Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Apr 19 2019

Weekend reading: Science Breakthroughs for Agriculture

The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine has a new report out on Science Breakthroughs to Advance Food and Agricultural Research by 2030.

In the next decade, the major goals for food and agricultural research include (1) improving the efficiency of food and agricultural systems, (2) increasing the sustainability of agriculture, and (3) increasing the resiliency of agricultural systems to adapt to rapid changes and extreme conditions.

To that end, the committee that wrote this report examined “breakthrough opportunities that could dramatically increase the capabilities of food and agricultural science.”

The breakthroughs?

  1. A systems approach to understand the nature of interactions among the different elements of the food and agricultural system can be leveraged to increase overall system efficiency, resilience, and sustainability.
  2. The development and validation of precise, accurate, field-deployable sensors and biosensors will enable rapid detection and monitoring capabilities across various food and agricultural disciplines.
  3. The application and integration of data science, software tools, and systems models will enable advanced analytics for managing the food and agricultural system.
  4. The ability to carry out routine gene editing of agriculturally important organisms will allow for precise and rapid improvement of traits important for productivity and quality.
  5. Understand the relevance of the microbiome to agriculture and harness this knowledge to improve crop production, transform feed efficiency, and increase resilience to stress and disease.

I’m worried about how all this will help make agricultural production more sustainable.  For that, we need smaller scale, fewer chemical inputs, crop rotations, and other such methods.  I wish NASEM would do a serious study on agricultural sustainability.

Apr 18 2019

Another update on CBD and marijuana edibles (and drinkables)

I’m trying to keep up with what’s happening with Cannabis edibles and drinkables, still with borderline legality in most places, but gradually working their way to supermarkets near you.

Here’s what’s come up lately.

And then there are the health claims.  As early as 2017, the FDA sent out warning letters to makers of CBD products; they were marketing their products as drugs not supplements or foods.

For example, the FDA sent a letter to That’s Natural, complaining that the company published testimonials saying things like this:

  • “Scientific research by doctors have shown it actually kills cancer cells and provides a protective coating around our brain cells.”
  • “as a Type 1 diabetic, my blood sugars have noticeably leveled off.”
  • “My blood pressure and heart rate have also significantly improved as well.”

The FDA also sent a letter to Green Roads of Florida objecting to claims like these:

  • “CBD .[has] anti-proliferative properties that inhibit cell division and growth in certain types of cancer, not allowing the tumor to grow.”
  • “Almost all studies recognize CBD’s potential in preventing both cancer spread and growth…”
  • “The following are some of the many ailments CBD oil can potentially be therapeutic for:  asthma, Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, autism, bipolar disorder, various types of cancer….

Food, medicine, supplement, or snake oil?  We shall see.

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Apr 16 2019

Comment on a study correlating sugary beverages to mortality

I am occasionally asked to comment on new studies that appear.  Practice Update: Diabetes asked for a comment on this study:

VS Malik, et al.  Long-Term Consumption of Sugar Sweetened and Artificially Sweetened Beverages and Risk of Mortality in US Adults. Circulation. 2019;139:00–00. DOI: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.118.037401

The study concluded: “Consumption of SSBs [sugar-sweetened beverages] was positively associated with mortality primarily through CVD [cardiovascular disease] mortality and showed a graded association with dose. The positive association between high intake levels of ASBs [artificially sweetened beverages] and total and CVD mortality observed among women requires further confirmation.”

Here’s what I said:

This study is based on analyses of data from two remarkably large and long-standing investigations of diet and disease risk. The investigators looked for correlations between mortality and consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB) and found them. More than two SSB servings a day was associated with higher mortality, particularly from cardiovascular disease, and, to a lesser extent, cancer.

Thus, this study adds to the increasing body of evidence associating SSBs with poor health. SSBs provide calories, but nothing of nutritional value. Other studies correlate SSBs with obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. A further correlation with increased mortality is not surprising, but it is good to have it confirmed.

These results associate high intake of SSBs with disease risk, but cannot prove that SSBs causedisease. Epidemiological studies like these, based on self-reported dietary data, require careful interpretation. In part, this is because intake of SSBs tracks closely with other lifestyle characteristics. Heavy SSB users tend to be more sedentary, more likely to smoke, to consume more meat and calories, but to eat fewer vegetables than light users—overall, to have less healthy dietary habits in general. Still, reducing or eliminating SSB intake is harmless and could well improve health.

Apr 15 2019

Industry-funded opinion of the week: diets for diabetes

This is one of an ongoing series of examples of how industry funding skews, or to be more precise, is strongly associated with skewing, of research and opinion about matters of diet and health.

This example is an analysis of the scientific rigor of dietary approaches to controlling type 2 diabetes through diet.  The authors looked at the evidence for efficacy of the DASH, Mediterranean, Plant-Based, and Low-Carb diets.

