Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Feb 3 2023

Weekend reading: the FTC wants science to back up supplement health claims. What a concept!

The Federal Trade Commission has issued a Health Products Compliance Guide.

This amazing publication takes on the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994.  That act effectively removed the FDA from regulating dietary supplements.  It also allowed supplement labels to make “structure/function” claims that the supplement supported some structure or function of the body, whether or not there was much in the way of scientific evidence to back up those claims (in contrast, FDA-authorized claims must be scientifically substantiated).

Now the FTC is saying:

Marketers of health-related products, including dietary supplements, should be familiar with the requirements under both FDA law and FTC law that labeling and advertising claims be truthful, not misleading, and substantiated.  The FTC approach generally requires that health-related claims be backed by competent and reliable scientific evidence substantiating that the representations are true.

Marketers cannot suggest unsubstantiated benefits, safety, or other characteristics.

Example 4:  An ad for an infant formula states that an ingredient added to the formula can reduce the symptoms of colic.  The ad includes an unrelated chart from a pediatric journal showing that, as a general principle, the length of time that colicky babies cry tends to decrease over the first 12 weeks of life…Using the graph in an ad for the infant formula likely implies that the formula, rather than the babies’ ages, causes the decrease in crying time.

Claims have to be qualified.

Example 10:  An energy drink contains an ingredient that, when consumed daily over an extended period, can result in a significant increase in blood pressure.  Even absent any representation about the product’s safety, the marketer should disclose this potentially serious risk.

Qualifying information must be clear and straightforward.

Example 13:  A company has results from two studies suggesting that its supplement helps to maintain healthy cholesterol levels.  There are, however, significant limitations to each of the studies… The company makes a claim in advertising that “promising, preliminary scientific studies show that our product may be effective in reducing cholesterol.”  The use of the words “promising,” “preliminary,” and “may” is unlikely to sufficiently convey the limitations of the science.

Assertions about the strength of evidence must be accurate.

Example 16: An ad for a supplement includes the statement “Scientists Now Agree!” in discussing the product’s benefit.  This statement likely conveys to consumers that the state of science supporting the benefit has reached the level of scientific consensus.  Unless the advertiser possesses evidence demonstrating that scientists have reached that consensus, the claim is false.

Marketers must consider the totality of the science.

Example 30:  An advertiser wants to claim that a supplement will substantially reduce body fat.  The advertiser has two controlled, double-blind studies showing a modest but statistically significant loss of fat at the end of a six-week period.  However, there is an equally well-controlled, double-blind 12-week study showing no statistically significant difference between treatment and control groups.  Assuming other aspects of methodology are similar, the studies taken together suggest that, if the product has any effect on body fat, it would be very small and may not persist over time.  Given the totality of the evidence, the claim is unsubstantiated.

Here’s the press release. 

The bottom line:  The FTC is requiring evidence for health claims on supplements.

This will affect claims for thousands of supplement products.

Enforcement anyone?  This should be fun to watch.

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Feb 2 2023

Update on plant-based foods: Yes, another one

I don’t care what the arguments are about plant-based meats (see Deena Shanker’s riveting piece in Bloomberg News), they and other plant-based alternatives to animal foods still look like a hot trend to me.   I base this on what pours into my inbox.

One view of the trends:

The new products:

Funding and expansions:

Marketing innovations:

Even so, the criticisms continue:

I am ever fascinated by all this. You too?  Stay tuned.

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Feb 1 2023

Annals of food politics: “Woke” M&Ms

I kept coming across this on Twitter, but had no idea what it was about.

I’ve always said food explains everything.  And here we are in the middle of M&M-inspired culture wars.

The New York Times to the rescue !

M&M’s, the ubiquitous candy brand owned by Mars Wrigley, announced on Monday that it would take “an indefinite pause” from its “spokescandies,” deciding that the cartoon characters with arms, legs and minimal facial features were simply too divisive for a polarized America to take…figures on the political right, including Tucker Carlson of Fox News, have criticized the candy as “Woke M&M’s,” owing to a series of cosmetic tweaks in recent years.

I love what the Times says next: “Here’s how we got here, to the extent that it’s possible to explain.”  Right.

The Times attributes this to Fox News’ sTucker Carlson:

In January 2022, M&M’s gave the aching feet of its two female spokescandies a break, replacing the green M&M’s heels with flats and swapping the brown M&M’s stilettos for smaller, more comfortable heels…“M&M’s will not be satisfied until every last cartoon character is deeply unappealing and totally androgynous,” Mr. Carlson railed on his show. “Until the moment when you wouldn’t want to have a drink with any one of them. That’s the goal. When you’re totally turned off, we’ve achieved equity. They’ve won.”

All of this is enough to make me want to run out and eat some M&Ms.

You can’t make this stuff up.

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Jan 31 2023

Impossible Foods picks a public fight with a reporter

When I saw this tweet from Tom Philpott, I knew immediately what it was about.

I had seen Deena Shanker’s investigative report in Bloomberg News, not least because I’m quoted in it: Fake Meat Was Supposed to Save the World. It Became Just  Another Fad.

The article’s subtitle: “Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods wanted to upend the world’s $1 trillion meat industry. But plant-based meat is turning out to be a flop.”

And then I saw this ad in the January 22 New York Times.

Anonymous Reddit writers saying things like “I suspect it’s coming form [sic] a news outlet paid money to write an article by people who make money from meat sales.”

A badge of honor for Deena Shanker indeed.  Clearly, she hit a nerve.

Meat alternatives still have their fans and I’m not ready to write off fake meat just yet.   But this ad makes me much less sympathetic to this particular Cause.

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Jan 30 2023

Industry-funded research: Vitamin D and Covid-19

I was interested to come across this paper: Conflict of Interests in the Scientific Production on Vitamin D and COVID-19: A Scoping Review.   Front Public Health. 2022 Jul 11;10:821740.   doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2022.821740. eCollection 2022.

Results and conclusions: 

  • Studies were funded by companies in the diagnostics, pharmaceutical and food sectors.
  • Conclusions favorable to vitamin D supplementation were more prevalent in papers where COI was identified (9/13, 69.2%) than among papers where COI was not found (4/16, 25.0%).
  • Omissions of disclosure of COI, funding source, and sponsor functions were observed.
  • The identification of possible corporate political activities in scientific papers about vitamin D published during the COVID-19 pandemic signals a need for greater transparency and guideline development on the prevention of COI in scientific production.

Comment:  Not many studies look at disclosure issues this closely.  This is a welcome addition to the genre.  It reminds me of this especially entertaining report: “COVID-19 and misinformation: how an infodemic fuelled the prominence of vitamin D.”  Papers on vitamin D and COVID-19, it seems, are not only influenced by corporate interests; they are also occasionally fraudulent, if viral.

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Jan 27 2023

Weekend reading: Lobbying

The Access to Nutrition Initiative (ATNI) published a report, Spotlight on Lobbying 2022 just in time for Christmas.  I am just getting to it.

ATNI has been commissioned to benchmark the world’s 25 largest F&B companies’ lobbying-related commitments, management systems, and disclosure against the Responsible Lobbying Framework (RLF). The RLF was developed to help organizations adopt corporate practices that ensure their lobbying activities are legitimate, transparent, consistent, and accountable, while providing the opportunity for other, more resource-constrained groups, to lobby in the public
interest.

Note that this report focuses on corporate promises and internal practices.  It does not evaluate what the companies are actually doing to influence nutrition policy.

The results?  No surprise, “current practice is far from the standard set in the RLF.”

Of course it is.  Why would companies want to stop lobbying when it is so effective in protecting their profits.

The report mentions the major issues:

  • Taxes on unhealthy foods
  • Marketing restrictions, particularly to children
  • Mandatory front-of-package labels
  • Food-based (rather than nutrient-based) dietary guidelines.

I hope its next lobbying report will document how these companies are fighting every one of these public health initiatives.

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Jan 26 2023

Today is National Peanut Brittle Day?

I received an emailed announcement alerting me to today’s big event: It’s National Peanut Brittle Day, “a day dedicated to honoring one of our favorite uniquely American treats.”

Who knew?

The press release continues with some not-so-sweet news:  peanut brittle is yet another victim of inflation.

The chart shows the cost of the raw ingredients in peanut brittle has increased by nearly 18% — from just under $0.38 per pound in early 2021 to nearly $0.46 cents today.


Other cost increases: transportation, energy, labor add up to “a recipe for expensive candy!”

A strange press release, but an interesting commentary on what’s happening with prices.

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Jan 25 2023

Vindicated! GAO issues report critical of USDA’s treatment of the Economic Research Service

One of the great tragedies of the Trump Administration was its attempt to thoroughly destroy the Economic Research Service by moving it out of Washington DC to Kansas City, Kansas.

I wrote about this repeatedly a few years ago (see links at end)) as did—and does–AgriPulse.

USDA should have planned better for staff attrition when it moved the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture to Kansas City,  in 2019, the Government Accountability Office says in a new report that notes the department “minimally involved employees, Congress, and other key stakeholders in relocating the agencies.”  The controversial moves during the Trump administration were vocally opposed by many employees and outside groups that said USDA had not adequately justified its decision.

The GAO has now documented exactly what critics predicted.

Coinciding with the loss of staff in fiscal years 2019 and 2020, ERS produced fewer key reports, and NIFA took longer to process grants…Two years after the relocation, the agencies’ workforce was composed mostly of new employees with less experience at ERS and NIFA than the prior workforce.

In addition, a decline in the number of employees in certain protected groups persisted. For example, the proportion of Black or African American staff at NIFA declined from 47 percent to 19 percent (see fig.).

The report says ERS has recovered.  I disagree.  As far as I can tell, ERS still produces basic reports on farming but is no longer producing the kind of hard-hitting critical analyses of food and farming issues that it used to.  I miss it.  A lot.

Some (not all) previous comments on the ERS move

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