Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
May 5 2013

Reflections on the 10th anniversary of Food Politics

My monthly (first Sunday) column in the San Francisco Chronicle appeared today.

I used the May 1 publication of the tenth anniversary edition of Food Politics (Michael Pollan wrote the Foreword) to reflect on what ‘s happened since the book first appeared in 2002.

A decade later, the Chronicle’s headline writer put it this way: 

Plenty of positive change happening

Q: I see that “Food Politics” is out in a 10th anniversary edition with an introduction by Michael Pollan, no less. Has anything changed in the past decade?

 

A: I can hardly believe it’s been ten years (eleven, actually, but who’s counting) since the University of California Press published “Food Politics.” This has been a great excuse to look back and realize how much has changed. Optimist that I am, I see much change for the better.

My goal in writing “Food Politics” was to point out that food choices are political as well as personal. In 2002, reactions to this idea ranged from “you have to be kidding” to outrage: How dare anyone suggest that food choices could be anything other than matters of personal responsibility?

How times have changed. Today, the idea that food and beverage companies influence dietary choices is well recognized. So is the reason: the industry’s economic need to increase sales in a hugely competitive food marketplace.

Business pressures created today’s “eat more” food environment – one in which food is ubiquitous, convenient, inexpensive, and in which it has become socially acceptable to consume foods and drinks frequently, anywhere, and in very large amounts. Given this kind of marketing environment, personal responsibility doesn’t stand a chance.

If the “eat more” food environment is the problem, then the solution is to do something to make healthier food choices the easy choices.

And plenty of people are doing just that. In the last 10 years, we’ve seen the emergence of national movements to promote healthier eating, especially among children. These movements – plural, because they differ in goals and tactics – aim to create healthier systems of food production as well as consumption.

On the production side, their goals are to promote local, seasonal, sustainable, organic and more environmentally sensitive food production. On the consumption side, some of the goals are to improve school food, restrict food marketing to children, and to reduce soda consumption through taxes and limits on portion sizes.

These movements do plenty of good. I see positive signs of change everywhere.

Healthier foods are more widely available than they were when “Food Politics” first appeared. Vast numbers of people, old and young, are interested in food issues and want to get involved in them. The first lady is working to improve access to healthier foods for low-income adults and children.

Wherever I go, I see schools serving healthier meals, more farmers’ markets, organic foods more widely available, young people joining Food Corps, more young people going into farming, more concern about humane farm animal production, more backyard chickens and urban gardens, and more promotion of local, seasonal and sustainable food to everyone.

When my university department launched undergraduate and graduate programs in food studies in 1996, we were virtually alone. Universities viewed food as too common a subject to be taken seriously. Now, practically every college and university uses food to teach students how to think critically about – and engage in – the country’s most pressing economic, political, social, and health problems. Many link campus gardens to this teaching.

Food issues are high on the agendas of local, state, national and international governments. I can’t keep up with the number of books, movies and websites covering issues I wrote about in “Food Politics.”

These achievements can also be measured by the intensity of pushback by the food industry. Trade associations work overtime to deny responsibility for obesity, undermine the credibility of the science that links their products to health problems, attack critics, fight soda taxes, lobby behind the scenes, and spend fortunes to make sure that no city, state or federal agency does anything that might impede sales.

Food and beverage companies faced with flat sales in the United States have moved marketing efforts to emerging economies in Asia, Africa and Latin America, with predictable effects on the body weights and health of their populations.

Despite this formidable opposition, now is a thrilling time to be advocating for better food and nutrition, for the health of children, and for greater corporate accountability. As more people recognize how food companies influence government policies about agricultural support, food safety, dietary advice, school foods, marketing to children, and food labeling, they are inspired to become involved in food movement action.

I’m teaching a course on food advocacy at New York University this semester. I want students to take advantage of their democratic rights as citizens to work for healthier and more sustainable food systems. Whether they act alone or join with others, they will make a difference. So can you.

The development of the food movement is the biggest and most positive change in food politics in the last decade. May it flourish.

May 3 2013

Bittman’s VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00

Mark Bittman’s new book, Vegan Before 6:00 or, as he likes to call it, VB6, is now out.

