by Marion Nestle

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Mar 27 2011

Coca-Cola: solving the obesity problem?

I enjoy reading the San Francisco Chronicle when I’m in that city.  Today’s has a full-page ad from Coca-Cola: “Everything in moderation.  Except fun, try to have lots of that.”

Our nation is facing an obesity problem and we plan on being part of the solution.  By promoting balanced diets and active lifestules, we can make a positive difference.

For some people, a 12-fl.-oz. beverage may be too much.  Everyone’s needs are different.  So we’ve created a variety of package sizes….

While keeping track of calories is important, so is burning them off.  In our partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, we’ve heled more than one million kids learn the importance of physical activity and proper nutrition….

  As I keep saying, you can’t make this stuff up.

Mar 26 2011

The latest on food nanotechnology periodically collects its posts about specific topics.  This one is called Nanotechnology – Challenges and Opportunities. Nanotechnology, this European industry site says, “offers the food processing and packaging industries significant gains in terms of performance, safety and functionality. But uncertainties remain over the long-term effects of exposure to nanomaterials.”

Indeed, they do.  As I have discussed previously, nanotechnology is the use of extremely small particles to do any number of things to food, food processing, and food packaging.   I’m still having a hard time knowing what to think about it.  So are others, apparently.

EFSA publishes draft guidance on nano risk assessment: The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has published draft guidance giving more specific risk assessment information regarding the use of nanotechnology in food…

Scientists developing ‘rechargeable’ antimicrobial layer for food processing surfaces: The germ-killing properties of a prototype nano-scale antimicrobial layer for food handling surfaces can be chemically ‘recharged’ every time it is rinsed with household bleach, said US scientists…

Assess risk from nano-pollution and antimicrobials in packaging – IFST: The Institute of Food Science and Technology (IFST) has called for greater appraisal of the potential risks from the release into the environment of nanomaterials used in food packaging…

Nano-coated ‘killer paper’ developed to extend food shelf life: Israeli scientists have said their new nano-coated “killer paper” could be used in food packaging to combat bacteria such as E.coli to extend product shelf life…

New ISO standard gauges nano-toxicity risks: New guidelines from the International Organisation for Standardization (ISO) have been published in a bid to help key industry players assess the possible risks presented by the burgeoning growth of nano-based products…

UK mulls confidentiality pact with industry over nano research: The Food Standard Agency (FSA) said it is considering signing confidentiality agreements with food and packaging companies in a bid to persuade them to share information on nanotechnology research…

I’m hoping for for more research, and soon.

Mar 25 2011

Are processed “junk” foods in trouble?

So many readers have sent me the link to the Chicago Tribune story about efforts of packaged food producers to make their products look healthy that I thought I had best say something about it.

The article lists the large number of companies that are “healthifying” their products:

  • PepsiCo: Combining Tropicana, Quaker Oats and dairy; low-sodium salt.
  • Walmart: Cutting trans fat and sodium in its Great Value products; encouraging major brands to make healthier products.
  • Kraft:  Adding fruit to Lunchables and more whole grain to Wheat Thins.
  • Nestlé (no relation): Making small changes so consumers won’t feel deprived.
  • Campbell’s:  Trying to reduce sodium in soup, promoting liquid vegetables through its V8 brand and whole grains with Pepperidge Farm.
  • Starbucks: Offering sweets with 200 or fewer calories.

And Pepsi, says the Wall Street Journal, is converting most of its products—but not Doritos or Cheetos—to all-natural ingredients.  Doritos and Cheetos, in case you wondered, are:

harder to retool and are marketed to teens and other consumers who might be turned off if told the chips were all natural.  As well, going all natural risks highlighting the artificial ingredients that were in the chips before.

What’s going on here?  Processed food makers must be in trouble.  “Healthy” and “natural” are the only things selling these days.

But isn’t a “healthy” processed snack food an oxymoron?  They can tweak and tweak the contents, but these products will still be heavily processed.

