Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Oct 27 2012

Weekend nutrifluff: Eat chocolate, win a Nobel Prize

Nutrifluff is my word for sensational research findings based on one, usually highly preliminary, study.

The best nutrifluff I’ve seen in ages is this article in the august New England Journal of Medicine: “Chocolate Consumption, Cognitive Function, and Nobel Laureates.”

The author counted the number of Nobel laureates per capita from Wikipedia and and computed the number for every 10 million people. 

He obtained data on per capita yearly chocolate consumption in 22 countries from several sources and ran the correlation.

Bingo!  Chocolate consumption correlates with the number of Nobel prize winners.

Correlation, alas, is not causation, but who cares?

Everybody loves chocolate.  Enjoy! (In moderation, of course).

Oct 25 2012

An honorary degree from Transylvania University: I’m honored!

Self-promotion alert:

I gave a talk on food politics at Transylvania University  on Tuesday and was given an Doctor of Science degree, honoris causa.

I’ve never gotten an honorary degree before.  In the academic world these are a big deal, so this feels really special.

Want to see what one looks like?  As you might imagine, I like the inscription.

Transylvania University is a small (1,000 students) liberal arts college in Lexington, Kentucky and there’s no point in making vampire jokes.  They’ve already heard them all.

Oct 24 2012

What to do about front-of-package food labels?

The British Food Standards Agency has just announced a new front-of-package voluntary labeling system to go onto food packages next year, maybe.

The exact design is still uncertain, but it might look like this:

An example of the what the new hybrid food labels might look like. Shows traffic light sytem, %GDA system and high, medium, low system.

Compare this to the scheme Mark Bittman suggested in the Sunday Times last week.

Bittman’s idea does way more.  He suggests one design to

  • Rate foods on the basis of nutrition, “foodness” (an index of the extent of processing), and welfare (of everyone and everything)
  • Give them an overall score and a traffic light ranking (green, yellow, red)
  • Note whether they contain GMOs or not

Here’s how it would look:

 

Recall that the FDA recruited the Institute of Medicine to recommend a new labeling scheme.  It did just that a year ago, in a report advising the FDA to restrict front-of-package labels to information about calories, saturated and trans fat, sugar, and salt.

Since then, the FDA has said not a word about its food labeling initiative (More research needed? Election-year politics?)

In the meantime, Whole Foods has implemented its own new traffic light labeling scheme, but without those pesky red symbols well established to discourage sales.  If the food doesn’t rate a green or yellow symbol, it won’t have anything on it.

Everybody is doing food rating systems.  The owner of Rouge Tomate has developed SPE certification for restaurants, a system based on “Sourcing, Preparing, and Enhancing philosophy and culinary techniques.”

All of the people doing rating and certification systems set up their own criteria, and all differ.

Are these systems helpful?  Only if you trust that they are meaningful.  I don’t know how to find that out without doing a lot of research.

Readers: Do you like these systems?  Use them? Find them helpful?  I don’t, but am willing to be persuaded otherwise.

Oct 23 2012

Multivitamins prevent cancer (maybe), sell supplements (definitely)

According to a new study in JAMA, multivitamins might reduce the risk of some cancers, although not by much.

But even a tiny benefit, restricted to skin cancers in healthy male doctors—but not prostate cancers, alas—is good news for the supplement industry.  Supplement sellers are eager to make sure you don’t miss this research.

The study results came out on October 18.  Pfizer, the maker of the Centrum Silver pills used in the study, placed this ad in the New York Times on October 19:

But that’s not all.  CVS pharmacy sent me this personal e-mail message:

Pfizer, of course, could not be happier.

Why do I think this is about marketing, not public health?

Oct 22 2012

Rest in peace George McGovern

Former Senator (D-SD) George McGovern died yesterday at age 90.

His accomplishments as a Senator and statesmen were legion, many of them strongly connected to food politics.

As I mentioned in 2009 when I gave the state department’s annual George McGovern lecture in Rome, he chaired the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs from 1968-1977.   This committee greatly expanded food assistance programs and then developed the first federal guidelines for chronic disease prevention: Dietary Goals for the U.S.

