Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
May 27 2024

Rest in peace, Morgan Spurlock

This is Memorial Day, and it seems appropriate to use this time and space to mourn the death of filmmaker Morgan Spurlock last week.  He was only 53.

I had brief appearances as a talking head in Super Size Me! (2004) and also Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken! (2017)—although so briefly that I did not get mentioned in the credits.

Super Size Me

Super Size Me! was the first time I was interviewed for a major documentary and I wish I could remember more about its filming, which took place a year or so before the film’s release.  By the time it came out, I had forgotten about it, but was invited to the premier—a thrilling experience.

The film was fun—enormously entertaining as well as educational.  Morgan was a great storyteller, and one with a mission to improve the American diet.  The first film focused on overeating fast food.  The second focused more on food system issues; it too is well worth seeing.

In 2019, I wrote a blog post about the second film which, when released, was accompanied by a pop-up restaurant: “From my food politics point of view, the film is a must-see.  It is a compelling, beautifully photographed, disturbing, cynical, utterly devastating account of industrial chicken production.”

Spurlock was a great filmmaker, and I view the end of his life as a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.   He took a highly ethical position and wrote a confession about his poor behavior toward women.  This destroyed his career and the film disappeared.

I hoped he would recover from that and did not know of his illness.  His loss saddens me enormously. I hope his memory will be a blessing.

Addition, May 28: I’m quoted in an assessment of Spurlock’s work in the Times of London. 

May 24 2024

Weekend reading: Food Crises

The first line in this report says it all: “This Global Report on Food Crises is a roll call of human failings.”

It does not get cheerier: “In 2023, 281.6 million people, or 21.5 percent of the analyzed population faced high levels of acutte food insecurity in 59 food-crisis countries/territories.”

This report does not make for easy reading, but we need to face the realities: conflicts, weather extremes, economic shocks, and decreased humanitarian funding.

Some of these, we can—and ought to—do something about.

May 23 2024

Farm Bill lobbying

Since we are talking this week about the Farm Bill, take a look at this report from the Union of Concerned Scientists: Cultivating Control: Corporate Lobbying on the Food and Farm Bill.
Its major findings:
  • Interest groups spent more than $523 million on Farm Bill issues between 2019 and 2023.
  • Agribusiness spends more on lobbying than the gas or oil industries.
  • 561 groups reported lobbying on Farm Bill issues.
  • Agribusiness players donated $3.4 million to election campaigns, mainly to members of the House and Senate Ag committees.

The AARP (at $15 million) and Feeding America (6 million) are the main lobbyists for public health issues, but their expenditures pale in comparison to that of the top contributors.

Lobbyists must disclose spending and on what, but not their positions.  These, you have to guess, but that’s not hard to do.


May 22 2024

Digging into Farm Bill proposals: Is public health possible?

Deeply buried in the 942 pages (I’m not kidding) of the House version of the Farm Bill is this item in the Nutrition title.


Subtitle A—Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP]


Congress recognizes the supplemental nutrition assistance program allows low-income households to obtain supplemental food for an active, healthy life. Such assistance should also be designed to prevent—

(1) diet-caused chronic disease, including—
(A) obesity;
(B) diabetes;
(C) hypertension;
(D) heart disease; and
(E) cancer;
(2) disability;
(3) premature death;
(4) unsustainable health care costs; and
(5) undermining of military readiness.

Accordingly, it is also the policy of the Congress that the Secretary should administer the supplemental nutrition assistance program in a manner that will provide participants, especially children, access to foods essential to optimal health and well-being.

Comment: I can’t think of a better statement of the need for policies to address chronic disease risks in the population.  I’ve never seen anything like this before.  It’s thrilling, and deserves wildly enthusiastic support from the public health community.

It is not getting it.  On the contrary.

This is disappointing, but we are talking here about the Farm Bill (see my Politico explanation,  “The farm bill drove me insane).

To oversimplify: The Farm Bill is a shotgun marriage between Big Ag (Republicans) and SNAP (Democrats).

If Republicans want to support Big Ag, they have to vote for SNAP.   If Democrats want to support SNAP, they have to vote for farm supports.  This requires extreme compromise and nose-holding.

So why is the public health nutrition community opposed to a bill that includes such a strong statement of public health policy?

For this, see another item buried in the Nutrition title.

Subtitle D—Other Miscellaneous Provisions

‘Thrifty food plan’ means the diet required to feed a family of 4 persons …based on relevant market baskets that shall only be changed pursuant to paragraph (3)….

