Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Feb 20 2024

Harmful chemicals in food: recent studies are not reassuring

I don’t say much about potentially harmful agricultural or other industrial chemicals in food for several reasons:

BUT (in capital letters because it is a bit one):

Studies of three chemicals illustrate these problems.


What it is: A herbicide used to kill broadleaf weeds that grow in fields of corn, wheat, and dicamba-tolerant soybeans.

Why it’s a worry: It can cause immediate toxic effects and might be carcinogenic.  It is highly volatile and can damage non-target plants through drifting, causing constant complaints from neighboring farmers.  The courts have overturned the EPA’s approval of dicamba use.  Even though the EPA admits dicamba has adverse effects on handlers as well as “birds, mammals, bees (larvae), aquatic plants and non-target terrestrial plants,” it is allowing existing stocks of dicamba to continue to be used.

The recent study: The headline: Alarming levels of weed killer found in study of pregnant women.  The study examined changes in the the number of pregnant women with dicamba in their urine and the amounts excreted from 2020-2012 to 2020-2022.  It found increases in both measures.

Conclusion: “Reliance on herbicides has drastically increased in the last ten years in the United States, and the results obtained in this study highlight the need to track exposure and impacts on adverse maternal and neonatal outcomes.”


What these are: Chemicals used to soften polyvinylchloride plastics.

The concern: Phthalates leach into food from plastic packaging materials.  They disrupt endocrine function.

The recent study:  Exposure to phthalates is associated with adverse birth outcomes such as decreased gestational age and increased risk of preterm birth.

Conclusion: “The $1·63–8·14 billion costs of preterm birth described here …add to the disease burden and costs of plastic in the USA, which were recently estimated to be $250 billion annually….Our findings also support individual behavioural interventions to reduce exposure. These include choosing personal care products labelled to be free of phthalates, and replacement of packaged foods with fresh foods.


What this is: a plant growth regulator used on wheat, oats, and barley to decrease stem height, making the plants easier to harvest.

Why it’s a worry: Chlormequat has been linked to reduced fertility, altered fetal growth, and delayed puberty in animals.

The recent study: The headline: 80% of Americans test positive for chemical found in Cheerios, Quaker Oats that may cause infertility, delayed puberty.   The study found increasing amounts of this chemical in food and urine samples.

Conclusion: “These findings and chlormequat toxicity data raise concerns about current exposure levels, and warrant more expansive toxicity testing, food monitoring, and epidemiological studies.”

Comment: These are only three of all the chemicals out there that get into our food and appear in our bodies.  Yes, more research is needed to find out just how harmful they are.  But I see no evidence that they are good for us.  I think we need:

  • Much greater urgency and attention from FDA and EPA on getting these chemicals out of the food supply
  • More information about how to avoid the chemicals, especially in pregnant women and young children
  • Coalition advocacy for more stringent regulation (the Environmental Working Group is doing a great job but cannot do this alone)
Feb 19 2024

Industry-sponsored study of the week: a menstruation supplement

The study:  Lactobacillus paragasseri OLL2809 Improves Premenstrual Psychological Symptoms in Healthy Women: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study. Nutrients. 2023; 15(23):4985.

Methods: “This study employed a randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind, parallel-group design to assess the efficacy of continuous ingestion of OLL2809 [the supplement] for managing menstrual symptoms in healthy women.”

Conclusion: “This study suggests that the consumption of OLL2809 over three menstrual cycles in healthy women can alleviate premenstrual ‘decline in activity’ and ‘irritability’, thereby indicating the potential of OLL2809 to enhance women’s QOL [Quality of Life].

Conflicts of Interest:  All authors are employees of Meiji Co., Ltd. The company funded this research. All authors are the inventors of pending patent (Japanese Patent Application No. 2023-182470).

Comment: The supplement is a bacterial probiotic.  The authors are employed by its maker and hold a patent for it, which they fully disclose.  Just as a reminder, industry-funded studies tend to come out with results favoring the sponsor’s interest, as is certainly the case here.

I need to say something about the journal, Nutrients, since many of the studies I post on industry-funded Mondays appear in that journal.  It charges authors €2900 (about $3300) to publish their articles.  It’s an open-access journal, so all authors have to pay to publish their articles.  More rigorous journals do not usually require page charges from authors unless they want open access.  Nutrients gives me the impression of pay to play.

