by Marion Nestle

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Sep 2 2022

Weekend reading: Food sovereignty in Ghana

Joeva Sean Rock.  We Are Not Starving: The Struggle for Food Sovereignty in GhanaMichigan State University Press, 2022.  188 pages

I enjoyed getting to know Joeva Rock when she had a fellowship in my NYU department, and was honored to be asked to blurb her book:

We Are Not Starving is an utterly compelling account of how the failure of international donors to understand and respect the recipients of development aid contributes to the failure of their projects.  Through the industry’s attempts to introduce GMO crops in Ghana, anthropologist Joeva Rock draws lessons essential for anyone who wants international development to work.  If you want to understand the real, on-the-ground politics of GMOs, start here.

A couple of excerpts from the manuscript:

  • Ghanaian officials recognized the limitations posed by IPRs [Intellectual Property Rights] as an important way to collect financial benefits from GMO.  Thus, rather than describe GMOs as a humanitarian technology, as donors sought to do, Ghanaian officials and scientists went out of their way to stress that, when coupled with IPRs, GM seeds were “the secret” to obtaining profit, revenue that was sorely needed in the post-structural adjustment era of gutted state infrastructure.
  • Ghanaians continually critiqued global discourses and development industry standards wherein philanthropists and professionals in the Global North set boundaries for conversations about hunger, collapse Africa into a homogenized, starving entity, and the prescribe solutions based on these racialized myths.  These critiques are reflective of recipient fatigue and are often held in tension with discourse emanating from the same donors that sponsor the work of GMO advocates, who rely on images and texts that depict Africa as languishing and starving.
Sep 1 2022

Environmental impact of 57,000 food products!

If I wore a hat it would be off to the authors of this astonishing paper: “Estimating the environmental impacts of 57,000 food products.

They used public databases to rank food products by a combination of nutritional and four environmental factors: greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water stress, and eutrophication potential.

Their overall conclusion: more nutritious foods are more environmentally sustainable (whew), but with some caveats.

The paper has interesting illustrations.  Here’s one that correlates the nutritional value of sausages to their environmental impact.  Vegan sausages are the most nutritious and have the least environmental impact; beef sausages are least nutritious by the criteria used here and the greatest environmental impact.

We can argue about the criteria used to establish nutritional quality and environmental impact and the way the algorithm works, but what an ambitious project!

At the very least, it’s a useful starting point.

Lots of people are interested in the environmental implications of food production and consumption.  See the latest paper from the group at Deakin University in Australia: “A conceptual framework for understanding the environmental impacts of ultra-processed foods and implications for sustainable food systems.”

This review found that UPFs are responsible for significant diet-related environmental impacts. Included studies reported that UPFs accounted for between 17 and 39% of total diet-related energy use, 36–45% of total diet-related biodiversity loss, up to one-third of total diet-related greenhouse gas emissions, land use and food waste and up to one-quarter of total diet-related water-use among adults in a range of high-income countries.

What all of this says is that basic dietary advice to eat a largely (not necessarily exclusively) plant-based diet, balanced in calories. and avoiding much in the way of ultra-processed foods is not only best for health, but also for the environment.

 

Aug 31 2022

Annals of marketing: sugary kids’ cereals

It’s hard to know what to make of the new products heading for the market.

Here’s one.

The rapper Calvin Cordozar Broadus Jr (aka Snoop Dog) is planning to introduce a new breakfast cereal (When?  Sometime soon).

Just what we need.  Another sugary cereal targeting kids.

If a Nutrition Facts label is available, I couldn’t find it online, but I’m guessing 30-40% sugar, and full of color and flavor additives, and super ultra-processed.

But it’s gluten-free and some of the sales revenues will go to support Door of Hope, which advocates for homeless families.

Despite the do-good aura, it’s not what nutritionists recommend, alas.  Well maybe as an occasional treat.

Will Kellogg complain about copyright infringement?  This is clearly a Froot Loops copycat, only with marshmallows—more marshmallows, no less.

