Currently browsing posts about: IOM (Institute of Medicine)

Jun 13 2013

The endless debates about salt: Don’t worry. Eat (real) food

Since 1980, U.S. dietary guidelines have advised eating less sodium (salt is 40% sodium, 60% chloride).  Although sodium is an essential nutrient, most Americans consume way more than they need or is good for them—around 3,400 milligrams a day.

The 2010 guidelines advised healthy people to consume no more than 2,300 mg per day (~6 grams, or 1.5 teaspoons).  They advised even less, 1,500 mg, for people with or at high risk for high blood pressure.  Since blood pressure increases with age in countries with high salt intake, this applies or will apply to just about everyone.  

In 2011, the Institute of Medicine said it was imperative to find effective strategies to lower salt intake.  This means dealing with processed and restaurant foods, because that’s where most of the salt comes from, as can be seen from this list of major food sources

Because consumers have no choice about the amount of salt in processed and restaurant foods, education cannot be enough to achieve salt reduction.  Scientists in Australia have just proved this point.

As I explained to a reporter,

Why anyone would think that nutrition education alone would change behavior is beyond me. By this time everyone should know that to change behavior requires not only education, but a food environment—social, political, economic—that supports and promotes the behavior change.

Most dietary sodium comes from processed foods, restaurant foods, and other pre-prepared foods.  All the label can do is say ‘don’t eat me’ It can’t help with what people can eat.

The easiest and most effective way to help people reduce sodium intake is to require food producers and food preparers to use less of it. Good luck with that. I’m not optimistic, particularly given the conflicting and confusing science. 

Ah yes.  The conflicting science.  The IOM now says that there’s no evidence one way or the other that reducing sodium below 2,300 mg per day, or even to 1,500 per day, does much good, and that low sodium intakes could be harmful (but this too is controversial).

Yes, they could, but as Mark Bittman blogs,    

It may be true that there are no benefits in an ultra-low-salt diet, but almost no one is eating an ultra-low-salt diet. It’s not quite like worrying about whether we get “enough” sugar, but it’s nearly as ridiculous.

And now, as Food Navigator explains, the IOM committee is complaining that its report has been badly misinterpreted.  All they said was:

As to whether we should cut back to 1,500 mg or to 2,300 mg sodium a day, meanwhile, the jury is out, says the IOM, not because consuming 1500 mg/day is dangerous, but because there is just not enough data on the benefits of consuming such low levels to support a firm conclusion.

IOM committee members were so bothered by misleading press accounts that they wrote an op-ed to JAMA to clarify:

Rather than focusing on disagreements about specific targets that currently affect less than 10% of the US population (ie, sodium intake of <2300 mg/d vs <1500 mg/d),  the IOM, AHA, WHO, and DGA are congruent in suggesting that excess sodium intake should be reduced, and this is likely to have significant public health effects. Accomplishing such a reduction will require efforts to decrease sodium in the food environment….

The bottom line, Bittman says (and I enthusiastically agree), is that

Salt intake — like weight, and body mass index — is a convenient baseline for public policy people to talk about. If you focus on eating less salt — and, indeed, less sugar — you will inevitably eat less processed food, fast food, junk food (it’s all the same thing.) If you eat less processed food (etc.) you eat more real food. If you eat more real food, not only are you healthier, but you probably don’t have to pay attention to how much salt you’re eating. Wowie zowie. 

Feb 13 2013

Petition to FDA: it’s time to put “added sugars” on food labels

Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) held a press conference this morning to announce that 10 health departments, 20 health and consumer organizations, and 41 health professionals (including me) have signed a letter in support of its petition asking the FDA to:

  • Initiate a rule-making proceeding to ensure that the content of sucrose and HFCS in beverages is limited to safe levels consistent with authoritative recommendations. 
  • Revise the “Sugars” line on Nutrition Facts labels to address “added sugars.”
  • Set targets for lower levels of added sugars in other foods that provide significant amounts. 
  • Conduct a public education campaign to encourage consumers to consume less added sugars.
Why?  Check out CSPI’s infographic:  Sugar: Too Much of a Sweet Thing.
The petition also asks the FDA to work with the food industry to:
  • Limit the sale of oversized sugar-sweetened beverages in restaurants
  • Limit the sale of oversized sugar-sweetened beverages from vending machines
  • Develop means to reduce the use of added sugars.