I like this idea.  For starters Bittman is an omnivore, not a vegan.  As he points out, he’s

Someone who has built an entire career on my love of cooking and eating good food.  And VB6 is the way I eat now, and have for six years…VB6 is also realistic…it also maintains that you can love food that tastes good—and eat a lot of it—while you improve your health.

…But you don’t help to go VB6…you need only a commitment to refrain from animal products and hyperprocessed foods until dinner time.

Good idea.  It worked for him and should work for others.

If you are in New York and want him to sign a copy, Bittman is being interviewed tonight at 7;00 p.m. by Sam Sifton at the Barnes & Noble on 17th Street.

May 2 2013

World Nutrition celebrates ten years of Food Politics

The May issue of World Nutrition, the online journal of the World Public Health Nutrition Association, features commentary on–and excerpts from the tenth anniversary edition of Food Politics.

Contents: World Nutrition 2013, 4, 5, 271-295.

Geoffrey Cannon on “The heavy hitter,”  page 271

Michael Pollan on “The game changer,”  page 273

Excerpts from Marion Nestle’s Preface: “Standing up and speaking out,” page 275

Excerpts from Marion Nestle’s Afterword:

  • Our children are not protected, page 279
  • Let’s Move–Where?  page 280
  • Obesity, page 281
  • Marketing to children, page 282
  • School meals, page 287
  • Sugared soft drinks, page 290
  • Dawn is breaking, 293

World Nutrition says: Readers may make use of the material in this column if acknowledgement is given to the book’s publisher. Please cite as: Nestle M. Food is a political issue. World Nutrition May 2013, 4,5, 270-295. Obtainable at www.wphna.org. 

May 1 2013

Today: The Tenth Anniversary edition of Food Politics

Please welcome the Tenth Anniversary Edition of Food Politics.

It’s comes with an exceptionally gracious Foreword by Michael Pollan.  I wrote a new Preface and a lengthy Afterword to bring it all up to date.

Doing the Afterword gave me a chance to think about what’s happened in the food movement over the past ten (eleven, really, but who’s counting) years since Food Politics first appeared in 2002.

Indeed, a great deal has happened, and much of it good, thanks to everyone who is working to create a healthier and more sustainable food system.

Read and enjoy!

Apr 30 2013

Annals of marketing: Wrigley’s caffeinated gum comes to market

Wrigley, a subsidiary of Mars (M&Ms), announced its new caffeinated chewing gum yesterday in a full-page ad in USA Today.

In response, Michael Taylor,  the FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine, issued an official comment:

The only time that FDA explicitly approved the added use of caffeine in a food was for cola and that was in the 1950s. Today, the environment has changed. Children and adolescents may be exposed to caffeine beyond those foods in which caffeine is naturally found and beyond anything FDA envisioned when it made the determination regarding caffeine in cola.

For that reason, FDA is taking a fresh look at the potential impact that the totality of new and easy sources of caffeine may have on the health of children and adolescents, and if necessary, will take appropriate action.

This is what the fuss is about:

Alert™ Energy Caffeine Gum - Mint

As Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) points out, is this something we need?

While the FDA is busy investigating deaths linked (although not conclusively) to caffeinated energy drinks, CSPI has alerted the agency to the increasingly widespread addition of caffeine to foods.

The gum contains 40 milligrams of caffeine per piece, with 8 pieces per box.

Forty milligrams isn’t much but look what else is caffeinated these days: Frito Lay’s Cracker Jack’d snack, Kraft’s MiO Energy water enhancer, and jelly beans, waffles, maple syrup, popcorn, and  beef jerky.  These are in addition to the usual sources of caffeine: coffee, tea, and cola drinks.

Most people can manage small amounts of caffeine without sleep interruptions, but larger amounts are a worry.

Pediatricians discourage use of caffeine by children and adolescents who are highly sensitive to its effects: restlessness, irritability, insomnia, and sometimes worse.

CSPI points out that Wrigley’s used to position gum as a study aid and list caffeine consumption alongside snacking and studying late at night as “choices which can negatively affect [students’] scholastic performance, as well as their overall health.”

Now, the company is pushing caffeinated gum….

