Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jan 18 2024

Misleading product of the week: Veggieblends Cheerios

I think it’s time to start a new “of the week” series of posts—this one on egregiously marketed food products.

Thanks to Jerry Mande, who sent me this email:

Are you writing about Veggie Cheerios? An especially egregious case of misleading marketing. This could be Rob Califf’s Citrus Hill Fresh Choice moment. Particularly troubling is that original Cheerios, a go to finger food for moms of infants and toddlers, is lower sugar and higher in fiber than Veggie Cheerios  –  which only have 2g sugar plus 4g fiber. These new Cheerios have 8g sugars – from corn syrup – and only 2g fiber. Certainly, adding ¼ c. fruit & veggies shouldn’t cause the fiber to go down!

I hadn’t run across this version during my What to Eat revision visits to supermarkets, although I was aware that Cheerios, that old reliable cereal for kids, now came in more than 20 options—line extensions to take up more supermarket shelf space; the more shelf space, the more get sold.

I went right to the link:

Cheerios Veggie Blends Breakfast Cereal, Blueberry Banana Flavored, Family Size, 18 oz

Sure enough.  1/4 cup fruit & veggies.   And you get blueberry, banana, spinach, carrot, and sweet potato.  Impressive!

Here’s what Walmart says about it:

Available exclusively at Walmart [no wonder I hadn’t seen it], a wholesome bowl of Blueberry Banana flavored Cheerios Blends Cereal contains 1/4 cup of fruit and veggies in every serving.*

Uh oh; a footnote.  I went right to it:

* Cheerios Blends Cereal is made with fruit puree and vegetable powder. See complete list of ingredients. It is not intended to replace fruit or vegetables in the diet.


As for the ingredient list:

Whole Grain Oats, Corn Meal, Sugar, Sweet Potato Powder, Corn Starch, Carrot Powder, Canola and/or Sunflower Oil, Banana Puree, Blueberry Puree Concentrate, Corn Syrup, Salt, Spinach Powder, Vegetable and Fruit Juice Color, Tripotassium Phosphate, Natural Flavor. Vitamin E (mixed tocopherols) Added to Preserve Freshness. [the rest are added vitamins and minerals].

You want fruits and vegetables?  Eat fruits and vegetables.

You want Cheerios?  I vote for the boring original.

I think I will go to Walmart and buy a box.  I want this one for my cereal box collection.  I don’t think it will be on the market long.

Jan 17 2024

Some thoughts about dairy checkoff programs

Jerry Hagstrom’s Hagstrom Report, to which I subscribe, often has information I would not otherwise see.  Here’s one example.

He reported that USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service finally released its analysis of dairy checkoff programs, supposedly due annually by law.  No reports were published from 2020 through 2022.

Some members of Congress complained in a letter to Secretary Vilsack.  That worked.

See: Report to Congress on the Dairy Promotion and Research Program and the Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Program, 2020 Activities.

It makes interesting reading (to me, at least).

Checkoff—officially, research and promotion—programs tax commodity producers and use the funds for marketing purposes.  The programs are mandated and managed by USDA, but paid for by commodity producers (conflict of interest, anyone?).

Two Dairy Checkoffs exist.

  1. The Dairy Research and Promotion Program (the Dairy Checkoff), funded by dairy producers and dairy importers to maintain and expand domestic and foreign markets for fluid milk and dairy products. The program collected $346.8 million in assessments in 2020.
  2. The Fluid Milk Processor Promotion program, also known as the Milk Processor Education Program (MilkPEP), is funded by fluid milk processors and “is designed to educate Americans about the benefits of fluid milk, increase milk consumption, and maintain and expand markets and uses for fluid milk products in the contiguous 48 States and the District of Columbia.” This program collected $85.7 million in assessments in 2020.

What is this about?  At one glance:

On the other hand, dairy consumption as a whole—mainly because of cheese and butter—is going up.

The report says that for every dollar spent on generic marketing, the industry gets roughly $3 in return.

Checkoff programs raise lots of questions about whether the USDA should be sponsoring these kinds of marketing efforts for a small number of foods, and why the government should particularly promote consumption of dairy foods (or beef, for that matter), given concerns about their environmental impact, if nothing else.

The Agricultural Marketing Service is quite clear about its objectives: to promote consumption of U.S. agricultural products, no matter what they are.

