Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Apr 12 2017

Correspondence: Food industry funding of research

In response to my commentary in JAMA Internal Medicine late last year, “Food Industry Funding of Nutrition Research: The Relevance of History for Current Debates, the journal published an objecting letter from Morton Satin titled  “Incorrect Impressions Concerning Industry-Sponsored Research.”

Mr. Satin works for The Salt Institute, which promotes the idea that “everything’s better with a little salt.”

Here’s my reply to his letter:

In Reply Mr Satin raises several points in response to my recent Invited Commentary1 about how food companies fund research for marketing purposes: (1) I give the impression that all industry-funded research is inherently tainted; (2) I ignore the industry’s triumph in fortifying foods with nutrients; (3) I fail to mention intellectual conflicts of interest; and (4) I should consider such issues before stereotyping.

First, my commentary was about research sponsored by food companies specifically to demonstrate the health benefits or lack of harm of a product, or to cast doubt on evidence to the contrary. It referred to a particularly egregious example—the sugar industry’s attempt to manipulate research results.2 Although some industry-funded research does produce results contrary to the sponsor’s interests, such instances are rare.3 Most ends up useful in some way to the sponsors’ commercial objectives; it is marketing research, not basic science.

The point by Mr Satin about nutrient fortification has merit, but most of the basic research on nutrients used in fortification was conducted by independent scientists. Mr Satin’s own Salt Institute credits independent scientists for promoting iodization and convincing the industry to cooperate with public health authorities to iodize salt.4Pasteurization kills pathogens; iodide and fluoride address geographical deficiencies; and niacin, folic acid, and fiber replace amounts removed from foods by processing in the first place. Once public health authorities recognized the need, they demanded milk pasteurization or the addition of nutrients to flour. When dental researchers discovered that fluoride prevents cavities, Procter & Gamble recognized its marketing potential and funded research on fluoridated toothpaste.5

All scientists have intellectual biases—that is how science gets done and why science works best when researchers with different views of science repeat each other’s experiments. But the goals of scientists pursuing intellectual hypotheses differ markedly from those of companies seeking to sell food products.

Questioning food industry funding raises sensitive issues, not least because its influence on researchers occurs unconsciously, is usually unintentional, and is difficult for recipients to recognize.6 Food companies are not public health agencies and should not be expected to be; their first priority is to provide profits to owners and shareholders. Funding research helps with that effort. My purpose in writing the Invited Commentary was to bring the contradictions of food industry research funding to the attention of readers.

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: Dr Nestle’s salary from New York University supports her research, manuscript preparation, and website at http://www.foodpolitics.com. She also earns royalties from books and honoraria and travel from lectures about matters relevant to the initial Invited Commentary and this Letter in Reply.

References

1. Nestle  M.  Food industry funding of nutrition research: the relevance of history for current debates.  JAMA Intern Med 2016;176(11):1685-1686.  PubMedArticle

2.  Kearns  CE, Schmidt  LA, Glantz  SA.  Sugar industry and coronary heart disease research: a historical analysis of internal industry documents.  JAMA Intern Med. 2016;176(11):1680-1685.PubMedArticle

3.  Lesser  LI, Ebbeling  CB, Goozner  M, Wypij  D, Ludwig  DS.  Relationship between funding source and conclusion among nutrition-related scientific articles.  PLoS Med. 2007;4(1):e5. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0040005PubMedArticle

4.  The Salt Institute. Iodized salt. http://www.saltinstitute.org/news-articles/iodized-salt/. Published July 13, 2013. Accessed January 17, 2017.

5.  Ksander  Y. The invention of fluoride toothpaste. Indiana Public Media. http://indianapublicmedia.org/momentofindianahistory/the-invention-of-flouride-toothpaste/. Published July 10, 2006. Accessed January 17, 2017.

6.  Lo  B, Field  MJ.  Conflict of Interest in Medical Research, Education, and Practice. Washington, DC: National Academies Press; 2009.

 

 

 

Apr 11 2017

The rolling back of nutrition standards

Rolling back nutrition standards #1: Added Sugars

The new administration is hard at work undoing the gains of the last one.

