Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Dec 2 2021

Keeping up with the plant-based food product industry

New items come out every day about the plant-based market for alternatives to meat and dairy foods.  Think of this as big business and hyper-marketing.

Dec 1 2021

Should stunting be reconsidered as an indicator of intervention success?

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has issued two reports arguing that reduction of the prevalence of child stunting should no longer be used as the sole measure of success of nutrition intervention programs.

Background: Stunting is defined as low height-for-age.  It has long been used as a measure of nutritional deficiency due to inadequate diet in the presence of poor sanitation and other conditions.  Interventions focused on improving dietary intake rarely prevent stunting or affect it to only a small extent.

The first report: Stunting: Considerations for Use as an Indicator in Nutrition Projects

Emerging evidence supports the need to reexamine stunting as the primary indicatorof the success or failure of nutrition interventions.  Stunting should be interpreted not as an indicator of short-term programmatic success, but rather of the overall well-being of populations.  Not all nutrition programs, projects, or activities should be expected to reduce the prevalence of stunting… Failure to reduce the prevalence of stunting should not be interpreted as the failure of a nutrition program or project.  Nutrition programs should consider—and measure—a broader range of the many benefits that programs can achieve.

The second report:  Beyond Stunting: Complementary Indicators for Monitoring and Evaluating USAID Nutrition Activities

this guide shows how accurate and meaningful results, beyond stunting, can be captured through the use of more comprehensive and responsive indicators that directly link to an activity’s logical pathway…Measuring different types of indicators across the program’s impact pathway helps to understand how well programs are implemented and how results are achieved. Most important, measures like these allow for learning about what the program has, or has not achieved,
and why.

This second report provides a useful Table listing possible non-stunting indicators such as rates of breastfeeding, nutrient supplementation, home food production, participation in food assistance programs, and the like.

These are all downstream (personal) interventions.  I’d like to see USAID fund some more upstream (policy-based) interventions and see if those might do greater good for greater numbers of people.

Nov 30 2021

Will USDA do something about Salmonella at long last?

I am indebted to Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich for her detailed analysis of the current status of attempts to keep toxic Salmonella out of meat and poultry.


  • Toxic Salmonella in meat and poultry sicken people who do not safely handle uncooked product.
  • The meat industry argues that Salmonella are intrinsic to meat and poultry and, since the products are cooked and sterilized, Salmonella is not a problem requiring regulation.
  • The FDA says the foods it regulates that are contaminated with Salmonella are subject to enforcement action.
  • USDA has declared toxic forms of E. coli to be adulterants (and, therefore, illegal) in meat and poultry.
  • In January, food safety lawyer Bill Marler petiotioned USDA to declare Salmonella an adulterant in meat and poultry (see story in the Washington Post)
  • Also in January, CSPI and several other consumer groups sent USDA a similar petition.
  • Marler has just visited Washington DC to push for immediate regulation and legislation.

Politico notes that his visit

comes on the heels of a scathing ProPublica investigation about multidrug-resistant Salmonella Infantis in poultry and our “baffling and largely toothless food safety system that is ill-equipped to protect consumers or rebuff industry influence.”

Marler is pushing hard on this issue.

Everyone should be pushing hard on this issue.  It reveals two big food safety problems.

  • The lack of coordination and consistency in food safety oversight by USDA (meat and poultry) and FDA (pretty much everything else).
  • Capture of USDA by the meat industry, which relentlessly opposes stronger safety regulations.

The USDA’s response?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) today announced that it is…initiating several key activities to gather the data and information necessary to support future action and move closer to the national target of a 25% reduction in Salmonella illnesses…Despite consistent reductions in the occurrence of Salmonella in poultry products, more than 1 million consumer illnesses due to Salmonella occur annually, and it is estimated (PDF, 1.4 MB) that over 23% of those illnesses are due to consumption of chicken and turkey. “Reducing Salmonella infections attributable to poultry is one of the Department’s top priorities,” said USDA Deputy Under Secretary Sandra Eskin, who is leading the initiative.

The meat industry’s response?