Feb 16 2024

Weekend reading: food animal markets and disease transmission

I thought this 2023 report was well worth a look.


Microbial diseases of animals can be transmitted to humans, and vice versa (witness COVID-19 in mink and zoo animals).  Some of these have led to serious epidemics.  Lots of people are worried that Confined Animal Feeding Operations could easily become the source of new and deadly forms of influenza.

But what interested me in this report is that industrial farm animal production is one of a great many sources of potential infectious disease transmission.

A few of the many examples, some well known to have caused Salmonella infections:

  • Pets
  • Hunted animals
  • Production of bat guano and coyote urine (who knew?)
  • Backyard chickens
  • Crocodile farming
  • Petting zoos
  • Research animals

The report is cautious on the topic of the origin of COVID-19:

At the time of this writing, scientists continue to debate the precise origins of the virus but there is no question as to the impact it has had. Indeed, few aspects of daily life in the United States remain untouched.

The implication is clear.  We need much better monitoring of animal markets for pathogens.

The United States has no comprehensive strategy in place to address the threat of zoonotic disease. There are serious regulatory deficiencies across almost every animal industry. Large information gaps exist, and disease can seep between these cracks.

Lots to learn here and think about here.

Feb 15 2024

Does cell-cultured meat have a future? This is not the moment.

I subscribe to AgFunder News, not least because I so admire Elaine Watson’s reporting on the food industry.

I was particularly interested in her detailed account of investment in cultured meat and seafood startups: ​Preliminary AgFunder data point to 78% decline in cultivated meat funding in 2023; investors blame ‘general risk aversion.’

Here’s what’s happening:

Funding may have dropped, but investors put nearly $200 million into this technology in 2023.  That isn’t nothing.

Watson reviews the reasons for the funding decline:

  • High interest rates
  • Risk aversion
  • Too many companies seeking investment
  • Scalability of the product
  • Cost parity
  • Lack of government funding

Cultivated meat is not yet on the market.  It’s hard to assess it or predict its future without tasting it.  I’m trying to keep an open mind.

For a deep dive into what’s happening in this industry, see Joe Fassler’s excellent piece in the New York Times: Opinion | The Revolution That Died on Its Way to Dinner.

His point:  Cell-cultured meat is “an escape hatch for humankind’s excesses.”

For all its terrifying urgency, climate change is an invitation — to reinvent our economies, to rethink consumption, to redraw our relationships to nature and to one another. Cultivated meat was an excuse to shirk that hard, necessary work. The idea sounded futuristic, but its appeal was all about nostalgia, a way to pretend that things will go on as they always have, that nothing really needs to change. It was magical climate thinking, a delicious delusion.

In the course of his investigations, Fassler got to taste cell-cultured chicken.  This did not make him optimistic about its future.

As I said, I’m trying to stay open minded.  I suspect this story is not over yet.  Stay tuned.

Feb 14 2024

The World Health Organization: Health Taxes (e.g., on Sugar-Sweetened Beverages)

The UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) has long led efforts to tax unhealthy products, starting with tobacco.

WHO describes its health tax efforts here.

It recently issued Global report on the use of sugar-sweetened beverage taxes, 2023.

The report finds that 108 countries have some kind of tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

But, it finds

Less than a quarter of countries surveyed account for sugar content when they impose taxes on these non-alcoholic beverage products. Countries with a sufficiently strong tax administrative capacity are encouraged to tax beverages based on sugar content, as it can encourage consumers to substitute with alternatives that have lower sugar content as well as incentivize the industry to reformulate beverages to contain less sugar.

One of its major overall findings:

Among its conclusions are these:

  • Existing taxes on SSBs could be further leveraged to decrease affordability and thereby reduce consumption. While other perspectives and competing factors have to be accounted for when designing taxation policies, the protection of health should be a key consideration, particularly considering the health and economic burden associated with obesity and diet-related NCDs.
  • This report concludes that excise taxes on SSBs are not currently being used to their fullest potential. Improving tax policy and increasing taxes so that SSBs become less affordable should be pursued more systematically by countries in order to effectively reduce consumption and prevent and control diet-related NCDs, including obesity and dental caries.

Here’s the evidence.  Get to work!


Feb 13 2024

USDA updates its plant hardiness zones

I’m on the USDA’s mailing list for press releases and learned that it had updated its map of plant hardiness zones based on the lowest minimum temperature expected over a 30-year average period.

