Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Oct 31 2018

Organic foods might reduce cancer risk, says new study

I never cease to be amazed by how angry some people get about organic foods.

  • They complain about its higher prices (organics cost more to produce).
  • They complain about its implicit—no, explicit—critique of conventional farming methods (organics use fewer toxic pesticides, are kinder to soil, and are more sustainable).
  • They complain that organics exclude GMOs (this is bad for the GMO business).
  • They complain about research showing the benefits of organics.

This last complaint brings me to the study on organic food and cancer just published in JAMA Internal Medicine. 

This is an observational study of nearly 70,000 people who were asked to report their level of consumption of organic foods and were then monitored for cancer for 7 years.

The results: those who reported consuming the highest levels of organic foods had the lowest risk of developing cancer during that period.

For non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the cancer most associated with exposure to herbicides and pesticides used in conventional agriculture and GMO production, the observed reduction in risk was a whopping 86%.

An accompanying editorial lists the limitations of the study; the dietary intake data were self-reported, the questionnaire wasn’t validated, blood levels of pesticides and herbicides were not measured.

So yes, more research—perhaps much more research—is needed to confirm these observations before anything can be said about whether organics are really protective against cancer.

But in the meantime, there’s no harm in eating organic foods and these foods have demonstrable environmental benefits.

Choosing them means voting for food production systems that are better for the environment—and might be better for health as well.

This makes organics a good bet and worth the premium price if you can afford it.

Here’s what the New York Times says about this study.

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Oct 30 2018

Published today! Unsavory Truth!

Now published: my new book about how food company sponsorship of nutrition research affects public health.  For information about the book—blurbs, reviews, tweets, how to get—click here.

For my public speaking engagements about the book, click here.

If you are in New York, join the launch party at NYU today, 5:00 p.m., Bobst Library 3rd floor.  RSVP here.

And here are some early reviews:

Oct 29  Jane Brody.  Confused by nutrition research?  New York Times.

Oct 28  Hailey Eber. How the food industry fooled us into eating junk.  New York Post, 42-43.

Oct 23  Nestle M.  Superfoods are a marketing ploy (excerpt).  The Atlantic .

Oct 22  Àlex Pérez.  Una verdad desagradable no vende.  ElPiscolabis (Spain).

Oct 18 Nature Magazine (2018;562:334-335): Felicity Lawrence reviews Deborah Blum’s The Poison Squad and Unsavory Truth as “Poisoned Platefuls.”

Oct 2  Science Magazine.  Cyan James, “A nutrition expert aims a critical eye at the research and marketing practices of food companies.”

Oct 29 2018

Tomorrow: Unsavory Truth is out

Tomorrow is the official publication date for Unsavory Truth.  Here’s the launch invitation.

For information about the book, click here.

For my other public speaking engagements about the book, click here.

Enjoy!

Oct 26 2018

Weekend reading: The Poison Squad

Deborah Blum.  The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.  Penguin Press, 2018.  

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I already had received my copy of this book when Felicity Lawrence reviewed it in Nature along with my new book, Unsavory Truth.  What I loved about the review was Lawrence’s comment that I “could make a fair claim to [Harvey] Wiley’s mantle today…The book is a remorseless dissection of the corruption of science by industry.”

But enough about me.  Blum’s book is a clear, wonderfully written account of the political opposition faced by Harvey Washington Wiley, the head of the USDA’s Bureau of Chemistry (later, the FDA) who relentlessly lobbied his bosses, presidents, and the public to insist that food companies produce food safely.

If you cannot understand why there are still so many outbreaks of foodborne illness and why so many foods are still having to be recalled, this book is a revelation.

Blum, who directs the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT, is terrific at explaining the complex politics that affected Wiley’s work.

I particularly appreciated her chapter on the food safety laws passed in 1906.  Their passage came about, in part, as a result of Upton Sinclair’s publication of The Jungle, a book that exposed the horribly unsanitary and dangerous conditions of the Chicago stockyards.

Try to imagine something like this happening today: the book came out early in January.  By July, Congress had passed food safety laws.  Blum’s chapter explains how that happened.  Those events were news to me.

Much else in the book will also be news, even to people who follow food safety issues closely—the intensity of the opposition to everything that Wiley was trying to do.

