Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Apr 11 2013

Food aid reform is up against intense lobbying

International food aid has long been fraught with politics.

Since 1954, our system for donating food for emergencies and aid has worked like this:

  • The government buys U.S. farm commodities.
  • It requires at least 75% of these commodities to be transported on U.S. ships.
  • The commodities are given to governments for emergency relief, or
  • They are given to American charitable organizations to sell so the groups can use the money to finance development projects (this is called “monetization”).

Other countries that donate food buy it internationally so it doesn’t have to be shipped long distances.

The U.S. is the only major donor country that uses food aid to benefit U.S. farmers, U.S. shipping companies, and U.S. charitable groups, and does not buy food aid internationally.

This system has long been known to undermine local agriculture and food systems, and to fail to get to those who need it most.   It takes months to get food aid where it is needed, and the entire enterprise is inefficient and unnecessarily expensive, according to a 2011 report by the Government Accountability Office.

Now, says the New York Times, the Obama administration wants to fix these longstanding problems.

The Agency for International Development (USAID) wants the U.S. to:

  • Buy food in local countries (although 55% would still go to U.S. farmers)
  • End “monetization” to U.S. charitable organizations.

The mere suggestion of reform has elicited intense lobbying by—surprise!—shipping companies, agricultural trade organizations, and some, but by no means all, charitable groups.

Some aid groups, Oxfam, for example, strongly favor such changes.

But food aid is part of the farm bill (Title III).  This means that any changes to current programs would have to be passed by Congress.

Good luck with that in the present political environment.

Food aid, along with SNAP (food stamps), are key issues to watch as Congress tries again to write and pass a farm bill.  Stay tuned

Resources: The excellent discussion of this issue in the Hagstrom Report (April 10) provided links to relevant documents.

 

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Apr 10 2013

Why regulate? Because it works.

JAMA Pediatrics has just published the online version of a study by Daniel Taber et al, Association Between State Laws Governing School Meal Nutrition Content and Student Weight Status: Implications for New USDA School Meal Standards.

I wrote the accompanying editorial: School meals: A starting point for countering childhood obesity.

In it, I review how researchers like Taber et al are demonstrating how regulations aimed at changing the environment of food choice seem to be helping children and adults eat more healthfully.

That is why regulation is worth consideration.

The food industry cannot make significant changes on its own.  Food companies are beholden to stockholders and returns to investors.

We can’t count on consumer demand.  It’s up against the billions of dollars spent on food marketing, advertising, and lobbying.

It’s government’s role to level the playing field.

Studies like this one are beginning to show positive results.

If you take junk food and sodas out of schools, kids don’t eat as much of them and are healthier.  If you have strict nutrition standards for school food, the food is healthier and so are the kids.

This may all seem self-evident, but now we have research to prove it.

Government agencies should pay close attention and figure out everything they can do to make the food environment healthier for children and adults.

Apr 9 2013

Let’s Ask Marion: Who’s got the power to end hunger in America?

This is one of those occasional Q and A’s with Kerry Trueman, this time in solidarity with Food Bloggers Against Hunger.  It’s posted here.

Trueman: We produce more than enough food in the U.S. to feed every man, woman and child. In fact, we’ve got such a surplus that we throw away almost half of it. But more than 47 million Americans — including roughly 16 million kids — struggle with hunger.

And with budget cuts undermining our food stamp program, aka SNAP, this problem’s only getting worse. Who has the power to change this shameful state of affairs, and how?

Nestle: I’ve just seen A Place at the Table (a film in which I briefly appear), which lays out today’s hunger problem in a particularly poignant way. It was clear from the film that its low-income participants had to deal with what is now called “food insecurity,” meaning that they couldn’t count on a reliable supply of adequate food on a daily basis and sometimes didn’t have enough to eat. But they also had to deal with another problem: the food that they did get was mostly junk food. So the question really should be worded somewhat differently: How can we ensure that everyone in America can afford enough healthy food?

I’m guessing that the makers of A Place at the Table intended it to do for the 2013 version of food insecurity what the CBS television documentary, Hunger in America, did in 1968. That film showed footage of children so starved and listless that they might as well have come from countries at war or refugee camps.

What seems impossible to imagine in 2013 is the effect of that documentary. It shocked the nation. Viewers were outraged that American adults and children did not have enough to eat. Within that year, President Nixon called a White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health to recommend programs and policies to end hunger, and Congress appointed the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs (the McGovern committee) to develop legislation. This worked. Food assistance and other programs reduced poverty and hunger. Our present-day WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) and SNAP (food stamp) programs are the legacy of that outrage.

