Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Oct 9 2012

Big Soda to put calorie labels on vending machines in city offices in Chicago and San Antonio

Yesterday, Beverage Digest announced that the American Beverage Association (ABA) and its Big Soda members—PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and Dr Pepper/Snapple—were starting a “new vending machine program to help combat obesity.”

The new “Calories Count Vending Program” starts in 2013 in city buildings in Chicago and San Antonio.

This, Beverage Digest says, “is what can happen when the industry and mayors work together, collaboratively.”   It quotes an executive from Dr Pepper Snapple: “this program is yet another example of how the beverage industry is providing meaningful solutions to help reduce obesity.”

Really?  If these companies really wanted to help reduce obesity, they might start by eliminating sugary drinks.  But never mind.  This is about politics, not health.

For one thing, calorie labels are going to have to go on most vending machines anyway, as soon as the FDA gets around to writing the regulations for them.

For another, this move heads off any attempt to introduce (horrors!) taxes on sodas or caps on bottle size in those two cities.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is quite clear about that.  He says his approach to the health issue “is better because it emphasizes personal responsibility.”

He prefers to have Chicago city workers compete with those from San Antonio for a $5 million grant from the ABA.  The ABA has also agreed to pay $1,000 to workers who meet health goals to be determined.

Although this might look like a bribe, Emanuel denies that the program is a payoff:

I believe firmly in personal responsibility,” the mayor said at a City Hall news conference with the pop company executives. “I believe in competition, and I believe in cash rewards for people that actually make progress in managing their health care.”

According to the New York Times, Mayor Emanuel actively sought the ABA grant.

If only personal responsibility worked, alas.  So much evidence now shows that it’s not enough to change behavior.  It is also necessary to create a food environment more favorable to making healthful choices.

That’s the public health approach taken by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg .  His approach is to make the food environment more conducive to healthful choices without anyone having to consciously think about them.  This approach is more likely to reduce soda consumption, which is why the ABA wants to head off taxes and caps.

Oh well.  Education is always a good thing, and here’s what the ABA says the vending machines will look like.

Oct 7 2012

School lunch rules caught up in politics

Here’s my monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column for the San Francisco Chronicle.  For links to appropriate resources and what to do to defend the new standards, scroll down to Friday’s post.

Nutrition and public policy expert Marion Nestle answers readers’ questions in this column written exclusively for The Chronicle. E-mail your questions to food@sfchronicle.com, with “Marion Nestle” in the subject line.

Q: Can you please explain to me why the USDA is restricting the number of calories in school lunches. It’s bad enough that school food is so awful that the kids won’t eat it. Now are they supposed to go hungry as well?

A: I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at a question like this or at the uproar over the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new nutrition standards. As Comedy Central‘s Jon Stewart pointed out in his not-to-be-missed commentary on Sept. 27, if kids aren’t eating the food because they hate it, the calorie limits hardly matter. And if kids are hungry, the remedy is simple: Eat the food.

The new lunch standards hardly call for starvation rations. Kindergarteners through fifth-graders get up to 650 calories. The maximum is 700 for kids in grades six through eight, and 850 for high schoolers. All kids can have extra servings of vegetables. This ought to be plenty to get most of today’s kids – sedentary, underactive and prone to obesity as they are – through any school day.

Let’s face it. This uproar has nothing to do with school food. It has everything to do with election-year politics.

Some Republicans view school meals as convenient generator of emotional opposition to the incumbent president.

You don’t believe me? Take a look at the “No Hungry Kids Act” introduced by Reps. Steve King, R-Iowa, and Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., both members of the House Agriculture Committee.

Their act would repeal the USDA’s hard-won nutrition standards and prohibit upper limits on calories. As King explains, this is to undo “the misguided nanny state, as advanced by Michelle Obama’s Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act.”

You can’t make this stuff up.

Let me briefly review where these standards came from. In 2004, Congress required school districts to develop wellness policies, but left the details up to the districts. In part to resolve the resulting inconsistencies, Congress asked the USDA to develop new nutrition standards. In turn, the USDA asked the Institute of Medicine to study the situation and make recommendations.

The institute’s 2009 report called for aligning school meals with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans by increasing fruits, vegetables and whole grains, but reducing saturated fat, sodium and calories. It suggested encouraging students to try new vegetables by establishing weekly requirements for various kinds, but to limit starchy vegetables like potatoes to one cup a week.

In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act which required the USDA to set nutrition standards for all food sold and served in schools, not only at breakfast and lunch, but also at any time during the school day. The USDA used the institute’s report as a basis for its proposals.

These, you may recall, got the USDA in trouble with lobbyists for businesses that supply French fries and pizza to schools. The Senate intervened and amended the agriculture spending bill to say that none of its funds could be used to “set any maximum limits on the serving of vegetables in school meal programs” or “require crediting of tomato paste and puree based on volume.” The results include no weekly limits on French fries; a dab of tomato paste on pizza now counts as a vegetable serving.

