Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Mar 8 2018

Food Navigator’s Special Edition on Sports and Fitness collects its recent articles about sports and fitness into a Special Edition: Sports & fitness: From niche to mainstream:

Devices enabling us to track our diet, sleep, food intake and exercise regime – coupled with a new breed of personalized nutrition apps – are giving regular consumers access to tools and data that have historically remained the preserve of elite athletes and fitness freaks.

But is this creating new opportunities for food and beverage companies? Has the audience for sports nutrition products (bars, powders, beverages, gels, shots and supplements) evolved? And as ordinary mortals and weekend warriors start to engage with the category, are their needs the same as those of the hardcore sports nutrition audience?

  • Competition heats up in large and still growing sports drink category: Hoping to cash in on the steady growth of the already sizeable sports and energy drink category, manufacturers at Natural Products Expo West in March will showcase a variety of functional beverages featuring an ever-expanding variety of plant-based proteins, natural sweeteners designed to help cut calories and sugar and other endurance-boosting ingredients… Display
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Mar 7 2018

When are added sugars not? The answer in FDA-speak.

Nutrition labels may seem self-evident but it takes volumes of Federal Register notices to explain how every word works.  When it comes to food labels, the devil is in those details.

Take “Added Sugars,” coming soon to a food label near you.

How does the term apply to honey and maple syrup or, for that matter, sugar itself.  These are sugars ready to add.

Pure honey and maple syrup producers are worried that when you see grams of Added Sugars on their labels, you will think that these natural products have been adulterated with—gasp—High Fructose Corn Syrup.

The producers of sugar-sweetened cranberry products are also concerned.  They worry that the added sugars will discourage you from buying cranberries.

Here is how the FDA suggests dealing with these “problems,” in quotes because they are problems for producers, not you and me—we know what “added” means.

The purpose of this draft guidance is to advise food manufacturers of our intent to exercise enforcement discretion related to the use in the Nutrition Facts label of a symbol “†” immediately after the added sugars percent Daily Value information on single ingredient packages and/or containers of pure honey or pure maple syrup and on certain dried cranberry and cranberry juice products that are sweetened with added sugars and that contain total sugars at levels no greater than comparable products with endogenous (inherent) sugars, but no added sugars.

Got that?

Pure honey and maple syrup get a “†” indicating that they have no more sugar than any other comparable sugar.

Cranberries are more complicated:

With respect to the labeling of certain cranberry products, cranberries are a naturally tart fruit, and certain dried cranberries and cranberry juice products have added sugars added to them to bring the total sugars per serving up to levels comparable to the levels of non-cranberry competitor products that contain equivalent amounts of total sugars, but whose labels list zero “added sugars” because their fruit products are inherently sweet.

Did you get that?

If I read this FDA-speak correctly, the FDA is making an exception for cranberries.  It agrees that the Added Sugars in cranberries also deserve a “†”.

Why is FDA allowing this?  The Draft Guidance explains:

We received comments from the cranberry industry to the final rule and subsequent correspondence that the added sugars declaration would be detrimental to the cranberry industry by implying that cranberry products are less nutritious than competitive products that have similar amounts of total sugars and nutrients.

These comments were similar to those we received which noted that grape juice contains 36 grams of total sugar with no added sugars while cranberry cocktail, with sugars added for palatability because cranberries are naturally tart, generally contains 28 grams of total sugars including 25 grams of added sugars and has 30 fewer calories per serving than 100% grape juice.

Likewise, comments explained that sweetened dried cranberries contain 29 grams of total sugars including 25 grams of added sugars per serving while raisins contain 29 grams of total sugars with no added sugars per serving. Both sweetened dried cranberries and raisins have the same number of calories per serving and a similar nutrient profile.

In translation, you are not supposed to be concerned about the Added Sugars in cranberries.

But couldn’t you could buy real cranberries and add a whole lot less sugar than that?

Chalk this as a win for cranberry lobbyists.

The documents


Mar 6 2018

Why so may pet food recalls?

Is it just me or does it seem like there are an unusually large number of pet food recalls this year.

The American Veterinary Medical Association keeps track of them and I am astonished at how many are on the 2018 list—already.

As I look at the list, the 2018 recalls are due to three causes: Listeria, Salmonella, and Pentobarbital.

