Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Dec 17 2012

Fish: the Wild West of the supermarket

Last week, the New York Times reported—and not for the first time—that fish are routinely mislabeled.

When I was doing the research for What to Eat (my book about food issues in which I used supermarkets as an organizing device), it was clear that the fish aisle was the Wild West of food marketing.  Anything goes.

Unless you are an expert, it’s hard to tell one fish from another.  Many fish sellers, alas, are not expert either.

I divided the issues into dilemmas and quandaries.

The dilemmas:

  • Farmed v. wild
  • Methymercury v. omega-3’s
  • PCBs v. omega-3’s

The quandaries:

  • Country-of-origin labels
  • Artificial seafood (surimi)
  • Artificial color (salmon dyes)
  • “Organic”
  • “Not-GMO”

The chapter I called “The Fish-Labeling Quandaries” begins:

Just about any American supermarket has a fish counter offering fresh, frozen, whole, and filleted seafood, almost certain to be bewildering in variety, quality, and price.   The signs that accompany the fish do not always help much.   Like other fresh foods, fish do not come with Nutrition Facts labels, but sellers are supposed to tell you what species are, whether they were previously frozen.  Beginning in spring 2005, they also were supposed to tell you what country the fish came from and whether they were farmed….

A nearby…supermarket…offered a refrigerator case packed with plastic-wrapped seafood…Although the wrappings were clearly marked with the species, weight, and price, none said where or how the fish had been raised.  In answer to a question about whether a piece of salmon was farm-raised or wild, a clerk replied, “I really have no idea where this thing comes from.”

…How anyone can make a reasonable choice about which fish to buy on the basis of these seemingly arbitrary and confusing labels is a mystery to me.  Better labeling would certainly help, particularly of the country of origin, but you might also want to know what the fish signs really mean when they tell you that seafood is “artificial,” “color-added,” “organic,” or, for that matter, “not genetically modified.”   By this time, you can guess that each of these labeling terms takes you into matters that do not precisely qualify as fish dilemmas, but do present any number of what I think are fish quandaries—puzzles you have to deal with when deciding what fish to buy.

According to the Times, fish sellers either lie or are clueless about what they are selling.

What to do?

My advice: find a fish seller you can trust.

But, as I put it then and the Times article confirms, “it is not always easy or possible to know whether your fishmonger is trustworthy.”

Catch your own?

Dec 14 2012

Weekend reading: new books about eating

Amanda Cohen and Ryan Dulavey. Dirt Candy: Flavor-Forward Food from the Upstart New York City Vegetarian Restaurant, Clarkson Potter, 2012.

This is a charming, utterly delightful, graphic novel about Amanda Cohen’s poignant and often hilarious trials and tribulations in opening and promoting (Iron Chef!) her restaurant Dirt Candy.  It’s hard to do justice to it without including illustrations but here’s a brief glimpse of the text:

But sometimes the problem isn’t the customer.  Sometimes the problem is me.  I was a good girl until I met my match in that plate of Roasted Cauliflower Pappardelle.  They all tried to warn me…but I wasn’t listening!  I was blind that winter because…I fell in love with the wrong dish.

It comes with recipes, right from the restaurant.

Book signing alert: Amanda will be signing books at the Union Square (New York) farmers’ market tomorrow, Saturday, at noon.

Andrea Curtis. What’s for Lunch?  How Schoolchildren Eat Around the World, Red Deer Press, 2012.

This is a short (40-page) picture book—drawings and photographs—to inspire anyone interested in school food to try some different foods for a change.

What kids eat for school lunch can also tell us a lot about the culture and history that make them and their country unique.  After all, what better way to get to know people than to share a meal with them?…Kids are gardening, cooking, and speaking out about their right to eat healthy lunches.  Their work is transforming schools and helping the planet too.

Andrew Weil and Sam Fox, with Michael Stebner.  True Food: Seasonal, Sustainable, Simple, PureLittle, Brown, 2012.

I blurbed this one:

Andrew Weil is a rare member of a special class of diet gurus: he appreciates good food.  This shows in his philosophy of healthy eating—if meals are delicious, people will eat them.  It also shows in every recipe in this book.  Weil and his colleagues encourage adventurous eating and some of the ingredients may be unfamiliar, but even the simplest recipe—tomato and watermelon salad, for example—will make mouths water.

Allison Adato.  Smart Chefs Stay Slim: Lessons in Eating and Living from America’s Best Chefs, New American Library, 2012.

I blurbed this one too:

Overeating may be an occupational hazard, but some chefs manage to maintain their weight.  Smart Chefs reveals their successful strategies for eating what they love—in moderation, of course.  Their “lessons” should work for anyone who adores food.  Fun to read and packed with good advice.

Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic.  Suffering Soccotash: A Picky Eater’s Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate, Perigee, 2012.

