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May 24 2013

Weekend viewing: A food politics story for kids—Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory

I’ve been waiting for the weekend to write about the kids’ story by Bettina Elias Siegel, the school food advocate who writes The Lunch Tray blog  (and who put “pink slime” on the map).

Her video story—in rhyme yet—is titled Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory: A Tale of Processed Food and is worth the 12 minutes it takes to watch it (try it out on your kids!).

I wondered about the back story: how did she come to write it, who did the illustrations, how did she put it together?    Fortunately, Dana Woldow, also a long time food advocate, has just posted an interview with Ms. Siegel on just those points (the interview starts about half way down the post).  Ms. Siegel says:

If kids could see more clearly how the processed food, fast food and soda industries are earning profits at the expense of their health, I do think they might grow resistant to those industries’ marketing tactics. That was the idea behind Mr. Zee and his apples.

The interview explains the details of how the story got written, illustrated, and posted.

Ms. Woldow’s column concludes:

Of course, not everyone has the equipment, the confidence, or the patience to make their own video, but anyone can use social media. Watch Bettina’s video (with your children, if you have any), and if you like it, share it with your friends. It won’t undo all the marketing that Big Food does to kids, but it’s a start.

Try it out on your kids.  What do they think of it?

May 25 2012

Memorial Day Weekend reading: food biography

A couple of books, just in.  Happy reading!

Kurlansky, Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man, Doubleday, 2012.

Kurlansky is the author of several distinguished books, notably Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, and Salt: A World History.  Here, he takes up the story of Clarence Birdseye, the man who invented and gave his name to frozen vegetables.  Anything that Kurlansky writes is worth reading, and Birdseye—an multitasking explorer, trapper, and inventor—is worth writing about.  The book is illustrated with Birdseye’s patent drawings.

Thomas McNamee, The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance, Free Press, 2012.

I thought McNamee’s previous biography, Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, was a great read, wonderfully gossipy and entertaining.   Like so many others, I learned to cook from Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook.  In 1980, I met Claiborne while doing a segment of an Over Easy program on San Francisco’s public television station, KQED.   Claiborne has recently had some health problems, had been told to eat better and lose some weight, and had just published Craig Claiborne’s Gourmet Diet with Pierre Franey (with an introduction to principles of healthy eating by Jane Brody).  He cooked lemon chicken.  I commented on how healthy it was.  Claiborne was a fascinating character and McNamee’s account makes me wish I’d been part of the New York food scene back then.

Mar 7 2012

U.N. Special Rapporteur: Five Ways to Fix Unhealthy Diets

Olivier de Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, has issued five recommendations for fixing diets and food systems:

  • Tax unhealthy products.
  • Regulate foods high in saturated fats, salt and sugar.
  • Crack down on junk food advertising.
  • Overhaul misguided agricultural subsidies that make certain ingredients cheaper than others.
  • Support local food production so that consumers have access to healthy, fresh and nutritious foods.

De Schutter explains:

One in seven people globally are undernourished, and many more suffer from the ‘hidden hunger’ of micronutrient deficiency, while 1.3 billion are overweight or obese.

Faced with this public health crisis, we continue to prescribe medical remedies: nutrition pills and early-life nutrition strategies for those lacking in calories; slimming pills, lifestyle advice and calorie counting for the overweight.

But we must tackle the systemic problems that generate poor nutrition in all its forms.

Governments, he said:

have often been indifferent to what kind of calories are on offer, at what price, to whom they are accessible, and how they are marketed…We have deferred to food companies the responsibility for ensuring that a good nutritional balance emerges.

…Heavy processing thrives in our global food system, and is a win-win for multinational agri-food companies…But for the people, it is a lose-lose…In better-off countries, the poorest population groups are most affected because foods high in fats, sugar and salt are often cheaper than healthy diets as a result of misguided subsidies whose health impacts have been wholly ignored.

Much to ponder here.  Let’s hope government health agencies listen hard and get to work.

For further information, the press release adds these links:

Mar 1 2012

What about that pesky “natural” on food labels?

FoodNavigator.com has issued a collection of its recent articles on “natural” and processing.  At issue is the meaning of “natural,” which many people perceive as equivalent to organic or healthy.  As I’ve said before, it isn’t.

