Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Mar 5 2015

Court confirms constitutionality of the Mexican soda tax

Last week the Mexican Supreme Court passed down its judgment on a writ of unconstitutionality (amparo) filed against the soda tax that went into effect in January 2014.

This unanimous judgment:

Documents (in Spanish):

 

Mar 4 2015

Goodbye to artificial colors?

I was invited by CNN to comment on the announcement by Nestlé that it is removing artificial colors from its chocolates.

Here’s what I said:

(CNN) When food giant Nestle USA (to which I am, alas, not related) last month announced plans to remove all artificial flavors and colors from its chocolate candies, it understandably made headlines. According to the company, by the end of 2015, none of a group of 250 chocolate products including Butterfinger and Baby Ruth will contain artificial flavors or colors such as Red #40 or Yellow #5.

With the expectation that these chemicals will also disappear from the company’s other candies, it looks like the end of the use of artificial flavors and colors in anything but the cheapest food products. If that proves to be the case, it will be a welcome shift.

Nestle USA intends to advertise the reformulated products with a “No artificial flavors or colors” claim on package labels. If sales of the “no artificial” candies grow as expected, the company will surely extend the removal to all of its other colored and flavored food products. After all, Nestle’s international parent company — and the company’s competitors — will have to take notice and find ways to remove these chemicals from all their product lines.

Nestle USA has undeniable clout. It accounts for a quarter of the $100 billion in annual revenues of the more than century-old, privately held parent corporation, which itself is the largest food company in the world. This move surely will not only reverberate through the candy industry, but also affect every other major food company.

In substituting natural for artificial flavors and colors, Nestle USA is responding to what its customers are saying. The company’s own research indicates that Americans prefer their beloved candy brands to be free of artificial flavors and colors, while other surveys find majorities of respondents saying that artificial chemical additives negatively influence their buying decisions.

Nestle is also responding to decades of complaints from consumer advocates about the potential health risks of these chemicals, especially the dyes. Studies in experimental animals have linked high doses of food dyes to health problems, among them organ damage, cancer, birth defects, and allergic reactions. In humans, studies link food dyes to hyperactivity and other behavioral problems in young children.

The credibility of these studies and their implications for human health remain hotly debated. In the 1970s, for example, Ben Feingold, a physician in California, suggested that food additives caused children to become hyperactive. Much of the evidence for the “Feingold hypothesis” rested on anecdotal reports by parents, whereas double-blind, controlled clinical trials produced contradictory results.

On the basis of current evidence, some artificial food dyes have been banned, while others remain in use despite suggestions that they too might be harmful. But the makers and users of food dyes argue that the chemicals are safe at current levels of usage. As a result of all this, and in the absence of convincing evidence of their safety, the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest has campaigned since the 1970s to remove food dyes and other chemicals from foods, and has continued to petition the Food and Drug Administration to ban them.

The opposing views complicate the regulatory status of food dyes. But after one clinical trial reported that dyes induce hyperactivity in half the children studied, the British government asked companies to stop using most food colors; the European Union requires a warning notice on many foods made with them.

In the United States, the FDA does not permit artificial food dyes to be used unless the manufacturers can meet safety requirements. But the amounts of these substances in the country’s food supply have greatly increased in recent years — soft drinks, breakfast cereals, frozen desserts and even salad dressings all contain artificial coloring agents. True, the FDA considers a dye to be safe if there is a reasonable certainty that no harm will result from its intended use. But that standard is vague enough to cause concern.

Given the unresolved scientific questions, it is reasonable to ask why artificial colors have to be in foods at all. From the standpoint of manufacturers, such additives are essential for covering up and hiding unattractive colors in processed foods. To the public, red candy seems to taste better than the drab variety. And while natural colors exist, they are less stable or more expensive to produce. But for Nestle to have taken the action that it has, the company must have found substitutes it can live with. And appealing to consumers’ preference for “natural” makes good business sense.

The truth is that whether artificial colors do or do not cause health problems in adults or children, they are there strictly for cosmetic purposes. For that reason alone, getting rid of them is a good idea.

Mar 3 2015

Food Navigator’s special issue on breakfast cereals, plus additions

First see Bloomberg News on Who killed Tony the Tiger: How Kellogg lost breakfast (February 26)Next, see what’s happening to breakfast from the point of view of the food industry.

What’s for breakfast? Re-inventing the first meal of the day

On paper, breakfast cereal ticks all the right boxes. It’s quick, great value for money, and nutritious – the perfect recession-proof food. Yet US consumption has dropped steadily as consumers have sought out more convenient – and often more expensive – alternatives, and ‘breakfast’ has switched from being one of three square meals a day to just another snacking occasion. So is the future one of managed decline, or can innovation pull the cereal category out of its funk?

Mar 2 2015

Brand FNV (Fruits and Vegetables): Worth a Try?

In 2013, Michael Moss wrote a long and highly entertaining piece for the New York Times Magazine about putting the advertising firm Victor & Spoils to work on making up a campaign to sell, of all things—broccoli.

The theory: marketing sells junk food so why not fruits and vegetables?

At last week’s meeting of the Partnership for a Healthier America (the industry support group for Let’s Move!), First Lady Michelle Obama announced that Victor & Spoils had created a for-real campaign to sell fruits and vegetables to moms and teens.

Meet brand FNV.

And don’t miss the video.

Some people who attended the meeting found this on apples in their hotel rooms (thanks to Marie Bragg for sending).

FNV apple marketing

 

The produce industry considers this campaign to have “monumental implications” for its sales.

