by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Soft drinks

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

Sep 23 2011

Weekend reading: food politics reports

The U.S. Public Interest Group (USPIRG) has a new report out on the effects of farm subsidies on obesity: Apples to Twinkies: Comparing Federal Subsidies of Fresh Produce and Junk Food.  If you want people to eat more fruits and vegetables and less junk food, fixing the subsidy patterns might be a good place to begin.

New England Complex Systems Institute (whatever that might be) has an interesting explanation of the recent rise in world food prices: The Food Crises: A Quantitative Model of Food Prices Including Speculators and Ethanol Conversion.
The authors’ explanation: commodity speculation and growing corn for ethanol fully account for the rise in prices.  The remedy seems obvious, no?

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has just funded a report on the soft drink industry from the National Policy & Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity (NPLAN), a project of Public Health Law & Policy (PHLP): Breaking Down the Chain: A Guide to the Soft Drink Industry.  This is about the industry itself, but also what it is doing to market its products here, there, and everywhere.  This is required reading for anyone interested in public health measures to reduce consumption of sugary drinks.

Aug 24 2011

SNAP soda ban? USDA says no!

Remember New York City’s idea to ban purchase of sodas with SNAP (food stamp) benefits?  I supported the proposal and explained why in posts on April 16, April 30, and May 1.

USDA has just sent a letter turning down the proposal.  Most of its grounds for denial are technical: too much, too soon, too big, too complex, too hard to evaluate.

Underlying these concerns is a philosophical issue:

USDA has a longstanding tradition of supporting and promoting incentive-based solutions to the obesity epidemic, especially among SNAP recipients. In fact, USDA is currently partnering with the State of Massachusetts in implementing the Healthy Incentives Pilot, which increases SNAP benefits when fruits and vegetables are purchased….We feel it would be imprudent to reverse policy at this time while the evaluation component of the Healthy Incentives Pilot is ongoing.

SNAP is USDA’s biggest program.  The latest figures on participation and cost indicate that SNAP serves nearly 46 million people at a cost of more than $68 billion annually.

Advocates for SNAP prefer positive incentives.  They strongly—and successfully—opposed the New York City proposal.

Indeed, the public health and anti-hunger advocacy communities are split on this issue.

I wish they would find common ground.  Rates of obesity are higher among the poor than they are in the general population.

That, after all, was the proposal’s purpose in the first place.  As Mayor Bloomberg put it:

We think our innovative pilot would have done more to protect people from the crippling effects of preventable illnesses like diabetes and obesity than anything being proposed anywhere else in this country – and at little or no cost to taxpayers. We’re disappointed that the Federal Government didn’t agree..New York City will continue to pursue new and unconventional ways to combat the health problems that affect New Yorkers and all Americans.

Back to the drawing board.

 

 

Jul 26 2011

Thanks to emerging markets, U.S. food companies grow profits

The second quarter financial results are in and food companies are doing great, thanks to sales in developing countries. For example:

McDonald’s: Meatandpoultry.com reports (July 22) a 15% increase in income “boosted by strong sales throughout the world.”  Total revenue for the quarter was $6.9 billion, up 16% from $5.9 billion during the same quarter last year.

PepsiCo: Food Navigator reports an increase in net income to $1.88 billion up 18% from $1.6 billion last year. Despite “challenging conditions in the North American beverage market”… worldwide beverage and snacks businesses accounted for growth along with the acquisition of Russian dairy and juice company Wimm-Bill-Dann.  Sales in emerging markets increased 4% in beverages and 9% in snacks:  “We continue to enjoy robust top-line growth in key emerging markets,” said PepsiCo chairman and CEO Indra Nooyi.

Coca-Cola: Although its North American sales were sluggish, sales increased “due to growth in emerging markets such as China, Russia and Mexico.”  Income rose 18% to $2.8 billion from $2.4 billion last year.  Sales rose 6% in Latin America, 5% in Europe, 7% in Eurasia and Africa, and 7 in the Pacific region.   Growth in China ws 24%, in Russia 17%, and in Mexico 7%.  In contrast, North American volume recorded a growth of a measly 1%.

Americans are turning away from these products.  We already have plenty of obesity.  Now it’s time to export it.

Jul 18 2011

HuffPo mystery solved and no harm done

The mysterious ghostwriting episode I discussed earlier today (see below) is now explained.  Apologies to the Huffington Post.

I received a flurry of messages in response to the post, including an apology from Linda Gibbs, Deputy NYC Mayor for Health and Human Services. She reminds me that we spoke months ago (early May, as it turns out) about my willingness to edit and sign an op-ed about the proposed SNAP ban prepared by her staff that was to be submitted to the New York Times.

I vaguely remember reviewing such a piece and approving its submission.  When I heard that the Times had rejected the piece, I promptly forgot about it.

As far as I can tell from reviewing my sent and deleted messages from Linda Gibbs, none mentioned co-authorship with Geoffrey Canada, and the piece submitted to and published in the Huffington Post does not mention the involvement of the NYC health department.