Too much evidence now concludes that marketing a product as “healthy” or “natural” makes people think it has no calories.

And as I keep saying, just because a processed food is a little bit less bad than it used to be, doesn’t necessarily make it a good choice.

Mar 24 2011

FoodNavigator on higher food prices

FoodNavigator-USA has collected several of its articles on higher food prices.  These, as I’ve mentioned previously, are due to a big range of causes: natural disasters (witness radioactivity in foods from Japan, crop failures, commodity trading, growing corn for biofuels, the declining value of the U.S. dollar, and how about just plain greed?

FoodNavigator is an industry newsletter, so its articles focus on the effects of higher prices on the food industry.

US food prices could surpass 2008 levels, says USDA: US food prices could surpass those seen during the 2008 food price crisis this year, as higher commodity and energy prices cause food makers to pass on costs, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA)…

USDA predicts rising food prices in 2011: The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has said it expects the Consumer Price Index to rise by 2 to 3 percent in 2011, ending a period of near-stagnant food price inflation over the past two years…

Arab Revolt underlines the need for action to remedy high food prices: When Tunisian street vegetable vendor Mohamed Bouazizi chose to end his life in fiery suicide, no one could have foreseen the firestorm his death would unleash across the Arab world. But, two months later, as the Arab Revolt shows no sign of fading, the lessons to be drawn about food security are becoming abundantly clear…

Sara Lee to raise prices again on higher commodity costs: Sara Lee said it intends to raise the prices of its foods and beverages on the back of continuing commodity price pressure, as it reported nearly flat Q2 sales of $2.35bn…

Expected higher food prices could cause consumer caution in 2011: Consumers are set to manage their food budgets more carefully in 2011 as they brace for higher food prices this year, according to a new report from the NPD Group…

Mar 23 2011

Photo-Op: hospital irony

As a commentary on my recent post on soft drink marketing, Jerry Gross Yisroel sends this photo, which he took a week or so ago in front of the emergency entrance to Beth Israel Medical Center, Brooklyn.

They do say that a picture is worth a thousand words….

Mar 22 2011

Who is responsible for dealing with poverty?

I don’t often respond to comments but this one about the political division caused by obesity is worth further discussion.

I truly resent your statement that Republicans don’t want to have an education, access to health care or access to nutritious food. Such statements not only undermine your credibility but contribute nothing to the discussion.

For the record, Republicans as just as committed to these things as the Democrats. The difference is that the Republicans don’t believe that it is the taxpayers responsibility to provide them.

If not taxpayers, who?  The writer does not say.

I thought of this question when I read the new report released by the NYC Center for Economic Opportunity. The center was established in 2006 by Mayor Bloomberg to seek evidence-based ways to reduce poverty in the city.

As the New York Times explains:

Without a flood of food stamps and tax benefits for low-income families, about 250,000 more New Yorkers would have slipped into poverty at the height of the recession…The center concluded that the poverty rate would have been three percentage points higher without federal tax programs passed in 2009 for low-income families and an aggressive city program to enroll New Yorkers who were not receiving public assistance but were eligible for food stamps, coupled with higher food stamp benefits.

Beyond personal damage, poverty is demonstrably bad for the health of cities.  Poor people do not buy much.  They cause social unrest.  They drain public resources.  Getting people out of poverty is sensible public policy and has been throughout history.

History also tells us that private charity is never adequate to meet the needs of the poor.

That’s why U.S. taxpayers support food stamp and other food assistance programs to the tune of close to $100 billion a year, as can be seen in the USDA’s budget figures.

The “aggressive city program” paid off.  At a time of economic crisis, poverty levels throughout America increased.  New York City’s did not.

Isn’t dealing with poverty a core function of government?  Isn’t some reasonable level of income equity a core feature of democratic society?

I think so, but await your opinions.

Mar 21 2011

GAO calls for unified food safety system–yet again!