The dairy industry must want these efforts to continue; it sees the decline in fluid milk consumption as a problem.

Given concerns about the waning health of Americans, the role of dairy checkoffs—and the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service—could use reconsideration.

Jan 16 2024

Is pasture-raised beef better for the environment? It sure could be.

A reader, Kris, sent me this query:

I hope in a future writing you can help sort out the mixed statements I’m reading  about how pasture-raised meat lines up in terms of environmental/climate change concerns, (particularly if it doesn’t involve extensive shipping). I’ve seen statements and studies on both sides of the argument and I’m having a hard time determining what is supported science vs wishful thinking or greenwashing marketing hype. (Links to 2 difference examples below).

I looked at her sources. Grass-finished beef operations found to have higher carbon footprint, study reveals. 

In a recent study published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, researchers from the Breakthrough Institute in the United States, led by Daniel Blaustein-Rejto, present findings challenging the common belief that beef operations with lifelong grass-based diets have a lower carbon footprint than those incorporating grain-based diets, reported.  Cattle raised on lifelong grass diets, termed “pasture finished,” have been traditionally thought to be more environmentally friendly. But the study delves into a more comprehensive analysis, considering factors beyond direct greenhouse gas emissions.

This took me to the PLoS ONE article:  Carbon opportunity cost increases carbon footprint advantage of grain-finished beef.

We assess the carbon footprint of 100 beef production systems in 16 countries, including production emissions, soil carbon sequestration from grazing, and carbon opportunity cost—the potential carbon sequestration that could occur on land if it were not used for production. We conduct a pairwise comparison of pasture-finished operations in which cattle almost exclusively consume grasses and forage, and grain-finished operations in which cattle are first grazed and then fed a grain-based diet. We find that pasture-finished operations have 20% higher production emissions and 42% higher carbon footprint than grain-finished systems.

Agricltural Systems: Impacts of soil carbon sequestration on life cycle greenhouse gas emissions in Midwestern USA beef finishing systems.

We used on-farm data collected from the Michigan State University Lake City AgBioResearch Center for AMP [adaptive multi-paddock] grazing. Impact scope included GHG emissions from enteric methane, feed production and mineral supplement manufacture, manure, and on-farm energy use and transportation, as well as the potential C sink arising from SOC [soil organic carbon] sequestration…This research suggests that AMP grazing can contribute to climate change mitigation through SOC sequestration and challenges existing conclusions that only feedlot-intensification reduces the overall beef GHG footprint through greater productivity.


I can understand Kris’s confusion.  The arguments about the environmental impact of grazing methods depend on assumptions about what needs to be measured.   There should be no argument, however, that pasture-raised animals are treated better and have better lives.  They enrich soil rather than polluting it, air, and water, as do animals raised in CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations).  When raised in a regenerative system, pastured animals replenish soil, cause carbon to be sequestered, and do other good things.  The downside?  Lower yields (but we overproduce meat anyway).  So, I’m all for pasture grazing.

The climate-change arguments depend on decisions about what gets counted; these vary depending on who is doing the counting.

Until everyone can agree on what has to be measured and included in climate-change assessments—and I see no sign of a movement to forge such an agreement—I’m voting for pasture-raised,.  Animal welfare and soil health are reasons enough.

Thanks Kris, for raising the issue so thoughtfully.

Jan 15 2024

Industry-funded study of the week: antioxidant supplement and sperm quality

Here’s where I first saw this one: Antioxidant supplement improves sperm quality and pregnancy outcomes, research suggests: Supplementing men with a combination of micronutrients and L-Carnitine shows promise in improving sperm motility and pregnancy outcomes, a new study concludes…. Read more

I could not wait to fsee the research.

The study:  Effect of Micronutrients and L-Carnitine as Antioxidant on Sperm Parameters, Genome Integrity, and ICSI Outcomes: Randomized, Double-Blind, and Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trial. Antioxidants 2023, 12(11), 1937

Rationale: Oxidative stress has been identified as a crucial factor leading to genome decay, lipid peroxidation, and nucleoprotein oxidation.

Method: double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial aimed to assess the effect of oral antioxidant treatment (Fertilis), which contains L-carnitine and some micronutrients, in the improvement of conventional sperm parameters, sperm DNA integrity and in vitro fertilization/intracytoplasmic sperm injection (IVF/ICSI) outcomes.