Sigh.

Aug 30 2022

Just got advance copies!

Just got my two—count ’em—copies of the forthcoming memoir, a candid personal account of my professional life.  It comes out October 4.

The publisher, University of California Press, is offering a 30% discount.

  • Go to: www.ucpress.edu/9780520384156
  • Use code 21W2240 at checkout

Information about the book is here.

Forthcoming appearances are listed here.

Aug 29 2022

Industry funded criticism: front-of-package labels

Serge Hercberg, who originated the NutriScore front-of-package labeling system used in France and several other European countries send me a link to this review by several Italian investigators.   To refresh memory, this is how NutriScore works.

It’s a bit complicated but this paper is even more so.  Its writing seems obfuscating, but judge for yourself.

The review: Uncovering the Effect of European Policy-Making Initiatives in Addressing Nutrition-Related Issues: A Systematic Literature Review and Bibliometric Analysis on Front-of-Pack Labels.  Nutrients202214(16), 3423; https://doi.org/10.3390/nu14163423

Conclusions: “The most recent goal of EU policy-makers is to find a harmonized and universal labelling system to adapt in all European countries. However, observing the structure of the extant literature, there might be two current risks that should be avoided. The first risk is to outline a labelling scheme that is not fully supported by converging evidence as derived from multiple different constructs. The second one refers to the risk of implementing a labelling scheme grounded on valid results and high levels of citations, supported by a network of authors, but overlooking the fragmentation of other valid positions in the literature that together contribute to depicting an environment in which the different and still valid results reflect the diversity of alternatives that are equally effective, but less supported. In conclusion, the right choice of FoPL would benefit both consumers and the food industry, but there are still additional knowledge and usage gaps that must be fulfilled to define the proper universal option that supports consumers toward healthier and more informed food choices.”

Funding: The research received non-conditional funding from Federalimentare.

Conflicts of Interest: The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Comment: Federalimentare is the Federazione Italiana dell’Industria Alimentare, the major Italian food trade association.  It strongly opposes use of NutriScorre (no surprise).  The authors do have a conflict of interest, but either do not recognize it or are denying it.

I think what they are saying that NutriScore and other front-of-pack systems are not “fully supported by converging evidence,” suggesting that better alternatives would “benefit both consumers and the food industry.”

But what’s really going on here is that front-of-pack labels discourage puchases of ultra-processed foods.  It is understandable that the food industry dislikes them.

This paper is part of a concerted effort by the Italian food industry to discredit NutriScore.

Serge Hercberg, a professor of nutrition at the University of Paris, is under intense personal attack from Italian Twitter trolls, who have been posting insulting and threatening anti-Semitic tweets about his background (Polish Jewish) and his work with NutriScore.

Nutri-Score is not perfect (no such scheme can be) but the only explanation for these attacks must be that it is working.  The attacks are strong evidence for its effectiveness.

Who would ever imagine that a front-of-package food label would elicit anti-semitic vitriol.

Tough times, these.

Aug 26 2022

Weekend reading: the UK’s food system

I’m just getting caught up on reports.  Here’s one from The Food Foundation, an “independent charity working to address challenges in the food system in the interests of the UK public.”

Its report: The Broken Plate 2022: The State of the Nation’s Food System  “documenting the health of our food system, how it impacts on our lives, and why we must change the food environment so that it delivers healthy and sustainable diets for everyone, everywhere.”

Three things about this report make it of special interest: comprehensiveness, clarity of presentation, and forthright statements about what needs to happen.

For example:

The report covers issues such as price and affordability, food availability (in schools and shopping areas), and health and environmental effects (chidren’s weight and growth, diabetes amputations, life expectancy, climate change).

Aug 25 2022

Annals of marketing: Can’t make this stuff up

This one comes from Great Britain.

Whew.  I was worried about potatoes.  What a relief!

