Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Mar 4 2019

Industry-funded study of the week: artificial sweeteners and the microbiome

The study: Assessing the in vivo data on low/no-calorie sweeteners and the gut microbiota.  Alexandra R. Lobacha, Ashley Roberts, Ian R. Rowland. Food and Chemical Toxicology 124 (2019) 385–399.

Its conclusion: “The sum of the data provides clear evidence that changes in the diet unrelated to LNCS [low- and no-calorie sweeteners] consumption are likely the major determinants of change in gut microbiota numbers and phyla, confirming the viewpoint supported by all the major international food safety and health regulatory authorities that LNCS are safe at currently approved levels.”

Funding disclosures: Intertek Scientific & Regulatory Consultancy (A.R.L. and A.R.) received financial support from the Calorie Control Council to assist in the preparation of the manuscript. The Calorie Control Council did not contribute to the origination, planning, implementation, or interpretation of this work. The Calorie Control Council did review the content of the complete manuscript; however, A.R. maintained responsibility for the final content.

Comment: Artificial sweeteners are widely suspected on the basis of questionable evidence to be harmful in one way or another.  The industry that makes these sweeteners wants to prove them safe and effective.  This was a literature review commissioned by the Calorie Control Council, a trade association for the makers and users of artificial sweeteners, from Intertek Scientific & Regulatory Consultancy, a group that does this kind of work.  I would be more confident in conclusions like these if they had been arrived at independently.

Mar 1 2019

Weekend reading: Krimsky’s GMOs Decoded

Nestle M.  Foreword to Sheldon Krimsky.  GMOs Decoded: A Skeptic’s View of Genetically Modified Foods.  MIT Press, 2019.

You might notice that I wrote the Foreword to this book.  Here’s what I said:

GMO’s Decoded is a gift to anyone confused about genetically modified foods.  In this latest addition to Sheldon Krimsky’s prolific output of books about how societies interact with new technologies, he takes on a formidable challenge–to examine the science of GMOs as a basis for dealing with the ferocious politics they incite.  I use “ferocious” advisedly.  Positions about GMOs appear polarized to the point of outright hostility.  Krimsky wants détente.   If we understood the science better, we might be able to achieve more nuanced views of the risks and benefits of GMOs and of the genetic techniques used to create them.

To anyone familiar with Krimsky’s previous and ongoing work, this book may come as a surprise.  Trained in physics and philosophy, Krimsky is a sharp critic of the role of technology in society with particular interests in the ethical implications of genetics and biotechnology and in risk communication.  I have long admired his work for its firm grounding in science and its clear delineation of the ways in which political, cultural, and other societal factors color perceptions of the safety and other risks of new technologies.

In GMO’s Decoded, Krimsky takes a deep dive into the science of food biotechnology on its own, separate from issues related to how the science is used by the companies producing and profiting from GMOs, or is interpreted by proponents, critics, or the general public.  An attempt to discuss the science of GMOs distinct from its politics may appear foolhardy, if not impossible, and Krimsky deserves much praise for taking this on.

I speak from experience.  My book about food biotechnology, Safe Food, first published in 2003, began with a reference to C.P. Snow’s two-culture problem—what Snow called the “gulf of incomprehension” between scientists and nonscientists over matters of technological risk.  To greatly oversimplify: scientists argue that if GMOs are safe, they are fully acceptable and no further criticism is justified.  But to nonscientists, safety is only one of many concerns about GMOs and not necessarily the most important.   Holders of this broader view argue that even if GMOs are safe, they still may not be acceptable for reasons of ethics, social desirability, unfair distribution, nontransparent marketing, or inequitable and undemocratic control of the food supply.

What I observed in discussing those issues, and continue to observe, is the discounting of anything other than safety by extreme proponents of GMOs who perceive even the slightest question about nonsafety issues as an attack on the entire industry.  This has forced critics of GMOs to focus on safety issues rather than the far less quantifiable issues of social desirability, pushing critics into positions that deny the possibility of any benefit of GMOs.  The result: Snow’s gulf of incomprehension.