The press director for Harlem Children’s Zone tells me that the piece was later submitted to two other publications that also turned it down. I was not cc’d on either of those submissions or on the one to the Huffington Post.

Hence my confusion.

For the record, I am happy to have the piece published with my name on it, to be working with the NYC health department and Linda Gibbs, and to be a co-author with Geoffrey Canada, who I very much look forward to meeting one of these days.

And here’s what all the fuss was about:

Does HuffPo use ghostwriters?  “My” piece with Geoffrey Canada!

A colleague congratulated me yesterday on my Huffington Post article—co-authored with Harlem Children’s Zone’s Geoffrey Canada—on SNAP (food stamp) benefits and sodas.

I was amazed to see it.  I don’t recall writing it and I don’t believe I have ever met Mr. Canada, although I would be delighted to do so.  The article does indeed reflect my views but does not read like something I wrote.

So I guess thanks are due to Mr. Canada or to the ghostwriter.  If anyone knows the story behind this, please tell!

Here’s the article:

NYC’s SNAP Sugary Beverage Ban Is the Right Idea

Marion Nestle and Geoffrey Canada

Posted at HuffingtonPost.com: 7/15/11 05:26 PM ET

New York City’s proposal for a two-year pilot to ban the use of food stamps to buy sugar-sweetened beverages is the right idea at the right time. It is a sound approach aimed at minimizing consumption of soda and other beverages stocked with added sugars at a time when we desperately need new interventions to combat the surge of obesity and diet-related disease across the country. A ban would also act as a counterweight to the soda industry’s efforts to solidify its products as part of the typical everyday diet. From our diverse perspectives — informed by a lifetime writing and teaching about food systems and policy, and decades spent helping kids in poverty beat the odds — we join together in a firm belief that this effort must be approved.

Increasingly strong evidence points to sugary drinks as major contributors to obesity and diabetes. The least-fortunate Americans suffer the most, evidenced by health disparities between rich and poor, white and non-white. For example, obesity and Type 2 diabetes are twice as prevalent in New York City’s poorest households as in the wealthiest. And these disparities persist nationwide. Overall, 44 percent of African Americans and 38 percent of Hispanics in the United States are obese, versus 32 percent of whites. Obesity itself increases the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, high cholesterol and heart disease, all conditions that disproportionately affect the poor.

New York’s proposal for a two-year pilot project to remove sugar-sweetened beverages from allowable SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamp) benefits is based not only on evidence linking these beverages to obesity, but also the fact that sugared drinks have absolutely no nutritional value. Considering that the SNAP program is, both in title and purpose, a nutrition assistance program aimed at combating food insecurity, this in itself is a compelling basis for excluding sugared drinks from the allowable purchases with SNAP dollars. The proposed ban, which would have to be approved by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), is in line with the SNAP program’s approach to other non-essential items: the federal government already prohibits use of SNAP benefits for alcoholic beverages, for example. And the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program, which the USDA also runs, restricts benefits for low-income mothers to only a limited number of nutrient-rich foods.

Some have criticized New York City’s proposal as patronizing to SNAP recipients, but the ban would not stop SNAP recipients from buying sodas. They just wouldn’t be able to use SNAP benefits for them. And, more critically, we must begin to think creatively about mechanisms to change our food environment for the better. The rates of soda consumption in our poorest communities cannot be explained by individual consumer preferences alone, but rather are linked to broader issues of access and affordability of healthy foods in low-income neighborhoods, and to the marketing efforts of soda companies themselves. Four in 10 residents of high-poverty pockets of Harlem, Brooklyn and the South Bronx drink four or more sugary drinks daily, compared with one in 10 Upper West Side residents.*

Certainly, as the 2012 Farm Bill looms, a larger conversation about using federal policy to promote healthful eating is warranted. We should focus on ways to make healthful foods more available to low-income families — for instance, by doubling the value of SNAP benefits when used for fruits and vegetables, or promoting incentives to establish grocery stores and community gardens in inner-city areas. There is no reason that these ideas cannot work in tandem with a policy that eliminates the federal subsidy for soda.

Soda companies hate New York City’s proposal, of course. In 2010 Coca-Cola, Pepsi and the American Beverage Association lobbed $22 million at federal officials, according to the House of Representatives’ Office of the Clerk. This lobbying has killed soda tax initiatives and gotten the industry’s sugar-soaked products into schools (though not here in New York City schools, where they cannot be served). Soda companies reach millions more kids through targeted Internet and social media campaigns. As soda sales in the U.S. have declined, they are increasingly marketing their products to children and youth in low-income areas, and they have successfully co-opted health professional groups with partnerships, alliances and grants. As a result of these efforts, they have created an environment in which it is considered normal in many households to drink sugary drinks all day.

