Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Nov 10 2021

Are law suits against food companies “frivolous?”

I am not a litigious person and much prefer to stay out of the legal system.

But I am a big fan of Bill Marler, who represents victims of food poisonings, not least because his lawsuits against companies with sloppy food safety procedures should encourage them to clean up their processes.

I’m not sure what to think of NPR’s account of Spencer Sheehan’s 400 or so lawsuits against food companies for misleading labeling.

The one that triggered off the article is on behalf of a woman suing Kellogg over the number of strawberries in Strawberry Pop-Tarts.

Russett’s complaint alleges that Strawberry Pop-Tarts contain more pears and apples than strawberries, and that the amount of strawberry they contain “is insufficient not merely to provide the nutrient benefits of strawberries but to provide a strawberry taste.” According to the suit, Kellogg uses “vegetable juice for color” and “paprika extract color” to give Strawberry Pop-Tarts their vivid red coloring.

This sent me right to the ingredient list (my emphasis).
Enriched flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, vitamin B1 [thiamin mononitrate], vitamin B2 [riboflavin], folic acid), corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, soybean and palm oil (with TBHQ for freshness), sugar, bleached wheat flour. Contains 2% or less of wheat starch, salt, dried strawberries, dried pears, dried apples, leavening (baking soda, sodium acid pyrophosphate, monocalcium phosphate), citric acid, gelatin, modified wheat starch, yellow corn flour, caramel color, xanthan gum, cornstarch, turmeric extract color, soy lecithin, red 40, yellow 6, blue 1, color added.
This is a classic ultra-processed food product.  The first ingredient—these are in order of highest to lowest amounts—is wheat flour, followed by three kinds of sugars, palm oil, more sugar, and more flour—basically a mix of sugar, flour, and palm oil.  After that come ingredients in tiny amounts, among them dried strawberries, number not specified.
At issue:  Does this product deserve to be labeled as strawberry?   Sheehan thinks not.

Some of his other cases:

Keebler and Betty Crocker and others over “fudge” cookies and baking mixes that contained no milkfat.

Frito-Lay alleging it didn’t use enough real lime juice in its “hint of lime” Tostitos.

Coors suggesting its pineapple-and-mango-flavored Vizzy Hard Seltzers are sources of Vitamin C “nutritionally-equivalent” to actual pineapples and mangos.

Snack Pack pudding — advertised as “made with real milk” — actually made with fat-free skim milk.

Many cases targeting vanilla products — soda, soy milk, yogurt, ice cream — that use synthetic vanilla or other flavors alongside or in place of the more expensive natural vanilla.

NPR says

Most of Sheehan’s suits, including the strawberry Pop-Tart cases, allege damages based on the so-called “price premium theory,” which says that products are sold at higher prices than they would have otherwise commanded had the companies marketed them honestly.

Are these cases frivolous or in the public interest?

I’m for anything that gets the makers of ultra-processed foods to advertise them for what they are, not for what they aspire to be.

Hat tip to Lisa Young for sending this one.

Nov 9 2021

Plastics in the food system: a big problem, getting worse

Last week, I ran across three items related to plastics in our food system.  The big issues: waste, pollution, and harmful chemicals.

(1) Fortunately, Civil Eats has done all the work and produced this must-read compendium of articles.

Of all the issues we cover, one in particular has all of us at Civil Eats deeply concerned: the widespread overuse of plastic in food and agriculture. From the myth of recycling and the millions of tons of plastic in the oceans, to the abundance of “forever chemicals” and microplastics making their way into our food and our soil, plastics are contaminating the food chain, polluting the environment, and making us sick. And while there are important ways individuals can address the problem, they often feel like a drop in the bucket when compared to the ways industry is shaping the narrative, increasing the amount of plastic being produced, and stalling or opposing regulation.

First Look: The Future of Plastic-Free Grocery Shopping

The Follow-Up

The Check-In: A Conversation with the Peak Plastic Foundation

A Roadmap to Plastic-Free Grocery Shopping

What We’re Reading

(2) I also ran across this notice from Food Dive:  “Coca-Cola, Unilever among top plastic polluters, report says.”  This excellent summary refers to The #BrandAudit2021Report from the group, Break Free From Plastic.

The report points out that this is the fourth year in a row Coca-Cola is the #1 plastic polluter.  Here are the report’s top ten.

(3)  Phthlates.  In her Technically Food newsletter, Larissa Zimberoff talks about potentially harmful chemicals that leach into food from plastics, particularly plastic gloves.

