by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Snack foods

Jul 18 2014

School Nutrition Association: junk foods galore (but they meet USDA’s nutrition standards)

Politico ProAg’s Helena Bottemiller Evich has been reporting on the School Nutrition Association (SNA) meeting in Boston this week (and see the video conversation with her editor, Jason Huffman, about the meeting).

One of her points: from the kinds of junk-food products exhibited, you would never know that the SNA was at war with the White House over USDA’s nutrition standards for school meals (see my previous posts).

As she explains, food companies have had no problem coming up with look-alike products that meet USDA standards:

More than 400 exhibitors showed off their innovations designed to meet the Department of Agriculture’s new regulations…PepsiCo, which owns Tropicana, Quaker and Lays, has a long list of products that meet the new rules, including Reduced Fat Doritos and Cheetos, Stacy’s Pita Chips and Munchies. Windsor Foods, which specializes in food service, has come up with whole grain-rich egg rolls that the company says kids love.

General Mills displayed a modified version of Chex Mix, a whole grain Betty Crocker cookie and a Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal bar: “Snacks so good, kids won’t know they’re nutritious,” according to the marketing flyers.

…while the changes to lunch standards may be giving many school nutrition professionals fits, the food manufacturing industry is drooling over the opportunity to gain more sales inside what has been described as the nation’s largest restaurant: The school lunch program serves 30 million kids each day and represents a $30 billion per year market for the food industry, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

…SNA benefits from the food industry’s enthusiasm in school lunches. The largest chunk of the group’s revenue is generated at its annual conference, which brought in $4.7 million in 2012. The association charges $15,000 to sponsor an education session track featuring a company representative and $20,000 to put company logos on hotel key cards.

Evich quotes Michele Simon, who also attended the meeting.

Walking through that hall, it’s very hard to see where the changes are,” she said. “It’s still pretty appalling to see the types of junk food that can pass as acceptable food for school meals. It seems like there’s a disconnect between the uproar over the improved guidelines and all these vendors who seem to have no problem meeting them.”

Michele sent me a photo of one such product.

Gatorade

 

For photos of other such items, see Michele Simon’s other images on Time Magazine’s site, and Nancy Huehnergarth’s collection of what she calls “The Good, the Bad and The Ugly Food Exhibits.”

To understand what this is about, take a look at the Public Health Advocacy Institute’s report on Copycat Snacks in Schools.  The “better for you” versions are sold in schools, but you can hardly tell the difference between those and the “not so good for you” commercial versions from the nearly identical packages.

How can food and beverage companies get away with this?  This is the result of USDA’s setting nutrient-based, rather than food-based standards for school meals.  Setting nutrient standards allows food companies to tweak the formulas to give the USDA what it requires.

Is a slightly “better for you” option necessarily a good choice?  Surely, schools can do better.

Aug 28 2012

PepsiCo donates $100,000 to National Association of Hispanic Journalists

A blog post from Fernando Quintero on the Berkeley Media Studies Group’s site alerted me to PepsiCo’s latest example of corporate social responsibility: an additional $50,000 donation for scholarships and internships to the National Association of Hispanic Journalists bringing the total to $100,000.

Hispanic populations in the United States have higher than average rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic conditions associated with overconsumption of sodas and snacks.

Such generosity raises questions about what Pepsi is buying from this group.

The NAHJ says:

We are thrilled to have PepsiCo as a new partner committed to building a stronger Latino community,” said Ivan Roman, Executive Director for NAHJ. “The company’s support as we get more Hispanics into journalism to tell our stories is key to making sure our communities are represented fairly in the news media, while giving them a louder voice in the civic dialogue.

Why do I think that journalists in this Association are unlikely to be telling stories like these:

  • The relationship of soda and snack consumption to obesity and type 2 diabetes in Hispanic communities
  • The relationship of soda and snack consumption to Hispanic childhood obesity
  • How soda intake among Hispanic children leads to dental decay
  • Soda company marketing practices in Hispanic communities
  • The effects of soda and snack marketing on dietary practices and health in countries in Latin America

Pepsi says:

As part of La Promesa de PepsiCo, the company is building relationships with the community, strengthening its strategic partnerships, and sponsoring national Hispanic organizations like: CHCI (Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute), HACR (Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility), LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens), NAHJ (National Association of Hispanic Journalists), and NCLR (National Council of La Raza) among others.