Improving the Scientific Rigor of Nutritional Recommendations for Adults with Diabetes: A Comprehensive Review of the American Diabetes Association Guidelines Recommended Eating Patterns.  Hallberg S, Dockter NE, Kushner J, Athinarayanan S.  Preprints 2019.  Online March 5.  doi: 10.20944/preprints201812.0187.v2

Conclusion: “Our review of the current Standards and Recommendations finds significant shortcomings regarding scientific review methodologies, which are likely to translate to suboptimal clinical care decisions for patients with T2D.”  The study dismisses most studies of the DASH, Mediterranean, and Plant-based diets as poorly done or otherwise inappropriate for their review.  For the DASH diet, it says more research is needed.  It calls for more research on whether the benefits of Mediterranean diets are due to low carb or healthy fats, and suggests that the benefits of plant-based diets may be due to weight loss.  The best evidence supports the Low-Carb diet: “Evidence from 30 trials and 10 follow-up studies demonstrates that a low-carbohydrate diet is an effective dietary approach for addressing dyslipidemia.”

Conflict of Interest Statement:  SJH is an employee and shareholder of Virta Health, a for-profit company that provides remote diabetes care using a low-carbohydrate nutrition intervention, and serves as an advisor for Atkins Corp.  NED is a paid consultant for Virta Health.  JAK serves as medical director of McNair Interests, a private equity group with investments in type 1 diabetes and other chronic illnesses, and is also an advisor for Sanofi and Lexicon.

Comment:    All authors are employed by or consult for a company that uses low-carb dietary approaches in its for-profit business.  As I explain in Unsavory Truth, the influence of industry funding is often unconscious, unintentional, and unrecognized.  Nevertheless, the opinions of the authors can be predicted from their financial connections to Virta Health.

 

Apr 12 2019

Access to Nutrition Index: the 2018 update

The George Institute in Australia (see clarification below) publishes an annual index holding the ten largest U.S. food and beverage corporations accountable for how they addrss nutrition challenges.

The 2018 Index ranks corporations on their governance, products, accessability, marketing, lifestyle, labeling, and engagement.  Here’s what it looks like.

 

Here’s how this is explained:

Seven out of ten companies claim to focus on improving health and nutrition (all except Coca-Cola, Dr Pepper Snapple and Kraft Heinz), as expressed in their mission statements or corporate growth strategies, the objectives they defined related to health and wellness are mostly limited to product development, product reformulation and responsible marketing. Only two companies (Nestlé and Unilever) have defined a more comprehensive set of objectives within their nutrition strategy.

To remind you: food corporations are not social service or public health agencies.  They have stockholders to please as their first priority.  The conflicts of interest with public health approaches are obvious.  That’s why none of them does particularly well on this Index.

Clarification from a reader

I believe you are referring to the US Spotlight Index, a product of the Access to Nutrition Foundation, an independent nonprofit in the Netherlands.  (https://www.accesstonutrition.org).  The George Institute provided research support for the US Spotlight index. RWJF [Robert Wood Johnson Foundation] was a major funder.  The Foundation has also published an India Spotlight Index (2016) and a Global Index (latest in 2018).  Shiriki Kumanyika chairs the Expert Group.

Apr 11 2019

No-deal Brexit: Effects on the food industry

The British Parliament has just rejected the plan for Brexit for the third time, and the EU has just extended the exit deadline until October 31.i

The British food industry is understandably worried about what Brexit, whenever it happens, will mean for supply chains and sales.  Large percentages of British food are imported from the EU, something likely to become more difficult and expensive after Britain’s withdrawal.

I’ve been collecting items on the topic from Food-Navigator.com and other sources.

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Apr 10 2019

Burger King to serve Impossible Burger?

I thought this was an April Fool joke, but apparently it’s for real.  According to The Guardian (and many other sources), Burger King will be serving this plant-based meat alternative.

Much has been said in favor of and opposed to the Impossible Burger.

I give Tamar Haspel credit for the most cogent comment:

Apr 9 2019

In memory of Elisabet Helsing (1940-2019)

The latest issue of World Nutrition, the online journal of the World Public Health Nutrition Association, contains tributes to Elisabet Helsing, the Norwegian nutritionist and breastfeeding advocate who died in January of the effects of Parkinson’s disease.

Here’s my contribution.

I met Elisabet in the late 1980s when she was living in Copenhagen, heading up nutrition activities at WHO’s regional office for Europe.  At that time, I did not have much international nutrition experience so I said yes right away when she asked me to go to Mauritius and report on its efforts to prevent childhood malnutrition.  In the month I spent there—January 1990—it became clear that I had landed in the middle of the nutrition transition, as we now call it.  Type 2 diabetes and heart disease were increasing rapidly  right along with persistent undernutrition in some segments of the population. With observations complete, I went to Copenhagen to work with Elisabet on my report.  There, I got to see her in action, and impressive it was.  She was right on top of every nutrition policy in each of the 30 or so countries then part of the region, knew all the key players in government and public health by name, and spoke on the phone to each of them in their own languages.  I had never met anyone so stunningly beautiful, accomplished, forward thinking–and courageous.  Not long after, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s—Mr. P., as she called it.  She spent the rest of her years keeping Mr. P. at bay as best she could, while continuing her policy and breastfeeding work.  She inspired me, all the way to the end.  I could say more about the later times I saw her in New York or Oslo, but it’s too heartbreaking.  I took this photo at a meeting of the European Nutrition Society in Vienna in 1995, and that’s how I want to remember her.

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