Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
May 4 2022

GAO says moving USDA’s ERS to Kansas was not such a great idea

The Government Accountability Office has just issued this report:  Evidence-Based Policy Making: USDA’s Decision to Relocate Research Agencies to Kansas City Was Not Fully Consistent with an Evidence-Based Approach

You may recall that in October 2019, USDA relocated most Economic Research Service staff positions from Washington DC to Kansas City, MO.  At the time, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said the move would save taxpayers more than $300 million over ten years.

This defied credulity.  The real reason had to be that politically appointed USDA officials wanted to destroy the ERS.  Its economists produce reports that tell truths inconvenient for political expediency.

An easy way to destroy an agency is to move it half way across the country.  That way three-quarters of the professional staff would quit or retire.

I considered this move a national tragedy, and said so repeatedly.

The GAO is more polite than I am.  Here is a summary excerpt from the report’s Highlights.

USDA’s stated objectives for relocation were to improve its ability to attract and retain highly-qualified staff; place its resources closer to stakeholders and consumers; and reduce costs to taxpayers.

However, GAO found that the economic analysis did not fully align with those objectives. ..USDA omitted critical costs and economic effects from its analysis of taxpayer savings, such as costs related to potential attrition or disruption of activities for a period of time, which may have contributed to an unreliable estimate of savings from relocation.

Overall, GAO found that USDA’s development and usage of evidence had significant limitations… As a result of the weaknesses GAO found, USDA leadership may have made a relocation decision that was not the best choice to accomplish its stated objectives.

But it did achieve its unstated objective: to weaken, if not destroy, ERS.   This agency is still publishing reports, but most of them are uncontroversial estimates of food production and use.  Occasionally I see glimmers of the kinds of reports the agency used to produce.  Let’s hope more of them are on their way.

May 3 2022

RIP Senator Orrin Hatch

The New York Times’ obituary for the late Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, “Orrin Hatch, Seven-Term Senator and a Republican Force, Dies at 88,” filled an entire page of the newspaper.  That’s how important he was.

I was surprised that the obituary said not one word about Senator’s Hatch’s responsibility for the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA, pronounced d’shay).  The purpose of this act was to boost the supplement industry, which is well represented in Utah, by taking it out from under the regulatory authority of the FDA.

As a reminder, DSHEA:

  • Assumed that dietary supplements were safe.
  • Essentially deregulated them by weakening the FDA’s regulatory power.
  • Permitted structure/function health claims on supplements, (e.g., supports a healthy immune system), regardless of level of scientific substantiation.
  • Labeled supplements with Supplement Facts rather than Nutrition Facts.
  • Forced the FDA to take manufacturers to court if agency regulators had concerns about safety, misleading claims, or inconsistent contents.
  • Caused the FDA to lose court cases on First Amendment grounds.

The results:

  • The supplement industry expanded rapidly, achieving DSHEA’s purpose.
  • You cannot be sure that what you are buying is actually waht the label says you are buying.
  • You cannot be sure that claimed benefits have any science behind them.
  • Food manufacturers demanded the right to make struture/function claims.
  • Use of the First Amendment to protect commercial (rather than personal, political, or religious) speech has gotten stronger.

We have Orrin Hatch to thank for turning the supplement industry into one based on faith, not science.

Why would he do this?

The obituary suggests one possibility:

During the opioid crisis in 2015, he introduced a bill to narrow the authority of government regulators to halt the marketing of drugs by predatory pharmaceutical companies. It later emerged that he had received $2.3 million in donations from the drug industry over 25 years.

For a more direct explanation, check out this article about Senator Hatch from the New York Times in 2011, “Support Is Mutual for Senator and Utah Industry.

“Senator Hatch — he’s our natural ally,” said Marc S. Ullman, a lawyer for several supplement companies. Mr. Hatch, who credits a daily regimen of nutritional supplements for his vigor at 77, has spent his career in Washington helping the $25-billion-a-year industry thrive….Mr. Hatch has been rewarded with hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions, political loyalty and corporate sponsorship of his favorite causes back home.  His family and friends have benefited, too, from links to the supplement industry.

Hatch’s efforts to deregulate supplements did no good for public health or trust in science.  As the obituary said,

But there were no political repercussions. The senator was re-elected in 1982, 1988, 1994, 2000, 2006 and 2012, averaging nearly 65 percent of the vote.

Requiescat in pace.

May 2 2022

Industry-influenced study of the week: diet and brain atrophy

Thanks to a reader in Israel, Yehuda Ben-Hur, for sending this one.

