Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
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.

Oct 6 2007

Passage to India

I am back from India and still trying to make sense of the experience. India, of course, is a mass of contradictions, one of which is its state of technological development. My hotel room, for example, had an excellent Wi-Fi signal but it was not possible to access it. It was secured and had to be paid for but the hotel had not figured out how to collect the money. Result: no Internet access (they said they were working on it).

Here are just a few snapshots of what I saw of the food-and-health scene in India:

  • From the International Herald Tribune, September 27: “Food is going to be like oil, a product that gets more expensive as China and India get richer…There is a growing population that is improving its standard of living and wants to eat more.”
  • From the New Delhi Express, September 30: the percentage of extremely poor people in India (those earning up to 7 rupees—17 cents!–per day) fell from 26.1% in 2000 to 21.8% in 2005, but the proportion of the population that earns less than $2 per day rose to 77%–meaning 836 million people. This means that India’s new prosperity is doing some good for the rest of the population, which means 350 million people.
  • If you want food in small villages on the road from Delhi to Jaipur, or anywhere else in rural areas around Delhi, the easiest option is to buy it at small stands, of which there are many, everywhere. All of them sell 3-ounce bags of Frito-Lay chips for 20 rupees (50 cents). Frito-Lay is owned by PepsiCo; its ability to distribute products to the remotest areas is truly astounding. Pringles are also ubiquitous in this part of India, but they are very expensive–65 or 70 rupees a tube, an amount close to the average daily income of 2/3 of India’s vast population.
  • From a medical doctor who works in a mobile clinic: “We expected to be treating infections but instead we are overwhelmed with type 2 diabetes and hypertension.”
  • Newspapers reported that the municipal water authority in Hyderabad has been selling water to Coca-Cola at one quarter of the price it charges community residents.
  • Regulation of genetically modified foods is under dispute; the environment ministry is refusing to deal with the health and safety concerns even though his ministry is supposed to. Cornell University scientists are conducting tests in India of GM eggplants.
  • New Delhi is a sprawling city of small, low buildings and hundreds of thousands of tiny shops–but for how much longer? Its finance minister says India must open its $330 billion retail market to foreign investors, but doing so “will require convincing mom-and-pop stores across the country that the entry of big players would not affect their jobs.” This may be a hard sell. Wal-Mart is first in line. As the Wall Street Journal put it last month, “International expansion is critical for Wal-Mart…A typical store will stand between 50,000 and 100,000 square feet and sell a wide range of fruits and vegetables.” In Delhi, fruits and vegetables are sold from street stands. There are no large supermarkets in this city of 14 million people. Small (very small by our standards) supermarkets are just coming in. They mostly sell packaged foods. Most people in Delhi buy fruits and vegetables at street stands or mini farmers’ markets, of which there are many.
  • Small grocery stores in Delhi sell Kellogg Chocos (the equivalent of Cocoa Puffs) cereal with a cartoon of a young Krishna on the package. When I bought it, the clerk handed me a free Krishna game CD. The back of the box says: “Being a mother is difficult, more so in the mornings.” The solution? Chocos! As it explains, “1 serving of Kellogg’s Chocos = Fibre of 2 chapattis + Calcium of 2 glasses of milk.” On the side panel: Chocos “provides adequate energy and nutrients for the body and brain, helps improve school performance, helps keep weight under control, and helps you feel full.” Marketing to children has arrived! I showed photographs of this box in the lecture I gave on Gandhi’s birthday.
  • McDonald’s restaurants are all over Delhi. They serve hamburgers (20 rupees) but in this largely vegetarian country mostly sell things like Chicken Maharajah Macs, Wrap Paneer Salsas, and Shahi Paneer McCurry Pans (55 to 65 rupees).
  • I thought I knew Indian food. Wrong. I did a sampling one night at Dilli Haat, a state-run market that has food stalls (and gorgeous handicrafts) from the major regions of India. The cuisines are different, each more glorious than the next.
Oct 6 2007

The Navdanya Movement

I was able to go to Dehradun, a 6-hour train ride north of Delhi, to visit Bija Vidjapeeth, the Navdanya (“nine seeds”) center where Vandana Shiva and her colleagues run an experimental organic farm, a seed bank, and an educational facility to teach farmers how to grow “biodiverse” crops (they also run courses for visitors).

Most farmers in India have less than an acre of land. By biodiversity, they mean growing multiple crops—grains, legumes, vegetables that complement each other–on the small plot, rather than one cash crop like rice or some other grain. One of these plots planted in rice might bring a farmer 5000 rupees ($125) per year, but out of this he will have to buy seeds, fertilizer, and food for his family. Planted in multiple crops, a farmer can sell the higher value items, feed his family, and triple his income to 15,000 rupees ($375) per year, enough to bring the family out of dire poverty and send the kids to school.

Navdanya gives seeds to farmers and teaches them how to use them; farmers are expected to return the seeds the following year or give seeds to two other farmers. Its programs are in 17 Indian states and Navdanya seeds have gone to about 100,000 farmers so far.

Half of the 20-acre farm is trust land planted in mango trees. The rest is experimental plots, the garden, and the buildings for lectures and dormitories. It is in a valley at the foot of the Himalayas, and beautiful country in sharp contrast to Delhi’s sprawl.

Sep 25 2007

Going to India: Returning October 6

I am leaving this afternoon to give the annual Howard lecture at the Navdanya Center for Biodiversity run by Vandana Shiva. This lecture, held on the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi on October 2, is named after Sir Albert Howard who helped found the organic farming movement in India. The lecture celebrates sustainable non-violent agriculture in India.

I’m not sure about the electronic arrangements and I will be doing some traveling so I may not be able to keep up with the postings. In the meantime, take a look at the China bloggings of Jim Harkness, who heads the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, and is in China visiting organic farms and other innovative agricultural initiatives. Jim is fluent in Mandarin so what he hears does not get too lost in translation. I will post if I can. Otherwise, I’ll be back October 6.

Sep 24 2007

Fed Up: America’s Killer diet

In case you missed CNN’s weekend investigative report on America’s obesity epidemic, you get another chance online. I was interviewed for it and appear for 5 seconds right at the beginning. I’m always suspicious of programs that show lots of pictures of overweight people (with heads discreetly cut off); they usually miss key points as well as being insensitive. I’m curious to know what you thought of it. CNN went to a lot of trouble to do all those interviews and all that filming. What did you learn from it? Do tell.

Sep 23 2007

CSPI hosts kids’ video contest

The Center for Science in the Public Interest is running a “Junk-Free Schools Video Contest” (see information about how to enter). It invites young filmmakers to make the case for getting junk food out of schools. The winner will receive a $100 gift certificate for iTunes and CSPI will showcase the video on its school foods website. Deadline: November 1, 2007. Get busy!