Our letter of support begins:

The undersigned scientists and organizations are concerned about Americans’ excess consumption of added sugars…Every edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (going back to 1980) has recommended reducing consumption of added sugars, but Americans are consuming more added sugars (including sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, and other caloric sweeteners) now than they did in 1980. And that high level of consumption…is contributing to serious health problems.

If the situation with trans fats was any indication, the food industry will reduce the sugars in its products if it has to disclose them.

This is not the first time that CSPI has tried to get added sugars labeled (see petition from 1999).  I’m hoping the letter of support will encourage the FDA to take action this time.

Maybe it will even put sugars on front-of-package labels, as the Institute of Medicine suggested in 2011.

Jan 31 2013

FDA’s research on food labels: any help?

Nutrition Facts panels on food labels are notoriously confusing.  People who use them usually look for only one item such as fat or calories.

As I’ve discussed previously. the label is so difficult to interpret that the FDA devotes pages on its website to explaining it.  When the FDA did the original research in the early 1990s, it tested a large number of formats.  When it became clear that people did not understand any of them very well, the FDA chose the least worst—the one that was understood least poorly.

Two decades later, the FDA is revisiting the Nutrition Facts panel to make it easier to understand in the light of today’s concerns about calories and obesity.  Once again, it is testing multiple formats.  The results of the first round of research have just been published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (JAND), and reporters are trying to make sense of them.

FDA researchers tested 10 formats differing in number of servings and columns (1 or 2, each), font size, and wording.  They asked respondents for opinions about the healthfulness of the product, number of calories and nutrients per serving, perceptions of the label, and the ability to choose healthier products and those with fewer calories.  This, like the research in the early 1990s, is complicated.

The result:

For products that contain 2 servings but are customarily consumed at a single eating occasion, using a single-serving or dual-column labeling approach may help consumers make healthier food choices.

Here’s an example of one of the formats that may help:

Soda companies are already doing something like this, but a 20-ounce soda has more than 2 servings.  Serving size is what confuses.  If it’s 100 calories per serving, those calories have to be multiplied by the number of servings per container.

The Institute of Medicine produced two reports for the FDA on front-of-package labels and also suggested a way to integrate its ideas into the Nutrition Facts label.

Is the FDA testing this idea?  I hope so.

Dec 13 2012

Good news: cities report declines in childhood obesity

I don’t get many fan letters (as you can tell from reading the comments to posts).  When I do, they mean a lot.  Here’s an especially lovely one from a reader this week:

I cannot help but think of you and the work that you do having a great impact on the first signs of child/youth obesity declining.  Although the “researchers” indicate they are not sure of the reasons for the decline, I think many within the food / food politics community know that the work you do, the awareness you spread and the advertising you expose, greatly affects the way we feed our children.  As a real food advocate and parent, thank you for the work you do.

Thanks but I can take no credit (much as I would love to).

The writer is referring to a front-page, right-hand column story—the most important of the day—in the December 11 New York Times.   The article said that several cities are reporting drops in childhood obesity rates.

The drops may be small, just 3% to 5%, but any reversal in obesity trends is excellent news.

Last September, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation first reported such drops.

It noted that the declines were occurring in places that had taken comprehensive action to address childhood obesity.

New York City, for example, has engaged in major efforts to make healthy dietary choices the easy choices.  Health Commissioner Tom Farley recently reported a 5.5% decline in childhood obesity.

The Foundation says that Philadelphia:

has undertaken a broad assault on childhood obesity for years. Sugary drinks like sweetened iced tea, fruit punch and sports drinks started to disappear from school vending machines in 2004. A year later, new snack guidelines set calorie and fat limits, which reduced the size of snack foods like potato chips to single servings. By 2009, deep fryers were gone from cafeterias and whole milk had been replaced by one percent and skim.

