Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Oct 18 2019

Weekend reading: New York City food activists

This book was especially interesting to me because I know some of the players and reading it told me a lot about their backgrounds and accomplishments.  It deals with several New York City-based organizations, among them United Bronx Parents, the Park Slope Food Coop, God’s Love We Deliver, and, most prominently, the Community Food Resource Center.

Lana Dee Povitz.  Stirrings: How Activist New Yorkers Ignited a Movement for Food Justice.  University of North Carolina Press, 2019. 

Image result for Stirrings Povitz

I wrote a blurb for this one.

Stirrings uses the political history of food advocacy organizations in New York City to explain why such groups focus almost exclusively on feeding hungry people rather than on addressing the root cause of that hunger–poverty.  The lessons taught by this history make this book essential reading for anyone interested in ending hunger in America.

And here is a brief paragraph from the Introduction (p. 7):

Aside from its material value as a commodity essential to human life, food acts as a lens through which we can understand dominant social values.  How and by whom food is produced, which foods are government-subsidized, who is deemed eligible for food assistance, who becomes the gatekeepers for providing that food—such arrangements speak volumes about who and what is prioritized, especially by those with decision-making power.  By extension, the history of food activism is important because it tracks how these priorities might be rearranged, how people can work to challenge or temporarily overturn established hierarchies, especially of class and race.  Just as often, the history of food activism sheds light on how inequalities and hierarchies are preserved, defended, and even extended.

Oct 17 2019

Plant-based meat and dairy: recent innovations

I’ve been collecting items related to plant-based meat and dairy foods from the various newsletters I read.  I am having a hard time keeping up.  This is a super-hot topic with investors pouring money into these products.

Things are moving so quickly that Food Dive has established a plant-protein tracker to help readers keep up.

Even a quick scan of just the titles of these articles will make clear just how hot this area is.

Let’s start with the in-fighting.

Here’s what he’s talking about.  I’ll bet they don’t agree.

As for what the meat industry thinks of all this…

And the New York Times’ take on Big Meat’s getting in on this action.

Oct 16 2019

Hey–Sugar is Plant-Based!

I love the Sugar Association, the chief lobbying group for producers of sugar cane and sugar beets, for its endlessly creative ways of trying to convince that more sugar is good for us. [Note: High Fructose Corn Syrup is represented by a separate group, the Corn Refiners Association, which does much of the same.]

I was sent this account of  sugar-industry speeches at a symposium run by the American Sugar Alliance, another trade group.

What to do about all those pesky “eat less sugar” messages?  According to one public relations speaker,

The fact that sugar comes from a plant is a positive for consumers…The terms “real” and “pure” create positive associations in consumers’ minds…Consumers believe that honey is “the most healthy and natural” of sweeteners and that high-fructose corn syrup is “not real.”

Only 30% think sugar is naturally grown…A key message should be that “sugar comes from a plant—like sugar beets or sugar cane.  It’s grown on a farm and it’s minimally processed.

As always, you can’t make this stuff up.

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Oct 15 2019

World Obesity: Three More Reports

Friday October 11 was World Obesity Day, which explains why so many groups are issuing reports on obesity prevalence, risks, costs, and prevention strategies.

I wrote about the one from the Trust for America’s Health, The State of Obesity, a few weeks ago.

Here are three more, just in.

1.  The Heavy Burden of Obesity: The Economics of Prevention.

This one was produced by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).  It finds: “Almost one in four people in OECD countries is currently obese. This epidemic has far-reaching consequences for individuals, society and the economy. Using microsimulation modelling, this book analyses the burden of obesity and overweight in 52 countries (including OECD, European Union and G20 countries), showing how overweight reduces life expectancy, increases healthcare costs, decreases workers’ productivity and lowers GDP.”

2.  Time to Solve Childhood Obesity   This is “An Independent Report by the Chief Medical Officer, 2019, Professor Dame Sally Davies in the U.K.  The cover deals with both cause and effect:

3.  State of Childhood Obesity: Helping All Children Grow Up Healthy.  The Robert Wood Johnson produced this one.

Its key findings:

  • Obesity rates for youth ages 10 to 17 did not change much from 2016 (15%-16%).
  • Racial and ethnic disparities persist as do disparities by income.
  • Mississippi had the highest overall youth obesity rate (25.4%); Utah had the lowest (8.7%).

