Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jan 22 2020

USDA issues guidance for non-GMO labeling

The USDA has issued a guide for meat and poultry sellers explaining what they need to do to claim that their products are non-GMO.  This, apparently, will do.

What, you may ask, are they to do if their products are GMO?  Here’s your answer.

That USDA is allowing the use of non-GMO rather than non-bioengineered must be considered some kind of miracle or oversight.

AgriPulse says producers want more guidance before trying to comply with whatever the biotech labeling law means.

I can’t wait to see if meat sellers use any of this.

Jan 21 2020

The USDA never gives up in favoring corporate interests over kids’ health: the new school food rules

If it weren’t so tragic, we could all have a big laugh at the USDA’s latest announcement of how it plans to weaken the nutrition standards for school meals.   Here’s how it starts:

Delivering on his promise to act on feedback from dietary professionals, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced two proposals today that will put local school and summer food service operators back in the driver’s seat of their programs, because they know their children best. Under the school meals proposed rule, school nutrition professionals have more flexibility to serve appetizing and healthy meals that appeal to their students’ preferences and subsequently reduce food waste…These improvements build on the 2018 reforms that preserve strong nutrition standards while providing schools the additional flexibilities they need to best serve America’s students [the words in red are my emphasis].

This is USDA doublespeak.  My translation:

  • Dietary professionals: USDA is not talking about me here.  It is referring to the School Nutrition Association, which represents school food service workers, and receives nearly half its funding from food companies that sell products to schools.
  • Driver’s seat: This is Trump’s USDA saying that it is not bound by anything accomplished by Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign.
  • Flexibility: This means that schools can decide on their own to ignore nutrition standards and let kids eat all the junk food they want.
  • Improvements: This refers to benefits for the companies that sell junk foods in schools.
  • 2018 reforms:  In USDA-speak, “reform” usually means rollback of rules or budget cuts; it never means real improvement.

I just can’t get my head around why there is so much political pressure to feed junk food to kids.  Doesn’t everyone want kids to be healthy?  Apparently not.

Bettina Siegel, author of Kids’ Food and blogger at The Lunch Tray, has her own analytical deconstruction of what this announcement means.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest interprets USDA’s proposals as an “assault on school meals.”

In an email, a reader who wishes to remain anonymous sent me some notes on the large body of research, some of it from the agency itself, countering USDA’s claims that the current nutrition standards are not working.

  • USDA’s own research shows that meals are healthier, plate waste has not increased, and most schools are complying with nutrition standards.
  • Healthy Eating Research shows that the nutritional quality of school meals has improved under the current rules.
  • A study from the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity shows that low-income kids are eating better under the existing standards.
  • Surveys from Bridging the Gap show that most kids like the healthier school lunches.
  • poll conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts, and American Heart Association shows that more than 70% of parents support healthier school nutrition standards, and more than 90% want fruits or vegetables served with every meal.
  • A Harvard study stimates that the current nutrition standards will prevent more than 2 million cases of childhood obesity and save nearly $800 million in health care costs over 10 years.

In short, school meals are not broken and do not need fixing.  This is about politics, in this case USDA’s pandering to food company interests at the expense of kids’ health.

Shameful.

Jan 20 2020

Conflicted research argument of the week: meat versus plants

I could not keep up with the number of e-mails I got last week with the subject line “Have you seen this?”

“This” referred to an opinion piece in JAMA entitled Backlash Over Meat Dietary Recommendations Raises Questions About Corporate Ties to Nutrition Scientists.

Definitely up my alley.

The article describes the outraged reaction to a series of papers in the Annals of Internal Medicine last year arguing that recommendations to eat less meat are unfounded (I posted about this at the time).  Some of the investigators involved in the meat papers turned out to have undisclosed ties to meat industry interests.

The JAMA article points out that the most outraged objections to the Annals papers came from investigators who have plenty of industry ties (plant-based) of their own.

My book, Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat, provides loads of evidence for a basic observation: research funded by food companies, regardless of the particular food studied, tends to produce results favorable to the sponsor’s interests.

