Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Dec 23 2021

Good news: sometimes, food advocacy works

How about let’s end this year with some cheery news.

The Global Health Advocacy Indicator (“Changing Policies to Save Lives”) has produced a series of international case studies of successful advocacy for a healthier food environment.

  • How Advocates Protected Heart Health in Brazil: Brazil approved strict limits on trans fat in food following strategic advocacy led by local civil society organizations supported by the Global Health Advocacy Incubator (GHAI). Our new case study describes the process and lessons learned. Read the case study
  • A Victory for Healthy Food Policy in Argentina: Argentina passed a Front of Package Labels bill with some of the strongest standards in the region in October, thanks to incredible advocacy by civil society organizations FIC Argentina, Fundeps, SANAR and Consumidores Argentinos.  Read more
  • How Advocacy Communications Supported Healthy Food Policy in Colombia: Colombia adopted a new Front of Package Labels law in August. We asked our civil partners how they how they used communications to advance advocacy and mobilize public support. Read the responses from Red PaPaz, Colectivo de Abogados, Dejusticia and FIAN Colombia. Read the responses
  • Trans Fat Policy Win in Bangladesh: In November, Bangladesh set new trans fat limits in line with international best practices. “The approval of trans fat regulations in Bangladesh illustrates the power of civil society advocates to impact public health policy,” said Muhammad Ruhul Quddus, GHAI’s coordinator of cardiovascular health work in Bangladesh. Read more
  • Case Study: Trans Fat Elimination in the Philippines: Read our new case study about the advocacy that led the Philippines to mandate the elimination of industrially produced trans fat from its food supply in July.  Read the case study
  • Resource: Legal Issues in the Design and Implementation of Public Health Measures: Our new resource, Legal Issues in the Design and Implementation of Public Health Measures, describes how our legal experts evaluate public health policies and legislation. Download the Guide
  • Report: Behind the Labels: Big Food’s War on Healthy Food Policies:  Our new report describes how the ultra-processed food and beverage product industry is attempting to derail effective front-of-package warning label policies, and shares key activities public health advocates are using in response. View the report
  • New Case Study: Protecting Heart Health in India: Our new case studies describes how Indian advocates supported new national limits on trans fat, a particularly harmful food component.  

Advocacy can succeed when it is done well.  It’s working in all these countries.  We could do that too!

Dec 22 2021

Corn for ethanol: a bad idea

If you want to know what’s wrong with the US food system, consider corn.

  • Hardly any of it is grown for food.
  • Most—half—goes for animal feed, domestic or exported.
  • One-third goes for ethanol fuel.

Let’s start with the big picture, courtesy of the National Corn Growers Association (FSI means Food/Seed/Industrial).

The USDA explains how much of total corn production ends up as ethanol fuel.

What’s wrong with this?  See The Conversation: The US biofuel mandate helps farmers, but does little for energy security and harms the environment.

If you’ve pumped gas at a U.S. service station over the past decade, you’ve put biofuel in your tank. Thanks to the federal Renewable Fuel Standard, or RFS, almost all gasoline sold nationwide is required to contain 10% ethanol – a fuel made from plant sources, mainly corn.

With the recent rise in pump prices, biofuel lobbies are pressing to boost that target to 15% or more. At the same time, some policymakers are calling for reforms. For example, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators has introduced a bill that would eliminate the corn ethanol portion of the mandate.

This article is worth serious attention for its discussion of the effects of corn growing on profits, carbon-neutrality, indigenous populations, and agriculture policy in general.

Or, to summarize in a corn cob (thanks to Mother Jones):

It’s hard to know where to begin to comment on this.

  • Many people in the world do not have enough to eat.
  • It would be better for people and the planet if we in industrialized countries ate less meat.
  • It would be better for people and the planet if we used fewer cars.

Growing corn for animal feed and automobile fuel makes no sense for human health or that of the enviroment.

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Dec 21 2021

The White House: meat companies have too much power

I was amazed to see this announcement from the White House, of all places: “Recent Data Show Dominant Meat Processing Companies Are Taking Advantage of Market Power to Raise Prices and Grow Profit Margins.”

In September, we explained that meat prices are the biggest contributor to the rising cost of groceries, in part because just a few large corporations dominate meat processing. The November Consumer Price Index data released this morning demonstrates that meat prices are still the single largest contributor to the rising cost of food people consume at home. Beef, pork, and poultry price increases make up a quarter of the overall increase in food-at-home prices last month.

The big concern is consolidation—monopoly power—in the meat industry.

Four large conglomerates control approximately 55-85% of the market for pork, beef, and poultry, and these middlemen were using their market power to increase prices and underpay farmers, while taking more and more for themselves…their gross profits have collectively increased by more than 120% since before the pandemic, and their net income has surged by 500%. They have also recently announced over a billion dollars in new dividends and stock buybacks, on top of the more than $3 billion they paid out to shareholders since the pandemic began.

The bottom line?

