Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jan 31 2024

Food question of the week: Why is fruitcake so indestructable?

If you still have fruitcake left over from Christmas, you are undoubtedly wondering why it is still around and whether it is still edible.

Fortunately, we have Scientific American to thank for shedding light on this pressing issue.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, these seemingly indestructible pastries typically stay fresh for six months in the pantry and up to a year when refrigerated. But anecdotally we know that they can last for decades; some of the oldest have been preserved for more than a century. In 2017 a then 106-year-old fruitcake left behind by members of a 1910 Antarctic expedition was unearthed from one of the continent’s first buildings. And in 2019 the Detroit News reported that a Michigan family treasured a then 141-year-old fruitcake as an heirloom. And you could theoretically still eat these century-old cakes without harm—if you can get past the nauseating, rancid smell.

The reasons for fruitcake’s indestructability are because it is made with:

  • Alcohol,
  • Dried fruit
  • Sugar
  • Not much liquid

Bacteria are killed by alcohol and do not reproduce well under conditions of high sugar, low water, and low oxygen (high cake density)—dryness, in a word.

So if yours is still around, you can eat it as long as it smells OK.  If it starts smelling  bad, it’s because the fats are getting rnncid.

Aren’t you glad I asked?

Jan 30 2024

The endless hazards of commercial baby foods: lead and pesticides


I’ve posted previously about the recent finding of high levels of lead—and now chromium—in applesauce pouches.

I’ve also posted about the inadequacy of inspections of such products.

The lead problems are continuing.

The FDA says it has received 89 complaints as of January 16, with the average age of the affected children less than one year (you have to scroll way down to see the latest updates).

The CDC says it has received reports from state and local health departments:

Total Cases: 385

Confirmed Cases: 97

Probable Cases: 253

Suspect Cases: 35

Both agencies say: Do not feed recalled products to your children!

  • WanaBana apple cinnamon fruit puree pouches – including three packs
  • Schnucks-brand cinnamon-flavored applesauce pouches and variety pack
  • Weis-brand cinnamon applesauce pouches

What caused this?  The best guess is (deliberate?) adulteration of the cinnamon.  Not nice to think about.


I read in The Guardian: Nearly 40% of conventional baby food contains toxic pesticides, US study finds.

The research, conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) non-profit, looked at 73 products and found at least one pesticide in 22 of them. Many products showed more than one pesticide, and the substances present a dangerous health threat to babies, researchers said.

The EWG research: New EWG study (2023): Pesticides still found in baby food but most-toxic threats eliminated through advocacy, regulation.

  • New EWG research finds fewer pesticides in baby food than in the  groundbreaking 1995 study, Pesticides in Baby Food.
  • Though EWG detected some pesticides, the most toxic have been removed.
  • EWG’s advocacy helped drive market change – but the fight for safer food continues.
  • Federal oversight of pesticides in children’s food is inadequate, as explored in depth in a 1993 landmark National Academies of Science study.
  • No pesticides were detected in any of the 15 organic products.

Well, this message is clear: if you must buy commercial baby food, buy organic.

Overall, you are better off feeding babies the healthy foods you eat, pureed or cut up so they don’t cause choking, and as unsalted and unsugared as possible.

Jan 29 2024

Industry-conflicted opinion of the week: Sugar, if you can believe it

I like sweet foods as much as anyone (maybe more), but I do try to keep sugar intake within reasonable limits.

For one thing, sugars have no nutritional value beyond calories (which hardly anyone needs more of).  For another, it encourages overeating whatever foods in comes with, many of them ultra-processed.

Thus, I cannot understand why my nutrition colleagues would do anything to imply that eating more sugar is OK.

But, thanks to Ricardo Salvador at the Union of Concerned Scientists who forwarded the study to me, we here have: Risk assessment of nutrients: There must be a threshold for their effects.

Its authors argue that because no firm threshold has been established for harm from excessive sugar intake, guidance to keep sugars “as low as possible in the context of a nutritionally adequate diet” is inappropriate.

The most appropriate interpretation from the vast amount of data is that currently no definitive conclusion can be drawn on the tolerable upper intake level for dietary sugars. Therefore, EFSA’s [European Food Safety Authority’s] own guidance would lead to the conclusion that the available data do not allow the setting of an upper limit for added sugars and hence, that more robust data are required to identify the threshold value for intake of sugars.