Results: The study outcome revealed a significant decrease in the DNA fragmentation index and a significant increase in sperm motility after 3 months of treatment (p = 0.01 and p = 0.02, respectively). Additionally, a significant improvement in clinical pregnancy rate (p = 0.01) and life birth rate (p = 0.031) was observed. No significant changes were observed in conventional sperm parameters (volume, count, and vitality) or sperm DNA decondensation (SDI).

Conclusion: Antioxidant therapy has a beneficial impact on achieving pregnancy, whether through spontaneous conception or assisted reproductive procedures (ART).

Funding: This research received received funding from the MEDIS laboratories.

Acknowledgments: The authors wish to thank MEDIS laboratories, especially Mohamed Bouchoucha “the general director”, Sonia Hafaiedh “the Medical laboratory director”, Sami Bousetta “the clinical research associate”, and Anis Ghribi “the data manager” for the encouragement and support….

Conflicts of Interest: The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Comment: The funder, Medis, is the maker of “High quality generic pharmaceuticals” like this supplement, no doubt.  Even though the supplement had no effect on the usual measures of sperm number and viability, women who took the suipplessment did better in achieving pregnancy.  I’d say more research needed on this one.  In the meantime, if you believe this result and want to up your sperm quality, eat your veggies!  Practically any fruit or vegetable is rich in antioxidants. Eat the ones you like.

As for “no conflicts of interest.” I respectfully disagree.  Funding from a company that stands to gain from a positive result clearly introduces conflicted interests.

Jan 12 2024

Weekend reading: UK report on industry’s role in poor health

I’m just getting around to reading this report from three groups in the UK: Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), the Obesity Health Alliance (OHA) and the Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA): Holding us back: tobacco, alcohol and unhealthy food and drink.

I learned about it from an article in The Guardian:

The report gives the health statistics: 13% of adults in England smoke, 21% drink above the recommended drinking guidelines, and 64% are overweight or living with obesity,.

NOTE: this report—unlike so many others—examines the political and economic causes of poor health.  It says practically nothing about personal choice or responsibility.  Instead, it focuses on industry profits and the costs of industry profiteering to society.

Big businesses are currently profiting from ill-health caused by smoking, drinking alcohol and eating unhealthy foods, while the public pay the price in poor health, higher taxes and an under-performing economy.

The wage penalty, unemployment and economic inactivity caused by tobacco, alcohol and obesity costs the UK economy an eye-watering £31bn and has led to an estimated 459,000 people out of work.

Meanwhile each year, the industries which sell these products make an estimated £53bn of combined industry revenue from sales at levels harmful to health.

The press release emphasizes the need to curb industry practices: More needs to be done to tackle the unhealthy products driving nearly half a million people out of work.

It recommends, among other things:

  • The Government should take a coherent policy approach to tobacco, alcohol and high fat, salt and/or sugar foods, with a focus on primary prevention.
  • Public health policymaking must be protected from the vested interest of health-harming industry stakeholders.

To do this, it suggests these actions to decrease sales of harmful products (my summary):

  • Restrict advertising
  • Set age limits  for purchase.
  • Do not allow prominent placement in shops.
  • Raise prices; tax.
  • Educate the public about risks (the one place where personal responsibility is considered).
Jan 11 2024

Food crops for biodiesel? Apparently so.

I’ve been appalled by the vast percentage of domestic corn production used to produce ethanol—nearly half.

But I had no idea food crops were also being grown to make diesel fuels—until I saw this tweet/post:

I went right to the source: Renewable Diesel Feedstock Trends over 2011-2022

The growth in renewable diesel production capacity in the U.S. was dramatic in recent years, with capacity in the last two years expanding by 1.8 billion gallons, or 225 percent (farmdoc dailyMarch 8, 2023). ..In a previous farmdoc daily article (May 1, 2023), we examined historical feedstock usage trends for the combined total of renewable diesel and biodiesel over 2011 through 2022.  Our most recent farmdoc daily article (December 11, 2023) article examined feedstock usage trends for biodiesel alone, and found that  soybean oil dominated as a feedstock for FAME [Fatty Acid Methyl Ester] production…(see the complete list of articles here).

Here’s what’s being used for biodiesel production.

I’m OK with animal fats for this purpose.  We aren’t raising animals specifically to produce biofuels.

But: Corn?  Soy?  Canola?

