Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Sep 5 2014

Never mind low-carb v. low-fat: Get a Lab (dog, that is)

A reader who prefers his name to go unmentioned writes this in response to yesterday’s post about low-carb v. low-fat diets:

Hi Marion,

It is pretty simple.

1. Calories in, Calories out!

2.  Eat less. I cut out beer and ice cream.

3.  Get a Labrador retriever and walk everyday. If you don’t the dog will drive you crazy and probably destroy your house.

I got my first Lab in 2002 and weighed 240.  I am on my second Lab and now continue to weigh about 210 after having lost 35 pounds by 2006, and have crept up about 5 pounds.

It ain’t complicated!

He could make a fortune.  Just think: the “Get a Lab” diet—a guaranteed success!

Sep 4 2014

The diet wars: same old, same old

To my great surprise, a new clinical trial finding that low-carbohydrate diets help people lose weight has been getting a lot of press. Its conclusion:

The low-carbohydrate diet was more effective for weight loss and cardiovascular risk factor reduction than the low-fat diet. Restricting carbohydrate may be an option for persons seeking to lose weight and reduce cardiovascular risk factors.

This is news?

The trial, conducted by authors who previously published a meta-analysis that came to the same conclusion, told people to eat either a low-carbohydrate diet of less than 40 grams a day (the amount of sugar in one 12-ounce soda) or a “low-fat” diet of 30% of calories from fat or less.

They didn’t do either, of course (for one critic’s analysis, see examine.com).

I put quotes around “low-fat” because 30% of calories is not exactly what I would call low—lower, for sure, but not low. After a year, the low-carb dieters lost about 3.5 kg more than did the “low-fat” dieters.  They also showed greater improvements in their risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

As I told Andy Bellatti

The folks eating the low carbohydrate diet…were eating less, and probably a lot less.  It’s easier for some people to lose weight if they cut out whole categories of food, in this case, carbohydrates.  But is this a long-term solution?  For that, we need to see results for several years.   Studies that examine the effects of different kinds of diets—and there have been many—typically find that all work to the extent that they cut calories, but that people have trouble sticking to extreme diets, which the low-carb one was in this study.  Personally, I like carbs and would rather cut my calories some other way, but that’s just me.  The bottom line: if you want to lose weight and are having trouble doing it, you need to eat less.

This profoundly boring conclusion, discussed at length in my book with Malden Nesheim, Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics, has just been confirmed by yet another meta-analysis.  This one doesn’t seem to be getting much press, however.

It reports significant weight loss with any low-carbohydrate or low-fat diet.

Weight loss differences between individual named diets were small. This supports the practice of recommending any diet that a patient will adhere to in order to lose weight.

An accompanying editoria,  “A Diet by Any Other Name Is Still About Energy,” points out that study investigators only rarely analyze for how well participants in these studies actually adhere to the different diets, and for how long.

This makes it impossible for readers to figure out whether the weight loss was due to the specific components excluded from the diet or to the level of adherence.

In other words, whatever helps you eat less, helps you lose weight.  Go for it.

Sep 3 2014

Food art: Polar Bear Hamburger

The Johnson Museum of Art on the Cornell University campus is displaying this remarkable, 8-foot wide, soft sculpture in its lobby.

The artist is Vincent J.F. Huang.  He calls it “Polar Bear Hamburger, 2014.”

VJF Huang 2014

Mr. Huang says his work is devoted to “creating statements that will raise awareness around various political and environmental issues.”

It works for me.

Worth the visit,

Sep 2 2014

Industrial hemp: “squishy” legalities. But will it replace kale?

Section 7606 of the 2014 Farm Bill says that notwithstanding the Controlled Substances Act, The Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, and other laws that govern the cultivation of marijuana, it is now OK for state agriculture departments and universities to grow “industrial” hemp for research purposes.

Industrial hemp, the Farm Bill says, means “the plant Cannabis sativa L…with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol [THC] concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.”

To put this in context: the average THC potency of domestically grown recreational hemp  (a.k.a. marijuana) is about 6 percent, but can go much higher.

With so little THC in industrial hemp, why would anyone want to bother with it?   Textiles of course, but also medical purposes and dietary supplements.

Even a little THC, apparently, goes a long way.

The New York Times reports that companies are growing industrial hemp to make hemp oil as a treatment for epilepsy.

On the legalities of hemp oil, The Times explains that the

Drug Enforcement Administration is offering few clues, insisting in public statements that while it is willing to allow marijuana sales in states that have legalized the drug, it might step in if growers try to sell beyond state borders…Any chemical that comes from the plant is still a controlled substance…When we get into hemp, it gets a little squishy, but it still is illegal.

Squishy?  Growing and using industrial or recreational hemp is illegal in America except in states that have made hemp legal or quasi-legal.

For example, New York State recently passed a hemp bill that would set up pilot programs for the production of industrial hemp.

At least one company is growing hemp in Colorado for use in dietary supplements.   At a trade show last year, it displayed US Hemp Oil promoted for its content of CBD—cannabidiol, a non-narcotic fraction of the hemp plant.

The company insists that CBD is a legal ingredient of dietary supplements.

Hemp, it argues, is a vegetable:

The pure oil is considered GRAS [generally recognized as safe]. Under the United States Uniform Tariff Code they tax and code hemp as a vegetable. I don’t know anything that’s a vegetable that isn’t GRAS. When we import it, it is always considered a vegetable, so that’s what we use in our declaratory actions…in March of last year Canadian company Abattis announced plans to bring a CBD-infused kombucha drink to market.

However and whether CBD works for medical purposes, everyone expects industrial hemp to be a huge cash crop for its textile and health food uses.

This is especially a boon for Kentucky, and it’s no coincidence that Kentucky Republican Senator Mitch McConnell spearheaded the hemp provision through the Farm Bill.

The boon-for-Kentucky Website provides a long list of potential applications for industrial hemp, ranging from textiles to cosmetics to auto parts.

Proponents of CBD provide an even longer list of diseases for which industrial hemp’s CBD is a treatment option.  There isn’t much research on the physiological effects of CBD.  This makes industrial hemp perfect as a dietary supplements.  It might do something.  That’s all you need for supplement marketing.

The legal battles will be fun to watch.  Stay tuned.

In the meantime, there is hemp cereal—organic of course.  Enjoy!

 

 

 

Aug 31 2014

Happy Labor Day Weekend: Eat!

It’s the end of summer and time to contemplate, if not visit, State Fairs selling increasingly imaginative deep-fried treats.  Apparently, deep-fried Oreos and deep-fried butter are so last year.

The Wall Street Journal tells us that the Great New York State Fair—in Syracuse, right now—has a better one: “Twinks.”

And what, pray tell, is a Twink?

The recipe:

  • Take one Twinkie.
  • Stuff with a Twix candy bar
  • Wrap in bacon.
  • Dip in batter.
  • Deep-fry.
  • Sprinkle with sugar.

The damage?  Just south of 1,000 calories.

And from Montana, Daniel Schultz sends this photo of the latest grocery store deal.  If you buy a soda cake (soda cake?) for $4.99, you get 2 liters of your favorite soft drink to wash it down, free.

Soda Cake

Drive carefully.

Aug 29 2014

Global Nutrition Report: How US Citizens Can Hold Government Accountable for Preventing Malnutrition

Lawrence Haddad, senior researcher at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), invited me to comment on how to strengthen accountability in the fight against malnutrition in the United States.

This is a contribution to the Global Nutrition Report, a project chaired by the Governments of Malawi and the UK as an outcome of the 2013 Nutrition for Growth Summit in London.

My comments are in response to this specific question:

Q.  How can citizens of the United States hold their government accountable for preventing and reversing malnutrition?

A.  This question has no easy answer.  To begin with, we see practically no cases of severe undernutrition among U.S. citizens, in the sense that it occurs in the developing world.  Only rarely, do adults or children exhibit overt clinical signs of vitamin or mineral deficiency, let along acute malnutrition.  Instead, in America we talk about “food insecurity,” defined by government agencies as consistent, dependable, legal access to enough food on a daily basis to support active healthy living.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) monitors the extent of food insecurity among the population in two ways.  It counts the number of individuals who apply and qualify for participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as Food Stamps), and it collects data from surveys and publishes the results in annual reports on Household Food Security.  By both measures, nearly 15 percent of the U.S. population is judged to be food insecure—one out of every six adults.  Nearly six percent of the population is considered to be severely food insecure and, therefore, at risk of malnutrition but not necessarily displaying clinical signs.

Americans who qualify as food insecure are more likely than average to be poor, single parents, African-American or Hispanic, and living either in large cities or in rural areas.  They also, paradoxically, are more likely to be overweight or obese.  An explanation for the lack of clinical signs of malnutrition and of overweight is that nearly 60 percent of those considered food insecure participate in one or more of the three largest federal food and nutrition assistance programs (SNAP, the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children or WIC, and National School Lunch Program.  An unspecified percentage also obtains free food from privately run charitable food banks or soup kitchens. As the USDA likes to explain, its 15 domestic food and nutrition assistance programs “form a nutritional safety net for millions of children and low-income adults” and account for more than 70 percent of USDA’s annual budget.