Is the gulf bridgeable?  Krimsky argues yes.  From the perspective of the science, GMOs can either benefit or harm society.  It behooves us all to try to understand what the science is about as a basis for coming to more informed opinions about the uses, value, and risks of GMOs—the politics.

But before getting to what Krimsky does in this book, I want to make one point about GMO politics: the GMO industry brought the polarization on itself.  As I explained in Safe Food, the first GMO food, the FlavrSavr tomato, was intended to be marketed transparently as a triumph of American technological achievement (I still have itss label in my files).  British supermarkets sold tomato paste prominently labeled as genetically modified without opposition.  That changed under industry pressure for nondisclosure.  I was a member of the FDA’s Food Advisory Committee in 1994 when the agency ruled against labeling GMOs, despite evidence that trust requires transparency.  The GMO industry fought labeling then, and won, and continues to spend fortunes fighting labeling.

The industry also promised that food biotechnology would feed the world and create new foods that would solve problems for the developing world, such as those able to withstand poor soil conditions, excessive heat, and limited water.  But instead, the industry concentrated on far more profitable insect- and herbicide-resistant first-world crops, a strategy criticized for the effects on society of its monoculture, patented seeds, heavy use of herbicides, herbicide-resistant weeds, and destruction of beneficial insects.  The potential for foods with consumer benefits remains, but has been largely unrealized.  Trust requires fulfilled promises.

As readers of Krimsky’s previous books surely know, he cares about such issues and others related to the politics of GMOs and their societal impact.  But in this book, he wants readers to realize that the risks and benefits of GMOs depend on understanding the state of their science.  Here, he takes on the scientific questions, one by one, clearly and dispassionately.  This must have taken courage and a great deal of work.  The science of GMOs is complicated and occurs at the level of molecules–DNA, RNA, and protein, of course, but also a host of less familiar molecules responsible for making genetic modifications work.

Fortunately, Krimsky writes clearly and succinctly about such things, his descriptions are easy to follow, and he defines terms as they are needed.  He begins by asking whether GMOs differ from foods produced by traditional breeding and if they do, whether the differences matter.  He wants to know how GMOs affect health and the environment, whether they really are more productive than conventional crops, and whether they use fewer pesticides and herbicides.  He asks whether they GMOs have nutritional or other benefits for consumers, and whether and how they should be labeled.  He deals with these questions in short chapters, along with others, that examine methods and risk assessment, review what expert committees say about such matters, and use Golden Rice as a case in point.

Krimsky’s presentation of the divergent viewpoints about what the science means is exceptionally fair and even-handed.  He insists that:

“This book is not about taking sides.  My experience in studying scientific controversies that have public policy implications is that there are often truths, falsehoods, exaggerations, assumptions, fear-mongering, and uncertainties in the claims found on multiple sides of an issue.  This book will succeed if it…demystifies the science and shows where there is consensus, honest disagreement, or unresolved uncertainty. ”

I think it succeeds admirably.  Krimsky is straightforward about his own assessments.  For example–spoiler alert—he concludes that evidence supports a qualitative difference between traditional and molecular breeding of food plants.  On other questions, when he assesses the science as inconclusive, he says so.  He wants readers to understand the complexity of the scientific issues, to be skeptical of arguments from either extreme in the debates, and to adopt nuanced positions on GMOs.  Some aspects of GMOs may be worth opposing, but some may well be worth promoting.  We all need to know the difference.

Krimsky tells us that in researching this book, his own positions became less polarized and more nuanced.  Reading it, mine did too.  Now it’s your turn.

–Marion Nestle, New York, August 2018

Feb 27 2019

The tragedy of Brexit: not enough Pringles

At last, an explanation of the effects of Brexit on the British economy that I can understand: a Pringle shortage!

The New York Times helpfully reports

As Brexit looms, Kellogg Co and Mondelez International Inc are taking measures to protect Britons from a potential shortage of Pringles chips, BelVita biscuits and Milka chocolate.

With Britain at risk of leaving the European Union on March 29 without a divorce deal – known as a ‘hard’ Brexit – several big companies have begun to prepare for the disruption that could ensue.

