by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Chocolate

Oct 24 2011

On Denmark’s “fat tax”

I have a commentary in the October 23 issue of New Scientist (UK):

Cover of 22 October 2011 issue of New Scientist magazine

World’s first fat tax: what will it achieve?

Enviably healthy Denmark is leading the way in taxing unhealthy food. Why are they doing it, and will it work

THE Danish government’s now infamous “fat tax” has caused an international uproar, applauded by public health advocates on the one hand and dismissed on the other as nanny-state social engineering gone berserk.

I see it as one country’s attempt to stave off rising obesity rates, and its associated medical conditions, when other options seem less feasible. But the policies appear confusing. Why Denmark of all places? Why particular foods? Will such taxes really change eating behaviour? And aren’t there better ways to halt or reverse rising rates of diet-related chronic disease?

Before getting to these questions, let’s look at what Denmark has done. In 2009, its government announced a major tax overhaul aimed at cushioning the shock of the global economic crisis, promoting renewable energy, protecting the environment, discouraging climate change, and improving health – all while maintaining revenues, of course.

The tax reforms make it more expensive to produce products likely to harm the environment and to consume products potentially harmful to health, specifically tobacco, ice cream, chocolate, candy, sugar-sweetened soft drinks, and foods containing saturated fats.

Some of these taxes took effect last July. The current fuss is over the introduction this month of a tax on foods containing at least 2.3 per cent saturated fat, a category that includes margarine, salad and cooking oils, animal fats, and dairy products, but not – thanks to effective lobbying from the dairy industry – fluid milk.

Copenhagen is the home of René Redzepi’s Noma, voted the world’s best restaurant for the past two years. To Americans, “Danish” means highly calorific fruit – and cheese-filled breakfast pastries. Despite such culinary riches, the Nordic nation reports enviable health statistics and a social support system beyond the wildest imagination of inhabitants of many countries. Danish citizens are entitled to free or very low-cost childcare, education and healthcare. Cycle lanes and high taxes on cars make bicycles the preferred method for getting to school or work, even by 63 per cent of members of the Danish parliament, the Folketing.

Taxes pay for this through policies that maintain a relatively narrow gap between the incomes of rich and poor. The Danish population is literate and educated. Its adult smoking rate is 19 per cent. Its obesity rate is 13.4 per cent, below the European average of 15 per cent and a level not seen in the US since the 1970s. Denmark has long used the tax system to achieve health goals. It has taxed candy for nearly 90 years, and was the first country to ban trans-fats in 2003.

Because its level of income disparity is relatively low, the effects of health taxes are less hard on the poor than in many other countries. But the Danes want their health to be better. Obesity rates may be low by US standards, but they used to be lower – 9.5 per cent in 2000. Life expectancy in Denmark is 79 years, at least two years below that in Japan or Iceland. The stated goal of the tax policies is to increase life expectancy as well as to reduce the burden and cost of illness from diet-related diseases.

Like all taxes, the “health” taxes are supposed to raise revenue: 2.75 billion Danish kroner annually ($470 million). The tax on saturated fat is expected to account for more than one-third of that. Since all food fats – no exceptions – are mixtures of saturated, unsaturated, and polyunsaturated fatty acids, the tax will have to be worked out food by food. Producers must do this, pay the tax, and pass the cost on to consumers.

Taxes on cigarettes are set high enough to discourage use, especially among young people. But the food taxes are low, 0.34 kroner on a litre of soft drinks, for example. The “fat” tax is 16 kroner per kilogram of saturated fat. In dollars, the taxes will add 12 cents to a bag of crisps and 40 cents to the price of a burger. Whether these amounts will discourage purchases remains to be seen.

Other countries are playing “me too” or waiting to see the results of Denmark’s experiment. Hungary has imposed a small tax on sweets, salty snacks, and sugary and caffeinated drinks and intends to use the revenues to offset healthcare costs. Romania and Iceland had such taxes but dropped them, whereas Finland and Ireland are considering them. Surprisingly, given his party’s anti-nanny state platform, UK prime minister David Cameron is suggesting food taxes to counter the nation’s burgeoning obesity crisis. The US has resisted calls for taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages, not least because the soft drink companies spent millions of dollars on defeating such proposals.

