Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Oct 12 2007

Teaching kids about eating well: video game

I’ve just been sent this article about a Kaiser Foundation/Scholastic video game designed to teach kids about healthy eating. It’s in the form of a detective story–“Incredible Adventures of the Amazing Food Detective.” The article points out the irony of using video games to teach about diet and activity, but never mind. I can’t figure out how to make it work on my new computer so I haven’t tried it. Is it worthwhile? Useful? Fun for kids?

Oct 12 2007

Rep. Markey vs. junk food for kids

Representative Edward Markey (Dem-MA) is making trouble for food companies who market to kids. He wrote letters to a bunch of companies asking them to cease and desist using cartoon characters or marketing to kids under age 12. The results? Some said yes, some said no. Among the “no’s” are Dannon (so much for Stonyfield), Nestle (no relation), and Yum! This, in turn, has led to consternation in the food industry, with much concern that if companies don’t comply with such requests, they will leave the industry open to regulation. Marketing to kids is the food industry’s Achilles heel. When it comes to kids, companies cannot argue personal responsibility. It will be interesting to watch Markey on this one.

Oct 11 2007

Food safety: the endless saga

Yesterday’s USA Today carried an article on the latest word on food safety from the excellent Julie Schmit (who, along with Elizabeth Weise, deserves a Pulitzer for their outstanding reporting on the pet food recall and on food safety issues in general). Here we go again with outbreaks of the nasty E. coli 0157:H7 from meat produced by Topps, which had to recall nearly 22 million pounds of hamburger and promptly went out of business, and Cargill, among others. As I discussed at length in my book, Safe Food, we know perfectly well how to produce food free of harmful pathogens. If companies aren’t doing it, it’s out of ignorance, laziness, or greed. We do not have a farm-to-table food safety program in this country. We need one. How many more incidents of this type must we go through before Congress makes public health a priority? This is an issue for Congress. Start lobbying…

Oct 10 2007

Dairy facts?

I am indebted to Greg Miller of the National Dairy Council for sending me the latest fact sheet on dairy myths from the American Dietetic Association. Usually, the Association’s fact sheets have predictable industry sponsors. This one doesn’t seem to but I certainly can understand why the Dairy Council wants it widely circulated. See what you think of it.

Oct 10 2007

Kid Power: How to market food and drinks to kids

Michele Simon (Appetite for Profit) reminds me that Kid Power is inviting everyone in the marketing-to-kids industry to attend its next conference–“Kids Food and Beverage 2008.” This is the group that teaches companies how to sell directly to children and gives prizes for companies that do that well. The website gives reasons why you must attend. Note that for this group, overweight, food allergies, digital technology, and a growing ethnic population create new marketing opportunities for the food and beverage industries.

Oct 10 2007

Malcolm Gladwell on food marketing

Dennis Whalen, a marketing executive in San Francisco, forwards this link to a speech given in 2004 by Malcolm Gladwell, the New Yorker writer and author of the Tipping Point and other best sellers. How do food marketers decide what sells sodas and spaghetti sauce? Gladwell’s answer: in ways that make people happy. Really?

Oct 10 2007

Diet intervention in kids: what does it take?

Two studies showing good results of short-term dietary intervention in children now report follow-ups indicating that the results were not sustained beyond the period of intervention. The first, from the British Medical Journal, focused on getting kids to drink fewer sodas. The second report is of a maintenance program for overweight kids who had lost weight. In both cases, kids regained weight when the interventions stopped. The moral: helping kids eat healthfully has to be an ongoing process, meaning that there is no easy fix.

Oct 9 2007

Sorting out low-fat vs. low-carbohydrate

Several people, among them Kerry Trueman of Eating Liberally, asked my opinion of John Tierney’s column about Gary Taubes’ new book, Good Calories Bad Calories, in today’s New York Times. Taubes’ book arrived while I was in India and I can’t really comment on it until I have had a chance to read it. I gather from Tierney’s piece and Gina Kolata’s review of it on Sunday that it comes down hard on carbohydrates.

I continue to be impressed by how difficult it is to separate the health effects of fat, carbohydrate, and protein from the calories they provide, the foods that contain them, the diets as a whole, or the rest of the lifestyle that goes along with the diet. Finding out what people eat is hard to do. Determining the health effects of dietary factors or patterns is even harder since humans make such awful experimental animals. Plenty of things about human nutrition are reasonably well established–the basic nutrients that are required and the amounts that prevent deficiency diseases, for example. But it is much trickier to figure out the effects of nutrients on chronic diseases that are also affected by activity levels, cigarette smoking, alcohol use, and social factors such as poverty, stress, and lack of control. So I can’t help but be skeptical of journalists who think they have answers to questions that scientists have been grappling with for years.

In a situation in which questions remain, is it better to say nothing or to give the best advice possible based on existing knowledge? Intelligent people may differ on this point but I am convinced that people really want to know what diet is best for their health and want help making food choices. What seems amazing to me is that despite decades of arguments over fat v. carbohydrate, basic dietary advice for preventing chronic diseases hasn’t changed in 50 years. I summarize this advice in What to Eat as don’t eat too much (eat less, move more); eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; and don’t eat too much junk food. This seems like a pretty good approach backed up by plenty of research.

Oh, and the calorie question. It’s not that people are overeating 50 to 100 calories a day (the amount in one or two Oreo cookies) and gaining weight. Most bodies can easily compensate for small differences in caloric intake and output. But, as I hear from pediatricians all the time, kids these days are consuming hundreds of calories more than they need, and sometimes thousands. Metabolism–in kids or adults–just can’t handle that level of overload. In that situation, carbohydrates may be harder to handle than fats, but both will end up in the body as fat if those calories aren’t used up in physical activity.

Fortunately, my precepts leave plenty of room for enjoying delicious food, and aren’t we lucky to have so much around.

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