Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Aug 22 2012

Entertaining nutrition research: “nutrifluff”

I consider the results of studies showing remarkable health benefits attributed to single foods or single nutrients to be “nutrifluff”—fun, but not necessarily meaningful unless you are eating a healthy diet anyway.

Here are four recent examples:

Dark chocolate reduces heart disease risk: Everybody loves this one—an excuse to eat chocolate (but only the dark, bitter kind, alas).  This comes from a Cochrane meta-analysis of studies on the role of flavonols in blood pressure.  It concludes that chocolate eating is associated with a small reduction in blood pressure of 2 to 3 mm Hg—but only in short-term trials.  How many of the studies were sponsored by chocolate companies?  The report doesn’t say.

Apple peel extracts reduce blood pressure: Apples also have flavonols.  These were test-tube studies.  Note: Eating fruits and vegetables in general is associated with lower blood pressure.

Walnuts boost semen quality: Here’s a fun one.  Eat 75 grams of walnuts a day, and you improve your sperm vitality, motility, and morphology, at least if you are age 21 to 35 (and male).  This one was sponsored by the California Walnut Commission.  One report on this study has the best title ever: “Nuts for your nuts.”

Goji berries promote immune function in the elderly: This one, done by researchers working for Nestlé  (no relation), tested daily supplements of “lacto-wolfberry” on immune responses to influenza vaccine.  I’m assuming Nestlé must be planning to market this supplement.

What does all this tell us?  These kinds of studies confirm that eating fruits and vegetables is good for health (I think we might have known that already).

But the main (perhaps only) reason for doing such studies is for marketing purposes, which is why food companies sponsor them.

Aug 21 2012

The FDA tries again on egg safety

We Americans like our eggs.

American egg producers provide us with about 76 billion eggs a year, which averages out to 242 eggs per capita.

But their safety can be iffy for two reasons: Salmonella and cholesterol.

Since the 1980s, more and more eggs have gotten contaminated with pathogenic Salmonella enteriditis, in part because of the increasing size of egg farms, and in part because of long delays in safety rules.

Salmonella is a preventable problem.

Producers must use clean food and water, probiotics to prevent development of pathogenic bacteria in hen intestines, and vaccines as necessary.  They also must keep eggs cold.

I discussed all this in my book What to Eat, in a chapter I called “Eggs and the Salmonella Problem.”  In it, I reviewed some history:

  •  1997     Center for Science in the Public Interest petitions the FDA to do insist that egg farms follow standard food safety procedur.
  • 1999     The FDA requires Safe Handling labels on egg cartons and refrigeration during storage and transport.
  • 2004    The FDA proposes safety rules for on-farm egg production.
  • 2009    The FDA issues rules to be implemented in 2010 for egg producers with 50,000 or more hens, and 2012 for producers with 3,000 or more.

Yesterday, the FDA issued Guidance for Industry:  Questions and Answers Regarding the Final Rule, Prevention of Salmonella Enteritidis in Shell Eggs During Production, Storage, and Transportation.

And it updated its Egg Safety home page.

Still to come: rules for producers of organic eggs that allow hens access to the outdoors.

But maybe we shouldn’t be eating so many eggs anyway?

A recent Canadian study associates eating egg yolks with formation of plaques in coronary arteries.

The egg industry doesn’t like this study much.

Eggs have been shown to have a wide range of health benefits, providing 13 essential vitamins and minerals, high-quality protein and antioxidants, all for just 70 calories.

It cites other studies giving different results.

These findings are surprising and contradict more than 40 years of research demonstrating that healthy adults can enjoy eggs without significantly impacting their risk of heart disease.

I like eggs.  I vote for everything in moderation on this one.  But having seen industrial egg facilities, I’m buying them from farmers’ markets these days—for reasons of food safety, animal welfare, and taste.

Aug 20 2012

Does the future hold jobs in the food industry?

Right now, the food industry employs roughly 12% of the U.S. work force.  This includes jobs in agriculture, food and beverage product manufacture, and food and beverage service.  Many of these jobs, of course, are minimum wage.

But reading Sunday’s New York Times makes me wonder how many of these and better jobs will be replaced by robots, and much sooner than I had imagined.

The falling costs and growing sophistication of robots have touched off a renewed debate among economists and technologists over how quickly jobs will be lost…the advent of low-cost automation foretells changes on the scale of the revolution in agricultural technology over the last century, when farming employment in the United States fell from 40 percent of the work force to about 2 percent today.

