Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Dec 13 2018

Bakery & Snacks looks at Brexit

While Brexit—Britain’s leaving of the European Union—is in turmoil, the industry newsletter, BakeryAndSnacks.com has a few articles on its effects on this industry.  Complicated, no?

Dec 12 2018

USDA weakens school nutrition standards

The USDA has announced some changes to the school food rules implemented in the previous administration.  The USDA press release explains:

  • First, it will broaden the milk options in the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program by allowing local operators to permanently offer flavored, low-fat milk. For consistency across nutrition programs, it will also allow flavored, low-fat milk in the Special Milk Program for Children and in the Child and Adult Care Food Program for participants ages 6 and older. [My translation: a green light to sugar-sweetened milk].
  • Second, this final rule will require that half of the weekly grains in the school lunch and breakfast menu be whole grain-rich, thus ending the need for the exemption process. [Translation: Schools can serve a lot fewer whole-grain foods].
  • Third, it will provide schools in the lunch and breakfast programs more time for gradual sodium reduction by retaining Sodium Target 1 through the end of school year (SY) 2023-2024, continuing to Target 2 in SY 2024-2025, and eliminating the Final Target that would have gone into effect in SY 2022-2023. [Translation: Good-bye Target 3; forget about serious sodium reduction].

By codifying these changes, USDA acknowledges the persistent menu planning challenges experienced by some schools, and affirms its commitment to give schools more control over food service decisions and greater ability to offer wholesome and appealing meals that reflect local preferences.  [Translation: USDA is committed to letting schools serve junk foods].

It’s worth reading the Federal Register notice:, which reveals:

  • 97% of more than 84,000 comments on grain flexibility opposed the changes.
  • 96% of more than 83,000 comments on sodium flexibility opposed the changes.

Most schools had implemented the previous rules just fine.  In today’s Orwell-speak, greater “flexibility” means that USDA cares a lot more about the health of the companies that sell meals and snacks to schools than it does to kids’ health.

These changes provide further evidence of corporate capture of USDA.

Three reactions of interest

Dec 11 2018

Eat organics, reduce cancer risk?

I rarely post anything about agricultural chemicals, mainly because it’s so hard to find people who are not exposed to them, most people are exposed only to small amounts, and the industry that makes them is so fierce about casting doubt on the quality of any research demonstrating harm.

But here is a French study comparing the risk of getting cancer among people who consume conventional diets with those who mainly consume organic foods.  Organics are relatively free of the most potentially harmful pesticides and herbicides.

The key points of this study:

Question  What is the association between an organic food–based diet (ie, a diet less likely to contain pesticide residues) and cancer risk?

Findings  In a population-based cohort study of 68 946 French adults, a significant reduction in the risk of cancer was observed among high consumers of organic food.

Meaning  A higher frequency of organic food consumption was associated with a reduced risk of cancer; if the findings are confirmed, research investigating the underlying factors involved with this association is needed to implement adapted and targeted public health measures for cancer prevention.

The authors’ offer this as the most likely explanation:

…the prohibition of synthetic pesticides in organic farming leads to a lower frequency or an absence of contamination in organic foods compared with conventional foods46,47 and results in significant reductions in pesticide levels in urine.48

They also note that the International Agency for Research on Cancer finds certain agricultural chemicals (most notably glyphosate / Roundup) to be probable or possible carcinogens.

As for opposition, the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), an industry-sponsored group that can always be counted on to defend chemicals in the food supply, offers this detailed critique of the study.

Yes, of course we need more research on this question, and the sooner the better.

In the meantime, this study provides another good reason for choosing organic foods whenever you can.

References

46. Barański  M, Srednicka-Tober  D, Volakakis  N,  et al.  Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses.  Br J Nutr. 2014;112(5):794-811. doi:10.1017/S0007114514001366

47. Smith-Spangler  C, Brandeau  ML, Olkin  I, Bravata  DM.  Are organic foods safer or healthier?  Ann Intern Med. 2013;158(4):297-300. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-158-4-201302190-00019

48. Science and Technology Options Assessment. Human health implications of organic food and organic agriculture. http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2016/581922/EPRS_STU%282016%29581922_EN.pdf. Accessed May 28, 2017.