The study: The effect of a high-polyphenol Mediterranean diet (Green-MED) combined with physical activity on age-related brain atrophy: the Dietary Intervention Randomized Controlled Trial Polyphenols Unprocessed Study (DIRECT PLUS) .  Alon Kaplan, Hila Zelicha, Anat Yaskolka Meir, Ehud Rinott, Gal Tsaban, Gidon Levakov, Ofer Prager, Moti Salti, Yoram Yovell, Jonathan Ofer, Sebastian Huhn, Frauke Beyer, Veronica Witte, Arno Villringer, Nachshon Meiran, Tamar B Emesh, Peter Kovacs, Martin von Bergen, Uta Ceglarek, Matthias Blüher, Michael Stumvoll, Frank B Hu, Meir J Stampfer, Alon Friedman, Ilan Shelef, Galia Avidan, Iris Shai.  The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, nqac001, Published: 11 January 2022.

Objectives: We aimed to explore the effect of a Mediterranean diet (MED) higher in polyphenols and lower in red/processed meat (Green-MED diet) on age-related brain atrophy.

Methods:  Abdominally obese  participants were randomly assigned to follow one of three diets: (1) healthy dietary guidelines (HDG), (2) MED, or (3) Green-MED diet.  The two MED groups consumed 28 g walnuts/d.  The Green-MED group consumed green tea , mankai (100 g frozen cubes/d as a green shake).  After 18 months, participants got MRI scans.

Results: Indicators of brain atrophy were attenuated in both MED groups, with the best outcomes among Green-MED diet participants.  Therefore, greater Mankai, green tea, and walnut intake and less red and processed meat were significantly and independently associated with reduced atrophy decline .

Conclusions: A Green-MED (high-polyphenol) diet, rich in Mankai, green tea, and walnuts and low in red/processed meat, is potentially neuroprotective for age-related brain atrophy.

Funding: Supported by German Research Foundation, Israel Ministry of Health, Israel Ministry of Science and Technology, and the California Walnut Commission (to I Shai, the senior author). “None of the funding providers were involved in any stage of the design, conduct, or analysis of the study, and they had no access to the study results before publication.”

Comment: I hardly know what to make of this study, which involves so many variables: mankai, (duckweed, supposedly a polyphenol-rich “supergreen”), green tea, walnuts, and low red/processed meat.  The MED groups were instructed to consume a calorie-restricted Mediterranean diet “rich in vegetables, with poultry and fish partly replacing beef and lamb.”  Physical activity instructions (and gym memberships) as well nutrition counseling was also part of this mix.

My questions:

  • Why not test the Mediterranean diet on its own without all those polyphenol additives?
  • Why walnuts as opposed to any other polyphenol-containing food?  Could sponsorship have anything to do with this choice?
  • Why Mankai, which is traditionally a component of Asian diets, not Mediterranean?    Why are Israeli scientists so interested in this plant?
  • Don’t classic Mediterranean diets provide enough polyphenols to be protective against brain atrophy?

I will be intersted to see further studies along these lines.

Apr 29 2022

Weekend reading: The politics of protein

IPES-Food, the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, has a new report: The politics of protein: Examining claims about livestock, fish, “alternative proteins” and sustainability 

The report contains a deep analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of these eight claims.

The report’s argument is that the focus on protein is overblown.

For decades, the perceived need for more protein has led to distractions and distortions in development programs, flawed marketing and nutritional campaigns, and calls to increase the production and trade of meat, dairy, and protein-enriched foods.

Today, the evidence clearly shows that there is no global ‘protein gap’: protein is only one of many nutrients missing in the diets of those suffering from hunger and malnutrition, and insufficiency of these diets is primarily a result of poverty and access.

The report displays data to back up its arguments in attractive and easily understood charts.  Its conclusions are clearly marked.  Example:  part of the conclusion for Claim #5: Alternative proteins are a win-win.

In conclusion, there are too many uncertainties and data gaps, and too much variation between systems, to make a definitive statement on whether ‘alternative proteins’ are more environmentally sustainable than animal source foods as a whole. Bold and categorical claims about ‘alternative proteins’ being a ‘win-win-win’ are therefore likely to be misleading…The validity of claims about ‘alternative proteins’ (and the purported benefits of these products) ultimately comes down to how foods are produced, what food systems we consider to be desirable and viable, how we weigh up trade-offs ….

Sensibly, the report makes only three recommendations:

Comment:  I think this report is well done, well written, and well presented.   But here’s where this nutritionist gets cranky: Why title it Protein?  Protein is a nutrient, not a food.  Using protein to stand for foods that contain it is an example of “nutritionism,” the reduction of  the benefits of a food to its single components.