…And at Earthbound Farms in California, four newly installed robot arms with customized suction cups swiftly place clamshell containers of organic lettuce into shipping boxes. The robots move far faster than the people they replaced. Each robot replaces two to five workers at Earthbound, according to John Dulchinos, an engineer who is the chief executive at Adept Technology, a robot maker based in Pleasanton, Calif., that developed Earthbound’s system.

From the standpoint of industry, once the price of robots drops sufficiently their advantages far outweigh their stupidity.

Robots don’t call in sick, get pregnant, get into fights, have affairs with fellow workers, ask for raises, or threaten to go on strike.

What will it be like to live in a society in which vast segments of food production and service are replaced by robots?

Back to the farm, anyone?

Aug 18 2012

Guest post: Paul Ryan’s Views on Food Politics

Daniel Green, a student at Cornell, asked whether I intended to write about Paul Ryan’s views on food politics.  He volunteered to put something together with his colleague, Dr. Margaret Yufera-Leitch.  Here are their thoughts:

Few Americans had heard of Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) until last week when he was announced as Presidential-hopeful Mitt Romney’s November running mate. A Janesville, Wisconsin native, former personal trainer and Oscar Mayer Weinermobile driver during his college days, Ryan is a strong advocate on the Hill for the P90x exercise routine and avoids eating fried foods and desserts (yes, even on the campaign trail).

But how do Mr. Ryan’s personal beliefs impact his voting on food politics related matters?

Obesity prevention

In the case of obesity, prevention has been shown repeatedly to be the best medicine. Of the $2.6 trillion spent on US health care in 2010, 95% went for disease treatment leaving only $421 per American per year for prevention—not even enough money for a 1-year gym membership in most states.

In an interview with Politico, Mr. Ryan admitted to maintaining 6-8% body fat with a healthy BMI of 21, admirable for any working professional. But Mr. Ryan, who has voted against every Affordable Care Act related bill, takes the stance that what you eat and what you weigh are both matters of personal responsibility. In 2005, he voted for H.R. 554 “The Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act” also known as the cheeseburger bill, which aimed to ‘prohibit weight gain-related or obesity-related lawsuits from being brought in federal or state courts against the food industry.’ The bill was passed by the House but failed to even go up for vote in the Senate. The legislation was featured in the 2004 Morgan Spurlock documentary Super Size Me, where Marion Nestle also made her on-screen debut.

According to a recent report by the Bipartisan Policy Center, by 2020 Obesity will cost America $4.6 trillion dollars annually and healthcare costs related to obesity will consume 19.8% of U.S. GDP. The sudden rise of obesity is a clear sign that, as a country, we have fostered an obesogenic environment that will require commitments from both the public and private sectors to reform.

Given that 70% of Americans are overweight and obese, we have collectively demonstrated that public service announcements alone have not yet resulted in the significant population-wide behavior changes needed to reverse obesity and more importantly alleviate a strained U.S. Health Care system.

SNAP Benefits

One of the most important programs available to lower income Americans is the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as Food Stamps, which provides access to fresh foods for low-income families. Given that increased fruit and vegetable consumption are cornerstone habits of the Preventative Medicine conversation, why has Mr. Ryan argued to cut SNAP by $33 billion over the next ten years?

Affordable Care Act

Paul Ryan’s choices to repeal $6.2 trillion dollars of support from the Affordable Care Act and obesity-related provisions, demonstrates a lesser degree of support for preventative care than his widely publicized exercise regime suggests.  Perhaps with unemployment still high and unsure economy, America has bigger fish to fry than fixing the food system and reversing obesity but at least for now, Paul Ryan will take his fish broiled.

 Paul Ryan Food Politics Fact Sheet

Favorite Exercise Program: P90x
BMI: 21 (Healthy)
Dietary Restrictions: Doesn’t eat desserts or fried foods
View on cause of Obesity Personal Responsibility
Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) For
Farm Bill Against
Food Safety Modernization Act Against
Healthcare Reform (Affordable Care Act/Obamacare) Strongly against
Menu Labeling No direct comment- but against Obamacare which includes it
Repealing the Prevention and Public Health Fund For
School Lunch Reform and Child Nutrition Reauthorization For
Soda Taxes No direct comment

 

References and source materials are available from the authors:

  • Daniel Green studies Applied Nutrition and Psychology at Cornell University.  dpg64@cornell.edu. You can follow him on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/dgrreen.
  • Margaret Yufera-Leitch received her PhD in experimental psychology with a focus in eating behavior from the University of Sussex. She is currently a visiting assistant professor at the University of Calgary.   dr.leitch@impulsive-eating.com.  Her website is www.impulsive-eating.com.
Aug 17 2012

To ponder over the weekend: What to do about corn and biofuels

Think about this over the weekend.