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Dec 10 2018

Letter to The Nation about Michelle Obama’s “Becoming”

Michelle Obama’s new book, Becoming, may be a blockbuster, but The Nation wishes she were more political.  An interview of Nation-contributor Amy Wilentz by Nation-contributing editor Jon Wiener about Becoming induced me to fire off this letter:

The Edible Is Political

As a longtime subscriber to The Nation and the author of Food Politics and other books on this topic, I was dismayed to read the following exchange in Jon Wiener’s interview with Amy Wilentz [“Michelle Obama’s Carefully Scrubbed Memoir,” online Nov. 30]:

JW: I wonder if it’s possible that Michelle Obama actually is not a political person. Maybe the things she cares most about really are childhood obesity and healthy eating. We would like her to be more political, more of a progressive Democrat—but maybe she isn’t.

AW: But remember that, for her, those issues—childhood obesity and the “Let’s Move” idea—are political issues. It’s not like decorating the White House.

Childhood obesity most definitely is a political issue and for everyone, not just Michelle Obama. Childhood obesity is directly linked to the corporatization of America; to discrimination based on race or gender; to income inequalities; to the increasing privatization of what used to be public goods; to depressed wages; to immigration policies; to lack of a decent health-care system; and, not least, to current divisions in Americans’ views of what our society should look like.

If “Let’s Move” seems apolitical in retrospect, it’s because of the intense opposition it faced from those who understood perfectly well that taking on childhood obesity meant, in essence, taking on the entire trillion-dollar-a-year food industry and everything else that backs up our current food system.

I’ve always wondered whether Michelle Obama knew just how political childhood obesity would be when she took it on, or whether she thought it was something that would easily attract widespread bipartisan support. I suspect the latter and am not convinced by assurances that she knew it would be a fight. The White House Task Force Report on Childhood Obesity produced a mixed bag of objectives for “Let’s Move,” out of which she picked two that appeared especially supportable: access to healthy food in low-income communities and healthier school food. But the pushback, especially on school food, was ferocious. That’s why the new school-food rules, compromised and unfunded as they were, seemed like a political triumph.

Marion Nestle
Professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health, emerita, at NYU
New York City

Jon Wiener Replies

Marion Nestle is, of course, right about this. I should have said something like, “Childhood obesity is a political issue, but that’s not the way Michelle Obama presents it in the book.” Sadly, in listing her accomplishments, “Let’s Move” and the White House garden come after commissioning new china for the newly redecorated dining room.

Jon Wiener
los angeles

Jon Wiener, as it turns out, is spot on.  I had not read Becoming at the time I wrote the letter but this exchange sent me right to the book.  Mrs. Obama focuses on the personal and indeed presents herself as uninvolved in the political.  But during the Let’s Move era, she gave a couple of decidedly political speeches about the role of the food industry in childhood obesity (here’s my summary of one of them).

Postscripts

  • The Obama’s date at Blue Hill. Indeed, Michelle Obama doesn’t say much in Becoming about Let’s Move. She devotes more pages to her date with the President at Blue Hill, which I found riveting because I witnessed that date.  My partner and I were taking Sidney Mintz and his wife to dinner that night and that’s where we had made reservations.  The staff seated us directly across from the Obamas but, alas, did not introduce us.  Cool New Yorkers as we are, we left them in peace.
  • The Nation’s previous comments on Let’s Move: The Natiohas long been critical of the way Let’s Move partnered with food companies (I’m quoted in this article).
Dec 7 2018

Weekend reading: the 2018 Global Nutrition Report

If you want an overview of the current status of nutrition problems in the world, what is being done about them, and what needs to be done about them, this report is required reading (to get to the download button for the entire report, scroll to the end of the page).

The report is chock full of useful facts, figures, case studies, and recommendations.  A massive undertaking, it

was produced by the Independent Expert Group of the Global Nutrition Report, supported by the Global Nutrition Report Stakeholder Group and the Secretariat at Development Initiatives. The writing was led by the co-chairs Jessica Fanzo and Corinna Hawkes, supported by group members and supplemented by additional analysts and contributors.