With these allowances in place, the USDA released the new standards in January. Most observers viewed them as an important accomplishment of the first lady’s Let’s Move campaign to end childhood obesity within a generation.

What about student outrage that the new meals leave them hungry? As a strong supporter of student activism, I applaud students getting involved in protests. Their actions have already persuaded Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to tell kids to eat healthy snacks if they are hungry.

Perhaps student activism around calories will be a first step toward advocacy for more substantive goals for their education and wellness: more and better paid teachers, better educational materials, more sensible testing, better quality food in schools, and instruction in how to grow, harvest and cook food.

But where, I wonder, are the adults in all of this? Childhood obesity is not trivial in its consequences for many kids, and school food ought to be a model for how healthy, delicious food is normal fare.

Schools in which adults – principals, teachers, school food personnel and parents – care about what kids eat and act accordingly are setting examples that what kids eat matters just as much as what kids learn.

It’s shameful that elected officials would attempt to undermine the health of America’s children for partisan political purposes.

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

Oct 5 2012

Help protect the new school food standards, please

It seems crazy to think that USDA’s school nutrition standards–at least five years and two Institute of Medicine studies in the making—are at risk, but so they are.

My monthly San Francisco Chronicle Food Matters column is on this topic.  I will post it this coming Sunday.

In the meantime, Margo Wootan of Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) writes:

As you may have heard, there has been some push back about the new calorie limits in school lunches. Rep. Steve King (R-IA) recently introduced the No Hungry Kids Act (HR 6418), which would prohibit USDA from implementing calorie limits in school lunches. There also have been a few campaigns among high school students who are displeased with the 850-calorie limit.

While we do not expect the No Hungry Kids Act to gain much traction, we also don’t want this negative attention to overshadow the wonderful work going on in so many schools across the country. We need your help to counter these efforts. Below are a few ideas for how you can help:

These resources and many others are available at www.schoolfoods.org/back2school. You can also find additional talking points and resources at http://www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/Healthierschoolday/. For more information or if you have any questions, contact hjones@cspinet.org.

CSPI’s efforts deserve support.  Anything you can do to help, please do!

Addition: Obama Foodorama has a riveting account of how the Drudge Report drove media interest in the kids’ “We Are Hungry” video.

Update, November 2: House Republicans call for GAO investigation of USDA’s nutrition standards.

Oct 4 2012

FTC issues advice on “eco” claims

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which is responsible for regulating advertising, has just revised its “Green Guide” to eco-labeling.

The FTC warns that

  • Explanations of specific attributes, even when true and substantiated, will not adequately qualify general environmental marketing claims if an advertisement’s context implies other deceptive claims.
  • Marketers [are] not to imply that any specific benefit is significant if it is, in fact, negligible.
  • If a qualified general claim conveys that a product is more environmentally beneficial overall because of the particular touted benefit, marketers should analyze trade-offs resulting from the benefit to substantiate this claim.

The FTC did this, according to the New York Times, to reduce the confusion caused by the proliferation of eco-labels.

In surveying consumers, the F.T.C. found that products that were promoted as “environmentally friendly” were perceived by consumers to have “specific and far-reaching” benefits, which, the government says, they often did not have.

“Very few products, if any, have all the attributes consumers seem to perceive from such claims, making these claims nearly impossible to substantiate,” the commission said.

No wonder the public is confused.  The Consumer Reports Greener Choices index of eco-labels goes on for pages, and the international EcoLabel index currently lists 432 icons and programs.

But the FTC guide says nothing about claims that a product is natural, organic, or sustainable.

“Natural” still has no regulatory definition.  Of Natural, the FDA says:

From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.

“Organic” is defined by the USDA through its National Organic Program.

“Sustainable” has no regulatory definition.

Will the FTC’s guide help alleviate confusion?  Perhaps, if companies follow it.

 

 

 

 

 

Oct 2 2012

My quick visit to a salmon farm in Norway: a brief report

I’m just back from a trip sponsored by the Norwegian Seafood Council, whose job it is to promote sales of farmed fish from Norway.  The Council takes great pride in the quality of Norwegian fish farming.

I wrote about the dilemmas of fish farming in What to Eat, but I had never been to one.  I went because I wanted to see a fish farm for myself, and this one was about 400 miles north of the Arctic Circle, near Tromsø.

The principal argument for fish farming is that wild fish are being fished out and will soon disappear.  As the argument goes, if we want fish, farming is how we will have to get them (there is also a pro-farming argument about omega-3 fatty acids, but let’s not go there right now).

Before I left on this trip, I was sent a letter from an anti-farming advocate detailing all of the arguments against fish farming.  This is worth a read (or see the Fish Farming Dilemma chapter in What to Eat).

We were taken to see a farm with 12 nets:

FIsh farm near Skjervoy, Norway

We went out to one of the nets to have a look.

This farm is managed from a control room on a boat, and monitored by computers that measure water conditions, currents, feed, and other factors.

A camera is placed in the nets about half way down looking up at the fish.  This monitors the amount of feed.  If the camera sees feed, it’s time to stop.