(3) REEVALUATION OF MARKET BASKETS…(C) COST NEUTRALITY.—The Secretary shall not increase the cost of the thrifty food plan based on a reevaluation or update under this paragraph.

Translation: The Thrifty Food Plan, the basis for setting the benefit level for SNAP, cannot be increased.  The hunger advocacy community estimates that because of inflation, this will decrease SNAP benefits by $30 billion over the next years.

For the nutrition advocacy community, this is the line in the sand. With this clause in the proposed bill, they have to oppose the whole thing.

Neither of these clauses is in the Senate version.

My proposal: Put section 4101 in the final bill and eliminate 12401.

Hey, I can dream…

[Thanks to Jerry Mande of Nourish Science for keeping me up on Farm Bill progress]

May 21 2024

FDA unapproves tara flour as a food ingredient

Last week, the FDA essentially took tara flour out of the food supply.

Today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) posted on its website its determination that tara flour in human food does not meet the Generally Recognized As Safe (or GRAS) standard and is an unapproved food additive. The FDA’s assessment of the ingredient is detailed in a memo added to the agency’s public inventory.

The FDA explained what this is about.

In 2022, Daily Harvest used tara flour in a leek and lentil crumble product which was associated with roughly 400 adverse event reports. The firm took prompt action to voluntarily recall the product and conduct their own root cause analysis, during which they identified tara flour as a possible contributor to the illnesses. To date, the FDA has found no evidence that tara flour caused the outbreak; however, it did prompt the agency to evaluate the regulatory status of this food ingredient.

Daily Harvest makes frozen vegan meals for home delivery.  One of these meals contained tara flour.  Of 26,000 such meals sent out, 400 caused eaters to become desperately sick, some needing hospitalization, some needing surgery (I’ve met some of them).

In my posts, I speculated about why tara flour could cause such severe reactions.

Bill Marler, the food safety lawyer representing a great many of the victims, pushed the FDA to get tara flour out of the food supply before anyone else got sick.  His December 2023 letter reviews what is known about this situation to date.  The FDA paid attention!

Now, two years later, the FDA is doing what it can to prevent tara flour from getting into the food supply.  Good.

Here’s what I’ve had to say about this:

Here’s what Food Safety News has to say.  It notes more cases than are reported by the FDA, many of them represented by food-safety attorney Bill Marler.

Daily Harvest seems to have survived this tragedy, is still in business, and right on top of currents trends.  Its latest:

Daily Harvest’s January Jumpstart program features GLP-1-focused meal plans:  Daily Harvest’s debut of its GLP-1 Companion Food Collection as part of its quick-to-prep January Jumpstart plan includes “meals made with only real foods that are calorie-conscious while delivering ample vitamins and minerals,” Carolina Schneider, MS, RD, Daily Harvest’s nutrition advisor, told FoodNavigator-USA…. Read more

May 20 2024

Industry-sponsored study of the week: ashwagandha

I learned about this one from FoodNavigator-Europe.

Ashwagandha has ‘tremendous potential’ for promoting healthy aging: Review:  Ashwagandha could serve as a potent anti-aging ingredient by improving immune system function and acting as an antioxidant, according to a review published in Frontiers in Nutrition…. Read more

This is the kind of headline that makes me ask: “Who paid for this?”

FoodNavigator usually provides references, so I could easily look this one up.

The study: Current insights into transcriptional role(s) for the nutraceutical Withania somnifera in inflammation and aging.  Praful Saha, Saiprasad Ajgaonkar,  Dishant Maniar, Simran Sahare, , Dilip Mehta,  Sujit NairFront. Nutr., 03 May 2024. Volume 11 – 2024 |

Conclusions: “Management of aging is difficult due to its progressive and irreversible nature, as well as the comorbidities associated with aging. However, the quality of biological aging can be improvised by recent advancements including intervention with nutraceuticals that can modulate the transcriptional activity of different genes implicated in aging and age-related complications…Taken together, given the modulation of key RNA markers in aging and inflammation pathways, there is tremendous potential for harnessing the beneficial effects of Withania for achieving healthy aging.”

Funding: “The author(s) declare that no financial support was received for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.”

Conflict of interest: “PS, SA, DMa, SS, DMe, and SN were employed by PhytoVeda Pvt. Ltd. and Viridis Biopharma Pvt. Ltd., Mumbai, India. The author(s) declared that they were an editorial board member of Frontiers, at the time of submission. This had no impact on the peer review process and the final decision.”

Comment:  I looked up Viridis BioPharma.

