Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
May 24 2018

Pork (the meat, not goodies in the farm bill)

One of the industry newsletters I read regularly is GlobalMeatNews.com, which occasionally collects articles on specific topics into “special editions.”  This one is about pork.

Still the most-consumed meat in the world, the pork sector is shifting quickly with global markets opening for processors on a weekly basis. In this special newsletter, we look at the lucrative Chinese market that everyone is looking to break into, as well as work being done to tackle diseases in the pork sector.

A note on the pork study: it elicited a tirade in the New Food Economy about how so much of nutrition research is correlational and says little about causation.  The writer singles out the pork study as one of three examples of possible misuse of statistics.

Feeding infants puréed pork and increased body length? Trick question. P = 0.001—so something really seems to be happening. But does greater body length in infants actually matter? We’ll let the scientists pursue this one on their own until they come up with something that’s not just statistically significant but meaningful…The point isn’t to prevent you from snacking on prunes and chocolate while you shovel puréed pork into the baby. Do it if you want to, and given the marvelous powers of the placebo effect, you’ll probably be happy you did. But stop treating studies like these as if they contain the truth.

The study, no surprise, was sponsored by NIH but also by the National Pork Board, among other industry groups.  The Pork Board issued a press release: “New Study Finds Pureed Pork Supports Infant Growth.”

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May 23 2018

Yes, the USDA is still giving direct payments to Big Ag

The Government Accountability Office reports that

Under the Agricultural Act of 2014 (2014 Farm Bill), each member of a farming operation that is a general partnership can generally receive directly or indirectly up to $125,000 per year through the applicable programs if the member meets eligibility requirements, including being determined to be actively engaged in farming.

The GAO’a full report provides the data for 2015:

For those USDA program payments requiring active engagement in farming, we determined that

  • USDA distributed about $2.7 billion in payments to 95,417 entities, such as corporations, general partnerships, joint ventures, and limited liability companies;
  • USDA distributed an average of $884,495 in payments to the 50 farming operations receiving the highest payments for 2015; and
  • General partnership members’ payments were predominantly based on members’ claimed contributions of combined management and labor (74.6 percent) and management (23.1 percent), while labor was 2.3 percent.

To game this system, it’s best to have many individuals qualifying for maximum payments.  Here’s how that works:

Will the new farm bill, if it ever passes, do a better job of supporting small farmers and fruit-and-vegetable (“specialty crop”) producers?  It doesn’t look like it at this point, alas.

May 22 2018

Plant-based meat: the cosmetic color problem

Plant-based meats are touted as the technological solution to the health and environmental problems caused by excessive meat-eating.   Venture capital is flooding to what seems like a hot new market.

One objection to these products is that they are heavily processed and contain long lists of processing ingredients (my emphasis on the color ingredients).

The Beyond Burger: pea protein isolate, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, water, yeast extract, maltodextrin, natural flavors, gum arabic, sunflower oil, salt, succinic acid, acetic acid, non-GMO modified food starch, cellulose from bamboo, methylcellulose, potato starch, beet juice extract (for color), ascorbic acid (to maintain color), annatto extract (for color), citrus fruit extract (to maintain quality), vegetable glycerin.

The Impossible Burger: water, textured wheat protein, coconut oil, potato protein, natural flavors, 2% or less of: leghemoglobin (heme protein), yeast extract, salt, soy protein isolate, konjac gum, xanthan gum, thiamin (vitamin B1), zinc, niacin, vitamin B6, riboflavin (vitamin B2), vitamin B12.

I was intrigued by this article from Food Navigator about the color problem.  Plant-based meats are naturally an unappealing grey and need color to make them appear palatable. What to do?

According to botanical extract supplier, Naturex, whose portfolio includes colouring foods, plant-based meat analogues are “a booming sector​” and, with colour one of the most important factors in determining a food’s appeal, manufacturers are interested in natural ways to colour meat alternatives.

Category manager for natural colours at Naturex Nathalie Pauleau said that carmine, derived from cochineal insects, is the most frequently used colour for real meat applications but cannot be used in plant based products because it is not vegetarian.