Sigh.  Who paid for this?

Funding:Cosun Nutrition Center (Hilversum, The Netherlands) provided financial support for some of the cost for the preparation of this paper. This support was unrestricted, and Cosun Nutrition Center had no influence on or input to the content of this paper” [yeah, right].

And what, pray tell, is the Cosun Nutrition Center?

The Cosun Nutrition Center conducts research and acquires scientific information on plant-based foods in relation to health and sustainability…The Cosun Nutrition Center is funded by Royal Cosun.

Sounds legit.  But what is Royal Cosum?

Founded 125 years ago, Royal Cosun has developed into a leading international agricultural cooperative with more than 8,100 sugar beet growers.

Sugar beet growers?  Oh.

I won’t bother to list the authors’ conflicts of interest, except to assure you that some include affiliations with sugar companies.

Conflicted?  Absolutely.

Caveat lector.

Jan 26 2024

Weekend reading: Food system analysis

I was interested to see this report and the academic analysis on which it is based—both from the Food Systems Countdown Initiative.

The academic analysis is extremely complicated and difficult to get through.  This initiative is highly ambitious.  It developed a set of 50 (!) indicators and “holistic monitoring architecture to track food system transformation towards global development, health and sustainability goals.”

The 50 indicators fall under five themes: (1) diets, nutrition and health; (2) environment, natural resources and production; (3) livelihoods, poverty and equity; (4) governance; and (5) resilience.

The analysis applies these themes and indicators to countries by income level and finds none of them to be on track to meet Sustainable Development Goals.

I can understand why they produced a report based on the analysis: it is easier to understand (although still extremely complicated).

For one thing, it defines Food Systems; By definition, food systems are complicated.

Food systems are all the people, places, and practices that contribute to the production, capture or harvest, processing, distribution, retail, consumption, and disposal of food.

For another, it presents data on compliance with indicators in more comprehensible ways, for example, these two indicators from the Diet theme.

As the report makes clear, this use of indicators has useful functions:

  • Global monitoring of food systems
  • Tracking UN Food System Summit commitments
  • Development of national monitoring systems

This initiative reminds me a lot of the decades-long US Healthy People process—currently 359 (!) health objectives to be achieved by 2030—with no responsibility assigned for making sure they are achieved (which they mostly have not been, unsurprisingly),

Initiatives like these are great about identifying gaps.  What they can’t do is hold governments accountable.  They are supposed to inspire advocacy; to the extent they do, they might have some chance at stimulating progress.

As you can tell from my insertion of parenthetical explamation points, I think there are too many things to keep track of.

But then, I’m a lumper; this is a splitting initiative.

Both have their uses, but I want to see priorities for action.

Jan 25 2024

Mind-boggling product of the week: Doritos spirit

I learned about this one from Beverage Daily:

Unexpected and bold: The iconic nacho cheese taste of Doritos imbued into a first-of-its-kind spiritThe Frito-Lay brand has collaborated with Danish flavour innovator Empirical to launch Doritos Nacho Cheese Spirit – a limited edition, multi-sensorial experience that really tastes like nacho cheese…. Read more

Limited edition bottles will be available in select New York and California markets for $65 for a 750ml bottle.

Now you get to have your ultra-processed snack and 42% alcohol by volume—all at once!

Oh no!  According to the company, the product is sold out.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Jan 24 2024

How grocery stores encourage snacking

A reader from Phoenix, AZ, Maria Zafonte, sends this from a local Safeway:

From her standpoint—and mine—this is a great way to encourage overeating.

As she explained, if she bought just one bag of chips, each would cost $5.99.

But if she bought four, the unit cost was only $1.97 each.

As she put it:

The problem is what am I going to do with four bags of Doritos?? The healthier choice is financially penalized. It is very frustrating!

Indeed, it is.

One of the hallmarks of ultra-processed food products is their enormous profitability.  You can bet that Safeway is not losing money on 4 bags at $1.97 each.

Even if this is a loss leader (a gimmick to get you into the store), it’s an incentive to overeat.

Caveat emptor.

Jan 23 2024

Kratom: a primer on its politics

I see stores selling Kratom all over my downtown Manhattan neighborhood and am curious about it (no, I have not tried it, nor do I intend to).

I took a look at the websitesof the American Kratom Association (AKA) and the FDA’s Kratom page.