Anything to sell chewing gum, I guess.

Apr 29 2013

Happy 5th Birthday: Pew Commission

Five years ago today, The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production released its report: Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America.

I was a member of the commission, put together by Pew  Charitable Trusts in partnership with the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, and chaired by John Carlin, a former governor of Kansas.

The commission met for two years to investigate the effects of the current system of intensive animal production on public health, the environment, the communities housing confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and on the welfare of farm animals.

As a member, I had the opportunity to visit huge dairy farms, feedlots, pig farms, and facilities housing 1.2 million chickens.  This was, to say the least, quite an education.

The big issues? Overuse of antibiotics and the shocking environmental impact of vast amounts of animal waste.

The big surprise? Plenty of adequate laws exist to protect the environment and communities; they just aren’t being enforced.

A New York Times editorial noted that farm policies have turned “animal husbandry…into animal abuse,” and need rethinking and revision.

Indeed they did and do. 

As with all such reports, this one made too many recommendations but the most important ones had to do with the inappropriate use of antibiotics in farm animal production:

Restrict the use of antimicrobials in food animal production to reduce the risk of antimicrobial resistance to medically important antibiotics.

Another key recommendation:

Fully enforce current federal and state environmental exposure regulations and legislation, and increase monitoring  of the possible public health effects of IFAP [industrial farm animal production] on people who live and work in or near these operations.

And my sentimental favorite:

Create a Food Safety Administration that combines the food inspection and safety responsibilities of the federal government, USDA, FDA, EPA, and other federal agencies into one agency to improve the safety of the US food supply.

What good do reports like this do?

The report established a strong research basis for the need for policies to clean up industrial farm animal production and better protect the health and welfare of everyone and everything involved: workers, communities, the environment, and the animals themselves.

This is a good time to take another look at the report and consider how its basic—and absolutely necessary—recommendations can be put in place, and the sooner the better.

Apr 26 2013

Parke Wilde’s Food Policy is now out

For those of us who teach food policy and politics, a new textbook is most welcome, especially when it comes from Parke Wilde.  Wilde is now a professor at Tufts and a food policy blogger, but I first met him years ago when he was a reporter for the Community Nutrition Institute’s Nutrition Week.

His first book has just been released.

Parke Wilde.  Food Policy in the United States: An Introduction.  Earthscan, 2013.

Large Image

I blurbed it:

Food Policy in the United States is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how our food system really works or to take action to change it.  Professor Wilde provides a tough but balanced and decidedly nonpartisan overview of the facts behind the full range of policy areas—among them  agricultural support, safety, dietary guidance–that affect food production and consumption.   If you want to join the food movement to improve the system, here’s how to find out where to start.

Enjoy!

Apr 25 2013

Coca-Cola: obesity is your fault, not ours

A reader sent me an e-mail received from Coca-Cola:

As you know, obesity is an issue that affects all of us. At Coca-Cola, we believe we can help solve it by working together. As you heard back in January, we are committed to doing our part – by offering more low- and no-calorie choices, more portion controlled packages, and useful calorie information in more places than ever before.

As part of our ongoing commitment to provide more information about calories, we want to share a new “Calorie Balance”  infographic that we created. This is posted on our Company website here.

Our infographic is a simple, easy tool that informs people about where Americans’ calories are coming from and what we can all do to maintain a healthy, active lifestyle.

It communicates government data and third-party published studies in a compelling way, showing that too many calories consumed as compared to those expended can lead to weight gain.

OK.  I can’t resist.  Here’ just one piece of Coke’s infographic:

Guess what #4 is.   And what food is responsible for more than one-third of calories from sugars in U.S. diets?

The infographic gives no guidance about food choices or amounts best for health, but it is quite specific about physical activity.  Do lots!

Overall, I read the infographic as saying “Hey, it’s not our sugar-water that’s making you put on weight.  It’s up to you to choose what you drink and work it off with physical activity.”

Getting active is always good advice, but doesn’t Coke’s phenomenally comprehensive and astronomically expensive  marketing offensive have anything to do with food choices?  Coke must think all that is irrelevant.

I think it’s quite relevant.  And so does the research.

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