Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Feb 13 2015

Sugar politics: The BMJ’s series “Spinning a web of influence”

BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) has just released an editorial and four papers on ties between the sugar industry and public health scientists who advise the government on health policy.  Some health policies involve recommendations about intake of sugars.

The BMJ press release explains

Recipients of research funding from sugar and other related industries include members of the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), which is currently updating official advice on carbohydrates consumption, and researchers working for the Medical Research Council’s Human Nutrition Research unit (HNR).  HNR scientists have received research funding and funding in kinds from companies including Coca-Cola, Mars, Nestlé, Sainsbury’s, the Institute of Brewing and Distilling, Weight Watchers International and others…Of the 40 scientists affiliated with SACN between 2001 and 2012, only 13 have had no interests to declare.

This, of course, is no different than what we see here.  Food and beverage companies support food and nutrition research as well as professional societies, and conflicts of interest are rampant.

Even so, these well documented studies are alarming and worth serious attention.  And be sure to look at the map.

MedPage has a nice summary (I’m quoted).

The furor over these articles

Feb 12 2015

What’s up with the cholesterol guideline?

The Washington Post says that the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is about to drop the long-standing guideline about restricting dietary cholesterol.

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines said “Consume less than 300 mg per day of dietary cholesterol.”

This is about the amount in one egg.

I have no idea what’s going on.  The Advisory Committee report has not yet been released so I don’t know what it says (I’ve heard rumors that it is to be released this week, which could mean late Friday afternoon on a holiday weekend).

Recall: no matter what the Advisory Committee says in its report, it does not write the Dietary Guidelines.  The agencies—USDA and HHS—do whatever they choose with the committee’s research report.

If the Committee really is dropping the guideline, I’d like to see its research rationale.

I’m wondering if research sponsored by the egg industry could have anything to do with this.

See, for example, this recent study concluding that people with coronary heart disease don’t have to worry about eating eggs.

We found no evidence of adverse effects of daily egg ingestion on any cardiac risk factors in adults with CAD over a span of 6 weeks.

You have to read the study carefully to find the funding source (these are usually at the end of articles, but this one is in the middle):

Disclosures. This study was conducted with funding from the Egg Nutrition Center/American Egg Board and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Grant
No. 5U48DP001945-05).

And you have to read the tables carefully to find out that 90.6% of the subjects in this study were taking statins, nearly 90% were taking drugs to lower blood pressure, and nearly 80% were taking aspirin.  The discussion, however, does not mention this point making this study a classic example of the problems with conflicts of interest in research.

If the Advisory Committee is dropping the cholesterol recommendation, could it be because so many people are taking statins that dietary cholesterol doesn’t appear to matter so much anymore?

This story is getting a lot of press.  Here’s one from USA Today that quotes me and changes my name as it goes along (they have now fixed that).

Can’t wait to see what the report really says.

 

 

 

 

 

Feb 11 2015

The buying and selling of pet food brands

Dave Love @davelove1 sent me a tweet: @marionnestle what do you think about big food companies buying pet food brands?

His question referred to an article in the Washington Post titled the McDonaldization of pet foods.

The New York Times also covered the issue that triggered this question: the purchase by Smucker of Big Heart Pet Brands, “the company once known as Del Monte.”

That rang a bell.

In my book with Malden Nesheim about the pet food industry, Feed Your Pet Right, we were so intrigued by how big food companies buy and sell pet food brands that we did a figure using Del Monte as an example.

I can’t figure out how to make this diagram bigger but you get the idea: current Del Monte (now Smucker Big Heart) holdings are the result of the merger and acquisition of five original companies and many in between.

Companies trade pet food brands like baseball cards.

pet food

There’s gold in them thar hills.

Feb 9 2015

Red meat politics

I was interested to read Clare Foran’s piece in The National Journal on The Political Battle Over Red Meat.   It nicely summarizes the lobbying to stop the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee from saying that diets would be healthier and more sustainable if they included less red meat.

Her piece includes this illustration of why the meat industry objects to such ideas.

Infographic

Since 2000, the meat industry has been relatively quiet over the Dietary Guidelines, mainly because—as I discussed in Food Politics—this industry had won most of the political battles.

The 2000 Dietary Guidelines recommended 2-3 servings a day of 2-3 ounces of meat for a total of 4-9 ounces a day—an increase over previous recommendations.

But then:

  • The 2005 Guidelines folded meat in with other sources of protein: “When selecting and preparing meat, poultry, dry beans, and milk or milk products, make choices that are lean, low-fat, or fat-free.”
  • The 2010 Guidelines said “Choose a variety of protein foods, which include seafood, lean meat and poultry, eggs, beans and peas, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds.”

If current trends in Guidelines continue, the meat recommendation might disappear entirely.

Meat industry lobbyists want to make sure meat maintains its historic place in the center of American plates.

What will the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee say?  Its report is due out soon.  Stay tuned.

Feb 6 2015

Weekend reading: The U.S. Food System

Roni Neff, editor.  Introduction to the U.S. Food System: Public Health, Environment, and Equity.  Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, Jossey-Bass, 2015. 