The study found that pthalates (an industrial chemical) were found in food samples taken from chains including McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Chipotle. These included DnBP, which has been linked to a heightened risk for asthma, and DEHP, which has been linked to an increased risk of reproductive problems. Other problems: disruption to the endocrine system (yes, that’s where diabetes comes from) and behavioral disorders in children…The main source of pthalates in food are the ubiquitous plastic gloves worn in food handling, but also in packaging and processing equipment. 

And a new study looks at phthlates in fast food.  Here’s what the Washington Post says about it:

new study out Tuesday reportsthat far too often, small amounts of industrial chemicals called phthalates (pronounced THA-lates), which are used to make plastics soft, have been found in samples of food from popular outlets including McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Chipotle….The study found harmful chemicals in a majority of samples collected. Phthalates are linked to health problems, including disruption to the endocrine system, and fertility and reproductive problems, as well as increased risk for learning, attention and behavioral disorders in children.

Nov 8 2021

Industry-funded study of the week: pet food!

I have a long-standing interest in pet food (see Feed Your Pet Right, and Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine) and in conflicts of interest in research (see Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat).  Knowing of both, a reader, Teresa Reinhardt, alerted me to this one.

The study:  Investigation of diets associated with dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs using foodomics analysisCaren E. SmithLaurence D. ParnellChao-Qiang LaiJohn E. Rush & Lisa M. FreemanScientific Reports volume 11, Article number: 15881 (2021).

Purpose: to identify specific pet food ingredients associated with Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs.

Methods: Metabolomic profiling of 25 diets associated with canine DCM and 9 diets not associated with DCM.

Results: “Four diet ingredients distinguished the two diet groups (peas, lentils, chicken/turkey, and rice). Of these ingredients, peas showed the greatest association with higher concentrations of compounds in 3P/FDA diets [the ones associated with DCM].“

Funding:  “This work was funded in part by Nestlé Purina PetCare and the Barkley Fund. This work was funded in part by United States Department of Agriculture project number 8050-51000-107-00D, and this entity had no part in the design of the experiments, in the collection, analysis and interpretation of data, nor in composing the manuscript.”

Conflicts of interest: “In the last 3 years, Dr. Freeman has received research funding from, given sponsored lectures for, and/or provided professional services to Aratana Therapeutics, Elanco, Hill’s Pet Nutrition, Nestlé Purina PetCare, P&G Pet Care (now Mars), and Royal Canin. In the last 3 years, Dr. Rush has received research funding from, given sponsored lectures for, and/or provided professional services to Aratana Therapeutics, Boehringer Ingelheim, Elanco, IDEXX, Nestlé Purina PetCare, and Royal Canin. None of the other authors has any competing interests to declare.”

Comment:  DCM is a common heart disease affecting dogs, with a prevalence that exceeds 50% in some breeds (e.g., Doberman Pinschers). More than 1100 cases have been reported to the FDA.

Despite endless speculation, its cause is unknown.  Much attention has focused on one or another dietary deficiencies or specific components (e.g., grains).  As the authors explain:

The diets reported to be associated with DCM often are marketed as “grain-free” and often contain certain ingredients that became part of commercial foods relatively recently (e.g., pulses, potatoes, and sweet potatoes) and lack others (such as rice or corn). Most of the ingredients that are included in the associated diets are also found in human diets, but dogs often eat them in even higher quantities because most dogs eat a single commercial pet food, rather than a variable mixture of multiple foods as humans do.

I think there three issues need further discussion.

(1)  Grains. Some pet owners believe that dogs should not eat grains. They buy pet foods that do not contain them.  This study identified grains only in the pet foods that were not associated with DCM.  Ms. Reinhardt also sent a link to a commentary from someone who questions this finding and raises other critical points about the study.  Dogs are fully capable of digesting grains and grains have been used safely in pet foods for decades.  The FDA describes the association of DCM with on its website.  What’s needed to resolve the peas question is a long-term (years, not months) trial of diets with and without peas.  The pet food industry has no incentive to pay for something like that.

(2)  The funding effect Nestlé Purina PetCare [no relation] paid for the study, and two of the authors consult widely for pet food companies.  Grains are inexpensive pet food ingredients and it is to Nestlé’s interest to have evidence demonstrating that grains do no harm.  How much influence did this company have over the research?  The conflict of interest statement is oddly worded.  The USDA funder is stated to have stayed out of the study, but the statement does not seem to apply to Nestlé, suggesting company influence.