Leaving aside the usual criticisms, such as the impact on poorer people, I have a different reason for being troubled by tax interventions. They aim to change individual behaviour, but do little to change the behaviour of corporations that make and market unhealthful products, spending vast fortunes to make them available, desirable and socially acceptable.

Today, more and more evidence demonstrates the importance of food environment factors, such as processing, cost and marketing, in influencing food choices (The Lancet, DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(11)60813-1). Raising taxes is one way to change that environment by influencing the cost to the consumer. But governments seriously concerned about reducing rates of chronic disease should also consider ways to regulate production of unhealthy products, along with the ways they are marketed.

In the meantime, let us congratulate Denmark on what could be viewed as a revolutionary experiment. I can’t wait to see the results.

Marion Nestle is the author of Food Politics and What To Eat and is the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University

Oct 15 2011

Chocolate lovers: climate change affects you!

Every now and then something brings home what climate change could do to us: no chocolate!

Researchers in Colombia predict that the 1 degree rise in world temperatures expected by 2030 will hit small cocoa farmers in West Africa. particularly hard.  Farmers in Ghana and Cote d-Ivoire produce half the world’s cocoa.

The 2 degree rise expected by 2050 will make it impossible for them to grow the plants at current elevations.

Now that’s something to worry about over the weekend, no?

Aug 29 2011

Good news at last? chocolate is good for you! Maybe.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, the British Medical Journal offers some cheery news.

A systematic review and meta-analysis of studies on chocolate and health concludes that the flavonol antioxsidants in chocolate reduce the risk for cardiometabolic disorders such as heart disease and stroke—by a whopping one-third.

As the investigators explain, previous research suggests that:

chocolate consumption has a positive influence on human health, with antioxidant, antihypertensive, anti-inflammatory, anti-atherogenic, and anti-thrombotic effects as well as influence on insulin sensitivity, vascular endothelial function, and activation of nitric oxide.

This seems like a lot for one food–let alone candy—to accomplish but their review of seven studies concludes that people who eat the most chocolate compared to those who eat the least have much lower disease risks.

Wisely, the authors point out that much more research is needed to confirm these benefits, not least because the studies were observational, not clinical trials:

Experimental evidence will be needed before any level of causality can be inferred from the existing findings, and residual confounding could be considered as a potential explanation for the associations observed. Considering the limited data available, any conclusions should be cautious.

As indeed they should.  The investigators point out:

The high energy density of commercially available chocolate (about 2100 kJ (500 kcal)/100 g) means excessive consumption will probably induce weight gain, a risk factor for hypertension, dyslipidaemia, diabetes, and cardiometabolic disorders in general.  [Oops.  Chocolate is fattening]

Although our studies included populations with and without prior cardiovascular disease, the small numbers meant we could not evaluate whether the associations found would differ in terms of primary or secondary prevention.  [Oops, small numbers]

…We found no papers studying the relation between chocolate consumption and the risk of developing metabolic syndrome, and we identified only one study showing the relation between diabetes and chocolate intake (a positive association, especially in men).  [Oops, chocolate makes diabetes worse]

…Only two of the studies included evaluated the potential association of chocolate intake with the risk of heart failure. Both studies found no significant effect.  [Oops, chocolate is irrelevant to heart failure]

My conclusion: a little chocolate is delightful.  A lot is not.

As in all matters pertaining to diet, everything in moderation.

Jul 23 2010

Latest food safety challenge: chocolate yogurt

I never cease to be amazed by the problems that food technologists worry about. 

A German chocolate company—and the state of Schleswig-Holstein—are funding $2 million worth of research to find a method to safely add chocolate pieces to yogurt.

Why is the safety of chocolate in yogurt a problem?  Yogurt is wet and dissolves the sugar crystals in chocolate, making it messy.  Worse, chocolate is not sterile and yogurt is an ideal bacterial growth medium.

Sterilizing chocolate, it seems, is not easy:

The constituents of the cocoa are very sensitive. Excessively high temperatures and incorrect cleaning, roasting, grinding or conching impair the quality of the finished chocolate pieces. All that has to be taken into account when you are developing new sterilisation techniques.

Researchers, get busy!  Please, please solve this problem right away.

