Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Nov 20 2020

Weekend reading: Deborah Madison!

Deborah Madison.  An Onion in My Pocket: A Life with Vegetables.  Alfred A. Knopf/Borzoi, 2020. 

Here’s my back-of-the-book jacket blurb:

Onion in My Pocket is a riveting account of how Deborah Madison’s previous 20-year incarnation as a serious student of Zen Buddhism prepared her to become the consummate vegetarian cook and cookbook writer.  We are all fortunate that she loves vegetables—and healthier as a result.

Madison is the author of more than a dozen books about vegetarian cooking.  She opened Greens in San Francisco, a restaurant that moved vegetarian cooking from the fringe to the mainstream.  Going there—or to Tassajara–during the heyday of the San Francisco Zen Center was a sublime culinary experience, well worth the long wait to get in.

Of her time at Greens, Madison writes:

At that time I had a tendency to cook richly, using plenty of butter, eggs, and cream when it made sense.  I was unsure about bringing vegetarian food into a mainstream venue, and I knew that we could always make something good when we relied on cream or buttery crusts, and that customers would like them.  Fat was easy to fall back on in this way.  Also this was 1979 and the early 1980s, an era of cream, butter, and cheese–not just at Greens but in restaurants everywhere.  Our dinners were rich, celebratory splurges, not substitutes for home cooking.  I can’t tell you how many people have told me they were proposed to at Greens, or got married there.

No wonder the food was so good!

Her cooking now is lighter, but still wonderful.

In Onion, Madison is too polite to mention what was happening at the Zen Center at the time she left to cook at Chez Panisse and explore the wider world.  That story—a #MeToo forerunner–is covered in Michael Downing’s “Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion and Excess at the San Francisco Zen Center.”

This book is about discovering the deliciousness of vegetables.  We need it.

Nov 19 2020

Retailers should promote health eating: Here’s how.

I was sent a press release announcing a set of research papers on retail strategies to improve healthy eating.  Most people buy food at supermarkets, but supermarkets are not public health agencies.  They are businesses with one purpose: to make money for owners and stockholders.  As I discussed in my book, What to Eat, they are designed to keepyou in the store as long as possible so you will have plenty of time to impulse-buy.  These papers in the  International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health discuss ways retail food stores could help diets get healthier.

They come with a new report outlining a research agenda for retailers.  All of this was funded by Healthy Eating Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in partnership with the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and The Food Trust.

The full issue of the journal is here.

Special issue: Retail Strategies to Support Healthy Eating

Nov 18 2020

New report: Big Food vs. Public Health During the Pandemic

Here’s a new must-read report:

This is a thorough and carefully done analysis of the ways in which Big Food companies took advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic as a marketing opportunity.  The report gives more than 40 specific examples of corporate:

Nutri-washing: Coupling “solidarity actions” with aggressive marketing of junk food and sugary drink brands, which helped polish corporate images
Positioning ultra-processed food and drinks as “essential products” when they are not healthy foods
Playing both sides: Carrying out philanthropic actions while actively lobbying against healthy food policies
Using charity to push junk food: Donating ultra-processed food and drinks to vulnerable populations

Here’s just one example:

The report is short and beautifully designed.  It comes from the Global Health Advocacy Incubator.  This group produces tools for advocacy, among other useful items.

As Bettina Siegel wrote earlier this year.

America’s poor diet is the leading cause of poor health and is responsible for more than half a million deaths per year. And if our current comfort food bender demonstrates anything, it’s that when people’s sense of security is fundamentally threatened, they’re very often compelled to seek relief and pleasure in unhealthy food.

The report shows how food companies take advantage of our current vulnerabilities.  That’s another reason why the UK’s stop-marketing proposal (I wrote about it yesterday) is so badly needed.

Nov 17 2020

Let’s hear it for good food news: the British government wants to ban junk food marketing

Here’s the announcement in The Guardian: “UK to ban all online junk food advertising to tackle obesity:  ‘World-leading’ proposal delights health campaigners and dismays advertising industry.”

The tougher-than-expected rules came after Boris Johnson changed his view on personal health decisions following his coronavirus infection. Overweight people are at risk of more severe illness from Covid, or death. Research has found that one in three children leaving primary school are overweight, or obese, as are almost two-thirds of adults in England…If implemented, the ban would affect digital marketing, from ads on Facebook, to paid-search results on Google, text message promotions, and social media activity on Twitter and Instagram.

This refers to the UK government’s “New public consultation on total ban of online advertising for unhealthy foods.”   The details of the consultation are here.  The government wants comments on

  • what types of advertising will be restricted
  • who will be liable for compliance
  • enforcement of the restrictions

According to the BBC,

The plans will now be discussed by representatives from the food industry, members of the public and the government for six weeks, before a decision is made over whether the advert ban will happen or not.

Comment: I’ll bet this proposal does indeed ‘”dismays the advertising industry” and the food industry too.  Marketing is an enormous influence on food choice, particularly insidious because we don’t recognize marketing as such.  It’s just seen as part of the landscape and affects us at an unconscious level.  Marketing to children is especially egregious, especially because it is so effective in encouraging them to demand junk food.  Cheers to the UK government for this.  Stick with it!