Comment:  Obesity is a global problem, not just one for the U.S.  Plenty of policies exist that could help make healthier food choices easier and less expensive.  But as the Lancet Global Syndemic report so clearly explained, doing something about obesity is hampered by weak (corporate-captured) government, food industry opposition, and weak civil society.  The first two are difficult to do anything about without attention to the third.  The clear need: strengthen civil society.  Let’s get to work on that.

Oct 14 2019

Industry-funded study of the week: Organics, alas

I am a great believer in the value of organic production methods, which avoid the most toxic pesticides and herbicides, are demonstrably better for soil, and produce fewer greenhouse gases.

But I wish the organic industry would try to find a less conflicted, more objective way of conducting studies on organic foods.

The study: Production-related contaminants, pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones in organic and conventionally produced milk samples sold in the USA.  JA Welsh, et al.  Public Health Nutrition.  Published online by Cambridge University Press: 26 June 2019. DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1017/S136898001900106X

Conclusions:  “Current-use antibiotics and pesticides were undetectable in organic but prevalent in conventionally produced milk samples, with multiple samples exceeding federal limits. Higher bGH and IGF-1 levels in conventional milk suggest the presence of synthetic growth hormone. Further research is needed to understand the impact of these differences, if any, on consumers.”

Funding: Financial support: Data collection was supported by the Organic Center…. The Organic Center had no role in the design, analysis of samples, or writing of this article.

Conflict of interest: J.A.W.’s investment portfolio includes equity in one of the companies whose milk products were randomly selected for use in this study. All other authors have no perceived or potential conflicts of interest to report.

Comment: Organic standards are about production values.  Antibiotics, toxic pesticides and herbicides, and genetic modification are not allowed in organic production and would not be expected to be detectable in organic milk.  The result reassures that the system is working properly (why wouldn’t it?).  But I wish it had been funded and conducted by investigators with no vested interest in its outcome.  I am aware of the argument that independent funding is not available for studies like this.  That’s a problem that the organic industry needs to solve.

Thanks to Stephanie Laverone for telling me about this study.

Oct 11 2019

Weekend reading: World Resources Report

The World Resources Institute has issued its final report on Creating a Sustainable Food Future.

The report addresses the central dilemma of our time: how to feed nearly 10 billion people by 2050 without destroying the planet in the process.

The report takes a deep dive into potential solutions:

  • Reduce demand
  • Increase production
  • Protect national ecosystems
  • Increase fish supply
  • Reduce greenhouse gases produced by agriculture
  • Policy options

This report deals with these issues, none of them simple, in more than 550 pages.  It offers no simple solutions.  Dealing with this dilemma will take a great many actions by a great many people, governments, and industry.  The report sets the agenda.  Now it’s our turn.

Oct 10 2019

BakeryandSnacks.com on “free-from” labels

I love “free-from” labels (no sugar, no salt, no GMOs, no gluten, etc).  My first question is always “OK, so what IS in them?”

But “free-from” works for marketing, as these articles show.

Special Edition: The rise of free from

What is driving the free from trend – grain-free, gluten-free, lactose-free, egg-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, fat-free and even free from additives, animal products and unrecyclable properties – and will it have legs?

Research shows consumers perceive free from (and clean label) products to be healthier and are synonymous with the wider trend of sustainability and social responsibility. However, the big challenge for producers remains to create products that have the same texture, taste and mouthfeel as regular products. Despite their desire for more natural foods, consumers are not prepared to sacrifice these ideals.

We examine the ingredients being developed to accommodate the consumer’s growing penchant for healthy snacking driving the growth of alternatives to traditional snack ingredients.

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Oct 9 2019

Sugar reduction in the UK: Taxes work, voluntary does not

I was alerted to this story by the FoodNavigator-USA headline: Sugar content in soft drinks cut by nearly a third as voluntary efforts fall way off target.

Public Health England’s latest progress report on the food and drink industry’s sugar cutting efforts reveal significant changes in areas where the sugar tax applies, but a disappointing lack of progress with the voluntary sugar reduction programme.

The Year 2 progress report finds:

  • The sugar in taxed drinks affected by the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL) decreased by 28.8% between 2015 and 2018.
  • For non-taxed products, the reduction in sugar was only 2.9%.
  • Total sugar increased by 2.6%: the largest increases were for ice cream, candies, sweet spreads, and cookies.

Moral: if you want companies to reduce sugar in their products, tax them.