A page from the tobacco-industry playbook, no?

Aug 23 2012

FDA proposes study of consumer attitudes to fortified snack foods

I can hardly believe it but is the FDA really proposing to test consumer understanding of food industry evasions of the “Jelly Bean Rule?”

The FDA established this “rule” (a principle, actually) in 1994 to prevent food companies from adding vitamins to junk foods in order to allow them to be marketed as healthy.

The FDA said that just because a food is low in fat, cholesterol, and sodium—like a jelly bean—the manufacturer cannot make a health claim for it unless it contains at least 10% of the Daily Value of vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, protein, fiber, or iron.

But, the FDA also said, companies could not fortify foods with these nutrients for the sole purpose of making health claims.

This is explained in the FDA’s policy on food fortification, given in 21 CFR 104.20(a).

The addition of nutrients to specific foods can be an effective way of maintaining and improving the overall nutritional quality of the food supply.

However, random fortification of foods could result in over- or underfortification in consumer diets and create nutrient imbalances in the food supply.

It could also result in deceptive or misleading claims for certain foods.

The Food and Drug Administration does not encourage indiscriminate addition of nutrients to foods, nor does it consider it appropriate to fortify fresh produce; meat, poultry, or fish products; sugars; or snack foods such as candies and carbonated beverages.

Now the FDA announces that it wants to study consumer responses to health claims on fortified snack products:

The FDA has an interest in the American public achieving and maintaining diets with optimal levels of nutritional quality, wherein healthy diets are composed of foods from a variety of nutrient sources.

The FDA does not encourage the addition of nutrients to certain food products (including sugars or snack foods such as [cookies] candies, and carbonated beverages).

FDA is interested in studying whether fortification of these foods could cause consumers to believe that substituting fortified snack foods for more nutritious foods would ensure a nutritionally sound diet.

The makers of fortified junk foods and drinks must be trembling in their boots.  Health claims sell food products.  Health claims are practically the only things that sell food products these days.

And companies will have plenty of time to lobby.

Like all FDA processes, this one is required to move at glacial speed.  It must give 60 days to allow people to comment on the proposal and get their lobbying acts together.

Then, the FDA will have to review the comments and, presumably, include them when it submits its request to do the study to the White House Office of Management and Budget.

No point in holding breath for this one.  The OMB has been sitting on FDA proposals for months.

My prediction: if the FDA ever gets to do the study, it will show that consumers interpret health claims as government guarantees that the products are healthy and, probably, have fewer calories than they actually do.

The makers of such products would prefer that the FDA not have this information confirmed.  Watch the lobbying begin!

If you want to comment, do so by October 15.  Here’s how:

  • File electronic comments here for Docket No. FDA–2012–N–0871.
  • Submit written comments to Division of Dockets Management (HFA–305), Food and Drug Administration, 5630 Fishers Lane, Rm. 1061, Rockville, MD 20852. Use Docket No. FDA–2012–N–0871.
Feb 29 2012

Nutritionist’s Notebook: healthy snacks

My weekly Q and A for NYU’s student newspaper, Washington Square News

Nutritionist’s Notebook: Snacks on a schedule

by Marion Nestle

Published February 28, 2012

Marion Nestle is the Paulette Goddard professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. She is the author of “Food Politics” and, most recently, “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics.” Each week, she will answer student questions about nutrition, health, and food. 

Question: Do you have quick food recommendations for busy students who tend to skip breakfast/lunch or who don’t have time due to busy scheduling? Are there any grab-and-go options that you would recommend?

Answer: From the perspective of nutrition, two principles apply to on-the-go food. Look for fruits and vegetables whenever you can get them, and choose foods that are as unprocessed as possible. The closer you can get to eating basic foods, the more nutrients they contain for their calories — in nutrispeak, they are of high nutrient density.

To see what options might be available, I went to the dining hall at the Kimmel Student Center. Alas, chips are at every counter and cash register. You can do better.