And don’t get me started on the implications of expanding palm oil production for this purpose, or what soybean production is doing to the Brazilian jungles.

This may be great news for Big Ag producers of these commodities, but could we please closely examine the implications of growing food for biofuels on food security, environmental degradation, water use, and climate change.

Note: The New York Times says our diets are to blame for ground water depletion--all those soybeans.  Another reason to question using soybeans to make fuel.  Biodiesel may be more energy efficient than ethanol, but growing crops for either depletes groundwater.

Jan 10 2024

Colombia is taxing ultra-processed foods!

Let’s start the new year with some good news.

I was excited to read in The Lancet that Colombia has enacted a tax on junk foods.

The new tax was included in a wider reform that passed into law in December, 2022, seeking to reduce the
burden of obesity and other diseases on Colombia’s health system, while also bringing in revenue in a country that manages a fiscal deficit.

This is a tax on ultra-processed foods!

The tax is being implemented gradually, beginning at 10%, before rising to 15% in 2024 and 20% in 2025, and targets foods are high in salt and saturated fat, as well as industrially manufactured prepackaged foods.

Colombia already has warning labels.  Here’s who else has them.


The warning label movement!

Now, if we only could get these in the U.S….

But note: not everyone loves the tax.  The Guardian reports charges that it is unfair to the poor.  But so is type 2 diabetes.

Jan 9 2024

The FDA’s somewhat good news on antibiotic use in farm animals (if we believe it)

The FDA issued its most recent report on antibiotics late last year: 2022 Summary Report On Antimicrobials Sold or Distributed for Use in Food-Producing Animals, along with Antimicrobial Sales and Distribution Data 2013-2022.

It did this in response to public concerns about antibiotic use in food animals: if antibiotics are used at subtherapeutic doses, they might induce microbial resistance to drugs used to treat diseases in humans.

This is not a theoretical concern.  It’s a real problem.

It’s also a problem because the vast majority of antibiotics were used as growth promoters or to prevent infections in animals crowded together—not to treat disease.

In 2014 or so, the FDA ruled that medically important antibiotics could no longer be used as growth promoters in farm animals.  That rule went into effect in 2017.

The FDA’s good news: the amounts of antibiotics used in farm animals has declined since then.

Are medically important antibiotics still used for non-therapeutic purposes?

The report says that since 2017, zero antibiotics are administered for growth promotion.

If you wonder whether this is really true (as I do), consider that $11.2 million kilograms of antibiotics were used in food animals in 2022.  This is a decrease from the 15.6 million kg used in 2015, but still a lot.

Of these drugs, 63% are administered in feed, and 31% in water.

All antibiotics still used as growth promoters are supposed to be drugs not used in human medicine.

I’m not the only skeptic on this one.  See:

I.  The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s Antibiotics in agriculture: The blurred line between growth promotion and disease prevention.

In an investigation published today, the Bureau revealed how US farm animals are still being dosed with antibiotics vital to human health, despite efforts to curtail such usage and combat the spread of deadly superbugs. We also found that a regulatory loophole means that using antibiotics to make animals fatter – a process known as growth promotion – is technically still possible, despite this practice being banned in January 2017.

II.  Nature: Antibiotic use in farming set to soar despite drug-resistance fears. Analysis finds antimicrobial drug use in agriculture is much higher than reported.

III.  Vox: Big Meat just can’t quit antibiotics: Meat production is making lifesaving drugs less effective. Where’s the FDA?

According to an analysis published in September by the Natural Resources Defense Council and One Health Trust, medically important antibiotics are increasingly going to livestock instead of humans. In 2017, the meat industry purchased 62 percent of the US supply. By 2020, it rose to 69 percent.

Does the FDA check?  It has guidance for industry on The Judicious Use of Medically Important Antimicrobial Drugs in Food-Producing Animals, but this guidance is non-binding.

Obviously, the FDA needs to do more.  Its officials told Vox:

Veterinarians are on the front lines and as prescribers, they’re in the best position to ensure that both medically important and non-medically important antimicrobials are being used appropriately…We cannot effectively monitor antimicrobial use without first putting a system in place for determining [a] baseline and assessing trends over time.

Vox reports: “The agency right now only collects sales data, and it’s been exploring a voluntary public-private approach to collect and report real-world use data.”

This is not reassuring.  The use of antibiotics in animal agriculture is a long-standing issue.  It requires political will, big time.