Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jun 4 2019

Industry-supported review of the week: critique of ultra-processed

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, research is pouring in (see below) about the benefits of avoiding consumption of ultra-processed foods, those that are more than minimally processed and contain added sources of calories, salt, and color, flavor, and texture additives.

Since ultra-processed foods are among the most profitable, the makers of such foods wish this term would disappear.  Hence, this paper.

Julie Miller Jones.  Food processing: criteria for dietary guidance and public health? Proceedings of the Nutrition Society (2019), 78,4 –18

Conclusions: “No studies or β-testing show that consumers can operationalise NOVA’s [the non-acronym name given to this food classification system] definitions and categories to choose nutrient-rich foods, to eschew foods of low nutritional quality and improve diets and health outcomes. Further, there are significant concerns about NOVA’s actionability and practicality for various lifestyles, skillsets and resource availability.

Financial Support: The staff from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, ASN [American Society for Nutrition], IFT [Institute of Food Technologists] and IFIC [International Food Information Council] assisted with the planning and facilitation of the conference calls and with the review and editing of the manuscript. No specific grant from any funding agency, commercial or not-for-profit sectors was received for the development of this manuscript.

Conflicts of Interest: Julie Miller Jones is a scientific advisor to the Grains Food Foundation, The Healthy Grains Institute (Canada), Quaker Oats Advisory Board, and the Campbell Soup Company Plant and Health Advisory Board. She has written papers of given speeches for Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maíz y Trigo CIMMYT (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, Mexico), Cranberry Institute, and Tate and Lyle.

Comment: What most disturbs me about this review is its sponsorship by two major U.S. nutrition societies, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and ASN, whose first goal ought to be promoting public health.  Instead, they speak here for the food industry [I devote chapters to both organizations in Unsavory Truth].

The other two groups would be expected to support food-industry marketing objectives.  The IFT is the trade association for food scientists; it works for the food industry.  The IFIC Foundation positions itself as “dedicated to the mission of effectively communicating science-based information on health, nutrition and food safety for the public good” but is sponsored by food companies; this makes it a front group for the food industry.

Two more papers finding benefits for the ultra-processed concept just appeared in the BMJ.  These are discussed and cited here.

Jun 3 2019

Industry-funded study of the week: blueberries again

I love blueberries and grow two different kinds on my 12th-floor Manhattan terrace, both delicious if I can get to them before the voracious birds do.

I wish the blueberry industry could just accept delicious and leave it at that, but no such luck.  It is desperate to get research it can use to promote blueberries as a superfruit (I wrote about the history of blueberry-funded research in Unsavory Truth).

Here’s the latest.

The study: Blueberries improve biomarkers of cardiometabolic function in participants with metabolic syndrome—results from a 6-month, double-blind, randomized controlled trial.  Peter J Curtis, et al. Am J Clin Nutr 2019;109:1535–1545.

Method: Participants were fed powdered blueberries equivalent to a half or full cup a day, compared to placebo.

Conclusions: Despite insulin resistance remaining unchanged we show, to our knowledge, the first sustained improvements in vascular function, lipid status, and underlying NO [nitric oxide] bioactivity following 1cup blueberries/d. With effect sizes predictive of 12–15% reductions in CVD risk, blueberries should be included in dietary strategies to reduce individual and population CVD risk.

Funder: Supported by the US Highbush Blueberry Council (USHBC) with oversight from the USDA and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC, UK). AC and ERB both act as advisors to the USHBC grant committee. The funders of the study had no role in study design, data collection, data analysis, data interpretation, or writing of the report.

Comment: The press picked this one up:  “Study: Blueberries benefit heart health.”  This study used powdered blueberries.  Trust me, the fresh ones are much better.  You can tell this is an industry-funded study because the published study is open access, which somebody has to pay for—a clue that it is about marketing.  And what about the comment that funders had no influence?  They didn’t have to.  The study did not compare blueberries to any other fruits.  The science here provides some interesting information about how anthocyanins in this fruit might work, but wouldn’t they work the same way in any other fruit?  Are blueberries the only fruit that contains these particular anthocyanins?   This questions suggest that this study is not about the science, it is about demonstrating that there is something special about blueberries.  Dietary advice?  Eat whatever fruits you like.  And vegetables.  And nuts.  They all have something good about them.

 

May 31 2019

Weekend reading: seeds!

Mark Schapiro.  Seeds of Resistance: The Fight to Save Our Food Supply.  Hot Books, 2018.

I never think much about seeds, but this book makes it clear that I and everyone else should be giving them a lot of thought.  Our food supply depends on them.  And they are under threat—by climate change, of course, but also by human carelessness and greed.

