by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Obesity-in-kids

Jan 13 2012

Another pet peeve: can’t kids just eat?

Yes, I know getting kids to eat their veggies can be challenging. 

Cornell researchers wondered this is because kids like different ways of presenting foods than adults.  They tested this idea in a study just published in Acta Pædiatrica.   

Contrary to the default assumption that parents and children share preferences for the ways in which food is presented on plates, we find that children have notably different preferences than adults. 

Most remarkably, we show that children tended to prefer seven different items and six different colours on their ideal plates, while adults tended to prefer three different colours and three different items….Given that adults often prepare plates of food for children to eat, these findings suggest new windows for encouraging diverse childhood nutrition.

I suppose this is the rationale behind the latest approach to getting kids to eat better diets: My Fruity Faces.  These are edible stickers that kids can stick on whatever fruits, vegetables and, presumably, any other food that happens to be handy.

 

The stickers are less interactive and creative than the old Mr. Potato Head toy, but kids can eat them.

And they ought to like eating them: Sugar is the first ingredient. 

Sugar is followed by Hydroxypropyl methylcellulose(Modified Cellulose), Water, Natural flavor, Modified corn starch, Glycerin, Polyglycerol esters of fatty acids, Citric acid, Red beet concentrate, Turmeric, Red cabbage extract, Caramel color, Sodium Bicarbonate.

Yum.

Will something like this reallyget kids to eat more fruits and vegetables?  Cornell researchers: get to work.

Dec 31 2011

Looking ahead: food politics in 2012

My monthly Food Matters (first Sunday) column in the San Francisco Chronicle takes out a crystal ball…

Q: What’s on the food politics agenda for 2012? Can we expect anything good to happen?

A: By “good,” I assume you mean actions that make our food system safer and healthier for consumers, farmers, farm workers and the planet.

Ordinarily, I am optimistic about such things. This year? Not so much. The crystal ball is cloudy, but seems to suggest:

Political leaders will avoid or postpone taking action on food issues that threaten corporate interests. Sometimes Congress acts in favor of public health, but 2012 is an election year. Expect calls for corporate freedom to take precedence over those for responsible regulations. Maybe next year.

Something will happen on the farm bill, but what? Last fall’s secret draft bill included at least some support for producing and marketing fruits and vegetables, and only minimal cuts to SNAP (food stamps). Once that process failed, Congress must now adopt that draft, start over from scratch or postpone the whole mess until after the election.

SNAP participation will increase, but so will pressure to cut benefits. With the economy depressed, wages low and unemployment high, demands on SNAP keep rising. In 2011, SNAP benefits cost $72 billion, by far the largest farm bill expenditure and a tempting target for budget cutters. While some advocates will be struggling to keep the program’s benefits intact, others will try to transform SNAP so it promotes purchases of more healthful foods. Both groups should expect strong opposition.

Childhood obesity will be the flash point for fights about limits on food marketing. The Lancet recently summarized the state of the science on successful obesity interventions: taxes on unhealthy foods and beverages, restrictions on marketing such items, traffic-light front-of-package food labels, and programs to discourage consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks and television viewing. Expect the food industry to continue to get Congress to block such measures, as it did with U.S. Department of Agriculture school nutrition standards (hence: pizza counts as a vegetable).

The Federal Trade Commission will postpone release of nutrition standards for marketing to children. Although Congress asked for such standards in the first place – and the standards are entirely voluntary – it just inserted a section in the appropriations bill requiring a cost-benefit analysis before the FTC can release them. Why does the food industry care about voluntary restrictions? Because they might work (see previous prediction).

The Food and Drug Administration will delay issuing front-of-package labeling guidelines as long as it can. The FDA asked the Institute of Medicine for advice about such labels. The institute recommended labels listing only calories, saturated and trans fat, sodium and sugars – all nutrients to avoid. Although the institute did not mention traffic-light labels, it did recommend check marks or stars, which come close. The food industry much prefers its own method, Facts Up Front, which emphasizes “good-for-you” nutrients. It is already using this system. Will the FDA try to turn the institute recommendations into regulations? Maybe later.

