Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Aug 16 2007

Job Ad: Food Systems Director, Chicago

This seems like such a good job that it deserves wide publicity. Feel free to send it around to whoever might be interested and qualified.

The Fresh Taste Initiative was formed to advance the growth of diverse local agriculture and healthy eating in Chicago and across Illinois. Initiative partners, including a number of Illinois foundations and the City of Chicago, are committed to changing the manner in which food is produced, distributed, and consumed in Illinois. Funded by the partners and a W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant, the three-year Initiative will provide leadership that brings together stakeholders across all sectors of the state’s food system for conversations and action that will lead to this change.

The Initiative seeks a director to convene, connect, and enable the public, private, philanthropic, and not-for-profit actors who will be key in reaching its goal of growing 10% of the region’s food locally. Core responsibilities will include identifying opportunities to advance the Initiative’s objectives, recommending priorities for partner funding, developing a long-term strategy for achieving the 10% goal, increasing the level of investment in the Initiative’s work, and connecting potential actors, investors, and funders.

For additional information please visit The Himmelfarb Group (search consultant) website, or contact Meghan Strubel at 708-848-0086.

Aug 15 2007

Sponsored Science

While I am on the subject of food company sponsorship of nutrition and medical professionals, I might as well say something about sponsored research. Analyses of the phenomenon show that when research is sponsored by food companies, it almost always produces results that favor the sponsor’s products. Two recent examples from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: a study comparing the effects of soft drinks sweetened with high fructose corn syrup or sugar (sucrose) finds no difference in perceived sweetness, hunger, or calorie intake. I wouldn’t expect it to, but the study was funded by a grant from the American Beverage Association, which has a vested interest in proving that soft drinks have no effect on obesity. This next one is even better: here is a study showing that if you eat corn or tortilla chips fried in corn oils, which are largely polyunsaturated, your blood cholesterol will be healthier than if you eat chips fried in saturated and trans fats. I thought we knew that already. But doing a study like this gives the sponsor a usable conclusion: “Therefore, if chosen wisely, even snack foods that are often considered to be ‘junk food’ can contribute to a heart-healthy diet.” Would it surprise you to learn that the study was funded in part by Frito-Lay/PepsiCo? I wonder how long it will take to see this research celebrated in Frito-Lay ads.

Aug 15 2007

Dunkin Donuts Cares About Nutrition?

Thanks to Ellen Fried for sending me the announcement that Dunkin’ Donuts has just appointed a nutrition advisory committee. You might think that it needs one. As is nearly always the case, the members are mostly university professors of nutrition, medicine, and related fields, some of them quite well known. Lots of food companies are appointing such boards. PepsiCo, for example, has a breathtakingly distinguished nutrition advisory board. One of its members, Dr. Dean Ornish, also writes a column for McDonald’s. Academics join the boards in the hope that they can work from within to get the companies to produce healthier foods. I often get asked to join such boards (not this one though), but I politely decline. The goals of food companies have to be to sell more products, healthy or not. The boards make the companies look like they are trying to do something about nutrition, even if they really can’t. When I see my nutrition colleagues joining such boards, I just hope they are getting paid really well for doing so.

Aug 15 2007

How Much Weight Should Pregnant Women Gain?

I can’t believe that doctors are still arguing about how much weight women should gain during pregancy. A big Institute of Medicine report in 1990 seemed to have settled the question. It said that the amount you should gain depends on how much you weigh before getting pregnant. On average, women of normal weight should gain 25-35 pounds, underweight women could gain up to 40 pounds, and overweight women should restrict weight gain to 15 pounds. Doctors are now worried that the upper limits are so high that they encourage women to gain so much that they can’t lose it afterward. These doctors want the guidelines revisited. Perhaps they should be. I had my children in the era when normal weight women like me were advised not to gain more than 15 pounds and the doctors yelled at us if we gained a pound or more between appointments. Those of us who followed the advice, dieted during pregnancy (yikes!), and didn’t gain so much had smaller babies than women do now. Weighing more–up to a point–is better for babies. It will be interesting to see how the new Institute of Medicine committee manages to balance the benefits of heavier infants against too heavy a weight gain in the moms. Weight recommendations have changed drastically in my lifetime and the advice still isn’t settled.

Aug 15 2007

Playing with Obesity Maps

The Center for Family and Community Health at UC Berkeley passes along information from RevolutionHealth about that site’s interactive maps that display the rise in rates of obesity in the United States from 1990 to 2006, for the entire United States, and by state. Watch the colors of the states get darker as the rates increase. Click on Texas and you can see the rates more than double from 12.3% to 26.1% of the population. But if you are from Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska, or Nevada, you are out of luck; the maps have data for all states except those.

Aug 14 2007

More on Kids’ Preference for McDonald’s

The New York Times has just caught up with the study demonstrating that 3 to 5 year old kids prefer foods in McDonald’s wrappers even when foods in plain wrappers also come from McDonald’s (see my previous post on McDonald’s). Advertising Age, however, has quite another interpretation of this research: bad science (“small sample, obvious agenda”). My favorite part of the Advertising Age story is the advice given to McDonald’s by an expert in damage control. “One good way to handle it, he said, would be to plant some experts or scientists on TV to debunk the study, rather than offer up McDonald’s own executives.”

Right–let’s spin the best science money can buy. Give McDonald’s credit for handling this “crisis” without resorting to such tactics.

Aug 13 2007

Good News About School Meals?

The School Nutrition Association says that school wellness policies are doing great things. It reports that nearly all of the schools it surveyed recently are now offering fat-free or low-fat milk, fresh fruits and vegetables, salad bars or pre-packaged salads, and yogurt or yogurt drinks–a big change from just a few years ago. Also, one-third of the surveyed schools are offering locally grown foods. Are the surveyed schools representative of what’s really going on? Are kids eating the healthier options? Do tell.

In the meantime, the Fort Worth Star Telegram (August 12) describes the changes taking place in Texas lunchrooms under the auspices of the amazing Department of Agriculture in that state. In Texas, of all places, agriculture authorities are doing everything they can to provide healthier meals for school kids. If it can be done in Texas….

Aug 13 2007

FTC Demands Company Info on Marketing to Kids

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the agency that regulates food advertising, has just ordered a large group of food companies that make junk foods targeted to children to reveal how much money they are spending on advertising each of their products in general and to children, minorities, and other target groups. The FTC wants specific information about expenditures on marketing through traditional as well as modern kid-friendly channels: TV, radio, and print media, but also company-sponsored and other Internet sites, movie theaters, video games, in-store promotions, premium distributions, product placements, character licensing, sports sponsorships, word-of-mouth and “viral” campaigns, in-school, celebrity endorsements, and philanthropy, among others.

This is an astonishing action by the FTC, an agency that usually promotes food marketing and protects companies’ rights to do so. The last time the FTC tried to do something about the marketing of junk foods to kids–just on television–was in 1979. Then, Congress intervened, fired the head of the FTC, and passed a law allowing such marketing to continue. Well, times have changed in the intervening decades. Even little kids are now overweight and developing type 2 diabetes, reason enough to try to address the problem. At the end of 2005, the Institute of Medicine’s committee examining food marketing to kids complained that companies would not give it “proprietary” information about advertising expenditures or sales. So let’s give the FTC lots of credit for demanding this information and for considering how to put some curbs on the unchecked greed of companies pushing junk foods to kids.