(3)  Pet food research funding in general.  This study had some USDA funding, but government funding for pet food research is rare.  Most pet food research is funded by pet food companies, and most focuses on taste preferences.  Remarkably little research is designed to answer questions about which diets are better than others—a big issue because most pets eat commerical pet foods designed to take care of their complete nutritional needs.

This study identified peas as most strongly associated with DCM.  Pea protein is a main ingredient in plant-based meat alternatives.  It would be good to know more about the dietary effects of peas and pea proteins.

If nothing else this study demonstrates why pet food research matters.  We only have one food system, and pet food is very much a part of that system.

Nov 5 2021

Weekend reading: School food, Brazil style

Ana Eliza Port Lourenço & Priscila Vieira Pontes. Eating at School: Reflections from Brazil.  Editora CRV, 2021.

EATING AT SCHOOL <br> reflections from Brazil

To the ever expanding library of books on school food, this one is a welcome addition.  It aims to improve school food in Brazil, but has plenty of information relevant to everywhere else.

The book is short—just 88 pages—but covers diet and kids’ health, regulation of school food, barriers to eating healthfully in school, and what to do to overcome them in short chapters.  These have important information in boxes like this one.

Imagine!  Brazil has laws governing sales and use of junk food in schools.

The reality, however, is a challenge.

I heard about this book when I was asked to do a blurb (endorsement) for it.  I was happy to.  Here’s what I said:

For anyone who has kids in school or who cares about what kids eat, Eating at School is essential reading.  It is a warm, reality-based, and entirely practical guide to why school food should set a healthy example, and how to approach fixing it when it doesn’t.   The authors understand what schools and caretakers are up against and provide all the evidence anyone needs to make healthy school food a priority.

Addition, 11-8-21

At some point, this book will be listed on  In the meantime, if you would like to order it but get stuck on the website, contact this address for help:

Nov 4 2021

What’s up with digital marketing? Plenty.

Digital marketing, especially when targeted to children, is a rising source of concern and for well-documented reasons.

Two reports provide the data.  The big issue?  Digital marketing promotes unhealthful eating.

I.  From the World Health Organization’s Regional Office in Europe: Digital Food Environments Factsheet

Digital technologies are becoming integrated to varying degrees into everyday life across the 53 countries of the WHO European Region. The increase in digital technologies can increase the convenience of food and prepared meals. A recent unrepresentative survey of 10 European countries found that every fifth meal was consumed outside of the home, with 80% from commercial outlets. The influence of digitalization on dietary behaviour, however, is not well understood, raising questions about its influence on the health and nutrition of adults and children.

II.  From the U.S. Center for Digital Democracy comes Big Food, Big Tech, and the Global Childhood Obesity Pandemic

The full report

Some of the largest food and beverage corporations—including Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and Pepsi—have, in effect, transformed themselves into Big Data businesses, acquiring specialist firms, establishing large in-house operations, and hiring teams of data scientists and technology experts to direct these systems. With these enhanced capabilities, they can more effectively engage in ad targeting—whether on the leading platforms or through their own mobile apps.

The Executive Summary

A growing body of academic research has documented the increasing presence of unhealthy food promotion in digital media, as well as clear patterns of youth engagement with major brands, and influences on health behaviors.

The Press Release

Tech platforms especially popular with young people—including Facebook’s Instagram, Amazon’s Twitch, ByteDance’s TikTok, and Google’s YouTube – are working with giant food and beverage companies, such as Coca Cola, KFC, Pepsi and McDonald’s, to promote sugar-sweetened soda, energy drinks, candy, fast food, and other unhealthy products across social media, gaming, and streaming video. The report offers fresh new analysis and insight into the most recent industry practices.

Comment: All this calls for regulation, of course.  Any chance of that coming our way?

Nov 3 2021

Annals of marketing: promoting snacks

The best way to add unnecessary calories to your diet is to snack.

Snacks are often ultra-processed junk foods; they add calories in ways you don’t notice (“you can’t eat just one”).

Their sellers’ intention is to get you to eat them and not notice.  These are hugely profitable products.

Here are a few recent items about selling snack products.

Will eating “healthier” snacks help you avoid “Covibesity” [referring to pandemic weight gain, I guess]?  Not if they encourage you to take in more calories than you need.

Will eating sustainable snacks make you healthier?  I got an e-mail from a marketer at Mondelez telling me that the company is focusing on sustainable snacks and that a “Mondelez exec also just made presentation at Alliance Bernstein conf. where he discussed there will be more invest in digital marketing personalization to drive sales” [Sustainable snacks have calories, and increased sales mean increased calories].