Vegetable-based alternatives include beetroot or red radish concentrates that deliver good colouring results, and in Europe, both can be classified as colouring foods​she said.

But there are big problems with color stability under conditions of heat and high or low pH.  If manufacturers want a browner color, carmelized sugar sometimes works.

As for the “bleeding” burger produced by Impossible Foods: this is

a plant-based burger made from the standard base ingredients of wheat, potato and soy protein. The addition of its IP-protected ingredient, leghemoglobin, however, means that the burger’s label lists added flavours but no colours.  Leghemoglobin is a heme molecule similar to myoglobin and haemoglobin that make blood and meat red but is found in the roots of nitrogen-fixing plants such as soy, meaning it is vegetarian-friendly. When added to the burger, it looks like blood.

And how do these taste?  Not bad, by most reports.

But one of my personal food rules is never to eat anything artificial.  These products are off my dietary radar.

May 21 2018

Sugar policy: absurd but apparently permanent

The House version of the farm bill is in a mess right now and there is much to say about both its process (highly politicized) and content (thoughtless, mean-spirited, and just plain nasty).  I will be singling out specific pieces for comment every now and then.

Let’s start with a proposed amendment that the House soundly defeated.  AP reporter Candace Choi succinctly summarized the significance of this defeat: Big Sugar beats back Big Candy.

I’ve discussed our absurd Big Sugar policy in previous posts.

For decades, despite endless reform attempts, U.S. sugar policy has protected the interests of producers of sugar cane and sugar beets.

Basically, current policy maintains the price of domestic sugar at a level higher than the market price in order to protect politically powerful sugar cane growers in Louisiana and Florida, and somewhat less powerful—but far more numerous—growers of sugar beets.

American consumers pay more for sugar, but only an average of $10 per capita per year, not enough to get people upset.

The big losers are candy makers and other commercial users of cane and beet sugars.  Soft drink makers are relatively unaffected because they mostly use high fructose corn sweeteners.

Reps. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) and Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.) sponsored an amendment to the farm bill that would require the sugar industry to repay the government if and when its loan program operates at a loss.

The sugar program is not supposed to cost taxpayers any money because it keeps prices high enough so that loans get paid back.  But in 2013, prices fell and the USDA had to buy surplus sugar at a loss of $259 million. The Congressional Budget Office says that the sugar program will cost about taxpayers about $76 million over the next decade.

Nevertheless the House defeated the sugar amendment by a vote of 137 to 278.  How come?  Louisiana and Florida are key election states.  Sugar beet growers operate in practically every northern state in the U.S.

The successful fight to defeat the amendment was led by the American Sugar Alliance.  The Washington Post reports how the Alliance paid for an advertising campaign positioning the growers it represents as victims.

A full-page ad in last Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal featured a picture of two Louisiana sugar planters and the words: “Excluding us from loans available to other crops isn’t ‘modest reform,’ it’s discriminatory. Don’t cut sugar farmers out of the Farm Bill. Oppose harmful amendments.”

And so the House did.

This is only the latest episode in attempts to reform sugar policy.  Chalk this one up as a win for Big Sugar, as Candace Choi so nicely pointed out.

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May 18 2018

Weekend reading: ban factory farms

Food and Water Watch has a new report advocating a ban on factory farms.

Why?  Because factory farms:

  • Produce enormous volumes of waste
  • Fuel climate change
  • Pollute air and water
  • Exploit workers
  • Harm animal welfare
  • Drive antibiotic resistance
  • Harm rural communities

This is ten years after the report of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (on which I served).

Not much has changed but this new one is particularly well researched and is a welcome addition to the ongoing debate.