I had to search the report for an explanation of what IPES means by protein.  As far as I can tell, its writers assume you know what it means.  But sometimes the report refers to meat and protein, implying that meat means beef, and protein means protein-containing animal foods other than beef.  At other times, the report uses protein to include beef as well as poultry, fish, dairy, and insects.   But what about vegetables and grains?  They have protein too.  Legumes are particularly good sources; grains have nourished entire civilizations.

I realize that protein—a chefs’ term—is widely understood to stand for all foods, particularly from animals, that contain protein, but that’s nutritionally incorrect because basically every naturally occurring food contains some protein (OK, lettuce doeesn’t have much).

I wish everyone would find a better term, one that calls meat meat, if that’s what’s meant.

Apr 28 2022

Annals of food science: Oreo cookies!

After all my complaints about nutrition science, every now and then I hear about a study that just seems perfect.

Thanks to my NYU colleague Mitchell Moss for sending this account of the study:  Age-old Oreo mystery solved by MIT scientists: Can the cream be evenly split between both sides?

The study (published in a physics journal, no less): On Oreology, the fracture and flow of “milk’s favorite cookie. Crystal E. OwensMax R. Fan,, A. John Hart, and  Gareth H. McKinley  Physics of Fluids 34, 043107 (2022);

The mechanical experience of consumption (i.e., feel, softness, and texture) of many foods is intrinsic to their enjoyable consumption, one example being the habit of twisting a sandwich cookie to reveal the cream. Scientifically, sandwich cookies present a paradigmatic model of parallel plate rheometry in which a fluid sample, the cream, is held between two parallel plates, the wafers. When the wafers are counter-rotated, the cream deforms, flows, and ultimately fractures, leading to separation of the cookie into two pieces.

Method: Using a laboratory rheometer, we measure failure mechanics of the eponymous Oreo’s “creme” and probe the influence of rotation rate, amount of creme, and flavor on the stress–strain curve and postmortem creme distribution.

Results: The results typically show adhesive failure, in which nearly allw (95%) creme remains on one wafer after failure, and we ascribe this to the production process, as we confirm that the creme-heavy side is uniformly oriented within most of the boxes of Oreos…Failure mechanics further classify the creme texture as “mushy.”

Research iInnovations: We introduce Oreology (/ɔriːˈɒlədʒi/), from the Nabisco Oreo for “cookie” and the Greek rheo logia for “flow study,” as the study of the flow and fracture of sandwich cookies…Finally, we introduce and validate the design of an open-source, three-dimensionally printed Oreometer powered by rubber bands and coins for encouraging higher precision home studies to contribute new discoveries to this incipient field of study.

Multimedia: The study comes with a computer-redered animation demonstrating use of the Oreometer (definitely worth a look).

FIG. 11. This computer-rendered animation shows the assembly and use of our Oreometer including inserting the Oreo cookie into the two halves of the clamping fixture, inserting this fixture into the base, and adjusting the base separation, adding “penny castles” to the wings, adding pennies, and finally observing the fractured Oreo.

The press release: MIT engineers introduce the Oreometer

In all, the team went through about 20 boxes of Oreos, including regular, Double Stuf, and Mega Stuf levels of filling, and regular, dark chocolate, and “golden” wafer flavors. Surprisingly, they found that no matter the amount of cream filling or flavor, the cream almost always separated onto one wafer.

Comment:  Who are these people?  I love their study.  I can’t do justice to it in this brief summary.  Read it.  It’s clearly written, elegantly illustrated, and full of delicious tidbits about the construction of Oreos.

But I do have a question: When trans fats were required to be revealed on food labels, Oreo creme was no longer made with hydrogenated oils.  I think the creme in Oreos was firmer with trans fats.  I’m guessing the “mushiness” is due to higher levels of unsaturated fatty acids.  I think a historian needs to get into this.  Is the unfair distribution of creme collateral damage from making its fats healthier?

Apr 27 2022

The latest superfruit: bananas!

A reporter sent me this emailed announcement from a publicist for Dole hoping to generate storeis about how bananas can relieve stress.   Your problems are solved!

Hi —

Hope all is well! Following up on the below story. In honor of National Banana Day on April 20 and April’s designation as Stress Awareness MonthDole Food Company is sharing 10 recipes that celebrate the iconic yellow fruit and the science-backed link between bananas and the alleviation of stress.

Would love your consideration for coverage!

What do bananas do for stress?

 “Bananas contain vitamin B6, which is involved in the creation of feel-good neurotransmitters, and research suggests that they can also reduce inflammation and oxidative stress levels. Another study found that foods like bananas that contain prebiotics may also promote more restful sleep.”