The AKA describes itself as “a consumer-based, nonprofit organization, focuses on setting the record straight about kratom and gives a voice to those who are suffering by protecting their rights to possess and consume safe and natural kratom.” It says:

Natural kratom comes from the mitragyna speciosa, a tropical evergreen tree in the coffee family native to Southeast Asia…Naturally occurring Kratom is a safe herbal supplement that behaves as a partial mu-opioid receptor agonist and is used for pain management, energy, even depression and anxiety that are common among Americans. Kratom contains no opiates, but it does bind to the same receptor sites in the brain. Chocolate, coffee, exercise and even human breast milk hit these receptor sites in a similar fashion.

Thus, according to the AKA, Kratom is something like chocolate or breast milk.

The FDA, in fact, defines Kratom in much the same way:

Kratom is a tropical tree (Mitragyna speciosa) that is native to Southeast Asia…Kratom is often used to self-treat conditions such as pain, coughing, diarrhea, anxiety and depression, opioid use disorder, and opioid withdrawal. An estimated 1.7 million Americans aged 12 and older used kratom in 2021, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

So far so good.

But the AKA is calling on the FDA to regulate Kratom.  This may sound highly responsible, but the AKA is doing this because the FDA refuses to have anything to do with this product and warns against its use.

The FDA says:

  • Kratom is not an approved drug: “There are no drug products containing kratom or its two main chemical components that are legally on the market in the U.S.
  • Kratom is not an approved dietary supplement: “FDA has concluded from available information, including scientific data, that kratom is a new dietary ingredient for which there is inadequate information to provide reasonable assurance that such ingredient does not present a significant or unreasonable risk of illness or injury.’
  • Kratom is not an approved food additive: “FDA has determined that kratom, when added to food, is an unsafe food additive.”
  • Therefore, kratom is not lawfully marketed in the U.S. as a drug product, a dietary supplement, or a food additive in conventional food.

The FDA’s Q and A:

  • What can happen if a person uses kratom?  FDA has warned consumers not to use kratom because of the risk of serious adverse events, including liver toxicity, seizures, and substance use disorder (SUD). In rare cases, deaths have been associated with kratom use…However, in these cases, kratom was usually used in combination with other drugs, and the contribution of kratom in the deaths is unclear.
  • How is FDA protecting the public from the risks of kratom?   FDA has also taken steps to limit the availability of unlawful kratom products in the U.S. We will continue to work with our federal partners to warn the public about risks associated with use of kratom.

The AKA says its mission is to

  • Support Consumers. The FDA does everything it can do to interfere with the right of consumers to make informed choices about products they use for their health and well being, and their war on kratom includes distributing disinformation on kratom that materially misleads consumers and policy makers. Our goal is to change that.
  • Educate. Kratom is a natural plant that helps consumers improve their health and well being for centuries. Our goal is to educate all Americans with the truth about kratom — from potential consumers to regulators and everyone in between.
  • Speaking the Truth on Kratom. We represent millions of Americans that each have a story to tell. The FDA wants to drown out the individual voices, but we will raise those voices and together we will be heard across America.
  • Global Awareness. Anti-kratom detractors are trying to expand kratom bans across the world. We hope to demonstrate responsible use and the health benefits of kratom will convince other countries to responsibly regulate kratom, not ban it.
  • Protect Natural Resources. Kratom is a precious natural resource that is an important part of our global ecosystem. We support and advocate for sustainable harvesting techniques and reforestation protecting existing kratom forests to protect the climate and the invaluable carbon exchange kratom trees contribute to the environment.

Oh dear.  While this disagreement continues, Kratom is readily available in shops that sell CBD and other cannabis derivatives.

What’s especially interesting about this difference of opinion is that the FDA usually keeps hands off —says not one word about—products sold as dietary supplements.  It stays quiet about them as a result of court decisions following passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), which essentially deregulated herbal supplement products.

But the FDA has plenty to say about Kratom.  That the agency argues that Kratom is not a drug, supplement, or food additive, means that it views Kratom as demonstrably harmful.

In situations like this, I tend to invoke the precautionary principle: see proof of safety before using it.  I prefer to head off trouble whenever possible.