Natural has no regulatory meaning.  The FDA merely says (note obfuscating double negatives):

From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth.

That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.

One thing is clear: “natural” sells food products.

Selling processed foods in a whole food world? Authenticity is key: Consumers increasingly are choosing whole and unprocessed foods – so is it the end of the line for processed food manufacturers? Not if they move with the times, say ingredient suppliers.

Who is driving the clean label agenda, and what does ‘clean’ really mean? Attempts to link clean-labeling policies with the healthy eating agenda have been so successful that research now shows shoppers equate ‘healthy’ with ‘natural’ or ‘minimally processed’ foods.

‘Natural’: The most meaningless word on your food label?  Consumers, the marketers all tell us, want foods that are ‘wholesome’, ‘authentic’, and above all ‘natural’, although few of them can articulate what this means.

‘Processed’ foods are often high in sodium – but what’s a processed food? About 75% of the sodium in our diets comes from processed foods. It’s a regularly cited figure – but what exactly is a ‘processed’ food? Consumers might be surprised.

Processing is a dirty word – but we’ll need more of it to feed the world. Processing has become a dirty word, but we are going to need more processing, not less, in order to feed a growing population, according to professor and head of food science at Penn State University John Floros.

FDA: get to work!

Dec 22 2011

The latest in new product introductions

You may be interested in how real foods improve health and well being, taste better, reduce waste, and are friendlier to the environment.

But such foods, alas, are much less profitable than those highly processed.

Caroline Scott-Thomas of Food Navigator USA gives us a preview of what Big Food has in store for us next year. Coming soon to a store near you:

From General Mills:
  • Dulce de Leche Cheerios
  • Peanut butter Cheerios

And from Kraft:

  • BelVita breakfast biscuit, a cookie-type product made with whole grains and fortified with vitamins and minerals
  • MilkBite Milk and Granola bars with as much calcium as an 8oz glass of milk
  • New flavor combinations for Velveeta Cheesy Skillets Dinner Kits
  • New Kraft Sizzling Salads Dinner Kits to which you can add your choice of meat and vegetables

The rationale for this last one?

Americans are having more interactive experiences with food and want the opportunity to do some of the cooking themselves. With global influence and the merging of different cultures, consumers are open to new flavor combinations. Being able to customize the flavor and texture to enhance the end dish is important and Kraft Foods is delivering.

Real food anyone?  Or—how’s this for an idea—real cooking?

Jan 8 2011

Darya Pino’s guide to supermarket navigation

This diagram is flying all over the Internet and has been sent to me by so many people (thanks to all) that I’m eager to share it.

I particularly like it because it’s just what I used to say in lectures after What to Eat came out in 2006.  My What to Eat rules say never to eat a food with:

  • More than five ingredients (too processed)
  • An ingredient you can’t pronounce (ditto)
  • Anything artificial (ditto)
  • A health claim on the front (these are always about marketing, not health)
  • A cartoon on the package (it’s being marketed to kids)

Much praise and many thanks to the designer, Darya Pino (of Summer Tomato):

Dec 5 2010

Latest San Francisco Chronicle column: processed v. real foods

“Minimally processed food a health goal” is the title of today’s Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Q: I may be preaching to the choir here, but isn’t eating a variety of unprocessed (or at least minimally processed) foods the best way to make sure your diet is healthy?

A: Indeed it is, and processing is the healthful food movement’s new frontier. Processed is code for “junk” foods – foods of minimal nutritional value. These crowd the center aisles of supermarkets, add loads of unneeded calories, rely on added nutrients for health benefits, last forever on the shelves and generate enormous profits for their makers.

Sodas are the obvious examples. They have no nutrients (unless fortified), and all their calories come from added sugars.

The food industry will insist that practically everything you eat is processed in some way. Unprocessed foods are rare exceptions – fruits direct from the tree or vine, vegetables pulled from the ground, nuts from wherever they come from, and raw meat, fish, eggs or milk.

Everything else is at least minimally processed – washed, aged, dried, frozen, canned, pasteurized or cooked. But these cause little, if any, loss of nutritional value and make some nutrients more available to the body.