Where is that outrage today? Without it, Congress can ignore the millions of people who depend on SNAP benefits and view the nearly $80 billion cost of those benefits as an enticing target for budget cutting.

Who has the power to do something decent about hunger? In a word, Congress. Unlike the situation under presidents Nixon, Kennedy, and Johnson — all of whom took decisive action to help the poor — hunger in America today is nothing but a pawn in Washington power politics. We have come to value personal responsibility at the expense of social responsibility. It’s hard for many Americans to think that we must be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers when our own economic status feels at risk.

If we can’t count on Congress to do the right thing, we have to try to create our own local food security and engage communities in helping to care for one another. This means advocacy and coalition-building on two levels: national and local. On the national level, it means exercising democratic rights as citizens to lobby congressional representatives to address poverty and its consequences no matter how futile that may seem. On the local level, it means working with community residents to address their needs. It means engaging the media to get the word out.

That’s where Food Bloggers Against Hunger can help. Your job is to generate outrage and to encourage your readers to take 30 seconds and send a letter to Congress asking them to support anti-hunger legislation. Go for it!

Follow Kerry Trueman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kerrytrueman.  Marion Nestle is at www.twitter.com/marionnestle.

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Apr 7 2013

The Mediterranean diet: a delicious way to prevent heart disease?

In my April (first Sunday) Food Matters column for the San Francisco Chronicle, I catch up with the Mediterranean diet study first published online on February 25 (and widely publicized), and just now in print in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Q: I read about a study (New England Journal of Medicine, April 4) claiming that Mediterranean diets prevent heart attacks. Does this mean I can stop worrying about eating pasta?

A: That study, alas, was not about pasta. It wasn’t really about Mediterranean diets, either. Instead, it was about the benefits of supplementing healthy, largely vegetarian diets with olive oil or nuts.

We usually think of Mediterranean diets as offering lots of vegetables and fruit, some fish or poultry, small amounts of pasta, olive oil as the main fat, everything cooked wonderfully and accompanied by wine.

For years, studies of such diets have shown them to be associated with much lower rates of heart disease than are typically found in groups following “Western” diets. Studies of the effects of individual components of Mediterranean diets, however, have not always yielded such consistent results.

Used a control group

In the study you are referring to, investigators in Spain advised two groups of participants to follow a Mediterranean diet, but a control group to eat a low-fat diet. Advising people to eat in a certain way does not necessarily mean that they will. To make sure the diets differed, the investigators divided the Mediterranean diet advisees into two groups.

At no cost to participants, they gave one group a liter of extra virgin olive oil a week, with instructions to use at least 4 tablespoons daily. They gave the other Mediterranean diet group an ounce of mixed nuts a day to eat at least three times a week. They measured biomarkers in the participants’ blood to confirm that they really ate the supplements.

The results were impressive. Although there were no differences in overall mortality in nearly five years, the two supplemented-Mediterranean diet groups displayed about a 30 percent reduction in the risk of heart attacks and strokes as compared with the group advised to eat a low-fat diet.

But, because they did not find much change in the participants’ dietary patterns, the investigators concluded that the extra virgin olive oil and nut supplements must have been responsible for the observed health benefits.

What does the Mediterranean dietary pattern have to do with these results? Extra virgin olive oil and nuts are components of this pattern. Both contain “good” fats, largely unsaturated or polyunsaturated, and both are high in certain phenolic antioxidants.

These features have been recognized for decades. The Mediterranean diet came to public attention in America in the early 1990s as a result of efforts of the International Olive Oil Council, a trade group established by the United Nations.

The council recruited a group in Boston, Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust, to promote olive oil to American chefs, nutritionists and food writers. If, they said, we ate diets similar to those followed by the Greeks and southern Italians since ancient times, we might also achieve similar levels of health and longevity.

The council and Oldways based this idea on the results of research initiated soon after World War II. In the late 1940s, Rockefeller University sent investigators to the island of Crete to find out why its people, although living in extreme poverty, were so healthy. Once past infancy, people on Crete displayed the highest longevity in the world, rivaled only by the Japanese.

Subsequent Seven Countries studies conducted by Ancel Keys and his colleagues appeared to confirm the health benefits of Mediterranean dietary patterns.

Olive oil, nuts critical

Olive oil or nuts seem critical to these benefits. Besides their fat and phenol content, both are wonderful to eat. Olive oil tastes good by itself and it makes other foods, particularly vegetables, taste delicious. Nuts enliven any dish. So research on Mediterranean diets brought good news. You could eat delicious food – and it would be good for you.