What the USDA says less about is the quality of that food.  SNAP has minimal limitations on what can be purchased with benefits, and retailers lobby hard to make sure program participants can continue to buy cheap, high-calorie foods and beverages.  WIC, in contrast, permits purchase of a limited number of foods meeting certain nutrition standards.  Recently, school meals have been required to meet nutrition standards, but these too are under lobbying pressure by food companies.

Because of the high cost of these programs—SNAP alone costs taxpayers $80 billion a year—arguments about what to do about food insecurity come down to matters of money.  They only rarely focus on ways to ensure that even the poorest Americans get enough food to eat, let alone healthy food.  Accountability, therefore, must confront the views of many congressional representatives that assistance programs represent “nanny-state” government and induce dependence among recipients.

Given this situation, American anti-hunger advocates are limited in what they can expect to accomplish in the current political era.  As one sympathetic Congressman, Jim McGovern (Dem-MA) once explained, hunger does not resonate with Congress.  Because the government already monitors food insecurity, the next steps must aim to get it to do something about the problem.  This means reducing poverty and income inequities (which in part means reducing educational inequities, providing a stronger safety net for single parents and those living in cities and rural areas, and reaching out to the 40 percent of people who qualify as food insecure but receive no federal food or nutrition assistance benefits.  It also means bringing anti-hunger and anti-obesity together to support healthier food options for low-income Americans.

All of this will cost money at a time when the interest of Congress in food assistance is only as a means to cut benefits.  This, in turn, means that the only way to fix the hunger problem in the United States is to change election campaign laws so that individuals who care about such issues have a chance of being elected.   Recent decisions of the Supreme Court in Citizens United and in McCutcheon make it clear that it favors no or insignificant limits on campaign contributions for corporations or wealthy individuals.    The one bright spot is the national movement that has emerged to obtain a raise the minimum wage, especially for restaurant and farm workers.  Most recipients of federal food assistance are employed, but at wages too low to bring them out of poverty.  Paying living wages would solve most problems of food insecurity in America.

 

Aug 27 2014

On two views of GMOs: Michael Specter vs. Vandana Shiva and Gary Hirshberg

Michael Specter’s article “Seeds of Doubt” in the current issue of The New Yorker  is a critical profile of  India’s Vandana Shiva and her active opposition to genetically modified foods.  At the end, it offers this somewhat temporizing statement:

Genetically modified crops will not solve the problem of the hundreds of millions of people who go to bed hungry every night. It would be far better if the world’s foods contained an adequate supply of vitamins. It would also help the people of many poverty-stricken countries if their governments were less corrupt. Working roads would do more to reduce nutritional deficits than any G.M.O. possibly could, and so would a more equitable distribution of the Earth’s dwindling supply of freshwater. No single crop or approach to farming can possibly feed the world. To prevent billions of people from living in hunger, we will need to use every one of them.

Despite this peace offering, his article elicited a firm rebuttal from Dr. Shiva. It also elicited a rebuttal from Gary Hirshberg, chair of Just Label It. If you want to get into the weeds of the GMO arguments, all three of these pieces are well worth reading.

They raise and debate the same arguments I discussed in Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, first published in 2003 and out in a second edition in 2010. As I explain in the book, the gist of the arguments comes from two apparently irreconcilable views of GMO foods:

  1. The “science-based” position: If GMOs are safe (which they demonstrably are), there can be no rational reason to oppose them.
  2. The “societal value-based” position: Even if GMOs are safe (and this is debatable), there are still plenty of other reasons to oppose them.

Specter holds the first position.  Shiva and Hirshberg hold the second. Those who hold the “science-based” position would do well to take societal values more seriously.

Seed patents, monoculture, weed resistance, and other such concerns trouble people who care about food systems that promote health, protect the environment, and provide social justice.

Labeling, right from the start, would have acknowledged the importance of such values. Until GMO foods are labeled as such, the same arguments are likely to go on endlessly, with no reconciliation in sight.

Additions:

Aug 25 2014

More money in food: USDA’s food dollar

While I’m thinking about the role of money in food, take a look at USDA’s new food dollar series.

Farm and agribusiness get 11.8 cents on the dollar.

The real money is in adding value through processing (18.6 cents) and food service (33.7 cents).

When farmers complain that it’s hard to make a living, they aren’t kidding.

Screenshot 2014-08-20 09.50.54

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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