It also describes how industry influence occurs at an unconscious level; recipients are unaware that they are being influenced.

How the influence gets expressed is also the subject of research.  Bias most frequently turns up in the framing of the research question.  It also turns up frequently in the interpretation of results.

Here is an example from a study of a healthy plant food—walnuts.

The study: Effect of a 2-year diet intervention with walnuts on cognitive decline. The Walnuts And Healthy Aging (WAHA) study: a randomized controlled trial.  Aleix Sala-Vila, Cinta Valls-Pedret, Sujatha Rajaram, Nina Coll-Padrós, Montserrat Cofán, Mercè Serra-Mir,  Ana M Pérez-Heras, Irene Roth, Tania M Freitas-Simoes, Mónica Doménech, Carlos Calvo, Anna López-Illamola, Edward Bitok, Natalie K Buxton, Lynnley Huey, Adam Arechiga, Keiji Oda, Grace J Lee, Dolores Corella, Lídia Vaqué-Alcázar, Roser Sala-Llonch, David Bartrés-Faz, Joan Sabaté, and Emilio Ros1.  Am J Clin Nutr 2020;00:1–11.

Conclusions: Walnut supplementation for 2 y had no effect on cognition in healthy elders. However, brain fMRI and post hoc analyses by site suggest that walnuts might delay cognitive decline in subgroups at higher risk. These encouraging but inconclusive results warrant further investigation.

Conflicts of Interest: AS-V, SR, JS, and ER have received research funding through their institutions from the California Walnut Commission, Folsom, CA, USA. JS and ER were nonpaid members of the California Walnut Commission Scientific Advisory Council. ER was a paid member of the California Walnut Commission Health Research Advisory Group. JS has received honoraria from the California Walnut Commission for presentations.  AS-V has received support from the CaliforniaWalnut Commission to attend professional meetings. All other authors report no conflicts of interest.

Comment: This looks to me like a classic example of interpretation bias.  Although the study showed no effect of walnut supplementation, the authors interpret its overall results as encouraging.  This is putting a positive spin on null results.

Walnuts—and other kinds of nuts—are plant foods with healthy fats.  Why does the California Walnut Commission need to do this?  So you will buy walnuts rather than hazelnuts, pecans, or macadamia nuts (all of which are sponsoring their own positive-result studies).  Studies like these are mostly about marketing.

Questions of whether meat is healthy or unhealthy—and, if unhealthy, at what level of intake—are about much more than marketing.   They need to be studied as objectively as possible.  It’s best to keep industry influence far away from such studies.

Even if the science is done well from start to finish, researchers’ ties to food company sponsors give the appearance of conflicted interests.  Such ties are best avoided from the get-go.

Jan 17 2020

Weekend reading: McDonald’s in Black America

Marcia Chatelain.  Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America.  Liveright, 2020.  

I did a blurb for this book, and was happy to do it:

Marcia Chatelain uses the complex interrelationship of black communities with McDonald’s to explore the history of American racism and the struggle for civil rights.   Franchise is an eye-opener for anyone who cares about why diet-related chronic disease is more prevalent in these communities and what it is really like to be black in America.

Here are a few selected excerpts to give you the idea:

The contemporary health crisis among black America—like all of our society’s most pressing problems—has a history.  By unmasking the process of how fast food “became black,” we are able to appreciate the difficult decisions black America has had to make under the stress of racial trauma, political exclusion, and social alienation.  This story is about how capitalism can unify cohorts to serve its interests, even as it dissembles communities…Ultimately, history encourages us to be more compassionate toward individuals navigating few choices, and history cautions us to be far more critical of the institutions and structures that have the power to take choices away (p. 23).

To ignore the positive impacts of franchise networks among communities of color that appreciate their contributions would be shortsighted.  It is equally shortsighted to ignore the government subsidies, civil right organization endorsements, limited community resources, and economic desperation that supports the dubious idea that fast food—and business on the whole—can breathe life into an underdeveloped community (p. 253).

The idea of financially sound black institutions is alluring across the ideological spectrum because it allows white conservatives and liberals alike to claim plausible deniability in their role in supporting systems and politics that maintain racial capitalism (p. 260).