USDA’s announcement of its new hardiness map said “When compared to the 2012 map, the 2023 version reveals that about half of the country shifted to the next warmer half zone, and the other half of the country remained in the same half zone.”

The new map is interactive.  You can click on it to see your zone.  My Manhattan zone is 7b.

It was 6b when I moved here in 1988, meaning that the lowest expected winter temperature was minus 5 to zero degrees F.  The zone is now 5 degrees higher.

My apartment has a terrace on which I grow food and other plants in pots.

I love the rosemary hedges in California and I tried growing rosemary on my terrance.  Until a few years ago, it behaved as an annual and did not survive the winter.

Now it does.

The USDA’s announcement did not mention climate change.

This induced Civil Eats to headline its excellent report on the zoning changes The USDA Updated Its Gardening Map, But Downplays Connection to Climate Change.

It’s not that the USDA doesn’t recognize the role of climate change.  It’s just that its various sub-agencies don’t talk to each other.

I did a little digging and came up with an archived site, Climate Change Pressures in the 21st Century.

This took me to a July 26, 2022 report.

This, in turn, took me to the USDA’s informative 2018 analysis, Assessing potential climate change pressures across the conterminous United States: mapping plant hardiness zones, heat zones, growing degree days, and cumulative drought severity throughout this century.  

In the era of persistent climate change, it is important that we consider how continued perturbations to our climate system may intensify through the end of the century (U.S. Global Change Research Program [USGCRP] 2017). Further, it is important to evaluate these potential changes under alternative scenarios to gauge the potential magnitude of these changes. By focusing on four key metrics related to plant growth and survival, but also of key interest to human well-being, we map and summarize projections of growing degree days, plant hardiness zones, heat zones, and cumulative drought severity across the conterminous United States throughout this century

This report lays out what’s happening now along with predictions for each of those metrics.

For plant hardiness zones, Baseline refers to mean absolute minimum temperature for the 30-year period, 1980-2009.  Early century is 2010-2039.

Here are USDA’s scientists’ low and high estimates—predictions—for mid-century (2040-2069) and late century (2070-2099).

Climate change is occurring much more rapidly than had been predicted.  Look at what’s happening in Alaska, Greenland and Antarctica, for example.

It feels as though New York’s climate is approaching that of what used to be typical for Northern California.

My parsley is already behaving as a perennial and rosemary seems to be doing just fine.

I’m expecting an early spring.

Feb 12 2024

Industry-funded study of the week: Et tu saffron?

I learned about this one from NutraIngredients-Europe:

The ‘promising’ role of saffron in stress resilience:  New research conducted in partnership with botanical product manufacturer Pharmactive reveals that its standardized saffron extract Affron was able to normalise HPA [hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal] axis dysregulation following chronic mild stress stimulation in a rat model…. Read more

I thought this was worth a closer look and went right to the paper.

Effects of Saffron Extract (Affron®) with 100 mg/kg and 200 mg/kg on Hypothalamic–Pituitary–Adrenal Axis and Stress Resilience in Chronic Mild Stress-Induced Depression in Wistar Rats. Nutrients 202315(23), 4855;

Conclusion: These findings elucidate AFN’s [Affron®] role in stress mitigation, affirm its health benefits, validate its potential as a treatment for stress-related symptoms, confirm its physiological effectiveness, and emphasize its therapeutic promise.

Guess who generated and conducted this study.

Conflict of interest statement: For commercial affiliations, J.K. and S.Y. were employed by the company iCONNECTOME Co., Ltd., which had the roles of curation, formal analysis, and visualization in this study; S.-S.Y. was employed by the company iCONNECTOME Co.,Ltd., which had the roles of conceptualization, funding acquisition, investigation, supervision, review and editing in this study; M.-Y.K. and J.S. were employed by the company Hyundai Bioland Co.,Ltd., which had the roles of methodology and/or writing original draft in this study; M.I.M.-V. was employed by the company Pharmactive Biotech S.L.U., which had the role of investigation in this study. The remaining authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

In case you wondered, Pharmactive Biotech makes Affron.  The other enterprises do the studies.

Who paid for this?

Funding: This research was funded by Hyundai Bioland Co., Ltd., grant number IC22_02, and Soonchunhyang University Research Fund. Hyundai Bioland Co., Ltd. had the following involvement with the study: participating in the research Investigation, and paid all costs for editing and publishing the Paper. The funder was not involved in the study design, collection, analysis, interpretation of data, the writing of this article or the decision to submit it for publication.