Wiley was watching out for the disenfranchised, and in moral terms:

Wiley added that food quality and safety represented not only good science but also moral decision-making.  The wealthy, he pointed out, could easily afford fresh food and well-made condiments.  The trade in cheap, chemically enhanced imitations catered to the poor.  If the country could work to standardize good food, then it also would be promoting good health for all.  “Whenever a food is debased in order to make it cheap, the laboring man pays more for any given nourishment than the rich man does who buys the pure food,” he pointed out. [p. 195]

We need leadership like that today.

I especially like the way Blum ends the book:

Of we are to continue moving in a direction that preserves what’s best in this country, we need not romanticize the past but we must learn from what it tells us about our earlier mistakes.  The people who fought to correct those long-ago errors still have lessons to share.  The story of Harvey Washington Wiley, at his fierce and fearless best, should remind us that such crusaders are necessary in the fight.  That the fight for consumer protection may never end.  lBut if it does, if that long-awaited final victory is achieved, it will be because we, like Wiley, refused to give up. [p. 291]

Amen to that.

 

 

Oct 25 2018

Do kids need foods just for them? Hint: not after infancy

This is a collection of articles from the industry newsletter, FoodNavigator.com, about marketing foods to kids—kids’ food.

Really, kids would be much better off eating the healthy foods their parents eat.  They don’t need food aimed just at them.  Much of this is about selling products to busy parents.  Here’s how companies do it.

Oct 24 2018

The soda industry is having trouble meeting calorie targets

In 2014, the soda industry (American Beverage Industry, Coke, Pepsi, and Dr. Pepper) and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation (founded by the American Heart Association and the Clinton Foundation) pledged to reduce calories in its beverages as a means to help with weight control.  The pledge was to reduce calories in sugary drinks by 20% by 2025.

At the moment, achievement of this goal seems unlikely according to a report by the American Beverage Association and the Alliance. 

The overall summary: a 3 (!) calorie per person per day reduction since 2014.

Plotting the data this way makes the change seem significant, but this industry has a long way to go.

Why isn’t it doing better?  The simple answer: sugary drinks sell and are highly profitable.

The report explains the trends:

  • A decline in consumption of carbonated soft drinks, but an increase in consumption of sugary sports drinks, energy drinks, and ready-to-drink teas and coffees.
  • A decline in retail sales of carbonated soft drinks, but an increase in calories from fountain drinks and food service.
  • An increase in sales of smaller-size containers, but also an increase in sales of larger containers.

The report does not give advertising figures.

I’d like to know which products are getting the most marketing dollars.   Want to take a guess?

Oct 23 2018

Trump’s trade policies hurt the heartland

I am ever surprised by the extent to which Trump Administration’s policies directly harm its core supporters.  Two recent reports tell the story.

One comes from a group called Tariffs Hurt the Heartland, which has produced an accounting of the losses to businesses in Texas as a result of Republican trade policies—$424 million gone, just in August. 

Some of this affects farmers:

Scott Frazier, a south Texas farmer and Secretary-Treasurer of the Texas Farm Bureau, warned that tariffs will have long-term consequences for agriculture by shuttering the foreign markets that farmers in Texas and across the country depend on.  One quarter of our agricultural products grown in the U.S. are exported to other countries. The economic well-being of American agriculture depends on maintaining and strengthening our export markets, and farm and ranch families depend on this to survive.

This group also has produced an interactive, searchable map at TariffsHurt.com that let’s you find stories of how tariffs are affecting local communities, state by state, and you can learn more about the campaign here.

The second report comes from the Brookings Institute.  It analyzes the effects of Trump’s trade wars on his base.

The report comes with a spreadsheet where you can look up the data for yourself.

Trade wars have consequences, in this case for U.S. agriculture, which according to this report accounts for 15% of the retaliatory tariff burden:

The retaliatory tariffs differ by trading partner, but there are some commonly targeted industries. All four markets focused tariffs on agricultural products. Agriculture cuts a very specific geography across the United States, particularly implicating metro areas in California’s Central Valley as well as rural areas and small towns in states like Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska.

Ouch.

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Oct 22 2018

Unsavory Truth: A peek at chapter 4

I just got an advance copy of my new book about food company sponsorship of nutrition research and its effects on public health—to be published next week on October 30.

To get a taste (sorry) of the book, here are the first two pages of chapter 4.  If you would like to read the Sugar Association’s letter to me and my reply, I’ve included links to them after this excerpt.

Want to read the rest of the letter and my reply?