The North American Meat Institute (Meat Institute) today welcomed the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) new national goal of reducing Salmonella illnesses by 25 percent and committed to continue working with USDA and other groups to achieve the shared goal of reducing Salmonella infections…we will continue to work with USDA to do all we can to detect and deter incidents of Salmonellosis, especially by coordinating with partners in the supply chain on best practices and research.”

Will this work?  Stay tuned.

Nov 29 2021

Conflicted study of the week: mushroom patents?

A reader in Norway, Marit Kolby, sent me this one.

First, the press release: “Mushroom consumption may lower risk of depression.”

New research led by Penn State College of Medicine also reveals that these superfoods may benefit a person’s mental health.  Penn State researchers used data on diet and mental health collected from more than 24,000 U.S. adults between 2005 and 2016. They found that people who ate mushrooms had lower odds of having depression.

The study: Mushroom intake and depression: A population-based study using data from the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), 2005–2016Djibril M.Ba. XiangGao, LailaAl-Shaar, Joshua, E.Muscat, Robert B.Beelman, John P.RichieJournal of Affective Disorders, Volume 294, 1 November 2021, Pages 686-692.

Hypothesis: “We hypothesized that mushroom consumption is associated with a lower risk of depression in American adults.”

Method: Analysis of dietary recall data from NHANES vs. self-reported depression.

Conclusion: “Mushroom consumers had a lower odd of depression. However, we did not observe a dose-response relationship.”

Funding: none.

Declaration of competing interest: none.

Comment: Ordinarily, beyond noting the conditional “may be linked” (which also could be “may not”  and the lack of dose-response, I would not bother to comment on this study except that Marit Kolby wrote:

As usual, the health effects (this time from mushrooms) are greatly exaggerated, especially given the study type and the lack of a dose-response relationship.  One compound in mushrooms suggested to explain the association is ergothioneine. The authors list no conflicts of interest.  But look at the patent list of the author Beelman.

This called for a look at the patent list.  Beelman does indeed hold several patents related to ergothioneine from mushrooms, but most of them are assigned to the Penn State Research Foundation.   This is not unusual for universities, but called for a look at Penn’s State’s policy on faculty intellectual property.

Penn State’s policy on patents requires research faculty to negotiate patent income according to a formula.

  1. PSRF [the foundation]: 40%
    Inventor(s): 40%
    Administrative Unit of College: 20%
  2. The inventors’ portions of the income are divided according to the contribution percentage that the inventors establish. A memo to establish the percentages to be paid to each invention will be sent to the Inventors before making payment .

Without knowing the details of Beelman’s arrangement with the university, it is difficult to be sure that a conflict of interest exists (he might have turned all the proceeds over to the university), but this situation clearly gives the appearance of a conflict, and an undisclosed one at that.

If professor Beelman is entitled to any percentage of profits from the patents, he has a competing interest and should have disclosed it.

Regardless, his declaration should have acknowledged his patent ownerships, as should the university’s press release.

Are mushrooms a “superfood” as the press release maintains?

Marit Kolby thinks it is more likely that mushrooms are an indicator of usual consumption of whole rather than ultra-processed foods, and points out that a couple of studies have linked ultra-processed foods themselves to depression.

Nov 25 2021

The “Thanksgiving” cookie price index and farmer’s share

I cannot resist sharing information from a press release I received from about something called The Christmas Cookie Price Index.

This comes from a study computing the cost of cookie ingredients in 60 US cities and 30 countries (People do this things?  Apparently, yes).

The main results:

  • The most expensive place to bake Christmas cookies in the US is San Diego, California at $12.40 per batch, followed by Burlington, Vermont ($12.08) and Los Angeles, California ($11.41).
  • Charleston, South Carolinais the cheapest place in the US to bake Christmas cookies at $2.23 per batch, followed by Charleston, West Virginia ($2.90) and Des Moines, Iowa ($4.13).
  • Sweden is the most expensive country to bake Christmas cookies ($12.83), followed by the Dominican Republic ($11.74),Denmark ($10.97), New Zealand ($10.57), Russia ($9.81) and Switzerland ($9.75).
  • Ecuador is the cheapest place to bake Christmas cookies at $3.50 per batch, followed by Poland ($3.62),Spain ($3.80), Germany ($4.04) and Chile ($4.20).