In contrast, more extreme processing changes foods. It reduces the nutritional value of basic food ingredients, adds calories from fats and sugars, and disguises losses in taste and texture with additives such as salt, colors, flavors and other chemicals. Manufacturers add vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, omega-3s and probiotics expressly to make health claims.

Manufacturers say they make the products to give you what you demand: cheap, easy-to-eat-anywhere foods that require no preparation and give you the tastes you love. They back these contentions with increasingly far-fetched health claims, billions of advertising dollars and lobbyists galore.

The big issue is “ultra-processing,” says Carlos Monteiro of the University of São Paulo in Brazil. Writing in the November issue of the online Journal of the World Public Health Nutrition Association, Monteiro ranks the effects of food processing on health as the most important issue in public health nutrition today.

Ultra-processed foods, he says, are the primary cause of the rapid rise in obesity and associated diseases throughout the world.

He charges the food industry with creating durable, convenient, attractive, ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat products that are so palatable that they are habit-forming. And they are meant to be eaten everywhere – in fast-food places, on the street and while watching television, working or driving.

Ultra-processed foods are much higher in calories for their nutrients than unprocessed and minimally processed foods. They have loads of fat, sugars and salt, but are low in vitamins, minerals and fiber.

They are often cheaper than relatively unprocessed foods, especially when sold in supersize portions at discounted prices. And they are often the only foods available in convenience stores or vending machines.

He notes that virtually unregulated advertising identifies ultra-processed foods and drinks as necessary – and, when nutrients are added, as essential – to modern lifestyles and health. Overall, Monteiro says, their high palatability, along with aggressive and sophisticated marketing, undermine the normal processes of appetite control and cause adults and children to overeat.

This is just another way of saying what former Food and Drug Administration head David Kessler says in his provocative book, “The End of Overeating.” Kessler argues that processed and fast foods high in fat, sugars and salt have turned us into a nation of “conditioned overeaters” unable to recognize hunger or satiety.

Current policies ensure that ultra-processed foods stay cheap, and it’s no accident that the relative cost of fruits and vegetables has gone up by 40 percent since the 1980s, while the relative price of sodas and fast food has declined.

If you can afford it, choosing relatively unprocessed foods is good advice. As I wrote in “What to Eat,” it’s best to stick to the real foods around the supermarket perimeter. My only slightly facetious shopping rules: Avoid processed foods with more than five ingredients, ingredients you can’t pronounce, and those with cartoons on the package aimed at marketing to kids.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Food Politics,” “Safe Food,” “What to Eat” and “Pet Food Politics,” and is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University. E-mail her at food@sfchronicle.com, and read her previous columns at sfgate.com/food.

This article appeared on page L – 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Nov 2 2010

The food movement’s new frontier: “ultra-processing”

In the current issue of the online Journal of the World Public Health Nutrition Association (of which I am a charter member), Carlos Monteiro, a professor at the University of São Paulo writes “The big issue is ultra-processing.”  Because his Commentary is so lengthy, I am taking the liberty of extracting pieces from it, not always in the order presented.

The most important factor now, when considering food, nutrition and public health, is not nutrients, and is not foods, so much as what is done to foodstuffs and the nutrients originally contained in them, before they are purchased and consumed. That is to say, the big issue is food processing – or, to be more precise, the nature, extent and purpose of processing, and what happens to food and to us as a result of processing.

Monteiro makes it clear that all foods and drinks are processed to some extent.  Fresh apples are washed and, sometimes, waxed.  Drinking water is filtered.  Instead, he distinguishes three types of processing, depending on their nature, extent, and purpose:

  • Type 1: Unprocessed or minimally processed foods that do not change the nutritional properties of the food.
  • Type 2: Processed culinary or food industry ingredients such as oils, fats, sugar and sweeteners, flours, starches, and salt.  These are depleted of nutrients and provide little beyond calories (except for salt, which has no calories).
  • Type 3: Ultra-processed products that combine Type 2 ingredients (and, rarely, traces of Type 1).

The purpose of Type 3 ultra-processing is to create:

durable, accessible, convenient, attractive, ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat products. Such ultra-processed products are formulated to reduce microbial deterioration (‘long shelf life’), to be transportable for long distances, to be extremely palatable (‘high organoleptic quality’) and often to be habit-forming. Typically they are designed to be consumed anywhere – in fast-food establishments, at home in place of domestically prepared and cooked food, and while watching television, at a desk or elsewhere at work, in the street, and while driving.

