Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Mar 10 2023

Weekend reading: stopping the rising prevalence of overweight and obesity

The World Obesity Atlas 2023, published by World Obesity Federation, predicts that unless preventive interventions succeed, by 2035:

  • The global economic impact of overweight and obesity will reach $4.32 trillion annually and constitute nearly 3% of global GDP.
  • The majority—51% or more than 4 billion people—will be living with overweight or obesity.
  • One in four people—nearly 2 billion—will have obesity.
  • The economic impact of overweight and obesity is estimated to be over $370 billion a year in low and lower-middle income countries alone.
  • Childhood obesity could more than double.

Here’s the prediction for the U.S.

In the report, the World Obesity Federation:

  • Notes that member states of WHO committed to halt the increase in obesity rates at 2010 levels by 2025. No country is on track to meet these targets.
  • Calls on governments to develop national action plans.
  • Calls on governments to improve health care.
  • Calls for building on the ROOTS framework for tackling obesity: Recognising the root causes, monitoring Obesity data, investing in Obesity prevention, ensuring access to Treatments, and adopting a Systems-based approach.

The documents:


This is a global problem requiring global solutions., and actions by every government, including ours.   We need a national obesity prevention plan focused on strategies like to work (reduction of food insecurity, improved health care, better education, restrictions on marketing junk food, etc).

Otherwise,  we are all headed to Wall-E, which will turn out to be prescient, rather than dystopian.


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Mar 9 2023

The School Nutrition Association vs. USDA’s nutrition standards

Try as hard as I can, I will never understand why everyone—rich or poor, democrat or republican—isn’t doing everything possibly to make sure that all kids in schools are offered healthy breakfasts and lunches, every day, at no cost.

Children are the future of our country.  We need them to be healthy.

That is why I will never understand how anyone could oppose universal school meals and the strongest nutrition standards possible, let alone the people who produce those meals as represented by the School Nutrition Association (SNA).

OK, the SNA strongly encourages partnerships with food and beverage companies.  The SNA does not list its donors on iany obvious place on its website, but does list the ones that contribute to its annual meeting.   A few years ago, reporters said food companies accounted for half the organization’s revenues.

Perhaps that accounts for the SNA’s long-standing opposition to improving nutrition standards for school meals and the USDA’s latest efforts to do so.

The SNA’s 2023 position paper calls for some useful things: higher reimbursement rates for school meals, universal school meals, reductions in administrative burdens.

But, it also wants: the USDA to drop its new “additional, unachievable rules.”

In February, USDA proposed stricter, long-term nutrition rules. However, 88.8% of school nutrition directors reported challenges
obtaining sufficient menu items (e.g. whole-grain, low-sodium, low-fat options) to meet current standards. Additionally, 97.8% are concerned about the availability of foods to meet the July 2023 transitional sodium limits. To keep students eating healthy school meals, USDA must support school nutrition professionals as they work to maintain current standards.

Briget Huber, writing for FERN, quotes the SNA’s director of media relations.

Additional rules are just not feasible for schools right now…Interim rules cutting sodium more modestly than in the USDA’s new proposal take effect in July, and in a recent survey, SNA members “overwhelmingly” said they were not prepared to meet even those standards…They are very concerned about the availability of foods that meet the targets and are acceptable to students… schools are struggling to staff their kitchens,…They have to compete with local fast-food restaurants and food service establishments that, quite frankly, have a better budget for increasing salaries.

In my experience, schools where personnel believe that healthy meals are important somehow manage to achieve the standards and get the kids to eat the foods.  I think the SNA should be supporting them, not undermining them.

As for evidence contrary to the SNA’s position:

  • Center for Science in the Public Interest keeps a scorecard on school meals.  Its data show much compliance with standards.
  • Tufts University researchers  find that school meals are healthier than those eaten at home or anywhere else.
  • The USDA’s School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study finds most school able to meet the standards and that meals are getting more nutritious.
  • Researchers have shown: following passage of the law that improved USDA’s school nutrition standards, its “implementation was associated with a significant decrease in [Body Mass Index] among school-aged youths in the US. The findings suggest that school meal programs represent a key opportunity for interventions to combat the childhood obesity epidemic given the high rates of program participation and the proportion of total calories consumed through school-based meals.