I didn’t think this could wait until Christmas.  I knew you would want to know this in time for Thanksgiving.

And from the National Farmer’s Union,


Enjoy the day and the weekend! will be back on Monday after the Thanksgiving holiday break.

Nov 24 2021

Bored with the thanksgiving menu? Try insects!

FoodNavigator-USA, one of the newsletters I subscribe to, has a special edition on edible insects.  

If you want to know what the food insect industry and market look like these days, this is a great place to get the big buggy picture in a hurry:

And how about some migratory locusts?

Nov 23 2021

The Dietary Guidelines as a marketing opportunity

You might think of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans as federal nutrition advice about how to eat healthfully but to some food companies it’s a marketing opportunity. writes that the new guidelines for children under age 2 are a “treasure map” for Gerber, a leading baby food manufacturer.

the guidelines underscore the need for products that help babies consume sufficient iron, vitamin D and other nutrients of concern, safely introduce potential allergens, cut back on added-sugar, and cultivate diverse palate preferences to ensure healthy dietary preferences and reduce the risk of picky eaters later.\nInnovative, iron-enriched products need to boost consumption.

How does this work?

One of the main messages in the Dietary Guidelines is to provide infants and young children with sufficient iron.

Gerber to the rescue!

All you have to do is “feed children two servings of infant cereal a day.”

I still vote for feeding kids real food….

Nov 22 2021

Industry-funded study: plant sterols

This one was sent to me by Sara Henriques Martins, a nutritionist from Portugal.

She writes: “I came across an interesting study about the effects of phytosterols on lowering blood cholesterol  which was funded by Danone, a company that sells Danacol, a drink that is sold with this exact purpose.”

The study: Phytosterols, Cholesterol Control, and Cardiovascular Disease.    Andrea Poli, Franca Marangoni, Alberto Corsini, Enzo Manzato, Walter Marrocco, Daniela Martini, Gerardo Medea,  Francesco Visioli.  Nutrients. 202113(8), 2810;

Method: “A panel of experts with diverse medical and scientific backgrounds was convened by NFI—Nutrition Foundation of Italy—to critically evaluate and summarize the literature available on the topic, with the goal of providing medical doctors and all health professionals useful information to actively govern the use of phytosterols in the context of plasma cholesterol control.”
Conclusion: “Functional foods or supplements containing phytosterols are effective in controlling plasma LDL cholesterol levels if used appropriately.  These products must be taken on a daily basis.”
Funding: “The preparation of this paper has been made possible by an unrestricted grant from Danone S.p.A. The sponsor had no role in the preparation and finalization of the manuscript, and in the decision to publish it.”
Conflicts of Interest: “A.P. and F.M. are the Chairman and Head of Research, respectively, of NFI—Nutrition Foundation of Italy, a non-profit organization partially supported by Italian and non-Italian Food Companies. All other authors declare no conflict of interest associated with this publication.”
Comment: Danone does indeed make Danacol, a yogurt-based phytosterol supplement.  Such supplements, when taken daily, have been associated with cholesterol reduction for years.  In 2009, for example, at Danone’s request, the European Food Safety Authority assessed the research on Danacol and concluded that “a cause and effect relationship has been established between the dietary intake of phytosterols and lowering of LDL-cholesterol.”  The Nutrition Foundation of Italy has so many industry members that it can be considered an industry front group.  Food products containing phytosterols are available in the United States, but tend to be more expensive than comparable products without phytosterols, and it’s not clear whether consuming them lowers blood cholesterol enough to reduce heart disease risk.  Danone, obviously, would like to sell more Danacol.  Hence: its grant to this group.  

Reference: For a summary of research on the “funding effect”—the observation that research sponsored by food companies almost invariably produces results favorable to the sponsor’s interests but that recipients of industry funding typically do not recognize its influence—see my book, Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat.