Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Aug 13 2012

Think pizza should list calories? Sign on.

Remember menu labeling?

The Affordable Care Act (now ruled constitutional) instituted national menu labeling—the posting of calories on the menu boards of fast food chains.

The FDA still has not issued final rules, leaving vast amounts of time for lobbying and pushback.

Now John Carter (Rep-TX) has introduced HR 6174, the anything but “Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act of 2012.”

This bill was introduced under lobbying pressure from the pizza and supermarket industries.

Its purpose is to exempt supermarkets and convenience stores from having to post calorie information on prepared foods.  This would allow pizza chains to list calories per serving, thereby defeating the entire purpose of the menu labeling law.

The pizza industry learned that it could get Congress to do what it wanted.  Even a dab of tomato paste on pizza now counts as a vegetable serving in school meals.

If you thing calorie labeling on pizza might be a good idea, now is the time to write your congressional representatives.  Here’s how.

Aug 10 2012

Here we go again: what does “natural” mean?

I did an interview with Alexandra Zissu who asked me to define “natural” as applied to foods.  Here’s what I told her:

I think of “natural”–that most overused and deliberately misleading term–to mean foods as nature intended: no hormones, no antibiotics, no additives, no preservatives, no artificial colors or flavors, and only minimally processed (washing and cutting is OK, treating with nitrates or enzymes is not).

I’ve written about this issue in previous posts.  The FDA still hasn’t done anything to define the term for food labels.  I think it should.

What’s your definition?

Added question: Are GMO foods “natural?”  California courts say no.

Update August 11: Several people have written in to say the California ruling is as yet unsettled.  The website for what’s happening with Prop. 37 is here.  One reader writes:

The judge ordered that this text in the ballot materials:

In addition, the measure prohibits the use of terms such as “natural,” “naturally made,” “naturally grown,” and “all natural” in the labeling and advertising of GE foods. Given the way the measure is written, there is a possibility that these restrictions would be interpreted by the courts to apply to all processed foods regardless of whether they are genetically engineered.

Be changed so”all processed foods” reads “some processed foods.”

How this will be interpreted remains to be seen.

 

 

Aug 8 2012

Question for today: how should we support mid-size dairy farms?

My “thought for a summer weekend” post elicited interesting comments.

Let’s start with the one from FarmerJane, a mid-size dairy farmer who is a frequent contributor.

She asks: How can farmers and consumers find ways to dialog and share information?

She says (and I’m doing some heavy editing here, with her permission):

Thoughts about ag are dominated by a few powerful big media writers.  When we farmers try to speak, we find ourselves excoriated….Rural America does not seem to have any sort of spokesperson who has access to national media.  The issues are framed by a handful of urban food-elite writing whose thoughts then trickle down to how rural farmers are perceived…I think the inclusion of farmers in food dialog would bring a multidisciplinary approach to the issue of food:  environment, ag economics, animal welfare, food systems to name a few. But what are the ways this could happen?

I feel that we, the average farmer of the middle are being marginalized.

I asked: What would you like to see done for farmers like you, neither CAFO, nor small.  She had several suggestions, which I summarize here mostly in my words (hers are in quotes):

Fix milk marketing orders and “end-product” pricing.  Right now, prices are paid to farmers according to the use of the milk.  From high prices to low: Class I (fluid milk), Class II (yogurt), Class III (cheese), Class IV(butter/powder).  If the push is to turn milk into yogurt, cheese, or butter, dairy farmers don’t get paid as much.

Encourage local production.  “The eastern half of the country is actually in “milk deficit” of about 3.2 billion pounds per month, while the western half is pushing the milk out like there is no tomorrow…Farmers in the western part of the country are calling for supply management to rein in some of this rapid growth, while we here in the east are generally opposed to it.”

Make pricing more transparent.  “Farmers don’t know instantly what dairy prices are (hopefully this will change as farmers have pushed hard on this issue to come out of the Stone Age).”

Cap supports on CAFOs.  “Some of the major NY CAFO’s got millions in terms of ‘corn subsidies’ in addition to dairy payments.”

Support mid-size dairy herds: The trigger point at which a farm becomes a CAFO in NY is only 200 cows.  Extension estimates that meeting CAFO requirements at this limit keeps farmers at 199 cows because the compliance cost is something like $162,000.

Reregionalize dairy processing: “meaning more processors in NY who can compete for the farmers’ milk….The more competition for milk the better, especially from a number of smaller processors that farmers and smaller coops can negotiate with.”

Deal with anti-competitive forces. Large dairies are engaged in market collusion and this hurts smaller dairies.  “ Massive retail level buyer consolidation is another issue… Walmart has the power to drive down farmer prices in all dairy categories… The more we can do to break the Walmart grip, the better off we all will be.”

Look at the trends.  “ I know that NY has gone from 30,000,000 acres of farmland when we were kids, to just 7,000,000 today.  There are some 3,000,000 acres of abandoned grazing farmlands Upstate, with empty barns as far as one can see in some areas.  And, I see an increasing number of huge CAFO’s with all-immigrant work forces who send every penny home, cows that never go outdoors, and emptied out Main Streets up here….I wonder how it could possibly make sense not to encourage farms of all kinds, especially making use of the grasslands that are close to NYC.”

Her overall question: “How does one move these questions into the public realm for intelligent discussion?

Senator Gillibrand has made it her business to understand dairy policies as they affect New York State.  For anyone who has ever tried to understand milk marketing orders, that’s an achievement (see below).

Responses?  Any good ideas for FarmerJane?

Aug 7 2012

Food Politics at the Department of State: Culinary Diplomacy

I’ve been sent a copy of the Department of State’s Diplomatic Culinary Partnership Initiative. called “Setting the Table for Diplomacy.”

Its mission statement:

The Diplomatic Culinary Partnerships initiative builds on Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s vision of “smart power” diplomacy, which embraces the use of a full range of diplomatic tools, by utilizing food, hospitality and the dining experience as ways to enhance how formal diplomacy is conducted, cultivating cultural understanding and strengthening bilateral relationships through the shared experience of food.

I particularly like the idea of “using food as a foundation for public diplomacy programs to learn about different cultures and discuss important related issues such as nutrition, sustainability and food security.”

Yes!

Everybody eats.  This is my kind of diplomacy.

 

Aug 5 2012

Low carb or low fat: Do calories count?

Here’s my once a month on the first Sunday Food Matters column for the San Francisco Chronicle, out today:

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: I’m confused about calories. If I cut calories to lose weight, does it matter what foods I eat? Or are all calories the same?

A: As the co-author of “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics,” I hear this question all the time.

The short answer: Calories matter for weight. The choice of foods that provide the calories matters a lot for health and may make it easier for you to diet successfully.

To lose weight, reducing calorie intake below expenditure works every time.

To prove this point, a professor at Kansas State University lost 27 pounds in 10 weeks on the Twinkies diet – one Twinkies every three hours with occasional snacks of chips, sugary cereals and cookies. Even so, he cut his usual calorie intake by 800 a day. Anyone would lose weight doing that.

Only four dietary components provide calories: fat (9 per gram), carbohydrate and protein (4 per gram each) – and alcohol (7 per gram).

Does the particular mix of these components make any difference to weight loss? Yes, say proponents of diets low in carbohydrate, especially rapidly absorbable sugars and refined starches.

Low-carbohydrate diets are necessarily high in fat, and somewhat higher in protein. Do people lose weight on them because of the effects of carbohydrates on insulin levels or because low-carbohydrate diets help reduce calories?

This question does not have an easy answer, but not for lack of trying. Weight-loss studies are hard to do. Estimating calorie intake is notoriously inaccurate, and measuring calories is difficult and expensive.

The first measurement study I know of took place in 1964. Investigators from the Oakland Institute for Medical Research studied weight loss in five obese patients in a hospital metabolic ward. They calculated the number of calories needed to induce rapid weight loss in each patient, and fed each of them a liquid formula diet containing that number every day. Every few weeks, they changed the formula to vary the proportions of protein (ranging from 14 percent to 36 percent of calories), fat (12 percent to 83 percent), and carbohydrate (3 percent to 64 percent).

Regardless of the proportions, all patients lost weight at a constant rate. The investigators titled their study “Calories Do Count.”

This study was conducted under rigidly controlled conditions of hospitalization and involved actual measurements – not estimations – of calorie intake and body weight.

But what about weight-loss studies involving people who are not incarcerated? Since the early 2000s, numerous clinical trials have shown low-carbohydrate diets to produce greater weight loss than low-fat diets. Some also have observed improvements in blood pressure, blood glucose levels and blood lipids.

But it is so inaccurate to estimate calorie intake in such studies that most didn’t bother to try. This means they can’t say whether the weight loss was due to composition of the diet or to calorie reduction.

It’s possible that low-carbohydrate, high-fat diets make people less hungry, but the evidence for this is mixed. Most studies of extreme diets of any type report high dropout rates or failure to stick to the diet for more than six months or so. And even though initial weight loss is rapid on low-carbohydrate diets because of water loss, these diets are low in fiber and some vitamins.

One problem with losing weight is that it takes fewer calories to maintain smaller bodies. Dieting also reduces energy expenditure.

One recent study of that problem involved taking detailed measurements for several years, and illustrates the difficulties of obtaining definitive answers to questions about diet composition and energy balance.