Dry pet food is not sterile and easily contaminated by pathogens (these can make pets or owners sick).  Pet food manufacturers know this and are supposed to take precautions.

Food Safety News often writes about Salmonella problems in pet foods; it obtains inspection records that nearly always reveal sloppy production practices.

Pentobarbital is another matter entirely.  This is a euthanasia drug.  Euthanized animals are not supposed to be included in rendered meals used in pet foods.  If pentobarbital is present, the manufacturer is not paying attention to the quality of its ingredients (and whoever is doing the rendering is not excluding euthanized animals).

I have a special interest in pet foods, having written two books about it.

Pet foods are a profitable business and lots of companies make them.  It’s a good idea to keep track of the recalls and avoid recalled products.  Stores do not always remove recalled products immediately.

Caveat emptor.

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Mar 5 2018

Forget potato chips. Try jellyfish chips !

I am indebted to for this insight into food of the future: jellyfish snacks.

Westerner that I am, I think of jellyfish as exquisite creatures pumping away in the Monterey Bay Aquarium or as horrible stinging aggressors on the beaches of Florida.  Until now, I never thought of eating one.

But now a recent paper extols the potential of jellyfish as chips.

As an example, we have studied jellyfish – a food material mostly uncommon to the Western palate, but a delicacy in traditional Asian cuisine having a gastronomic history of more than a thousand years. It is eaten mainly for its interesting crunchy mouthfeel resulting from a month-long salt preservation using sodium chloride and alum. This preservation drastically changes the texture of the jellyfish from being gel-like to resembling that of pickled cucumbers.

We have used state-of-the-art two-photon microscopy and super-resolution STED microscopy to visualize the rearrangements in the filamentous network constituting the jellyfish mesoglea gel during the transformation from a soft gel to a crunchy texture. We further interpret our data in light of polyelectrolyte theory and a modified Flory-Higgins theory that describes ionic gel collapse in poor solvent to suggest an alternative preservation method. Using ethanol, we thus have created what can be classified as jellyfish chips that has a crispy texture and could be of potential gastronomic interest.

As explains:

Jellyfish are widely eaten in Asia, by typically marinating the bell (or body) in salt and potassium alum for several weeks to produce a pickle-like texture.  However, the Western palate is unaccustomed to this food source and the jellyfish is often described as “slimy”​ and “tasteless”.

But now, “Scientists from the University of Southern Denmark have developed a technique to turn jellyfish into a crunchy chip, potentially creating a market for aquatic snacks….”

As for nutrition, jellyfish are mostly water and sea water at that; their nutritional composition is like that of sea water, high in sodium but not much else.

Can’t wait to taste one.


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Mar 2 2018

Weekend reading: the big business of bottled water

Food and Water Watch has a new report that is a must-read:

The report documents how water—a public good that comes free and clean from the tap—has become a high-cost commodity.

But the problems with bottled water go way beyond cost.

  • It is marketed to low-income minorities.
  • It creates vast amounts of plastic waste.
  • It is less regulated than tap water.
  • The industry lobbies heavily.
  • The industry uses public water supplies.
  • It undermines support for maintaining public water supplies.

Advocate!  Take back the tap!

Mar 1 2018

Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations: A prototype for the Harvest Box? Not exactly.

Last week I discussed my skepticism about the Trump Administration’s plan to replace some SNAP benefits with boxes of 100% American-grown commodities.

NPR’s The Salt is skeptical for a different reason: the experience of Native Americans with the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR).

Since 1977, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has bought nonperishable foods to distribute on Indian reservations and nearby rural areas as part of the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations. The program was designed as an alternative to SNAP for low-income Native Americans living in remote areas without easy access to grocery stores. The food boxes delivered were filled with canned, shelf-stable foods like peanut butter, canned meats and vegetables, powdered eggs and milk.

It’s consequences?  A high prevalence of overweight and type-2 diabetes on Indian researvations.  As The Salt quotes:

“There’s even a name for it – it’s called ‘commod bod.’ That’s what we call it because it makes you look a certain way when you eat these foods.”

As it happens, I was in Albuquerque last week speaking at the Native American Healthy Beverage Summit sponsored by the Notah Begay III Foundation (I got to meet Notah Begay III when he introduced my talk).