Broad policies like these are exactly what the Institute of Medicine recommends (me too).

And now, it seems, these actions are actually having the intended effect.

That’s the best news ever.

And I don’t care who gets credit for it.

 

Dec 5 2012

Shouldn’t Nickelodeon adopt better nutrition standards for the products it advertises?

More than 80 health groups, doctors, and nutritionists (including me) just sent a letter urging Nickelodeon and its parent company, Viacom, to adopt stricter standards for its advertisers to children.

Marketing to children is the frontier of healthy eating efforts.  As the Institute of Medicine reported in 2005, marketing directed at children is demonstrably effective at getting kids to want products, pester their parents for them, and believe that snacks, fast food, and sodas are “kids’ food” and what they are supposed to be eating.

Efforts to get food companies to cease and desist targeting kids for ads run up against business imperatives to expand sales and report growth to Wall Street every quarter.

For some years now, the kids’ TV station Nickelodeon has been struggling to find an economically viable way to restrict marketing of the worst products.  But if Nickelodeon establishes commonly accepted nutrition standards for products it permits to be advertised, those standards will exclude most advertisers.  ”Economically viable” is what this is about.

This is precisely the same dilemma caused by the ill-fated Interagency Working Group report earlier this year.  I thought its proposed standards were too generous.  Food companies thought they were too restrictive.  The government backed off.

Now Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is trying another method.  It organized a letter-writing campaign to press Nickelodeon to adopt nutrition standards like those adopted by Disney a few months ago.

If you think this is a good idea, you too can sign onto the campaign right here.

Short of regulation, public pressure might be just what’s needed to encourage Nickelodeon—and food companies—to stop marketing junk foods to kids.  

May 17 2012

Pondering the Weight of the Nation

I’ve been asked to comment on the HBO series, Weight of the Nation and everything that comes with it: the accompanying book, the auxiliary videos, the distribution plan to schools and other institutions, and the Institute of Medicine’s report, Accelerating Progress in Obesity Prevention.

Because I wanted to look at all of it before commenting, plenty of others have beaten me to it, among them FoodandTechConnect’s infographic summary,   Kerry Trueman on AlterNet and Michele Simon on Grist.

I don’t have HBO but got sent the press kit, the Weight of the Nation book, the disks, and the IOM report.  I watched all four hours of the HBO series, plus the “Rethinkers” video of kids working on a school lunch project in New Orleans (air dates), plus the IOM and HBO books, plus the website.

Overall, Weight of the Nation makes the size, scope, causes, and consequences of obesity alarmingly clear.

The talking heads—many of them my friends, colleagues, and former students—all had plenty to say about what obesity means on a day-to-day basis for individuals and its personal and economic cost to society.

The programs ought to convince anyone that obesity is a big problem and that something big needs to be done to prevent it.

But doing something big, the series makes clear, will be very difficult.

This may be realistic, but it is not inspiring.

We need inspiration.   That’s why I wish the programs had focused as much on social responsibility as they did on personal responsibility.

I wanted to see the programs take leadership on how government can help citizens reduce the social, economic, and business drivers of obesity.

That kind of leadership exists.  To see it in action, watch the video of the New Orleans school “rethinkers.”  Those kids wanted to improve their school lunches.  They got busy, dealt with setbacks, and learned how to make the system work for them.  They “spoke truth to power” and “held feet to the fire.”

Why aren’t adults doing the same?   Politics, the IOM report explains.  Although one of its principal recommendations is critical—Create food and beverage environments that ensure that healthy food and beverage options are the routine, easy choice—its recommendations speak some truth to power but do little to hold feet to the fire.

The IOM report explains the political realities:

The committee’s vision takes into account the need for strategies to be realistic, as well as consistent with fundamental values and principles.  At the same time, however, having a diversity of values and priorities among them is itself a principle of U.S. society.

Potentially competing values and principles must be reconciled, for example, in considering protections needed for individuals versus the community at large or for the public versus the private sector.

Vigilance regarding unintended adverse effects of changes undertaken to address the obesity epidemic is also needed.