Kellogg is opening new warehouses and stocking up on its snacks and cereals, hoping to mitigate damage from friction at the UK border and tariffs on imports, Chief Executive Steve Cahillane said in a recent interview…Cahillane said Kellogg’s supply chain left it exposed. For instance, Pringles, the UK’s No. 2 chips (crisps) brand after PepsiCo Inc’s Walkers, are made in Belgium.

I guess the British should have thought of that.  Alas.

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Feb 26 2019

At last: the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee

Very late in the process, the USDA and HHS have finally announced the membership of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee for 2020:

Today the Secretaries of USDA and HHS announced 20 nationally recognized experts who have been selected to serve on the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.

The independent Advisory Committee will review the scientific evidence on topics from the Departments and provide a report to the Secretaries that, along with public and agency comments, will help inform USDA and HHS’s development of the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

I know several of the members.  I served with Barbara Schneeman on the 1995 DGAC, for example.

Some members have financial ties to food companies with deep interests in the what the guidelines say.  This is despite the agencies’ statements that

The vetting process also included a background check by the USDA Office of the Secretary to determine if any of the candidates have a financial, ethical, legal, and/or criminal conflict of interest that would prohibit them from serving on the Committee…Each Committee member submitted a financial disclosure report prior to appointment and will continue to do so annually thereafter. Each report was reviewed by USDA ethics officials for financial conflicts of interest and compliance with Federal ethics rules.

Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich asked groups to say who they nominated to the committee.  What she found is here, but behind a paywall.  I’ve added the information from these lists in red.  She is still trying to find out who nominated the others.

  • Jamy Ard, MD – Wake Forest University
  • Regan Bailey, PhD, MPH, RD – Purdue University, Department of Nutrition Science Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
  • Lydia Bazzano, MD, PhD – Tulane University  Atkins Nutritional
  • Carol Boushey, PhD, MPH, RD – University of Hawaii  National Cattlemen’s Beef Association
  • Teresa Davis, PhD – Baylor College of Medicine
  • Kathryn Dewey, PhD – University of California, Davis
  • Sharon Donovan, PhD, RD – University of Illinois
  • Steven Heymsfield, MD – Louisiana State University American Beverage Association
  • Ronald Kleinman, MD – Harvard University
  • Heather Leidy, PhD – University of Texas National Cattlemen’s Beef Association
  • Richard Mattes, PhD, MPH, RD – Purdue University Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
  • Elizabeth Mayer-Davis, PhD, RD – University of North Carolina
  • Timothy Naimi, MD – Boston University
  • Rachel Novotny, PhD, RDN, LD – University of Hawaii
  • Joan Sabaté, DrPH, MD – Loma Linda University
  • Barbara Schneeman, PhD – University of California, Davis  American Beverage Association
  • Linda Snetselaar, PhD, RD – University of Iowa Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
  • Jamie Stang, PhD – University of Minnesota, School of Public Health, Division of Epidemiology & Community Health Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
  • Elsie Taveras, MD, MPH – Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and Harvard Chan School of Public Health
  • Linda Van Horn, PhD, RDN, LD – Northwestern University

As for transparency:

Helena Bottemiller Evich (@hbottemiller) tweeted at 11:36 AM on Fri, Feb 22, 2019:
Everyone says they want a “more transparent” Dietary Guidelines process, but the minute I ask for who X group nominated to be on DGAC food/ag/health groups are like https://t.co/6J8GJnGpD7
(https://twitter.com/hbottemiller/status/1099030227009835008?s=03)

Overall, this looks to me like any other DGAC except that there are twice as many members as in the past.

Their job is to review the research and write a report.  The agencies write the guidelines.

I will be following all this with great interest, as always.

 

Feb 25 2019

Industry-funded study of the week: avocados

I love avocados and think they—like all fruits and vegetables—are just fine to eat.

But avocado trade associations want us to eat more avocados.

A reporter sent me correspondence from an executive from a public relations firm that must represent some such trade association.  Over a period of about a month, the PR person sent the reporter four emails.  Here is message #4:

Subject: New avocado research just in time for American Heart Month

Sorry for the nudge – I just wanted to check in one more time to see if you’re working on any heart health related stories in which avocados could be a fit. If so, I thought your readers may find this research helpful. Either way, please let me know and I will stop bugging you 😊

The previous three messages extolled the heart-healthy benefits of eating avocados and offered to connect the reporter to a dietitian (identified by name) “for a phone or email interview to discuss this further and answer any questions.”