The meat price increases we are seeing are not just the natural consequences of supply and demand in a free market—they are also the result of corporate decisions to take advantage of their market power in an uncompetitive market, to the detriment of consumers, farmers and ranchers, and our economy [bold face in original].

Will the Biden Administration be able to do anything about this level of monopoly power?  Stay tuned.

Dec 20 2021

Industry-influenced (and not influenced) studies of the week: nuts

Two studies of the role of nuts in health.

I.  This one comes from’s “Headline vs. Study.”

Headline: Maximum Wellness: Walnuts are a Life-Extension Food: Looks like your [sic] nuts not to include walnuts in your diet. For more information and to read this study…go to, where you can find top wellness and nutrition products made in the United States – shipped to your door.”  [Comment: Clearly, we are dealing here with marketing]

Study: Association of Self-Reported Walnut Consumption with Total and Cause-Specific Mortality and Life Expectancy in U.S. Adults. Maximum Wellness nor Causation Necessarily Established.  Liu, X.; Guasch-Ferré, M.; Tobias, D.K.; Li, Y.  Nutrients 2021, 13, 2699. 10.3390/nu13082699

Conclusion: A greater life expectancy at age 60 (1.30 years in women and 1.26 years in men) was observed among those who consumed walnuts more than 5 servings/week compared to non-consumers.  Higher walnut consumption was associated with a lower risk of total and CVD mortality and a greater gained life expectancy among U.S. elder adults.  [Comment: association, not causation, and the difference is small].

Conflict of interest: The last (senior?) author reports having received research support from California Walnut Commission, but states that ” The funder has no role in the design and conduct of the study, in the collection, analysis, and interpretation of the data, and in the preparation, review, or in the decision to publish the results.”  [Comment: That’s what they all say, but research often demonstrates otherwise, as I review in my book Unsavory Truth].

And now for the second:

II.  Association of nut consumption with risk of total cancer and 5 specific cancers: evidence from 3 large prospective cohort studies.  Zhe Fang, You Wu, Yanping Li, Xuehong Zhang, Walter C Willett, A Heather Eliassen,1Bernard Rosner,
Mingyang Song, Lorelei A Mucci,and Edward L Giovannucci.  The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 114, Issue 6, December 2021, Pages 1925–1935,

Conclusion: In 3 large prospective cohorts, frequent nut consumption was not associated with risk of total cancer and common individual cancers.  [Comment: What? An industry-funded study that finds no benefuts?]

Funding: Supported by the California Walnut Commission and Swiss Re Management Ltd (to YL),… and NIH grants U01 CA167552 (to LAM and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study), UM1 CA186107 and P01 CA87969 (to the Nurses’ Health Study), and U01 CA176726 (to AHE and the Nurses’ Health Study II). The funding sources did not participate in the study design; or
collection, analysis, or interpretation of the data; or preparation, review, or approval of the manuscript.

Here’s how the authors explain their highly unusual no-benefit result:

Given the scarcity of available high-quality data, our findings add to current evidence to more precisely determine the relation between nut consumption and cancer risk. So far, the population based evidence has not been strong enough to conclude that nut consumption is protective against total cancer and these 5 common cancers. Future studies on other cancer sites are still needed to examine the benefits of nuts on cancer development.

Really?  Why?  Do the authors not believe their own data?  Their findings ought to settle the matter and encourage the authors to move on to more significant research.  “More research needed” keeps the California Walnut Commission busy.

Research funded by food companies always requires a degree of skepticism, no matter what the results.

Dec 17 2021

Weekend reading: low-wage labor in the grocery industry

Benjamin Lorr.  The Secret Life of Groceries: the Dark Miracle of the American supermarket.  Avery/Penguin Random House, 2020.

I don’t know how I missed this one when it came out in mid-2020, but I did.*

I saw a reference to it and thought I ought to take a look, largely because I am gearing up to update my book, What to Eat, in a second edition for Picador/Farrar Straus Giroux.

My book, which first appeared in 2006, is about food issues, using supermarkets as an organizing device.

Lorr’s book, which I expected to be a superficial expose of supermarkets, is anything but.

It is a deep, detailed, personal, and utterly powerful indictment of the human rights violations perpetrated on workers in grocery supply chains: truckers, grocery store clerks, Thai workers on shrimp-catching boats.

The personal comes in because Lorr is an experiential immersion journalist.  He embedded himself with a trucker, the fish section of a Whole Foods market, and a Thai fishing boat, as well as spending several years doing interviews.  Using the personal stories, he has plenty to say about truly shameless exploitation of low-wage workers in order to keep food costs low.

If you want to understand what low-wage work—or the Great Resignation—is about, here’s an excellent place to start.

This is an important book about food labor issues, but also about how more general systems of exploitation are maintained.

The “more general” leads me to pick one bone with Lorr’s analysis.

For those of us, he says:

Who want to shake the world aware to the fact that we are literally sustaining ourselves on misery, who want to reform, I very much don’t want to dissuade you so much as I want you to consider that any solution with come from outside our food system, so far outside it that thinking about food is only a distraction from the real work to be done.