Some healthy choices are obvious: bananas, pears and five kinds of apples. Others are carrot packs, yogurt, hard-cooked eggs, and hummus with pretzels.

You have to search hard for the other interesting options. A helpful manager pointed to snack packs of organic dried banana chips, mangos and goldenberries. Goldenberries look like raisins, which would be another good choice, but I didn’t see any. I also didn’t find any packages of nuts. These are great as long as you don’t eat too many. If you want your dorm cafeteria to carry items like this, ask!

Sandwiches work if they are not too big and unwieldy. The Pret a Manger on Astor Place offers half sandwiches in a stiff, thin cardboard. These are easy to eat on the run.

I avoid power bars. They violate my “no more than five ingredients” rule and I don’t particularly like the way they taste. If I want something sweet, I’ll go for the dark chocolate Brazil nuts I found at Kimmel. If you just eat a couple at a time, they are worth the price.

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Feb. 28 print edition. Marion Nestle is a contributing columnist. Email her at dining@nyunews.com.

Jul 13 2011

Google’s impressive healthy food program

I’m just back from judging Google’s first Science Fair for kids 13 to 18 at its corporate headquarters in California (yes, those are tomatoes growing in the foreground).

Google’s famous food program: Why famous?  It is:

  • Available 24/7
  • Totally free
  • Varied and delicious
  • Designed to promote health as well as environmental values (local, organic, sustainable)

On this last point, the recycling program is comprehensive and the campus is planted with organic vegetables, free for the picking:

But what about the “freshman 15″?

If free food is available 24/7, isn’t Google creating a classic “obesogenic” environment?  Do new Google employees gain weight?

Indeed, they do, and this creates a dilemma for the food team.  I met with Joe Marcus, Google’s food program manager, and executive chef Scott Giambastiani.  Free and very good food, they explain, is an important recruiting perk for Google.   Employees learn to manage it.  And those who are eating healthy food for the first time in their lives find that they actually lose weight.

Google’s food labeling program

Google labels its snacks, drinks, and the foods prepared in its 25 or so cafeterias with traffic lights: green (eat anytime), yellow (once in a while), or red (not often, please).  It bases the decisions about which food goes where on the Harvard School of Public Health’s healthy eating pyramid.   It labels foods at the top of the Harvard pyramid red, the ones in the middle yellow, and those at the bottom green.

In theory this makes sense as a starting point.  In practice, it tends to seem a bit like nutritionism—reducing the value of the foods to a few key nutrients.

The difficulties are most evident in the snack foods, freely available from kiosks all over the campus.   Products are displayed on shelves labeled red, yellow, or green.  For example:

GREEN: Sun chips, 1.5 oz, 210 kcal, 10 g fat, 180 mg sodium, 3 g sugar, 4 g fiber

YELLOW: Lentil chips, 1 oz, 110 kcal, 3 g fat, 170 mg sodium, 1 g sugar, 3 g fiber

YELLOW: Walnuts, 0.8 oz, 150 kcal, 15 g fat, 0 g sodium, 1 g sugar, 2 g fiber

RED:  Luau BBQ chips, 1.5 oz, 210 kcal,  14 g fat, 158 mg sodium, 2 g sugar, 1 g fiber

Note: the weights of the packages are not the same, so the amounts are not really comparable, but the ranking scheme seems to give most credit for fiber.

As for these and the foods cooked in cafeterias, Google uses other strategies to promote healthier choices.  It:

  • Puts the healthiest products at eye level
  • Uses small plates
  • Tries to include vegetables in everything
  • Makes healthier options available at all times
  • Uses the smallest sizes of snack foods (packages of 2 Oreos, rather than 6)
  • Makes it easy to be physically active (Google bicycles!)

The only place on the campus where employees pay for food is from a vending machine.  The pricing strategy is based on nutrient content, again according to the Harvard pyramid plan.  For the vended products, you pay:

  • one cent per gram of sugar
  • two cents per gram of fat
  • four cents per gram of saturated fat
  • one dollar per gram of trans fat

On this basis, Quaker Chewy Bars are 15 cents each, Famous Amos cookies re 55 cents, and an enormous Ghirardelli chocolate bar is $4.25.  Weights don’t count and neither do calories.  The machine is not run by Google.  Whoever does it has a sense of humor.