I thought it was a spoof, but it’s not.  ASDA (formerly Associated Dairies) is a Walmart subsidiary in Great Britain.

It offers other products labeled the same way.   In case you were worried.

Aug 24 2022

Task force on Hunger, Nutrition, Health report: a missed opportunity?

The Task Force on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health released its comprehensive report yesterday.

The report’s purpose is to inform the upcoming White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health.  If so, it’s going to leave the White House in a quandary.

The report has lots of useful information, beautifully presented, and does all it should on adddressing hunger.

But as I read it, the report, titled Ambitious, Actionable Recommendations to End Hunger, Advance Nutrition, and Improve Health in the United States,” is not nearly ambitious enough when it comes to nutrition and health.

It makes far too many recommendations—30.  That’s always a bad sign (too many to do).  .

Really, only 2 recommendations are needed.  These should establish or expand federal agriculture, food, and nutrition policies to ensure:

  1.  Adequate, affordable food and nutrition for everyone.
  2.  Healthy diets for everyone, meaning those that follow Dietary Guidelines and are largely plant-based, balanced in calories, and low in undesirable fats, sugars, and salt (i.e., ultra-processed foods).

The hunger recommendations do the job: they call for ensuring benefits sufficient to meet households’ basic needs.

But the second?  A mess.

Here is the most obvious example [my comments follow] .

Recommendation #9: “Reduce the marketing of foods that do not align with the latest DGA and increase the marketing of foods that align with the latest DGA to children and populations with disproportionate rates of diet-related chronic conditions” [Good! But not through the recommended voluntary methods by industry.  That won’t work; it requires legislation]

But here’s Recommendation #25: “Increase the ability of food companies to communicate with consumers about the evidence for healthfulness of certain food products and nutrients.”  [Uh oh]

This comes with three action items:

  1. FDA should expeditiously update its definition of the word “healthy” [good] and incentivize food companies to use the terminology and/or associated symbol in their food packaging and marketing [Yikes!] and increase the proportion of products on the market that meet the “healthy” definition [OK, as long as they are not gaming the system].
  2. Congress and/or FDA should improve and streamline the process for application, review, approval, and use of health claims and qualified health claims on food packages. [No!  If it’s one thing we don’t need, it’s more misleading health claims]. 
  3. Congress and/or FDA should create a new process for communicating about foods, nutrients, and other bioactive ingredients that may prevent or treat disease through label claims. [No!  We do not need more claims for the benefits of ultra-processed food products].

What’s missing from this report?

  • Anything about ultra-processed foods and their effects on calorie intake and overall health.  The term is mentioned once, but only in the context of ‘more research needed’ (Recommendation #19).
  • A clear statement of the benefits of soda taxes in reducing consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.  Why isn’t there one?  A box explains: “Task Force members voiced diverse perspectives on this topic.”
  • A clear statement about making SNAP align with Dietary Guidelines.  This is mentioned, but only in the context of pilot research (recommendation #2), and therefore contradicts recommendations #3 and #5.  #3:  Increase nutrition security by promoting dietary patterns that align with the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) through federal nutrition programs.  #5:  Leverage the federal nutrition programs’ power in economic stimulus to support food systems that promote foods that align with the latest DGA.”
  • Firm calls on Congress to pass legislation to do what is needed.

What happened?  One member of the committee explained to me that its membership included everyone from anti-hunger advocates to food industry representatives, and too many vested interests were at stake.  Members could not agree on anything that would make a real difference to policy.  Anything substantive met strong resistance.

When it comes to public health policy, which this most definitely is, the food industry has no business being at the table.

This was a recommendation of the 2019 Lancet Commission on the Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition, and Climate Change.  Read that report.  It explains why including the food industry in policy recommendations that might reduce sales is not a good idea.

If I had been a member of this Task Force, I would have called for a minority report on policies for reducing consumption of sugary drinks and ultra-processed foods.  But that, of course, is why I’m no longer appointed to such committees.