And that’s not all:

Fruit lovers may go bananas for the following recipes as they are not only delicious, but are either vegetarian, vegan and/or gluten-free. The recipes are the latest installment of “Healthier by Dole,” the produce giant’s ongoing monthly healthier recipe series to encourage eating that is good for both the mind and the body.

The press release is here.

Comment: I’m all for eating fruit but are bananas better than any other kind for relieving stress?  None of this is based on studies that compare one fruit to another.  All fruits contain B vitamins and other good things.  Eat the ones you like!


Apr 26 2022

USDA’s take on the effects of the pandemic

The USDA has produced three reports on the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on consumers.

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic led to significant changes in U.S. consumers’ food-spending patterns in early 2020, with a return to pre-pandemic spending patterns that continued through 2021.

While closures of restaurants and nonessential businesses contributed to record unemployment increases during March and April 2020, unemployment fell to below pre-pandemic levels by December 2021.

Although income and employment have improved, some U.S. households continue to face difficulties obtaining adequate food, particularly in the face of increasing food prices.

It has produced data and charts in three areas.

Here’s one of the charts, this one on prices.

This is the kind of thing the USDA’s Economic Research Service is supposed to be doing.  I’m glad they are back on the job.

Apr 25 2022

Conflict-of-interest disclosure of the week

A reader, Effie Schultz, sent this one, with a comment that it comes with the longest conflict of interest statement she had ever seen (I’ve noted one that was two pages long in the first item in a post in 2015).

Association of Low- and No-Calorie Sweetened Beverages as a Replacement for Sugar-Sweetened Beverages With Body Weight and Cardiometabolic Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.  McGlynn ND, and 20 other authors.  JAMA Network Open, March 14, 2022. 2022;5(3):e222092.  doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.2092

The research question: Are low- and no-calorie sweetened beverages (LNCSBs) as the intended substitute for sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) associated with improved body weight and cardiometabolic risk factors similar to water replacement?

The conclusion: This systematic review and meta-analysis found that using LNCSBs as an intended substitute for SSBs was associated with small improvements in body weight and cardiometabolic risk factors without evidence of harm and had a similar direction of benefit as water substitution. The evidence supports the use of LNCSBs as an alternative replacement strategy for SSBs over the moderate term in adults with overweight or obesity who are at risk for or have diabetes.

Comment: Research on artificial sweeteners remains controversial.  I think we will be arguing forever about their safety and efficacy in helping people lose weight.  Studies with conflict of interest disclosures like the excessively extensive one here do not help resolve the research questions.

I strongly support revealing conflicted interests that might influence any aspect of research design, conduct, and interpretation.  For this study, I would be interested in financial ties or arrangements with companies that might either gain or lose sales or marketing advantages from results showing artificial sweeteners or diet drinks to be harmless or beneficial, as these do.  At issue here is whether financial ties to companies with corporate interests in the outcome of such research bias results or interpretation, consciously or unconsciously.

You have to search through this mess of unnecessary and distracting disclosures to find the ones that matter.  They are there.  You have to search for them.

Much of what is disclosed is irrelevant and, therefore, not helpful.

You may well disagree with that assessment.  Judge for yourself.

