Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Dec 14 2017

Splenda is safe. Guess who funded the study.

For months now, I haven’t posted an industry-funded studies with results favorable to the sponsor, but this one about deserves mention.

Title: Critical review of the current literature on the safety of sucralose, by BA Magnuson, A Roberts, and ER Nestmann.

Journal: Food and Chemical Toxicology 2017:106:324-355.

Conclusion: “Collectively, critical review of the extensive database of research demonstrates that sucralose is safe for its intended use as a non-caloric sugar alternative.

Financial support was provided by the Calorie Control Council, Atlanta GA, to the employers of the authors for the preparation and publication of this review.

My comment: This lengthy review of literature on the safety of sucralose (Splenda) was commissioned by the Calorie Control Council, a trade association representing “manufacturers and suppliers of low- and reduced-calorie foods and beverages, including manufacturers and suppliers of more than two dozen different alternative sweeteners, fibers and other low-calorie, dietary ingredients.”

It paid authors affiliated with Health Science Consultants, Inc and Intertek Scientific and Regulatory Consultancy to produce this review.

  • The Calorie Control Council has a vested interest in demonstrating Splenda to be safe.
  • The consultant groups have a vested interest in pleasing the Calorie Control Council.
  • Therefore, this review has a higher-than-average likelihood of bias.

Is Splenda safe?  It very well may be safe, but some contrary evidence exists (this paper dismisses it).  It would be interesting to see how independent scientists view the matter.

Dec 13 2017

Canadians eat a lot of highly processed foods

The Canadian Heart & Stroke Foundation has released a report on consumption of processed food consumption in Canada.

The report is based on the NOVA (not an acronym) system for classifying foods by their level of processing: unprocessed or minimally processed, processed ingredients, processed foods, and ultra-processed foods.  The last category is the one that matters; consumption of ultra-processed foods is highly correlated with obesity.

The report found:

  • Canadians consume nearly half their calories as ultra-processed foods.
  • This is true among all socioeconomic groups, except for immigrants.
  • Children aged 9-13 consume the most ultra-processed food (57% of calories)
  • The most frequently consumed ultra-processed products are pizza, burgers, sandwiches and frozen dishes, followed by packaged breads and sweetened drinks.

Lots of room for improvement here.

Dec 12 2017

Oops. Fat replacing sugar in US diets.

In the late 1980s, nutrition scientists identified fat and saturated fat as key nutrients that needed to be reduced in US diets.

One result was the Snackwell’s phenomenon in the early 1990s—“no-fat” cookies with just as many calories as the ones with fat.  They flew off the shelves.

Image result for snackwell's no fat cookies

Now the push is to get rid of carbs, especially sugars.  The result?  Fat is back, along with its calories (fat has more than twice the calories per gram as carbohydrates, 9 as opposed to 4).

A tweet from Kevin Bass tells the story:

The USDA tells the same story, but with respect to specific products:

These products may be more satiating, but watch the calories!

Also watch out for the saturated fat:

 

Dec 11 2017

USDA’s case studies on front-of-package labeling

The FDA is responsible for food labeling but in the peculiar way things get done in federal agencies, the USDA governs front-of-package labeling for organics and also gets involved in labels for non-GMO, no-antibiotics and those for country-of-origin.

It has just published a report on all this:

The report is a good place to learn about the labeling laws passed in 1990, and it has an interesting case study on GMO labeling:

It has a lot to say about organic labeling:

Do such labels influence what the public buys?  Yes.  (That’s what the USDA is worried about)

Does the public understand what the labels mean?  Not really. (The USDA worries about this too)

The USDA derives many conclusions from this study, but boils them down to this statement:

There are fundamental tradeoffs in how information is presented to consumers. If it is presented simply, then important nuance or complexity may be missed. On the other hand, if standards and labels attempt to convey complexity, then consumers may just be confused. Policymakers and marketers will need to consider these tradeoffs in the future when developing new process-based labels.

What the USDA does not discuss is the fundamental issue behind fights over food labels.  They work well to discourage people from buying products that may not be good for them or do not meet their values.  That’s why the food industry opposes them so strongly.

Dec 8 2017

Weekend reading: Global Nutrition Report—“The nutrition situation is grave”

The annual Global Nutrition Report on progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has just arrived.