“Americans,” the report says, are accustomed to the current obesogenic environment, one “driven by powerful economic and social forces that cannot easily be redirected.”

It may not be easy to redirect such forces, but shouldn’t we be trying?

In 1968 the CBS documentary Hunger in America galvanized the nation to take action to reduce poverty and malnutrition.

The HBO series was equally shocking but I wish it had focused more on how we—as a society—could mobilize public distress about the poor quality of food in schools and the relentless and misleading marketing of sodas and junk foods that it so well documented.

But dealing with the need to address the social and economic forces that promote obesity would, I’m told, be considered lobbying, which the private-public sponsors of the series are not permitted to do.

Mobilizing public support for health is considered lobbying.  Food industry marketing is not.

FoodNavigator-USA.com columnist Caroline Scott-Thomas wrote about the HBO series:

As an industry journalist, I’ll be among the first to admit that industry is stuck in a very hard position here: On the one hand, it wants to be seen to be doing the right things – but on the other, what people say they want to eat, and what they actually do eat are often very different, and after all, food companies are in the business of making money.

But honestly, could industry do more to make healthy choices routine, easy choices? I think so.

Yes it could, but won’t unless forced to.

Without leadership, we are stuck doing what the food industry needs, not what the public needs.

Weight of the Nation did an impressive and compelling job of defining the problem and its causes and consequences.  I wish it—and the IOM—could have risen above the politics and pressed harder for strategies that might help people make healthier choices.

But—if the HBO programs really do help mobilize viewers to become a political force for obesity prevention, they will have been well worth the effort that went into making and watching them.

May 2 2012

FDA releases strategic plan for 2012-2016

Ordinarily I find government plans of this type to be soporific but this one is especially well written and well thought out (with some caveats).

The report is a statement of FDA commitment to what it is going to do in the next four years in food areas that affect people and animals.  It includes many promises, among them this one of particular interest: 

Program Goal 4: Provide accurate and useful information so consumers can choose a healthier diet and reduce the risk of chronic disease and obesity

Objective 1. Update the Nutrition Facts label.

  • Publish proposed rules updating the nutrition facts label and serving sizes [OK, but by when?].
  • Publish final rules updating the nutrition facts label and serving sizes [Ditto].

Objective 2.  Implement menu and vending machine labeling regulations.

  • Publish final menu and vending machine labeling regulations [OK, but by when?].
  • Collaborate with states, localities and other partners to ensure high rates of compliance.

Objective 3.  Improve consumer access to and use of nutrition information.

  • Explore front‐of‐pack nutrition labeling opportunities [Explore?  See comment below].
  • Collaborate with public/private sector parties on nutrition education [Collaborate?  See comment below].
  • Implement updated standards for the labeling of pet food including nutrition and ingredient information [How about a Pet Facts label for pet foods that someone might actually be able to understand?].
  • Implement standards for animal feed ingredients.
  • Publish final rule defining and permitting use of the term “gluten free” in the labeling of foods.

Goal-setting processes usually include dates by which the objectives are to be completed.  These do not, which suggests that the FDA can continue to delay action until 2016. 

I also do not understand what is meant by “Explore front‐of‐pack nutrition labeling opportunities.”  Explore?  The FDA has already sponsored two Institute of Medicine reports on front-of-pack labeling.  Does this mean the agency is ignoring them and intends further research?

And “Collaborate with public/private sector parties on nutrition education?”  What does the FDA have in mind for the content of such education?  You can bet that no collaborative campaign can focus on “don’t drink your calories.” 

FDA needs to deliver on these items, and sooner rather than later.  This year?  I’m not counting on it.

 

Mar 2 2012

How much sugar(s) do you eat?

Earlier this week I received a 3-page, single-spaced letter—plus 4 pages of charts and figures–from Andrew Briscoe III, the President and CEO of the Sugar Association.

I opened it with some trepidation because the last letter I got from the Sugar Association threatened to sue me (to read it, click here and scroll down to the Controversies section).