His book, I’d say, proves just the opposite.  Food is his entry point into this topic and would not be there without it.

*I shouldn’t have missed it.  It was reviewed in the New York Times.  And Charles Platkin, whose work I follow closely, interviewed Lorr when the book first came out.

Dec 16 2021

One picture is worth…


Oreo Thins?  These have 35 calories per cookie instead of the original 50 or so.   The difference is hardly worth fussing about unless you eat a lot of them.

As for wine?  Sorry about this, but alcohol has calories—7 per gram, more than protein or carbohydrate (4 per gram) but less than fat (9 per gram).

Cookies and wine?  Sugars and alcohol?  Not my idea of a great partnership.

Thanks to Jennifer Pomeranz for sending this one.

Dec 15 2021

Let’s talk about food industry lobbying

Lobbying is legal; it is simply requests of legislators by interest groups for action in their own interests.  Everyone can do this, but corporations that donate to election campaigns have greater access to legislators and also deeper pockets to pay people to do this work.  And lobbyists are often former employees of government regulator agencies who now work for corporations—the “revolving door.”  The biggest problem for food advocacy groups: finding the funds to pay people to lobby for their issues.

Recent reports on lobbying and lobbyists:

I.  Food Research Collaboration: Examination of power, access, and influence of participants at the recent COP26 climate change negotiations in Glasgow.  Conclusions:

  • The Brazilian delegation had the highest number of food industry representatives, including beef producers.
  • Food industry members attended as part of groups officially considered Non-Governmental Organisations.
  • Representatives of many food corporations and trade groups attended.

II.  Dive Wire: Where the dollars go: Lobbying a big business for large food and beverage CPGs.  Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, AB InBev and 27 other companies spend close to $40 million a year on issues including trade and taxes in an effort to make their voices heard by lawmakers and regulators.

III.  American Enterprise Institute: Political Influence Efforts in the U.S. Through Campaign Contributions and Lobbying Expenditures: An Index Approach

IV.  American Enterprise Institute.   Farm-Sector Spending on Federal Campaign Contributions snd Lobbying Expenditures: Evidence from 2003 to 2020.

Here’s why the farm sector lobbies:

The system is rigged: no group advocating for small and medium farms, “horticulture vs. commodities, conservation, sustainability, or regenerative agriculture can possibly compete with Big Food or Big Ag.

Dec 14 2021

My latest paper: portion size

My former doctoral student and now colleague Lisa Young has been tracking the increase in portion sizes of junk foods for more than 20 years.  Our latest report has just come out in the American Journal of Public Health: Portion Sizes of Ultra-Processed Foods in the United States, 2002 to 2021.

At first introduction, most companies offered products in just 1 size; that size is smaller than or equal to the smallest size currently available. For example, the original size of a Coca-Cola bottle was 6.5 ounces; today it comes in 6 sizes marketed as single servings; these range from 7.5 ounces to 24 ounces, 4 of which have been introduced since 2002.
Since 2002, McDonald’s has reduced the sizes of its french fries and eliminated its “supersize” french fries and soda, but still offers quart-sized sodas and double burgers. While McDonald’s and Burger King decreased the size of their largest portion of french fries, they increased the sizes of their smallest portions. While Burger King reduced the sizes of it’s hamburger sandwiches, since 2002 they added a triple Whopper.
As we have pointed out previously, portion sizes increased in parallel with the rising prevalence of obesity.
Larger portions are a problem for three reasons.  They:
  • Have more calories (if only this were intuitively obvious, but it is not)
  • Encourage people to eat more
  • Confuse people about how much they are eating

Our recommendations:

We think it is time to also consider caps and other legislatively mandated national policy options to require the food industry to make smaller food portions more available, convenient, and inexpensive:

•  offer consumers price incentives for smaller portions of ultra-processed foods,
•  discontinue the largest sizes of ultra-processed packaged foods and fast-food portions, and
•  restrict marketing of large portions of ultra-processed foods, especially those targeted to children and minorities.

Our article is accompanied by an editorial by Carlos Monteiro and Geoffrey Cannon, the inventors of the term, “ultra-processed”: Yes, Food Portion Sizes and People Have Become Bigger and Bigger. What Is to Be Done? 

Their point: reducing portion sizes is unlikely to work internationally.

In such countries, reduced portion sizes of ultra-processed foods would at best have limited effect, and most likely would be counterproductive if they were marketed to promote their consumption. Generally, the most rational guideline, for global as well as personal health and well-being, is to protect and promote minimally processed foods and freshly prepared meals and to discourage the consumption of ultra-processed foods altogether, together with statutory measures including fiscal policies and actions. These measures should make fresh and minimally processed foods cheaper and more available. Ultra-processed foods should be made more expensive and less available, if at all, especially in canteens and hospitals, other health settings, and in and near schools. Cosmetic additives should be banned or highly taxed.

We have much work to do.