Yes there are financial and logistical difficulties.  And yes, kids in school won’t be eating food that is as junky.  That’s the point!

The SNA should be leading the country on encouraging schools to serve the healthiest meals possible.  That it is not doing so is a disgrace.

Here are the USDA’s infographics (other resources are also available at the USDA’s site):


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Mar 8 2023

Bill Marler’s new campaign: Get the F out of the FDA

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler is calling for a new food agency on the grounds that the “FDA food reorganization plan is a “dismal failure.”

His campaign includes online advertisements, social media promotion, and survivors of foodborne illness coming to Washington DC to visit Congressional leaders and hand out “GET THE F OUT OF THE FDA” t-shirts. (Marler also will give free t-shirts to the first 100 people to request one at—I’ve already asked for one)

Marler represents victims of food poisonings and thinks the FDA is not nearly as concerned about food safety as it needs to be because its primary focus is on drugs.

He’s also planning to run ads: “Food safety is suffering at FDA because the people at the top are doing drugs.”

He does have a sense of humor.  Marler is dead serious about cleaning up our ongoing, endless food safety problems.

Will this help?  Let’s hope.


A separate food agency might be able to address what Bill Frist, Dan Glickman, and Jerold Mande are calling for: preventing unsafe food in all its manifestations, not only acute microbial, but also hyper-caloric.


Mar 7 2023

The food industry vs. public health: the FDA’s “Healthy” label proposal

 A few months ago, I wrote about the FDA’s proposal for allowing the use of the word “Healthy” on food labels.  I said:

If we must have health claims on food packages, the FDA’s proposals are pretty good. They require any product labeled “healthy” to contain some real food (as opposed to a collection of chemical ingredients or, as author Michael Pollan calls them, “food-like objects”), and for the first time they include limits on sugars…These proposed rules would exclude almost all cereals marketed to children.

Now, the Consumer Brands Association (formerly Grocery Manufacturers Association), which represents Big Food, and which objects to the FDA’s proposal, has proposed an alternative framework.

The CBA is clear about its objectives.  It worries that

consumers could second guess or even reject items that might no longer be qualified to bear the “healthy” claim that can bear the claim today…As it stands, the proposed rule would eliminate an inordinate number of packaged products from being considered “healthy.”

That, of course, is its point.

The CBA issued what I read as a clear threat:

FDA’s proposed changes to its “healthy” definition will contradict the current Dietary Guidelines, causing confusion among consumers and potentially inviting legal challenges for the agency.

In other words, if the FDA does not back down on this, CBA intends to go to court over it.

This was also clear from the CBAs 54-page set of comments to the FDA.  As quoted in the Washington Post, the CBA said:

We are particularly concerned by the overly stringent proposed added sugars thresholds. We appreciate FDA’s interest in assessing added sugars intake. We believe, however, that FDA’s restrictive approach to added sugars content in foods described as healthy is unwarranted and outside FDA’s authority given the lack of scientific consensus on the relationship between sugar intake and diet-related disease.

Ted Kyle, who writes the excellent newsletter, ConscienHealth, also quoted the CBA:

Manufacturers have the right to label foods that are objectively ‘healthy’ as such, based on a definition of ‘healthy’ that is truthful, factual, and non-controversial. We are concerned that limiting the truthful and non-misleading use of the word ‘healthy’ in product labeling could harm both the consumer and the manufacturer.

As Kyle put it, “If you did not catch it, this is a freedom of commercial speech argument. Any guesses how the current Supreme Court might rule on that one? Yep, corporations are people too.”