The FDA will (still) be playing catch-up on food safety. The FDA got through the 2011 appropriations process with an increase of about $50 million for its inspection needs. This is better than nothing but nowhere near what it needs to carry out its food safety mandates. The FDA currently inspects less than 2 percent of imported food shipments and 5 percent of domestic production facilities. The overwhelming nature of the task requires FDA to set priorities. Small producers think these priorities are misplaced. Is the FDA going after them because they are easier targets than industrial producers whose products have been responsible for some of the more deadly outbreaks? Time will tell.

On the bright side, the food movement will gather even more momentum. While the food industry digs in to fight public health regulations, the food movement will continue to attract support from those willing to promote a healthier and more sustainable food system. Watch for more young people going into farming (see Chronicle staff writer Amanda Gold’s Dec. 25 article) and more farmers’ markets, farm-to-school programs, school meal initiatives, and grassroots community efforts to implement food programs and legislate local reforms. There is plenty of hope for the future in local efforts to improve school meals, reduce childhood obesity, and make healthier food more available and affordable for all.

And on a personal note: In April, University of California Press will publish my co-authored book, “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics.” I’m hoping it will inspire more thinking and action on how we can change our food system to one that is better for people and the planet.

Happy new year!

 

Dec 26 2011

Lobbying in action: PepsiCo vs. kids’ marketing guidelines

Lobbyists are supposed to report what they do and how much money they spend doing it, but this information is not easily available to the public.

CBS News reports that PepsiCo spent $750,000 to lobby government last quarter.  This comes to roughly $3 million annually, a drop in PepsiCo’s annual $30.6 billion sales in the U.S.—$57.8 billion worldwide.

What is Pepsi lobbying about?  Open Secrets publishes the filing information on its website.

PepsiCo lobbied the House, Senate, Executive Office of the President, FTC, FDA, and USDA, focusing on these issues, among others:

  • Childhood Obesity (generally, no specific legislation)
  • Food and beverage labeling (generally, no specific legislation)
  • Marketing and advertising issues in response to Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children (IWG) (see previous posts)
  • Restrictions on use of supplemental nutrition assistance program (no specific legislation)
  • Implementation of S. 3307-healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010
  • Biofuels policy generally

I’m especially interested in lobbying against the IWG guidelines.  Pepsi, of course, was not alone in opposing them.  As I noted in a previous post, the the Sunlight Foundation reported on food companies lobbying against them.

Media companies also opposed the IWG guidelines, as shown by Viacom’s annual filing with the Security and Exchange Commission, a document forwarded to me by Jeffrey Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy:

…some U.S. policymakers have sought limitations on food and beverage marketing in media popular with children and teens. In April 2011, the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children (the “IWG”)…requested comment on proposed nutritional restrictions for food and beverage marketing directed to children and teens aged 17 years and under.

Although the guidelines are nominally voluntary, if implemented by food and beverage marketers, they could have a negative impact on our Media Networks advertising revenues, particularly for our networks with programming targeted to children and teens.

Congress asked the FTC to set up the Interagency Working Group to propose guidelines on marketing foods to kids.  Did it really think food companies would accept such guidelines, voluntarily at that?

As I keep pointing out, food companies have to market to kids to sell products and grow sales every quarter.

If they don’t sell products to kids in the U.S., they will intensify efforts to sell products to kids in developing countries, thereby outsourcing childhood obesity.

Surely it’s time for mandatory rules about marketing junk foods to kids?  If not now, how about soon?

Dec 17 2011

Congress caves in again. Delays IWG recommendations.

It’s hard to believe how thoroughly Congress is in bed with the food industry but here is another example: the House has just inserted language in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012  requiring the Federal Trade Commission’s Interagency Working Group (IWG) on Food Marketed to Children to conduct a cost/benefit analysis of the final recommendations in its report.

This, of course, will delay or even kill the IWG’s recommendations for voluntary nutrition standards for marketing foods to kids (see previous posts).

