by Marion Nestle

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Jan 10 2011

Harvard Forum: Who decides what your children eat?

When San Francisco voted to eliminate toys from McDonald’s Happy Meals, the Forum at the Harvard School of Public Health invited comments on this issue.  Here’s what I had to say about it:

I’m surprised at the mayor’s comment that “parents, not politicians, should decide what their children eat,” because the San Francisco ordinance is not about the food. It’s about the toys.

Nobody is stopping parents from ordering Happy Meals for their kids. But as everyone knows, kids only want Happy Meals because of the toys.

The idea that government has no role in food choice is ludicrous. The government is intimately involved in food choices through policies that make the cost of some foods—those containing subsidized corn or soybeans, for example—cheaper than others.

It is not an accident that five dollars at McDonald’s will buy you five hamburgers or only one salad. It is not an accident that the indexed price of fruits and vegetables has increased by 40% since the early 1980s, whereas the indexed price of sodas has decreased by 30%. Right now, agricultural policies support our present industrialized food system and strongly discourage innovation and consumption of relatively unprocessed foods.

Agricultural policies are the results of political decisions that can be changed by political will. If we want agricultural policies aligned with health policies—and I certainly do—we need to exercise our democratic rights as citizens and push for changes that are healthier for people and the planet.

Yes, individuals are the ultimate arbiters of food choice.

But our present food system makes unhealthful eating the default. We need to be working for government policies that make healthy eating the default. The San Francisco ordinance is a small step in that direction.

Jan 9 2011

Census Bureau releases food statistics

Thanks to the New York Times for telling us about the Census Bureau’s release of the 2011 Statistical Abstract of the U.S.  This is lots of fun and the Times’ account picked out a few highlights of what has changed since 2000:

  • The meat industry is contracting? Red meat consumption is 108.3 pounds per capita, down 5.4 pounds.
  • Nutritionists!  Uh oh: Vegetable consumption is 392.7 pounds per capita, down a shocking 30 pounds.
  • The wine industry must be happy: Wine consumption is 2.5 gallons per capita, up by half a gallon.
  • The establishment of organic standards in 2002 is working: Organic farmland covers 4.8 million acres, a 170% increase.
  • Hold your nose: Five states—Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, North Carolina, and South Dakota—have more pigs than people.

You can pick out your own favorite food and nutrition factoids by taking a look at the health and nutrition and the Agriculture statistical tables.  Fisheries has a section of its own.  Enjoy!

Jan 8 2011

Darya Pino’s guide to supermarket navigation

This diagram is flying all over the Internet and has been sent to me by so many people (thanks to all) that I’m eager to share it.

I particularly like it because it’s just what I used to say in lectures after What to Eat came out in 2006.  My What to Eat rules say never to eat a food with:

  • More than five ingredients (too processed)
  • An ingredient you can’t pronounce (ditto)
  • Anything artificial (ditto)
  • A health claim on the front (these are always about marketing, not health)
  • A cartoon on the package (it’s being marketed to kids)

Much praise and many thanks to the designer, Darya Pino (of Summer Tomato):

Jan 7 2011

Bad news on food prices: up, up, and away

The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. has just released its 2010 food price index.  Compared to 2002-2004, commodity food prices sharply increased, especially those of sugars and fats.

The new index is higher than in 2008 when people throughout the world rioted in protest.  It is also at the highest level recorded since the index began in 1990.

What’s going on?  In 2008, FAO explained the crisis as the result of the combined effects of:

  • Competition for cropland from the growth in biofuels
  • Low cereal stocks
  • High oil prices
  • Speculation in food markets
  • Extreme weather events

I’ve discussed other possible explanations I’ve collected in previous posts.

This time, supply problems in grains, sugars, and meat are making the problemworse.  FAO experts are predicting that prices will go even higher this year.

High food prices are a disaster for the poor and are also a ticket to social disorder.   World leaders: get to work!

Added clarifications: It turns out that the FAO food price index is not inflation-adjusted.  Oops.  This means that the prices are not necessarily higher than they were in 2008. Nevertheless, food riots are already happening.  Ben Grossman-Cohen of Oxfam sends this report of such disturbances in Algeria, for example.

Jan 6 2011

Wikileaks plays food politics: US vs. EU agbiotech policies

I’m still catching up on what happened during the weeks I was out of Internet contact, so I’ve only just heard about the Wikileaked diplomatic cable about U.S. food biotechnology policies.

In December 2007, the U.S. Ambassador to France, Craig Robert Stapleton, wrote the White House to demand retaliation against European Union countries that refused to allow import of genetically modified (GM) corn from the United States.