How about starting your snacks in the morning?  Hershey, America’s largest confection company, is trying to gain market share by rolling out products designed for morning consumption. “We see this as a potential growth lever and way for us to potentially capture more total snacking occasions across all dayparts,” In a press release, the company declared, “Let’s face it, we’re already having morning dessert anyway, so the Reese’s brand decided to make it official. With new Reese’s Snack Cakes, Reese’s fans can enjoy a delicious combination of chocolate and peanut butter creme without having to wait until lunch.”

Or, you can just eat candied cereal:

Nov 2 2021

Congressional staff report: Covid 3X harder on meatpacking workers

The majority staff of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis has issued a scathing report: “Coronavirus Infections and Deaths Among Meatpacking Workers Were Nearly Three Times Higher than Previous Estimates.”

Newly obtained documents from five of the largest meatpacking conglomerates, which represent over 80 percent of the market for beef and over 60 percent of the market for pork in the United States—JBS USA Food Company (JBS), Tyson Foods, Inc. (Tyson), Smithfield Foods (Smithfield), Cargill Meat Solutions Corporation (Cargill), and National Beef Packing Company, LLC (National Beef)—reveal that coronavirus infections and deaths among their meatpacking workers were substantially higher than previously estimated.

The report’s main findings:

  • Certain meatpacking plants saw particularly high rates of coronavirus infections during the first year of the pandemic. For example, 54.1 percent of the workforce at JBS’ Hyrum, Utah plant contracted the coronavirus between March 2020 and February 2021.
  • Across companies, Tyson saw 29,462 employee infections and 151 employee deaths, and JBS saw 12,859 employee infections and 62 employee deaths.
  • Coronavirus Outbreaks in Meatpacking Plants Disproportionately Impacted Minority Workers
  • The full extent of coronavirus infections and deaths at these meatpacking companies was likely much worse than these figures suggest.
  • OSHA made a political decision not to issue regulatory standards that might require meatpacking companies to take actions to protect workers.

Recall that meatpacking workers were among the first to get sick from Covid-19, causing

The report confirms that Covid-19 in meatpacking workers was and is a national tragedy and scandal, a direct result of corporate consolidation and capture of government.

The report’s recommendations to meatpacking plants, government agencies, and Congress can’t come soon enough.

Nov 1 2021

Industry-funded study of the week: rye products vs. body weight

I first learned of this study from a headline in the newsletter, “Swedish RyeWeight study confirms bread can actually aid weight loss.”

Swedish researchers have found that breakfasting on rye bread significantly reduces appetite, resulting in 16% fewer calories consumed at lunch. What’s more, the suppression of appetite continued well into the afternoon

This seemed worth a look.  Here’s it is.

The study: A hypocaloric diet rich in high fiber rye foods causes greater reduction in body weight and body fat than a diet rich in refined wheat: A parallel randomized controlled trial in adults with overweight and obesity (the RyeWeight study).  Clinical Nutrition ESPEN.  Volume 45, October 2021, Pages 155-169.

Methods: Subjects with overweight or obesity consumed a weight-loss diet that contained either high fiber rye products or refined wheat products for 12 weeks.

Results:  Participants in the rye group lost 1.08 kg body weight and 0.54% body fat more than the wheat group, and their C-reactive protein was 28% lower.  There were no consistent group differences on subjective appetite or on other cardiometabolic risk markers.

Conclusion:  Consumption of high fiber rye products as part of a hypocaloric diet for 12 weeks caused a greater weight loss and body fat loss, as well as reduction in C-reactive protein, compared to refined wheat. The difference in weight loss could not be linked to differences in appetite response.

Sources of support: Formas, grant no.: 2014-00542. Barilla and Lantmännen pro-vided additional funding for the study (8% of total study budget each) and provided the intervention products.

Conflict of interest: RL is the founder of the Nordic Rye Forum, which is a research and dissemination platform for research related to rye and health that includes academic institutions as well as institutes and food industry with interest in rye across the Nordic region. The forum and its activities are funded by the industrial partners. RL is the PI of several projects funded by several cereal industrial companies. Such funding is used to carry out scientific studies. RL receives no salary, honorary, or by any other means has any personal economic benefits from industrial collaborations. Remaining authors declare no conflicts of interest.

Comment: The industry-funded Nordic Rye Forum has an interest in promoting rye consumption.  Its industry partners are listed here.  Two of them helped fund the study.  They must have appreciated the results.

Once again, the issue here is the potential for unconscious bias under the influence of industry funding.

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