Nov 16 2020

Industry-funded studies of the week: blueberries—again!

Thanks to Lisa Young for sending this announcement: New Research Examines Blueberries’ Positive Impact in Men with Type 2 Diabetes. 

I am already on record as saying that I love blueberries, but I wish they weren’t marketed as superfoods.  All fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains provide nutrients and fiber.  That makes all of them worth eating for their nutrition-and-health value as well as their taste.  Singling out one or another makes no sense to me, but I’m not in the business of selling one rather than another.  Because similar results would be expected from studies of many other fruits, I put this one in the category of marketing research.

Effect of Blueberry Consumption on Cardiometabolic Health Parameters in Men with Type 2 Diabetes: An 8-Week, Double-Blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Trial.  Kim S Stote, Margaret M Wilson, Deborah Hallenbeck, Krista Thomas, Joanne M Rourke, Marva I Sweeney, Katherine T Gottschall-Pass, Aidar R Gosmanov.  Current Developments in Nutrition, Volume 4, Issue 4, April 2020, nzaa030. 

Conclusion: “Consumption of 22 g freeze-dried blueberries for 8 wk may beneficially affect cardiometabolic health parameters in men with type 2 diabetes.”

Funding:  “Supported by the US Highbush Blueberry Council (to KSS, MMW, and ARG) and by resources and the use of facilities at the Stratton VA Medical Center, Albany, NY, USA.  Author disclosures: KSS, MMW, and ARG received intervention products from the US Highbush Blueberry Council. All other authors report no conflicts of interest.  The US Highbush Blueberry Council supplied the funds to conduct the study but was not involved in the design, implementation, analysis, or interpretation of data.

Comment:  The funder does not have to be involved.  Everyone knows funders are not interested in funding research that might produce results unfavorable to their product.  Freeze-dried blueberries sound like medicine.  I’d rather eat the real things.

Nov 13 2020

Weekend reading (well, browsing): Harold McGee’s Nose Dive

Harold McGee.  Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells.  Penguin Press, 2020.Hardcover Nose Dive : A Field Guide to the World's Smells Book

Harold McGee, author of the astonishing On Food and Cooking, sent me a copy of his equally astonishing new book, this one an encyclopedia of the smells of everything—the “osmocosm.”

I am happy to have it.  He’s produced a life-changing book.  I will never think of smells in the same way again.

For starters, the book is brilliantly designed with elegant charts, key terms in bold, and chemical structures (yes!) right next to the terms in miniature on a light grey background, set off from the text but right there where they are needed.  Here’s an example from the pages that Amazon.com makes available.  This excerpt comes from a section on the smells of chemical compounds found in interstellar space (p. 19—and see my comment on the page number at the end of this post).

Interstellar space?  Well, yes.  Also animals, pets, and human armpits, along with flowers, spices, weeds, fungi, stones (they have bacteria and fungi on them), asphalt, perfumes, and everything else that smells or stinks—as well as foods, of course.

McGee must have had fun writing this.

It’s exactly becasue CAFOs [Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations] are offensive and harmful that the volatiles of animal excrement have been so well studied.  Crazily but appropriately, chemists borrow the terminology of top, middle, and base notes from the perfume worls (see page 477) to describe the smells of CAFOs.  The top notes, very volatile and quickly dispersed, are ammonia and hydrogen sulfide.  The more persistent middle notes include amines, thiols and sulfides, aldehydes and alcohols and ketones.  The constantly present base notes are the short-chain straight and branched acids, cfresol and other pehnolics, and skatole.  In a 2006 study of swine and beef cattle operations, barnyard cresol was identified as the primary offensive odor, and could be detected as far as ten miles (sixteen kilometers) downwind.  It’s probably the first long-distance hint I get of that I-5 Eau de Coalinga (p. 71).

But let me be clear: this is an encyclopedia, demanding close attention to the chemistry.  Sentences like this one come frequently: “The branched four-carbon chain (3-sulfanyl-2-methyl butanol) has its branch just one carbon atom over from the otherwise identical molecule in cat pee” (p.121).

But this blog is about food.  McGee’s discussion of food smells are riveting.  For example:

  • The standard basil varieties in the West today mainly produce varying proportions of a coupld of terpenoids, flowery linalook and fresh eucalyptol, and the clove- and anise-smelling benzenoids eugenol and estragole.  But when it comes to a dish in which basil stars—peto alla genovese, the Ligurian pasta sauce of pounded basil, garlic, nuts, and cheese—Italians are more particular (p. 255).
  • In 2014, I made a pilgrimage to a celebrated durian stall in the outskirts of Singapore and found that most of the half-dozen varieties I tried tasted of strawberries and a mix of fried onions and garlic.  I enjoyed them enough to smuggl one into my hotel room…After just an hour or two its royal presence filled the room and became unbearable.  I had no choice but regicide, and disposed of the body like coCanned sntraband drugs, flushing it in pieces down the toilet (p. 333).
  • The dominant note [in beef stews], described as “gravy-like,” came not from the meats, but from the onions and leeks!  The volatile responsible turned out to be a five-carbon, one-sulfur chain with a methyl decoration, a mercaptomethyl pentanol, MMP for short.  It is formed by a sequene of reactions, the first causaed by heat-sensitive onion enzymes, then ordinary chemical reactions that are accelerated by heat.  So its production is encouraged by chopping or pureeing these alliums (but not garlic) well before cooking them to let the enzymes do their work, the cooking slowly for several hours  (p. 513).
  • Canned sweet corn is dominated by seaside-vegetal dimethyl sulfide, acetyl pyrroline, and a corny thiazole (p. 519).
  • Swiss Appenzeller is notably strong in sweaty-foot branched acids (p. 567).