Whew.  This one merely expresses general concerns about:

the misinformation reported on added sugars consumption and the overstatement of added sugars contribution to increased caloric intakes.  Americans do not consume 25 percent of their calories from added sugars. We write to provide you with accurate data….

I don’t think I ever said that the average American consumes 25% of calories from sugars (although some surely do) but I have complained that the Institute of Medicine’s “safe” level of intake of sugars is 25% of calories.  This is higher than public health recommendations to restrict sugars to 10% of calories or less.  It is meant as an upper limit, but is often interpreted as a license to eat this much.

One quarter of daily calories from sugars is too high for something that provides no additional nutritional value.

The letter concludes:

The Sugar Association is committed to ensuring that all advice consumers receive regarding sugar intake is based on the best available scientific evidence and related data.  The American consumer will be better served by dietary advice that is science-based, practical and accurate, no matter the issue.

Can’t argue with that.  But as with all matters concerning nutrition, the issue is which science you choose to cite and how you interpret it.

Mr. Briscoe uses the term sugars, plural, because sucrose, HFCS, syrups, honey, and other such things are all sugars.

How much do Americans actually consume?  Mr. Briscoe was kind enough to provide USDA tables that address this question.  These describe the availability of sugars in the food supply, not necessarily what people are actually eating.

My interpretation of the tables is that they say:

  • Sugars comprise 17% of total calorie availability.
  • Adjusted for waste, the availability of sugars is about 27.5 teaspoons per day per capita (meaning everyone:  men, women, and tiny babies).
  • Translating this into calories: 27.5 teaspoons x 4 grams per teaspoon x 4 calories per gram = 440 calories per day per capita.
  • On a 2000 calorie diet, that’s 22% of total energy intake, although it will be lower for people who take in more calories.

The CDC has just released a summary of intake of added sugars among children and adolescents, in calories per day.

At 4 calories a gram, 400 calories is 100 grams or 3.5 ounces.  Can these calories contribute to weight gain or other health problems?

You bet.

As Mark Bittman put it in his New York Times column this week,

Let me state the obvious: there is no nutritional need for foods with added sugar.

All of this is part of the bigger question: How do we regulate the consumption of dangerous foods? As a nation, we’ve accepted the need to limit the marketing and availability of tobacco and alcohol. The first is dangerous in any quantity, and the second becomes dangerous when overconsumed.

And added sweeteners, experts increasingly argue, have more in common with these substances than with fruit.

No wonder the Sugar Association uses its own interpretation of the science to suggest that current levels of intake are benign and that no level of intake poses a risk.  Mr. Briscoe’s letter says:

No authoritative scientific body that has conducted a major systematic review of the scientific literature has a found a public health need to set an Upper Level (UL) for total or added sugars intake.  Every comprehensive review of the scientific literature concludes that, with the exception of dental caries, no causal link can be established between the intake of sugars and lifestyle diseases, including obesity.

I’m glad he mentioned dental caries.  Karen Sokal, a physician in California, has been tracking the onset of tooth decay among children in Latin America who are now consuming sodas and candy on a daily basis.  She writes:

Mark Bittman’s excellent editorial, “Regulating our Sugar Habit,” (Feb 27) concludes that eating too much sugar has become “the biggest public health challenge facing the developed world.”  Indeed, it poses a big health challenge for the entire world, especially developing countries.

In my 30 years of global health work, I have seen an explosion in the marketing and consumption of non-nutritious foods and beverages followed by a dramatic rise in childhood tooth decay and obesity. Quarterly business reports praise the food and beverage industry’s increased profits based on increased sales in “emerging markets.” The NY Times article on Kellogg’s purchase of Pringles (Feb 12) stated, “The snack business is growing faster and has greater appeal internationally,” which analysts noted “appears somewhat out of sync with the trends toward better-for-you snacking.”

Governmental regulations to ensure the production and marketing of healthful food and beverages must be applied worldwide and protect the health of the world’s most vulnerable populations.

Indeed, they must.  The Sugar Association has much to answer for in its opposition to public health recommendations to eat less sugar.

Page 1 of 41234