Get this: Section 626 of the Act says:

None of the funds made available in this Act may be used by the Federal Trade Commission to complete the draft report entitled “Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children: Preliminary Proposed Nutrition Principles to Guide Industry Self-Regulatory Efforts” unless the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children complies with Executive Order 13563.

And what, pray tell, is Executive Order 13563?  Agencies may:

  • Propose or adopt a regulation only upon a reasoned determination that its benefits justify its costs
  •  Tailor its regulations to impose the least burden on society
  • Select, in choosing among alternative regulatory approaches, those approaches that maximize net benefits
  •  To the extent feasible, specify performance objectives
  • Identify and assess available alternatives to direct regulation

Recall that the industry spent a reported $37 million to oppose the IWG recommendations.  Apparently, it was money well spent.

Let’s hope the Senate has sense enough to delete this section so that the FTC can put its long-delayed and already watered-down standards in place.

Additions, December 18: No such luck.  Consider this passed.  Thanks to Michele Simon for pointing out that Congress cannot legally require a cost/benefit analysis of the IWG guidelines because they are voluntary and, therefore, not regulations.  And thanks to Margo Wootan for explaining how and where to contact Congress.

 

Dec 16 2011

Good news! Childhood obesity rates declining in NYC

Just in time for the holidays, we get some good news.   The New York City Health Department reports that rates of childhood obesity are falling.

If the rates were staying constant, I’d consider it a step forward.  But these results show rates going down, even if only by a few percentagel points.

The Bloomberg administration says the numbers are a result of its anti-obesity initiatives, some focused especially on children.  Health Commissioner Dr. Tom Farley told the New York Times that he attributes

the progress partly to the city’s aggressive advertising campaign against sugary sodas, which he said may have altered what parents were providing to their children. The city has also tried to add healthier options to school lunch menus, enacted strict rules on the calorie and sugar content of snacks and drinks in school vending machines, and even put limits on bake sales, a move that caused some grumbling.

As I explained to Bloomberg News,  if this trend continues, it will represent the first truly positive development in years.

It also suggests that the health department’s unusually aggressive efforts to address obesity may be paying off.  If so, they should inspire other communities to do the same kinds of things.  If nothing else, they raise awareness of the problem and help create an environment more conducive to healthy eating.

On the national level, Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign also has raised awareness.  Could it be that we are getting to a tipping point?

It’s pretty clear by now what works.  A Cochane meta-analysis of 55 studies finds strong evidence to support beneficial effects of child obesity prevention programs on BMI, particularly for kids age 6 to 12.

The interventions showing the most promise are just like those in New York City:

  • School curriculum that includes healthy eating, physical activity and body image
  • School sessions for physical activity throughout the school week
  • Improvements in nutritional quality of the food supply in schools
  • Environments and cultural practices that support children eating healthier foods and being active throughout each day (see yesterday’s post)
  • Support for teachers and other staff to implement health promotion strategies and activities (e.g. professional development, capacity building activities)
  • Parent support and home activities that encourage children to be more active, eat more nutritious foods and spend less time in screen based activities

These are showing measurable benefits.  Shouldn’t every city start doing them?

Dec 14 2011

Update on marketing to kids

I subscribe to The Lancet, and always enjoy reading its editor’s weekly Offline column.  In October, editor Richard Horton wrote about how  government obesity policy needs to be based firmly on scientific evidence.

And what is that evidence?

On this question, the evidence is utterly clear.  Thanks to the work of the best scientific minds in obesity research, the most reliable evidence shows that the government’s plan should include taxes on unhealthy foods and beverages, front-of-pack traffic-light nutrition labeling, reductions of junk food and drink advertising to children, and school-based programmes to reduce television viewing and sugar-sweetened beverage consumption (Lancet, 2011;378:1451).

If you care about public health evidence, that’s what it shows.  But doing these things goes against the business interests of food companies and they are doing everything they can to oppose such science-based measures.

In the U.S., the Sunlight Foundation has just released a report detailing the amounts of money food companies have spent on lobbying to block federal attempts to set nutritional standards for marketing foods to children (see previous posts).