Among the other consequences of the current drought—along with the ruin of this year’s corn crop—is a complicated political battle over who gets the corn.

The players:

  • Corn producers: Want high prices.  Don’t care whether meat or ethanol producers get the corn.  Note: Many own their own ethanol refineries.
  • Meat producers: Want the corn at low prices.  Do not want corn grown for ethanol.  Want the ethanol quota waived.
  • Ethanol producers: Want the corn at low prices.  Want to keep the quota.
  • International aid agencies: Want corn to be grown for food and feed, not fuel.  Want the ethanol quota waived.

The ethanol quota:

Three big industries—corn agribusiness, industrial meat, ethanol—plus international agencies have a stake in the U.S. corn crop.

How should the Obama administration handle this?

  • Waive the ethanol quota?
  • Keep the ethanol quota?
  • Do nothing?
  • Do something else?  If so, what?
Aug 16 2012

Surprise! Kids who don’t eat junk foods in school don’t gain as much weight

I love the new study reported in Pediatrics.    It confirms just what I have long expected.  If you don’t expose kids to junk foods and sodas, they won’t eat as much, and they won’t put on as much fat.

The study found that kids who go to schools where lots of junk foods are sold are heavier than those who go to schools in states with strict standards about the nutritional quality of snacks and drinks.

The investigators compared the body mass indices (BMIs) of kids in schools in 40 states with varying nutrition standards for what is allowed in “competitive” foods–those sold outside the lunch programs.

Kids from schools with stricter standards had lower BMIs.

The authors explain their result:

Experts argue that education will not suffice without changing the contemporary ‘obesogenic’ environment in which adolescents have countless sources of high-caloric-density, low-nutrient-density foods and beverages. Schools have become a source of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), candy, and other foods and beverages of minimal nutritional value.

Food Chemical News (August 14) reminds me that when Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids act of 2010, it authorized the USDA to develop nutrition standards both for meals—but also competitive foods.

USDA issued final rules for school meals in January (remember the fuss over pizza is a vegetable?).

Its rules for competitive foods were sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget in mid-March, but are still stuck there, most likely because the White House does not want to introduce regulations that might adversely affect food company sales during an election year, especially one in which the role of government is so prominent an issue.

This is an election year, in case you haven’t noticed, and looks like it will be an especially unattractive one, unfortunately.

Aug 15 2012

Happy 100th birthday Julia Child

Julia Child did not like nutritionists.

She thought our interest in nutritional values (“nutritionism”) had ruined the pleasure and cultural meaning of food.

In 1991, the food writer and cookbook author Nancy Harmon Jenkins, had the thrilling (if overly optimistic) idea that if Julia met me, she would change her mind about nutritionists.  Nancy arranged to host a dinner party to introduce us.

But woe.  Nancy fell and broke her foot.

Julia would do the dinner.  In her Cambridge kitchen!

I wish I could say that the evening was a great success but it did not go well.  Julia did sign my copy of Mastering, but grudgingly (even though it had been so well used that it was falling apart).

Later, after my NYU department introduced our academic programs in Food Studies—so clearly inspired by her work—she relented.

I have a handful of treasured cards and letters from her.  Here’s one:

I miss her.

As does everyone else:

Aug 14 2012

More on growing the food movement: Harvard’s career guide

Thanks to Emily Broad Leib, Director of the Food Law and Policy Division of the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation at Harvard for sending a link to the Center’s new Food Law and Policy Career Guide.

She sent this as a follow-up to my August 1 post providing a spreadsheet of organizations working on food, nutrition, and health issues.

This lists more than 150 food advocacy groups in order to suggest opportunities for involvement in food issues to those interested in food law and policy.

It lists organizations and agencies  in universities, government, research, and the private sector, domestic and international.  It also lists fellowship and grant opportunities and relevant food websites.

Most useful.  Thanks for this!

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