This book is concerned with the reasons that places like Ferguson are more likely to get a fast food restaurant than direct cash aid to the poor, oversight over the police department, or jobs that pay more than $8.60 per hour (p. 263).

This book was reviewed in the New York Times:

“Franchise” is a serious work of history….“History encourages us to be more compassionate toward individuals navigating few choices,” Chatelain writes, “and history cautions us to be far more critical of the institutions and structures that have the power to take choices away.”

Jan 16 2020

Another 2020 trend? Glitter in poop

For this I must thank NutraIngredients.com: Firm launches glitter-infused multivitamin to add ‘poop-time pizzazz.’ 

I thought that had to be worth a closer look.

It turns out that a company that sells supplements by subscription has invented a multivitamin with edible glitter.

Why?  To “add some pizzazz into poop-time,” of course.

The limited-edition supplement, created and distributed by UK-based WeAreFeel, not only contains glitter made from natural acacia gum (arabic gum) but also 18 key vitamins and minerals.  Being healthy and getting all the nutrients you need shouldn’t be dull and boring, hopefully the prospect of having a glittery toilet will encourage more people to get their daily dose of nutrients!  The product follows hot on the heels of the French firm Lutin Malin, which made available dietary supplements that claim to make flatulence “smell like roses”…

Along with the multivitamin’s use of Arabica gum, the non-toxic glitter combines vitamin A, D3 and folic acid as well as minerals such as magnesium, zinc and iron amongst others. The multivitamins also contain no GMO, anti-adherents, lactose or gluten.

I’m so relieved (as it were).

It looks like a long year coming up.

Jan 15 2020

The new food label kicks in at long last

The FDA released its final guidance on the new food labeling rules late in December.

I have a collection of Kellogg Froot Loop cereal boxes (or facsimiles) going back to its first year.  I’ve been tracking it closely and have just started seeing the new label in stores.

The Spanish translation is optional, but I’m for it.

Industry groups are still complaining that they need more time.  

Really?  Let’s review the history.

  • Between 1993 and 2013: FDA receives 12 citizen petitions calling for changes to the Nutrition Facts and Supplement Facts labels.
  • 2003 to 2007: FDA issues 3 advance notices of proposed rulemaking seeking public comment on issues relevant to updating the Nutrition Facts label.
  • 2014: FDA issues proposed rules.
  • 2015: FDA issues supplemental proposed rule covering added sugars, DV, and footnote text.
  • 2016: FDA issues final rules, expects all companies to comply by 2019.
  • 2017: FDA delays compliance date until 2020.
  • 2019: FDA issues final rules; FDA says it will give six-month leeway for compliance.

I say it’s about time.  Yes!

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Jan 14 2020

Nestlé makes its supply chain transparent

Last year, Nestlé, the largest food company in the world (to which I am not related), announced that it would make its supply chain transparent.

Nestlé today announced that it would disclose the list of suppliers alongside a variety of data of its 15 priority commodities, the first disclosure of its kind in the industry. This will accelerate the company’s journey to reach full supply chain transparency. These commodities cover 95 percent of the company’s annual sourcing of raw materials.

It began listing its suppliers and recently updated the list.

It says there are more to come.

Global companies have global suppliers, apparently.  But the vanilla all comes from Madagascar.

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Jan 13 2020

Sponsored research study of the week: Apples

Every now and then a study comes out that I just love.

Two apples a day lower serum cholesterol and improve cardiometabolic biomarkers in mildly hypercholesterolemic adults: a randomized, controlled, crossover trial.

At last, scientific proof of what we’ve always been taught.

Well, two apples, but OK.

Also OK, who paid for this?

Supported in part by AGER (Agribusiness and research) grant no. 2010-2119 funding the project “Apple fruit quality in the post-genomic era, from breeding new genotypes to post-harvest: nutrition and health.”

AGER is an Italian foundation devoted to promoting Italian agribusiness, supported, it says, by banking foundations.

I’ll take that at face value and enjoy the research.