We were taken to the plant where the fish are harvested.

This particular plant produces salmon for the Japanese sushi and sashimi markets.  It was pristine.  The fish are harvested under conditions that ought to satisfy any humane society.

Overall, we saw none of the disease and pollution problems that I had expected to see.  Norway tightly regulates fish farming in quantity and quality.  The farms looked well managed, and the fish looked healthy.  The farm tests extensively for contaminating heavy metals and pathogens, reports no lice, and vaccinates young fish against disease.

The fresh salmon looked pink (because they are fed dye), streaked with fat (they are well fed), and had a nice light taste, but one quite different from that of wild Alaskan salmon.

The one set of questions left unanswered had to do with what the salmon are fed (we asked for and have been promised this information).

I came home with a handful of salmon feed pellets.  They look like dog food but feel greasy and smell fishy.

Therein lies the dilemma.  To get salmon or any other farmed fish to taste like fish, it is necessary to supplement their corn and soybean rations with fish meal and fish oil obtained from wild fish stocks, thereby further depleting ocean fish.

If we must have fish farming, it looked to me as though Norway was doing it well.  Elsewhere?  I have no idea.

Should we have fish farming?  I see it as a dilemma.

As always, I await your thoughts.

Addition, October 5: Elyssa Altman, writer of the blog, PoorMansFeast.com, was also on this trip.  Her report of it is more detailed than mine and addresses many of the questions asked in the comments.

 

 

Oct 1 2012

Military officers say school junk food and sodas make kids too fat to fight

The politics of obesity in the United States has no lack of irony.

On the one hand, representatives Steve King (R-Iowa) and Tim Huelskamp (R-Kansas) have introduced legislation—the No Hungry Kids Act—to repeal USDA nutrition standards for school meals.

Why would they do this?   Because they are concerned that students, poor things, won’t get enough to eat.

On the other hand, Mission Readiness, a group of retired military officers, has released Still too Fat to Fight, a report arguing that junk foods and sodas in schools are the reasons why so many young American men cannot qualify for military service.

The report says:

  • About 1 in 4 young American adults is now too overweight to join the military.
  • Being overweight or obese is the number one medical reason why young adults cannot enlist.
  • The U.S. Department of Defense alone spends an estimated $1 billion per year for medical care associated with weight-related health problems.

 Why is this happening?

Students in the United States consume almost 400 billion  calories from junk food sold at schools each year. If the calories were converted to candy bars this would equal nearly 2 billion bars and weigh more than the aircraft carrier Midway.

The military, says Mission Readiness, is doing what it can but “it cannot win this fight alone.  The civilian sector needs to do its part.”

Mission Readiness: start talking to Congress!

Food politics does make strange bedfellows.

Sep 27 2012

FoodPolitics.com is busy this week, “gone fishing”

I am currently 400 miles north of the Arctic Circle observing salmon farming in Norway.  Foodpolitics.com will be back online in a few days.  Stay tuned!

Sep 25 2012

HFCS vs. Sugar, and vice versa: eat less of both!

I’ve been trying to keep track of the legal dispute between the Corn Refiners (representing manufacturers of high fructose corn syrup—HFCS) and the Sugar Association, which represents growers of sugar beets and cane (sucrose).

Recall: HFCS is glucose and fructose separated, whereas sucrose is glucose and fructose stuck together.  Because they are biochemically pretty much the same (enzymes that split sucrose act quickly), they have the same effects in the body.

So the dispute is about market share, not science.

First, the Corn Refiners tried to change the name of HFCS to “corn sugar.”  The FDA turned this down (as well it should).

Then, the Sugar makers sued the Corn Refiners, claiming that the Corn Refiners’ public education marketing campaign was false and misleading because it promoted HFCS as “natural” (It’s not, in my opinion) and nutritionally and metabolically equivalent to other forms of sugar (which it is).

Then, the Corn Refiners countersued on the basis that Sugar lobbying groups are tricking the public into believing that sucrose is healthier than HFCS (it’s not) and trying to create a “health halo” for sucrose (absurd).

As Food Navigator puts it, the two associations are “trading insults.”

While all this is going on, a group called Citizens for Health has filed a petition with FDA to put the concentration of fructose in HFCS on package labels.  HFCS is usually 42% or 55% fructose (it is 50% in sucrose).  These forms of HFCS are considered by FDA to be generally recognized as safe (GRAS).

The petition argues that some products have more fructose—65% or 90%—and should say so.

All sugars should be consumed in small quantities, but fructose especially so.

The Corn Refiners say that Citizens for Health, which sponsors a website called foodidentitytheft.com, is funded by the Sugar Association.

Also in the meantime, a new study says HFCS has nothing whatsoever to do with obesityGuess who sponsored the study.

Advice for today: eat less sugar(s), meaning sucrose, glucose, fructose, table sugar, HFCS, corn sugar, and all the other euphemisms food companies use to deflect attention from how much their products contain.

Page 59 of 279« First...5758596061...Last »