Ambassador Stapleton’s confidential memo of December 14, 2007  explained that the French government was attempting to

circumvent science-based decisions in favor of an assessment of the “common interest”…. Moving to retaliation will make clear that the current path has real costs to EU interests and could help strengthen European pro-biotech voices.  In fact, the pro-biotech side in France — including within the farm union — have told us retaliation is the only way to begin to begin to turn this issue in France.

…France’s new “High Authority” on agricultural biotech is designed to roll back established science-based decision making….The draft biotech law submitted to the National Assembly and
the Senate for urgent consideration…would make farmers and seed companies legally liable for pollen drift and sets the stage for inordinately large cropping distances. The publication of a registry identifying cultivation of GMOs at the parcel level may be the most significant measure given the propensity for activists to destroy GMO crops in the field.

The Ambassador’s recommendation?

Country team Paris recommends that we calibrate a target retaliation list that causes some pain across the EU….

Retaliation?  Against friends?  Even the Bush administration knew better.  The Obama administration also has not taken this advice.

The product at issue was a variety of Monsanto’s GM corn.   Could Monsanto have had anything to do with the Ambassador’s pointed interest in this matter?  Wikileaks: any chance for more documents on this matter?

Jan 5 2011

Pepsi’s answer to “eat natural”: snackify beverages and drinkify snacks

Over the holidays, Pepsi announced two changes to its products.

“All Natural” Frito-Lay: First, the company announced that half its Frito-Lay chips would now be made with “all natural” ingredients.

“Natural,” you may recall, has no regulatory meaning.  Companies pretty much get to define for themselves what the word means, provided what they say is “truthful and not misleading.”

By “natural,” Pepsi means removing MSG, artificial colors, and other chemical additives from some—but by no means all—chips and other snacks.  This is a good start, but Cheetos and Doritos?  Not a chance.

As to worries that the word “natural” is a calorie distractor and might encourage overeating, a Pepsi spokesperson said: “It’s meant to say: made with natural ingredients….It’s not meant to say: eat more.”  Really?  I’m not convinced.

Tropolis Squeezable Fruit: Next, Pepsi announced the latest innovation in kids’ products: Tropolis pouches of squeezable fruit.

I learned about Tropolis from a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, Valerie Bauerlein, who forwarded Pepsi’s press release:

Each fun-flavored 3.17 fl oz (90g) pouch provides a smooth blend of real squeezable fruit, is a good source of fiber, and offers 100 percent of the recommended daily value of vitamin C – all for less than 100 calories.

Tropicana Tropolis is made with no added sugars, artificial sweeteners or high fructose corn syrup; and no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives.

“Fun-flavored” is a euphemism for sugar.  The press release explains what’s not in the product.  So, what does it contain? It took some doing to find out, but it arrived eventually along with some further background information from Pepsi:

The issue is kids aren’t getting enough fruit, so Tropicana Tropolis is trying to help solve that problem in a fun, nutritious way…Studies show that families are not getting enough fruit and vegetables in their diets, and the health experts we talked to (registered dietitians and pediatricians) when developing Tropolis also raised this issue.

As you might imagine, I was not one of the experts they talked to.  Here are the ingredients:

  • Grape World: Apple puree, filtered water, banana puree concentrate, fibersol-2 fiber (maltodextrin), grape juice concentrate, apple juice concentrate, lemon juice concentrate, natural flavor and ascorbic acid (vitamin C).
  • Cherry World: Apple puree, filtered water, banana puree concentrate, fibersol-2 fiber (maltodextrin), apple juice concentrate, cherry juice concentrate, lemon juice concentrate, natural flavor and ascorbic acid (vitamin C).
  • Apple World: Apple puree, filtered water, banana puree concentrate, fibersol-2 fiber (maltodextrin), apple juice concentrate, lemon juice concentrate, natural flavor and ascorbic acid (vitamin C).

Translation: “Juice concentrates” is another euphemism for sugar.  You don’t believe me?  See the list of sugar euphemisms in the 2005 Dietary Guidelines (Table 14).

My translation: this is watery apple and banana sauce, artificially thickened, sweetened with fruit sugars, flavored with additives, and with added vitamin C.

As Valerie Bauerlein’s Wall Street Journal account explains,  this product is about expanding Pepsi’s profits in the “better-for-you” category as captured in a quotation that is sure to become a classic.

Ms. Nooyi [Pepsi’s CEO] has said she wants to build the nutrition business to $30 billion from $10 billion by 2020.…We see the emerging opportunity to ‘snackify’ beverages and ‘drinkify’ snacks as the next frontier in food and beverage convenience,” Ms. Nooyi said.