I’m not much of a picky eater, so I’m fascinated by people who are.  Lucianovic tells an entertaining story of her life in pickiness.  My favorite chapter: “The picky eater eats out.” This contains a section called “the picky eater’s guide to surviving a dinner party,” with some rather socially unacceptable suggestions about where to hide unwanted food.  But she learned to cook and got over it (sort of).  If pickiness makes you miserable, this might be just the cure.

Eleanor Boyle. High Steaks: Why and How to Eat Less Meat, New Society Publishers, 2012.

What’s wrong with livestock?  What’s wrong with meat?  In moderation, nothing—if you accept that humans have the moral right to use animals for food.  Most people accept this—ad I do—as long as we treat animals respectfully and maintain some reverence for taking their lives….But is it possible, as the evidence increasingly suggests, that we’re making and eating too much for the good of the planet and our personal and community well-being?

This book addresses those questions and suggests strategies for ensuring that meat is produced in a sustainable, ecologically responsible manner and for developing policies that discourage factory farming and encouraging responsible and healthful meat-eating practices.

Dec 13 2012

Good news: cities report declines in childhood obesity

I don’t get many fan letters (as you can tell from reading the comments to posts).  When I do, they mean a lot.  Here’s an especially lovely one from a reader this week:

I cannot help but think of you and the work that you do having a great impact on the first signs of child/youth obesity declining.  Although the “researchers” indicate they are not sure of the reasons for the decline, I think many within the food / food politics community know that the work you do, the awareness you spread and the advertising you expose, greatly affects the way we feed our children.  As a real food advocate and parent, thank you for the work you do.

Thanks but I can take no credit (much as I would love to).

The writer is referring to a front-page, right-hand column story—the most important of the day—in the December 11 New York Times.   The article said that several cities are reporting drops in childhood obesity rates.

The drops may be small, just 3% to 5%, but any reversal in obesity trends is excellent news.

Last September, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation first reported such drops.

It noted that the declines were occurring in places that had taken comprehensive action to address childhood obesity.

New York City, for example, has engaged in major efforts to make healthy dietary choices the easy choices.  Health Commissioner Tom Farley recently reported a 5.5% decline in childhood obesity.

The Foundation says that Philadelphia:

has undertaken a broad assault on childhood obesity for years. Sugary drinks like sweetened iced tea, fruit punch and sports drinks started to disappear from school vending machines in 2004. A year later, new snack guidelines set calorie and fat limits, which reduced the size of snack foods like potato chips to single servings. By 2009, deep fryers were gone from cafeterias and whole milk had been replaced by one percent and skim.

Broad policies like these are exactly what the Institute of Medicine recommends (me too).

And now, it seems, these actions are actually having the intended effect.

That’s the best news ever.

And I don’t care who gets credit for it.


Dec 12 2012

We eat what we buy. Both need improvement, says USDA.

USDA’s Economic Research Service has just issued a report, Assessing the Healthfulness of Consumers’ Grocery Purchases.

The bottom line?  Americans buy fewer fruits and vegetables than recommended but far more refined grains, sugars, and meat.

Here’s the summary diagram:

These results should not come as a surprise.  According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, the leading sources of calories in U.S. diets are:

  1. Grain-based desserts
  2. Breads
  3. Chicken and chicken dishes
  4. Sodas and other sugary beverages
  5. Pizza
  6. Alcoholic beverages
  7. Pasta and pasta dishes
  8. Tortillas, burritos, tacos
  9. Beef and beef dishes
  10. Dairy desserts
We eat what we buy (or are given).
That’s why congressional pressure to increase grains and meat in school lunches (see yesterday’s post) is questionable from a public health standpoint.
Dec 11 2012

USDA to allow flexibility in school meal standards: food politics in action

When it comes to feeding kids, it is not possible to overestimate the self-interest of food producers—and their friends in Congress.

Forget about childhood obesity and other child health problems.  If you want to understand why school nutrition standards are so controversial, you must pay close attention to their effects on the financial health of the companies selling food to school meal programs.

Corporate health trumps kids’ health every time.

That is the lesson to be drawn from USDA’s December 7 announcement that it will allow schools some flexibility in implementing school nutrition standards for meat and grains.

As long as the schools meet minimum requirements for meat and grain servings, they no longer have to restrict the maximum size of servings.

This may be a trivial change; schools will still have to serve mostly whole grains and adhere to calorie standards.

But was this decision political?  Of course it was.

Despite two Institute of Medicine reports recommending improvements in the quality of school meals, Congress has chosen to micromanage USDA’s regulations.  Recall: tomato sauce on pizza now counts as a vegetable serving.

In October, three members of Congress asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate whether the new school nutrition standards resulted in higher costs and more food waste.  In November, Senator John Hoeven (Rep-ND) and 10 other senators, all from meat- and grain-producing states, that they were hearing complaints from constituents about kids going hungry in school.