In my post on the nominee for FDA Commissioner, Scott Gottlieb, I noted that he’d been saying nothing about food.  Now he is.

He told Congress this week that he’s open to “pushing back the Nutrition Facts label update deadline [of July 2018] to align it with USDA’s coming GMO labeling regulation.”

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has plenty say about this.  As it explains, the food industry wants the

deadline to be pushed back to align with the USDA’s coming GMO disclosure regulation — a measure that isn’t likely to kick in for a few years (at least)… Gottlieb suggested during the hearing that he may be open to aligning the deadlines…You want to try to consolidate the label changes when you’re making label changes as a matter of public health, he said, adding that requiring companies to update their labels repeatedly is costly.

But wait!  Doesn’t this sound just like what food company leaders said in March in a letter to HHS Secretary Tom Price?

On behalf of the food and beverage industry, we are writing to express our concern with the current compliance deadline of July 2018 for the Nutrition Facts and Serving Size (NFL) rules and to request extending the deadline to May 2021.

May 2021?  Let’s hope we all live that long.

Reminder: Everyone would be healthier eating less sugar.

Rolling back nutrition standards #2: School food

According to Politico, Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts wants the USDA to undo the school meal nutrition standards put in place by the Obama administration.  In a letter to the USDA Acting Deputy Secretary, Roberts said:

I urge you to act administratively and provide immediate relief from certain egregious aspects of the standards, particularly in regards to the rapidly approaching sodium limits and the dairy and whole grain requirements,..After providing immediate relief, I urge you to provide long-term flexibility and certainty for our schools, our food service directors, and other stakeholders.

Reminder: the school nutrition standards are working just fine.

Apr 10 2017

ICYMI: The tasteless Pepsi commercial–a roundup

Apr 7 2017

Cheery weekend reading: Berkeley’s soda tax

When I was in Berkeley a couple of weeks ago, I met Dechen Tsering who works with Health, Housing and Community Services for that city.  She keeps an eye on what’s happening with the revenues collected from the city’s soda tax.

She sent me a link to the soda tax Website.

It’s full of useful information about the tax and what is happening with it.

Since 2015, the Berkeley City Council has allocated a total of $5 million from the General Funds for community agency grants and Public Health Division staffing to support the Healthy Berkeley Program. The funded programs aim to reduce consumption of all sugar-sweetened beverages.

If you want to know which organizations are getting tax funds in 2017, take a look here.

And here’s more than you ever wanted to know:

1. Complete SSB Tax Ordinance.

2. Glossary of definitions.

3. FAQs about the SSB tax.

4. SSB tax revenue 10.20.2015

5. SSB tax revenue 2.9.2016

6. SSB tax revenue 5.2.2016

7. SSB tax revenue 3.29.2017

8. SSB tax forms and instructions

Impressive, no?  A bright ray of sunshine for the weekend.

Apr 6 2017

FoodNavigator USA’s Special Edition on Sweeteners

FoodNavigator-USA, a food-industry newsletter that I read regularly, publishes occasional “Special Editions,” meaning collections of articles it has published on specific topics.  This one is on Sweeteners and Sugar Reduction,

Food and beverage manufacturers have a far wider range of sweetening options than ever before, from coconut sugar to allulose, monk fruit and new stevia blends. This special edition looks at the latest market developments, the changing political landscape, formulation challenges and consumer research. It will also address some labeling and regulatory issues affecting the market, from new FDA requirements to list added sugar on the Nutrition Facts label and the extent to which the ‘GMO factor’ is impacting purchasing decisions for sweeteners.

Apr 5 2017

The Brazil meat scandal: A Global Meal News roundup

Global Meat News is another one of those industry newsletters I follow closely.  It’s been tracking what’s been happening with meat in Brazil.  This is a great place to find out about this quickly.

Apr 4 2017

More on the prospective FDA Commissioner: Where is food?

Here’s what’s come in on Scott Gottlieb’s nomination as FDA Commissioner since my post last week.