Big companies such as Nestle, Kellogg, Viacom, McDonalds, General Mills, and Time Warner have indicated on official reports that they have lobbied on the controversial proposed guidelines; all together such companies have reported spending more than $37 million on lobbying this year.

The Sunlight report lists reported lobbying expenses (for example, Coca-Cola $4.7 million, General Mills $660,000).  It also points out that

…Over all public relations were handled by Anita Dunn, formerly communications director at the Obama White House, at the firm SKDKnickerbocker Consulting.

Anita Dunn is of special interest because of her previous position at the White House.  Now she’s working for the not-so-loyal opposition.  Marian Burros reported on this switch for Politico:

Dunn, who served as White House communications director, is a senior partner at SKDKnickerbocker Consulting, which is handling public relations for the food industry’s campaign. Switching sides isn’t uncommon in the incestuous world of Washington consulting and lobbying, and the food industry coalition seeking to scuttle the voluntary guidelines argues that they are actually enforceable regulations in disguise that could lead to billions in lost sales.

Dr. Horton’s comments in Lancet imply that the British government isn’t doing much better.

As for the European Union (EU),  Food Chemical News reported on December 8 that major food companies— McDonald’s, Burger King, Coca-Cola, Danone, Kellogg, Mars, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble and Unilever, as well as the European Snacks Associations—have just pledged to promote only healthful products on their websites aimed at children under age 12.

By “healthful,” they mean products that meet “better-for-you” criteria.  Food Chemical News cites a study suggesting that European children now see 79% less advertising of really bad junk foods on kids’ TV than they did in 2005, and 29% less across all TV programs.

The study did not say whether sales of those products were down too. If not, this could explain the willingness of companies to extend the voluntary restriction to websites aimed at very young children.

All of this would be much simpler for parents if governments paid attention to the research.  If they did, they would:

  • Tax unhealthy foods and beverages
  • Require traffic-light front-of-pack labels
  • Stop junk food and drink advertising to children
  • Institute programs to reduce television viewing
  • Institute programs to reduce sugar-sweetened beverage consumption

Taken together, these might actually make some progress in reducing childhood obesity.

Dec 7 2011

White House insists “eat better” is still part of Let’s Move

I got a call yesterday from Sam Kass, the senior policy adviser on Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move staff, objecting strongly (an understatement) to my post about her new physical activity initiatives.

I interpreted her speech as a pullback from healthy eating initiatives.  “Eating better” is demonstrably bad for business.  The food industry much prefers “move more.”

Mr. Kass says no pullback was intended.  Instead, he said, this is an expansion of Let’s Move into another one of the program’s five essential “pillars.”

Pillars?

I did not recall anything about pillars.  I went to the Let’s Move website. Sure enough, there they are:

At the launch of the initiative, President Barack Obama signed a Presidential Memorandum creating the first-ever Task Force on Childhood Obesity….[Its] recommendations focus on the five pillars of the First Lady’s Let’s Move! initiative.

  1. Creating a healthy start for children
  2. Empowering parents and caregivers
  3. Providing healthy food in schools
  4. Improving access to healthy, affordable foods
  5. Increasing physical activity

In February 2010, Mrs. Obama discussed these elements in her speech launching Let’s Move, although without using the word “pillars.”  The word also did not pop up in her speech discussing the new activity initiatives.

When I need help with this sort of thing, I consult Obama Foodorama,  a treasure trove of information about food at the White House.  Here’s what Let’s Move has done and is doing about the pillars:

  1. Creating a healthy start for children: encouraging breastfeeding, Let’s Move Child Care, and other such programs
  2. Empowering parents and caregivers: MyPlate and MiPlato, front-of-package labeling
  3. Providing healthy food in schools: child nutrition legislation, Healthier US Challenge , salad bars in schools
  4. Improving access to healthy, affordable foods: combating food deserts, reducing the price of fruits and vegetables, encouraging gardening, and green markets
  5. Increasing physical activity: Presidential Active Lifestyle Award challenge (PALA) and the new initiatives

In the broader context of the Let’s Move pillars, a focus on physical activity makes sense.  It is an addition, not a substitution.