In 2010, SNAP benefits went to more than 40 million people at a total cost of more than $68 billion. According to USDA figures for 2009, approximately six percent of this funding — more than four billion dollars a year — is spent on sugar-sweetened beverages. Given this scale, and the potential health impacts of soda consumption, is time for policy makers to rethink the place of these beverages in a federally funded nutrition assistance program. We hope the USDA will approve New York City’s project.

*Alberti P and Noyes P. Sugary Drinks: How Much Do We Consume? New York, NY. New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, 2011.

Follow Marion Nestle on Twitter: www.twitter.com/marionnestle

Update: 11:00 a.m.

Dear Dr. Nestle,

Apologies for your mistaken attribution in the Geoffrey Canada piece published on Friday. We received an email from the communications director of the Harlem Children’s Zone indicating you were to be bylined on this article. The link to the post now goes to a post bylined just by Mr. Canada.

Sincerely,

Claire Fallon, Associate Blog Editor

The Huffington Post

 

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.

 

 

 

May 1 2011

San Francisco Chronicle: Food Stamps and Sodas

My monthly (first-Sunday) Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle continues the conversation about use of food stamps to buy sodas.

Food stamps should not be valid for soda purchases

Q: When I see people in grocery stores using food stamp benefits to buy sodas, I get upset. Why does the government allow this?

A: My quick answer is lobbying, but discomfort about whether welfare benefits should permit the poor to eat as badly as those who are better off dates back to the English Poor Laws of the 16th century.

New York City’s proposed pilot project banning the use of food stamps for buying sugary sodas is only the latest event in this long and complicated history.

Welfare policies have always been designed to give the poor just enough to keep them off the streets, but not enough to induce dependency. The tension between these goals has resulted in scanty benefits – and endless debates.

Today, the debit cards provided by SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) can be used for all foods with these exceptions: alcoholic beverages, pet foods, nutrient supplements and on-site prepared foods.

New York’s proposal to add sodas to the “can’t buy” list is based on evidence linking sugary sodas to obesity, their lack of nutritional value, and estimates that SNAP recipients spend $75 million to $135 million in city benefits each year.

The proposed ban does not stop SNAP recipients from buying sodas. They just won’t be able to use SNAP benefits for them.

Soda companies strongly oppose this idea, of course, but so do many advocates for the poor. Advocates argue that the restrictions are insensitive and condescending in assuming that the poor are uniquely unable to make sensible dietary decisions.

The real problem, they correctly point out, is that low-income Americans – with or without SNAP benefits – cannot afford to buy healthy foods or do not have access to them.

As a result of such arguments, I have long been uncomfortable with the idea of the soda ban. But in recent months, I have come to support it. Here’s why:

Evidence is strong that sugary drinks predispose to obesity, and obesity rates are higher among low-income households. In New York City, for example, obesity and Type 2 diabetes are twice as prevalent among the poorest households compared with the wealthiest. Preliminary evidence suggests that sugars in liquid form may especially predispose to obesity.

Overall, soda companies have worked hard to create an environment in which drinking sugary beverages all day is normal. They lobby to introduce and retain vending machines in schools. As sales in the United States have declined, they increasingly market their products to people in developing countries.

They put millions of dollars to work fighting soda taxes and, no doubt, the proposed SNAP ban.

I’m impressed by the comparison of the SNAP approach, which allows benefits to be used for most foods, to that of the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program. The USDA runs both programs. WIC, the most demonstrably nutritionally successful of all food assistance programs, allows benefits to be used only for a restricted number of nutrient-rich foods.

In 2010, SNAP benefits went to more than 40 million people at a total cost of more than $68 billion. We need to focus on finding ways to make healthful foods more affordable and accessible to low-income families – doubling the value of SNAP benefits when used for fruits and vegetables, for example, or promoting incentives to move grocery stores, and community gardens into inner-city areas.

Still, soft drink companies have had a free ride for decades.

I hope the USDA will approve New York’s proposed ban.

 

Apr 30 2011

Soda industry vs. NYC Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed ban

Today’s New York Times carries a piece by Robert Pear on soda industry opposition to NYC Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to ban the use of food stamp (SNAP) benefits to buy sugary drinks.

My first-Sunday monthly column for the San Francisco Chronicle is on precisely the same topic.  I will post it tomorrow.

In the meantime, here’s what the Times says about how the soda industry is organizing opposition:

While the American Beverage Association has led the opposition, the fight demonstrates how various parts of the food industry have united to thwart the mayor’s proposal. Beverage industry lobbyists have worked with the Snack Food Association, the National Confectioners Association, which represents candy companies, the Food Marketing Institute, which represents 26,000 retail food stores, as well as antihunger groups like the Food Research and Action Center and Feeding America.

But here’s how the strategies play out in practice:

Eighteen members of the Congressional Black Caucus recently urged the Obama administration to reject New York’s proposal. The plan is unfair to food stamp recipients because it treats them differently from other customers, they said in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

While Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are among the largest contributors to the nonpartisan Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, a research and education institute, caucus members say their positions are not influenced by such contributions.

See my Food Matters column tomorrow for how I view all this.

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