In other words, it is expected to work.

I’ve written about such campaigns in 2010 and in 2013.

As I said in 2013:

Marketing is not education.

Education is about imparting knowledge and promoting wisdom and critical thinking.

Marketing is about creating demand for a product.

But such campaigns clearly work.  The 5-A-Day for Better Health campaign in the early 1990s increased F&V consumption—for as long as it lasted.

Although this campaign raises the usual questions about marketing vs. education, and what happens when the funding runs out, it’s not aimed at young children.

I’m wishing it the very best of success.

Feb 28 2015

Vilsack: Guidelines committee members are like 3-year-olds

Yesterday’s Hagstrom Report quotes USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s comments to the Commodity Classic on the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee:

The “folks who put those reports together … have freedom. They are like my 3-year-old granddaughter. She does not have to color inside the lines.”

His 5-year-old grandson, he said, “is learning about coloring within the lines.”

“I am going to color inside the lines,” Vilsack said.

Sounds like the USDA has no intention of doing what the DGAC recommends.

This is why it’s so important to file comments @ www.DietaryGuidelines.gov by April 8.  You can also register there for the public meeting in Bethesda, Maryland, on March 24.

Addition, March 10: Secretary Vilsack’s speech and press conference remarks are here.

 

Feb 27 2015

Weekend cooking: Nancy Jenkins’ Virgin Territory

Nancy Harmon Jenkins.  Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015.

Although I don’t usually do blurbs for cookbooks, this one goes into so much depth about why olives and their oil matter—and how the olives are grown, harvested, and extracted—that I couldn’t resist.  Jenkins is a wonderful writer as well as a splendid cook.

Virgin Territory takes a deep dive into the history, culture, and taste of olive oil.  Jenkins grows olives, harvests them, and cooks with her own oil.  A terrific cook, she passionately wants everyone to know the difference a high quality extra-virgin olive oil can make to any dish.  I learned so much about olive oil from this book and can’t wait to try every one of her recipes.

 

Feb 26 2015

Fingers crossed: good news about preventing peanut allergies

The New England Journal of Medicine has a new study that suggests the need to rethink whether to feed peanuts to babies.

As the Wall Street Journal explains, peanut allergies can be life-threatening and they are increasing among the population.

Dr. Gideon Lack and his colleagues randomly assigned infants to be fed peanuts (really, peanut butter) until they were five years old.  The children fed peanuts had far fewer peanut allergies than those who were not exposed to peanuts.

Of the more than 500 infants who showed no signs of peanut allergies at the start of the trial, the prevalence of peanut allergies at age 5 was 13.7% in the avoidance group and only 1.9% in the consumption group (see the journal’s video for an easy explanation).

A result like this is extremely unlikely to have occurred by chance.

Dr. Lack got the idea for the study when he noticed that peanut allergies were rare in Israel.  Israeli infants are routinely offered foods made with peanuts, whereas British and American parents have been told not to feed peanuts to young children.

The authors conclude:

Our findings showed that early, sustained consumption of peanut products was associated with a substantial and significant decrease in the development of peanut allergy in high-risk infants. Conversely, peanut avoidance was associated with a greater frequency of clinical peanut allergy than was peanut consumption, which raises questions about the usefulness of deliberate avoidance of peanuts as a strategy to prevent allergy.

The implications are clear: expose young children to peanut butter (the accompanying editorial explains how to do this safely).  And to prevent choking, don’t give them peanuts until they can chew.

Other newspaper articles on this topic:

 

 

Feb 25 2015

The Kool-Aid Museum!

I gave a talk last week at Hastings College in Hastings, Nebraska.

Before I left, Michael Moss, who wrote the New York Times investigative report about Hasting’s USDA animal research facility, mentioned the Kool-Aid museum.

The Kool-Aid museum?

As it happens, I adore museum exhibits devoted to single food items.  The Hastings Museum houses a permanent collection of Kool-Aid historical materials and artifacts.

Capture

A Hastings resident, Edwin Perkins, invented this product in 1927.

Kool-Aid, in case this isn’t on your usual shopping list, is a flavored and colored powder that comes in small packets.  You add the 4.6 gram contents—plus one full cup of sugar—to two quarts of water.

What’s in the packets?  I was given a cherry limeade flavor: contains citric acid, maltodextrin, calcium phosphate, vitamin C, natural and artificial flavor, salt, artificial color, red 40, tocopherol [a form of vitamin E], BHA, and BHT (preservatives).

The less said about nutritional value, the better.

But take a look at its corporate history:

  • 1953   General Foods buys Kool-Aid
  • 1985  Philip Morris buys General Foods and, therefore, Kool-Aid
  • 1988  Philip Morris buys Kraft
  • 1989  Philip Morris combines Kraft and General Foods to create Kraft General Foods (Kool-Aid is now owned by a cigarette company)
  • 1995  Philip Morris names the combined entity Kraft Foods
  • 2003  Philip Morris changes its name to Altria (Kool-Aid is still owned by a cigarette company)
  • 2007  Philip Morris splits Kraft—and, therefore, Kool-Aid—off as a separate company
  • 2012  Kraft splits into two companies, Kraft Foods Group (with Kool-Aid) and Mondelez International
  • 2012  Kraft Foods Group cuts a deal with SodaStream International to use Kool-Aid with SodaStream devices

I loved the exhibit, even though you have to go through rooms full of guns to get to it.

The exhibit didn’t mention the Jonestown massacre, the source of the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” because Kool-Aid was not involved.

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