And in the meantime, for those of you desperate for chocolate in your yogurt, how about tossing in a handful of M&Ms?

Feb 21 2010

Do 2-in-1 packs encourage people to eat less chocolate? Alas, no.

European candy makers have been responding to concerns about obesity by taking their ordinary chocolate bars and packaging them so the pack contains two pieces, instead of just one.  Do people eat just one?  According to Dutch researchers, they do not.

Candy eaters “still perceive the entire package as one unit instead of two, because they come in the same wrapper. This also makes them less storable.”

Suggestion: how about making smaller candy bars to begin with?

Nov 18 2009

Chocolate milk redux: Nutrifluff vs. Policy

First, the “Nutrifluff,” my term for research with results that are intriguing but of unknown clinical significance.  I thank everyone who sent me links to the New York Times account of the new study linking chocolate milk to reduced inflammation.  It quotes the lead author:  “Since atherosclerosis is a low-grade inflammatory disease of the arteries, regular cocoa intake seems to prevent or reduce [it].”   But the giveaway is the next magic words that cover all bases: “more studies needed.”

The study suggests – but in no way proves – that drinking chocolate milk reduces the risk of coronary artery disease.  Inflammation is an intermediate marker of suggestive but unconfirmed clinical implications.  More research is needed, indeed.

Next, policy.  Recall the fuss over chocolate milk (see previous post on the topic)?   Marlene Schwartz of the Rudd Center at Yale has posted an explanation of her views on the matter.

The “chocolate milk controversy” story this week is not about nutrition; it’s about marketing…They explain that “more than half of all flavored milk is sold in schools,” and “the importance of flavored milk goes beyond the school market because it is a key growth area for milk processors.”

They are trying to sell their product. There is nothing wrong with that as long as their marketing efforts are not misleading. Chocolate milk is not the nutritional equivalent of regular milk. It is significantly higher in calories, sugar (often high fructose corn syrup), sodium, and usually contains artificial colors and flavors.

In the promotional video on YouTube, expert dieticians acknowledged that chocolate milk has about 60 more calories per serving than regular milk, but then quickly added that “in the grand scheme of things, that’s nothing compared to the amount of nutrients they are going to be getting.”

That sounded really familiar.

“In the grand scheme of things, these calories don’t count” is exactly what we heard from David Mackay, the CEO of Kellogg in his defense of marketing his company’s high-sugar cereals: “Twelve grams of sugar is 50 calories. A presweetened cereal as part of a regular diet for kids is not a bad thing.”

50 calories here, 60 calories there, and pretty soon we are talking about real weight gain.

Our research has found that children will eat low-sugar cereals and drink white milk when these are the foods that are served. We also found that most children will also eat a piece of fruit if you prompt them to take it. School cafeterias are the perfect place to reinforce the nutrition lessons that begin at home and promote nutrient-dense foods.

If chocolate milk were the only treat children were exposed to in schools, it would not be nearly as much of a problem.  But it is not.  In many schools, kids are offered sweet treats all day long (birthday celebrations, rewards from teachers, etc) or exposed to those readily available from vending machines.  So sweet foods have become the norm.  Norms are hard to change, but let’s at least not make them worse.

Mar 2 2009

Today’s chocolate problem: cow burps

Today’s snow storm has closed New York schools and cancelled my scheduled lecture on Staten Island.  This unexpected holiday gives me time to contemplate the latest challenge to marketers of chocolate candy: gas emissions from dairy cows.

Cadbury estimates that 60% of the carbon footprint created by its chocolate operations in the U.K. comes from dairy cows.  The average cow, it says, gives off 80 to 120 kilograms of methane annually, an amount equivalent to that produced by driving a car for a year.

The remedy?  Reduce cow burps.   How?  Cadbury is going to try feeding them more clover, more starch, and less fiber, and treating them better.

Will this work?  If it does, will you buy more Cadbury chocolate?

Sep 29 2008

Oh no! Melamine in chocolate!

In Hong Kong, Cadbury’s is recalling 11 China-made chocolate products found to contain melamine.   I hope everyone is testing everything made in China that might have milk or protein in it.  Soy anyone?

Update: According to the Wall Street Journal, Indonesia says it found melamine in M&M’s and Snickers bars.  Mars says that’s not possible.

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