In Food Politics, I described the work of this strongly bipartisan committee (Bob Dole was its lead Republican member) and how it did so much to improve the lives of women and children living in poverty in the United States, and of poor people throughout the world.

The committee also broke new ground in shifting nutrition education from a focus on eating more of a variety of foods to eating less of foods that increased risks for chronic disease.

What’s shown here is the February 1977 version of this landmark report.  As the result of outraged protests by food producers affected by the “eat less” messages, the committee was forced to tone down its recommendations.  The committee issued a revised report in December that year.

That was the committee’s final act.  Congress disbanded it and McGovern lost his bid for reelection.

McGovern leaves an extraordinary legacy, one unimaginable in this era of partisan politics.

He was far ahead of his time, as this 1977 photo shows.  It is a fitting tribute.

Oct 19 2012

Calories as an instrument of government control?

My 2012 book with Mal Nesheim, Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics, includes a chapter on the use of calories in international relations.

I thought of this chapter while reading a story in yesterday’s New York Times.

Apparently, the Israeli military restricted the amount of food available to residents of Gaza during the blockade that lasted from from 2007 to mid-2010.

The Israeli military calculated the number of calories that the blockaded residents would need to avoid malnutrition.

The purpose of the blockade was to weaken support for Hamas, the militant group that won legislative elections in 2006 and took full control of Gaza in 2007 after a brief factional war…In the calculation, Israel applied an average daily requirement of 2,279 calories per person, in line with World Health Organization guidelines.

I’m not sure where the 2,279 figure comes from.  Calorie estimations established jointly by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization say that adult men aged 20-70 need 2400 to 3000 calories a day on average, depending on age, weight, and physical activity level.  Adult women need 1800 to 2400.

The FAO sets a calorie cut point for populations to define hunger.  It defines populations consuming 1,800 calories per capita per day, on average, as chronically undernourished and hungry.

On this basis, 2,279 will be adequate for some adults—those who are female, smaller, older, and less active.  It is unlikely to be adequate for younger, bigger, more active men.

The Israeli Defense Ministry released this document under a court order.  It would be interesting to see how it arrived at this figure.

For an interesting discussion of the use of calories as an instrument of state power, see Nick Cullather’s “The Hungry World: America’s Cold War Battle against Poverty in Asia.”

 

Oct 18 2012

The New England Journal takes on the food industry

Last week’s New England Journal of Medicine weighs in with several commentaries and research articles.  Some of these were published earlier in online versions:

And this week, it has another on using tax strategies to promote public health.

It looks to me as though the health establishment is finally catching on to what obesity is really about and giving serious thought to what to do about it.  This is important work.

Oct 17 2012

The latest dismal report on world hunger

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has just released the latest iteration of its annual report on the State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012.

It’s bottom line estimate: 870 million people in the world are hungry, 852 million of them in developing countries.

The good news is that this figure represents a decline of 132 million people from 1990-92 to 2010-12, or from 18.6 percent to 12.5 percent of the world’s population.  In developing countries, the decline is from 23.2 percent to 14.9 percent.

The not-so-good news: Since 2007-2008, global progress in reducing hunger has slowed and leveled off, and hunger in Africa has gotten worse.

Much of the press attention to the report yawned at the major message but instead focused on errors in the previous estimates, which were higher.

the projections were wrong. They were calculated using figures from non-U.N. sources that were fed into the U.N.’s number-crunching model, because FAO was expected to quickly come up with an estimate of how many people might go hungry from the dual crises of high food prices and the global downturn

The UN bases its hunger projections on figures on population, food supply, food losses, dietary energy requirements, food distribution, and other factors.

The report contains other bad news.  While 870 million people remain hungry, the world confronts a double burden of malnutrition: 1.4 billion people are dealing with the consequences of overweight and obesity.

Focusing on the need to address world hunger Sir Gordon Conway, Professor of International Development, Imperial College, London writes in the Huffington Post:

as I set out in my latest book One billion hungry: can we feed the world?, I believe there is reason for optimism. Yes we can feed the world, but only if we accept that agricultural development is the best route to achieving sustainable economic growth in developing countries, and achieve an agriculture that is highly productive, stable, resilient and equitable.

Sounds like a good plan to me.  Let’s get busy.

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