by Marion Nestle

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Aug 7 2007

If a Food Says McDonald’s, it Tastes Better?

Give kids identical foods, some in McDonald’s wrappers, some not, and ask the kids which ones they like best. Big surprise: they like the foods labeled McDonald’s much better, especially if they often eat at McDonald’s or watch a lot of television.   And these were little kids–aged 3 to 5.  That’s the gist of a new study from the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, a journal not on my usual reading list so I am indebted to the UC Berkeley Center for Family and Community Health for sending it to me. Actually, the effect of branding on kids’ taste preferences is so easy to demonstrate that even kids can prove it. In my book Food Politics, I quote a science fair project done by a couple of 13-year-olds in Portland, OR who did the same experiment with their classmates’ soda preferences. This is why companies are so eager to put their brand in every possible place where kids can see it. It makes kids want to eat brand-named foods (what I call “kids’ foods”) and not want to eat foods without brands. As for adults….?

Aug 2 2007

Alcohol and Energy Drinks: A Dangerous Mix?

My friend Michele Simon, author of Appetite for Profit, is now working for the Marin Institute, which describes itself as “alcohol industry watchdog.” She sends along a copy of the Institute’s new report on alcohol and energy drinks. In case you were wondering what’s in all those energy and sports drinks, why manufacturers want to add alcohol to them, and what their hazards are, especially to young adults, check this out. I think the drinks taste pretty bad on their own and the alcohol covers the taste, but this report lays out how the manufacturers deliberate target young adults for marketing campaigns that suggest mixing them with alcohol. The report covers the other ingredients in these drinks, things like guarana, ginseng, and–my favorite–taurine, an amino acid essential for cat reproduction.

Jul 31 2007

The Produce Industry Likes the Farm Bill?

According to industry sources, the produce industry is thrilled with the version of the farm bill just passed by the House. Well, it does contain some support funds for fruit and vegetable growers, calls for country-of-origin labeling, and has some other useful provisions. But subsidies for corn, soybeans, and other agribusiness commodities? No way.

Jul 24 2007

That Pesky Farm Bill

A reader just posted an interesting comment about marketing foods to children in school, but also has this to say about the farm bill: “…I’m concerned with the vast amount of money that is spent on promotion of corn and obesity with the corn subsidies in the Farm Bill…Dr. Nestle, what do you think can be done so that America has a Farm Bill more appropriate for public health before the current one is reissued for 2008-2012?
My response: Well, something certainly needs to be done about the Farm Bill, especially this year when it’s up for renewal. The Farm Bill (food bill, really) has everything to do with our food and agriculture system, good and bad. But the issues it concerns are mind-numbingly complex. Dan Imhoff’s book, Food Fight, is a good place to start figuring out what they mean, and he has a terrific short summary of his book at the Center for Ecoliteracy. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis is another great source of information–check out their reports, particularly the one called Food Without Thought about how current farm policies promote obesity. Now is the time to let congressional representatives know how you think about the issues. It could not be easier to find and contact them. Maybe they will listen if enough people let them know that farm policies should promote health–for people and the environment. Don’t you think it’s worth a try?

Jul 23 2007

Calories Defined

Today’s question is one I often get about my 15 seconds of fame in Morgan Spurlock’s film, SuperSize Me! (you can view the clip on my food politics website). A student in Great Britain writes: “…I would like to comment on your description of a calorie….You described it as “the amount of energy required to heat 1 litre of water by 1 degree Celsius.” Whereas I would argue that a calorie is the quantity of thermal energy required to raise 1g / 1cm3 by 1 degree Celsius, from an initial temperature of 15 degrees Celsius or 252 Kelvin. May I suggest that what you meant was a kilocalorie, and although this may seem pedantic, this is a gross difference and an inaccurate education for those watching. Especially after the number of people that were demonstrated to have no real understanding of the calorie…this was disappointing.”

My comment: Oh dear. It’s great that students are learning their basic chemistry but what I defined in SuperSize Me! was a Calorie (spelled with a capital C)–the kind used on food labels. This, of course, is really a kilocalorie. The calorie/Calorie/kilocalorie confusion is why I devote an entire chapter of What to Eat to explaining what calories are and why they matter.

Jul 20 2007

More Funding for FDA?

The Senate Agricultural Appropriations Committee has just announced that it will give the FDA an extra $48 million to fund food safety oversight. In federal terms, this is chump change but at least it’s an admission that the FDA is not adequately funded to meet its regulatory obligations. Why so little? Note that the money comes from agricultural appropriations, not health appropriations. This is the result of an historical anomaly; the FDA used to be part of the Department of Agriculture. When it was split off and eventually joined to the Department of Health and Human Services, its appropriations stayed with Agriculture. This, of course, is precisely the wrong place for it and helps explain why the FDA is so badly underfunded for what it has to do to protect the public from unsafe food. This is also part of the reason why the Government Accountability Office has been calling for creating a separately funded food safety agency that would take politics out of the food aspects of public health. If you think the present situation makes no sense, this is a good time to contact your congressional representatives.

Jul 19 2007

Do Fruits and Vegetables Prevent Cancer Recurrence?

Oh that nutrition and health were that simple. The The WHEL trial results appeared yesterday in JAMA. The sadly disappointing results of that trial showed no difference in rates of breast cancer recurrence among women who typically ate 5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day as compared to those who ate nearly twice that amount. I served on the data management committee for this trial and was involved with it for more than 10 years–a fascinating experience and a long saga.  I thought the trial was exceptionally well done. The investigators monitored fruit and vegetable intake by measuring the amounts of carotenes and other nutrients in the blood of the participants. Although there was some convergence of dietary patterns over the 8 years of study, the patterns were distinct enough to show benefits from eating more fruits and vegetables if that had been the case. An accompanying editorial explains why sorting out diet and cancer risk is so complicated. In the meantime, what to do? We know that people who habitually eat fruits and vegetables are healthier than those who don’t. The old “five-a-day” is a reasonable goal and it’s too bad that the promoters of that message messed it up by turning it into “fruits & vegetables: more matters.” As with most things in nutrition, enough is enough and more is not necessarily better.

Jul 18 2007

Food Companies Promise to Stop Marketing Junk Foods to Kids

A bunch of food companies promised today to stop marketing the worst of their junk foods directly to kids. I wish I could be more optimistic about what seem like amazingly generous pledges by these 11 companies. Will they really stop marketing junk food directly to young children? Remember: these are the very same companies that formed an alliance just a couple of years ago to protect their First Amendment rights to market junk foods to kids. So the companies are not making these promises as acts of altruism. They are forced to do this by public concerns about their role in promoting childhood obesity (for which there is much evidence and by fear of regulation if they don’t. Unfortunately, the history of what companies promise and what they actually do about marketing to kids is not reassuring. Kraft and McDonald’s, for example, have made similar promises in the past. Yes, they fulfilled some of the promises, but mostly they appear to be conducting business very much as usual. Food companies, of course, are caught in an impossible dilemma: even if they want to do the right thing, they can’t if it means losing sales. Maybe—just maybe—the companies will behave better because so many are joined in the effort. But who will hold them accountable? I say, let’s give them six months and see if they do what they say.

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