None of the messages stated who the PR firm or dietitian were working for.

But take a look at the research article.

The study’s conclusion: “Incorporating fresh Hass avocados in meals can help people achieve dietary recommendations to eat more fruits and vegetables and simple substitution strategies with avocados for carbohydrates can add to the nutrient diversity of the diet and potentially have important cardio-metabolic benefits worthy of investigating further.”

No surprise: “This research was supported by the Hass Avocado Board, Irvine, CA, USA.”  One of the authors “is a member of Avocado Nutrition Science Advisory.”

The reporter’s response to all this, and I quote: “AAAAHGGHGHGH.”

Mine too.

Feb 22 2019

Weekend reading: Rabobank’s survey of food-industry trends

I like receiving Rabobank’s occasional research reports on trends in the food industry. This one gives the results of its annual survey, which asked industry leaders this question: “In the world of food, what surprised you the most over the last twelve months?”

The answers:

  • Everything changes
  • The future is flexitarian
  • Food loves tech, sometimes
  • Campbell’s implosion and the ongoing misfortunes of Big Food
  • The “Wild West” of CBD [cannabis]
  • “Nothing surprises me anymore”
  • Other surprises

I was surprised to see myself getting the last word in this last category:

Feb 21 2019

The FDA is taking on the supplement industry?

I thought the FDA had decided long ago that dietary supplements were untouchable, given the Courts’ interpretation of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994.  DSHEA essentially deregulated dietary supplements and blocked the FDA from doing much about them unless it could prove substantial harm.

Whenever the FDA tried to intervene, supplement companies took the agency to court on First Amendment grounds, and won most of the time.  So the FDA appeared to have given up.

But here we have FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announcing new steps to take back some oversight of this industry.

These steps include communicating to the public as soon as possible when there is a concern about a dietary supplement on the market, ensuring that our regulatory framework is flexible enough to adequately evaluate product safety while also promoting innovation, continuing to work closely with our industry partners, developing new enforcement strategies and continuing to engage in a public dialogue to get valuable feedback from dietary supplement stakeholders.

The FDA issued a press release to announce 12 warning letters and 5 online advisory letters to companies illegally selling more than 58 misbranded products claimed to prevent or treat Alzheimer’s disease.  The demographic change to an aging population:

has been accompanied by a growth in the number of marketers who prey on this population, pitching products that make unproven claims that they can prevent, treat, delay, or even cure Alzheimer’s disease.  These purported miracle cures are sold primarily on the Internet. They are often, though not always, falsely labeled as dietary supplements. Regardless of their form, these products fly in the face of true science. What these companies are selling is the false hope that there is an effective treatment or cure.

Commissioner Gottlieb also sent out a chain of Twitter announcements explaining what this is about.

Cheers to the FDA for this one.  And now get busy on the rest of the bad apples in this barrel.

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Feb 20 2019

What is a portion size? The British Nutrition Foundation’s answer

Lisa Young, author of Finally Full, Finally Slim, has long argued that portion control is the key to maintaining healthy weight.

Now, the industry-funded (see list here) British Nutrition Foundation has issued a “handy” guide to appropriate portion sizes.

I put “handy” in quotes because the system is based on hand measurements.

The guide tells you how many servings you are supposed to have each day from each of the major food groups, and how to tell the serving size for a very long list of foods.

I find all of this hugely complicated, and don’t think you should need to learn what looks like a guide to sign language to know how to eat.

I’m especially suspicious because the Nutrition Foundation is an industry-sponsored group and it is very much in the interest of the food industry to have you take full responsibility for controlling your own food intake.  If you eat too much, it’s your fault for not learning this system.

How about food companies making and serving smaller portions?  Nope.  It’s up to you to take greater personal responsibility for what you eat.

Try this for yourself and see what I mean.

  • The guide is here.
  • The full list of portion sizes is here.
  • A one-page summary is here.