For a quick overview, go right to the slide deck and then to the graphics in the executive summary.

The report deals both with problems of malnutrition (undernutrition) and obesity (overnutrition), especially in children.

It also deals with adult obesity:

It identifies measurable nutrition indicators that can be used to track progress:

It recommends actions to reduce the prevalence of malnutrition and obesity.

What stands in the way of implementing these steps?  Political will, alas.

These reports have come out annually since 2014.  Let’s hope this one gets the attention it deserves.

Dec 6 2018

Do probiotics work? Maybe, if you are lucky

The industry newsletter, NutraIngredients.com, regularly posts Special Editions on Probiotics, meaning collections of its articles on the topic.  These promote the benefits—to digestion and many other physiological and mental aspects—of eating healthy bacteria.   But do probiotics really work?  And could they actually be harmful?  See comments below these selected articles.

Two recent articles in Cell raise questions about the benefits of probiotics.

In translation:

  • The murine [mouse] & human gut mucosal microbiome only partially correlates with stool
  • Mice feature an indigenous-microbiome driven colonization resistance to probiotics
  • Humans feature a person-specific gut mucosal colonization resistance to probiotics
  • Probiotic colonization is predictable by pre-treatment microbiome & host features

In further translation:

  • Not everyone responds to probiotics, which means that they may be worth a try and you may get lucky.

And an even more recent article in JAMA Internal Medicine questions whether probiotics might be harmful.  It warns about:

  • The safety of bacteria in probiotic supplements has not been fully established.
  • They can lead to infections and allergic reactions.
  • Probiotic supplements often do not meet manufacturing standards (identity, purity, strength, composition).
  • Introduction of new genes for antibiotic resistance into microbiomes.

The article concludes:

Consumers and physicians should not assume that the label on probiotic supplements provides adequate information to determine if consuming the live microorganism is worth the risk.

What to think about all this?  If you like yogurt, enjoy!  But supplements are another matter.

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Dec 5 2018

The effects of our trade war with China

President Trump has just announced a truce in our trade war with China.  We need one.

In August, the Trump Administration said it would provide $12 billion to farmers to make up for the losses in income caused by the dispute.

I’ve been collecting items about what’s actually happening with the bailout payments.

  • Not much has been paid out: The New York Times reports that the USDA has paid out just $838 million of the $6 billion that became available in September. Another pool of up to $6 billion is expected to become available next month.
  • They are not helping Wisconsin dairy farmers: According to the Milwaukee Sentinal Journal, about 4,800 dairy farms are collectively getting about 80 percent of the $10.4 million coming to the state, with an average payment of $2,390.  But the Wisconsin Farmers Union says a 55-cow dairy farm would receive a one-time payment of $725 from the Trump bailout program, but would lose between $36,000 and $48,000 this year due to low milk prices.
  • They are not doing much for Iowa farmers either:  According to the Des Moines Register, the 4300 payments total nearly $31 million, with an average payment of $7,236.  But 100 payments are less than $25, 24 are less than $10, and 11 are $5 or less.
  • Payments are going to 1,100 city residents; these average $881.  According to the Environmental Working Group, the recipients may or may not actually be involved in farming.  The EWG got the data from the USDA.
  • The National Corn Growers Association wants more money for corn farmers.  Its letter to USDA says the agency does not understand the how badly the trade disruptions are affecting its members. Its own study estimates corn growers losses at $6.3 billion.
  • North Dakota soybean growers have a storage problem, says the New York Times,  because they can’t sell the beans to China.
  • Kansas soybean farmers are also in trouble, writes the New York Times.
  • Overall farm income is declining, says USDA.

I think it’s fair to conclude at this point that current trade policies are tough on US agribusiness.

Dec 4 2018

Where are we on dietary fat?

The endless arguments about dietary fats and dietary fat versus carbohydrate make no sense to me, because we mostly eat these as components of food, and foods as components of diets of massive complexity.

But scientists do like to debate such issues so it comes as a breath of fresh air to read a consensus statement from people who do not necessarily agree about such issues.

Looks good to me.  I’m glad they did this.