by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Soft drinks

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.

Mar 17 2011

Soda companies vs. soda taxes: breathtaking creativity

I keep telling you.   You can’t make this stuff up.  Try these for food politics–in this case, soda politics–in action.

Beverage Association gives $10 million to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP)

From the Philadelphia Inquirer blog (March 16):

In keeping with a controversial pledge to made last year to City Council as part of an effort to ward off Mayor Nutter’s steep tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, the soft-drink industry will donate $10 million to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to fund research into and prevention of childhood obesity.

The three-year grant is funded by a new organization, the Foundation for a Healthy America, created by the American Beverage Association, the national trade group representing manufacturers and bottlers. The ABA was instrumental in lobbying Philadelphia City Council to reject Nutter’s proposal to tax sugary drinks at 2-cents per ounce as a way to cut consumption and raise money for the general fund.

In a press release Wednesday, CHOP insisted that it will “retain absolute clinical and research independence,” as the source of its funding for the research is likely to come under attack from those wary of the beverage industry’s influence. That includes funding for clinical studies to be submitted to peer-reviewed publications.

Atkins Obesity Center publishes review of effects of soft drinks on obesity

In a delicious irony, the latest review of this topic comes from the Atkins Center at Berkeley.  Yes, the Atkins Diet Atkins, the one that promotes high-fat, low-carbohydrates, and has everything to gain from proving that sugars are bad for you.

With that duly noted, set the irony aside.  The review was funded by independent agencies and organizations.  Let’s take its results at face value.

The reviewers looked at five kinds of evidence: secular trends, mechanisms, observational studies, intervention trials and meta-analyses.  All supported the idea that

The currently available evidence is extensive and consistently supports the hypothesis that sweetened beverage intake is a risk factor for the development of obesity and has made a substantive contribution to the obesity epidemic experienced in the USA in recent decades.

Sweetened beverages are an especially promising focus for efforts to prevent and reduce obesity for two reasons: (i) the evidence supporting the association between sweetened beverage intake and excess weight is stronger than for any other single type of food or beverage; and (ii) sweetened beverages provide no nutritional benefit other than energy and water.

Coca-Cola funds North Carolina School of Public Health campaign against Childhood Obesity

Isn’t that nice of them?  The apparently unironical slogan of the campaign : “Everything in moderation.”

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report, “F as in Fat”, features piece by PepsiCo’s CEO

Melanie Warner, writing on bNET, explains that the RWJ Foundation is usually scrupulously independent but that putting Pepsi’s PR piece into its document makes no sense.

A third of the way into the report, up pops a bizarre “personal perspective” from PepsiCo’s (PEP) CEO Indra Nooyi in which she details the many ways her company is working to make America healthier. “Helping consumers by building on our portfolio of wholesome and enjoyable foods is not just good business for PepsiCo -– it’s the right thing to do for people everywhere,” Nooyi chirps in a two-page soliloquy that reads like a press release and touts everything from Pepsi’s pledge to reduce the sodium in its products by 25% by 2015 to its reduced sugar drinks like Trop50 and G2. No other food company is mentioned, just Pepsi.

[This inclusion]…also ties into the ongoing debate about what role the food industry should play in helping Americans slim down. Are food companies trusted partners who are committed to fundamental changes, or is getting people to eat healthier versions of processed food really a whole lot of Titanic deck chairs?

As the research linking soft drinks to obesity gets stronger and stronger, it is no wonder that the Beverage Association is buying off city councils, and soft drink companies are eager to position themselves as helping to solve the problem of childhood obesity, not cause it.

Do these actions remind you of any other industry’s behavior?  Cigarette companies, anyone?

Mar 14 2011

Latin America vs. soft drinks

Today’s New York Times has a story about how Mexico is trying to improve school food in an effort to help prevent childhood obesity.

By all measures, Mexico is one of the fattest countries in the world, and the obesity starts early. One in three children is overweight or obese, according to the government. So the nation’s health and education officials stepped in last year to limit what schools could sell at recess. (Schools in Mexico do not provide lunch.)