Comment: Huh?  I often suspect that the statement “the funder was not involved….” may not accurately represent the funder’s involvement (to put the matter politely).  In this case,  the role of Hyundai Bioland is self-contradictory.  Its employee-authors say they determined the study’s methods and/or wrote the paper, and the funder says it participated in the research but had no involvement in the study design, etc.  This is confusing, if not contradictory.

I do have to say something about marketing saffron as a superfood.  Saffron consists of the stigmas of crocus flowers, and these are hugely expensive.  Walmart is selling 2 grams for $42.

The Wikipedia entry iexplains why.

The high retail value of saffron is maintained on world markets because of labour-intensive harvesting methods, which require some 440,000 hand-picked saffron stigmas per kilogram…150,000 crocus flowers per kilogram…Forty hours of labour are needed to pick 150,000 flowers…One freshly picked crocus flower yields on average 30 mg of fresh saffron or 7 mg dried; roughly 150 flowers yield 1 g (132 oz) of dry saffron threads.

Once again, we have here an industry-funded marketing study pretending to be science.  But really, saffron?   OK, an extract that maybe can be synthesized, but still.  There have to be easier and less expensive ways to reduce stress and depression in rats.

Oh.  And in case you were wondering how scientists determine whether rats are depressed?

Our previous animal behavioral assays assessing anxiety and depression, including the elevated plus maze, forced swim, and sucrose preference tests, have revealed that AFN-treated animals (200 mg/kg) exhibit behaviors indicative of anhedonia and depression mitigation [27]. For example, increased consumption of sugar solutions and improved specific escape responses have been observed in forced swim tests.

Ref 27 is: Orio, L.; Alen, F.; Ballesta, A.; Martin, R.; Gomez de Heras, R. Antianhedonic and Antidepressant Effects of Affron®, a Standardized Saffron (Crocus sativus L.) Extract. Molecules 202025, 3207. [Google Scholar]

Feb 10 2024

Sunday viewing: Super Bowl food ads

Question of the day: What does a 30-second Super Bowl ad cost?

Answer: roughly $7 million (I’m not kidding—for 30 seconds).

Here is Statistica’s “Average cost of a 30-second Super Bowl TV commercial in the United States from 2002 to 2023.”

I have to confess to not being much of a football fan but I am riveted by the junk food content—and astronomical cost—of Super Bowl ads.

I first learned about this year’s collection from FoodNavigator—USA.

Super Bowl LVIII: The products, ads expected to make big plays during game dayWith the Super Bowl two weeks away, consumers are preparing their grocery lists and budgets for the big game day, as CPG brands ready their ads and promotions with the anticipation of receiving a volume boost the week after the game…. Read more

Here’s its prediction:

When it comes to what consumers will bring to Super Bowl parties, 72% said they will buy chips and dips, 44% pizza, 42% homemade appetizers, 35% side, and 33% pre-made appetizers.

Lesser purchased food items include fruit at 32%, cheese/charcuterie at 27%, and homemade desserts at 27%. Only 6% of consumers said they would bring nothing to a party.

Additionally, 47% of consumers said they are planning on purchasing alcoholic beverages, compared to 27% who said the same for non-alcoholic beverages.

However, 34% of shoppers under the age of 35, a demographic increasingly embracing a sober or sober-curious lifestyle, will be buying alcohol, compared to 72% of the consumers aged 55-64.

OK.  The Super Bowl is an occasion for junk food and alcohol.  Would you believe 1.45 billion chicken wings expected to be consumed during the game?

Brand Innovator lists the advertisers.  Here are some of the food and alcohol advertisers:

  • Budweiser, Bud Light, and Michelob ULTRA
  • Hellman’s Mayonnaise
  • Pringles
  • Doritos
  • Reese’s
  • Frito-Lay
  • Nerds
  • M&Ms
  • Coors Light
  • Popeyes
  • Drumstick
  • DraftKinds
  • Starry
  • Mountain Dew Baja Blast
  • Oreo
  • Molson Coors

Here are some summaries:

Enjoy the game, but watch those calories!

Addition: a reader sent this SuperBowl infographic with much more on its being the #2 eating occasion (after Thanksgiving).