But this situation raises an interesting question.  If the FDA thinks Kratom is all that bad, why isn’t it acting to take it off the market?  Or stating that it wishes it could but DSHEA won’t let it.  When the FDA tried to ban potentially harmful supplements, the makers of those supplements took the FDA to court.  The courts generally ruled in favor of the supplement makers.  Go figure.

Caveat emptor.

Jan 22 2024

Industry-funded studies of the week: the Beef Checkoff in action

Let’s do two at once—studies funded by gthe beef industry.


I learned about this one from a headline in Food Navigator — Europe’s daily newsletter: Muscle protein synthesis more successful with beef than plant-based protein in older people, study finds

One look at the headline and I wanted to know: Who paid for this?

The study:  Higher Muscle Protein Synthesis Rates Following Ingestion of an Omnivorous Meal Compared with an Isocaloric and Isonitrogenous Vegan Meal in Healthy, Older Adults.  Journal of Nutrition.  2023. DOI:

Purpose: Plant-derived proteins are considered to have fewer anabolic properties when compared with animal-derived proteins…So far, no study has compared the anabolic response following ingestion of an omnivorous compared with a vegan meal.

Methods: In a randomized, counter-balanced, cross-over design, 16 older (65–85 y) adults (8 males, 8 females) underwent 2 test days. On one day, participants consumed a whole-food omnivorous meal containing beef as the primary source of protein (0.45 g protein/kg body mass; MEAT). On the other day, participants consumed an isonitrogenous and isocaloric whole-food vegan meal (PLANT).

Results: MEAT increased plasma essential amino acid concentrations more than PLANT over the 6-h postprandial period (incremental area under curve 87 ± 37 compared with 38 ± 54 mmol·6 h/L, respectively; P-interaction < 0.01). Ingestion of MEAT resulted in ∼47% higher postprandial muscle protein synthesis rates when compared with the ingestion of PLANT (0.052 ± 0.023 and 0.035 ± 0.021 %/h, respectively; paired-samples t test: P = 0.037).

Conclusions:  Ingestion of a whole-food omnivorous meal containing beef results in greater postprandial muscle protein synthesis rates when compared with the ingestion of an isonitrogenous whole-food vegan meal in healthy, older adults.

And now to answer my question:

  • Conflict of interest:  [two of the authors] received research grants, consulting fees, speaking honoraria, or a combination of these for research on the impact of exercise and nutrition on muscle metabolism. A full overview on research funding is provided at: All other authors report no conflicts of interest.
  • Funding:  This study was funded in part by The Beef Checkoff, Denver, USA, and Vion Food Group, Boxtel, The Netherlands….The funders had no role in data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Comment:  The Beef Checkoff is the USDA-sponsored research-and-marketing program which taxes beef producers and uses the funds to promote beef sales.  Maybe the funder had no role as stated, but the checkoff is unlikely to fund research that is not in its best interest.

The meat industry wants everyone to believe that meat is superior to plants, as food, and eating vegan diets is hazardous to health.  Hence, this research.

Something is seriously wrong when it is this easy to guess who paid for a study from its title alone.


Just when I was ready to post that item, I ran across another one.

The study: Meat consumption & positive mental health: A scoping review. Preventive Medicine Reports. Volume 37, January 2024, 102556.

Highlight: “The majority of studies showed no differences between meat consumers and meat abstainers in positive psychological functioning.”

Results: “Eight of the 13 studies demonstrated no differences between the groups on positive psychological functioning, three studies showed mixed results, and two studies showed that compared to meat abstainers, meat consumers had greater self-esteem, ‘positive mental health’, and ‘meaning in life.'”

Conclusion [a positive spin]: “Although a small minority of studies showed that meat consumers had more positive psychological functioning, no studies suggested that meat abstainers did.”

Funding source: This study was in part funded via an unrestricted research grant from the Beef Checkoff, through the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. The sponsor of the study had no role in the study design, data collection, data analysis, data interpretation, or writing of the report.

Declaration of competing interest: [The first author] previously received funding from the Beef Checkoff, through the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

Comment: This review caught my attention because it found a null result: beef eating has no effect on mental health.  This is unusual for industry-funded studies.  But the article contains a positive spin:  some studies do in fact find benefits of beef eating whereas none find this result from not eating beeef.  Make of this what you will.  I think the Highlight says all you need to know.  Industry funding muddies interpretation of research results.  It’s best to avoid taking it.