The Mediterranean diet took hold. In the early 1990s, you had to search hard for a decent bottle of extra virgin olive oil; now almost any supermarket carries several brands, many of high quality. Except during the sad, but blessedly brief, low-carb era, the Mediterranean diet became mainstream.

But let’s be clear about what the Mediterranean diet is and is not. It is a model of the largely plant-based dietary pattern recommended by health agencies in the United States and worldwide. It does not mean supersize bowls of macaroni smothered in cheese.

Olive oil and nuts, for all their virtues, are loaded with calories. The Spanish study’s 4 tablespoons provide 400 calories. An ounce of mixed nuts is about 200. Include them in your diet by all means, but most definitely in moderation.

I think the best reason for following a Mediterranean diet is that its foods are terrific to eat. Pasta, vegetables, a fish, some good bread, and a glass of wine? Sounds good to me, any time.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics,” as well as “Food Politics” and “What to Eat,” among other books. She is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University, and blogs at foodpolitics.com. E-mail:food@sfchronicle.com. 

Apr 5 2013

What’s new in food marketing? Protein!

Protein, a nutrient consumed by Americans at levels greatly in excess of requirements, is the latest fad in food marketing.

Protein is the buzzword that is helping sell many kinds of foods. Food companies are placing more prominent protein labels on packaging and adding protein to such products as drinks, bars and cereals…A label that says protein has what researchers call a “health halo effect” that goes beyond just the promise of protein. When people see the word, they also believe the product will make them feel more full or give them energy.

FoodNavigator-USA, a newsletter for the food industry, did a special edition on marketing innovations in protein-rich foods:

Once the preserve of sweaty men pumping iron, protein has emerged from an image overhaul as the ingredient of choice for product developers targeting men and women of all ages keen to battle the bulge and stay strong, lean and active as they age. In this FoodNavigator-USA special edition we explore consumer attitudes to protein, the latest market research, and how protein can fit into new product concepts in health and wellness, weight management, sports nutrition and more mass market products targeting women, boomers, and other groups.We also look at what protein options are available for formulators, from new algal-based proteins to pea, soy and milk proteins.

Learn to Pack a Protein Punch Customers Love (registration required for this one)

From Chobani to Special K: Are we on the cusp of a protein renaissance?

Selling protein to boomers (without talking about muscle wastage…) As any self-respecting baby boomer will tell you, getting old is something that happens to other people, and being told you’re not as sprightly as you once were is not the best way to get you to part with your hard-earned cash… 

Could algae be the next big thing in the protein market? Part one: Solazyme Roquette NutritionalsMuch has been written about the potential of proteins such as pea and canola as firms seek alternatives to dairy and other carbon-intensive – and increasingly pricey – animal proteins. But what about microalgae?.. 

Could algae be the next big thing in the protein market? Part two: Aurora AlgaeProtein has never been hotter – at least that’s what the market researchers tell us – and vegetarian proteins in particular are top of the pops right now… 

US pea protein market ‘ready to explode’For a long time in the shadow of soy as a plant protein source, pea protein is establishing itself in food and beverage applications, with the US market set to explode, say industry experts… 

Cost and supply benefits are ‘icing on the cake’ for soy proteinsAfter a few years of difficult market conditions, the soy protein market is enjoying ‘dynamic growth’, but what does the future hold for this ingredient, and what kind of impact will the GMO issue have?.. 

Functional improvements drive demand for milk proteinsContinued development of new functional properties of casein and whey proteins will drive growth in their use and innovation in their applications in the coming year, said dairy experts… 

Fonterra consumer research reveals ‘fantastic opportunity’ to educate boomers on proteinIf manufacturers can present them in a more appealing way, there is a huge untapped market in the US for higher protein products appealing to baby boomers looking to stay active, according to consumer research from dairy giant Fonterra Nutrition…

Have you had your P.L.A.Y. today? PepsiCo targets women with new protein product launchPepsiCo is developing a novel protein-based product designed to appeal to women that “won’t show up on a shelf the way you envision it”, revealed bosses at its Nutrition Ventures arm at the Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo (FNCE) this week… 

And this just in, also from FoodNavigator-USA:   PepsiCo seeks to patent novel high-protein nutrition beverages in 4floz ‘hydration units’ as protein craze gathers pace 

Apr 4 2013

Stonyfield responds to yesterday’s post

My post yesterday about the increase in sugars in certain Stonyfield yogurts elicited this e-mail from Stonyfield’s Vice President for Communications and Social Media. I’m posting it here with her permission:

Hi Marion,

Alice Markowitz here…I read your blog post today–and wanted to give you an update on our yogurt and company.