Schapiro covers the global seed territory—the U.S. and Norway, but also Iraq and Syria—from farms to seed banks.   He has much to say about corporate control of the seed supply.

With every passing day and with nearly every accumulating study, GMOs are looking less and less like the “significant equivalent” to conventional crops that they were declared to be more than two decades ago.  It can cost upwards of $130 million to develop a genetically engineered seed, which is one reason why their expansion into the food system has been accompanied by a tightening control over seeds.  The expense and complexity of producing genetically engineered organisms, and the aggressive patent prerogatives needed to defend them, led to a concentration of power within a secretive group of companies over the most basic element of our existence–seeds, and the food from which they grow.  All these factors have pushed us toward a food system that is less diverse, more insecure, and delivering increasingly consequential environmental costs [p. 90].

Fortunately, he also has much to say about many different kinds of efforts to defend and rescue our seed heritage, seed libraries, for example:

As one local seed company after another were snapped up by chemical companies, the libraries are part of a growing parallel movement that’s been pulling in the opposite direction, away from homogenization and toward diversifying local seed stocks and strengthening the role of farmers, not companies, in sustaining them.  Since 2010, more than four hundred of such libraries, of various sizes, have opened in the United States.  They’re now in every region of the country, one of the multiple edges of a rapidly growing movement [p. 103].

There’s hope, but we need to act now.

All of us are entering uncharted territory…When it comes to food, the most essential of all resources, the stories contained in our seeds are posing the same question to all of us: Should we hitch our food security, and the food security of future generations, to seeds bred and marketed by three multinational chemical companies? [150-151].

This is a particularly useful book about an important issue.  It also comes with lists of seed resources, advocates, trade associations, and the like, as well as references.

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May 30 2019

The latest on CBD edibles and supplements

NutraIngredients.com, one of those informative industry newsletters I subscribe to, has a collection of articles on CBD (cannabidiol, the component of hemp and marijuana that does not make you high but may have some health benefits).

Manufacturers are rushing to produce CBD edibles and supplements, despite concerns about their legal status, as you can see here.

And from this and other sources

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May 29 2019

Trade mitigation payments are no substitute for effective agricultural policy

One of the daily newsletters I subscribe to is Chuck Abbott’s Ag Insider, sponsored by the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN), which covers and analyzes agricultural policies otherwise unknown or incomprehensible to readers like me.  You can subscribe to it here.

The particular article that caught my eye is about how Trump’s program of compensating farmers for the losses caused by his trade war with China has gotten the government much deeper into supporting Big Ag than some congressional representatives think is appropriate.

The USDA has stated that it will spend $15 to $20 billion on trade mitigation payments this year.  This will pay $2 a bushel for soybeans, 63 cents a bushel for wheat, and 4 cents a bushel for corn.

If you were a farmer, which would you plant?

The promised new payments will

double the $8.5 billion that has been paid so far on 2018 production of almonds, cotton, corn, dairy, pork, soybeans, sorghum, sweet cherries, and wheat. And the $15-$20 billion would be on top of $11.5 billion previously forecast for federal payments this year. Last year, direct farm payments totaled $13.8 billion, largest in 12 years, because of trade mitigation aid.

This is big money, at taxpayers’ expense.

Abbott’s point is that the “Freedom to farm” act of 1996 encouraged farmers to make planting decisions based on market prices rather than expectation of subsidies, and to reserve part of their land for conservation purposes.  Farmers were able to sell their crops for market prices rather than have the government buy them.

But the USDA says

Farmers should continue to make their planting and production decisions with the current market signals in mind, rather than some expectation of what a farming support program might or might not look like, based on inaccurate media stories.

And guess what: The National Corn Growers Association wants higher payments.

In other articles in this series, Abbott reports that “more than a third of net farm income for Kansas farmers comes from Trump tariff payments, but that won’t make up for lost export sales.”

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May 28 2019

USDA’s destruction of the Economic Research Service: A National Tragedy

The reasons behind the Trump Administration’s efforts to relocate the USDA’s Economic Research Service out of the Washington DC area are becoming increasingly transparent: the administration views the conclusions of ERS research on SNAP and other key issues as incompatible with its agenda.

I wrote about the real reasons behind the proposed transfer in a post on September 21 last year: 

Former [ERS] officials were unanimous in arguing that the proposal to relocate the agency outside of Washington DC and reorganize it into the USDA Secretary’s office was “ill-conceived,” made no sense, was done without appropriate consultation, was potentially illegal, would politicize the agency, and would damage, if not destroy, an agency that is the jewel of USDA. The USDA says the reasons for doing this are easier recruitment, cheaper rent, closer alignment with the Secretary’s policy initiatives, and getting the agency closer to stakeholders.  None of these bears up under even the most casual scrutiny. So what is this really about? I’m guess that this is about getting political control over—silencing—an agency that conducts independent, unbiased, nonpartisan research that risks leading to inconvenient truths.