In response, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack reassured Senator Hoeven that USDA was listening to the complaints and was taking steps to address them: “you should be pleased to know that we have recently moved to allow for additional flexibility in meeting some of the new standards.”

On December 8, Senator Hoeven issued a news release:

The rule had appeared to pose problems…especially for students in low income families, students in athletics programs or students in school districts with limited operating budgets. Moreover…it may be difficult for all students to get adequate protein to feel full throughout the school day. Protein is an important nutrient for growing children.

“I’m grateful to Secretary Vilsack for recognizing that the rules need to allow for individual differences among children and the prerogatives of local school districts, and resources available to them,” Hoeven said. “While we welcome this news from USDA, we believe the new flexibility should be permanent, rather than for just the 2012-2013 school year, and we will continue to press that case.”

Protein?  Since when is protein an issue in American diets?  (Most Americans, even kids, get twice the protein required).

What’s at stake here are sales of meat and grains to school lunch programs.

What’s also at stake is what comes next.

USDA has yet to issue regulations for nutrition standards for vending machines and competitive snacks and sodas sold in schools outside the lunch programs.

You can bet that Congress—which seems to have nothing better to do—will be taking a close interest in those rules as well.

If what’s happening with school meals proves nothing else it is that Congress cares a lot more about the health of the industries that support election campaigns than it does about the health of children.



Dec 10 2012

The edible White House: and what a swell (political) party!

I was lucky enough to be invited to a holiday reception at the White House last week to see the decorations up close and the President and First Lady from a distance.

Never mind the Christmas trees in every room.  The gingerbread house!*


It comes with its very own garden, hoop houses, beehive, and kale:

The candy vegetables were not to be eaten.

But the cookies most definitely were.

Here’s to a happy, healthy, and well nourished holiday season!

*Obama Foodorama explains how White House pastry chef Bill Yosses and his colleagues created this masterpiece.

Dec 7 2012

Holiday weekend idea: visit a food exhibit!

If you happen to be in Washington DC, take a look at FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950–2000 at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.


Julia Child’s kitchen is the featured exhibit, but the history of the industrialization of the U.S. food supply is well worth a look.

I especially like quirky collections of food objects.  Here’s one from the exhibit:


If you are in New York City, you can see Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, Culture at the American Museum of Natural History and check out the New York Times review so you know what to look for.

Also in New York is Lunch Hour at the New York Public Library.  If you can’t get there, the library has an online version of the exhibition.

If you happen to be in Switzerland and anywhere near Lake Geneva, Nestlé’s Alimentarium in Vevey has a special display of quirky collections: sardine cans, sugar cubes, and fruit wrappers, for example.  You can find it easily from its fork stuck into Lake Geneva.

Food exhibits seem to be the current Big Thing.  I’m trying to take advantage of them while they are around.  You too?

Dec 6 2012

New books take a fresh look at public health

If I were teaching public health nutrition right now, here’s what I’d want students to read:

Geof Rayner and Tim Lang, Ecological Public Health: Reshaping the Conditions for Good Health, Routledge Earthscan, 2012.

Our case is that public health is an interdisciplinary project, and not merely the preserve of particular professionals or titles.  Indeed, one of the themes of the book is that public health is often improved by movements and by people prepared to challenge conventional assumptions and the status quo…In these cynical academic times, when thinking is too often set within narrow economistic terms—What can we afford? What is the cost-benefit of health action?—and when the notion of the ‘public’ is often replaced by the ‘individual’ or the ‘private,’ this book offers an analysis of public health which is unashamedly pro bono publico, for the public good.

David Stuckler and Karen Siegel, eds.  Sick Societies: Responding to the Global Challenge of Chronic Disease, Oxford University Press, 2011.

Sick Societies argues that we are building environments that are poorly designed for our boides: we create societies where tobacco, alcohol, and foods containing high levels of salt, sugar, and fats are the easiest, cheapest, and most desirable choices, while fruits, vegetables, and exercise are the most expensive, inaccessible, and inconvenient options.  The rise in chronic diseases is the result of a model of societal development that is out of control: a model that puts wealth before health.

Wilma Waterlander, Put the Money Where the Mouth Is: The Feasibility and Effectiveness of Food Pricing Strategies to Stimulate Healthy Eating, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, 2012.

This one is for policy wonks and change agents.  This is Waterlander’s doctoral dissertation done as a published book but it is written clearly and forcefully.  Her conclusions:

The studies presented in this thesis show that the healthy choice is the relatively expensive choice; that price fundamentally affects food choice and may even form a barrier for low SES consumers in selecting healthier foods.  These findings make pricing strategies a justifiable tool to stimulate healthier choices…making healthier foods cheaper was found to be the most feasible pricing strategy to implement.

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