Happy to say, that as Chairman of the Stonyfield Board, Gary [Hirshberg] is still wholeheartedly and irrepressibly involved with the company and our direction. Likewise, Stonyfield is actively engaged in the labeling issue, as we continually try to communicate the importance of knowing where your food comes from and how it’s produced.

I also wanted to clarify that we’ve shared the parent company Groupe Danone with Dannon since 2003, and we’ve always operated our company independently. That includes making our own decisions about the recipes we use for our yogurts.

In 2011, we replaced some of the sugar in our Smooth and Creamy style nonfat yogurts with organic stevia. Our fans didn’t like the switch, so we went back to using just organic sugar with our new Blends. So, while there’s more sugar in those yogurts now than when we used stevia, the amount is about the same as our pre-stevia recipe. In fact, the slight increase is due primarily to an increase in milk in the product, resulting in more protein, more milk sugar.   As with many of our products, Blends has a mix of naturally-occurring sugars from milk and fruit and some added sugars.

We are concerned about the amount of sugar in our yogurts. In fact, almost half of the sugar listed in the nutritional info is what’s found naturally in the milk and fruit – which is why you see different sugar amounts in different flavors. The sugar we do add is organic sugar used to create the flavors that our yogurt lovers prefer the most.

Ultimately though we offer the choice to the consumer, and offer 98 different organic products. If yogurt eaters prefer to restrict their sugar intake, we offer plain versions of our nonfat, lowfat, whole milk and Greek yogurt without any added sugar. Turns out we’re also the only company that offers a plain yogurt for babies (with naturally-occurring milk sugars only) so parents have a choice if they prefer no sugar.

Probably more info than you ever wanted but hope this clarifies things a bit.

All the best,

Alice

Apr 3 2013

Is Stonyfield yogurt upping its sugar?

Maybe it’s a coincidence but now that Gary Hirshberg has left Stonyfield to work on Just Label It!, its parent company, Dannon, is sweetening up its “Blends” yogurts.  

Or so writes a reader:

Yes it’s more sugar!  In the French Vanilla (6 oz cup), they added 10 g (from 17 – 27g)! 

In the Peach (also 6 oz cup) they added 6g (from 20 -26). 

It’s so bad that kids are fighting over it.  

We have noticed that they are eating less fruit because they want that sugar in the yogurts.

As I wrote of the competition between Dannon and Yoplait (owned by General Mills) in the yogurt chapter of What to Eat

The chief weapon in the yogurt battles is sugar.  Both brands are desserts.  Sugars constitute 55 percent of the 80 calories in Go-GURT, 67 percent of the 90 calories in Danimals Drinkable, and 68 of the 170 calories in Danimals XL.  Even in Stonyfield’s YoBaby organic yogurts…53% of the 120 calories come from added sugars.  Some of Stonyfield’s yogurts for older kids appear berry-flavored, but they have no fruit at all….

The book was published in 2006.  In this instance, I’m sorry that it’s holding up so well.

Apr 2 2013

Retailers and the GM salmon problem

A coalition of consumer, health, food safety and fishing groups behind the “Campaign for Genetically Engineered (GE)-Free Seafood” is recruiting grocery store chains to agree not to sell genetically engineered seafood even if the FDA allows it to be sold.  The campaign is aimed at the genetically modified AquaBounty salmon, which the FDA has had under consideration for ages, with no decision in sight.

The stores that have pledged not to sell GM salmon include Trader Joe’s (367 stores), Aldi (1,230 stores), Whole Foods (346 stores in U.S.), Marsh Supermarkets (93 stores in Indiana and Ohio), and PCC Natural Markets (9 stores in Washington State) and co-ops in Minnesota, New York, California, and Kansas.

This is a big deal because other GM seafood are in the research pipeline.  Large percentages of Americans say they oppose GM seafood and that the FDA should not allow it to be marketed.

And if the FDA does approve it, the agency is highly unlikely to require any special kind of labeling.

This reminds me of what happened to genetically modified tomato paste in the U.K.  Supermarket chains were selling the cans with labels clearly indicating that they were “produced from genetically modified tomatoes.”  The stores priced them favorably, and customers bought them — until Monsanto shipped unlabeled corn to Great Britain and caused a furor.

Retailers decided that they had plenty of tomato paste, didn’t need upset customers, and refused to continue selling the GM varieties.

Retailers call the shots in this situation.

I think much of the public distress over GM foods is because of lack of transparency.  Without labels, customers cannot exercise freedom of choice.

Just label it!

 

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