It should be clear from these excerpts that this is a reference work—a field guide—just as advertised.  If you read it, you will learn more than you ever dreamed possible about the volatile molecules that we can and do smell.

Nose Dive will go right next to On Food and Cooking on my reference shelf.

But uh oh.  How I wish it had a better index. 

For a book like this, the index needs to be meticulously complete—list every bold face term every time it appears—so readers can find what we are looking for.  This one is surprisingly unhelpful.

I found this out because I forgot to write down the page number for the fatty acid excerpt shown above.  I searched the index for most of the key words that appear in the clip: fatty acids, short and branched; butyric; methylbutyric; hexanoic; cheesy; intersteller space. No luck.  I had to check through all of the fatty acid listings and finally found it under “fatty acids, and molecules in asteroids, 19.”   Oh.  Asteroids.  Silly me.

I also forgot to note the page for the CAFO quote.  CAFO is not indexed at all, even though it appears in bold on the previous page, and neither does its definition, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation.

McGee refers frequently to “Hero Carbon,” the atom basic to odiferous molecules.  I couldn’t remember where he first used “Hero” and tried to look it up.  Not a chance.

This book deserves better, alas.

Penguin Press:  this needs a fix, big time.

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Nov 12 2020

Eating during times of stress: watch out for marketers!

Life is always full of stresses but on top of the usual sources we now have the pandemic and what went on—and continues—about the election.

Fortunately, food remains one source of comfort we can always rely on.

The trick is making sure that stress eating doesn’t interfere with long-term health.

Here is a sample of recent reports:

  • From Eater: Butter sales are up “thanks to everyone who is channeling their anxiety into baking.”
  • From CNN: it was junk food and booze on election night.
  • From the Wall Street Journal:  Hershey’s sales are up.  “Hershey said it also benefited from using Covid-19 case counts to predict where demand would spike as more people stayed home, and sent more chocolate bars there.”

What are we to make of these reports?

We are all looking for comfort and solace, and foods help.

But watch out for food marketers: they will do all they can to encourage you to buy what they are selling.

Nov 11 2020

One reason why we need a more rational food policy: farm payments

I am all for making sure that farmers make a decent living but most agricultural subsidies go to Big Ag—the producers of corn and soybeans fed mainly to animals or, in the case of corn, as ethanol for car fuel.

These taxpayer-funded payments are enormous and represent increasing percentages of the income of Big Ag.

For example, see this chart from the Wall Street Journal.

As part of the Trump administration’s effort to get votes from farmers and ranchers, it pledged $37.2 billion to them in the spring and summer with an addition $14 billion in September.

Why is this about the election?  The Washington Post says “Trump’s farmer bailout gave $21 billion to red counties and $2.1 billion to blue ones.”

At a campaign rally in Wisconsin last week, President Trump didn’t mince words about how much his administration had done to bolster the economic fortunes of farmers…I gave $28 billion to the farmers, many of them right here, $28 billion, $12 billion and $16 billion, two years”… That redistribution was facilitated through the Agriculture Department’s Market Facilitation Program. According to data obtained by the Environmental Working Group through a Freedom of Information Act request, that program disbursed more than $23 billion in the 2018 and 2019 program years.

From a report from Agricultural Economic Insights:  USDA’s direct payments to Big Ag will equal 36% of net farm income, up from 22% in 2018=2019.  These payments used to account for around 10% of net farm income.

Check out its map:

Finally, it’s good to review the big picture of what happened to food and farming under Trump.  Civil Eats has an excellent review by Lisa Held.

To offset the effects of the tariffs, in 2018, USDA began distributing cash payments through the Commodity Credit Corporation at unprecedented levels, with no appropriations or oversight from Congress. In 2020, as the pandemic hit the farm economy, it added another source of government payments via the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP). Overall, Trump’s USDA has handed out more government dollars to farmers than any administration prior. In both 2019 and 2020, more than 40 percent of farm incomes came from federal assistance—the only thing keeping farm incomes afloat.

Those payments have been controversial because they have almost exclusively benefited the largest farms and agriculture companies. Two-thirds of the trade aid payments went to agriculture producers in the top 10 percent, including corporations, such as the $67 million paid to JBS USA, a subsidiary of the Brazilian-owned meatpacking giant. Small farms, especially diversified operations and those run by socially disadvantaged Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) farmers, have largely been unable to access CFAP assistance.

All of this leaves plenty of room for improvement.

President-elect Biden: get to work!