Impressive, all this.  Not every company can feed its nearly 30,000 employees like this but every company can adopt some of these strategies.  It might save them some health care costs, if nothing else.

Jun 26 2011

Eat French fries, gain weight?

A reader, Thibault H writes:

So Harvard University came out with a study that news reporters are saying tells us that those who tend to eat more potatoes gain x amount of weight over 10 years…What do you make of this?…could it be possible that potatoes themselves are not the culprit and rather those who tend to eat more potatoes have a fattier diet or perhaps more sedentary lifestyle.

It could indeed.  The study, which came out in the New England Journal of Medicine last week, looked at the weight gained by more than 100,000 people who had filled out diet questionnaires in 1986 or later.  It correlates what people said they ate with weight gained over periods of 4 years:

The results show that people who said they habitually ate potato chips, potatoes, or fries—as well as the the other foods in the top part of the diagram—were more likely to gain weight.

People who reported frequent eating of the foods in the lower part of the diagram were likely to have lost weight.

What fun!  The study assigns pounds of weight gained or lost to specific foods.

The study also did a more detailed analysis.  This showed that French fries were linked to the greatest weight gain: 3.35 pounds over a 4-year period.  If you habitually eat French fries, you may have a hard time controlling your weight.

No surprise.  I recently ordered a side of fries in an excellent restaurant and was floored by the size of the order Eat a small handful: no problem.  But this order surely hit 800 calories.  Fortunately, there were four of us to share it.

Here’s how I explained the study to Katherine Hobsen of the Wall Street Journal (June 23):

Marion Nestle, New York University professor of nutrition and public health, expressed surprise that potato products were linked with more weight gain than desserts like cake, cookies and doughnuts, which contribute the most calories to the American diet, other research shows. She says she suspects people who eat potato chips and fries also tend to eat too much in general, making these foods markers for a diet leading to weight gain.

The new Dietery Guidelines “policy document” has a particularly entertaining chart of the leading sources of calories in U.S. diets.  Here are the top six, in order:

  • “Grain-based” desserts (translation: cakes, pies, cookies, cupcakes, etc)
  • Breads
  • Chicken and chicken mixed dishes (translation: fingers)
  • Sodas, energy, and sports drinks
  • Pizza
  • Alcoholic beverages

Potato chips are #11 and fries are #17.

This new study provides evidence supporting what everyone surely ought to know by now: eat your veggies!

P.S.  Here’s Andy Bellatti’s take on this study.  His point: it’s not the carbs, it’s calories.

 

 

 

Mar 25 2011

Are processed “junk” foods in trouble?

So many readers have sent me the link to the Chicago Tribune story about efforts of packaged food producers to make their products look healthy that I thought I had best say something about it.

The article lists the large number of companies that are “healthifying” their products:

  • PepsiCo: Combining Tropicana, Quaker Oats and dairy; low-sodium salt.
  • Walmart: Cutting trans fat and sodium in its Great Value products; encouraging major brands to make healthier products.
  • Kraft:  Adding fruit to Lunchables and more whole grain to Wheat Thins.
  • Nestlé (no relation): Making small changes so consumers won’t feel deprived.
  • Campbell’s:  Trying to reduce sodium in soup, promoting liquid vegetables through its V8 brand and whole grains with Pepperidge Farm.
  • Starbucks: Offering sweets with 200 or fewer calories.

And Pepsi, says the Wall Street Journal, is converting most of its products—but not Doritos or Cheetos—to all-natural ingredients.  Doritos and Cheetos, in case you wondered, are:

harder to retool and are marketed to teens and other consumers who might be turned off if told the chips were all natural.  As well, going all natural risks highlighting the artificial ingredients that were in the chips before.

What’s going on here?  Processed food makers must be in trouble.  “Healthy” and “natural” are the only things selling these days.

But isn’t a “healthy” processed snack food an oxymoron?  They can tweak and tweak the contents, but these products will still be heavily processed.

Too much evidence now concludes that marketing a product as “healthy” or “natural” makes people think it has no calories.

And as I keep saying, just because a processed food is a little bit less bad than it used to be, doesn’t necessarily make it a good choice.