Monteiro argues: “the rapid rise in consumption of ultra-processed food and drink products, especially since the 1980s, is the main dietary cause of the concurrent rapid rise in obesity and related diseases throughout the world.”

As evidence, he notes that ultra-processed products as a group are:

  • Much more energy-dense than unprocessed and minimally processed foods and processed culinary ingredients taken together.
  • [Contain] oils, solid fats, sugars, salt, flours, starches [that] make them excessive in total fat, saturated or trans-fats, sugar and sodium, and short of micronutrients and other bioactive compounds, and of dietary fiber.
  • Relatively or even absolutely cheaper to manufacture, and sometimes – not always – relatively cheaper to buy.
  • Often manufactured in increasingly supersized packages and portions at discounted prices with no loss to the manufacturer.
  • Available in ‘convenience’ stores and other outlets often open late or even 24/7, and vended in machines placed in streets, gas stations, hospitals, schools and many other locations.
  • The main business of transnational and big national catering chains, whose outlets are also often open until late at night, and whose products are designed to be consumed also in the street, while working or driving, or watching television.
  • Promoted by lightly regulated or practically unregulated advertising that identifies fast and convenience food, soft drinks and other ultra-processed products as a necessary and integral part of the good life, and even, when the products are ‘fortified’ with micronutrients, as essential to the growth, health and well-being of children.

Overall, he says:

Their high energy density, hyper-palatability, their marketing in large and super-sizes, and aggressive and sophisticated advertising, all undermine the normal processes of appetite control, cause over-consumption, and therefore cause obesity, and diseases associated with obesity.

His groups the main points of his argument in three theses:

  • Diets mainly made up from combinations of processed ingredients and unprocessed and minimally processed foods, are superior to diets including substantial amounts of ultra-processed products.
  • Almost all types of ultra-processed product, including those advertised as ‘light’, ‘premium’, supplemented, ‘fortified’, or healthy in other ways, are intrinsically unhealthy.
  • Significant improvement and maintenance of public health always requires the use of law. The swamping of food systems by ultra-processed products can be controlled and prevented only by statutory regulation.

Lest there be any confusion about the significance of this proposal for public health nutrition, an accompanying editorial (unsigned but assumed to be by Geoffrey Cannon) poses a serious challenge: “Nutrition science: time to start again.”

This editorial is about the significance of food processing, and in particular of ‘ultra-processed’ food and drink products. It is also about the nature, purpose, scope and value of nutrition science, which as conventionally taught and practiced, is now widely perceived to have run into the buffers or, to change metaphor, to have painted itself into a corner.

The editorial argues that nutritionists’ focus on nutrients, rather than foods, has led to the assumption that if foods contain the same nutrients, they are the same—even though it is never possible to replicate the nutritional content of foods because too much about their chemical composition is still unknown.

This notion is an exquisite combination of stupidity and arrogance, or else of intelligence and cunning. For a start, similar results can only be of those chemical constituents that are at the time known, and actually measured.

These are important ideas, well worth consideration and debate.  I am struck by their relevance to the latest survey of soft drink availability in American elementary schools.  Despite the efforts of the Clinton Foundation and the voluntary actions of Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola, the availability of soft drinks to young school children increased from 49.% to 61% just in the year from 2006-07 to 2008-09.  Soft drinks, in Monteiro’s terms, are ultra-processed.  Doing something about them requires statutory regulation.

Consideration of the effects of ultra-processing might help us look at what we feed our kids in a more constructive way.  This is important work.

Addition: I should have mentioned that Monteiro’s approach is consistent with that of the people (including me) who worked with the Strategic Alliance in Oakland, CA to write Setting the Record Straight: Nutritionists and Health Professionals ” Define Healthful Food.

The Alliance is California’s network of food and activity advocates, we’ve developed a definition of healthy food that asserts that truly healthful food comes from a food system where food is produced, processed, transported, and marketed in ways that are environmentally sound, sustainable, and just.

If you agree with Setting the Record Straight, you can endorse it on the Strategic Alliance’s website.