New Picture (1)

This is an undergraduate textbook for students in courses dealing with almost anything having to do with food as it relates to larger societal issues of economics, policy, marketing, culture, security, health, and the environment.  It is large (542 pages, 8.5 x 11), easy to read, and well illustrated.  It ought to be terrific in stimulating thinking about these issues, particularly because it covers everything you can think of that’s important in this area, from farm subsidies to school lunches.  The only thing missing is international dimensions, but that would take another book of this size.

Also focused on the U.S. food system is the Institute of Medicine’s report I wrote about a couple of weeks ago: A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System.

Picture1

Between the two, you have a full course on food systems, especially because the IOM report comes with:

Feb 5 2015

Food politics in action: Potatoes!

The National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine (IOM) has just recommended that white potatoes be included in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program.*

This recommendation contradicts previous policy, which excluded white potatoes from the WIC package on the grounds that starchy vegetables are not lacking in the diets of WIC recipients and it would be better to use WIC to encourage consumption of a broader range of vegetables.

As I’ve discussed in earlier posts, the potato lobby objected, insisted that white potatoes were just as healthy as other starchy vegetables, and that women weren’t eating enough of them.  It got Congress to overturn USDA’s restrictions on the number of times white potatoes (usually fried) could be served in the school lunch program.

And it got Congress to order USDA  to put potatoes back into WIC—unless it conducted a study demonstrating that potatoes should be excluded.  The USDA gave up and told state agencies to allow potatoes to be purchased by WIC recipients starting next summer.

In deciding in favor of potatoes, the committee said it is concerned that “”Current consumption of starchy vegetables does not meet 2010 DGA [Dietary Guidelines for Americans] recommendations for this food group.”

Really?  I have a hard time believing that WIC recipients are suffering from lack of potatoes in their diets.  Potatoes are fine foods, but highly caloric when prepared in the usual ways.  Encouraging WIC recipients to choose leafy greens and other vegetables seems like a good idea.

But the IOM committee took the 2010 Dietary Guidelines at face value and says this is what the rules are until changed.  So they effectively tossed this hot potato into lap of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines committee.

While waiting to see that committee’s report—expected soon—the take-home lesson is clear: lobbying works.

*The USDA has a new report out on WIC: The WIC Program: Background, Trends, and Economic Issues, 2015 Edition.

Feb 4 2015

Buyers beware: supplements are not what they seem. Again.

I still quaintly read the paper copy of the New York Times so I know that the left column of yesterday’s  front page—judged by the editors as the second most important story of the day—was devoted to yet another exposé of supplement fraud.

The New York State attorney general did some sophisticated testing.  His report concludes that major supplement retailers—GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart—are selling herbal supplements that do not contain what the labels say they contain or contain unlabeled ingredients that could be allergenic.

The examples are either amusing or shocking, depending on point of view:

  • A popular store brand of ginseng pills at Walgreens, promoted for “physical endurance and vitality”…contained only powdered garlic and rice.
  • At Walmart…ginkgo biloba, a Chinese plant promoted as a memory enhancer, contained little more than powdered radish, houseplants and wheat — despite a claim on the label that the product was wheat- and gluten-free.
  • Three out of six herbal products at Target — ginkgo biloba, St. John’s wort and valerian root, a sleep aid — tested negative for the herbs on their labels. But they did contain powdered rice, beans, peas and wild carrots.
  • And at GNC…it found pills with unlisted ingredients used as fillers, like powdered legumes, the class of plants that includes peanuts and soybeans, a hazard for people with allergies.

I’ve been writing about this kind of thing for years, but two aspects of this story are news.

  • First, the state is doing what the FDA ought to be doing if its hands weren’t tied by DSHEA, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994.  That act essentially deregulated dietary supplements.
  • Second, these are not some fly-by-night supplement sellers.  They are major retailers.  The supplement industry’s argument that only a few unscrupulous small supplement makers are cheating on ingredients doesn’t work in this case.

Why don’t people stop taking supplements when they hear things like this?

The major proven benefits of supplements are their placebo effects.  The actual ingredients make no difference.

The obvious conclusion is that if you must buy supplements, buy the cheapest ones.  But that doesn’t work either because more expensive supplements produce stronger placebo effects.

Placebo effects are great things, and I’m for them.  But caveat emptor.

Related documents

 

Feb 3 2015

Obama’s budget calls for a single food safety agency!

Starting on page 82 of President Obama’s 150-page, $4 trillion 2016 federal budget is a section on food safety calling for creation of a single food safety agency.

The Budget proposes to consolidate the FSIS [the Food Safety and Inspection Service of USDA] and the food safety related components of the FDA to create a single new agency within HHS…A single Federal food safety agency would provide focused, centralized leadership, a primary voice on food safety standards and compliance with those standards, and clear lines of responsibility and accountability that will enhance both prevention of and responses to outbreaks of food borne illnesses.  It would rationalize the food safety regulatory regime and allow the Federal government to better allocate resources and responsibilities.

Wow!  Food safety advocates in and out of government have been pushing for something like this since the early 1990s.

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler says:

The budget proposes an additional $301 million for the FDA to implement that law, though part of the money would come from user fees imposed on the food industry.

Where do I apply?

Is this a good idea?  It sure could be but the devil is in the details.

Does it have a chance in this Congress?  I’m not holding my breath.

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