Now, ERS employees are coming forward to state publicly that they view the transfer “as a crackdown on research that’s unflattering to White House policy priorities.”

According to Politico, ERS personnel have done an analysis of which researchers are being told to stay in Washington, DC, and which ones are being told to move.  The ones being transferred out

are largely specialists in issues like climate change, food stamps and trade policy, where economic assessments often clash with White House policies.  The list, shared exclusively with POLITICO, shows a clear emphasis was placed on keeping employees in Washington whose work covers less controversial issues like crop planting over those whose research focused on areas sensitive to the administration….USDA released a written statement from Perdue arguing the relocation is not connected to the work being carried out by ERS economists. The secretary has long said the move will save taxpayer money and bring the agencies closer to major farming regions.

Some members of the House of Representatives are trying to block the relocation but even if they can, it will be too late.  By the time any legislation gets passed, the move will already have been accomplished and key ERS researchers long gone.

Eight Democratic senators led by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) co-sponsored a measure that would prevent ERS and NIFA from being moved.  Van Hollen is also trying another route: Politico reports that he has  put a hold on the nomination of Scott Hutchins to be USDA’s chief scientist…”to indicate the seriousness of Van Hollen’s concerns about the proposed relocation.”

In the meantime, everyone is waiting to see where USDA intends to move the ERS.  The options are Kansas City, the Research Triangle in North Carolina and multiple spots in Indiana.

Whatever happens, the damage has been done.  Many ERS researchers have retired or resigned.

This agency produced authoritative analyses of food and nutrition issues that I relied on for much of my work.  This is an incalculable loss. and nothing less than a national tragedy.

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May 27 2019

Industry-funded journal supplement: dairy and health

Nutrition journals sometimes publish supplements on specific topics.  These are paid for by sponsors.  The papers listed here are part of a supplement to the May 2019 issue of Advances in Nutrition.

The sponsor?  As stated in the introductory article,

This supplement was sponsored by the Interprofessional Dairy Organization (INLAC), Spain. The sponsor had no role in the design of the studies included in the supplement; in the collection, analyses, or interpretation of the data; in the writing of the manuscripts; or in the decision to publish the results. Publication costs for this supplement were defrayed in part by the payment of page charges. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and are not attributable to the sponsors or the publisher, Editor, or Editorial Board of Advances in Nutrition.

Author disclosures: The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare.

The authors may think they have no conflicted interests, but as I discuss in Unsavory Truth, the effects of industry funding often are unconscious, unintentional, and unrecognized.

As is typical of industry-sponsored studies, the results of these dairy-funded studies are predictable.  From looking at these titles, you can predict that they will show dairy foods to have positive effects on pregnancy, lactation, child growth, bone density, and cognition, and no negative effects on mortality, metabolism, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or cancer.

The overall conclusion is also predictable:

In conclusion, the systematic reviews and meta-analyses of the present supplement support adequate milk consumption at various stages of life and in the prevention/control of various noncommunicable chronic diseases.

If the dairy industry wants the public to believe these results, it should not be paying for them. 

Supplement—Role of Milk and Dairy Products in Health and Prevention of Noncommunicable Chronic Diseases: A Series of Systematic Reviews

 

May 24 2019

Weekend Spanish lesson: a book about obesity for teenagers

Simón Barquera.  ¿Hasta que los kilos nos alcancen? Una introducción desde la ciencia sobre el aumento de la obesidad y la forma de enfrentar esta epidemia [My and Google’s translation: Until the kilos reach us?  A scientific introduction to the increase in obesity and how to confront this epidemic]. Instituto Nacional de Salud Publica and SPM Ediciones, 2019 (119 pages, hard cover).

I did a blurb for this book (it’s in Spanish on the back cover):

I can’t think of a better target audience for a book about the social, economic, and political causes of obesity than the young people who will be tomorrow’s leaders and policymakers.  Simón Barquera gives them–and readers of any age—the skills to recognize how food and beverage companies promote corporate profits over public health, and to act on this knowledge through advocacy for regulating conflicts of interests.  These skills are essential for preventing obesity and creating healthier food systems.

I’ve wrote about Barquera’s work a couple of years ago; he is one of the Mexican soda-tax advocates who had spyware installed on his phone, and is a researcher at the public health institute in Cuernavaca where I went on a Fulbright in February 2017.

I hadn’t seen the book’s illustrations when I did the blurb.  If I had, it would have been hard to talk about anything else because they are beyond charming.  It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I especially like this one.

This book needs an English translation!  I hope someone is doing one.

If you want a copy, try this link.