Viridis BioPharma is a marketing, manufacturing and research company that deals with active ingredients for the pharmaceutical, nutraceuticals, food and cosmetic industries, medicated dressings and formulations to treat wounds, burns and other novel clinically proven topical formulations.  What drives us is the desire to extend lifespans and, more than that, to extend health and wellbeing at every stage of life.

Employees of this and the other company developed this quite comprehensive review.  The authors state its purpose explicitly.

WS [Withania somnifera] is known for its versatility in treating a range of conditions, such as immunomodulation, rejuvenation, enhancement of cognitive function, inflammation, enhancing concentration, etc. However, a synthetic review exploring its potential role in ameliorating aging and aging-related disorders is currently lacking…This may facilitate the development of various preventive and therapeutic strategies employing WS as a nutraceutical for healthy aging.

Their funding statement is accurate; they weren’t paid particularly to write this article; they are just on salary generally.  And they are members of the editorial board of this journal.  Oh dear.

Here’s what the NIH says about ashwagandha.  It finds some evidence for use but concludes “most studies have been conducted as part of a traditional medical system, so the potential effects of ashwagandha when used as a dietary supplement outside of that approach remain unclear.”

May 17 2024

Weekend reading: The Cato Institute on the Farm Bill

Politics, as they say, makes strange bedfellows, and here I am carefully reading the Cato Institute’s most interesting analysis of farm insurance:Farm Bill Sows Dysfunction for American Agriculture (thanks to Stephen Zwick for sending).

“Agriculture is a uniquely coddled industry with the USDA providing more than 150 different programs for the industry, 53,000 farm‐​related employees in the USDA, and 2,300 USDA agriculture offices across the country,” said Chris Edwards, the Kilts Family Chair in Fiscal Studies at the Cato Institute….Tax dollars cover about 60 percent of the insurance premiums that farmers pay, amounting to a record $11.6 billion in 2022, as noted in Figure 1. Total insured acreage has jumped from 206 million acres in 2000 to 493 million in 2022, increasing the taxpayer cost for premium subsidies sixfold in that time frame. The government also compensates the private insurance companies that participate in the program for their administrative costs, which are projected to be about $2 billion per year from 2024 through 2033.

The graphics are particularly instructive.

This one is an updated version of what happens to corn grown in the US—biofuel, animal feed, industrial use and hardly any for food.

This one shows which crops get taxpayers’ money.

The Cato Institute does not like this system, and neither do I.

  • It’s not about healthy food for people.
  • It’s not about preventing climate change.
  • It encourages growth of commodity crops in places where they should not be grown.
  • It encourages production and consumption of ultra-processed foods.
  • It’s corporate welfare.

This system needs an overhaul, big time.

Will we get that in the forthcoming farm bill?  It’s a self-perpetuating system, alas.

May 16 2024

Cannabis: a roundup

I haven’t said much about cannabis edibles for a while, but here’s some of what’s happening.

In the UK

In the US

The New York State Office of Cannabis Management’s list of dispensaries.

New York’s Housing Works Reports $24 Million in Sales. New York City‘s first legal adult-use dispensary, Housing Works Cannabis Co. logged $24 million in sales in its first year of business. That’s a significant portion of the $137 million in sales that the New York Cannabis Control Board reported for the entire state as of early December, according to its annual 2023 report.

New flavors, formats driving cannabis-infused food and beverage products: The Jones Soda brand has its sights on new products, including a new candy launch, as national efforts mount to reclassify marijuana.

Magnolia Bakery has weed edibles now. But you can’t buy them in New York: New York City’s iconic Magnolia Bakery, which is famous for its cupcakes and banana pudding and is often the first stop for legions of tourists, announced a new lineup of THC treats on Wednesday. However, none of them will be for sale at any of Magnolia’s eight locations in the city — or anywhere in New York state, for that matter….in New York, retailers selling THC products must be licensed by the state’s Office of Cannabis Management.


Cannabis-Related Disorders and Toxic Effects. N Engl J Med 2023; 389:2267-2275.  DOI: 10.1056/NEJMra2212152: Heavy cannabis use has adverse effects on physical and mental health. Research is needed to better elucidate the pathophysiology of these effects and develop better treatments.

Congressional Research Service.  Farm Bill Primer: Selected Hemp Industry Issues: The 2018 farm bill further directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to create a framework to regulate hemp cultivation under federal law and facilitate commercial cultivation, processing, marketing, and sale of hemp and hemp-derived products. USDA published its final hemp regulations in 2021. Other 2018 farm bill provisions made hemp producers eligible for federal crop insurance and agricultural research programs. Congress may consider further amendments as it debates the next farm bill.