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: Ms McGlynn reported receiving a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)-Masters Award during the conduct of the study and being a former employee of Loblaws Companies Limited outside the submitted work. Dr Khan reported receiving grants from CIHR, International Life Science Institute, and National Honey Board outside the submitted work. Dr Chiavaroli reported being a Mitacs Elevate postdoctoral fellow and receiving joint funding from the Government of Canada and the Canadian Sugar Institute. Mr Au-Yeung reported receiving personal fees from Inquis Clinical Research outside the submitted work. Ms Lee reported receiving graduate scholarship from CIHR and the Banting & Best Diabetes Centre at the University of Toronto outside the submitted work. Dr Comelli reported being the Lawson Family Chair in Microbiome Nutrition Research at the Joannah and Brian Lawson Centre for Child Nutrition, University of Toronto, during the conduct of the study and receiving nonfinancial support from Lallemand Health Solutions, donation to research program from Lallemand Health Solutions, personal fees from Danone, sponsored research and collaboration agreement from Ocean Spray, and nonfinancial support from Ocean Spray outside the submitted work. Ms Ahmed reported receiving scholarship from the Toronto Diet, Digestive tract, and Disease Centre (3D) outside the submitted work. Dr Malik reported receiving personal fees from the City and County of San Francisco, Kaplan Fox & Kilsheimer LLP, and World Health Organization outside the submitted work and support from the Canada Research Chairs Program. Dr Hill reported receiving personal fees from General Mills and McCormick Science Institute. Dr Rahelić reported receiving personal fees from the International Sweeteners Association, Abbott, AstraZeneca, Boehringer Ingelheim, Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk, Merck, MSD, Salvus, and Sanofi outside the submitted work. Dr Salas-Salvadó reported receiving personal fees from Instituto Danone Spain, nonfinancial support from Danone Institute International, personal fees as director of the World Forum for Nutrition Research and Dissemination from the International Nut and Dried Fruit Council Foundation, financial support to the institution from Fundación Eroski, and financial support to the institution from Danone outside the submitted work. Dr Kendall reported receiving grants and/or in-kind support from Advanced Food Materials Network, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, CIHR, Almond Board of California, Barilla, Canola Council of Canada, International Nut and Dried Fruit Council, Peanut Institute, Pulse Canada, Tate and Lyle Nutritional Research Fund at the University of Toronto, and Unilever; receiving nonfinancial support from General Mills, Kellogg, Loblaw Brands Limited, Oldways Preservation Trust, Quaker Oats (Pepsi-Co), Sun-Maid, White Wave Foods/Danone, International Pasta Organization, California Walnut Commission, Primo, Unico, International Carbohydrate Quality Consortium (ICQC), and Toronto Diet, Digestive tract, and Disease Centre (3D) outside the submitted work; receiving personal fees from McCormick Science Institute and Lantmannen; and being a member of the Diabetes and Nutrition Study Group (DNSG) Executive Board and Dietary Guidelines, a member of the expert committee of the DNSG Clinical Practice Guidelines for Nutrition Therapy, a member of the scientific advisory board of the McCormick Science Institute, a scientific advisor for the International Pasta Organization and Oldways Preservation Trust, a member of the ICQC, an executive board member of the DNSG, and being the director of the Toronto Diet, Digestive tract, and Disease Centre (3D) Knowledge Synthesis and Clinical Trials Foundation. Dr Sievenpiper reported receiving nonfinancial support from DNSG of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes (EASD), grants from CIHR through the Canada-wide Human Nutrition Trialists’ Network (NTN), PSI Graham Farquharson Knowledge Translation Fellowship, Diabetes Canada Clinician Scientist Award, CIHR Institute of Nutrition, Metabolism and Diabetes and the Canadian Nutrition Society (INMD/CNS) New Investigator Partnership Prize, and Banting & Best Diabetes Centre Sun Life Financial New Investigator Award during the conduct of the study; receiving grants from American Society for Nutrition, International Nut and Dried Fruit Council Foundation, National Honey Board (the US Department of Agriculture [USDA] honey checkoff program), Institute for the Advancement of Food and Nutrition Sciences (IAFNS; formerly ILSI North America), Pulse Canada, Quaker Oats Center of Excellence, United Soybean Board (the USDA soy checkoff program), Tate and Lyle Nutritional Research Fund at the University of Toronto, Glycemic Control and Cardiovascular Disease in Type 2 Diabetes Fund at the University of Toronto (a fund established by the Alberta Pulse Growers), and Nutrition Trialists Fund at the University of Toronto (a fund established by an inaugural donation from the Calorie Control Council); receiving personal fees from Dairy Farmers of Canada, FoodMinds LLC, International Sweeteners Association, Nestlé, Abbott, General Mills, American Society for Nutrition, INC Nutrition Research and Education Foundation, European Food Safety Authority, Nutrition Communications, International Food Information Council, Calorie Control Council, Comité Européen des Fabricants de Sucre, International Glutamate Technical Committee, Perkins Coie LLP, Tate and Lyle Nutritional Research Fund at the University of Toronto, Danone, Inquis Clinical Research, Soy Nutrition Institute, and European Fruit Juice Association outside the submitted work; serving on the clinical practice guidelines expert committees of Diabetes Canada, EASD, Canadian Cardiovascular Society, and Obesity Canada/Canadian Association of Bariatric Physicians and Surgeons; being an unpaid scientific advisor for the Food, Nutrition, and Safety Program and the Technical Committee on Carbohydrates of IAFNS; being a member of the ICQC, executive board member of the DNSG of the EASD, and director of the Toronto Diet, Digestive tract, and Disease Centre (3D) Knowledge Synthesis and Clinical Trials Foundation; his spouse is an employee of AB InBev. No other disclosures were reported.

Reference: For a summary of research on the “funding effect”—the observations that research sponsored by food companies almost invariably produces results favorable to the sponsor’s interests and that recipients of industry funding typically did not intend to be influenced and do not recognize the influence—see my book, Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat.