Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Feb 3 2017

Weekend reading: Food Sociology

John Germov & Lauren Williams, eds. A Sociology of Food & Nutrition: The Social Appetite, 4th ed.  Oxford University Press, 2017.


I know about this book mainly because my NYU colleague Marie Bragg and I have a chapter in it, “The politics of government dietary advice: the influence of Big Food.”

The book is meant to introduce readers to the field of food sociology through themes.  It divides chapters by various authors into three sections: the social appetite, the food system, and food culture.

Its aim is

to make the sociological study of food relevant to a multidisciplinary readership, particularly those across health, nutrition, and social science disciplines.  Our further aim is to reach a broad readership so that those interested in food, nutrition, and wider issues of food production, distribution, and consumption can discover the relevance of studying the social context of food.

The chapters plunge into the controversies and come with summaries of the main points, sociological reflections, discussion questions, and ideas for further investigation.

The sociological reflection on Marie’s and my chapter says:

Dietary guidelines and food guides, although apparently “science-based,” are created by individuals who serve on government committees and are subject to the same kinds of influences as any other members of society.  Because the food industry is the sector of society with the strongest stake in the outcome of dietary guidance, government agencies and committee members are strongly lobbied by industry.  Controversy over dietary advice derives from the contradiction between the health-promoting goals of public health and the profit-making goals of food companies.

If you are looking for a quick introduction to food sociology, here’s a place to begin.  The editors are Australian academics so there are plenty of Australian examples.

Feb 2 2017

USDA’s latest data on food trends

The USDA has just issued a report on trends in per capita food availability from 1970 to 2014.

Here’s my favorite figure:

The inner ring represents calories from those food groups in 1970. The outer ring includes data from 2014.

The bottom line: calories from all food groups increased, fats and oils and the meat group most of all, dairy and fruits and vegetables the least.

The sugar data are also interesting:

Total sugars (blue) peaked at about 1999 in parallel with high fructose corn syrup (orange).  Table sugar, sucrose, has been flat since the 1980s (green).

Eat your veggies!

Feb 1 2017

Food marketing to kids: Heart & Stroke Canada says no!

Heart & Stroke Canada has a new report on food and beverage marketing to kids: The Kids Are Not Alright.

The press release says:

Our children and youth are bombarded with ads for unhealthy products all day, every day, influencing their food and beverage choices. This is having a devastating effect on their health and setting up conflict at home.

Marketing is big business and it is sophisticated…New research reveals that over 90% of food and beverage product ads viewed by kids and teens online are for unhealthy products, and collectively kids between the ages of two and 11 see 25 million food and beverage ads a year on their top 10 favourite websites.

It is time for this marketing storm to stop.

Its advice:

  • Eat healthy early, eat healthy often
  • Family food fights
  • Not your grandmother’s commercials
  • Industry self-regulation is a failure
  • Legislation means a fair fight for everyone

Lots to work with here.  Glad to have it.

Jan 31 2017

Are we drinking less soda? The industry says yes.

The CDC has just released two reports on consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, one for adults and one for children and adolescents.

For adults ages 20 and over, the CDC says:

  • Half drink at least one sugar-sweetened beverage on any given day.
  • These contribute 145 calories per day or about 6% of total calories.
  • The amount consumed declines with age.

For kids ages 2 to 19, the CDC says:

  • More than 60% consume at least one a day.
  • Sugary drinks provide an average of 143 calories a day or 7% of total calories.
  • Roughly 10% of kids drink 3 or more per day.
  • Kids ages 12 to 19 drink the most.

The Washington Post tracked the trends.  The decline in consumption of sugary drinks has slowed down from the peak in about 2000.

Is this trend real?

These figures are based on self-reported intake (or parents’ reports of their kids’ intake) in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).

I much prefer industry data on sales, which don’t have to deal with the messy business of self-reports.

Fortune Magazine, for example, says soda sales have declined for the last 11 years.

The downward trend is good for public health.  May it continue!

Jan 30 2017

Tomato flavor! Scientists nail it.

I am a long-time reader of Science Magazine and every now and then come across an article I just love.

My latest favorite is a study titled “A chemical genetic roadmap to improved tomato flavor.”

As any grower of backyard (or, in my case, terrace) tomatoes can tell you, the most delicious tomatoes wonderfully balance sweetness, acidity, and flavor.

As the authors understate in their Abstract, “Modern commercial tomato varieties are substantially less flavorful than heirloom varieties.”

To correct this problem, they identified flavor-associated chemicals in 398 modern, heirloom, and wild tomato varieties.  These chemicals are present in minute (picomolar, nanomolar) amounts and hard to identify.