The researchers wanted to know whether diet composition affected energy expenditure in very obese people who had just dieted off up to 15 percent of their weight. They found that a low-carbohydrate diet did not slow down energy expenditure nearly as much as a low-fat diet, meaning that low-carbohydrate diets might make it easier for people to maintain weight loss.

On this basis, the investigators said, “The results of our study challenge the notion that a calorie is a calorie from a metabolic perspective.”

Perhaps, but study subjects were fed prepared calorie-controlled diets for only four weeks, and lost and maintained weight under highly controlled conditions. Does diet composition matter for weight maintenance in the real world? Longer-term studies by other investigators show that diet composition makes little difference in the ability to maintain weight loss.

Most reviews of the subject conclude that any diet will lead to weight loss if it cuts calories sufficiently.

Obviously, some diets are better for health than others.

Face it. The greatest challenge in dieting is to figure out how to eat less – and to eat healthfully on a regular basis – in the midst of today’s “eat more” food environment. And that’s a much more important research problem than whether low-carbohydrate or low-fat diets work better for weight loss.

Marion Nestle is an author and a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University. She blogs at foodpolitics.com. E-mail: food@sfchronicle.com

 

 

Aug 3 2012

A thought for a summer weekend: topics for discussion?

Jason Huffman, the editor of Food Chemical News, sent in a comment a few weeks ago that I thought worth sharing.

Just an observation. Your readers’ comments on these articles about limits on soda sizes are as entertaining as your columns, Marion. Obviously, some very intelligent people read your articles, and with a good balance of viewpoints. I think you might start writing some of your columns as a single line and simply say “discuss.” :-)

I think so too.

So how about it?  What topics would you like to see me put up as a single line and open for discussion?

Aug 1 2012

Growing the food movement: lists of advocacy groups

Whenever I give a talk, someone in the audience invariably asks how to get involved in food advocacy.  My suggestion is usually to go online and look for local groups working on issues of interest or, if lucky enough to have a nearby Edible magazine, read the ads.

These are still useful starting points and I list them and others in the FAQ section on this site (questions 3 and 4).

More recently, I’ve been asked a more complicated question: Why don’t all those organizations get together?  If they did, they would form a major political force. 

Vivian Wang, an undergraduate at NYU, asked that very question after one of my talks.  She volunteered to start doing some preliminary work by attempting to identify local and national food advocacy groups.

It didn’t take her long to discover the enormity of that task. 

Nevertheless, she created spreadsheet of the groups she was able to find.  She organized her findings by the tabs at the bottom, which she named:

  • Long Lists: These are groups with websites that provide information about resources including many other advocacy groups.
  • NYC-based: Groups in New York City.  These are also given on different spreadsheets in the other categories
  • Advocacy
  • Agriculture
  • Education
  • Hunger
  • Local Food
  • Organic Food
  • Urban Farming
  • NYU-based: food and nutrition clubs at New York University

Readers: please take a look at these lists.  Feel free to use them.

How can such lists best be used to help create coalitions willing to work toward common goals? 

Suggestions are most welcome.   

Jul 31 2012

Obesity: global public health challenge or investment opportunity?

Worried about the potential personal and economic costs of obesity?  Never mind.  It’s time to view obesity as a business opportunity.

As the press release for a new research report from Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Globesity—The Global Fight Against Obesity, points out:

Increasing efforts to tackle obesity over the coming decades will form an important new investment theme for fund managers…Global obesity is a mega-investment theme for the next 25 years and beyond…The report…identifies that efforts to reduce obesity is a “megatrend” with a shelf-life of 25 to 50 years…BofA Merrill Lynch analysts across several sectors have collaborated to identify the sectors and companies developing long-term solutions.

Given the worldwide increase in obesity, its high prospective costs, and the ever-present threat of government regulation, the report identifies more than 50 global stocks that provide investment opportunities for fighting “globesity.”  These fall into four categories:

  • Pharmaceuticals and Health Care: companies taking advantage of the FDA’s increased support for obesity drug development; tackling related medical conditions and needs including diabetes, kidney failure, hip and knee implants; making equipment such as patient lifts, bigger beds and wider ambulance doors.
  • Food: companies accessing the $663 billion “health and wellness” market and reformulating portfolios to respond to increasing pressure such as “fat taxes” to reduce sugar and fat levels.
  • Commercial Weight Loss, Diet Management and Nutrition: companies pursuing dieting, nutrition and behavioral change—a $4 billion market in the U.S. and growing globally.
  • Sports Apparel and Equipment: “This is the longer-term play, but we believe that promoting physical activity will become a key priority for more government health policies.”

Well, that’s one way to look at it.  Public health, anyone?  

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