It does not provide much good news.

The report views the SDGs as an opportunity to make commitments to improve this situation.

I wish I were more optimistic.

Dec 7 2017

The French food industry v. public health: front-of-package label

A colleague in France, Serge Hercberg, a nutrition professor at the University of Paris writes to say that the French government’s decision on October 31 to support voluntary adoption of a “Nutri-Score” front-of-package label is now under attack by the food industry.

Nutri-Score looks like this (A is nutritious, lower grades less so):

The food industry wants something like this (of course it does, nobody can possibly understand it):

My colleague writes:

However,a powerful trade group, which includes major manufacturers of breakfast cereals, candies and cookies, is encouraging its members to instead select another type of nutrition al label. The trade group’s position is aligned with that of six food conglomerates – Mars, Mondelez, Nestlé, Coca-Cola, Unilever et PepsiCo (known as the “Big 6”) – who announced in March that they intended to develop an alternative system for the European Union.

With his nutritionist colleague, Chantal Julia, he describes in The Conversation what this fight is about.  I particularly like their example of how the two schemes help (or do not help) consumers choose between a yogurt and a fruit puree.

The Conversation article also comes in a French version.

Dec 6 2017

Orwell-speak from USDA: new SNAP rules

The USDA, straight out of George Orwell’s 1984, has promised “new SNAP flexibilities to promote self-sufficiency.”

What does USDA mean by “flexibilities”?  Here are its exact words (I put the key words in quotes and in bold for emphasis:

  • “Self-Sufficiency” – The American dream has never been to live on government benefits. People who can work, should work. We must facilitate the transition for individuals and families to become independent, specifically by partnering with key stakeholders in the workforce development community and holding our recipients accountable for personal responsibility.
  • “Integrity” – We must ensure our programs are run with the utmost integrity. We will not tolerate waste, fraud, or abuse from those who seek to undermine our mission or who do not take their responsibility seriously.
  • “Customer Service” – Together, we must ensure that our programs serve SNAP participants well. In order to achieve a high degree of customer service, we at FNS must also provide States the flexibility to test new and better ways to administer our programs, recognizing that we are all accountable to the American taxpayer for the outcomes.

Why the quotes?  Because the words mean anything but what they say.  Hence: Orwellian.

This is the USDA’s first attack on SNAP.  Prediction: more to come.

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Dec 5 2017

Defections from the Grocery Manufacturers Association: Rats leaving a sinking ship?

I’ve written many times about the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), an organization so locked into the interests of its food-company donors that you can count on it to vehemently oppose every consumer-friendly measure that gets proposed.

A couple of weeks ago, Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich and Catherine Boudreau wrote what they discovered about the unraveling of the GMA: the big Washington food fight.

The defectors so far:

  • Campbell Soup
  • Nestlé (my non-namesake)
  • Dean Foods
  • And, most recently, Mars.

Mars says:

At this time, we believe we can more effectively drive our business objectives and meaningful progress for our categories and consumers by working with other like-minded companies and through other sector-specific trade associations and collaborations.

What’s going on?  Easy.  GMA just isn’t keeping up with today’s marketplace.

Politico’s analysis (these are quotes):

  • Companies are increasingly under pressure to find growth in a market where more and more consumers are seeking healthier fare, whether they’re buying organic baby food, cereal without artificial colors or meats raised without antibiotics.
  • As legacy brands lag, food companies have two options: Change to compete or buy up the new brands that are already growing rapidly.
  • With each episode of discord, both internally and publicly, it becomes harder for GMA to convince its members to pay fees to belong to a trade group that’s rife with division and, at times, fights against issues they either don’t want fought or don’t want to be associated with.
  • “More than one food industry lobbyist has told me that they spend more time lobbying their industry association than they do Capitol Hill,” said Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group.
  • Many in Washington think GMA has been tone deaf as it has, in some cases, kept up lavish spending even as its members are cutting costs and laying off workers to meet their quarterly targets.
  • “I don’t know a single challenger brand that’s said ‘hey, I need to join GMA,'” said John Foraker, the founder and former CEO of Annie’s.

My favorite quote comes from Jeff Nedelman, who was a VP of communications at GMA during the 1980s and ’90s: “To me, it looks like GMA is the dinosaur just waiting to die.”

May it rest in peace.

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