But any tomato grower could have told them what they found:

Modern commercial varieties contain significantly lower amounts of many of these important flavor chemicals than older varieties.

The investigators also identified the genes responsible for sugars, acids, and volatiles.

They found:

A total of 13 flavor-associated volatiles were significantly reduced in modern varieties relative to heirloom varieties. Volatile chemicals define the unique flavor of a tomato and are essential for consumer liking. Thus, poor flavor of modern varieties can largely be attributed to the dilution of many flavor volatiles that positively influence liking. This dilution of flavor chemicals should be correctable by reintroducing superior alleles of genes controlling their synthesis.

They did a couple of other things

Analysis of [genetic] loci impacting sugar content provides a cautionary tale regarding crop domestication and improvement. We identified two loci …that have significant associations with glucose and fructose content on chromosomes 9 and 11 …Both of these loci are located within regions previously identified as being within both domestication and improvement sweeps, indicating early and continued selection for larger fruit…Taken together, the negative correlation between fruit weight and sugar content in S. lycopersicum is likely associated with the loss of the high-sugar alleles during domestication and improvement as ever-larger fruits were selected..

Translation: Tomatoes bred to be bigger have less sugar.  Smaller tomatoes are sweeter .

Grow cherry tomatoes (Sun Golds—yum).

Here’s one of the illustrations, in this case showing the variation in genes for certain flavor chemicals in various kinds of tomatoes.

 

 

Jan 27 2017

Weekend browsing: The New Farmer’s Almanac


The Greenhorns, “a grassroots organization working to support and promote new generations of young farmers, ” has just released the third volume in its Farmer’s Almanac series.

Farmer’s Almanac, Vol. III: Commons of Sky, Knowledge, Land, Water.   Chelsea Green Publishing, 2017.

 

I did a blurb for Volume II (2015): A Contemporary Compendium for Agrarians, Interventionists, and Patriots of Place

This Farmer’s Almanac has all of the best features of the classic versions—wonderful drawings and charts–along with a pot pourri of modern philosophical musings on agrarian values.  It’s a browser’s delight!

More information about Volume III is here.

 

For previous volumes, send email to office@thegreenhorns.net.

Jan 26 2017

FDA to hold hearing on the meaning of “healthy” (on food package labels)

I just received this invitation:

Save The Date

FDA invites our Constituent Update subscribers to Save the Date for the

FDA Public Meeting on the Use of the Term “Healthy” in the Labeling of Human Food

Thursday, March 9, 2017 (8:30 AM5:30 PM)

Hilton Washington DC/Rockville Hotel

 1750 Rockville Pike

Rockville, Maryland 20852

This refers to FDA’s “public process to redefine the healthy” nutrient content claim for food labeling.”

This involved opening its proposals up for public comment, extending the comment period until April 26 this year., and holding this public meeting “to facilitate further dialogue on this topic.”

This all came about as a result of the KIND company’s petition to FDA to advertise its nut-grain-and chocolate bars as “healthy,” even though the nuts and chocolate have more fat than is allowed in the FDA’s current definition.  The FDA agreed that KIND could use the term.

The irony is that this enormous effort applies to processed food products.  OK, some are more processed than others, but eating whole, relatively unprocessed foods is what’s really healthy.

This is about how food companies can market products.  It is not about health.

FDA has produced these documents:

 

Jan 25 2017

British government tells home cooks: do something about acrylamide

As a distraction from Brexit, perhaps, the British government has just launched a new anti-acrylamide campaign aimed at home cooks: “Go for Gold.

By Gold, it is referring to the preferred color of toast: the lighter the color, the less acrylamide, a carcinogen formed when foods containing sugars and the amino acid asparagine are cooked at high temperatures.  This is a Maillard reaction, which causes baked, fried, and toasted foods to turn attractively brown and delicious.

As the BBC explains,


The response?  Critics immediately complained that evidence linking acrylamide to cancer is weak and that this campaign is unnecessarily scary and distracting from real public health problems such as food insecurity and obesity.

I’ve written about Acrylamide several times in the past.  Here’s what I said in 2009: “Acrylamide, sigh”:

I don’t know what to say about acrylamide.  Acrylamide is the powerful carcinogen that gets formed when carbohydrates and proteins are cooked together at high temperature, as in dark toast, French fries, and potato chips. I just can’t figure out how bad it is, and I like my toast well toasted.  But: Canada recently added acrylamide to its list of toxic substances.  The European Union has just listed it as a hazardous chemical “of high concern.”

It’s better to avoid it, I guess.  But is this a number one priority for a national public health campaign?

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