But Mrs. Obama’s speech did not frame it like that.  Instead, her speech implied that she had given up on healthy eating because it is too difficult (kids have to be forced to eat vegetables), leaving open the possibility that “eating better” is too hard to promote in an election year.

I wish her speech had placed the initiative in context.   Had it done so, it would not have been open to this kind of interpretation.

Dec 5 2011

Let’s Move Campaign gives up on healthy diets for kids?

In what Obama Foodorama calls “a fundamental shift in the Let’s Move campaign” Michelle Obama announced in a speech last week that she will now focus on getting kids to be more active.

Apparently, she has given up on encouraging food companies to make healthier products and stop marketing junk foods to kids.

This shift is troubling.  Here’s why:

1.  The shift is based on faulty biology.

To lose weight, most people have to eat less whether or not they move more.   For example, it takes about three miles of walking to compensate for the calories in one 20-ounce soda.

Activity is important for health, but to lose or maintain weight, kids also need to eat less.  Sometimes they need to eat much less.  And discouraging them from drinking sugary sodas is a good first step in controlling body weight.

But eating and drinking less are very bad for business.  Food companies do all they can to oppose this advice.

2.  It undercuts healthy eating messages.

On the one hand, Mrs. Obama says that she disagrees with this assumption: “kids don’t like healthy food, so why should we bother trying to feed it to them.”

But her speech implies that kids won’t eat healthfully unless forced to:

I want to emphasize that last point — the importance of really promoting physical activity to our kids…This isn’t forcing them to eat their vegetables. (Laughter.) It’s getting them to go out there and have fun.

3.  It declares victory, prematurely.

Mrs. Obama says:

Major food manufacturers are cutting sugar, salt and fat from their products. Restaurants are revamping kids’ menus and loading them with healthier, fresher options. Companies like Walgreens, SuperValu, Walmart, Calhoun’s Grocery are committing to build new stores and to sell fresh food in underserved communities all across this country.

Congress passed historic legislation to provide more nutritious school meals to millions of American children. Our schools are growing gardens all over the place. Cities and towns are opening farmers markets. Congregations are holding summer nutrition programs for their kids. Parents are reading those food labels, and they’re rethinking the meals and the snacks that they serve their kids.

So while we still have a long way to go, we have seen so much good progress. We’ve begun to have an impact on how, and what, our kids are eating every single day.  And that is so important. It’s so important.

Really?  I’d say we’ve seen promises from food companies but remarkably little action.

Mrs. Obama’s speech fails to mention what I’m guessing is the real reason for the shift: “Move more” is not politically loaded.  “Eat less” is.

Everyone loves to promote physical activity.  Trying to get the food industry to budge on product formulations and marketing to kids is an uphill battle that confronts intense, highly paid lobbying.

You don’t believe this?  Consider recent examples of food industry opposition to anti-obesity efforts:

  • Soda companies successfully defeated efforts to impose taxes on soft drinks.
  • Food companies successfully defeated efforts by four federal agencies to set voluntary standards for marketing foods to children.
  • Food companies successfully lobbied Congress to pass a law forbidding the USDA from setting standards for school meals regarding potatoes, tomato sauce, and whole grains.  The result?  Pizza tomato sauce now counts as a vegetable serving.
  • McDonald’s and  Burger King evaded San Francisco’s new rules restricting toys with kids meals by selling the toys separately for ten cents each.

The political cost of fighting the food industry is surely the reason for the change in Mrs. Obama’s rhetoric.  Now, she agrees that kids won’t eat vegetables unless forced to.

But in March 2010 Mrs. Obama warned Grocery Manufacturers Association:

We need you…to entirely rethink the products that you’re offering…, the information that you provide about these products, and how you market those products to our children….This isn’t about finding creative ways to market products as healthy.

The food industry understood those as fighting words.  It fought back with weapons at its disposal, one of which is to deflect attention from food by focusing on physical activity.   It now has White House endorsement of this deflection.

I’m all for promoting physical activity but the refocusing is a loss, not a win, in the fight against childhood obesity.

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