Just a couple of weeks ago, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the congressional watchdog agency, issued a report calling for a single food safety agency (see my post on this). 

The GAO is working hard on this issue.  It has just issued yet another report, this one called FEDERAL FOOD SAFETY OVERSIGHT: Food Safety Working Group Is a Positive First Step but Governmentwide Planning Is Needed to Address Fragmentation.

The report points out some of the alternatives it has suggested in the past:

  • A single food safety agency
  • A food safety inspection agency
  • A data collection and risk analysis center
  • A coordination mechanism led by a central chair

GAO says:

GAO and other organizations have regularly paired proposals for alternative food safety organizations with calls for comprehensive, unified, risk-based food safety legislation.

New food safety legislation that was signed into law in January 2011 strengthens a major part of the food safety system; however, it does not apply to the federal food safety system as a whole or create a new risk-based food safety structure.

GAO recommends that the Director of OMB, in consultation with the federal food safety agencies, develop a governmentwide performance plan for food safety that includes results oriented goals and performance measures for food safety oversight and a discussion about strategies and resources.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, GAO has been making these kinds of recommendations for 20 years.  Does anyone in government listen?  This report notes that the Office of Management and Budget declined to respond to its recommendations.

Responsive government anyone?  This seems like a reorganization well worth trying.  We only have one food supply.  We should not need two agencies to manage its safety risks.

Mar 20 2011

Uh oh. Radioactive iodine in Japanese food

Japanese health authorities have found levels of radioactive iodine and cesium in spinach, milk, and water.  They detected levels of iodine-131 up to seven times higher than safety limits in spinach collected from six farms as far as 75 miles from the reactors.

How serious a problem is this?  From a strictly scientific viewpoint, probably not much.   But note the “probably.”  From the standpoint of the public, the problem is very serious indeed.

What’s happening with the Japanese food supply gets us into the classic contradictions of risk communication.  Consider this response:

After the announcements, Japanese officials immediately tried to calm an already-jittery public, saying the amounts detected were so small that people would have to consume unimaginable amounts to endanger their health.  “Can you imagine eating one kilogram of spinach every day for one year?” said State Secretary of Health Minister Yoko Komiyama. One kilogram is a little over two pounds.

Edano [chief cabinet secretary] said someone drinking the tainted milk for one year would consume as much radiation as in a CT scan; for the spinach, it would be one-fifth of a CT scan….Drinking one liter of water with the iodine at Thursday’s levels is the equivalent of receiving one-eighty-eighth of the radiation from a chest X-ray.

Is the Japanese public likely to be reassured by these statements?  They remind me of the British minister who went on TV and fed a hamburger to his small daughter during the mad cow crisis of the early 1990s.  It didn’t work.

We are talking about food here.  Something that people put in their bodies and those of their children.

Specialists in risk communication would view radioactive spinach as a problem ranking high on anyone’s “dread-and-outrage” scale.

Radioactivity is not visible, is not under personal control, and is technological, unfamiliar, and foreign.  This makes something like this really, really scary, as I explain in the introduction my book Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety.

So the statements of American experts don’t help much either:

“The most troubling thing to me is the fear that’s out of proportion to the risk,” said Dr. Henry Duval Royal, a radiologist at Washington University Medical School.

Yes it is.  Understandably so.  And Japanese officials will have a hard time dealing with it unless they are thoroughly forthcoming with information, earn the trust of the public, and take the fears seriously.

Update, March 21: The New York Times account on this issue from March 20.  The March 21 story describes the spread of the radioactive materials:

Spinach from a farm in Hitachi, about 45 miles from the plant, contained 27 times the amount of iodine that is generally considered safe, while cesium levels were about four times higher than is deemed safe by Japan. Meanwhile, raw milk from a dairy farm in Iitate, about 18 miles from the plant, contained iodine levels that were 17 times higher than those considered safe, and milk had cesium levels that were slightly above amounts considered safe.