I ’m also quoted in her article (I did the interview while stranded in Miami trying to get back to snowbound New York):

Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University, said that the fruit concentrates are simply sugar. “They start out with real food, so let’s give them credit for applesauce and mashed-up bananas,” but “the rest of it is sugar,” she said. “Kids would be better off eating an apple or a banana.”

PepsiCo said Tropolis should get kids to eat more fruit, which is what’s most important.

Tropolis raises my favorite food philosophy question: Is a “better-for-you” product necessarily a good choice?  Is this a good way to get kids to eat more fruit?

You decide.

Jan 4 2011

Obama signs food safety bill today, at last

I listened in on yesterday’s White House conference call announcing that President Obama would sign the Food Safety Modernization Act today.

Speakers said the new bill will give the FDA the tools and authority it needs to help prevent the CDC’s new estimates of the annual burden of foodborne illness: 48 million cases,  180,000 hospitalizations, and 3,000 deaths.

But they barely mentioned the elephant in the room: funding.  The estimated cost of the new provisions is $1.4 billion, which will certainly require new appropriations at a time when Republican lawmakers balk at the mere thought.

Fortunately, reporters pressed hard on this issue.  Where, asked Sheryl Gay Stolberg of the New York Times, is the money coming from?

The FDA’s not-quite-satisfactory answer: the agency already has resources available from increased funding over the last several years and it “will work closely with industry in partnership.”

As reporters for the Washington Post explain today:

Rep. Jack Kingston, who hopes to become chairman of the agriculture subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, said that “our food supply is 99.999 percent safe”….He questioned giving the agency more money.

“I think we’ll look very carefully at the funding before we support $1.4 billion,” he told The Associated Press in an interview Monday, speaking of Republicans who will control the House when Congress comes back into session Wednesday.

Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post noted that Republicans say we already have the safest food supply in the world and don’t need more money.  What, she asked, can FDA do without additional funds?  And when?

But nobody talked about the timing.  New laws require the FDA to engage in interminable rulemaking procedures: writing rules, opening them for public comment, commenting on the comments, re-writing rules, opening them for public comment, and, eventually, arriving at final rules.

What is FDA supposed to do in the meantime?  It can move more quickly by issuing “guidance” or “interim final rules.”

I’m hoping that the FDA is ready for this and will issue such things soon.

Jan 3 2011

Bipartisan support for obesity prevention?

To my pleasant surprise, editorial writers in the conservative press defended Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign against attacks by even more conservative critics (I’m still catching up with what I missed on vacation).

December 26 Washington Post: Op-ed: “How did obesity become a partisan fight?, by Fred Hiatt , editorial page editor:

Well, yes, if Michelle Obama is for it, someone will be against it. Someone like Glenn Beck, for example, who was moved to rail against carrot sticks, or Sarah Palin, who warned that Obama wants to deprive us all of dessert.

And when you look a little deeper, it’s not surprising that a crusade seemingly beyond questioning would become a political battle.

Interests that might feel threatened by Let’s Move include the fast-food industry, agribusiness, soft-drink manufacturers, real estate developers (because suburban sprawl is implicated), broadcasters and their advertisers (of sugary cereals and the like), and the oil-and-gas and automotive sectors (because people ought to walk more and drive less).

Throw in connections to the health-care debate (because preventive services will be key to controlling the epidemic), race (because of differential patterns of obesity) and red state-blue state hostilities (the reddest states tend to be the fattest), and it turns out there are few landmines that Michelle Obama didn’t trip by asking us all to shed a few pounds.

Hiatt’s piece ends with “It’s not going to be easy,” Michelle Obama says. She’s right – but also right to keep pushing.”

December 27 Wall Street Journal: Editorial: “Palin’s Food Fight.”

President Obama’s indiscriminate expansion of federal power has inspired a healthy populist rebellion, but his opponents sometimes seem to lose their sense of proportion. Take Sarah Palin’s mockery of Michelle Obama’s childhood antiobesity campaign.

The first lady has emphasized more nutritious school lunches but mostly encourages parents to make sure their kids eat healthy and exercise. Mrs. Palin sees a big government plot.

…No one hates the nanny state more than we do, but Mrs. Obama isn’t exactly ordering up Lenin’s Young Pioneers. Adults do have an obligation to teach children how to live, and that includes adults who are role models by dint of their national prominence….Telling kids to eat their vegetables and run around the block is merely instructing them to take responsibility for their own choices.

With this kind of support, real progress is possible.  How’s that for an optimistic note on which to start the new year?