The officials quickly became snared in a web of special interests led by Mexico’s powerful snack food companies, which found support from regulators in the Ministry of the Economy. The result was a knot of rules that went into effect on Jan. 1.

“What’s left is a regulatory Frankenstein,” said Alejandro Calvillo, Mexico’s most vocal opponent of junk food, particularly soft drinks, in the schools. “They are surrendering a captive market to the companies to generate consumers at a young age.”

By all reports, schools in many Latin American countries sell candy and soft drinks in lieu of real food.  Kids pretty quickly get used to the idea that those foods mean lunch, and eating them is normal.  Never mind the effects of such diets on teeth—dental decay is increasing rapidly—and body weights.

By coincidence, I just received a paper from Brazilian investigators documenting the way soft drink companies are funding physical education activities in that country.  That’s one way to deflect attention from aggressive marketing in schools and other venues.

Last year, Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, and Kraft reported rising profits from overseas sales.  With the U.S. market for their products flat or declining, companies are looking to developing markets for increased sales.  Obesity is sure to follow.

Feb 13 2011

New York City’s tough anti-soda campaign

I just got off a subway car adorned with posters advertising the New York City Health Department’s “Are you pouring on the pounds?” campaign.  They are riveting.

They make a simple point, but one that is not always understood:  Soft drinks contain sugar, and lots of it.

Lots of sugar—all those packets—will make you fat.

The campaign also includes a tough video.

New York City’s Health Department is taking on the city’s high rates of heart disease and type 2 diabetes in every way it can.

Take a look.  What do you think?  Will this work?

Feb 10 2011

Do diet sodas really cause stroke? I’m dubious.

I’ve been asked repeatedly this week to comment on the huge press outcry about a study that links diet sodas to an increased risk of stroke and heart disease.

I have not seen the study and neither has anyone else. It is not yet published.

It was presented at the American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference 2011.  The American Heart Association has a short summary on its website.  And Rosie Mestel has an excellent account in the Los Angeles Times.

Here’s what I can glean from the limited information available:

  • The study started in 2003.  It was designed to determine risk factors for heart disease and stroke in a multi-ethnic New York City population.
  • It used a food frequency questionnaire to ask about 2,500 people how often they drank diet sodas (among many other questions).
  • Nine years later, it assessed rates of stroke and heart disease.
  • The result: people who said they habitually drank diet sodas had a 60% higher rate of stroke and heart attacks.
  • They had a 48% higher rate when the data were controlled for contributing factors: age, sex, race, smoking, exercise, alcohol, daily calories, and metabolic syndrome.

That is all we know.

Does this study really mean that “diet soda may not be the optimal substitute for sugar-sweetened beverages for protection against vascular outcomes,” as the lead author is quoted as saying?

As Rosie Mestel puts it:

It’s worth noting, as some scientists did, that this is a link, not proof of cause and effect. After all, there are many things that people who slurp diet sodas every day are apt to do – like eat a lousy diet — and not all of these can be adjusted for, no matter how hard researchers try. Maybe those other factors are responsible for the stroke and heart attack risk, not the diet drinks. (Those who drink daily soda of any stripe, diet or otherwise, are probably not the most healthful among us.)

Leaving questions about the accuracy of dietary information obtained by questionnaire, the study raises more important questions:

  1. Could this finding simply be a statistical result of a “fishing expedition?”  The food frequency questionnaire undoubtedly asked hundreds of questions about diet and other matters.  Just by chance, some of them are going to give results that look meaningful.  The increase in stroke risk seems astonishingly high and that also suggests a need for skepticism.
  2. What is the mechanism by which diet sodas lead to stroke or heart disease?  I can’t think of any particular reason why they would unless they are a marker for some known risk factor for those conditions.

Please understand that I am no fan of diet sodas.  I don’t like the metallic taste of artificial sweeteners and they are excluded by  my “don’t eat” rule: never eat anything artificial.

But before I believe that this study means that artificial sweeteners cause cardiovascular problems, I want to see a study designed to test this particular hypothesis and a plausible biological reason for how diet sodas might cause such problems.

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