As I am ever saying, food companies are not social service or public health agencies.  They are businesses whose first priority is returns of profits to shareholders, regardless of how their products affect health (or the environment, for that matter).

The pushback on the FDA’s seemingly trivial “Healthy” idea, is enought to make me think it might actually have some impact.


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Mar 6 2023

Annals of marketing: eat cereal at bedtime!

Really, I can’t make this stuff up.

Thanks to Jim Krieger of for sending me to Food Navigator-USA: Post launches the first-ever cereal designed to promote sleep.

A cereal meant to be consumed at bedtime?  I wanted it for my cereal box collection, and there hasn’t been a good one like this for a long time since the FDA started discouraging ridiculous health claims.  I went straight to the Ithaca Walmart and scored a box.

Sweet Dreams, the box tells you, is “part of a healthy sleep routine.”

The front-of-package claims:

  • Made with whole grains
  • Supports natural melatonin production with zinc, folic acid, and B vitamins
  • Excellent source of Vitamin E for neuroprotection

The back-of-package claims:

  • Sleep…We want to help you enjoy it.  With delicious wholesome ingredients, curated vitamins and minerals, and a specially formulated night-time herbal blend, our dreamy cereal is part of a healthy sleep routine.
  • Made with a night-time herbal blend containing a touch of lavender and chamomile

I looked up the website:

For 130 million American adults, a good night’s sleep is elusive. You deserve good sleep, and we want to help you enjoy it! So, we made Sweet Dreams cereal, the first ready-to-eat cereal specially designed to support a good sleep routine and a fresh start to the next day…Available in Blueberry Midnight and Honey Moonglow flavors, make Sweet Dreams cereal a part of your bedtime routine and enable a better sleep cycle while satisfying those nighttime food cravings.


I hardly know where to begin: “curated vitamins and minerals”?  “Supports natural melatonin production”?

This last is a structure/function claim like those for supplements.  It requires only the barest hint of scientific substantiation.

Reader, I ate it.

The cereal is crunchy, with occasionally visible almonds, but is cloyingly sweet (to my taste): A cup of cereal has nearly a tablespoon (13 grams) of added sugar– 24% of a day’s total sugar allowance.

No wonder it’s so sweet.  Sugars appear seven times on the ingredient list.

Whole Grain Wheat, Rice, Cane Sugar, Almonds, Whole Grain Rolled Oats, Canola and/or Soybean Oil, Flavor Clusters (Sugar, Corn Syrup, Degermed Corn, Palm Oil, Natural Flavor, Cocoa (processed with alkali)(for color), Blueberry and Carrot Concentrates (for color)), Salt, Honey, Corn Syrup, Barley Malt Extract, Molasses, Tocopherols (Vitamin E) to maintain freshness, Natural Flavor.

Post must be trying to sell more cereal.  Eat cereal at night?  Well, if you have sleep problems I suppose you can give it a try.

I ate this cereal in the morning.  It did not make me feel sleepy.


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Mar 3 2023

Weekend reading: for kids!

Shannon Saia sent me copies of three books in the series, Gertie in the Garden, aimed at kids ages 6-9.  Here’s one:

The other two are Going Offbeet and Making Peas (puns intentional).

She asked if I would blurb the series.  Once I read them, I was happy to:

The Gertie in the Garden series is so engaging that kids will catch on right away to why growing vegetables and even playing with them will encourage kids to view healthy foods as helping them negotiate their way in the world.  Kids will love these books (and parents will too).

I have to admit to not liking most books aimed at getting kids to like vegetables.  But I liked these a lot.  For one thing, they are focused on Gertie’s struggles to figure out how to get along with others (not easy, in her case), and her social awkwardness feels real—and fixable.

For another, learning how to garden with her grandmother is a relief from those struggles and integrated into her life in a way that again seems authentic.

I think it would be fun to read these to young kids not yet ready to read them on their own.  And the stories raise plenty of issues to talk about as well as offering practical advice about how to grow these vegetables.