I asked everyone I could about experiences with FDPIR.  Those who grew up in households participating in the program cited several issues:

  • Culturally inappropriate
  • Poor quality
  • Induced dependency
  • Undermined traditional diets
  • Part of barter/trade economy (unwanted items were bartered, traded, sold, or fed to pets)

Justin Huenemann, the CEO of the Foundation, took me to an FDPIR distribution center on a reservation near Bernalillo.

This was a big surprise.  It was clean, well stocked with fresh produce, frozen meats and fish (bison, salmon), and canned and packaged foods, all of them reasonably healthy.  Ordered items are delivered by truck to people who cannot come into the center.

The USDA has worked hard to improve the program (see fact sheets and evaluations).  Participants can choose from a long list of eligible foods.

But: the program serves only about 90,000 participants at a cost of $151 million in 2017.  Scaling it up to 40 million SNAP participants—and nearly $70 billion in benefits, seems unlikely.  Even scaling it up to the 16.7 million households promised by USDA seems iffy.

In any case FDPIR is NOT the prototype for the Harvest Box.

The prototype is the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) for low-income elderly.  This program, serving 600,000 seniors with a $236 million budget in 2017, offers a more limited selection of food options, none fresh.  It distributes the boxes through food banks and other nonprofits who then do the actual deliveries.  CSFP raises many if not all of the issues mentioned by my informants.

I still think this is a smokescreen to distract attention from budget cuts to SNAP but I was grateful for the opportunity to see the FDPIR in action.  The quality of the foods looked pretty good to me—an oasis in a area where healthy foods are not readily available.

Feb 28 2018

Low-fat vs. Low-carb diets: both help cut calories

I subscribe to a newsletter, Obesity and Energetics Offerings, that lists loads of new articles on these topics every week.

One of its offerings is a section titled “Headline vs Study.”

Last week’s was about the paper in JAMA comparing two diets, one featuring healthy carbohydrates and the other healthy fats.  Participants in both groups lost equivalent amounts of weight.

Two other news critiques worth reading:

Overall, this was a well designed study involving about 300 participants in each diet group.  On average, participants lost about the same amount of weight regardless of diet composition, but the investigators observed wide variation.  Some participants lost a lot of weight—up to 60 pounds—but some gained as much as 20 pounds (data in this figure from the paper are in kilograms).

What accounted for the difference?  Calories, of course.  If participants didn’t cut calories, they didn’t lose weight.  The investigators estimated that weight-losing participants were eating a lot fewer calories than they used to, even though they were not instructed to pay attention to calories.

But, as Weighty Matters discusses (based on Daniel Schultz’s tweets noted above), some participants did count calories (they used an online fitness tool).

The bottom line?  It’s easier to cut calories and lose weight if you eat a healthy diet, no matter what the proportion of fat v. carbohydrate.

As NIH scientist Kevin Hall tweeted, these findings are consistent with previous studies:

And as Mal Nesheim and I argued in our book “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics,” calories matter but counting them is not always helpful when dieting. It’s too inaccurate, and regular weighing works better as a monitoring tool.  So, according to this study, is eating healthfully.

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Feb 27 2018

New process for Dietary Guidelines: open for comments

I was on a conference call yesterday with representatives from USDA and HHS announcing the new process for doing the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The idea is to follow recommendations of the National Academy of Medicine to make the process more scientifically rigorous and transparent.

To that end, the agencies have posted the topics they want the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) to discuss and have opened these suggestions to immediate public comment.

Once the agencies decide on the topics, they will call for nominations for DGAC members.  They hope to do this by late spring or early summer 2018 so the guidelines can be released by the end of 2020.

If I understand this correctly, this means that the DGAC:

  • Will be appointed and meet sometime in the fall.
  • Will not decide on the scientific issues to review.
  • Will have maybe a year and a half to review the research on those questions, write its report, and submit the report to the agencies.

The agencies will then turn the research report into published guidelines.

This, of course, means that the scientific decisions are made by the agencies, not the DGAC.  A case of politics trumping science?

Reporters asked whether USDA thinks it’s really necessary to revise the guidelines (yes, because the Farm Bill said the guidelines should deal with life stages), whether the guidelines would focus on dietary patterns (yes), whether all this is because of the fuss over sustainability in the last set of guidelines (waffle), and whether there would be other changes in the process (they will tell us later).

The scientific questions posed on the website seem worth attention.  They are divided into life stages.

If you disagree, or can think of others, now is the time to weigh in.  You only have one months to do this.


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