From the New England Journal of Medicinea scathing commentary observes that “Gottlieb’s background places the agency, and the public, in a difficult position.”   Two reasons: (1) “His previous experience in academic medicine, applied science, and government service is threadbare.”  (2) “Gottlieb has been enmeshed in highly remunerative relationships with the biopharmaceutical industry, including sitting on various corporate boards…Gottlieb seems unlikely to have earned his corporate-board perches with scientific expertise.”

From Politico: Gottlieb says he will recuse himself–for one year (that’s all?)–from some (not all?) agency decisions dealing with more than 20 drug companies.  This is because he is a board member or adviser to those companies or funds them through his venture capital roles.  Here is his financial disclosure form.

From StatNewsMore details on Gottlieb’s financial entanglements with drug companies: “Gottlieb’s critics argue that his expansive resume creates a conflict-of-interest minefield that could cast doubt on the FDA’s decision making.”

From the New York Times:

Dr. Gottlieb, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has also been a prolific writer and public speaker, criticizing the agency’s approach. “In so heavily prioritizing one of its obligations — the protection of consumers — the F.D.A. has sometimes subordinated and neglected its other key obligation, which is to guide new medical innovations to market,” Dr. Gottlieb wrote in 2012 in National Affairs, a conservative-leaning political journal.

Also from the New England Journal of MedicineA commentary discusses the challenges faced by an FDA Commissioner having to do with evidence for drug efficacy, drug development, and drug prices.  It concludes: “All these challenges require a strongly resourced FDA working at the cutting edge of regulatory science. A commissioner who is able to advocate for such a vision, which includes less dependence on industry funding, will bring the agency into the 21st century.”  Will someone so closely tied to the drug industry fit this description?

Concerns about Gottlieb center on his financial ties to the drug industry.

But what about food?

A reader reminds me about pre-election promises to get rid of the FDA Food Police.

From The Hill, September, 2016:

In a fact sheet posted online Thursday, the campaign highlighted a number of “specific regulations to be eliminated” under the GOP nominee’s economic plan, including what they called the “FDA Food Police.”

“The FDA Food Police, which dictate how the federal government expects farmers to produce fruits and vegetables and even dictates the nutritional content of dog food,” it read.“The rules govern the soil farmers use, farm and food production hygiene, food packaging, food temperatures and even what animals may roam which fields and when,” the statement continued. “It also greatly increased inspections of food ‘facilities,’ and levies new taxes to pay for this inspection overkill.”

One can only speculate at this point, but I’m assuming that what you see is what you get.

Apr 3 2017

The U.K.’s efforts to reduce sugar intake

The British government is serious about reducing sugars, especially in the diets of children.  Its agency, Public Health England (PHE), has been hard at work for several years.

In 2014, it issued a report announcing plans for initiatives to reduce overall sugar intake: Sugar Reduction: Responding to the Challenge.

In 2015, its report provided evidence for why eating less sugar is necesssary: Sugar Reduction: The Evidence for Action.

The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) has concluded that the recommended average population maximum intake of sugar should be halved: it should not exceed 5% of total dietary energy. SACN also recommended that consumption of sugar sweetened drinks should be minimized by both adults and children. By meeting these recommendations within 10 years we would not only improve an individual’s quality of life but could save the NHS, based on a conservative assessment, around £500 m every year.

In 2016, a different agency of the UK government issued a plan for action to reduce childhood obesity. Among other recommendations, the plan called for taxes on soft drinks, but it also challenged the food and beverage industries to reduce sugars in products aimed at children by at least 20% by 2020, including a 5% reduction in the first year.  It said companies could do this by reducing sugar levels in products, reducing portion size, or shifting purchases to lower sugar alternatives.

In 2017, Public Health England set targets: Sugar Reduction: Achieving the 20%.

The role for Public Health England (PHE) is to advise government on setting the sugar reduction guidelines per 100 g of product and the calorie or portion size guidelines for specific single serving products. PHE is committed to publishing the category-specific guidelines for the nine initial categories of food in March 2017 and this report fulfills that commitment.

The guidelines are quite precise:

The good news: everyone has to do this so it will be an across-the-board reduction.

The not-so-good news: the reports say not one word about enforcement.

Public Health England plans follow-up reports.  Stay tuned.

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