Shannon tells me these are available in the usual way through bookstores and online.

Mar 2 2023

Keeping up with cell-based cultured meat

I don’t know about you but I’m riveted by what’s in the pipeline for cell cultured meat alternatives.   Here are some recent items I’ve been collecting.

Products under development

State of the industry

State of the techno-food scene


Cell-based meat, meat-plus-algae, and pet food are not yet on the US market so it’s too early to see what they taste like and how well they will do.  I see these products as mostly about mergers, acquisitions, and generating lots of money for investors, which is why I included the Soylent event (Soylent is a nutrient supplement drink, but I put it in the same category of “techno-food”).

Mar 1 2023

Weekend reading: Biden Administration accomplishments

I got sent a mailing from USDA: “FACT SHEET: Biden-Harris Administration Delivers on its Promises to Invest in Rural Communities, Nutrition Security, Climate-Smart Agriculture, More and Better Markets and Lower Costs for Families.”

This is a summary of an extraordinarily long list of actions taken by the administration, many of them having to do with food production and consumption.

Food System Transformation: USDA is transforming the food system and improving the resilience and security of the food supply chain through more than 60 programs so that today’s markets work better for family farmers and the families they support. This multi-billion dollar effort …touches all parts of the food supply chain – from food production, food processing, food aggregation and distribution, to consumers.

A great many other sections also deal with food issues.  Here are a few examples of the range.

Food System Transformation: USDA is transforming the food system and improving the resilience and security of the food supply chain through more than 60 programs so that today’s markets work better for family farmers and the families they support. This multi-billion dollar effort is funded largely by ARP with some additional investments from the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 (CAA), the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, and the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC). It touches all parts of the food supply chain – from food production, food processing, food aggregation and distribution, to consumers. Select programs include:

  • The Farm and Food Workers Relief Grant Program will make beneficiary payments to reach at least 1 million farmworkers, meatpacking workers, and front-line grocery workers who incurred pandemic-related health and safety costs.
  • Organic Transition Initiative: USDA launched a $300 million Organic Transition Initiative including establishing the Transition to Organic Partnership Program (TOPP) in six regions across the U.S. as part of USDA’s Organic Transition Initiative to help transitioning and recently transitioned producers who face technical, cultural, and market shifts during the transition period and the first few years of organic certification.
  • new online tool called allows farmers and ranchers to report potentially unfair and anticompetitive practices in the livestock and poultry sectors.
  • Assistance for Distressed Producers: USDA provided nearly $800 million in financial assistance to more than 13,000 distressed farmers and plans to provide assistance to thousands more in 2023. This work accompanies an ongoing effort to transform USDA’s farm lending programs with a focus on proactive loan service and support to keep farmers farming, rather than requiring farmers to become distressed before assistance is provided.
  • In August, USDA announced up to $550 million in funding to support projects that enable underserved producers to access land, capital, and markets, and train the next, diverse generation of agricultural professionals.
  • More than 41 million Americans participated in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and 2022 marked the first full calendar year that participants received a 21% average increase in monthly SNAP benefits due to USDA’s reevaluation of the Thrifty Food Plan – the first permanent increase to the purchasing power of SNAP benefits since the Thrifty Food Plan was introduced 45 years ago.
  • USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) launched a new initiative to reduce Salmonella illness linked to poultry through a strong, comprehensive framework to address Salmonella in poultry that is responsive to evolving food safety hazards and embraces the latest science and technology.
  • USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service is advancing tribal self-determination and awarded $5.7 million to eight tribes for demonstration projects that gave them more options to directly select and purchase foods for their Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR). This is an important step to increasing tribal food sovereignty in the program and support tribal economies, vendors, and producers.

As seems always the case with USDA, there are so many small programs (“trees”) under discussion that the big picture (“forest”) gets lost.

The forest is the need to support food system transformation to focus agricultural policy on the health of humans and the planet.  Will trees get us there one by one?

Only if there are enough of them.


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