s promises [with my comments]:

  • Offer low- or no-calorie drinks in every market [but focus advertising on the sugary ones].
  • Provide transparent nutrition information, listing calories on the front of all packages [but per serving, not total for the big ones]
  • Help get people moving [divert attention from the caloric effects of sodas]
  • Market responsibly, including no advertising to children under 12 anywhere in the world [I will believe it when I see it]

“Obesity won’t be solved overnight,” Coke says, but we know that when people come together around shared solutions, good things happen.” 

Like drinking less Coke? 

PR #2.  The food industry’s Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation issued a press release to say that its member companies have more than met their stated goal of reducing 1.5 trillion calories in the marketplace in the United States.   Indra Nooyi, HWCF Chair, Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, said:

Our industry has an important role to play in helping people lead healthy lives and our actions are having a positive impact…We see continued opportunities to give consumers the choices they’re looking for and to work collaboratively with the public and non-profit sectors on initiatives that enable continued progress.

Really?  Where are the data?  On what basis does the group make this claim?  The press release says that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is doing a study but the results won’t be released until the fall.

Hence: Public relations.  As I noted in a previous post on this promise in 2010.

What are we to make of all this?  Is this a great step forward or a crass food industry publicity stunt?*  History suggests the latter possibility.  Food companies have gotten great press from announcing changes to their products without doing anything, and every promise helps stave off regulation.

Oops.  Forgot.  

Addition:  I forgot to post the accompanying report from the Hudson Institute about how low-calorie beverages are driving all the sales growth for soda companies, at least in the US.

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