May 17 2018

Annals of history: medical advice about sugar, 1918

The JAMA issue of May 1 reprints an article first published 100 years ago.  If I hadn’t seen the original date, I would have thought it had just been published for the first time.
The 1918 article is called “Sugar in War Time.”
It was published originally on April 6 that year.  JAMA. 1918;70(14):1003.
It begins:

During recent months, many physicians have been asked regarding the possible effects of the various newly imposed or proposed dietary restrictions or innovations on the health of the individual. … Among other plans for conservation, a reduction in the use of sugar has been urgently requested and, indeed, made inevitable at times when local shortage has curtailed the available supply so that the customary quota is not forthcoming. ..The most pertinent information is that respecting the actual use of sugar in the United States in recent years. The amount consumed in 1917 was approximately 9,100,000,000 pounds, or 88.3 pounds per capita. In 1916 it amounted to 8,300,000,000, or 84.7 pounds per capita. It is thus apparent that if these statistics are correct there has been some increase in the consumption of sugar.

Eighty-eight pounds of sugar per capita used each year represent about 110 gm. (nearly 4 ounces) per day for every man, woman and child in this country. Expressed in terms of food fuel units this is equivalent to 440 calories, a not inconsiderable portion of the daily energy needs of an adult man. The sugar of the daily diet consumed in the measure indicated by the government statistics would furnish one seventh of the food fuel where 3,000 calories are required, and even a larger proportion where the daily energy requirement is put on a lower basis. Four ounces of sugar, as the accusation now stands, is the calorific equivalent of two thirds of a quart of good milk or of eight slices of bread approximating one third of a pound.

When it is recalled that this great per capita consumption of sugar is largely a phenomenon of recent years and the result of the development of an industry whereby the price of the product has been lowered, the necessity for the inclusion of this carbohydrate up to one seventh or even one fifth of the daily energy requirement in the diet will obviously be questioned.

The article concludes with this statement:

Sugar is well utilized in the human organism; from the standpoint of cost its food value is very high, and its popularity need not be debated. But there is no consideration of nutrition that seriously demands so large an inclusion of sugar in the diet or forbids considerable reduction in its use, especially when the best interests of the civilized world demand it.

May 16 2018

Should organic eggs be labeled “healthy?” Their producers think so.

You have to have some sympathy for egg producers.  Egg consumption has been declining for years.

Egg producers blame the decline on cholesterol concerns; eggs are by far the largest dietary source of cholesterol.

Now Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs is petitioning the FDA to forget about cholesterol and update its definition of “healthy” so the company can advertise its eggs as “healthy.”

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a speech last month that the FDA would be updating the definition.

I, of course, think “healthy” is a slippery slope best avoided, and that Congress never should have allowed health claims on foods in the first place.,

But too late for that.

I don’t envy the FDA’s challenge here.  The petition is based on the dietary guidelines, but what the guidelines say about dietary cholesterol, and therefore eggs, is extremely confusing.

As I explained in a previous post, the guidelines no longer recommend a cap on dietary cholesterol of 300 mg/day (the equivalent of 1.5 eggs), but do say that people should eat as little cholesterol as possible.

Good luck on this one.

May 15 2018

Have some glyphosate with your food? Broccoli, at least, is glyphosate-free

Journalist/author Carey Gillam of US Right to Know has an article in The Guardian about glyphosate (Roundup) in food based on emails obtained in a lawsuit.

The emails concern FDA’s testing of food samples for residues of glyphosate, the herbicide widely used with genetically modified crops.  The agency has not yet released the test results.

But the emails contain some interesting information.  For example, FDA chemist Richard Thompson writes that he had to use broccoli to establish testing standards.

I used broccoli because it’s the only thing I have on hand that does not have glyphosate in it. I have brought wheat crackers, granola cereal, and corn meal from home and there’s a fair amount in all of them.

How much?  We won’t know until the FDA releases the data.

Glyphosate is widely used for growing GMO corn, soybeans, sugar beets, and other ingredients of highly processed foods.  It is not surprising that residues remain in products made from GMO ingredients.

Should we be concerned?

One agency, IARC, judges glyphosate as a probable carcinogen, but industry scientists strongly dispute this decision and are fighting it in court.

We need better data for sure, but in the meantime it is hard to believe that glyphsate residues are good for us.

These findings are another reason to avoid ultraprocessed foods and eat your veggies.

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